Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tomb Raiders: Luxor West Bank

The West Bank of Luxor is jammed with tombs - tombs for kings, tombs for queens, tombs for nobles, tombs for priests and officials.  With only one day to see it all (and always wary of experiencing Tomb Tiredness), we had to prioritize.  What follows is an account full of tombs, hikes and, of course, baksheesh.

The West Bank by night.
(Needless to say, the locals are none-to-happy about how the government funneled millions of tourist dollars into (1) lighting up the monuments every night (and the ensuing light-pollution) and (2) building a giant wall between the villages and the monuments, blocking their views and screwing up herding and watering their animals)

Our first stop was at the Valley of the Kings, a huge necropolis with 63 tombs of Pharaohs from the 16th to 11th century BC.  Only about ten tombs are open at any given time, and your entry ticket gives you access to three tombs of your choice (Tut's tomb requires an extra ticket).  This was by far the most crowded sight we'd visited in Egypt and we spent much of our time waiting in long, single file lines of loudly chattering elderly Americans with canes and fat sunburned Russians in skimpy clothing (honestly, were we the only young (I was still in my 20s, after all), good-looking (ridiculously good-looking, really) tourists in all of Luxor?).  We would file slowly through the long passageway into the tomb, pause briefly to look at a barricaded-off sarcophagus or empty burial chamber while people said things like “My word!” and “Wouldya look at that, Frank?”, and then filed slowly out.  After the first tomb, Ramses IX, our strategy went from, “let’s hit the most popular (so clearly best) tombs” to “let’s hike up to where the old folks can’t go and visit the most out-of-the-way, least popular tombs we can.”   The next two tombs – Merenptah, with a giant sarcophagus lid, and Tuthmosis IV, boasting detailed renderings of the goddesses’ intricately beaded dresses – were much better.

The Valley of the Kings, from above.
This is all we've got - no photography allowed in the tombs. 
Click on the links above to see photos of the tombs we visited.

We were ready to get away from the crowds and off the beaten path, so we struck out into the desert towards a ridge that connects the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, and the Temple of Hatshepsut (a lady pharoah!).  Half a dozen boys who had been sitting around listening to cellphone music followed us for a while, insisting that we needed a guide and that without them we’d be helplessly lost, special price for guide, very cheap, very nice.  We blew them off, hiked up to the ridge, turned right and, in fact, were immediately lost.  Luckily we soon ran into a Canadian man who pointed us in the right direction  We walked up and down the rocky slope, past a police outpost (we later learned that it was illegal for tourists to do this hike, but the police – smoking, lounging and listening to cellphone music, of course – just lazily waved hello) and along a ridge that took us above and around the magnificent temple of Hatshepsut.  The path sort of petered out so we slip-slided our way down the ridge and headed over to the temple

Setting off on the hike.

The Temple of Hatshepsut, from above.
Hatshepsut was one of the only known female Pharaohs (most queens ruled together with co-regents, who could be their husbands but were sometimes just another male relative such as a son).  Girl power!
Dave in the desert.
Nice manpris.
In front of the Temple of Hatshepsut.
We had hiked all along that ridge above.

A close-up from the Temple.
We had arranged to meet our taxi driver in the parking lot at Hatshepsut.  We were a little late (since, as always, he told us we'd be done in an hour in hopes that his job would be over sooner), and he was nowhere to be found.  After about half an hour of searching the lot, walking down the road and just sitting and waiting, we approached the Hatshepsut tourist police.  As always, this police outpost consisted of a senior officer, uniform straining over his large belly, seated at a beat-up table strewn with newspapers.  Behind him, in smaller chairs, sat his subordinates, and next to them, a broken metal detector and bag xray machine.  It goes without saying that all of these men were heavily mustachioed. We explained our predicament and asked to use their phone to call the driver. Of course, it turned out that the number we had been giving was missing a digit.  Out of options (but feeling like we couldn't abandon the driver since we hadn't yet paid him for the day before), we told the officers the driver's first name (which was something totally generic like Ahmed) and showed them photos we had taken of the car and of Ahmed himself (our standard procedure in a land of similar-looking swarthy men and similar-looking beat up cars).  No one recognized our guy, but they made some calls, passed the photos around, and sure enough, within five minutes Ahmed had been tracked down.  We were shocked and also a little touched by this rare display of Egyptian police efficiency.  Perhaps the tourist police draws from a more qualified pool than the general police, better known for their corruption and brutality.  Before long, Ahmed pulled up in his taxi and exclaimed, "Big man call me! Ha ha! Big man call!"  Dave very sternly told him, "Well, yeah.  We waited for you for a long time and you weren't here. So we had to have the police call you.  Where were you?"  To which Ahmed blithely responded, "Oh, don't worry about me.  I was just having tea."  Uh, thanks Ahmed.

The villain of our story.  Also, the photo that saved the day.
After a quick lunch (we relented and went to the place Ahmed was insisting on the day before, it was fine) we stopped to see the Colossi of Memnon.  These massive stone statues used to stand guard at Pharaoh Amenhotep III's massive funerary complex (of which very little remains, but excavations are still ongoing).  Ancient travelers reported hearing the statues whistle eerily - but this turned out to be caused by a giant crack in the stone that was later fixed.  Lame.

One of the Colossi (a Colossus?).
I don't know for sure, but I would bet this was featured in Transformers 2. 
He sure looks like a Transformer.
Our next stop was the Valley of the Nobles, the burial place for some powerful courtiers and other important (non-royal) people. It’s a sad truth about Egyptian monuments and other sights that they are, across the board, poorly marked, with inadequate or no signage or descriptions.  However, the Valley of the Nobles is perhaps the worst offender.  Tourists are required to buy tickets to the tombs in the Valley of the Nobles near the Colossi of Memnon, an approximately 15 minute drive from the actual tombs.  Each ticket entitles the bearer to visit ONLY the two or three tombs listed on that ticket.  If you want to see tombs that are not on the same ticket, you are required to then purchase multiple ticket groups.  The tomb complex itself is a barren, hilly desert, with occasional, obviously misplaced sign posts showing in which approximate direction some of the tombs are located.  There are no other signs.  There ARE (obviously) lots of guys offering to help you find your way (for very good price, of course) but at this point we would rather wander aimlessly than have to listen to yet another sales pitch about an uncle's papyrus shop.

Believe me, this was of zero help.  I think this sign pointed to the parking lot.
Eventually, we managed to end up at one of the tombs we had bought a ticket for. After trailing around behind us for a while, the guard conspiratorially put his finger to his lips and beckoned us over to a closed off area.  We looked at each other and decided we'd submit to the inevitable baksheesh demands and see what he was offering.  We were not disappointed.  The guard led us down an impossibly steep and narrow passageway into what must have been a very, very deep tomb.  

If I look a little nervous in this photo, it's because I was.
Hey, even Indiana Jones got scared sometimes.
It was pitch black inside and the guard insisted that we pose in front of a boring... something.

Ancient urinal?
Also note that the column on the right appears to be crumbling.  This did not inspire confidence. 
Maybe there's a reason tourists are supposed to keep out of certain areas?

Then he beckoned us into a side room for the highlight - an "ancient" skull that he had undoubtedly placed there himself.  

Man, those olden-day Egyptians must have had tiny heads.
And finally, he stood blocking the exit route and took us down for 40 pounds in tips.  Oh well.  In this case we (sort of) felt it was worth the $10.

We tried to visit the rest of the tombs we had bought tickets for but were soon discouraged.  If we could find the tomb at all, we would spend the entire visit trailed by a guard offering unsolicited information.  Standing next to me, he would point to the hieroglyph I was already looking at.   If it was a hieroglyph of a Pharaoh, he would say "Pharaoh."  Or if it was of a Pharaoh drinking from a cup, he would offer "Pharaoh drink."  If I was examining a hieroglyph of a cow?  "Cow."  You get the point.  When not stating the obvious, the guard would encourage us to do things like sit on the lap of a seated statue for a good photograph.

We declined the offer to sit on and thus contribute to the destruction of the ancient statues.
It really is a sad state of affairs that the men hired to protect Egypt's ancient sights are paid so little that they are incentivized to do exactly the opposite.  Obviously, telling tourists to touch and climb all over the monuments will just serve to ruin them, and it was also especially annoying to be constantly hassled while we were just trying to explore in peace. At the same time, we couldn't help but feel sorry for these men who had to constantly and shamelessly hound people for money all day just to scrape by.  What we really wanted to do was give them money just to leave us alone.

Anyway, eventually we climbed back into Ahmed's car and asked him to take us home.  "First, you visit my uncle's papyrus shop" he said.  We politely declined.  "But you must.  I already tell my uncle you are come.  He wait for you."  We explained that he shouldn't have done that since we had no intention of visiting any papyrus shops and we had told him so from the start..  "No need to buy.  Just look.  No charge for look."  Again we demurred, and so Ahmed just drove us to the papyrus shop anyway, insisting "you tell my uncle you no want to visit shop."  The uncle ran out when we pulled up and invited us into his shop.  We cooly refused.  He pleaded, cajoled, wheedled, got a little angry.  "Very nice papyrus!  You are my first customer of the day. Is very good luck. My nephew tell me all day you want to look.  No charge for look!  Make me a sale.  You are my last customer of the day."  But we steadfastly refused to budge from the car and eventually (it felt like forever) they relented and drove us back to the hotel, where Dave miscalculated what we owed and gave Ahmed - not our favorite person at ths point - a very large tip.  He still to this day thinks constantly about that tip and every time we feel obligated to give money for bad service we say, "yeah, but at least it wasn't like that time with Ahmed in Luxor."

A sunsetter mint tea on the roof of our hotel to make Dave feel better.

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