Full disclosure: This was the longest day of sightseeing, and therefore, this post is pretty long. If you don't have time, you may want to read it later, just skim it, or skip it altogether.
On Monday, the first day of our Nile cruise, we got up bright and early to check in. Shortly after checking in and getting settled in our room, we headed back down to the reception area for our morning excursion--a tour of Karnak Temple. As we entered the reception, we were directed to a group that was led by Hesham, who would be our guide throughout the cruise. Here's a picture of Hesham that was taken later on, at the Unfinished Obelisk in Aswan:
Once we were joined by the rest of our group, we left the ship, climbed the stairs to street level, and boarded our tour bus. It didn't take long to get to Karnak Temple, but on the way Hesham gave us the crucial information--how long we'd be gone, water is available for free on the bus to take with us, cameras and video cameras are allowed at Karnak for no additional charge. Once we arrived, he passed out the tickets and we entered the site.
After passing through a large open square, we entered the Avenue of the Sphinxes. This is a road, lined by sphinxes on both sides, that used to connect Karnak Temple with Luxor Temple. Over time, the sands covered the avenue, as well as partially to completely covering most or all of the ancient sites. Before the avenue and its path was discovered--or maybe just before people started caring about it, I'm not sure which--several buildings were built over parts of it, including mosques, a hospital, and Luxor Museum. Apparently the Ministry of Tourism is trying to figure out whether and how to relocate these structures so that the complete Avenue of the Sphinxes can be excavated.
Just past the Avenue of the Sphinxes is the temple's facade. Hesham pointed out that temples always were built from the back forward, so the facade is the newest part of the structure. The temple complex was not built on the command of a single Pharoah; around 30 of them contributed to this massive compound. I think Hesham said that Ramses II was a major contributor. After passing through the facade, we entered an open courtyard, which contained a temple for Ramses IV, a couple of smaller temples for the goddess-wife and god-son of the main god Amen-Re (if I'm not confusing this temple with one of the many others we saw later), and a collection of sphinxes that had been moved from the Avenue of the Sphinxes for safekeeping.
After passing through this courtyard, we entered the Great Hypostyle Hall. This hall is 50,000 square feet and contains 134 columns arranged in 16 rows. The central columns are 69 feet tall! The columns used to support a roof over this hall, but the roof is long gone now. These stunning columns were described by Hesham as the "paper" for the temple--they were carved top to bottom with hieroglyphs. There also were a few more recent additions--graffiti left by early explorers, with their names and the dates they were there. It was interesting to see the different heights at which the graffiti was left, reflecting the differing depths of the sand cover at various times.
Through the columns, we could see two obelisks rising from the temple's ruins in the next part of the temple, the Obelisk Court. These obelisks are each carved from a single piece of granite. At least one of them was erected by Queen Hatshepsut, possibly both of them; I don't remember. Hatshepsut's stepson (or was it her son?) erased monuments to her by defacing her cartouche (the pharaoh's name carved inside a border that was reserved for pharaohs alone) and then having his own cartouche carved in its place, but he couldn't do that on the obelisk. Granite did not accept corrections--once it was defaced, that was it; there was no carving over it. And because obelisks were monuments to the gods, there was no way a pharaoh would deface it and leave it that way.
Passing through the Obelisk Court, we entered the central court. There wasn't much left to see there, so we quickly walked around the side to see something far more interesting: ancient Egyptian bookkeeping. One of the ancient pharaohs wanted to keep track of the offerings to the gods that were presented at this temple, so a carving was made on the wall. Each vertical slash indicates "1," the inverted Us indicate "10," and the funny little staff thing indicates "100." Each column represents offerings of a certain type that were given throughout the year, and the bottom row is the total. For some of the columns, it's hard to see if the math is right because of the missing row in the middle, but it seems to be accurate.
After that, we quickly saw the sacred lake and some other artifacts in the area, then returned to the ship for lunch. Following lunch, we took a motorboat to the west bank (we were docked on the east bank) to see the sites over there. Hesham explained that the west bank was considered the land of the dead, because the sun sets in the west, whereas the east bank was the land of the living, because the sun rises in the east. So temples built on the east bank were for those who were alive--the pharaohs and high priests would offer sacrifices, and the people would be allowed, on rare occasions, to enter. On the west bank, there were tombs and mortuary temples for the mummification of the dead.
Our first stop on the west bank was the Valley of the Kings. Cameras weren't allowed at this site, so I have no pictures to share with you. For around 500 years, pharaohs were buried in tombs at this site. A single ticket gains you access to the three tombs of your choice; men are stationed at each tomb to punch a hole in the ticket when you enter a tomb to keep track of how many you've seen. You can enter the tomb of King Tutankhamen for an additional fee. From the outside, the tombs don't look spectacular. Once you enter them, though, you can see wonderful hieroglyphs and paintings on the walls and ceilings. It's also interesting to see the steps that were taken to foil grave robbers--one king's tomb had three separate security measures, although I only recall the first: a sudden, unexpected turn that made it look like the tomb ended in an already-looted chamber. If you're interested in detailed information about the Valley of the Kings, including pictures and maps, I would suggest that you check out this website.
Our second stop of the afternoon was the Valley of the Queens, similar to the Valley of the Kings but smaller. We only visited one tomb at this site, as time was short and the tombs weren't as impressive anyway. This site held the tombs of the pharaohs' wives and youngest children--I think Hesham said that boys under 12 were buried here, whereas boys over 12 were buried in the Valley of the Kings.
The third stop, and the first where we could use the cameras, was the Temple of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut was one of the few female Pharaohs. This temple was impressive for its size and the grandeur that it apparently had before her stepson defaced it. The temple was approached via a 100-foot causeway, which includes 3 terraced courtyards. There were statues of lions at some of the ramps. The walls are covered with depictions of Hatshepsut's life, including her purported divine birth (a requirement to be a pharaoh), her trip to Punt, and her offerings to the god Anubis. There also is a depiction of Hatshepsut being suckled by the goddess Hathor. This depiction is the only one of Hatshepsut that was not defaced by her stepson; I don't recall why it survived, if it was oversight or if there was a particular reason why it would have offended the gods for that one to be defaced. Here are a few more pictures of this temple:
Our final stop of the day was a photo stop at the Colossi of Memnon. These are two huge--colossal, if you will--statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. The mortuary temple that used to be at this site is pretty well gone by now. If you want more information, you can look here. There's not too much else to say, so I'll just show some pictures of the colossi and the surrounding area. It was starting to get dark by that time, so some of the pictures have deeper shadows than we'd prefer, but you can get the idea.
Next stop on our Nile cruise: the Temple of Hathor at Denderah. Hopefully I'll be telling you about that tomorrow, but no promises.