Safaga (Luxor), Egypt 2022
On November 1 we arrived at Safaga, a port town on the west bank of the Red Sea. This is the nearest port to Luxor, the ancient Egyptian capital on the banks of the Nile. While Luxor is a can’t miss visit (and we didn’t), it is a long 3 hour bus ride through the desert each way. Rick observed that it would have been more convenient for tourists if the Egyptians had thought to build Luxor closer to the coast!
Security in this area was very tight. After boarding the bus we drove about 100 yards to a building where we all had to get off and go through a passport check and a metal detector before reboarding and leaving the port. Our bus was also required to stop a number of times at police and military checkpoints between Safaga and Luxor. Other than that the 3 hour trip was uneventful, mostly through barren deserts until we got closer to Luxor where we began to see villages and agricultural fields. Donkey carts seemed to be the prevalent form of agricultural equipment.
Luxor is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, dating back thousands of years. Known to the ancients as Thebes, it was the capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom, from the 16th to the 4th centuries BCE. Today it is a city with a population of more than 420,000, but the antiquities are mostly clustered in an area along the river bank. As an aside, the Egyptians provide delightfully colorful tickets for these attractions.
Our first stop was at the Temple of Karnak, the largest religious temple ever built. It was dedicated to the main local god, Amun, who later became the primary Egyptian god under the name of Amun-Ra. Begun near the beginning of the 2d millennium BCE. some 30 pharaohs contributed to its construction over the centuries until after Alexander’s conquest in the 4th century BCE. The temple ended up mostly buried by sand until excavation began in the mid-19th century.
We approached the temple entrance along a path lined on both sides by sphinxes with the body of a lion and head of a ram (the symbol of Amun-Ra), each with a statue of Ramses II between its paws (though many of them are damaged). Both the wall and the open gate are very tall and impressive.
The large court inside the entrance contains the one remaining column from a large pavilion built by the Kushite pharaoh Taharka. There is also a huge statue of Ramses II with a small Nefertiti standing between his legs. Behind the statue is a large pile of stones, which might be what is left of the dismantled temple to the sun god Aten built by the heretic monotheist pharaoh Akhenaten and dismantled by his son, Tutankhamen. Off to the right is a long wall with a row of columns shaped like papyrus with closed buds. In front of it is a long row of ram’s head sphinxes. The horns on these sphinxes are larger and rounder than the ones outside the entrance; until informed differently we thought they were elephants, as the small Ramses statues under their noses looked from a distance like a trunk.
The central structure at Karnak is the Hypostyle Hall, today including 134 massive columns covering 50,000 square feet. You may have seen Roger Moore as James Bond running through it in The Spy who Loved Me, or a giant stone block being pushed off one of its columns in Death on the Nile. The columns are arranged in 16 rows, with the 12 most central central columns standing 69 ft tall and the rest 33 ft. The tall columns have open papyrus flower capitols, while the shorter ones have capitals shaped like closed papyrus flowers. Their diameter is almost 10 ft. The columns are mostly covered in relief carvings, many with color still intact.
Built by Seti I some 3300 years ago, this was originally a roofed temple. The shorter columns at the sides were topped with clerestory windows reaching to the height of the tall columns. This was necessary to let some light into the otherwise dark enclosed space. The windows had vertical grids and some are still there today (after restoration).
The roof was supported by huge stone architraves or beams set on top of the columns. Each weighs about 70 tons and many are brightly painted on the underside. It is thought that these stones were brought to the top on temporary ramps of sand and stone.
We saw three obelisks at Karnak. Two were near each other and dated to the 16th and 15th centuries BCE: One set up by Thutmose I on the right and by his daughter, the pharaoh Hatshepsut on the left. Hatshepsut actually erected two obelisks here but one fell down during an ancient earthquake and broke into pieces. Fragments of it are in museums in Boston and in Europe, but the top third of the obelisk was restored and erected again on a new base just 6 months before we visited. We saw it near the sacred lake.
As you could see on many of the pictures above, throughout the complex many walls were covered with relief carvings, often with color. Here is a small sample.
So after a much too short and hurried visit (about an hour or so) we left Karnak to drive to our scheduled lunch aboard a felucca (sailboat) on the Nile.
A felucca is a traditional Egyptian wooden sailboat long used on the Nile river. Our boarding was rather disorganized and walking over other boats to reach ours was a little iffy, especially for older people and those who are movement challenged. But the crews were very helpful and everybody made it to the tables set up on the deck for the tasty meal.
We did not have time to visit Luxor Temple, a 14th century BCE temple built on the banks of the Nile. Smaller than Karnak, it is equally as impressive and perhaps better preserved. We did, however, board our felucca near the temple. Its entrance is similar to the one at Karnak but there are giant statues of Ramses II and an obelisk in front of it. There were originally two obelisks flanking the entry way but the second one is now in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. A row of large columns and more statues of Ramses II were on the side by the river where we boarded.
We saw many other feluccas on the river while we ate. We also had a full length view of Luxor Temple including its long rows of pillars and the towers of the Abu Haggag Mosque just beyond the entryway. This part of the Temple was converted to a church in 395 CE and then to a still operating mosque in 640.
We had a nice view of the Winter Palace Hotel, built in 1905 and host to many well known visitors. Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile in her room at this hotel. On the other side of the river were some exclusive looking houses, some with verandas on the roof that must give a wonderful view of the river and the temples beyond. Several fairly large Nile river cruise boats were tied up on the east bank, looking larger than we would have expected.
After lunch we disembarked the felucca on the West bank, opposite from where we boarded. Then we boarded the bus and drove to the Valley of the Kings. After the age of pyramids Egyptian pharaohs adopted a new strategy for avoiding grave robbers. Instead of large, easily identified tombs they began having themselves buried in a barren and remote valley on the west side of the Nile, the direction associated with death by the Egyptians because this is where the sun sets. These new tombs were dug deep into the existing mountains with no markings observable from the surface. Yet virtually all of these tombs were robbed, starting in ancient times not long after they were built. Indeed, some of the workers who built the tombs were among the first robbers.
This gravesite was in use for some 500 years beginning in the 16th century BCE. More than 60 tombs or chambers have been unearthed to date but only about 20 once contained pharaohs’ mummies, the rest being used for other royals and nobles or as work or storage units. Some of these tombs were open to the public in ancient times as evidenced by more than 2,000 instances of graffiti mostly in Latin and Greek, the oldest so far dated to 278 BCE.
A visit to the Valley of the Kings begins at the visitor center where you buy a ticket for the shuttle ride to the tombs and can also buy souvenirs. Photography was prohibited in the Valley of the Kings until just a few years ago when they began to allow it for a fee. To our pleasant surprise, by the time we arrived they had eliminated the fee and photography was freely allowed.
We visited three tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and we were very lucky that our guide was able to help us time our entry to each to avoid the large crowds that often entered a tomb together. The first one was Tutankhamen. He was a rather obscure pharaoh who died in his teens but has become the most famous in modern times. His tomb was discovered to great international acclaim by English archaeologist Howard Carter in November, 1922. In fact, the day of our visit was the 100th anniversary of the start of the dig that unearthed the entrance to the tomb just three days later. Although ancient robbers had been in the tomb most of it was still intact, yielding a vast store of artifacts, many covered in gold. This treasure will soon be viewable, we understand, in the new museum being built near Cairo. Much of it toured several US museums from 1976 to 1979, when we saw it.
Like many of these tombs, there is a long steep walk down from the surface. King Tut’s mummy is displayed in the first chamber, its face open to view but enclosed in an environmentally controlled glass case. A short further walk, happily level, took us to the chamber where his outer sarcophagus sits. It is surrounded by vividly painted walls in Egyptian motifs. Effectively lighted, this is most impressive (as are all the tombs we visited). We guess that the paint on the walls of these tombs was of no use to tomb robbers.
Next we visited the tomb of Rameses I, built in the late 14th century BCE and discovered in 1817. While Tutankhamen’s tomb is painted with a golden background this one has a gray one. Rameses I only ruled for about 2 years, after serving in high office for a number of years before, so there was less time than usual to prepare his tomb and it is one of the smaller ones. There are two steep staircases to get there, separated by a corridor, and the room itself contains the pharaoh’s sarcophagus. His mummy is, at last report, residing in a museum at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. A wooden structure has been built around the sarcophagus to reinforce the ceiling. You can see from the pictures that the tomb was not crowded while we were there but when we tried to leave there was a very large group of French tourists walking down filling both sides of the stairway. We had to wait for them to clear a narrow path for us to climb up.
After climbing those steep stairways Mary’s leg was hurting so only Rick visited the tomb of Rameses IV. Rameses IV ascended the throne in middle age after his father was assassinated and lived for only about 6 more years, dying in 1150 BCE. His tomb has been open since antiquity and contains many Coptic and Greek graffiti (although Rick didn’t see them). During the early 19th century part of it was used as lodging for some visitors to the Valley of the Kings and it was finally excavated in the first two decades of the 20th century. A large white quartzite sarcophagus sits in the tomb, and it would originally have held a couple of wooden ones nested inside each other, but the pharaoh’s mummy is now in the new museum in Cairo. Unlike the other two tombs we visited this one has painted ceilings as well as walls. Some of the ceilings are curved and the walls of the corridor are covered with carved and painted hieroglyphics. The staircases to enter and exit the tomb were not nearly as steep or as long as those in the other two tombs.
Outside the tomb was a large open area with a restroom and a shuttle bus stop. As we took the shuttle back and boarded our bus the sun was coming down. We were supposed to visit Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple and see the Colossi of Memnon, but we were running out of time because the sun was setting and the sites were closing. Our guide managed to talk the reluctant guards at Hatshepsut’s temple to let us have a quick photo stop, but we weren’t allowed to leave the bus (the guards wanted to go home). Hatshepsut was a female pharaoh (she sometimes wore a fake beard to emphasize she was pharaoh and not just queen) who died in 1158 BCE. Her impressive pillared mortuary temple built in three receding tiers under a dramatic cliff is considered one of the great works of ancient architecture. We drove past the Colossi without stopping, but night was falling and they were on the other side of the bus so we only have a blurry picture.
We drove by the Colossi at speed because it was getting late and we had a three hour drive through the night to reach the ship before it departed at midnight. We made it back in time but the ride seemed even longer at night after a very full day in Luxor. At least we would have several days at sea to recover as we sailed around the Horn of Africa to our next port.
Our conclusion from all this is that Luxor is a wonderful place to visit, full of history and beauty and culture. But a one day stop including six hours of driving through the desert just isn’t enough. To really see what’s at Luxor would take at least two or three days, not counting the commute. We hope one day we will be able to do that, but probably not from a cruise ship.
Lord have mercy! Not only did you take fantastic photos but the TIME AND ENERGY it took to put this communication together must have been hours!!!! I appreciate your efforts.
February 22, 2023 at 5:24 pm
Thanks John. I am retired, so I have time. Energy . . . that’s another matter. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think that was the highlight of the whole trip (other than all the hours in the bus).
https://www.avast.com/sig-email?utm_medium=email&utm_source=link&utm_campaign=sig-email&utm_content=webmail Virus-free.www.avast.com https://www.avast.com/sig-email?utm_medium=email&utm_source=link&utm_campaign=sig-email&utm_content=webmail <#DAB4FAD8-2DD7-40BB-A1B8-4E2AA1F9FDF2>
February 22, 2023 at 10:52 pm
Oh my gosh the pictures are awesome. It is as close to Egypt as I will ever get as I don’t go underground so it would be kind of silly for me to go there. Claustrophobic is not fun. Thanks totally for Sharing.
February 22, 2023 at 11:00 pm