Luxor is a city that beckons the traveller again and again with its incredible wealth of history, culture and the unmistaken lure of bygone power and magnificence, trumped by that most fickle of all realities — time
On a hot day in April, 2018, my wife and I stood poised with bated breath at the entrance of one of the most significant archaeological finds in mankind’s history. On November 26, 1922, a 58-year-old British archaeologist had peered through a nondescript opening at this very spot, his heart throbbing and his eyes narrowed to make sense of the darkness beyond in the flickering candle light. To his patron and financer, Lord Carnarvon’s impatient question “Can you see anything?”, he replied, “Yes, wonderful things”. And wonderful they were indeed, for Howard Carter had just stumbled upon the hitherto elusive tomb of the Boy King – Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in ancient Thebes (present day Luxor), with all its glittering treasures intact.
We had landed in Luxor a day before. The capital of Egypt during the Middle Kingdom (2040 to 1750 BC) and the New Kingdom (circa 1550 to 1070 BC), Luxor was known as Waset to the Egyptians and Thebes to the Greeks. Dedicated to Amun - the god of earth and fire, Luxor is home to the imperial splendours of Egypt’s past. Should you wish to relive a part of Egypt’s colonial past, the place to stay in Luxor is the opulent 19th century Winter Palace Hotel, now managed by Sofitel.
Having decided to spoil ourselves on our limited budget, we booked the cheapest available room to relish the atmosphere of the by-gone days. Period décor, spiralling staircase, magnificent halls and spectacular gardens make it one of the best hotels to stay in Luxor. Built in 1886, overlooking the Nile, the Winter Palace Hotel is steeped in history and adventure, for as tour guides are quick to inform you, it was on the hotel’s Grand Staircase that Howard Carter announced his discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. As one relaxes in one of its period lounges, one can almost imagine Agatha Christie penning a part of her Death on the Nile in some obscure corner, Howard Carter sipping tea with Lord Carnarvon in the Victoria Lounge and Churchill strolling down the gardens with his inevitable cigar. All these and many more notable personalities had stayed at this hotel that is steeped in old-world charm.
The Nile divides Luxor into two: the East Bank and the West Bank. Our first day in Luxor was spent exploring the East Bank, home to all the hotels, the old town and three very important historic sites. At a stone’s throw from the Winter Palace Hotel stands the Luxor Temple, the coronation temple of Thebes and the most significant religious centre in ancient Egypt. Unlike most temples which were dedicated to specific gods, this temple was dedicated to the rejuvenation of kingship. Known as “the Place of the First Occasion,” it was here that the god Amun was said to experience rebirth during the Pharaoh’s annually re-enacted coronation ceremony.
Built and added to over hundreds of years by many pharaohs including Tutankhamun, the political and religious significance of the temple was so great that even Alexander the Great claimed to have been crowned there, despite never having set foot in Thebes. Two massive seated and four standing statues of Ramses II – perhaps the greatest pharaoh in history – flank the temple’s main entrance. Once two 80 feet tall pink granite obelisks stood next to these statues, but now only one stands. The other can be seen at Place De La Concorde in Paris, France. It is believed that both obelisks had once been promised to England but following diplomatic negotiations, were gifted instead to King Charles the X of France by Pasha Muhammed Ali. Only one obelisk was, however, actually shipped and by the time it reached France, King Louis Philip had ascended the French throne. As a goodwill gesture, the King gifted the Pasha a large brass clock in return, now placed in the clock tower of the Muhammad Ali Pasha Mosque at the Citadel of Cairo.
Connected to the Luxor Temple through a three-kilometre-long avenue lined by sphinxes is the Karnak Temple. This avenue was the route for the procession of the god Amun from Karnak to Luxor during the annual coronation festival.
Karnak, said to be the largest temple in the world, was originally dedicated to the god Amun, but later became sacred to other gods as well. At its zenith, the temple boasted more than 80,000 priests, responsible for administration, collections, distribution of food and advice and interpretation (or misinterpretation) of the gods’ will for the general public.
Many pharaohs contributed to its expansion, including Hatshepsut (the Queen pharaoh), Tuthmose III, Seti I (father of Ramesses II) and Ramesses I, so much so that the grand scale of the temple dwarves the human imagination. The entire Notre-Dame Cathedral could easily fit into the 134-pillar great Hypostyle Hall alone. An interesting feature of the temple are the 10 pylons built gradually by different rulers, each narrating a story through hieroglyphics. During our visit, we were enthralled by the short light and sound show held at the temple in the evening, which took us through its history and highlighted imperial achievements.
Located between both temples stands the Luxor Museum which, although not as grand as the Cairo Museum, has many fascinating artefacts on display and is worth a visit.
The West Bank requires at least two days since it is a treasure trove of history and several magnificent sites. And, of course, my better half wanted to see everything even if it killed us. Our day in the West Bank naturally began with a visit to the Valley of the Kings – the final resting place of many great pharaohs. The tourist is warned that while the standard ticket covers quite a few tombs, the more significant and better-preserved ones like those of Seti I and Tutankhamun have a premium ticket and are not included in the standard ticket.
The adjacent Valley of the Queens too has some noteworthy tombs with steep price tags. Perhaps the most incredible tomb in both valleys is that of Queen Nefatari, the principal wife of Ramesses the Great, where only a limited number of tourists are allowed daily. In any case, its high entrance fee automatically ensures that it is less crowded than some of the other tombs.
A life-saving tip here, especially for the married tourist: when you buy your tickets at the entrance, be sure to also purchase a photo pass without which you cannot take photographs inside the tombs. I somehow managed to miss the photo pass purchase sign at the entrance, where I had surrendered my camera. Naturally, when my better half noted others merrily clicking away inside the tombs after presenting their passes to the attendants, with us relegated to just admiring the tombs with our naked eyes, her fury knew no bounds as she proceeded to read me a long lecture on my supposed irresponsible tendencies. I did buy her a picture book of Nefatari’s tomb after a hard bargain with a roadside vendor outside the tomb but sadly that did not placate her much, even though the book not only had photographs of the Queen’s tomb but also deciphered the hieroglyphics inscribed thereon. As per recent reports, however, photography with a phone camera may now be allowed without a photo pass but be sure to confirm this at the time of ticket purchase to avoid the afore-mentioned painful scenario.
The exquisite ruins of the temple of Ramesses II, perhaps the greatest of all known Egyptian pharaohs, are also located on the West Bank. Historically it was in the times of Ramesses II that the Exodus took place with Moses (peace be upon him) leading the people of Israel to Mount Sinai. After Nefartari’s tomb, this was the second top highlight for us. Ramesses II called his massive memorial “the Temple of Millions of Years of User-Maat-Ra’’, the name taken by Ramesses; those educated in the classics called it the tomb of Ozymandias (as hailed by the Greeks); and Jean-François Champollion, who deciphered the intriguing hieroglyphics inscribed all over the tomb, called it the Ramesseum.
The main feature of the temple was the colossus of Ramesses II, apparently 19 metres high; its shattered remains are still a powerful tourist attraction, having inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley’s powerful ode: Ozymandias. As we stood dwarfed before the fallen statue, we could only marvel at its magnificence when standing tall and proud. The Ancient Greek historian Diodarus Silicius described the majesty of the once erect statue, recounting “…and it is not merely for its size that this work merits approbation, but it is also marvellous by reason of its artistic quality and excellent because of the nature of the stone, since in a block of so great a size there is not a single crack or blemish to be seen. The inscription upon it runs: King of Kings am I, Osymandyas. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.
The British commissioned Giovanni Belzoni, an Italian circus trainer turned explorer and antiques dealer, to transport the gigantic head and torso of a granite statue of Ramesses II to Britain, one of a pair that once stood in the Second Court of the great complex, where the head of the remaining statue can still be found. The former can now be seen and marvelled at in the Egyptian Gallery of the British Museum, London. Spurred perhaps by the urge to leave his mark on this great ruin for times eternal, Belzoni could not resist autographing one of the pillars of the Ramesseum, graffiti that can still be seen today. News of Egyptian finds in the early 19th Century excited the imagination of the British public and academia alike. When word of the statue’s arrival reached London, Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the great Romantics, held a friendly sonnet writing contest with his friend and fellow poet, Horace Smith. The title of both sonnets was Ozymandias. Shelley’s Ozymandias eternalised Ramesses the Great by focusing on the transience of earthly power, using Ramesses’s statue to symbolise the futility of all human achievement and greatness. Focusing on the inscription described earlier by Diadyrus, Shelley wrote:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
And so we left the great Ramesseum to the silence of the shifting sands and moved on to yet another architectural wonder of the ancient Egyptian world: the Mortuary Temple of the controversial Hatshepsut.
Hatshepsut, the first Pharaoh Queen of Egypt, became Queen Regent for her infant stepson upon her husband’s death. However, not long after, she proclaimed herself pharaoh, deliberately getting herself portrayed as a muscular male with the traditional pharaonic beard in most official portraits. While older historians described her as a vile usurper, her reputation has improved somewhat over time, with scholars now suggesting that she only proclaimed herself pharaoh to protect her step son’s sovereign right to rule in the wake of the threat of political turmoil after her husband’s death. Whatever the truth, her two-decade rule was one of uncommon peace and prosperity, as she patronised the arts and launched many large scale building projects, the greatest one being her mortuary temple.
Should you plan to stay longer than two days at Luxor, you may be tempted to add to your itinerary, tours to the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, the colossi of Memnon, the Mortuary Temple of Seti I, the Valley of the Nobles, Howard Carter’s house and Deir El Medina (the Valley of the Artisans).
In Luxor, tourist sites open as early as 6am, closing at 4pm in winters and 5pm in summers. In the evening, when everything else is closed, boat rides on the Nile or horse carriage rides around the old town are recommended. The ancient Egyptian civilisation prospered on the banks of the glorious River Nile, which witnessed the rise and fall of innumerable dynasties. We, too, hired a boat and sailed up the Nile to enjoy its magnificence. Another option is to rent a Felucca (sail boat) and enjoy a leisurely sunset sail to the Banana Islands. If you, however, wish to travel the Nile in style and relive the past, you can book yourself a cruise on the Steam Ship Sudan. It was on SS Sudan that Agatha Christie travelled in 1933 and drew inspiration for her novel Death on the Nile.
Of course, no traveller should visit Egypt without fully comprehending the Egyptian concept of “bakhsheesh”- a concept perhaps as old as the pharaohs themselves and just as entrenched for the tourists, as we were to discover again and again to our disadvantage during our travels. For the locals it is a tip for any services rendered; for tourists, however, it is never as simple as that. Invariably, the horse carriage driver or tomb attendant or the boatman shall end up demanding a tip over and above the price that has already been agreed upon. Many plausible arguments are presented by the unabashed local to convince the hapless tourist of its need – our tonga driver insisted he needed it for his horse’s upkeep and food, conveniently ignoring the fact that the price he had already charged for the tonga ride would probably cover that anyway. Things can get quite heated should you dare to refuse so the best idea is to be aware that the price you have agreed upon for any service is not likely to be the final one, for at the end of the day you may need to fork out a little more as bakhsheesh.
Luxor is a city that beckons the traveller again and again with its incredible wealth of history and culture. And so, as we prepared to leave this fascinating city, we knew in our hearts that we would surely return one day, drawn again to the lure of bygone power and magnificence, trumped by that most fickle of all realities – time.
The writer is a development professional and an avid traveller. He blogs at www.travelpangs.com and can be reached at [email protected]