Monthly Archives: February 2017

Travellers’ tales

This morning I woke up to the sounds of a funeral. When I looked out of my window, I just saw the men, all in jellabiyas, passing with a coffin on their shoulders, covered with a green cloth. They were followed at some distance by women in flapping black burkas, some were loudly howling  to show their grief.

In the morning when the sunlight slants through the window.. One tiny flaw is the binary shower. It runs with water from a boiler and at the start everything is well. But as the water gradually gets colder, I have to adjust the handle. I give it a small tap: nothing, another small tap: nothing, then all of a sudden, tapping along, I leap out from under the shower as it turns scaldingly hot. Then small taps back and well past the original position and, yes, that’s nice, or… NO, NO!!  leaping out again from under the shower as it suddenly turns cold.
That’s a binary shower.

Then breakfast which is copious and served in the garden. The cats are in the habit of studying my meals with the utmost attention and observe everything. Their eyes follow every move I make meticulously. I have no doubt they will  make careful notes afterwards.

After breakfast I went to Luxor on the East Bank, to collect my visa. On the way I passed the famous Winter Palace:


Pierre Loti wrote in 1910: [..] a hasty modern production which had grown on the border of the Nile over the last year: a colossal hotel, obviously sham, made of plaster and mud, on a framework of iron. Twice or three times as high as the Pharaonic temple, its impudent façade rises there, painted a dirty yellow.[..] sufficient to disfigure pitiably the whole of the surroundings.
It is not visible on the photo above, but I noticed that the yellow paint was peeling on the northern wing of the building. Nevertheless, these days it is Luxor’s most venerable hotel and even though the regular rooms are  not exceptionally expensive, the Imperial suite (made of plaster and mud….) comes with a price tag of 1167 euro…

The day before I had applied for a visa extension which came with the usual exasperations. It helps a lot when you understand that, contrary to Western thought, the clerks that work at Immigration, are not at all interested in helping you or trying to solve your problems. Quite the contrary, they try to find anything, no matter how little or inconsequential, to actually create a problem. It’s obvious because by first creating a problem and then solving it, they have miraculous brought into existence a new service and that merits a request for baksheesh. This time they couldn’t read the entrance stamp of my visa where it had been no problem during my first extension. However, by pointing out that my date of entry should be easily retrieved in the files of my first extension they muttered resentfully, but in the end reluctantly agreed with this logic. Last time they claimed that the letter from the hotel had to be on a special form, but the day before I had asked explicitly if  I needed this form and they seemed very surprised. That was not necessary….
Filling out an immigration form for the umpteenth time I really started to think about the absurdity of the whole circus. What could be the significance of your place of birth for getting a visa extension? What does it matter where you are born? Or the date of issue of your passport? Surely, the fact that you are able to show them a valid passport means that it is successfully issued some date in the past? And why did I need another passport photo; what was wrong with the one that was filed with the first extension?

Now I came to collect my passport and I was ready for battle but everything was in order. The clerk recognised me and gave me my passport. I  scrutinised the stamps and it looked good.


Jean Louis Burckhardt was a fascinating 19th century traveller. Born in Switzerland, he set out for Cambridge in England to study Arabic and later to offer his services to Joseph Banks, the chairman of the African Association. This Association was set up to open up Africa for trade (or exploitation, more likely) with England. Its preliminary goals were to find the fabled city of Timbuktu and the course of the river Niger. In the early 19th century large tracts of Africa’s interior were unknown to European powers. The river Niger was thought to originate in Eastern Africa, possibly near the sources of the river Nile. The African Association had known an ominous start: the first explorer hired by the Association was John Ledyard who had travelled first to Cairo, but had, after falling ill, inadvertently poisoned himself… Most of Burckhardt’s predecessors and contemporaries died of disease and other horrors during their explorations. Henry Nicholls, in search of the origin and course of the Niger, had unbeknownst to himself, begun at the mouth of the very river he was looking for. Not that it mattered much, Nicholls died of malaria and left his bones in this unforgiving continent with those of so many other young and ambitious explorers. None of the travellers sent out by the African Association reached their goal.

During his time in Cambridge, Burckhardt made long treks through the English countryside in summer, sleeping rough, eating herbs and drinking water from streams, to prepare himself for his mission. He must have been under the impression that Arabs consumed mainly herbs. Besides Arabic, he also studied chemistry, astronomy and mineralogy, which was of no help at all. He first travelled to Syria where he lived for two years to prepare himself for the rigors of travelling in Arabic speaking areas. His Arabic became fluent and he translated Robinson Crusoe from English into Arabic, the Story of Yusef Robinson – the Life of Sharief Robinson Crusoe. He is known to have read it to his Arab friends who must have been perplexed by its fantastic nature…


After these two years he set out for Egypt to try and find a caravan to Timbuktu. On the way there he was the first European to have set eyes on the lost city of Petra (in Jordan) since antiquity. From Egypt he used  his time while waiting for his caravan to travel widely in the surrounding countries (Nubia, Sudan and Mecca). His travels were remarkable, but it is his style that endears him to me. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was not independently rich, but he travelled with little money and lived very modestly.

I came across Burckhardt again when I read about the Ramesseum and found out that it was he that had advised Belzoni to try and find the head of Young Memnon, as it was then known. Belzoni is possibly an even more colourful person than Burckhardt was. He had worked as a strong man in the circus, had move to England and married an Englishwoman, after which they set out for Egypt where he hoped to offer his services as a hydraulic engineer to Muhammad Ali. Instead he was commissioned to find antiquities of which there was a growing demand. After consultation with Burckhardt he decided to find the colossal bust of Ramses II and so he did. He then moved it to the Nile where he shipped it to Alexandria. Eventually, it reached London an it was a famous event which formed the inspiration for Shelley’s famous poem Ozymandias: I met a traveller from an antique land… .


Belzoni graffiti dated 1816

Meanwhile, Burckhardt’s health had deteriorated and he had contracted dysentery. Eight years after he had set out for his explorations, he was still waiting for that caravan to Timbuktu. In 1817, only a year after Belzoni had moved the colossus of Ramses II to London, he died, 32 years old.  He had never made it to Timbuktu.


Pseudo egyptology

When I visited the funerary temple of Seti I, I was enthusiastically welcomed by a guard who came running after me, shouting: ‘Doctor! Doctor! This form of address naturally, creates expectations and one feels compelled to pick up a few pot shards, look at the ubiquitous hieroglyphs and advance some interesting hypothesis. It is easy to indulge in all sorts of fantastic theories when inspecting these admirably formed hieroglyphs. Well, doctor, what do you make of these? Most of them can be read, but even so, a lot still have an uncertain provenance. Many times I have looked at scribbles that I clearly identified as penguins, golf clubs and so forth.
It is unfortunate that in their pursuit of baksheesh the caretakers are as blatantly inaccurate with their information as with their flattery. At the Tombs of the Nobles, a guard explained to me that all that, and here he made a sweeping gesture, was 500o years old. He was a mere 1500 years off…

At the Ramesseum I actually found what could be a bread mould, one of the many left over from countless offerings at funerary temples. Of course it is equally likely to be a part of a rubbish heap from Bedouins or other people that have at one time or another camped among these ruins in the last 200o years or so…


Photo I took in (one of) the Tombs of the Nobles. These portraits obviously depict prisoners. The one to the right has a distinctly South American appearance…

As a side note I should mention that in most tombs photography is forbidden, but as the guarding, or indeed the management, of the archaeological sites is a travesty, it is not discouraged in any way provided a little baksheesh is forwarded.

In my hotel I started dabbling a bit myself with post truth and alternative facts with what I would say tolerable success. It is here my object to use pseudo-Egyptology to upset some beliefs held by palaeobotany, a competing field:

Bananas were not introduced in Egypt until the 10th century AD or so. Curious fact: botanically, and indeed, surprisingly, bananas are categorised as berries…

On a more serious note: Wikipedia article on pseudoarchaeology:

In the early 1980s, Kenneth Feder conducted a survey of his archaeology students. On the 50-question survey, 10 questions had to do with archaeology and/or pseudoscience.[..] Questions also included issues such as: Tutankhamun’s tomb actually killed people upon discovery, [..]. As it turned out, some of the students Feder was teaching put some stake in the pseudoscience claims. 12% actually believed people on Howard Carter’s expedition were killed by an ancient Egyptian curse.

At the temple of Medinet Habu I meditated on the subject of pseudo-Egyptology. Looking out at the temple I was thinking that what if they had dug the last artefact from under the sand, when they had puzzled the last stone fragments together and had deciphered the last hieroglyph. Then we would hardly know anything more than we do know now, at least nothing important, nothing that will alter our general beliefs on the subject.
Pseudo Egyptology, however, even though much less likely to have any bearing to the truth whatsoever , has the advantage, that if it would be accidently true, then it would be spectacular. We would know about the gods, how they came from beyond the stars and if we can decipher their messages we would be able to send a spaceship.
And then we would wait.
Wait for a few thousand years for it to arrive.
But it would be all tremendously exciting in the meantime.

It’s the Illiterati, Sammy said later, they will take over the world.
What? I said.
The Illiterati, he said.
Illuminati, I said, you mean Illuminati
Yes, Illiterati, Sammy said, .. the people that try to cover up, you know, the secret knowledge, the energy and the pyramids, I am not saying…. but the Jews and the pentagon, it’s probably likely… the aliens, you know, unless… of course….
Sometimes it takes only minutes to change otherwise coherent people into raving madmen.


Sketch from a scene on a small gate in Medinet Habu where pharaoh Ramses III has a go at one of his adversaries who still seems to be hopeful of a more diplomatic course.

Upper Egypt


On my first day  I explored the Luxor Temple which is still being excavated in the heart of the town. The medieval traveller Ibn Battuta visited what was then known as Al-Aqsur in 1325 and refers to it as a ‘pretty village’. Curiously, he merely mentions the tomb of Abu’l-Haj as part of his itinerary. In those days the temple was filled with sand and villagers lived in hovels inside the temple walls.

Later,  Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt, gave the two obelisks that stood at the entrance of the temple, to Champollion as a reward for his services. Champollion was a French philologist and the first to work out how to read the mysterious hieroglyphs. That was rather clever of him and he was subsequently known as the founder of Egyptology.
Thank you very much, said Muhammad Ali. I will give you this obelisk. You know what? You can have both of them.
Merci monsieur, said Champollion who didn’t speak much English, elles sont tres jolie!
Such a present was not uncommon at the time. Not long before, the Egyptian government had run out of gifts and had hired the Great Belzoni to find more antiquities in order to give them away to high ranking visitors. Belzoni was perhaps the most intriguing  character in the history of Egyptology and I hope to write more about him later. One of the obelisks was transported to Paris where it now stands at the Place de la Concorde. The other one still stands  at its original place (photo below), where Champollion had left it. We’ll come back later, he said. But he never came back and it was only in 1980 that the French government officially reneged on its claim to the remaining obelisk…


In the Inner Sanctum of the temple I found the name of French 19th century poet Rimbaud engraved high on one of the huge columns. It is not entirely sure whether it actually belonged to the poet, though he is known to have indeed visited Egypt on his travels. The height at which the name was carved out, illustrates handsomely how much sand the temple was filled with at the time.

The West Bank

On the West Bank I found a very nice hotel with a garden, large room with ditto bathroom and all this for well under 10 euro, breakfast included. The tiled marble floor in the bathroom became fiendishly slippery after having had a shower and on several occasions I nearly broke my neck.




After I had made myself at home, I spent my time visiting the many monuments and tombs that scatter this side of the Nile. This time I decided to give priority to sites I hadn’t seen before and when I found out a Late Period Isis temple that was only recently opened to the public, I made this the first stop on my list.

The Isis temple turned out to be a small building where I happened to be the only visitor. The guard seemed glad to see me and accompanied me to the temple to unlock it. During opening hours there is no danger of any looting or damaging, but unlocking the doors constitutes a service and therefore warrants a small payment, which is known as baksheesh.
The guard, who didn’t speak a single word of English, dutifully pointed out interesting details.
A hole.
Thank you, I said. There was absolutely nothing to see. It was not as one might imagine an interesting hole.
A few steps further he pointed at a hieroglyph depicting a small bird.
Thank you, I said again. There were tons of these hieroglyphs. The guard merely seemed to probe which details would provoke the most enthusiast reactions from visitors and were therefore most likely to extract a little extra baksheesh.
I made a photograph of a servant who seems to point a semi-automatic weapon to the pharaoh sitting opposite him with a bowl of petunias on his head.


Carter’s House was built at the corner of the road that leads to the Valley of the Kings. There was no electricity and it was half dark, but atmospheric: his trunks, his typewriter, a huge camera, and more down to earth stuff. An entrance let to a dark room.
What is this? I asked.
This his dark room.
Of course, I thought. Fortunately, I had brought my torch.
Not far from the house, a replica tomb of Tutankhamun had been made and since there was no electricity here either, I brought out my torch again, but I felt a bit silly to shine my torch in a replica tomb….

The Hatshepsut temple was restored and from a distance it looked like a modern five star hotel. At the parking lot many busses were waiting and I could see tour groups scattered around the temple. It was for this reason thatI decided to buy a ticket for the nearby Asasif tombs. One of the charms of the lesser known sites is the sense of exclusiveness. After I had bought my ticket an official took  me to the site.
I will call the ghafir, he said.
The ghafir? I asked.
The guard, he said. He put his hands to his mouth.
HASSAAAAN!!!!! he called.
When we had found  Hassan he took me first to the tomb of Khoref and shoved me inside while he was on his phone. It was dark and I was glad I had brought my torch. It was extremely gratifying to shine my torch into the dark recesses and to discover some small hieroglyphs and I was only marginally disappointed that there were no hissing cobras. At the end of a small corridor on the right was a dark chamber and when I entered it I could at first see nothing, but when my eyes were accustomed to the dark I saw in the light of my torch an old sieve with on it several pot shards. I heard Hassan say something, but I pretended not to hear him.
On the way out there was another tomb with its door ajar. I motioned to go inside but Hassan muttered: forbidden. I looked at him and he made a small gesture that could mean anything but it meant baksheesh. I nodded and he said: follow me. I peered through a hole in the wall with Hassan at my elbow. It reminded me of that famous colloquy between the archaeologist Howard Carter and his benefactor Lord Carnarvon. When Carter peeped into Tutankhamon’s tomb, Carnarvon asked him:
Can you see anything?
And Carter answered:
Yes, wonderful things.
But in this case there was not much to see: only another deep shaft and several broken pots covered with a layer of dust. It was again deeply satisfying to shine my torch around…. Hassan urged me to be careful. Understandably, because it would be trouble for him if I fell to my death in one of the deep shafts in a tomb that was supposed to be off limits.
When we entered the second tomb that my ticket allowed me to access, I asked Hassan which one this was. He said something that sounded like Ankh-hor, and he motioned to a notice above the entrance, but that said only: no photos allowed.  Ankh-hor was mayor etc. of  a much later dynasty and this tomb had electricity, so unfortunately I had no use for my torch.


And then there is all that symbolism…

What does it mean?!?!