EGYPT

A Brief History of King Tut

The all-too-short life of the Boy King, Tutankhamun, who gained fame when Howard Carter discovered his tomb — one of the only ones in the Valley of the Kings that wasn’t plundered by grave robbers.

This is what King Tut’s tomb looked like when Howard Carter discovered it in 1922

This is what King Tut’s tomb looked like when Howard Carter discovered it in 1922

Ever since I was a young boy, I’d yearned to visit Egypt. I was fascinated by King Tutankhamun and the discovery of his mostly intact tomb, with its wealth of magnificent, well-preserved artifacts. 

For starters, the Boy King’s legacy is fascinating. Filled with political corruption, incest, religious upheaval and a possible murder, his history is just as epic as the eight seasons of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones — and, much like the addictive HBO adaptation, it all collapsed in the end. 

Born in 1341 BCE, his given name was Tutankhaten, Beloved of the Aten, the solar disc of the sun worshipped at Amarna, the capital city established by his father, Akhenaten, the revolutionary heretic king who embraced Aten as the sole supreme being for Egyptians to worship. 

A sphinx bearing the head of Tutankhamun at the Luxor Museum

A sphinx bearing the head of Tutankhamun at the Luxor Museum

The Boy King

Tut was nicknamed the Boy King because he ascended the throne around the age of 8 or 9. Some historians have suggested his vizier, Ay, was the real power behind the throne, citing that it was Ay’s decision to abandon the new capital city of Amarna and restore the authority of the priests and the polytheistic pantheon of Thebes. Whatever the case, when Tut died without an heir, Ay briefly became king. 

Like other pharaohs, Tutankhamun took five royal names, and most of us know him by his fifth nomen, Tutankhamun, after he dropped the -aten suffix in favor of -amun, chief among the old gods. Ancient Egyptians, though, would have called him by his prenomen or throne name, Nebkheperure, which essentially meant Ra Is the Lord of Manifestations to honor a different sun god. 

A goddess guards Tut’s canopic shrine

A goddess guards Tut’s canopic shrine

Incest Is Best?

Tutankhamun was married to his half-sister, Ankhesenamun. The practice of incest to keep the royal bloodline pure was common among the ruling class of Ancient Egypt. They regarded themselves as representatives of the divine on earth. Atum, the god of creation, produced his children Shu and Tefnut by his own hand (aka jerking off). His daughter Tefnut married her twin brother Shu, and voilà! Nut and Geb were added to the ever-expanding pantheon of incestuous liasons. 

Tut and Ankesenamun had two stillborn daughters, likely casualties of genetic deficiencies from generations of inbreeding. Their tiny mummified fetuses were buried in Tutankhamun’s tomb. A DNA study revealed that one was 5 to 6 months old and the other 9 months old. 

Because of his link to the scandalous Akhenaten, Tut’s reign was eventually struck from the record by his successors. Between the ever-shifting desert sands and the Ancient Egyptians attempt to remove all traces of the “Amarna heresy,” Tutankhamun was literally out of sight and out of mind. This in all likelihood helped to preserve his tomb. 


The Abydos Kings List

The Abydos Kings List

Tutankhamun, Akhenaten (aka Amenhotep IV), Ay, Hatshepsut and Meryneith were some of the rulers stricken from the official record. 

LEARN MORE about the Kings List in the Abydos Temple. 


Lord Carnarvon, his daughter Evelyn and Howard Carter

Lord Carnarvon, his daughter Evelyn and Howard Carter

The Untouched Tomb

Unlike other royal tombs, which were looted in antiquity (often by the very laborers who built them), 5,000-some items were found inside King Tut’s tomb. 

British archaeologist Howard Carter was no stranger to the Valley of the Kings and had been obsessively searching for the elusive burial site of Tutankhamun for years. In 1914, his financier George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, secured a license to excavate a parcel of land close to the tomb of Ramesses VI. Carter hired a crew of workers to help find the tomb, but was halted by World War I.

By 1922, Lord Carnarvon, frustrated with the lack of progress and financially spread thin, informed Carter that he would only extend funding for one more season unless Carter struck pay dirt. Like sand in an hourglass, time was running out, when, on November 4, while excavating the very last plot, the crews’ waterboy discovered a step that appeared to be part of a tomb. Carter immediately wired his employer, and the excited Lord Carnarvon arrived two and a half weeks later, with his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert. 

Carter made a tiny hole in the plaster-sealed entrance. By the light of a candle, he was stunned by what he saw and wrote in his diary:

Presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold — everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment — an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by — I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”

Carter and an assistant unveiled the remains of Tutankhamum

Carter and an assistant unveiled the remains of Tutankhamum

Next came the laborious task of cataloging and removing each artifact from the tomb, beginning with the antechamber. Carter called upon the skilled archaeological photographer Harry Burton, who happened to be among the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian expedition team working at the nearby site of Deir el-Bahari. Burton captured the contents of the tomb as they were found. Then, a sketch and description were made on numbered cards before the object was carried out on wooden stretchers. Carter would eventually catalog thousands of artifacts from the tomb. The final contents were finally removed 11 years later, on November 10, 1933.

Did breaking this seal unleash a curse upon all present?!

Did breaking this seal unleash a curse upon all present?!

The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb

Shortly after the burial chamber was opened, stories of the legendary mummy’s curse began surfacing. Rumors quickly spread that Carter had found a clay tablet over the tomb’s entrance that read, “Death shall come on swift wings to whoever toucheth the tomb of the Pharaoh.” 

Near the end of February 1923, Carnarvon was bitten on the cheek by a mosquito. He reopened the bite while shaving, a seemingly innocuous event that would prove fatal. Carnarvon died in Cairo two weeks later from sepsis-abetted pneumonia. 

Even the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who by this time had stopped writing his popular Sherlock Holmes mysteries in favor of spiritualist leanings, weighed in, declaring to the press that “an evil elemental may have caused Lord Carnavon’s fatal illness. One does not know what elementals existed in those days, nor what their form might be. The Egyptians knew a great deal more about these things than we do.” 

Carter, however, seems to have escaped the mummy’s curse and lived on until 1939, when he died of lymphoma at the age of 64.

You’ll have to pay an extra $15 or so to see King Tut’s mummy and tomb

You’ll have to pay an extra $15 or so to see King Tut’s mummy and tomb

Visiting King Tut’s Tomb

While exploring the Valley of the Kings, Wally and I decided to pay the extra fee of 250 Egyptian pounds (about $15) to see KV62, the tomb of Tutankhamun. The site isn’t included with the three tombs that are part of the 200 L.E. fee to the royal necropolis. I imagine this cost is a measure put in place by the Department of Antiquities to limit the amount of visitors entering the tomb. Moisture from breath and perspiration increase humidity levels in the subterranean rock-cut chambers, which in turn damage the lime plaster wall paintings covering the walls. 

The small tomb is less impressive than the other ones you’ll visit in the Valley of the Kings and lacks the elaborate linear design predominantly used by New Kingdom pharaohs — the sun god Ra would find himself challenged, having to follow some twists and turns as he makes his nightly descent at sunset. 

Unlike other tombs, which are covered with paintings, only Tut’s burial chamber is decorated

Unlike other tombs, which are covered with paintings, only Tut’s burial chamber is decorated

Tut’s mummified remains lie on display in a climate-controlled glass box in the tomb’s antechamber. We were the only ones inside at the time and were followed around by a guard, probably to make sure we didn’t take pictures. I incorrectly assumed that my photography pass would be valid and that I could take non-flash pictures while inside. I learned that was not the case when I tried to take a shot of the Boy King’s remains. –Duke

Pharaoh Hatshepsut

14 ways this powerful Ancient Egyptian woman used genderbending to become a female pharaoh, as revealed in Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King.

Everyone knows all about Cleopatra, the clever seductress of two powerful Roman men who ruled over Ancient Egypt.

But without her forebear Hatshepsut, there might never have been a Cleopatra. Surely Cleopatra looked upon the woman who rose to the upper echelon of power as a true inspiration.

What made Hatshepsut’s success all the more remarkable was how unprecedented it was. Sadly, for the most part, feminism hasn’t progressed beyond the traditional patriarchy over the past few millennia. Case in point, the United States has yet to elect a woman as president.

In the ancient world, having a woman at the top of the political pyramid was practically unheard of. Patriarchal systems ruled the day, and royal wives, sisters, and daughters served as members of the king’s harem or as important priestesses in his temples, not as political leaders. Throughout the Mediterranean and northwest Asia, female leadership was perceived with suspicion, if not outright aversion.

–Kara Cooney, “The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt”


LEARN 9 FASCINATING FACTS about Hatshepsut’s early life here.


In terms of the ancient world, Hatshepset truly was a remarkable woman. As our guide Mamduh mused, “They should make a movie about her — maybe many movies.”

Thank Sobek for Jean-François Champollion! He was the first to find references to our remarkable pharaoh in the modern era

Thank Sobek for Jean-François Champollion! He was the first to find references to our remarkable pharaoh in the modern era

“History records only one female ruler who successfully negotiated a systematic rise to power — without assassinations or coups — during a time of peace, who formally labeled herself with the highest position known in government, and who ruled for a significant stretch of time: Hatshepsut,” writes Kara Cooney in The Woman Who Would Be King.

During her prosperous reign, gold, cedar, ebony and other goods flowed through Egypt, and the temples, shrines and obelisks raised in her name were so impressive that later pharaohs endeavored to be buried nearby, creating the Valley of the Kings.

Incidentally, we have French archaeologist Jean-François Champollion to thank for rediscovering the first hints of Hatshepset’s existence in 1928 — apparently, deciphering the Rosetta Stone wasn’t enough of a claim to fame. 

Even Hatshepsut must have felt that her cross-dressing image was a bit too shocking for the time.

So how exactly did Hatshepsut move beyond being a queen regent to divine ruler? I do wonder how she viewed herself — could she be the first trans leader in history?


The loss of a nose makes this statue of Egypt’s first female king, Sobeknefru, a bit too creepy

The loss of a nose makes this statue of Egypt’s first female king, Sobeknefru, a bit too creepy

1. There was actually a female king of Egypt before Hatshepsut.

Just like Cleopatra, Hatshepsut had a role model from the past. Sobeknefru, daughter of Pharaoh Amenemhat III of the Twelfth Dynasty, ruled Egypt around 1800 BCE — about three centuries before Hatshepsut was born.

2. There wasn’t even a proper word for queen — so Sobeknefru blended masculine and feminine iconography.

The queens of Ancient Egypt were known as hemt neswt, or wife of the king — “a title with no implications of rule or power in its own right, only a description of a woman’s connection to the king as husband,” Cooney writes. To truly be seen as the ultimate ruler of the country, Sobeknefru had to take on the masculine title of “king.”

“Clothing was more problematic,” Cooney continues, “and Sobeknefru depicted herself wearing not only the masculine headdress of kingship but also the male royal kilt over the dress garments of a royal wife.”


sobek.jpg

THE FIRST FEMALE KING OF EGYPT, Sobeknefru, was named for the crocodile god, Sobek.

Learn more about his worship from our post on the temple of Kom Ombo.


3. A title shift on Hatshepsut’s monuments at Karnak might be the first clue of her massive ambitions.

A few years before she even became king, Hatshepsut dropped the title of God’s Wife, opting instead for the title of King’s Eldest Daughter. While the role of high priestess was one of the most powerful in Ancient Egypt, the adoption of this new title set the stage for a legitimate claim to the throne. 

“Some Egyptologists see this rejiggering of her personal relationships as the crux of her power grab, a shift that moved her from a queen’s role to an heir’s, as the rightful offspring of Thutmose I and one who could make a heritable claim to the throne despite her female gender,” Cooney writes.

4. Like Sobeknefru before her, Hatshepsut reinvented her image as a nonbinary gender. 

Another section at Karnak, the most massive temple complex of the day, in the royal city of Thebes, present-day Luxor, depicts Hatshepsut in men’s garments along with women’s.

The block “shows Hatshepsut wearing the gown of a queen on her body but the crown of a king upon her head,” Cooney writes. “The atef crown — a fabulous and extravagant amalgamation of ram’s horns and tall double plumes — was depicted atop her short masculine wig, probably to the shock of the craftsmen in charge of cutting the decoration. It was a confusing image for the Egyptian viewer to digest: a female king performing royal duties, offering jars of wine directly to the god, and all before any official coronation.”

5. She also took on a throne name, a privilege reserved for kings — again, before she was even crowned.

In the text on the same monument at Karnak, Hatshepsut called herself the One of the Sedge and of the Bee, which is translated as King of Upper and Lower Egypt.

What’s more, she introduced a throne name, Maatkare, The Soul of Re Is Truth. This act was “inconceivable,” according to Cooney. “Hatshepsut was transforming her role into a strange hybrid of rule ordained before it had officially happened,” she writes.

Part of her throne name is the goddess of truth and justice, “implying that at the heart of the sun god’s power was a feminine entity, Ma’at, the source that was believed to keep the cosmos straight and true,” Cooney writes, continuing, “Hatshepsut’s throne name communicated to her people that her kingship was undoubtedly feminine, and that feminine justice was necessary to maintain life with proper order, judgment, and continuance.”

6. About nine years into Thutmose III’s reign, Hatshepsut was crowned pharaoh — meaning there were two kings simultaneously on the throne.

When Hatshepsut was about 24 years old, in 1478 BCE, “the impossible happened,” as Cooney states. Thutmose III might have been a child, but he was still officially the king. Yet Hatshepsut, that wonderful feminist icon, decided to stop being the queen regent and that she would share the throne with her young nephew.

In this carving from her funerary temple, Hatshepsut is shown as a male, wearing the false beard and crown of the pharaoh

In this carving from her funerary temple, Hatshepsut is shown as a male, wearing the false beard and crown of the pharaoh

7. Hatshepsut’s coronation was an elaborate affair that was, apparently, attended by the gods themselves.

The coronation took place in the temple complex of Karnak over the course of several days. If we’re to believe Hatshepsut, her dead-but-deified father, Thutmose I, was the first to place the crown upon her head. The cow-headed goddess Hathor was also present, shouting a greeting and giving her a big hug. And the chief god, Amen-Re (also spelled Amun-Ra), “personally placed the double crown upon Hatshepsut’s head and invested her with the crook and flail of kingship, saying that he created her specifically to rule over his holy lands, to rebuild his temples and to perform ritual activity for him,” Cooney writes.

What better way for Hatshepsut to be seen as a legitimate monarch than by having received the blessings of the gods? She really wanted to hammer home the supposed events of her coronation day — she had images of the gods crowning her chiseled into the major house of worship of the time, Karnak, as well as her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahari.


deirelbahari.JPG

SEE THE WONDROUS ARCHITECTURE of Hatshepsut’s funerary temple — and learn more about this surprisingly modern-looking structure.


8. Upon being crowned, Hatshepsut changed her birth name — yet another instance of gender ambiguity.

Hatshepsut added Khenemetenamen to the front of her name, “which, although unpronounceable for most of us,” Cooney writes, “essentially meant ‘Hatshepsut, United with Amen,’ communicating that her spirit had mingled with the very mind of the god Amen through a divine communion.” 

Interestingly, she kept a feminine ending as part of the construction of that mouthful of a name. “There was no subterfuge about her femininity in her new royal names, but her womanly core was now linked with a masculine god through her kingship,” Cooney adds.

9. Hatshepsut’s royal names didn’t hide the fact that she was a woman. She was out to change the very perception of a king.

Egyptian kings liked to prove how macho they were, choosing names like Ka-ankht, Strong Bull. Hatshepsut’s Horus name was Useret-kau, Powerful of Ka Spirits, tying herself not to physical (and sexual) prowess, but to the mysterious might of the spirits of the dead. 

Like her new birth name, Hatshepsut used the feminine -t ending. “She and her priests knew her limitations as a woman and seemed interested in flexibility rather than deceit,” Cooney explains. “She became king in name and title, but she knew that she could not transform into a king’s masculine body. She couldn’t impregnate a harem of women with any divine seed. There was no need for her royal names to point out those deficiencies or to lie about her true nature. Instead, she and her priests focused on how her femininity could coalesce with and complement masculine powers.”

Only kings wore these long false beards — though only Amun knows why!

Only kings wore these long false beards — though only Amun knows why!

10. Hatshepsut immediately upgraded her existing iconography once she became pharaoh.

All of the images of her as queen under Thutmose III were altered to show her as the senior king of a co-regency. “No longer would she be depicted as subordinate to Thutmose III,” Cooney writes. “Every sacred space in Egypt was changed, especially in the cultic centers of power, where an image translated into reality and to write or depict something was to make it come into existence.”

11. The color of Hatshepsut’s skin in her statuary demonstrated her progression from female to male. 

Females in Ancient Egyptian art were shown with yellow skin, while males were red ochre. It’s thought that women were inside more often (weaving in the harem, one supposes) and didn’t get as tanned as the manly men out on military expeditions and the like. While Hatshepsut’s early statues stuck with the traditional yellow skin tone, later depictions, such as the ones showing her as Osiris, the god of rebirth at her funerary temple, are of an orange hue — a strangely androgynous colorization that must have baffled people at the time. By the end of her reign, Hatshepsut had adopted the red skin associated with males.

Statue after statue of Hatshepsut in a mummy pose like the god Osiris lines her funeral temple. The color has long since faded, but these carvings once had orange skin — in-between the yellow used for women and the red used for men

Statue after statue of Hatshepsut in a mummy pose like the god Osiris lines her funeral temple. The color has long since faded, but these carvings once had orange skin — in-between the yellow used for women and the red used for men

12. In addition to skin color, Hatshepsut’s statues started taking on more and more male characteristics.

Early on, Hatshepsut’s genderbending positioned her as truly androgynous. On a lifesize statue from her funerary temple, she has a woman’s facial features, graceful shoulders and small, pert breasts — but she’s shirtless and wearing a king’s kilt. Even Hatshepsut must have felt that this cross-dressing image was a bit too shocking for the time. It was placed in the innermost chambers of her temple, away from the public, where only the most elite would ever see it. This drastic hybrid sexuality was never replicated.

Eventually, Hatshepsut’s statues had broader shoulders, and her breasts became the firm pecs of an idealized young man.

Because Hatshepsut presented herself as a male, Egyptologists can’t tell whether this is a statue of her or of her co-king, Thutmose III

Because Hatshepsut presented herself as a male, Egyptologists can’t tell whether this is a statue of her or of her co-king, Thutmose III

13. Hieroglyphic text went back and forth between referring to Hatshepsut as a female and as a male.

Sometimes she was “she;” sometimes she was “he.” On occasion, she was the Son of Ra, the sun god; more often she was referred to as the Daughter of Ra. Once in a while, she was called the “good god,” but most of the time — even accompanying a masculinized image of her — she was the “good goddess.”

14. Like many a pharaoh, Hatshepsut told a story of her divine birth.

The combo god Amun-Ra is said to have visited her mother in her bedchamber. “She awoke because of the fragrance of the god,” the text reads. I’m sure a bit more happened than this, but Hatshepsut chose to depict the moment as her mom and Amun-Ra sitting across from each other, hands touching, gazing sweetly into each other’s eyes.

This avant-garde woman rose to the highest political rank in a society over 3,000 years ago. So it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that after her death, her successor tried his very best to wipe all references to his aunt being king from the face of the planet. –Wally

Interview With an Archaeologist

A firsthand account of what it was like to excavate the Hatshepsut temple at Deir el-Bahari in the 1970s.

Kenneth shares his experience as an archaeologist in Luxor, Egypt in the early 1970s

Kenneth shares his experience as an archaeologist in Luxor, Egypt in the early 1970s

Archaeology is one of those careers that sounds so thrilling — I always picture Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones on his search for the Ark of the Covenant (minus the snakes). But it turns out that, more often than not, this profession means long hours, low pay, and months or years of tedious fieldwork.

That being said, when Kenneth reached out to us with a kind note about our blog, mentioning that he had been briefly involved with the excavation of Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahari, we simply had to learn more. 

He obliged with an interview of what it was like to be an archaeologist in Egypt half a century ago, back when he was a starving field worker put up at the now-glamorous Winter Palace hotel, “in a shabby, Nile-view room with the bathroom far down the hall.” –Wally

The Colossi of Memnon stood as they do today, in a clearing surrounded by fields. But there were no barriers of any kind — you could climb the statues if agile enough

The Colossi of Memnon stood as they do today, in a clearing surrounded by fields. But there were no barriers of any kind — you could climb the statues if agile enough

What was it like being an archaeologist?

I was not a classical archaeologist for very long. (Not nearly as long as it took me to get my degree!) Turns out I liked to eat. And pay rent. Field work, which was really the reason I went into archaeology, pays next to nothing. There’s always a candidate working towards their doctorate who will offer to do the work for free. 

In 1969 I worked in Winchester, England (the Roman capital of Britain) under the well-respected British archaeologist Martin Biddle and Birthe, his Danish-born archaeologist wife. It was Martin who got me a temporary position the next season with the joint British-Polish expedition working at Deir el-Bahari. 

I was only at Luxor a few months before the Vietnam War intruded and I went off to the Navy. When I was discharged in 1973, the Arab-Israeli War was looming and available funds for archaeological work in Egypt had completely dried up. I took what I thought would be a temporary job as a flight attendant, fell in love with the job and stayed 30 years. During that time, I met my husband, Michael (we celebrated our 35th anniversary last week), and the impracticality of going off on a months-long dig and leaving Michael at home put an end to any thoughts of returning to archaeology. 

The top colonnade on Hatshepsut’s funerary temple — which did not exist in 1970 — is complete in this 1989 photo

The top colonnade on Hatshepsut’s funerary temple — which did not exist in 1970 — is complete in this 1989 photo

What was the project you were working on? 

In 1970 restoration work was focusing on the third tier of Hatshepsut’s temple. The structure has been extensively rebuilt. Some Egyptologists would say overly rebuilt. 

There was an ongoing search for stone blocks that had been appropriated by later pharaohs to use for their own building projects. In Upper Egypt there are vast areas filled with thousands of broken stone blocks from fallen or dismantled  structures. Often, missing stones from a particular ancient monument can be discovered and moved (at great effort and expense) to their original site.

Kenneth’s husband, Michael, studying the statue of Horus at the temple at Edfu

Kenneth’s husband, Michael, studying the statue of Horus at the temple at Edfu

Imagine you are working on a jigsaw puzzle. Some of the pieces are missing. In the next room someone has dumped into a huge pile thousands and thousands of pieces from hundreds of different jigsaw puzzles. In that pile you might find the missing pieces from your puzzle. The image on one of the pieces you are missing will be of a human arm. The left arm. And so as you sift through the huge pile of dumped puzzle pieces you are looking for one bearing the image of a left arm. 

Of course, in Ancient Egypt when a stone was reused, it often had carving on one side. The stone would be turned so the carving was no longer visible, and a new carving would be done on a blank side of the stone block. Five hundred years later, the block might be reused again, and so there would be a third side that would be carved…

So, going back to that pile of jigsaw pieces, as you are looking for that image of a left arm, you’re having to turn each puzzle piece because there are different images on each side of each piece.

Fifty years ago, it was a laborious task to try to find a particular stone in one of many locations up and down the Nile. (Now, computers do the work in seconds.) There were huge books full of illustrations of thousands of “available” stones. One needed to just keep looking. And if — by chance — a stone with the left arm was found, arrangements had to be made to legally acquire and move a multi-ton block of granite or sandstone. Reams of paperwork were required. It was what we’d call grunt work. And that's mostly what I did. No glamour. No glint of gold in the sand. It was pouring over books and filling out paperwork. But it was Egypt, and I loved it. (At Winchester I was actually on my hands and knees, excavating a burial ground filled with Roman soldiers. I found coins minted under the reign of Hadrian and carved-bone dice for gambling, and because of the high peat content of the soil, well-preserved leather sandals as well. Skeleton after skeleton too — some of the bodies pathetically shattered in battle.) 

What’s your take on Hatshepsut? 

Well, of course she’s a fascinating person. The oldest known woman on the planet. She jumps out at us, her carved thoughts in many instances perfectly preserved because Thutmose III covered them with a layer of stone: “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.”

I think that Hatshepsut, like Cleopatra Vll, 13 centuries later (and Joan of Arc, 1,400 years after that), must have dazzled through the sheer force of her personality, to have accomplished what she did. Usurping her stepson’s throne might have made sense if the lad was unwell or unfit for the job. But he went on to be one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs! Was that despite Hatshepsut, or because of her?

Kenneth posing with Cleopatra and Caesarion on the rear wall of the temple complex at Dendera

Kenneth posing with Cleopatra and Caesarion on the rear wall of the temple complex at Dendera

When I worked in Egypt, there was only a slim hope that Hatshepsut’s body would ever be found. The fact that her architect (and supposed lover) Senemut’s red granite sarcophagus had been discovered broken into many pieces and spread across the desert seemed to indicate a royal temper tantrum that could very well have been Thutmose lll’s. Easy to imagine him hating the commoner whom Hatshepsut had showered with titles. I always thought that if Thutmose hated Senemut that much, he must have hated his ruling stepmother as well. The thought of ever finding her remains struck me as highly unlikely. I figured he eventually “grew a pair” and had her murdered and her body fed to the jackals.

But no! Now we know she was lying right under our noses in KV20 in the Valley of the Kings! And the proof that it was her right there in the Cairo Museum: one of Hatshepsut's molars, packed in a small wooden box bearing her cartouche, and matching the gap in her mummified jaw. And we now know she grew old, and fat — with pendulous breasts. A life lived long!

So how and why was the throne eventually turned over to Thutmose? That is a mystery we may never unravel. I like to think Thutmose may have been a late bloomer. That his smart, capable stepmother watched over him and groomed him to become the great pharaoh he was.  

The timeless Old Cataract, which Kenneth and Michael say is “one of our favorite hotels anywhere in the world.” Wally and Duke agree!

The timeless Old Cataract, which Kenneth and Michael say is “one of our favorite hotels anywhere in the world.” Wally and Duke agree!

What was your favorite memory of that time in Egypt? 

There were no tourists! War with Israel was looming. Luxor was virtually empty. Once, on a day off, I had Luxor Temple entirely to myself. Walking down a colonnade, between towering pillars, a falcon flew just over my head, sailing along ahead of me about 20 feet in the air. At the end of the colonnade, he rose up and landed on top of the head of an enormous statue — a statue of Horus. I just stood perfectly still, savoring the moment, and feeling I’d been visited by a god.

The floating restaurant Bodour, moored just upriver from the Winter Palace in Luxor, was one of their favorite places to dine, with its sumptuous Belle Epoque furnishings

The floating restaurant Bodour, moored just upriver from the Winter Palace in Luxor, was one of their favorite places to dine, with its sumptuous Belle Epoque furnishings

What was your least favorite memory of Egypt? 

The food. I grew up in health-conscious San Francisco. I was desperate for salads, which were not safe anywhere in Egypt because produce was routinely fertilized with human excrement. I gave in to temptation on a quick trip to Cairo and ordered a chef’s salad at the Nile Hilton, the hotel in the city. (It's now the Ritz-Carlton.) I thought, “Surely it will be safe to eat a salad here."” Nope. I ended up at Cairo's American Hospital for two days!

The rising sun turns the Theban mountains pink. As you can see, the West Bank was entirely agricultural. Luxor had yet to jump the river

The rising sun turns the Theban mountains pink. As you can see, the West Bank was entirely agricultural. Luxor had yet to jump the river

How has Egypt changed since the 1970s?

As far as the monuments are concerned, 50 years is a mere blink of the eye. The ancient stones are unchanged. What has changed is contemporary Egypt. In 1970 the view across the Nile from the Winter Place was one of cultivated fields and the distant Theban mountains. That was it. (I could just make out the ramps at Deir el-Bahari from my room’s balcony.) There were hardly any visible West Bank buildings at all. The few villages, such as sand-colored Qurna, blended in with the cliffs. These days, the city of Luxor has jumped the river and spread along the West Bank.

The Tomb of Ramesses IV in the Valley of the Kings

KV2 is a particularly fine example of these once-hidden burial chambers, where magic spells helped guide the pharaoh through the afterlife.

A glimpse into burial chamber of Ramesses IV

A glimpse into burial chamber of Ramesses IV

Arid, desolate and dusty, the colorless desert landscape of the Valley of the Kings belies the magic and mysticism hidden beneath in the tombs of the pharaohs. 

Our early morning arrival allowed us to avoid some of the crowds, a welcome reprieve, as we’d travelled halfway around the world and didn’t want to share our trip with throngs of other tourists. And though the entrances to Egypt’s New Kingdom pharaohs’ burial chambers were intended to remain secret, they now dot the barren tract of land in every direction you look.

Early explorers, such as Jean-François Champollion (who deciphered hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone), used the tomb as lodging during their time excavating the Valley of the KIngs.
Wally near the tomb’s entrance

Wally near the tomb’s entrance

While visiting the site, your ticket includes admission for three tombs. Our guide, Mamduh, chose the tombs of Ramesses III, IV and IX — each of which is beautiful and unique in its own way.

We refer to many Egyptian pharaohs with Roman numerals like those of the kings of Europe. But, as Barbara Mertz points out in Temples, Tombs & Hieroglyphs, “such designations were never used by the Egyptians. (It’s easier to keep track of these fellows by such means than by trying to remember their distinctive throne names, which are often annoyingly similar and which were sometimes changed midreign.)”

The pharaoh with the god Horus

The pharaoh with the god Horus

Heqamaatre Ramesses, otherwise known as Ramesses IV, was the fifth and youngest son of Pharaoh Ramesses III. He was appointed crown prince by the 22nd year of his father’s reign, after his brothers had died — it wasn’t uncommon for people to die young in Ancient Egypt. With the assasination of his father in 1156 BCE, Ramesses IV, who was at this time middle-aged, inherited the throne. He died a mere six years into his reign. 

Magic spells line the walls of the tomb to guide Ramesses through the dangers of the afterlife

Magic spells line the walls of the tomb to guide Ramesses through the dangers of the afterlife

Passage to the Underworld

Each site in the Valley of the Kings now has a designator that begins with KV, for Kings’ Valley. Ramessess IV’s tomb is known as KV2 and has been open since antiquity. The area in front of the entranceway to the tomb was excavated by Edward Ayrton in 1905, and later by Howard Carter in 1920 (of King Tut fame). The archeological dig yielded a few relics, including shabti figures (which would act as servants in the afterlife) and glass and glazed earthenware pottery known as faience. 

Early explorers, such as Jean-François Champollion (who deciphered hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone), Ippolito Rosellini and Theodore David, among others, used the tomb as lodging during their time excavating the valley. 

The entryway has a staircase divided by a sloping central ramp that descends into a linear 292-foot-long passageway representing the symbolic journey of the sun god Ra (or Re). The tomb’s design is comprised of three corridors, an antechamber and a burial chamber with small annex chambers beyond.  A large number of Coptic Christian and Roman graffiti can be seen scattered throughout the tomb, including prayers, drawings of crosses and saints. A particularly large inscription in red paint can be seen near the entrance to the tomb.

Those naughty Coptics defaced the walls near the entrance

Those naughty Coptics defaced the walls near the entrance

Look for the red graffiti left by early Christians

Look for the red graffiti left by early Christians

Unlike other tombs from this era, KV2’s original design was modified: The chamber intended to be a pillared hall was converted to a burial chamber when the king died sooner than expected. Ramesses IV had doubled the workforce on the project to speed it along, but no one can stop death from coming — even a deified ruler.

A pair of rectangular niches set high into the walls at the front of the second corridor are decorated with manifestations of Ra. These figures continue as a register above the texts of the Litany of Re, which cover both walls of this corridor. The detailed carvings remain vibrant, despite the age of the tomb. 

Look up to see stars painted on the ceiling

Look up to see stars painted on the ceiling

Seeing Stars 

The third corridor contains a vaulted ceiling decorated with scenes from the funerary text the Book of Caverns. Although no well shaft was ever cut, a descending ramp passes through the antechamber and ends at the burial chamber’s entrance. Surrounded by golden stars on a blue background, the king’s names follow the path of the sun — the pharaoh and Ra had become one. 

The paint is surprisingly bright, considering it’s millennia old

The paint is surprisingly bright, considering it’s millennia old

The massive stone sarcophagus would have housed at least two coffins like nesting dolls

The massive stone sarcophagus would have housed at least two coffins like nesting dolls

Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut

In the burial chamber, scenes from the Book of Gates show towering gateways that separate the divisions of the underworld guarded by fire-spitting serpents. Illustrations from other funerary texts, including the Amduat and the Book of Heavens, were inscribed on the ceiling of the sarcophagus chamber, depicting Ra’s nightly journey through the underworld. 

Watch out for snakes! A depiction of what we can expect in death

Watch out for snakes! A depiction of what we can expect in death

Scenes from funerary texts were carved onto the walls of the tomb

Scenes from funerary texts were carved onto the walls of the tomb

Cobras and Anubis, a jackal-headed god of death

Cobras and Anubis, a jackal-headed god of death

Ancient Egyptians believed that paintings could come to life — no need to bury servants alive; just draw them on the wall!

Ancient Egyptians believed that paintings could come to life — no need to bury servants alive; just draw them on the wall!

The burial chamber is almost filled by the massive quartzite sarcophagus. Twin figures of the sky goddess Nut are depicted on the ceiling, her elastic, naked body held aloft by her father Shu, the god of air and sunlight. Nut’s arms and legs extend downward to touch the horizon. Each night she swallows the sun disk, which travels through her body and emerges in the form of a winged scarab from her womb in the morning. 

Ramesses IV’s tomb is an impressive example of New Kingdom burial chambers — though I’m not sure I’d want to have a slumber party in there like all those archaeologists. –Duke

 
You get to choose three tombs to visit with your pass

You get to choose three tombs to visit with your pass

The Tomb of Ramesses III in the Valley of the Kings

Explore KV11, one of the largest tombs in Luxor, and learn why it takes a strange and sudden turn.

Most tombs have a long, straight corridor — but this one takes a slight turn because it ran into a neighboring burial site!

Most tombs have a long, straight corridor — but this one takes a slight turn because it ran into a neighboring burial site!

Egypt is a country steeped in myth and history, and one of the most interesting places to see this can be found on the West Bank of the Nile River — the direction of the setting sun and the underworld of ancient Egypt. Known as the Valley of the Kings, it was part of the capital city of Thebes and was where the tombs of the deceased New Kingdom pharaohs were built. 

As mentioned in an earlier post on the Valley of the Kings, the admission price (160 Egyptian pounds, or about $9) includes three tombs. We had read about the richly decorated tombs filled with spells and scenes from the Book of the Dead and couldn’t wait to see them with our own eyes. 

Ramesses III’s mummy was so unappealing that it became the model for Boris Karloff’s character in the 1930s film “The Mummy.”

Rasha from Egypt Sunset Tours arranged our itinerary, including our guide and driver, and could not have been more accommodating and flexible. One of the tombs included on our visit  was KV11, that of Ramesses III. (These kings are sometimes spelled Ramses or Rameses, though we’ve gone with the most widely used by Egyptologists, Ramesses.)

The pharaoh is welcomed to the afterlife by the falcon-headed god Horus

The pharaoh is welcomed to the afterlife by the falcon-headed god Horus

Ramesses III, the Great Bull

Usermaatre-Meryamun, or Ramesses III, was the second Twentieth Dynasty ruler and considered to be one of the last great pharaohs of the New Kingdom, before Egypt plunged into chaos. Being king meant that he had five royal names. His Horus name, which he adopted upon taking the throne, was something along the lines of Kanakht Asnesyt, which translates to the Great Bull, Great of Kingship. (Names typically have multiple spelling variants after transliteration which aims to preserve sound, given differences in the languages’ sounds and writing systems.) 

The walls of the tomb is covered with spells from the  Book of the Dead

The walls of the tomb is covered with spells from the Book of the Dead

Ramesses III chose to finish the tomb his father abandoned

Ramesses III chose to finish the tomb his father abandoned

Although Ramesses III’s reign was fraught with conflicts, his troops secured the empire's borders against foreign invasion attempts by Libya and the mysterious Sea Peoples of the Mediterranean (depicted on the walls of his mortuary temple and royal palace, Medinet Habu), earning him the reputation as a mighty warrior king. 

Using Ramesses II as his model, he took a harem of many wives — though they would ultimately lead to his demise. The god-king’s 31-year reign ended when he fell victim to an elaborate assasination plot known as the Harem Conspiracy. A minor wife, Tiye, hatched a plan to have the monarch killed and seize the throne from Ramesses’ designated heir for her son, Prince Pentaware. 

The assailants succeeded in killing Ramesses III — the throat of his mummified remains reveals that his throat was slit — but failed in its goal of crowning Pentaware. Queen Tiye, Prince Pentawere and dozens of others were caught and put on trial.

The mummy of Ramesses III. The wrappings hid the fact that the pharaoh’s throat was slit when he was assassinated during a massive coup

The mummy of Ramesses III. The wrappings hid the fact that the pharaoh’s throat was slit when he was assassinated during a massive coup

Fragmentary documentation known as the Judicial Papyrus of Turin details the court trial that followed, including the accusations and punishment against its multiple conspirators. How the law dealt with Queen Tiye is unknown, but Pentawere was found guilty and forced to commit suicide. 

The four-pillared hall leads into the burial chamber

The four-pillared hall leads into the burial chamber

Repurposing His Father’s Abandoned Tomb

The plan of KV11, the designation of the royal tomb of Ramesses III, is comprised of an inclined entrance passage with steps cut into the floor, a descending central corridor, pillared hall and burial chamber. Its first three corridors were started by his father, Setnakhte, the last king of the Nineteenth Dynasty, but abandoned when it collided with KV10, the earlier tomb of the deposed pharaoh Amenmesse while excavating the fourth corridor. The cartouches of Setnakhte were later plastered over and reinscribed with the name of Ramesses III.

Not wanting to waste the resources already put into excavation, Ramesses III resumed work on the abandoned tomb, realigning the axis to the right and extending the corridor. The tomb is one of the longest in the valley, measuring a total of 180 meters, or 262 feet. The relatively straight axis represented the sun god Ra’s western descent into the tomb and his ascension in the east. 

Scottish explorer James Bruce took some artistic license in his drawing of a scene from Ramesses III’s tomb in his series  Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Scottish explorer James Bruce took some artistic license in his drawing of a scene from Ramesses III’s tomb in his series Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Tomb of the Harpers

This tomb contains colorful well-preserved relief scenes, with the first two corridors depicting the 74 manifestations of Ra. Ramesses III added small side alcoves to the second corridor, one of which contains a relief of two blind harpists. Scottish explorer James Bruce drew attention to it with the publication of his illustrated five-volume Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, which features a beautiful but inaccurate take on the scene. Worried for his safety, Bruce quickly sketched one of the harpists and later drew it from memory, giving it a Victorian flourish and for a time, KV11 was referred to as the Tomb of the Harpers.

Just some of the 74 depictions of the sun god Ra seen in the tomb

Just some of the 74 depictions of the sun god Ra seen in the tomb

A narrow yellow ribbon runs through the center of the ceiling and contains additional spells and funerary texts from the Litany of Re

On the doorframe between the second and third corridors are symbols of a different kind: two knots of Isis with djed-pillars (the symbolic backbone of Osiris, meaning stability) and ankhs (symbolizing life) holding animal-headed was-sceptres (power). 

The fourth corridor rises to clear the underlying chamber of KV10, descends to a shallow well shaft and continues on to a pillared hall with another passage leading to a pair of anterooms and the burial chamber. 

On the wall here, Ramesses III offers incense before the seated god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. He holds three vessels, their contents spilling onto the platform on which the god sits. Behind the triple deity stands the goddess Isis. The pharaoh’s titles are listed in front of him: Ramesses the ruler of Heliopolis and his coronation name, which translates to the Justice of Ra, Beloved by Amun. 

The identification of Rameses III with the greatest of gods, Amun, ensured that he would experience endless regeneration, a necessity for his eternal well-being in the afterlife. 

In the fourth corridor is a scene from another funerary text, the Amduat, depicting a goddess with the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, standing in front of a guardian serpent with four legs and a human head. The narrative illustrates the nocturnal voyage of the sun god Ra-Horakhty, who travels through the underworld from the time when the sun sets in the west to when it rises again in the east. The underworld, as the Ancient Egyptians saw it, is divided into 12 hours of the night, each representing different allies and enemies for the pharaoh/sun god to encounter. The iconography and symbolism here is wonderful.

Some of the carvings depict the monsters and deities of the underworld

Some of the carvings depict the monsters and deities of the underworld

Adding elements of temple architecture, Ramesses commissioned a four-pillared hall decorated with scenes and texts from the Book of Gates that depict him and various deities on their nightly journey through the netherworld — the fifth hour on the left side and the sixth hour on the right side. Also on the right is a side chamber with scenes where Ramesses III is led by the gods Thoth and Horus and offers ma’at (the concept of justice and balance) to Osiris. A double scene on the rear wall immediately before the burial chamber shows the king making offerings to Osiris. 

In the burial chamber, the name of the king was inscribed within a disc formed by the entwined bodies of two serpents. By placing his name within this device, the king identified himself directly with the solar deity and joined his cyclical daily journey. 

Sadly, the quartz sarcophagus was removed by Italian explorer and former circus performer Giovanni Batista Belzoni and currently resides in the Louvre in Paris. Its lid is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. Prior to the establishment of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, it wasn’t uncommon for unregulated foreign excavators digging in the valley to ship statuary and crates filled with tomb friezes back to Europe, where they found their way into collections such as that of the Louvre or the British Museum. The empty burial chamber ends with an anticlimactic darkened hallway and gate.

themummykarloff.jpg

The Inspiration for Karloff’s Mummy

French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero is credited with finding a cachette of royal mummies, including that of Ramesses III. But it was actually discovered by accident, when a straying goat fell into a concealed tomb shaft in Deir el-Bahari. The unwrapped mummy is now on display in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, and its features were considered so unappealing that they found fame as the model for Boris Karloff’s character in the 1930s film The Mummy. –Duke

 

9 Fascinating Facts About the Early Life of Hatshepsut

From her role as queen to Thutmose II, God’s Wife, God’s Hand and queen regent to Thutmose III, here’s how Hatshepsut started her legendary career.

Hatshepsut isn’t a household name, but she should be! This wildly successful woman rose through the ranks of power in Ancient Egypt

Hatshepsut isn’t a household name, but she should be! This wildly successful woman rose through the ranks of power in Ancient Egypt

It’s a shame more people don’t know about Hatshepsut, one of the greatest rulers of Ancient Egypt. She was born around 1500 BCE, a princess destined to marry the next pharaoh.

“Hatshepsut has the misfortune to be antiquity’s female leader who did everything right,” quips Kara Cooney in The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt

Every morning, Hatshepsut, as the God’s Hand, would rub the statue’s phallus until she felt it orgasm.

Here are some fascinating facts I learned about this proto-feminist from Cooney’s book:


1. The role of the God’s Wife was one of the most powerful roles in Ancient Egypt.

As high priestess and “spouse” of the creator god Amun (aka Amen), Hatshepsut would have access to the most holy part of the Karnak Temple in Thebes (modern-day Luxor). Inside the sanctuary, where the god’s statue was kept, Hatshepsut would strip off her linen robe while the high priest offered milk (for Amun was reborn as an infant each day) and then bloody strips of meat as the deity grew in strength.

The chief god at the time, Amun, here seen merged with the one-armed, one-legged deity Min, needed to be given “a helping hand” every morning, and this was one of Hatshepsut’s duties

The chief god at the time, Amun, here seen merged with the one-armed, one-legged deity Min, needed to be given “a helping hand” every morning, and this was one of Hatshepsut’s duties

2. The high priestess was also the God’s Hand — meaning she had to jerk off the statue every morning. 

God’s Hand, indeed! Hatshepsut was responsible for the rebirth of Amun each dawn. “Reverently, she took his phallus into her palm, allowing him to re-create himself through his own release,” Cooney writes.

While the sacred instrument called the sistrum rattled, the God’s Hand would rub the statue’s phallus until she felt it orgasm.

The Nile flooding, as seen in this photo from the 1890s

The Nile flooding, as seen in this photo from the 1890s

3. If the God’s Hand didn’t give a daily handjob to Amun, Ancient Egyptians believed the world would end.

What exactly did they think would happen? “The Nile would cease to flood its banks every year,” Cooney writes, “leaving no life-giving silt and mud in which to farm. The sun would fail to rise in the east every morning, depriving the crops of life-giving rays.”

Amun was often depicted as having the head of a ram

Amun was often depicted as having the head of a ram

4. Hatshepsut might have been as young as 9 when she played the role of sexual consort to the god Amun.

While that makes us cringe in the modern day, Ancient Egyptians didn’t shield their children from sex. 

“There were no religious strictures about the sinful nature of sex in the ancient world,” Cooney writes. “With no societal qualms about premarital sex or images of gods masturbating, and with many extended Egyptian families living in one-room homes with no protection of privacy, sex was simply more visible, even to a young child of the royal nursery.”

With the average person only living into their 30s, people started procreating once they hit puberty. “A short life expectancy meant that people grew up faster and started sexual activity younger than we would think appropriate or even ethical,” Cooney adds.

Thutmose II, Hatshepsut’s half-brother and husband, suffered from lesions, pustules and an enlarged heart

Thutmose II, Hatshepsut’s half-brother and husband, suffered from lesions, pustules and an enlarged heart

5. Hatshepsut married her younger brother, Thutmose II — incest was no big deal in Ancient Egypt. 

In fact, the first gods themselves were pairs of brothers and sisters who procreated down the generations to Osiris and his sister Isis, who gave birth to Horus, embodied by the pharaoh.

And so, at the age of 12 or 13, Hatshepsut became the King’s Great Wife to her half-brother. By keeping it all in the family, fathers avoided having to pay dowries, they could keep a dynasty tightly knit, and the royal family would be emulating the very gods themselves.

6. Thutmose II was a sickly young man.

In fact, the king was a complete mess: “If the identification of the mummy of Thutmose II is to be believed,” Cooney writes, “the boy was never in good health. His skin was covered with lesions and raised pustules. He had an enlarged heart, which meant he probably suffered with arrhythmias and shortness of breath.”

Thutmose III was only a toddler when he became pharaoh, so Hatshepsut reigned as his regent

Thutmose III was only a toddler when he became pharaoh, so Hatshepsut reigned as his regent

7. When a pharaoh died but his successor was too young, the queen stepped in as regent to rule until the king came of age.

In this case, Thutmose III, who was born of a secondary wife, Isis, was only 2 years old when his father passed away, a toddler drooling and pooping his days away in the royal palace. And so Hatshepsut, widow of the previous pharaoh, stepped into the power vacuum.

It might seem strange to give so much power to a woman in an ancient kingdom — especially given that Hatshepsut would have only been 16 after her husband’s short reign. But, as Cooney points out, “It was a wise and safe practice, as even the most narcissistic mother was unlikely to betray her own son, cause his murder, or otherwise conspire against him.”

The role of queen regent was enacted often during the Eighteenth Dynasty: “Young kings were so common during this time period that, according to the calculations of one Egyptologist, women had ruled Egypt informally and unrecognized for almost half of the seventy years before the reign of Thutmose III, an astounding feat given Egypt’s patriarchal systems of power,” Cooney writes.

8. There’s a good chance that Hatshepsut had numerous lovers, though she never again married.

We know not only how open Ancient Egyptians were when it came to sex but also how tied up sex was with their religion. So it’s fair to assume that Hatshepsut could and probably did find her pleasure wherever she desired. 

“Given her position of power and her lack of a husband, she could have had relationships with any number of officials, young or old, male or female,” Cooney argues. “Why would we expect Hatshepsut to have embraced celibacy when she was the person to whom all looked for favor?”

A carving on an obelisk at Karnak shows Hatshepsut kneeling below the great god Amun

A carving on an obelisk at Karnak shows Hatshepsut kneeling below the great god Amun

9. Within five years of her regency, Hatshepsut no longer held the position of God’s Wife.

We’re not sure why she gave up the position as high priestess (and lover of the great god Amun) or who succeeded her in the role — though it’s thought that she bequeathed it to her daughter, in the hopes that she would follow Hatshepsut’s ambitious career trajectory.

“Hatshepsut was in her early twenties,” Cooney says, “and strange as it may seem to us, she was probably too old to act as the sexual exciter of the god anymore.”

The loss of this powerful title could very well be what spurred the queen regent to grab more authority — and eventually become king. –Wally

The Singing Colossi of Memnon

The crumbling giants in Luxor are all that’s left of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple. 

These decaying statues were once guardians of one of the most impressive temples in Egypt

These decaying statues were once guardians of one of the most impressive temples in Egypt

There’s not much left to see, but that doesn’t stop most visitors to Luxor from making a quick pit stop at the Colossi of Memnon. 

Ravaged by earthquakes, looters and time itself, the crumbling statues you see today are nothing compared to their past glory. When they were first built, they were painted with bright white, red, brown, blue and even some golden gilding to set off key areas. 

At dawn, people would visit the statue to ask a question of it, trying to decipher an answer in its prophetic whispering.
Statues of Memnon at Thebes, During the Inundation  by David Roberts, 1846-1849

Statues of Memnon at Thebes, During the Inundation by David Roberts, 1846-1849

Amenhotep III’s Mortuary Temple

Amenhotep III (who ruled during the 18th Dynasty, from 1386-1353 BCE) sits on his throne, while smaller statues of his chief wife, Tiye, and his mother stand between his legs. Carved from single pieces of sandstone, the statues rise 60 feet into the air and weigh 720 tons. Situated on the West Bank of the Nile, they guarded the entrance to Amenhotep’s mortuary temple. 

The giants weren’t alone, though. Just beyond was another pair of colossi, and then another pair through the next pylon. Each pair got smaller than its predecessors, as you moved into the depths of the temple. 

One of the statues was thought to sing and prophesize back in Roman times

One of the statues was thought to sing and prophesize back in Roman times

This colossi were not only there to instill awe in viewers — they were also representations of fertility and the life-giving abundance of the River Nile. During the annual flood, the water would rush past the giants, flowing along the avenue of sphinxes and into the temple itself. Only the innermost sanctuary was protected, having been built on a slight elevation. 

After months of being partially submerged, the colossi would re-emerge as symbols of rebirth. 

Wally does one of his jumping pics in front of the 60-foot statue

Wally does one of his jumping pics in front of the 60-foot statue

While Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple is in much better shape today, Amenhotep’s was originally much larger and more impressive. It was even said to rival the massive Karnak complex. 

Archaeological evidence shows that there were once hundreds of stone statues within the temple. These depicted not only the pharaoh but various gods that would protect him in the afterlife: Osiris, the lord of the underworld, Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess with healing powers, and sphinxes bearing the jackal head of Anubis, who oversaw the mummification process. (Learn how — and why — Ancient Egyptians created mummies.)

The temple would have been filled with priests worshipping the statues and offering food, drink and some of the finer luxury items the king was used to in this life and would want to enjoy in death as well.

A nice stranger offered to take our picture

A nice stranger offered to take our picture

The Singing Statue

For a while, the northern giant had been damaged in such a way that when the wind blew through, it made a whistling noise that some mistook for singing. People believed that it happened every morning at dawn and they would visit the statue to ask a question of it, trying to decipher an answer in its supposedly prophetic whispering. (Popular thought now is that it was dew drying in the cracks of the porous stone.) 

The Roman Emperor Septimus Severus visited the site but didn’t hear the singing. In a misguided attempt to curry favor with the oracle, he repaired the colossus in 196 or 199 CE. It’s a total bummer, but after the renovation, the colossus never again sang its quiet soothsaying song.

The Vocal Memnon  by Harry Fenn, 1881-1884

The Vocal Memnon by Harry Fenn, 1881-1884

A Case of Mistaken Identity

If these colossi depict Pharaoh Amenhotep III, why are they now called Memnon? During the Trojan War, Ethiopia’s King Memnon joined the side of Troy to battle the Greeks. He was killed by the famous demigod hero Achilles but was admired for his courage and fighting prowess. When Greek tourists visited this site, they mistook Amenhotep for Memnon — in part because they thought the singing might be that of Memnon’s mother, Eos, the goddess of the dawn, lamenting the loss of her son. The name stuck. 

An illustration from  Description de l'Égypte , 1809-1828

An illustration from Description de l'Égypte, 1809-1828

Sadly, all that remains of this once-stunning temple are the crumbling, now-silent colossi that stood guard out front. –Wally

 

Enchanting Edfu Temple

The Temple of Horus at Edfu, one of the best-preserved Greco-Roman sites in Egypt, can be paired with Kom Ombo.

The well-preserved Temple of Horus at Edfu is in the Ptolemaic style

The well-preserved Temple of Horus at Edfu is in the Ptolemaic style

It’s no secret that Wally and I love temples and visited as many as we possibly could during our time in Egypt. Our favorites ended up being the less-busy ones, and the Temple of Horus at Edfu fell into this category. 

Wally and Duke hired a driver and guide to take them from Aswan to Luxor, stopping at Kom Ombo and Edfu on the way up

Wally and Duke hired a driver and guide to take them from Aswan to Luxor, stopping at Kom Ombo and Edfu on the way up

The city of Edfu and its Ptolemaic-period temple was  about a two-hour drive from the Temple of Kom Ombo and sits on the West Bank of the Nile. 

The evil god Seth is shown in the form of a hippopotamus, his diminutive size rendering him less threatening.

Ancient Egyptians believed that what was carved was given life.

In antiquity, Edfu was known as Behdet, and the region was referred to as Wetjeset-Hrw, “The Place Where Horus Is Extolled.” Local lore hypothesized that this was the site of the fierce and final battle between Horus, a falcon-headed god of the sky, and his wicked uncle, Seth, a jackal-headed god of chaos who killed Horus’ father Osiris. The modern Arabic name, Edfu, comes from the ancient Egyptian name Djeba, or Etbo in Coptic. Djeba means Retribution Town, this being where the enemies of Horus were brought to justice.


READ ABOUT THE CRAZY BATTLE OF THE GODS: Horus vs. Seth: Homosexuality, Hippos and Familial Violence


Construction on the Temple of Horus was started by Ptolemy III in 237 BCE, after the last native Egyptian pharaoh ruled. Its style combines classical Egyptian architectural elements with Greco-Roman influences. Work on the temple was frequently stalled due to insurrection — the Egyptians despised their new Ptolemaic rulers. It ultimately took six successive rules to complete, in 57 BCE.

The mammisi in front of the main temple at Edfu honors Harsomptus, the son of Horus and Hathor. The courtyard in front of smaller structure was the site of an annual festival of singing and dancing

The mammisi in front of the main temple at Edfu honors Harsomptus, the son of Horus and Hathor. The courtyard in front of smaller structure was the site of an annual festival of singing and dancing

Et Tu, Edfu?

The site is one of the best-preserved pharaonic monuments, thanks to being almost completely buried in sand until French archaeologist Auguste Mariette stumbled across them and began excavating the ruins in 1860. At that time, the desert had swallowed the temple up to its lintels, and locals had built mud-brick dwellings on top of the hypostyle hall. 

The Ptolemy rulers adopted Egyptian customs, including depicting themselves with the gods on the walls of temples

The Ptolemy rulers adopted Egyptian customs, including depicting themselves with the gods on the walls of temples

Later generations of Coptic Christians had a bad habit of defiling imagery of the gods, which they viewed as blasphemous

Later generations of Coptic Christians had a bad habit of defiling imagery of the gods, which they viewed as blasphemous

The focal point of the temple exterior is the entrance gate. Monumental in scale, the twin pylons measure an impressive 118 feet tall. The incised reliefs depict Ptolemy XII smiting his enemies before Horus. As this part of the structure was visible to the general public, and literacy levels were literally nonexistent — only an elite few could read and write hieroglyphics — imagery like this was used as propaganda to emphasize the might and legitimacy of the rulers. 

Imagery on the pylon gates would have been visible to the public and served as propaganda to legitimize the Ptolemaic dynasty

Imagery on the pylon gates would have been visible to the public and served as propaganda to legitimize the Ptolemaic dynasty

Beyond the pylon is the court of offerings, a large paved terrace surrounded on three sides by a 32-columned arcade where the populace would bring their offerings to the statue of Horus. 

Only elites could read and write hieroglyphics, so pictures told the story

Only elites could read and write hieroglyphics, so pictures told the story

Adorning the walls are reliefs depicting the Feast of the Beautiful Meeting, the annual reunion between Horus and his wife, Hathor. The festival lasted 15 days from the arrival of the sacred cult image of the goddess, which traveled by sacred barge from Dendera to Edfu. The statues of the gods were reunited within the temple sanctuary, where Hathor was symbolically impregnated by Horus and returned to Dendera to bear their son Harsomptus. 

This hieroglyphic represents the people of Egypt — and looks quite a bit like the ba, one of the symbols of the body’s soul — or, as Duke thinks, a bird taking a selfie

This hieroglyphic represents the people of Egypt — and looks quite a bit like the ba, one of the symbols of the body’s soul — or, as Duke thinks, a bird taking a selfie

A glyph that I saw here, and at many of the other temples, looked like a bird holding a phone and taking a selfie. I asked our guide Mamduh (pronounced Mom-doo) what this was, and he told me that it’s actually a rekhyt, a lapwing bird that symbolically represented the common people of Egypt under the king’s rule. Its upraised human arms are not holding a phone but are instead a presenting a gesture of adoration. The symbol also acted as a boundary marker and designated where the populace was allowed to congregate and what parts of the temple were off limits. 

This statue of an eagle honors Horus, who is usually depicted with the bird of prey’s head. Pharaohs aligned themselves with this deity

This statue of an eagle honors Horus, who is usually depicted with the bird of prey’s head. Pharaohs aligned themselves with this deity

Falcon Crest and Fatty

A 10-foot-tall black granite statue of Horus as a falcon wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt stood ahead of us outside the entrance to the outer hypostyle hall. The central doorway was originally fitted with cedar doors that were closed to the public. Stone screen walls, half the height of the front columns, still stand to either side and aided in further obscuring the view of the interior. Eighteen palmiform columns date to the reign of Ptolemy VIII, who was given the not-so-nice nickname Physkon, or Fatty, by his contemporaries. I would imagine the climate of Egypt did not prove agreeable to him. 

This section of the temple was built by Pharaoh Fatty

This section of the temple was built by Pharaoh Fatty

Wally felt the power of the holy temple

Wally felt the power of the holy temple

We followed Mamduh into the second hypostyle hall, which is older and smaller than the first. The room was dim except for shafts of natural light that entered the chamber through small apertures cut into the roof. Mamduh paused to explain the significance of the 12 papyrus columns, which symbolize the concept of amduat, the nightly journey of the sun god Ra through the 12 regions of the netherworld, corresponding to each of the 12 hours of the night.

A chamber off the hypostyle hall depicts the process for making perfume

A chamber off the hypostyle hall depicts the process for making perfume

Heaven Scent 

Off to the side of the hall was a small chamber that Mamduh referred to as the laboratory. Piquing our interest, he went on to elaborate that temple priests used this particular room for making perfume and incense. He gestured to the ritual scenes and accompanying hieroglyphics, explaining that they contain ancient recipes and methods of preparation. Burned daily in the temple, ingredients included frankincense, myrrh, mastic, pine resin and spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, juniper and mint. 

One of the Ptolemies honoring Horus

One of the Ptolemies honoring Horus

Seeking Sanctuary

The narrow room beyond the second hypostyle hall is the hall of offerings, where food and drink were consecrated daily for the eternal sustenance of the deity.

From there we entered the windowless holy of holies, which contains a granite shrine, the naos of Nectanebo II, the last of the native rulers of Egypt. This is the oldest and most sacred part of the temple and once held a golden cult statue of Horus. Nowadays, a reproduction of the god’s processional solar barque rests atop a low pedestal. The original is now in the Louvre.

During the Festival of the Beautiful Meeting, the statue of Horus was carried out of the sanctuary on a solar boat like this to reunite with his consort, Hathor, who traveled down the Nile from Dendera

During the Festival of the Beautiful Meeting, the statue of Horus was carried out of the sanctuary on a solar boat like this to reunite with his consort, Hathor, who traveled down the Nile from Dendera

Chapels, storerooms and ancillary chambers dedicated to various deities, including Min, Sekhmet, Osiris, Khonsu, Hathor and Ra, are arranged around the central sanctuary. 

Mamduh gave us a moment to backtrack and told us how the stairwell design mimics the spiraling circular path of a falcon’s ascent. Another stairwell, used to descend from the roof, is straight, to evoke a falcon’s downward plunge. 

During the Opening of the Year festival, the equivalent of New Year’s Day, the cult statue of Horus was carried up the ascending staircase to the temple rooftop to bask in the first sunrise of the new year. The ritual is depicted in raised relief with figures of priests and bearers. Unfortunately, roof access is closed to visitors. 

You’ll feel like Indiana Jones, exploring the dark passageways covered with amazing carvings

You’ll feel like Indiana Jones, exploring the dark passageways covered with amazing carvings

We encountered a father and young daughter, who I believe were French from the few words I heard spoken between them. I’m not sure if it was due to excitement or boredom, but the girl ran away from her father. Later, we saw her wandering around the inner sanctum, lost, calling out to him. “Serves her right for being naughty,” Wally remarked. 

The figure on the left pours out holy water in front of Horus

The figure on the left pours out holy water in front of Horus

Finally, we emerged outside in a narrow outer hall known as the Passage of Victory. Its walls are decorated with a tableau of scenes and texts depicting the Contendings of Horus and Seth. Seth is shown in the form of a hippopotamus, his diminutive size rendering him less threatening (Ancient Egyptians believed that what was carved was given life). Horus, casts his harpoon 10 times into Seth the hippo, ultimately conquering him and ascending the throne. Unfortunately, many of the carvings bear scars from chisels, obliterating the faces, hands and feet of gods — most likely the handiwork of Coptic Christians who found the images blasphemous. 

The god Horus battles his Uncle Seth, who’s shown as a small hippo — Ancient Egyptians believed that if you carved something, it would actually happen. So they didn’t want to give too much power to the evil Seth

The god Horus battles his Uncle Seth, who’s shown as a small hippo — Ancient Egyptians believed that if you carved something, it would actually happen. So they didn’t want to give too much power to the evil Seth

Horus and Seth battle for the crown of Egypt, and Horus is ultimately victorious

Horus and Seth battle for the crown of Egypt, and Horus is ultimately victorious

If you’re traveling to Luxor, consider heading down to Kom Ombo and Edfu. Admission to the Temple of Horus at Edfu costs 140 Egyptian pounds, or a bit over $8 when we visited. We booked through Egypt Sunset Tours, stopping at the two sites on a drive up from Aswan. You won’t get to see the ancient festival, but at least you can explore the entire temple, something only the most elite were allowed to do in antiquity. –Duke

Step back in time to explore the temple at Edfu, more than 2,200 years old!

Step back in time to explore the temple at Edfu, more than 2,200 years old!

The Temple of Horus at Edfu
Adfo
Markaz Edfo
Aswan Governorate
Egypt

 

A Felucca Ride Along the Nile

Our sunset sailboat ride became one of our favorite things to do in Egypt.

The Old Cataract Hotel has its own jetty, where you can hire a felucca for an hour or so

The Old Cataract Hotel has its own jetty, where you can hire a felucca for an hour or so

We headed down to the jetty from the Old Cataract Hotel. A barefoot man in a long coarse robe padded over to us. Thankfully I had asked the woman at check-in how much a felucca ride would cost. So when the man said, “200 for one hour…per person,” I shook my head no. “Per boat,” I said. Hey, he had to try. Then, just to make sure, I said, “Egyptian pound.” 

He nodded. “Yes, yes, 200, plus bakshish, tip.”

Aside from a few near-death experiences, our sunset ride was unbelievably peaceful.
We enjoyed the calm stretch of the Nile — while the first mate darted around the felucca, handling the sail

We enjoyed the calm stretch of the Nile — while the first mate darted around the felucca, handling the sail

A boy ferried us across to the other side of the Nile, where our vessel, the weather-worn Jellika, awaited. I almost tumbled off the narrow bench when I first sat down, and spent much of the rest of the ride clutching the wood beam above me. 

We constantly saw the Aga Khan Mausoleum in the distance. Apparently it’s not open to tourists

We constantly saw the Aga Khan Mausoleum in the distance. Apparently it’s not open to tourists

We headed off toward outcroppings of gray stone rounded smooth by thousands of years of water lapping against them.  Always in the distance, perched above us in a barren landscape, stood the Aga Khan Mausoleum. 

The Jellika had no motor — she was entirely dependent upon the wind. We’d cruise along slowly, calmly, for most of the ride, though there were moments when the breeze would pick up and we’d gain a considerable amount of speed. 

We rounded Elephantine Island, its temple ruins visible in glimpses. Some say the island got its name from the large rocks at one end that aren’t too difficult to imagine as bathing pachyderms — though it might have more to do with the fact that it was once an outpost of the ivory trade. 

Here and there we would pass a Nubian home at the water’s edge, painted in bright colors: turquoise with pink trim, or sunny yellow and mint green. 

Our captain was a weathered man who had lost the use of his right side, keeping his arm bent over his stomach, maneuvering the vessel with one hand — and the help of a skinny dark-skinned teenage boy who darted from port to starboard and back again to unfurl the sail or help the felucca tack into a turn. He’d mutter under his breath when the captain barked orders at him. 

Our captain only had full use of half his body, but he was really good at barking orders

Our captain only had full use of half his body, but he was really good at barking orders

This young man did his duties but grumbled under his breath when he wasn’t pointing out sites to us

This young man did his duties but grumbled under his breath when he wasn’t pointing out sites to us

The boy pointed out attractions to us — the mausoleum, various temples — though I couldn’t understand him. Duke would repeat the words for me. 

“Botah neek gah deen,” he would say, pointing to a large expanse of greenery. 

I’d nod politely, then look over at Duke, who would quietly say, “Botanic garden.”

“Oh! Cool!”

Wally loved being on the water

Wally loved being on the water

The felucca ride was one of Duke’s favorite parts of the trip — and it didn’t even involve a temple or tomb!

The felucca ride was one of Duke’s favorite parts of the trip — and it didn’t even involve a temple or tomb!

There were moments when I was sure we’d crash into a rock or the shoreline — but our captain would turn the rudder just in time, and I’d breathe a sigh of relief. 

Aside from these near-death experiences (I have a flair for the dramatic), our sunset ride was unbelievably peaceful. The only sound came from the water that rippled as our small sailboat cut through the Nile, punctuated by the occasional motor of another boat, the barking of a dog, the bleating of a sheep. 

I leaned down to put my hand in the water, fluttering chevrons of glimmering gold and teal. I couldn’t help but smile. This has to be the most gorgeous stretch of the entire Nile. –Wally

Ruins of the temple on Elephantine Island can be seen across the Nile

Ruins of the temple on Elephantine Island can be seen across the Nile

The Undeniable Charm of the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan

The Old Cataract, now owned the French Sofitel hotel group, sits along the banks of a lazy stretch of the River Nile in the southernmost tip of Egypt

The Old Cataract, now owned the French Sofitel hotel group, sits along the banks of a lazy stretch of the River Nile in the southernmost tip of Egypt

Nothing short of an Arabian fantasy, this historic luxury hotel is the perfect place to stay in Aswan for a day trip to Abu Simbel. If it’s good enough for Agatha Christie, it’s good enough for us.

If that looks like a long walk to the hotel’s entrance don’t worry! A golf cart will take you

If that looks like a long walk to the hotel’s entrance don’t worry! A golf cart will take you

After a brief flight from Cairo to Aswan, Wally and I exited the airport and met our pre-arranged driver. We were dropped off at the main gatehouse of the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract and transported by a golf cart through the well-manicured courtyard to the hotel’s impressive Victorian-era façade. We followed a porter through the grand Moorish Revival lobby to a soft velvet sofa, where we were served complimentary champagne flutes of cool hibiscus tea.

I looked over at Wally. He was grinning from ear to ear.

The Old Cataract Hotel isn’t a time machine exactly, but it was definitely a relaxing departure from ordinary 21st century life.
It was love at first sight for Wally

It was love at first sight for Wally

We were greeted with a flute of chilled hibiscus tea

We were greeted with a flute of chilled hibiscus tea

We chose the hotel as it’s ideally situated near the Philae Temple and a base for the three-hour drive to Abu Simbel. And it's not everyday that you get the chance to stay at a landmark pedigreed property once occupied by Dame Agatha Christie herself.

Created by architect Henri Favarger at the turn of the century and financed by British entrepreneur Thomas Cook, the Old Cataract Hotel perches upon an undulating pink granite bluff overlooking a lazy stretch of the Nile and Elephantine Island. From the hotel, guests can admire the columns of a small restored temple on the island dedicated to the goddess Satis. She was the consort of the creator god Khunm, a protector of the southernmost frontier of Egypt and closely associated with the annual Nile inundation.

The Palace Wing of the hotel

The Palace Wing of the hotel

Join the likes of Lady Diana and Winston Churchill and stay at the Old Cataract in Aswan

Join the likes of Lady Diana and Winston Churchill and stay at the Old Cataract in Aswan

The hotel got its name from its proximity to the first cataract, or branch, of the Nile, where the river narrows and granite outcrops rise above the water, separating Egypt and Nubia. Ancient Egyptians believed that this marked the source of the sacred river and was where the civilized world reached its end.

Agatha Christie was here — in fact, she wrote parts of  Death on the Nile  in this suite

Agatha Christie was here — in fact, she wrote parts of Death on the Nile in this suite

Take a Tour: The Agatha Christie Suite and More

The iconic property is managed by the French luxury hotel group Accor and offers a daily walking tour where you can learn a bit about its storied past as a favorite escape for its prominent guests. During the tour, we saw the Agatha Christie suite, where the mystery novelist stayed for months in 1937, immortalized in her novel Death on the Nile. Scenes from the 1978 film adaptation were filmed here. The suite, now set up as a shrine of sorts, includes a private balcony with river views, fireplace, separate living room, bedroom and dining room.

This painting hangs in the Agatha Christie suite at the Old Cataract. You, too, can stay there for a mere $8,000 a night!

This painting hangs in the Agatha Christie suite at the Old Cataract. You, too, can stay there for a mere $8,000 a night!

A collection of framed photographs of royals, writers, politicians and other luminaries who have stayed at the Old Cataract adorn the hallway walls.

Formal dress is required to dine in 1902, the Old Cataract’s upscale restaurant

Formal dress is required to dine in 1902, the Old Cataract’s upscale restaurant

Also included was a visit to 1902, the hotel’s elegant fine dining restaurant. The architecture, with vaulted ceilings, a dome and Moorish arches, was inspired by the Mamluk mosques of Cairo. Our guide informed us that if you wanted to dine here, formal dress is required.

These colorful arches frame the indoor restaurant, where the breakfast buffet is served

These colorful arches frame the indoor restaurant, where the breakfast buffet is served

In 2011, the hotel reopened after a three-year closure for a complete renovation led by French interior designer Sybille de Margerie. It was the third property to receive the Legend designation, signifying historical properties that have been updated with Sofitel's trademark French touch.

The property is divided into two buildings, separated by a large outdoor swimming pool: the historical Palace Wing with its Moorish striped horseshoe arches and the contemporary Nile Wing.

We stayed in the newer wing of the hotel

We stayed in the newer wing of the hotel

The Nile Wing

We stayed in the nine-story Nile Wing, built in 1961, a bit of a misnomer as it’s actually a hotel in its own right. Decorative patterns and light fixtures from the original structure have been faithfully reproduced here and act as a stylistic bridge between the two buildings.

Our Nile view suite was spacious, with a sitting area, king-size bed and private balcony with a panoramic view of the pool and Nile. The bathroom was luxurious, with a freestanding bathtub, walk-in shower and separate closet for the toilet and bidet, plus plenty of towels and a pair of terry cloth robes.

Our bed, with the sitting area beyond

Our bed, with the sitting area beyond

Bathe in the tub or the shower stall next to it

Bathe in the tub or the shower stall next to it

The ruins of Elephantine Island could be seen from our balcony

The ruins of Elephantine Island could be seen from our balcony

Wally hung out on the balcony a lot — you just can’t beat that view!

Wally hung out on the balcony a lot — you just can’t beat that view!

One evening, just before twilight, Wally and I walked down to the jetty on the hotel grounds, where guests can take a felucca sailboat on the Nile. The unforgettable and magical ride on the waters of the sacred river was one of the highlights of our trip.

Returning to our suite after our felucca ride the first evening, we caught a glimpse of the opulent indoor pool located just beyond the lobby of the Nile Wing in the hotel spa. We stopped to take a closer look and came upon a British couple frolicking, the man giddy with excitement at having the pool all to themselves. The following evening, we followed their lead, reveling in this gorgeous setting, pleased to find the water much warmer than that of the outdoor pool.

Duke before he and Wally hired some local sailors to take them out for a peaceful felucca ride along the Nile at sunset

Duke before he and Wally hired some local sailors to take them out for a peaceful felucca ride along the Nile at sunset

The Nile Wing’s pool is warm, and there’s a good chance you’ll have it all to yourself

The Nile Wing’s pool is warm, and there’s a good chance you’ll have it all to yourself

The hotel has a total of four dining venues, though we ate all of our meals on the terrace. The impressive breakfast buffet includes a chef station, where you can order à la carte. Room service is also available and was especially convenient when we had a lavish feast delivered before our 5 a.m. departure to Abu Simbel.

The bar at the Old Cataract

The bar at the Old Cataract

We ate our meals on the veranda, sometimes joined by a timid but hungry stray cat

We ate our meals on the veranda, sometimes joined by a timid but hungry stray cat

The Oriental Kebabgy restaurant at one end of the Nile Wing

The Oriental Kebabgy restaurant at one end of the Nile Wing

While staying at the hotel I experienced what I dubbed “mummy tummy,” which was possibly a minor case of heatstroke. I hadn’t realized how hot it was at these exposed sites and didn’t drink enough water. Our travel guide Rasha suggested I take Antinal, as we had somehow forgotten to bring Imodium with us. A quick call to the front desk, and within half an hour, the medication was hand-delivered to our suite.

The evening before our departure, the concierge called to ask if there was anything they could improve upon. Wally replied that it would be nice if they had an ATM on site and was told that there’s one in the guest services house out by the hotel gate. “Then there’s nothing you can do to improve,” Wally replied, smiling.

Leaving our room for the last time, I glanced over the palm trees and across the river at the Aga Khan Mausoleum. Neither of us wanted to leave this idyllic setting. The Old Cataract Hotel isn’t a time machine exactly, but it was definitely a relaxing departure from ordinary 21st century life. –Duke

Add Aswan to your agenda to see Abu Simbel and Philae Temple. Of course, you have to stay at the legendary Old Cataract. You’ll never want to leave

Add Aswan to your agenda to see Abu Simbel and Philae Temple. Of course, you have to stay at the legendary Old Cataract. You’ll never want to leave

 

Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel Aswan
Abtal El Tahrir St.
81511 Aswan
Egypt