Good Luck at Luxor

(Photo by Andrew Currie)

Luxor is simply lovely. It is the romantic stereotype of a former Nile capital: palm-lined river banks patrolled by lazy sailboats and ferries, Islamic traders bustling back and forth; on the East Bank, the imposing rusty pillars of the ancient Luxor temple, and, on the West Bank, the gateway to the storied Valley of the Kings. Above it all, hot air ballons dance against the blinding blue sky.

Luxor is also the “hassle capital” of Egypt, with touts, salesmen and drivers pestering us with every step. I’ve travelled a lot in the developing world, and like to think I’ve learned to “go with the flow” when it comes to such tactics. But in Egypt I have found the most annoyingly aggressive of this breed. Touts place items in your hand while you walk, then demand payment for it. They start conversations then insist that the dialogue is in fact a binding contract. They never ever take no or –as Andrew discovered– “leave us the @!#$ alone” for an answer.

Perhaps on another day, I’d be more forgiving. But we had just got off a jerky overnight train. We had barely slept and had not bathed. My back is still bugging me, to the point where every step is agony. I can put up with all of that. But to deal with those factors while fending off the unending barrage of touts is simply unbearable…. and I’m one of the nice ones. In fact, as Andrew keeps reminding me, I’m too nice. I’m very forgiving of these individuals who must scrounge to make a living. What they don’t understand is that if they’d simply give us room to think and breathe, we would happily pay more than market price for most items and services. We have money and we wish to spend it …lavishly! We just don’t want to be annoyed into it.

The hassle culture is so prevalent here that I would hesitate before recommending these locales to many friends as a tourism destination. If you’re not prepared to have your blood presssure climb into quadruple digits, Egypt is not the place for you.

That aside, today was filled with more explorations of Egypt’s storied antiquities. The gateway to the Valley of the Kings are dual megolithic statues called the Colossi of Memnon, each about 18m in height. The Greeks named them such because they believed them to be statues of legendary King Memnon. In fact, they were built by Pharaoh Amonhotep III centuries before the Greeks ruled this land. Weirdly, the nothern statue was famous in Greek times as being a “singing statue”. It seems that during sunrise, the temperature and pressure changes caused the colossus to emit a weird wailing noise, which the Greeks believed to be the cry of Memnon greeting his mother, Eos the Dawn. When the statue was repaired in the 2nd century AD, the strange noise ceased. Most interesting about the colossi is the Greek graffiti scratched onto their legs, perhaps dating back to Ptolemaic times!

Despite my earlier chastisement of the Egyptians for their poor management of the Pyramids of Giza (see photo above), I was very impressed by how they have preserved and protected the Valley of the Kings. The Valley, of course, is where the tombs of many Pharaohs –including that of Tutankhamun— were secretly located, to fool erstwhile ancient (and modern) grave robbers –with mixed results. Its entrance is a modern museum-style facility with information stations and a controlled security station –something the Pyramids desperately need!

We explored a number of tombs, including that of Tut himself. Tut’s tomb is among the least impressive, but is undoubtedly the most famous. Similar to our earlier good fortune at the Pyramid of Cheops, for a few minutes Andrew and I managed to find ourselves alone with Tut’s mummy, partially unwrapped, and with his famous golden sarcophagus, both recently returned to this site.

For those cognizant of history, it can be a very powerful moment, to stare into the unseeing eyes of King Tut himself, to appreciate his leathery, blackened skin, odd shaped skull and diminutive stature. The experience ties one to the trunk of history, and is a reminder that all great figures were merely mortal, fragile humans, even this boy king, once the wealthiest and most powerful figure in the world, his tragic story and rediscovery now part of the fabric of human world culture.

Tomorrow, on to the great temples at Karnak, then back on the overnight sleeper train to Cairo!