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