Travels in an Antique Land

I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings.
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias, by P. B. Shelley

In August and September of 1978, I [Robert] found myself in Iran (to visit a college roommate, the subject of another story) and Egypt. After leaving Iran I arrived in Cairo with only a general notion that I wanted to head up the Nile. I met a fellow from France, studying to be a doctor and hoping to join the World Health Organization. His English was very good, although it was interspersed with charming French colloquialisms such as "merde!". At any rate, it was the time of Ramadan, and I knew from my experience in Iran that this was a time for tourists to lay low and obey the spirit of the holy days. My companion Bertrand, though, insisted on wearing shorts, which at the very least got second glances and some laughs and even sneers from the Egyptians. Shorts were certainly desirable, since the heat was stifling and the humidity high, but I suffered in my long pants.

Before heading up the Nile, we did what almost every tourist to Egypt does, namely, visit the pyramids of Cheops at Giza. After taking an overcrowded municipal bus to the pyramids, we soon encountered Egyptians offering us rides on mules and camels around the monuments. In the spirit of the moment we decided to go ahead and ride on the back of a mule (the camels looked a little ornery). Things were going along ok until I got my camera out to take the inevitable picture of the pyramids and the sphinx. It was at that point that I dropped my lens cap in the sand. The exasperation was compounded when the camera jammed, and I could just imagine all these wonderful sights would go unrecorded. Fortunately, after working the camera subtlely with my fist it started working again.

The evening was concluded with a rather bizarre sound and light show recounting the history of the pyramids in a somewhat melodramatic, glitzy format. I think this same sound and light show was featured in a Bond flick or something like that!

The next day we decided on another misadventure, this time to visit the Coptic city of Egypt. A small remnant Christian population lived in this quarter which housed a synagogue and a church, among other things. A crypt in the church reputedly contained the body of one of the saints. As a side note, the Baba Shnoud (sic) is the equivalent of the Pope for the Coptic sect of the Eastern Orthodox church. The real adventure began on our way back to the hotel. We followed a course that took us through the most poverty-stricken section of Cairo, where people lived in the streets next to their garbage. And inevitably, we were greeted by children yelling "Baksheesh! baksheesh!". They wanted money or pencils, anything that would give them something to play with or to sell. While the poverty was depressing, the people seemed to keep their spirits up and we didn't feel particularly threatened after awhile (unlike a similar setting in the U.S.). The poverty in the U.S. doesn't compare to that in Egypt at all; this kind of poverty is about as low as it gets, short of starvation.

Back in Cairo proper, the tourist center of Cairo, we made preparations for the train ride south along the Nile. Along the way we bought some food from a street vendor, and it was at the moment that Bertrand exchanged his money for a starchy, bread-like disk. It was an inspired moment in which I took a photograph that framed an Egyptian with the Frenchman exchanging items, something I'd imagine would make a good cover for National Geographic.

Anyway, the train was a Pullman, and we rode in first class because we suspected anything else would be pretty rough going. First class was quite nice, as it turned out. When we arrived in Luxor, the heat seemed to be even more penetrating than in Cairo, but we soon found ways of dealing with it. At first we had taken a sightseeing tour around the Valley of the Kings, but as tours inevitably do, they are relatively inflexible and they're not particularly comfortable when you consider the van we were travelling in had no air conditioning. But the tour did introduce us to the different sights around the Valley of the Kings.

After returning from the tour and crossing the Nile to reach Luxor, we sought to quench our thirst, then visited the bazaar. The bazaar had many touristy gifts but also many attractive crafts. I wanted to buy an alabaster ornament, but found the proprietor more interested in bargaining than selling! We eventually arrived at an agreeable price over tea.

Afterwards Bertrand and I visited the Temple of Karnak. The texture of the rusty red, hieroglyphic-filled columns and the deep shadows greatly enhanced the image of this monumental edifice.

The next day, Bertrand and I rented bicycles and found that we could beat the humidity and the flocks of children following us by pedaling along. The slight breeze we generated was very refreshing, even if the air temperature was over 100 degrees F°.

Our first destination was the tomb of Tutenkhamen. The state of preservation of the paintings on the walls of the tombs was astonishing, especially the lapis-like blues. We were introduced to the religious symbols of Horus and Amenra, and were taught the meaning behind several cartouches. The hieroglyphics were very interesting, even though difficult to understand completely. We were told that much of the hieroglyphics actually described mundane things like grocery lists, lists of supplies, transactions, and so forth. Nevertheless they appear as works of art, particularly because of their age and excellent state of preservation.

We made our way from Tutenkhamen's tomb to Dier El Bahri. The temple there is very beautiful, lying low against the hills and cliffs in the background; it blends in very well. Many of the drawings and cartouches were scratched out because one of the pharoahs wanted to remove all record of Queen Nefertiti.

Lunch was the ubiquitous bread and fool (you had to be one to eat it!).

From there we made our way to Medinet Habu, an imposing fortress-like structure with fat columns and many more interesting cartouches.

The final destination was the Ramaceum, the temple of Ramses II. I was particularly interested in this temple because Ramses was one of the most powerful and well-known of the pharoahs, building great monuments to himself throughout Egypt. The massive stone columns and statues were overwhelming at first. Some of the temple lay in ruins with these large boulders strewn about the area. It was only when I saw the bust of Ramses II lying on the ground that a very strange feeling came over me, as though I'd been here before, as though I had experienced this before. It was at that point that I remembered the poem "Ozymandias", a poem I had learned in elementary school. As I looked about the ruins, every aspect of that poem seemed to be represented. I was simply astounded at the imagery Shelley had created, that the image was so clear in my mind that I recognized it immediately without having been told. It was only years later, after returning from the trip, that I found out that the temple was, in fact, where Shelley had written "Ozymandias".

No poem would ever touch me the way that one had, and I expect no other poem ever will.