LUXOR: The monuments of Luxor are no strangers to international tourism. In Greco-Roman times visitors marvelled at the twin colossi flanking the entrance of Amenhotep III’s temple on Luxor’s west bank.
Amenhotep III’s name had been forgotten in the 1,300 years between his death and their visit, and so these travellers named the statues the Colossi of Memnon, after the son of Dawn, a mythical African hero killed by the Greek Achilles.
These statues – their faces now erased, and the temple they once guarded become no more than a floor-plan – are well into their fourth millennium. The sight of four coach-loads of tourists rolling past at 7 am on an August morning would not have been unusual for them.
But this convoy, complete with outriders from the tourism police, was not your average group of sun-burnt Britons or Germans, following Thomas Cook’s itinerary.
Some 150 young people from three continents and more than 20 countries had been brought together for 10 days to explore the treasures of Upper Egypt.
Two came from Ethiopia, the country of Memnon. Five from Italy, the home of Belzoni, the 19th-century Egyptologist and discoverer of Abou Simbel. Ten came from Morocco, whose famous Ibn Battuta came as far as Luxor in the 14th century.
On the last night, moored at Luxor, Winny, 19, from Gabon, spoke to me on the roof-deck of our boat, named for the occasion the “Nile Ship for World Youth.” The boat’s original name, Nile Story, seemed to me just as appropriate.
To the west the mountains rose above the Valley of the Kings and the triple-stacked pillars of Queen Hatshepsut’s façade. The sun had recently set behind the mountains, and the mountains were artificially illuminated from below.
To the east, and barely a hundred yards from us, stood the columns of Luxor Temple, in the shape of bunches of closed papyrus plants. The top half of the temple’s remaining obelisk was visible through the V-shaped gap in the massive propylon, its granite reflecting the bluish white of the uplights. It was framed by the orange glow of the sandstone walls.
A neon sign announced “Allah” in green above the mosque built on top of the temple.
“I’ve discovered a lot of things. It’s so wonderful that I don’t have the words to explain what I’ve seen,” Winny told me.
“What particularly struck me were the mummies. Before, I used to think that it was made-up. But now I’ve seen that they’re real. That really blew me away.”
For most of the participants in the trip it was their first time to Egypt, and for many also their first time to Africa.
“I used to want to visit Egypt for many years, but I didn’t have the opportunity… So I’m happy now to see all these places,” said Pelin, 25, a youth worker from Ankara, Turkey.
Dialogue, dancing and temples
The journey was organized by the Egyptian National Council for Youth, under the theme of “Dialogue and Mutual Understanding.” The trip, which began on August 5, was timed to coincide with the launch of the UN’s International Year of Youth with the same theme, on August 12.
As we pursued a relentless schedule of temples visits – Abydos, Dendera, Edfou, Philae, Kom-Ombo, Hatshepsut, Karnak, Luxor – it was clear that there was no lack of dialogue between the excellent guides and the group, nor of imagined dialogue and mutual understanding between pharaohs and their gods.
However, amid this busy timetable many began to wonder when and how dialogue among participants – beyond commenting on the extreme heat, the immense size of the columns, and the anti-social hour of the wake-up calls – was going to take place and foster the sought-after mutual understanding.
For my own part, being naturally skeptical of any event which aims to achieve anything as vague as “mutual understanding” in a period of time as short as 10 days, I was not so worried about when the all-important cultural exchange would take place, trusting in the natural sociability and curiosity of young people to win through eventually.
In the evenings, as our boat plied its course to our next moorings, delegations from each country made national presentations. These ranged from the slick and slightly stilted Turkish presentation, to the charmingly ad hoc Italian effort, which involved grabbing a plate of pasta from the restaurant at the last minute.
These gave people the opportunity to learn about others’ countries and cultures. Traditional food, costumes, music and dancing often accompanied the presentations.
The energy and infectious smiles of the Japanese pair, Tomomi and Yuko, and of the Ethiopian pair, Yohannes and Jeba, probably did as much for their country’s tourism as any number of ministry-approved promotional videos.
The national presentations were the only formal effort to encourage cultural exchange. And the majority of the information conveyed could have been gleaned more quickly and accurately by browsing Wikipedia.
But that was not the point. As the Burundians, the Kenyans, the Moroccans, the Czechs, the Ugandans, and many others, got the audience on their feet to dance at the end of their presentations, the atmosphere for the rest of the evening was set.
Whether or not people had yet had the chance to meet and talk, whether or not they even spoke a language in common, they danced and joked together until the small hours. Conversations continued on the open-air top deck, even as the pre-dawn glow appeared.
A Nile cruise is something many people dream of. The sense of sharing a very special trip on a unique river seemed strong enough to bring together people of very different backgrounds, let alone countries: Tanzanian students of Al-Azhar university, Austrian high school students, a Moroccan engineering student, Kenyan youth workers.
International Year of Youth
The climax of the trip came at the temple complex of Karnak. A ceremony was held on August 12 to celebrate the start of the UN’s International Year of Youth.
On the same day Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, launched the initiative in the General Assembly Hall in New York, announcing that “youth should be given a chance to take an active part in the decision-making of local, national and global levels.”
We were treated first to Karnak’s sound and light show: a cast of echoing voices told the history of the temples’ active life – a period greater than the age of Islam.
Groups of excitable children from Luxor then joined the delegations of young people from across world in front of Karnak’s façade. Warm words concerning cooperation between countries, cultural understanding, dialogue, and youth involvement, were expressed by Luxor’s Governor, Samir Farag, and, via a recorded message, Suzanne Mubarak, the President’s wife, under whose auspices the trip was held.
The passengers of the Nile Ship for World Youth delivered a message in 10 languages, their flags held by their friends behind them. Clusters of helium balloons were released. Two clusters had posters of President Mubarak and Suzanne Mubarak attached to them, but these were two heavy to take air.
“I learnt about Egypt in history in high school, about the kingdoms of Egypt and the pyramids. And I used to wish to come to Egypt, and now I have been successful,” Jeba, from Ethiopia, told me.
“The biggest challenge in this world that I see is exploiting diversity,” he continued, “and learning about the diversity of other countries while traveling on the Nile is the beauty of this international youth program.”
Youth delegates deliver a letter to the world in 10 languages in front of Karnak temple. (Photos by Scott Liddle)