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Jo Buchanan finds herself, again and again, among the mysteries of Ancient Egypt.
A s a child in the 1940s, influenced
by my parents' love of Egypt, I
devoured every book they owned
on the ancient Egyptian civilisation.
Descriptions of the worship and
mysteries of Isis, the papyrus pools, the
role of the scribe in recording history and
how artists decorated the walls of temples
and tombs prompted hours of romantic
fantasising. While my school friends longed
to visit England, I was fixated on the Holy
In 1951, when I was 11, Mum gave me
an old book that had been published in
1888. Titled From Cornhill to Cairo it was
an account written by William Makepeace
Thackeray of a journey he took to Egypt
in 1844. Although it didn't conjure up
the same exotic imagery as the books on
Ancient Egypt, it was a "real diary" written
by a "real person".
Thackeray wasn't always impressed by
what he saw and experienced ("We had
half cold fowls and bitter ale for lunch. For
dinner we had bitter ale and cold fowls"),
but I managed to keep my faith.
In an entry dated 24 December 1845,
describing the view from his window at the
Hotel d'Orient hotel, Thackeray speaks of
"fat pashas lolling on cushions taking pipes
of sherbert", the constant ringing of bells
and "noble stately Arab women with tawny
skins and large black eyes" fetching water
from the wells. The imagery conjured by his
words intrigued me. I wanted to see such
extraordinary sights for myself.
In another journal my parents gave me,
Jean-Francois Champollian, the man who
cracked the code of the Rosetta Stone,
relates that the last leg of his journey to
the pyramids consisted of eight camels and
20 donkeys to carry helpers, masters and
© NOVA JANUARY 2010
their servants. He describes the sphinx as
being covered up to its shoulders in the
sands, with only a part of its breast and neck
exposed and complains about a "Father
Bibent", who had done nothing but create
trouble among the group and who would
be leaving the expedition at Port Said. Even
the name "Port Said" took my breath away.
It sounded so foreign and exotic.
Eventually, in 1963, I travelled by sea to
Europe with my mother, with a stopover in
Egypt. Wow, after devouring the journals of
others, I now had the opportunity to pen
my own first impression of the Holy Lands!
21 June 1963, Port Said.
"We climbed down the side of RHMAS
PATRIS into a pre-dawn thick with the smell
of rotting vegetables. Landing on a wooden
punt and clinging to wobbly rope railings,
we chugged across inky water toward a
horizon reflecting the craggy peaks of the
distant mountain range. As our bus left the
dock and began to roll across the desert
wilderness, I was overwhelmed by an
indescribable sense of "coming home".
Arriving at Giza Plateau three and a
half hours later, we mounted a caravan
of bad-tempered camels and headed for
the pyramids. After hours of climbing all
over the Sphinx and Great Pyramid, we
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The wings of death will surely strike
him who disturbs the peace of the dead
-- Inscription at entrance of the Tomb of
the Golden Bird.
Jo and Mum May 1963.
The moment Carter
opens the Tomb.
King Tut's Sarcophagus.
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