N.B. I’m praying the worst is behind us: this is the last of the behemothic Egypt blogs and September marks the beginning of spring in the southern hemisphere. If you can, please support me to complete the story and turn it into a book at Patreon.
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South of Luxor, Big Reg was hitting 85kmh on good tar and Sampson and I both felt much better just to be moving again. But after doing school in the cab with Zola, dizzy me had to go lie down in the back. 200km later, the way into Aswan was a hideous bumpy ride on a half-built road. Big Reg had to double back because the first bridge wasn’t built for trucks, so we ended up crawling round lorries in the dark. Still it was rather magnificent to bowl along the Corniche at night with all the lights of the town twinkling, knowing it would be horrendously backed up by morning.
We found a parking spot for the Big Green Truck next to a mosque just round the corner from the Sudan consulate. I went in to pick up visa application forms first thing and managed to charm the main dude, a Bernard Cribbins lookalike. When we returned an hour later, a powercut had killed the photocopier, so the place was packed and Bernard was a lot grumpier.
A girl I first thought was American but turned out to be Belgian sat down next to me and we quickly bonded. Enimie von Steenberge was a veteran backpacker of places off the beaten track, having taken her first trip to Yemen aged 20. Her boyfriend was Iranian, but she was travelling alone on this trip and after only 10 days in Egypt, she was sick to death of constant daily harassment by Egyptian men and wanted to head south ASAP. I was filling in our forms as she was telling me about it when a German bloke leaned over, pointed to the question about accommodation and said “just write the name of any hotel”. I completely blanked him, turned to Enimie and said “Should I translate ‘mansplaining’?” Sometimes it’s great to be old.
I took her back to the truck for tea to find Sampson entertaining a UK couple: sparkling Irish-eyed Dee Haughney was an African art museum curator and very English RP-accented Andrew Warwick was halfway through his architecture qualifications. I’d avoided Andrew in the visa office, assuming him to be another-one of-those-arrogant-guys-I-was-at-college-with, but he turned out to be an absolute darling. Dee and he were 9 days into their Cairo2Cape Town cycling odyssey and had already learned enough to ditch their trailers! (Sweethearts, I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to write this up – but now you know what I was going through at the time, perhaps you’ll forgive me.)
You can tell how lovely Dee and Andrew were by how much Zola liked them – he usually hates having visitors but was so silently thrilled to be in their ‘cool’ company, he set about making me lunch so they could stay longer. I slumped afterwards; it had been a long morning sitting up.
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We decided to go ask for oil from the Old Cataract Hotel, built by Thomas Cook in 1899 to accommodate European tourists. Their list of famous guests includes Tsar Nicholas II, Churchill, Thatcher, Queen Noor and Princess Di. Check out this poster. Apparently Agatha Christie was inspired to write Death on the Nile here during the 1930s, and the classic 1978 film adaptation with Peter Ustinov as Poirot, that we’d watched last week, was partially shot here.
We were allowed to park the truck outside under the watchful eye of security. Next morning, while Zola was zipping through his lessons, Sampson and I tried not to feel too smug walking past a queue of tourists being denied entrance (despite begging “just for tea?”) with the valid excuse that we had a meeting! What a privilege it was to go in and look around this landmark. We were warmly welcomed by the Food and Beverages manager Mr Raheem who told us that sadly they had given all their WVO oil away at end of the month a couple of days ago.
Outside on the terrace, we saw there was only room for ten tables – no wonder access was restricted to guests! So we wandered down the steps to the jetty to appreciate the views.
On our way out, when we asked the hostess to please pass on our thanks to the manager for letting us look around, she insisted we stay for a drink. So Sampson and I ended up being treated to a milkshake and perfect not-too-sweet hibiscus juice respectively on the balcony overlooking the Nile.
The fascinating array of guests surrounding us reflected the intriguing mix of colonial furnishings and bold contemporary prints in the vestibule décor: an elegant and expensively dressed Cairean family, with 3 young sons and a dragon of a mother-in-law having lunch; a classically styleless retired British couple drinking tea; a couple of very funky black French-speaking mademoiselles with fabulous handbags enjoying cocktails. It was fun to play at being part of the jet-set for 20 minutes.
See a spectacular photo gallery of the Old Cataract Hotel Aswan here.
In the library area, I went to a bookshelf of tomes left behind by other travellers. There was a range of guidebooks and trashy novels, but the title that immediately leapt out at me was the orange spine of the Penguin Romola. In my first year reading English at Oxford, we were given a week to write an essay on the complete works of George Eliot. We’d done Middlemarch at school, and I managed to read Adam Bede, Felix Holt and Mill on the Floss in those 7 days. But I never got to Romola, which, in the blurb on the back, Eliot herself described as “written with my best blood”.
I could empathise with that feeling.
I don’t know why I seized on it so gratefully. The book felt like a lifeline. I didn’t choose it, it came to me. I could not let it go. It offered me the promise of the comfort of a solid story to get lost in. Even though it took me many more months to get well enough to even open it, Romola lived next to me on my bed for the next year, a companion ready for when I was able to read for pleasure again.
Written in 1862-3, but set in a 15th century Italy lovingly recreated with lavish painterly detail, in Romola Eliot used the dramatic backdrop of Renaissance Florence to examine Victorian social mores. Elaine Showalter opined that “the story also deals with the dilemma of where the duty of obedience for women ends and the duty of resistance begins” (A Literature of Their Own, 1999).
Eventually Eliot gave me a mirror to see myself in. Though I am in no way like obedient innocent Romola, until very recently, I did sincerely believe that:
“She who willingly lifts up the veil on her married life has profaned it from a sanctuary into a vulgar place.”
I have always felt this. For the first 20 years of my marriage, I was never disloyal to my husband in word let alone deed. I wouldn’t consider complaining about him to my best friends or my mother. I felt it would undermine both him and myself. Whether from a sense of sanctity or sheer stubbornness, I could not admit any serious flaws and played problems down.
“…Romola was urged to doubt herself the more by the necessity of interpreting her disappointment in her life with Tito as to satisfy at once her love and pride….
No! resentment must not rise: all endurance seemed easy to Romola rather than a state of mind in which she would admit to herself that Tito acted unworthily.”
But 2017-18 had put this belief to the test. If I continued to hold to this standard, how could I continue to write this blog frankly? As time went on, I began to interrogate why I was constantly making excuses for him, even to myself.
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This weekend was the perfect temperature for me: between too cold in Lower Egypt in winter and too hot in Sudan, it was absolute bliss to be in balmy Aswan. I was back to needing only one sleeping bag with the hatch open overnight. Yet on Saturday morning, for the first time ever, T’ai Chi made me feel worse. I had a terrible headache at the nape of my neck. Was it a consequence of an upsetting call to Ruby at hostel telling her that Polly had died, which had her howling in tears and on the verge of another panic attack?
I lay down and rested up all day ahead of a planned visit to the Nubia Museum which opened at 4.30pm. The museum was built as a conclusion to the staggeringly ambitious UNESCO initiative to rescue and relocate 22 ancient Egyptian monuments and architectural sites at risk from flood during construction of the Aswan High Dam between 1960 and 1980. More than 60 member states contributed to this unprecedented international cooperative effort to preserve our human heritage.
Opened to visitors in 1997, the Nubia Museum won the Aga Khan award for Architecture in 2001. It displays more than 3000 objects found during excavations in an impressive sandstone and pink granite building, and does vital work underlining the links between ancient civilisations and cultures of Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
It exceeded my expectations and deserves to be on the international map alongside the Acropolis museum in Athens. Set amid landscaped gardens and beautifully laid out, it provides a wealth of information about the rise and fall of empires, and the ebb and flow of peoples across Nubia from pre-history through Pharaonic, Roman, Coptic and Islamic epochs to the present. Importantly, in this era of decolonised education, it effortlessly showcases the extent of the sophistication of African craftsmanship from ancient times.
Nubia traded gold, incense, ebony, copper, ivory, and exotic animals from tropical Africa and enjoyed peaceful cultural exchange with Egypt for centuries; there is speculation that the word Nubia comes from the Egyptian word for gold. Some Egyptian pharaohs may have been of Nubian origin, such as Mentuhotep II of the 11th dynasty and Amenemhet I, founder of the 12th dynasty. Nubia was mostly dominated by Egyptian power except for a shining moment during the 25th Dynasty where the kingdom of Kush took over and held sway all the way to Libya and Palestine. The glorious Black Pharoahs of Kush – great name for a band – ruled for 88 years from 744 BCE to 656 BCE.
“The 25th Dynasty’s reunification of Lower Egypt, Upper Egypt, and Kush created the largest Egyptian empire since the New Kingdom. They assimilated into society by reaffirming Ancient Egyptian religious traditions, temples, and artistic forms, while introducing some unique aspects of Kushite culture. It was during the 25th dynasty that the Nile valley saw the first widespread construction of pyramids (many in what is now Sudan) since the Middle Kingdom.” (Wikipedia)
Sampson bailed first, then Zola left to cook. So I ended up alone chatting with the most beautiful faces of all: Khaled (13) and his sister Aliaa (10) were proud (and tall!) Nubians on holiday from Cairo, personifying a perfect blend of Arab/African looks and intelligence. While their inquisitive elder brother walked about making copious notes, sweet Khaled was eager to tell me all about Egyptian singer Sherine. In turn I told him about Bra Hugh who had just passed; Khaled paused and said “You know One Direction? We love!” and Aliaa nodded enthusiastically. Bless ’em.
After a rest, I went on to be entranced by the workmanship of the exhibits from the Common Era:
When hordes of Egyptian teenaged boys on a school tour came piling in, I left. I got a bit lost in the grounds looking for the way out, and became slightly panicky as it was getting dark and my legs were beginning to fail. Son’s supper felt like a reward:
That night we started watching the more modern film version of Murder on the Orient Express. Kenneth Branagh seemed as preposterous a choice for Poirot as his moustaches.
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After a very sweaty day missioning to fill up with water and change Egyptian pounds into dollars to enter Sudan (where, according to our guide book, there were no ATMs available outside the capital) we treated ourselves to a felucca ride. If you can’t go to Venice and not have a go in a gondola, you can’t go to Aswan and not experience a felucca ride at sunset. I’d declined to take a daredevil camel ride at the pyramids, but this was far more my scene.
I’m so glad we ‘pushed the boat out’ for this. The perfect peace of it was such a balm. As Mr Aladin tacked upriver against the current before turning to catch it back, I felt my inner tension unwinding. I loved the timeless Nubian vibe, the slap slap of the Nile against the side, the rich scents of the green water reminding me of trips on the River Leam as a child. It was so relaxing. One hour became two as it got dark.
I was so shattered when we came in, but stood up another 40 mins to fry three of my famous potato cakes to have with Zola’s tasty leftovers. The evening was ruined by Sampson accidentally letting the cat out onto the road when he brought Monte in and threatening to ‘leave it out all night’ because he was too tired to go fetch Lucky. I was so upset, I was beginning to think leaving him was a less scary prospect than staying. What was happening to me? Surely I shouldn’t be this distressed simply because of silly thoughtlessness. Why was I constantly reduced to tears?
Monday morning got off to a nasty early start when we both had upset stomachs. (Bullet-proof Zola was fine.) Walking back to the Sudanese embassy to collect our passports with new visa stamps in them, Sampson was feeling very sorry for himself, complaining about how ghastly he felt. When I gently countered that I wasn’t feeling great either, he uttered the immortal words: “Well, you have diarrhoea all the time, so it doesn’t count.”
“Very slight things make epochs in married life…”
At that moment, something broke.
I turned and looked at him, dumbfounded.
Does he really believe that?
So does he think that ‘pain all the time’ and ‘exhausted all the time’ don’t count either?
Does he really believe I must just get used to it?
I was so shocked, I couldn’t speak.
Does he think that, just because it happens every day, it doesn’t hurt?
“There was a terrible flaw in the trust: she was afraid of any hasty movement, as are men who hold something precious and want to believe it is not broken”
I couldn’t understand his determinedly self-scuppering self-absorption; it felt reckless, almost defiant. Much later, Eliot gifted me insights into the mind of Romola’s husband Tito:
“The terrible resurrection of secret fears which, if Romola had known them, would have alienated her from him forever, caused him to feel an alienation already begun between them – caused him to feel a certain repulsion towards a woman from whose mind he was in danger.”
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It was a nightmare getting out of town – we suspected there was a fire or a bomb scare – Big Reg was waved through traffic by impatient police and nearly squashed a car with the side of a tyre. Finally we reached the Aswan High Dam below Lake Nasser, guarded by a host of boys with machine guns. The truck was given the once over by a plain clothes policeman in a T-shirt, who kept us waiting 45 minutes while he chatted to his boss on the phone (who seemed to be checking whether our website was authentic). Once given the all clear, his colleague jumped into the passenger seat to escort us over this sensitive state site. We weren’t allowed to take any photos of the enormous dam, but he took selfies with Sampson!
The Aswan High Dam, the world’s largest embankment dam, is a breathtaking feat of engineering built between 1960 and 1970 to provide protection from both floods and droughts, while increasing agricultural and electricity production and tourism on the Nile. However it also forced the relocation of 1o0 000 Nubian people in Egypt and Sudan.
Zola and I had finished school, so in the late afternoon when Sampson was exhausted I volunteered to drive – that’s how much stronger the warm weather makes me! I was so happy to manage an hour and half on the road through sunset into dark. I avoided cramp by slathering magnesium oil on my limbs before bed.
Although woken by a scrabbling dog at 5.45am, I embraced the opportunity to have a little cuddle with my husband – he put Monte out then took him for a walk at 6.30 and I managed to doze back off. Sampson started driving at 8 and I lay in bed till 9 recovering from the effects of my stint at the wheel. I was feeling very grateful for our life, that allows me to do that when I need to, and very fond of the back of Hub’s tufty head.
We stopped midmorning and as usual, within 10 minutes, police in a van swang by to say “you can’t stay here” but we assured them we’d only stopped to eat. I’d been fantasising about making ‘strawberry strudel’ again, gluten-free pancakes with layers of the stewed unripe fruit and Egyptian cream cheese. Even sweet-tooth Sampson liked it.
While I cooked, he went to lie down on my neatly made bed to rest his back. When I gave him a second helping, I saw he had carelessly dislodged the towel spread out there for the purpose of protecting my sheet. I know this sounds painfully petty, but when the only space that is truly yours is your bed, and you spend 80% of your time there, and the effort it takes to sweep it takes 10% of the energy you have for your entire day, when someone thoughtlessly dumps dirt or sand or smears oil on it from their filthy trousers (again) despite having been asked please to take care not to hundreds of times, it can send you over the edge.
Looking back, I also know that this was the height of my menopausal madness; I acknowledge I’m high maintenance at the best of time, but over this six months, my hormones had my triggers on a trip switch. I ended up screaming at him. Sobbing and shaking from upset, I crumpled onto the loo and thought This Is Ridiculous. ENOUGH.
He set off driving and I lay on the bed and wrote a long overdue email to my best friend from school, finally opening up to her, aware that admitting vulnerability had to be the first step: “I think this marriage is over…. I can’t be doing with this crying every day”.
There was no internet connection until we arrived at Abu Simbel, so I only managed to send it just before we went in. While I was blowing my nose and mopping my face with tissues – again – Sampson was taking Monte on a quick walk round the carpark, while fending off a pack of wild dogs, to tire him out before we went in. Approaching 3pm, the heat was easing, so we shut the animals safely inside and set off to find the entrance.
We walked around the side of a mound created by an artificial cliff. My eyes were on Zola – I hadn’t warned him or shown him anything prior to our arrival – and as he caught sight of the gigantic figures outside the Abu Simbel temples for the first time, a huge smile spread across his face. Wow oh wow oh wow oh wow oh wow! It was beyond beyond anything we had seen before. The majesty. The magnificence. The scope and the vision. The sheer size!
During his reign, Ramesses II embarked on an extensive building program across Egypt and Nubia. He built several grand temples there in order to impress Egypt’s might upon the Nubians and encourage integration. The Great Temple at Abu Simbel, which took about twenty years to carve out of rock, was completed around 1244 BC. It features four large statues of Ramesses II in the façade, each representing the pharoah sitting on a throne wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, one damaged by an earthquake.
The four colossal statues are 20m (66ft) high, 2m bigger than the four American presidents of Mount Rushmore, whose faces were sculpted in the 1930s, more than 3 millennia later. Inside there are another 8 huge figures, linking Ramesses with the god Osiris, and bas-reliefs depicting his battles in Syria, Libia and Nubia. The innermost sanctuary has four rock cut figures seated against a black wall: Egypt’s three state deities of the time, Ra-Horakhty, Amun Ra and Ptah alongside the deified king Ramesses.
The depictions of warring horse chariots within attesting to Ramesses II’s victory against the Hittites at Battle of Kadesh in 1274BCE reminded me of the Bayeux Tapestry (but 2300 years previously!). The delicacy of gesture and the fluidity of movement seemed more elegant however – even the Pharoah in the heat of battle slaying one enemy while trampling another looked graceful. Zola was loving it.
It is believed that the axis of the temple was positioned in such a way that on October 22nd (Ramesses II’s coronation day) and February 22nd (possibly his birthday), the rays of the sun would penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall – except for the statue of Ptah, a god connected with the realm of the dead, who always remained in the dark.
We crossed to the smaller temple, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, personified by Nefertari, Ramesses’s most beloved of his many wives. This is one of very few instances in Egyptian art where the statues of the king and his consort have equal size. Traditionally, the statues of the queens stood next to those of the pharaoh, but were never taller than his knees. As at the Great Temple of the king, there are small statues of princes and princesses next to their parents.
The salvage of the Abu Simbel temples by a multinational team working together under the UNESCO banner cost US$40 million (equal to $300 million today). Between 1964 and 1968, the entire site was carefully cut into 1000 large blocks weighing between 7 and 30 tonnes, dismantled, lifted and reassembled in a new location 65 metres higher and 200 metres back from the river, in one of the greatest feats of archaeological engineering in history.
Photography is not allowed inside, but when a big tourist boat from Aswan anchored below the temples and we could see the crowd on deck snapping away we decided it must be OK to take some outside, and Zola squeezed a selfie:
The experience was so magical, it laid a golden glow over us like a magic healing balm. When we came out we didn’t want to leave – we went back to the Great Temple to read these launch plaque comments:
As we headed round the circuit to the exit, Sampson’s back was aching so he went ahead while Zola and I looked around an exhibition room commemorating 200 years since maverick Italian barber/fugitive/circus performer/hydraulic engineer/explorer/archaeologist/looter Giovanni Battista Belzoni uncovered the Abu Simbel temples buried beneath the sand in 1817.
As we came out, Ruby phoned me all excited, needing permission to leave hostel to go to the cinema with a friend – but I could hear calling from the truck.
Sampson was shouting that he thought Monte had had a stroke: when he opened the driver’s door, he’d found him on the floor having a fit by the gear stick. Monte was capering around now but his back legs were weirdly stiff. I said get him inside because he seemed over-hyped to me, panting excessively and the presence of the feral dogs seemed to be getting him in a state.
Once we lifted him in, Monte had another fit while I was holding and trying to calm him – it was so extreme, with his limbs and neck straining, my left wrist was bruised the next day from protecting his head against the seat. I couldn’t believe he lived through it. Sampson was freaking out, so I got him to take over holding him while I searched for Kim Taylor’s number from ACE. There was no signal so I ran over to security to use their phone, but no answer. By the time I’d run back, Monte had had another fit and Sampson was beside himself. I remembered the emergency number for the Hurghada vet that our Russian friend Alex had accidentally gave me, and got straight through to Dr Issam. He told us it had to be poison so get to a pharmacy immediately.
Within 10 minutes, Sampson had screeched Big Reg out and down the slope to the roundabout with a couple of shops at the bottom, found a pharmacy and injected Monte with cortisone. Monte had had another convulsion in the meantime; now he was foaming at the mouth. Sampson begged us to take him from the cab into the back of the truck, out of sight of the crowd of guys at the open door watching.
As Zola and I were carrying him through to the back, Monte died. His fifth fit was one too many for his heart. My husband fell on his knees, howling, crying and I couldn’t bear his pain. My heart was breaking for him. No matter how hard living with Monte was, I would never have wished for this. I held Sampson tight, and we sobbed together.
The 5 o’clock call to prayer sounded like a benediction. Monte looked so peaceful, his coat gleaming, his body so healthy compared to the bag of bones we found on the rubbish dump in Montenegro five months ago. Eventually I persuaded Sampson to drive back to the temple car park. He sat behind the wheel and said “He made me feel like a 12 year old boy again, happy every day. He was so simple and loving” and burst into tears once more.
It made me feel so bad. That’s all he wants. All he needs. All anyone needs.
Back in the vast coachpark, Zola volunteered to make pasta while I held Sampson’s hand and walked with him far away from the lone truck, down to the end of the tar road, trying to see where we might give Monte a dignified grave. Way past the yapping pack of strays that security ‘deal with’ by scattering meat poisoned with strychnine…
We wanted to ‘bury him at sea’, and walked around with torches looking for a suitable spot but there was no sheer drop anywhere. It was a border day tomorrow and I didn’t think I could manage the fallout from carrying a heavy dog to the top of the steps, so we rather prepared to place Monte in a bed of rushes. I wrapped him in our old favourite Mr Price Mzansi rug that I’ve been sitting outside on all these years that smelled of us. As I got Monte ready, I realised Zola was finally sobbing. Very glad for the outpouring, I gave him a huge hug. Together we carried Monte deep into the bushes, turned him over, tucked him in and had a last sob with Sampson.
When we got back to the truck and Sampson lay down on my bed, Lucky came and sat on his chest, in a way she hasn’t done since she was a baby.
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Thank you Monte, for all you taught us. A wholly innocent soul, your bounding eagerness made you blessed and your boundless loving heart was without doubt lighter than Maat’s feather. I hope you will be there waiting to welcome us to the other side, our little Anubis.