Monday, August 2, 2010

Excursion to Egypt - Luxor & the Valley of the Kings

This is the third installment in my series about our trip this spring to Egypt. The first two are HERE and HERE. And, as a reminder, you can see more pictures from our trip on my Flickr Photostream by clicking HERE.

Following four days of cruising on the Nile, our ship transformed into a stationary hotel tied up to the riverbank for the next two nights as we docked at Luxor to see the sights in this important area of Egypt.

Carriage Ride Offers Perspective
Our first adventure here was a horse carriage ride around old Luxor at dusk. Each couple in our group boarded their own vessel and the set of them formed a line of clippidy-cloppidy vehicles snaking through a variety of scenery including the cramped and vibrant quarters of a market, empty side streets, tranquil residential areas, hussely-bussily broad avenues, shopping areas, etc. With a now tolerable early evening breeze blowing, the ride offered a pleasant way to see parts of Luxor we would never otherwise get to.

Arriving back at the ship after dark for a late dinner, I also found it interesting that many of our older tour companions did not enjoy the trundle through Luxor. Most said they disliked seeing the poverty or the dirtiness. "I know it exists, but I don't need to see it," was a comment I heard more than once. I chose to maintain a polite demeanor and simply nod at such escapism as I had to be around these people for a couple of days still.

However, in my mind I could not disagree more with what I was hearing. Sure, nobody "likes" poverty or unsanitary conditions, but they exist...and in fact, most people in the world live right there down in that stuff. It's more "real" than suburban American life, and my opinion is that it is precisely valuable to see what that's like so you can have a better informed, more well rounded perspective back home when you're trying understand any number of things - immigration, world events, politics, or even just why those new neighbors might look or act different than you.

Anyway, I'm not one to wallow in "how good we have it" comparisons or take - as described in a Sex Pistols song says - "a cheap holiday in other people's misery," but I do want to get a perspective on the world beyond big hotels, fancy restaurants and impressive monuments.

Lots of Hot Air
And speaking of different perspectives, how about what you can see at 1,000 feet above the ground?

Neither Diane nor I had ever been up in a hot air balloon, and honestly it hadn't occurred to us that this would be an option on our trip to Egypt. But, just before our evening carriage ride around Luxor, our guide mentioned that this would be something we could do the next morning if we wanted. Pondering the variables as we rode the Luxor streets that evening - How much would it cost? How safe is a hot air balloon in Egypt? And, perhaps most early would we have to get up? - we went back and forth on whether or not to do it. Eventually, we decided that it was a minimal risk and it would be a shame if we regretted not seeing the sites from the air when we had the chance. So, we made the arrangements and hit the sack.

Rising early and disembarking our ship as the sun began to peek over the horizon, Egypt was hotting up already. The skies were clear and you could tell we were in for a great view of whatever we floated over.

A short bus ride later, we boarded a covered river longboat that would transport us across the Nile and over the the western bank where our balloon awaited. As we chugged along, we were offered instant coffee that we both refused because, well, you never know if that water really has been boiled. No need for contracting a rotten gut on the cheap like that. We also began to see balloons go up into the air and that made us anticipate our own flight even more.

Leaving the boat, we rode again in a bus for a short while, eventually arriving at a flat tilled field where a number of balloons were in different stages of inflation or take off.

After a while, our blue balloon inflated enough for us to board the basket. Roughly a rectangle in shape, it held about 12 people, plus the pilot in the middle. As the pilot fired up the balloon further to lift us off the ground, we felt the very hot blasts come down on our heads. Sure, the fire was nowhere near us, but the down draft was so hot that we cringed down to the floor of the basket to get away. We had not anticipated this and the only relief were hats and cringing down. Eventually we took off and all was good again.

Rising slowly, the magnificence of where we were revealed itself. As we climbed, the massive Temple of Hatshepsut came into view. This huge complex was built by one of the only female Pharaohs - Hatshepsut and is the most striking above ground structure in the area.

Nearby and around there were other ancient temples built near the river by the Pharaohs and their queens as their public statement from the afterlife - even while their bodies were secretly buried over the ridge in the Valley of the Kings.

As we rose further to an ultimate height of 1,000 feet above ground, we took into view the Nile, Luxor town, the Temple of Luxor, the ridge line of the Valley of the Kings and vistas beyond. Quiet and still, the flight proved to be calming and, obviously, impressive. Lots of "oooos" and "ahhhs."

The breeze this day dictated that our flight floated straight up, then drifted east back toward the Nile. All good except that if you're the balloon company you want to land your craft on the west side of the river, and if you're a passenger...well, you don't want to have a swim along with your flight. Our captain managed to entertain us with a little guessing game called, "will he land us before the river." Turns out, he did. We came down nicely in a dirt field about 100 yards from the Nile. After disembarking our balloon basket and a quick scamper through a banana tree which Diane was convinced there were snakes, but of which we saw none...we were back in the truck and off to meet up with our group once again.

Valley of the Kings
Later that day, we visited The Valley of the Kings. Nestled in the hills just beside the Nile River, this is a place where more than 30 of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs had their graves secretly built and guarded. With their public temples visible to all down by the river, these graves were created to ensure the kings had an uninterrupted journey to the next world after they died. Hence, the tombs were carved by hand out of the rock deep into the mountainsides to hide their presence and demure grave robbers and looters.

Each tomb is different - some are big, some small, some long, some not, some deep, others shallow, some with many rooms and levels, some with just one, some with columns, others not., etc. However, most have common attributes. Those include an entryway into a hall that descends into the earth. The walls and ceilings are covered in colorful hieroglyphs depicting the king's history, fidelity to the gods, accomplishments and more. Most of these hallways are long and have smaller side rooms or coves. Eventually you reach a large room that houses the sarcophagus where the Pharaoh was buried. Virtually all the mummys of the Pharoes have been exhumed and quite of few of them now reside in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo where you can see them up close and personal. Oh, and another common attribute? It's dang hot down in those tombs!

Seriously though, it was quite a sensation to walk the corridors of these ancient underground structures and see the graphics on the wall...painted and carved so long ago. One could just imagine how difficult it was to dig these out of the living rock, decorate them, perform all burial ceremonies in them, seal them up and guard them.

Finally, another interesting thing that I learned on this trip was that all of the tombs - save one - had been entered, robbed and in some cases defaced many times over the millennium. Virtually all items of value and consequence had long been removed. Ironically, the mummies themselves were not among those items prized by ancient thieves, but certainly the jewels, gold and other valuable pieces were. Now, the one tomb not robbed or even opened until the 1920s was that of good old King Tut.

Yes, his relatively small tomb went undiscovered and untouched for thousands of years, only to be found by accident by a British archaeologist as he was excavating a nearby tomb entrance. Because Tutankhamen's tomb remained intact all along, all of the fascinating items from it provide an invaluable insight into not only this king's life and death, but also how many of the other tombs must have been decorated and arranged. All of the items from King Tut's tomb are now on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and a traveling exhibit is hitting the U.S. soon I hear.

Shopping - the Art of Alabaster Negotiation
Departing the Valley of the Kings and back near the Nile, our group stopped at a shop where we disgorged from the bus and perused the wares available at a shop specializing in alabaster stone. Now, to be sure, our guide was getting a kickback for taking us here. So, we were under no illusions that this shop was not a random choice for our stop. But, we also knew that alabaster is one thing this area is known for in terms of art and souvenirs. Therefore, regardless of why we were at this shop, the question in our minds was, "is this stuff any good or not?" After looking, handling and asking questions about the merchandise we figured this was as good a place as any to buy some things.

As with every shopping experience in Egypt - and indeed many places around the world - buying is a negotiation. It basically should go like this: upon entry, the shop owner treats you like a king...his best friend...and shows you loads of things based on what you say you want. Price is not discussed at this point, just what you're looking for and what you like. Assurances are given that price will not be a problem. Sit back, relax, have some tea or a cold drink that the shop owner will lavish on you. In your mind, you start determining what it is exactly what you want and how much you are willing to pay for it - never mind what price tags you see. Eventually, you tell the shop owner which one or collection of items you want. At this point, you either ask the vendor how much this will cost or you offer your price. But in any case, the price you throw out there at this stage should be lower than what you've calculated in your mind you will pay for the item because you'll need the room to come up to that ideal price as you negotiate. My advice is not to offer a super low price just to get a bargain, but rather, shoot for a price you think is fair to both you and the vendor. Also key to know is that once you say a price, you cannot then go lower still. So, chose well and let the fun begin.

In any case, once you say your initial offer the vendor will invariably react as if you've just stolen food off his table and you are starving his children. Never mind this. This is a ruse to guilt you into paying a high price. Keep in mind, this does NOT make the shop owner or seller a bad person. This is simply how it is done. Remember, he will not sell you something if he isn't going to make a profit. At this point, the negotiation is in full swing and you and the vendor go back and forth on price...him coming down from the asking price and you coming up from your offer until a happy medium is reached. In many cases, that's it. You agree, pay and everyone is friends again.

Frequently, however, this dance will come to an impasse where either you or the vendor will not budge. And this is where your secret weapon can be used: you MUST be willing to walk away and not buy...or at least appear to be. The more real your resolve to walk away the more power over the situation you have. If you find yourself in this situation, the way to handle it is to politely say thank you and sorry, but you cannot afford the price and then start leaving the shop. You may even need to actually leave the shop. I estimate that in about 80% of the time the vendor will come after you and his reservations about meeting your price will start to crumble. Sure, he'll throw out a token reduction off his last offer at first to lure you back, but just stick to your guns and your leaving and the numbers will come down quickly. In a few instances, the vendor will indeed let you leave without pursuing. In that instance, don't feel bad because you can take comfort in the fact that you did not pay a price you were uncomfortable with or get suckered.

All of this happened on our alabaster shopping trip and after some drama we walked away with some very nice items that now look beautiful in our house.

Temples-O-Plenty Redux
As a center of great importance in the ancient Egyptian world, the Luxor area has many large and important temples to see, thus ushering in the second "Temple binge" of our trip. Here are the highlights:

Temple of Hatshepsut
A massive complex built by one of the only female Pharaohs, Hatshepsut. In addition to it's notoriety as an antiquity, this is also the place where back in 1997 terrorist attacked and killed western tourists. Below left is a picture I took as we walked up to this temple in the late morning heat.

Karnak Temple
This is the largest ancient temple from the days of the Pharaohs. It's a massive complex with walls, sanctuaries, columns, obelisks, lakes, avenues and more. We toured it under the late afternoon hot, hot sun. Many of you may recognize some parts of this temple as they were featured in movies such as The Spy Who Loved Me and Death on the Nile.

To me the most interesting aspects of this place beyond its sheer size were the rows of sphinxes and the colossal columns. Here are a few pictures I took around the temple...

Temple of Luxor
After a busy and long day of hot air ballooning, shopping and tomb and temple sightseeing, we ended with a sunset visit to the Temple of Luxor on the banks of the Nile.

The format of this building is very similar to the other temples - large and small - that we had seen on the trip so far, but it seemed to me there were more fully formed and impressive statues here. Also, the setting sun provided some great lighting to see this structure. And therein lay the interest to us here. Here are a few pictures to show you what I mean...

Returning to our ship after dark, and looking forward to departing for another part of Egypt the next morning, we dined that evening one last time with our tour mates with the pleasure of knowing we had seen the impressive best of this area.

NOTE: All pictures except those of the Valley of the Kings (postcard scans) that are featured in this article were taken by me, Marc Osborn. Those pictures are copy written in my name and are not authorized for any use by anyone without written permission directly from me. 

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