Friday, August 10, 2007

Pockets Full of Ticket Stubs and Heads Full of Pharoahs

At one time during the height of Egyptian civilization, Luxor (then called Thebes) was the capitol of Egypt. Not surprisingly, that means there is lots of stuff here for tourists to gawk at. So today, Tyler and I took a tour of the West Bank of the Nile, which included the Colossi of Memnon, three tombs in the Valley of the Kings, Queen Hatshepsut's Temple, and three tombs in the Valley of the Queens. And, for once, our tour included a guide, so we now know useful trivia like which crown represents Upper versus Lower Egypt, that Queen Hatshepsut brought back henna and incense trees from Somalia, and that evil multiple-headed snakes awaited pharoahs in the afterlife. But I get ahead of myself.

Our first stop was to see the Colossi of Memnon. These 23 meter high statues (colossal indeed!) are the only remains of a distant pharoah's temple, destroyed in flooding of the Nile. The Greeks named these statues after their famed king, Agamemnon, and they still stand guard, cracked by still awe-inspiring, worthy of Ozymandias-like sonnets.

Tyler in front of the Colossi of Memnon. You can see they are pretty aptly named (except for the "Memnon" part).

Quickly we were off to the Valley of the Kings, where 62 tombs of pharoahs have been found. Howard Carter's discovery of King Tutankhamon's tomb is famed because it was the only one found that had not been plundered or disturbed, but the tomb itself (which we didn't see in person; they make you pay extra) is not as grand as many others. Apparently, a pharoah would start construction on his tomb the day he started ruling. Thus, pharoahs with a long rule have big tombs; those with a short rule (like King Tut) have small ones. The Egyptians built their tombs on the west bank following the idea that they should live on the side where the sun rises and find the afterlife where the sun set. There was a great 3-D representation of the entire Valley and the layout of the tombs in the entryway.

Representation of the Valley of the Kings. Each flag represents one of the 62 tombs found here, including King Tut's.

Representation of the actual depths and shapes of the tombs dug into the earth.

The Valley of the Kings--not particularly photogenic, but you can see at least one tomb opening and the mountains rising behind.

Our first stop was the tomb of Tuthmes III, a pharoah ruling for 32 years and a big tomb. (Remember him; he'll come back into play later....) After climbing many steps up to the opening, we then went down into the earth to view the various corridors, antechambers and finally the burial room itself. Many tombs also have false endings or shafts meant to confuse grave robbers. One of the most interesting things about the tomb was that the style of the pictures were very different from the more realistic paintings usually found in tombs and temples, more stylized and almost stick-figure-like. The burial chamber was also interestingly built in the shape of a cartouche.

Map of the first tomb we visited, Thutmes III, long because of his long rule.

Unfortunately, no picture taking is allowed in the tombs. The other tombs we visited were similar, with slightly different details. For example, one tomb had a great depiction of the god of the sky, who was believed to be spread across the sky, eating the sun every evening and giving birth to it again each morning, like ideas of the afterlife.

You quickly realize while on the West side of the Nile that there are many more graves than those that have found fame and recognition. From almost any vantage point, you can see caves and small entryways in the hills surrounding you, each foretelling of a tomb. Besides the famed valleys of the Kings and Queens, there are many tombs of nobles and workers as well.

Tombs litter the landscape on the West Bank, besides the famed valleys, including tombs of nobles and workers.

Then we were off to Hatshepsut's Temple. Hatshepsut was one interesting pharoah. She was married to Thutmoses II, her half-brother. During his life, she ruled in the background; when he died, she shipped his 10-year-old son (the same Tuthmoses III whose tomb we saw in the Valley of the Kings) off to Cairo for education and took to ruling herself by claiming she was a son of Amon, the sun god, and generally representing herself as a man. She ruled for 20 years until her death (which may or may not have been a natural one) when her son, Thutmoses III came back to rule for 32 years himself. However, pharoahs generally don't seem to be very generous to their predecessors, and he chiselled out the cartouches of her name from her temple and also hid one of the huge granite obelisks she erected at Karnak.

Fittingly, the temple is as unusual as its namesake. Though for a queen, it was built in the Valley of the Kings. In addition, it was built in three levels into the rock, rather than carved deep into its surface. After seeing many pictures of it from Ancient Civilization courses (and Art History for Tyler), it was pretty impressive to see in person. She definitely knew how to find the right landscape to make a statement!

Queen Hatshepsut's Temple/Tomb, also called Deir el-Bahri because it was converted to a Coptic monastery in the third century BC. Only in Egypt could this be considered a "recent name change" according to a government-produced brochure we recieved!

One thing I always look for at the tombs and temples we visit are the hidden crevices and protected corners where the original paint remains. While we're accustomed to seeing Egyptian (as well as Greek) edifices as stately stone structures, they were actually possibly quite gaudy in their heydey, with each heiroglyphic and surface painted bright colors. There were a few great examples on the second level of Hatshepsut's temple.

Still vibrant paintings from Hatshepsut's Tomb

Another painting example. If you enlarge, you can see they are offerings of all kinds of animals and foods.

Our final stop was the Valley of the Queens. I was anxious to see the tomb of Nefertari, the wife of one of the 11 Ramses (the same one who built Abu Simbel) and considered to be the finest example of painting of all the Egyptian tombs. Unfortunately, it was closed for restorations. In all, there are 80 tombs in the Valley of the Queens, more than in the Valley of the Kings since the pharoahs often had many wives. We visited two of young princes (those that died before age 15 were buried by their mothers) and one Queen. While there were some nice examples of bright, well-preserved painting, they were a little bit of a let down. Or it could just have been that we were getting hungry and hot. And all the staff at the entries of each temple tried to work us over for tips.

But, all in all, it was a good day. It might have made more sense to have a guided tour at the beginning of our trip to help us interpret all the other imagery we've seen, but it was also a good send off. Tonight, we head back to Cairo on an overnight 10 (which probaby means 12) hour trip before a 3AM flight to Turkey.

Happy but hot in Thebes!

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