Luxor: your in-the-flesh textbook of ancient Egyptian history

Whereas Aswan was a base for Abu Simbel, and itself had only the Tombs of the Nobles, Luxor is a smorgasbord of ancient sites.  (Well, Aswan itself had only that if you consider just the things we bothered to see – we skipped the gardens on Lord What’s-his-face’s island in mid-Nile and a couple of other minor attractions, blaming a hearty reluctance to give enough of a crap to bother dealing with the touts we would have had to navigate en route.  More on them in the next post.)

There’s the Valley of the Kings (including the tomb of King Tutankhamen), the Temple of Hatshepsut, the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses II (more glibly known as the ‘Ramesseum’), the Colossi of Memnon, and the Village and Tombs of the Workers, all on the west side of the river, in the Theban Necropolis.  So that would be the ‘monuments to dead people’ side of the river.

Then there are the Temples of Karnak and the Luxor Temple on the east.  The ‘praying for a little longer before ending up on the other side’ side of the river, perhaps?  A couple of long days in the sun, and we did it all.  Oh, and the museum, too – also on the east.  (That part of the day obviously wasn’t long in the sun – in fact, I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw that many of the museum’s more gushing reviews on TripAdvisor seemed to go on at quite some length praising the quality of its airconditioning.)

The pictures don’t convey the full awesomeness of being at the sites, surrounded by history that’s pretty much as tactile as it gets.  (Not that you should actually go too overboard on the tactile experience, of course.  No overenthusiastic rubbing away the remaining artefacts of ancient Egyptian culture, please.  Although I’m sure for a suitable ‘tip’ to the nearest ‘guard’, you can probably buff yourself vigorously against whatever relic comes to hand, if you really want to.)  More than that:  history you can walk through, and around, and between, and under.  History that’s standing in the same place it was put thousands of years ago.  For all the hassle and annoyance of travelling in the tourist centres of Egypt, standing in the desert amongst such ancient grandeur was worth it.  In such an amazing place full of amazing monuments.

… But any description that I could give is going to fall far short of bridging that gap, so to some extent, at least, the pictures’ll mostly have to do anyway.  Except for the actual contents of the Valley of the Kings and the Tombs of the Workers – no pictures allowed there, I’m afraid.  (Probably for the best, or we would have been there happy-snapping for days.)

A lone black-robed hawker on a hill above the Valley of the Kings

A lone black-robed hawker on a hill above the Valley of the Kings

We started our first day early, finding a taxi on the street to take us around the dead-people sites (ie on the west side of the river).  We would have organised it through our hotel just to save time and to avoid the hassle of dealing with people on the street, but the night manager was evidently try to scam us by quoting hugely higher prices than the hotel owner’s starting price had been, so we decided to give that a miss…  Score one for doing things yourselves:  we easily negotiated a price on the streets well below what the hotel was promising, and paid less than we would have had the hotel owner organised it, even after a substantial tip to the driver at the end of the day.

We got to the Valley of the Kings around 7.30am, and were glad we did.  Although there were a few hardy souls who had got there at the crack of dawn and were already leaving, there were still very few others around, and we got to enjoy many of the tombs completely by ourselves.

That included the tomb of King Tutankhamen (designated KV62), which, after handing our separately-purchased additional ticket for the tomb to the remarkably Morgan Freeman-lookalike guard outside, we were able to experience with not even a hint of any other people around.  So the three of us stood alone in front of the King’s mummified remains – just his head and feet poking out from under a white blanket in a glass case – before exploring, in bizarrely air-conditioned comfort, the remarkably small space that he’s inhabited for most of these last three thousand odd years.  And noting that there seemed to be an awful lot of baboons depicted on the walls, among other animals and humans.  I wouldn’t have picked ancient Egypt as a baboon-rich environment, myself, but there you have it.

The other big highlight of the morning – the double tomb of Ramesses V and Ramesses VI (KV9) – we also got to ourselves.  Well, but for the guard constantly and annoyingly pointing out blindingly obvious features – “that’s Anubis”, “that’s a cow”, “that’s a bird”, “here’s Ramesses V”, “here’s Ramesses VI”, the last two repeated ad nauseam – in broken English in hopes of a tip.  (Solution for those travelling in a group:  split up.  There were three of us, and with each of us in a different part of the underground tombs, the guard could only annoy one of us at a time, at most!)  The double tomb was clearly a substantially bigger enterprise than Tutankhamen’s frankly miserly effort:  a long entrance chamber of brightly coloured hieroglyphics, with then a two-part extended corridor leading along and then sloping gently down to a large main chamber with a huge broken stone sarcophagus.  This is the sort of tomb that announced power and privilege, and somehow even sarcophagus’s brokenness contributes to that effect.

The interior decorators for the double tomb seem to have chosen snakes as the feature animal, rather than King Tut’s simians, and so the entranceway is adorned with quite a number of enormously long footless reptiles, with even a few snake-headed people mixed in amongst the more usual dog- and bird-headed fare.  Quite a handful of scenes of men riding snakes, too;  perhaps some of the less practical depictions, to my admittedly uneducated mind.

Having seen the two big-ticket (and separately-purchased-ticket) items first, we then had to pick three of the eight or nine other tombs in the valley which happened to be open at the time.  (Your standard entrance ticket to the Valley comes with three tombs included, none of which can be King Tut or the double tomb.  Other tombs sold separately.)  We tried to pick a reasonably varied choice from the descriptions we’d researched the night before.

First, KV11, the tomb of Ramesses III – a huge tomb, but with its four large chambers at the bottom completely ruined, with broken ceilings and with their plastered walls almost completely worn away.  Like a number of others in the Valley, the tomb has been open since antiquity, and has clearly suffered for it.  But enough remained to pick out more snakes in the decorative elements – this time including some, strangely, with legs – and the upper section of the entrance corridor (before the bit where they accidentally broke into KV10 – whoops! – and had to clumsily dogleg around before continuing on to the main chambers) still survives enough to make out the staple of hieroglyphics, eagles, birds, dogs, etc.

Next, KV16, the tomb of Ramesses I, this one very deep, down a few steep sections of stairs to a small chamber well underground.  Unlike King Tut’s version, there was no airconditioning here, so the incredibly colourful chamber was somewhat hot and sticky.  But that didn’t much affect our appreciation of the large central red stone sarcophagus and the bright hieroglyphics on the walls – here simply painted onto a background painted on the wall, not carved in as in most of the other tombs.

And last, KV47, and finally someone back to someone not named Ramesses – this the tomb of Siptal.  Again we were alone as we wandered down the long corridor to the burial chamber ruined long ago by flooding.  And we remained alone as we studied its detailed rose-coloured stone sarcophagus, decorated with intricate engraved hieroglyphics on the sarcophagus itself, all the while appreciating that the location and orientation of this particular tomb kept it nice and cool – a welcome contrast to Ramesses I’s hole in the ground.

Above the Temple of Hatshepsut

Above the Temple of Hatshepsut, on the ridge between the Temple and the Valley of the Kings

Once the Valley of the Kings had thus been suitably explored, we ventured up the hill (up the sort-of-marked path past the ‘no climbing’ signs) and over the ridge to the east, to overlook our next destination for the day:  the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.  We checked that out from our perch up on high, and enjoyed the view across the thin green strip of land astride the Nile, before returning through the Valley of the Kings to find our taxi and drive round to wander through Queen Hatshepsut’s impressive monument, which, at least, we could explore with cameras at the ready.

The Temple of Hatshepsut

The Temple of Hatshepsut. Our wander from the Valley of the Kings had taken us to the edge of the cliff on the skyline directly above the temple.

From there, it was off to the equivalent structure for Ramesses II:  the ‘Ramesseum’.  A slightly less intact edifice, this one.  I guess that’s what you get for building your ‘temple of a million years’ on the Nile flood plain, perhaps forgetting that a million years means really quite a lot of water movement through the area, which I imagine doesn’t do great things to the structural integrity of your foundations, even if the building itself doesn’t normally flood.  But anyhow, the giant stone head – of the Ozymandias colossus – is probably much more interesting and imagination-provoking lying on the ground than it would be on a still-preserved statue, so the ruins were impressive regardless, and we spent a good hour picking through them while our taxi driver wandered off to find his lunch (somewhat incredulous that we weren’t doing the same;  not only that, but also that we intended to keep going for the rest of the day without stopping – presumably most of the tourists passing through have a little more difficulty with the heat and effort of wandering around in the sun all day!).

We also amused ourselves giggling at perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of the day:  the valiant attempts of Catholic missionaries to scratch the large phalluses off the fertility figures on the pillars.  Of course, having scratched away as they did, all they really succeeded in doing was leaving a series of even more obvious, slightly larger, vaguely dick-shaped indentations, so I’m not quite sure what they thought they were achieving.  But it’s the thought that counts, I suppose.

An excited ancient Egyptian, with member rather unsuccessfully erased

An excited ancient Egyptian, with member rather unsuccessfully erased

The penultimate – but yet still quite substantial – attraction for the day was the Village and Tombs of the Workers.  The ancient village of Deir el-Medina housed the masons and other artisans who worked on the tombs of pharaohs and nobles in the Valley of the Kings and elsewhere around the Theban Necropolis, and in what I can only imagine must have made for an incredibly morbid existence, in what little time they had to spare from building big rich people tombs, the more well-off of those masons and artisans built small poor people tombs for themselves and their families.

Ornately decorated walls inside a temple in Deir el-Medina (the Workmen's Village)

No photos allowed in the tombs, but here are some ornately decorated walls inside a temple in Deir el-Medina (the Workmen’s Village)

While much smaller than many of the more grandiose tombs in the Valley of the Kings – as you’d expect – some of these more humble final resting places are incredibly well preserved.  So although Deir el-Medina may not be a staple of the main tourist track through Luxor, it’s most definitely worth a visit.  The intricacy of the beautifully painted tomb interiors here far exceeds what we saw in the thoroughly-looted tourist hotspots earlier in the day, to the extent that we were almost saddened to see that we seemed to be the only people bothering to visit them.  The walls and ceilings are vividly painted with scenes every bit as detailed and colourful as the better-preserved parts of the tombs of the Kings.  And the much reduced size gives the tombs an intimacy that the Kings’ tombs can’t rival.

Finally, to round out the day, a brief stop at the Colossi of Memnon.  Wikipedia tells me that the Colossi’s original purpose was to stand guard at the entrance to an even bigger temple than the Ramesseum, or any other temple in Luxor.  But you wouldn’t know it these days:  they’re out by themselves in the middle of nowhere, with Amenhotep’s Mortuary Temple having survived the inundations of the Nile even less well that Ramesses’.

The Colossi of Memnon

The Colossi of Memnon

And thus we completed day one:  a fantastic day of epic history and stoic water consumption in the blistering sun.

Day two had a shorter itinerary, but the main item – the Temples of Karnak – was pretty much a whole-day event.  The Temple complex is enormous and quite varied.  We started with the towering pillars of the Great Hypostyle Hall, and spent a large chunk of the day making our way on a long circuitous navigation through a variety of other temples, obelisks, halls, etc, right out to the lonely statue of a scarab beetle out back.  You’ll know you’ve got to it when you see the surrounding hordes of tourists walking endlessly around it, in imitation of the ancient tradition to circle it seven times counter-clockwise for good luck.  I was subsequently told that what the tourists generally don’t know is that this was the good luck charm you used if you’d tried everything else but hadn’t been able to find a suitable wife or – more frequently – husband.  This made it all substantially more amusing, considering the number of couples striding purposefully around, just because the tour guide told them to.

A view down the central axis of the Temples of Karnak, from between the two great obelisks, right back towards the entrance

A view down the central axis of the Temples of Karnak, from between the two great obelisks, right back towards the entrance

After most of our day was spent at Karnak, we did indeed enjoy the airconditioning of the Luxor Museum.  Also, it was a pretty good museum:  somewhat small, but well-labelled and informative, and with some interesting and well-preserved artefacts (yes, including two mummies) to gawk at.

The Luxor Temple, the last item on our to-do list, we gave a miss, satisfied with simply observing it from the outside on our several walks past, and not feeling a pressing need to endure the mass of hawkers at its entrance to see from the inside what we could already see from the street.

The Temple of Luxor at night

The Temple of Luxor at night

And then, several visits to McDonald’s later, we were done with Luxor, and off for what we hoped would be a comfortable and scenic train trip up to Cairo…

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