The Valley of the Kings

Luxor is a tourist town. About a million people. That makes it a town in these parts. We are living on a boat at the moment and cruising south toward Upper Egypt. Lower Egypt is north of here…a geographic anomaly which is counter-intuitive. Hint…the great river flows north.

While in Luxor we saw some, but not close to all, of the great sites. There were two highlights… but the sheer enormity of the pharaonic structures took our breath away. Our first day in we toured the Karnak Temple in the morning and the Luxor Temple in the afternoon however, for Judy and me, the evening Sound and Light Show took the cake. Walking and listening and feeling the immense mystery of these giant tributes to the afterlife in the shadows under a blanket of stars made us understand, finally, in our inadequate twenty first century imaginations, something of what drove the pharoahs to devote their lives to planning their afterlife.

Then came the Valley of the Kings this morning…the tombs of sixty- two ancient kings, including King Tut, the little squirt. We loved the tomb of Ramsis Vl. It is beautifully preserved with a long corridor decorated in exquisite, colourful detail with hundreds of hieroglyphics…the scarab beetles, the tree of life and, horrifyingly, representations of prisoners of war, hands tied behind their backs, headless. Symbols of power, of fertility, of devotion to the afterlife, of protection, and of their families. The fertility devotions worked well for one of them. He had sixty-two daughters and one hundred and two sons. Imagine the succession issues. There is a lot else one can imagine too. I am pretty sure he had more than one wife. And did they all get along? We can only guess. Oh to have been a fly on the wall.

The El Baeirat Hotel, West Bank, Luxor

This little hotel is the perfect antidote to the noise and energy and sheer volume of life in Alexandria and Cairo.
We flew in with Cath and Geoff Barley from Cairo yesterday morning and ran the gauntlet through the taxi drivers, made a deal for a driver and off we went. The driver however was asking for directions within minutes of starting what would turn into a ninety-minute drive. We were in the country. Not like Canadian country…Egyptian country. Bumpy dirt roads, donkeys and scruffy little kids all over the place…and us, the foreigners, the fish out of water.

There are two very old photos of Egypt on our dining room wall in Manotick (are they still there Mary?) of Egypt…old Howard or Turnbull family heirlooms of uncertain origin. One is of a shepherd herding a flock of sheep along a dusty road in the heat. Alan Jowett has always liked it. Well I swear that we were following that same shepherd and his flock of sheep and goats down that same dusty road yesterday. It felt like nothing had changed in one hundred years for those few minutes.

This hotel is really about ten small villas in a middle Eastern/Mexican style, one story stucco units that are like little apartments. It is situated right on the banks of the Nile but opposite Luxor out in the country. Directly across the river is the city of Luxor. Right behind our room is a braying donkey and a couple of cows. Instead of listening to the din of traffic, at night there are the animals and a lovely breeze. The bliss.

There were two added bonuses. One was a beautiful outdoor restaurant next door where had a delicious meal not far from a ten-foot crocodile sitting as still as could be in his cage. The other was a little gift shop at the hotel operated by a German woman, a former member of the German parliament for the Green Party who sells goods that she buys from local artisans at fair prices. They were of high quality and we gave her some business, including the purchase of an exquisitely decorated piece of clay pottery that I will bring home to show Monica Chappell, our favourite potter and yogi.

Survival Arabic

The language issue loomed large from day one. The school gave us a little lesson during orientation but with nine new teachers to train, it wasn’t possible to do any more.

We assume and are told that English is “the” international language and therefore we tend to expect in our ignorance of the world that even the humblest shopkeeper or market stall vendor will have at least a smattering of English.

Well we were wrong. Imagine the Egyptians expecting to speak their own language in their own land! At one time Alexandria was the most cosmopolitan city on the Mediterranean which, amazingly, is what Alexander the Great and the Ptolomies who followed him had in mind. Over two hundred thousand Europeans lived here at any given time. French was the language of the ruling classes and English was used a great deal.But the revolution and much other change has had an impact. The expat population is much smaller.

Arabic does not have a lot in common with English. In French, I always cheat and anglicize troublesome words. There is overlap. And there is a similarity of vocabulary that helps a lot in a pinch. Our Survival Arabic course put any hope of similar little cheating possibilities to rest in a hurry.

One of these days I am going to draw up a “you’re never to old to…” list. Such as, you’re never too old to try to learn a new language. Or at least stumble along in a new language. We have basic vocabulary for greetings (sabah el kheer!), the market (bikam? How much?) or Judy’s favourite…ghelee owee!…too expensive!

The language school owner, Frank Lewis, is an American who spent his first six months here nineteen years ago just sitting with a local shoemaker chatting, picking up the language and the idioms. His Arabic is flawless according to the locals. That won’t be us, not by a long shot, but Frank did make the point that the Egyptians were fundamentally kind and would appreciate our efforts to speak their language. He is right. Just having a smattering of it has really helped in the market, with the taxis and in the restaurants. It is humbling but fun too.