LUXOR: The Ghost at Esna

After the riotous good time of my birthday, I lamented that I had made plans to go on a lengthy day tour with Hassan and Abdul the next day. I would never fully regret going on an Egyptological expedition, of course, but I could have used a quiet morning in bed and a nap on my balcony with a cool glass of karkade. (I’m obsessed with karkade. I need to make some when I get home tonight. It’s simple: 1 part water to 1/10 part dried hibiscus. I have hibiscus powder and dried hibiscus flowers and ready to go hibiscus tea because I’m obsessed. It’s better with the whole flowers, but thats pricier. Money well spent, I say. HOLD UP: I just discovered you can get hibiscus flowers for very little at Mexican grocery stores. I am screaming with joy! Back to the narrative.)

Instead of sitting for breakfast, I asked the maître’d if I could just take a bunch of grapes with me. I appreciated his nonchalance at my request; when you’re at a truly elegant place, even the most eccentric request is seen as perfectly normal. The guest is always right, you know? He procured a pastry box for me — one of those little cardboard things lined with wax — and loaded it up to the brim with grapes. So kind.

Hassan and Abdul were waiting out front with the car. Our first destination was on the eastern side of the Nile today, so there was no need to ferry across. That was a disappointment, but I knew that I could cross the river whenever I wanted for only a pound. I thought about the fact that my time in Luxor, in Egypt, in Africa was coming to a close and I felt a profound loss. I would miss this sandy city in ways I’ll never fully understand. Luxor is like Paris to me. It’s home.

After the usual greetings and the added birthday wishes, we hit the road.

Today we were going to visit a less popular temple ruin. I’d never heard of it before, so I did a bit of research as the car bumped along the road, through groves of palms and along sugarcane fields. El-Tod was a small temple that Champollion had visited many, many, many years ago whilst he was in Egypt gathering information for his hieroglyphic studies. This thrilled me inordinately. Champollion is one of my heroes and I am dying to write a film based on his life. It’s got everything: adventure, royalty, mystery, competition, romance, bat guano, tombs, treasure, tragedy, and humor. Trust me, reader, it would be fabulous.

Something that I didn’t think would captivate me quite so much as it did was the irrigation of the fields. There were little inlets from the Nile that had been dug into the soil which carried water further than it ever would have been able to reach. Then massive diesel-powered pumps hurled the water in a beautiful arc from where it collected to a spot higher up where the water would run down the length of the field. It was an ecological disaster, but there was something remarkably lovely about the huge streams of water that shot so unexpectedly from the side of the road. I couldn’t take my eyes off the laborers who were napping, manning the pumps, loading up wagons, riding lugubriously on the backs of donkeys. The Egyptian countryside bewitched me utterly and I think of it every day. When my mind wanders, I find myself sitting under a date palm, basking in the shade, watching the world go by in the middle of nowhere. Oh, it was too lovely.

We pulled into a little village that had grown around the ruins of the temple, and soon I was making my way into the grounds with Abdul. I must admit, reader, that the first view of El-Tod is decidedly underwhelming. It was never a massive temple, but so little of it remains standing that it is hard to understand what you’re seeing until you stroll through the ruins and the piles of remains.

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Once you’ve got your bearings, though, it’s quite a lovely spot. The piles of crumbling stone are quite fabulous to look at and study.

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There are Ptolemaic inscriptions, which I quickly passed over. Abdul just rolled his eyes.

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There were chunks and pieces from the Copts, which I found vaguely more intriguing. My study of the Copts has been much more intense since I left Egypt. I regret that I didn’t spend more time understanding this minority religion during my trip. Then again, it might be safer to study this subject from a distance.

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There was plenty of Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom hieroglyphs to look at and ponder. Delightfully, there were the remains of a shrine from the Old Kingdom pharaoh, Userkaf. I didn’t know anything about him, but I could translate his hieroglyph, so I felt damn educated and I think Abdul was impressed. Userkaf wasn’t a big deal, really, known mostly for the development of sun temples. Still, I have a great fondness for the Old Kingdom hieroglyphs. They were still quite early in their development, and although the language was fairly well pounded out, the way the glyphs were formed was much more elegant in this time period. As the millennia passed, the letters were simplified. But in the Old Kingdom there were so many wonderful little details. Like the cartouches, which were meant to be a length of rope tied in a knot…they really looked like a length of rope tied in a knot. They are fabulous.

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Another intriguing bit was the scattered remains of the old ceiling that was covered in carved stars.

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There are certain archaeological sites that inspire me more than others. Karnak, as you know, does nothing. Luxor fills me with reverence. Seti’s West Bank temple sets me in rapture. El-Tod makes me want to work. I want to get a trowel and a brush and a computer and plenty of paper and dozens of pencils broken in Egyptological fever and work on the total restoration of the temple.

I want to catalog every chunk of stone and put it back together. I want to see the starry roof set back on top of the holy chapels. I want to write down every hieroglyph, translate them, publish a book that will sell a dozen copies of my translations and drawings and conjectures. Oh, reader, I simply cannot wait to join a team or have my own. I cannot wait to unearth broken pottery and chunks of wall and beads and anything at all that might emerge from those blessed sands.

There were tombs on the way to the next temple, so we stopped in the middle of a particularly desolate part of Egypt. I believe, thinking back, that this was near ancient Hierakonpolis, but I’m going to have to reexamine my tickets and find out exactly where I was. My mental map is particularly weak of this day for some reason.

I doubt anybody had been to these tombs in days, one was closed for conservation work, but I didn’t see any restoration teams around. It’s too hot to do that kind of laborious work, though, so I wasn’t particularly surprised. An old guard came out of his booth to inquire what on earth we were there for. The exploration of an ancient noble’s tomb was a shocking answer for some reason. I’m not sure what else somebody would do in this lonely area.

It was a desolate spot up in the hills and mountains and it is a place I would absolutely not want to be lost. Thankfully I had a guard with a beard and a key, and he led Abdul and I up to the entrance of the first tomb. I didn’t really know what to expect because this was a spot of Egypt that I didn’t even know existed. That’s a rare occurrence.

I was intrigued with what I saw when I went in at once. There were oddly shaped columns, some falling down, some standing proudly, some barren, and others were covered in beautiful paintings of cows and people and fauna. There was limited color selection, so I wondered if time had robbed the tombs of the blues and greens or if the yellows and reds were the palate that the artisans had chosen many moons ago.

I had a great good time, as there was great delicacy and refinement in the way that the figures were rendered on the columns. There was also a scene of butchering, which as a vegetarian irked me, but as a historian, I found it absolutely thrilling. The cows were lovely and the butchers were lovely and their knives were lovely and their fillets of beef were lovely. It was all lovely.

The next spot on our tour was Esna. I had seen pictures of it, and I had reread the passage in Amelia Edward’s beautiful book that thrilled me years ago, A Thousand Miles up the Nile. She wrote of the deep sands that buried the temple and her disbelief that one was there at all until the fellahin led her to it. Thankfully the temple has been excavated and we didn’t need to worry about being buried in a sand slide. That would be just a dreadful way to go, wouldn’t it? Drowning in hot, stinging sand. Oh, I like that description. I’m going to save it for a future book that I write. Have I told you about the book I’ve been hacking out for a year or so about a retired woman named Muriel Valentine? If not, I’m not going to start now because I would ramble on for pages and pages, and I already have a bad habit of that as it is.

The drive to Esna was quick, I think, but I had no concept of time in Egypt. Every moment passed like a decadent whirl, some moments were more languid, but when I think back on those beautiful weeks, all I remember is the most luxurious sense of calm and of being where I was supposed to be. Being so far from the people now and the sand and the donkeys and the palms and the Nile is a great trial for me. But back to my narrative.

The city of Esna is hardly imposing, it’s hardly remarkable. I wasn’t even fully cognizant of more than the barest details about what I would find. It was more than I ever could have dreamed it to be.

Hassan parked the car in the shade of a palm and Abdul and I made out way down an alley. This struck me as inordinately beautiful.

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All of the storefronts were shuttered and dilapidated. Only a few vendors made feeble attempts to sell me their goods and fruits. It went on and on, a mess of cardboard and corrugated aluminum and sand and feral animals and plastic bags blowing on a gentle breeze. That sounds awful, but I think it was glorious. I was absolutely gobsmacked at how poor the tourism market had become. I keep hearing grand reports about the levels being back up, but I really don’t see tremendous evidence to support the claim. Yes, there’s the occasional tour bus and a couple river boats are sailing between Luxor and Aswan again, but there are no hoards of tourists. There is nobody to buy the cheap basalt figurines, “real” mummy beads, papyrus scrolls, or rayon scarves. There’s no way to provide enough for these people, and so they shut their doors and stay at home or look for another occupation, which isn’t easy at all to find.

I was lost in reverie when the temple first came into sight.

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And once my eyes had latched onto the yellow-brown stone, I felt the most inordinate connection. It wasn’t like I had been here before, or anything like what Lady M would have discussed at midnight on a rooftop in Cairo, this was something absolutely new. It was relief. I know that doesn’t make tremendous sense, and I can’t claim to understand the sensations I felt there myself, but I took great comfort in the Temple of Esna.

It sits far below ground level, and so the visitor is led down a flight of steps deep under the city. It’s truly remarkable how much sand and refuse have built up over the millennia. Surrounding the entrance are a few pieces of statuary and Coptic remnants, but I paid those very little mind. I was swept up by the images on the temple and the promise of what lay inside.

Abdul didn’t bother giving me a preemptive lesson on the place, he seemed to get a sense of what I was feeling, or he was probably just astute enough to know that I needed to process this experience on my own for a spell. I darted inside the door, into the dark interior and lost my breath. It was expansive. It was wonderful. It was everything I had been looking for without knowing so.

Columns soared to the rooftop in every direction, each one of them covered in hieroglyphic texts and reliefs of the gods. I saw at once that the writing was Ptolemaic, but for probably the first time in my Egyptological existence, it didn’t bother me. I thought they were beautiful. I couldn’t make out a single word or phrase but I didn’t mind. Bizarre creatures and scenes covered the roof, and I stood there, my neck cracking as I threw it back to study every deity and animal on display. Reader, my dear reader, I want you to go there right now. I want you to see this place. Look at too many pictures:

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Who is she?

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I don’t know how long I wandered the temple in silence and solitude. The only other living thing in that ancient structure was a trio of pigeons that hopped around together and took to flight whenever I approached. Finally I sat at the base of column and thought of nothing, I was nothing but wide eyes scanning every single detail, I wanted to imprint the moment on my brain, I wanted to close my eyes and still be sitting in Esna no matter where else I was in this great big world.

For reasons that should be obvious to the reader, and to the student of Egyptology, I finally understood Omm Sety, that marvelous English woman that adopted the Temple of Abydos as her home until her final breath. I could see myself doing the same at Esna. I felt no need to leave, no desire to do anything else. I wanted to live in the little room off the entrance with a small bed, a few robes, plenty of pencils and paper, and a cat. I wanted to stay there for all time, protecting the temple, welcoming the tourists, being a modern priest of the ancient religions. Of course I couldn’t, but I understood why Omm Sety did so. I understand why she devoted her life to an obscure spot along Nile.

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Abdul joined me on the column, staring off at the temple walls, lost in his own thoughts. I asked if he wanted me to look at anything in particular, but he just shook his head, “I get it too, you enjoy,” was his only verbal response. And so I did. At great leisure. I’m sure Hassan was wondering if we had been trapped or lost or something, we were taking an inordinate amount of time and Abdul hadn’t even began describing what I was seeing it.

After I was rested and sated and thrilled, we wandered amongst the stony forest of columns looking at odd and wonderful details. There was Sekhmet and here was Sobek and that was the pharaoh dancing for the gods. On the ceiling, Nut stretched her body out creating the sky. And there was the zodiac and a number of peculiar designs. Abdul was particularly taken by what appeared for all the world like a ghost. It really did. I wonder what it was supposed to represent? In all my wanderings and research, I’ve never come across a deity who was represented in such a style. But it was all wonderful.

The outside of the temple was grand, too, and I was particularly obsessed with the knowledge that much more was waiting to be excavated. What is accessible is only a portion of the true extent of Esna. Under the city, under all that sand and dirt and garbage are surely more columns, more statues, more crumbling walls, more reliefs, more and more and still more. It was grand and glorious and it was a journey I will remember until my last day.

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Abdul and I climbed out of the massive pit where the temple was housed and made our way to a little shop for ice cream. Abdul loves ice cream.

I thought this was the end of my day’s outing, but we had one more stop, the tombs of el-Kab. The Internet tells me that this is a relatively rare excursion for tourists, which is understandable as the remains are appreciated best by those who appreciate more obscure details. The tombs aren’t grand and rich like in the valleys around Luxor, so I understand why they are off the beaten tourist track. I loved them, of course. I loved the expansive desert surrounding the site, the arduous walk under the blazing sun, the scraggly palm trees, and the view of the mud brick wall that surrounded el-Kab. Across the river was Hierakonpolis, which we would save for my next visit to my beloved Egypt.

I gave the guard a generous chunk of baksheesh so Abdul and I were at a leisure, free to photograph anything our heart desired. This thrilled my friend to an extreme degree and he went on and on in a rhapsody about the scene of a feast. It was lovely, but I was particularly enamored of the scenes of mummification. I’m a ho for a good mummy.

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There were three tombs open, each slightly different, each painted with interesting scenes. Some showed feasts, some labor, some religious deities, some the process of mummification as I mentioned. They were beautiful, and faded, and hacked away in places, and in one there was a barely remaining statue of the owners. It seemed a bit sad, but I suppose in the prime of its existence, as the paint finished drying on the plastered walls, it was grand and glorious.

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I was annoyed, and yet bewitched by the graffiti that covered the walls. Humans, since time immemorial, have had a bizarre and innate need to mark their presence. We must put our name on walls, carve initials into trees, tattoo our names on the flesh of our loved ones, spray paint tunnels. We are screaming out, for some reason, as the great and good Beyoncé once sang, “I was here!” It’s probably some kind of immortality complex, which isn’t all that different from the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. They felt that to have their name spoken after death would give them immortality. So when we speak of Ramses, Tutankhamen, Akhenaten, and Khufu, for a moment they live again, and from where they are luxuriating in the next life, I’m sure they smile. This is, to some probably extent, why the Victorian travelers etched their surnames next to irreplaceable ancient paintings. I get why they did it. I hate that they did, but I get it.

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After a lovely wander in and out of the sepulchers, it was time to head back.

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The sun was nearly at its zenith, and soon we would all fry. I didn’t burn once, and I was so slathered in sunscreen every day that I didn’t even get a tan. This was annoying. I assumed that I would return from Africa with a deep brown tone to my skin, but alas, such a thing was not to be. Oh well.

The trip back to Luxor seemed to take ages, but I had the golden sands and sapphirine blue skies and river to watch and ponder on. Hassan was speaking with me, so I snapped out of my daydreams to pay attention. He invited me to lunch the next day to thank me for all my business, to welcome me to his home as his friend, and to celebrate my birthday. It was so kind, so I accepted his offer with grace and thanks.

Soon Luxor was in site, and we were back before the Winter Palace and I said a fond farewell to my friend, Abdul. I would miss having somebody to spar at over Egyptological issues, somebody to guide me through the most beautiful temples and tombs, and somebody to chatter away the afternoon away with as we feasted on ice cream cones. I made my promise that he could take me to even more obscure ruins on my next venture to Africa, and we parted the best of friends. I wished Hassan a happy afternoon, muttered how much I looked forward to luncheon tomorrow, and then hurried to my room.

My reaction to the room alerted me that perhaps it was time for this trip to wrap up and some form of normalcy to return. You see, reader, my flowers weren’t refreshed! I had tipped, but still, I had the same bouquets on every surface as I had had before. This was utterly unacceptable. I was so distraught. So, I flung myself on top of my mattress and took a nap, but as consciousness faded, I realized that I was behaving ridiculously, so I chortled richly and slumber took me.

When I woke up, it wasn’t much later, but I was in no mood for luncheon. I needed coffee. Reader, I had had no good coffee in weeks. Reader, dear and beloved reader, I have usually three or four cups a day in addition to innumerable espressos. My body needed caffeine and tea was not doing it for me. I enjoyed my gallons of Russian Earl Grey, but I needed a caffeine injection straight into the heart.

So I fired up TripAdvisor and determined to find a place. Allegedly, next to Luxor Temple is a coffee shop that has good coffee that isn’t made by using instant coffee granules. I’ve no issue with this in an emergency, dear reader, and I have innumerable sachets at work to keep me alive, but I needed REAL coffee. So, I slapped on my Chelsea boots, and marched down the corniche in the hot afternoon sun. The hashish dealers and the caleche drivers and the boatman seemed to recognize the madness in my eyes so they cleared the path as I hurried along past the horrific excuse of a donkey stables the drivers use.

I found it. The coffee shop. I could smell it. The odor of roasted beans was enough to momentarily sate me and instead of punting the stairs, I went into the Aboudi bookshop that is infamous in Luxor. It has been beloved for decades and perhaps centuries as the site to acquire books of Egyptological matters. I instead bought an Agatha Christie book. For some absurd reason, I have never read Death on the Nile. At that time, I’m not even sure if I saw the film starring Angela Lansbury and Maggie Smith and Bette Davis. But with a cast like that, I have to imagine that I’ve seen it at some point. I also grabbed a guide to Luxor Museum and a magnet with a camel and a mango on it. I was inordinately pleased as I handed over my well worn pound notes and made my way upstairs to the coffee shop.

“Hello sir,” a smiling man approached me quickly after I sat down at a table, and presented me with a very long menu of nibbles and coffees. When I saw lattes, I could have cried. Maybe I did. Maybe I ordered a latte with three extra shots. Maybe he gave me an odd look. Maybe I downed the genial beverage and ordered another one. Maybe.

Well, dear and darling readers, I discovered something wonderful as my withdrawn nervous system started to recuperate. There are few finer things than reading an Agatha Christie murder mystery set in Egypt, buzzing on caffeine, and watching the sun sinking over Luxor Temple. Honestly, it was a decadent experience. I sat there for a couple hours, totally in a state of bliss. I wish that I could do it more often. I wish that I was doing it right now.

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But it was time to go to dinner. All day long I had determined that I was on my way to Jewel of the Nile. I attempted to go last time after reading nothing but the finest reviews. After I walked all the long way down there…well not really all that far; it’s about the same distance as The Lantern is from the Winter Palace, it was all shut up and looked as if it had been closed for years. So, after reading reviews and more and more reviews of only the finest caliber that had been recently posted, I made my way that way. After stomping through the dusty streets, I had to have a good laugh when I saw it was closed.

“Very good restaurant, sir, and open again tomorrow,” a kindly old man told me after noticing my reaction to the forlorn structure.

“Chokrun,” I said, thanking him, before heading up the street a little.

For whatever reason, which was of course my internal psychic sense that I fully believe in, I knew that I would be dining at Pizza Roma. I had been before and it’s quite nice, so I was glad to return. I needed to make a change once in a great while, you know, I couldn’t eat at The Lantern every single night. Actually, of course I could. Still, I was in the mood for pizza and fries, so off I went.

I wasn’t the only person inside this time, which boded well for tourism, but then again, it was only one other person. Still this minor improvement was indeed an improvement, and I really enjoyed myself. I had a pizza that was loaded with feta, which I thought sounded a bit odd, but it turned out to be delicious. The fries were thin and excellently fried. And most delightfully, the espresso was real Italian espresso perfectly pulled. I was in a state of rapture with all the caffeine circulating through my system. After a second espresso, which wasn’t at all necessary, I lazily made my way back up the Corniche to the Palace where I very maturely decided not to indulge in a martini and made my way to bed with visions in my head of the ghosts of Esna, the palms along the Nile, and those dreamy coffees.

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