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A Great Simbel of Egypt

Visiting the Temples of Abu Simbel and Philae

sunny 90 °F

Unlike the smooth, relaxing week so far, today would be more chaotic. We got an early wake-up call at 4AM to make our 7AM flight to Aswan and then on to see the grand Temple of Abu Simbel built in the 13th century B.C. At the airport, the ticket counter lady tried to make us pay extra for heavy luggage. They even weighed our carry-on luggage too, something we've never seen in any other airport. Then our flight from Cairo was delayed an hour because of baggage problems. Perhaps somebody's luggage was too heavy. I was getting antsy that this delay would eat into the time we would have at Abu Simbel. Fortunately, EgyptAir Airlines has a policy where the return flights from Abu Simbel would automatically be delayed an equal amount of time too. A third problem arose when our tour company representative told us that our bags would be sent all the way to Abu Simbel instead of our final destination of Aswan. We would have to store them while we visited the temple and recheck them on the way back to Aswan. Seems like a huge hassle, but he was concerned that the airline would lose our bags. However, when we arrived in Abu Simbel, we were told just the opposite--our luggage would be waiting for us when we arrived in Aswan. Instead of being able to sort it out at the airport, we were rushed onto a tour bus to drive to the temple. Luckily my fear of lost luggage was all for naught as our suitcases arrived fine once we made it to Aswan. But until I saw them rolling off the conveyor belt, I was wondering how long I could last in the same pair of underwear.

From the Abu Simbel airport, we were ushered from one person to another as multiple tour groups were being juggled by just a few people simultaneously. Our guide piggybacked us onto a bus with a large tour group, and he went separately in another car. Once we arrived at the temple, it took us a couple of minutes to find him. He told us that because our flight was delayed, there were two loads of passengers arriving at the same time. If he did the traditional method of giving us an overview of Abu Simbel first and then letting us see the place, it would probably be too crowded. He told us to go in first and then come find him afterwards for the lecture. Fortunately for us, we had already read much about the place prior to our trip. Otherwise, we probably would have missed out on some of the nuances of this temple. We suspect that the guide was trying to juggle two tour groups simultaneously which would not have happened if our flight was on time.

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We were able to get all of our photos in before the other tourists arrived.

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Ten minutes later and the place started to fill up quickly.

Many of the carvings inside show Ramses II's propaganda on the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 B.C. Five years into his rule, the pharaoh launched an offensive campaign against the upstart Hittite Empire. The target was the city of Kadesh in modern-day Syria. According to analysis of the battle from military historians, both sides made huge tactical errors. Ramses II failed to scout ahead of his army, instead believing lies from Hittite spies that the enemy was far away. The Egyptian forces were then ambushed and all but routed by enemy chariots. Thinking they had won, the Hittites start looting the battlefield instead of finishing off the Egyptians with their infantry. According to the murals, Ramses II alone rallied his troops and repulsed the Hittite attack. Despite Ramses' propaganda at Abu Simbel of a great victory, the encounter likely ended in a draw. The Battle of Kadesh is important because it ultimately led to the first peace treaty in the history of mankind. A copy in cuneiform can be seen in Turkey and one in hieroglyphs is carved into a wall in Karnak Temple.

Besides the military depictions, there is a room in the back which houses the statues of Amun, Re, the deified Ramses II, and Ptah. Twice a year, the sun illuminates three of those statues. Only Ptah remains in the shadows since he is the god of the Underworld. Outside the main temple is a smaller one dedicated to the goddess Hathor and to Nefertari, Ramses II's favorite wife.

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For the first time in Ancient Egyptian art, the statue of a queen is the same size as that of the pharaoh.

Our guide then explained to us that Abu Simbel was built for religious, economic, and strategic purposes. The four gargantuan statues of him that guard the entrance are an homage to him as a living god. A temple of this magnitude would have been threatening to the priesthood, so building it hundreds of miles away from the religious capital of Luxor would have been prudent. The grandeur of Abu Simbel would have given the pharaoh an enormous image boost. This prestige would have helped maintain control of the economically important gold mines in the region. Similarly, Abu Simbel was a significant strategically because of its location near Nubia. Depictions of Ramses II's great military "victory" was a warning against potential aggression from their southern neighbors.

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I only come up to the pharaoh's knees.

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Murals depicting bound prisoners adorn the entrance to Abu Simbel. Surely, this was a warning to the Nubians.

Leaving the temple was a hassle too because we had to find the right bus, make sure our carry-on luggage was still there, and track down our guide again to tip him. Abu Simbel is an awesome sight, but the confusing and frustrating process of flying down from Cairo detracted from our experience.

When we arrived in Aswan, we met our new guide Mahmoud who would be traveling with us during our Nile cruise. We drove from the airport past the High Dam built in 1952 to control the annual flooding. In the process, Lake Nasser, one of the largest lakes in the world was formed. Several villages and ancient temples now reside beneath the lake. We drove over the old dam built out of concrete by the British in 1902. Parked beside the dam was an older main battle tank (I think it was a T-60). Mahmoud remarked that it had only been there since the revolution, but joked that it was so old it probably doesn't even work anymore.

Our first stop was the Aswan granite quarry which still contains the unfinished obelisk. Every Egyptian obelisk around the world came from this quarry. The stones for Menkaure's pyramid in Giza were also produced here. These huge objects were transported throughout Egypt on barges which sailed down the Nile.

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The unfinished obelisk would have been the largest one ever (weighing over 1000 tons), but construction ceased when a large crack formed.

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Workers never got around to freeing up the bottom of the obelisk.

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Diorite stones were used to hammer out the obelisks from one solid piece of granite--no small feat.

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Graffiti left behind by some ancient Egyptian workers

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Aswan is hotter than Cairo. Unlike us, the dogs were smart enough to take it easy in the midday sun.

Our final visit of the day was to the Island of "Philae". The main temple there is dedicated to Isis and was built over several hundred years, mainly during the Greco-Roman period. The island now sits between the two Aswan dams. During ancient times, it flooded during the inundation periods, but it became fully submerged when the High Dam was built. After a decade underwater, walls were placed around the temple to keep the water out temporarily. Then the temple was cut into about 4000 pieces and moved to the adjacent Agilkia Island at a higher and drier elevation.

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The Temple of Philae can be accessed by motorboat.

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Egypt could do with less violent revolutionaries than Che Guevera.

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The Temple of Philae was the last bastion of Ancient Egyptian religion, finally being officially closed in 550 A.D.

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Some of the older pre-Ptolemaic structures haven't survived as well as the Temple of Isis.

Coptic Christians hijacked the temple during the Roman occupation of Egypt. They defaced several images of the pharaohs and the Egyptian gods. They even attempted to convert pictures of Isis into that of the Virgin Mary. Luckily, some of the houses built there blocked the temple walls and and actually protected some of the carvings.

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The human images were defaced on one side of the temple...

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...while the figures were well preserved on the other half.

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Napoleon Bonaparte's 1799 expedition literally left their mark on Egypt. They were fond of giving a temple's distance and direction to Paris.

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Images of Hathor, the cow-earred goddess and sister of Isis, also adorn many of the columns in the temple.

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Coptic crosses were carved into many of the pillars.

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A Christian altar was built inside the temple.

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Over the last 2000 years, farmers used the walls of the temple to sharpen their blades.

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The Kiosk of Trajan is the other distinctive silhouette on Agilkia Island.

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Few realize that baseball was actually invented by the ancient Egyptians. The designated hitter, however, is purely an American concoction.

We boarded our boat that evening for our three night Nile River cruise. Dinner was served on the ship. Thankfully, the hard-working staff took care of everything, letting us get back to the nice relaxing vacation that we were getting accustomed to.

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(Left) Smoked Norwegian salmon salad. (Middle) Oganic mixed salad. (Right) Green and red pepper cream soup.

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(Left) Pan fried hammour (fish). (Middle) Chicken Nubian style. (Right) Brandy snap and ice cream trio.

Posted by evilnoah 18:28 Archived in Egypt Tagged egypt nile simbel aswan abu Comments (0)

Seth On the Nile

Visiting the Temples of Kom Ombo and Edfu

sunny 90 °F

Since the 19th century, the fashionable way to see Egypt has been on a Nile River cruise. In the past, ships could make the journey all the way from Cairo to Abu Simbel. Since the 1990's, the starting point was changed to Luxor. We had wanted to book the Sun Boat IV, one of the top river cruise boats in the world according to Travel+Leisure magazine, but they weren't running on the days we had available. Instead, we secured passage on its sister ship, the Sanctuary Nile Adventurer which is also run by Abercrombie and Kent. The ship did not disappoint. The amenities were luxurious considering the confined spaces of a boat. There were five decks, the top containing a small wading pool to cool off and lounge chairs and canopied beds. There was also a dining room, bar area, outdoor patio, small office, and smaller gift shop. We were upgraded to a cabin on the main deck.

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Our home for the next three days.

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The boat has 32 cabins, but I don't think we even had 32 passengers. With the decrease in tourism, Mahmoud said that only 20 boats were sailing (compared to as many as 300 during the high season), and most were not full. We probably had almost as many crew members as passengers, so the service was impeccable.

There was a hodgepodge of characters on the boat--the wealthy baroness and her new husband, his angry ex-fiancé, the trashy romance novelist, the young socialist, the embezzling American lawyer, the famous Belgian detective...wait. Wrong boat.

No, our boat was basically divided into two groups--the English speakers (Brits and Americans) and the Italian speakers. We conversed mainly with a delightful septuagenerian couple from England named Colin and Madeline. She had lived in Egypt as a child when it was still a British protectorate, but it was his first time in country. They were very spry for their ages, skiing and traveling to remote vacation spots (Conversely, many of my 70-something year-old patients need to use walkers or motorized chairs). There was also a family from New York City who were the only other Americans onboard. We were pleased that the guides also stayed with us on the boats. Mahmoud occupied the cabin adjacent to us and enjoyed the same meals that we did. However, he was seated with the other guides during the meals and tended to avoid some of the onboard activities since he has seen them hundreds of times already. In the end, it was still a job--one that keeps him away from his family for several days. As for the quality of the boat, Mahmoud joked, "It is one of the better jails that I have been on."

Today would be a relaxing day. We took a late breakfast before the ship docked at Kom Ombo at 10 AM. The temple is divided into two halves and dedicated to the falcon god Horus on the west and Sobek, the crocodile-headed deity, to the east. While some depictions of Sobek are favorable, he does have a close association with the "evil" god Seth. In fact, during one of the mythical battles for supremacy between Horus and Seth, the evil one escapes by transforming himself into a crocodile. So why was Sobek, a god associated with an ill disposition, worshipped so highly at this temple? During ancient times, this area was wrought with crocodiles. The people of this area relied on fishing and farming near the Nile bringing them in close proximity to these aggressive reptiles. Therefore, they believed that by appeasing Sobek with offerings, he would protect them from attacks. Furthermore, the crocodiles were also useful for farming. Roman historians reported that these reptiles would lay their eggs in the sand just beyond the level where the banks of the flooded Nile would reach. This would help the locals predict the extent of inundation each year.

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The Temple of Kom Ombo is so close to the water that cruise boats can dock right next to it.

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Kom Ombo Temple

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Hathor, Sobek, and their son

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(Left) Wooden dowels were used to keep the temple stones together. (Right) Sobek depicted in full animal form.

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(Left) A lion chomps on the hand of an enemy of Egypt. (Right) The Eye of Horus conveys protective and healing powers.

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The Egyptians actually developed an early version of the calendar that we use today. Mahmoud tried to explain to us how to read it, but I'm a slow learner.

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Hieroglyphs of early surgical instruments. The temple of Kom Ombo was known for its surgical and obstetric care.

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(Left) Pregnant women sitting on birthing chairs. No epidurals for them! (Middle) A lady giving birth...OR crapping out a human-shaped dookey. (Right) Wet nursing or motor boating?

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Two goddesses crown Ptolemy XXII as Sobek looks on.

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(Left) A secret alcove where priests could hide from worshippers and listen to their prayers. Their disembodied voice would be mistaken by pilgrims as the voice of the Oracle...provided they pay no attention to the man behind the curtain (Middle) This prisoner actually seems to be grinning. (Right) This hieroglyph translates into "ugly, bald guy."

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A colorful lintel depicts vultures agains the backdrop of a blue sky.

In ancient times, the Egyptians kept 'tame' crocodiles in a pit near the temple. When they died they were mummified and buried nearby.

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The remains of crocodiles, not humans, filled these coffins.

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A large cache of mummified reptiles now sit at the adjacent Crocodile Museum that opened this past year. .

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The remains of a crocodile fetus.

We spent most of the late morning and early afternoon lounging by the pool. This section of the Nile seemed sparsely inhabited. Herds of cattle grazed on green fields along the banks of the river. We would occasionally see men in small boats fishing with only lines--no poles or nets. We passed only a few other cruise ships and their decks often looked fairly empty of passengers.

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We saw alot more cows than people along the banks of the Nile.

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Not only were the cruise ships empty, but even the barges weren't full!

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The only interruption to our stupor was a 'BBQ' lunch out on the deck below.

At 4 PM we docked at Edfu. Included in the cruise itinerary is a 10 minute carriage ride through the city to get to the temple. Edfu has the second largest and best preserved temple in Egypt. The current monument sits upon the ruins of a much older New Kingdom structure. The temple was completed by Ptolemy XII almost 200 years after construction was begun. Edfu Temple is dedicated to the god Horus. Its sister structure for his goddess-wife Hathor is located down river in Dendera.

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The temple's outer wall has a large carving of an athletic Ptolemy XII smiting his enemies. This was pure propaganda as he was actually a corpulent and unpopular pharaoh who's only talent was playing the flute.

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The temple doors are flanked by large statues of a falcon (representing Horus) wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.

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Columns topped with floral patterns and eroded statues of the god Bes.

In ancient times, Edfu was considered the site of the mythical battle between Horus and his evil uncle Seth for control of Egypt. The treacherous Seth had already killed Horus' father Osiris and challenged him for rulership of the world. Sequential carvings tell the story of Horus victory over his uncle.

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The evil Seth, in the form of a hippopotamus, is subdued by Horus' spears.

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The sanctuary room where the statue of the god was stored in a granite altar. The divine boat is in the foreground, resting on a pedestal.

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A depiction of the pharaoh erecting two obelisks. In real life, I'm sure he had others helping him.

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Dance like an Egyptian.

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(Left) Hieroglyph for "Lego block". (Right) The symbol for iPod.

Since it was galebeya night on the boat, I purchased one from a vendor near the docks. The wife got hers on the boat, which was of better quality. Mahmoud told us that the local men generally use a few colors--white for the hot daytime, dark grey or brown for the evenings, and a baby blue often worn by farmers. The women tend to wear suffocating black galebeyas. The 'bedazzled' ones with all the flair are marketed mainly at tourists. Mahmoud was a killjoy and didn't wear a galebeya. He gave a lame excuse that wearing westernized clothing was "dressing up" for him.

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(Left) No respectful Egyptian would be caught dead in these silly costumes. (Right) I'm pretty sure that Colin's "galabeya" was actually a left-over from a hippie commune.

Back on the boat, the chef had a 30 minute cooking demonstration. He showed us how to make three dishes--baba ganoush (an eggplant and tahini spread), okra tagine, and um ali (a bread pudding-like dessert). That guy loved his salt and sugar which was off-putting for some of the passengers but welcomed by me. For the theme dinner, there was buffet of Egyptian foods. Overall, they were very good. However, the spices were a little watered down to accommodate the blander palates of the North American and European passengers. Dinner was followed by dancing afterwards. The passengers (egged on by the staff) really enjoyed the popular folksongs and contemporary Nubian music. Then the music switched to YMCA and then the Macarena. The placed cleared out before they got to the Electric Slide.

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The passengers and crew gyrate unrhythmically like a bunch of epileptics.

Posted by evilnoah 17:12 Archived in Egypt Tagged egypt nile luxor aswan Comments (0)

Temples On Top of Temples

Touring the East Bank of Luxor

sunny 100 °F

During the night, our boat had sailed to its final destination of Luxor. At 8:30 the next morning, we disembarked for the 10 minute drive to Karnak Temple. While the complex actually consists of four separate areas, the Temple of Amun-Re is the only one open to the public. Construction for these monuments lasted over 2000 years with contributions by 30 pharaohs. But the greatest expansion occurred during the New Kingdom period when Luxor was transformed into the religious capital of ancient Egypt. The 18th Dynasty pharaohs (Amenohotep I, Hatshepsut, Tuthmosis I and III, etc.) added successive walls and gates (pylons) and obelisks around the original temple. The 19th Dynasty pharaohs (Seti I and Ramses II) built the massive Great Hypostyle Hall. The final major addition was a shrine by Alexander the Great's half-brother around 320's B.C. However, the complex remained important to the Egyptians until 356 A.D. when the Christian Emperor Constantine closed all pagan temples.

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A miniature model of the Temple of Amun-Re as it would have looked in its prime.

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The area between the Nile River and Karnak Temple. Several shops and houses were forcibly relocated to create this unused space.

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The unfinished first pylon (the outermost wall) was built by 30th Dynasty pharaohs. So far, Karnak has been the most crowded monument we have visited on this trip. Despite the overall decrease in tourists to Egypt, people still take day trips here from the Red Sea beach resorts.

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Ramses II built a corridor of cryosphinxes which were later removed to construct the first pylon.

Within Karnak Temple, there are several unfinished areas which have helped archaeologists understand how the ancient Egyptians built their monuments.

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The remnants of a mud brick ramp lies adjacent to the unfinished outer wall. The ramp was built upwards as the walls were constructed higher. When the zenith was reached, artists would start carving in the features. As they made progress from the top going downwards, the mud ramp would gradually be removed.

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The unfinished column on the far right shows that the pillars were first assembled using raw, uneven blocks. Afterwards, the excess stone was then trimmed off to smooth the surface. Eventually. it would resemble the two columns on the left.

The "rogue" pharaoh Akhenaten turned several aspects of ancient Egyptian society upside down. Masonary was no exception. Unlike his predecessors, his monuments were constructed with scaffolding and smaller bricks. When Akhenaten's buildings were torn down after his death, the bricks were then reused to build new temples.

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This hole cut out from one of the large stones on the temple wall shows that the smaller bricks from Akhenaten's buildings were used inside for support.

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This statue was built by an unknown pharaoh. Like many other monuments throughout Egypt, Ramses II usurped it by carving his name into it and claiming it as his own.

One of the most remarkable parts of the temple during antiquity would have been the Great Hypostyle Hall. First designed during Hatshepsut's reign, it was eventually completed by Seti I and decorated by Ramses II. It would have covered 50,000 sq feet and contain 134 pillars. Windows allowed light to illuminate the middle of the roofed building. The two middle rows of columns were wider and taller than the outer ones. Mahmoud explained that these columns represented palm trees. The Hall would be flooded by the Nile during the innudation. The combination of light and water on the center-most "palm trees" would have made them grow taller than the ones on the sides.

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An artist's rendition of how the Great Hypostyle Hall would have looked long ago.

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While color still remains in some areas, the roof is no more.

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Light would have shined in at an angle through windows above the row of smaller columns.

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The walls and columns were decorated with religious and military scenes.

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An entire wall lists all of the tribes subdued by the pharaoh's armies.

Although Hatshepsut was an integral contributor to Karnak Temple, her successor Tuthmosis III tried to erase all evidence of her legacy. Perhaps it was because she was female or she had prevented him from taking his rightful place on the throne for several years.

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This image of Hatshepsut was scratched out while those of the gods were left alone.

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Hatshepsut's cartouche was also defaced. However, the name of the god Amun was kept intact.

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(Left) In order to prevent it from being seen, Tuthmosis III walled up Hatshepsut's obelisk. This unintentionally preserved it from the ravages of time. (Right) One of her remaining cartouche's that Tuthmosis could not destroy.

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The Festival Hall of Tuthmosis III was built for the Hed-Sed celebration. The temple was built to resemble a large tent with the columns representing tent poles.

During the Christian period, the Festival Hall was converted into a church. Traces of Coptic influences still remain.

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(Left) A statue was altered to appear like Jesus on the cross. (Middle) Jesus' face was carved onto a column. (Right) A faded image of The Virgin Mary is also depicted on a pillar.

Past the Festival Hall is the Botanical garden of Tuthmosis III. During his military conquests in foreign lands, the Egyptian army encountered new flora and fauna. Artists depicted these findings on bas relief carvings.

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These columns were decorated to resemble bundles of papyrus.

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Even in ancient time, cotton was king.

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Priests purified themselves in the Sacred Lake prior to performing rituals. Most archaeologists agree that the crane was not originally part of the temple.

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The view of the Temple of Amun-Re from the "rear" view.

After leaving Karnak Temple, we drove to the other east bank attraction, Luxor Temple. Mahmoud told us that these two temples were initially connected by a 3 km avenue lined with statues of sphinxes. The Egyptian government has plans to return this procession to its original state. They hope that visitors would walk this path just like the ancient Egyptians had thousands of years ago. Several locals are not too happy because this would mean tearing down many houses, two churches, and a mosque which are all in the way. Somehow I don't foresee too many tourists walking this potential gauntlet of street vendors in 100 F heat.

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Part of the avenue of sphinxes has been rebuilt in front of Luxor Temple.

Luxor temple was started by Amenhotep III, but construction was temporarily abandoned by his son Akhenaten. After his death, Tutenkhamen resumed the building process. Subsequent pharaohs such as Alexander the Great also added their personal touch as well. The monument was built to celebrate the Opet Festival, a renewing of the bond between the gods and the Egyptian people. During the ceremony, processions would be made starting from Karnak and finishing at Luxor Temple. Throughout history, it was subsequently occupued by Romans and Muslims. Two obelisk used to flank the entrance, but one was given to the French as a gift by Mohammed Ali.

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Mahmoud poses in front of two large statues of Ramses II that guard the temple entrance.

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The god Hapi (the personification of the inundation of the Nile River) symbolically ties together Upper and Lower Egypt, represented by the lotus and papyrus plants.

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Statues of Tutenkhamen and his wife and half-sister Akhesenaten. Unlike most other statues of pharaohs and their wives, a show of affection is depicted here with her arm gently caressing his shoulders.

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Luxor temple gradually became buried by the sands. During the Middle Ages, the Abu Haggag Mosque was built upon the ruins of the temple. Locals have successfully resisted efforts to remove it.

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Romans plastered over the walls and painted colorful murals. This one was just uncovered during recent restorations.

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Limbo?.

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(Left) Depiction of a horse-drawn chariot. (Right) Sadly, this horse is not hung like...well, a horse.

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An illustration of showing how bulls were slaughtered. Three of their legs were bound, and the artery on the fourth was cut. The bull would then bleed out.

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(Left) Within his chapel, Alexander the Great is shown making offerings to the Egyptian gods. (Middle) Alexander's cartouche. (Right) Touchdown!

After leaving Luxor Temple, we headed back to the boat for lunch. Most of the passengers on the boat were visiting the west bank of Luxor in the afternoon. We instead were going to do it on another day. It would turn out to be the hottest day of our entire trip. I felt bad (for all of two seconds) for those fellow passengers as I joyfully cooled off by the pool. Madeline, who was in the group that visited the west bank of Luxor that afternoon later told us the best words she heard all day were "This is the last tomb of the day".

We had the somewhat more formal farewell dinner that night.

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(Left) Avocado salad. (Middle) Fried fish fingers. (Right) Cappuccino mushroom cream soup.

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(Left) Pan seared salmon with cilantro mashed potatoes. (Middle) Grilled beef tenderloin. (Right) Is baked Alaska mandatory on cruise ships?

Afterwards, entertainment included a Sufi-style dancer who whirled around for a good 10 minutes. A few turns of 'dizzy-bat' are enough to make me want to puke, so kudos to that guy. A belly dancer then performed a few PG-rated routines. Mahmoud remarked, "She's very, um...old," understating her general unattractiveness. The Wife noticed that the lady had had a baby recently (she still had a linea nigra--the vertical line that runs below the belly button during pregnancy). It just reminded me of the one and last time that I had gone to a Hooters. My waitress was about nine months pregnant and still wore the skimpy uniform. I STILL have trouble eating hot wings to this day.

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Posted by evilnoah 21:22 Archived in Egypt Tagged egypt nile luxor karnak Comments (0)

Aliens in Abydos?

Convoying it to Dendera and Abydos

sunny 90 °F

"Do you REALLY want to get shot over another bloody temple!?!" our guide Mahmoud asked us incredulously. "Do you want your kids to become orphans? Is this place worth it?"

"Umm...sure," I responded. "Why not?"

We weren't talking about any ordinary site. We were discussing the city of Abydos located a few hours north of Luxor. In ancient Egyptian lore, the evil god Seth killed his good brother Osiris and chopped his body up into several pieces which were strewn over the lands. Abydos was supposedly the place where his head was buried. Eventually, Osiris was resurrected by his wife Isis who reassembled his body from all the pieces except one--his penis. It was eaten by a Nile catfish (that's one reason why they aren't halal). The poor guy had to wear a strap-on. Curiously, he and his wife were still able to conceive a child, the god Horus. Either they had a good assisted reproduction doctor or it was the pool boy.

As the burial site of Osiris' head, Abydos became one of the most religiously important places for the ancient Egyptians. For thousands of years, pharaohs had built temples in the region. First dynasty kings such as Narmer and Aha were buried in Abydos. Even some predynastic kings were laid to rest here. But more importantly, Abydos is one of those places where nutjobs cite as evidence of alien existence. You know these guys. They believe they were abducted by UFO's (and possibly even rectally probed). They think that little green men built the great monuments of antiquity. They believe that they were some important king or queen in a previous life. And they also write Stargate fan fiction. I just wanted to see what all the fuss is about. When we were planning our vacation to Egypt a few months ago, the final addition was Abydos. We ended up having to completely rearrange our itinerary to squeeze that in. When our guide told us that there was a chance that we may not be able to go, I was pissed.

Mahmoud, whose wife is from this region, explained to us that the area around Abydos can sometimes be unsafe. The people around there tend to be aggressive, mainly to each other. They can be proud and hot-headed. Minor misunderstandings could lead to full blown feuds. During our first week in Egypt, Abydos was closed to foreigners. We were told that some dangerous criminal had escaped from prison. His gang operated around this area, so authorities were concerned that tourists may be harmed. A few days before our planned trip, Abydos was reopened (apparently they caught the guy), but there was some nebulous rumors about a non-tourist vehicle being shot at. Either way, a police-escorted convoy was instituted for the first time in several years. Mahmoud joked that the convoy was still better than having an AK-armed policeman in the vehicle. "Those guys stretch out and take up all the space". The escorted convoy would make the journey to the closer temple of Dendera, but the question still remained whether we would make it all the way to Abydos.

We had a 5:45 AM wake-up call to meet up with the convoy. Luckily, the staff of our cruise boat had packed us some breakfast boxes and had coffee, tea, and pastries ready at that hour. After quaffing a couple of cups of coffee and waiting around for awhile, the convoy finally departed at 8 AM. About six cars and one large bus started off behind a police vehicle. Since we were four or five cars back, this would be the last we would see of that police car. In most countries, cars in an escorted convoy are packed in closely together with police bringing up the front AND the rear. Our convoy was quickly spaced out over several miles. Crazy drivers would cut us off, or we would be stuck behind slow moving trucks. The cars in the front of the convoy kept speeding on without regard for those behind them. Eventually. we arrived at an important intersection, and we were not sure which of the two roads to take. The police hadn't even informed the drivers of the route! All of us including our driver and guide were frustrated by this poorly planned journey. Why did we have to wake up so early and waste our time with this sham of a convoy system. It was a fake facade of security. We eventually arrived at Dendera. Most of the other convoy vehicles were there sans the police car.

The main surviving temple at Dendera is dedicated to the goddess Hathor. The current structure dates to the Graeco-Roman period, but like many other Egyptian sites, older temples once stood there.

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The face of the cow-eared goddess Hathor adorned the tops of the pillars, but they were all vandalized in antiquity.

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This statue of the dwarf god Bes (associated with childbirth) was found in the ruins of an adjacent Roman birth house.

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A grindstone for grains carved from the walls of the temple. Temples were often damaged by nearby farmers trying to eke out a living.

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There has been recent restorations that have cleaned off thousands of years of black soot to reveal the beautiful murals on the ceiling.

Some of the most beautiful scenes on the ceiling depict celestial charts including the Zodiac signs which were introduced to Egypt by the Romans.

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(Above and below) The pillars inside the temple are very ornately painted.
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A carving of a huge menat--a large ceremonial necklace used in rituals. The necklace stayed in position with a large counterweight that hung down the wearer's back.

Within the temple is a controversial carving known as the "Dendera light." Some conspiracy buffs believe that this illustration depicts an electric light bulb, technology way beyond what the ancient Egyptians should have had. They cite this as another piece of evidence that aliens had given advanced knowledge to ancient civilizations. However, most Egyptologists believe the picture is merely a lotus flower attached to a djed pillar (a symbol of stability) with a snake inside. That probably makes more sense, but, then again, I really liked the Stargate movie.

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One huge flashlight?

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One of the most common images seen throughout the temples of ancient Egypt is the goddess Nut giving birth to the sun every morning and swallowing it at sunset. Hathor's temple at Dendera has the best preserved depiction (located at the edges of the mural).

In the back of the temple, we climbed down a set of narrow staircases leading to the "crypts" below. Important artifacts of the temple and offerings to the gods were stored here, not bodies. During the New Years festival, the sacred statue of the goddess would be brought out of the storage. The priests would then bring it to the roof of the temple up a long, winding staircase. There the statue would stay for a day to "recharge" in the light of the rising sun. Afterwards, the statue would return down a different, straight and steep staircase. This pathway (also seen at the Edfu Temple) represents the motions of a falcon. As the bird nonchalantly rises in the air, it takes a circular pattern, but when it dives on prey, it flies in a straight line.

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These stairs were used to bring the statue down from the roof.

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On the roof of the temple is a replica of the Dendera Zodiac, a circular bas relief carving in the ceiling of the chapel. The original was cut out by the French in the 19th century and now resides in the Louvre. It is a full depiction of the constellations and the celestial sky as the Egyptians would have seen it during their time. The correct age of this piece instigated the "Dendera Affair," a contentious debate between the Catholic Church and scientists who questioned the veracity of Christianity.

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On the back wall of the temple is a carving of Cleopatra VII and her love child with Julius Caesar, Caesarion.

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This lion-headed spout drains the water from the temple's roof.

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One of my personally favorite carvings depicts the ceremonial, military, and religious crowns worn by the pharaohs.

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Beware of the Planet of the Apes.

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Near the Temple of Hathor is the Iseum, dedicated to Isis and Osiris. While smaller and less impressive, this structure is newer, having been built by the Roman Emperor Augustus.

After we finished seeing the Temple of Hathor, Mahmoud inquired whether the road to Abydos was still open for tourist vehicles. Once again, our guide was frustrated about the lack of information provided by the authorities. The answer was a tentative 'yes.' Officially, everything was clear, but the local cops vaguely warned him that we should maybe try another time. There would be no other times for us. It would be now or never. So, we made a deal. If there were one other car heading to Abydos, then we would go. If nobody else were going, we would turn back to Luxor and check in early to our hotel. Luckily for me, we found out that one other car was heading to Abydos (everybody else was turning back). Sure that car had already left 15 minutes ago, but technically it was going. Therefore, we piled into the van and headed off to Abydos.

The journey took approximately two hours. To avoid some potential trouble spots, our driver took some back roads that tended to be a bit rocky. At absolutely no point did we sense any sort of danger.

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We passed lush green fields and farmland irrigated by ancient canals extending miles away from the Nile.

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Trucks were packed high to the sky with sugarcane, the local cash crop. Periodically, they would slow to a crawl as the road made a sharp turn. Local boys would then rush up and steal a few sticks off the back of the trucks.

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Despite the hot sun, most Egyptian males prefer not to wear hats. But when they do...

When we arrived at Abydos, the place was practically empty. There were less than 10 tourists there. Surprisingly, some of them had made the six hour journey from the Red Sea town of Hurghada. While many pharaohs had constructed tombs here in Abydos, most were just symbolic. Their mummies (and treasures) were buried elsewhere. The main reason for tourists to visit is the Temple of Seti I.

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The Temple of Seti I

He had constructed the building out of fine limestone (not sandstone like most temples), but his son Ramses II had completed the interior decor. The temple is divided into shrines to the gods Osiris, Isis, Horus, Ptah, Amun, Re-Horakhety, and the deified Seti I. Each one has elaborate decorations of offerings being made to these deities. Six of the shrines have false doors in the rear of their shrine. Only Osiris has a real doorway that leads to a separate area of rooms dedicated to him.

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Each column had illustrations of the god worshipped within the shrine.

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The uraeus, a sacred snake, signified Lower Egypt. The vulture was the symbol of Upper Egpyt.

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Egyptian men were colored in brownish-red, signifying tanned skin from working in the hot sun. Women were depicted as a paler yellow, as they usually remained in the shade. Some gods or deceased pharaohs appeared in dark or blueish-green hues, signifying death or fertility (as in the black soil around the Nile).

The carvings in Ramses II's monuments are often criticized as being less artistic and similar-themed (i.e. the Battle of Kadesh). That is not the case here. In my opinion, the decorations inside are some of the most detailed and intricate we have seen so far. Half of them still retain some of their original faded colors. This is truly paganism at its best. Non-flash photography (not videotaping) was allowed inside.

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Off to the left side is a hallway that contains illustrations of Seti I and a young Ramses II doing endearing father-son activities such as offerring sacrifices to the gods and lassoing a bull.

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My son and I will stick to playing Wii games together.

Near these illustrations of Ramses II and Seti I are two interesting pharaoh's lists, one containing their birth names and the other with their coronation names.

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These lists start at Narmer and end at Seti I. However, they selectively exclude Hatshepsut (a female usurper) and the pharaohs of the Amarna period (Akhenaten, Tutenkamen, etc.).

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Several pharaohs shared the same cartouche of their coronation name. This must be confusing to Egyptologists as there are as many eleven pharaohs who shared the name Ramses.

Behind the temple is a granite structure called the Osireion. This is supposedly the place where the head of Osiris was buried. According to Mahmoud, the Osireion was sometimes used by the ancients priests as a revenue stream for the temple. Pilgrims could rent out the place to stay for the night.

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The Osireion remains flooded for much of the year. Recently, most of the water was pumped out.

Back at the entrance of Seti I's temple, we found the controversial hieroglyphs. Carved into one of the roof beams are a tank, a submarine, and a helicopter. Mahmoud scoffed that it is just an illusion created by pieces of the original plaster falling off to coincidentally form these objects. I dunno. That REALLY looks like a helicopter. Besides, is it also coincidental that Seti could stand for the (now defunct) SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestial Intelligence) program? Mahmoud thought this was all crazy. Come to think of it....Mahmoud has been very adamant in his denial. What is he trying to hide...Maybe he is one of those Men In Black...

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Evidence that helicopters, airplanes, and giant insects built the Great Pyramids.

At 2 PM, we were the last group to leave Abydos. The drive back to Luxor takes about four hours, and it is best not done in the dark. We checked into the Hilton which is a really wonderful property. Although it's not really walking distance from the main attractions of the city, it didn't matter because the hotel has everything we would need. The room was spacious--something we appreciated after being on a boat for the past few days. There were several restaurants, gift shops, and even a shisha bar overlooking the river. We were a bit disappointed that the gorgeous infinity pool closed at 6 PM. However, we lounged on their large veranda with comfortable couches watching the sun set over the Nile. The best part is that they had free Wifi in the public spaces, the only hotel we have stayed in that offered this. We dined at the Hilton's Olives Restaurant, very affordable for a restaurant in a five-star hotel.

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(Left) Rolls. (Middle) Olive puree. (Right) Mutabel--roasted eggplant with tahini and pomegranate seeds.

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(Left) Grilled seabass, harrisa mash potatoes, and a spicy saffron sauce. (Middle) Shish kebabs and lamb chops. (Right) Date kunafa with vanilla ice cream.

At the end of the day, I was very happy that we had a chance to see both Dendera and Abydos. In retrospect, I really think that the "risk" of violence was very minimal. I bet that the authorities were just being over-protective of tourists so as to avoid any bad publicity in case something catastrophic happened. On the other hand, although she did enjoy the temples, The Wife, was less impressed. She would have rather spent the extra six hours lounging at the Hilton. I guess she's just not a Stargate fan.

Posted by evilnoah 18:21 Archived in Egypt Tagged egypt luxor abydos dendera Comments (0)

The Big Valley

Visiting the West Bank of Luxor

sunny 90 °F

Today would be our last day of sightseeing. We leisurely left the Hilton hotel at 9:30 AM and rode for half an hour to the west bank of Luxor. The first stop was the Valley of the Kings, the final resting place for many New Kingdom pharaohs. Some of the more well known kings such as Hatshepsut, Ramses II, and of course Tutankhamen were buried here. One reason for picking this area is that the mountain that looms over the valley resembles a pyramid, a sacred shape that dates back to the creation of the world in Egyptian mythology. Furthermore, unlike the Great Pyramids of Giza which are essentially giant "rob me" signs, the isolated Valley of the Kings offered a more secret location to protect their treasures from thieves. Nevertheless, all of the tombs were robbed in antiquity except for Tutankhamen's (his was saved due to sheer luck and obscurity). In fact, the thefts were so pervasive that a later pharaoh removed most of the mummies and hid them in a royal cache on the opposite side of the mountain near Hatshepsut's Mortuary Temple.

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The parking lot is about the closest you can get to taking pictures in the Valley of the Kings.

The entrance ticket allows for access to three of the tombs. Unfortunately some of them are closed periodically for excavations or restorations. Unfortunately, these included the tomb of Seti I's, one of the larger and more popular crypts. It has been shut down indefinitely to preserve it for future generations. Mahmoud said that we can visit it virtually on the Internet, but that's just not quite the same. There is something personally gratifying knowing that you are contributing to the slow destruction of a great work of antiquity that has survived for over 3000 years. Another tomb highly recommended was that of Horemheb. But that too was closed because of a nearby excavation. I was starting to feel a bit ripped off. Given that many of the tombs that we had planned to see were not open, we just asked Mahmoud for his recommendations.

Mahmoud's first choice was the Tomb of Ramses IX (KV 6). During the early Christian period, it had been used as a chapel. Five feet from the entrance were crosses and graffiti from these worshippers. Compared to those of other tombs that we would soon see, the paintings were akin to a 'starving artist' show. I think my six year-old could do a better job painting those figures. Despite there being a large sarcophagus inside, the tomb was pretty short and unimpressive.

The next was the tomb of Ramses III (KV 11). This one was much better. It was originally constructed by his father, Setnakhte, but abandoned because it was encroaching too closely to a neighboring tomb (KV10). Ramses III had no qualms about using it for himself. Thankfully so, because it is richly decorated. There are large murals of gods and goddesses carved with fine details. Near the entrance, two small rooms jut off from the main passageway. Illustrations of routine workers (cooks, craftsmen, etc.) decorate those walls. At the end of the tomb, the eight-pillared burial chamber is gated off. It had suffered severe flood damage and is strewn with rubble. The tomb's sarcophagus is hundreds of miles away in the Louvre, having been sold to the King of France in the 19th century.

The only down-side of that tomb was the guard who started following us around closely and pointing out obvious depictions of gods. He would proudly say, "That is good, huh?" as if he had painted it. We didn't want to be rude and tell him to piss off and give us some space. But as we were leaving, he had the audacity to demand a tip. I gave him one Egyptian pound to be polite.

Mahmoud's third recommendation was the tomb of Ramses IV (KV 2). In turns of quality of illustrations, it was pretty similar to the previous KV 11. There were examples of some unfinished walls, as the tomb was not completed by the time the pharaoh's mummy was laid to rest. I was tempted to tip the guard for this place mainly because he left us alone.

For 50 Egyptian pounds per person, we also chose to visit Ramses VI's tomb (KV 9) which had been restored over the last several years. Ramses V had originally built this crypt, but his brother and successor eventually usurped and enlarged it. The restoration was really well done as the colors were even more vibrant than the other tombs we had seen. Unlike the other three tombs, the walls were not shielded by plexiglass which helped appreciate the illustrations even more. We saw some odd images such as birds with human heads, bound soldiers with their head chopped off, etc. Painted on the walls of the tomb are the Book of Gates, Book of Night, Book of Day, etc. These contained the spells that would help the pharaohs pass the tests in the Afterlife. At the end of the tomb lies Ramses IV's broken casket and sarcophagus. We were basically the only ones in the tomb. So once again, the guard inside annoyingly shadowed us from a few steps behind. It's not as if we were going to jump over the ropes and run off with a stone sarcophagus that weighs tons!

Our next destination was going to be the Valley of the Queens. However, we asked our driver to stop at some alabaster shops. I wanted to find some canoptic jars carved out of alabaster (like what the pharaoh's had). At the first shop, we got the typical speil on how they make their alabaster, granite, and other stone items. Whatever. It took a few shops to find something similar to what I was looking for. I had to settle for a miniature set that looked nothing as intricate as what the pharaoh's would have had, but it would at least fit in my luggage. Compared to other materials that are used to make canoptic jars for tourists, alabaster is much harder to create fine details. It's not as if I could fit my mummified colon, let alone just my appendix inside the miniature jars. But at least the material was authentic.

The Valley of the Queens is really mistranslated and actually means something like 'Place of Beautiful'. In ancient times, it was known as the 'Place of the Children of the Pharaohs' because princes were interred there as well as queens. Three tombs were open for us to visit. Two were for princes, and one was for a queen. We spent a minute in the first one as it was in such a bad state that the walls were essentially blackened out. None of the illustrations were really visible enough to be interesting. On the other hand, the next one nearby had the most vivid original colors we saw all day. In fact, they rivaled those of the restored temple of Ramses VI. In my opinion, it was one of the best tombs that we saw all day. The third tomb of Ramses III's nine-year old son Amenhikhopeshef was notable because it contains a fetal skeleton displayed inside. When Amenhikhopeshef's mother heard of his death, she miscarried her baby who was later interred in the tomb. The most notable tomb in the Valley of the Queens is that of Nefertari, the favorite wife of Ramses II. It was restored by the Getty Foundation and now is considered one of the most beautiful temples to see. Unfortunately, it is closed to the general public. However, $4-5K will get you like 15 minutes there. Hmmm...on second thought, that blackened out tomb looks a lot better now.

Compared to the artwork in the temples of Abydos and Dendera which we had visited yesterday, the illustrations in the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens were equal or even better. The authorities have definitely taken much greater care in preserving these more popular monuments. However, I just had a harder time being as enthusiastic about the tombs. In the Valley of the Kings, the greater density of tourists and the plexiglass that protected the walls definitely detracted from the ambience. I really hate the rule that prevents guides from accompanying us inside the tombs and explaining the illustrations. In each tomb there is a wealth of religious symbolism and imagery (Books of the Dead, Heavens, Night, Day, etc) that really require a well-informed guide or scholar to explain. However, maybe I was just being prejudiced. Maybe I wasn't as excited about the these tombs because they are so convenient to visit. Just like our experience visiting Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail, the journey getting there sometimes makes a place that much more special.

Our next stop was Hatshepsut's Mortuary Temple. This was the site back in 1997 where Islamic terrorists masscred 58 foreign tourists and 4 Egyptians. That was not going to happen today. Mainly since there weren't even close to 50 people there. At most, they would have whacked 30, and many would have been local children selling their junk. Sadly, these kids probably haven't seen the insides of a school in years.

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Luckily, no blood was shed at Hatshepsut's Temple on the day we visited.

The complex is actually comprised of three mortuary temples. The first was built by Mentuhotep II, an 11th Dynasty pharaoh. His collapsed temple is currently under excavation. Above it once stood Tuthmosis III's temple which is a complete loss.

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Excavation of Mentuhotep II's temple so far has yielded a pair of small white sphinx statues.

Despite being vandalized twice in antiquity by the pharaohs Tuthmosis III and Akhenaten, Hatshepsut's temple now stands restored. There are three multi-pillared terraces accessed by a modern ramp. The middle one has the most interesting illustrations.

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A large bird statue guards the ramp to the temple.

The Punt Colonnade on the southern side of the middle terrace shows scenes of Hatshepsut's big accomplishment--her trade mission to Punt (Somalia). The Egyptians swapped metal tools and other goods for rare items like ivory, ebony, animal skins, and myrrh trees. Interestingly, the Queen of Punt is depicted as being morbidly obese (i.e. normal-sized in the Southern U.S.).

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Workers load the boats with trade goods.

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Egyptologist can tell that a sea route (not the Nile) was taken because of the depictions of oceanic critters.

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The trade mission brought back trees which were planted back in Egypt...

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Unfortunately, somebody forgot to water them.

On the northern wing of the temple is the Birth Colonnade. A series of illustrations depict the god Amun-Re sneaking into the sleeping chambers of Hatshepsut's mother and impregnating her with his holy seed. Before the god leaves, he reveals that this unborn daughter will someday rule Egpyt. With this depiction of a divine birth, Hatshepsut was trying to legitimize her claim to the throne that she had usurped from her nephew, Tuthmosis III.

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In the Anubis Chapel, the god receives sacrifices from Hatshepsut. Unfortunately, most of the images of her had been destroyed by Tuthmosis III.

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The image of Tuthmosis III offering wine to Sokaris, a sun god, remains untouched. The ceiling above represents the starry sky.

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The upper terrace of the temple is notable for several statues of Hatshepsut, arms crossed carrying the crook and flail of the pharaoh.

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The doorway to the sanctuary on the upper terrace.

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Many of the columns on the third terrace were destroyed by Tuthmosis III.

We weren't too impressed with the upper terrace of the temple. Unlike the second floor, there are few interesting wall carvings. We were actually okay with that because it was starting to get too hot for us to care anymore. That was the exact moment that we got temple'd out. Almost perfect timing, but we had one more monument to see.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Colossi of Memnon, two large quartzite statues that remain from Amenhotep III's mortuary temple. During it's time, the structure was even larger in area than Karnak Temple. Unfortunately, it has now been reduced to ruins thanks to an earthquake in 27 B.C. After that happened, the statue began emiting a perculiar sound early in the morning. Henceforth, Greek and Roman tourists (including the Emperor Hadrian) travelled from miles away to see this phenomenon. They dubbed it the statue of Memnon, an Ethiopian king of Trojan War fame. This mythological hero was said to have sung to his mother the Dawn every morning. In the 3rd century A.D., the Roman emperor Septimus Severus had the statue repaired inadvertantly ending the singing. Currently, the site is under 'excavation'. But like practically every other archaeological dig in Egypt, there is no activity.

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The Colossi of Memnon.

We headed back to the Hilton to wait for our flight late that night. We said our goodbyes to Mahmoud. Although he is much more quiet than our previous guide Sam, he's a really great guy who really explained ancient Egyptian history and lore well. He never pressured us to visit any tourist stores, and he was also a good source of advice to make sure we didn't get ripped off. But most of all, he was a guy who we were comfortable talking and joking with.

We went back to the Olives restaurant for a late lunch/early dinner.
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(Left) A vegetarian burger made with almonds and chickpeas. (Middle) Seafood penne. (Right) The view of the Nile from the restaurant.

We lounged by the pool for the next three hours enjoying some really good Movenpick ice cream (espresso and maple walnut, mango and blackberry). We flew out to Cairo at 8:15 PM and arrived at Sharm El-Sheik around midnight.

Posted by evilnoah 17:02 Archived in Egypt Tagged egypt luxor Comments (0)

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