“For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things…’”
~Howard Carter, English archaeologist who discovered King Tut’s Tomb
King Tut and I go way back.
It was the summer of 1977 when the Treasures of Tutankhamun arrived at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. The magnificent exhibition of art and artifacts from Tut’s tomb was traveling to six U.S. cities. At that time, it was one of the hottest tickets around.
The discovery of Tut’s tomb by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 was an extraordinary tale of perseverance and discovery. Most of the tombs in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings had been looted by professional thieves long before the archaeologists arrived. Tut’s tomb, however, had remained hidden by rubble created when the nearby tomb of Rameses VI had been dug. When Carter opened the door to the tomb, everything was intact…from 1323 B.C.
The Tut exhibition was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss. I made the six-hour drive from Minneapolis with my friend Mary, who was always ready for an adventure ever since we’d met in the eighth grade. My Chicago-based college friend Gretchen was also on board with the idea.
There was a catch, however, to my not-so-brilliant plan: We didn’t have tickets. The only way we could hope to actually see the exhibition would be to camp out on the museum steps the night before, ensuring a spot in the ticket line before the doors opened the following morning.
A crowd had already begun to gather when the three of us arrived at the Field Museum that summer afternoon. We claimed a spot in the unofficial line, laid out our sleeping bags and settled in for the long night. I’m not sure if we were able to sleep very much on the unforgiving stone steps, but I do know we were awake by sunrise. And we secured those coveted tickets!
The exhibition itself is a bit of a blur all these years later. I remember being dazzled by the glittering, golden grandeur of it all. I remember being fascinated by the intricately decorated chest that contained Tut’s internal organs, each corner protected by goddesses with arms outstretched. But mostly I remember thinking that this ancient civilization of people earnestly believed their king would need all these treasures in his next life. And now here they were, centuries later, on display in a museum in a country that wasn’t even a speck of an idea at that time.
If anything, the Tut exhibit made me even more intrigued with ancient Egypt. I promised myself I would one day visit the place where his treasures were discovered, where Howard Carter had exclaimed, “Yes, wonderful things.”
It may have taken a few years, but I finally made it!
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But First – The Nile
“Meet in the hotel lobby at 6:50 a.m.,” our guide Merv had instructed. “And don’t be late!”
Merv had no idea that I couldn’t possibly be late. This was a day I’d been excited about for so long that I would have been ready at almost any hour. But that morning when she directed us out the back of the hotel instead of the usual front entrance, I was confused. Our itinerary said we’d be crossing the Nile for our Valley of the Kings visit on the west bank, but I didn’t realize that literally meant crossing the river.
I think my feet left the ground the moment I saw the boats waiting to ferry us across the Nile. We climbed aboard and glided down the still, clear water. Herb and I had spent weeks trying to decide between booking a Nile cruise and seeing Egypt as part of the broader Middle East itinerary we had selected. And now here we were…on the Nile. I couldn’t believe the serendipity of it all.
Valley of the Kings
It’s a bit of a trek to reach the Valley of the Kings. Our bus driver dropped us off near the Visitor Center, where we boarded a Disneyland-like tram for the ride to the Valley entrance. Merv had arranged for our tickets, including the tombs of Tut and Seti I that require an additional fee. The higher cost, she explained, helps to control the crowds and protect the artifacts. I also purchased a photography permit for my camera, allowing me to take non-flash photos everywhere except inside the two “special fee” tombs. There is no permit required anywhere in the Valley of the Kings for cell phone photography, but using a flash is prohibited.
The Valley burial sites are called rock tombs and are dug deep into the mountainside, almost like caves. The idea, Merv told us, was to hide the tombs forever. The tomb was the pharaoh’s eternal home, filled with everything that would be needed in the next life. Preparations for the afterlife began at the start of a pharaoh’s reign, carrying out the belief that he would be resurrected as the same person he had been on earth. Sixty-three tombs and chambers have been discovered, dating from the 16th to 11th centuries B.C.
Meeting King Tut
When it comes to ancient Egyptian tombs, King Tut’s is on the small side. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine how his more than 5,000 treasures had been tucked away in such a tiny space. Because Tut – who was just eight or nine when he took the throne – died at about age nineteen, there hadn’t been much tomb-planning during his reign, and he was placed in a tomb intended for someone else.
We walked down a small ramp into the first chamber, and there he was in all his mummified glory. A sarcophagus was displayed in the room across from Tut, and recently restored scenes from The Book of the Dead, depicting a pharaoh’s journey to the next life, were painted on the walls.
A guard offered to take our photo, and as strange as it seems, it felt as if we were somehow paying our respects.
Tomb of Seti I
Seti I’s tomb is surely one of the most beautiful in the Valley of the Kings. It was the first to feature paintings in every passageway and chamber, and at 446 feet long, it is considered to be the longest and deepest of all New Kingdom royal tombs. The father of Rameses II, Seti I reigned from 1290 to 1279 B.C. and is known for his achievements in the arts and culture.
It feels a bit like entering the proverbial rabbit hole to reach Seti I’s actual tomb. Multiple connecting wooden ramps create a downward passageway before spilling out into the first chamber. Everything is decorated – walls, ceilings, even the passageway leading to the tomb. The colors are exquisite, from the deep blues on the astronomical ceilings to the golden gods depicted on the walls. Doorways lead to other smaller chambers, and there’s even an entrance to a secret tunnel. We spent so much time here that we missed the third tomb that Merv had planned for our Valley of the Kings visit!
Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut
Just outside the Valley of the Kings sits the temple of Egypt’s second female pharaoh, Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1478 to 1458 B.C. Carved into the cliffs at Deir el-Bahri, the temple looks as if it’s literally part of the mountain, seamlessly blending in with the surrounding rocky landscape. Our visit was a quick photo stop, with exterior views only.
Valley of the Queens & Queen Nefertari’s Tomb
Wives of ancient Egyptian pharaohs were buried in the Valley of the Queens, about a ten-minute drive from their kingly counterpart. Our group was heading there to visit the tomb of Queen Nefertari, principal wife of Rameses II and one of the best-known queens of ancient Egypt. Like the tombs of Tut and Seti I, Nefertari’s tomb requires a special fee in addition to the Valley of the Queens admission ticket. Visits are limited to ten minutes, which seemed to be more of a guideline than a strict enforcement.
It’s difficult to imagine being any more dazzled than I was by Seti I’s tomb, but the tomb of Nefertari is simply spectacular. Beautiful, pristine-looking scenes and hieroglyphics painted in rich, vibrant colors decorate every wall. Yellow stars dance around serene blue ceilings. The word that kept playing in my mind was lovely, as if this place truly had been created for a queen.
Colossi of Memnon
Our final stop of the morning was the Colossi of Memnon, two seated stone statues of Amenhotep III that once stood guard at the entrance to his mortuary temple. The Colossi are the only remaining artifacts from the original temple complex, built around 1350 B.C., which was once the largest in Egypt. Made of quartzite sandstone, the statues are 75 feet high and show the pharaoh facing east. Two small figures alongside his legs represent his wife and mother.
Back to the Nile
Our second day in Luxor ended just as it had begun – on the Nile. Once again we boarded a boat docked behind our hotel, but this time it was a lunch affair, complete with tablecloths, fine china and views as delicious as the food. It was an idyllic ending to what had been for me a travel dream from long ago.
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There’s something to be said for not reaching all your dreams and goals right away. When the road has taken a while to travel, it gives you incredible perspective, appreciation and most important of all, gratitude. When you finally arrive, you can almost feel your spirit dance with joy. And you’ve learned that no matter how long it takes, your dream will always be waiting for you.
Like my old pal Tut.