Monday, February 23, 2009



Monday, January 26th. Today we saw so many sights, it's hard to keep them straight. We checked out from the cruise boat in Luxor to spend that evening in the Steigenberger Nile Palace Hotel where we were assigned to an unbelievable two room, two bath suite. We thought we had died and gone to Heaven. The bedroom was approximately 20' X 15', and the living room was the same. The two bathrooms were huge. The room had a wraparound terrace patio overlooking the pool area and facing the Nile River. I thought about the high roller suites in Las Vegas, and they don't even have gambling in Egypt. Unfortunately, we were spending only one night and were flying out in the morning.

The hotel's owner lives in the penthouse on the roof of the hotel. For several years, the Meridien hotel chain was operating it, but the owner grew dissatisfied. When the contract ran out, he hired the Germans (the Steigenbergers) to run the hotel with Teutonic efficiency. We weren't disappointed.

In the evening, the hotel provided first class entertainment. The dancers marched in, accompanied by the March from Aida. The floor show had the Sufi whirling dervish, the same guy who performed on the cruise boat the previous night. The two restaurants overlook the lobby and the stage. We ate at the italian restaurant with Lynette and Dave from St. Louis, the only other Midwesterners on the tour. They are football fans, excited about the Cardinals (and QB Kurt Warner) playing in the upcoming Super Bowl, even though the team doesn't play in St. Louis anymore. I guess I should have been excited too, because the Cardinals used to play in Chicago, in my old neighborhood no less. But Egyptian TV doesn't have much Super Bowl hype. In fact, in a sports bar we went into, we asked if they were planning to show the Super Bowl, and the bartender said "What's that?" Lynette is an avid scratch golfer who organizes charity golf tournaments. Really nice folks.


During the day, our Odyssey started in Thebes at the Colossi of Memnon, which are two 60 foot high statues of Amhotep III and his queen sitting on the flat desert on the West bank of the Nile with nothing else nearby. These sentinels originally guarded the massive tomb of Amhotep, which fell prey to the plundering of later pharaohs and the annual floods. Regardless of their significance, their sheer size commands your attention.

We moved on to the massive Medinat Habu Temple built by Ramses III which contained his palace, among other things. One of the interesting things was the king's private toilet area. Obviously, the ancients had to go also, and the Egyptians had a somewhat sophisticated plumbing system to carry the waste away from the living areas.


We were privileged to tour the beautiful and elaborate tomb of Queen Nefertari, favorite wife of Ramses II. It was discovered in 1904 by the Italian Ernesto Schiaparelli. It is beautifully decorated with vivid colors of scenes evoking the ritual journey of the soul to the underworld.

We didn't have the opportunity to explore the massive temple of Queen Hatshepsut (pronounced "Hot-cheap-suit") which was recently reconstructed at the base of a sheer limestone cliff face. The building resembles the Prairie School of architecture popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, although it predated him by a few thousand years. Queen Hatshepsut, of the 18th Dynasty (1473 B.C.) was one of the few female pharaohs, but what I found interesting was that her statue has a beard. The beard was the symbol of power, like the scepter, and apparently she wore a fake beard when conducting state business. She took over the throne after the death of her husband, Tuthmosis II (also her half-brother). In her 22 year reign, she was known as a patron of the arts more than as a military leader. She was considered a progressive ruler, re-establishing trade networks with other countries which created prosperity in Egypt.


There were 31 dynasties in ancient Egypt, so there's a lot of tombs out there. Actually there are 62 known tombs in Thebes, with many more to be discovered. Ancient Egypt had over 200 pharaohs in all, spread over about 3000 years, including some of the well known ones like Alexander the Great, Cleopatra VII, and Ramses II who were so well portrayed by Hollywood. Who can forget Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Yul Brynner in those parts! The earlier kings, from the Third to the Thirteenth Dynasties built pyramids and obelisks. The first tomb in Thebes was that of Thutmose I around 1520 B.C. who broke with tradition and separated his tomb from his mortuary temple and was buried in a secret, inaccessible place.

Unfortunately, he and his successors were not to rest in peace because thieves systematically plundered the tombs for the precious furnishings. The priests, loyal to the deceased kings, moved at least 40 of the bodies from one site to another, and eventually to a secret cave built in a mountain. For example, Ramses III was buried 3times. Each pharaoh was interred with a name shield around his neck for identification. That secret common tomb was re-discovered by accident in the 1870's by a young tomb robber who, after enriching himself over a few years by selling the ancient objects, showed the site to Emil Brugsch, a German who was vice director of the Cairo Museum.

The best known tomb in the Valley of Kings was that of Tut Ankh Amun, whom we know as King Tut. It was discovered by the Englishman Howard Carter in 1922. Carter lived down the road a bit in a hilltop house which we saw but didn't go inside. Carter's mentor, Lord Carnarvon, died a year or two later, which fueled talk of the Curse of King Tut. Bad luck seemed to shadow everyone associated with the find. By 1929, eleven people connected with the discovery of the tomb had died, including two of Lord Carnarvon's close relatives, and Carter's personal assistant. Carter died in 1939.

Until Carter discovered it, the tomb was so well hidden that nobody stole the gold and jewels, unique in Egypt. We were told they killed everyone who worked on the tomb. The workers are believed to have been prisoners of war who were considered expendable. In any event, the Egyptian government today earns foreign exchange by sending the treasures around the world for exhibitions. We saw them on exhibit in Chicago a few years ago. The Egyptian government doesn't loan out King Tut's funeary mask anymore because, as we were told, during the 1972-79 World Tour, the Japanese switched it out for a really good copy. The authorities couldn't tell the difference, but the copy turned out to be too perfect. The original had some defects. I did some research and could not verify that explanation. The official explanation is that the mask is too fragile to withstand travel, and the Egyptian government will not allow it to leave the country.

We followed in the footsteps of Howard Carter and explored the tomb and like other tombs, the wall paintings were beautifully painted and well preserved. To find the sarcophogus, Carter had to break through several doors and walls. It was well hidden, partly because other tombs were built over it, probably because the location was lost in the annual floods. What was remarkable was that King Tut died at age 19 so there wasn't enough time in his reign to organize the massive public works projects of some of the other kings. His death was sudden, but experts aren't sure if he was murdered or killed by accident. The gold and jewels foiund in the tomb appeared to be strewn in haste, rather than by design. Some of this stuff would have been hard to move. For example, the gold coffin weighs 242 pounds. Today, these treasures are displayed in the Cairo Museum in a special, spectacular exhibit.


The Temple at Luxor and Temple at Karnak, two vast open-air museums are about 2 miles apart in the City of Luxor, joined by a road, lined with sphinxes with human heads, built by the Greeks of the 30th Dynasty. Once again, these temples leave you gasping because of their enormous size and excesses. Karnak is the largest temple ever built by man and took several centuries to build, covering several dynasties. The total area is about 247 acres. The site includes the 100 acre site of the Temple of Amun with 134 huge stone columns, arranged in 16 rows in the Hypostyle Hall. They support beams and doorways which weigh 70 tons. Lifting them up there (and balancing them) without power equipment was a job and a half!

Did I mention obelisks? The obelisks of King Thutmose I, of which only one is still standing (an earthquake knocked down the others), are 23 meters high and weigh 143 tons. That one is surpassed by that of Queen Hatshepsut which is 30 meters high and weighs 320 tons. And of course, all of these are covered by colorful pictures and hieroglyphics depicting Egyptian life and mythology. Then you have an avenue of dozens of "small" sphinxes with rams' heads. The sacred lake of the dominion of Amun covers several acres. Heck, the portal leading into the hall is 100 feet high!

One of the more interesting characters portrayed on the walls is the ubiquitous Amun-Min, the one armed and one legged god of fertility. He is also portrayed with one other organ in a constant state of arousal. The story is that while the other gods were off fighting, they left him in charge of the tombs, the temples, and of course, the young ladies who all turned up pregnant. To punish him, the gods cut off his arm. The gods went off to war again, leaving him behind--I guess they didn't learn from the first experience. Well, the young ladies came up pregnant again, and this time they cut off his leg. If they were really determined to stop him, they could have... After all, he was the god of fertility!


Late in the day, we had the opportunity to sail in a felucca, a small sailboat with a very tall sail. These boats have been used by Nile fishermen for hundreds of years. The boat ride went for 2 hours down the Nile from Luxor. Each boat carried about 15 people. We were served drinks with nuts and olives. We had the choice of Stella Beer and Obelisk Wine, the popular brands in Egypt. The wine is quite good in Egypt. We were advised not to swim in the Nile because a few crocodiles still lurk in the waters. Also the murky water carries parasitic diseases which are common with the natives.

We enjoyed the beautiful sunset and since it was our last day in Egypt, we reflected about how to make sense out of all the overwhelming sights we experienced. The Egyptian people were friendly and hospitable, and we would recommend the trip to anyone like us who is not content to sit by the pool for days.

NEXT: Off Road Racing in Jordan; Explaoring Petra in the Footsteps of Indiana Jones




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