Egypt 3: Luxor

Abby had booked us a private tour for the day so we woke up early, had a relatively decent hotel breakfast, and went to the lobby to meet our tour guide. We saw one of Abby’s colleagues from the conference in Cairo, who had also come to Luxor and was waiting for her private tour guide as well. Sure enough, the tour operator in Cairo had seen that two parties of Americans had wanted a private tour of Luxor, and she had put us together. Fortunately, Abby’s colleague Devinia was very nice and we all got along.

We drove out to the Valley of the Dead on the west bank of the Nile. (The east side is the side of the living, the west side is the side of the dead. The valley itself had been chosen as the burial place for the kings because one of the mountain peaks formed a natural pyramid.) The guide, Mohammed, was very knowledgeable, and he started by simply explaining to us in detail what we were going to see when we walked into the tombs – what key hieroglyphics meant, how the tombs were structured, what the figures on the wall represented – so when we walked in to each tomb, we understood what we saw. (Guides are not allowed in the tombs, to avoid stopping the flow of traffic.)

Suitably armed, we first went into the tomb of Ramses IV (who ruled 1151 BC – 1145 BC). No photography is allowed inside the tomb, so you will have to believe me when I tell you that the walls were resplendant with color – bright yellow plaster covered with hieroglyphics in red and blue, drawings of gods, men and animals in browns and whites and greens – everything was bright and crisp, especially considering that these things are more than 3000 years old. We then went into King Tutankhamen’s (ruled 1333 BC – 1324 BC) tomb. Because Tut died at 18, his tomb was barely finished: a long staircase down, then a small anteroom and the main burial chamber, with a small storage room off to the side. This was nothing like Ramses IV’s tomb, which had a long entry corridor, a magnificant burial chamber and large storage room, and was richly decorated. In fact, according to our guides, the workmen began to build each Pharaoh’s tomb as soon as he came into power, and they kept working on them until he died, at which point they had 70 days to finish the tomb while the body was being embalmed. However, it seems that they hadn’t been working on Tut’s tomb for 9 years, so who knows. Anyway, Tut’s tomb did include the mummy in a glass case, which had just been installed some weeks before, so we were fortunate to see it.

We then went into the tomb of Ramses I (ruled 1292 BC -1920 BC), which, after the tomb of Ramses IV, was not especially beautiful, and then the tomb of Ramses IX (ruled 1129 BC – 1111 BC) which, unlike the others, had hieroglyphics painted at the entrance. We were allowed to take pictures of these. One of the surprising things we saw were red and black lines on the plaster: after the tomb was carved out and the plasterers had covered the walls, the artists would draw the hieroglyphics to be carved into the plaster red ink. The master artists would then make any needed corrections in black ink. We could still see some of these ancient “proofreader’s marks” on the walls.

Throughout the tour, we were given about 10 minutes in each of the latter three tombs after we’d had our “orientation visit” in the first one. We assumed that Mohammed was keeping us to a timetable to keep us on track for the day; yet when we left the Valley of the Kings for our second stop of the day, he let us take all the time we wanted. This stop was an alabaster “museum” near the valley entrance – one of many – which of course turned out to be a gift shop but with a demonstration of how alabaster pottery is made in front to give the enterprise some educational value. Real alabaster is beautiful – it’s a translucent stone with veins of color, so it’s especially good for holding candles, but it also is can make lovely statues and plates and such. Between the three of us, we ended up dithering there for an hour before we settled on (and haggled our way through) our purchases. Mohammed made no effort to rush us on our way, and in fact urged us to look at each shelf of goods carefully. I have no complaint with him receiving a commission on any sale he brings into the shop, but he was willing to sacrifice our time at the antiquities for a few bucks. Again, I could feel the hand attached to the long arm of the Egyptian tourist industry feeling its way into my pocket.

We then proceeded to our second stop, Queen Hatshepsut’s temple to the sun god Amun-Ra. Again, Mohammed gave us a detailed explanation of what we were going to see (and also told us a fascinating story of how he and his siblings found a burial chamber with six mummies in it under their home when he was a kid). Queen Hatshepsut ruled from 1473 BC to 1458 BC, and was the second and most successful woman to have ruled Egypt. At first she served as regent for her step-son Thutmose III after the death of his father, Thutmose II, but the boy then disappeared and Hatshepsut took the throne herself. She justified her rule by proclaiming her own divinity, claiming that Amun-Ra had impregnated her mother. When she died and Thutmose III took the throne, he had many of her faces and cartouches chiseled out of the temples and monuments she had built. Some people can’t take a joke, I guess.*

Queen Hatshepsut’s temple; two photos of statues of the Queen, all restored; other statuary in the side courtyard.

Paintings of the gods Horus, Anubis, Osiris; Abby and me.
The Collosei at Memnon; ancient graffiti the leg of on one of them.

From here it was on to the Colossei at Memnon, two sixty-foot statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. They are all that remain of the temple he had built for himself during his reign (1391 BC – 1353 BC). While they were not the inspiration for Ozymandias, they could just as well have been … The statue on the right was ruptured during an earthquake in 27 BC. Afterward, people could hear it “sing” every morning: as dew evaporated within the cracks, the vapor caused a low moan or whistling to emit from the statue. The statue became known as an oracle and was famous throughout the known world at that time, but in 119, Emperor Septimius Severus repaired the statue, causing it to cease its singing.

We drove home, and after a rest, decided to walk into the souk before heading off to the evening’s main attraction, the Sound and Light Show at the Temple of Karnak. The souk was more of what we’d experienced in Cairo – each hawker standing in front of a gaudy pile of statuettes, cheap hookahs, costume jewelry, scarves and shirts with his come-on of “Hello, Madam!”, “Come look!” and so on, and it was just too depressing, so we walked into the locals’ area to escape. We saw vegetable stands with the biggest vegetables we’d ever seen – cauliflower the size of soccer balls – butchers, piles of spices, barbers, men sitting in front of a cafe television set, and almost everyone ignored us. This was the fascinating stuff that I realized I could never capture on film, not without being incredibly conspicuous and rude (and possibly getting beaten up).

The Sound and Light Show was overlong and cheesy, but the setting itself was astonishing. I’ll describe it in the next posting; suffice it to say for now that the Temple of Karnak is on an unimaginable scale. Devinia left us after the show, and Abby and I went back into the souk for a cup of tea, a shisha, and more punishment at the hands of the traders. However, Abby had to buy gifts for her co-workers, and we were lucky enough to fall into one scarf and shirt store where the salesman was polite and laid-back, so we had our sole successful and enjoyable shopping experience in Egypt.

*I saw Thutmose II’s and III’s mummies at the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. The preservation was incredible, even the eyelids and gums were still intact.

Author: cohn17

Photographer and baker of macarons.

%d bloggers like this: