UNESCO World Heritage Site

The tomb of Tutankhamun in Valley of the Kings. Seeing it spelled like this I recognized that “ankh” is the Egyptian symbol of life while “amun” was the Egyptian sun god.

We sailed north from Edfu to Luxor, arguably the most important site of Ancient Egypt. Known to the Greeks as Thebes, the city grew in prominence from about 2000 BC when it was the capital of Upper Egypt (note that I’m finally getting used to the fact that Upper Egypt is in the south, referring to the upper Nile, which flows northward into the Mediterranean) until by 1550 BC it was the political, religious, and military capital of all Ancient Egypt. Its local god, Amun, rose in prominence with the city and he soon became associated with the sun god Ra as the “king of gods,” Amun-Ra. Together with his wife Mut and son Khonsu, the moon god, they ruled as Egypt’s divine trinity. (Wait, a big god father, a mother who is worshipped, and a son also worshipped as a god; I’ve seen that pattern somewhere. It seems like a good model to copy if someone were creative…) By the time of the conquest of Alexander the Great in 323 BC the city had fallen into ruins but he came to pay respects and essentially claim the mantle as the new Amun-Ra.

During those thousand-plus years, though, there was a millennium’s worth of wonders built and today Luxor is known sometimes as the world’s greatest open-air museum: temples of Karnak and Luxor, the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens across the Nile. With so much to see we were glad to have three days here to drink it all in.

Sunset on the Nile. We’re on the east side of the river, meant for the living, while the west where the sun sets and things go to die is for the Theban Necropolis.

It might be worth mentioning that modern history hasn’t been as kind. Luxor was the site of major 1997 attack where six Egyptian terrorists killed 62 tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut, devastating the tourist industry in Egypt broadly and Luxor specifically. The 9/11 attacks just four years later, followed by a terrorist attack at Sharm el-Sheikh in 2005 and the revolution in 2011 that removed long-serving President Hosni Mubarak, didn’t help. Today the area seems remarkably calm; tourism is still reduced but there’s lots of security and – from a purely selfish perspective – it’s a lot more fun to tour the sites without massive hordes.

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, site of a great burial chamber and a terrible terrorist attack. On the other side of that imposing hill is the Valley of the Kings.

What’s all to see in Luxor now? A lot. First on our agenda was Karnak, a vast temple complex just a couple miles from the modern city center. How vast? After Angkor Wat in Cambodia Karnak is the second-largest religious temple in the world. And if you’re wondering – I was – in our travels Mark & I have been to seven of the 10 largest.

At any rate, construction here began at the start of the second millennium BC and lasted all the way through the Ptolemaic period after Alexander’s conquest. Some 30 pharaohs contributed to the construction giving it diversity and complexity unmatched anywhere. The largest part of the temple is dedicated to Amun-Ra, an area consisting of 134 massive columns, though there are all sorts of areas in the temple worth exploring. An obelisk or two that have stood tall for some 3,500 years, massive pylons (the Greek term for the monumental entrances to Egyptian temples), lots and lots and lots of stone carvings. Truly an amazing site.

Mark and our guide Rena in Karnak’s Precinct of Ra with just a small number of the 134 columns surrounding them

From Karnak we made a relatively brief stop at the Luxor Museum. By now it was late in the day and I wasn’t really up for it but when your tour guide tells you to go, you go. And I was really glad I did. Inaugurated in 1975 it is much, much smaller than the great Egyptian Museum in Cairo but at the same time much easier to digest; the museum prides itself more in the quality of display than the quantity. And the quality is spectacular, including a couple mummified pharaohs and some stunning sculptures.

This statue of Thutmosis III, from the 15th century BC, was buried in sand for years and thus today looks as fresh and young as it did all those centuries ago

Also in the Luxor Museum was this statue of Akhenaten, husband of Nefertiti and (probably) father of Tutankhamun. Not only did Akhenaten try (unsuccessfully) to get Egypt to abandon her polytheistic roots in honor of his preferred god Aten but he even tried to change the art style as this almost El Greco-esque piece displays.

Then there was Luxor Temple itself. Built about 1400 BC, it seems to be a temple dedicated to kingship itself and may have been where Egyptian pharaohs were crowned. The entrance to Luxor Temple is a bit unbalanced; the single obelisk on one side needed another to balance it off. Well indeed there was once another obelisk there and it turns out I’ve seen it many, many times: it’s the obelisk that now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris! And I was intrigued with a temple within the complex that was supposedly built under the orders of Alexander the Great in honor of … himself.

The Temple of Luxor

Then it was across the river to the various necropolises that were built on the west bank (the sun sets in the west, so that side is all about dying apparently). The Valley of the Kings is the star where from the 16th century BC until the 11th pharaohs had tombs cut into the rocks and were buried in lavish style. While many of the tombs were robbed and ransacked the tomb of a distinctly minor king who died at the age of just 19, Tutankhamun, was found nearly intact in 1922.

A small section from the tomb of King Tut

Our last major site was the Mortuary Temple of Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, dating to the 15th century BC. Hatshepsut was an interesting figure. She was, you see, a she, not very common among ancient royals. I mean, some 3,500 years later the U.S. still has issues with elevating women to high office, but I digress. But Hatshepsut reigned for at least 21 years and perhaps as long as 50 years, donning a fake beard and dressing as a man, but definitely a woman. She ascended to the throne after her husband died and left only a two-year-old son to succeed him. Hatshepsut ruled in his place and, as he grew older, came to kind of resent his mother. On her death he succeeded on his own and had all her names erased from the temple. Still, she is regarded as one of the great Egyptian pharaohs though not necessarily as the nicest mom in the world. She opened major trade routes for Egypt and is considered one of the greatest of Egyptian builders.

One of the side rooms in the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. The room itself is gated off and weird thing here is that it was entirely unlit; with the naked eye you could see nothing. If you put your iPhone up to the gate though it could adjust and see inside just fine. Wow, just wow.

After all that, I have to admit that I’ll be glad to spend a few days not touring old temples. And it’s worth adding that if I had it to do over again, we wouldn’t have done this on a cruise. We’re not cruise people, you see, and don’t usually like organized tours of any sort. I had this romantic notion of cruising down the Nila ala Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, but in practice there was more anchoring in a couple towns than actual cruising. We’d have been better off staying in hotels where we could experience the contemporary scene along with the great ruins and then maybe taking a day cruise or two to experience floating on the Nile. But – and this is a big but – I learned a tremendous amount from our guide. Until now Ancient Egypt has always been a big, vague empty spot in my understanding of ancient history but this was about as good an introduction as you can get. Good enough that I’m now reading a history of Ancient Egypt that I just never would have been able to understand before. So in that sense, mission accomplished.

Gorgeous, colorful columns in Luxor Temple

An obelisk in Karnak that has been standing right there for 3,500 years

A statue inside Luxor Temple. Ramses II? I’m not sure but they usually are…

I think I got good luck from touching his toe

Amenhotep III from the Luxor Museum. The quality of the stuff here was amazing.

A small colorful chip from a tomb recovered in Luxor

Mark on the walkway into the Valley of the Kings

Mark’s not a big fan of snakes, so this three-headed snake in one of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings got his attention

Every square inch of these old temples was plastered, painted, carved, and made beautiful

Some of the hieroglyphics in one of the tombs. I learned a lot during our week on the Nile but I still can’t read this (yet).

More of the glorious interior of some pharaoh’s tomb

We loved these grand columns

The Avenue of the Sphinx in Luxor has only recently been excavated. Connecting Karnak with the Luxor Temple it was a major thoroughfare for religious festivals during Luxor’s heyday.

More of those sphinxes

Hot air balloons in the early morning sky above Luxor. Fortunately none of these exploded.

Life for the locals on the Nile

And life for us on the Nile. We upgrade to get a nice outdoor space … so we can hang our laundry out. The neighbors likely think the Clampetts just moved in.

I really did (heart) Baku. That stunning building behind me is one of the architectural wonders of the city.

To my surprise I fell in love with Baku. I’d actually been here a couple times in the early aughts when I worked for an international NGO; my memory was that Baku was OK, but nothing special. Traveling for work is a lot different from being a tourist though and during our four days here we discovered great food, great parks, and great architecture all at a fraction of the price we would pay in other big cities.

A few things to know about Baku. It’s the capital of Azerbaijan and, with a population of 2.2 million people, the largest city on the Caspian Sea and in the Caucasus region overall. It’s a boom town dependent on oil and its fortunes over the years have ebbed and flowed with the demand for oil; these days, it’s booming. And here’s some trivia you might find useful some day: because the Caspian Sea lies in a big basin Baku actually sits some 93 feet below sea level. Thus it is both the largest city in the world below sea level and the lowest capital city. File that away for when you need it.

Here we are in front of the Maiden Tower, emblem of Baku

Because the Azeri people are primarily Turkish – the two languages are closely related and mutually intelligible – they are largely Muslim. Notwithstanding their affinity with the Turks, though, who are largely Shiite Muslims, the Azeris are primarily Shia like their neighbors in Iran to the south. But – and this is the huge difference, perhaps related to the effects of being an oil boom town, perhaps in part a reflection of the long Soviet domination here – the Azeri people are pretty much non-secular. So while Iranians just a few miles away live in a theocracy, I didn’t see a single woman in a burka nor did I hear the call to prayer once. How’s this for an unexpected experience in a Shia Muslim city: in 2009 Lonely Planet declared Baku one of the top ten cities in the world to party the night away. Strange that such a difference would exist in such close proximity.

During our stay here we experienced, to some degree at least, three separate parts of Baku. The Inner City is the old, historic town declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. The Maiden Tower – a 12th century tower of ambiguous purpose – is the emblem of not just Baku but Azerbaijan itself. We climbed the tower (kind of boring actually) and poked around the Inner City. And while the ancient walls were attractive, to me at least it felt as though the Inner City had been cleaned up a great deal since I was here maybe 13 years ago, and not entirely in a good way.

One of the gates to the Inner City. The walls were beautiful and there were some good restaurants just inside but otherwise I found the old town to be a little antiseptic.

The newer part of the city dates from Baku’s original oil boom in the late 19th and early 20th century. There are some really beautiful streets with grand turn-of-the-century buildings that clearly remind you of walking in Paris or Vienna. And in those great buildings are some really high-end stores that seemed awfully empty since although there is a lot of oil money floating around by most accounts not a lot of that flows to the vast bulk of Azeris.

Just a small sample of the attractive early 20th century buildings in Baku’s newer section

And then there’s the really new part of Baku reflecting the oil boom of the 21st century. Stunning architecture, an enormous parkway stretching some four miles along the Caspian that’s extremely well maintained, an attempt at building the world’s largest flag pole, an entirely new cultural region at one end of the park.

While there is a lot of new and ongoing construction in the city, two developments really stood out. The first was the Flame Towers that dominate the city’s new skyline. They are three glass skyscrapers, each shaped like flames. (Baku’s ancient history is based on the town being founded near the spontaneous flames that would erupt from the oil near the surface of the earth. As flames are central to the ancient Zoroastrian religion, the region was considered holy.) In the daytime they’re beautiful but at night they really come alive with some 10,000 lights creating a light show that displays variously such sights as the Azeri flag, water flowing, and massive flames burning. Now if I were designing a skyscraper I might not want to evoke in people’s minds huge cataclysmic fires, but it is truly striking.

The Flame Towers looming over Baku. The light show at night truly defines the skyline.

The other almost insanely beautiful building is the Heydar Aliev Cultural Center, designed by world-famous starchitect Zaha Hadid. We knew it was supposed to be beautiful but we were genuinely blown away by it. The building was closed on Monday, the only day we had to go there, so we didn’t go inside but the exterior is simply stunning, big flowing curves and striking movement. And as a bonus as we explored the exterior the grounds are decorated with large blow-ups of National Geographic photos shot by Azeri photographers.

The Heydar Aliev Cultural Center

(How is this for a coincidence? The very morning we were planning on walking out to see the building I was reading the morning Axios political update email. And there, item #9, seemingly randomly was a picture of the building simply calling it one of the most beautiful buildings on earth. Coincidence or proof that we’re being followed?)

One downside to the building can’t be attributed to Dame Hadid. It is named for Azerbaijan’s third president, a guy who created what can only be described as today’s authoritarian, dictatorial regime. Aliev had been a bigwig in the Soviet Union and after that government collapsed he began a quick rise to the top in his native Azerbaijan. He ruled for 10 years until just before his death in 2003 when he was succeeded by his son. And just in case it’s not clear that this is a family operation, the current vice president is the current President Aliev’s wife. With this much oil money at stake you wouldn’t want to risk letting it out of your control.

Mark & this stunning building

The only other downside to the Cultural Center – and this is shared by locations all over Baku – is that it is nearly impossible to get to on foot. This is a city meant for cars and the challenges of getting around as a pedestrian are significant. I won’t blame Ms. Hadid for that, either; she deserved all the awards she won with buildings like this.

For walking, though, you can’t beat Baku Boulevard, the huge park running along the Caspian Sea. Mark & I walked pretty much the whole distance to get to the new Yarat Contemporary Art Center with its current show of Azerbaijani artists from the post-Stalin era. The whole route was beautiful but oddly we saw almost no one out. Sure, the weather was a little misty, but it wasn’t that bad and it was a Sunday morning. For us, though, it was so nice that although we hadn’t intended to initially, we ended up walking all the way back too. And for whatever it’s worth, the next day, Monday, the weather turned nice and there were lots of people out enjoying the park then.

Just a small section of the seaside park, ideal for strolling. Along both sides were old photos, some dating back to the 1920s, showing how the city has evolved.

And so yes, there was a lot to love about Baku. The food was excellent and almost insanely cheap; our hotel was beautiful and a fraction of what you would pay for that quality in any other large city; and we loved the parks and buildings. We had debated scheduling a five-day stop and decided not to but now I kind of regret that decision. Instead we’re moving north up into the Caucasus mountains themselves, eventually into Georgia and Armenia.

The ticket booth outside Maiden Tower had these ridiculously cute kittens just hanging out. It was a little difficult to get Mark into the tower.

The Eye of Baku on a wet, moody day

There’s quite a story associate with this site, National Flag Square. At 531 feet the flagpole was briefly the tallest in the world but after just a couple months with the record it was overtaken by the 541-foot flagpole in Dushanbe, Tajikistan which itself was quickly surpassed by a 561-foot flagpole in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Worse yet, not long after it went up at a cost of $24 million or so the flag pole started to lean and had to be quickly taken down. So now they have this big monument to … nothing.

New friends Mehemmed and … I didn’t get the other guy’s name … in front of Baku Crystal Hall, built in 2012 in time to host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. These guys were just walking along the parkway as I was headed back and wanted to chat and practice their English. They were interesting and fun, curious about why I was in Azerbaijan. When I told them we were traveling through the Caucasus, including a week in Armenia, their mood quickly changed. Azerbaijan and Armenia, you see, are mortal enemies and have been for eons. Armenians, you see, are Christians while Azeris are Muslims. And even if they’re all secular they are still regional enemies. As far as Mehemmed and his friend are concerned, Armenians eat their children and rape their daughters. Maybe not that bad but he honestly couldn’t understand why someone who seemed civilized (me) could want to go to Armenia. Strange how hate can permeate a culture.

Out beyond both the Flag Square and the Crystal Hall was the Yarat Contemporary Art Center. We went out there to see an exhibit of post-Stalinist Azeri “masters” which was a pleasant little trip. That’s me down there while Mark was up on the second floor. It was the kind of art museum I like: reasonably small, good descriptions, and free!

“Marine Monuments of the Caspian Sea” by Nadir Qasimov, one of Mark’s favorites

“In the Flowering Garden” by Farhad Khaliov, my favorite

On his way back from the Contemporary Art exhibit Mark stopped at the national rug museum. It was in a very cool building but he describes touring it as 20 minutes of his life he’ll never get back.

There are a LOT of fountains in Baku and – unlike so many cities in the U.S., they always seem to work

More pictures of Zaha Hadid’s amazing work

It was masterful from every angle

Oh yeah, there was food too

Another night, another great (and cheap) meal

Pickle and vodka, the proper way to start any meal in this region

And produce

The seaside park after the weather cleared up

A strange bicycle ride, where authorities closed off this massive street in front of the main government building for a pretty ragged bunch of people

And those damned cute kitties

Rhodes – an amazing medieval town made even more atmospheric in a rainstorm

Three years ago Mark & I spent a week on the island of Rhodes and fell in love with it. So when Bart & Ann suggested they wanted to experience one island in addition to Crete we leapt at the chance to go back. The bad news was that because of scheduling issues we only had three days to enjoy it; the good news it was at least as beautiful as we remembered it.

Of course one of the reasons we love Rhodes is because there are cats everywhere

There were definitely a few bumps in the road (bumps in the Rhodes??) for us. First, when making the reservations for two rooms a couple months ago Mark made a mistake. He booked the first room (at Spirits of the Knight, a hotel we loved three years ago) just fine but then somehow booked the other room for a week earlier. They graciously canceled that early/erroneous reservation but didn’t have any rooms at all our first night. Instead we had to stay one night at a different hotel before moving to Spirits of the Knight the next day.

And then our arrival was all messed up. We’d arranged with our hotel to pick us up at the airport but they didn’t show up. Traffic, they said. So we took a taxi to the town gates where they were supposed to meet us because ordinary taxis can’t come into the old town. They didn’t show up there either. Very frustrating.

And then as though those annoyances weren’t enough we had more rain our first days than we’ve ever seen in Greece. OK, it seems as though it never rains at all in Greece though apparently the weather saves it all up for one huge burst. Over several hours it just poured, water running like a river down the cobbled streets as we tried in vain to avoid getting our feet soaked.

In other words Rhodes wasn’t perfect. It was damned good, though. The hotel we spent our first night – the oddly named In Camera Art Boutique Hotel – turned out to be even better than the Spirits of the Knight that we’d loved three years ago. They weren’t great at that whole “transfer from the airport” thing but we had a beautiful room. And even in the pouring rain the old town is simply beautiful, one of the best preserved medieval towns you’ll find anywhere in the world. In breaks in the weather we had opportunities to just wander, to walk at length in what was once something like a moat separating the town from the exterior walls, and to walk on top of the historic walls themselves.

There are some serious medieval remains here

Then there are two of the things we loved the most from three years ago. On our first visit we stumbled onto a dentist office just as it was time to get our teeth cleaned and thought he was really good. So this time we went back. The dentist, one Victor Panagiotakopoulos if you can believe that name, lived and studied for a while in the U.S. and just does a great job. I wonder if there are any other tourists in the world who look forward to going to Rhodes so we can get our teeth cleaned.

Mark and Victor Panagiotakopoulos, with Mark’s newly cleaned teeth

And finally there was one day at the beach. After some pretty intense thunderstorms the weather cleared for our last day so Mark & I headed to our favorite beach from our earlier visit and enjoyed it – and the little Greek taverna at one end of the beach – just as much as we remembered it. Bart & Ann wanted to go to something more remote (and they did) but we had such great memories of that urban pebbly beach with the diving platform that there was no way we would miss it on our one day of beach weather.

The diving platform anchored well offshore from our favorite beach. And just in case you don’t recognize me, yes that’s me mid-jump.

The three days went fast and then Bart & Ann were headed back to the States. This was our third stay with them during this adventure and they are just so easy and fun to travel with. It’s good enough that we ended it considering trying to schedule a bike trip next spring in Bart’s native Netherlands during tulip season. We’ll see.

Meanwhile Mark & I are off for a short stop in Athens before continuing on to Azerbaijan. I mean, who hasn’t always wanted to go to Baku?

One of the entryways into the old town

The narrow streets of the Rhodes

A view across the rooftops from the city walls

The main square during a downpour

Cats love Rhodes too

At the airport in Rhodes we saw this sign telling tourists that establishments are required to accept credit and debit cards and they don’t have to pay if they don’t get a receipt. Bart observed that this is probably a requirement of the European bailout of Greek debt, caused in no small part because of tax avoidance. Mark and I are always annoyed when restaurants claim their credit card system isn’t working, since we figure it’s just a way of avoiding the fees and/or taxes, so we liked this sign.

More beauty in the old town

Mark walked a long time in this area between the exterior walls and the old town. I was being lazy.

Eventually, yes, the sun came out

Feels very olde-fashioned, no?

The old town is chock-filled with great sights like this

And yes, cats