I have always wanted to discover Ancient Egypt, to see the sheer scale of the great sites, such as Karnak – some 60 acres in size – for myself. There are 5,000 years of history to discover, building techniques, mummification processes, the meanings of hieroglyphs, and the extraordinary complexities of the Ancient Egyptians’ religion with all its divinities, sacred animals, obsession with, and preparation for life after death. It’s spellbinding.
However, holiday-makers have been steering clear of Egypt recently and the shooting down of the Russian plane last November though hundreds of miles away in Sinai has meant numbers plummeted even further, down by as much as 90 percent. What’s more, out of the 350 cruise ships on the Nile only 70 are currently sailing.
Nevertheless, I boarded one of them – the five-star vessel the Oberoi Philae. On the flight to Luxor and transfer to the ship everyone was desperately keen to stress their security measures: the bank of cameras in a control room in Luxor which scan almost every inch of the place (one foiled an attempt to put a bomb in the car park last year); the guards on every Egyptair flight, the sniffer dogs, the scanners, the barriers at hotel grounds and attractions.
No guarantees can be given of course and the bizarre hijacking a month ago did not help the situation but it is worth remembering that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not advise against travel to Egypt’s main tourist areas. We all felt safe but we also felt sorry for all those welcoming strangers who begged us to tell people to please come to Egypt.
I was glad I did. Tarek our guide talks about the origin of the phrases light-hearted or blue-blooded or where the idea of haloes came from or who decided on the circle with a cross on the bottom as the symbol for a woman? The answers, he tells us, may come from ancient Egypt.
A person’s soul was weighed against a feather, bad deeds would weigh it down, good ones buoy it up. Divinities were painted blue hence an association over the years with high rank. They were also depicted with the sphere of the sun god Ra on their heads which Christians, hiding from Roman persecutions in the old temples, might have adapted for their new religion. And some academics think our sign for the female came from the ankh, the symbol of life and birth.
Perhaps one of the most astonishing aspects of ancient Egypt is how contemporary they were, who had female rulers as well as males and drew pictures with such simple lines that they were Picasso-esque. They also built extraordinary constructions to which today’s engineers still pay their respects.
Karnak has a massive stone, statues, huge obelisks. The hand of one fallen statue currently being reassembled is the size of a man. To walk among them is to feel you have shrunk Alice-in-Wonderland style. And across the Nile on the West bank in the valleys of the dead are more than 700 tombs of pharaohs and their queens, of nobles and artisans. But even this number, say the experts, maybe only a third of the still hidden total.