Ancient Egypt in the Modern World: Touring the Pyramids, Luxor, and Beyond

Saturday, July 13, 2019 | Luxor, Egypt

Visit the ruins of ancient Egypt and you might just come away with a new appreciation for what humans are capable of. I found the Karnak Temple's hall of mighty pillars, in Luxor, particularly mesmerizing.
This is the fourth in a six-part series on my 2017 trips to Egypt. Read previous entries here: "To Egypt, At Long Last", "Daily Life in Giza, Straight from the Horse's Mouth", "Cairo, Conqueror of Skeptics".

The Ancient

Of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one—the Great Pyramid at Giza—still stands today, and it is a sight to behold.

At nearly 150 meters (500 feet) high, it dwarfs the adjacent pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure, though both are themselves staggeringly large, especially considering the modest tools available to their builders several millennia ago. The Great Pyramid was commissioned to memorialize the Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops), who ruled in the 26th century BC. Cleopatra lived closer to us today than to the Great Pyramid's construction.

If you haven't seen it, it is hard to fathom the Great Pyramid's size until you get close enough to lay your hands directly upon its massive sun-baked granite and limestone blocks. (Many of the blocks were quarried hundreds of miles up the Nile River with nothing more than simple tools, then transported to Giza on barges.) The Great Pyramid alone contains enough stone to build a wall two feet high the entire way around Earth. Oh, and except for a few scattered stones tumbled in long-ago earthquakes, even today you can't mistake the impeccable quality of construction and precision of the design. Egypt's pyramids serve more as
monuments to human engineering genius than to the pharaohs they were built to memorialize.

In our two trips together to Egypt, Nina showed me the pyramids alongside a long list of fantastic pharaonic sites. Not far from Cairo, there was the step pyramid at Saqqarah. In Luxor (ancient Thebes), we saw the Colossi of Memnon, Luxor Temple, Hatshepsut Temple, the Valley of the Kings with its secret subterranean tombs, and the magnificent Karnak Temple from above during a pre-dawn hot-air-balloon ride, then took them in slowly at ground level. I would happily have spent days craning my neck, soaking in the Karnak Temple's hall of gigantic columns. In its heyday, the temple would have been heavily guarded, adorned with flags, the intricate hieroglyphs covering its interior surfaces all painted in brilliant blues and yellows and reds, its obelisks capped with gold. If Karnak's scale and intricacy leave us—inhabitants of a world filled with skyscrapers—awestruck, just try to fathom how simple herders coming in from the desert thousands of years ago, having never seen any construction larger than a tent, might have interpreted the sight of such a place in its full splendor.

The Pyramids at Giza are surrounded by lesser burial sites and the crumbled foundations of temples.
Further upriver, we visited Edfu Temple, the waterside crocodile temple at Kom Ombo, and Philae Temple, which occupies its own island in the Nile. Another highlight, though a challenge to reach, was Abu Simbel, with its imposing seated quartet of representations of pharaoh Ramses II. (This was the colossal temple complex that—thanks to the genius of yet more engineers, this time modern ones commissioned by UNESCO in the 1960s—was actually moved several dozen meters up the bank to prevent it from being flooded by the waters of Lake Nasser after construction of the Aswan High Dam.)

Owing to Egypt's arid desert climate (and to some often, though not always, impressive restoration work), most sites are strikingly well preserved—as are the artifacts they once contained, though these have now all been moved to museums. Many, of course, were plundered by early grave robbers or by colonizers, and now lie in Egyptian wings in London, New York, Berlin, Paris, Rome, and other Western capitals. But countless more artifacts remain in Egypt, where bureaucrats have spent decades doing their damnedest to cram them into the Egyptian Museum. Located beside Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, the museum was built in 1901 to house the artifacts then available—a number that has since ballooned by several orders of magnitude, leaving the museum charmingly overstuffed. (Its administrators seem to hope that if they squeeze in enough artifacts, you'll forgive them for failing to provide much in the way of explanation.) In Giza, a new Grand Egyptian Museum is under construction (in fact, it has stubbornly remained so for a decade, having missed its many announced opening dates).

A sarcophagus carrier topped by Anubis, the jackal god of the underworld; at the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo, which is overstuffed with spectacular, hieroglyph-inscribed artifacts.
In the old museum's upper floor is a special exhibit of mummies (extra entrance fee, and strictly no photos allowed). Peering up close, you can still see gently curled eyelashes and wisps of hair on their heads, which can make it hard to remember that they have been dead for millennia. In truth the mind struggles to comprehend such vast sweeps of time, though certain facts help to crystallize the scale. In the Valley of the Kings, for example, our guide took us to a tomb that had laid undisturbed for centuries, then been robbed in 1050 BC, after which many of the decorations on the tombs walls were reconfigured to worship the new gods of the day. Later, they were changed again to reflect the influence of Greek and Roman rulers, albeit still with decisively Egyptian motifs. It is all so mind-bogglingly ancient.

If you stand before the pyramids at Giza, the Temple at Karnak, the flawlessly painted hieroglyphs engraved in chambers deep beneath the earth in the Valley of the Kings, and are not awestruck, you simply must stand longer. Surely you have not yet understood, or utterly lack the imagination to see what these sites would have been in their heyday...

The Modern

... Or maybe you just can't concentrate because someone is tugging at your sleeve trying to sell you a camel ride or a scarab talisman or an alabaster figurine!

It's true that, as much as Egypt depends in great measure on a steady flow of tourists to visit these ancient wonders, its modern side is ever present, quite often detracting from the experience.

Hot air balloon ride over Luxor and the nearby Valleys of the Kings and Queens
The majesty of the pyramids is well suited to deep reflection—but good luck concentrating while you're hassled by all manner of pushy touts—camel drivers, Pepsi sellers, hawkers of souvenirs, self-appointed guides, and the like. Along with aggressive guides, shady tour operators, and other unsavory characters, Egypt's touts are a perennial drag on the tourist experience. Many have tried to find a formula for dissuading them, but few have succeeded. I am proud to count myself among those few, because while at the pyramids, I discovered a foolproof way to make every tout do an immediate about-face and never return: speak to them in Algerian. Yes, so infamous is the Algerian reputation in the region, and so intense is the rivalry between the two nations (especially their football teams, whose supporters clashed violently in 2009) that the mere utterance of a few words in Algerian Arabic is enough to instantly send the trinket-hawkers hustling off in search of easier prey.

Although that technique solved one big challenge, modern Egypt still imposed itself on our experience in other regrettable ways. The public security guards assigned to protect the pyramids proposed that, for a small "fee" of baksheesh, we clamber up a few levels of the massive stones to pose for pictures, in violation of the only sign visible for miles around: No climbing. Nearby, the slyly smiling Sphinx no longer gazes majestically over the necropolis, temple complex, and agricultural fields it once surveyed; instead it now faces a KFC and other irreverent modern constructions that have steadily encroached over recent decades. Today's Egyptians, as writer Peter Hessler has noted, are several civilizational generations removed from the pharaohs, and few seem to view their works with quite the reverence one might hope.

Uncomfortably close: Like it or not, Mom got an intimate shot with an overly friendly man and his horse.
Each evening at the pyramids, visiting tourists gather for the "Sound & Light Show", sitting in rows of folding chairs on a small patio to watch a narrated show of colorful projections upon the pyramids, Sphinx, and temples themselves. The show provides a second opportunity for appreciating the pyramids' grandeur—if you don't focus too much on how gaudy the light production is, how corny the narration, or how bombastic the tinny orchestral recording. Quotes from (mostly foreign) explorers, philosophers, and writers—all recounted in a stuffy British accent—blare across the night sky, eliciting yips and howls from the stray dogs that roam the ruins: "The world fears time, but time fears the pyramids" ... "They commemorate the greatest victory—victory over death."

Luckily for the Egyptians, a heritage this rich is hard to squander, and it still draws tourists from the world over. They were relatively few and far between during our first visit in July (you would have to be an idiot to travel here at the height of the summer heat, as we did) and overall numbers have been dented by recent political and security instability. But Egypt still enjoys a deserved reputation as steward of a truly unique set of man-made marvels—treasures that one hopes will outlast our modern antics.

My Rolleiflex photos from Egypt are available in two albums: 2017 Rollei - Egypt I and 2017 Rollei - Egypt II. Nina's photos from our first trip are here: 2017.07 Egypt.

Coming next: a reflection on the enduring lifeblood of Egypt, the Nile river.

Credit where it's due: The professional, licensed tour guides we used provided very insightful explanations of each site's history, adding substantially to our understanding and appreciation.

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