Sarah Coles




Off to the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo, which in etchings appears a village but is now an integral part of this dry dusty flat metropolis bumped by the Turkish Citadel.   It’s in a sumptuous building IMG_4061 costing millions, and with a very ecumenical photo of President Sisi, a mullah and an archbishop cheery together at its opening.

What’s fascinating here is the link between Pharaonic past and Christian and Muslim futures, quite apart from the exquisite wood carved ceilings and jalousie windows from Coptic palaces (=? So the website says) into the building) to hide those within, such as I have seen in Spain. Two saints, Ahraqas and Augani, are depicted with dog faces – St Christopher in the eastern churches is often shown with a dog face carrying the Christ child over the river – and I make the association IMG_4069with Abubis, IMG_4088IMG_4080jackal/dog god of the Pharaohs who cares for the dead, guiding them through the underworld. Here are ankhs, symbol of luck to the ancient Egyptians, turning into Christian crosses, and here is Mary suckling Christ, just as goddesses are shown in the temples of Luxor nursing royal infants.. An early pulpit is identical to the modern Muslim minbar. A map in Arabic and English shows Mary and Joseph’s route with Jesus as they escaped from Herod. Each resting point is now a site of Coptic pilgrimage, including the IMG_4524church here.

IMG_4036IMG_4166Battered taxi breaks down on the way back. We wait while the driver tries to summon a spare taxi, which he eventually does. Bob pays him the agreed price, some of which the old driver gives to the new driver to take us back to the Barcelo.

IMG_4091IMG_4049 (Edited)Next day, B fed up with Cairo, ‘I’m breathing this smog! The pyramids are grey’ (they are like grey triangles from our window) stays at the hotel while I get a bus to the metro. This is more like it! Keening eastern music blares. Other passengers hand my £E5 to the driver and return the change, and point where to go. Metro, busy, and cheap. Am helped to buy ticket. Down to the platform with the right destination, stand in the area designated ladies carriages, and here is the train, packed but a IMG_4635seat is soon relinquished for this oldie. All women have heads covered, ditto in streets. Change trains, and then out at Mar Girgis in Old Cairo, and into IMG_4090the museum again to buy a photo ticket and take pix. Then, into Coptic churches – but although they have evocative names like the Hanging Church, they have been burnt down and built up and painted and restored so recently they have lost a little of the awesome sanctity of age. Also into the recently renovated Ben Ezra Synagogue – its focus on the central Torah, the engraved Word of God, with galleries up there I think for women – but very much renovated, and is it used? Adjacent shops of pricey glittering repros from the tombs and cheaper tat.

Back by Metro (oh how I love being the only westerner around) with the ladies, and walk back, it’s quite some way, and tricky with the pavements frequently interrupted or smashed or petering out being ten inches higher than the road, and all busy and dusty, to the hotel, where Bob is reading the downloaded Times beside the pool under a tented divan.



IMG_4177West bank, fields of lush bananas and lucerne and sugar cane beside the Colossi of Memnon sitting huge and IMG_4507cracked, and beyond labourers excavate the adjacent temple. Incised along their sides are the two figures of the Nile god Harpi tying the lotus and papyrus together, signifying the union of Upper and Lower Egypt. They are elderly, androgynous with moobs, and look as if they’re h a tug of war. Then suddenly, the Nile’s water can reach no further, and we are on skeletal dry soil and tawny hills and rocks, stark, dug with piles of shards beneath pillared cliffs. Villages, which for centuries made a living on treasures of the tombs, have been forcibly abandoned. Some inhabited nearer the Nile are painted with highlights of Mecca trips. New buildings as the population explodes.

IMG_4428 (Edited)Women in black, men wear galabias. Few tourists on the ferry, and those there are have guides.    Coaches, such as IMG_4426IMG_4634(1)IMG_4622(1)IMG_4616IMG_4378 (Edited)there are, of Chinese, Japanese, Malays and some Egyptians, loop miles up river to the bridge and back to the Valley of the Kings with its crowded stalls of tat and long tombs of ceremony, tedious in the extreme. Phew, we went there years ago. We go to the tombs of the nobles, because they are too small for groups, and because they show ‘ordinary’ life over 4000 years ago. Dancing to blind harpists, women and children at funerals, girls applying unguents, cones of incense on heads, fishing with a dog and a hunting cat. (Or is the cat waiting for a snack?) The birds in the air! The nets full of fish! The food given to the gods, bunches of flowers too. Here are Traherne’s crops of immemorial wheat, I IMG_4161IMG_4519never understood what that line of poetry meant but now I do, a perfect moment still for ever, oh I loved that most, here underground yet curiously alive after these 1000s of years, in this perfect silence – husband Sennajem cutting and wife picking up the wheat heads, beside a row of date and ginger palms. I am there, with them. In another tomb we wander under woven awnings as variously patterned as the prayer mats in the mosque, and under trellised grape vines which still and perfect spread over the smooth wavering roof. Husband and wife in coiled patterned black wigs. The gods care for them – Anubis the jackal lays them out when dead and guides them through the underworld, Osiris sits for resurrection, and Maat with her feather weighs their IMG_4700 IMG_4701 (Edited)souls, and Isis, and hawk Horus, and Nut who swallows the sun at twilight, loops her naked body over the stars and gives birth to the sun at dawn. Geese fly for ever over walls. And here’s the heretic pharaoh Akhenaton with his long feminine face, moobs and the rays of living sun stroking his face. In the museum too.

Climbing down the tombs is like caving, going down this way and that – yes, there are steep steps, and sometimes rails, but often just a rough rock surface to cling to. Down and along and down again. Photography is forbidden, but I mime click click and say Baksheesh? to the guardian who is usually happy to assent – the older the more agreeable. (The iphone does no damage). But before I learnt this, I brought the iPhone out and the ferocious young guardian jumped, putting a hand before the lens and shouting No Photo! He hexed the camera! The iphone did not work for two days. I had to turn the whole thing off and re-boot – quite spooky.

IMG_4445 (Edited)Trees down here include the sacred Ishead, Ficus sycomorus; sometimes the tree nymph holds out her breast to the deceased, or sometimes she’s just a head and arms, and sometimes an entire tree goddess. Ba birds with human faces lurk below – like the Ka, part of the immortal soul. Concepts of eternity. In several temples the Ishead is shown with Pharaoh, usually Ramesses II, watching while the goddess scribe helped by ibis Thoth inscribes his name on each leaf, spelling the eternity of his reign. Date palms, and doum palms, all as grow beneath our balcony.

Temples, of Seti I, and Medinet Habu, and best the Ramasseum where Ozymandias King of Kings, still lies, huge and prone. A goddess suckles a prince. On the outer walls an orderly Pharaoh overcomes bearded Libyans who lie untidily small and dead.   Piles of penises and hands are counted. Courtyards and chambers with astrological ceilings proceed in a straight line to the holy of holies. Heads are often defaced, by Christian Copts whose chapels and monasteries, now dismantled, were tucked into corners of various buildings all over the place. While at it, they defaced as many of Min’s phalli and god faces as they could reach, and often adding a cross or two.

Why after the fineness of Pharaonic and Roman art did Coptic art rapidly deteriorate into a rough childish style? Ditto of course westwards in Europe, from classicism to primitivism. Did they forget? Did they regard it as more authentic?

You can tell how high the sand buried the temples over the centuries by the rows of long hollows in the stone, where people used – this is what I presume, because they did similarly on Easter Island – to scrape holy dust for worship.

IMG_4481Finally, Abdul takes us to Sheilk Ali for a mint tea (his family tomb robbers extraordinaire, and from his grandfather years ago Bob was given a ushabti, a faïence servant for use in the underworld ), and then to the ferry, and we return to the Winter Palace to walk through flowers and the grove of sacred trees to the swimming pool for lunch.


We can see Luxor temple, with the Abu el Haggag mosque atop, from our room at the Winter Palace.   A sacred way lined with sphinxes ran from Karnac temple, with its holy lake and scarab, to IMG_4651IMG_4120 (Edited)IMG_4604IMG_4609Luxor temple. At the festival of Opet pharaoh and priests proceeded from one to the other. Now, they are busy excavating it, so we can all eventually walk from one to the other (splendid though rather tiring in the heat). One Friday I am outside, by Aboudi’s coffee shop, and men come tumbling out while women wait in the square, and an old man tells me how Jews, Christians and Muslims all share the same god, (oh how I agree, and polytheism too, and animism, recognising the sacred everywhere) and then tells me to come inside the mosque, so, up the steps, shoes off and look down on Ramasses and massive temple pillars (you can see how huge by the tiny tourists nearby), and inside the mosque, stepping on rugs, where men are still praying eastwards, where a coarse niche has been cut from a temple pillar still inscribed with hieroglyphs, and a frieze of ancient carvings. Do they realise they are making obeisance to the ancient gods of Egypt? Photo, photo, says the man, and so, hanging back, feeling disrespectful, I do, and happily no one looks askance. Shown a sufi’s tomb covered in green baize where women are praying with their hand on it so I follow suit and pray that Bill and Toby and Margot and Bella and Dexter and Geordie and Fred and Max and George may be blessed and well. Invited, I throw 20 Egyptian pounds into a bucket for orphan children, and as we part 10 to the man.


Time to go home.  On our last day, I take a photo of Abdul with Bob, and then he gives me scratchy kisses on both cheeks, and grabs Bob and kisses him too.   Then, ‘I’ve never been kissed by a taxi driver in my life before’ Bob says, ‘it was like being kissed by a porcupine’.



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