Day 10, Lesser Known Luxor

For our final day in Luxor, Sara and I arranged for a private tour of some of the lesser visited sites on the West Bank.  We had decided to splurge a bit and opted for a van with a driver and an Egyptologist to show us around for a half day.  Our cost for this was about $70 U.S. and it was worth it.

Mohamed, our tour guide, recommended that since we had seen the 'major' attractions the day before, we should see the Tombs of the Nobles, the Workmen's Village and the Medinet Habu.

At our first stop, the Tombs of the Nobles, there was literally no one there.  If you are looking for an authentic ancient Egyptian site without all of the tourists, this should be your first stop.  The tombs were located in between and under current dwellings.  However, our tour guide expressed deep shock as we drove up and then complete amazement as we parked and walked to the first tomb.  It seems that the government's interest in turning Luxor into one big outdoor museum had taken its toll here.  All of the houses had been razed.  There was nothing but barren hillside and holes in the ground going to the tombs.  Mohamed had been there two weeks prior and the houses had all been standing.  He was not sure where the government had relocated everyone, but there was no one around.  No one.  It was eerie to say the least.  At last, an old man showed up to let us into the tombs.  The tombs themselves were beautiful and well-preserved.  We enjoyed our time here, but Mohamed assured us that this was nothing compared to the Workmen's Village, our next stop.

The Workmen's Village was just that, a village filled with the workers who built the tombs for the pharaohs and nobles in ancient times.  It was one of the few areas located on the west side of the river where people actually lived.  People mainly only lived on the east side due to their association of death with the setting sun and, consequently, the west.

Art in ancient Egypt was a strictly regulated activity.  The Egyptians were very, very conservative people and their art reflects that.  Its style remains virtually unchanged over several thousand years.  The only period of innovation was during the reign of Akhenaten, but after his death, it quickly reverted back to the traditional style.

In order to accomplish this, there was a strict routine established and followed for every painting.  First, a group of men would establish a grid pattern on the wall to be painted.  There was then an artist responsible for each part of the painting.  For example, there was one artist for the eyes.  That is all he did, paint eyes.  There was another that was in charge of knees, another for feet, and so on.  You can imagine that this somewhat limited creativity.  The artist would show up, paint eyes on the wall and then go home.  All eyes, all day.  Henry Ford could not have come up with anything more efficient.

We found that the artists really went all out, though, when it came to their own personal tombs.  While the style was still the same, the attention to detail was impeccable.  The colors were still bright and robust, as if they had been painted the week before we arrived.  Once again, if you want to get away from the huge crowds and see some truly stunning work, the Workmen's Village is at the top of the list.  Our guide book warned us that there might be crowds, but we were the only ones there.  Memorable to say the least.

We stopped for a Coke and while Sara was in the restroom, I discovered a new scam.  I was feeling a bit run down, so I wanted a big Coke to last a while (Super-Size me).  I asked our waiter how much the liter bottle of Coke was.  10 pounds ($2).  OK, a bit high, but we were in the boonies (literally BFE) so I had no choice.  He delivered it to the table.  I twisted the cap and heard that wonderful 'psht' of a cold Coke opening on a very hot day, caught the wiff of the, well the smell of Coke, and then, interrupting my bliss, got tapped on the shoulder by the manager saying that it was the waiter's first day and it was really 20 pounds.  Not having had my morning caffeine, my head exploded, but I withheld every dirty expletive (where was my potty-mouthed wife when I needed her?).  I calmly paid the extra 10 pounds and drank my Coke in silence.

Our final stop with our guide was Medinet Habu, a temple complex built by Ramses III.  It was a very imposing structure with very well preserved artwork inside.  Most current surviving carvings in temple walls are just that:  carvings.  Consequently, the impression that they give is one of very bland temples, all the color of mud or rock.  However, the truth is that most of the walls were painted a variety of vivid colors, bringing the imagery to life.  In modern times, the paint has just washed away, leaving only the outlines.  But at Medinet Habu, much of the original colors, while a bit faded, still exist and give a dramatically different impression of Egyptian temples.  While this is not a must-see, it is close.  If you have the time, go.

After our tour, we checked out of our hotel, but had several hours to kill before boarding our bus to the Red Sea.  We found that our hotel had a very nice restaurant in the alley next to it...literally, in the alley.  They had several tables lined up under umbrellas and if you sat in one, a waiter would appear as if from nowhere and bring you a menu.  Once you placed your order, she would disappear again, we never did see where, and a few minutes later, she would reappear with food.  It was some of the most delicious we had yet had on the trip.  Then, still hours away from the bus, we opted for some hot tea (yes, it was over 105 degrees out, but someone else had appeared while we were eating and had turned on an air conditioner that blew crisp, cold air right on was heaven).

Then, Sara talked me in to trying a sheesha.  She had been wanting to try it ever since we arrived in Cairo.  A sheesha is a huge water pipe for smoking flavored tobacco, at least three feet tall, with a metal bowl for the tobacco and a glass enclosure for water, used to filter the smoke, and a tube coming out with which to inhale  ( a big water bong for those of you who know what that is).  It is customary for men to go to clubs scattered throughout the cities and hang out, play board games and smoke sheesha.  Women generally are not allowed, although that is changing in some of the more liberal clubs (what is this world coming to, next thing they'll be allowed to show their hair in public, or maybe even vote).  Anyway, I had been avoiding this as best I could.  For one, I cannot stand smoking.  I love the anti-smoking laws they have passed in California.  If it is improper for me to fart in public, and believe me, I could clear a small stadium, it should be improper to smoke in public.  But also, not being a smoker, I was a bit afraid of it making me sick, right before a long bus ride.

Well, I decided to try it, rationalizing that it is the local custom and I could then say that I had, in fact, experienced it.  We opted for the apple-carcinogen-flavored variety.  I nervously took my first 'hit', inhaled deeply and coughed it all out.  Sara tried it and behaved like a professional, even looking sophisticated.  I tried again, wheezing and coughing, and drawing a crowd of onlookers.  The thing about sheesha is that it is a fairly large ball of tobacco, supposed to last quite some time.  After my fifth attempt, I actually felt one of my lungs pop up into the back of my throat, and I called it quits, much to the dismay of the restaurant and hotel staff, some of the other restaurant patrons, an old man watching in the distance, and a couple of cats ready to pounce should I manage to liberate my lunch.

At last it was time to head to the bus station, a short walk away.  I was really dreading such a long bus ride, but how bad could it be, eh?

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