Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Day 10 – The East Bank

Well, the accommodations may have left much to be desired, but the friendly game of dominoes last night, and a lavish breakfast this morning did much to mollify my poor opinion of the hostel.

I decided to spend the morning at the Karnak temple complex, which has been called the largest religious complex in history. I decided to take a minibus, which took many detours through the city. “What is going on?”, I thought as we were blocked off by streets being torn off. Well, the Luxor municipality is engaging in a major beautification effort, which in a couple of years will give this city a magnificent river walk and improved street network. However, there is always a danger when you start excavating on a city with more than 2000 years of ancient history. In effect, the public works have unearthened a major avenue of antiquity between Karnak and Luxor temples, and now they are slowly recovering the hundreds of sphinxes that lined the avenue, plus an untold number of other treasures. It looks to me that the plan is to reconstruct this major avenue, and open it to the public as another Theban wonder (but to do so many ugly buildings are being demolished, and the street network needs to be changed significantly).

Karnak is indeed amazing. It covers an area of 80 square kilometers, of which maybe 10 square kilometers are open to the public. The rest of the area is still being investigated, and everywhere one sees archaeological crews hard at work. Most of the work is done by Egyptian laborers, who dig and dig and dig through recent soils before finding a solid surface that the archaeologist can then check. Some other archaeologists (students to judge by their age) have the more entertaining task of making full-size sketches of hieroglyphic inscriptions (a see through acetate is taped on top of the inscription, and the copy is made by marking the acetate with a waterproof marker).

The set of temples is to complex for me to try to describe in these notes, so I will just make a few notes at random. My first impression is that Egyptian monumental architecture is based on rather minimalist but enormous pylons or porticoes. Their simple architecture made them an ideal canvas for the kings of ancient Egypt to carve enormous murals glorifying their deeds. An interesting piece of trivia is that in reconstructing one of these pylons archeologists found they were filled with the remnants of another temple that had been demolished in antiquity. It turned out to be the temple built by Akhnaten, the heretic king, so archaeologists photographed every piece they could find, and with the help of a computer did a virtual reconstruction of the whole temple! (The computer went through all possible matches of the fragments until the whole picture emerged). A physically reconstructed wall of the temple can be admired the Luxor Museum.

A second element is called a hypostyle hall, which is a very tall roofed enclosure supported by a forest of massive columns. It is supposed to be a representation of a “forest” of papyrus reeds, where some of the columns are topped by buds, and some other by open flowers. It makes for a great place to imagine ancient conspiracies brewing.

There are two obelisks standing, and a couple more crashed on the floor. Somehow they don’t look as large in the framework of the massive temples, but they are beautiful in their simplicity and impressive balance. Did you know that obelisks are totally unsupported laterally, held vertically in place by nothing else than their prodigious weight?

Finally, there were any number of small temples, many of which were demolished after the reigning king made the trip to the west bank. Most exquisite were those of Hapshepsut, the female king, built of red Aswan granite, and that of Amenhotep I, built of white Egyptian alabaster (i.e., travertine limestone). Both temples have been reconstructed in the adjacent Open Air Museum, which I had all to myself since other tourists were too cheap to pay the 25 pound entrance fee.

After I finished visiting Karnak I walked along the river to the downtown area, where I wasted 50 pounds in the Mummification Museum (a small and not very interesting collection of mummifying implements and animal mummies). Hot and hungry I found a oasis of shade in a small outside café, where I sat quietly for nearly two hours reading, seeping cold beer, and having a yummy lunch of pizza and a type of Egyptian lasagna that was to die for.

In the afternoon I went to visit the Luxor temple, which is small compared to the temple complex of Karnak, but likewise very beautiful. It was built by Amenhotep I, but was “refurbished” by Ramses II (aka as The Great Chiseler), who put statues of himself all over the place, and refaced the pylon so he could carve the story of the Battle of Kadesh (again!).

At 7:30 pm, thoroughly exhausted after a day of solid tourism, I headed for the train station for the overnight trip back to Cairo. I have decided to be kind to my tired bones, and have booked a sleeper berth. I have not been in a train sleeper since I was a kid, so I am quite looking forward to the comfortable ride.

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