March 30, 2021: Welcome to Luxor
When entering the city on my road trip from Aswan, the driver said to be wary of the people of Luxor
As we pulled into town. The driver stopped at a random intersection and got out of the car. All of a sudden, a middle-aged Arab man got into the driver´s seat. He said his name was Mr. Max and he tried to sell us tour guiding services. I heard that Luxor people were hustlers but wow we got hustled without leaving the car before we even reached our hotel!!
We checked into the Winter Pavilion- the cheaper wing of the very expensive and historic Sofitel Winter Palace. The hotel certainly needed a little love. The carpets were not in great shape and the WiFi nearly nonexistent. But the silver lining is we had access to the incredible grounds of the Sofitel including the pool.
Maisie was very excited to enjoy the pool after what had, by any standard, been 3 very tough days. I still needed to figure out all the logistics which included buying a train ticket. As we were in the lobby to head to our various activities, a bunch of my Chinese classmates appeared out of the elevator. It was very fun and unexpected to run into classmates in another country.
I walked over to the train station. Less than a half-second I walked past the hotel’s metal detector, I heard them. “Where are you from?” “Which country?” “Want a taxi?” The vendors appeared to be camped outside the hotel waiting to pray on anybody leaving. The small crowd followed me for a minute before I shooed them off.
By this point I had now reached the staging ground for the horse carriages. “Ferrari?” “I give you good price” “100 pounds per hour”. After ignoring them, I walked for a few minutes down the hustle-free Main Street and reached the very cool Ancient Egyptian-themed train station.
Once past the metal detectors, I bought my sleeper train tickets. The process took awhile because everything needed to be written down on paper. The sleeper train company has a website, but the payment system has been down for over a year. Surprisingly, they accepted credit cards- a first for a government entity in Egypt.
I then walked back to the hotel, past the same touts before heading quickly to the pool.
For dinner, we went to a restaurant that the Chinese students recommended. It was in the city center. To get there we walked through the souq. Unlike the Aswan souq, this souk was super touristy. Surprisingly, the merchants here were not very pushy with the exception of one guy who blocked our pathway to show us into his shop. It is ironic that the actual souk has the least aggressive merchants.
The restaurant turned out to be a rooftop with a perfect view of the Luxor Temple all lit up and pretty. After doing some online research, I could not find any companies that were willing to do a one-day tour to the Valley of the Kings, so I reluctantly messaged Mr. Max. He ended up giving me a great rate on the tour.
March 31, 2021: The West Bank
At 10, we got picked up at 10 by our guide Mohammed and driver Mohammed, who both worked for Mr. Max´s company. The car was very nice. We drove across the Nile to the West Ban and into the Valley of the Kings. The guide Mohammed was actually spectacular. Not only did he know a lot of facts about ancient Egypt, but he also was not pushy and had a nice demeanor.
After 45 minutes in the car, we arrived at the legendary Valley of the Kings. The Valley of the Kings contains the tombs of 64 pharaohs and other princes during the New Kingdom which occurred between 1550 BC to 1070 BC. This occurred about 1,000 years after the Pyramids.
The pharaohs of the New Kingdom realized that the Pyramids were obvious targets for tomb robbers. So, they decided to build tombs concealed in rock. Because Pharaohs apparently needed to be buried underneath a pyramid, they selected the Valley of the Kings because it is located underneath a pyramid-shaped mountain.
A newly crowned Pharaoh would visit the Valley of the Kings on the second day of his rule and would pick out a spot for his tomb. This would be the first and last time he will ever come to this valley alive. The workers would immediately start digging the tomb. The tomb diggers and craftsmen were hired workers and not slaves. The location of the tomb was a secret, so the workers were blindfolded on their way to work each day. Only a trusted advisor of the Pharaoh would know the location of the tomb.
The workers would keep digging until the king died. At that point, they would have exactly 70 days to finish the tomb before the king would arrive. 70 days is the time it takes for the many funerary rights: mummification process, removal of the organs, a number of prayers and a trip to the temple in Abydos.
Despite the precautions, most of the tombs were plundered in antiquity. The only tomb that was not looted was that of Tutankhamen aka King Tut. The completely intact tomb with all the treasures was discovered in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter.
Today, the Valley of the Kings is one of Egypt´s top major tourist attraction and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of the 64 tombs in the valley, about 10 are open to the public. The open tombs rotate depending on the status of restoration work.
The admission ticket give you entrance to 3 of the open tombs. Three more special tombs can be added on for an extra ticket. We purchased the tomb of Ramses V/VI that was recommended on a bunch of blogs.
Our first tomb was Ramses IX (KV6). The tomb was about 100 meters deep and was covered in intricate carvings similar to the temples we have seen around Upper Egypt and Nubia. However, the difference here is the colors on the wall. The colors are so perfect, it feels like it was just painted. At the end was the burial chamber with the sarcophagus. In all the tombs except King Tut, the mummy was removed.
Our second tomb was Merenptah (KV8). This tomb was one of the deepest- 160 meters into the mountain – and included a huge number of steps down. The tomb had colors, but far fewer than the first one.
Our third tomb was Ramses III (KV11) the last “great pharaoh” according to our guide. The tomb has bright paintings and is 160 meters long, but the last 40 meters and burial chamber were off limits due to restoration work regarding structural integrity. Interestingly this tomb had a jog in it. This is because the workers ran into another tomb while digging and had to maneuver around it. The main staircase room had a side room that was officially off limits. However, a security guard could take you there for a “present”.
Our fourth and final tomb (KV9) was then joint tomb of Ramses V and VI. This was the one with an extra cost of 100 pounds ($6) The tomb was originally built for Ramses V but Ramses VI, his uncle, decided to make it his own. It was originally thought that Ramses VI killed Ramses V over the tomb but based on a modern examination of the mummy, it is now believed that Ramses V actually was one of the world’s first smallpox deaths.
The work on this tomb unexpectedly saved the tomb of Tutankhamen aka King Tut. The workmen on the KV9 tomb unknowingly built their tool shed above the sand-covered entrance to King Tut’s tomb (KV64). During the wave of tomb robberies that occurred 20 years after Ramses VI’s death, the robbers ignored the tool shed and gave the 20th century a priceless gift.
From Roman times until the Islamic era, the tomb of Ramses V and VI was thought to belong to the legendary Ethiopian king Menmon and was a pilgrimage site of many men who wanted to become great warriors.
Because two kings worked on this tomb, there was a lot more time and effort spent to make it nice. As a result, the KV9 tomb is far and beyond more impressive than the other tombs I visited. The other amazing part of this tomb is that it was free of other tourists. Most of the tourists were bus package tours with guides who were not going to pay extra for KV9. Since we paid for our own entrance fees, we could choose to visit KV9.
There is one tomb- Seti I- that is supposed to be even better than KV9. However the entrance price to this single tomb is an 1000 Egyptian pounds- or about $60 USD.
Having seen a bunch of tombs, our next stop was a shopping one. We were taken to a factory of alabaster- a heavy stone used by the pharaohs to house their organs. Nowadays, alabaster is used to make vases and statues. After a dramatic presentation by the shop owner and a promise to “no hustle”, we were allowed to shop. I bought a statue of the god Horus but only after paying I realized it was a bit crooked. The shop workers tried very hard to sand it straight. While I couldn’t get an upright statue, I did get a good story.
Next, we visited the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, set dramatically beneath a 300-meter cliff.
A mortuary temple is not a tomb. Rather it is a place for devotees to pray to the pharaoh who has now become a god in the afterlife.
Queen Hatshepsut was one of the first female rulers of Egypt. Since pharaohs were traditionally only men, Hatshepsut often styled herself like a man to gain the respect of the people and even wore a chin strap that resembled a beard. This costume is visible in the many statues of her in the temple.
Interestingly, the temple was nearly destroyed right after it was built. During her reign Hatshepsut had a spat with her stepson/nephew Thutmose. After her death, Thutmose became Pharaoh Thutmose III and his followers attempted to erase her memory from history. At the temple, they scrubbed out her name and destroying the statues of her. Luckily, 20th century archaeologists were able to painstakingly reconstruct the temple and learn its true purpose.
At this point we were “templed out” for the day and ready to relax. We headed back to the hotel and spent the afternoon at the beautiful pool. We had a nice dinner in town.
April 1, 2021: The East Bank
After driving a hard pace for the last few days, my companions were getting tired, so we took the morning off. At noon, Maisie and I checked out of our room. Bruno and Maren had one more night in Luxor, so we stored our bags with them.
We then got in a taxi to Egypt’s largest temple, Karnak.
Karnak is exponentially larger than any of the temples we have seen thus far. Karnak is not really just one temple. Rather, it is a massive collection of temples built over 1,500 years.
We spent two hours walking around Karnak. The obvious highlight is the Great Hypostyle Hall. It was originally a 5,000 square meters (50,000 square feet) and 24 meters (75 feet) high. The now-fallen roof was held up by 134 massive columns. A plaque noted that this room was larger than Paris´s Notre Dame Cathedral.
After Karnak, we walked over to seafood restaurant called Hussein recommend by the Valley of the Kings guide. We were the only ones there and were originally quite skeptical of the place. The food was absolutely delicious and wildly exceeded our expectations, given that Luxor is nowhere near the sea. The staff were also very nice.
As we left restaurant, a taxi conveniently pulled up. We got in. This was by far the cleanest taxi or car we had taken so far. We originally wanted to visit the Luxor Museum but our driver Adam said it was closed for lunch. Since many drivers say that places are closed but really are not, he drove us by so we could look for ourselves. Adam then suggested in a totally non-pushy way if we wanted to take a felucca ride. We decided to take him up on the offer.
A felucca is a traditional Egyptian sailboat. The felucca cost 200 pounds ($12 USD) for a 1-hour ride. The boat ride was extremely peaceful since it has no motor.
The scenery along the Nile was beautiful. The west bank across from Luxor was rural and many kids were swimming in the river. We passed a few other tourist boats, all of them seemed to have funny flags. One had both Bob Marley and The Joker.
For the remainder of the day, we took it easy at the hotel pool. At 20:00, Maisie and I walked towards train station and got some koshary for dinner. At 20:45, we entered the train station.
The station was very busy! During our 30-minute wait, we saw 3 night trains to Cairo. Ours was the third train, which was the only one that had the famous “sleeper class”.
Our cabin contained two bunks beds. The bottom bunk also could turn into a dining area. The cabin was surprisingly comfortable, although I was to tall for the bed (there aren´t many Egyptians my height).
The ride was supposed to take 10 hours, but instead took 13. I believe this was because we moved very slowly through an area that had a deadly train crash a week earlier. The government most likely wanted to be extra careful. At 9:00, we pulled into Giza station to start the next part of the adventure.
Luxor undoubtedly has some of the best ancient sites in the entire world. Valley of the Kings, Karnak, and the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut are among the most incredible places I have ever seen. And I only scratched the surface. Additionally, the Nile River, which runs through the city is sublime.
The problem with Luxor is the people, specifically the merchants. For some reason, the people here are even more aggressive than in the rest of Egypt. I understand that friendly touts are part of Arab culture and that the people are poor and trying to make a living. However, harassment, camping outside hotels, and following tourists around is no acceptable. I literally had to yell at a 12-year old kid who followed me for 5 minutes trying to sell a carriage ride. In fact, the merchants were so annoying that many of my friends said it ruined Egypt for them – “Egypt has amazing sights, but…”. The city of Luxor and the Egyptian Government NEED to do something about this. I was able to cope since I am an experienced traveler, but many people who are on their first trip to Africa/Middle East will never come back and will tell their friends not to come. For this reason, I would advise against visiting Luxor independently.
I feel sorry for the nice people in Luxor such as the people in the seafood restaurant who get lumped into this ugly mess.