14th March, 2018, Morning
Travelling to Egypt
When our plane flew over the Arabian Desert I saw that the sands over North Yemen was silver. As we flew beyond the Persian Gulf the sands of Arabia appeared Sandy brownish turning to gold wherever it caught the sun and glistened in it. Finally, beyond the Red Sea after the layover at Kuwait when we swooped to touch ground in Cairo I saw the Sahara Desert as dusty, brown and dull. Madhusree, Madhuleena and I, all in our fifties are travelling to Egypt on a weeklong vacation to see the pyramids and the most ancient civilization of mankind. We are travelling with an all women group organized by a company called Byond travel. The group consists of yet another threesome of women in their sixties all friends like us from college days, and two professors of psychology, one retired and another on the anvil of retirement, a younger dancer who runs her own school and a much younger banker. Madhusree was the one to have started it all, speaking to the company and assured at least six tourists from her side. The company, on its own marketed for another four and that made the quota of ten tourists per group. An all women group is a wonder by itself, women seldom emerge into public spaces as their own selves, unattached to tags of family and social roles assigned through human cultures. But among themselves, as independent entities earning and spending on their own, women become something else, confident, decisive, adaptive, participative and cooperative. Women uninvolved with men are the true wonders of humanity, empowered they could have made the world a much better place to be in.
Worried for Georgie our pet dog and leaving her rather reluctantly under the care of our household help, wiping dry that occasional tear drops as we waved her goodbye, we negotiated suitcases packed over weeks into the taxi to reach the airport at night to catch the early morning flight to Kuwait and therefrom to Cairo. At the Delhi airport the two trios met one another and we soon spotted the two psychology professors, both of who we guessed because of their WhatsApp profile pictures. Now at Kuwait a rather young woman with a fractured toe came up to us and introduced herself as the ninth member while we spotted our tenth one as she circled us rather hesitantly, unable to deduce that we were her group.
The security at the airport was rather strict and confusing. I spotted two men and a male child wearing a kaachhaa with iron keys hanging from a string and I thought that they were Bengalis who mourning the loss of a loved one. But soon enough I saw other groups as well and finally when they stood in the line to Jeddah I realized that they were all part of the same Umrah Haj pilgrimage. The Arab Haj has the same dress code as the Bengali Hindu mourning, may be both are born out of the same sense of lament, endured over centuries of contact and cross culturation between the 6 CE and the 12 CE.
The travel agent who booked our tickets opted for the Hindu veg meal for all of us when none among the ten were vegetarians. The veg meal is risky to have on international flights because these meals have less takers and often get stale due to non-circulation. The staid ness of the food was amply made up for by the visuals of the desert below and switching in the downward camera of the plane we relished every moment of the flight.
At Cairo Byond’s agent, Wings greeted us. Mr Saleh, the manager at Cairo for Wings nicely chaperoned us as if we were on a school excursion and guided us through shortcuts to get us out of the airport without much waiting or exhaustion. At Cairo we were checked into Le Meridien Pyramids. The hotel was quite a distance away from the airport and we drove through the city in a very comfortable air-conditioned bus. Cairo holds 30 percent of Egypt’s population and has 9 million people all packed into high rise buildings. The buildings are box like with a near uniform facade of square windows almost always without glass, looking as if they are some natural formations cut out of a huge bare rock. The outer walls are coloured with various shades of the sand celebrating their existential identity in the vast desert, aspiring to mingle into it, never to assert any of their artistic individuality in defiance of their given Universe. On the eastern bank of the Nile, at the site of Heliopolis, the ancient capital of Northern Egypt where the early dynasties ruled stood the gargantuan pyramids, tombs for the dead to rule over the living.
Mr Saleh alerted us to glimpses of the pyramid on the western side of the street, now hidden behind a pile of high rises, modern life trying to obliterate an ancient legacy. Soon the tombs were in fuller sight and when we checked into our rooms in the hotel, standing almost in a handshaking distance were the great pyramids, starkly real what was only a picture in the history textbooks in Class 3, a book called The March of Times.
Mrs Roychoudhury was an Australian Amazon, a broadly built six feet tall blonde white skinned woman married to a Bengali and taught in the junior classes. On the day she taught us about the pyramids she described what it was like to be going inside a pyramid, you have to crawl and the walls are very rough inside she said. The tunnels are long and deep and you have to go into the chamber of the coffin, she said. How big are the pyramids Miss, we would ask and looking out of the classroom, as big as these we would say pointing out to some really tall buildings of the city. Mrs Roychoudhury would shake her head and say, not even bigger, much bigger than even what your imagination can be. And now out of the frame of yet another window I am validating my imagination as the huge threesome of pyramids built by Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure stand before me.
Egypt seemed to hold much of the same flavor as it did in the days of Hercule Poirot, with quaint Englishmen, the French adventurers, the Italian businessmen and a plethora of tourists from almost every conceivable nationality of the world. We ordered a plate of baked breads to suit the mood of the inter War Europe in Egypt and with the sachets of Darjeeling tea we carried, we spent time preparing for the days ahead of us by repacking small handbags with adequate supplies of warm clothes and hand sanitizers and sun blocks.
14th March 2018
Friends from Egypt in Kolkata had warned me that the evenings in Cairo in the spring could be very cold. The three of us, Madhuleena, Madhusree and me are carrying thickish fleeces and woolen caps. With these we brave the cool breeze as we see the sun setting to darken the pyramids and the Sphinx. We are now closer to the pyramids, behind a rampart from which the structures appear close enough to touch. We are a bit disappointed because from what we saw in the film, Mishawr Rohosyo the Pyramids were surrounded by a huge terrain of sand and now we see them only inside a concrete moat! Anyway, we are happy to see the sun setting on the giant tombs of the Fourth dynasty of Egypt some five thousand years ago. The Sirius shines on the head of the Khufu pyramid and it seems between the desert and the sky as if time never passed between us and the ancient Pharaohs for here they were so much alive in their death.
The light and sound show begins and the crowd that was milling into the open-air auditorium is stunned into silence by the amazing holograms showing the funerary processions of the Kings, their sarcophaguses and the processes of mummification. We are still in the process of knowing one another in the group but we are already opening up.
On our way back to the hotel for dinner, we are caught in a marriage procession. The groom is on a horse, the bride on a carriage atop a camel. She is dressed in traditional attire but strangely has no ornaments. The procession dances all the way and our guide, Mr Hassan Ahmed, henceforth only Hassan tells us that we are now passing through the plebeian part of Cairo, a locality of animal rearers and grooms on horseback are low class in Egypt. The best men come in cars. I think that our North Indian men will not like such an observation though the men of the east will love it.
We are wont to repeat our experience in the plane of having cast into the cubbyhole of Hindu vegetarianism. We are vehement to taste only Egyptian food. A small sub group of four had been to the restaurant next door for a small bite in the evening and really praised Egyptian burgers. We are now in a huge hall of over sixty item spread for a buffet dinner. We gorge on pita bread, cheese, fish and fruits and retire to bed after a few pleasantries among ourselves for a visit to the pyramids the following morning.
15th March 2018, Morning
No one is really sure as to why the pyramids were ever built. I read in the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt by Ian Shaw that the ancient Egyptians, the people who lived in an area called the Naqadda in 8000 BCE were known to have buried their dead with covers of mats and reeds and with utensils and food stuff on the assumption that there must be a life after death. Recent studies, published as late as the February 2018 by Daniel Everette from the Bentley University of Global Studies says that the homo erectus were good sailors and had adequate language to undertake elaborate journeys across oceans. I remember that an ocean journey was represented as death in ancient sculptures of Kyrgyzstan; perhaps the familiarity of oceans and its metaphorization as death gave the ancient people in Egypt the concept of an afterlife. Whether it was the homo erectus, or the homo sapiens, the latter being a huge possibility because Africa is the birthplace of the modern human being, the human having migrated out of the continent to inhabit various parts of the world, it is entirely likely that the concept of an afterlife emerged from the fact of migration, whether over land or through the sea. Such a conception of after life as a continuity of the lived life perhaps is the reason behind the attempts at the preservation of dead bodies.
When we first saw the pyramids against the falling rays of the evening sun as we assembled on a porch with white linen covered steel chairs for a sound and light show at the Giza, the mighty monuments had towered over us from behind a rampart. But now as we alight from the bus, we see that they are located in a boundless expanse of the sands of the desert. Huge, humungous, endless pieces of human endeavours, brought forth by investments from Kings but made out of enormous talents of its engineers. The engineers, it seems were the stars and so unreal was their talent, so little repeated have they been elsewhere that many people after Erik Von Daniken almost believed that they were aliens from the outer space. It is also believed that if looked from the air the 118 pyramids across Giza and the Nile appears as though they are stars beside the Milky Way. Some Egyptologists believe that the Pharaohs desired to become the stars as their spirits flew out of the air tunnels constructed cleverly within the pyramids.
Egypt is a gift of the Nile because the Nile floods and leaves behind a rich layer of alluvial soil on which grows the food crops. But the waters may enter the graves and ruin the corpses and so those who could afford must have placed their bodies high up inside covered mounds which were shaped like high solid benches called as mastabas. The first pyramid built by a king of Djoser was a pile of mastabas, one on top of the other, designed by a maverick architect called Imohotep which emerged as what we know today as the Step Pyramid. This was 4700 years ago, or roughly between the 3000 and 2000 BCE, a time when the Indus Valley Civilization in India and Sumerian Civilization in Mesopotamia were at their peak. Slowly, in another 500 years, the step pyramid became the single structure and using Imohotep’s invention of using stone blocks, the modern say pyramid was born. Today, at Giza, three pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure are instances of the final stage of the evolution of the pyramids. And like Imohotep, the Old Kingdom produced some genii engineers who rose to positions of great eminence with their own pyramids and masatabas at the Giza site.
We entered the pyramids, daunted by its darkness, stuffiness, the uneven walls closing upon steep ramps and the height of our climb. Sweating profusely, stepping with great difficulty and much panting and puffing we managed to visit the empty coffin of Khufu in the largest pyramid. It is like walking straight inside a very rough and jagged MRI machine. Then there is quite a crowd inside the pyramid that raises the torture metre higher. But we did it, knee pain, hip pain, pulled muscles, fractured toe, breathlessness and above all age were all cast aside with the grave determination to soak in the experience of having entered the eeriest architecture of mankind. The sheer size of the pyramids is a mystery; why these gigantic dimensions? Since the structure stands up on its own weight, the weights of the constituent stones must find their centre of gravity, empty spaces and stone blocks must be balanced against one another in complex networks of priest ways and service lanes leading up to the place of final resting. I have a guess and which is that the size has emerged in order to balance the chambers and the pathways inside the pyramid.
It seems that the preservation of the dead bodies was a general practice of Egyptians because of the various states of conservation of the Naqadda graves of pre dynasty and even prehistory, but what was unique about the great kings of the pyramids was the funerary processions and the lifelong funerary tributes to the dead. The everlasting duration of the tribute to the dead which assured an endless flow of goods and services to the royals was reinforced with the elaborate belief in an afterlife in which many Gods and Goddesses who represented merely the forces of Nature in the folk tradition now had elaborate myths pertaining to transformation of forms especially in the surreal world of the dead. The most important text in Egypt, needless to say was the Book of the Dead.
Along with royalty emerged the priests, who often doubled up as medicine persons as well as Anubis, the God is seen as the physician in numerous paintings and carvings as administering chemicals for mummification. But, as we were to see in the Cairo Museum that there was a distinct category of the class of scribes, those looking like typical Bengalis with wide eyes and thin lips engaged with heaps of papers (papyrus) and a quill. I learn from various sources on ancient Egypt that the papyrus, the material for writing did not emerge till as late as the Middle Kingdom, at least four hundred years down the line from the Old Kingdom. Stone was usually used for writing and sometimes the tablets and plates of alabaster. Writing in the form of pictures, which we call as the hieroglyphics appears to be a pre-dynasty business which started with the Badarian culture that succeeded the Naqadda age but came into existence before the Kingdom and the State in Egypt. The Badarians painted their pottery with pictures and these were the first instance of published works, pottery also served as the purpose of the novel! Egyptian State relied heavily on writing albeit through the pictures to justify their collection of surplus.
It seems that during times forgotten when the Jews migrated into the Levant, they spread the rumour that the Egyptian pyramids were built using slave labour. Much later the American archaeologists dismissed such falsehood by saying that each stone had to be glazed and smoothened, shaped and set on other stones all of which required extreme focus, keen attention and deep knowledge, and which is not possible for slave labour to do. Recent theories insist that the workers of the pyramid were already the most talented ones and by seeing many graves of such workers in the same campus as that of the Pharaohs, one may infer that being involved in the pyramid work was a way to upward mobility. No wonder then that the cult of the dead only grew in time.
But yes, such large construction projects needed resources and it seems that the Old Kingdom invented the system of the census and the tax and which perhaps explains why there was such a large body of professional scribes. When we travelled over the Nile the following morning, we saw that the river was bordered on each bank by thin strips of green and the lands beyond these were daunting deserts of the Sahara, the world’s driest place. No wonder then people from across the desert would flock near the river and the river valley would have an aggregation of people who would be both producers as well as consumers of material goods. It is not surprising that the earliest civilizations grew up in the desert areas punctuated by a huge river valley for such geographies help concentrate humans together in a limited space and thus makes possible both production and exchange.
Exhausted by our entry into and exit from the pyramids, we treated ourselves with a camel ride in the desert. Uncomfortable initially with the camel’s movements, we soon were comfortable to enjoy the walk through the desert; the locals call the camel ride as sailing or swimming through sands which suits the epithet of the Ship of the Desert for the camel. Two among us took the horse carriage while three sat by at the edge of the pyramids. We took a long circle into the desert and while I was enamored by the sheer size of the structures, they seemed now to vanish into insignificance of the expanse of the sand, so much older and yet so much real than the necropolis. I sensed that despite the huge dimensions of their structures, the pharaohs were aware of their irrelevance in relation to this infinite space of the desert.
15th March 2018, Noon
The Cairo Museum
We went for an exquisite Egyptian lunch at a floating restaurant over the Nile shaped like a boat. The Egyptians are great boat builders; they have sailed across the seas but the priority seemed to be the sail through the Nile. The challenge of the Nile lay in its cataracts, or a built up of rocks that obstruct the passage of boats. The Egyptians had to depend on people on the other side of the cataracts in order to continue their trade through the relay system, without which they might have had to dismantle the boats and reassemble it beyond the obstruction. The cataracts were perhaps the reason why people often aligned with one another and which may also be the reason why it has always been important for Egypt to politically unite the North and the South of the land running alongside the Nile. From the restaurant we watched the fishermen engaged in their catch; the woman sat back at the boat extricating the fish from the net, while the man was focused on casting the net and pulling it back. The man and his wife seem to be a stuff from the motifs of ancient art all over the funerary temples of the Giza, no man seems to go out for work without his wife especially since the Gods were always with their Heavenly spouses.
After the heavy lunch we steeled ourselves to visit the Cairo Museum. Now we drove through the posh locality of the city and the differences in the lay out and infrastructure of the rich down town and the poorer suburbs was stark. The Egyptian government subsidizes the peta bread because the poor run the business of baking this bread. Everyone in the city live in high rises, there do not seem to be slums in the city. The price of real estate is very high in Cairo at least three times as much as it is in Delhi. The poor people build their homes tentatively; they do not plaster the outer walls because that would invite less tax from the municipal corporations and also leave their homes unfinished to make provisions for subsequent addition of floors. Egyptian families love to stay together and married sons often have a flat to themselves with a separate kitchen in the same building as parents and other siblings. While there is no dowry in the Egyptian society, yet parents of the girl are supposed to furnish the bedroom with beds, mattresses, cupboards and so on, much like the Bengali customs.
The first thing I noticed in the Cairo museum was the lush green copse of papyrus, a plant that our guide told us had gone out of cultivation ever since paper was invented in India. Paper was invented in China but one could only write on such paper and not preserve it; paper that served the purpose of papyrus used both for writing as well as preserving was a Central Asian invention, loosely referred to as India. For many in the West, especially the ancient world, much of Persia, Samarqand, and Uzbekistan up to the steppes of the Urals was known as India. Not very unlikely because in my recent visit to this part of the world has shown me how common our mythologies and our beliefs are. Prof Anas Mustafa revived the culture of growing papyrus in 1977 and spread it among villagers who made a good living by selling to tourists. However, not many are cured in the way that they should be and many of the cheaper varieties are stiff and brittle.
The next thing that I noticed at the museum were the statues, overwhelmingly large. Our guide, Mr Hassan, a major in Ancient History, Archaeology and Hieroglyphics told us that the statues which had their feet together and hands folded across their chests were representations of dead people while those with open arms and with the left foot forward represented the live people. There were statues of priests and scribes, very Bengali looking, there were ropes for ramps of the pyramids and a wooden lever as well; there was a boat and various panels from the site of the Giza pyramid. The main collections were however from the Middle Period, of 2500 BCE in which agnate eyes of statues made them look life like.
There was a huge collection of mummies, both humans as well as of animals; preserved very well especially as the dead animals were important mascots of the Egyptians. The dog of Ramses II for who the King has a huge decree to assist hos spirit travel to the other world till he is united with his master beyond life. The birds were well preserved with all their feathers, birds having a cosmic significance in Egypt. Then there were the mummies of all the well know Kings and Queens; many Queens especially Hatchepsut ruled as a male Pharaoh for twenty long years consisting of a Golden Age of Egypt. There were Neferati, Nefertiti and many others. The mummies were skeletons with their dried skin on top. The sarcophagus bore masks resembling the faces of the dead to tell us who these people were when they were alive. It is a good decision that human cultures in general no longer wish to keep back their dead; death is not aesthetic when lifeless bodies are preserved.
We saw the many sarcophaguses of Tutankhamen, his body being kept inside a series of coffins, his resplendent gold, the lock of hair which his grandmother gave him in his journey to the afterlife, the high level of crafts which were attained especially in the fine business of jewelry making and gold engraving seem to be of the highest class even today.
Mummification had an elaborate procedure which required very fine metal instrument to disembowel and take out the organs. Only the heart was left inside the body and we saw the reason for it in a panel of paintings. The Egyptians believed that in the Last Judgment, as the spirit passes through the gates of the other world, s/he has her or his heart weighed and only if the heart is light as a feather can the spirit pass on. Mummies of Ramses’s dog and some of the birds seem to be fresh corpses, stuffed for decoration. There are frogs and crocodiles, cats and pigeons to the galore.
The Old Kingdom appears to be better preserved in terms of their artefacts because here we see combs, thimbles, needles and pincers, we see the boats, ropes with which pyramids were built and the various clamps used for carriages. But where are the heavy instruments for war or for mining the huge granite and the stones? Where are the tools with which the blocks were smoothened and shaped, where are the compasses and the calipers to measure acutely the position of the stars? These, will forever remain to me the mysteries of the museum.
At the exit of the museum is a wonderful shopping arcade and we bought quite some stuff as mementoes. I bought a book about the Cairo Museum and one about the Pyramids and the Sphinx. True we saw only a fraction of what Egypt has to offer but given the limited time and money, I think that we tasted quite a representative sample.
15th March 2018 Evening
The Al Khalili market where we landed for our evening tea held promise of shopping. There were shops on the streets and curios and curiosities in the by lanes. Madhusree and I walked through the alleys picking up souvenirs for friends and family while the restaurants were bracing up for some music and dance. The azan broke out in the mosque on the market and unlike in the Middle East, I saw no one rush towards the building or break into a namaz; life went on as usual, haggling, calling, selling, buying, smoking and sipping tea.
Madhuleena ordered some Turkish coffee, which came in the form of a dark and unpleasant liquid and the tea which someone else from the group ordered it had only milk and ginger. The man serving us imagined that since she ordered for milk and sugar, she must not have wanted the tea leaves. Madhuleena tried mixing the milk and sugar served in lieu of tea only to invite the utter contempt of the man serving her. You India, he said peeved, you only want milk and tea, implying that we have no taste for refined Egyptians beverages. Some other people in our group smoked the sheesham, a hookah with flavoured non-tobacco smokes.
Egypt is a country where tourism constitutes 30% of the economy. The tour guides are some of the most educated people in the country and constitute an important part of the intellectuals. No wonder then Srijit Mukherjee showed them involved with the successive revolutions in Egypt. But the ordinary people, namely the shopkeepers and the restaurateurs put on a face of politeness and feign a demeanour of courtesy but the underlying contempt and disdain for tourists are pretty apparent.
Totally tired despite the day being cloudy we headed back to the hotel for dinner and then crashed into bed only to rise very early in the morning and drive down to the airport while it was still dark.
16th March 2018, Morning
We boarded the plane for Aswan in an early morning flight from Cairo carrying our breakfast boxes in the wee hours of the morning most of us still groggy from the hectic site seeing on the previous day. When we landed in Aswan it was still a very pleasant early morning and the levels of pollution being less and the air being clear, the sun seemed to be sharper. We boarded the small sixteen-seater bus and sped through the deserts of the Sahara towards the southern borders of Egypt where Sudan was and towards the western horizon lay Libya.
Hassan, our guide told us that Aswan, the place we were headed to would be warmer than Cairo and of course sunnier. So it was. Aswan was sunny and bright as we were coming out of the airport headed for a long drive through the desert. This is southern Egypt, or Upper Egypt because the Nile flows from the south to the North. Rising in the snows of the mountains in Tanzania, this mighty river flows through the desert into the Mediterranean. In the Book of the Dead, one of the biggest sins one can commit in life so as not to be able to pass through the heart weighing test of the afterlife is to pollute the river! Have you washed your feet in the Nile? If yes, then you fail to pass the feather test of Maat, the Goddess of Truth. The desert is flooded by the Nile and in some spots where some water gets trapped lie the Oases turn into small villages, enough for just living. Anything extra that you may need you travel, migrate, immigrate in order to be able to trade. The Empire is important for they regulate trade by regulating the territory and by regulating the rules. For societies such as the ones found in this desert cannot grow into large clans and tribes, and hence remain isolated from one another.
I try to think about Claude Levi Strauss when he says that the constitutive and the most significantly differentiating factor of the human society is incest, because here some women are given up to other men in marriage; marriage forms social bonds for biological reproduction does not need a social institution. Marriage is a social institution which is used primarily to increase social alliances. But alliances are difficult in the desert; trade may be easier than marriage. The State which controls trade seems to have been an easier evolution than the Church which controls the social customs. Here in this desert, reproduction have often been through the breaking of the incest taboos, oftentimes the case with isolated tribes. Indeed, the royal family sanctions sexual relations among sisters and brothers, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons; because of the difficulty of marriage in the desert.
The Northern desert is dull and dusty, brown and sallow but the southern desert is dark and hostile. Here rises dunes and mountains seeming like intricately carved manmade structures and sculptures. There is dust of black granite and there is spillage from some meteor shower before Time began on earth. One of the world’s oldest physical features, the southern Sahara is silent and distant, dead and yet much like the mummies of the pyramid appear to be alive because of being so dead. Then there are mirages, where rocks seem like boats afloat in the sea!! The mirage is an optical illusion formed when the air close to the ground gets so heated that it refracts light to produce the effect of a shimmer which we then imagine as water. It is in this desert that the politics of Egypt have shaped up, the river has changed its course, its flood levels varied to produce diverse and often uncertain outcomes. Tribes have risen and fallen just like the tides of the Nile and accordingly sometimes surrendered and at other times revolted against the King. Egypt’s history is one of endless negotiations with the various tribes both as war and as trade.
The public toilets everywhere in Egypt are clean and have water and hand wash. One really never misses a clean facility in the country. But Hassan had forewarned us that the desert may not have any facility to relieve oneself; nonetheless there was a toilet and fearing that we may get nothing either and this being the desert there is no way in which one can openly urinate or defecate, we decided to use whatever came our way. This was a waterless and yet a paid toilet and the ladies in our group were very angry because of the stench and the filth the toilet emitted. I noticed later that there was a steel bucket and a water tap some distance away from the toilet and we were supposed to carry the bucket full of water from some distance despite paying money. Egyptians can be rather dishonest though they are trying their level best to be professional, after all, tourism is the largest occupation and industry in the country and everyone wants to be a part of this industry. Yet, try as they may they cannot hide their contempt for the “lesser” people among who definitely the Indians count. I think that had it been the foreigners, the man would have brought forth the bucket of water but for us, also as women, he refused to oblige.
We reached an oasis in the form of a Nubian village after a three-and-a-half-hour drive through what was almost an empty straight road through the desert. The Nubian village had a traditional bungalow with a small library, a vintage gramophone player and appeared never to have emerged beyond the 1920’s except for its rather modern and clean toilet. At this resort we were to have a traditional and a typical Nubian meal which consisted of fried brinjals and a masoor daal soup which was nothing but the Bengali begun bhaja and mushurir dal. With slices of lemon and gigantic green chillies, we ate with appetite. Nubian food almost has no spices and most of it is boiled, except the baked telapiya with herbs which tasted like the Mediterranean cuisine of Northern lower country. The hosts were pleasant men of all heights, weights and ages and they served us, looked after us as we ate under the vaulted canopy of mud bricks coated with plasters made of cow dung. The walls of the huts are thick and despite standing in the heat of the sand the indoors are cool.
At this village, we saw the Nile, once more, now in its upper reaches, bluer than ever. It is hard to believe how blue the Nile is and how unreal it looks as it flows through sand and the rocks dotted occasionally with marshes on which grow wild, the almost mythical plant of Egypt, the papyrus.
We clicked pictures of the men with their costumes and marvelled at their wonderful library, though most of the titles were in French. The influence of the French in Egypt is distinct and vital. They do speak English and indeed fluently but when they have to read books and serious stuff, I think that French it will be. I balked at the total invisibility of the women. Really, where were they? it seemed rather odd that here was a household without women?
Anyway, thoroughly pleased with the lunch, we climbed back to the bus for a visit to the Abu Simbel.
16th March 2018, Morning
We are headed towards a temple called the Abu Simbel located on the banks of the Lake Nasser, yet another cataract of the Nile. When the Aswan dam was constructed the temples at Abu Simbel was immersed in water. The Unesco funded its retrieval from underneath the Ramesid water into the banks where even the original mountain was shifted as well. The restoration of this temple and that of Philae, both on the West Bank of the Nile in southern Egypt are unrivalled feats in engineering matched perhaps only by the pyramid builders themselves. Abu Simbel is built by Ramses II, the greatest of Ramesid dynasty, one who rose from a family of military generals into the Pharaohdom by marrying into the royal family of Thutmoses. It was he who defeated the Hittites, invaders and occupants of Egypt during the chaotic times after Tutankhamen’s death. In the battle of Kadesh, a field close to Libya, Ramses II slaughtered the Hittites and freed as well as United the upper and the lower Nile Delta once again. The temple of Abu Simbel was most probably in celebration of the victory and has a rather modern nationalistic flavour. The huge 22-meter-high and 4-metre-wide on ear to ear repeated many times is a testimony to the fact that he wished to become the superman who could restore glory to ancient Egypt. Ramses bases himself on two distinct features and which will lead to the construction of similar temples during the Ptolemic period much later. These are the uses of motifs from the upper and lower Egypt like the Lotus of the North and the Papyrus of the South and the worship of Osiris, the God who died young and whose body was found strewn all over Egypt. I find some resemblance between the Osiris myth and the myth of King Bali of the Onam game and the casting of the 52 body parts of Sati in India. Osiris’s penis was never found and his wife had to restore one for him, out of which she conceived her son Horus. With Ramses II every King is supposed to rule as Horus to continue the line of Osiris.
Though I saw nothing that suggested war in the Cairo museum yet the temple of Abu Simble appeared as the war memorial. There are images of defeated and crushed enemies, namely the Hittites, a suggestion of having cleared the river of the Hittite pirates whereby the cargo was free to move through the Nile. I say this because there is a carving of a boat with heaps of Papyrus and the figure of a cow wearing the crown of Hathor, the Goddess of fertility and trade, or may be the Cow Goddess. There may be many meanings to this symbol and as Hassan, our erudite guide was explaining some of the images of the friezes on the walls, I had a distinct realization that the pictures in Egypt are actually forms of writings and that sentences get written through the pictures especially when they occur on top of one another or side by side. Hassan had earlier said in the museum that the hieroglyphics could be written in any manner, left to right, right to left, top to bottom and bottom to top, and in Order to make sense one had to carefully observe the direction on the movement of the pictures. Clearly then we have Ramses being crowned by Anubis who rather strangely also places the Aankh or the key of life into his mouth, much like a funerary practice of opening of the mouth after death. Death for the Egyptians do not appear to be an end of life, but a new beginning, a kind of promotion into the next category of being and hence both the coronation and the funeral look alike. I thought I had bought an alabaster plate of Ramses’s funeral from a flea market near the Sphinx but it turned out to be a scene from his coronation.
I also understood at the temple that it has always been a challenge for the Egyptian emperors to be able to unite the North and the South of the Nile as well as the east and the western banks. I also understood that the Gods were often metaphors and syntaxes because the men could wear the hats of the Gods or present them as deities by inserting their faces into them. The sacred appears to be a metaphor of the profane and do not inhabit distinct spaces. No wonder then that the temples are places for offering to the King for He and the God are one and the same only.
The walls of the temple had exquisite paintings carved by sharp knives and colours inserted. Unfortunately, none of that remains due to the vagaries of the weather and the floods of the Nile. The paintings depicted the prescriptions for offerings, the preferred trade of goods and ofcourse the subjugation of enemies. The violence is mainly manifested in the pulling of the hair of the victims and crushing them below the feet. There are some dead adversaries and some beheaded ones as well but the overall moderation of violence is laudable.
Hassan tells us that Ramses was one hell of an egoist who replicated himself shamelessly but I noticed a play of the number 8. There are eight figures of Ramses, four on either wall of the pylon, there are also eight figures on either side of the corridor also looking like Ramses except that their eyes were drawn up to look like those of Gods and they were corpses because the feet were together and hands across their chests even while they held some staffs which looked like the insignia of power. They were statues of Osiris, the God who died and is buried deep inside the earth. The number eight in ancient Babylon and Sumeria, in China and also in medieval India represented the Universe most holistically; it signifying all the directions of the earth. Does the configuration then mean that Ramses is exhausting the world? Does it mean that he is adopting the culture of distant lands into those of Egypt’s? Are the Osiris figures those of the dead no arches, or regional monarchs who helped Ramses in the eviction of the Hittites?
Beside the temple of Ramses lie the temple of his principal wife Nefertati. He has many wives but she is the one who is most favourite. From the portrayal of the Queen, often with eyes lined with kohl stretching all the way to her temples and her stand in attention pose with feet together and hands across her chest, one gets the impression that here is not a co regent but a dead queen. Nefertiti, I have now looked up the Oxford history of Egypt to find that she died at the age of 25 while Ramses II lived beyond seventy years of age. In her tomb the queen brings together a huge number of Gods like Ra, Amun, AmunNi, Isis and Osiris and even Ptah to who she pays homage in the underworld only to get in return their essences so that she emerges as the greatest of the great, most probably Hathor, her favourite Deity. The combination of Gods is important for they integrate different communities and different ages of Egyptian History.
17th March 2018,
The Aswan Dam and the Perfume Factory
On the morning of the 17th March 2018, we took off from the boat after eating piles of cheese, sausages, cold cuts, eggs, breads, pastry, fruits, yogurt and tea towards the point from where we gingerly ambled into a felucca to sail to the temple of Philae built by Nectanabo II, the last of all the Egyptian Pharaohs because after him came the Greeks to rule over Egypt as Egyptian Pharaohs, in a long running dynasty bearing the name of Ptolemies. While Nectanebo built all the Ptolemic temples around Aswan and Luxor, namely Philae, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Essna, each of these were completed by the Greek rulers. Since the days of the female Pharaoh, Hatchepsut who led an expedition into the Nubian lands, the one like the village in which we had our meals last afternoon, the Nubians were involved in a series of trading rights; one of these were that no one but the Nubians could set sail across the Nile to carry priests and Kings, engineers and artists from the east to the west bank. Guaranteeing such rights Hatchepsut could ensure loyalty and willing surrender from a people against who she personally waged wars.
Every travel spot of Egypt offers attractive shopping prospects and fearing that we may lose precious time in haggling and bargaining over souvenirs, Hassan nicely got the sellers of curios on to our felucca. Here too many among us bought beads and other beautiful stuff. On our way to and from the temple we spotted on a hill atop the Kitchener’s island, the tomb of Aga Khan of India who died in Egypt where he stayed on for quite sometime to undergo the traditional therapy for rheumatism.
After the visit to Philae, we stopped by at the Aswan dam, created first in 1902 as a low dam and then rebuilt as a high dam in the 1960’s supposedly to control the floods of the Nile river. Many temples including the one of Philae and Abu Simbel were submerged in its waters only to be restored by the efforts of the UNESCO. The flood of the Nile has been the life force of Egypt, the very reason for its civilization and yet modernity requires that river to be now bound. The Nile no longer floods, it irrigates and no wonder the buoyancy in its life brought about by the floods is now lost under regimes of regulated flow of what we can rightly call as its blood.
We stop next at a perfume factory. I was very reluctant to go into a shopping place again and I know that the Government run or Government approved shops are very expensive. I had a taste of this on our way from Abu Simbel where the textile outlet was ridiculously priced high. But the perfume factory, though very expensive was something never experienced before. Here literally one drop of perfume could aromatize an entire glass of 200 ml of water! Perfumery is essential to Egypt, it was invented here to embalm the dead but slowly as the dead got buried better and especially underground, perfumes were free to essentialize the bodies of mortals. No wonder then there is hectic shopping here.
We return to the cruise, have our lunch and soon the boat leaves the shores to float on the Nile, passing by marshes and desert in equal frequency. Sometimes we pass through villages, at other times through factories belching smoke. There are boats that pass us by carrying papyrus, for it is still used to thatch Nubian homes along with liquid dung and mud. There are cows in cow sheds and some goat here and there but unlike in India, I see no bare bottoms or naked bodies, no washing of clothes or utensils in the river, no fetching of water and in fact strangely, not even fishing. Egypt’s population is only 27 million and a third of who are concentrated in the city of Cairo and another third in the cities of Luxor and Aswan; the villages seem to be fairly sparsely populated.
After a session of tea and cookies on the upper most deck known as the sun deck, we alight at Kom Ombo, temples dedicated to the crocodile God, Sobek and the falcon God, Horus.
In the evening our tour manager, Ashray got us drinks and played some music and in the cool breeze of the Nile, we chatted about fitness exercises and yoga. The next morning, we would have to rise early and travel in horse drawn carriages to Edfu to see yet another Ptolemaic temple of Egypt.
17th and 18th March 2018, Morning
The Ptolemaic Temples
Ptolemy is the name of the famous Greek mathematician, geographer and historian and who ruled over Egypt for a considerable period of time. But Ptolemy was not really a single person but a title that Greek rulers of Egypt adopted through generations. The Ptolemaic period ends typically with Cleopatra, once again, this being a generic name for queens over generations. Our Cleopatra was the final one after which the Greek dynasty was replaced by the Romans who ruled the country until the end of the Roman Empire. The Greeks were invaders into Egypt overthrowing the local rulers who inherited and fractured an Empire of the Ramesids, among who the Ramseses were great rulers. The Greek conquest of Egypt was really not a surprise for more than one reason. Firstly, the quest for knowledge in the Graecian civilization had led them frequently to Egypt especially the knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and structural engineering and of course surgery and medicines. Egypt, especially after the Middle Kingdom had forayed in the Aegen Sea and Asia Minor both to trade as well as to subjugate by war. It is not unlikely that some kind of interest of the Greeks would develop around Egypt. The second reason could be that Alexander The Great whose dream of conquering the world was actually the conquer the Persian occupied territory, his father being killed by the Persian King, Darius, automatically invaded Egypt because it was a Persian territory. Alexander also conquered much of Central Asia into which he left Seleucus, once again a generic name for a general to rule after he left. These kingdoms were known as Selucids and formed quite a cultural and a political unity. Egypt was not a Selucid; it was Ptolemaic, conquered and ruled by a dynasty whose aim was to acquire knowledge from a people who unfortunately were their vassals. The three temples, namely of Philae, Kom Ombo and Edfu were built by the Ptolemies.
The temples were built much like the Greek Temples with pillars and a courtyard but the outside wall was high and dense much like that of a pyramid. The walls had a pylon, meaning a doorway or a gate through which one could enter the inner courtyards. There were a series of courtyards to be accessed through yet another series of pylons, each one representing the privilege of access. The commoners could only access upto the first courtyard while the third or sometimes the fourth would be the entrance into the Holy sanctorum. The plan of the courtyards perhaps reflected the deep inequality between the rulers and the ruled. Greece was a democracy but among the equals and not between the plebians and the elites, unlike in modern day democracies. Also, because the Greeks were democratic and did not have a ruler as in a Roman Emperor of the later days, their mythologies tended to look like stories about Gods and Goddesses rather than portray the Divine as a metaphor of the temporal King. Hence, these temples appear to have drawn more from the popular tales and therefore, instead of the cults of Amun or Ra, we have stories of Isis and Osiris. The cult of the Osiris started in the Middle Kingdom around a folk God of the Dead. Actually, his is more the story of an avenging son, Horus who is supposed to be the cult King. The Middle Kingdom was the first one that made an attempt to integrate the commoner to the royalty.
There is yet another interesting feature of these temples; everywhere the original Egyptian Kings who laid the foundation of these temples are acknowledged and even privileged. In fact, in many of these, cartouches which should bear the names of the several Ptolemies are unmarked. This, seemed to be to be a kind of hesitation on part of the Greeks to call themselves as rulers and also a desire to mingle indeterminably into Egypt as its own people. The other feature of interest is the use of the columns which principally serve the purpose of holding up the ceilings. The ceilings are painted with the myths of the Sky God and the Sun God and bear may astronomical motifs. The pillars are engraved with texts of celebrations of major festivals, spells for offerings and recipes for festive cooking and offerings. Astronomy and medicine emerge as main subjects for the engravings. In fact, at Edfu there are detailed description the visitation of Hathor to Dendera temple as a fertility rite. Edfu is the only place, perhaps in the world, where we have the name of Alexander written in. It is strange that this conqueror of the world does not have a single signature anywhere except at Edfu.
The Greeks were invaders into Egypt and yet they wished to settle down permanently in the land and be integrated into its culture especially into the kingship. On the outside of the temple walls they would show elaborate offering by the various Ptolemies to the pantheon of Gods, Horus, Amun, Hathor and Ra. They portrayed themselves as being ingratiated by Anubis himself, or being blessed by Horus. They whip up the myth of Isis and Osiris by projecting Horus as the revenge seeking son and merge Hathor, the cow Goddess and Isis together. Osiris remains rather hidden except the choice of location for the temples, namely Philae, Edfu and Kom Ombo are sites which are rife with mythological episodes from the lives of Isis and Osiris.
Osiris gets killed by his brother Seth and his coffin is cast into the sea; his wife, Isis assumes the form of a falcon and retrieves the body and buries him. But Seth soon discovers the body and cuts it into many pieces and once again, Isis collects the various parts of the body and Anubis sews up the body and mummifies it. Philae is the place where Osiris is said to have lost his penis as the cat fish ate it up. The cat fish is a taboo in Egypt. It is also said that no bird flies over the island and no fish swims its shores.
Osiris was drowned in the water and thereafter he becomes the God of the Dead, inhabiting the sunless world of the oceans or the subterranean spaces of the earth. This is why it is believed that he rises with the flood of the Nile and brings forth the crops. Sobek, the crocodile God, who rules over the Nile is particularly close to Osiris and helps Horus to meet his father in the Netherland. The temple where Horus makes friends with Sobek is the temple of Kom Ombo. The temple, like the temple of Philae was started during the New Kingdom, of which queens like Nefertari, Nefretiti, Hatchepshut and Tutankhamen were parts of. This kingdom extended its borders deeper into the south and Sobek, the Deity of the Faiyyum people of the south became a major Deity of the Kingdom. The city was called as Nubt, or the city of gold and later called as Kom Ombo, Ombi meaning agriculture in Greek. The temple of Kom Ombo is divided clearly into two mirror images, one for Sobek and the other for Horus, signifying their new-found friendship. The temple has crocodile mummies and most interestingly the Egyptian calendar with calculations for the Leap year. At Edfu, Horus finally kills Seti, who appears in the form of a Hippopotamus. The temple celebrates the Lioness Goddess, Sekhmet as well, also worshipped by the boat people of Faiyyum. At Edfu, we see much more of Isis opening her wings protectively around her loved ones though the temple is dedicated to Horus, the son, whose magnificent statues wearing both crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt decorate the entrance of the temples. At Kom Ombo we see the step well which is shaped like the key of life or the ankh.
Whether the temples are of Philae, or Kom Ombo or even Dendera or Essna, they are built by the side of the Nile and would be inundated in the flood. All these temples have the flood metres called as the Nilometre to measure the extent of the flood of the Nile. Our guide said that the measurement of the flood was linked to the assessment of tax on the farmers and hence very important. But I wondered why the temples were built in the catchment of the floods; surely the Nile floods have been taking place since the beginning of Time. I fancied that because these were Osirian temples, finally dedicated to Osiris, celebrating the places of his myth, and because he lives under the water, the temples too were arranged to be immersed under water at least for some time in each year.
18th March 2018, Noon
The Essna Lock
There was great excitement after we returned in the same horse carriage in which we had driven down to Edfu from our boat now anchored in the city. This is because the Essna lock was approaching and passing of ships through the locks is something to experience.
Hassan told us that Edfu is an industrial city run by the Nubians and the Nubians are supposed to be the main minority community in Egypt. It is interesting to note that the Nubians of the south mainly live in Sudan and they had also for some time ruled Egypt. It is entirely possible that the boat people portrayed in Edfu are the Nubian kings and many say that the post Amarna people which consisted of Tutankhamen and Nefriti were Nubians too. Anyway, the loyalty of the Nubians is towards Sudan as we saw Sudan Café, Sudan stores lined up along the narrow lanes of a rather derelict town, once of worth but now looks like a mofussil. When we had driven up the lanes of Edfu in the morning we saw some small piles of urban waste lying about near the eateries but as we return by mid-morning, we see a spotlessly clean city. This is not a rich city and rather it is a city that has lost its sheen post decolonization and yet it is much cleaner than what any lane of south Delhi or west Delhi would be!! It is poor, but it is clean.
I am surprised how we reined in our shopalcoholism at Edfu because some of the fine designs in the form of shirts we saw at the Aswan textile factory were available at fraction of the prices at the horse carriage station. But may be the stench of the horses and the unfamiliarity of the horse stables put us off the items. Despite no shopping we seemed to spend a lot more time at the Edfu temple impressed by its epic stories told very dramatically by Hassan that we were at the nick of time to ramble back into the boat and grabbed a hearty breakfast just as the crew were winding up service.
At noon we were supposed to cross the Essna lock. Essna is yet another city of Upper Egypt, south of Luxor but north of Aswan. The Nile has two kinds of obstacles, one is the cataract which is an ensemble of rocks that obstruct the smooth passage through the river and the other is a cascade where the river falls from a higher plane into the lower. Both cause problems in navigation. Essna is a cascade where the river falls into a lower height. The Essna lock is a pair of giant lock gates one of which stands on the higher plane while the other is at a lower plane. Water is collected between the gates as if in a bath tub. The vessel passes from the higher level of the bed into this tub. After the vessel is fully ensconced within the tub, water is slowly drained out by opening out the lower gate and the ship slowly falls into the lower plane of the flow. This is an amazing experience though horribly marred by hawkers who ride on small row boats, screaming and bargaining at the top of their voices selling cheap towels and bed covers and table cloths. Their cries are deafening as they lolly their goods wrapped in polythene packets up at the high deck where passengers are standing to watch the lock gates. They have no concern for their safety for they, like a colony of bees constantly hum around the boat calling out to the passengers; even as gates open and close they are least concerned that they may get locked between the gates or may be sucked into the hull of the cruise vessel.
19th March 2018, Morning
The Valley of Kings
In the hot air balloon in the unmerciful hours of the morning we floated above the Valley of Kings, a dry place, perhaps the world’s driest in which lay the Ramesid monarchs and the post Amarna Pharaohs, especially Tutankhamen. We also saw the sun rise. I was so looking forward to the experience of the hot air balloon but it emerged as a damper. We are so used to high rises these days that heights no longer appeal to us. Besides, the company had stuffed many of us into the small basket; the sound of the gas and the heat of the charge was very uncomfortable. Besides, the balloons don’t land easily on ground, they bump off into the air as soon as they touch the ground. With much verbal expletives our pilot who also looked a bit like Captain Haddock of Tintin comics, somehow got us off close to a garbage heap. We had to be lifted by burly men from the basket on to the ground with muscle pulls and ligament snitches.
We returned to the boat and after a quick bath and a hearty breakfast we checked out of the cruise to arrive at the Valley of Kings to now from the ground the tombs of the Ramesid dynasty. These are burial tombs, a necropolis, located to the West bank of the Nile across Luxor, situated in the eastern side. The east is the direction of life, the west being that of death in the Egyptian vaastu. So it is also for the fengshui. The tombs are designed much like those of the pyramids, except that they are dug inside the rocks and not heaped into the high rising pyramids. The rocks are rugged and it seems as if a Ramses is staring out of it, the head of the sphinx jutting out of the relief. Somewhere one spots a mastabah, at other times, it seems as if a rough-cut pyramid stands silently to the endless time that goes by it. The carvings are part of the landscapes, human endeavours imitate the natural physical relief of the earth in this part.
It is not easy to appreciate Egypt without some level of familiarity with the Book of the Dead because the tombs are decorated with the episodes from the Book of the Dead. Due to their buriedness into the rocks, these temples have been able to preserve their paintings almost in their original states and one gets the idea how glamorous the Egyptian tomb and temple paintings were in the times when they were still fresh. The Ramses Kings were elaborate in their portrayals of the various spells in the Book of The Dead to aid their easy passage into the other world. There were insets in the walls of the caves with paintings of food, images of musicians and seers and storytellers who would tell the tales of how the king will have to negotiate with the various obstacles in the afterlife. As if in a manner of reassuring, the Sun God is also seen to die each night only to be reborn out of the Sky God every morning.
It seems that the idea of the cyclical time was discovered with the Ramsesids while the conception of Time in ancient Egypt was largely linear. The cyclical nature of time must have been a definite step towards the establishment of a calendar because in Abu Simbel, Ramses has his statue among Ra Harakhti, Amun and Ptah upon who shines the sun during 22nd February and 22nd October, the dates of his ascension to the throne and his birthday. The idea of the journey of the Sun goes on through almost all the tombs of the Rameses in the Valley of Kings. Indeed, in the later Graeco Roman temples, the Egyptian solar calendar is displayed everywhere. Unlike the Mayas and the Incas, where the eclipse seemed to be a major reason for pursuing the worship of the Sun, for the Egyptians, it was the flooding of the Nile which in turn seems to be associated with the Sun rather than with the Moon.
The Valley of Kings also houses the tombs of Ahmenhotep, some Tuthmoses and Hatchepsut, indicating that the Valley was first established by the New Kingdom. The tomb of Tutankhamen is also in the Valley and one has to pay separately for the visit. It is a tiny one, but a sad one; for here dies a boy whose step-mother or grandmother is Nefrititi who loads the boy with gold, paints upon his sarcophagus, which we saw in the Cairo museum, with scenes of royal hunts, a feat which he may have performed only had he lived on. Tutankhamen died a mere boy at the age of 14 and the paintings in his tomb are of fourteen baboons, the avatar of wisdom, wit and intelligence. There are scenes of Tut being taken over in good custody by the Gods in the afterlife but not before grandma hands him her lock of hair to give courage in his onward journey into death. The mummy was small and thin with rather large feet which shows that the boy was active and did a lot of running about.
The sun shone with a blinding white light and though we paid extra for our camera, I could see nothing. I have randomly clicked.
19th March 2018, Noon
I Am A Fan of Hot Chicken Soup
Hassan called her as the Hot Chicken Soup or better still, Hat Cheap Suit, for these were the easier ways to pronounce the name of Hatchepsut, the legendary female Pharaoh of Egypt. She expanded the Empire substantially, perhaps the most into Libya and Nubia and towards Algeria in the West and much of Ethiopia. She brought trees from the places she visited and planted them to grow at her temple next to the Valley of Kings. This is a mortuary temple, temple which is built to commemorate her after her death. A large Sphinx bearing her face sits at the entrance and the temple is cut deep into rocks. At the entrance, or the pylon are her images, three statues are visible, the fourth seems to have been vandalized beyond retrieval. Inside her temple are scenes of her grand offerings to Amun, who she claimed in the temple of Luxor to be her father. Then she has Pharaohs making offerrings to her, now that in afterlife she is a mixture of both Horus and Anubis. The inner sanctorum pillars soften suddenly as the face of Hathor the Goddess of post mortem fertility appears almost in each of the columns. But further inside in the last walls of the temple we finally see her, no longer as the ruler but in her true elements, a little girl caressing a cow, just like our own Shakuntala in the groves of the ashrama of Kanvamuni.
Luxor and more than that, Karnak which we would visit later has many of her faces erased and vandalized, her cartouches over written on, her obelisks felled off their bases. Despite her prowess, Hatchepsut was the woman everywhere and anywhere in the world whose achievements men cannot tolerate. When you cannot put her down, you physically attack her to obliterate her, dismember her and of course vandalize her, metaphorically rape and murder.
With such thoughts I followed the group into the bus, thoroughly scalded in the sun to check into Steinberg Hotel, perhaps the poshest in the country. Vijay Mallya was loitering around in the lobby but I was too tired to take the trouble of clicking him. The lunch was a lavish spread, the best that I have ever had in a five-star hotel and totally heat singed, we crashed into our beds for a deep afternoon siesta.
Before we had come into the hotel, we stopped by the Colossis of Memnon, two very badly damaged statues standing in the middle of nowhere, and now engulfed by the growing city. It is said that these were put up by Amenhotep III of the 18th century and at sunrise and sunset, the statues would wail, lamenting the loss of Egyptian soldiers in the Trojan war. Clearly the Greeks were on the negative lists of the ancient Egyptians.
Before we had come into the hotel, we stopped by the Colossi of Memnon, two very badly damaged statues standing in the middle of nowhere, and now engulfed by the growing city. It is said that these were put up by Amenhotep III of the 18th century and at sunrise and sunset, the statues would wail, lamenting the loss of Egyptian soldiers in the Trojan war. Clearly the Greeks were on the negative lists of the ancient Egyptians.
19th March 2018, Evening
The Dance and Dinner
The travel company, Byond Travel had asked us to pack a party dress for a gala night of dance and dinner on the trip. We had among our many sets of clothes a special dress packed for the evening. Ashray and Hassan and the ten of us set sail aboard a felucca once again belonging to a Nubian man with his adolescent helper on the Nile to reach a resort designed like a desert camp on a small island. The wind was not enough for the sails to open and bloat so a motor boat tugged our felucca. The sailors sang for us and Ashray played some Hindi film music on his mobile. He had saved some booze from the evening before and now with some country made crude glasses washed in the river water, we mixed our drinks. Ice was carried in a plastic bag. The Uzo was too sharp for us even with tonic water but the vodka and orange juice and the breezers and the wine were simply Heavenly as we watched the Nile turn into a darker blue with the setting sun turning from a bright crimson into a deep maroon with orange borders. The islands of marshes were now dark and we could spot a light glimmer here and there.
Though getting in and out of feluccas challenged our various levels of physical fitness and with the help of sometimes the Nubian boatsmen and sometimes with Ashray and Hassan we somehow managed. But once afloat the sail was just wonderful.
The desert camp laid out for us the dips of Babaganoush, Muhammara and Tahini and various other yogurt-based dips with fresh sticks of cucumber, tomatoes and olives. There were aerated drinks on the house and ofcourse some soup. With these came the dancers of the deserts, uncannily similar to our very own desert dancers both in movement and rhythms and in costumes. The desert, perhaps produces its own music, it has its intrinsic beats otherwise how can the desert people be so similar to one another in their music?
The dancers pulled us up to dance with them and we enjoyed shaking our legs. The belly dancer was amazing and this was the first time I saw a belly dance so close in range. She moved a lot of her body through almost imperceptible movements. The kathak dance teacher among us bowled the professional dancers of the troupe with her steps.
Then there was the dervish dance where the dancers spin so fast that their skirts gather momentum of their own and spin like tops above their heads.
The food was completely Nubian and tasted rather Bengali except that there was no spice seasoning. The sweets were of course the star of the layout and now we returned in the bus, feluccas don’t sail at night.
20th March 2018, Morning
Karnak is perhaps the world’s largest temple complex built over a period of at least 2000 years and with an area of over 2 square kilometres. In many ways it is a twin of the Luxor temple, being also devoted to Amun Ra and hectically expanded by the two most famous temple builders of Egypt, namely Hatchepsut and Ramses II. There is a “ram’s avenue” lined on either side with sphinxes with Ram’s head, signifying the God, Amun. This is the path that leads to the huge gateway, or pylong built by Ramses II who sits on either side of the entrance in the form of gigantic statues. There are lines of dead Pharaohs who stand with tiny statues of Nefriti with them. This is also the place where Akhanaten appears, perhaps for the first time in any enshrinement.
During the New Kingdom, after Tuthmose IV there emerges a man or a woman or a third gender in Egypt who called himself (for the lack of specific information on gender) Akhanaten. He claimed to be blessed by Aten, or the sun disc. He propounded monotheism in Egypt and closed down all the temples which did not worship Aten. Every God was given an affix of Aten like Ptah was called as Ptahaten, Ra was called as Rahten and so on. The Karnak temple was a temple of priests instead of it being a temple of Kings and here, Akhanetan must have showered his blessings in order to create his own cult. The Queen Nefriti took over after Akhanetan’s death, a mysterious death actually to come to think of it; murder cannot be ruled out entirely. Nefriti raised Tutankhamen, who was initially called as Tutanaten but after Akhanaten, Nefriti changed over once more to the cult of the Amun and rechristened Tutanaten as Tutankhamen. Nefriti was either the step mother or grandmother of the boy king who came to the throne at the age of 8 and died young at the age of 14. But she loved her step son or grandson and the intense agony she suffered at his death can be felt as she places a lock of her hair into his coffin for his life beyond death. She straddles him with gold, so much gold that the boy is easily the richest to be ever born on this earth. She stands in her Pharaohdom at the foot of mummified kings, an honour that so eluded Hatchepsut now easily gets bestowed upon her.
There is an alley of dead kings, perhaps in a manner to seek legitimacy by invoking the dead kings, a crucial practice in ancient Egypt where a living king would necessarily have to take the mantle from his ancestors.
It is quite evident that it was Akhanaten who perhaps first created a religion with a single God and a mass following without the intervention of the priests or the temple or even rituals. He must have been the world’s first Prophet but with Akhanetan, much like the Aswan Dam, Egypt must have got a jolt with its Gods and Goddesses erased out suddenly. Nefriti, very cleverly restores Egypt to the world of Amun and Mut. Karnak celebrates the trinity, Amun, Mut and their son Khonsu who during the month of the flooding of the Nile. They go out like Jagannath, Subhadra and Balaram with gaiety and fanfare to Luxor temple through the avenue of the rams to be rejuvenated and be born again in the typical style of Nabakalebar of Jagannath.
Interestingly only papyrus, the symbol of southern Egypt seems to dominate Karnak and not the tying together of the Lotus, the symbol of North with the papyrus as we see in Luxor. There are stone sculptures of piles of papyrus collected in a courtyard which would probably have been placed atop pillars. The scale of Karnak towers over that of Luxor, pillars so high, ceilings so high, carvings at such height, the obelisks so tall are sense defying. The practice of working with such huge proportions was the top down practice in which rocks would be cut roughly and sand filled into these. Then the artists would start carving from the top and descend below by increasingly moving away the sand. The obelisk, once again was set up by Hatchepsut. Karnak also has a lake, interesting because it is the only temple with a dedicated pond attached to it.
This was more or less the end of our trip. We returned to the bus and landed as usual at a flea market. The sun was too hot for many of us to bear and some of us sat at a Mac Donald’s before heading towards an Indian restaurant for lunch, our only Indian meal on the trip. How strange, we did not seem to have missed India at all!!