Being based in Georgia, I'm right here. I'd kick myself for not visiting some areas in this part of the world, and Egypt was at the top of that list due to my love of ancient history. Originally, I was going to go with Andy this past summer, but things didn't work out. Instead, this winter Stanley and I were going to set out, and then Dan and Tyler joined up, making it a crew of four set to explore the river kingdom.
What follows is not a narrative account of events. Rather its a series of bullet points, things that caught my attention. Although they are grouped by location, they can come off as a bit random.
Americans need to get a visa upon entering Egypt. It's $25, but there's no signage to direct you to the dilapidated kiosk in the corner that looks like it is selling cigarettes.
Most tourists were Chinese, but there were also some from Germany, America, South Korea, Russia, India, Thailand, and either Spain or Latin America (at least one group was from Columbia).
Egyptians kept complaining about how cold it was. Space heaters and sweaters were in action. It may have been a little chilly at night, but it was FAR warmer than Georgia. It reminded me of San Diego in that regard: warm to hot days and chilly nights. This comparison was driven home by the use of heat lamps at an outdoor restaurant in Luxor. I figure the heat of the summer would be pretty oppressive, making winter actually a pretty ideal time to visit.
None of us are finance majors. So clearly none of us paid attention to Egypt's currency recently. When originally planning my Egypt trip I was aware that the US dollar to Egyptian pound ratio was favorable, but I didn't notice when Egypt floated its currency in November. This changed the exchange rate from 6 or so pounds per dollar to roughly 18 pounds per dollar. This was very favorable for us, but it also manifested in a funny way. Private tourism stuff still operated on the dollar or euro, but everything else, including stores and museums ran on pounds. This made the former "eh" and the latter dirt cheap. Want to go into the Egyptian Museum? Only 75 pounds, about 4 dollars. This meant we visited a lot of sites at really cheap prices. But if you want a hotel arranged taxi to take you to a few sites? Try 40 dollars. Grab an independent taxi back to the hotel? Now you're at 10 pounds. Of course, people would also slowly (or even quickly) inflate their prices from their base when they realize you're a tourist.
The dollar to pound ratio really hit us when we got to Luxor with all the admission tickets we got, each of which was essentially 1/3 the price they were about two month ago.
There is trash everywhere. I know folks complain about Georgia's trash problem, but it’s worse here.
Everywhere you look you see the same construction of homes. These are essentially cubes stacked on top of and next to each other. There are cement support columns and then brick walls. The cement columns all had rebar sticking out the top, making it look like everything was unfinished. It turns out that the main reason for this is that you have to pay a building tax once your construction is finished. Leaving it unfinished means you avoid the tax. Plus you can always build an addition for a family member or whomever.
Hookah bars (they probably have a more official name) are omnipresent. These are sit down restaurants that usually only serve drinks and offer a hookah for use. Some also serve food. Nearly all of them spill outside, even adding tables and benches from a back room as needed.
When vendors started pestering us, we'd often use Georgian instead of English, which would leave them confused. They usually knew a lot of languages, but none of them knew Georgian.
No matter what language you speak, if you make eye contact with a vendor, they will rush you. This also happens if you look at something too long.
No matter where you go, there just isn't anything to dry your hands with in the public restrooms in Egypt. Just shake your hands and let the heat take care of them.
In every restaurant they immediately place a bottle of water at your table. When they finally bring out your order, the food comes out first, and it comes out when it is ready, not all together. Your drinks come out last, sometimes after you are well past the halfway mark of eating your food. They really want you to drink from that bottle of water I guess, and they do charge an inflated extra amount for it.
Customer Service in restaurants sucks. It’s more fair to say that it doesn't exist. Yet they still ask for a tip.
One of the places we ate at was the GAD restaurant. It’s kind of a fast food place. People grab takeout all the time, and we did that earlier in the day. After the pyramids we went to their sit down area. It took them so long to bring the food that we went through all the complimentary bread (and then some), just flavoring it with hot sauce.
There are cats everywhere in Cairo. Dogs, not so much.
"And we never saw him again." This became a running joke for us. For our safety and security plan we agreed to stick to the buddy system. There were four of us, and this worked out well. However, the whole notion of the security plan was kind of annoying for us. It was well intentioned paperwork to make sure that we acquainted ourselves with the dangers of the country and knew not to do something [too] stupid. Naturally, for something like a vacation, the idea of it can come off as a bit patronizing despite the intention. So when someone would briefly go their own direction to hit the bathroom or buy a bag of chips, we'd joke how we'd never see them again. We almost entirely stopped using it in Luxor as the character of the town was entirely different.
Cairo is dead in the morning. It wakes up sometime around 9am.
Normally, mosquitoes don't bother me, but here they were a real problem. Admittedly, it was really only at our Cairo hostel, but every night the little buggers made another attempt at tattooing the constellations across my face.
Folks claimed that winter is the off season for tourism. Multiple guides (ours and others) remarked that they didn't make nearly as many trips in the winter as they do in the rest of the year, sometimes only one a day.
It’s clear the tour place we were taken to was a tourist trap. They kept trying to push us to buy things early. I consented to the head cloths on account that I didn't know what the sun would be like and I wanted to make sure everyone was protected.
I did not expect to be giving riding instructions, but there I was. I couldn't help much with the camels though.
Camels bob a lot. You think you're moving up and down a lot on a horse, the camel bobbing is between a horse's first and second speed bobbing levels. Also, no stirrups. Not the most stable of platforms. You're also a little high up to be using a sword on someone effectively unless they are on horse.
Then there's getting down from a camel. It goes onto its front knees first so the whole saddle and you with it pitch forward. If you don't lean back you hold on for dear life or pitch off the front.
Our guide barely knew squat about the history of the place.
When we stopped at Khafre's pyramid a guard almost immediately grabbed the boy that was guiding our camels and dragged him off. We were left to take photographs on foot for a while (a good thing) while the guide chased after and had words with the guard. When we asked what that was all about, he simply said, "nothing".
Be careful of the peddlers around the pyramids, they will literally try to take money from your hand. If they are trying to be "legit" they will stuff something in your hands first, then they will demand and even take payment. "Lalala shokhran" [no, thank you] is supposed to be how you turn them down, but it doesn't work as advertised. A stern glower is more convincing.
We got to play money changers. To be more exact, Stanley did; though, I helped with some of the math. It turns out that some tourists give the peddlers coins instead of bills. The banks don't accept these, so they are worthless to the peddlers. Stanley read about this and had several singles on him. One of the peddlers even had Georgian Lari, which is where my math came in. Again the banks don't accept those. The peddlers were grateful enough for the money changing services that we got some gifts out of it, and the shorter, rounder peddler became pretty cool towards [most of] us as a result.
"Guys, I just want you to know that I'm wearing the biggest shit eating grin right now" - BJ as he descends into Menkaure's pyramid.
The passages into the pyramids are low, crazy low, also narrow. You bend over half way and you're still likely to scrape your head on the ceiling. Coming back out you don't have to worry quite so much, unless you want to look up and see where you are going.
The passage is smooth and have something like 30 degrees to their slope. They've laid down boards with crossbars to give you footing, but they aren't steps; they were also uncomfortable for my gait. The first folks going up and down would have had a heck of a time without ropes.
The chambers in Menkaure's pyramid were short and flat roofed or tallish with vaulted ceilings.
Why did I not go into the great pyramid? We strongly considered it as you can only pay to enter two of the Giza pyramids and we needed to decide before the tour started. Ultimately, we chose not to because it would cost five times as much and we'd have to deal with a crowd that was five times as great to see something similar (what you're allowed to see that is). Also there wasn't any crowd control, so you can get a lot of folks down in some tiny chambers far underground. Finally, they only allow 300 people to enter each day; I'll generously leave that quota to all the Chinese tourists.
Camels don't spit as much as Conan makes them out to.
The temple complex at Giza is, sadly, pretty small, but it gave us a taste of what was to come.
The sphinx next to the temple complex did not disappoint. It’s easy to frame ancients as backwards when it comes to art, especially when much of what you see is reflective of stylistic choices rather than ability or really when you just look at what I would consider crappy art from Europe, but damn, the Egyptian stone carvers were amazing. You can see this first hand in the sphinx.
I was very much reminded of BSolo Ghost of Lion Castle, an old D&D module that takes place in a giant lion statue, which is what archaeologists think the sphinx originally looked like. Naturally the thought then immediately went to "yeah, no way that dungeon would fit in the sphinx." This follows for a great many D&D modules. I3 Pharaoh, clearly based on the great pyramid, also not happening. Then of course there's I6 Ravenloft, in which Castle Ravenloft is the tallest castle ever.
Back to the guide, he was dodgy (in case you didn't already get that). After Menkaure's pyramid he kept asking if we were satisfied, that we'd visit the temple then the sphinx and we'd be done. He kept repeating this and reinforcing that this was the end of the tour and asking if we were happy with that. Well, the thing is, we paid for the long tour: all three big pyramids and then the 6 small ones for queens, and we still hadn't gone up to the great pyramid or the queen pyramids around it, which also meant avoiding the sun barge museum attached to the great pyramid. He knew what he was doing. We knew what he was doing. However, we chose not to press the issue. We had two more pyramid sites to visit and by this time we'd already burned through half the day.
"I've learned more from you than I have from our guide." - Dan after BJ finishes explaining the development of the pyramids from mastabas to step to bent to the smooth old great pyramids.
Overall, the horses and camels were cool, but not really worth it. For me, it would have been better to have a guide that would explain the history. This wasn't such a big deal, as I was explaining what I could remember to the others, but I certainly didn't remember everything and would have liked the opportunity to learn more.
Of note, we hit a papyrus shop afterwards, clearly another stop for our driver's paycheck, but it was cool to see how papyrus was made and take in the art. It also turns out that exported papyrus needs certificates of authenticity due to all the knockoffs floating around. I'm not sure if that's real or just them enhancing their sales pitch.
From here on our driver just took us around as each of the other pyramid sites was pretty far apart.
I trust you all know that Netjerykhet (aka Djoser, no relation to Gozer the Gozerian) wanted something more than the usual mastaba and that Imhotep was the man with the plan to start the pyramid craze by stacking mastabas on top of each other.
The step pyramid and its surrounding temple complex was under reconstruction. This added to the character of the site in ways you may not think of. First, you can see smooth casing stone juxtaposed with ancient crumbling stone, giving you an easy comparison for what it must have looked like in all its glory. Second, the layers of seemingly rickety scaffolding along the east side of the pyramid gave an idea of what it must have looked like when it was originally being built.
Must have spent a dozen minutes just looking at the scaffolding alone.
The temple complex here gives you a good sense of just how large these were as you can roam the entire courtyard after passing through the entrance.
Unfortunately, you can't visit various areas as they are being [slowly] excavated and/or restored.
You don't have to pay anything extra to go into this pyramid (you still have to pay to get into Dahshur though) and there were no lines to get in, which made it a great stop.
There wasn't much for us to do (either due to the site or our driver's insistence) other than take the long walk up the pyramid and then descend into it.
The passage into the red pyramid just kept going and going. Like those in Giza, you have to crouch down low the whole way. It goes so long that it really starts feeling oppressive. Then of course there is the climb back out...
It wasn't terribly well lit inside.
Not recommended for the unfit, the unhealthy, or the claustrophobic.
The ceilings in the red pyramid were also pretty awesome: The blocks in the ceiling are just stacked progressively closer to form a sort of stepped ceiling. They helped give a sense for how the architectural design of the pyramids developed, each learning what they did in the last. Unfortunately, given the cramped quarters, this is hard to photograph these ceilings properly.
The deeper you go in, the stronger the place smelled of ammonia. It got seriously strong at the end. We couldn't figure out why until we were later told that it was also called the Bat Pyramid. They didn't say why, but we know its not because Batman is buried there. However, bat urine does smell like ammonia.
If I had it to do again, I may have split the pyramids into two days. Do Giza in one nice, long day. This lets you take your time with it and truly see everything. I don't know how many of the other pyramids you can visit (e.g. the bent pyramid or Snofru's pyramid at Meidum) that we didn't go see, but they could certainly add up. And no, this isn't a case of "you've seen one, you've seen them all." The pyramids all have their quirks, and the grounds around them are often equally interesting.
Cairo Citadel (aka Citadel of Salah Al-Din)
Somehow I kept trying to walk in all the exits. It worked half the time too.
This place contains the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, a smaller mosque, a military museum, a police museum, and a small prison museum.
Big Mosque. Dirty Mosque. I asked a guard because it and all the other mosques in view were this matte grey. Turns out the the Mosque of Muhammad Ali hasn't been cleaned in 5 years. The country just doesn't have the money for the upkeep.
Inside this mosque there are a lot of broken windows, but these add character. Looking up, you can see crisscrossing light trails in the dust.
Why do churches and mosques have such wonderfully painted ceilings when people spend all their time looking down?
"Money for the Mosque?" So the smaller mosque in the citadel doesn't have any guards or whatnot, but there was a bloke who asked us to remove our shoes and then gave a very brief tour, by which I mean he pointed out that various columns were from different ages: Catholic, Roman, and Ancient Egyptian. Then he starts asking for money, not for himself of course, but for the mosque. I asked where the donation box was and he stopped asking me. I refrained from asking him why he was still wearing his Nikes inside.
Naturally, at the Police Museum there, BJ liked the ancient history section best. The crocodile scabbard and turtle shell shield were pretty keen.
Mosques (aka Sultan Hassan & Al Rifa'i Monument Area)
Unlike the pyramids, each of the mosques we visited was expansive, much like a cathedral. It was also not unusual for a mosque to have an open roofed area. The climate makes that possible and folks get to use natural light.
"Tips for Shoes" Going into all mosques you need to take off your shoes. Don't be a dick and disrespect the local culture. In all previous mosques, you take off your shoes, then you carry them with you. Here though there was a pair of old guys behind a counter with all these cubbies demanding your shoes. Stanley and Dan even tried walking in with their shoes in hand and got something of a tongue lashing until they relented and dropped off their shoes. Inside the second of these mosques, we saw some people (locals) carrying their shoes. When we went to pick up our shoes, the leathery geezers kept saying "tips for shoes" as they tried to get money from us. They got nothing.
Getting into our cab, this weather beaten guy came up and started yelling at our driver. He even went so far as to open the cab door. I quietly locked my door and watched the drama. Afterwards we asked the driver what that was about, and he said "nothing". There's a lot of nothing that happens apparently.
Sadly, this is where my phone battery died for the day as it didn't properly charge the night before.
Ego Boost - A cute girl smiles as she passes you while you are waiting for your group just outside the Chaplet (Convent) of St. George. Later, when you are entering the cavern church and she's exiting she asks for a selfie with you. Random, but fun.
Two areas, both the Convent of St. George and the Church of St. George had a metal leash. It turns out that the church was built over a prison that reputedly held St. George. The nuns put on the iron collar and wrapped themselves in the chain then prayed to St. George while repeatedly kissing the chain. If a faithful does this they receive grace; however, this is predominately a practice for women, not men.
You can drink from the same water Jesus did when he stayed there, but it’s a faucet. So I remain a bit skeptical that the plumbing is legit.
Baby Jesus fled Israel and went to Egypt. One of the places his parents parked while hiding from King Herod later became the cavern church. It’s a small niche really and not terribly cavern like, at least not like the cave church in Budapest. It still makes a good place to visit.
There was actually a nifty map of the route the holy family took based on scripture and historical writings, which I hadn't seen before. Pretty cool.
The ~10 year old kid trying to pass himself off as plain clothes security with a "passport please" was amusing.
This is Cairo's grand bazaar (cue Tea Party). The eastern most area, near the mosque and its courtyard, is where all the touristy stuff is. There's tons of history based sculptures, ancient Egypt themed clothing and mugs, eye talismans, and a plethora of skimpy belly dancing outfits (How much of that do you guys actually sell?). As you go further west (and towards our hostel) the goods quickly come to reflect everyday needs, except for food. There wasn't much food on sale.
Guys, you gotta learn how to control your cats. I fed a couple of cats when we stopped at one of the many hookah bar restaurants, because cats, and they were largely well behaved with me. One of the two cats was more agile and kiped the bulk of the chicken I tossed down from the orange and white guy, who eventually just bapped the other with haymaker. A bit later, other cats started harassing the other three boys. A black and white started pawing at them and others were circling. They cursed me for having fed the cats. I rolled my eyes and remarked that they needed to learn how to handle cats. About this time a large orange jumped up on our table and just started eating Stan's lunch. Tyler jumps up and moves to another bench, and the other two just back up. I stand, back hand the boy off the table, and, with a little water, that was the end of it.
I really regret not having my camera for this area. The side streets and alleys laden with goods provided a visual feast.
"Look for free." - A very common statement by peddlers.
I'm quite curious what a map of this place would look like. It’s huge (bigger than Kutaisi's bazaar), and once you are off the main stretch it quickly becomes a maze. It's not entirely grid like. There's a number of dead ends and work arounds.
A number of boys and young men will float between shops with trays of Turkish coffee, delivering it to shop owners. Oh and Turkish coffee comes in this dinky little "kettle", two and a half, maybe three inches high, and then gets poured into an equally dinky (quaint?) coffee cup.
"It got dark all of a sudden" - Stanley as we passed from the main area to the maze unknown.
A mob of women in head scarves and burkas frenzied over random packages of polka-dot children's clothing that were being handed out. We think that was the result of a street auction, but I'm not placing bets. It was just kind of odd.
This place is not a museum for all of Egyptian history, as you might infer from its name. It really is just ancient Egypt, up through the Ptolemaic Period. But that in no way diminishes the collection. There is a lot there. It’s a two story colossal structure, and it still can't display everything available.
The largest issue with the museum is the other tourists. After that it is the lack of labels. Almost nothing is labeled aside from a catalog number and no guide books were available (to our knowledge) that decrypted those into historical information. Most of the labels that did exist looked like they were typed up in the 60s or 70s, if not earlier (they showed the similar coloring and typeset as some of my mom's old recipes).
In fairness, had there been labels, I could have spent more than the 4 hours we did. Heck, I'd have likely needed another day. So maybe a lack of labels is designed to keep traffic moving.
I would suggest the museum reverse its prices. It cost 75 pounds to get in and 100 pounds more to see the mummies. The mummies were a very small exhibit and, comparatively, not that impressive. Sure they were cool, but what's ~20 mummies compared to everything else. I mean, at least include the animal mummies in that price. Those were cool.
Fifty pounds extra for permission to take photos (except in certain areas) seems fair until you realize that none of the guards care to check if you got it.
It is unfortunate that there were some blank spots where an exhibit was out.
Yes, ancient Egyptians were short. One label made a big deal about a mummy being 165cm, which was really tall... that's only 5'5". Average Egyptians were actually pretty short, right around 5'3".
Where advertised, mummies suffered from dental problems, arthritis, arteriosclerosis, and obesity.
You're not allowed photographs in the mummy rooms or in King Tut's area. Almost everyone does it anyhow. I saw this from Indian, Chinese, and American tourists, plus some from who knows where. Guards do try to politely stop people in the mummy rooms, but they clearly don't give a fig in the King Tut area.
Being me, my favorite part was not the mummies, the sun barges, or the giant statue and sarcophagi. It was the small statues of the people at work, the game boards, the cosmetics, and the few other clues of everyday life. We fixate on the gold of the Pharaohs, the weapons of the warriors, and the temples of the priests, but we rarely get to see what life was actually like in ancient cultures and these give us clues. Fortunately, in the case of Egypt, there are also a lot of scrolls to help out.
Speaking of, displaying papyrus scrolls in all their hieroglyphic glory and not providing translations? Why do you taunt me so?!
"That museum was something else" - Stanley.
Boat Trip & New Year's Eve
On New Year's Eve we reserved seats on a dinner boat (along with many other tourists). We were told by the proprietor of our hostel that Egyptians don't really do New Year's, despite a sweet fireworks show back in 2000. In fact, when I specifically asked about fireworks at the pyramids he flatly denied that anything was happening. So we took him up on his recommendation of a dinner boat instead.
Yes, guys, the boat really does leave the dock.
The buffet was all you can eat so long as you get all you want to eat on your first pass because there might not be enough for a second pass. There certainly weren't enough desserts.
"That's got to be the whitest Egyptian I've ever seen." Referencing the belly dancer
"Or this is just what happens when you don’t pay off your student loans and they're bought by the tourism industry."
The tanoura dance is initially reminiscent of a whirling dervish. Then the dancer becomes both a spinning top and guy flinging pizza dough.
In this instance, the tanoura dancer also tried to be Dynamo from The Running Man.
Turns out that a lot of youth converged on Tahrir Square around midnight. No demonstration. Everything was peaceful. Just folks celebrating.
Oh yeah, it turns out that fireworks at the pyramids totally did happen and we missed it. Because of this (arguably there were other issues too), I cannot recommend Travel Joy Hostel.
For those that don't know, in the middle and new kingdom periods, Thebes (Luxor) was the city that united and rules Egypt. So most of the important stuff moved upriver to here.
We took the train from Cairo to Luxor. It was advertised by everyone as 8 hours, but it’s really more like 12 hours.
"I wouldn't use the one on the left." Dan came back from the bathroom more than a bit wet. Later we got the full story from him. He didn't know which button to push to flush and hit the one for the bidet instead, sending water everywhere, well, sending water and him and then splashing everywhere.
Food on the train was super reasonable. A full sandwich lunch kit (except drink) was 22 pounds. On the other hand, a small soda was 20 pounds.
"Ticket please," leaving the train folks try to get your ticket from you because you have to pay through to Aswan. This lets them scalp the ticket or give it to friends for the remainder of the trip.
Arrived at Luxor at night and immediately met by the owner of Villa Kaslan, the apartment complex we stayed at. We circumnavigated Luxor temple. It sits squarely in the middle of Luxor's "down town" and is lit up nicely at night. We then rode across the Nile in a small boat, followed by a van ride into the middle of nowhere. It was a fun change from the train and from Cairo.
That probably sounds kinda cool, because it was. Luxor is keenly divided into the east and west bank. Most of the monuments are on the west bank. Luxor Temple, Karnak Temples, and a couple of museums are on the east bank with most of the city, including its bazaar and train station. There's a bridge about 45 minutes north, about where Luxor's small airport is. Otherwise the only way across is by boat. The ferry is 1 pound each, or you can get a private boat trip across for 10 pounds total.
Also, no Mosquitoes.
There sure are a lot of donkey carts.
Overall our housing arrangement in Luxor was great. It was pretty posh and spacious. The proprietors were great at fixing us up with guides, rides, and food. They even took us shopping at the bazaar, charging only for the cost of the rides, not their time.
Tuk-tuks are called tuk-tuks wherever you go.
Here restaurants bring out the drinks first and don't put the water trap on your table.
One of our guides told us that today the river is only 3 or 4 meters deep in the middle and in flood season it goes up another 3 meters.
All of the digs and restoration work being done here is funded by other governments and institutions: America, France, Germany, and Poland. America has the largest presence.
The train station has a giant vulture emblazoned on its front in the hieroglyphic style. Vultures were symbols of protection and frequently drawn over the back of the neck to protect a pharaoh from harm.
People said that winter was tourist season in Luxor because it is too hot in the summer, which makes sense (unlike the summer tourist season of Cairo). They also talked about how tourism was finally starting to pick up again. The coup five years ago really did a number on the tourism industry.
Colossi of Memnon
This fairly recently discovered temple is free to visit as the only things there right now are two large statues (the colossi) and an outline of some walls.
These statues greet you on your way to everything else on the west bank. After them the road goes every which way.
Valley of the Kings
No photos allowed in the valley or in the tombs. So I got a cheap seriously cheap picture book and CD instead. Its so cheap it looks like someone ran it from a home color printer and just gathered a bunch of pictures from the internet. Still, 6 pounds is a hard price to beat.
Our guide told us that the valley was chosen for the proximity of limestone, that it was in the shadow of a naturally pyramid shaped mountain top, and its defensibility.
Admission (100 Egyptian Pounds) gets you into three tombs of your choice (aka guide's recommendation) and then you have to pay extra for special tombs. King Tut was 100 more. The newly reopened Seti? That's a 1000. We didn't do Seti.
Remember how I said there's nothing to dry your hands with in restrooms? There was a guy here that would hand you a single ply of toilet paper to dry your hands with while asking for tips.
Unlike the cramped pyramid passages, these were wide with plenty of headroom, easily 2 meters across. Except Tut, his passages was more like 1.5 meter wide and just under 2 meters high. When you consider that most ancient Egyptians were around 160cm, it was still spacious for them.
They were also generally small. The largest tomb is for the children of King Ramses II, but its not open to the public. It’s also a dig that our guide worked at, and it turns out they still haven't opened and excavated all of it. That was the only one that approached the size of a D&D tomb.
Many tombs had figures with their faces chipped off, and in some cases the hands and legs were severed. When the Coptics (early Christians) came to power, they used the tombs to hide, to hold services. They thought the figures of the ancient Egyptians would come to life at night and attack them. So they struck first, defacing them all. King Tutankhamun’s tomb, of course, was not defaced.
Since King Tutankhamun’s tomb was only recently (relatively speaking) discovered and it was virtually intact when it was, it was worth the added expense to see just so you could enjoy the relatively well preserved walls. It was also the smallest tomb by far because he died so young (~19).
Each of the tombs still had color, but to varying degrees due to damage over time. The roof was generally decorated as the sky, typically with the goddess Neut. The walls were images from the various "holy books", like the Book of the Dead.
The Egyptian holy books weren't books. They were simply a codification of images and hieroglyphics that told various stories. Related to funerary practices.
I probably take for granted the knowledge of ancient Egypt by folks who may be reading this (and who got this far), but just as a quick lesson, the ancient Egyptians believed you could take it with you. More accurately, that there was life after death and that you should be buried with all the things you might use in the next life. So the funerary practices were highly ritualized.
Nefer means beauty, Teri means eternal (Wikipedia disagrees), and Titi means comes. So Nefertari, the wife of Ramses II, was beauty eternal, and Nefertiti, the wife of Akhenaten, was beauty comes. So said our guide.
Only the pharaoh is ever shown with arms crossed over the chest. This is a death position reserved for royalty.
Like the pyramids, each tomb had its own quirks and character. None of the ones we visited (or could visit) were terribly huge, but they were certainly interesting.
This quick stop gave us a demonstration of the tools and methods used by ancient Egyptians to shape alabaster into vessels and figures, as well as a comparison of handmade versus factory made.
Alabaster is naturally translucent, which you can tell by holding the handmade stuff up to the light. The factory made stuff is treated and not as translucent.
Factory made is also much thicker and heavier.
Standard practice when you come into a place like this is give the guest tea. This happened at the papyrus shop in Cairo, the alabaster factory here, and later at the Luxor bazaar.
There were some plastic glow-in-the-dark figures too. Occasionally they'd flip the lights out as one of the salesmen showed the wares and all the employees would go "aaaaah".
Built by Ramses III, This was the first of the impressive complexes we went to in Luxor. Don't get me wrong, the tombs were neat, but the pylons at the front of this temple are just massive, and its all carved in intricate detail.
Ramses III dug his hieroglyphics deeper than normal because he didn't want anyone coming along after and erasing them. Given that his dad, Ramses II went around erasing everyone else's name and even carving the head of the sphinx into his likeness, I'd say his concern was well warranted.
Cartouches are read in the direction the animals and humans inside them are facing. So it could be right to left or left to right.
"Want to see paradise?" When we reached the end there was this guy using that line to try to usher me into a side chamber closed by a gate. I figured he'd close it behind me until I tipped him so I didn't bother. Besides, I could take pictures of it once he turned his back. Dan, on the other hand, went for it and totally confirmed my suspicion.
Turns out that Egyptians practiced circumcision. This came up because this temple had a fair number of penises, and you could tell which were Egyptian and which were foreign by the tips.
According to the walls, Ramses III cut off the hands of conquered foes so they could not take up arms against him and then cut off their penises so that they could not breed.
The pharaoh was often depicted with a skirt, the bottom front of which shot out to make a triangle. This is a stylistic representation of the pharaoh’s outfit. It also lets the artist draw a pyramid out of skirt, even if it had a more skirt like addition on the back.
Most of the color in this temple was washed out. Some ceilings still had a bit since the sun couldn't reach those, but they were still faded.
Footwork is important in sculptures. A standing statue with feet straight down is a death position. If the feet are uneven, as though stepping forward, then it is a life position (showing the person in life). The left foot leading, like seen in this temple, signified marching into combat, and, supposedly, the Egyptian military leads its marches with the left foot in homage to this.
The colors were generally powdered minerals (e.g. iron for red), but with some organics as well. They were mixed with beeswax to preserve their color and help them stick when applied.
Stone construction in ancient Egypt was done with limestone, sandstone, alabaster, and granite. Most structures use limestone because it is easier to work, but you can find granite at key points in many temples, like archways.
Karnak Temple Complex
This is the largest temple complex in the world. Go Google it.
It got so big because multiple rulers built on to it. All the big names in the late kingdom seem to have contributed something. Even the first Ptolemaic ruler got in on the act.
From entry pylon to holy of holies, there's a straight east-west line that runs down the center of the complex; though, there are flanking temple structures as well. East-west is, of course, because of the rising and setting of the sun and the adoration of Ra, the sun god.
The pylon at the entry is the newest construction, and it was unfinished as the pharaoh died before it was completed. This gives insight into construction methods of the time. Essentially they built a growing earthen ramp up as the construction went along. This let them move materials to the top easily.
There's a lot of ram statues around, whole rows of them, including some that later pharaohs moved to make way for their building projects.
The temple was built with its own harbor to grant access to the Nile. Of course, it’s dry now, in part because the water level is more carefully regulated by dams.
The hypostyle hall is just damn... I'd seen pictures, but they don't do it justice. You know that scene in Conan the Barbarian where they kidnap the princess back and hammer dude is clubbing the column? Yeah, these are bigger, like huge; they are around 2 meters diameter at the base and quite tall. Plus there's just so many of them. The tallest are in the center. They are topped with open lotus flowers and had no or minimal roof. Flanking them were slightly shorter columns topped with closed lotus flowers. They had a wooden roof. Light would come in from the middle to help illuminate the hall.
P.S. hypostyle means having many columns supporting a roof.
Oh yeah, there's also some obelisks here. They are impressive in their own right, but after the hypostyle hall they just weren't that keen. Originally two were from Hatshepsut and two were from her dad, but now only one of each stands. Unlike all those columns, each of these is just a single piece of stone, transported and erected intact.
Each temple used in daily life had a holy of holies, a chamber or chambers where only the Pharaoh and high priest were allowed to enter. Since the Pharaoh was usually busy ruling, the high priest would take care of most things.
The altar in the holy of holies was a solid block of granite. Its surface was worn smooth, but you could still make out grooves for draining the blood of animal sacrifices. All many of foods would be sacrificed on this altar, not just animals.
You can see the world's largest scarab statue here. Its maybe two feet long. Apparently if you run around it a few times you get wealth (6 times), marriage (7 times), or pregnant (8 times). This is where you edge away as you see high school girls making circles.
Much of this temple is still under excavation and reconstruction.
Leaving Karnak, we saw that a line had manifested to get in. It wasn't as long as the lines at Disney World, but it went to the end of the "block".
This place is located smack dab in the center of Luxor. The main street circles around it, and you can easily see it from the water or the other side of the river. Plus they light it up at night.
Its grand columns aside, Luxor temple's most impressive aspect is that other religions used it. There's a mosque and a Christian shrine inside. Near the back, where its holy of holies is, there's wall paintings added by Christians, including the partial remains of the last supper.
The holy of holies also sports commentary about Alexander the Great. So, like Karnak, we see that this temple was still in active use even after the fall of the late/new kingdom.
Luxor temple also has the only statue with an intact cobra on the crown of Upper Egypt.
Ancient birth control apparently consisted of using crocodile blood as a douche and relying on it to adjust the alkalinity of the uterus to prevent pregnancy.
Also, to test for pregnancy, a woman would urinate on wheat and barley. If barley grew, then the child would be a boy. If the wheat grew, then it would be a girl. If neither grew, then expect a stillborn or miscarriage. Our guide didn't say what would happen if both grew.
There's an avenue flanked with sphinxes that goes all the way from Luxor Temple to Karnak; however, you can't walk it right now because people built so many things on top of the old over the ages. The main hold out that the government is trying to get to move is a Christian cathedral, but they won't budge.
Al-Deir Al Bahari Temple (aka Hatshepsut's Temple)
This was originally built next to the mortuary temple of Mentuhotep III (or II, I forget which) from the middle period, but that place collapsed during an earthquake.
Where all other temples we saw were flat, this one consisted of three stories, and that made it stand out more than anything. This added a measure of grandeur to it as you had to climb the ramp of stairs to treat with the gods.
Guides have a tendency to ask questions they assume people don't know the answer to, and their surprised reaction when you give the right answer never ceases to amaze me.
This temple was dedicated to Ra (like every other temple we saw, and almost every other temple the ancient Egyptians built), but it also had shrines to Anubis (on the north) and Hathor (on the south).
Unlike most temples, this one was made from sandstone.
For those that don't know, Hatshepsut was ancient Egypt's female pharaoh. She dressed like a man, wore a [fake] beard like a man, waged war like a man, and built temples like a man.
She also took power by exiling her son in law. After she died and he came back, he set about defacing [almost] all her images and cartouches.
Oh, and she is responsible for reopening trade with Punt, a land somewhere on the east coast of Africa that Egyptians saw as a land of the gods because the Egyptians traded for a great many goods with them that were used in their religious practices.
The temple is aligned on an east-west line with Karnak. It’s not lined up perfectly with the main corridor of Karnak because there was a mountain in the way, but it’s still a remarkable feat given the distance.
Leaving, you pass through a mini-bazaar with folks yelling all sorts of prices and demands at you. One guy's litany was, "Three pounds! Three pounds!" Then as we were rounding the corner, "two pounds!"
Again we've got a holy of holies. We were told that Hatshepsut tried to visit once a week. What's a week? Glad you asked. Apparently there were 12 months of 3 weeks, which were each 10 days. Also, three seasons: flood, plant, and grow.
The color here was pretty intense in areas, likely because of its three tiered design. This meant there was more shade and thus less direct sunlight to wear down the colors. It is interesting that we took sites in such an order that the colors were becoming increasingly more vibrant, culminating in...
Deir al-Medina (aka Valley of the Workers)
You can't build all those tombs without skilled craftsmen, and these folks stayed here when working since it was close to the Valley of the Kings.
Workers were essentially divided into job titles. You had the diggers, the rock movers, the guys that smoothed the stone, the guys that polished the stone, the guys that carved the stone, that guys that painted the stone, and maybe some folks I'm forgetting.
Apprentices did the first layer of painting. Line art really. They'd do it in red. The masters would then affirm or correct with black.
The layout of this town is pretty interesting. Google a map of it. It was essentially rows of townhouses. All the houses (assumed to be 2 story) were built right next to each other with shared walls. No space between.
The tombs here are crazy small. Small entries too (watch your head!). However, they are rich. The colors are virtually unblemished by time, and the Coptics didn't deface these. The scenes presented are also not the same as you'd find in pharaohs' tombs. Sure, duh, difference in station and all that. You see instead what it was like for the common person. How they dressed was similar, yet different. The funeral scenes were, again, similar, yet different.
Tombs of the Nobles
Specifically we went to the tomb of R'Mose and a few others.
This site is on the near side of the north ridge of the Valley of the Kings. There are over 500 tombs af various nobles from the middle and late/new kingdoms. Where generally smaller than a pharaoh’s tomb, some are pretty large and again show what life was like for non-pharaohs.
The largest of the tombs (R'Mose) was large enough that it even had its own hypostyle hall.
Middle kingdom tombs don't have much in the way of painted walls, relying more on carved walls. The color that was used was typically in good condition.
Except the one tomb we visited where there was all sorts of obvious smoke damage. These tombs have been used by soldiers, refugees, and who knows who else.
Almost no one was here. They missed out.
This is also where we got to see a little of how some things worked here. I asked our guide if we could take pictures (I missed the no pictures sign). He asked the guard and then came back with, "after these other people leave." These guards were ready to take 20 pounds or so to let you take some photos of the tombs, which you're not otherwise allowed to do. It felt disrespectful to do so.
We cruised through here earlier on our own, but with Abdul we went to the foyer of a hotel under construction just behind his uncle's stall and had potential items brought to us from people he knew.
While cruising, Abdul ushered us into a juicing stall and ordered up five drinks. The proprietor shunted stalks of sugar cane into a big old grindy windy press and out came a foamy sucrose mixture, what I will likely just refer to as sugar beers from here on out. Sweet, but good, I was a bit surprised to look up and see that Tyler downed his mug in one go. Then there was the odd feeling watching the proprietor "clean" the glass for the next guest (he really only rinsed it).
Once we were roaming, Abdul was helpful in starting some negotiations and bargaining the prices down a bit, but it was up to us to take it the rest of the way.
ATMs are apparently a new thing. Abdul said that he gets asked by locals for help with the ATM from time to time. Whether this is due to the novelty or the literacy rate, I don't know.
In many of the bazaars you can find a cheap, tin talisman of a blue eye or a blue eye in a blue hand. According to one of our guides this is the Hand of Fatima. Through multiple sources we confirmed that it wards bad eyes or envy. So if you buy a new car or something else that is very expensive you hang one of these one or in it. The protection does not come from how tacky many of these look. The tradition is rooted in Islam.
"Don't feed the cats." I'm admonished before the food even arrives as the cats start gathering. I agree with a look of "seriously, guys?", at least until everyone else is done. Two of them, one a darling wee kitten, are watching us from the far side of the table. At one point Tyler grabs the salt and dashes the cats with it. They don't move, and he sits back down with a, "well, that's didn't work."
Where we bought our train tickets back to Cairo the night before with Abdul's help (at no added cost, unlike the 100% markup we faced in Cairo when our hostel proprietor helped us get tickets), to make sure we got on the right train with no problems, Abdul had one of his friends meet us at the station to help out.
For the night train, there's really no need to get a sleeper car. First class is cheaper and the seats recline quite a bit.
Dude on the train had his phone's volume way up, and possibly had external speakers for how loud the What's App message announcements were.
Qatar air provides great service.
Overall, I would highly recommend visiting Egypt. Right now is also a good time financially. IF I did it all over (and who knows, I might in 5 or 10 years) I would certainly rearrange my days (we essentially had an extra day at each site) and hit more than just Cairo and Luxor.
There may or may not be a picture gallery in the future. There's a lot of pictures to sort through though, some 1900+, and there's no way I'll be uploading them all.