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xEurasia Odyssey

Luxor - Days 3-4

EGYPT | Monday, 19 December 2016 | Views [390]

Day 3 Tombs and Temples

Woke early to catch a 7am flight to Luxor, formerly Thebes, the ancient capital with a couple of breaks, from the 11th Dynasty (2120 BCE) to the 21st (1085). As with the previous day, it should have been split into at least two days to give each site the attention it deserved.  I had a new guide for Luxor, Gela, a young mother of two who  moved to Luxor from Tel el- Amarna when she got married.  A number of people told me that it is still common for women to leave their families and move to their husbands’, although this isn’t necessarily the case in the major metropolis of the capital city. 

We started the day at the Valley of the Kings, the main necropolis for the Middle and New Kingdoms.  The stark valley lies under a mountain that forms a natural pyramid. The mountains here have absolutely no vegetation on them; they are even more barren than those in the Senora desert south of Highway 8, the Devil’s Highway in Arizona.  The sandstones are almost white. Outside the gate to the site erosion has formed statue–like figures that appear as guardians to the valley floor. Upon entering, there is a trolley waiting to drive visitors up to the tomb area. The general entrance ticket is good for three tombs, and extra tickets can be purchased for two more. I chose to also visit King Tut’s as there is a beautiful painting of the opening the mouth ceremony in there.  The three tombs I visited spanned about a hundred years from ca. 1320 -1220 and the workmanship seemed to deteriorate with the progression of time.  Ramses IV was the first one and some of the figures lining the walls were meticulously carved or painted, with individual features, most, however, looked like they had been made via stencils as each element was exactly the same throughout the individual tomb. The next was Merenptah II’s with some very curious scenes and wonderful falcon faces. The most recent, that of Ramses IX, had the largest figures and seems to have been constructed in haste. The burial chamber is painted, but not completely. Stencils are still visible and the hallway to the chamber is only partially filled in. The chamber itself is not perfectly chiseled out of the rock, but rather undulates with the sandstone.  Some of the reliefs in these tombs have been defaced, according to the guide, by the early Christians who used these tombs and others as places of refuge when they were persecuted by the Romans.   King Tut’s mummy is on display on one side his tomb and I was surprised at how small he was. The mummy is the size of a thin 10 year old boy, even though he was 17 or 18, some say 19 when he died.  The sarcophagus is quite beautiful as are the wall reliefs and paintings. It is a remarkably small tomb; so small that it is difficult to imagine how all the artifacts on the second floor of the Egyptian Museum could have fit in the space.  The stuff must have been piled on top of each other without an inch to spare.  The Valley of the Kings is a unique experience, and I wish that they would allow photography. They don’t because people misused the system and used flashes when it was expressly forbidden to do so in order to preserve the imagery.  Now the rest of us live with the consequences of their actions.

The next stop was to my favorite pharaoh, Hatshepsut, the first and longest reigning of the three women pharaohs. Deir el-Bahri. her complex includes two chapels, on the right to Anubis, the lord of embalming and on the left to the goddess Hathor. There is a fabulous image in this chapel with Hatshepsut drinking the milk from the cow goddess’s udder, thereby receiving divine blessing and nourishment. The pharaohs often depicted themselves drinking the divine mother’s milk, thereby transferring divine power to them. On the first terrace there is a double columned wall with images from Hatshepsut’s life and her adventures, including receiving divine blessings from the gods and images of her architect friend, Senenmut. The second terrace is lined with statues of the female pharaoh as a man, as it wasn’t permitted for women to rule. On the right side of the main courtyard there is a temple to the god Harakhte, a form of Horus, and on the left a chapel to her father, Tuthmosis I.   Hatshepsut’s reign was fairly peaceful and the people and land prospered under her.  The imagery throughout the complex is based on agricultural harvest and bounty, which is quite different from the warrior tombs that highlighted the conquered with their heads chopped off and arms bound behind them or slaughtered under the feet of the king. It is amazing that the peaceful and successful women rulers, Hatshepsut, Cleopatra, Empress Wu Zeiten, Catherine the Great are all maligned during and after their lifetimes and that those who come after them rule by the sword.

From Hathor’s chapel and Hatshepsut’s complex we drove across the Nile, moving from the land of the dead to the land of the living and of temple worship to yet another fabulously rich sites, the temple complex at Karnak.  Similar to Saqqara, the pharaohs from almost all dynasties starting with Sesostris I in the 12th built structures as offerings to the gods at Karnak. On the way we briefly stopped to see the Colossi of Memnon. The Memnon complex, guarded by two 18 meter high statues, is undergoing renovations. It was the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, Akhenaton’s father, but was badly ruined by the earthquake in 27 BCE that destroyed so many other sites in the region. Still visible on the colossi are images of the procession of solar boats entering the temple and of the androgynous god of the Nile, Hapi. This image is fairly common throughout Middle and Old Kingdom iconography.  It is almost always on the sides of the king’s throne and has two images of Hapi facing each other on the right and left sides of the panel, he is joined by ribbons that wave together across a dividing line in the center. They two figures are identical except for their headdresses with have papyrus and lotus flowers respectively representing the upper and lower Nile. As life springs from the Nile’s waters, the pharaoh needs to demonstrate that he has Hapi’s support and good will, hence the prominent placing on the throne.

The Lonely Planet says that “Everything (in Karnak) is on a gigantic scale: the site covers over 2 sq km, large enough to contain about 10 cathedrals, while its main structure, The Temple of Amun, is one of the world’s largest religious complexes….” It is truly a very large and complex site. Like Saqqara, it would be best to dedicate at least a full day to exploring the riches this site offers. The pylons (walled gates) tower above dwarfing those who enter leading onto the passageway lined with Sphinxes before one enters the Temple of Amun Ra, the main god of the New Kingdom, and the Great Hypostyle Hall filled with 134 papyrus shaped pillars all of which are engraved with imagery.  The Hall itself is large enough to contain both St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. Beyond the Hall is one built by Thutmosis I and altered by his grandson and step-son of Hatshepsut, Thutmosis III. Thutmosis II, was the son of a second wife and the marriage to Hatshepsut was probably intended to make a stronger case for his rule. Time proved, however, that he was neither strong nor destined to live long, which lead to a question of succession. Thutmosis III was the son of a second wife and was therefore not in direct line to the throne when his father, and Hatshepsut’s brother – husband, died. Women were not supposed to rule, however, so she acted first as regent while he was a minor, by the time he had reached an age when he could rule, she didn’t want to give it to him for reasons that have long since been buried under Egyptian sands.  She kept him at bay for a number of years, but then her friend and architect mysteriously disappeared and she did as well a year or so later. At that point, Thutmosis III took over and tried to systematically erase her name from every temple, tomb, inscription in the land.  He had a problem in Karnak, though, as she had built and dedicated two obelisks to her father. As they couldn’t be moved, he had walls constructed around them; thereby hiding her offerings from sight, but at the same time inadvertently preserving at least one of the obelisks for future generations to admire; the second fell over in an earthquake. Thutmosis III went on to become one of the greatest, if not the greatest, military rulers of Ancient Egypt.  

There are so many special places in Karnak that it is impossible to describe them all.  There are three I do want to mention, however, first the sacred lake that was used to purify people and objects before entrance in to the site, next the wish-fulfilling scarab by the lake – legend says that if one circumambulates the scarab three or seven, there are different versions, times counterclockwise that one’s wishes will come true and one will be blessed by the god. I hope mine do.  The third, and perhaps most important, artifact is the treaty of Kadesh written by Ramses II on a wall near the Temple of Amun. The version from the Hittite King, Hattusili III, is slightly different and more equal than Ramses II’s version. The Egyptian states that he allowed the peace, whereas it is suspected that Hattusili III would have actually won the battle had there been one. This treaty is the first written document declaring peace between nations that the world has and a copy – the Hittite version – is in the U.N.

The last site of this very full day, was the Temple at Luxor 2.7 km from Karnak and part of the ancient processional ceremony. The entrance is guarded by two huge statues of Ramses II (1279-1213 BCE), who along with Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BCE) was the primary contributor to the temple area. The earlier pharaoh worked with and modified a smallish shrine from Hatshepsut. Some of the pillars in this temple are quite unique in that they are shaped like a grouping of papyrus plants rather than the single stock. Normally the columns have capitals with open and closed lotus blossoms. The more standard closed lotus columns are also present.  As in Karnak there is an avenue of sphinxes at the entrance, and it is believed that the entire 2.7 km distance between the two major temples was lined with sphinx statues.  Now, though, the passage has been obliterated by construction and only the sphinxes by the individual temples remain. Inside the complex the walls, pylons and pillars give testimony to the country’s rulers since Hatshepsut’s time to Alexander’s Ptolemic rule to the Roman conquerors. Each left some trace in the imagery. The Luxor Temple has the honor of continuing to be a place of worship. During the early Christian era the back of the temple behind the Holy of Holy’s was a church that plastered over the earlier hieroglyphic imagery.  Traces of blue and red paint are still visible. In the 11thC the Abu al- Haggag mosque was built which is still in use by local families.  The Temple is on the banks of the Nile and to prevent flooding a barrier was built. A Frenchman who wanted to improve the aesthetic impression of the Temple from the river had the barrier removed, which resulted in the flood waters stagnating for seven months throughout the temple grounds destroying the artwork lying under the two meter waterline.  It was a typical instance of European hubris deciding that the locals’ vision for the site could be improved upon and ended up causing a great deal of damage.


Day 4 The Luxor Museum

The Luxor Museum is fairly small, but very nicely laid out with good explanations beside each of the artifacts. Near the entrance is a beautifully gilded Hathor as horned cow goddess head. The collection provides a visual tour of the central figures of the middle of the New Kingdom starting with a miniature statue of Senenteb, Hatshepsut’s architect, numerous images of Thutmosis III, Amenhotep III, his son the IV, otherwise known as Akhenaten, his successor (after a brief interlude) to the boy king Tut, and the military commander who came after him, Horemheb. There are also a few Coptic and a Roman piece.   Among the many beautiful works are a sphinx with King Tutankhamen’s  18th Dynasty face, Horemheb holding two balls in his hand representing milk and honey, the most precious offerings to the gods, kneeling in front of Atum, a finely chiseled black basalt sitting Hathor, a 19th Dynasty, Ramses II’s time, limestone goddess Mut and Amun, a red and grey granite Ramses II with large double crown, a sandstone King Mentuhotep III as Osiris, which, according to the plaque is “one of the earliest statues showing the king as the god of the dead” 2010-1998 BCE, an inscribed block showing Hatshepsut as a man in front of Amun, but perhaps the most impressive of all are the fragments from an Amenhotep IV/Akhenaton wall that shows the transition to a belief in the one god, Aten. The museum staff have done a fabulous job diagramming the images on what is suspected to be the missing pieces to give the viewer a more complete picture.  Most tours overlook this museum and that is a shame as it can provide insights that the temples and tombs of this very archeologically rich region don’t.


After the museum it was time to start the Nile Cruise.  The weather was quite chilly, but it was fun to watch the sunset over the Western tombs while the full Gemini moon came up over the busy eastern shore.


Tags: city visit


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