Hello, Everyone –
We are now at home! I shall continue my narrative where I left off on Thursday, October 20, though.
On Thursday, as planned, I went back to the dorm after sending the last message, and we finished packing. We were done somewhat early, so we just hung around until iftar time, and then went down and had our iftar. At about 6:45, Mahmoud came to pick us up. He wasn’t in his usual car, though. Instead, he was with a hired driver in a large station wagon. We found out later that Yassser had called this car in case our luggage wouldn’t fit in Mahmoud’s car, but then the AAST car that Mahmoud usually drives (a nice, new model) broke down that afternoon. So, it was good that we had backup.
As we drove to the train station, I noticed that the sea was particularly rough – perhaps the roughest it had been during our stay in Alex. It almost seemed as if it was bidding us farewell from Alex. We were met at the train station by Yasser, who helped us onto the 7:40 p.m. train and wished us well. We will see him again in a few months in Blacksburg, inshallah.
Yehia was a little late to the Cairo train station to pick us up. He had been confused about when we were arriving. So, by the time we got to the Sheraton Heliopolis, it was 11:30 p.m.
I’m really not sure why we took such a late train. Yasser just decided that we should go then and arranged our tickets. But, it resulted in an extremely short night, as we had to catch the 4 a.m. shuttle bus from the hotel. Perhaps it was the short night that caused me to forget my cell phone, I think at the hotel. During our time in Alex, we had two cell phones. But, we had left one of them with Yasser. So, after forgetting the phone at the hotel, we were phoneless. Luckily, our cruise itinerary was prearranged, including transfers to and from the airports.
As we flew into Aswan, it was interesting to look out the window of the plane. We were flying over vast, featureless desert, and it was impossible to tell how high or low we were flying because there were no reference features on the ground. When our flight arrived in Aswan, at 7:15 a.m. on Friday, we were met by another guy with a badly misspelled name card. The travel agent had spelled my name “Alan Macaenzie.” I think she misheard the “K” in my last name as an “A,” even though it doesn’t make much sense phonetically. At the Aswan airport, though, the sign said, “Plan Macaensy.” It’s really quite a miracle that I can even interpret these things…
We waited for our luggage, which came out very quickly, and then we were on our way. It was about 15 minutes into central Aswan, where we met our ship. The guy who picked us up at the airport said we might not be able to get our cabin until 10 a.m., but it was ready when we arrived, which was nice. Many of the people on the cruise had joined it a few days earlier in Luxor, and some of those people were off on day trips to Abu Simbel, which, regrettably, will not be part of our Egyptian experience. (They had to leave the ship between 3 and 4 a.m., though, so they weren’t much better off than us in terms of sleep!) Those of us not going to Abu Simbel had a long and restful day.
It is actually unseasonably cool in Aswan, which means temperatures in the 70s, so Becky and I spent practically the whole day under the awning on the sundeck. A nice day, and the food on the ship is good, with lots more variety than the AAST cafeteria.
Saturday was an early start (but not as early as Friday), leaving the ship at 7 a.m. We started with a visit to the Philae Temple. Unlike the other sites that we have visited, this time we had a tour guide. He told us many interesting things about the temple and its history. The Philae Temple is a temple of Isis. It is not as old as some of the Egyptian temples, a fact which is evidenced by the Greek influences on the temple columns. In Roman times, Isis was worshipped all over the Roman Empire, as far away as Brittan. Even after the empire converted to Christianity, Isis worship continued at Philae as late as 550 AD. The earliest remains are from around 370 BC, although Isis worship at Philae dates back to at least 690 BC.
The temple at Philae was flooded for many years after the construction of the Aswan Dam. In preparing for the construction of the high dam, though, many other monuments had to be moved. Since the expertise was already onsite, after the high dam was finished Unesco decided to move the Philae Temple, a project that took from 1972 until 1980, when the temple reopened in its current location. I actually really liked the much smaller pavilion next to the temple, known as the Kiosk of Trajan or “Pharaoh’s Bed,” which was apparently a frequent subject of Victorian painters. The image of this pavilion has actually come to be recognized as a symbol of Philae.
After the temple, it was on to the High Dam. Many attempts have been made to control the Nile through the ages. During the reign of Mohammed Ali, a dam was built at Esna. Later, during British rule, the much higher Aswan dam was built, opening in 1902. Finally, the High Dam was constructed begun in 1960 and completed in 1971. The high dam is of rock fill construction. It is about 110 meters tall and 4 km long. At the top, it is only 40 meters wide. At the bottom, though, it is almost 1 km wide. Egypt originally sought the aid of the US and Brittan to build the high dam, but after complicated political intrigue, including the Suez Crisis, they ended up getting the assistance of the USSR instead. As a result, beside the dam there is a monument to Russian/Egyptian friendship. Behind the dam lies Lake Nasser, which is the largest artificial lake in the world.
The guide told us about the advantages and disadvantages of the dam. In disadvantages, no further archeological sites may ever be found South of the dam in Egypt, as they are all underwater. (Except, of course, the ones that were moved before or during the construction of the dam.) In addition, many Nubians, who had lived in the same area for centuries, had to be relocated to new villages, a difficult situation. Also, the dam prevents the flow of silt that was critical to the fertility of the Nile Valley, leading to a much heavier use of artificial fertilizers. On the plus side, though, the dam provides all of Egypt with steady and predictable water source for drinking and irrigation (no more Biblical famines in Egypt). It also produces a lot of electric power, it prevents flooding, and it has raised the water table, increasing Egypt’s area of cultivatable land. On balance, the high dam has won international acclaim as one of the most beneficial dams ever built.
After the high dam, we went on to a papyrus museum/shop. The list prices were a little lower than the shop we visited a few weeks ago in Cairo, but unlike the shop in Cairo, this shop was unwilling to bargain. So, on balance the prices were similar. Then, it was back on another motorboat to visit Kitchner’s Island, also known as the Aswan Botanical Garden. It was nice, but like most gardens we have visited in Egypt, the emphasis was on trees and green plants. Becky usually loves to visit gardens, but she mostly likes the flowers. So, trees and greenery are a bit disappointing. I did get nice photographs of some of the flowers that we did see, though.
After the garden, we returned to the ship for lunch. During lunch, our ship started north from Aswan to Kom Ombo. About three hours later, we arrived at Kom Ombo and visited the temple there. The most unique aspect of the Kom Ombo temple is that it is a temple built for two gods, one the crocodile god, Sombrek, and the other the falcon-headed god, Horace. I was also amazed by the quantity and variety of the inscriptions. Among the ones that our guide pointed out were a calendar, showing when various offerings were to be made to the gods, and a carving showing a wide variety of almost modern looking medical equipment (forceps, scalpels, needles, etc.).
I noticed that our ship got off very quickly before lunch, actually departing a few minutes earlier than scheduled. On the way to Kom Ombo, we ran alongside another ship for a long way, but then managed to take the lead as the channel narrowed. As we approached Kom Ombo, though, there were actually two or three other ships arriving, all trying to beat us to the dock. It was just like Egyptian driving, with honking horns and everything, except with much, much larger, more expensive, and less maneuverable vehicles. The other ships made their moves too late, though, and we got the spot next to the dock.
I don’t know about cruises in other places, as I’ve never been on one, but there aren’t enough docking facilities in some places along the Nile, and so the ships end up docking 3 or more deep. If your ship isn’t next to the dock, then you have to cross the other ships to reach the shore. Furthermore, if the other ship decides to leave, then you may be stranded on shore or on your ship until the maneuvering is complete. Hence, the spot next to the dock is the coveted spot.
Sure enough, when we got ready to leave, there were four other ships docked between us and the Nile channel. It took nearly an hour for us to actually depart, with lots of yelling going on between the ships, as the other ships would want to let passengers on or off before we departed. Our crew would stop anyone from crossing our ship for a while, and there would be more arguing. Finally, our crew would yield and let a few passengers cross the ship, in return for one of the ships pulling away from the dock. I think some of the other passengers on the ship were slightly alarmed by the chaos of it all, and the seeming hostility between the crews. I think, though, that it was more of a game, much like the negotiations that go on in the souqs.
After finally getting away from the dock, we sailed on to Esna, arriving a little after midnight.
On Sunday morning, we crossed the lock at Esna, which I really enjoyed, as we sailed on for Luxor. It was a free morning on the ship, and we resumed our usual locations under the awning on the sundeck. Most of the people on our ship were significantly older than our parents, and I think they found the fact that we brought our laptops up to the sundeck quite odd. But Becky couldn’t pack enough books to read for 8 weeks, so she has been downloading and reading Ebooks. And I had several things downloaded to read on my laptop, too, in getting back up to speed on research.
Around lunchtime, we arrived in Luxor. After lunch, we headed into Luxor to visit the Karnak and Luxor Temples. The Karnak Temple is the largest temple in Egypt. It was built over a period of 2400 years from 2000 BC until 400 AD, and it is easy to see how different parts of the temple were built in different periods. It is difficult to convey the scale of the place. At the center of the complex is a temple to the main Thebian God, Amun. After the center of Egyptian power moved to Thebes (modern day Luxor) during the Middle Kingdom, the Thebian God, Amun, was combined with the old chief God, Ra, to create Amun-Ra, the King of the Gods.
The heretic pharoah, Akenaten, though, had many of the images of Amun at the temple defaced. He built a temple beside the one for Amun to his chosen god, Aten. After Akenaten died, his reign was not remembered fondly, and it was believed that he had angered the gods through his heresy. Hence, the temple to Aten was destroyed, and the ruble was used as fill rock inside a new pylon that was being constructed. It is here that the Metropolitan Museum of New York found the remains of the temple to Aten while reconstructing the pylon. They reconstructed parts of the Aten temple, some of which are on display at Karnak, and some of which are at the Met in New York.
The site includes 10 pylons, although they are in various states of completion and preservation. Most impressive to me, though, was the enormous “Hypostyle Hall,” a forest of 134 enormous stone pillars. At one time, the whole area was covered with a roof. I also really liked some of the colossi, which have guarded the temple for thousands of years.
After Karnak, we went on to the Luxor Temple. It is smaller than the Karnak temple, but still impressive. It also contained some of the most impressive statuary that we have seen in Egypt, including giant colossi of Ramses II. In the midst of the temple sits a 14th century Mosque, built before the temple was uncovered, and now an antiquity itself.
Monday was another early start, with us leaving the ship at 7 a.m. Our destination on Monday was Luxor’s West Bank. We started with the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. This temple, unlike the others that we have seen, is not freestanding. Instead, it is partially freestanding and partially cut into the rock. Hatshepsut ruled as co-regent with her husband’s son by a minor wife, Tuthmosis III, not yielding the throne to him as sole ruler before her death. In retaliation, he removed her name and image from many scenes in the temple. This temple was also vandalized by Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh, who removed all references to Amun. Finally, this temple became an early Christian monastery, and the Christians also defaced the pagan reliefs. The temple was also one of the sites of the 1997 massacre of foreign tourists, the other being the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
After the Temple of Hatshepsut, it was on to the Valley of the Kings. Our guidebook is slightly out of date here, claiming that one must purchase individual tickets to the tombs that one wishes to visit. Now, a single admission ticket allows one to visit any three tombs, except for the Tomb of Tutankhamun, which requires a separate admission ticket. (We did not see the Tomb of Tutankhamum, as both the guidebook and our guide dismissed it as unimpressive. Tutankhamum’s tomb is small and unfinished, despite the vast treasures that it contained.) This policy seems to have been instituted in an effort to preserve the tombs, which are being damaged by the moist breath of so many visiting tourists. Most of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, as well as many of the other Luxor sites, are from the New Kingdom, which ran from 1550-1069 BC. By New Kingdom times, tombs had became preferable to pyramids as burial places, because pyramids were too easy for robbers to find and empty.
We first visited the Tomb of Tawosret/Sethnakht. Tawosret was the wife of Seti II. After Seti II’s successor died, she took power herself, and she built this tomb for herself and her husband. Subsequently, though, her successor Sethnakht completed the tomb, relocating Seti II (and Tawosret?) to another smaller tomb nearby. He plastered over Tawosret and Seti’s names where they appeared and replaced them with his own name. The Tawosret/Sethnakht tomb was perhaps the largest that we saw, with several chambers between the entrance and the burial chambers. It is far from the largest in the Valley, however.
Our next stop was the tomb of Seti II. This tomb had some nice carvings near the entrance, but the rear portion of the tomb was hastily finished in paint alone. Some of the paintings were very nicely preserved, though, with vivid colors and images.
The last tomb we visited was that of Ramses IV. This tomb was better preserved than others that we saw, with very fine colored paintings and carvings throughout. The guidebook claims that it is not one of the finest tombs, but our guide suggested it as the best preserved tomb that was open on the day of our visit, and we have come to trust him.
After the Valley of the Kings, we went on to visit an alabaster workshop, where they carve the alabaster by hand, instead of by machine, and then we stopped briefly at the Colossi of Memnon, which are in the ruins of a once enormous funerary temple which was, unfortunately, built on the flood plain of the Nile.
On Tuesday morning, our ship left Luxor at about 4:30 a.m. for Qena. The area between Luxor and somewhere South of Cairo is known as Middle Egypt. The Egyptian Tourist Police mostly frown upon tourists visiting Middle Egypt, and when tourists do visit they are heavily escorted and guarded – if not escorted out of Middle Egypt altogether. The Egyptian government says that this is because Middle Egypt is a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, but I think these claims are slightly questionable, and the government’s desire to keep tourists and their money out of Middle Egypt may be politically motivated. (For instance, while the US State Department warns against visiting tourist sites around Cairo and visiting the Sinai, they say nothing about Middle Egypt.) In any case, only for the last few years have cruises been visiting Qena, and our visit was marked by added security precautions. First, at all times our cruise was accompanied by a Tourist Policeman, who sat on the bridge of the ship with a handheld machine gun. While sailing to and from Qena, though, a much larger machine gun was mounted on the corner of the sundeck with a few soldiers manning it. And when we got off the ship, our buses were given police escorts. I can’t say that either of these precautions really made me feel much safer, but I didn’t think we were in much danger to begin with.
We departed the ship at Qena at about 9 a.m., and we took buses to the Temple of Dendera. Structurally, the Temple at Dendera may be the best preserved in all of Egypt. It still has its stone roof, and you can climb the ancient stone stairs up to the roof, where the priests would take the statues once a year to expose them to sunlight (thereby, they believed, recharging their powers). The figures, though, may be the worst defaced. There was an early Christian church on the site, and almost all of the figures have been chiseled away.
Also interesting about the Temple at Dendera is that many of the carvings included empty cartouches. As you might know, the cartouche was usually an oval shape with some hieroglyphics written inside, and it represented the name of a king. The Temple at Dendera was built in the Greco-Roman period, when Egypt’s monarchy was in upheaval. So, apparently the stone carvers were unwilling to commit a king’s name to their carvings, for fear that the king might change again at any time.
After Dendera, we had lunch and sailed back for Luxor. Sailing back took all afternoon, as we were now sailing up the Nile instead of downriver, as we had been the rest of the week. We spent some time on the sundeck. It was interesting to compare the landscape North of Luxor, which was flat and pastoral, with farmland coming right up to the bank of the Nile, with the landscapes around Luxor (high limestone cliffs) and Aswan (granite cliffs and boulders). Becky and I tried to get a nap before our long journey, but we were only mildly successful. After tea, we finished packing. (Most of the people on our boat were British, and we had tea every afternoon. It was very civilized.) After I had finished packing, I went up to the sundeck, as we sailed back into Luxor. It was really fabulous to float by the Luxor temple, lit up at night; it was a sight I shall not soon forget.
At 8 p.m., we left the ship. Our driver to the Luxor airport was a Christian. He had several little crosses and things in his car, and he also told us that he was Christian. I’m not sure whether or not he is the first Christian that we have met in Egypt. It seems unlikely, as everything I have read suggests that around 5% of Egyptians are Christian, but he was certainly the first to be quite so forthcoming about it.
We caught our flight to Cairo, arriving at around 10:30 p.m. We had left our two largest suitcase with Yehia during our cruise, and he was supposed to meet us to take us to the other terminal of the Cairo airport and give us our luggage back. We looked around for him, but we hadn’t found him when a guy came up and asked me if I was Dr. Allen. I said yes, and he called his friend over. His friend got Yehia on the phone, and Yehia said (in his broken English) that this guy would take us to the other terminal. Sure enough, he had our large suitcases strapped to the roof of his car. So, we put our other luggage inside and got into the taxi with the two guys.
Ordinarily, I would expect taxi drivers to know their way around an airport, but these guys, or at least the driver, had no clue. So, we went careening around the airport. Every time I saw a directional sign on the pavement, we were heading in the opposite direction. Every time his friend told him where to go, he went the opposite way. They even stopped to ask directions a couple of times, but it looked to me like he went a different way than the people that he asked suggested. Finally, the third time we stopped to ask for directions, the driver followed them and we made it to the other terminal, which was less than half a kilometer from where we started, although it took us about half an hour to get there. We could have made better time if we had just pushed a luggage cart along the marked walkway…
So, we arrived at the proper terminal at around 11:30 p.m., but security was closed until 1 a.m., so we had to just sit in the vestibule of the airport for an hour and a half. Finally, at 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning, we were able to check our luggage and walk down to our gate. Our flight for Frankfurt left at 3:30 a.m., and in Frankfurt, we made our connection to Dulles. On Wednesday evening, we stayed with Becky’s parents in Maryland, and this (Thursday) morning we drove home to Blacksburg.
I know I mentioned eating dates in Alex, and I think I mentioned that their were date palms all around campus. I don’t think I mentioned, though, the multitude of efforts to retrieve the dates from the trees on campus. Obviously, the shorter trees, with fruit close enough to reach from the ground, got picked first. After that, though, I saw all sorts of techniques. Some people would throw a brick or a large rock at the dates, in order to knock some of them down. The carpenters at the job site beside our building built a makeshift ladder out of wood for the sole purpose of getting dates out of trees. And, on our last day in Alex, I saw a guy who had actually managed to climb about 20 feet into a tree, where he was picking off the dates and dropping them down to his friend on the ground. It was quite amusing.
Being on a cruise ship was much different than our earlier experiences in Egypt. There were positives and negatives. On the plus side, our Egyptologist was quite knowledgeable, and it was nice to know what we were looking at and have an opportunity to ask questions. It was also nice to get on an air conditioned coach or ship after sight seeing, instead of getting into an un-air conditioned taxi. After 7 weeks in Egypt, it was also nice to be with people speaking English again.
On the minus side, though, the experience was much less authentic. We were around English speakers pretty much 100% of the time. Even off the ship, we only saw tourists, tour guides, and people who try to sell things to tourists. We saw hardly any ordinary Egyptian people, with the exception of farmers working fields along the Nile. (Sorry, but people who try to hock souvenirs to tourists all day are not ordinary Egyptians.) Also, since most of the tourist hocks are men, we hardly saw any Egyptian women during our cruise. On the cruise ship, you couldn’t even tell that it is Ramadan. I was pretty sure that some of the people on the ship didn’t even know that Ramadan was going on. Most people on the cruise had no idea how much things should cost, and some of them paid ridiculous prices for souvenirs, food, and beverages off the ship. (The prices on the ship were not cheap, but reasonable.) The cruise ship’s idea of bringing Egyptian culture on-board was having a galabayah party one night. (Becky and I were spoil sports, though, and decided not to buy Egyptian costumes for one night, despite the fact that we could have easily gotten something to wear for about $4 each.)
It is very difficult to summarize our experiences in Egypt in one single, final paragraph. I am tired and jet lagged, so I won’t even try. Maybe in a few days I’ll be a bit more introspective and philosophical about the whole experience. For now, though, I’ll say that spending two months in Egypt was unforgettable. I met many interesting people and broadened my horizons professionally and personally. I’ll certainly never look at news from the Middle East in the same way again. It was really a remarkable journey. Thank you for sharing it with me. I will try to send a link to a final set of pictures in the next few days.