abstract: Luxor is where Egypt showcases its antiquities. In what is called the largest outdoor museum in the world, the monuments to life and afterlife in ancient Egypt are on display. There are temples to worship gods, temples to worship pharaohs, and tombs of pharaohs so designed as to enable them to travel after death with gods in the underworld. The monuments were built over many centuries in this long-lasting pharaonic religious capital. Their remaining walls, columns, statutes, and reliefs stand as witness to times long bygone. Even the scars they bear tell tales. They have been damaged by invaders from Persia, Greece, Rome, and Arabia. The town that hosts them is now a Muslim community. It has its own evolving story as it is overshadowed by all the fuss of the glamorous ruins it contains. [photo essay]
“Tourists no longer stay overnight in Luxor. They stay on the cruise boats that bring them from Cairo, or come to Luxor just for a day by bus, to see the ruins of antiquities,” my host said wistfully as he drove us from the airport on the Suzanne Mubarak road. I was lucky to stay at his hotel in town. This gave me the opportunity to see what was left in the town of Luxor itself, neglected by the crowd that came only for the temples and tombs of ancient Thebes. The hotel’s few other guests were mostly low budget travelers. Young Romanian men doubled up in rooms that went for less than $30 a night. The hotel billed itself as “a three star hotel but with the feel of a five star hotel.” It was cozy. One night after dinner, the owner asked us how we liked the food, then he brought out his new chef. The lad of twenty-something lined up with his crew of three in their chefs’ white hats, a bit awkwardly, as we applauded them.
The street in front of us was divided by an island. Shrubbery had been planted on the island. Amidst them were some big plastic mushrooms, presumably to remind you of the marshland of the Nile nearby. The temperature on this October day, however, hovered around 100 degrees; the pavement shimmered in the sun. The bigger hotel on the other side of the street seemed empty. The quiet of the street was broken by the click clacks of caleche, horse driven carriages, more often than the occasional passing cars.
At dawn I was awakened by azan, the call to prayer, broadcast on loud speakers in the neighborhood mosques. I walked on the balconies that rounded the floor where my room was located to see who else was up. There were no lights on in any of the nearby buildings.
My host was generous. Our hotel room was free. We were third party beneficiaries of his favor to a mutual friend who told us “he owes me for the favors I did for him.” The friend, Ahmed, laughed over his bowl of cereal which he had brought with him for breakfast due to “his conditions;” we ate the local bread and cheese. An expatriate Egyptian, he was here to “give back by helping finance” a modest sanitation project undertaken in cooperation with the local government. He had just come from Alexandria where he attended a bigger “charity-cultural event,” presided over by Mrs. Mubarak. Ahmed showed the picture he had taken with her. He was pleased when I joked that he was becoming Mr. Egypt in the U.S.
My group had a similar mission in Aswan and Ahmed had invited us to learn from his experience in Luxor. That is how I got to meet the governor of Luxor. The governor was famous as he had been in charge of creating “the world’s biggest outdoor museum” in the miles of treasured antiquities here, contained in the fabled Temples of Karnak and Luxor, the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, and the Colossals of Memnon.
A shiny late model big black BMW was parked at the entrance to the governor’s office but he was surprisingly without pretensions. He received us promptly, standing in the middle of the room and shaking hands with each one. Muscularly built, he still had the erect bearing of an army general. This former career also showed in his straight forward manners. We sat down to business immediately. He spoke in excellent English. He made a brief reference to his efforts to “improve tourism,” and his determination to turn the nearly two mile long “Alley of Sphinxes,” which connects the temples of Karnak and Luxor, into “an all pedestrian road.” He quickly moved to the needed “health projects” in Luxor which were the agenda for this meeting.
This was past eight in the evening. The governor works late. An aide came in and, inexplicably, turned in the television set that was on a corner of the office. Nobody looked that way. A few minutes later, the aide entered again and whispered something in the governor’s ear. The governor had one phone on the other ear; soon he had a phone on the second ear as well. We paused. When we resumed we concluded the agenda for tomorrow. The governor called in another aide. As the latter stood, conspicuously respectfully, taking notes on a pad, the governor issued several instructions to implement the agenda.
I tagged along for some parts. The next evening we met the local notables at a dinner given on behalf of the governor. One was a woman physician who was running for the national legislature. This was the election season and I had noticed her face among the posters around town. Someone commented that the governor was immune to voters’ vagaries as his position was not elective.
The venue was a garden restaurant which, coincidentally for us, featured a Nubian house from the Aswan area. I was attracted to a green soup on the menu. “It is from the plant we call melokiyah; the soup from this mallow plant is called Jew’s Juice here,” the man sitting next to me said. He had once served as the press attaché at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. “Incidentally,” he continued, “it is in the ruins of the Temple of Merenptah near here that the only mention of Israel in ancient Egyptian texts has been found. In that “Israel Stele,” Merenptah, who became the Pharaoh in 1213 B.C., says that he defeated the Israelites.” An American-Egyptian food historian sat on my other side. She pointed to karkady (hibiscus tea) that was being served now with lots of sugar, the way the Egyptians like it: “Sugar cane is unique to Egypt; other Mediterranean countries did not have it. It came from Persia.” That was the only reference I heard in Luxor to the long Persian occupation of Egypt (525 BC- 404 BC, and two shorter periods later), historic as it effectively ushered in the end of the Pharaonic period.
The former press attaché invited me to see “the first library of Egyptology” that had been recently opened in Luxor. It boasted of having “10,000 books.” Not surprisingly, it is called the Mubarak Public Library. Mrs. Mubarak is the chair of its board of directors. At the entrance was a picture of the President himself, about three times life size and that many times younger than he actually looks now. In the shiny lobby of the library we walked down a few steps, dodging a poorly designed overhang, to enter the auditorium. A heavily accented British announcer told us about the glory of ancient Thebes in a video production full of sound and images. Then we stepped out to examine the work in progress on the Avenue of Sphinxes just in the back of the library. It was dusty and dry there. Only one pedestal had kept its sphinx in the immediate vicinity, but there were more on pedestals in the distance as the Avenue cut through the town.
I saw other parts of this Avenue the next day as we drove to the Temple of Karnak. My tour guide was highly critical of the demolition of the buildings and neighborhoods that the project for the recovery of the Avenue required. “People were forced to leave their homes, communities have been torn apart, and churches have been destroyed.” She pointed to a church that, she said, was next to go.
She was a Copt. Her people, early Christians, see themselves as the immediate successors of “ancient Egyptians,” she said. Indeed, Copt is “the Western pronunciation of the Arabic Qibt, which is derived from the Greek word for Egyptian aegyptios,” she continued. The Coptic language, which is still used in religious ceremonies, is rooted in both Egyptian hieroglyphs and Ancient Greek. Its alphabet was founded on the Greek alphabet but it has seven characters taken from hieroglyphs. The Coptic calendar is “based on the ancient Egyptian calendar,” the guide said, “it has the same months but seven days in a week instead of ten.” Constituting about 10% of the population of Egypt, the Copts are the only significant religious minority in the country. They have played an important role in tourism from the West. My Luxor tour guide was well known by her colleagues, one of whom told us that her grandfather was the best tour guide Luxor ever had. “He was legendary for his love and knowledge of antiquities. He used to refer to himself as ‘the George of the time before Christ’.”
The more recent Luxor that has been fast changing was best recorded in the photography of another illustrious Coptic native son, Attaya Gaddis. His works, beginning from 1907, are on display in his studio’s original location under the veranda of the Old Winter Palace. That Palace was once a favorite of King Farouk. When I visited it, affluent guests were at the pool-side which was cooled by big fans. Gaddis’s grandson showed me some of his old photos, including one that was taken as the famous treasures were being brought out of the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
One of Attaya Gaddis “specialties,” I was told, was photographing British soldiers as they arrived in Egypt during World War Two. His family has maintained their special relationship with the British. The British Consulate in Luxor is the family’s tenant. Ahmed pointed out a special group of British citizens who might need the Consulate’s assistance today. They were older widows who come here “to marry young Egyptians. They don’t mind if their Egyptian husband has other wives. They pay for the husband’s expenses. They are called ‘working wives.’” On the street not far from my hotel I saw examples of them sitting on a chair in front of their stores.
I walked into one souvenir store, called “San Karas Bazar (sic),” attracted by the signs in its windows: “Hassel (sic) Free Shop,” and “50% Descound (sic).” The young salesclerk indeed left me alone to browse. He was busy reading a coffee-table size book. The book was a school text on Egyptology. George, as he called himself, told me that he was studying to be a tour guide. George and I sat down and compared notes about the history of Luxor; he had no customers during this time.
Touring the town of Luxor, I was conscious of the fact that I was at the periphery of what mattered in this place as far as the outside world was concerned. “Luxor” was only one of the outer layers. It was the name that the Arabs gave (after the 7th century) to what the Greeks (332-30 BC) had called Thebes. The Romans who came between those two foreign occupiers (30 BC-396 AD), had built a military fort around the smaller of the two existing ancient Egyptian temples, now known as the Luxor Temple. Luxor is Arabic (Al-Uqsur) for “fortifications”. The Arabs’ name for the other temple here, Karnak, also connotes the “fortified settlement” which they perceived from seeing its imposing columns. These two temples, however, were “houses of gods” built by Pharaohs, mostly between 1550 and 1069 B.C., in their mostly religious capital of Waset.
The decline of Waset mirrored the demise of Pharaonic rule when the split between Lower (Nile) Egypt in the north and Upper Egypt in the south became irreparable. Foreign powers took control, beginning with the Persians, followed by the Greeks, and then the Romans. Early Christians built their churches in the temples, carving crosses on the walls and erasing reliefs of the pagan gods. Toward the end of the 4th century, when the occupying Roman Empire adopted Christianity, ancient Egypt finally died. In particular, the knowledge of the “pagan” hieroglyphs that transmitted its culture was lost for more than a millennium. Luxor became a large village primarily known for its 12th century Muslim “holy man,” Shaikh Abu al-Haggag. Aside from his mosque, mud-brick settlements clung to the once mighty stone temples.
“Egyptomania” changed all that. Napoleon arrived in 1798 and decided to revive Egypt’s greatness. The publication of the Description de l’Egypte, a collection by the scholars who accompanied him, revived Europe’s interest in Egypt. Exhibitions of mummies and other funerary artifacts from the Theban tombs made Luxor a subject of increasing curiosity. By 1869 when the first large group of tourists was brought to Egypt by Thomas Cook, Luxor was a popular destination. My interlocutor, George, now smiled. He would pass his exam in Luxor’s history, I said.
Temple of Karnak
The sign at the entrance to the Temple of Karnak tells you the names of the pharaohs who contributed to its construction over 1,500 years. Beginning around 2000 B.C., Karnak, together with the smaller Temple of Luxor connected to it two miles south by the Avenue of Sphinxes, evolved into the largest religious complex ever built by man. Their ruins occupy an area large enough to contain ten cathedrals in the heart of the town of Luxor today. The sheer size of the many columns still standing in the Karnak Temple dwarfed the tourists present from many countries on the day of our visit. We were soon lost in the jumble of walls, monolithic stone obelisks, and statues, covered with hieroglyphics writings and pictorial freezes. It was hard to make sense of it all, even with the help of our tour guide. We tried nonetheless, because they were invaluably informative about ancient Egypt.
Karnak and Luxor Temples were dedicated to the local deity Amun who was elevated to dominance among all ancient Egyptian gods during the reign of the local, “Middle Kingdom” dynasty. The Temples remained the religious capital of Egypt thereafter, deemed to be The Most Esteemed of Places (Ipet-Sut). As depicted in some of the reliefs in the Temples, Amun had eventually absorbed the aura of another major deity, Ra, the god of the sun, henceforth assuming the combined name Amun-Ra. He shared his “house” in Karnak, however, with two other gods: in addition to the “Amun Enclosure,” the Karnak Temple has two smaller Enclosures, one for his wife, Goddess Mut, and the other for their son, the Moon God Khonsu.
The Amun Enclosure is connected to the Mut Enclosure by an Avenue guarded by ram-headed sphinxes. Ram was Amun’s sacred animal. These Sphinxes “were built by Ramses II, whose statue stands between the paws of each sphinx. The Egyptians thought of sphinx as guardians.
The main attractions in the Temple of Karnak were in the Amun Enclosure. Just outside its entrance was a ditch showing the canal that connected this place to the Nile. There were also mud piles and brick walls next to the unused stones. These were for a ramp of the type employed to drag the stones delivered on the Nile up with rollers for construction of the several pylons (truncated towers) of the Enclosure.
Inside the first pylon was the Great Court which is the largest area of the Enclosure. On one corner of the Court were the three chapels that held the sacred barques (boats) of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, used during the Opet Festival which was the main religious annual event held in the Temple. “The Karnak Temple followed the basic design of other temples of ancient Egypt,” our guide said. There was a processional way that passed through a series of courts and led to the sanctuary.
After the second pylon we saw a statue of that pylon’s builder Pharaoh Ramses II, in the typical pose of arms crossed at the wrist. Between his legs and on his feet stood a smaller statue of his daughter, Bent'anta.
We walked to a great hall with many papyrus-shaped stone pillars. “There are 134 of them,” the guide said. This Hypostyle Hall (with a flat ceiling) symbolized a papyrus swamp, which were common along the Nile. “When the Nile flooded, during summer, this hall with its columns was submerged under water.” On the back of the third pylon there was a freeze of the pharaoh sailing the sacred barque during the Opet Festival that took place in the Nile’s inundation season. In other freezes scenes of “victories over enemies, Lebanese, Canaanites,” were depicted.
In the court after the fourth pylon, the famous female Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut had erected two obelisks in honor of Amun. Thirty meters high, these monoliths from Aswan were the tallest obelisks at the time; and the one still standing is the tallest surviving obelisk in Egypt. Its survival is paradoxically due to the efforts of her stepson and successor pharaoh, Tuthmosis III, who wished to eradicate all signs of her reign. He “wanted to destroy her obelisk but the God said no, so he had a sandstone wall built around it and that has preserved it,” our guide said. This obelisk, nevertheless, showed signs of partial obliteration of Hatshepsut’s images.
The guide showed us the other Hatshepsut obelisk that was on the ground. This obelisk had several carvings of Amun. In one a pharaoh was kneeling before him. “That is Hatshepsut in the double-crown of Pharaohs, and Amun is crowning her” our guide said. In another, Amun was depicted holding Hatshepsut who was wearing the “white crown” this time. “Note that Hatshepsut is wearing a false beard and the kilt that male pharaohs wore; she was trying to enhance her legitimacy as a king since Egyptian kings were commonly male” the guide said. She added “and note that the beard is straight which means that the person depicted here is alive, while the dead pharaohs were depicted with curled beard”.
Further, past the sixth pylon we came to two huge statues of Amun and the goddess Amunet. She was an early consort of Amun who was later overshadowed by Mut, but “remained locally important in Thebes as a protector of the pharaoh,” our guide said. We were now at the entrance to “the Sacred Barque Sanctuary,” the very core of the temple where the Amun resided. It has since been redecorated by the Greek Philip Arrhidaeus (323-317), Alexander the Great’s half-brother, and successor in Egypt.
Behind the sanctuary was a huge “Festival Hall” with carved stone columns patterned after tent poles and beyond that was the “Botanical Garden,” so called because its walls were covered with of reliefs of fauna and flora that the pharaohs found in Syria and Palestine. Freezes of lotus, symbolizing Lower Egypt, and papyrus, symbolizing Upper Egypt, were on the walls throughout the temple.
The Botanical Garden was followed by the Sacred Lake where the priests of the temple bathed daily for ritual purity. On the bank of the lake we saw a giant stone sculpture of a scarab. The dung beetle was considered sacred by ancient Egyptians as the earthly symbol of heavenly cycle. “They believed it pushed the sun through the sky in the same way it pushed a ball of dung on the ground,” our guide said. She pointed out a small crowd of tourists gathered around the stone scarab. “They go around (yutoof) it because some guides tell them this brings good luck.”
That evening I joined the throng that watched an extravaganza of light and sound about Thebes staged in an amphitheater setting beyond the Sacred Lake. As entertainment it was kitsch. As a learning experience it was disappointing. Like many tourists I had come many miles to Luxor. I searched for at least a rudimentary understanding of ancient Egypt. The Karnak Temple proved that the task would be tedious. My notes seemed pedantic. I could see no alternative, however, but to continue. Incomplete and disjointed as my observations would turn out to be, they reflected on the shreds of the past that existed before me. They opened a door even if they might fail adequately to explain the contents of the room. My studied impression of what I would see had a distinct value not available except through this on-site visit.
Temple of Luxor
Man-faced sphinxes protected the two sides of the nearly ten- meters wide, straight road that connected the Temple of Karnak to the Temple of Luxor three kilometers away. The entrance to the Temple of Karnak was flanked by two huge standing and one seated statues of Ramses II (1279-1213 B.C.), who added this part to the temple, which was begun by Amenhotep III (1386-1349 B.C.). An even taller obelisk stood like a sentry to the left. The obelisk, with a design -- maximum height for minimum base -- calculated to catch the first ray of the rising sun was meant to dramatize the illuminating and life-giving power of the sun-god Ra. It marked this place as a temple of Amun-Ra.
(The Luxor obelisk once had a pair on the right side of the entrance to the Temple. That is now standing in Place de la Concorde in Paris, following a tradition that went back to the early Roman Emperors. As devotes of Mithraism, those new solar rulers of the Mediterranean moved ancient Egyptian obelisks and erected more of their own in Alexandria and Rome, including one in the Vatican’s St. Peter square.)
The first court in the Temple of Luxor had walls with reliefs depicting scenes of the pharaoh “making offerings to the gods.” As your attention was drawn to the lotus capitals of the court’s rows of double columns you noticed an incongruous structure. It was the 12th century Mosque of Abu al-Haqqaq jutting up on the southern side. As soon became apparent, this was not the only foreign intrusion into the Temple’s ancient Egyptian architecture.
Beyond a colonnade of papyrus columns, there were walls on the left side with reliefs dating from 1400 B.C., depicting in detail the procession in the Opet festival. The pharaoh was shown joined by nobles and common people. There were even acrobats and drummers among them.
Next was a court with a flat ceiling supported by four rows of eight columns each. This lead to the core rooms of the temple. The first chamber had been the sanctuary of Amun, but the Romans had since painted it over with the images of their own leaders. On either side of it were the chapels of Mut and Khonsu. After a four column antechamber, where offerings were made, one could see the “Barque Shrine of Amun. Alexander the Great had since rebuilt this one. Reliefs on the walls portrayed him as an Egyptian pharaoh, receiving the “double crown” of unified, Upper and Lower, Egypt.
The Temple of Luxor was developed as Amun’s southern ipet (harem), his private quarters. It was the abode of Amenemopet, the ithyphallic Amun of the Opet, as his image with an erect penis indicates. It served as a central focus of the Opet celebration, when the statues of Amun, Mut and Khonsu were transported here from their home in the Temple of Karnak to be reunited with the statue of Amun of Opet, to symbolize fertility and rejuvenation. This entailed an elaborate procession that took two to four weeks during the Nile’s flooding season. The priests carried the cult images of the three gods on their shoulders along the Avenue of Sphinxes. The pharaoh was the high priest and the ceremony reaffirmed his close ties with Amun and thus enhanced his authority.
My guide pointed out other evidence of the pharaohs’ efforts to associate themselves with Amun: their names. Thus, “Tutankhamun’s name which contains Amun means ‘the living image of Amun’; and his grandfather’s name Amenhotep II means ‘Amun is content’.” Names were important. The majority of the hieroglyphic inscriptions which you see in these temples are basically repetitions of the names and titles of gods and the pharaohs,” our guide said. “The loss of one’s name meant elimination from history. So the Pharaohs went to great lengths to protect their names. They wrote their names in a rectangular fortress wall known as serekh. This later evolved into the oval-shaped cartouche, which is French for cartridge.” She pointed to a rare set of statues of Tutankhamun and his child bride and said “Ramses I erased Tutankhamun’s name and replaced it with his own cartouche.”
The names of those Pharaohs have long lost their aura of divinity and power. A part of their Opet ceremony, however, survives in Islamic Luxor. It is reenacted during the moulid (birthday celebration) of Abu al-Haggag, the holy man who brought Islam here eight centuries ago. A highlight of this three day festival is pulling a felucca boat through town and around the Mosque in the Temple of Luxor.
The Governor of Luxor sent a van to take us to the pharaohs’ Funerary Temples and Tombs on the West Bank of the Nile. The few miles we drove by the river to the bridge that crossed over from the West Bank were surprisingly verdant. The driver and Mohamed, from the governor’s public relations office who accompanied him, were disciplined. Both refused our repeated attempts to tip them. They were not tour guides. We picked up a staff of the antiquities office at the ruins of the first funerary temple we visited. He barked some disjointed references to the “Memnon” and left us soon, seemingly as frustrated as we were with our inability to communicate with each other. His exact role remained undefined.
What we were seeing were the Colossi of Memnon, the two largest monolithic statues ever carved, each from a single block of stone fifty feet high and weighing nearly one thousand tons. They were so called by the ancient Greeks who mistook them as belonging to the legendary African king, Memnon, who was slain by Achilles during the Trojan War. In fact they were only part of the largest funerary temple ever built by a pharaoh.
Amenhotep III (1390-1352) who developed the Luxor Temple for worshiping the god Amun, constructed this funerary temple as a place where he himself would be worshiped after death. Over time the adobe material used in the temple dissolved as it was flooded every year, and its stones were removed by later pharaohs for their own projects. Both of the Colossi are statues of Amenhotep III, but figures of his wife and mother are carved in front of his throne along his legs. Excavation, which we saw was still continuing, has revealed the existence of six sets of other massive statues, and also, behind this temple, the Temple of Merenptah who became Pharaoh in 1213 B.C. It is here that the “Israel Stele” was found.
Back in the van, we were stopped by an American woman, riding her bicycle on that hot road, who asked directions to an antiquities site. Mohamed pointed to some houses on the hills across the road. In broken English, he explained that they were mostly 300 year old structures which might have to be removed eventually since they had been built on top of the Tombs of the Nobles, so as to uncover those relics of antiquities. This was a controversial project as the current residents of those homes complained that their community would thus be broken even though they were promised better housing in the new settlement several miles away.
Like the biker, we continued the rest of our visit that day without a tour guide. We were now in an area so secluded that the early Christians founded a monastery here. Deir al-Bahri (the Monastery of the North) was also where Pharaoh Montuhotep II (2055-2004), had built the first funerary temple in this region. What attracts tourists today, however, is another funerary temple which it inspired: the majestic Temple of Hatshepsut, built five hundred years later.
One reason for the attraction is the dramatic setting. The backdrop for the temple is the lion-colored limestone cliffs that rise about 1000 feet from the desert plain. They hug a monument partly carved from the cliffs that oddly appears contemporary today. This, however, was the work of ancient Egyptians who called it Djeser-djeseru (Most Holy of Holies). Located at the site of an old shrine to Hathor (the Goddess of Love), it directly faces the Temple of Amun at Karnak across the Nile.
The legend about the Pharaoh who built this as a funerary memorial to herself is no less dramatic. She is Egypt’s only female pharaoh, unless one counts the Macedonian Cleopatra who took the throne one thousand years later. After the death of her husband, who was also her stepbrother, Hatshepsut became the regent of his only surviving son, a minor, from another wife. In fact, however, she ruled as a Pharaoh herself for thirty years even after her stepson reached majority, now as his co-Pharaoh. This she could do because of her royal lineage, on her mother’s side, from past pharaohs. The lineage, however, is believed to be also responsible for the decision by her stepson, Tuthmosis III, to order that all references to her be wiped out after her death, so as to ensure the succession by his own descendants who did not have the same royal lineage.
Hatshepsut’s names and images had been erased in this temple; as they were also in the Temple of Karnak. The Christians’ defacing of the “pagan” reliefs has caused additional damage. What remains in the Temple of Hatshepsut, however, is still impressive and informative. Some statues of her stood at the pillar of the Temple. A custodian in the traditional galabeya dress who spoke no English took me to see Hatshepsut’s disfigured image, standing next to her husband Tuthmosis II in the Chapel of Anubis (the jackal-faced god who protected the dead), at the end of the north colonnade on the first floor. Other reliefs here showed Hatshepsut’s divine birth. In one Hathor was depicted as a cow with a crown of horns and sun’s disc (in her guise as the sun god’s daughter) licking Hat’s hand. In another Hatshepsut was shown drinking directly from Hathor’s udder. In yet another relief Hatshepsut was in the presence of Horus, the god of the sky, who was depicted as a man with a falcon head.
On the left side of the entrance we saw reliefs of men carrying myrrh trees for incense used in temple ceremonies. The trees were from Punt, a land whose exact location is still not known. “This is a scene of celebration because people were able to bring henna from Somalia and make money by selling it,” a fellow tourist who said he had studied these and adjacent reliefs told us. There were more recognizable scenes in the other reliefs nearby: a pair of obelisk was being transported, from the quarry in Aswan.
Valley of the Kings
As he erased signs of Hatshepsut’s reign, Thutmosis III was making sure that he would be well taken care of after his own death. His tomb down the road from his late stepmother’s funerary temple is one of the most elaborate in the Valley of the Kings. Thutmosis has remained in good company there. The tombs of 63 Pharaohs have been discovered in the Valley so far. On the day I went there, these tombs had many guests. We boarded the tuf-tuf (windowless little electric cabins) to go from the visitors’ center to the tombs which were on both sides of the Valley, a dry canyon enclosed by limestone hills. The Al-Qurn (the Horn) mountain peak dominated the area. One could visualize the sun setting behind it, making this the appropriate site associated with the afterlife in the imagination of ancient Egyptians.
The other appeal of the isolated and narrow Valley was that the tombs and their valuable contents could thus be better protected, especially against the thieves. To that end, Thutmosis III, who was among the pioneers here, chose a nearly inaccessible location for his tomb. The design of his tomb was also exemplary in attempting to thwart would be thieves. We walked on a path off the main road that cut through sharp limestone rocks, climbed a steep staircase, and crossed a deep ravine to reach the entrance to the tomb. Inside there was a long passageway with a series of angles ending in a bridge of planks, over a steep ditch, at the other end of which was the antechamber of the tomb. Behind this was the oval burial chamber. It contained a cartouche-shaped quartzite. This was Thutmosis III’s sarcophagus. His mummy was not here; it had been moved to Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. Instead we were greeted by a custodian. He was now spending most of his life in this 150 feet deep hole. He was friendly and in good spirit. A fan was moving the otherwise stagnant air.
The walls in the corridors and chambers of the tomb were decorated with scenes from the imagined underworld of the afterlife and the pharaoh’s existence in it. There were boats, musicians, and images of gods and demigods. The blue color of the ceiling in a chamber recalled the sky. These decorations depicted what was described in the ancient Egyptians’ Book of the Dead, a collection of works that included The Book of Gates, The Book of Amduat (that which is in the underworld), and The Litany of Ra. This collection was about the journey of the dead souls who accompanied the sun god on his “sacred barque” through the darkness of the night (the land of the god Osiris), with each segment of the time guarded by a separate demigod. To reach rebirth at dawn, the pharaoh had to know the demigods’ names to get past them. The decorations we saw were to provide the pharaoh with visual help toward such knowledge.
The pharaoh’s tombs were also stocked with food, drinks, provisions, and treasures which they would need in the underworld. None of that was left in Thutmosis III’s tomb or the tombs of two other pharaohs I visited in the Valley of the King, Ramses III and Ramses IX. The explanation for this was provided as early as the eleventh century by Nasir Khusraw, the Persian traveler from Marv, Central Asia, in his book Safarnameb (The Book of Travels), who among other places in Egypt visited Qus, near Luxor, in 1050:
“The Sultan had a servant ... who was the commander of the mutalebiyan and was very rich and wealthy. Mutalebiyan are those who search for treasures and buried treasures in the holes of Egypt. People come from the Maqreb (Islamic countries west of Egypt), and the lands of Syria and Egypt and everyone toils in those holes and rubble of Egypt and spend fortunes. And there were many who found treasures and buried treasures, and many who incurred great expenses and did not find anything. For they say that in these locations the pharaoh’s wealth are buried. And if one finds something there, he must pay one-fifth to the Sultan and the rest will be his.” [Vazinpur, N. (1350/1971). Tehran. pp. 76-77]
The fabled treasures of Tutankhamun were found in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings in the twentieth century, but they have been taken to Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. His mummy was left in its coffin in situ, but Tutankhamun’s tomb is not remarkable otherwise, our guide assured us. We could not see for ourselves as that day Tutankhamun’s tomb was among those “being serviced for maintenance” based on a rotating program.
Instead we went to see the house of the famous archeologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s treasures in 1922. It was a few miles away. In the middle of barren land a pleasant garden hosted a domed one-story adobe. Howard Carter lived here. He spent six years searching and digging for the tomb of Tutankhamun. The man who financed his work, Lord Carnarvon, almost gave up on him. Carter did not give up. He found what he sought in a last attempt. Tutankhamun’s tomb was in the only hitherto unexplored area, covered by his crew’s hut. I sat behind Carter’s desk in his house marveling at man’s dedication to discovery. [photo essay]
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