Monday, November 30, 2009
Luxor Part Two--After Noon
Despite my life-long fascination with ancient Egypt, I have to admit that when I think of Luxor and Karnack, it’s not the temples or the monuments that come to mind, but Johnny Carson’s skit about Karnack the Magnificent. Apparently that bias is more pervasive than I realize because I took almost no notes as we visited these famous temple sites. Perhaps it has as much to do with the fact that they were inundated with the herds of tourist (at least the Temple of Luxor was) as much as anything else. We had definitely been spoiled by the freedom and unobstructed views we have had the last few days in Middle Egypt and landing back in the midst of thousands of other tourists was a bit of culture shock. It might also have a teeny bit to do with the fact that by the time we set out, in early afternoon, I was actually ready for a nap. But one cannot visit Egypt without seeing ancient Thebes, and so onto the bus we climbed, cameras in hand for another afternoon of Temple Tromping.
The area or Luxor has been described as the world’s largest open air museum and that’s not an exaggeration. We began our tour by visiting the Temple of Karnack, an immense complex that Pharaohs added to for more than 13 centuries. The size is simply breathtaking and the scale model in the museum is about the only way to really appreciate what it might have looked like in its heyday with hypostyle halls, courtyards, a lake, avenue of Sphinxes and temples to as many gods as Rome has churches dedicated to saints.
We were privileged to have the director of antiquities for Upper Egypt join us at the site and give us a tour of the most recent excavations. (Could I have written a more dull and boring sentence straight out of some tourist diary if I had tried?) The thing that intrigued me the most was the bathhouse, with its little “private” closets. I would have liked to have learned more about the way it was plumbed, but perhaps that’s not something the excavators know yet. In any event, it showed that the ancients were just as fond of their creature comforts, including a nice refreshing bath, as we are.
The Temple of Karnack and the Temple of Luxor were connected by an approximately two mile long avenue of Sphinxes. A cult figure of the god Amun was periodically taken from one temple to the other. As we walked through a line of the remaining Sphinxes, all I could think of was that I hoped Fadel didn’t think we had any desire to recreate that pilgrimage by personally walking the distance. There’s hands-on-history and then there is butt-on-bus history and this afternoon I am definitely in the bob category. What makes these Sphinxes unique is that instead of human heads, they have rams’ heads.
Visiting the area is a little like speed-surfing through centuries of architectural styles, historical events and famous names. Everywhere you turn, is another amazing vista—an obelisk here, a pylon there, a pillar over there, a monumental statue at the next turn. Ramesses, Tuthmosis, Hatshepsut, Amenhotep…the litany of names rolls around my head making me almost giddy. I wander in a bit of a daze, the scenes, the hieroglyphs, the buildings rising like the Nile itself in a flood in my mind. Perhaps when I put this up on the blog, I’ll just let some of the pictures speak for themselves. A picture is worth a 1000 words, right?
The next stop for the day is Luxor Temple. Our visit has been timed so that we arrive just at sunset, to take full advantage of the enchanting play of light against the stone and then the stunning effect of the artificial illumination. Fadel takes us down the other end of the row of Sphinxes that we saw at Karnack and while I’m tempted to lean against one of them, it is sunset and I recall reading that nasty creatures like scorpions and vipers come about now. Of all the things I would not like to encounter on this trip, an Egyptian cobra is probably at the top of the list, with Cleopatra’s asp a very close second. Although seeing as how this is one of the most visited tourist sites in the whole country, no self-respecting snake should be here, says the woman who came home to find a huge black snake coiled in her kitchen and she lives in the middle of the city!!!! With my ability to attract venomous creatures, I think standing instead of leaning is the wisest option right now.
The statues and pillars take on a life of their own after dark and it’s not hard to imagine being transported back to the days when the Pharaohs ruled, despite the crush of tourists. The soft yellow glow illuminating the temple almost looks like it could be flickering torches and fires and the buzz of languages—I catch bits of German, Japanese, English, Arabic, something Slavic, Spanish and Italian—becomes almost chant-like, the individual words all blending into a kind of prayer for the ages. It is an enchanted, enchanting moment in an enchanted, enchanting place.
Fadel has arranged for an authentic Egyptian dinner at a private home, but some of us, me included, just aren’t up for it tonight. It was a long day and tomorrow we have to be on the bus by 7 am to go to the Valley of the Kings, so about half of us choose to just go back to the hotel. I’m sure the meal will be outstanding, but I’m not very hungry and besides, I’ve lost my guidebook which accounts for the rather truncated historical context. Without notes or guidebook, I’m forced to rely on my memory of what Fadel told us and at this point in the trip, my memory card is getting a bit full.
There is a bookstore in a complex of shops near the hotel, along with a much needed ATM, so I decide to go there immediately and not return to my room where I would be tempted to take a hot bath and curl up watching French tv. The bookstore is small, but has a goodly selection of English books. I tell the owner that I am looking for a guidebook and he offers me The Rough Guide, which is the one I had. I wasn’t all that delighted with it, so I opt for Lonely Planet instead. If I had the carrying space, I’d have brought home dozens of marvelous books about Egypt, but I decide on just one more—a guidebook to the language of the ancient Egyptians translated into modern English—expressions that would have been in use in those times, which may come in handy if and when I ever write that novel.
I give the man my credit card and he has a problem with getting the machine to work, so he gets one of the other merchants to help. When he hands me the receipt to sign, it’s for LE15 (about $5) more than the price he quoted. I sigh interiorly, figuring this is just another one of those incidents when tourists get ripped off, but I point it out anyway. To my surprise, he immediately opens the drawer and hands me the LE15, with an apology. No fuss. No argument. Just the money back. I’ll admit I’m a little shocked. Every other time I’ve had a dispute over change, the merchant has sworn up and down that he didn’t have the change and couldn’t possibly give me anything.
I start to put my purchases into my purse when the owner softly, almost shyly says something that literally causes my jaw to drop. “Do you know Jesus as your savior?” I blink. And then I blink again. “Excuse me?” He repeats the question. I’m more than a little taken aback. “Are you a Christian?” I ask stupidly, since why would a Muslim ask me about Jesus. He nods. “A Copt?” He shakes his head vigorously. “No, I am a Protestant. I do not worship Santa Maria,” he says.
I may have just encountered the only evangelical Protestant in all of Egypt in, of all places, a bookstore in Luxor. He really wants me to answer his question and so putting aside all of my own theological conundrums and questions, my own issues with Catholicism and Protestantism, doctrine and dogma, I recall when my Nazarene minister friend insisted that I “walk the Roman road of faith” with her and so I say, “Yes, I have.” He smiles and begins to speak about his own faith and the role Jesus plays. I’ve had a good many surreal experiences in my life, but this has to be up near the top. Being evangelized in Egypt. All of a sudden, he reaches under a pile of boxes and brings out a small black-bound New Testament in English. “I’d like you to have this,” he says, handing it to me. At first I was going to refuse since I have more than enough New Testaments to start my own bookstore, but then I realize that a gift refused blesses neither of us. I thank him for it, and place it in my bag with the other two books. “If you are here tomorrow, come to see me,” he says. I tell him that we are leaving early in the morning to see the Valley of the Kings, and thank him again.
I head back toward the entrance to the hotel, barely seeing the armed guards at the entrance. From the Temple of Amun to the New Testament—a living metaphor of the history of the Middle East encapsulated in a single afternoon.