Wooden tserkva of Zhovkva

The Wooden Tserkvas in the Polish part of the Carpathians have already been well-covered by the reviewers active on this website. I visited 6 of them myself in 2015. However, 8 of the inscribed tserkvas (churches) lie just across the border in Ukraine. Noone wrote a report on one of those yet. As I had half a day to spare after visiting L’viv, I hired a taxi to take me to the wooden Holy Trinity Church in Zhovkva – part of the Later Halych Group of the inscribed Ukrainian tserkvas.

Holy Trinity Church in Zhovkva

Zhovkva is a town of 13,000 inhabitants, about 30km northwest of L’viv. The drive takes just half an hour and doesn’t bring very remarkable scenery. The roads out of L’viv are potholed, many of the streets leading from the main streets into villages are still unpaved. Inspired by the Polish churches which lie in sometimes idyllic rural settings, I hoped to get a glimpse of the Ukrainian countryside by going to Zhovkva. It didn’t turn out to be that way however.

The Holy Trinity Church lies beside the main road that leads from L’viv to Zhovkva city center. I had brought a print with me including the name of the church in Ukrainian and a picture of it, just to be sure. But it cannot be overlooked, and is even signposted in English with the same type of bilingual signs that point to the various sights in L’viv. It looks a bit out of place in its suburban setting, but the specific type of wooden construction and good state of conservation made me glad that I had taken this sidetrip. The church dates from 1720.

Part of the impressive iconostasis

I would have been reasonably content admiring the tripartite church from the outside, but the icing on the cake of course would be to get in. Just as with the Polish churches, I found a phone number attached to the front door to call for someone with the key. Fortunately I did not have to ask my hesitantly German-speaking driver to make the phone call for me in Ukrainian: the door was open and two men were already inside – probably cleaning away after Sunday’s service. The building is nowadays used by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church.

The lay-out of the church is quite similar to that of the other tserkvas: one enters via the narthex (featuring a bunch of brochures and what may be a baptismal font), reaches the nave annex choir and it all ends at the iconostasis. There isn’t space for many churchgoers: five rows of benches are placed on each side. However, this tserkva has a choir loft worthy of a much larger church. This is all decorated with many icons, paintings and the lovely iconostasis - “The interior furnishings survive intact, offering the best example of the integral interior design of an 18th-century tserkva”, according to the nomination file. Odd addition to this wooden structure is the white brick sacristy, which also dates from the 18th century.

Baptismal font?

After a while the priest, who had been working in the sacristy behind the iconostasis, came to greet me. He asked whether I was Polish – most tourists that come here are. Unfortunately he didn’t speak more than a word or two in English and German, but he was obviously proud of his little church. The written Unesco inscription certificate has been prominently nailed to one of the walls, amidst the paintings of saints.

Published 10 June 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to Wooden tserkva of Zhovkva:

nan (10 June 2017):
Went there, too, and also was able to enter. They open before services.

There are frequent busses from Lviv, so no need for a driver. The town itself was also nice.

WHS #633: L'viv

The Historic Centre of L’viv presents an eclectic mix of architectural and artistic highlights of both Eastern European and Western origin. I stayed there for 2 nights during the long Pentecost weekend. The city is very popular with Polish tourists – the border is only an hour away – and has a lively atmosphere with cafés, terraces and street performers. Cost levels are very low, they are comparable to those in Belarus which I visited last year and a fraction (25-30%) of those in Western Europe. It is easy to navigate in L’viv as signs around town are in English as well: a souvenir from the Euro 2012 football championships.

Merchants' house at Rynok Square

L'viv has traditionally been a trading city, and has been part of the Kingdom of Poland (until 1772) and Austria-Hungary (until 1918). It attracted different populations that lived in their own communities - from Armenians to Jews, and from Ukrainians to Germans and Hungarians. Reminders of this multicultural history can still be found, though most of them have only been revived since post-Soviet times. Much of the buildings that one sees nowadays around town date back to ca. 1900, and subsequently there is a lot of Art Nouveau.

The city has no exceptional highlights that would warrant a WH listing on their own and it lacks a certain prettiness that for example attracts the tourist masses to a town like Cesky Krumlov, but there is a bunch of sights that are worth seeing anyway. The Armenian Cathedral for example should not be missed. Its multicolour interior is vastly different from the usually sober Armenian churches that I have seen around the world. The facial expressions on the wall paintings (also dating from around 1900?) are odd to say the least.

Interior of the Armenian Cathedral

Further to the north lies the Opera, a neo-renaissance building from 1901 that could be at home in Paris. Nearby is the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum. It still seems to adhere to the communist manual for museums (an elderly lady is present in every room), but the collection should not be overlooked. It mostly consists of late medieval and 16th-17th century icons that were removed from churches in the L'viv region. Even a few full iconostases are present. The quality of the icons is exquisite, and there are explanations in English.

The main square (Rysnok Square) has a number of interesting 17th century merchants' houses. In one of them lies "the Italian courtyard" - the city's most romantic place, where photographers were busy capturing bridal couples when I visited. In the southeast of the center lies the former synagogue (only some ruins are left) and the Greek-Catholic Bernardine church with its fortifications.

The Italian Courtyard

The L’viv WHS consists of two locations: besides the city center as described above, there’s also St. George Cathedral which lies some 2 km to the west. It is the main church of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. The yellow baroque and rococo style building lies on a hill. It was busy when I arrived: a wedding ceremony was going on. Apparently Sunday is a popular day to marry in Ukraine, because the next couple was already waiting outside. I was able to get inside anyway via a side entrance. Like the other churches that I visited in L'viv, there are many banners depicting saints and the Ukrainian national colours. St. George, killing the dragon, seems to be the most popular saint of the city.

Looking back at the many small and larger churches that I visited in L’viv they are mostly Catholic in some kind of denomination (I did not enter a Orthodox church, although 32% of the population belongs to that faith). The proximity to Poland and the long shared history with the Polish people will be the cause of that. The popular Polish pope John Paul II is revered here very much as well.

Published 4 June 2017 Leave a Comment

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WHS #632: Telc

I think the WHS of Telč will defeat me – can I really write 500 words about this over-commercialized market place?

The historic center of Telč consists of a castle and a triangular marketplace, both of which originate from the Renaissance. Most striking is the series of original houses at the square, built in stone at the end of the 16th century after a fire had destroyed their wooden predecessors. In the 17th century, baroque facades and gables were added to several of them.

One of the nicest façade-gable combinations, with sgraffito

Not a lot of people from the general travel audience will have heard from Telč. But tourists do come here in large numbers: upon entering the town by car you will be directed to one of the major parking lots around the old center. There are ample parking spaces for buses, and the parking has to be paid for.

From the parking it is only a few minutes walk to the city's main attraction: the market square. It is a very elongated square, approximately triangular in shape. On all three sides there is a row of colourful buildings with arcades. They are all in different colours and with various types of gables. The square itself isn’t especially pretty, unlike for example the Grand Place in Brussels or the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Maybe because it isn’t fully enclosed – it opens out to 5 roads.

Adam at Telc castle

In almost every review of the Telc market square on this website or at Tripadvisor you will read about the eyesore of the place: the center of the square is literally filled with parked cars and larger vehicles, blocking close views of the surrounding buildings. Parking actually has been allowed here only since 10 years or so, one wonders why they have made that decision. It also seems totally unnecessary given the many adjoining streets and parking lots. The view was even more obscured this Saturday by a bunch of haphazardly positioned market stalls, sporting commercial logos. It amazes me that so far no remark about this issue has been made in the State of Conservation reports concerning this WHS.

In a far corner of the square lies the “chateau”. This is not a medieval type castle such as in Cesky Krumlov, but a more palatial one dating from the Renaissance and designed under supervision of Italian artists. I wasn’t in the mood for a tour with a tour guide and a large group again (which is the only way to get inside). But the building itself, the courtyard and the garden can be admired for free and are well worth it.

Plague column at the market of Telc

The verdict (5/10):

I spent about 2 hours in Telč, including time for consuming a hearty and cheap lunch with the locals at the Švejk restaurant. The facades of the buildings aligning the square are indeed beautiful, but I couldn’t really enjoy them because of the obstructed views and the lack of information on display on site. This website has some more background on their origins.

Word count = 500

Published 20 May 2017 Leave a Comment

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WHS #631: Cesky Krumlov

During my quick dash into South Czechia last week (3 WHS in 2 days) I stayed overnight in Cesky Krumlov. It’s perfect for that, as everyone seems to rent out rooms and there are restaurants to every taste. I arrived around 1 pm on Friday afternoon and left again at 10 am on Saturday morning. By that time I had seen most of the small historic center.

Castle Tower

As it was raining on Friday, I decided to go to the town’s museums first. The Egon Schiele Art Centrum is an exhibition centre dedicated to modern art, named after the expressionist Egon Schiele who lived in Cesky Krumlov at the beginning of the 20th century. I knew of Schiele from my Art History study at the Open University, where his distorted portraits adorn the "Expressionism" handbook (a course that I failed twice, and gave up on).

Schiele was eventually chased out of Cesky Krumlov because he would let young girls pose naked for him. There is not much of his work on display here (it has very high value), most of it is in the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful art exhibition centre. I enjoyed the current exhibition of the works of the Czech Pavel Brazda especially.

Main body of the castle, as seen from one of the bridges

Due to the still pouring rain I hurried on to the castle, where I bought a ticket for the first available guided tour. Unfortunately I did not really pay attention: there are several kinds of tickets for sale, and I really wanted to go to the castle theater which apparently is very beautiful. However, together with around 40 other tourists, I ended up in the palace quarters. Rarely interesting, and no exception here - only the many stuffed bears used as carpets are remarkable. The castle owners have always kept bears in the castle moat. Two supposedly still are there, but they were not "on show" when I visited probably because of the cold.

The most beautiful hall of the tour lies at the end: the Masquerade Hall, with painted masked party guests on all walls. No pictures are allowed inside the castle unfortunately - the reason given here is that the tours would take too long if everyone had to snap his or her perfect shot!

The next morning the sun was shining at last, and I toured the town with my camera. From the various bridges there are beautiful views of the castle. The castle is so overwhelming that it looks too big for the small town centre. I did a full loop in an hour "uphill", through all the courtyards of the castle, across the white-blue mantel bridge and past the gardens. You eventually end up at a bridge at the other end of the town. This is a nice walk in the early morning, though I certainly was not the only one to enjoy it.

Historic town centre

Cesky Krumlov is really flooded by mainly Asian tourists, in the middle of summer it has to be terrible. Its medieval street plan does not accommodate such high numbers of people. Although it has kept its atmosphere well and it is a friendly place in general with some nice small cafees, it could do without tourist traps such as the Wax Museum, the Torture Museum and the Shanghai Restaurant.

Published 13 May 2017 Leave a Comment

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WHS #630: Holasovice

Holašovice Historic Village is a tiny WHS in the south of Czechia. Six previous reviewers on this website have already tried to capture its Outstanding Universal Value - often in vain. Its value lies in its architecture (the fusion of two vernacular building traditions into "South Bohemian Folk Baroque") and being an authentic representation of a Central European rural settlement. It also has been considered as a continuing cultural landscape, but that part seems to have been disregarded at inscription.

Two of the facades

Less than a week after I was in Egypt, with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius in Abu Simbel, I found myself at a completely different scene. Holašovice lies in a hilly area full of farm villages. There was still snow on the ground. The closer I got to Holašovice the snow cover got thicker and it started raining as well. I had some trouble finding the town actually – I had to navigate via my smartphone, as there is no signposting. On the way I passed at least two village centers similar to Holašovice, with a pond and a row of colourful houses.

Despite its unassuming surroundings, Holašovice is ready to receive tourists. At the edge of town there’s a parking lot large enough for a tour bus or 2. They also have an information center and a museum. And a monument celebrating the inscription on the World Heritage List. A minibus with some Asian tourists was just leaving when I arrived – the last passengers were running around to have some quick final shots of the village.

Museum exhibits

One of the characteristic spots in the village is the large pond in the center, but I could hardly see it because of the snow. All I could do was to take a brisk walk round the elongated square. Although the façades of the buildings that surround it have nice colours, they give away nothing about what lies behind their gates. None of the protected buildings except for the museum are open to the public. Which is understandable as people still live there. But it makes it hard to understand what exactly is so special about these farmhouses. If you want to prepare your visit in depth: more background info is available in this pocket guide.

Farmhouse number 6 holds the small "museum" - perhaps one could better say that the farmer exhibits his old items in a barn to earn something extra. Its opening hours may be erratic, but I was let in after ringing the bell. The owner of the house proceeded to give me an extensive explanation in English about each object. Later we talked about the weather ("this is not normal") and about the Netherlands (good country, he had been there a few years before). The biggest advantage of visiting this museum is that you can see how the traditional farmhouses are set up: through the gate you arrive at a courtyard, with to the left the house and behind it the stables and sheds.

Water pump

In front of nearly every house stands a wooden pump, which was used to pump water by hand through pipes into the building. There might be some interesting piece of local history connected with the pumps, but I did not get to the bottom of it. Overall I lasted 25 minutes in town, my visit cut short because of the cold.

Published 6 May 2017 Leave a Comment

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Tips for travelling to Egypt

I have just returned from a 10 day trip to southern Egypt - only my first visit to this country (105 countries came before!). I ‘did’ the Luxor to Abu Simbel stretch, covering only 2 WHS and 1 TWHS. But it was well worth it, as these are undisputed members of our Top 200 WHS.

Find below my Top Tips for Travelling to Egypt as a World Heritage Traveller.

Kids in Daraw

1. Go now to avoid the crowds

Since the Revolution of 2011, visitor numbers to Egypt have been low. Many trip reports that float around on the internet date back to over 10 years ago. Locals that I met were complaining that especially Europeans and Russians do not come anymore. Fortunately for the Egyptian tourism industry, the Chinese are not deterred. And high hopes are held for the Indians. In general it was relatively quiet everywhere I visited – especially in the cities and during the early or later hours of the day. A number of shops and restaurants in Luxor and Aswan seemed to have closed down. But there definitely were crowds at the Valley of the Kings and at the temple of Kom Ombo. Beach destinations such as Hurghada and a Nile cruise are still popular, so people take day trips from those bases. A recent claim that tourist levels are back to normal again is overstated though I think.

2. Take a Dahabiya Nile Cruise

Labelled as "The cruise for people who don’t like cruises”, I can fully recommend a Dahabiya Nile Cruise. I went upstream for 4 nights on board of the Dahabiya Zekrayaat - a large sail ship in the style of Victorian travellers (it even included a piano downstairs at that time). The romantic magic is diminished a bit nowadays as it needs a towboat to move ahead at a speed high enough to cover the distance between Luxor and Aswan within 4 days (a train on the same stretch takes only 3 hours!). We were 6 travellers (South African, Australian and Dutch), pampered by 10 staff including a formidable cook.

'My' Dahabiya Zekrayaat

3. It will be a classical trip for everyone

During our deliberations about the Top 200 WHS, noone had any doubt about including Egypt’s classical sites (Ancient Thebes, Abu Simbel, the Pyramids). Every serious traveller will be enriched by visiting these very ancient and unique sites. Touring them is inexpensive for the quality that you get to see – entrance fees to Abu Simbel or Karnak are a mere 5 EUR. And don’t underestimate Egypt as a nation, although it may not be at its prime at the moment it very much has its own soul.

4. Prepare yourself for what you want to see

Egypt is mostly a destination for package holidays and (large) group tours. This means that a one-size-fits-all approach usually is taken by its tourist industry. Scores of well-educated Egyptologists spend their days as guides going through the motions, rattling off all the dynasties in the right order and translating a couple of hieroglyphs here and there. Don’t let this industry decide how you will spend your days and what you will see. Do your own research beforehand. Include that recently opened tomb in the Valley of Kings (even for a surcharge) into your itinerary, find your way to those uncharted sublocations of a WHS, or that specialist museum. Cities like Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel are also very easy to navigate on your own.

Gebel el Sisila

5. Have a closer look at Egypt’s Tentative List (and beyond)

Egypte has relatively few WHS for its size and place in history. Consequently, its Tentative List is still full of sites well-worth a detour. In the southern part of the country, which was the focus of my trip, this certainly is true for the Ptolemaic sites Edfu, Kom Ombo and Dendera. I heard from fellow travellers that they found Abydos interesting too. And along the Nile we made a worthwhile early morning visit at Gebel el Sisila, which was a stone quarry for Ancient Thebes and holds a number of small rock-cut tombs.

Published 30 April 2017 Leave a Comment

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WHS #629: Nubian monuments

The Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae comprise 10 archaeological sites in the far south of Egypt. They were the products of the pharaonic attempts to dominate Nubia.

Many trip reports from the past about Abu Simbel start with the compulsory convoy that has to be taken to travel there from Aswan, effectively limiting arrival times to two times a day. The convoy has been discontinued however since October 2016. So after leaving my dahabiya near Aswan, I was picked up by a car and driver at 9 a.m. for the 3 hour drive south. The drive is incredibly boring, just a desert road with maybe one or two gas stations. There are road signs however to temples into the desert – two of them are Amada and Wadi es-Sebua which are also part of this WHS .

4x Ramses II at the Great Temple of Abu Simbel

I was staying overnight to be able to visit the temples without tour groups being there, and also to get a hint of the Nubian feel of the town of Abu Simbel. My latter wish was completely satisfied by the Eskaleh Lodge, an oasis of friendliness where hypnotizing Sudanese music was played all day long. At 3 p.m. I was picked up by driver and guide for my scheduled visit to the temples. Somehow the tour company had found it necessary to send a guide, although it isn’t of much use (they are not allowed inside the temples). But well, he bought the tickets and explained the essence of the site to me sitting outside. We just sat at the entrance to the main temple, as no one else was there!

The Abu Simbel site covers two temples next to each other. The largest one is to glorify Ramses II – the famous four huge statues at its facade all show himself at various ages! I even can’t think of a modern day dictator who would be so bold. One of the heads has fallen off (already 2000 years ago), but it still is laying at the statue’s feet like a toppled moai at Easter Island. The interior of the temple is well-lit, via a similar method as they use at the Valley of the Kings. As this temple was carved into the rock, not much natural light gets in. I had to forget about the delicate carvings and symbolism of the Ptolemaic sites that I visited earlier: the temple is a brash statement of power of Ramses II, mainly showing his accomplishments on the battlefield.

The second temple at Abu Simbel is dedicated to Nefertari, one of the wives of Ramses II who was of Nubian descent. It does show her, and him again. The interior is decorated with remarkable heads representing the goddess Hathor. I finished both temples within an hour – except for the facades with the mega statues and an occasional glance at Lake Nasser there isn’t much that will keep you there longer. I tried to find the “seams” where they pasted the temples together again after the rescue effort in the 1960s. If you look closely they can be seen, but it has been done very well. Only the back side of the rock where they are now located feels manmade.

Head fallen off

The next morning I got up at 5.20 and walked through the streets of Abu Simbel once more. The temples are especially beautiful at sunrise, as they are illuminated by the sun at that hour. I had read that sunrise tours (even from Aswan) are popular here, but again no more than a handful of other visitors were present.

After Abu Simbel, I unfortunately had only one afternoon left in Aswan. So there was little time to check out the other monuments included in this WHS. I decided to focus on Elephantine island, the island just in front of Aswan town center. A very short public ferry ride (costing about 2 minutes and 1 Egyptian pound) brought me there. At the southern part of the island lies the Aswan museum and the archaeological site. The museum did disappoint, I was expecting something to the level of the Luxor museum but this one is much more simple. It shows lots of small objects that were found on Elephantine island, but only the votive objects I found worth a second look. I did not do well at the rest of the site either: the temperature had risen so high that I had little energy to roam around ruins. I made my way directly to the Nilometer – the third of its kind that I saw on this trip, and the closest one to the Nile itself.

Nilometer at Elephantine Island

ICOMOS had its doubts in 1979 whether such a string of sites a long distance from each other would not set an unwanted precedent: “Does this not invite all countries to define the physical boundaries of their cultural heritage too broadly?” Well – almost 30 years later such loosely coupled WHS have almost become the norm, with the Works of Le Corbusier even stretching continents.

Published 26 April 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #629: Nubian monuments:

Els (26 April 2017):
The Sound and Light Shows (Son et Lumiere) are still very much a tourist magnet, at Abu Simbel, Philae and Karnak. It doesn't appeal to me indeed, that's why I skipped them.

Solivagant (26 April 2017):
For our first visit to Abu Simbel back in 1978 we flew from Luxor – officially there were no seats available but we went out to the airport and a bit of baksheesh there unlocked 2. The only problem was that we (naturally!) were given no tickets! We were told, however, to say “Mr Qtab” at every occasion and this worked Ok at Luxor – but how on earth would we get back into the airport and onto the plane at Abu Simbel? No worry – The magic words “Mr Qtab” were like “open sesame”! There must have been quite a web of corruption distributing our fares (and no doubt those of many others) up and down the chain of employees! In ‘92 we had rented a car in Cairo and driven up to Aswan. The potential problem of driving on to Abu Simbel (this was before the “convoy era”) was whether there was any petrol in Abu Simbel as our small saloon car tank wasn’t definitely enough for the c600km round trip. No one in Aswan could state for certain that the only gas station in Abu Simbel (none along the road in those days) had any. Based on the belief that some $$$ would find some in Abu Simbel if really necessary, we set off early and alone on the empty road and had an excellent full day there – and got petrol ok! The tourists were like “waves” as coaches /planes arrived and departed and there were long periods when the Temples were virtually empty. Again – no limitations on taking photos in those days.
You made no mention of “Son et Lumiere” taking place at either Karnak or Abu Simbel. Is this because they have been cancelled due to lack of tourists or simply that this form of “entertainment” doesn’t appeal to you? I would agree that it is an over rated medium which always reminds me of some 1950s Hollywood epic movie with its booming sound track and overblown rhetoric but still worth experiencing at Karnak I believe.

Ptolemaic Temples

The Ptolemies ruled over Egypt from 304 to 30 BC. They were descendants of Macedonian Greeks, whose leader Alexander the Great had conquered the pharaonic lands and set up his capital in Alexandria in the far north. The Ptolemies (all their kings were named Ptolemy) did however contribute their own set of temples to the already existing landscape of sacred sites upstream along the Nile. Four of these temples are combined on the Tentative List under the name Pharaonic temples in Upper Egypt from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. They are located in Dendera, Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo. I visited the latter two as side trips from a dahabiya cruise along the Nile.

Horus statue at Edfu

Edfu is a mid-size commercial town without any charm. Together with my 5 shipmates I crossed it quickly by horse carriage, the traditional form of taxi transport that also still can be found in Luxor. The temple’s parking lot even has a shaded section to park the horses.

The temple at Edfu is dedicated to the falcon-headed warrior god Horus. His image is the trademark of this temple, and the various granite sculptures of his face that stand guard at the site are especially picturesque. Due to having its roof intact, the temple itself feels more like a complete building than the ones I visited so far in Egypt. Inside there are dozens of separate rooms that were used for storage and as chapels. All of its walls are decorated with bas-reliefs. They have lost most of their colours however, and the ceilings have been badly damaged by smoke. Numerous pigeons contribute daily to the deteroriating condition of the building. Access to the roof has even been closed off – this is to fend off another annoying animal species: bats.

I enjoyed roaming around this temple on my own, discovering fully decorated corridors that lead nowhere. I stayed for two hours and there were hardly any other visitors.

"Hidden" corridor

Kom Ombo lies a few hours upstream from Edfu. This temple is also located near a sizeable (and eponymous) town. No need for a taxi this time: the temple of Kom Ombo lies directly on the eastern bank of the Nile. From a distance it strongly resembles a Greek temple, showing off its many columns.

The distinguishing feature of the temple of Kom Ombo is that it is a double-temple, dedicated to two gods at the same time. They are Horus (like in Edfu) and Sobek, the crocodile god. This is one of the few places in Egypt where a cult around crocodiles developed. A live specimen used to live inside, and when it died it was mummified and replaced by another living crocodile. A number of the crocodile mummies can be seen at the on site museum.

Kom Ombo also has a fine example of a Nilometer (that measured the height of the river’s water level), and numerous interesting bas-reliefs in good condition. The display of surgical equipment is possibly the best-known among them. We had arrived early enough to have unobstructed views of the temple’s highlights, but after 3.30 p.m. the passengers of large cruise ships started streaming in. At least 12 of them were docked near the temple when we left.

Horus and Sobek together at Kom Ombo

These two sites are examples of the value that in my opinion still can be taken from Egypt’s Tentative List. It’s a miracle that these sites have never been nominated, as is the case with nearby Dendera. Dating from the Ptolemaic Period, they all represent a part of Egypt’s ancient history that is not covered yet by its WHS.  

Published 21 April 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to Ptolemaic Temples:

Colvin (23 April 2017):
Great photos! I loved Kom Ombo and Edfu temples, and I hope these Ptolemaic temples are one day inscribed as World Heritage Sites. I was spoiled by magnificent temples traveling from Aswan to Luxor by dahabiya, leaving me to wonder if I would have enjoyed Luxor more if I took the trip in reverse.

Els (23 April 2017):
@Kyle: done!

Kyle (22 April 2017):
Can you link your Blog (Dutch) in the About portion of this website? I like following that as well, but I have to search the forums if I ever want to find it.

WHS #628: Ancient Thebes

Thebes, what we now call Luxor, is one of the most ancient “tourist” destinations in the world. Already the ancient Greeks came here to marvel at the temples that were built by the Egyptian pharaohs. Later Christian and Muslim generations had much less respect for their forefathers, so it wasn’t until the 19th century that these sites were rediscovered by Europeans. The 21st century has brought Asian tourism to the spectrum: the Chinese are the only nation that dare to come here today en masse. It became especially popular since a visit of president Xi Jingping to president Sisi in 2016, which partly took place in the inner courtyard of Luxor Temple.

Row of sphinxes from Luxor to Karnak

The site was already inscribed as a WHS in 1979, with epithets such as “splendid”, “monumental” and “unique and unequaled”. It is also part of our Top 200. Not much of substance has been written about it yet among our reviewers though (sorry guys). Important to know is that it comprises 3 locations: the temple of Karnak and the temple of Luxor on the East bank of the Nile, and the Necropolis on the West Bank. Especially the latter is a collection of many temples and tombs, scattered around in a rural area and at the foot of a barren mountain ridge.

On my first day, after having visited the excellent Luxor museum as an appetizer, I started with Karnak Temple. Heavy security measures are in place at this and Luxor Temple: cars are searched, trunks have to be opened. People have to pass security booths everywhere (similar to Paris, where I was a few weeks ago), and armed guards hover at strategic road blocks. There’s actually not much glory to be gained for a bomber at the moment – the parking lot was nearly empty. Karnak stands out for its size, the size of everything actually. Much has been taken away (such as the obelisk that now is at the Place de la Concorde in Paris) or has fallen down. Its prettiest feature is the hypostyle hall, a forest of 134 massive columns (much thicker than the average Roman or Greek ones).

Karnak, hypostyle hall

Luxor Temple lies at the heart of modern Luxor, there’s even a McDonalds right next to it. A long row of sphinxes once connected Luxor Temple with the Temple of Karnak, 3 km’s away. Egyptian authorities are now rebuilding this monumental path. I think it’s important to be aware that Luxor is still changing every day – the path is nearly finished, statues are put upright, colourful ceilings have been restored. Luxor Temple has more sculptures and carvings than Karnak, and I found it more atmospheric.

During my second day in Luxor I went to the necropolis on the West Bank of the Nile. I had a driver and a guide with me, and we first had to cross the bridge which lies 20 minutes or so south of Luxor. Life on the “other” side of the Nile seemed more rural, especially sugarcane is harvested. We first stopped at the Colossi of Memnon – two enormous statues that once guarded yet another huge temple complex. German archaeologists are still excavating here, and the outline of the complex and other statues can already be seen.

Afterwards we went to the Temple of Habu – the favourite of my guide, and I can easily understand why as it is the most intact of all around Luxor. The Ramses that had this built was especially proud of his slaughter of enemies, as shown by carvings of bunches of hacked-off hands (with a scribe next to it counting the numbers). The ceilings here are well-preserved too, including their colours. The only issue is that birds have taken over many of the niches that are present in the cut sandstone.

One of the Colossi of Memnon

Finally I did go and see some tombs. At the one of Ramose, a Noble, I was the only visitor. The Tombs of the Kings however are the masterpieces. And that’s where they all take the few tourists that are left in Egypts nowadays! There surely where over 100 buses and cars at the car park, mostly used by daytrippers from the Hurghada resorts. Certainly they weren’t staying in Luxor. An entrance ticket here gives you access to 3 of the tombs out of the 12 or so that are open. Some “special” tombs (like the one of Tutankhamon) can only be entered for an extra fee. On recommendation of my guide I went into tombs number 6, 8 and 2. One with the longest corridor deep into the mountain, the other two with fantastic bright paintings. The lighting is very good, so one can really enjoy it all. Photography is forbidden in the Valley so you have to go and see it for yourself.

Published 16 April 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #628: Ancient Thebes:

Els Slots (17 April 2017):
@Solivagant: the photography restrictions already start right behind the visitor center, there's a booth where all cameras have to be surrendered (I left mine in the car). So you evén aren't allowed to take pictures of the part of the valley with the many entrances to the tombs. Some people with cell phones did so however, it seems strange that the Egyptians are unaware of the photographic capabilities of smartphones.

Solivagant (16 April 2017):
When you say "Photography is forbidden in the Valley" I presume you mean "forbidden in the tombs in the Valley"? We have visited the Luxor etc 3 times over the years - 1978, 1992 and 2006 and it has been a sorry story of additional restrictions and fears of terror etc replicated in so many places around the World. On the first occasion we hired bicycles in Luxor, took them across on a small ferry (no bridge then!) and just rode around all day to our heart's content, visiting whichever tombs we wanted on a single ticket. The Tombs of the Nobles were unlit and many of them had a man (or even 2) with a shiny sheet of metal which he/they used to reflect the sunlight down into the tomb from the top/half way down. Happy days. I have a fine set of photos of all the tombs taken with flash - no restrictions then. I understand that there is considerable doubt as to whether flash does actually damage colours and that the main reasons for restrictions are copyright and crowd management!

Paris revisited

I am a rather late convert to Paris – only in 2002 I visited the city for the first time and it took another 10 years for a second visit. My third trip to the French capital would be more in-depth than the first two that had covered most of the touristic route: during the past weekend I joined a small group of 12 fellow students at the Open University with whom I had been to Florence in 2015. The organizing team had drawn up a full 4 day schedule, focusing on small art museums and architectural highlights.

"The Kiss" (1889) by Rodin, near the Orangerie

Obviously we didn’t stay within the Banks of the Seine all the time, so I’ll try to focus this report on the sites that are within the WHS area or just next to it. We stayed overnight at the recommended Ibis Bastille, quite a steal at 80 EUR per night in central Paris. It is located close to Le Marais, a former aristocratic area and active Jewish neigbourhood (featuring an interesting Art Nouveau synagogue by Guimard).

Along the Seine we visited the Orangerie, an often overlooked art museum housed in a 19th century shelter for the orange trees of the garden of the Tuileries. Since 1927 it has been the home of a cycle of Monet's water-lily paintings, known as the Nymphéas. The building is surrounded by a number of precious sculptures (made by Rodin for example), quite amazing to find them here without protection.

Brick relief found at Susa, now in the Louvre

On Sunday afternoon a travel companion and I decided to give the Louvre a try – without having booked a ticket beforehand. It took us only 10 minutes to get in, most other tourists were probably spending the sunny day outside. I had never been to the Louvre before, but had prepared a bit with researching a new connection called In the Louvre (we have similar ones for the British Museum and the Pergamon Museum). I was about the only person in the archaeological wing of the museum that afternoon. Like its peers in London and Berlin, quantity (and sometimes size) seems to prevail over telling a story. But they do have interesting objects from WHS such as Susa and Byblos.

Unfortunately we do not have a thorough description of the core zone of the Paris WHS, so sometimes it’s a bit of a guess why one building has been included and another one hasn’t. One of the oddities of the Banks of the Seine WHS map is the peak in the center. The core zone here ends at the Church of La Madeleine, a “visual end” from the Place de la Concorde. Sometimes sight lines seem to have been included, but not those too far away from the river (such as the Pantheon). La Madeleine’s appearance is very un-churchlike, since it originally was built as a temple for Napoleon’s troops. It’s a firm neoclassical structure. Unlike many other buildings in Paris it hasn’t been polished up yet. The interior is gloomy as well.

Relief on door of La Madeleine

In the end I enjoyed my third visit to Paris. We visited a mix of very different things, of which the Fondation Louis Vutton (Frank Gehry, 2014) and the small but delicate Picasso museum stood out. Please, no more Impressionism for me though. And I can do without white sculptures of classical or French national heroes for a while too.

Published 27 March 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to Paris revisited :

Els Slots (1 April 2017):
@Aitia - Thanks, I did not know that! I'll add it to the connection. These moai have travelled far, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relocation_of_moai_objects

Aitia (1 April 2017):
There is also an original Moai inside the Louvre Museum.

Els Slots (27 March 2017):
@Clyde - it's already there

clyde (27 March 2017):
In the British Museum connection, Rapa Nui could be included as it houses an original Moai

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