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Cruising the Nile by Luxury Riverboat

Martin Morrell Leaving Aswan at daybreak.

Photo: Martin Morrell

I went to meet François Larché, a French architect who has worked at Karnak for over 20 years, and who runs the Open-Air Museum there. I walked past a chapel flanked by two broken pink obelisks that are facsimiles put in place to hold up the structure’s fragile walls. Larché arrived about 20 minutes late, a tall, thin man with blue eyes, pale gray shorts, and a wide-brimmed straw boater. The museum was blissfully tranquil, enabling one to visit the reconstructed buildings in peace. (Larché had once tried to get the authorities to approve a single admission to Karnak and the Open-Air Museum to draw more visitors, but since that would result in staff reductions, it could not be agreed to.) The Red Chapel of Queen Hatshepsut, with its black granite and red quartzite walls, is a modernist’s dream—a smooth solid block with a single portal on a façade that is slightly higher than the roof. Under Larché’s supervision, 315 original blocks, which until 1997 had lain side by side, were fitted, along with newly carved blocks of the requisite dimensions, to form the structure. Larché pointed to the walls of the Amenhotep chapel whose striated alabaster walls, he said, resembled “moiré silk.” The reconstructed buildings are particularly moving as a work of the imagination: any missing pieces were replaced, but unlike the original ones, bear no reliefs—proving that architecture might be reproduced quite convincingly, but not art.

Larché explained how the buildings are being reconstructed, puzzled together piece by piece as more funds become available. “Archaeology,” he said, “is very political. Sometimes our work is interrupted for months.” All of the buildings and fragments in Karnak’s Open-Air Museum come under his supervision, except for two temples that Henri Chevrier, the first Frenchman to have participated in this particular dig, had assembled beginning in the 1920’s.

As Larché and I headed toward the exit, I asked him, “Are you used to the heat?” He said that no, he hated the heat, that one never got used to it. His hands were worn, like a workman’s hands, the skin cracking and taut. On the main street of Karnak we ran into a guard who greeted Larché and complained he was tired. Larché said, “All the guards at Karnak are tired.” This one had asked him for a bicycle, and Larché joked he’d get him an armchair on wheels instead.

I wasn’t tired, but as i returned to Al Moudira for coffee with Zeina and prepared to leave Luxor, it occurred to me that I had spent a good deal of my time on the Nile in a kind of daze—daydreaming, observing the rhythms of river life. The Sudan is a beautiful floating world, smaller than the smallest island. If I close my eyes, I feel I am still on it, happily adrift.

Gini Alhadeff is a T+L contributing editor.

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