The Spiced, Perfumed Air is Hot

In the evening twilight, when the sun has set over the mountains to the west and the sky is still streaked with oranges, reds, and purples, the Nile shines like a silvery serpent as she flows northward from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean Sea.

I am in Luxor now, which in ancient times was Thebes, from whence the pharaohs of the Middle and New Kingdoms of Ancient Egypt ruled. For those keeping track, this time period is very roughly spans the years 2000-1000 B.C.E.

For those of you familiar with my quest for ancient history, this may seem like an obvious stop. But it wasn’t really on my list until a few years ago when I read some brain candy fiction that took place here. And since then the entirety of Egypt has been stuck in my brain.

I arrived at the airport in Cairo last night at 11pm. I showed them my uber sketchy proof of vaccination and was then met by the hotel representative who guided me through immigration. I’ve never experienced that anywhere, but it was nice. I was in my bed at the airport hotel just shortly after midnight, and this morning back onto my next flight by 630. Our route traced the verdant finger of the Nile southwards from Cairo to Luxor where Rania, my guide awaited me.

Rania asked about food, and I admitted to being ravenous. She informed me that falafel was typical for breakfast here, which I was ready for. The morning was moving on so we stopped for a delicious falafel sandwich, packed with salad and fries, on our way to Karnak Temple. This massive complex (100 acres) stands just 3km north of the city, and it is spectacular with rows of rams headed sphinxes that greet us at the entrance.

Historically, Rania notes, this was the newest part of Karnak – if anything perhaps the exit. In ancient times the harbor came up to the gate here.

The various Ramses (especially II and III) built much of this, but as we go deeper in, the complex gets older.

The hypostyle, with its 134 columns must have been spectacular in its day. The columns here are based on the shape of the papyrus flower, and take two forms, either open or closed.

Rania showed me many of the innumerable reliefs and cartouches engraved on the wall. She is an Egyptologist, having studied this, and Mediterranean history in general, in school. There is so much information and I can’t really keep up.

This is the obelisk of Hatshepsut. This is the tallest obelisk in Egypt, although the tallest Egyptian obelisk is at the Vatican. We will go to her temple this afternoon. Or maybe tomorrow.

There is so much to see here I can barely describe it all. This is a lucky scarab. If you have a wish you hold it in your heart and circle the scarab 7 times counterclockwise. Rania was surprised that I choose not to circle the statue, but I could think of no such great wish and was too tired to decide what it might be.

Back in the car we headed to the next temple, the Luxor Temple, standing 3km to the south.

Recently (I don’t know the meaning of this term here – it could be 100 years, or it could be 100 days) the avenue of the sphinxes was discovered, a sphinx-lined road connecting Karnak to the Luxor Temple.

Whereas Karnak was outside of town, this temple had a very central in location.

Both were buried for centuries, and in fact a mosque was built atop this temple.

And in both we see that, at times Christians repurposed the building as churches or shelters.

This is the Sun Court.

This temple, like Karnak, dominates its area, its massive columns stabbing upward.

All of this is on the east bank of the Nile. East is where the sun rises, so this is the place of birth and life. On the west bank, where we headed next, is the place where the sun sets, and that means death.

I don’t remember much of the drive there because all of my attempts to catch up on sleep during the journey before today didn’t really do the job. At some point I began to fall asleep during the drive (and I tend to do this anyway) and I didn’t fight it, as Rania had informed me it would be about 45 minutes.

I awoke when we were well onto the west bank and passing the Collosi of Memnon.

We continued on winding our way past hillsides pockmarked with tombs and mud brick homes. The road curved to the left and again further up.

We had reached the Valley of the Kings, where Pharaohs from the New Kingdom were buried beneath mountains encrusted with the irregular rubble of crushed limestone.

The sun glared down, reflecting off of the pale stone around me. The heat was immense. This truly was not a place for the living.

And for a time, I was wide awake.

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