The Temple of Karnak
An early start to catch the sunrise over the ruins of the Temple of Karnak. The name is taken from the town of Carnac in Brittany and is a reminder that it was the French who, in 1798, rediscovered this temple under thirty feet of sand. We have a local Egyptologist with us who has obtained permission for us to climb up onto one of the pylons – the massive 150-foot high towers that flank the entrance to the temple.
This involves a scramble up a narrow passageway enclosed between the tomb of Seti II and the pylon wall. We must have disturbed a colony of bats, for the dark tunnel is suddenly filled with flapping creatures trying to find a way out. My hat is knocked off as they brush my face. At the top, the view is splendid but the sunrise isn’t and the crew return to our boat for breakfast. I decide to stay in the temple and enjoy some pre-tourist solitude.
The buildings and the monuments here are as impressive as any man-made thing I have seen in the world. They were created to extol the power and strength of the Pharaohs and the gods whose likenesses they were, and it is impossible to walk amongst the columns and beside the obelisks and not feel the presence of this power. In the Hypostyle Hall, where 134 columns rise in a symbolic forest, sixty feet high, from bases whose circumference could just be contained within a ring of twelve people with outstretched arms, I feel a sense of awe and wonder unlike any I’ve experienced before, compounded by the awareness that similar feelings must have been experienced here over thousands of years.
I’m brought back down to earth as the first wave of tourists appears, adjusting cameras, complaining about meals the night before and arguing over who has the air tickets. Then I catch sight of Tadorus, whom I must remember to call Peter, like a white wraith among the massive pillars, stick resting across his shoulders. If you need a lost sense of wonder restored, then Peter is the man. Despite his eighty-odd years spent in and around these buildings with scholars and archaeologists, he still finds some things unexplainable. A statue of Rameses II, ninety-seven feet high and made from a single piece of granite, weighs 1000 tons. Cranes nowadays can only lift 200 tons, yet this massive statue was brought to Luxor from Aswan overland, 3000 years ago. Peter strikes a theatrical pose, ‘How, Tadorus, they say?’ He pauses and his big, round, sad eyes blink slowly. ‘My answer, magic.’
The temple of Abu Simbel, further south, was, he tells me, aligned by the ancient Egyptians so that the sun shone onto the face of Rameses twice a year – once on his birthday and once on his coronation day. When Abu Simbel was re-sited in a forty-million-dollar operation to save it from the rising waters of Lake Nasser, all the calculations of the world’s experts could not enable the sun to shine on Rameses’ face more than once a year.
Peter shakes his head sorrowfully, ‘Nothing better,’ he sighs, ‘nothing better.’
Here is surely a man born 3000 years too late. I’m sad to say goodbye to him.
It is September now and there are little things a traveller tends to forget, such as haircuts. I repair to a barber’s shop in the back streets of Luxor. My barber is called Allah Gmal Idil, and he is very proud of his establishment, and of his two sons who stand and watch the whole procedure. I fear the worst and get the best from Allah: a good haircut, a cut-throat shave, a rub with pomagne scent, a trim of the eyebrows and even an assault on the nostril hairs.
In the evening, back on the Isis, I’m on deck looking out over another Nile sunset and dreaming off into the past when the present rudely reasserts itself.
‘You don’t know how Sheffield Wednesday went on last night?’
Pat and Gerald Flinders, two of our fellow passengers on the cruise down to Aswan, are from the town of my birth. Gerald has been studying Egyptology at night school.
‘He can write National Westminster Bank in hieroglyphics,’ says Pat proudly.
‘Why would he want to do that?’ Roger asks.
Pat seems surprised at the question. ‘Because he works there.’
They join about twenty others whom we meet this evening, including a family from Watford, one of whom by extraordinary coincidence works in the council department responsible for twinning arrangements with Novgorod. There are three middle-aged Danish ladies on a girls-only holiday, a French couple, two handsome Italians, two Montreal Canadians, and assorted English and Americans. There is a resident archaeologist called Abdul – a big man with a shaved head. We shall set sail in the early hours of tomorrow morning for Aswan, which is a little over 120 miles upstream. It will take us a leisurely three days.