May 15, Valley of the Kings, Egypt.
There once was a river called Nile,
That supported great pharaohs in style,
With gods they were chummy,
Dressed up as a mummy,
These kings of the valley of Nile.
Our three-day tour of Egyptian antiquity begins in Luxor. We drive four hours from the Red Sea town of Safaga, through the Eastern Desert. Gradually the vast expanses of sand give way to the green patchwork of family-owned farms, busy with laborers and donkeys, harvesting the gifts of the Nile.
We arrive in Luxor, located about 400 miles south of Cairo. In ancient times they called it Thebes, which served as the capital of Upper Egypt. Today it’s a center for tourism and agriculture. We check into the Hilton Hotel overlooking the Nile. After lunch we drive to our first stop – the Valley of the Kings.
Ancient Egyptians were firm believers in an afterlife and spared no expense to give their leaders a royal sendoff. They knew how to mummify bodies and believed it necessary to equip their deceased with plenty of furniture and other objects. The mummified bodies were ensconced in underground tombs along with a collection of furniture and other worldly items. Near the town of Luxor is a site with many such tombs.
Known as the Valley of the Kings, this site is situated in a rocky, bone-dry valley, where for hundreds of centuries Egyptian pharaohs, kings and some of their families were mummified and entombed. Archaeologists have unearthed 62 tombs so far, and work is underway to find more. Tomb size varies, but the design comcepts are always the same. We hear some of the stories of the lives of these rulers, of their conquests, family disputes, incestuous reproductions, and colorful behaviors. The stuff of tabloid magazines.
We visit 4 tombs. In each tomb we walk underground through the long corridors leading to the final chamber. Inside the chamber is the sarcophagus which holds the mummified remains of the deceased leader. In adjacent rooms, if they have not been stolen over the centuries, are furniture and artifacts that the king would need in his or her afterlife. The smallest of these tombs is that of Tutankhamun, the famous boy-king who died at age 19.
Egyptian royalty were not minimalists. Their tombs are elaborately decorated with colorful hieroglyphics and drawings on almost every possible surface. We are not allowed to bring cameras inside, though I do manage to sneak a few photos on my cell phone. Given the thorough corruption that is part of Egyptian culture today, it would be easy to slip a few dollars to any of the ‘guides’ inside the tombs, and thus buy the privilege of taking some pictures. However I can get much better photos from available postcards.
One of the realities of visiting ancient Egypt is dealing with the culture of modern Egypt. Tourism virtually stopped during the January/February protests here. Two months later it is probably no less safe than before the protests, though most tourists are still staying away. With a paucity of tourists dollars, the young, mostly uneducated hawkers behave desperately.
They hound tourists with in-your-face aggressiveness, trying to sell their junky trinkets. Some tourists feel pity and buy junk they neither want nor need. Others play the game, turning it into an art-form. Tourists can show a slight interest in a trinket, then refuse every possible price, including free. They can return to the bus, feigning indignation and contempt toward the hawker. Once the tourist gets back on the bus, the hawker knows to stand outside his window, signaling surrender to the traveler, who at that point gets off the bus and pays $5 for two of the trinkets that were originally priced at $25 each. And thus concludes the transaction in which a hawker sells what he doesn’t want, to a traveler who purchases what he doesn’t need. To formally close this deal, both parties are required to express final regret and disappointment that they did not get a better price.
For those not interested in material acquisitions, the persistence of the hawkers is bothersome. There are two methods of dealing with this. The first is to simply pretend that the hawkers do not exist. I call this the “there is no spoon” method. The second is to make it completely clear to the antagonist that you would rather sleep with cobras than buy their postcards. This second method is not as effective however, because most hawkers will interpret any acknowledgment of their existence as an opening bid.
I leave the Valley of the Kings wondering what the great pharaohs would have thought about the dynamics of today’s tourism.
Vast desert enroute to Luxor