I’ve heard the words “frustration”, “beauty” and “perspective” used a lot when describing Egypt. Today, all three of those ideas were on blast.
We were back in the van with Ahmed today, to check out the West Bank sights we didn’t get a chance to see yesterday. These ones are little less visited, a little less known, but arguably just as beautiful. For example, I’d take Medinat Habu over the Ramesseum any day.
Built by a combination of Ramses III, Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III, this memorial temple (dedicated to Ramses III) somehow manages to look just as big as temples like Philae and Edfu, although I’m positive it isn’t. It features some distinct reliefs, such as one of scribes counting the severed hands and genitals of defeated Libyans. Which means that, at some point, somebody had the job of severing genitals, then somebody had the job of counting them, then somebody had the job of carving that. Not sure who got the worse end of that deal. Aside from the Libyans, of course. There were some beautifully preserved colours and a hypostyle hall where the columns had been taken down, though even the stumps remained eye-catching.
Now, I mentioned frustration and perspective already, so let’s get right into it. It’s already been established that baksheesh culture (the idea of giving a tip for the smallest service) is alive and well in Egypt and, in the low season of a tourist downturn, it seems to have cranked up quite a bit at the temples. For example, upon entering Medinat Habu, we were immediately greeted by one of the temple minders, who latched on to me in spite of me flat out saying “I appreciate this, I have nothing to give you.” Which, relatively speaking, was true.
I’ve also mentioned a few times that baksheesh culture runs on smaller bills, and that those bills are the hardest to find in Egypt. Cash machines dish out 200s, 100s and 50s, and even most tourist sites can’t make change for those notes without some scrambling. So, upon entering the temple, when the smallest we had was a 50, which is way above what you’d tip one of the temple minders, I meant that, and wanted to be honest. This guy, though, wouldn’t relent. He did open a few doors for me, was kind, and seemed earnest with his intentions. He perfectly balanced himself between useful, desperate and annoying, without veering too far into either category, so by the end of it, I knew I wanted to give him something. The 50 turned into postcard purchasing money, which ended up giving us 30 back, of which I gave him 20, leaving us the smallest of bills (a 5 and several 1s) as small change. Off to the next site.
First, however, was the matter of photography. We’d be going to the Tombs of the Nobles, which people have said are almost as beautiful as the Valley of the Kings, but in a different way, because they depict more scenes of everyday life and less of the afterlife. When I bought tickets for the tombs earlier (you buy them at the same booth, at the same time) the ticket guy told me it was was 300 LE (about $20 Canadian) for each set of tombs, meaning if we were going to see three sets, it would be $60, which was a big no.
I like taking pictures, I’m only here once, so I figured I would get one set of tombs photographed, so I bought the ticket and asked the recommendation of our driver, who said Ramose was the best, and off he went. He also said, looking at the ticket, that there was nothing on it that said how many tombs it was for, so I could ask the guards at the site if “more” were allowed. Meaning, you can pay them for more.
So we get to the Tombs of the Nobles, are immediately greeted by a nice man who told us we would get hopelessly lost if we tried to walk around them all on our own, which ended up not being true (mostly), as we quickly found Ramose, camera in hand. Inside, we also found our dahabiyya friends, Jurgen and Stephanie, who had the fortune of having a guide along with them for the day. Which soon became our fortune, too.
I had my camera out and the guard checked the ticket, and we discovered that, indeed, it would only be good for one set of tombs, a fact that Stephanie and Jurgen’s guide backed up for us. Ramoses’ tomb, while it had its own mini-hypostyle hall, was disappointing, and I asked her if this is the one I should be photographing, or if we should save it for a different one. She recommended saving it for the upcoming tombs of Sennofer and Rekhmire, which ended up being the right choice. Of course, a little earlier confusion from the tomb guards had got me thinking it was for all the tombs, though it was only for Ramose and his two joined tombs, Usherhet and Khaemet, so I had to immediately delete, in front of them, the pictures I took in Ramose’s tomb, which makes me wonder what people had to do in the age of actual film.
Saving the ticket for Sennofer and Rekhmire turned out to be the right call. Sennofer, who was the overseer of the Garden of Amun and Amenhotep II, had stunning paintings of him surrounded by various women, from his wife, to his daughters, to his wet nurse, as well as beautiful painted vines in the ceiling and a wonderful little tree with Nut living inside. There are some definitely low-bridge openings you have to go through to see the tomb, but that adds to the mystique. Rekhmire features a long hallway with a false door, scenes of international trade, and some spectacular acoustics. The later tombs of Nakht, Meena and Amenenope almost matched up, but better to use the photo ticket on the middle one, though I’m sure a bit of baksheesh would have opened up opportunities.
Now, back to the ubiquitous baksheesh. The guard at the Sennofer tomb was hilarious, and I gave him 3 LE of our 10, which then had him doing an impression of a baby because it was a “Baby Size Tip”, suggesting a tip of 10. Trying to make a joke of it, I replied “I know, the ticket office takes my ten because they need small bills, then the bank gives 200, 200, 200”, all while doing my “make it rain” hand shuffle. Which at least got a laugh. The guy who took us through Rekhmire reminded me that my photo ticket was good for that tomb too, so he got the 2 LE, with apologies, and me wanting to save the 5 LE in case something big happened at the last set. Which ended up being a good call, as the guy who took us to the last three tombs, relatively far apart and unmarked, was a real gem of a human, talking up the tombs and literally keeping us from getting lost again.
At this point, though, we were down to only 100s and 200s. So, no more tipping.
The next stop was the Valley of the Queens, and this is where it got extra awkward. I went for the photo ticket again, making extra sure it was for all the tombs, and the individual tickets were 80 each which, quick math, will not equal a multiple of 100, meaning change would need to be involved. The guy at the ticket office, for informing me which tombs were open, suggested I give him the extra 40 that would result in change, since he helped by doing his job. Valley of the Queens is smaller, this was not a job that needed doing. I refused this and we decided he would try to get me change on the way out. Which meant that we would be heading into the tombs baksheesh free, probably with some eager minders.
Interestingly enough, we only saw one queen at the Valley of the Queens – two prominent ones were on display, Nefertari (whose recently restored tomb was sporting the Seti I price tag of 1000 LE) and Titi. The other two on display were tombs of sons of Ramses III, Khaemwaset and Amunherkhepshef, which were both absolutely stunning and well worth the price of the photo ticket. The first has beautiful, youthful drawings of the pharaoh’s son, with his side lock of hair, and drawings of the gods that were distinctly different than any painting I’ve seen in Egypt. The second, featuring equally beautiful pictures, features a picture of Ramses introducing his son to the gods in the afterlife. Titi’s paintings were a bit more faded, but still wonderful.
Now, on to the question at hand – who would help us, and how would we tell them we had no money to tip them. The first guy tried to open a gate for us, and we politely said no, and that we had no small change, which he accepted after a small conversation. Similar to the second guy. The third guy, who took us through Amunherkhepshef, spoke fantastic English, was super knowledgeable, and wanted to talk about Canada as much as the tombs. Daina did the talking while I did the photographing, and was quick to be upfront, saying the ticket office left us no small change, so we appreciate the help, but we can’t tip him.
“Your friend is rich enough to pay 300 LE for photos but doesn’t have enough to tip guards?”
So this is where the perspective piece comes in.
Later, over lunch at a wonderful place called Aladdin near our guest house, and after talking to our server about the statue of politics in the world under Trump and the state of tourism in Egypt, and Canada’s reputation around the world as a welcoming place, we noted how, relatively speaking, or guard friend wasn’t wrong. While it would have been five times more for me to give this guy one of our 100s, for us, that’s 7 dollars. If I lost seven dollars on the street in Toronto, I wouldn’t be too upset. If I had to give seven dollars to everybody who guarded a tomb in Egypt, it would be a different story. Our guard talked to Daina, claiming his salary was $35 USD a month from the tombs. I have no way of verifying that, but yeah, if somebody came to my work and paid half my monthly salary to take photos, I would make some assumptions.
At the same time, we have the privilege of being able to do this. By we I mean many Canadians, some of whom are not in the best position to travel, who might get one opportunity to do what I have been blessed to do many times. Over here, we are rich, while at home, the floor can fall away from some of us real fast.
But, tell that to somebody in an industry that, through a combination of fear, violence, ignorance and, frankly, some racism and Islamophobia, was taken a big hit.
The extra frustrating thing about this was, as soon as we got back to the ticket office to get our change from the guys who only did their job, our change was all in 5 LE notes. I didn’t know whether I should be happy to have small notes for future minders, or if we should try to go back and give tips to the ones that had just helped us. Not sure if I should be ashamed to say I chose the former, but that’s what happened.
Last stop before heading home was photos of the Colossi of Memnon, where I had the desperation of the tourist downturn thrown right at me. A man came up to me offering three statues, saying he would sell me the set for 50 Euros. That was just plain ridiculous, and put me off the idea of negotiating anything. Without me saying any word other than “no”, and offering zero intent to purchase, he negotiated himself down to 100 LE, which ended up being 5 Euros. He took 90% off the price without me even asking.
So, now I have a statue of a cat (which I was looking for), and a head of Nefertiti and Tutankhamun. Truthfully, I probably could have got him down even lower.
So today was a tricky one. In some ways, one of the most beautiful. In others, the most frustrating. In all, one of the most most memorable.