Sunday, March 25, 2007

A Journey Through Egypt - Luxor, the West Bank

27th February 2007

A not very long, but extremely hot day!! We started early around 5:30am amidst major confusion - to eat breakfast or not; when is the boat leaving; where is Ahmed our guide; where is Oont (sonny boy’s toy camel which has been accompanying us everywhere!) Finally, we got off the boat and everyone was in a bad mood! The boat was leaving the Luxor docks and we were to catch it upstream at Esna around noon.

Our first stop was the Valley of the Kings on the west bank. Today for the first time I got a clear picture of the scale of the tourism industry in Egypt. At 6am there were at least a couple of thousand geeky tourists thronging the Valley of the Kings. Bus-loads and van-loads kept coming wielding digital cameras and guide books of every imaginable language – gaggles and gaggles of chattering tourists! Apparently between 6am and 9am everyday the Valley receives 5 thousand tourists!! Amazing!!! The ticket to the Valley offers visit to three tombs and the price of entering Tut-ankh-amun’s tomb is extra! Having traveled this far, I couldn’t go back not seeing the most important historical discovery of the 20th century!

The three tombs we got to see were of Ramses IV, Ramses IX and that of Meneptah. All of these tombs dug deep into the belly of the mountain are richly decorated with colorful inscriptions from the Book of the Dead. The shafts leading to the antechamber and the main hall (pretty much the same pattern in all the tombs) were quite well lit, easing my initial apprehension of closed spaces! We did miss the tombs of Seti I and Ramses II which I heard is fabulously decorated – but they are closed to the public for the time to preserve the old paintings and carvings which tend to fade and crumble from the humidity generated by millions of tourists milling about in such closed space!

The last tomb to have been found at the Valley of the Kings was in 2006 by the archeological team from the University of Memphis. 84 years before that Howard Carter, quite by chance discovered the tomb of Tut-ankh-amun – a really small pit and quite unadorned compared to the rest of the tombs we saw. All the fabulous treasures of the tomb of King Tut are on display at the museum of Cairo – but his mummified body still rests in its original cask at the sparsely decorated chamber. The Egyptian government is definitely minting quite a bit of money from geeky tourists like us by charging by charging 80LE a pop for viewing this tomb! Oh well!!!

Next stop was the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepshut – the only female Pharaoh in the history of ancient Egypt. She asserts herself as a man in all the paintings and carvings – that kind of gets rather confusing! Especially thanks to her feud with son-in-law Tuthmosis III, who ritually defaced most of Hatshepshut’s figures and statues, its hard to tell who’s who! But the temple of Hatshepshut is a marvelous monument rising out of the desert plain and blending into the cliff beyond! It wasn’t even 9am and the sun was beating down on us mercilessly. The open walkway into the temple glowed hot under the desert sun and the constant droning of Ahmed didn’t help the situation at all! Sonny boy started acting up; spouse was getting baked in his black turtleneck (it was freezing cold when we left early in the morning)! Mortuary temple-shmemple, we were eager to get back into the comfort of the air-conditioned van!

We did a quick photo-stop at the colossi of Memnon – two gigantic statues that once guarded the mortuary temple of Amenophis III (which was crumbled to ground thousands of years ago). The Valley of the Queens had to be given a miss – Ahmed insisted that it wasn’t in our itinerary (we didn’t have the paper with us to be able to argue with him); also the most interesting tomb, that of queen Nefertari (wife of Ramses II) is now closed to the public. On the way we passed Howard Carter’s residence sitting high on the hilltop looking down at the Valley of the Kings – it looks dark and forbidding and is closed to the public. We also passed the Nobles’ Tombs, the Ramesseum and the Mortuary Temple of Seti I.

Back in Luxor we had kill an hour waiting for a convoy which was to escort us to Esna. Egypt has a rather formidable force called the Tourist & Antiquities Police – totting vicious looking guns and wearing black uniforms, these people are everywhere! In fact I haven’t seen regular police so far – only these black-clad menacing looking men perched on tops of camels, in jeeps, on bikes! We check into this secured area and sit around for sometime, while Ahmed goes to obtain permission for us to get out and walk around. He did manage to get permission and we went for a stroll by the Nile in the scorching heat! Sonny boy wanted to use the toilet and we searched high and low till Ahmed decided to take him to the nearby mosque. I had no intention of standing outside the men’s room (which I was later told was just a wall), so I ventured into an air-conditioned store selling Egyptian cotton garments. I was looking for Galabiyyas, which turned out be very nightie-like and quite pricey at 250LE!

Finally our convoy took off for Esna – a port about 45 minutes south of Luxor. The drive made us feel rather vulnerable as well as somewhat important. This armed convoy has become a necessity post the ’97 attack on tourists at Hatshepshut’s temple. The threat must still quite considerable to warrant such an elaborate procession!

Our boat was docked in Esna –but getting onto the boat became quite a production by itself!! There were at least a dozen cruise-boats anchored at Esna, literally shoulder to shoulder. Our boat was second in row – so we had to pass through another boat to reach it. And how did we do that? Instead of a gangplank, there was a cane chair on the concrete wall (which will be the edge of the dock some day when its built); we are to step on the chair, jump into the deck of the first boat, go through the labyrinth of musty corridors to reach the grand foyer (in this case, not so grand foyer) and then hop over to our boat! Sounds quite simple, right? But in reality there were a gaggle of geriatric tourists with replaced knees and hips and old women with huge posteriors for whom even getting up on the cane chair was next to impossible – forget about doing the Tarzan swing on to the deck! That caused a huge traffic jam in front of the coveted chair! There was a lot of pushing and shoving; creaking cane; squealing women, grunting men – some managed to cross over to the deck, some gave up and stood aside, some kept trying without success completely unmindful of other people standing in line! We did the desi thing – skipped the line, gave the cane chair a miss and hopped over to the deck!

At lunch, again the chef insisted on serving me his version of ‘aloo mutter” - which was pretty much the same thing from last night – just different veggies! As it is the location of the dining room freaks me out – it is in the hold of the boat, as a result the windows are at level with the river. Not very good for people like me who are deathly afraid of water! And now the chef his doing his bit to scare me off!

Dinner was a complete disaster! All of us overslept our little afternoon nap! Can’t help it – day after day of waking up at 3am to make it to the tour van plus the jet-lag did us in! We reached the dining room at 9pm – almost everyone had eaten by then. The chef served me yet another ghastly preparation of the “special daal”! I really should have slept through dinner! Tomorrow the shore excursion doesn’t start till 9am. At least I can sleep in!!!!


chandni said...

i was feeling exactly like that a few weeks ago...and trust might sound stupid, butr there is no choice but tpo wiat and to believe that this too shall pass...because just like things goinbg wrong is inevitable, so is their setting right...

good luck and hang in there

chandni said...

oooops sorry..

that previous comment was meant for another post...totally unrelated :D

shampa said...

enjoying your egypt series. great pics.

Nautilus said...

@Chandni: At least tell me which post this comment was meant for :-)

@Shampa: Thanks. Please come again.

Ghetufool said...

how come you travel so much? i salute you. because it's not always money. it's the will to explore. and God has given you the power to write too!

Nautilus said...

@Ghetu: I live to travel! If I'm not allowed to travel I'll probably wither and die!

Soham Pablo said...

I envy you :(