Tracy and Bob Williams Travel Journal - Egypt
November 20 through December 3 1998
November 20 - the Flight
Long, long flight from JFK Airport to Cairo, and on seats directly before a bulkhead, so we could not recline our seats. I hardly slept at all due to excitement, noise and the lights. I saw people with neck pillows and eye shades - thats a wise investment! Bob says the flight was like being at the movies for two days, but not as interesting. About two-thirds of the way over the pilot comes on the speakers, apologizes, but says theres a terrific view of the Alps to the north. Wow! Unbelievably craggy, white peaks and perfectly blue sky, and below these tiny little towns sprinkled across the mountains.
November 21 - Cairo
We arrive in Cairo midday at a very busy airport, and lines to get our passports cleared moved very slowly. And it was very hot inside, but once we got outside it was great after leaving cold, cold Kansas behind. We happened to be in line next to some of the people well be traveling with, a trio of older women (older than us, anyway), when we finally see someone with a TWA sign on the other side of the counters. Rescued by Tarek and Aki! Tarek will take care of the trip logistics, while Aki will be our guide and interpreter throughout the trip.
The drive into Cairo was wonderful and...kind of scary! There are 15 million people in Cairo, they all drive, and theyre all crazy. There are no rules at all, honking is required, red lights are for Christmas and the lanes...what lanes? And headlights at night are considered rude (hey, there are street lights arent there?). Aki says the stoplights are operated manually, so when the stoplight fellow goes home at night he puts all the lights on red and leaves. No one seems to notice them anyway. Its a bumper to bumper, 24-hour traffic jam. Egyptians like to be loud - while driving, while praying, and in general conversation!
There are only ten people in our group - what luck! Theres usually between 30 and 40, but several people canceled due to the political situation to the East. Fools! Aki says the smaller number will let us do some tours he cant do with a larger group. Theres Leonard and Ester, Mary and Roger, and single people Victor, Diane, Annie and Marge. This is Marges third time in Egypt - she doesnt go anywhere else because this is the best, she says.
Were staying at the Ramses Hilton - what a view, especially of the traffic! These people never stop honking, all night long. We stood at the balcony for an hour in the evening, listening to the mosques, the cars, and the people.
November 22 - Cairo
We got a little sleep but were wide awake when the muezzin began the call to prayer at four? Five in the morning? There are many mosques with different starting times, and different prayers, and most of them use load speakers! We look out the balcony again and note the hodge podge construction project going on across the street. The bricks are different sizes, as are the windows, and part of the wall seems to be toppling before the top floor is even finished. Hope thats not the next tourist hotel.
It doesnt seem a long time since the last prayer, but again this morning, perhaps 6 AM, the call to prayer again starts. Religion permeates everything here. I had seen what seemed to be dark smudges on the foreheads of some men, and Aki explained that those were calluses from rugs the pious use while praying five times a day. Women however dont get the callus since their veils cover their foreheads.
What a day - perfect, Bob says. We spent the morning at the Cairo Museum, mostly looking at the King Tutankhamon section, with a quick look at some of Akis favorite pieces, especially those that tell stories. I tried to take pictures (it costs ten Egyptian Pounds extra to bring in a camera), but its very dark in the Museum since they keep the windows covered due to the terrorist attack 2 years ago. You would need DAYS to really see everything - the impression is on overstuffed Kmart. There are metal detectors at both the front gate and at the Museum entrance - a very careful yet friendly people.
Aki knew everyone there, it seemed. Kissing, hugging, and a lot of laughter with the staff, as it seems he went to school there. Turns out, hes a licensed archeologist and still does that work in the summer when the tourist season is slack. Since hes only a part time archeologist, he can not pick what jobs he works on but is assigned them. Many of his stories revolve around his work, or placing himself in the time period of the art piece he is describing. Its very obvious he loves him work.
Most memorable items at the Museum: an alabaster vase that, when lit from inside, shows the King and Queen; a very intricate necklace with pieces of lapis, turquoise and carnelian so small, and inlaid into gold; first and third coffins of Tutankhamon and the golden funeral mask, of course.
Lunch was back at the Ramses Hilton - tahini, tabouli, baba ganoosh, hummus, VERY sour cream and delicious marinated beef sliced very thin. It was great.
Next, the Giza area. We visited the second pyramid, Cephrons, and Bob actually went inside. The tunnel starts out with plenty of headroom, but quickly Bob had to squat to get through the halls to the center of the pyramid. Someone had knocked the lights out halfway, and he had to find his way in the dark for a bit! He saw the vaulted ceiling inside that directs the pressure of all those stones away from the lower chamber. The Sphinx was closed to tourist, but we got pictures of everything, of course. Aki warned us away from camel rides directly around the pyramids. The tourist police kept chasing the illegal guides away, but it seemed kind of fruitless. We took a legal camel ride around just the east side of the complex - not nearly as rough a ride as Id expected, and way too short!
Giddy up, tourists! and School girls on a field trip to visit the pyramids
And there are shopping opportunities everywhere, and we succumbed. We did the tourist thing and bought the Arab headdress, postcards, and ordered a gold cartouche that spelled out my name from a shop named the Karnak Bazaar.
We had dinner at the Citadel Grill at the Hilton that evening. The service was outstanding - there were at least 5 different servers attending the table, including the manager. And they were hurt and concerned that we couldnt finish every last bite! We tried a South African wine, Ponitage, which was very good. Meals at the Cafe Terrace on the next level down are moderately priced and there is a lot of variety, especially at the dinner buffet. There is quite a bit of local cuisine, and the Oriental Sampler plate was perfect for lunch earlier in the day.
November 23 - Luxor
Up at 5 AM, leaving the hotel at 6 to catch the plane to Luxor. It was very foggy however, and we couldnt leave until over an hour past our scheduled departure. Fog? In the dessert? You bet, the Nile adds a lot of humidity, though it may not rain twice in a year. It was a very short flight via Egypt Air. (Since I had learned a little Arabic I could make out Misr, for Egypt, written on the plane). I really liked the monitors that showed where the plane was in relation to cities and the Nile. Now why cant US airlines do that?
Ram-headed Sphinxes of Khnum leading to the Temple of Luxor
We arrived in Luxor and immediately went to the Temple of Karnak - no time to waste! It was totally breathtaking, the best. So much to see, and so little time. The way to the temple is lined with ram-headed sphinxes representing the god Khnum, who created man out of mud. The causeway actually goes all the way from Karnak to the Temple of Luxor, under peoples houses and roads, emerging occasionally in the middle of a neighborhood. People are drying their laundry on these treasures. We passed a section recently excavated - gives me chills to think of something so old buried so long, and only a few people have seen it.
There are many statues here, contributed by a thousand years of pharaohs. The colors on the columns and carvings are still visible in places, especially as you look up underneath the covered walkways. The granite carvings are particularly sharp such as on the obelisks. There is a fallen obelisk propped up to eye level so you can get a really good look at it. Many of the carvings on the lower parts of the columns have been chipped away by Christians trying to erase the pagan gods, but also by superstitious locals who scrape a little away for magic, or so Aki says. We spent a couple hours there and barely saw a portion of the entire site. As I was wandering around to get photos, a guard motioned me to a particularly good spot - and then whispered, baksheesh, baksheesh to be rewarded. You have to give a Pound to get toilet paper, for petes sake.
(A note: always carry a lot of half, one and two Pound notes with you wherever you go. Smaller bills were a hot commodity for the women needing toilet paper money.)
Next stop, the Temple of Luxor. Christians actually painted over a portion of the wall with their own art in one place. Alexander the Great, after taking over Egypt, adopted the country as his own and had himself portrayed in some of the carvings here, dressed as a pharaoh and making offering to the gods.
Statues at the Temple of Karnak
That night we went to the light show at Karnak , but dont recommend it, it was quite a yawner.
We settled into our boat, the Sun Boat IV, a two-year old boat that was voted best Egyptian cruise boat the last two years. We were not originally scheduled to be on this boat, but due to the small number in our group we were upgraded! Each time a guest arrives or returns back to the boat after sight-seeing youre greeted with a cool moist towel for your face and a drink of carciday (hibiscus petals) or fruit juice. Lovely!
November 24 - Luxor and Dendara
Up at 5:30 AM (but I cant seem to sleep much anyway) to catch another cruise boat to Dendara to see the Temple of Hathor. The cruise there was so relaxing - a lot of fields, date palms, and houses with varicolored doors and windows. Some of the kids waved, and we waved back Each of the villages now have water treatment plants, and the Nile is once again unpolluted (though still brown from mid). There are big bunches of water hyacinth floating downstream, complete with birds such as storks, enjoying the ride.
We had to wait once off the boat for transportation to the temple itself. Its interesting to note that everything is lush and green next to the Nile...until you get to the temple. Then all the land is brown and totally dry. Mud bricks that were put in place 3,000 years ago are still there. As long as the ground stays dry, the temple stays secure; you shouldnt see any temples in green areas because that signifies water in the ground, and the ground is unsteady.
Inside the Temple of Hathor, Dendara and View of the birth house from the roof of the temple
Gorgeous colors here, but the Christians had to whack the faces off of the carvings, out of fear. Guess the Christians hid in the temples here fleeing persecution, but thats no excuse. There were only two untouched rooms, and that was because they were filled with sand.
Hathor, goddess of birth, happiness, dancing and a lot of good things, is shown as a women with a cows head, or as a cow with long horns. Aki bribed the guards, I think, who let us into special places including the roof of the temple. As you go up the steps on either side you see rows of bald priests carved into the walls, also walking up and down the steps. A guard also took Bob into a lower chamber not generally accessible, where there were alabaster carvings set into the walls. A little baksheesh was needed when they were half way down the tunnel, and there was much fumbling with a book of matches to light the way. We also saw a great example of the Egyptian Zodiac on the ceiling of a small room.
Aki introduced us to a man who had worked on the UNESCO project to move the temple at Abu Simbel to higher ground. He was dressed in galabeya and several layers of scarves around his neck - because it was Winter! We were all very comfortable, it was about 75 degree Fahrenheit, but it was Winter so he had to bundle up!
A second, smaller temple was dedicated to Hathor as a mother, and showed children being suckled and burped. Women played tambourines and flutes to keep them happy.
We then drove back to the boat via the back roads, with of course more shopping opportunities. There were some cotton and cashmere woven blankets that were gorgeous, and I got a couple as gifts.
Before dinner we went to a shop where they stitch cartouches into tee-shirts. Great gifts for my niece and nephews! We went to the Luxor museum via carriage ride. Hasan, our driver, waited patiently for us - but of course, he had to drive past his friends shop and try to convince us to do a little browsing before going back to the boat. We did not cooperate at all and had to threaten to find another ride back before he would leave the shop.
Dinners on the boat are fabulous; but I have never had so much eggplant in my life! Little stuffed white and purple eggplants, eggplant with garlic and sesame, eggplant with other various sauces. I think Ill have to grow eggplant in the garden back home next year as Im sure to become addicted to eggplant.
November 25 - Luxor
Another early morning - 6 AM this time. At least breakfast on the boat is an incentive to get up. I especially like the Egyptian version of feta cheese, which is soft and white and not as pungent as the Greek variety, and also enjoy the nice variety of fruit, breakfast potatoes and breads. The bananas are small and red, and very tasty.
We drove to the Valley of the Kings, Queens and Deir El-Bahari (the Temple of Hatshepsut), all on the west side of the Nile, while the temples for the living were on the east side. On our way there we drove past several villages backed right up to old tomb entrances. There was one souvenir shop with the sign Valley of the King, and Bob remarked I didnt know Elvis was here.
We saw several tombs in the Valley of the Kings of various sizes - Ramses the III, Ramses the IX, and Tutanhkamons. In Ramses the IIIs tomb, which was the largest because he lived the longest and had a lot of time to work on it, the colors were faded quite close to the doorway, but were better further in. There are niches in the wall for the shawaptis, or little statues that do all the work the pharaoh was supposed to do in the afterlife. Theres a long, long hallway down with storage rooms on either side of the hall for storage. Over every doorway are vulture wings for protection, the ceiling has 5-pointed stars, and there are writings from the book of the dead on the walls. Slain Nubians and Hittites lay upside-down, and the goddess Nut stretches across the ceiling, east to west. The stone sarcophagus inside is broken, and there is Greek graffiti on the walls.
In comparison, Tuts tomb is really small, moldy, not very decorated and pretty insignificant. We went anyway! As were leaning over to peer inside the coffin to glimpse the remains, the guard says shhhhh, the King is sleeping.
Ramses the IXs tomb was larger than Tuts but not as grand as Ramses the III. And to prove the Egyptians were not perfect, Aki pointed out an artistic goof - theres an arm going under collar that doesnt belong there!
A short trip later were at Hatshepsuts temple, and from a distance it looks new. There were some Italian restorers who did more than restore the site, and were fired, Aki says (a lot of our conversation starts with Aki says...). Inside there are scenes of trade and prosperity, rather than war like you see in so many other temples. She was fascinated with foreign places, and had animals and plants brought from all over, and travelers were instructed to bring back anything exotic. There are even the remains of two cedar trees she had imported at the entrance to the site.
Nefertaris tomb in the Valley of the Queens is worth the trip, the extra expense, and the wait! It is absolutely the most brilliant and beautiful art in the country! (Nefertari was the favorite wife of Ramses II, who lived to be 90 and had a couple hundred children with several wives.) The colors are so rich, as if they were painted yesterday. The detail in the clothing, scenes of greeting the gods, plates of offerings such as cattle, ducks and vegetables are fantastic. It really helps me visualize what all the other tombs and temples must have looked like when they were new. The J. Paul Getty Foundation helped restore the tomb and put in a special ventilation system to remove excess moisture. They also limit the number of visitors, and you can only stay a short time in order to preserve the tomb and its colors.
On our way to the Colossus of Memnon and the Ramesseum we stopped at a local shop to see how alabaster jars are made. Each piece is first rounded, covered with linen and glue, worked to hollow out the center and polished. A person will work for weeks on a single piece. The smell of tobacco laced with molasses permeates the place, as they smoke in between work. We couldnt figure out how to get a vase back home safely, so settled on some soapstone carvings.
The Colossus of Memnon is an example of why you DONT build in green areas. Though the two statues were erected during the Greek rulership (so nearly new!) they are very decayed due to the shifting of the ground around them.
The Ramesseum is another temple built by Ramses II, also called the Great. Throughout the tour he seems to have had a hand in the building of almost everything. There is a huge fallen head of old Ramses, great columns (many with paint still showing), and a lot of work still going on both to restore and uncover items.
Excavations at the Ramesseum and Little girls working on silk rugs
On the way back we stop at a shop where they make beautiful wool and silk rugs. These little girls memorize the pattern they are working on and are so quick at tying the knots you can hardly see their flying fingers! One young man showed us an example of a rug he had just finished that was a representation of the Temple of Karnak. The colors and design are so fine the rug looks like a photograph. Absolutely outstanding, and about the cost of another trip to Egypt!
Finally were back in town to cool off, pick up the tee-shirts I ordered, find an Egyptian cookbook (need recipes for eggplant!) and have time to enjoy an afternoon tea on the boat. We left Luxor for Esna, passing by lovely rural areas with farms, fishing and mosques. After sunset we passed through the locks and arrived at Esna well after dark.
November 26 - Esna and Edfu
Finally, a morning we can sleep in, and what did we do? Got up and watched the sunrise from the top of the boat! The fishermen were out early, as were the roosters, and they accompanied the call to prayer.
It was a quick 5 minute walk from the boat to the Temple of Khnum, the ram-headed god. The temple is nine meters below street level. Parts of it are still unexcavated, but there are peoples houses built on top! Once you have some land you never sell it, so the government cant acquire the land to finish the excavation.
Temple of Khnum at Esna and Detail from the wall at left
The vendors here are the best so far! They dont annoy you, they stay in their shops and call to you, and theres a lot to look at. I found veils and Hard Rock Cafe - Cairo and Stella Beer tee-shirts - more gifts!
We left Esna and cruised south to the Edfu to see the Temple of Horus. Aki had arranged buggy rides from the boat to the temple, and the driver sang to us the entire way! The temple is in good condition, complete with all the pylons, inner temple and a variety of columns. There didnt seem to be as much Christian damage here as in the other temples.
Aki told this story: Isis was wife to Osiris, who was the brother of Seth. Osiris was a nice guy, wealthy, and his brother was jealous. Seth managed to kill Osiris through trickery - he had a beautiful coffin made, and offered to have one made for Osiris. Just lay down so I can get the exact measurements for you he says. Seth slammed the lid down and him the coffin in Lebanon.
Isis mourned and searched for her husband. She went to Lebanon as a maid to the king there, and he helped her find Osiris, but Seth tracked her and cut Osiris into 14 pieces and hid them all over the country. Isis found 13 of the pieces, but not his private parts, so made the m
The site has been the home of falcons for thousands of years. We saw several of them circling while we were there, white and almost translucent against the sun. On the way back to the boat, kids ran along side the carriage and asked for pens. If Id only known I could have brought a boat load!
Back to the boat, and begin the cruise to Kom Ombo. Galabeya Party tonight! Bob wore a cowboy hat with Arab headcloth attached - too funny. I had brought a dress with me, and wore a veil purchased at Esna. Dance, dance dance, and play games! Besides our group, there were two other groups on the boat, so we had plenty of people to party with.
For the first game, the women would dance in a circle around a table with spoons laid out, one spoon less than the number of women dancing. When the music stops, everyone grabs for a spoon, and the one without a spoon has to leave the game (like musical chairs). The mens game was to roll a potato across the floor by hitting it with another one tied to a rope around your waist, and see who could get their potato to cross the finish line first. Got to have that hip motion going! For the last game everyone dances to the music, the leader calls out a number and everyone has to group together by that number - fives, sevens, etc.
Ive never heard the Macarena in Arabic until this evening! There was a lot of regular dancing too, with one of the staff taking charge and giving dance lessons. He was quite good, and I hear he is a better belly dancer than the woman well see later in the trip!
November 27 - Kom Ombo and Aswan
Doorways at the Temple of Kom Ombo and Picture of a goddess at Kom Ombo
Right there on the rivers east bank are the twin temples at Kom Ombo, dedicated to Soket, the crocodile-headed god, and Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris. Its a beautiful and intricately carved complex, with some of the colors still appearing on the columns. Aki showed us the Nilometer (measures the depth of the river) and a what is thought to be the earliest wall carving showing medical instruments and remedies - honey, tar and herbs. Even a pregnancy test! They would take the urine from both a suspected pregnant woman and one who was not pregnant, plant two areas with wheat and water them with the urine. If the plants emerged and looked the same, the woman was not pregnant. If one was greener and healthier, she was. Could this be from the extra hormones? The Egyptians also practiced amputation and brain surgery - theyve found a mummy with a hole drilled into his head.
Back on the boat and were cruising to Aswan. The desert is much more visible here, with the sand coming right down to the river. At Aswan we take a felucca ride (sail boat) around several islands - a very slow ride in places as there was no breeze at all. The guide would have to start paddling to get us moving again. And the paddles, unlike the blade shape were used to, is more like a long 4 by 4. In one place on the river small boys come paddling up in homemade boats, singing and asking for handouts - Aki yelled and chased them off! On the way back to the boat we passed an island under excavation that they believe is the oldest Jewish temple in Egypt. We also pass by the mausoleum of the Aga Khan, Elephantine Island (named after the shape of the rocks), and Kitcheners Island.
Tonights dinner was followed by a rather stout, red-haired belly dancer and a young whirling dervish. The dancer was all right, but the dervish was astounding! For at least ten minutes hes going around and around to this mesmerizing music, all the while lifting one skirt over his head or bending backwards. Im dizzy just watching!
Felucca at Aswan and Nubian guide at the Island of Philae
November 28 - Aswan
At last, a morning we can sleep in! We didnt have to go anywhere until 9 AM, when we headed to the red granite quarry to see the unfinished obelisk and to the new dam of Lake Nassar. President Nassar had assistance from the Russians in designing and building the dam in the1960s, and the Lake has been filling up ever since. Over 90% of Egypt has electricity due to the dam, and theyve expanded the amount of farm land considerably. The downside - the rising water table is threatening the old temples, making the land unstable. There is a memorial build to the joint effort shaped like a lotus blossom there, and inside are very Russian-style wall carvings of noble farmers. No one is allowed to cross the dam except the military and no photos are allowed, but we are able to stop part of the way across and take a look at this huge, huge lake.
We backtrack a ways, then take a boat ride to the Island of Philea where they relocated several temples to save them from the rising water. Of 18 temples threatened by the flooding, 6 were saved in the early 1970s. Philae has a temple dedicated to Isis and several other smaller temples, including the Kiosk of Trajan (which sounds Greek to me).
Later, back in Aswan we walked to the Nubian Museum, which was built to capture the history of the Nubian since much of that land is now underwater. It is the best museum yet, with very well laid out exhibits with plenty of room to look around. Some of the best artwork Ive seen in Egypt. There was only a 200 year span of time where Nubia was free of Egyptian rule and they were able to do a little invading of their own. While we were there we met many children asking where we were from, if we were married, and wanting our picture! We also met a teacher of English who was very gracious and pleased to have Americans to talk with. Many of those there are descendants of the Nubians, with beautiful dark skin and straight noses not typical of most Africans. Their style of dress is different from those further North, with shorter Galabeyas combined with pants.
We walked through the marketplace enjoying the smells and sounds. Every block someone would hold out their hand with a few seeds in their fingers saying Guess what this is! After a while all I could smell was cumin! We bought anise, chamomile, carciday (the hibiscus petals for tea) and saffron, as well as desert-roasted peanuts (the best!). The people were very friendly and talkative, not pushy like many of the other cities residents.
Relocated temple at the Island of Philea and Ramses II at Abu Simbel guarding the boundary to Nubia
November 29 - Aswan
Another early morning, but we were fine with that as we were catching the flight to Abu Simbel and this is likely the hottest day well have. We are visiting the relocated temples of Ramses II and his queen, Nefertari. From the air the desert looks volcanic in spots, with eroded lava flows and cones? And you can see where the rising water has encroached on what were fields and peoples homes.
The temples were reconstructed just as they were 200 meters lower in what is now the lake. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, the stone was cut apart, moved and repositioned exactly like they were by UNESCO, a joint international effort. From the doorway, twice a year a ray of sun enters the hall and strikes 3 of 4 statues positioned at the far end (the statue of Ptah always remains in the dark). Though the Ramses temple is huge, the artwork is not as impressive as at other sites. There are some places that are unfinished, and you can see where the artist was just drawing the outlines and beginning to cut into the stone. The artificial hill behind is hollow, and we walked through it on the way back to the parking lot, testing the echoes!
November 30 - Cairo
This is where we leave the river and fly back to Cairo. This was really the most interesting and relaxing part of the trip, and I dont really look forward to the noise of Cairo again. Were back at the Ramses Hilton, almost the same view as before. We have the rest of the day off so spend it at the Museum again, choosing to look at Old and Middle Kingdom artwork. I hear they will be building a new and much larger museum outside of Cairo in a few years. If were coming back I want to wait until then - what a luxury to be able to see the treasures of Egypt in a setting more like the Nubian Museum.
In the evening we go back to the Pyramids to see the Light Show. It is much better than the show at Karnak! There is a combination of laser and conventional lighting, and the story has both mythical and actual elements. This was the coolest night so far, and Im glad to have a sweater.
December 1 - Alexandria
This day was a tough one. Because of the laws meant to protect tourists, no tour group can leave Cairo without a police escort. That would be all right, but these folks are never on time. We wait for over an hour for the escort to arrive. And when they do arrive were not impressed - theres one fellow who travels with us on the bus (who slept most of the way) and a pickup load of 20-year olds in black uniforms and carrying AK-47s that look older than they do to lead the way. At least were on our way.
Throughout the trip while were traveling from site to site, Aki has shared much about the current culture of Egypt with us - the religion of Islam, the schools, marriage, the government and peoples way of life both in the cities and on the farms. Egypt has
Last Updated: June 8th, 2011