“At Luxor the French Consul showed us over the old tumble-down building called ‘The French House’ which, though but a rude structure of palm-timbers and sun-dried clay, built partly against and partly over the Temple of Luxor, has its place in history. For there, in 1829, Champollion and Rosellini lived and worked together during part of their long sojourn at Thebes. There, too, lodged naval officers sent out by the French in 1831 to remove the obelisk which now stands in the Place de la Concorde. And there, writing those charming letters that delight the world, Lady Duff Gordon lingered through the last few winters of her life. The rooms in which she first lived, and the balcony in which she took such pleasure, were no longer accessible but we saw the rooms she last inhabited. Her couch, her rug, her folding chairs were there still. The walls were furnished with a few cheap prints and a pair of tin sconces. All was very bare and comfortless. We were shocked to see the dreariness of the place – till we went to the window. That window, which commanded the Nile and the western plain of Thebes, furnished the room and made its poverty splendid. The sun was near setting. We could distinguish the mounds and pylons of Medinet Habu and the site of the Ramesseum. The terraced cliffs, overtopped by the pyramidal mountain of Bab-el-Moluk, burned crimson against a sky of stainless blue. The footpath leading to the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings showed like a white hot scar winding along the face of the rocks. The river gave back the sapphire tones of the sky. I thought I could be well content to spend many a winter in no matter how comfortless a lodging, if only I had that wonderful view, with its infinite beauty of light and colour and space, and its history, and its mystery, always before my windows.” Amelia Edwards, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, 1874.
Within ten years of Amelia Edwards’ account of her first visit to Luxor temple, the site had been cleared of the centuries of accumulated sand, rubbish, and human habitation, that had built up in, around and on top of it. Her own journey to Egypt, which gave rise to one of the most remarkable travel books ever written, had been made on a whim, when she and a friend decided to abandon a trip to Europe in the face of persistent rain. By the time she arrived in Luxor, she was already in love with a country with which, through her foundation of the Egypt Exploration Fund, she was to be eternally associated. She had also become fascinated, as many were already and have been since, by the published letters of Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, the wonderfully eccentric bright star of London literary society who had come to Egypt in an attempt to recover from tuberculosis.
Having arrived in Luxor in February 1864 she was enchanted by the Theban landscape and took up residence in what she hoped would be a temporary home among the fallen columns and shanty shacks of the ancient temple. From the start she threw herself into the life of Luxor, not only to become accepted as a valued member of its community but to endure in the memory as a revered wise woman, healer, and humanitarian; arguably, no other outsider has understood the people of Upper Egypt so well, nor cared for them so deeply. In the event, Luxor was to be her final home. Within five years of settling in that ramshackle house overlooking the Nile she realised the fight was over and that she was unlikely to see her husband or children, including her beloved little daughter, in this world again. A final journey upriver to seek medical assistance meant that she was in a houseboat on the outskirts of Cairo when she wrote her final letter to her husband on 9th July, 1869: “Dearest Alick – God bless you. I wish I had seen your dear face once more – but not now. I would not have you here now on any account.” At dawn the following day, in the company of a few loyal Egyptian servants, and with her thoughts no doubt fixed on both her family and that mesmerising view from the balcony of her house across the Nile to the Theban Hills, she died, and was later buried in the Christian cemetery in Cairo.
Why do any of us come to Luxor? Amelia Edwards’ account of her first visit seems to me to encapsulate many of the reasons. For some it is the ancient ruins, though we might be surprised how recently many of these have been brought, like Luxor temple itself, into full view. Like Amelia Edwards, they come out of a sense of adventure that turns into a lasting fascination with, and fervent dedication to, the ancient past and to those who helped rediscover it. For others, the prime attraction is the same as it was to Lucie Duff Gordon; the climate, the impossibly blue sky overlooking a dreamlike landscape, and in such a place to feel rejuvenated and more at peace with oneself. And that love of place might turn in time to a deeper love of people, a particular people, to whom they dedicate the remaining years of their own lives. And some, perhaps still, and though they might not acknowledge it fully, come here to die.
Some of us, I think, only fully realise why we came here when we leave; days, weeks, months later as our memories of the Theban sun start to fade, though they are still able to light up the gloom of a northern winter’s day. But what I feel sure we all have in common is that blend of emotions captured so evocatively by Amelia Edwards on her own first visit: a profound interaction of place, landscape and people – generation upon generation of people – and vast, endless time.
From Leaving Thebes (2009) and see Three Ladies in Luxor (forthcoming)