Aswan, 25th January 2009
Even in this breeze the climb is hard work, a combination of loose, fine sand and shattered rock reminding me at first of some half-forgotten Cornish dune from my childhood. Looking back the way I have come, the crumbling tops of the Tombs of the Nobles resemble a decaying fortress standing above the blue water of the Nile. On the far bank are the modern suburbs of the ancient city of Aswan. Beyond that, in the far distance, the hills of the Arabian desert. When I turn my gaze to the south the view is stupendous. The broken rock soon gives way to fine golden sand dunes punctuated by a band of pink granite sweeping down to meet a fringe of scrub acacia at the river’s edge and boulders of various sizes jutting out from the clear water. The far dune is topped by a small rocky summit and beyond that the western desert is a sand-and-rock plain stretching out to a further set of hills in the far distance.
For such a prominent landmark, Qubbet el-Hawa – the Tomb of the Wind – is in a wonderful state of decay and it appears that no attempt has been made to hide its time-worn shabbiness which, to me, makes it a far more evocative edifice than the main tourist attraction nearby, the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan. It seems to rise naturally out of the shattered rock as a part of the landscape rather than having been built by the hands of men. More than in any place I have travelled to in Egypt so far my emotional response to this place is as to something that has always existed in my subconscious. To behold it is to awaken some deep memory, some inner landscape of the mind.
As I set the GPS receiver for the direction of the monastery a small group of fellow-travellers emerge on to the ridge to the south but soon disappear from view. Before setting off I scan my surroundings and can just make out some faint tracks heading out across the sand and rocky rubble. Once again I am alone. The feeling is electrifying and I can’t resist walking to the soundtrack of the desert music from The English Patient. This is what it is to be alive! I stoop down and pick up a handful of sand, as fine as I have ever felt it and unlike the limestone dust of Thebes this runs through your fingers like time escaping from a glass. The ripples in the sand are the same as an English beach but caused here not by the sea but by an insistent, eternal breeze.
A little way ahead a particularly fine dune is bounded by a curved spine of rocks. Like the poem by John Clare I could happily lie on that bed of warm sand forever and find a world complete, perfect, entire.
Before long I reach the plain, where the sand is somehow dirtier and traversed by lines of camel tracks. Round a small bluff I catch sight of the monastery of St. Simeon though it appears far more like a castle. At this distance it looks as dark as the rocky mound on which it is built and as I get closer contrasts sharply with the golden sand of the dune on this side of its valley. It looks every bit a crusader castle and there seems to be no mystery as to why Salah ad-Din would want to destroy it; on its dark rocky promontory it is reminiscent of Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, the very symbol of crusader dominance and might.