EGYPTIAN ADVENTURES 2
What a blessed morning! For once we got to sleep in until 7AM! Edfu is home to the Temple of Horus. It is one of the most important and best preserved temples in Egypt. Horus is represented by a falcon in Egyptian mythology. He was the son of the gods Isis and Osiris. In ancient Egyptian mythology, Horus was conceived after his father’s death at the hand of his uncle, Seth. Osiris’ wife, Isis, had to collect the pieces of his body from around Egypt. Unfortunately, the one necessary piece for intercourse was missing, so she had to form it from wax and by magic she was able to conceive Horus. The temple was actually built by the colonizing Greeks/Ptolomies in 267 BC in an effort to show that the Greeks respected the old religion. The temple is guarded by 2 large statues of falcons. Inside the temple was a huge courtyard that was open to the general public. Then came the grand hall where the priests would work collecting offerings -- flowers, fruit, perfumes, gold ... Finally, there was the inner chambers with store rooms and offering rooms surrounding the sanctuary of Horus. Once there was a golden statue here dedicated to the god, but now it only houses a reproduction of a wooden barque on which the statue of Horus would be taken out for festivals. There were loads of people at this temple. I could French, English, Italian, Russian, German, Spanish … It seems like all the world is here.
Back to the riverboat for an afternoon cruise down the Nile River to the town of Kom Ombo and the Temple of Sobek. This was another temple constructed by the Ptolomies. The temple is set on the edge of the Nile River, so it was just a hop, skip, and a jump from the riverboat. But to get there, we had to push our way through another tourist trap of a market. In the temple, we saw some old crocodile mummies and were shown an Egyptian calendar.
The ancient Egyptian calendar had 365 days with 10 day weeks. The workers worked 8 days and rested for 2 days. It was beautiful to see this temple just as the sun was beginning to set over the Nile River. So back to the boat we went and through the market again. I ended up buying a lovely embroidered shirt after some half-hearted bargaining for our gallebiya party that evening. Since David didn’t want to spend any money in the costume department, we got a little creative. Using a cardboard box, we fashioned a hat that looked like the snout of a dog and then added huge ears. And presto, with a little black marker and tape we had the god Anubis who takes the form of a jackal. So we went to dinner, me in my embroidered shirt and David as Anubis wearing a towel around his waist and bare feet. What a pair! And there was everyone else dressed up in their sequined gallebiyas and head coverings and scarves. We must have made quite a sight in the dining room! Behold the god Anubis and beware his … hunger!
Next stop, the southern city of Aswan, after an all night cruise down the Nile. Aswan is the place ancient Egypt ran into the Nubians. Today, it is a lovely modern city. But in ancient times, this might have been considered like the wild west. We stayed in Aswan for 3 days to visit the Aswan Dam, Lake Nasser, the Temple of Philae, and finally the temples of Abu Simbel. The construction of the Aswan Dam was started by the British in the late 19th century. The dam and lake that followed were able to harness the power of the Nile River, creating more arable land and providing for 25% of Egypt’s electrical needs. Unfortunately, the construction of the Aswan Dam and the High Dam, along with the filling of Lake Nasser threatened over 40 ancient Egyptian sites. With the help of UNESCO in the 1960’s and 70’s, many of these ancient sites were preserved by being moved. Now this was no small job. It meant dismantling and in some cases carving up temples into thousands of pieces. For example, the Temple of Philae was cut up into over 40,000 pieces to be catalogued, handled with care, transported to an alternate island, and then put back together like a jigsaw puzzle. Not exactly a job for the faint of heart!
In order to visit the Temple of Philae we took a small motor boat across the Nile River. The temple sits beautifully perched on the hill of a small island. Before the temple was moved, it was flooded by the Nile for 6 months of the year. This unfortunately damaged much of the temple and its artwork. The Temple of Philae honors the goddess Isis (goddess of magic, symbolic mother of the Pharaoh) who by Roman times had become the greatest of all the Egyptian gods. She continued to be worshipped to as late as 550 AD. The temple was built by the Greeks/Ptolomies. The first courtyard was surrounded by huge columns decorated with hieroglyphics. The walls of the temple show scenes with the pharaoh defeating his enemies and also participation in the birthing (“mammisi“) rituals of the gods as proof of their divinity. There were many small rooms and chambers to visit within the temple. On some walls you could see where early Christians had carved out crosses and defaced murals. They actually turned part of the temple into a chapel. Again, the early Christians were followed by the early Muslims who continued to vandalize the temple.
By this point I think that we were all getting a little “templed” out. So we decided to go for a little diversion … a sail on the Nile. Being that we were a tour group of sailors, everyone’s ears perked up at sound of felucca ride. There are hundreds of feluccas on the Nile River. In Aswan, most of the feluccas carry tourists up and down the river. Occasionally, they brave the “rapids”. We all piled into a felucca, but unfortunately there was not much wind. We ended up drifting down river and then rowing back, a captive audience as our captain brought out his sack of tourist trinkets for sail. Our captain was a precocious 12 year old boy who struck a pretty hard bargain. A few of the ladies ended up with beaded necklaces and I gave in to a carved camel bone letter opener. From the felucca, we went to check out the local market. Most of it was geared towards relieving tourists of their money. David found a great local drum, called a tabla, and with a little bargaining got a pretty good deal. So I guess we all came away happy. Our shopping experience drove our security guard a bit crazy when the group decided to split up.
He had been told not to let the Americans out of his sight. Unfortunately, no one told us that per se, and anyway, there was no way the Americans or anyone else would be going the same place at the same time every minute of every day. Dave and Tamer were talking back on the boat and Dave said the security man came running to Tamer and said excitedly, "Nine people in your group have left the boat and split into three groups. Who should I follow? I can't follow all of them." Tamer assured him we were all world
travellers and he didn't need to worry so much about us. We found out later that security was pretty on edge because of the recent attacks in Cairo.
The next day was a real early morning start: 3 AM. We were heading for Abu Simbel, an amazing site with 2 temples dedicated to Ramses II and his favorite wife, Nefertari. We all tried to sleep on the bus without much luck. Additionally, I had the unfortunate luck of being stricken with traveler’s diarrhea which made the visit all that more memorable. Abu Simbel was another ancient Egyptian site threatened by the formation of Lake Nasser. The temples were carved into a mountainside between 1274 and 1244 BC. The whole mountain was chopped and moved 200 meters back from the rising waters. The temples were discovered by chance in 1813, covered completely in sand. Only one of the heads of the massive statues guarding the entrance to the temple could be seen. Over a period of 150 years, the temples were excavated and cleared. Abu Simbel was an ode to the ego of Ramses II. The temple is amazingly huge and absolutely spectacular! It was designed to show his strength, but also to deify the pharaoh. The entrance of the temple is flanked by 4 huge statues of Ramses II that are 69 feet tall. I think that the hieroglyphics at this temple were some of the most exquisite I have seen so far. Most of the hieroglyphics showed Ramses as the powerful and conquering king, as well as his interactions with the gods. Covered by sand for thousands of years, the vibrant hieroglyphics have been wonderfully preserved. According to our guide, the temple was so ingeniously laid out, that twice a year the light of the rising sun penetrates into the inner sanctuary to illuminate the statues of the gods. Next to Ramses II temple is another smaller temple dedicated to his favorite wife, Nefertari. Ramses wanted to elevate his queen to the status of goddess. Nefertari is portrayed as the goddess Hathor (goddess of beauty and music) by large statues around the entrance of the temple. If you ever get the chance, this is a not to miss historical site in Egypt!
That afternoon we checked out of our riverboat hotel and into the local hotel on Elephantine Island. We had a superb view overlooking the entire city of Aswan. Look to one side and there was desert. Look to the other side and there was the luscious Nile River Valley. On the desert side, one could see the tombs of local nobles that had been carved out of the rock face. We left for Cairo by train the next afternoon. We almost missed our ride when some yachties in the tour group decided that they need to run some last minute errands -- pharmacy and ice cream. Security started freaking out again, yelling “yella, yella” (let’s go, hurry!!) and had us running for the train. We made it with 5 minutes to spare. His concern was that one person in our tour group would be left behind and then he would be left to
baby-sit that person until they could rejoin the tour group further up the line. Thankfully, we all made it aboard for the 900 km trip up to Cairo. This is my first time in a sleeper car. It kinds of feels like we could be the characters in a Agatha Christie novel. We were served some inedible dinner that ranked up there with airline food. Let’s just hope everyone survives the trip, unlike the novel “Murder on the Orient Express“.
Cairo is a huge city of 17 million people. It is both a modern and historical city with the Nile River at the heart of everything. The shear masses of people, cars, and buildings is a big change for us yachties. It was hard not to feel a little out of your element. We arrived in Cairo just as the sun was beginning to rise. Coasting down the highway, we spotted the great Pyramids basking in the morning sun. I had to pinch myself! I can’t believe that I am really here and seeing all these amazing things. We headed to our hotel, the Intercontinental, to freshen up before going to check out the Pyramids. The great Pyramids sit on the edge of suburban Cairo at Giza. But in all over Egypt, there are over 100 pyramids. These massive tombs were built over 4000 years ago by the Pharaohs. At one time, the Pyramids were covered with brilliant white limestone. Most of covering was stripped by the invading Muslims who used the stones to create their own monuments and mosques. One of the great mysteries surrounding the pyramids is just how they were constructed. Modern day engineers have still not been able to figure it out. The pyramids were place where the mortal and divine worlds connected. In death, the pharaoh acted as an intermediary between the gods and his people.
Before entering the Pyramid grounds we had a little escapade.
Tamer bought our tickets and we were all going in when the gate guards spotted the video camera. You can take a video camera, but because this one was large and looks professional, they said we were from a TV station. Tamer talked to them, then Dave talked to them...in Arabic and English. The guards got verbally
aggressive and Dave did, too. Finally, a higher ranking officer came and said we had to pay 1,000 Egyptian pounds (about $200) to use the video camera at the Pyramids. They were laughing when they said it. We weren't laughing and of course, said "NO". The tried to take Tamer's Tour Guide Permit away from him and hold him because we were “making trouble“. He would not give them the permit. We stopped talking to them and said we would not use the video camera at the Pyramids. We did not want Tamer to get in trouble. We insisted on carrying the camera with us in its bag when they said we had to leave it at the gate. We got away with that, but no video shots.
The other guard at the Pyramids is the Sphinx. It was absolutely enormous. The Greeks named it Sphinx because it looked like the mythical winged monster with a women’s head and lion’s body who set riddles and killed anyone unable to answer them. The Sphinx is missing its nose, for which some people blame Napoleon. Our guide, Tamer told us that the nose was probably knocked off by some ancient Egyptian pharaoh in order to symbolically “suffocate” the guardian of the Pyramids. Surrounding the great Pyramids are smaller and more dilapidated pyramids that once housed the tombs of ancient queens and princesses. We were able to descend into one of the smaller pyramids that was a tomb of the queen. A steep and narrow passageway descended about 100 feet to the burial chamber. There were no visible hieroglyphics inside the burial chamber. All that remained was a deep pit for the sarcophagus.
We drove out to an overlook to get some great photos of the Pyramids with Cairo rising behind it. This is where all the hawkers, vendors, camel drivers, and other hustlers. Every ten seconds it seemed like there was someone tugging my sleeve … “camel ride, very cheap, name your price …” I finally gave in to a camel ride after some hard bargaining with the camel driver. We got him down to 10 Egyptian pounds ($2) for a short ride and photo-op. But in a low voice, he swore us to secrecy. “You tell no one, no one,” he insisted and then took us to the back of the herd! The camels were really spruced up with colorful saddles and halters. What a strange and cantankerous animal! I was thrown backwards and forwards as the camel lumbered to its feet. It was a short little ride, but now I can officially say that I rode a camel by the Pyramids!!
Next, we headed for Memphis, which was the ancient capitol city of Egypt. Some of the earliest pyramids and tombs are here. The whole area is a giant excavation site with many treasures yet to be found. While we were in Saqqara, archeologists found a 2000 year old sarcophagus and mummy with a golden mask. Our guide, Tamer, took us to what became my favorite tomb on our tour. We visited the tomb of Ti, who was a noble and overseer of the Abu Sir Pyramids. It was here that I really came to better understanding of ancient Egyptian religious beliefs. The walls were covered with beautiful murals and hieroglyphics detailing daily life in ancient Egypt. The walls told the stories of slaves making cloth, catching fish, baking bread, building boats … etc. The ancient Egyptians believed that in the afterlife they would require all the same things they used in everyday life. So on the walls of their tombs murals portrayed everything from food to housing to transportation. In addition, slaves and workers would be needed. By representing these things on the walls of their tombs, the images allowed their ultimate immortality. For slaves and workers, this was their gateway to the afterlife; just as the mummy of a king or a noble would become the spiritual body in the afterlife. Not so far off base from some of our modern beliefs. Don’t we too continue to “live” and “remain immortal” through images and words and markers.
Later that evening, we headed back to the Pyramids for the sound and light show. Our guide Tamer took us to the Pizza Hut that sits right next to the Pyramid grounds. By climbing to the restaurants rooftop terrace we had a free and perfect view of the show, along with some delicious pizza to eat. We had a ball hanging out with our yachtie friends, listening to the show and learning more about Egyptian culture and history, all while seeing the Sphinx and the Pyramids illuminated by multi-colored lights.
The following day we visited the
Egyptian Museum which houses some of the most spectacular treasure. We saw amazing lifelike statues, intricate hieroglyphics, and creepy mummies. We discovered how Egypt was ruled by many different peoples -- Egyptians, Hyskos (a
Semitic people), Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Marmaluks, Turks, French, and British. The most impressive treasure was that of King Tut. There were over 1000 pieces recuperated from his tomb -- furniture, pottery, jewelry, sarcophagus, a chariot, clothing … etc. His sarcophagus and face mask were the most beautiful, made out of solid gold and semi-precious jewels. Delicate jewelry and charms were hidden in the folds of linen that wrapped his mummy. Apparently King Tut died at the age of 19 after breaking his leg and then developing a gangrene infection. Had he lived longer, his treasure might have been more spectacular! How I wish they allowed cameras inside the museum!
After the museum, we headed to the Citadel. This structure is relatively young at 700 years. It was home to Egypt’s Muslim and Ottoman rulers, followed by the French and then the British. It looks like a castle out of the middle ages with its high walls, but inside there is a huge mosque and palace. The mosque took 18 years to build and is topped with towering minarets and gracious domes. To go inside the mosque, we all had to take off our shoes. Needless to say it got a little smelly. We had a nice break sitting on the carpeted floor and looking up at hundreds of hanging lanterns and glittering domed ceilings. The mosque is still used today as a place of worship even though it is a national monument.
After a full day of touring most of us were ready for a little R&R. A few of us decided to take a little extra tour with our guide, Tamer. He arranged for us to cruise on the Nile River through downtown Cairo. We got to mingle with the locals a little as we boarded a small and rundown ferry boat. As we cruised down the Nile, we passed small islands still being used for farming. Many of the locals still used the Nile as a source of water. We saw many women by the riverside washing dishes and clothing in the murky water, children bathing and playing, animals being watered ... Cairo is a city full of contradictions. It is full of wonderful history and modern advancements, but most of the population lives in poorly constructed brick buildings without any amenities. According to Tamer, the government has had a hard time keeping up with the city’s rapid growth. Infrastructure is sorely lacking in the “suburbs” that are going up around the city -- no roads, no running water, little electricity, no plumbing, no garbage collection … But for so many people, being in Cairo regardless of living conditions, is a chance at a better life.
That evening we visited the grand bazaar of Khan Al-Khalili. This huge souq has been in Cairo since the 14th century. You can buy almost anything here. Both the tourists and locals were out en masse. Everywhere you looked, there was a small piece of history from the gates and walls of the medieval city of Cairo to stately mosques. When the Muslims controlled the walled city of Cairo, the gates would close every night. Anyone who was not a Muslim had to be out of the city by that time where they could be preyed on by robbers. Some incentive to change religions. Surprisingly, the hawkers here are well mannered. Or maybe it’s just that I have developed thicker skin. We walked through narrow and winding passageways finding the spice market and then the clothing market. We topped off our evening with a stop at a nearby café where we watched the tourists walk by and Egyptian men smoking their sisha pipes. And watching us was the tourist police sticking out like a sore thumb in their white uniforms. They were everywhere with blockades, check points, and guns. We all felt quite safe.
With our last day in Cairo being a success we headed back to the hotel. We had an early start in the morning for our drive back to the Red Sea coast and the marina. But first, we made a very important stop at Carrefour which is the international equivalent to Walmart. All the yachties loaded up with groceries in this fabulous modern supermarket. We haven’t seen anything like it since Thailand. Then it was back to the bus for a 5 hour drive to Abu Tig Marina. It’s nice to see the azure blue ocean, get back to my bunk on the boat, and take a break from touring. All in all, we had a fabulous tour. I have learned so much about Egypt, its people, and its history. I would highly recommend this tour and our tour guide to anyone. It is unfortunate that attacks against tourists have been a problem here. But we never felt threatened or in danger during our tour. You still have to put up with the small inconveniences of Egyptian bureaucracy, slimy hawkers, and the whole “baksheesh” system. But overall, the grandeur of the Pyramids and temples far outweighs these annoyances. If you ever get the chance you must come to Egypt and check out its ancient splendors.