What a bloody big day we had! Mara, the owner of our accommodation in Luxor, Mara House, likes to pack as much as possible into each day her guests are touring. She wants us all to leave never saying, “I wish I had seen…” And this tour, as with all of them in Luxor, provided ‘bang for our buck!’
To fuel us for this massive day, the talented Amr prepared for us a filling and delicious breakfast. It arrived on a huge round tray with the centre piece of the hot dish of the morning. On this morning it was scrambled eggs (his foul the next day was the best we had had thus far in the trip), and it was surrounded by two bowls of fruit salad, yoghurt, bread, sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, labne (or some other sort of soft cheese, like a buffalo curd), tea and coffee. The bread that was baked as flat and round, had been cut into quarters, so you could take a triangle and split it through the middle, then pile it full with the ingredients on the tray. Wonderful!
We were touring with a family also staying at Mara House, and the days that followed provided ample time to get to know our companions better. They were delightful company, a pleasure to spend time with, which is no small feat when the four daughters ranged in age from 5 to 21.
Valley of the Kings
Even though the Valley of the Kings (part of the Necropolis of Thebes) is only across the Nile River, north west of Luxor, to drive there requires heading south to the nearest bridge – a journey of about an hour (31kms). But driving through the countryside in our chauffeured van revealed further visual and cultural delights for us travellers.
The entry fee to the Valley of the Kings (which was all included as part of Mara’s package) gave us access to three of the numerous tombs there. You can visit many times over a period of years and see different tombs as they ‘rotate’ them, so to speak, resting some and opening others.
The trio of tombs open at the time of our visit for the admission price were: Rameses IV, Merenptah, Rameses III. We paid extra to see Tutankhamun (E£200 = $15 AUD) & Seti I (E£1,000 = $75 AUD). Considering the starting wage in Egypt for a teacher is about E£2,000 per month, the entry fee for Seti I was half a month’s salary. This tomb was opened to the general public just over 12 months ago, and before then it was only open for those willing to spend $2,000 USD per person (!!). We did not hesitate to pay our $75 AUD, as this price drop seemed more than reasonable for such a rare experience. Seti I was a pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty, the father of Rameses the Great, and this tomb contains carvings and paintings of such a high quality that it is considered one of the most finely decorated tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
There was also a E£300 photo fee, which is a new thing. Our guide, Mohamed, commented that all photography used to be banned, but maybe they are trying to make money from a fee when people would try and sneak pics anyway! I thought I was fine with using my iphone as the signs clearly showed cameras and many other sites did not consider smart phones an issue, but I got a reprimand and had to put it away.
The tomb of Tutankhamun is the only tomb in the Valley of Kings that was discovered in tact in 1922. It is an unusually small tomb for a pharaoh, but hardly surprising, since he died at the age of 19 and they wouldn’t have had time to create a larger one. The ancient Egyptians usually began preparing for the royal death from the moment of the royal coronation, and as he ascended the throne at the age of 10, nine years is not that long a time to do all that intricate, fancy work!
The tomb of Seti I was an extraordinary experience. We had previously read that the maximum time you could spend in it was 10 minutes, but we were given 30 minutes. This was lucky – at 137 metres, it is the longest tomb in the valley, and getting in and out of it alone takes some time, without stopping to drink in the decorations! It was hard to believe that the still vibrant colours were over 3000 years old, truly extraordinary and one of the most memorable experiences of this trip.
The Temple of Hatshepsut
Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple (Monastery of the Sea) is a complex of mortuary temples and tombs located on the west bank of the Nile, and along with the Valley of the Kings, is part of the Necropolis of Thebes. The track between the two locations is no longer an option for hiking, and the Tourist and Central Security Police will chase and arrest those who attempt to climb in the area.
Hatshepsut was the longest reigning female pharaoh in Egypt, ruling for 20 years in the 15th century B.C, and she was pretty amazing. As was common in ancient Egyptian royal families, she married her half-brother Thutmose II when she was 12 years old. When her husband died, they had had no son, ‘only’ a daughter, so her stepson (the son of a secondary wife or concubine) inherited the throne at the age of 7, while she acted as regent for him. She eventually became co-ruler with Thutmose III, as Pharaoh Hatshepsut, ruling as a man, and depicted in all contemporary images as a man. After her death, Thutmose III had all images of her as ruler erased, and it was not until 1822 when archaeologists were able to decode the hieroglyphics on the walls of the temple that they knew of her role in ancient Egypt.
The gorging on knowledge and history took a break while we lunched at a tourist friendly spot called Africa Restaurant, overlooking the Nile. They were clearly used to big tour bus crowds, and so had a tasty set menu where everyone got the same veg friendly entrees (tomatoes, capsicum, babaganoush, deep-fried eggplant) and then a choice of main was provided. We had felafels, rice, vegetables in tomato sauce and potatoes in tomato sauce provided for us as our main – more than ample! All of which was finished with a short cigar-shaped puff-pastry sweet.
The Colossi of Memnon was the beginning of our afternoon jaunt. These two statues, representing Amenhotep III are 18 metres high and each is carved from one single block of sandstone. They once stood guard for the pharaoh’s mortuary complex that no longer exists behind them. They also used to be annually surrounded by water when the Nile flooded, which caused much erosion to the statues, but since the first Aswan Dam was completed in 1902, they have been safe from water damage.
Two more sites followed: Ramose’s Tomb and Deir al-Medina (Valley of the Artisans), home to the artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Excavation at Deir al-Medina began around the same time as Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered. The result was a thorough documentation of community life in ancient Egypt spanning 400 years.
While both of these sites were significant, interesting and beautiful, by this point we had started to wane…or to be completely honest, BEFORE this point! I have no idea how the children in the group managed to stay so lovely!
One final site was squeezed into our afternoon – Medinet Habu Temple, the mortuary temple of Ramses III. The compound is second only in size to Karnak, and is popular with tourists for its outstanding enormous depictions of pharaohs, gods and battles. One standout, but trivial, feature for us, and its appeal was probably due to our tiredness at the end of the day, was the ancient Egyptian loo that was in the remains of the palace next to the temple. But the light was lovely for this visit, and the absence of tourists in the late afternoon a bonus.
A Taste of India
A Taste of India was a seemingly unusual choice for dinner in Luxor, but it had a reputation of being the best restaurant in town, and the food certainly lived up to it, but the wine did not. We chose a bottle of Ayam Sauvignon Blanc, which was opened in front of us, but even before tasting, we could tell by the colour and the smell that it was ‘off.’ Once again, we found the Egyptians did not know how to store their wine. We had had the exact same label and grape at the InterContinental Cairo Semiramis, and it was lovely. This was not. The waiter was all about “you try before you buy”, but clearly was not happy that we weren’t buying, and understandably so. But restaurants need to store their product properly if they want to sell wine to tourists. We ended up sharing one Stella beer between us (500ml). And while we gave a 17% tip, the waiter was not happy at all (was faking it well for the most part, though). The two curries we ordered, a Ceylon and a Madras, were both delicious and spicy. I think we need to abandon all hope of consuming wine in this country, though.
Our Luxor adventure continues…
Accommodation: Mara House
Read our full Luxor story here:
Part 1: Arrival
Part 2 (current): Valley of the Kings & Temple of Hatshepsut
Part 3: Abydos & Dendera
Part 4: Karnak Temple & Luxor Museum