Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Raiding King's Tombs and snacking on Falafel stuffed Aish: Luxor, Egypt

Destination: Luxor, Egypt
Number of Days Spent:  3 days
Where we stayed:  Oasis Hotel (50 EP/$8), not to be confused with the Nubian Oasis Hotel across the street.  Helpful owners, huge private room w/ A/C, reasonably clean for the price.  Only drawback are the multiple flights of stairs you have to take to get to your room and then to the rooftop patio.  Consider it your morning workout.
Best restaurant:    The falafel stand across the street from Luxor temple near McDonalds was an excellent choice for a cheap meal (2EP/$.25 per sandwich), they will try and take advantage of you on the price, just point at the Arabic sign and say "2 pound".     
Best of:  Reading like a who's who of Egyptian greats - the Valley of Kings, Queens and Nobles housed the likes of Ramses II, King Tut and several other greats.  Karnak Temple is the largest religious structure ever to be built and is awe inspiring even til this day.
Worst of:   The light show is overpriced for what it is.
Most Memorable:    Our hotel gave us directions to the Aish bakery (bread).  For mere pennies we got piping hot pita bread fresh from the hole in the wall bakery...literally a hole in the wall.  Something about lining up with the locals that makes you feel like you hit a jackpot.

Useful Tip:   Avoid the taxis & carriages and take the microbus whenever possible.  They circle around town all day long and are numerous.  Hail one down and ask if they will take you to your destination i.e. Karnak.  Travel across town for $.25!  Remember to confirm the price before getting in.  Ask at your hotel so you know how much it should cost and then insist on that price or wait for the next one.  NOTE - they will honor this price even at night when the taxi touts are circling.  You just have to know what you're looking for and what the price should be. 
Luxor, or ancient Thebes, is arguably the best collection of Egyptian history in one spot.  No where else is there such a vast collection of tombs, temples and royal palaces.  Like modern day Paris or New York, Thebes represented THE place to live and die.  Pharaohs would have their eternal resting places constructed on the western bank while constructing and expanding temples on the eastern bank of the Nile.  The greatest of pharaohs like Ramses II and Hatshepsut (one of the rare female pharaohs) to name a couple, would have temples built and dedicated in their honor immortalizing themselves as gods.  The results of their efforts have mostly been preserved thanks to the shifting sands of the Saharan Desert.  Covered under layers upon layers of sand and time, many of these "eternal homes" have been unearthed in recent years revealing hoards of jeweled treasures...most notably the famous King Tut.  Perhaps the best is yet to come however as this area is still scattered with scores of teams of archeologists scouring the earth, looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack and the next big score.
We started our time in Luxor on the living side, the East bank with the Temple Complex of Karnak.  Covering over 2 square kilometers, this complex was worked on, destroyed, rebuilt and expanded over the course of 1500 years.  During the New Kingdom era (around 1500-1000 B.C.E.) the temple reached its zenith.  The capital was relocated from Memphis (near Modern Cairo) to Thebes and the temple became the most important in all of Egypt.  With Egypt expanding its borders and wealth flowing in, the pharaohs would add more and more to the temple.  Records on the walls indicate that over 81,000 people worked and lived on and for the temple.  Because nearly all the pharaohs would add to the complex, wandering through the temple is like taking a crash course in Egyptian architectural style of the New Kingdom Era.  The deeper you venture, the older the temple gets. 
The "youngest" part of the temple are the row of Sphinxes just outside the main entrance dating to around 500 B.C.E.  At one time, these statues stretched in a row from Karnak all the way to Luxor temple, three kilometers away.  The path was used as part of a ceremony to honor the gods during harvest time.  Today, there are few of these statues left between the two great temples but the governor of Luxor has grandioso plans and is attempting to clean out and restore the path to its original glory. 
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Near the center of the complex stands one of the greatest religious monuments ever constructed - the Great Hypostyle Hall.  Consisting of 134 massive concrete pillars, the hall is large enough to fit the two largest churches in existence today combined.  Each pillar is intricately carved and topped with papyrus shaped caps.  Much like the lotus pedal is to Buddhism, the Egyptians believed that the mound of life sprang from the waters of the Nile surrounded by a swamp of papyrus reeds.  Most of the columns were erected by none other than the great Ramses II, finishing off where his father, Seti I had left off.
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Beyond the Hypostyle Hall lies another highlight of the complex, the Obelisk of Hatshepsut.  In a country with what would seemingly be hundreds of Obelisks, the Obelisk of Hatshepsut is the largest of them all.  Not sure if that includes all of the obelisks that have been hauled off to other countries, but as far as we know, it's the largest in Egypt anyway's.
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After careful deliberation, we decided that we would spring for one night show while in Egypt.  All the major temples have some sort of show at night.  When we read in Lonely Planet that the one at Karnak was something akin to a Hollywood spectacle, we could not resist the temptation.  At $20 a pop, the ultra kitsch show lacked in show stopping special effects one would expect.  The hour and a half "show" was more like a narrated walk through the temple at night.  The only saving grace is that you get a chance to see the temple lit up at night giving it an eerie feeling.  Perhaps they can take the extra money and hire Steven Spielberg to spiff it up a bit.  At the very least they could take the money and pay the guards a decent wage so they wouldn't have to resort to asking for "baksheesh."  
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Back in town and just up the bank from the Nile lies Luxor Temple.  The temple was built as somewhat of a "summer" home for the gods normally residing at Karnak.  During the annual floods, the shrines to the gods would be loaded up on barges and either carried by priests or floated up the Nile to reside here for a couple of weeks.  The temple itself was largely built by Amenhotep III (King Tut's grandpa) and Ramses II (who else).  Over the centuries since its completion, the temple has taken on many forms.  The Romans would turn it into a fort which would also be used as such by the Arabs.  During the 14th century, a mosque was built here and is still in use today.  Not nearly as large or sprawling as it's neighbor to the north, Luxor temple still is an impressive structure, particularly as the sun sets. 
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As the suns rays brought life to the west side of the Nile, the east side represented the sun setting and snuffing out life.  Temples and monuments to life and religion dominate the east bank.  Tombs, monuments, and shrines to death scatter the barren desert plains of the west bank.  The Valley of the Kings & Queens along with the Valley of the Nobles house hundreds of tombs.  At first glance, there is not much to see.  Standing in the unforgiving heat and staring out into the hills of white sand will give one an understanding as to how so many of these tombs are still left to be uncovered.  It all adds to the mystique and amazement when you first walk down into the tombs.  Covered from top to bottom, brightly painted murals stand much as they did when they were first painted on those walls some 3500 years earlier.  The pigments of color were preserved thanks to no sunlight and outside interference.  Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos inside the tombs due to careless flash photography. 
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Aside from the tombs, there are also several memorial monuments, or individual shrines, dedicated to the most famous of pharaohs.  We visited Deir al-Bahri, or as it is better known as Hatshepsut's (loosely pronounced "Hot Chicken Soup") Temple.  This place is listed as one of the hottest places on earth and visiting here in the middle of August was probably not our smartest move.  Hatshepsut was one of the few female pharaohs and went to great lengths to prove that she was just as great as any male pharaoh.  After seizing the throne from her dead brother/husband (have to keep the blood line going I suppose) she ruled for about 15 years.  During that time she built the afore mentioned Obelisk at Karnak and this magnificent burial shrine.  Built directly into the hillside, the temple has become one of the most iconic images of ancient Egypt.  Built on three levels, the temple has multiple columns and a massive central ramp leading to the top tiers.  On the second level, each pillar is fronted by what appears to be statues of a male pharaoh, but they are none other than Hatshepsut herself.  The Female pharaoh went to great lengths to prove she was just as strong as any man, even wearing the trademark "beard". 
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Our last stop on our tour of the east bank was at the Colossi of Memnon.  Pretty much a quick obligatory stop as you have to pass them to get to virtually anywhere on the east bank, these statues are all that remain of a once great temple.  Proving that building a temple out of mud and sand near a annually flooding river is never a good idea, these twin statues once stood guard for the largest temple ever built in Egypt.  Today they stand guard for a large field and several souvenir stalls. 
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We spent our last day in town strolling along the market, stocking up on enough food to last through our 22 hour bus ride to Dahab & enjoying free Internet & A/C with a view of Luxor temple at the local McDonald's.  McDonald's you say?  Well, sometimes an ice cream cone (with AC) hits the spot!
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To see more photos of Luxor click here!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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