Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Culture: The sands of time

By Idris Tawfiq - The Egyptian Gazette
Monday, January 9, 2012 09:08:48 PM
Luxor is one of the most splendid and treasure-filled places on earth. Its temples and tombs are renowned the world over for the civilisation that produced them. Luxor and Ancient Egypt are two halves of the same sentence and visitors flock there throughout the year in search of its mysteries.
Luxor is also a magical place. Travelling there from abroad or arriving from the hustle and bustle of Cairo’s teeming millions, it has the air of a place set apart. On one side of the mighty Nile is the town itself, with its hotels, shops and beautiful Corniche.
On the other side, you leave towns and shops behind and are greeted by camels, sand and the lure of Ancient Egypt. For it is on the West Bank of the Nile that the Valley of the Kings is to be found, the magnificent temple of Hatshepsut, the Colossi of Memnon or the temple of Ramses II.
The view of this side of the Nile as you approach in a ferry boat is so exciting that it takes your breath away.
Thebes, as Luxor was once known, was the capital of Ancient Egypt for centuries. Hardly surprising, then, that it should be packed full of history and be the final resting place of so many Pharaohs, once invincible and all-powerful.
The coach loads of tourists here become so frequent in high season that the only way to visit the tombs and the monuments in any peaceful way is to set off at the crack of dawn and head exactly for the ticket office of where you want to be, well before anyone else has the chance to get there.

We will leave the West Bank and its tourists for another time, difficult as that might be. That is not what concerns us now. Instead, we want to turn back to the town itself, not without monuments and not without its own treasures from the glory of what was Thebes. The temple of Karnack, for example, just a few kilometers north of the centre of town, is a monument of international importance. Half a day spent there would not be enough to explore its riches and its history.
The delightful Luxor Museum, back in town, is another place that could easily detain us for at least a morning.

It is right in the centre of Luxor, though, that we want to stop. Surrounded by the gentle traffic and the horse drawn carriages of Luxor’s streets, with their persistent drivers, offering a “special price” for a tour of the city, is where we want to be. Standing right on the Corniche, next to the Nile, is Luxor temple. This temple, dating back to the reign of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III in the fourteenth century BC, seems quite at home in the middle of the town, as though time has not been able to affect the influence it holds over the life of its citizens.

But again, it is not the temple itself which will detain us here. Rather, it is the mosque to be found in the middle of the temple. Yes, in the middle of a Pharaonic temple fourteen centuries old there is a mosque, which the inhabitants of the city have fiercely guarded against all the efforts of museum curators and construction workers over the years.

For centuries, the temple of Luxor lay covered in sand. When the mosque was first built there, maybe in the eleventh century, it was built on sand, or some rocks underneath the sand which seemed no more than rocks. The townsfolk knew that there was a temple underneath, but what is an ancient temple when you need to work hard to earn the food you eat? The Romans built a village there in the third century, using the walls of the ancient temple as its boundaries. It was only in the nineteenth century that the temple at Luxor was truly uncovered, when the archeologist Gaston Maspero re-discovered it in 1881.

And for the citizens of Luxor today, the ancient monuments might draw the tourists and bring in their livelihood, but it is the mosque of Abu Al-Haggag which is dearest to their hearts.
Abu Al-Haggag was born in either Damascus or Baghdad (in the land of Sham) around the year 1150. He travelled to Makkah when he was forty and stayed there for some years, and then he spent the last half of his life living in Luxor, where he set up a religious school and attracted many followers by the holiness of his life and the authenticity of the message he brought to them.

Islam, of course, does not have canonised saints, as in other religions, but simple people do hold in honour those whose lives have left a deep impression on them. And it is natural for them to do so.

Muslims read in the holy Qur’an in Surat Al-Hujurat:
O mankind! We created you from a single pair
Of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes
That ye may know each other.
Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah
Is he who is the most righteous of you.
And Allah has full knowledge of all things.

As this New Year is still in its early days there is still time for us to reflect on how we are living our own lives and how people would think of us once we are gone. It is not the number of pairs of shoes in our wardrobe that they will remember us by, is it?

Those ancient pharaohs who held sway over people’s lives are long forgotten, their monuments hidden for centuries beneath the sands of time. It is the life of a simple sheikh, who held power over no one, who is best loved and remembered in Luxor. Let us learn from that.
British Muslim writer, Idris Tawfiq, is a lecturer at Al-Azhar University. The author of eight books about Islam, he divides his time between Egypt and the UK as a speaker, writer and broadcaster.

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