Friday 1 May 2020

1990 Egypt II: Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel

22.2.90 Luxor

Classic early morning sunrise – or what I take to be one.  Durrell's nacreous sky, with palm trees silhouetted against it.  Cloudy, textured sky, the Nile not visible.  Apparently the train is to arrive on time at about 7am – for the first time (ever?).  Still no breakfast.  The sunrise turned from rosy haze to the dark red eye of Re – huge and monstrous – then soon turned yellow, then white.  The sun does seem a very basic fact already.  The north-south dividing line of the Nile probably helped in the sense of journey, of rising and falling, of a mid-point, of cycles.  Inevitable that in this land of the sun it should dominate.  The clouds burn off.

Off the train, to the Savoy Hotel and – they have a room, or a bungalow at least, although I haven't seen it yet, and can't until noon.  So, off for a wander.  Along the Nile corniche.  Magnificent view across to the Valley of the Kings; I can imagine it does get very hot.  Weakly, I am now sitting in Luxor – I should wait, but who could resist?  I am trying not to "do" it now, just be.  My legs are amazingly tired.

One thing: I feel my interest in the Savoy Hotel was piqued by old van Haag's references to it.  This convinces me that a more personalised kind of travel guide/book can succeed. Remember that the exhibits of most museums are the spoils of war/conquests of empire: the Rosetta Stone, for example, passing from France to the British Museum.  Note if English were written without vowels – phtgrphr – there would be little loss – mostly neutral vowels.  Ancient Egyptian may have been simplified because of collapse from proto-ancient Egyptian – like English.

At the end of the Avenue of Sphinxes – no tourists; just the muezzin.  The obsessiveness of the builders of them.  The pylon at the end, massive still, the obelisk, the Ramses statues (the bloody flies, ho-hum).  The colonnade beyond.  

Now on the hotel's terrace beside the Nile – windy, the sun hotter than it seems – fearing a hot time.  My room good – not facing the Nile, but south facing around the pool – looks tempting. Everything else usual tacky/non-functioning.  Back to the Luxor temple – not Karnak as I erroneously thought, making my task here long.  I see now that early morning is the best for reading the Battle of Kadesh – of which I have the transcription.  Old Greek graffiti abound.  In the first court I have a sense of how it must have looked when complete.  Beautiful papyrus columns, calyx tops.  

After lunch – if that was a goulash, I'm a Chinaman – out to Karnak, hiring a hantour for E£5 (shades of Andy Warhol).  How to formulate an adequate response to this place?  I made no attempt to write while I was there – it was enough of a job orienting myself.  The first pylon pretty damn impressive.  Indeed I was struck throughout by a sense of awe that mere mortals must always have felt upon seeing these godly works.  They make Stonehenge look pretty sick.  [Ah – Turkish coffee – yummy.]  The forecourt too: I could reconstruct the Kiosk of Taharqa with its huge swooping columns.  It must have acted as a huge visual brake.  The triple shrine of Seti II was interesting – if only because of the thoroughness with which the first hieroglyphs – Set – had been erased.  Bad vibes re Osiris?

The Temple of Ramesses III, though small, was powerful.  The famous Bubastite Portal a nice reminder of synchronous events – [The sun has turned gold, Re on his way down.  Fragrances in the air, the birds' dusk chorus.  Liquid yellow now.] – Shoshenq I's victories over the Palestinians – Rehoboam, son of Solomon. 

An orange tincture now. In the after image, I have hundreds of Res in my eye/retina.  The west bank looks like a Cadbury's Flake – I'm sorry, but it does.  Another Turkish coffee… For some reason, there is something about the sinking sun that reminds me of Peter Greenaway… - very European.  The first pinks in the evening air; birds going nuts.  Perhaps peach-coloured now; an artist [Monet] could study the effects for years. Re is slipping behind the hills, changing boats for his nightly voyage – as Thoth?/moon – it's all so confusing….  Red leaking out along the horizon, an unlookable-at segment.  Re is dead.  Feluccas serene on the Nile – I must try one… A falcon hovering low over the river – no wonder they took it for a god – Horus, too.  No spectacular sunset further, alas.

On the way to Karnak – probably a 15 minute walk – I could make out Hatshepsut's mortuary complex across the Nile: looks pretty damn good.  I could also see a few pylons – modern ones… The cab driver beat his poor nag occasionally; my moderations to little effect.  No baksheesh.  Perhaps I'm unfair.  [Parenthetically, try as I might, I could not find Rimbaud's graffiti; annoying.]  The Nile very beautiful at dusk, the golden-pink sky reflected in its waters like a sheet of silver.

Now at dinner – seem to be mostly French and Germans here – few Brits, Yanks or Ozzies.  So back to my day at Karnak.  The hypostyle hall is one of the most impressive things in its sheer massiveness. And still those words.  It is so hard for us to look at these buildings in the right way.  For the literate, every surface would have been alive, a huge billboard, with the king's name shouted, shouted, shouted.  Perhaps Piccadilly Circus or Japanese cities with their neon lights, Las Vegas, are the only equivalents.  Our ads the same: except we habituate to those, and many are ugly.  Here words use pictures too – a unique fusion - and are mixed with literalistic portrayals. For the uneducated, this double nature must have come through: they were recognisable images, and yet magic – words – too, but mysteries.  Perhaps some could have been spelt out – the obvious transliterations.  But otherwise it could only have increased the oppressiveness of the ensemble, emphasising the distance between gods and men.  In a sense these huge structures justified themselves, praising the godhead that was invoked for their construction.

Moving among the papyrus pillars – papyrus again the foundation for their architecture, as for their later writing and ultimate heritage – I felt a pygmy, wandering among a huge bed of papyrus stalks.  The fact that the central rows were roofed must have gob-smacked the proles, as the clerestories would have done.  Their surfaces covered with large, rather crude hieroglyphs, the walls too.  The perspective varies, constantly shifts as I shifted, a vision of eternity and infinity.

Perhaps the obelisks are appropriate, the only possible follow up.  Hatshepsut's is soaring, a simple inscription – plus the Sut health warning at the bottom, staking a claim: "I built this, O ye of the future".  Interesting effect that things get smaller as you go in – typically Western art tries to cap what goes before sequentially.  Here you feel that you are entering the inner sanctum – like the heart of the pyramid.  It is very effective, not at all an anti-climax.  More smiting of heathens – lists of the battle of Megiddo – Armageddon. Again, that shock of recognition, of ancient knowledge crystallising as reality on the face of a rock.

I forgot to mention: the colours on the upper parts of the columns and links in the hypostyle hall.  At several points colours survive – noticeably in the wall of Hatshepsut – colours 3000 years old.  We see the surfaces as covered in pictorial scratches: in fact, they would have been blazes of strong colours – red, green, blues, blacks – another instance of our misreading, our wilful misapprehension of the reality. [Parenthetically, it is rather neat that Ryman's have already entitled this book "Ruled".]  The size and single-mindedness of the design, the central axis, are noteworthy.  [I am trouble by a trifle: I cannot remember what or where the hotel was in Jodhpur.  I can remember the fort, the market, the museum – but not the hotel.  Hmm…] 

23.2.90 Luxor, west bank

Up at 5.30am, the Nile misty.  Down to the public ferry (20 Egyptian piasters) – a cold crossing. Then I hire a bike for E£8.  To the ticket office to buy around 10 tickets (ever the optimist).  Riding through the lush countryside, the air cool, the sky clear blue, reminds me of Nepal.  Hot air balloons circle overhead.  Long, long, ride – hard work on the still sore quads.  But worth it.  I pass the Colossi of Memnon, solitary, shattered guardians.  Signs to other antiquities, but I have only one goal: Hatshepsut, where I now sit, facing this extraordinary (albeit reconstructed) building, and its even more extraordinary (unreconstructed) backdrop.  

I take a shortcut across a moonscape of rubble and holes.  Then it all hove into sight.  The huge yellow-grey curtain of rock, shaped as if statues were emerging from it.  Below, the strata of rock; then rubble.  To the first colonnade.  Nice pic of Hatshepsut's obelisk being transported – a bigger boat than I've seen represented elsewhere.  I also find unexpectedly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the cartouche of Ramses II.

Up the ramp.  This is the first Egyptian place that used the third dimension – Karnak is stupendous, but all two-dimensional; this is stupendous in a more developed way.  Nice to see Anubis getting a chapel for a change.  Birth room not as good as at Karnak.  I saw the most appalling thing: this bloody Frenchman first rubbed a coloured hieroglyph, and when that proved insufficient, then licked his finger and rubbed.  Bastard.  Hathor temple good; Hathor head very archaic – like the Narmer tablet.  Lots and lots of tourists now it's Ramadan.  Punt reliefs a little anti-climactic.  Best thing is the overall concept and setting; that wall…

The tomb of Ramose - lovely creamy-white stone, fine reliefs – full of life and its joys.  Tomb of Nakht – beautiful, intimate, his glorious wife "chantress of Amun" – the famous singing girls – so casually sensual.  High in the hills among the Tombs of the Nobles.  Looking for Sennefer.  But the view is great – I can understand the village and tombs better – also see the alluvial plain stop dead, sand all around.  The sun is high.  A haze hangs over Luxor.  This place is just honeycombed with openings of tombs.

I find it hard dealing with all the touts and trish-trash pushers – the tiny kids trying to sell their crummy dolls, or else a foreign coin.  A tiny sum to me is a huge sum to them; one hit per day could make all the difference. But it would become impossible.

I sit now in the Ramesseum, in the shade of one of the standing Ramses.  Deep and cool – I am dreaming of my Turkish coffee back at the Savoy already.  The tombs are fascinating for their (post facto) integration into the village.  A pit, a door, a tomb.  The weather is perfect: the air cool enough to wear a jacket and long trousers. The ground is so white here – and so friable.  One of the nice things about hieroglyphs is that as the sun swings around, the etched lines change according to where the shadow falls.  At this moment, I sit by the throne that Belzoni (1816) inscribed; the relief of Thoth, old Ibis-head himself, is beautifully clear. 

I like the Ramesseum.  Partly because it has a very personal feel to it – here, all the cartouches and images of Ramses II make sense.  Also its forlornness, its failure in the face of time – Ozymandias and all that (it is a superb piece of statuary – or was once).  I suppose too the proportions are right: first pylon (Kadesh again), second pylon (ditto), the Osiris pillars, the great hypostyle hall.  Nice to see it covered, it gives a good feel for the earlier actuality of it.  The papyrus columns mostly with their two types of capitals, are very elegant.  Trees too – junipers (?) - lend pleasant shade and scents – and of course the setting: the great amphitheatre of the hills.

It's funny how a famous graffito – Belzoni, Rimbaud – redeems itself; perhaps I should leave one…. The blue of the sky is unreal: hard and unbroken.  It leeches the colours out of everything else, stones especially.  Mosques with the Koran, a cathedral with words, are the nearest equivalent to these real books in stone.

Valley of the Queens – hot and desolate – real desert, and doubtless a foretaste of the Valley of the Kings.  Prince Khaemwaset II – vibrant colours, such clarity and confidence of form.  Queen Tyti less exciting – quite faded.  This should remind me again how multicoloured all the temples would have been – huge orgies of colour.

In front of the massive first pylon of Ramses III temple.  The hieroglyphs like a shimmering chattering, a sheet of mysteries.  The initial impulse behind all these temples was to keep the king alive: because he was the nation – keep him alive, keep the nation alive.  Alongside the Colossi of Memnon.  Shattered, faceless images, watching nonetheless.  The constant backdrop of the hills.  They look crippled; one is covered in gaudy red and blue scaffolding, the colour of hieroglyphs.  

[Note: the marks on the cover of this book: they can also be found on my Nepal notebook and for the same reasons.  They come from the back wheel carrier clamp on the bike – a necessary adjunct to travel, since my perfected equipment has at its heart a Samsonite carrying bag.]

One of the pleasures of travelling is establishing miniature routines.  They offer a double delight: that of familiarity, of safety, and of a paradoxical novelty – these are not real routines.  For me, these often centre around tea – for example, at Pokhara, at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi, and now here, in Luxor.  I am on the patio of the Savoy, the dying sun blah-blah-blah, waiting with trepidation for my (first) Turkish coffee.  This after a tiresome and humiliating jog around the town looking for some choccy bickies.

A long day: I arrived on the West Bank around 7.15am, and left about 4.15pm.  In the sun most of the time, but body doing well.  Ramses III temple in some ways better than the Ramesseum in terms of its completeness; but ultimately a rather different building, hollow at its heart.  The battles, impressive as they look, are a sham.  Old Ramses III fought few of them.  At least Ramses II – for all the he may have fudged the result – did fight at Kadesh, and Tuthmosis at Megiddo.  What battles: the fact that we have their accounts – form 3,500 years ago… [My chocolate bix are called "Ramsis".]

These mighty battles fought so long ago - except that they were probably not so mighty – see the poem of Kadesh and its limited captives et al.  But even so, the thought of what at the time, to their combatants, doubtless seemed like world wars.  But against that, consider the might of Egypt: the greatest civilisation the world had ever known, perfectly poised and balanced; and yet they ultimately lost their empire and their freedom.  All the civilisation counted for nothing…

But the temple of Ramses III was superficially a wonder: the whole of the outer walls covered in text and images – apparently the south side has the longest extant hieroglyph inscription.  The grooves in the walls: caused by believers extracting dust for potions.  Walking back round to the first pylon, I was struck by the sense of size: if I had been rabble coming up to it, I would have felt so inadequate, so worthless compared to this.  

Inside, passing through the still standing gate, soaring high above with inscriptions – to the first court.  Vivid scenes – including a priest tallying the enemies' willies in a mound – charming.  The papyrus columns as impressive as ever – I realise that the swelling at the bottom helps.  There is so much colour left – it is hard to imagine this as three thousand or more years old.  Also the covered parts – though unfortunately the final hypostyle hall is a wreck, with only fractions of the shafts left.

Perhaps because of its "completeness", Ramses III feels far more repetitious than others – for example the Ramesseum.  Endless images of Ramses III smiting this, that, and the other, of him being touched on the lips with the ankh of Atum.  Interesting that the palace was mud-bricks: still there, but crumbling – as at the Ramesseum, friable history.  And so into the second court, more heads rolling, but a beautiful sight.  And such a perfect sky, I can hardly believe it.  

In the dining room – only half full – groups have moved on.  A long walk along the Nile – a glorious evening – warmer than last night.  I pass up to Luxor temple, then all the way back.  The ferries cross without lights, the big cruise ships are berthed, preparing for supper.  It may be heretical to say so, but I feel that it must be fairly dull way to travel.  The boats are doubtless attractive enough, but there is little variety, and you are stuck with a schedule.  And the people…

The day is odd here: everyone up early, to bed early.  The mornings are very special: the mist over the Nile, the air.  I hope to rise with the dawn again tomorrow, out to Karnak.  

Back to my visit of the Ramses III temple.  I was content just to be there, surrounded by the very strong sense of how it was.  Plus the bonus of relatively few tourists.  How they must habituate – as I run the risk of doing.  I must say that the Egyptian guides seem very thorough – and fluent in their respective languages.  For some reason, I was particularly impressed by the bloke spouting in Japanese – shows culturally biased I am.

Going back to the Queens' tombs: it was odd, seemed a lunar landscape.  Holes in the earth, into which you plunged to find photographs, almost of other times.  Strange to think they were sealed up in the hope that nobody would find them again.  And the Tombs of the Nobles too: especially on the hillside, a warren of the dead.  I am glad that I found the three musicians in Nakht's tomb: as it happens, I am staring at them now – they adorn my bedroom curtains, a rather bright lilac.  I find them very attractive; I keep on imagining them in the flesh, so to speak, or their modern equivalents. The tomb was beautiful, especially Nakht's wife. 

A slow cycle ride back to the ferry, passing intensely bright green sugar cane – even a sugar cane railway, as in Fiji.  The Memnon Colossi, as above.  The Nile plain is very lush: you can see what a miracle it must have represented 4000 years ago, plants from the desert, and how regulation, through the priests and king, was central.  The air clearing surprisingly, with the opposite bank's hills visible.  I wonder what happened to the balloons?

After handing in my bike – which served me well enough – to the ferry.  On it a young woman clearly in pain, and bloodied hither and thither.  As I correctly guessed, she had come off her bike, using the loose stones as sandpaper (I sympathise: I did something similar on Santorini, with an impressive motorbike skid on gravel…).  When we got over, I offered what assistance I could, but other Ozzies help out.  The ferry load was pure Egypt: rural men and women, darkly sitting there, the cake-seller ensconced in the middle of the deck, strange bundles to-ing and fro-ing.

It was a great day, reminding me very strongly of Nepal and Pokhara.  Cycling along, the sun pouring down, the wind streaming past, ascending to Hatshepsut's temple, to the Queens' and Nobles' places, discovering the unexpected glory of Ramses III – these memories will live with me while I have any.  And yet: there is still something escaping me, the sense of the past – a paradoxical consequence of the excellent state of preservation.  I must try harder, feel my way around…

24.2.90 Luxor, Dendera

Up early (5.30am ish).  Walk along the Nile to Karnak Temple.  Hot air balloon out again.  West bank glorious.  I enter Karnak, the sun low, cutting through the first pylon; I feel part of a priestly procession.  I enter the hypostyle hall: I have it to myself. 

Groups have begun to arrive, but the place is still nice (my fingers are cold, I can hardly write – shades of Walks with Lorenzetti).  Hatshepsut's obelisk, the side pylons seen through arches – all a bit (?) like Trinity College and its courts – rather grander… In the far distance, the train's huge diminished fifth bellow, a forlorn cry.  The hot air balloon floats into view.

Hieroglyphs always seem to fit perfectly, there is never a gap or suggestion of crowding.  In St Alban's Cathedral I seem to recall, there is a manuscript – about 10 feet by 8 feet – of the requiem mass.  Each part is written larger or smaller; this is the nearest I can think of to hieroglyphs in the West.  For example,  Hatshepsut's obelisk – such balance, especially the single line of hieroglyphs from halfway.  A strange, thundering sound, roaring about: the gods return?  I look up – there is the balloon, its burner making monstrous noises.  Amazing sight – view must be great – but probably fails to capture the majesty I see – you need the peasant's-eye view.  Finally the crowds arrived – so I left, at about 9am.  Amazing that I had it so long.  The old horse carriage drivers wanted ridiculous money, so I walked.  

Then sat in the sun for a while, an early lunch on the terrace, watched the clouds roll in, haggled for a taxi to Dendera – E£40 – and after a fairly hairy drive at 60mph all the way, along the widening Nile valley – impressive hills in the west, more distant on the east – passing through the tip of Qena, I find myself sitting comforted by the majestic pile of Dendera temple itself.  And the sun is out.

Roman Mammisi – definitely decadent, the Romans assimilated, not vice versa.  Inside dark, like something out of The Magic Flute – which begins to feel more real in its symbolism having seen all this.  On the north side, a staircase to the roof: brilliant view of the temple in its blocky harmoniousness and above all the great wall of hills behind, lit up and craggy.  To the east I can see the other hills.  The Coptic church alongside looks footling.  But best of all was the ascent: the turning staircase wall was covered in shallow reliefs, hieroglyphs, but all rather old and grimy – again, perfect Magic Flute stuff.  Coptic church also has grooves in its side – holy stone again…

Dendera is a gem.  I write now up on the roof, blowy, but a brilliant view.  To the west the hills; huge sand mounds, then stratified rocks, yellow turning to pink.  A vast string of pylons lope from horizon to horizon, a wonderful lesson in perspective.  From up here, you can see the brick walls particularly clearly, girdling the place four-squarely.  An excellent sense of the Nilotic plain here, wide enough to support an empire.  A curious sunken court – the sacred lake – with six swaying palm trees.  Rubble all around the place like a huge rubbish dump.

So, the temple itself.  What is striking of course is that it is dark.  We are too used [the bronchitic squeals of a poor donkey rend the air: what abject lives they lead] to ruins, open to the glorious sky.  But temples were usually covered – this was part of their majesty: they were secret, closed-in places.  Dendera is closed in, it retains the mystery.  Perhaps this is why it keeps reminding me of Die Zauberflöte: that is, about dark mysteries, about secrets.

The outer hypostyle is majestic, but the inner, because darker, and within the outer, even more powerful.  The decorations are frankly unexciting: poor workmanship, feeble hieroglyphs.  Interesting to note that most of the figures have been chipped away by the bleedin' Copts – vandals – but they left the hieroglyphs: why?  Respect, ignorance?  The Hathor heads that do survive – notably in the temple on the roof – tap straight into the Narmer tablet – 3000 years before them – longer than the entire christian era.  Things turn full circle…

But generally the images repeat listlessly, in enervation, the tradition burnt out.  Perhaps it was ripe for the Arabs with their fire and their new religion [I am being left alone on the roof – again, that feeling of abandonment, as if cast back through the centuries.]

The central sanctum is one of the most atmospheric of the holy places I've been to here.  Again, because it is dark, because it really is the holy of holies, hidden away.  You can imagine Hathor herself residing here, with her great wise eyes (how primitive all these animal-gods are).

On the east side, another mysterious staircase: long and straight, a steady ascent with knobbly hieroglyphs; on the west, a turning staircase past several rooms/chambers.  A great mini-Hathor chapel on the roof, hidden away.  Then modern stairs to the raised front.  As ever, no protection: a sheer drop.  Retro me sathana…  It really is quite cloudy now, though the sun has just broken through.  No great tragedy – I need to be moderated, but I hope the weather is better in Aswan.

At the front, by the edge, were more graffiti than usual; mostly Brits: James Mangles, Charles Inby (May 1817); T Sproat, CP Parker (1827); John Gordon (1804); and John Malcolm (1822), Holroyd (1837), DW Nash (1836), EK Hume (1836).  As I descend, the sun's rays break through the clouds – and form a perfect pyramid…

Downstairs, I am clobbered by one of the guards – who shows me the crypts – beautiful carvings, and fine picture of Hathor – unmutilated.  The mutilated stones are pock-marked, as if with a disease. Down in the crypt – down a creaky stair, crouching on all fours – the stench of cigarettes on the guide's breath.  

The sanctuary forms a complete room within the building.  

Between the first and second hypostyles: light and dark.  Hathor has a cheery face.  The half-screen at the front works really well, letting in light, but maintaining privacy.  The locks of Hathor – blue – hang down like drapes.  There is no real awe here, but occult power.  The stones on the stairs: worn right down.  I find Cleopatra – but no matching cartouche.  

Crazed drive back.  On the terrace.  Though the sun is not setting yet, it is already golden-yellow with the haze.  Very high above, swifts careen around.  The odd falcon.  Dinner is not yet served, and so – at 7pm – along to Luxor Temple.  I am sitting in front of the Kadesh text, garishly illuminated by sodium, making the stone look like a huge orange ice lolly. The whole place is ghostly.  A clear night now, stars spangling it brilliantly.  To the south wall of the first court: where I find the ancient representation of the temple itself, flags a-flutter.  Ramses II is so clearly the key – no wonder Mailer based "Ancient Evenings" around him.  In retrospect it does convey the details well and painlessly.  I think it fails to capture the majesty, the sheer sense of empire.

25.2.90  Luxor, west bank

Up early again, across to west bank.  Hire bike, but along to Seti I temple this time.  Nice – though nothing impressive like the others.  No other tourists – but there are archaeologists, and lots of fellahin digging holes, wheeling barrows.  It's gonna be hot today, methinks.  Up to the crest of the hill between Valley of the Kings and west bank.  The Valley itself is scorched rock, a barren, dry Lake District.

Ramses I: simple but good.  Each god's attributes are like the iconography of saints.  I find Osiris, his skin green/blue from death, wrapped in a mummy's shrouds, the most affecting.  Tuthmosis III – a real warren.  At the end of a defile, up stairs, down stairs, along corridor.  To the antechamber – strange, quickly-drawn images – a list of hundreds of gods.  Total silence.  In the tomb chamber, more line drawings rather than paintings.  Eerie.  Some of the text slants very oddly.  Tawsert and Setnakh – a nice contrast: long with gentle gradient.  Again, Osiris memorable.  Seti's tomb – beautiful low reliefs – and walls of hieroglyphs – including rough sketches – still waiting for the chisel.  A light red.  Looking to the entrance, the light catches the hieroglyphs – like a crazy wallpaper. An unknown mummy, dried to a crisp.  The white stone just begs to be caressed – or touched – it is almost sensual.  It is strange standing outside: looking down a huge black shaft; bright rock all about, brilliant blue sky above.

Horemheb – not a name one meets often – unusual cartouche.  Great scene with Ma'at, Anubis, Hathor, Horus, Osiris.  Tomb very long, very very deep;  Other side has Isis – with throne on head. Beautiful in her white dress to the breasts.  Amenhotep II: deep, very spare design inside, blue tonality.  Very austere.  Ramses VI – the most impressive in size.  Lots of unusual drawing – occult stuff.  It seems appropriate to finish with Tutankhamun – which in some ways is about tourists – the queues to get in are ridiculous.  Fine wall coverings – but all so small – footling really.  Enough.  

In the rest house, I think I am getting addicted to 7-Ups.  Tutankhamun was amazingly feeble, one room, and the sarcophagus and a few walls nothing compared to the other tombs.  This place must be a real cauldron of god in summer.  The heat from the bodies in the tombs is oppressive too – must be ruining the paintings.  Generally, here and throughout Egypt, the sites have  been very well preserved and restored – but not protected from us, alas.  

Valley of the Kings looks like a huge quarry, with an odd causeway of white winding through it.  Before the tombs were disturbed it must have been theoretically an extraordinary place: stuffed with the good and great of hundreds of years – a Westminster Abbey au naturel.  [It is such bliss to put my deeply pretentious/expensive Ray-Bans back on.]  One thing Tutankhamun does emphasise is what a tip it must have been when discovered.  The room so small, so many items.  The position of Tutankhamun is certainly rather drole: right under Ramses VI – no wonder it was lost.  

I sit now perched high on the crest between Valley of the Kings and the west bank.  A plane is coming into land; the Nile stretches out in one enormous straight band; I can see the opposite hills for miles.  The great temples – Ramesseum and Ramses II are before me like child's building models.  The Colossi of Memnon are dolls.

Halfway down to Hatshepsut's tomb – the dust is playing havoc with my eyes – the wind is getting up and a few clouds are appearing again.  The rock face behind Hatshepsut's looks like a literal curtain with folds; also I can see lots of Dantesque squirming figures as if struggling to emerge.  Grit in my mouth, too.

In the Ramesseum after the worst bike-ride of my life – blinded by grit.  As well as the Battle of Kadesh, there is the story of Dapur.  In fact the seizure of a city by storming must have been fairly innovative.  In Ramses III, second court.  The osirid columns, in different stages of  disrepair, look like Matisse's sequence of female nudes from behind: meditations on a theme.

I have been sitting staring mindless at the outside south wall, the huge hieroglyphic poem, the distant hunting scene, the sheer – still ungraspable for me – immensity of this achievement.  There are worse things to do on a Sunday afternoon in February…

Coffee on the terrace – then out on a felucca – haggled down from E£30 to E£8 plus E£2 baksheesh – still too much.  On "Rendezvous"… Sun sinking, wind "stiff".  Two on the boat, talking in Arabic – that coloniser/colonised again.  Best sunset yet – Aten a golden liquid globe as we pull across to the west bank.  The hills I climbed today now turning blue – a Leonardoesque chiaroscuro.  River very quiet now – a few feluccas upstream.  Honking madness on the east bank.  Aten turns orange behind palm trees.  Now deeper red, the cloud back to pink – the light reflected in cabin windows of the moored Nile cruise boats.  I should think travelling by boat – of whatever size – gets rather limiting after a while – this time period is far more satisfying for me.  The wind is up again, the ropes creak – I can see the attraction of sea writing – all that evocation.  Aten gone – the sky like a washed bandage, sun-dyed and faded, the colours turning grey.

No birds – but this morning, a flight flew over – long and almost straight – just the odd straggler spoiling the line.  A huge diagonal.  In the Nile – here as in Cairo – the odd piece of floating greenness – it looks like some lily.  It gets caught around the docked ships, stagnant with flotsam and jetsam, trapped with it all.

26.2.90 Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo

Up early, then along to Karnak for a quick farewell.  What a place.  Then hire taxi down to Aswan.  First stop Esna – dusty, fly-blown place.  But in the middle of the souk, a huge pit – and a miniature Dendera.  Amazing.  But the sense of degradation of style inside – coarse hieroglyphs as if they no longer meant anything.  Nice flowery capitals to the columns, though.  

Beyond Esna, the desert really asserts itself.  The road on the east bank is the boundary between it and greenery.  The Nile's inundation must have seemed truly miraculous to the ancient Egyptians, life from death.  Everything would revolve around it.  We pass some mounds that could be crumbling mud pyramids, plus ugly factories belching smoke unceasingly.  The rocks of the surrounding cliffs beg for tombs.

Edfu.  Impressive, even in its late (only 2000 years old) Ptolemaic trappings.  Interesting that hieroglyphs have gone into the background.  Now images dominate – shift of emphasis.  In the court of offering: the  hieroglyphs look almost Chinese – they have lost their precision.  Entering the outer hypostyle is very like Dendera – gradual descent into darkness, into mystery.  But, my word, how depressingly bad the  hieroglyphs are…

To Kom Ombo, the Nile narrowing greatly, the vegetation losing its greenness, everything drier.  OK, a good ruin.  Also for its location – not some squalid circus pit, but on the promontory by the Nile.  Perhaps that is the main difference – the aesthetics of the site.  This late style reminds me of High Victorian Gothic – all gilt and fiddly bits.

What a day, which I am trying to redeem with a turkish coffee at a restaurant on the Nile – on a pontoon to be exact – every time people move, the whole thing rocks.

Anyway, my worst nightmare fulfilled.  I get to the hotel – Abu Simbel – only to be told that the last room had just – one minute ago – been taken – the offenders were still filling in the form.  Then a hunt around – to about five others – none could offer more than two days – even tried Kalabash Cataract – full and surly.  So two days it is.  After that...well, there was one other, too grubby to contemplate, but they may have a better room later. Ho-hum.  Aswan itself looks pleasant enough – a long corniche giving a Mediterranean feel..  The sun is descending behind Elephantine, the feluccas are out.

Driving through the arid desert today made me long for Cornwall.  Perverse, me?

The sun catches the Aga Khan's mausoleum high on the hill opposite.  At least I have a flight booked for Abu Simbel tomorrow, out at 1.30pm and back at 4.15pm.  I thought I should try all modes of transport to get the context.  It will be nice to see the desert from above.  The Oberoi Hotel in front of me is an ugly construction, like a water tower – Greenaway would like it. There is Euro pop in the background; how can I say it? Nice.  I'm obviously getting homesick.  The elegant ballet of the feluccas.  Lovely synths – I'm so tempted to get one.

Along the corniche, trees with huge red blossoms like rhododendrons that fall heavily with a dull squelch.  The pavement is littered with this prodigality.  Today's situation reminds me of Udaipur – when I read "Ancient Evenings" – and was rather ill.  Nice effect as the feluccas' sails curtain the sun briefly.  The almost-view – if I stick my head out – reminds me of the hotel in Queenstown.  Because of its resort air, this doesn't really feel like the end of an empire/land/country.  The sun hits the hills, liquid gold.  Re is gone for me.  A flock of birds, far away, like a changing dust cloud, peppering the sky.

Hell's bells – a kingfisher just dived in – and came out with a fish.  Mosquitoes out.  Watching now, as I watched last night: the felucca sailors climb the mast and pack the sail away (technical term needed).  A long walk back through the souk – the best I've came across in Egypt – lively, real – with smells: incense, spices.  Forms again – the pyramids of oranges, the subtle variation in dates, the baskets of deeply-coloured spices.  Nearest to India yet.

27.2.90 Aswan, Abu Simbel

Up to a slightly unsettled day: where will I be tomorrow? Yesterday evening I bought a ticket for Friday to Asyut – so I need two more nights somewhere.  To Abu Simbel at 1.30pm, so a quick trip here first.

A walk along the corniche, the public ferry to the island – I get lost in a maze of narrow streets – then to the old town.  Not much to see.  Nilometer, Temple of Khnum.  Good to see the Ramses II cartouche even here.  Lovely view of Aswan, Cataract Hotel etc.  Also of Elephantine rocks at the water's edge.  

Still nothing fixed – though lots of "come back laters".  It is strange how the aspect of a tour is transformed according to whether you have or do not have somewhere to stay.  Yesterday, as we drove around, the place was nothing but a hot unfriendly place, without form or beauty.  Sitting at the Saladin floating restaurant again, I could – for a moment – savour the sun and the tranquillity.

To Aswan airport early, to get a good seat.  But thwarted by bureaucracy – no seat allocated.  In other words, a mêlée.  I sit now in the deep shade of the outside cafe, waiting to get in line.  On the way here, via the old dam – the Brit one.  Fine lake to the left, straggly water to the right.  Then into desert – the airport is a long way out for some reason.  Real desert, terrifying.  A forest of pylons carrying electricity from the dam away into the shaking distance.  It's gonna be hot in Abu Simbel.

Travelling freely really is about the will: I wish it, and it happens; with tours, you are without volition – you just do as you are told.  The two could not be further apart.  

Well, this is Egypt – a delay of one hour – at least.  I stood for 45 minutes – yo – and now sit down, and will probably lose my window seat.

Amazing flight.  It confirms my worst fears about the desert: utterly implacable – definitely Empire's End.  Pure sand – just a tiny road, the Nile a distant presence.  A few dunes, later, strange rocks – this is how the world will end – dust, sand, heat, nothing.  This is how Egypt ends.  How all empires end.  Nearer Lake Nasser – huge, but drying up – there were clear signs of old mud – former levels – this last imperial folly too is a failure.  As we fly in, I see the temples – looking like sand castles made by a child – pretty one side, nothing the other – a strange jelly mould.  The statues stare pointlessly at the lake, face east to the rising sun.  Sitting in the coach – the sun is pitiless – at 3.30pm – deadly rays.

Temple of Nefertari.  Striking facade – the striding king and queen – last rays of light still catching it.  Inside, good Hathor heads on pillars.  Strange: even though the work throughout is rather crude, it has far more vigour than any Ptolemaic stuff.  Colours partly preserved.  Good to see queens represented so much.  Striking too the pose of the king smiting sundry baddies – the power of the legs' fulcrum (a triangle, the straight line of the arms, the twist of the hips – pure karate).  

Outside, a smile plays across his features.  To the big one, where Ramses seems not to be smiling so much.  Lovely baboons up top.  The poor man is covered with scratched graffiti, mostly Westerners – what a humiliation.  Hittite marriage stela – practically indecipherable.

Inside, powerful effect of osirid columns – some Upper Egypt, some Upper and Lower.  That same pose: smiting the enemy.  The king attacks a Syrian fort – and he does with a lively image of what it looked like.  But what an immense distance to travel – the penalty of empire.  Something I realised looking at the Syrians: they are bearded; ancient Egyptians never (?) are.  And today, you rarely see bearded Egyptians.

In the side chamber, I feel the first stirrings of that ancientness I sought.  Perhaps because it is crudely lit.  Everything else is too well-preserved and looked after – I have lost their ancientness.  They need to look more like the caves of Lascaux, or old castles.  I need some of their fear, their awe: electric lights banish this.  Torches – flaming light – would be better.  Also the unevenness (in castles) of the walls and ceiling helps.  I feel their uncertainty in the world.  Perhaps I need the junk of Tutankhamun's tomb.  I can relate these side chambers to my idea of the Philistines/Assyrians stuff of the same era; but not the others.  The fact is, the battles live more for us than offerings to Amun.  Therefore Ramses II lives more than any other.

Superb effect as you emerge from the innermost: bright light, the sky, a glimpse of the water.  Designed to catch the early sun, February 21/October 21.  To illuminate the four statues.  The Battle of Kadesh; again.  But reversed in direction – whatever the reality, one of the most powerful scenes in all Egypt.  The mighty king, the confusion of war, the great city portrayed in some detail.  I read the "Battle of Kadesh" text in its presence.  In the bottom right hand side the signature of its author, his own pleas for immortality.  Which he has.

Outside.  Unfortunately the building blocks look very silly – like some child's construction set.  The hills on the opposite side of the lake: huge wind-blasted cones, moonscapes.  

Window seat again: real blood-red sunset – sinking in the haze, a huge red band swathing the sky.  The desert as frightening as its shadows lengthened.

1990 Egypt I: Cairo, Saqqarah, Giza
1990 Egypt III: Asyut, Kharga, El Amarna
1990 Egypt IV: Alexandria, Wadi El Natrun, Suez

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