|Our travels in Egypt
|We have just got back from a two-week mid February (2007) trip when the temperature is still
bearable for walking and exploring. We booked the flight and accommodation through lastminute.com
about two months in advance as in previous years I have noticed that the later you leave it the
more expensive it becomes. The cheap deals are gone by then. We would not call ourselves “budget
travellers” but as I try to manage ideally 3 or 4 holidays a year I always chase a good deal. This
year we stayed at the New Winter Palace – a hotel that is attached to the Old Winter Palace – a
posh Victorian-style place for guests who are prepared to pay a rather vast sum. This is the hotel
where Lord Carnarvon would stay on his visits to Luxor.
You can go and have a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice or a bottle of Egyptian beer (either
Stela or Sakara) in the Royal bar, where Carnarvon used to meet with Howard Carter while they
were searching for the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1920s or have afternoon tea in Victorian grandeur.
Do not attempt to try to come in if you wear shorts or jeans as you will be politely thrown out. The
New Winter Palace is more relaxed but lacking the old world charm found in the Old Winter Palace.
You have a choice of the newer Pavilion, which faces the garden and so is a quieter choice (we
stayed there last year and loved it), or you can choose to stay in the main building, situated on the
main road, which although noisier can reward you with the breathtaking view we had: when we pulled
the curtains open, the palm tree lined Nile bank and the Theban hills came to our immediate view!
We could see Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri and many dark openings of tombs scattered
around the slopes of the Theban necropolis. Looking to the right of the hotel we could see the Luxor
temple some 50 metres away! It is not just the hotel’s location that attracted our attention a
couple of years ago.
I believe Winter Palace boasts the most beautiful garden if not in entire Egypt then definitely in
the whole of Luxor. An army of gardeners has been creating this tropical gem for over a century.
The palm trees are sky high, bougainvilleas blossom in white, orange and all shades of pink, there
are exotic trees and shrubs and flowers and the lawn is of Oxford-Cambridge quality. It is also a
paradise for bird watchers: cute hoopoes, elegant white ibises, exotic fly catchers, naughty
sparrows and brown doves are everywhere. To see pied kingfishers, you have to leave the garden
and stroll along the Nile or the canals. In the evening scary bats fly across the star-filled sky.
The garden pool is heated, clean and of a good size.
Luxor itself has changed since last year. The area south of Luxor temple and the mosque of Abu-al-
Haggag has been cleared. An open and a vast square has been created. Now you can see the recent
archaeological digs that used to be hidden behind fences and broken old walls. Several houses and
shops have been pulled down around the bus station. That, as well as bulldozing of old houses on the
West bank, does not create a good atmosphere around the town. I will talk about Qurna houses
later on. We walked down Sharia el-Karnak through busy traffic, constant hooting accompanying us
all the way to the new library. It was ceremonially opened in the middle of January by president
Mubarak and his wife. Unfortunately it was still closed to public for finishing touches. The building
looked impressive, the front is all glass and columns. Just behind the new library we looked at the
recently uncovered avenue of sphinxes. It used to connect the temples of Karnak with temple of
Luxor. The Brooklyn Museum team has been working on a dig in the Mut temple area. The avenue of
sphinxes leading towards the Mut temple was visible from the road we were walking on. Local kids
swarmed around us all wanting a pen for writing at school. We always bring lots and lots of pens, as
this seems to make their day.
We did not spend a large proportion of our holiday on the East bank of the Nile. Next I will write
about the West bank of the Nile and how to get there.
My interests lie mainly on the West bank – scattered and buried around the Theban necropolis. For
the last 10 years I have been studying Egyptology at evening courses at Birkbeck college, University
of London. I have a great enthusiasm for ancient Egyptian writing – the form of the script as well as
I have also developed a very soft spot for the remarkable remains of an ancient village, tucked
away in a small pocket of the desert hills, called Deir el-Medina. It used to be called "Ta Set
Maat", The Place of Truth, by its community of architects, stone masons, artists, goldsmiths,
carpenters and other craftsmen, who lived there with their families during the most of the New
Kingdom. These people were responsible for mining, cutting and decorating the tombs of Egypt’s New
Kingdom pharaohs. Of course, our first visit to the West bank included this (in my opinion) prettiest
archaeological site in the world.
There are several ways to approach a visit to the West bank. Most tourists are driven from site to
site by their tour operators in comfortable air-conditioned buses. The biggest, but not the only
drawback of this is that you simply do not have enough time to see each site. It certainly is not the
way we like to get around in Egypt. To cross the river we use the local ferry. The port is opposite
the Luxor temple and costs 1 LE (Egyptian pound) per person each way. You can also accept one of
the multiple offers you will inevitably get for a motorboat for about 5 LE one-way, although that
price depends on your bargaining skills. Once you get on either boat you are likely to get to meet the
local taxi driver, felucca captain, camel, horse or donkey stable owner, bicycle rent shop owner or
at least someone whose cousin is one of the above. We usually travel by local pick-up (Toyota
flatbed vans with makeshift seating in the back -1 LE pp). Sometimes the conditions are a bit
crammed and often my husband Andy has to hang on while standing outside the vehicle on the rear
step. But generally it is the best and most interesting way of getting around on the West bank. You
need to know the place a bit as you should ring the bell when you want to get off but if you ask to
be taken to the ticket office you will be dropped off there.
You need to plan your day ahead as you need to buy tickets for the sites at the Qurna office. They
get stamped with the date and so you need to use them on the same day. For some sites (Valley of
the Kings and Hatshepsut’s temple) you can get the tickets at the newly established offices at those
sites. So before you leave your hotel in the morning, decide what you want to see on the day and
how you want to get around. Try to stick to your plan and do not let the very persistent locals lead
you off your track! La shokran (no thank you) is a very useful Arabic phrase to know.
But back to our first day on the West bank. We took the local ferry and flagged down a pick-up
and got off at Qurna. We did not get any tickets for the day as we were not planning to visit
temples or tombs. Instead we walked up to the artisans’ village of Deir el-Medina. What a lovely
feeling to be back! You can walk around the neatly constructed village of about seventy mud and
stone houses, although you cannot enter them any more. There are 3 tombs open to public and they
all are worth a visit. The Ptolemaic temple, dedicated to the goddesses Hathor and Ma’at, is well
preserved with reliefs that still retain traces of the original paint.
We did not stay too long at Deir el-Medina as we had the steep climb up the hill above the village
ahead of us. It is the same ancient path the artisans and priests used to take on their way to the
Valley of the Kings. The hike takes you high above the valley floor and you are rewarded with
outstanding views of the monuments scattered around the desert slopes and of the lush, green and
neat fields of the Nile valley. Above you looms al-Qurn, the pyramid-shaped summit, known to
ancient villagers as “gate of heaven” inhabited by Meretseger, a local goddess, the sacred lady, who
loves silence. The walk is not particularly difficult but always remember to take plenty of water.
Although there is sometimes a refreshing wind blowing across the hillsides it can get alarmingly hot
in sheltered pockets of the rocky terrain. About half way to the cliffs above the temple of queen
Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri the path turns upwards in westerly direction. We followed it right up to
the top. It was a beautifully clear day and we could see the Red Sea Hills in the east, some 40
kilometers away. To the west we could see the Valley of the Kings opening up before us.
At the saddle of the pass a settlement of stone huts was built for workmen from Deir el-Medina.
This was the place where they spent their nights if they chose not to walk back to their village
during the working week. Most of the huts had just two rooms, an inner sleeping chamber and an
antechamber with stone seats set along its walls. You can just imagine groups of men sitting and
talking together after a hard days work and enjoying fresh breezes rising from the valley at sunset.
The area around the huts is littered with pieces of ancient pottery and thirty-million-year-old
fossil clamshells, reminders of a time when this area lay beneath the sea. To our excitement we
found five fossils each size of a small fist.
After a short break in the shade of al-Qurn we descended to the Valley of the Kings. We wanted
to see the site of the newly discovered KV63. Last year we left Luxor just four days before the
official announcement about its discovery. The tomb lies at the centre of the Valley, near the
remains of another group of workmen’s huts. No team was working on it at the time, the opening
being covered and locked. We visited a newly opened visitor’s centre with a 3-D model of the valley
and the tombs position within it and then walked back up the hillside from the stifling heat and
crowds of tourists. An hour later we climbed down past Deir el-Medina and flagged a pick-up on the
main road to return to the port and catch a ferry back over the Nile.
The sun was setting as we sailed towards the silhouette of the magnificent Luxor temple.
|Counting the number of days we have spent in Luxor over recent years I arrived at the impressive
number of 44. Although the 10 square kilometre site of Luxor is so rich in archaeological finds that
even on a year long vacation one could not do them all justice, it is time to peer over the wall and
start exploring the country beyond the town perimeter.
Some years back certain ancient temples and tombs in Central and Upper Egypt were closed to
tourists. Abydos, one of the most extensive and important cemeteries and cult sites of dynastic
times, was one of them. Thankfully it is now possible to visit the magnificent mortuary temple of the
New Kingdom pharaoh Sety I and the Osireion next to it, although the temple of Ramesses II and
the ancient cemeteries are still off limits.
For an individual traveller it is not just a matter of simply hopping on a bus or buying a train ticket
to the desired destination. The only way of travelling there is in a police convoy. I was rather
reluctant to undergo this ordeal but it sounds worse than it actually is.
I booked my trip with a local travel agency – there are about ten of them on Corniche el Nile, each
one of them offering the same list of trips with slightly different prices. I picked a day trip to
Abydos and Dendera temples costing LE280.
The convoy was leaving at 8 o’clock in the morning and so I was collected from my hotel at 7.45am
sharp. There were five of us on the little minibus: an Egyptian driver and an Egyptian guide, two
English ladies and myself. All the various vehicles that were to make up the convoy had to meet at
a road to the north of the Luxor museum. It has army check points at both ends. The paper work
was checked by army personnel and the convoy, which comprised of about 7 minibuses and a bus, left
promptly at 8am. There was one police car leading the way and another one following at the rear.
We drove swiftly and only stopped a couple of times at police check points. Only then did I realize
that the check points are not only in and around the town of Luxor but on every crossroad, no
matter how small. Each check point is manned by a considerable number of soldiers all brandishing
machine guns. I had the feeling that the purpose of the check points was not only for the protection
of tourists from possible extremists but maybe also to prevent any general insurrection by militants
who do not favour the current government.
The countryside was very picturesque with emerald green fields on both sides of the road which ran
north on eastern bank of the Nile. I could see desert mountains rising in the distance on both sides
of the great river and occasional fishing boats on its blue waters. It was the tomato season and we
saw many farmers harvesting their crop and lorries pilled high with crates full of big ripe tomatoes.
Most fields produced sugar cane and we passed one huge factory where the cane is processed into
sugar. It all goes for export and Egypt imports cheaper sugar of lesser quality for the native
Children were on holiday that week and the convoy must be a popular sight for them to spot – they
were all happily waving, their faces lit up with huge smiles. Children are lovely in Egypt and there
are plenty of them.
Finally we approached the town of Abydos. How very exciting for me! I had longed to visit the site
for many years. The convoy stopped in a little car park and our small group then headed excitedly
to the entrance of the temple of Sety I.
The construction of the temple was begun by Sety I and completed by his son, Ramesses the Great.
It is uniquely well preserved. Passing the pillars of the portico we entered the hypostyle hall – a
huge chamber with two rows of twelve papyriform columns that support an 8 metre high ceiling. Its
elegantly decorated wall scenes depict the kings offering to various deities. The second hypostyle
hall was even bigger – it had three rows, each of twelve columns, the back row standing on a raised
platform. Behind this row of columns there were seven doorways leading into seven chapels, each one
dedicated to a different deity. The paint on the walls was still fresh and bright. We then walked
through the Hall of ancestors, containing the most famous wall known to historians as the Abydos
King List, into the Corridor of the Bulls. The well-carved scenes on its walls show Ramesses lassoing
a bull. The corridor lead us out of the temple to the Osireion, a cenotaph of Sety I. Osireion is also
regarded as the burial place of the god Osiris. The burial chamber was built in a huge pit cut into
the desert and today the entire building is flooded all year round due to rising ground water.
We were given an hour to explore on our own and so I returned back into the temple but not before
having to swear to the guide that I would not venture out of the temple and back to the Osireion on
my own. Obviously, the security at the site is still a problem. There were soldiers by each door, by
each gate and some were patrolling on camels on a hill above the temple.
Just after 1.00pm the convoy regrouped and we left Abydos. We drove south towards another site –
the Ptolemaic temple of Dendera, dedicated to the goddess Hathor. The well preserved temple is
enclosed within a great mud brick wall and surrounded by a number of other buildings including a
Temple of Isis, Ptolemaic and Roman birth houses, a Coptic church, and a sacred lake.
After exploring the hypostyle hall and halls of offerings and of divine ennead, we took the stairs
leading us straight to the roof – it is a treasure that must be visited! It was built on several levels.
There is a kiosk with twelve Hathor-headed columns and two sanctuaries dedicated to Osiris. The
view of the Dendera complex and the surrounding desert and fields was spectacular and we paused to
enjoy and take it all in before descending.
|You just read about my trip to the north of Luxor. Now I will take you on a journey in the opposite
direction, south to the Ptolemaic temple of Edfu.
I returned to the same travel agency to organise my second venture out of the Theban region. The
southern convoy was leaving from the same place as the previous one but at the earlier time of 7.00am.
That meant my alarm clock had to be set for 5.15am. All the checking of paper work went smoothly and
the convoy set off on time. We drove past the new bridge that crosses the Nile, about 5 km up river
of Luxor which was completed a few years ago. The countryside was similar to that of the area near
Dendera, although there were no tomato fields. Most plantations were of sugar cane and bananas. It
was banana picking season so trucks loaded with banana crates could be seen everywhere. We did not
stop at Esna, where another Ptolemaic temple is open to tourists and unfortunately we could not stop at
el-Kab but at least I could see its rock-cut tombs at the edge of the desert as we drove past.
After a journey of about 100 km we reached the town of Edfu. The modern town is built mainly on the
western side of the river, very close to the mud brick enclosure wall of the temple itself. Most of the
paint from the temple walls has gone, but the building itself is otherwise in near-perfect condition. Its
construction begun in the Ptolemaic period, on 23rd August 237 BC, when the first stones of the
innermost rooms were laid and was completed 167 years later. The temple was dedicated to the god
Horus of Behdet (Behdet was the ancient name of Edfu), a deity worshipped here since predynastic
Once we were within the massive mud brick wall we approached the temple and walked past the mammisi
(a Coptic word meaning a birth-house). Its reliefs tell the story of the wonderful birth of Harsomtus
(“Horus the Uniter”), the son of Horus and Hathor. As in other parts of the main temple, there are
scenes of the Feast of the Beautiful Meeting, the annual ceremony in which these two deities met and
married. Several steps down from the mammisi a vast open courtyard lead us towards the massive pylon.
A huge granite statue of Horus of Behdet met us at the entrance to the first pylon and there was
another, even a bigger one, at the entrance to the first hypostyle hall. As we walked deeper into the
temple we left behind the world of daylight. The sanctuary at the centre of the temple, the most
sacred part, held a replica of the divine bark of the god and a large granite naos that used to hold a
statue of Horus. There were twelve chapels around the sanctuary for us to explore, their walls covered
in offering scenes. When we emerged back into the bright sunshine outside the temple into the outer
corridor we could marvel at the long walls covered from top to bottom in reliefs and in lines of
hieroglyphic signs showing the king smiting Egypt’s enemies.
All too soon it was time to return to Luxor. We returned to the minibus but had to wait for a convoy
from Aswan to join us before swiftly driving home, stopping only once at an army check point.
|This year we revisited the temple of queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri. We got there from the ferry
port not by our usual means of bike, pickup, or foot but in a amazingly dilapidated old 1960s American
car owned by a local man we met. He told us that it used to belong to King Farouk. New temple
colonnades had been opened since our previous visit. Originally buried beneath tons of debris, the temple
has undergone almost continuous excavation and restoration since the end of the 19th century. The
ancient Egyptians called the temple Djeser-djeseru, “Most Holy of Holies”. The temple is famous for its
breathtaking location below dramatic limestone cliffs. The Punt reliefs, documenting Hatshepsut’s
expedition to the land of Punt are to be found in most Egyptian history textbooks. You find these on the
south side of the middle colonnade. The north side of the same colonnade holds the Anubis shrine
containing some of the best preserved painted reliefs to be found in Luxor.
In the first part of my writings I mentioned that some of the houses and businesses around the Luxor
temple were being pulled down. This has been happening on an even bigger scale on the West bank
around the old town of al-Qurna. The Egyptian government has been trying to move residents from the
area for more than 50 years. In December 2006 the authorities began bulldozing the homes of people
who agreed to pack up and move to a newly constructed $32m complex less than 5 km away. The main
purpose of this clearance is to give archaeologists and tourists access to nearly 1,000 Pharaonic tombs
that lie beneath the houses. Opinions are divided among locals. We spoke to people who were quite happy
in their new homes although they felt sad to see their family home pulled down. And of course there are
people who bitterly oppose the policy and are very resentful of the authorities and also sometimes of
the tourists who they believe are being pandered to by the politicians.
One day we decided to visit tombs at the northern edge of the necropolis. This time we got around by
bicycle (15 LE pp/day). We visited two small tombs at Dra 'Abu al-Naja hill: TT255 belonging to Roy,
a royal scribe and steward in the estates of king Horemheb, and to his wife Nebtawy. It dates to late
18th Dynasty / early 19th Dynasty. The second tomb, TT13 belonged to Shuroy and his wife,
Wernefer. Shuroy was the Head of the Brazier Bearers in the temple of Amun at Karnak sometime
during the 19th Dynasty. The tombs were beautifully and brightly decorated.
Once we had finished our visit to the tombs we cycled north to see the house where Howard Carter
used to live while he was excavating the tomb of Tutankhamun. It was an unusually windy day and by
the afternoon the wind had really begun to pick up and we were suddenly caught in a sand storm.
Everything around us disappeared. We could see no further than 20 meters. The Theban hills were
nowhere to be seen and we were quickly covered from head to foot in dust. Well, an exciting
experience, but we returned to the ferry port as fast as we could peddle.
The last trip I want to share with you is our visit to the tomb of Ay. It lies in the West Valley of the
Kings, the much larger and lesser known valley with just four (known) tombs. Again we walked up over
the cliffs from Deir el-Medina, past the artisan’s huts, (we saw Kent Weeks lecturing one of his groups
there) down into the Valley of the kings, pass the car park and the kiosk, and then turned west. A vast
valley was opening in front of us. It was a perfect place for solitary stroll. This was the home of
Meretseger, a local Egyptian goddess whose name meant “She Who Loves Silence”. It is clear why she
chose to make these hills her home. The silence, the clean clear air, and the play of sun and shade on
the towering limestone cliffs make this valley a magical place. The tomb itself is well worth a visit. Its
sarcophagus was returned to the tomb after its restoration. The scenes on the walls of the burial
chamber are very similar to the ones in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
For the return journey we climbed a small rugged path to the top of the cliffs and east across the
peaks to the cliff tops high above the Valley of the kings which we walked around to return to Deir el-
Medina using the ancient workers path. The views were spectacular along the whole trek even if a little
frightening at times when the rocky paths get very close to the very high sheer cliffs. If you tackle
walks such as these always be sure to take plenty of water with you – its amazing how much you need
The Theban necropolis together with the market town of Luxor have so much to offer to the visitor,
especially if one has an interest in ancient art history and archaeology. The weather is guaranteed, with
blue skies and sun for most of the year. But temperature raises to blistering heights during the summer
months and I recommend January and February as the best months to visit.
|We told you all about the Winter Palace hotel and the latest developments in the Upper Egyptian
town of Luxor but it is now time to cross the Nile and start exploring the opposite side of the river.