Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Gods and the Darkness

[Aswan --> Luxor]

You barely have time to greet the cruise staff, who is at once sycophantic and sneering, trying to understand your intentions as a young woman traveling alone. Your room, however, is cozy and inviting, and a shower rejuvenates you after having sat in the same position for fifteen hours. There is knocking on your door – if you don’t catch the bus now, you will lose the chance to visit a massive temple site, just 25 miles from the border of Egypt and Sudan. You run onto the bus, breathless, a bottle of water and camera in your hand. Go.

The bus drives through the desert where you admire sand dunes that have formed beautiful, technical designs: first, small crescent dunes, the lace of a more complicated carpet; then, bolder and more contoured hills, some soft and submissive, others jagged and pointy. The bus rolls on, the dunes undulate faithfully alongside.

The sun starts burning down your throat the instant you get off the bus at Abu Simbel, boiling nearby Lake Nasser for its dish of fried human brain with skin peel. Your breath turns to fire, singeing your lungs and heart. You come face to face with four gigantic rock statues of Pharaoh Ramesses II; it would take two fully grown men standing one on top of the other to reach his toes. Their faces calmly confront the sun while you are gasping for breath, confounded by the latter’s rays.
You scurry – the only appropriate word, for you are but a rodent compared to the grandeur and scale of the temple – inside the temple, almost immediately cooled by the shadow-draped pillars and walls which boast stories of glory, victory and knowledge. Snakes streaked across ancient papyrus rolls look like fluid Arabic script, dotted, punctuated, calibrated by smaller figures carved in permanent obsequiousness to their king who watches over them with a steady smile. Labyrinthian pathways lead to several inner chambers with low-ceilings and vivid walls; you marvel at the Egyptian habit of sharing, spreading and preserving stories for future generations. The text may be cryptic, but the message rings clear in the enormity of the temple. You put your hand on the wall and touch hieroglyphics that were carved into these walls thousands of years ago; the essence of the story penetrates your skin and rushes through your bloodstream.
Each temple and monument you visit after this looms over you with history and geography, accumulating into a formidable chronology. Water quivers in the sunlight; pillars near-disappear.

The sandy silence at each site fills the spaces between the stones with stories. Tour guides hum them out in multi-lingual harmony. Painted walls glow with pride--their color has persisted for centuries! Shadows lean over curiously, following you and your camera lenses. Temples and temple cities are structured such that the inner most sanctum, a chastely dark, windowless room, is preceded by numerous sun-drenched courtyards and passageways that get progressively more demure to the sun's rays, veiled by arghways, roofs, walls. By the time the High Priest has entered the sanctum to pray, his eyes have naturally adjusted to the darkness. By the time you have walked the entire temple grounds, you are too overwhelmed and thirsty to think of much else!

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