From Ancient Thebes

The Stendhal Syndrome is an illness which the French novelist Henri-Marie Beyle (1783 – 1842), better known as Stendhal, suffered from  when he travelled around Italy and marvelled at the churches, cathedrals, paintings, sculptures, fountains, public buildings, ruins, frescoes, and piazzas. He was worried and anxious to see everything, do all the sights, learn as much as possible, experience all the culture that Italy had to offer him. This exposure to an overload of culture may cause nausea, vomiting, nervous twitches, and may even lead to hospitalization. It frequently affects visitors to Paris, London, Rome, New York, and Ancient Thebes, called by Florence Nightingale, who likened it to the works of Shakespeare,  “the deathbed of the world”.

For Thebes was the capital of the Ancient Egyptian Kingdom, where one can find the largest religious buildings ever constructed. Just the central Hypostyle Hall in Karnak Temple, the temple to the Sun God, the God of gods, Amun-Ra, contains 134 two-metre thick pillars and is as big as St Paul’s and St. Peter’s Cathedrals put together. Karnak was added to by various Pharaohs, and a two-metre sphinx-lined road led to the other major temple on the east bank of the Nile, Luxor Temple. This sphinx-lined avenue is only now being excavated.

The temples to the giver of life, Amun-Ra, are on the east bank, and the funerary temples and tombs are on the west bank, where the sun sets. I visit the funerary temple of King Seti I, Pharaoh between 1294-1279 BCE, and see wall paintings of him with the god who will look after him on the next world: the Sun God Amun-Ra; the cow goddess, Hathor; the Goddess of Love and pleasure; Horus, the falcon God of the Sky; Isis, the Goddess of Magic; Hapy, the God of the Nile, of the flood and fertility, an androgynous figure with a head of plants; and Anubis, the jackal-headed man, the God of Mummification, who would lead the king into the next world.

I walk back to the ferry to cross over to the East Bank. Mud houses on the left, on the other side of the canal, some colourfully decorated with paintings of the ancient Egyptian gods. Children playing outside, donkeys, sheep, goats. On my right the green fields of vegetables, sugar cane, rice. Three or four kilometres away the arid hills of the desert and behind them the Valley of the Kings, the burial tombs of the Pharaohs, where  their mummified corpses were preserved in the dry sands. The most famous of them is of course Tutankhamun, the boy king who ruled between 1336 and 1327 BCE and was buried with a fabulous cache of gold and jewellry.

The Egyptian Empire reached its apogee under Tuthmosis III (reigned 1479 – 1425 BCE) and Amenhotep III (1390-1325 BCE) , when it extended from Syria to Libya and south to what is now Sudan. The warrior kings Ramses II (1279 – 1213 BCE) and Ramses III fought to hold it together.

At the funerary temple to Ramses II, the Ramessum, I see his colossal statue, some 17 metres high, which lies in pieces. A huge foot here, fingers nearby, the trunk at 45 degrees. For the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who never actually went to Egypt, this was the image of the broken empty tyrant, the folly of vanity, which he used in one of his most famopus poems, “Ozymandias”.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works ye mighty and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Thebes, nowadays Luxor, or in Arabic Al-Uqsur, depends completely on tourism and has done so for at least a couple of centuries. Thomas Cook brought his first tourists to cruise the Nile in 1880, and the Winter Palace Hotel was built soon after. The tourists have been coming ever since to basically do the same things as we do today: visit the museums and monuments, see the mummies, get some winter sun, and take souvenirs back home.

In Luxor there are the tourists and the locals, and there is little mixing. It is Thursday night, 10 p.m.. Friday is a holiday. In the Egyptian part of town the streets are full, with people shopping, smoking waterpipes in the coffee bars, and strolling around. One alley is putting on what seems to be a children’s talent show. In a small park the merry-go-rounds are full, and a group of boys are dancing to Arab pop, The Internet cafes are full. Groups of girls walk arm-in-arm along the street. The Corniche along the Nile, by contrast, is tourist territory, with the hotels and cruisers, and the swarms of touts.

Tourism, and the weakness of the Egyptian economy, has led to a double economy here in Luxor. There is one price for tourists, and another for Egyptians. Museums and sites are from 30 to 100 Egyptian pounds (E₤) (1E₤ = US$5.5), and a tenth of this for locals. In the Internet cafes we pay four or five times as much, and drinks are double. Tourists traval by taxi and caleche, and the local minibuses are officially not allowed to transport tourists. Very few goods have a marked price. I buy an Egyptian English-language newspaper at the station. I know it costs E₤2. I am charged E₤3. I complain. “Here at the station E₤3. Besides, what is one Egyptian pound to you?” Well, he’s right. Even when you are overcharged, you’re still paying cheap. Salaries are very low. A junior civil servant may earn some US$30 a month. The caretakers at the sites, who always try to wheedle some baskeesh out of you by showing you around, would earn much less. Tips help them to survive. A E₤20 tip at the Seti Funerary Temple left the caretaker quite ecstatic.

3 Responses to “From Ancient Thebes”

  1. Lucy Oak Says:

    John,

    The blog is great, but where are the pix?!

    Travel safe.

    Lucy

  2. Robyn Davies Says:

    Great John. Just arrived back- self and four daughters. Not much changes! We coped well. Fantastic contrast to developed western world. Pleased to breath clean air! Sites of all sorts from very basic agriculture- never seen so many donkeys, litter and filth, sheesha everywhere, the hustle from touts, mirages of the desert, beautiful peace of Phillae,buzz and manic movement of Cairo too. Not to mention the stunning history- phenomenal feats of man. Your blog is a great reminder.

  3. Maria Teresa Says:

    Great text on Thebes/Luxor, John.
    The part you quote from Shelley is really moving.

    Abraço saudoso,
    Maria Teresa

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