When you’re at school in France, everyone learns about ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian civilisations, and you often start to be obsessed with one. If you liked sports and organisation, you probably loved Rome; if you liked politics and philosophy, you probably favoured Greece; and if you liked animals, mystery, illustration and fantasy you might be more drawn to Egypt. I loved the Egyptian gods who were half-human, half-animal; the mythology; the statues – the sphinxes and the obelisks – and the architecture. One book I particularly loved featured a huge picture of a temple built into the mountain: the temple of Hatshepsut, at Deir el-Bahri on the West Bank in Luxor. As it emerged from a piece of rock, I saw something so special in the transition from something very raw to something very finished.
It was easy for my love of Ancient Egypt to grow. When you are born and raised in Paris, even if you have just a little interest in Egypt, you can see it everywhere. Yes, in the Louvre, but also in the streets – in the Place de la Concorde you have an obelisk, or you have fountains with sphinxes. And every French schoolchild learns about Napoleon on the top of the pyramids, saying, “Soldiers, remember that from the top of these pyramids, 40 centuries of history contemplate you.” In the cinema I loved Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor; in books, there was Astérix et Cléopâtre.
The first time I actually went to Egypt, I was 17, with a schoolfriend, and we stayed with François Larché, who was director of the French excavation mission at the Karnak Temple. So while I was definitely a tourist, I felt a little bit more, because I was at the heart of this thing that is very important in Egypt – the excavation of antiquities. And rather than visit the Giza pyramids, the biggest and most famous, I was recommended by friends to visit the Dahshur pyramids. I remember going inside, alone rather than part of a big crowd, and the experience was penetrating – going deeper and deeper inside the heart of that huge stone building with no light was incredibly impressive, but also liberating. I had no anxiety; it wasn’t like going inside a cave, very much the opposite. It was illuminating, almost like going into a vein, and knowing that at the top there is the heart – the heart of the tomb. As a teenager, I felt as if something was telling me that there are greater things; bigger things than myself. I had this feeling that a lot of big things were waiting for me, and that I had to let my eyes be opened. I went back to Egypt the next year, and the next; and then I started going every year.
Now I have a house in Luxor and a boat on the Nile and I visit at least twice a year – in October and April – for the opening and closing of The Colossi of Memnon mission, which I became a patron of a few years ago. My neighbour, Hourig Sourouzian, started the excavation in the late 1990s; if you look at postcards, drawings or paintings of The Colossi of Memnon around 50 years ago, you’ll see two big colossi, around 14m high, and behind them a piece of land that’s completely flat. Now, instead of having only two big colossi, you also have a forest of columns – 113 statues of the goddess Sekhmet, and two more colossi at the very end, and an outline of a temple. It has changed completely; the transformation is like the emergence of Atlantis.
After Hourig’s long-term patron stepped back, I decided to become involved. Not just because she is my neighbour and works there every day with a smile on her face, whatever the conditions, but because it’s such an amazing place – you scratch the surface and you find something. I feel very privileged to be able to help continue that discovery, and it gives me pleasure knowing that I’m participating in something that is going to be seen by so many people for years, and a celebration of the ancient civilisation that the Egyptian people are so proud of. Again, it’s something which is bigger than yourself, but which will stay forever.
My love of Egypt has developed over a very long time, but I always felt that I had a strong connection. And then, funnily enough, eight years ago, I discovered that my real father was Egyptian. My older sister told me that I was the child of my mother and her Egyptian lover. I never even thought that my mother had a lover; my parents were a very solid couple. But while I was shocked, the news went into my body immediately and I completely accepted it, no problem.
When I came back to Egypt, I thought, I’m going to touch the land and feel Egyptian, or whatever. But nothing happened! I mean, you know, life kept on. Nothing changed. But I still have that connection. It’s ingrained.
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