Friday, December 26, 2008

Egypt Day 3 – Karnak

Susan Mubarak is staying in the rooms next to us at the Jolie Ville so we woke up to security guards, police and sniffer dogs everywhere. Then off to Karnak, passing the same Coptic Church but this time speakers were blaring at top volume at the church from across the road. So much for the Islamic tolerance of other religions.

Ken and I spent nearly five hours in Karnak deciphering cartouches, working out the chronology of the buildings and generally admiring one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world. Karnak doesn’t look that grand from a distance, and I still don’t believe the famous story of the French troops bursting into applause when they first saw it. It’s only when you pass through the second pylon and look up at the huge columns then wander into them, that you get the sense of scale. The middle would have been reasonably light but the forests of columns on either side were dimply lit and mysterious in Pharonic times. The Seti 1 art was, as usual, superior to that of Rameses II, who was more interested in legacy and avoiding erasure by incising his image, name and reputation as deeply into the surface as possible. We took some time to look for the holes where the Akenaten statues had been found along with the battle scenes on the north wall. The botanical garden was a revelation this time, showing the cultured Seti’s wish to bring knowledge back from his campaigns. Taxi back to the Jolie Ville where Susan Mubarak was sitting watching the sunset, before having her evening meal in La fleure. The sunset was a magnificent red, violet and pink colour.

People talk of the ‘hassle’ here – the preferred tourist word, but it’s all in good humour and done with a smile. There are the usual scams (I’m the cook at your hotel) that the locals rightly pull on the rich (tourists), but overall everything is fun and cheap, if you bargain. There is no real sense of menace here and the only grumpiness is to be found among, mainly English, tourists, who see hustling as impolite.

Susan Mubarak did a short walkabout in the hotel – then was off to her room, we think to watch Strictly Come Belly Dancing. We were told that you’re always within 100 yards of someone in Egypt to wants to kill Mubarak. Corruption and a lack of care for the poor are the main gripes, with an especially corrupt police force, army and civil service. Money flows up the system away from the poor and money that is supposed to cascade down never quite gets there. In spite of the , sometimes desperate, poverty, the people are almost always in good humour.

Interesting comments from a volunteer we met, who comes out four times a year to work at a British funded orphanage. The kids there are mostly abandoned babies, the result of one night stands or worse, ‘If they find the woman’ he said ‘they kill her’. They had recently built three buildings on the outskirts of town and have 85 orphans. He explained how rampant corruption was with long chains of bribes necessary for any progress to be made with building work of any kind.

Reading Napoleon in Egypt by Paul Strathern, a readable account of the event which created Egyptology and changed our view of History. I’ve seen the graffiti on temples by Desais, Denon and others that date back well over 200 years from this expedition. When they headed south they were absolutely amazed to see the size and sophistication of the temples and tombs. Before this the Greeks were seen as the start of civilisation. With his savants this was a colonial act that was much more civilised in intent than the subsequent British efforts.