Luxor, Egypt Sunday, February 12, l995
Early morning enroute to Luxor. Pastel misty river, primitive water taxis cross behind us. Susan comes out on deck with Twing who tells us of the Reader's Corner Bookshop in Cairo where we can find David Roberts and other old Egyptian prints. Along the western shore a large village awakens. Down by the river clothes are washed and spread out to dry in the morning sun, stores open, bread is carried, goats graze, two women sit against a wall protected by an open teepee made of three sticks, mountains rise above the mist behind the village. An island in the stream reveals fields of plantings protected by scarecrows dressed in galabias. Further along, grey and white egrets. Ahead on the east bank, rank upon rank of empty river boats. Luxor. The cruise is over.
We double park against our sister ship Sun Boat I and cross over to shore. I see the blue bumper weaving that George spoke about earlier today. We board a ferry that takes us over to the west bank. On our right as we head down river is the Temple of Luxor. We land on the far shore and board a waiting bus. Mona tells us that we're in Thebes which occupies both sides of the river. Luxor is only on the east bank.
Our first stop is at the Colossi of Memnon-two very large, roughly reconstructed stone statues of Amenhotep III. The Romans gave them the name Memnon because they whistled in the wind. They don't whistle any more. They measure 19.75 meters and look great against the blue sky. By comparison, the Ramses statues at Abu Simbel are 20+ meters and the Ramses Colossus at Memphis was 14 meters. Three dirty little waifs play near the statues, donkeys pass by carrying loads of sugar cane.
Ahead a village climbs the brown hill in front of us. Above there are dark holes in the hill side signifying the locations of tombs. Between the village and the tombs is an old abandoned village which once housed the workers from the Valley of the Queens.
The Valley of the Queens itself has 72 tombs discovered so far. Many of them flank the road we're walking on. They're deep shafts marked by stone circles. At the bottom of the shaft is the actual burial chamber. You could easily fall down one of these shafts if you're not careful. There's no protection. Ahead of us the valley ends in a huge diagonal rock outcropping set against the rich blue sky. It's an impressive sight.
Toward the rear of the valley is the tomb of Amon Khopshef, son of Ramses III and Queen Tety, who died at age 11 in 1100 B.C. He is buried in a tomb that was probably designed for his mother. It consists of an anteroom, corridor and burial chamber. The sarcophagus is there as well as the mummy of a fetus. The colors of the paintings are vivid and new looking, especially the yellow behind the hieroglyphics. A white background makes all the other colors jump. When the surface was not good, a thin stucco layer was applied. We can see that clearly in the next tomb which is that of Queen Tety, Amon Khopshjef's mother.
This tomb is far less impressive (probably because she gave her good tomb to her son). A yellow starred ceiling is new to us. There are images of the pregnant queen as well as what appears to be a naked Horus (although Mona says it's the God of the Dead and not Horus, who is never shown naked).
As we leave we wander up to the closed tomb of Nefertari, Queen and sister of Ramses II of the XIXth Dynasty (it's supposed to be spectacular). Susan is crying from emotion. She must be Egyptian. We reboard the bus and leave the Valley of the Queens. To our right is the Ramesseum, or mortuary temple of Ramses II but we pass by and park at another one of the villages that dot the valley. A poor mosque sits in front of us and tombs dot the hills above in a regular pattern creating the impression of a colonnade. There are 411 tombs here in the area known as the Valley of the Nobles.
Some houses in town are decorated with elaborate paintings. We walk up the village path and stop at a man who is demonstrating the ancient carving techniques. Mona feeds him business, including ours. We buy a plaque for LE 40 > LE 20. Actually, his skill is very impressive, especially the way he creates hair textures with a few deft strokes. Nearby a child saws at a rock she clutches between her bare feet to reduce it down to plaque size. A few steps further on around to the right we encounter perhaps a dozen women in black squatting outside the post office waiting for their pension checks. They are all old, all widows and don't want their pictures taken.
In the middle of the village is the tomb of Ramose, a noble and minister of the XVIIIth Dynasty, who served both Amenophis III and Akhenaten around 1400 B.C. It is a beautiful room, part carved, part painted with exceptionally lovely columns (reconstructions). They are short with a satisfying rounded shape and closed papyrus capitals. It's a very mellow look.
I like the hieroglyphics and carvings of this period best of all. It seems to be the pinnacle of the forms-elegant and refined. Mona agrees saying that the high points artistically were the Old and New Kingdoms. This tomb dates from the New Kingdom period. We see Ramoses, his wife and children in the approved idealized form. The tomb contains carvings of the 'prophet' Joseph (he of the coat of many colors). Mona tells us that the pharaohs built pyramids during the Old and Middle Kingdoms but by the time of the New Kingdom that were building tombs instead. Nobles like Ramoses built their tombs and temples in one place so they tended to be larger than the tombs of the pharaohs who constructed separate and elaborate temples.
On the left wall the decoration switches from carving to painting, possibly signally a switch of Pharaohs. We can see a red-lined grid and the back drawings of the master painter. We also see images of Akhenaten and Ramoses, now in realistic rather than stylized mode. Akhenaten is defaced but Mona says it was priests of Amon who did it this time, not Christians.
We leave through the village followed by goats. Susan look inside the poor mosque and is surprised how nice it is inside. Back in the bus we head for the Temple of Hatshepsut. Back in November, Cairo Opera staged an Aida here and they're just now breaking down the bleacher seating and other residue of the show.
The temple sits in three colonnaded tiers up against an imposing cliff. Tombs of the workers who built the temple can be seen above. Hatshepsut is not buried here but around behind on the other side of the cliff in the Valley of the Kings on the exact same axis as the temple (which, by the way, was destroyed by her stepson, Thutmoses III when he ascended the throne. It has been reconstructed by the Poles).
Considering its destruction and exposure there is still a surprising amount of color. The right colonnade tells the story of Hatshepsut's birth from a human mother and the god Amon ( a story she concocted to justify her assumption of the throne and her reign as a king). A chapel to the right is dedicated to Amon and Anubis and also features a surprising amount of color. Some restoration work is underway while we're there. I spot a wonderfully preserved painting of Ibis in perfect red, white and blue. We walk around to the left side of the second tier (tier three which contains the Set is closed for restoration). A Japanese tour group passes us with many carrying umbrellas against the sun. Actually, we're seeing more tourists here than any place we've been.
The chapel at the left is dedicated to Hathor (Susan's favorite with her lovely cow ears) and the colonnade tells the story of the Egyptian expedition to Somalia under Hatshepsut (by the way, our next test question from Mona is 'who is the son of Horus and Hathor?'). This complex once held several other structures but Hatshepsut's temple is all that we can see other than scattered foundations and such. 42 mummies were found here including those of Seti, Ramses II and III that we saw in the Egyptian Museum. They were apparently gathered from their original tombs to protect them from grave robbers.
I had high hopes for this temple from the photos and the mystique of Hatshepsut but it's all rather flat. The architecture is tedious and the central ramps kill whatever sense of grandeur that might have been possible. The setting is spectacular but after that it's a disappointing show.
On the way down Mona remembers to ask the Anubis question and we all answer in unison, 'Osiris and Nephthys' (I'd previously given everyone the answer). Instead of being happy, Mona barely acknowledges that we got it right and quizzes us further on how it happened. It's a single ungracious moment and doesn't sit real well. It's as if our knowing the answer doesn't follow her predetermined script. We reboard the bus and head for the Valley of Kings. There are many tombs clustered close together and they are open in rotation in order to lessen the tourist pressure on any one tomb.
First, of course, is King Tut. We walk down the ramp in the bare front room. Down and below to the right is the burial chamber with the stone sarcophagus in which lies the largest of the beautifully painted wooden coffins. Inside of that is the actual mummy. A well preserved wall painting of baboons covers the left hand wall, and directly opposite us is the usual depiction of the journey to the after-life. We've seen photographs of these four rooms in the Museum. It is a small tomb and not very impressive except of course for what it contained.
Next we visit Ramses IX from the XXth Dynasty, about 1000 B.C. The corridor down has glass partitions protecting the walls. We see carved and colored cobras, Anubis, Khnum, depictions of the heart being weighed against a feather under the watchful eye of Maat. There's lots more in this terrific corridor including a blue and gold star ceiling and a wonderful transparent white skirt on the king. The artist's skill in this particular rendering is impressive.
The ramp leads down to the burial chamber. We know that if the king dies before the tomb is finished it is left unfinished. The king is buried immediately and the tomb sealed up. That's why work on the tomb starts almost from the moment the king is crowned.
The next tomb is that of Ramses III, also from the XXth Dynasty, about 1100 B.C. This is one hell of a tomb. There are excellent Hathor columns at the entrance with Hathor as a full cow head with touches of turquoise color remaining. The corridor down features a series of side chambers with beautiful fragments and intense color, including an unusual scene of sailing ships with checkerboard patterned sails. The ceiling is blue with stars and a gold hieroglyphic stripe down the middle. Many of the corridor walls are nothing but hieroglyphics of prayers from the Book of the Dead.
Eventually the corridor runs smack into another tomb, that of Amon-mes, so it jogs right and continues on its way. We see good and bad snakes accompanying the boat to the hereafter.. Good snakes face in the direction the boat is traveling. The bad snakes (3-headed, legged, winged) face the other way. We see scarabs representing the new day and rebirth, then come to a shaft with a wooden bridge across. The shaft is a symbolic tomb. Off to the side is another room with a scene of the king arriving in paradise. At the far end a series of rooms leads to the burial chamber but this area is under renovation and we can't get in there. Anyway the sarcophagus is in the Louvre, the lid is in Cambridge and the mummy is in the Egyptian Museum.
Our last tomb of the day is that of General Horemheb. It is especially deep. Our first paintings are set against a deep blue background, next a blue star sky and we head down to the next level. Susan says that's deep enough and she heads back up. Further down, Horemheb apparently dies before the tomb is finished because we see wonderful gridded walls with red rough drafts and black corrections but no more finished paintings. The sarcophagus is red granite with yellowish carved images including Anubis and a winged Isis at each corner forming a wonderful diagonal design on each side. On the way back up we all test our various states of physical well-being before we emerge again into the hot sun.
The bus takes us back to the ferry boats double parked along the corniche. We step across to the outermost boat and head back across the Nile. Susan and I both get to drive the ferry and some bakshish changes hands.
Today, Susan learned the story of Mona's husband, so mysteriously invisible until now. He's a professor who was in a very bad traffic accident several years ago and doesn't work any more, although he does spend one day a week at the university. Mona doesn't want anybody to know.
Back at the Sun Boat II we shower and grab a cab to the White Palace Hotel. It's right out of the days of the British Empire and all that (although it's recently been refurbished by the French). It's a pile of ochre sandstone with a double curved staircase in front leading up to the lobby. It sits on the corniche and looks west out across the Nile. The lobby is quite congenial with a fine chandelier and gold framed David Roberts prints on the wall. Down the right corridor we discover the Victorian Lounge, the Royal Bar plus a library and billiards room. We like it a lot. The left corridor leads to the new wing and also features David Roberts prints.
In the lobby of the new wing a lovely young woman directs us to the hotel shops as well as the Gaddis Bookshop where we hope to score our own David Roberts prints. The prints are there but they are not very good quality so we pass. However I see that the publisher is the Reader's Corner Bookshop in Cairo at 33 Sarwat Street. We can go there when we return to Cairo. I buy the Art & Architecture of Ancient Egypt (the book I passed up at the airport), then we head back to the hotel shops where I almost buy an inlaid box for Eric & Kim Brown in another Gaddis shop. Instead we buy an alabaster jar and some perfume bottles for Rachel and Justine. The proprietor lets us know that we've been had with our perfume purchase in Cairo. Of course, we already knew that. Did he think we didn't know that? We take a tourist carriage ride back to the Isis Hotel and wend our way through the lobby and pool area back to the boat.
As luck would have it, our A&K tour has reached Luxor on one of the only days that there is no English language son et lumiere at the Temple of Karnak. Nonetheless, Twing says we should go anyway, so we round up eleven people, pay $20/person and head off for the Temple, fully prepared for a repeat of our Versailles experience-a tour in French.
The bus lets us off in the gathering gloom in the parking area in front of the temple. We proceed by foot and gather in the dark with close to one hundred of what I can only presume are French-speaking tourists on the avenue of ram-headed sphinxes. In front of us are the exterior pylons of the temple itself. Soon, music, lights, voices. It's the best sound system I've ever heard. We move into the temple where we encounter more sphinxes, a huge column and, of course, Ramses, plus a statue that may be Hatshepsut but we don't know for sure (the guide book says it's Pinudjem, High Priest of Amon). We don't understand anything that's being said although I do catch an occasional familiar word. Then magic-the forest of columns in the hyopostyle. Silhouettes against a dark blue sky, a hazy moon, the shifting lights, an obelisk seen though a corridor of columns. Wet eyes. I guess I'm Egyptian, too. This is one of the highlights. Maybe it's even better in French. We continue through the walking part of the tour and then file into the bleachers by the sacred pool for another 45 minutes. Here we get an idea of how huge the complex is. Lights illuminate structures far to our left and way off to our right. As we file out the German version is about to begin. There are three shows every night. Italian is yet to come.
We arrive back at the ship in time for our final dinner. The theme is black and white and the entire dining is decorated. The main course is served with individual candles set in oranges on each plate. Dessert is an amazing confection-the pyramids of Giza made out of cake. After dinner we pack and crash.