We concluded our Nile cruise yesterday morning in Luxor with an early disembarkation for a hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings & Queens and all of the West Bank of the Luxor area. With the exception of the pyramids of Giza, this is where it's at as far as Egyptian archaeological icons are concerned.
The balloon ride was a remarkable experience in its own right. Starting with a team of fifteen men arriving in a truck with the basket & all other equipment on the back. They proceeded to unload, lay out and inflate the balloon and check the equipment in about twelve minutes. A quick safety briefing then we were off! Take off and landing was undertaken to the beat of a Nubian 'goodluck' chant/song by the team on the ground. This alone would have justified the early wakeup, but the history associated with our location made this one of those truly unique experiences one does not have everyday. It was truly thrilling to be silently floating above a place I have dreamed of going since I was a child. The mountainside and valley is littered with tombs and funerary temples of such grandiosity that few civilizations have matched to this day.
We then had a chance to get up close and personal with some of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, descending deep into the mountainside three times, visiting the tombs of Ramses II, Ramses IX and Thutmosis III. Each one was created in a different style and the level of preservation of the paintings, carvings and sarcophagi after so many millennia was breath-taking and very humbling. We then moved on to Queen Hatshepsut's temple which is built at the base of a cliff with shear drops of about three hundred metres directly behind – an imposing setting reflecting the way she supposedly ruled with an iron fist!
We then visited Luxor temple which is in the centre of the city. It is as ancient and imposing as anything we have seen to date but there are several things unique to this place. It had been buried under the sand and the city had been built over the top of the ruins and only in the last decade has it been fully revealed. Central Luxor is currently in traffic chaos as the avenue of sphinxes that led up to Karnak temple two and a half km away has been found to extend to this temple and so a tract of houses, businesses, churches, schools and roads have been demolished throughout the city in order to excavate this find consisting of over a thousand sphinxes! There is a relatively 'new' mosque built in the centre of the ruins (dating back to the tenth century AD) and there are also Christian paintings from the fifth century AD. Then there is graffiti (engraved) dating back to just after the birth of Christ from Greek tourists visiting what would have already been ancient ruins at that time!
Egypt has arguably the longest history of tourism in the world and at many of these sites the visiting mass of hot, sweating humanity is quite off-putting to someone from a country as sparsely populated as Australia. The ever-present machine-gun-toting tourist police are quite confronting; their additional value to tourist security token at best.
What is most amazing about all of this is that the Egyptians possessed the wealth, ability and aptitude to create such awesome dedications to their gods that not only retain such a physical presence today but describe, in sophisticated language what things were like back in the day. Had I been charging in from Central Africa or the Middle East as part of a marauding army I would have been pretty reluctant to take on a civilization capable of such things!