Sunday, 13 February 2011

Egypt, 1986

Since Egypt has been much in the news recently, I am giving here an account which I wrote after visiting the country 25 years ago. I have not been back there since.

It is easy getting a visa for Egypt, and the first problem encountered is likely to be that of the local currency. This is, confusingly enough, the Egyptian pound, which is divided into 100 piastres. Its export is prohibited, so it is not easy to obtain in England. At he bank at Heathrow Airport on the way out, I was told that only a small quantity could be supplied, at the rate of 2.40 to the £, and I rashly assumed I could get a more favourable rate in Egypt itself. Not so! Our visas were stamped “Exempt from currency transfer”, which allegedly meant we were not obliged to purchase a statutory minimum amount of local currency on entry, but nonetheless half our party were pulled out at customs, apparently at random, and made to change all their sterling at the rate of 2.00, which proved to be the prevalent level. This must be the only currency in the world where you get a better deal at Heathrow!
The puzzle does not end there, because in Egypt there is even more currency black-marketeering than in Russia. You can scarcely go five minutes from your hotel or tourist site without being solicited to change money. The dealers are big operators, carrying several hundreds of pounds in their pockets, and you need to count the notes carefully to stop them cheating you. But whereas in Russia they offer three or four times the official rate for sterling, in Egypt the rate is exactly the same, at 2.00. So what is it all about? Our guide thought it might have something to do with the need for hard currency for drug trafficking.
Having obtained your Egyptian pounds, you find that small change simply does not exist. I didn’t handle a single coin during my visit, and the smallest note in general circulation was for 25 piastres, anything less being very rare. Consequently the prices for smaller items were largely fictitious. The lesser notes were of course always so worn and grubby as to be practically illegible, and to make matters even more confusing, the same denomination often existed in two or more different sizes and colours.
We were amazed to find that retailers took a cut on the sale of postage stamps. A postcard to England was priced at 25 piastres, but the hotel shops charged 30 or 35 for them. I had not come across this system in any other country.
Needless to say, nothing could be bought without prolonged bargaining, and the tourist sites were besieged by hucksters selling the most frightful rubbish; usually plaster painted to look like basalt. Apparently in the old days one hired a Turkish dragoman to beat them off with his stick, which sounds an excellent system. All their wares were identical throughout the country, and were clearly mass-produced in vast quantities. I saw no sign of genuine “native handicrafts” anywhere. The huckster who tried to attract us with the immortal slogan, “Genuine Egyptian souvenir – made in Hong Kong!” spoke truly. A similar problem existed in the better class of tourist shops: these sold locally made carpets and papyrus paintings, but almost all were sad copies of ancient art. I found it all rather depressing. In the end all I bought was some Moslem calligraphy, which looked rather more genuine.

Since we arrived in Cairo after dark, it was only at breakfast that we realised we were looking out at the pyramids. From ancient times, all the towns were on the east bank of the Nile, and the west bank, “the side of the dead” was reserved for tombs. But our hotel was in Giza, an unpleasant suburb of recent construction across the river from Cairo, extending right up to the feet of the Great Pyramid. We had a fine view from our roof: a mile or so of flat green fields of maize and sugar cane with a network of irrigation canals, rapidly being covered by a leprous growth of housing development of 3 or 4 storey concrete blocks, like you see in Greece but of even worse construction. Because it hardly ever rains in Egypt, the cultivated area ends very suddenly: the land rises slightly, the canals stop, and in a couple of paces you move from green fields to barren rock and sand where nothing whatsoever grows. There are no cacti in Egypt, and the desert looks like a cross between a beach at low tide and an exceptionally desolate building site. The waters used to cover the fields every year in the summer inundation, but since the building of the Aswan High Dam the river no longer floods. The pyramids and other tombs were built on the edge of the desert, just out of reach of the flood-water. Nowadays the population of Egypt is growing at more than a million a year, and it is the cultivable land that is being covered with housing; which is a worrying concern.

Nobody knows exactly how many pyramids there were, but the famous ones at Giza are three in number: in chronological order (and order of diminishing size) built by Cheops, Chefren and Mycerinus (these being the Greek versions of their names) in the Old Kingdom around 2500 BC. In other words, when Julius Caesar met Cleopatra in Egypt, the pyramids had already reached more than half their present age. An Egyptian proverb says, “Everything fears Time, but Time fears the Pyramids”. One of the Arab Caliphs tried to demolish them, but gave up after a few years on finding that no visible progress had been made. Barring a major nuclear explosion, they are going to stand until this region disappears beneath the sea. It is an awesome thought that they will quite likely outlast the human race. The other point about the pyramids is that they are extremely large. They are very, very BIG. From the hotel roof we could not get a true assessment of their size. It was only when we used binoculars to pick out the tiny dots of people around the base that the colossal scale became apparent. The three great pyramids are, mysteriously, not quite in a straight line. They were built after a few earlier prototypes (the “step pyramid” at Saqqara, and the “bent pyramid”), but within a short period of time the Egyptians had forgotten how to build pyramids, so that later ones are just heaps of rubble, like the collapsed Pyramid of Unas. It is enough to make you believe in landings by gods and spacemen. (Nowadays it is thought the Egyptian Old Kingdom collapsed due to climate change and severe drought)

(Here the pyramid of Mycerinus is on the left, Chefren in the centre, and Cheops in the background on the right)

Nobody knows exactly what the pyramids were for. The King’s Chamber inside the Great Pyramid contains a broken sarcophagus and nothing else: no reliefs or wall-paintings. Herodotus mentions a tradition that Cheops was buried on an island in the Nile, and his possible tomb has been located. The interior of the Great Pyramid is not for the claustrophobic or the stiff-jointed: there is a clamber up a very steep ramp without much headroom, leading to a chamber with a foetid atmosphere and insufficient oxygen. (But this is not the worst place to be “entombed with the pharaohs”; that would be the Pyramid of Unas at Saqqara, or even worse, the crypt of the Temple of Hathor at Dendyra. I should imagine anyone trapped there would go berserk in the first hour).
Around the pyramids are a clutter of outbuildings, including various tiny pyramids which probably housed the pharaohs’ wives. Originally each pyramid had a massive stone ramp running down to the high-water point of the Nile, but nowadays only that of Chefren remains. It is here that you find the Sphinx. (As with pyramids, there are a great many sphinxes in Egypt, but this is the largest and most famous. It was supposed to be a natural outcrop of limestone, too soft for building purposes, which was carved into this shape rather than being demolished. The body is much decayed and the legs heavily restored, but the head is still intact apart from the nose and beard. Tradition says the head is that of Chefren himself. Until fairly recently it was three-quarters buried in the drifting sands, as were many of the Egyptian monuments before modern excavation. Besides the vast bulk of the Pyramids, the Sphinx is really quite small; about the size of a detached house. Photographs usually give a misleading impression here. There was an excellent son-et-lumiere presentation (in English) at the Pyramids in the evening.

Cairo is one of the largest cities in the world, and one of the most chaotic. Traffic was appalling, and not made any easier by the intermingling of donkeys and camels with the motor vehicles. I saw a family of four all mounted on one motor-scooter, with the smallest child standing between the father’s legs. One vast area near the centre consisted entirely of Moslem tombs, some of them very elaborate, like miniature mosques. There were also some dreadful districts of slums: concentrations of little cabins which made the housing blocks of Giza look quite respectable. We spent some time in the souk, a series of streets with marvellous-smelling spice stalls as well as the usual tourist shops. Most of us bought the traditional local dress here; the galabiya, a kind of long cotton nightshirt, which together with the head-covering proved very comfortable in that climate. It being Friday, many people were praying in the street, but generally militant Islam was not much in evidence. We were taken round two mosques: a spectacular but flashy 19th century one built by Mohammed Ali inside Saladin’s citadel, and a much superior construction by Sultan Hassan in the 14th century, with lots of multicoloured marble. We also saw a couple of ancient but still-functioning Coptic Christian churches, with most peculiar icons dating back to the 4th century, and in the middle of an impenetrable maze of alleyways and courtyards, a very old synagogue, now being restored. The Coptic services were all in Arabic, and the local Christians looked indistinguishable from the Moslems. We saw various Holy Places, notably the cellar where Mary, Joseph and Jesus hid on their flight to Egypt, and the pool, now dried up, where Pharaoh’s daughter found the infant Moses!
We spent an afternoon in the Egyptian Museum, where the main attraction is the treasure of Tutankhamun, consisting of more than three thousand separate items. When you consider that he was a very unimportant pharaoh at the tail-end of a dynasty, who died whilst still a teenager and was soon afterwards purged from the official king-lists, you wonder how much a really great ruler like Seti I or Ramses II would have left, before the tomb-robbers got at it. (Our guide explained that tomb-robbing was an economic necessity: without the robbers constantly recycling the treasure from the tombs, Egypt would soon have run out of gold). The statues of the pharaohs all looked exactly alike, serene and superhuman; the sole exception being those of the heretic Akhenaten, who had a long nose, feminine lips, a swollen stomach and fat thighs. The case of Hatshepsut, the only ruling queen, is exceptionally confusing because she was always portrayed as a man – added to which her successor, Thutmose III (her nephew, stepson or husband – or possibly all three) tried to obliterate her memory by recarving all the inscriptions which mentioned her. We picked up all sorts of snippets of information: that a straight beard meant a subject was still alive, whereas a curled one meant he was dead; that kings were always shown stepping out with the left foot; that thrones always had had lotus and papyrus intertwined to symbolise the union of Upper and Lower Egypt; that each city had its own trinity of gods (Father, mother and son); and that hieroglyphics can run up/down, left/right or right/left, and that the only way of finding out is to see which way the birds face! There was, of course, far too much to see, leading to cultural indigestion.
A few miles south of Cairo is Memphis, the ancient capital of the Old Kingdom, with its burial ground at Saqqara out in the desert to the west. Nothing at all remains of Memphis apart from a gigantic statue of Ramses II and a rather smaller alabaster sphinx, both dating from the New Kingdom. By contrast, Saqqara is one of the most amazing places I have ever seen: a mass of ancient remains spread out across miles of totally sterile and lifeless rock and sand. We visited the underground tomb of Ptah-hotep, an Old Kingdom official, which had marvellous carved reliefs, featuring not just religious processions but also scenes of everyday life, such as animals coming to market and boatmen brawling, all very naturalistic and lifelike. The biggest structure in Saqqara is the Step Pyramid, a kind of prototype built of small stones for the very early King Djoser. There were also several later and very inferior pyramids; small, shoddily built and partially collapsed; and a vast array of what looked like other structures yet to be excavated. Looking out over that desolate landscape, you felt that if you ventured out into the mysterious humps and hollows with a spade, there was no knowing what you might turn up. Again we thought, how much do we really know about early Egypt? Is the chronology in fact correct? How could they build the Great Pyramids after just a few trial runs, and then forget how to build them, so the later pyramids are such inferior products by comparison?
On the way back from Saqqara we stopped at a “carpet school”, where we found a mass of little girls, about ten years old and all in uniform, sitting four to a loom and knotting away at great speed. I was irresistibly reminded of the “pauper apprentices” in the Lancashire cotton mills. We were assured they were learning a useful trade, which I doubted, since only one adult, a man, was working there. The knotting itself was clearly easy to learn, and the real skill would have been transferring the pattern to the carpet. But the little girls were not referring to any printed pattern, and must have done the same pattern so many times that they knew it by heart; and in any case most of the finished carpets for sale were just tourist junk.
Sunsets over the Nile were most spectacular. The sun sank very rapidly behind the western hills at about a quarter to seven. The sky gradually changed from blue to grapefruit and then to a dark red on the horizon, before becoming completely black around 7.15. The sunrises were disappointing, since there was generally a mist rising from the river. One evening I attempted to see the sun set over the Pyramids, but everyone was hustled away before seven in order to ensure a paying audience only for the son-et-lumiere. But when a policeman asked me if I wanted to watch the show for nothing, I wasn’t sure whether he was being sarcastic or was trying to do a deal.

On Saturday evening we caught the train to Luxor: a six-hour journey southwards up the Nile. The sleeping-cars were quite good, but the track was very bumpy and slow, so we didn’t get much sleep. We arrived at 7.30 next morning, an hour late, and after checking into our hotel were immediately taken on a 3-hour coach excursion, which was perhaps not a very good idea.
Luxor was the most pleasant town we stayed in, with an interesting market and other good shops. I bought a lapis lazuli bead with gold flecks, which I later had made up into a brooch for my wife (and some years afterwards it was stolen by a burglar). The temple at Luxor, and the even bigger one a couple of miles south at Karnak, were both dedicated to the local god Amun, and are all that survive of the city of Thebes, the capital of Egypt in the New Kingdom. As usual, there is no trace of any palace or fortress (Virtually the only secular buildings to survive anywhere are a few workmen’s huts. No-one seems to know the reason for this strange lack). The cultivated area is much narrower this far up the Nile. Away on the west bank, limestone cliffs rise in fantastic natural carvings, tunnelled into which are the burial sites of the New Kingdom: the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the Valley of the Nobles, and the rare remains of a settlement in the Valley of the Workmen.
The Luxor temple is based on a long avenue of columns representing the papyrus plant. Only one obelisk remains beside the entrance, its twin now being in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The temple is positively infested with Ramses II, the most megalomanic of the New Kingdom pharaohs, who placed huge statues of himself everywhere and covered all available wall-space with reliefs of his heroic deeds (mostly imaginary). At some stage the upper level of the temple was turned into a mosque, the entrance of which is now 20 feet above ground level, showing how deep the ruins had been buried before excavation. The Karnak temple is too vast to be properly comprehended, and it had still not been fully excavated. It was extended and added to until the very end of the pagan era, and gives the impression of never having been finished. The great hall is so densely sown with columns that they seem to take up an actual majority of the space, and the effect is rather claustrophobic, which is strange in such a vast area. The “Holy of Holies”, as always in Egyptian temples, is quite small, at he end of a long line of rooms and corridors of ever-decreasing size, to which the public were apparently admitted according to status. There was another good son-et-lumiere show here in the evening.

We were only able to glimpse a small sample of the wonders of the west bank, and, as at Saqqara, we wondered what was still to be discovered up in those barren limestone cliffs. We saw the so-called Colossi of Memnon; two gigantic ruinous seated statues in the middle of nowhere (clearly the origin of “Ozymandias, King of Kings”); and the temple of Hathor the cow-goddess, built by Queen Hatshepsut in one of the world’s greatest sites: a natural arena of huge towering cliffs. This had some very good reliefs, including an embassy from the Queen of Punt, who was clearly suffering from acute dropsy. We went into a handful of the tombs in the valleys of the Kings and Queens. All there is to be seen on the surface is a tunnel entrance in the rock face, but inside you find that some are a hundred yards long, with the walls and ceiling covered with brightly painted relief carvings. These were never meant to be seen by mere mortals: a concept beyond our understanding. The tombs are empty, having been robbed soon after their completion; so as protectors of the royal mummies they were complete failures. Only Tutankhamun’s tomb, one of the smallest, survived intact, and that was only because the debris of a later tomb was dumped over the entrance. The atmosphere inside was dank and unpleasant after the desert air, and the breath of thousands of tourists seemed to be starting fungus growing on the paint. We wondered how long it would be before the tomb had to be closed. This day was one of the high points of the tour.

Our first real glimpse of rural Egypt came on the long drive to Abydos. All along the river and the canals were little villages of mud huts, barely distinguishable from the earth, with the sketchiest of roofs and often no doors. Although maize and bananas are grown nowadays, much of the way of life can hardly have changed since ancient times. We saw oxen ploughing, and water being raised in a bucket with a counterpoise. A few homes were brightly painted with religious symbols, to show that the family had been on the pilgrimage to Mecca, and we saw one family setting out to go, in a car festooned with banners. It was a large family, and the smaller children were consigned to the roof-rack. Our guides held forth on the ignorance, idleness and general fecklessness of the peasantry.
Abydos was much the best temple we visited by any artistic definition. The reliefs of Ramses II were crude, but those of Seti I from much earlier times were far superior, with the colours still in good condition and mostly free of damage (In many places, the faces of the gods had been hacked off, presumably by Moslem fanatics). By contrast, the temple we saw later that day at Dendyra was a fake, having been built by the Ptolemies in the traditional style with Greek craftsmanship masquerading as Egyptian. The best reliefs were down in the crypt; an alarming place that could only be reached by crawling.

From Luxor we boarded a boat which took us south to Aswan in three days, making slow progress in short hops. It was a gentle, relaxing cruise. The temperature rose steadily. The cultivated strip along the banks varied in width from a mile to a few paces, but everywhere we saw the same mud huts, palm trees, water buffalo and fields of maize or sugar. The people were almost all Negro Nubians, and western dress was uncommon. At Esna we met the authentic Africa for the first time: a crowded and colourful (or, from the other point of view, an appallingly squalid) little town, with narrow unpaved streets, mangy half-starved horses, peculiar smells, and a great number of very dirty children who were quite frankly begging. There was also, well below street level, a fake temple dating from the classical period. All along the upper Nile the Ptolemies and then the Romans built a string of temples in pseudo-ancient style, with reliefs showing such unlikely characters as Alexander the Great, Claudius, Trajan or Hadrian pretending to be pharaohs. After seeing the Valley of the Kings, we got quite sniffy at such recent and bogus stuff. The one at Edfu was the best preserved; and the most bizarre sight was the collection of mummified crocodiles at Kom-Ombo. We saw Nilometers, where the height of the flood water determined what taxes would be levied the next year. Finally we docked at Aswan, below where there used to be the first cataract.
There were more tombs across the river here, but the only one we visited was the modern mausoleum of the Aga Khan. The souk was better than in Cairo, and featured cheap spices and live baby crocodiles. The old Cataract Hotel, as featured in “Death on the Nile”, was, alas, deserted and awaiting restoration. We saw an obelisk of pink granite which had only been partially chipped out of the rock-face and never completed, and wondered how this sort of work had ever been done without iron tools. We took a little felucca sailing-boat out to Kitchener’s Island, which the general had filled with exotic plants.

There are two dams at Aswan: the Low Dam which put paid to the first cataract, and the more recent High Dam a few miles upstream, which created Lake Nasser and stopped the annual flooding of the Nile. Between the two is yet another Ptolemaic-cum-Roman temple on the island of Philae, which had to be dismantled and shifted to another island when it was caught by the rising waters. But the most famous reconstruction lay more than a hundred miles further south: the temples tunnelled into the cliff face at Abu Simbel. The road link there is only a few years old. We had to set off at 6.30 am to avoid the worst of the heat, and drove across the desert for three hours. Much of the route was featureless sand, marked only by the occasional dead camel, but later we ran into a strange scenery of natural pyramids made of crumbly black rock, about 30 feet high and much wind-eroded. Was this where the idea of pyramids first came from? Mirages were clearly visible when the angle of the light was right: not only did there seem to be large areas of shimmering water in the distance, but the pyramids were reflected in them, making the illusion very realistic.
Abu Simbel has two temples, both built by Ramses II: the larger one for himself and a much smaller one for his wife, Nefertari. Outside the first Ramses had placed four huge statues of himself (one now badly damaged), and inside he sits in the Holy of Holies with three gods, surrounded by crude but lively representations of his (mostly imaginary) triumphs over the Nubians and the Syrians. It is all pretty awful, but quite impressive. When the waters of Lake Nasser rose, the temples were reconstructed: they give the impression that the whole hillside was dismantled and reassembled, but in fact the temples were dug out of the rock and set in a gigantic concrete dome on top of the cliff. On certain days of the year the sun still shines down the tunnel to illuminate the Holy of Holies, just like it always did.

It had been a very good tour. There were only 8 people in the party, but we all fitted in with each other, the hotels and the food were quite acceptable, and our guide was both erudite and amusing in a cynical way. He was a Tunisian, and openly drank alcohol at meals. Once on the boat a waiter served him with a bottle of Seven-Up. "Is there no champagne for a hard-working guide?" he protested. "Seven-Up, it is like champagne!" retorted the waiter. I felt it was only Manuel in "Fawlty Towers" who could be invoked. He did not approve of Islamic fundamentalism, and his comments about the American bombing of Libya were worth remembering. “Everyone knows the Iranians and the Syrians cause a lot more terrorist attacks”, he said, “But Iran’s too sensitive a place to go for, and who’s ever heard of the Syrian leader? But everyone hates Ghadaffi. So you bomb Libya. Then all the Americans cancel their holidays abroad for fear of reprisals, and you save millions of dollars. Reagan’s a genius!” (The Lockerbie bombing was only a couple of years away …..)

1 comment:

  1. "How could they build the Great Pyramids after just a few trial runs, and then forget how to build them, so the later pyramids are such inferior products by comparison?" -- that's the kind of question that will haunt the archaeologists of the future when they dig up western art objects and sort them out chronologically.