I'm sure this will sound vain, but forgive me. My life is absolutely great. At this very moment I'm writing about a trip to Luxor, Egypt while sitting in a hotel room just outside Petra, Jordan while listening to John Lee Hooker.
I love this.
Ahhh, Luxor. The name conjures thoughts of a glistening black pyramid in the middle of the Nevada desert, the ringing of slot machines, a huge buffet... stop there. The grand city in central Egypt is a far cry from the glitz and glam of Vegas. The real Luxor is nestled along the shores of the Nile, built on the remains of ancient Thebes - the governmental capital of the ancient Egyptians. This is the city where the great dynasties were formed. Where the pharaohs lived. This was center of the universe around 4000 years ago. Yeah, pretty cool.
The more you read about Luxor, the more you come to realize it's essentially an outdoor museum. Luxor Temple, the Temples of Karnak, The Colossi of Memnon, Medinat Habu, The Valley of the Kings, Deir al-Bahri (the temple of Queen Hatshepsut) and of course the deep blue Nile river are all within three or four kilometers of each other.
Our first stop after checking into our downtown hotel was the impressive Luxor temple - an enormous huge collection of ancient walls, pillars, stones and statues situated right in the middle of the city. It was built by Amenophis III over 2000 years before Christ. During the next few centuries, it was renovated and added to by Tutankhamen, Ramses III and even Alexander the Great.
The courtyard to the north is dominated by the awesome Avenue of Sphinxes, a wide road with large human-faced stone sphinxes mirroring each other to the east and west every ten feet or so. The original avenue was apparently nearly two kilometers long, leading all the way to the Temples of Karnak in the northern part of the city. Even though there aren't many left, you can imagine what it must have looked like in its time.
Huge statues of Ramses II (spend any time in Egypt and you'll find that he really liked to build statues of himself), guard the entrance to the temple, along with an enormous obelisk standing tall the left side of the entrance. Due to some ill-advised negotiations with the French, its mate ended up in Concorde plaza in Paris many years ago.
Once inside, our tour guide, Mayer, did a good job of telling us about the meanings of the statues - the columns, the inscriptions dedicated to the many gods of the people. Even though it was around noon, and the sun was at its height, and it was really, really hot, we walked around for about 30-45 minutes. It's hard to put into words, but once you're in the middle of something like this - walking past 30-foot stone pillars shaped to look like papyrus stalks, looking up at inscriptions and hieroglyphs which are well over 3000 years old, you start to forget about the weather.
Later that evening (after a shower and a nice little siesta), the six of us boarded three horse-drawn carriages bound for the evening's sound and light show at the Temples of Karnak. Even though we have a small fleet of them down on the Plaza in Kansas City, I've never experienced this form of transportation. About what I expected - fairly quaint, slow and anti-climactic. I did get to drive for a while, which was actually pretty scary. I'd be nervous driving a car at night in Egyptian traffic, much less a freakin horse. I managed to avoid running over pedestrians, and kept the horse from denting any bumpers.
The sound and light show at Karnak was awesome. Much like the one in Giza, a set of proper British voices guide you through the centuries, highlighting the origins, the purpose and the major contributors. However, unlike the show at the Pyramids, you get to walk through the temple as the story unfolds. It was every bit as impressive as the Luxor Temple, if not more so. The courtyard leading to the entrance is guarded by a small avenue of sphinxes, though these are adorned with rams' heads. Inside, beautiful statues from pharaohs of nearly every dynasty were visible. Further in, 134 enormous stone columns stretch toward the stars, illuminated from their bases by dramatic blue and gold lights. The end of the show allows you to sit down to enjoy a view of the entire complex while listening to the English accents talk about the last few centuries of the temple's inhabitation. I was fully impressed.
As I've mentioned before, the GAP tours are full of optional adventures you can pay a little extra for. There are some you simply can't pass up. A hot air balloon ride over Luxor at sunrise falls into that category for me.
The next morning, Alain, Sylvie and I met in the lobby at 4:45 to catch our transportation to the West Bank. Our company was named "Sindbad", which succeeded in providing me with 0.2% confidence. They were still blowing up the balloons when we our vans pulled up to the open field. This was a series of firsts for me - I'd never seen balloons like these being inflated, and I'd never even contemplated getting on one before now. It was fascinating to watch. It takes a team of ten or so to get everything under control. The entire scene was beautiful - the morning light of the sun was just starting to brighten the eastern sky, and several other balloons from different companies were starting to break the horizon.
About 15 minutes later, our balloon was inflated and upright, with a gloved pilot in the middle of a large basket sending bursts of bright yellow flame into the opening. I noticed there were about 20 people milling around our balloon - entirely too many by my count. However, we managed to pack everyone in, and surprisingly had enough room to move around a bit.
This was fortunate for me, as being tall doesn't really offer any advantages for riding in a hot air balloon. Now if you haven't been on one before, there is a little metal plate guarding the top of the cage, with a hole in the middle for the driver to control the jets. Thankfully, the plate doesn't extend the entire length of the cage, which allowed me to find a space to actually stand up straight. Unfortunately, it meant the better part of my cranium was above the heat guard, and consequently subjected to the blast furnace of the quad-burners at the top of the basket. Every time he lit the flame (which as you can imagine is pretty often), I thought my hair was on fire.
We finally lifted off, silently and gracefully. The sun was just beginning to rise above the Nile. We rose up over fields and trees, over houses and small farms. Then, as you might expect in Egypt, we passed over a set of ruins and tombs. A surreal sight to be sure. To the north and south lie the Nile river valley and the West Bank of Luxor. To the east of the river stands the bulk of Luxor proper, including the temples we'd visited yesterday. To the west was a long line of caramel colored mountains and hills beyond which was the Sahara desert. Other balloons had risen into the morning air, creating quite a scene against the rising sun. It was one of the most beautiful experiences in my life. I've added a few consecutive pictures here so you can get the feel...
We touched down in an open field about 30 minutes later. We made a fairly smooth landing, though I really don't have anything to compare it to. I'm not sure how landing a basket with 20 people in it can be overly graceful. Anyway, about 20 minutes later we met up with Mayer, Mia and Marc, and proceeded to our next destination - The Valley of the Kings.
After the time of the early pharaohs - Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus, the pharaohs stopped building large pyramids for their burials. They found a peak in the mountains to the west of Luxor which looked like a natural pyramid - apparently designated by Ra himself as their final resting place. Thusly, over 60 tombs including Ramses III & VI Tuthmosis III, and the infamous Tutankhamen have been found in the surrounding areas, with perhaps more awaiting discovery. In fact, there was a new excavation underway as we walked through. It was a surreal experience to enter the tomb of a pharaoh. I tried to imagine what it would be like to walk through this for the first time - likely with a hand-held torch. Every inch of every wall was inscribed with incantations and magic to protect the king on his voyage to the afterlife. Absolutely amazing.
We then made a visit to Deir al-Bahri, which was the temple of Queen Hatshepsut (meaning "the most splendid of all"). Interestingly, she was the only queen to actually rule Egypt, claiming to be the half-god daughter of Ra himself. Her temple has undergone a lot of restoration, as she is essentially the first lady of Egypt. The complex was impressive - the three colonnaded levels of the temple seemingly pushed right into the massive cliff wall behind it.
Around 10:00, aboard the sleeper train back to Cairo, I tried to summarize Luxor in my journal. A tough thing to do - walking through and touching temples and tombs dedicated to gods and built by men who claimed to be gods themselves over 3000 years ago is a lot to digest. I feel amazingly fortunate to have been able to have the experience.
I love this.