Sunday 19th December 2010
I am up well before dawn, feeling refreshed from my rest day. From the new ferry point I get a battered old taxi owned by one of those battered old Egyptians that I seem to get on instinctively well with. He knows Mohammed Snake and laments how badly he has been treated. On the way up the straight road to the Colossi I tell him my plans. “Ha, my friend, you are a cunning fox, walking up the mountain rather than paying to be taken up in a balloon!” He seems to sense that I know these hills quite well, that I am not a conventional tourist, and is impressed that I know that the best place to be dropped off to start my walk is at the entrance to the Valley of the Queens. As he pulls the old Peugeot to a shuddering halt he talks me up to LE20 for the fare “as it is early in the morning”. But I like him, and his best wishes as I get out and pull my rucksack over my shoulder seem genuine. “You will be up that mountain like a cobra!” he laughs, making a hand gesture suggesting stealth and speed which turns into a wave as he turns the old wreck back in the direction of the village.
I am surprised to find the workmen’s shrine to Ptah and Meretseger walled and fenced off with barbed wire and covered by corrugated metal shelters. Given the noticeable increase in vandalism that I had noticed in the couple of years since first coming here – and making my first profound connection with this desert landscape – this was perhaps inevitable. The last time I was here was earlier this year and as I approached the carved rocks at the end of my descent of the peak of El Qurn, to which I had gone to reccy my last resting place, I had instinctively and quite unselfconsciously stood with upraised palms in the ancient Egyptian gesture of worship. It was a powerful, personal, moment and one that called into question my profession of atheism. But now, as I strain to catch a glimpse of the familiar carvings through a break in the barbed wire it seems to have lost all personal connection to me and it is unlikely I will visit this place again.
On the way up to the summit of El Qurn there are wonderful views of the tomb workers’ village of Deir el Medina and the tourist hot air balloons rising ahead of the sun. These are the best conditions in which I have climbed the mountain; at the top there is just a gentle breeze and none of the flies that buzzed around me the previous January. But the visibility from the summit is pretty poor and the monotonous white concrete walls that have been laid out to demarcate the new zones of the living and the dead on the west bank are quite dispiriting. But this is soon forgotten as, quite suddenly, the red rising sun bursts into dazzling gold behind the sacred peak and turns the Nile below me into a burning river of fire.