Egypt 8: Necropolis

Our second morning parked outside Animal Care Egypt we watched the sugar cane harvesters work while we were doing our exercise and having breakfast. It took them from 6am till 9.30 to fill the carriage.

Sugar cane flowers blowing in the wind outside ACE

Morning routine no matter where we are

Sampson and I amused ourselves by speculating on how brilliant an African Generation Game would be: instead of smug expert cake-icers and claypot-throwers demonstrating their skills for the hapless contestants to have a go at, rather have urbanites try pack a boxcar with sugar cane, peel a whole pineapple in one go, or balance a bucket of water on their head and walk down a bumpy trail for a kilometre or two…..

Our discussion of uber naff gameshows of the 70s led to us remembering Mr &Mrs, which used to be on when we got home from school before the children’s programmes started. We spontaneously started singing the theme tune simultaneously. I reflected that at the turn of the millennium you could probably have sold a ‘Mr & Mr’ or ‘Mrs and Mrs’ revamp – now it would have to be ‘Gender is A Spectrummmmm’. How we laughed… It’s comforting to have seen such progress in our lifetime. We need to hold on to that sometimes, when we feel the struggle seems to be always uphill.

(OMG, this was a joke but while researching I found out they did rehash it in the noughties to include gay couples: All Star Mr&Mrs!)

It was time to chase oil supplies, although it felt like pushing it to do anything else besides schooling. I was battling to maintain low level functioning; it felt like two steps forward, one step back.

24th Jan 2018. It’s 6am. I’ve been in bed since 9pm but I’m desperately trying to ignore the whining dog and get back to sleep for another hour because at this level of pain and exhaustion I won’t be able to function adequately today. My arms are aching as if I did a thousand press-ups yesterday, rather than typing a handful of emails, so I painfully uncurl them downwards. With the never-fail Harry Potter audiobook droning soothingly from the phone under my pillow, I fall into a light sleep, too light to be restorative.

I dream that Monte is on my bed and I’m trying to calm him, shut him up. I pat him and he gets my hand in his mouth, clamps jaws down over my right hand. I put my other hand reassuringly on his back and try to get Mark’s attention but he can’t hear me, I don’t seem to be making a sound. It’s not hurting and I know Monte doesn’t mean me any harm but I’m scared I’m going to lose the fingers on my writing hand. I drag myself into consciousness and find that somehow my right hand has got trapped in the twisted waistband of my pyjamas.

It’s 7.15 and the cold and the pain are like an assault that take my breath away. It’s about 14˚C inside. I’m in a sheepskin hoodie under my two sleeping bags. Mark knows I’m awake because I raised my left hand over the divide to alert him, but I can’t speak yet. I feel too ill, like I’m drugged. It’s not the pleasant drowsiness you have on waking from a long refreshing night’s sleep, but a horrible grogginess, as if you’re coming round from an anaesthetic. I can’t move yet, the pain everywhere is total and sickening, as if I’ve just been hit by a truck.

Days like this you wonder how you’re not dying.

I am used to the feeling in my head, but it’s worse today. The bottom of my neck, the brain stem inflammation, is always bad after time on the computer or stress. If I didn’t blithely ascribe every symptom I experience to M.E. I would suspect this is what a tumour feels like. Like a lead weight, pushing a huge bruise against the back of my head.

If you touch me I will vomit.

But I want to be touched, I want to be held like a baby and this pain massaged away. I know it will ease, bit by bit, as I surface. The light that is unbearable at first will cease to pierce. The noise will cease to batter. I will thaw enough to sit up a little, then stand, then make my bed, then wash, then dress, then climb gingerly down the ladder. T’ai Chi will help me get my balance back, and allow me to breathe more easily, not as if I am begging my heart to allow the expansion of my lungs.

But today this morning routine will take me two hours not one as I will need to rest in between each action. So we will be late to start school, and late to finish, and I won’t get to any blog editing. My main comfort today is that I am going to spend this time waiting for the first terrible fog to clear telling you about it while the disorientating feeling is fresh, even if my arms and wrists and fingers complain like a bunch of grumbling old people at this affront (being forced to exert themselves too early).

That afternoon, we received news in an email from our tenants that Polly, our rescue dog that they kindly adopted, had died. Pollyanna, calmer of children and licker of toes, was the spirit that taught me to trust dogs. I cried weedily remembering hours upon hours of Noordhoek beach walks together and felt wobbly for the rest of the week.

* * *

Parked off on the side of a highway on the public holiday National Police Day waiting for the garage to reopen, there came to pass a bizarre confluence of travellers.

Firstly, retired Canadians Mike and Sue Broadbent from Sorrento, British Columbia, pulled up alongside Big Reg in their trusty Defender, to tell us they read the blog! Their pace put us to shame – this was their 121st country, and they’d travelled through 40 countries in Africa anticlockwise (from UK to Morocco, down the west coast and up east coast) since Dec 2016! They told us friends and relatives don’t like to listen to their tales, but rather “want to tell them about the latest divorce gossip or discuss paint colours in their kitchen”. They felt like kindred spirits and I would’ve loved to sit down and listen to them for hours.

Canadian adventurers Sue and Mike

with their beautifully decorated Defender

I just managed to snap this pic of ever-grinning Edu after he bounced out of the taxi Rafa was sitting in

As we were standing admiring the designs they’d had painted on their vehicle in Mauritania, another car screeched to a halt next to us. Brazilians Eduardo Brancalion and Rafaela Vellinho were in a taxi on their way to pyramids, having left their Landy Pandora somewhere. Even though it was the briefest of meetings and we didn’t get a chance to chat, I want to thank them for their excellent company ever since.

Edu and Rafa’s Pandora on the Road Instagram feed is one of the most magnificent travel blogs I’ve ever seen. The breathtaking scope of their adventures has shown me how Millennials with a little money can do this social media thing. The Google translation of the Brazilian Portuguese of Edu’s motto on their website is probably dodgy but you can nonetheless grasp why I love his vibe:

“World without border, I want to live for you.”

* * *

Nour El-Assal from Egyptian WVO recycling business Tagaddod had put us in touch with the Luxor Hilton and gratefully we drove there to follow up. It was so blissfully quiet, tucked away at the back by the spa – and a huge relief from the flies in the garage.

Once again catapulted from living in a garage to the lap of luxury: welcome to the Hilton Luxor!

Big Reg at reception

The Hilton Luxor Resort has a spectacular view over the Nile

Spa manager Cindy Atlasik from Durban had such an infectious laugh, Sampson said he’d like to have her in the front row of every audience.

Lovely Cindy points to the Valley of the Kings on the other side

We met with recently appointed hotel Director Mohamed Said Kalil on the main terrace. Despite having a sister living in Cape Town, he had never been to SA so we did some promotion! He outlined the Hilton’s inspiring Blue Energy initiative that foregrounds sustainability as part of their hospitality. You can see why Hilton is number one in Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For for the 2nd year in a row. Hilton staff commit to adding light and warmth (and in pandemic times, hope) to the world wherever they are. The Director demonstrated this by handing over a huge donation of waste vegetable oil to us: 180L, triple what we were expecting!

Dynamic Director Mohamed Said Kalil

The glorious spot where we had our meeting

The Hilton donated 180L of WVO!

They’d been keeping it for us for a while

and we were incredibly grateful as fuel stocks were beginning to run low

Thanks so much to the Hilton’s spa, security and garden teams for making us feel so welcome

Especially Mr Elshazly

I needed to start cooking my lunch but a friendly security guard invited himself in for chat. Suddenly I had flashy lights in my eyes – a fairly regular occurrence when I have low blood sugar – but this time it was more extreme and came on very quickly. I couldn’t see clearly at all for about 20 minutes until after I swallowed some carbohydrate and lay down to digest it. It was a bit of a shock: I realised that if this was becoming the norm, it was not going to be safe for me to drive anymore.

26. I have not shut my ears to the words of truth.

Sampson was editing our Saving Water with the Sampsons video that we’d filmed at Marsa Shagra at New Year. It was the height of the #Day Zero drought crisis in Cape Town and, as the city had recently announced Level 6b restrictions would be imposed from 1st Feb, we’d had to reshoot the last scene outside MCV to accommodate the latest water restriction reduction from 85L per day to 50L. Zola’s genuine disbelief that Capetonians were struggling to cope on 50L each per day – what we have to make do with for a week – made his ‘drop the mic’ disgust utterly authentic!

35. I have never stopped the flow of water.

I was trying to coordinate a couple of drivers provided by our Russian friend Alex in Hurghada to collect WVO from a clutch of Jaz Hotels in Madinat Makadi under the auspices of Mr Mahmoud Abd El Gawad, Sustainability Director of Jaz Go Green, a contact made remotely via Heba Shawky at HEPCA who was now in Germany… eeek. We managed to overcome an 11th hour problem about papers giving permission for the oil to cross the provincial border into Luxor and their red bakkie finally arrived with 13 containers of WVO, 260L without which we would never have made it to Khartoum.

A thousand thanks to Hadi and Ahmed who drove 10 hours from Hurghada and back

and extra special thanks to Mahmoud Abd el Gawad, sustainability manager at Jaz Hotels for going out of his way to help us, although we never met

We were invited to eat in the Hilton’s Rosetta Restaurant that night – a huge treat for the boys but more exhausting than enjoyable for me. Waiting just 15 minutes for food to arrive proved too much more time than usual in the evening sitting up. I was longing to lay my head on the table and had to leave before they finished their dessert.

The elegant surrounds of the Hilton’s Rosetta Restaurant

Zola’s favourite fresh mint and lemon juice

I was spoiled with fresh prawns and crisp vegetables

and giant chocolate-swirled nut-stuffed dates

It felt terribly sophisticated

The next day I had a lovely chat with Assistant Training Manager Mr Hassani, who was very wise for his years. Although brought up in the rural village of Qena, his is a very modern family: his wife has a BA in Engineering and they share parenting duties for their 3 kids. His Dad still stays in a house 30m from his own, without electricity or water, and prefers the simple life.

29. I am not a stirrer up of strife.

Mr Hassani told me he’d spent a year studying in the States, but apart from admiring their punctuality, he didn’t like much else about the Western way of life. He said he came home because he didn’t like the absence of fellow feeling. He was talking about preferring a less goal-driven life, emphasising “enjoying the food you are eating, conversation you are having, this cup of tea with you”. I don’t think he knew the word ‘mindfulness’ but he certainly knew the value of it as a daily practice.

The delightful Mr Hassani. Not sure he liked the rooibos we shared mind you!

Meanwhile my husband was busy turning a drama into a crisis, prematurely announcing that a file had corrupted and he’d lost all the extra day’s filming. I noticed how Zola and I both didn’t react, so used now to holding firm against the first flood of his panic. Of course he recovered the file, but it seemed like he had deliberately leapt on the worst case scenario to wound me, to shake my calm, to get me as rattled as he was feeling. It felt so unnecessary, so mean, I wasn’t sure I could cope with much more of it.

8. I have not uttered lies.

Sampson chilling by the infinity pool next to the Nile – before completely losing his rag with his computer

I had been so looking forward to this weekend away from the garage, finally some time to write. But my spoons were stolen, my scarce energy reserves burned up in unnecessary upset, indignation, explanation – talking him down was exhausting. I was beginning to feel that this marriage was unsustainable, purely on a health level. I couldn’t get over the stupidity of it – we could be having such a simple, peaceful, mutually nurturing time on this trip but, under stress, his first impulse is always to prove he’s in a Worse State than me. I had to keep out of his way today, to protect my capacity and preserve my sanity, and the recognition of that instinct made me deeply sad.

12. I have made none to weep.

I knew he was struggling and internally vowed to be kinder to him the next day, but it proved hard when his first action was to open the side door without knocking on me naked in front of the whole carpark…

19. I have not been angry without just cause

On Monday, Ruby called SCREAMING with excitement because her school Principal had added our video to their water wise assembly that morning without warning her. She was half absolutely mortified and half loving the attention – and Zola was apparently a bit of a sex symbol now amongst Wynberg Girls! The video reached 1000 hits that day…

After some to-ing and fro-ing to MCV trying to sort out last clutch niggles, on 30th Jan – 2 full weeks after Ruby had left – we finally crossed over the big bridge onto the west bank of the Nile heading to the vast valleys of the Theban Necropolis.

Crossing the Nile with luxury cruisers in distance

There was a marked contrast between the barren mountains and the fertile alluvial plains

We drove past a local racing event involving around 20 horses and a throng of about 100 spectators. The animals were being driven up and down wildly in the dust, urged to turn sharply around long sticks jammed in the ground, while being whipped to a frenzy – all to the accompaniment of a four piece band with goblet drums and pipes. It was all rather frenetic and formless and obliquely macho and looked most unhealthy for the horses. I knew our friend, Liberty expert Andrea Wady, would hate it.

A kind guy who recognised us from our WVO appeal on the Hurghada residents Facebook group came up to Big Reg in the Valley of the Kings carpark and invited us to sleep outside his house. So on 31st Jan we managed to get ourselves to the entrance by 10am.

The Valley of the Kings carpark, where you are not allowed to sleep overnight

Many thanks to Mahmoud Ahmed Mohamed for his hospitality

Like the Taj Mahal and Table Mountain, the Valley of the Kings is a top tourist destination that not only lives up to, but exceeds expectations. This was a whole new level of gob-smacked: the magnitude and the magnificence of it, the giddying vistas it opened before me of hitherto unimagined philosophy and culture of kingdoms of which I knew absolutely nothing.

And yet this too is our human heritage. This too.

The Valley of the Kings

From Wikipedia: “For a period of nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC, rock cut tombs were excavated for the pharoahs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom in the Valley of the Kings… The valley is known to contain 63 tombs and chambers (ranging in size from a simple pit to a complex tomb with over 120 chambers)… The royal tombs are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology and give clues as to the beliefs and funerary rituals of the period. Almost all of the tombs seem to have been opened and robbed in antiquity, but they still give an idea of the opulence and power of the pharaohs.”

I love that the “official name for the site in ancient times was The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh, Life, Strength, Health in The West of Thebes.” The Egyptians were as verbose as I am!

Thankfully there was a mini train to take us most of the way there

The little yellow train trundled through the dusty valley carrying coachloads of Chinese tourists and us. There was a chill wind and I was wrapped up, prepared for Cold Tombs, but got it so wrong – it was humid inside! The E£160 basic entrance price allowed access to 3 tombs excluding Tutankhamun‘s, which was more than enough for my energy capacity.

all the sights are underground

The interior of Ramses IV’s tomb KV2 was covered in colourful detailed designs. All of us were overwhelmed (again) by the scale and sophistication – every inch was decorated and meaningful. I particularly liked the variegated red-blue within the hieroglyphic text. Approaching the tomb at the centre, an elderly caretaker stationed there cautioned us all not to take pics because we hadn’t paid E£300 extra for that privilege (it hadn’t crossed our minds at that point, still dazed by the sights). But when he caught sight of Zola, he motioned come, just take a quick snap! Have a look at this tourist’s video.

As urged by the caretaker – though Zola not keen

Twosret and Seknakhte’s tomb KV14 was deeper, with two chambers and bigger pictures. Notable was Osiris with his four sons, a huge Horus on a lotus, a ram-headed bird as the soul of Ra, and the wings of Maat. I loved the first chamber’s blue ceiling with gold stars  – it felt very Hogwarts. The huge sarcophagus had a very thick lid with a statuesque relief on top and a picture of the pharoah on the underside pointed out by a guide stationed there with a torch. Here’s another video.

The third tomb of the package, a deep one with stairs, was closed, which saved me because I wasn’t sure I had enough energy to cope with them. Instead we were directed to that of Ramses III, KV11: blind harpists were the unique feature of this one. Its red quartzite sarcophagus had been removed to the Louvre in France; its lid to a museum in Cambridge, UK.

He spoke to me across millennia

Surrounded by tourists snapping away nineteen to the dozen, I found myself mesmerised by this calm blue-headed god Ptah (“who by his will thought the world into existence”) and couldn’t resist capturing a quick pic. The carving of his ear, nose and hand reminded me of the bas-reliefs by Canova I saw in the Gallerie d’Italia in Milan – only he’d been sculpted nearly 3000 years earlier! Check him out in the video at 1.43 – thanks Richard. There were so many extraordinarily magical realist figures:

This Horus looking hunky

and this beautiful Anubis looking very like Monte

It has been fascinating to read about Ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife. During the Old Kingdom from around 2400BCE, Pyramid Texts were carved into the walls of royal burial chambers to help guide pharoahs through the underworld to eternal life. During the Middle Kingdom, access to this knowledge was shared with commoners through Coffin Texts or inscribed on linen shrouds.

By the New Kingdom era, from around 1700BCE, the collection of funerary spells known as the Book of the Dead (or more correctly, the Book of Coming Forth By Day), were typically written on a papyrus scroll produced to order by scribes. They would be commissioned by people in preparation for their own funerals, or by the relatives of someone recently deceased, and were expensive items. One source gives the price as one deben of silver, half the annual pay of a labourer.

The most famous of the 192 recorded spells is number 125, the ‘Weighing of the Heart‘, first documented during the reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, around 1475 BCE. Having overcome a series of threats presented by crocodiles, snakes and supernatural animals en route, the newly-dead was led by the jackal-headed god Anubis into the presence of Osiris, lord of the underworld.

There, the deceased swore that they had not committed any of a list of 42 sins, reciting a text known as the Negative Confessions. This culminated in the weighing of their heart on a pair of scales against the goddess Maat, embodiment of truth, justice and harmony, who was represented by an ostrich feather, the hieroglyphic sign for her name.

If the scales balanced or the heart was lighter, this meant the dead person had led a good life. Anubis would escort them to Osiris and they would find their place in the afterlife, becoming maa-kheru, ‘vindicated’ or ‘true of voice’. If out of balance with Maat, the heavy heart would be eaten by a fearsome female demon called Ammit, the Devourer – part lion, part hippopotamus, part crocodile – damning the deceased to ‘die a second time’ and condemning their soul to eternal restlessness in the Duat.

We drove out of the Valley of the Kings and paused here to eat

40. I have not carried away the khenfu cakes from the spirits of the dead.

– only later we realised that in the distance was Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari – can you spot the terraces of colonnades? I was gutted to have missed it, but I’d had no energy left to walk any further anyway.

There were so many more tombs all around

But at least we saw the Colossi of Memnon in passing

and these fellers

13. I have not eaten the heart [i.e. I have not grieved uselessly, or felt remorse].

Mortuary temples in distance

I was shattered. It was enough.

* * *

Sampson saw so much more of Egypt than me: his early morning walks with Monte took him on long loops around the truck everywhere we stayed. He would come home and tell us about what he’d seen over breakfast. This morning, he’d watched a man making crates out of pieces of palm fronds while mist rose off the Nile behind him. “It’s probably been like this for thousands of years” he said “except for the hot air balloons going up in the background!” The craftsman had completed two by the time he finished his circuit.

Handmade crates like this were common

The magical sight of the balloons going up at dawn, he described (and I quote) “like Chinese lanterns, full of Chinese tourists. Or like giant mutant jellyfish wobbling above you. They turn into enormous brightly coloured beach balls. It was a feast for the eyes. I drank it in like an alcoholic who’d just fallen off the wagon.”

You gotta admit, we’re well matched in our hyperbole.

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