By Bob Schwabach
Originally printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, March 16, 1975
Luxor is what the Greeks called Ancient Thebes, to distinguish it from modern Thebes in Greece itself, and everybody who was anybody built a temple here. Across the river, on the western bank of the Nile, is the Valley of the Kings. The dead live on the west bank of the Nile, where the sun sets, and the living on the east, where the sun rises.
It is all planned out that way and has been that way for six or seven thousand years. Death is the business of Egypt; it is what tourists come to see and what they have come to see ever since the first millennium before Christ, when Herodotus complained that the tour guides were selling fake antiques to the Athenians. Now Americans, Frenchmen and Scandinavians gawk where Caesar did, and we are the new Romans.
The Egyptians are as prepared for us as they were for them. Hotel rooms are scarce, the Nile boats are booked months in advance, the food is spotty, the service poor, and nobody speaks the language very well. It probably wouldn’t matter if they put people up in tents and fed them K-rations. Because this is Egypt, and nobody comes here for the resort cum fun and sun atmosphere of the Riviera and the Costa del Sol or even to sample the native food and rummage the bazaars for brass plates. This is The Land of the Pharaohs, as Cecil B. DeMille kept reminding us, and by gum it really is.
A lot of it has the air of some leftover movie set. The pyramids, the Sphinx, the great temples of Karnak and Abu Simbel, look disappointingly just like their pictures and everything is instantly recognizable. The Great Pyramids of Giza are just on the edge of Cairo, a one dollar taxi ride from the center of town. Turn right at the “Pirate’s Cove” nightclub. The Sphinx is just down the pike a piece, round halfway between the tomb of Cheops and his number one son, and you can walk over in five minutes.
The street Arabs will hustle you for trinkets and the like, but after you’ve bought or it’s apparent you’re a bummer you can go about as you please and no one will say to you boo. It is a mixed feeling to an American riased on highly organized national monuments and their entrances, complete with hot dog and souvenir stands. If you want to spend all day in silent meditation no one could care less, but if you want a drink or something to send home the concern level is roughly the same.
The best thing to do is hire a local guide. Since you cannot rent cars in Egypt (when this was written in 1975) this will normally consist of the taxi driver you engage to take you around the sights. He will perform every service that you would normally engage a travel agent for and even change your money on the black market. (In this line, the official rate of exchange of 58 piastres to the dollar (in 1975) with a special tax being levied on top of that for each transaction. Any cab driver in town can get you 70 piastres to the dollar, or at least 65 if it’s after 10 o’clock at night.)
This driver will not take you any place you want to go, unless by accident, but if you just lean back, relax and stay calm, you will see a good part of the country.
If you are not in a tour group you will need a special government permit to visit most of the monuments. This is one of the main reasons that most people tour Egypt by group. The travel agents already have these permits and everything goes fairly smoothly, by local standards, which is to say a constant state of mild fury. To travel alone you have only to go to the national tourist office and ask for an individual permit, which will be granted without further ado.
That’s what it says right here in the tourist literature.
In actual fact, it does not work quite that way. Meet one American who tried it for five days and finally got the permit only through the intervention of a cabinet official. In some cities the tourist office people, being there to deal with tourists after all, speak no English.
The permits are required because in order to visit many of the ancient monuments you must pass through several military checkpoints along the way. These are apparently for the security of the nation or to provide employment for the Army, because once through them you will find that nothing of any discernible significance whatsoever is being guarded. But at each checkpoint an armed soldier will come to to inspect your permit. The taxi driver’s solution to this problem will be swift and simple; he will use your money to bribe the guard. Don’t worry, it will not be expensive. The going price for an Egyptian Army guard is about 50 cents.
In this way, or legitimately, you can get to see things like the Temple of Horus, at Etfou, which is not on most tours and is not promoted by the government.
By my own observation and the corroborative accounts of other travelers this is the most magnificent ancient monument in all of Egypt. It is the only temple that is still intact and that you can walk in and feel again the power of another age. Not visible from the road, it is buried deep in a miserable town whose only other distinguishing characteristic is a sugar refinery built by the Japanese.
This temple was built by the Ptolemies — Cleopatra’s folks — who were, of course, Greeks, and
that may be part of the reason why the Egyptian government. (Just as they do not promote Alexandria as an attraction, nor wish it publicized that 650,00 Greeks have been expelled from there over the past several years and their property confiscated.) It is unclear just which Ptolemy built the temple. As there was considerable pushing and shoving for the throne at the time, each ruler as he came to power would order the name of the previous ruler chiselled off the royal cartouches on the temple columns.
Finally the Egyptian stone masons just left the cartouches smooth and blank, saying in effect, “let us know when you’ve decided who’s in charge.” The cartouches are still blank.
You can reach Etfou by taxi from either Cairo or Luxor, about a hundred miles either way. You can also go by train but this is a gruesome experience. The hundred mile taxi ride will be around $20 round trip.
Downriver, or North as they say in these parts, is Cairo, which you may want to get out of as soon as possible. This is a city of 7 million people with the look and smell of an open sewer. The public transportation system is hair raising, the restaurants dirty-except for Groppi’s — and Nile St., the local equivalent of Fifth Ave. shopping, has the look of a Brooklyn pushcart district but with less attractive merchandise. On the plus side, the National Museum is quite fantastic– even if they don’t label their exhibits and leave the lights off in most rooms — and the Hilton Hotel has a Pizzeria. Now you can get out of Cairo.
Once upriver — that’s to the south — things improve markedly. You pass the pyramids (where the street Arabs offload junk bracelets and necklaces in jumbo lots, with the pitch — no kidding — “I’ll take two bucks for the whole schmeer.” It’s the new international language, then break out into open country which is just as poor and desolate as the part you’ve just come from but at least the air is clean. The first big stopping place upriver is Luxor, which the Greeks called Thebes, which features the great temples of Karmak.
As you move upriver, the water, which is a kind of green in Cairo, gradually turns blue. At Luxor, the sky is brilliant blue, the water is deep and swift, the sun warm and the air sparkling. Egypt is still the Nile and the desert is never far way. Walk away from the river and you will come to sand in anywhere from one to 30 minutes depending on the place. From then on it is a thousand miles of absolutely nothing. Not a single blade of grass grows unless you come to an oasis. There are hawks out here and occasional tracks in the sand — you don’t know if they were made yesterday or 50 years ago.
Sometimes you see a camel drive — Sudanese, 20 days out of Khartoum and moving for the markets near Sarkarra. Fifty Egyptian pounds for a little one, 100 pounds for a big one (in 1975). Sometimes — a secret moment this, not to be shred with everyone — you can climb a hill and look out over the sands and see a single Bedouin plodding on horseback. Suddenly his head whips up, he forces the horse into a wild gallop, pulls a long curving knife from his side and waving it wildly over his head rushes off screaming into the desert for a mile or more. Then as suddenly as he began, the Beduoin stops, the horse’s head droops again, and they go plodding off as before, having answered some crazy inner urge. This is Egypt too and a very romantic one, but not an Egypt that the traveller will see often or well.
The Valley of the Kings– King Tut and all that — is on the west bank, as are all the tombs. The cities of Egypt are all on the east bank of the Nile, for reasons noted previously.
By keeping these things in mind you should be able to avoid the worst of the traffic.
The next big hit above Luxor is Aswan and the High Dam. Aswan also has a little dam, called imaginatively enough, the low dam. The high dam is the big attraction though. It is nothing much to look at but the Egyptians are quite proud of it. There are signs all over in Russian saying how much the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has done for this place and the cause of worker freedom everywhere, and there are once in a while some Russians wandering around the bazaars and trying to look inconspicuous. The Egyptians seem to hate the Russians, and that is all right because the feeling seems to be mutual. One of the things that really bugs the Russians is that here they are in Egypt and they have to communicate with the local folk in English.
The big-deal side trip from Aswan is taking a felucca ride up to the first cataract of the Nile. A felucca is a lateen-rigged boat which is just about the same as the boats the Egyptians used 3,000 years ago when they took the Greek and Roman tourists up the Nile to the first cataract. This was a hairy trip then and is a hairy trip now. Many tourists are put on these boats and one of the things they seldom notice is that the local guides never go along on these trips, because it is much too dangerous.
Moving along upriver you come to Abu Simbel. This is an interesting place because there is nothing else there. The only way to get there is by air, and the only airline is Egypt Air– an experience in itself. The plane always leaves late and arrives late but nobody minds because it’s not going anywhere anyway. The approach to the great temple of Abu Simbel, which Rameses II built to celebrate his victory over the Hittites awhile back, is over miles and miles of sand to a concrete runway surrounded by miles and miles of sand.
There is no terminal and no control tower or anything like that, just a concrete runway in the middle of the desert. Egypt-Air lands and there, standing in a forlorn cluster below, are a hundred or so Scandinavians drooping onto the pavement and wrapping shirts over their heads. They have been standing there for hours and saying whatever it is Scandinavians mutter when they are upset. This is a lesson and a warning to all of us: the only way out of Abu Simbel is the way in, and you’d better bring your own camp stool and canteen.
There is a village nearby and like much of the rest of Egypt the question of action resolves not on what there is to do around the place at night but what do you do in the daytime. Dying is a big business in these parts and you have to determine early on that what you really came for is tombs and their occupants. This is what everybody has here for — for the past 5,000 years — and is likely to do so for the next.
There are efforts in downtown Cairo, like casinos and such, where girls with the fattest thighs in the world will prance around in parodies of bunny costumes and bring you free drinks while you play penny blackjack with oil sheiks from Kuwait. But if you think that’s just the warmup you’ve had it, because in fact that is it. You have just had the whole ball of wax and the winkle in the widget that makes the works go round.
Better ultimately to sit between the thick legs of Rameses II and stare at the pornographic temple paintings, thinking about what a good time everybody seemed to have before they all dropped dead. “You want to buy a scarab, fella,” a
street Arab asks.
“It is actually a dung beetle,” I say, “and the early morning shape of the many forms of the Great God Ra.”
The Arab stares at me for a moment, uncertain to whether he has made contact. “EnshAllah,” he says, who can figure these crazy Americans.