On our guide’s advice, we rose early and left for the west bank of the Nile at 6am. We were the first to arrive at the Valley of the Kings, which pleased Magic greatly. We caught a little train thing “like Disney Land” from the empty car park to the place where the men with guns confiscate your video cameras.
Guiding is not allowed in the tombs themselves, so we sat in a shaded area while Majid told us about the history of the place and showed us pictures of what we would see in the tombs themselves. The valley was chosen as a place of burial because it is dominated by the pyramidal shaped mountain of Al-Qurn (the Horn). Obviously a place where there was a natural pyramid was special. There are about sixty excavated tombs in the valley and supposedly many more yet to be discovered.
While the tomb of Tutankhamen is the most famous, there is not a great deal to see inside, so Majid suggested we visit the tombs of Ramses III, Ramses IX and Merneptah. The walls of the tombs were covered with scenes from the book of the dead describing how to get to the afterlife; a procedure which seems to require knowing a good snake from a bad one (you can tell by the number of heads) and how well you can bullshit the gods about what a great life you have lived. It is surprising how large these tombs are. While they are not so obviously extravagant as the Great Pyramids, they are quite deep and extensive and they are covered in beautifully preserved paintings. The ceilings are often painted with stars on a deep blue background.
The tomb of Merneptah contains the granite lid of one of the Pharaoh’s sarcophagi. Each tomb is staffed by a number of Egyptian men who are keen to point out features of the tombs and for a little baksheesh one of these ‘guides’ with a voice like distant thunder took us underneath and inside the lid of the sarcophagus. Fun.
Just over the hill on the other side of the Valley of the Kings is the temple of Queen Hatshepsut. This is yet another stunning piece of Egyptian antiquity. It is a three-tiered temple cut from the face of a cliff overlooking a desert plain. Before we set out across the baking dessert, Majid gave us a history lesson in the shade of a dilapidated, early twentieth century rest house. The queen who built the temple was the daughter of Tuthmosis I and was married to her half-brother Tuthmosis II. When Tuthmosis II died, her son Tuthmosis III was too young to be regent so Hatshepsut ruled as queen in her own right. This was quite a novelty at the time and she is often depicted as a man, false beard and all.
It was a long walk to the top of the temple, but it was slightly cooler at the top. Not much, though. I felt the birds circling on the rising air on the cliffs above us were waiting for me to drop dead from heat stroke. Looking out over the plain it was hard to imagine that it had once been covered in exotic trees, plants and garden beds.
Then we went to a place which is not visited by many tourists but is well worth a look. The Valley of the Craftsmen is nearby and was where the people who built the tombs lived. They died and obviously needed burying. The good thing was, being craftsmen and all, they could decorate their tombs with the same beautiful imagery they were painting on the royal walls. While the tombs are very much smaller, the paintings are even more stunning than those of the Valley of the Kings. The colours are so rich and vibrant, even after three thousand years.
As we made our way back to the hotel, we made a stop at an alabaster shop. Yes even Majid, it seems, is not above shoving some tourist trade to friends. This was a genuinely interesting shop though, and a lot of fun. First we were introduced to Mohamed 1, 2 and 3. We were then shown how the alabaster was turned from plain rock into beautiful vases and, of course, how to spot the fakes others were selling. We then moved into the shop and with the traditional bottle of Coke in hand decided to finally have an honest go at bargaining. I was quite pleased with the result and, while I turned down the offer of a thousand camels for Kathryn, everyone came out smiling. The Egyptians had some of my money and we had some more ballast for the flight home.
We stopped long enough to take a photo at the Colossi of Memnon; two great statues that are all that remains of the temple built by Amenhotep III, which archaeologists think may have been larger even than Karnak. There would also have been hundreds of statues, however these have, of course, long since vanished to museums in Cairo and around the world.
We arrived back at the hotel in time for lunch and I don’t know if it was that or the heat or something else, but that evening, while Kathryn floated in a Felucca we had booked, I had more pressing engagements with the toilet in our hotel room. That’s all I’m going to say. Oh my God.
Thank goodness we had another night in Luxor, because I don’t think I could have handled the train ride back to Cairo that night. In fact, I was pretty much out of action for the rest of the trip. I spent the next day in bed before stumbling to the train station. The next day, Saturday, was to be our special first anniversary treat. We would be staying in the Four Seasons in Cairo
If you are looking for an excellent place to stay in Cairo, I would unhesitatingly recommend the Four Seasons. It is not cheap. Actually, it is expensive, but it is, without doubt, the finest hotel I have ever stayed in. It is so fancy, the reception isn’t even on the ground floor! Whenever you pass one of the staff, dressed in sharp black suits, you are greeted with a smile and a good morning (unless it’s the afternoon). It is beautifully and subtly decorated and our room was bigger than our flat in London. In fact, I think the bathroom may have been bigger than our flat in London. Also, I never realised until I had stayed there that, yes, of course, two basins are quite necessary in a bathroom.
Our room overlooked the Cairo Zoo and the occasional lion’s roar penetrated the double glazing. Stepping out onto our balcony, the Pyramids were quite visible in the distance. I still felt like I might expire at any moment so after a light breakfast in the gorgeous breakfast room overlooking the Nile I went back to bed and watched the Simpsons and the Discovery Channel in between sleeping. Kathryn went to the hotel’s spa and had a ‘Relaxing Egyptian massage’ and ‘Queen Nefertiti facial’. I also discovered that I could get just about anything delivered to my room and ordered a bunch of flowers for Kathryn.
So, that was our trip to Egypt. It was certainly unlike anywhere we had ever been before and despite the unfortunate turn of events in Luxor we had a wonderful time. The Egyptian people are genuinely friendly and while they can come across as pushy or annoying, they are mostly just trying to earn a living. In a foreign country you just have to go with the flow and realise things are done differently in different places. With each new part of the world we set foot on, our horizons expand some more. Just when you stop looking up at all the big buildings in London you land somewhere like Cairo to widen your eyes again.
PS While we never had the courage to play our ‘wedding anniversary’ card in a hotel, we did let the steward know on the flight back, which scored us a bottle of champagne. Not too bad!