Valleys of eternity
Trip Start Nov 03, 2004
165Trip End Nov 23, 2006
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Where I stayed
Unexpectedly you cross a watershed and the Nile begins its miraculous transformation of the land and people. Suddenly you see water lying wastefully in ditches, instead of secreted in deep, deep wells it flows freely along drains clogged with water hyacinth and rushes. The verges begin to green and are lined with frothing white oleander, there are birds
It's the tourist high season so, naturally, they're building a new bus station in Luxor. The tourist police have decreed that the bus deposit you 4km (or 9km for a taxi driver) away from anywhere you will find accommodation: not even on the outskirts of town but on the bypass road.
We had decided to stay on the West Bank, where the tombs are, for the first few days. A E£1.00 ferry crossing of the Nile (no quibbling about distance) and we were driving through shamelessly green fields to the Hotel Nur al-Gurna. At the end of a long, dusty, argumentative day it had mercifully thick adobe walls, a cool shower and a high speed fan. There was a pretty garden courtyard but opening an outside door at this time of the year in Luxor is like opening the oven door on a roast, but without the good smell.
The restaurant was an outdoor dry sauna where cats, large flying beetles and chitchats (small, ceiling-dwelling, highly territorial, insect-eating lizards) prowled. The offered duck was excellent but hardly needed after the unexpected sides of green salad, tahini salad, bread, rice and vegetables had appeared.
The next morning I was paying for two days of diving with a cold and the aridly dry air. David set off for the tombs of the nobles alone - although that wouldn't last long. His guide was one of 16 in the village who take turns waiting for a hapless tourist who might - or might not - need directions. They make E£20.00 (USD4.00) to show you to the tombs that are open and, because of the rotation system and the dearth of tourists who venture beyond the Valley of the Kings, might only work once or twice a week*
Nestled among the brightly coloured adobe houses of Old Gurna village are the entrances to the tombs of priests, estate inspectors, governors, scribes and astronomers. These underground tombs, following the secretive style of their royal masters, are well preserved and retain much of their original coloured decorations. They show the usual scenes of the tomb's inhabitant being honoured by pharaohs or making offerings to various gods, there are bright depictions of religious scenes, rituals and stories and, most importantly from the archaeologists' perspective, clear scenes of daily rural life, from harvesting and grinding grain to hunting ducks - activities usually too unimportant for pharoahs to waste wall space on.
In the afternoon David made me, grudgingly, get up and trudge, hacking, wheezing and sniffling, to the much under-rated Medinat Habu temple which, together with its associated village, were said to be the centre of Theban economic life well into the 9th century AD.
Like most Egyptian constructions it's big. Really, really, dwarfingly big and, sometimes, oppressively cramped. The chambers of the Tomb Chapels of the Divine Adorers (high priestesses) are only just more than shoulder width but 10 or 12m high, built around the central shrine
The first pylon of the funerary temple has an enormous relief of Ramses III victorious against the Libyans - pharaoh victorious is a bit of a recurring theme in Egyptian art, but this one is uncharacteristically chaotic and fluid. The second pylon shows Ramses offering prisoners of war to Amun and his wife Mut. We came to be very familiar with the pharaoh in "prisoner smiting" pose which involved one hand clutching the ponytails of numerous miserable conquerees. The Egyptians were great believers in self-promotion.
Early next morning, in the relative cool, David set off alone for the Valley of the Queens where queens, princesses and princes hoped to rest eternally. Of Nefertari, the beloved wife of Ramses II, all the grave robbers left were her knees.
The 1997 massacre at the Temple of Hatshepsut caused the Egyptian government to implement strict and onerous precautions to ensure the safety of tourists [which didn't go far to preventing the bombing in Dahab or the attack on the UN contingent in Sinai a week before our arrival, or last year's bombing in Sharm el-Sheikh ...]. We walked over the signposted, stony path from Gurna to the temple. We arrived, unchallenged, inside the compound without having to purchase tickets, have them checked, go through the metal detector or have our backpack scrutinised by the tourist police. We walked down to the gate and bought tickets. The metal detector was off and the tourist policeman didn't look up from his newspaper
The temple rises in a series of terraces, flush with the huge limestone cliffs. It is remarkable, huge and must have been truly breathtaking when the gardens flourished.
Over the years the temple has been thoroughly vandalised: by Akhenaten who removed references to Amun; by later pharaohs, disapproving of a female pharaoh***, who removed Hatshepsut's name where they could; by Christians, who used it as a monastery, and removed most other things they could reach; by modern vandals who just revel in smashing things. It's slowly being restored. Thankfully, vandals appear to only bother with things in arm's reach, so some paintings, reliefs and sculptures (but not many noses) have survived.
Both the Valleys of the Kings and Queens were chosen because they were desolate, unwelcoming, isolated and hidden among numerous valleys and clefts. Unfortunately, the tombs were never secret and many were plundered within a century of their sealing. Because personal jewelry was wrapped into the layers of bandaging the mummies were often unwrapped and left defiled and decaying.
Ultimately the guardian priests realised their pharaohs and queens would never be safe from violation in their own tombs. Around 934 BC they secretly moved 40 of them to a communal, anonymous grave, originally prepared for the high priest. Their grave was discovered in 1881 and the bodies removed with great ceremony by barge to Cairo.
Although you know the Valley of the Kings was chosen for its extreme unattractiveness and lack of regalness, it's still a little disappointing - it seemed so small and stark for such renown. It's a narrow, parched defile cluttered with tourist tat sellers, tour buses and tourists - hardly a secret or quiet resting place****. The hills are steep and slippery with shale and, at 10.00am, the heat is torturing.
Our first visit was to the burial chamber of Ramses I. A short ramp leads down to a small, exquisitely decorated chamber containing a pink granite sarcophagus. No trace of Ramses' mummy has ever been found but rumours persist that it somehow traveled to the Niagara Falls Museum in Ontario - having been "acquired" in the 1850s.
You crab down the remarkably steep ramp sideways, bent nearly double by the roof, the wafting air reminding you that the torturous heat of outside was really quite balmy. It's hard to imagine carrying a fruit basket down the ramp let alone a dead body with it's storage cube of internal organs and all the paraphernalia required for a comfortable afterlife (Tutankhamun was buried with 47 pairs of socks).
The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has a policy of rotating which tombs are open to the public so none suffer unduly from humidity and sticky fingers
After a bit of searching we visited with Ramses III. He had appropriated the incomplete tomb of Sethnakht who had thrown up his hands in disgust and abandoned his tomb when diggers accidentally broke through into the tomb of Amenmesse. After some tricky thinking Ramses put in a dog leg in the immensely long corridor and carried on to create a 125m long tomb.
This is a stunningly beautiful tomb. The corridor and chambers are lined with hieroglyphic text (no doubt recounting Ramses' divine birth and telling everyone about his great victories and enemy smitings) and luminously painted sunken reliefs. The paintings are of religious texts but also of secular scenes of Ramses receiving foreign tribute and harpists entertaining the court. Everyone is drawn in glowing colour in neck cricking style. The ceiling is midnight blue and dotted with golden stars.
Poor old Ramses didn't spend much time enjoying his splendid tomb
After a few more false calls we ended up at the tomb of Tuthmosis III (which, due to its location, hidden in the hills, at the very end of the valley and up lots of stairs then down lots of stairs, we'd been avoiding). It was one of the first tombs constructed in the valley and one of the sneakiest with randomly angled corridors and false chambers to confuse thieves - dead waste of time, they found him anyway, so after all his stuff had been stolen he ended up bunking down with Ramses III and the crew.
The tomb is simply decorated with scenes from funeral papyri peopled by stick figures. The walls have been gridded and the repetition of scenes makes it look like it's been decorated in mahjong tiles.
In the afternoon, feeling two days of enforced reclusiveness, I walked down to the Colossi of Memnon. Rising 18m above the fields, they are all that remains of Amenhotep III's mighty funerary temple - probably shouldn't have built it on the Nile floodplain really. The statues no longer sing with the rising sun (a phenomenon caused, apparently, by earthquake damage in 27 BC) but they are haunting, enthroned and faceless, watching over a part of the world that has changed little in its daily life since they were erected.
The walk to the statues is through obscenely green fields, fringed with rushes and olive trees
The walk to the statues and back is about 800m. In that time one teenager on a donkey, two men (in different cars) and a taxi driver inquired where my husband was and would I come home for tea with them. The next night a waiter explained that Egyptian people were very friendly. I pointed out that offers to come home had only come from men and asked what his position would be if his wife or sister accepted such an offer. His face was all the response we needed. So, to all those female tourists who think that their own comfort in stifling heat is more important than cultural appropriateness and sensitivity, thank you. You may be hot and white lycra hot pants and a braless halterneck top may be cool but have you noticed that local woman don't show any skin at all? If I think you look like a hooker what do you think an Egyptian thinks you look like? I'm sweltering in long pants and a long sleeved tee-shirt because I'm a guest in their culture and I'm still getting propositioned - because of you. And while we're at it - there is an age beyond which you should not wear a boob tube, wherever you are!
The next morning I watched repeated ferry dockings disgorge their passengers while David found us a hotel on the East Bank
We walked to our hotel past a road sign that declaimed in (bad) English and Arabic that if you parked illegally you were breaking the law and insulting God and your fellow man with your disregard for them and noted that your respect of the law was a measure of your civilisation [how true, not to mention dressing appropriately in conservative cultures], through the gauntlet of horse and carriage drivers and around the ruins of the Temple of Luxor. Pausing only to throw down our bags we took ourselves off to the massive Temples of Karnak complex.
Built, added to, remodeled, dismantled, restored over 1500 years, Karnak was considered the most important place of worship in all Egypt and called Ipet-Isut or The Most Perfect of Places. The site measures 1.5km by 800m. It's huge even by pharaonic standards. There are plenty of important statues (some even retaining their noses), reliefs of pharaohs smiting enemies and being honoured by, or honouring, lioness-, vulture-, hippopotamus-headed goddesses
At night the Luxor Temple on the banks of the Nile is lit a soft gold. The light highlights the striking temple's graceful proportions and sound of prayer from the Mosque of Abu al-Haggag (inside the temple) gives a sense of continuity. The sphinxes seem to hover above the avenue they guard and the columns of the Court of Amenhotep III form a protecting golden cartouche around the moon god, Khons. Egyptian couples wander in the semi-dark, and as we sit in the inner courtyard a shoe-shine boy having a last cigarette before heading home just wants to chat. One forlorn guide is still looking for business.
* The government have been trying to relocate the Gurnawis for decades now
** The ancient Egyptians believed that as long as your name was not forgotten your spirit would survive in the afterworld. They also believed in stealing their predecessors' monuments, it being obviously much easier to simply carve over a name and restyle a head dress and ... hey presto ... new, magnificent temple to me which also conveniently eliminates the memory of that pesky other guy who killed more Babylonians than me. Hence deep inscriptions.
*** Ingrates: her reign (ostensibly as regent for her stepson) were 20 of the most peaceful and prosperous years known to Egypt.
**** There may still be pharaohs trying to rest here - in February this year another, previously unsuspected tomb, was unearthed by an American expedition. And the tomb of some of Ramses II's estimated 50 sons is yet to be fully catalogued, meanwhile they rest uneasily here.