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     Volume 4 Issue 15 | October 2, 2004 |

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A Roman Column


Neeman Sobhan

I open 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.

"I 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 in kind.

It 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.

At one 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.

On the 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.

"The 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.

Stomach 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.

It's 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.

We take 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.

I find 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.

Suddenly 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.



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