[31st January 2008]
Beyond the guard post, and round a shoulder of the hill I have it at last – my first glimpse of the Valley of the Kings! It’s still early and the few visitors in the valley are unable to spoil the view that I’d always dreamt of. OK, I’d like the rest houses removed, and the tuf-tuf train – who decided on this ridiculous name? – but otherwise it is the yawning entrances to the tombs themselves that catch my eye.
Before I know it I have passed the upper guard station and now I am committed to the summit of el-Qurn. There are no concrete steps from now on, and as I reach a saddle above those great limestone cliffs that dominate the valley, I am hit by the full force of the north wind; ‘the sweet breath of the north wind’ in the words of the Egyptians, at least as relayed to me in guide-book English. So strong is the wind that I have to crouch low to avoid its full force and exchange my ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (or is it Afrika Corps?) headgear for a bandanna. Once the gloves are on I would have looked more at home on my familiar Peak District hills than in this, at its most vengeful, one of the hottest places on earth.
Ahead there is the stretch of broken path through the edge of the cliffs that I had been warned about in advance. In the event, any menace it might have possessed is diminished by a sudden drop in the wind. There is a slightly difficult few moves where, to use the phrase beloved of mountain guidebooks, you have to ‘put hand on rock’.
But I like that – the path that leads to the sanctuary of the cobra goddess Meretseger should not be too easily travelled. A final section of zigzag path and I have reached the longed-for summit of the Theban Hills. As I turn around, it is not just the returning north wind that takes my breath away. This time it is the words of Napoleon (albeit attributed to him at Giza) that come to mind: ‘Forty centuries of history are looking down on you’ though in this case I was looking down on the history, from Medinet Habu in the south to the cliffs of Deir el-Bahri and Karnak Temple in the north. And against all of this the backdrop is the Nile, glinting like a silver scimitar in the rising sun. I am hit by a sudden thought – I could not have let myself die without seeing this.
And, quite unexpectedly, it is to thoughts of death that my mind turns as I change my viewpoint and stare back into the desolate beauty of the Theban Hills. But not the thought as I might have envisaged it when I first read about this place as a boy – death as fear, darkness and decay. No, my very first thought is of my brother whose death from cancer five years previously was one of the spurs to actually go and stand on this spot rather than always say ‘maybe one day’. Please don’t misunderstand me when I say my brother’s death had an unimagined positive effect on me. He is in my thoughts every day, I miss him every day. But when I met death in my twenties it very nearly finished me off – why go on when she is dead? In my forties death came as a quiet, but insistent, whisper – you must go on, you owe it to him, and to yourself. His death pulled my life into focus. And whenever I think of him it is as light, light with almost a face, a smiling face, his face.
And this is that light! And this is that breeze that I first noticed the day we said goodbye to him – though then it was among Peak District trees – a breeze that seemed to bear his very soul. And I said to his friend who couldn’t believe that he had gone – ‘he is still here!’
I turn to the south-west and see that actually, I must go on, as this isn’t the summit at all. A hundred yards along a ridge, a cairn of stones marks the highest spot, and on the walk there I experience the greatest serenity of my life. I imagine talking to my boys: ‘please bring me here, to this place, when I too am gone.’