I often travelled to Africa and even lived in it twice, but out of that enormous continent I loved best the queen of all these ancient cradles of civilization: the country called Egypt. I was given the opportunity to visit it several times. My first trip, which comes to me in snatches, was the best, the most romantic one, and the last one–before the explosion of the Arab Spring–was the most difficult and the heaviest one. It was, socially speaking, the most unacceptable one. Before the Muslim Brothers came to power, they started announcing their religious program through the endless singing of the muezzins in the minarets of the improvised mosques which were scattered along the banks of the Nile. Every fifty meters there was one of them on the road from Cairo to Aswan. Amenhotep and Amon Ra seemed to have disappeared for good, and endless suras, which the priests read through the speakers in the minarets, reminded one of a dreadful repetitive opera of the Western postmodern composers such as Philip Glass. I will not talk much about that last trip.
My first trip, on the other hand, was terribly romantic. I stepped onto the soil of “my Africa,” which I had to leave twenty years earlier under dramatic circumstances, due to my illness, malaria, a young woman that I was, once upon a time. I used to laugh at authors who, somewhat like Karen Blixen, tried to describe the continent. What could have been said on the side of the colonizers about the continent which was the cradle of us all trying to swing “gently” into every direction? However, this time, I was sent on the side of my local paper who put me on the scene in order to follow, largely from a distance, the escalation of the first war in Iraq. Everything seemed to be peaceful and “quiet” in Egypt, aside from the obligatory soldiers assigned to certain outposts, to make sure that there wouldn’t be any upsurge or rebellion, along the road which stretched from Cairo towards the Red Sea and Mount Sinai. However, in Egypt itself there were no war incidents, so I could devote my discreet activities to the exploration of “ancient civilization,” which was waiting for me nearby.
By the end of August, I found myself in Cairo, and then I went further south to the Egyptian summer resorts and to the well-known local archeological sites, mirages of the ancient civilization, Aswan and Luxor. If you ask an Arab about the issues of the Iraqi-Egyptian conflict, he will wave his hand with a somewhat casual dismissal: the entire history and culture of this country is permeated with the mystical belief that life is just a part of a larger destiny, an old Maghreb philosophy. As a consequence of such an assumption I will supply the following story. Upon our arrival in Luxor, the old capitol of Thebes on the eastern bank of the Nile, it became obvious to us that all the temples in it were steadily being destroyed by the Christian and Muslim raids and attacks, I would say twice as much more than those temples which we visited travelling up the river. The oldest temple in Luxor, originally built by Amenopis III and situated on a very ancient sanctuary, was the temple devoted to Amon, then to the god Mut as well as to his son Horus, lord of the Moon.
Amenhotep, the anarchist ruler had transferred the greater part of the temple to his new capital, Tel Amarna, but the temple was completely restored during the consequent rule of the great Egyptian warrior, Ramses II. This tallest man of ancient Egypt (he was 1,80 meters tall) adorned the temple with his own representations of himself–the statues and the reliefs on which he was conquering the disobedient Hittites and all the rest who could read the relief and use it as the practical warning against a rebellion. At the very entrance to the temple there is a long colonnade of the sphinxes, as well as in Karnak which used to be connected by these very colonnades to the temple in Luxor. At the entrance to that temple there were two obelisks erected (one twenty-four meters tall and the other twenty-six) which, today, belong to the French. They managed to take one of them to Paris, during Napoleon’s conquests, but the other one was too heavy so they left it there. However, many people eagerly fought to obtain that poor temple throughout the ages: Ramses had knocked down the statues of Amenopis III, and today there is a big court of Ramses II erected there, adorned with the alabaster statues of the young King Tutankhamun. There were also the low reliefs representing the scenes from the gathering of their people during the festivities of OPET, which included processions walking from Luxor to Karnak. From this courtyard we enter the yard of Amenopis II (or Amenhotep II), with the double colonnades which, oddly enough, still maintain the vivid colours that they were once painted with. This very yard opens to the Hypostill which was turned later, by the end of the fourth century, to Emperor Justinian’s church. The reliefs there were covered by plaster and the new imagery, the lives of saints, painted over them. Ironically, these frescoes were heavily ruined and washed out through time and the original reliefs of Amenopis III emerge completely intact in their beauty.
The history of Egypt is made up of layers and as I wished to return to some original trace of its story, I put the tourist guide down, having decided to bear witness to its legend all by myself. I walked through Luxor briefly in the morning but decided to come back to its site by myself that very evening.
When I arrived to Amon Ra’s temple in Karnak, strange winds had started blowing; it began getting dark very quickly and I was eager to find the temples, which I wanted to see immediately so that I would not lose my sense of direction in the dark. These were the temples of the god Ptah and his wife, the ferocious lioness Sekhmet, as well as the temples of the god Montu, god Mut and the god Honsu. I stayed in the dilapidated temple of Ramses III a bit longer, half an hour perhaps, but among other things, the reason why it took me longer to look around in there was my feeling that the temple I entered that evening had, in fact, nothing to do with the temple we visited that very morning. The ambience in it was mysterious and foreboding. The wind was howling ominously through the walls of the temples raising with it the dust-like red sand coming from the desert. I looked towards the North to throw a glance at the last ruins of the Amon Temple. All that I could observe there were low growths of bushes sprinkled with sand dunes and some sporadic traces of a donkey’s hooves. I remember that an Arab had recommended this road to me that very morning, and he said that I should find the temple of Ptah, sitting just next to the temple of Montu. I knew that Ptah was the god of writers–artists and artisans as well; allegedly he was the creator of the world, a magician, the Egyptian Hermes. I did not know even this much about his comrade Montu. In the British guide it was written “that the temple of Ptah was surely worth visiting, however, it seemed a very difficult task to be achieved.” It had a reputation of being difficult to access. I looked at my watch. It was exactly 4:30 p.m.
The last rays of the dying sun were penetrating the huge pylons of Amon’s temple. It would seem simply ridiculous that I came all the way up to this spot and failed to find the temple of my favorite deity, the writers’ god. I turned around in the hope of seeing one of the local Arab guides that were always around and eager to help any tourist for a bakshish in return. However, there was no trace of any; they had probably all gone home. While I looked over the highest dune with a huge abandoned patch of earth behind it, I spotted at the foot of the nearby hill a tiny group of people all clad in deep blue barakanas–they were waving at me, calling me to come over and join them. I saw myself jumping over the dunes and when I reached them I uttered in a low voice, “Montu? Ptah?” One of these men had asked me in return who I was and where I came from. Visibly assuaged that I answered Yugoslavia, he exclaimed, “Nasser! Tito! Great friends!” He then took me by the hand and led me to a well-guarded temple, whose keeper, I assume, he himself was.
He opened a vestibule then took me to a courtyard framed by sixteen pillars; behind this yard there was a stretch of three chapels–one darker than the others, all of them firmly locked. I stopped for a second. At that very moment, I forgot everything that I read in the guide and decided to trust my self-preservation instinct alone, which was telling me not to advance any farther. However, my Arab companion insisted on continuing: “Come over, you have to see something.” A strange glow lit his eyes as he was saying it, or perhaps this was part of my hallucination. He took me into the first chapel, needless to mention that he had the keys to it, and in that one the headless statue of Ptah seated at the gate welcomed us. Oh, and Amon, the central deity of ancient Egypt was there as well, but he was a bit hidden behind his comrade Ptah. The Arab dragged me then to the chamber which was locked and on the right from the one where we stood. He unlocked that door. In that dark cell, there was not a single streak of light. I directed my gaze upwards–in the middle of the ceiling there was a hole allowing light to penetrate the room but at that hour, it was hardly feasible. A very heavy smell of incense and burning candles pervaded the room and in the middle there was a huge statue of the angry goddess Sekhmet erected; this goddess was but an angry aspect of the peaceful and lovable deity Set or Bastet. Where Bastet stood for peace and love, Sekhmet stood for famine, wars and diseases. Her unique place of cult and worship in the world remained in the temple of Ptah in Egypt, this particular one where I was standing half-paralyzed with fear, suffocating from the smell of heavy incense. My knees felt feeble, giving away so I couldn’t move; I heard the Arab yelling at me in a frenzy, “Touch her heart, touch it–it will bring you luck!”
Oh, I gave it a thought with the naivety of my early thirties; I have nothing to lose, I thought, and I touched her frozen heart, hidden under the cover of that heavy marble and black basalt.
I wanted to leave the chapel right away. It took me a second to understand that the cult of the goddess was still alive and that it exists in some form other than that ancient one, known to history. It was probably hidden from our Western gaze and knowledge, but I was about to recognize something in there.
However, it crossed my mind that perhaps Sekhmet would take revenge upon me as I entered her temple uninvited and not initiated to her cult; and what if I desacralized the space in which I fell into? I remembered all the legends about the cursed pharaohs; my sentiment that one was not supposed to enter these spaces was already there, duly formed. But where did I get such a strong impulse urging me to visit the Karnak complex again that evening and to look for the closed temples, even to photograph them? All these questions had crossed my mind as I was slowly walking backward to exit the chapel, and then, I tripped over an object and fell down. My glasses fell to the floor and almost simultaneously with the Arab, I got on my knees to collect them. His face turned into an evil mask, I noticed, or perhaps it only seemed so. The glasses fell next to the goddess’ pedestal and a double sort of darkness was cast over me. Finally we found them, and found our way out of the chapel. I gave him extra bakshish for taking me out, and he suggested, much to my relief, to take me to Montu’s temple free of charge. Montu’s temple was under restoration but in front of it reigned the resplendent statue of Montu, the Egyptian god of war.
It was 1990; Montu’s statue was quickly “restored”–not in Egypt though, but in my home country of Yugoslavia.
I left this particular temple quickly, only to return to the temple of Amon Ra. I noticed that only some thirty minutes expired from the time when I decided to head north from the first sandy dune which I spotted on my way. At this moment–we all agree here–every normal person but me would have decided to leave this area quickly. However, as if taken by some indescribable force, I was pushed to explore the labyrinth of Amon’s temple which remained empty from its last visitors. In order to gain some courage in there, I turned on my tiny Walkman and soon enough I calmed down listening to the divine voice of Maria Callas. At a certain moment, I turned back and observed a young man who had a rhythm and speed similar to mine in still visiting the temples here. It was good to know that I was not the only tourist there. I approached him and asked if he had known where the Sacred Lake was. The place I observed earlier that morning and seemed interesting to visit. He pointed his hand towards the right and, resembling a bit the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, he answered tersely, “Behind that wall.” I started walking in that direction but he did not follow me.
I continued on and got completely lost. I never made it to the Sacred (Scarab’s) Lake and now I found myself surrounded with the ugly headless statues of Ramses II, as well as with some huge stones inscribed with reliefs that were hard to read. The only visible scripture on the reliefs were the heads of cobras and the deadly scarabs. I returned to the huge yard which was meant to hold ceremonies of Thutmose III where I left the charming young man. I discovered that at its entrance stood a huge Nubian who offered his services by suggesting that he walk me to the lake. I told him that I had no bakshish left, to which he casually waved his hand and said that he did not mind it–he would escort me to a special place where I’d be able to take a unique photo of the most exquisite alabaster statue of the late queen Hatshepsut and her royal entourage. We followed the winding stairs to the premonitory of the temple which was almost entirely in ruins and which stood up as a solitary mass of dilapidation on the west side of the Sacred Lake. As it was getting very late in the evening, I realized that I would not be able to take photos of the monument without the “blitz.” But, in order to not sadden my kind host, I kept on clicking my camera despite knowing that my film was already used. The Nubian, who was very agile and climbed the rocks quickly like a big cat, took me by the hand and suddenly exclaimed, “Come over here, I’ll show you something extraordinary!”
Time halted to a standstill and I obeyed him, as if under a spell; I followed him while my heart pounded like a hammer into stone.
I was sure that it was so pure that nothing ugly could happen. We arrived at the place which the official guide called “the eastern gate” and where one was “unable to climb the ruins.”
We managed to climb that monument. The Nubian was helping me, criss-crossed his hands so that I would stand on them, pushing me upward and there, all of a sudden, once we finished climbing, we arrived at a tiny chapel where a beautiful statue of Tutankhamun stood. The gentle and childlike face of the early disappeared pharaoh was carved in yellow alabaster and completely saved from the ravages of time. My guide had approached the statue and placed my hand on his head, then he shifted my hand and placed it on the statue’s shoulder at the same time, whispering prayers and kissing the statue. He appeared then quite mad to me and I started wondering how I was to escape this newly created situation. Then he turned to me with a serious expression on his face and asked me to recite a one-minute prayer to the pharaoh which I obeyed, with a hand placed on the pharaoh’s shoulder in marble, as if I held an invisible symbol of an ankh on it.
Afterwards, we descended the wall slowly. As we were descending, he showed me the relief of that great protectress of all temples, Queen Hatshepsut, who was obviously this house’s deity as well.
As we walked along the narrow path exiting the ruins he was singing, “Hatshepsut! Hatshepsut!” He told me then that he lived exclusively among the temples’ ruins of Karnak and that he lived off of bakshish given to him by random tourists. At the exit of this complex, I shrugged my shoulders and told him that I didn’t have anything on me, nary a cent to give him. “I have nothing,” I repeated, indicating that there was no money in my bag, but he waved his hand again and smiled one of his good-natured smiles. It was clear that by then we had become friends. I noticed at that point that the complete darkness had enveloped Karnak entirely at that very hour.
Twenty years later, as I was lying bed-ridden, tied to my pillows by some “heavy and chronic disease,” my son, who was then a young pupil but today a distinguished doctor of virology, came up with an idea on how to save his mother’s life by applying a very radical method. He indicated, “Mother, if you survive all this, you have to promise me that we will visit Egypt together and that you will return to the temple of Sekhmet. You’ll have to apologize to her for entering her sanctuary disrespectfully.” And that’s how it happened–my last visit to Luxor included offering flowers and fruits to this evil goddess whose sombre altar was attended this time by the Muslim Brothers. From that moment on, it seemed that the Goddess left my household peacefully, as she seemed too busy elsewhere spreading her evil actions throughout Egypt as attested by everyone in the world.