The Temple of Karnak is stupidly huge. Approximately 30 Pharoahs contributed towards the building and it seems to have been built on the ‘more is more’ principle. The site is host to four sacred precincts, and construction was underway from the Middle Kingdom, around 2000-1700BCE, to the Ptolemaic period (305 – 30BCE) although most extant buildings date from the New Kingdom (from around 1550BCE), the peak of Egypt’s power. In this Ramesside period, Egypt attained its greatest extent, conquering new territories north into Syria and south into Nubia.
The avenue of Sphinxes extends for about 2700m from the Temple of Karnak to the Temple of Luxor – it was rediscovered in 1949 and excavations are still underway. The female Pharoah Hatshepsut from the 18th Dynasty was the first to build this processional road, with sphinxes in her own likeness. But they’ve been reworked and repositioned many times by later kings.
During the Beautiful Feast of Opet the statues of the deities of the Theban Triad — Amun, Mut and their child Khonsu — were escorted in a joyous procession in a sacred barque down the avenue of sphinxes that connect the two temples, stopping at specially constructed shrines filled with offerings en route. The highlight of the ritual was the meeting of Amun-Ra of Karnak with the Amun of Luxor. Rebirth was a strong theme of Opet and there was usually a re-coronation ceremony of the Pharaoh confirming his kingship. At the end of the ceremonies in the Luxor Temple, the gods’ barque and the royal barque would journey by boat back to Karnak.
Of four main temple enclosures, only one, the Precinct of Amun-Ra, the chief deity of Thebes, is open to the public. You walk into the Hypostyle Hall, the largest religious enclosure in the world: an area of 5,000 m2 (50,000 square feet) with 134 massive papyrus-flower-shaped columns arranged in 16 rows. 122 of these columns are 10 meters tall, and the other 12 are 21 meters tall with a diameter of over three meters.
The architrave or lintel of each column alone weighs 70 tons (that’s 7 Big Green Trucks!) It’s still a mystery exactly how they were lifted up there. If I remember rightly, toppling a lump of rock off the top of one of them featured as a murder attempt in the 1978 film version of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.
I loved how the faded remainders of Ancient Egypt’s favourite paint colours echoed those still preferred by contemporary tractor drivers.
I found the face of this statue of Tutunkhamun so beautiful it took my breath away. A group of Chinese tourists were surveying it next to me; all I could pick up from their rapid chat was “Wah wah wah Michael Jackson wah wah”. You agree?
A chubby tour guide – another in a long line of persistently space-invading Egyptian men I haven’t chosen to focus on in this blog – offered to ‘take us for free’ but we firmly and repeatedly declined as we were wanting to go at our own pace (i.e. very slowly with lots of rest stops for me en route). The best bit of today was singing along with Ruby to the tune of Goldfinger: “MANSSSPLAINER… He’s a man, the man with the small …”
The Sacred Lake was dug by Tuthmosis III (1473-1458 BCE) and used by priests for ritual washing and ritual navigation. It was also home to the sacred geese of Amun and a symbol of the primeval waters from which life arose in the Ancient Egyptians’ idea of creation.
As we wandered around, I was a little wistful I’d been unable to do my usual prep to get the most out of my visit, beyond reading the very basic guide book we had with us, but comforted myself that I would do the research afterwards, while writing it up for the blog. Yet here I am more than 2 years later still with not enough energy to do justice to this vast subject, just skimming the surface. This Hypostyle Hall video is about as much as I can cope with right now.
I kept asking myself why on earth hadn’t we ever studied the Ancient Egyptians in school? On the ground, the sheer scale of their magnificent construction projects was so obviously superior to those of the Ancient Greeks or the Romans – not least because many were carried out centuries, even millennia, prior. How white Western education skews our understanding, insisting that ‘civilisation’ began with the Classical cultures of the Mediterranean, refusing to acknowledge the advent of writing or agriculture in Africa or the Middle/East and sidelining ruins and artefacts from Ancient Egypt to Mesopotamia, from the Indus Valley to Ancient China, from Norte Chico to Mesoamerica. Not to mention ignoring the vast treasures of collective wisdom across the globe from the First Nations of Canada to the indigenous peoples of Australia and the Amazon to the San. For five hundred years, colonising countries have been determinedly blind to the evidence of the intelligence and sophistication of the cultures of black/indigenous/people of colour throughout ancient history.
I amazed myself with how far I walked, but was bloody glad I’d cooked already. We found a quiet sidestreet to park overnight in, but when Sampson took Monte for a walk, some kids throwing stones at him progressed to chunks of brick being chucked at the truck by teens driving by on scooters.
This caused my kids both alarm and upset, particularly as we couldn’t work out why they were doing it. We’d had no interaction with them so it couldn’t be personal. Was it due to hostility or boredom? Were they demonstrating resentment at us or what we represent: tourists or colonists? I wish I’d had the language capacity or energy to enquire. Security guards invited us to shelter in Karnak’s outer carpark, where a few stones were still thrown, but finally there was quiet.
PEM hit me hard the next day. The situation wasn’t helped by Ruby-grieving-anticipation insomnia. Thank goddess Rube decided against trying to see the Valley of Kings the day before she left. Instead we went on a supermarket hunt and by fluke arrived at the perfect place at the perfect time (empty during jumu’ah prayer at noon on Friday) after the Big Green Truck squeezed between cartfuls of tomatoes in a packed market and turned a corner to find a few hundred men praying in a shady street, the overflow from the mosque opposite, a magnificent sight of conscientious calm.
Sampson was somehow managing to blag his way round in Arabic solely via his knowledge of names of street food. The relish with which he would rattle off a sentence featuring a string of his favourites seemed to be enough to convince locals he was practically fluent: “Kofta, kebda, kushari, hawawshi, aseer assab – magnoun!” The three of them tucked into a veritable feast as I dug out the rice cakes…
It was now the third week of January, which in Cape Town means back to work for everyone after the long summer Xmas holiday. Ruby was about to start Grade 11 and said she didn’t want to fly out for Easter this year because she had too much studying to do and it would be too far for a short holiday.
So we drove our daughter to Luxor airport for her four flights home with the long months until we would see each other again yawning cavernously before us. I waved and waved through the glass until I couldn’t see her anymore; only then I did I allow myself a little burst into held-back tears on son’s shoulder.
Ruby survived a delay at Cairo and resultant tight transfer at Addis but had a panic attack on the plane to Jo’burg. Uneasily, I put it down to stress about the lonely exam-studded time ahead of her. We were very grateful to Uncle Pierrot for picking her up, and to Nana and Duke for whisking her away for weekends out of hostel in term 1.
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It was quieter without the maelstrom of her moods; calmer, but sad. I comforted myself with reflecting on how fiercely we love each other – imagine if we were feeling glad she was gone. Zola and I had a motivating chat in preface to starting the school year, aiming to make the most of our freedom to do more of what we love while we can. For the first time since Ruby arrived in Cairo in early December, he came for a cuddle before bed. We were all missing her.
I also shared my 2018 New Year’s Resolution with my husband and son – “Take. My. Time.” meant determining for the first time ever:
1. to unapologetically take as much time as I need to do things in my compromised state. (Including unapologetically splitting infinitives.) But also
2. to not automatically sacrifice hours to planning and making meals, constantly putting the boys’ nourishment ahead of nurturing my reserves.
I needed to prioritise my needs for a few months until I could pull back to better health.
I read a fascinating piece in NYTimes by Reform Judaism’s first openly transgender rabbi Elliot Kukla reflecting that, despite his layered minority identity, it is his status as a chronic illness sufferer that has most made him feel like an outsider.
As Sampson felt that the Big Green Truck still wasn’t running right, the evening after Ruby left we drove to MCV Luxor and parked outside.
It may have been much smaller than Manufacturing Commercial Vehicles Cairo HQ but we were welcomed by an equally eager MCV team on Sunday (the Egyptian equivalent of Monday morning). Chief technician Mr Micheal (sic, pronounced Michelle) Melad gave Big Reg the once-over and was convinced that a new clutch was needed – a nightmare prospect in terms of both time and money in the same month we paid out Ruby’s annual school fees.
Although strictly we didn’t conk out anywhere, I counted this as breakdown number 17 because it did delay us. We were there a week.
Once all that was out, the truck was unable to move. Unfortunately, due to the angle we were parked at, there was a freezing wind coming through the side door. Temperatures were dropping to 13˚C overnight, as it had been in Europe in November. Winter was catching us back up. We couldn’t understand how, despite it being this bloody cold, there were still so many flies?
There was lots of admiring of dog before work commenced on Monday.
Monte was about 4 months’ old by now and Sampson was starting to train him in earnest. He was walking miles and miles with him every morning around the waste water recycling plant opposite. Every day he would pick up a few of these bizarre rocks he called ‘magic eyes’ – small smooth circular stones that looked like fossils of some sort. We have tried in vain to find out what on earth they are and where they come from; any feedback would be appreciated!
While Sampson was busy replacing indicator lights and swapping armrests on cab seats (so at last I had a way to wedge myself in), I was going through the Grade 8 books Ruby had delivered in preparation for Zola going back to school. The prep exhausted me so much, Zola had to cook. He washed up and cleaned the cooker as well. WHAT a star.
Apart from the skateboarding, his one-legged unicycling prowess – check the video – made him a legend among the mechanics. He’d come a long way since France!
First day back, Zola and I did 5 subjects, and were very chuffed with ourselves. In the holidays I miss the deep chats schoolwork demands of my naturally reticent boy. Today’s English lesson involved looking at yourself through the eyes of others in the social media context of ‘Your Brand’. After a long talk I asked him to share 3 adjectives he would like other people to use to sum up his character. This is what he chose:
I love him.
I finally reopened my Croatia blog. This first writing in weeks made me feel so happy. It felt like I was back – to me. We were getting back into the swing of being three. Sampson made us mash for tea. We started watching The Handmaid’s Tale. Before bed I played some Cranberries to Zola in honour of Dolores O’Riordan, who had died yesterday age 46. At 47, I felt so lucky to still be here hugging him.
During a visit to the truck, Mr Micheal and sales manager Mr Armia Albert explained that in Egypt long fingernails signify that they are ‘rich men’ – specifically not blue collar manual labourers. (I enjoyed this account clearing up exactly why and a couple of other local mysteries.)
We took to ending off the day with a once-round-the-block walk with Monte in the last warm hour between 3-4pm. One last circuit with Zola on his skateboard while revising French numerals, days and months – I was impressed he was spot on! He had to give his Dad a massage tonight. I was dreaming of having a bath in Epsom salts – my muscles were beginning to take strain in the cold.
Meanwhile Micheal had said there was “no clutch in Egypt” so we had put feelers out to source one from SA, but by some miracle he then found one in the next town. Sampson leapt in a van with hectic driver Romany who went 140kph the whole way while on his phone.
After the new clutch was installed, the first test drive was disappointing as the pedal was super hard. After the second, Sampson was getting depressed that the adjustments seemed not to be having any effect, it was still wayyyyy too tight. I on the other hand felt weirdly relaxed – I could do absolutely nothing about any of it, so just surrendered myself to fate.
Sampson seemed aggrieved that I wasn’t feeling as overwhelmed by the situation as he was. He didn’t understand that I simply couldn’t afford to waste energy stressing, so consciously wasn’t. Garage-bound is the only area of our life that he has to be in charge because my useful knowledge is zero. The rest of the time, he prefers to defer to me.
Eventually the truck was taken into workshop and parked over a work pit, even colder out of the sun. I made pancakes with stewed apples and raisins to keep us going through school. Inevitably progress was two steps forward, one back. Some days Zola was deliberately s-l-o-w and I has to steel myself to show patience. In the absence of a text book, I improvised a Life Orientation lesson about Future Zola. I surprised him by opining that his naturally “cool, but with air of effortlessly reassuring gravitas” demeanour is something he could develop. We watched videos of a young Barack Obama and noted how less confident he was speaking at Cambridge Public Library in 1995 compared to his Democratic Party Convention-slaying speech in 2004 – Zola was so inspired it was worth the chowing of data.
We were hoping to get away by the weekend, but on the third clutch test, the bolt snapped. Back to square one. The truck had to be towed out of the workshop at 6pm to allow us a day’s break in the fresh air.
Friday Night Treats and the last episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. It struck me that Africa has been Europe’s Handmaid for centuries. I had cramp in my left leg before bed, and in the night an attack in my right leg woke me with staggering pain. But this was Monte’s first night outside alone in the tent, and overall I slept better knowing Sampson was inside all warm and toasty. He got two hours more sleep than normal and looked loads better not to mention calmer – I felt like I got my husband back!
On Saturday morning, hospitable security guards Ahmed and Noor offered to share their cottage khobz, cream cheese, lettuce and bean casserole breakfast, but I declined and pressed on with my T’ai Chi to warm up. I knew it was keeping me mobile in the absence of being able to build my strength through walking. I was suffering PEM from typing yesterday; the pain in my fingers and arms was dire. However, the sore vertebra of my upper spine between my shoulder blades that had been bruised during the Christmas tree concussion incident was slowly healing.
My wonderful son, after reading in bed for most of the morning, around periodic skateboard dashes, made The Most Delicious Dahl ever from just onions, garlic and red lentils. Our fresh food supplies were dwindling.
We had the last orange for breakfast, the last two tomatoes for lunch. For some reason, I was still not worrying about it until I absolutely had to – I’m grateful that illness has taught me how to do this. After Amir had been under the truck all morning, Micheal came and asked Sampson to test again and, by some miracle, the clutch action was suddenly easy – the smoothest ever!
We immediately set off into town to stock up.
While Sampson scoured the main street for the best fruit and veg, I sat on my bed in the back of the truck and spent a fascinating half hour watching a vendor at the dried goods store it was parked outside. I wasn’t strong enough to get out and look round, or even hold my arms up long enough to take a decent pic through the window, but here at least is a polished version of what I managed to type then:
The stall is packed to the rafters and spilling onto the street. Spices in all imaginable shades of desert are displayed in giant wooden or perspex square boxes around the walls, topped by jars of honey and packets of tea. Giant sacks of dates as high as a table sit out front, next to huge baskets of different grade hibiscus flowers or ‘karkadeh’ – the Arabic word for Senegal’s ‘bissap’. There are piles of peanuts and pumpkin seeds on the right; rice, pasta, pulses, chillies and peppercorns on the left.
The shopkeeper is less like a salesman and more like an orchestra conductor. His three sons are constantly moving around him, weighing and bagging and smiling, while he counts the notes. He has a word for everyone: a joke, a story, or a recommendation – “Try the dates… Try the nuts… Look at the tea!” He keeps the entertainment going while welcoming each new arrival with half a handful of spiced peanuts, rubbing the skins off between his palms before handing them to the entering guest. Everyone in there is nibbling and content.
I watch a family – patriarch, wife and grown-up daughters – stocking up for three households. The whole shop is a rolling performance, a choreographed routine they all enjoy. They point, the shopkeeper enjoins the more expensive, the better, an addition. All the while he’s moving about so sprightly – on his feet 12 hours a day yet he’s got to be 60 at least.
He takes off his turban to cool down, then redoes it 5 minutes later, winding the white scarf expertly round his skull cap, flattening the pristine folds. As dusk falls and the call to prayer rings out, the shop gets busier and busier. A little gift for everyone, a little treat. A free pack of incense sticks to all the big lady spenders. This is his way, his success – it is fun to shop here, fun to banter, fun to be able to help yourself to a little nibble from the huge heap of peanuts with no fear of reprimand because here you are at home, so feel free! He knows anything he gives he will get back tenfold because you can’t but love him. It’s probably been done this way for thousands of years. So humanity-affirming.
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We headed to the nearest vet’s to get Lucky and Monte’s follow up rabies vaccinations and tick/worm meds. After a bumpy drive, my aching spine was so bad, I allowed myself to stop being me for a minute (ever-striving) and remember my NY Resolution; it made me cry and ask myself how Sampson would act if he had this pain. Immediately I gave in and lay down. Eventually he came and massaged my back so I could move.
We parked next to Animal Care Egypt, an extraordinarily heartwarming welfare centre.
ACE has a wonderful history: it was founded by Kim Taylor and her aunt Julie Wartenberg from UK, after they came on holiday to Luxor and saw the dire state of working animals in the streets. Though aimed originally at relieving the suffering of donkeys and horses, by now they were home to 30 cats and 13 dogs as well!
Julie and Kim first envisioned ACE as a place where people could come and give their animals the care they need for free:
ACE helped over 35000 animals in 2019. They also offer educational tours and classes to local schools:
In term time, ACE teaches 150 kids per week from local primary schools. They are already seeing an impact as longstanding beliefs such as ‘animals don’t feel pain’ are overturned and replaced with tender care and compassion.
Dear Zakia and her husband George helped get us everything we needed (from gas refills and inner tubes to bags of dog food and a cat litter tray) as well as spoiling us with biscuits, toast and kebda not to mention putting our sheets in their washing machine, bless ’em.
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Check out Africa Clockwise on Carte Blanche this Sunday 19th July 7pm MNet and DSTV!