We leave Aswan aboard a felucca, the Egyptian single-mast sailing boat that once carried goods along the Nile. Nowadays, their precious cargo is tourists. We sail towards Luxor, passing villagers swimming, washing, playing and even riding their donkeys in the water.
The river is not as congested as I expected, just a few feluccas, the odd rowing boat, a couple of cargo boats and some cruise ships are our only companions all day. The wind is against us so we tack our way up river, at one with the world.
As I sit on the deck, feeling the breeze in my hair, the Madness song Night boat to Cairo pops into my head and I started humming along… then I realise the wife is playing it on her phone.
We camp up for the night, sheltered by a large sand dune. We sleep out on the deck and awake to a gorgeous sunrise. A flock of birds, silhouetted against the sky, fly low across the still water.
After a Nubian breakfast of pasta, milk and banana (in the same bowl), which is surprisingly tasty, we continue our journey by road. The ever-smiling Ahmed is once more our chaperone for the visit to the Temple of Kom Ombo.
A rarity in Egypt, Kom Ombo is actually two temples in one; the right side dedicated to the crocodile-headed god Sobek, the left to Horus – each with their own entrance. The split is thought to be due to a dispute between the different factions that worshiped each god.
The temple is also the location of a ‘bath’, or pit, where Cleopatra is alleged to have bathed in asses’ milk. The tale of Antony and Cleopatra was not all it was cracked up to be, according to Ahmed. It should be considered a “disaster story, not a love story”, he says, noting their reign ended in defeat in battle.
The drive through the town of Kom Ombo throws up juxtapositions of old and new.
As we weave through traffic, I try to get my head around the need to overtake on a speed bump. We go past donkeys pulling carts laden with grasses, huge trailers filled with sugarcane hauled by tractors, packed minibus taxis, tuk-tuks, trikes and rows of men sitting in dark secluded buildings smoking shisha or on doorsteps chatting.
“There are two roads in Egypt,” Ahmed tells us. “The Agricultural, which follows the Nile, and the Desert [which follows the sand].” The dust and sand covering the Agricultural road that is taking us to Luxor belies this fact.
Next stop, the Temple of Edfu – the largest and best preserved in Egypt, says Ahmed – the entrance is a hubbub of noise and people, hawkers selling their wares to horse-and-carriage after horse-and carriage of tourists fresh off a cruise boat.
The mud-brick walls the Romans built to protect the temple remain, mainly still in tact. The story of the killing of evil and how it was achieved is beautifully depicted on the walls.
From pillar to post
In Luxor, we summon Mr Zeko, a taxi driver I met the previous day, and head for the Karnak Temple. Mr Zeko turns out to be his brother Adnam – a lovely, laid-back fellow and a very sedate driver by Egyptian standards. He stops to buy us water and we chat easily – he is fast becoming my favourite Egyptian.
Karnak is a vast temple, with excavations still going on. The Avenue of Sphinxes that once stretched to the Luxor Temple on the other side of town is slowly being revealed. The two short lines of sphinxes that have so far been uncovered provide an intimidating entrance.
Some impressive architecture unfolds in front of us, in particular the 134-column Hypostyle Hall. We wander through this maze of pillars, marveling at the architecture. An old man leads us through a roped area to see a statue of Hatshepsut and a large wall carving – all for some baksheesh, obviously. He escorts us back, ready to pounce on his next customer. I’m sure the rope is his idea.
As dusk approaches we head back into town. We spend an interesting half-hour in the Mummification Museum, a great little place that houses the mummified remains of a government minister, a crocodile, a cat and a baboon among a few other things. There’s also the bloodcurdling tools used to scrape brains out of a body before it is mummified.
Just up the road is the Luxor Temple, one of only two temples in Egypt that you can visit after sunset. We venture in, awaiting the darkness, as the spotlights warm up.
The illuminated temple provides a welcome new take on templing. Plus it’s a good degree cooler.
The other end of the Avenue of Sphinxes stretches out for a hundred yards or so.
An obelisk guards the entrance, which opens up into a court of columns. Wandering around the floodlit remains is a rare treat – adding a kind of magic, even a touch of the Harry Potter’s and Hogwarts. The baksheesh men are hard at work, and I’m invited to touch a cross on the wall for luck. He then crosses me three times and spins me around, before entreating me to bow with my hands together three times. I’m not sure what the effect is supposed to have in me, but it all adds to the experience.
At sunrise, on the following day, our guide Mohamed escorts us to the riverbank, where we hop onto a motorboat across to the west bank and on to the Valley of the Kings.
Mohamed gives us the lowdown on why the tombs were built here. After thieves had plundered the Pyramids – these huge structures screaming: ‘I’m full of gold, please rob me. Here, over here. See the big point?’ – the pharaohs looked for a more clandestine place to hide their belongings in preparation for the afterlife, he says.
We are then free to wander into three of the 65 tombs in the Valley. Any more than three requires extra cash, while Tut commands a separate fee all on his own.
“Dad, there’s Tutankhamun on the ticket,” says my son, reminding us why we are really here. In fact, Tut’s image appears on every ticket for every temple we’ve been in – much to the boy’s delight.
Cut into the mountains, the tombs are a warren of passageways, which the pharaoh’s hoped would cause prospective thieves to get lost underground forever. Once the mummified pharaoh was entombed the entrances were sealed and covered over.
But it is only King Tut’s, so far – it is thought many more tombs lie undiscovered – that has been found undisturbed with all its possessions still in situ.
We start in the tomb of Ramses IV – “the best and most impressive”, says Mohamed. And he’s not wrong.
As we head down the long slope toward the antechamber and the sarcophagus, the carvings on the walls and ceilings are fantastically preserved.
With colours as if they have been freshly painted, the images depict the journey to the afterlife. Snakes that face in the same direction as the pharaoh act as his protector, any shown looking at him are in attack mode. There’s a triple-headed serpent, boats for the journey over the Nile into the afterlife, attendants placing consoling hands upon the king to let him know everything will be OK and not to be frightened of what lies ahead. There’s a justice scene, with a croc-shaped animal ready to rip out a person’s heart if they are deemed not to have led a worthy life. Anyone drawn upside down without a head means they will not make it to the Promised Land.
Down in the depths, there are small rooms off the main gangway where treasure would have been stored.
As we exit, we spot Coptic crosses painted between the legs of figures on the walls – a form of Christian graffiti – that were added by Christians in the early ADs.
Next up, we pay a visit to Ramses IX, where paintings in striking blues, reds, golds and greens adorn the ceilings and walls. We walk along a long sloping corridor, eyes flicking everywhere trying to take everything in at once.
The tomb of Merneptah is reached by climbing some steep stone steps up to the entrance before experiencing a rapid descent of around 80m into the depths below – like the first Ancient Egyptian roller-coaster.
This is the burial site of the sons of Ramses II. A stone coffin rests in the mid-level chamber. Apparently, the entrance and initial corridor had to be re-dug because the sarcophagus was too big to fit in.
Further down, in the large burial chamber is a huge alter-like sarcophagus with a smaller one to the left adorned with a sculpture of the prone pharaoh.
Although he has clearly enjoyed much of what Egypt has to offer, as far as the boy is concerned it has all been a preamble to the main event – seeing Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Tut’s tomb is tiny in comparison to the preceding three. Could this be because his short life – he died aged just 19 – meant there was not enough time to build one the size his status now seems to deserve?
Even so, some 3000 objects were packed into this tiny mausoleum. Who knows how many artefacts were hoarded in its larger neighbours.
Small and hot, we descend down to a small antechamber in which now rests, under glass, the mummified remains of Tut himself (allegedly). To the right is the burial chamber, a sculpture of the young king, complete with his trademark gold and blue death mask lies within the sarcophagus.
The bright yellowy-orange walls include a floor-to-ceiling depiction of the consoling hands image, while the adjacent surface features 12 baboons.
My son is in his element, immersed in the Valley of the Kings and the story of Tutankhamun.
We drive around the imposing mountains and walk up to the Temple of Hatshepsut or “Hot Chicken Soup”, as Mohamed refers to her.
He tells us a convoluted story of how she became a king when this was not allowed, which involved three of the Mosis’s and some brotherly and sisterly love.
The temple, uniquely, is made on three levels. But not as uniquely as once thought. An exact copy, or rather the original design, was discovered buried next door.
Partly chiselled out of the rock, the temple cuts an imposing figure looming out of the mountainside. Up in the rocks we can see excavations continuing, hordes of workers just dots on the landscape.
On the way out of the Valley, we stop to look at the remains of two huge statues – about 18m high and faceless – all that is left of the Temple of Amenhotep III. Across the road is a shack, its homemade sign declaring it to be a supermarket. Next door is a huge sign for a WC, with the toilet on full view below. Real life continues alongside the mysteries of the past.
Much to the boy’s chagrin, there are plenty of other things to see, but he is ready to go home now. He has seen Tut’s tomb. Mission accomplished.
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