Posts Tagged With: Luxor

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Luxor’s heydays

This article was published in February 1996 in Al Ahram Weekly newspaper.  I was in Luxor, in Upper Egypt, when I met with the owner of the oldest bookstore in Luxor, Abdallah Gaddis, who died two years after this interview. Gaddis has withstood the fluctuating tides of tourism from World War II to the post-Gulf War era and I decided to flip, with him, through the pages of history.

Gaddis bookstore at Winter Palace Hotel

Gaddis bookstore at Winter Palace Hotel

Abdallah Gaddis was barely one year old when Howard Carter discovered the treasures of Tutankhamun in 1921 but he can relay his father’s impression of the spectacular flux of tourists Luxor witnessed at the time. “It was the most successful year ever. Hundreds of the aristocrats and the members of the press flocked here to witness and cover the discovery,” says Gaddis, who runs the shop his father opened in 1907.

One of the historical photographs taken by Abdallah's father. Howard Carter unwrapping Tutankhamun's mummy

One of the historical photographs taken by Abdallah’s father. Howard Carter unwrapping Tutankhamun’s mummy

A seasoned member of the tourist industry, Gaddis has welcomed widely different customers during many seasons, eras and wars into the Gaddis bookstore that neighbors the legendary Winter Palace Hotel. He’s shared conversation and books with the European elite, the habitués of modern package-tours, with bargain-hunters and backpackers. And despite his versatility, he is definitely nostalgic about the “good old days.” “My clients were the world’s richest and most elegant aristocrats; the cream of the society,” recalls the 74-year old Gaddis.  “They toured the sites in their best clothing; women in furs and elegant dresses and the men in suits.”

Customers making purchases in the 1940s

  Customers making purchases in the 1940s


Customers in 1956

Customers in 1956

Early visitors preparing for a flight  over ancient monuments in Luxor

Early visitors preparing for a flight over ancient monuments in Luxor


But times were not always peachy. The wars Gaddis and his father witnessed often struck bad blows to the business. But his father did manage to expand the store during World War II, when the British and American tenants of the surrounding three shops did not return to Egypt for the tourist season. “The owner asked my father if he would like to rent all three premises. He agreed and paid a nominal price for them.”

His father once sold silver and gold ware, learning trade secrets from his friends in Cairo’s Khan Al-Khalili. He then turned the shops into one bookshop, specializing in books and photographs about Egypt, and particularly monuments. “My father was a pioneer in a field hitherto monopolized by Greeks and Jews, says Gaddis.


Books, post cards, souvenirs and photos are among the products sold by Gaddis bookstore


When Gaddis took over the bookshop in the later 1930s, he would often keep it open past midnight, long after the crowds of tourists had retreated to their hotels. “My clients could then quietly select their books and decide which photographs appealed to them. “ Not only was his bookstore frequented by the wealthy, but the wealthy were willing to spend heavily on his books, making LE1,000 or LE2,000 purchases,  “a fortune in those days,” says Gaddis.

He remembers that “only one Maltese officer and 25 Egyptian soldiers” guarded the monuments of Luxor, Karnak and the Nile’s west bank in the 1930s, and only 40 guides or torgomen, toured the sites with visitors. “They wore traditional caftan, tarboush or emma (turban)” he recalls. “They were cultured though not necessarily university graduates. They were enthusiastic readers of ancient history of which acquired profound knowledge. And they spoke English or French or both.”

He recalls that the Winter Palace Hotel would have the guides work in rotation. If a group of 50 tourists arrived, for example, four were allocated one tour guide at LE2 a day. “At the end of the trip the visitors usually give an envelope to the guide containing LE100 in appreciation of his efforts. That was a good income then. “But conditions for the torgomen changed in the 1960s when they became too old to work.

Winter Palace Hotel, one of the oldest in Luxor and Egypt

Winter Palace Hotel, one of the oldest in Luxor and Egypt

Luxor also had a fixed tourist season at the time; from mid-December to the end of March, and the hotels would open only during those four months, recalls Gaddis. Egypt was still under the British occupation and Luxor was not heavily populated. During off-season, he says, “it was unusual to see a single pedestrian before noon. Only a few fruit, vegetable and clothing shops were open.”

This changed after President Gamal Abdel Nasser made a visit to Luxor in November of 1952. “He met with local businessmen,” Gaddis said, “and we told him that we wanted the hotels to stay open all year round. When Nasser asked us if we could guarantee tourists throughout the year, we suggested carrying out of a two-year experiment. It proved so successful that all the hotels opened in the summer and the winter.

A flying boat moored outside the Winter Palace

  A flying boat moored outside the Winter Palace Hotel

But business has never been good during wars, says Gaddis. A few years before the outbreak of World War II, a worldwide economic depression drastically affected tourist movement to Egypt, and consequently Luxor. “In place of wealthy tourists,” said Gaddis, “British soldiers were brought in in large numbers by Eastmar Travel to see the monuments of Upper Egypt.”

At that time as well, he says, Egyptians began to visit Luxor. “They would leave Cairo and Alexandria in the winter and spend at least two months at the Winter Palace.” While tourists from abroad only trickled to Luxor in the war years, it was only four years after the war that Germans, British and Americans came in large numbers. “The situation improved,” says Gaddis. “Tourism was at a peak at the time of the July 1952 Revolution.

Another peak, says Gaddis, was during the 1960s with the construction of the Aswan High Dam and following UNESCO’s decision to relocate the temples of Abu Simbel. “There was a tremendous influx of visitors for three years. They were anxious to take a last look at the temples at their original sites before they were dismantled and transported to other locations. Hotels were full.”

The early days of Gaddis & Co

The early days of Gaddis & Co

Gaddis &Co in 2007, 100 years later

Gaddis &Co in 2007, 100 years later


But then there was the June 1967. “On the day the war broke out, there was not a single empty room. We had three bad months before tourism revived,” says Gaddis whose shop was exempted from rent for one year by the government.

Gaddis believes that the most severe slump came during the Gulf War, and to an extent not even seen during the wars with Israel. “When the Americans shot the first bullet in the Gulf, there was not a single tourist in Luxor. Conditions improved after the war but then terrorism followed and tourism dropped again.”

Today, books about Egypt in English, French, German and Arabic fill the shelves of the bookshop and potential buyers have a large choice of publications, from the famous Blue Guide and Insight Guides to specialized books, souvenir publications and coffee-table editions. Never before have the shelves of Gaddis  been so heavily stocked.

For more information about the history and products of this historical bookstore, visit

Categories: Egypt, Travel History, Uncategorized, Upper Egypt | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Journeys in silence

A group of deaf tourists from Germany might not have been able to hear about the wonders of Egypt, but with a little indulgence, a tour guide helped them out.

During the day, tour guide Ziad Anwar faced the sun. In closed areas and at night, he lit his mouth with a torch.

The tourists asked him to shave off his moustache. They would then be able to read his lips with ease. He did.

This was Anwar’s first such experience. “Dealing with any handicapped tourist is difficult,” he says. “It requires a lot of preparation and a special way of dealing.”

Twenty-five deaf German tourists spent two weeks travelling through Cairo, Giza, Luxor, Aswan and Sinai and Ziad Anwar was their guide.  Organized by a German association for the deaf, the group was made up of people who had once been able to hear.

Knowing that he wouldn’t be easily understood, Anwar printed a booklet describing the monuments and places they would visit, and distributed it on the first day of their trip. “I also had to talk slowly in German, clearly and in simple language,” he says.

But he wasn’t on his own. The group’s tour leader from Germany assisted Anwar in his task, translating his words into sign language, and some of the tourists wore hearing aids.

In the mornings, Anwar and the tour leader would go door-to-door, with the help of master keys, “because they could not hear the wake-up call,” he says.

Crowds also presented a problem. Once, some of the tourists got dispersed; “They couldn’t hear me so I ran after them and tapped them on their shoulders,” he recalls, and he directed them to the rest of the group.

During the group’s climb up Mount Sinai, Anwar hired someone to walk at the front while he remained behind, making sure the group stuck together.

These are among the preparations made by Anwar who had once before hosted a group of blind tourists. They, in turn, had taught him about the importance of using vivid, detailed, verbal descriptions of each site. “Patience is the keyword when dealing with handicapped people,” he stresses.

Anwar was not entirely savvy with the group of deaf tourists, however, and had some myths of his own to break. On the group’s Luxor-Aswan cruise, he thought they wouldn’t enjoy the galabiya party because they wouldn’t be able to hear the music. But they danced from the beginning to end, moving to the vibrations their bodies felt as loudspeakers blared the music.

Travellers enjoying a camel ride at Giza Plateau (by Festival Tours)

Travellers enjoying a camel ride at Giza Plateau (by Festival Tours)

And then there were some misunderstandings that were just laughed off: When the group stood at the gates of Medinet Habu on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor, Anwar said the word “Habu.” Someone responded, “Oh, we’ll have some,” referring rather to “hamburgers.”

But he does feel that he’s developed a certain knack with tourists who require a different type of tour and has noticed some surprising differences. On the normal tour, he says, the bus is always quiet and the guide does the talking. In the case of the deaf group, he says, “The guide doesn’t talk at all and the tourists chat with one another (by moving their lips and uttering sounds in the process). They speak in very loud voices and the bus starts to resemble a marketplace.”

Tourism for the disabled is not yet developed in Egypt but Anwar feels that it has a great potential. He suggests that specially trained tour guides, documentary films, photos, video tapes and other aides be made available to tour guides like himself.

Now, if there are any disabled people in groups, he feels “an affinity towards them” and tries to make their trip even more enjoyable than might be expected.

Categories: Cairo, Egypt, Giza, Sina, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ancient tombs unearthed in Egyptian city of Luxor

Ancient tombs unearthed in Egyptian city of Luxor

Italian archaeologists have unearthed tombs in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor that are more than 3,000 years old.

Egypt’s antiquities ministry says the tombs were found under the mortuary temple of the Pharoah Amenhotep II, who reigned from 1427 BC to 1401 BC.

The temple is located on the western bank of the River Nile.

The ministry said remains of wooden sarcophaguses and human bones were found inside the tombs.

Jars used to preserve the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines of the deceased were also found, decorated with images of the four sons of the god Horus.

The figures – which have the heads of a human, a baboon, a jackal and a falcon – were believed to help the soul find its way to heaven.

Wafaa Elsaddik, a professor of Egyptology, told the BBC the find was significant because it showed that temples were not just used for worship, but for burial as well.

She said the jars were of very good quality which suggested that the tombs had belonged to wealthy people.

Categories: Egypt, 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.


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.


Maritim Jolie Ville Luxor


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

You can also spot a hoopoe


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.

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