By a riverside cafe in Luxor, Liyana and I watch the feluccas drift on the dark blue water. There are reddish-yellow sand and rock dunes on the West Bank of Luxor, verdant green palm trees and tiny dark figures of farmers and their donkeys working the land. I could never tire of this view. At sunset the colours stain away into pure gold and black silhouettes – all except the white winged feluccas, which gleam translucently silver, fluttering down the Nile.
In the evening we take a walk along the river promenade and find Gaddis & Co., a wonderful little shop near the Winter Palace Hotel. Shelves of books, parts of old cameras, prints and photographs form the nexus of the offerings here, but there is also the requisite stock of tourist items. The walls are painted teal green and a fan swings lazily overhead. The staff are friendly and do not hassle you at all. I bought an old black and white print of the pyramids taken by Gaddis, an Egyptian photographer who worked in the 19th century.
That night we go to Luxor Temple, splendidly lit up at night. Colossi of Ramses II sit at the first pylons, a single obelisk guards the way. It’s twin sits at the Place du Concorde in Paris, brought over by a victorious, marauding Napolean. Inside, a 12th century mosque sits incongruously amongst the ancient ruins, and further still, Amenhotep III’s magnificent Hypostyle Hall, rows of papyrus capitalled columns lit up by golden light. The inner sanctum boasts carvings of Hep, the one legged god of fertility, depicted with his phallus, rubbed shiny by women hoping to get pregnant – a myth that has stayed well into modern times.
We have a dastardly early wake up call the next morning, off for a hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Nobles on the West Bank. It is a large, sturdy basket and there are no steps, so Yan and I are manhandled, literally, into it. As we ascend there is a silence across the landscape, a quiet punctuated only by the sporadic roar of the flames, the sudden heat and fire casting a reddish glow on everyone’s faces.
We rise with the sun over Luxor. Close to the horizon the river gleams like mercury, a glittering ribbon cuttingi across the landscape. A low, dreamlike mist hangs over Egypt in the early hours, dissipated only by the warmth of Ra’s rays. Farmland, settlements and houses border the Nile, lush with vegetation and life. There is a sudden and firm demarcation where this meets the desolate desert, a cut off between greenery and dry, dusty earth. We see nothing but rock, sand and mountains, shimmering into the far distance. The stony, barren wastelands of the Theban Necropolis is stark, forbidding and desolate.
The wind directs us. Far far below we see villagers going about their morning routines. Donkeys and cows and goats stand in courtyards, tethered to their food. Children wave at the brightly coloured balloons. We see the shadow of our balloon against the sand, thrown out of proportion, a tiny round imprint against a vast desert. From the air we see the dark entrances that lead to the tombs in the Valley of the Queens. Nefertari’s tomb is down there somewhere, the most glorious of all of them. We float by Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, quiet and dignified, cast in sharp relief by the low sun.
Our landing is gentle and perfect and as we clamber out, a full score and more of men flatten our wayward, airy balloon into long lengths of canvas and rope. Dusty children ring us, asking for food, money, pens. The sun has just about fully risen as we drive towards the Valley of the Kings. There are donkeys tied to lamp posts, yellow stone and sand, a sky blue beyond belief.
There are over 60 tombs in the Valley of the Kings, some grander than others. Some are mere rooms rough hewn into rock, others vividly decorated in carvings, plaster and paint. Some contained treasures the like the world had never seen before, or will again – Tutankhamun’s tomb was found here. There is nothing much to see from the outside – dry dusty earth and black entrances like the maw of the Underworld. Excavations are still going on and it is hot, blindingly hot as the day approaches noon. There is dust everywhere. No cameras are allowed.
We descend into three tombs – there are people a plenty in the Valley of the Kings. My favourite is Horemheb’s, an unfinished tomb belonging to an Egyptian general who rose to become Pharaoh. His tomb utilises two shafts near the entrance to deter tomb raiders. The walls of these are covered in beautifully painted bas-reliefs, the colours as fresh and bright as if they were only applied yesterday, not 2,000 years ago. My favourite is Anubis, the jackal god, his visage in sharp relief, his mantle painstakingly made out in brilliant aquamarine and white stripes, the Pharaoh in a bright white, translucent robe, the bright red of the sun god’s disc.
It is here that Yan and I share a precious, silent, magical moment of contemplation alone, just the two of us, in the still air of a centuries-old tomb, breathing in the colours and shapes of artwork meant for a royal eternal afterlife. The silence hammered home the great age, beauty and mystery of the tomb – a missing ingredient at the far-grander but too overcrowded Abu Simbel.
Horemheb’s tomb is unfinished and in the lower rooms the process of how the tombs were decorated are obvious. The plain rock is first covered in plaster. Hieroglyphs and drawings are then applied in black ink by apprentice artists. A Master Artist comes along and corrects this in red ink, tying in a line here, fixing a hieroglyph there, tidying up Anubis’ ears there. Then, a carver painstakingly works away the plaster around the drawings, throwing them into relief. Lastly vivid, bright colours obtained from minerals like crushed lapiz lazuli (blue), malachite (green), ochre (red), chalk (white), charcoal (black), and orpiment (yellow) were applied.
After the Valley of the Kings we drive to Hatshepsut’s Temple, Egypt’s most famous female Pharaoh. The lines of columns and the three tiered construction look very modern, but are centuries old. Back in the day a garden stood in front of the first tier, a garden of fragrant myrrh trees that Hatshepsut brought back from present-day Somaliam a journey she undertook personally to create trade ties with that far flung region. There are carvings aplenty here, but most of her cartouches and representations have been erased by her successor, Tuthmosis III, convinced that his aunt had usurped the power that should have been his by right.
Along the second tier of pillars, statues of Hatshepsut would have stood in front of each one, coloured red and dressed in white, resplendent in the double crown and scepter of both Upper and Lower Egypt, her arms crossed in the Osiris pose and depicted with the requisite beard that male Pharaohs sported – the better to convince her subjects that she was male enough for the task of leadership. In a grand PR coup, Hatshepsut convinced the populace that she was a direct descendent of the god Amun, and had the story of her divine conception plastered across the walls of her funerary temple. This little story was supported by the High Priest of Amun, believed to be Hatshepsut’s lover, and led to her people accepting her rule.
Our next stop is Karnak Temple Complex and by this time my hamstrings are well sore. It is no easy business traipsing up and down hot air balloons, descending into pharaoh’s tombs and climbing up temple stairs. The size of Karnak is inchoate, unbelievable, incomprehensible. It is from here that the god Amun sets sail on his river barge once a year, during the festival of Opet, down towards Luxor Temple to meet his consort Mut. After the golden effigies are given some time to themselves, during which the populace of Thebes caroused and debauched, Amun was then escorted back to Karnak along the processional way, a 3km long road lined with ram headed statues representing Khonsu, the son of Amun and Mut. These three divinities represent the Theban Triad.
In Karnak’s Hypostyle Hall, which is large enough to fit both St Paul’s and St Peter’s dome, Yan and I walk through alternating light and shadow, take pictures and pick out Ramses II’s cartouche. Built by his father, Seti I, the Hypostyle Hall was appropriated by Ramses – he ordered his cartouche carved over his father’s. High up on the lintels over the papyrus capitals, however, some of Seti’s cartouches have survived, the paint as bright and brilliant as ever.
We head back to our hotel and sit by the Nile some more, drink more kakaday tea, soak in the pleasures of just being in Egypt. The sun sets in golds and reds – another perfect Egyptian sunset. Our overnight train back to Cairo will end our adventures amongst Egypt’s temples and tombs – the next part of our travels will take us to the sun, surf and sea of the Gulf of Aqaba.