Into the cauldron of Egypt or was it? Gun posts and guns, roadblocks and militia. It feels like a country at war.
Well in some ways it was. There was the searing heat, unlike anything we’ve experienced, and the militarisation. Every few metres there were stop checks with chicanes, road bumps, fortified positions, turrets with machine guns and stern-faced, heavily-armed soldiers. Every corner seemed to have a man sitting around clutching a Kalashnikov. A show of might? A land in torment? A country at war with itself? The heat was scorching. The sun seared your skin and drained the fluids out of every pore. But in other ways it was a cauldron of delight. Everyone we passed waved, smiled and seemed genuinely pleased to see us. Through the heat of the temples of Karnak and the tombs of the Valley of the Kings the wonders of the world were revealed. Sometimes I thought the heat of wonder inside my head superseded the temperature outside! A cauldron indeed.
We left Safaga five hours before I even went to bed. I had breakfast before supper. Then we were on the coach for three months, at least that is what it felt like. But was it boring? Was it hell? Firstly there was the austerity of the ragged brown mountains around the port which, in the early morning light, gave them a rippling charm, as scrawny dogs picked among the piles of trash. They gave way to arid, rolling, brown, dusty hills which were strangely pleasant on the eye, though I suspect would have been a slog to walk in, especially in the heat of the day, followed by a long sandy plain that was flat and featureless and almost devoid of plant life.
All of a sudden we were in the midst of the fertile green plains of the Nile basin. Irrigation channels with petrol pumps sucking out the water to irrigate the fields, turning them to strips of green alfalfa intersected with golden corn and sugar cane. What a transformation.
There were people in the fields harvesting by hand, horses and carts, donkeys, women in long black robes and headscarves, men in long brown robes and head-scarves. It was like stepping back in time. Everywhere was heaps of rubble, unfinished houses, rubbish tipped careless down canal banks and an untidy squalor. In the evening groups of men and groups of women sat separately in the cooling air smoking hookahs, talking, playing games, praying or simply relaxing. There was something serene, pastoral and pleasant about their existence, a lifestyle that had not changed much in hundreds of years – but that was probably me being sentimental.
Karnak. Karnak. Karnak. What an amazing sight – a temple of delight. As we approached the great walls with the rows of statues of seated rams I am suffering wonder fatigue. I’ve also run out of superlatives. Looking up at the huge sculpted columns topped with their swollen discs to support the cross beams (– are stone lintels called beams?) – all incredibly carved with pictographs and symbols, surrounded by walls with the most elaborate pictographic scenes, I was overcome with astonishment. They were huge. The heat was forgotten among exploration of obelisks, remains of gigantic statues, altars, gods, rows of gigantic stone priests, pharaohs and boasts. The tantalising hints of colour that reveal a little of the immaculate splendour or lavish decoration that it would once have been. This was the temple of the Pharaohs – not for the likes of us mere mortals. Men in Egyptian robes wandered among the column and were eager to show you the best sights for a few coins.
Too soon time was up, for us, as it was for the gods so long before. It was too short. I wanted to wander more and soak up that atmosphere, architectural wonder and arrogant display of power. The Pharaohs were in a struggle to outperform each other. No extravagance had been spared, no craftsmanship unused, no signal of glory untried. As with the temples, mosques and cathedrals we had seen before Karnack was a show of might intended to impress. Armies of artists, architects and artisans had been deployed to create a juggernaut of splendour and we were standing in its fading grandeur. What would it have been like in its day when those gods were considered real? What pageants were performed? What ceremonies? What costume?
But the reverie had to end. It was time to go. Our armed guard, who had trailed around after us with one hand on his gun throughout our visit, keeping a wary eye for our safety, ushered us back to the coach.
Outside the people were desperate to sell you trinkets, books and ornaments. The tourist trade was dead. The terrorists had put people on starvation levels. There was no work. They were desperate to sell and to assure you that it was safe – not altogether borne out by the armed guard who had his beady eye on us the whole time.