the balcony door of our hotel room at the Old Winter Palace
of Luxor and step onto the terrace overlooking the Nile.
A full-blown moon is presiding over the tree-shaded boulevard
hugging the shores of this ageless river.
hope they won't be charging extra for the moonlight,"
I ask my husband wryly as I come in. I am a bit wary ever
since we walked into the old world elegance of our hotel,
which was King Farouk's winter palace here in this ancient
city, once known as Thebes, the Pharaoh's capital in Upper
Egypt. "We'll ask for a refund since we're too sleepy
to enjoy it." My husband stifles a yawn and I respond
has been a long day; my dreams tonight will be visited by
all that we saw today in Luxor (or Al-Aqsar) with our tourist
guide Magda. We arrived this morning by air from Cairo,
and soon as we deposited our luggage in our room we had
set off to see the sights. We passed the Luxor Temple, dedicated
to the sun god Amun-Ra, its roofless edifice and colonnade
of eroded pillars and statues unceremoniously planted beside
the main street in much the same way as the Colosseum is
parked like the merry-go-round of a travelling circus in
the middle of Rome's traffic. But we by-passed it for the
moment, going deeper into the countryside to the larger
Karnak Temple complex. Walking past the processional avenue
of the sphinx with ram's heads and through the first pylon
or doorway, we crossed into a world of successively opening
courtyards, porticoed pavilions, colonnaded halls, atriums
and decorated chapels, each an illustrative chapter in the
evolving styles of the many pharaonic dynasties that added
to the temple.
point I sat down amongst a veritable forest of giant pillars,
thick as trees that rise dizzyingly into the sky, and wonder
how it would be at night when we came to see the Karnak
Temple's 'sound and light' show that evening.
way back we stopped at the Luxor temple. Like Karnak, this
temple is an accretion of structures erected by succeeding
kings: started by Amenhotep III, enlarged by Tuthmoses III
and finished by Ramses II.
entrance, this 65 metre wide First Pylon, was built by Ramses
II, and decorated with reliefs depicting scenes of his military
campaigns." Magda rattles away. "In front you
notice two seated statues of the king, wearing the royal
headdress topped by the Double Crown of Upper and Lower
Egypt." My straw hat crowned head reels looking up.
I move away to pose in front of an obelisk. "Not another
photo!" My cameraman groans. "Just a souvenir
of the place," I cajole striking an attitude. Magda
comments, "Well, this 25 metres pink granite obelisk
you are photographing is the second of the pair now situated
in the Place de la Concorde in Paris." Ah, the famous
one! I glare at husband, "See, Josephine asked hubby
Bonaparte to bring her a small souvenir from Egypt and Napoleon
uprooted an entire obelisk and I only wanted a photo…"
We both know its time to get out of the sun and head for
lunch. But Magda is on a roll.
growling, we follow her into a courtyard with numerous statues
and pillars. "Note the papyrus-type columns with lotus-bud
capitals. Also, the crowns of several of these figures sit
on the ground because they were carved separately and have
fallen off." I start to laugh when all around us the
megaphonic call for Friday prayer suddenly resounds among
the megalomaniac statues, startling me. Magda smiles, "The
Mosque of Abu El-Haggag is situated above the north-eastern
corner of the court and this small temple. In the 4th century
AD the temple was used by Roman Legionaries as a chapel.
There are also faded murals from Christian times. In the
side chapels are depicted scenes from the battle against
the Syrian-Hittite coalition and also scenes from religious
ceremonies." I sit in a shade and ponder the parade
of religions past and present and wonder at the unholy historic
link between the battles and religions of men: the devil's
pact between political power and religious authority. The
piled stones of this temple are magnificent but the monument
is to human frailty not some divine god.
time for lunch. We invite Magda and ask her to takes us
to a local place. She leads us into a narrow alley and a
tiny hovel of a place where we eat a most delicious meal.
The warm spongy Baladi bread has just been delivered in
a pile. Magda orders, apart from the usual hummus, baba
ghanouoj, and the kababs, an exquisite vegetable shorba-soup
and a delectable dish of whole baby okras in tomato gravy.
a horse-carriage back to the hotel for a siesta. In the
evening, after some mint tea, it's time to go back to Karnak
temple for the 'son et lumiere' show. The sun is setting
when we arrive. The same place that by the heat of day had
towered and dazzled with a paternal imminence, now in the
fading light has receded somewhat into itself, become cool,
aloof and slightly forbidding. Clumps of tourists congeal
at the front of the temple, sitting on ledges near the Sphinx
guarded avenue. I notice that many of the ram's head have
been rubbed off, some have lost their horns. Then suddenly
my eyes drift to the top of the temple ramparts. Against
the pink sky I see an eerie silhouette. First two, then
four tiny horned headed beasts materialize from nowhere.
Then a few more appear sauntering to the edge like sentinels.
The thought that comes to my fervid mind is that these are
the spirits of the stone rams! The shepherd's bell brings
me to earth. But the grazing goats trotting up and down
the ruined temple roofs, though they make the others smile,
remain slightly ghostly to me. Specially now that an invisible
booming voice welcomes the congregation at the threshold
of the temple and as if on cue a full moon of the most dramatic
kind opens its milky-blind eye at the exact place where
the goats had just been and now have vanished. I shiver
slightly as we enter Karnak as if for the first time.
myself at the spot where mammoth pillars create a stone
forest. Leaning against one of these petrified trunks I
look up at the tendrils of hieroglyphics twirling higher
and higher like some pharaonic Jack-the giant-killer's ivy.
It's dark above and it is dark below. Only the voice of
the narrator and the presence of the group create a pool
of warmth, of humanity. The rest is the silence of stone,
the muteness of history. I would not like to get lost here.
my fears evaporate. A familiar moon peeks out like a balloon
adrift among the gigantic colonnade spiking the night sky.
Moonlight pours in and we follow each other through the
maze and arrive at the lake where rows of seats are ready
for us to view the panorama of the entire Karnak temple-city
complex. We relax and try to listen to the commentary as
it waxes about the past glory of the pharaohs. It is not
easy. The moonlight is teasing, distracting; and above all,
the present is tugging away at our sleeves, drowning out
the commentator as loud Arab-disco music from a festive
strobe-lit village in the distance comes at us in waves
on the fresh breeze, followed by a clear-throated Azan that
swoops and covers the night sky under its wings. I laugh
aloud, but no one hears or cares. Everyone realises that
Karnak is only a part of the magic of Luxor. History has
put the everyday lives of people, their brash music and
their new religion where it rightly belongs: above the dead
past. The temple is a backdrop, while the real protagonist
is the moon shining on this living breathing moment, this
loud Luxor night. It is the same moon that will beam on
when we too are turned to stone.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004