architecture

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

 

The Serene Spirituality of Abydos Temple

This overlooked Temple of Seti I and Ramesses II is a heavenly day trip from Luxor.

Heavenly rays of light shine through the dark temple, making it feel even more spiritual

Heavenly rays of light shine through the dark temple, making it feel even more spiritual

Our guide, Mamduh, told us he has been all over Egypt and has explored all the major temples — and yet the only one that felt truly spiritual to him was Abydos.

Duke and I can understand this. Maybe it’s the cool, dark colonnades, with beams of sunlight shining through like a celestial cliché. Or perhaps it’s the fact that there’s not one but seven sanctuaries, each devoted to a different god. It all works together to create something eternal and sacred. The site is also off the main tourist track, and aside from one small tour group, we had the place to ourselves.

The earliest pharaohs were buried here, as far back as 3000 BCE.

Later, Abydos became a center of the cult of Osiris, the god of the underworld. People believed his tomb was here.
The clean lines of this holy site feel modern, even though the temple is 3,200 years old!

The clean lines of this holy site feel modern, even though the temple is 3,200 years old!

Burial Site of Osiris and the First Pharaohs

The location, in the Sohag Governorate of Upper Egypt, was known in ancient times as Abdju and has been held as sacred from the beginnings of the Egyptian state. It’s said to be the birthplace of the god Osiris, and it’s where his decapitated head was buried by his murderous brother Set.

Wally and Mamduh from Egypt Sunset Tours make the pilgrimage to Abydos

Wally and Mamduh from Egypt Sunset Tours make the pilgrimage to Abydos

Abydos is the holiest of necropolises; during pharaonic times, Ancient Egyptians wanted to be buried here, and at one point, everyone tried to make it here on pilgrimage at least once in their lives. (If that didn’t pan out, they often depicted the journey in their tombs. Better late than never.)

The earliest pharaohs were buried here, as far back as 3000 BCE. Later, Abydos became a center of the cult of Osiris, the god of the underworld. People believed his tomb was here, though evidence points to it actually being the final resting place of a First Dynasty pharaoh, Djer.

Ramessess II added a front section to his father’s temple

Ramessess II added a front section to his father’s temple

Temple of Seti I and Ramesses II

Abydos, like so many Egyptian temples, was really an ongoing construction project, with various kings adding structures here, repurposing materials there.

King Seti I built a large complex at Abydos some 3,200 years ago to show he honored the Egyptian pantheon (and to show that he, too, was divine). A belief in the old gods was especially important to prove after the radical pharaoh Akhenaten departed from centuries of tradition and enforced monotheism, celebrating a single deity known as Aten, the sun disk. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t go over well.)

You can tell the parts of the temple that were added by Ramesses II because the depictions are carved into the stone rather than being proper bas-reliefs

You can tell the parts of the temple that were added by Ramesses II because the depictions are carved into the stone rather than being proper bas-reliefs

As we approached the temple, we paused on the open terrace to admire the precise horizontal and vertical symmetry of its exterior, which, like Hatshepsut’s funerary temple, feels modern in its minimalism.

In the first courtyard, on the second pylon wall, are scenes of Ramesses II’s military victories, including the Battle of Kadesh, which is also shown at Abu Simbel. I use the term “military victories” loosely. This is an example of the pharaoh’s fondness for revisionist history: The Battle of Kadesh ended in a stalemate.

Farther in, the columns and walls of the Temple of Seti I boast of his deeds as well as those of his son and heir, Ramesses II.

Wally and Duke highly recommend adding Abydos to your itinerary

Wally and Duke highly recommend adding Abydos to your itinerary

Mamduh, who works with Egypt Sunset Tours, stopped in front of a wall covered with cartouches, oval carvings containing hieroglyphics that represent the names of pharaohs. “This is why we know all of the dynasties and the order of the pharaohs,” he told us. The names were a long list of Egyptian kings in chronological order, going all the way back to Menes, the legendary founder of the empire, credited with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, and continuing all the way to Seti I.

The Kings List depicts the cartouches of all the pharaohs, with some notable omissions, including Hatshepsut and Akhenaten

The Kings List depicts the cartouches of all the pharaohs, with some notable omissions, including Hatshepsut and Akhenaten

Known as the Abydos King List, the relief conspicuously skips over some problematic rulers: the century-long reign of the foreign invaders, the Hyksos; the female pharaoh Hatshepsut; and the heretical Akhenaten and his three short-lived successors. Again, we see that Ancient Egyptians made revisionist history a literal art form.

Abydos isn’t one of the more popular tourist destinations — which makes it all the more special to visit

Abydos isn’t one of the more popular tourist destinations — which makes it all the more special to visit

As we continued to wander through, Mamduh pointed out a set of unusual looking hieroglyphics carved into a lintel overhead. A mysterious set of symbols appear to depict a helicopter, a submarine and a dirigible-like airship. Did they predict the future?!

I’m not one to crush anyone’s conspiracy theory dreams, but these images are actually the result of surfaces that have been reused. Over time, bits of the lime plaster eroded, leaving a partially visible set of overlapping glyphs. The initial set of carvings were made during the reign of Seti I and were later altered with plaster and re-carved during the temple’s expansion by his son.

Seti I built this as his funerary temple. He chose a throne name that didn’t reference Set, the murderous god of chaos

Seti I built this as his funerary temple. He chose a throne name that didn’t reference Set, the murderous god of chaos

Most temples have a single sanctuary, or holy of holies — but Abydos has seven!

Most temples have a single sanctuary, or holy of holies — but Abydos has seven!

The Seven Sanctuaries

At the back of the second hypostyle hall are seven barrel-vaulted sanctuaries dedicated to different deities: Horus, Isis and Osiris, with the principle god Amun in the middle, then Ra-Horakhty, Ptah and the deified Pharaoh Seti I.

The lion-headed goddess of war, Sekhmet, is the wife of Ptah, god of architects and craftspeople

The lion-headed goddess of war, Sekhmet, is the wife of Ptah, god of architects and craftspeople

Anubis, the god of the dead, with Seti I

Anubis, the god of the dead, with Seti I

Most temples have a single sanctuary, known as the holy of holies. So perhaps the fact that Abydos has seven is a large part of what lends a spiritual air to this sacred space. Six have false doors to allow the ka, or soul, to pass through. The exception is the sanctum of Osiris, whose chamber has a doorway leading to a suite of rooms — as Mamduh pointed out, the god of the underworld can travel between both worlds.

Ancient Egyptians believed that a scarab, or dung beetle, pushed the sun through the sky

Ancient Egyptians believed that a scarab, or dung beetle, pushed the sun through the sky

Isn’t he getting a bit old for that? Horus suckles on his mother Isis’ breast

Isn’t he getting a bit old for that? Horus suckles on his mother Isis’ breast

Wooden ships known as barques, or solar boats, originally stood in each of the sanctuaries. They were believed to transport the deities across the heavens and were used to transport the image of the god in ritual processions.

When you see a boy with a braided side ponytail like this inside the temple, that’s Prince Ramesses II

When you see a boy with a braided side ponytail like this inside the temple, that’s Prince Ramesses II

The Osiris Sanctuary, just one of seven at Seti I’s temple at Abydos. Osiris is depicted with green skin

The Osiris Sanctuary, just one of seven at Seti I’s temple at Abydos. Osiris is depicted with green skin

Head out the back door to walk past the Osirion

Head out the back door to walk past the Osirion

Out back, behind the temple proper, are the ruins of a primitive-looking structure built in the form of a royal tomb. Known as the Osirion, the cenotaph (a fancy word for a monument to someone whose body is buried elsewhere) is thought to be for Osiris. It was closed when we were there — though it doesn’t look like we missed much, aside from sunken granite blocks surrounded by pools of toxic-looking green water.

The sunken ruins of the Osirion, a tomb to honor the god of the underworld

The sunken ruins of the Osirion, a tomb to honor the god of the underworld

We visited Abydos as a day trip from Luxor, pairing it with the amazing Dendera. These less-visited sites are often the most unexpected, special and spiritual.

Duke and I were fortunate to have Rasha from Egypt Sunset Tours arrange excursions that suited us so well. If you want to experience the magic of Egypt like we did, book your tours through them. –Wally

The strikingly modern visitors center works as a visual reference to the temple’s façade

The strikingly modern visitors center works as a visual reference to the temple’s façade

The temple at Abydos is seen in the distance

The temple at Abydos is seen in the distance

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut

Visit Deir el-Bahari to explore the funerary temple of the first female pharaoh.

The clean minimalism of Hatshepset’s funerary temple feels strangely modern, even though it was built 3,500 years ago!

The clean minimalism of Hatshepset’s funerary temple feels strangely modern, even though it was built 3,500 years ago!

Cleopatra might be more famous, but Hatshepsut, born a royal princess during the New Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt, was the first historically documented woman to rule the powerful empire with the complete authority traditionally only given to men.

While staying in Luxor, we hired a driver and guide through Egypt Sunset Tours, and as part of our West Bank tour, we visited the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.

“They should make a movie about Hatshepsut,” our guide Mamduh said to us as we drove to the temple complex. “Maybe many movies.” It was obvious he had great respect for her.

To emphasize her authority, representations of Hatshepsut as a queen were replaced with gender-bending imagery depicting her in male pharaonic attire.

Mamduh went on to elaborate that Hatshepsut’s reign was a period of peace and economic prosperity. He told us how her ambitious building projects set a precedent for future generations of pharaohs, but that her greatest architectural achievement was the tiered mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari. It was built in the mid-1400s BCE.

Admission to the site costs 100 Egyptian pounds (about $6).

More Than a Woman

Hatshepsut (Hat-shep-soot) was the eldest daughter of King Thutmose, and the wife of Pharaoh Thutmose II, her half-brother. Thutmose Jr. reigned only briefly, and upon his death, Hatshepsut became the queen-regent of her stepson and successor, Thutmose III, who, at the time, was considered too young to rule alone. However, in her seventh year as co-regent, Hatshepsut officially assumed the role of King of Upper and Lower Egypt and ruled for more than two decades.

Once Hatshepsut took the throne, she reinvented herself and even took a new royal name, Maatkare, meaning Truth Is the Soul of the Sun. To emphasize her sovereignty, she opted for a complete gender transformation, depicting herself with a royal nemes headdress, short ritual shendyt-kilt and traditional false beard on her chin. Although standardized, her visage retained a few subtle feminine features, including a fullness of the face, widely spaced almond-shaped eyes and benign smile — though her breasts disappeared.

Fit for a Queen

Hewn from limestone, the linear geometric volumes of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple have an understated elegance, appearing as if they’ve always been part of the rugged desert landscape. Staggered terraces jut out from the imposing rock cliffs and a central ramp ascends from the temple base to its uppermost apex.

Construction lasted over a decade, the site chosen for its location in the Theban Necropolis. This region was long considered sacred to the goddess Hathor, who, among her attributes protected the dead on their journey to the great beyond. The temple’s axis was positioned to align with Hatshepsut’s Temple of Amun, the eighth pylon at Karnak across the Nile on the East Bank. In addition, on the east side of the Valley of the Kings, directly behind the complex is KV20, the tomb Hatshepsut commissioned for herself and her father.

Mamduh walked with us up the processional path leading to the temple and explained that originally 100 or so sphinxes bearing images of Hatshepsut’s head lined both sides of the avenue. Wally and I had previously seen one at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

We paused in the forecourt, which once held exotic myrrh trees and other specimens brought from the ancient land of Punt. You can see the withered and desiccated stumps encircled by a low iron fence and sign.

Hatshepsut’s name meant Foremost of Noble Women, and as a young princess, she was appointed the religious title of God’s Wife of Amun, a high priestess who served as a mediator between the chief god and the pharaoh. She would later use this title as the underlying principle behind her sovereignty, claiming that she was acting as a divine instrument under the will of Amun and that the god himself was her father.

Only stubs of columns remain in the courtyard of the top terrace

Only stubs of columns remain in the courtyard of the top terrace

Upper Court

Wally and I took the central ramp to uppermost terrace. Only a few of its columns still stand within the large open courtyard, and most of the Osiride statues of Hatshepsut (showing her depicted as the lord of the underworld) enclosed within its niches have been destroyed. The most sacred sanctuary, the holy of holies, is entered through a large granite gate in the center of the rear wall and was dedicated to the god Amun-Ra.

Wally stands in the granite portico leading to the sanctuary of the great god Amun

Wally stands in the granite portico leading to the sanctuary of the great god Amun

This terrace played an important role during the annual Beautiful Feast of the Valley festival, or Hab Nefer en Pa’Inet. A cult image of Amun-Ra was placed on a miniature ram-headed barque, or solar boat, and transported from the Temple at Karnak on the East Bank of the Nile to the temple of Medinet Habu, eventually coming to rest in the shrine here at Deir el-Bahri on the West Bank. Inside the sanctuary, the curved vaulted ceiling is decorated with celestial stars against a deep blue background. Niches, now empty, would have contained statues of Pharaoh Maatkare and most likely other members of the royal family.

We were amazed at the colors that have withstood the centuries, and particularly liked the star pattern on the ceiling

We were amazed at the colors that have withstood the centuries, and particularly liked the star pattern on the ceiling

The majority of the excavation, reconstruction and restoration work has been carried out by the Polish-Egyptian Archaeological and Conservation Mission, located at the site behind a wooden door that, I believe, once led to the chapels of Hatshepsut and her late father.

What a woman! Hatshepsut styled herself with a lot of the symbolism only male pharaohs had used in the past — including a false beard

What a woman! Hatshepsut styled herself with a lot of the symbolism only male pharaohs had used in the past — including a false beard

Middle Court

Among the impressive features of Hatshepsut’s temple are the colossal Osiride statues here. What makes these figures unique is that they are depicted grasping four symbols of royal authority and divine power, two in each hand: the ankh and flail in the right and the scepter and crook in the left.

Duke and Wally mimic the Osiride statues of Hatshepsut

Duke and Wally mimic the Osiride statues of Hatshepsut

A temple employee in front of some of the statues — note the reddish color on their faces

A temple employee in front of some of the statues — note the reddish color on their faces

At either end of the middle court are two chapels. To the south of the colonnade is the Chapel of Hathor and to the north the Chapel of Anubis.

The chapel to the goddess of fertility sports Hathor columns, topped with her head

The chapel to the goddess of fertility sports Hathor columns, topped with her head

A procession of soldiers carrying shields and spears

A procession of soldiers carrying shields and spears

In addition to her role as protector and travel companion to the dead, Hathor is the Egyptian goddess of sexual love, fertility, music, dancing and the sky. Inside, the now-roofless chapel includes a 12-columned hypostyle hall with four Hathor-headed capitals, resembling a super-sized sistrum, an Ancient Egyptian percussion instrument associated with the goddess, that rattles when shaken.

Colorful friezes in the Chapel of Anubis

Colorful friezes in the Chapel of Anubis

The god of mummification is one of Wally’s faves. Jackals were often seen around cemeteries, leading Ancient Egyptians to believe that Anubis watched over the dead

The god of mummification is one of Wally’s faves. Jackals were often seen around cemeteries, leading Ancient Egyptians to believe that Anubis watched over the dead

After visiting the Hathor chapel, Wally and I wandered over to the Chapel of Anubis. What struck me most was the abundant amount of natural light illuminating its interior. Inside walls depict scenes of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification, and Osiris. There were also a couple images of Hatshepsut, which sadly have been chiseled away.

Most temples in Ancient Egypt feature one or more colonnades like this one

Most temples in Ancient Egypt feature one or more colonnades like this one


Lower Court

The lower court contains two important sets of reliefs. To the south was the Birth Colonnade, which Wally and I must have somehow missed. I read that a relief and inscription within depicts the myth of Hatshepsut’s immaculate conception — the god Amun, in the guise of her father Thutmose I, impregnated her mother, Queen Ahmose, with his divine breath. Given Jesus’ similar birth centuries later, this method of storytelling shouldn’t seem so strange to us. At the time, it certainly wasn’t unusual for pharaohs to claim dvine birth.

The Punt Colonnade contains bas-relief scenes documenting the royally sponsored trade expedition to Punt, which was undertaken to export exotic goods, including cinnamon, ebony, ivory, gold, incense and myrrh, for the cult of Amun-Ra (and the pharaoh herself, of course).

A beautiful carving of a lion, one of the exotic animals from the expedition to the mysterious land of Punt — no one is quite sure where exactly it was

A beautiful carving of a lion, one of the exotic animals from the expedition to the mysterious land of Punt — no one is quite sure where exactly it was

Thutmose III, although not technically the king during Hatshepsut’s reign, was not sitting idle; he had been honing his military skills by leading the armies of Egypt on successful campaigns of conquest. However, it’s been speculated that after his step-mother (and aunt’s) death, he attempted to erase her legacy, ordering many of her images to be systematically chiseled off temples and monuments.

Additional damage to the temple occurred during the Amarna period, when images of Amun were removed by the so-called heretic King Akhenaten. Then, the ancient Copts reused the temple’s upper terrace and built a mud-brick monastery there, which gives us the name of Deir el-Bahari, Arabic for Monastery of the North.

Looking into the sanctuary of the Chapel of Hathor

Looking into the sanctuary of the Chapel of Hathor

Visiting these temples was a lifelong dream for Duke, who has been obsessed with Ancient Egypt since he was a kid

Visiting these temples was a lifelong dream for Duke, who has been obsessed with Ancient Egypt since he was a kid

Wally preferred other temples to Hatshepsut’s, but it’s still worth a visit

Wally preferred other temples to Hatshepsut’s, but it’s still worth a visit

Thanks to our knowledgeable guide Mamduh, Wally and I came away with a solid understanding of the amazing Hatshepsut and her mortuary temple before exploring it.

If you’d like to take a moment to recharge after — the Luxor sun can be brutal — there’s a café pavilion on the premises offering a spectacular view of the complex, along with ice cream treats. –Duke

The innovative terraced and columned Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in what was once the city of Thebes

The innovative terraced and columned Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in what was once the city of Thebes

 

Medinet Habu: A Reflection of Ramesses III’s Military Might

This Luxor temple depicts the victory over the Sea Peoples and includes carvings of severed penises. It’s also the site of the murderous Harem Conspiracy.

When in Luxor, be sure to visit Medinet Habu, an often-overlooked temple

When in Luxor, be sure to visit Medinet Habu, an often-overlooked temple

The temple wasn’t even on our itinerary, but it ended up being one of our favorites. We had some extra time after a morning wandering the cool tombs of the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple. Rasha, who runs the highly recommended guide service Egypt Sunset Tours, suggested we add on the Tombs of the Nobles and Medinet Habu.

Admission to the temple costs a mere 80 Egyptian pounds (about $4.75), making this the cheapest of all the sites we visited.

The exterior wall is yet another sign that Medinet Habu was built to resemble a fortress

The exterior wall is yet another sign that Medinet Habu was built to resemble a fortress

On one hand, all the temples of Ancient Egypt begin to blur together, their elements similar: a heavy pylon entranceway, staggeringly tall colonnades, small, secret sanctuaries at the back.

But, in truth, each temple has its own distinct personality. Karnak sprawls, much of it in ruins, its piles of rubble evoking Ancient Rome. Dendera has a magical feel, with its turquoise blue ceiling painted with astrological iconography. Luxor’s colonnade is open to the sky, reveling in the light and warmth of the sun.

And Medinet Habu, too, has a unique design; it evokes a feeling of military might not found in other temples. This martial flair is fitting, for Ramesses III built the structure to celebrate the victory of a battle that threatened to end the Egyptian Empire for good.

Duke and Wally loved visiting the temple complex, which was quite deserted

Duke and Wally loved visiting the temple complex, which was quite deserted

New evidence revealed that Ramesses III did meet a gruesome end at the hands of his conspirators.

CT scans of his mummy found a deep slash across his throat.
The bas-reliefs on the pylon gateways depict Ramesses III’s victory over the fierce Sea Peoples

The bas-reliefs on the pylon gateways depict Ramesses III’s victory over the fierce Sea Peoples

Pirates of the Mediterranean: The Sea Peoples’ Slaughter

They came from the sea, though historians aren’t quite sure of their homelands. They were fierce, ruthless and mighty warriors. All around Ancient Egypt, neighboring empires fell under the Sea Peoples’ barrage. They even conquered the Hittites, Egypt’s sometimes-friends, sometimes-foes.

Some of the bas-reliefs were still works in progress

Some of the bas-reliefs were still works in progress

Chariots helped Egypt gain advantages in battle

Chariots helped Egypt gain advantages in battle

If you defeat warriors who were undefeated, you brag about it, like Ramesses III did

If you defeat warriors who were undefeated, you brag about it, like Ramesses III did

So when they finally came for Egypt in 1179 BCE, Ramesses III must have been worried. He staged the war on two fronts. One, a land battle at the delta of the Nile, was successful, but its lack of detail belies the probability that losses were severe (and therefore glossed over in the official record).

We know more of the second battle, which went more strongly in Egypt’s favor. This naval skirmish wiped out the Sea Peoples, beginning with a hail of arrows and ending with the capsizing of the Mediterranean ships.

Ramesses III turned his mortuary temple into a war memorial, calling it the Mansion of Millions of Years of King Ramesses, United With Eternity in the Estate of Amun. That’s quite a mouthful, so I’m glad the site now goes by its Arabic name.

The temple is infamous for being the site of the Harem Conspiracy

The temple is infamous for being the site of the Harem Conspiracy

Inside Medinet Habu

The imposing entrance pylon façade strikes the visitor immediately as severe, a brutal sand-colored monolith. This is the fortified gatehouse Ramesses III built and was modeled on Syrian migdol gates he had encountered on his military campaigns. Adding to the fortress feel was a high mud-brick wall that once enclosed the complex.

Upon entry, there are decaying statues of Sekhmet, the lioness-headed goddess of war

Upon entry, there are decaying statues of Sekhmet, the lioness-headed goddess of war

Aside from towering depictions of pharaohs, you don’t see many statues in temples

Aside from towering depictions of pharaohs, you don’t see many statues in temples

What deity did Ramesses choose to feature immediately inside the gate? Why, none other than Sekhmet, the fierce lioness-headed goddess of war.

It was in these rooms at the top of the structure where Ramesses III hung out with his many wives — and where he met his demise

It was in these rooms at the top of the structure where Ramesses III hung out with his many wives — and where he met his demise

Treason in the Harem

The top floor of the gatehouse was where Ramesses hung out with his harem. The carvings here show Ramesses III in intimate poses with various wives or relaxing in a chair playing board games.

But all wasn’t as idyllic as pictured. “There was something about the claustrophobic atmosphere that fed the bitter jealousies and personal rivalries of the king’s many wives,” writes Toby Wilkinson in The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. “With little to occupy their minds besides weaving and idle pleasures, the more ambitious concubines nurtured resentments, angry at the lowly status of their offspring and wondering how they might improve their own and their children’s fortunes.”

The Second Courtyard later became a Christian church in the 9th century

The Second Courtyard later became a Christian church in the 9th century

The statues were preserved because they were covered in mud by the Coptics

The statues were preserved because they were covered in mud by the Coptics

In 1155 BCE, one of the pharaoh’s secondary wives, Tiy, plotted to assassinate Ramesses III as well as his heir apparent, Prince Ramesses, and install her son, Pentawere, on the throne. The plot, known as the Harem Conspiracy, grew to include a mutiny in the army and a revolution in the countryside. But as the plan became intricate, more and more people became involved, and eventually someone blabbed.

The conspirators were arrested and tried at a tribunal. Found guilty, they were forced to commit suicide. Those who were involved to a lesser degree were horribly disfigured, their noses and ears hacked off to permanently mark them as convicts.

Not only was this a mortuary temple, it was also Ramesses III’s palace. It was very unusual to combine both of these buildings into one complex

Not only was this a mortuary temple, it was also Ramesses III’s palace. It was very unusual to combine both of these buildings into one complex

New evidence revealed that Ramesses III did meet a gruesome end at the hands of his conspirators, though. Researchers reexamined his mummy with CT scans and found a bone-deep slash across his throat that would have been fatal.

Medinet Habu is a beautiful structure — and the site of a pharaoh’s assassination

Medinet Habu is a beautiful structure — and the site of a pharaoh’s assassination

The underside of this gateway shows the winged sun amongst other paintings

The underside of this gateway shows the winged sun amongst other paintings

Like many other Ancient Egyptian temples, you proceed through a series of courtyards

Like many other Ancient Egyptian temples, you proceed through a series of courtyards

From Temple to Amun to Mortuary Temple to Christian Church

The temple within dates to 1490 BCE and was dedicated to Amun, the god of creation and fertility, by Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. It was deemed a magical site, and even today, local farmers are said to believe in the protective powers of Medinet Habu.

Is Duke feeling the magic that Egyptians to this day believe is imbued in this holy site?

Is Duke feeling the magic that Egyptians to this day believe is imbued in this holy site?

Medinet Habu includes a larger version of the Ramesseum. Seems like Ramesses III had to one-up his father

Medinet Habu includes a larger version of the Ramesseum. Seems like Ramesses III had to one-up his father

Ramesses III chose this spot for his mortuary temple. It’s essentially a larger-scale version of the Ramesseum, Ramesses II’s mortuary temple — which makes me feel less bad that we skipped visiting that particular temple in favor of this. The pharaoh enclosed the temple within his own, larger complex.

The site functioned as the administrative center of western Thebes, and it was here that the workmen who constructed the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings went on strike when their payment was late.

The shaded parts of the colonnade still have blue paint visible

The shaded parts of the colonnade still have blue paint visible

These symbols were ankhs (representing life) with arms holding was scepters (power, dominion)

These symbols were ankhs (representing life) with arms holding was scepters (power, dominion)

Shh! Don’t tell anyone, but Wally liked Medinet Habu better than Hatshepsut’s temple

Shh! Don’t tell anyone, but Wally liked Medinet Habu better than Hatshepsut’s temple

After the Ramesside period, Libyans took control of Egypt, and Medinet Habu gained a dubious claim to fame. The Libyan rulers plundered the tombs of the pharaohs, taking all the riches to the state treasury, and unwrapped the royal mummies in the hunt for hidden jewels. Under the orders of Butehamun, the scribe of the necropolis, in 1066 BCE, the mummies were taken to Medinet Habu for processing and rewrapping before being unceremoniously dumped into the tomb of Amenhotep II.

Hundreds of years after Medinet Habu was built, in the 9th century, Rome’s dominion stretched into Egypt, and the Coptic Christians established the first church in the country. Its ruins remain, off to the right side of the complex. The monk cells behind the church were used for medical experiments, our guide Mamduh told us. Yes, there once was a time when religion and science were seen as compatible.

Look closely: In addition to hands, soldiers are presenting war trophies of chopped-off penises to claim their bounty

Look closely: In addition to hands, soldiers are presenting war trophies of chopped-off penises to claim their bounty

Chopped-Off Hands and Penises

In the first courtyard, there’s a window of appearances, where the pharaoh would greet his subjects and reward military commanders. This portico connects the temple to the palace. One of the bas-reliefs on the wall here shows soldiers collecting their bounty by presenting the severed hands of their enemies to the pharaoh. But, Mamduh told us, some of the soldiers tried to double up on their rewards by cutting off both of their victims’ hands. So the king decided to come up with another prize to collect. Gee, what’s portable, and something men only have one of? If you look at the carving, you’ll see that in addition to tossing out hands, the soldiers are also presenting severed penises.

A popular design element in Ancient Egypt was the lotus column, constructed to mimic the plant that symbolized Upper Egypt

A popular design element in Ancient Egypt was the lotus column, constructed to mimic the plant that symbolized Upper Egypt

Out back is the Great Hypostyle Hall, modeled after Karnak’s — again Ramesses III gained inspiration from his father, Ramesses II

Out back is the Great Hypostyle Hall, modeled after Karnak’s — again Ramesses III gained inspiration from his father, Ramesses II

Only the bases remain of most of the columns

Only the bases remain of most of the columns

There are four rose granite statues at the very back of the complex. They depict Ramesses III with Maat, the goddess of truth and justice, and Thoth, the god of wisdom

There are four rose granite statues at the very back of the complex. They depict Ramesses III with Maat, the goddess of truth and justice, and Thoth, the god of wisdom

This delightfully grisly scene is just one reason this temple, so rich in history, is well worth visiting. So don’t dick around — add this to your Luxor itinerary. –Wally

The design of Medinet Habu borrows from the military gatehouses Ramesses III encountered in Syria

The design of Medinet Habu borrows from the military gatehouses Ramesses III encountered in Syria

 

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). 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 houses 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.

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 (and upper body) — 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 if 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

 

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

Biblioteca Vasconcelos: A Futuristic Architectural Marvel

Architect Alberto Kalach’s amazing library in Mexico City contains bookshelves that hang from the ceiling, and a whale bone sculpture by artist Gabriel Orozco.

Off-the-beaten-path CDMX: la Biblioteca Vasconcelos

Off-the-beaten-path CDMX: la Biblioteca Vasconcelos

After a visit to the labyrinthine and often-claustrophobic Mercado de Sonora Witch’s Market, Duke and I took a short Uber ride to the Biblioteca Vasconcelos in the Colonia Buenavista neighborhood. Dedicated to José Vasconcelos, a Mexican writer, philosopher and politician, the library’s interior is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Story after story of metal and glass bookcases defy logic, floating above like a science fiction version of Hogwarts.
Wally and Duke in ecstasy: Who needs to go to church when you’ve got a library like this?

Wally and Duke in ecstasy: Who needs to go to church when you’ve got a library like this?

The interior is like stepping into an M.C. Escher drawing

The interior is like stepping into an M.C. Escher drawing

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

From the building’s exterior — a fortress of concrete and steel grillwork — you’d never imagine the airy futuristic interior within. However, getting into the hallowed repository of knowledge was a bit tricky. Initially, Duke and I saw the gaping maw of the parking garage and wondered if we had to enter there. We skirted around to the right of the building in an attempt to gain access. When we realized there wasn’t an entrance there either, we paused to ask a local who was walking his dog. He gestured to the left side of the library. We thanked him and made our way over to a courtyard with a couple of smaller buildings and the main entrance.

The exterior of the library isn’t too impressive — but just wait till you step inside!

The exterior of the library isn’t too impressive — but just wait till you step inside!

When we first stepped foot inside the 400,000-square-foot Biblioteca Vasconcelos, designed by Mexican architect Alberto Kalach, we could barely contain our giddiness. We looked around in wonder, our necks craning in every direction.

The floating stacks are a novel way, pun intended, to display books

The floating stacks are a novel way, pun intended, to display books

Story after story of metal and glass bookcases defy logic, while simultaneously offering a sense of complete order, floating above like a science fiction version of Hogwarts. Thin steel beams seem barely able to support the monumental stacks filled with books. Hazy silhouettes of patrons can be glimpsed through translucent sea-green catwalks.

Greenish-blue semitranslucent walkways connect the stacks

Greenish-blue semitranslucent walkways connect the stacks

Seating areas seen from across the expanse

Seating areas seen from across the expanse

We felt as though we had entered a sacred space, one that evoked the same reverence of the organic space-age architecture of La Sagrada Família church in Barcelona, Spain.

The exhibit  Vientos de Japón  ( Winds of Japan)  by master calligrapher Ryuho Hamano was on display when we visited

The exhibit Vientos de Japón (Winds of Japan) by master calligrapher Ryuho Hamano was on display when we visited

Duke daring to lean against the thin wire railing

Duke daring to lean against the thin wire railing

Wally chose a more secure spot for his portrait

Wally chose a more secure spot for his portrait

Sunlight plays a major role at the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, filling the interior with natural light. Ingenious louvered glass panels soften the sun's rays and keep the library from getting too hot.

The far ends of the library offer expansive views of the city

The far ends of the library offer expansive views of the city

As we passed by the first floor patios, we saw teens practicing dance routines, mimicking the choreography seen in some pop star’s latest music video. Beyond them, we could see the sprawling botanic garden that surrounds the structure. During our stay in Mexico City, we saw chilangos of all ages, from teens to seniors, dancing in public spaces.

A botanic park surrounds the structure

A botanic park surrounds the structure

Whenever I got too close to the cable rails on the upper floors of the library, my head would spin with vertigo. It became clear that this was a library for the brave. God forbid I needed a book located at the end of one of these stacks.

Looking down at Gabriel Orozco’s hanging sculpture,  Mobile Matrix

Looking down at Gabriel Orozco’s hanging sculpture, Mobile Matrix

A Whale of a Time: Orozco’s Mobile Matrix

Hovering above the central atrium hall is the striking Mátrix Móvil (Mobile Matrix in English), an intricately inscribed gray whale skeleton fitted onto a metal armature. Conceptual artist Gabriel Orozco and his team used over 6,000 mechanical pencils to etch concentric circles onto the bones, which stretch over 38 feet long. I learned that the whale had died after beaching itself on the Baja Peninsula during a migratory trip along the Mexican Pacific coast. The art piece adds a museum-like quality to the space.

A peek at the whale bone sculpture

A peek at the whale bone sculpture

There’s a lot to see in Mexico City, but the Biblioteca Vasconcelos is worth adding to your itinerary. It’s quite close to CDMX’s historic Centro. And when you’re done exploring this modern marvel (and have taken copious amounts of photos), head past the Buenavista rail and bus station and cross the overpass that spans the bustling Avenida Insurgentes. A 10-minute walk straight down Calle Salvador Díaz Mirón will bring you to the colorful Kiosco Morisco in the nearby Santa María la Ribera neighborhood. –Wally

A forest of paper cylinders with Japanese kana characters on display at the entrance

A forest of paper cylinders with Japanese kana characters on display at the entrance

Duke poses in front of the art exhibit

Duke poses in front of the art exhibit

There are elevators for those who don’t want to walk up all those stairs

There are elevators for those who don’t want to walk up all those stairs

One of the rooms along the sides of the library was filled with women knitting a cool cactus

One of the rooms along the sides of the library was filled with women knitting a cool cactus

Peek-a-boo! Duke looks through one of the stacks near the edge of the railing

Peek-a-boo! Duke looks through one of the stacks near the edge of the railing

Biblioteca Vasconcelos
Mosqueta
Eje 1 Norte S/N
Buenavista
06350 Ciudad de México
CDMX, México

 

6 Reasons to Visit the Museo Dolores Olmedo

The legacy of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo remains alive in this hacienda that’s as pretty as a peacock — which, incidentally, is overrun by them.

The Museo Dolores Olmedo hacienda is as pretty as the peacocks that roam its grounds

The Museo Dolores Olmedo hacienda is as pretty as the peacocks that roam its grounds

I had read that Mexico City is sprawling, but you don’t truly begin to understand this until you’re actually there. And although Uber is a cheap mode of transportation, our advice for exploring CDMX and its many sights is to plan your days according to mayoralities, or municipalities. Since Xochimilco was the farthest destination on our itinerary, we put a day aside to experience the canals and visit the Museo Dolores Olmedo located nearby.

Peacocks strut about the lawn, perch on branches and sit in rows like sentinels on the hacienda’s rooftop.

We were fortunate enough to see a few of the males fan their shimmering iridescent plumage in the hopes of getting lucky.
The original structure dates back to the 1500s

The original structure dates back to the 1500s

Often overlooked by tourists, the estate was once owned by philanthropist and self-made businesswoman Dolores Olmedo Patiño. Known as Lola to her friends, Olmedo purchased the 16th century colonial hacienda in 1962 and resided there until her death in 2002. It’s worth noting that the five-building complex contains the largest private collection of works by Diego Rivera.

A statue of Doña Lola, patroness of the arts, with one of her beloved Xolo dogs

A statue of Doña Lola, patroness of the arts, with one of her beloved Xolo dogs

Olmedo met Rivera when she was 17 and he was in his 40s, when she accompanied her mother, a school teacher, to the Ministry of Education, where Rivera was working on murals in the building. Rivera asked Olmedo’s mother to be allowed to make some drawings of Dolores.

Olmedo amassed the largest private collection of Rivera’s works

Olmedo amassed the largest private collection of Rivera’s works

“My mother gave her permission without knowing I would pose nude. I never told her about it. It was like magic watching how such beautiful shapes came forth from his tiny hands and how, without lifting the pencil from the paper, he could draw such long, smooth lines. The time went by without my noticing it while I posed.” –Dolores Olmedo

That was how the unique lifelong friendship was born. Under the guidance of Rivera, Olmedo amassed a vast collection, which she donated to the people of Mexico.

Here are six reasons to add the Museo Dolores Olmedo to your Mexico City itinerary:

Don’t miss the Frida gallery at the museum — we walked past it at first and had to convince a guard to reluctantly allow us to backtrack

Don’t miss the Frida gallery at the museum — we walked past it at first and had to convince a guard to reluctantly allow us to backtrack

The Colonial kitchen is covered with hand-painted Talavera tile from Puebla, with a swallow bird motif, and was preserved from the 16th century hacienda

The Colonial kitchen is covered with hand-painted Talavera tile from Puebla, with a swallow bird motif, and was preserved from the 16th century hacienda

1. The setting itself is worth the entrance fee.

Formerly known as Hacienda La Noria, which translates to the Water Wheel Estate, the grounds are as impressive as the villa. There’s a variety of fowl, including ducks, geese and peacocks. Lots of peacocks. Peacocks strutting about the lawn. Peacocks perched on the branches of trees — who knew they could fly? Even peacocks sitting in rows like sentinels from the hacienda’s rooftop. We were fortunate enough to see a few of the males fan their shimmering iridescent plumage in the hopes of getting lucky.

The estate is surrounded by spacious gardens with a variety of native plants and flowers: dahlias, bougainvillea and colossal blue agaves. Fun fact: The potent liquor can only be categorized as tequila if it has been produced from the piña, the heart of this varietal.

Giant blue agaves

Giant blue agaves

This is where tequila comes from!

This is where tequila comes from!

2. There are some strange-looking dogs known as Xolos or Mexican hairless.

Close to the hacienda is a spacious pen, home to several bald, wrinkled, dark-skinned canines. Commonly known as the Mexican hairless, the Xoloitzcuintli, or Xolo, are descendants of a pre-Columbian breed of hairless dogs. Their name comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and is a combination of two words: “Xolotl,” the name of the Aztec god of lightning and death, and “itzcuintli,” meaning dog. According to Aztec belief, the breed was created by Xolotl to protect the living and guide the souls of the deceased through the dangers of Mictlán, the underworld of Aztec mythology.

Doña Lola was fond of Xolo, or Mexican hairless dogs. Dante, the pup from  Coco , is one of this breed

Doña Lola was fond of Xolo, or Mexican hairless dogs. Dante, the pup from Coco, is one of this breed

Looks like someone gave this dog a bone (IYKWIM)

Looks like someone gave this dog a bone (IYKWIM)

Dogs carved from volcanic rock adorn the house

Dogs carved from volcanic rock adorn the house

Believe it or not, the so-ugly-they’re-cute canines were a delicacy enjoyed by the Spanish conquistadors, who ate them to the brink of extinction.

Although the breed is revered for its loyalty and intelligence, we don’t recommend dangling your toddler over their pen, as we witnessed a family do while we were there.

Wally sitting on a bench in the style of Frida Kahlo’s painting  The Bus , her recollection of the moment before her tragic accident (that’s Frida to the far right)

Wally sitting on a bench in the style of Frida Kahlo’s painting The Bus, her recollection of the moment before her tragic accident (that’s Frida to the far right)

3. You can check out some of Frida’s artwork.

Part of the allure of the museum was to see the surrealist works of Frida Kahlo. In a separate room, located off the interior arcade of the hacienda, were several small-format works by the prominently browed artist. In life, Doña Lola had little regard for Kahlo as an artist, but purchased 25 of Kahlo’s paintings shortly after her death at Rivera’s insistence to ensure his wife’s work remained in Mexico under one roof.

One of Frida’s native Tehuana dresses looms large from a glass case in the corner.

It should be noted that Frida’s works are frequently traveling. Two of Frida’s most famous works, La Columna Rota and Self Portrait With Monkey, were absent on our visit.

The postcard-sized works we saw are suffused with symbolism. She frequently depicted suffering and loss, using her broken body in her art, having suffered from childhood polio at the age of 6, which left her a semi-invalid, exacerbated by an accident when she was 18, when a trolley car collided with the bus she was on.

Keep an eye out for peacocks in the trees!

Keep an eye out for peacocks in the trees!

A large bust of Diego sits in the gardens

A large bust of Diego sits in the gardens

4. The museum houses the largest collection of Diego Rivera’s art in the world.

Displayed within the cavernous rooms of the main house is a gallery displaying pieces from different periods of Rivera’s work. Arranged in chronological order, the collection starts with early works, including post-Impressionist and Cubist style paintings.

Not to be mean, but we can understand why Rivera called himself Rana-Sapo, or Frog-Toad

Not to be mean, but we can understand why Rivera called himself Rana-Sapo, or Frog-Toad

Cover the kiddies’ eyes! This is a portrait of the dancer Maudelle Bass Weston

Cover the kiddies’ eyes! This is a portrait of the dancer Maudelle Bass Weston


Diego’s  Portrait of Dolores Olmedo (La Tehuana),  1955

Diego’s Portrait of Dolores Olmedo (La Tehuana), 1955

El Picador , a painting of a seated Spanish bullfighter, shows the influence of Diego’s time in Spain under the tutelage of one of Madrid’s leading portrait painters, Eduardo Chicharro

El Picador, a painting of a seated Spanish bullfighter, shows the influence of Diego’s time in Spain under the tutelage of one of Madrid’s leading portrait painters, Eduardo Chicharro

A guard told us we weren’t able to take photos here — until she spotted the sticker that signified we had paid extra for this privilege. We’re not sure if the same rule would have applied with the Frida collection.

If you pay a little extra, you can take pics of the artwork

If you pay a little extra, you can take pics of the artwork

Portrait of Pita Amor , 1957, the year Rivera died

Portrait of Pita Amor, 1957, the year Rivera died

In the Outskirts of Toledo (The Old Men)  reflects the influence of El Greco, whose work Rivera studied while living in Spain

In the Outskirts of Toledo (The Old Men) reflects the influence of El Greco, whose work Rivera studied while living in Spain

Prized pieces from Olmedo’s pre-Columbian collection are distributed among the museum’s rooms — a result of her relationship with Rivera, whose passion for these artifacts is as legendary as the man himself. An entire wall holds effigies known as Colima dogs, depictions of Xolos in terracotta, an essential accessory found buried in ancient tombs throughout Northwestern Mexico. As mentioned, these totems were used to protect and guide the deceased’s spirit through the dangers of Mictlán, the Realm of the Fleshless, or to continue to serve their owners in the afterlife.

Olmedo’s collection of pre-Columbian Colima dogs, which were buried with the dead to guide them on their journey in the afterlife

Olmedo’s collection of pre-Columbian Colima dogs, which were buried with the dead to guide them on their journey in the afterlife

In a room that was once the hacienda’s chapel are preliminary concept sketches for murals that illustrate the extensive planning required for these large-scale works. A mobile fresco, Frozen Assets, which Rivera did for MoMA, the New York Museum of Modern Art, in 1931, which was his commentary on capitalism and its inequality. The skyline is composed of NYC skyscrapers, the Daily News Building, Bank of Manhattan Building, Rockefeller Building and Chrysler Building among them. A steel and glass structure filled with scores of sleeping men, or possible corpses, (the “assets”) are watched by a guard. Beneath it all is a bank vault with a man seated on a bench, waiting to examine his earnings.

Rivera was a fervent collector of ancient Mexican artifacts

Rivera was a fervent collector of ancient Mexican artifacts

Frozen Assets  by Rivera, 1931

Frozen Assets by Rivera, 1931

The final gallery contains a series of sunsets painted from the balcony of Olmedo’s house in Acapulco, which reminded us of Claude Monet’s Impressionist study of haystacks.

Adam and Eve are depicted on this massive Tree of Life, a common theme reflected in traditional Mexican folk art

Adam and Eve are depicted on this massive Tree of Life, a common theme reflected in traditional Mexican folk art

5. You can take a tour of Mexico at the Museo de Arte Popular, or Folk Art Museum.

The gallery that houses this collection is named for the curator Fernando Gamboa. Filled with artifacts acquired by Olmedo from Mexico’s diverse regions, the folk art collection is touted as one of the most important in the world. In the 1920s, when Mexico’s roots were mostly rural, the popular arts and crafts movement became widespread, and was part of the new definition of national identity. On view are masterworks in glass, ceramic, papier-mâché, wood and tin, folk techniques passed down through generations by village craftspeople.

An ofrenda to Rivera concludes  The World of the Dead  exhibit

An ofrenda to Rivera concludes The World of the Dead exhibit

6. End your visit with whimsical ofrendas from various historical epochs.

The Day of the Dead is a popular festival for families to remember and celebrate departed ancestors, and Doña Lola was known for her elaborate ofrendas, “offerings” dedicated to the deceased. Olmedo explored new ways to incorporate the traditional with the world of contemporary art. The theme at this portion of the museum, near the entrance and gift shop, varies from year to year, and on our visit was El Mundo de Los Muertos, The World of the Dead. The exhibit takes you on a journey through the funerary legacy of civilizations throughout history: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Nordic and Mayan, complete with a priest performing a human sacrifice atop a temple.

We found ourselves comfortably spending about two and a half hours at the Museo Dolores Olmedo, delighted by the peacocks, the grounds, folk art and, of course, the works of Mexico’s most famous artist couple.

Duke enjoying the gorgeous setting of the Olmedo estate

Duke enjoying the gorgeous setting of the Olmedo estate

Cost for admission is about $5, with a small additional fee for photography. The museum is free on Tuesdays, though it’s certainly worth 5 bucks not to deal with the extra crowds. –Duke

Stop by the Museo Dolores Olmedo after a morning along the Xochimilco canals

Stop by the Museo Dolores Olmedo after a morning along the Xochimilco canals

Museo Dolores Olmedo
Avenida México 5843
La Noria
16030 Ciudad de México
CDMX
Mexico