The Challenges of Being A Tourist In Egypt & The Necropolis of Thebes

Luxor is a good sized town that straddles both sides of the Nile covering what was once the ancient city of Thebes. While the seat of the Thebian empire, today Luxor and Karnak, the adjacent city and temple, is perhaps best known for its proximity to the Valley of the Kings, where kings, queens and nobles were entombed with riches so they could be well prepared for the afterlife.

On the east bank of the Nile are the grand temples of Karnak and Luxor, plus all the luxury and budget hotels. A ferry boat and enterprising taxi boats shuttle locals and tourists to and from the East and West Banks. Today the more developed East Bank has more restaurants, riverfront drinking and dining and stunning views from the river of the Luxor Temple. Horse carriages troll the cornice hoping to convince tourists to take a ride along the Nile, while felucca boat captains pitch sail rides up and down the river.

In the limestone hills of the Necropolis of Thebes sit the most dense and some of the most precious archaelogical sites in the world. This is where King Tut’s untouched tomb was discovered in 1922 by English archaeologist Howard Carter. What made the discovery of Tut’s tomb so spectacular is that is was undiscovered for thousands of years and the jewels, his mumified body and collection of amazing artifacts is the most well preserved ancient collection in the world — though most of it is on display or in warehouses in Cairo at the Egyptian Museum.

To be sure one could spend a week in this area and not see all of the ancient sites. I spent two days exploring a handful of sites and learning the best I could of Egyptian history and these magnifiscent tombs, temples and structures. Even so, there are more than a dozen new discoveries and excavations as the rich lands of the Nile Valley continue to reveal more hints about the grand civilations of the past.

Not that I won’t to continue to harp on the tourist infrastructure that the Egyptians have somewhat successfully built here, but I must communicate my sentiment on several issues. First, I’m thankful that international communities of historians, socialogists, archaelogists, anthropolgists and more have done so well to preserve, protect and open up these sites for visits and explorations by anyone.

But there’s a big system at work here and even though my words may sound negative, I only report these activities so that perhaps the next traveler will be better informed. Keep in mind while reading that I’ve found the Egyptian people to be warm, helpful, incredibly patient and kind. The police always offer me a place to rest, a cup of tea and are genuinely interested in making me feel welcome and happy. Truth is, tourism is a $10 billion business in Egypt. But the rewards of such business doesn’t always trickle down in a fair or even judicious manner. As such, the local people must do what they can to make a living so they can eat, feed their families and enjoy a normal life amid the amazing bigger than life outdoor museum that makes up much of Egypt.

First as I’ve noted before, guards and tourist police at many of these sites are geared to make sure wandering tourists don’t cross boundaries into off-limits areas, take photographs inside tombs and temples or touch the antiquities. But fact is, you can do all of the stuff the police are suppposed to keep you from doing. In one tomb I was asked to leave my camera in a secure area before entering. The guard asked, “you want to take camera?” he looked sincere in my eye, “then you have something for me?” I pulled a few loose coins and showed them in the palm of my hand. The guards face turned long and expressed disappointment and was a bit offended. “Come on, something more for me?” I handed him my camera and pointed to my eyes and said, “I take pictures with these,” and walked down into the tomb.IMG_7291_2.jpg

To get into King Tut’s tomb requires a separate enrance fee and ticket. While most of the precious “loot” from King Tut is in Cairo, his sarcophagus and coffin and a few other items can be seen. But because Tut’s tomb is perhaps the smallest in the Valley of the Kings and the extra cost of admission, it’s not visited nor as crowded as the others. I found myself alone in the tomb with the security guard. He casually looks up the stairs and sees no other tourists before taking down a rope and instructs me to climb up and take a look into another room or compartment. Then he says, “take picture, quick, quick,” and removes another rope and lets me pass. “More piciture, quick quick.” There I am in King Tuts tomb being told to take pictures and having rope barriers taken down by guards. After I spent some time in this rather clausterphobic tomb, so sorry they couldn’t make it bigger for you Tut, I staretd up the stairs.

“Something for me?” the guard held out his hand. I knew this was coming. I threw a few pounds into his hand, yet he was expecting much more. “So sorry,” I said, “I’m just a poor motorcycle traveler, thank you.” And I walked up the stairs. These requests for “baksheesh” are undocumented and go clear into the pocket of, I’m sure, underpaid police. But in some tombs it’s not even the guards who will try to “rope” you into a situation where you feel compelled to offer a few coins because they’ve shown you, or allowed you access to something, you wouldn’t otherwise have done. Traveling alone made me more susceptible to the barrage of offers by security and other “workers” at the archaelogical sites.

Then there’s the taxi or mini-van drivers or “guides.” One of the days I coordinated a driver wiht my hotel because I wanted to see many sites and figured it would be easier going with someone who knew the area and get there fast, IMG_7352_2.jpg allowing me to see more than I would on my own. Plus, I wouldn’t have to worry about parking the motorcycle and its security. I explained to my driver which sites I wanted to visit and how long I’d like to stay at each. While the driver as amiable, friendly and rather funny, his constant suggestion of stopping by to see the alabastar factory and the papyrus museum and of course, “aren’t you hungry” let’s stop for lunch. The driver is in cahoots with all of the above. The idea is do get the tourist to buy something — anything — a sourvenir from Egypt. And while most people probably do want something, it’s a bit too much for me. I reluctantly agreed to go to these places, and I always am up front and explain that I’m riding a motorcycle and there is absolutely no room for souvenirs and it’s my own personal policy NOT to buy souvenirs on my trip, they still insist, “Oh just for looking… just for looking.” Yet when I leave without buying anything there is much disappointment on botht eh shop owner and my driver. “I told you so.” The lunch deal is similar. They will try to take you to an overpriced place where the driver will get his meal for free and a cut of what you spend on lunch. I asked to go to the local place, “I want to eat where you eat, not where the tourists eat.” This didn’t work and I ended up at a place clearly geared for tour busses and mini-vans. Oh well, next time.

The system for visiting the temples and tombs is rather complex, yet I’m sure provides controls and keeps the money out of stiky fingers of the local workers. But tickets for most of the sites are purchased from a ticket office in the valley. These tickets are then collected at each site. This way no money is exchanged at the majority of the sites, save Valley of the Kings.

IMG_7475_2.jpgAnother scheme, but on a much grander scale, is in the Valley of the Queens. Perhaps one of the most magnifiscent sites is the Tomb of Nefertari. But this tomb is currently closed to the public. But not really. I was told that in Cairo it is possible to arrange at a cost of $1,000, or maybe more. A private “research” visit to the tomb. In this case the money goes to the government and the tomb is visited by only those who don’t mind shelling out the cash. It’s been closed for 5 years or more in this manner.

But perhaps the tourist industry is still reeling from the devastating terrorist massacre that left 57 innocent tourists dead in pools of their own blood on the stones of one of the most stunning temples in the Nile Valley. I felt a bit spooked as I made my way up the terraces to the Al-Deir Al-Bahari (Funerary Temple of Hatshepsut) and into the temple that seems literally carved out of the limestone clifts that surround it and give it such a majestic approach and view overlooking the valley of the kings. But it was here in November 1997 that six terrorists disguised as security police climbed these steps and systematically massacred 60 people, all but 3 tourists visitng the temple. Islamic extremists were blamed for the attacks, later after the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, the US claimed it was an Osama bid laden financed attack, though conspiracy theorists blamed imperialist Israel and United States for honchoing the attack, Fact is, ten years ago innocent tourists were targeted and killed on this very site.

The sites I visited while roaming Thebes now Luxor included:

Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple
Temple of Siti I
The Valley of the Kings including Tombs of Ramsses VI, Tut-ankh-Amun, Thutmosis and 3 others
Ramesseum Temple
Habu Temple
Luxor Temple
… and others I’m sure I’ve forgotten

I could go on about each of the temples that I visited, but I’ll simply let the pictures do the talking and I’ll caption briefly some impressions or history. Clearly this rich ancient city of Thebes — and the city of the dead – Necropolis of Thebes nd its fertile lands on the banks of the Nile is mind-boggling given the concentration of sites, their state of preservation and their amazing old age. I could spend a week here, but a few days gave me a good flavor. I can’t wait to see the museum in Cairo.

Pathway leading to the Valley of the Kings where Ramses II, VI and King Tut and dozens, if not hundreds, of others were entombed for eternity.
The site of the worst terrorist attack in Egyptian history and one of the most exciting archaeological sites in the Nile Valley Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple.
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Images above from Al-Deir Al-Bahari (Funerary Temple of Hatshepsut)
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The ubiquitous and always friendly Tourist Police of Egypt.
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Above and the two images below are from the massive Habu Temple
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The image above and below is from King Tut’s tomb. The writing on the wall is from the Book of the Dead. It’s amazing that the number of artifacts that are now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo fit in here. King Tut died at young age of under 20 years old and his tomb is one of the smallest in the Valley of the Kings.
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