In order to get to Luxor from the port of Safaga, expect to spend about 4 hours traveling from point A to point B! We have visited Luxor before (in 2016), and I was curious to compare our experiences then and now. The last time we visited, there was a terrorist threat in Cairo (quite a bit north of Safaga), and it was unclear whether or not we would even be able to leave the port. After a long delay and ridiculous security check (leave all of your personal possessions on the bus, and walk through the scanners before returning to the bus), we had a frustrating day due to time limitations. I was the tour organizer and got very little respect from the tour company. So, I wanted to give Egypt another try; to see it when I was not stressed out!
Someone from Cruise Critic had set up a tour through Viator, and so we signed up. There were only supposed to be 9 on the tour, which is much more enjoyable than touring with a bus-load of people. We met onboard beforehand and disembarked together after getting the “all clear” to go ashore. Our tour guide, Roshdy, was waiting for us and led us to the van.
Just like before, we stopped before leaving the port for a security check. This time, however, we brought our stuff with us and were separated into two lines, one for men and one for women. Another bus unloaded behind us. We told them they would need to go into separate lines, but one loud guy in the group told us they refused to do so; no one could tell them what to do! What a fool! If security officials want you in separate lines, then go in separate lines. Of course, they were not allowed to stay in the shorter line; they did indeed have to follow the rules. But, I digress! The security check was much like an airport security check, but with a pat down at the end. There was a woman to pat down the women, which is obviously why we had lines separated by gender.
We loaded up the van to start our trip. Though only 9 had signed up with the Cruise Critic group, there were 11 total. I assume a couple had signed up directly with the company which was fine because the van had plenty of room to spread out! Extra space was really appreciated after our tight squeeze in Israel. And, the road to Luxor is not just long, it is bumpy and windy. It would’ve been a miserable ride if we didn’t have enough space. The first part of the ride was through the desert – lots of hills, but no vegetation.
About an hour or so into the ride, we were given a short break at a tourist stop. It is expected that you contribute some money at every toilet in Egypt. We didn’t have local currency so gave $1 US for the two of us. There were both western and “squatty potties” in all of the public toilets we visited. Toilet paper was handed out at the door. I guess that is what you are paying for! Naturally, there were people trying to sell you goods – t-shirts, scarfs (they will come up and try to wrap one around your head to encourage you to buy it), handbags, etc. – your typical tourist goods. To give credit where credit is due, the Egyptians are the most persistent people in terms of trying to see you stuff, with the Israelis a close second! One guy in our group bought a $10 t-shirt. He thought he got a good deal because the vendor asked $45 initially. I think he was ripped off! I think his wife would agree! A cute little donkey was hanging around outside; Clayton made friends with it while we waited to load the van.
I counted eleven security checkpoints on the road to Luxor. Each is manned by the Egyptian military. There is a guard hut before and after the checkpoint, and a guard tower as well. Most of the time, each was manned by a guard with a machine gun. There are also speed humps before and after each checkpoint, which makes for a bumpy ride!
As we got closer to Luxor, the scenery changed. There were more buildings (notice the rebar sticking up?), and more trees. We passed many sugar cane fields and saw donkey carts loaded with cane. Each community had guards with machine guns. The last time we were here, I saw many civilians with weapons; this time, it was men dressed in military attire. Somehow, this was more reassuring. We saw a couple of women on donkeys herding goats. They were accompanied by dogs. Roshdy said the dogs were for the women’s protection.
Roshdy gave us some information about Egypt as we neared town. He talked about the ancient number system. I was interested to find that it was a base 10 system, though rather than using numbers, they used symbols. So, the number 45 would be 4 of the symbols for 10 (upside down U – my app doesn’t have the correct symbol) followed by 5 tally marks (ones).
He told us about the main Egyptian gods, Amun Ra being the primary one. Each god had a symbols, such as a ram, a falcon, etc. I wish I could be more specific, but Roshdy had a fairly strong accent and talked fast; I had a bit of a hard time understanding him.
Ancient Egyptians believed they would be reincarnated after death, and so were buried with all of the accoutrements needed for a happy hereafter. A king’s tomb was started when he became king. The Valley of the Kings has many unfinished tombs because the king died before his tomb was completed. There are 64 tombs that have been discovered. No map exists of the Valley of the Kings because no one was supposed to know where the kings were buried. Burial took place on the west side of the Nile; the only people allowed to live on that side of the river were craftsmen. They lived out their lives on the west side and were buried there in a separate area. That way, they couldn’t tell anyone where the tombs were located. Everyone else lived on the east side of the Nile.
Contained in the tombs are the kings, the son of the kings, and the animals of the kings. Queens were buried in a separate area (the Valley of the Queens). Since no one visits the Valley of the Queens, I can only assume that their “digs” were not as fancy!
Bodies were mummified before being interred. The first step was to clean the body and then remove the organs (except for the heart). The organs were placed in 4 jars shaped like the gods (canopic jars). The body aged in salt for 20 days to dry it out. A scarab made of alabaster was placed above the heart and the body was anointed with perfume and oil before being wrapped up in cloths and sent to the bank of the Nile for burial.
When a king died, his first son from his first wife would become king. If his first wife had no sons, his first son from his second wife would take over. Kings had many wives, so normally there would be a son that could become the next king. Queen Hatshepsut was an interesting counter example; more about her later!
The Valley of the Kings has 22 tombs that are open for viewing. We would visit two. Not all tombs are created equal, and so we visited two of the nicer ones. There is a security check before entering, and cameras are confiscated. Unlike our last visit, cell phone pictures are allowed (but you can’t use your flash). There is a short tram ride out to the site after passing through security and the visitor’s center.
Each tomb has someone to punch your ticket, so if you go, make sure you don’t lose your ticket! Tombs can be as deep as 200 meters underground, so there is a series of chambers that you pass through to reach the burial chamber. The walls and ceiling are painted with all types of symbols. Everywhere you look there are painted surfaces! The paint was created using plants as coloring. We saw the tombs of Ramses IV, where Christians hid from the Romans (there are crosses inside) and Ramses IX (whose sarcophagus was stolen by the Romans).
From the Valley of the Kings, we were taken to the requisite shopping stop – an alabaster shop (Lux Four Alabaster). There are many alabaster shops nearby; I am sure each tour company has a particular shop they have a deal with! Before entering, you are given a little spiel about how the alabaster figurines and vases are created. I assume this is to prevent sticker shock when you see the prices inside! They warn you against buying cheap knockoffs from street vendors and markets (where a figurine can be had for $1!). We didn’t want to shop, but made a token loop through the shop to look at the goods before heading outside. Sadly, our van driver was taking a break, so we were pestered by beggars. And, they were quite persistent (though ultimately unsuccessful)!
We had one more stop before lunch – the temple of Queen Hatshepsut. She was quite a woman! I couldn’t completely follow the story we were told by Roshdy, but basically, the son of the king’s mother was not royal, so he was not eligible to become king. And, being a woman, she wasn’t either. Solution? Get married! They were half-siblings rather than full siblings, but still…Anyhow, in her lust for power, she sent her son to Syria to learn how to be a king, and she took over. Roshdy said she lived her life as a man, which wasn’t totally clear to me. I guess that means she dressed like a man??? Anyhow, her temple is unique in that it is built above ground. The queen had a “friends with benefits” relationship with the architect of the temple. He was not royal, so wasn’t able to be with the queen in the afterlife; his tomb is located to the right of the temple on the hillside. The statues of the queen were damaged when her son returned from Syria. I guess he was a little peeved that his mom had taken over in his absence!
Finally, it was lunch time (2:30 pm). So glad we remembered to bring a snack along to tide us over! We have learned the hard way that many cultures eat lunch much later in the day than we are used to. We ate at a restaurant called, “Africa”. Lunch was incredible. We started with fresh, warm pita bread with a variety of spreads, and then were given lentil soup. The main course was chicken shawarma. It was completely different from chicken shawarma I have had in the US, but it was tasty! It was served in a crockery bowl with onions and peppers. I don’t know what spices were used in its preparation but it was tasty!
We boarded a boat to cross the Nile, just like on our last visit. It’s a quick 5-10 minute trip. I noticed that the river was much cleaner this time – not sure if the government has cracked down on the pollution issue, but the river was filthy the last time we were here. On the east side of the river we could see the Temple of Luxor. We visited there last time, but this time, we would get to see the Temple of Karnak.
Or, should I say, the Temples of Karnak! This is a series of temples built to honor the god Amun Ra. Ramses II built the first temple, but other kings added on to it. It is an enormous complex of temples – simply magnificent. Giving credit where credit is due, Ramses was a prolific guy – he had 90 sons and 116 daughters!
The statue of Ramses was inscribed with his name. His successor removed Ramses’ name and replaced it with his own!
Passing through the columns, it is hard to comprehend from the photographs how massive they are. Each is topped with a lotus flower.
In Egypt, obelisks come in pairs. This temple was no exception.
The lake is a 80 meter x 40 meter x 11 meter pool whose water comes from the Nile River. It was used for ritual cleansing before worship. Now, there is a light and sound show here every night.
This brought us to the end of our tour. Now, only 3 hours to get back to port! Not sure why it takes 4 hours to get there and only 3 hours to return, but there you go. Perhaps it is because there are fewer checkpoints (we seemed to drive through them rather than stopping) and fewer cars on the road, so the driver could go faster.