Luxor at dawn. The call to prayer of a local muezzin rouses me from a deep, dreamless sleep aboard my river boat. Padding out onto the terrace in my bath robe, I catch the first, pale wisps of daylight as it begins to steal across the muggy air. Against it’s backdrop, a brace of balloons loft gingerly into the ether, seeming to hover in place like a pair of bloated fireflies. Below me, the still, silent water turns a shade of shimmering pink as the first rays of the rising sun spill out across it. The air, heavy and still, is filled with expectation and promise, much as it has been in this self same spot for literally thousands of years.
An hour or so later, and I’m in a blissfully air conditioned motor coach that rattles, shudders and honks it’s way through the street life and agitated sales merchants of ancient, once mighty Luxor. We are on our way out of the city, to an appointment with one of ancient Egypt’s mightiest, must-see attractions; the fabled Valley of The Kings.
The statistics alone are awesome enough; some sixty-two tombs of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt have (thus far) been discovered in this silent, sprawling city of the dead that ranges along the west bank of the River Nile. Perhaps upwards of another four hundred remain as yet undiscovered, crouching in ageless, sullen silence among the vast sea of rock formations that litter it’s expanse.
The actual, physical site is a soaring, rugged range of jagged limestone escarpments, defiles and winding pathways that floods across your line of sight like some ancient, archaic moonscape, set below the duck egg blue blue canopy of an almost cloudless sky. It is dotted here and there with small, black holes that gradually morph into a series of yawning entrance chambers upon approach. Each and every one of these is a mute, majestic invite to enter and commune with the spirit (and spirits) of old Egypt, right up close and personal.
In Egyptian thinking, the living lived, loved and prospered on the east bank of the River Nile, itself the very source of all life across the kingdom. The dying could expect eventual immolation somewhere on the west bank, in varying degrees of penury or splendour and, more often than not, according to their perceived rank in the prevailing pecking order.
Naturally enough, for the pharaohs themselves that meant a measured, magnificent interment for all eternity in one of those magnificent limestone chambers, hewn out of the stone, dust and heat at an often astronomical cost in both lives and loot. And, contrary to popular belief, a deceased monarch’s slaves, flunkies and more personal servants were not sealed into the tomb with him at burial; this seems to have been a bit of wishful thinking on the part of Hollywood.
The actual sensation of entering an Egyptian tomb is almost impossible to properly describe; it’s a hallowed procession, from daylight into gradually encroaching semi darkness. Around you, floor to ceiling carved hieroglyphics in various states of preservation- ranging from the truly magnificent through to partially mutilated- tell the story of the late, celebrated occupant, and his hopefully anticipated passing on to a joyous afterlife.
Above your head, great, still partially coloured frescoes of soaring vultures still hover in place, frozen in time and place for millennia. The heat, and the crescendo of awed babbling from a conga line of open mouthed, slack jawed tourists, builds like a gathering storm. Your feet clop dutifully along miles of raised duckboards that collectively bear the imprints of literally millions of visitors. The very air itself feels almost thick and fine enough to taste.
At the very centre of this compelling, slightly claustrophobic passage lies the mute stone sarcophagus that once contained the mummified remains of the pharaoh himself. Though most of these now reside in the famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo, a few still moulder in their original tombs, shrouded in swathes of brittle, blackened bandages. The achievement of reaching this inner chamber-the true ‘Holy of Holies’ is at once both sombre and satisfying.
If ever mute stone could speak to the future, then each of these great, limestone chambers to the afterlife would form a chapter of a book so compelling that it would be as impossible to put down, as it would be to ever fully comprehend. Though we did indeed go deep underground, I was conscious that we were barely scratching the surface of this timeless, constantly unravelling tale.
Not all of the tombs are on an epic scale. The most famous of them all-that of Tutankhamun- had to be completed at breakneck speed, pun wholly intentional. The unexpected death of the boy king at the age of just eighteen meant that his tomb needed to be completed many years before anyone even thought that construction would have to start. The result is a small, relatively modest tranche of immortality, much like some small summer cottage located at the approach to a grand stately house or palace.
The actual designation of young Tut’s resting place is KV-62. It’s discovery by Howard Carter in November of 1922 made world headlines, and the glut of historical treasures and artefacts that poured from it like an oil spill at the time made both it-and, by default King Tut himself-the stuff of modern legend.
Today, you can walk into it for a supplement of around two hundred Egyptian pounds- around £10 UK or around $12.90 USD at current exchange rates. In truth, there is very little to see these days, but the sense of just being there- of standing somewhere so historic and monumental-is truly mind blowing. Anyone who has ever visited Pearl Harbour, or gazed upon the petrified effects salvaged from the wreck of the Titanic, will recognise that self same feeling at once.
Of the main run of tombs out there, the visitor’s ticket that comes included as part of your tour price gives you access to a total of three in all. Sometimes, these will be at the discretion of the tour guide leading your group (and, incidentally, ours was superb) but, at other times, you will simply be allowed to wander as you wish, on your own, with a set time allotted to return to your original pick up point.
The sights, sounds and musty smells of those tremendous, borderline terrifying temples to the hereafter flowed unchecked through my mind, much like the Nile of old, as the air conditioning of our coach kicked in with a merciful purr, and a torrent of cold, sweet water slaked my by now monumental thirst.
Prim, proper and perfectly poised against the sun splashed Luxor quayside, the M/S Tulip greeted her returning guests with cold drinks, hot towels, and a bountiful buffet lunch served downstairs in the main, air conditioned, window walled dining room. As I settled in for the soup course and tore at warm, sweet bread, the Nile outside started to swirl, hiss and gush past our windows. Donkeys stood in the shade of barely swaying date palms, while water bearers and trinket sellers made their last desperate, impassioned pitches to the few remaining passengers still standing outside on the upper deck.
They faded like dots into the distance as we achieved mid stream. much as the entrances to those awe inspiring west bank tombs had faded into the heat haze as we regained the east side of the Nile, and the realm of the living. And, as I contemplated an afternoon of glorious winter’s sunning on this ancient, spellbinding river, I realised that I had seldom, if indeed ever, felt quite as alive as I did right then.
For those of you asking who I travelled with on this trip, it was arranged from the UK by a company called Discover Egypt. You can see their website at; http://www.discoveregypt.co.uk