Thursday, December 1, 1983

The Nile by Bicycle

Published by Travel & Leisure in late 1983. I wrote this "on spec" (without a contract) en route back to Manhattan from Bahrain in the spring. I went on to do more articles for the magazine than any other writer in the next five years.

Dawn was pink and yellow across green Egyptian fields. The train’s gentle rocking and the silken light awakened me gradually, so I had no doubts of where I was; and from the upper bunk I could see easily out the window merely by turning my head on the pillow.

My train was following the Nile south. The verdant countryside glistened with irrigation, and stretched off toward odd clumps of palm trees and misted, low tan mountains. Beyond them would be desert. Human figures in slack grey robes had been pencil-sketched into the foreground, at work already with water buffalo and donkeys, but no one turned to look at the train. Occasionally the fields were interrupted by a crumbling stone hovel or a roofless partitioned mud village, with doves perching on its crude walls—seemingly at peace with poverty, like everything else I saw.

I was on my way to Luxor, to its temple and that of Karnak. Ancient in ancient epochs, they were part of Thebes, the capital that linked Upper and Lower Egypt as one kingdom after about 2000 B.C. I wanted to avoid the tourist route as much as possible—puffing along the Nile in an overweight passenger steamer with the incongruous insignia of an international hotel emblazoned on the funnel. I intended to arrive in Luxor alone, to make my way through the Valleys of the Kings and Queens on my own terms, unhindered by a tour or a guide. The wonders of the ancient world deserve to be experienced as privately as possible.

So I’d chosen the train, and dubbed it "The Nile Sleeper." Like much of Egypt since Napoleon’s day, it was full of French tourists. We’d left Cairo’s tightly-packed freneticism the evening before, at dusk, when the city was at its most oppressive and fatiguing. There seemed nowhere to walk where I wasn’t in danger of being run over or trampled; buses careened past so crowded that people clung to the outsides like mountaineers. The heat was overwhelming, so the refrigerated train seemed like heaven. Thirty-five dollars bought me a modern, first-class compartment, dinner, and breakfast. The train was punctual: it seemed the only event in Egypt that was.

We pulled into Luxor at about six-thirty. The train station, ramshackle but larger than I expected for so small a town, bespoke a century of tourism—from the late Victorian era until recently, Luxor was a rather classy resort. As it was, a Spanish couple and an American student with blond hair and gold-rimmed glasses, carrying a knapsack, were the only other non-Egyptians getting off the train.

The American student—he had the usual fearless candor—came over. "Do you know how we get around here?" He was wearing blue denim shorts, a white T-shirt, and sandals, and he was pallid; he hadn’t been in Egypt long, then.

I said I was going to walk.

"Walk, huh?" He adjusted his knapsack.

A fat Egyptian in a red floral shirt and creased brown trousers was hurrying purposefully across the platform toward us, grinning eagerly like a cartoon cat eyeing dinner. The Spanish couple were in tow behind him.

"No, sir!" He stuck out his large right hand. "No need to walk. You want to see temples of Luxor and Karnak? Queen Hatshepsut’s temple? You want to see King Tut’s tomb? Let Sayed Hasseney be your guide."

The student was shaking hands with him, about to be educated. I left them and headed through the station to the street. Luxor was barely awake, and beginning to stir. The streets were dusty dirt lanes, narrow with swollen stone houses with rickety balconies and decrepit wooden doors. I heard the raised voices of children inside. It seemed a sleepy little town, that had once shown a more elegant face to its prosperous tourists. Men in galabias glanced at me incuriously and went back to opening small tourist stalls selling postcards, maps, and literally tons of imitation Nefertitis and Sphinxes and Tuts and scarabs. A horse-drawn carriage drew alongside me, and when I refused the offer ("I take you to Luxor temple, come on, ten pounds!") the driver shrugged without remorse. It was already hot, and flies were about.

Through luck alone I soon came upon an open bicycle shop. A wizened old lady answered my pointed inquiry about a red three-speed with a single upraised finger: one Egyptian pound (a dollar twenty) for a day’s rental. I gave her the pound, mounted the bicycle, and asked, "Nile?" She pointed down a wider lane, lined with tourist stalls and trees.

I cycled down it and after a long block reached a spacious boulevard running beside the river. I’d seen the Nile in Cairo, where it seemed like nearly any river coursing through any city, and struck me as peculiarly characterless. But here was the river of a boy’s imagination, bringer of all life, brimming with history. Just visible up the boulevard to my left, past a few turn-of-the-century hotels with wide sleepy terraces, stood the commanding walls and obelisk at the entrance to Luxor. Out of sight a couple of miles down the boulevard to my right, past a few modern hotels and hidden private homes along the Nile’s bank and a long colonnade of trees, stood the huge temple of Karnak, the largest temple in the world.

The way those hotels, those homes, those two temples faced the peaceful river made it seem great, a god given its due attention; it was the color of mid-ocean, and looked much deeper than it was. Here, during the Nile’s flooding every year in early September, the festival of the god Amun ("The hidden") was held. An image of the god, slightly smaller than a man, was clothed in finery and removed from its shrine at the Karnak temple, placed in a sacred barge with a retinue of priests, and taken upstream to Luxor, where it remained for a month of celebration. Then it was returned similarly to Karnak. In the heat of the day whose onslaught was just beginning, it was easy to see the Nile—all that miraculous water!—as a blessing, and to imagine, as the Egyptians had, a similar celestial river awaiting in the afterlife.

Just down the bank from me a felucca filled with boulders was moored easily, faded sails furled; its owner was fishing from the scant shadow of a tiny tree. The Nile was a rich blue, about a quarter mile across. The far shore was lined with trees. The harsh mountains in the middle distance—beyond them were the Valleys of the Kings and Queenslooked freshly cut, and had the profile of a mighty range, though in height they were only hills. Near me, a man with no legs or arms was being placed by his son on a small blanket spread on the sidewalk, beneath a welcoming tree which cast plenty of shade. The boy smiled at me and waved; his father grinned. The boy had a stand on the grass of the riverbank, before it sloped, selling an iced blackcurrant elixir on that must be the world’s most refreshing drink. I gave him the first business of his day and moved on.

Along the boulevard was a large felucca that acted as ferry, with a scattered handful of tourists already on board, including the Spanish couple and the American student, who nodded at me. Twenty-five piastersthirty centstook us across. I was the only person with a bicycle. The farther shore was like the countryside I’d glimpsed from the train at dawn: green fields of wheat and sugarcane, dirt paths leading off through those fields toward shimmering brown mountains, squat palm trees as punctuation. And, everywhere, people working, bent low in the fields so it seemed almost a deserted landscape; and many of those workers were children of only five.

The road was proper asphalt, though, and on the bicycle I made enough breeze to stay comfortable. I was riding the same path by which the stones of the tombs and temples were brought to the Valley of the Kings, having been transported upriver from across the desert. Because the Egyptians viewed the afterlife as a continuation of the earthly pleasures without the responsibilities, the pharaohs and queens invariably began preparing their tombs as soon as they took power, to be sure everything would be ready when death came. (The Great Pyramid at Gizeh, the largest stone structure on the planet, built without the use of the wheel a thousand years before the temples of Luxor and Karnak, is of course the extreme example of this preparation.) And because the Egyptian believed that the soul could return at will to its body—theirs was no heaven of ghosts, but another, actual world—the bodies were mummified. The soul still needed an earthly home.

I’d been wondering idly as I rode where all those hotel guests were, and I nearly got killed finding out. A giant tourist bus was upon me, blasting its horn, before I was aware that I and the farmer with his donkey ahead of me had anything to fear. Curious, air-conditioned faces turned to look back at me as if wondering what a white man in long pants, shirtless, was doing riding a bicycle here. This bus was followed by another, and a third, each crammed with sightseers. Neither the donkey nor the farmer took any notice, as if the buses were only a detail of the landscape, not worth glancing at. When the farmer offered me a stalk of sugarcane as I rode by, I stopped for it and thanked him.

The road began to curve toward the hills, and rose; the sun, too, had climbed in the sky, and looked swollen and fierce. I’d been bicycling for almost an hour when I came to a village set in slopes of the hillside. A few little boys ran after me, demanding baksheesh. It was a village such as this one that years ago resisted government attempts to dislodge it for the sake of a through road, because the village sat precisely on a cache of genuine scarabs and statuettes that was supplying the villagers with infinite amounts of tourist merchandise. Nasser had built them a beautiful modern village, but he was taking away their livelihood. As I rode through I was offered all sorts of sculptures; perhaps they were real. They weren’t what I wanted to remember—the sharp arrogance of the light, driven off the steep cliffs, was.

Then the tan landscape seemed to split and open into a hard plain of sand with shoulders of cliff on either side. Before me, in a long array of columns flanked by twin faceless colossi, was the temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The columns weren’t circular, but square, and from a distance the temple, on three receding levels transfixed by a central ramp, looked almost Greek. The cliffs rose steeply above, and gave the shrine an effect of width rather than height—unusual for an Egyptian temple.

As I came closer, and locked my bicycle at the temple entrance, I saw that the Spanish couple were already here, listening attentively to a young Egyptian guide while a horde of fellahin tried to sell them fly-whisks and sword-canes. One comes to Egypt in search of ancient gods; the gods elude; one comes back with souvenirs. It is a wearying round, and I waited for the sellers to descend on me. They didn’t; I must’ve looked too bedraggled.

But the American student did find me, as I peered among the columns. I was looking up at one of those faceless colossi—probably defaced by Hatshepsut’s stepson Thutmose III, whose power she managed to usurp for twenty years—when I heard a voice behind me say, "I’ve been cheated."

He was looking sorry for himself. Apparently this Sayed Hasseney, the outgoing man at the station, had demanded and received sixty pounds from him for tickets to Luxor, Karnak, and the Valley of the Kings, as well as a ride in the car with the Spanish couple and a guide. He’d been cheated out of at least forty pounds. "I can’t believe it," he finished. "I’m just going to have to shake it out of him, man."

I didn’t think Sayed Hasseney looked susceptible to shaking. "Talk to the Tourist Police," I suggested. "They’re ferocious with swindlers."

The student’s car honked: he gave a little wave and was gone. I walked through the colonnades of the temple columns, which formed small shrines. There was something wearying about all the hieroglyphs and figures representing the achievements of Hatshepsut. Probably the most extraordinary woman Egypt ever produced, she was married to Thutmose II, her half-brother. When he died, and his son by a lesser wife was made pharaoh, Hatshepsut took over (around 1500 B.C.). She ceased much of Egypt’s military activity, reopened trade routes that had been closed for years; she wore masculine attire and often a false beard. Most important, she was the first ruler to wear the Double Crown, which indicated rulership of Upper and Lower Egypt (south and north respectively, due to the Nile’s northward flow.). And with her "kingship" she assumed, also, the godship: she was the first pharaoh to do so.

When I came out of the cool shadows of the temple, a young Egyptian approached me, grinning. He said, "You have bicycle?"

"I rented it." He seemed genuine friendly, and wasn’t trying to sell me anything. One lesson of travel is that your instincts about people are usually correct, regardless of culture or language: I trusted him.

He pointed up the cliffs alongside the temple. "Past there is Valley of Kings." He pointed to my bicycle. "You ride—" He pointed back the way I’d come. "It take you one hour, maybe more. Very tired. You climb, it take ten minute." He shrugged. "Maybe more. But more easy. I watch your bicycle."

It was a big risk—I couldn’t walk back to Luxor—but I took it. Not having been intelligent enough to bring a hat, I wrapped my shirt around my head to absorb sweat and made my way across a tumble of rocks. A path gleamed whitely, making its way up the tan face of the cliffs, and I followed it At times it was wide enough for only one foot, and climbed too steeply to seem safe. There was no shade, no overhangs, no handholds, and my body was soon slick with sweat. I estimated it as barely noon: the day would get even hotter.

When I reached the summit of the cliffs, I looked back. I couldn’t find the queen’s temple, directly below meno, there it was, the size of a matchbox. My mind felt weakened from the heat and the enormous view. I saw other temples; the land grew green, and the horizon was rimmed by the Nile. I saw the toiling grey road I’d followed here, and it seemed incredible that all those cut rocks could’ve been dragged so far to be fitted into position. How? Oxen or slaves?

And yet on the other side of the cliffs I couldn’t find the Valley of the Kings. I saw no entrances to tombs, just a dead rock landscape of more cliffs to the west. Hawks circled in the sky at my level. No wonder the ancient Egyptians had buried their dead in these hills; I felt I was the only living thing, and it crossed my mind that if I twisted an ankle clambering across more cliffs and lay exposed to the heat, I wouldn’t be fit for much, either. Perhaps it wasn’t a realistic fear, but extreme heat makes one think of death, and I’d had nothing to drink for two hours. Feeling like a cowardbut a wise, safe oneI gingerly made my way back down.

The bicycle was still there, and my friend proved correct. The ride to the Valley of the Kings (on the best road of all, because of those heavy-breathing tour buses) took me more than an hour. Much of it was uphill, and by this time the sunlight was blinding, a white dazzle off the rocks and sand. Such heat dazes one’s enthusiasm, and seeing this concentration of temples and tombs becomes a matter of stamina rather than appreciation. Various European travelers have written smugly over the last two centuries of Egyptians scurrying from rock to rock, shadow to shadow, like some low form of desert life, but in fact it is we who do most of the scurrying in search of shade, clutching our straw hats and bobbing cameras.

It struck me, on finally reaching the Valley of the Kings, that no place has ever been more accurately but misleadingly named. Most of the entrances to the dozen-odd tombs open to the public are within about thirty feet of each other: all the vastness lies underground. You descend to each tomb along wood-ramped corridors, hundreds of feet long, cut steeply into the stone, past richly-colored paintings of various gods and servants and always the dead king in his processions through the Land of the Dead. After the heat aboveground, these subterranean rooms are marvelously cool and private. Most were looted of their treasures long ago; and when you see Tutankhamen’s tomb, of such minute proportions considering how much was buried with him, it is staggering to think of the riches that once were carried here, the furniture of a royal eternity that we modern robbers interrupted.

In one tomb, beneath a stone ceiling covered with serene blue night and yellow stars, I heard a Frenchwoman say to her friend, "But all the pictures look the same." They were gazing at a series of hieroglyphs instructing the dead king on conduct in the Land of the Dead—leaving his tomb at sunset to accompany the sun on its journey through the underworld, carried by boat. This was all depicted, as were various exploits of the king, his wives, musicians, and gods with the heads of animals. At the time I thought the woman’s remark was ignorant.

Yet later, as I sat in the weak air-conditioning of the modern cafeteria beside all those tombs, slowly drinking a gallon of distilled water that must’ve originated in the Nile, I reflected that this woman had hit on an essential truth of the Egyptian culture. The pictures were all much the same, until very late (after the Greek and Roman influence), when the tone softened: this was the point. It was a society dedicated to changelessness. There was a pharaoh, there would be other pharaohs; but the pyramidal structure, with the ruler at the summit, at times held to be a god, didn’t change. In all Egyptian art there was no Greek sense of democracy. Though there might be exceptions, one’s role was pretty much set for life.

Nor was there a sense of tragedy, a lone man standing up to the gods. One simply obeyed. Most of all, the idea of change, of motion, was a Greek invention, still to come; included within it is the idea of choice. All this is foreign to ancient Egyptian art, and its absence, to our eyes, gives an unshakeable sense of sameness to the art. Its craft is subtle and delicate; its effect, of making one feel at the mercy of the gods, is not subtle nor delicate at all. Its grace lies in a sense of things as they are: the river, the land, boats, trees, birds, animals, the seasons.

It was mid-afternoon by the time I reached the Nile again. A horde of fellahin were screaming and haggling and tugging and remonstrating with one-fifth their number of tourists. A Danish blonde was swatting away curious hands whose owners were undaunted by the size of her boyfriend, who towered above all the Egyptians. A bust of Nefertiti was being waved in his face while he ran down a list of currencies, some imaginary, that he knew wouldn’t be accepted here. "Do you take Chinese yen?" he asked innocently.

In the dense sunlight the Nile was a calm mirror for the untextured cloudless blue sky.

The temple of Luxor was only a few hundred yards from where the felucca dropped me, back on the town’s shore, and the town looked as if it had parted to make way for the temple then resumed its growth. This was hardly surprising: El Uqsor, (the Arabic term meaning "the castles") was too military and got destroyed by the Romans, and Luxor itself is a colonial-era town. When David Roberts, whose lithographs of the Middle East are unsurpassed, visited in 1838, the temples stood naked on the landscape.

I walked down a colonnade of sphinxes and rams and passed between the twin pylons of the entrance. Huge faceless colossi were everywhere, striding toward me or standing resolute between immense muscular columns bowed at the bottom. It was as if massive forearms rose out of the sand and supported, in ranks, horizontal beams of stone. Every stone was decorated; there were graffiti in ancient Greek, more than two millennia old. And the sharp obelisks, with their flat sides, punctuated the rows of columns that six men, joining hands, cannot encircle.

I was almost alone here, except for a group of Japanese going about their tourism like professionals, organizing photographs and pointing and sharing facts. I felt a bit hemmed in by the columns. They seemed disproportionate to the spaces of open ground, where the shadows from the slant light were beautiful and have not changed for 3,500 years. I learned later that this disproportion was intentional—to make one feel small before the gods—and that in fact all the proportions were based on this idea, even the doorways . It was not that the pillars were especially high: they weren’t. It was just that (according to several architects) they were organized around a deliberately inhuman measure, like the meter as opposed to the yard, and they depreciated their maker, man.

And there was the American student again, tall among the Japanese. Once, in ancient times, this temple had been filled with students, for around every temple were subsidiary buildings that contributed to the worship of the god. There were storehouses, schools, living quarters for priests and servants, workshops, festival halls. Now the only occupants after nightfall are those watchful colossi, of whom one poet of the18th Dynasty wrote: "Their stature shines more than the heavens, their rays are in the faces of men like the sun." It was difficult to not compare them to the fat crook who’d gone after the student, fleecing him soon after sunrise, and to not wonder at the laziness of a nation with so much achievement early in its history, content to rest on that history like these colossi, only keeping watch—not moving—until the end of time.

The light was starting to wane, and I found myself suddenly alone in the temple. I hurried out of it, returned the bike to its shop, and clambered into a carriage that took me two miles along the river, now golden and black, to Karnak.

The temple covers about 200,000 square yards, and its beginnings were modest, as far back as the12th Dynasty—about 2000 B.C. But it was added to for almost a millennium, and as the importance of its god Amun grew, and the power of Thebes increased with a series of foreign victories, so the temple grew, with each pharaoh adding his own touch. As a result Karnak seems incoherent and endless, pylon after pylon, hall after hall. Its size is ungraspable in a day; what can the mind do with stone walls fifty feet thick, obelisk after obelisk, colonnade after colonnade, with a hall into which one could fit Nรดtre-Dame? On one column, a puny Frenchman named Delamain (appropriately, "by hand") had the patience to carve his name in 1835. The act seemed impertinent: what were one hundred fifty years to this place?

Time itself was Egypt’s timeless obsession. Every wall was covered with reliefs showing chariots, sacrifices, wars, history. At the end of one stretch of columns lay a toppled carved head the size of a small truck. Beyond it strode another set of colossi. A man in white robes had draped himself across the feet and pedestal of one colossus. When I took his picture he yelled, "Baksheesh!", and I fled through a low doorway, past a staircase leading upward to those stone beams impossibly balanced overhead. And, incredibly, before me was a huge sacred pool, reflecting the last light. I did not go close enough to see my own reflection, but on the pool’s placid surface hieroglyphs on walls shimmered, an obelisk pointed toward me, colossi moved. Once the moon rose, it would hang on their shoulders.

Outside Karnak the sun was setting over the Valley of the Kings, a silhouette of mountains to the west. Having emerged from the deep past into the present, I was haggard with the day’s exertions, and my train didn’t leave for Cairo for hours. A sweet wind was blowing across the Nile; people were coming home from the fields, or from the tombs, and it was as if a truce were declared between tourist and trapper at sunset. Women in black—in Egypt, the color of poverty—passed me grinning, carrying babies; birds were singing with the new coolness. At one of the modern hotels, I stood in line with a lawyer from Cleveland and a carriage driver from Luxor, the three of us waiting to use the international—or national—phone line. We talked about how bad service was as night fell across those temples, and all those tombs, and the constant, generous Nile.