Death (of Tourism) on The Nile
Luxor, Egypt April 2015
Feeling like visiting royalty (especially as Dan insisted on wearing his ghutra (Saudi headdress) as a sun-hat, we were waved through the numerous check-points on the 4 hour taxi journey to Luxor. Apart from the half-built railway line that followed the road and the occasional car (and tank!) it could have been the turn of the century – the 20th century! The donkey and cart still seems the most popular form of transport. The strangest thing was that not one house or building was completely finished or had a roof – they all have support rods sticking out of the tops. They’ve even invented interesting ways of using these as make-shift washing lines, TV aerials, flag poles, and even strung over with reeds to make a temporary spare room. Dan, “the font of all knowledge” informs me it’s because they have to pay housing tax once a house is “finished” so they therefore leave the roof off! Interesting… and good job the pharaohs didn’t have that problem, otherwise the pyramids would have looked very odd indeed!
We soon left behind the endless desert and small towns and villages and followed the banks of the Nile into the centre of Luxor. The car weaved between a strange mix of once majestic European Colonial buildings looking terribly run-down or even in crumbling ruins, mixed with cheap modern apartment blocks. The exception was the historic Winter Palace Hotel with it’s sweeping staircases leading up to the grand entrance. Horse and carriages competed in vain with the conventional taxis along The Corniche, the avenue which swept along what must have once been a wonderful Promenade alongside the Nile. The almost total absence of “tourists” soon became apparent, although the streets were busy. Row upon row of Cruise Ships were lined up along the banks, all looking severely decrepit and in need of several coats of paint and most were totally deserted. The most spectacular and incongruous sight however, was the huge monoliths of the Luxor Temple and an incredible avenue of sphinxes just protruding out of the dust amongst the buildings. These 3000 year-old monuments took your breath away with their magnitude and significance.
Pulling up to our hotel, the wonderfully decadent Steigenberger Nile Palace, we felt a little out of place in our jeans, t-shirts and back-packs. I imagined how it must have been back in Egypt’s heyday in the 20s and 30s when white suits and panama hats were “de rigueur” and the luggage justified its own car. Now I think we would have been welcomed whatever we wore. The hotel was less than 10% occupied and we almost had the incredible pool area to ourselves – the Russians obviously hadn’t made it this far. The hotel is designed to look like a Sphynx, the main body of the hotel lying back with 2 “legs” containing a restaurant and a bar laid out in front surrounding the pool and looking out onto the Nile. The main part of the hotel encompasses a courtyard almost Mediterranean in style, with flowers and bougainvillea trailing from the balconies and birds flying between the floors. Although we wished we had splashed out an extra tenner a night for a Nile view room, our spacious balcony overlooked this central atrium and was delightfully peaceful to sit out on after a long, hard morning of sightseeing.
Feeling refreshed after a beer or two by the pool, we decided to catch the night time sound and light show at the Karnak temple, the other major site on the East Bank. After fending off a barrage of horse and cart drivers, taxi drivers, wannabee tour guides and finally being duped by a tout who seemed genuine but ended up leading us to his friend’s souvenir shop (we wondered why he was so keen to educate us on the manufacturing process involved in producing papyrus!), we decided that it was too exhausting to try and walk anywhere (not because of the heat, but the constant hassling wore you down).
When the hotel doorman hailed us a cab from the dozens parked outside, the driver, oddly named Mr.Fish, treated us like his “catch of the day”. Reeling us in, hook, line and sinker he managed to con us into using his friend as a “guide” no doubt getting a backhander for doing so. He also managed to just “be there” every time we exited the hotel or a temple! However, we did feel a bit sorry for him when he explained that he had been waiting outside our hotel for TWO DAYS For a fare!
The sound and light show was rather too “theatrical” for my liking, but the temples did take on a special ambience at night, and it felt as though Indiana Jones was about to come running out behind one of the huge pillars chased by the pharaoh’s mummy (and possibly his daddy too!). Talking of the pharaoh’s mummy – well to be precise his step-mummy – we were fascinated to learn that pharaoh Tuthmosis III had disliked his stepmother, the great female cross-dressing “king” Hatshepsut so much that most of her statues and images had been defaced and he built a high wall to cover up an obelisk she had erected. Now there was a boy in need of therapy or should that be pharaoh-py??? It is a story worth reading up on with more drama and intrigue than an Eastender’s omnibus: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/hatshepsut_01.shtml
The site was no less impressive the following morning in the daylight and it was heartening to see a few more tourists exploring the temple complex. They were still uncovering smaller temples and tombs on the outskirts of the main temple. The scale of Karnak is incredible. It is the largest temple complex ever built by man and over a time period of some 1300 years. It has featured in several movies including The Spy Who Loved Me, Battlestar Gallactica as well as countless computer games such as Lara Croft and The Sims. Their building techniques tend to make Stonehenge, which was completed around the same time as work started on Karnak, look rather primitive to say the least.
We ventured out of the hotel most evenings, working our way down the top 5 recommended restaurants on Trip Adviser. Dan insisted he wanted authentic “Egyptian” food, and we were amused to find that his No. 1 choice was owned by the very hospitable Laura from Lancashire and served a reasonable veggie shepherds pie and decent roast dinner! We eventually gave up on our quest and settled for a great wood-fired pizza and finally an Indian on our last night! Maybe Egyptians just don’t eat anymore.
We were still being trawled by the ubiquitous Mr Fish, who offered Dan 20,000 camels PLUS a chicken for his mother! I could tell that he was almost tempted by this offer, as he asked if the chicken came KFC style and included fries!
The following morning was one of the most unforgettable of the trip. As a treat, we had booked a sunrise hot air balloon trip for the princely sum of £32 each and did wonder if for this price we’d be handed a bunch of helium balloons and a guide book. We tried hard not to dwell too much on the balloon disaster in Luxor two years previously, where the gas canister exploded mid-air, killing or severely maiming all 21 passengers. Of course (!) safety standards had improved since then, and our company, Sinbad balloons, surely had a back-up plan in the shape of a flying carpet.
Our pilot did fill us with confidence as he filled the balloon with hot air – a good start. As we seamlessly lifted off the ground we took in the glorious views of the sun rising over the Nile. Sadly the wind didn’t blow us over the Valley of the Kings and Queens as I had hoped but the memory of that morning will go down as one of those “pinch me, am I really here doing this” moments. And all the more special for sharing it with a loved one.
We sailed silently over shepherds herding their flocks and farmers in their carts on the way to market soaking up the early morning rays, and had a relatively smooth landing in a wheat field.
We completed our sightseeing that afternoon with a tour of the Luxor Temple and museum. Walking down “Sphinx Alley” which originally paved the way between the two complexes of Luxor and Karnak, it was incredible to think that around 1350 sphinxes originally lined the route. Remnants of around 850 are still visible and some were recently unearthed after the rundown tower blocks which had been built on top of them were demolished. It was also quite sad to see these majestic statues surrounded in part by what looked like the local rubbish dump.
Walking back towards the Luxor Temple, the entrance was originally framed by a pair or large obelisks. The French decided to pinch one back in 1833 and it now stands in the Place de la Concorde, leaving the other looking quite disproportionate. At least us Brits didn’t go about nicking valuable and historic artefacts from our Colonial cousins!
The French certainly left their mark on both temples. In a disastrous example of an “it seemed like a good idea at the time” moment, French excavators in 1899, decided to allow the Nile’s waters to flood through the Karnak complex to wash away the salt filled soil which was slowly eroding the stones. This resulted in 11 of the great columns losing their foundations and falling over… oops! It wasn’t all bad news; on the plus side, almost 800 granite statues and over 17,000 bronze effigies were unearthed once the site was drained.
The Luxor Temple didn’t escape the impact of those naughty French, and graffiti dating back to the early 1800s can be found scratched into the sacred columns. Even the Romans had the decorators in, turning part of the interior into a Coptic church, along with Christian friezes and Roman columns. In fact the temple grounds have been in continuous use as a place of worship for over 3000 years, as we discovered when we confused the mosque with the entrance booth when trying to find our way in! We thought it was odd when they asked us to take our shoes off.
Following in the footsteps of those ancient Egyptians we just had time for on last session of “sun worshipping” by the pool. That evening we sailed off into the sunset aboard our own private Felucca and had an early night in readiness for a long day of travelling ahead.
Flying out of an impressively clean and modern but almost completely deserted airport the next morning we stole a last glimpse of the sun reflecting off the Nile and hoped that the tourists and trade would soon return to Luxor. It truly is one of the wonders of the world. After a quick touchdown in Cairo – sadly no sign of the pyramids amid the smog we arrived back to Heathrow. I bid Dan a fond farewell as he swapped shishas and falafel for bagpipes and haggis, and headed north of the border.
As adventures go Egypt was undoubtedly memorable for many reasons. But I was left wanting more and hope that one day it is safe enough to return and explore more of the incredible ancient sites that this troubled region of the world is blessed with.