January 30 – February 2, 2009
We reached Luxor at the end of our Felucca tour. After checking out a few hotels we settled on the Nubian Oasis Hotel, a relaxed place with a Bob Marley theme (the universal appeal of Bob Marley continues to impress us).
Johan, Matt & Laura
We met a few people on our minibus ride to Luxor. First there was Johan, a Belgian who we first saw in our Abu Simbel tour. Then there was a Canadian couple, Matt & Laura. Matt and Laura are doing their own several-month trip. They started in India and during one conversation they mentioned how in India there are always three prices: the locals price (cheap), the tourist price (expensive), and the Israeli tourist price (in the middle). They always looked for an Israeli traveling companion as a way of getting better deals. For Pnina and I it was hilarious to hear this story because all this time we pretended to be Jeff & Nina, a 100% American couple (fearing that as Israelis we would invite anger considering the war in Gaza that just ended). At one point Matt turned to “Nina” and said “you have kind of an odd accent”, to which she replied “yeah, people tell me that.” 🙂 Anyhow, this trio became our traveling companions for the next week because we all happened to have the same itinerary (first Luxor, then Dahab). And “Nina” and I did eventually confess our true identities to them in email after we reached Israel. They understood.
By the way, another thing Matt & Laura mentioned is that earlier in their trip they tried to enter Iran overland, going westward, but they were not able to get a visa for independent travel. Apparently there was some kind of diplomatic tiff between Canada and Iran not long ago. So maybe it’s no longer so great for Americans to pretend to be Canadian in sensitive places; now you need to be a New Zealander or something like that.
Final thing. Not only did Matt and Laura know our dice game (10,000), they also knew a different variation that turned out to be a lot better than ours.
Drinking and playing dice – “Nina”, Matt, Laura, Johan:
Luxor itself was a pleasant enough place to hang out, though definitely touristy. You couldn’t walk two feet without someone offering you a sunset felucca ride. And if it wasn’t that then it was a carriage ride or chachkis at the markets.
A huge poster of president Mubarak greets you as you enter Luxor. He looks like Italian mafia, right?
A mosque in the central square by the water:
A carriage with tourists rolling by The Temple of Luxor:
Huge statues in the same temple as seen from the mosque above (so as to avoid paying entry):
Someone taking a sunset Felucca ride:
The pigeon dish we had one evening. Yup, we ate pigeon. It looks big but under the roasted skin it’s 80% rice, 20% meat:
West Bank Tour
The city of Luxor straddles the Nile. The bulk of businesses and accommodations on the east side but the most interesting sites on the west side. Pnina and I signed up for a “West Bank Tour” through our hotel. It was cheaper than trying to go on our own, with a private taxi, and as a bonus we also had a guide so we learned a few things.
First stop: Valley of the Kings
To the ancient Egyptians, the pyramid shape represented a connection between mortal life and the afterlife. That’s why the ancient pharos build pyramid-shaped tombs for themselves. The trouble is that these pyramids stood out and were magnets for grave robbers. So, later pharos looked for an alternative, and what many of them opted for was a natural setting (say, a mountain) that happens to be very much pyramid-shaped. The biggest natural setting for tombs is on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor. This “necropolis” has a few sections including the valley of the kings, the valley of the queens, and other locations for nobles and craftsmen.
The scheme to “hide” pharaoh tombs in natural settings didn’t pan out very well. Out of the 62 tombs in the valley of the kings, all but one were robbed after all. The one tomb that remained unrobbed belongs to Tutankhamen – his tomb was spared because the entrance was covered up by rubble when another higher-up tomb was robbed. Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter and it was a very big deal. So, although Tutankhamen was not a particularly important pharaoh, the fact that only his tomb was found undisturbed means that he’s one of the better known pharaohs. The treasures from his tomb are housed in the museum at Cairo (and it’s quite a huge loot).
At the entrance to the valley of the kings we saw this diorama that shows where all the different tombs are located along the valley. Each of the tombs starts with a tunnel leading into the ground towards one or more burial chambers where the king’s mummified body lied along with his treasures.
Diorama showing the location of tombs in the Valley of the Kings:
We also found this interesting diagram showing how the tombs were constructed.
It was a three-step process. First diggers dig the general shape of the tomb – the tunnel and rooms. Then craftsmen come along to smooth the walls and apply plaster. Finally artisans come along to carve hieroglyphics and statues in the plaster and to paint them. The fact that the ancient Egyptians used plaster was kind of a let down, to me. I always associated plaster with mock-Egyptian decor in Las Vegas, but now I have to come to terms with the fact that the Vegas Luxor Hotel might actually be more authentic in its construction than I imagined. Regardless, the impressive thing about the tombs at the valley of the kings is that the drawings on the walls are very well preserved, more so than at any other place we saw in Egypt. You can still see vivid colors (blues, reds, yellows, etc.), even though all these paints were organic (e.g. yellow was made from egg yolks) and were applied more than 3000 years ago. Amazing.
The Egyptians believed that the transition from mortal life to after-life involves the pharaoh going through 14 gates, each of which offers a new challenge. For example, one challenge is to get by a 3-headed snake. The drawings and scripts on the walls of the burial chamber illustrate these scenes and are intended to help the pharaoh pass the 14 gates. You also see a lot of drawings of the jackal-god, which is the Egyptian god of mummification. Why the jackal? Because before the process of mummification was created, Egyptians would leave dead bodies out for jackals to consume, so jackals became associated with death (though not exactly in a bad way).
Of the 62 tombs at the valley of the kings, only some are available for the public to see, and of those your guide chooses three to visit. We visited the tombs of Ramses IV, Thutmosis III, and a combo tomb for queen Tausert and king Setnakht. All had impressive drawings. Thutmosis’s was special in that you had to climb deep into the earth to find the burial room, and surprisingly the deeper you went the hotter it got (normally it gets cooler as you enter a cave, no?). We weren’t allows to take photos anywhere inside, so we’ve included some scanned postcards to give an idea of what the paintings were like.
Carts waiting to take us the (maybe) 200 meters from the entrance to the tombs (lame):
The entrance to Tutankhamen’s tomb (we did not enter this one):
Climbing up towards Thutmosis III’s tomb:
Since photography was not allowed inside the tombs, we picked up some postcards outside the valley of the kings. These images show different tombs than the ones we entered, but the general style of the artwork is the same.
Next stop: Temple of Queen Hatshepsut
This temple was built for the first female pharaoh – Hatshepsut. The temple is very modern-looking, even by today’s standards, so you can imagine how radical it looked 3000 years ago. To keep the temple unique the queen had the architect killed at the end of construction.
To become queen Hatshepsut had to play a dirty trick. If I recall the story correctly, she killed her brother and invented a story saying that she herself is half-god. Also, she pretended to be a man by wearing a big fake beard all the time. Her brother’s son eventually took revenge, killing Queen Hatshepsut and taking the throne for himself. He also damaged a lot of the artwork in Hatshepsut’s temple, though the basic structure remains.
Next stop: Valley of the Queens
Pretty similar to the valley of the kings. We saw the tombs of Queen Titi and Amon Her Hopshef, and in general they were not as impressive as the kings’ tombs we saw earlier. We heard that the best tomb here is that of Queen Nefertari (not to be confused with Nefertiti), but that tomb has a special price: 20,000 LE for a 10 minute visit with no photos allowed. Holy crap!
Final stop: The Colossi of Memnon
Just a couple big statues on the side of the road – you don’t even need a ticket to see them (pretty unusual in Egypt). These statues used to stand guard in front of a mortuary temple for the king Amenhotep III. That temple is gone, though, and all that remains is the huge statues.
The next day we visited the Karnak temple. It’s on the east side of the river, north of central Luxor. This temple is a huge complex that was started around 2000 BC and was expanded over the next 2000 years by successive pharaohs. The best part of the temple is a large room supported by 134 huge columns. Laura described this room saying “it’s like walking in a Redwood forest”, which we think is a pretty good description. After the columns, the other parts of Karnak temple are less impressive, but it’s still fun to wander around the complex.
A long line of ram statues guard the entrance:
Walking through the “Redwood forest” of columns:
Heavy-duty restoration work in the southern part of the temple complex: