Some of the most sacred sites in the world lie in Egypt. To visit these ancient temples, most people travel down the River Nile on cruise ships.
To the ancient Egyptians, the Nile was not just a river, it was a god. A River God.
Standing on its shores, it is difficult to comprehend that this very same body of water once transported baby Moses in his basket of bullrushes to the maidservant Miriam, Cleopatra to her lover Mark Antony and all the great Pharaohs of Egypt to eternal splendour set in stone. Everything is interconnected with nature here. The foliage is a medley of acacias, cacti, date palms and fields of garlic, corn and sugar cane. Flocks of white ibis step about in the mud, lifting their long skinny legs in the affected prance of mannequins on a catwalk. Farmers in traditional galabayas and turbans lead donkeys laden with sacks of grain, while women fill terracotta urns with water from the river, going about their business exactly as they did thousands of years ago.
Our Nile cruise ship Queen of the Nile is moored in Luxor, once the great ancient city of Thebes. Having consumed a delicious breakfast of omelettes, honey and date pancakes and pomegranate juice, I decide to walk to Karnak Temple. Along the way I am greeted by children flogging postcards, "Postcard for you Madam? I give you good deal!" and traders calling from their stalls, "A gift for you lady! Very mystery, very magic!" Although many of the mudbrick houses above the stalls have only holes in the walls for windows, most have television satellite dishes on their roofs. I wander inside a shop selling papyri and essential oils.
A young man dressed in jeans and a white business shirt approaches. "My lady, oils are very, very good for wrinkles."
"Thank you. Sucrun," I reply, "But I think it's a little too late for that now." Nevertheless, I purchase three bottles, happy in the knowledge that 'Lotus Blossom' will heal my heart, 'Arabian Nights' will balance my root chakra and 'Nile Ibis' will open my third eye.
I am nearing Karnak Temple, considered to be the noblest architectural work ever designed and executed by human hands. Approaching by the western gate, I walk along the avenue of ram- headed sphinxes, each with a tiny statue of Ramses 11 between its paws. From here I enter the Temple of Amun built by Ramses 111 (1194 – 1163 BC). Inside, on either side of the entrance are wall carvings of the King slaughtering his enemies, conquering the forces of chaos and darkness. The Hypostyle Hall, with its forest of 134 pillars each one in the shape of the revered papyrus flower, was built by the great pharaoh Seti 1 and completed by his son and successor Ramses 11. It is this gigantic temple that Akhenaten renounced and walked away from to build his Temple of the Sun in Amarna.
One of the most important smaller temples at this site is that dedicated to the goddess Opet. Here, the Ancient Egyptians' summer festivals were held, celebrating each New Year by carrying the Sacred Boat from Karnak to the Luxor Temple. This was at the time when the river rose and flooded the surrounding fields; an annual ritual of thanks to the God of the Nile for giving life to Egypt.
Another sacred temple at this site is the one dedicated to Ptah and his consort Sekhmet, reached by following a narrow track that winds between date palms bowing under the weight of their amber fruit. One of its dark crypts contains a black granite statue of Sekhmet, the lioness goddess who represents healing through chaos and change, and who is directly related to both the creative and destructive powers of the sun.
After tipping a temple guard, I step inside while he closes the thick wooden door behind me. As I stare at the black granite statue, I swear her eyes move. Her energy is palpable and I am overcome with a profound feeling of being in the presence of something or someone truly divine. Sitting on the stone floor at her feet, I absorb her energy like osmosis, battling unidentified emotions that well from deep within.
Leaving Sekhmet's Sanctuary, I head for the Sacred Lake. Although most temples include a sacred lake, the one here at Karnak is believed to be the largest. In ancient times, every morning at sunrise a goose was set free by the priests in a ceremony dedicated to Amun, the God of Creation.
Sitting on the ground, leaning against the trunk of a sycamore tree, I imagine what it must have been like in ancient times - sounds of laughter echoing from the papyrus pools, couriers throwing boomerangs at ducks and pheasants, ibises darting at plump fish cruising in the shade of lotus blossoms and the morning rituals of purification by the priests at the Sacred Lake. Originally, the temple was connected to the Nile by a canal. I visualise the boats travelling all the way up to the compound and the jubilation when wars were won and the King and his priests were rewarded by their gods I feel very 'connected' to this Sacred Lake and am loath to leave.
As I walk towards the gates of the temple compound, I watch a small boy no older than seven or eight select stones from the ground and approach a fresh arrival of tourists. Holding out the stones in the palms of his hands, he assures them that they are rare broken archaeological artefacts discovered inside ancient tombs. Although their guide berates the boy, yelling at him to go away, the generous Americans, amused and impressed by his business acumen, hand over their money. I guess not everything is sacred here at Karnak. Oh well, at least his Mum will be pleased. They'll get to eat dinner tonight.
Egypt and its sacred sites has been a magnet for hundreds of thousands of travellers from all over the world for centuries. Every visitor seems to take something special away with them, whether it be knowledge, enlightenment, a sense of reconnection or simply the memory of sheer wonderment and awe. But right now, this part of our planet needs something from us; understanding, compassion, prayers for peace and unification and the courage to question media sensationalism feeding the ever-widening rift between people of different faiths.
For all who have taken something from the Holy Lands in their travels in the past, it would be timely now to give something back. There is great power in prayer.
Jo Buchanan is a writer and great friend of Egypt