Photo essay published at Matador Network.
It is just after 5 a.m. and our tour group is being herded onto a boat for the second morning in a row. We had made the same trip across to the Nile’s western bank yesterday, but a fierce wind had prevented us from boarding our waiting hot air balloons and making our planned flight over Ancient Thebes.
So we woke with our alarms at the same time this morning and stumbled down to the hotel’s reception, grabbing two packs of inadequate Nescafe to stir into our cups of boiling water. There was a mild panic before one of our group, the American, appeared at the last second, complaining that the hotel had neglected to provide him with a wake-up call. The Australian girl and I rolled our eyes in his direction; he’s 53 years old and apparently ever in need of supervision. Later on today he will put his faith in a stranger he meets at the Post Office and jump on the back of his motorbike to be taken to his home for lunch and to, inevitably, be sold something. “Would you do that in America?” Our tour leader asks him and he quickly shakes his head. “Well then why do it here?”
A warm red starts to color the sky as workers rush around rigging up baskets and examining the rising balloons, which soon dwarf them. Drafts of flames flare up, warming the chilly morning, and the first balloon rises skyward, aided by the tugging of a small group of men bundled up as if this were the Arctic.
I had originally dismissed the idea of a hot air balloon ride as a bit tacky. I was feeling more inclined to break from my tour group than to undertake yet another of those arranged ‘activities’ that we were methodically expected to join and of which I was tiring; the camel ride, the donkeys, the horse-and-carriage… I had no wish for another tourist activity – though, of course, every move I made in Egypt was unavoidably a tourist activity. Learning that it was archaeologists mapping the area that had first thought of it lent the balloon ride enough credibility to get over my creeping indignation and sign up for the trip.
An eighty-six year-old Australian man has to be lifted into the basket; the rest of us hop up and over, balanced on the shoulder of our pilot Mohammad. As some of the other balloons start to rise we are given our safety talk; it consists of telling us to crouch down in the basket. I’m the slowest to move and discover that there will not be enough room for all of us to take the emergency landing position. While I am half-standing, half-crouching, squeezed between two trip mates, a couple in our group starts to talk about a ballooning disaster in New Zealand. It doesn’t even cause me to flinch; death hosts this trip, it hangs in the sky as much as the tear-shaped balloons.
Our own balloon ascends, rising with the dawn sun. It drifts gently and peacefully across the lifeless desert. Viewing the area from above, I understand something of why this vast, empty space should have been chosen as the site to create a whole city of death. Beneath us lies the Theban Necropolis, testament to an ancient obsession with death and resurrection. It is strange, unusually beautiful and very peaceful. From tombs, to mummies, to pyramids and mortuary temples, the entire trip has been preoccupied with death and it brings a strange sense of peace to just yield to it.
Like a ghost ship we sail past waking villages and great monuments. We float over the Colossi of Memnon – two massive statues that have stood in place for 3400 years and once guarded the mortuary temple of Amenophis III – and the Ramesseum – mortuary temple of Ramses II. Other balloons in the distance drift in front of the morning sun, casting a heavenly glow across the sky. Mohammad keeps pointing out the Temple of Hatshepsut and the Tombs of the Nobles, and I sense that we are not really moving anywhere; just hanging suspended and lost someplace between land and sky; life and death, past and present. In near silence we float for close to an hour like this before making an effortless landing in a sugar cane field tended by an unmoved farmer.
The ground crew rushes towards us and gets to work while the farmer casually smokes a cigarette. Most likely, he’s seen this ritual before and will see it again the next day and then the next. Insha’Allah. Snapping my thoughts back into the present, the engine of our waiting van starts up; the crew yell at each other in that indecipherable Egyptian way that could be either an expression of love or of anger; commemorative certificates are dispersed, someone tries to sell us a DVD, and a hat comes out for baksheesh for everybody. The stuttering wheel of the Egyptian tourism industry grinds on.