luxor: west bank sites

Yesterday was a full day of ancient sites and excellent Egyptian food. I woke up from a rooster crowing! Seriously, it called “Roo-uh roo-uh rooooo”. That was followed by the morning call to prayer. It’s a very pleasant way to start the day.

We had breakfast in the lush, green courtyard at the hotel. Breakfast here is hardboiled eggs, yogurt, honey, cheese spread, and rolls. I miss those fig pastries and green falafel from Giza!

After breakfast, our driver was waiting. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? But it’s a great way to go here. If you don’t go with a tour, there are no buses to any of the sites. There are always taxis hanging around, but you’d have to negotiate every single ride, and there would be many rides every day. It’s super convenient for us, and a good deal for the driver, B’lad.

He showed up in a different car today. One back window was missing, and the other didn’t open. We’re hoping his regular car will be fixed before we go on a long road trip.

We’re staying on the west bank, so we decided to see the west bank sites first. We started at Valley of the Kings, called this because the hills and mountains hid the tombs of so many pharaohs. Even early in the day, the parking lot was packed with tour buses and there was a “line” for tickets. And by line I mean a mob. There are no lines here. Just mobs of tourists pushing and jostling. We can’t blame this on Egypt!

First you walk through a gauntlet of stalls, men calling you from all sides. Then you purchase an entry ticket, separate tickets for some famous tombs, then there’s a separate ticket to take a trolley to the beginning of the site. It’s a walkable distance, but it’s uphill, and there’s no shade. It’s not a lot of money, but couldn’t they include it in the admission price?

As we entered, an attendant insisted that we check our camera with them. Allan was having none of it. We know that as soon as we walk in, everyone will be snapping away with their cell phones. Plus outside of the tombs, out in the desert sun, what would be the problem? Allan stuck to his refusal, and eventually the man gave up and left. Go Allan!

Your regular ticket gains you admission to three tombs of your choice. We chose tombs based on Lonely Planet’s descriptions. Each tomb has a passageway that slopes downward, opens into a chamber, then there is another passageway, another chamber, and so on until you reach the tomb itself. The walls of the passageways and chambers are covered in hieroglyphs, many still brightly coloured. In the tomb itself there is often a sarcophagus, also entirely enscribed with glyphs.

Each tomb is distinctly different from the others. Some are less accessible and require more effort and ability to enter. Some are known for the scenes depicted on the walls, or the degree of detail in the engraving, or the beautiful colours.

We saw two tombs together, then I took a breather while Allan challenged himself to see the least accessible tomb. First he climbed up many steps up a steep mountainside, then down, down, down into a tomb that was buried exceptionally deep within the mountain. (Supposedly this pharaoh chose the location to thwart potential grave robbers.) I did one tomb without Allan; it was easy to access, and therefore quite crowded.

At every tomb, a man in a galibiya and kafiyeh punches your ticket, then tries to “help” you. Much of this consists of watching whoever has cameras, reminding them not to shoot, then trying to extract a tip in exchange for photography. The guidebook suggests putting a bunch of one-pound notes in your pocket for tips -- but no one will accept a tip that small. I assume they know that 1 LE is an insignificant amount to us.

Each tomb was unique and amazing. They are almost all covered in intact hieroglyphs -- all walls and the ceiling. The degree of detail in the hieroglyphs is astonishing. Anywhere there is colour adds to your understanding of what these places once looked like, the beliefs of the people who built them, and their incredible skills.

As always, I am in awe of our ancient ancestors. How did they clear the spaces below ground? How did they remove millions of tonnes of stone? I’ve already been wondering about what tools were available for craftspeople to use -- and how did they practice their skills? There must have been master craftspeople, competing to work on a pharoah’s tomb. Now Allan has added another question: how did they see what they were doing? There is now some artificial lighting in the tombs, but 4,000-odd years ago, they would have been very, very dark.

Most of the tour groups rush in and out of the tombs. Maybe to some people (maybe most? I don’t know) it gets dull. What, another tomb? To us it is thrilling. That’s why we chose to come here!

After we saw our allowed number of tombs, we decided not to pay the galibeya gentlemen to see more. We found B’lad and asked him to take us to a place for lunch. On the way, we passed the Temple of Hatshepsut, and B’lad convinced us to see it before lunch. We were hungry, but it's not a large site. sigh

Once again, we walk through a gauntlet of men hawking crappy souvenirs. (I’ve been trying to remember the word my mother would use for the stuff being sold, i.e., the Yiddish word. Just thought of it yesterday: schlock.) The souq is set up so that you have to walk through it to buy your ticket -- a reverse “exit through the gift shop”. Which reminds me, there is no official gift shop anywhere, just these guys.

The Hatshepsut site is a temple, not a tomb, so it is very visible and has a grand entrance. The temple itself is built into a limestone mountain, and above the human-made part, the mountain extends upwards, as if it is part of the temple. This design makes it feel very grand, very impressive. You approach it down an aisle, now just a road, but once lined with sphinxes! A few partial, damaged sphinxes remain.

When you reach the temple, you walk up a huge, wide staircase, then through a narrow passageway, into the inner chamber. Naturally there are hieroglyphs on everything -- walls, ceilings, pillars. The temple is not fully restored. The restoration has been ongoing for decades, probably off and on when funding is available. (All the restorations are done as joint projects with European or North American universities and foundations.)

This site was also very crowded with tour groups. By this time the sun was blazing full strength, and there was no shade to speak of. We both wear long sleeves every day, and Allan wears as baseball cap, but we’re not completely covered up. I re-apply sunscreen several times a day and so far, so good. Back in Giza, when we returned from a sightseeing day with Abdul, loaded down with food to eat on the roof, I forgot to put sunscreen on for 15-20 minutes -- and got a slight sunburn on my face and upper chest. Not painful or lasting, but still, not healthy. (I already have two risk factors for skin cancer.) We are being very good about sunscreen here, and I always wear my thin black sweater on at these sites, or a pashmina if we’re in town.

B’lad was right, this temple took about 30 or 40 minutes, then we found him in the parking lot, and went to the Moon Valley restaurant. We walked upstairs to a roof patio -- every restaurant meal begins with these words. This had a view of the valley, where bright green sugar cane is growing, and the dry desert mountains beyond.

For the typical Egyptian meal, you order only your main course. Everything else comes with it -- salads, dips, vegetables, bread, rice, and sometimes a small dessert. It’s wonderful, as we would never order so many little side dishes, plus you have whatever is fresh and best at that particular restaurant.

I’ve discovered that those puffy breads were just pitas! That’s what Egyptian-style pita looks like straight from the oven.

This meal was tahini, eggplant, and chopped salad (more on this later). I had lamb tangine, like a lamb stew, brought to the table sizzling in a cast iron bowl, with the rice molded on the plate. Allan had kofta. Both were really good.

The rice here is a mix of two kinds -- a really short-grain white rice that almost looks like couscous, and a long-grain brown rice. It must be made with some very rich broth, because it is so flavourful and delicious.

The eggplant slices are small discs, one of the thinner varieties of aubergines. So far each meal in Luxor has included eggplant slices, each has been prepared differently, and each has been delicious. Some were more roasted, some more pan fried, different spices are used -- totally different dishes. These have none of the bitterness that our big eggplants sometimes do.

This meal was 100 LEs each -- the equivalent of $7.00 Canadian. We ordered drinks -- I’m drinking hibiscus now, similar to cranberry juice, but freshly squeezed -- so that is extra, and if you order coffee or tea, that is extra, too, and tip is not included. So this meal came to about $18.00. We don’t necessarily want to eat lunch and dinner at a restaurant every day -- we wouldn’t normally do that -- but it was the easiest thing to do at the time.

After lunch we were going to visit the Tombs of the Nobles. The ticket office for this is not located on the site, it’s in a central ticket office, which is really just a random cabin with a ticket window. Each tomb is a separate ticket at a separate price, although some tickets get you access to three tombs that are near each other. We wanted tickets to many of the tombs. The man selling the tickets said, “You are a teacher, so I give you a student discount. Remember, if anyone asks, you are a teacher.” Instead of giving me 50 LE change, he gave me 120! It was a rare case of reverse haggling. We later realized that most people probably purchase one or two tickets, not a large number as we did.

Tombs of the Nobles is a large, spread-out site. The people buried here were upper class, but not pharaohs, and the tomb decorations include scenes of ordinary life -- very interesting to us. In contrast to the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut temple, this site was empty. No tour groups whatsoever. No souq.

To get to the tombs, you must walk uphill; it’s the beginning of the mountains. It’s not overly hot, but the sun is absolutely blazing, and there is zero shade. I keep thinking, that’s it, I’m done for the day, then Allan says, ‘oh no, come on, I want you to,’ and I go, and it’s amazing. One tomb in particular was stunning -- the pictures on the walls depicted wine-making and the wavy ceiling (like little hills and valleys) was covered in green vines and little dark grapes. The attendant refused our offer of 20 LE for photos, then suddenly he was gone and another man appeared. There’s an obvious pecking order among the attendants, and I think the first guy got pulled for a younger man with higher status. He wanted 50 LEs for photos. I didn’t want to pay it, but in any case we didn’t have a 50 bill, and you can’t ask them to make change!

After a few tombs, I was totally done. I was re-applying sunscreen every 30 minutes or so, but I still felt like my skin might be getting cooked. We were very dusty. And I was tired and I was getting very tired of all the old men at the tombs asking for money. At some point, a guy appeared, an attendant who was much younger than the others, maybe a older teen or early 20s. He had this instant charm that so many Egyptian men seem to have -- somehow immediately making you smile and feel comfortable with them. He was joking around, trying to talk me out of leaving, and into seeing more tombs.

We did two more, and I had to declare myself officially done. While Allan was in one of the tombs, paying for photo privileges, I sat down with the young man, Hamdi. His English was excellent, and he told me he learned it only from tourists and TV, not from school; he also speaks German and Spanish, both learned the same way. I said, “I know you guys think tourists have unlimited money, but we do not.” He said, “We don’t want to keep asking and asking. But it is so hard for us to live.”

So this is what I learned from Hamdi. Tour groups used to visit the Tombs of the Nobles, but now do not. Even in Valley of the Kings, the tour guides instruct their tourists to talk to no one, and buy nothing, unless it is from the group. Then the guide brings them to a certain factory or shop, and tells everyone they should shop there -- the store where the western guide gets a 50% cut. Meanwhile, a bag of sugar costs 20 LEs and bread has tripled in price. The government pays the site attendants a pittance, and they are expected to live on tips -- despite the fact that no tourists visit their site, or that the ones who do visit are instructed to not engage with them.

There were many more tombs to see, and by that time I felt a solidarity with Hamdi, and a responsibility to pay him. Our tickets are only good day-of, but Hamdi promised that if we return tomorrow, we will be able to get in. What’s more, in the morning it will be cooler and I will be less tired. Hamdi said my battery was run down, like a cell phone, and I needed charging overnight.

B’lad brought us back to the hotel and we showered, and collapsed. After a while we went out, down the tiny winding dirt road of our hotel, where little kids were playing in the street. They were all well dressed, wearing shoes, noisy, waving to us, running around, screaming happily. Around the corner, down a street or two, there are several restaurants near the ferry slip, right on the river.

The first one we chose seemed very touristy, so I persuaded Allan not to be shy about leaving, and we picked another. Up a flight of steps to the roof (see?), to a small rooftop patio. We sat side-by-side so we both had a view -- the Nile, the lights of the east bank across the way, some of the ruins right near the water lit up. The owner came over to welcome us, and chat about dinner. He explained how a typical Egyptian meal is served. We ordered drinks and a main dish -- roast chicken for me and a beef dish for Allan (not sure what that was called -- kabob hadad?).

First come the meze -- eggplant slices, baba ganoush, and chopped salad. The salad is diced carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, parsley, and other fresh green herbs, in a very small dice, in some kind of herb vinegar. I really wanted to try some, partly because it smells so good, and partly to not offend our host. But one of the rules of traveling in a country where you cannot drink the water is to only eat fruits or vegetables that are either peeled (like bananas or oranges) or cooked. No raw vegetable that is not peeled. In this salad, we could see carrots and cucumbers were peeled, leaving the tomato as the wild card. I reasoned that I’ve had the Dukoral vaccination, and it’s not as unsafe as actually drinking water... and it was so delicious! Not smart, I know, but even at my age, I sometimes have trouble curbing my risk-taking impulses.

After this course, came three more small plates -- zucchini stewed in tomato sauce, potatoes, and rice. Our main courses came to the table in small cast iron bowls, sizzling. My chicken was roasted with aromatic herbs, and was super tender and juicy. Our host told us that herbs are put under the skin, then the chicken is baked for hours on low heat. Allan’s dish was meltingly tender beef in some kind of stew, great sauce for spooning over the rice.

The owner, Hamad, brought us tiny pieces of semolina cakes, something like a corn bread or polenta cake, just a touch of sweet, and then insisted we have a hot drink -- more hibiscus for me (it’s drunk both hot and cold), and anise tea for Allan.

Chatting with the owner between courses was fun and interesting. He told us he was wearing two long sleeve shirts under his down vest, long underwear and two pairs of socks. It is very cold this winter -- it goes as low as 19. (For my US readers, that is 66F.) In the summer, however, it will go as high as 50-55 (130F). No one leaves the house between 10 am and sunset. We told him about winter in Canada.

He asked us if we would like to have a special dinner there tomorrow night -- roast duck, which he would order and cook for hours before we came. We booked it for 6:00. On our bill, he included 100 LEs as a deposit on the dinner. Without that, the dinner was 75 LEs each -- about $5.00.

Which reminds me, I forgot to tell you something about our hotel. We are staying in a gorgeous Islamic mansion full of flowering plants, wide marble staircases, vaulted ceilings, and attentive staff -- for the equivalent of $17 Canadian per night, including breakfast. If you ever come to Luxor, stay on the west bank!

As we were finishing dinner, Allan said, "Ohmygod, is that the moon?" and the owner came running over to say the same thing. A nearly-full orange moon was rising in the sky like a giant balloon. And with that, we walked back to the hotel

Photos from the Valley of the Kings are here. Photos of the hotel are here.

No comments: