by Hank Leukart
March 23, 2011
Shakira, Mohammed, and me
Seeing post-revolution Egypt’s most stunning pharaonic monuments without tourists.
A carving depicts an Egyptian king making an offering to an erect Amun, the Egyptian god of fertility, in Karnak's Great Hypostyle Hall. (view all Karnak, Egypt photos)
HE THEBAN NECROPOLIS, Luxor, Egypt — On the way back from the Pyramids of Giza, our taxi driver, Mohammed (again!), takes Quinn and me through Tahrir Square. This time, it’s a Friday, and we see thousands of people gathered, holding megaphones, waving banners, and snapping cell phone photos. The demonstration looks peaceful, and our guide, Salma, tells us that the demonstrators want to make sure that Egypt’s interim martial leadership complies with the revolutionaries’ demands for a new government. It occurs to me that a revolution is not the final step in the hard work of building a new government, but, rather, the first step.
Quinn and I are starving when we wake up the next morning, and I suggest that we walk to a restaurant, The Egyptian Pancake House, which I’ve found in our guidebook (The Rough Guide to Egypt). Quinn is somewhat reluctant, because she prefers to find her own way instead of following guidebook recommendations. Nevertheless, we search through frenzied Islamic Cairo, weaving down the Muski — a narrow, congested street that looks like a Wal-Mart threw up on it, packed with frantic street vendors, discerning burka-wearing shoppers, and Arabic-signed storefronts. As we make our way into Cairo’s famous Khan el-Khalili bazaar, a British couple spots us. Western tourists are so rare in Egypt right now that they tend to recognize each other from a quarter-mile away and greet each other like old friends. The British couple is no exception; immediately they’ve agreed to join our increasingly-desperate search for fiteer (Egyptian “pancakes” made of layers of filo dough and butter).
As we walk, the ongoing maze of crowded streets becomes so complicated that my guidebook’s map becomes useless.
“Shakira!” vendors yell out to greet blond Quinn — who, objectively, looks almost nothing like blond, Colombian pop-star Shakira — as she walks by. Meanwhile, Egyptian men keep shouting, “You a very lucky man!” to me when they catch sight of Quinn. By the time we’ve realized the hopelessness of our quest, every tiny, clothing-filled alley looks the same as the one before, and we’ve been wandering for an hour and a half. During that time, I’ve been told how lucky I am to be “married” to Shakira at least fifteen times, which makes Quinn and I laugh over and over again. When I ask her if the attention bothers her, she tells me that, compared to places like India — and even the United States — she finds Egyptian men to be less threatening and more respectful toward her overall. I agree with her: despite the horror stories that I had heard about Western women traveling in the Middle East, I find Egyptians to be surprisingly respectful and warm toward both of us.
I’m so hungry that I announce that I want to stop and eat the next thing I see, which, unfortunately, turns out to be a man wearing a turban selling Egyptian rugs. Thankfully, by sheer luck, we stumble upon the upmarket, touristy Naguib Mahfouz Coffee Shop, which isn’t exactly the kind of place I like to go when visiting a foreign country. But, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m so hungry that I’d eat at Applebee’s Islamic Cairo location, if such a sacrilegious thing existed. (Though that hypothetical menu would be fantastic, surely including bottomless falafel-flavored pomegranate margaritas, Jack-cheddar-smothered Egyptian mezzes in a zesty lime sauce, and beef-shawarma-stuffed Triple Chocolate Meltdown cake.)
After our meal, even though we’re no longer hungry, the British couple, Quinn, and I, inexplicably continue our obsessive search for fiteer, until we discover that the Egyptian Pancake House has been closed and replaced by a lone man who has placed a counterfeit “Egyptian Pancakes House” sign above a literal hole in a wall.
“This is why I hate guidebooks,” Quinn says. “We probably could have found fiteer a couple hours ago had we just started asking people where to find some.” It’s hard to disagree with her. Sometimes, I admit, pursuing the goal of eating at a specific Egyptian Pancake House overshadows what should be the real goal: stuffing one’s self with delicious fried bread filled with vanilla custard.
At the end of the day, after Quinn and I part from the Brits, we find a pastry vendor, named Mohammed (seriously!), selling basbousa — an Egyptian, honey-covered, filo dough dessert. After we buy (and eat) a half kilo, Mohammed then transforms himself into a de-facto tour guide, leading us to the roof of the nearby Blue Mosque. Quinn and I are the only people in sight when we climb to the top of one of the mosque’s minarets. As singing and chanting emanates from mosques citywide, Quinn and I watch the sunset, reflecting off the city’s famous Citadel on a hill, over post-revolution Cairo.
Quinn and I wake up at 6 AM the next morning to catch the 10-hour train to Luxor, home to the Theban Necropolis, a complex of gargantuan, ancient Egyptian mortuary temples and elaborate burial tombs. When we arrive, our first stop is the nearby Temple of Amun in Karnak, a titanic structure designed to house the Egyptian gods, big enough to contain ten great cathedrals. Many consider the site to be the single best pharaonic monument in Egypt, and we’re not disappointed. Almost devoid of tourists, Karnak’s dazzling Great Hypostyle Hall — a forest of 136 immense, orangey columns, some 75 feet high and 49 feet around — makes us feel like two tiny mortals who have wandered by mistake into an Egyptian god’s labyrinthine playhouse. As striking as the pillars themselves, the temple’s intricate and beautiful carvings depict the king making offers to the Egyptian god of fertility, Amun, whose enormous, carved erection is so surprising that I originally assume it to be graffiti until I read my guidebook aloud to Quinn: “Some Egyptologists believe that temple priestesses kept Amun happy by masturbating his idol, and that the pharaoh did his bit to ensure the fertility of Egypt by ejaculating into the Nile during the Optet festival.”
“What does it really say?!” Quinn asks me after I read the passage, accusing me of inventing it.
“I can’t believe you think I would — or even could — make that up!” I reply, chuckling.
On our second day in Luxor, we hire a guide named Aladdin to take us to see the Theban Necropolis. When we learn that his daughter’s name is Jasmine, it takes all of our willpower to stop ourselves from asking whether his wife’s name is Jafar, and I realize that Western culture has warped us in strange ways.
Aladdin leads us past souvenir vendors (“Shakira!”/”You a very lucky man!”) on the way to see an collection of tombs in the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Kings. We’re so impressed by the tombs’ vivid hieroglyphics and intricate carvings that we can’t summon enough superlatives to adequately describe them.
Worried that the Pyramids didn’t manage to protect Old Kingdom pharaohs from tomb robbers, later rulers, like Ramses VI and the famous King Tutankhamun, chose to have their tombs built hidden deep under the ground in the Theban Hills’ boundless desert near the West Bank of the Nile. Quinn and I decide to visit King Tut’s tomb, and we’re the only two people inside as we descend into his burial chamber. When we see King Tut’s original mummy and catch a glimpse of the door to the tomb’s famous treasure room, we feel a small flicker of how archeologist Howard Carter and backer Lord Carnarvon must have felt when they discovered the tomb after five years of unsuccessful searching.
Most delicately beautiful, however, is the tomb of Ramses VI. Quinn and I stand in the burial chamber by ourselves, slowly running our eyes over the tomb’s beautiful art, astonished.
“I remember thinking that Egyptian history was one of the most boring subjects I had to learn about when I was in fifth grade,” I admit to Quinn. “If my boring teacher had taken us on a field trip here, I think I’d be a professional Egyptologist now.”
After our tour, Aladdin takes us to a handmade alabaster vase factory and store, where craftsmen demonstrate how they turn locally mined alabaster into attractive pots and vases.
“You a very lucky man,” the storeowner, named Mohammed (really!), says to me as he watches Quinn peruse the selection. “How many wives have you?”
“Just the one,” I say, continuing our marriage ruse designed to avoid awkward conversations.
“You should have four wives,” he says to me. “Though your wife is so beautiful maybe you only need the one.”
“That sounds complicated,” I say, not having any idea how to respond to compliments about the physical appearance of my fake wife. I’m not sure I’d even know how to respond compliments about the physical appearance of my real wife, if I had one. “How many wives do you have?” I ask.
“Two wives, but not so complicated,” he explains. “I spend a day with one and then a day with the other. But if you do have four wives, be sure to buy something for all of them when you buy something for one of them. That’s the complicated part.”
“If I end up with four wives, I’ll keep that in mind,” I tell him. I file his marriage tip under “Lifestyle Tips I Will Never, Ever Need.”
In the evening, back in Luxor, Quinn and I decide to take a sunset cruise on the Nile in a felucca, a traditional Egyptian sailboat. Mohammed, our felucca captain, tells us that we’re his first clients since the revolution. He’s thrilled that we’ve hired him to take us out onto the river, and he’s more thrilled that it’s now legal to sail after sunset because Mubarak’s arbitrary and dictatorial policies have been erased. But Mohammed also tells us, grimly, that the tourist-dependent economy of Luxor is in trouble.
“I pray every day that the tourists return,” he says. “Do you think they’ll come back?”
“They will, very, very soon,” I assure him. But, I’m worried. Even with Mubarak’s resignation, the country is still far from having a new, democratically elected government, and Egypt’s tourist industry is essential to its economy. There’s a big part of me that loves Egypt without the tourists. But, as I’ve been told many times in Egypt, I’m a very lucky man. I know the sad reality of the lives of many Egyptians: if tourists don’t return to Egypt in droves soon, it will be difficult for them to survive.
How to See Karnak and the Theban Necropolis near Luxor, Egypt
- OVERVIEW: Though previous Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11, demonstrations continue (usually on Fridays) throughout Egypt and the US State Department continues to urge citizens to defer non-essential travel to the country. With that in mind, it’s mostly business as usual in Egypt now — except that travelers can get great deals on hotels and tourist services due to the current lack of demand. Also, you won’t find yourself standing in line for anything.
- LOGISTICS: Fly directly to Luxor International Airport from Cairo or most major Western European cities. Or, take a taxi to the Cairo’s Ramses Train Station and take the 10-hour train ride to Luxor. Overnight one-way tickets in a sleeping compartment cost US $60, but standard express train service costs significantly less. Ticket vendors tell tourists that they can’t take the day trains to steer them toward the more expensive sleeper train, but a hotel (or even the tourist police at the station, we heard) will buy tickets for you if you ask. Another useful strategy is to board the train and buy a ticket directly from the conductor when he asks for your ticket, paying a miniscule penalty fee. Luxor is a major tourist destination, so it has a broad selection of hotels. The beautiful Sofitel Winter Place is a great luxury choice. We stayed in the budget-conscious Princess Hotel, which gave us our own bathroom and hot shower for only US $10 per night. The desk staff isn’t pushy but is happy to help you organize tours and willing to negotiate good deals.
- VISITING KARNAK: Do not miss the Temple of Amun at Karnak (£E30/US $11) — it won’t disappoint. The easiest way to visit the Temple is by taking a taxi from Luxor (£E30/US $5 round trip including 2 hours of wait time). It’s also possible to catch a local minibus on the road next to the Nile. You may want to spend a long time lingering in the Great Hypostyle Hall — I recommend bringing a book and simply relaxing amidst the grandeur of ancient Egypt.
- VISITING THE THEBAN NECROPOLIS: The Theban Necropolis is a must-see, but the number of sights is overwhelming. Try seeing the Tombs of the Nobles, Deir el-Bahri, and Medinet Habu on one day; then on a second day treat yourself to an impressive finale by seeing the best sites: the tombs in the Valley of the Queens and Kings (the Ramses VI tomb is spectacular) and the Ramesseum. Visiting any given site (including each individual tomb) costs an average of about £E20/US $3, so don’t expect to see every tomb unless you want to spend a lot of money and have an unnatural penchant for burial chambers. There’s no reason that you can’t do this by yourself by renting a bicycle (£E10/US $1.50 per day) after taking a cheap ferry (£E1/15 US cents) to the Nile’s West Bank (recommended) or a private taxi (£E20/US $3 per hour), but you may find that hiring a guide and driver makes the experience easier, less stressful, and more educational. Finally, the sites are close enough together that fit travelers may want to visit the Necropolis on foot. For the mildly adventurous, it is possible to take a half hour hike over the hills between the Deir el-Bahri and the Valley of the Kings, despite the sign and guard telling you that doing so is prohibited.