From the Old to the New Kingdom: The Temples & Tombs of Luxor


The dawn of 10th Apr saw us taking a peaceful morning walk on the beautiful Nile Corniche with the chirping of sparrows (so glad to see hundreds of them wherever we went in Egypt) to keep us company as we headed to the Karnak Temple 3 km away from our hotel.

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We made an early start to beat the heat of the day and the hordes of visitors who would descend post their breakfast. Though it was not the peak tourist season and hence in general not too much of a crowd at any time, we preferred the luxury of having these amazing historical sights almost entirely to ourselves by getting there as close to opening times (6 am in Luxor) as possible. It certainly helped that we lived across the road literally both at Giza and Luxor, choosing clean & modest accommodations over the more comfortable downtown places we are otherwise used to.

Luxor, like Cairo, in the ancient times, had the two banks of the Nile used for distinct purposes – the East with its sunrise was the land of the Living while the West where the sun sets was the destination for those making their way into the After-Life. So the temples are of worship are located on the East bank while the West bank houses the tombs and memorial / mortuary “temples” built for the departed.

We had read about the magnificence of the Karnak Temple, but seeing it in person left us awestruck and wondering at the splendour & grandeur that had been achieved over 3000 years ago! Entering through an avenue of ram-headed Sphinxes, we found ourselves in a large courtyard with tall pillars and statues and leading into altars on the two sides.

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The Karnak Temple was dedicated to the reigningIMG_0486 deity of Thebes (the
region) Amun, his wife Mut and their son Khonsu, referred to as The Thebian Triad. The highlight of this massive temple complex (for us) was the huge Hypostyle Hall, large enough to house London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral & Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica together. It has an array of massive 25+ meter high pillars each of which is engraved with various symbols of ancient Egypt. There are 2 distinct patterns of engravings on the 2 sides, attributed to the 2 Pharaohs responsible for their construction, with pillars on each side being exactly identical!

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The walls of the hall are engraved with detailed scenes of rituals of offerings and processions. Looking up, one can still see the remnants of the bright blue and red colours that once adorned the pillars and ceiling. What would this place have looked like in its heyday ?!!

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Beyond the grand hall we see two obelisks, Egypt’s tallest at 30 meters. It was erected by Queen Hatshepsut, one of the rare women rulers of ancient Egypt, to the glory of her “father” Amun (the deity of Thebes). We wandered through the rest of this massive temple complex, to see more halls, altars and the inner core, the original sanctum of Amun which is perfectly aligned in the East-West direction.

The tourist buses have now begun to arrive and we exit, in an antique taxi, to head back to the cool environs of our hotel for breakfast and escape the heat wave that continues to grip Egypt.

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In the evening it was hop, skip & jump across the road to the Luxor temple and the Avenue of Sphinxes. This is not a temple of worship and was probably used for coronation ceremonies, besides an annual procession of the deities from the Karnak temple.

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In what may have been akin to the chariot festivals a.k.a “Rath Yatra” / “Ther Thiruvizha” still held in some temples in India, the deities of Karnak temple were brought to the Luxor temple in an annual procession through the Avenue of Sphinxes that connected the two temples.

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What remains now is a very small portion of the 3 km stretch lined with Sphinxes, with the city getting built over various parts. A lone Sphinx can still be seen here & there as one traverses the town.

IMG_0553 The Luxor Temple, though smaller in scale than Karnak, is characterised by similar large courts, hypostyle hall, larger than life statues and grandeur that were characteristic of this great civilisation.

The temple IMG_0563was built and extended over years by various kings and completed by Tutankhamun. A statue of him with his wife Ankhesenamun can be seen in the temple.

The Temple was converted into a fortress by the Romans when they occupied the area much later around 250 AD. In a bid for their own claim to fame, the Romans painted over some of the walls and used the altars as chapels. The Roman painting is visible in a corner of the wall – note the top left corner in the picture below.

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A lot accomplished in the day on the East bank and IMG_0580having braved the hot dusty breeze that persisted even at sunset, we wound down with a horse cart ride and a dinner on the rooftop. Manish braved the gusts of wind that started up as we finished dinner to revisit the temple to see the night lighting. Mihika & I chose to admire it from a distance!

Next up on our list for the West bank are the Valley of Kings, the Hatshepsut memorial temple, Medinet Habu and Colossi of Memnon.

A historical perspective – As we move in time from the Old Kingdom of Lower Egypt (Dahshur, Saqqara, Cairo) through the Middle Kingdom and to the New Kingdom of Upper Egypt (Luxor to Aswan), the Pharaohs moved from building pyramids to carving out & decorating their would-be tombs in the pyramid shaped Thebes mountain on the West bank of the Nile in Luxor. The kings are buried in the Valley of Kings, the queens in the Valley of Queens and the aristocrats in the Tombs of the Nobles. The workers who built the tombs also had a place designated for their own tombs, the Deir al-Medina.

It was an early start and we were pleasantly surprised by the cool morning, cloudy and with a drizzle! What a relief after the heat wave, we IMG_0618couldn’t have asked for better weather for this day of intense sight-seeing. Crossing over the Nile, we drove up the Thebes passing a few sharp bends (!!) to get to the Valley of the Kings.

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There are 8 tombs that are open to the visitors on any given day (and these can be different) and one can choose any 3 to explore from the inside. The first one we chose was Merenptah’s, the 13th son of the great Ramesses II, who finally got a chance to rule after 67 years of his father’s reign while his 12 older siblings had no such luck! We chose this as it is reputed to be among the most beautiful of all in the Valley of Kings.

Tomb-building had become more elaborate with time and unlike the older pyramids where we had to bend and walk single-file through a tunnel to get to the sarcophagus, here we have wide passages with high ceilings to walk down comfortably. Just as well, as the tombs are built quite deep inside with at least a 100 steps to climb down. The walls and ceilings of the passage and the rooms inside are all elaborately decorated with the Egyptian Book of the Dead to guide the soul on its journey to the afterlife. No photos are allowed in any of the tombs here, so sorry can’t share the beauty we witnessed inside.

The next 2 choices were Horemheb and Tuthmosis III, the former being a General who went on to become the only Pharaoh of non-royal origin and the latter famed as the Napoleon of Egypt. Tuthmosis III’s tomb is unique in the way he built it – high up between 2 hills and across a ravine, with many tunnels and false doors – all to keep it safe from the tomb raiders who the Pharaohs dreaded. A visit to his tomb is breath-taking, literally that is, with having to first climb up about 4-5 floors worth of steps and then down about 5-6 floors. Needless to say, you need to climb up & down to get back out!

Our morning exercise more than taken care of, we headed to the Hatshepsut Temple, a beautiful piece of architecture that looks like its been carved out of the mountain. Hatshepsut was the most important of all female Pharaohs (there being less than a handful of them throughout the dynastic rule) who ruled for nearly 15 years when she became a widow.

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Climbing up past the vast open court, 1460374273758we came face-to-face with the huge statues of Osiriform Hatshepsut, only a few of the original 24 remain now. The walls in the halls a level below have painted depictions of the divine birth of Hatshepsut and her expedition to the Land of Punt, an exotic country on the Red Sea coast to get plants needed for incense-making and other trade.

The tIMG_0635emple houses a sanctuary of Anubis, the jackal headed God of mummification and afterlife. Here is a relief depicting Anubis that has survived on the temple walls. The ceilings 1460374274794here have the familiar “shower of stars” – see the golden stars set against the night sky backdrop here.

The next monument we visited and nearly the last for the day was Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramesses III. Built in the style of a Syrian fort, it has well preserved reliefs and pillars.

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We found the depiction of Ramesses II riding his chariot quite striking. A pigeon was perched in the centre, on horseback when we clicked!

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On our way back we stopped by the landmark Colossi of Memnon, the giant twin statues of Amenhotep III.

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We crIMG_0672ossed back over the Nile to come home to a lunch with Egyptian Sakara beer and local veggie and chicken to fill our starving selves before a nice afternoon nap, all the time thanking our lucky stars for the pleasant cool morning that made it possible for us to cover so much ground. In the evening, we were finally rewarded with a beautiful sunset over the Nile (not having had any before due to the storm dust hanging in the air). We took a felucca (wooden sailboat) ride for a quiet evening to mark the end of our Egyptian sojourn.

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Much to Mihika’s delight, she found an antique PBX with a dial-pad at the hotel reception that evening and it was fun to tell her hIMG_0690ow we dialled numbers on telephones in the days when we were growing up.

Thanks for reading this rather long post! We had the envious task of giving you a glimpse of human feats achieved over a 2000 year period!!

Keep following and encouraging us … as we move to the next continent(North America) on our itinerary ! Also keep reading Mihika’s blogs at www.iammihika.com

 

Pyramids Galore : The Necropolis at Giza, Saqqara & Dahshur

As I was led to a corner interrogation room at Cairo airport surrounded by a bunch of hefty police officers, my first thought was that since Papa, Ma and Meha are devotees of Lord Ganesha, I would be saved. I also cursed myself for not going to temples frequently enough. The under-waist belt, which had been chosen after extensive research of best solutions to keep credit cards and money secure, was the culprit. Sweating profusely I tried to convince the police that there was no hidden bomb. My cute looks got me off the hook and out we were – what an adventurous start to the world trip – a fully avoidable type.

Before that, we had bidden farewell to folks in Chennai, enjoyed some interesting signage at Mumbai airport, endured a crazily-long immigration queue at Mumbai and wasted one hour in searching for the pre-departure lounge to relax.IMG_0218

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While INR 20,000 looks like a hefty fee for a credit card, Citibank Prestige card is a beast for this kind of world-trip application, with privilege of 2 priority passes (free lounge access around the world!), Taj vouchers, a multitude of airmiles and what not. Anyway, at 1 am Mika and I fought in the lounge about whether the orange juice should be drunk straight off the 1-litre carton or a glass. As we boarded Egypt Air 969 to Cairo and I looked at the tiny 737-80o, my first thought was how will it fly 6 hours and prayed it should not run out of fuel mid-air !

A smooth flight later, we landed in Cairo safely and the reality that we were ACTUALLY on the road for a year, sank in.IMG_0249After the airport police adventure, as the taxi approached the pyramids, we felt in familiar territory in the midst of squalor of Giza village.IMG_0260

Even after reading Lonely Planet Egypt countless times, nothing prepared us for the breathtaking view that awaited us at breakfast from the rooftop of the lovely Pyramids View Inn (ranked #1 on TripAdvisor). We had complete “paisa vasool” for 2 nights, shamelessly staring at the Pyramids all the time. Arre bhai, we are Indians !IMG_0292

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Quickly refreshed, we crossed the road and encountered the Sphinx first. He is supposed to be guarding the great pyramids. The Greeks named it thus as it resembled their mythical monster (man with haunches of a lion) who set riddles and killed the ones unable to answer. Bad at riddles, I tried to run away but Mika forced me to take the customary tourist poses.IMG_0267

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A little primer: Egyptian kingdoms are divided into 3 phases. Old, Middle & New. The Giza pyramids fall into first lot – the enthu of the Pharaohs too was at its highest to allow such megalomania. The two main Pyramids are of Khufu and Khafre. While Khufu built the bigger one at 146m (in 2570 BC),

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I personally liked his son Khafre’s pyramid (136 m) better. First, it is perfectly aligned with the Sphinx. Second, the white limestone sandstone covering at the top gives it a really cooler look. Third, Meha likes it too!

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The tombs of Khafre and Khufu had been raided long back and their mummies never found. “India”. “Amitabh Bacchan is inside the tomb”. “Hey Maharaja”. The unbelievably never-ending persistence of the horse/camel/souveneir vendors is mind-boggling. We were also offered their wares in Indian Rupees! All this is harmless but can get on your nerved after 2 hours in scorching heat. Before they turned Mika into a mummy, we headed back to the hotel for a well-deserved nap.IMG_20160407_120701

At 7 pm, we are ready for the free light and sound show that you can watch from the hotel’s roof top. Paisa vassol (value for money) of the highest order! A lovely Kushari meal later, we snored with the eerie feeling that Khufu and Khafre’s spirits are just outside our hotel window.IMG_0386

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Over our morning walk through the Giza village the next morning, we learnt where to head to if the Pyramids vendor assault makes you mad.IMG_20160408_060214

We saw some more authentic Giza morning scenes (some pretty and some not) that you won’t get to see if staying in downtown Cairo. It taught us that Taj Mahal or Pyramids – apathetic politicians are the same world over with regards to (non)maintenance of surroundings of their country’s prized monuments!IMG_20160408_060405

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After a  lovely breakfast, and 1000 pictures later, we took one more snap and bid the Pharaohs a “bhaav-bheeni vidai” (heartfelt good bye) – notice the purple flowers in the foreground against the pale and weathered ancient monuments. Also notice sadness in Meha’s and Mika’s eyes.

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At 7:30 am (8th April 2016), we headed off to Saqqara, Dahshur & Memphis – containing pyramids older than those at Giza. There are a total of 118 pyramids in and around Cairo! Our affable drive Abdullah tells us that Saqqara has 2 million date palm trees and a multitude of carpet schools
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IMG_0443While the Giza pyramids get all the tourist glory, the other ones are mind-boggling nevertheless, and can be covered as a day trip. First up was Saqqara. It contains 11 major pyramids of the Old Kingdom Pharaohs.

As we entered Imhotep museum, we were greeted by these lovely Blue-cheeked Beeeaters.IMG_0412

The rock star of Saqqara is the Step Pyramid – commissioned by Pharaoh Zoser and architected by Imhotep (also considered world’s first physician). You enter through a hypostyle hall which has 40 pillars resembling a bundle of palm or papyrus stems.IMG_0417

This is followed by Great South Court featuring a bunch of cobras representing goddess Wadjet, who spat fire and represented destruction.IMG_0420

Then comes the step pyramid itself.

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Saqqara also has Mastaba of Ti. Mastaba = Bench in Arabic. It was the benched stone structure directly above the actual tomb. Mika was thrilled to enter the tomb everywhere. Meha and I were scared and claustrophobic – kids now a days are fearless.IMG_0437

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The last stop at Saqqara was Pyramid of Teti. Teti was a 6th dynasty pharaoh (2340 BC) and his tomb is one of the best preserved from inside. Again Mika enjoyed entering the tombs and posing for pictures ! The paranoid me kept thinking what if we get stuck underground here and escape strategies ….IMG_0433

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Abdullah then whisked us to Dahshur, 10 Kms south of Saqqara. Khufu’s dad Pharaoh Sneferu built Egypt’s first TRUE pyramid here called the Red Pyramid and also the Bent pyramid. After Giza, these 2 are the biggest pyramids. Entering the Red pyramid was an adventure in itself – 125 steep stone steps followed by god knows how many more ups and downs, after which you reach three different 15 meter high burial chambers, each being an independent structure itself. Don’t forget to take your torch inside !IMG_0445

Bent pyramid is cooler looking than Red – because of its strange shape. They started ambitiously giving it a 54 degree angle but decided, “boss, ye to nahi hoga” (gosh, this is going no where) , and turned the incline to 43 degrees to finish it off. Phew ! Ho gaya khatam!!IMG_0448

Ok, take a deep breath and revise with me. The first pyramids EVER built were Step pyramids (2650 BC). THEN came the Bent Pyramid (2600 BC – a trial to build the real ones). THEN the Red Pyramid (same time frame as Bent – around 2600 BC – they figured out how to build a TRUE pyramid by now) . Then the REAL DEAL – the Great Pyramids at Giza (2560 BC) . Chalo ab paise nikaalo !

It is 1230 pm under scorching sun. We bid good bye to the best-mannered Abdullah who epitomized the best of Egypt tourism – carefree, humorous and understated grace.

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Time to head off to Egyptian Museum where Tutankhamun’s Gold mask awaits us. The museum is off Tahrir Square, which in 40 degree summer heat, shows no signs of revolution. IMG_0452

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We meander through this amazing treasure cove of over 10,000 objects, including the special Tutankhamun galleries (alas no pictures allowed of his famed mask but boy it was ultra-special!).

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Unable to take a pictures of Tutankhamun’s mask, I got increasingly desperate and looked around to find his underwear which resembled the Indian “langoti” and looked sufficiently interesting to deserve a click.IMG_20160408_160309

The piece de resistance of the museum was the special mummy gallery which has an additional ticket. This gallery was worth the price – going back in time 3000 years and looking at those embalmed bodies, some with the curly hair befitting rock stars like Alice Cooper, was surreal. This time desperation truly got the better of me and when the attendant looked the other way, I clicked a REAL MUMMY ! Yahoo !!

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It is 4:30 pm. Dark clouds are gathering perhaps symbolizing the state of our sore feet. Meha insists on a coffee in the museum’s cafe after which we head back to Giza again. Bye Bye Cairo. See you Luxor , starting with Egyptian Railways train adventure tomorrow.

Thanks for reading our blog and we will be back soon with our Luxor adventures.

Meha, Manish & Mika