04.03.2006 30 °C
We arrived in Cairo as night was falling. As we were shuttled out to our hotel on the outskirts of Cairo, at the base of the Pyramids of Giza, we were introduced to the chaos of Cairo and the Egyptian rules of driving, which are basically, that there are no rules. Like in many Asian countries, there are no lines on the road driving lanes, instead, drivers simply honk their horns to signal they are moving in front of another car, changing direction, or even making rights hand turns from left lanes and vice versa. Perhaps there are different types of honks for each activity; I am really not quite sure. And lights are purely optional, and are only used when a driver wants to signal that he is about to make a drastic change of some sort. They are not reckless, they simply believe its rude to have lights in the eyes of other drivers.
After a lively ride to the hotel, we fell asleep to the sound of continually honking throughout the night, as we arrived on Thursday, signaling the end of the Muslim workweek, and a popular night for weddings. We spent ten full hours the following day soaking in as much or Cairo as possible, with our first stop being the Pyramids of Giza. What can one say about the Pyramids? They are over 4700 years old and the only one of the seven ancient wonders of the world to survive. They stand over 147 meters high with the base stones weighing fifteen tons each, and the top stones only a mere two and a half tons each. They are a magnificent testament to the loyalty to their kings and gods. Standing at the base you feel both infinitesimally small and at the same time, when faced with the amazing resolve of the men who built them, believe anything is possible. The magnitude of the pyramids is so great they actually dwarf the Sphinx, the protector of the pyramids which is an astonishing twenty meters high and 72 meters long, and carved out of a single piece of limestone.
After a quick touristy camel ride (when in Egypt…) we were off to the Cairo museum to check out more ancient wonders and of course the treasures of King Tut-ankh-ammon we had all learned about in school. The exhibit does not disappoint, with its gold jewelry, and gilded gold sarcophagi and leaves you wondering if this amount of treasure was buried with a young king who ruled less than ten years, what treasures were buried with Ramses, who ruled 67 years, or with the other 60 tombs and 90 pyramids, all lost to tomb robbers. The museum is teeming with breathtaking artifacts from thousands of years BC.
We arrived at the Khan al Khalili bazaar just as the sunset call to prayer rose from the countless minarets and pierced the din of honking cars, clattering horse drawn carriages and chattering street vendors. We were quickly surrounded by touts, who make shopping and bargaining a real treat. “Where you from? English? I have ASDA price for you. Ah, American, welcome! Come have some hibiscus juice, Egyptian hospitality.” They will bargain with you for anything, with our one carriage driver offering me the bell from his carriage that I had admired. I politely explained I just couldn’t, to which he replied by yanking it off, breaking the leather strap attaching it, thus ending our negotiations. I am now the proud owner of an authentic Egyptian bell, for the cost of one English pound.
We navigated our way through the bustling, narrow market alleys stopping to buy a few items and drink a bit of sweet hibiscus, to which I fear I could easily become addicted.
Upon arrival in Luxor we found the peacefulness of the feluccas cruising silently down the Nile a welcome change to the chaos of Cairo. The 150,000 inhabitants of Luxor pale in comparison to the 17mm of Cairo. Our hotel, located on the banks of the Nile, was a true oasis and offered magnificent views of the sunset over the West bank.
The outdoor Turkish Coffee cafe, complete with the local tabacco pipes.
As we drove to the West bank, we were taken through fertile green fields of sugarcane, one of the main crops of Upper Egypt, and could smell the fields burning the remnants of the first crop, as it was harvest time and they needed to make way for the next crop. As we drove on the lush fields were replaced with the barren, dry, rocky terrain that makes up the valley of the Kings, the necropolis, or burial ground of the New Kingdom Pharaohs., These Kings, realizing that pyramids marking the royal tombs, had been an easy mark for the greedy tomb robbers, chose to dig their tombs deep into the Thebian hills. This strategy too was unsuccessful, with all but one of the 62 tombs being depleted of its priceless possessions. Only King Tut’s tomb was left untouched for modern discovery.
Other than King Tut, no major discovery has been made in the Valley of the Kings until less than a week before we arrived. An American archaeologist had just discovered 5 mummies, which were likely reburied by high priests once their tombs had been raided. We were fortunate enough to be able to see the excavation site, and see the archeologist, who was dressed like Harrison Ford in Raiders, but the similarity ended there. They will be spending the coming months working to determine the identity of the 5 Kings.
Unlike the inside of the Pyramids, which are fairly plain, the tombs include various antechambers and a burial area where the huge granite sarcophagus remain, as they are too large to be removed, as the tombs were built around them. The underground corridors are covered in bright indigo, terracotta and gold painted hieroglyphs depicting the life of the pharaoh and the sunrise, symbolizing the rebirth/ or afterlife of the King.
By now we had the chance to meet a few Egyptians and gain an understanding of their lifestyle. They are steeped in family tradition, with most Egyptians living in a house with their extended parents, and dedicated to supporting their parents. Muslims can have from one to four wives, so houses are added onto as the family expands, while Coptic Christians have just one family, but typically also live with the wife's family. Another distinguishing trait of the Egyptians is their never ending generosity and curiosity. From the first meeting they want to know many things about you and are willing to open their homes, shops and towns to you. In our two weeks we had countless offers to show us their cities, as the Egyptians are very proud.
The next morning we met up with the group what we would be cruising the Nile with and visited the magnificent remains of the Temple of Karnak and Luxor. These temples were built when Thebes (now Luxor) was the ancient capital and were added to, demolished and restored over a period of 1500 years and cover an area large enough to hold 10 of the largest European cathedrals. The temples are connected by a 2km walkway protected by two endless rows of sphinxes. Karnak temple’s highlight is an expansive courtyard containing over 130 massive columns densely packed like a forest of carved sandstone. Each is covered in hieroglyphs and paintings of old Egypt and reach toward the sky as a symbol of the power of the pharaohs. Throughout the temple site there are various rooms shadowed by statues and obelisks, covered in hieroglyphs. No words or pictures can describe the grand scale of this site and its difficult to grasp the enormity of what these ancient people built.
We also made a stop in the Luxor museum to meet the local mummies. King Ramses the first is there, and does not look to bad considering he is over 3000 years old. It is amazing to look at the face of the famous pharaoh, with his hair, fingernails and teeth still intact. One can not help imagining what they would have looked like in their days of glory.
Sailing the Nile
We then began our five-night cruise up the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, sailing silently through the tranquil blue-green waters. Only the honking of passing cruise ships disturbed our tranquility as we soaked in the scenery of the desert mountains just beyond the fertile shores of the Nile where locals grow bananas and sugar cane. Fishermen dotted the water in rowboats as we floated past cattle and donkeys grazing on the riverbanks and locals washing clothes or playing football.
Our pilot used no navigational instruments, preferring instead to use hi years of experience sailing the Nile since he was a young boy. Very charming, but we did have a few close calls complete with honking from the passing cruise ships and even one pilot shaking his fist, running along the bridge and telling us off in Arabic.
Sunsets on the river are magnificent and very peaceful, with the sunset prayer calls echoing along the banks as we pass small villages.
Along the way we stopped at temples in the morning, and would sail in the afternoon. We visited Kom Ombo, Edfu and Esna, where nearly all the walls were covered with detailed carvings and hieroglyphs. Previously, in a spice shop in Luxor where I was buying spices for David, the merchant kindly wrote our names in hieroglyphics. Kathleen is represented by a cup, eagle, tethering rope, lion, feathers and the Nile. David is a hand, which means generous, and eagle, a viper (a contradiction to the generous hand!!) and a symbol of problems that have passed and been conquered. Joanna is comprised of a basket (representing a collector), a baby chick, and eagle and the Nile.
Our final destination was Aswan, a bustling town that has a mix of Egyptian and Nubian cultures. When the Aswan high dam was constructed to control the seasonal flooding of the Nile, the resulting Lake Nasser, flooded most of the land of Nubia and they, along with numerous ancient temples, was moved to higher ground. Ftom the high damn, you can gaze out over the massive lake, which is larger than the size of England.
We traveled from Aswan to Abu Simbel to see one such relocated temple. Even if it had not been moved, it is easily one of the most astounding archeological sites in the world. Knowing it was moved piece by piece and reconstructed a few hundred meters away, is even more astounding. The original site of this temple is now under 150 feet of water where the Nile once flowed past giant sandstone cliffs. In a monumental rescue effort, nations from around the world joined UNESCO in the 60's to salvage this and other sites from the fast rising waters of Lake Nasser after the completion of the Aswan high dam. Pioneering new techniques, UNESCO disassembled the entire temple block by block and meticulously reassembled it including all of the underground passageways at this current site. If you did not witness the pictures of the project for yourself, you would not believe it was possible.
Four colossal statues of Ramses II stand over 100 feet high and face east towards the rising sun along the banks of Lake Nasser. A huge entrance in the middle leads to a passageway past more giant statues with walls covered with intricate hieroglyphs and carvings depicting the personal and military accomplishments of Ramses II.
On our way back up the Nile towards Luxor, we visited the Temple of Philae, another temple moved to higher ground to ensure its salvation. It resides on a small island and can only be reached by boat. We sailed on a small local boat, called a felucca, where our captain allowed out friend John to sail, given he is an avid sailor in Inverness Scotland. The island is a magical place, covered in vibrantly colored flowers and cactus, where the temple overlooks the blue water of Lake Nasser.
Our final night on the cruise was complete with Egyptian dress, food (very similar to Lebanese and just fabulous!) and dancing. Joanna and I even won the mummy contest with her toilet papering me so well I could barely breathe but we earned the coveted prize of free hibiscus and mango punch drinks.
Our hotel looks out across Naama Bay, where the waters of the Red Sea hide coral treasures, and lap against our water-front restaurant. Given Sharm el Sheik is very touristy, we have come to prefer our resort to that of the bright lights of the main street.
The only time we ventured from the resort was to find a fabulous Egyptian restaurant, to go snorkeling and diving, and to climb Mt Sinai to see the sunrise. In order to reach the summit at sunrise, we had to depart by bus at 11pm and drive for 3 hours into the heart of the Sinai Peninsula. The only things found in the barren desert are a few small Bedouin (local dessert people who live as nomads) settlements and St Katherine’s monastery. Therefore there is no pollution, which makes for a beautiful star filled sky.
After over three hours of hiking in the darkness, under a blanket of stars, dodging camels and hordes of other hikers, the final steps to the summit of Mount Sinai loomed before us. How the heck did Moses do this at his age?? The sunrise was beautiful, but not particularly peaceful as we were sharing it with the hundreds of others who had made the journey. I was amazed at the number of people who make this trek every day. It was worth the effort as we reached the small chapel on the summit and took in the breath-taking views of the surrounding mountainous desert.
The last rays of the setting sun disappeared along with all of their warmth and the temperature quickly plummeted. We began the trek down, covering over 3,000 steps, (we did not count, but would swear it was more like 5,000) to reach St. Katherine's monastery, which has been around for centuries and contains what is said to be a relative of the famous burning bush where God spoke to Moses. I had a somewhat religious experience as insensitive tourists stood on there toes attempting to snap off bits of the bush, sending pieces of branch and leaves fluttering over me in a baptismal manner.
The trip took over 15 hours and we ended up sleeping right though dinner. After that, our activities were restricted to the simpler pursuits of snorkeling, kayaking, diving and eating and drinking the local cuisine.
The snorkeling right off the beach is simply fabulous, and competes very well with that of the marine life of Ras Mohammed national park where we went on an all day snorkeling trip. I also spent one day diving the red sea, which was just as wonderful as my friends had promised, with great visibility and a magnitude of marine life. A perfect way to finish off a truly fabulous holiday.
God willing (Inshallah!), I will be back to Egypt many times in the future, at which time I will be sure to see Alexandria and to get to Jordon to see the ancient city of Petra. But given there were no flights until the day after we departed, we turned down the opportunity to take another 22 hours land journey. Next time.