June 15, 2004
DAY 236: While modern Egyptian civilization seems to be occupied with one thing -- making a living by any means necessary -- ancient Egyptian civilization seemed to be obsessed with only one thing: death. With strong beliefs in the afterlife -- and the preparation thereof -- citizens of all classes prepared for life after the living. Pharaohs were no stranger to this custom; in fact, they were the masters of preparing for the afterlife with all their goods, and no where in Egypt was this more concentrated than in Ancient Thebes, on the west bank of Luxor.
My guide Akmed came to me in the hotel restaurant ten minutes before our 7:30 meeting time as I was eating breakfast. He had been assigned me for a tour of the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens and other sites on the west bank of the Nile. Since he was a little under the weather, his friend and fellow guide Mohammed (another one) came to help him out.
I wasn't alone either this time; the agency had me pooled yet again with other backpackers that had booked on their own from their respective hotels. Not that I minded; this was how I got to meet new people. I met Shanna, a South African living in England and her English friend Alex, and Chiu, one of the six Korean backpackers that filled out the rest of the minivan. The driver took all of us across the bridge to the former Thebes on the west bank to our first site, the Valley of the Kings which, even in the early morning, was more like the Valley of the Tourists. Hundreds lined up to enter three of the six publicly open tombs of their choice -- the entrance ticket allowed for three. Guide Mohammed lectured and led us on the three most noteworthy ones -- the Tomb of Tuthmosis I, the Tomb of Ramses IX and the Tomb of Ramses V, which was completed by Ramses VI -- all of which were noteworthy because they were built to house some dead guy, a dead guy with power. Each tomb was ornately painted with hieroglyphic stories of the pharaohs' relationship with the gods, stories from the sacred books of ancient Egyptian religion: the Book of the Dead, the Book of Days and the Book of Gates to name a few. (That last one had nothing to do with Microsoft.)
It was forbidden to take photos of the brightly painted etchings and hieroglyphics (with or without flash), despite the fact that mostly everything was behind a protective glass. A couple of us tried to be sneaky anyway; my plan was to hang my little spy camera around my neck and set the timer so I wouldn't have to push the button. However, when I was setting up the timer, my plan was foiled by a guard. "No photos allowed," he scolded, waving his finger. "Give me the camera."
Busted. He took my camera as well as the cameras of others who weren't so sneaky after all, including the one Korean guy who blatantly ignored the rule and had his friend take a photo of him smiling with the painted corridor behind him.
"Wait, what are you doing?" I pleaded. "I didn't take any photos." I closed the lens lid before the timer went off.
I put the camera on playback and he shuffled through the recent photos. "See, that's outside the tomb," I told him. He went through the rotation of the photos until it looped back to photos of Ethiopia and gave the camera back to me. Another guy proved his innocence the same way, but the Smiling Korean had digital photographic evidence against him.
"I can delete it," he begged.
"No. Too late. I keep it," the guard said. "You delete it with the police outside."
I kept my camera away after that, although I was jealous of the couple of people I saw that show some photos and got away with it. On the way out of that tomb, the guard had six cameras with him, including a big heavy SLR.
OF THE SIXTY-TWO TOMBS DISCOVERED in the Valley of the Kings, the most famous was the Tomb of Tutankhamen (picture above), discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. It was open to the public, but at a price: an additional entry for the small, single room tomb cost more than the three tomb deal, and for a disappointing experience too. Every guide and guidebook advised against seeing it unless you wanted to feel ripped off, and so, we skipped out on it. Most of what was to be seen inside was already on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
On the tramcar ride back to the parking lot, I asked the Smiling Korean if he got his camera back from the police. He told me that an angry tourist called the "guard" out on pulling a scam to steal cameras the whole time, which was what it was after all, and returned all the cameras to their respective owners before the police really were involved.
Nowadays, the only thing that takes away from the grandeur of an otherwise awesome site is the crowd of tourists on its grounds, pointing camera in every direction of its three tiers. (Guards couldn't care less about cameras there.) Our group added to this crowd, but only briefly; Mohammed and Akmed rushed us in and out in a matter of twenty short minutes.
The 17-hour bus ride took me through the night, away from the Valley of the Kings (and all its shady "guards") and across the Suez Canal to the Sinai Peninsula. There were movies on the way, but they were in Arabic, so I tried to get some sleep, but there wasn't much legroom. On the bright side, at least I still had my camera with me after the incident that morning.
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