Sunday 25th to Tuesday 27th November 2012.
The next morning we had a call from Kamal. He claimed that both we and Tom had left behind the Arabic version of the vehicle licence. Without this, we couldn’t drive around Egypt. We thought it was more likely that he’d forgotten to give it to us, but asked him to drop it over to Adam Home all the same. He kindly did and our paperwork was complete (well, we hope so anyway!).
Once we set off, we followed the Nile north along its west bank. We had heard that this road is less oft used and has less speed bumps than the eastern side. Tom and Klaus ended up on the east and it turns out it’s a great road and probably a bit quicker too. Our route passed through many a village, which felt to us like the real Egypt. Beautiful lush fields of crops irrigated by channels from the Nile border the villages. People rode around on donkey drawn carts, in mini-buses and in the back of trucks. It was interesting to see life going on away from the tourist hot-spots.
On our way north we stopped at Edfu to see the Temple of Horus, the falcon-headed son of Osiris. This is the most completely preserved temple in Egypt and apparently took several hundred years to build! The number of carved reliefs and hieroglyphics lining the walls and columns inside and out was overwhelming. The designs reach to the high ceilings. You could spend a month in there and still not see them all. There were also some great statues of Horus in there too. Some of the reliefs and carvings were in good condition, but many looked as if they had been defaced or damaged over the years. We thought it deserved a little more preservation and restoration work. There were few other tourists there whilst we visited and it was nice having the huge courtyards, long colonnades, and vast rooms mostly to ourselves.
Our first impressions of Luxor was that it is a pretty city of wide clean streets fringed with manicured shrubbery, ornate glass and metal lamp-posts, elaborate Coptic churches, and horse-drawn carriages. It had a very different feel to Aswan. We found our way to Rietsky Camp, the only place to camp with your car in town. We felt it was overpriced at E£100, but there was no negotiating on the price and we didn’t want to stay in a hotel. The manager opened up a room for us so we’d have a bathroom closer to our tent. We also met a really nice Dutch couple overlanding their way south for the winter.
That evening, the lights of the city created a plum coloured sky. We took a wander around the neat streets, through a tourist souk, and, with the help of a few local directions, we found our way into the less touristy part of town. Here tall buildings of apartments had feet of well-worn stores and restaurants. We found Al- Zaeems, a horseshoe of cooks tossing together noodle dishes, rice with beans, pizzas, and sharwarma sandwiches, trying to keep up with the plentiful orders of hungry locals. The sharwarma caught our eye and we watched closely to figure out how much the locals were paying. The manager came over to ‘help’ and told us the price was not including sauces and salads, so would be more. He pointed to the Arabic menu, of which we could only read the numbers, and an expensive item. Luke and I shook him off and snuck over to the counter to line up and place our orders. The guy serving was fair and charged us local prices; E£7.50 each. Tom got in a couple of people behind us, but before he could order the manager had a word to the cashier. Tom was charged E£12 each sharwarma. It isn’t much in our money, but for us it was the principle. We understand being asked to negotiate the price for curios but for food where there is an obvious fixed price, no. Tom refused to buy them at that price, so we returned to the cashier to show our receipt and say he wanted the same. The cashier openly said that he’d charged Tom “tourist prices”! He then put Tom’s order through at the local price. Whilst we waited for our sharwarma to be made Luke had a word with the manager. Several locals joined in, agreeing that the different prices were unfair. We didn’t think our small words would change much, but hopefully they will eventually get the message as all the travellers we have met complain about these extra charges.
It turned out that the sharwarma was delicious. It was a long roll filled with freshly cut marinated barbequed chicken, mixed with vegetables, tahini and hot sauce. Mostly it just tasted of the delicious marinade. We all liked it so much we had a second one! We jumped into a horse and carriage to ride back to our camp. The horse was pretty skinny so we thought he could use the business.
After breakfast we walked through some residential streets down to the corniche, and then found our way up to the Karnak Temple. The site is enormous, home to several temples, obelisks, and sanctuaries spanning an area of about two square kilometres. At the ticket office we met a friendly guide called Khaled who wooed us into using his services. He turned out to be a fantastic guide who really brought the history to life. He has written a book on hieroglyphics and was able to tell us the meanings behind all the symbols we enquired about and more. We spent most of our time exploring the Temple of Amun, which is apparently the largest religious building, ever. It was added to by several pharaohs during their various reigns, each offering their constructions to the glory of the god Amun-Ra, his wife Mut, and their son Khonsu. The carvings, columns, and statues were endless and overwhelming. We wandered around entranced by the magnificence of it all and Khaled’s stories. At the end of our tour we organised for Khaled to accompany us to the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens tomorrow morning.
From here we wandered back down to the corniche and along the waterfront to the Mummification Museum. This fantastic place details the mummification process, including displays of human and animal mummies. Apparently the ancients were quite into their embalming, many even opting to embalm their loved pets! Unfortunately we arrived just on 2pm, as the museum was closing. The guards standing outside said that since the revolution the museum doesn’t reopen again in the afternoons.
We were pretty near to the tasty shawarma at Al Zeems, so ducked down the bustling local streets to have lunch there. They remembered us and happily gave us Egyptian prices. We ate watching the street go by before making our way to the Luxor Temple, which sits in the heart of town. It was constructed by pharaohs Amenhotep III and, later, Ramses II to celebrate the Opet Festival. This was celebrated each year when the Nile valley flooded and swelled to fertility. The ancient Egyptians believed that during this time the great god Amun-Ra was reunited with his wife Mut. We sat for a while in the great court of Ramses, admiring the statues and reliefs in the light of the sinking sun. Then we followed the walking tour in the Egypt Lonely Planet around the temple. Like in the Karnak temple, the sheer scale of everything made it impossible to take it all in. We would have loved to see it in its heyday, with markets and mud brick dwellings scattered amongst the giant columns and statues. Our tour ended with a wander through the outdoor museum; long aisles of fragments of reliefs and sculptures organised chronologically from the reign of the pharaohs to that of the Coptic Christians, and that of Islam and the Arabic empire.
By now the sun was setting so we did a little more wandering of the vibrant Luxor streets. People implored us to visit their shops, but we were pretty content with just looking around. At one point we noticed a huge plume of smoke coming from the top of an apartment building. We wondered if it was a fire, so wandered in that direction to get a closer look. When we arrived, we discovered it was actually smoke from one huge BBQ. Big silver pipes channelled the smoke up the building from the ground floor, where the Al-Hareef restaurant was. The food looked great and we noticed that the English and Arabic menu were the same price. Hurrah! We went in for dinner and weren’t disappointed. The meat was amazing, perfectly charred on the outside and succulent inside. All our meals came with tasty Middle Eastern rice and salad, warmed flat breads and a plate of tahini. Yummo!
Horse drawn carriages trot between the Luxor traffic and most drivers will go down to E£10 (about £1) for a ride. We found one that looked like he needed the business and haggled for a ride back to our camp. He asked if we could stop in a tourist market on the way, saying that if he brings in tourists then the horse gets free food and water. With the horse quite bony, we couldn’t resist. Luke and Klaus weren’t up for any browsing, so Tom and I wandered inside to admire the beautiful papyrus artworks and several floors of curios above. Turns out the horse didn’t get fed whilst we were in there, which was a shame. The driver said he would return for the feed later, but we didn’t really trust that. It seemed more likely he’d get a commission on any sales, so unfortunately lucked out with us.
Back at Rizetsky Camp we met another overlander couple, making their way down the east coast to Cape Town. We did a load of washing whilst we chatted to them, then tucked in for an early night.
At 6am we wondered why we’d organised to meet Khaled so early. Still, we were already awake thanks to the loud angry chants of the local mosque and the crowing of the resident rooster in the hotel courtyard. Khaled met us right on time, collecting us in a shiny, comfortable tour car and introducing Mohammed our driver.
Our first stop was two enormous statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III. The figures tower about 20m, were each cut from a single block of stone, and each weigh a staggering 1,000 tonnes! They looked really impressive in the early morning light. They are all that remains of his temple, which is thought to have been even larger than Karnack. Some of the other pharaohs pillaged the stones for their own monuments and other parts were destroyed by floods and lack of maintenance. The statues of Amenhotep III are now known as the Colossi of Memnon. Khaled told us that Memnon was killed by Achilles in the Trojan war. His mother was Eos, goddess of dawn. The Greeks and Romans believed that he would sing each morning to greet his mother and she would weep tears of dew for his untimely death. Because of the cracks in the statues and the winds off the Nile in winter, the statues sounded as if they were singing in the early morning.
As we made our way towards the ‘land of the dead’, hot air balloons hung in suspended animation over the valley. We were the first tourists of the day to visit our next stop, the lesser known Valley of the Artisans. Khaled pointed out the remains of the artisan’s village and told us about what archaeologists have gleaned about life here some 3,000 years ago. The painters and sculptors who lived here with their families, trudged to work over in the Valleys of the Kings, Queens, and Nobles for 10 hours a day, 27/30 days a month. On their days off, many worked on their own tombs in the mountain adjoining the village. We visited the tombs of artists Sennedjem and Iry Nfr and got to peek inside another tomb on ground level. The artwork inside each one was wonderful. It was hard to believe that this was the original paintwork, it was so brightly coloured. As well as their bright symbolic paintings of gods, it was interesting to see their depictions of daily life and hear Khaled’s stories about the artists and their families. Standing inside the tombs, it felt strange to realise that this was someone’s private resting place for thousands of years. Whilst it was incredible, it felt a little intrusive being there. A little further towards the Valley of Kings Khaled had his friend unlock a temple currently undergoing restoration. The artwork and carved hieroglyphics were exquisite in here and we felt spoilt again having the space all to ourselves. Nearby Khaled pointed out the site of the mud-brick pyramid of one unlucky pharaoh, which disintegrated after heavy rains not too long after its construction. A tomb was constructed later for him in the Valley of the Kings, so all was not lost.
Next we drove into the Valley of the Nobles, where wealthy families constructed their crypts and tombs. We were treated to a little more backstage sightseeing, when Khaled got some friends to unlock tombs that were not currently open to tourists. Again the artwork was gorgeous, with intricate scenes of daily life in the shape of colourful paintings and detailed carvings. Khaled showed us a tomb that was unfinished when the owner died, so he was buried in the undecorated space. He also led us through a stuffy tunnel to see a room filled with clay jars and baskets (treasures yet to be discovered and catalogued by archaeologists) and another simple dirt room with a leathery uncovered mummy laying by the wall. We visited the more touristy tombs of Nakht and Menna too, both with beautifully illustrated scenes of life during their time. Before leaving the Valley of the Nobles we admired the imposing memorial Temple of Hatshepsut, who reigned as female pharaoh during the mid 1400s BC.
Finally, we ventured into the Tomb of Ay, in the Valley of Kings. Khaled told us that in his opinion this was one of the most beautifully painted. Tutankhamun originally built this tomb for himself, but his successor, Ay, decided he liked it and took it for himself instead. We walked down a very long wooden staircase to find a large room with a stone sarcophagus taking centre stage. The walls of this chamber were all painted, with one wall filled with pictures of baboons. Khaled told us that these baboons manned the twelve gates of the underworld. The ancient Egyptians believed that every evening Ra, the sun god, descended into the underworld where he travelled in a boat along the river for the twelve hours of night. He passed through twelve gates during this journey, each manned by a baboon guard. In the morning Ra rose again, as scarab beetle. The ancient Egyptians believed that the way to live eternally was to secure passage with Ra on his journey through the underworld. Really fascinating stuff!
We had planned to visit a couple more tombs in the Valley of the Queens but by now were pretty exhausted. The stories were amazing, the history hard to fathom, and the artwork gorgeous, but we needed food! You could easily spend days exploring this region. Mohammed and Khaled dropped us back into town to our new favourite Luxor restaurant, Al Hareef. We were famished after so much sight-seeing and glad to tuck into another amazing meal.
The waiter kindly wrote in Arabic the name of the area we were staying so we could get ourselves into one of the shared taxi mini-buses that whizz around Luxor. It cost just 50 piastres each (around 5p), so a very cheap way to get around.
At Rizetsky Camp we packed up and said goodbye to some of the lovely overlanders we met there. We met the owner of the hotel and he helped us organise some black market fuel so we could fill up before we head into the Western Desert.
Some 50km from Luxor along the Western Desert Road we found ourselves a beautifully deserted spot. We drove off the road into the drifts of orange sand and shards of white rock until we were tucked between two big dunes. Our fuel tank continues to give us problems and we had to put a container underneath it to catch the diesel drips.
That evening the moon rose full and bright over the desert. It was so bright we didn’t need any lights. It was also quite cold so we had to dig out our warm socks and jackets to rug up a little. Even so, it was lovely sitting outside in the vast stillness. We didn’t need dinner after our huge lunch. Instead we cooked up a batch of popcorn and settled in for a movie night under the stars.