Tuesday, January 29, 2008






Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut


Luxor Take 2
Covering Dec 23-25, 2007
Originally written in Aswan and lost somehow
Rewritten January 28, 2008
Saarbruecken, Germany

Let’s see what I can remember, first about interesting happenings while in Luxor and then a bit about the monuments on the West Bank, which were phenomenal.

Luxor, like most of Egypt, has a fairly strong tradition of aggressive tourist touts. Walking up and down the corniche, you’re constantly approached asking if you want a felucca ride. On the sidewalk anywhere, horse-drawn carriage drivers approach you. Walking through the tourist souk, shop keepers approach you right and left. One afternoon while Maeve was napping and Paul was supervising/napping from the adjoining room, Mike, Carolyn and I went out to look for a small plate for Carolyn to take home as a souvenir and water and other food for the group. We went first to the tourist souk. On the way there, we passed a shop that said “hassle-free zone.” Several shops advertised this, as a way to make tourists more comfortable. On the sidewalk, while walking past this shop, we were approached by a driver. The owner of the shop came out and started yelling at the guy hassling us and throwing rocks at him. We were somewhat taken back by his aggressive method of promoting his hassle-free space.

In the souk, Carolyn saw a shop that had porcelain plates, and eventually bought one. The “owner,” they all say they’re the owner, but often somebody young who speaks decent English is the one helping you, so I don’t think all the 20-year-olds can be the owners, offered Mike some tea (not Carolyn or I) and was very hospitable. Carolyn bargained a bit, but at her first counter offer the owner accepted her price, so we figure she overpaid, about $7-8.00 for a pretty porcelain plate. But she was happy with her purchase. On the way home, we decided to walk back to our hotel a different way, via the train station. On the way back, we found a shop off the tourist track and bought about 9 liters of water very cheap. Probably actually close to the Egyptian price which we were always assured we were paying. Then we had to cross some construction work to get to the road back to our hotel, which we did by walking a plank across a ditch in the dark. Always an adventure.

Our first day on the West Bank was great. It started out with a new guide, who we could understand as he spoke slowly and loudly and talked towards Paul. Much better. He also, however, had some relationships with other vendors around the sites, but he was open about this and let us choose whether or not we were interested, so we didn’t feel pushed. He also gave good info, so we were all much happier and kept him for the rest of the trip. The guide really makes all the difference.

We started the morning by visiting the Colossi of Memnon, which aren’t really Agamemnon, that’s just what the Greeks thought when the first saw them. Rather, they’re what’s left of a mortuary temple for Amenophis III. Apparently the rest of the temple got re-used by later Pharaohs. They were nice and big, and the AM balloons were coming down all around the area so it was a nice brief stop. Then on to the Mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Her temple is set in the side of a hill that arches around it, possible the most dramatic setting I saw in Egypt with a majestic interaction between the natural features of the landscape and a huge human architectural endeavor. Hatshepsut was one of the few female Pharaohs, and had two obelisks at Karnack (one fell over) and had a relatively long reign, most as a regent to Thutmosis III, who after she died did his darndest to erase her memory. We heard several stories about why – one was because she was a woman and women shouldn’t be pharaohs, and the other was that she was his regent for a long time and he wasn’t able to assume the throne until she died, although he was already grown.

We had to park some 300 meters from the temple, and there was a little bus made of multiple little golf-cart like carriages to take tourists from the parking lot to the temple. This wasn’t really necessary for us, but I can imagine that the Egyptians do everything they can to make the visit more bearable in the heat of the summer.

The temple itself was built into the hillside, in a series of receding colonnades. Much of the carving was defaced, but we could see several series of stories, one of the most famous was the Punt Colonnade, which showed the exploits of a expedition Hatshepsut sponsored to Punt (Somalia) with her soldiers bringing back exotic items like myrrh trees (the stump of one that’s 3500 years old remains outside the temple), wild animals etc. There are fish depicted that aren’t the fish in the Nile, so the reliefs are showing the exotic fish of the Red sea. Most of the portraits of Hatshepsut were chiseled out. There were several ramps with steps to walk up to the top terrace, which contained the real temple, which we weren’t allowed to go in. It was a dark hole leading into the hillside. On the way out, we again to the little trolley and then passed by the ubiquitous tourist souk on the way to the bus. Every antiquity has a souk attached to it where you can buy books about the site, post cards, t-shirts, and other tourist junk. You run the gauntlet to get back to your van.

After Hatshepsut, we went to the Valley of the kings. Here there was a new Japanese-funded visitors’ center. The most interesting part of the center was a 3-D fiberglass model of the valley. As you walked over to the model, you could see the valley with all the entrances to the tombs marked. Then from the backside, the model looked like a many-legged spider, as it showed the actual shafts. Very interesting and gave you a feeling for exactly how much digging these guys were doing and why is was near-impossible to hide their tombs. It was a huge industry, and it’s no wonder they all (except Tut) got looted thousands of years ago. The valley is just that – a not so impressive valley in the desert. There’s absolutely no vegetation, just rocky sand, as the valley is well out of the flood plain of the Nile. When I think of a valley, I tend to think of a wooded, alpine valley with water running through it, which would of course have been completely out of place in Egypt.

The valley of the kings is situated in the hills, so that the pharaohs that were buried here were still technically under a pyramid, just a natural one. The hope was that the remote location without a man-made pyramid on top acting as a beacon for grave robbers, that the pharaohs would be able to have a safe journey though the afterlife. When the priests tried to hide the tombs after the Pharaoh was buried, they could just push sand and rocks on top of it, and it would look like the sand had been there forever. The priests clearly tried to protect the pharaohs in the afterlife, near Hatshepsut’s temple they made a secret cache of 40 or more mummies in an attempt to keep them from getting stolen. I need to do some more reading, because the priests were trying so hard to keep the tombs secret, but there were whole villages working on building the tombs, and the tombs almost always got robbed. Also, we saw one tomb, of Ramses III, that had its axis shifted after builders broke through into another tomb, but this didn’t happen often. Even though the tombs were hidden, there was clearly some way of determining where the tombs were so that the next Pharaohs could use a new area, and this must have been in writing as the New Kingdom lasted a long time, and there are over 60 tombs there. I never got clear on exactly how all this worked.

With the entrance to the Valley of the Kings, you get to see 3 tombs. From the visitors’ center, there is again a little trolley that takes you up to the tomb area, where there are several areas with benches and roofs where you can sit and chat. Our guide had picked up some nice photos of the murals in some of the tombs, and walked us through some of the iconography we were likely to see, and then recommended three tombs to us. The guides aren’t allowed in the tombs – tourists with guides take longer and they don’t want that much sweat in the tombs. For each tomb, we had to go down staircases of varying lengths, usually waiting a bit in line. There was a guard at the entrance to the tomb who stamped our tickets, only three stamps allowed. And you couldn’t take photos inside. Once in the tombs, there was usually a wooden floor and the walls were covered in plexiglass so you couldn’t touch. There was plenty of lighting so you didn’t need a flashlight. It was also incredibly warm and stuffy in all the tombs, despite it being December and not too hugely crowded. Summer must be miserable.

We visited the tombs of three Ramessoid kings: Ramses IX, Ramses III, and Ramses I. The entrance to all of the tombs had the same figure over the lintel: the winged sun disk. This figure was also often over the portals. The tombs had somewhat different iconography, and I can’t now remember exactly what was where, but here’s some of what we saw.

Many of the tombs had depictions from some version of the book of the dead, where the deceased wanders through the netherworld and is judged on whether or not the soul should be allowed into heaven. On the way down to the coffin rooms, there were often several side rooms which were used to store goods that would be useful in the afterlife (i.e. things like oil that you couldn’t get from the gods – one goddess was a cow so it wasn’t necessary to take milk with you). Many of these had depictions of offerings as well. Of course, none of the tomb goods were in there – everything was bare except for the decoration. Ramses IX was late in the dynasty, and a lot of his tomb was just painted instead of also carved. His tomb had a depiction of Nhut, the sky goddess. She’s usually dark, and wraps around the whole ceiling. Her arms go down one side, her body along a long side, and her feet along a third. She’s swallowing the stars and giving birth to the day. We ended up seeing her represented several other places, most notably on the roof sanctuaries in Dendara, but this was the first time I tried to make sense of her depiction. Another common theme was different depictions of the sun god – as a scarab beetle in the morning, the sun disk at mid-day, and the waning sun of the afternoon – depicted as a ram-headed god with horns sticking out to the sides. Falcon-headed Horus was also a popular depiction.

What was really amazing was the color. Some of the tombs had parts that were partly destroyed, like the second half of Ramses III’s tomb, which is closed off, but in general, the detail, color, composition, everything was just amazing, given that these tombs were built 1300BC-1100BC (at least the three we saw). And we later saw similar iconography at Dendara and Philae, which were Greco-Roman temples from 1300 years later, that still had a similar pictorial vocabulary. And the new Kingdom was continuing a tradition from the pyramid builders, from 2500 BC. It’s hard to fathom that length of cultural tradition.

We also had a lot of fun figuring out each Pharaoh’s cartouche, a game that continued throughout the trip. Everything they owned, everything they offered to the gods, everything that they hoped would happen to themselves in the afterlife, they clearly labeled with their own names. We saw this again in the Valley of the queens two days later, where we visited the tombs of two princes. Since the boys died young, their tomb art showed their fathers leading them around through the underworld. And these were labeled with their fathers’ cartouches. Also, when every pharaoh added to a temple, they made sure to label their additions with their own cartouches. Actually, Ramses II was famous for erasing other King’s cartouches and replacing them with his own so he’d get the spiritual credit. At Ramses III’s mortuary temple (Medinet Habu) the cartouches were incised very very deeply so they couldn’t be erased. He’d learned something from his daddy.

After the Valley of the Kings, we made our last stop of the day which was at Medinet Habu, the Mortuary Temple of Ramses III. On our way there, our guide offered to take us by an alabaster workshop, where he knew the owner. Mike’s parents were interested, so we went. First they showed us how they worked the natural alabaster, which was neat. Maeve enjoyed watching the guys sitting on the ground and chiseling the rock, and she enjoyed playing with the drills they use to hollow out the inside of the vase. The pieces were lovely, but heavy, and we couldn’t imaging having to tote it around. Carolyn bought a piece as a gift.

Medinet Habu was impressive. Particularly all the carvings. Like the other temples, it was formed by a series of pylons leading into ever higher and darker courts and finally to the covered sanctuary. Although there was no roof left, many of the pylons still had lintels and a fair amount of color remained. Farther into the temple precinct there was just a sea of column bases left.

On our way back to the hotel, which was well after noon, we asked the guide to stop by a kushari joint for us to pick up a quick lunch of the noodles, rice, lentils, spicy red sauce and fried onions we’d come to love. He thought we were a little weird to be asking for this, but found us a place. The first place was closed, and then we walked a bit to another place that was on Television street, near the local shopping area (as opposed to tourist bazaar) that Mike and I had walked around in the day before. Mike and I managed to order 4 servings of kushari, which in Luxor came with the addition of a few chickpeas on top. We got ours in round plastic containers with lids, and got two kinds of sauce in little bags to add on if we wanted. There were school boys getting maybe a fifth of what we got each, mostly rice and noodles and very little sauce, which they got in plastic bags to eat. We took it back to the hotel and ate a quick lunch before getting Maeve down for an afternoon nap.

The evening of Dec 23, we ate dinner at a tourist restaurant on the corniche almost in front of our hotel. The food was fine, but not amazing. We did get to see lots of tourists offloading from boats coming back from the West Bank while eating dinner. Paul ordered a strawberry milkshake and let Maeve try it. That was the end of his milkshake – Maeve was a fan. She ended up drinking quite a bit of strawberry milkshake, which was basically just strawberry milk, no ice cream, for the rest of the trip.

On Dec 24, we went to Dendara, which is a temple for Hathor, the cow-headed nice goddess, that dates from the Greco-Roman period. We picked up in time to hang out with the tourist convoy – all the tourists going to Dendara, and all the tourists leaving Luxor for Hurgada on the Red Sea, travel “together” down the road. This just means they all leave together and then get all spread out over time, as far as I can tell. So a load of busses, vans, and limos (i.e. private cars) all massed around the staging area and left together. At major crossroad, the traffic in the opposite direction was stopped and there were tourist police out with big guns. We went through Qena, a big town, right before we turned off for Dendara, but weren’t allowed to stop. Once we got to the turn off for Dendara (most were going on to Hurgada) we had to wait until all the cars going to Dendara were together and then we took off again.

The ride up to Dendara, which is downriver from Luxor, was interesting – we followed the highway that parallels a big canal off the Nile. We passed lots of villages and agriculture – they have portable pumps that they use for a bit in one location and then can move to another irrigation ditch to pump water into a different part of the field. It’s very intensive agriculture, but that’s necessary given the very small amount of land on either side of the Nile that is available for irrigation. Since the high dam ended the flooding, they can now get in three crops a year. With this comes the usual problems of needing to use fertilizer and the slow salinization of the soil. None of these have been worked out yet, but the Egyptians are not starving, unlike people in some of their neighboring countries. We also saw many partially constructed houses – people were living on the first or on several completed floors, and there were steel beams sticking up covered with concrete and spaces for windows but no roof on the second or third floor. In some cases, these upper floors were also inhabited and covered with thatch. We figured that people built more as they got more money. I enjoyed the stop signs that were in both Arabic and English.

It turns out that about 40 tourist vehicles visited Dendara the day we were there – that was there whole tourist output for the day. We were there maybe 90 minutes, after an over 1 hour drive there each way. We had to head back at the time of the convoy that went into Luxor. A big pain, those convoys. Dendara was much more laid back in terms of its tourist bazaar – it basically didn’t exist, maybe because of the small number of tourists.

The site was beautiful and the temple grounds had a newly refurbished visitors center and gardens. It would have been nice to be able to hang out there for a bit, but we basically barely had time to wander thoroughly through the temple, first with our guide and then a bit on our own. This temple is much newer, built around 100BC. It has the requiset birth house, in which the ruler that’s putting up the money for the temple creates a story saying how they were born to the gods, suckled by goddesses, and therefore have the right to tell all Egypt what to do. This was particularly important for the Greco-Roman rulers, as they were foreigners and had legitimacy problems. But the main site was the temple itself. It was so special because the roof was still intact, and seeing this temple really helped me imagine what the other, often larger and more ornate, temples might have looked like.

The front fa├žade of the temple had six huge columns all with Hathor as the column top. You can tell it’s her because it’s a human female face with little cow ears sticking out from behind the ears. I liked the Hathor columns. The interior of the Hypostyle hall was also filled with Hathor columns. And there was a roof, which was mostly blackened with smoke. We heard a couple different stories for the origin of the smoke. One idea was that early Christians hid out from Roman persecution in the temples and their cook fires blackened the ceilings. Another was that the early Christians hung out in the temples to avoid persecution and wanted to deface the pagan icons. In Dendara, as in other temples, you can often see Christian iconography, including crosses or altars. These are often not at floor level, as the temples got sanded over and the floor level was sometimes meters above where it’s been excavated to. In Dendara, the reliefs at floor level were beautiful for maybe 2 meters, then there was a lot of destruction and chiseling out of the images. Then towards the ceiling again the releifs were intact – the Christians clearly defaced what they could reach at the time.

Nonetheless, there was still a good bit of color, especially the blue stripes on the Hathor column’s crowns. And where they were doing restoration work, the blue of the ceiling was beautiful. The side rooms around the sanctuary were full of carving, showing rulers making offerings to Hathor, Hathor the cow walking around and being bountiful, Hathor’s barque being taken out on the river so she could consort with her godly husband Horus once a year. It was quite dark inside, even though there were ancient skylights that brought light down from the roof. The releifs were lit with electric lights, so it was easy to see the walls, but you got a much better impression of what the temples must have been like in ancient times.

From a side hall, you could go down into one of the many crypts that were used to store offerings. You had to crawl down a ladder and then could walk along a small passageway on either side of the entrance. These too were covered in carvings. On either side of the main sanctuary, there was a well-worn stairway leading up to the roof. The front part of the roof had more ceremonial rooms on it, and there was also a second story on top of those, but tourists weren’t allowed to go up there. The roof was interesting because you could see how they made the skylights – they went from the upstairs rooms all the way through the ceiling so that the inner sanctuaries wouldn’t be completely dark. There was also an Egyptian zodiac on one ceiling – the priest apparently made some pretty accurate start charts. The zodiac in Dendara was a replica – the original was stolen and is now in the Louvre. The Egyptian zodiac is recognizable, with most of symbols being recognizable. In another room was a depiction of Nhut, the sky goddess who devoured the night and gave birth to the day. And all the doors had the familiar winged sun disk on the lentils. There was also a room that depicted the Osiris myth, where he got cut up by his jealous brother Seth, his wife Isis found him and managed to put him together enough to get pregnant while she flew over him as a bird, and then he died and became the god of the afterlife. There were pretty graphic pictures of Osiris masturbating to be able to impregnate Isis. Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, was the husband of Hathor.

The stairs going up and down to the roof were interesting. In one direction they showed the priests bringing offerings up to the goddess, and in the other direction showed them coming back down. The last interesting part of the Dendara temple complex was that Cleopatra was depicted on the back of the temple giving offerings to the gods. You could tell it was a woman, and women were rarely depicted giving offerings, which is what made Nefertari’s temple in Abu Simbel so special.

This evening, we went to find another kushari/fitter joint outside the tourist beaten path. This restaurant, like Gad in Cairo, had the kitchen on the first floor and the second floor was the dining hall. We were the only non-Egyptians there, and ordered falafel for Maeve as well as some fitter for ourselves. The savory fitter came out more like pizzas, but the sweet ones were more like pancakes. Definitely all very yummy. We generally found that the Egyptian food was quite tasty, and the tourist-produced food was fine but not necessarily as yummy as what the Egyptians were eating. We left as soon as possible because Paul and Carolyn were going to the sound and light show at Karnak temple. That turned out to be mostly another tour of Karnack, walking though at night with explanations and then sitting down a little at the end for a light show with more history. They very much enjoyed it, although it wasn’t what they expected and they came back pretty tired.

Our last day in Luxor was Christmas Day, and we’d planned an easy day because we were flying out late to Aswan, always a tricky maneuver with a young child. I’d been checking with reception the whole time we were there, trying to be able to stay in one of our rooms later so Maeve could nap. It was a no-go because Nicolas Sarcosy and retinue was coming in from France and the hotel was completely booked up. Bummer. Anyway, we did the second day of the west bank, which included the Valley of the Queens, valley of the Nobles and the Ramaseum. The Valley of the Queens was much smaller, and we visited one Queen’s and two princes tombs. The colors here were just amazing. For the two princes, the principal themes were their fathers showing them how to make offerings to the gods and otherwise easing their way into the afterlife. The princes were distinguished by their sidelock of youth. The queen was allowed to do this for herself, and her burial chamber had a neat picture of Hathor as a cow.

Next we went to the Valley of the Nobles to see two tombs, Ramose and Userhat. Ramose’s tomb had a huge courtyard that included a change in artistic style, as he was a court official when Akhenaton came to power and moved the capital to Armarna. So in some pictures he is making the usual offerings to different gods, and in others he’s receiving the bounty of the sun-god Aten. His features also change so that in the later pictures he has the more elongated Armarna style. His tomb was unfinished because he also moved to Armarna, so you can see the grid lines traced in red that the artists were using to make the design on the wall for the carvers. Userat’s tomb was smaller, but had two interesting quirks. First, it had been a cell for a monk at some point, and you could see Christian fish and other symbols drawn over the reliefs. Luckily, the monk added his icons but didn’t destroy the art already there. The other was that the tomb has no lighting, rather the guards use mirrors (cardboard coated in tinfoil) to light the interior, which is apparently what the ancient Egyptians did as burning candles or lamps would have damaged the interiors.

Our last stop for the day was the Ramaseum, or mortuary temple of Ramses II. This was mostly ruin. The most impressive part was a huge statue of Ramses that had fallen over and broken into multiple pieces. It’s amazing how they could cut and transport something that big. There were also extensive excavations happening outside the Ramaseum precincts.

After a picnic lunch in the Hotel gardens after being kicked out of our rooms, we went to the pool to hang out and try to get Maeve to sleep. She finally got an hour of so of sleep, not enough to last through a late evening. Mike spent some time trying to locate our mail – we had had a package of mail forwarded to us in Cairo, but it didn’t make it there. Then it was supposed to be sent to Luxor, but it apparently never made it there either. In Aswan, we tried one last time to get it, but ended up having to send it back to the states were it could be sent to us again in Germany. Two day delivery does not work in Egypt. We had Christmas dinner at the same restaurant on the Corniche near our hotel – convenient and decent food. They had Christmas music playing, which Maeve just loved, and after dinner we had a quick Christmas dance. A nice Christmas dinner.

The trip to Aswan wasn’t great, but more about that in the next blog.

No comments: