David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Egypt - a magnificent tour

Faluccas sailing on the Nile
Ramses II at Abu Simbel

A row of ram sphinxes at Karnak


The Sphinx and Great Pyramid


We left Nice on November 7, 2008, en route to Cairo via Zurich. The flight north is always beautiful, with the meringue-covered Alps below. We changed to the flight to Cairo and arrived there by 3 PM. We found a taxi to the Intercontinental Hotel in Giza, where we had been advised the group was staying. Much to our distress, we found that they had no reservation for us and no idea where our tour was. I accessed my email but found no further information from GoAhead Tours; on their site our trip not only did not show the hotel – it stated that our trip would commence November 10! I was panic stricken! The staff at the Intercontinental was extremely kind, with the Bellman even offering us his home phone number, saying that he would come and get us if we could not find our group and we could stay overnight at his home (a home of two rooms and eight kids – now that would have been an adventure)! Finally I had the staff call the second hotel where we were to stay upon our return to Cairo at the end of our trip, assuming they would have a local number for our Tour Director. We discovered that the group had been moved to that hotel, the Safir Dokki. Not a good beginning to the tour. There was construction going on in the lobby, not helping with the general attractiveness of the place and the second night there was noisy work on the elevators from 1:30 to 3:30 in the morning! We hardly slept!

We finally met up with our group and the Tour Director, Hesham. We weren’t happy at all, but finally calmed down and had dinner with the group and with Ken and Betsy Thorp who were also taking the tour. Most of our meals while in Cairo would be at The Palms (or as they labeled it, The Palm’s), the restaurant in the hotel where everything is buffet style. The food was good but not outstanding.

The first day of the tour we woke by 5:30 and were on the bus by 7 AM, heading to Saqqara. The first stop was at the Museum Imhotep, a true Renaissance Man (although long before the Renaissance) who was a great architect, a writer, a scientist. After seeing the interesting artifacts in the museum, we headed to the Step Pyramid which was the first pyramid built about 4600 years ago! Before the pyramids, there were mastabas (Arabic word for “bench”) for burials, rectangular structures of stone or mud which looked like the bottom layer of a Step Pyramid. But King Djoser wanted something bigger so Imhotep kept adding levels to his tomb, creating the Step Pyramid.

The Egyptians believed in two bodies – one in heaven and one on earth – and one spirit. Ba, the Spirit, would climb the steps of the pyramid after death to join with Ka, the body in heaven.

We then headed for the Great Pyramid of Cheops, built around 2560 BC, the only remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was 30 years in the building with 23,000 workers (not slaves). The average weight of a block was 2.5 tons! It was the tallest man-made structure in the world for 3800 years. Nearby are the other two, somewhat smaller pyramids of Giza, and several even smaller ones. The Thorps and I took a fun camel ride; my camel was named Michael. Getting on and getting off is a bit tricky but I very much enjoyed the ride back towards the three pyramids. Then we visited the Sphinx, with its head of a man with its royal beard and a lion’s body, probably built around the same time as the Great Pyramid. Then home for a luke-warm shower, dinner and bed, absolutely exhausted.

Sunday we were up early again and on the bus by 7 AM, heading to Alexandria. Most of the way Hesham talked about what we would see and about Egypt. We learned that Tourism ($6 billion) is the number one source of income; fees paid for use of the Suez Canal is second ($2.4 billion), while oil and natural gas is third.

We passed a salt lake and could see men working, harvesting the salt and gathering the reeds for furniture. Hesham pointed out the conically shaped structures that were dove- and pigeon-cotes; the Egyptians enjoy both in their diet and they use the guana to replace the silt that is no longer supplied by flooding of the Nile (there is no more flooding because of the Aswan Dam).

Alexandria was the capital of Egypt from 332 BC when conquered by Alexander the Great (Greek Macedonian King) until 641 AD (when conquered by the Muslims), nearly 1000 years. He founded the city when he was 23 years old. When he died the empire was split between his half-brother and his baby son who was to rule Egypt. The regent for the son was Ptolemy I. He had Alexander mummified; the sarcophagus is now in Turkey while the location of the mummy is unknown. The East section of the city is modern and rich while the West is ancient and much poorer, with an overall population of nearly 5 million. No horns are allowed to be used in the city, so it is quieter than Cairo. Egypt was the strongest country in the world for 3000 years; it was occupied from 332 BC until 1600 AD.

Our first visit was to the Catacombs, 99 steps under the surface of the city. Absolutely no photos were allowed inside. The paintings on the walls of the Catacombs are still fresh and beautiful. Special oils that left no soot were used to light the place for the workers while people fanned them to bring air. There were also plants grown to provide oxygen.

For lunch we went to El Salamalek Palace. The dining room and food were nothing special but the furnishings in the lobby and in the bar and nicer dining room were gorgeous. There were chairs made like elephants, with heads and tusks as the backs, and others with beautiful inlay. We also saw the King’s Palace where Mubarak can stay when entertaining Heads of State.

In the afternoon we went to the new Alexandria Library, a very modern building that might not appeal to everyone, but with an intricate roof that lets in the light but not the heat of the sun. The outside walls of the Library are inscribed with letters from all alphabets of the world. The internet site of the library is amazing. (www.bibalex.org) Then we went on to the Roman ruins of the city, with the ruins of a theater. So many more things are being discovered under the sea. We got home around 7:30 after dealing with the horrendous traffic. As Hesham tells us, in Egypt the marked lanes of traffic are a mere suggestion; there were five lanes of cars for 4 lanes marked! Dinner and bed!

The next day we had a wake-up at 3:30 to be ready for the bus at 4:30; we headed to the airport for the flight to Luxor, the “place of palaces” which is the site of the ancient city of Thebes, where we joined a few of our group who had gone on an even earlier flight. We immediately boarded a bus to Karnak. The remains at Karnak are simply amazing: Flaubert said “The first impression of Karnak was that it was a place of giants.”. There is a long pathway between Karnak and Luxor temples, lined on either side with a row of sphinxes in the form of rams. Hesham pointed out the columns fashioned like bundled papyrus stalks and like lotus, representing the north and the south of Egypt. The columns are covered with symbols and pictures of gods and kings, with cartouches which represent the Kings’ and gods’ names. An Egyptian temple is built from the back forwards, starting with the sanctuary. One therefore enters in the latest section at the gate and into the open courtyard with columns. Then there is a closed courtyard. Then the inter sanctuary, where only the High Priest and the King could enter, this one built around 2600 BC. The rest of the temple was built over a period of 1500 years.

Then on to Luxor Temple. The entrance, or First Pylon, is presided over by two huge statues of Ramesses II who had it built. Then there is the open courtyard, as at Karnak, then the rows of beautiful columns depicting papyrus plants leading to another courtyard built by Amenhotep III. Then, deeper into the temple, one finally comes to the inner sanctuary.

We went then to board our ship, the Moon Dancer, which would be our home for the next four nights. We settled in and then Barbara Baker (from Chicago), Camellia, and I went to the Luxor Museum. It took me a while to find an ATM since they wouldn’t accept euros – I was followed by a guy trying to get me to buy the IHT which I finally had to do just to get rid of him. He really frightened me and I was rather afraid that something might happen to me, but all was well. I finally got back to the Museum to join the others. The displays are well set out; there was King Tut’s bed and his chariot, only one of many of each I was to discover when we went to the Museum in Cairo. And of course there were many artifacts, pieces of painted friezes, and a couple of mummies (gross).

That night we had signed up with the Thorps (and many others) for the Sound and Light Show at Karnak; it was quite hokey and NOT recommended. There weren’t real people, just a tape of people talking and some lights going on and off. Pretty silly. Back home for dinner and bed while the boat sailed up the Nile!

The Nile divides Egypt in half. The West Bank is the Land of the Dead where the tombs are located. The East Bank is the Land of the Living where the palaces were; they were made of mud and did not survive.

The next day we stopped by the Colossi of Memnon, each created from one piece of stone and standing 60 feet tall. One had been destroyed but has been recreated. Then on to the Valley of the Nobles, Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple, and the Valley of the Kings.

In the Valley of the Nobles, we visited the tomb of Ra-Moses (1700 BC) who was the mayor of Thebes during the reign of Amenhotep III and his son Akhenaton, the King who turned away from the worship of the gods and toward the worship of one god, pictured as the rays of the sun. The tomb was left unfinished because Ra-Moses moved away, following his King, and the tomb was never used. The columns in the tomb represent papyrus plants, a symbol of the north of Egypt.

The wife of Akhenaton was Nefertiti. Akhenaton was the father of King Tut. After the death of Akhenaton, the belief in many gods returned (probably because the High Priests benefited) and his image was destroyed everywhere.

In all the tombs, raised relief, the most difficult and time-consuming decoration, was done when the king was young. When he was old or near death, sunken relief was used. Painting was done after his death because it was the quickest. From the date of death to the time to close the tomb was 102 days: 72 days to mummify the body and 30 days of processions. On the decoration a leopard skin indicates royalty; bare breasts indicate motherhood, although Egyptian women did not appear with bare breasts. In ancient times, white was worn for mourning (black was introduced by the Romans).

Next we visited the temple of Queen Hatshepsut (2700 BC). She was one of the few women to rule Egypt and often wore men’s clothing. The temple tomb looks amazingly modern, with perfect symmetry. She is the one who had the twin obelisks erected at Karnak. In the 1st century her temple was converted to a chapel.

Then on to the Valley of the Kings where there are 63 tombs, with more expected to be discovered. Only 8 are open at a time and each ticket allows a visitor to choose 3 to visit. There is a separate ticket for King Tut (100 LE); his mummy is within the tomb. We chose three to visit and were amazed at the freshness of the colors inside. Tombs were decorated from floor to ceiling and front to back; in the back stood the sarcophagus which held the mummy. Side rooms would have all the riches that were buried with the king. Most of the tombs had been robbed; King Tut was not an important king but his tomb was not robbed because there is another tomb almost on top of his, so the robbers never realized that there were more riches below, explaining why so much was discovered there. One can only imagine what an important king would be buried with!

That night our boat continued up the Nile while we had dinner on board and slept. It was supposed to pass through the locks on the river but there was a problem with the locks and many boats were held up for several hours. We really didn’t mind as we were able in the morning to see the locks and also to experience the salesmen in their boats – they would throw dresses and tablecloths up to us and those who bought would send the money down in a bag. Many of the bags landed in the water, but it didn’t seem to be a problem. Later in the day we arrived at Edfu where we explored the Temple of Horus, the second largest temple in Egypt. This is a Greco-Roman era temple built around 230 BC, built by Egyptians. It honors the trinity of Horus, his wife, and their son., and it has reliefs of medical instruments, prrof that the Egyptians had a sophisticated knowledge of this science. It was defaced by the Coptic Christians who had been tortured by the Romans. The Temple took 127 years to build and was in use for only 27 years.

That night on board ship was “dress-up” night. We all had to buy galabeyas to wear – they were inexpensive; some wore them down to dinner; I just changed afterwards for the big dance in the “disco”. There were three tour groups on the boat – ours, another GoAhead group of mostly really fun African-Americans from Philadelphia who were a ski group who traveled together, and a Spanish group of young people. Everyone got up and danced together.

The next day we arrived at Kom Ombo which means “a collection of gold”, another Graeco-Roman temple. This one is unique because it is the only one dedicated to two gods – Horus the Falcon and the Crocodile god. Again, as always, there is the trinity of each god, his wife, and the son. Kom Ombo is split in half, each side mirroring the other, with two sanctuaries. On the grounds is the Nile-ometer which was used to measure the height of the river to determine the rate of taxes for the year: in a good year, taxes were higher and in a bad year taxes were lower. There is also a calendar which described what the King did each day. There were 365 days, 12 months of 30 days each, 3 weeks in each month of 10 days each, with an extra 5 days left over. A slash represented a “1”, an upside down U represented “10”, and a swirl represented “100”.

From there we sailed further up the river to Aswan where we stayed another night on the boat. We immediately set off to the airport to fly to Abu Simbel. This temple was built by Ramses II with a temple nearby dedicated to his wife Nefertari. It was built far from the other temples and tombs so that Ramses II could declare himself a god with no argument from the High Priests. These are the amazing temples that were moved to create Lake Nasser which is nearby.

On Friday we checked into our Aswan Hotel, the Basma (“Smiley”). The group boarded a bus and went the quarry in Aswan where we visited the “Unfinished Obelisk”; it was damaged during the cutting and never finished. Then on to the New Aswan Dam. Then we took a boat to Philae Temple built by Ptolemy II, another Graeco-Roman temple. The columns of papyrus and lotus are especially lovely here. There was a story told by Scheherezade about a princess being imprisoned on this island by her father to prevent her marrying her lover. The lover searched and searched and finally “a little bird told him” where she was and he rescued her. The temples on the island were defaced by the Coptics.

Saturday we took check out of the Basma and went for a long felucca ride on the Nile. During the ride we saw Elephantine Island, thus called because the rocks forming the shoreline reminded people of elephants. There were lovely gardens lining the Nile and lots of interesting birds and the Mausoleum of Agha Khan. Young boys would row out in their tiny boats, just big enough for one small boy, and sing for us “Row, row, row your boat” which they had learned phonetically, and beg. We were happy to oblige. The boatmen played music and we all got up and danced. It was a wonderful ride!

We returned to Cairo by air that afternoon. We again settled into the Safir Dokki Hotel, this time, for us, a mini-suite, actually just a somewhat larger room but furnished with fresh fruit and flowers, to compensate for our earlier sleepless night. The Thorps and we found a wonderful, highly-recommended restaurant near the hotel (I’d wanted to go to the Mena House but it was quite far). We had a delicious dinner – Betsy’s shrimp was the best, I had lamb chops – while around us people were smoking their hookahs. The desserts – especially the crepes with honey - were excellent!

Sunday we were again up early and off to the Marble Mosque, also called the Mohammed Ali Mosque, built in 1830, and the ancient 11th century Citadel which surrounds it. We passed by the Garden of the Dead – a huge graveyard where poor people live and maintain it; their homes have satellites and plumbing, so not such a terrible existence.

Then we visited the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, one of the outstanding museums of the world. It is quite overwhelming, with almost too much to see. Hesham took us on a tour which ended with the area devoted to King Tut, complete with the famous mask. It’s amazing how much more there is, with several ornate beds, chariots, jewelry, jugs which had held precious oils, and on and on. And this was a minor king!

Afterwards we went to the Khan el-Khalili Market, very similar to the bazaar we visited in Istanbul, with piles of objects for sale. Hesham had warned us that most of the items were fakes, so we weren’t really interested in buying.

Then finally home to the hotel to get ready for our final dinner at The Palms. We enjoyed a wonderful meal and all said our “good-byes”. The Thorps were going on to the Red Sea extension trip, but we would be heading home the next day. It was an exhausting, exhilarating trip, with sights I’d dreamed about for nearly 60 years. Unforgettable.

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