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Luxor, Egypt
May 26th, 2010 by Kate

After days of living in relative luxury, we decided to head down the Nile (or maybe it’s “up” the Nile – in any event, we headed south, which seems to be down to me!) and visit the other not-to-miss historical treasure trove of Luxor (ancient Thebes!).

Cairo train station

Cairo train station

We had the option of flying, but being the budget-minded travelers that we’ve become, we opted to take the overnight train – saving us the high cost of airfare (Egypt Air has a monopoly) and a hotel for the night.  Plus, Olivia (my 20 year old sister) has never been on an overnight train, and you haven’t really traveled if you don’t have the overnight train notch on your backpacking belt!  So after a FULL day in Cairo, all five of us piled into a cab and strapped our backpacks on the roof for the 10pm trip to the train station for our 11pm departure.

As usual, and for reasons still not clear to us, we cause quite a stir at every train station we enter.  The stares, gawks, and finger pointing were even more than usual, as we were sharing the train with an entire battalion of Egyptian army guys who were literally falling out of the train to get a closer look at Olivia.  The CONDUCTOR of the train that came in before our train actually stopped everything he was doing and took pictures of us with his cell phone for a good 10 minutes (I am not kidding one single bit) and would have continued I am sure if it was not for everyone in the station YELLING at him to move his train!

Our best overnight train was from Shanghai to Beijing and I would rate it a 5 on a scale of 1-10.  This one was a two, mayyybe a three.  Was clean-ish (mind you my definition of clean has changed dramatically), but the food sucked and it was very lurchy.  Also, Olivia was totally freaked out by the bathrooms (squat pots on a lurching trains…fun!) so her back teeth were floating by the time we reached Luxor.  Without going into details that would embarrass my sister, let me just say that Phoebe and Tess offered her lessons and moral support, and I really really meant to be more supportive but I couldn’t be because I was laughing too hard.

Olivia & Tessa's train compartment.  The brown panels behind their head and the platform they are sitting on convert to beds.

Olivia & Tessa's train compartment. The brown panels behind their head and the platform they are sitting on convert to beds.

Luxor was a lot smaller than we expected.  Our hotel was right on the Nile, quite nice and surprisingly reasonably priced.  Across the river from us was an agricultural area pretty much untouched by the modern world.  The coolest part though was that the hotel pool was on a barge-like contraption that actually floated IN the Nile.  Pool water and Nile water did not meet, I assure you.  We spent every afternoon on the pool deck watching the feluccas (traditional Egyptian sailboats) sail the Nile, and the farmers and herdsmen bringing their animals to the riverbank for their afternoon water.

The scene from our hotel of the riverbank across the Nile.  Yes, real camels!

The scene from our hotel of the riverbank across the Nile. Yes, real camels!

We went sailing on the Nile at sunset on a felucca...

We went sailing on the Nile at sunset on a felucca...

Tessa skippering the boat - she's quite the sailor!

Tessa skippering the boat - she's quite the sailor!

luxor sunset on nile

The sightseeing in Luxor was intense.  The Valley of the Kings really is a valley of the kings – like hundreds of kings and their sons (mostly) are buried in these pretty incredible underground bunkers carved hundreds of feet into the mountain stone.  We were able to visit four of the graves, but have no pics as cameras are forbidden.  So let me try and describe it to you…

The Nile runs south to north and has a green fertile band that runs along each side of it for, I’m guessing 5-8 miles wide.  When the fertile band ends, it totally ends.  I’m talking lush green field to sand (yes, truly sand, like you see in the movies and on bad postcards).  About 5 miles from where the sand starts is a mountain range of rock mountains.  Not a single bush, tree, shrub – NOTHING but rocks.  There is a deep valley that runs through the mountains, dissecting the mountains and running perpendicular to the Nile. The mountain towards the back of the valley naturally looks like it has a pyramid on top of it.

As we all learned in school, the great pyramids and all the other really obvious burial extravaganzas got broken into and looted early on.  The kings in the later eras took note and decided to hide themselves and their treasures a little better, hence the Valley of the Kings.  Their “workers” (don’t EVEN suggest to the modern-day Egyptians that slave labor was used) dug tunnels (the sizes of the tunnels corresponding to wealth and self-importance of the king) deep into the rock, sometimes hundreds of feet long and 20 feet in diameter.  In the tunnels we visited, every square inch of space was covered in really colorful, highly detailed hieroglyphics that have survived thousands of years in really vivid, beautiful condition.  I was really shocked and amazed, they almost looked retouched, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t.

I am really really glad I got to see them, because at some point someone that knows about archaeological conservation is going to come into power in Egypt and say “NO WAY – stop parading all these tourist though these fragile environments.  As you climbed deeper and deeper into the tunnels to where the burial chambers were, you could feel the humidity from the breath of all the busloads of people cycling through.  Ugh.

Hetshepsut's burial temple

Hetshepsut's burial temple

Next on our tour was the Deir el-Bahri of Hatshepsut, the burial site of the first of only four female pharaohs.  This amazing building was in COMPLETE rubble, and I mean complete rubble when found in 1800’s.  It is being re-constructed, piece by piece, to this day – in a joint project through the University of Chicago and Poland.  Poland you ask?  Yes, Poland.  We don’t get the connection either, but they’ve apparently been working on it for years and years and are credited by the Egyptian government with saving the Temple.  GO POLAND!  It was really interesting to see the place being rebuilt, the parts we could visit were beautiful and interesting, and when you look towards the piles of rubble left to be rebuilt you can begin to appreciate the enormous task a bit.

You can see the cracks in hieroglyphics because they pieced all of this back together from rubble.  The colors were still amazing after nearly 5000 years!

You can see the cracks in hieroglyphics because they pieced all of this back together from rubble. The colors were still amazing after nearly 5000 years!

luxor hep columns

Luxor Hep w familyOne funny thing about driving around the east and west banks in Luxor were that there are ancient ruins ALL over the place.  There’s a field of sugar cane, and a bit of a column sprouting out of the middle of it with some other column pieces littering around.  We saw pharaoh heads (really big ones, like the size of a mini-van) in the backyard of an apartment building.  In some places they were fenced off (barely) and in other places they were just, well, there…  A few times we saw men dressed as I’m sure they were dressed 1000 years ago lugging hand-made bucket of sand and, well, precious ancient Egyptian shards of stuff around to who knows where?   If there were officials and trained archeologists around, they disguised themselves very wells as down-and-out manual laborers.

These were some of the random ruins that were just "around".  Note the chainlink fence.  It was only about 100 feet long, otherwise you could just cruise in and out of this area at whim.  So weird.

These were some of the random ruins that were just "around". Note the chainlink fence. It was only about 100 feet long, otherwise you could just cruise in and out of this area at whim. So weird.

Our last day in Luxor was spent at the Karnack and Luxor Temples.  And for all of you reading this now who are old enough to remember Johnnie Carson, you can now hold the envelope up to your turbine and divine the rest of this blog instead of just reading it…

Tessa at the Avenue of the Sphynix at Karnak Temple

Tessa at the Avenue of the Sphynix at Karnak Temple

At the Karnak temple, the hieros were deeply etched into the plaster and stone.  We learned that the this technique was used here because the pharoh that built this temple didn't want later rulers to come in and etch their names over his name.

At the Karnak temple, the hieros were deeply etched into the plaster and stone. We learned that the this technique was used here because the pharoh that built this temple didn't want later rulers to come in and etch their names over his name.

Karnak columns.  There were like 800 or so of these, and each one takes about 5-7 men with joined hands to encircle each one!

Karnak columns. There were like 800 or so of these, and each one takes about 5-7 men with joined hands to encircle each one!

The temples were really spectacular.  Massive, imposing, amazing – the superlatives that I need to describe them are just not there.  Even with the zillions of tourist trying their best to ruin my view, I still loved being in both spaces.  Both temples were in various states of ruin up until the 1800’s, and they are still digging and discovering new areas and treasures every day.  As a matter of fact, just this week Olivia sent me a link to a news story of a huge treasure trove that was unearthed along the Avenue of the Sphinxes almost in the exact place we were standing – seriously we very well could have been literally ON TOP of them!  Kudos to the University of Chicago who has been working for decades in Egypt to reconstruct these great monuments – and if you have any children that are really good with both legos and jigsaw puzzles – please send them their way!

This is the entrance to Luxor Temple.  We visited it at night as they have it lite up beautifully!  There were two obelisks here at the entrance, but the king of Egypt gave the other one to France, and now it sits in in the middle of the Champs-Elyse!

This is the entrance to Luxor Temple. We visited it at night as they have it lit up beautifully! There were two obelisks here at the entrance, but the king of Egypt gave the other one to France, and now it sits in in the middle of the Champs-Elyse in Paris!

luxor temple hieros

Luxor Temple with our guide!

Luxor Temple with our guide!

luxor temple statues

More columns.  Sorry, they're just so pretty!

More columns. Sorry, they're just so pretty!

You know we had to do it at least once...

You know we had to do it at least once...


One Response  
Mimi Romany writes:
October 4th, 2010 at 6:31 pm

I was born in Egypt. =) Glad u got 2 visit it!!!!

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