Thoth Hill – apparently so-called after the great Egyptologist Flinders Petrie found a number of fragments dedicated to the god in the area – is one of the highest points of the Theban Hills. It lies on the other side of the Deir el-Bahri cliffs from el-Qurn and is such a prominent feature of the landscape that it had me intrigued from the first time I saw it, initially from the top of el-Qurn itself and then from the east bank of the Nile on the way to Karnak. After taking advice from an internet forum of which I was a member I decided that an ascent of its summit would be one of the goals of my second visit to Egypt, in January 2009.
Apart from the intrinsic interest in the landscape itself, the summit is the site of at least two temples, one thought to date from the pre-dynastic period and the other to the 11th dynasty. As such, the earliest is the oldest known temple in western Thebes and the second the earliest example of a temple pylon which, built of mud-brick, is clearly visible from the valley below. So part of the fascination of the ascent would be to explore one of the lesser known religious sites in the area, fully excavated only in the mid-1990s, and to walk in the footsteps of temple-builders, priests and pilgrims going back no less than 5,000 years.
In the lead-up to the trip I made contact through the forum with Clive, a freelance photographer who was at the start of a prolonged visit to Luxor who accepted my invitation to form the other half of a two-man expedition. Over drinks, a couple of nights before we made the climb, Clive and I bonded instantly, our interests both bound up with a search for the roots of the modern and the rational in the ancient and superstitious. It also became apparent that his three-month visit was part of his response to a failed relationship and I was aware of how easily he could get detached from his former life in Wales and London and become one of what I was starting to recognize as “the lost souls of Luxor”.
Knowing that the walk would be best undertaken in the cooler part of the day I arranged to meet my taxi driver, Ahmed, and Clive at the ferry landing on the west bank at six in the morning. I have to admit that I was slightly concerned about not having mobile contact with Clive and was relieved to see his flowing locks emerging from the ferry amongst a contingent of local workers. Once in the car we discussed the best starting point. Ahmed told us that a year or so ago he had dropped off a German tourist near the start of the road to the Valley of the Kings at Dra Abu el-Naga from where he had made his ascent of the hill. However, from my research on Google Earth, and on the basis of advice I had received from the forum, my feeling was that we would have a less arduous climb if we got nearer to the base of the hill in the vicinity of the town being built for the inhabitants of Qurna to the north-west of El-Tarif. Ahmed agreed that this was a possibility and so carried on, asking some directions of a local man once we had turned off the main drag.
A curious feature of that day, Saturday 24th January, was that the entire Theban massif, and much of the valley, was shrouded in quite dense white fog. This gave an eerie quality to our early-morning adventure and I was quite heartened when each turn Ahmed took was confirmed by the direction arrow of my GPS which I had programmed with directions the night before. The closer we moved towards the hills, the thicker the fog became. It was hard to believe we were in Egypt and we could only make out the barest outline of the hill and nothing of the summit and its temples. By the time the GPS had counted its way down to my first waypoint we found ourselves on the northern extremity of what is effectively an extensive building site of breeze-block houses which, in view of the conditions, could as easily have been on Tyneside as a couple of miles from the bank of the River Nile.
We took stock of our surroundings, such as they were, and immediately beyond the last row of houses saw what looked like an immense quarry. In fact it was somewhere between a natural depression at the foot of the hills and a quarry to serve the construction site. After agreeing to call Ahmed later in the day on the way back down we took our leave and started off across this great crater, half-tumbling down its big sandy edge and finding ourselves in a landscape that is semi-natural but supplemented by the detritus of human living and dumping, mainly in the form of broken bottles and the leftovers of camp fires. Ahead of us we could see virtually nothing and I was more glad than ever of the GPS. Of the sun there was no sign at all, which at least was a blessing in terms of the fact that there was no danger of us over-heating in this arid environment. I was relieved when a prominent landmark on Google Earth, three massive boulders that at some time in the distant past had made their way down from the cliffs below the summit of the hill, loomed into view. Around them, a visible worn path curved up towards the broad ridge that forms the first part of the ascent proper.
A significant part of Clive’s kit was made up of the tools of his trade which he kept in an army-surplus shoulder bag slung over his retro-denims. Though he tried manfully to capture a decent quota of shots the light was so flat that the rubble terrain was more like the landscape of Snowdonia on a similarly foggy winter’s day. I had a sudden image in my mind of Howard Carter (whose house was not far below us) wandering the paths in these hills at all times of the year and in various weathers, but did he ever come up here in thick fog I wondered? Another similarity with walking trips in Wales was the unearthly glow around the edges of the hills so that while it was unfortunate that the full drama of the desert wadis was hidden from view, the landscape was certainly not without interest. Beneath our feet the ground was mainly rubbly rock but on occasions there were patches of cracked dried mud which seemed strangely out of context.
A little way up the path I stopped and looked back to see the whole landscape, both earth and sky, turned a bluey-grey against which Clive stood silhouetted, less man than spirit. Above him, just the very top of the sun’s disc could be seen struggling to make its presence felt through a small gap in the mist. After a little over an hour we reached the end of the broad shoulder and the final approach path to the summit came (just) into view. Up ahead, as on el-Qurn, the path cuts through a band of cliffs, a narrow section where you need to use hands as well as feet. Beyond the cliffs the fog thinned a little and for the first time some blue appeared in the sky, and the surrounding landscape revealed something of its rich golden hue. Soon we could see the summit coming into view, but before we could get there we had to pass the only slightly unnerving section of the ascent where the narrow path runs close to a precipitous drop.
Then, suddenly, there we were, in front of the mud-brick pylon of the temple of Horus on its rubble platform. In the event the whole ascent had taken little more than an hour and a half.
It’s quite a humbling experience coming across mud bricks that have been made by men’s hands a few thousand years before you. But all too soon it became apparent that many of these had been deliberately hacked out in recent time and used to make “graffiti” on the ground inside and beyond the temple.
In many ways this is more destructive than the vandalism wrought on temples by tourists in the 19th century and it is with sadness that you find yourself wondering how much of this structure will actually be left standing in a few years’ time. Exploring the inside of the temple we looked back to see a huge white sun filling the space between the two halves of the pylon. Through the fog it looked more like a moon, quite fitting in a place named after the great god Thoth.
Given the conditions, the atmosphere on the summit and around the temple was quite ethereal. Looking back down the hill there was still no sign of the Nile Valley and it was difficult to know where land ended and sky began. After some time spent exploring the site I left Clive taking photographs and took a rest in front of the rubble platform. After a little while I fell into a strange half-sleep.
Everything around me was bathed in a curious white light and drenched in silence. Soon my mind drifted and I entered a dream-world in which I was sitting on a dais towards the far end of a room, perhaps a palace. All the walls around me were white and the lower part of the room consisted of a pillared hall. A man, clearly discernible only from the shoulders up stood in the middle foreground just in front of the columns. He wore some sort of ceremonial headgear and gazed intently towards the right of the scene, as if beyond the dream itself. There was an intense feeling of peace, of being somewhere familiar and yet unknown – a feeling of time taking on physical form and stretching into infinity. I sometimes think I should pay more attention to dreams.
Postscript: Despite numerous attempts at contact, after this day I never saw Clive again.