We have had great luck with our tours so far; everything has run smoothly and we have seen an learned about so many amazing places. I suppose it was inevitable that there would be a bump in the road eventually; today was the day. To be fair, virtually everyone I spoke to that went on the tour really enjoyed it, not all went smoothly.
We were supposed to dock at 7 am; the ship arrived on time but we had to wait until we received clearance from customs to disembark. We were off the ship at 7:10, so not too bad. We immediately spotted the yellow signs with the name “Phillips” on them so knew that we had found the guys from Love Egypt Tours. I introduced myself to Hass, who I had been communicating with regarding the tours, and was told that we needed to split up into two groups – those that had signed up for the sailboat lunch on the Nile, and those that had not. Those that wanted the lunch would pay an additional $15 per person; those that didn’t would eat elsewhere. Since there were over 120 people total, it made sense to split up so that those that wanted the boat lunch were all on the same buses. There were enough to fill a couple of tour buses. We loaded up the buses. . .and waited. . .and waited. . . and waited. There was supposed to be wi-fi on the bus but it was not turned on yet. We waited some more. Our guide, Abdullah, told us that there had been some threats of terrorism on social media this morning and that the police were the reason for the hold-up. They were deciding if we could still go, and then putting extra security in place. Oddly enough, we spoke to people that were on the other buses and they were not told the same story. Who knows if we were given the correct information?
Finally, we were given the all-clear and could proceed. We made it as far as the port building and were told that we would now have to disembark the bus and get in a line to go through security. We were also told to leave all of our belongings on the bus, including our passports. It seemed strange, but what can you do? We dutifully lined up, walked through a security scanner (which the guards ignored if anyone set it off), and walked through the building where the bus was waiting to pick us up. We have no idea what the purpose was. No passport check (that was done as we exited the ship) and if someone had a weapon, it was left on the bus so I have no clue what the purpose of scanning us was. Really strange; the most ridiculous security check we have ever been through.
It was going to be a long drive to Luxor. We were told 2 1/2 hours, and then we were told 3 hours. It actually was over 4 hours before we would arrive. Abdullah talked a little bit about Luxor. It used to be the capital of Egypt and was known by several names: Waset (which means horizon), Thebes (green land in Greek) and finally Luxor (Arabic for palaces). The temples to the east (Karnak and Luxor) were built for prayer; those on the west for mummification, such as the Valley of the Kings. Calling it the Valley of the Kings is a bit of misnomer since there are also 2 queens buried there. It should more properly be called the Valley of the Rulers. There are also other burial places: the Valleys of the Noblemen, Craftsmen, Scribes and Families.
The ride in was made extra-long by the fact that the promised on-board wi-fi did not work. People were none too happy about that and Abdullah seemed pretty stressed by the fact that people were not pleased. We spent the time looking out the windows and observing the very different street life that exists in Egypt compared to what we are used to.
For starters, we passed by multiple police checkpoints. At each one, the bus slowed or stopped and the heavily armed police basically just waved us through. I lost track of how many of these we passed through; they were numerous. After passing through one of them our bus had to pull over because there was a problem with the toilet onboard; someone had flushed toilet paper and clogged the system. This had to be dealt with before continuing on.
The road had a massive number of speed humps (all unmarked; glad the driver knew when they were coming) that we slowed down for. The road was a two-lane road, but the lane markings meant little to the drivers. The bus took their half of the road out of the middle. He passed multiple vehicles and used the horn freely. Good thing there was not a huge amount of traffic on the road given how many times we passed on a curve! We also slowed dramatically to cross train tracks; the bus needed to cross perpendicular to the tracks so had to angle itself just so before crossing.
As we got closer to Luxor we started to see small signs of civilization. We were driving next to a river that paralleled the Nile and so were starting to see trees and farms. This was the most interesting part of the drive. We saw women in traditional garb (long dresses and headscarves) leading goats along the side of the road. This area was known for growing sugar cane; we passed many donkey carts laden with cane being driven down the side of the road. There were lots of boys and men sitting along the side of the road (not sure why they were there, but they were very friendly – they would smile and wave at us as we passed them). Not too many women were out, but we did pass a few. We saw a few women wearing burkas, but not many. Most of the men wore the long dress (I don’t know what it is called) that seems to be traditional garb here. Some of the men wearing these outfits were sitting by the side of the road holding Uzis. That was a bit disconcerting. I asked Abdullah about them and he reassured me that they were police and the only reason they were there was because of the security threat. Um, no, those were not police. We passed plenty of police with machine guns and also other military in uniform with their machine guns. These just seemed to be citizens hanging out with their friends, fully armed.
It was common to see motorcycles with a caravan attached, hauling 3-4 people. I wasn’t able to get a picture of one but was told by a fellow passenger that they are common in India as well, so will try to photograph one there. Owning a car seemed to be uncommon; there were way more people walking, or using donkeys to haul cane, or riding motorcycles that had been modified in many unusual ways. The buildings were all made of stone; very square or rectangular in shape. There were openings for windows, but most had no glass. The top floor was not finished. Some were crumbling brick (it looked as though they had been bombed at some point). Virtually all had columns with rebar sticking up; it made it look as though they were unfinished. I spoke with a couple that had lived in Egypt for 5 years about this. They told me that the top floor is unfinished so the goats and garden can be kept up there. Also, more levels can always be added (perhaps as more wives are added?). I only bring up the wives because the woman that gave me a pedicure on the ship had been to Egypt before and told me that many men have 3 wives and need to add space to accommodate them. I am only reporting what was told to me!
Abdullah now filled us in on more information about Luxor. Luxor gets rain only 12-13 years. The reason it was the area chosen for tombs was that the tombs were built of local sandstone and limestone; it was important that they stay dry in order to protect the mummies contained within.
Our tour guide called us the Horus group. We had no idea initially that he was talking about the god Horus; it sounded like he was calling us by the name Horace. It seemed like an odd name for a tour group. . .it made so much more sense when he spelled it out for us! Every time he spoke to us, he would say, “Horus, please, your attention!”. He had a bit of a harsh-sounding voice, so it definitely got your attention promptly. We were told to ignore the hustlers that would try to sell us items at every stop.
Finally, we were able to get off the bus. By now, it was well after noon. We had been on that bus for nearly 5 hours. But, at our first stop we were not given time to use the toilets. We just had time to snap a couple of pictures of the Memnon statues which stood in front of a temple that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1864. Only the statues survived.
Memnon is not an Egyptian name; it is Greek (son of Aurora). There is a legend that Aurora’s son was killed in a war that would come to the statues every day to grieve (cry). When the earthquake happened holes formed in the statues. When the wind whistled through the holes, it sounded like the crying woman. The statues were restored and the sound stopped, but the local people thought that the crying stopped because the son and mother had been reunited in paradise. In honor of the mother, the statues were named after her son.
There were 3 time periods when tombs were built. In the old period, Cairo was where massive pyramids were built to bury the pharaohs. In the middle period, smaller pyramids were built in Memphis. It was during the new period that tombs were built in Luxor. These tombs were not pyramids; it was known by then that pyramids attracted tomb raiders and so tombs were now built underground. Tomb raiding was indeed common since pharaohs were buried with their valuables.
We were headed to the Valley of the Kings where 63 tombs are located (although only 6 at a time are open to be viewed). There was symbolism in its location. The Egyptians worshipped the sun god, Ammon Ra, who lived in the east. Since the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the tombs were located in the west (death being the sunset of your life). The tombs were discovered by an Englishman, Howard Carter in 1922. King Tuts tomb was the only one discovered that had not been raided. All of the antiquities found are in a museum in Cairo, unless they are on exhibition somewhere around the world.
Some of the tombs are very deep; others are just small shafts. On the day a king starts his rule, workers begin digging his tomb. If the king dies, they stop digging his tomb and start on the new king’s tomb. They bury the old king in the partially dug tomb. Therefore, if there is a long tomb, it means the king lived a long life. King Tut only lived to be 19, so his tomb was small. He was an unimportant king; the only reason he is famous is because his tomb was the only one found intact. Incidentally, it has been recently proven that Tut died from malaria. He was not killed by another king as was originally thought; King Ay offered his tomb to Tut because Tuts tomb was incomplete.
Each tomb is composed of 4 parts; the entrance, the 1st and 2nd corridors and the burial chamber. The burial chamber contained a sarcophagus that was brought in to the tomb in parts and reassembled since it was larger than the entrance to the tomb. Five groups of workers created the tombs. There was no light underground so how did they accomplish this? The first two groups were considered to be donkey jobs: the diggers and those that carried sand out. The third group plastered the walls; the walls were carved while still wet. The fourth group painted the colors; the colors were created by grinding natural stones and mixing them with egg whites. The final group were those that lit the tombs. This was accomplished by using a series of bronze mirrors at the different levels to reflect the light from above ground. Ingenious, indeed! These guys worked for 8 hours per day, 8 days per week. Impossible, you say? Wrong! The Egyptian week was ten days long. How did they know that 8 hours had passed and that their shift was over? They would squeeze grapes, mix the grape juice with some lotus juice and put it in jars. It took 8 hours to ferment and turn into wine. They tasted the juice; if it tasted like wine, their shift was over. Otherwise, back to work!
How do we know about Egyptian history? Abdullah told us that a poor source of information is the information in the temples. All kings and queens in temples are shown to be perfect beings. A 50-year old king would be pictured as a handsome 18-year old, so not at all accurate. Idealism is not realism.
A better source is papyrus. The information recorded on papyrus was written by scribes paid by the high priest as opposed to the king, so more accurate. Unfortunately, 70-75% of papyrus has been damaged, so Egyptians are missing part of their history.
No pictures are allowed inside the Valley of the Kings. They used to allow it but the flashes were damaging the paint in the tombs, so are not allowed any longer. We were told that the consequence for photography in the tombs is either large fines or death. We were offered the opportunity to buy a CD, book, and set of pictures for $10, but as usual, cheaped out and purchased a $1 set of postcards instead.
We were allowed to enter two tombs: Ramses II and Ramses IX. Ramses II was a very traditional tomb. The walls were covered with painted hieroglyphics. A long tunnel lead to the sarcophagus; there were smaller corridors with spaces embedded to hold the king’s wealth. An Egyptian guy in the tomb told my husband that he looked like King Ramses (probably was looking for a tip!) and that I was his queen, Nefartari. The other tomb was larger and more unique. Other kings put pictures depicting their ancestors on the wall; this one put scenes from his imagination about what he thought the afterlife would look like. He had quite the imagination – people were depicted that had multiple heads, no heads, hanging upside down, part animal/part human, etc. When he died the workers refused to leave his tomb. They wanted to complete it. It was agreed that they would be given 42 days to complete the ceiling (42 days is how long the mummification process takes). They completed as much as they could and then had to move on to the next tomb.
One quick side note: Christians defaced many of the tombs. They were used to hide in during times of Christian persecution. To be fair, Muslims have done the same.
These workers houses still existed until 9 years ago when they were removed. There had been a hundred-year long struggle to get them to move out. They have been practicing the same crafts for multiple generations; this was their livelihood. Finally, an agreement was reached that they would move to new housing but be allowed to continue practicing their ancient craft. Our next stop was a visit to a shop kept by these craftsmen.
They put on a little show for us showing the steps of processing alabaster; each person would show us their step and the rest would sing or chant what was going on. It was a “required” stop; at least they tried to make it entertaining. We were then sent in to the shop for 1/2 hour of shopping time. We certainly did not need 30 minutes to shop but were not given any other option. We wanted to pick up something from Egypt for our grandson so chose something & purchased it. The problem was that most of the things were too large and too heavy to easily transport home, but we would not have any other chances to shop, so it was buy something here or not at all.
Clayton struck up a conversation with someone on another bus (but part of our group) and was told that the company somehow thought that our ship didn’t leave until 11 pm, so were planning on heading back to port at 8 pm. I had clearly communicated to them that our ship was leaving at 9 pm; all aboard was at 8:30 pm, and we wanted to be back at least an hour before that. The guy said that everyone on their bus had told them that they had to be back by 8:30 but we were not comfortable with that. What if we got a flat tire, or were in an accident, or delayed for some other reasons? Our next 4 days are at sea; we would have to spend a small fortune to get ourselves to Salalah, Oman (our next port) and to pay for a hotel and meals until we could catch up to the ship. We always ask to be back in port at least an hour early to be safe; it has never been an issue (until today).
I found our tour guide and explained the problem. He got a bit upset because the schedule for the day was now messed up. I suggested we find Hass, the person that I arranged the tour with (he was with the tour groups all day as well) and try to clear up the problem. I told him that we had to be back by 7:30; he said that the other buses said that 8:30 was ok. I told him that 8:30 was not ok and that it had to be 7:30. He said that it was impossible; the best he could do was 8 pm. I was not pleased. Really not pleased. I felt like he should be responsive to the needs of our group. My husband and I were not the only people that wanted to be back by 7:30; we had spoken to others and they all agreed that 7:30 was the latest time they were comfortable with. I got back on the bus and told Clayton about the conversation. He was not very happy, either. At this point, Abdullah asked me to talk to him off the bus, so I left the bus again. He had forgotten to tell me that as a gift for arranging the tour that the company would let me pick out anything in the shop. Anything? Any price? Yes! I wish I would’ve known this before we spent our own money there, but I was happy to go back in to find something. The only issue was, just like before, the larger objects were heavy and fragile; very difficult to bring home in a suitcase. I selected a small vase; they wrapped it up for me and I headed back towards the bus. Hass stopped me; I guess the vase didn’t cost enough and they also wanted to make me a necklace with my name spelled in Egyptian. I thought this was a nice gesture, but he said they would make it and bring it out. I was having a hard time hearing and understanding him; I may have misunderstood. However, I did let him know that I would prefer to move the tour along rather than wait for the necklace, so I walked back to the bus.
We still had not had lunch; it was after 2 pm by now. Abdullah could tell that people were not happy with the tour at this point. Clayton had talked to him to let him know that we wanted to be back to port by 7:30, but he still would not agree. He kept saying that the ship would not leave without us, that the tour buses for NCL tours wouldn’t be leaving until 5 pm, and to trust them. Joel, another passenger, also came up to let him know that we needed to be back earlier than 8:30; Abdullah seemed to capitulate at that point and we continued our drive to the Temple of Hatshepsut. We walked through a small bazaar on the way to the temple; a shopkeeper came out to admire my hat and tell Clayton what a lucky man he was (probably hoping to make a sale). He then asked Clayton how many chickens he would like to sell me to him. LOL! I actually was a bit hurt that I was only worth chickens. I think a cow and a few goats would’ve been a more appropriate offer.
This temple was built by a queen that married her brother (he was apparently easy to control), then killed him. She shared rule with her stepson for 3 years then exiled him for 21 years, taking over sole rule of the country. When she died, he returned and damaged her temple out of spite. There are 24 pillars; each should have a statue of a man with a false beard, but these were destroyed. Some of the pillars have been restored by Polish artisans in 1983. We were given a few minutes to go into the temple (which involved going up two long sets of steps). We were approached by an Egyptian guy that posed for pictures with Clayton (for a tip, of course!).
We ran into a guy from our tour that told us that their bus had broken down, reinforcing the fact that we really wanted to get back to port early. Quite a few people on our bus were willing to give up lunch to save time, but the tour company would not agree to that. So, off to lunch we went.
Lunch was not on a sailboat; it was on a long motorboat. There were 3 of the boats roped together; each had two tables surrounded by seats with cushions. Each table had pita bread, hummus, very spicy baba ganoush, chopped veggies, and some spicy tomatoes. We all inhaled his food; by now it was about 3:15 in the afternoon. We just assumed that this was lunch. We were surprised when they brought out plates of grilled meat and rice pilaf, as well as some stewed okra and stewed potatoes in a tomato-type sauce. One of the meats was some type of sausage (maybe lamb?); the other might have been chicken. No beverage was included; the guy offered to sell us cans of soda for $5 each. No thanks. I talked to someone that was on one of the other boats; they were offered soda for $2 per can. Interesting. After we ate, the plates were cleared and we headed across the Nile.
The Nile river seems to be used as a garbage dump. There was all types of garbage floating along; very nasty. When we reached the other side there was a large area with scum on the top of the water and garbage stuck in the scum. In the middle of the scum was a man sitting in the water, washing out his shirt.
By now it was 4 pm and we had one final stop, the Temple of Luxor. We were supposed to see the Temple of Karnak, but that was further away and we were out of time. Driving up to the temple, we passed the line of 1,222 sphinxes that were installed by Ramses II. They lead up to the temple which is unique in that it encompasses three religions. Of course, the main religion is Ammon Ra, the Egyptian god, but there is also a Christian church (Christians hid here for a hundred years) and a Muslim mosque that was built above the temple 400 years ago. We took some pictures and then took one last opportunity to use the toilets before boarding the bus. We left Luxor at 4:30 and should have been back to port by 7:30 as promised.
As we drove back we saw many men out on the streets, behind shops, talking and smoking hookahs. Not many women were out; we did see a few in the only city we drove through, but it was mainly men. Most of the police guard checkpoints were either empty, or the guards were asleep. One strange thing we noticed is that though it was dark, no one used the headlights on their cars. Occasionally, someone would flash their headlights at the bus, and of course, people were honking at each other continually. When we reached the highway, about 2 hours into the drive, more used their headlights. Our guide gave us each an Ankh from the shop we had stopped at earlier. About 45 minutes from port we stopped at a rest area that had toilets. Some people bought soda; some purchased souvenirs.
We arrived at the port at 8:10. As we turned into the port, the bus hit a car. Some guys came out of the port gate, loud conversation with hand-waving ensued, but no one talked to the guy that got hit. The guys left, we drove in, but rather than going to the ship, we had to get off the bus to go through the ridiculous security checkpoint again. Leaving all belongings and passports on the bus, we filed through the metal detectors. The security guards ignored it if the detector beeped. We were directed back to the bus and were then dropped off at the ship.
As you can probably tell, I had mixed feelings about the tour today. We saw some amazing sites. That was great. We learned a lot. But, we only had a few minutes at each place (15 min. max) and spent hours and hours on the bus. I don’t think there is any way around that given the location of the sites in relation to the port. However, if we were going to do it all over again. I would opt for a more in-depth tour of fewer sites. We felt rushed all day long (even before we found out that the tour company didn’t think they needed to have us back to the ship until 11 pm). I wish they would have been willing to leave out one of the stops along the way so we could have spent more time at the places we visited. I especially wish we could’ve recaptured the 30 minutes spent at the alabaster shop. I know that part of the problem was the late start (which was not our fault), but I am sure the company has dealt with this before and should have strategies in place for adjusting their schedule. Those of us on the tour were willing to leave out one of the stops (including even lunch!) to make the schedule work so that we could get back to the ship on time. What was especially interesting was talking to people that had been on different buses and had gotten completely different explanations of what was going on. I know that “these things happen” and have tried to be fair and balanced in my description of the day.