Luxor to Assint to Cairo, Egypt

Saturday, March 16 and Sunday, March 17, 1929

Friday I had seen a Coptic funeral in Luxor. Both sides of the street were lined with mourning men, squatting down on the sidewalks. In a narrow street nearly scores of men paraded back and forth, rather up one side of the street and down the other, singing and chanting a short sentence in Arabic. From the noise resulting, one might have said it was a riot.

The proprietor of the Thebes Hotel is a German. Running the hotel is but a nuisance for him for his hobby and passion lies in the collecting of Egyptian antiques [antiquities]. Consequently, the hotel is in a somewhat rundown condition. Frank and Mort had stayed there and so I did the same—for 10 piastres a day. W. Dreiss, the proprietor, was a very nice gentleman in his lucid moments. These came from times when his mind was diverted from antiques. For some reason or other he took a shine to me and said I was his guest there, giving me meals, and in the evening wine, while we sat and talked. He lent me guidebooks and gave me a very nice one on Luxor.

But there is a hitch. He had recently acquired a fine statue of Tut-Ankh-Amen which he worships. His living alone has gone to his head in the form of an insanity for old relics. Every day, behind the locked doors of his office, he spends hours talking to his statues as one would to a small child. If he is disturbed by one of his servants, he often nearly flies into a rage. One evening he told me he could kill them when they bother him. In fact, I was the only one allowed to disturb him or to be in his “inner haunts” while his statues were out. The truth of the matter is that several men who evidently work in excavating sell him pieces that are either stolen or smuggled out. I cornered him one night and learned this. However, he keeps it all dark that he collects and nobody knows it in Luxor. Thus all the secrecy. It would make a dandy setting for a mystery story for he has these relics hidden all over the hotel and at almost any time of night you might hear him behind locked doors playing with them, fondling them, and talking to them.

Strange Arabs come and go, always carrying on their business behind locked doors. He has many beautiful pieces, some from Tut’s tomb. Once started on Tut, he completely goes out of his head. Not only does he worship him, but he believes he is still alive, and the statue has come to him because both he and Tut have been stolen from and mistreated. Talking to it is nothing. Every morning certain statues have to be arranged on a small table in his room, all in a certain order, Tut between two fine alabaster statues, one a sphinx, the other a bird. In front and facing them is a dancing girl. These are daily placed in the sun. At night after kissing Tut, he puts him to bed and then sleeps with him, just as a small child would do with a doll. He imagines that Tut moves his eyes and talks back to him.

Every evening he would show me more statues, etc. and while I admired them, would sit back with an imbecilic grin upon his face. The third evening he became so excited over his relics that he leaned over and kissed me. I nearly passed out with surprise. Now I know exactly how a girl feels who is dating with a young man who insists upon necking her. Thereafter I became very tactiful [full of tactics, perhaps]  and was very careful that Tut was kept out of the conversation unless [we were] out in the open where he could not give vent to his enthusiasm and affection. The last evening I was there he called me into his office to see new stuff he had got and give me a carved slab from the grave of some old-timer. Then he gave me a broken scarab which is without doubt the very personification of luck. If this scarab were whole, it would be worth plenty for it is a dandy. He has had it about twenty years. Thus, when I finally turned in after a walk about the park with him for some fresh air, it was nearly one. I am “the lucky prince” and “King Tut likes me.”

Tut caused me to get only four hours sleep that night, for at five I was up to catch the six-ten train. Breakfast was waiting for me and I almost swelled a gut from feeling ritzy. On the way to the station I saw some cops that had returned to second childhood and had tied two dogs together by their tails.

Again the train was crowded and I was fortunate in finding a seat on a sack of peas. Some of these I ate with a man who exercised his dozen words of English quite willingly. Being raw, I did not think them as delicious as the man claimed them to be. Soon a conductor came through the car and raised cain with the natives, making them shift baggage about till I had a nice seat. The other people, natives, he left lying in the aisle or on baggage piled there.

As we rode down through the valley, one could see the natives at their work in the fields and towns, and along the irrigation canals. Natives, naked except for a small loin cloth, hoisted water from one level up to the level of small ditches and trenches through their fields. In the fields camels were being loaded with fodder and hay. Perhaps an honest-to-goodness scarecrow put in an appearance at long intervals.

Many farmers live in small huts made entirely of reeds and shocks, with a small enclosure of the same material in which the family cow or chickens are kept. The stations were always crowded. On the platforms of most were piles and piles of sacks of onions. Nearby a man might be seen molding bricks by hand out of a pile of mud or clay and setting them in the sun to dry and harden. On the train much politeness was shown between the Moslems, after the first rush of getting settled was over. Their greeting is interesting.  After their handshake, they place their right hand to their heart, then to their mouth with the idea of “my heart goes out to you.” Sometimes they just kiss their hand that you have shaken.

In due time we arrived at Assint, a good-sized town on the Nile’s bank. A mile back from the city is the same range of rocky hills that in Luxor are called the Theban Hills.  For centuries and centuries these hills by Assint have been used as a burial place for the dead. The steep slopes are honeycombed with small holes dug into the rock in which the mummified body of the person was placed. Many tombs consisted of one or more small chambers hewn of the rock. A few were very large, having the appearance of a cave, and I saw less than half a dozen with inscriptions. At some early date all of these tombs have been robbed and the mummies scattered about. Large vultures circle low over the hills as if in search of mummified meat. Bleached bones and parts of bodies are everywhere on the ground, and crunch under your foot. Great piles and hills of bones bleach under a hot sun. I have seen plenty of mummies and in all states of decomposition, etc., but it has never affected me as this morbid scene did. Cold chills were continually running up and down my back. While walking among the hills I saw a fox walking up through a stony ravine sporting a fine bushy tail. Just around the corner of the hill is what appears to be a large city of small houses, walled in, and domes. It stretches far out over the sand along the border of the fertile tract. This is a Moslem graveyard. When the warm sun began to drop down toward a rim of sand, I wended my way back to Assint, this time through the native bazaar where tin-makers and other craftsmen worked at their trades while languid curious persons puffed lazily at water pipes. My luggage was parked at the Grand Hotel, where I returned to write a letter. The establishment more nearly resembles a gambling joint where the male population of the city play furiously at dominoes.

A meal of rice, potatoes, and pickled onions helped to pass the hours until the 10:15 train left for Cairo. My usual good luck prevailed, or perhaps it was because I was a “lucky prince,” for though the car was jammed full, I got a seat almost immediately. Packed in as a sardine, there was little or no hope of sleep, so I sat up all night and read a guide book—on Egypt.

I came out of a doze to find the train slowing down for Gizah. Grabbing up the heavy knapsack, I climbed over the people parked in the aisle and [went] out the door. It was just six. I left my baggage at the station and soon caught a bus along the road to Badrashein, arriving there some twenty minutes after. And what a wild ride. The driver strained the lizzy-bus to its utmost and thought nothing of bumps. Between the hard seat and two chicken crates that insisted in sliding all over me, I had a great time, mostly spent between the seat and the roof. The sun rose over the squatty cliffs across the Nile just as it had set in Luxor.

Memphis brought out nothing new except a giant status of Ramses II, 42 feet long and laying in a mud hut, which I missed on the first trip. When I got to Sakkarah on the edge of the desert, a guide attached himself to the party and refused to leave. Finally I decided to let him have a lesson, so when he demanded piastres near the Step Pyramid, I told him what I thought of him and guides in general. Still he insisted, so I stuffed the camera in my jacket and got down to business. He looked surprised and started to hit me with his staff, but changed his mind and probably cussed and cursed me up and down as I left him standing along on the sandy desert. We must have been a ludicrous sight, arguing and gesticulating way out there in a deserted desert. I seem to have acquired the habit of helping my vocal efforts with my hands.

Mort had especially wanted me to see the Tomb of the Thi and those of the Apis Bulls, etc. where the sacred bulls were mummified and buried in huge caves or tombs dug out from the bedrock under the sand. When I got to the Step Pyramid and saw all of these excavations of old temples, the idea of returning to Gizah in time to catch the ten o’clock train for Cairo vanished. Instead, the desire just to nose about dominated and I did it so well that I found a head, from an old statue, of blue glazed stone. It is small and well worn, but if the excavations about the Step Pyramid are anything near the age of the Step Pyramid, then my relic must be nearly 6,000 years old.

A group of pyramids and tombs to the south I felt sure was the place I wished to visit, so off I trekked across the sand hills after inspecting a smaller pyramid near the Step Pyramid. The way led past the ruins of a couple pyramids through a dry oasis and to extensive excavations near another old pyramid, and nearby a huge crude edifice that resembled the base of a pyramid chopped off at forty feet from the ground and built of mammoth blocks, much worn by sand and time. On one side—the north—a small door, barred and locked, led down a step incline to the depths of the earth and darkness. This shaft was slightly over three feet square.

I could not locate the man who had the key. A rest from walking across the stony sand felt good, and while I was thus occupied a man-servant came from a large hut two hundred yards distant, and invited me to follow him there as a man wished to see me. A small clean-cut man greeted me in English at the door and invited me to tea.

Ahmad Yousef proved a very entertaining host. He is an artist, poet, author of ten books on art and including one on marriage, and at the time is working for the government in the excavations, restoring ruins of temples, etc. To quote him: “I am the most wonderful artist in Egypt. But since my brother has returned from England where he studied portraits, he is the best portrait painter in Egypt. I have not done that sort of work since 1924 and now it is too hard for my eyes.” Walls covered with paintings and sketches proved that he had ability. And all of this at the age of 25, after 7 years of teaching himself to paint without the aid of school. He showed me many of his works and articles and covers of magazines which he had done. Lunch followed, served by a man who acted as servant. Then we examined his kodak pictures, etc. which are extremely well done. He gave me many showing the life of Egypt and said he would send me more in the future. [Ah, that’s why Hall’s photos suddenly improved in Port Said.] Finally he sketched me, but didn’t like it. I left at four with two hours and a quarter to get a train to Cairo. He sent two boys with me to show me the shortest way. These had a great time clearing the path of natives for me and chasing the kids away who followed begging for baksheesh. I felt like a king on parade. Tombs that I had planned to visit were left unvisited for I had gone the wrong way from the Step Pyramid.

In Badrashein again at 5:20, I got a bus to Gizah. These always ramble along at fine speed, but as luck would have it, this driver fooled around so long that I didn’t reach Gizah till six, so it was too late to make the 6:15. This went against the grain for I had my mind set on being in Port Said that night and this Missouri-mule stubbornness is hard to down once it has a hold. Now time was no object, so I walked the four or five miles back to town. Before I had gone far, my feet began to protest, and by the time the Regent Hotel loomed before me, I was dragging. While crossing the main drag, a man about four feet from me was run down by an auto. Fortunately, instead of running on up over him and over his head, the wheel pushed him along the street before it some six feet, only banging him up generally.

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