Journal: Monday 6 October 1997
My two friends and I walked out of our hotel in the early morning and who should we bump into but Ali, our friendly taxi driver from our last trip, standing by the door of his cab in front of the hotel, looking stately in his long white galabeya with his gold teeth glittering in a wide grin. He was delighted to see us but very apologetic that he was waiting for some American guests who were going to the West Bank and so he couldn’t be at our disposal this morning. The American couple appeared and very kindly insisted that we share their taxi, refusing to take no for an answer. We had intended to take the local ferry across the river, but instead Ali drove us across on the ‘new bridge’. This was not the grand Luxor Bridge which was opened a few years later, but a temporary bridge built to accommodate the influx of traffic generated by the Opera Aida, which, we were told, was to be performed on the West Bank later this week. We were dropped off at the Colossi of Memnon as we wanted to have a look at the site of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple. There had been some excavation going on at the site, but only the guard was there this morning and he offered to let us have a look around. We saw the beautiful crocodile sphinx, at least it was a rear end and tail of a crocodile sphinx, and other small blocks which had been found buried here. The water table was high, making the ground very soggy underfoot and the grass was long and full of camel thorn which tore at our feet and legs. At the back of the temple area the excavators had begun to uncover a pillared hall which we thought was very exciting and we were allowed to have a look around the edge of it.
We thanked the guard and turned left to walk down by the canal along the road towards Medinet Habu, past the little fields of peas and sweetcorn which grew behind the houses of the village of Kom Lolla. As we neared the temple we realised that we hadn’t bought tickets at the ticket office. Oh well, we would have a drink at the Rameses Cafeteria and decide what we wanted to do today. At the café we sat in the shade for a while looking at the magnificent temple façade and chatted to the waiters, who knew us from previous visits. This is my favourite rest place on the West Bank and I always end up at the Rameses café at some time during a day here. One of the guys working at the Rameses Café who we had met before, was studying for a degree in Egyptology. Salah is a mine of information about the local sites which he knows very well and loves them as though he had built them himself.
This morning Salah told us about a little temple just around the corner from the café, called Qasr el-Aguz, so of course Robin, Lucy and I wanted to go and have a look at it. We walked around the corner, weaving our way through the village, until we saw the temple nestling among the little houses and found the guard who let us in with his key. The tiny temple was dedicated to the god Thoth and built by Ptolemy VIII. Behind a small courtyard, only three chambers remain intact, the last room being the sanctuary, where the king is portrayed making offerings to the gods. Unfortunately the decoration was quite blackened and the reliefs shallow and worn, making it difficult to see anything much in the darkness but looking up we saw a lovely ceiling in typical Ptolemaic style, showing the goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt, Nekhbet and Buto, as vultures.
Later we hopped on a bus and took a ride along the road at the edge of the cultivation, past Qurna as far as the junction to the Valley of the Kings. ‘Bus‘ is a misleading description of the ‘arabeya kabud’, meaning something like ‘people’s car’, which is the local public transport on the West Bank. It is usually a covered Peugeot pick-up truck with a narrow bench down each side to seat around twelve people. Sometimes at the busiest times of the day, there can be as many as twenty passengers, many of them standing on the back foot-plate and hanging on to each other or crammed into the front of the cab with the driver, as the bus speeds along the bumpy tarmac. The fare should be 25 piastres for any journey, however long or short, on the circular route from the ferry. The driver will often try to charge tourists more, but handing him the correct change with a polite ’Shukran’ (thank you) and walking away usually works well. The great thing about the arabeya is that you never need to wait more than a few minutes for one to pass by and they will stop anywhere.
Near the road junction to the King’s Valley, there is a domed house on top of the hill that locals and guides alike call ‘Castle Carter’. This, I later learned is not Carter’s house, but is named Stopplaere House, after a Belgian restorer, built in 1950 following a Hasan Fathy design. The actual house where Howard Carter stayed during his excavation years in the 1920s, is on lower ground near the junction, a lonely low domed building, thickly surrounded by trees.
Howard Carter (1874-1939), the renowned British archaeologist who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, first came to Egypt in 1891, to work with Percy Newberry as an artist and afterwards with William Flinders Petrie at Tell el Amarna. By 1893 Carter had introduced the practice of photographing tomb walls in his pioneering spirit of experimentation. Just before his appointment by the Egyptian Antiquities Service as inspector-general of the monuments of Upper Egypt in 1900, while working at Deir el-Bahri, Carter had accidentally discovered ‘Bab el-Hosan‘, his first intact royal tomb. During this time, he had begun to take an active interest in the archaeology of the Theban necropolis and supervised the clearance of several newly-discovered tombs, including those of Hatshepsut and Tuthmose IV. At the time he was also working for Theodore Davis, an American excavator in the Valley of the Kings. It was not until 1908 that Howard Carter began working for the English earl, Lord Carnarvon, excavating many sites in Egypt. In 1914, Carter heard that local Egyptians at Thebes had discovered a cliff tomb of Amenhotep I outside of the Valley of the Kings, where a cache of New Kingdom pharaohs had been buried. He found someone who would show him the tomb and subsequently excavated it. He also excavated the tomb of Amenhotep III in the Western Valley as well as an early cliff-tomb belonging to Hatshepsut. Carter worked with Lord Carnarvon in the Valley of the Kings from 1917-22 until the earl had exhausted his interest there, convinced that nothing more was to be found. It was only at Carter’s insistence and offer to finance further work for one more season himself, that the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in November 1922, in a last minute investigation of a mound of rubble. By far the best preserved and most intact pharaonic tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings, the story of the subsequent excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb has been told many times. The tomb was officially opened in 1923 amidst a fanfare of dignitaries and press, to reveal the famous golden shrine, but it was not until October 1925, almost three years after the discovery of the stairway leading to the boy-king’s tomb, that Carter gazed upon the face of Tutankhamun with his mask of beaten gold.
Carnarvon, whose health was already failing, had died of an infected mosquito bite and pneumonia shortly after the opening of the tomb in 1923 and the legend of ‘the curse’ was born. Carter died in London in March 1939 and although rich and famous, he was hardly recognised at the end of his life for his achievements in archaeology. Howard Carter’s house, has been recently restored, with plans to open it as a museum. This year was the 75th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and Luxor was commemorating the event in many different ways.