We thought we had settled our taxi troubles, but that was not to be. This time, “the father of B’lal” showed up, thinking we were taking a road trip. Instead, we went to Karnak Temple on the east bank.
In a blog full of superlatives, Karnak temple may top the list. First, it is massive. St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London could both fit inside. If you have not seen those cathedrals, I can only say that they are enormous, and one feels like a tiny ant inside them (obviously one of the desired effects). Imagine that Karnak is larger than both combined, and built in a time when no other buildings had even a second story.
Next, the columns. The columns! There is a forest of columns inside, 134 in all, each one 10 metres (33 feet) around and 24 metres (80 feet) tall. This hall alone, now called the Great Hypostyle Hall, is 50,000 square feet. And these columns once held massive lintels (horizontal stones) and another configuration of columned openings on top.
Naturally everything is covered in hieroglyphs and images, all of the highest detail and quality.
Imagine the number of people it took to build this! I think of that all the time. When I was writing junior nonfiction about ancient civilizations, I learned that the ancient Egyptians were the first civilization to figure out irrigation. This led to the first large-scale agriculture -- the first civilization to store wheat and other grains. This led to people eating well all year around -- when the Nile was flooded and when it was dry. This in turn led to more people -- more families, and more children in each family. The large-scale agriculture also led to more specialization -- people whose job it was to count grain, to make barrels, to organize work crews. The first middle class. And this enabled the ancient Egyptians to become the first civilization to build on a monumental level. It all began with irrigation. I’ve thought of this many, many times on this trip!
Karnak was built over many successive reigns, each pharaoh claiming it as his own and adding on more. It continued to be used through Greek and Roman invasions. On one back wall, some Roman faces appear -- the remains of Roman frescoes that were painted over the hieroglyphs.
This massive temple is only one part of the Karnak complex. There were ceremonial lakes and all manner of outbuildings. Allan and I were both absolutely awed. I believe the last time I felt like this was in La Sagrada Familia, the unfinished Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona. Interestingly, that also contained a forest of columns, graceful and bending like living trees. I know that Gaudi was influenced by many world cultures; I wonder if he saw Karnak, or drawings of it.
Karnak was the first site we’ve visited that has an actual visitor’s centre, designed to (somewhat) echo the design of the temple. There are photographs of the sites before and during restoration, which is really interesting. There is also a model of the whole site. Nothing is labelled. The scale is 1 = 300, but it doesn’t say 1 or 300 what.
There were huge numbers of visitors at Karnak. All the tours go there, and daytrippers come up from the Red Sea resorts in the south. The immense size of the temple made the crowds more bearable.
After Karnak, we asked B’lal’s father to take us to a place reputed to have the best koshari in town. He wanted to take us to a “famous restaurant” but hamdulay, he did not insist. (That’s “thank god”, an expression you hear constantly. “How are you?” “Thank god I’m fine, how are you?”)
The place was a huge fast-food restaurant, with cooking on the street level and tables upstairs, orders and food going up and down by dumbwaiter. We each had a small koshari, and shared a shawarma and a hawawshi. I finally thought of what a hawawshi most closely resembles -- a quesadilla. It’s like a quesadilla with samosa filling inside.
Koshari is my new favourite food. It is delicious, energy packed, and vegan. (Obviously I’m not vegan, but it’s great that it bridges that divide.) This place served it with a bowl of tomato sauce, so you can control your sauce without anything getting soggy. Please will someone open a koshari joint in Mississauga?
(We’ve also learned that we’ve been pronouncing it wrong. It’s said as if it’s a store selling koshers -- a koshery.)
Our next stop was supposed to be the Luxor Museum, but we were disappointed to see it is open 9-2, then 5-9. We caught it after 2:00. We hadn’t wanted to do two temples in one day, but the museum hours kind of forced our schedule. B’lal’s dad wanted us to take a felucca ride (a traditional sailboat), but again, he did not insist.
Luxor Temple was also very large and impressive, with a huge amount of carvings and colours. It, too, was filed with massive columns. Only a visit to Karnak made it seem somewhat small or ordinary.
An interesting note about Luxor Temple: after the original builders and worshippers used it, Greeks used it, then Romans, then Coptic Christians built a church in it, and then a mosque was built in it. (Both church and mosque remain and are still in use.) This makes the site a continuous place of worship for more than 2,000 years, something unique or at least very rare in this country.
Outside the temple is the remains of the Avenue of Sphinxes that once connected the Luxor and Karnak temples -- both sides of a wide path lined with sphinxes for three kilometres! A large number of them remain outside the Luxor Temple, enough to give you the idea.
Luxor Temple was packed with tour groups. It can get loud and crowded in the passageways or small chapels. This is the first trip where Allan routinely wants more time than I do! He is totally engrossed with taking photos; I usually end up finding some shade to wait in. This is fine with me! This is more than fine, this is awesome. I am so happy that he is enjoying himself so much.
After this, we were tired and dusty (you are always dusty here), and we asked The Father of B’lal to take us back to the hotel. He suggested we take the ferry. But again did not insist. Back at the hotel, B’lal’s father was having a heated phone call with Salvation Army Guy (Allan calls him Orphanage Guy. Same dude.) While SAG was berating Allan, I paid B’lal’s dad, and suddenly the whole situation turned around. If you’ve read the previous guest post (or novella), you already know this.
We noticed a little bakery in the village of our hotel, and picked up some fig pastries and danish-type pastries drowning in honey. Because everyone needs to eat dessert before dinner, right?
B’lal’s father picked us up and took us to a local spot called Restaurant Mohamed, which turned out to be one of the coolest spots of this trip. Mohamed lives in a little mud-brick house, with the restaurant attached, and a patio for outdoor dining attached to that; the restaurant is three times the size of his house. The walls are lined with posters of jazz and blues musicians -- Muddy Waters, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Dexter Gordon -- and as we sat down, one of Mohamed’s sons put on music: Miles Davis. Not what we expected!
Four noteworthy factoids about our dinner at Mohamed’s.
We both ordered kofta. These dishes were brought to the table: bread, fried eggplant slices, salad vegetables, pickled vegetables, white spreadable cheese, rice, fried potatoes, stewed vegetables, ripe green melon slices, and the kofta. We were laughing at the quantity of the food. We ordered drinks (more freshly squeezed mango for me), so the bill came to $15 Canadian.
While we were eating, two other customers came in, men with British accents. One of them called over to us, and began what social workers call “inappropriate disclosure” -- yelling across the room. TMI! Among other things, we learned that he met his father for the first time a few years ago. The lost father lived in St Catharines, in southern Ontario. And the man’s sister lives in? You guessed it, Mississauga.
Mohamed’s used to host musicians, five nights a week, regional and local favourites coming to play. I would have loved to see one of those shows.
Everything was delicious, although I had to discreetly spit out the pickled eggplant. Think of the pickliest thing you’ve ever eaten, double it, then soak it in pickling for another week.
B’lal picked us up, we made our plans for the next day, and were very happy, and very stuffed.
Photos of Karnak are here.
Photos of Luxor Temple are here.