My wife and I just spent a most memorable week in Egypt, on the famed Nile. Thanks to my mother who hoofed it over from the States to watch over our children, we were afforded a romantic getaway. The visit, organized through Club Med (CM), was part hotel, part cruise. It started and ended in Luxor (we did not want to go to Cairo), but included a day-trip down to Abu Simbel in the south.
The first day of our “discovery” holidays, we were quick to understand that this would not be a typical Club Med experience. The Club Med hotel hosted no more than perhaps 150 people. The CM village was closer to a hamlet and, aside from a reasonably nice pool, offered very few of the typical amenities we had become accustomed to experiencing at a Club Med. In our very average rooms, the mattresses on the beds were okay, but the pillows were more like sponges on steroids. Two other notable facts: the Chef de Village, for the first time in our 6 CM excursions, was a woman; and there were very few children.
Part of the “Ramses II” tour group, we were met by our stalwart guide, Ashraf, bright and early on Sunday. Our first destination was the Luxor Museum. This museum had the benefit of being inside as, despite having chosen an autumnal month, the weather was between 35C and 42C every day.
The guide gave our group the catchy name of “Les Sportifs” which didn’t sit particularly well with most of us – evidently few of us in the group were of the sporty variety and this was not supposed to be a sporting event. That said, battling the heat and the wordiness of our guide became another form of sport. In the meantime, we identified a few interesting faces in our group. It was a rather unlikely group, filled with a number of solitary voyagers, a gang of three male friends, a family of four and two other couples. Picking our way through the group, we ended up forging a wonderfully quixotic sub-group of nine people with whom we shared every meal from the Tuesday evening onward. Among the initial observations about the people at our table, the couples had also come for a “romantic” break, sans enfants. Most of the single people we came across on the tour were women with one notable exception who happened to be part of our group of 9. And he was the type of character that Agatha Christie might have conjured up in the sequel to her first book on the Nile, helped no doubt by the fact that this character as a Belgian.
On the Sunday afternoon (our first full day), we visited the magnificent Karnak site. Thus began our discovery of the ancient Egyptian ruins, the hieroglyphics and the massive scale that were to become familiar throughout the remainder of our excursions. That afternoon, we visited the Luxor Temple ruins. It was only at this time that I came to understand that I would not be visiting any pyramids, as they all are located in and around Cairo, which was not part of this trip.
Our first dinner we managed to meet a couple of other interesting characters, notably one sparkly redhead, who was a self-proclaimed woman of the night (owner of three night clubs in the Paris outskirts). Clearly enamoured with Egyptology, this lady (R.) was on her twelfth visit to this very same Luxor Club Med. A lady friend, M., at the same table appeared to have accompanied her. However, their association was somewhat clandestine and utilitarian. M., a Corsican, was also heavily immersed in Egyptology and, via some of R’s “inside connections,” was plotting a secret trip into the heart of Nubia (a female version of Marlow in the Heart of Darkness?). All rather appropriate scenery for a cruise on the mysterious Nile.
After dinner, Yendi and I retired to our room where we watched the BBC news and discovered that Tut Ankh Amon’s (aka Toot) mummified body had just been unveiled and was now on public display for the first time in its history. The BBC news report was not very clear as to where the mummy was laid, all the more confusing considering King Tut’s treasures (at least those not in London) lie in the Cairo Museum.
The following morning, with what began to feel like a customary early wake-up (we’re talking 6 a.m….nominally to avoid the crowds), we headed out for the Valley of the Kings, the famed burial site of King Tut Ankh Amon. En route, we were graced with the visit of the Colossus of Memnon, two 15-metre tall statues. Arriving at the Valley of the Kings, Ashraf gave us a horrendously elaborate introduction. Much to our chagrin, busloads of Japanese and other tourists (who had not gotten up as early as we had) started pouring into the tombs ahead of us. Yendi and I saw fit to break from the sportifs crowd and, in our first demonstration of rebellion against the oh-so-controlling guide, we chose to visit the tombs without further instruction. With our specially purchased King Tut Tomb tickets, we bee-lined it for Tomb #62, the last discovered tomb which had contained the grand majority of the original treasures upon its discovery.
Going down the shaft, we were unaccompanied. As it turned out, we found ourselves entirely alone (with a guard on hand) for what felt like a completely private visit with King Tut, a 19-year-old boy at his death, with
little to say for his reign, but made famous for allowing the world to discover the true treasures that accompany a Pharaoh into the afterlife. As I was departing, the guide subtly indicated that for 10 Egyptian Pounds (1.5 euros), I could take an illicit photo of the mummy. By respect, I decided not to take this photo; but I wonder if I will come to regret that “grace.” Right, a photo, courtesy of a Chinese supplier Xinhua. One can see that the Ancient Egyptian mummifying techniques were remarkable in their effectiveness. We visited the allotted three other tombs (Ramses IV, III and Taousert & Sethnakht). Then we visited the Valley of the Nobles and the exquisite Ramoses tomb (because the rock was harder, the details in the sculptures were more minute and precious). We also saw a couple of tombs of Artisans (a notch below the nobles and still given more significant burial rites) in Deir el-Medina and rounded out the action-packed and exhausting morning with a visit of the enormous, 3-tiered Al Deir Al-Bahari temple.
Our one-day trip to Abu Simbel was entirely incredible. The UNESCO supported feat, in 1959-1960, to transplant the two magnificent temples (right) up 60 metres and back another 200 metres into a manmade hill, is a credit to modern engineering, just as much as the site itself is a credit to ancient ingenuity. A visit well-worth making.
The remainder of the week was filled with far fewer excursions, some leisurely cruising and numerous fun meals with our gang of nine. Other sites visited included the magnificent Philae Temple (transplanted from a submerged islet… scroll down to check out the ‘artist’ rendering here of how it might have been in its heyday), a side-trip to the new Nubia museum in Aswan, Edfu Temple, Kom-Ombo Temple and, last but not least, the exquisite Dendara Temple.
Among the odd observations I came to make during this week in Egypt, I note the following:- All the tourist buses keep their motors running while waiting for their passengers to visit the site. Aside from the waste of petrol, the odor was very off-putting. Not very ecolo.
– On the other hand, virtually every car we passed contained multiple passengers (to the point of overloading…including animals). Car-pooling on speed (literally, as all codes of the road were disregarded). Traffic conditions are hazardous. Speed limits are optional. High beams are rare. As is respecting red lights.
– Leaving Abu Simbel on the flight back to Aswan, the pilot took off before the instructions (how to fasten seat belt, etc.) were finished.
– The bloody pigeons that defecate all over my car in Paris had migrated southeast over the last month, and were now omnipresent at the ruins, doing undue damage to the ancient structures.
– The women in the street were virtually all veiled. There were more women with the full chador than unveiled women.
– Entering museums, or crossing the multiple cruise ships (to gain access to our own), there were metal detectors that went off systematically. I was never body searched, except once at the airport, with the most cursory of body checks (a one-two-tap-okay).
– We were given the riot act as far as watching out for thieves. That said, we also know it is improper to call an Arab a robber… a cute dilemma. Since we had the pleasure to take a round- trip domestic flight, as well as the return to Paris (from Luxor), we were able to understand the Egyptian definition of the “worldwide” security measures at airports. Essentially, the signage is basically the same, except that all liquids pass; putting cosmetics into the small ziplock is at best discretionary.
To close out this post, I leave you with a few statements that our Egyptian guide made, that were borderline outrageous, if not humourous:
– there was no slavery in Egypt before the Greeks arrived (4th century BC)
– the word ‘castle’ in English comes from a similar sounding word in ancient Egyptian
– the word “Amun” is rooted in every religion (i.e. amen)
– he claimed to be Christian, yet he did not have the Christian cross tattooed on his wrist (like all Copts). I would like to say that it was a cop-out, rather than a copt-out. More likely, just a way to diffuse any questions.
Anyway, a magnificent week filled with discoveries of a magnificent old civilisation, a random and wonderful set of new acquaintances and, upon our return, two well spoiled children (thanks Morsan and Cyril). Amun.