March 19 - April 3 2006 / Egypt and Jordan: In Desert Places
Astonishments of Egypt, Jordan and the Solar Eclipse
It all seemed to take much less time than I'd feared. A quick flight to JFK, then the Egypt Air plane. They searched--well, went through the motions of searching--our bags at the gate before letting us on the plane, almost two hours early, then there was a long long taxi, then finally off. We got the last two seats together, at the very back of a section just by the toilets, and at first there was a horrid stink of disinfectant, but it got better. Our side of the plane had the dragon lady attendant, and the seats were hard and various little things didn't work, but eventually I slept maybe 45 minutes. I had to sneak glances out the window since Dragon Lady insisted that the shades be pulled shut. Once I looked out and there was a half moon shining coldly above the blinking wing tip. In the moonlight, massed clouds below looked like a pale thick forest.
When morning came (they ran out of coffee), we seemed to be over the Mediterranean, for I saw, on the light even blue, a lone ship. Not long after, a pale reddish shoreline, with peculiar grey squares on it, preceded by brown small mountains with small settlements here and there, in the valleys.
Besides a bunch from our tour group, there were two other groups, all Americans, all large, talkative, and seemingly experienced. There were a few Egyptians, dark, sharp-featured, a couple of them wearing the long comfortable-looking robes, the women with headscarves.
Then the landscape below changed, to a lovely plain tan color, the air above it a tender violet, cream, blue, rose. So beautiful. I think the soft haziness is from suspended small particles of sand. I remember many years ago, when we flew home from East Africa, and landed briefly at the Cairo airport, never getting out of the plane, the appearance of this rosy tan haze many miles away, long before we landed.
The pyramids appear! first on our left, and then on our right. A thrilling and moving sight. Khufu and the other great pharaohs never could have seen them from this place. Would they not feel great pride to see their dream floating there in the distance.
Long slog through airport business, but at last into the buses we go, and drive for anhour through Cairo. A fantastic drive. The modern city, but then a strange section of tiny mud brick buildings, one story each, a labyrinth of them, a wall around them, some ruined, others clearly inhabited. Glimpsers here and there of people in long garments walking their dirt roads.
The torment of mysterious places of which you can never be a part.
We drive to Giza, adjacent to Cairo, and suddenly The Pyramids appear on the horizon. There they are! They are taller than anything else around, the hotels, the apartment buildings. The streets around our hotel are lined with tourist stores, offering Papyrus Museum, Carpet Academy, Perfumes Center, and the like. The streets tremble with honks, ancient engines, fumes and grit.
Here is our room, and I push open the curtains and there are the Pyramids, looming.
We don't know what day it is nor what time it is, but we sleep pretty well, have breakfast. The Pyramids are still there, dominating the landscape.
It looks windy and the sun coming in our window is very hot. We go out, past the automatic bollards and sniffer dog (we have had to have our bags inspected, and pass through a metal detector before entering the hotel), we take our lives in our hands, or feet, and cross the street. Pedestrians do NOT rule. After a few steps I put on my head scarf, so as to be at least somewhat more appropriate. I know they are used to inappropriately dressed tourist women, but I don't want to be one of them.
We walk slowly in the heat and intense sun, looking at everything, the battered sidewalk, the scruffy dusty plants alongside, the belching vehicles, the pyramids ahead of us. Small black and white taxis honk at us, do we want a ride? On the other side of the rushing street, a donkey trots briskly, pulling a wooden cart. The way becomes more obvious, and we walk up a sandy road. Here are more people selling things—horse-cart rides, donkey carts rides, to the pyramids. Postcards, etc. I'd read that No thank you will turn them away. It does.
At the end of the road, we buy flimsy paper tickets. Tickets to the pyramids!
For there they are, the three of them, set gracefully in relation to each other, most improbable structures on earth, I believe.
Many others have come to be close to them--tourists of various kinds, an exuberant school group of young adolescents, the girls all together in their lovely veils of every color, sneaking glances at us, the boys bolder, Hello, hi, and laughter as I wave my fingers at them.
For a long time, in the heat and sun, we walk slowly, looking at the huge blocks of stone, the people, the mounties on camels patrolling so no one climbs but they do of course, the horse carts with poor horses galloping, the piles of unexplained rubble, the parts of pyramids, the blue sky, the staggering size of them. A couple of men get us to give them our camera to take our picture before we realize what's happening, and glowering dark "tourist policeman" with a machine gun comes over quickly to oversee the deal. Probably he gets a cut of the take that John hands him. Actually later I realize that the picture-taking men are tourist police, too--
We go past the Sphinx, too, which turns out to be nestled somewhat lower (nothing should be level with the pyramids) and having something done to him, as there is scaffolding along his face.
I take many many pictures. The startling and wonderful juxtaposition of the dune-y land on which these astonishing structures stand, and the teeming streets and buildings just beyond, is marvelous. What would Sneferu have made of this!
On our way back, we somehow get a little lost. John has a good sense of direction though, and finally we find ourselves in familiar territory.
We pass by a school, young kids out in front, girls in one herd, boys in another. Hello! Hello! hands out, excited mischievous faces, reaching to shake or touch our hands. Exhilarating for me, and as usual I want to go in that school and take a class.
Not far from the hotel we stop in a store that sells clothing, I want to buy a robe for John, the men look so elegant and handsome in them. It’s a nice surprise, no pressure, a charming young woman waits on us and we buy a couple of t-shirts and a fine pair of midnight blue robes, very plain. We’ll use them for sleeping suits in the summer.
I am way, way behind here! It is many days later and I have not been writing, mostly because I was terribly deprived f sleep. But now we are actually on the ship, on the Nile (going by here beynd me as I write) so maybe I can catch up a little.
Last night I went by myself to the Sound and Light show at the Pyramids. It was a pretty good spectacle, mostly it was wonderful to sit there in the cooled air, with lots of other people on folding chairs right near the Sphinx, and listen to the narrative about the history of Egypt, and look at the Pyramids and all , lit up artfully at appropriate moments. A hokey thing but it is good to give oneself over to these things now and then, and not be snotty about it.
This morning is our time to explore the Pyramids with guides. I am glad we spent most of yesterday morning there on our own, for they don't give us much time. John and I have paid extra to be allowed to go INTO the great one, I had been nervous that it would be too confining for me, but it turned out to be perfectly fine, a long sloping wooden ramp up, with some stooping required but plenty of lights for me, a couple of low places to duck under, lots of nervous chatter going on in several languages, and then we are in the slightly breath-removing end chamber, the final resting place of the Pharaoh Khufu.
The inside of the passageway is shaped like a very tall, very narrow pyramid itself, with gently stepped walls (very much like the stone roofs of the houses in France that I saw in the countryside around Les Eyzies). It is hard to imagine that these stupendous structures were built four and a half thousand years ago, with no metal tools. I am trying to put it all together, what we learned about China, what I learned in France, and now this. How, on a timeline, are these things related? How astonishing to contemplate that all this was going on so painfully long before us. I just can't absorb this. I think what I would like to do is to make up my own timeline, learn about it myself and make a timeline that I make up myself. I am especially curious about the time period between the end of the cave paintings and whatever comes next.
We drove out into the countryside, which turns up very quickly out of Giza, to get to Memphis. I need here to refer to my pix since I can't remember what we saw there.
Lunch along the road, a touristy complex, like may others we have had these traveling lunches at in other places. There is a swimming pool, bedecked camels if you care to ride around the swimming pool, charming young girls taking baksheesh at the toilet (which is quite clean), handsome men in robes who would allow you to take their pictures for a pound, and a ravishingly lovely girl wearing artfully colored robes and holding a patient young kid in her arms. Her smile was exquisite, and she gestured did I want to take her picture, but as usual in these circumstances I was overcome by shyness and did not want to pay, and so didn't. Too bad. I wish now that I had her picture. She had dark hair and pale eyes. I learned that the people with that amazing coloring are ethnic Egyptians.
And then to the Step Pyramid, built 5100 years ago. Just before it is a green landscape, with sugar cane and rice and cotton and corn and other things growing, but where this structure is, the oldest stone structure in the world, all is bleak desert. All I see are one small lizard, and some hot-country ants running about, with long legs and abdomens held high.
There's a wedding going on at our hotel. The bride is in a western-style white gown, but many of the female guests are veiled. One of our guides told me that it is strictly up to the woman if she wishes to veil. Maybe.
Barring a highly disastrous earthquake--or a bomb--the great pyramids will be here long after we humans are dust. I am trying to remember who [Shelley] wrote the poem about Ozymandias, King of Kings, who bragged, look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. The poem goes on to say, all that remains is dust. But I think Ozymandias was right.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
They make us get up at 1:15, and herd us onto a plane. I have by now slept very very little in the last five days or so, and am feeling somewhat desperate. But it turns out to be worth it.
For we are nearly the first group to arrive at the Temple of Karnak. These are the kinds of sights one has come to Egypt to see. I don't know what to say about it. I just don't know. I don't know what kinds of words even to search for. Some of it is the size. Some of it is the elegance of it, the forms. I think maybe though the aspect that is most affecting, most weighty on the mind and body and heart, is the conceiving of it, the imagination that saw it in the mind’s eye, and then moved that concept from image, perhaps drawing, to reality. That saw what needed to be cut, incised, finished, moved, placed, aligned, inscribed, colored--and organized the people to do all these things, in the right order. When first I saw it, OH! OH! came from my heart.
We have settled on one of the Egyptian guides, Mohammed is his name, and he is very competent. But I don't want to listen to him much. I need to walk in these spaces myself, making images, seeing light and shadow, as they did, these strangers who lived so terribly terribly far away in time.
Luxor Temple, which we see next, is remarkably just at the side of the Nile, where our boat is docked. Horse-drawn carts swarm around, traffic, a Mcdonald's Luxor Temple sign is seen. There is a mosque built on the top of this temple, hundreds and hundreds of years later. It is all very peculiar and so very hard to encompass. The quayside is crowded with tourist ferries, many of them belching black smoke and all jockeying for position It’s all a confused set of images. The Temple is, as they say, well-preserved, and has stunning allees of sphinxes, once leading two miles from Karnak to Luxor, but I think I won't experience the impact of Karnak a second time. the great size of these constructions is just impossible to conceive of. HOW DID THEY DO IT?
When we finally get on our little ferry, shabby but adequate, I fall onto the fine small bed and try to sleep. I skip lunch, I skip dinner, but still I can't sleep. Finally I get up while John is at dinner, take a shower, eat some peanuts I bought at JKF, read a little, and at last get a good night of sleep.
As I drift off at last, I am thinking of climbing the wooden ramp inside the narrow passageway in the great Pyramid. Handholds are worn by the grips of countless thousands who have been here before me, some of them millennia before.
It’s funny, I feel a connection to the artists of the caves, but not to these people. I guess it is that it is hard to understand really why they made these, how enormous a sense of --what? entitlement, ego, importance, no, something else, how great a sense of the rightness of spending so much of the society's wealth and human power on these buildings. The tombs, the pyramids, used for one person for one use and then never again.
Our ship sat at the quay in Luxor all night, and this morning at y we get onto the buses and drive a bit south, then cross the Nile (we are on the Nile, I am on the Nile, the greatest river), to the west bank of it, where in ancient times, it being where the sun goes each day to die, people were taken to be buried.
First, early and still in the coolth, it is the Valley of the Kings, where there are 62 known tombs and others sought but not yet discovered. It is dry, dry, sere beyond anything. We have bought tickets to go into the tomb of King Tutankhamen, the only tomb--so far--to be discovered intact and unplundered. In this tomb, only a corridor and a smallish room, there is a sarcophagus which is supposed to have his mummy in it, but I am not convinced somehow. The walls are fairly plain, and there is not much to see. But we have been in it, now.
We visit two other tombs, those of Rameses IV and IX, and those are radiant with colored inscriptions, the book of the dead that guides and protects the pharaoh on his journey to the other world, and accounts of the events of his life, his pharaonic duties, his triumphs, his family. The precision of the engravings and colorings is remarkable. We are told that none of this has been retouched. It is hard to believe. How could they have devoted so very much of their resources to a religious conceit??
After the Valley of the Kings, we drive a short distance amid the rising heat to the Temple of Hatshepsut, the woman who was a king.
The light is creamy. The elegant thing lies as if in a dream, amid the creamy light, cut from the pale sandstone cliffs that tower above it. All seems suspended in light, in creamy faintly rosy light. As if behind a scrim curtain. All around the cliff encircles the temple and lifts above it.
Did she see it thus? In this creamy light?
I buy a pale green alabaster cat for Alyson here, and a jackal-headed Anubis for me. My shoes are white with dust. The heat is intense but light somehow, and fills the dream-space.
A place of light.
In the Valley of the Queens, a tomb with a tiny fetus in it, a king never to have seen life, but still buried with all the necessaries of a king.
On the way back to the boat, scenes of farming, roadside homes, donkeys, horses, carts, women in dark robes and veils, men in gray and brown robes, turbans, dark faces. Working in the heat to live, just as they did thousands of years ago. How much has changed here? I don't know.
And in the afternoon, I sleep soundly, here on the Nile the great River.
Last evening a whole herd of boats like ours line up at the small locks. Hordes of vendors in rowboats come out to try to sell all of us tablecloths, napkins, shawls, robes. With much shouting Hello hello, lady, lady, mister, hey mister, they throw plastic bags with the goods up onto our decks, prices are negotiated, money tossed down. The stuff is of poor quality but some buy it anyway.
The last sight at night is of these boats gaily lit, reflected in the water.
In the night we went through the lock and today arrived at Edfu. Dockside is swarming with horse buggies. All is noisy and confused, hot and dusty already at 9 am. The horses trot off briskly with their carts full of tourists, we on our bus. Everybody is going to the "almost perfectly preserved temple of Horus." We and hundreds and hundreds of others pour through. Shortly I leave the group to try to have some peace and to make images and to listen for things. Christians have been through here at one time and have painstakingly pecked out all images that they took to be of pagan gods--tremendous vandalism. But I take many pictures, trying to capture the look of things.
Now, after lunch, we are passing along a narrow part of the Nile, narrow bands of green on either side and then desert, desert, desert beyond. A few minutes ago at the narrowest part, the ancient sandstone quarries, from which they cut such quantities of stone, at such huge human expense, and loaded them onto barges and sailed them back upriver, to Edfu, to Luxor, to Cairo.
Because I am actually writing this many days after the fact, I can’t quite remember how the rest of this day went. I know that we went farther down-river to visit the temple of Kom Ombo, where there are numerous mummified crocodiles. But I am tired of hearing our guide go on and on about it all, and especially irritated because there are such mobs of people here, and as usual we are late for everything so the light is dropping fast and I cannot get the images I want.
One thing however that has come to us is that actually in our trip here we will see a surprisingly large amount of Egypt, since like Australia virtually all of its inhabitants live, and for millennia have lived, on the banks of the Nile, the life-giving Nile. Now that the dam has been built, so that the Nile no longer floods each year without fail, bringing life-giving silt to the farmers, the waters are controlled, and instead of one crop a year there are three. But since pharaohs no longer are building preposterous monuments to bring themselves to eternity in, and conscripting the farmers during their fallow times, the farmers can farm nearly all year round.
Although these great monuments to the afterlife are wondrous, we are sobered by how much of the great civilization’s resources, both social and material, were devoted to this cult of the afterlife. It’s as if this life were only a gate to the next one, and all ones resources were to be devoted to the religion of death and rebirth. i am expressing this badly but perhaps when I edit this journal I will do better.
Anyhow, we are bussed the short distance back to our boat, and this evening we are all to wear local robes to dinner. John and I have bought a pair of lovely elegant navy blue ones and we have our picture taken wearing them. Most people rise to the occasion and it is fun to see them. Again in the night our ship is surrounded by the lights of many others. But the diesel fumes are so serious that we don’t spend much time on the top deck, in the night. Soon we go of to bed in our dark little stateroom. Some time in the night we begin to move again. Mostly the shores are pitch dark, but here and there a row of lights, and at one point a long row of lights by a highway, with a few truck or cars on it, their lights always on dim.
Most of the passengers have paid extra today to fly to Abu Simbel, it’s just a half hour flight, but of course means getting up terribly early for a drive to the airport, a long line of security checking, which amounts of almost nothing. Every place we go, at hotels, historic sites, airports, there are these elaborate security checkpoints, consisting of armed guards, metal detectors, people looking into your bags. But in fact they pay very little attention to any of it. It appears to be just for show. Still, the presence of so many people with machine guns might be somewhat of a deterrent.
If I didn’t already write about it, back in Cairo we never were left unguarded, at restaurants, historic sites, anywhere. Even at a small restaurant out in the country, our busses were guarded by people with guns. There appeared to be a head security person, in a suit (they definitely wear a lot of suits here, all black or navy blue, with crisp white shirts and conservative ties, they look great), who seemed to travel with our little convoy.
So, at Abu Simbel is the relocated great temple to Rameses II, and to his wife Nefertari. Because of the dam, these were to have been forever under water. But UNESCO and many nations made contributions and the temples were cut up and carefully relocated 200 feet above their original site, still overlooking the Nile, which has now been turned into Lake Nasser at this point.
The size of the huge images is staggering. We learned in our lecture course that these images, on the banks of the Nile, were located there doubtless to inspire shock and awe in any Nubians venturing into Egyptian territory via the river. It worked pretty well although at a certain point the country was ruled by the Nubians. I'll have to consult the course books to get all this straight!
[I'm writing this by the pool at the hotel in Giza--and off to my right a bit, seen through the pollution haze, is the great pyramid of Khufu...]
At Rameses’ Temple I am thrilled to find a group of feral cats, patrolling the snack area and tracing the sparrows which gather there. They are fine cats, doubtless descendants of those we have seen mummified. They prowl among the little trees and along the golden rubble on the edge of the manufactured hillside site of the temple. Much as they would have done thousands of years ago.
We are also delighted by the presence of many birds inside the temples, in the ceiling and along the tops of the walls. Thousands of birdy generations ago their ancestors chirped and twittered and flew amid the sounds of workmen here, priests, royalty.
Then back on the bus, back to the airport, back through security, back on the plane, back to another airport, back on the bus, and back to the ship.
The rest have a second visit this afternoon, but I take the afternoon off.
In the late afternoon we all get on board large feluccas, with huge triangular sails, sailed by handsome black men in white robes, and travel a ways downriver to a ritzy hotel where we get off and take tea on the verandah overlooking the river, a thing you do I guess. There is a musician not five feet from our tiny table, so we are mostly unable to converse with the Canadian couple with whom we are seated. Tiny sandwiches and little sweets are served, and wonderful mint tea. I adore the sweets and eat quite a few of them. As the conversation finally turns to politics it gets interesting, so the time is well-spent. The sun duly sets and we are bussed back upriver to the boat.
A kind of strange day.
Nothing like the next day, though.
Rather the day from hell, I guess. I have been increasingly distressed and irritated by the complete lack of organization of this trip, the total lack of understanding of how to communicate with passengers, the absence of any professional person in charge who speaks with authority. There are a lot of things the company can’t help--the endless security checks, the glacial pace of things, etc. etc, but there were many things they could have helped with, and didn’t.
Suffice to say that this was from my perspective a complete and exhausting waste of a day. I became sick in the airport in the early morning (most of the 100 or so pax on the ship are sick--no surprise to me after I saw one of the "carving station" guys on the ship wrestling a leg of lamb with two bare hands) and am now on antibiotics--John began his round last night after a poor night.
Eventually after a 3 am rising we are back in Cairo, and an hour and a half screw up with airport matters and luggage) and are immediately bussed to the famous antiquities museum. I opt not to go along with the tour guide for this (after dire predictions that I will get lost in the museum), and instead wander among the many thousands of others, just looking at whatever takes my fancy. I see wonderful things, as Howard Carter so accurately said...
The elegant bed with the heads of jackals. The four golden nested sarcophagi of Tut. Mummies of the pharaohs. Classically beautiful jewelry. A papyrus with scenes from a story, birds, people, animals. Unthinkably massive granite sarcophagi. HOW did they make these? Translucent alabaster vases. A pair of sandals. Fantastically painted wooden sarcophagi. Thousand upon thousands of objects from this distant time. Who, really, were they? In what ways could we know them? I don't know.
The rest of the day we were supposed to have done some touring in Cairo, but we are made so late by the ridiculous mess at the airport that this is all very hasty and some of things are not open any more. I am very disappointed, as I had looked forward to these things. The traffic here is dreadful and makes every move difficult.
People are beginning to grumble, but tomorrow we go to our eclipse site.