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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Aswan: Gateway to Nubia (Part 3)

Bargain agreed, my new friend and I make our way down the steep bank to the Nile. Three small boys hurry across to us and one offers me a ride on his bike which I decline with a smile. As quickly as they appeared they rush back down the bank and help to pull a small boat ashore. It is only at this point that I realise that, once again, the ‘felucca’ that is being referred to is a rowing boat and that this inconspicuous craft is what we would be circumnavigating the islands of the Nile in. For a moment I wonder if I am going to be getting value for money. Soon after we have cast off, however, I stop wondering and lose myself in this most peaceful way of exploring this beautiful place. Face to face in the little boat we introduce ourselves by name. Nasir is an excellent guide, pointing things out as we pass with the obvious pride of someone introducing you to their home rather than with the indifference of the tourist tout.

Nasir rowing towards Elephantine Island

Nasir rowing towards Botanical Island

Nasir is soon telling me that a rowing boat is a much better way of exploring the river than under sail, and he is right. We can take our time, stop where we want, get up close to things. From the low vantage point of this small boat the granite rocks which emerge from the mirror-like water are dramatic elements in a landscape of contrasting elements – water, rock, sand and sky – around which a fringe of trees makes the perfect frame.

Contrasting elements of water, rock, sand and sky.

Contrasting elements of water, rock, sand and sky.

Soon we are approaching Botanical island, otherwise known as Kitchener’s, having been presented to Lord Kitchener by the Egyptian government as a reward for his services in the campaign in Sudan (1896-98). The landing point at the north end of the island is overhung with impressive foliage, some crimson flowers contrasting with the various shades of green. Nasir drops me off on some slimey rocks before we get caught up in the crowd of feluccas gathering at the steps and tells me he will pick me up in half an hour. I climb up the stone-terraced embankment, buy my ticket at the kiosk, doing my best to elude the attentions of the persistent young Nubians selling trinkets, and make my way along a path between high trees where I stop at a bench and take some refreshment.

In truth the botanical specimens – however impressive – do not detain me for long as the real glory of this island is the views it affords of the west bank of the Nile. They are truly heart-stopping, a landscape pregnant with promise and yearning, and to complement it a heron stands patiently on a rock midstream. Downstream, away from the sun, there is the stark contrast between bright blue sky and yellow sand; upstream, towards the great piles of granite that make up the First Cataract, all is sparkles and silhouettes.

View from Botanical Island, Aswan

“a landscape pregnant with promise and yearning”

Heron on the Nile at Aswan

“a heron stands patiently on a rock midstream”

View south from Botanical Island, Aswan

“upstream, towards the great piles of granite that make up the First Cataract, all is sparkles and silhouettes”

When the half hour is up I meet Nasir back at the north end of the island. It is from this point on the trip that he truly ‘earns his corn’ and I realise the extraordinary feat he is undertaking as he rows the two of us around the islands, in and out of little coves, sometimes working against the swirling current. It becomes increasingly apparent that the fifty-Egyptian-pound fare will actually be a bargain. We share some details of family – his roots on the island of Elephantine that we are presently circling; something of politics (the close involvement of presidents Sadat and Mubarak in the area). When I tell him I have written a book on Egypt his smile becomes broader and from now on I am “Dr Tim”. He tells me about friends he has made who live in Oxford, England, and of his numerous European acquaintances who have houses on Elephantine.

On many of the granite rocks we pass, white egrets are perched; on one, one of the small boys we met earlier. This is an enchanting landscape of lush palm groves, papyrus stands, rocky inlets and the white sails of feluccas. In one bay is an elaborate castellated structure which Nasir tells me is a particularly fine example of a sakia, the traditional water wheel worked by buffaloes since ancient times.

Water wheel near Aswan

Elaborate sakia, or water wheel, with an ancient Sheikh’s tomb on the hillside beyond

As we turn the corner of the most southerly of the islands we approach one of the most famous landmarks of Aswan, the Old Cataract Hotel which featured prominently in the film Death on the Nile. On the rocks below it horizontal bands can be made out marking different historical water levels. Nasir explains to me how at this time of year the water is low and how since the building of the High Dam the levels of the river are varied according to the needs of different crops, such as rice, downstream. For the first time in this country I really get a sense of the Egyptians as a people – from here to the Mediterranean – united by this great river, despite all ethnic, social and religious differences and as I look down I find myself momentarily mesmerised by its crystal clear water.

Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan

The Old Cataract Hotel

"I find myself momentarily mesmerised by the crystal clear water of the Nile"

“I find myself momentarily mesmerised by the crystal clear water of the Nile”

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Aswan: Gateway to Nubia (Part 2)

In a few strokes of the oars we three men in a boat are approaching the western shore of Elephantine, the largest of the Nile islands at Aswan. A row of feluccas are moored against the bank and a background of palm trees. Having left the desert fringe on the west bank of the river, this lush island has more the appearance of the African interior. Further along the shore some men are doing repair work on a felucca and building a new motorboat from scratch. As soon as we land the blind boatman takes off again and almost immediately the policeman lays down his machine gun and carrier bags, takes off his shoes, walks to the water’s edge and stoops to wash his face in the Nile, ritualistically, like a man giving thanks for his safe return from the desert.

Rowing boat at Aswan

“…the policeman lays down his machine gun and carrier bags…”

Rowing boat at Aswan

“and stoops to wash his face in the Nile, ritualistically, like a man giving thanks for his safe return from the desert”

For my part I scramble up the muddy bank to survey my new surroundings. Before I reach the top I see a big, smiling man bounding towards me. Something about his demeanour suggests that, despite the fact that I know he is going to try and enter into some transaction or other, I feel quite at ease with him from the outset. He starts chatting immediately and unlike many of the touts and hawkers downriver at Luxor, seems genuinely friendly. Before I can raise the slightest objection he has offered himself as my tour guide. The suggested itinerary comes out in an enthusiastic rush: first I should visit the Nubian museum on the island, then over to the neighbouring Kitchener island and finally a circumnavigation of Elephantine in a felucca.

Houses on Elephantine island, Aswan

Village houses

My guide tells me he is from the village here as we make our way through its delightful lanes full of pretty children and young girls in brightly coloured dresses, well-dressed hair and jewellery. Round one corner he points out an old lady asleep on a mastaba outside a house who is apparently his grandmother, a young man outside another house his cousin. He seems genuinely eager to tell me all about his world, not simply for commercial gain. We pass wonderfully-decorated mud-brick houses in “Nubian blue” with turquoise doors and window shutters, diamond patterns and dots. On the side of a dirt street he points out a half-buried seated statue of “Ramesses” which looks very much like a smaller version of the massive statues of Ramesses II which adorn the greatest of the ancient Nubian temples upriver at Abu Simbel.

Half-buried statue on Elephantine Island, Aswan

A half-buried ‘Ramesses’

When we arrive at the museum I tell him that I don’t really fancy it so instead we do a deal for the felucca for fifty pounds, after I haggle him down from seventy, and he turns to take us back to the cove where we first met. On the way we pass an old man with the characteristic fuzzy hair of the ethnic Bishareens of Nubia. When I ask if I can take his picture he is happy for me to do so then adds that it will cost “a hundred pounds”. As I press the shutter button he says in clear English “only joking” and breaks into laughter. I find myself taking an immediate liking to these warm, happy people, descendents of generations and generations of ancestors who have dwelt among the rocks and palm trees of this beautiful island since the time of the Pharaohs.

Villager on Elephantine Island, Aswan

“Only joking!”

Stopping briefly on one of the highest points on the island, where goats feed among the palm groves and the sparkling Nile makes its way between us and the sand dunes of the far bank, it seems to me that you would be hard pressed to invent a landscape as appealing as this.

Landscape at Elephantine Island, Aswan

View across the Nile from Elephantine towards St Simeon’s Monastery

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Aswan: Gateway to Nubia (Part 1)

Below the Monastery of St Simeon, Aswan, Sunday 25th January, 2009

I thank the guardians as I leave the monastery gate and scramble down one of the rocky paths to the sandy one below. I expect the GPS needle to be pointing down this path in its tributary valley towards the Nile. This is the way the camels come, yet the waypoint of the ferry across to the island of Elephantine, which I have taken from Google Earth, is being indicated to the south, beyond the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan. But this seems the natural way back to the river so I ignore the technology and carry on down the quiet little valley until I come across a solitary camel sniffing around outside the wall of an enclosure.

Camel at rest below the monastery of St Simeon

Camel at rest below the monastery of St Simeon

There seems no obvious way of skirting the wall so I enter the compound and see the Nile ahead of me and camels lounging around; some men are attending to what looks like a leg wound on one of the animals and wrestle it, complaining fiercely, to the ground and then administer ointment. I approach the men – they are dark-skinned ‘Nubians’ – and ask them if this is the way to the ferry and they respond by looking me up and down. Another man comes over, with defective sight, and appears to say he can take me across the river in a felucca (a sailing boat) but apparently not right now and I am invited to have some tea while I wait. I think “what the hell, let’s hang out with these camel guys for a little while and have some tea”. The group of men include a tourist policeman with a machine gun.

While I’m waiting for the tea I accept the invitation to mount a camel. The animal has only recently been put to rest after taking tourists up to the monastery and it complains as only camels can. When it is eventually persuaded to rise I really have to hold on as the animal rocks itself into a standing position. Once there it adopts the customary haughty look, apparently ascribed by Muslims to its knowing the 100th (secret) name of God. When I have returned to terra firma I give the camel driver a five pound note as baksheesh that seems to be acceptable. Meanwhile, negotiations continue with the ‘blind’ man for the price of the Nile crossing.

The camel adopts its haughty look

The camel adopts its haughty look

I sit with the men and await the tea. There is some delay, evidently because the man making it wants some money. I hold firm and say I thought the tea was being offered to me as a guest. Eventually we agree that the 15 pounds I pay for the felucca will include a pound for the tea. One of the men explains that the boat is ‘raw felucca’ but I don’t know what he means.

Taking tea with the camel drivers

Taking tea with the camel drivers

As we sip tea in the shade of the perimeter wall one man asks whether I have children; when I tell him I have two sons he looks a little disappointed and says it is good to have daughters as they will “look after you”. These men are real Nubians – for some reason I can’t explain they seem more honest than their lighter-skinned compatriots downriver at Luxor – and despite the wheeling and dealing I feel quite comfortable with them.

When the tea is finished we descend to the steps at the river’s edge and I see that we are waiting for a man to come over from the island with a rowing boat – the ‘raw felucca’.  Unlike the muddy brown water at Luxor, the Nile here is beautiful, blue, and clear and I can see the underwater rocks and plants at the edge. While we are waiting we are joined by a youth, apparently with learning difficulties, who keeps saying something that sounds like “Aston Villa” – my favourite football team – so I say it enthusiastically back and soon the blind man is joining in: “Yes – Aston Villa!”

The 'raw felucca'

The ‘raw felucca’

The man bringing over the rowing boat is very black and solidly built. The oars he uses are like two planks of wood; they are not shaped like our oars and are painted in different stripes of colour. As the boat approaches the blind man calls out to the rower to hurry up. When he gets to shore he jumps out and I go the far end of the boat and the policeman at the near while the blind man takes up a rowing position in the middle; lack of sight apparently being no obstacle to effecting a crossing of the Nile.

As we pull away the scene on the shore we are leaving is enchanting with its golden hill of sand, acacia trees near the water’s edge, and a solitary camel. It seems to me to encapsulate the whole romantic notion of Arabia.

'It seems to me to encapsulate the whole romantic notion of Arabia'

‘It seems to me to encapsulate the whole romantic notion of Arabia’

As we move away from shore we are passed by a felucca floating effortlessly in the gentle breeze and when I turn my gaze to the south the water sparkles and the outline of a sail is silhouetted under a brilliant sun. This, for me, is paradise.

'... we are passed by a felucca floating effortlessly in the gentle breeze'

‘… we are passed by a felucca floating effortlessly in the gentle breeze’

'This, for me, is paradise'

‘This, for me, is paradise’

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Coming together

Luxor west bank, Tuesday 27th January, 2009

On Saturday Ahmed had suggested the idea of combining the Temple of Seti and the Tombs of the Nobles with a visit to the local market at Qurna where the people of the west bank did most of their shopping. He felt sure that as a photographer Clive would find it particularly fertile ground and we had arranged to meet at the ferry at eight in the morning. In the event Clive failed to appear despite our waiting by the ferry for an hour. I suspected it was due to his late night drinking habits but when I switched on my mobile later in the day I found he had left a message with a mutual friend to apologise and say he had gone down with a stomach complaint.

* * *

While waiting, Ahmed orders us some tea from the vendor by the ferry. The man has an open, smiling face, and he reminds me of someone at home though I can’t put a name to it. For some reason the locals amuse themselves by poking fun at him and he retaliates, but it is all in good humour.  The tea is of the Egyptian variety; sugar but no milk, served in a small glass. Ahmed shows me how to hold the glass at the very rim with finger and thumb to avoid getting burned.

Below the level of the riverside causeway groups of labourers squat together, smoking, waiting for pick-ups to take them to work in the fields. Nearby, a small line of men queue for a serving a fuul, the simple bean stew that has served as the staple of the Egyptian fellahin for centuries. Ahmed points out a quiet-looking middle-aged man who pulls up on a motorbike. “He is a good man, but he made the mistake of falling in love with a Christian girl some years back. He wanted to marry her. It was a notorious case; people still talk about it.” I notice the man keeps his head bowed as he makes his way to the ferry steps, as unobtrusively as possible.

At around nine we decide that Clive is not coming and Ahmed drives us to the market.  A large dusty area among the palm trees and houses, it is an oasis of sound and colour exuding a wonderful feeling of people coming together. Women, mainly in black, many carrying produce and shopping on their heads; men, in contrasting light-coloured galabeyas, some of the younger men and boys in western-style shirts and jeans. Ahmed stops and crouches by the stall of one of his cousins and shows me the difference between potatoes grown in silty and sandy soils. But all the produce is on a large scale, well-shaped and colourful, from a combination of silty soil and ‘nitrochema’. A woman stall-holder secures a sunshade – in the form of an umbrella-like frame made of branches with a piece of carpet laid on top – with a big iron spike.  As ever away from the developed west, the small translucent plastic bag – here in yellow – is king.

The market at Qurna

The market at Qurna

Ahmed buys potatoes from his cousin

Ahmed buys potatoes from his cousin

Heaps of grains and nuts are piled on sheets on the ground. Next to them are neatly rolled-down hessian sacks of spices and herbs. Men walk past with fowls in baskets or clutched heads-down in their hands. Smaller birds, that look like a cross between a pigeon and a hawk, are tied to the top of the cages. We come to two men selling various types of dried pasta from rolled-down bags on the back of a colourful trailer. The younger of the two advertises the wares with the aid of a microphone and small speaker. Nearby, women gather round a tricycle trailer from which eggs are being sold. On the back it has three small signs advertising ‘Ariel’ washing powder. One stall shows off colourful ladies’ dresses in a pole high above the crowd. A woman in black walks by, somewhat improbably carrying a bag of oranges on her head, as Ahmed stops to buy limes for the two of us from a young lad with a wheelbarrow.

Men walk past with fowls in baskets

Men walk past with fowls in baskets

Selling produce from a trailer

Selling produce from a trailer

Sellings eggs from a trailer

The egg seller

Ahmed buys limes

Ahmed buys limes

A grave-looking man walks around the stalls waving a receptacle of incense on a chain. “It helps ward off the evil eye as well as making things smell nice” Ahmed explains. As we head towards the end of the market area I notice the backdrop is the sacred mountain of Meretseger, el-Qurn, after which the village and its market are named. A young girl sitting on the ground by bags of nuts, henna, and different coloured dyes gives me a warm smile.

Warding off the evil eye

Warding off the evil eye

The girl with the smile

The girl with the smile

As we return to the car a group of small boys immediately notice an intruder and rush towards me demanding baksheesh. Ahmed shoos them away then offers me one of the bananas he has bought.  “Throw the skin down for that donkey to eat” he says. There are no bins on the edge of the desert. Most of the people who have not walked here have come by donkey and this one is tethered to a telegraph pole while its owner browses the stalls. Younger men ride in pairs on motorbikes. An older man turns up incongruously in a smart new 4×4 and the boys rush around excitedly. Ahmed and I get into his car and we drive the dusty track just round the corner to the three-thousand-year-old Temple of Seti. Anywhere else that would be incongruous. But not in Egypt.

The donkey the 4x4 and the sacred mountain

The donkey, the 4×4, and the sacred mountain

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Into the Mummy Pit

Of some of these tombs many persons could not withstand the suffocating air, which often causes fainting. A vast quantity of dust rises, so fine that it enters into the throat and nostrils, and chokes the nose and mouth to such a degree that it requires great power of lungs to resist it. In some places there is not more than a vacancy of a foot left, which you may contrive to pass through in a creeping posture like a snail, on pointed and keen stones that cut like glass. Surrounded by bodies, by heaps of mummies in all directions which, previous to my being accustomed to the sight, impressed me with horror. The blackness of the wall, the faint light given by the candles or torches for want of air, the different objects that surround me, seeming to converse with each other, and the Arabs with the torches or candles in their hands, naked and covered with dust, themselves resembling living mummies, absolutely formed a scene that cannot be described.”

Saturday 2nd February, 2008. Western Thebes.

Figure of Khaemhet, Overseer of the Granaries and Royal Scribe at the entrance to his tomb

Figure of Khaemhet, Overseer of the Granaries and Royal Scribe, at the entrance to his tomb

Belzoni’s colourful description of his second visit to the tombs at Qurna, in 1818, inspired a whole tradition of ‘archaeological romance’ from Henry Rider Haggard to Indiana Jones. Little did I know as I entered the tomb of Khaemhet that I was to be allowed a small glimpse of this world first hand. When the tomb was first discovered by Europeans in 1842 it had been the home of generations of Qurnawis who blackened the decorated walls with smoke from their fires. The first attempt at cleaning it was made sixty years later by the Englishman Sir Robert Mond, armed with scrubbing brush and bucket, whose good intentions were unfortunately far superior to his conservatorial technique. Coming on top of the ‘squeezes’ made by early Egyptologists, by which pigment was removed onto wet paper, and the hacking out of whole sections for removal to European museums, it’s remarkable that there is anything at all left to see. Nevertheless, even stripped of its once vibrant colour there are some wonderful scenes such as the unloading of goods at Thebes and of Khaemhet himself supervising the work in his fields.

Following the guardian into the mummy pit below the tomb of Khaemhet

Following the guardian into the mummy pit beneath the tomb

But the current guardian of the tomb obviously senses that I have an appetite for something more adventurous. “You see pit – mummies?” Before I can utter a word he has made the show of a glance outside and has me firmly by the wrist. Soon we are crouching low within the type of jagged blackened tunnel so vividly described by Belzoni. I am gripped by a sudden fear: “Snakes – are there snakes here?” “Yes!” he replies, so enthusiastically and with such a broad smile that he has either misheard me or is so fearless himself that I am immediately reassured.

Ancient rags and human remains inside the mummy pit

Ancient rags and human remains in the bottom of the mummy pit

A cloud of parched dry dust rises up, through which I can just make out the rough steps by which we are descending, here and there strewn with scraps of ancient linen. As we go further down into the darkness the dust starts to choke and I cough and splutter as my guide warns of overhanging rocks or points out items of interest. At last we come to a stop – in reality we have not descended far, but in my imagination I am with Belzoni – and I sweep the beam of my flashlight around the blackened pit. There, in a corner, amid the jagged shards of limestone, bundles of linen and fragments of human bone, the soot-stained skull of some ancient citizen of Thebes looks up at us through the swirling dust. My heart beats fast, though I am frozen in the moment.

After a quick peer into the dark labyrinth of tunnels beyond us we ascend once again and the guardian dusts me down, the final act in a scene which has been performed by his ancestors for curious travellers since the time of  Bruce and Belzoni, and possibly beyond. Somewhat humbled at having come literally face-to-face with death, I emerge once more into the present, and breathe deep lungfuls of the crisp desert air.

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Not Just a Nurse

Karnak, February 1850

“On the wall of the propylon is Seti, kneeling, and offering himself in the form of a little figure which is eagerly bending forward on its knees. Immediately beyond this, as if in answer to this devoting of himself, the Good and evil spirit are pouring over him life – as if to say, Give me thyself, my son, and thou shalt learn to draw life out of evil as well as good—out  of all experience—“all things work together for good to them that love God”. The Agathodaemon or Trinity hovers overhead, not as usual with wings outspread, but a little depressed, as if to “cover him with its feathers”. The whole conception is beautiful.

King Seti (c.1294-1279 BCE) before the god Amun, a raised relied carving from the hypostyle hall in the Temple of Karnak, Luxor

King Seti (c.1294-1279 BCE) before the god Amun, a raised-relief carving from the hypostyle hall in the Temple of Karnak, Luxor

This head is the most wonderful ideal of sublime serenity and childlike trust and confidence I ever saw. S went back to look at it, that last day, again and again. I tried to compare it with Guido’s Speranza but it is too different from the Christian ideal. Though one can hardly tell in what—there is a purity in these heathen (?) expressions which is not in the Christian—it is the returning spirit. There is that absence of the doctrine of repentance which has struck me so much in these records of a nation’s religion. The Christian ideal has sinned and suffered – there has been struggle, asceticism, the cheek is pale with vigils, the eye stained with tears – it is resignation, not serenity – meekness, not trust, composure rather than happiness – the spirit has weaned itself after long effort and weary suffering from the love of sin and earth, and placed its joy alone in the beyond, in the far away, in the future.

The heathen ideal is quite different. It is purity, in opposition to repentance. There is always something of the Magdalen in Christian representations, there is always something of the Virgin in the heathen. It is the sinless soul which has never left the bosom of its God, which finds him, the Omnipresent, as near in one spot of his creation as another, which does not wait for another world to enjoy His presence. The Christian looks for comfort in His society hereafter – the Egyptian for happiness in it here. There is no asceticism in the Egyptian ideal – all the gifts of its Father it will accept from the Father’s hand – there is no struggle, the soul has never loved anything better than its God – there is no hope, it is all trust, trust that the present is as much its Father’s blessing, its Father’s gift, as the future can be – there is no resignation, for where evil is to give life as well as good it is absurd to talk of resigning oneself to a benefit. Then it is love, not resignation.”

* * *

Florence Nightingale in the 1850s by H. Lenthall

Florence Nightingale in the 1850s by H. Lenthall

I first came across Florence Nightingale’s letters from Egypt – in a wonderful illustrated edition by Anthony Sattin – in the famous bookshop of Gaddis & Sons in Luxor on my first visit in early 2008. Of course, like most people, my knowledge of Nightingale was limited to her humanitarian work, especially during the Crimean War, and as the founder of modern nursing. Without any wish to detract from such noble accomplishments, the picture that comes down the years of “The Lady with the Lamp” is of a dutiful, if somewhat dull, public servant. The Florence Nightingale I discovered when I read the letters on my return from Egypt was – to me at least – a far more interesting person.

In particular I was struck by how different she was from many of the other early travellers to Egypt who were content to register what they had seen, enlivened occasionally with some snippets of history or some telling statistics. But what comes across in these letters is a person whose response to the religious art of a particular period is a contemplation not just of what it might have meant to people of that time but of the meaning of religious, spiritual and philosophical ideas across all time. It is difficult to over-estimate how original the twenty-nine-year-old Florence was in this regard. Doubtless it had much to do with her Unitarian upbringing, the rigorous, questioning, education she received from her father and her growing interest in contemporary mysticism and the Theosophical movement. And much to do also with the fact that she had just turned down a proposal of marriage from an eligible suitor against her parents’ wishes, and had gone to Egypt partly to escape the immediate consequences of this and to grapple with the meaning of the apparent callings from God that she had received since her teens.

Massive columns of the Hypostyle Hall in the Great Temple of Amun at Karnak, Luxor

Massive columns of the Hypostyle Hall in the Great Temple of Amun at Karnak, Luxor, visited by Florence Nightingale in February 1850

Whatever the underlying reasons, the result is a woman whose writings reveal her to be one of the first visitors to Egypt to approach a true understanding of the nature of ancient Egyptian religion and to attempt to fit it into a framework of human responses to the ineffable across time. Incidentally, her writing prompted my own desire to learn more about the ways in which women travellers to Egypt in the Victorian period responded both to the exotic surroundings in which they found themselves and to the relative freedom from the restrictions imposed on them as women back home.

Incidentally also, Nightingale’s contemplation quoted above started with her close observation of one of the remarkable carvings of King Seti in the hypostyle hall at Karnak such as the one in my photograph. This is one of three or four images I have taken of this subject on separate visits to the temple over a four-year period. I have taken them because like her, I am drawn to a timeless beauty as well as to the extraordinary skill of the artist who, among a number of minute details, shows the flared nostrils of the king as he breathes in the scent of the sacred lotuses he is presenting to the god Amun, along with the very breath of life given back to him by the god in return. I like to think that my photo conveys something of the sense of the reality of religious experience to a man who lived three thousand years ago. The insight of a writer such as Florence Nightingale does so much more.

See Anthony Sattin (ed.) Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile 1849-1850 and the same author’s A Winter on the Nile. I am currently completing my own comparative edition of the writings of Florence Nightingale, Lucie Duff Gordon and Amelia Edwards as Three Ladies in Luxor (forthcoming).

Posted in Ancient, Art, Egypt, Kings, Locations, Luxor / Thebes, Monuments, People, Temples | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Descent to the Theban Underworld

Workers’ village of Deir el-Medina, Western Thebes,
Sunday 3rd February 2008

It is now around 1 pm and I have a rare experience of turning up at a site when a significant number of tourists are already there. In the main, however, the people who are gathered in the covered area outside the tomb of Sennedjem are individual travellers and small groups of families and friends, since for much of the next hour the coach parties will still be taken up with lunch. I wait until a group emerges from the small door-like entrance to the tomb and make my way down the steep flight of steps.

Family tombs at the workers' village of Deir el-medina near the Valley of the Kings. The tomb of Sennedjem is beneath the pyramid structure at left.

Family tombs at the workers’ village of Deir el-Medina near the Valley of the Kings. The people who lived here on the edge of the desert over 3,000 years ago were responsible for excavating and decorating the royal tombs. The tomb of the senior artisan Sennedjem is beneath the pyramid structure at left.

As I descend I imagine the succession of generations who, all too frequently, would have left the family home just a few paces away from the tomb entrance and used this place to bury and honour their dead. There is something about the narrowness and darkness of the stairway and small antechamber that serves to heighten the impact of what comes next: a barrel-vaulted space not much larger than a bus shelter but with decoration that – as befits the tomb of a skilled artist – is quite simply gorgeous.

Image: The Art Archive/Corbis

Sennedjem and his wife worship the gods…
Image: The Art Archive/Corbis

Thinking myself back to that cramped space I am no more able to describe the experience of being in these private tombs than I was able to fully take them in while I was there. Against a lustrous gold background emerge scenes which are almost outrageously vivid and yet intimate at the same time. Ahead, a bright white Osiris is flanked by piercing eyes and an Anubis-headed priest administers last rights to a prostrate masked mummy, while at one end mirror-image necropolis jackals sit dutifully like loyal family pets. What impresses more than anything is the extraordinary fluidity with which the mundane and the marvellous intermingle in the imaginative world of the New Kingdom: the tomb-owner and his wife harvest corn while Re-Horakhty-Atum sails by on his barque; then refresh themselves at a well-stocked table whilst enjoying the intimate company of Osiris and Horus.

Image: Hirmer Verlag

…and live out eternity in the longed-for Field of Reeds, domain of the justified dead. Image: Hirmer Verlag

Meanwhile the Guardians of the Gates of the Afterworld brandish knives against the giant snake Apep. To our generation the imagery is so surreal it is like being caught up in a drug-induced hallucinatory dream. To theirs, you suspect, it was simply a reflection of how life – life that endures beyond death – actually is.

The strange experience of attempting to comprehend dazzling arrays of imagery within the confines of a very small space means that my recollections of the nearby tomb of Inherkhau are similarly sketchy. The lingering impressions are of snatches of conversation with other visitors. It’s a bit like descending some steps and finding yourself in a cramped cellar with other guests at a student party; since nature abhors silence in a social situation you are obliged to talk, with the psycho-spiritual paintings on the walls being the obvious subject matter.

Image: osirisnet

Image: osirisnet

An English group debate whether the priest is approaching the tomb owner with a live snake, metaphorically with a snake-hieroglyph, or performing a magic trick like Aaron before Pharaoh in the Bible. “I think it’s a snake–stick” the most assertive member of the group suggests, provoking further discussion. Just as I am about to offer my own suggestion a thirty-something American approaches me from over my shoulder and begins to pose a series of questions in that unselfconscious way, like we are already friends, that comes naturally to Americans but makes most people of a British persuasion recoil in terror. “What dy-nasty is this tomb? What did this guy do?”

Image@ wikipedia

The Cat of Heliopolis slays the evil snake Apep.
Image: wikipedia

“Did he live here, was he like a foreman or something – I mean, he’d have had a significantly higher disposable income than the ordinary workers, right? Hey – check out the giant rabbit killing a snake!” I attempt to seize the moment: “Apparently it’s a cat, I think it represents….” “Yeah, right, big ears though!”

As I take leave of my new-found best buddy and make for the exit my eye is caught by a striking image of Inherkhau worshiping the benu bird. Yes, you find your mind saying to itself, that really is a man having an intimate experience with a heron wearing a crown. Then you squeeeze back up the steps and emerge once more into the piercing azure light of a Theban afternoon.

Image: B. Cannon

Inherkhau pays homage to the benu bird. Image: B. Cannon

Adapted from Leaving Thebes (2009)

Posted in Ancient, Art, Egypt, Luxor / Thebes, Monuments, Tombs | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

A Castle in the Sands (Part 2)

Aswan, 25th January 2009

The final approach to the monastery of St Simeon, down a perfect dune of golden sand, is sublime, and accompanied in my earphones by the crescendo in the soundtrack to The English Patient, the part where Almasy carries his stricken lover to the cave that will be her final resting place. Emotionally, this is the high point of this trip and a moment I know will live with me forever. I seem so far removed from everyday existence yet at the same time I am in a place that feels familiar, my presence here somehow inevitable. There seems to be no incongruity in sitting at a desk in Sheffield one day and walking to a monastery on the edge of the Egyptian desert the next.

'The final approach to the monastery of St Simeon, down a perfect dune of golden sand, is sublime.'

‘The final approach to the monastery of St Simeon, down a perfect dune of golden sand, is sublime.’

Walls of the Monastery of St Simeon

Outer walls of the monastery

To the final strains of the soundtrack I pick my route into this spiritual fortress. I decide against scrambling straight up one of the rocky paths ahead in favour of a perambulation of the walls to the right, reached by a final sandy track. On the approach I feel the contradictory emotions of a pilgrim and an assailant. As I get closer the golden colour of the stone and mud brick from which the buildings are fashioned makes them appear much more in harmony with their landscape rather than at war with it. At the entrance I am met by two men – a younger, slightly rotund one who takes my money and a thin, wizened, older one who leads me inside, as if offering himself as my guide.

Inside the main courtyard I meet a couple a little older than myself, the tone of whose educated English suggests they are Dutch. The man politely asks if he can join in with my guide and instead I offer the old man to them, telling them I am happier to explore alone. Apart from the two doorkeepers it becomes apparent that there is no-one else in the vast complex of buildings except this couple and I meet them only once more in the course of my exploration. The woman is full of questions about how the monks got their water and other technicalities which makes me aware that such matters have hardly crossed my mind during my tour of the ruins. My reaction to places such as this is always much more about an emotional connection between myself, the landscape and the people who walked these courtyards and corridors in the past. And some of whom walk with me now.

Interior of the Monastery

Interior of the Monastery

Almost everything about this place is more like a fortress than a place of religion – arched stone doorways, stone staircases, a massive stone keep – I am soon in a world evoked by my childhood visits to Welsh castles and the model foreign legion fort that was one of my favourite presents one Christmas. At one end of the dormitory, sunlight streams through three round-topped windows arranged in what to my mind is a ‘shamrock’ pattern, a symbol of the trinity. Off the main hall of the dormitory a number of small cells with stone beds immediately evoke the presence of former inmates.

Arched doorway. Monastery of St Simeon

Arched doorway leading from the main courtyard

'Keep', Monastery of St Simeon

Staircase up to the central ‘keep’

Dormitory, Monastery of St Simeon

‘At one end of the dormitory sunlight streams through three round-topped windows…’

Dormitory cell, Monastery of St Simeon

‘small cells with stone beds immediately evoke the presence of former inmates’

Once outside again, all is still and quiet, and as I look out of a small arched window cut into the curtain wall, out across the dunes to the low hills beyond, I become aware of the slight whisper of the desert breeze. The feeling is absolutely magical, the very breath of eternity, those suspiria de profundis ‘sighs from the depths’ to which De Quincey refers in one of my favourite of his works. To be in such a place and yet away from any sign of modern tourism is wonderful, the very essence of “getting away from it all” the epitome of restorative solo travel. We are this breeze.

‘the slight whisper of the desert breeze’


Posted in Architecture, Aswan, Churches and monasteries, Egypt, Landscape, Locations, Monuments, Thomas De Quincey | Tagged | 1 Comment

A Castle in the Sands (Part 1)

Aswan, 25th January 2009

Above the Tombs of the Nobles, Aswan

Above the Tombs of the Nobles, Aswan

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.

View to the south from the Tomb of the Wind

View to the south from the Tomb of the Wind

The Tomb of the Wind

The Tomb of the Wind

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 hill, in the shape of a woman's back..." from The English patient

“A hill, in the shape of a woman’s back…”
(from The English Patient)

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.

The Monastery of St. Simeon

The Monastery of St. Simeon

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