Sport 8: Autumn 1992
Luxor, home to a host of famous Pharaoic temples and tombs, is a charming town provided you realise the locals have been catering to tourists for the past four thousand years. It has obviously taught them not to underestimate our stupidity.
'Psst, sir!' hissed a stall owner from behind a table of tacky souvenirs, carved from snot-yellow alabaster. He looked theatrically back and forth, then from under the folds of his jelabiya produced a badly focused photograph of a tomb painting, set into a broken plaque fashioned from bandages and plaster of paris.
'Robbed from a mummy in the Valley of Kings. How much you want to pay?'
The Pharaoic tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens are indeed the two sights truly worth seeing at Luxor. Those who linger at demolition sites in New Zealand cities may appreciate the ruins of Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple and the Ramaseum, bearing in mind, of course, that these particular mountains of broken rubble lack the added interest of bulldozers at work.
A handful of burial chambers in the Valley of the Kings are, however, almost miraculously intact, with blue painted ceilings, gold leaf motifs around the walls, and figures of Horus, Isis and Ra in colours as vivid as if they had been painted yesterday.
The side rooms of one tomb featured scenes from the royal kitchen. They were in poor condition, but I managed nevertheless to make out a cook stirring a cauldron, and his assistant sitting over a group of smaller pots.
In another tomb a mural depicted a team of bakers. They would, indeed, have been very busy, as some thirty distinct varieties of bread were known to the ancient Egyptians: some raised, some flat, some with mashed dates mixed into the dough, some with milk, honey or eggs, plaited, made into cones, or into the shapes of bulls and geese.
The crudest type of flatbread, known as ta, was sold at street stalls as early as the 12th century BC, and together with beer and onions, formed the basic diet of the peasantry.
The rich and lordly, however, would hold three-day feasts, at which whole oxen would be spit roasted and served by dancing girls naked to the waist. Mullet caviar would be washed down with wine served in gold goblets, preceded by a good portion of boiled cabbage, which would, they wishfully believed, prevent drunkenness. Mushrooms were reserved for the page 196 Pharaoh himself, but the court partook also of cheese, stewed figs, fresh berries and pastries.
The Egyptians persisted for many centuries with attempts to breed and domesticate such wild beasts as the gazelle, antelope, ibex and oryx. Around 2200 BC, however, they gave up in disgust and went back to hunting and gathering the spoils of the marshes: berries, lotus root, fish and birds.
Ducks, quails and all kinds of small birds were hunted, some of which, according to Herodotus, were pickled in brine for a few days and then eaten raw. And Hipparchus, in the second century BC, noted disdainfully that the Egyptians were 'forever plucking quails and slimy magpies'.
Among the food remains excavated from a third century BC tomb was the remains of a pigeon stew, a dish still enormously popular in Egypt today. Given its reputation as the rat of the sky, I was not willing to eat pigeon reared in the urban filth of Cairo. In the relative cleanliness of the countryside around Luxor, however, they are to be seen everywhere, flying in and out of the elaborate spires into which they are enticed to breed, a clay pot set on its side into the mud wall for each family. At the tender age of four weeks, they are considered ready to eat.
Tender they certainly are too. I first got to taste this ancient delicacy in a sterile post-modern restaurant above a shopping arcade on the outskirts of Luxor. A small pile of the birds was brought on a platter. They had been simply halved, grilled, and sprinkled with lemon juice and chopped chervil, but needed nothing more: they were full of flavour, and tasted more like beef or lamb than any game bird or poultry.
Another taste from ancient Egypt was the mullet served at the Chez Farouk, a restaurant on the bank overlooking the Nile, done out with rusticated ceilings and walls of rush matting.
A tweedy Englishman whom we had invited to join us at the table pointed out the sights, including a 1920s steamboat berthed at the water's edge, the very one used in filming Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile.
Over a bottle of rude Egyptian Three Cats vodka ('Winner of International Exposition, Brussels, 1938-391 he told us he had been a teacher at a minor public school, but had taken early retirement after learning that 67 was the average life expectancy for a male who saw his full teaching career out. His time was now divided between Kent, Luxor and Aswan.
He recounted the tale of an elderly Englishwoman who lived in Aswan and proclaimed herself as the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian queen. page 197 'Perhaps the locals believed her, because after she died in 1981 they preserved her home as a shrine, just as she left it, with a bookcase with a few Agatha Christie and Daphne Du Maurier novels, and a tin of Nescafé on the kitchen table.'
Oh holy Nescafé.
He told us how the ancient Egyptian priests had worshipped the eel- to the point of encrusting certain live specimens with precious gems. They, of course never touched the flesh, but the laity commonly ate them, along with mullet, carp, perch and tigerfish.
As the feluccas with their prehistoric triangular sails paraded down the Nile at sunset, the mullet on the menu seemed the obvious choice.
'Oh, by all means order the mullet!' urged the Englishman. 'That is, of course, if you actually enjoy a little dice with The Grim Reaper. You know what happened to Peter Ustinov the morning after he ate the mullet here, don't you? Seriously, the Nile is really one great river of poison these days. Truly, you mustn't even dip your hands in-there are millions of parasites ready to permeate your skin and turn your liver into Swiss cheese.'
He unsteadily emptied the bottle of vodka and ordered another.
The mullet, grilled and served with a tarator sauce, was delicious, and my liver remains intact.