Osaka

Posted in Japan, Osaka, Travel with tags , , , , , on August 11, 2009 by Dave Liu

Osaka is Japan’s third largest city after Tokyo and Yokohama and is a short train ride from Kyoto. The city has the feel of an industrial office park with the exception of Osaka Castle, Osaka-jo, that dominates Osaka’s heart just as it did centuries ago, while the venerable Shitenno-ji and Sumiyoshi Taisha hark back to the city’s past importance as a religious centre. In contrast, bizarre modern buildings, such as the spaceship-like Osaka Dome sports stadium and the fantastic aquarium at the Tempozan Harbour Village, are prominent as is the large-scale theme park, Universal Studios Japan, and the Osaka Aquarium.

However, all of the guide books seem to omit two Osaka inventions that warrant further investigation: Cup Noodles and plastic food. The former needs no introduction for anyone who went through college on a limited budget. The latter was invented in Osaka as a way for Japanese people to order Western food at the turn of the 20th century. Today they are ubiquitous as they are seen wherever there is a Japanese restaurant in the world.

There are some interesting things to see in Osaka but in general I have found Kyoto to be a much more culturally interesting city. Unless you have ample time, I’d suggest Osaka as a day trip from Kyoto.

Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle is the symbol of Osaka and is synonymous with its creator, Hideyoshi Toyotomi. In 1583, Hideyoshi began construction at the former site of Honganji Temple and completed the magnificent castle, which was reputed as being unparalleled in the country. After Hideyoshi’s death, Ieyasu Tokugawa, who worked for Hideyoshi as his chief retainer, was appointed to the Shogun and he established the shogunate (government) in Edo (Tokyo). In 1615, Ieyasu ruined the Toyotomi family and destroyed Osaka Castle (in the Summer War of Osaka).  Thereafter, the Tokugawa shogunate reconstructed Osaka Castle. It held the castle under its direct control until 1868, when the Tokugawa shogunate lost power and the castle fell. In 1931, the Main Tower of the Castle was reconstructed in the center of Osaka Castle, which was used as a military base, with funds raised by the citizens. The present-day Main Tower is the third generation. It follows the Main Tower from the Toyotomi period, which was destroyed by fire during the Summer War, and the tower from the Tokugawa period, which was struck by lightning and was burned down. Since its construction, Osaka Castle repeatedly featured as the battleground of the major wars in Japanese history.

The Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum

Momofuku Ando (安藤 百福), was the Taiwanese-Japanese founder and chairman-emeritus of Nissin Food Products Co., Ltd., and the inventor of instant noodles and cup noodles. On August 25, 1958, at the age of 48, and after months of trial and error experimentation to perfect his flash-frying method, Ando marketed the first package of precooked instant noodles. Called Chikin Ramen (チキンラーメン), after the original chicken flavour, it was originally considered a luxury item with a price of ¥35 around six times that of traditional udon and soba noodles at the time. Ando began the sales of his most famous product, Cup Noodles on September 18, 1971 with the masterstroke of providing a waterproof polystyrene container. As prices dropped, ramen soon became a booming business. Worldwide demand reached 98 billion servings in 2007. As of 2007, Chikin Ramen is still sold in Japan and now retails for around ¥60, or approximately one third the price of the cheapest bowl of noodles in a Japanese restaurant.

Here is a video of our visit in August 2009:

Hiroshima

Posted in Hiroshima, Japan, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on August 9, 2009 by Dave Liu

Hiroshima (広島) is an industrial city of wide boulevards and criss-crossing rivers, located along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea. Although many only know it for the horrific split second on August 6, 1945, when it became the site of the world’s first atomic bomb attack, it is now a modern, cosmopolitan city. During World War II, Hiroshima was one of the larger cities in Japan, and a natural communications and supply center for the military. On August 6, 1945, at 8:15AM, the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb dubbed “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. It is estimated that at least 70,000 people were killed in the explosion and its immediate aftermath. Most of the city was built of wood, and fires raged out of control across nearly five square miles, leaving behind a charred plain with a few scattered concrete structures. Corpses lay piled in rivers; medical treatment was virtually non-existent, as most of the city’s medical facilities had been located near the hypocenter, and the few doctors left standing had no idea what hit them. That evening, radioactive materials in the atmosphere caused a poisonous “black rain” to fall. In the days ahead, many survivors began to come down with strange illnesses, such as skin lesions, hair loss, and fatigue. Between 70,000 and 140,000 people would eventually die from radiation-related diseases. Known as hibakusha, the survivors were also subject to severe discrimination from other Japanese, but have since been at the forefront of Japan’s post-war pacifism and its campaign against the use of nuclear weapons. Recovery was slow, given the scale of the devastation, and black markets thrived in the first few years after the war. However, the reconstruction of Hiroshima became a symbol of Japan’s post-war pacifism. While most of the city is thoroughly modernized, there are areas — such as the ramshackle buildings east of the train station (slated for demolition over the next few years) — that still reflect that 1950s rush to rebuild. Today, Hiroshima has a population of more than 1.1 million. Automobiles are a major local industry, with Mazda’s corporate headquarters nearby. There are three excellent art museums in the city center, some of Japan’s most fanatical sports fans, and a wide range of culinary delights — most notably the city’s towering contribution to bar cuisine, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Although many visitors, especially Americans, may feel apprehensive about visiting Hiroshima, it is a friendly, welcoming city, with as much interest in Western culture as anywhere else in Japan. Tourists are welcomed, and exhibits related to the atomic bomb are not concerned with blame or accusations. Bear in mind, though, that many hibakusha still live in the city, and even most of the young people in Hiroshima have family members who lived through the blast. As such, the average Hiroshima resident isn’t likely to relish talking about it, although you needn’t shy away from the topic if one of the chatty fellows around the Peace Park brings it up.

Peace Memorial Park

Most of the memorials related to the atomic bomb are in and around the Peace Memorial Park.  This area was destroyed almost in its entirety by the bomb.  Today, there are more than fifty memorials, statues, and other structures in the Park. Some will be obscure in their meaning; others are immediate and devastating.  There is no entry fee, save for the Peace Memorial Museum, and access to the grounds is not restricted at night.

* The skeletal remains of the A-Bomb Dome are the most recognizable symbol of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. In another lifetime, the building was one of the city’s best-known sights for an entirely different reason; designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel in 1915, the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall (and its fanciful green dome) had a bold European style in a grimy, crowded city with few modern flourishes. Because the explosion took place almost directly above the building, the walls remained largely intact, even as the dome shattered and the people inside were killed by the heat of the blast. Initially, as the city rebuilt, it was left alone simply because it was more difficult to demolish than other remains in the area; gradually, the A-Bomb Dome became the symbol it is today. The “Hiroshima Peace Memorial” was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996 amid some controversy — the United States and China both voted against the nomination for reasons related to the war. Today, the benches around the Dome are a favorite spot for Hiroshima natives to read, eat lunch, or simply relax.

* One block east of the A-Bomb Dome (outside Shima Clinic) is a plaque which marks the Hypocenter, the exact point above which the bomb exploded.

* The Children’s Peace Monument is perennially draped in thousands of origami paper cranes folded by schoolchildren across Japan in the memory of the young bomb victim Sadako Sasaki.

* The Memorial Tower to the Mobilized Students commemorates the 6,300 students who were conscripted to work in munitions factories and killed in the atomic bomb. There are statues of doves scattered throughout its five levels; at the base is a beautiful Kannon statue, always draped with origami cranes.

* Tens of thousands of forced laborers from Korea were working in Hiroshima at the time of the attack. But the Monument in Memory of the Korean Victims of the A-Bomb was erected outside the Peace Park in 1970, and only moved within its boundaries in 1999. Today, the turtle at the base of the monument — symbolically carrying the dead to the afterlife — tends to be draped in his fair share of colorful origami cranes and flowers.

* The Peace Bell is engraved with a world map, drawn without borders to symbolize unity. The public are welcomed to ring the bell — not subtly, the log is aimed to strike an atomic symbol.

* The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound holds the ashes of 70,000 bomb victims who were unidentified or had no living relatives to claim them. Services are held in their memory on the 6th of every month.

* The Rest House was known as the Taishoya Kimono Shop at the time of the explosion. Only one employee, who was in the basement at the time, survived. However, the reinforced concrete building stayed mostly intact. (The interior has been entirely refurbished, but the preserved basement is possible to visit with advance request.) Today, it holds a gift shop, some vending machines, a helpful tourist information office, and — as the name would suggest — a place to rest.

* Inside the Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims is a stone chest with a registry that is intended to contain the names of every known person who died from the bombing, regardless of nationality. (Names are added as hibakusha pass away from diseases thought related to the radiation of the bomb.) The Japanese inscription reads, “Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.” Note how the arch frames the A-Bomb Dome in the distance.

* At the other end of the pond from the Cenotaph is the Flame of Peace. It is said that the fire will burn until the last nuclear weapon is gone from the earth.

* The Peace Memorial Hall is dedicated to collecting names and photographs of people who died in the blast. The entrance of the museum leads downward to a quiet hall for contemplation, and then back up again to a set of kiosks with compelling stories and recollections from survivors (in English and Japanese). Like the Cenotaph and the Peace Memorial Museum, it was designed by architect Kenzo Tange.

* Peace Memorial Museum. This museum documents the atomic bomb and its aftermath, from scale models of the city “before” and “after” to melted tricycles and other displays and artifacts related to the blast. Some are extremely graphic, evocative, and quite disturbing. The rest of the museum describes the post-war struggles of the hibakusha and an appeal for the abolition of nuclear weapons in the world today.

* The Statue of Mother and Child in the Storm, completed in 1960 by artist Shin Hongo, is among the most powerful works of art created in response to the atomic bomb. It depicts a woman shielding her child from the black rain. It’s in front of the Fountain of Prayer just south of the Peace Memorial Museum.

Here is a video of our visit in August 2009:

…and a video of the Peace Memorial Museum:

Hokkaidō

Posted in Hokkaidō, Japan, Sapporo, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on August 7, 2009 by Dave Liu

Hokkaidō (北海道), formerly known as Ezo, Yezo, Yeso, or Yesso, is Japan’s second largest island and the largest, northernmost of its 47 prefectural-level subdivisions. The island of Hokkaidō is located at the north end of Japan, near Russia, and has coastlines on the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Pacific Ocean. The center of the island has a number of mountains and volcanic plateaus, and there are coastal plains in all directions. Major cities include Sapporo and Asahikawa in the central region and the port of Hakodate facing Honshū.

Hokkaidō’s largest city is the capital, Sapporo. Other major cities include Hakodate in the south and Asahikawa in the central region. Other important population centers include Kushiro, Obihiro, Abashiri, Nemuro.

Sapporo

Sapporo is the fifth-largest city in Japan by population and is best known outside Japan for hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics, the first ever held in Asia, and for the annual Yuki Matsuri in the city, internationally referred to as the Sapporo Snow Festival, which draws more than 2 million tourists from around the world. The city is also home to the eponymous Sapporo Brewery. Not a lot to see here except for as a stopover to the volcanoes and parks.

Shikotsu-Toya National Park

The park was named for its two famous lakes, Toya and Shikotsu, and is located in southwestern Hokkaido. Its proximity to Sapporo makes it a popular destination for travelers with limited time in Hokkaido. The park has a host of outdoor activities ranging from hiking to hot springs. The spectacular scenery includes caldera lakes, onsen towns and volcanic mountains.

There are five parts to Shikotsu-Toya National Park, each featuring various attractions. The most famous two park areas are its namesake lakes, Toya and Shikotsu. The onsen towns of Noboribetsu and Jozankei are also popular. Mount Yotei, a perfectly shaped volcano near Niseko, is the fifth distinct park area.

Noboribetsu

This is Hokkaido’s most famous hot spring resort, beautifully surrounded by forested hills. Noboribetsu’s major attraction, besides its baths, is the Jigokudani or “Hell Valley”, where you can view (and smell) sulfurous steam vents, streams and ponds. Noboribetsu is part of Shikotsu-Toya National Park.

Lake Toya (Toyako)

Toyako is part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park. In addition to the lake itself, the Toyako region features hot springs and an active volcano, Mount Usu, which last erupted in the year 2000. The area also offers many fishing, hiking, and camping opportunities.

The picturesque lake was chosen as the location of the the G8 summit which Japan hosted from July 7 to 9, 2008. The leaders of the world’s eight major industrialized democracies met at the Windsor Hotel Toya Resort & Spa.

We stayed at the Toyako Onsen, a touristy hot spring resort along the shore of Lake Toya, just at the foot of Mount Usu. In front of the hotel runs a pleasant promenade with foot baths (ashiyu), and in the evening from May through October there are daily fireworks. The promenade is also the departure point for sightseeing boat cruises of the lake.

Hearst Castle

Posted in California, San Simeon, Travel, U.S.A. with tags , , , , , on November 25, 2008 by Dave Liu

Hearst Castle is the palatial estate built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. It is located near San Simeon, California, on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Donated by the Hearst Corporation to the state of California in 1957, it is now a State Historical Monument and a National Historic Landmark, open for public tours. Hearst formally named the estate “La Cuesta Encantada” (“The Enchanted Hill”), but he usually just called it “the ranch”. The castle and grounds are also sometimes referred to as “San Simeon” without distinguishing between the Hearst property and the unincorporated town of the same name.

The Castle was built on a 40,000 acre (160 km²) ranch that William Randolph Hearst’s father, George Hearst, originally purchased in 1865. The younger Hearst grew fond of this site over many childhood family camping trips. He inherited the ranch, which had grown to 250,000 acres (1,000 km²), from his mother, Phoebe Hearst, upon her death in 1919. Construction began that same year and continued through 1947, when he stopped living at the estate due to ill health. San Francisco architect Julia Morgan designed most of the buildings. Hearst was an inveterate tinkerer, and would tear down structures and rebuild them at a whim. For example, the opulent Neptune Pool was rebuilt three times before Hearst was satisfied. As a consequence of Hearst’s persistent design changes, the estate was never completed in his lifetime.

Hearst Castle featured 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, 127 acres of gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, a movie theater, an airfield, and the world’s largest private zoo. Zebras and other exotic animals still roam the grounds. Morgan, an accomplished civil engineer, devised a gravity-based water delivery system from a nearby mountain. One highlight of the estate is the Neptune Pool, which features an expansive vista of the mountains, ocean and the main house.

Invitations to Hearst Castle were highly coveted during its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s. The Hollywood and political elite often visited, usually flying into the estate’s airfield or taking a private Hearst-owned train car from Los Angeles. Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill were among Hearst’s A-list guests. While guests were expected to attend the formal dinners each evening, they were normally left to their own devices during the day while Hearst directed his business affairs. Since “the Ranch” had so many facilities, guests were rarely at a loss for things to do. The estate’s theater usually screened films from Hearst’s own movie studio, Cosmopolitan Productions. If you take a tour, you will be treated to short news clips from the 1930s:

Egypt

Posted in Egypt, Travel with tags , on August 30, 2008 by Dave Liu

Egypt, officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, is a country in North Africa and partly, due to the Sinai Peninsula, in southwestern Asia . Covering an area of about 1,001,450 square kilometers (386,660 sq mi), Egypt borders the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Gaza Strip and Israel to the northeast, the Red Sea to the east, Sudan to the south and Libya to the west.

Egypt is one of the most populous countries in Africa and the Middle East. The great majority of its estimated 80 million live near the banks of the Nile River, in an area of about 40,000 square kilometers (15,000 sq mi), where the only arable agricultural land is found. The large areas of the Sahara Desert are sparsely inhabited. About half of Egypt’s residents live in urban areas, with the majority spread across the densely-populated centres of greater Cairo, Alexandria and other major cities in the Nile Delta.

Egypt is famous for its ancient civilization and some of the world’s most famous monuments, including the Giza pyramid complex and its Great Sphinx. The southern city of Luxor contains numerous ancient artifacts, such as the Karnak Temple and the Valley of the Kings. Egypt is widely regarded as an important political and cultural nation of the Middle East.

Cairo (aka Al-Qahirah)

Posted in Cairo, Egypt, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2008 by Dave Liu

Cairo (Arabic: القاهرة transliteration: Al-Qāhirah), which means “the Victorious” or “the Triumphant”, is the capital and largest city of Egypt. It is the Arab World’s and Africa’s most populous city.  While Al-Qahirah is the official name of the city, in Egyptian Arabic it is called by the dialect’s name for the country, transliteration: Masr. Within Egypt, residents of Cairo are called Masraweya rather than Masri.

Cairo was founded by the Fatimid caliphs as a royal enclosure. It later came under the Mamluks, was ruled by the Ottomans 1517 to 1798, and briefly occupied by Napoleon. Muhammad Ali of Egypt made Cairo the capital of his independent empire from 1805 to 1882, after which the British took control of it until Egypt attained independence in 1922.

Cairo’s metropolitan area has a population of about 7.8 million people. and is also the most populous metropolitan area in Africa. Today, Greater Cairo encompasses various historic towns and modern districts. A journey through Cairo is virtual time travel: from the Pyramids, the Hanging Church, Saladin’s Citadel, the Virgin Mary’s Tree, the Sphinx, and Heliopolis, to Al-Azhar, the Mosque of Amr ibn al-A’as, Saqqara, the Cairo Tower, and the Old City. It is the Capital of Egypt, and its history is intertwined with that of the country.

The name Al-Qahirah has been said to mean “the Subduer”, and it’s often translated as “the Victorious”. The origin of Al-Qahirah is said to come from the appearance of the planet Mars during the foundation of the City of Cairo. The planet Mars, which in Greek was called Ares, was associated with ruin or destruction and was called Al Najm Al Qahir in Arabic. Al Najm Al Qahir is transliterated as “the destroyer star [planet]“. The legacy of the name evolved into “Qahirat Al Adaa” meaning “subduer of the enemies”. This title was given to the city as many armies were destroyed in attempts to invade Cairo or defeated elsewhere by troops sent from the settlement.

To be completely honest, Cairo was not at all what I expected.  I had expected some sand duned city in the middle of nowhere filled with tents and bedouin.  In fact it was a very modern and advanced city and reminded me of Shanghai circa 2007.  There are plenty of cosmopolitan buildings and the Nile coursing through the city reminded me of the Bund in Shanghai.  Its a great place to visit but be warned regarding safety.  Bomb sniffing guard dogs are at major international hotels and buildings and almost all of the major sites we visited had metal detectors.  In addition, due to the terrorist attacks of the past, tourist groups are required to have a security guard escort provided courtesy of the Egyptian government.  We had several pleasant fellows who wore suits in the 100+ degree Fahrenheit weather to hide the fully automatic guns they were carrying around their waist!

The Egyptian Museum

The Egyptian Museum was first built in Boulak.  In 1891 is was moved to Giza Palace of Ismail Pasha which housed the antiquities that were later moved to the present building.  The Museum is located in the Tahir square in Cairo and was built during the reign of Khedive Abbass Helmi II in 1897 and opened on November 15, 1902.  It has 107 halls with the ground floor containing huge statues and the upper floor housing small statues, jewels , Tukankhamon treasures and mummies.

The Museum is split into seven main sections arranged in chronological order and includes a hall for the royal mummies which houses 11 kings and queens:

1. Tutankhamon’s treasures

2. Pre-dynasty and the Old Kingdom monuments

3. First intermediate period and the Middle Kingdom monuments

4. Monuments of the Modern Kingdom

5. Monuments of the late period and the Greek and Roman periods

6. Coins and papyrus

7. Sarcophagi and scarabs

Coptic Churches

We visited the walls of a fortress that enclosed the Church of St. Sergius which is built on a crypt considered to be one of the resting places of the Holy Family (Jesus) during their flight to Egypt 200 years ago.

There is also the Hanging Church which is supported by only one column and has amazing paintings on the wall.

Synagogue of Ben Ezra

The Synagogue of Ben Ezra was once the center of a thriving Jewish community in Egypt under the leadership of Rabbi Ben Ezra.  Inside were discovered the Geniza Documents which showed amazing information about Jewish life in Egypt’s past. One of the most interesting aspects of the synagogue is the unity expressed at the time between the major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Too bad that doesn’t resonate today!

The Saladin Citadel

The Saladin Citadel of Cairo (Arabic: قلعة صلاح الدين Qalaʿat Salāḥ ad-Dīn) is one of the most popular tourist attractions of Cairo, Egypt.  It is located on Muqattam hill near the center of Cairo and was built by the Ayyubid ruler Salah al-Din (Saladin) between 1176 and 1183 AD, as protection from the Crusaders.

It is sometimes referred to as Mohamed Ali Citadel (Arabic: قلعة محمد علي Qalaʿat Muḥammad ʿAlī), because it contains the Mosque of Mohamed Ali (or Muhammad Ali Pasha), which was built between 1828 and 1848, perched on the summit of the citadel. This Ottoman mosque was built in memory of Tusun Pasha, Muhammad Ali’s oldest son, who died in 1816.

There are two other mosques at the Citadel, the 13th/14th century hypostyle Mosque of al-Nasir Muhammad from the early Bahri Mamluk period, and the 16th century Mosque of Suleyman Pasha, first of the Citadel’s Ottoman-style mosques. The citadel also contains Al-Gawhara Palace, the National Military Museum and the Police Museum.

Note that this site of a terrorist attack in April 2005. Two veiled females armed with guns opened fire on a tourist bus in the neighbourhood known as Islamic Cairo, not far from the Citadel. After firing on the coach, one of the women shot the other dead before turning her gun on herself. Three bystanders were reportedly injured. This was the first attack in modern Egyptian history to be carried out by women; police believe it arose from a spur of the moment decision taken by the women upon learning of the Sixth of October Bridge incident.

Khan El Khalili Bazaar

Khan el-Khalili (Arabic: خان الخليلي) is a major souk in the Old City of Cairo and a major tourist attraction. The souk dates back to 1382, when Emir Djaharks el-Khalili built a large caravanserai (خان khan in Arabic) in Cairo, and is noted for selling good-quality clothing, cloth, spices, souvenirs, and traditional jewelry and perfumes at reasonable prices. In addition to shops, there are several coffeehouses (مقهى maqha or قهوة qahwah, depending on dialect), restaurants, and street food vendors distributed throughout the market. The coffeeshops are generally small and quite traditional, serving Arabic coffee and usually offering shisha.

One of particular interest is El Fishawy which is in the middle of the bustling streets of Khan el-Khalili. The owners are proud to mention that they have been in continuous business for over 200 years and have not been closed for a single day. They serve chai and sheesha (waterpipe) and its a good place to snap some photos and enjoy a break from the heat.

We also had a nice taste of Egyptian pancakes. The place was a little filthy but they tasted really good! Here is a quick video of their preparation:

Note that this was the site of a terrorist attack in April 2005. On April 7th, a suicide bomber set off his explosive device on Sharia al-Moski, near the Khan al Khalili bazaar – a street market popular with tourists and locals alike – and the al Hussein Mosque. Three foreign tourists (two from France and one from the United States) were killed, and 11 Egyptians and seven other overseas visitors were injured. Another reminder to exercise caution when you are wandering the streets.

The Nile

The Nile is the lifeblood of Egypt as it is the main supply of water in essentially a desert land.  Interestingly the Ankh symbol (the symbol of life and avatars) is derived from the Nile.  We took a touristy cruise on the Nile which was surprisingly enjoyable and included a Whirling Dervish and Belly Dancing demonstration.

Luxor (aka al-Uqṣur)

Posted in Egypt, Luxor, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2008 by Dave Liu

Luxor (in Arabic: الأقصر al-Uqṣur) is a city in Upper (southern) Egypt at the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes and has frequently been characterised as the “world’s greatest open air museum” because the ruins of the temple complexes at Karnak and Luxor sit within the modern city. Across the Nile River, lie the monuments, temples and tombs on the West Bank Necropolis, which include the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. 

Luxor was the ancient city of Thebes, the great capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom, and the glorious city of the God Amon Ra. The city was regarded in the Ancient Egyptian texts as T-APT (meaning “the shrine”) and then, in a later period, the Greeks called it tea pie, which the Arabs later pronounced as Thebes. The main local god was the God Amon Ra, who was worshipped with his wife, the Goddess Mutt, and their son, the God Khonsou, the God of the moon. Thebes was also known as “the city of the 100 gates”, sometimes being called the southern city, to distinguish it from Memphis, the early capital of the Old Kingdom.

Personally, I found Luxor a much more interesting and enjoyable city to visit than Giza.  However, the weather can be a scorcher and we picked the “low season” of summer when it was as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit!  

Valley of the Kings

The Valley of the Kings (Arabic: وادي الملوك Wadi Biban el-Muluk; “Gates of the King”) is a valley in Egypt where, for a period of nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC, tombs were constructed for the kings and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom (the Eighteenth through Twentieth Dynasties of Ancient Egypt). The valley stands on the west bank of the Nile, across from Thebes (modern Luxor), within the heart of the Theban Necropolis.  The wadi consists of two valleys, East Valley (where the majority of the royal tombs situated) and West Valley.

With the 2005 discovery of a new chamber, and the 2008 discovery of 2 further tomb entrances, the valley is known to contain 63 tombs and chambers (ranging in size from a simple pit to a complex tomb with over 120 chambers), and was the principal burial place of the major royal figures of the Egyptian New Kingdom, together with those of a number privileged nobles. The royal tombs are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology and give clues to the beliefs and funerary rituals of the period. All of the tombs seem to have been opened and robbed in antiquity, but they still give an idea of the opulence and power of the rulers of this time.

The area has been a focus of concentrated archaeological and egyptological exploration since the end of the eighteenth century, and its tombs and burials continue to stimulate research and interest. In modern times the valley has become famous for the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun (with its rumors of the Curse of the Pharaohs), and is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. In 1979, it became a World Heritage Site, along with the rest of the Theban Necropolis. Exploration, excavation and conservation continues in the valley, and a new tourist centre has recently been opened.

The Egyptian belief that “To speak the name of the dead is to make him live again” is certainly alive and well in the building of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.  The king’s formal names and titles are inscribed in his tomb along with his images and statues.  Beginning with the 18th Dynasty and ending with the 20th, the kings abandoned the Memphis area and built their tombs in Thebes (aka Luxor).  Also abandoned were the pyramid style tombs because after the fact they realized these were in effect large “ROB ME” signs.

Most of the tombs were cut into the limestone following a similar pattern: three corridors, an antechamber and a sunken sarcophagus chamber.  These catacombs were harder to rob and were more easily concealed.  Construction usually lasted six years beginning with a new reign.  The text in the tombs is from the Book of the Dead, the Book of the Gates and the Book of the Underworld.

Tomb of King Tut

Of all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the most famous is Pharaoh Tutankhamun.  The boy king died in his late teens and remained at rest in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings for over 3,300 years. All that changed in November 1922 when Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered by the British Egyptologist Howard Carter who was excavating on behalf of his patron Lord Carnarvon.  Carter had been searching for the tomb for a number of years and Carnarvon had decided that enough time and money had been expended with little return.  However, Carter managed to persuade his patron to fund one more season and within days of resuming the tomb was found.  Today the tomb still contains the pharaoh’s remains and he is the only one still residing in the Valley of the Kings (as far as we know!).  The tomb itself is very small and appears to have been destined for someone of lesser importance.  However, his unexpected demise saw the tomb’s rushed modification to accommodate the pharaoh.

The only part of the complex that contains wall paintings is the Burial Chamber.  It contained four guilded shrines nestled one inside one another.  The innermost of these covered a stone sarcophagus.  Inside that were three coffins the innermost being made of 110 kg of solid gold.  Inside that lay the pharaoh wearing his famous gold mask.

Adjacent to the Burial Chamber was the Treasury which was home to much of the supporting equipment for Tutankhamun’s afterlife.  It contained a dazzling array of boats, gilded figures and the canopic chest within which were various internal organs belonging to the ancient king.  Gathered around the chest in their protective stance were four beautiful gilded figures of goddesses.  Just inside the entrance to the room was the protective black figure of Anubis in the form of a recumbant jackal.

The Antechamber contained dismantled chariots, containers of food, various funeral couches, thrones and two black guardian figures at the entrance of the Burial Chamber.  It was this area that was first seen when Carter made a hole in the blocked-off far end of the entry passage.  Carter had concluded that the tomb had been broken into on two occasions soon after the pharaoh was buried.  Fortunately, the tomb raiders did not get away with too much and most of Tutankhamun’s treasures can be seen at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Temple of Queen Hatshepsut

The mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut is one of the most dramatically situated in the world.  The queen’s architect, Senenmut, designed it and set it at the head of a valley overshadowed by the Peak of the Thebes, the “Lover of Silence”, where lived the goddess who presided over the necropolis. 

A tree lined avenue of sphinxes led up to the temple and ramps led from terrace to terrace.  The porticoes on the lowest terrace are out of proportion and coloring with the rest of the building.  They were restored in 1906 to protected the reliefs depicting the transport of obelisks by barge to Karnak and the miraculous birth of Queen Hatshepsut.

Reliefs on the south side of the middle terrace show the queen’s expedition by way of the Red Sea to Punt, the land of incense.  Along the front of the upper terrace, a line of large, gently smiling Osirid statues of the queen looked out over the valley.  In the shade of the colonade, brightly painted reliefs decorated the walls.  Throughout the temple, statues and sphinxes of the queen proliferate.  Many of them have been reconstructed.

Temple of Karnak

It is the largest temple complex ever built by man and represents the combined achievements of many generations of ancient builders.  The Temple of Karnak is actually three main temples, smaller enclosed temples and several outer temples located about 3 km north of Luxor.  Karnak is actually the site’s modern name.  Its ancient name was Ipet-isut meaning the Most Select or Sacred of Places.

The complex is a vast open-air museum and the largest ancient religious site in the world. It is probably the second most visited historical site in Egypt, second only to the Giza Pyramids near Cairo. It consists of four main parts (precincts), of which only the largest, the Precinct of Amun-Re, is open to the general public.

The term Karnak is often understood as being the Precinct of Amun-Re only, as this is the only part most visitors normally see. The three other parts, the Precinct of Montu, the Precinct of Mut and the dismantled Temple of Amenhotep IV, are closed to the public. There also are a few smaller temples and sanctuaries located outside the enclosing walls of the four main parts, as well as several avenues of human and ram-headed sphinxes connecting the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Amon-Re, and Luxor Temple.

The key difference between Karnak and most of the other temples and sites in Egypt is the length of time over which it was developed and used. Construction work began in the 16th century BC. Approximately thirty pharaohs contributed to the buildings, enabling it to reach a size, complexity, and diversity not seen elsewhere. Few of the individual features of Karnak are unique, but the size and number of features are overwhelming. Construction of temples started in the Middle Kingdom and continued through to Ptolemaic times.

Luxor Temple

Luxor Temple is a large Ancient Egyptian temple complex located on the east bank of the River Nile and was founded in 1400 BC as a dedication to the great god Amun-Ra, his wife Mut and their son Khonsu (the moon god) together representing the Theban triad. 

The temple was built on the site of a probably smaller Middle Kingdom structure for the god Amun, while the earliest parts of the temple seen today date from the 14th century BC and the time of Amenhotep III (the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom).

Interestingly the temple has appeared in several movies including the 1977 James Bond film, “The Spy Who Loved Me” and the 1978 Agatha Christie film, “Death on the Nile”.

Alabaster Demonstration

During our trip to Luxor we visited a tourist shop which was reknowned for their alabaster products.  I took a short video of their demonstration.

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