Upper Egypt - the tours, the touts, the temples

Trip Start Jan 26, 2007
Trip End Feb 06, 2008

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Ragaa treated me very well and set up all the big pieces for my trip to Upper Egypt - things like accommodation and train tickets. It was a far cry from my previous travel experiences and was a welcome break. I appreciated it immensely.

Upper Egypt, of course, is in the south. The Nile flows north. Hence, Upper. This is the land of ancient and spectacular Nubian and Egyptian temples, the Valley of the Kings, all sorts of fabled tombs and secret caves that keep treasure hunters and archaeologists drooling to this very day.

My first stop was in Luxor. After setting up in the hotel, I walked to the Karnak Temple. I had no idea what I was in for. The temple complex at Karnak is immense in a number of dimensions.

Acreage wise, it is immense. Football fields worth of rubble, not yet reconstructed, spread out all around the actual 'temple' part that tourists get to see. There is just a lot of ruin here, only about 10% of which is anything that people see.

As for sheer size of the columns, walls, and obelisks, the Karnak temples surpass any ruin I had ever previously experienced. If you've read the previous post, it goes without saying that I won't compare them in size with the pyramids. And there even was a bit of that, "how big is this, really?" feeling at Karnak, especially in the hypostyle hall of massive 60ft tall columns.

The ruins at Karnak make the Roman forum look like a Kiddie Playground. In terms of completeness and number, anyway. The Forum is still pretty impressive.

But there's another dimension to this complex that is a bit more unsettling. This is the fact that a lot of it is reconstructed, pieced back together, expertly glued with cement. Huge chunks of column are original, and then a huge chunk is filler, and then another huge chunk is original again. The outer facades of the columns and temples are original wall carving, or maybe they're expertly re-casted to look like original wall carving.

There's something missing. Some part of the soul of a thing is lost. Ruins are so fascinating precisely because we (or maybe just I) realize that the ambition of the concept, even the accomplished grandeur, isn't enough to protect these stones from the steady pull of gravity, from thousands of years of soft wind-blown sandblasting, from whatever future elements or humans that wreck things. Even if you get to see, in clearer detail, in more authentic completeness, how huge and amazing things once were, it doesn't feel as amazing as what you might have imagined had you just seen the collapsed forms.

So that theme kind of ran throughout my trip in Upper Egypt. I didn't know what to think when I saw huge columns that were reconstructed. I might have liked seeing them more if they were broken on the ground.

After many hours wandering at the Karnak complex, I walked back to the hotel and took a midday nap. It gets very hot in Luxor. Many people take breaks in the middle of the day.

Luxor town itself is gross. It is a shell of a town, subsistent almost entirely on tourism. It reminded me of Arusha, only it was much more beautiful than Arusha. Across the Nile, looking west, you can see the mountain in which the
valleys of Kings and Queens rest, and other temples, as well. From my
hotel room balcony I could see the Temple of Hatshepsut.

But it was worse than Arusha tourist-wise, as this is the land of massive packaged tours - Nile River Cruise boats stacked 5-deep on the shores, AC buses zooming around at all hours of the day, and hordes of improperly dressed European and American tourists. Fanny-packed, sunburned, bathing-suit-wearing, open-mouth-breathing tourists. I got to be one once I got to Aswan.

More highlights from Luxor. Saw some of the museums there. In the town proper, right on the banks of the Nile, is the Luxor Temple. Much smaller than Karnak but also impressive, and also somewhat reconstructed, so a mixed bag there. A McDonald's across the road. They sold suitcases and towels. A Japanese tourist came in and bought 6 towels. He tipped the manager and the employee, too. They loved him there. Everyone can make friends in the service business - just drop wads of cash.

The West Bank takes a solid half-day. The sights here are many. A number of temples, small and big, the Colossi of Memnon, two big sitting statues away from anything else, the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, and Hatshepsut's Temple.

A man on the ferry across the river "befriended" me. He happened to be a taxi driver cum guide for the West Bank sights. He wanted to charge me around $45 US to drive me short distances. Gas in Egypt is dirt-cheap, and guide books say this taxi shouldn't cost more than around $10. I also didn't bring very much money, other than exactly what I needed for a cab and for the entry fees. So, I ended up paying around $18, and the guy's "brother" drove me around.

Went to the Valley of the Queens, a hot dusty little crevice in the side of the mountain. Tombs dug downwards into the cliff faces. Very well preserved and painted tomb walls. The carved hieroglyphics and pictures on the walls used to all be elaborately, colorfully painted, but it's a treat to see it actually preserved, since most places lost their top layers long ago.

After this, went to the Valley of the Kings. Tons of huge tombs, many previously robbed, some for unknown pharaohs. Dug deep into the rugged, dusty limestone. Big tunnels, some of them even labyrinthine, but mostly just deep, straight tunnels. You only get to see three, and I didn't know this until after seeing one pretty boring one. At each tomb there is a guard/ticket-puncher, who also tries his best to sidle up to you and give you enough information so that you are guilted into baksheeshing him for the effort. You have to either take this barely intelligible information smiling and give some baksheesh, or you have to continually turn your back and walk away until he realizes you probably won't pay him anything.

My favorite tomb was Tuthmosis III, the great warrior and conqueror. His tomb was nestled into the cliff, up about 20 meters and in a little crevice. There was a huge pit built in to thwart would-be grave robbers, and a two-levelled tomb inside. The hieroglyphics were not carved, but were written on the stone in what looked like Sharpie. This is either because the tomb was never finished, and these markings were the preparations of the carvers (really cool), or because all the carvings were cut up and taken to a museum for preservation, with sharpie-pen interpretations left for tourists (less cool).

By far my favorite part of the day, however, was the Temple of Hatshepsut. Beyond being a striking temple at the base of a daunting cliff, this is also the place where something like 48 tourists were slaughtered by Jihadists in 1997. Apparently this event didn't help their cause, and in fact very recently one of the fathers of the Jihadist violent movements, an Egyptian, recently took part in a survey of his own group's philosophies and decided that they were against Islam. Since the people who turn to violence in the name of Islam are extremely devout persons themselves, this is a huge deal. They won't be deterred by American bombing, but if one of the fathers of the movement decides that he's been wrong all along to target innocent civilians of non-Islamic western countries, it might make sister groups like Al-Qaeda think twice.

Anyway, Hatshepsut's temple is gorgeous. It actually looks modern in its architecture. It is obviously man made but geometrically striking and integrates exceptionally well with its environment. It's that feeling of an organic structure, growing out of the cliff behind it in stark lines. It was my favorite temple in all of Upper Egypt.

I went next to Aswan, further south up the Nile. It is extremely hot down there. The Nile is also quite beautiful - it bifurcates, splits further into a capillary-bed of deep blue water oozing around desert and rocky islands. The desert itself comes very near to the shores of the Nile, it being so hot down here.

In Aswan itself, there aren't as many ruins to see. But, 3 hours south is the famed Abu Simbel temple, which you have probably seen in pictures. It used to be on the banks of the Nile, four huge sitting statues facing the rising sun and warning off any intruders from the south. Ramses II built it and many other insanely large things in Upper and Lower Egypt.

You have to get up at 4am to drive in a huge tourist convoy to the temple. It's all controlled by the government. When I thought "convoy," I thought, maybe 10 big AC buses and a few minibuses besides. Nope. About 25 huge buses and another 30-40 minibuses all driving in a massive convoy. So when you arrive, you are one of a swarm of tourists descending on the temple.

You might have caught that I said "used to be on the banks of the Nile" above. Well, due to the creation of the Aswan High Dam in 1960, Lake Nasser was formed. The lake stretches 500km south, into Ethiopia. It also meant that the Nile Valley flooded for that length. Many riverside temples were flooded. Many important ones were just moved.

Abu Simbel is a huge and famous temple, and it is entirely artificial now. Well, the stones and things are all authentic, but it was cut up and moved by UNESCO to avoid being flooded and lost to the lake. It now sits, quite convincingly, in a cement shell covered by a pile of limestone rocks. It even has the orientation to the sun, so that on important days (maybe the equinox?) the sun's rays enter the temple at the right angle and so on.

Kind of empty, though, to look upon this structure that has been so convincingly reconstructed to seem permanent, and to realize that it used to be about half a kilometer away, under the river. It's just not as great. It feels like Disneyland. Especially with the fannypacks and the videocameras and the people leaning on statues and rubbing their fingers on the walls and generally being goobers.

After Abu Simbel, we drove 2.5 hours north again, back to Aswan. Saw some more beautiful temples, the temple of Isis and temples of Philae, which used to be an island in the middle of the Nile. The island was actually flooded by the new dam, and only after that did they realize that maybe they should move it. So an entire island's worth of ruins were moved to another island, and that island was reshaped to most accurately imitate what it had all previously looked like. A beautiful romantic temple. Still felt a little weird.

Aswan has a great Nubian museum, where the fragile things are kept at the right humidity behind sheets of glass. I learned a bunch about Nubia and big Egyptian and historical events from the Nubian perspective.

That's all for Upper Egypt. I went back to Cairo afterwards, then immediately to Alexandria.
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