A Bicycle Ride From Luxor
I hire the bicycle, a good old-fashioned sturdy machine with a basket in front, from the recommended shop on the east bank of the Nile, and have a practice ride down the street to the river and the ferry which goes across to the west bank and the Valley of the Kings. The ferry is loaded with people and goods, the everyday traffic of the river where the main market is on one side, but many people live on the other. There are a few tourists too, backpackers mainly. On the other side we all pile off and I mount my bike and set off adventuring. I'd been here before but not on my own and with my own transport. I feel really free as I cycle down the road between the fresh growing crops. Some children shout at me and a young man shows an interest - rather flattering really. I speed on, enjoying the ride.
The first stop is at the Colossi of Memnon. It's quite early in the morning and they are still casting shadows. I've seen them before, but with a tour, under control of a guide. Now there's just me and a few other independent sorts. There's time to touch and wonder - to investigate the crack that is supposed to moan, and to stand and stare.
Just nearby is the funerary temple of Rameses II, the Ramasseum, which is not often visited by the tour parties. It is huge, my copy of Baedeker's Egypt,1929 edition, is invaluable. It's lonely and a little frightening to wander alone amongst all the broken columns. Nearest to the Nile is the fallen Colossus made of red granite. Was this Shelley's model for Ozymandias - 'Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair'?
The temple was built to celebrate the king's death and passing through to the afterlife. It makes you think of time. It seems to stand still in Egypt where the sculpture is as fresh as if made yesterday.
But I am distracted, my aim for the day was to explore the city of the tomb builders, Deir el Medina. My sister had given me the book about it, Ancient Lives - The story of the Pharaoh's Tombmakers by John Romer, for Christmas and I was determined to find it. It is between the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, set back up in the hills - a whole city built for the tomb makers to live in while working. They lived there for years and the archaeologists have worked out much about their lifestyle from the ruins. Again the tours do not stop here, but I can get there on my bicycle.
When I find it, what strikes me most is the size of the houses and rooms. Everything is small and cramped. But it is all stone and paved, with amenities - plumbing of sorts, kitchens and various shops which are quite easy to identify. It makes me think of Herculaneum, but this is thousands of years older. The workmen's houses are very mean in comparison to the huge memorials and temples to the dead they are building.
I remount and cycle on. Another series of tombs I wanted to see are those of the nobles. They are noted for the really lifelike and relaxed style of the carving and painting. They are in a village, with entrances through modern houses. These are more popular, but well worth a visit. The art work gives a sense of the life of comfort and luxury enjoyed by the ancient noblemen.
I chatted, making good use of my limited Arabic, with some of the villagers. They farm a little, but really make a living from the tombs. I sit for a while, enjoying a cup of mint tea and watch a craftsman recreate a sculpture of a noble's head. I think he must be a descendant of the original craftsmen. The head is beautiful, cut from the soft limestone and coloured with natural dyes. I buy it at a very reasonable price. It is wrapped up carefully and put in my basket. I can see it now, on my bookcase, as I write this.
I did cycle further, again using my Baedeker as guide, I found some remote tombs and their guardians. I shared a drink of tea and some food with the guardian family. They left more of an impression than the tomb. They really were scratching a living, earning a pittance from the few determined tourists who made it up to the remote site. But they made me very welcome and explained their treasures with pride. I resisted the 'genuine' antiques they tried to sell me and enjoyed the scene. The long level plain was displayed below out towards the Nile, with the temples of Karnak and Luxor visible on the other bank. The tour buses raced past going to the Valley of the Kings; I felt more part of the place by that remote tomb entrance. But I had to leave and cycle wearily back to the ferry and later to my comfortable modern hotel.
Jane Grenfell, May 2000
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