Hanging out in the Valley of the Kings. (Photo by Andrew Currie.)
Greetings from the lobby of the Movenpick Jolie Ville hotel, near Luxor. We have checked out and have 7 hours to kill before our overnight train ride back to Cairo. We’re taking this opportunity to relax and lavishly enjoy the free wifi offered by this extremely comfortable facility.
Today we visited the Temples of Karnak. Yes, we took time to also do a cheap version of the classic Johnny Carson Karnak routine (video forthcoming), so don’t ask. The temples of Karnak are an enormous facility, about 1.5km by 800m, containing obelisks, chapels and other stone artistic treasures dedicated to the Theban gods. Karnak was first built during the reign of Rameses III (12th century BC), and was maintained as a place of business and worship for 1500 years. Most of it has decayed and crumbled, but what remains provides quite a taste of what must have been one of the world’s most impressive architectural achievments. In fact, I would say that Karnak is as impressive an engineering feat as the Great Pyramids themselves, so colossal and intricate are its elements, which include scores of ram-headed sphinxes, obelishs, giant pillars, temples and even a giant artificial lake, fed by the water table. To have even designed such a thing speaks volumes about the scientific prowess of the ancients.
I am convinced that if Karnak had been more intact during the time of Herotodus, it would have been counted among the Wonders of the World.
Of course, I’ve been reading about Karnak for decades, and always suspected that one day I would stroll its avenues. But in those fantasies, I never imagined the clouds of annoying tourists blocking my view, scurrying about like rats in a granary, many rarely even looking up to perceive the true grandeur of the wonder before them. It caused us to rank the annoyingness of various tourist origins. I won’t mention which nationality came out as the most annoying, but I will happily report that the Japanese are the least annoying; they are generally happy, respectiful, stylish, engaged and quiet.
I’ve neglected to mention an important personal connection to the Valley of the Kings. Called “the greatest Egyptological find since Tutankhamen”, in 1995 Dr Kent Weeks discovered the tombs of the many sons of Rameses II, a find that has turned out to be the single largest tomb network ever discovered in Egypt. (It’s amazing that such stupefying discoveries are still being made in the modern era). The complex is not yet open to the public, but Dr Weeks’ online project, The Theban Mapping Project, gives us all a glimpse into the design and layout of the KV5 site.
It seems that an old childhood friend, and one of my early polymathic inspirations, was intimately involved in the development of the Theban Mapping Project. Walton Chan is an artist, animator, engineer and architect. When last we communicated, Good Morning America was about to report on his project —from a hot air balloon above the Valley of the Kings!
Indeed, my one regret from this trip is that I won’t have time to rent a hot air balloon and make a similar journey.
I’ve written a lot so far about the antiquities of Egypt, but very little about the bustle of modern Egypt. Cairo is a gorgeous, clean and modern megalopolis. Its subway is efficient and pristine. Several times, I had to remind myself that I was riding a subway in Africa! Luxor is cinematic in the way that high priced hotels and cobbled boulevards on the East Bank complement so well the ancient temples, ochre dust and reaching palm trees of the West Bank. Peppering it all is the smoky, colourful din of rich, Islamic life. Turbans, burqas, veils, luxuriant full-length embroidered suits and stylish leather shoes adorn passersby, lending further romantic zeal to the place.
Yes, the hassle of touts is intolerable. But today it’s all quite acceptable, because it’s the sabbath, and everyone is leaving us alone. The melodic call to prayer echoes from the various minarettes around town, providing a glorious soundscape to mirror the blinding noon sky and the pastel allures of the rising and setting suns.
And threading through both cities, eternal and silent, is the immortal Nile, sparkling and redolent with history.