On my first day I explored the Luxor Temple which is still being excavated in the heart of the town. The medieval traveller Ibn Battuta visited what was then known as Al-Aqsur in 1325 and refers to it as a ‘pretty village’. Curiously, he merely mentions the tomb of Abu’l-Haj as part of his itinerary. In those days the temple was filled with sand and villagers lived in hovels inside the temple walls.
Later, Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt, gave the two obelisks that stood at the entrance of the temple, to Champollion as a reward for his services. Champollion was a French philologist and the first to work out how to read the mysterious hieroglyphs. That was rather clever of him and he was subsequently known as the founder of Egyptology.
Thank you very much, said Muhammad Ali. I will give you this obelisk. You know what? You can have both of them.
Merci monsieur, said Champollion who didn’t speak much English, elles sont tres jolie!
Such a present was not uncommon at the time. Not long before, the Egyptian government had run out of gifts and had hired the Great Belzoni to find more antiquities in order to give them away to high ranking visitors. Belzoni was perhaps the most intriguing character in the history of Egyptology and I hope to write more about him later. One of the obelisks was transported to Paris where it now stands at the Place de la Concorde. The other one still stands at its original place (photo below), where Champollion had left it. We’ll come back later, he said. But he never came back and it was only in 1980 that the French government officially reneged on its claim to the remaining obelisk…
In the Inner Sanctum of the temple I found the name of French 19th century poet Rimbaud engraved high on one of the huge columns. It is not entirely sure whether it actually belonged to the poet, though he is known to have indeed visited Egypt on his travels. The height at which the name was carved out, illustrates handsomely how much sand the temple was filled with at the time.
The West Bank
On the West Bank I found a very nice hotel with a garden, large room with ditto bathroom and all this for well under 10 euro, breakfast included. The tiled marble floor in the bathroom became fiendishly slippery after having had a shower and on several occasions I nearly broke my neck.
After I had made myself at home, I spent my time visiting the many monuments and tombs that scatter this side of the Nile. This time I decided to give priority to sites I hadn’t seen before and when I found out a Late Period Isis temple that was only recently opened to the public, I made this the first stop on my list.
The Isis temple turned out to be a small building where I happened to be the only visitor. The guard seemed glad to see me and accompanied me to the temple to unlock it. During opening hours there is no danger of any looting or damaging, but unlocking the doors constitutes a service and therefore warrants a small payment, which is known as baksheesh.
The guard, who didn’t speak a single word of English, dutifully pointed out interesting details.
Thank you, I said. There was absolutely nothing to see. It was not as one might imagine an interesting hole.
A few steps further he pointed at a hieroglyph depicting a small bird.
Thank you, I said again. There were tons of these hieroglyphs. The guard merely seemed to probe which details would provoke the most enthusiast reactions from visitors and were therefore most likely to extract a little extra baksheesh.
I made a photograph of a servant who seems to point a semi-automatic weapon to the pharaoh sitting opposite him with a bowl of petunias on his head.
Carter’s House was built at the corner of the road that leads to the Valley of the Kings. There was no electricity and it was half dark, but atmospheric: his trunks, his typewriter, a huge camera, and more down to earth stuff. An entrance let to a dark room.
What is this? I asked.
This his dark room.
Of course, I thought. Fortunately, I had brought my torch.
Not far from the house, a replica tomb of Tutankhamun had been made and since there was no electricity here either, I brought out my torch again, but I felt a bit silly to shine my torch in a replica tomb….
The Hatshepsut temple was restored and from a distance it looked like a modern five star hotel. At the parking lot many busses were waiting and I could see tour groups scattered around the temple. It was for this reason thatI decided to buy a ticket for the nearby Asasif tombs. One of the charms of the lesser known sites is the sense of exclusiveness. After I had bought my ticket an official took me to the site.
I will call the ghafir, he said.
The ghafir? I asked.
The guard, he said. He put his hands to his mouth.
HASSAAAAN!!!!! he called.
When we had found Hassan he took me first to the tomb of Khoref and shoved me inside while he was on his phone. It was dark and I was glad I had brought my torch. It was extremely gratifying to shine my torch into the dark recesses and to discover some small hieroglyphs and I was only marginally disappointed that there were no hissing cobras. At the end of a small corridor on the right was a dark chamber and when I entered it I could at first see nothing, but when my eyes were accustomed to the dark I saw in the light of my torch an old sieve with on it several pot shards. I heard Hassan say something, but I pretended not to hear him.
On the way out there was another tomb with its door ajar. I motioned to go inside but Hassan muttered: forbidden. I looked at him and he made a small gesture that could mean anything but it meant baksheesh. I nodded and he said: follow me. I peered through a hole in the wall with Hassan at my elbow. It reminded me of that famous colloquy between the archaeologist Howard Carter and his benefactor Lord Carnarvon. When Carter peeped into Tutankhamon’s tomb, Carnarvon asked him:
Can you see anything?
And Carter answered:
Yes, wonderful things.
But in this case there was not much to see: only another deep shaft and several broken pots covered with a layer of dust. It was again deeply satisfying to shine my torch around…. Hassan urged me to be careful. Understandably, because it would be trouble for him if I fell to my death in one of the deep shafts in a tomb that was supposed to be off limits.
When we entered the second tomb that my ticket allowed me to access, I asked Hassan which one this was. He said something that sounded like Ankh-hor, and he motioned to a notice above the entrance, but that said only: no photos allowed. Ankh-hor was mayor etc. of a much later dynasty and this tomb had electricity, so unfortunately I had no use for my torch.
What does it mean?!?!