the road to Luxor

My driver smokes in the car, plays Quranic chants, and slags off the Muslim Brotherhood. His brief history of modern Egypt, in basic English: Gamal Abdel Nasser not good, Anwar Sadat not good, Hosni Mubarak good. With Mubarak not Muslims one side, Christians other side: we all Egyptians. Morsi bad, Qatar bad, Al Jazeera bad: they blah blah blah blah blah blah Egypt not safe, tourist not come. We like tourist, we safe, we friendly, we kind, Egypt beautiful. England good, America good, Barack Obama good! Emarat good, Saudi good, Kuwait good. Morsi not good, say: Christians go out of Egypt. They burn 40 churches! But Muslim, Christian, all Egyptian – my friend Christian, last week his wedding, I go in his church, good!

I agree with him that Egypt is beautiful, that religious tolerance is good, and burning churches not good. More than that, I don’t feel qualified to say.

He drives like Sebastian Vettel too; they all do.

18.10.13 Kom Ombo entrance-2

Kom Ombo temple

He takes me to Kom Ombo, a Ptolemaic temple by the Nile, where there is an Italian tour group fresh off their boat. Then to Edfu, a glorious Ptolemaic extravagance, at which a few French people.

18.10.13 Edfu pylon

The pylon of Edfu temple

I take photographs, give baksheesh, and fight off those who want to sell me trinkets. In Luxor, I swap drivers. My plan – as I’ve made clear – is to see the Ramesseum and Seti temple, and then to be dropped at Luxor temple. A couple of miles into the drive, we stop to pick up an agent. Why do we need an agent?  Amber lights flash. The agent assures me of his hospitality; my defensive armor locks into place. Hospitality, translate: I want to waste your scarce time pretending to look after you by subjecting you to experiences you don’t want with the goal of extracting from you as much money as possible for goods you will carry uncomfortably home and later regard as clutter. I get them to drop me at the Ramesseum – which happily coincides with Friday prayers, so they leave me alone for the duration – and then at Seti.

18.10.13 Ramesseum Ozymandias-2

The Ramesseum, Luxor. The fallen statue is Ozymandias, King of Kings, as in the Shelley poem.

Afterwards, the offers start flowing: “I show you alabaster!” No thanks; I did that last time (I lie; I was never interested in the first place). Please take me to Luxor. “You want see Valley of the Kings?” No, I did that last time. “How long you stay in Luxor?” I am leaving tomorrow morning, by plane. “Where is your hotel?” I can’t remember (subtext: I know perfectly well but I’m not telling because otherwise I will find you sitting unwanted in the lobby later pestering me to buy alabaster I don’t want). “You want taxi to airport?” No thank you, I arranged that already (precisely to protect me from people like you). Smiles turn to loud grumbling in Arabic on the mobile: I can just imagine the conversation. “You told me this guy tipped generously and he was a dead cert – but I can’t take him for anything at all! He won’t even say where his hotel is!” At Luxor Temple, one more inquiry about whether they should wait: no, I don’t know whether I will go now or later when it’s cooler. And one final desperate pitch for my hotel’s name – “we take you there!” Oh man – I think but don’t say – I have legs and a map; now go away and leave me alone! But my tone is sufficiently brusque that they back off; I tip the driver but not the agent.

But I know why they do it: they’re hurting. When I get to my hotel, the co-owner, a Belgian woman married to a local, says to me: it has never been this bad. There was the Hathshupseth massacre, and there was 9.11, but after these the tourists came back within six months. Now it has been two-and-a-half years. I have seen real hunger in Luxor, she says, among those who used to make their living from the tourist trade…

And for me, sitting in a café in the garden of the Luxor hotel, all this – temples and touts – is just a memory. But I have been there – to Abu Simbel and to the head of Ozymandias, and looked on his works without despair. And I will remember this to my dying day, most likely without hunger.

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the monument that moved

Out of Luxor airport: bougainvillea erupting, vegetation waving, lush crooked palm trees growing by giant irrigation ditches. Rough roads, studded with speed bumps and military checkpoints every few kilometres; a land locked down tight.  My driver chortles and guffaws at the traffic around him, and drives like Sebastian Vettel. For an hour he suffers interruptions, then pulls awayfrom the Nile and heads flat out at speed across the barren lands to the west. Ahead of us the falling sun is shattering amid grey crazy-paving clouds. As it hits the horizon, we swing south again, the fertile lands of the valley a broad green smudge away to the left. I am expecting darkness almost instantly, as they say of the tropics, but light lingers for a half hour and more, leaking slowly from a ribbed and bubbled crimson sky over desert hills to the right. During this time headlights are used only in flashes, to let oncoming traffic know we are there.

Night falls. In Aswan by seven o’clock, I fancy a beer; but in the souq these days, amid tightening conservatism, it is nowhere to be found. An enterprising youth sees me peering into fridges, and whispers “you want beer? I have beer, wine, whisky – shhhh!” – but I don’t want it badly enough that I’m willing to get dragged into an expensive backstairs transaction which will end up with me pressured to buy God knows what else. Further on, another lad grabs my hand and won’t let go, then forces a tiny blue scarab into it. I try to refuse, but he insists. He says he is Nubian, then asks me where in England: I always say Manchester, since nobody has heard of Yorkshire, and predictably always get the same response: football. He drags his dad in on the act; with a self-congratulatory grin, senior recites a long list of English towns. Their goal is to get me to buy something I don’t want or need; my goal is to avoid doing this at any cost. I tell them I have to meet someone and can’t stay. They concede that English people don’t like hassle, so they give me their card, show me exactly where their shop is, and try to get me to commit to tomorrow. “English promise?” checks the son; I wonder if he has heard of perfidious Albion. “Inshallah” is allI will say.

the Nile at Aswan

The Nile at Aswan

I find a place that serves beer, but no food; the proprietor tells me that this is because it is Eid Al Adha, and tomorrow there will be plenty to eat. His non-restaurant spills down three levels beside the Nile: the uppermost, indoors, is dark; the second is mosquito-ridden; the third is floating on the water, and connected to land by a half-submerged gangplank. Apart from a couple of shisha smokers, the only customers are teenage girls who want to have their photos taken with me. I polish off a couple of beers and head for four hours’ sleep.

The wake-up call is at 2.50 and my driver for Abu Simbel is in the lobby by 3.20. We head through town in the darkness to a police checkpoint where the car is bomb-detected. We are clear, but he pulls around and switches the engine off. Over the next half hour an assortment of cars and minibuses joins the queue. Turns out we are to be the lead vehicle in today’s convoy; a bullet-cropped cop squeezes himself and a large black automatic into our passenger seat. My driver regards this as a great honour. I don’t share his excitement; I would honestly prefer to be tucked away somewhere inconspicuously in the middle ranks of the convoy, but I’m left hoping that with a motherfucking gun that size, our man really does have a master plan.

 As it is, all seems quiet; we head out across the British dam (1898-1933), through more checkpoints, and into the blackness. At about five o’clock the landscape turns grey, disclosing endless level desert speckled with rough gravelly bluffs.

ImageWe are doing over 120 kph, I can tell, in spite of a cigarette packet placed coyly over the speedo; is the driver trying to hide his excess from the copper sat next to him? The car behind couldn’t be tailgating more tightly; in the back, I don’t fancy my chances if anything goes wrong. Shortly before six o’clock the sun rises; as we swing back towards the Nile a series of conical hills of rubble scatteracross the desert. Is this where the ancients got their inspiration for pyramids?

The first striking thing about Abu Simbel is the glittering blue expanse of Lake Nasser, several miles wide and surrounded by more of those conical desert outcrops. This used to be Nubia, a narrow land along the Nile for hundreds of miles south of the lowest cataract of the Nile at Aswan, populated by black Africans. For millennia it was the bugbear of theEgyptian dynasties, repeatedly conquered and falling back out of their hands. Nubia no longer exists; it has disappeared beneath Lake Nasser, created when the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s.


Abu Simbel used to tower above the Nile, visible stamp of Egyptian domination of Nubia.

But where it was, it would have drowned; so they cut it into pieces and moved it, block by block, to the top of the hill, where they reassembled it, stuck onto the side of a purpose-built hill of rubble. I remember this; it happened while I was at an American primary school in Germany, and it was held up to us – in a National Geographic story, if I remember rightly – as a fantastic example of what could be achieved by UNESCO (back in the days when Americans believed in UNESCO). That was the 1960s.

ImageYou can argue all you like – and people have – about whether it was justified to drown this land and its civilization so that another equally ancient and more populous one could achieve agricultural stability by eliminating the Nile floods below Aswan, or whether that was not just cultural genocide but also a long-term ticket to an unsustainable population boom and unsustainable chemical dependence in downriver agriculture (Egypt, which used to be the breadbasket of the Roman Empire – Cleopatra wasn’t the only reason why they were scrapping over it – can no longer feed its own people, but has to import). But there is no doubt, on the spot, that there is something about Abu Simbel, colossal as it is, that no longer quite works. Its purpose – the domination of Nubia – has been usurped by the waters at its feet; and that cliff-top heap of rubble onto which it is glued looks like, well, a heap of rubble. Looking at it, you know it is the real thing, that it was carved over 3200 years ago, that it is not a Disney reconstruction of itself; but still – that’s what it looks like. The utopian dreams of the 1960s are gone, and Abu Simbel is high and dry. Still, that’s undoubtedly better than submerged and wet – at least we still get to see the interior detail. But it has none of the power of Karnak or Luxor, not any more.


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A Short History of Ethics

A couple of years ago I stuck “History of Ethics” into Amazon and it came back with a two-volume tome by Vernon J. Bourke. I bought it and read it, to the end, on the principle that, once you’ve started, you have to stick it out. It was excruciating; a laundry list of pretty much what anyone who ever opened their mouth about ethics had ever said, couched in unintelligible technical terms, with no penetration, depth, or real understanding. I learned close to nothing, and it took forever. Hence I approached this single volume by Alasdair MacIntyre (written in the 1960s, before he became one of the big stars of Moral Philosophy) with some nervousness; but what a relief.

MacIntyre’s fundamental point is that concepts must be taken and understood in the historical context in which they arose, if their full meaning is to be grasped; hence this is not just a historical but a historicizing account of its field. He starts with a brilliantly insightful exploration of how the word “good” – so central in ethics – originally (in the Homeric world) meant ‘good at doing what you do in terms of your allotted role in society’, but gradually came adrift from its moorings as society changed and loosened up, creating a terminological confusion that was what the Presocratics, the Sophists, and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle themselves were, in their various ways, trying to sort out. MacIntyre is a Glaswegian, and, refreshingly, doesn’t pull his punches: he sticks it big time to Plato, refusing to accept as valid his opposition of reason and appetite, condemning his “characteristic and utterly deplorable puritanism”, and bemoaning “his willingness to impose his own certitudes upon others, with a use of profoundly unsatisfactory arguments to support his convictions” (good on him; I was always suspicious of a philosopher who could invent abstractions and promote them as somehow more real than the material world from which they were derived). He has more sympathy with down-to-earth Aristotle, champion of the balanced, practical, rational man, who posits happiness as the supreme human goal; but still lays into him as a “supercilious prig” whose ideal of the “great-souled man” is a stuck-up, self-important, condescending elitist for whom every friendship must have an ulterior motive. He concludes his tour of the ancient and medieval world with Christianity, arguing that, dependent as it was on borrowing from other traditions, it’s hard to see what it distinctively contributed to ethical thought (interestingly, MacIntyre himself became a Roman Catholic in the 1980s).

Initiating the modern world, Luther stripped away society: the only thing that matters is the individual, alone before God (a viewpoint that, it becomes clear as the book goes on, MacIntyre, committed as he is to placing people in the context of their historical and social origins, sees as egregiously corrosive, while at the same time underscoring his second main point, that the ethical is also political). He is typically pugnacious about Thomas Hobbes, elaborating a criticism of his concept of the social contract before asking: “If so, does not the whole Hobbesian case founder? It does.” Unexpectedly, he frames (and lauds) the Diggers and Levellers as true revolutionaries in the field of ethics. He makes the obscurities of Immanuel Kant plain as day (anyone who can do that has a lot going for them), adding (perhaps unfairly to Kant) a warning that the categorical imperative, being constructed as an ethical form which can be applied – “do your duty”, for example – to any pre-existing content, may have horrific implications – think Adolf Eichmann.  He sees the history of ethics as in one sense ending with Hegel, who was the last to break new ground by introducing a historical dimension to philosophy: achieving freedom is a question of overcoming the obstacles you face in your particular time and place, and circumstances alter virtues.

In the twentieth century, thinking about ethics becomes increasingly tied up in words and inadequate attempts to find universal definitions for them. The resulting disputes have brought out the point that, historically, ethical thinking has generally been the project of the spokesmen of one group or class posing their values (or trying to) as universal, whether or not they were able to impose them on their society as a whole. This realization “does not entail that the traditional moral vocabulary cannot be used. It does entail that we cannot expect to find in our society a single set of moral concepts, a shared interpretation of the vocabulary…. Each of us therefore has to choose both with whom we wish to be morally bound and by what ends, rules and virtues we wish to be guided. These two choices are inextricably linked.” Unless you are among those who think, anachronistically, that people ought to be told what’s best for them, it’s hard to argue with that conclusion to this superbly stimulating book.


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The First Philosophers

This anthology, edited by the Greek scholar Robin Waterfield, consists of a series of extracts, with commentary, from the work of a number of Greek thinkers who lived in the couple of centuries before the first megastar of western philosophy, Socrates – hence the name by which they are known to us: Presocratics. Well, “a series of extracts” is pushing it, since not many of them wrote anything down, so the way we know what they thought is largely through secondhand (and no doubt distorted) accounts, whether by disciples, critics (including Plato, Socrates’ chief scribe and the second megastar of western philosophy, who pitted some of them in dialogue against his hero), or historians writing many centuries later.  What survives is a series of fragments, like the cracked mosaics of some ancient palace floor.

That’s enough, though, to throw light on their strange and distant world. And yet in some ways not so distant: for these men (all men) were the first to think like we do. Anyone who has read their precursors, the great Greek epic poets Homer and Hesiod, knows that the gods pulled all the strings: whatever a phenomenon might appear to be, it ultimately had a supernatural cause.  We don’t know what it was that triggered the shift away from mythological thinking to the search for explanations in nature; but somehow, with the Presocratics, it happened, and it’s been with us ever since.

Some of the wackier beliefs of Pythagoras’ followers sound like those of a new age cult (the moon “is inhabited, just like our earth, but by creatures and plants which are taller and more beautiful; for creatures there are fifteen times as strong as those here, and never excrete anything, and their day is fifteen times longer than ours”), but they also laid the basis for much of modern mathematics, including mathematical relationships in music. And while some Presocratic scientific speculations sound quaintly cute to modern ears (“the sun is larger than the Peloponnese”, exclaims Anaxagoras), others were spot on (“the moon does not have its own light, but gains it from the sun” – Anaxagoras again), while still others are almost eerie in their prescience (Anaxagoras hypothesized a “big bang” origin for the universe – though set in motion by Mind – while Democritus posited atoms in motion and the combination of elements, and even asserted that the Gods – like us – were the products of atomic combination). There’s a mystical streak too – most of these thinkers believed that everything is one, and that nothing can come into being from non-being – but without that precluding a fair dose of common sense: Heraclitus held that “what awaits men after death cannot be anticipated or imagined”.

The Sophists, by contrast – or at least their flashier representatives – come across as superficial, boorish trivializers, interested only in egotistical point-scoring and well deserving of the opprobrium in which history has held them; though again, since we lack original sources, it’s hard to know how much of this impression is based on malevolent caricature.

For the most part, though, these distant philosophers seem just like us, fumbling with all their native curiosity and ingenuity towards the most coherent explanations of the universe they can find; but they were there first, and we owe them.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

This is pretty much the oldest book in the world, which makes the idea of a review seem somewhat superfluous; still. Somebody gave it to me; I sighed at the prospect of wading through it. But it is short – less than 60 pages – so I read it, on an aeroplane, 45 centuries removed in time and technology. Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, “was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew all the countries of the world”, it begins; and so it carries on, rough-hewn blocks of prose locked together like the massive carved stones of ancient temple walls.

“When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body” and massive courage; larger than life, he builds on an epic scale, but runs out of control too, terrorizing the burghers of Uruk and raping their daughters. So the gods make him a companion, a wild man named Enkidu, who is seduced out of the hills by a temple prostitute set in his path by Gilgamesh. The heart of the story is the tale of the blood brother bond between the two: they journey to the Cedar Forest and dispatch in epic fight the ogre who guards it; they build a raft and sail back down the Euphrates with his head; they slay the mighty Bull of Heaven sent against Gilgamesh by the goddess Ishtar in revenge for his rejection of her advances. But then Enkidu, invincible in battle, takes ill, and after twelve days dies in his bed.

The remainder of the book recounts Gilgamesh’s inconsolable grief at the death of his friend, and his ravaging struggle against his own inevitable mortality. No more spoilers from me; but for all its age – in fact, in part because of its age – this is a book that has to be read. Nowhere, in all the millennia from Sumer to Silicon Valley, can there have been a starker or more abrupt statement of man’s chest-beating pride and the final, all-humbling recognition that there is one enemy he cannot defeat:

The king has laid himself down and will not rise again,
The Lord of Kullah will not rise again;
He overcame evil, he will not come again;
Though he was strong of arm he will not rise again.

He had wisdom and a comely face, he will not come again;
He is gone into the mountain, he will not come again;
On the bed of fate he lies, he will not rise again;
From the couch of many colours he will not come again.

But for all the book’s macho doings and glorification of the achievements of men, the final word should rest with a woman: Siduri, a wine-maker Gilgamesh runs into during his desperate wanderings after Enkidu’s death. “When the gods created man”, she says, “they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.” So much has changed in forty-five centuries, but not that; and has anyone since put it better?

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inventing God

Kyria said: Daddy, where did the world come from?

To let her make up her own mind, I told her the two main western accounts: created in a week (say Christians and Muslims) and evolution.

Hmm, she said, I’m not sure about the one where God made it.

Why not? I asked.

Thing is, she said, if God made the world like that, then who made God? Well, you could say that somebody, or something, made God – but then who made that somebody or something?

Seven years old. No doubting Santa Claus, mind…


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Byzantium: The Decline and Fall

The last in the series is an ever-more dizzying whirligig of passing characters and incidents, few of them with enough purchase for this to be more than a shallow parade. Maybe that is the nature of the subject matter, given the sources – but who were these people?

Among the positives, what does stand out is that the Roman Empire, for some time before the end came, was at last truncated to a few scraps of land around Constantine’s city and in the south of Greece, and to almost complete powerlessness; that the population of the great city was reduced to a few tens of thousands, with much of the land within its walls given over to agriculture; and that in its final decades its emperors were obliged to go on tours of Europe begging for military and financial support (rarely forthcoming), one even going as far as England, where he spent a month with Henry IV at Eltham in what is now the Borough of Greenwich.

But when the end came, it came heroically; and the knowledge disseminated by the refugees, having been kept in-house for a thousand years since the end of the classical age, now kick-started the modern world. Byzantium seems so far away, yet it is the chief conduit through which we know about what went before as well as having been an astonishing civilization in its own right (if also barbarous in its ruthlessness). This version of it, while often seeming superficial, at least sets the record straight on how important it was, while much of the time spinning a good yarn.

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