LUXOR: Abdul and the Presidential Tour

Though I could hardly rouse myself from sleep, I was happy to greet the sunrise when it came around that morning. I have been told that there is nothing quite as decadent as Egypt in the small hours, but until then I had never bothered to investigate the claim. Allegedly, a cool breeze blows the chilly desert air around and mixes luxuriously with the boiling hot sun. And it’s true. And it’s magnificent. I enjoyed lingering on the balcony for a glorious spell, watching Luxor come to life. It was noisy with traffic and the clopping of horses and the calls to prayer. And, reader, it was the loveliest cacophony in all the world.

On the other side of the river, hanging above the Theban hills, a handful of hot air balloons drifted lazily across the necropolis. I considered going on one, and I had every intention of doing so at some point, but that never came to fruition on this trip. There is always something to do the next time. I have so much to do I could move right now and never accomplish it all! I look forward to floating through the air, looking down on the temple of Hatshepsut and the Valleys and the Nile. It will be decadent, I’m sure. Ugh, when will I ever get back? I am addicted to being in Egypt. I hope I can be there sooner than I dare to think.

After breakfast, I met Hassan (the other Hassan) on the Winter Palace terrace for my excursion out of town. I was a bit disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to join me, but the guide he introduced was charming. I spent considerable time at first sizing him up, since I am always wary of guides. Look, I don’t mean to come off as conceited, but I have studied ancient Egypt since I could read. I am very comfortable with the iconography, temple structures, cartouches, and all that jazz, but I discovered on this trip what a treat a good guide can be. They are somebody to bounce ideas off of, to learn the culture from, and to use as a buffer against the guards. My guide’s name was Abdul, and he is wonderful. I don’t know what he thought of me at first, but once he got an impression of my love for Egypt, we became fast friends.

And then Omm Sety came up and our friendship was cemented. This is one of those fringe Egyptological subjects that doesn’t get much mention for several reasons. It has to do mainly with cultural resistance to parapsychology, which I understand, but it also has a tremendous amount to do with sexism, which I do not understand. Omm Sety is the nickname of an eccentric and fabulous Englishwoman named Dorothy Eady. I will give you an abridged version of her life.

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We would have been best friends.

Dorothy was a child in England who was raised by her showman father along the coast. As a youngster, she fell down the stairs, hit her head, and this seems to have shaken something in her. Skeptics claim this is nonsense, but Dorothy became peculiar. When she visited the British Museum in her youth, she felt a sense of overwhelming enthusiasm in the ancient Egyptian galleries; she claims she felt at home. (A sentiment I understand totally.) Her passion for the subject was intense, and in due time she moved to Egypt and lived the rest of her life in Abydos, working and studying at the Temple of Seti I. She did fabulous research that is still used by Egyptologists today, and if that had been all, she would be better known. But this is not all that happened to Dorothy. She fully believed that she was a reincarnated ancient Egyptian priestess who had been madly in love with the pharaoh when she was alive all those millennia ago. Her descriptions of Egypt at that time were truly remarkable, and several of the things that she spoke about have been proven true years and years after her death. She spoke about this matter-of-factly and believed it utterly. She was beloved by the fellahin in Abydos and by the Egyptologists of the time, even though she claimed to talk to the long-dead Seti on the astral plane. When she died, as she was not Muslim, she was buried in a nondescript grave outside of town. Time has largely forgotten Dorothy, but I have not.

Sylvia Browne, the famous psychic, years ago told me to go to Hollywood and produce in the movie business. When she and her son told me this, I didn’t think it made a lot of sense. But, at that time, I was in Paris studying at Le Cordon Bleu. Her prediction has come to be prophetic, because I can see myself in Hollywood more clearly than as a pastry chef. The story of Dorothy Eady is one that I would love to tell. I think it would make a delicious miniseries. I have a whole collection of these strange histories and stories from Egypt that should be shared with the world lest they be forgotten. Maybe that’s my purpose? I always knew it would involve Egypt somehow.

Anyway, readers, Abdul knew all about Omm Sety, and he had never met anybody else outside of the guides and specialists who had ever heard of her, so this obscure knowledge really worked as a bonding agent.

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What wonders wait out there?

The drive to Abydos was long, but as with all things in this desert nation, I found it endlessly fascinating. The sandy landscape was inhospitable, and I was amazed at how desolate Egypt is. It is one of the most populous nations in all of Africa, and yet there is hardly a blessed spot that would support life. Just imagine how much history is waiting to be discovered under the houses and villages! Before my first visit, I believed that all the archaeological wonders were found and what remained was of scholarly interest, no more fabulous discoveries of yore like the magnificent treasures from Tutankhamen’s grave.

But now that I have seen just how little land is actually sustainable and how many people live on top of each other, I know that there are great things yet to be found. This is a sensitive and delicate issue, of course. It’s wrong to evict people from their homes for an archaeological expedition, but I have great hope that there will be a way — perhaps a government program or even an investment from a university? — that will allow homes to be moved and digs to occur. This won’t happen for decades, if ever, but how wonderful it would be if a truly monumental scouring of the Egyptian sands could occur. Think of all the history we could learn!

And, I was also having a right old time in the car hurtling through the desert because I had a new SIM card to play with. Having an unlocked cell phone for the first time abroad has been a game changer for me. Now, wherever I am in this wonderful world, I can use my cell phone just as if I’m at home. This is fabulous for sharing photographs and researching on site. And reader, the data and SIM card I was using was unreasonably cheap. I asked Hassan (out-of-town Hassan) to fetch me one if he could. He did and it was great. It cost like ten American dollars for three gigabytes of data. Blessed.

Soon, we turned away from the mountains and sands of the desert and were back near the Nile in one of the holiest locations in all ancient Egyptian religion: Abydos, the fabled burial spot of the god Osiris.

We drove through the narrow streets of the village toward the temple and surrounding buildings, which were buried in the village that has grown around it over the centuries. I was endlessly intrigued by the fellahin who sat idly in their shops, smoking the day away, waiting for customers to buy their mangoes or repair their shoes or need a drive somewhere. I was endlessly enamored of their galabeyas and daydreamed about owning my own in a rainbow of colors. Several years ago, when I made my first foray into Egypt, I determined that I wanted to wear robes every single day of the rest of my life. It would be fabulous. Loose and flowing and I could eat cake every day for dinner and not care if my skinny jeans fit or not. I can only imagine the designer robes I’d wear. If I ever get rich, which has to simply be a matter of time, I want Karl Lagerfeld and Hedi Slimane to design me a collection. Think how fabulous I’ll look at the Winter Palace!

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Queen of Abydos.

The temple floored me at once, reader. I knew what it looked like. I knew what was inside of it. I knew every room from books and virtual tools online, but there is no way to describe the feeling of seeing this magnificent temple rise up from the desert sands. Interestingly, this site has one of the most modern facilities of any Egyptian tourist destination I’ve ever been to. There are nice gates, a lovely paved courtyard, bathrooms that weren’t filled with attendants seeking baksheesh, a ticket booth staffed by a man who was actually awake (a rarity), and the guards were all incredibly respectful to the handful of tourists who were there when I was. There wasn’t even a handful, reader. There is nobody in Egypt. It is the strangest thing to walk through temples that were once roamed by pharaohs and priests and hoards of tourists but are filled now with nothing but me and pigeons. I’d later run into a group of visitors that really explained the staff’s exceptional behavior.

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But then, I was too swept away by history and the condition of the temple to be thinking about the manners of the staff. I have been in a number of temples before: Karnak, Luxor, the Ramasseum, the small temple of Seti I, and even the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, but I have never been inside such a complete temple. Those were all ruins. Abydos looked as if it was just recently abandoned. I was overwhelmed.

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The walls writhed with hieroglyphic inscriptions, riots of color, stunning engravings of the gods, and the ceiling was still up there. Now, most people don’t give two hoots about a ceiling, but the fact that it was there at all was something that I found and still find endlessly fabulous. When you go to Luxor Temple, which is really one of my favorites (And makes me want to get accepted into the Egyptology department at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute because they spend months in Luxor working at that temple — can’t you just see me there? I’d be endlessly annoying since I know Luxor fairly well. Oh I can’t wait!) you don’t get much of a sense how it appeared in its heyday. You see the pillars reaching up, up, up, supporting nothing. Only in the holiest of holy places is there still a roof, but that doesn’t make an impact. The ceiling of Abydos Temple, though, actually left me speechless.

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I am obsessed with the light in this temple.

IMG_2518.jpgIt was dark and almost cool in the temple, and the rooms stretched on for ages and ages and ages and the lighting was dim and I was living my best life and I wish for all the world that right now I was back in that glorious temple built by my dear old Seti. Abdul appreciated my rapture at the entry hall where dozens of columns supported the ceiling. Most things were black, covered in soot from the flames of the poor who had lived inside the temple for hundreds of years before Egyptology was a scientific study. This soot has sullied many archaeological sites in Egypt, but painstaking restorations are going on. I’ll belabor that point later when I get to the temple that unexpectedly blew my mind and made me love Egypt with even more passion than I ever thought was possible. That’s an interesting thing about love and passion, there is no limit to it. It just keeps growing and growing…quite like a balloon being pumped full of helium, I suppose, but I don’t think this obsession is ever going to pop. It’s just going to continue to consume me and happily take over my life more than it has for the past twenty-seven years.

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Anyway, I was madly and endlessly in love with everything around me, and then Abdul began my tour, and I learned to fully appreciate the charming man. As I said before, when I booked the trip, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bring a guide along with me, but I am ever so glad that I did. Abdul is working on his dissertation about the origins of Egyptian religion, and our discussions about this were riveting. I won’t get too deep into this because he hasn’t published his work yet, and because I don’t think you’ll be too concerned about trees of life and unifying forces of polytheism that makes polytheism really monotheism but explained in terms of polytheism. Wrap your head around that one, reader. It’s going to be an excellent paper. I eagerly look forward to my copy.

We spent nearly two hours slowly visiting every room in the temple. Abdul joked that this was a presidential tour of the temple because we had the entire place to ourselves and because he was doing ten times the work he normally did. He mentioned that when he normally gives tours, the people just want to see the highlights, the memorable stuff, the interestingly weird aspects of archaeological sites like the nonsensical Abydos Helicopter. We giggled heartily over this feature since we were both intimately familiar with hieroglyphs and could easily see that this was hardly evidence for aliens. What fun. I wanted to see everything, and Abdul showed me everything that he could think of to show me. Bless him.

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The “Abydos Helicopter.” *insert dramatic eye roll*

I was absolutely enamored of the temple and the scope of the place. I understood completely why Omm Sety had decided to stay forever and never leave. It just feels like the right thing to do. I am more attached to another temple, which I will write about in due time, but I understand the compulsion to become a keeper of an ancient site. It would suit me right down to the ground, reader. Someday you might find me living with the pigeons, sipping instant tea, and lecturing anybody who comes near me on the history of the building. I would not be the least bit surprised.

A notable feature at Abydos is the King’s List. This is one of the only chronologies that still exists from ancient Egypt that details the names of the pharaohs.

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This one went all the way back to Menes (who is probably Narmer, and if that means anything to you then marry me) and conveniently skipped over Akhenaten and Tutankhamen and Hatshepsut and all the iconic heretics of the past. After this, we smirked conspiratorially at each other as Abdul removed an opened padlock and stepped into a room that normally costs a hearty bit of baksheesh to enter. This was allegedly the mummification room where embalmers turned corpses into desiccated, linen wrapped mummies ready for the afterlife. In all my years of study, I’ve not read about mummification happening inside of temples, so I’m not entirely sure this is really what this room was used for. It was delightful still, reader, because there is nothing so intoxicating as being where you oughtn’t be, but this was not so delightful as the next spot on the tour. It was what I had been waiting the most for.

Outside of the Temple of Abydos is a peculiar feature called the Osirion. It has long been something of a mystery because there has never been anything quite like it found beneath the desert sands. The construction of the Osirion is completely different from the temple nearby and the megalithic stones suggest an Old Kingdom heritage. And even though this would make sense historically, most Egyptologists argue that it was built by dear old Seti or Merenptah. I have not decided which explanation makes the most sense to me. I can understand the pharaoh wanting to construct something similar to the architecture of the good old days, because that’s still something we see in the world currently. I don’t understand why it was built the way it was though. The Osirion is below the surface level of the temple and regularly floods. It would most likely have been difficult, if not completely impossible to construct such a temple because it would have been waterlogged by the Nile. I think it’s reasonable to suggest that the Osirion is older than this for that reason alone. Perhaps it was built when the Nile took another course? (One of the topics I’m most intrigued by in the study of Egyptology is mapping the ancient course of the river. It has not at all remained in one spot. Think of the settlements that are now just buried in the desert! I am no geologist, though, so I need to team up with somebody who studies the ancient natural world.) Anyway, the purpose of the structure is supposed to be a symbolic tomb of the god, Osiris, because as mentioned before, this is the purported burial spot of his body or his head. This claim changes regularly. Pilgrims, for thousands of years, came in devotion, looking for the answers to their prayers. I had a somewhat similar motivation.

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Let me dive in your waters!

Omm Sety regularly swam and bathed in the flooded Osirion. She claimed, as a great multitude of people have claimed throughout history, that the waters of this structure have healing powers. For whatever reason — there a great number of theories — the water turns a shockingly vibrant green, which gives credence to the ancient belief that a mythological deity was buried here. Osiris was a god of fertility, and the color green represents life and prosperity. Omm Sety said that several issues she dealt with were cured after a dip in these waters. Visitors who accompanied her on tours of the facility were alleged to have remarkable recoveries. I don’t really hold with this kind of a cure, but I’m always with an open mind.

You may or may not know, which depends on how frequent of a reader you are, but I have that ridiculous disease, Multiple Sclerosis. It doesn’t have a cure, so I am not about to turn my nose up at a potential fix. I mean, I’m not one of those New Age hippies who believe that thinking about white light is going to cure cancer, but I’m not opposed at giving anything a go. So, I would have dove into the Osirion had it been an option. I would have dried at once in the Egyptian sun, so I wouldn’t have been all that bothered. I told Abdul about my ailment, which prompted a bizarre number of events over the next two weeks that involved crocodiles, locked temples, hot sand, and touching a serious of hieroglyphs with an old man who held my hair. It was a good trip, reader.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to go into the Osirion, but I was able to get very close to it. There were guards all over, patrolling with machine guns for some reason, so I wasn’t really willing to try my luck. I suppose a gunshot would cure multiple sclerosis because then I’d be dead. But I’d rather be slightly crippled than dead. So I just stared at the waters, at the catfish that swim weirdly through the green pools, and hoped that the evaporating waters somehow vaporized into the hot air and into my lungs and then diffused throughout my body. Who knows? It might have happened. I’ve honestly felt pretty great since then and my brain lesions are stable. So… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

After this, Abdul left me for a little while to wander through the temple again at my leisure. The both of us are lovers and students of history, so I know he didn’t mind my lengthy wandering. As I was studying the King’s List for the tenth time, chuckling merrily as I translated the cartouches, something peculiar happened.

Have you ever seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Remember this moment?

I didn’t bump into any Nazis, which would have been hella weird, but I was suddenly thrust into a similar situation. I stepped into a room off the hall where the King’s List is, and suddenly there were a bunch of guns pointed at me. Like I don’t know how many machine guns were pointed in my direction, but it was not cool. A uniformed man nodded at me, I smiled weakly, and then the guns were lowered and I quickly got away. It turns out that I had just walked into the middle of a private tour of Abydos for the Egyptian head of security. Who knew he was there? I surely didn’t. With that thrilling escapade over, I hurried over to Abdul and we made our way to the car laughing about the bizarre moment.

The tour had been lengthy, but we weren’t done, yet, there was another temple to see that day. The Temple of Dendera! This one was a bit of a thrill to me because there is an artifact in the Louvre called the Dendera Zodiac that was removed from Egypt in that horrible bygone era when adventurers and academics looted the African nation. That was awful, but the Zodiac was one of the pieces that helped Champollion (my spirit animal) prove that his decipherment of hieroglyphs was correct. Aside from that, I was just eager to see the temple so that I could follow in the footsteps of Victorian travelers. I’ve never been a big fan of Ptolemaic Egyptian history, the time period when this temple was built, but my opinions were soon changed.

After the police had escorted us out of Abydos, which was a weird experience, Abdul gave me a little talk about this bit of history. He taught me something utterly wonderful in the car as we drove through the sands. I said that I wasn’t overly concerned with the Ptolemaic aspects of Egyptology. He nodded knowingly and then told me something that changed my perception of Egypt’s past. “It’s still in Egypt, Benjamin, and it was still built by Egyptians. It’s Egypt.” Mind blown. When you hear about the Greek, Roman, and Ottoman occupations of Egypt, you get this sense that every single person and thing in the nation had changed, but that simply wasn’t true. It was still Egypt! It just had a different veneer. I was now utterly enthused about this Ptolemaic temple, and though the drive was long, I was still captivated by the desert and the villages we passed through.

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My soul craves those villages, reader. They are beautifully simple and the values are so wildly different. It’s calm and beautiful and the life is slow and decadent in ways that you can’t understand without being there. The people are honestly kind. Of course they want things from me, but I’m not opposed at sharing a couple cents for a nice experience. I mean, there’s nothing in America that compares with splitting a round of fresh bread with a person you can’t say a word to. But you don’t have to speak the same language. Hospitality and kindness is universal. Every day of my life that passes, my longing to pack up the bare necessities and live the rest of my years in Egypt grows. I belong there more than I have ever belonged here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to America in the slightest, but there is difference in Egypt that I find intensely rewarding and completely satisfying. Someday. Soon, I hope.

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There was literally nobody in Dendera Temple. Only pigeons and little lizards and sleeping guards who lazily tore my ticket and let me pass into the structure. Abdul couldn’t believe it. He chuckled again about this being a presidential tour. And I was gobsmacked once again. The colors, reader! The Hathor-headed columns had been severely damaged by Christians (I have a lot of umbrage for them — you can say you’re doing God’s work if you want, but don’t you dare destroy people’s culture), but what remained was astonishing.

I forget now what Abdul said, but there is a university who works here in the winters that is trying to reveal what is hidden underneath centuries of soot. The things they have accomplished thus far are remarkable. Instead of darkness like at Abydos, the colors here in Dendera are radiant once they’ve been treated. And I was suddenly a Ptolemaic ho. I’m always a ho for a temple, as you know quite well, but this was wonderful. I was an instant convert.

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Isn’t this wonderful??

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When I close my eyes, I still see this riot of hieroglyphs and colors and gods. 

Abdul and I scurried through the huge dark rooms, up ancient staircases to the rooftop, into secret listening galleries where the priests could listen to the supplications of the pharaoh, and then we bonded over some lions. On the ceiling of the main hall, there is a beautifully restored zodiac and Abdul pointed out the various ones. I said I was going to take a picture of the lion since I’m a Leo.

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Abdul mentioned that he was, too, and it turns out he’s all of two days older than me. That was weird, but like my long-lost darling, Lady M told me on a rooftop in Giza, “Coincidences aren’t real.” He calls me his Leo Bro now.

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The temple was absolutely lovely, and for a pittance of baksheesh, the guards let me go down into the crypt all by my lonesome. That was a treat, reader. I’m not sure if this is a common feature of other temples or if this is unique to Dendera, but I had to slither down a narrow passageway into a tiny system of hallways. It was the most exciting spelunking I’ve ever done, and blessedly, my pants stayed together. My sewing job was holding up very well! Down here is where the treasures of the temple were allegedly stored, but the only treasures there now are the wall engravings and the delightfully carved “lightbulbs.” This is another one of those things that ancient alien theorists use to ‘prove’ that ancient Egypt was the result of intervention by extraterrestrial civilizations. Now, before you take what I say one way or the other, I am by no means opposed to any theory. I think that the ancient contact ideas have some credence, actually, but the way this concept is presented has become ridiculous. Even the most serious of scholars in this field would agree. It’s fabulous that the idea has had such resounding resonance with so many people, but it’s gotten out of control. Aliens are not the explanation for everything, dear and gentle reader. These carvings only look like lightbulbs because we have lightbulbs. If you’re more familiar with ancient Egyptian religious symbology than with incandescent bulbs, then you will clearly see a snake being born of a lotus blossom. It’s all perception.

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The “Dendera Lightbulb.” *insert another dramatic eye roll*

The day was wonderful and I was luxuriously tired. I’ve mentioned this before, how wonderful Egyptian exhaustion is. When you wear yourself out doing something you love, it is oddly rewarding. Happy to be in the cool interior of the car, we made our way back through the desert to Luxor. It was two hours of reverie. Abdul and I talked about more obscure sites, little tombs that nobody goes to, temple remains that don’t make it into guidebooks, and forgotten settlements that have been lost to everybody but archaeologists. It was marvelous. The next time I come to Egypt, he wants me to get into contact with him early so that he can plan some trips to these places and obtain the proper visas and authorizations. I can’t wait!

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Abdul leading me out to study the exterior inscriptions.

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Yachting back to my palace. I love you, Luxor.

I would be seeing Abdul again in a few days when we went south to Aswan, so we parted for a while as good friends on the steps of the Winter Palace. I waved to the driver and made my way over to the terrace. This place used to be filled with travelers sipping cocktails, gathering to watch the sun sink into the hills. It was only me now. Feeling overwhelmed by contentment, I sighed happily and daydreamed that I was about to bump into the ghosts of all the travelers that have taken me to Egypt over the course of my life. The Victorian explorers of yesteryear left behind the most decadent accounts of their experiences, and I feel almost like I’m one of them. I’m not modern. In many ways I am, but in so many other ways I am assuredly not. The sun touched the hilltops and Luxor glowed. It was wonderful. I stared at the purple hills as the sun vanished and the artificial lights of the valleys slowly came to life. Luxor is perfect.

And the Lantern was perfect. After I relaxed and changed, Debbie was waiting for me with lentil soup and a gorgeous cottage pie and delicious gossip. Mina hurried my gin and tonic over with a smile. It was perfect. Life in Luxor is real life. This everyday life is just filler until I’m an Egyptian.

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