16.2.98

Egypt 98, p3

Esna and Edfu

That same evening we boarded our ship, the Papyrus. I was really excited: I had always dreamed of it, but never been on a cruise before (just once in Greece when I was 6, so I barely remember).

We left our luggage in the corridors of the hotel, to be brought on board, straight to our cabins, for us. We were therefore free to follow our "chief" on a guided tour of what would be our living quarters for the next few days. The man was as full of humor as he was of energy:
- The swimming pool is heated at 24°C... 12 in the morning and 12 in the afternoon.
- Le temple d'Edfu... Plus on est, plus on rit.
-Chaque partie du bateau est nommée après une divinité, ici c'est le pont de la déesse Hathor... et à?... travers, il y en a deux qui suivent...


February 16

I was up at dawn: I wouldn't have missed sunrise on the Nile for the world. We were on our way towards Esna after passing the lock around 5 am. Mamie told me there was usually a long queue of boats waiting to go through, but this time ours was the only one, all because of the sad events of November.


The Temple of Khnum at Esna is a Ptolemaic temple, meaning that it was built during the latest period of Ancient Egypt, when the country was heavily Romanized. Beautiful as it is, it is a sad and far cry from the perfection and awareness we saw in Thebes. The symbolism as well as the workmanship have visibly declined: we could see hieroglyphs start with the normal spacing and end up crammed together because there was no more space for writing. Umeyma pointed out numerous mistakes in grammar and proportions, as well as the fact the bodies on the reliefs are actually flabby. This was the apogee of the decline of Ancient Egypt. The Romans may have established the foundations of the present world, but at the price of something much more precious than anything they ever accomplished in their lust for goods and power.

Interestingly, the zodiacal signs sculpted on the ceiling are exactly those we know today that were transmitted to us by the Greeks. A puzzling feature is the presence of grasshoppers on top of one of the composite capitals. Their meaning is completely obscure, although they are usually a symbol of abundance, and if anyone can help me understand their presence, I'll be very greatful.

Sadly, the rest of the ancient city that stood here is buried under the present village of Esna. Understandably, the inhabitants are not supportive of the idea of digging it up. The wall of the temple still stands, though, and Umeyma challenged us to guess why its stone courses are set in a wavy fashion.
The answer is fascinating. According to mythology (one of the many versions; the Egyptians had several schools of thought), Creation happened when a hill emerged from the Primordial Ocean. The temple is this hill, and the wall represents the Ocean -- this is why it is shaped like waves.

After a sumptuous lunch and a wonderful nap on the Nile, we dropped anchor once again for our second visit of the day. The way ships usually anchor on the Nile is amusing. There isn't space for many quays, so the boats, all designed in the same way, park next to each other so that the doors to the "hallways" coincide. Passengers then walk through as many boats as we must to get to the shore, saluting many crews on the way. We never had more than one or two to go through, because tourism has dropped considerably since the Deir el Bahri attack, but Mamie said that the last time she came, there were as many as 8 to 10 boats in a row.

I had waited long to see the Temple
of Horus at Edfu, ever since seeing, at 11,
a picture of this magnificent statue.
Our guides estimated that our Club Med stay had been far too serious and scholarly since we'd arrived. They remedied this by having us pause in the great court, in full sight of the pylon and of the other tourist groups. We were then ordered to bow three times with a loud cry of "Amon!", then jump on one foot... That's a picture I wish I could have taken!

The pylon of Edfu

Hammered figures were common again. Here's a way to know whether they were done by the Romans or Christians: if the hammering was done on the face, the feet and the hands, it is Roman work; if it affects the whole figure, it's due to Christians. The Christians did not appreciate the nudity of the figures and were hammering them out of zealot modesty. As for the Romans, they believed that the representations of Egyptian deities were the source of power of the Egyptians, and by hammering the important parts (namely the face and hands), they would cut off the people from their Gods and make it easier for them to dominate the land. 

Here is an exquisite detail of the pylon... This theme of the Pharaoh raising a weapon threateningly, while holding in his other hand a bunch of enemies by the hair, is repeated everywhere; it is particularly well kept here, especially the beautiful falcon.
The sanctuary of this temple is rather peculiar because it is in the center of the structure rather than at its extremity: the axis therefore ends within. Also, it used to be very shiny and highly visible from the entrance in Antiquity while the rest was kept in semi-darkness by the lack of light.

Below is a page from my travel diary. As we walked around the portico court, I was much intrigued by the extensive use of the frieze I've sketched. It represents a basket with an Ankh flanked by two Ouas, scepters of the gods. On one side of it, the crowned, Horus-headed sphinx faces Nekhbet, Vulture-Goddess of Higher Egypt; on the other, the sphinx faces Ouadjet, Cobra-Goddess of Lower Egypt. Between the sphinx and either goddess, stands the empty cartouche you can see at bottom right.
This unusual feature is explained by the fact that this is another Ptolemaic temple. Indeed, these cartouches are reserved for the Paraoh's intronement name; but the succession of the Ptolemy Pharaohs was so quick that the name never got a chance to be inscribed. Considering the fact that each inthronement determined a new era (they would say "in the year 22 Ramses", for instance), I sympathize with the confusion that must have reigned at the time. Again, a splendid temple full of very sad meanings.

And here is another comic-book frieze. It is simply amazing. You may be familiar with the story of Horus' battle with Seth. Seth had killed Osiris, Horus' father, and the faithful son came for revenge as soon as he was grown enough. Seth usually represents Evil (though far from the notion of Satan), and his three symbolical animals are the pig, the ass and the hippopotamus. This frieze represents the battle between the two Gods. It rather reminds me of a video game, actually. We see Horus in a barge with two harpoons, with Seth as a hippopotamus at the bottom of the river.
The scene is repeated many times with slight differences: Seth is hit in a different place in each scene, we see him on his back, then springing up again (the actual movement of the body twisting to get up is represented), then Isis appears with a harpoon of her own to help her son, and finally Hathor encourages them with her rattle... The final scene shows Horus standing over a huge vainquished Seth, his victory glorified by the obvious power of his enemy, whom he offers to Osiris. But the Gods do not die and Seth is shown alive again shortly after: it is the eternal battle of Good and Evil.