Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

(Upper) Egypt - The Valley of the Kings

Dedicated to the Australian Archaeological team from Macquarie University

This was a day of tombs, temples, and professional archaeology. I was very privileged to join Dad on a visit to the Australian dig on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, where a team of around 20 archaeologists have been excavating three tombs for several years. It’s a fascinating work environment – early each morning they charter a ferry across the Nile and climb up a steep hillside laden with ancient tombs, being excavated by teams from all over the world. There are armies of local labourers wearing galabaya, carrying large baskets and moving technical equipment about the place. From distance it’s like a vast construction site from the nineteenth century.

This is not the famous Valley of the Kings – that’s a few kilometres away, deeper into the rocky, mountainous desert. That was a “secret” region reserved for Pharaohs, and now seethes with around 10,000 tourists a day during high season. Instead, these tombs belonged to major public servants, including a scholarly Ambassador/Butler and the Counter of the Cattle. They covered a great range of tomb preservation and adornment. One was extensively restored from a thick layer of soot to reveal colourful frescoes, hieroglyphics, and scenes of festivity – notably including a dynamic set of dancing girls and a sensitively depicted blind harper, and several charismatic cows. Another was lined floor to ceiling with texts, whilst the last held colossal statues, sarcophagi, and mummified remains. A couple contained deep winding tunnels to the burial chambers themselves - dark, maze-like, and distinctly emanating the odour of resident bats. It was fascinating to speak to so many of the specialists and PhD students on the site, ranging from forensic anthropologists (discussing mummies) to photographers, artifact drawers, and material classifiers. I won’t publish images from this visit online, but it was a real honour to see the cutting-edge of Australian archaeological fieldwork – something normally only witnessed by the specialists themselves and a few invited onlookers!

Later I was guided through the Valley of the Kings by a former site inspector sent by our previous guide to Karnak Temple. We saw three of his favourite tombs, at our request. The tombs of Rameses IV and IX were both colourful (in red, white, yellow and blue), very well preserved or restored, and enormous compared to the previous tombs of active excavation. They have been generally well set up for the choreography of millions of visitors each year, and the area is devoid of touts. It was good to have my mother there who last visited 25 years ago, who recalled the intensely vivid blue of ceiling paintings which have now drastically deteriorated, primarily due to flash photography and excess humidity from visitors. Luckily, Tutankhamun’s tomb completely prohibits the entry of people with cameras, and although this stops most photographers, may be necessary to prohibit them from the entire valley (photography is prohibited everywhere, but only in two languages. Taking cameras away at the beginning might be more effective if somewhat brutal). This was a very small tomb, thought by our guide to have been completed in around 70 days, but entering it will be something I want to remember for the rest of my life. He’s basically the pharaoh who has achieved the most widespread form of immortality, as he is now a household word globally.

The rest of the afternoon was occupied mostly by two major temples. Queen Hatshepsut’s temple, dedicated to the only female Pharaoh, looks like a modern three-story building set into the base of a dramatic arc of enormous cliffs looming over the desert towards the Nile. (We could see it from one of our rooms in the Old Winter Palace). As you walk towards it, it envelopes you into three tiered platforms along the gently sloping processional staircase. The effect is surreal – the whole temple seems almost horizontal when you walk through it, but vertical from a distance. Polish archaeologists were tracing hieroglyphs to plastic sheets when I was there, and apparently were responsible for a great deal of restoration. It’s a very complex and intriguing site, so unfortunately I won’t explain it all here.

Yesterday’s guide for Karnak temple took us through the Luxor temple as the sun edged towards sunset. It begins with a precarious leaning obelisk, the type of structure that leaves you lingering with a genuine concern for the safety of the structure and other visitors, and simultaneously a sadistic hope that you might be the lucky tourist who gets to see it collapse. (It’s also the seventh leaning tower of the GT. Leaning’s overrated). The temple continues through a range of religious occupations, including several Pharonic extensions, a still-functioning mosque, Coptic frescos and their destruction of “pagan” figures, and a Hellenistic temple dedicated to Alexander the Great.

The evening was spent with the Australian archaeologists in one of their apartments. They’re a lovely group of people, working very closely as a team, and are very fortunate to be doing such fascinating work. I’ve met more people who can read hieroglyphics than I think I will ever see in the rest of my life! I also enjoyed an inspiring chat with Dr Karin Sowada regarding the PhD, which has left me very excited about potential topics. It was an excellent evening, and Mum and Dad are looking forward to seeing them again in Cairo when they next pass through.


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