"My soul is elsewhere, I'm sure of that. And I intend to end up there." -- Rumi

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Valley of the Kings

It's just after noon on another grey and chilly Monday in Kassel.  I had what in no way could be called a bad weekend, especially if you lump in some excellent Thursday night shenanigans with the concept of "weekend".  I drank a couple decent gin n' tonics (lemon instead of lime, why Europe???), sang 90s songs (Wallflowers and The Verve Pipe, baby), took a walk in a park, and discovered the truth about Budweiser.  I also had a two-hour meeting on Saturday morning, and did company paperwork and planning for six hours on Sunday.

But now it's Monday, and due to several of my classes being on break or not having started yet, I don't have to be anywhere for a few hours yet.  SO, let's knock out one of these blogging albatrosses, otherwise known as "What I Did in Egypt".

When I last left you on the banks of the River Nile, I had just come off of an incredible day touring the Temple of Horus, Karnak, and Luxor.  Sisyphus once again was stuffed to bursting in preparation for our flight to Cairo, but before Ismail and the group could say goodbye to each other, there was one more 5:30 AM wake-up call.

We were going to the Valley of the Kings.

That is a terrible picture, but it's the best one I have of the Valley because they do not allow you to take photos at the site at all.  Not even outside, which frankly is completely ridiculous.  So this is from the parking lot.  In fact, there are signs everywhere telling people to leave their cameras on the bus.  I did not, and as it turns out that would be a very fortuitous decision on my part!

I was just so, so excited about being here.  I can't even tell you.  Up to this point in my life, this was the single best thing that had ever happened to me.  There were tears again, discrete little ones behind big sunglasses.  I wanted to see everything, but unfortunately the Egyptians were one step ahead of me.

There are 65 known tombs in the Valley of the Kings.  When you buy your ticket, it allows you to choose a maximum of three to go inside and visit.  And sadly, most of the truly famous ones (including Ramses II and Hatshepsut) are closed to the public.  Ismail recommended we visit the tombs of Merenptah, who was Ramses II's son and successor, and then Ramses III and Ramses IX.  So that's what we did.  Tour guides are no longer allowed to go down into the tombs with their groups, so Ismail gave us the highlights and then let us loose.

Inside the Tomb of Merenptah
Merenptah's sarcophagus
Incredible art on the tomb walls, sadly slightly blurry due to illegality
Yeah, so.  Balls to that no photos rule.  It just so happened that the tomb wasn't very crowded at the moment we went inside (everyone in that first photo is from my group), so I and a couple others decided to risk a stay in Egyptian jail for visual proof of one of the coolest things I have ever done.

I unfortunately wasn't able to grab any photos inside the tomb of Ramses III though.  It was more crowded and there was a steady passage of guards wandering through.  I remember it being incredible, of course, and at the end there seemed to be a collapsed or unexcavated passage that was dark and closed to the public.  I should have been an Egyptologist!  Maybe in the next life.

After Ramses III, I broke off from the group because I was about to do something incredibly special.  The one exception to the "no famous tombs are open" statement is nothing less than the most famous tomb of them all -- the tomb of Tutankhamun.  Keeping true to their Egyptian spirit, this particular tomb is not included in your choice of three.  You need to buy a separate ticket to visit Tutankhamun, at a cost of 100 EGP.

That might sound like a lot, but it's about the equivalent of fourteen dollars.

The fact is though, it didn't really matter how much it cost.  I probably would have paid 100 USD for this.  Because let's be real -- there is ONE Valley of the Kings and ONE Tutankhamun's tomb, and this very probably is going to be my ONE -- my very much one and only chance -- to see it.

I was the only one from my group to pay for the Tutankhamun ticket.  The only one.  No one else apparently thought it was worth it to come to Egypt and pony up fourteen freaking dollars.  Well, okay.  Each to their own, of course.  I hope you enjoyed the hell out of whatever it was you spent that fourteen dollars on instead.


This meant I was alone in Tutankhamun's tomb.  Alone, that is, expect of course for the guide/security guard who climbed down in there with me to make sure I kept my hands to myself and also of course to get his baksheesh.  And wouldn't you know, this turned out to be the one time in Egypt when baksheesh culture ended up working in my favor.

Tutankhamun's mummy is actually here; it's the one mummy displayed for general viewing in the Valley.  I did not get a photo of the mummy (sadness), but the guy raised the barrier and let me go right up to the glass for a better view.  He gave me his flashlight and let me poke my head into one of the treasure rooms (now dark and empty, but still completely amazing).  On the other side of the main room, he showed me where to lean over the railing to see an incredible wall painting of Horus and Anubis (I think it was those two).

And then he let me take a picture.  Hell, he took my picture.

I'm the same color as my shirt.  It was freaking hot in there.
I think this guy would have sold me the mummy if I'd asked him.  Needless to say, I paid happily and handsomely for my privileges, and we both climbed out of Tutankhamun's tomb feeling very satisfied with our fifteen minutes.

This was one of the most memorable and generally mind-blowing things that has ever happened to me.  I know I'm saying that quite a bit in these Egypt posts, but every one of them is true.  I've never felt so incredibly fortunate.  The trip.  Of.  A LIFETIME.

I rejoined the group, and we walked over to our last tomb of the day, Rameses IX.  This tomb is interesting in part because it has been heavily defaced with Coptic and Roman graffiti.  Such barbarians.

The tomb of Rameses IX
I was only able to get off one hip shot here, but you at least can see the extent of the decoration.  Completely incredible.  We're walking down to the burial chamber; you can see the hulk of the sarcophagus there at the end.

And that, my dear friends, was the Valley of the Kings.  Had I been by myself, I would have bought a complete second ticket, and gone on to visit three more tombs.  But unfortunately there was an air-conditioned minibus to get to, and several more things to see before I would board my place to Cairo.  So we said our farewells to Tutankhamun and the various Rameses, and headed off to Queen Hatshepsut's Mortuary Temple.

I haven't said much about the heat so far in this post, but let me just take a sec to do so now.  June in the freaking Egyptian desert is no joke.  Without exaggeration, I have never in my life felt anything like this, and hope to hell I don't again.  It was almost unreal.  In a weird, heatstroke kind of way, the extreme temperatures almost added to the experience.  It certainly lent a particular facet of "unforgettable."

After the breathtaking ordeal that was visiting the temple, the group took refuge at the shady cafe and hydrated for a few minutes.  I spied an Efes in the cooler, and was ecstatic for exactly seventeen seconds before I spied the "alcohol free".  Giant sigh.  Switched to coke.  Oh well, it was still not even noon yet, despite my having been up for almost seven hours.

Last stop of the tour was the Valley of the Queens.  Which Ismail told me is actually kind of a misleading name.  It's the burial place for all of the king's family -- his kids, parents, etc... and his wife (wives).  There were three people in our group who had booked with a different company, and their tour included a trip to Queen's Valley when the rest of ours did not.  Ismail gave the rest of us the option to buy the ticket individually, and again I was the only one to decide to do this!

We visited two tombs in the Valley of the Queens, both for children of Rameses II I believe.  It's terribly unfortunate, but I didn't make proper note of this at the time, and now have forgotten.  One thing that did make the Valley of the Queens memorable -- due to these tombs not being quite so famous as their brethren over in the next valley, they're in far better condition and the wall paintings here were amazing.  I wish I could have gotten some photos, but the guards were like hawks here.  I did get a couple shots of outside though.

What would a day in Egypt be without a Baksheesh Shakedown?  At the first Queen's Valley tomb we visited, the man punching tickets would not let me into the tomb until I took from him a dilapidated piece of cardboard.  "Fan!" he said enthusiastically.  Of course, you know where this goes.  On my way out, once again he physically blocked my way until I paid him for the privilege of using his "fan".

"Why are you bitching about this?" you may ask.  "You just ranted that 100 EGP was about 14 USD, and now you're complaining about forking over the equivalent of 75 cents?"

Well, yeah.  I am.  It's not about the money.  As I explained up in King Tut's tomb, I am perfectly happy to exchange goods (money) for services.  This is not a foreign concept to me.  I'm an American, and we're know for being the most generous tippers in the world.  I almost always tip higher than what's considered average for where I am, even if service was less than great.  I understand that people in the service industry depend on tips, and don't begrudge my expected contribution to this system one bit.

But I hate being bullied.  I hate being taken for a ride, manipulated, shaken down, take your pick.  It's the principle of the thing.  I'm not going to cheerfully accept someone trying to take advantage of me.  Money really has very little to do with it.

So there's that.  Baksheesh rant over. For now.  (I'm almost definitely going to get some comment troll about this one, but whatever.)

On the way back, we stopped for a quick photo op at the Colossus of Memnon.  (Colossi?)

And then it was time to say a grateful farewell to Ismail and the Tower Prestige.  I've probably never been happier with value for money as I was with this cruise.  In fact, the only big-ticket item we missed was Abu Simbel, because we didn't get that far south.  I can, and will, recommend this trip to anyone.  Completely safe, completely comfy, and days packed from start to finish with sights you'll never forget.

And then I flew to Cairo.

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