A First Visit to the Temple of Amun at Karnak

It is no exaggeration to say that I had thought, and dreamed, of Karnak pretty regularly since first seeing a picture of the great hypostyle hall in a newspaper supplement while waiting outside a fish and chip shop one day in the Easter holiday, 1972. I remember it well: a car park in Ambleside in the English Lake District, the inevitable rain drizzling down the windscreen, reflecting the amber street lights of early evening. The article was anticipating the forthcoming exhibition of the Treasures of Tutankhamun at the British Museum, and the reason I remember the scene so vividly is that it was the moment I realised that, whatever else I did with my life, one day I would visit Egypt; Luxor; the Valley of the Kings.

In the end, that journey took a lot longer than I had anticipated. From that day aged ten in 1972, my boyhood dreams were of becoming an Egyptologist, and at times that dream became an obsession. But things happen in life, and often not in an order anything like that which your dreaming self had mapped out – new ideas, false starts, changes of perspective, even moments of despair. But as we get older we realise that it is that which first really claimed our attention as children that is destined to become the enduring motif of our lives.


The author in the English Lake District, aged 10, 1972

For my own part I hadn’t fully recognised this until one day, a year or so after my brother’s death, my son came home from school and told me that his class had been asked by the teacher to find out if there was anywhere in the world that their parents felt they simply had to go to. He had immediately put up his hand and said “My Dad wants to go to Egypt!” This came as something of a surprise to me when he told me later since I couldn’t remember that I’d let him in on my personal lifetime secret. But I must have done, even if subconsciously.

So here I was, at the top of the ferry steps on the Corniche at Luxor, about to set off for a place that had existed on the east bank of the Nile for over three thousand years and in my imagination for just over thirty-five: The Great Temple of Amun at Karnak.

Friday 1st February, 2008

Because of its significance to me, I wanted to come to Karnak more as a pilgrim than a tourist, so once I was off the ferry I made the mile or so up the Corniche on foot. This Nile-side walk only becomes a hassle later in the day when the Rolex Boys are out in force. Till then there are only the caleche and taxi drivers to contend with and they can do little to disturb the general tranquillity of this wonderful winter stroll. First there are the moored boats to catch the eye, then the gradual change of the west bank from semi-urban to fully rural, a palm-lined river under a wide blue sky that could be a scene from almost anywhere in Africa. The pavement under your feet, however, would be more at home on the French Riviera and it’s this direct coming together of different worlds that gives the riverside promenade, and Luxor in general, its distinctive flavour.

After about mile I am abruptly jolted from my dreamlike state by tripping over a loose block in the paving. As I take my bearings, unable to recognize anything particularly resembling ‘the largest religious complex on earth’ I notice a man beckoning to me and pointing. Not for the first time on my trip I make the unwarranted assumption that this person is about to make an attempt on my wallet. But he simply smiles, calls out ‘Karnak temple?’ and points to a police road block off the main street. I thank him and realise that in my quest for an authentic experience of this, the greatest temple in the world, I have effectively turned up at the tradesman’s entrance. The men on guard appear to be soldiers – but seem far too young to be allowed to carry automatic weapons – and they point to where I should purchase a ticket. I expect this to be somehow in keeping with one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations but in fact the ‘ticket office’ is little more than a garden shed.

Arrival at the entrance of the temple

Arrival at the entrance to the temple

The recumbent rams that welcome your approach to the temple have something about them of good-natured guard dogs waiting for a pat on the nose. Beyond the first pylon, the organized tour production line becomes immediately apparent, yet so too does the curious fact that it is just that: a line. Step a few yards to the left or right in even the busiest part of the temple and you find yourself in blissful solitude.


“The recumbent rams that greet you as you approach the temple have something about them of good-natured guard dogs…”

I suddenly become aware of having a sphinx-like smile fixed on my own face, a look that at home could have me put away. I am completely in my element. For the previous twenty years of my life, many of my moments of real happiness have come while exploring medieval churches, cathedrals and monasteries; sometimes I was even paid for it. But if Fountains Abbey is the sweet shop, this is a veritable chocolate factory. And as at home, among the remains of a later era, the pleasures of exploring are not just academic – reading inscriptions, recognizing figures and phrases of text – but are in the main purely atmospheric. What gets you high are the shafts of light pouring through an opening in roof stones, the conjunction of carved yellow sandstone, towering palm trees and a deep blue sky. In the case of this particular explorer, at least, sweet dreams are made of this.


“…the conjunction of carved yellow sandstone, towering palm trees and a deep blue sky…”

At times you don’t know where to look, you are in danger of sensory overload. The best response is to go with the flow, to read the temple as you would a landscape – a sense of real beauty comes through an appreciation of the whole rather than just the particular. Throughout my time in this greatest of temples on Earth the auditory background is the call to prayer and preaching from scores of mosques. At one and the same time this seems fitting and incongruous. It serves to remind you that this is a place in which for centuries mankind has sought to penetrate the most profound mysteries, a quest that continues to this day, albeit in different forms. Yet somehow the continual wailing seems like a desperate attempt to assert a moral authority over what was arguably a far greater civilization and culture of ideas than anything that has come since.

Then suddenly, here it is: the Great Hypostyle Hall. For someone who has spent so long contemplating this place, I am strangely unprepared for its effect on me. It’s not simply a question of scale; personally I would be bored by the tour guides’ endless litany of measurements. But when I look up at the open papyrus tops of the central columns I suddenly feel that I am about to cry and then, on realising that I am not entirely alone, I experience a tinge of embarrassment at such an emotional response in public.

But as I move away from the central production line towards the shaded sanctuary of the temple sides the stones themselves seem to reassure me – it’s all right. I know some people in this place feel an almost overpowering sense of the deliberate obfuscation of a male priesthood. My primary emotion, however, is an intense in-pouring of maternal love and a presence that is recognizably female, a reaction that is particularly unexpected among a forest of towering columns and carvings of so many ithyphallic gods. It is as if I have returned to the very womb of mankind.

(Adapted from Leaving Thebes, 2009)


Posted in Ancient, Egypt, Locations, Luxor / Thebes, Temples | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A Walk Through Old Cairo

Friday 28th October, 2011. One week after the serious violence between Christians and Muslims on the streets of Cairo known as “The Maspero Massacre”


Arrival at the Bab el Futuh

That morning Mohammed picks up Pauline, Liz and me from our apartment near the Pyramids at Gizeh at 8.30, as arranged. To prove his point that things have “returned to normal” since the deadly violence of the preceeding weeks he takes us through Tahrir Square, where small groups of people are setting up for demonstrations scheduled for later in the day. Violent demonstrations aside, “normal” in central Cairo, as we  discovered soon after our arrival, is a ring road in the form of an eight-lane race track on which small children, donkeys, horses and the occasional camel, take their chances in a game of human and animal roulette. On the edge of this chaos the Bab el Futuh, one of the two medieval entrances to the old city, suddenly looms up incongruously, and it is with some relief that we leave the race and wave Mohammed goodbye.

What a haven of peace it is beyond the gate, all the more welcome for being so unexpected; and clean and ‘civilized’, presumably the result of the refurbishments and pedestrianisation of recent years. The walk through the winding streets to the great medieval market of Khan al Khalili is wonderful; none of us can quite believe the combination of exquisite architecture and near-perfect calm. At one point this is only broken by some men playing football in the street and, around another corner, a party of schoolgirls chatting joyously, sketching on an art class trip. As we approach the bazaar, things become livelier. A man delivers huge blocks of ice on the back of a cart from which, for a small fee, passers-by can take a refreshing drink with the aid of the attached water dispenser and mug. Two men at a temporary stall selling t-shirts for ten Egyptian pounds (“ashara! ashara!”) do a roaring trade.

"What a haven of peace it is..." Pauline and Liz strolling towards the Maristan of Sultan Qalaoun

“What a haven of peace it is…” Pauline and Liz strolling towards the Maristan of Sultan Qalaoun

The Ice Man Cometh

Liz: Ice Queen

After an hour or so we emerge from the network of streets at Midan Al Hassan where we eat our snacks. Liz gives in to some boys selling bracelets but gets a deal for three at ten pounds which heightens their entrepreneurial spirit and there is some amusing banter. Next stop is the famous Fishawi’s coffee shop where we take tea. The surroundings are gorgeous but the ambience is a little impeded by a constant stream of hawkers, the majority of whom, somewhat bizarrely, demonstrate ‘fire-proof’ wallets with flicks of their cheap plastic lighters.

The author at Fishawi's Coffee Shop

The author at Fishawi’s Coffee Shop

Suitably refreshed we rejoin the chaos of the modern metropolis at the Al Azhar cross-city highway. It takes us a moment to readjust, as four lanes of traffic honk and bleat their way in both directions against the added soundtrack of police and ambulance sirens. Luckily there is a pedestrian overpass from which I see that the impressive building on the other side, the16th-century complex built by Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri, is that which features in one of my favourite works by the famous Scottish landscape painter David Roberts. In the painting it is identified as the “Silk Vendors’ Bazaar” but as we get nearer it becomes clear that the costly fabrics of yesteryear have been replaced by the cheap nylon of the present day.

The complex of Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri. Compare with David Roberts' "The Silk Vendors' Bazaar. Not much silk on display in 2011.

The complex of Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri. Compare with David Roberts’ “The Silk Vendors’ Bazaar”. Not much silk on display in 2011.

As the girls press on through the racks of gaudy fabrics that line these narrow lanes I take a moment to check my GPS for the remaining distance to the southern gate of Bab Zuweila. It is as if he was waiting to pounce: no sooner have I stopped than I have been taken by the arm by a small man in a very western checked shirt, with something of the look of a diminutive Omar Sharif. (Later I learn that he is 71-year-old Fathi Abdilsahil, a man who claims to have worked, in more propitious times, as a guide on behalf of the capital’s foreign embassies). When the girls return he declares, with suitably flamboyant arm gestures, that he will “show us the real Cairo, at no cost”. The girls are understandably reluctant but I try to reassure them that within the confines of the old city walls he will not be able to take us too far out of our way.

Feeling like the captives of a benign kidnapper we follow at a few paces behind our self-appointed guide as he points out features of domestic architecture, some of which he describes as “Roman” but which are surely no earlier than the 19th century. Despite our slight concern, the back streets on this southern side of the ancient city are as atmospheric as those we passed through earlier. It is also noticeable that on crossing the main road beyond the great bazaar we have also passed from a prime tourist zone (albeit in late 2011 with little evidence of tourists) and into the “real Cairo” promised by our guide. Soon he is leading us through narrow streets hung on either side with air-dried carcasses and sheep’s heads and through lanes where live sheep are penned awaiting slaughter at the festival of Eid. “They only have ten days left!” Fatih enthuses.


“Soon he is leading us through narrow streets hung on either side with air-dried carcasses and sheep’s heads…”

Sheep await their fate

Sheep await their fate

It becomes clear that Fatih has a particular destination in mind for us, illustrative of a point he wants to make. After a few more twists and turns we arrive at a tower in the Romanesque style, adorned with a massive painting of a very white lady in the dress of a Hellenistic aristocrat holding by the horn a rather sorry-looking – and very black – winged devil. The lady is labelled in Greek as St. Marina (the Great Martyr; daughter of a pagan priest, tortured to death by the Roman state for refusing to renounce her adopted Christianity). As a Muslim, Fatih is eager to emphasize that when he grew up among these back alleys in the 1950s, amidst all the excitement of a newly-liberated country, Christians and Muslims lived happily side by side, and that the recent unrest was an aberration stirred up by those clinging to power and by those who had ambitions to seize it. It is indeed a sign of our own times that to get inside the building we have to pass through a strong metal door, where Egyptian visitors have to show their ID cards with the identifying stamp: “Christian”. Beyond the paranoia of the metal door is a busy courtyard full of people of all ages chatting, sharing food, playing – being happy. Despite the religious difference, Fatih is clearly at home here and it is with no little pride that he takes us into the church and points out various icons of St Marina, St George and other luminaries of Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Church of St Marina

The Church of St Marina

Not long after leaving the church we reach my original goal of the Bab Zuweila – the great southern gate of the Fatimid city – where the guardian quotes us 15 pounds each to ascend the minaret. Fatih insists this is too much, that he can take us in a back way for cheaper. But for our part we are happy to make this modest contribution towards the upkeep of a fine piece of architecture. Even from the first level the view is spectacular, from the courtyard of the 15th-century mosque of Al-Muayyad across scores of minarets of all shapes and sizes to the citadel of Salah ad-Din. It is only the modern detritus on the roofs that inhibits the feeling that you are back in the middle ages. As we ascend, each stage of the minaret becomes a little narrower and at times the spiral staircase is in pitch darkness; Liz follows me up and says she is grateful for the white soles of my shoes to show her the way. We climb as high as the penultimate level. It’s pretty precarious and only the knowledge that it has remained standing for the last five hundred years reassures us that the this ancient turret will not collapse at any moment. Yet right at the top we find Fatih balancing on the ironwork, as if to mock the twenty years difference in age between us while simultaneously asserting his ownership of the sprawling city beneath him. For our part, it is as much as we can do to keep ourselves pressed against the inner wall and avoid being pulled, psychologically, into the abyss below.

Minarets of the Mosque of al-Muayyad atop the medieval gate of Bab Zuweila

Minarets of the Mosque of al-Muayyad atop the medieval gate of Bab Zuweila

Summit of the minaret of the Mosque of al-Muayyad atop the medieval gate of Bab Zuweila

Summit of the minaret, showing the ironwork onto which our 71-year-old guide climbed

View towards the Citadel of Salah ad-Din (Saladdin) and Mosque of Muhammad Ali from the top of the minaret

View towards the Citadel of Salah ad-Din (Saladdin) and Mosque of Muhammad Ali from the top of the minaret

Back on terra firma Fatih leads us first through the 17th-century Tentmakers’ Bazaar, full of gorgeous silks and multi-coloured fabrics, then into another maze of winding alleys. I tell him that we will have to go soon as we are meeting a friend of Liz’s for dinner in Al-Azhar Park. But he insists that we go for tea and I manage to persuade the girls that we should do it as a courtesy. We end up in quite a rough alley where a man is smoking a sheesha, next to an old TV set sitting under its own little plywood roof. Fatih asks the man to make us tea and it comes with mint. Despite protestations from Pauline I take up the offer of a sheesha myself but struggle to make it draw.

Sheesha Man

Sheesha Man

By this stage the girls are eager to bring things to a close and when Fatih describes a particularly narrow alley as the ‘street of Ali Baba’ even my own nerve is tested a little. Finally taking the hint, the old man leads us to his little shop built in to the city wall where he makes trinkets for sale in the bazaars. Here he shows us an old copy of the “Lonely Planet Guide to Cairo” with a picture of him on the front that appears to corroborate his earlier story. I don’t let us get drawn into any discussion about buying anything but, in truth, he does not press us. He tells us it is too far to walk to the citadel, he will take us to the corner of Al Azhar mosque where we will be able to pick up a taxi. He leads us out of the warren of side streets to the main road. I make another attempt to at least pay him for the tea but he will take nothing. As he returns my wave, and I am conscious of the fact that we have frustrated his best attempts at hospitality, I am struck by his humanity. At the same time there is something in his face that seems to reflect the uncertainty of his country’s future.

Fathi Abdilsahil, citizen of Cairo

Fathi Abdilsahil, citizen of Cairo

Posted in Architecture, Cairo, Churches and monasteries, David Roberts, Egypt, Monuments, People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

First Attempt at Crossing the Theban Plateau (Part 3)

[360-degree video taken on the “Farshut Road”, four miles (seven kilometres) in a direct line from the Valley of the Kings, 11th January 2015]



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First Attempt at Crossing the Theban Plateau (Part 2)

Wolves? In a desert country like Egypt?

As we’d sped along the Cairo to Aswan road the day before, I thought it might be a mistranslation from Thore’s native Norwegian. “Did you see it Ahmed? Bigger than a dog I would say and it’s coat – thick, thicker.” Then turning to me: “Is that what you would say?” I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t seen the carcass by the edge of the road and was still a little shocked by Thore’s description. Pauline and I had seen two canids (dog-like animals) scurrying across the slope ahead of us on our ascent of el-Qurn three years previously but I had thought they were jackals or foxes. But perhaps they were further away, and therefore bigger, than I had supposed? “Do you get wolves here Ahmed?” Our driver caught my eyes in the rear view mirror. “There are wolves. The villagers see him sometimes at night. He comes down to get food from dumps at the edge of the village. Once, when I was early in the Valley of the Kings, I see six, in a line, walking up the slope. They are coming back from the village. But in the day he is up in the hills, the wadis. Up there you would have a gun.”

Sunday January 11th, 2015

Fragments of yesterday’s conversation, accompanied by flashes of an image I did not see, start to fight for space in a mind otherwise at peace. A gun? What a time to find out about wolves! Back at the hotel, Thore had been quite excited, every description adding a little detail to confirm the identification. “A larger animal, less yellow, darker than the dogs, more hairy”. Perhaps it was this distraction that had led to my last-minute change of starting point and my consequent lost time scrambling on the unfamiliar rocky slopes below. But the thoughts do not last. I return to the moment.

The ground begins to level out as I approach the beginning of the high plateau. I set the GPS to “F1” (short for Farshut Road One – the first of some twenty-one waypoints I had marked from Google Earth to guide my way across the ancient high desert trail). Soon, ahead of me, I can make out a feature familiar from my previous foray into these hills; an overhanging piece of rock which, from this angle, has the distinct appearance of a lion at rest. I wonder if it had this shape when the armies of the Theban kings had marched this way against their northern enemies, 3,500 years before me? A rock in the shape of a lion. Then the great emptiness, domain of Meretseger; She who loves Silence. And – finally – battle, and a man’s fate in the hands of the eternal battlers, Seth and Osiris.

Once up on the plateau proper I become fully aware of the weather conditions. Despite the blazing sun, this is the coldest January that I have encountered in Egypt. In the valley below this means gathering round a log fire in the courtyard after dinner. Up here, walking north, it means facing the source of that cold head on. In the slight shelter of the lion rock I take a moment to adjust my kit. Over my damp shirt I put on my trusty light pertex windproof top and finish off with woolly hat and gloves.

For the first forty minutes of walking the trail remains rocky underfoot but then becomes increasingly sandy and, eventually, even spongy. If the rest of the twenty-mile walk across the plateau is like this then I could expect to make good progress. Shortly after ten o’clock I take a rest at another familiar landmark, a wall of exposed gypsum glaring white from the surrounding yellow sand and rock. After finishing part of my first energy bar I get up to go. It is then that I notice the desiccated stool of a canid, about the size of a small-to-average dog’s. At the time, my main preoccupation is with the stiff breeze, and I think little of it.


Resting at the ‘gypsum wall’

Within half an hour of this first stop I know both from memory and checking my GPS that I am in previously unexplored territory. At 10.50, a little under five miles into the walk, I reach the first large stone cairn that is visible on satellite images. Next to it, what looks like the base of some stone walling momentarily catches my attention. Is the cairn on the site of a former way-station or fort? My intention at this stage, realising that a full traverse of the plateau is probably no longer feasible, is to reccy towards “F5” which can be said to be the start of the main “massif” and almost half-way point of the high plateau.

But not long after leaving the cairn, headlong into an increasingly strong wind, I notice that despite drinking plenty of fluid and finishing the first energy bar, I am feeling distinctly tired. Though all around me is desert sand, and above me a bright yellow sun, my exposed face has the feeling it did when I walked the winter hills of Scotland with my father as a boy. On the way towards “F4” I realise I am becoming a little light-headed and fear that I might be experiencing the first effects of exposure. I certainly do not appear to be warming up at all, despite maintaining as good a pace as the wind will allow. It occurs to me that if anything did happen further on across the plateau, such as sustaining an injury, I could have problems in this cold wind. It is decision time. Decision time while my increasingly flighty mind can still make a decision.

I have enough mountain and wilderness experience to know when to turn back. Especially on your own. At “F4” I take a final photograph of the receding trail ahead of me and a 360-degree video to help with future route-finding. As I turn back, increasing light-headedness, coupled with an absence of regret, confirm that I have made the right decision. Back at the cairn I use the opportunity to get out of the wind, taking advantage of a one-person hollow scooped out of the leeward side. Keeping low, I take off my sweat-soaked shirt and lay it in front of me to dry. It does so within not much more than a minute. For the return walk I put fleece directly against my skin and the pertex over that. After a ten-minute rest I set off on my return.


On the high desert trail


Final photograph, with the trail heading off into the distant desert



Sheltering from the cold north wind at the ‘great cairn’

Since catching sight of the balloon over the Valley of the Kings early in the morning I have been conscious of only one sound, that of the wind. I know from experience that no-one else comes up here. Modern Egyptians, much like their ancient forebears, have little interest in leaving the familiarity of their towns and villages and I am way off the tourist trail. But now I become aware of something else. I stop, to listen more carefully. Howling. Apparently coming from about a mile behind me, near the top of the “Big Wadi” that I explored back in 2010. Possibly three separate animals. I expect this primal sound, that has apparently haunted the imaginations of generations of my own species, to make me panic, but it doesn’t. I take confidence from the fact that the wind is blowing from them to me. Still, in this unusually cold weather who knows how they might behave if they did come after me? I am still about a mile from the safety of the plateau’s edge and there are no sticks up here with which to defend myself. Time to get walking again.

So there is some slight relief when I am once more back in view of the Nile. And what a view! This is the clearest visibility I have encountered on any of my visits to the country, with distant vistas up and down the Nile, and beyond to the distant mountains of the Arabian Desert on the other side of the river. I am looking at Ancient Egypt, any remaining disappointment at the abortive expedition vanished. These hills, and their contrast with the cultivation of the valley, and the river within it, form the connection I make with this corner of the Earth. I feel absolutely at peace. As I look to the south, into the western offshoot of the Valley of the Kings, a hawk alights from one of the cliffs and rises on thermals straight up into the clear blue above me, higher and higher, until it seems to vanish into the sky itself. Horus ascending.


‘I am looking at Ancient Egypt’

Back at the Amon Guesthouse that evening, I chat with Ahmed. He might be ten years older than me, maybe less. It is hard to age these rustic inheritors of a timeless race. But certainly, with galabeya and scarf wrapped close to his neck against the cold he exudes an air of wisdom and authority. Thore has already left for Cairo so it is to Ahmed that I recount the day’s adventures. Though his attention appears to be taken with tending the fire I can tell he listens intently. After I finish my story he pauses a while, collecting his thoughts. “They are strong. Someone from Qurna tried to shoot at one but he broke the barrel of the shotgun with his teeth. And sometimes, he shows his anger by tearing at his hair with his claws.” He pauses again to draw from his cigarette, as much to keep himself warm as anything else you feel. “Sorry Ahmed – they tear at their own hair?” “Yes, he tears at his hair, like this, with his claws” and draws his own hand across his head as I catch his eye through the curling smoke of the fire. “It is in the Quran.”


Coincidentally, on my return to England I found that there had been recent advances in the complex classification of African canids. Specifically, the African Golden Wolf was found by study of DNA samples to be a distinct species from the Eurasian Golden Jackal. Among the various subspecies, the Egyptian Wolf (canis anthus lupaster) is one of the largest, standing at over 40cm at shoulder height and 127cm (about four feet) in length. It is also known to take the largest prey, including, sheep, goats and cattle. This ties in with stories you hear in the west bank villages of the Nile at Luxor though, as far as I know, the animals that roam the mountain desert hinterland have never been positively identified.

Lupaster Egyptian wolf

Egyptian Wolf (canis anthus lupaster)



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First Attempt at Crossing the Theban Plateau (Part 1)

Sunday January 11th, 2015

Following a 5.30 breakfast I head towards the ferry, my breath rising up before me in the cold morning air. One of the men huddled by a brazier offers to call me a taxi and I accept. I’m already behind schedule so there’s no time for bargaining. As I wait I have a moment to reflect on one of the consequences of staying in a hotel for the first time and not my usual self-catering apartment. The lack of self-reliance means that you’re not in complete control of your schedule. It’s a persistent niggle throughout the week.

I’m surprised when at 6.20 a nice, new, gleaming white Toyota 4×4 pulls up. A bit of a change from the usual battered old Peugeot I take up to the Valley. The driver is, according to the flashy logo on the door, “Mr Kind”. At first he comes across as a bit of a showy know-it-all but as we make our way towards the desert I gradually warm to his straight-talking. He seems to sense that I am wondering how much travelling in this relative luxury is going to cost me and casually asks how much I want to pay. I’m amazed when he immediately accepts the price I usually pay for third-class. What with this, and the fact that he is happy to drop me off on the road into the Valley of the Kings as requested, I warm to him all the more. He doesn’t even ask questions when it is obvious I am considering scrambling up the valley side, something very much discouraged by the authorities. Nor when it becomes apparent that I’m not even sure of the place I want him to stop. He’s alright this guy.

I had been up here the previous evening with Ahmed and Thore, and my new Norwegian friend had pointed out a big boulder which was where he usually started his own walks onto the plateau. As I lay awake in my hotel room that night, contemplating the next day’s expedition, I made a last minute decision to start from here instead of my usual climb up on to el Qurn. Despite being unknown to me this route had the potential to cut about an hour off the crossing; not insignificant in the context of a 25-mile walk.

However, now I am here in the gathering morning light I can’t find an obvious route up from the boulder so I do a couple of quick reccies up and down the road, conscious that the longer I spend here the more chance there is of being questioned by the police. My frustration mounts: why hadn’t I marked a waypoint on my GPS when Ahmed had gone out of his way to take me here the day before and Thore had shown me the starting place?? In the event I end up scrambling up a narrow path onto a scree which leads to a blind summit with no obvious way beyond. I stumble and slide back down the loose rock and spend the next forty-five minutes or so route-finding, presumably in the process becoming a topic of conversation for the tourist occupants of one of the morning’s hot air balloons which, having risen from behind an adjacent peak, now hisses and hovers directly above me.

The sun is coming up and I’m aware that I’ve probably already blown it. Eventually (at 7.35 on my watch) I reach a summit that shows the way down – and back – towards the start of the ancient Farshut Road, by the ruined watch-tower, not far from the old quarries on the valley floor. I know it’s going to be difficult to make up the time now and, already quite tired and very sweaty, I’ve drunk a fair bit from the water bladder in my rucksack. But there’s no point beating myself up about it: I’m on the Farshut Road and might as well use this opportunity to familiarise myself with this end of the route.

Looking back past the ancient ruined watch-tower to the start of the Farshut Road

Looking back past the ancient ruined watch-tower to the start of the Farshut Road

The going is hard at first, a broad rubble track, and it is probably here that I start to get the blister on the side of my right heel that makes the day’s walking increasingly uncomfortable. But as the trail gradually narrows it becomes a little easier underfoot; the morning light is pure watercolour blue and the views of the Theban hills are spectacular. Any lingering frustration I feel from the messy start is outweighed by my joy at once again being out among these hills. The ecstatic silence is only broken as I reach the crest of the first hill and momentarily find myself in view of the Valley road. Catching sight of a pickup carrying tomb guardians, followed by a tourist police motorcycle, I quickly move away from the edge so as not to attract attention. The route becomes steeper and I become increasingly aware of the weight of the six litres of water I am carrying for the day’s expedition. But even this does nothing to dampen my sense of exhilaration.


“…as the trail gradually narrows it becomes a little easier underfoot…”

"...the morning light is pure watercolour blue..."

“…the morning light is pure watercolour blue…”

At 8.45 the track meets the one coming up from the northern off-shoot of the western valley. This was the route I had in mind when I first envisaged the plateau crossing, minutely scrutinising Google Earth from the comfort of my study at home. Ahead there is a pyramidal peak, rather like a smaller version of El Qurn, and when I reach it is there is the usual small scramble through a band of harder rock that is encountered on any ascent to the plateau. Beyond the rocky barrier the ground starts to level out and, for the first time in four years, I am back on the Theban plateau. What is it about this desolate place that gives me such a strong sense of being welcomed; why does it make me feel so much at home?

"...the usual small scramble through a band of harder rock..."

“…the usual small scramble through a band of harder rock…”

"What is it about this desolate place that gives me such a strong sense of being welcomed; why does it make me feel so much at home?"

“What is it about this desolate place that gives me such a strong sense of being welcomed; why does it make me feel so much at home?”

Posted in Egypt, Landscape, Luxor / Thebes, Valley of the Kings | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

In the Footsteps of David Roberts (2): Around Aswan

David Roberts in later life

David Roberts in later life

Few 19th-century artists did more to popularise travel in Egypt than Edinburgh-born David Roberts. His work managed to convey not just the romantic spirit of sites up and down the Nile, but to capture much of the architectural and decorative detail, a good deal of which – including a number of the sites themselves – has been lost to us since. His prints are still among the first choices of tourist souvenir-hunters, and presentation collections take pride of place in the bookstalls, art shops and airport souvenir stores. One of the pleasures of returning from a trip to Egypt is comparing your own record of the country’s ancient sites with Roberts’ famous images. Are the places still recognizable over 150 years later? Were our viewpoints similiar to his? Are we still able to convey anything of the evocation of place, and of oriental travel, that his drawings do so well? Having previously compared my images with some of Roberts’ famous views of Islamic Cairo, in this essay I want to carry out a similar exercise with regard to his work in the deep south of the country. Located immediately to the north of the first cataract of the Nile, where granite outcrops and boulders provided a natural obstacle to travel upstream, from ancient times Aswan developed as a natural commercial and defensive staging-post on the border with Nubia, Egypt’s neighbour and historical adversary to the south. David Roberts and his travelling companions arrived in the town on 29th October 1838. The first view he recorded was from the shore just to the north of the town across to the island of Elephantine on which the first ancient settlement had developed during the third millennium BC. On completing this first work he took a boat across to the island itself but was unable to make much out of the jumbled ruins which were only cleared systematically for the first time in the latter half of the 20th Century. My own first journey to Aswan was in January 2009, an encounter which left me completely enchanted and which I have described elsewhere. I made subsequent visits in December 2010, mainly to explore the ancient desert quarries, and with my wife during our visit to Egypt to celebrate my 50th birthday in 2011, on which occasion we also took in the ancient temples of Philae and Kalabsha.

Aswan and the Island of Elephantine

Drawn by Roberts: 29th October 1838 My photo: 25th January 2009
“We walked over the ruins of this ancient city, which crowns the height of a rock jutting out into the stream. Nothing remains but the brick walls; so, after making a drawing of this part of the river, we crossed over to the island of Elephantine, where we found no vestiges of its ancient temples save a few columns and masses of rubbish.” [Extract from Roberts’ Journal]
Aswan and the Elephantine Island by David Roberts

Aswan and Elephantine Island by David Roberts

The sheer amount of Nile traffic, especially in the form of tourist feluccas, makes it difficult nowadays to get the same view as Roberts. My own photograph was taken from the boat in which I was being rowed round the Nile islands by my local guide, Nasir Mohammed Abbas, and features the Roman ruins near the southern tip of the island, clearly visible in the centre distance of Roberts’ drawing.

Southern tip of Elephantine Island by Tim Cooper

Southern tip of Elephantine Island by Tim Cooper

HPIM9617A little earlier, while exploring the island myself I had come across the upper part of a statue, probably of Ramesses II, half-submerged in the baked-mud street of the main village. I wondered whether this might be the same one that Roberts described 171 years earlier? “I saw one solitary figure, with the arms folded on the breast, holding flagellum and crook; and on examining the wall next the stream I found it composed of stones covered with hieroglyphics, which must formerly have belonged to a temple.” [Extract from Roberts’ Journal]

The Island of Philae

Partly as a result of Roberts’ drawings, the well-preserved and romantic ruins on the island of Philae, a little to the south of Aswan, became one of the high points of any Victorian traveller’s voyage on the Nile. The Temple of Isis was a relatively late construction, dating from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods and it was not until the reign of the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century A.D. that worship of the goddess was halted once and for all. The very last hieroglyphic inscription from ancient Egypt is also to be found here. The construction of the first Aswan dam between 1902 and 1912 resulted in the temple being half-submerged for most of the year and the completion of the High Dam in the 1960s prompted an international rescue effort that moved all the structures to the neighbouring island of Agilkia when Philae itself was completely submerged. To a remarkable degree, the new location was landscaped to replicate the appearance of the original. Roberts arrived at the island on 30th October 1838 and spent a number of days among the well-preserved ruins, his drawings recording a good deal of colour eventually lost in the inundations of the 20th century. One of the notable features of my own visit on 26th October 2011 was that in the aftermath of the Revolution of January that year Philae, usually one of the most visited sites in the whole of Egypt, was practically deserted.

View of the Island of Philae, Showing the Kiosk of Trajan

Drawn by Roberts: 30th October-1st November and 19th November 1838 My photo: 26th October 2011
 “There are four temples on the island. The first I visited, with lotus-shaped capitals, is the southernmost one. It gives the impression of being unfinished. It is made of very fine sandstone, and the details of the decorations are so clear as to suggest that the stone cutters have only just finished work. I can hardly convince myself that I have seen a 2,000-year-old monument. We set off again, and at sunset we finally entered Nubia.” [Extract from Roberts’ Journal]
Island of Philae at Sunset by David Roberts

Island of Philae at Sunset by David Roberts

The So-Called Hypaethral Temple on the Island of Philae by David Roberts

The So-Called Hypaethral Temple on the Island of Philae by David Roberts

View of Philae from the East by Tim Cooper

View of Philae from the east by Tim Cooper

Colonnades and First Pylon of the Temple of Isis at Philae

Drawn by Roberts: 19th November 1838 My photo: 26th October 2011
“A long esplanade is in front of the two propylons, between which is the main entrance to the great temple. On either side is a colonnade of small pillars, beautifully proportioned, and not rounded at the base, like those of Thebes. The capitals are chiefly of the lotus and palm, but they all differ. This esplanade terminates abruptly, overlooking the river at a considerable height.”[Extract from Roberts’ Journal]
The Great Colonnade in Front of the Temple of Isis on Philae by David Roberts

The Great Colonnade in Front of the Temple of Isis on Philae by David Roberts

Forecourt and Colonnades of the Temple of Isis at Philae

Forecourt and Colonnades of the Temple of Isis at Philae by Tim Cooper

An interesting comparison of the two images is that at the time of my visit the site was as deserted as Roberts had found it 170 years earlier. Hypostyle Hall of the Temple of Isis at Philae

Drawn by Roberts: 19th November 1838 My photo: 26th October 2011
“Today I made some drawings of the interior of the temple and copied many of the figures covering the walls, all in excellent condition, with brilliant colours.”
“I was entranced by the splendid composition of its colours; they seem to be freshly painted, and even in the places where they are most exposed to the implacable sunlight, they have retained their radiant freshness.” [Extracts from Roberts’ Journals]
The Hypostyle Room in the Temple of Isis on Philae

The Hypostyle Room in the Temple of Isis on Philae by David Roberts


Columns in the Temple of Isis at Philae by Tim Cooper

The most striking feature of Roberts’ drawings of the temple interiors is the remarkable survival of so much colour, especially on the higher stages of columns and ceilings. The vividness of the colour was doubtless emphasised in the drawings, and has been exaggerated somewhat by subsequent printing. Nevertheless, his work is an invaluable record of the state of the monuments at the time of his visit as well as a reminder that all the monumental architecture of ancient Egypt would once have been a riot of colour, not the uniform sandy hue that is the usual condition now. At Philae all remaining traces of colour were effectively scoured away during the first half of the 20th century when the structures spent most of the time underwater.

The Temple of Kalabsha

The original Graeco-Roman temple of Kalabsha, dedicated to the Nubian solar deity Merwel, known to the Greeks as Mandulis, was situated some 50km south of Aswan. Like the temples of Philae, the decision was taken to relocate it during the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s which created the massive Lake Nasser behind it. The present location is on a promontory jutting into the lake, not far beyond the dam. Two smaller temples structures, those of Qertassi and Beit el-Wali, were moved to the same site. It is worth remembering that while some other notable structures were also rescued at this time, much of the physical evidence of Upper Nubia was lost beneath the waters of Lake Nasser, and its people displaced from their ancestral homeland, for ever.

Drawn by Roberts: 15th November, 1838 My photo: 26th October 2011
“…towards evening we were again in sight of the Temple of Kalabsha, the loveliest in Nubia. Situated in a loop of the river in the middle of a stretch of barren rocks, surrounded by palm and acacia trees, it is only seen to be ruined from close by. The reliefs have such clear-cut edges that they seem to have been recently carved, and the whole, with its elegant proportions and delicate details, is in no way inferior even to Philae.” [Extract from Roberts’ Journal]
“The temple has some of the mysterious feel of Dendera about it, more so than Philae. This is enhanced by the whispering of the breeze from external windows blowing through the columns. Otherwise, silence.” [Extract from my Journal]
The Pronaos of the Temple of Kalabsha by David Roberts

The Pronaos of the Temple of Kalabsha by David Roberts

Interior of the Temple of Kalabsha by Tim Cooper

Interior of the Temple of Kalabsha by Tim Cooper

The Small Temple of Qertassi This takes the form of a Roman-era ‘kiosk’, similar, but on a smaller scale, to that on Philae. Though little remains, the combination of slender papyrus-topped columns and two remaining columns topped with the heads of the goddess Hathor, give the structure a grace and atmosphere all its own.

Drawn by Roberts: 16th November, 1838 My photo: 26th October, 2011
“It is hard to guess at the age of the building from its condition, as the devastation which has spoilt it seems to have been wreaked but yesterday. The temple is dazzling in the sunlight against the deep blue of the sky, and it almost seems as though the hand of its destroyers had just ceased its work.” [Extract from Roberts’ Journal]
“Outside we roam around the external temples (or ‘templets’ perhaps) and separate for a while as I linger at the remains of the temple to Hathor.” [Extract from my Journal]
The Little Temple of Wadi Kardassy with the Nile in the Background by David Roberts

The Little Temple of Wadi Kardassy with the Nile in the Background by David Roberts

Little Temple of Qertassi at New Kalabsha by Tim Cooper

Little Temple of Qertassi at New Kalabsha by Tim Cooper

Posted in Architecture, Aswan, David Roberts, Egypt, Landscape, Locations, People, Temples | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

First Venture onto the Theban Plateau (Part 3)

Sunday 19th December 2010

My long-term plan for the Theban Plateau is to take the ancient track known as the Farshut Road right across the Qena Bend in the Nile river. From my research I know for definite of only one completion of this 40km high desert route in modern times. But on this occasion it will be enough to conduct a preliminary “reccy” of just a few kilometres onto the plateau. My aim is then to return to the Luxor west bank via a large, inviting, dry valley that during my planning I have called the “Big Wadi”. However, there is insufficient detail on “Google Earth” to know for certain if there is an accessible route into this valley from the plateau. There is only one way to find out, and that is exploration on the ground.

2010 plateau route

First expedition onto the Theban Plateau as planned with return via the “Big Wadi”

The first few kilometres of the Farshut Road turn out to be quite stony underfoot and it is something of a relief when the GPS points to the turn-off for the way into the valley system. Following weeks of desk-top planning the first surprise is that the descent is much steeper than I had imagined from the satellite images. After some scouting around I decide on a way down into the northernmost ‘finger’ of the system. The situation focusses my thoughts. This is not a place I would want to spend long struggling to find an escape route in the heat of the midday sun. And certainly not sustain an injury. So it is with some caution that I half-walk half-slide my way down the rubbly scree. And in case I should need to retrace my steps when I reach the bottom of the slope I take the precaution of marking the point on my GPS.

The top of the "Big Wadi" valley system seen from the plateau

The top of the “Big Wadi” valley system seen from the plateau

Even when I have reached the bed of the upper wadi there are still obstacles to be overcome in the form of boulders to be negotiated and hollows avoided, not least in case they hide snakes or scorpions. As the bed begins to flatten and widen it is so obviously the course of a former river that I can almost see the water tumbling over the rocky steps and shelves. At one of the bends the looming cliffs afford some welcome shade and I stop briefly to take in the excitement of exploration, of being somewhere so rarely visited by men. Of being so utterly alone. As I approach each bend and tick off each waypoint on the GPS receiver the anticipation mounts. Will I be able to enter the Big Wadi or be forced to retrace my steps?

"...I can almost see the water tumbling over the rocky steps and shelves"

“…I can almost see the water tumbling over the rocky steps and shelves”

Rounding a final bend my heartbeat quickens as I follow the now sandy ‘river bed’ to where it would once have ended in a waterfall and . . . the drop into the main valley below is one of more than a hundred feet! It is literally awesome, yet when I reach the precipice I feel no fear; there is a calmness, a reassurance in these cliffs and my spirits are simply too uplifted by the vista that opens up before me. I scan the rocks below for a route down but none is apparent and, even if I were able to make my way down the initial drop, a scatter of large boulders appears to render the top stretches of the main valley all but impassable. So here is the answer to the first question I have asked of this desert plateau: there is no straightforward return to the Nile by way of the Big Wadi and I will have to turn back. But not before doing as any self-respecting Englishman would in such a situation – take in the majestic view while finishing a flask of warm tea.

"Rounding a final bend my heartbeat quickens as I follow the now sandy 'river bed' to where it would once have ended in a waterfall..."

“Rounding a final bend my heartbeat quickens as I follow the now sandy ‘river bed’ to where it would once have ended in a waterfall…”

View into the "Big Wadi" from the top of the cliffs.

View into the “Big Wadi” from the top of the cliffs.

At the vertical drop at the top of the "Big Wadi"

At the vertical drop at the top of the “Big Wadi”

When the time comes to retrace my steps it is slightly disconcerting that much of the ground I covered less than half an hour ago seems quite unfamiliar, a reminder once again of the importance of making firm visual memories of these desert features rather than rely solely on the GPS. I am certainly glad, however, of the reassurance gained from the exit waypoint I recorded earlier, and as I scramble up towards the relative safety of the plateau I am reminded of the line from The English Patient alluding to the indefinite quality of desert landscapes: “A hill shaped like the hollow in a woman’s back. . .”

Back up on the plateau my first thought is to return via the Valley of the Kings. But after hours of peaceful solitude the thought of ending the day being harangued by guards and postcard salesmen brings on a shudder. So while resting against a natural rock shelter at the point where the Farshut Road meets the plateau I decide to return the way I came. Before setting off I pick up and examine a small, curiously evocative piece of pottery. The work of human hands, it seems somehow imbued with human spirit. Recharged with this energy I head off back on the track to the mountain of el Qurn, sweat-drenched but happy.

Rock shelter at the point where Farshut Road joins the Theban Plateau

Rock shelter at the point where the Farshut Road joins the Theban Plateau

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First Venture onto the Theban Plateau (Part 2)

Sunday 19th December 2010

The path from the summit ridge of el-Qurn to the main plateau first descends a ‘col’ between the two high points then winds its way up the other side. The distance turns out to be far less than I had imagined when I first stood on this point in January 2008 which demonstrates how easily the eye can be deceived in desert surroundings. Once up on the plateau I see the first signs of rock shelters which I am to become quite familiar with on my subsequent ventures into the high desert. Beyond these the path becomes more distinct and the walking very pleasant. I am encouraged to see that the GPS waypoints which I had plotted from Google Earth back in the comfort of my study in England match exactly with the features on the ground. The further I venture out into the desert plateau, the more comforting this level of accuracy will be.

Col and first summit of the Theban Plateau from el-Qurn

Col and first summit of the Theban Plateau from el-Qurn

After about half an hour’s walking the track approaches the edge of the cliffs, beyond which the desert stretches into seeming eternity. For a while I sit and acclimatize myself to these remarkable surroundings. Immediately below me the hills descend in a succession of terraces to the level floor some 300 metres below. Each rocky terrace ends in vertical cliffs which, like those in the Valley of the Kings, seem to echo the majesty of those ancient rulers who sought their final resting place among these silent ravines. And as my gaze reaches out beyond the cliffs and crags to the wind-blown sands of the western Sahara it is this silence that dominates the scene and gives the desert its peculiar splendour. The sense of calm is palpable. If I were to find God anywhere on Earth  it would be in a place like this.

Edge of the Theban Plateau

‘If I were to find God anywhere on Earth it would be in a place like this’

However, back on the track I am soon reminded that I have not yet come far from ‘civilization’. As well as the increasingly-frequent pottery scatters, evidence that people used these tracks over thousands of years, there are one or two signs of what I call ‘landscape vandalism’ where people in much more recent times have scraped up stones from the desert floor to make words and signs that would be visible from the air, if not from space. I had first come across this phenomenon at the Temple of Horus in 2009 and once again the the motives for leaving such a destructive mark on the landscape  confound me.

Potsherds on the Farshut Road, Theban Plateau

Potsherds on the Farshut Road, Theban Plateau

Landscape vandalism on the Theban Plateau

Landscape vandalism on the Theban Plateau

But soon this is temporarily forgotten when I glance down at the GPS and realise that I have joined the ancient “Farshut Road”, the caravan route which for centuries took traders, soldiers and kings across the high desert plateau, thereby cutting off the great obstacle to the northern flow of the Nile now known as the Qena Bend. One day I hope to continue across, a desert trek the length of a marathon. But on this occasion there should be excitement enough from an exploration of one of the high desert ‘wadis’ and, if my desktop plans prove feasible, a return via a circular route to the temples and tombs of Luxor in the valley below.

On the Theban Plateau

On the Theban Plateau

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First Venture onto the Theban Plateau (Part 1)

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.

Shrine of Ptah & Meretseger 2008

Workers’ wayside shrine of Ptah & Meretseger, January 2008

Shrine of Ptah and Merestseger 2010

Shrine of Ptah & Meretseger, December 2010

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.

Hot air balloons above Deir el Medina

Hot air balloons above Deir el Medina

Sunrise, el Qurn

Sunrise behind the sacred peak of El Qurn


Posted in Ancient, Egypt, Landscape, Locations, Luxor / Thebes, Monuments, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Aswan: Gateway to Nubia (Part 4)

Sunday 25th January, 2009

Elephantine Island, Aswan

“…pharaonic cartouches carved deep into the gigantic granite boulders…”

Nasir turns the boat once more to the north as we approach the southern tip of the Island of Elephantine, in ancient times the seat of government of Abu, the fortified town that controlled the vital strategic border with Nubia to the south. The historical importance of the site is reflected by a series of pharaonic cartouches (names of kings) carved deep into the gigantic granite boulders that form the south-east corner of the fortress.

Entrance to Nilometer, Elephantine Island, Aswan

The entrance to the Nilometer

A little further past a surviving stretch of the Roman walled town Nasir points to a curious riverside structure and offers to put me ashore. Earlier, he had told me how since the construction of the High Dam in the 1960s the level of the Nile can be seasonally adjusted according to agricultural needs, particularly those of the northern delta region. Before the construction of the dam the river was subject to an annual inundation. This construction is one of two surviving “Nilometers” which since ancient times allowed officials to calculate the level of this annual flood, that mighty force of nature on which Egyptian civilization had been built (it brought with it rich sediments that renewed the fertility of the land) and which the modern dam had been designed to control. The importance of the structure meant that it has been well maintained for centuries and in the course of its ninety steps you can read measurement marks made in ancient Egyptian, Roman and Arabic numerals, the most recent of which were added in 1870.

Nilometer, Elephantine Island, Aswan

The steps of the Nilometer leading down to the river

Back on the boat, the sun is now casting the surviving arches of the temple of Aswan’s guardian god Khnum into striking silhouette, and the hazy view upstream towards Nubia is deeply dreamlike. Nasir was going to drop me off at the east bank here but when I tell him my intention is to go to Nubian House to watch the sunset he offers to row me there, another few hundred metres upstream. On the way we pass a large isolated granite rock that emerges from the water like an ancient black sphinx, in stark contrast to the surrounding golden sands.

Granite boulder, Aswan

“a large isolated granite rock that emerges from the water like an ancient black sphinx”

Houseboats, Aswan

Houseboats moored below Nubian House

As we reach the riverbank below Nubian House Nasir finds a place between the moored houseboats to let me ashore. By now I have decided to give him the full 70 Egyptian pounds that he had initially asked for, in no doubt that he has earned it. As well as all the hard work, and the wonderful introduction to the charms of the Nile at Aswan at close quarters, he had been excellent company. We part warmly, exchanging contact details, both of us I am sure with a feeling that we would meet again one day, if not in Aswan then somewhere, sometime. Halfway up the dusty slope to the restaurant I turn back and give a last wave as his little boat disappears behind the other side of the island, back to his family home.


“…his little boat disappears behind the other side of the island…”

Nubian House, Aswan

Entrance to Nubian House

Nubian waiter

Waiter in colourful uniform

I had come to Nubian House as the guidebook had promised that its terraces high above the Nile’s rocky first cataract were the best place to watch the sunset against the backdrop of the western desert. As I approach, a group of children are singing to the tune of “Aye Aye Ippy” and not for the first time on my travels in Egypt I am reminded of a scene in Amelia Edwards’ A Thousand Miles up the Nile and of how little the tourist experience has fundamentally changed. The restaurant is decorated in traditional, colourful, Nubian fashion and the waiters are all wearing equally colourful uniforms. I ask the Maitre D if I can have a table but he tells me dinner will not be served till after sunset. Till then, however, an all-in tea is available for ten Egyptian pounds (just over one English pound) accompanied by cake and small lumpy doughnuts. (It turns out to be delicious and I take advantage of the copious refills of the cake plate to fill-up for the journey back to Luxor).

First Cataract of the Nile

First Cataract of the Nile below Nubian House, Aswan

The restaurant is almost full with a vast tour group of middle-aged Germans but as it happens the one remaining seat in the corner of the upper terrace has the best view in the house. As the big red sun descends towards the horizon great V-formations of birds start flying past at eye-level, prompting much enthusiastic German speech and the clicking of camera shutters. Just as I find myself wishing for a little more quiet a call goes out from the tourist group leader and they all rise and return to their coaches as one. Within no more than a minute the silence I craved is with me. There are times when there is much to be said for German efficiency.

Sunset, Aswan

V-formations of birds at sunset, Aswan

When the sun has gone down it starts to get colder quickly so I get up to make my way back to town, still with a couple of hours to spare before my 8pm train. Taking my cue from the GPS I set out along a dusty track past some newly-built houses lit by that eerie diffused light that I noticed on my first ever night on the rural west bank at Luxor. Apart from an occasional taxi there is no-one around so when a noisy pack of dogs appears in the gathering gloom I take the precaution of arming myself with a big stick. Soon I am over the crest of a hill and relieved to see a smartly-dressed family emerging from a restaurant, and at the bottom of the hill I meet the road that joins the riverside corniche. On the way I pass the modern Coptic cathedral outside which happy, smiling Christians are milling around in their ‘Sunday best’. It is interesting to see how brashly-confident Upper Egyptian Christianity appears to be, all lit up in advertising-neon.  There is nothing hidden, or apologetic, about it.

Princess Ferial

Princess Ferial with King Farouk and Queen Farida, c.1940 (Bibliotecha Alexandrina)

Right at the bottom of the hill, and forming the southern end of the corniche, I come to the Ferial Gardens, created in celebration of the birth of Princess Ferial (1938-2009), first-born child of Egypt’s penultimate king, Farouk. Befitting the romance of the twilight of a line of kings this is an enchanted little spot and in the fading light courting couples find meaning outside the confines of their daytime lives. I take a seat by the big rocks overlooking the islands and in this magical setting, start to take in the wonderful experiences of my first visit to the old frontier town of southern Egypt. I feel I could sit here forever; below, in the gathering darkness the occasional motorboat passes by, otherwise, the only other things I am aware of are the water of the great river itself and the lights of Elephantine just opposite. What extraordinary human activity this place has seen over many thousands of years. But what peace I find here now.

Sunset over the Nile

Sunset over the Nile, from Ferial Gardens, Aswan

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