The Pharaoh’s Shadow
The Pharaoh’s Shadow
Anthony Sattin is a tireless and fearless researcher on the ground, ‘impervious to discomfort’, undaunted by pi-dogs and charlatans. So we follow him in taxis and trains, rickety buses and jam-packed pick up trucks as he bribes his way into moonlit temples, as he tracks down snake hunters in their reptilian lairs and as he travels from the deserts of Luxor as far as the damp streets of Liverpool in search of long manuscripts, and modern magic that might help explain eternal myths. Half travel, half Golden Bough, The Pharaoh’s Shadow is also set to the pace of a detective thriller, yet what ultimately sustains and animates this fascinating work is Sattin’s boundless love for Egypt and wonderful ability to convey his enthusiasm for even the most obscure details of the folk practices of Upper Egypt. It is a genuine labour of love.
‘... a strange, wonderful and often beautiful book.’ - Tim Mackintosh-Smith
‘... a gripping quest that captures the reader on the first page and does not release him until the final paragraph.’ William Dalrymple, The Spectator
The Pharaoh’s Shadow: Travels in Ancient and Modern Egypt
Format: 264pp demi pb
Anthony Sattin has written four highly acclaimed books: The Pharaoh's Shadow, Lifting the Veil, The Gates of Africa and A Winter on the Nile as well as editing Florence Nightingale's letters from Egypt. He is a regular contributor to the Sunday Times andCondé Nast Traveller , and appears on both radio and television as a specialist on Egypt and the Middle East.
Extract from Chapter One
First, and quite by chance, I met a young guide called Amr, a tall, thin village boy with a beige galabiyya and brown knitted cap. Then Amr found me a brown donkey, which he tied up beside his own. We shared black tea and pleasantries in the shade of a date palm and then headed out of the valley into the desert.
The transition from lush garden to arid waste was easy and abrupt. At the edge of the desert the going was still firm, the grey wilderness more rock than sand. The late-morning sun struck like an iron and flattened out the creases from the landscape. The donkeys made a special, plaintive wheeze as if begging to be anywhere but there, but they didn’t once turn around, as I did, to gaze wistfully at the Nile valley of Middle Egypt, almost fluorescent green in this light. Its promise of comfort tormented me like the thought of paradise to a troubled soul.
As we got into our stride, Amr brought out a white kufiyya and wrapped it round his ears. He shuffled further back on his donkey to let his feet swing loose and when he was sitting comfortably, he began to sing about Antar, one of the great and legendary Arab heroes.
Then Antar rode across the desert And rushed into the fight His sword raised above his head . . .
He lifted the meagre bamboo he carried as a crop and sliced through the thick air. Don Quixote could have done no better. The bamboo lisped, imaginary heads rolled and the wheezing donkeys, fearing the worst, picked up their pace, just a little, just for a moment, until the heat melted the edge off their urgency.
We were climbing a gentle incline out of the valley and as we put some distance between ourselves and the fertile land, as we got the overview, it became easy to establish the cardinal points of Egypt. The Nile arrives in Egypt from Sudan in the south and runs more or less due north to its end in the Mediterranean. The sun comes out of the desert in the east and disappears into the desert to the west. Seen like this, the land is in a perfect and harmonious relationship with sunlight and water. Almost wherever you are you can trace the movement of the river and the sun and find that you are at the crossroads of the essentials of life. No wonder ancient Egyptians made gods of these elements and Ra, the sun-god, lorded over all.
The donkeys headed due east, towards a creamy limestone ridge. Even from the river I had been able to make out the line of incisions in the hillside. To the south, signs of a limestone quarry. To the north there were the ancient tombs of Beni Hassan, famous for their terrace with a remarkable view across the valley to the Libyan Desert and for their images of hunting and wrestling, reminders that people who lived long ago enjoyed many of the things we do today.
Amr led us straight ahead and continued to list the virtues of the great Antar. ‘He could ride like the wind,’ he sang. ‘He could fight like the devil. He could love like a prince . . . ’ The song was incessant and pleading and, as with so many things in Egypt, the longer it continued, the more it began to take on religious significance, a suitable accompaniment for our entry into the hills.
We rode up a ravine and passed the entrances to a string of ancient tombs. Amr slowed and leaned forward on his donkey, as though he was going to get down. This, he explained, was where other foreigners he had taken had wanted to get down. But I was too excited and too happy to stop there and we rode on to the place I had come to see, the temple of Pasht, Speos Artemidos, which Amr, like many Egyptians, called ‘the stable of Antar’.
The ‘stable’ was fronted by a portico of stone pillars, two rows of four. The portico was cut out of the rock, the chamber beyond cut into it, a sudden order and symmetry imposed long ago on the random chaos of nature, its significance lost, its form all that is left to us.
Egyptologists use the name the Greeks gave the place – Speos Artemidos, ‘the Grotto of Artemis’, the goddess of hunting – but the temple was already old when the Greeks arrived. Their allusion to hunting would have been appropriate because the area was rich in wildlife, and even a hundred and fifty years ago there were still crocodiles to chase this far north. I looked around. The desert is deceptive. At first sight it seems empty, but if you stand still for a few moments, signs of life often begin to emerge, a bird dashing from cover, insects underfoot, small rodents scuffling about. Here, near the grotto dedicated to the Greek goddess of hunting, only flies buzzed around the donkeys.
The little temple was built some three and a half thousand years ago, when wildlife was so abundant and so threatening that it made sense to worship animals as gods. Its foundation details are lost – why it was built here and who commissioned it – but it was dedicated to the ancient lion goddess Pasht. ‘Long time ago,’ Amr explained as we got closer, ‘they found mummified lions and cats buried in deep holes near here.’ I was going to ask if people were still finding things, if they were still looking, but he held up a hand to silence me and pointed ahead to some donkeys tied up near the temple.
The donkeys were a disappointment. One of the reasons I had made the journey was that I had been told I would have the place to myself, but here were some tourists, perhaps, or officials from the antiquity service.
Amr thought otherwise. He put a long, slender finger to his lips. ‘Wait here. I will go to look.’
Life being strange, indeed, and wonderful, it occurred to me that maybe we had found the hide-out of thieves or hashish smugglers – Ali Baba transported to the banks of the Nile. This I wasn’t going to miss. My heels touched the donkey’s spare ribs. ‘I’m coming with you.’
We left our donkeys tied near the others and walked across the dusty ground as far as the portico, as far as the images of the lion goddess carved on to walls. The temple – think more of a shrine than of the grandeur of Luxor – was gloomy inside after the desert brilliance, but there was no mistaking the two men coming out towards us.
Amr offered greetings. There was a touch of menace about the response. While Amr talked, I looked behind the men and saw a woman in the little chamber. She was dressed in black and merged into the gloom, so it was impossible to see clearly, but she was certainly alone, down on the ground, and she appeared to be rolling across the sand and rock, moving from side to side. I heard her talking, confiding, moaning, softly pleading.
One of the men stood in front of me to block the view.
‘Please,’ Amr said, turning to me, ‘it is not possible for us to stay here right now. We must come back another time.’
My first thought was that this was Amr’s elaborate way of getting paid for a second ride and I was going to object, but he took me by the arm and led me out of the portico.
‘Why can’t we go in?’
‘This woman wants to have a baby but she cannot,’ he said as plainly as if he had been talking about fixing her washing machine. ‘So she has come here for it to be possible.’
‘Why here?’ ‘Because here there is baraka, blessing.’ The story, the way Amr explained it as we rode back down into the
green valley, was simple. The woman was from a nearby village, had had difficulty in getting pregnant and had visited her sheikh and the doctor. Pills, potions and prayers but still nothing had happened. So now she was placing her faith in the old stones and had come to pray to Pasht to bless her with a child.
‘Now she will be OK,’ Amr assured me as he used his bamboo to fence with my donkey’s tail.
‘Allah karim. God is generous, ya Antoon,’ he replied, using the Coptic version of my name.
‘But this is Pasht, the ancient goddess, or Antar, the Arab hero. This isn’t Allah.’
‘In my country, it is all the same, all Allah.’ ‘Do many women do this?’
He looked at me in a way he hadn’t before, with a touch of suspicion, and then looked ahead. ‘Many women? Yes . . . when they need to.’
‘And what about men?’
‘The men?’ He turned away with magnificent disdain as though he could hardly believe I had asked such a dumb question. ‘Antar never had trouble with his women.’ Then he raised his stick and sliced the thick, hot air in two as though he was bringing the conversation to an end.
We rode on in silence for a few minutes, when Amr again got off his donkey. From one of the openings in the rock he produced a rusty tin of water from which he offered me a drink.
‘Thank you,’ I declined and, not liking the look of the tin, lied, ‘I am not thirsty.’
‘You must drink,’ he insisted. ‘This water is from the Nile. They take it from the centre, where the river is fast, so there is no problem. And you know what we say here in my country? That if you drink the water of the Nile then you will always return.’
He offered the tin again, having so loaded the gesture with sig- nificance that to refuse would have been to admit that I never wanted to return to the Nile. The water was surprisingly cool and, not so surprising, tasted of mud and rust. I must have looked uneasy when I handed back the tin because Amr slapped me on the back and congratulated me.
‘And when you come back, you remember you friend Amr who’s showed you all these places.’
By the time I reached Cairo I had less generous thoughts as the first symptoms of amoebic dysentery appeared.
A year after I met Amr, another chance meeting led to my falling in love in Cairo, after which only the most pressing of reasons – a book about to be published and my first novel needing to be prepared for the printer – dragged me back to London. The subject and object of my passion was a Belgian girl, an Arabist who had been living in Cairo for some five years. As she wasn’t about to leave, I had no choice but to get back there myself. By the beginning of the following year, we were living together on the top floor of a riverside apartment on an island in the Nile. This was a smart part of Cairo. But as well as looking down on the gardens of embassies and a magnificent palm tree on which birds fed during the day and round which fruit bats swung each night, we looked across the river to the rundown port district of Bulaq, and beyond it to downtown minarets and towers. With such a view, the city seemed open to us. Some days we would pinpoint a landmark we could see from our terrace and then head off for it on foot, not knowing what we would find on the way. It was with this spirit of curiosity and easy encounter that I answered the phone one morning. I didn’t recognise the man’s voice, so asked to whom he wanted to speak.
‘To anyone,’ he replied. ‘To you.’ I resisted the urge to hang up and asked how he had got my number. ‘I dialled at random. I often do this. Thanks be to God, today I find
a khawaga, a foreigner. I need to speak to someone. My name is Khalid.’
Khalid had recently finished his medical studies. It had been hard. His father had died when Khalid was two years old and he had lived then, as now, with his mother in Sayyida Zaynab, one of Cairo’s poorer neighbourhoods, named after the saint believed to be buried there.
‘Money isn’t everything. I worked hard and when it was time for the examinations it was me, Khalid, who did well . . . better than others with money and good clothes. I passed with some of the highest grades of the year.’
He paused, perhaps to allow me time to congratulate him. ‘Then what happened?’ His voice lost its opening confidence, became hard, brittle, building
towards a crescendo. ‘You want to know something? There is a sickness destroying my country. I studied seven years, I got top marks, but I got no job. Good jobs go to people with connections not top marks. This is what I wanted to say and it is good to say it to someone like you. There is no hope.’
Khalid invited me to his house, ‘To visit, and because,’ he explained, ‘I am a professor at making tea.’ When we met some days later at Midan Tahrir, Cairo’s chaotic central square, it was clear from his expression that I wasn’t quite what he had expected from his khawaga. Too young, perhaps, or hair too long. I was also surprised: he looked more like a failed prize fighter than a doctor. He had a thick-set face and a thicker, high-calorie body, his fitted shirt gaped at the buttons and his tight, white trousers pulled at the seams. He was tall, taller than his friend, a sharp and lively electronics engineer called Hamdi.
While Khalid was timid at first, Hamdi was only too happy to talk. He explained that this night was the climax of a moulid, a festival to celebrate the birth of the Sayyida Zaynab. ‘These are days when we remember our saints and pray for their blessings. We also take the opportunity to get together and enjoy ourselves, like you do at the birthday of the Prophet Eissa (Jesus).’ Khalid glowered at him as he talked, and he walked off ahead when his friend asked me about Michael Jackson.