LUXOR: Wandering Through the Wadis

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The view from my balcony at the Winter Palace.

Sleep was decadent in Egypt. Each day had intense purpose and was filled with complete contentment. I routinely walked over 20,000 steps a day in blistering heat, and I never, in all my life, felt better. It’s important to point out how remarkable a statement this is, reader, because as you all know, I have an incurable neurological disorder. Multiple Sclerosis is no joke. I still joke about it, of course, but that’s because I use comedy to cope with everything. Joan Rivers taught me to do that. Life’s one big farce, and once you realize that nothing means much of anything, you have a much better time of it.

But still, when I’m somber, when I’m reflective, when I’m feeling poorly, I do think sincerely serious thoughts. And I realize that I am cursed. Unless they cure the disease, I will inevitably wind up in a wheelchair. People in wheelchairs don’t get to explore the way I do. I’d find a way, I will always find a way. So in Luxor, I was thinking intensely about my health because I didn’t want to lose this wonderful feeling or be unable to pursue adventure. It’s my real calling. In Turin, I honestly was not at my prime. That terrified me in ways that I can’t even begin to properly write about. I didn’t go blind and I wasn’t paralyzed, but the dampness and humidity of my favorite Italian city were no good for me. I felt depression reenter my life with a panache it’s never had before, but blessedly, Egypt got right rid of it.

Men and women of various socioeconomic backgrounds have been flocking to Egypt since the late nineteenth century for their health. That’s why Lord Carnarvon, the man who funded the dig that unearthed King Tutankhamen first came to this enchanting land. There is something remarkable about the dry desert heat on disease. For some people it’s just too much, but for others like me and Lord Carnarvon, it’s panacea. Good word that, panacea. Let’s all say it together: one…two…three…PANACEA. Such fun. Anyway, in Egypt, I was shockingly alert, agile, happy, healthy, and my mind made no time for anything but pleasant thoughts. The change in me was apparent and profound. I get a sense of it again as I flip through my journal. And it makes me miss my rooms at the Winter Palace more than usual.

I decided back there and then that if my disease does progress and I do become worse here, I will move to Egypt. I have people there to help me. I set up a network of friends who have connections. This is something I never would have seriously pursued in the past, but I’m a very different man from who I was on my first trip to Egypt. This country might well save my life. I’ll be a modern Lady Duff Gordon who fled England for Egypt and thrived in her poor health.

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After a late breakfast, which was another delicious spread of all the best Luxor had to offer, I readied myself for another long day. I was incredibly enthused again, but then again, I was enthused all the damn time in Egypt. It’s where my heart has been calling me and where my work lies. Today, I would be going to the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Ramses the Great, which is more commonly called the Ramesseum.

The ferry across the Nile was as pleasant as ever, and I enjoyed the refreshing breeze and the view of the feluccas darting lightly over the water. On board, I stumbled upon my friend and, the other Hassan who operates the tours I take outside of town. We had a pleasant chat about the day and wished each other well. It was grand to be seen with him as he’s respected by the other locals, so they know that I’m a friend of their friend. That concept is huge in Egypt, but not so much back home. There is a ton of subtle knowledge and gossip in Egypt. The people quickly know who your people are. At the dock, my other Hassan was waiting for me, so in no time, we were cruising over the bumpy streets of the West Bank to the Valley of the Kings. Stopping for a bit of gas, I had to laugh to see the other Hassan there, too. It’s not a huge town, but the coincidences were amusing. Then we were off to the Valley.

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The road into the Valley of the Kings. Just think of all the explorers, Pharaohs, workers, thieves, and Egyptologists have gone this same way!

This, like the Pyramids of Giza, is a prime spot for tourists, and like that historic site, this is where touts aggressively sell their wares. Dozens of impoverished people beg you to pay exorbitant sums for cheaply made miniature statues or papyrus or scarves. It’s mostly imported from China. This was not my first time to the Valley, so I was prepared for the hassle. It was only halfhearted like the great majority of selling happening in Egypt currently. They’ve all but given up on tourists.

“Ticket office this way!” several men shouted, trying to steer me into their shops, but this, as I said before, was not my first time at the rodeo, so I smirked and walked into the entrance of the Valley where the ticket office really is. Here, I discovered something remarkable about baksheesh, the tip money many Egyptians are looking for and have come to expect, you can literally buy anything.

I am a student and I have my college identification card, but I don’t have the International Student ID that is required at many museums and historical sites for a discount. Still, if you show your student card and accidentally slip them a five pound note, suddenly they don’t care. “You helped me, Obama, I help you.” I was called Obama a great number of times on this trip. He’s very respected there and they use this moniker to distinguish Americans. It can’t have been much trouble to identify and recognize me, though. I was literally the only American in Luxor. (And I’m not exactly one that fades into the crowd in my floral shirts and long hair.) I bumped into Canadians and the British, but I was the only one of my compatriots. If there were others, they were well hidden. Anyway, the ticket seller happily gave me the student admission, scribbled out which tombs I should see, and then I was ushered onto a little trolley that took me to the Valley.

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Al-Qurn, the name of the tallest peak in the Theban hills. Some Egyptologists believe that its resemblance to a pyramid is why the ancient kings decided to be buried here. I’m not sure I hold with that theory.

At the entrance, I was left alone in the desolate spot. It was thrilling, reader, truly. I was all alone in that famous place, and it looked for all the world the way it would have in the days of Seti and Merenptah and Tutankhamen. Aside from the modern signs and the stone entrances, the wadis look no different from the days they did when they were dug by the workers of Deir el-Medina. I was giddy. There was not another human being in sight. There were no guards, no tourists, no birds, no cobras, no scorpions, no beetles. There was nothing in that inhospitable wasteland. Just me and the blazing sun. I have rarely felt more alive.

With a spring in my step, I made my way down the wadi to the tomb of Tuthmosis III. I have long been enchanted by the unusual paintings on the walls. Instead of fully formed and painted figures and hieroglyphs like in the later tombs, these ones are simple line drawings, gorgeous and nearly impressionistic. I can’t believe I didn’t see it on my last visit, but I wasn’t really sure what I was doing my first time in the Valley, being there was overwhelming!

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The walk was delicious, and even though I was sweating through my rayon shirt, I was fit as a fiddle. That’s a silly expression. The wadi narrowed, and I admired the daring of the ancient tomb robbers and modern archaeologists who searched for the entrances to the sepulchers of dead kings. I daydreamed of doing it myself. I can think of nothing more delightful than spending my days sifting through sand for broken pots and maybe stumbling upon the missing tomb of an Egyptian royal. I don’t care about the gold for gold’s sake, though that’s delightful and will surely get me featured on a National Geographic special! I just want to add to our knowledge of my favorite dead civilization. I want to find new papyri and mummies and ushabti and broken pots.

The entrance to Tuthmosis III’s tomb is high in the hill and a lengthy track up a staircase is required. I slowly mounted the stairs, my body’s sweat production amping up in a hideous fashion as I climbed higher and higher into the cliffs. There are a few resting points along the way up, and sitting there was something I did not expect to see that day in the Valley of the Kings. Sitting there in the shade, fanning himself with a guidebook, was one of the most beautiful men I have ever seen in person. He appeared for all the world like a Greek hero come to life. His curly black hair somehow managed to look fine in the heat, and the flush on his pale skin was entirely too becoming.

We struck up a conversation, as strangers in a strange land tend to do, and we made our way into the infamous tomb together. In the semi-darkness of the dim lights, we smirked at each other as we tiptoed lightly around the sleeping guards, and stepped up to admire the wall paintings. I did this as I was admiring him. He was Russian. Who knew that Russians could look like that? I surely didn’t.

[Oh, all the tomb pictures are from Google. You can’t take photographs inside, so forgive the varying quality.]

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Mikhail was no expert on Egyptology. “What’s this snake?” He asked of one of the paintings.

I refrained from making any inappropriate comments, but I wondered to myself, have I just found the love of my life in a tomb? How very me!

“Apophis,” I replied alluringly, channeling Rachel Weisz in The Mummy, “devourer of mankind and enemy of Ra.” I proceeded to explain many of the elements drawn on the walls and explained the mythology of the scenery. I was in my element, dear reader. But my enthusiastic passion for dead civilizations was apparently too much for my dear Mikhail. After a few parting remarks, tall and handsome Mikhail exited the tomb. I never saw him again.

Oh well. I still had Tuthmosis. Watch this horrible video to get a vague sense of the majestic place:

I looked over the paintings again, enchanted by the strangeness of their rendering, lovingly staring at the sarcophagus of the king, nodding at the guard who had finally woken and clearly wondered why the hell I was spending the better part of an hour inside a stifling hot tomb in the middle of August. I was in heaven. After studying every square inch of the tomb repeatedly, furiously writing in my journal, and admiring the peculiarly rendered glyphs, I sighed about the should-have-been whirlwind romance with Mikhail, and made my way back into the harsh Egyptian sun.

Impossibly, it was even hotter, but that was no great concern of mine as I made my way to the tomb of Horemheb. I’m not sure why I did not visit this one the last time, either, as it is perhaps the loveliest in the Valley. The loveliest that I have beheld with my own eyes anyway. The successor of the short-lived Ay, himself the successor of the short-lived Tutankhamen, has a fabulous tomb that shows the many stages of sepulcher decoration. There was evidence of he grid used to lay out the figures and hieroglyphs, there were carved images, there were painted ones, and there were unfinished outlines. It was a fabulous study and I was quite overwhelmed by the richness of the color and the glories of Eighteenth Dynasty art. This is my favorite era of ancient Egyptian history, and I had a grand time wondering if this was the tomb intended for the young Tutankhamen himself. There is reason to believe it is.

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“Leave me quietly, inshallah,” I muttered to one of the guards in Arabic, a florid and very useful phrase, with an exchange of baksheesh. This one was somewhat reticent and kept pointing out the various gods. Irritated, I whirled around the chamber and pointed out ever deity on the walls.

“Apologies, Doctor,” the guard said and bowed. This amused me intensely. He scuttled away to some overheated German tourists.

With my abysmal handle of the German language, I could make out that there was a small tour bus in the Valley of Germans who were staying at the Iberotel. I was glad that they would be leaving my beloved Winter Palace alone.

The last tomb of the day was that of one of the innumerable Ramses. This is the fourth one and no relation to the infamous Ramses the Great. The succeeding pharaohs of the Nineteenth Dynasty wanted to be successful, so in the hopes of emulating the long reign of their predecessor, they adopted his name. Modern scholars roll their eyes at the idea of Ramses the Great being so great…but that’s his legendary status and will live on for decades. The tomb was another gorgeous one, but the colors weren’t as beautiful as Horemheb’s.

I am obsessed with ancient Egyptian color. When you see things the way that the ancient people saw it, your breath is simply gone. Looking back over the millennia, the picture in our mind of Egypt is tan and gold. We see pyramids and think that everything was rendered in shades of brown. We forget the bright white limestone casing that used to cover the pyramids. Stele and artifacts in museums have lost their gilding and their paint. But in ancient times, Egypt was a riot of colors, every surface of the temples and tombs were festooned with rich blues, reds, yellows, and greens. It was like Technicolor. So, now, when I experience things like that, it overwhelms me with pleasure. Ramses IV had a very nice tomb.

The guard in this one was particularly annoying. He took me through the tomb and pointed out every god and said, “Amun-Ra. Very good. Very nice color. Take picture?”

I rolled my eyes. Even suggesting I take a picture would require baksheesh, and I had no intention to spend money to take pictures that would inevitably be out of focus in the dimly lit grave. And besides that, he was wrong. There was Khonsu and Osiris and Isis and Thoth. They weren’t all Amun-Ra! He didn’t even call me doctor or Obama, so I excused myself from the tomb and spent some time wandering through the wadis.

I wanted to explore every tomb in the Valley, but that was not possible. So, I stared melancholically at the entrance to the tomb of Seti I, arguably the most beautiful and the most difficult to get inside of. It is the most complete tomb in the Valley and has long been closed to all but the very wealthy or foreign dignitaries. There were rumors earlier in the year that Seti’s tomb would be opening up for the equivalent of $100. I was down for this. I would have paid more than that for the opportunity to visit the tomb that first captivated me in my youth. I was not turned into an Egyptophile by King Tut like the others, it was the mummified head of Seti I that did it for me.

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Des Moines, Iowa, for reasons that still defy all logic, had for many years, a shop that sold recreations of ancient Egyptian papyri, ushabti figurines that were alleged to come out of the Egyptian soil, dusty old tomes on the history of the pharaohs, and excellent conversations with the owner. I was taken there many weekends to have lengthy chats about Cairo and mummies and hieroglyphs when I was like eight. I was a strange child. But my fascination for the place grew more and more, and one of the days that I spent in the shop, breathing in incense, and listening to Donald, I flipped through a book and saw the mummy of Seti I. His state of preservation was remarkable. He looked like he was doing nothing more than taking a nap. Then I saw drawings of his tomb done by the first European explorers in the Valley of the Kings and I was a ho for Egypt for the rest of my life. So, it was a bit melancholy to stand before the entrance to the tomb and not be able to look at every square inch of it. But I know that someday I will have the chance. I have an odd ability to do the things I dream of.

There was nothing left to do in the Valley, and I really had no interest in taking the tram back to the entrance, so I decided to walk. It wasn’t a long way, maybe half a mile, and it was fabulous to just be out amongst those hills and in that glorious sun. I love Egypt. I had a bit of a fahddle (gossip) and tea with the guards at the entrance and then made my way through the raucous bazaar.

Hassan was napping in the car, and it was very hot, so we made our way over to the cafe by the Ramesseum to have a couple cold drinks. It was exceedingly pleasant to sip a Stella in that spot. The view of the Theban hills is perfect, and the life is slow and lazy. Time drips happily by and the colors in the sky change as the sun starts to dip. Hassan and I spoke about everything. Literally everything. We discussed the black market of antiquities, the war successes of Tuthmosis, my friends, how America works, the housing market in Egypt and everything in between. It was lovely. And while I knew before that he was a good acquaintance, I felt then that he was truly my friend.

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That’s a remarkable thing, reader. I have probably mentioned it in the past, I may have even said it in the previous post, but there is something about the Middle East that encourages real friendship. In Paris and London and even in the south of France, I get to know people and care about them, but they are never much more than people to have an occasional conversation with. There are the odd exceptions like Anne, the English writer, and Madame Betty, the bartender in Villefranche, but usually I don’t make good friends. In Egypt, though, there is something different. People are very open and kind, and when they see that you are genuinely interested in them, that changes their world. I think Egyptians are used to being used as pawns in the tourist trade, but now that that business has floundered and I talk about things other than hieroglyphs, they see me differently. I like that.

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I left Hassan at the cafe while I crossed the road to enter the abandoned Ramesseum, which is one of the more famous stops on the traditional tour of Luxor, but one that I missed on my last trip. It is far removed from its ancient splendor, but there is still something intoxicating about the enormous, fallen statues of Ramses the Great.

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He was a long-lived and powerful ruler, and one of the very few that ancient kings that are still know today. In fact, if I should ever have a son for some reason, I have decided to call him Ramses. My child must have an interesting name, not something common like me.

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There was not another tourist for miles of the temple, so I was allowed to enjoy it in relative solitude. There were a few guards, but I was able to shoo them away with some baksheesh and a kindly Arabic phrase. One of them did startle all the pigeons that were roosted in the heads of the standing columns, and that did make for a remarkable picture. He got a bit extra for his effort.

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I was really into baksheesh on this trip. In the past, I found it a deplorable custom, but that was before I was well initiated into the customs of Egypt. Like all things Egyptian, I fell in love with it. You can get literally anything your heart can dream of.

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As I walked through the remains of the grand temple that once was grander than I can even dream, staring contentedly at the remaining colors that shone out randomly from lucky spots that retained their ancient surfaces and smiling bemusedly at the hieroglyphic inscriptions, I thought back to Nels.

As I said, in Egypt, you make friends and you often make friends with other tourists. Strangers in a strange land are united in a common cause, after all. So, on my first trip to Egypt, when I wasn’t so enamored or understanding of modern Arabic culture, I hid myself away for several days in a hovel in Giza with a handful of characters who were doing the same. It was culture shock like I had never experienced before or since. But Nels, Lou, Ming, Lady M, and I were all united in confusion. And because of this we became fast friends. One night, walking through the alleys of Giza with Nels, the streets festooned with garland for Ramadan, we chatted about so many things. But I distinctly recall his dismissal of the Ramasseum as nothing but an uninteresting ruin. He thought there were much better temples. And he wasn’t wrong about that, but he failed to realize the majesty of the history of the sight or the relevance of the carvings.

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I looked at carvings of the Battle of Kadesh (above) and the various deities to whom Ramses gave offerings to, and I loved it. And reader, it was absolutely remarkable to be walking through the temple that Ramses himself walked. That long dead king and I shared pathways and byways, and it was just an insanely magical experience to be absolutely alone in the middle of a foreign country a million miles from home and to feel completely at peace. I could have built a small hut and lived there the rest of my life. I absolutely understand the travelers of the Victorian and Edwardian days who came and never left. Egypt is overwhelmingly good for those of us it is good for. I sympathize with those who don’t feel the same, who feel out of sorts by how foreign it is, but I must admit, I cannot empathize.

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One of the more interesting aspects of this temple is the surrounding ruins. This is the only one that I’ve yet visited that shows the world of the temple, not just the temple itself. On the outskirts of the center of worship are the dwellings for the workers and the places where they worked. I was fascinated to see the site of their ovens where they baked bread. I love bread, and bread is the reason that I went to Europe the first time and started all this traveling, so it was wondrous to see an ancient bread oven. The guard looked at me strangely from a distance as I delightedly studied the hole in the floor.

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And then I saw the mud bricks and I squealed again.

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Now, admittedly, mud bricks are not that interesting, but for an Egyptological enthusiast, mud bricks are thrilling. You can see the straw and the mud and all the junk that goes inside of it. It was amazing. This was mud that was formed into bricks thousands of years ago, reader, and it was just sitting there, perfectly preserved. I nearly lost my shit.

But then I lost my pants.

I was spelunking through the ruins as any wanderer is wont to do, and when I extended my leg a bit higher than is my custom to get into an area for ancient grain storage, I heard the most horrific tear and then a warm breeze caressed my thigh and I nodded slowly in acceptance of my misfortune.

The tear was large, reader. Larger than I feared. It extended from the seam where the legs come together and then eight or so more inches down my thigh. My fashionable blue underwear were exposed, and I felt blessed that I had worn any that day. I can’t imagine my mortification had I made different undergarment decisions that morning. So my festivities for the day were done.

This was an issue my dear and darling readers. I am one of the lightest packing luxury travelers in the history of the world. Most people who stay at five star hotels tend to travel with more than one pair of pants. Not me! So, this pair of filleted pantaloons was all I had. I wasn’t exactly sure how to go about buying pants. There isn’t exactly a GAP in Luxor. I had seen a couple of shops down in the local district, but I only know enough Arabic to greet people, say goodbye, tell them to go away, and to say that I want to eat something. I wasn’t entirely sure how to work that into, “Hello and good evening kind sir, as you can see, I am in a state of duress. Could you fashion me some fashionable slim black slacks at once? Cheers to you, may Allah smile down on you and your family and your family’s family.”

Instead, I decided to rely on the hospitality and sensitivity of the staff at the Winter Palace. Everybody was good about the ridiculous state of my pants, and Hassan understood why I declined his invitation to watch the sunset at his home that evening. I demurely covered the mass of exposed flesh and thinly veiled organs as I crossed the Nile on the ferry back to the East Bank.

In the throes of embarrassment, I walked along the Corniche and hurried into the Palace. The staff made no comment when I requested a sewing kit and then when I called back down a few minutes later for several more kits. There wasn’t a lot of thread in that kit, reader, and that tear was impressive.

So, as I’m sure many travelers before me have done, I sat on the balcony of my rooms in the Winter Palace in my shirt and underwear as the sun sank into the hills of ancient Thebes as I whipstitched my pants back together. And I must say, Martha Stewart would have been proud of my technique. I was happy that my bits were covered, even though the bright red thread in the sewing kit didn’t exactly match the inky black pants that have become my signature fashion statement.

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Soon the intoxicating colors of the Egyptian sunset faded to darkness and the sky was filled with stars that twinkled on the Nile. I was enchanted by the moment and by the life I was lucky enough to be leading. Yes, I had a disease, and yes I had torn pants, but I was still in a place that had welcomed me with more kindness and care than was reasonable. I was ushered in as a son of Luxor not a tourist, even though I most certainly was. Belonging was the most luxurious thing of all, even if I was in the nicest hotel in town.

The heat of the day and the events of the previous hours had worn me out, but once the sun sank, it was time to start all over again. The night is when many Egyptians choose to go out and shop and live their lives. It’s simply too hot to be out when the sun is beating down on you. I’m out all the time though.

Anyway, it was time to eat, and that meant that it was time to head back to my beloved Lantern to see Debbie and drink gin and stuff myself silly with British food. I adore Egypt, as you no doubt have picked up upon. And I had no doubt that I could completely assimilate into their culture and live my life as one of the fellahin, but there is something wonderfully old world about the expat community in Luxor. It has been here and in Cairo and Alexandria for nearly two centuries, and while it has been challenging at times, this community has made a strong impact on the cities it inhabits. I was charmed by Little Britain and the tiny English shops and restaurants and Debbie, so off I went, disappearing into the calm night along the Corniche and into the wild world of downtown Luxor.

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Mina greeted me at the door and Debbie was a dream with her hair in a beehive. I was so happy in that little restaurant with my gin and tonic and my lentil soup and the slice of quiche Debbie had saved for me. I felt special and I felt welcomed and it was utterly everything I ever wanted out of life. I have big dreams of doing something. Renown calls to me for whatever reason, and I try to fight my common sense that urges me to be realistic. I struggle with being common in the common world. But here in Luxor, in that ancient city of the dead, this city that few people learn to love, I could be common. I could do simple things and simply love life. The thought scares me.

The last entry from my journal that day really sums it up. “I do feel at home here, as in Paris, and I will never be able to explain how or why, but the reasoning behind so much of life is irrelevant. It is much more important to live a full, happy life. Do it however.”

And I really was at home as I strolled down the dark alleys, eyeing the shops and people, listening to the cacophony of Arabic, dodging out of the way of reckless drivers, and finally stepping back into the Winter Palace. The receptionist with the smile is always there to give me my keys, and soon I was in bed, contentedly exhausted, for there were many more adventures to be had in the temples and tombs of my beloved Egypt.

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