Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 March 2006
Issue No. 784
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The best remains

Serene Assir is moved by the monumental beauty of all that Luxor has to offer

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The River Nile in Luxor breathes eternity; one of the colossi of Amenhotep III; children and adults alike enjoy the Temple of Luxor; tourists marvel at the sight of the Temple of Hatchepsut; craftsmen conserve the ancient art of pot- and statue-making; shopping for treasures in the city's street markets; take a boat into the Nile and bask in the ancient sun

There is little that can calm the restlessness of the human spirit more than the direct experience of a location whose very soul speaks of eternity. Once known as Thebes, the ancient capital of the Pharaonic New Kingdom, Luxor transcends the limits of time and power, revealing, with astounding artistry that when all things come to pass, only beauty remains. Luxor also serves as a fascinating testament to different civilisational trends infusing with each other in a way which is as uncanny as it is vivid and extraordinary.

Situated south of Egypt, the small Upper Egyptian province of Luxor is home to a phenomenal 45 per cent of the world's ancient ruins. Indeed, according to Egyptologists, what has so far been uncovered makes up only about 10 per cent of what actually lies under the sand. The city, inhabited by just 150,000 people, sits on the east bank of a bend on the Nile, the last before the world's longest river reaches out into Sudan. The main sites are the Temples of Luxor and Karnak, as well as the quaint Luxor Museum. But there's more -- the Museum of Mummification, which provides visitors with unique research into mummification methods and into this fascinating aspect of life in Ancient Egypt -- as well as the Museum of Nubian Culture are also must-sees.

But it's across the Nile, on the west bank, that Luxor unveils its true magic. The Valley of the Kings, for one, has stirred the imagination of travellers, poets and artists from across the world for centuries. It is common knowledge that the Greeks and Romans often visited Egypt precisely to visit this very site, seeking inspiration or, who knows, escape. The Valley of the Queens, the Temple of Hatshepsut, the Colossi of Memnon, the Temples of Seti I, Ramses II and Ramses III -- the list is endless. For this ancient capital constitutes the heart of Ancient Egypt, and it was from here that the Pharaonic Empire at its peak was run. Undeniably exuding magic, the city and its surroundings serve as a lesson in time, love, power and plenty. And they serve equally as a testament to endow fortunate visitors with a bird's-eye view of the dynamics of life and death, extending their shadows and bloom into each others arms, forever giving, forever envious. Luxor is a theatre of that very struggle, and the journey to that capital changes travellers' lives for good like no other.

ALLUSION OF LIFE: Situated in the heart of the modern-day city, the Temple of Luxor continues to serve as the reference point of the town centre. Smaller than its counterpart in Karnak, this temple is nevertheless singularly beautiful and grandiose in its multiple structures. According to expert literature on the temple, its original purpose is unclear, but most Egyptologists have come to believe that it was constructed in order to celebrate Ka, or the divine force guarding inheritance of power from father to son. Its construction was first conceptualised and launched under the rules of Amenhotep III, but then expanded through later reigns, including that of Ramses II.

The entrance to the temple is guarded by an avenue of sphinxes, which lead up to two colossi of Ramses II and Queen Nefertari seated at the gateway, a pharaoh famed for his love of the grandiose and expressions of raw power. Once linking the Luxor and Karnak temples, the avenue still has an air of grandness, and was clearly designed in such a way so as to grant the entrance into the temple even more harmony and geometrical power. Already visible from the outside, an obelisk stands at the heart of the construct. A sister obelisk once stood near it, but it was famously given away by Ottoman ruler Mohamed Ali to his counterpart Louis Philippe in France. It now stands in the Place de la Concorde in central Paris.

Once inside the temple, the initial geometry breaks up, and melts into a new, more complex pattern, made up of a number of constructs from a variety of eras, each claiming its ground, seeking to overtake the last in beauty. To start with, rare and intricate engravings on the Pharaonic temple walls tell stories comprehensible even to the lay person, stories of battles with Hittites, of offerings made to the gods, and of power over prisoners of war. Then, colonnades built as though in emulation of Seti I's labyrinthine structures. Soon enough, the visitor discovers that there is more to the temple than Pharaonic architecture, for Alexander the Great also left his mark by building his own chapel on the site of the sanctuary built by Amenhotep III. It is interesting that, during the deadly persecution of Egyptian Christians by the Romans, the Copts used this very chapel as their own sanctuary. Christian paintings and markings made onto the walls remain to this day, again serving as a testimony of history. And there's more: an Ottoman house rises above the temple walls, painted in pastel hues that starkly stand out against the sky's watercolour blue. The greatest irony of all is the McDonald's sign visible from inside the temple. Seen from within the temple walls, one instantly wakes up to the realisation that, indeed, as prophesied once and again, this too, like all other ages and all other empires, shall pass.

The Temple of Karnak, to the north of its smaller counterpart, strikes the visitor with its proportions. Built to honour the god Amun-Ra, the goddess Mut and the god Montu, the site encompasses three different sites of worship within a single enclosure. It appears that the Temple of Karnak constituted a crucial site during the years of the New Kingdom, for almost all pharaohs ruling during this era contributed to it. Here, too, an avenue of sphinxes welcomes and at once awes the visitor who makes his way into an overwhelming expression in orange of power. And despite the sheer size of the two obelisks, the colonnades, the colossi and the buildings, no effort was spared by ancient artists to fill the walls of the Karnak Temple with exquisite detail. It is interesting to note how, despite the fact that the ideas of Akhenaton, who broke Ancient Egyptian taboo and preached of the existence of only one god as opposed to many, fell out of favour even during his own lifetime, they too left their mark on reigns to come. His sun symbol fills the walls of Karnak Temple, albeit incorporated into polytheistic Pharaonic imagery.

And for a more in-depth understanding of the city, visit Luxor Museum. Recently refurbished, it is relatively small but well laid out and reminiscent of an art gallery, helping to deny the rather bizarre claims of some that Ancient Egyptian works do not constitute art but rather craft. Over the trajectory of human history, there has been little artistic production that has been finer, more lasting and more influential than the pieces found in Tutankhamon's tomb, or the colossal statues of Akhenaton. The museum also features interesting documentary- style film screenings of what life may well have been like in Ancient Egypt, and replays are shown of pottery making or papyrus production. It thus serves as an interactive experience, accessible for children and adults, experts and lay persons alike.

INTIMATION OF DEATH: Stretching for miles and indeed across the borders of modern-day governorates, the ruins of the mortuary temples and tombs of kings, queens, princes, scribes, craftsmen and labourers that lie on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes are as varied as they are united in their purpose. For they all symbolise the immense importance that the concepts of death and immortality held for the Ancient Egyptians. Indeed, such was the centrality of the imminence of mortality and of the appropriate preparations for the afterlife to the Pharaonic consciousness that the best art was almost exclusively reserved to mark one's last breath and his or her passing into the world of eternity.

The Valley of the Kings has, with the mention of its very name, fired the imagination of travellers and wanderers across the world through time immemorial. Great orange mountains soar above the site which is home to the tombs of at least seven of the most important tombs of rulers of Ancient Egypt, including the famous burial grounds of Tutankhamon and Seti I.

Unlike their predecessors who chose to build their tombs above the ground in pyramids, rulers of the New Kingdom appear to have preferred to construct theirs as a more literal depiction of the journey into the underworld. In spite of this outward simplicity, they did not sacrifice on any grandeur inside the tombs. On the contrary, the tomb of Ramses III, for example, serves as an outstanding example of how structures designed into the rock -- as opposed to out of it -- could nevertheless be of enormous proportions, and fitting to the magnitude of the power and wealth of a king. In addition, because the tombs have been shielded through the centuries from natural erosion by the mountain rock, the paintings and colour remain astoundingly vivid, bearing in mind, of course, the intense restoration work that the tombs have been subject to.

Ramses III's tomb, which also served as a hiding place for Coptic Christians fleeing persecution, irradiates joy, owing to its colouring in lapis-lazuli blue and chrome yellow. It is also filled with writing in hieroglyphic characters, in red against a white background. So rich is the writing it is little wonder that Jean-François Champollion, French pioneer decipherer of the Ancient Egyptian language, spent three years living by the tomb, working hard at making use of this readily available and rich sample of writing.

Ramses IX's tomb meanwhile features larger-scale paintings which include depictions of worship, war and the sun disc symbol of the god Aton. Perhaps owing to the fact that they belong to a later period, the paintings here tend towards being more metaphorical than they do in, say, Ramses III's tomb. For example, characterisations of people making their way into the underworld are carried out in jet black, which is unusual for Egyptian art. Also adding to the relative darkness is the profuse usage of a deep red colouring. There is, in many senses, a peculiarly heavy focus on the event of death itself and the details of passage into the afterlife in Ramses IX's tomb, as opposed to the more commonplace depictions of what a given king or queen did during his or her lifetime, or will do during their life after death.

For its part, the tomb of Merenptah is fascinating in that it lies very deep beneath the ground's surface. In a way, the walk down the steep stairway that leads to the tomb gives way to a feeling which is at once intriguing and uneasy in visitors, of literally going into the underworld. The ceiling of the tomb, however, for all the imagery of power and death that the tomb is filled with, is decorated with beautifully simple yellow stars set against a dark blue sky. The poetic value of the site is overwhelming and, to this day, the feeling of greatness that the Pharaohs sought to exude by building such magnificent resting places for themselves surely remains, despite the passage of centuries.

Also a key trait of the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom was their construction of temples near their tombs. Enormous complexes which put modern architecture to shame, these temples are as varied as the tombs, with each standing as a glorious testament to the character of each ruler's character. While the only visible remains of the Temple of Amenhotep III are two colossi, also known as the colossi of Memnon, they nevertheless are particularly interesting in the way that the giant Pharaonic structures seem to continue to unashamedly cower over the surrounding mountains, fields and villages. The Temple of Ramses III, meanwhile, is astounding in its feel. With an entrance built in a style anachronistically reminiscent of military structures through the first half of the 20th century in Europe, it speaks power great enough to instill fear to this day. And of special interest to visitors lucky enough to have ventured into the temples at Abydos, the Temples of Seti I and Ramses II at Thebes serve to extend one's experience with these, two of the most influential of all Pharaohs.

But perhaps it is Queen Hatshepsut's Temple which draws closest to artistic perfection. Seen from afar, the temple resembles an enormous stage, cut straight out of the mountain which surrounds it. The colouring of the temple walls is that of the earth which embraces it, but it stands out, crying to the naked eye for attention with its sharp, angular structure. The proportions of this temple, as is the case with most of its counterparts in the area, are overwhelming. And as the visitor comes closer to the central building itself while climbing a plethora of steps leading upwards and upwards into the heart of the temple and, at once, the mountain, a conceptual secret of unlimited value is unveiled.

Certainly, the inside of the temple is grand, and paintings and details on the walls are beautiful and intricate enough to prove the importance of the queen. But it appears that her architect and friend Senenmut was privy to architectural and artistic genius which has seldom been reinvented -- if ever. For, as soon as one stands inside the temple walls, it is discovered that the true purpose of the structure was not merely to raise wonder at the glory of the queen, but rather to celebrate the forces of nature. The sky, the horizon, the fields stretching endlessly, the sun, the mountain and colours merging into each other and embraced in heartbreaking peace, all become worshippers at the temple, while visitors have no choice but to worship them. In effect, the Temple of Hatshepsut represents one of the rare testaments to art in its purest form, as emerging straight from the heart of nature's mysteries and beauty, and responding directly to them. And it is only when an artistic endeavour is so in harmony with the earth that its creator can then retract from the humility humanity has preached through centuries. For this is humanity at its zenith, at one with beauty and at peace and on a par with love and force equally.

Like no other

In a way, it's a shame that consumerism and the appeal of the increasingly ready availability of leisure have come to top travellers' agendas the world over. Recent comments by tourists to Egypt on Luxor not being able to offer what other areas of the country can are simply mistaken. Sure, Sharm El-Sheikh and Dahab are fun. But a visit to Egypt cannot by any means be considered complete without, at the very least, a stopover at Thebes. Aside from offering incomparable cultural value, the city of Luxor also provides the ideal escape from the clutter, routine and relative meaninglessness of city life. Walk along the River Nile, which is wider and bluer in the south of Egypt than it is in Cairo, and you will be rewarded with a sense of peace which you may well feel you deserve after stretches of sight-seeing. Or cruise the water in a felucca for the opportunity to lie back in the sunshine and simply let go. In addition, the city is full of cute little shops selling handicraft, silver and gold jewellery, some of which is made in the Pharaonic style, cotton clothing and accessories, and copper lamps encrusted with jewels. The lull is infinite. It's simply a question of building up the energy. Luxor will do the rest.

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