luxor

The Tomb of Ramesses IV in the Valley of the Kings

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

A glimpse into burial chamber of Ramesses IV

A glimpse into burial chamber of Ramesses IV

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

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

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

Wally near the tomb’s entrance

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

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

The pharaoh with the god Horus

The pharaoh with the god Horus

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

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

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

Passage to the Underworld

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

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

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

Those naughty Coptics defaced the walls near the entrance

Those naughty Coptics defaced the walls near the entrance

Look for the red graffiti left by early Christians

Look for the red graffiti left by early Christians

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

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

Look up to see stars painted on the ceiling

Look up to see stars painted on the ceiling

Seeing Stars 

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut

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

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

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

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

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

Cobras and Anubis, a jackal-headed god of death

Cobras and Anubis, a jackal-headed god of death

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

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

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

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

 
You get to choose three tombs to visit with your pass

You get to choose three tombs to visit with your pass

The Tomb of Ramesses III in the Valley of the Kings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramesses III, the Great Bull

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

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

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

Ramesses III chose to finish the tomb his father abandoned

Ramesses III chose to finish the tomb his father abandoned

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four-pillared hall leads into the burial chamber

The four-pillared hall leads into the burial chamber

Repurposing His Father’s Abandoned Tomb

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

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

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

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

Tomb of the Harpers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

themummykarloff.jpg

The Inspiration for Karloff’s Mummy

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

 

The Singing Colossi of Memnon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amenhotep III’s Mortuary Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A nice stranger offered to take our picture

A nice stranger offered to take our picture

The Singing Statue

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

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

The Vocal Memnon  by Harry Fenn, 1881-1884

The Vocal Memnon by Harry Fenn, 1881-1884

A Case of Mistaken Identity

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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 morale 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 ushabti servant figurine 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 L.E., 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 L.E. to see the tomb of Tutankhamun, and because we wanted to take pictures inside the tombs, we sprang for a 300 L.E. 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