Time Out – Chilling on the Red Sea

Today I left Luxor to head to the Red Sea. On the way, I made a brief stop to see the Temple of Hathor (goddess of love) at Dendara. It is relatively recent by Egyptian standards, with its main structures being built under the Ptolemeic pharaohs just before Roman rule. The art work on the columns and ceiling was amongst the most beautiful I had seen in Egypt.

Richly decorated columns and ceiling
A dark, atmospheric main hall

It is one of the best preserved ancient temples, and still has its roof – which you can walk up on to.

Amazing detail on the ceiling
Me on the roof

An hour after Dendara, the road reached the coast and then headed north. To my left, was desolate, empty desert. To my right, all along the sea, there was mile after mile of ugly concrete sprawl around the main city called Hurghada. Many buildings had been abandoned unfinished – perhaps the Egyptians like ruins so much that they skip the “completed” stage of a building project and go straight to “ruined”. But when I reached my destination of El Gouna, things completely changed – the town was surrounded by lush green vegetation, which contrasted with the barren sand all around. There was a security check to enter town, and the buildings suddenly became modern and well-maintained.

After ten days of intensive visiting of ancient ruins, I had booked a couple of days here to unwind by the sea. On my first day, I wandered around the town. It was built around a lagoon, with many gated communities and some impressive private houses – again, with their own security. It felt more like the US than Egypt.

An impressive private house on its own island
The sea behind me, mountains in the far distance

When I reached the beach, I found that El Gouna was popular with kite-surfers. The wind was strong, and good kite-surfers had fun making extravagant jumps, whilst beginners struggled to stay upright. The location was beautiful, with the mountains of the Sinai peninsula in the background across the sea. I have always wanted to try kite-surfing, but with a wind like this a little fluffy bear like me would have been blown all the way to Sinai.

My own sport is diving, and I did a couple of dives the next day, the highlight of which was seeing a worryingly large (remember I am small!) camouflaged octopus. After diving there was not a lot to do except laze by the pool – the weather was just warm enough for this, with the late February sun.

My hotel
Chilling by the pool

It was nice to recharge for a couple of days after seeing so many ruins. My next stop was Cairo, which would require all of my energy…


Today I crossed the river again to visit the sites on the Luxor’s east bank.  I reached the centre of Luxor, which was much nicer than the part I had visited the day before, with a pretty waterfront opposite the Temple of Luxor.

The view across the Nile from Luxor’s corniche
Luxor Temple from the outside

My first visit was to the Luxor museum – a small but high quality collection of the items found in the area. I particularly liked this statue of the god Sobak with pharaoh Amenhotep III.  There were also two mummified bodies on display; I wondered if the owners would have appreciated being dug up to be inspected by tourists.

The god Sobak, Pharaoh Amenhotep III and me
Mummy of Pharaoh Ahmose

From the museum I walked up along the Nile to Karnak, a place of superlatives. This complex of temples became Egypt’s most important religious site when the kingdom’s capital was moved to Thebes (now called Luxor) and royalty started to be buried in the Valley of Kings on the city’s west bank. Starting around 1950 BC, for nearly 2000 years  successive pharaohs sought to leave their mark for posterity by adding to the previous structures. The most impressive and largest buildings were constructed during the reigns of Seti I and Rameses II, around 1290 BC.  The final complex consisted of a huge central temple to Amun, the local god, and several smaller temples devoted to other gods, and covers a vast area. The central Temple of Amun alone is bigger than St Paul’s Cathedral and St Peter’s Basilica combined.

The entrance to Karnak

Just past the entrance archway – or “pylon” – an incredible sight opened up of the 134 huge decorated columns that make up the Great Hypostyle Hall, part of the central Temple to Amun. Entering this area felt like going into a thick forest, with huge stone pillars instead of trees. I wandered around, straining my neck to look up at the fragments of the ceiling, some of which still carried the original painting from ancient times. I stayed for thirty minutes, soaking  in the sheer vastness of the temple, and feeling smaller and smaller.

The Great Hypostyle Hall
A forest of huge decorated columns
I felt smaller and smaller…

After this amazing sight, I explored the central area further. Then I wandered further south to find a “no entry” sign apparently blocking further progress. A guard gestured to me to come through, and led me to a small Temple of Horus. We were completely alone, and it felt a world away from the crowds in the centre of the complex or the bustling city of Luxor. This temple also gave a good view back over the main complex.

Looking back at the central temples of Karnak

I continued exploring these remote outer parts of the complex. Many areas had “no entry” signs, but friendly guards would usher me through in the expectation of receiving “baksheesh” when I had seen everything. In these little-visited places, I wondered if the guards hadn’t put up the “no entry” signs themselves as a way to augment their salaries. I finally ended up at the remote Temple of Mut (the mother goddess) on the very edge of the site.

Mut and me

Beyond it lay a marsh – a reminder that in ancient times, the temple complex was often flooded by the Nile. After three hours of walking and admiring the vast monuments of the Temple of Amun and the quieter smaller temples in the outskirts, I felt that the marsh made a logical end to my visit of one of antiquity’s most impressive monuments.

The complex of Karnak finally ends

I found the southern gate to the complex where a long, straight ancient road led back to Luxor Temple – the recently-excavated Avenue of the Sphinxes, so called because for the entire 3km of its length the path was flanked by statues of sphinxes, rams or cows on either side. I thought about the countless Egyptian priests that must have used this path for hundreds of years – it was a wonderfully atmospheric way to say goodbye to Karnak.

The Avenue of the Sphinxes
Luxor Temple comes into view

The temple of Luxor was something of a disappointment in comparison to Karnak. It was less impressive than other temples I had seen in Egypt, and was much more crowded than Karnak had been.

The entry to Luxor Temple

The best time to see this temple is at night, when it is illuminated, but I was tired after so much walking and did not want to wait. Instead I strolled down the Corniche along the Nile, admiring the view as the sun set.

Sunset on the Nile

It was very pleasant, and even the continual approaches by taxi drivers, people selling things and caleche owners did not spoil my mood. Some of this hassle was done with a good dose of humour. Some examples:

“Why you walk like an Egyptian?” (taxi and caleche drivers)

“Welcome to Alaska” (salesmen trying to get your attention)

“I will hassle you tomorrow” (taxi driver who had stopped working for the day, said with a big smile)

To round off the day, I popped into Winter Palace, the grandest and most historic hotel in Luxor. It was here that Howard Carter announced the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. It had a wonderful colonial style including a comfortable bar where I had a drink and a snack to celebrate the day’s sightseeing.

A well-deserved drink at the Winter Palace

At the beginning of the day, I was worried about having “ancient ruin fatigue”. But the huge, sprawling Temple of Karnak was a sight that even the most jaded traveller would find awesome.

Aswan to Luxor – yet more temples

The next day, I left Aswan for my next destination, Luxor. On my way I visited two more temples. The first, Kom Ombo, is dedicated to both the crocodile-headed god Sobek and to Horus. Its courts and sanctuaries are all duplicated for its two gods. It was built around 100BC by Ptolemaic pharaohs. Although damaged by earthquakes and by builders seeking materials for other projects, the temple has a great site on a bend in the Nile, and I found its ruins very beautiful.  

Kom Ombo Temple

Near the temple was a museum with mummified crocodiles – sacred crocodiles used to live in a pool on the site.

Mummified Crocodiles!

The second temple on my route to Luxor was Edfu, which was built from 237 to 57BC and is dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus. Like the Great Temple of Ramses, it was forgotten and covered by sand until it was excavated by a French archaeologist in the mid-19th century. It’s long period of burial means that it is very well preserved, and unlike most other ruins, still has an almost intact roof. As a result, the interior of the temple was dark and atmospheric, quite unlike all of the other places I visited in Egypt, which were open to the skies.

Edfu Temple
The atmospheric inside of Edfu Temple

Edfu was a very impressive temple, but I felt I was reaching saturation point for seeing ancient ruins. This was a little worrying, since I was due to spend four days in my next destination, Luxor – home to some of the world’s most famous archaeological sites.

As we approached Luxor my driver scratched his head and looked hard at his sat-nav. We were heading for the west bank of the Nile, not the busy east bank where most of the hotels are. We entered a village-like area with narrow dirt tracks and simple buildings. We had to turn around once, as the route indicated went down a street too narrow for our car, but finally found my hotel – a huge place looking like an Arabian palace, totally unlike the modest houses all around.

My unusual hotel in Luxor

The hotel had been constructed by an Egyptian architect and his English wife. Neither had ever managed a hotel before, never mind built one, and the place had some quirks resulting from their inexperience. However its plus points easily outweighed these disadvantages. It occupied a huge plot, and behind the main building was a long strip of land with a pool and gardens, reaching right up to the River Nile. On both sides were fields with horses and buffalo.

The view across the Nile from the hotel’s garden – in the middle on the opposite bank, you can just see Luxor Temple

I was a bit worried about our remote location, but the hotel owner came to greet me and told me that they operated a free ferry across the Nile to get the city. After enjoying my room for a while, I decided to use this facility to cross the river to check out the centre of Luxor. It was now dark, and on the way to the pier, I got to enjoy another aspect of the hotel’s design. 

My hotel at night

The ferry dropped me off in a particularly drab part of Luxor to the south of the centre, and as I explored on foot, I was continually hassled by taxi drivers and the owners of horse-drawn carriages. I got a bite to eat in a pasta restaurant and headed back to the comfort of my hotel. My lodgings were really nice, but I had not liked my first impression of Luxor, and wondered whether I really wanted to see even more ancient ruins…….no matter how impressive they might be.

A temple like no other

The next couple of days were devoted to temples…and lots of driving. First, I made the long trip south to Abu Simbel, near the border with Sudan to see the Great Temple of Ramses II, one of Egypt’s most famous monuments. Getting their required a three-hour drive. After a couple of hours being driven through featureless, dull desert, the side of the road suddenly became green with crops grown using the water from Lake Nasser – but soon that too became rather boring. Fortunately, the temple was worth the effort of getting there. It was located on a pretty site, next to the bright blue waters of Lake Nasser.

The spectacular site of the Great Temple of Ramses and the Temple of Hathor

The temple has a long and interesting history. It was built in the 13th century BC in the reign of Ramses II and orientated such that the rising sun would shine right through the temple to its inner sanctuary on exactly two days each year – Ramses’ birthday and the anniversary of his coronation.  After the fall of the pharaohs, it was forgotten and was almost completely covered by sand. A Swiss archaeologist stumbled across the top of the head of one of the four giant statues of Ramses that guard the temple’s entrance and started excavating to uncover the Temple of Ramses and the nearby Temple of Hathor. The temple was nearly lost again when the Aswan dam was constructed. Like the Temple of Isis at Philae, it was one of several important archaeological sites that were moved to higher ground by an international group of archaeologists to save them from being submerged. The Great Temple of Ramses II was possibly the most challenging such project. It involved cutting the temple into hundreds of blocks, averaging 20 tonnes each, creating an artificial hill to provide the temple’s backdrop, and rebuilding the temple in the newly created cliff. The engineers also tried to mirror the orientation of the old site as closely as possible but could not get an exact match – the rising sun now illuminates the sanctuary one day later than it did the original temple. I had timed my trip well – my guest house owner had advised to leave early, and many people leave at six in a convoy of vehicles from Aswan with a police escort, a relic from the time that the road was considered a target for terrorists. Instead, I left at a leisurely half past eight and arrived at half past eleven, missing all of the tour groups.

The temple of Hathor with the Great Temple in the backgound

First, I visited the Temple of Hathor, the goddess of love. The entrance had three large statues of Ramses and his favourite queen, Nefertari; unusually she was represented on the same large scale as her husband (usually wives and children were carved much smaller).

The temple of Hathor
Inside the Temple of Hathor

Next, I visited the main attraction, the Great Temple of Ramses II. It is dedicated to the gods Ra, Amun and Ptah………but is mostly a tribute to Ramses II himself. The four huge statues of him at the temple’s entrance are one of Egypt’s most widely recognised sights, and in real life are just as impressive as they are in photos.

The Great Temple – Ramses II’s ego trip

The interior of the temple has scenes from the life of Ramses II. He probably became pharaoh at the age of 21 (though some sources say even earlier) and may have died aged 90 – a reign of around 70 years. Egyptians say he was a “busy” man. He fought many battles – including a key victory over the Hittites that secured the independence of Egypt- constructed cities, temples and monuments and had over 100 children from fourteen wives. His favourite wife was Nefertari, and he built a magnificent tomb for her in the Valley of the Queens in Thebes (now Luxor).

Ramses slaughtering the Hittites

Several passages led into the rock away from the main temple – probably they were storage areas
Yet more Ramses statues inside

The Great Temple is an amazing sight and a monument to the things humans capable of when they work together. Construction of such a large and beautiful temple, 2500 years ago, at the very edge of the area controlled by Ramses’ Egypt was an astonishing achievement. But so too was the international project to save the temple from flooding by moving it piece by piece to a new location. If only today’s humans could rediscover this spirit of cooperation.

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