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The next destination of this Pharaonic tour of Egypt took me to the modern city of Luxor (aka Thebes) - one of the greatest cities of the ancient world. Within this region lay some of the most spectacular temples and tombs ever created - the Valley of the Kings, Karnak, Medinut Habu - words that are smothered with history. There are many temples within a couple of hours of Luxor, including those of Edfu, Dendara and Medinut Habu. These soaring stone structures are incredible due to their state of preservation. You can spend endless hours wandering around corridors and courtyards exploring these ancient structures.
However, visiting Seti I’s temple at Abydos provided a few more interesting moments. Because this area is considered 'unsafe' by authorities, upon arrival I was met by a railway official who informed me that the white robed silent man standing next to him was a policeman, and that I needed to be accompanied by an armed escort to the temple. I couldn’t see any identifying features of a policeman, a uniform or even a badge, so I doubted his word, until when walking away, the robes of this unidentified man shifted to reveal a rifle hidden
underneath his clothes.
The officer immediately hid me from the public gaze by spiriting me into a taxi, where I waited until another police officer could join me for the drive to the temple. The short journey was lengthened somewhat as we had to pause at each checkpoint whilst waiting for approval for the continuance of my journey. Each checkpoint would see me greeted by many inquisitive stares from the numerous military personnel, and was always accompanied by requests to peruse my passport. Upon finally arriving at the temple, I was met by a bevy of local officers as I was the only tourist there. Furthermore, during my time at the temple, I was shadowed by an officer carrying an automatic weapon - probably in case someone tried to sell me some particularly tacky souvenirs. Though having a private bodyguard might be disconcerting for some, to me it just heightened the sense of adventure. Throughout this whole experience, the police and security forces were on their two-way radios to one another monitoring the progress of the ‘Australian' (which was the only word I could understand on their crackling radios).
The temple was magnificent, and the colours in the reliefs were superb, due to the fact that the roof was still intact and the sun hadn't faded the colours. Light filtered from stone sky lights and illuminated the interior with shafts of light. A lone cleaner slowly wiped the dust covered floors with his broom, but everything else was quiet - nothing like the large groups of tourists seen at other temples. I was able to gaze at the famous Abydos King’s List and wonder at the finest quality of reliefs I’ve seen in Egypt, but only had 90 minutes to do so - as that was all the security forces allowed me.
After my temple visit, I was escorted back to the train station, where, while waiting for the train, two officers took me to the local coffee house to partake in some tea and water-pipe. Due to my poor water-pipe smoking technique, I inhaled far too much smoke at one stage, which left me coughing and spluttering - an incident which elicited much mirth from the locals. The security continued it rigorous supervision of me even when leaving, the police physically escorted me onto the train and stood directly outside the window I was seated at and the door to the carriage, until the train began leaving the station.
One temple though does outshine them all - the Temple of Karnak. This is a massive complex of buildings more than one and a half kilometres long and almost as wide. My first impression upon entering the complex was one of complete awe - and this massive quadrangle of stone had me spinning in circles in a vain attempt to absorb the surrounds. It was the Great Hypostyle Hall which had the greatest impact upon me. This Hall contained 134 stone pillars reaching a height of up to 24 meters, which represented a stone papyrus thicket - a symbol for the primordial act of creation. This Hall was just staggering in its grandeur and I spent many hours gazing at these stupendous pillars and their carvings. Considering when it was constructed, this is the most impressive architectural feat that I have ever seen. I felt so at peace in this Hall and extremely content, a reaction that quite surprised me.
However, further south and near to the Sudanese border, there was one final temple, that of Abu Simbel. In order to view this temple it was necessary to take a tiresome bus trip from Aswan, due to the much hoped for hydrofoil ceasing operation because of the downturn in tourism. I boarded the bus at 4am that was to join a police convoy for the three hour journey to Abu Simbel. The convoy consisted of about 40 minibuses, vans and luxury coaches that threaded its way through the moonlit Nubian desert. Midway through the journey, a spectacular phosphorescent sun rose from the horizon - ancient Egyptians saw sunrise as the Gods in their solar boat successfully completing another journey through the Underworld and thwarting the forces of evil. The rising sun illuminated the landscape of orange sand heaped in mounds like cakes, and topped with an icing of small black stones.
At last, we arrived at Abu Simbel. One approaches the temple from the rear of the mountain, so it slowly comes into the view as you walk to the front of the structure. My first glimpse of the temple was a profile of two of the colossal heads of Ramses, and I suddenly drew my breath in amazement. As I walked further, more of the temple came into view - the torso of the two colossi and the head of a third - and the more my amazement grew. Finally I stood directly in front of the temple and that image of the three colossal statues majestically surveying the world is a sight that will stay with me forever. (Though I couldn't help but compare this grand image of Ramses with his mummy in the Egyptian Museum which portrayed an old man's frail body, with a large Romanesque nose, tufts of red hair and spindly arthritic hands.)
Everything about the temple was imposing - from the commanding statues to the oversized hieroglyphics and paintings recounting the virtues of Ramses that were contained within. For two hours I gazed and gasped at this incredible temple, when at which time, I reluctantly had to leave this grand place and return to a more humbler and prosaic world.
After returning to Aswan, I took an afternoon felucca trip on the Nile, which was captained by Zamalek - a barefooted ebony skinned Nubian dressed in a white flax gown. We meandered along the river for three hours, with the sound of the water gently thudding against the hollow wooden hull, the sail flapping in a fresh breeze and the sun of a clear day gently warming my face. I considered my recent experiences, and concluded that if one can discard the hawkers, guides and tourists, these temples convey a strong sense of the mystical. When looking at the structures of this once omnipotent and now extinct civilisation, one feels like only a brief point on the time line of history. I can understand how someone could reassess their life with a more spiritual focus after spending some time amongst the monuments of ancient Egypt. Towards the end of the felucca journey, the sun set over the Nile, which signified the Egyptian gods in their solar boat beginning yet another perilous journey through the darkened recesses of the Underworld.
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