Abu Simbel: Ramesses II’s Ego Run Wild

This stunning but crowded day trip from Aswan has been moved from its original location.

Add Aswan to your itinerary and spend a morning at Abu Simbel

Add Aswan to your itinerary and spend a morning at Abu Simbel

Pharaoh Ramesses II embarked upon one of the most ambitious construction programs in Ancient Egypt. But it was his temple in Abu Simbel, far from the judgemental eyes in Memphis and Thebes, in the southernmost part of the Egyptian Empire that he gave his megalomania free reign.

There’s a discrepancy in the dating of the site, but it took place over two decades, either 1264-1244 BCE or 1244-1224 BCE.

The Abu Simbel temples were chopped into 16,000 or so blocks — and reassembled like a giant-sized puzzle in an artificial mountain 200 feet higher.

Carved into the side of a sandstone cliff, Ramesses II’s temple to his own awesomeness immediately impresses the visitor with its four massive seated colossi of the king that rise 69 feet high. One, sadly, has lost its torso, which now lies shattered at its feet.

Four seated colossi of Ramesses II are larger than life, at 69 feet tall

Four seated colossi of Ramesses II are larger than life, at 69 feet tall

A carving of Ra-Horakhty, the conflation of two sun gods (noticeably smaller than the statues of Ramesses II), stands in the center of the façade. A line of baboons decorates the top of the exterior, which faces east, with the rays of the rising sun bathing the frieze in light. Baboons were associated with the sun, as their cries were thought to greet the dawning of a new day.

Inside, the first hall contains eight giant-sized replicas of the pharaoh in the Osiride style, meaning they have their arms crossed over their chests to portray Ramesses as Osiris, lord of the underworld.

We don’t call him Ramesses the Great for nothin’.

The first hall features eight giant statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, the god of the underworld

The first hall features eight giant statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, the god of the underworld

Ramesses II was quite the egotist — his image is all over the temple

Ramesses II was quite the egotist — his image is all over the temple

It’s crazy to think that the temple is around 3,200 years old!

It’s crazy to think that the temple is around 3,200 years old!

In theory, though, the Great Temple was dedicated to Ra-Horakhty, Amun (creator god of Thebes) and Ptah (creator god of Memphis, associated with the underworld). Oh, and the deified Ramesses II rounded out the grouping, of course.

It’s a family affair at Abu Simbel — those smaller statues at the bottom are Ramesses’ wife, mother and children

It’s a family affair at Abu Simbel — those smaller statues at the bottom are Ramesses’ wife, mother and children

Building the temples in the southernmost part of the country, facing Nubia, also acted as a deterrent to any invaders coming from that direction. They would see these massive statues of their enemy and would hopefully be frightened away.

The temple was a genius stroke of propaganda. The famous Battle of Kadesh, in which the Egyptians fought the Hittites, actually ended as a stalemate. But that didn’t stop Ramesses from declaring a victory and commissioning numerous carvings portraying himself as the protector god and showcasing his “triumph” over one of Ancient Egypt’s archenemies.

Other reliefs on the interior walls are decorated with scenes showing the king defeating the Syrians, Libyans and Nubians, presenting prisoners to the gods.

The reliefs inside showcase Ramesses’ military “victories,” including the famous Battle of Kadesh, which actually ended in a draw

The reliefs inside showcase Ramesses’ military “victories,” including the famous Battle of Kadesh, which actually ended in a draw

Abu Simbel was built on the border of Nubia as a deterrent to invasion, and shows a line of Nubian slaves

Abu Simbel was built on the border of Nubia as a deterrent to invasion, and shows a line of Nubian slaves

At the very back of the temple, carved deep into the mountain, lies the innermost sanctuary, the holy of holies. It housed four statues. There are the three great state gods of the late New Kingdom: Ra-Horakhty, Ptah, Amun-Ra and, no surprise here, the deified Ramesses.

Sunlight bathes these three of these gods on two days only: February 21 and October 21 (some sources say it’s the 22nd), one of which is thought to be Ramesses II’s birthday, the other possibly his coronation day. The figure of Ptah, associated with the underworld, remains in partial shadow.

The temple next door is fit for a queen — in fact, it’s dedicated to Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari

The temple next door is fit for a queen — in fact, it’s dedicated to Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari

Nefertari’s Temple to Hathor

Nearby is another temple, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, though it really seems to be for Nefertari, Ramesses II’s chief wife (pharaohs were polygamous, with a harem full of spare wives). Even here Ramesses insisted upon sharing the spotlight: Out front are two 33-foot-tall statues of the queen, along with two more of the king. Diminutive figures of their children round out the family portrait.

What was groundbreaking at the time, though, was that Ramesses II portrayed his favorite wife as equal to him — her statues on this temple are the same size as his.

And inside, while it’s still impressive, the pillared hall didn’t get as much attention as the one next door. The Hathor columns, a popular style at the time, where the pillars are topped with the head of one of the most revered deities in the Egyptian pantheon, look downright amateurish in comparison. Hathor, considered the first goddess, was depicted with bovine features. The heads atop the columns all have cow ears.

Don’t have a cow! These Hathor columns aren’t as ornate as those in Ramesses’ temple

Don’t have a cow! These Hathor columns aren’t as ornate as those in Ramesses’ temple

On the rear wall, Hathor is depicted as a cow emerging from a mountain, with the king standing beneath her chin. Nefertari is shown participating in the divine rituals — on equal footing as Ramesses.

Nefertari is shown as a divine being, being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis

Nefertari is shown as a divine being, being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis

Fun fact: Abu Simbel isn’t what the complex was called in ancient times. In fact, it’s supposedly named after the local boy who led one of the archeologists to the site. Abu Simbel is a bit more catchy than the original name, Hut Ramesses Meryamun, the Temple of Ramesses, Beloved of Amun, if you ask me.

The entire temple complex was cut into pieces and relocated on higher ground to avoid it being flooded by the Aswan High Dam

The entire temple complex was cut into pieces and relocated on higher ground to avoid it being flooded by the Aswan High Dam

A Monumental Relocation Project

The Abu Simbel you’re visiting today isn’t at the same spot it was in ancient times. The original site has been submerged beneath the waters of the newly formed Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan High Dam. What happened to the temple complex?

Egyptians (and UNESCO) couldn’t bear to have such a stunning monument lost beneath the water. So, from 1963 to 1968, teams underwent an impressive undertaking. They chopped up the entire temples into 16,000 or so blocks — and reassembled them like a giant-sized puzzle in an artificial mountain 200 feet higher.

Instead of repairing the sculptures — as mentioned, one of the colossi has lost its head — the project team chose to keep the temples exactly as they were before the relocation.

If you arrive close to opening time, you’ll be stuck with busloads of other tourists. But around noon, the complex was much less crowded

If you arrive close to opening time, you’ll be stuck with busloads of other tourists. But around noon, the complex was much less crowded

Visiting Abu Simbel

If you’re staying in Aswan, chances are your guide will want to get an early move on. Abu Simbel is, after all, a three-hour drive away. But it you leave at the crack of dawn, around 6 a.m. like us, you’ll arrive at the same time all the massive tour buses pull in as well. That meant we arrived at the impressive edifice along with swarms of other visitors. There’s nothing that takes you out of the experience more than having to share an enclosed space with throngs of tourists taking selfies for Instagram and moving en masse all around you.

We suffered through a claustrophobic exploration of Abu Simbel, then went over to see the Nefertari temple. When we returned to Abu Simbel, it had largely emptied out since it was around noon. Only then did we experience the awe of this sacred space.

If you want to take a picture without swarms of tourists, snap one as you come back from Nefertari’s temple, where a low wall obscures the crowds

If you want to take a picture without swarms of tourists, snap one as you come back from Nefertari’s temple, where a low wall obscures the crowds

In an effort to prevent congestion, guides can’t go in the temples, so Mamduh, from Egypt Sunset Tours, gave us the rundown and then set us free, meeting us back at the café near the entrance.

Admission costs 200 Egyptian pounds, and be sure to spring for the 300 L.E. photo pass. This was one of the sites where we saw guards forcing violators to delete the pics right off their phones.

Like most sites you’ll visit in Egypt, you have to walk through the bazaar on your way out. As we hurried through, a dagger with a curving horn handle caught my eye. Duke likes to joke that everywhere I go I look for daggers and dollies (it’s funny cuz it’s true). I negotiated a price of 350 L.E., or about $20. I could have probably gotten him to go lower, but I was OK with that price.

As we exited on the other side of the temple hill, a policeman smiled and began chatting with us. Of course we had no idea what he was saying, but it seemed like he wanted to pose for a picture with us (for a tip, naturally). He presented his machine gun like he was offering for us to hold it, but I hope I was wrong about that. –Wally

 


Al Moudira: A Dream Oasis in Luxor, Egypt

Escape the hassle. This idyllic, under-the-radar Luxor hotel on the West Bank of the Nile has plenty of personality.

This elaborate woodwork forms one wall of the central courtyard

This elaborate woodwork forms one wall of the central courtyard

Wally and I found ourselves on a narrow road, passing children driving donkey carts, wagons piled high with sugarcane and the rugged otherworldly stretch of the Theban Mountains on the horizon.

Once we arrived at the Hotel Al Moudira and told our guide Mamduh this was where we were staying, he became visibly concerned. He even accompanied us to reception to confirm that this hotel, in the middle of nowhere, was where we really wanted to stay.

We could understand his apprehension. The sprawling Al Moudira is set back from a dusty two-lane road, in the midst of a tiny rural village surrounded by acres of fertile farmland. Mamduh just couldn’t understand why we would want to stay outside the urban center of the East Bank. But Al Moudira’s remoteness is a large part of its appeal.

The minute you enter the confines of the hotel, you’ll know you’re someplace special

The minute you enter the confines of the hotel, you’ll know you’re someplace special

We stopped by the reception room to check in and were each served a refreshing glass of karkadeh, sweetened, chilled hibiscus tea. I quickly asked if there was a bathroom nearby, as we had driven from Aswan to Luxor that day and it was a long distance between our last stop at Edfu and the West Bank. As I passed a trio of colorful wooden figurines, and saw the vintage oil-painted portraits — one of a man with a rather bushy moustache, and the other a silver-haired matron wearing a pearl necklace — outside their respective bathrooms, I knew we had found the perfect place to spend the next four nights.

The reception area

The reception area

Quirky artwork can be found here and there, revealing the proprietress’ sense of humor

Quirky artwork can be found here and there, revealing the proprietress’ sense of humor

For Wally, all he needed to see was the gurgling fountain in the open-air central courtyard, and he was grinning from ear to ear. And that was before he knew we had our own fountain in our room!

Our room opened to a courtyard filled with vibrant flowering bougainvillea, a fountain, and a sitting area

Our room opened to a courtyard filled with vibrant flowering bougainvillea, a fountain, and a sitting area

A Tour of Al Moudira

We passed through the entrance hall, which leads to the stunning central courtyard. The fountain stands in the middle, while at the far side, light filtered through an intricate cedarwood mashrabiya screen integrated into the main pavilion, creating an inviting seating area complete with cushioned banquettes for guests to perch and relax on.

A raised platform in the courtyard is gorgeously appointed and is a great spot to relax before dinner

A raised platform in the courtyard is gorgeously appointed and is a great spot to relax before dinner

Garden paths made of repurposed tile meander throughout Al Moudira

Garden paths made of repurposed tile meander throughout Al Moudira

The man leading us to our room stopped to introduce us to a dark-haired woman. “This is the boss!” he exclaimed. “Al moudira! She is the owner, the designer, the manager — basically, she does everything!”

It wasn’t until later that we made the connection that Al Moudira means “boss,” specifically the female form of the word.

The junior suite Wally and I stayed in was airy and spacious (not so “junior”) and included a generous sitting area, a central fountain surrounded by cushions, air conditioning, a minibar and a king-size canopy bed. The Wi-Fi was weak in our room, but that’s the point. The vibe is low key and has been designed for you to unplug. Don’t worry, though. You can still post to Facebook and Instagram (though don’t you dare check that work email) with the Wi-Fi in the main courtyard.

Our spacious room had a fountain in the middle of it!

Our spacious room had a fountain in the middle of it!

Every morning, light filtered through the colored glass set into the vaulted domes of our enormous en-suite bathroom.

The complex itself is comprised of a maze of open arches, crowned with cupolas and enclosed inner courtyards, each with its own fountain and verdant oasis.

The beautiful objects found throughout the hotel have been collected by Zeina, the owner

The beautiful objects found throughout the hotel have been collected by Zeina, the owner

The Boss Tells Us the History of Al Moudira

One evening while Wally and I were relaxing on the central courtyard terrace, we met Al Moudira again, the charming multilingual Lebanese proprietor, hostess and creative force behind the hotel, Zeina Aboukheir.

I casually asked if anything had stood where the hotel was and she paused our conversation to retrieve a scrapbook that a close friend had made for her, documenting the process and various inspirations for her desert palace. A dedication on the first page caught my eye. It read, “Al Moudira, ou la folie de Zeina” (the madness of Zeina — or as we might say, “Zeina’s crazy idea”).

Construction began in 2000, but the hotel feels old and grand, due to the vintage finds and architectural salvage Zeina has amassed from her travels and effortlessly layered into her labor of love, including Persian carpets, salvaged wooden doors and mother of pearl-inlaid chairs.

I told Zeina I loved the artworks that adorn the walls of the Eastern Bar, hand-colored boudoir images from a series titled Femmes de Bou Saada, and she replied, “Yes, aren’t they wonderful?”

The Eastern Bar has naughty artwork, games and a piano

The Eastern Bar has naughty artwork, games and a piano

Enjoy a cocktail before and/or after dinner

Enjoy a cocktail before and/or after dinner

The bar evokes a cozy parlor in a British mansion

The bar evokes a cozy parlor in a British mansion

Zeina purchased the desolate plot of land and set out to transform it into a storybook refuge. She hired Olivier Sednaoui, who specializes in vernacular architecture, which incorporates traditional regional and indigenous styles. Sednaoui had previously built his own home near Medinet Habu, inspired by the methods and techniques of Hassan Fathy, a pioneer in sustainable mud brick architecture.

The hotel is named for Zeina’s nickname: the Boss Lady

The hotel is named for Zeina’s nickname: the Boss Lady

Zeina and the architect had many spirited debates over the concept of the hotel complex.

“Did you get your way?” Wally asked.

“For the most part,” Zeina said, smiling.

She added, “He was very good at brickwork. But that’s all he wanted to do. When that was finished, he left.”

No shrinking violet, Zeina persevered over the following years, assembling a team of local workers and craftsmen, along with Lebanese artist Mario Dahab, whose flourishes can be seen throughout the boutique hotel. This can-do spirit earned her the nickname Al Moudira. When it came time to decide a name for the hotel, she already knew what to call it.

Lush plants, soothing earth tones, arches and cupolas are all part of the relaxing aesthetic at Al Moudira

Lush plants, soothing earth tones, arches and cupolas are all part of the relaxing aesthetic at Al Moudira

“The Only Place Possible in Luxor”

The hotel’s interiors have a theatrical quality, blending Egyptian, North African and Near Eastern styles. As Zeina told us, “I find things I like…and then figure out where to put them.” For example, the piano in the Eastern Bar was discovered at a flea market in Alexandria.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised when she told us that the hotel has received celebrity guests, including French fashion designer Christian Louboutin, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger and supermodel Kate Moss — who we learned, much to our dismay, was there just a few days before we were.

Wally and I ate breakfast and dinner al fresco in the communal courtyard, partly because there wasn’t another option nearby, but also because the meals we had there were delicious. The menu changes nightly and features a variety of Mediterranean, Eastern and European-inspired dishes — all at a remarkably affordable price.

Lunch of mezze, or small dishes, which we enjoyed al fresco by the pool

Lunch of mezze, or small dishes, which we enjoyed al fresco by the pool

The central courtyard is where most guests have breakfast and dinner

The central courtyard is where most guests have breakfast and dinner

Service was warm and hospitable, and we felt like we were guests at a lavish caliphate’s winter palace. I enjoyed hearing the sound of rustling palm fronds and birdsong as well as the occasional call to prayer while exploring the beautifully landscaped grounds. (We got a bit lost on more than one occasion.)

During our stay, the large swimming pool was the perfect place to seek refuge from the strong midday sun, and Wally and I looked forward to spending a few hours reading and relaxing poolside after exploring the hot and arid West Bank.

The pool is where the action is in the afternoon

The pool is where the action is in the afternoon

Get a drink or a bite at the pool pavilion

Get a drink or a bite at the pool pavilion

You will have to share your stay with flies, but there were small brushes placed everywhere (Wally called them shoo-flies), which act like a horse’s tail to swat away the pests. Duke would rest the shoo-fly by his head, convinced that this trick kept the flies at bay.

If you’re planning on visiting Luxor and are looking for the perfect place to stay within close proximity of the ancient pharaonic sites of the West Bank, and prefer a restful refuge not in the midst of the Luxor chaos, look no further than Al Moudira. You’ll soon learn that a stay here is the perfect getaway, or to, quote Louboutin: “For the most divine hotel owner, Zeina, and for the garden — basically the only place possible in Luxor.” –Duke

Forget downtown Luxor — we recommend staying at this refuge on the West Bank

Forget downtown Luxor — we recommend staying at this refuge on the West Bank

Hotel Al Moudira
Luxor
West Bank,
Hager Al Dabbeya
Egypt

 

Shopping in Egypt

Whether you’re hitting the Khan el-Khalili or the Luxor souk, here’s what to expect — and how to get the best bargains.

A lot of the handicrafts in Egypt are cheap-looking — probably cuz they were made in China

A lot of the handicrafts in Egypt are cheap-looking — probably cuz they were made in China

Zeina had warned us — but we didn’t heed her advice. She owned the hotel we stayed at in Luxor, and would make the rounds at dinner, stopping by the tables to chat.

We asked her about good shopping in Luxor, and she said if we wanted handicrafts we should head to the souk.

We weren’t 50 feet inside the Luxor airport before we were detained.

She pleaded with us to resist buying anything that even remotely resembled an antique, launching into a tale about how the model Kate Moss and someone from Christian Dior had stayed at her hotel last week, and even though they had a private plane, they were delayed two days because something they had purchased at a shop below the Winter Palace hotel looked like it might be a relic.

Cotton candy becomes an artistic medium at Khan el-Khalili in Cairo

Cotton candy becomes an artistic medium at Khan el-Khalili in Cairo

Aside from the odd street vendor, this is the only food you’ll find at Khan el-Khalili. There aren’t any cafés — just coffeeshops, where the most you can ingest is shisha (hookah) smoke

Aside from the odd street vendor, this is the only food you’ll find at Khan el-Khalili. There aren’t any cafés — just coffeeshops, where the most you can ingest is shisha (hookah) smoke

The next night, it was someone else who bought something at the same shop, who also had a private plane, but this poor gentleman had been sleeping at the police station for three nights while an expert took their sweet time checking the authenticity of the item.

Afterward, Duke and I smiled at each other. Zeina seemed to be a storyteller. And I’m OK with that. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. And I figured there was an underlying truth to her tales, a warning we shouldn’t ignore.

The Luxor Souk has one main drag — and some good finds

The Luxor Souk has one main drag — and some good finds

The Luxor Souk

We arrived at the souk relatively early, around 10:30 a.m. Because it was a Sunday (Easter, to boot), all of the Coptic Christian stalls were closed. Apparently there are a lot of Coptics in Luxor.

We had just entered the bazaar when I spied a shop I knew would appeal to me and Duke.

And sure enough, once we were inside, we started putting items aside: a stone Anubis head as well as a faded blue baboon statue head, a worn-looking blue mummy and other items you could imagine had just been dug out of the desert after being hidden away for centuries.

In other words, we were doing exactly what Zeina had told us not to do. But we couldn’t help ourselves; old-looking shit is our passion.

In less than 10 minutes, Duke and I had piled a dozen pieces onto the table.

A good portion of stalls are shut on Sunday at the Luxor Souk, since the Coptic Christians are at church

A good portion of stalls are shut on Sunday at the Luxor Souk, since the Coptic Christians are at church

It was tough to gauge how much all of these should cost, but we had heard people calling out very low prices at the bazaars you have to walk through before leaving every temple you visit. (Exit through the gift shop.)

So when the vendor said, “$360,” I acted sad and a little disgusted and muttered, “That’s way too high. This is our first shop of the day. We’ll keep going and come back.”

“OK, OK,” the shopkeeper said, laying a hand on my shoulder to prevent me from leaving. “What’s your price?” I was aiming for $50, while Duke quietly said he’d be good with $75.

So I typed 45 on the calculator, to give myself the slightest bit of wiggle room, and the man countered with $150.

“Let’s go,” I told Duke. My famous walk-away ploy.

Again, I was stopped by a hand on the shoulder. “What’s your lowest price?”

“$50,” I said.

“You are tough,” the man said to me. Then, like a predator sizing up the weakest prey, he turned to Duke in a flash. “What’s your final offer?”

And I stood there in a daze as Duke said, “$150.”

“What happened to $75?!” I exclaimed.

But it was too late. Once you agree to a price it’s poor form to then back off.

I shook my head in dismay. But Duke hadn’t done any real shopping the entire trip, and I think he was suffering withdrawal.


The bazaars are a bit of a maze and can get quite claustrophobic

The bazaars are a bit of a maze and can get quite claustrophobic


Motorbikes whizz through the souk — as it got dark, one almost ran right into Duke!

Motorbikes whizz through the souk — as it got dark, one almost ran right into Duke!

How to Get Detained at the Airport

I told the shopkeeper about my fear that we’ll be detained at customs. He laughed it off but said he’d give us documentation. So before we left I reminded him of this, and he scribbled some Arabic on the back of his business card. He told us he had written that we had bought 13 items that were reproductions. We put that into our bag, along with the receipt.

And sure enough, we weren’t 50 feet inside the Luxor airport before we were detained. We had put our bags through security, and the guard said, “Statues?” and called us off to the side.

We spent the next 30 minutes (which felt like an eternity) uncomfortably watching the man slice into the carefully wrapped items, opening them for a woman in a headscarf who scratched at them with a paperclip and held a lighter to them. She always lit them near the top, but I didn’t feel it was my place to suggest she try the back or base instead.

Every time she burned a section, she’d smell it and, without fail, would rear her head back, her nose scrunched up, obviously having smelled something unpleasant — namely, the synthetic materials used in the (all-too-convincing) replicas. But every time she’d grimace at the smell, a wave of relief washed over me.

In the end, she had taken notes on our items, copied down my passport number, then set us free to pack up the wreckage and go on our merry way.

A vendor sips Turkish coffee at Kahn el-Khalili souk in Cairo

A vendor sips Turkish coffee at Kahn el-Khalili souk in Cairo

How Not to Bargain

I was upset with Duke for having caved under the pressure — especially since it was the second time it had happened on the trip.

Despite our better judgement, we had decided to go to an alabaster shop suggested by our guide. In Egypt they’ll suggest alabaster, papyrus and perfume “factories.” At these shops, they’ll show you the creation process (which is actually quite fun), all the while insisting there’s no pressure to buy.

Of course that’s not true. After the demonstration, you’ll be ushered inside and served up a drink (I went for Turkish coffee), a salesperson hovering nearby.

We had decided to get some small flint canopic jars, the four containers in which Ancient Egyptians would place certain organs during the mummification process. I had played hardball, insisting on a low price; the salesman got frustrated, and pounced on Duke like a cobra, waving me away.

The man had started at the absurd price of $65 apiece, and Duke caved at $125 for all four.

As a rule, it’s best to avoid these types of tourist traps, and a good guide won’t pressure you to go to them. (They get a commission or some small payment for luring in unsuspecting victims.)

But you will hear the depressing refrain, “Everything in the souk is made in China,” so perhaps those type of stores are one of your only guarantees of quality materials and handcraftsmanship.

The charming Linda at her Luxor shop, Habiba Gallery

The charming Linda at her Luxor shop, Habiba Gallery

Habiba: The Best Shop in the Souk

If you’re in Luxor and want locally made handicrafts, you have to stop into Habiba Gallery, a darling shop Zeina had recommended, just off of the main street of the souk, toward the Nile and the ruins of Luxor Temple. It’s run by a friendly Aussie named Linda, who has lived in Egypt for 20 years. Her mission is commendable: She only sells items that are indigenous to regions where they’re made. Some whimsical plates with gorgeous trees and serving dishes with a goat’s head and tail were part of a project for children to try their hand at pottery after school. Now two of those kids have grown up and started a business, which is now one of Linda’s suppliers.

The selection at Habiba is amazing — we just kept adding more and more to our pile, including a handwoven hammam towel, scented soaps, a veiled doll with silver bangles, a framed piece of jewelry and a cloth with a local village scene woven onto it.

The best part is that the prices are fixed and totally fair. Take a break from haggling and stop in for a chat with the charming Linda. You’ll come away with some great finds — whether you give them as gifts or keep them for yourself. –Wally

What You Need to Know About the Valley of the Kings in Luxor

Pharaohs were buried in elaborate underground tombs depicting their life and accomplishments and filled with everything their spirit would need for a comfortable afterlife.

When visiting Luxor, you must plan a morning excursion to the Valley of the Kings

When visiting Luxor, you must plan a morning excursion to the Valley of the Kings

Visiting the Valley of the Kings, the mortuary complex of Ancient Egyptian pharaohs has been a lifelong dream of mine. The massive royal necropolis is located in Upper Egypt on the West Bank of the Nile, opposite the ancient city of Thebes, now known as Luxor.

The ancient Egyptians believed that life was merely a brief passage of time followed by another where the deceased pharaoh would gain eternal access to move freely between the world of the living and the dead. The tomb provided a secure resting place and access to the supernatural realm, ruled over by the gods.

The Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul split into two parts after death. The ka, or life force, was the individual’s double, which received the offerings it needed to survive. The second part was the ba, represented as a human-headed bird, which flew around during the day but returned to the tomb at night.

By the time Amenhotep I came to the throne, kings had learned from bitter experience that a monumental tomb, especially a pyramid, was more of a curse than a blessing. Advertising the location of the royal burial for all to see merely attracted the attention of tomb robbers and almost guaranteed that the deceased would not remain undisturbed for eternity. If the king were to enjoy a blessed afterlife, as intended, the nature of the royal tomb itself had to change.

As part of his wider program of religious remodeling, Amenhotep I implemented just such a radical redesign. From now on, the royal mortuary complex would be split into two distinct elements. A mortuary temple, sited prominently on a plain, would stand as the monarch’s permanent memorial and would act as a public focus for the royal cult. Quite separate, hidden away in the cliffs of western Thebes, a royal tomb cut deep into the rock would provide a secure resting place for eternity, without any outward sign to attract unwanted attention.

–Toby Wilkinson, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, 2010

Our guide Mamduh, from Egypt Sunset Tours, picked us up from our hotel at 8:30 a.m., and we set out on our West Bank excursion, which included the Valley of the Kings, the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut and the Colossi of Memnon. Because we’re ancient temple junkies, and we still had the better part of the afternoon, we also added the Tombs of the Nobles and Medinet Habu. Prices included a comfortable air-conditioned car, a driver, our English-speaking guide, Mamduh, and general entrance fees.

Wally and I arrived at the site around 9 a.m., avoiding the tourist rush and blistering heat of the late afternoon. It was already 87ºF and would climb over 100º.

The site was chosen in part because its tip, the peak of El Qurn, resembled a pyramid

The site was chosen in part because its tip, the peak of El Qurn, resembled a pyramid

Despite the name, the Valley of the Kings is comprised of two distinct valleys. The East Valley is where most of the royal tombs can be found. The site was chosen, in part as it was secluded, but also because it is dominated by the peak of El Qurn, a geological formation resembling a pyramid, sacred to the goddesses Hathor and Meretseger, both of whom were regarded as protectors of the dead. The West Valley contains the tombs of nobles and members of the royal family.

The official name for the rugged landscape in ancient times was Ta Sekhet Maat, or the Great Field, and beneath its barren surface lie more than 60 man-made subterranean tombs cut into the rock to commemorate the lives of New Kingdom pharaohs and wealthy nobles, which date from 1500 to 1070 BCE.  The site’s most famous and intact tomb is that of the boy-king Tutankhamun, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Other famous pharaohs include Hatshepsut, the only female king, and a slew of Ramesside period monarchs.

Don’t you dare graffiti these tombs like those Coptic Christians!

Don’t you dare graffiti these tombs like those Coptic Christians!

To enter the World Heritage Site, Mamduh paid the entrance fee of 400 LE, which included admission for only three tombs (you’re dependent upon which ones are open that day), a policy implemented to reduce crowds. We paid an additional 500 LE to see the tomb of Tutankhamun, and because we wanted to take pictures inside the tombs, we sprang for a 300 LE photography permit. (Note that you won’t be able to take photos inside King Tut’s tomb, even with a photography permit.) The tomb of Seti I, which also requires an additional fee, was closed at the time of our visit.

The bas-reliefs in the tombs are amazing, and many retain their original paint

The bas-reliefs in the tombs are amazing, and many retain their original paint

Heads up: If you’re considering taking your chances and skipping the photo permit, don’t. We witnessed more than one tourist asked to show their permit, and when they didn’t have it, they were pulled aside and forced to delete their photos.

We took a yellow trolley up the paved road leading to the site entrance and disembarked at a secondary checkpoint, where you’ll be asked to show your tickets. All of the tombs are assigned a number, preceded by the acronym KV (Kings’ Valley), in the order of discovery, a system established by British Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson in 1827.

You can take one of these cute little yellow trams to get to the archeological site

You can take one of these cute little yellow trams to get to the archeological site

Show your ticket at every entrance, and the guard will punch a hole in it to assure you only visit three.

You’ll be able to see three tombs per ticket at the Valley of the Kings

You’ll be able to see three tombs per ticket at the Valley of the Kings

Tomb Raiders

Building a tomb was a massive undertaking and preparation for burial within the necropolis began the moment a pharaoh ascended the throne. The Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul had dual counterparts and split into two parts after death. The ka, or life force, was the individual’s double (represented symbolically with what I like to refer to as “goalpost hands” atop its head). The ka entered the tomb through a false door, usually above the sarcophagus, to receive the offerings it needed to survive. The second part was the ba, the mobile part of the soul, represented as a human-headed bird. The ba was thought to fly about during the day among the land of the living, but needed to return to the body at night.

The human-headed birds at the bottom are the ba, the part of the soul that can fly around and protect family members after death

The human-headed birds at the bottom are the ba, the part of the soul that can fly around and protect family members after death

A traditional tomb plan consisted of a long corridor, descending through one or more halls, reflecting the nightly descent of the sun-god Amun to the underworld. Most royal tombs had multiple rooms, with the last serving as the burial chamber. Egyptians believed that when a pharaoh died, he (or she) became Osiris, the god of the dead and ruler of the underworld.

Royal tombs have a long, slow descent to the burial chamber

Royal tombs have a long, slow descent to the burial chamber

Another feature common to most tombs is the well shaft, which may have originated as an actual barrier intended to stop seasonal floodwaters from entering the lower parts of the tombs but also served to provide water to the ka.

Although tombs were originally sealed after construction and the burial was completed, many were robbed by the workers of Deir el-Medina, the nearby village which was home to the artisans employed to build and decorate them.

This diorama shows the tombs they’ve discovered — which may be just a fraction of what’s buried in the valley

This diorama shows the tombs they’ve discovered — which may be just a fraction of what’s buried in the valley

Our visit to the Valley of the Kings was a truly memorable experience, and because you’re limited to only three, be sure to take your time and don’t rush through them. –Duke

 

21 Egypt Travel Tips

How to get a visa for Egypt, navigate a police state, exchange money, and be able to take photos in the temples and tombs. Oh, and why you need small bills to go to the bathroom.

Egypt is a trip of a lifetime — but you have to know what to expect. Here Duke and Wally are set to explore the Temple of Philae in Aswan, one of the best-preserved ancient sites

Egypt is a trip of a lifetime — but you have to know what to expect. Here Duke and Wally are set to explore the Temple of Philae in Aswan, one of the best-preserved ancient sites

Egypt isn’t an easy country to navigate — Cairo in particular. It just doesn’t have the sophisticated tourist infrastructure so common in other parts of the world. Plus, it’s essentially a military dictatorship. In many ways, it reminded us of traveling through India, just on a smaller scale.

That being said, Egypt has a mind-boggling amount of temples and tombs to explore. They’re some of the oldest structures on the planet and are remarkably well preserved, having been buried in the sand for thousands of years.

We watched temple guards grab the phones of people who hadn’t bought a photography pass and force them to delete their photos!

Here are 21 tips to help you prepare for a trip to Egypt.

1. If you learn one word, it should be “shokran,” thank you.

When you say this, some people will burst into a huge smile. “You speak Arabic?!” one man exclaimed, joking. It’s great that something so simple can bring so much pleasure. And it goes to show how few travelers — or should I say tourists? — take the time to even bother learning one simple word.

Here’s another easy word: Salaam. It means “peace,” and works as both a greeting and a farewell.

Do you dare wear short shorts? Yes, it’s hot in Egypt, but respect the culture

Do you dare wear short shorts? Yes, it’s hot in Egypt, but respect the culture

2. Follow the dress code.

It’s not mandatory (there aren’t any morality police like in Iran), but do you really want to be the tourist that disrespects the culture of the country you’re visiting?

For men, T-shirts are OK, and I suppose you can get away with wearing shorts, but why? You won’t see a single Egyptian wearing them. Just bring along a couple of pairs of lightweight pants. Maybe it’s time to invest in a pair of linen pants, which travel extremely well.

For women, you don’t have to wear a headscarf — in fact, plenty of local women forgo this. Just cover your shoulders and wear pants or long skirts and dresses, preferably to the ankle. Again, you can get away with less coverage — heavens knows Egyptians see all sorts of lack of modesty at tourist attractions — but why be that person?

3. Pack sunblock.

Cuz it’ll be sunny, dusty and hot. Very hot. It reached 100 while we were there in late April.

4. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t drink the water.

Always have bottles of water to stay hydrated and to brush your teeth. You may not think that you’re getting dehydrated, but trust us, this can happen swiftly, and heat exhaustion is no joke. Duke suffered a mild case of this which caused him to have prickly heat, lightheadedness and diarrhea, which is no fun when most of Egypt’s sites are in the blazing sun.

5. Upper Egypt is the south part of the country, and Lower Egypt is the north.

Yes, this is counterintuitive to the modern brain. But the River Nile flows northward, so the Ancient Egyptians’ perception of the world was the reverse of ours.

6. You have to stake your ground in lines.

If there are any gaps, people will weasel their way in and have no qualms about cutting in front of you. While waiting in line for customs, a woman behind us kept tapping my backpack to get me to move up, as if pressing into each other would make the line go faster. Eventually, Duke and I formed a line with an annoyed fellow American to block the path of anyone trying to barge past us.

This happens on planes, too. I’m not saying Americans are the models of decorum, but when it comes to disembarking from a plane, no one would ever consider rushing up the aisle. We very patiently wait our turn and let everyone sitting in front of us get off before us. Not so in other parts of the world, including the Middle East. You have to rush into the aisle to prevent fellow passengers behind you from rushing ahead.

7. Getting a visa upon arrival is ridiculously easy.

No paperwork. Just US$25 and you get a sticker.

For other countries we’ve traveled to, like Vietnam and Cambodia, we had to send out our passports to the embassies in Washington, D.C., putting our faith in the U.S. Postal Service. India’s was an even more-elaborate affair, requiring a picture to be taken.

But the visa for Egypt can be purchased at a bank kiosk to the right of the line for customs.

8. It’s a good idea to get a data plan for your cell phone.

Not that we had great luck with Uber in Cairo (we thought we’d never escape from the Khan el-Khalili souk, after waiting for a couple of hours for various Uber drivers who never arrived). But we communicated with our guide service via email, and Wi-Fi was spotty at one of our hotels.

9. Prearrange pickup from the airport.

A mass of guys in navy blue jackets will call out, trying to get you to take their taxi. We like to have our hotels pick us up.

If you do need to get a cab, negotiate the price before you get in. When we returned to Cairo from Luxor, a charming man who played Western pop music took us to the Mena House for 400 Egyptian pounds, while the hotel was going to charge about 1,300 LE.

Get used to seeing policemen and soldiers toting semi-automatic machine guns everywhere you go, including the gorgeous Dendera Temple

Get used to seeing policemen and soldiers toting semi-automatic machine guns everywhere you go, including the gorgeous Dendera Temple

10. There are machine guns and metal detectors everywhere you go.

You’ll see them at the numerous military checkpoints on the road and outside tourist locations. It’s unnerving to see the tip of a machine gun peeking out a window in a small square tower as you drive down the street or enter the grounds of a temple.

It certainly was the first time we had to go through metal detectors as we entered our hotels. You’ll probably set them off, but they’ll wave you through.

When you’re visiting a site, there’s usually a bin or flat surface to place your cell phone before you pass through. If you’re bringing a bag, expect to have it screened.

The machine guns it seems every police officer and military personnel carry are made of tarnished silver, like something from generations past. And despite their toy-like appearance, resembling what you would play at a shooting gallery on a beachside boardwalk or a traveling carnival, I don’t doubt their lethal power.

11. Don’t expect to get a lot of money out of ATMs.

They’re certainly not as common as in the States, which is to be expected. But the maximum amount you can withdraw is 3,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $175 at the time we visited.

Sometimes the ATM would reject this selection — maybe there wasn’t enough money left — so we’d try 2,000, which usually worked.

The Egyptian pound is abbreviated as LE, from the French livre égyptienne.

Resist touching the walls: The oil from our skin darkens stone carvings, like these hieroglyphics

Resist touching the walls: The oil from our skin darkens stone carvings, like these hieroglyphics

12. As tempting as it may be, don’t touch the temple walls.

You can see the dark, shiny stains where people have touched certain spots too often. Our guide in Cairo, Ahmed, saw a guy touch the walls of a tomb, and he told him not to. “You’re breaking my heart,” he said, then grumbled to us, “They wouldn’t go to the Louvre and touch the paintings!” He did have a point. These structures have survived thousands of years and still sport their original paintings. Let’s help preserve them for another thousand years.

I know, I know. Wally’s not following his own advice — he’s touching the carvings!

I know, I know. Wally’s not following his own advice — he’s touching the carvings!

13. Get small denominations (especially 5 LE bills) cuz you’ll need ’em to go to the bathroom.

Almost every WC (as they’re usually marked, from the Britishism water closet), has someone out front collecting payment of 5 LE.

Fives are also handy to tip small amounts to someone who helps you in a small way, like a bellboy.

Hopefully you’ll luck out with a friendly, knowledgable guide like Mamduh

Hopefully you’ll luck out with a friendly, knowledgable guide like Mamduh

14. Hire guides everywhere.

There are security checkpoints all over the country, where they record the license plate, telephone number and other information in a ledger. (We always heard the term “Amrikiya,” which I assume meant we were Americans.) These checkpoints are facilitated with a guide and driver. I’m not even sure you could get into sites without a guide.

Plus, you know, it’s nice to know what you’re actually looking at. By the time we had spent a week with Mamduh from Sunset Tours, Duke and I felt like minor Egyptologists.

Added bonus: The vendors might be a tad less pushy. If you don’t have a guide, I imagine you’d be picked apart like a vulture with carrion. As it is, you’ll still have to ignore endless entreaties from shopkeepers inviting you to their stand, hoping to make a sale.

The roads are much less crazy outside of Cairo, but you’ll still be sharing them with a variety of transportation, including donkey carts

The roads are much less crazy outside of Cairo, but you’ll still be sharing them with a variety of transportation, including donkey carts

15. Egypt is definitely one of those countries where driving is insane.

Horns honk nonstop and pedestrians walk in the street, crossing traffic without a care in the world. I watched a woman with two small children talking on her phone cross a busy street without even a glance at oncoming traffic.

In Cairo in particular, drivers act like they’re playing a real-life video game, narrowly dodging other cars, horse-drawn carts, auto rickshaws, trucks loaded with produce, donkeys and motorbikes, often with a woman on the back sitting sideways, a child in her arms.

Cars come from all directions, and there aren’t any lines on the road. Vehicles speed along, weaving between traffic, straddling two lanes, zooming along at an alarming clip. At night many don’t even use their headlights.

16. Most sites have an extra photography pass you can buy — though a lot of tour guides fail to mention this.

If you want photos, just ante up the 50 to 300 LE or so and get the pass. If you don’t, be warned that the guards can be ruthless. At Abu Simbel, for instance, we watched them take the phones of people who didn’t buy a pass and force them to delete their photos! Fortunately for us, our guide Mamduh always asked us prior to purchasing our tickets.

17. Just because you pay for a car for the day, doesn’t mean you get to go wherever you’d like.

The concierge at our hotel in Cairo said we had a driver and guide for the full day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. But we learned that unlike other places you travel to, you’re limited to their itinerary and can’t go off script.

Our guide, Ahmed, made our experience extremely unpleasant, rushing us through the sites of Giza and Saqqara, until we said we had come all this way and wanted to see everything we could. He refused to take us to the Mena House for lunch, telling us that it was ridiculously spendy (and even though we had discussed this with the concierge at the Kempinski the night before) or any other sites, even though we still had hours left.

What’s strange (I’m being sarcastic) is that he would have made the time to stop at the papyrus and perfume shops at Giza, or the carpet schools at Saqqara, if we had accepted his offer. Having suffered through these tourist traps, where guides get commission if you buy anything, we knew to avoid them like the 10 plagues.

18. They don’t believe in seatbelts in Cairo.

Very few drivers bother to wear them, and not many of the backseats have working seatbelts, especially in Cairo. There’s nothing you can do but pray to Osiris or Allah that you’ll safely reach your destination amidst the chaos of the roads.

Thankfully, the other parts of the country we visited, Aswan and Luxor, tended to have working seatbelts — though our driver only slipped his on when we reached military checkpoints.

19. You’ll see a lot of Egyptian men with dark circular marks on their foreheads.

At first we thought these gray smudges might be ash — we visited over Easter and figured it might be some Coptic Christian tradition — but after a while I realized it was the type of mark you’d get from repeatedly rubbing your forehead against something. I suspect it’s a mark from prostrating themselves and bowing their heads to the ground five times a day during their prayers. I imagine some wear it proudly as a public display of piety.

Duke learned this mark actually has a name: zebibah, or raisin. (Given its size, it’s actually more like a prune.)

The one downside to staying on the West Bank in Luxor were the ever-present flies

The one downside to staying on the West Bank in Luxor were the ever-present flies

20. Get used to flies.

They’re everywhere, especially in Luxor. We noticed a slew of small red bites on our lower legs the morning after our first night on the West Bank, and although we didn’t see any mosquitos, they were obviously there. So you might want to pack some bug spray, too. We used Repel 100, which kept those pests at bay.

21. Not to be rude, but you should expect to smell BO quite often.

It’s obviously most noticeable in confined spaces like an airplane or a car. This isn’t a dig at Arabs — I suffered through many a stinky bus or metro ride in Europe, believe me. –Wally

Horus vs. Seth: Homosexuality, Hippos and Familial Violence

The Egyptian myth described in The Contendings of Horus and Seth is as graphic as it is bizarre.

The young falcon-headed god Horus battles his canine-headed evil uncle Seth to become pharaoh of Egypt

The young falcon-headed god Horus battles his canine-headed evil uncle Seth to become pharaoh of Egypt

Osiris ruled as pharaoh of Egypt with his sister-wife Isis, bringing peace and prosperity to the land. But his elder brother, Seth (or Set), became insanely jealous, and led Osiris to a watery death after tricking him into a perfectly fitted coffin.

The story of how he chopped his brother into pieces, which Isis hunted down to reassemble, is a tale for another blog post. This one deals with the power struggle that ensued between the two contenders for the throne: the murderous Seth and Osiris’ son, the falcon-headed Horus. The story is told in the Chester Beatty Papyrus No. 1, The Contendings of Horus and Seth, which dates back to the early Middle Kingdom (2040-1674 BCE). The myth most likely has origins even earlier than that.

Be warned: Parts of this twisted tale get quite graphic.

Seth argues that Horus cannot be king because his breath stinks — an allusion to Horus breastfeeding from his mother, Isis, and a dig at his youth

Seth argues that Horus cannot be king because his breath stinks — an allusion to Horus breastfeeding from his mother, Isis, and a dig at his youth

The Battle to Become Pharaoh of Egypt

As the son of Osiris, Horus presented his claim to the throne to a tribunal of three of the most powerful deities in the Egyptian pantheon: the sun god Re; Thoth, the god of wisdom; and Shu, the god of air.

Thoth and Shu declared Horus the rightful ruler of Egypt, but Re argued that Seth was more powerful and therefore deserved the throne.

“The throne is mine by virtue of my strength,” canine-headed Seth said. “‘Let Horus prove that he is better than I, and he can have the throne!”

“Challenge me to what you will. I will prove you the weaker!” Horus declared.

Much like the shapeshifting Egyptian gods Horus and Seth, these hippos battle for dominance

Much like the shapeshifting Egyptian gods Horus and Seth, these hippos battle for dominance

Hippos Holding Their Breath

Seth decided that the first feat of strength would be to have them both turn into a hippopotamus and sit on the bottom of the Nile. The first to come up for air within three months would lose.

Isis, desperately wanting her son to be pharaoh, magically created a copper harpoon, which she threw into the water. Her aim was off, though, and she hit Horus instead of Seth. Realizing this, she released the harpoon and cast it back into the water, and this time bit into the body of Seth. But the injured god appealed to Isis as her brother and she caved and helped him. Horus, enraged, emerged from the water. He wasn’t worried about losing the first challenge — he was focused on taking revenge on his mother for what he felt was a betrayal. Horus cut off Isis’ head, carried it up a mountain and tossed it away. Talk about mommy issues!

Thoth picks up Isis’ head and reunites it with her body.

Seth really liked salad — only that wasn’t ranch dressing on it!

Seth really liked salad — only that wasn’t ranch dressing on it!

Homosexual Incest and Semen-Covered Lettuce

Tired from decapitating his mother, Horus went to sleep on the mountaintop. Seth snuck up and gouged out his nephew’s eyes, burying them in the ground. Overnight, they grew into lotuses. Taking pity on the blinded boy, the cow-headed goddess Hathor came to Horus’ aid, pouring gazelle milk on his wounds and restoring his sight.

The judges wanted the two gods to make amends. They reconciled, but Seth decided to seduce his nephew.

Seth wasn’t discriminate in his liaisons. In the world of Ancient Egypt, there wasn’t any real conception of homosexuality. What mattered was who was the top (the one who was doing the penetrating), as that proved dominance over the other person.

Now afterward, [at] evening time, bed was prepared for them, and they both lay down. But during the night, Seth caused his phallus to become stiff and inserted it between Horus’ thighs. Then Horus placed his hands between his thighs and received Seth’s semen. Horus went to tell his mother Isis: “Help me, Isis, my mother, come and see what Seth has done to me.” And he opened his hand[s] and let her see Seth’s semen.

She let out a loud shriek, seized the copper [knife], cut off his hand[s] that were equivalent. Then she fetched some fragrant ointment and applied it to Horus’ phallus. She caused it to become stiff and inserted it into a pot, and he caused his semen to flow down into it.

So to sum this up: Seth intended to humiliate his nephew by fucking him up the ass — but Horus secretly caught Seth’s semen in his hands. When young Horus showed his mother, Isis, what had happened, she cut off her son’s hands, aroused him and jerked him off into a jar. Not quite a Disney movie.

Isis then tossed Seth’s semen into the marshes of the Nile and devised a plan to deceive him:

Isis at morning time went carrying the semen of Horus to the garden of Seth and said to Seth’s gardener: “What sort of vegetable is it that Seth eats here in your company?” So the gardener told her: “He doesn’t eat any vegetable here in my company except lettuce.” And Isis added the semen of Horus onto it. Seth returned according to his daily habit and ate the lettuce, which he regularly ate. Thereupon he became pregnant with the semen of Horus.

Seth approached the tribunal and declared with confidence, “Let me be awarded the office of Ruler … for as to Horus, the one who is standing [trial], I have performed the labor of a male against him.”

This drawing on a shard of pottery shows that even Ancient Egyptians had a gay old time

This drawing on a shard of pottery shows that even Ancient Egyptians had a gay old time

Semen Calling

Horus spoke up: “All that Seth has said is false. Let Seth’s semen be summoned that we may see from where it answers, and my own be summoned that we may see from where it answers.”

Thoth put his hand on Horus’ shoulder and said, “Come out, you semen of Seth.” It answered him instead from the marsh along the Nile.

The god then put his hand on Seth’s shoulder and said, “Come out, you semen of Horus.” Because it had been ingested with the lettuce leaves, it answered from inside Seth’s stomach.

Deeming itself too important to flow out of Seth’s ear, the divine seed emerged from his head in the form of a golden solar disk. Thoth snatched it away and placed it as a crown upon his own head.

At some point, Horus and Seth seem to have made up, for here they are both adoring Ramses

At some point, Horus and Seth seem to have made up, for here they are both adoring Ramses

The Stone Ship Race

Despite this damning evidence, Seth somehow convinces the trio of judges to stage one more contest: a race of stone ships down the Nile. That didn’t seem like the wisest choice, since Seth’s boat sunk instantly. But Horus’ floated along the water — for he had tricked everyone by making his boat out of pine and covering it in gypsum, a sort of plaster, so that it looked like it was made of stone.

In a rage, Seth once again transformed into a hippopotamus and bashed his head into Horus’ ship. It came apart in splinters, exposing the young god’s deceit.

This back and forth had now gone on for 80 years. Seeking a final verdict, the judges decided to appeal to Osiris, who now ruled the underworld. Not surprisingly, Osiris argued that his son, Horus, deserved to be pharaoh, and Seth, in chains as a prisoner, finally concedes. –Wally

9 Fascinating Frida Kahlo Facts That May Surprise You

Overshadowed by her husband Diego Rivera, Kahlo led a too-short life fraught with pain, which she channeled into her powerful paintings.

A portrait of the unusual artist in 1939 by Nickolas Muray

A portrait of the unusual artist in 1939 by Nickolas Muray

It seems every famous artist is eccentric in their own way, and Frida Kahlo was no exception. She didn’t follow the rules, establishing herself as the negation of what a woman was expected to be. Her singular vision continues to inspire and capture the world’s imagination. Kahlo’s recognizable unibrow, boldly colored clothes and tempestuous marriage to muralist Diego Rivera are as central to her fame as her vivid and powerful self-portraits.

During the horrific accident, a shower of gold glitter landed on Frida’s bloody and broken body — making the macabre moment like something out of a magical realism novel.

While writing my post on the Blue House, or La Casa Azul, Kahlo’s former home, I learned more than a few surprising things. Why nine, you might ask? During their lifetimes, Kahlo and Rivera passionately assembled a collection of fantastical papier-mâché alebrijes, and I’d like to imagine hers as a cat with its metaphorical nine lives. So, without further exposition, here are nine interesting facts you might not have known about Frida Kahlo.

Talk about odd couples! Here’s  Wedding Portrait of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera  by Victor Reyes, 1929

Talk about odd couples! Here’s Wedding Portrait of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera by Victor Reyes, 1929

1. She and Diego proved that opposites really do attract.

Kahlo first met Rivera when he was commissioned by the government to paint the mural La Creación at the Bolívar Auditorium of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in 1922. Kahlo was one of only 35 females in a student body of 2,000 and belonged to a group of young intellectuals who called themselves Las Cachuchas, named after the peaked cloth caps they wore as a sign of subversion against the rigid dress code of the period. One account claims that she mischievously soaped the stairs leading to the auditorium where Rivera was working, hoping to make him slip and fall.

They met again in 1928 while he was working on a fresco for Mexico City’s Ministry of Education building. With paintings tucked under her arm, she demanded Rivera critique her work, telling him, “I have not come to you looking for compliments. I want the criticism of a serious man. I’m neither an art lover nor an amateur. I’m simply a girl who must work for her living.”

It was a May-December romance, as Rivera was about twice her age (as well as 200 pounds heavier). She was 22, he was 43. He had been married twice before. Kahlo once said, “I suffered two grave accidents in my life: one in which a streetcar knocked me down, and the other was Diego.”  

Frida paints  Portrait of My Father , 1952, in her studio. Photo by Gisèle Freund

Frida paints Portrait of My Father, 1952, in her studio. Photo by Gisèle Freund

2. A horrific — but strangely beautiful — accident changed the course of her life.

In 1925, an 18-year-old Kahlo was riding a bus home from school with her boyfriend Alex Gómez Arias when it collided with an oncoming electric streetcar. A fellow passenger on the bus had been carrying a bag of gold dust, which was released upon impact and tore, a shower of gold glitter landing on the bloody and broken body of Kahlo — making the macabre moment like something out of a magical realism novel.

When onlookers saw her, they cried, “La bailarina, la bailarina!” mistaking her for a dancer.

The bed-ridden Frida Kahlo painting  Portrait of My Family  in 1950. Photo by Juan Guzmán

The bed-ridden Frida Kahlo painting Portrait of My Family in 1950. Photo by Juan Guzmán

The near-fatal accident left Kahlo bedridden for months and enduring lifelong complications that would fuel her intensely personal artwork, turning her deepest feelings and darkest moments into art.

What a deer!  Frida With Granzino ,  Version 2  by Nickolas Muray, 1939

What a deer! Frida With Granzino, Version 2 by Nickolas Muray, 1939

3. Kahlo wasn’t able to have children, so she filled the void with exotic pets.

Kahlo was a great lover of animals and had an exotic menagerie at La Casa Azul. In many of her self-portraits she is accompanied by her favorite animals, including a pair of mischievous spider monkeys named Fulang Chung and Caimito de Guayabal. She also had Bonito, an Amazon parrot, who would perform tricks at the table for rewards of pats of butter, an eagle named Gertrudis Caca Blanca (Gertrude White Shit), hairless Xoloitzcuintli dogs and a fawn called Granzino.

These animals appeared in her work, including Self-Portrait With Monkey and The Wounded Deer, her face placed atop a deer’s body, probably Granzino’s, complete with antlers, running through a forest as nine arrows pierce its body.

Frida’s love of animals is evident in her  Self-Portrait With Small Monkey  from 1945

Frida’s love of animals is evident in her Self-Portrait With Small Monkey from 1945

Despite wanting to have offspring, Kahlo was unable to bear children and suffered miscarriages and medical abortions. Her inability to give birth became a source of trauma, and she said that her pets symbolized the children she never could have.

Many of Frida’s paintings were self-portraits, like  Autorretrato  from 1948

Many of Frida’s paintings were self-portraits, like Autorretrato from 1948

4. She’d most likely beat you in a staring contest.

Kahlo was her own most popular muse. Fifty-five of her 143 paintings are self-portraits, which is perhaps understandable when thinking about how much time she spent on her own while coping with a variety of chronic health issues. Her conjoined brows, plaited hair and watchful eyes fiercely demand that the viewer meet her gaze. And her defiant, upright posture was as much due to the immobilizing plaster corsets she was forced to wear to support her spinal column as it was her confidence.

Kahlo’s use of the intimate self-portrait often reflected her turbulent life and was a visual means to communicate her physical and psychological wounds.

Let’s take some time to reflect upon what an amazing woman Frida Kahlo was. Photo by Lola Álvarez Bravo

Let’s take some time to reflect upon what an amazing woman Frida Kahlo was. Photo by Lola Álvarez Bravo

5. She was her own brand ambassador.

Our sense of self is largely dependent on where we were born, where our family’s from and the people we choose to surround ourselves with. This was especially true for Kahlo with her distinctive sartorial style inspired by the traditional dress of the Tehuana, the independent and proud indigenous matriarchal Zapotec society in the state of Oaxaca. Kahlo’s mother was born in Oaxaca to an indigenous father and a mother of Spanish descent.

Her attire helped her craft an imaginative, colorful identity and typically included flamboyant rings adorning her fingers, a traditional square-cut blouse, the huipil, and a long wrap-around skirt, which allowed her to mask and distract from her physical injuries.

One can only imagine the sensation of Kahlo’s striking and exotic appearance when she arrived in the United States with Rivera. Her rejection of conventional fashion was unlike anything the people of San Francisco, Detroit or New York had ever seen. On a walk in NYC, a flock of children asked Kahlo, “Where’s the circus?” but she simply smiled graciously and continued walking.

The controversial  The Suicide of Dorothy Hale  by Frida Kahlo, 1939

The controversial The Suicide of Dorothy Hale by Frida Kahlo, 1939

6. She pushed boundaries and buttons.

Sometime in 1938, Kahlo was commissioned by Clare Boothe Luce, the writer of the all-female Broadway play The Women and a former managing editor of Vanity Fair magazine, to paint a recuerdo, a remembrance portrait of their mutual New York socialite friend and aspiring actress Dorothy Hale, who had recently taken her own life.

Luce presumed Kahlo would paint a conventional portrait of Hale. However, Kahlo wasn’t a fan of what she considered to be the bourgeois capitalist social scene of New York City and had a more cerebral vision in mind — to create a graphic retablo detailing Hale’s moment of death.

In the center of the painting, the building where Hale lived is depicted with its many small windows rising up behind a layer of feathery clouds. A tiny figure plummets from an upper window. In the middle ground is a larger falling figure, clearly Hale, her arms extended and her skirt billowing around her knees. Resting on the pavement in the foreground is the deceased Hale in the black velvet dress and yellow corsage she wore, her dead eyes frozen open and staring at the viewer. As if that wasn’t enough, the inscription literally bleeds into the bottom of the frame and reads, “In the city of New York on the 21st day of the month of October, 1938, at 6 o’clock in the morning, Mrs. Dorothy Hale committed suicide by throwing herself out of a very high window of the Hampshire House building. In her memory, this portrait was executed by Frida Kahlo.”

When Luce received the painting, she seriously considered destroying it, but was persuaded by friends to desist. The arresting and controversial work remained in storage for decades before being donated “anonymously” to the Phoenix Art Museum in 1960.

7. She arrived at her first solo exhibition in Mexico in an ambulance.

Kahlo’s first major solo exhibition was held at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1938 in New York City, and one year later, her works were part of a collective exhibition entitled Mexique, shown at the Galerie Renou et Colle in Paris. The French surrealist André Breton described her art as “a ribbon around a bomb.”

Due to declining health during her final years, Kahlo rarely ventured outside of the Blue House, and had to use a wheelchair and crutches to get around. In April 1953, her first solo exhibition in Mexico opened at the Galería de Arte Contemporáneo. At the time, Kahlo was on bed rest under doctor’s orders and not expected to attend. However, she made sure to be there, arriving by ambulance to a mystified crowd, ordering that her four-poster bed be moved into the gallery. She was brought in on a stretcher to the bed, where she was able to enjoy the event.

8. She made a most memorable exit from life.

Kahlo was transported to the crematorium at the Panteón Civil de Dolores, and her body was lifted out of the coffin and laid in a cart that would carry her along iron tracks to the cemetery. So desperate were people to have a memento of Kahlo that onlookers pulled at the rings on her fingers even as her body moved toward the crematorium fire. Witnesses who were in the small chamber containing the furnace claimed that a sudden blast of heat from the open incinerator doors caused Kahlo’s corpse to sit bolt upright, and when the flames ignited her hair, forming an aura around her face, her lips appeared to part in a grin just before the doors closed shut.

What the Water Gave Me  by Frida Kahlo, 1938

What the Water Gave Me by Frida Kahlo, 1938

9. She was underappreciated as an artist in her lifetime.

Kahlo’s work was largely overshadowed by that of her husband during her lifetime. This was partly because the complexity of her art was difficult for an international audience to categorize. Kahlo’s most famous works, her autorretratos, or self-portraits, combine elements of realism, surrealism and indigenous Mexican symbolism.

Breton, an original member of the Dada group and the founder of the Surrealist movement in 1924, visited Kahlo in Mexico in 1938 while she was working on Lo Que el Agua Me Dio (What the Water Gave Me). Breton was transfixed by it, calling Kahlo a “natural surrealist.” Kahlo rejected the label and replied, “I never painted dreams. I paint my own reality.”

When Kahlo died at the early age of 47 in 1954, Rivera begged his friend and patroness of the arts, Dolores Olmedo to purchase 25 of Kahlo’s paintings for a mere $1,600. He wanted to make sure that an important part of his wife’s work remained in Mexico. –Duke

A sudden blast of heat from the incinerator caused Frida’s corpse to sit bolt upright. Flames ignited her hair, forming an aura around her face, and her lips parted into a grin just before the doors closed shut.

La Casa Azul, the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City

Explore the quirky blue-painted home-turned-museum where the bohemian Mexican artist was born and lived while married to muralist Diego Rivera.

You can wander through the home Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived in

You can wander through the home Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived in

One destination that was at the top of our list to visit while in CDMX was La Casa Azul, or the Blue House, the former home and studio of Mexican artist and revolutionary cultural icon Frida Kahlo.

The first thing to capture your attention upon arrival at the corner of Calles Londres and Allende, which is now the Museo Frida Kahlo, are the vibrant cobalt-blue walls that rise straight up from the sidewalk. They reminded me of the intense blue used by French painter Jacques Majorelle in his garden acquired by Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Bergé in Marrakech, Morocco.

To be in the former home of this captivating, self-willed individual was an amazing and moving experience.
Get your tickets well before you visit — and get the earliest time available to cut down on crowds

Get your tickets well before you visit — and get the earliest time available to cut down on crowds

The other was the line of people waiting to gain admission. After reading how popular the destination is, we purchased and printed our tickets in advance for the first available self-guided tour of the day to avoid the crowds. If you show up without a ticket, we’ve heard you can expect to wait up to four hours, as the museum limits the amount of people allowed inside. Even if you get your tickets in advance, plan on getting into line half an hour early so you’re at the beginning of your group.

Portrait of Frida Kahlo  by Roberto Montenegro, 1936

Portrait of Frida Kahlo by Roberto Montenegro, 1936

You can download an electronic version of your ticket, which will be scanned by one of the museum docents. If you’d like to take pictures inside, which we did, you’ll need to purchase a photography pass for an extra fee of about 30 pesos, or $1.50.

Keep in mind that the cost of your ticket also includes admission to the Anahuacalli Museum, designed by Diego Rivera to contain his impressive collection of pre-Columbian art. It’s great fun to explore.

Duke leans on the iconic blue walls of La Casa Azul while we wait to go in

Duke leans on the iconic blue walls of La Casa Azul while we wait to go in

It’s cool being able to explore the home shared by these two famous artists

It’s cool being able to explore the home shared by these two famous artists

Inside La Casa Azul

At the entry, you’re met by a few of Kahlo’s fantastical and monstrous papier-mâché folk art alebrije figures, traditionally representing Satan and Judas, which are filled with firecrackers and exploded on Sabado de Gloria, the Saturday before Easter.

Part of the courtyard includes this tiled pool

Part of the courtyard includes this tiled pool

Built around an open-air central courtyard, the interior of the house offers visitors a chance to catch a glimpse into Frida’s creative universe. Each room is organized by theme, many exactly as Kahlo left them. The first room Wally and I entered was originally the formal living room, where the Riveras hosted storied intellectual guests from Gershwin to Trotsky and now functions as a gallery featuring a selection of Frida’s lesser-known paintings. Of note is Portrait of My Father, made by Kahlo 10 years after her father’s death with the dedication “I painted my father Wilhelm Kahlo, of Hungarian-German origin, artist-photographer by profession, in character generous, intelligent and fine, valiant because he suffered for 60 years with epilepsy, but never gave up working and fought against Hitler. With adoration, his daughter, Frida Kahlo,” and a still life depicting sliced watermelons inscribed with the phrase “Viva la Vida” or, Long Live Life.

Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick  by Frida Kahlo, 1954

Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick by Frida Kahlo, 1954

Portrait of My Father  by Frida Kahlo, 1951

Portrait of My Father by Frida Kahlo, 1951

Viva la Vida  by Frida Kahlo, 1954 — the last of her paintings she signed

Viva la Vida by Frida Kahlo, 1954 — the last of her paintings she signed

The next room held a delightful miniature puppet theater created by Frida. One of my favorite items in the house, it contained a cat or perhaps jaguar, a seated woman, a skeleton with a red sash around its waist and an alligator suspended in the air. Also on display was a painting by Diego Rivera titled La Quebrada. The inscription in the lower right corner reads, “A La Niña Fridita Kahlo la maravillosa. El 7 de Julio de 1956 a los dos años que duerme en cenizas, viva en mi corazón” (To the little girl Fridita Kahlo, the wonderful one. On July 7, 1956, two years since she went to sleep in the ashes, she lives on in my heart.)

We especially loved this kinda creepy puppet theater Frida created

We especially loved this kinda creepy puppet theater Frida created

Moving farther along, white painted ceiling beams and bold blue, yellow and white glazed tiles complement the kitchen countertop and frame the chimney. Kahlo embellished the walls surrounding the wood-burning stove using miniature glazed clay mugs to whimsically spell out her and Diego’s names. On the opposite wall are two doves tying a lovers’ knot and a pair of pumpkin-shaped clay tureens sitting atop a long yellow table.

Frida spelled out her and Diego’s names in miniature clay mugs on the wall above her stove

Frida spelled out her and Diego’s names in miniature clay mugs on the wall above her stove

A glimpse into Frida’s kitchen

A glimpse into Frida’s kitchen

The neutral tones of earthenware pottery pair nicely with the bright blue and yellow tiles

The neutral tones of earthenware pottery pair nicely with the bright blue and yellow tiles

Next to the kitchen, the dining room shares the same vibrant color scheme with bright yellow open storage shelving chock full of colored glassware, earthenware pots, plates and indigenous artifacts.  

The dining room

The dining room

A bright yellow cabinet displaying some of Frida’s collections

A bright yellow cabinet displaying some of Frida’s collections

Rivera’s small bedroom is tucked off to the side of the dining room. A pillow sitting on a vintage armchair is embroidered with the words “Despierta Corazon Dormido” (Wake Up, Sleeping Heart). Outside this room, a flight of stairs leads to the second floor library and studio, an addition by Rivera.

The small room Diego stayed in also once housed Leon Trotsky, with whom Frida had an affair

The small room Diego stayed in also once housed Leon Trotsky, with whom Frida had an affair

Up in the studio, large steel-framed windows look out to the garden and fill the room with natural light. There’s also an enviable collection of books. Kahlo’s small wooden work desk holds an assortment of brushes, a palette, a mirror and small glass bottles of pigment waiting to be mixed for use.

Frida’s work table: where the magic happened

Frida’s work table: where the magic happened

The materials Frida used in her paintings

The materials Frida used in her paintings

Color pigments Frida used to create her paint

Color pigments Frida used to create her paint

Adjacent to these tools, a wheelchair faces an easel with the painting Still Life With Flag — a reminder that Frida experienced a series of life events that left her in chronic pain. At the age of 6, she contracted polio, which left her right leg withered and shorter than her left, causing her to limp. In her teens, while traveling home from school, the bus on which she was riding was hit by a streetcar. She sustained serious trauma, including multiple fractures of the clavicle, ribs and spine, and was pierced by an iron handrail from the streetcar that impaled her pelvis. Frida miraculously survived and and began painting self-portraits — her reality captured by a mirror within the intimacy of her own studio at home. She once said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

In poor health for much of her life, Frida had to paint in a wheelchair now and then

In poor health for much of her life, Frida had to paint in a wheelchair now and then

Immediately off the artists studio are a pair of Kahlo’s four-poster beds. As Frida was frequently bedridden, her day bed is fitted with a mirror above that she would use to paint while convalescing. Because she died in this room in 1954, her death mask fittingly (yet creepily) rests atop the bed. On the wall behind the headboard, a skeleton with tiny arms wearing a top hat and a painting of a presumably dead child with a garland of purple poppy flowers watch over the bed.

Frida’s death mask sits on her bed

Frida’s death mask sits on her bed

Frida’s night bed has a framed grouping of butterfly specimens attached to the panel above. These were given to her by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. On a lace-topped table nearby a headless pre-Columbian urn contains her ashes. A cabinet of toys rendered in miniature are displayed off to the right.

The large urn to the left contains Frida’s ashes

The large urn to the left contains Frida’s ashes

We exited via a staircase from Frida’s day room in the central courtyard and followed a winding path that led us past a stepped pyramidal structure, added and built by Rivera, a pedestal to display their pre-Columbian sculptures in the garden. Frida loved botany and collected many species of plants native to Mexico and created a garden abundant with yuccas, bougainvilleas, cacti, jasmine and agave.

Wally and Duke on the patio leading to the central courtyard

Wally and Duke on the patio leading to the central courtyard

Diego especially loved pre-Columbian artifacts

Diego especially loved pre-Columbian artifacts

A large ofrenda is set up in the garden

A large ofrenda is set up in the garden

Around back you’ll find an opportunity to pretend to be Frida and Diego

Around back you’ll find an opportunity to pretend to be Frida and Diego

An ancillary building contains an exhibit named after a drawing Kahlo made in 1946: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, where the artist drew herself, showing an X-ray view through her traditional Tehuana dress to reveal her injured leg and plaster corset. The first room displays a few of Kahlo’s personal objects used in relation to her medical condition. There’s also a vitrine with mannequins wearing Kahlo’s distinctive Tehuana dresses and headpieces. She favored the huipil, a boxy blouse, rebozo shawl and long skirt, a representation of Kahlo’s authentic Mexican femininity. There’s also a couture dress with a buckled corset by fashion designer and provocateur Jean Paul Gaultier whose 1998 spring-summer runway was titled Tribute to Frida Kahlo. In this same case is a dress by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons surrounded by a sort of hoop cage, and in the last room there’s a delicately embroidered bodysuit with an incredible fringe jacket by Roberto Tisci for Givenchy.

An outbuilding houses some of Frida’s distinctive outfits

An outbuilding houses some of Frida’s distinctive outfits

A dress by Comme des Garçons (left) and  The Freckles  by Gaultier

A dress by Comme des Garçons (left) and The Freckles by Gaultier

To be in the former home of this captivating, self-willed individual was an amazing and moving experience. Like Kahlo, La Casa Azul has many layers — its details bear witness to her inspired magpie approach, filled with objects that carried personal meaning to Kahlo and are reflected in her fascinating collection of arte popular. –Duke

La Casa Azul, the Museo Frida Kahlo

La Casa Azul, the Museo Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo Museum
Londres 247
Del Carmen
04100 Ciudad de México, CDMX
Mexico

 

olmedomuseum

10 Most Instagrammable Places in Mexico City's Centro

A photographer’s tour of the CDMX historic district, from the Palacio de Bellas Artes to the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México.

CDMX, as the cool kids call it, is full of stunning design, a mind-blowing mix of colonial architecture and modern marvels. Here are some of our favorites to help you get started on a cultural and Insta-worthy tour of the city’s historic heart.

Centro Histórico

A chandelier hangs above the holy ark

A chandelier hangs above the holy ark

The second and third floors of the Sinagoga Histórica have some beautiful elements

The second and third floors of the Sinagoga Histórica have some beautiful elements

Look up to see the folk art-styled ceiling, with its gorgeous color pallette

Look up to see the folk art-styled ceiling, with its gorgeous color pallette

1. Sinagoga Histórica Justo Sierra 71

Start your tour with this hidden gem, built and established by the Ashkenazi, Eastern European Jews who arrived in Mexico City as refugees escaping persecution in the early 1940s. The Historic Synagogue, or Templo Nidje Israel, is entered through an interior courtyard beyond the building’s colonial façade (and a somewhat grumpy guard).

The interior contains a rather plain assembly hall on the first floor, but the sanctuary located on the second floor is impressive, said to be modeled after a synagogue in Lithuania. Make sure to look up at the vaulted clerestory ceiling intricately painted in hues of rust, mustard yellow, blue and green. An elaborately carved platform stands in the center of the room and faces the richly ornamented aron kodesh, or holy ark, surrounded by folk art elements typical of Eastern European villages. The sacred Torah scrolls were once kept behind the blue velvet curtain panel embroidered with silver thread.

Justo Sierra 71

What seemed to be a bizarre fantasy video game ad was playing in the courtyard while we visited

What seemed to be a bizarre fantasy video game ad was playing in the courtyard while we visited

Open archways line the corridors of the ex-college

Open archways line the corridors of the ex-college

You’ll spot murals all over the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso

You’ll spot murals all over the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso

2. Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso

A block or so down from the synagogue is a former Jesuit boarding school that has since been transformed into a museum and cultural center. After the Jesuits were expelled from the city, the building temporarily served as barracks for the Mexican army before becoming the National Preparatory School. The site is considered to be the birthplace of the Mexican muralism movement and features murals painted by David Alfaro, José Clemente Orozco (Wally’s personal fave) and Diego Rivera.

Justo Sierra 16

La Casa de las Sirenas is located within one of the first colonial mansions in Mexico City

La Casa de las Sirenas is located within one of the first colonial mansions in Mexico City

Our al fresco meal was delicious

Our al fresco meal was delicious

Grab a bite on the rooftop terrace, which overlooks the back of the cathedral

Grab a bite on the rooftop terrace, which overlooks the back of the cathedral

3. La Casa de las Sirenas

The frieze on the façade of this former 17th century colonial abode features a Caravaca cross flanked by a pair of mermaids, which gives the restaurant its name, the House of the Mermaids.

We ate a delicious lunch on the rooftop terrace with a spectacular view overlooking the extremely disappointing Templo Mayor and the back of the impressive Catedral Metropolitana, while an organ grinder played a whimsical tune over and over from the street below.

República de Guatemala 32

The Metropolitan Cathedral organ

The Metropolitan Cathedral organ

This over-the-top golden altar is just one of many inside the massive cathedral

This over-the-top golden altar is just one of many inside the massive cathedral

Saints galore in various niches in this Baroque church — note the highly realistic detail on his hand

Saints galore in various niches in this Baroque church — note the highly realistic detail on his hand

4. Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral

This massive Baroque-style cathedral dominating the northern side of the Zócalo plaza was built in stages between 1573 to 1873, shortly after Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors defeated the Aztec Empire. Among the oldest and largest cathedrals in the Americas, much of it was built using stones pilfered from the Templo Mayor. (Maybe that’s why the temple’s ruins are so unimpressive.) Step inside to see the large, ornate Altar of the Kings, collection of paintings, pipe organ and statuary.

Plaza de la Constitución s/n

Pop into the lobby of the Gran Hotel to marvel at the stained glass ceiling and ironwork

Pop into the lobby of the Gran Hotel to marvel at the stained glass ceiling and ironwork

The curving balconies and organic grillwork on the cage elevators make this Art Nouveau gem worth a shot or two

The curving balconies and organic grillwork on the cage elevators make this Art Nouveau gem worth a shot or two

5. Gran Hotel Ciudad de México

After binge-watching the Spanish soap series Gran Hotel on Netflix, we had to go inside this historic Art Nouveau gem of the same name. It was originally the city’s most luxurious department store, known as el Centro Mercanti — in fact, you can still see the monogram “CM” in the stained-glass ceiling designed by French glass artist Jacques Grüber as well as the railings. Fun fact: The interior is featured in the opening scenes of the James Bond film Spectre.

16 de Septiembre 82

This building is known colloquially as the House of Tiles

This building is known colloquially as the House of Tiles

This distinctive tiled building is now a Sanborns department store

This distinctive tiled building is now a Sanborns department store

6. Casa de los Azulejos

Meaning “the House of Tiles” in Spanish, the exterior of this 16th century building is embellished with tin-glazed ceramic tilework known as azulejos, from Puebla, Mexico. The property was originally the residence of the Valle de Orizaba counts, one of the wealthiest families in the country. It was purchased by brothers Walter and Frank Sanborn in 1919 and converted into the flagship location of Sanborns, a Mexican department store and restaurant chain.

Av Francisco I. Madero 4

Since you’re in the area, you should pop into the Palacio Postal just to check out the amazing staircase

Since you’re in the area, you should pop into the Palacio Postal just to check out the amazing staircase

Things are looking up at the Postal Palace

Things are looking up at the Postal Palace

7. Palacio Postal

Also known as the Correo Mayor, the Postal Palace was built by Italian architect Adamo Boari and Mexican engineer Gonzalo Garita and has been in continuous operation since it first opened in 1907. The interior was restored to its original gilded splendor with the help of Boari’s granddaughter, who had the original building plans in Italy. The money shot is of a pair of grand interconnecting staircases embellished with vegetal brass balustrades that almost appear to be alive. My only regret is that we weren’t able to send a postcard home while there.

C. Tacuba 1, Cuauhtémoc

To get this money shot, you have to go into the Sears department store across the street

To get this money shot, you have to go into the Sears department store across the street

8. Palacio de Bellas Artes

We didn’t get to go inside on this visit. But the secret to an amazing aerial shot is to head over to the Sears department store directly across the street. (If you don’t want to have a snack or drink on the balcony café, just go up one more floor and press your camera against the glass as we did.)

Designed by the same architect as the Palacio Postal, the building’s gorgeously photogenic Art Nouveau exterior is topped by a lattice of iron and a shimmering iridescent ombre-tiled dome. At the very top, the Mexican eagle perches on a cactus with a serpent in its beak, with the four figures beneath representing the personifications of the dramatic arts.  

The plaza includes various sculptures, including four Pegasus statues designed by Catalan Agustí Querol Subirats, as well as the famous Mexico City Olympics logo — way too popular with tourists to get a good picture of.

Av. Juárez

The Hemiciclo a Benito Juárez monument

The Hemiciclo a Benito Juárez monument

A large green space sits right next to the plaza of the Palacio de Bellas Artes

A large green space sits right next to the plaza of the Palacio de Bellas Artes

9. Alameda Central

This leafy park was created in 1525 on what was previously the site of an Aztec marketplace. Its name comes from the word alámo, Spanish for poplar tree — which can be found in abundance throughout the park. You’ll encounter children playing in empty fountain basins and locals of all ages meandering or sitting on benches along the many paths. The Kiosco Morisco was located there briefly and used as a pavilion to announce lottery winners before being moved to make way for the semicircular Neoclassical Hemiciclo a Benito Juárez monument, dedicated to the former Mexican president.

Av. Hidalgo s/n

This fountain is right across from Alameda Central and is worth a quick visit to get the Insta shot

This fountain is right across from Alameda Central and is worth a quick visit to get the Insta shot

Governmental buildings and the Museum of Memory and Tolerance surround the fountain

Governmental buildings and the Museum of Memory and Tolerance surround the fountain

País de Volcanes  ( Country of Volcanoes ) by Ricardo Legorreta

País de Volcanes (Country of Volcanoes) by Ricardo Legorreta

10. Fuente de Vicente Rojo

Across from Alameda Park, tucked into the courtyard of the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia surrounded by governmental offices is a fountain designed by Mexican visual artist Vicente Rojo and architect Ricardo Legorreta. Titled País de Volcanes (Country of Volcanoes), it features more than 1,000 small burnt red concrete pyramids emerging from a sunken reflecting pool, a reference to the coarse volcanic tezontle stone widely used by the Aztecs. –Duke

Av. Juárez 44

The Fantastical Woodcut Illustrations of Pau Masiques

A Q&A with the Monterrey, Mexico-based artist, who designs everything from children’s books, comics, posters and chocolate wrappers.

Bubble  by Pau Masiques

Bubble by Pau Masiques

The Ignacia Guest House is filled with wonderful art, objects and books on architecture. After Wally and I were given a tour, I walked up to one of the framed woodcuts with a depiction of the former beloved housekeeper Ignacia, for whom the boutique hotel is named, to jot down the artist’s name, which was signed in graphite in the lower right corner: Pau Masiques.

We loved how he captured the essence of this well-loved woman at two stages of her life. So I decided to reach out to Masiques to learn more about his process and inspirations.

Drawing is like being involved in a great debate in which your work participates in a shared dialogue with that of other creators.
— Pau Masiques
Blindada

Blindada

Masiques combines technology with tradition, transforming woodblocks into mesmerizing artwork. Whether it’s a woman wearing a city as a crown, her head encircled by an endless line of cars emitting fumes, or a squatting Hercules wearing the hide of the Nemean lion, with Medusa and Minotaur perched upon the bent barbell gripped between his teeth, Masiques pulls us into the illustration and the story it tells. His works evoke the warped whimsy of fairy tales and folklore, so of course we were drawn to him. –Duke

Hèrcules

Hèrcules

You created custom artwork for the Ignacia Guest House. Did the owners approach you, and how did you come up with the concept?

I heard about the commission from a friend and found it to be a very appealing proposal.

Recibí el encargo por parte de un amigo, me habló del proyecto y me pareció muy atractiva la propuesta.


When did you realize you were artistically inclined?

I’ve always liked to draw. I don’t remember exactly when this began, but I guess it was when I was very young, like all children — at that age we all have the creative potential to become artists.

Something that’s been with me from an early age is my love of comics. I think that’s what fueled my interest in drawing, in literature and a general curiosity about the world around me.

Siempre me ha gustado dibujar, no recuerdo cuando empecé, supongo que muy temprano como todos los niños, a esa edad todos tenemos un gran potencial como artistas plásticos.

Lo que me ha acompañado siempre, desde muy pequeño, es mi afición a leer cómics y eso creo que fue lo que alimentó mi interés por el dibujo, por la literatura y la curiosidad en general por el mundo que me rodea.

La sel·lecció natural campiona mundial

La sel·lecció natural campiona mundial

How did your career as an illustrator begin?

I took some comic and drawing courses during my childhood and early adolescence, but I wasn’t a very disciplined student at the time. Without putting in effort, your talent doesn't improve.

It wasn’t until later, while pursuing an illustration degree at the Escola Massana in Barcelona that the idea of becoming a professional illustrator occured to me. My connection to my professors, who had rich, creative careers in illustration, excited me and encouraged my dedication to that profession.

En mi niñez y adolescencia tomé algunos cursos de dibujo y cómic pero no era un alumno muy disciplinado en aquel momento, y sin esfuerzo las cosas no salen.

No fue hasta que empecé más tarde en la especialidad de ilustración de la Escola Massana de Barcelona que la idea de dedicarme profesionalmente a la ilustración me pareció posible. El contacto con maestros que tenían una rica vida profesional me animó y estimuló a dedicarme a la ilustración.

Ánimas

Ánimas

Tell us about your process. What materials and tools do you use?

I always carry a couple of notebooks with me. I use them to collect my ideas, whatever they may be: ideas that arise from an ephemeral need of their own or those of a commision. These sketches are the foundation, which I continue to elaborate using digital image processing software. Even when they’re made into a woodcut, the image I’m going to carve into the wood has been refined and retouched using a computer. The end result is closer to what I have on screen. However, there are elements that are impossible to reproduce using this technology that engraving offers. There’s a special vibration in the stroke and line when using a hand tool. Accidents that are the result of chance, which only occur by working directly with the materials, bring much more depth and strength to the end result.

Suelo llevar siempre conmigo un par de cuadernos, los uso para verter ahí mis ideas, sean cuales sean: ideas que surgen a partir de una necesidad expresiva propia o las de un encargo profesional. Esos bocetos son el origen, luego sigo elaborando mucho más el dibujo usando un software de tratamiento de imágenes. Incluso cuando realizo una xilografía, la imagen que voy a tallar en la madera la he revisado y retocado en la computadora, así me aseguro que el resultado final es más próximo al que tengo en pantalla, en el aspecto compositivo sobretodo, sin embargo hay cosas imposibles de reproducir con los medios que ofrece la computadora y que sí ofrece el grabado, hay una especial vibración en el trazo y unos accidentes fruto del azar, que solo trabajando directamente en la materia surgen y que aporta mucha más riqueza y fuerza al resultado final.

Woodcut illustrations influenced by lotería cards

Woodcut illustrations influenced by lotería cards

What are your influences? What inspires you?

The woodcuts of Frans Masereel, the work of José-Guadalupe Posada, Manuel Manilla and engravings in general are my most immediate references. The early works of Joan Miró — the painting The Farm for example — means a lot to me because of its closeness to my life. In that image, he represented a world very familiar to me.

I admire any form of expression, however rough, that seems to have a compelling narrative. I’m interested in so-called outsider art, such as the work of Bill Traylor. Through his ingenuity, he was able to reveal his world to us and describe it with enormous beauty and simplicity.

I’m interested in many artists, but perhaps what inspires me most is simplicity and expression, rather than technical skill. For example, while doing research for a recent project, I discovered the work of Jessie Oonark, a brilliant Inuit artist. At the moment, her work is a source of inspiration for me.

Drawing is like being involved in a great debate in which your work participates in a shared dialogue with that of other creators.

Las xilografías de Frans Masereel, la obra de Posadas, la de Manilla y el grabado popular en general son quizá mis referentes más inmediatos. La primera etapa de la obra de Joan Miró también, la pintura La Masía por ejemplo, me conmueve mucho por su cercanía, por representar y condensar en esa imagen un mundo que me es muy familiar.

Admiro cualquier forma de expresión que por tosca que parezca tenga una especial pulsión narrativa, me interesa mucho también el llamado arte “marginal”, como por ejemplo la obra de Bill Traylor, que con su aparente ingenuidad es capaz de desvelarnos su mundo y describirlo con enorme belleza y sencillez.

Me interesan muchísimos artistas, lo que más me inspira es quizá la simplicidad y la fuerza expresiva, más que un supuesto virtuosismo. Hace poco por ejemplo, descubrí a partir de la búsqueda de documentación para un trabajo, la obra de Jessie Oonark, una genial artista inuit, en estos momentos su trabajo es para mi una fuente de inspiración.

Dibujar es como estar metido en un gran debate, en el que tu trabajo dialoga con el de otros creadores.

A page from a comic about black musicians who have died under mysterious circumstances

A page from a comic about black musicians who have died under mysterious circumstances


Do you listen to music when you work?

I usually combine moments of silence with listening to music or radio programs, depending on the degree of concentration needed at that moment.

Suelo combinar momentos de silencio, con otros de música y de escucha de programas de radio. Depende del grado de concentración que necesite en cada momento.

Masiques’ whimsical work has appeared on a line of chocolate bars

Masiques’ whimsical work has appeared on a line of chocolate bars

Is there a favorite project you’ve worked on?

In general, I’m pretty excited about each commission I receive. I’ve illustrated wrappers for chocolate bars, books, press articles, and posters for concerts and theater workshops. I’ve collaborated in fanzines and I’ve also done solo exhibits of my engravings and sculptures. My favorite thing might be sculpture. It’s something I haven’t done in awhile. I’d say that wood carving and constructing objects are a couple of my favorite practices. I don’t do them as often as I would like — maybe that’s why I choose them as a favorite.

En general suelo ilusionarme con casi todos los encargos que recibo. He ilustrado envolturas para chocolates, libros, artículos de prensa, he realizado posters para conciertos y talleres de teatro, he colaborado en fanzines, también he exhibido mis grabados y esculturas en algunas exposiciones, pero quizá una de mis prácticas favoritas es la de la escultura, y es algo que hace mucho que no hago, podría decir que tallar madera y construir objetos es una de mis prácticas favoritas, y que no realizó tan a menudo como quisiera, quizá por eso la escojo como favorita.

What’s one of your favorite places in Mexico City?

I’ve lived in the north part of the country, in Monterrey, Nuevo León, for about nine years, but I love going to Mexico City, and there are many places that I like. But one place I don’t mind returning to again and again is the National Museum of Anthropology.

Vivo en el norte del país, en Monterrey (Nuevo León) desde hace cerca de nueve años, pero me encanta ir a la Ciudad de México y hay muchos lugares que me gustan, pero un lugar emblemático al que no me importa regresar una y otra vez es el Museo Nacional de Antropología.