It’s been a year since I was last in Egypt. My long-time travel companion Jenny has not been able to get back to Egypt and last year another friend, Mary stepped into her shoes at the last minute to go with me on a pre-planned trip. As Mary has always wanted to do a Nile Cruise, this year I decided to go with her, agreeing that this is a great way to see many of the Upper Egypt sites that are not always easy to get to by road. I have already enjoyed two cruises and we decided to use the same company, Thompson and PNC, who operate a tiny fleet of older-style cruise boats. So, a week on the boat followed by a week in the relatively luxurious Novotel in Luxor was something I had been looking forward to after my absence.
Unfortunately, travelling with a tour company entails rather a long journey from the far west of England where we live. The overnight train to Gatwick airport in London means leaving our home town at 9.00pm and not arriving in Luxor until the next afternoon at 4.30pm. This is the only time I envy people living near the major airports. But the flight was good and the journey from the airport to our cruise ship moored on the Luxor Corniche was made easy by the tour company transfer coach.
We were settled into our cabin on the boat in time for dinner. This boat, the Commodore, is an exact replica of the other PNC boats I’ve been on – the Legend and the Admiral. It’s one of the older cruise ships that sail weekly up and down the River Nile between Luxor and Aswan, a little frayed around the edges compared to the more luxurious floating palaces that have arrived on the river in recent years. One of the things I like about them is that they are small – with groups of 30-40 passengers. You can get to know everyone quite quickly and there is a feeling of belonging to an extended family after only a couple of days. I think I would feel out of place on one of the larger trendy ships and besides, my wardrobe doesn’t really run to elegant dinner attire. I felt comfortable here in the tiny cabin with its mahogany-panelled walls and we were fortunate to have a cabin on an upper deck with a lovely view of the river and the West Bank. What more could I ask?
Dinner was as usual, superb and Mary and I enjoyed getting to know our fellow passengers. Afterwards we spent an hour up on the top deck just absorbing the familiar and unique sights, sounds and smells of my beloved Luxor in the warm balmy air of an April evening. We’d both missed a night’s sleep on the train journey last night and by 10.30pm we were fit to drop, but excited to be back as we made our way down to our cabin for an early night.
Morning in the Kings’ Valley
We overslept this morning and after a very rushed breakfast Mary and I dashed out to the Corniche to board the coach at 7.00am for the first of our excursions. It seemed like the sun had also overslept – the weather was grey and windy and disappointing for our first day in Egypt. The cruise passengers were divided up into three groups of about a dozen, each with our own Egyptian guide. Our guide is Hala, an Egyptologist who is taking time off from her regular job at a university in Cairo.
As the coach wound its way through the wakening streets of Luxor towards the bridge and the West Bank, we were given a brief history of Thebes and the monuments we would see today, in that witty way that guides have in an attempt to break the ice, trying to get their charges to interact. By the time we reached our first destination, the Valley of the Kings, the ice had broken and we were all properly awake, including the sun that had at last appeared above the bank of cloud bringing with it a pleasant warmth. I’m not used to going to the Valley at this time of day, preferring the quiet of the afternoon when most of the tourists have gone, but although it was very crowded it felt great to be back as we all trooped up the road from the coach park between the high sandstone cliffs that enclose this sacred necropolis. As the Valley widened out the crowds dispersed and the familiar silence, unique to this place, enveloped me. I had dreamed of visiting the Valley of the Kings since I was a young child and since my first encounter with it in 1995 and many more hours spent here, the place has become very familiar. I felt like I knew every inch of every tomb like old friends.
It was a different experience visiting the royal tombs with a guide and a group. We went into the tomb of Rameses IX (KV6), the first tomb the visitor reaches when entering the Valley. This wouldn’t have been my first choice, the decoration is quite late and well developed and rather bemusing if you haven’t seen any of the other tombs that show the way the decoration evolved, but at least the access is easy and not to strenuous for starters. As we walked down the wide corridors past walls decorated with extracts from the ‘Book of Gates’ , the ‘Litanies of Re’, the ‘Book of Caverns’ and the ‘Amduat’, Hala did her best to give a commentary but she had to shout to compete with several other guides speaking in different languages. It was like being in the Tower of Babel! One of the most beautiful parts of this tomb is the vaulted astronomical ceiling in the burial chamber which has a famous double representation of the goddess Nut who swallows the sun each night and gives birth to it again each morning.
Afterwards, Mary and I set off on our own to visit the tomb of Seti II (KV15), which was left unfinished but with some beautiful reliefs and the tomb of Tawosret / Sethnakht (KV14) with it’s delicate paintings in the corridors and the king’s huge granite sarcophagus in the burial chamber. At least these last two tombs were not crowded, in fact we had Tawosret’s tomb to ourselves – which was my reason for choosing it this morning. I took a lot of photographs but it was quite dark, so I’m not optimistic that they will come out. I had a quick look at the ATP (Amarna Tombs Project) excavations – but the team were not here and the excavations covered over. I did notice a new wooden bridge that had been built over part of the road covering the excavations.
After the Valley we stopped at the inevitable alabaster ‘factory’ and while my fellow passenger admired the translucent vases and colourful statues (which are not produced here at all) and watched a demonstration by a suitably dusty stone carver, I had a chat with Hala, who I was beginning to see as a guide worth listening to. It’s nice to see a female Egyptologist (a rare breed) and she is rather a serious person. Not at all like my previous experience of guides who prefer to impart jokes rather than information. I could see that we would get along very well.
Hatshepsut’s Temple at Deir el-Bahri was our next stop – the queen re-named ‘Hot-chicken-soup’ by the only male guide! Ha-ha yawn… Here I detached myself from the group and sped up to the third terrace which was now officially open after its years of total rebuild. I spent all my time taking photographs of the scenes of the Valley Festival which adorn the walls of this terrace but was a little disappointed to find that the side-chambers were still off-limits. I’ve been very fortunate to have a private view of the third terrace on a previous occasion as the guest of an antiquities inspector, so I really couldn’t complain. I must say it’s looking good with the colourful reliefs very well-restored.
By 12.00pm the sun was burning down on us in the bay of cliffs that surround Hatshepsut’s temple and it was time for all sensible tourists to head home. Our last brief stop was at the Colossi of Memnon, the two giant statues of Amenhotep III which once graced the entrance to his mortuary temple. The sun was at a totally wrong angle for decent photographs and I chuckled to myself as I remembered my last visit here a couple of years ago – a Midnight expedition with my friend Jenny and tea with the tourist police who were on guard that night.
We were back on the boat in time for lunch and immediately ‘set sail’ for Esna, the next big town on the Nile going south. We had a lazy afternoon on deck watching the activity on the banks of the river as the boat steamed past tiny villages, unchanged since the days of ancient Egypt. A strong wind made the air decidedly cool and I watched a few brave people splashing about in the tiny pool determined to enjoy their holiday in the sun.
By 7.00pm we were moving through Esna lock, where the boats are lifted up to the next level of the river. Boys in little canoe-like craft drifted around our ship shouting at us to buy souvenirs which they would throw up to the passengers on deck and hope that in return, money would find its way back down. A strange way to do business. Before dinner we had the ‘Manager’s cocktail party’ with an array of precariously stacked vibrant glasses of drinks in every colour – a real spectacle. We had docked in Esna town during dinner, but we were one of a row of several cruise-boats and we were discouraged from going ashore.
Onward to Aswan
What a beautiful morning to wake up in Edfu, where we had docked at some time during the night. The low sun was casting pale glittering shadows on the river as we went down to breakfast. It wasn’t quite such an early start as yesterday but we had left the boat by 8.00am for the short coach ride through the busy town of Edfu to the Temple of Horus.
I’ve visited Edfu Temple several times before but today I was surprised by how quiet it was. We parked in the street alongside the stalls selling galabeyas and souvenirs and walked along the western side of the long temple enclosure wall, past rows and rows of larger-than-life Ptolemaic kings offering to various deities and then around to the huge First Pylon. To my amazement the courtyard was empty and so was the temple – our little group were the only visitors this morning. I stayed with Hala and the other guide for a while before setting off to take pictures, a temple devoid of the hoards was an opportunity not to be missed. While Mary stuck with the group, I went to photograph the eastern staircase. I was hoping to find a guard who might let me go up onto the roof. I soon found a willing enough guard, but unfortunately he didn’t have the key to the locked gate at the top, I guess it’s a no-go area. But the staircase was interesting and very similar to the dark winding stairs at Dendera, with priests and standard-bearers processing up and down. The ‘Pure Place’, a kiosk-like shrine to Hathor at the bottom of the stairs in an open ‘sun court’, is also identical to the one at Dendera, with the same figure of the sky goddess Nut on the ceiling. In many respects this is Dendera’s twin temple, this being the abode of Horus, while Dendera belonged to his consort Hathor. The cult statue of the goddess was brought here each year by river to join with hubby to celebrate the ‘Feast of the Beautiful meeting’. Scenes of this important annual festival are shown in great detail inside the porticos of the courtyard, but there was not enough time today to study these reliefs. I caught up with the group while they were in the sanctuary and then it was time to leave. I would dearly have liked a few more hours here – I had intended to have a good look at the Roman mamissi, on which the mamissi at Dendera was modelled but there was no time. This is a drawback in doing a cruise. It gives the visitor a taste of ancient Egyptian archaeology but you really need a separate visit to see much more. By 10.30am we were back on the boat on our way to Kom Ombo.
The weather has been much warmer today and Mary and I sat on the boat’s top deck in the shade in the afternoon watching river scenes. My friend dozed on a sun lounger while I jumped up and down taking photographs of the odd clump of drifting water hyacinth, a heron on the river bank or a tiny island populated by the ubiquitous white egrets, but it was very peaceful. By the time we reached Kom Ombo the sun was already low and our visit to the temple, high on its promontory on a bend in the river, was quite rushed. It was almost dark when we left, running the gauntlet of souvenir stalls whose owners were desperate to compete for the last of the day’s sales. Many of the cruise passengers bought galabeyas and head-wear for tonight’s ‘galabeya party’ but I have brought an old favourite with me from my collection at home. As we were steaming away from Kom Ombo I stood on the rear deck watching the beautiful spectacle of the temple, floodlit now and standing gracefully to await tomorrow’s new consignment of visitors.
The galabeya party after dinner was fun, with everyone dressed up and getting into the spirit of things. Some of my fellow passengers are real characters, stealing the show with their outrageous antics. We arrived and docked at Aswan around 10.30pm but I don’t think anyone noticed we had stopped until much later.
A Taste of Nubia
Our cruise ship the Commodore, was berthed on the east bank of the Nile next to a row of motor boats for hire. Today was scheduled as a free day in Aswan for us because some of the passengers had gone to Abu Simbel on a pre-dawn flight. On a previous cruise I’d been south to the Nubian temple of Rameses II and couldn’t again justify the cost of this extra trip for so little time there – merely and hour or two, though I would have loved to have gone. Over breakfast Mary and I discussed what we would like to do with our day. She wanted to go sailing in a felucca, but there was hardly any wind this bright still morning, unusual for Aswan, although it may pick up this afternoon I told her. A small group of passengers at our table were talking about going to a Nubian Village on the West Bank so Mary and I opted to join them. I suggested that we could perhaps call at the botanical gardens of Kitchener’s Island on the way as it was somewhere I had wanted to see and I went out and negotiated a motor boat with a captain called Ibrahim for the six of us.
We motored through a narrow passage, between the massive rocks of Elephantine and the Old Cataract Hotel where my son Kit had almost crashed while sailing a felucca once. Soon we were pulling in to the quay of the small oval-shaped island that was given to Lord Horatio Kitchener in the 1890s for his part in the Sudanese campaigns, while he was the Egyptian Consul. A keen gardener, Kitchener constructed a botanical garden, importing many exotic plants and trees which flourished in the mild Aswan climate. Today, the island, which is now known as Plantation Island or by its Arabic name Geziret el-Nabatat, is a paradise of shade trees and vibrant exotic plants and I hoped we would get a glimpse of some of the colourful birds that are said to inhabit the island. It was a pleasant stroll along the neat paved paths that wound through well-tended plant beds. One of our group was a keen birdwatcher and he pointed out chiffchaffs and spectacled warblers, wheatears and shrikes – most of the birds he mentioned I’d never heard of. In 1928 the island, under the Ministry of Irrigation, was turned into an experimental station for plants from equatorial regions and alongside the native trees and plants of Aswan such as the sycamore fig and the date palm, many trees were brought from abroad and cultivated for use in the timber industry. Experimental oil and fruit crops were also propagated on the island by the Ministry of Agriculture. The island is now owned by the Egyptian government and there is still a biological research station at its southern end which is not open to visitors. We walked as far as we could go, to where a little cafeteria overlooked the water, but we had no time to stay as our Captain Ibrahim waited with our boat to take us further downriver.
The village of Nag’ Seheil Gharb is as its name suggests, just to the west of Seheil Island towards the First Cataract. As Ibrahim piloted us through the river he carried on the ornithology lesson by pointing out hoopoes, night herons, a black kite, kingfishers diving for fish and the inevitable white egrets. On this part of the river a huge volume of water bubbles boils and churns over rocks that have been carved over time into wonderful shapes, towards the once-treacherous cataracts at the old dam. We were met on the bank by a hoard of children who grabbed at our hands and our clothes and dragged us up the steep dunes towards the village. They all had something to sell of course and most were toting large baskets of wooden dolls and camels they had made, Nubian crochet hats, bright cotton scarves and even tiny mummified crocodiles. In the village itself narrow alleyways with a scattering of goats wound between beautifully decorated houses, dazzling white or multi-coloured in the morning sun. I was surprised at how clean it all looked. Doorways and windows were framed by typical Nubian painting – geometric patterns and colourful shapes that added glamour to the tiny houses. A self-appointed guide soon attached himself to us and after we all declined a camel ride, he insisted we went for a drink in a ‘typical Nubian house’ – obviously one kept for the purpose of visiting tourists. What did we have to lose (except money) and most of us were curious to see inside one of the pretty houses. The house he took us to was quite large with a sandy courtyard lined with stone mastaba benches covered in colourful striped woven rugs. Someone went off to make our tea and while we waited several of us got into the spirit of the visit by agreeing to (rather reluctantly on my part) have henna tattoos. We were assured that they were not permanent, lasting only a week or two and they were very well done. Mine was an intertwining of flowers and vines on my ankle and looked quite attractive, but was something I would never dream of having at home. All of this took rather a long time, but as we went back out into the street the little crowd of children were still waiting patiently with their baskets of goodies and a few of our party gave in and bought some of the toys. The mummified baby crocodiles had no takers!
We were back on the Commodore for in time for lunch, the journey home being much quicker as we were motoring with the current rather than against it, around the more direct western side of Elephantine Island. Mary still wanted her felucca trip, so before going back on board we arranged a sailing boat to Elephantine for the afternoon, which satisfied both of us. I had never had time to get to the island before, so the combination of a restful afternoon sail along with a quick tour of the monuments was perfect.
The early afternoon sun was scorching on Elephantine. A guide showed us around the monument area, which included the largest surviving structure, the Temple of the ram-headed creator-god Khnum, at the southern end of the island, which dates from New Kingdom to Roman times. A granite gateway built by Alexander is the only large structure of the temple remaining intact and the jumbles mass of ruins behind it are difficult to identify due to ongoing excavation. At the front of the temple, which is oriented east to west, a restored pavement surrounds fragmentary remains of columns built by Rameses II. This leads down to a Roman quay that overlooks the river. Further north, behind the museum building there is the site of a small restored Temple of the goddess Satis, the consort of Khnum, built in the time of Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III. The reconstruction here by the German Archaeological Institute has been sensitively done, with the few remaining reliefs supplemented by drawings and I thought the delicate colourful paintings in this temple were beautiful. The temple was built over Middle Kingdom remains beneath different floor levels as well as a Dynasty VI temple. The latest structure to emerge from the excavations at the Satis Temple is an Early Dynastic shrine which we saw in a crypt-like area below the reconstructed temple. It was a little flooded by water and very dark, but it intrigued me as this must be one of the earliest remaining shrines in Egypt. Probably one of the most popular structures on the island, just in front of the museum, is the nilometer. This was one of the earliest known nilometers and was used by the ancient Egyptians to measure the height of the Nile floods in order to forecast the level of inundation and so gauge taxes for the coming harvest. Ninety steps lead steeply down to the river from the entrance. When we had finished the tour our guide invited us to join him in a glass of tea under the shade of a trellis, which we gratefully accepted on this hot day. Finally we visited the museum, a rather dark and dingy set of rooms that I thought could do with a good clean, but there were some very nice objects there. Eventually we were back on the felucca, sailing on the river and trying to catch a glimpse of the many boulder inscriptions naming the kings and governors who have been associated with Elephantine, once the Egyptian frontier to Nubia.
During our return journey our ebony-skinned captain chatted with us about Aswan being Nubian, not Egyptian and it certainly feels that way. There is an easy-going atmosphere to the place that is apparent in the gentle breeze, the light-hearted way these people treat tourists and the ever-present reggae music that was softly playing from a cassette deck on the boat. Back on the Commodore once more, we had a couple of hours before dinner so Mary and I decided to take a caleche to the suq, now that the day was cooling down. After dinner, our Nubian day was continued with great local music and dancing (by members of the crew) and entertainment by a ‘witchdoctor’.
Aswan in the Blink of an Eye
Today was our group excursion around Aswan, in which we would see all of Aswan’s tourist attractions in five hours (!!?). I shudder to think that this is the usual amount time allotted to most people who visit the town as part of a cruise. But that’s just the way it has to be and at least it gives a flavour of the place, albeit a rushed one. We were on the coach and on our way to the High Dam by 8.00am.
We drove onto the eastern end of the long dam past the Egyptian-Russian friendship monument, a modern concrete architectural sculpture called the ‘Lotus Tower’ that didn’t seem to bear any resemblance to a lotus to me. Our coach stopped in the middle of the dam and we were given the statistical facts and figures by a specialist guide. The Egyptians are very proud of this gigantic feat of engineering, the construction material used on the dam is said to equal that of 17 Great Pyramids. Aswan High Dam is a huge wall of rocks which captures the world’s longest river, the Nile, in the one of the world’s largest reservoirs, Lake Nasser. The first dam, in an endeavour to curb the annual Nile flood that had enabled agricultural fertilization for thousands of years, was built just to the north of here in 1889 and was subsequently raised several times as it could not cope with the volume of water coming down through Sudan from the Ethiopian highlands. In 1970 a new High Dam, called Saad el-Aali in Arabic, was completed after ten years work mostly with Russian funding and engineering expertise. The benefits to Egypt in controlling the annual floods are said to have raised agricultural productivity by providing constant and much-needed water for irrigation as well as preventing damage to the flood plain, but the downside of this is in the ever-increasing use of chemical fertilizers by the farmers, which in turn causes a great deal of pollution. Meanwhile, down in the Nile Delta the land is slowly sinking because of erosion due to the decrease in river sediments. Although the construction of the High Dam has provided Egypt with a regulated 85% of its water, the ownership of the water itself is currently disputed by the countries it passes through before reaching the Egyptian border. Other benefits to Egypt include the provision of about a half of Egypt’s power supply from the dam’s hydro-electric station and it has also improved navigation along the river by keeping the water flow consistent. The 550km length of Lake Nasser holds 169 billion cubic metres of water and it was promise of this vast build-up of water that was responsible for the relocation of more than 90,000 Nubians, both Egyptian and Sudanese who had lived along the Nubian shores. It was not only the people who suffered, but the ancient monuments too had to be surveyed then relocated or removed before the land was flooded. The most famous of these was the Temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel, which was taken down stone by stone and rebuilt on dryer land in what has to be the world’s most impressive archaeological rescue operation. Under the auspices of UNESCO, twenty-four major Nubian monuments were salvaged and re-erected, with some of the lesser temples given as gifts to countries around the world who contributed to the scheme. One relocated temple, Kalabsha could be seen from the other side of the dam and with a long lens I managed to grab a few pictures. The Temple and other monuments on the site is due to be open to visitors soon we are promised.
Another of the temples to be affected by the construction of the dam was our next port of call, the Philae Temple of Isis, now reconstructed on nearby Agilika Island. As I have already been to Philae several times before and time today was so short, I quickly detached myself from the group to take photographs and after their tour, Hala came and pointed out a couple of reliefs I hadn’t seen before. In a building next to the Nilometer is a relief depicting the source of the Nile and also an interesting scene about harvest and inundation. I rushed around the temple and the outer structures looking at things I wanted to see again but all to soon it was time to leave. The journey by boat to Philae is one of the nicest parts of a visit here and on the way back the boat took us around the island past the towering Trajan’s Kiosk – always a lovely view.
The visit to the obligatory papyrus factory on the way back was at least a change from the perfume palaces I had previously seen in Aswan. We were back on the Commodore and I thought it would soon be time for lunch, but we were ushered straight out again with Hala for an hour’s trip around the islands in a motor boat. About 20 of us crowded into the large boat and we were speeded around the river to a musical accompaniment of drums and Nubian songs from the little crew, including that well-known old favourite, ‘O Aleyli…’. While this was good fun, I took a moment to gaze longingly at the lovely vista of the sand-covered Nobles tombs on the West Bank wishing there was time to visit them today. Then the motor-boat trip was over and we were all back on the cruise ship having lunch while the captain manoeuvred us out into the river to begin our return journey north back towards Luxor.
The afternoon was restful and uneventful as we all lounged on the upper deck once more enjoying the slowly passing scenery presented on either bank of the river. Just as the sun was setting I got excited because I saw Gebel Silsela with its carved and quarried rock terraces high on the West Bank and rushed for my camera – but we had passed before I could get a picture. Another place I’d love to visit one day.
The evening’s entertainment came in the form of a treasure hunt. We were divided up into named teams of six – ours was the ‘Eyes of Horus’. As I have taken part in a couple of these treasure hunts before, and therefore knew what to expect, there was a bit of a scramble between the passengers we knew, who wanted to be in my team. The items the teams had to find, enact or improvise in a given amount of time were as follows:
Three tickets for temples
An Egyptian flag
Ladies sexy underwear (modelled)
A man dressed as a woman
A woman dressed as a man
5 Arabic words (spoken)
An umbrella (not a sun-shade)
A real live belly dancer
A T-shirt from a previous holiday destination
A chocolate bar
A scene from ‘Titanic’
A song written and performed about this cruise
We divided up the list between team members, each allocated certain tasks. You would not believe how difficult it is to find some of these items on a cruise ship. The ‘judges’ were made up of the captain and the three Egyptian tour leaders and after they’d managed to stop laughing they just had to award the first prize to the team who’d provided the best entertainment. But the ‘Eyes of Horus’ came second and we’d all had a hilarious time. The evening flew by and at Midnight we were passing once more through the lock at Esna.
We woke up in Luxor this morning, after sailing through the night and docking in the early hours. I felt a little cheated – only the fifth day of the cruise and already we back in the place I know best. For some reason we didn’t call at Esna as I had done on previous cruises and I missed the little temple. Early his morning we were on the coach bound for Karnak Temple, which the rest of the passengers were dying to see, but I prefer a more leisurely wander of that vast place. No doubt I would go back there next week anyway.
So today, as our groups went around with the guides I spent my time taking photographs. Being there so early in the morning meant the light was perfect for a couple of places I wanted to see. The first was the ‘Busbastite Gate’. I’d recently been doing some work on the Third Intermediate Period and I wanted to see the reliefs on the outer wall of the First court and on the gate itself. The Dynasty XXII king Shoshenq I was a military leader, a Libyan chieftain and nephew of Osorkon ‘the Elder’. Because his family were associated with Bubastis in the south-eastern Delta, Shoshenq’s reign is usually described as ‘Bubastite’ and as founder of Dynasty XXII, inscriptions at Karnak still refer to the king by his traditional Libyan title of ‘Great Chief of Ma’. Shoshenq’s building works at Karnak were intended to be the construction of a great court with the huge gateway we call the ‘Bubastite Gate’ in its south-east corner. There are records that he began quarrying at Silsela to obtain sandstone for his Karnak building, but he probably didn’t embark upon this until towards the end of his reign and only the decoration around the gateway was completed. This however, provides one of the most important sources of history we have for the period – the interpretation by some scholars of reliefs on the gate, naming Shoshenq as the ‘Shishak, King of Egypt’ of biblical fame, who sacked Jerusalem in the reign of Reheboam, though there is no mention of Jerusalem in the names of cities which can be read. It is clear that the decoration of the exterior walls was intended to show Shoshenq’s military might, but only one scene was craved depicting his Palestinian campaigns, and of the 150 or more places named only a few are well-preserved. There are few other building works attributed to Shoshenq. The second thing I wanted to see in the low morning light was the back of the Third Pylon, which is supposed to have a depiction of Amenhotep IV on the barque of Amenhotep III. The pylon wall was beautifully lit as I had expected and I did see a tiny figure of a king which may have been what I was looking for, but I wasn’t sure and will need to do more research on this.
It felt like we had only just arrived at Karnak when, after an hour and a half it was time to leave. I tagged along behind the rest of the group on our way back to the coach muttering ‘been there, done that, didn’t have time to buy the T-shirt!. The truth is that I’ve been spoilt having so much time to spend at Karnak in the past. Thank goodness Mary and I are here in Luxor for another week at the end of the cruise. With this thought I didn’t bother going into a very crowded Luxor Temple with the others for a scrum, but wandered up the length of the avenue of sphinxes which thankfully was deserted. By lunchtime the day had become very hot and we were all glad to be back on the air-conditioned coach and on our way back to the Commodore.
While we had lunch, the Commodore was off again, this time cruising north towards Qena. I began to feel better about the cruise seeming so short – I had forgotten that we were to visit Dendera Temple, or at least forgotten that we were cruising there. The cruises I’ve done in the past were never allowed to go north of Luxor, though I had been to Dendera on a smaller boat. The scenery north of Luxor seems different to the south. There are more little villages on the banks, more people using the river to wash clothes and animals. It’s also not so wide on this part as some of the upper parts of the river. The colours seemed different too, less of the sharp blues and greens we saw nearing Aswan and more browns, the land is the colour of straw baked in the sun. The air that was clear and fresh going south was muggy and dense here, especially as the sandstone cliffs on both banks of the river closed in on us and then opened out again as we neared Qena. As the river widened we were met by a police escort in an inflatable boat who guided us into the newly built dock just as the sun was setting. I wondered at the police escort and it turned out that we were not allowed off the boat at all – not even onto the dock, where armed police were on guard throughout the night. The security people were obviously still being very cautious here.
But we filled the evening with an organized quiz – the same teams as last night – we were the ‘Eyes of Horus’ again and this time we came first, answering correctly 60 out of 65 questions. The prize was three bottles of Egyptian wine that we shared between us at the end of the evening and went off to bed happy.
Divine Birth and Healing Dreams
We were finally allowed off the boat when a coach arrived for us after breakfast this morning to take us to the Temple of Hathor at Dendera and we drove across the long bridge over the Nile and continued a few kilometres to the north, through fields of crops – a very rural Egypt here. When we were almost there we had a spectacular view across the fields to a temple that looked very dramatic rising from the flat plain. Dendera is one of the latest temples and probably the best preserved after Philae, although it was built over the site of several much earlier structures. Outside the huge mudbrick enclosure wall there are cemeteries from the Old and Middle Kingdom Periods.
Dendera Temple is dedicated to Hathor, as well as her consort Horus and their son Ihy, but this is Hathor’s home, while Horus lived at Edfu – the temple further south that I had visited last week. At Edfu one of the most important annual festivals was the ‘Feast of the Beautiful Meeting’, in which the cult statue of Hathor travels from Dendera to Edfu to consummate the goddess’s ‘marriage’ to Horus. Here at Dendera the marriage hardly gets a mention and it is the birth of their son Ihy, the divine heir, which seems to be more important, especially during the Late Period. In earlier times it was the king or queen’s divine birth that was portrayed on temple walls but by the Late Period this theology had been transposed to the birth of the gods. In the later temples, Dendera, Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Philae, the birth-houses or mammisi told the story of how the divine sons were conceived and born, depending on the place and the triad involved, but in each, the legend of the king’s birth is also prominent in the mix. The divine son’s father is both the king of the gods as well as the earthly king and it is usually the reigning king who welcomes the new-born child because he is spiritual heir to both the king and the god. It gets very confusing to work out what is going on. I spent most of my time today in the Ptolemaic and later Graeco-Roman birth-houses looking at the reliefs. The decorations in both the earlier and later mammisi depict the story of Hathor, Horus and their child – from courtship to the birth. One particular scene I love here is the formation of Ihy’s ka by Khnum on his potter’s wheel with Tauret the hippo-goddess and the frog-goddess Hekat waiting to take Hathor to her confinement.
Next to the Ptolemaic mammisi is the sanatorium which also fascinates me and this has recently been undergoing restoration work so that several more low walls have appeared since my last visit here. The best overview of this structure is from the upper temple roof and I quickly sprinted up there to have a look – time was running short. These sanatoria, which appeared in many of the larger temples, were not medical hospitals as the name suggests, but places of healing the mind and the only surviving sanatorium is at Dendera, which had a reputation for healing. With he help of priests the wisdom and compassion of Hathor was called upon in the small chambers around the sides of the building, where the sick and diseased would await the heavenly dreams that suggested a cure. This always makes me wonder what hallucinogenic drugs were used. As well as prophetic dreams, water cures were offered in the central part of the sanatorium. Here, water was poured over divine statues on pedestals covered in magical texts, collected into basins and drunk by the sick, or sometimes used for immersion.
By lunchtime we were back on the Commodore and already heading back downriver to Luxor, a reverse of yesterday afternoon’s journey. Mary and I lounged on deck and I wrote up some notes while keeping an eye out for interesting scenes with one hand on my camera. I think this has been the hottest day so far. By dinner time we were back in Luxor and the evening’s entertainment had arrived. First was a belly dancer, who I thought was terrible but the male passengers seemed to enjoy. I usually love to watch Egyptian dance but I’ve seen much better than this lady and I was disappointed. This act was followed by the dervish dancer who I’ve seen before and is brilliant to watch, spinning and twirling with his rainbow-coloured skirts swinging about him. It was very late when we got to bed and we haven’t even packed yet for tomorrow’s transfer to our hotel.
The Wind from the Desert Blew In…
It’s dull and muggy today. The sky is a leaden grey and the air thick and yellow and almost unbreathable. After a leisurely breakfast Mary and I sat for a while on the top deck of the Commodore in comfortable padded chairs and chatted to some of our fellow passengers. Farewells and addresses were exchanged. Today we were all leaving the cruise ship, some of us to stay another week in Luxor, a few had already departed for a short break in Cairo while others were returning home on the flight to England this afternoon. Mary and I had eventually got our packing finished after breakfast and were ready to leave. The boat was berthed alongside the Sheraton Hotel at the southern end of Luxor which is quite a distance to walk into town. The view from here is peaceful, with the West Bank mountains just over the river and the lovely Sheraton gardens a stone’s throw away. Lunch seemed to follow breakfast fairly quickly, a fabulous buffet as usual – I would certainly miss the meals aboard the Commodore – and then we were transferred by coach to the Novotel.
This is the first time I’ve stayed in this hotel and our room feels huge and spacious after our small cramped cabin on the cruise ship. We are not directly overlooking the river from our balcony but have a corner room so we have a view of the hotel’s terraced gardens down to the Nile and the West Bank mountains as well as straight down the Corniche towards Luxor Temple. At least we should be able to see over the river but today the West Bank is shrouded in dusty clouds. After a week of very hot sunny days the notorious Khamsin has arrived.
The Khamsin – literally the Arabic word for fifty – is an oppressively hot dry wind that blows south-easterly from the Sahara through Egypt, carrying with it large amounts of sand and dust and can last on and off for a period of around fifty days anytime between March and May. The wind, called ‘rih al khamsin’ by the Egyptians, is hated by them and in past centuries it was dreaded as a killer. The hot, zero-humidity atmosphere produced by the khamsin contains an excess of positive ions. It causes young people to feel overcharged with electricity which results in headaches, irritability and even violence, while older people react differently, becoming fatigued and depressed with low blood sugar which can cause different illnesses. It is a time when accidents are at their highest. Having experienced the Khamsin in Egypt a few times before I know this feeling. It always makes me feel depressed, so I suppose that puts me in the ‘older generation’ category.
Mary and I spent the rest of the afternoon in our room in the Novotel, it was too hot and dusty to go out. In the early evening as the temperature cooled a little we walked the short distance to the Old Winter Palace and through the hotel’s beautiful gardens there where the perfumed air felt a little fresher. We watched the sun sink like a great orange bald head into the clouds. We had dinner at my old haunt the Amoun Restaurant and said hello to a few Egyptian friends who kept shops nearby. I bought a cheap wristwatch from Aboudi’s that had Arabic numerals on it’s face and a couple of books. Retail therapy!
A Dusty West Bank
The weather is better today but the air is still full of dust, and even more so on the West Bank, where Mary and I found ourselves this morning. Habu Temple was our first port of call, I always like to visit it as soon as I am in Luxor, to say hello to the temple and see if there are any changes. It was the same as always – my favourite temple.
After a walk around the temple courts and out into the palace area, we went to the Rameses Cafe opposite the temple for coffee. Salah, who manages the cafeteria is now in the army and there was nobody else there that we knew today. We had arranged to meet my friend Robin who now lives here on the West Bank, for lunch, so we took a taxi back down the road to Gezira and found the Africa Restaurant which has now been relocated further up the road. It is set in a lovely shady garden and is much bigger than it used to be. Robin was waiting for us with her friend, another ex-pat, Graham and we all caught up on gossip and had a lovely lunch. The food here is still superb and Crocodile, who I’ve known for a long time, thankfully is still working here.
This afternoon Robin took Mary and I to her house that she has built in a village on the West Bank. It’s beautiful, built around a courtyard, with arches and columns enhancing its simple decoration. We sat in her palm-leaf chairs on the terrace and drank lots of tea and coffee whiling away a whole lazy afternoon. The views from her house are fabulous, only marred today by the dirt-filled breeze that was trying its best to obscure the hazy sunshine, stirring up whirlpools of sand like dust-devils. Robin was returning to England today for a few weeks, and we stayed with her until she left for the airport in the early evening, sharing a taxi over to Luxor.
Early to bed tonight because we have booked a balloon flight for tomorrow at dawn. What I didn’t realise at the time of booking was that the clocks go back an hour tonight, so instead of leaving at the usual 5.30am, we must be ready to go at 4.30am!
I felt like I had got up in the middle of the night! Well, it was, because the clocks went forward overnight so we lost an hour’s sleep and were up at 4.00am but I was so excited to be going on my first balloon flight that I didn’t feel tired. I have been wanting to do this flight for years.
Mary and I were collected from the Novotel at 4.30am in a minibus for our ride over to the West Bank where we would meet the Hod-Hod balloon. I was all wrapped up in trousers fleece and scarf, expecting it to be chilly up in the air at that time of the morning and was laughed at by the crew who said I would not be cold. Just past the Ramesseum, an enormous blue and yellow balloon was waiting for us, already half full of hot air, and we were quickly ushered into the fragile-looking basket. There were only six of us today so there was plenty of space. but we were told that sometimes there were as many as twelve passengers. Mary was a little apprehensive when she saw that there would only be a flimsy square of woven wicker basket beneath her feet, but I couldn’t wait to get going. Finally we were all aboard and ready for lift-off. The captain, Mahmoud, dressed in his smart pilot’s uniform, explained to us what would happen as he turned up the gas sending bright jets of flame up into the balloon. They were right, I wasn’t going to be cold and could already feel the heat scorching the side of my face as we gently hovered for a few seconds above the ground. With a jerk the land was suddenly dropping away from us and we were ascending quickly and drifting along in the direction of Dra Abu’ l-Naga.
In a hot-air balloon, we are at the mercy of the wind and the currents and although the balloon can be controlled to a certain extent we had to go where the breeze took us. While I had hoped we would drift south towards Medinet Habu, or even over the King’s Valley, we were off in the other direction and found ourselves high above the Qurna Temple of Seti I. What a spectacular view – the temple was laid out below like an architect’s model and we could see the layout of the whole monument within its enclosure walls. The thing that surprised me most – though it shouldn’t have – was that there was just not enough light yet to get any reasonable pictures. With a telephoto lens on my SLR and very long exposure times I expected disastrous results and was a bit disappointed. Mahmoud then took the balloon off towards the Nile and Luxor and in the east I could see the sun just beginning to appear, turning the long ribbon of river a hazy gold. In the distance I could make out the jumble of columns and roofs of Karnak Temple on the East Bank, massive on its 60 acres of land and then we were suddenly going back west again.
Captian Mahmoud likes to play – the balloon was one minute rising high and the next plummeting towards the ground to within a couple of metres, almost brushing the heads of early-morning farmers crouching in their fields and who I expect were quite used to his daily antics. At least one man who was picking onions looked up with a resolute scowl as we seemed to almost be landing on his head. As the sun rose the long softly-lit shadows played over the miniature fields giving us a view that can never be see from the ground – the neat little bundles of crops laid out in wonderful patterns in every shade of gold and green. We drifted along over the old village of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna where the occasional electric light still twinkled in the houses and then we were high over Hatshepsut’s magnificent temple nestled against the cliffs of Deir el-Bahri, again with a view of its proper context. Gliding along the monument road I could see all of the destroyed temples, laid out in squares in the sand, something else that cannot be easily see from ground level. I was in heaven.
All too soon we came down to our landing spot near the Ramesseum, where our wicker carriage touched town with a gentle bump and the flight was over. I just wanted to go straight back up again, but the huge balloon was already deflating. The ground crew had laid on a little ceremony with drumming and dancing and we were presented with a certificate each and a complimentary Hod-Hod T-shirt. As we were driven back to Luxor I could see a couple of other balloons still drifting high in the air and was envious, but by 7.30am we were safely back in the Novotel and ready for breakfast – a fantastic start to the day.
Luxor Museum Revisited
Mary and I felt like having another lazy day today. My friend was keen to spend some quality time by the swimming pool – an activity I enjoy for about ten minutes before getting bored, but before she went off to soak up the sun she decided to come with me to Luxor Museum as she hadn’t been before and I haven’t been for a while. We strolled leisurely along the Corniche after breakfast and the weather was already hot, the Khamsin wind and murky skies of a few days ago have cleared away.
A new extension is planned for the museum, but I knew it was not yet open, so the displays would be the same as usual. At least it was cool in the high air-conditioned galleries. The Museum was designed by Dr Mahmoud el-Hakim, one of Egypt’s leading architects and it was first opened in 1975 to show some of the finest artworks of the Theban region. It really is a beautiful space, the objects perfectly lit in their temperature-controlled cases. Once through the security area we walked around the exhibition space in the chronological order intended, first the ground floor and then the upper level where my favourite statue, my friend Amenhotep son of Hapu, still sat cross-legged preparing to write whatever scribes wrote in ancient Egypt.
The objects in this museum, ranging from the Predynastic to Islamic Periods, come mostly from the store-rooms of the Theban temples of Luxor, Karnak and the West Bank, along with one or two chosen pieces brought from Cairo Museum. In the grand entrance hall, pride of place is given to the gilded wooden head of a cow, found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. It’s a beautiful piece said to represent the goddess Mehyt-Weret, an aspect of Hathor. A small limestone statue of Tutankhamun himself stands nearby. One of my favourite pieces is a double statue of Amenhotep III with the crocodile god Sobek which was found in 1967 while digging a canal near Armant. This is a young Amenhotep, despite his name being erased and replaced by the ubiquitous Rameses II. I love the way Sobek has his arm placed protectively around the king’s shoulders – such a gentle gesture from a feared beast of the Nile. Another magnificent piece in the lower gallery is a huge red granite head from a Middle Kingdom statue of Senwosret III, wearing the double crown of Egypt. His lips are thin and his eyes and cheeks are sunken and he looks like he has all the cares of the world on his shoulders. There are some fabulous reliefs here too from Deir el-Bahri, especially a portrait of Tuthmose III and another of the god Min which have kept their glorious colours. Another beautiful statue here is a black greywacke figure of Tuthmose III, less than a metre tall, but exquisitely carved and in my opinion one of the finest quality pieces of art in the museum.
A wide curved ramp leads to the upper level and straight ahead are several of my favourite pieces of statuary. The scribe Amenhotep ‘Son of Hapu’, advisor and architect to King Amenhotep III, I have already mentioned. He is carved from black granite and holds an unrolled papyrus and a pen. He looks kind and wise and the rolls of fat around his midriff indicate that he was wealthy and well-fed. I always stop to say hello and have to stop myself reaching out and stroking this beautiful polished stone. One of the numerous black granite statues of the goddess Sekhmet is nearby, her head cut off from the torso of the statue but beautiful nevertheless. Another favourite, high on the wall ahead is the sandstone head of Amenhotep IV from a column in the gem-pa-aten, his Karnak temple. This head is in the stylised form we expect from the so-called ‘heretic king’, Akhenaten, with an elongated face, sunken cheeks and slanting eyes – very different from earlier statues of the king seen in other museums. This is a caricature, a form of art the king adopted during his reign and in my opinion not a natural portrait.
Glass cases on the upper level contain many interesting smaller objects, including some of the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb and I especially love his gilded wooden shabtis and a model boat found in his King’s Valley tomb. There are a couple of very fine mummy cases and a superb canopic box and jars of a priest, Padi-imenet, found in Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri. Much of the west side of the museum is given to a reconstructed wall of Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV). The small decorated sandstone blocks (talatat) were discovered when the ninth pylon at Karnak Temple was dismantled for reconstruction work, where they had been used as infill in the original building of the pylon. Individual talata blocks on which the famous reliefs were carved can be seen in many museums, but here the ‘Talatat Wall’ represents the only successful attempt at reconstructing a whole wall of the blocks. Over 40,000 decorated blocks from Amenhotep IV’s early Karnak building works have been found, but only those from the ninth pylon are well-preserved enough to allow their accurate reconstruction seen here.
The objects in the cases and on the walls are too numerous to mention individually and I could spend a whole day looking at them, but it was time to go back downstairs for a quick look in the cachette hall before the museum closed at lunchtime. Here are the magnificent well-preserved statues found in 1987 while excavating the Amenhotep III court at Luxor Temple – one of the greatest discoveries of the twentieth century in Egypt. Each statue, depicting New Kingdom kings and gods, is dramatically displayed on raised plinths in the spacious recently-constructed hall. These wonderful pieces have to be seen to be believed – each one a superb example of Egyptian art.
The museum visit had taken longer than expected and by the time we got back to the hotel it was already 2.30pm. Mary made a bee-line for the swimming pool while I sat on the shady hotel terrace among beautiful vivid bougainvillea drinking coffee and writing up my photograph notes until the sun was setting behind the Theban Hills. Later we splashed out and had dinner in the hotel’s Italian restaurant. It was empty when we walked in – always a bad sign – and the service was slow and the food mediocre, which was a bit of a disappointment. I knew we should have stuck to real Egyptian food!
Luxor Mummification Museum
The new Museum of Mummification on the Luxor Corniche first opened in May 1997 and is the first in the world dedicated to this subject. So far I have avoided visiting the museum believing that mummies would be on display there, something I don’t agree with, so I was a little reluctant when Mary suggested we go there this morning. She didn’t want to do anything else today so I eventually decided to go with her, walking all the way along the Corniche to the modern building by the Nile. I must say the entrance is very nicely done with colourful mosaic tiles above the staircase leading down to the museum.
The modern purpose built museum consists of only one large room, but the visitor is guided around well-lit and beautifully displayed exhibits and story boards which describe the process of mummification from beginning to end, as well as the religious customs associated with burials. The purpose of mummification in ancient Egypt was to preserve the body of the deceased so that they could dwell in the afterlife, in the realm of the gods. The process began naturally when the ancient people discovered that bodies buried in the hot dry sand of Egypt would be preserved almost intact. Techniques were enhanced from very early times, using natron to dry out the body, removing certain organs and wrapping the remains tightly in bandages of linen, often covered with a thick resin. The peak of the art was reached by the end of the New Kingdom Period.
The museum is extremely dark inside with spotlights on the exhibits, but it was hopeless for photography, even with a fast film in my camera. An interesting and colourful collection of well-preserved New Kingdom mummy-cases, mostly from the dryer climate of Upper Egypt, is displayed in the entrance to the museum along with a statue of Anubis, the jackal-headed god who leads the dead into the underworld. We walked around the guided walkways and I was relieved that no bodies were on display – at least not human ones, but there were several animal mummies including a crocodile, a cat and a ram of Khnum with its gilded case from Elephantine. In glass cases, many artefacts associated with the process of mummification are displayed with detailed descriptions of their use. Model funerary boats, amulets, wooden statuettes and a fine set of canopic jars were interesting, but I just couldn’t get excited the way I do in other museums.
We had lunch in the Anubis Restaurant which is on a wide terrace behind the museum at river level. It was quite expensive but nice to sit by the Nile and look out over towards the West Bank, where we could watch the feluccas darting backwards and forwards with each gust of a breeze. It’s cloudy today but the clouds are keeping in the heat and the air is almost unbreathable. Back at the hotel later in the afternoon Mary and I had a little siesta – unheard of for me, but walking in the heat made us both feel lethargic.
Merenptah open-air Museum
This trip is turning into a series of museum visits and today was no exception. Stepping out onto the hotel terrace after breakfast I could already tell that it was going to be another blazing hot day. Mary and I had spent the past few days breathing in the stifling air of Luxor and now I was desperate to get out of town. The West Bank may not be much cooler but at least I wouldn’t be surrounded by the tall buildings that acted like heat storage radiators. It took a bit of persuasion to prise Mary away from the hotel pool but eventually we set off for the ferry dock and over the river. The cool breeze on the ferry’s upper deck was delicious!
Once in Gezira we took an arabeya up to the ticket office where we would decide what we wanted to see. To my delight I discovered that the long-awaited Mortuary Temple of Merenptah was at last open to visitors, we eagerly bought our tickets and headed off down the road past the Marsam Hotel. Situated on the edge of the ancient Nile floodplain, Mereptah’s temple had been badly destroyed and has been undergoing excavations and restoration by the Swiss Institute of Archaeology with the support of the SCA for three decades. From the outside the site didn’t look very spectacular and we couldn’t see many remains above the modern brick retaining wall, but once inside it was apparent that there were still many interesting blocks and statues visible.
Merenptah was the thirteenth son of Rameses II and the prince who succeeded his father to the throne. He chose the site for his mortuary temple next to that of Amenhotep III in order to use the earlier destroyed temple as a quarry for stone. The Nile water had destroyed Amenhotep’s temple just as it would eventually destroy Merenptah’s. Some people never learn! During excavations the archaeologists have found many artefacts from the reign of Merenptah but also from Amenhotep III and other New Kingdom pharaohs which they collected together into storage areas and into a purpose-built covered museum. The plan of the temple is difficult to see when walking through what would have been the first Pylon but the Swiss have done a very good job at displaying the few remaining monuments here. Petrie had first excavated this temple in the 1890s and the modern excavators have only slightly revised his original plan. I was delighted to see a very good reproduction of the massive ‘Israel Stele’ that Petrie found in the first court, usurped by Merenptah from Amenhotep III. The stele was recarved on its reverse side and gives information of the king’s Lybian war victories from year 5 of the reign, including the first ever historical reference to the people of Israel. The original is now in Cairo Museum.
Several headless statues are artfully displayed on modern brick risers among the low reconstructed walls. There is even a miniature sacred lake, looking more like a small swimming pool. My favourite parts of the site were the storage area where many of the larger stone artefacts are displayed. I found the jackal-headed shinxes especially fascinating, I’ve never seen these before and they seemed very appropriate for a mortuary temple. My favourite place was two below-ground chambers where some large and fabulous reliefs of Amenhotep III are displayed. The vibrant colour and superb carving of these pieces is spectacular and probably among the best reliefs I’ve seen in Egypt. We wandered around the site, looking at dozens of carved blocks – many of them clearly over-carved by Merenptah.
The new museum building revealed all, with very good plans and information boards guiding the visitor through the objects displayed and telling the history of the excavation. I realised that it would have been helpful to come here first. The structure of the temple was fairly typical of a late New Kingdom funerary temple. It was similar in plan to that of Merenptah’s grandfather Seti I, at Qurna, and copied much of the design from his father’s mortuary temple, the Ramesseum. Mounted on the walls there are many colourful stone architectural pieces from this temple as well as elements from Amenhotep III, Hatshepsut and even Amenhotep IV. In the centre of the room are glass-covered cases full of smaller objects including pieces of pottery, ostraca and jewellery. I thought it was all very well displayed.
Having spent quite a long time at the Merenptah Temple and at the hottest part of the day too, Mary and I walked back along the track behind the ticket office to Medinet Habu and the shade of the Rameses Cafe. Here we found my friend Salah, home on a three-day pass from his stint in the army and sat with him chatting and catching up on news. I never get tired of the view from here over the majestic entrance to Habu Temple and as the sun began to go down and the air to cool a little, Mary and I decided to stay and have an early dinner in the cafe. I never can resist the sight of the floodlights coming on in the temple on a clear evening at dusk, highlighting the magnificent carvings on the ‘Migdol’ gate.
Karnak Open-air Museum
On last week’s cruise there was a new tour rep called Chris, who spent the week assisting the regular rep and learning the ropes. This week he did hid first cruise alone and I know he had been very nervous about it. We met Chris this morning after breakfast, here to check the following week’s hotel accommodation for his current group. He is a nice friendly young man and it was great to see him again. I asked how his first cruise had gone. He told us that all had gone very well except for 37 disappointed tourists who couldn’t get flights from Aswan to Abu Simbel, which had meant cancelling the trip.
Mary declared that she wanted to spend the day by the pool and couldn’t be persuaded to do anything more adventurous, so at 10.30am I set off to walk along the Corniche to Luxor Temple. Already very hot, I thought maybe Mary had the best idea, but this is our last full day here and I couldn’t bear to be closeted away in the hotel. I bought my ticket and went into the temple, but I had forgotten how crowded it is in the morning. Don’t know how I’d forgotten this because we were here only a week ago it was just the same at this time of the day. There were a few things I wanted to see and photograph, but after an hour of pushing and elbowing my way through the crowds and their guides, I gave up. There were groups in front of every scene I wanted to look at and more groups waiting to take their place.
It was almost lunchtime so I walked round the corner to the Amoun restaurant and had a lovely cold refreshing lemon juice, before setting off through the suq to take photographs there. I made slow progress as several shopkeepers I knew insisted I stop for a chat, read letters from friends and drink tea with them. They all wanted their pictures taken too, but eventually I found myself right at the end of the suq and halfway to Karnak. By this time it was gone 2.00pm and the best time to visit the temple, so I carried on and made my way around to the front entrance, buying a temple ticket and the extra ticket to the open-air museum.
I hadn’t visited the museum for two years and I was surprised at how much had changed in this area. Senwosret’s wonderful White Chapel was as it had always been, superb for it’s gorgeous hieroglyphs, but Hatshepsut’s ‘Chapelle Rouge’ was almost unrecognisable. Last time I saw this monument the walls were high with many blocks already in place, but now it looked quite complete. The Centre Franco-Egyptien Karnak team have been working to restore Hatshepsut’s barque chapel since 1997 and at that time most of the 300 or so blocks that had been recovered from the third pylon and elsewhere were stored on risers in the museum. The French have slowly and painstakingly reconstructed the chapel as if it were a jig-saw puzzle. Hatsheput’s shrine originally stood in the centre of the Temple of Amun but was dismantled by Tuthmose III who constructed his own shrine in its place. It is now looking very good. Another monument which is being reconstructed here is the portico of Tuthmose IV which also stood in the Temple of Amun in front of the fourth pylon. Amenhotep III re-used these blocks too as infill for his third pylon. Because the blocks were protected for so long they have retained their superb colours. There have been many more columns rebuilt since I last saw it and I could now see the shape the portico is taking. Unfortunately I couldn’t get very close to the construction area as it is cordoned off and surrounded by scaffolding. I wandered around the museum looking at several other interesting blocks that are displayed here, including some lovely Middle Kingdom reliefs from the Temple of Montu at Medamud.
I was right and Karnak had been quiet in the hot mid-afternoon but as the day wore on the crowds started to filter back in. I worked my way around the northern edge of the temple, past the Temple of Ptah and several other monuments in this area I wanted to look at, before stopping for a drink in the cafeteria beside the sacred lake. I think everyone else had the same idea as the cafe was packed. By then I’d had enough and went to find a taxi back to the hotel, where I joined Mary on the terrace for a cup of tea. What a civilized life!
Another Final Day
Our flight home today wasn’t until this evening and Mary and I had paid extra to keep our room until 4.00pm. This means that we didn’t have to be packed up and out of the room early and left wondering what to do with our last day. I was up at dawn and sitting out on the balcony before going down to breakfast. The Nile below was sparkling in the early sun and two hawks were as ever circling overhead. I’d seen them every day from here, their long powerful wings with patches of white feathers catching the light as they circled around and around with incredible grace above the trees. They like to keep an eye on their territory to see what’s going on and I could understand why the ancient Egyptians revered this majestic bird as Horus, magical protector of the King, who sees and knows everything.
Back on Earth, Mary went off to the pool and I went to do some last minute shopping. I’d had my eye on a new Mohammed Mounir CD and stopped in a music shop near the Old Winter Palace to buy it. The CD was expensive at LE50 but it is a new release and this isn’t a pirate copy as many are. Aboudi’s bookshop was my next stop, just to check that there wasn’t anything I’d missed. I’ve only bought a couple of books on this trip – very restrained for me. The truth is that there was nothing much new on Egyptology that I didn’t already have. I like to buy publications from the AUC Press, because they are often half the price of English versions of the same book, or else new titles that aren’t published in the West. I wandered through the little shopping mall and around the corner to Sharia el-Mahatta (Station Street) where I walked the length of the street almost to the railway station and Twinkies. Twinkies is wonderful, a bakery/pattiserie that sells the most tempting of cakes and sweets. I wanted to take some home as a gift for Tony, my regularly-abandoned husband, and I found it quite hard to make a selection from all the amazing sticky cakes on display. Then back down the road and over to the Amoun restaurant where I stopped for a drink and to say goodbye to the always friendly staff. I spent another half hour in the internet place to send some emails – the guy who runs it seems to always be just logging off his dodgy porn site as a tourist walks in. Then I went into the shop next door. The owner, a stone-carver who lives on the West Bank, makes some of the best copies of shabtis I’ve seen anywhere in Egypt and today I was tempted by a couple of small ones that I just couldn’t resist.
Pleased with my purchases I made my way back to the Novotel where I joined Mary by the pool for some lunch. It’s been very hot again today and we were both feeling very lethargic but eventually it was time to go up to our room, have a shower and do the dreaded packing that we couldn’t put off any longer. Getting to the airport was easy this time as we had a transfer coach provided by the tour company, but it’s the moment I hate most and I always seem to make the last journey through Luxor with tears in my eyes, no matter how many times I’ve done it. The new airport building is now finished I’m pleased to say and the check-in was very smooth. I even found that my luggage wasn’t overweight and that has to be a first. Our flight left at 7.00pm, right on time for once. As we took off, circling over the mountains of the West Bank, we could see the Nile below us reflecting the remnants of a beautiful deep red sunset and the clouds seemed lit from within as we headed up towards them and out across the desert leaving Luxor far behind.
Back to Chapters
Back to Posts