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Tuesday, June 26, 2001

The temples of the Nile


Special to The Japan Times

To float down the Nile, stopping at the temples, sleeping on my ship -- this was my desire and now I am in a stateroom on the Cheops I, a floating hotel rather than a mere boat, looking at the wharf at Aswan and reading Flaubert's journal of a similar voyage he made in 1849. I notice many of the same things. "The barber, dog barking, children crying, a visit ces dames." Well, not the latter. "The ladies" are nowhere in evidence.

The island-temple complex of Philae

But, like him, I go to Philae, an island temple-complex devoted to Isis, and during the 19th century, the ruins thought most romantic. Flaubert found it filled with "a thousand charming details," but was indignant at the religious depredations, the defacing of the ancient deities, the chisel marks of later intolerance. I find it blazing under the hot, late spring sun, Isis nursing Horus, a bas-relief so enormous that the Christian chiselers could not reach that high, a series of immense slanting, roofless chambers holding the sun and making the shadows cold. There are also signs of the earlier tourists: the Temple of Augustus, the Gate of Diocletian, the Kiosk of Trajan.

Everything is so stunningly permanent that it is difficult to realize that this is not quite what Flaubert saw. UNESCO only 25 years ago moved the entire complex, stone by stone, from its original island to one somewhat like it and reconstructed Philae just as it had been. Now it is permanently above the waters of the Nile, which, thanks to the dams, floods no more, and the only yearly influxes the charming Philae must now endure are the high and low tourist seasons.

The barber, dog, children, wharf, the entire city of Aswan, suddenly slides from view. It is though the scene is being rolled past my proscenium -- the stateroom window, flanked by the immobile sofa, the fringed lamp, the drapes, my suitcase. Outside -- the real scenery, like the major attraction after the Aswan short subject -- begins at once. It flows by like the Nile itself: ocher hills, the desert, and against it the viridian tracery of the palmaries, the eruption of white dome, the distant vertical of a minaret. And accompanying the tan waves, the wash of the Muzak, caramel-colored music, so festive, so sad.

Palms, white mud-brick huts, mosques, people plowing, fishing -- as in an ancient frieze. And I realize, like every other tourist from Augustus on, that I am watching history unreel, I am looking at things as they have always been, peering back into all those centuries that the Nile holds. I float on the longest river in the world (a length Flaubert did not know since it had not yet been calculated) and I gaze at the world's most ancient intact civilization (a fact he knew very well indeed).

The Temple of Kom Ombo, in ancient times on the great caravan route from Nubia, a place where gold from the mines on the Red Sea ended up and where elephants from the interior jungles were taken to be used as defense by the army. A place sacred, too, to the crocodile with which the Nile then swarmed. Four of them, mummified, are on display at the temple, the other attractions of which include impressive ruins, doubled and perfectly symmetrical. This is because of the dual nature of the place (twin courts, twin colonnades, twin sanctuaries) since it was dedicated to falcon-headed Horus on the left and to the crocodile-headed Sobek on the right.

I wander in what is left of these colossal twin edifices and look warily about for crocodiles. But they're all gone, driven from the Nile by big boats such as the one on which I am now floating. The sacred reptiles continue to abound, however, I am told, upstream in Lake Nasser.

Edfu -- Flaubert only says that the temple "serves as public latrine for the entire village." He is much more taken with the town of Esna, a few kilometers downstream. It was here that he encountered the dancer Kuchuk Hanem. "a tall, splendid creature . . . when she bends, her flesh ripples into bronze ridges." She was persuaded to dance. After the musicians had been blindfolded she performed something called "The Bee," apparently a kind of un-striptease involving that premise of the insect's being trapped under her burnoose. Afterward, imaginary bee expelled, now naked but for a few trinkets, "she sank down breathless on the divan, her body continuing to move slightly in rhythm."

The Temple of Horus at Edfu.

Nothing of the sort occurs to me at Edfu but I do get to experience the superb Temple of Horus, a huge complex which remains the largest and most completely preserved pharaonic temple in Egypt. Taking nearly two centuries to finish -- and finally completed by Cleopatra's father -- it is entered through an enormous (36 meters high says the guidebook) pylon decorated with colossal reliefs of Ptolemy XIII pulling the hair of his enemies while Horus looks on approvingly.

When royalty and the gods are this big they tend not only to impress but also to frighten. Perhaps this is because our times equate size with terror (King Kong), but also because a feeling of awe is not untinged with a sense of danger. As I proceed further and further into the bowels of Horus, as succeeding waves of colossal colonnades more and more shut out the inquiring sun, I feel ancient misgivings. And as I creep into the darkness of the sanctuary where in distant times a live falcon -- Horus himself -- perched and brooded, I know what it is: apprehension.

Safely back on board I am served at tea, pear jam on fresh croissants, and then, my hotel safely anchored, take a sailboat, a felluca, out over the waters of the Nile, now as blue as those of the ocean, to a small nearby island, festooned with the luxuriant foliage that river water brings to desert shores. Sails stretched, we glide under the lea, beneath a sudden fall of what seems like snow but is really spores of the trees in which dozens of white egrets are nesting, treading the branches. We are also joined by a little boy in a boat not much larger than he is. He grasps the gunwales of mine and is carried along as, flat on his back, he entertains me in various languages. He can do "Home on the Range," it turns out, and, perhaps mistaking my nationality but respecting his setting, "Die Lorelei." When he begins the theme song from "Titanic," however, I pay him off and cast him away.

Then I turn to look at the verdant island, deepest green against the parched tan of Sahara directly behind, abruptly abutting it. What is this sense of well being that I strangely and suddenly experience? It is as though this contrast has somehow defined poles I had thought opposite, as though I am rendered whole. It is like the sun unexpectedly appearing on an otherwise cloudy day and I am unreasonably happy.

Later I find a parallel in Flaubert. He is also on his way to Luxor. "The mountains are dark indigo, blue over dark gray. . . the palms are black as ink, the sky is red, the Nile has the look of a lake of molten steel. . . . It was then as I was enjoying these things that I felt a surge of solemn happiness that reached out toward what I was seeing, and I thanked God in my heart for having made me capable of such a joy: I felt fortunate at the thought, and yet it seemed to me that I was thinking of nothing: It was a sensuous pleasure that pervaded my entire being."

I lie awake tonight, the ceiling crossed by the lights we pass, rocking on the bosom of the Nile. One hundred and fifty years ago, a 28-year-old Flaubert felt what I, a 77-year-old, now also experience. I wonder if this is the sensuous gift that Egypt was proverbially known to bestow upon travelers.

The colossi of Memnon

Luxor, the 4,000-year-old site of ancient Thebes, and now the greatest open-air museum in the world. First off, the colossi of Memnon, what is left of them, standing there. Time, earthquakes and mankind have reduced these to enormous piles of tumbled stone. It was already one of the acknowledged tourist sites in the 19th century, but Flaubert seems to have missed it. At least he writes nothing about it.

Nor about the Valley of the Kings, a great white, dusty, blinding vale where next I go. This official city of the royal dead reminds me of Washington, D.C. with its enormous distances, its whiteness, its array of official monuments. I go into a few of them, decorated tombs, color still intact, and then ride (a small donkey, recalcitrant but reasonably, by its young owner, named Mickey Mouse) to the many-tiered Temple of Hatshepsut. This also Flaubert did not see since it was not excavated until 1896 and is still being restored.

It is also now remembered as the site of the 1997 massacre when over 50 foreign tourists were slaughtered by "terrorists" -- second tier, left hand side -- masked machinegunners emerging from the dark, inner colonnades. No one has forgotten this -- least of all the Egyptian government. The entire Nile area from Aswan to Luxor is reassuringly swarming with soldiers, policemen, security guards. Their phalanxes are ubiquitous and each member is armed. Though this massive presence might give pause to some tourists, I find it heartening. Flaubert, on the other hand, could not have understood it. In his time, tourist terrorism did not exist.

"The mass of the pylons and the colonnades looms in the darkness; the moon, just risen, seems resting on the horizon, low and round and motionless, just for us, and the better to illumine the horizon's great flat stretch. We wonder amid the ruins, which seem immense; dogs are barking furiously on all sides, and we carry stones or bricks with us." This is Flaubert on his first evening at Luxor.

I went there earlier in the day, just as the sun was declining, wandered along the double row of ram-headed sphinxes that once formed an avenue all the way to Karnak, and into the massive funnel of ruined halls, the greatest of which was dedicated to Amun, one of the deities of creation and the most important god of Thebes. In the fading light I looked at his great pink granite obelisk, and then the empty dias of its twin. This missing column is not looking at the calm darkness of Luxor but at the endless traffic of the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Flaubert had the same thought. "How it must miss its Nile! What does it think as it watches all the cabs drive by, instead of the chariots it saw at its feet in the old days?"

Karnak

Karnak, now only a short drive from Luxor itself, is more than a temple. It is truly spectacular complex of pylons, obelisks, kiosks, sanctuaries. My guidebook tells me that 10 major cathedrals could be contained in the space, and that the initial pylon is twice as high as that at Luxor Temple.

Flaubert tells me that Karnak is "a palace of giants. The stone grilles still existing in the windows give the scale of these formidable beings. As you walk about in this forest of tall columns you ask yourself whether men weren't served up whole on skewers, like larks." And all this enormity just to honor the dead.

Tonight, as Flaubert's moon again rises, I return to enormous Karnak -- the most colossal, the most perfect, the most awesome. Particularly now -- illuminated by shifting lights as I wander through its forest of papyrus-shaped pillars, faces millenia-old gazing down at me, surrounded by music. The score, however, is apparently by the twin brother of Maurice Jarre and much reduces emotion by appropriating it. Nonetheless, kitchy as it all might have been, this son et lumiere is saved by the mere fact that it brings one here, in the night, to ancient Karnak.

In the morning, packing, leaving the boat, preparing for the flight to Cairo, I sat over a second espresso and thought about Karnak, how I had been surrounded there by all this mortality. And then it struck me that ancient Egypt was not death possessed, as is often said. Rather, it was life possessed as have been few other civilizations. Why else this enormous celebration of the terminal unless one is so in love with the journey. These tombs, these sepulchers, these mummies -- they attest to a life-fixation so extreme that it is as though death is defeated.

Later in the day I on the Giza plateau looking at the pyramids, all three of them, ranging from smallest to largest, Mycernus, Chephren and Cheops -- only the latter of which one can enter. This I did not do though my young camel driver tells me I should. But it is so wonderful be on the outside of the pyramids, seeing them loom, feeling as did Flaubert that they are "inordinately huge and completely sheer; like a cliff, like a thing of nature, a mountain."

"Three million stones, each one big as a Toyota," says the driver referring to Cheops as I pitch along its slope. He passes in front of me, leading my beast (named Ali Baba I am told) and I am struck by his profile. Where can I have seen it before? Then I remember Philae and the teenaged Horus being nursed by Isis. The same long nose, the same stern gaze, the same brown limbs glimpsed among the folds. Is it just romantic me? I wonder. But no, a family resemblance is there, nothing particularly wonderful about it except that as I lurch along on Ali Baba's back and enter the cold shadow of Cheops it seems somehow marvelous, as though I am witnessing something extraordinary.

Feeling my gaze, he turns upon me his fine pharaonic regard: "Sure you don't want to go in?" No, I tell him, it is enough just being there with him and Ali Baba in the shadow of Cheops, that I am happy as I am. "You happy, I happy," he says with a smile.

Death defeated, life affirmed. This remains Egypt's gift. Flaubert's last thoughts on leaving Karnak will be mine on leaving Egypt: "Sadness at leaving ? Why?"

stones


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