The Great Temples of Upper Egypt
12.01.1965 - 15.01.1965
Changed some money unofficially and then got the Luxor train at midday. The journey took thirteen hours and I did not sleep. Towards the end it became bitterly cold, but during daylight hours it was very pleasant. I was able to read, and the scenery along the Nile basin was very beautiful. Just past Giza station I caught my first glimpse of the Great Pyramids. Standing out there on the desert, beyond the fertile stretch, they had a simplicity and a majesty I have never seen before - and I only glimpsed them from the train window. Further on I recognized the Stepped Pyramid of Saqqara, with a small pyramid to its right. During the trip I saw something of Egyptian village and small town life and did not think it differed so much from that of India. We arrived in Luxor at 1.00 am Wednesday and a chap showed us the Youth Hostel or Biti Shabat. He wanted the inevitable baksheesh. I was glad to get a bed at that late hour, as I had not expected to obtain one.
Luxor, site of the ancient city of Thebes, with its necropolis to the west, on the opposite side of the river, and Karnak to the north, is wonderful. The first thing that struck me this morning was the sunshine and the warmth - it is like the early days of summer down here. Then I saw the Nile, wide and bluey-brown - a magnificent river. Plying it always are timeless sailing craft (from the train coming down I could always tell where the Nile was, as masts and sails were constantly in sight, moving slowly through the fields in a strangely incongruous manner). Now here are the boats and sails up close, looking extremely picturesque. We can hardly resist taking a photograph every time one comes near.
There are lawns and seats right along the Luxor bank, and I could spend hours just lying in the sun looking at the river, and over the fields on the other side to the Theban Hills with all their ancient temples and tombs. The feeling here is not of the present day - not only because of the monuments, thousands of years old, but because the general atmosphere in Luxor evokes the turn of the century. Most of the hotels were built about that time, and still retain their colonial splendour. The main form of transport to and from the monuments is by horse drawn carriage, left over from that era, but kept in good condition, nicely painted, with studded leather seats and highly polished brass carriage lamps. The scene here is sunny, slow-moving and definitely Victorian. It is a very pleasant place to spend a few days in winter. I enjoyed half an hour haggling with the Director of Antiquities, finally gaining a student’s pass from him - then we bought a guide book and went to see the Great Temple of Luxor, here in the town itself, on the bank of the river.
It is massive and finely preserved, and since it was the first example of ancient Egyptian architecture I have inspected, I was most impressed by the fine courts, halls and colonnades. The papyrus and lotus columns have a beautiful grace and proportion, massive though they are.
We are finding that living costs here in Luxor are cheap, and we had a fair meal tonight for about ten cents. Tomorrow we will see the other side of the river.
We hired bicycles and crossed the Nile early by the launch. We cycled a few miles and went first to the Temple of Seti I, which was in a good state and quite impressive, though it is considered one of the lesser temples. We rode on, and after a strenuous effort came to the Valley of the Kings, where for once we did not mind paying twice the regular price for a bottle of beer. We only visited about five of the better tombs, but I think we saw enough. The best to my mind were those of Tutankhamen and Amenhotep II. The coffin of King Tut was still in the sarcophagus, where it has been for three thousand years. It was solid gold, and a superb sight. It was only a small tomb, but the wall paintings were simple and the colouring still fast and very fresh looking. Amenhotep’s tomb was deep and well planned (it was once used as a ‘tomb of safety’ to store the bodies of other pharaohs ), but there were no paintings until the final chamber.
These were beautiful in their monotone simplicity, however, and were in a perfect state, as was the simple repeated roof design. It was the best tomb I saw. A third tomb was similar in style, and very interesting in that the paintings had not been completed. I could see ‘sketching in’ where the final paintings were to be executed, but never were. Presumably the pharaoh needed it in a hurry. After the Valley of the Kings, we visited the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, facing the river at the base of the Theban Hills.
This was not quite as spectacular close up as it appears from a distance, though still impressive. We were becoming tired by this time, and did not worry too much about seeing the remainder of the temples in great detail. The Ramesseum, I had expected to be in better shape, but it was good nonetheless, especially for a great relief depicting a conquest by Ramesses over an enemy.
And there was another huge temple complex further on (Medinet Habu) which we also visited, before heading back to the river crossing, stopping on the way at the Colossi of Memnon.
The only thing remaining for us to see was Karnak, a couple of kilometres north along the river, and we walked up there this morning. It is a vast area, crammed with ruins, and the most satisfying view I thought was looking over it from the top of one of the huge pylons on the main Temple of Amun-Ra. The plan of the site was much clearer from there. The great hypostyle hall, with its 134 massive columns, was extraordinary, and I particularly liked the smaller Temple of Ramesses III, which juts through the wall and into the main forecourt. We almost missed the excellent Temple of Khons, but fortunately we did not, and visited it afterwards.
The one of Osiris beside it was different and had some good reliefs. I think I have seen my limit of temples for the present, but have enjoyed Luxor immensely. I want to cross the Nile again at sunset to get some photos of the river bank, and that about does it. This has been a most rewarding three days.
Of all the places I have revisited on my virtual journey, Luxor is where I have lingered most. We took quite a few slides of the various temples there, and I was at pains to identify them accurately as I was scanning. This necessitated doing a bit of research, both on the web and in books, and along the way I became absorbed once more in ancient Egyptian culture, especially the architecture. The Google Earth images of the Luxor area are particularly clear, and the spherical 360 Cities panoramas available at various sites give an amazing sense of being there. I have been able to zip around at low altitude from monument to monument, as if on wings, landing in temple forecourts, the Valley of the Kings, on Theban mountain ridges, or the banks of the Nile. I have followed the vestiges of great avenues of sphinxes from one temple to another, and gained an overview of sites like Karnak in a way I never did when I was actually there. At times I have felt as though I could reach down and pick up a pebble, and the availability of this kind of sensation, at the click of a mouse, has added another dimension to my original, well remembered experience.
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