Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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Jewel of the Nile

Egypt's Luxor reclaims its place among the most beloved wonders of the world

May the evening soothe and welcome you,
O traveller from Upper Egypt.
You will travel no further because you are come.
Here you are at the beginning of time.

The opening words of the sound and light show echo from the massive floodlit walls of the Temple of Amon at Karnak as the voices of an ethereal chorus fade in the darkness. The silent crowd listens to the story of the pharaohs unfold as it shuffles forward into the ancient temple. A thin crescent moon hangs over the Nile. Once more, the mystery and power of this most astonishing of Luxor's ruins holds its audience spellbound as 3000 years slip away in the perfumed night air.

But the peacefulness of Karnak was shattered on November 24, 1997, when 58 foreigners and four Egyptians were savagely massacred at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor's Valley of the Kings. The attack, by militant gunmen dedicated to making Egypt a strictly Islamic state, has had a staggering effect on the country's tourism industry. For months following the tragedy very few foreigners visited Egypt. But the government responded with tough new security measures and tours have gradually resumed.

The number of visitors to Egypt is still a fraction of what it was before the attack but the presence of well-armed police at all tourist sites helps reassure those that do come. Our own group was accompanied at all times by a plain-clothes policeman with a very businesslike machine pistol tucked into his jeans. We were also told that police sharpshooters were camped on the heights above the Temple of Hatshepsut -- but that we weren't supposed to look.

The mystery of Luxor will draw visitors back like moths to a flame. They will come as generations of others have, fascinated by the legacy of an astonishing civilization. For all that, nothing quite prepared me for what we were about to see. Like others, I had read about Luxor and seen documentaries about its temples and tombs. I had even gazed on the treasures of King Tut when they came to Toronto in 1979. But it's quite another thing to descend into a pharaoh's tomb for the first time and see its richness with your own eyes -- particularly a tomb like that of Ramses III, tunnelled into the Valley of the Kings more than 3000 years ago. On the other hand, the most famed tomb of all, that of King Tutankhamen, is disappointing. While it contained a jumble of priceless treasures when opened by Howard Carter in 1922, the small, hastily decorated burial chambers of the young king pale beside other nearby tombs of much greater size and beauty.

TOP TOMB
Our Egyptologist guide, Walid El Batouty, saved the most memorable tomb until last: that of Queen Nefertari, the favourite wife of Ramses II and his chief queen until her death in about 1255 BC. That was no mean achievement, for the king had enough wives to father 92 sons and 106 daughters. Discovered in 1904 in the Valley of the Queens and restored with the help of the Getty Conservation Institute in 1988, Nefertari's tomb was re-opened to 150 visitors a day in late 1995. Visitors should plead for tickets to this one. Even though it means a surcharge of 100 Egyptian pounds (more than $40), it's worth every penny.

Before entering this last tomb I had jostled with sweating crowds in several others and the initial wonderment was beginning to fade just a little. But viewing Nefertari's final resting place with only a handful of other visitors is a wondrous and privileged experience. Guides are not allowed into the tomb so visitors can absorb its beauty in silence. The vibrancy of the original unretouched colours is astonishing. The figures and hieroglyphs etched into the white plaster are as sharp as if the artisans who made them more than 3000 years ago had just left the tomb for the day. I half-expected to see their chisels and paintbrushes resting on the floor.

Under a royal blue ceiling sprinkled with golden stars, the beautiful and lavishly jewelled Nefertari journeys to the afterworld in a long diaphanous gown and makes her offerings to the gods. In a tomb annexe, the queen is shown worshipping the seven sacred cows and a bull while below, four oars connect to the four corners of the earth. On one wall an enormous winged serpent protects the cartouche with the queen's name. I lingered over the different chambers of the tomb, marvelling how it had survived the ages. Turning reluctantly to leave, I noticed other visitors also looking back as though trying to fix the images of the tomb in their minds.

Compared to the sublime beauty of Nefertari's tomb, the Temple of Amon at Karnak is an almost fearsome place. I tried to comprehend that 2000 years ago Greek and Roman scholars looked back on Egyptian ruins like Karnak in much the same way as our own age views the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. Two hundred years ago, when Napoleon's army arrived at Luxor, a commentator wrote: "The army, at the sight of the scattered ruins, halted of itself and, by one spontaneous impulse, grounded its arms." That's the effect this place has on people.

The temple was built over a period of 20 centuries, its prodigious size added to and embellished upon by each successive pharaoh trying to outdo the last. A row of ram-headed sphinxes leads to the temple entrance between two massive pylons. Beyond a colonnaded courtyard towers Karnak's supreme glory: an immense hall of 134 pillars in 16 closely spaced rows. Called the Hypostyle Hall, it remains the largest columned space in the world. Its pillars and walls are inscribed with the names of the gods to whom the temple is dedicated and the deeds of the pharaohs who built it.

HALLOWED HALL
The hall has none of the lighter grace of Greek or Roman temples, whose builders learned how to span greater distances, but instead imparts a feeling of awe and might. The closeness of the huge columns with open-papyrus-shaped capitals creates an almost maze-like effect. I couldn't rid myself of the feeling that this place was built to scare the daylight out of ordinary mortals, despite the fact that the temple wasn't used for any form of public ritual. Such places were sanctuaries which could only be penetrated to their heart by the highest order of the priesthood and the pharaohs themselves.

Passing through the hall of pillars, Walid gestured towards the towering obelisk of Hatshepsut rising behind the wall of the pylon built by Thutmose I. Suddenly, as I turned to look up at the obelisk, I was almost overcome by the intensity of its striking image, which seemed luminous under the fierce Egyptian sun. For an instant, Walid's stories about visitors becoming convinced that they were the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian princess didn't seem so bizarre. "It must be the heat," I thought as I shook myself back into the present and listened to another of Walid's great tales.

Luxor still had more to offer. About three kilometres from the temple of Karnak is a second temple dedicated to the god Amun. The two temples were originally joined by a processional avenue of sphinxes. During the Festival of Opet, held when the Nile was in flood, sacred boats of the gods, accompanied by priests, would travel down the avenue from one temple to the other as people danced and sang. Nowadays, the avenue passes through part of modern Luxor, which makes any attempt at its re-creation a difficult task: One sphinx is partly in someone's living room.

From inside Luxor's Temple of Amon-Ra rises the bright yellow dome and minaret of the Mosque of Abu el-Haggag. Particularly striking is a door of the mosque high up on one of the temple walls. When the mosque was built, the desert sands, long since removed, covered the temple to this point.

CRUISING THE NILE
Before leaving Luxor for Cairo, our group was scheduled to have breakfast aboard a traditional Nile felucca. It sounded like one of those phony tourist experiences on an equally phony boat but nothing could have been further from the truth. The craft that awaited us was the real thing: an ancient design perfectly adapted to the conditions of the Nile and sparkling under a new coat of white paint. Welcomed aboard by two smiling crew members dressed in the long flowing djellabas so suited to the Egyptian climate, we settled into the wide cockpit as fresh orange juice and coffee were poured and the covers were lifted from scrambled eggs and hot croissants. My kind of breakfast.

For a while we were towed gently upstream before casting off to return downriver. Scarcely a breath of wind ruffled the single huge sail. Lazing back against soft cushions, we drifted northwards with the river's current. We practised the little Arabic we had learned and talked about the friendliness of the Egyptians we had met and their happiness in seeing foreign visitors return to their country. We all agreed that we had felt perfectly safe, but that it would take some time to really absorb what we had seen. And we all wanted to come back. There was only one thing needed to make the morning perfect -- so I reached for another croissant.

 

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