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Published: March 7th 2009
For the last few days I have been hearing voices. Not one or two but tens, hundreds. They have not been urging me to commit some atrocity, or devote my life to serving a particular god, but - rather less interestingly - instead they have been offering me taxis. And feluccas. And caleches. And bicycles. And papyrus. And alabaster. And water. And sets of 3 wooden carvings for only 1 Egyptian pound. And umpteen other items/services that I have no urgent need for. Taking up even 1% of these offers would have resulted in me both becoming bankrupt and not seeing any of the sights in the area. Welcome to Luxor.
I had taken the day train south from Cairo in the hope of some inspiring views of the Nile, but it was a repetitive scene after about an hour. Near the river, the land is entirely given over to agriculture, a thick strip of green between the flowing waters and the desert. Irrigation has created many narrower channels in the farmland, and it was here that there was more variety - simple boat crossings where the boatman moved hand over hand on a fixed rope to take his charges
The lower right section contains a complaint about the quality of Yorkshire Bob's work
to the other side, young boys fishing with a spear from a canoe, the brilliant green of a kingfisher poised above the water on an overhanging branch.
The train was much like the others I've taken here - a system of carriage numbering I have yet to figure out, station signs infrequent but occasionally in English, passengers starting to disembark well before the train has actually come to a standstill. My neighbour was on one or other of his two mobile phones for at least 7 hours of our journey. My one visit to the toilet revealed a slopping bowl of urine. However I had a window seat, adequate leg room, and my MP3 player, so all was well.
There are no pyramids in Luxor so I'm not sure why the pyramidal Vegas hotel was named after the town. My one visit to Vegas, where I'd stayed at the Luxor, revolved around gambling, free alcohol, and only a passing acquaintance with sleep. My one visit to Luxor could not have been more different, with skulking in my room and sightseeing being my two main activities. Sinbad the kitten was a welcome presence in the restaurant in my first
I'll write two blogs, one for the East Bank and one for the West, as that will conveniently divide up the various sights.
My first port of call was the Museum of Mummification, which proved to be something of a disappointment. At ~$9 entry for just one room it was by no means cheap, and though what was in there was beautifully presented it had some astounding omissions. One was that there was no mention of where the word "mummy" comes from (apparently it's an old Persian word for bitumen, as when blackened mummies were first discovered it was thought that they were covered in bitumen). Another was that piece of knowledge that any schoolboy would have about mummification, namely the removal of the brain through the nose. However I did learn that the shape of the ankh symbol (life) comes from sandal straps. I also saw various implements used during the mummification "surgery", and the canopic jars in which the various viscera were stored. Ushabtis, small figures in wood or marble, accompanied the deceased to the afterlife where they would perform menial tasks assigned to the person.
The Luxor Museum is the main one in
the town and, where the Egyptian Museum in Cairo has great pieces to exhibit but poor layout and presentation, it has done an excellent job with the pieces that haven't been shunted north to the capital. The ticket seller annoyed me with his insistence that he had no change, waving a thick wodge of LE100 notes in my face in a gesture that said to me that he was too stupid to send someone to the bank to get some smaller bills. The highlights for me were the almost intact red stone statue of Amenhotep III, some amazingly well-preserved wooden coffins, the mummy of Rameses I (founder of 19th Dynasty) that had been languishing in a Niagara Falls museum for more than 100 years, some light-blue faience ornaments and various glass goods. The Egyptians worked in metal too but sadly most of it was melted down in the past.
One popular activity in Luxor is to take a hot air balloon ride over the West Bank at dawn. Though my fear of heights ensured this wasn't an option I was tempted by, I knew it would still be something of a spectacle in its own right so I arose
one morning before first light and headed to the river. Sure enough, the balloons were just starting to rise on the other side, in their many colours and patterns. It was like watching a set of inverted Christmas decorations floating in the crisp air. Even at this hour, and with my camera viewfinder glued to my eye, I was regularly approached by felucca captains looking for my custom.
Luxor Temple sits square in the middle of Luxor - it was built predominantly by Amenhotep III in the 14th century BC and is dedicated to Amon-Re, the king of the gods, and his consort and sons. I had read that it was best to visit it at night, so one evening I handed over the LE50 entry fee and went in. The complex was originally linked with the much larger Karnak Temple further north by an avenue of stone sphinxes, of which only a fraction still remain, but it features an obelisk (whose twin is now in Paris), a number of large statues, and a plethora of hieroglyphics. With well-placed uplighting around the site, it was extremely atmospheric and probably the best way to see some of the carving detail
that is lost in the intensity of the daytime sun. It was used as a setting in the films of "Death on the Nile" as well as "The Spy Who Loved Me".
Karnak Temple, lying about 2km north of Luxor, is the town's most famous site. It is the largest ancient religious complex in the world, having been extended by at least thirty different pharaohs, from the Middle Kingdom through to the Ptolemaic era. It had a quantity of tour groups to match. The various pylons, obelisks, and statues were impressive enough, but the real gem was the hypostyle hall at its centre representing the primeval lotus swamp. Referred to by the WLP as the hippostyle hall, which sounded like an exotic sexual position, it contained 134 columns of which the central dozen had capitals shaped like flowering lotuses. There were still traces of the original colours, which had survived millenia of Egyptian weather, and the whole must have looked amazing when it was freshly painted. The walls of the complex were covered in relief carvings showing the travails of various pharaohs. It's easy to forget that hieroglyphics are possibly contemporaneous with the earliest human writing (3250BC), their pictorial
appearance hiding their true phonetic representation.
The above, and my West Bank blog entry, describe Luxor's many positives but it would be remiss of me not to mention its many negatives. I never like to consider a country or place as simply a set of things to see - the people I meet and my interaction with them generally provide all the highlights of my travels, but those experiences can't be captured in a photo or a few words so they tend not to come across well in blog format. However Luxor is one of those places that would be difficult to recommend in terms of human interaction. It may have no mosquitos but it has plenty of other predators, and they can detect a tourist from distance in much the same way as a shark scenting a few drops of blood in the ocean. In a competition that I had long thought closed with an unbeaten and unbeatable champion, I have had to demote Khajuraho to runner-up. I have never been anywhere like Luxor where a tourist ceases so completely to be a person and is reduced to being simply the money in their wallet.
to seeing a foreigner is Pavlovian and totally contextless - you get out of one taxi and are immediately surrounded by three others, you receive nine offers of a ride while walking past a caleche stand yet the tenth driver still offers despite having seen you decline the previous ones, you walk through the souk with all your luggage and the shopowners still assume you're on a shopping expedition. Ignoring the constant voices ringing out around you is the only option, which elicits further comments intended more to goad. Why won't you talk to me? Look at Mr Serious. Why do you come here if you aren't going to buy anything? I saw one caleche driver follow a couple down the street, ignoring their statements that they didn't want a ride. Eventually they turned to him and told him to go away, at which point he became abusive, raised his voice, and continued following them, asking loudly why they had come to his country to be rude to its inhabitants.
At all the sites, the guards and tourist policemen will attempt to gain baksheesh in any way possible. It is safe to say that if anyone does anything for
you - and I mean anything at all, even just taking a photo of you - you will be expected to pay them, even if you didn't want their help/service in the first place, and even if it's for something you wouldn't dream of charging someone for back home. In particular, you will be regularly beckoned over to be shown some carving or detail and will be asked for baksheesh for that information.
The hassle extends to the hotels, especially the cheaper end ones that I tend to frequent. The accommodation in this sector of the market is good value, but that's because the hoteliers intend to make their main profits by selling tours to their guests. Not being enormously fond of tours, this means I am an unwanted guest in their eyes. In my first hotel, I asked more than a day in advance of the end of my reservation whether I could stay for longer and was stalled for that entire period with stories of "Maybe", "We don't know", "We'll tell you in a couple of hours", etc until it was time to check out. My second hotel distinguished itself by telling me at 8AM that I
needed to leave my room within 30 minutes. I confirmed that the check-out time was at midday but was told that the next guests for my room had already arrived so I must leave. Not surprisingly I refused, sending the manager into a huff. The owner of my third and final hotel persisted in trying to get me to write a glowing review on Hostelworld.com while he watched.
There are few fixed prices in Luxor. Even when buying a DC or DM, I was usually asked "What will you pay?" when I asked what the price was. And if I wasn't asked that, I soon learned that the price I was quoted was negotiable. With a couple of weeks of DC and DM buying experience further north, I knew what I should be paying, so being asked for LE20 for a LE4 chocolate bar was a surprise. Returning to the same shop I'd visited the day before, I was quoted twice the previous price. On my first trip on the river ferry I was double-charged. The second time, I was charged the correct price (which is a special foreigner one anyway) but my change was given to me in
a tightly folded wad of notes - swept into the ferry by the crowd surge of fellow passengers, I inspected the notes onboard and found they were all either ripped, held together by Sellotape, or missing parts. Even one of the ATMs gave me a note devoid of an entire corner.
I was amused to see shops with signs claiming to be hassle-free, generally featuring an owner who stood outside beseeching passers-by to come into his shop "just to look". In an attempt to make the British tourists feel more at home, there were pubs with names like the King's Head and Royal Oak. Del Boy's Bazaar didn't promise much of a guarantee of quality, but no less so than the jewellers called Yorkshire Bob and Lancashire Jimmy.
As I was walking back to the hotel one evening, I passed a pair of local men and one of them mimed shooting me in the head. That just about summed up one aspect of Luxor's attitude to tourists - your money is welcome but you aren't. Obviously none of the taxi drivers, felucca skippers, alabaster salesmen, etc would act like this if it wasn't the optimal strategy, so I
Winter Palace hotel
Howard Carter and Agatha Christie are among its former guests
could only curse the tourists that had come here in the past (and present) and made it that way.
It's not too difficult to ignore the hassle and deal with overpaying the odd dollar here and there, but it is a major part of the Luxor experience and permeated even my farewell from the town. The train station had no arrivals/departures board (though I haven't seen one anywhere in Egypt) and there was no-one in the information booth, so I disappointed the baksheesh-seeking policemen by going to the station manager's office to ask from which platform my Aswan-bound train would be departing. On the train, the carriage attendant attempted to persuade me that I wanted food and drink and, when I declined, said he would come back later despite me telling him not to bother. He was true to his word, and when I again declined the offer, he asked why. I gave the obvious answer, that the trip was only 3 hours long and I was neither hungry nor thirsty, but it didn't seem to get through.
Being a tourist is a mixture of moments of feeling glad to be alive and moments when it appears people
are doing everything in their power to be a pain in the arse - Luxor provides magnificently, at both ends of the spectrum.
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