luxor

Al Moudira: A Dream Oasis in Luxor, Egypt

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

This elaborate woodwork forms one wall of the central courtyard

This elaborate woodwork forms one wall of the central courtyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reception area

The reception area

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

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

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

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

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

A Tour of Al Moudira

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

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

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

Garden paths made of repurposed tile meander throughout Al Moudira

Garden paths made of repurposed tile meander throughout Al Moudira

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boss Tells Us the History of Al Moudira

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

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

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

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

The Eastern Bar has naughty artwork, games and a piano

The Eastern Bar has naughty artwork, games and a piano

Enjoy a cocktail before and/or after dinner

Enjoy a cocktail before and/or after dinner

The bar evokes a cozy parlor in a British mansion

The bar evokes a cozy parlor in a British mansion

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

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

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

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

“Did you get your way?” Wally asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“The Only Place Possible in Luxor”

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

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

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

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

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

The central courtyard is where most guests have breakfast and dinner

The central courtyard is where most guests have breakfast and dinner

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

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

The pool is where the action is in the afternoon

The pool is where the action is in the afternoon

Get a drink or a bite at the pool pavilion

Get a drink or a bite at the pool pavilion

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

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

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

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

Hotel Al Moudira
Luxor
West Bank,
Hager Al Dabbeya
Egypt

 

Shopping in Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Luxor Souk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“$50,” I said.

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

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

“What happened to $75?!” I exclaimed.

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

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


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

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


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

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

How to Get Detained at the Airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Not to Bargain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The charming Linda at her Luxor shop, Habiba Gallery

The charming Linda at her Luxor shop, Habiba Gallery

Habiba: The Best Shop in the Souk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomb Raiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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