In ancient Egypt, the east bank of the Nile was the centre of life. The west bank of the mighty river, where the sun set, belonged to the dead. This is where all the tombs and funerary temples were built. During the Old Kingdom, the pharaohs were buried in pyramids in the north of the country; during the New Kingdom, they were laid to rest in the valleys on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor, or Thebes as it was known at the time.
The best way to get an overview of the vast Theban necropolis is from a hot air balloon. We arrive at the departure site in the early morning to find a dozen men preparing the balloon. They are using an enormous gas burner to blow hot air into a slack piece of cloth, which slowly takes on the shape of a giant mushroom. Then the cloth lifts off from the ground and starts tugging at the basket. Time to get in!
The gas burner is being regulated by our captain, Mohammed. “First time in a hot air balloon?” he asks. “Mine too!” Apparently humour is the best way to make people feel at ease. A last surging flame from the gas burner and the basket floats up. Below, the villages are waking up. We see farmers harvesting sugarcane, heavily loaded donkeys slowly moving across the fields, children who stop to wave at us… We hear people talking and smell breakfast being prepared in the open kitchens. And in between these everyday scenes, dozens of ancient temples are scattered.
We land briefly to visit the tomb of Ramses IX, penetrating deep into the mountain along a narrow tunnel that is covered in paintings describing the king’s life. The tunnel leads to the burial chamber where the king’s most prized belongings were piled up so he could take them to the afterworld. The wind has carried us beyond the necropolis and it is time to land. “There are two ways of landing,” Mohammed says, “the usual way and the Egyptian way. With the usual way, the basket is dragged across the ground over about 50 metres before coming to a full stop. But I’ll show you that next time,” he says with a smile as he smoothly sets the basket on the ground, the Egyptian way.