Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Egypt: Luxor, Karnak & Valley of the Kings

Sleepily, we board our bus at sunrise and watch the tiny port town of Safaga recede into the distance. Mountains give way to barren desert plains brushed in shades of ochre and burnt umber, the landscape so utterly remote that it reminds me of emptiness. Nothingness stretches into nothingness here, flat sand blows unchecked for miles, and every twenty minutes or so we spot a Bedouin woman cloaked in black, moving slowly under the bright sun as her people have done for generations. Tiny makeshift homes of falling stone seem to appear out of nowhere while children crouch nervously in their shadowed doorways, the odd camel hitched to a post nearby. Occasionally we pause at a military checkpoint in a town of 50 or 100 where armed guards poke their heads out of watchtowers, aiming rifles at the road while men on donkeys pulling carts of sugarcane allow us to pass. There are smiles and waves exchanged. And then once again we are traveling through the desolate acres of sand, staring at nothing but the open sky.

And yet, once we arrive at our destination it rises like a mythic city out of the windswept desert. The Karnak Temple sprawls across 62 acres of sand, its tall obelisks, pillars and sculptures diverting sharply from the otherwise flat horizon. We walk through this massive complex of ancient ruins built by pharaohs over a period of two millennia and the effect is humbling in both scale and architectural grandeur. We roam like children through the labyrinth of corridors, beneath pillars scraping the sky, into dead ends and twisting alleyways of walls carved with birds, scarabs and ankhs, getting lost amid this romantically crumbling maze of stone.
The Temple of Luxor sits nearby, and shares some of Karnak’s architectural renderings. We visit the Avenue of human headed Sphinxes approaching 1.5 miles in length and crane our necks upwards to see the enormous sculptures glaring down at us. At sunset the effect is magical here, the orange sun descending into the Nile, the haunting song of the muezzin as he calls people to prayer, the echo of footsteps through dark stone passages. We also visit the Valley of the Kings, a city of the dead consisting of 62 tombs, including legendary King Tut’s. These tombs are carved straight into the mountains and upon descending into their innermost recesses, it is as if you are discovering a secret cave – one filled with elaborate wall paintings and carvings left thousands of years ago.

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