Our first glimpse of Egypt was from the plane as we started our descent into Cairo’s International Airport. We were surprised to see lush fields of crops, as vibrantly green as Oz’s Emerald City. As we swooped closer to the airport, the emerald fields abruptly transitioned to the earthy desert landscape that we had anticipated. We’d been prepared for the stark beauty of the desert, but throughout the trip the splendid farms that frame the Nile floored us.
In the airport we were amused to see duty free shops oddly hawking washing machines and refrigerators. Sameh, our unfailingly cheerful and personable A&K representative, hailed us as we entered the customs area and whisked us through the formalities. We were in a van on our way to the city ten minutes after leaving the plane. Traffic in Cairo is more congested than an allergy-sufferer’s sinuses during hay-fever season, and every bit as painful. The only good thing that you can say about it is that it’s not quite as bad as Athens. On the way to the hotel a few drops of rain spattered the windshield of the van at precisely the moment that Sameh told us that it rarely rains in Cairo, but that was the only precipitation we encountered until we changed planes in Frankfurt on the way home.
Although the ride took awhile, there were lots of interesting things to see on the way, including the central train station, which is an architectural gem. A towering rose granite statue from Luxor also graces this bustling square. We decided that Egyptians must enjoy TV as much as Americans, since small satellite dishes sprouted from rooftops and balconies like mushrooms after a spring rain. We were fascinated by the diverse styles of dress, from standard Western attire to exotic robes (galabeyyas), with a variety of creative headgear. Many women covered their heads with scarves simply knotted under the chin, though some wore flowing headdresses, similar to a nun’s wimple, from shoulder to below-the-hip lengths. We didn’t see as many veils in Cairo as in other parts of the country, but they were not uncommon. Men sported a wide array of head coverings from turbans to kaffifyeh (the Arab headdress we typically see in the media) to brightly colored knit skullcaps. The Nile is pretty even in central Cairo where the footpath winds through nicely landscaped parks. We saw lots of young couples on park benches enjoying the view of each other much more than that of the river.
You have to pass your belongings through an x-ray machine when you enter the Conrad hotel, just like at the airport. The Conrad is a very modern, well-appointed hotel overlooking the Nile, that, except for 4 palm trees and 3 oil paintings of Egyptian scenes in the lobby, could be located anywhere in the world. We had hoped for a bit more local atmosphere. We arrived the day before Coptic Christmas, so the hotel played a recording of "White Christmas" in an endless loop in all the public spaces. Unless they were wearing really excellent ear plugs, Egyptian hotel workers are either the most tolerant people on earth, or every night they would be carted away to the loony bin to be replaced with new employees every morning. Otherwise, it was a perfectly serviceable hotel. By the time we got settled, it was dark so we skipped the walk we’d considered. We decided to stay in the first night and tried the seafood restaurant in the hotel. We had a very fresh and delicious grilled sea bass and a wonderful vegetarian couscous. At first we were happy to see a guitar player begin a musical set, but after several numbers sung largely off-key and miserably accompanied, we began hoping that he had a break coming up soon. He asked for requests and we were tempted to solicit a song we hate rather than listen to him butcher one of our favorites.
We arose early the next morning and after a hasty breakfast, Sameh came to introduce us to the driver who would take us to Alexandria and back, a friendly, very sweet man. There wasn’t much traffic so early on a Sunday morning and not ten minutes outside central Cairo we already began seeing farmland. Suddenly, across a grove of palm trees shrouded in low-lying fog, we spied the Giza pyramids in the distance, illuminated by the tender rays of the awakening sun. What a thrill!
It takes about 3-1/2 hours to drive to Alexandria on a well-paved toll road. Egyptians might not be the worst drivers in the world, but they’re definitely in top contention for that distinction. Traffic signals and signs are largely ignored and there is no concept whatsoever of lane discipline. Drivers usually chose to straddle lanes rather than commit to one only, even when both were occupied. They seemed to wait for curves or hills to pass, but only if there was oncoming traffic. Amazingly, they seem to take all of these antics in stride, never yelling or gesturing rudely at each other. American drivers would be spitting like camels in a paroxysm of road rage. In fact, we recommend that all Americans go driving in Egypt for awhile. If they survive, they’ll certainly be less upset by U.S. driving behavior when they return. Our driver was comparatively well behaved, we supposed because A&K prefers that their guests not suffer heart attacks in their vehicles. However, he had the disconcerting habit of dozing off periodically, often while passing, which caused us to wonder whether he could see through his eyelids, or if he had a special form of ESP. Since Stu was nodding off also, Barbara kept engaging the driver in conversation in a futile attempt to keep him awake.
Although it’s a long drive, the scenery is engrossing along the way. We kept noticing tall white cone-shaped structures dotted with holes, often in pairs. Our driver explained that pigeons, a local culinary treat, are raised in them. After he described his mother’s recipe, which involves stuffing the pigeon with rice and roasting it with onions, spices and hot peppers, we were anxious to try some. We saw scores of people toiling in fields of alfalfa, tomatoes, oranges, bananas and other unidentified crops. As we traveled through the Delta, farm stands cropped up all along the road and farmers toted their wares, most often in donkey or horse carts. The oranges looked especially ripe and enticing with a deep, practically red skin and glossy dark green leaves. We didn’t stop for any that day, but the ones we ate later in the trip were just as juicy and sweet as we imagined they’d be. Egypt also wins the prize for best worldwide highway tollbooths. The one nearest to Cairo was gussied up like an old Egyptian temple, with hieroglyphics on the columns and faux statues of the ancient gods. The one nearest to Alexandria imitated a Greek temple with graceful columns and decorative friezes.
When we got to Alexandria we parked near the Graeco-Roman Museum and the driver got out to look for our guide, who stepped out of a taxi right next to us just after he walked away. She introduced herself and when the driver returned we headed into the museum. We started with a brief history of Alexandria, named for Alexander the Great and seat of power during the Roman reign. It was here that Cleopatra VII seduced both the Roman emperor Julius Caesar and, after JC’s assassination, Marc Antony. The name Cleopatra appropriately means "the glory of her father". There’s a bust of this celebrated siren in the museum, the only one in existence. It’s an uninspired portrait that makes it hard to imagine how she could have kindled the passion of these extraordinary men. Until this visit, we had no idea that the Greeks had incorporated some of the ancient Egyptian deities into their own mythology. One example is Bes, a troll-like figure who served as a domestic god of childbirth to the ancient Egyptians, then became god of entertainment to the Greeks and was transformed by the Romans into a god of war. One of the most interesting displays in the museum was a collection of tiny glass vessels used to collect the teardrops of grieving widows, a tribute of their devotion.
After the museum we visited the 2nd Century Kom El Shuqafa Catacombs, which combined Graeco-Roman and Egyptian designs. The next stop was at the misnamed Pompey’s Pillar, a 27 meter obelisk erected in 97 AD as a tribute to the Emperor Diocletian. It stands on a hill in a lovely garden guarded by two enigmatic sphinxes. The 2nd Century AD Roman amphitheater that we explored next is very well preserved and is the site of summer concerts. Workers were busy excavating more ruins in the vicinity.
The drive to lunch was scenic. Alexandria hugs the shore of the Mediterranean with long expanses of sand and clear aqua sea. The scent of roses perfumed the air as we entered the San Giovanni restaurant. We later bought one and were delighted by its bold, sensual fragrance. The waiter brought out bread and a bowl of the most wonderful hummus we’ve ever eaten - it had a spicy kick that was totally addictive. The rest of lunch was decent, but we would have been happy with the hummus alone.
The Salemlek Palace Hotel was a former residence of King Farouk and is located within the Montazah Gardens. Before checking in we swung by the Montazah Palace, also built by Farouk, which still hosts Egyptian rulers. Our guide and driver left us on our own and after settling in and admiring the view from our room, we headed out to stroll around the gardens and get a better look at Montazah Palace, a magnificent building with elaborate decorations and plenty of romantic spires, towers and arches. There is a simple and elegant mosque nearby as well as a group of small cottages, a more modern hotel on a small strip of beach and a contemporary lighthouse on the tip of a small island connected to the mainland by a handsome stone bridge.
Although we really wanted to try the cozy, atmospheric French restaurant in the hotel, we found that our appetites were dulled by the ample and late lunch. The hotel had provided an overflowing basket of fresh fruit and a small plate of cookies in our room, so we ate some fruit plus the cookies along with bottled water and were satisfied to turn in pretty early. The next morning we had breakfast overlooking the water in the room that had been Farouk’s study. His phone still sat where he once used it.
We asked the driver to pick us up around 9 a.m. hoping that if we got a later start he might not be so sleepy on the road, but it didn’t make any difference. Before leaving town, we swung by the new Library of Alexandria, which is scheduled to open this year. The architecture is just perfect, it manages to look very modern while still capturing a feeling of antiquity. It’s pearly gray and shaped like a rounded wedge with the entrance sloping upwards. The back of it is a tall curved wall incised with characters from every alphabet, modern and ancient. It was built with funds from many countries and is supposed to be built on the approximate site of the ancient library. We also found out that archaeologists believe they have found fragments of Pharos in the harbor, the wondrous lighthouse of the ancient world.
We enjoyed the views on the ride back to Cairo but traffic was thicker so it took us longer to get back to the Conrad than we’d expected. We got a glimpse of Sameh in his red VW beetle rushing to meet us at the hotel. We dropped our stuff and went for lunch at the hotel, where we shared a delicious assortment of middle-eastern appetizers, like baba ganoush and tahina, followed by a plate of grilled vegetables. Unfortunately, this left us very little time for sightseeing as most places closed around 4:00 or 4:30 p.m., but we paid for a car and driver and headed off to Coptic Cairo, ancient seat of the Christian community. In this part of town the roads were rougher, habitations less modern, and we saw produce markets and donkey carts just like in the country. The Coptic museum is small but had some interesting artifacts. We walked down a narrow alley to find the Hanging Church, which was only partially open due to extensive restoration work in progress. One of our favorite places was The Nunnery of St. George’s with its colorful mosaics and paintings of George slaying the dragon. St. Barbara’s just closed as we arrived, as did the Synagogue. We wandered around awhile longer soaking in the street scene then headed back to the hotel.
The next morning we formally met the group that we would be traveling with for the next 11 days (15, including us) and our Egyptologist guide, Hisham Abdallah, then we all headed out to the Egyptian Museum. Security is tight at all the tourist sites. If you don’t have to submit to metal detectors and x-ray machines, your bags will be hand inspected at minimum. Guards with assault rifles or sub-machine guns were ubiquitous.
This museum is outstanding. In addition to the mummy room, where great pharaohs and queens reside in all their desiccated dignity, there is the astounding collection of artifacts from the tomb of King Tut-Ankh-Amun, dating back to about 1330 BC. The artistry of the jewelry, thrones, coffins and other relics is incomparable. The boy king, Tut, was a minor ruler of the New Kingdom, a mere blip compared to Pharaohs such as Ramses II, who lived to the age of 97 and ruled for 66 years, building many of the monuments that we admire today. The reason that Tut is so renowned is because his tomb had not been looted, so his treasures were preserved. The riches in the tomb of a king such as Ramses II are unimaginable if you consider that they must have far exceeded those found in Tut’s, which are considerable. The early death of Tut is a mystery, but some believe that he may have been murdered by the powerful high priest, reluctant to relinquish power once the boy reached his majority and could assume authority.
Hisham, with a Master’s in Egyptian history, was an excellent guide to the collection, pointing out significant pieces and explaining their context. We were especially interested in the 4 canopic jars, which store mummies’ vital organs (lungs, liver, stomach and intestines) after the embalming ceremony. One room contained masterpieces from the 3rd Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, dating back to 2650 - 2630 BC. The sophistication of this art is amazing.
We went to a charismatic Egyptian restaurant, Abu El Seed, located on an island in the Nile, for lunch. The group split up among several small tables and we made the acquaintance of Toni and Maggi McKerrow. Toni’s husband, Martin, had run off to meet some friends at the university. Martin and Toni live in NYC and had been residents of Montclair. Maggi is Martin’s sister, a professor of Theater arts in San Diego. We had lots to talk about and really enjoyed them.
There was less time available after lunch than we’d expected, so we didn’t have time to visit the mosques or the Citadel, but we hired a car and driver and went to the Khan El-Khalili, the major market in Cairo. While we didn’t buy anything, we enjoyed snooping around. Men gathered in intimate cafes, gabbing with cohorts and smoking tobacco in tall, colorful glass water pipes. Businessmen stopped on the way home from work to buy flat round pita bread from sidewalk vendors. A small man in flowing white robes sold tea from an urn strapped to his side. Tourists and locals alike crowded the narrow alleys checking out the merchandise in open stalls. That evening we had a welcome dinner at an Italian restaurant in the hotel with our group, Sameh, Hisham and the local A&K manager. The food was not very good, but the group was convivial and we had a great time.
We had to arise very early the next morning to catch a flight to Hurghada, where we were boarding the Callisto, our floating home on the Red Sea. Because of the irregular flight schedules, we ended up spending many hours at a hotel with nothing much to do. Although the weather was sunny, it was a bit chilly, so the idea of a swim or snorkel was not appealing, and we had arrived too late to schedule a ride in a glass-bottomed boat to scope out the reefs. We took a walk into town, which was not terribly interesting, but it killed an hour. Hurghada is nothing more than a modern strip of hotels and tourist traps on the beach. We read the rest of the time until lunch. It turned out that we were the first group on this brand new itinerary, so A&K was working out the kinks in the program. A senior representative from the London office, named Primrose, had joined us to check out the tour. Everyone expressed his or her dissatisfaction with this waste of time, especially since there is so much to see in Cairo that we never got to and since we had to get up so early just to sit around and do nothing. It turned out that this was one of only two real problems with the trip, so in retrospect it seems minor.
Callisto means "most beautiful" and this ship lives up to its name. It had just been totally refurbished and the public spaces and cabins were spacious and well appointed. Our group had the charter for the whole boat and since we were only 15 (plus the A&K staff), we had lots of room. We boarded the boat and relaxed in the lounge with a glass of champagne as our luggage was being brought to our cabins and while we got a first short briefing. After seeing our cabins, we had a safety drill and then were free to unpack and relax on the upper deck as the Captain expertly maneuvered out of the crowded harbor. The crew was excellent, friendly and helpful. The Greek Captain was straight out of central casting, tall and handsome with distinguished salt and pepper hair. The First Officer, Theodora, was a quiet, capable young woman. Lynn, the efficient and charming cruise coordinator, was from Connecticut, but she maintains an apartment in NYC and is about to marry a Greek ship captain. Ellie, originally from Russia, tended bar and took care of much of the housekeeping. Costas served meals and drinks. We had a smooth passage overnight to Aqaba, Jordan.
We disembarked in Aqaba and met our local Jordanian guide, Moawia - a black-haired, attractive young man with long, thick eyelashes that a fashion model would kill for - as we boarded a comfortable bus for the 2-hour ride to Petra. The landscape was desert scrub all the way, only 6% of the land is irrigable. Moawia gave us good background information about his country along the way. We learned that the chief exports are phosphates, potash and cement.
Of the approximately 4.6 million population, one third live in the capitol city of Amman, 60% are between the ages of 15 and 35 (a young citizenry), 60% have a higher education, 50% are of Palestinian origin, 90% are Muslim and 10% are Christian. The native population is Bedouin hunters and shepherds, nomads of the desert. We now know that the symbol of Jordan is a pot of coffee, symbolizing hospitality, and Moawia told us about some complicated social rituals involving the presentation and drinking of coffee. He demonstrated some of this fine hospitality by offering us all homemade local pastries that he’d brought along. They were primarily made with filo dough, honey and pistachios, similar to baklava. They were really tasty, not too sweet.
He also explained about the intriguing headdress, the kaffiyeh. Although nowadays men will wear any color they choose, in order to distinguish citizens of neighboring nations, the Arab countries had established different color schemes for each, for example, Jordan was red and white, Palestine was black and white, Saudi Arabia was all white, etc. We noticed that Jordanians still wear red and white most of the time.
There are many different ways to wear the kaffiyeh, from simply draped over the head and held in the place with a plain black band, to elaborately folded in a variety of shapes. Moawia demonstrated some of the more popular styles for us, such as the Hussein and the Arafat. He told us that the style is a matter of personal preference, it has no special ethnic, social or religious significance.
Petra was established between 100 BC and 100 AD by the Nabateans, merchants who came to Jordan in the 5th Century BC. It covers about 100 square kilometers and is carved into the red sandstone faces of the surrounding cliffs. The cliffs and structures are vibrant with colors in gorgeous swirling patterns due to an abundance of minerals such as iron, sulfur and calcium. At the entrance, you have the choice of walking in, riding a horse some of the distance, or taking a carriage (for the infirm). Four older members of our group (2 couples who always travel together) needed to take the carriage, but the rest of us decided to walk in.
The Siq is a narrow canyon through the rock formed by earthquakes and floods. You follow a long, winding path between the soaring fantastically eroded and beautifully colored walls, dwarfed by the magnitude of it. It is breathtaking! Suddenly you emerge into a huge open area, face to face with the Treasury, its fabulous façade hewn out of the massive cliff. If you saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, you got a view of the Treasury as Indy rode away from it into the Siq. Early discoverers of the site believed that the enormous urn at the top of the building contained great riches, (which explains the name) and immediately set about damaging it in an effort to extract the booty. In fact, most scholars now believe that the urn was a funerary symbol and that the building was a memorial tomb, probably for an important person, such as a king, due to its impressive size and detailed decoration. It’s impossible to do justice to it in words - among the graceful columns, 3 tholos (temples) contain statues of Isis (Egyptian fertility goddess) and 2 Amazons (symbols of strength and power). Nike, the Greek winged goddess, is represented, as is the Gorgon, Medusa, appropriately in a frieze. The interior is plain, except for the beauty of the stone, divided into several empty rooms devoid of decoration.
We continued through a passage into an enormous clearing, site of a necropolis. Small tombs dotted the hillsides. Among the carvings we noticed a repeated cross step pattern that reminded us of the Inca cross. Both are symbols of the afterlife, this one representing the stairway to Heaven (the Inca cross represents the cycle from birth to death to rebirth). It is estimated that Petra had 30-40,000 inhabitants during its heyday. A large and graceful theater remains as a reminder of daily life.
We continued on and sighted the Royal Tombs, perched high on a cliff - the Urn Tomb, the Silk Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb and the Palace Tomb. Because of the lunch stop and the long trip back to the boat, we had to stop here and return, missing many other features of Petra, such as the Monastery. Although the buffet lunch at the Movenpick Hotel nearby was very good and the hotel was evocatively decorated, we would have preferred the option of remaining in Petra to see more of it. This was the second disappointment of the trip. Had we known that we would not have a full day to explore Petra, we probably would not have booked this itinerary.
They made up for it on the second day in Jordan when we visited Wadi Rum, the desert valley where Lawrence of Arabia lived during World War I and where the Zelabia tribe of Bedouin still roams. Three Bedouin drivers arrived in SUVs to take us into the desert, wearing white or gray galabeyyas and red and white kaffiyehs. Although one young guy wore sandals, the others had on black dress loafers. If you wonder what they wear under their galabeyyas, as we did, we confirmed that in Jordan at least the men wear white cotton pants. Our driver hiked up his galabeyya when climbing into the vehicle, exposing his pant legs and we later observed the pant hems on the other two.
Driving in sand requires great skill and our driver loved to show his off. Rather than stick to the worn path, he often took off over the dunes, sliding and gliding through deep drifts. Stu referred to him as Mustafa Andretti as he hot-dogged over the sand. It was really fun! The desert is absolutely gorgeous. The sand ranged from a khaki dun to a deep red hue, its undulating curves punctuated by rugged sandstone mountains and tufts of ifel, a hardy desert bush. We stopped several times to admire the views, once to climb into the remains of T.E. Lawrence’s very humble abode.
At one place while we admired petroglyphs of hunters and camels etched on a mountain wall around 9-10 BC, our drivers gathered scrub, started a fire (with Bic lighters, not rubbing sticks together), and brewed us Bedouin tea in small black cast iron teapots. The teas were scented with sage or mint and sugary sweet. Bedouins with camels showed up and offered rides. In Jordan it seemed that the Bedouin used camels only for the tourists, they all have 4 wheel drive trucks donated by Juan Carlos of Spain, however, in the Sinai we saw many Egyptian Bedouin who still used camels for their own transportation and portage. We skipped the ride because it was just in a circle for a few minutes. We’re hoping to take a camel trek into the Sahara in the future, probably when we visit Morocco.
We continued on to a Bedouin camp, where we stopped to admire the tents and have lunch. The tents are black with tan stripes, woven of goat’s hair. When it rains, the wool shrinks, making it watertight, but when it is dry the weave allows the breezes in, making them very practical. Bedouin sleep on their finely crafted rugs and some have heating stoves and propane light bulbs. We ate outdoors on low tables covered with red wool blankets. A young man manipulated wads of gummy dough like a pizza crust and tossed them onto a cast-iron dome heated from below, where they bubbled and baked into delicious flat bread.
On our way back to the boat from Wadi Rum, we drove around the town of Aqaba and stopped at Aqaba Castle, established in 1516. After exploring the ruins, we went to a store that sells goods crafted by Jordanian women. Proceeds from the sales benefit a women’s organization founded by Queen Noor, the former Lisa Halaby - widow of King Hussein.
Shortly after we boarded, the Callisto set sail for Sharm-El-Sheik in the Sinai. The name Sinai derives from a Semitic word for tooth, due to the ragged shape of the mountains. It is a peninsula surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Suez Canal and Gulf of Suez to the west, the Gulf of Aqaba to the east and the Red Sea to the south. Hisham told us that granite is only found in the Sinai and in Aswan, but due to the difficulty of transporting it from the Sinai, all of the stone used for obelisks and the great temples was mined in Aswan.
The following morning, we were pleased to see Sameh on the dock, joining us for the next couple of days. We disembarked early and boarded a bus for the long drive to St. Catherine’s Monastery. St. Catherine’s, which dates back to 540 AD, still functions as a center of religious study for Coptic Christians, even though the number of monks has greatly diminished over the years. Most of these monks are currently Greek, although our guide to the library, which contains an impressive collection of ancient texts, was American. It was here where we clearly saw the advantages of Hisham’s numerous connections, as he gained us entrance to areas of the complex that are off-limits to most tourists. The buildings of the monastery, the church, the monk’s quarters, the library, etc., are encircled by a tall stone wall, which is in turn surrounded by rocky mountains, topped with spare white crosses. The grace of the buildings is only surpassed by the excellence of the religious art and artifacts within. Stunning mosaics and gilded icons crowd the main chapel. This is the site of the famous Biblical burning bush, which appears to be well extinguished.
We had plenty of time to explore on our own after the tour and climbed partway up the facing mountain for a wonderful view down into the monastery. We walked with Sameh most of the way down the road to a hotel, where we had a lovely lunch outdoors overlooking the mountains. Then it was time for the long drive back to the boat. We stopped along the way at a scenic overlook where Bedouins were selling handicrafts.
That night we had our farewell party with the Captain and crew. After dinner, 11 of us plus Sameh, Hisham and an unengaging fellow named Charlie from the A&K Northbrook office, who joined us that morning after a conference in Kenya, went to the Ritz Carlton to see a floor show featuring a sexy belly dancer and a very talented oud (a stringed instrument) player. The belly dancer dragged us up on the floor to dance with her, teaching us the moves, so it was really fun.
Because of the intimate character of the Callisto, the opportunity to dine at different tables with various combinations of people, and the belly dance excursion, by the time we disembarked in Hurghada the next morning, we had bonded into a tight-knit group (except for the elderly foursome who tended to socialize primarily in their own small group).
When we moved to the Sun Boat IV, a much larger vessel that we shared with two other small tour groups, we found that the 11 of us (Martin and Toni, Maggi, Rita and Deko, Jack and Joanne, Nina and Roy and us) usually preferred to hang around together during free time rather than take advantage of the time to be alone. We shared lots of interesting conversation and loads of laughter.
We took a bus to Luxor, one of a long caravan of tourist buses, strung together for security reasons and accompanied by armed guards. Although we had an armed guard with us in Jordan, with an Uzi peeking out from under his jacket, he dozed off most of the time on the bus and seemed to be there mainly for show. This caravan seemed much more serious and alert.
The drive was very enjoyable with lots of interesting scenery along the way. Although Luxor is well south of Cairo, it is referred to as Upper Egypt and the North is Lower Egypt. This is because the Nile runs north from Lake Victoria in Kenya/Tanzania/Uganda and Lake Tana in Ethiopia to the Mediterranean. Upper Egypt is very rural and people still maintain old traditions. It’s a fascinating place to explore.
Hisham tells us that half of the monuments in Egypt and one third of the monuments in the world are concentrated in Luxor. We started out at the Temple of Karnak. This is the very definition of a mind-blowing experience. You expect the monuments to be huge in Egypt based on what you’ve heard, but it isn’t until you stand in Karnak, overwhelmed by the grandeur of it, that you really understand the meaning of the word awesome. The complex, a tribute to the gods Amun, Mut and Konso, sprawls over 64 acres, feeling as high as it is long. The real surprise is all the color. These temples were originally brightly painted and vestiges of the color still cling to columns and arches.
At Karnak you walk up a long path bordered by sphinxes with ram’s heads, a symbol of the god Amun, who is also commonly represented in human form wearing a headdress with two tall feathers. Small statues of the Pharaoh stand erect tucked beneath the chin, signifying that the king is under the protection of the god. Hisham started with Egyptian Temples 101, explaining the core structures and functions of the New Kingdom houses of worship. You enter the temple between massive pylons into an open courtyard and continue into the hypostyle hall, distinguished by rows of tall columns inscribed with hieroglyphs and drawings. Obelisks and statues of pharaohs and queens surround the hall. We learned that a statue with the left foot forward depicts a living person, while a statue with both feet together symbolizes a person, or god, in the hereafter. Osiris, god of the afterlife, is usually shown with feet together and arms crossed on his chest, the typical mummy posture. The holy sanctuary, which contains statues of the gods to whom the temple is dedicated, is situated in the next section. Although Karnak extends well beyond these core structures, we visited less grandiose temples that adhered to these basic stylistic elements.
Reigning pharaohs would build monuments to themselves within these temples, thereby associating themselves with the worshipped god. At Karnak, you can find monuments to the only female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, her stepson and successor, Tuthmosis III, Ramses II and others. There is a problem with identification. Pharaohs and queens are identified by their cartouche, an oblong figure that contained hieroglyphs specific to that ruler - like an ancient bar code. In an effort to establish his own supremacy, Ramses II carved his own cartouche on top of those of his predecessors, thereby making it difficult to establish the ruler to whom a statue or obelisk, etc. was originally dedicated. He also carved his cartouche very deep into the stone to prevent future generations from using the same method to eradicate his insignia.
Hatshepsut, the daughter of Tuthmosis I, married her brother Tuthmosis II and assumed the throne after the death of her brother/husband since her son was then too young to rule. Because pharaohs had to have a mother from a royal family, incest was common practice. Once Tuthmosis III gained power, he attempted to destroy monuments to his despised mother. Since he couldn’t tear down the majestic obelisk commemorating her at Karnak (2nd largest in the world) because it displayed carvings of the gods (it would have been very bad luck to destroy their images), T3 erected a wall around it to obliterate her memory. Ironically, this caused her obelisk to be the best preserved in the temple, a rose granite marvel.
Hisham explained how they erected the obelisks. They would dig a pit, build a wall in the middle of it and pile sand against one side. They moved the prone obelisk over the sandpit with its base against the wall. They would then make a hole in the wall. As the sand poured out of the hole into the empty pit at the other side, the level of the sand against the wall would lower, causing the base of the obelisk to move down, forcing the obelisk upright in the pit bolstered by the wall and the remaining sand. Once the obelisk was straight and anchored in the sand, the wall and extra sand could be removed, leaving it freestanding. What great engineers!
We also learned about the significance of the scarab (dung beetle). Egyptians, similar to many other ancient agrarian societies, worshipped the sun (Ra). Dung beetles roll a ball of dung before them, which resembles the sun in shape though certainly not brilliance, so the beetle was reputed to roll the sun across the sky. Since sunrise is associated with rebirth and renewal, the scarab is a symbol of resurrection and therefore good luck. We were told that many modern Egyptians still buy scarabs as good luck tokens. We felt that we could have benefited from more time at Karnak. Fortunately we returned after dinner for a sound and light show, so we got to walk through it again at a slower pace. The narration was pretty lame but the temple was fabulous illuminated at night.
After Karnak, we motored over to Luxor temple, built by Ramses II, whose image is flamboyantly advertised by 6 statues (2 seated and 4 standing) outside the main entrance. This guy had an ego bigger than Donald Trump and Bill Gates combined, and no doubt will boast a far more impressive burial. Although smaller in acreage than Karnak, Luxor is mightily impressive. As we walked through it with our mouths agape, Hisham continued explaining some of the symbology of the drawings and statuary and putting them into historical context. A mosque is built within this temple also. The sun set while we were there and it was treat getting to see the temple in both the soft light at day’s end and the artificial light at dusk. We had time to wander on our own before returning to the boat.
The next day was very special, with visits to the Valleys of the Kings and Queens and the tombs of the New Kingdom royalty. Since the tombs of the Old Kingdom pharaohs (the Great Pyramids) had been looted by the time of their reign, this generation of pharaohs decided to disguise their tombs a bit and dug them into hillsides that suggested a pyramidal shape. Of course, they were looted anyway. What remains are elaborately painted burial chambers and some artifacts, which are largely safeguarded in the museums. Much of the painting has faded due to high tourist traffic in the tombs over the years. However, when they discovered the magnificent tomb of Nefertari (Ramses II favorite wife) still in excellent condition, they decided to take stronger measures to preserve it. Only 150 people a day are permitted into the tomb for 10 minutes and only one group is allowed in at a time. Cameras have to be left outside in case someone forgets to disable their flash - no photos at all. Tickets go on sale at 6:30 am and each person has to buy a ticket individually, one person cannot buy for a group or even another individual. In order to reach the ticket booth, most tourists must cross the Nile via a bridge to the West Bank. This bridge is closed to tourist traffic until 6:00 am, though local traffic can pass over. In order to make sure that we got tickets, our group arose at 4:30 am, had a quick breakfast then headed out, preceded by another small A&K group on the Sun Boat with us. We sneaked across the Nile in the dark on a small motor launch, shivering in the crisp pre-dawn air. A bus was waiting for us near the dock and we drove to a tourist checkpoint, where they made us wait a bit before allowing us to continue to the ticket area. We were the third group on line, first were four young people in a car, followed by the other A&K group. By the time the bridge opened and buses began streaming into the parking area, we were clutching the priceless tickets in our hot little hands. All of the tickets for the day were undoubtedly sold out before 7:00.
Was it ever worth missing a few extra hours of sleep! The colors in Nefartari’s tomb, though 3200 years old, are so vibrant and the drawings so exquisite that it was one of the major highlights of the trip. Hisham negotiated with the guards to get us an extra 10 minutes but we actually spent about 30 minutes before we were shooed out, and every minute was precious. It was here that Rita pointed out that Hisham’s primary negotiation tactic was discreetly palmed baksheesh (a tip or bribe), a practice that we subsequently observed often.
After buying the tickets, we headed first to the Valley of the Kings, arriving first and enjoying the tomb of Ramses IV all to ourselves before busloads of tourists began pouring into the site.
Hisham explained the hieroglyphics and drawings on the walls, which included sections from the Book of the Dead. On Judgment Day, the deceased stands before Isis, Osiris, Anubis (the jackal-headed god of embalming) and others while their heart is weighed on a scale with a feather. If their heart is as light as the feather, then they are pure and can be escorted to the afterlife. As attested to in their tombs, all of the pharaohs had pure hearts. Nut, the goddess of the Sky, was often stretched out on the ceilings, swallowing the moon in the morning and giving birth to it at nightfall.
Gods and important humans are often depicted with an ankh in one hand and a wasset stick in the other. The ankh is the key of life and graphically represents the Nile, the primary source of water in Egypt and therefore an important life force. The top of the ankh is a loop which symbolizes the delta of lower Egypt where the Nile forks, the bottom of the ankh is a straight line - the Nile of upper Egypt - and the horizontal line separating the top from bottom is the dividing line between upper and lower Egypt. In order to enjoy a long life, you want to be strong. The wasset stick is a symbol of strength, hence both are carried.
We visited several other tombs in the Valley of the Kings (about 64 have been discovered), including Tut-Ankh-Amun’s. Tut’s sarcophagus lies in state in the tomb, which is decorated with beautiful drawings, though his treasures are in Cairo. We made a quick stop at the Temple of Hatshepsut on the way to the Valley of the Queens, but we didn’t venture inside. An interesting sight in the Valley of the Queens, aside from the incredible tomb of Nefartari, was the tomb of Amanherkapshaf, which featured a fetal skeleton in a small glass case.
Next stop was at the Temple of Habu, built by Ramses III and dedicated to Sakhmet, the lion-headed goddess of war. Hunting and war scenes covered the walls of the temple, with images of the mighty pharaoh smiting the enemies of Egypt. One wall, describing a battle in which the generals collected the hands of the slain warriors to prove their victory to the king, was illustrated with drawings of piles of hands. The pharaoh soon realized that the generals could lop off the hands of slain Egyptians as well to inflate the count. He therefore demanded that the generals extract the penises of the slain enemies instead. Since Egyptians were circumcised and their foes were not, it would not be possible to mix them up. These tools of identification are also inscribed on the wall. We just had a few minutes to stop and snap photos of the enormous and extremely eroded Colossi of Memnon, two statues dating from about 1390-1352 BC commemorating the Pharaoh Amenhotep III.
We boarded the boat and had lunch as it cruised up the Nile south to Esna where we docked for the night. We hadn’t been terribly excited about the prospect of the Nile cruise, suspecting that it was a bit too typically tourist for our tastes. We don’t mind admitting that we were totally wrong. It would have been a terrible oversight to skip this. It was so idyllic basking in the warm sun on the upper deck, sucking in the absolutely gorgeous landscape. We spent almost all of our free ship time up there, conversing with our groupmates while gawking at everything. The lush farms along the river look much as they must have centuries ago. Hardworking farmers clothed in elegant local garb (galabeyyas, headdresses) toiled in fields of yellow-green sugar cane, tomatoes as red and inviting as a hooker’s lips, and mutant cabbages the size of beach balls. Beasts of burden - donkeys, horses, oxen and camels - transported people and produce. Snowy white egrets foraged among the crops and perched on the cattle. Men paddled down the river in small wooden boats or glided by in the agile sailboats they call feluccas. Stately women navigated the terrain nimbly balancing huge bundles on their heads. Kingfishers, herons and other birds stalked prey among the swaying reeds on the riverbanks and small islands. Just beyond the farms, shimmering sand dunes loomed in stark contrast.
We became aware of a group of merchants converging on our ship in small boats laden with dry goods - galabeyyas, blankets, tee shirts and other wares. They tossed plastic bags up to us so we could inspect the merchandise. Soon bags were rocketing onto the deck like soft missiles and people were dropping money and unwanted purchases back down. When they’d exhausted the market on our boat, they all headed downstream to the next one. This day marked our 14th wedding anniversary and that evening we celebrated with a bottle of champagne, a delicious dinner and the excellent company of our new friends.
The next day we disembarked to visit the Temple of Khnum in Esna. This temple was built in the Egyptian style by the Greeks and Romans (280 BC - 250 AD) on the site of an Old Kingdom temple. It’s a relatively small temple with only the hypostyle hall, no pylons or other grandiose structures. The beauty of this temple is in the capitals of the columns, which all display different patterns. A zodiac on the ceiling signaled the Greek influence. We passed through a busy street market on the way back to the boat, and while others bargained for souvenirs, we climbed to the upper deck and enjoyed the bustling street scene.
The ship sailed to Edfu while we relaxed and had lunch. Caleches, old-fashioned two-horse carriages, lined up to take us to the Temple of Horus, the falcon-headed god whose representation reminded us of the infamous Maltese Falcon. The horses were in such miserable condition that we felt terrible adding to their burden. This temple was also erected in the Graeco-Roman period and while it retained many of the characteristics and styles of the ancient temples, we felt that the more modern versions lacked their sophisticated artistry. In Egypt we finally understood the true meaning of the word defaced - Coptic Christians superstitious about the old religions would often destroy the faces of gods in the temples and carve their own icons into the walls and columns. This night as we continued up the Nile, the ship hosted an Egyptian night party. Everyone dressed up in galabeyyas and after a terrific buffet of native dishes, we partied with the crew. It was a blast.
We docked at Kom Ombo and started the day with a visit to the Temple of Sobek, the crocodile god. Living along the Nile meant living in fear of the voracious appetites of the powerful Nile crocs. Superstitious folks naturally believed that paying tribute to the crocodile god would protect them, hence this lovely temple on a bluff overlooking the river. Crocodiles were mummified here and you can still see some of them on display. Another interesting feature in this temple is a mural depicting surgical instruments in use at the time. Although this temple dates back to the Graeco-Roman period (built on the remains of a New Kingdom temple), Hisham claimed that surgical specialists practiced even during the era of the Old Kingdom. This was a very pretty area with a well-landscaped garden near the water. A snake charmer wowed the crowds by sticking the business end of a cobra into his mouth, while another cobra puffed up menacingly at his feet.
Although we didn’t visit his monuments, Hisham told us about Akhen-Aton, the New Kingdom pharaoh who tried to establish a new monotheistic religion worshipping Aton. He and his wife, the celebrated Nefertiti, moved the capital from Thebes/Luxor to Erminia during his brief reign. Worship of the old gods was reestablished by the high priests during the reign of their son, Tut-Ankh-Aton, and his name was accordingly changed to Tut-Ankh-Amun in recognition of his devotion to Amun.
We had lunch on the boat as we continued on to Aswan in the heart of Nubia. Natives here look more African than Middle-Eastern and we saw masks and other crafts similar to those that you’d find in East Africa. Luxurious long-staple cotton is grown in this region and we learned that cotton was introduced from Peru during the reign of Mohammed Ali (not the fighter) around 1804. We found this to be interesting since the patterns of some of the textiles had reminded us of similar Peruvian designs.
We took a small boat to Agilika Island to visit the temple of Philae, dedicated to Isis, Osiris and Horus although it was also constructed during the Graeco-Roman period. It varied from the classic Egyptian style in not being built on one axis though it shared most of the other architectural details. It is very graceful and reminded us of the lovely Greek temple at Cape Sounion. After the temple, we took a sail in a felucca. It was real treat; the scenery in this area is sublime. We stopped for a walk in the botanical gardens on Elephantine Island where we saw papyrus plants. The sun was setting in a riot of color as we boarded our ship. Tonight after a cocktail party and farewell dinner, we watched a floor show. First a mesmerizing performance by a Whirling Dervish, followed by a technically proficient but uninspired belly dancer. The dancer in Sharm El Sheik seemed to enjoy her work much more.
The next morning we bid farewell to the crew of the Sunboat IV and stopped to see the Aswan High Dam on our way to the airport. It’s not terribly interesting unless you’re an engineer. Prior to the building of the dams at Aswan, the Nile flooded every year, which is how they were able to transport the huge slabs of granite from Aswan to the temple sites downriver.
On the road, we saw trucks brimming with camels on their way to market. A kind flight attendant tipped us off to the best side of the plane to sit so that we had a perfect view of Abu Simbel as we approached from the air.
Abu Simbel is situated on Lake Nasser in the southern most tip of Egypt bordering the Sudan. Ramses II had a temple built around 1260 BC as a tribute to Amun with monuments to himself and his favorite wife, Nefertari. Since the construction of the High Dam would have submerged it under water, several nations provided funds to lift the temple higher up the cliff face in order to preserve it. They did an incredible job. The Egyptian government bequeathed the Temple of Dendur to the U.S to express their gratitude. It now resides in the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ramses chose this location, not only to stake out his territory in all of Egypt, but also so that anyone entering Egypt from the south would first see this awe-inspiring monument and immediately think twice about challenging their power. It reminded us that Washington, D.C. was also laid out on such a grand scale precisely to intimidate foreign heads of state.
On the entrance to the main building, four humongous statues of Ramses are carved into a towering cliff face with smaller statues of his wives and daughters between his feet. You enter a hall lined with magnificent statues. The wall drawings are exceptional. The sanctuary, which hosts figures of Ra Herakhti - god of the rising sun, Amun - the sun god, Ptah, along with Ramses, is dark. The temple was constructed so that two days a year (Feb. 22 and Oct. 22) the rising sun illuminates the statues in the sanctuary for 20 minutes - all except Ptah, the god of darkness and the underworld, who remains in the shadows. When they moved the temple, it took them 5 years to assure that it was precisely placed so that this phenomenon would continue to occur.
The more modest, yet still wonderful, Temple to Hathor (wife of Horus) and Nefertari stands next to the opulent main temple. The setting and configuration of the whole site is so fabulous that this was one of our favorite places in a journey where we were constantly thrilled.
That afternoon we flew back Cairo and the Conrad hotel. We had a free night with on organized activities but the eleven of us all wanted to go to dinner together, so Hisham recommended Arabesque and Sameh booked it for us. It was perfect, very exotic, with wonderful food. We finally got to try the pigeon, which was bony but flavorful. We were the only tourists in the place, it was nice to get local atmosphere.
We spent our last day in Egypt exploring the capital of the Old Kingdom - Memphis - and the ancient monuments in the area. We arose early and headed out to Saqqara. We visited the tomb of the high priest Mere-Ruka from 2340 BC. The sophistication of the artwork was astounding - the walls were covered with detailed scenes of daily life, cattle raising, fishing, jewelry making. There is a detailed depiction of the process of smelting gold. We saw similar portrayals in Peru dating thousands of years later. This tomb is one of the must-see sights of any trip to Egypt.
The tomb is near the stepped pyramid of Zoser who ruled for 22 years around 2750 BC. It is the first and oldest pyramid in the world, and is made of limestone, a reminder that this vast desert was once the bottom of the ocean. Zoser had two tombs, one for his body and one for the canopic jars. There is an eerily modern-looking temple in front of the pyramid with the first columns ever recorded. Sheaves of wheat are suspected to have inspired the design of columns. There is a cluster of spare, elegant buildings behind the pyramid that also have a very contemporary feel. Historians believe that these buildings were used during the Hepset festival (a celebration of the pharaoh’s right to rule for 30 more years) as changing rooms for the pharaoh, for storage, etc.
Hisham explained how the pyramids evolved as burial tombs for the first pharaohs. During the 1st Dynasty, the kings were buried in pits in the ground. During the 2nd Dynasty, above ground platforms served as tombs. In the 3rd Dynasty, they began stacking the platforms, forming the stepped pyramid. During the 4th Dynasty, they attempted to build a smooth sided pyramid, which resulted in bent and collapsed versions. You can still see the ruins of these failed efforts. They then succeeded in building the pyramids that are famous today, so far 107 have been discovered.
From Saqqara, we drove to Memphis where a 40-foot statue of Ramses II lies flat on its back. It is all that remains of his 19th Dynasty temple (1260-70 BC) in this area. The statue flaunts his muscular youth, powerful and vigorous even lying down. You can clearly make out the chinstrap holding on the false goat-hair beard that pharaohs wore as a symbol of dignity. There is also a lovely alabaster sphinx from around 1341-1200 BC, no one is sure which pharaoh it memorializes. The kings of the Old Kingdom built their palaces in Memphis (like Elvis) and were buried at Saqqara and Giza.
After two weeks in Egypt, and a few tantalizing glimpses, we finally got to the Great Pyramids at Giza. We stopped for lunch at the Khan El Khalili restaurant in the Mena House Oberoi Hotel. We sat on plush banquettes in a garden overlooking one of the pyramids. This was the type of hotel we wished for in Cairo, a converted palace redolent with foreign ambiance. It’s far from the city attractions though and would have been difficult fighting traffic to get around. But it’s a perfect base for visiting Giza. After lunch we sat Hisham down and presented his tip along with an elaborate hand-made card with collages and inside jokes that Maggi and Toni meticulously designed. It was a 3-tissue moment.
We collected ourselves and stalked off to the Pyramid of Cheops (4th Dynasty - 2640 BC). This is the largest pyramid, 451-ft. high and covering 13 acres. Each limestone block weighs from 2-1/2 to 15 tons and they estimate that it took about 20 years to build, using ramps to move the stones. Queens were never buried in the same pyramid as their husbands. You can descend into the burial chamber, a dark and claustrophobic trek that reveals only austere chambers. None of the beautiful drawings that grace the New Kingdom tombs are to be found. Although all of the pyramids were looted, the remains of two of the five solar boats buried with the pharaoh were found in Cheops and one is on display in a museum near the pyramid. It is the oldest boat in the world, a true masterpiece.
As in other ancient cultures, Egyptians were buried with goods to serve them in the afterlife, including boats for transportation. In the temples, model-sized sun boats often served as vessels to transport the statues of the gods, and were represented in drawings on the walls. The solar boats in Cheops were interred in pieces covered with limestone blocks for protection. Because of the excellent storage conditions, even rope (fashioned from the papyrus and halfa plants) survived intact for millennia. It took 25 years to reassemble the boat on display and it is stunning in its graceful simplicity and grand scale. The only decorative detail is stylized lotus blossoms at the prow and stern, a symbol of Upper Egypt.
In their heyday the pyramids were faced with smooth granite with no painting or carvings. Today only remnants of the exterior stone remain on the upper points. During the 12th century, the pyramids were used as a quarry and the smooth stones were hauled away, exposing their rough limestone foundations.
We drove to a lookout point with an expansive view of the 3 Great Pyramids - Cheops, Khafre and Menkaure - sticking up in the desert with the modern metropolis of Cairo in the background. The sky had become menacing with dark clouds crowding the horizon. A bold ray of sun escaped, illuminating first one and then eventually all three of the pyramids. It was a wonderful tableau. After that we walked around Menkaure, the smallest pyramid.
Our final stop on the Giza plateau was to visit the Great Sphinx, a tribute to the Pharaoh Khafre around 2600 BC. There is a handsome temple adjacent to it, also built by Khafre, that you traverse to reach the giant statue. There is a sensational view of his namesake pyramid looming behind the Sphinx from this vantage point. We learned to our dismay that the most serious damage to the face was intentional, not a result of erosion as we’d always surmised. Apparently, Napoleon’s troops used the nose for target practice during their campaign to conquer Egypt.
On our way back to town, we stopped at a shop where a man demonstrated how paper is made from papyrus. It’s labor-intensive and you have to admire the diligence of the first humans who figured out how to do it. Papyrus is the symbol of lower Egypt. Of course we were then encouraged to purchase a painting on papyrus.
After cleaning up and packing for our departure the following day, we met the gang at the hotel bar for drinks followed by dinner in their substandard Italian restaurant. Sameh joined us even though he had to be back at 4:30 am to take us to the airport. We had a great time. Though we were sad to say good-bye to everyone, we all vowed to meet again stateside.
Last week, while visiting another exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum and checking out the new, and terrific, space for Byzantine art beneath the main stairwell, we decided to revisit the Egyptian collection. It was so much more interesting now that we have a better understanding of the contents. We are impressed by the amount of relics from the Old and Middle Kingdoms that are on view. Tomb drawings, similar to those in Mere-Ruka’s are displayed. There is a whole room of statues of Hatshepsut, depicted as a pharaoh with false beard and all. We also admired the small sphinxes in the collection, which are in excellent condition. The Temple of Dendur seems restrained by comparison to the wonders