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Into the Valleys of Death

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Most of the folks we have spent the last three days with are departing this morning for their flights back home. The Brits are all piling onto an early morning plane to Heathrow while others are headed back to Cairo or Germany or wherever they’re from. As a consequence, the foyer on the Ra II is filled with piles of luggage and people queuing up at the front desk to settle their bar bills and whatever other extraordinary expenses they’ve incurred while on board. The breakfast room is rather empty and quiet when Vibs and I sit down to eat. There are even a few new faces around.

We’ve signed on for an extra half day since our flight doesn’t leave until this evening. That means we get to tour the west bank of Luxor where the famous Valley of the Kings and the slightly less famous Valley of the Queens and the quite un-famous Valley of the Nobles lie. The Valley of the Kings holds about sixty-two pharaonic tombs from the Middle Kingdom and later. All these resting places, unlike the pyramids, are carved into the limestone of the hills and are thus completely underground. The first thing one sees at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings Park is a plexiglass diorama showing the location of each of the tombs in three dimensions. The topographical features of the valley are constructed from translucent plastic with white plastic models of each of the tombs suspended beneath them, giving you information not only about the location of the burial places, but their locations relative to one another and an idea of how far underground one has to go in order to see them. Some of them are VERY deep.

Our new guide, Omar, shepherds us through the ticket line and then tells us that our tickets afford us access to three tombs only. Those interested in seeing the tomb of King Tut are required to fork over additional one hundred Egyptian Guineas (about $20). Before we split up he provides us with an overview of the history of the valley and a quick list of recommended tombs to visit. Omar gives us his opinion about which tombs to visit. The quality of wall art in the tombs varies greatly and he warns those who have coughed up the King Tut cash that the ancients didn’t waste a lot of decorative effort on the eighteen year old. He wasn’t Pharaoh long enough to create any sort of lasting legacy, apparently. Maybe they assuaged their guilt by filling the tomb with gold instead…

The crowds here are enormous. Electric trams (little trains on rubber tires like you’d see in Disneyland or someplace like that) carry a steady stream of riders up the quarter mile incline to the entrance, and back. Lines for the more popular tombs stretch for hundreds of meters. Many of the tombs are closed because of the fragility of the art in them. The antiquities authority apparently closes each tomb periodically for varying lengths of time, because the potential for damage to the art resulting from tens of thousands of people breathing in spaces meant for one dead, unbreathing person is very high. Guards posted in each tomb constantly remind people not to touch (most of the wall art is protected by clear plastic screens) and to keep moving; too much breathing is not good for the paintings. Oh, and no pictures. At all. A 1000 LE (Egyptian Pound) fine for taking any sort of photograph. Bright light is apparently also not good for the art. So, sorry, gentle readers. No pretty pictures here.

Vibs and I choose our three tombs and head off. Our first stop is the Tomb of Thutmosis III who was kept of the throne for a long, long time by his mother-in-law, who ruled as a “king.” When she finally went off to meet Osiris, Thutmosis expended a great deal of energy in trying to erase all record of his mother-in-law’s reign. It was he who walled up her obelisk at Karnak. Such spite! His tomb was reached by climbing a long set of stairs up into a narrow defile in the face of a cliff and then descending an equal distance into the earth. At the foot of the stairs was a room about twenty feet square with a big pit in the floor. This was mean to mislead potential grave robbers into believing that the grave was in that pit—and already pilfered, no doubt. Beyond this was a second room and beyond that a third, excavated in the shape of a cartouche, where the empty red granite sarcophagus stood. The walls of the rooms showed scenes of the deceased in prayer and proceeding through the twelve gates of trial before reaching Osiris and final judgment. Textual prayers and amulets against all sorts of evil spirits guarding each of the gates were interspersed among the painted figures. The air was close, hot and damp. We did our tour and emerged gratefully into the sunlight and fresh air.

Our second stop was the tomb of Ramesses IV. His was much more easily accessible, more richly decorated—the depiction on the ceiling of the goddess of night swallowing the setting sun and giving birth to the morning sun was one of the most spectacular. Ramesses’ space was much simpler and more straightforward in construction; a long ramp into the earth with two rooms—one behind the other—at the bottom. More painted figures, invocations for protection, and prayers. When we left this tomb, we realized that the long wait in lines meant that we wouldn’t be able to see a third tomb. Omar had given us a little more than an hour to see what we wanted to see and our time was nearly up. Reluctantly, we made our way back to the meeting point.

Once our group had gathered, we re-boarded the bus and left the Valley of the Kings. On the way out, Omar pointed out the house built by Howard Carter, the excavator of King Tut’s tomb and one of the early archaeologists of pharaonic Egypt. There is a plan to turn the building into a museum, but at present it is not open. We had to satisfy ourselves with a view from a distance. Our next stop was the Valley of the Queens where we made a similar tour with similar restrictions. The most famous tomb here, that of Nefertiti, has been closed for years due to the fragility of its art. There are plans (Egypt always has plans…) to reopen it, but it seems that every time the authorities decide that they have a way to minimize the deleterious effects of thousands of visitors, another obstacle presents itself. In truth one wonders how it is possible to both preserve and make accessible historical sites such as these. Perhaps it isn’t. We may go down in history as the ones responsible for destroying in three hundred years what had lasted for four thousand. What a sad legacy that would be.

Next on the morning’s tour was our obligatory stop at a handicraft outlet. Today’s feature was an alabaster production studio where workers produced a variety of useful and decorative objects from stone using hand tools. Under a portico was the graveled entryway to the shop. Along the outside wall was a row of seated men of varying ages, each engaged in a different stoneworking process. Stone dust and chips lay everywhere. Piles of metal tools were scattered about. When our group was all assembled under the portico, the shop manager began his demonstration.

“Welcome to our alabaster studio,” he smiled. “Here we produce handcrafted stone art works from three kinds of stone.” In the background, each of the men was working on a piece of stone. “All the alabaster you see in Egypt comes from Luxor. You will see much alabaster in souqs and shops all around Egypt, but handcrafted alabaster comes only from Luxor because that is part of our tradition here.”

“Alabaster comes in three colors,” the manager continued. “The first color is…”

“White alabaster!” came the chorus from the workers.

“White alabaster is a lovely stone which we use to make such things as lampshades and bowls,” said the manager. “The second color of alabaster is…”

“Red alabaster!” came the response from the workers as they continued scraping and filing and gouging their stones.

“Red alabaster is very good for a number of things including statues, bracelets, lamps and bowls,” continued the manager. The third color of alabaster is…”

“Black alabaster!” the workers, right on cue.

“Black alabaster is used for making statues, figures of pharaohs, cats, ancient gods and goddesses,” he said holding up an example. “Black alabaster is the stone you most frequently see in Egypt because every souvenir shop will try to sell you what they say is black alabaster.” The manager held up a small black statue of Anubis. “But you think this is alabaster?”

“No! Not alabaster!” Came the response from the workers, sawing and scraping.

“No,” agreed the manager. “This may look like alabaster and people will even bang the piece against another stone to show you how hard it is.” He banged the statue against a small rock in his other hand. “It’s not stone, but wax!” He flipped open a lighter and held the flame to one of Anubis’s ears. Within seconds, the ear was flickering with a small blue flame.

“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you!” sang the workers.

“Don’t let yourselves be taken in,” urged the manager. “Here we have genuine handmade goods that are of stone, not wax or anything else. You will find real alabaster products in good stores, but they are machine made.” He picked up two bowls made of white alabaster and showed them to the group, one in each hand.

“This bowl is machine made. What is it?” he asked, weighing it in his hand.

“Very heavy!” replied the workers.

“This bowl was made here by Ahmad;”—he gestured to a man behind him who nodded—“it is…”

“Very light!”

“Yes,” said the manager. “Handmade alabaster works are light and translucent.” He held up the lighter bowl so that it covered a bare light bulb above his head. The light glowed gently through the stone. “Machine made bowls are not. So, you can see that…”

“Handmade is much better! Thank you for coming to our shop!” The workers had the last word as we filed into the store to see what they had for sale.

As theatrical and entertaining as the pitch was, and as attractive as many of the items were, we were not interested in carrying stone home in our luggage. After a polite perusal of their wares, Vibs and I retreated to the bus to wait for the rest of our group. As we waited, a second bus pulled up next to ours and disgorged its load of tourists in front of an adjacent stoneworking shop. To our amusement, the same workers’ theater was staged for that group of tourists, but in Italian! I wondered where in Luxor I would find the marketing firm that sold this promotional package to the owners of the alabaster shops, or maybe it was passed along by word of mouth, so to speak.

Our final stop was the temple at Memnon, famous for being all that remains of the largest temple complex of the ancient world, larger even than Karnak (which is the largest surviving temple complex). The two statues depict Amenhotep III, who ruled as a “god-king” about 1400 BC. The statues were heavily damaged by the 27 BC earthquake that did extensive damage to ancient Egypt. In later years, this area was subjected to frequent flooding making the temple site unusable, but the statues have remained. For 3400 years. The ravages of time on the colossi are quite evident but there is still an impression of grandeur and gravity about them. Interestingly, the stone for one of the statues was transported from a place near present-day Cairo, rather than from Aswan as the stone work for so many other ancient Egyptian temples and statues was. And because of its size—some 700 tons(!)—it was transported overland, not by river barge… Were these people nuts?

Our time on the Nile had come to an end. We returned to the ship, gathered our belongings and took a cab to the Luxor Airport to await our flight back to Cairo. Fortunately, the airport is quite modern and we were able to enjoy a good cappuccino and a meal before our one-hour flight. We reached Cairo before midnight and tucked ourselves into a bed that didn’t have water underneath it.

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