Augustine's Luxor Photo Journal - January 5-12, 2005
photos and text ©copyright Natalie d'Arbeloff 2005
Having done Hatshepsut and been satisfied that I'd done her before (though I'm still ruminating whatever lesson I was meant to learn from this personal proof of reindamnation) I moved on to other remnants of my old home town. I hope you are not expecting historical information from me. If you don't know much about ancient Egypt and are interested, there are zillions of lavishly illustrated books, websites etc.
This is Sugar - he said that was his name - the driver who took me to Karnak Temple in his Egyptian Cadillac, as he called his calèche. Fierce-looking but a sweetie. We argued about the price,naturally, but came to an understanding. He insisted on waiting for me outside the temple in the crowded parking lot in the hot sun for at least two hours in order to drive me back to town ( Karnak is quite far from the centre of Luxor) and he didn't want to be paid in advance. He trusted me to find him (which I did, though not so easily) when I was ready to leave.
The Sugar calèche ride to Karnak was my second visit. The first time (we're talking A.D.not B.C.) was at night for the truly spectacular Sound and Light show - an ongoing event, different languages on different nights. I chose the English version and it was royally Shakespearian voices winding their crystalline syllables around the huge-is-beautiful carved pillars which told us, with appropriate sound effects and eerie lighting, the story of "...the biggest temple complex in the world, covering an area of 100 hectares... In ancient times, Karnak was known as Ipet-isut, 'The most select of places'..." (from this site).
Photography is not allowed during the Sound & Light so the pics below are the ones I took on my daytime return visit. I'm convinced that a sense of humour was obligatory in ancient Egypt. Could you really be abject with awe before an army of cuddly big-eared ram-headed sphinxes, patient paws waiting to be stroked? Here is my ticket which shows the avenue of rams leading to Karnak's entrance.
Awe was distinctly in the air as I and a horde of other English-speaking tourists waited in the cold, clear night before being allowed to enter ram avenue. Many necks were craned towards the polished ebony black sky against which the stars spelled out arcane messages - just as they would have done when the bent-back heads belonged to pharaohs and priests and astronomers and mathematicians and humble workers - and I, humble cartoon worker and ignorant as sin, looked up at the diamonds in the sky and asked aloud, "What are those three stars in a vertical row?" A kindly couple from Cardiff, obviously seasoned star-gazers, pointed out the constellation Orion and although I couldn't see a hunter up there, I was grateful.
Have I mentioned that it was cold? I knew that at this time of year in Egypt the days would be hot and the nights cold and i was prepared, wrapped in at least three layers from head to foot, a 21st century mummy. What I didn't know was the kind of cold which Egypt dishes out. This is not your jolly Christmascard rosy-cheeked skiers snowball paradise kind of cold. This is something else entirely. This is the Pharaohs revenge on foreigners for all that tomb-plundering and for allowing this sacred land to become a third-world country. Yes I know it was cold at night in winter in ancient times too but I'm sure they put something in the future cold, some ingredient that would make us feel that if we stand here for one more minute, in this stupefyingly splendid and impossibly ponderous place, we will shrivel up and die of the cold, disgracefully.
By the time I and my fellow tourists had been sounded and lighted all the way to the Sacred Lake and were seated highup on an icy, windy terrace to hear the final and very very long dénouement of the Karnak story, I was not listening anymore. I didn't care about the past, my past, grandeur, glory, pomp or circumstance. The only circumstance that interested me was getting the hell out of there and into the warm. But with pharaonically sadistic cunning, the directors of the S&L extravaganza had made sure that getting the hell out before the proper ending was virtually impossible. Everything but the spotlighted area we were meant to be focusing on was in darkness - that's a BIG acreage of darkness and finding the exit was out of the question. So I sat, trapped like the statue of my vengeful stepson Thutmose III, wondering how my death from hypothermia would be explained to the blogging community and the world.
Then something happened which saved my life. A couple of girls (I think they were Japanese but it was dark so I can't be sure) got up from their cold seats and furtively moved off the terrace and down some steps. I seized my chance and followed them. They seemed to have some sense of direction and what's more, a flashlight. So I trotted behind them, trusting that I would be led out of the darkness of my ancient past into the....anyway, after some false turnings and stumblings amidst severely stony monarchs in their petrified forest, we came upon a clearing where a turbanned man in a dust-coloured robe pointed out the exit. Was he a spirit guide? Who cares, I hobbled towards my waiting taxi, saved. Alive to see another day and more pictures
I can't leave Karnak without
obelisk rising in splendid phallic confidence - 97 ft (29.6 meters),
323 tons of confidence - high above all the other massive marvels of this
place. We were not coy about such things in my day, long before the nudge-nudge-tee-hee
culture. In those days it (my obelisk) was coated in electrum, an alloy
of gold and silver which, when it caught the sun's rays, sent them blazing
throughout the land - can you imagine? There are many translations of the
hieroglyphic inscriptions on the four faces of the obelisk and I'm not
competent to judge which corresponds most closely to the original but they
seem to agree that Hatshepsut wrote something like the prayer I've copied
onto my photo (the "scared
eye" is probably someone's typo, intended to read "sacred").
And there is also this:
"O ye people who see this monument in years to come and speak of that which I have made, beware lest you say, 'I know not why it was done'. I did it because I wished to make a gift for my father Amun, and to gild them with electrum."
I can identify with this message completely here and now. Except that the Father in question would be the God I interview sometimes, rather than Amun (amen to that). I don't care if this is politically incorrect or if it makes Freudian analysts smile or if it annoys both the religious and the non-religious. Some of you already know that my take on the Almighty is somewhat unorthodox. It's a take-it-or-leave-it kind of take. What I find so familiar and congenial about Hatshepsut's religiosity is that it gives self-esteem a raison d'être beyond the self - i.e. you're great because you're in tune with something greater than your self, not because you're such hot stuff on your own.
Someone is bound to point out that GW Bush and other fanatics throughout history have believed the same thing. Well, I don't think it is the same thing. The Bushes of this world have an agenda they want to impose on others and they look for justification of that agenda in their religion and religious texts. But Hatshepsut - and others like her at different times and in different cultures - have the artist's view: they don't impose, they inspire and they are inspired to create something beyond self-expression by something, and more importantly for something, beyond themselves.
As you leave the past glories of Karnak Temple, you see across the road from the exit this ramshackle shopping mall, an unsophisticated prayer for your attention and the blessing of your Dollar, your Pound, your Euro