April 7, 2022
Thank goodness for a sea day to allow me to create a blog about yesterday in Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.
Luxor is the city of the Egyptian god Amun-Ra, and was the religious capital of Egypt until the Greek Period. In ancient times, it was known as Thebes. It is the second most visited historical site in Egypt after the pyramids. A bit more than half an hour’s drive away on the opposite side of the Nile is the Valley of the Kings, which garnered renewed worldwide interest in 1922 when archeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen.
To get to all those wonderful sites took a 3-1/2 hour bus ride through the mostly rocky eastern (as in east of the Nile) desert. Viking had a ton of preparations to make in order for all of this to go smoothly, and as usual they took care of everything for us. THIS is why we love travelling this way.
We all had to pass through passport checks, scanners, and a gentle pat-down in Egyptian security (men and women processed separately of course, as is the case when we fly through Heathrow Airport in London) before boarding our buses.
The eastern desert landscape was fairly bleak: rocks and sand, and virtually no vegetation or change in rock colour. Check out the Google Map view. There is nothing around our blue bus locator dot except sand, and rocks, and more sand and rocks.
What was very interesting, though, were the number of security checkpoints through which we passed. I’d estimate there was one about every 20-25 kilometres. While we didn’t have to stop, we did need to slow down, and it was rather intimidating noting all the machine-gun toting traffic police. I wondered why all the armed presence in uninhabited desert, and Ted reminded me that Canada has a presence in Alert, Nunuvut, just 800 km from the north pole. It’s about securing territory. The deserted desert area (I know….) would also make a perfect smuggling route, were there no one monitoring it.
On the topic of security, we were accompanied on our excursion by a tour guide, two bus drivers (due to the 13 hour day), and an armed Egyptian security guard wearing a beautifully tailored blue suit that just about hid his sidearm. His presence seemed to expedite us through checkpoints.
As we drove through the desert, we passed a truck stop (the only one in a 100km stretch) that included a mosque. I was reminded of the song Estimated Time of Revival by our friends John and Michele Law, with its lyric “it’s a full service station, licensed for spiritual repair”.
The first real green we saw was at the city of New Qena, where irrigation from the Nile is making agriculture and the establishment of a residential community possible.
Approaching Luxor, we drove along the irrigation canals on the east side of the Nile. All of a sudden, things got green.
Farming is still done here with donkeys, horses, the occasional ox, and by hand. That also makes the traffic REALLY interesting; the roads are marked for 2 lanes, are actually about 2-1/2 lanes wide, but are used as three lanes going in whatever direction wins the face-off. Our huge tour bus was sharing the road with 3-wheeled vehicles, small vans, tractors, farm delivery trucks, scooters, donkey carts, and bicycles. We mostly got the right-of-way. We always honked.
Interestingly, most of the land is used for sugar cane, which is a cash crop, as opposed to foodstuffs. Nonetheless, the plots of land are fairly small, and the people in this agricultural area seemed quite poor.
One of the things we noticed, and that surprised us, was just how much garbage was everywhere, especially along the banks of the irrigation canal where it passed through the towns – and yet we occasionally saw children splashing around in the garbage-filled water.
In Luxor, we started our tour at the Karnak Temple complex (Karnak means “fortified village” in Arabic), dating back to around 2050 BC. That’s more years BC than we have recorded AD. Think about it. We did.
The avenue leading to the temple was covered in Nile silt, as well as built over with homes over the years. Egypt is in the process of excavating the thousand sphinx statues that lined that avenue. We drove across it on a bridge, but did not stop for pictures.
The Temple of Karnak was never buried, so it did not need to be excavated, but it was in ruins. Today about 60% of it has been reassembled. There are temples, pylons, obelisks and the great Hypostyle Hall, with 16 rows containing a total of 134 columns; this was the biggest and most important sanctuary of ancient Egypt. Like most historic sites, there is also a visitor centre, ticket kiosks, and lots of souvenir vendors. Ted took an uncharacteristically small number of pictures during our short 90 minute visit here – only 50 – and yet it is still really hard to choose my favourites. I chose photos with people in them on purpose, so that when I look back at them I will remember just how massive these statues, monuments, and columns were.
Not all the statues are carved and embellished limestone or sandstone. This one appears to be coated in obsidian.
All that breathtaking history had us needing a short break. Viking arranged lunch for us at the Steigenberger Hotel Resort Achti. En route, we drove past the other big Luxor site, the Luxor Temple.
After lunch, we drove across the bridge to the west bank of the Nile and past the fertile green area out to the Valley of the Kings.
This site is home to the tombs of 63 Egyptian pharaohs (one tomb holds 2), ranging in burial dates from around 1539 BC until around 1079 BC, including the tomb of Tutankhamun. Prior to the creation of the Valley of Kings as a necropolis, pharoahs were buried in pyramids; “hidden” underground tombs were a reaction by either Amenhotep I or Thutmose I to the plundering of pyramids even in ancient times and not wanting their own burial place to be ransacked. This area of Egypt is way too hot, way too dry, and way too inhospitable for living people, which made it perfect for housing dead ones!
On any given day, a different selection of tombs are open to the public.
The first tomb we visited was KV62, the tomb of King Tut. Visiting a tomb is nothing like entering one that is being excavated. Generally only the first level is open to visitors, and it has been made accessible with stairs and ramps. While King Tutankhamun’s tomb is the most famous, because it was discovered intact, it is by no means the most impressively decorated tomb, since he died at a young age before further embellishments could be added.
Next we visited KV16, the tomb of Rameses I. As we headed down the equivalent of 3 flights of stairs, one of our fellow passengers quipped “yup, Rameses won”. Three flights was more than enough on a day with 108°F/42°C heat and full desert sun. It was definitely cooler in the tombs, but we entered them breathless from the heat.
KV7, the tomb of Rameses II is apparently one of the most impressive, but we didn’t get to it in our allotted time. Instead, we visited KV14, the twin tomb of Tausert and Setnakht, King and Queen of Egypt.
What was so impressive about this tomb was its sheer size, going down several floors, with side chambers, AND the fact that the decoration began immediately as we entered.
I paid one of the local guides $2 to explain some of the hieroglyphics and he insisted on posing with me in front of the Pharaoh’s tomb. The queen’s tomb was even further down into the mountain, and not accessible to tourists.
As if all that wasn’t enough, we stopped to see the Colossi of Memnon, two giant twin statues of Amenhotep III, before travelling back to the ship.
En route home, as the sun set, we drove back through the small towns, where people were beginning to set out communal tables in preparation for breaking their Ramadan fast. Men with trays of food and drink ran in front of our bus, passing items to our drivers through the window in acknowledgement that these hardworking men had not eaten since before sunrise. It was touching to see this automatic sharing happen over and over along our route to the desert.
It was a long day, 13 hours of which almost 8 were travel time, but that’s the price you pay to get from a port on the Red Sea inland to Luxor. It was worth every single second, every single footstep, and every single dollar for the indelible memories it yielded.