Posts Tagged With: Hatshepsut

Luxor on a shoe string

The small non-star family-run hotels of old Gurna in Luxor in Upper Egypt have always been the choice of travellers, mostly those on a tight budget, who like to spend an untraditional vacation in the midst of the Theban necropolis surrounded by authentic rural life, lush green fields and mountains.

Old Gurna on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor

Old Gurna on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor

Thousands of travellers cross the Nile in Luxor every day from the east bank to the west, wandering around the temples and tombs of the Theban necropolis. After finishing their tour, the majority return back to the east. For those who opt to stay, however, their only choice has been to book a room in one of these hotels scattered around the village.

Most of them are clean, run by locals and are located adjacent to the ancient sites. Some have air-conditioned rooms, others have ceiling fans or have both, some have rooms with separate bathrooms, others have shared ones, some have TV’s and washing machines and others have not.

Marsam Hotel, founded by Sheikh Ali Abdel-Rasoul, who was a member of the clan who helped discover the Tomb of Seti I, tops the list of options. Situated in Gurna village itself, the hotel is situated directly beside the temple of Merenptah. It has a significant history. In 1920, the hotel was the site of the prestigious Chicago House, where American researchers did their studies and practical work.

Sheikh Ali Abdel RasoulPhoto: Al Marsam Hotel

Sheikh Ali Abdel Rasoul
Photo: Al Marsam Hotel

When the Chicago House was moved to the city of Luxor, Sheikh Ali took over the whole area, including the building of the Chicago House- which turned to Al Marsam, a meeting point for artists, Egyptologists, and tourists from all over the world, where they discussed, exchanged their experiences in calm atmosphere and nice surrounding.

The hotel started with only ten simple rooms in the old Chicago building. But over the decades, Sheikh Ali’s place became so famous and demanded that he had to increase the number of rooms. In 1970, he built a new guesthouse with thick walls of mud bricks, small windows and domed ceiling, following the style of late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi. This construction style keeps the rooms cool in summer and warm in winter.

Marsam facadePhoto: Al Marsam Hotel

Marsam facade
Photo: Al Marsam Hotel

Al Marsam is the oldest in the west bank area. It currently has 30 simple furnished rooms and a beautiful garden with seats in the shadow at the center of the hotel complex.

Most archaeological sites on the west bank of the Nile are within a walking distance from the hotel, except for the Valley of kings. The hotel can arrange excursions by bicycles, donkeys, horses, camels and cars to the ancient sites.

Al Marsam GardenPhoto: Al Marsam Hotel

Al Marsam Garden
Photo: Al Marsam Hotel

Double rooms without private bathroom are for LE100 per night, single rooms are for LE50 per person per night; double rooms with private bathroom are for LE150 per night, single rooms are for LE75 per person per night. Rates are inclusive of taxes. Accommodation is based on bed and breakfast basis.

A bedroom in Al MarsamPhoto: Al Marsam Hotel

A bedroom in Al Marsam
Photo: Al Marsam Hotel

For more information, visit http://www.luxor-westbank.com/marsam_e.htm

Al-Gezirah Village, only few miles from the dock of the ferry in the west, accommodates a number of small hotels such as Amoun El- Gezirah Hotel, Al-Gezirah and Al-Gezirah Gardens.

Built in 1996, El-Gezirah Hotel is a family business that includes 11 air-conditioned rooms, a restaurant, a terrace, a roof garden overlooking the river Nile. Situated near the village of Gezirat El-Beirat, on an old branch of the Nile, guests would experience the traditional Egyptian village life.

Facade of Al Gezirah HotelPhoto: Al Gezirah Hotel

Facade of Al Gezirah Hotel
Photo: Al Gezirah Hotel

Most archaeological sites on the west bank of the Nile are accessible from the hotel. Museums and temples of the east bank of the Nile are also accessible by ferries and motorboats.

Besides sightseeing, guests can enjoy visiting the local vegetable gardens and sugar cane fields. They can also go on donkey excursions, motorboat or felucca trips.

View from TerracePhoto: Al Gezirah Hotel

View from Terrace
Photo: Al Gezirah Hotel

All rooms are located on the ground and second floors. They are equipped with a private bathroom, shower or tub and air-conditioning.

Single rooms are for LE100 per night;  double rooms are for LE75 per person per room per night; triple room is for LE70 per person per night. Accommodation is based on bed and breakfast.

Rooms at Al Gezirah HotelPhoto: Al Gezirah Hotel

Rooms at Al Gezirah Hotel
Photo: Al Gezirah Hotel

For more information, visit http://www.el-gezira.com/E/hotel.htm

If you look for a more sophisticated vacation, then the sister hotel Al-Gezirah Garden, adjacent to El Gezirah Hotel, is the place.

El-Gezirah Garden consists of 8 apartments and 18 double rooms. Each apartment on the upper floor consists of two rooms, a kitchen and a large bathroom. The apartments on the ground floor have two bathrooms and no kitchen. The apartment can accommodate four adults, or two adults and two children. All apartments and rooms are equipped with satellite TV, telephone and air-condition.

The garden at the hotelPhoto: Al Gezirah Gardens Hotel

The garden at the hotel
Photo: Al Gezirah Gardens Hotel

For entertainment, the hotel has a garden, a swimming pool and billiard facility.

Rates for an apartment is 60 Euros per day, including breakfast and taxes; a double room for two persons is for 35 Euros and 25 Euros for one person with breakfast.

A double room at the hotelPhoto: Al Gezirah Gardens Hotel

A double room at the hotel
Photo: Al Gezirah Gardens Hotel

For more information, visit http://www.el-gezira.com/E/garden.htm

At the edge of the desert behind the ticket office in Medinat Habu, lies Pharaohs Hotel. Opened in 1984, the hotel has 20 double rooms, 10 triple rooms, all with private bath room and air condition. No telephone, television or radio are available in the rooms.

Mortuary Temple of Ramsis III in Medinat Habu

Mortuary Temple of Ramsis III in Medinat Habu

The hotel has an indoor and an outdoor restaurant, large garden terrace, reading corners and a billiard table. The sun beds at the spacious roof terrace invite guests not only for a sun bath, but also for a magnificent view up to the mountains, to the Habu Temple, the second largest temple after Karnak, and over the agricultural land to the Colossi of Memnon. During the excavation season in the winter months the hotel frequently is booked by international archaeologists. Therefore it also is called by the ancient name Per Äao (big house) from which the word pharaoh was adapted.

Travellers would find all kinds of entertainment at Pharaohs HotelPhotos: Pharaoh Hotel

Travellers would find all kinds of entertainment at Pharaohs Hotel
Photos: Pharaoh Hotel

Single rooms are for 18 Euros per night and double rooms are for 23 Euros per night. Rooms at the roof are a bit more expensive. Single rooms are for 26 Euros per night and double rooms are for 32 Euros per night. Accommodation is based on bed and breakfast.

For more information, visit http://www.luxor-westbank.com/pharaohs_e.htm

Whatever your budget and whichever your choice, if you opt to reside on the west bank and experience its riches, you will most definitely be residing in a hotel in a class of its own.

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Categories: Egypt, Hotels, Uncategorized, Upper Egypt | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thebes Revisited

Since the ancient Greeks made their first journey to Thebes, Luxor has always been an unforgettable experience.

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The Colossi of Memnon

I met a traveler from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,

And on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

— Percy Bysshe Shelley

My last trip to Luxor was in October 1997, when I attended the final performance of Verdi’s opera Aida at Hatshepsut’s Temple in Deir Al-Bahari — the year before it was moved to the Giza Plateau. Much has changed since then. Streets have become wider, the Corniche has acquired a new, reformed façade, and an assortment of five-star hotels have sprouted throughout the city.

The visit, for me, begins in the sky — my heart literally pounding as the plane approaches Luxor International Airport. I spot Homer’s hundred-gated Thebes, its gigantic temples appearing like matchboxes from the air, surrounded by a blanket of yellow and green stripes — the collage of the desert and its neighbouring agricultural land. Nearby, a sliver of blue marks the Nile, dividing the city into its two characteristic entities. The east bank houses the city and its main state temples, and the west holds the mortuary temples and tombs.

I have been to the ancient city over 20 times. This time, I opted for something special, treating myself to one of Luxor’s most exclusive resorts, the Maritim Jolie Ville Luxor Island Resort on Crocodile Island. The island earned its name many years ago, when it became the favoured domicile for the river’s reptilian giants before the building of the Aswan High Dam hemmed them in to the new Lake Nasser.

The trip from the airport takes 45 minutes. We check in and are guided to our rooms — an excursion in itself, allowing us to take in an array of Southern Egypt’s rich flora and fauna. We pass through the resort’s tropical garden and dozens of surrounding bungalows. The low-lying buildings and unobtrusive landscaping allowed me to do some amateur bird- watching, first on the walk and later from my room. I spot a panoply of colourful species flying from one tree to another. The resort is in fact known as one of Egypt’s best bird- watching locations. The only obstruction to the skies are palm trees which shed dates with abandon. The surrounding tropical garden hosts over 100 species of plants — ornamental, tropical and aquatic, both Egyptian and from around the world.

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Maritim Jolie Ville Luxor

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Spur-winged Plover, one of the bird species on Crocodile Island in LuxorImage

You can also spot a hoopoe

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A Whiskered- Tern

After settling into our rooms and eating a lavish breakfast, we waited for Ibrahim, driver for the Supreme Council of Luxor, who arrived at noon to take us to the temples of Luxor and Karnak.

THE TEMPLE OF AMUN: Our first stop was the Karnak Temples — a spectacular complex of sanctuaries, kiosks, pylons and obelisks, all dedicated to the Theban gods. Everything at Karnak is on a gigantic scale. The site measures 1.5 kilometres by 800 metres and the first pylon is advertised as double the size of the one at Luxor Temple.

Built, renovated, dismantled, restored, enlarged and decorated over a period of nearly 1,500 years, Karnak was the most important place of worship in all Egypt during the height of Theban power. It was known as Ipet-Isut, meaning “the most perfect of places”.

At the centre of this remarkable space is the vast Amun Temple enclosure (sometimes referred to as the Precinct of Amun), complete with a large sacred lake. This was the main place of worship of the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khons, and is the site of the famous Hypostyle Hall, a spectacular forest of giant papyrus-shaped columns.

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The Hypostyle Hall

“It is a place that has been much written about and often painted; but of which no writing and no art can convey more than a dwarfed and pallid impression … the scale is too vast; the effect too tremendous; the sense of one’s own dumbness, and littleness, and incapability, too complete and crushing,” wrote Amelia Edwards, a 19th-century writer and artist who journeyed the Nile and visited the temples.

As I conjure Edward’s words in my head, and envisioned her writing amidst the ancient structures, I heard an echo from one of the shaded corners of the temple.

“This is the Holy of the Holies, the place where Amun was worshipped and where offerings were made,” the voice said. “And this is Tuthmosis III’s Hall of Festivities; a few parts of it were turned into a church in the Roman period.”

The voice is that of Amm Sayed, one of the temple’s seasoned guards, narrating the history of the site and deciphering its walls in return for a touch of baqsheesh (tips).

“In the past, travellers coming to Luxor were different,” he explains. “They were more wealthy, more cultured and more elegant. Luxor itself was different. There were no cars, only hantours (horse-drawn carriages), there were also only two hotels, the Winter Palace on the Corniche and Luxor Wena Hotel, in front of Luxor Temple. The only boats cruising up the Nile to Aswan were Sudan, Isis, Osiris, and King Farouk’s Qased Kheir.”

Even the nationality of visitors has changed.”And you know, we used to have lots of British. Now they are few. We have Italians, Spanish, Czechs and Russians instead. Russians used to come to Egypt in the days of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Today the Russians are different. They are wealthier,” he reminisces. “Those were the good old days. However, I must admit, my status as a guard now is better than it was in those days. Now I have a fixed salary and the city itself has improved. Now we have clean drinking water, a sound sewage system and better roads. You can’t have it all.”

Karnak is crawling with travellers. They gaze up at the structures, snapping away with their cameras, or stroll mindlessly through the columns. Amidst the individual gatherings of Italians, Spaniards, Germans and Japanese, the voice of a guide would filter out — each one trying to project his voice louder than the next. It appears, to the outsider, to be an especially good season for tourism.

But suddenly, with seemingly no forewarning, the crowds vanish and the temple sits nearly empty. I later learn that many divers take the day off from their Hurghada schedule to visit Luxor for a day, arriving at 11am and leaving by 6pm.

“This is a ‘false’ crowdedness,” one of the hoteliers who spoke on condition of anonymity explains. “It gives the impression that we have plenty of tourists whereas we don’t. We don’t benefit from them. Luxor gains only LE12 from each as a lunch charge in addition to the entry fees of ancient sites.”

We departed the site at 2pm and decided to return to the serenity of our island where we dine in the cool interior and walk through the gardens listening to the hotel’s soothing background music as the sun seemingly sinks into the Nile.

THE TEMPLE OF ALL ERAS: There is nothing more spectacular than Luxor Temple at night. The architecture lit with pastel lights bounces off the carved relief to form a show of shadows on the temple walls, pillars and floor.Entrance to the temple is from the Corniche gate. No buses are allowed beyond this point.

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The temple life span is of a mind-boggling length. First built by Amenhotep III in 1500 BC, it was enlarged by Ramsis II in 1300 BC, and partly restored by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. One part of it was reused as a church by fifth-century AD Christians. The northeast side is composed of the still-used 13th century Mosque of Abul-Haggag.

The temple sits on the site of an older sanctuary built by Hatshepsut and dedicated to the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khons. Amenhotep greatly enlarged Hatshepsut’s shrine and rededicated the massive temple as Amun’s southern Ipet or sanctuary — the private quarters of the god.

That night there are a handful of tourists in the temple; the serenity of the surroundings broken only by their light chatter and the hypnotic preaching of a sheikh at the Mosque of Abul-Haggag.

Within the mosque, inviting entrance with external green lamps and tea-light decorations, crowds of people gather, some of the children peering from the mashrabiya windows and waving to passers-by.

“These decorations are for the moulid (religious festival) of Abul-Haggag and tomorrow is al-leila al-kebira,” explains Seifeddin Gado, a 50-year-old guard of the Luxor Temple. “It is always held in mid-Sha’ban (the Islamic calendar month preceding the holy month of Ramadan), and thousands of people from Luxor and neighbouring villages celebrate the event. People usually open their houses to guests to eat rice, vegetables and kebab.” The kebab Gado spoke of, I later discover, is not the usual kebab found in Cairene eateries, but rather, a golf ball-sized concoction of minced meat and wheat (similar to Cairo’s kofta).

The moulid is held in honour of Youssef Abul-Haggag, Luxor’s patron saint, a 13th-century Iraqi who settled in Luxor. Many of his descendants still live in the area. This is not the only moulid in Luxor, but it is by far the largest. There are the moulids of Sheikh Ali Moussa and Abul-Goud on the east bank, and Sheikh Ahmed El-Adasi, and Abul-Gomsan in Gurna on the west bank. Most of these moulids take place during Ragab and Sha’ban, the two months preceding Ramadan.

AN INDIAN NIGHT: We leave Luxor Temple at 8pm, considering, momentarily, dining at a local Luxor restaurant, which had treated me to tasty fare in the past. Instead, however, we pampered ourselves once again, opting for the cuisine of one of the city’s five-star hotels.

The plan was to go to the Italian La Mama at the Sheraton Luxor Resort — a personal all-time favourite. But we decided to try something new. We ended up at the hotel’s Indian restaurant, Agra.

Agra is welcoming, a cozy atmosphere complimented by Indian architecture and motifs. Sitting at a table facing a miniature replica of the Taj Mahal, we survey the portraits of elephants, Indian dancers and temples covering the walls. Indian music plays in the background, and the aroma of Indian spices fills the air.

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Agra Restaurant at Sheraton Luxor

Given my ignorance of Indian specialties, I asked the waiter to choose for me. Tandoori, I learn that night, is not a kind of food, but rather a method of cooking. All tandoori items are baked in a clay oven and then served in a cast iron plate with mint sauce. It is decided that the photographer and I will have the tandoori bahaar, a dish of mixed grills cooked “à la Tandoori”.

Our “mild” appetisers came first, accompanied by two kinds of bread; mint paratha, a baladi- like bread made of whole wheat flour with fresh mint, and tandoori roti, a crispy dry whole wheat bread.

We dip the mint paratha in dal makhani (a dish of black lentils simmered with tomato and cream sauce). It overflows with flavour. The palak mushroom, a spinach and mushroom dish, is a bit too spicy for my tongue, but nonetheless tasty.

The roti crispy bread smells tantalising. It tastes equally good — except for one small problem for those with taste buds like mine. When you first bite in it comes across as tasty and mild, but once you down the first mouthful the intense spice begins to burn!

The pickled mango evokes a similar response, tasting somewhat like apricot with more than a dash of salt blended in.

Our main course is also up to expectations, with mouth-watering grilled meat, shrimp, chicken and kofta. The photographer delighted in the cuisine as did I, except for my inability to deal with the Indian definition of “mild”!

Having long bid our driver goodnight, we depart to the hotel on foot. We had been assured by him that the walk from the Sheraton to our hotel was just one kilometre. The first portion of our walk took us to Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Street, after which a right turn takes us to the road leading home, a two-way green-lined street. We walk and walk and walk. A good 15 minutes later lights appear ahead.”This must be the hotel,” the photographer says, relieved.

We should be so lucky. The walk went on, at least an hour passing since our departure from the Sheraton. When we finally arrive home, we are pleasantly informed that our wanderings had been in the four kilometre range.”I think Ibrahim had to tell us that because he was tired and wanted to go home,” the photographer laughs.

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The Valley of Kings at the west bank of the Nile

THE WEST BANK: The following morning is our designated west bank day — starting with the Valley of the Kings and then moving on to Hatshepsut’s Temple in Deir Al-Bahari. On our way back we stop at an alabaster factory called Hatshepsut, where we observed local workers mould replicas of Pharaonic statues out of rock quarried from the mountains of the valley. The people of Gurna are known to be the only ones in Egypt to have mastered this kind of art — a talent passed down from their ancestors. There are many alabaster shops, displays and workshops in the area. Watch out for machine-made items that are less expensive but of lesser quality.

SUNSET FELUCCA: A late (5pm) lunch by the Nile is followed by a felucca to nearby Birds Island. The weather is unfortunately and unseasonably hot. Without much of a breeze, rayyes (captain) Mukhtar has to row most of the journey. Half an hour later, though, the wind died completely, and every sailor on the Nile got to work connecting each boat to the next by rope. A motor boat then came and pulled us all, in one long line.

The obscurity of the scene, coupled with the lush surroundings, a sunset-coloured sky, and the tales of our rayyes made it a most memorable ride.

“Tonight is al-leila al-kebira of Abul-Haggag,” he tells us. “This is something that you should not miss. I am going there right now. This is our feast.”

MOULID ABUL-HAGGAG: The moulid was unlike any I have attended in Cairo. During al-leila al-kebira, the area surrounding the Mosque of Abul-Haggag and all the roads leading to it are eccentrically decorated with lights that reflect the spirit of the festivities. Vendors from Luxor and neighbouring villages peddle their local halaweyyat al-moulid (the sweets of the celebration), tarateer (party hats), zamameer (whistles), balloons, fake golden bracelets, earrings and rings, food and soft drinks. Thousands of Upper Egyptians flock to the mosque to visit the sanctuary of Sheikh Abul-Haggag. A large area attached to the mosque is enclosed with a tent where munshids (cantors) perform religious songs, and Sufis partake in the zikr (remembrance).

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Moulid Abuel Haggag

The night may be raucous, but the actual peak of the moulid comes the following morning, on the final day of celebration (al-dora). A camel with a tag bearing Abul-Haggag’s name kneels at the door of the mosque with a cord hobbling its feet. After Friday prayers, according to tradition, the imam, the highest religious authority of the mosque, cuts the cord binding the camel’s feet, allowing the majestic desert beast to rise, to the cheers of locals. It then starts to run through the densely-packed streets followed by a parade of thousands of celebrants singing and dancing, accompanied by camels adorned with colourful silk scarves. People cheer, laugh and chant with unwavering enthusiasm. All of this symbolising the beginning of Abul-Haggag’s journey to Luxor.

The parade also had a nautical motif. A large boat — and sometimes three boats — are carried by donkey-driven carts resembling the solar barque processions of Pharaonic times where one of the gods was taken from his/her own temple to that of another in a boat. In Islamic symbolism the boat is often considered a vehicle for spiritual knowledge and thus the procession may well focus the attention of the populace upon the search for this. As the boats paraded by, crowds revelled in traditional entertainment. There are tahteeb (stick fights) to rhythmic music and horse races in which the horses are adorned with saddles knit of gold and silver threads.

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STUCK AT THE AIRPORT: Our final day is slow and peaceful — lunch, shopping, a stroll and dinner.We arrive at the airport at 10.30pm, in plenty of time for our 11.45pm flight.But the check-in counter holds a surprise.”You should have travelled on the 11.45am flight and not the 11.45pm flight,” the EgyptAir official informs us. “You will be on a waiting list.”

Luckily, we got the last two seats. But not without a fuss.”You can’t board until you pay the fine,” we are told. “You didn’t show up in the morning, so you must pay LE77 each.”

The clerk is insistent and we are too tired to argue. We pay, board and arrive home exhausted at 1am. Not quite the perfect ending to an otherwise spectacular trip, but certainly not enough to take away the joy of three days of bliss.

Categories: Egypt, Upper Egypt | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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