Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Day 9 – The West Bank

Four o’clock in the morning and I am already on the road (there seems to be a pattern here). Last night Ahmed Ishmael talked me into a ride on a hot-air balloon to see the sun rise over the West Bank necropolis of ancient Thebes. I talked him down to 70 dollars for it, but now I am regretting falling for this. It is probably going to be some silly go up tethered to the ground, take a quick look, and get back down. At least I am not going to be the only mug. There is quite a crowd once we get to the wharf, to take the little boats that will cross us from the East Bank to the West Bank. I get lumped together with a party of Germans, and we have a good laugh together as we cross.

A quick minibus ride takes us to the field where the balloons are getting set up. There is something eerie at seeing these behemoths raise their enormous heads as the hot air fills their entrails. In the dark of the night the bursts of flame illuminates the thin fabric, and they look like dragons bobbing their heads as they breath fire. Finally our balloon is standing erect, trying to lift but held in place by the hands of the numerous ground crew. It is time for us to board, about 20 people to the basket. Then the captain gives the signal, the ropes are let go, and with a roar we start our ascent.

Wait. Where is the tether rope? How are we going to get back to the landing field? As we rise we start to drift, and all of a sudden this is not some silly ride anymore. We are actually going to float across the West Bank, and God only knows where we are going to land! The full moon illuminates the flood plain of the Nile, but the stark hills of the Theban Escarpment, where the Valley of the Kings is located, are still in penumbra. We rise more and more, and now we can see the full breath of the flood plain on both sides of the Nile, covered with fertile agricultural fields, and as if drawn with a sharp edge the boundary of this land of plenty with the barren desert on both sides.

The sun finally breaks through the eastern hills, and the Theban Hills are set in fire as the Aten bathes them with a reddish glow. Now we can see Hapshetsup’s Temple directly ahead of us, in Deir el-Bahari. The Valley of the Kings must be right behind it, but the wind is carrying us in the opposite direction. Right behind us is the town of Al-Quner, infamous because it has cradled generations of tomb robbers since antiquity (but has also provided expert workers for archaeological excavation crews).

We are absolutely fascinated by the landscape that unfolds beneath us. I spot a fox, running at a gentle, unhurried trot through the fields, until it gets lost in a sugar cane field. There a small farm comes slowly to life, and a young woman brings the cow in for milking. There a crew is hard at work, sowing grain on the furrows being opened by an ox and a plow. Looking up we see the other balloons all around us, each following a different path and giving us excellent opportunities for photographs against the full moon, the rising sun, or the Theban Hills. This has to be the coolest thing I could have done here in Luxor!

At some point we start our descent, and I for one cannot see where we are going to land. I see high-voltage lines, and irrigation canals, and small towns, and agricultural fields, but where are we going to set this behemoth without destroying some poor farmers crop? It is true that the captain has no way to steer the balloon, but he knows that the wind moves in different directions at different altitudes, so he bobs up and down until he finds the current that is just right an using a radio he gives instructions to the ground crew. We finally spot them about a kilometer ahead. They are driving along a canal, and it looks like the captain is planning on dropping us right on the levee. I hope he knows what he is doing, because on one side there is the canal, and on the other a sugar cane field. The last few hundred meters are exciting, with the basket grazing the top of the sugar cane. And just on the knick of time the top of the balloon is opened and we drop like a feather on the top of the narrow levee, where the ground crew jumps and grabs the basket to keep it steady. We have made a perfect landing!

The rest of the day was pretty exciting as well. First I went to see the Colossi of Memnon (the name given by the Greeks to two giant statues of Amenhotep III), which is all that is left of the temple of Amenhotep III. You see, he was unwise enough to build his temple out of adobe bricks on the flood plain of the Nile. Well, the Nile flooded every year and the adobe temples got wet and eroded, one little bit at a time, until all that was left were the two massive statues of the king, which had been carved out of hard sandstone.

Hatshepsut’s Temple was also interesting. She is unique in that she was the only woman who became King. Yes, she was a regular Queen, but when her hubby died she took over the throne (probably as a regent for stepson Tuthmoses III), and within a couple of years proclaimed herself King, wore the false beard, and went ahead to do pretty good things. The temple is a glorification of all she did during her reign: Sent an expedition to Punt (present day Erithrea or Somalia), brought back resinous trees (from which incense is ultimately derived), honored the gods, had obelisks carved in Aswan and brought them by barge to Karnak temple, etc. In short, she was an OK King. Unfortunately the Egyptians could not cope with the idea of having had a woman King, so a few years after her passing her name was officially erased from the historic record, and her images and cartouches were carved out of her temple.

The Valley of the Kings was a bit of a disappointment. Not the three tombs I visited, which had wonderful mural decorations, but the valley in general. It is much smaller than what I had imagined, and the tombs are but a few tens of meters apart. Hard to understand why it took so long to locate them, but here I am speaking out of ignorance, since I have no idea of the amount of work involved in clearing the entrance of a tomb.

In the afternoon I relocated to the hostel I had booked through the internet. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. It is nothing like what was shown in the picture. No, it is positively seedy, and one of the less appealing I have found in my trips to Africa. Oh well, I can survive a night here.

My evening activities included a visit to the Luxor Museum (a very nice piece of museography!) and a walk through the sueq or suk. I was dreading the latter, because the hawkers can be quite annoying, but that was not the case. You were of course actively encouraged to come into the shop and look, but they were respectful enough not to follow you or grab you by the arm. I did enjoy myself quite a bit.

No comments: