Please note that many of the places described here have been greatly improved since our visit. Some now have permanent exhibitions, and better access. Some others are closed to tourists for the time being, and may or may not be re-opened. Hotels have been upgraded, and the river boats are generally of a more modern standard.
Egypt was one of those places I had always wanted to see. Old films with Pyramids and Pharaohs fascinated as a youngster, and later exploration in books and TV documentaries left me with a real desire to see this fascinating country. I had just never got around to it. I always felt that if it had lasted for all those thousands of years, it could wait a little bit longer for me to visit. I went to lots of other places instead. Some were changing politically, and needed to be seen as they were prior to that change. Others were cheaper, or just closer, so I took the occasional easy option. But Egypt remained in my mind, as somewhere I always knew that I would get to see. Eventually.
In 1989, I was getting married, for the second time. As the wedding was going to be in late July, we thought carefully about the honeymoon. Travel at this time is not only more expensive, it can also be very hot and uncomfortable. After some consideration, we decided that we would have the ideal honeymoon, in the land that I had always wanted to see; Egypt. However, we would not be going in July, with temperatures at their highest. We would go in December instead. This time of cold and gloom in the UK is the exact opposite further south in Egypt. Warm sunny days, and calm colder nights make December the perfect time to see this desert country. It also makes it more expensive, but I had been saving up. We went for a weekend in Amsterdam after the wedding, then returned to normal life, anticipating our ‘real’ honeymoon later that year.
After reading through some travel guides and tourist information (no Internet then) we decided to avoid Cairo. This did mean that we would not see the Pyramids, or the famous museum. On the other hand, it gave us the option of doing different things, including a cruise along the Nile, and a trip to Abu Simbel. We booked with Thomas Cook, and paid for everything, including the excursions. It was an organised holiday, with the chance to go on trips with guides if you wanted to, or do your own thing, if you preferred that. We would fly to Luxor, and spend a few days in the Hilton Hotel by The Nile, before joining our cruiser, for a five-night trip down to Aswan. After the cruise, we would return to the Hilton, and finish the remainder of the holiday there. In October, with two months to go before the holiday, we began a long strike in the Ambulance Service. As the trip had already been paid for, we decided to still go, and not to let the fact that I wasn’t being paid, or might not have a job to return to, spoil any of our plans. I can’t deny that I was worried though, but that faded away as I sat on the aircraft.
On arrival at Luxor airport, our small group was broken up into those staying at different hotels. We were the only two going to stay at the Hilton, so we were dropped off by minibus with our luggage. Our first impressions of the city were not that good. Half-finished buildings lined the roads, and the whole place seemed to be dusty and run-down. The road leading to the Hilton led nowhere else, and the area around the hotel was studded with industrial buildings, and fenced-off scrub land. Outside the entrance, a group of horse-drawn taxis waited for business; the animals looked to be in a bad way, with all their ribs showing. Inside the hotel compound, all was luxury. Palm trees, manicured gardens, and a stylish entrance, manned by uniformed youngsters whose only task was to open and close the doors for residents. Inside the cool reception, we were treated like royalty, bags conveyed to our room, checked-in without fuss. The room itself was comfortable but not grand. It had one perfect feature though, a small balcony, overlooking the River Nile.
Our deal included breakfast and dinner at the hotel, and all meals on the boat. After a shower and change, we explored the hotel grounds. A huge chess set was laid out, and comfortable furniture surrounded a pool, leading out to the lush gardens bordering the river. It certainly was a glamorous location, at least inside the hotel grounds. The weather was good, warm but not too hot, and the hotel had most things you could want, including a gift shop, cafe, and large restaurant. Dinner was an elegant affair, in an old-fashioned atmosphere. The hotel was not even half-full, so service and food were excellent. There was also the possibility to upgrade to the a-la-carte menu for a very small sum, so we did. We had two days to wait before getting on the river boat, so we resolved to make the most of it. The next morning, we would join the tour to Luxor and Karnak Temples.
We were collected after breakfast, and taken by coach on the short trip via the centre of Luxor. Founded in 1400BC, this city was originally called Thebes. Much of it appeared unchanged on first examination, and even the centre had the feel of a biblical town. Meat hung outside open butcher shops, covered in flies, and the market stalls were busy, with considerable traffic crowding the narrow streets. Arriving at Luxor Temple, the reason for coming to this country was immediately apparent. The sheer scale and grandeur, the feel of history, of walking in the steps of Ramesses, it is completely overwhelming. Within moments, I was captivated, and knew instinctively that it had been worth all the travelling, and the cost. After listening to the guide for a while, we went off on our own, uninspired by his dry delivery, and endless statistics about the height and weight of the columns. Just walking around the complex. looking up at the construction, and feeling the atmosphere, was more than enough. The main Karnak temple is nearby, along a path lined by what is left of a row of sphinxes that once joined the two main places of worship. The famous Hypostyle Hall, of over 100 ornate columns, and the carved reliefs in the Precinct of Amun Re, are just simply breathtaking, and worth the whole trip alone. It was fascinating to imagine them all brightly painted in their heyday, and we could still see traces of some of the colours, in the shaded roof areas.
The old town of Luxor didn’t have a great deal to offer. There were some tourist shops of course, as well as numerous market stalls, and street sellers, all hawking trinkets and souvenirs. The persistence of some street traders was disconcerting. Outside of any attraction, and on the route back to the main hotels, they would follow you relentlessly, brandishing things in your face, and asking ‘English?’, or ‘German?’, if they went by my wife’s natural light blonde hair. At certain points, the Tourist Police would step in, and the salesmen knew better than to carry on. Although used to bargaining in North Africa, Kenya, and Turkey by then, I was staggered by the ridiculous starting prices stated by any shop or seller there. Before leaving England, I had promised my friend’s little girl that I would bring her back a camel. I had expected to see lots of camels for sale, but I could only find wooden ones, not suitable for a small child. I eventually found a leather-covered stuffed camel in one shop, and went inside to look at it. The shopkeeper pounced immediately, telling me that this was a hand made first-class camel and one of a kind. His opening price was the equivalent of almost £200, which we could only laugh at. When he wouldn’t go below £50, we walked out of the shop. He followed us out, and offered a ‘much better price’. After another thirty minutes, we secured the toy for £8. This was probably still far too much, at least twice what it should have cost, but I was just pleased to get out of there. We decided to return to the hotel by horse taxi. This involved more protracted negotiations with the driver, until we settled on the fare of around £1, which seemed to be the going rate. When we got back to the hotel, he asked for twice that much. ‘The rest is for my horse’ he told us, indicating the sorry animal pulling the carriage. I decided to make a stand though, otherwise prices would get inflated. I gave him the equivalent of £1 as agreed.
The next day, we had an early start to visit the Valley of The Kings, and the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. This involved crossing the river by small boat, then a minibus trip up to the first site. Other than a parking area, and a large cafe, there is little to indicate the treasures below the rocky barren ground there. We had a guided tour into the tomb of Ramesses ll, which seemed to be little more than a hole in the ground, with steep steps leading down into darkness. The small group and guide were both compulsory at the time, as there were fears of damage done to the site by the sheer volume of tourists. Once on the staircase, we could immediately see the wonderful colours of the preserved paintings and heiroglyphs. It was amazing to think that the man who once occupied this tomb had died in 1213 BC, over three thousand years earlier. Only one small room was accessible, and it contained the large stone sarcophagus that would have originally housed the decorated coffin, and the mummified body within. Even given the short time allowed for the visit, the impact of those moments in that cold chamber, surrounded by colour from a bygone era, stays with me to this day. After an early lunch in the large cafe on the site, we headed off to see the Temple of Hatshepsut. This monumental building, part of which is built into the surrounding rock, is part of the large area known as the Theban Necropolis. Her temple is magnificently preserved, and an outstanding sight amid the surrounding hills.
Wandering about this complex, marvelling at the reliefs and architecture, I learned a valuable lesson about walking around in the midday sun. Although I hadn’t felt unduly hot, it was very bright, and very warm. I passed out with sunstroke, finding myself suddenly lying on my back, a group of concerned faces looking down at me. Other members of our group, as well as my wife, and the guide, got me into the shade. They gave me water to drink, and also poured water over me. I soon felt better, but resolved to wear a cap every day after that. We returned to the hotel that afternoon, and I was fully recovered by the time we got there. The next day, we would be joining our ship, for the five day cruise down to Aswan. As much as I was excited at this prospect, I was also pleased to have made the decision to travel to Egypt, and I would have been happy with what I had already managed to see, in just three days.
Part two will follow soon.