It was barely 10 am but the red-faced man in the lift was already sweating profusely.
Bare-chested and wearing only a pair of shorts, he had a fading Celtic cross tattooed just above his heart and a fuzzy-looking snake wrapped around a dagger on the inside of his right forearm. Without a word and without any warning, he thrust a bundle of tattered Egyptian Pounds towards the hotel manager, interrupting our conversation.
“Good morning,” the manager said, turning to the man. “Do you want another massage today?”
“Yeh, it’s the shoulder,” the man slurred. He scratched his belly and hiccupped, exhaling beer fumes. “It’s all knotted. Couldn’t sleep at all.”
“Ah, I’m sorry to hear that,” the manager replied. The chill of his gaze belied the warmth of his voice. “I cannot take this money, sir. Please go to the health club, they can arrange it for you.”
Blearily, the man turned away. As the doors opened on to the roof terrace, he waved his money and he shouted across the terrace at two fleshy blondes, skin the colour of lobsters, floating on lie-los in the pool.
“He said I have to go downstairs to pay for the massage. D’you need any ciggies?”
Once, Luxor drew travellers fascinated by its history. Karnak. The valleys of the Kings, the Queens and the Nobles. Medinat Habu. The Ramasseum, the Colossi at Memnon, Deir al-Bahari. The greatest concentrations of UNESCO world heritage sites on earth drew amateur Egyptologists, cultural tourists and travellers generally in search of a little more than a tan.
Not anymore. At £180 for five nights at a 3-star hotel, including half-board and return flights, Luxor is better value than the Costas.
“There are high-end tourists but they mostly stay at the boutique hotels on the other side of the river,” Kristina, a tour rep with one of the smaller British agencies tells me one evening over a drink. “Most of the ones who stay in Luxor are what we call the ‘bucket and spade brigade’, folk who got lost on their way to Torremolinos.”
Luxor’s transformation into a sun-seekers paradise was already underway before the 1997 massacre at Deir el-Bahari, when members of the Jamaa al-Islamiyya - an Egyptian Islamist group that subsequently renounced violence - slaughtered 62 people, most of them tourists, in cold blood. As it depends almost entirely on foreign visitors to make a living, Luxor was especially badly hit and so when a year later, arrivals were still far below where they had been, the decision was taken to further lower prices and market the largest open-air museum in the world as a ‘fun in the sun’ destination.
“You wouldn’t believe how often people ask me where the beach is when I meet them at the airport,” Kristina adds. “The first time I was asked, I thought it was a joke and I laughed, but then they got angry.”
I ask her how she deals with that question now.
“I look as professional as I can and tell them the beach is four hours drive across the desert, that way. It still makes me laugh. You come to Luxor for ancient history, not an all-over tan.”
But then some people come for other reasons altogether.
“She’ll usually be middle-aged, he’ll be young and handsome. He proposes after 10 days, they get married and then he starts talking about moving to Europe,” Kristina’s friend and fellow tour rep Michael explains. “She realises he’s only interested in her passport, ends up leaving him and goes home where she writes angry letters to women’s magazines about the dangers of mixed marriages. We call them Marie Claires.”
Or Barry Claires. Though most of the middle aged men looking for love in Luxor are after young(er) Egyptian men, the reps still talk about the quiet, middle-aged Englishman who came to Luxor four years ago, married a pretty young Egyptian woman, bought a house with her, went back to England on business and then returned to discover that his wife’s family was living in his house, the locks had been changed and he was not welcome.
When he lodged a complaint, he discovered that the marriage had not been registered and as the house had been bought in his wife’s name (in order, she’d told him, to save on taxes) he had no legal claim.
It then turned out that the Egyptian wife wasn’t the only one telling tales. The Englishman tried to break into his house to retrieve his belongings and was beaten by his ‘in-laws’. Neighbours called the police. News of the scandal made it back home where the man’s astonished English wife discovered that her husband’s passion for Egypt had been more literal than she’d previously thought. The following year, 'Barry' was back in Luxor, penniless and single, his wife having divorced him for bigamy.
As I wandered back to my hotel, thoughts of Maries and Barrys in mind, a calech ambled by. On one side, staring dejectedly ahead was a pretty, slightly plump young blonde woman in her late 30’s. Hair pinned up at the nape, wearing a black evening dress with a string of cultured pearls around her neck, she looked unhappy. Beside her, a young Lothario with slick-backed hair, tight black trousers and a crisp white shirt opened to his breastbone, slouched in a pose of undisguised boredom, looking anywhere but at his companion. A shiny new wedding band glittered conspicuously on the woman’s left hand.
If this was a match, it clearly wasn’t made in or even near heaven.
My last morning in Luxor, I made my way to a field where an air balloon was tethered. Like the six other people in the gondola, I had awoken before dawn and crossed the river for a morning flight over some of the most famous historical monuments in the world.
Soon, we were soon floating over the Ramasseum and Medinat Habu. To the east, Luxor was waking, farmers already at work in the lush farmlands along the western banks of the silvery Nile. As two hawks raced past the balloon, chasing each other, I snapped out of my reverie. The couple next to me were deep in conversation. It seemed they were less than captivated by their experience.
“It’s been a complete waste of money,” the man was saying. “Can’t wait to get back home tonight,”
“Didn’t think much of our hotel,” the woman added, boredom evident as she gazed distractedly skywards. “The pool’s too small and there’s nothing good at breakfast.”
Beneath us, Deir al-Bahari, that 3,400 year-old precursor to Art Deco, lay in all its austere majesty. The sharply creased, dusty yellow hills above the temple were already beginning to flame in the morning sun.
“Don’t know why you wanted to come in the first place,” the man continued, ignoring the view. “It’s only tombs. Tombs and old temples. There aren’t even any pyramids. I knew we should’ve gone to Sharm instead.”
Tutankhamun, I thought, must be rolling in his golden grave.
Originally published in the Financial Times