Monday, November 27, 2017

Hey, Old Friend...

It can be a tricky thing to revisit an old haunt, but sometimes it works out.

When I lived in Egypt, Luxor was my getaway - the realization of my childhood fascination with pharaonic times as well as a quite remarkable place on its own merits. Tourism, the town's lifeblood, had had its ups and downs even then, but nothing like the battering it's taken in the last few years. Revolution, regional turbulence, and economic collapse have not been kind to Egypt in general, but for a place like Luxor, it's been very nearly fatal.

But, as is the case on the whole with the rest of the country, it endures.

Then, on top of all that, while we were down there, enjoying the sun and the Nile, the sights and the excellent local beer, more horror - the dreadful attack in the Sinai, word of which came to us first through the spate of sudden text messages one learns to dread living overseas: "You guys okay?"

Well, we are. The Sinai is hundreds of miles from the Nile valley, treated, for better or worse (mostly, alas, the latter) as essentially a separate administrative and political unit by the country's central government. So we're fine, and this morning we're back in Cairo, which is fine. The world, of course, isn't all fine, but that's as true in, say - to grab a few places not entirely at random - Las Vegas or Sutherland Springs as it is in Egypt. As Americans, I don't feel we have much of a platform these days to pontificate on either violence of poor governance, at least until we clean our own house.

Still, I know that there are many very good reasons to avoid a place like this country: its repressive leadership, its history of violence and flaring intolerance, its very foreign-ness. Even smaller reasons - the little hassles of being a tourist in a place that can seem as if it preys on them for every penny. Even so, I think there are almost as many reasons to come as not. The people aren't the government, and by not coming, it's not the government that's being short-shrifted - it's ones we met in our leisurely walks around Luxor town, on our visits to tombs and temples, while having lunch in a beautiful old house looking out at the green, green fields. For better or worse, they need us, and even now, I think, if you have time and interest, you really should think about Egypt.

How many places, after, all, will you find this?

We had it to ourselves, at least at first, one morning: the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri on the West Bank of the Nile. A miracle of grace, rising back in three terraces against the high cliffs behind which lie the tombs of the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings.

Through a friend - who among many other things happens to be Egypt's leading jazz singer, whose charming cabaret act we caught the night before we flew south - we found a highly resourceful and reliable driver, and he took us hither and yon. We drove upriver an hour or so to the amazing temple of Dendera, and of course we took in all the usual sites in and around the Luxor area.

Look how dangerous and difficult the travel is:

The weather this time of year is very nearly perfect: warm in the strong sun, cool in the shade. Perfect at night for long walks or for sitting - if you are as lucky as we - on the green Nileside terrace of your excellent hotel.

Mr. Muscato, rather scandalously, had never been this far south in his own home country ("How often do you go to the Grand Canyon?" he always retorts), and I rather wondered if he would be quite as into monument-viewing and tomb-descending as I. The good new is, within reason, very nearly yes. I'm still the obsessed child who remembers the names of the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs in order and who can talk at far too great length about the fascinating intricacies of Amarna-era genealogies, but he kept up pretty well.

Which is a good thing, because it turns there is even more to see than there was a dozen or so years ago.  At the great Karnak complex, for example, various international teams have made great strides in excavating and sensitively restoring vast swathes of the sprawling temples...

This, for example, is part of the Temple of Mut (wife of the great god Amun), which only a few year ago was hardly recognizable. I could have spent several days just going up and down the aisles of neatly stacked fragments, and the restored areas are absolutely fascinating.

And when monuments pall (as if!), there are always other things to do. One can even just laze, should one care to, somewhere like the lush gardens of the old Winter Palace, where despite a dearth of visitors, standards are preserved and one can almost feel the days of King Farouk aren't all that far away...

The skies are an almost painful perfect blue, and in the gardens and in fact all over, the bougainvillea riots in fuchsia, yellow, white... even at the feet of the gods:

As much as I love the sites, I have to say that this trip, I ended up almost as taken with the people. Times really have been hard, and the genuine gratitude one feels just for showing up is everywhere. Come armed with small bills and spread them around, and you will be a conquering hero, "Ya Pasha!", everywhere you go.  We sat and talked with drivers and hotel managers, with archaeologists and the owners of those cafés still giving it a go despite hard times. They remain, somehow, at least a little optimistic. Times have been worse, and insha'allah, they'll get better again. There has been a lot of development in the city, not all of it atrocious. The city sprawls, as do all Egyptian towns, and it take a while for the Western eye and mind to adjust. The West Bank, home to the necropolis and the mortuary temples, is growing, too, but still not oversettled; many of the flashier places, one hears time and again, are the projects of resourceful British ladies who find themselves a local husband and set up housekeeping - some love matches, some purely real-estate. Next time, we hope to go back and investigate that scene a little more; surely there have to be tales to rival dear Lucia or even Barbara Pym in that kind of place?

I was a little worried about going back to my favorite hotel, once a reliable staple not too far from the center of town, with a lotus-shaped pool and, once upon a time, a mean club sandwich. Thankfully, it's survived the ups and downs; the enterprising owner even used the guestless months of revolution to add, with I have to admit moderately questionable results, four stories to the stop of the already wedding-cake-evoking structure. It gives the place a slightly surprised expression, like that of a proper matron whose cosmetologist has given her a rather-too-ambitious updo for some celebration. The club sandwich is still terrific. And the guy by the pool even remembered me, which was, I will admit, rather nice. Home again.

So that was our trip-within-the-trip, and a great success it was. Now we're back to housekeeping, and preparing for an influx of friends converging here from the Gulf and Europe and beyond. Two more weeks before reality strikes.

One more travel snap - a face you see on temples, in the tombs, and everywhere around you in Luxor:

Do think about a trip to Luxor, now or sometime soon. If you're very nice, I'll even give you the number for Ahmed Our Driver, and tell you where to find the seafood tagine of your dreams, and give you the secret of the Best Exotic Hibiscus Hotel...


  1. Ahaha - how lovely, and all too true. We were there mid-uprising, and largely had the town (and the Winter Palace) to ourselves. I go to Cairo regularly, but the charm and resilience of the people in Luxor is touching. Perhaps it's a generic 'southern' thing...

  2. Dreamy. I also had a childhood fascination with all things Egyptian.

  3. Luxor is a truly glorious place - loved Deir-el-Bahri, Hatshepshut's Temple, Deir el-Medina artisan village, the Ramesseum, Tutenkhamun's tomb, Medinet Habu and, of course, the Winter Palace. I realise that tourism is the lifeblood of the locals, but I still cannot bring myself to contribute to the tax income that will (regardless of local economies), continue to prop up the fascist homophobes of the country's government. As long as the anti-gay witch-hunt continues, I will not go there. Shame. I miss it. Jx

  4. I knew you both were no where near Sinai, and I knew that Mr. M would take good care of you. By the way, when was the last time you went to the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore?