Egypt Middle East 2011/12

Dear Egypt: You Ruined Luxor For Me

You know how you can kind of hate a place that everyone just loves? A place whose historical significance and grandiose sights makes it a “must see” on everyone’s itineraries? A place that you feel guilty not liking? Luxor, Egypt is such a place for me.

Home to the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes, Luxor is just littered with historic sites, including the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the famous Nile River and other tombs associated with this massive necropolis. It’s one of Egypt‘s most famous sights and it’s not hard to see why.

Luxor Temple at Sunset

Massive temple complexes with stunning details abound and there’s even an impressive ruin right smack in the middle of town…Luxor Temple.

Luxor Temple at Night

With all these relics of ancient times that my history teacher used to drone on about right there in front of me, how on earth could have I have found this place to be a disappointment? Well…

It Feels Fake

Egypt likes to reconstruct their ancient ruins and I don’t necessarily fault them for this. Many countries do this to give folks some impression of what it looked like back in its day. But here’s the thing, it’s been so excessively done in the sites around Luxor that they no longer feel genuine (unlike Masada in Israel).

Take for instance the Temples of Karnak. This grandiose complex just north of Luxor is full of incredible hieroglyphics carved deep into the rocks that form the walls and columns here. Yes, it’s a very cool sight…

Hieroglyphics at Karnak

But the effort to reconstruct here has taken a turn for the worst, at least in my humble opinion. Towards the southern point of the site, a large crane had been erected, aligning pieces of seemingly newly cut stone around a concrete frame.

What’s more, the star attractions here are the enormous pillars in the Great Hypostyle Hall, papyrus-shaped and inscribed in hieroglyphics. Cool? Absolutely! But also made mostly of modern day concrete with bits and pieces of old-fashioned rocks thrown in!

Great Hypostyle Hall

Another shining example…The three-tiered Temple of (Queen) Hatshepsut over on the west bank has some impressive carvings, but it was largely destroyed, so it’s second level is entirely made of concrete! It begs the question…is this really what this looked like back in the day? Or were there a few “artistic liberties” integrated into it?

Temple of Hatshepsut

The Tombs Aren’t Much Different From One Another…

Sure, all those famous, famous royal tombs over at the Valley of the Kings are cool, but they’re entirely underground. Unlike the Great Pyramids of Giza, there is no above ground anything to see here. Instead you get to walk through a tunnel. Along the walls of this tunnel are the beautifully inscribed (and brilliantly colored) hieroglyphics offering directions for the afterlife.

The tunnels all lead to a burial chamber, where all that remains is the enormous outer casket. But basically, most of the tombs are almost exactly the same! Sure, some are deeper. Some change directions a few times. Some don’t have the hieroglyphics finished because the Pharaoh died before they finished it. Most have slight variations in the hieroglyphics.

Here’s the thing. It’s kind of cool to see one. Maybe even two. But beyond that, they’re kind of all the same because there’s nothing left in them other than outer casket!

Carved Eye at Temple of Hatshepsut

[box type=”info” border=”full”]Tip: Visit the Valley of the Queens. If you’re lucky, one of the tombs that was burned will be open. It’s quite the sight to be hold to see those same hieroglyphics blacked out in soot![/box]

You Can’t See the Really Impressive Tombs…

Look, I totally understand needing to preserve the paintings in the tombs. I really do. And I totally support them wanting to keep people out to help preserve them.

But, see, the most impressive tomb in all of Luxor is that of Queen Nefertari. The paintings in there are supposed to be the most spectacular. And you can’t get in to see it. Well, that’s the official word, but according to a guide I had, you can see it…for the right price… US$4,000.00 to gain entry for 15 minutes! Does that strike you as ethical?

Relief at the Temple of Hatshepsut

You Can’t Trust Anyone…

I consider myself to be a pretty hardened traveler. I know a scam when I see one and can easily brush away touts. But I swear the very first night I was in Luxor, I was about ready to deck a vendor, as they simply will not leave you alone regardless of what you do or say.

From horse-drawn carriage drivers (who shout at you that they need your business to feed their horses) to felucca (boats on the Nile) captains, to tour guides, to souvenir vendors… people follow you incessantly hawking their goods.

Colossi of Memnon

What’s more, it feels like everyone has an ulterior motive that involves getting something from you (see the guest post I wrote for the Globetrotter Girls about my encounter with a tour vendor in Luxor that quickly turned into an uncomfortable situation when sexuality came up). If it’s not an ulterior motive, it’s that seemingly everyone (and their mother) wants baksheesh.

You don’t even have to know the definition of this word to get what people mean. It becomes instantly clear the moment someone sticks out their hand and says “Baksheesh.” They are asking you, in a somewhat demanding fashion, for a tip. You hear it constantly… A guard at Karnak motions you into a room to show you carvings. “Baksheesh.” Someone offers to take your picture. They do. “Baksheesh.” You say hello to a little kid. They look up at you and say hi and then immediately… “Baksheesh!” Oh yes, people want tips for things they didn’t even do!

Just when I’d started to develop a sense of humor about the vendors, I found myself in a chartered felucca taking me across the Nile. We had agreed on a price just to go to the other side. But he stops in the middle of the river, trapping me in his boat….

“You want to go to Banana Island?” “No, thank you, just back to Luxor please.” “You want to see monkeys?” “No just to the other side.” “You want sunset felucca cruise?” “No I just want to go back to Luxor.” “You want marijuana? Sexy girl?” At which point I kind of lost it a little bit and this poor felucca captain became the subject of a bit of annoyance that resulted in a direct trip back to Luxor.

Feluccas on the Nile

He was very honest in the end and wandered around for a while trying to find change for me, but man oh man it was not a pleasant experience!

So There You Have It!

Look, I’m glad I saw Luxor. Inevitably, I would have been kicking myself if I hadn’t. But at this point in my trip I was on a rather tight timetable and I honestly could have skipped Luxor entirely. It’s not that it doesn’t have some fantastic things.

Luxor Museum, for example, is fantastic. And the hieroglyphics are very cool to see! But there were too many other things that irked me about Luxor to actually enjoy my time there.

What Do You Think?

Have you been to Luxor before? Think I’m being a bit harsh? Let me know in the comments below!


By Aaron

Hey there! I'm Aaron and this is my travel site, where I document my adventures to all corners of the world. My love for travel started at the ripe old age of four, when a midlife crisis uprooted my family to Ecuador for five years. Since then, I've been to countries on 4 different continents. When I'm not blissfully on the road, I reside in New York City, where I become the ultimate travel junkie and spend my days dreaming up my next great adventure! Read More...

32 replies on “Dear Egypt: You Ruined Luxor For Me”

The more I hear, the less I want to visit Egypt. I didn’t realize that their ruins are reconstructed either. I won’t be going – there are way more places in the world that want my visit and will make it more comfortable.

I’m glad I ultimately did visit Egypt, but like so many other countries in the world, the touristy sites really kind of suck. China’s got portions of the Great Wall that have been rebuilt. And almost no matter what big tourist site you see in the developing world you’ll be hounded by touts and scammers. But the Egypt I experienced outside of Luxor and the pyramids were (mostly) wonderful.

That said, when I got to Jordan, I was rather bowled over by how amazing the people were. The day after I crossed the border, I was at Petra and I remember asking for directions and being floored that baksheesh was not demanded in return…

I visited Egypt in 1996 and found it truly amazing. Yes there were armed guards everywhere, but then that’s becoming common everywhere. Armed police in Italy and America naturally..

If you take the trouble to visit 3 or 4 tombs in the valley of the kings you will see the stylistic variations between dynasty’s and if they were not maintained most of the artifacts that attract tourists rather than archaeologists would be lost ( most damage was done by early Christians remember). Have a look outside the main parts of Karnak towards the temple of Nut, where there is a football fields worth of building blocks painstakingly being reconstructed.

Yes the Egyptians reconstruct, but so do the Italians in Rome, the English in London, the Turks in Anatolia and pretty much anyone else who thinks they can attract tourists. Worse I feel are the ‘natives’ in their villages used to attract tourists, and kept dirt poor!

I visited 3 tombs in the Valley of the Kings and 3 in the Valley of the Queens. Of course there are stylistic variations between them, but I found them to be rather minute. I also saw the fields of building blocks at Karnak. My biggest problem wasn’t with the fact that they reconstruct. As you said, many countries do that. It’s the fact that they reconstruct so much that I had trouble believe that it was authentic. When you stare at the columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak and see them primarily made of concrete, it’s kind of sad. Yes, I get it, it’s necessary to hold the pieces they’ve found together, but it kind of disappointed me.

This was my first time in Egypt so I can’t speak to comparisons with 1996, but tourism has seriously dropped off as of late, which I think has given a certain (understandable) desperation to vendors. But when you’re one of a handfull of tourists in a very touristy city, you get mobbed and it gets old real fast…

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

An interesting perspective on Luxor. I’ve rarely heard a common theme from folks that have visited Egypt. It’s usually one extreme or the other. Reading some of your other stories of Egypt, I can definitely see some of the good along with the bad of being haggled at the main tourist attractions (which of course can be expected to an extent). Thoroughly enjoyed the post!

Well, though I’ve written about two negative experiences in Egypt, I really did enjoy my time in the country. Cairo is just incredible (and CRAZY) and the Sinai peninsula is just divine. I think it’s more the super touristy areas, but that’s true all over the world.

That said, I’ve been to other major touristy ruins throughout the world, like Machu Picchu, Angkor and Petra and they were all stunningly memorable experiences, tourists and all. Luxor and the other ancient Egyptian sites I saw certainly didn’t fall into that category.

Glad you enjoyed the post!

I don’t think it was quite as Disney-eseque as some of the “ancient” sites I saw in China, but it did take some of the reality out of it for me. I totally understand that they have all these little pieces and need to fit them together somehow. One cool thing at Karnak is that they have these fields of debris with rock fragments and various carvings so that’s where they’re piecing it together from. I suppose to some extent it comes down to, what would tourists rather see? Fields of rubble or some sort of structure.

That said, I’ve seen photos of what Karnak looked like before all this reconstruction and there was still plenty to see then. So is all the reconstruction really necessary? I don’t think so, but I’m sure others would disagree.

I love Egypt for many reason, but I know for a fact one of the reasons I love it is because I am honestly not bothered at all for some reason by the touts in Egypt. I okay I know why… because everywhere I go I am asked if I am Egyptian… I literally blend in in Egypt so am rarely bothered and I loved that so much. I think the amount of times you are pesttered by touts really does make or break how you feel about a city or country. I am in now in India and ugh I hate it and I know part of it has to do because I dont blend in here at all… and every we go we are bothered by touts, tuck tuck drivers and everyone for money or one thing or another. So I understand, but what I always try and keep in mind is we can not let those people ruin a city or country for us, but sadly we do any way…jaja!

Oh & as for the reconstruction of things, I agree with you… I don’t like it. Even with all of it though it is still amazing to visit these amazing temples and ruins. Oh & yes I liked Luxor and know I am one of the few, but its because as long as I didn’t open my mouth I was not bothered.

Hahaha well consider yourself lucky Jaime! Touts alone are not enough to make me hate a place and I’m fairly sure that a lot of it had to do with the fact that practically nobody is visiting Egypt these days so the vendors are particularly desperate in places like Luxor which thrive on tourism. But yes, reading all of your stuff about India definitely sounds a bit like my experience in Luxor…

And I do want to clarify. It’s not that I didn’t like Egypt. I just didn’t like Luxor. I found the less-touristy places I went to be just fantastic!

I received more hassling in Luxor than anywhere else in Egypt. Twice I walked into little markets to buy a bottle of water and the man behind the counter tried to convince me to pay him to take me in his taxi somewhere. Near Luxor Temple a man driving a horse and carriage chased me down the street begging me to let him give me a ride, and when I turned around and walked the other direction to get away from him, he turned that thing around and followed me. The list goes on. It was highly annoying, but I still ended up liking Luxor, and I will likely go back. I can understand why you weren’t so hot about it, though. By the way, I was told the reason Nefertari’s tomb is so expensive is not to rip people off but to discourage many people from entering because it is so magnificent they don’t want it to be ruined over the years by the masses traipsing through it.

Ah this hassling sounds so very familiar! I actually fared pretty well in the markets. I spent one night staying right in the midst of it. They were nothing compared to the felucca captains and horse drawn carriage drivers. The first night I was there I walked up to Karnak from Luxor to see it lit up at night and a horse carriage driver literally followed me all the way back to Luxor and that’s a pretty long way!

As for Nefertari’s tomb, I get that. It’s basically the same philosohpy that Bhutan uses to control tourism by imposing a daily tariff and a requirement that everyone travel on a tour. But in Egypt’s case, the same could easily be attained by setting a quota or something (whereas Bhutan’s tariff is specifically designed to keep out “backpackers and hippies” in the words of our guide (of course, I’m a backpacker and my parents are hippies, but I get what they’re going for). I don’t think Egypt has a similar wish for Nefertari’s tomb… 😛

And if there’s one thing I learned from my tour guide on the west bank of the Nile was an implication that admission fees go to pad the pockets of certain officials…

Hi Aaron,

Nice post! In my sarcastic moments I agree with you about the preservation and putting back together of some of the pieces – but would it be better to leave them lying scattered on the ground? I am angry myself at the near-sightedness of some former heads of the antiquities – the most famous being Zahi Hawass – i don’t consider him a guardian or preserver but an opportunist with a massive ego and would hold him responsible for much destruction in Egypt – particularly at Saqqara in Cairo. Anyway enough on that….

As for the touts etc. you sound like you like being an independent traveller – but wouldn’t you want to “hedge your bets” and try to make sure you have an enjoyable, fruitful and successful visit to a foreign country rather than just rolling into town and expecting to experience the best? It amazes me that people travel to foreign countries, foreign cultures, where they speak a foreign language and expect things to be the same as back home or everywhere else. If everyplace were the same, what would be the point of travelling?

On the Valley of the Kings – we were never meant to be poking our noses in these places so I am sure the architects were not thinking of variations to please us at a later date. They tombs are decorated with the information, clues and spells to help the dead go through the underworld. In my opinion the mummies – DEAD BODIES – should be back in their own tombs, sealed up and left in peace.

The Streets of Luxor and pretty much anywhere else in the world is CRAWLING with opportunists, scammers and whatever else you want to call them…..waiting for unsuspecting foreigners to fall into their traps. Would you go to New York and ask the guy hanging around the street corner for travel advice? If he came up to you and said “Follow me – I know a great place to take you” would you follow him? Bet you wouldn’t – then why on earth do people come to Luxor and follow blindly these street guys and then go and write stories about their own stupidity for following a con-man?

If you want a successful and hassle free trim to Egypt or anywhere else you should do your homework first, decide what you want to see and experience and find out before you arrive where and from whom you can obtain this. Thousands of people enjoy everything they find in Egypt because they research and plan – they don’t follow the guys on the streets and by the way – these street guys can read the sign on your forehead which says “I’m easy to hassle, you can wear me down, just try it!” We give off the vibes and they can read it!

Luxor annoys me when I am in a bad humor so take me comment with a pinch of salt!

You are correct that I like being an independent traveler and that I didn’t exactly research Luxor before arrival since I wasn’t even planning on going to Egypt in the first place. Yes, that’s my fault. It’s also my fault that I’m not an expert on Ancient Egyptian history so I don’t quite have the appreciation for this stuff that someone might have who studied it indepthly. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t such a big fan of Luxor. Because I don’t have a huge appreciation for the significance of everything that’s there…

I absolutely do not stroll into town expecting everything to be the same because, as you said, that would defeat the purpose of traveling. As far as I’m concerned, every place, no matter how small, is worth discovering and experiencing. And I think I’m missing your point about touts being a fruitful experience, as touts are just as easily avoided by walking away and finding your own stuff.

I don’t disagree about your views on the Valley of the Kings. Tombs are tombs and while we consider modern tombs to be sacred, we don’t seem to feel the same about ancient ones. As for the lack of variety, if you’re coming to Luxor just to see that, you’d probably be disappointed.

As for vendors, any big touristy place in the developing world crawls with them and honestly I think much of what I and others who have been recently experienced was in large part due to the fact that tourism in Egypt has taken a huge hit in the last year. There was hardly anyone in Luxor, giving the vendors a high degree of desperation. I don’t fault them. Tourism is a huge economic boost to a place like Luxor, but I also disupute your claim that it would have been easy to avoid them by preparing better. Yes, okay, I could have not walked along the Nile. I could have not ever taken a felucca and just taken the ferry. Sure. If I had done that I wouldn’t have encountered them. Just by virtue of me being an obvious foreigner was more than enough for them. I don’t think it had anything to do with an “image” I was projecting.

I know what you mean – I had the same feeling when I went to Abu Simbel for the first time. I could see how grand it was but still couldn’t feel that emotion…
But then it happened. I had to go back for the second time to realize. I think the fact that they reconstructed much definitely takes away some of the place’s appeal but in terms of “time you need to feel it”.
The next time I went to Abu Simbel I literally bursted out in tears… I couldn’t help.
The same thing happened with the Pyramids. I saw them a million time and was never impressed until I stood sitting on a terrace with a view on the Pyramids at sunset, and the Muslim prayer broke the silence…

I guess it just take a little bit of time and the right atmosphere. Being in the middle of a temple among countless groups of tourists definitely doesn’t help…

Interesting thoughts Giulia. You know, despite my interesting experience getting to the Pyramids, I actually really enjoyed them. We stuck around to watch the sunset (which is technically after the park closed…. shhhhhhhh) and it was just magical! I spent a good 4 hours at Karnak and thoroughly explored the entire site. I went through the fields and fields of debris they had which as particularly cool to see (probably cooler that the reconstructed pieces, at least in my opinion). Maybe if I’d given it some time to sit with me and then gone back for a second look I might have had a different opinion. Hey…it works with writing! 😛

Since there was practically nobody in Luxor while I was there, I didn’t actually share Karnak with loads of tourists. It was rather nice.

Aaron, I absolutely agree with you. The people of Luxor can and will, put you off from the entire country. Egypt is a strange place. Strange in the sense, it touches some deep into their souls, or you totally hate it. I have been to Egypt, including Luxor many times. It has captured my heart. However, it is the most frustrating place I have ever been. The touts are not just annoying, but abusive as well. I have seen them, on many occasions harass women tourists to the point, the women literally run as fast as they can away. These touts actually run along side them, and continue badgering them. Also, it doesn’t matter where you go, the Egyptian will always charge you double, triple even 10 times more, than what their fellow comrade would pay. An example, there is an Egyptian price, and a foreigner price. Some people say, “oh, but they are so poor”, etc.. I become angry by their analogies, because there are poor all over the world, and there will always be poor. It does not give anyone the excuse to lie, cheat and steal from another. Many of these people who say such things are people (foreigners, usually British) who have businesses in Luxor. They are keen to play on people’s heartstrings to pull in tourists, but they are simply enabling this offensive behavior. Perhaps, if they (business owners) convinced the locals that their brutish tactics put people off, rather than bring them in; they would have tourists returning on a continual basis.

Yes, I agree that the touts are downright abusive and this behavior is harmful to their reputation amongst tourists (not nearly as harmful as the perception that Egypt is dangerous, though). However, to your point of charging tourists considerably higher prices, this is not unusual in many parts of the world. Thailand even has a standard two-tiered price system for entry into government-run sites (and most tourists don’t realize this as they list local prices using Thai numbers, which are very foreign to most visitors. I don’t like those sorts of traditions (I heard numerous people argue that since we visitors don’t pay taxes, it was alright). In developing countries, they prey on the fact that tourists don’t tend to know what the average cost of prices are. But generally anywhere in the developing world, tourists should expect to be charged considerably more than locals.

After living the life in Luxor now for 8 years then everything you have said is true. I am hardened to all of it now but feel that enough is enough if they want tourists to continue to come. Such a shame when there is so much to see.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Jane. There’s no doubt that tourism can change a place, sometimes for the worse and I kind of feel like that’s what’s happened to Luxor.

I have been to a few places where I was hassled to buy something or use someone’s service, and it does get really annoying. In Indonesia at Bromo Volcano, I was constantly hassled by guys trying to rent coats to us because it gets cold in the morning for sunrise. They tracked us down at dinner and they knocked on our hotel room door. Finally we just paid for their stupid coats (it was only $2 or something) just to get them to leave us alone. When we were actually walking up to see the sunrise the next morning we were hassled by guys trying to get us to ride horses up the trail. I hate riding horses and didn’t have any interest, but they wouldn’t leave. I was so beyond my limit that I ended up screaming “I don’t want your f*cking horse!” Probably a little overkill but I had run out of patience.

My line of work requires that I keep my cool at all times, so for me to lose it with a vendor was a pretty big deal. I totally get where you’re coming from with this. It’s such a hassle and you just want to be left in peace! I’m afraid there are many, many places like this in the world…

I really loved Luxor on my two visits during my time living in Egypt but I had learned some Arabic and learned how to deal with the hustlers. Sadly these guys are struggling to get by and that’s often why they treat foreigners with such disregard and border on robbing you of a few dollars here and there.

It’s bad but when we visit corrupt countries with terrible poverty and we put things in perspective it’s kind of hard to actually get angry at them on reflection (of course it’s different in the moment).

Luxor needs to be felt through the feeling of what it actually is and what it was. I went off the beaten track and little and chatted with some of the locals and they were all calling it Pharaohland because of how fake certain things have become. There was also a big issues as the gov were ‘relocating people’ to rebuild the road between Karnak and Luxor temples and relocation normally meant sending poor people into the middle of nowhere.

Sad but if you get under the belly the locals are actually really nice and lovely people.

Egypt was hurting so badly in terms of tourism when I was there last year (thanks to bad press from the protests in Cairo) that it made the vendors all the more desperate. And I like to think that after traveling in Southeast Asia and living in New York City that I’d be used to shrugging off vendors and other hustler types, but no. And the vendors were just one piece in a large puzzle as to why I was less-than-impressed with Luxor.

“Pharaohland.” It did certainly feel like that at times. And I think maybe if you can learn to accept it as such, it can be pretty enjoyable. And looking back at my photos from Karnak, it IS really impressive, despite the concrete.

As for the locals, I think that’s true just about anywhere. You’ll always find good people behind the “underbelly” of a town. It just takes a little searching.

All you guys need to learn that whereever you go, a polite ‘No thank you’ is generally enough as I experienced in January when I visited. I wasn’t happy being hassled but if you don’t show interest then they tend to not show any also.

You know, I’ve got to tell you that I was just in Zanzibar, where you get hounded by people who follow you around (though still not nearly as bad as Luxor). I received similar advice that a polite, firm “No thank you” works, but it almost never did.

Thanks Aaron. I, like you, consider myself a veteran independent traveller. I definitely ate a piece of humble pie in Luxor. I have seen all these tout scams before, but I fell victim none the less. Not a huge loss, but it doesn’t feel good to have the carriage mafia guy show up at the coffee shop when our driver demanded more money. Like an above commenter said, why should i have expected to roll into town and have everything work out perfectly, just because it has happened for me before. But it was a learning experience, and overall I enjoyed the feel of Luxor, outside of the main hotel road on the Nile.

Yikes! Did you pay the extra money to the driver? But yes, the west bank of the Nile felt like a totally different world, though not totally devoid of of the tout scams found in town. I met a Nubian fellow who was friendly and invited me to join him for tea. I was suspicious but I went along. He brings me to his house, serves me some tea and made small talk before launching into his spiel selling tours to a Nubian village. Much like my experience getting to the Pyramids (more on that here), it actually turned into a pretty decent experience.

I’m departing Luxor tonight after five days of mental torture . The experience has been completely ruined by the behaviour of the locals you so well describe. The begging and thievery is relentless. Egyptians are poor, but those thronging around you, staring in your wallet, invading your space constantly and ruining every experience on purpose are not. They are artists of the great con. Every 2 or 3 minutes you are accosted at every turn. You can’t engage to turn them away in a friendly way. And you certainly can’t ignore them as that makes them even more relentless. You feel like you are being ravaged by a flock of vultures from morning until night. I’ve felt completely distressed the end of every day – and indeed every little thing I’ve done like visit any sight at all (even the quietest), simply walk down the street, eat, stay anywhere, any form of transportation (be it taxi, boat, or anything else), go to the toilet, open a bottle of water, look at something… has ended up completely fraught….

These people are ruining what’s left of their economy and they deserve it. I would come back here time and time again but for this extreme nightmare.

Yikes! Sorry to hear you had such a negative experience. Also sad to hear that the town has not recovered in the years since I visited.

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