Team VA's Wonderings

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Boys on their bikes

Day 73 Valley of the Kings
Although I was tempted to call this post ‘For a Fistful of Baksheesh’.

I’m staying on the West Bank. In some senses this means I am not really in Luxor, but Royal Thebes, mega city of yore and full of history. I have made a decision that there is too much history and all for me to try and distinguish intermediate period from 18th dynasty, Anubis from Horus, or much else on here. My head’s not entirely round it and it’d take forever. Luxor is mental. The LP often has 2 day plans for a city-they are 2 day or 4 day alternatives here for Cairo, which involves the better part of day away from Cairo. I have never seen a city with more than 4 days. Luxor’s West Bank has a four day plan on its own. The East Bank probably needs 2 days more. I’d like to day trip to Abydos and Dendara. For those, like me a weeks ago, who may not be too sure what of the famous Egyptian stuff is in Luxor, there’s the Valley of the Kings (including King Tut), the Valley of the Queens, Karnak, Luxor Temple and several others that are probably more visually familiar. It’s stuffed and often called the world’s biggest open air museum.

It’s also quite daunting. When and where do I start? How do I do it? First up is to choose a bank.

I chose to stay on the West as a couple of folk mentioned a hotel here and I was told the hassle is lower here. Hotel very nice, although the staff won’t be sorting out any piss ups in the local Stella brewery any time soon (took 3 people for me to be able to extend my stay). So I figured as I was already on the West Bank (admittedly only 2 min walk from the £1 ferry across the Nile) and as there was more to see that I’d start with a day or two here. First night I hired a bike, £10 a day (exchange is about 11 Egyptian to one English), and set the alarm for quite early. It’s best, in some respects, to make an early start as it just keeps getting hotter. It was hot as I ate breakfast on the roof terrace. The heat was the reason for the bike: it’s 3km from here to the ticket office, 8km to the valley of the kings and things are fairly spread out. Neither hiring a taxi for the day nor going on a coach trip held much appeal.

The Colossi of Memnon are the first thing to wake you up to being in an unusual place,

conveniently, so I thought, they’re just before the ticket office.

In case you had forgotten you were in Egypt the ticketing is a stark reminder. Despite massive signs for the Ramasseum, Valley of the Kings and all, the ticket office is unsigned and unobvious when on foot 25 yards away. Of course when you get there the fun starts. For 3 areas, or it may be 4, you have to buy the tickets at the site, not the ticket office. Everything else is split into a bewildering array of options and you can choose from a menu of 12 sights or groups of sights here. I know what you’re thinking, buy all the ones you want and then use them as you go. No, as they’re only valid on the day you buy them, raising the chance of wasting tickets or being 4 km from the ticket office at the gate of something you can’t get into without a ticket. Clearly Petra’s system of 1, 2 or 3 day tickets, where the range of sights is fairly equivalent, would be far too, well unEgyptian. Then you go to the window to buy the tickets, explain what you want and get told to go to the identical window on the immediate left; the following day when you go to that window, you get pointed to identical window on the immediate right. I guess they work one day, do fuck all the next. Pretty intense job for Egypt then.

I had what I hoped what a pretty decent plan and now I had the tickets to go with it. I was just bending down to unlock my bike, when I heard an excited shout ‘John, John’. I could tell by the depth of the voice that it wasn’t the supermodels Egypt tour calling out to me. In fact the Italian nature of the excitement could only mean Achille.

He’d even hired his bike from the same place; Ahmed used that later for the publicity shot above. Seeing as he’d been here for 2 days, which he’d spent on the East Bank, I think there was some element of destiny about us bumping into each other right at the start of looking over Thebes. It meant neither of us had seen anything, so we spent the next 2 days pedalling round together.

At the Ramesseum, one of the great names, Ramses II (Abu Simbel dude) built a big old temple to stamp his immortality on the ages. This didn’t pan out, tho clearly the Simbel did. A lot of the Ramesseum isn’t in the greatest state, although you can see the Ramses touch

My one note on the place says ‘colours’ and this is likely to be a recurring theme in this post along with the idiocy and incompetence of Egyptian antiquity management. Let’s stick to the positive for now: colour is used extensively in the decorative schemes of the tombs and monuments and where the sun can’t get at is impressively preserved.

We had the Ramesseum largely to ourselves. I’m not sure that Hatsheput’s temple at Deir al-Bahri was quite such a well kept secret

Hatsheput was a rarish lady Pharoah. The inscriptions on this bad boy, part construction, part carved from the rock suggest she presided over good times. There appeared to be no fighting, but bountiful harvests and lots of goodies for all. Interestingly, I thought, Hatsheput is sometimes female and sometimes male in the depictions, a relfection of the standardise pharaoh look in certain types of scenes. I like this one

Although this artwork is more impressive

I found it interesting that the Valley of the Kings is such a famous name, yet I had no real preconceptions and no mental picture of the place. Partly that is because on the ground it is dusty and hot and not much to look at. It is compact and unextraordinary, with no external structures aside from the modern entrances that have been built to the tombs. This is a place of death. Well, partly: more accurately a lot of effort went into trying to make the tombs inaccessible and confusing so they wouldn’t get robbed-this didn’t so much work. In another masterstroke of Egyptian tourism, you buy a ticket which allows you entry to 3 of 10 or so tombs that are open (there are 2 tombs that can be accessed with extra tickets). So if you want to see 4, you buy 2 tickets or baksheesh the guard. Even with the Lonely Planet’s help, I felt our choices were fairly arbitrary: there’s nothing in the valley to help you choose.

One surprise is how compact the valley is-the name suggest size to me, yet when we went to the ‘furthest’ tomb, it can only have been 10 mins from the entrance, if that. That was Tuthmosis III, where the tunnels are chiselled down and through the rock for a considerable distance. As Achille said ‘how many people’; the effort here is not a mere physical one removing so much rock, but artisanal and artistic too. Although not astronomical, the ceiling is covered with stars, while the walls are painted quite beautifully and include the first baboons I have noticed. I also like when you have triple or quad men-the style where the artist paints one figures then a small part of 2 or 3 more figures behind him to show numbers. I really do need to read more of the history. The final chamber in here is almost ballroom sized with two big square pillars and certainly surprised me.

You can’t take photos in here-quite right too as it would certainly harm the painted walls-and the contents have all been removed, but the tomb certainly still has atmosphere, even if at times that seems to be merely thick with heat and tourist sweat. It is really hot in here: maybe it’s the number of tourists passing through, but this is no Coober Pedy where living underground is cooler. Emerging from the tomb is a relief.

In the tomb of Ramses IX there appeared to be prototype Zorbers, Egyptian figures in large balls at very unvertical angles. We finished up with Ramses III, whose funerary temple at Medinat Habu we will see tomorrow.

Day 74 Valley of the Queens
After yesterday, I would heartily say that bike is definitely the way to go round here. It is pretty flat, although the Valley of the Kings was sufficiently into the wind and uphill that we didn’t need to pedal at all on the way back. Achille had been laughing at the fact the bikes were made in China and when mine lost 2 spokes crossing the railway line (which is currently moving a lot of harvested sugar cane) we had to pop back for another bike. I would estimate the age of our bicycle technician at 8. Happily we hadn’t gone far.

First up was Medinat Habu, which had reliefs and inscriptions on every surface, including the ceilings where the sun can’t penetrate and the colour remains. It would be great to see some kind of effort to mock up the temple as it would have looked using something like virtual reality. The effect with see with the colour removed is so different that it’s a big leap of imagination to try to get what the ancients had.

Both Achille and some other folk I chat to compare it favourably with the much more famous Karnak on the East Bank, which sounds like it is a lot larger, but in lesser condition.

The temple also includes a frieze where bean counters are counting the severed hands and genitals of some poor buggers that Ramses slaughtered, presumable for the official press release. I saw this in some tombs yesterday, I’m not sure, but it seems to be some kind of flower. Looks cool anyway.

And naturally if you want to show just what a kick arse pharaoh you are, you show that the baboons groove you

Then it was off to Deir al-Medina for the temple and tombs of Inherka, Sennedjem and Peshedu, who were artists and workers in the Valley of the King with sufficient wealth and standing to have to,bs with what I now believe to be frescoed walls rather than painted relief. So another set of skills to another exceptional standard. Achille was pleased to see the first nude of his trip in Peshedu-after all, they’re everywhere in Italia. From Peshedu you can see out over the workers’ village

Then onto the valley of the Queens, where most of the tombs seem to be for sons who died before they made pharaoh. Although you can only visit 3 out of something like 150. The tomb of Titi (the lady of the 3) was about 50m from the tomb of Khaemwaset but was essentially wrecked. The amount of paint remaining and its condition bore no compatison. I hope it’s nothing to do with the breath and sweat of tourists: it was hot enough here that we saw a new baksheesh ruse. Chop up a cardboard box and hand it out as fans. Most people seemed like me to be a little bemused and think it was the way they were counting how many people were in the tomb.

Some of this is definitely relief now and painted, so I am wondering if this is what the temples looked like. There is a lightness in the colouration, which would have been a wonderful contrast on such gargantuan structures. I am having to crouch in several rooms (Sozz, you would be in trouble) as the ceilings are so low. These kids and women must have been pretty small.

The tomb of Nefertari is supposed to be the beautiful of all. It was opened to 150 people a day for about 8 years. Now it is closed and tour groups who pay about £20,000 can get in (remember to take off one zero and a bit), so the thinking is that it will stay ‘closed’.

Verdict was the Valley of the Queens was a winner. 3 very nice tombs, no choices to make and nice and compact. Plus downhill on the way back.

Achille’s now in the zone, and leaving tomorrow, so back to the ticket office to see the tombs of the nobles. Achille was keen on the 3 that the LP recommends. By a strange quirk of fate, the three tombs were each in a separate group of tombs, so we needed 3 tickets for a total of 7 tombs (not that they had the right tickets, they just gave us ones of the right value, so we could probably have blagged it). So I remember we went to: Menna, Nakht, Ramose, Userhet, Khaemhet, Sennofer and Rekhmire.

This is a day of indecision. We get into the tomb of Ramose and this is definite relief, so it was fresco before. Maybe I should read a book. No point in asking anyone here, the guards just point at baboon, go monkey and expect baksheesh. Userhet’s is a lot more fun: the tombs of the nobles have more everyday life scenes, so here you have the barbers, folk drinking and hunting gazelle. A common theme across all the different tombs we’ve seen is boats. I think the combination of the Nile’s crucial role in Egypt and the concept of the boat to the afterlife make this a common motif. I also have to say that almost any one of the tombs or temples on the West Bank would be massively renown in most countries. There’s such a dense wealth of sights here.

I loved the ceiling in Sennofer’s tomb, it was undulating, bobbly I guess: it looked a bit like space Lego covered with grapes. His tomb also had a few figures in leopardskin, which we’d not seen before and was a potent reminder that we are in Africa. I think I prefer the nobles’ tombs, there’s lots of food, fishing, hunting and crop gathering. There’s more guys, more gals, more fun.

Size can be quite misleading in a lot of the ‘pictures’. Smallness doesn’t necessarily indicate child or dwarf. Rekhmire is four times the size of the people he is supervising-so he was either very important or insecure.

Of course we had further demonstrations of baksheesh lunacy: in at least 3 tombs there were guards using mirrors to angle the sun into the tombs and onto the paintings. Why not just use a magnifying glass and wreck the paintings inch by inch. I remonstrated, but met either feigned or genuine incomprehension was my only response. The Supreme Council of Antiquities should spend less time making up grandiose titles for itself and more getting its bloody house in order: Egypt may whore itself to tourism, but if they carry on as they are with the reefs in the red sea, guards doing crazy things, letting tourists touch and clamber on things then they’ll have nothing left to sell. And then Egypt really will be fucked.

I got Achille to take this at the tombs of the nobles to show how immediate the border between desert and lush is.

Day 75 Karnak
It’s been a while since I saw a load of good signs, but there are a few in Luxor.

What do you mean you wouldn’t trust him?

In the foreground is the sign outside the Winter Palace advertising the Metropolitan as being opposite the winter palace. In the background is the entrance to the Metropolitan.

Maybe I could twist a couple of arms and we could outdo them with the three Johns.

So, Karnak. I feel Karnak should be pronounced in that way the Rowley Birkin says Cairo. Karnak is big, it’s what the world massive was invented for. It’s like a Pharoah game of ‘You show me yours and I’ll show you mine’s bigger’. The temple complex just expanded and expanded, as each Pharaoh would add on new bits. When a Pharaoh was up himself or hated the one before, then it would be bigger than normal. I especially liked the bits where a Pharoah or two would die before their enormodome was finished, so the next pharaoh would simply removed their names and put his on instead.

As you go further through Karnak it gets more battered. I think this is at least partly due to the restorers starting at the front. One of my favourite bits was right at the beginning:

The avenue of the ram sphinxes (I had to stretch). Sadly after I found the most photogenic ram to photograph,

some muppet couple followed me and when I left took in turns to straddle it for their photo session. One of the curses of Luxor’s fame is that morons come to the world’s largest open air museum and then the Egyptians are too crap to police them. Crazy is becoming my most overused word.

This gives the very faintest idea of the size of both temple and crowds.

I’ll limit my comments to the great hypostyle hall, or this will be singularly painful. The hall has 134 columns and is 103m by 53m. The effect is that you walk through a forest of columns

I found it hard to believe that the roof needed so much support. It is very impressive, but it does seem a slightly useless room unless it was used for staging top class hide and seek. You couldn’t have addressed a crowd and been seen, while any heckler would have had plenty of cover. I think they have a scene in here from Death in the Nile with lots of sand on the floor and someone pushing a stone block at someone.

Few more pics.

Big one there.

Love these columns, should see more at Luxor temple tomorrow.

Imagine the size of this. Can you see my LP?

A stately baboon.

Temple fatigue, pharaoh fatigue, ancient history fatigue-it gets talked about a lot, but how do you know when it has set in? One indication might be that I’ve stopped reading the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt and have just been out to buy Death on the Nile, which I started reading over a late lunch of onion baji and vegetable jalfrezi (to be fair the Inidian is a long way away and I have just returned my hired bike).

And tomorrow Norbert’s coming to town.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Early starts and late nights

Day 69 Abu Simbel
It’s tempting to say that the highlight of the day was meeting Tassie Tom and having a good long chat abut cricket over a Sheesha and a couple of Stellas (the rather good local brew, not the pricey wifebeater of Queen’s club fame). Sometimes when you’re travelling, although acknowledging it’s great and you’re very lucky, you realise you’re missing some of the important things in life like birthdays, kids being born and good long chats abut cricket. This was seems to have had the desired effect as it inspired Bell to a fluent ton and the mighty Strausser to his best Test score. I’m pleased to do my bit. It was good to find an Aussie to talk cricket with, it was a bit of an Australia day really.

Having got back from Abu Simbel and had a very deserved shower, I was looking round my room feeling rather disoriented when there was a knock at the door. The guy who’d come up didn’t have much English, but seemed to be saying that either I had a phone call (which seemed very unlikely) or the ship’s captain was downstairs-perhaps he would be asking to dine at his table on the Felucca. Should have packed the DJ. Turned out it was Jess and Fleur, Aussies, who I’d met at Abu. They’d been due to Felucca up to Luxor straight after we got back. However they’d had an obnoxious drunk Swiss (of all nationalities) on their boat so they jumped ship after 200m (he’d serenaded them off with his flute). For some reason they thought I was a better bet and wanted to know about my trip. This exposed my serious lack of knowledge, but they’re coming and now I need to buy some beers rather than writing this.

OK, beer bought. I walked into the place, it looked a lot like an electrical shop. They took one look at me and said ‘alcohol upstairs’. Ahem. Just one last thing on Oz. Australian appears to be my new nationality: it is now the punt of choice for touts, vendors and shopkeepers across Egypt. I’m getting a lot of ‘Aussie’ and ‘G’day mate.’ It certainly beats my German phase from a month or so back.

Of course in addition to having a good long chat about cricket, I did go to Abu Simbel

Might just edge it

This must have been the quietest day trip I’ve ever been on: hardly a word was spoken on the way down or until we got to the High Dam on the way back. I think this was partly due to the 3 a.m. start time and also that the Pollster got sat in the death seat so I couldn’t talk to anyone. I started to right this as the day went on. Quite a good bunch in the end.

Let’s get the convoy out of the way. Unless you fly or take a tardis you have to go to Abu in one the 2 daily convoys.


There have been some very bad terrorist attacks on tourists-these are not to be sniffed at and I am used to inconvenience caused by anti-terrorism. Not as if it’s unknown back home. So the solution in much of Upper (Southern) Egypt is the convoy.

All the Wacky racer driver convene and head off together with some police-not that I noticed them. To start with, at least, everyone travels together. At the same time every day. Anyone spotting the problem? How could the terrorists foil this genius? I mean the government have now changed a road that a bus and a car came down from time to time into a predictable pattern, where a massive target moves down the road at the same time. In fairness it does have to be said that the different drivers and cars means the convoy does stretch out a fair bit. But doesn’t that just mean they’re failing to run it properly?

Clearly I hope no one does the obvious and plants a massive bomb or two timed to hit the convoy, or worse still takes out the police car and then cleans up the rest, but I’m not sure who thinks this is any safer.

And that’s without mentioning the idiocy of making a large number of Egyptian drivers travel in close proximity……

Anyway, we get to the car park and the second wacky races start of the day swings into action. Inevitably there is no indication of the entrance (or even which way to go when you have passed through the ticket barrier), but I start by following the mass of people and then my nose. One by one my fellows fall by the wayside, struck down by their bladders, the heat, the inexplicable need to buy things or, in many cases, the fact they’ve seen too many summers. By the time I pass through the final security check there’s no one ahead of me. There’s no one very close behind either. One of my maion worries about the convoy had been that everyone arriving at the same time would leave the site swamped and we’d probably be rushed so I determined to savour my alone time.

Here’s my first glimpse as I came round the corner.

I passed Nefertiti’s temple to look at Ramses first, correctly guessing everyone else would do the same and so staying ahead of the crowd. There were half a dozen or so people there, who I guess had stayed in the town the night before (or had Michael Schumacher driving their convoy vehicle).

There’s a lot of history that I won’t bore you with (nor can be bothered to type), but this is a major piece of work.

Note the comparison in head sizes. The two temples were buried up to the 19th century and it’s a bit sad how much 19th century graffiti they attracted when uncovered (getting here back then must have been a major undertaking). I hope LeCaros is proud of himself.

The burial must have help to preserve the temple as well as it has.

The second major piece of work came in the 1960s when the building of the Aswan High Dam meant that the valley would become a lake Abu Simbel would disappear under it. So they cut the temples into a number of massive blocks, moved them 65m higher up and created a concrete mountain that looked the real one to house them in. I don’t think I’d have guessed that was the past without knowing it. They look spectacular.

Although the rear view may hint at it

So today they really represent two man made technological marvels. I’d love to dive to the original sites and have a look: there must also be some wonderful that weren’t saved in this way. I’m not aware of anyone doing though. Divemaster here I come. A significant number of birds live in Ramses’ temple, I’m not sure if that was the case before the move. Anyway, a few more pics:

No pictures are allowed inside, but unlike Petra the interior is quite something. There must be about a dozen rooms, mostly covered with wall pictures and reliefs telling tales of the mighty Ramses. The inner sanctum had four statues of the temple gods and Ramses, which twice a year are lit up by the rising sun. Naturally given all this effort, history and splendour, this is a slick operation

When I emerged, the crowds had arrived

One of the sad thing about the 3am start was the number of people, myself included, pottering round this great sight, yawning helplessly. It has to be said that the Missus’ temple nextdoor isn’t quite in the same class, but is still impressive.

As I sat waiting to go, it was clear that they route the aircraft over the temples as they descend. So back to the wacky races to speed up to the High Dam (3 hours or so away). The instant we start, every vehicle swerves into the left hand to attempt pointless overtaking/blocking the car behind. More sleeping and quietness got us there to the most useless tourist site in Egypt. The dam isn’t especially high, it isn’t especially wide, it isn’t especially attractive and it’s not very interesting. The only thing I find interesting about it isn’t recorded in the propagandist spouting about Egypt’s great technological achievement (no mention of the dubious environmental cost) is that 451 people died building it. Out of 35,000 workers, or well over 1%. It is also 17 times the volume of the great pyramid, which I reckon will be at least 17 times better to visit.

Then to the temple of Philae. This is another of the temples to be moved to be saved from Lake Nasser and it may be a more impressive achievement that Abu. Philae was on an island and previous dams had meant it was submerged for part of each year. They put a dam round it so they could remove to another island, which they landscaped to match. Now that is some big vision.

It is very beautiful, but with the heat and tiredness everyone’s brains were scrambled. Still I took some photos

That should be a monkey playing a lute in there.

And finally to the unfinished obelisk, which they made a good start on

before finding fatal flaws in the rock and giving up. Bugger. At 42m and 1168 tonnes it would have been the heaviest piece of stone ever fashioned. Time for a cold drink I think.

Day 70 Felucca-downstream from Aswan
Ah, Egypt. Today had a reassuring air of farce about it. By the time, I wandered into reception Jess and Fleur were already waiting. While I chatted to them, paid my bill and had the inevitable wait for change, the comment from reception ‘have you confirmed with the captain’. 15 minutes after the captain was due, I went to ask if he was coming. A quick phone call and we were told he’d been 15 mins. So we went snack shopping.

Captain Habi seemed pretty cool and we were half way to the boat when we had to stop and reverse after Jess’ sleeping bag fell off the top of the service taxi we were in. By now we were united with Shona, a Canadian who was joining us. There were two more bods on the boat, where we sat and waited for another hour till the other 6 made it-never did work out whose fault that was. At this stage the boat was very full and Habi’s promises of another boat, a bigger boat and two boats varied so much, we were resigning to this being it. Lunch looked a little lightweight and I felt like Chewbacca as I looked onto the next 5 meals.

I forget exactly what distracted the crew, but we smacked into a rock pretty hard not long after we set off. Further up we were just about to be overtaken by three large cruise ships when the police, complete with tinny siren and megaphone came down the river shouting and turning round boats. I was convinced they were going to hit each like the star destroyers in Empire, but the big boats were fine. There was a power being raised and dropped (for some reason) so that at times it was in the Nile (that some people were swimming in). We were small and plodded on. After we had snuck under we got some sort of ticket, then as they headed off the police crashed into us. Maybe they wanted more cash. Then after picking up yet another passenger we had to row across the Nile

as the other boat was now behind us and cooking up dinner.

Egypt really knows how to do shambles.

Still all turned out well in the end. We got an extra boat, got a great spot for the night away from everyone and everything, dinner was superb, we had a few beers round the camp fire

and got a visit from a taxi driver. Despite feeling rather drowsy, there was no sleeping on tour. When I finally clambered back aboard my felucca the others were all abed and I curled myself foetally into a corner.

Natural born sailor me

Day 71 Felucca
So. Day 71. A day spent entirely on the Nile. I did nothing except watch the world go by and thoroughly enjoyed it. We landed on an island with cows and had lunch. I took a photo and the big biats that pound up and down the river in surprising numbers.

And, er, that was it.

Day 72 Kom Ombo, Edfu, Luxor
We camped by the pick up to go to the temple of Kom Ombo. Fortunately at Kom Ombo we transferred to another vehicle as the first was a little cosy

Tomorrow I am going to the Valley of the Kings and a number of other spots in Luxor. I haven’t digested enough history to make any sensible comment on today, so I’ll just do some pics.