Our first outing to the West Bank was along a well-trodden tourist trail, to the ‘Valley of the Kings’. Ancient Egyptians called the West Bank of Thebes (now Luxor), the ‘City of the Dead’ (where the sun sets) as opposed to the East Bank which they called the ‘City of the Living’ (where the sun rises). I’m pleased to report that we stayed on the side of the ‘City of the Living’ and enjoyed watching stunning sunset after stunning sunset on the other bank of the Nile.
Although I was more attracted to the less well-known Valleys of Artisans and Nobles, where the tombs of the workers and upper-classes were, I thought Hubby and the kids should see one of the world’s most famous cemeteries! The Valley of the Kings is where ancient pharaohs had been buried after the capital had been moved south from Memphis to Thebes and the pyramids left behind. Well, behind buried under a man-made pyramid was no longer done but the Valley of the Kings resides under a mountain the shape of a pyramid which was considered fortuitous. We decided to hire a van and guide. We’d tried going solo with a taxi a few days before and it hadn’t worked out. Before we’d got into the taxi, we’d asked if he had a/c. He assured us that he had but when we asked him to turn it on he said he was sick and couldn’t have the a/c on but when the kids were getting very hot, and feeling sick, we begged him to turn it on and he admitted it hadn’t worked in years!! We weren’t going to risk this a second time!
We lucked out with a lovely guide, a woman called Shaimaa Baheeg. I was very pleased to have a female guide. I like to support females trying to break free from traditional restraints and I thought she really cared about her subject, was knowledgeable and very nice with the kids. We saw three tombs – of Ramses III (most notable was a painting of a freakish three-headed, winged snake), Ramses IV (remarkable early graffiti!) and Ramses IX (which had the most beautifully painted transparent white skirt on the pharaoh). Each was striking and interesting in different ways. Then the highlight for the kids (I was excited too!) was King Tut’s tomb. I had researched it before our visit (of course!) so was able to manage the kids’ expectations. The treasures that had been in it are now in the National Museum in Cairo. I would dearly like the kids to see them, Edward would be especially excited, but the museum is right by Tahrir Square, where there are ongoing ‘Arab Spring’ protests and we didn’t feel it was safe enough to visit at the moment. What you do see in Luxor is the boy king’s mummy which I found very moving. It’s so small and vulnerable. You also see his beautifully carved stone sarcophagus with one of his wooden coffins inside it. Because he’d died so young and so suddenly, Tutankhamun’s tomb wasn’t ready so another one that was meant to be for his advisor, Ay, was used instead. It is a very small tomb but has lovely, vivid paintings. And the gold coffin, although hard to see inside its glass case, was very beautiful. I felt thrilled that the kids, who had heard so much about this famous pharaoh, were in his tomb!
We were lucky because we had the whole tomb to ourselves. We were not so lucky with the others. Although Egypt has seen a serious drop in tourists numbers because of the ‘Arab Spring’, compounded by the economic recession, meaning many tourists can’t afford to travel abroad anymore (although Egypt is one of the most affordable places to go right now), we were accompanied in the Valley of the Kings by a few bus loads of E. European tourists. E. European tourists are keeping many economies afloat right now, or so it feels, including in Dubai. It was awful though. They were half naked (in a rural part of a Muslim country) and not at all interested in what they were seeing. They rushed through, chatting, looking at their cell phones and sometimes even, sacrilege, touching the artwork. Awful. Shaimaa recognized that Egypt needed their money but found their attitude very depressing so she appeared very happy to have us, somewhat knowledgeable and certainly, on my part, extremely interested (and reasonable tippers).
I desperately also wanted to see Sennutem and Pashedu’s tombs in the Valley of the Artisans -very different tombs from those of the pharaohs, but despite arriving at 4pm, the ticket office, which was meant to close at 4.30pm was closed and they wouldn’t let us in! So much for the value of tourism! I was terribly disappointed so a few days later, Hubby took pity on me, agreed to drag his weary body away from the garden paradise of our hotel and we arranged another trip out with Shaimaa.
We went to the Valley of the Artisans first – to see the Tombs of Sennutem/Sennedjem and Pashedu. The latter is a small climb. There were absolutely no tourists in sight. The tombs are tiny but the paintings are so bright. I LOVED them! Tour guides are not allowed inside the tombs, so as with the Valley of the Kings, Shaimaa showed us postcards of what we’d see and explained the symbolism or particular features of. This is a great system. I was especially grateful that she asked me to look out for the way the hair of Pashedu’s relations had been painted – beautifully, some white and some ‘salt n pepper’ to show the age of his parents and in-laws (the latter being slightly younger). And I was struck by the different hairstyles the little girls had (each included a partly shaved head which is interesting to us these days). When I want to remember these tombs, I do a search on google images and enjoy them again! In Sennedjem’s tomb we saw beautiful harvest scenes. I loved the wavy River Nile! I was also thrilled by the lovely black and white spotted oxen working hard at the plough, and heavily laden date palms. These kind of domestic scenes are very different from the heavy symbolism and spirituality/religiosity of the pharoah’s tombs.
To my surprise, my favourite tomb was in the Valley of the Nobles – the Tomb of R’Mose/Ramose. Shaimaa had said it had beautiful carvings. From the carvings I’d seen in the temples and in the Valley of the Kings, I wasn’t particularly excited. I was more interested in seeing beautiful paintings. But I saw the most unbelievable carvings. Again, the tomb was totally empty with not a soul in sight in any of the nearby mountains. Shaimaa could come inside this time and I very much enjoyed her pointing out the little details – a tiny perfectly carved ear and thumb, intricately carved jewellery and wigs, styled differently for each individual. There were the most beautifully carved hieroglyphics of tiny, perfect little owls, horses and faces. This tomb, as strange as this might sound, is my new ‘happy place’. When I feel overwhelmed, I try and go there again and remember what I saw. I really felt some sort of artistic ecstasy in that tomb! For the first time I could understand what I thought were urban myths when people weep or faint at the sight of certain paintings or sculptures.
I would have loved to have seen the Tomb of Sennefer, I have heard the ceiling is painted with beautiful vines, but Shaimaa said it was a bit too far to climb for the kids and I was already pushing my luck with them. I spent far too short a time in each tomb but their interest was limited and I didn’t want the whines to turn to wails. The fact that my time in the tombs, although short, was fairly unmolested was thanks to my kind Hubby who knew how much these historic/artistic visits mean to me and tried to entertain the kids as much as possible.
After the tombs, we went to see the house where Howard Carter, one of the most famous archeologists in the world, the man who found King Tutankhamun’s tomb, had lived for the years he’d been in Luxor. Not many tourists visit unfortunately which is strange given his fame. Again, we had the place to ourselves. Edward was very excited to see the house, with Carter’s iconic hat and glasses, typewriter and handwritten sketches and letters. I think Carter and his house seemed a tangible piece of history for him; a person connected to a very exciting story that he could relate to. I was desperate for the hologram show to work – of Carter talking about the story of his extraordinary archeological find – probably the most well-known find in history, along with Pompeii perhaps. To ensure it was working, we stopped off before going to the tombs and asked for guardian to please get it working (implication – please make it work and we will give you a ‘tip’!). When we came back an hour later, we found it was so! It worked for about 5 minutes and is amazing and then the next 15 minutes was just audio, but it was compelling and held Edward’s interest for the entire time.
Our last two stops were to learn a bit about the craftsmanship of the area; alabaster sculpting and papyrus making and painting. We stopped at an Alabaster workshop and they gave a talk about this beautiful stone. It was very interesting. There was no hard sell and to our surprise, having had no intention of making a purchase, we bought a beautiful, small, palest green, alabaster cat. I wish we had also purchased one of the vile looking luminous green sculptures for the kids because the stone glows in the dark! A fun souvenir to show their friends! Imagine coming across that in nature! There are masses of these ‘factories’ so it was nice that Shaimaa knew which one to take us to. But they all looked as if they hadn’t had a visitor in a long time. The loss of tourism must be devastating for their livelihoods. Our last stop (much to the relief of my exhausted Hubby) was at a Papyrus gallery/shop and again we had a very interesting little talk about how papyrus is made. The kids had great fun ‘weaving’ some papyrus strips then rolling and hammering them to make something like paper. Again, to our surprise, we purchased a small, beautifully painted papyrus cat. Again there had been no hard sell despite, once more, the air of us having been the first visitors, despite the late afternoon hour. Egypt is a funny place for souvenirs. Edward came home with a coffin and mummy (a Tutankhamun replica of course!), fortunately he wasn’t tempted by the beautifully carved canopic jars. These had traditionally held mummified vital internal organs! But someone must take them home! A bit macabre!
Just when we thought our spending was over (not that the prices are at all high), we learned that the poor van driver would have to had to queue for nearly a day to get petrol for our trip! There is a desperate fuel shortage in Egypt at the moment; the government can’t manage the supply. We saw queues and queues of cars at petrol stations. It is terribly sad. So we had to set aside an additional tip for another hardworking Egyptian!
Again, I have no idea what sunk in for the kids; what images, what impressions? The paintings, the poverty, the pool? Hopefully, again, they will be positively affected by my enthusiasm, my passion, for culture, history and art, in this case of Ancient Egypt. I tried to influence by modeling rather than pushing. If the hotel ice-cream was the highlight or playing table tennis with both Mum and Dad (quality time as the four of us is all too rare) so be it. As they say ‘Build it and they will come’. I built the experience for them but what they did with it when they got there was totally up to them and my sphere of influence was limited. I can’t wait for our next trip. We’re not sure yet where it will be but hopefully it will offer the same mixture of R&R for Hubby, fun for the kids and history and culture for me (will hopefully melds into the fun bit for the kids!). Whatever we do, I am so grateful to our decision to homeschool for putting emphasis on the importance of these trips (both for family time and exposure to rich history and culture which is sorely lacking in Dubai) and, thanks to not having to pay extortionate Dubai school fees, having a bit more cash for them!
IF YOU’RE NEW TO HOMESCHOOLING MIDDLE EAST, welcome! If you are interested in reading about our homeschooling adventure, I recommend that you start reading from ‘Day 1’. Why I recommend starting at Day 1 is because this adventure into homeschooling has been a rollercoaster; philosophically and emotionally, which you might learn, seek solace from or even be thoroughly entertained by. It started in Bahrain on 22 February 2012 and continues in Dubai. My kids are Edward aged 8 and Petra aged 4. For you to get the full intellectual and dramatic impact, it’s best to start at the beginning. You might be contemplating home educating and wonder what those early nail-biting days feel like or you might enjoy reading somebody else’s take on an experience we share, or you might be more generally interested in my thoughts and feelings on education and parenting. Whatever the reason you’re reading, I’m really humbled that you’re taking your valuable time to do so and I really hope I can be some kind of hope or inspiration for you. Thank you!
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