Luxor on Father's Day: Tombs and Temples

Trip Start May 05, 2011
Trip End Aug 29, 2011

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M/S Nile Dolphin

Flag of Egypt  , Nile River Valley,
Saturday, June 18, 2011

 We spend the early hours of Father’s Day gliding along the Nile River on the M/S Nile Dolphin, mooring in Luxor before we wake.  Today will be full of tours, tombs and temples.  We have breakfast in the dining room without our usual companions, Mark and Janice.  They have chosen an optional hot air balloon ride with a 4:00am wake up call.  Tempting, but nearly impossible for us with the children.  After breakfast, our guide Ahmed greets us and says “West bank in the morning; East bank in the afternoon.” 
We’re on the road at 8:00am to see the Valley of the Kings before it’s too hot to breathe.  Driving along in the Memphis Tours van with Ahmed and our driver, Arafat, we see the streets of Luxor.  After a short trip we pull into a parking lot next to two large statues (the Colossi of Memnon), and all of a sudden, Mark and Janice are getting in the van!  They’re breathless from the balloon ride and really enjoyed themselves, despite the early departure.  Now we drive into the desert.

The Valley of the Kings site was chosen by Amenhotep I around 1550 BC partly because of its remote, isolated location at the base of a pyramid-shaped mountain.  He knew that the pharaohs’ tombs inside the pyramids near Giza were vulnerable to robbers and foreign invaders.  Further, Amenhotep was in Thebes (now Luxor) and the sun (a/k/a the sun god Amun-Ra) seemed to set into the desert at this exact spot.  Lastly, the point of mummification and an elaborate burial was to ensure the dead pharaoh’s safe passage up a path along the pyramid to join Amun-Ra in the afterlife.  This site would be easier to guard and seemed to lead right up to the sky.
We arrive in the visitor center to find a 3-D model of the site showing where the tombs are and how deep into the ground each one goes.  Sixty three tombs were built here in this white-sand desert valley from 1550 to 1069 BC.  Nine tombs are currently open but we have time for only five.  And no photos allowed.  The pictures included here were downloaded from the internet.


 In a shady spot, we listen to Ahmed narrate the tombs we’ll see today.  Many of the tombs follow a similar building plan beginning with a long passage descending down into the ground broken into three successive sections protected by sealed doors.  Some tombs have an additional deep shaft which leads nowhere but possibly prevented flood waters from seeping into the inner chambers.  Beyond is the burial room where the royal mummy rested inside a series of coffins, all of which nested one into another.  The coffins were placed inside a stone sarcophagus.  Additional small storage rooms past the burial chamber held treasure, statues, food and the canopic shrine where the king’s extracted internal organs lay in alabaster jars.

The big draw is Tutankhamen, the boy king who died at the age of 18.  His father, Akhenaten broke from the religious tradition of multiple gods and goddesses, distilling everything down to one sun god, Atun.  This radical idea jeopardized many high priests’ positions and proved very unpopular.  The priests even tried to bribe Akhenaten’s wife, Nefertiti, but to no avail.  Perhaps Akhenaten and Nefertiti were assassinated because they disappeared, and Tutankhamen became king at about age eight.  Due to health problems, Tut ruled only eleven years.  Tomb builders, therefore, had to complete the royal grave in much less time than usual.

Tut’s tomb was found mostly intact in 1922 by American archeologist Howard Carter, who searched the area for this tomb for over six years.  Current theories suggest that robbers did vandalize the tomb in ancient times and local authorities resealed it in haste to prevent further losses.  These theories explain why some of the tomb’s rooms, full of original items, were found in disarray.   Eventually the tomb was lost beneath the material excavated from the tomb of Ramses V & VI.

Carter’s greatest discovery was the king’s mummy.  The burial chamber of the tomb held a large stone sarcophagus.  Inside he found four nested, gilded, wooden shrines, one smaller than the next.  When he opened the smallest shrine, he found three coffins, one nesting inside the next.  The smallest one was solid gold and held the mummified body with the now-famous golden funerary mask. 

As we head down into Tut’s tomb, we see his mummy on display in a temperature-controlled case.  One of the coffins is also on display.  The tomb itself is small and unimpressive when compared to the others here in Valley of the Kings.  All of the treasures found have been moved to the Egyptian Museum.

The tomb for Ramses V & VI, next door to Tut, have colorful walls covered in hieroglyphics.  The ceiling of this burial chamber features double images of the goddess of the sky, Nut, stretched across the length of the room as she frames the Book of the Day and the Book of the Night.  She swallows the sun each evening and gives birth to it again each day.  A large stone sarcophagus, broken into two, sits in a disheveled state below the mural. Both pharaohs shared this tomb because their collective rein lasted only 11 years.  Their mummies were later moved to the tomb of Amenhotep II and now reside in the Egyptian Museum.

Inside the tomb of Ramses IX, we see hieroglyphics showing how, step-by-step, the pharaoh would join the sun god Amun-Ra in the afterlife, according to the Book of the Dead.  This tomb is well preserved, full of color and jam packed with rows of hieroglyphics.

As we view the remaining tombs, we see the same basic floor plan as the others.  Yet each tomb is distinctly different, just as each king is different.  Merenptah, the 13th son of Ramses II (Ramses ruled so long that he outlived his first 12 sons), built the second-largest tomb in the valley, including a passage to a false burial chamber.  Although most of the hieroglyphics are badly faded, a large scene portraying the pharaoh with the god Amun-Ra is positioned prominently in the first corridor.

The tomb of Ramses III is one of the longest tombs.  The walls are full of scenes of Ramses III making offerings to the gods, the Litany of Ra and the Book of Gates.  This king wanted to show his influence outside of Egypt so secular scenes chronicle his receipt of gifts from afar, such as beautiful pottery from the Aegean.

After touring the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and then some serious shopping at an alabaster market, we continue on to the site called Deir El-Bahri, which includes the funerary monument/tomb of King Montuhotep, a funerary monument to Queen Hatshepsut (one of the few women who ruled as a pharaoh) and a small temple to King Tuthmosis III.  The monument to Montuhotep is quite destroyed.  Yet, 500 years after Montuhotep, Hatshepsut used a similar series of terraces, colonnades and ramps to embed her building into the cliffside.

Temple of MontuhotepMemorial Temple of Queen Hatshepsut

Her story is interesting as she didn’t come to power by birth but took hold of the reins herself.  When her brother/husband, King Tuthmosis II died, Hatshepsut knew that she could not rule Egypt as a queen.  The next heir would be her nephew, Tuthmosis III but he was too young to rule.  Hatshepsut made sure he was sent to a far away land for his education.  She transformed her image into that of a pharaoh (dressing as a man, false beard and all) and created a story that she was the daughter of the sun god, Amun-Ra, giving her a legitimate right to rule as pharaoh.  She told this story in hieroglyphics on the walls of the monument.  

After almost a decade away, Tuthmosis III returned to claim the throne.  Soon after that Hatshepsut disappeared and Tuthmosis III went to great lengths to destroy all records of his aunt.  Still, her funerary monument is a grand, sprawling structure which makes a dramatic impact because of its seemingly simplistic design.  We walk around in the blazing hot sun trying to find shade so as to admire the gigantic statues of Osiris attached to the columns at the entrance.  Next we explore a small temple to Hathour, the cow goddess of mothers.

Statue RowHatshepsut HeadSanctuary Entrance
Hathour TempleHorusHathourKey of Life
At last we take refuge in the tour van which delivers us briefly to the Colossi of Memnon statues.  These faceless giants, each carved from a single stone, measure 18 meters high.  They are Amenhotep III, greeting visitors at the entrance of his former memorial temple, thought to be the largest built in Egypt.  The temple was built of mud brick on the flood plain of the Nile.  Time and the elements wore the walls down and succeeding pharaohs took the stones and statues from this temple to use in their own.  The Greeks subsequently named the statues after the African king, Memnon, killed by Achilles during the Trojan War.   Now only these statues remain.  We take a group photo in between other tour groups and merchants stalking the area.

Back to the M/S Nile Dolphin just in time for lunch.  The staff members have been kidding around with Kai and Kate since we boarded the ship.  Sometimes employees will simply touch Kai’s head and smile at him as he passes them in the hallways.  The head waiter sees that Kai is playing with a few coins.  He taps Kai on the shoulder and quickly sneaks the coins away while Kai isn’t looking.  Kai turns around to find his coins are gone and bursts into tears (could be that he’s just tired).  The waiter feels terrible, tries to comfort Kai, and then produces a toy camel from the gift shop (despite our protests).  Kai brightens up immediately.  We decide to name the camel Casanova, after our camel ride at the pyramids.  Further complicating matters is the fact that Kate already had her eye on these camels.  Fortunately she has been saving coins and has earned enough to buy her own stuffed camel before we depart Luxor.

The kids are worried that they have no gifts for Kurt on Father’s Day so we arrange a relaxing massage for him in the ship’s spa after lunch.  While Kurt is at the spa, the kids and I play bingo in the game room.  We also begin a game of Cluedo (same as Clue) but don’t have time to finish.

After 3:00pm, we head out to the massive, 4,000-year-old Temple of Karnak complex, dedicated to the sun god, Amun-Ra.  Initial building is believed to have begun under Ramses II.  We walk through a long avenue of ram-headed sphinxes, representing the sun god, as we approach the front entrance.  The left and right pylons symbolize the left bank and the right bank of the Nile and the doorway represents the river running through them.  The axis of this series of temples looks down a tremendously long hypostyle hallway inside with over 100 high columns.

Entering KarnakKarnak PylonsSphinx and Columns
Just inside the entrance, we see a very large mud brick ramp up against one of the pylon walls.  This sheds light into how ancient Egyptians made the wall so tall:  They would push the bricks up this ramp to secure the next layer.  To our right are more ram-headed sphinxes with large columns behind them.  The sheer size of the walls and columns here is unbelievable.  [some columns have a picture of a lotus flower at the top, representing Upper Egypt, and some show the papyrus plant, representing Lower Egypt.  Other columns are made to look like bunches of papyrus flower stems bound together, which I really like.

Colonnade  Great Hypostyle Hall
The power that this temple enjoyed is also impressive.  Once it was complete, many of the pharaohs, like Ramses II and III, Hatshepsut, and Amenhotep II added some grand-scale room, obelisk or other feature to it to make it their own.  Even when the Libyans and Nubians ruled Egypt, they made additions to this temple and worshipped Amun.

A little further along, Ahmed shows us a black mark on some of the blocks.  This line shows how high the flood waters of the Nile reached during the rainy season.  Two obelisks still stand in this middle section and a third one, from Hatshepsut’s rule, has fallen down.  The obelisk served as a marker so locals can identify where the temple is.  Also, its extensive inscriptions gave the current ruler a way to advertise his/her deeds for the commoners to see.

Fallen Obelisk
As we reach the middle of the complex, we see a large granite scarab on a pillar.  Ahmed explains that we can make a wish here and walk around the scarab a certain number of times to make it come true.  If we wish for another baby, for example, we would walk around the scarab clockwise five times.  Clearly, we do not need another baby.  So we make a wish and follow each other around the scarab clockwise three times, as Ahmed prescribes.  Mark and Janice, our travel companions, look on as we circle the scarab.  Perhaps they make a wish for the crazy Studt family to go somewhere else so they can have a bit of quiet time.

A very large lake is next to the scarab statue.  This lake was only for the priests in their daily purification rites and other water ceremonies.  We had heard that if you touch the water, you will have good luck.  Kai goes down the steps and puts a finger in the water.  Just then a security guard shouts at us to get off the steps.  Being spotted is not so lucky.

Departing Karnak, we drive a mere 3 kilometers to Luxor Temple, and we see a path of excavation that the Egyptian government has recently begun.  This path is an ancient processional avenue and leads from the Temple of Karnak directly to Luxor Temple.  Homes and buildings along this path have been cleared away and a highway of sphinxes has been uncovered.

It’s late afternoon as we enter Luxor Temple and we are grateful for a bit of breeze and the setting sun.  The temple looks beautiful in this light.  We study the entrance which has two colossi of Ramses II and one obelisk on the left.  A missing twin obelisk now resides in Paris at the Place de la Concorde, which we have seen earlier in our trip.  The remaining obelisk was also being sent to France in the early 1900s, but the clock tower which the Egyptians received in exchange for the first obelisk did not work.  This obelisk was recalled and reinstalled at Luxor, now with a bit of a left-leaning list.

Just inside the entrance, the mosque of Abu al-Haggag sits atop the left wall, its doors and windows are way out of reach high above us (its main entrance is now off to the side of Luxor Temple).  When the mosque was built, desert covered most of the Luxor Temple and this entrance was at ground level.

Built during the time of Amenhotep III, this giant temple’s axis runs parallel to the Nile River.  The site was already a shrine for Amun-Ra and his wife Mut, but Amenhotep III expanded the temple to include a grand hypostyle hall and more columns (resembling bundles of papyrus flowers) than any other temple we’ve seen.  Tutankhamon finished this hall, decorating the inner walls with reliefs of the festival and feast of Opet.  A statue of Tut and his bride sit at the end of this hall.

Colonnade at NightGreat Court of Ramses IIRamses II
Toward the back of the temple, we see the sanctuary.  Also we see evidence of other religious groups like Coptic Christians using this part of the temple (after ancient times) for their center of worship.  Many of the hieroglyphics are vandalized as well.  The Romans added walls and their own hieroglyphics to the temple.  But you can tell the difference between the older Egyptian art in the form of a bas-relief (images are raised, backgrounds are carved down for almost a 3-D effect) and the newer Roman art where the scenes are recessed into the rock.

Leaning ObeliskSphinx Highway at Night
We depart Luxor Temple in the dark and soon are back on board our ship, enjoying Father’s Day dinner.  Mark teaches Kai a disappearing coin trick using two Egyptian pounds.  Kai works at it a bit until the waitstaff serves birthday cake.  Once we’ve all had our sweet fix, we rush back to our room to see what towel creature awaits us.  As we open the door, we see a monkey hanging, by his arms, from the ceiling.

Since this is our last night on board the ship, we decide to join Mark and Janice in the lounge for a drink.  We’ve become quite attached to our new friends.  Ahmed comes in to say good night as we will all part ways tomorrow.  The kids have a second wind thanks to the cake after dinner, so they are delighted when we all agree to play Cluedo.  We’re in the thick of trying to figure out who “did it,” when Kurt takes a formal guess. 

But Kate has given him bad information and he’s got the right person with the right weapon but the wrong room.  The game's tiny score cards aren't much help (for me, at least).  Even though Kai hasn’t used the score card, he takes a guess and he wins!  We are stunned.  He says he copied Kurt’s guess and simply chose a different room on the fly.  What amazing good luck he has - perhaps touching the sacred lake water at Karnak Temple really did help him....

Tomorrow we have to say good bye to Mark and Janice as we journey to the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh for some serious relaxing.
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