FEBRUARY 1904 – EGYPT
February 1st 1904 found Marjorie and her chaperone Miss Helen Macartnay steaming south toward the old historic city of Luxor, site of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. Arriving in the evening, they moored directly beneath the Temple of Luxor with its two obelisks and magnificent colonnade. “That night the full moon rose between the columns – I shall never forget the beauty of that scene,” wrote Marjorie.
The Temple of Luxor
At the Luxor temple, only a few steps from where the boat was moored, Marjorie admired the carvings of Rameses II in his chariot, fighting single-handed against the Hittites. She took a photograph of it: But, “The best thing at Luxor was a statue of Rameses the Great, standing – his huge hand grasping a scroll. It was absolutely unblemished, through all these years.”
Marjorie’s photograph of Rameses the Great at Luxor
So enchanted were they with the sight, they decided to tour the nearby Karnak temple in the moonlight. They hired donkeys and “sped through the little town and over the moonlit plain toward Karnak. The trees each side of the road made dark mysterious shadows, and the palm trees raised their graceful heads against a silver sky.” They passed through an avenue of sphinxes and then dismounted and entered “one of the grandest temples ever built by Rameses II or anybody else.” The most fascinating part of all was the Hall of Columns, “huge columns towering above us with their beautiful capitals, and shadows creeping from every corner. A perfect evening, surely.” (It was not until 1922 that Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen at Karnak, buried in the sand.)
The Karnak Temple
The next day they hired donkeys again and rode to the Valley of the Kings where many of the great old Egyptian kings were buried. “We rode through the narrow, rugged valley, bound on either side by cliffs of yellowest limestone and with the blue sky above.” There they saw the tombs of Rameses IX, Rameses VI, and Amenhotep II. In the afternoon they attended the donkey races and camel races at the Luxor Country club.
They next steamed up the Nile, to Komombo where they saw a curious temple dedicated to the god of evil in the form of a crocodile. On February 7 they arrived at the large town of Assouan (or Aswan). Here they reluctantly left the Rameses the Great and took the train to Phylae where they boarded the next river boat, the S.S. Prince Abbas, to travel south on the Nile to the Second Cataract. This boat was smaller than the Rameses the Great, but very comfortable. It held 39 passengers, including some of the people Marjorie had befriended on the Rameses. The weather was hot and sultry, but Marjorie was excited, “and tonight we see the Southern Cross, so nothing matters much.” The Southern Cross is a constellation that is found in the southern region of the night sky, and Marjorie had to get up at 3.20 am to see it. “Oh, it was so beautiful. I sat all by myself curled up in one of the deck chairs and tried to believe I was on the yacht in West Indian Waters – oh how homesick I did feel for the dear old ‘Marjorie.’ In a few moments the moon came up, just a wee silver crescent over the horizon …it was a lovely night.”
The Southern Cross formation
At daybreak, suddenly the scenery changed. There were mountains of granite coming close to the river’s edge, flat wastes of grey rock, and no greenery at all. The dam had recently been built above Assuan so that all the year round there would be water for agriculture. They crossed the Tropic of Cancer in a narrow rock-bound gorge and visited the Temple of Dakka. They were now in the Valley of the Lions and could see caravans of travelers on camelback on the banks, making their way through the desert to Khartoum.
The highlight of the trip was yet to come. On February 9th they arrived at Abu-Simbel – “I have seen Abu Simbel! The most wonderful temple that the world has ever seen…if only I could make you feel as I did when we had climbed the dusty bank and I stood face to face with those four marvelous figures cut into the rock of the mountainside.” It was the tomb of Rameses II and his wife Nefertari, the cartouches of Rameses II carved out of solid rock 65’ high in the thirteenth century B.C. It had been buried in the shifting sands until 1817, and was so full of bats that Marjorie could hardly see the hieroglyphics.
The main hall of Abu Simbel Temple
“We found ourselves between two great rows of Osiris figures”
Marjorie was so transfixed with the temple that she and Miss Helen got up at 4.30 the next morning to see the moonlight on the temple – a never-to-be-forgotten spectacle. But then when the sun came up over the hills there was another extraordinary sight. “Beam after beam came slowly creeping down the mountainside until the crowns, and then the faces, and finally the whole of the great figures were lit to a blaze of glory. Was it my imagination, or did they really smile when the sun’s rays first kissed them?”
Another morning’s journey and they were at their turning point, Wady Halfa (“the dearest town in all Egypt.”) where they walked among the small, white, gleaming houses, and caught sight of white minarets above the trees. They rode donkeys the six miles to the second cataract where the swift current was very blue and the black rocks glistened like coal in the sunlight. “Little boys were ‘riding the cataract’ seated on inflated skins, their arms wildly waving in the air…There we were on the edge, the jumping-off place between civilization and nothingness.”
As they moored again at Abu Simbel, on their return journey, Marjorie and her friend Miss Allen climbed the steep yellow sand bank beside the temple. As they climbed back down they heard a guide from the boat calling to them to come and hear the singing sand. The steep sand bank ran just like water, in waves, to the bottom. “And as we listened we could hear a deep roaring sound as of thunder seeming to come from the depths of the earth beneath our feet, and all the time the ground trembled and we could feel ourselves sinking, sinking, far into the sand. It was almost supernatural.” This phenomenon is explained by the fact that the sand contains silica, and is of a certain humidity, and the “singing” is caused by the wind passing over the sand, or by walking on it, creating a ‘roaring’ or a ‘booming.’
Just when Marjorie thought she could never see anything so wonderful again, they took small boats for an excursion to the Island of Phylae “where there is one of the loveliest temples in the whole of Egypt.” The building of the first Aswan Dam (completed in 1902) had flooded the temple, and it was feared that it would not hold on to its foundations much longer. In the meantime, the water added charm to it, and they sailed their boats through the courtyards and between the pillars. “The courtyard itself is surrounded with graceful columns and with the reflections in the water was truly lovely. Exquisite blue lotus flowers formed the capitals, and the whole ceiling was wonderfully painted. The view was fascinating. Pharoah’s Bed was just below us, that famous little temple with its roof supported by eight columns, like a double four poster!”
Marjorie’s photograph of Phylae, Jewel of the Nile, 1904
Many years later, the temple was stabilized and moved to higher ground.
The S.S. Prince Abbas took them back to Luxor, where they said their goodbyes to their new friends and took the train to Assuan where they stayed for one week at the Cataract Hotel. The next day they went camel-riding, pitching and sliding, their knees wrapped around the pummel, their feet crossed on the camel’s neck! “I had a race all the way up the main street, till an Egyptian policeman came out and requested us not to go so fast!” They went on several day trips, always trying to get back to the hotel around noon so as to spend the hottest part of the day indoors.
After five weeks sailing up the Nile and back again to Cairo, Marjorie and Miss Macartnay spent a few days at the Mena House. They read and rested for a day, and then went out to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx — Miss Macartnay in a ‘sand-cart’ and Marjorie on a camel. They went back to see the Sphinx after sunset: “By moonlight you forget that the Sphinx is mutilated, that she is weather-beaten and half-covered up by sand – instead she seems a wonderful super-human creature whom time cannot affect, who has, and will, stand immortal through all ages. I sat on the sand close beneath her and just looked and looked at that strange inscrutable countenance.”
The Sphinx, ‘weather-beaten and half-covered up by sand.’
The Mena House has spectacular views over the pyramids, and Marjorie and Miss Helen enjoyed having tea by themselves on an upstairs balcony with a fine view of the great Pyramid itself. They spent the last days shopping and visiting the museums of Cairo. At the end of the month they took the train back to Alexandria, and there they boarded ‘The Cairo’, a steamer bound for Sicily.
In March they arrived in Sicily. Join Marjorie next month as she discovers Messina, Taormina, Syracusa, Girgenti, Palermo, and Naples.