Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe

I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

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This April I’m dividing my time between Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Turkey. To many, Israel represents a beacon of democracy, stability, and prosperity in the middle of a bunch of very troubled states. (Having just come from Egypt, I can certainly understand that.) Of course it’s the Holy Land–three great religions share some of Israel’s most sacred spots. And that means it’s the center of a complex political puzzle, and full of great travel experiences. I’m spending about a week here to scout for an upcoming TV episode and I’m in the hands of fine local guides provided by the very supportive Israel Ministry of Tourism. For the next week I’ll be sharing a couple of posts a day. Please share this with your friends who may be interested. I hope you enjoy my reporting.

The Israeli coast from Tel Aviv to the border of Lebanon is dotted with interesting sights. The thriving city of Haifa is home to the main temple of the Baha’i Faith. Its founder, Baha’u’llah, is buried in Israel. Sightseers must come away from a visit to any Baha’i sight thinking: These people are the ultimate in let’s all just get along, live together in peace, and tend gorgeous gardens.

The Israeli coast from Tel Aviv to the border of Lebanon is dotted with interesting sights. The thriving city of Haifa is home to the main temple of the Baha’i Faith. Its founder, Baha’u’llah, is buried in Israel. Sightseers must come away from a visit to any Baha’i sight thinking: These people are the ultimate in let’s all just get along, live together in peace, and tend gorgeous gardens.

Signs in four languages are commonplace in Israel: Hebrew (for its Jewish population), Arabic (for the Israeli Arabs--about a quarter of the country), Russian (as many locals are recent Jewish arrivals from the former Soviet Union, and Russian tourism is booming), and English (for everyone else).

Signs in four languages are commonplace in Israel: Hebrew (for its Jewish population), Arabic (for the Israeli Arabs–about a quarter of the country), Russian (as many locals are recent Jewish arrivals from the former Soviet Union, and Russian tourism is booming), and English (for everyone else).

Signs that are only in Hebrew present me with more than a language barrier: I literally can’t tell which end is up.

Signs that are only in Hebrew present me with more than a language barrier: I literally can’t tell which end is up.

Visitors to Israel come away impressed by the country’s many layers of history. That includes lots of Roman ruins. The ancient city of Beit She’an--the best Roman ruins in Israel--marked the eastern end of the empire at its peak. In A.D. 749, the impressive city was leveled by what must have been a mighty earthquake.

Visitors to Israel come away impressed by the country’s many layers of history. That includes lots of Roman ruins. The ancient city of Beit She’an–the best Roman ruins in Israel–marked the eastern end of the empire at its peak. In A.D. 749, the impressive city was leveled by what must have been a mighty earthquake.

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Thanks for traveling with me through Egypt. I’ll be reporting from Israel starting tomorrow. For a little break from the Middle East–and for something far more serious–here’s a fascinating interview produced by Seattle public television station KCTS. Just before flying to Cairo a couple of weeks ago, I had the honor and privilege of sitting down for a candid, one-on-one interview with the famous travel writer, Rick Steves. Check this out.

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As you can tell by the flurry of posts, my 10 days in Egypt have inspired me to write. I’ve had an amazing experience here. My open letter to President Morsi actually earned me a reply from his assistant, who ensures me they are trying and that they appreciate the caring candor of this series on their country. I leave Egypt both exhilarated and exhausted from all that I’ve learned.

While travel to Egypt comes with plenty of uncertainty, one thing is sure: If you travel thoughtfully, you’ll be charmed by a warm welcome from beautiful people.

While travel to Egypt comes with plenty of uncertainty, one thing is sure: If you travel thoughtfully, you’ll be charmed by a warm welcome from beautiful people.

I have no plans to write a guidebook or lead tours to Egypt. Others do that far better than we could with our Europe focus. But I’m excited about returning in the next season to produce two, possibly three, episodes for public television. While I set out to scout for two shows, it’ll be very tough to show what I want in two 3,400-word scripts. But making a logical structure for three different shows will be a challenge. Perhaps Ancient Egypt (light on Cairo with Abu Simbel), Cairo (light on ancient sites), and Highlights of the Nile (Alexandria, Cairo, Luxor, and the cruise to Aswan). But a tighter two-show plan–Ancient Egypt and Highlights of the Nile–would be stronger.

While traveling in Europe, I enjoy meeting countless Americans and fans of my TV series and guidebooks. While the political craziness has dented tourism across the board here in Egypt, there are plenty of visitors…but almost no Americans. In 10 days in Egypt I met exactly one person who recognized me (and was a public television supporter)--a Sufi Muslim from Toronto.

While traveling in Europe, I enjoy meeting countless Americans and fans of my TV series and guidebooks. While the political craziness has dented tourism across the board here in Egypt, there are plenty of visitors…but almost no Americans. In 10 days in Egypt I met exactly one person who recognized me (and was a public television supporter)–a Sufi Muslim from Toronto.

Photo by Trish Feaster (for her Egypt blog, see http://thetravelphile.com/).

By the way, I purchased a Sony RX100 camera just before leaving (at $650, it’s about the most expensive of the little pocket cameras). It slides like an armadillo into my pocket when not in use. I generally just shot on automatic but found the shutter-priority mode handy, too. It has incredible light sensitivity (I rarely used a flash and shot a lot at night). And its brain is mind-blowing. I like it a lot. My partner, Trish (a better photographer than me–you can see her art from this trip at The Travelphile, uses one, too.

Staying at the Winter Palace in Luxor (for the price of a basic hotel in London) you live like a king. I was even assigned my own butler.

Staying at the Winter Palace in Luxor (for the price of a basic hotel in London) you live like a king. I was even assigned my own butler.

Photo by Trish Feaster (for her Egypt blog, see http://thetravelphile.com/)

I have to admit, I was pretty pampered on this trip. To both stay safe and get the absolute most value out of my time, I hired Tarek Mousa, who runs Egypt and Beyond Travel (http://egyptandbeyondtravel.com/) to set up this trip. We brainstormed possible itineraries for the 10 days. He met me at the airport in Cairo and had hotels, a car, and local guides working with me each day. I went out a lot on my own and felt comfortable. But from a sheer efficiency point of view, with the language barrier and the complexities of post-revolutionary life in Egypt and real issues of safety, I was glad I worked with Tarek to create what was essentially my own private tour.

Tarek Mousa, of Egypt and Beyond Travel, made sure I enjoyed maximum travel thrills for every mile, minute, and dollar while I was in Egypt.

Tarek Mousa, of Egypt and Beyond Travel, made sure I enjoyed maximum travel thrills for every mile, minute, and dollar while I was in Egypt.

Photo by Trish Feaster (for her Egypt blog, see http://thetravelphile.com/).

Now, after getting used to a world where I routinely find tiny pieces of stone in my food and am hob-knobbing with people with foreheads bruised from the intensity of their prayers, I fly to the Holy Land for 10 days split evenly between Israel and the West Bank, Palestinian Territories, or Palestine–depending on your politics. This promises to be an equally stimulating and rewarding travel experience. I hope you’ll stay tuned as I report on what I learn there, here on my blog.

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Photo by Trish Feaster (for her Egypt blog, see http://thetravelphile.com/).

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While Egypt has many of the world’s greatest ancient archeological sites, its museums are generally dreary. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo, while old school, is world class simply by the brute magnificence of the treasures it displays. The Luxor Museum, made possible and designed by the people who brought us the Louvre in Paris, is the finest museum in the country. While it’s a fraction of the size of the big museum in Cairo, it offers more than enough ancient art and artifacts–all wonderfully displayed.

The Luxor Museum is the only museum in Egypt that’s as slick as the great museums of Europe. And it’s filled with art that’s both B.C. and B.U.

The Luxor Museum is the only museum in Egypt that’s as slick as the great museums of Europe. And it’s filled with art that’s both B.C. and B.U.

Good as it is, I was thankful for the expert tour given by our guide, Fateen. As is almost always the case when it comes to interiors in Egypt, photos were strictly forbidden. I busily took notes for our TV work.

Looking at the fine statues of the god Amun and the pharaoh Amenhotep III, I remembered the coin collectors’ term from my distant childhood for a coin that was never in circulation: BU, or brilliantly uncirculated. These statues were B.U. because they were part of the famous “cachet” of statues found filling a chamber in perfect condition in the late 1980s.

Names of ancient Egyptians are written in ovals called a cartouche. Pharaohs have two cartouches, side-by-side, because every pharaoh has two names: birth name and royal name, like kings and popes. Elegant and pedicured toes show a life of pampered luxury. Gods hold the ankh–the key of life–and a symbol of eternal life.

If you know what to look at you can see the back and forth of a religious war (around 1340 B.C.) as Amenhotep III’s son, the monotheistic Akhenaten, scribbled out his father’s polytheistic cartouche “Amenhotep.” For a while there was a battle of the gods between Amun–the Zeus of polytheistic ancient Egypt, and Aten–a proto Allah. Amun eventually won out and Aten was thoroughly ground into oblivion by the forces that felt threatened by the economic and political fallout of having only one god. (This is similar to how the Apostle Paul was run out of town when he tried to replace Artemis and company in Ephesus with one God who didn’t need all the statue worship–which indirectly kept a lot of people employed and therefore not inclined to trade many pagan gods for a single Christian one.)

Pharaohs had images posted everywhere because, somehow, that increased the likelihood that their souls would survive the journey to the goal line for eternal life. If you’ll meet any pharaoh in heaven, I bet it’ll be Ramses II. He’s guilty of a dirty trick that, to me, reflects very poorly on his character. Just in case his soul could read, Ramses usurped the images of a previous pharaoh, Amenhotep III, by carving out Amenhotep’s name and carving his name into Amenhotep’s belt buckles and bases.

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As I kicked back on a well-worn horse carriage at the end of the day, with a cool breeze coming at me off the Nile and colors rich with the setting sun, another jingle-jangle carriage passed me on the right. Just as it did, two rambunctious boys with filthy hands and feet, jalopy smiles, and shining eyes hopped onto the rear axle of the passing carriage–secretly hitching a ride and laughing so happily they brightened an already very sunny day.

That was one of the enduring images for me from my last visit to Luxor (in 1999). As a TV producer, the challenge of catching these fleeting moments on video is endlessly frustrating. But I’m determined to get this magic moment in our next show, even if I have to set it up.

To start our second Luxor day, our guide, Tarek, arranged for a horse-drawn carriage to clip-clop us out of Luxor, through the fields, and into a village. Sitting tall, riding shotgun next to our driver, I was baking in the sun and marveling at how the horses maneuver through the crazy car traffic–while hanging onto whatever I could so as not to tumble off. I was thinking, this may be romantic in some tourists’ books, but wouldn’t a taxi have been more practical? Then, we got into the fields and rutted dirt lanes of a village and it became clear: Horse carriage was the way to go.

For me, part of the allure of a place like Egypt is to go back in time by visiting a village. And I really need a good village experience to balance out the silent ancient stones and chaotic concrete urban scenes for the new TV shows. But in the last decade since I’ve visited Egypt, there’s been a big change: Modernity has sloshed inelegantly into even the remote villages. Rather than reeds, mud brick, and rough-hewn timbers, the villagescape now consists mostly of modern brick, concrete, and rebar structures…with no hint of any building code. Still, if you take your time and know where to look and give your wanderlust a little slack, you can fine vivid village life along the Nile, even in 2013.

Leaving the traffic and commotion of Luxor, our horse cut across a field. Suddenly the traffic was alfalfa-powered rather than gas-powered. Here we saw a stratum of society that was self-sufficient and close to nature. The lush fields of sugar cane, alfalfa, and wheat were well-watered, thanks to Egyptian irrigation cleverness that goes back to the days of the pharaohs.

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Filling my notepad, I jot a reminder to film in the morning when there’s more action in the streets. I record random observations that might be good for the camera: balconies come with privacy curtains so women can enjoy the evening breeze in their casual, immodest domestic mode (still technically in private). Homes look unfinished with their rebar Mohawks, but that’s just an alternative to a bank account as villagers sink their extra cash into an upper story for their children. They build little by little as the cash becomes available. Equity in a bigger home is considered more stable than socking money away in a bank account. Rustic wooden cages hold fluffy ducklings for sale. A mosque is under construction with progress stalled until they can gather more donations. Butchers, bakers, and spicy falafel makers add to the commerce on the street. The finest building in any town is its government-built school. Built with a uniform design, they look the same in each village.

The door to a fence is decorated with hand prints, as you might see in a grade school art project–but with more meaning. The five fingers symbolize the five pillars of Islam (to profess there is only one God and Mohammad is his messenger, to pray five times a day, to take care of the poor, to fast 30 days through Ramadan, and (if you can afford it) to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca once in your lifetime. Those who have made the trip to Mecca, the Haj as it’s called, are sure to paint a proud declaration above their door–with a drawing of the Kaaba and ornate Arabic script describing the holy adventure. When you’ve made the trip people can refer to you with a kind-of “sir” title. If I was Muslim and went to Mecca on a pilgrimage, I’d be Haj Rick.

Throughout the Middle East, exposed rebar is a reminder that parents build equity and provide for their children’s security by continuously adding to their homes as they gather a little extra cash.

Throughout the Middle East, exposed rebar is a reminder that parents build equity and provide for their children’s security by continuously adding to their homes as they gather a little extra cash.

Hoping to get a peek into a house, we stopped at what looked like the home of a large, traditional family. When you’re a curious American on the street of an Egyptian village that sees no tourists, it’s easy to get invited in. The father of the clan proudly led us on a little tour as other members of the family emerged from barn-like quarters to see who had ventured into their world.

The ground was a blanket of hay. An older girl was waving flies from the bread dough rising on rounds of wood in the hot sun before being popped into the oven. Three camels were necking in the corner–villagers believe their milk has a medicinal value for frail people and produce it as charity for the poor. Exploring, we found cows for milk, birds for company, and the backyard defined by a mud-brick fence–fringed with decorative palm fronds as yards have been here along the Nile since 2700 B.C. We left just as the milkman dropped by. The mother brought jugs of fresh milk to pour into the bigger jugs hanging from his donkey–just another way to boost the family’s humble income.

Visiting a village, curiosity goes both ways as we take their photos and new village friends take ours.

Visiting a village, curiosity goes both ways as we take their photos and new village friends take ours.

As we clip-clopped out of the village, I noticed the main street was lined with tiny new trees, each fortified by a little 3-foot-tall mud-brick castle. Small trees would never grow in this rough-and-tumble environment without a little protection…just enough to let them get to a critical sturdiness when the bricks can be cleared out and a hardy tree–too big for a goat to nibble or a careening cart to topple–will bring shade and color to that hot and dusty village world. Jostling atop our carriage back into the chaos of modern Luxor city, I thought the little trees and their temporary brick fortresses were a metaphor for democracy in Egypt and the army. Egyptians want democracy but many are beginning to believe the army may be necessary to keep it from dying in its infancy.

There’s plenty for a travel writer to take note of when you venture into a village along the Nile.

There’s plenty for a travel writer to take note of when you venture into a village along the Nile.

Photo by Trish Feaster (for her Egypt blog, see http://thetravelphile.com/).

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There is a problem. With all this action, it’s very tough for me to stop doing stuff long enough to write down what I’ve been up to. Each day is jam-packed with vivid images and amazing experiences. Yesterday, we did a marathon sightseeing blitz of the tombs and temples of the west bank of the Nile–the dazzling necropolis where the sun sets and where, in pharaonic times, you buried your dead. Today was spent in Luxor on the east bank–where the sun rises and people live. Here’s a quick review:

Up early in order to see more village action, we rode a horse carriage from our hotel to the village of Al Gawahra. At first, teetering atop my carriage riding shotgun with the white-turbaned driver, marveling at how the horse navigated the roundabouts with all the cars, motorcycles, and other animal-powered vehicles, I thought it would have been more efficient to take a taxi. But leaving the commotion of the big city and entering the dirt and mud-brick world of the village, I realized the wisdom of a horse and buggy.

The idyllic, Biblical-flavored mud-brick villages I remember from earlier visits to Egypt are now changing with the advent of cheap concrete and modern bricks. But the fabric of village life survives—sustenance living, camels out back for their medicinal milk, proud graffiti over doors boasting of trips to Mecca, loaves of bread dough rising in the sun with swarms of flies fanned away by little girls, and so on (more on village life in my next entry).

Returning to Luxor we crossed lush farmland of alfalfa, sugar cane, and wheat, with irrigation ditches reminding me of how Egyptians harnessed the Nile thousands of years ago.

Just as my arms were getting sunburned, we arrived at the Luxor Museum. It was good to follow up the outdoor sightseeing of yesterday with a visit to the French-designed and funded Luxor Museum. With a far better display than anything we’ve seen so far, it felt like a wing of the Louvre. The art…wow (more on that in a later entry).

After the museum, we climbed upstairs in a breezy café to enjoy a kick of caffeine and gaze across the Nile at all those temples and tombs. I relished a cold Coke. I never drink Coke, but here I find it’s my little escape. There’s no question about the water quality or how clean the glass is, and it’s cool, carbonated, and gives me that caffeine jolt.

From the town of Luxor, cafes offer stunning views of the river and the tomb-filled folds of the desert hillsides beyond.

From the town of Luxor, cafes offer stunning views of the river and the tomb-filled folds of the desert hillsides beyond.

Walking along the riverfront corniche, the pride of Luxor, we hopped aboard the rusty and well-worn old ferry in which local workers commute back and forth across the Nile. I have vivid memories of this ride from my visit here as a student. For the four of us (two locals and two tourists–who pay four times the local rate) the round trip was 5 Egyptian pounds (just under a dollar). The Nile was abuzz with various ferries and pleasure craft. I just wanted to take the ride for old times’ sake, before the bridge made the ferry ride optional.

For lunch, my guide insisted we go to the Steigenberger Hotel. As usual, his vision was right on–a club sandwich under an umbrella with a breeze on the riverside. Oranges are particularly sweet in April, I’m told.

Feeling lazy and acting like we’re on vacation, we returned to the hotel for an hour of poolside relaxation. I have yet to see an American, however, the poolside of our Winter Palace hotel (literally a former palace) is lined with German and French guests doing what you do in the middle of a 100-degree day–take a siesta poolside on chaise lounges in your hotel’s garden. Gazing at the palm trees swaying in the breeze had a tranquilizing effect. We eased ourselves into the solar-heated yet wonderfully chilly water and then settled back into our horizontal state, eyes closed, with towering yet graceful palms fanning our travel dreams.

Late in the afternoon is prime time for a felucca ride. For $50 a tourist can hire a private boat with a captain and mate for an hour’s sail on the Nile. Locals would pay half that. It’s one of the must-do activities in Egypt for me. The breeze filled the hand-stitched sail, the mate brought me my mint tea with lots of sugar, and we moved with the wind–surrounded by the breeze and sounds of the river, the creaking mast, and distant birds.

One of the great experiences in Egypt: a romantic felucca ride on the Nile at sunset.

One of the great experiences in Egypt: a romantic felucca ride on the Nile at sunset.

Photo by Trish Feaster (for her Egypt blog, see The Travelphile.com).

The sinking sun turned palms into silhouettes, and throughout the valley minarets came to life with their calls to prayer. The cacophony of classic Arabic song warbled throughout the Nile Valley, and reminded all that there is one God and he is great. Combined with the intensity of the history, nature, gentle people, and complicated economics and politics of today, it all came together to make the presence of God particularly vivid. So far from home and so touched, you realize God is everywhere.

As we sailed, egret birds sprang from the reeds, the barefoot mate climbed the mast effortlessly, and children traced the shoreline–their water buffalo in tow. The range of brown peaks on the western horizon marked the beginning of a sandy wasteland that stretches from here all the way to Morocco’s Atlantic coast. I doubled my pillow, lay back, put my camera away, and savored the moment–sailing the Nile.

Hopping a taxi, we ventured back into Luxor town–with half a million people, it is charming compared with Cairo and Alexandria. We rambled and explored as is so enjoyable in places like this. Popping into the train station, I enjoyed déjà vus of my two previous visits (when I overnighted on the train from Cairo). Today, the bus is much cheaper and flying is far more reliable. With the relative chaos following the revolution, trains are often delayed by demonstrations on the tracks.

We walked the long market street–first half touristy, last half wild and very local. I let myself become a shopper, and Trish and I visited a jeweler to design a bracelet for her featuring a cartouche with our names carved on it in ancient Egyptian characters. We returned 45 minutes later and it was expertly done. While I paid an inflated price, it felt good to leave a little money in this hungry-for-tourism market.

Little boys rode motorcycles, “Easy Rider”-style, like bulls through the narrow and crowded market lane. Merchants promised “no hassle, no hustle” while saying things like: “Excuse me.” “Small shop small price.” “Colorado? Texas?” “Short wife…long life.”

We enjoyed a fine dinner with the baba ghanoush dip-ables, pigeon, lamb shank, fresh-baked bread, and fresh-squeezed orange juice.

And to cap the day we joined the boys at a bar for mint tea and sucking on the shisha–the big bong-like pipes men hang out to smoke. Trish and our guide enjoyed taking in the apple-flavored tobacco. But I just couldn’t–I have a physical defense against tobacco. (I enjoy the hubbly-bubbly in Turkey where it seems it’s just the sweet and easy-to-smoke dried fruit, but here the tobacco is strong and unavoidable.) The vibe of the shisha bar was wonderful, with everyone chilling out under posters of Oum Kalthoum, the musical diva of the Arab world who was long everyone’s favorite Egyptian.

As we left, I dropped into a cobbler with posters in his shop celebrating Jesus with a Hindu-esqe flair. Troubled by recent mob violence against Christians in Egypt, I wanted to ask him what it was like to live and work in this Muslim world as a Christian (see earlier posting).

Rather than catch a cab home, we walked. I got the feeling that the dark side streets were dangerous–just as they can be in poor neighborhoods in any big city. We stuck to the busy stretches. Just before midnight, children were playing in pools of light while their fathers closed up shop. The breeze was cool. And the curbs were high–which I noticed more than ever with my tired legs. I think they were made that tall to keep cars from jumping them for a free parking spot.

As we stepped through our hotel’s circa-1930 revolving door–and the security gate that always buzzes but no one cares about–one of the Winter Palace’s uber-attentive staff said, “Welcome home.” I think, “Just another day (my last of 10) in Egypt.”

Tomorrow we fly to Israel.

People ask me why I travel so much. This day is a good example of why I enjoy a day on the road even more than a day at home. Thanks for sharing it with me.

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Cap your busy day of temple and tomb visits with a breezy sail on the Nile in a traditional felucca. For $50 you get an hour on the river and a lifelong memory.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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Across the Nile from Luxor is a valley with more ancient treasures than any place I’ve seen. I spent a long day visiting tombs and temples to find the best places for my upcoming TV episodes on Egypt. With the help of an excellent guide, I enjoyed Egyptian art and history more than I ever have. Here’s a bit of what I learned:

Everything I saw was art for dead people and gods. Ancient Egyptians lived on the east bank (where the sun rose) and buried each other on the west bank (where the sun died each evening). In about 1600 B.C. there was a big change in the style of tombs. Until then, kings were buried in pyramids. A string of about 70 of them are scattered along the Nile between the border of the Sudan and the Mediterranean–all on the west bank. But these pyramids were consistently being robbed, which meant kings were waking up in heaven with none of their favorite stuff. So, rather than mark their tombs with big pyramids, they started hiding their tombs in the folds of these valleys.

The Valley of Kings: Where pharaohs hide out while awaiting eternity.

The Valley of Kings: Where pharaohs hide out while awaiting eternity.

This coincided with a new age when Egypt became an expansionist power. The money and labor saved by not building pyramids could literally populate and fund armies. The pharaohs (that’s the Egyptian word for king) buried near Luxor were aggressive leaders who conquered and ruled an empire stretching from the Sudan to Syria. Of 63 tombs found so far in the Valley of the Kings, only two were found intact. Most were plundered in ancient Egyptian times and then buried and forgotten for centuries until our age. Archeologists expect there are about a hundred tombs still awaiting discovery–and likely just a handful will be found intact.

Sights generally mobbed by tour buses are empty in 2013. Ever since a horrible massacre of tourists by terrorists at Luxor back in the 1990s, police have been stationed at every ancient sight.

Sights generally mobbed by tour buses are empty in 2013. Ever since a horrible massacre of tourists by terrorists at Luxor back in the 1990s, police have been stationed at every ancient sight.

It’s all about gaining eternal life. Eternity required an intact body and food for the soul’s journey. The body was mummified and hidden in the Valley of the Kings. While commoners’ tombs were simply gravel pits–traces of which you can see today–the fabulously rich and powerful kings had elaborate tombs. They were dug with long underground ramps elaborately painted, leading down to big tomb chambers deep in the mountain. The biggest fears were that a jackal would dig up and eat your body or that grave robbers would loot your stash before you made it to heaven. My guide explained, “When you fear something, you worship it. So the god Anubis is portrayed as a jackal. He’s the god of embalmers, guardian of tombs.”

Tombs with their colorful paintings, hidden in the dark and dry desert of Egypt for over 3,000 years, are remarkably well-preserved.

Tombs with their colorful paintings, hidden in the dark and dry desert of Egypt for over 3,000 years, are remarkably well-preserved.

The soul needed nourishment to make it to the goal line of salvation. Because the body was effectively hidden in the valley–and therefore couldn’t be fed, each major tomb would have a correlating mortuary temple nearby, in full view between the hidden tombs and the Nile. This is where offerings of food were brought to the dead. While the most famous mortuary temple was that of Queen Hatshepsut, I found the much less famous mortuary temple of Ramses III, called Medinet Habu, far more visual and better for TV.

With a guide to explain the symbolism--in this case, how great Ramses III was--you learn how meaningful every inch of this carved surface is.

With a guide to explain the symbolism–in this case, how great Ramses III was–you learn how meaningful every inch of this carved surface is.

Photo by Trish Feaster (for her Egypt blog, see http://thetravelphile.com/).

There’s a separate valley for kings, queens, and nobles. We toured tombs in each. One of my favorites was the Tomb of Ramses IV for its original colors and cosmic ceiling over the burial chamber. A portrait of the dead king greets the sun god at the top of the ramp. There’s a great shot looking down the ramp to the tomb chamber with its huge granite sarcophagus (the stone was quarried in distant Aswan). Another favorite was the Tomb of Ramses III. Judging by the glamorous attire on the figures painted on the walls of his tomb, Ramses III was more of a fashionista. But the walls are all covered with glass, which will be tough to film. The very best paintings I saw were in the Tomb of Amenherkhepshef, a son of Ramses III.

The foreman of the workers who decorated the pharaoh’s tomb got a cool perk--a very colorful tomb of his own.

The foreman of the workers who decorated the pharaoh’s tomb got a cool perk–a very colorful tomb of his own.

Photo by Trish Feaster (for her Egypt blog, see http://thetravelphile.com/).

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There are a lot of Russian tourists in the Middle East these days. (Dangerous is a relative thing.) And they are famously gullible among Egyptian guides. Here’s an example.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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Watch this amazing stunt. While cruising on the Nile, small boats captained by hungry merchants lasso the ship and haggle with passengers while being dragged by the ship upstream.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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