Luxor, The Winter Palace and (gasp) A Public Library

We arrived in Luxor shortly after dawn on Monday, May 1, only 1 hour late, which is pretty good for an Egyptian train. Wast, the ancient Egyptian name for the city, was the capital of ancient Egypt from ~ 1500 BCE to ~ 1100 BCE. This was the age of empire, when Egypt controlled large swathes of territory in the Levant (today’s Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) and Nubia (today’s north Sudan) while warring/trading with the other members of the Great Powers Club in what is now Mesopotamia and Turkey.

Many rulers brought back huge amounts of plunder from their wars – people, cattle and shoats – while mines in Nubia provided a seemingly inexhaustible stream of gold. All these riches were poured into construction of a string of temples along the east and west banks of the Nile, and into extravagant tombs chiseled out of rocky wadis in the western desert. Luxor is home to dozens of temples and hundreds of tombs, the best known being Karnak and Luxor temples and the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings.

The tomb of Tutankhamun – the only royal tomb that was not thoroughly ransacked in ancient times – was found in the Valley, its entrance hidden under a pile of rubble from the excavation of a later, more important ruler’s tomb.  For the Egyptophiles among us, the Theban Mapping Project, a 20+ year project that has mapped every site in the west bank royal wadis, is the place to go for virtual tomb tourism. You can view plans of each tomb, pictures and a bit of history about each tomb. It’s a great project run by a fabulous team, about whom more later.

Today,  Luxor is a densely packed city, home to over half a million people, more than half of whom live in poverty. Tourism and agriculture are mainstays of the economy. Last time we were in Luxor (2014), Egypt’s tourism had tanked and the level of desperation visible in people’s eyes was heart-wrenching.  This visit, the tourist industry seems to have improved, although the country’s economic woes have made life much more difficult for the poor and middle classes all across the country.

Egypt is not a country of early risers, so our 7 am arrival ensured that we had a blissfully quiet walk through silent, amber toned streets from the train station to the palatial Winter Palace Hotel.

The Winter Palace Hotel is a relic of a bygone age. Those of you familiar with the adventures of Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson by Elizabeth Peters, aka Barbara Mertz,  will recognize this majestic pile as a favorite stomping ground for 19th and early 20th century archeologists and their wealthy patrons. (And if you don’t know this dynamic duo, you should get acquainted soon.)

The Winter Palace is renowned for its gardens, a 40 acre oasis of cool and color in an otherwise drab and dusty city. 

After breakfast in the grand dining room, we went back to the room for showers and a quick nap – which turned into a long nap for Matt, who snoozed until 2pm.  I entertained myself by getting in touch with Mr. Ahmed Hassan of the Theban Mapping Project to arrange a visit to the community library that this team has established on Luxor’s West Bank. 

Looking across the Nile to the West Bank.

The library was established in 2011 and it is the only free public library south of Cairo. The original intent was to provide resources in Arabic and English for local site managers and conservators to learn best practices and stay abreast of new technologies. Shortly after it opened, professionals using the library said “We know the monuments of Thebes [Luxor] must be protected and our job is to learn more so we can do so.”  It is heavily used. (FYI, the library has a Facebook page but no website.)  

Today, the library has to an extensive collection of archeologically-related books and resources in multiple languages, as well as a children’s library with sizable collection of books and activities. Mr. Hassan told us that several hundred kids visit the library each day in the summer holidays (when there isn’t much else to do except play in the streets). The library also hosts a literacy program for women, and – like all public libraries, offers lot of programs, including films, and expeditions that are attended by people of all ages.  Mr. Hassan is also the supervisor of the Theban Mapping Project, and shared some fascinating stories about the challenges presented in preventing unawlful excavations and thefts in Luxor.

The library recently moved to a new building with a lot more space, accessed off a typical narrow rural street.  Note the kids’ sheb-shebs (plastic kick-off sandals) left outside the doo

Leaving Mr. Hassan and the library with many thanks, we walked back to the Nile and caught the public ferry back, disembarking near the Luxor Museum on the East Bank.  

We wended  our way south through Luxor’s main shopping district to return to the Winter Palace, noting that Luxor now has two (2!) stoplights. (Traffic signals are a rarity in Egypt, because, really,  what’s the point?)

Sadly, on returning to our room we got one of those dreaded calls from our house sitter, who had taken Coda, our lovely Abyssinian cat, to the emergency vet. Coda was 16 and had entered kidney failure, so we had to arrange her euthanasia from 9 time zones and 7000 miles away. Our house sitter, bless her, stayed with Coda until the end.

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