Sitting here in grey, rainy London (I flew back from Cairo yesterday) the sun and heat and sand of Egypt feel very far away! But before the memories dim I want to linger a bit longer on the highlights of our journey last week — let’s start with the temples of Karnak . . . .
After our whirlwind tour of the museum and pyramids in Cairo, we boarded a very (very!) early flight south to Luxor. Straddling the Nile, Luxor was anciently known as Thebes and was for a time the political capital and, for a longer time, the religious center of Egypt. The temple complexes here, which date back about 4,000 years, are astonishing in their grandeur and beauty.
The magnificent hypostyle hall, with its 134 massive columns, was breathtaking. The columns are shaped like lotus blossoms and, especially during the annual flooding of the Nile, were designed to represent the primeval swamp from which life was created. It was amazing to see not only the awesome scale of the building but also how much of the detailed carvings and even paint color remained after so many thousands of years.
Part of the temple was built by Hatshepsut, who reigned for 20 years and was the most famous woman pharaoh. The temple she built was striking both for its vibrant colors, but also for how every reference to her had been so carefully erased by her successor. Every image or textual depiction had been minutely hammered out, ironically leaving such clear “holes” that she felt even more present in her absence than she might have felt had she been left alone.
The Egyptians weren’t the only ones to use these temples. After the fall of the Pharaohs to Rome (Cleopatra was the last one) and the rise of Christianity, the early Christians converted parts of the temple to serve as their churches. They painted christian imagery over the original Egyptian images, hammered out the faces and feet of the Egyptian (pagan) gods, and even selectively destroyed certain statues to make them look more like crucifixes.
There were so many other fascinating things in the site. The immense obelisks that still stand after thousands of years looking like they were inscribed just yesterday. The giant statue of the scarab beetle, which tourists believe will bring them good luck if they walk around it three times. The graffiti from long-ago tourists. It was a place that made ancient Egypt feel real and also buzzed with the energy of all the successive generations that have come to enjoy (or deface) this incredible site.