After a long and fairly sleepless flight, team GnT arrived at Cairo International. Immigration was straightforward although a recent rule change meant that we had to collect our luggage rather than leaving it to be automatically transferred to our later flight to Luxor.
Moments later we were in our mini-bus and heading southwest for Saqqara. It is always interesting to watch people’s faces as they experience Cairo’s traffic for the first time. Having breakfasted at 03:30 it was time for some sustenance and a roadside stop for falafel sandwiches was most welcome.
On arrival at Saqqara we elected to first visit the Imhotep museum. Beautifully laid out, this is a must do. One tends to think of Saqqara as being an Old Kingdom necropolis, so it was good to be reminded that it featured in the New Kingdom and later. Especially interesting was the gallery devoted to Jean-Philippe Lauer who worked the Saqqara complex for so many years.
The Step Pyramid
Onto the Step Pyramid. For most of our group this was their first pyramid experience and this one never fails to impress. As you walk out into the Great Court from the entrance colonnade, you get your first full view of the Step Pyramid and realise just how big it is. A lot of work has been done since I was here last, notably the addition of the gleaming white walkway along one side. We made our way around the west side of the pyramid and along the northern edge to get to the serdab. Again, it is always fun to watch people’s reactions to seeing the King staring back at them through the small holes.
The Pyramid of Unas
We moved on to the pyramid of Unas, going down into the burial chamber where the guardian was keen to show us the images that can be discerned underneath the hieroglyphs on the wall. Both fascinating and beautiful, the torchlight picks out the blue of the first attested pyramid texts, against the gentle iridescence of the alabaster walls. From here it was a short trip to the Serapeum.
What can one say about this incredible underground complex? The sheer size of the subterranean tunnels beggars belief, and that is before you start with the sarcophagi. The precision of stonework in here is remarkable, and to stand next to one of the colossal stone sarcophagi is in some way overwhelming. One’s mind cannot help but question what sort of technologies were the masons and builders using. A truly fantastic place.
With a full itinerary it was time to move on to our next stop – Dashur and the Bent and Red Pyramids. With the clock against us, we didn’t stop at the Bent pyramid, but drove slowly around it, with a pause for photos. The Red Pyramid was a different matter. The brave among us elected to take on the steep stairway up the side of Sneferu’s third attempt at pyramid building. The climb accomplished; it is then a 200 feet long passage down to the first chamber. There are two more chambers after that. Truly magnificent and as impressive inside as the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Time to say goodbye to what the locals call the Bat Pyramid and head for the old capital Mennefer, better known as Memphis.
Although little remains of the fabled white-walled city it is still worth a visit. Perhaps the most notable thing to see is the massive statue of Rameses the Great lying on its back in its own purpose-built museum. The statue’s twin, now restored, stands in the entrance of the new Grand Egyptian Museum. Memphis was the home of the god Ptah, and it is this god’s temple, Hwt-kA-ptH, via the Greek rendition Ai-Gy-Ptos, that gave Egypt her name.
Nothing beats a quick koshari stop. We pulled over to the side of the road in Giza for a quick lunch. A bowl of one of Egypt’s national dishes, koshari, followed by another local favourite, roz bil laban, a sort of rice pudding, and then we were on our way once more. Next, the Giza plateau.
No words can ever really convey the full enormity of the Great Pyramid, you need to stand at its base, and for our first-time visitors this was a special moment. A slow walk down the hill brings you to the entrance to the Valley temple and of course the Sphinx. It is good to see crowds of tourists here once more, and one can only trust that the Egyptian economy will see the benefits. The Sphinx viewing platform was pretty full, and it took a degree of patience to get that perfect photo moment.
Exhausted but happy, it was time to get in the mini-bus and make our way across the city to the airport.
Next stop: Luxor.
A lazy start to day 2 for most of the team, as yesterday had been so long. We only finally arrived in Luxor around midnight, and most of us had been on the go since the morning of the day before.
The Avenue of Sphinxes
After a quick breakfast, it was up to me to go and get our Luxor Passes. The issuing office has moved from behind the Luxor Museum and is now at the Karnak visitor’s centre. Leaving everyone else sleeping, I set out, via the ferry, for the East Bank and then followed, as far as possible, the Avenue of Sphinxes. This is currently under restoration and it is only possible to see it from the raised position of the roads that run alongside it. The Avenue ends at the Bab el Amara gate in front of the Khonsu Temple, just past where the Avenue splits at the Precinct of Mut. It is still quite a walk to get around to the new Karnak entrance, which is something that is going to have to be taken into consideration if the Avenue is going to be open to the public as a link between the Luxor and Karnak temples.
Just inside the entrance is a door marked Luxor Passes, and from here a lady led me to another room to get them. A fairly painless procedure; just make sure you have the relevant paperwork – your passport, 2 copies of the passport’s info page and 1 ID style photo and the fee in US dollars or Euros. I took along a glue stick as a form of baksheesh which helped things along a little. Nice to know that I could get them for the whole group without the others having to be there. Armed with the GnT team’s Luxor passes I headed south to meet everyone else at the Luxor Museum.
This is probably the best introduction that you can get to the New Kingdom, especially the 18th dynasty. There was much interest in the two mummies in their darkened rooms. Upstairs for a quick rundown on Akhenaten and on to the basement which houses most of the statues from the Luxor cache found 30 years ago in the temple of the same name. Some of the finest stone-working to be seen anywhere. This is still my favourite museum.
Just upriver stands the small, and often bypassed, Mummification Museum. After some hurried checking about our Luxor Passes, we were allowed in to this fascinating, well laid out, visual explanation of the mummification process with numerous examples on display. Not just human, but also many different animals and birds. Also on display are some exquisite mummy cases, a selection of Ushabtis, Canopic jars and examples of the actual tools and chemicals used in the process. Fascinating and well worth a visit.
Rameses the Great
Time for lunch and an afternoon of relaxation before heading across the river once more to the magnificent Luxor Temple. Our timing was spot on, as when we arrived a team of workers was busy with the restoration of one of the statues of Rameses the Great that front the first pylon. The men were busy lifting a massive timber joist up to the top of the scaffolding that surrounded the base of the restored statue. All done by hand with ropes and calls. A large crowd watched mesmerized as the work crew slowly lifted this huge piece of wood into place. One could easily imagine that this is how it has always been done.
Luxor Temple This incredible edifice was team GnT’s first real introduction to New Kingdom architecture, and there were several open mouths as we stood at the base of the one remaining obelisk. Once inside, I think it is only after successive visits that one begins to appreciate the difference between the Rameside work and that of the earlier, more delicate 18th dynasty. As the sun began to sink, so the numbers of tourists increased and it would have been easy to let oneself be swept along by the throng, but stepping out of the flow allows you to take in the full splendour of the temple, especially once the lights come on. With Ra descending behind the Theban mountains it was time for us to also head west.
Tomorrow we start on the West Bank and the Place of the Beautiful Ones.
Breakfast looking across the Nile, watching the last of the hot air balloons as they finish their early morning flights. One can’t really complain.
The West Bank
Today, we start on the West Bank. Grabbing water, hats and sunscreen we piled into the minibus that was to take us the comparatively short distance to our first port of call, the Valley of the Queens.
The flagship tomb of the Queen’s Valley, if not the whole West Bank, is definitely that of Nefertari, the Great Royal Wife of Rameses II. The Sistine Chapel of Ancient Egypt, as it is sometimes called, is a beautiful demonstration of how not all the royal marriages of the time were purely ones of convenience with deep political undertones but were sometimes actually built on an emotional platform. Rameses the Great’s love for his wife is all too clear in the romantic poetry written on the walls. Yet, he doesn’t appear in the tomb at all. This was the first New Kingdom tomb for many of our party, and the expressions on their faces were something to behold.
There are around 100 tombs in the greater Valley of The Queens area, but only a handful are open. After Nefertari it was the turn of Amun-her-khepeshef, a son of Rameses III. A simple, straight tomb, looted in antiquity, its wall’s decorations are in excellent condition. Next was the very similar tomb of his mother, Queen Tyti. Our final tomb was that of the eldest son of Rameses III, Khaemwaset. Another well preserved tomb, with magnificent wall decorations. Most scenes show the young prince, easily identifiable by his sidelock, being led by his royal father, yet it would appear that he outlived his father and his final funerary arrangements were handled by Khaemwaset’s brother Rameses IV.
A Word of Warning
Time to move on to the other end of the social scale. We are headed for the workers’ village of Deir el-Medina. A note of caution here: do not try and walk across the mountain path to the village as the ban on such journeys is strictly enforced by the police.
Discretion being the better part of valour, we opted for the road route and minutes later were at the village itself. This is the erstwhile home of the craftsmen who built and decorated the royal tombs of the Valley of the Kings. An isolated but well looked-after, for the most part, village of master artists, Deir el-Medina is one of the finest documented ancient villages in all history. The tombs of Deir el-Medina are striking in that their decorated walls are not of daily life but almost exclusively scenes from the various Books of the Dead. An echo of the work carried out by these craftsmen on the other side of the mountain. At the far end of the village stands the Ptolemaic Temple which replaced the one built by Seti I. In fact there is so much to see at Deir el-Medina one could spend the entire day there, but lunch was calling, and so was the Café & Restaurant Maratonga.
It is always nice to return to places and be remembered by the people there, and so the return to Maratonga was a good one. After a sumptuous lunch and a quick photo it was only a short waddle to Medinet Habu. It was the team’s first mortuary temple, and probably the most impressive. Built for Rameses III, it is in an incredibly good state of repair. Of particular interest is the 18th Dynasty temple just inside the entrance, built by Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III. We all split up and began an extended afternoon of exploration. The interior walls and columns still bear fabulous examples of the original paintwork, and it is easy to get lost in the multitude of gods that surround you. Outside, on the north wall, can be found the famous Battle of the Delta, assumed to be showing Rameses III and the Egyptian forces repelling the still unidentified Sea People.
And as the Sea People were defeated, so it was time for us to withdraw, back to our hotel on the edge of the Nile.
This morning’s quest demanded walking shoes as we were about to hit the tombs of the New Kingdom elite. Maybe tomb is the wrong word, as all of these sepulchres are really a combination of a final resting place and a memorial temple, in that each one, while containing a place for burial, is actually about celebrating the life and accomplishments of its owner, and so we find walls resplendent with scenes of daily life, rather than the spells and magic formulae of both the royal Tombs and those of the craftsmen of Deir el-Medina.
Tombs of the Nobles
We’re headed for Qurna and the Tombs of the Nobles. Most of the open tombs are actually the chapels that would have remained open after the burial, to be visited by friends and family on feast days throughout the year, keeping the cult of the deceased alive. The actual burial chamber was usually below the chapel and was sealed at the time of internment.
Our first stop was the tomb of Nakht, a scribe and “Observer of the Hours (of night)”, possibly meaning he was an astronomer. This tomb is perhaps best known for the depiction of the musicians, a group of three scantily dressed women, who would seem to depict the somewhat decadent lifestyle of the day. There is the traditional hunting scene in the thickets of the papyrus marshes with Nakht catching birds and fish. Just below this is an idea of what went on in the vineyards, with scenes of grape picking, pressing, and the eventual bottling. Below this we find food preparation as birds are killed, dressed, and roasted on skewers, providing provisions for Nakht in the hereafter. Much has been learnt from these scenes of daily life.
From here we headed north over the rise to the final resting place of Amenemopet, royal scribe and “Chief Administrator of the Domain of Amun”, a very important man. The colonnades either side of the entrance are spectacular despite the damage done in the 19th century when the tomb was used as stables. There is much to see here.
Our third stop was for Menna, “Scribe of the Fields of the Lord of the Two Lands”. The walls are filled with lively paintings of agricultural work. The scenes, as in the other tombs, work in two ways. Firstly, they are a celebration of life, and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they are a wish for the future in eternity. But this is also a chapel to the departed, and so we also find depictions of offerings being made by Menna and his wife to Osiris. There is also the customary funerary procession which, for the first time in a tomb, ends with the Judgment of the Dead, and the well-known Weighing of the Heart ceremony.
Sennefer was Mayor of the Southern City, meaning Thebes ((Luxor), under Amenhotep II. His tomb really is the tomb, as the long descent leads to the actual burial chamber, a small square room containing four pillars. It is probably best known for its uneven ceiling, masterfully painted to resemble a grape arbour, indeed it was known as the “tombeau des vignes”.
Vizier under Tuthmose III and Amenhotep II, Rekhmire was basically, second in command as far as officialdom went. Many scenes here show local tax revenue being delivered to Rekhmire in the form of livestock, grain, beads and cloth, as well as gold and silver, however the tomb is largely noted for its representation of foreigners bringing goods to Egypt. We see emissaries from Punt and from Crete, followed by tributes from the peoples to the south, the Nubians and the Sudanese. After them is a deputation from Syria and the East. There are also scenes depicting in wondrous detail, the local craftsmen; from the vineyards to the carpenters shop, from hunting and fishing; to food preparation, tanning, and metalwork. Another fascinating tomb, and the “long hall” has to be seen to be believed. It is nearly 90 ft long, just over 6 ft wide, and 26 ft high at the end. The latter half of this extraordinary room is purely religious, and the Opening of the Mouth depictions are probably the best of this ritual, broken up as it is into 50 individual scenes.
Last, but not least, is the tomb of Ramose, the vizier under Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten. The best-preserved scenes are either side of the entrance, showing the funerary offerings as well as the guests who were to attend the funeral celebrations. The pictures of the mourners show the fluidity of artistic style that would come to be known as Amarna art. The tomb of Ramose is perhaps most unusual in that it has two depictions of Amenhotep IV: on the left side of the entrance to the unfinished burial chamber we find Amenhotep IV in the traditional style, with the goddess Ma’at standing behind him, while on the other side of the entrance we find the King, now as Akhenaten, in typical Amarna style, with his wife at the Window of Appearances. Again, another fascinating tomb.
Ramesseum Rest House
But now it is time to go in search of lunch and where better than right next to this afternoon’s destination. We headed across the road for the Ramesseum Rest House. A good lunch and a good chat with Nubi Hussein Abd el-Rasoul. It was Nubi’s father who was the young boy photographed wearing Tutankhamun’s pectoral at the discovery of the tomb. To hear the story from his son is experiencing living history.
After lunch it was a short walk to the Ramesseum, the mortuary temple of Rameses the Great. This 600 feet long temple is perhaps best known for the 57 ft high statue of the King that once stood in front of the 1st pylon. Sadly, it now lies in pieces. Although generally in a state of disrepair, many of temple’s remaining pillars still bear their original paintwork, reminding us that the temples of antiquity were not hushed places of grey stone, but were thriving hubs of local and national economy set against a backdrop of riotous colour.
Colossi of Memnon
More statues for our final stop, and these are the two 60 ft high statues of Amenhotep III that mark the beginning of his own mortuary temple. Much work has been done in recent years in excavating what remains of what was once the largest temple in Luxor. A quick photo opportunity and then home to reflect on a busy day.
After an early breakfast, and with sunscreen, hats, and water on board, we set out for the world’s most famous cemetery. The Valley of the Kings.
In an attempt to beat the gathering crowds of tourists, we made our way straight to KV62, the final, and current, resting place of Tutankhamun. Our Luxor Passes make the Valley of the Kings, if not the entire West Bank, so much easier, and of course in the valley itself, it means all the open tombs are yours to see; no extra ticket for Seti I, nor for Tutankhamun. To most of the guardians of the sites, the Luxor Pass seems to carry with it an unwritten qualification, as often, as a pass holder, one gets referred to as Doctor (Egyptologist). For most of our group, the coffin and the King’s mummy were definitely the highlights of this rather small, rather plain tomb. Time to change all that.
Seti I KV17
Across the central area and up to the right of the rest house lies KV17. The tomb of Seti I, the father of Rameses the Great, rivals that of Queen Nefertari on the other side of the mountain. Over 450 ft long, most of its eleven chambers are beautifully decorated, although there is a fair amount of damage caused by later excavations. There is a further tunnel that descends deep into the bedrock for an astonishing 570 ft, but so far this tunnel has revealed nothing. This is a must do tomb and well worth the extra cost (LE1000), if you do not have the Luxor Pass.
Rameses III KV11
Our next port of call was a little further up the valley. One of my favourites, KV11, the tomb of Rameses III. Although small compared to Seti I, it is the stark contrast of the hieroglyphs against the white painted walls that always gets me. It is this tomb that ran into another whilst under construction, hence the sharp dog-leg in the middle.
Rameses V/VI KV9
Later in the same dynasty is the tomb of Rameses V, who started the construction, only for it to be finished by his uncle Rameses VI. This tomb is definitely for those interested in ancient astronomy, as the ceiling depictions are outstanding, as are the scenes from the Book of the Earth showing the Sun’s journey through the hours of darkness. Another magnificent tomb.
Rameses VII/IV KV 1 & 2
Sticking with the 20th dynasty there was just time to drop in on KV1 and KV2, the tombs of Rameses VII and Rameses IV, respectively. Both of theses tombs have been open since antiquity, as evidenced by the Ancient Greek and Roman graffiti (some things never change). It is perhaps a pity that other than Tutankhamun’s tomb, all the open tombs are Rameside, and that there is little chance of visiting the earlier Tuthmoside tombs.
The Marsam Hotel
Lunch, and a late call saw us pull into the parking area of the oldest rest house on the West Bank, the Marsam Hotel. We were lucky enough to get a large table under the trees in the open courtyard, which was a hive of activity, as a television crew was busy filming world-famous Egyptologist Salima Ikram.
Full of great food, and mountains of it, we headed north once more to the Kings’ Valley road, stopping off at the house of Howard Carter. It is worth a pause at this well-cared-for residence, if for nothing other than to get an idea of how life was a century ago as Carter worked the Valley.
Next stop the Western Valley. The Valley of the Monkeys, as it is sometimes called, is a lonely stark place compared to its sister valley to the east. No tourists here, just row after row of buckets and wheelbarrows, evidence of the ongoing excavations taking place. We drove as far as we could and then walked up the slope to the tomb of the successor of Tutankhamun, Ay.
One can see immediately how close the two respective tombs are; the style of artwork, in particular its lack of finesse, is exactly the same in this tomb as it is in KV62. It looks like it was painted by the same hand. The much damaged scene of the hippopotamus hunt is unusual in a royal tomb, and there are all sorts of theories as to whose tomb this originally was. Ay heralded the end of the 18th Dynasty, leaving only Horemheb to turn out the lights and open the door for the 19th, and as the sun had set on the glory of the 18th Dynasty, so it began to set on our day and it was time for us to return home.
Today saw a change to the planned itinerary, but that is the joy of running your own schedule – you can change things. Most of our group wished to explore what the shops of Luxor City had to offer, so we packed them off with a local chaperone leading the charge.
The remainers leapt into a taxi and off we shot back to the Western Valley and its evidence of much excavation. We headed for Ay’s tomb under strict instructions from the Head of Excavations that no photos were allowed. We decided the best plan was to walk from Ay back along the valley. In the open area below the tomb’s approach, there was much work going on. We did see that a gate has now been placed across the entrance to WV25, and next to the road we also saw evidence of what looked like small rooms, possibly worker’s huts. Further down the valley a team was busy clearing rocks from a section of hillside, loading them into waiting trucks, barrow-full after barrow-full. Rounding the curve just before the tomb of Amenhotep III, another team was busy working away. Lots of activity here, but it didn’t look like anything major had been found. Hopefully I am wrong.
Valley of the Kings
We decided to drop in at the main Valley and happily ran into Salah Elmasekh, who was sitting outside KV1. After a good chat, we took a stroll up past the tomb of Yuya and Tjuyu to the closed KV19, the tomb of Mentuherkhepeshef, son of Rameses IX. Again plenty of buckets and wheelbarrows, but nobody working. We came back to the central valley passing by KV17. From here it was an easy downhill stroll to our waiting transport.
Dra Abu el-Naga
Next stop the tombs of Roy, Suroy and Amenemope. The first tomb we visited was the 18th dynasty tomb of Roy. Although small with a single chamber and a burial shaft, the wall paintings are exquisite. Close by is TT148, the tomb of Amenemope. A lot to see in this tomb with its side chambers and statues. There is also a large granite sarcophagus, showing how important Amenemope was in the 20th Dynasty. Another small tomb, almost next door, is that of Suroy. Very similar to the tomb of Roy, but showing less care in the execution of the wall paintings. Still, good to see. On our way down we passed the entrance to Kampp 150, so much in the news in 2017, and couldn’t resist a peek inside. Torches are a must as there is no lighting and the burial shaft is very deep, in this mid-18th Dynasty tomb. Cool.
As we didn’t have long before we were scheduled to meet those brave souls who had opted for the greater adventure, shopping in Luxor, there was just time to pull in at Asassif. I wanted to show the others TT192, the funeral complex of Kheruef, steward to Tiye and the man charged with organising the first and third Sed festivals of Amenhotep III. The entrance to this complex is interesting, in that as you descend into the ground you pass under a lintel with pictures of Amenhotep IV and his mother offering to Atem and Ra-Horakhti. The complex suffered from a roof collapse during an earthquake, however this unfortunate event did much to preserve the inner wall inscriptions. This tomb, for me, is always a highlight because of its 18th dynasty inscriptions. Their grace and delicacy are here well preserved and have not suffered from being overwritten or usurped by later rulers. Lots to see here, but make sure you take a torch as it is not well lit. There are some very interesting dark tunnels and chambers underneath the first courtyard – enough said!
Time to head back to the Nile Valley Hotel for lunch and a chance to hear the stories of the Luxor shoppers. Everyone seemed very happy with their purchases. Perhaps it is a wise thing to go shopping with a local.
After another excellent Nile Valley Hotel lunch, it was time to get moving once more. This afternoon’s port of call was Deir el-Bahari, the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut. No one can fail to be impressed the first time they see this gleaming white edifice, seated beneath the cliffs of the Theban mountains. A sacred place even in the Middle Kingdom, the location of this temple is something to behold. It lies in a straight line between Karnak and the tomb of the Queen on the other side of the mountain. The temple is also aligned to the winter solstice sunrise, but we were now at the other end of the day and it was time to head for home. A brilliant day.