A Journey Through Time
Our Tour Egypt Visit to Egypt, Part IV
by Jimmy Dunn
Were it not for it's substantial ancient Egyptian monuments, Luxor (ancient Thebes) would probably be little more than a small agricultural community, no different than many others along the Nile Valley. That is not the case. Indeed, Luxor contains some of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt, and therefore it is swollen both with tourists and those people, in one form or another, working in the tourism industry. Hence, most visitors to Luxor love the the ancient sites, but are not particularly fond of the tourist experience in Luxor.
In some respects, Luxor is not unlike an old gold rush town, where Egyptians come to pan for gold. Some of them have made fortunes here, but the stream is crowded with prospectors, many of whom are not all together familiar with how to pan the gold. In the end, many tourists are chased from the streets by overbearing merchants, and taxi and Hantoor (carriage) drivers.
Nevertheless, one must make a visit to Luxor when in Egypt, as our small group did, and for most, it's monuments will be a highlight of their tour. We started off the afternoon of our fifth day in Egypt in a small bus from current home base aboard the Movenpick operated Radamis I while it was parked in Esna. The trip in was nice, taking only about forty-five minutes. That day we were scheduled to tour both the Karnak and Luxor Temple complexes, with the first stop being Karnak. To me, if one had only time to visit three monuments in Egypt, those would be the Great Pyramids of Giza, Karnak, and one of the better tombs on the West Bank at Luxor because of their colorful decorations. I personally believe that Karnak is more intriguing and interesting than the Great Pyramids. After all, this great complex was built, not over a lifetime, but over a millennium, mostly during Egypt's New Kingdom empire period, though there are structures and decorations that date from the Middle Kingdom and into the Greek Period. One cannot help but be impressed by this forest of stone and in particular the Great Hypostyle Hall with its towering columns. Here, in this largest religious complex ever constructed, the ancient Egyptians speak to us, telling of their most glorious period, of great battles and heroic deeds, of the gods they worshipped and how they worshipped them. Our tour of the facility took only about an hour and a half, which was enough for most of this lay group, but one more intrigued with the ancient Egyptians could certainly spend days here, and more. By the time we left Karnak, it was growing dark.
Afterwards, we moved on to Luxor Temple in the city proper, just around the corner from the Old Winter Palace. Temples such as Luxor and Karnak take on a different feeling and flavor at night, perhaps a little more mysterious, somehow more ancient and in tune with their distant past. Luxor Temple was beautiful, and beautifully lit, but for most of our aging party, the day's walk had been a long one and too soon for at least myself, we returned to the bus for our brief ride back to the Radamis I. I had intended on doing more documentary photography at Luxor Temple, but that was not to be on this trip.
Back on the Radamis I, it was costume night, an evening event not uncommon on many Nile Cruise boats. For this party, everyone dresses up in Egyptian costumes, usually Gallabeyas, which are simple gowns most of the time elaborately decorated. Though these costumes are found throughout Egypt, many of the passengers had purchased theirs at the ship store, which provided them at very reasonable prices. However, while most of the ship participated, danced and frolicked in the main bar, most of my tired crew sat it out in the foyer to the bar, having a somewhat quieter time and enjoying a few drinks, satisfied to watch the evening's entertainment from a short distance away. That night we would all pay up any extra charges we had on our rooms and pack up, getting ready for our transfer to the Movenpick Hotel in Luxor at Crocodile Island the next day. Tips were also collected for the boat crew, as all of the meals and most of the services had been inclusive. That next morning, Misr Travel provided our bus right on schedule, and we retraced our route from the previous day back to Luxor, heading for the West Bank this time for a morning tour prior to checking into the hotel. Along the way, Soha, our guide, provided us with an overview of the West Bank, and gave us a choice of the tombs that we could visit. Our tour included the possibility of visiting three, I believe, though most of the group thought two would be plenty.
On the West Bank, we took in all the normal sites one must, such as the Colossus of Memnon, which is unavoidable on the road up to the Valley of the Kings. We stopped there, but mostly viewed the other monuments, such as the Ramesseum, which was closed anyway, from the bus. After arriving at the Valley of the Kings, Soha accompanied us into the Valley but these days guides are not allowed in the tombs with their groups, probably so that the vast number of tourists will not linger too long. Humidity caused by human breath is a major culprit in tomb preservation.
We chose to visit the tombs of Ramesses III and Ramesses I. In order to visit these two tombs, located only a few yards from each other, one must walk up a slight grade to the trams and then take a short ride before ascending another short distance to the tombs. This time of year, I had expected prior to the tour that the crowds would be fairly light, but we had already seen considerable crowds at other monuments, and the Valley of the Kings was no different. In fact, we bypassed the closest tomb, that of Ramesses I, to give the line a chance to thin out.
I remember my first visit to the Valley of the Kings some years ago during May. Having gone down into a few caves during my life, I expected the temperature to be considerably cooler than on the surface. Of course, that was not the case. During the summer months, the tombs can be sweltering. But even in the middle of the winter, on a warm December day, they are still quite warm. After visiting the first tomb, most of our group actually elected to sit out the second in the shade of a nearby rest area, while others of us braved another descent into the lives of the Pharaohs. This was the group's first encounter with vivid colors from more than three millennium past, and while they were properly impressed and awed by these displays, no one wished to visit a third tomb, winding their way through the narrow corridors lined with tourists. We soon departed the Valley of the Kings. I should note at this point that many of our members had caught a bad cold, probably on the airline coming over, and so there was a good reason many were taking it easy. In fact, we also elected not to make the climb up to visit Hatshepsut's temple, elected rather to view it and have Soha deliver an orientation as we viewed it from our bus. I had no objections to this, having visited the temple on numerous occasions in the past, and on this occasion, the newly renovated sections of the temple were closed anyway.
However, since we were running ahead of schedule, I also asked to visit the cemetery of Deir el-Medina, so that they could see a sample of non-royal pyramids, which posed no problem to our Misr Travel staff. In fact, most of our group was impressed enough to wander about in the area on the West Bank for a brief period.
We then moved on to the Movenpick Hotel on Crocodile Island, where the check in was once again assisted by the local manager of Misr Travel. I have always liked this hotel, even though I normally prefer my accommodations to be within walking distance from local shops. However, everything is within a short taxi ride in Luxor, and I don't care to shop about here much anyway because of the aggressive merchants and other distractions along the street. Again, we will do a complete update of this hotel's review, as we have reviewed it once before. However, since then it has been nicely remodeled. Much of the group spent the afternoon resting up due to their colds, while others made a trip into Luxor to have tea at the Old Winter Palace. That is usually a nice, relaxing break that most people enjoy, and I have on several occasions visited the Winter Palace, but not this time. This time, I wandered about the Movenpick, saying hello to my old friend Sobek (the crocodile) in the "petting zoo". Unfortunately, one of our members, Johnny, the brother of Rhonda Oates, had to return home early so he and Soha, who we would no longer need as a guide until we returned to Cairo, flew north that evening.
The rest of us all mostly spent a relaxing evening, enjoying the warm pool with a knowing smile, not envying our friends back home weathering the frigid December temperatures of northern Texas. Also, the next morning would be an early one, leading to one of the highlights of mine and several other's visit to Egypt.
That next morning began at about four a.m., I believe, as we met the people from Flats in Luxor at the Movenpick dock for a brisk morning boat ride over to the West Bank. Our small group included Rhonda and Billy Oates, Billy's brother James and his wife Kathy, as well as myself. Flats in Luxor had arranged the balloon ride, and along with everyone else, it was my first ride on one. Initially I had decided to photograph everyone else from the ground. However, we had arranged for five people, but one of them could not make the early hour, so I went up in his place.
We had early on planned to take one of the balloon rides, but sometime prior to the tour, the Egyptian government had halted all flights. Though no tourist had ever been hurt while doing the balloon ride, they had safety issues that needed to be worked out. Then, only a few days before leaving, the problems were worked out. As a result, we were given a comprehensive safety orientation prior to take off. Admittedly, I was a bit nervous about going up in a balloon, not to mention my concern for how cold it might be. As it turns out, none of this was a problem.
We arrived in time to watch the balloon being filled with hot air, and soon we boarded the craft with about twenty or so other people. The metal basket was divided, I believe, into six compartments, with rope handles all around for support during landing. As the sun rose in the East, so too did our balloon from the West Bank. These crafts take off in the early hours to avoid the winds that become more common as the day wears on. We were not alone. Several balloons were up before ours, and I think at one point there were as many as four balloons drifting over the mortuary temples, tombs and villages of the West Bank.
Our balloon, along with the others that brisk December day, ascended and descended almost to the ground a number of times during the hour and a half ride, providing spectacular views of the West Bank, Luxor and the Temples on the East Bank, the Nile and the mountains that were sacred to the ancient Egyptians. Really, the view was spectacular, as we reached a maximum height of some 4,000 feet. The cold was never much of a problem because the heat from the flame used to control the balloon's elevation kept us warm. At one point I thought we were going to land, but it was after almost touching the ground that we made our highest ascent. Finally however, we made our way down. It seemed we would land in an open field of sugar cane as we brushed the top of the plants, but just then a turn row appeared along with our chase grew. As we prepared ourselves for a bumpy landing, none took place. Prior to touching down, a number of men from the ground crew grabbed hold of the basket and we settled to the ground with no more impact than a feather.
However, the show was not completely over at this point. The crew and tourists all gathered round for a victory dance and we were then given T-shirts and a certificate, nice little treats to show the folks back home. Most of the rest of the day was spent around the hotel, though some members of the tour did do a little shopping in Luxor, That evening we were to board our flight for Sharm el-Sheikh and a completely different dimension of Egypt. However, I will save that next adventure for now. We would leave Luxor with some memories that would surely last us a lifetime.
Last Updated: May 18th, 2011