23.02.2010 - 05.03.2010 24 °C
Fallen a bit behind with these blogs... but here I go again...
Even though Cairo boasts the pyramids at nearby Giza, Saqqara and Dahshur, Luxor is easily Egypt's sight-seeing capital with a large concentration of tombs, temples and museums within a reasonably short radius of the city center. There was so much to see that I decided to make Luxor my base for at least a week (it eventually turned into ten days).
I arrived late in the evening and after a short walk from the train station, I was in a small and slightly decrepit hotel along one of the main roads. The room was bleak, the bathroom was tiny, the towel provided was stained and as stiff as cardboard (I could have constructed intricate origami shapes with it) and the climb up five sets of stairs did not make for a very homely base for sightseeing. It was a good place for one night but it was definitely not going to do for the long stay I'd planned. I spent the majority of my second day in Luxor walking around trying to find a decent replacement.
My new hotel was much better, it was situated on a side street off the main souq (market) of Luxor and it had a downstairs restaurant which served very decent food. They even supplied soft clean towels even though they weren't much bigger than my back-up travel towel.
My hotel room in Luxor, at first I thought they didn't provide towels (many budget hotels don't), but they were sitting on the bed staring right at me (literally) in the shape of swans, or they could have been cobras, I couldn't really tell
Entrance to El-Souk, the main souq in Luxor
In the photo above, you can see a parked "calèche" (horse carriage) at the entrance to El-Souk. In addition to the fellucca captains along the river bank (who seemed even more persitent in Luxor than they were in Aswan), tourists also have to contend with all the calèche drivers calling out "Calèche! Calèche!", every time they walked past one of them. Some of the poor horses looked skinny, tired and their drivers whipped them really hard making them run just to show off or so they could get back to the prime pick-up locations. Not surprisingly, I was never tempted to take a ride on one of them.
At the new hotel I met a friendly 62 year old Malaysian guy called Seong who lives in Norway. He was interested in going to the Sound and Light Show at Karnak temple and asked me if I wanted to come along. I'd read that the show was pretty cheesy but I thought, heck why not, how many times am I going to be in Luxor? As I expected, it was disappointing and was definitely not worth the admission price. The lights were fine and I don't think they went over the top like some of the cave light shows I'd seen in China, instead it was the commentary that ruined it. A large group of us followed a guide along a preset path, stopping when we reached temporary rope barriers so we could listen to the over-the-top dramatic narration from loud speakers. The actors voices, accompanied with hollywood action movie style music, tried to tell the story of the Pharaohs who built and added to the massive temple complex over the centuries. The worst part was that while the crowd rushed towards the last stop along the way, poor Seong lost his footing while climbing some uneven steps and he crashed to the ground splitting the side of his head on one of the stone steps. He was ok, but some blood started gushing from the side of his left brow. Luckily some staff were at hand with a first aid kit and the wound was cleaned and a bandage was promptly applied even before the next set of commentary had begun. Even though I'd been in Egypt for a couple of weeks by that stage, I was still surprised when, as we were leaving, the guy who applied the bandage demanded E£ 5 backsheesh ("tip") for the first aid service. I have a feeling that's why it was so dark along the path and why the first aid kit appeared so quickly, it was probably quite a lucritive business for the first-aid guy.
The avenue of sphinxes at the entrance of the Karnak Temple Complex at the beginning of the Sound and Light Show
Sound and Light Show at Karnak Temple Complex
The next day I visited the Karnak Temple Complex by myself during daylight which was of course much better, the only problem was that as soon as I got there, Luxor was battered by a sand storm from the west and my face received a good sand blasting as I walked along the large open area before the main entrance. There were benefits to this torture, however, because many tourists chose to stay away that day and it wasn't as crowded as it could have been.
The sun being blocked by sand storm at Karnak Temple Complex
Once inside the main temple areas, the huge walls provided some shelter from the wind and the sand it carried with it. The sand storm receded by late afternoon, but for the first few hours most of the tourists hung out in the central enclosures so I had the outer ones all to myself. I always like to walk into dark, hidden away rooms in the remote parts of temples when there's nobody there. It kind of feels like you're discovering it for the first time. It's also better because when it's absolutely quiet, I don't get distracted by the noise of the buzzing crowds and their footsteps so I can fully appreciate where I am.
Dark store room at the back of Ramses III Temple at Karnak - A shard of sunlight passing through a hole in the roof caused a nice effect as it illuminated the dust hanging in the air
Inside the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak
The center piece of Karnak is undoubtedly the Great Hypostyle Hall. It was planned by Ramses I and built by Seti I and Ramses II, three 19th Dynasty Pharoahs. It covers an area of 5500 square meters and contains 134 huge stone pillars. The pillars were so close to eachother that it was impossible to find a spot where I could get a photo that captured the true scale of the place.
The pillars of the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak
A large area on the south side of the complex was closed to tourists at the time because several of the large pylons (gates) were being restored. To keep people out a "caretaker" was placed next to a gate. I'd read that beyond the gate there were some pretty impressive colossi statues and the "caretaker" was of course happy to "sneak" people through for a little backsheesh.
The "caretaker" guarding the Seventh Pylon on the south side of Karnak Temple - you can see the scaffolding in the background being used to restore the Eighth Pylon.
Usually I'd have no problem paying a little backsheesh to these guys as it is their only source of income (I paid plenty of it during my time in Luxor, particularly when I went to the Valley of the Kings) but at the time I had no small change in my wallet and I still wanted to take a look. So I walked around the side and I found that there was an unmanned gate there that I could easily step over. So I did.
The statues of Tutmosis III on the other side of the Seventh Pylon at Karnak - the "caretaker" is just on the other side of the gate
Personally, I don't mind too much when temples are in ruins or even if they are restored using the same original blocks; it's when the temples are resotred using brand new blocks that kind of ruins it for me, or even worse, when they use concrete to fill in the gaps. Luckily most of the temple complex is still in ruins and many of the walls that were standing had been rebuilt from the original blocks.
View of some of the ruined walls of Karnak Temple Complex looking towards the Great Hypostyle Hall
Throughout all of Egypt, I saw several wall reliefs where depictions of some Pharaohs had been chipped away in ancient times by another pharoah who for some reason wanted to wipe away all memory of one of their predecesors. Fortunately it appears as though it was quite a rare practice otherwise all but the last few pharoahs would have been wiped from existence.
The figure of a pharoah chipped away by a later pharoah
The whole Karnak Temple Complex is so big that I spent about five hours walking around and even then I could have easily seen more but the place started closing and we were herded towards the exit by a line of impatient security guards. It was probably just as good because I had walked so much by the time I got back to the hotel I couldn't stand up anymore.
Another day, I visited the Luxor museum which was really impressive, with lots of amazing statues and artefacts found in temples and the tombs on the west bank. My favourite exhibits were a large alabaster statue of Amenhotep III carved side by side with a statue of the great crocodile god Sobek and the two Pharaoh mummies, one of Ahmose I (18th Dynasty) and another which is believed to be Ramses I (19th Dynasty). Frustratingly, no photos were allowed inside so I have to cheat and show you these photos I pulled of the net (they are in the public domain).
Statue of crocodile god Sobek and Pharaoh Amenhotep III in Luxor museum, hard to tell how tall it is from this photo but from memory it was about 3 meters tall
Believed to be the mummy of Ramses I - It had been stolen from Egypt and found in a small museum in Niagra Falls (of all places) then sold to another museum in the US and eventually it was returned to Egypt as a gesture of good will
Some statues outside of Luxor Museum - this is my own photo and I think these statues are copies but I'm just guessing.
The Temple of Luxor is another attraction in Luxor which is impossible to miss because it sits right in the center of the city. I must have walked past it dozens of times while I was there. It looks just as impressive as the Temples at Karnak, but it's much smaller and hardly worth the admission price because you could get decent views (and photos) of it by just walking around its perimeter.
The Temple of Luxor from balcony of restaurant
The large columns of Luxor Temple
View of Luxor Temple at night - A mosque had been built on to the side of it and can be seen lit up at the center of the frame
At the hotel I also met Melissa, a Brit who'd just landed a job there as the hotel's tour organiser. She had just returned to Luxor after having previously worked for Animal Care in Egypt (ACE, web: http://www.ace-egypt.org.uk) which is a non-profit organisation that provides free vetenary care for neglected and abused animals as well as education for their owners and local children on how to treat and look after them properly. Because Mel had lived in Luxor before, she knew quite a few people there whom she introduced me to. I ended up paying numerous visits to a bar owned by a close friend of Mel's, an Egyptian guy called Shaady. The bar, called "The King's Head Pub" can be described as a typical English Pub but with a slight Egyptian flavour in the form of statues and posters. Through Mel I also met an English guy called James who worked in Luxor and hung out with us at the pub or back at the hotel.
James, Shaady and Mel at The King's Head Pub - just after an international football match between England and Egypt (sadly England won 3-1, but the place was electric after Egypt scored the first goal - I was rooting for Egypt of course)
Me mixing myself a Long Island Ice Tea
Me drinking my Long Island Ice Tea... We went "clubbing" in Luxor that night, and by "clubbing" I mean a group of about ten of us filled the small and previously empty dance floor of a local hotel - I think we made the DJ's day and it ended up being a quite good night
I ended up being the first person to buy a tour from Mel which made her quite pleased. It wasn't a tour as such, in fact it was one of their chepest offerings, the hiring of a driver for the day to tour the west bank, but at least it was a sale.
Alas I payed my long awaited visit to the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Hatshepsut. The driver met me at the hotel early in the morning and we walked over to the public ferry docks from where we would catch a ferry, then walk to his waiting taxi. The trip across the Nile on the ferry only took a few minutes and the fare was only E£ 1 which was very reasonable. Just as we were docking on the other side, I spotted a yellow hot air balloon coming in to land near the dock. I somehow knew that something wasn't quite right by the direction it was heading and the speed it was carrying but as I looked around nobody else seemed worried. Then suddenly everybody else caught on when we heard and saw several people yelling and running along the banks of the river. The balloon was coming in fast and low and heading straight towards a row of docked felluccas. They needed to gain altitude, and fast, but I couldn't understand why the balloon pilot wasn't turning up the flame. Suddenly the sides of the balloon fabric collided with the mast of one of the felluccas and I thought for sure it would tear and they would all end up in the Nile. At the last minute the pilot cranked the gas and they started climbing out of trouble. I couldn't see the faces of the tourists inside the balloon's basket but I bet they would have been slightly terrified by the whole ordeal.
The hot air balloon moments after it crashed in to the mast of the nearside fellucca
My driver turned out to be the "strong and silent" type. He wasn't the friendliest guy I'd ever met and he had a serious and almost angry look on his face for the entire day. It didn't get any better once he found out I was an atheist. "A Christian?", he asked me. "Nope", I replied. He followed up quickly with, "Non believer?". I said, "Yep", and that was pretty much our conversation except for when he asked me where I wanted go go next. It didn't bother me too much because the rides weren't very long and all he did was drive me around, once I reached a site, he waited in his car near the exit and I was off on my own again.
My first stop was the Valley of the Kings. Once again no photos allowed there and you weren't even allowed to take cameras past the gate. My small camera was safely stowed in my pocket and by the time I reached the desk where you could leave your cameras, I'd already passed the xray machine and metal detectors so I decided I was just going to pretend I didn't have one on me. There are at least 63 Pharaoh tombs in the valley but not all of them are always open to tourists. With one ticket you can only go inside three of these open tombs. There were only about 12 to 15 tombs open on the day I went and the more popular ones were of course crowded with people. I chose to go to the tombs of Tuthmosis III, Tuthmosis IV and Siptah based on what I'd read about them and which ones looked biggest in the scale model of the valley displayed at the visitor's centre. Each tomb that I went to was very different to the last in terms of arrangement and wall decorations and my favorite was probably Tuthmosis IV mostly because I was the only one in the tomb at the time and also because the tomb was quite deep, it had a couple of dark side chambers and it had some well preserved wall paintings in one of the antechambers.
I took a risky photo inside Tuthmosis IV's tomb only because I knew the tomb's keeper was a long way up near the entrance and I was completely alone. It was risky because I'd heard that it was common for the tomb minders to confiscate naughty tourist's memory cards. This and I had just witnessed a guy almost loose his camera when he stupidly took it out while he was inside the tomb of Tuthmosis III while the tomb's minder was standing nearby.
Sneaky photo of the sarcophagus of Tuthmosis IV in the Valley of the Kings
Just before I entered the tomb of Tuthmosis IV, a gust of wind created a mini dust tornado and I got some of it in my right eye. I was alright in the dark, but while walking out in the sun my eye hurt a lot and was watering so much it looked like I had been crying. Even my surly driver asked me, "Are you unhappy?", when I got back in the car. It only got better after I used half my precious drinking water trying to flush it all out. All in all, the tombs were amazing and I really enjoyed them despite the stupid restrictions.
My next stop was the Temple of Hatshepsut which was amazing in itself, but was even more awe inspiring because of the amazing backdrop. No camera restrictions there so I'll just let the photos do the talking.
The distant view of the incredible Temple of Hatshepsut
The amazing rock cliff backdrop behind the Temple of Hatshepsut - as you can see the tourist crowds were out in force
Painted reliefs in Chapel of Anubis at Temple of Hatshepsut
My last sight-seeing spot for the day was the Tombs of the Nobles which were just as impressive if not more so than the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, at least in terms of wall decorations. Some of the Tombs of the Nobles were definitely better preserved and the walls were painted more intricately, in a few tombs even the ceilings had been painted. There were around 15 tombs open to tourists and I paid to see eight of them. The tombs were scattered over a wide area on the side of a hill and I had to give in and agree to pay a guide to show me the way to the tombs I had tickets for. Even though the entrances were labelled with the Noble's name, there were no signs along the paths so without a guide I would have wasted a lot of time in the baking heat looking for the right entrances. I wouldn't be surprised if at one time there had been signs on the paths but the guides had removed them in order to guarantee themselves some income.
No photos were allowed in these tombs either, but if I was the only one in the tomb at the time (which was quite often the case) then it was almost guaranteed that the tomb's "minder" would walk up to me, look around in a shifty manner and encourage me to take photos with the mutual and silent understanding that I'd be paying them backsheesh for the privilege. This was on top of the backsheesh they expected from everyone just for entering the tomb. I knew all of this was coming so I'd come prepared with plenty of E£ 1 notes in my pocket.
Relief on wall next to entrance to Userhet's tomb - Userhet was one of Amenhotep II's royal scribes
My guide leading me up the hill towards the next Nobles tomb
Reliefs on wall in Ramose's tomb - Ramose was a governor of Thebes (Luxor) under Amenhotep III and Akhenaten
After the tombs of the Nobles I was definitely ready to return to the hotel so again I met my driver who whisked me back to the ferry docks, while still giving me the silent treatment.
Luxor from the west bank of the Nile
That ended up being my last sight-seeing excursion in Luxor except for a quick visit to Mummification Museum which although was quite interesting, it was very tiny and definitely not worth the E£ 40 admission charge. I could have visited several more sites on the west bank, but I was suffering from temple and tomb overload so decided to skip them and perhaps give myself something new to see should I return to Egypt one day.
So that was that for ancient Thebes, a couple of days later I headed by train back up to Cairo which was a good jumping point before my next destination in Egypt.
Until next time,