LUXOR: Amongst Equals

Rising at dawn is truly a horrific thing. There is nothing good about it and I am forever suspicious of individuals who claim to be morning people. I’ve tried it a hundred times, but that’s not the life for me. I’ll take the night and small hours of the morning, please and thank you very much. But, in Egypt, life has to operate differently if you want to survive. Today, I would be going out into the wadis of the Sahara and it was advantageous to leave in the early morning to avoid cooking myself, my chauffeur, and my Egyptologist guide to death.

Other irritating people say things like, “The early bird catches the worm,” and there is some merit to that. Breakfast was exceptionally good this morning. There are very few guests here at the Winter Palace, but when I entered the elegant breakfast room, I was one of the few people up and about that morning, so I had absolutely excellent service. I also wisely chose tea over coffee this morning. I don’t know where they get their coffee from here at the hotel, but I’d rather drink mud. They were also preparing freshly squeezed juices this morning, so I had a delicious glass of orange juice. There’s something so good about that. I may have to start juicing when I get home. After you get accustomed to what something should taste like, it’s hard going back that that garbage we’ve become accustomed to.

My guide, Yasmin, met me promptly at 7:30 in the hotel lobby and I was charmed by her knowledge at once. She had studied for many years in Cairo to be an Egyptologist and archaeologist and guide. Unfortunately, when she was finishing her studies, the revolution began, and so she has not had much work. Today’s tour, was actually the first time she’s worked as a guide in over two months.

Hassan was waiting for us outside and after shaking hands and a round of greetings, we made our way to a boat and were soon motoring across the Nile. I love water. I know that eventually, I will need to move someplace near the ocean or a river. It’s so calming and soothing and beautiful. Not like the endless fields and roads back home. They can be beautiful in their own way, I know, but nothing compares to flowing water.

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Once on the West Bank of Luxor, we drove off to the Valley of the Kings, but first we stopped by the recently restored Colossi of Memnon.

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These are two huge statues of Amenhotep III and have been there for the past 3400 years. That’s rather a remarkable thing to think about. Originally these two statues flanked the entrance of Amenhotep’s mortuary temple, but there is little of that remaining. Successive rulers over the centuries used the blocks in their own building projects and the annual Nile flooding caused the temple to fall into disrepair. In its glory days, though, it is said to have been one of the most splendid temples in all of Egypt and outshone even Karnak in size and design. Now, there are a few statues and some stones. There are no excavations currently going on, though, of course. No money, so no workers to dig. Anyway, in ancient times the statues were known for their magical ability to “sing” in the morning sun. This was cleverly done by a series of holes drilled into the stone. As the hot wind blew past them, they’d begin to hum. In later years, the statues were crudely resorted and the holes were plugged and the statues never sang again. Historians who witnessed the phenomenon wrote that the melodious sound was rather eery. It’s a shame we’ll never know for sure.

We passed by Gurna, an old village that was built on top of tombs and a temple. The government moved them to a new village called, cleverly, New Gurna, so that excavations could take place. There are still a few buildings standing, but they’re abandoned and exist only to show what it looked like in the past. This is another prominent example of the whitewashing of Luxor that I was told about.

Soon we were winding through the wadis and pulling up to the entrance of the Valley of the Kings. I was phenomenally excited. I’ve wanted to come here for so long. Growing up, I don’t think I ever missed a documentary on Tutankhamen and I still recall having a crate of VHS tapes dedicated to the subject. Who knows where they came from or where they are now, though, I have only the vaguest recollections of my youth.

Annoyingly, you aren’t allowed to photograph anything in the valley, so the pictures I put on here will have come from other sources until we get to the temples.

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Yasmin shoved herself to the front of the line and bought my ticket and then we were on our way. We sat down for some time in the shade as she explained all of the art I would see on the inside and answered all of the questions I had. I was very impressed by her knowledge, even if she did seem to give a bit too much credence to the Curse of Tutankhamen.

When I said that my favorite thing of all was language, she offered to translate my name for me. I wrote out the hieroglyphics for her, which amused her terribly and then she went over the symbolism of the letters: B, the foot, indicates strength of character; E, the feather, the person seeks knowledge and truth; N, the water, represents an easygoing personality, flows calmly like the Nile; J, the jar lid, supportive; A, the vulture, a person who desires constant change; M, the owl, wise and curious; I and N were repeats, of course. Even though those descriptions could easily fit anybody, it was a charming moment.

And now I was off into my first tomb, the resting place of Rameses VI. It was a rather simple affair, just a straight line going down, but the artwork and hieroglyphic carvings were very nice.

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I admit that this one was a bit of a disappointment to me. After imagining what it will be like to descend into the earth to see the burial site of a king, you don’t really expect a hallway and a room, you know?

After that, I pulled out my ticket for Tutankhamen’s tomb (an additional hundred pounds) and descended that famous staircase. It’s rather extraordinary to finally be someplace that you’ve read about a thousand times and seen a million times more. I am as familiar with the walls of those four rooms as Howard Carter, but it’s still quite a sight to see with your own eyes. You’re only allowed to enter the first room, much to my annoyance, but it’s not awful. The tomb is unbelievably small to have contained all the riches it did. On entering the first room, King Tut’s mummy rests eternally on your left. His skin is darkest black and you can’t say that he’s an attractive mummy. Nobody else was in the tomb but him and I, so I stared for a while, reflecting on the fact that I was actually here. It is a bit remarkable that I made it. I’ve wanted to come to this country for decades now and here I finally am. It’s worrying, though…but that’s something I’ll get into in another post.

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On the other side of the room, there is a low fence that allows you to look in the burial chamber. Compared with other tombs, this one is bizarre. Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus sits where it always has with one of his coffins eternally in repose. The artwork on the wall is shockingly large and there are so few hieroglyphic texts. This is, of course, because he died so unexpectedly that his tomb — and who knows if this was the one meant for I’m — had to be rushed.

I was glad to see the tomb, though, because in the near future, it is going to be shut down forever. The perspiration and respiration of tourists has caused an increase in moisture, which is damaging the art. A recreation tomb has been constructed, though, but it wouldn’t be like going to the real thing. This was supposed to have opened months ago, but there’s no sign of it happening. I understand why it was done, but I still hope that it never works out. People don’t come to Egypt to see reproductions. They come to see the originals, even if they are restored by modern hands.

My favorite tomb of the day was that of Merenptah. The entryway and the side chambers were nothing out of the ordinary, but the burial chamber was stunning. He had two sarcophagi in his tomb, the first was meant to fool tomb robbers and stop them from breaking through into the actual burial chamber. He was still robbed in the end. The burial chamber is stunning with a high arched ceiling and sunken floor. Four pillars support the roof on either side and what remains of the artwork shows just how brilliant it must have been when he was buried. I’ve been quite inspired to do a recreation of this room back home, but as an indoor pool. It’s truly the perfect design! In the center of the floor is a monstrously big sarcophagus and I was thoroughly impressed!

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The last tomb was probably the most beautiful, but I think I’ll always prefer that of Merenptah. This was the burial place of Ramses III and the artwork along the entry way and on the ceiling was absolutely beautiful. The ceilings were painted blue and covered in stars. Every god in the Egyptian pantheon was on the wall. Hieroglyphic texts coated every other available surface. It was a bit overwhelming in its scale. Unfortunately, there has been extensive damage to the burial chamber, so we weren’t allowed to go all the way through the tomb.

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On the way to Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple, they asked if I wanted to go to an alabaster factory. They didn’t pressure me to go, which I sincerely appreciated, but I did need to get a souvenir, so I accepted. It was a stressful place, but in the end, it was rather enjoyable. The proprietor of the shop led his crew in a kind of odd song as they worked with basalt and granite and all sorts of beautiful alabaster. I wasn’t after anything too crazy expensive, though, so I looked at the basalt scarab carvings. They’re good luck and they’re really very well done.

The owner brought me a tray of mint tea and some of the cheap scarabs that they try to sell you all over the place. He put two of these in my hand and then told me to hit them together. I did so gently and he laughed. “Hard!” he corrected me, so I did, and the scarabs cracked and crumbled to dust. Now I was given two of the scarabs from his shop and told to bash them together. I did. Nothing at all happened to them, they didn’t even mark each other. I was convinced in the quality, then. I paid a bit more than I expected, but I had a unique time here and I’m sure my purchase will bring back fond memories for years to come.

[And now, we happily return to my photographs]

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I really enjoyed Hatshepsut’s Temple. It is unique in Egyptian architecture because it’s multi-level. There’s nowhere else like this. And besides, it looks strikingly modern even to my eyes. If I hadn’t known and was completely unaware of Egyptian history, I would have thought it was new construction.

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This was the first mortuary temple I’d been to, so it was nice to see a change in the art. The temples on the East Bank are all dedicated to religion and the active prayers of the living, so you see more scenes from their mythology. The West Bank temples are dedicated to the dead rulers and gods. So, here at Hatshepsut’s Temple, you could see scenes that illustrated her great achievements, such as her trading campaigns to the mysterious lands of Punt. In front of the temple complex are the ancient roots of trees she planted there from foreign lands. In ancient times, the terraces of this complex would have been a combination of zoo and park — both plant and animal life watered by canals fed by the then nearby Nile. It must have been quite a spectacular place.

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I enjoyed wandering around the pillars and massive statues of this female pharaoh, but then it was time to head off to the next temple and our last spot of the day, Medinet Habu.

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This temple is covered in incredible amounts of paintings and hieroglyphics. Some of them at the base are carved so deep, that the cartouches need never worry about being usurped by a successor.

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There were lots of stories about military greatness and there was a grisly panel that explained how the death tally was calculated after battle. Originally the hands of the fallen or captive would be chopped off and presented to the king. You’d divide the total number in half and there you’d have your total. Well, the pharaoh wasn’t entirely convinced by this methodology because it would be easy to miscalculate. He wanted something else removed…something a man only has one of. So, that was depicted and it was a much more accurate count!

Another wall shows Amun-Min the fertility god and Yasmin explained the rather bizarre story behind this god. Min started off as a regular mortal and in his old age, the pharaoh allowed him to stay behind and guard his village whilst all the other men went off to war. Well, all the men died, but to the pharaohs surprise, on his return to the village, all the women were pregnant. He was disgusted by Min’s behavior, so he cut off his arm and his leg and banished him to the desert to die.

Later, while wandering through the same desert, the pharaoh came across Min, who was living in a fertile oasis. Logically, the pharaoh believed that Min had great powers to create life — in many ways — and so he must be a god. And that’s how Amun-Min and his giggle-inducing image came to be.

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Once we had finished with the temple, Hassan, Yasmin, and I sat inside a dusty café for some time and had a pleasant chat, and I learned a lot more about what it’s like to actually live in this culture for both men and women. Out of respect to the both of them, I won’t divulge their confessions, but it was rather frustrating for me. Back home, we’re told from the second we pop out of the womb that we have to be successes and go off and do great things. That isn’t the case at all here. Both sides are equally oppressive. I’m not sure we’ve got life figured out. There needs to be some kind of balance.

We drove back to the Nile, crossed the river, and I took a much deserved nap.

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When I woke up, I had to figure out how to get home. My time was rapidly running out and I had no plans in motion. So, I did what I do best. I became a travel agent. The finalized trip home was not my greatest triumph, mind you, but it works. I will be staying an additional night here at the Winter Palace (for a paltry $50) then flying back to Cairo on the 2nd. From there, I’ll fly to Casablanca and after an eight hour layover — ugh, maybe I’ll buy my way into a lounge — I’ll be off to New York City. I’ll be there for a day and a half and then catch a flight to Chicago. From Chicago, I’ll fly back to Des Moines. I’m exhausted already.

I was so worn down from all that research that I ordered room service and greedily ate up my overpriced, but delicious, meal.

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