August 04, 2006

A JOURNEY TO EGYPT: Part Five - Luxor, Temples & Tombs

After a two hour journey from Edfu, my felucca crewmates and I arrived in Luxor. Luxor is a city that fulfills all expectations of the traveller in Egypt, with its narrow maze of streets, dusty roads, hassling touts and coach drivers, sheesha cafes and temples. It has the ambience of a place that truly knows history.

Luxor, or Thebes as it was originally called, was established during the period known as the New Kingdom, when the Egyptians regained control of their lands from foreign rulers, such as the Nubians in the south and the Hyksos in the north. The new Theban pharaohs reunited and expanded their nation outwards in a display of confidence that is entirely highlighted by the grandness and scale of the temples, tombs and statues they commissioned.

After settling into the Nubian Oasis hotel, I decided that it was time for a sloppy, greasy, foul hamburger as a reward for eating falafel, pita bread and soup for three days. I knew exactly where to find such a fast food restaurant: Find the nearest ancient site and one is bound to be in front. At the Pyramids of Giza, a KFC sits conspicuously in front of the main entrance. At the Luxor Temple, it's McDonalds. Yes, the pharaohs would no doubt be proud, just as the Chinese emperors would be, knowing that a Starbucks was now present within the sacrosanct walls of the Forbidden City!

Having gorged myself with a filthy cheeseburger, fries and a large Coke, I visited Luxor Temple. Apart from some parts of the temple remaining intact, most of it is in a noble state of ruin. As I approached the pylon (gateway), I was greeted by two gigantic statues of Ramses II, standing guard against his enemies, the Nubians and Hyksos people, but failing miserably to bring to a standstill the endless stream of camera-clicking tourists.

The temple is dominated by the presence of Ramses II, but it was not a project originated by him. In fact, the temple was commissioned by Hatshepsut and then later expanded by Amunhotep III, as a temple dedicated to the god Amun-Ra.

Visiting the site at twilight is the best time to try and capture some of the magic that was once present within its walls. Dark shadows slowly crawl and creep around the many columns, like wraiths invoked from an ancient slumber. As the light slowly glides away, the imagination grasps for remnants of those long forgotten rituals.

The next day, I decided to walk three kilometres to Karnak - the Temple of Amun. The idea of a gentle stroll along the Nile seemed irresistible, but I soon discovered that the heat was to make this more than challenging. On that particular day, temperatures soared to 46 degrees Celsius. In all my travels, I have never experienced such an intense burning heat. The air seems to scold your oesophagus as you intake it. Constant ingestion of liquids is absolutely vital. I was very surprised at how little I needed to use the toilet, after drinking bottles and bottles of water.

Finally, after a very uncomfortable stroll I reached Karnak - a place that I had wanted to see for most of my life. Immediately it was apparent that the scale of this temple dwarfed that in Luxor. In fact, Karnak covers a staggering area of 1.5 km.

A colonnade of sphinxes accompanied me as I approached the main entrance. Once again, two large statues of Ramses II stood proud. As I looked through the massive gateway and through the hallway beyond, I could see a delightful composition of columns and obelisks awaiting me. As I stepped past the threshold of the main pylon, I found myself within a room whose scale cannot be conveyed in words. Before me, 134 papyrus-shaped pillars reached high above, with symmetry so gracious and exquisite that only someone who has been there can truly understand. I wandered throughout this divine maze of stone in astonishment.

Occasionally, I was amazed to see engraved images on the walls still retaining their vibrant paintwork. Blues, reds, yellows and greens were applied with symbolic precision, so that the gods and their magical tools were imbued with elaborate significance for the worshippers.

I found myself desperately chasing shadowy spaces to avoid the scorching sun above. I took refuge in a chamber called the Sacred Barque Sanctuary, which was originally built by Tuthmosis III, and then later rebuilt in granite by Alexander the Great. For a long few minutes, I chatted with a family from Cyprus, who were also trying to avoid the heat.

Karnak was as impressive as I had hoped, and it made me crave more for a way to travel back in time and see it at its height.

In the evening, I met up with some of my felucca crewmates for a last beer and goodbye. They were an entertaining bunch and a pleasure to share time with. I wish them all the best with their continuing travels.

The next day, I awoke early for a visit to the legendary Valley of the Kings. When approaching the sun-bleached barren landscape, it is hard to imagine why anyone would wish to be buried there. There are several theories; one being that the sun sets on the valley, behind the pyramid-shaped mountain of Al-Qurn.

So far, a total of 62 tombs have been excavated in the valley. Only a small number of tombs are open to the public, due to preservation efforts, safety and further excavation.

Recently, the American archaeologist, Dr Kent Weeks, discovered what is believed to be the tomb of Ramses II’s many sons. His find is being lauded as the most important since Tutankhamun. The excavation is expected to take at least 10 years of continual work to complete, because much of the vast tomb has collapsed.

The first tomb I entered was built for Ramses I, who was the father of Seti I and grandfather to Ramses II. It was a modest tomb, with obligatory scenes of gods on the walls.

Rather interestingly, a mummy now housed in the Luxor Museum is believed to be the remains of Ramses I. The reason for the uncertainty is due to the strange circumstances surrounding it. The mummy had some how managed to find its way into a display of oddities in Niagara, Canada, in the 19th Century. When a visiting Egyptologist recognised the royal posture of the mummy, interest grew and the Michael Carlos Museum in Atlanta bought the mummy for $2 million in 1999.

After much testing, results could not verify whether the mummy was royalty, but many Egyptologists are convinced that it is Ramses I, due to the remarkable facial similarities he shares with Seti I and Ramses II. The mummy was returned to Egypt as a good will gesture, and he now resides in the excellent Luxor Museum.

The second tomb I visited was that of Tuthmosis III. The visitor is required to climb a steep staircase to reach the entrance, as the tomb was strategically placed to foil tomb raiders. Unfortunately, like most of the tombs in the valley, the tomb builders underestimated the robbers.

When you enter the tomb you descend down a long corridor. At the end, you come into a room inscribed with hundreds of images of gods and demigods and supported by two large pillars. The main tomb room beyond is uniquely shaped in an oval shape, to represent a cartouche. Again, images of gods and demigods are painted throughout.

The last tomb I visited was that of Ramses III. This is one of the largest tomb complexes in the valley, with several small antechambers decorated with heavenly scenes. The ceiling is majestically painted blue with hundreds of stars.

As the heat of the valley increased, I headed down to the Temple of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut was the daughter of Tuthmosis I. She married her half-brother, Tuthmosis II and was the mother of Tuthmosis III. When Tuthmosis II died, she took over power of the nation, because her son was too young to rule. She continued in the role for 20 years, promoting trade with neighbouring nations. It was a particularly peaceful time during the New Kingdom period.

The Temple of Hatshepsut is one of the greatest achievements of the ancient Egyptians. With graceful aesthetics it contrasts radically with the chaotic violence of the dramatic cliffs that surround it. The temple has a large central walkway that leads up to three terraces. Within the temple are sub temples devoted to the goddess Hathor and the god Anubus.

After a brief visit to the Valley Of The Queens, where I visited two modest tombs, I returned to my hotel in need of refreshment and air conditioning, as well as making preparations for the 18 hour bus journey to Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula.

Part Six Coming Soon!

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