Cairo, Egypt Monday, February 13, l995
I put on the world's dirtiest pants for the last time and look forward to 'My dear friends, you are most welcome here at the Temple of Karnak.'
As we drive along the corniche, the number of empty boats is overwhelmingly sad. Mona says there are 250 tourist boats on the river and very few of them can be found sitting empty when tourism is flourishing. The hotels, too, are mostly empty and the new construction seems sadly ambitious under the current circumstances.
The Temple of Karnak was begun about 2100 B.C. by Senusret in the XIth Dynasty (although the guide book dates Senusret from the XII Dynasty, about 1900 B.C.) He built a small chapel in honor of Amon in what turned out to be the beginning of an enormous complex which continued to grow over the next 1700 years. Amon is shown here with his wife, Mut and son, Khnum. Although Khnum, himself, is often depicted as a ram-head god, the ram-headed sphinxes which line the entrance and the first courtyard represent Amon (ram-headed sphinxes can only be gods).
We enter the complex along the sphinx-lined road through the first pylons (actually the last in chronological order). The complex has ten sets of pylons in all. These pylons feature images of Amon wearing the two feather crown representing day and night, good and evil, etc. The usual duality. We enter the first court with its large, free-standing column and the statue of Pinudjem. Dogs sleep on the crumbled old walls. This section is the best preserved considering the site has survived three earthquakes, been buried in sand, been lived in and farmed for centuries, even been closed down and defaced by Ahkenaten.
To our left are three chapels built by Sety II, on either side are more ram-headed sphinxes and behind them are columned corridors. Off to the right is a second pylon guarded by Ramses. In front of us is still another pylon in front of which sits a stone block where they displayed Amon's boat during his birthday feast. Preparations took eleven days and he and Mut partied together for fourteen more on the boat.
Ahead of us is the incredible hypostyle hall that so moved me last night. It features 122 papyrus open bud columns 23 meters high, all carved and painted (we can still see traces of the color). It is credited to Amenophis III. Deeper into this miraculous forest we see other columns with closed bud capitals. The rear of the entrance pylon features carvings of Sety I while the wall on the left is dedicated to our old friend Ramses II. We are also introduced to the God of Fertility, Min, who is shown with an erect penis. Susan spotted it, of course. Above us along the main walkway are surprisingly modern looking structures designed as sunscreens for the temple below.
Beyond the hypostyle hall are two obelisks (there were four originally). The first is by Thutmoses I, father of Hatshepsut (her real father, not Amon) and is 25 meters high. Hatshepsut has her own obelisk of red granite and it's a beauty. Its hieroglyphics are unique to our eye in that the top and bottom sections are typical wall to wall hieroglyphs. The middle section, however, consists of a single simple column of hieroglyphs with either side left plain. Susan doesn't believe that it was created that way on purpose but Mona says it was.
Thutmoses III naturally wanted to trash his step-mother's obelisk but because it is dedicated to Ra (as are all obelisks) he couldn't mess with it. Instead he walled it off so he wouldn't have to look at it, ironically contributing to its preservation.
As we close in on the Holy of Holies we see two lovely high relief columns, one of a papyrus plant, the other of the lotus (Upper and Lower Egypt), both with touches of color still visible. The Holy itself was enlarged by the Philip Agadis, brother of Alexander the Great. The painted walls still have color and the ceiling is blue with white stars in the first room and blue with red stars in the second. Figures in the first room have green skin, those in the second room are red. The view back through the hypostyle is excellent.
The Holy floats within outer walls which feature excellent carvings and color of their own. We then wander around to Hatshepsut's Chapel which also has some extraordinary color but all her images have been defaced by Thutmoses. He was one thorough pharaoh.
From across one of the rear courtyards we hear singing. We head in that direction to a temple built by Thutmoses with square outer columns and round inner ones featuring capitals shaped like closed tents (in honor of his many campaigns and expeditions). There is good color here, too. There used to be a group of statues at one end of this temple but the Christians who lived here chopped them all away until all that was left was some stone in the shape of a cross.
On the far side of the temple is the botanical garden of Thutmoses III with columns shaped like bundled reeds. Just beyond we meet our singers. They are a bunch of laborers working on the restoration and hoisting a stone into place. Mona encourages them to resume their singing which they do with great good will and smiles all around. A wonderful moment.
We around to the Sacred Pool where priests bathed before working in the temple. It is fed by an underground tunnel connecting to the Nile. Our walk takes us past a scarab sculpture and the top of another Hatshepsut obelisk displayed on its side. The large side court we pass through next is called the Court de Cachette for the thousands of statues found hidden her in 1903 and 1906. On the way out Susan and I duck into the side court with 18 statues of Ramses. Then we're gone.
We bus back to the Temple of Luxor where our driver loses his license for letting us out on the wrong side of the bus (Mona tells us later that he got it back). This temple also features an Avenue of Sphinxes (the regular kind) which originally wended its way 3 km to Karnak. Luxor is also an Amenophis III (and Amenhotep) project and is dedicated to Amon and Mut. Two seated and four standing Ramses guard the front pylon. Two obelisks (sunrise and sunset) originally graced the entrance but the right hand one is now in the Place de Concorde.
I ask about the shapes of the white and red crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. Mona tells me that white is in the shape of an eggplant and red, a basket. Together they represent food in a basket, in other words, prosperity for the Two Lands.
In the 5th Century A.D., a church was built inside the temple. In the 10th Century a mosque took over the site. The mosque is still there, up above on our left. We enter a courtyard with colonnades right and left and statues of Ramses in between every column. A chapel built by Hatshepsut in honor of Mut was defaced by Thutmoses III (sound familiar?), destroyed by Ahkenaten and restored by Tutenkamon. At one point sand buried three quarters of the temple and people lived and farmed in here. As we proceed deeper into the temple two seated statues of Ramses flank the walk with wonderfully preserved very deep carvings on the rear of the figures.
Next is a wonderfully colonnaded courtyard with 126 fluted columns with closed papyrus capitals set in double rows on three sides and four deep in front of us. Ahkenaten had all the columns plastered over to hide the images. Recently, a chamber was found beneath the courtyard containing over twenty statues that had been apparently hidden to protect them. They can be seen in the Luxor Museum. A vestibule in front of the Holy of Holies has recently been restored revealing paintings of Roman Emperors. Inside the H of H itself is a four columned room over 8 meters high with fine carvings and lots of color. For the technically inclined among us, I finally get it straight that bas relief is when the carving is negative (that is, cut into the stone). High relief is when the stone is carved away leaving a positive figure.
On our way out of the temple we once again spot the lurking would-be guides who emerge from behind statues and columns. For a fee they will take you off to the side and show you a column or two.
Back at the boat we stop in another Gaddis Bookstore, meet Gaddis himself and buy one book on hieroglyphics and another about a woman who believes she is the reincarnation of Sety's lover.
We bid farewell to the crew of the Sun Boat II and fly back to Cairo. Khaled is there to meet us and takes charge of the luggage. Mona's son has come to the airport as promised and delivers the home-made stuffed pigeons to Susan. On the bus Khaled delivers our room keys. A&K is truly buttoned up. A military funeral slows our progress into town and we detour to see where President Sadat got shot and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier across the street where he is buried. The monument is an open pyramid and is very nice.
Back at the Semiramis we check into our room, eat our very tasty pigeons with our fingers, and never leave. I'm not feeling so hot.