Eyes Turned Skywards

“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”

Leonardo da Vinci

I was groggy and tired when Vince, Caleb, Bonnie, David, and I met in the lobby of the Mercure hotel at 3:30 in the morning.  It was a free day, which meant we didn’t have any tours scheduled with the Percussive group, and I had branched out on my own to build what I was hoping would be an epic last day in Egypt.  We were starting the morning with a sunrise hot air balloon ride on the other side of the Nile, hence the early wake-up call.

Truth be told, I was a little nervous.  I had booked the hot air balloon tour through viator, a website where any company can list a tour, usually at inflated prices.  Besides the pricing, I am leery of it because you often don’t know anything about the actual tour operator you are booking.  This time however, the price on viator had been insanely cheap so I went for it, hoping for the best.  Within an hour of paying, I received a message from the tour operator on whatsapp, thanking me for booking and asking if I wanted to arrange any other excursions through his company, I Like Egypt Tours.  I ended up taking him up on his offer, and scheduled a sunset quad ride in the desert.  Then, the morning before our big day, I asked if he could also take us to some more tombs on the West Bank.  So once that was arranged, we truly had a long day ahead of us.

On the morning of the big day, a man named Ahmir greeted us at our hotel and took us by van to a harbor on the East Bank of the Nile.  He made sure we got onto the right ferry as crowds of other tourists lined up to take their seats on small boats that were serving morning tea.  Ahmir went on a different boat with five other travelers from our hotel, but promised he’d be waiting for us at the balloon launching area.  Then we sat on the boat waiting to take off for what felt like forever.  It became clear that we were going to be going up with the second wave of balloons that morning, and as we waited, we listed to a lengthy safety demonstration in English and Portuguese.

Finally, the boat driver revved the engine and we were off on a five minute ride across the Nile to another harbor, where we were ushered into another van.  After a short ride, the driver dropped us off at the launch site where, true to his word, Ahmir was waiting.  Behind him, colorful balloons were floating into the dim morning sky, and an organized crowd of people ran around making preparations for more launches.

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Balloons taking off from the launch site

Admittedly, I had been somewhat grouchy that morning (I do not do well early in the morning), but when I saw the colorful balloons floating up into the sky, my sour mood melted away.  I was instantly eager to hop in a basket and take off.

It didn’t take long to get my wish.  Soon we were clambering into the basket of a green and yellow striped balloon as flames spewed into it.  A strong tether held it to the earth until everyone was safely inside, and then we took off.  At first it was as if nothing was happening.  The takeoff was so smooth I barely registered that we had left the ground, but the people below us were growing smaller and smaller as we shot up into the sky.  The sun had already risen and was casting a golden glow over the valley below us, illuminating farmland, mountains, and ancient ruins.

 

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The sun shines over the Nile as we float higher into the air

We could see the Temple of Hatshepsut and the Colossi of Menmon.  Both had felt like goliaths when we stood below them on the ground, but from up in the air they looked like toys.  All around us more colorful balloons dotted the desert landscape.

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Balloons floating over ancient ruins

The wind that day was heading southeast and I could see a distant spot where other balloons were landing in a particularly barren section of desert.  As we floated closer, I could see scores of vans driving through the sand to pick up the tours that had already landed.  The landscape of the desert from above was beautiful in an otherworldly way.  The flat desert was bordered by mountains to the west, but below us the scene was of flowing, intersecting paths that appeared to be made by water runoff, although my imagination couldn’t stretch far enough to picture water existing in a place so dry.

 

When it was our turn to land, my stomach lurched in anticipation.  I’d heard stories from friends about rough hot air balloon landings, and I was unsure of what to expect, but I protected my camera bag under my legs as much as possible and braced myself in the landing position.  My worries turned out to be needless as our landing was as smooth as I imagine balloon landings probably get.  We barely bounced across the flat desert as we skidded to a stop, and some men ran up to help pack up the balloon, which was quickly deflating.  We looked around and found ourselves in one of the most desolate landscapes I’ve ever seen.

 

Before we even got out of the basket, Ahmir had reappeared to give us flight certificates and usher us into another van.  He accompanied us to the Colossi of Memnon where we were to meet Muhammad, who would be guiding the next portion of our tour.  Muhammad was the man I had been communicating with via whatsapp for a few months before our trip, and it was good to finally meet him.  I had asked him to take us to the Tombs of the Nobles, the Valley of Workers, and the Valley of the Queens, and he had said we could do all of those things, and that we would also visit a place called Habu Temple.

Habu Temple was first, and I was very glad that Muhammad had put it on our itinerary.  Our tour was private, so it was much more intimate than the previous days’ agendas and there were only a few other people milling about the temple, so it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.  We approached the temple through a grand main entrance and Muhammad pointed out some fascinating carvings.

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Habu Temple

Before went inside, Muhammad took us around the side to an area where he pointed out a throne that Rameses III would have occupied, and a hole in the ground that would have been used as a toilet.  Caleb did the honors of posing for a photo on the ancient toilet.

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Caleb on the toilet

Then we went into the main section of the temple, which had a number of pristine carvings depicting the defeat of Rameses III’s enemies.  The carvings clearly showed mercenary soldiers presenting the severed hands of Egypt’s enemies to scribes who recorded the number of hands in order to determine how much each hired soldier would be paid.

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Soldiers presenting hands for counting

Other points of interest in the temple included some beautifully preserved color throughout the ceilings and columns of the complex, a cartouche that had been carved deeply with one name in order to cover up another name, and some carvings that had once been coated in gold before thieves stripped the precious metal from the walls.

 

Since there were only five of us, we were able to decide how long we wanted to spend in each location of the tour, and we spent the most time at Habu Temple, with some free time to wander around at our own pace.  Afterwards, we met back up with our van driver and rode to the Tombs of the Nobles.  These were richly decorated tombs of high standing members of ancient Egyptian society.  The tickets for these tombs were broken up into groups based on their locations and we had chosen to visit the tombs of Sennefer and Rekhmire on the recommendation of Hagag, our guide from a boat ride down the Nile a couple days before.

We descended into Sennefer’s tomb first.  Sennefer was the mayor of Thebes during the reign of Amenhotep II.  We had to crouch through a low-hanging passage to enter the antechamber of his tomb, which was decorated with stunning paintings.  The chamber is unique because it’s ceiling is painted with grapes, something we didn’t see anywhere else on our tour.  It was also interesting that the ceilings were left in a sort of natural, organic shape, unlike the crisp geometry of the other burial chambers we explored.

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Grapes on the ceiling of Sennefer’s tomb.

Next up was the tomb of governor of Thebes and Vizier of Thutmosis III and Amenhotep II, Rekhmire.  This chamber was shaped like a large T, with a main passage flanked by two wings jutting off at the entrance.  In one of the entrance wings, there were paintings depicting animals from the African continent.  I snagged a picture of a giraffe because they are high on my list of favorite animals.

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Painting of a giraffe

The main passage of the tomb had a false door on the end, and many more paintings that we gawked at for a long time.  Many of the depictions of Rekhmire had been carved off of the wall.  Muhammad explained that this was likely done by someone who had a personal vendetta against the governor.

Next we moved on the the Valley of Workers, a city that was once home to the people that worked on the tombs of the nobles and pharaohs.  This was particularly interesting because it showcased a different perspective of daily life in ancient Egypt.  The temples and tombs of the nobles are certainly grand, but they were only possible because of the work of the people who lived in this village.

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Valley of Workers

We got to visit three more tombs while we were at the Valley of Workers, and we were surprised to find that the paintings inside of them were also beautiful and grand.  They were more difficult to access though, we had to climb down steep, narrow staircases, and duck through tunnels to see them.

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Inside a tomb at the Valley of Workers.

Once we resurfaced, we walked through the village to a temple that sat at the base of a mountain.  It was a smaller temple than we had seen yet, but we could still see the care that went into the detailed carvings and paintings that adorned it.  Inside a small chamber in the temple was a full, room-sized depiction of the final judgment.  The final judgment depicts the god, Anubis, weighing the heart of a dead person against the weight of a single feather.  If the heart weighed more than the feather, it meant the person was more evil than good in life, and the heart would be devoured by the demon Ammit, which would erase the person from existence forever.

Most of the depictions of the final judgment are found painted on papyrus, but this life-sized version was carved in stone.  According to Muhammad, there is one other such carving in Egypt, but it is currently undergoing repairs, and isn’t open to be viewed by the public.  I was thoroughly glad that we got to see it since we had learned so much about the final judgment over the past week.

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Final Judgment
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Final Judgment
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Final Judgment

We only had one stop left on our morning tour: the Valley of the Queens.  This is located on the other side of the mountain from the Valley of the Kings and once contained the mummies of – you guessed it – Egyptian Queens.  By this point, we were nearing lunch time and had been up since 3 am without a meal.  Between the heat and the hunger, we were all starting to drag our feet.  As a result, we didn’t spend as much time in the Valley of the Queens, although we did visit three more tombs.  While they were certainly interesting, I think they added the least to our experience of the West Bank.  All of the other tombs had shown a different aspect of life in ancient Egypt, but this just seemed like a smaller version of the Valley of the Kings.

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Valley of the Queens

I do think the art was better preserved than some of the art in the Valley of the Kings though, and it was certainly nice to be able to enjoy the area by ourselves, a stark contrast to the pharaohs’s tombs, which were an absolute madhouse of tourists.

By the time we left the valley, I felt that I had seen enough tombs to satisfy me for a lifetime.  We opted out of getting lunch at a restaurant, and instead asked to just be dropped back off at our hotel.  When we arrived back at the Mercure, Muhammad told us that he would send a boat to pick us up for our sunset tour, and it would be waiting for us at the hotel at 3:45.  With that in mind we grabbed a quick lunch, took a nap by the pool, then freshened up and headed down to the river.  The boat arrived at exactly 3:45, and the driver brought us back to the West Bank where a van was waiting to drive us to the quad bike tour.

We met at the home of the tour operator, where Muhammad was also waiting to join us for the ride.  We all got ready by donning sunglasses, and letting the guide wrap scarves around our faces to keep the dust out of our noses and mouths.  Then we hopped on our quads and sped off into the desert.

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Me and Vince on our quad

We drove into the mountains and stopped in a shaded valley where we got to wander around and look for fossils and pieces of old pottery.  When asked about the approximate age of the pottery, Muhammad responded “Probably only 300 years.”  This blew my mind because 300 years in America would be a very old relic, but in Egypt it’s totally insignificant, and just left out in the desert for tourists to poke at.

We zipped back into town as the sun was setting, and got to ride through an area with sand dunes where we could go extra fast.  It was a fun way to end our long day of adventures, and a perfect end cap for our time in Egypt.  I was extremely impressed with Muhammad for how seamless his whole operation was, and for his knowledge of Egyptian history.  He is currently working toward his PhD and he even outlined the premise of his doctorate for us, which was extremely interesting.  All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better note to end my time in Egypt as I prepared to segue into a very different country: Jordan!

A quick compilation video of some of the awesome things we did in Egypt!

 

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