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Life at Luxor
UXOR is Egypt. Assuan is a winter paradise in
Egypt. If you go to Assuan you meet all your Society friends again, and play golf or tennis as if you were in England. You do, it is true, take donkey-rides in the desert, and you do a little bargaining in the bazar every day. But you do everything with one eye on the other English people. You are as much under observation as you are on Cook's Nile steamers. You have to dress as much as if you were on the Riviera. You are considered unreasonable if you will not make a fourth at bridge or a foursome, when you have made up your mind to hunt for inscriptions among the granite quarries of the Pharaohs and the tombs of the Turks.
At Luxor it is very different. The Great Winter Palace Hotel, the sister house of the Cataract Hotel at Assuanthe creation of the same proprietor, is the headquarters of Egyptian explorers and excavators, as well as the headquarters of the half of Society, which finds Assuan too hot, and not enough change from the arduous round of trivial tasks, which it has to go through at home. Therefore there is an atmosphere of the wonders of Egypt about the place, and an intellectual and an interesting Society, as well as a fashionable and titled Society.
Most English people would, I think, prefer the climate of Luxor to the climate of Assuan. It is not so fiercely hot, though it is warm enough for the Garden of Eden and the costume of Eve. At Luxor you cannot help thinking about ancient Egypt.
The temple, built partly for Alexander the Great himself, at Luxor, is the greatest building overhanging the waters of the Nile. Abu Simbel is, a rock-temple, hewn out of a cliff. Right across the Nile from the Winter Palace is the plain of Thebes, with the mortuary temples of the Pharaohs, and the rocky spur of the Sahara, which conceals the marvellous tombs of the kings. And you can canter in a quarter of an hour to the palm groves, which make Luxor the Eden of Egypt, and contain the world's greatest temple—the gigantic sanctuary of Karnak.
The young Englishmen, who are excavating in the ruinfields of Thebes and Abydos, make a point of constant visits to the Winter Palace at Luxor: it prevents them from feeling the loneliness of the desert oppressive'; and the invasion of excavators fresh from their work makes the hotel a very interesting place to the wholesome tourists who go to Upper Egypt to revel in her antiquities, and not merely in her climate. It is, at the same time, the presence of the idlers, which makes the Winter Palace such a tonic for excavators. The splendid specimens of young Englishmen, the delicious and deliciously dressed English girls, who adorn Upper Egypt in the winter, generally go there solely for sunshine and sport, though they are quite ready to go to a temple, if it entails a long donkey-ride, and they may be brought into line with sightseers by a passion for photography or spelling cartouches.
At Luxor nearly every one who can afford it goes to the Winter Palace. The winding white terraces stretching out in front of it, as they do in front of the châteaux of French kings, are such fascinating places for tête-à-tête teas, and strolling in the moonlight, or the after-breakfast sunshine, on the rare days when you can spare the cool of the morning for anything but expeditions. While you are at tea, you look across the Nile to see the sun setting on the ruins of Thebes, and the afterglow firing the Sahara. In the moonlight you look at the silver mirror of the immortal river, the transparent silver of the Theban hills, the black ghosts of Arabs on the land, and gyassas on the face of the waters. In the earlymorning sunshine you are désenchanté if you look at anything except the well-groomed young Englishmen and the pretty girls, in adorable summer frocks, who are lazing about, mostly doing something to a camera. For the white road from the Winter Palace to the Luxor Temple is an orgy of touting and advertisement.
First, at the foot of the steps of the Winter Palace, there are the dragomans, beautiful people in snowy robes, with fine black cloth mantles. They proceed to give you a number of false impressions, the first being that they are under the same obligation not to advertise or try to get their money as physicians and barristers. Yet they are willing to risk professional opinion in order to place their inestimable gifts at the service of one, whose knowledge of Egyptian antiquities would make him really profit by their explanations. Secondly, they are so dignified that you would believe them to be, at the least, Ulemas of El Azhar.
Beyond these courtiers are donkey-boys. Luxor donkeys are not allowed to ply for hire like a crawling cab. Their cabstands are pounds at suitable points, and there the donkeys have to remain till they are wanted.
Unfortunately there is no pound for the inhabitants of Luxor, who fill the entire street in front of the Winter Palace, and walk beside, in front of, and behind every foreigner, who comes out, all talking at the same time, all wanting to sell their services or something equally undesirable, all thrusting themselves in between you and your friend, or the object at which you may be looking, in order to secure your attention. You have to hire one to keep the rest away-Joseph, the donkey-boy, was my fly-whisk for these human insects.
If you venture near the Nile you are pestered not only by boatmen but by the water-carriers, whose proper function is to fill a water-skin for half a small piastre, but who prefer to strike attitudes in the water to earn large piastres from American camera-carriers. Beggars there are, of course, in every stage of decomposition, far worse than the journalists in a state of decomposition who come, smelling of spirits, to authors' houses, and say that they have been on the staff of such and such a paper, forgetful that there are telephones, and that most newspaper offices keep a record of former employees. The telephone has never revealed a genuine case to me. The Luxor beggar has generally lost some part of his person-indeed, if the loss of an eye is sufficient qualification, half the population of Egypt is entitled to beg.
To add to the difficulties of forcing your way through the swarm of human flies, the shopkeepers cut in. Smiling secret agents of Khrishnavarma press you to come in and buy lace and embroideries, or silver inkstands of a size more suitable for spittoons. Keepers of antiquity exhibitions press you to come in—"no scharge to examine”—and see if you can find a gold-leafed mummy case, or a regiment of wooden soldiers from the tomb of a Pharaoh to suit your purse. "Only come in and look see-need not buy.” They, none of them, compete with the Levantines who wish to develop your kodaks and sell you postcards. At the side of every door is a black heart-shaped piece of metal bearing the inscription in letters of gold, “ Kodaks developed," often adding something about delivering the prints within twenty-four hours. This would have been a handy way for Bloody Mary to have had the word "Calais" printed on her heart in her pleasant apartments in the Tower of London.
Every shopman you pass calls out to you to know if you want to buy kodak-films, and have any films that need developing ; every shopman invites you to inspect his stock of postcards-picture-postcards of the scenery and the antiquities of Upper Egypt; every one asks double the proper price till he finds out that you know the standard price ; every one, when he has got you into the shop to look at postcards, tries to proceed to ostrich feather fans, and silver-gilt jewellery of more or less ancient Egyptian designs.
It is a great relief to escape from this open-air chamber of commerce into the stately calm of the Winter Palace, which is very self-contained. It even has a full-blown postoffice inside, where you get your parcels weighed and dispatched. You buy so many knicknacks in Egypt that you are always having parcels to send. The Egyptian at the hotel post-office can usually tell you where any explorer or excavator in Egypt is located, because he has the sending on of their letters into the wilds. Thebes--at its Luxor Branch -is the capital of Ancient Egypt.
To people like ourselves, who get tired of the touts on the front, and wish to be left to the contemplation of rural Egypt, the manager of the Winter Palace very obligingly assigns rooms in another house belonging to the company--the Karnak Hotel, which is in a grove of palm trees right on the Nile, and on the river road from Karnak to Luxor. Here you see the life of the road and the life of the river, Egyptian gardening, and a typical sakiya driven by a supercilious camel. In this angle of the river fishermen are fond of tying up their boats, to fold their nets and coil their lines, and basket their finny prey-monsters some of them.
From the windows of the Karnak Hotel you get glorious views of the Nile--the undiluted Nile, out of sight of the steamboat wharf and the kodak signs, with nothing to interfere with your contemplation of the glorious skies of Egypt; the clear, swift, stately river; the tall gyassas, the Indiamen of the Nile, coming up-stream before the tradewind to the port of Luxor or Assuan ; the fishers of the Nile in their mediæval craft; the beautiful banks of the Nile; and the plain and hills of Thebes, painted by sunrise and sunset. From the Karnak Hotel a terrace runs along the river to the old Karnak landing of the Pharaohs. It is a high terrace, with here a snow-white pergola, columned like a temple, overrun by crimson bougainvillea ; there a broad flight of steps leading down to the Nile; there a camel defiantly turning a sakiya. Often at the stairfoot is lying a galley for hire by tourists, with three or four statuesque Arabs in snow-white galabeahs, dancing or piping, or plaiting flywhisks and fans of gracious patterns out of split palm-leavesunless they have covered their heads and are lying like corpses in the sun, asleep on the deck. By and by a gay party of tourists will run down the steps and jump on board