Travel a Good Ways
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Travel a Good Ways

Dawn at Philae

The collonade at Philae Temple in Aswan, Egypt
Philae Temple, Aswan, Egypt

Our guide Emil called for the water taxi to pause in the small strait next to Agilkia Island. He had the pilot shut the engine off and instructed us to take some time in silence before we disembarked.

The early pre-dawn light suffused the yellow sandstone of the islands and glistened on the Nile. Peace rested on us for a moment as we sat in the presence of our own thoughts, floating by the side of the Isis temple at Philae.

“Just feel” Emil told us, a phrase he often used in order to re-focus our attention to the experience of Egypt, an experience that in the end really has no access key other than simple sensory awareness. After all the work of gaining knowledge and sorting through pieces of information about Egypt there is mainly this: “Just feel”, and so we did, in silence.

Pre-dawn temple from the water taxi

The water taxi soon lub-lubbed to life and we continued to motor slowly on the silky surface towards the dock around the island’s bend. We were the first to arrive. “I hate crowds”, another of Emil’s regular expressions. That attitude gave us many precious solitary experiences at sites before the rush began.

We were there just before 6am. The island didn’t officially open until 7. It was clear by now that Emil knows people.

We alighted from the water taxi and walked into the outer court, a grand two-sided colonnade that directed us towards the main temple itself. Emil provided an introduction to the temple’s history and gave us a quick sketch of how it was moved from just below here to this spot by the same UNESCO project that saved Abu Simbal prior to the flooding of the valley with the creation of Aswan High Dam.

The Grand Pylons at Philae

He took us through the great pylons and into the interior of the temple, noting details like the cross medallions, which were added when the temple was spuriously converted to a church dedicated to St. Stephen. We examined the wall reliefs surrounding the hypostyle hall and Emil gave good interpretative descriptions of much of it.

Story-time provides us with a different access point. It allows for imagery and metaphor to inform us and loosens our obsession with factoids.

We proceeded through a procession of high and dramatic squared archways into the final sacred chamber, once reserved only for the priesthood.

Emil leaned on the dark pink granite plynth in the center the vestibule and described how it once held the sacred boat (barque) that carried the figure of Isis into the temple. He went on in some detail about the relief carvings there and the importance of that ritual space.

Our guide Emil Shaker

I wanted to stay behind for a minute after the group exited but Emil was calling out to us with his regular admonishment to “Be as one!” (ie: “Stay together).

Emil walked us through galleries of relief carvings and continued to describe various features of the Isis and Osiris story, how Isis the mother-god gave birth to Horus the falcon-god of sky and kingship. At length he set us free to explore by ourselves and requested that we meet by an adjacent temple, the Kiosk of Trajan, for the sunrise.

I retraced my path to the entrance of the temple to snap a few more pictures in the main courtyard in gentle pre-dawn light. I walked once again between the massive double pylons and into the hypostyle interior, intending to head for the Isis sanctuary. I came through a procession of squared off archways that seemed familiar and reached the back chamber. The pink granite plynth was gone!

I laughed at my ready credence of what was clearly impossible… my mind buzzing with my very human inclination to find plausibility beyond the limits of logical sense in sacred spaces like this.

I looked around. The room seemed the same as before in every way except for the missing central block of granite. For a moment, in the grasp of Egypt’s vast mysteriousness, I was taken by the distinct impression that a block of stone might indeed simply vanish.

I had walked into a different hall. This was the birth room or “Mamissi” where the story Isis giving birth to the god Horus was depicted and the event ritually celebrated. I walked back out of the birth room and soon realized that the Isis sanctuary I wanted to return to was just to its side, on an axis slightly titled from the main temple’s hallway.

The Isis Chamber at Philae Temple

I laughed at my ready credence of what was clearly impossible. I entered the real Isis Sanctuary through a nearly identical procession of high square-off archways, my mind buzzing with my very human inclination to find plausibility beyond the limits of logical sense in sacred spaces like this.

At last I had a minute or two alone in the back chamber to collect myself in quiet reflection, regaining the sense of peace I felt there earlier.

It was a simple mistake, easy to do being unfamiliar with the temple’s layout. The similarities between the two chambers, the fact that they both were accessed by walking through a procession of archways encouraged my illusion.

I have thought about this trick of the mind a lot since then. It brings up issues of credence and the believability in a kind of magic reality born of ritual settings. It suggests something about heightened awareness in temples and sacred spaces that offer us an alternate time and space, a story-time that can enrich and develop our everyday situational awareness.

But wait. Isn’t this at the heart of our illusions about religion? Is there any upside to an innocence that might fall prey to gullibility? What is the connection between belief and understanding? And how can our deep need to believe prevail in the face of modern life’s blithe and dismissive “proofs” to the contrary?

A hard-headed and realistic world-view offers necessary insights to challenge long held and problematic dogmas. But a too-ready dismissiveness of subtler spiritual perceptions carves away something else; a vital and necessary access point to human understanding.

My take all of this is that our rational mind can serve as a check on the wilder attributes we sometimes give to uncanny experience (eg: “What happened to the plinth?”). Left alone to its own devices though, the rational mind is inadequate to the task of full comprehension. It too often suggests answers “without remainder”.

Story-time provides us with a different access point. It allows for imagery and metaphor to inform us and loosens our obsession with factoids. It is mythological time, a place where we are less fixated on questions like “Did Isis and Horus really exist?” and more on the question “What can their story teach me?”.

We all gathered by the portico of the Kiosk of Trajan as the eastern horizon grew lighter. I settled back on the steps to the Kiosk to wait for dawn.

The Kiosk of Trajan

Stefanie soon joined me and we cuddled in silence, facing east. I was determined not to miss the moment because the previous sunrise on the Afandina happened as I was distracted by scrolling my phone.

Our group milled about and they soon also settled on various spots to wait for the sight of the sun. I fixed my eyes eastward on the increasing glow.

The sun burst into my eyes and I gave quick gasp at the sight. That small gasp immediately went deeper into something resembling breathlessness. I made a sound like someone going under, actually struggling to breath. At long last my chest relaxed and I was able to draw a breath.

I felt like the sun had thumped me in the chest. “What was that?” I thought.

The sun grew brighter, the rays of daylight blessed us, and I kissed Stefanie. She had heard the strange noises I made and she looked me in the eye. “You OK?” she said.

I was laid out by it all. I was just fine, but completely devastated.

Kiosk of Trajan front portico in full sunlight

That was a strange thing to happen. It seemed kind of mystical maybe. But I’m not too crazy about that term. I think I’d rather interpret it as gaining a better understanding of the perfectly ordinary. Dawn happens all the time. It just seldom jumps past that familiarity and grabs hold of your lungs and heart like it did at Philae that morning.

Claiming mystical experience is problematic because it becomes just another way to keep score. I’d rather avoid the term. Call me sensitive if you must.

Days later, we met a fragrance merchant back in Giza. He knew more about the healing powers of fragrant oils than anyone I had ever met. I’m not sure I even believed half of it.

But he had two terms that described the problem of how we as humans lay claim to “mystical experience”. He said that he regularly meets people obsessed with finding The Light. He has determined that these people come in two varieties; workers for the light and slaves to the light. The second group want possession. They want to lay claim to finding that light and are eager to boast about it.

The workers for the light want nothing more than to make use of the light in service. Their focus is on being the light and sharing the light without drawing attention to themselves.

There is a good teaching in that distinction. A lesson for me. I will certainly fail in that lesson. But I will try to always remember it.

Our group at the front portico of the Temple of Trajan

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You can read more from me in my publications on Medium, “Word Sauce”, “Travel a Good Ways” or by visiting my blog “Life in the Hyphen” here. ________________________________________________________________




Trying to get at those travel stories about the verve and the swerve. Not your typical source for travel advice. These are stories about how travel changes you and unfolds you, not how best to be pampered and coddled.

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David Lucht

David Lucht

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