Secrets of a goddess


Last night, we jumped ship to another vessel, the MV Antares, reportedly one of the best boats on the Nile, rivalling the Zara, which staff say just has a better marketing budget. It is divine. We will spend four nights sailing Luxor to Aswan, which takes just three hours by road.

The areas around here are quite tightly controlled by police in response to terrorist attacks in the past 10 years, so today, after we sailed up to Qena to visit Dendara, the most spectacular temple yet, we were met by Wa'el, our lacklustre guide, in a brand new, super-red private car with driver. We jumped in the car, a police van with two smiling cops in the back brandishing guns pulled in front of us, and when we looked behind, saw about four tour buses and a horde of minivans full of tourists following behind as we led the convoy to Dendare and Abydos, the other major site near Qena. At all the road blocks through the town (and there were many), the police grinned and waved. May all my future police escorts be so cheerful.

This temple, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, is my favourite hysterical site in Egypt. It is just beautiful and beautifully preserved. There is a restoration program currently ongoing to clean all the soot from the high ceilings – a legacy of the cooking fires of the Christians who romped into Egypt and lived in the by now abandoned temples from 90AD (give or take a few decades).

Beneath the soot are the original colours of the painted carvings, which cover the stone walls from top to bottom – the azure blue sky up above, the signs of the zodiac and the long eyes and long hair of the beautiful goddess herself. Most of her faces, and there are many in the temple, have been hatefully gouged out. The guidebooks blame the Christians, our Christian guide says that's just a negative marketing campaign against his religion.

We spent a few hours in there, and the chief custodian, Mamhoud, took me down the warm, secretive crypt. As we walked along the narrow corridor, he tapped the floor, which instead of stone, was alabaster. 'It's a door,' he said in the quiet gloom. 'There is more below us...'

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