Tuesday, March 10, 2009

EGYPT: The glory that was...

After a freezing winter in Madrid, Enriqueta, Paco and I arrived in Cairo on Saturday February 7th to a welcoming warm climate and a chaotic, enormous city. We were met at the airport by Raed, our tour coordinator, who spoke excellent Spanish and had the habit of speaking in proverbs – he ended every sentence with a saying – very funny guy!

We were taken to the Ramses Hilton which, in its day, was only comparable to the pyramids but which has now fallen on lesser times.

The lobby was filled with natives smoking water pipes, a singer with a microphone that would have blasted out Madison Square Garden, a few stands selling different types of food, and women in black burkas with bundled-up children. Our rooms were on the 24th floor and offered a wonderful view of the city.

The next morning we were picked up and taken to see the pyramids and the sphinx at Giza. These incredible monuments have been practically eaten up by the city. In fact, our guide told us that they had recently torn down a row of apartments because they were too close – they should have torn them all down, blocking the view as they do as you approach these perfect structures. We went into the Kefrén pyramid practically crawling our way in and out to a chamber that was emptied of any treasures.

On the way back, we stopped off at the Papyrus Museum and factory. As the rest of the crowd went in, Paco went off down the street and found a friend, Aswani, who in turn introduced him to his son and grandson. By the time we came out, Paco was sitting under a tree eating tangerines with his new-found friends.

We had the afternoon free and had planned on going to the Egyptian Museum which was right across the plaza from our hotel. That’s when we started seeing Cairo – a city of 20 million people, chaotic traffic, few traffic lights, fewer working, and nobody paying any attention to them. The trick to crossing Cairo streets is putting one arm across your chest as an automatic reflex and holding the other arm out, palm up, and supplicating the oncoming cars not to hit you. I kid you not. This applies to two-lane as well as six-lane streets. Absolutely terrifying!

Anyway, we got to the museum without needing our own sarcophagus and saw many treasures of the past, the most spectacular being Tutankhamen’s burial mask. The mummies are also a hot attraction. The museum is filled with wonderful things, but the maintenance is non-existent. We found this to be true of Cairo in general. It’s as if they build things and just leave them – no upkeep. This makes for a very dirty city.

The weather was beautiful – around 70ºF and we were amazed that everyone was bundled up. They say this is their winter, so they dress in winter clothes. When you think that in summer it reaches 120º you being to understand.

Paco and I went out to explore the city in the evening and ended up at the Khan-al-khalili district where the giant bazaar is. We ended up having mint tea at a cafeteria between the market and the neighbourhood mosque, which turned out to be the exact site of the bombing two weeks to the day later that killed and injured some tourists!

Got to bed fairly early because we had a 5 am wake-up call on Monday to get to the airport for the plane to Luxor where we would connect with our Nile-boat.

Dark and early on Monday, we were taken to the airport to get our flight on Air Egypt to Luxor (Luxor is what the Romans called Thebes).

We were picked up at the airport and taken to our Nile-boat, the ALKAHILA. It was great – top deck with very comfortable sunchairs and a pool, with another awninged part with tables and chairs.

All of the “cabins” were like hotel rooms, very comfortable beds, bath with shower and tub, and floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the Nile.
A ribbon of palm trees and then desert in the background – beautiful!

We had a delicious lunch on board and left by bus for Karnak.

That Amon was king of the gods is clearly seen by the magnificent buildings at Karnak.

Although badly ruined, no site in Egypt is more impressive than Karnak. It is the mother of all religious buildings, the largest ever made by man and a place of pilgrimage for nearly 4,000 years, although today’s pilgrims are mainly tourists. It covers about 200 acres 1.5km by 0.8km.

The area of the sacred enclosure of Amon alone is 61 acres and would hold ten average European cathedrals. The great temple at the heart of Karnak is so big, St Peter's, Milan and Notre Dame Cathedrals could be lost within its walls.

The Hypostyle hall at 54,000 square feet with its 134 columns is still the largest room of any religious building in the world .and is considered to be one of the world's greatest architectural masterpieces. In addition to the main sanctuary there are several smaller temples and a vast sacred lake.

It represents the combined achievement of many generations of ancient builders. The Temple of Karnak is actually three main temples, smaller enclosed temples, and several outer temples located about three kilometers north of Luxor, situated on 100 ha (247 acres) of land. Karnak is actually the site’s modern name. Its ancient name was Ipet-isut, meaning "The Most Select (or Sacred) of Places".

It’s an incredible place – the columns are huge (42 feet high) and covered with hieroglyphics telling the stories of the times.

The famous scarab sculpture is at Karnak. There is a legend that says going around the scarab 3000 times will bring good luck for life. There were actually people walking three thousand times around it!

After Karnak, we went to the temple of Luxor

The temple of Luxor is close to the Nile and parallel with the riverbank. King Amenhotep III who reigned 1390-53 BC built this beautiful temple and dedicated it to Amon-Ra, king of the gods, his consort Mut, and their son Khons.

This temple has been in almost continuous use as a place of worship right up to the present day. It was completed by Tutankhamen and Horemheb and added to by Ramses II. Towards the rear is a granite shrine dedicated to Alexander the Great. It was getting dark by the time we got to the Luxor temple and it was beautifully illuminated, as you can see.

We had a full moon that night and were taking pictures when a police guard indicated that we could pass through a barrier to get a better shot. After taking the pictures, we thanked him and he held out his hand – everybody holds out their hand for “one euro” in exchange for anything and everything, even the police!

Then back to our hotel-boat for dinner and out again to see the Sound and Light show at the sacred lake at Karnak.

The next morning we had to get up very early to go for a sunrise balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings.

A small boat got us across to the west side of the Nile, to the death side - Ka.

We were very excited about this, as it promised to be beautiful. However, a slight sandstorm kicked up and after waiting for quite a while to see if we had permission to fly, we were told that it wasn’t to be.

I couldn’t believe that the authorities who are so lax on traffic were so strict about a few tourists flying a balloon.

So, we were taken to an outdoor “café” in the middle of Necropolis of Thebbes, in front of Madinat Habu, where we caught up with the people who weren’t balloon adventurers.

Thebes, the city of the god Amon, was the capital of Egypt during the period of the Middle and New Kingdoms. With the temples and palaces at Karnak and Luxor, and the necropolises of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, Thebes is a striking testimony to Egyptian civilization at its height.

Deir el-Medina is the Arabic name for the village in the Theban necropolis once occupied by the pharaohs’ tomb-builders and the artisans of New Kingdom Thebes. It’s name means ‘Monastery of the Town’ and derives from the Coptic monks who occupied the Ptolemaic temple there during the early Christian period, but in ancient times it was known as ‘Set Ma’at’ (the Place of Truth) or simply ‘Pa-demi’ (the town).

The funerary temple of Ramses III, Madinat Habu, was known as in ancient times as Djanet and according to ancient belief was the place were Amon first appeared. The Temple of Medinat Habu is one of the largest memorial Temples in Egypt. It measures 320m in length (east to west) and about 200m in width (north to south). It was built to commemorate Ramses III, after his death, by orders of the King himself. A huge mud brick enclosure wall surrounds the Temple.

This building basically consists of a huge gate, which takes the shape of a Syrian fort, and is decorated with battle scenes of the King's wars in Syria. After accessing the gate there is a shrine, which dates back to the 18th Dynasty, on the right hand side.

There is also a wide-open court that leads to a huge pylon, which has both towers decorated with battle scenes. On one tower the King, wearing the red crown with his "Ka" or "double", smiting his enemies in front of Re-Horakhty. On the other tower, the King is represented with the red crown of Lower Egypt, smiting his enemies in front of the God Amon Ra.

One of the most wonderful scenes engraved on the back of the southern tower, is the oxen hunt, which depicts Ramses III, leading his chariot, hunting wild oxen. The entrance to the tomb is where you could get an excellent idea of the original beauty; many of the colors (blues, oranges, reds and greens) were still vivid and the walls and ceilings were covered with marvellous drawings. It is really breathtaking.

Then we went to the Valley of the Workmen, where we visited a couple of tombs.

We had a panoramic view of the funerary temple of queen Hatshepsut. It is the most important of the temples constructed in Deir el Bahari and unique in all of Egypt.

It was constructed by Hatshepsut in the form of enormous terraces with pilars that are confused with the mountainside situated in back of the temple. It was done by the architect Senmut who obtained perfect proportional harmony. The temple is partially excavated in the rock and partially external, based on previous constructions by Mentuhotep I. It was built between the seventh and twenty-first year of Hatshepsut’s reign.

And then we headed to the impressive Valley of the Kings, where we entered the tombs of Ramses IV and Ramses IX.

Then. on our way back we stopped at the Colossus of Mennon.

After visiting these incredible places, we went back to the boat by bus over the river and had a late lunch. We also left late for Esna waiting for permission as the boat traffic was intense. We had a formally-served dinner on board (we usually have buffet) and afterwards a disco session in the bar, which we decided to pass on. Somehow the sounds of Spanish “bacalao” on the Nile just didn’t give us a thrill.

On Wednesday, after breakfast, we left to Edfu. The Temple of Edfu is an ancient Egyptian temple located on the west bank of the Nile in the city of Edfu which was known in Greco-Roman times as Apollonopolis Magna, after the chief god Horus-Apollo. It is the second largest temple in Egypt after Karnak and one of the best preserved.

The temple, dedicated to the falcon god Horus, was built in the Ptolemaic period between 237 and 57 BCE. The inscriptions on its walls provide important information on language, myth and religion during the Greco-Roman period in ancient Egypt. In particular, the Temple's inscribed building texts "provide details [both] of its construction, and also preserve information about the mythical interpretation of this and all other temples as the Island of Creation."

There are also "important scenes and inscriptions of the Sacred Drama which related the age-old conflict between Horus and Seth, a wonderful story about the love of Isis for Horus and how she goes all over the “known world” literally gathering the pieces of Horus cut up by Seth to put his back together. Built from sandstone blocks, the huge Ptolemaic temple was constructed over the site of a smaller New Kingdom temple, oriented east to west, facing towards the river.

The later structure faces north to south and leaves the ruined remains of the older temple pylon. The tourist stands at Edfu were particularly aggressive which kind of killed the urge to shop. Paco knows half of Egypt by now, he is always associating with anybody native he can find. I was shopping with Enriqueta and we got separated. She started calling “Susan, Susan!” and immediately every vendor in the place was calling me and looking for me!

We got back for lunch and sunbathed on the deck – Paco swam. Magdy, our guide, showed us some sample silver bracelets hand made in Cairo and we picked out one for Lidia.

After lunch we went on to Kom-Ombo. The Temple known as Kom Ombo is actually two temples consisting of a Temple to Sobek and a Temple of Horus.

Everything is duplicated along the main axis. There are two entrances, two courts, two colonades, two hypostyle halls and two sanctuaries.

There were probably even two sets of priests. The left, or northern side is dedicated to Haroeris (sometimes called Harer, Horus the Elder) who was the falcon-headed sky god and the right to Sobek (the crrcodile-headed god). The two gods are accompanied by their families.

They include Haroeris' wife named Tesentnefert, meaning the good sister and his son, Panebtawy. Sobeck likewise is accompanied by his consort, and son, HathorKhonsu.

Sobek took the form of a crocodile probably because in ancient times, sacred crocodiles basked in the sun on the river bank near here. The story goes that the people of the town didn’t like being associated with a god who represented evil and so they added the temple to Horus, as his brother and partner in the cult.

The Temple has scant remains and legend has it that Sobek began attacking Horus until he drove him from the town. Upon seeing their beloved god expelled, the people also left the town. Sobek, who wanted to revive the town, resuscitated the dead who, instead of sowing wheat, sowed sand. The Egyptians constructed Nilometers, a vertical tunnel next to the river that spirals down to permit measuring the water level of the Nile to avoid flooding and plan crop planting. These guys thought of everything!

That night we had an Egyptian dinner and a costume party. Paco was wonderful as a true desert sheik!

On Thursday we got up early and visited a temple in Aswan and then on to the aiport for Abu Simbel.

On the way, we stopped at the Aswan Dam which is amazing, 5,000 km2 of water. It looks like the sea.

We went to Abu Simbel on a Douglas 31 Memphis Airlines plane, filled to the brim. We boarded anonymously – Paco was Mrs. Paun and I was Mr. Roberto on our boarding passes. Too much!

By the way, there are scanners everywhere – at the temples, the tombs, the hotels, the airports, and all of them beep continuously. We even had a scanner that had no scan, only a constant beeper!

Not only are the two temples at Abu Simbel among the most magnificent monuments in the world but their removal and reconstruction was an historic event in itself.

When the temples (280 km from Aswan) were threatened by submersion in Lake Nasser, due to the construction of the High Dam, the Egyptian Government secured the support of UNESCO and launched a world wide appeal.

During the salvage operation which began in 1964 and continued until 1968, the two temples were dismantled and raised over 60 meters up the sandstone cliff where they had been built more than 3,000 years before.

Here they were reassembled, in the exact same relationship to each other and the sun, and covered with an artificial mountain.

Most of the joins in the stone have now been filled by antiquity experts, but inside the temples it is still possible to see where the blocks were cut.

You can also go inside the man made dome and see an exhibition of photographs showing the different stages of the massive removal project.

The twin temples were originally carved out of the mountainside during the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II in the 13th century BC, as a lasting monument to himself and his queen Nefertari, to commemorate his alleged victory at the Battle of Kadesh, and to intimidate his Nubian neighbors.

However, the complex was relocated in its entirety in the 1960s, on an artificial hill made from a domed structure, high above the Aswan dam reservoir.

After Abu Simel we flew back to Aswan (again under alias: I was Roberto and Paco was Mr.Vega) for lunch and then left for Philae – an island we had to go to by “motorboat” (to call it something).

These boats were like bumping cars at the dock as each one vied for space to take riders.

The temple at Philae was lifted from its original place to avoid flooding by the construction of the Aswan Dam (same as Abu Simbel).

Philae, home of the Temple dedicated to Goddess Isis and constructed on the beautiful island of Philae.

The modern day name is Greek but the ancient Egyptians called the island P-aaleq which amongst other definitions has the dual meaning of "end" and "creation".

It is believed that the various structures contained on Philae Island took 800 years to build (mostly during the roman period). In addition to the priests practicing daily rituals the island was the home of various stone masons, carpenters, and other crafts men continusly building and extending structures. There were also medical facilities and the instruments used are engraved in the stones. It was amazing! They were extremely advanced - even did trepanations!

Although antiquities on the island date between the 26th Dynasty and the Roman Period, most of the work is from that of the Roman. This was a time of immense popularity of the Goddess Isis, and this was her island, where pilgrims would come from all over the Mediterranean.

Construction on the island took place over an 800 year span, and it was one of the last strongholds of Ancient Egyptian Religion which continued to flourish here into the 6th Century. When the Temples where finally closed by Justinian in A.D 550, it ended 4,000 years of worship of the pagan gods.

The temple has a lot of its hieroglyphics defaced by these Christians who came in later and forbade the gods.

Egypt seems to be surviving thanks to its past. The country is in total disrepair. As with Cairo, it seems that they build something and then forget about it - no maintenance, corruption, 50% illiteracy rate.

Got our NY grandchild (at that time there was only one on the way that we knew about) his first musical instrument.

On our way back from Phillae we stopped at a perfume/essence place to see what they had. While we were there, a short circuit caused a bit of a panic. Luckily, Paco saved the day helping to put our the “fire”. Dressed in his chilaba he looked like one of the natives, except for his western shoes and panama hat!

On Friday, we went to the unfinished obelisk ….. and then in falucas (small sailboats), but had no wind.











Then we went to visit a Nubian village by “motorboat”.

We passed the Aga Khan’s tomb which stands alone high on a desert hill (dune?).

We also passed the hotel where Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Nile” was filmed. When we got to the village, we found ourselves practically ankle-deep in sand. There was a bar set up on the sand, along with different "stands" with souvenirs.



The Nubian village was very colourful and charming. We visited a “typical” family’s home and the floors were made of beautiful sand, the walls painted blue, and many colored baskets and murals on the walls.

All very cool and spread out. Very handsome people, the Nubians.

It was a wonderful and relaxing way to finish our trip on the Nile!

It was then time to go back to Cairo.

We arrived in the evening to the Hotel Intercontinental City Stars – a far cry from the Ramses Hilton. Kind of like Las Vegas instead of Shea Stadium.

Anyway, the place was tackily impressive with huge real palm trees in the lobby and everything much more subdued (we had a classic string quartet instead of the Arabian Shakira in the lobby).

We were lucky enough to catch a wedding going down the winding staircase to the lower banquet rooms. A Scot was marrying an Egyptian girl and it was a riot. First came the bagpipes and then the tambourines and the chants.

Next to the hotel was the other half of Cairo – a shopping mall bigger than I have ever seen with every Western shop imaginable and every western restaurant chain!

We even found a shop named Madrid in it.

Really funny to see the women remove the mouth part of the burkas to chomp down a Whopper!

We had the entire Saturday free – our plane wasn’t leaving until 11:30 pm, so we rented a car (and driver, need I say!) for the day and did our own sight-seeing.
We had a great driver and started off by going to the Citadel of Salah al-Din.
The citadel was constructed by Salah El Din on the Moqattam hills in 1183 AD. Salah El Din appointed to be the governer of Egypt after the death of the Sultan of Damascus, Noor-el-Din. It was built to defend Cairo from the armies of the Crusaders 573 H and to become the center of Salah El Din's government. After the death of Salah El Din, his nephew, Al Kamel, reinforced the Citadel by enlarging several of the towers. The citadel has two entrances: one opening on Salah Salem road and the other is the old gate that has existed since the time of Salah El Din.

We then went to the Mosque School of Sultan Hassan, where we we given a tour by a very objectionable man. The place is the center of Muslim learning but is quite run down and gloomy.

We continued on our tour to see the Mosque of Al Rifa'i which was quite beautiful.

We then went a a shopping tour in the "real Cairo" - no tourists in sight. Quite lively and jammed with people. A lot of small shops, all jammed with stuff and nothing very stylish. We were looking for nice Egyptian cotton shirts but although they have wonderful cottong, they seem to lack the designers to make something attractive (at least to a Western eye). We bought some Arab music, Paco got a couple of white cotton t-shirts, and we went on to lunch at Al Azahar park. Ate outside at a buffet restauramt with fantastics views of the city. The weather was beautiful and it was a nice respite after all our walking in the morning.

Our faithful driver was waiting for us and took us back to the hotel where we had a drink, picked up our suitcases, and went off to the airport.

End of a wonderful trip!
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