Hugh & Colleen Gantzer
In Upper Egypt’s Aswan, the Nile is a surprisingly clean, blue, flow out of the bustling, impatient present of Egypt into its incredible past. The deck of our cruise ship vibrated softly to the throb of the engines as we swung into the stream to begin our journey into belief. Aswan blurred and vanished behind us and eons fled and slowly, like the beckoning radiance of an age that had been, a legend began to emerge.
On our first step on land, we trod back 15 centuries. The brilliantly illuminated, temple of Kom-Ombo was originally created as a twin shrine. It had, at one time, been damaged by the Nile and restored a thousand years later. One side was dedicated to Horus the Elder, the other to the primitive crocodile god, Sobek. Massive, horizontal blocks of stone were pinioned by wooden inserts; vertical blocks were stabilised by stone protrusions fitting snugly into holes in the blocks above. Like our own Nalanda, it had been a great centre of healing. Carvings showed surgical instruments and a woman being delivered of a child as she sat on a birth stool. Another bas relief depicted Horus anointing a Pharaoh from a perfume bottle. It was shaped like one we had bought in Cairo’s great, covered, Khan el Khaleli market.
Time reversed again and we were back on board to dine, sleep.
At breakfast, our Japanese fellow passengers were intense, disciplined and very polite. When we disembarked to visit what is, reputedly, the best preserved ancient temple in Egypt, Edfu. “This is also a fairly recent temple, by our standards” a guide told his group of Australians, “only 2,300 years old. It was built by Ptolemy III in 327 BC.”
Two towering, flat-topped, blocks stood on either side of the entrance. Beautifully sculpted falcons, the protecters of the god Horus, guarded him and there were striking two-dimensional carvings on the walls. Vandals have tried to disfigure some of these bas reliefs but from the solar disc and cow’s horns on the female figure, and the plumed crown on the male, we identified them as Hathor and her husband Horus.
Effortlessly we were absorbing some of the great heritage of Egypt.
We returned to our ship and, as it sailed out of Edfu, we relaxed on the sun deck. Two senior women from Bengaluru were playing a traditional game that must have been the precursor of draughts. A Canadian remarked to no one in particular, “That’s a new board game to me.” We enlightened him, “It’s probably older than Edfu. We’ve seen its board carved on the flagstones of a 2,500-year-old shrine in India.” He smiled and remarked “Is that right?” which is a variation of the American exclamation “Well, whaddya know!”
We closed our eyes in the shade of the awning of the sun deck. The ship purred under us, as soothing as a lullaby. We slept effortlessly, dreamlessly, through the long afternoon and woke just in time to freshen up and join our table for dinner. It was our last night together and we reminisced like old friends, exchanged addresses and promised to keep in touch. We all agreed that it had been a wonderfully unwinding trip, even though our cameras sulked at the belly dancer’s gyrations. Perhaps, after being exposed to so much of the heritage of Egypt, they didn’t feel that she was quite in the same league. Sometimes, digital cameras have minds of their own!
We disembarked, rather reluctantly and for the last time, at Luxor. Even in its present ruined form, the great temple dwarfs visitors with its enormous statues of Pharaoh Ramses II and its soaring columns topped by papyrus-bud capitals. For many centuries, it had been covered by a mound of sand and a mosque built atop the dune. The mosque was left intact when the old temple was excavated. There were also interesting, though faded, Christian paintings on the walls from the time the ruins were taken over by the Copts, Egypt’s small, Christian minority claiming descent from the original, pre-Arab, Pharaonic people.
Progress never obliterates the past; it only makes it more relevant.