Sarah Coles

EGYPT – TOMBS & TEMPLES – January 2014


Our 7th visit.

Luxor Temple, not crowded because the tourists have flown.  A stall offers free booklets on Why Islam is the Tolerant Religion and Why Allah is God of All, and Bob picks up one for his friend Colin Gilbert, a creationist.  The Avenue of sphinxes, the towering pylons with slots for flag poles, the temple of the sacred barque, the hypostyle hall, Alexander the Great’s additions, the nubile breasts of Ramasses II’s daughter who reaches to his knee, a carving of the cow goddess Hathor and, lines of oblong indentations in the walls where people scraped dust for unknown holy purpose.  Over centuries, as the sand piled up these lines move higher and higher.  (Similar indentations on Easter Island).

On walls, priests carry the sacred barque.   (Israelites carried the ark of the Covenant, which was a chest).   Above an unexcavated hall stands a mosque, it’s still there way above, people peer down at us, and now the holiest place in Luxor- annually a ceremony is performed with a holy boat carried around.

Boats – for passage, the sun’s passage, life’s passage.   In the tombs these boats are painted on the walls  From the hotel, as the sun sets over the western mountains, a felucca sails over the pinky grey water with the standing ram headed god Aken and his passengers – it is mythic, he goes with souls to the western bank, the land of the dead.  He’ll be back in the morning, but now he seems gone for ever.

Felucca on Nile

Karnak, vast.  I love these gods, perfect, eternal, youthful, hieratic.  Columns are bundles of papyrus, or single stems ending in buds or flowers, and at their base you see the pyramidal sepals; everywhere are the gods, especially the harvest god Min who displays an erect phallus with no balls.  All is symbolic.  A kingfisher flies from the sacred lake where the barques floated. Dense parties of Egyptian tourists who unlike us pay virtually nothing to enter, but they don’t walk far.

East to west bank of Nile.  We clank over iron planks from the quay to the ferry.  Cloudy, grey water glints.  The women on the ferry wear black – the uniform of the married woman, sometimes adorned with crystal swirls of dragons, or diamante patterns, and always clean, immaculately clean.

Down into the tomb of Userhat, here he is, his wife and mother behind him, welcomed by the sycamore goddess who stands in front of the tree with its leaves and figs pecked by birds (sparrows says our Nagel guide, but we think bulbuls). A woven canopy painted above, and here are water birds, and here the long fingered pale female mourners in white, and here the funerary feast and loaves, and priests in leopard skins.

sugar cane

Walk to the Ramasseum restaurant via crops of sugar cane,  lucerne, spring onions and dill.  An alabaster workshop with irregular blocks of glittering alabaster.  Chip chip chip.

Ramasseum temple – Ramasses is beside the sacred tree where Sashet inscribes every leaf with his name, each one a year of his reign.  Behind her the ibis god, Thoth supervises.  Ished tree.  Persea tree.  Each tree is sacred with its goddess.  Above us the vulture blue and orange unfolds wings to protect us.  Ozymandias, who is Ramasses lies broken, vast.

We eat goats cheese and cucumber and tomatoes and dry dusty grainy leathery bread, under date palms.

One day we go to Howard Carter’s House.  It’s as if he’d just gone out for a stroll.  His walking sticks, one with a carved knob, a letter or two just received or written, his dark room for photography, his bedroom with its single neat bed, the double twin room for Lord Carnarvon and ??? did his daughter Lady Evelyn sleep there?  The kitchen, even a fridge.  Dining room for four.  Gramophone records, Beethoven, his books (mostly trials of criminals), massive camera on a tripod.  We have mint tea in the garden – a sand storm is getting up, no wonder temples were buried in sand.

Lunch fried aubergines in batter, a bit of goats cheese and cucumber and tomato.

Ramasses’ name is written on the leaf

It’s the detail which fascinates.  At the temple Medinet Habu, there’s the interaction of gods and people, and the sacredness of bees, geese, vultures, cattle, ibis, hawks, blue birds being set free by priests, and plants – that hawk, there’s Horus, that ibis, there’s Thoth.  Ramasses kneels in the before the holy tree, again, and his name is written on every leaf, and he reigns for ever and ever.  Sometimes Thoth writes it, sometimes Sashet.   Battles, piles of penises and piles of hands, lion hunts.

Lentil soup at a café where Bob is incensed by an eagle in a cage.  It croaks.


Mint tea by café where palms are circled by fossils like poached eggs.  I gather some as we walk – a book suggests jelly fish?

Birds call, men thump earth with mattocks, children call, diamonds of light fall through the lattice awning, light bulbs in lacy pottery lamps and a huge pottery jar dotted with holes looking like a wasps nest.A polite educated bespectacled man offers a lift to Seti I’s temple but asks four pounds sterling, so we get in a taxi we have used before.  You bad man!  I was first!  You very bad people!  Our taxi driver says, he’s from outside, and chuckles.

Protecting vultures

Tomb of Seti I – here are Prophecy’s suckling goddesses – two of them suckling Seti aged 12 or 14.  Prophecy is writing a book about wet nurses, and she says ancient Egypt was the place where they were revered and created goddesses.  Seti guides her arm while Isis proffers her breast.  Barques on the walls and vultures blue and orange on the ceilings to protect us.  We are alone, except for a self appointed ‘guide’ – here Amun!  Here Isis! says this  man who wants baksheesh for annoying us.

Unattended we are money boxes on the move.  People fly to offer advice, to sell, to guide.

Tomb of Roy and his wife, the mourners in white gauzy skirts, and their stately progress through the halls of death, through fields, trees, animals, cared for by gods.   We squint to make out their gathering linseed.  Our sycamore goddess.

I go in temple of Hatshepsut where the pillars echo the cliffs behind.  It’s hard and over-restored, and heaving with Egyptian coachloads, and a long mall of stalls.  Bob walks over the shard fossil strewn pink hills and I join him outside the tomb of Neferrenpet; acres lie before us dimpled with excavations, it’s still a goldmine, and ant lines of labourers zigzag up a hill to a lorry to disgorge hods of soil.  They chat and take their time.  Down the dark shaft of steps into the tomb, following the guardian with his keys.  Bob is thrilled in this tomb to see man and his wife playing chess, while a cat plays under a chair.  I love seeing the garden, with a T shaped pool full of fish, and dom palms.  Heaven is here.

At the restaurant under the palms, the locals say no tourists, it’s desperate.

Valley of Queens – like the valley of Kings only much smaller – the tedium of royalty all over the world, endless ceremony and repetition – the gods each with their insignia – that goddess with a chair on a head = a throne, that one with a basket above the chair = mistress of the house.  Good, but not as intriguing as the exquisite minutiae of the nobles life, eating, drinking, harvesting, enjoying life, while we look and look and look, and odd tourists sometimes come and go.

Fossils from the Theban mountains

Then, I climb over the mountain while Bob walks the road.  The freedom of leaving the vendors and coaches and stepping on the stony shard ridden mountain side dotted with fossils.   Men run after me, your husband!  He is there.  They must think we’ve had a massive row.  I explain.  But you need guide.  I don’t need guide.  I come not as guide but as friend.  I don’t want anyone!  I have to shout to get it across, and feel unkind but I want to be alone.  I walk up and up, hot and silent, the sky deepest blue above, alone in this silent valley, a thrilling moment as I wonder if I am lost.  The ridge, and there is the long hazy green strip of vegetation either side the river, the pink ochre mountains.    Down to the ancient artisans village, and a man gives me a lift on a motor bike – ah, I am young again – to the restaurant.  Bob has ordered us battered aubergines, tomato and parsley with lemon, tomato and courgette still sizzling. A tawny orange cat at our feet, fossils ringing the trees. The cat enjoys French fries as if they were sardines.   Beside us men pray on a  mat.  Like yoga.  Pretty quick, says Bob, that man just said Allah Akbar a few times.  Another man eats his lunch, he says he’s a Copt.

The Magic Mountain

Last day, and our driver takes us to the artisans village, and we climb up the steps, up up up, and walk along the ledge above the cliff – a push and cheerio – it is vertiginous and my thighs tingle with terror.  Little birds the colour of the pale pinky brown shale mountain.  Crevasses and ravines crack into our solid ground, leaving solitary pillars and dangerous promontories.  Far away is the misty ribbon of Nileland, and sandy stony desert stretches endlessly.  Sickled winged swifts swoop, up here is all the world.  For Egyptians, all was symbolic of the divine, and so it seems to us now.  The birds crisscross in the air.  On and on, and now we’re above Hatshepsut’s temple with butts cowling over lights which at night turn this into a magic mountain which can be seen from the town.  Then, a tricky glissade down, and now occasionally overtaken by Egyptians, leaping while we slowly and fearfully stagger to the road.




Back over the river.  Morning it was khaki taffeta shot with navy. Now it is sparkling with sequins.  Sometimes it’s blue.  Or silver.  Or a pale tender bronze after the sun goes down.  Dusty pink.  A rippling ribbon of blue – it’s the effect they get in theatres  when for water they wave blue cloths to and fro.   Maya, changing, mutable.  All is illusion.


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