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Notes from 2013 visit (28th Jan – 11th Feb)
Notes from 2012
Egypt’s revolution has led to a catastrophic, but hopefully temporary decline in mass tourism. This is obviously bad news for the very many businesses in places like Luxor, that rely for a livelihood on visitors. Luxor’s famous corniche is often deserted, the taxis idle, the calesh desperate for punters, the boats laid up in their berths where they have been for almost a year.
However what is bad for some is undoubtedly good for others. This is especially true for the more independent traveller who longs to see Egypt’s many archaeological and sacred sites unencumbered by the masses of other visitors. The vacuum has to some extent been filled by local Egyptian visitors, especially on Muslim holidays. The canny visitor stays in Luxor all week, perhaps longer. Not only it there more than enough to do & see locally, it’s a perfect base from which to launch out further afield to Abydos, Dendera or Edfu. It’s always been my philosophy as a traveller that sometimes less is more. You can “do the sights” rushing from one amazing temple or tomb to another but it the end the experience, for me at least, seems poorer. Earwigging someone on the plane who had just come of one of those luxurious Nile cruises, they could hardly remember what they had seen, and in the final days barely paid attention. (They borrowed my pen to wisely make a note of what they had seen).
[Reading material: the only and best guidebook to Luxor is Kent Weeks’ The Treasures of Luxor and The valley of the Kings – its not encyclopedic but it has about as much as the average person could reasonably explore in two or three weeks of exploration in the Luxor area, probably a lot more. For practical advice check out “travel tips” on Mara’s website: ]
If you have plenty of time in Luxor you can visit the magnificent Luxor temple of Amun-Min at least twice, once early morning and again a night. My first day there it was very quiet at 9am, you could count the number of visitors on one hand. However the guide, who services I didn’t really need, told me that as it was the beginning of an Egyptian holiday, bus loads of local schoolkids and families were imminent. Things would be more “normal” by 10am but I guessed still a lot more confortable than the hoards. You can see from my photos how peaceful it all looks.
There are guides at all temples, many of whom have studied for a college diploma in that subject. If you know a little of Egyptian culture already or have eaten Kent Week’s book you probably don’t really need them. There are also celebrity guides, authors of published books with “post modern” theories about the temple (no names). There are also “guardians” – local men who protect the site from damage and will also show you bits of the site normally cordoned off or that doesn’t seem interesting but often is. On both my visits to Luxor a different guardian insisted on taking me to a particular column and blessing my “chakras” with energy from the Ankh hierogyph. I guessed it was maybe his little thing for the tourists but you never know. I would love to know if that was a genuine tradition or something more “post modern”? Indeed there are some local muslim/sufi practices that are a continuation of the actual rites of ancient Egypt (more of that below).
A few days later I returned for an evening visit (50EP about £5 for foreigners, much less for locals). I was probably the only foreigner but it was busy with little groups of locals, goofing around and really enjoying the place. Time flew as I sat undisturbed, quietly meditating in the first courtyard. The atmosphere was sublime. Suddenly everything was closing. These days Luxor temple closes at 9pm and likewise most of the museums have abandoned their evening openings; probably because the numbers do not warrant it but also I think as a precaution, a general reining back until the economy really restarts, and money is available to pay evening staff etc.
The great behemoths, I mean hotels are barely occupied and have slashed their prices, and this had open a door for many ordinary Egyptians to see how the “other half” lives. It is amazing to think that before the revolution there were plans to build another dozen these monsters on the river front, perhaps even demolishing existing new low rises to makes space . . .
Luxor temple retains a great deal of its ancient grandure. It is the subject of Schwaller de Lubitz famous theory that he researched on site in the 1940s. This aerial view is from his book “The Temple of Man” which gets its title from the idea that the groundplan is a reclining corpse. I wasn’t completely convinced by this, although it does have several modern “symbolist” advocates, notable Dr Robert West. Even so it’s an amazing picture showing much that is these days covered by the marble piazza. The problem for the theory is that it treats the temple as a construction of one time when in fact the much discussed change of alignment is the work of Rameses II, and enables the processional way to turn and line up to a long path north to the temple’s counterpart at Karnak. The oldest part of the temple are to the south (the head) in De Lubitz’s schema, where the holy of holies, the barque shrine now sits. I suppose this would still be the place of birth of the gods, the first appearance of the head, so in a way the symbolist view still has something going for it. The barque shrine is a wonderfully atmospheric place for sure.
Ancient Egypt’s national god Amun-Min lives in this temple. Many of his ithyphallic images escaped the chisels of later prudish iconoclasts. In many ways the phallus is still very much an icon of the city, and greatly enjoyed by all. In ancient times, the god’s wife Mut came to visit from her temple a few miles north of here at Karnak. This was the famous festival of Opet, a “hierosgamos” or “mystical marriage”. The tradition is very much alive amongst the Sufi and Ismailis of this part of Egypt. As 4th feb 2012 approaches the shops are full of little sugar statues, dyed pink or red with rose water, showing either the prophet or a local saint and his wife, although these days far less “rampant”. A friend explains: “‘Mawlid’ (moulid, مولد) means birthday, ‘al-nabi’ means the prophet, i.e. Muhammad. However, in many places there will also be mawlids celebrating the birthdays of various local Sufi saints (such as the mawlid for Sidi Abu al-Hajjaj in the article you cite). Mawlid traditions go back more than a millenia, but a lot of Salafis regard them as a heretical innovation, so they’re controversial these days in some places. Nonetheless, throughout much of the Muslim world mawlids define the local ritual calendar, much as saints’ days do in strongly-Catholic parts of Europe.
[Further reading: Elizabeth Wickert, (2009) “Archaeological Memory the Leitmotifs of Ancient Egyptian Festival Tradition and Cultural Legacy in the Festival Tradition of Luxor: the mulid of Sidi Abu’l Hajjaj al-Uqsori and the Ancient ‘Feast of Opet’” JARCE 45]