The view from our room at the Luxor Sheraton was stunning. We were on the east bank and from our balcony I could see a number of hot air balloons suspended over the opposite bank.
As I stood and watched, the rising sun gradually brought colour to the steep hills surrounding the Valley of the Kings and boats glided along the Nile in the cool of the early morning. As I was to later learn, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were built by the rulers of the New Kingdom. They didn’t go in for those massive pyramids, so they were buried on the west bank; where the sun sets.
After a shower and breakfast we visited the travel desk in the hotel and booked tours of the east and west banks. About an hour later our guide met us in the lobby and introduced himself as Majid, although he suggested we just call him ‘Magic’ as that might be easier.
Magic was instantly likable. He was a well-rounded man with thick, slightly rose coloured glasses and was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a Tintin cover on the front called ‘Tintin and the Cigars of the Pharaoh’. He also had an interesting way of saying ‘south’, where he would swap ‘th’ and ‘s’, so it came out more like ‘thous’. It was soon apparent that he was incredibly knowledgeable. He had studied at Cairo University and had a Masters degree in Mummy Cleaning.
Majid took us first to Karnak Temple. As we stood in the shade of the great walls, Majid told us a bit about its history. He was a brilliant speaker and had funny little turns of phrase; he started off by saying, ‘Now, use your fertile imaginations to rebuild Karnak Temple in your mind.’ And then he described how it had been built and added to by Pharaohs over 1500 years, the importance of its location, how the Nile would have been much closer than it is today. He took us through the various sections of the temple, all the while moving closer to the sacred sanctuary of Tuthmosis III, and all the while moving backwards in time, hundreds of years at a step. He took us through the Great Court and showed us the little sphinx with the head of Tutankhamun before entering the most impressive part of the temple complex, the Great Hypostyle Hall. This was started by Seti I and consists of a forest of pillars, one for each of the gods. They are all richly decorated and some colour remains in the writing sheltered from the sun. Originally it would have been roofed and quite dark. It would take a better photographer and a better writer than me to attempt to convey the reality of this hall, and this would seem not to be a new problem. Amelia Edwards, the 19th-century writer wrote, ‘It is a place that has been much written about and often painted; but of which no writing and no art can convey more than a dwarfed and pallid impression… The scale is too vast; the effect too tremendous; the sense of one’s own dumbness, and littleness, and incapacity, too complete and crushing.’
There are a number of massive granite obelisks in the complex, all hewn from a single piece of stone and somehow transported and raised. But there used to be more. It seems the Egyptian people were too trusting of visitors and countless treasures have been stolen by or given away to Greeks or Romans or Arabs. Majid spoke of massive statues of solid gold that were taken by invading armies. He also seemed dismayed that the Egyptian government had given away so many obelisks. London has one by the Thames, Paris has one in the Place de la Concorde. One was swapped, I think it was the French, for a clock. Majid seemed particularly annoyed at this; the French got a three thousand year old artifact and the Egyptians got a 19th-century clock that doesn’t even work any more.
After paying too much (obviously) for a couple of hats in a vain attempt to keep the baking sun off our heads we drove to Luxor Temple. Built by Amenhotep III, Luxor Temple is smaller than Karnak, but has many interesting things to see. The avenue of sphinxes out the front leads directly to Karnak Temple and the Pharaoh would have processed from Karnak to Luxor for special ceremonies. Today he would be stopped by houses and shops which have been built over the ancient city of Thebes.
One of the most interesting things in Luxor temple is the 13th-century Mosque of Abu al-Haggag. This was built before the temple was excavated and now sits atop the temple wall, its doors some fifteen feet off the ground.
As Majid told us about the pharaohs and their gods, he would speak of the ancient Egyptian religion as if he was a follower himself. When he spoke of their beliefs he would often say we believe.
By midday, the temperature was already too hot and we returned to the resort to relax. We had seen the east bank of Thebes. Tomorrow we would see the west bank, where the rulers of the New Kingdom were buried.