Saturday, June 06, 2009
Luxor, Hatshepsut’s Temple, and the Valley of the Kings
We went to Egypt to relax, swim, snorkel, and of course windsurf (see my previous post). Nevertheless, when you go to Egypt (especially the first time around) and you have even a remote interest in archeology and/or culture, you must go and see the local sights, including various Egyptian temples, tombs, and of course the Pyramids. (Heck, even if you normally do not have an interest in archeology or culture, you must go and see these sights!). Personally, I love Egyptology anyway. How can you not? 5,000 years ago, these people already did stuff and had culture that some countries are even lacking to this day! 5,000 years! It is hard to imagine. To illustrate the point: I went to Delphi in Greece where things are 2,000 years old. Quite old one might think. But 2,000 years ago, when the Greek went to the Oracle in Delphi, the Sphinx was already older than Delphi is now! The old Egyptian stuff was already ancient, when other ancient stuff was still brand-spanking-new! It boggles the mind.
So when we went to the Red Sea, we intended to go on a few trips within Egypt to see some of this stuff. After doing some initial research , we decided to not arrange for anything ahead of time. I looked a few things up and decided that we could either do something on our own, or book a local tour. In the end, we used local tour organizers (“local” being an odd term in this sense, since all local organizers seem to be either German or British run). It actually turns out that that was the only way to go. Tourists can’t just rent cars in Egypt and drive around. I assume one could probably get a special permit or license or something if one lived there a long time, but for tourists, everyone simply told us it couldn’t be done. And that was OK with us in the end, because the tours were inexpensive. Besides, I have always felt that with a knowledgeable tour guide, a pile of rubble turns into an interesting archeological site full of stories, history, and excitement.
In the end, we decided to take two different tours. One to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, and the other (which I will blog about separately) to Cairo to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx (among other things). For both, there generally were two options. 1) be part of a larger tourist group, and 2) rent your own driver and guide in a single car. For the Luxor trip, we decided to go with option number 2, and as it turned out, it was by far the better deal. For just a few bucks more than in the group, we had our own car that went where we wanted and when we wanted, with the air condition set the way we wanted, and I guess theoretically with the music playing we wanted (although our guide had a somewhat odd taste – which included playing the same song a million times – which we let him get away with).
Our trip to Luxor started pretty early in the morning (5am if I remember correctly). Our guide with driver and car came to our hotel and picked us up. The hotel (Intercontinental Abu Soma) was nice enough to prepare to-go portions rather than our regular breakfast and dinner. Our first leg in this trip was to go to the nearest town, which was the starting location for the “convoy to Luxor”. As it turns out, Egypt is very particular about protecting tourists, and even though few incidents happened in the last decades, I guess it never hurts to err on the cautious side. For this reason, no tourist trips drive across country on their own, but instead, everyone has to be part of a convoy. Our particular convoy included several hundred vehicles, and we are told in the winter (which is high season) it could be ten times as many. The convoy includes a number of police cars, and as it turns out, along the path of the convoy, local security blocks off all other roads, and no other cars may drive at the same time. There even are scout cars that to ahead to make sure there isn’t anything undesirable the way, such as a car bomb. It seems to be quite a secure system. Not that it has ever really been needed. We are told there never were any incidents of any kind, and I guess the overall system makes sure it stays that way.
Driving in this convoy is a particular experience all in its own. For some reason, drivers seem to be compelled to pass each other vigorously (especially on the return trip when it gets late). I am not sure what the point of all this is, since nobody can actually pass the police car driving at the very front. I guess people just want to be among the first cars that get to the final destination. The result of all this is a mad scramble, and it seems to be best to not pay too much attention to it all, which will probably save you a few gray hairs.
Overall, this entire setup (especially with our personal car) worked out very well. Our guide was great (although he was mainly a German guide who didn’t know that we were mainly interested in English descriptions, but he did a great job speaking English too). We talked about anything, from Archeological sites to religion and Arab clothing. He was a very nice, open minded, and really smart guy, and it was very interesting to learn about more about Arab culture and the life of a modern Egyptian.
The Temple of Karnak
Our first stop was the Temple of Karnak in Luxor. `This is really a collection of various sites. Imagine it more like a town that grew over time with various temples and sites. All of it is a 5,000 year old open-air museum of vast proportions. This is also the second most visited archeological site in all of Egypt, second only to the Pyramids.
The entrance to the Temple of Karnak, with its gazillion visitors.
Pharaohnic statues at the Temple of Karnak
Even though this wasn’t the main tourist season, the place was packed with people when we were there. I was glad we had our own personal guide, so we could try to weave through all the other people and visit a few locations when they seemed the least busy. And there were all kinds of things to see here, from typical temples, to obelisks, and tons of statues and hieroglyphics. Amazingly, some of the drawings are still showing their original, 5,000 year old colors. It is hard to believe, but it is true. Can you imagine painting your house in a way that lasts 5,000 years?!?
Personally, I am quite interested in Egyptology, but I didn’t know all that much about the Temple of Karnak. It is a pretty cool sight, but it is also in some ways the least spectacular of all the places we went there (which is still more spectacular than just about any other archeological site I have ever seen). I think part of the reason for it being so popular is that this is right in the middle of Luxor and very easy to get to.
The Valley of the Kings
The second stop of the trip took us to the Valley of the Kings, the main reason for me to go on this particular trip. This is where a lot of the Pharaohs have their tombs, including Tut Ankh Amun (“King Tut”) as well as many others. The location is near Luxor, but across the Nile and perhaps a 15 minute’s drive into the dessert. When you go there, you pay a fee to get into the valley, which entitles you to go into 3 different tombs out of a total of 63. Different tombs are open on different days, and the choice that presents itself is up to chance. (However, Tut Ankh Amon’s tomb is a separate ticket purchase that is not included in the standard ticket, but on the other hand, you apparently almost always have the choice to see it, unless there is something unusual going on).
Note: It is hot in the Valley of the Kings! This is one of the hottest places on earth, especially in mid-August when we were there. We live in Houston, so we are used to the heat, and I personally have an unusually high tolerance for heat. It didn’t overly bother be, but even I noticed it, especially inside the tombs. Bring plenty of water, and don’t overdo it!
This enclosure protects the entrance to King Tut’s small tomb.
When we were there, we started out seeing the tomb of King Ramses II (he is the guy who build the Temple of Abu Simbel, one of the most recognizable Egyptian sights). This is a tomb close to the entrance of the valley, and thus easy to get to. It is also a large tomb that is a simple straight shot down into the mountain to the grave chamber (note: the mummy isn’t in this tomb, but we saw it in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo). It reminded me a little bit of an ancient subway entrance with hieroglyphics on the wall. Tons of other people where there to see it, so you ended up walking in the right-hand side, being pushed forward by the steady flow of people, making your way in and out in just a few minutes. Don't get me wrong: It was very impressive and I would have been satisfied with that experience alone. However, it was to get much better.
The second tomb we saw was right near the first one (Tuthmosis I, if I remember correctly), and it was a bit more excitement in terms of architecture. It went around a few bends and there were traps for grave robbers on the way in, and it offered somewhat of an Indiana Jones feeling to it. From a plain archeological point of view it was also quite interesting, with several different chambers and lots of drawings and hieroglyphics. Once again, tons of people though, pushing you in and out (with the first few fainting from the heat).
So now we were down to our last choice, and this is where having our own guide came in really handy. Instead of just going to the next closest open tomb, he told us that we could also go and see the tomb of Tuthmosis the 2nd, which was in the far end of the valley, a little bit up a cliff. Not a lot of people went there, he said, because of the short climb up. This sounded just like what we wanted, so off we went. I was excited about this, because this particular tomb is known to be one of the most sophisticated ones (finally, watching thousands of hours of the Discovery Channel is paying off for me). The actual climb wasn’t really all that bad as it turned out. A few very steep flights of stairs up and that was it. Only the heat made it a bit harder than some people might want. The actual entrance to the tomb is quite small and a steep flight of stairs down, leading past grave-robber traps and through a number of very nicely decorated chambers, around a bend, and finally down into the grave chamber with the sarcophagus still there.
When we were in this tomb, we were the only ones, except for an old Egyptian who made sure nobody took any photographs, or at least not without giving him some Bakshish (tip) first). The entire tomb was completely silent, and their air, with all its super-fine dessert sand dust, which felt a lot like breathing gypsum enriched air, felt like it hadn’t moved in 5,000 years. We spent quite a bit of time in this tomb, taking in all the sights in quite and with all the time we wanted to take, with the old man trying his best in his broken English to explain the meaning of different drawings and pointing out various details. Just the feeling of being in this place was out of this world. It was very hot, yes, but otherwise, I think it is a shame that not a lot of people go and see this, as this was a much better experience than any of the other tombs we saw. After some time (and giving the old man his well deserved tip), we climbed back out through the narrow entrance and knew we would never forget this experience. With the time seeming to stand still, and the old man in the tomb, one felt like Howard Carter (the discoverer of Tut Ankh Amun’s tomb) might come strolling around the corner in his old outfit any minute.
Ellen and Markus just having emerged from the tomb of Tuthmosis II.
If you ever visit the Valley of the Kings, make sure you do something like this! Don’t just visit the 3 tombs everyone else visits that day. Go our of your way and see something that is not overrun and do it at your own pace. As it turned out, we were the only ones that visited Tuthmosis II’s tomb that day, and that was pretty cool I thought. It also meant that the old man spent all day inside this tomb waiting for just us, to show us around. This makes the tip we gave him a hard earned day’s income. Keep that in mind when you consider how much you want to give them. (And yes, you should give them something. It is just part of the deal and the culture. When in Egypt, do like the Egyptians do…)
The only thing I regret about having visited the Valley of the Kings is that we didn’t go to see Tut Ankh Amun’s tomb. Sure, it is a very small and unexciting tomb. Almost like entering a small apartment with a flight of stairs leading into just a few small rooms. And sure, it costs extra, and takes extra time, as you probably have to get in line. Our guide thought it wasn’t worth it, and I think he probably is right in some ways. But on the other hand, it is King Tut’s tomb! It is where the treasure came from (which we went to see in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo), and regardless of how insignificant a Pharaoh he was, and regardless of how small the tomb is, it is still a place everyone knows about. Also, his actual mummy is in the tomb, so you can see King Tut himself right then and there. I do wish I would have seen this, and hopefully, I will get to go back and take a look at some future trip to Egypt.
Our trip then continued on to the nearby Temple of Hatshepsut, which is really just on the other side of the Valley of the Kings, although one has to take the long way around. On the way, we also stopped at a place that still manufactured hand-made alabaster ware. This was one of the downsides of having the private car: There is no good way to get out of being dragged through such shopping experiences, and the pressure to buy is enormous. We went to the alabaster place, and also to a “Papyrus Museum”, which was mostly a common papyrus shop, as they have them all over Egypt. If you travel in a larger group, it isn’t as hard not to buy anything, but if you are the only customers in the shop, and a demonstration is done for you,, there really isn’t much you can do other than buy an inexpensive piece. Oh well, it made of a nice souvenir. (Really, the only way to get out of this is to tell the driver not to go there, but he is instructed by the tour company to do so, and pushing the matter may cause a very awkward situation. Just consider it part of the price of admission).
The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut was impressive. I am really not sure what else to say about it, other than that I would consider it a must-see if you are in the area. A picture is probably worth a thousand words:
The temple of Hatshepsut.
Crossing the Nile
Finally, our day was just about to come to an end. The last part of the trip was to cross the Nile again, which this time, we did on a small boat, which took us not just across, but also a little up the river, past the Old Winter Palace hotel, which is so rich in history, including dame Agatha Christie having spent a lot of time there, and I assume having written some of her countless novels there. Quite an experience in itself, and something I am glad I have done. This gave us a glimpse of what it must be like to take a cruise on the Nile, which is another item I have yet to check off my bucket list.
A boat trip on the Nile
And that concluded the day. Certainly, it was a day in my life I won’t forget. I saw a lot of things that day which I’d recommend for everyone to see at least once in their life.
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