Musings From The Writer’s Desk

 

Vintage letter

Good Afternoon Family, Friends and Followers of William’s story.

I have been away from my desk for the past few weeks, partly due to my participation in a Writing Group and also I have been on holidays.  However, William has not been far from my thoughts as I toured outback Queensland, visiting Hughendon, Winton, Longreach, Balcaldine and Emerald.

In Barcaldine, we revisited the Shearers’ Strike which began within a year of William joining the Queensland Mounted Infantry in Mackay.  I cannot say with certainty that he was involved, however it is highly likely.  At any rate, he would have been made aware of the events that transpired, via word of mouth  or the local newspapers.

Whilst on my travels, I was reminded of our instantaneous world where information can satisfy our curiosity at the touch of a key.  William and his friends didn’t have that option back in 1917.  They didn’t have mobile phones that could tell them the names of the mummies in the tomb of Amenophus II or the name of the archaeologist who first opened the tomb.  Because they weren’t afforded that luxury, they would have interacted with their guide.  And, if he didn’t know the answers, I’m sure they wouldn’t have stressed over the fact.  Like myself, they would have been happy to let things play out, whichever way they did.  They would have exchanged conversations with other visitors who shared the same hotels, and come up with numerous historical scenarios.

Because their eyes weren’t glued to facebook or checking emails and texts whilst exploring the sights, they would have possessed a keener sense of observation and a longer attention span.  They would have experienced a heightened sense of surprise when presented with splendour of the Pharaoh’s tomb and the treasures they saw elsewhere in Egypt.  Remember, there was no colour photography back then, so observing treasure in black and white would not have prepared their senses for reality.

I love that element of surprise and sometimes it such a wonderful feeling to discover something with one’s own eyes, without the help of google.  I’m sure that William and his travel companions were unable to visit everything that was on offer in the Valley of the Kings.  Having been there myself, I am aware of the great expanse of desert that includes many the tombs of Pharaohs, Queens, Artisans and regular people.  On my trip by donkey, I only saw a  sampling of Pharaohs’ tombs.  I visited some of the others in the afternoon by bus.  My motto is “What you don’t see, doesn’t matter.”  In today’s world, however, google makes people want it all now.  A sense of urgency has pervaded modern man’s consciousness.

The other aspect of modern technology that never ceases to astound and annoy me is the obsession with selfies.  What would William think of that?  Of course, he and his friends would laugh off the notion that in 100 years time, people would own weird square telephones that weren’t attached to the wall by wires;  that one could take one’s own photo with the device and send it instantly to the other side of the world at the press of a button.  I notice that in William’s snapshots, there are no images of himself and his companions.  They were obviously more interested in their surroundings than themselves.

As for texting and emails, I am thankful that they weren’t thought of back in 1917.  That would have meant that William’s account of his trip would have been long lost in cyber space.  He most probably would not have written an eight page letter home;  it would not have been kept;  and I would not have experienced that precious thrill of discovery.   It is interesting food for thought.  Are we leaving an interesting footprint on this earth, for our future generations to discover.  Are we going to show ourselves as self-centred, without anything substantial to say?

Without further words, please enjoy the next instalment of William’s letter.

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Monday’s Musings From The Writer’s Desk

Vintage letter

Welcome back to William’s trip up the Nile.  It is obvious from his writing that Egypt and its history made a huge impact on this sugar cane farmer from the Haughton River.  He was fortunate to be afforded the opportunity as so many weren’t.  Below are pages 4 and 5 of his personal account of that trip.

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William took numerous photos during that trip, most of which are of the Temple of Karnac.  The photos were wrapped in the developing receipt.  The above letter was tucked in a pocket of the photo packet.  I have included some below, along with the inscriptions that William wrote on the back of each snapshot.

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Photo:  William Lyons.  “Sacred lake, Karnac.  Could not learn anything of interest in connection.”

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Photo:  William Lyons. “Statue of Rameses, Luxor.  They were not very gallant in those days.  Note the small figure at his left side respresenting his Queen.”

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Photo:  William Lyons. “Crops along Nile.”

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Photo:  William Lyons.  “The hills which contain the tombs of the Kings and the Queens.”

The Valley of the Kings

William’s immediate impression of the valley floor was one of disappointment. Compared to the massive scale of the great pyramids of Giza, the barren landscape was underwhelming.  There was nothing visible that marked the area as a special burial ground for ancient Pharaohs.

The men dismounted their donkeys and led them down a track to the valley floor. They followed a sandy road mapped out by rocky retaining walls supporting mounds of loose gravel and stone.  William thought that perhaps they were the product of past excavations.  The dugout entrances of the tombs were marked with coded signs.  They followed the guide to a sign that read ‘K35’ and stopped at the top of a rough flight of stony steps leading down to a wooden doorway.

“This is the tomb of Amenophis II,” the guide announced. “This tomb is very special because the pharaoh’s mummy is still in the burial chamber.  You will see him today.”

Although curious at the prospect of seeing a real Egyptian mummy, William felt a grip of apprehension.  The guide told them that nine mummies were discovered in the tomb, but only Amenophis II remained.  William enquired why.

“Because the tomb was originally intended for him,” the guide answered.

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Photo:  Soldier and guide at the Entrance of Tomb of Amenophus II, taken n 1917.

Tethering the donkeys, the men followed the guide through the wooden doorway, into a cavernous stairway illuminated by a single electric light bulb.  Placing his hands on the cool walls, William steadied his footing as he descended through the dim capsule of stone. The musty space echoed with the muffled voices of a group ahead of them, but for the most part William and his friends remained quiet.  Concentration assisted them down the uneven stone steps and sloping corridors that led them deep beneath the valley floor.

Entering a series of small, empty rooms, they took a 90-degree left-turn and descended another flight of stairs.  The gloomy, unadorned stairs and corridors in no way prepared the men for what awaited them.

“Goodness,” William finally found his voice, as he brushed his fingers back through his cropped hair.  “I didn’t’ expect this at all.”

“Astounding,” Stephenson’s eyes were wide and smiling.  Barr remained quiet, but his facial expression gave away his thoughts.

Once the three travelers recovered from their initial surprise, they moved slowly around the space.  Each step represented a new discovery:  the six ornate pillars, the ceiling  painted like a night blue sky shining with gold stars, the intricate border frescoes that ran around the top and bottom edges of the walls, and the detailed depictions of the pharaoh’s daily life.  The room, in its entirety,  stole the men’s undivided attention along with their voices.  What was there to say?  No words could adequately describe the vision before them.

Silently, they neared a rail that blocked the far end of the six pillars.  Squeezing into a space beside another group of visitors, they were taken aback as their eyes focused on the sunken floor below.

Their guide joined them at the rail and whispered, “This is the mummy of Amenophis II.”  His voice bounced softly off the walls.

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Mummy of Amenophus II.  Photo:  Dept. of Egyptian Antiquities

William stared at the blackened face of the Pharaoh. He appeared well preserved, despite the thousands of years that had passed since his death.  Suddenly, William felt a twinge of uneasiness in the presence of the dead king.  Perhaps, because death has marred much the past two years.  Listening to the guide’s spiel, he thought about the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the pharaoh’s death;  the years of preparation prior to him taking his final breath and the splendour of his final resting place.  Somehow, it seemed obscene, compared to the hastily dug graves and quick burials of fallen comrades on the battlefields.  He was relieved when they began to ascend to the surface, to the land of the living.

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That evening, before going to bed, William tried to digest the events of the long and tiring day.  They visited several tombs and ruins, before making the return trip to Luxor by donkey.  Although he knew that words could not paint a true picture of what they saw or experienced, he continued his letter to Cis.

This morning at 0330 hours, we crossed in a boat to the West bank and put in a long interesting day.  Rode donkeys to a lot of ruins, thence about five miles through a barren gorge to the Tombs of the Kings.  Some of these are lit with electric lights, but if a party wishes to do the trip in style, they can have them all brilliantly lit by giving notice the day previous and paying £E2. 

The natives run alongside pestering one to buy antiques, scarabs, beads – also the hands and feet of Mummies.  The whole of the hills are honeycombed with tombs of minor folk and from these came the hands and feet…… 

Folding the unfinished letter once again, he placed it in his kitbag and grabbed a window faced envelope he had kept from the telegraph office and sat it on the writing table.  Then he retrieved a small pile of blackened wheat grains from a tied handkerchief and placed them, with great care, in the envelope, before sealing it shut.  Fingering the envelope, his thoughts were filled with stories of an archaeologist called Howard Carter who had discovered several royal tombs.  That afternoon, they saw his house which had stood empty, high on the cliff top, since the onset of war.  The war had halted his search for the tomb of the boy King, Tutankhamun.  William smiled to himself, knowing, first hand, the thrill of discovery.  He had found his own little treasure in a tomb that afternoon.

 

 

Monday Musings From the Writer’s Desk

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Yes, I know you are watching over me, Great Grandfather.  Why else do tiny crumbs of information or thoughts end up in my hands?  I don’t really believe in coincidences any more as they occur too often, and just at the right moment in time.   My little psychic moments are usually an extension of my thoughts, or appear when something needs to verified.  It is almost as if you are answering the questions that whirl around in my mind.

In writing my current post about Great Grandfather’s trip up the Nile, I have actually written much of the piece through my own eyes.  He wrote in his letter that he rode to the Valley of the Kings on the back of a donkey, which is exactly how I saw the famous royal burial grounds in 1988.  Although 70 years passed between the visits, I am sure that nothing much had changed in that time.  Except for the line of tourist buses that greeted us on our arrival, that is.

My group crossed the Nile in a boat at 3.00am and on the other side we walked to our guide’s shop where we were issued with donkeys.  William didn’t mention what time he began this journey, however, he did make the crossing by boat.  In order to put in a day at the Valley of the Kings, it is very possible he was an early starter as well.  The desert can be very hot during the day, even during the cooler months, therefore the purpose of an early morning ride was not just to enjoy the sunrise.

Our guide gave us instructions for the donkeys; the word “hoosh” meant stop or slow down.  My donkey was extremely hard-mouthed and no amount of pulling on the reins or hooshing had any positive effect on the beast.  Before we rode too far, I swapped my donkey with that of our guide.  He didn’t want to go anywhere.  That made for an interesting ride.  On our return, I was given my original donkey and at one point in the journey, when we rode along a gazetted road, it almost dragged me under a trailer with logs protruding from its tray.  That was scary to say the least.  My point is that I have written my own experience into William’s story.  I am sure that he managed his donkey better than I did, being an experienced horseman.  Perhaps my version of the event will put a smile on his face.

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The Writer is on the right.

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Photo taken by the Writer in December 1988.

When reading William’s account of the day, I realized how similar our experiences were.  His mention of the hawkers, who were trying to sell beads, scarabs and mummified body parts, made me laugh.  I had the same experience;  they appeared from nowhere.  At the time, I wished that I had a can of insect repellent to ‘get rid of the pests’.  Thank goodness, I didn’t see any body parts.  This memory brings me to a little discovery I made only yesterday.  I found an old postcard album and the following card fell from a page.  You will note William’s handwritten inscription, which I have included in my story as dialogue.  He obviously wanted to have his say.

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Monday Musings From the Writer’s Desk

Vintage letter

I hope you are enjoying William’s interlude away from the war.  I am certainly finding the task of writing about this period a breath of fresh air.  Having the details of his trip up the Nile recorded, in his own words, has assisted me greatly.  Oft I find myself, as other family historian’s have also, enhancing the known facts with one’s imagination.  In this case, William has provided me with the backbone of his story.

Before I give you pages 2 and 3 of his letter to read, I must share my latest find.  Those old cupboards, that sat untouched for many decades, were the keepers of countless secrets and treasures which seem to keep materializing out of thin air.  When I interviewed my Dad’s cousin John a while ago, he asked whether I had found a small glass bottle containing black wheat.  I hadn’t, although his comment sparked my curiosity as I had been through Great Grandfather’s belongings with a fine tooth comb, over and over.  “My Grandfather told me, the wheat came from an Egyptian tomb,” John said.

Only a matter of weeks after my conversation with John, I discovered Great Grandfather’s war trunk which contained more unseen treasure.  Flipping through a box of letters etc, I found a window faced envelope bearing Egyptian writing.  Inside was a blackened head of wheat.  You can imagine my excitement as I indeed assumed that was what John was talking about.   Well, the contents of the envelope may have hailed from a tomb, but last week, I made another discovery.

Whilst cleaning out my old craft room, I happened upon a small glass vial that I knew came from behind the old cupboard doors.  The contents looked like small pieces of mineral, like black coal, and the glass was coated with black dust.  Upon a closer inspection I noticed the shape of the grains resembled wheat.  Removing the cork stopper, I soon realized the treasure I held in my hands.  I had found Great Grandfather’s stash, he had souvenired from a tomb;  wheat that is possibly several thousand years old.

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Wheat taken from an Egyptian tomb by William Lyons

No doubt this wheat was stored for a King’s or his servant’s enjoyment in the afterlife.  I must say thanks to Great Grandfather for providing me with such enjoyment in his own afterlife.  By sharing these finds, I hope to give his extended family some joy as well.

Below are pages 2 and 3 of his letter about his Trip up the Nile.  Please enjoy.

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Riding to the Tombs of the Kings

“Hoosh!  Hoosh!  Hooosh!”

The words broke the silence of the street, as the three soldiers struggled to handle their  donkeys behind that of their guide.  Leaving behind, the dim glow of the single lantern that illuminated the front of the Guide’s shop, the little group clippity clopped to the outer edge of town.

William’s donkey was hard-mouthed and cantankerous.  “Hoosh!” his hushed instructions had no effect on the animal that insisted on a trotting pace; it had no brakes.  He braced himself for a bumpy ride.  Stevenson and Barr were issued with donkeys that were equally uncooperative.  One was overly eager, like William’s, and the other took forever to get going.  The guide pulled it by the reins and it began to plod along and stop again.  Finally, with a whip of a stick, it began to walk at a slow, even pace.

“Whose idea was this?” William laughed aloud, his voice echoing as he bounded down the empty street.  He was accustomed to better trained steeds.

“Hope the sunrise is worth the effort,” someone commented.  Following their guide, they were a shadowy moonlit procession. It was only 0400 hours.

Leaving the sleeping streets of Luxor behind, they entered a grey moonscape painted with textured shadows.   A quiet fell upon the group as they awaited the first signs of the waking sun.  They were accustomed to early morning starts, however, this ride was different to their usual patrols.  They could relax, knowing that the enemy wasn’t lurking in the shadows or bushes or rocks.  However, their training was difficult to shake.  William still found himself scanning for a sign, a sound, a flicker of light.  But of course he saw nothing and kept bounding along to the discord of his donkey.

More than an hour later, the sun lifted itself curiously from the distant horizon, illuminating the shapes of flat, grey ridges in the distance and the leafy tops of sugar cane on either side of their trail.

“Will, you should feel right at home,” Stevenson called out from behind William.

“Yes, feels like I’m back in the jungle,”  William enjoyed the familiarity of the cane-fields that closed in on their little group.  As the sun rose higher, he could see the stalks and leaves more clearly.

“I only wish I knew what variety it is,” he said, wondering where he could find out.  “It looks different to what we are growing at home.  My father-in-law would be interested to know.  You know, Padda was the first to grow cane on the Haughton River.  He was instrumental in bringing it to the area.”

“He sounds like quite a man,” Lt. Barr was listening with interest.

“That, he is.”  William admired his Father-in-law, despite his forceful personality.

“He doesn’t tolerate fools,” William added. “I’m sure he thinks I am a fool for enlisting.”

“Well then, we are all guilty of being fools,” Stevenson replied as he trotted alongside.

“C’mon man,” they both called back at Barr.  “You’re lagging.”

All they got was a wave, before the cane-fields opened out onto a desolate plain that was enlivened with tinges of pink from the rising sun that soon greeted them with a fireworks of  bright pink and orange.  William urged his companions’ attention to a building that blended with the orange rocky hills, but on the other hand it shone with the subdued reverence of a temple.  “Funerary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut,” their guide announced.  William nudged the guide for more details.  He made a mental note to record the answers to his questions in his notebook, when they arrived at the tombs.

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Photograph:  taken by the author in December 1988.  Funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut.

Ascending up a gravelly rise, before they knew what was happening, a flash of arms and hands holding objects blocked their path.

Shouts of “scarabs”, “antiques” and “mummies” filled their ears like buzzing flies.  William looked down at the object that one hawker proudly held in the air.  It was a mummified human hand.  Mortified by the hawker’s morbid wares, he urged his donkey, that had slowed its pace,  to continue up the rocky rise.

As they ascended to the top, the sun now painted the desolate valley before them with a yellow wash of warm colour.

“Tombs of the Kings,” their guide pointed down at a desolate valley floor, surrounded by what looked like dugout hills.  Without a tree or blade of grass, the area was  totally void of life.

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

Vintage letter

Stretching my imagination back to revisit William’s trip up the Nile in 1917, I liken his story to scenes from a Agatha Christie movie, without the stress of a murder, although a death in the camp might add a great sense of mystery.  Perhaps the crash of a falling slab of stone during their visit to Karnac, could explain his ongoing problems with bad headaches.  There are endless plot possibilities, as Mrs Christie has shown viewers on numerous occasions against the backdrop of a supersized temple or an archaeological dig. Wouldn’t it wonderful for the clues to be scattered between remnants of antiquity that marked his trail.  Well, that can wait for another story; one must stick to the known facts for this one.

In bringing William’s story to life, I have worn the hat of an archaeologist myself, trying to uncover information and photos of the luxor Hotel, where the three men stayed in Luxor.  Digging around on the internet has only uncovered a few photos, although they do give an indication of how it appeared back in 1917. Of course, photos are only interesting when accompanied by a story.

The Luxor Hotel was one of the first working hotels in Luxor, and was built in 1877 by John Cook, son of the famous travel agent Thomas Cook.  Its opening coincided with some monumental archaeological discoveries; most of those exploration missions were led by the Egyptology scientist Howard Carter, who discovered the Tomb of the young Egyptian King, Tutankhamen in January 1914.  Interestingly, the war halted the digs and the tomb wasn’t uncovered until almost a decade later. (1)

 

 

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Since discovering the below-mentioned website, I went for a wander through William’s forest of clues that he left for me, behind the cupboard doors.  My fingers walked through piles of cards and the like, and as if he was guiding my hands, a postcard of the Luxor Hotel appeared from nowhere.

Now that was not the only interesting artifact to make a most timely appearance.  I had also scoured thousands of images of the Temple of Karnac, looking for images of the markings left by Napoleon’s men, to no avail.  Then, out of thin air (and dust) materialized a photo taken by William himself.  The inscription on the back answered my question – the image was the one I was looking for.  I think Great Grandfather was guiding my hand, as he has done many times before.

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Photo:  William Lyons’ collection.  This photo is quite small, however, by enlarging the image has brought out the feint details of paintings applied to the stone which were not visible on the snapshot itself.

Although, I sense that Great Grandfather is guiding and assisting me, I wish I could meet him, face to face.  I would love to know what he thinks about Howard Carter’s final and most impressive discovery.  Afterall, Great Grandfather visited the Tombs of the Kings, totally unaware that Tutankhamun’s treasure lay beneath his feet.

(1)  historichotels.com.eg/en/luxor-hotel/overview.html

Luxor


Afternoon of February 13th 1917

William felt a freedom that had eluded him, for the past two years.  Wandering between the towering columns of the Temple of Karnak, he transcended between millennia, losing himself to the engineering feats of ancient man.  Walking in the footsteps of great creators and invaders alike, he pondered a question, to which he wasn’t sure there was an answer.

 “How can it be?” he thought aloud as his vision soared skyward to the lotus capital of a giant column.

Overhearing him, Captain Stevenson enquired, “How can what be, my friend?”

“Oh, I was thinking about the mysteries of mankind,” William said wistfully, his voice trailing off as he remained in deep thought.

“Egypt is a land full of mysteries,” Captain Stevenson mused.

William looked at his friend and nodded in agreement.  “I keep asking myself how man can achieve such magnificence, and yet, he is capable of such unfathomable destruction?  Moreover, the question is: Why?”

“Good question, considering the current state of the world,” Captain Stevenson answered.  “I don’t have the answer, I’m afraid.”

All three men continued to stroll through the centre of the massive colonnade that once supported the temple roof.  Grandeur commanded their silence.  Against the bright cloudless, blue sky, the yellow sandstone structures, although worn by sand and sun, still stood as golden symbols of immense power.  William held a camera to his eye and captured the details, before they faded from memory.  He knew that he would need photographic evidence, to accompany the stories he would tell his family at home.  How else would they believe him?

More questions streamed into William’s thoughts, like a rapid current. The how, where and whys of what he saw were overwhelming.   Leaning against the base of a giant column, he unbuttoned his shirt pocket and pulled out a small notebook and pencil.  He recorded his questions for further reference and scribbled a list of new facts he had acquired that afternoon from a local guide.

Before moving on, William, feeling parched from the dry heat, removed the cork stopper from the wool-clad water bottle that hung on a leather strap across his shoulder.  Taking a few swigs, he tasted a grittiness in his mouth.  Blasted sand! He cursed to himself.  He had learned in his two years in Egypt that sand gets into everything, even food.  It was totally unavoidable. Taking another sip, he replaced the cork and let the bottle suspend once more across his torso.  He then continued his exploration, retreating to a shaded arcade that was  guarded by a row of giant seated, human forms carved out of stone; some were still in perfect condition, others had lost their upper bodies.

The three soldiers weren’t the only visitors to the site that day, although at times they could be forgiven for believing they were.  The immensity of the temple made one feel like an ant on the desert floor.  Even voices were muffled to a murmur that buzzed softly at intervals as they wandered in and around the thick sandstone walls and monolithic columns that acted as sound barriers.  The only annoying disruption in their pleasant meanderings were the hawkers who appeared from nowhere, trying to sell their wares.

“Postcards?”  announced a hawker as he waved a fan of cards in front of William.

He stopped to take a look at the cards, he already had quite a collection to take home.

Choosing several cards that depicted the Temple,  he asked, “how much?”

The man gave William a slight bow of the head and said, “For you sir, one pound.”

William chuckled and shook his head, knowing that he was asking too much.  “I’ll pay you 1 piastres. No more.”

“Sir, my price very good price for you,” the Hawker persisted, his smile revealing a mouth full of tobacco stained teeth.

William stood his ground and the man finally relented.

Walking away with his purchase, William commented to his companions, “One could write a book about these pests.”

They all laughed and kept walking.

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Postcard of Luxor Hotel from William Lyons’ collection.

After their return to the Luxor Hotel, later that afternoon, they bought coffees at the bar and ventured out onto the garden terrace.  William took a sip from his small glass, savouring the thick bittersweet concoction which he had acquired a taste for of late.  He then pulled out some folded sheets of writing paper from his pocket and placed them on the table, along with his pocket notebook and several picture postcards.  Referring to his notes, he continued the letter to Cis that he began on the train, the night before.

This afternoon, we visited the Temple of Karnak which is on the East bank of the Nile and on the outskirts of Luxor.  We took a good few snapshots, but no photo can give you a true idea of the vastness of these ruins which covered about 200 acres.  Originally, the river ran to the East of the temple, but now it is fully one and a half miles further West. It will never be able to play any of these pranks again, as the great Assuan Dam and other smaller ones higher up have complete control of the floods now.  A double row of ram-headed sphinxes ran from Karnak to a temple close to the Colossi of Memnon – only about three miles.  On one of the walls, Napoleon’s engineers have cut into the stone the latitude and longitude of the main temples, obelisks etc. – also Republique Francaise. 

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Postcard from William Lyons’ collection. Ram-headed Sphinxes that run from Karnac to Colossi of Memnon.

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Photo from William Lyons’ collectionInscription:  Part of Karnac Temple.  Supposed to have been destroyed by an earthquake. On first wall on right of alleyway, are inscriptions by savants of Napoleon’s Engineer Corps.

 

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Photo from William Lyons’ collection.  Colossi of Memnon.

Looking up from his task, he enjoyed the tranquillity of the surrounding gardens and took another sip from his glass.  He felt at peace.

Fingering a postcard of the Luxor Hotel, he had bought that day,  he began writing again.

We are staying at the Luxor Hotel.  It is not much to look at, but very pleasant to stay at.  They feed you well and charge ditto.  The bar and billiard room are in one large room, detached from the main building.  The grounds are large and very pretty – all kinds of trees, shrubs and flowers, seats and even electric lights. 

In the background, Captain Stevenson and Lieutenant Barr were discussing the cost of tipping.  It was a practice that was unheard of in Australia, and a topic that had regularly found its way into their conversations.  Smiling to himself, William continued to write.

The tipping system, for which they say the wealthy Americans (in pre-war days) are to blame, is the only fly in the cream.  It makes me shudder now, to think of what it has cost me for this trip.  Could almost fill a page in connection with the pests. Being an officer and a gentleman (?), one cannot deal with them as they feel inclined to do. 

Folding the unfinished letter and placing it back in his pocket, along with his pencil, William settled back in his cane chair and watched the dying sun bathe the garden with golden cheer.  Stirring the thick brown sediment that sat at the bottom of his glass, he raised it and urged his companions to follow suit.

“Cheers, chaps,” he announced, with a glint of humour in his eyes. “Here’s to tomorrow’s ride to the Tombs of the Kings.”

Monday Musings from The Writer’s Desk

Vintage letter

Dear Family, Friends and Followers,

Having already tasted the beginning of William’s trip up the Nile, I would like to share with you, the letter that inspired the piece and the next few installments.  First, I would like to tell you how I happened upon this wonderful piece of history.

As I have mentioned previously, the process of discovery has stretched over decades, and each morsel of the past, however minute, has lit up my eyes with a sense of appreciation and wonderment.  Like the treasures of the tombs of Egypt, the details and treasures of Great Grandfather’s past, sat in dark and dusty rooms, awaiting for the right beam of light to highlight their significance.

The day was a Sunday and I was taking on the role of custodian over the contents of the old cupboards.  No longer safe from harm’s way, the doors were open to the vermin that had taken over my Grandparents’ empty house.  To save our family history from disappearing altogether, I gathered up the boxes and crates and loaded them into my car to take home.  Before I did, however, I sat and took a random look through letters and cards, which I am sure I had fingered many times over.

I  opened a photo packet to find a bundle of black and white snaps, wrapped in a receipt from the shop in Cairo where they were printed.  Fingering through the photos, I was mesmerized by images of Egyptian monuments and temples taken almost a century before.  Of course, I knew that Great Grandfather had taken them, but I was not aware of the full story.

By then, I was acquainted with Great Grandfather’s habit of tucking pieces of folded paper containing notes, mud maps of battles or random words, in pockets of his diary or inside the cover of books.  Checking the pockets of the photo packet  I found an envelope marked in his handwriting “Trip up the Nile”.  Of course, my curiosity nudged my hand to open the envelope and to pull out a thick wad of folded paper.  It was an eight page account of that trip, written in February 1917.

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I don’t need to tell you how excited I was upon finding this treasure.  I subsequently discovered that various family members already possessed a typewritten copy of that letter.  However, nothing can can compare with the original tome, written by Great Grandfather’s hand.  Today, I will share with you page one of that letter.  Please click on the link below and sit back and enjoy the read.

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Trip Up The Nile – Leaving Cairo

February 14th, 1917

William and his companions, Captain Stevenson and Lieutenant Barr, alighted from Cairo’s Bab El-Louk Station at 1700.  Brushed by cool, late afternoon air, they enjoyed the short walk down Rue Bostane to where it met Suliman Pasha Street.  Turning right, they could see the National Hotel, beaming like a glimmer of hope against the fading light.  For the three travellers, who lived in a desolate town of tents and dust, her refined beauty added bounce to their army boots.

The National was not as luxurious as other popular establishments, however, it was still aglow with a certain colonial glamour that attracted a decent clientele.  More pretentious hotels, like the Shepheard or the Savoy, upheld a formal dress code for evening diners.  The National, on the other hand, relaxed her standards and became favoured by military personnel, colonial civil servants and nurses. [1]

The men paused, their eyes ran up and down the five storeyed façade, and caressed the curves of the minaret styled towers, that guarded each corner. Row after row of green shuttered windows peered seductively back at them through delicate lace iron balconies.  Surrendering to their desires, to enjoy  pre-dinner drinks, they strode between the two columns that flanked the entrance.

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Two hours later, the men were finishing their dinner in The St. James – Restaurant, American Bar and Grill Room. [2]

William glanced down at his wrist watch, not wanting to miss their train .

“Chaps, it’s 1900,” he reminded the others, knowing their train for Luxor was departing at 2000.

The others nodded, but made no effort to leave. Nor did William. After-all, they still had an hour.  Oblivious to the chiming of silver on china, and the indecipherable chatter of fellow diners, William leaned back against his chair, savouring that satisfying moment when one has had his fill of hearty, home cooked food.  His potage and pom frits [3] were better than anything the mess had ever served. Washing the remnants down with his last dribble of beer, he felt complete and renewed.  Driven by thoughts of the wealthy adventurers, who filled the restaurant before the war, he suggested to his companions they should make a move.

The three travelers collected their great coats and kit bags from the cloak counter.  Slinging their bags over their shoulders, their boots quietly padded across the exotic rugs that softened the tiled floor of the reception hall.  A steady flow of military personnel ebbed in and out of the room.  Small groups stood, discussing the current state of the war.  Others sunk into rattan chairs, that sat plump and content, beneath potted palms. Cigarette smoke rose curiously through their stringy fronds.

The patrons of the National, like elsewhere in Cairo, were transients, seeking some form of enlightenment.  Whether they were soldiers yearning for an evening of hope and normalcy, or visitors wishing to embrace a lost past;  they all wanted some of the Egypt’s magic.  And, William was no different. He sought to satisfy the cravings of his curious mind.

Gazing wondrously at his surroundings, he explored the elaborately patterned frescos that washed the walls and high ceilings in soft shades of blue, russet and gold.  He studied the details of photographs of antiquity, and  urns, adorned with hieroglyphics.

As if reading William’s mind, Captain Stevenson commented, “The hotels of Cairo are certainly splendid.”

“My word,” William replied with a chuckle, “nothing like hotels at home.”

“And this is not as grand as some,” Piped in Lieutenant Barr.  “The Shepheard is a palace.”

“Indeed!” William had seen the Shepheard first hand.

Shepheards Hotel Cairo

Photo: Pinterest Shepheard Hotel, Cairo

Evidence of the country’s incredible history was everywhere.  A large, framed photograph of the Sphinx reminded William of a fact he had gleaned from Charles Bean’s guide “What to Know in Egypt”. [4]

“He’s a portrait of Kephren, the Pharaoh who built the second pyramid.” William informed the others, not out of a desire to impress, but rather, out of his fascination for Egyptian history.

“The head of a king on the body of a lion,” he mused.

Facts, no matter how small and obscure, were like food to William’s soul.  He knew that the magic of Egypt would normally be out of reach for a sugar cane farmer from the Haughton River. The war had given him access to a fascinating world, although, he conceded, it came at an enormous cost, for both himself and his family.

Upon approaching the front entrance, the glass door was opened by the hotel footman.  Looking splendid in a long black western style jacket that fell to just above the ankles, he greeted them in perfect English.

“Good bye Gentlemen,” He said, with a slight bow to his head.  His maroon tarboosh was firmly anchored to his short black curly hair, allowing a black tassel to swing freely to one side.

“Salam”, William replied in Arabic.  The doorman’s brown face softened into a white toothy grin and another off centred bow.

The three men re-emerged onto Suleyman Pasta Street, as a tram squealed to a stop in front of the hotel. Hurriedly, they hauled their kit bags through the passing foot traffic, stepped onto the rear of the tram and settled into seats inside.

As the carriage clanged forward, the fresh evening breeze brushed William’s face, through the open windows, with the aromas of spicy street food and warm soothing coffee. Flushed from alcohol, he felt alive and free.  The streets were moving with a fascinating mix of people who hailed from ancient times.  Although, the reminders were there.  They were like an infinite thread, woven through the city’s fabric.  He could never truly escape the reason he was in Egypt.  Closing his eyes he thought about the next four days, away from it all.

 

NOTES:

  1. The National Hotel – Cairo
  2. St. James – Restaurant, American Bar and Grill Room –  The restaurant at the National Hotel, Cairo.  I have a receipt that William kept from this restaurant.
  3. Pottage and pomfret – A meat and vegetable stew and French fries, listed on the abovementioned invoice.
  4.  What to Know in Egypt – A guide written for Australian soldiers in 1915 by War historian, Charles Bean. I found a copy in William’s belongings. He purchased a copy for 1 piastre.