It’s been the sort of warm, muggy day on which I’ve never really quite woken up, and my rational mind has never really gotten into gear. On days like this, it’s my primitive reptilian mind that stirs into a sort of zombie consciousness, and memories boil up out of the ooze of forgetfulness, and come back to life:
I was in Luxor once, on the eve of the Gulf War. The town was almost empty of tourists, and so the archaeological sites I visited were all nearly empty. If any official said a place was closed, I’d pull out my wallet and ease out a banknote, and it would suddenly be open. That was how I got into one of the closed tombs in the Valley of the Kings, descending wooden steps in semi-darkness deep underground, until I stood alone in a large chamber beside an empty sarcophagus, and wondered if I’d ever get back out again.
After a week or so of trekking round tombs and funerary temples, it crossed my mind that everything was really very dead. The statues and the the hieroglyphs and the stones were all devoid of life. Even the birds and bees chiselled into the stones seemed lifeless.
And then one day, while I was sitting resting with my back against a wall of hieroglyphs, a bee or wasp flew up and started buzzing around my face. I tried to bat it away, but it kept coming back, and so eventually I got up and moved a few feet away. The bee promptly flew up to the wall, and landed on it, and vanished into a gap between the stones that had been right behind where my head had rested. I could see why it had been buzzing round my face: I’d been blocking the way to its nest.
But as it scuttled into the hole in the wall, I noticed that it looked exactly like a bee that was chiselled into the same wall, and was one of the symbols of the kings of Egypt. And with that, I realised that not everything was dead: the bees were still around, thousands of years after the temples had fallen into ruin.
A few days later, or maybe later on the same day, in the northern part of the vast precinct of the temple of Amun at Karnak, a large bird of prey – a falcon or a buzzard – alighted on top of a lamp post, and started plucking the feathers out of a bird it had caught. I walked very slowly towards it until it noticed me, and fixed me with its eyes, and then took off and glided away across the temple precinct. Not only were the bees still around, but the falcons were too. It was all coming to life a bit.
I continued walking slowly in the hot sun to a part of the temple precinct that I had yet to visit. But when I arrived there I found a gaggle of three or four Egyptian temple guards in front of the entrance.
“Is closed,” they said, wagging their fingers.
Wearily, I dug out my wallet, and pulled out a banknote which, I had been told, was worth a month’s wages in Egypt.
“Is open,” they said, suddenly all smiles. One of them got out a huge bunch of ancient keys, and unlocked the wrought iron gate, and let me in.
It turned out to be a huge disappointment. The temple inside had been almost completely flattened. There was absolutely nothing to look at. And so, more or less as soon as I had stepped inside it, I walked back out again.
To my surprise, the guards stopped me on the way out, and jabbered at me and waved their hands. I vaguely wondered whether, having bribed my way in, I’d have to bribe my way back out. But instead one of them took hold of my arm and began to lead me towards a little stone kiosk nearby, and up to the steel door barring its entrance.
The vast bunch of keys were produced again, and the steel door swung open, and clutching my arm, my guide led me into the darkness within.
It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. For it was not completely dark. There was a single small hole in the roof through which the light filtered downwards onto the uneven stone floor below. And directly beneath this light well there sat an impressive black basalt figure of a woman with a lion head, bathed in the wan light from the aperture above.
And it was with a terrific shock, as we approached, that I realised that the statue was alive! Muscles rippled on the surface its taut arms and legs. Its tensed lion head trembled and quivered. It seemed poised to spring, and to release titanic forces locked within it.
Alarmed, I pulled back. But my guide now gripped my arm with both hands, and with a vice-like grip dragged me unwillingly towards the terrifying thing. And taking my hand, pressed it first against the chest of the beast, and then against my own chest, three times, before leading me, shaken, back into the sunlight outside.
As I walked away, I turned once to look back. The guards were standing watching me as I walked away, and when they saw me turn, they raised their hands and waved to me. And I waved back.
Back at the hotel, over a few glasses of whisky, I wondered what on earth had happened. The statue really had seemed to be alive. Enough for me to instinctively pull back from it in alarm, just like I’d ducked out of the way of the wasp in my face. But it couldn’t have been alive, could it?
I eventually pieced together a rational explanation of what had happened. There had been three or four men at the gate, and only one of them had led me inside the kiosk. What had the others been doing? Why, they must have gone up onto the roof, and waved something – perhaps a mirror – over the narrow light well. And it was this rhythmic alteration of the light that created the illusion of life in the statue beneath, as the light from above played and flickered over it. It had all been rehearsed, many times over, for the past three thousand years. I hadn’t noticed the light flickering at the time, but it must have been.
Why had I been conducted on this tour? There was a simple explanation. I had handed over a lot of money to look at something, and I was clearly disappointed by it, and so they decided to make sure that I got my money’s worth. They were kind-hearted temple guards.
A few years later, in the British Museum, I came across a trio of large and very impressive statues of Sekhmet. They were so finely sculpted that they too almost seemed alive, and I couldn’t help but think that they might be brought fully to life if they were lit with a slightly flickering light, to create the illusion that the muscles in their limbs were moving, and the jaws of their lion heads were working.
All very rational, but on days like today, when my rational mind isn’t quite operational, I know quite well that I was led into the terrifying presence of the all-too-alive goddess Sekhmet, and initiated as one of her devotees, and will remain one for the rest of my days, having exchanged in that brief and timeless ceremony a little of my warm life for her cold, ferocious, stony heart. And one day, on a day perhaps augured first by a persistent bee, and then by a watchful falcon, she will come to demand my services in full measure, and I will be powerless to resist. For she is as real and alive as any bee or any bird.