Wonders and warmth greet visitors to Luxor
LUXOR, Egypt - The tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun lies on the west bank of the Nile River. So do a host of other awe-inspiring remains of ancient Egypt, sights that help draw as many as 2 million visitors a year to the area.
Most tourists, though, stay on the more developed east side, in Luxor, an area also not without historic interest. It's where one finds the magnificent Luxor Temple, with its avenue of sphinxes, and the enormous complex of obelisks and ruins known as Karnak.
But as more of a tourist haven it's also where one finds
That's why visitors seeking a more authentic experience tend to gravitate toward the west bank where one particularly good option for accommodations can be found in the sleepy village of Al Gezira.
Getting there is simple: Take the ferry, which leaves from the center of Luxor, across from the ruins of Luxor Temple. The ride takes three or four minutes and costs one Egyptian pound, or about half a dollar.
The village, which lies on the road to the Valley of the Kings and other sites, is home to Flats in Luxor, where you can stay in a clean three-bedroom apartment overlooking the green fields of the Nile valley, with the massive temple of Queen Hatshepsut visible in the distance.
Run by British expatriate Jane Akshar and her Egyptian husband, Mahmoud Jahlan, Flats in Luxor offers 21 air-conditioned apartments of various sizes at rates from around $50 a night. With plenty of room for a family, a quiet location, and a small pool, the apartments provide a good base for exploring the area's antiquities, as well as a chance to get a feel for village life.
One big draw of Flats in Luxor is Akshar herself, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable amateur Egyptologist and licensed guide, who can show visitors a side of Luxor's antiquities usually missed by the large tours.
At the nearby Hatshepsut's temple, for example - a spectacular edifice at the foot of the Theban hills built by the queen who ruled Egypt as a pharaoh some 1,500 years before Cleopatra - busloads of tourists streamed up the imposing main ramp. Akshar, however, shepherded her charges around to the colonnaded porticos at the side. There, with nary a tourist in sight, she took them on a leisurely exploration of a series of wonderfully-realistic frescoes showing the queen in the marshes surrounded by wildlife.
While Akshar is happy to guide guests through the sites for their entire stay, she's often booked. But the archeological sites in the area are easy to visit on one's own, with the help of a good guidebook. Akshar is happy to make suggestions about what to see and can help arrange transportation to various sites.
The Luxor Museum (admission about $15) is a good place to start. Located on the east side, it contains some of the area's finest antiquities, yet is a manageable size. A quick tour of its contents, including King Tut's war chariot, and haunting statues of Akhenaton, the heretical pharaoh who ruled just before King Tut, can be made in under two hours.
Close by stands the Karnak complex of temples (admission $10), for centuries the center of worship in ancient Egypt. A list of its assets from the time of Ramses III includes 65 villages, 421,662 head of cattle, 83 ships, and 81,322 workers and slaves.
Back in the center of the city is the stunning Luxor Temple, which in 1799 reportedly impressed Napoleon's soldiers so much that they spontaneously offered a salute when they saw it. Constructed by generations of leaders from Hatshepsut to Tutankhamun to Alexander the Great, the temple was once connected to Karnak, nearly two miles away, by an avenue of sphinxes.
On the Al Gezira side of the river, visitors have a wealth of impressive archeological sites from which to choose, starting with the fabled Valley of the Kings, honeycombed with more than 60 royal tombs, including that of King Tut. Don't expect to see Tut's riches here, however. Most of the treasures that were buried with him are in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Some of them are on exhibit at museums in Atlanta and Dallas, and will travel to San Francisco and Indianapolis next year.
Near the Valley of the Kings lies the temple of Hatsheput with its graceful colonnades, and the two famous Colossi of Memnon. Also worth visiting is Deir el-Medina, a village that housed the craftsmen who built the royal tombs, those in the Valley of the Queens, and many of the smaller, but still fascinating, Tombs of the Nobles.
Besides dispensing useful advice on visiting antiquities, Akshar can recommend interesting places to eat. After a visit to the temple of Hatshepsut, she might take visitors to the nearby Ramesseum Resthouse, run by the grandson of one of the workers who helped Howard Carter, the English archeologist, excavate Tutankhamun's tomb.
Back in Al Gezira, Akshar sent visitors off to Tutankhamun Restaurant, a rooftop bistro with a Nile view, south of the ferry landing. There, the genial owner, Mahmoud Sayed, formerly a chef at a five-star hotel in Luxor, offered a choice of interesting dishes. If he's making it, try the chicken curry with apples, banana, and coconut.
After detailing the evening's choices, Sayed is happy to chat with guests about their home country and their experiences in Luxor.
Those sorts of conversations happen often in Egypt. Egyptians are a warm and welcoming people, and seem genuinely friendly toward Americans. Despite terrorist attacks against tourists over the years here and elsewhere, Luxor feels safe. (Egyptian police patrol all the big tourist sites.) And Akshar scoffs at advice that venturing out on your own in Luxor is dangerous. Those who take that advice are missing a chance to taste a true slice of Egypt and have some fun, too.
Dan Orzech can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.