LUXOR: I’d Be A DAMN Good Tour Guide

I don’t mean to brag or boast, but I often find that my knowledge of things is too overwhelming. I’m not cocky about this when I chat to people, because I’m a gentleman, but I sometimes find others to be dull and uninteresting with little to stimulate my mind. It’s my burden to bear I suppose, but my idle curiosity about everything means that I know a little about a vast wealth of subjects, and so there are no surprises left for me to be awed by. I know this doesn’t sound at all humble, but it’s important to get out of the way before we get into today’s post.

After a restorative blackout slumber, I woke many hours later ready for a hearty breakfast and another day amongst the ruins of ancient Thebes. My goal today was to wander through every last bit of Karnak Temple — the second largest Pharaonic complex after the Giza Pyramids. I’ve read about them for ages, so I was ecstatic to see them with my own eyes.

I grabbed my leopard print umbrella to block some more of the sun and headed out the front door. It’s only a 2.5 kilometer (1.5 miles) walk to the complex from the front of my hotel, which I would be glad to do anywhere else but here. I wasn’t going to pass out from the heat, but I was going to be hassled by taxi drivers and caleches the entire way there, so I decided to just catch a taxi.

I really hate haggling. It’s not something that I like to do and I’m glad that it’s not part of our culture back home. I suppose we do it when we buy a house or a car or something, but I’ve never done either of those things nor do I really plan to. Apartment life and public transportation is for me. Here, though, you do it for everything: for water, for books, for postcards, for rides. The only places where you don’t are restaurants and for tickets. There are even a few shops around town that advertise proudly “NO HAGGLING — FIXED PRICES,” which is a great relief. You might pay a bit more, I suppose, but there’s no stress or strain. Anyway, back to my point, I had to haggle for the cab. It was only a short trip there, but the price started at 40 pounds. That’s like $5.50, which I’d gladly pay back home, but it’s expected to argue a bit. So, we went back and forth and settled on 25 pounds. Fine by me.

It didn’t take long at all to get there and I was soon buying my ticket and heading toward the entrance. Of course a guide found me at once. I invited him to take a seat beside me and we discussed his credentials. He told me he had a master’s degree in Egyptology from the University of Alexandria. His card looked much more official than the others — plastic rather than cardboard — and he truly seemed knowledgeable. I didn’t want a tour guide. I can guide myself around just fine after studying ancient Egypt my entire life. But, he was relentless. He was able to transliterate my tattoo, which is my final exam for these people, and he only wanted fifty pounds, so I agreed.

WHAT A MISTAKE!

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He took me to a few sites around the complex (the place could easily take you half a day to properly see, mind you) and gave me the most basic descriptions of the reliefs and statues. His answers to my pointed questions were very vague. He took a ten minute phone call. After about forty-five minutes, he showed me the pumps that now filter the water of the sacred lake and declared the tour complete. I laughed at first, but he was serious. That had been a complete waste of time and money. I paid him quickly, declined his business card for future tours, and got myself away from him as fast as I could.

This is why I hadn’t taken any tours before. For me, there’s just no point in it. Maybe I don’t know my way around a temple, but I don’t need somebody explaining it to me. I can make out the names inside cartouches, I know what the ancient gods look like, I know their mythology, I know the sequence of rulers, I know the culture and traditions. I had accepted his offer mainly to see if this would be the case and I was filled with a kind of disappointment when I learned nothing new.

I could have made some more money, I suppose, by spending the afternoon as a guide. I could have done very well, I think. I’m not hideous, I know my stuff, and I know how to schmooze in a way that I can’t with people I actually know. I wonder why that is? I’m able to be much friendlier and open around strangers. I’m like a different person. That explains my social butterfly situation in Cairo.

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You know how sometimes you go to a place and it just feels wrong? There’s no real reason, of course, but something makes you cautious or worried or anxious. I think locations can resonate in different ways and effect people oddly. That sounds very new age, but I think we all experience moments like this. I wasn’t terribly comfortable in Karnak. I never could figure it out. Everybody that I talk to loves it, but I found it to be somewhat menacing.

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Seeing the Great Hypostyle Hall was quite a moment, though, and it managed to allay my malaise for a few moments. (I’m very proud of that last sentence, reader.) It’s impossible not to be a bit dumbstruck when you first walk through. Luxor Temple has an impressive hypostyle hall, but the one at Karnak is absurdly massive. There are 134 monstrous pillars here in sixteen rows. If seeing it now was striking, I can’t even imagine what it would have been like thousands of years ago when each pillar was painted and undamaged by the ravages of time.

I thought of a passage from A Thousand Miles Up The Nile by Amelia Edwards:

I shut my eyes, and see it as if I were there — not all at once, as in a picture, but bit by bit, as the eye takes note of large objects and travels over an extended field of vision. I stand once more among those mighty columns, which radiate into avenues from whatever point one takes them. I see them swathed in coiled shadows and broad bands of light. I see them sculptured and painted with shapes of gods and kings, with blazonings of royal names, with sacrificial altars, and forms of sacred beasts and emblems of wisdom and truth.

The shafts of these columns are enormous… Six men standing with extended arms, fingertip to fingertip, could barely span it round. It casts a shadow twelve feet in breadth, such a shadow as might be cast by a tower. The capital that juts out so high above my head looks as if it might have been placed there to support the heavens.

I think Amelia said it best all those years ago. There’s no way to convey in words the scale and majesty of this area. People often try, but they fail. It’s worth coming out to Karnak just to be dwarfed by these pillars.

Aside from the Hypostyle Hall, I didn’t connect to anything for some reason. I appreciated the statues and the art, of course, and whenever I see Amun-Min, I can’t help but giggle because I’m not a mature adult, but other than that, I felt rather listless as I wandered through the fallen halls and rooms.

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There were quite a number of tourists and most of them were in huge groups that ran around a large carving of a scarab. They were a bunch of idiots, reader. Then again, I have a general disdain for almost everybody. Legend has it — or rather, tour guide lore has it — that a man once asked for a wife and was told that if he made a wish and walked seven times around the scarab, his dreams would come true. Well they did. He wanted a child, so he and his wife walked around the scarab and they had a child. So, now, when you go to Karnak, you are supposed to make a wish and wind yourself around the statue. I didn’t do it. I was in Egypt. All of my great wishes had already come true.

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I was tired of seeing people and wanted a moment alone, so I wandered outside of the main temple and found myself in something rather like a graveyard of stone.

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There was a field of massive chunks of old temple walls waiting to be put back in their proper space. It was quite an impressive thing to see and I didn’t envy the people who were in charge of putting that mess back together again. The heat was sweltering, so I hurried to the Temple of Khonsu, which was completely abandoned. That was more like it!

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I sat for some time under the entryway arch collecting my thoughts and admiring the beautiful painting. Lost in revery, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a priest exit the temple or to watch a sickly peasant pray for his health and good fortune at the entrance. Of course none of that was going to happen, but there was not a single sign of modernity there, not even a fellow human being. I was finally startled out of this fanciful daydream by the bleating of goats. Looking behind me, there was a group of them crossing the street of their own volition. There was no herder or farmer. Just some goats out on parade. This elicited a chuckle out of me and I entered the temple.

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It was glorious on the inside. It doesn’t have the overwhelming greatness of the Hypostyle Hall, but it has a charm all its own. The design of this temple is very simple, but it is also very effective. The artwork is sublime in its quality and color. I think I liked it all the more because I was finally left in peace. There was no guide, there were no beggars, there were no tourists, and the only guard I managed to find was snoring about a hundred feet away. I had this time all to myself and I delighted in it.

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After I explored every nook and cranny, I thought I’d seek some more of the distant temples away from the main one. I didn’t have as much luck; a guard found me at once. The guards really don’t do much guarding, though, since they violate the rules for each guest. They will take you, whether you want to or not, through the barricades and point out all the hieroglyphics and statues in very poor English. They will force you to touch the engravings, which I refused to do to, much to his annoyance. This particular one jabbed his thumb at various bits and muttered the names of the gods in a rather guttural voice. I didn’t care for him, but he wouldn’t let me get away. He had me climb up the side of a tiny temple to get a view of the complex — a good view, too — and then wouldn’t let me go until I gave him baksheesh. He was one of those irksome ones that wasn’t happy with the tip. I’m no fool, he was just trying to make me feel guilty about the amount I gave. This is an annoyingly frequent ploy that the more unsavory characters pull. It doesn’t make me feel guilty at all, if anything, it irritates me, so I went off in a huff and he turned and did the same.

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By this time, I had seen the majority of the site and was ready to get back to the hotel. It was too hot and I could feel my body shutting down. I was hydrated and my skin was blocked from the sun, but still, full sun and 110 degree heat isn’t really a great combination.

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I made my way out to the parking lot, past the vendors trying to sell me poorly made trinkets and finally was free…for one minute.

A taxi driver pulled up and I was in no mood to walk, so we haggled and haggled. I was getting into by this point and got the price down to fifteen pounds. I impressed myself. That’s just a little over $2. He had a crappy car and no air conditioning and he talked nonstop about how much he wanted to take me to his family’s house for tea and shisha and to chat. I politely declined his offer about fifteen times. Allah only knows what that would have entailed. I’m sure his family would own some kind of papyrus shop or gift store or restaurant and I’d be pressured into buying something. I was thankful that the hotel wasn’t far off. I was sent off with his business card (I’ve got quite a collection now) and his voice pleading in the distance that I would call him and come to tea. It was very strange.

I love the Winter Palace so much. I’ve said it many times, but that doesn’t make it any less true: this place is an absolutely charming oasis and just what I need after a day out amongst the people. I hope that doesn’t sound rude, but I like getting away from it all in a place where I can be alone with elegant surroundings. For me, elegance and calm is as much a necessity as water and air.

I took a wonderful nap and caught up on some work and then figured out my tour of the Valley of the Kings tomorrow. It’s going to be a bit expensive, but I was sick to death of being bothered, so I hired a driver and an Egyptologist guide to take me around for the day. I look forward to it, but I do worry. You can’t come to Luxor and skip the West Bank, after all, and I had no intention of missing out. Besides, what’s money anyway? It’s just a concept.

I was starved by this point, so I checked TripAdvisor for a place to go to dinner. There was a highly rated Italian place, so off I went. It takes a lot of work to screw up Italian food, after all.

When I arrived, the place was dead. It looked closed, but the door opened and I was allowed to take my pick of a seat. I was the only person there, so I had quite a choice. I ordered a margarita pizza and some fries. I’ve had the strongest craving for fries lately. The food took a while and it was adequate, but it wasn’t anything worth raving over. I’m not entirely sure why everybody on the Internet was going on and on about how it was amazing and the best food they’ve ever had. I have discovered, though, that many people don’t really get out and see much or experience much and so they’re easily impressed. I’m rarely impressed anymore. They did have some pretty great coffee, though.

On the walk back to the hotel, my haggling skills for water improved tremendously. This time I bought ten bottles for twenty pounds. Excellent. I was proud of myself, but then I felt guilty. These people are poor and I’m trying to give them as little money as possible…but it’s expected of me. It’s a lose-lose situation. I don’t like it.

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