Most American travelers don't travel with a bodyguard, or at least one we're aware of. Yes, there may be a federal marshal on the airplane with us, but you may or may not be right about that young guy in first class who never seems to watch the movie or read a magazine. However, if you travel to Egypt on a group tour, you can be sure the young fellow in the seat behind the bus driver is packing heat. If you're with an American group, that is.
Security is more important in Egypt, or perhaps just more obviously so. At the entrance of every "foreign" hotel and at every national monument, there are electronic gates, sometimes more than one. And at Egyptian airports, it's more of the same. Returning to New York from Cairo, I had to pass through three such gates in the airport, my luggage subject to at least two such screenings I could see, and there was an additional passport check on the jet way to the airplane itself. (Not to mention having our own Border Patrol people checking passports halfway down the jetway at New York-JFK on arrival, a first for me.) There have been no repetitions of attacks by crazed fanatics against foreign tourists in Egypt since the last such incident in 2005, which was at the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, nowhere near the Nile. The last terrorist attack along the Nile cruise route was in Luxor in 1997, when 58 tourists, mostly Japanese, were killed at Queen Hatshepsut's Temple.
Luxor East & West
Whether you see Luxor as part of a Nile cruise or on your own is a matter of your infatuation with ancient Egyptian culture. If you want more than 2 to 3 hours at the important sites here and nearby, come on your own. But if a once-over-lightly approach is enough, by all means come on a Nile cruise, about which more in a later article.
There are two major sites here (grade A plus), a slightly lesser site (Grade A) and several other distinctly minor sites.
Karnak (Grade A Plus)
Topping the list in the town of Luxor itself is the Temple of Karnak, said to be the world's largest religious edifice, covering more than 60 acres and containing 134 huge columns. Lying on the east bank of the Nile and about two miles north of the Luxor town center, Karnak, dedicated the god Amun-Ra, was built more than 3,500 years ago, each pharaoh adding his own contribution. Among highlights here is Queen Hatshepsut's 97-foot-tall obelisk, but the highlight is the Great Hypostyle Hall (c.1300 BCE), completed by Ramses II, who put a colossal statue of himself at the entrance. You can see how high walls were built (and, by extension, the pyramids) in the evidence of an earthen ramp behind one such wall here at Karnak, just inside the main gate.
Temple of Luxor (Grade A)
Even more impressive by night than by day, the temple here was built by Amenophis III around 1400 BCE and dedicated to the Theban Triad of gods, including Amon-Ra, and was later expanded by Ramses II. Luxor was the center of Egyptian power from 2100 BCE to 750 BCE, and the temple is in the town center, too. Imagine, if you can, that this temple was covered with earth up to about the mid point on the obelisk in the early 19th century, before archaeologists began clearing debris away. Look especially for the so-called Birth Room, where the procreation and birth of Amenhotep III is depicted in delicate symbolism.
Valley of the Kings (Grade A Plus)
For many, this is the main reason to come to Egypt. Ever since Howard Carter's unearthing of King Tut's Tomb in 1922, the craze for things Egyptian has been impossible to stop. There are over 62 tombs of pharaohs and noblemen here, including the tombs of Tutankhamen, Amenophis II, Ramses VI, Seti I and more. Only a few are open to the public and no photography is allowed inside. All are located in the former capital of Thebes, on the west bank of the Nile opposite Luxor.
You can visit as many as three tombs (Ramses IV, V & VI (jointly) and IX in as few as two hours, as I did with my group, even with short waits at the more popular sites, though you can take longer to study the marvelous paintings if you can ignore the line of people moving constantly behind you. In the joint tombs of Ramses V and VI, you can see graffiti in Latin, ancient Greek and Coptic, the site having been used for Christian religious services at some point long ago. Be prepared for the sun and heat with bottled water, sunhat, long sleeves and trousers, as well as sunscreen, of course. You should also appreciate that the entire Theban Necropolis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, since 1979.
The Tomb of King Tut (c. 1323 BCE), where his mummified body still reposes (but not its most marvelous casket), is open for an extra fee of 100 Egyptian pounds (about US$18). Since most of its treasures are now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, you may find a visit somewhat of an anti climax.
From the shade of the Visitors' Center on the premises, you can rest and perhaps view, as I did, more excavations taking place nearby, dozens of laborers lining up to fill baskets with dirt being pick axed and shoveled out of the earth between existing discovered tombs, then dumping them onto waiting trucks.
Temple of Queen Hatshepsut (Grade A Minus)
As postscript to a tour of the Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut's temple (c. 1460 BCE) seems almost like a visit to a sun-baked Mount Vernon after a day in Washington's Federal Triangle and Mall. It's also a short drive from the grouped tombs, this temple being at Deir El Bahary, The huge temple resembles a giant porticoed mansion, with a suitably daunting approach up a couple of hundred steps (I counted). Behind a three-storied faÃ§ade of stone lie dim rooms decorated with panels depicting her glory years, including an invasion of Somalia.
Here, as at all sites, there is a gauntlet to be run, no doubt by prearrangement between the Antiquities Department and local authorities. That's the avenue of shops where local merchants will try to sell you every kind of souvenir, article of clothing or yes, bottled water and snacks, before you reach the promised cultural target. If you're lucky, your guide may show you a way past the gauntlet on your way out. Otherwise, it's a two-way passage of yielding to temptation or being firm at saying "No."
The Colossi of Memnon (Grade C)
Somewhat an anti-climax after the magnificence of the Valley's tombs and the stupefaction of Karnak, these solitary statues of Amenhotep III, c. 1390-1353 BCE, all that remain of his temple, nevertheless are mightily impressive.
An excellent travel organizer in Egypt is Wings Tours, one of the most efficient such organizations there, with excellent guides and meticulous service. Their American office is in Maryland. Contact them at tel. 410/771-0925; www.wingsegypt.com; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can get more information on Egypt from the official site of the Egyptian Tourist Authority at www.egypt.travel.