Sarah Coles


2020 Jan to Feb.


Egypt keeps calling.  We want to go to Luxor.

But, return flights to Luxor are about £750.  So, we got return flights to Hurghada, diving resort on the Red Sea, for about £240.  Because Bob’s walking is poor, I asked for Assistance going through Gatwick, normally the most horrid airport around, with spiteful sadistic Security.  Assistance was bliss – ah the luxury of being treated as a sweet harmless imbecile – Security so gentle, and then a large area with padded chairs where we sat until called, and then carried on a buggy outside which dodged round airplanes and catering vehicles to our EzyJet plane.  We got on before anyone else, and stewardess puts cases.

Off, over winter clouds until the clarity of the Mediterranean and the tawny wastes of the Eastern Desert with rocks and sand slipping down mountains forming what look like river courses.  Hurghada airport, and inside is a Coptic Christian welcome of a nativity with white skinned holy figures.


To Mercure Hotel.  Hurghada is a diving resort on the Red Sea, and most here are young.

Bus, only about £7 each, to Luxor.  Off we go, others are middle class Egyptians, women mostly head covered.  Over the tawny ground skirting Hurghada for miles, then along, and up, and we are going through these jagged crumbly mountains – ancient geology, they were lifted with the convulsions that caused the Red Sea and the African rift valley to drop.  Police checks frequent.  Stop at a caravanserai for coffee and rails of tourist tat, crisps and sun cream.  It grows dark.  Down in the Nile valley we can see the river like a diamond necklace, and we turn from west to south, and go along the edge of a canal.  Mosques are lit like funfairs, twinkling strings of different colours cascading over minarets and domes.


Ah, Luxor!  Stop at a crummy dump by Luxor Station, and get taxi, to where?

Sonesta St George Hotel on Nile, we have been there before.  All chandeliered and glittering like a gambling casino, and after B has done a bit of haggling with receptionist, a decent room with a squint of the Nile.

To be in Luxor again.

Jolie Ville, King’s Island.

After about three days, to the Jolie Ville at King’s Island, about five miles south, reached  over a bridge, where our taxi is checked for bombs etc.  It has a central area for bar, eating, reception, and beyond scattered over the ground are 12 roomed chalets.  We have a most superior one, no one else near at all – the hotel is only fractionally full – and in the morning I make myself tea and sit outside with a book looking over trees and lawns and birds and a cat on my lap.  Tiddles comes every day; I save some titbit for her.  Loveliest bird is the green bee eater, with coppery bronzy sheen, small, darting.  The Nile misty blue.Our marbled floor shows billowing clouds and mountain ranges fading into the distance.

Nearly all other guests are Egyptians, usually in families.  Babies and toddlers are carried, and fathers dote on both boys and girls.  These fathers are outgoing and chat to other men – their women in hibjab chat to family.  Some wear niquab, full face veils, which they daintily lift for each mouthful when eating.  Little girls run around, older ones with hijab.   Their mothers who pile as many as six croissants on a plate, as well as taking eggs, cheese, buns etc are mostly obese.  At the pool men wear trunks, women if they go in jump down fully clothed or like the girls wear extremely modest swim suits.  I don’t go in at all (would look like a harlot in my ordinary swimsuit, and beside there’s a chill wind sweeping up the Nile).

There’s a cheaper hotel rate for Egyptians, but they must show a marriage licence.

It’s a venue for weddings.  One bride  – her upper half is bandaged in rolls of lace with only a terrified face visible, her lower half billowing over a crinoline – is like a zombie, but her groom all smiles.  Maybe she’s right to be scared: nearly all Muslim women (according to my book about five Egyptian women by Khul-Khaal) have undergone some form of genital mutilation.  Another plumper bride, more exposed flesh, a bit happier.  Wherever they go two crouching men with camera and paraphernalia walk backwards in front of them.

As well as Muslims, there are some devout Christian Copts (no headscarves) and they sit outside in a circle listening to their leader.  The assistant restaurant manager – Gerges (George) on his lapel, he had to be Christian with that name – gives a right angled bow to kiss the the priest’s hand – priest: long venerable beard, black robes, black pork pie hat, large wooden pectoral cross.  Later, in a corner of the gardens we talk to Gerges and to our surprise, after years working here, he detests Muslims.  He mimes a yashmaked woman and pulls a face.  He says ‘they are not good people’ and we Brits have been mad to let them into the UK.  (There were attacks on Coptic pilgrims last year).  President Sisi is ok he says.  (Most here loathe him).   (I accept and like these people, Coptic and Muslim, but what do I know what they think?  I remember the Hurghada taxi driver, young, droning on : ‘a Muslim woman is like a precious diamond, she is loved and must be kept apart from other men’s envious prying eyes.  She is kept apart and cherished’, kept to breed I think.  I said nothing.  What’s the point?  Up and up the population goes …

Later at Hatshepsut’s temple I meet a v. aimable Coptic priest (black scull cap) and his wife – it’s as if among Muslims we feel the solidarity of a common Christian heritage.  There are four Coptic churches in Luxor, he says, and 2000 in Egypt, not all still standing.  I’ve been in two – a similar ritualistic vibe to Greek Orthodox churches.

WiFi excellent, well for Egypt.  All the fresh veg and salads from the hundreds of plots around.  In the creek by the bridge are ibis, grey heron, purple heron, paddy bird glamorous in flight and dull standing.  All around are little palm doves, their brown plumage shading into pink, faded orange, grey and faint blue.

One day I cross the bridge from our island and walk down a dirt track – it leads to a large hut with a mud and straw mix forming the walls and inside, the cupboards, seats, shelves, and ditto outside against the wall a handy bench covered with a cloth.  Children, women, old woman in black – I am about to turn back but an older girl offers me tea.  I accept and sit on the bench.  We talk, rudimentarily (among the ‘activities’ at the hotel was an Arab lesson which I – the only one – asked for and the swimming pool overseer gave it, having to dash back regularly to check no one had drowned) but I can tell them my name etc.  The little girls show me the fading curling tattoos on their hands, and their plastic bracelets.  A boy has bandaged head.  Tea is far too strong but I drink it.  One woman starts breast feeding an active and vocal toddler.  At the end, I offer money to granny and another woman who accept it, and the hostess of the house who doesn’t.  Husband of hostess turns up on a motorbike, lightly shakes hands with the women and kisses granny, his mother, on both cheeks.  He is a chef on the Oberoi boat, he says.  Everyone seems to sit around happily.  All day?  Such peace in this blessed climate.

Go back across bridge past Security – ah, that purple heron – to B.  We sit by the Nile, now at midday palest dusty blue, and look down on a grey heron, it’s there every day.

Hotel Mercure.

Now we are a few miles to the north of main Luxor, beyond the great temple of Karnak, and what is so good is that it has a daily bus to the centre, it’s cheaper, and our room is much nearer reception and dining room.  This Mercure hotel is also designed by Hassan Fathy in a sort of Egyptian style, with arches.  The dining room is designed   like a temple, with at its centre an ‘ancient’ Egyptian barque (trumpet stern and bow) carrying Osiris to Abydos, and the capitals of columns opening out into pleated leaves, like the ones at Edfu.  Fantastic murals of mountains and water and enough animals to fill Noah’s ark.

The waiters say they remember us.  One gives me a hug.  I am rather surprised, prissily wondering if this is decorous.

The West Bank, Luxor.

Abdul, who has taxied us before, meets us when we come over on the ferry.  No other tourists on the ferry – these days they go in their coaches upstream and then over by a new bridge.

Various days.  The Ramasseum is Ramesses II’s mortuary temple.   We have it to ourselves when children screaming like swallows depart.  Decapitated giant Osirises stand, four in a row.  Even bigger was the sitting Ramesses, taller than the temple itself, and now prone – Ozymandias.  B takes a photo of me, tiny, my hand on him.  His much smaller mother stands nearby.

Coloured capitals, black green and yellow.  We sit, held in eternity.  And here, in relief, Ramesses sits under the Persea , the sacred tree of Heliopolis, on the leaves of which his names are being written by Atum, cat Seshat and ibis Thoth god of the dead, to make his reign last for ever.  It’s the same tree as the Ishead tree, an evergreen laurel, Mimusops schimperi, says the web. How I love these sacred trees, the recognition of the food they give us.  (Think of all those thoughtless graceless muttered graces before meals at Runton, when this is what it’s about).  In the garden of the Jolie Ville there’s a dom tree with, spiky palm leaves and down many a tomb the 3000 year old owner lies prostrate in worship before this tree, while the goddess offers him its fruit.  In a café a dom drink was on offer, it tasted a bit like dates.  (Look up ‘dom tree’ on Google, but before I get to Hyphaene Thebetica which grows in upper Egypt, it says, ‘join us to get whipped, cuffed and spanked …’!!!)

Abdul takes us to the tomb of Ay.  You go up to the Valley of the Kings, but you don’t enter the car park with its heaving hordes of coaches and people.  You turn off down a rocky track along a winding valley with the cliffs towering above to Ay’s tomb.  Still and dry.  The tomb’s guardian comes with us and he is thrilled – we are his first visitors today.  There.  Down, down, down, so deep, like a mine.  (Will B make it?  He does)  Twelve baboons, who are the hours of the night, each different.  Winged guardian goddesses at the sepulchre’s four corners.  Beautiful but still, deathly still.  Eventually back and breathe air, see sun – it’s like coming back from the dead.

Another tomb, among the tombs of the nobles I think, belongs to Nefrenpet and his wife.  They play chess.  B thinks he holds a rook in his hand.  A cat stands under her chair.

After, lunch outside at Marsam hotel overlooking green crops and two camels.

One day I went to Hatshepsut’s temple built in a natural amphitheatre of the  pinkish sacred mountain.  The pillars with their Hatshepsut/Osiris figures stand cross-armed, echoing ravines in the cliff behind, as if the folds of the ravine were giant prototypes for the figured pillars below, eternally waiting to be formed.  I approach the vast temple like a priestess, slowly walking up the long ceremonial ramp to the next, holier level.   Cow Hathor licks the hand of Hatsheput, female pharaoh who wears a token beard.

Iberotel, our last hotel, on the Nile.

Our room overlooks the Nile and we watch the evening feluccas, and the sun sinks behind the pink mountains of the west.  In the tombs it’s painted pink as sky goddess Nut takes it for the night and gives birth to it at morning.  The colours of the Nile, blues and black and khaki.  We have in our time climbed to the top of the holy Theban mountains – seen beyond, endless sand, above blue, below the river edged by green which abruptly turns to desert.  Understand something, up there.  An encompassing sense of reality.  Moses brought down commandments.  It’s forbidden to us now in this police state.

The Iberotel is just an upended matchbox, but no need to get a taxi or calèche all the time.  The horses pulling the calèche are in better nick than in the old days, and the calèche itself though furnishing and leather tired and worn are festooned with bright metal amulets, horse shoes and stars and discs with coloured stones and horses and Fatima’s hand.  But there are still young drivers who like shouting my horse is my Ferrari and slashing whips and cantering along the streets.

I keep telling B how excellent the new museum is, and after persuasion we set off in a calèche, jogging along at a gentle trot – this is the pace people have moved at for thousands of years, and high up too.  But, the museum, disastrous!  It’s a holiday and the place crammed with families and children taking selfies and screaming and laughing so despite the beautiful cat Sekmet etc, B hates it,

All the mosques around, and their minarets for the calling of the muezzin, similar to bells for the angelus and vespers, timing the hours.  Minarets, seeking the heights of heaven.  On the far bank we can see them, some like opening tulips.  Closer –two long lacy stems supporting dainty octagonal platforms topped by  three spheres supporting a crescent, one – surely ottoman – with a square stem, a square roofed platform, and pumpkin shape top, like its mosque.  One with conical hat and platform could be Rapunzel’s tower.

Oldest and holiest of all, a thousand years ago a church, is the mosque of Abu El Haggag, a holy man, incorporated like a birds nest among a few capitals of the temple.  People pray among hieroglyphs.  I go up, take off shoes, and from the little courtyard view the vastness of the temple.  Its minaret very old and plain, a smooth phallus, and another minaret, rather similar and part of the same mosque, with niches for the loudspeakers and a finial of a sphere supporting a star filled crescent.  This is the birthplace of Amun, still numinous, where the north/south axis of the Nile is crossed by the east west axis of the sun.  Temple, church, mosque, it still feels holy.  The avenue of lion sphinxes reaches from here three miles to Karnak.

Loudspeakers – sometimes beautiful tenors sing, but on Fridays a harsh rant goes on for hours.  On Fridays the men enter the mosque and the women sit picnicking with the children outside, or just pray.  Police in armoured van wait nearby with guns.

Stars!  Four, five, six and eight sided, on buildings, caleshes, in the sky.

Across the square, I sit with B by the window of Aboudi’s coffee shop, above Aboudi’s bookshop.   Coffee, and say goodbye to him, the manager/owner, so busy, so nice. Goodbye.   Drawbacks of Egypt?  Haggling – for calèche, taxi, in the souk etc.  Lack of women around, in shops, restaurants, hotel reception (a few at Karnak Mercure), as normal part of live.  At times I have felt like the last woman on the planet.  Pluses?  Too many to list.  The sheer niceness of the people.  The beauty.  Just to sit in Aboudi’s coffee and look down on the square and the temple, and across the river to the sacred mountain.

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