Ancient Egypt: Generation Country

I spent a week in Luxor in February, which qualifies me as an expert on all things Egyptian.

OK, fine — but it does qualify me as an expert on being a tourist in Luxor. I had two thoughts per day, which makes fourteen thoughts in total:

1. The Baksheesh Problem

“No, sorry,” he said, rapidly backing away, “I’m all out of baksheesh.” The man patted his pockets for added effect as the Egyptian tomb guard followed along for a few steps, then gave up. What an asshole, I thought, and then I patted my pockets and realised that perhaps I was an asshole as well.

We’d only visited a couple of tombs in Sheikh Abd el-Qurna — the Valley of the Nobles — when it became clear that we had a serious baksheesh problem. It was a issue of simple mathematics: Sheikh Abd el-Qurna has dozens of tombs dating from the New Kingdom period of ancient Egypt, which is to say that the tombs are older than pretty much any structure still standing in Europe or North American, not to mention a good deal prettier. Around a dozen are open to the public, and you can buy tickets for them in groups of two or three tombs each, for around 50 LE. LE means Egyptian Pounds; $1 equals 8 LE, which means a ticket is about $6.

Sheikh Abd el-Qurna

Usually each tomb has its own guard — a man (and it’s always a man) who checks tickets, ensures tourists don’t wreck it up, and provides running commentary on the various ancient gods and kings and queens on display inside. Sometimes the commentary is accurate and welcome, often it’s unwanted. In any case, the tomb guards really expect a tip from tourists, because:

  1. The Valley of the Nobles is not especially well-visited, being overshadowed by the far more famous Valley of the Kings next door, home of bigger tombs for more important people. These tombs aren’t necessarily ‘better’ than those in the Valley of the Nobles — and that goes doubly so for Tutankhamun’s tomb (also in the Valley of the Kings), who by all regards was not a very important person by ancient Egyptian standards, nor does he have a very spacious or impressive tomb. But hey, you’ve heard of The Valley of the Kings, you haven’t heard of the Valley of the Nobles, and you’ve only got a day or two in Luxor, so what are you going to do? The point is, there’s not much traffic and a guard’s gotta make money somehow, because:
  2. They’re paid very little. I have no idea exactly how much, I’m guessing a few dollars a day. This guess is based on the fact that taxi drivers in Luxor are willing to work for an entire day for under $25, and they’re much further up in the social and financial hierarchy than tomb guards. A tip of just 1 LE, or a bit over a dime, is therefore a pretty big deal, especially when:
  3. Thanks to the Egyptian revolution, which everyone just called 2011, plus various well-publicised terrorist attacks, tourism has just about dried up. Of the 350 Nile River cruise boats that used to visit Luxor, only a hundred are still running. Hotel occupancy in Luxor is under 25%. It’s not fun times.

Now, no-one likes being hassled for a tip. You’d prefer to hand over a buck or two in a benificent manner for a job well done, delivered via a subtle handshake just like how Monica’s old boyfriend Richard taught Joey and Chandler how to do. But as established, the going rate of 1 LE is practically zero money to a western tourist, plus the tomb guards get really bummed out when you stiff them, so you’d be advised to get over your initial irritation.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that no-one has any change in Luxor! ATMs usually dispense 200 LE notes, with the odd 100, 50, and 20 thrown in, and most things that tourists buy are denominated in 5 or 10 LE increments. This means that you barely ever have any 1 LE coins in your possession. Sure, you could give out 5 LE or 10 LE notes as tips, but you’ll run out of them rapidly as well. The end result is the Baksheesh Problem.

As we trekked between tombs in the Valley of the Nobles, I had to perform triage arithmatic to see how far we could stretch our meagre stock of coins and 5 LE notes. I wondered why the authorities couldn’t just add a few LE on to the cost of each ticket and give it to the tomb guards, or just install a change machine in the car park.

Later in our trip, we asked the hotel receptionist for change from a 10 LE note. She shook her head sadly, and then gave up two 5 LE notes from her purse. This made me feel appropriately bad. Going to the bank wasn’t possible because they were closed for the weekend.

And then we found out that small water bottles cost 2 LE, and our pockets overflowed with coins, and our hotel minibar overflowed with bottles, and the Kingdom was once again at peace, with order and Maat restored.

*There was little logic in our tipping behaviour. We gave guards anything from 1 LE to 10 LE, and hotel staff even more. I suppose this isn’t any different from tipping culture in the US or UK though.

2. Ni hao!

Luxor attracts an interational crowd: lots of Brits and Americans, and plenty of Middle Eastern and Egyptian tourists, the vast majority of whom were women; apparently the men don’t care for ancient civilisations.

And then there are the Chinese. I don’t know if they outnumbered Brits or Americans, but there were enough Chinese tourists that you’d miss them if they were gone. Most of them spoke Mandarin, hence the hawkers and tomb guards in Karnak Temple saying ‘Ni Hao’ all the time; hence people getting confused when I said I was from England despite having a ‘Chinese face’.

Hatsshepsut’s Temple. Our taxi driver sung ‘hot chicken soup temple’ as we entered the parking lot.

We did see one group at Hatshepsut’s Temple speaking Cantonese, a dialect that I can somewhat understand (but cannot speak). They were expert at aggressively ignoring hawkers, although one women did get a scarf wound around her hair and then stiffed them, which I found both amusing and annoying.

3. Tourist Language Power Rankings

  1. English (no surprises here, it’s the international tourism language)
  2. French (colonial past)
  3. German (not sure)
  4. Italian (western country?)
  5. Unplaced, but should be second: Chinese

4. Tombsplainin’

When we visited temples and tombs, the guards had the unfortunate tendency of naming everything within sight.

Warning: not a real tomb! This is the replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb at Howard Carter’s house. You aren’t allowed to take photos in real tombs, although about 25% of guards suggested it’d be OK in return for baksheesh.

“Osiris”

“Hathor”

“Baboon”

“Banana”

“Hatshepsut”

“Opium” (that one was wrong, it was actually cornflower)

At first, this was helpful, but by the tenth tomb, it was entirely unnecessary. I suppose they felt it was their job, especially since they wanted a tip, but I would have gladly tipped them just as much if they left us alone in peace.

It was doubly frustrating because my partner Margaret has a doctorate in Egyptology from the University of Oxford, and she’s a senior Curator at the National Museum of Scotland. She can read hieroglyphs — all of them. She’d be pointing outall the gods and kings out to me, and then the guard would come along and repeat exactly the same things, only worse.

I call it tombsplaining. It’s like mansplaining, but… oh, you get the idea.

5. Millennials ruin everything

Of all the guests at the Sofitel Winter Palace Pavilion (which is not the same as the more famous and more expensive Winter Palace but shares the same beautiful gardens) we were the youngest, in our early 30s. Most guests, especially the Brits, were in their 50s and 60s. This is because I think Egypt has a bad rep amongst Millennials. As I am a Millennial — yes, I am, only just — allow me to speak for my generation.

I am a Millennial, therefore I must have a photo with me next to a cat.

Egypt conjures up two very different images — Snapchat pics, if you will — in our minds. The first is of cheap, sunny holidays in Sharm el Sheik, full of warm water and scuba diving. Since we Millennials hate working and spend all our money on $600 phones rather than putting away $300 per year for a mortgage, affordability is important.

The second is of cheesy, decrepit tourist attractions in cities named after second-rate Vegas casinos. Sure, there are pyramids and tombs and temples in Cairo and in Luxor, but that’s just so obvious and 90s. That’s where our parents were really excited about visiting in the days before Easyjet and Ryanair. This image is not exotic or thrilling — it’s just old and tired.

And in the last couple of years, both images have had an unfortunate Instagram filter applied to them (I’m riding this metaphor until it dies!) — that of terrorism. So Luxor is on no Millennial’s list of top ten holiday destinations.

I submit that this is an incorrect view, and you’d never guess the five steps I’d take to fix it!

  1. Play up the FOMO factor. There are so few tourists in Luxor that you can frequently have entire tombs and temples to yourself. Trust me, this will not be the case forever — things will pick up and there will be Disneyland-style lines outside these places. Why? Because they’re beautiful and they’re 4000 years old! This is your chance to get in on the ground floor and tell your friends that you were in Luxor before they got too big, man.
  2. Explain exactly how cheap Luxor is: really, really cheap. Your pounds, euros, and dollars will go just as far here as they would in Thailand, and the flight costs way well.
  3. Figure out an easy way to give people data SIMs. Luxor has great 3G coverage, even on the west bank, even in the Valley of the Kings, perfect for social media oversharing. I stayed connected by signing up to a Vodafone Sim-only Pay Monthly 2GB contract in the UK and then paid £5/day for roaming, which was a fair bit of effort. If you could get tourists sharing their holiday in real-time, subsidised or free data SIMs would practically pay for themselves. Let a thousand Snapchats bloom!
  4. Make an app, with locations of all the attractions and things. Give people a 24/7 support line, or something.
  5. Get a YouTuber or Vice journalist to cover it, I don’t know.
Tourist magnet. But a really awesome one at night.

6. Cultural Tourists

We were Cultural Tourists, distinct from normal tourists because of our particular interest in the ancient art and architecture of Luxor. Right now, cultural tourism represents only 3% of all tourists in Egypt, which strikes me as an astonishingly low proportion for the country of the Pyramids, the Nile, and the Pharaohs.

You can choose to see the bright side of this, in that it means the rest of Egypt’s tourism sector is so strong — the resorts in the Red Sea like Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheik — but the problem is that cultural tourists spend more than double what resort tourists do; over $130/night compared to $65.

Deir el-Medina. Eat your heart out, Pompeii.

7. Not a cloud in the sky

At Deir el-Medina, the Valley of the Workers, we bumped into a local Egyptologist. He was working with a French team there who’d be arriving the next week, and he sensed that Margaret was a fellow Egyptologist by overhearing her use of some technical terms (and also, I suspected, her Egyptologist-chic clothing style).

The appropriate introductions were made, tea was brewed, acquantainces were exchanged. After a while, he asked me what I did.

“I run a company that makes fitness games for smartphones.”

“Oh, like the iPhone?”

He pulled out his iPhone 6S. I’d noted it earlier in our conversation — it’s not a cheap phone in any place, let alone Egypt.

“I have a problem, maybe you can help me with it. I have no space left on my phone, and I can’t move my photos to my computer.”

He handed it over, and I had a poke around the settings. There were two problems.

Firstly, it only had 16GB of storage; damn you, Tim Cook!

Secondly, it hadn’t been synced with iCloud recently, if ever. This meant that all the photos would still be stored locally at full resolution. I suggested that he charge the phone while connected to wifi, although frankly I have no idea what the wifi and broadband situation is like in Egypt. Expensive, no doubt.

Anyway, I told him to install iTunes on his computer. He’d never heard of it.

Sekhmet statues at the Temple of Mut Open Air Museum.

8. Open Air

Walk into Luxor Temple and make your way between the grand pylons and monumental statues, past the mosque, past the columns, past the courtyard, and then turn left into the Open Air Museum. It’s a collection of hundreds of stone artefacts — mostly half a metre cubed, some much larger. They are fragments of reliefs, stelae (stone slabs with inscriptions), columns, walls, and other interesting things that can’t or haven’t yet been assembled into something bigger.

If you teleported any of those objects into a western museum, they’d enjoy prime placement. I know this because yesterday I went to an Ancient Egypt exhibition at Two Temple Place in London, and pride of place was given to a relief originally from Denderah — a Temple that also had an open air museum with hundreds of other beautiful objects.

In fact, most of the big sites we visited had open air museums. There must be tens or hundreds of thousands of objects literally just sitting outside in the sun, perfectly preserved in the dry atmosphere. I hope one day that a fair deal can be made for those objects to go on temporary loans around the world; any museum would kill to have just a dozen of them.

9. Flyby

“Hello, welcome back, I want your money, cheap, goodbye!”

Said to me by a hawker outside Hatshepsut’s Temple. The ‘welcome back’ refers to the fact that a large proportion of western tourists — maybe even a majority — are repeat visitors. Why? Because they aren’t scared of coming.

10. Ashfall

On the fourth day, ash fell from the sky. It dusted the beautiful hotel grounds with a light coating of black carbon strands. I was bobbing in the pool at the time, and immediately began composing a New York Times Opinion Column in my head. Now, I’m no Tom Friedman, but if I were, it’d go a little something like this:

No-one can escape the end of the world.

I was in the distinguished Winter Palace hotel in Luxor, taking afternoon tea with a local internet entrepreneur, when I saw a rain of ash gently fall from the bright blue sky. After a brief moment of panic — were we under attack from ISIS? — I was reassured by the calm reactions of my companions. There was nothing to be worried about. It was probably just someone burning garbage. Unpleasant, but not wholly unsafe.

But that evening, as I prepared for an audience with President Sisi, I realised just how remarkable it was that I’d seen the ash at all. After all, I was staying at the most secure and most expensive hotel in the city, and yet I was just as affected as the lowliest of panhandlers on the street.

It’s much like the United States’ attitude to global warming. We may be the most powerful and smartest nation in the world, but even the wealthiest billionaire can’t escape rising temperatures and rising tides. Just like ash being borne aloft by the wind, carbon dioxide circulates around the globe whether it’s produced by China or Europe or America. It ignores all walls and all borders.

Too much of the debate in Washington ignores this basic truth. It’s true that the Republicans have been reluctant to face facts about global warming, but the Democrats bear just as much blame for refusing to meet them halfway.

etc.

I asked someone about the ash. Apparently they were clearing sugarcane fields on the west bank that day, and indeed, the carbon strands looked just like sugarcane.

11. Authentic

I have a hunch that young people have an urge to fix things. We live in a broken world, surrounded by the decay of bodies and institutions and climates. Our parents seem totally incapable of action, more interested in rehashing decades-old culture wars between Bushes and Clintons and Trumps, old people who blame us for everything.

At least, that’s how I explain my own urge to fix the broken tomb reliefs and temple pillars in the sites we visit. Maybe it’s because my partner is an Egyptologist and I wish I could better visualise the figures and scenes that she points out to me amid the cracks and fissures that run through walls, and the deliberate defacement of ancient kings and queens once loved, then loathed. I don’t want to spend the requisite 10,000 hours of study to understand the scenes instinctively, I want to see them now, dammit!

Of course, I don’t really want the broken tombs fixed. I want to see them as they are now, after multiple millennia of being buried in sand and baked in the hot, dry air. I don’t want a simulacrum, I want the real thing.

The Colossi of Memnon, undergoing conservation.

But… maybe I do want a simulacrum. After all, it’d be way easier to understand how the ancient Egyptians really lived if we saw their temples and dwellings as they were, not as the ruins as they are. They were real people, not aliens from a different world, and we shouldn’t fetishise their objects.

And back and forth and back and forth, with some daydreams about augmented reality added in for good measure.

For anyone with the scantest knowledge of archaeology, though, this is an old debate. People have been attempting to fix ancient artefacts for a very long time, with generally poor results until relatively recently. These days, best practice is to conserve artefacts by repairing them with close-to-native materials that are both:

  1. Easily distinguishable from the original parts and
  2. Non-destructively removed so that subsequent rounds of conservation can be easily performed

But that’s just too sensible and boring and slow, so I just want my augmented reality repair now, thanks.

12. Generation Country

So much of people’s interest in ancient Egypt strikes me as a fetish — the mummies, the Pyramids, the gods, and so on. And I don’t blame them, because it’s fascinating and strange when compared to our lives.

But this fetish distracts from something that is mind-bogglingly extraordinary: the survival and stability and continuity of civilization’s art, culture, language, and religion for three thousand years.

Three. Thousand. Years.

He shoots, he scores!

To be fair, they had the perfect location. The Nile with its regular floods provided untold bounty. The Red Sea to the east, the Sahara to the west, the Mediterreanean to the north, and the cataracts along the Nile to the south, gave it a highly defensible position.

But still. Three. Thousand. Years. That’s long enough for an interstellar voyage, for reals. If I were a building a generation ship, I’d want to learn from the ancient Egyptians. Just not the bits where they fell apart and got invaded.

13. What goes around

Much of the damage to the sites we visited was from natural causes such as humidity and wind. A lot, however, was the result of deliberate defacement. As kings and queens fell out of favour (I’m talking about you, Akhenaten), their successors would rewrite history by literally chiseling their images out of the wall. It’s not pretty, but it works.

Another class of defacement was from Christians, who didn’t like the idea of pictures of gods; a Greco-Roman period temple next to a Coptic basilica in Dendara had practically all the Egyptian gods chiseled out, and that’s just one of countless examples we saw. Not cool, Christians — not cool.

14. That is the Question

The paucity of tourists in Luxor has detonated a Cambrian explosion in hawking strategies for western tourists. “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” are now child’s play. “Welcome back! I work in the kitchens of the hotel, don’t you remember me?” is smarter. “Taxi to Karnak, you want to know how much?” is the equivalent of the Buzzfeed clickbait headline.

But the most impressive came on our final day. An old man approached us by Luxor Temple, hoping to get some business for his caleche. “To be or not to be,” he announced, waving at his horse-drawn carriage, “that is the question!”

Time will tell.

Bonus Millennial photo.

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