A journey BY ROAD, AIR, & BOAT from CAIRO
JANUARY 6 - 22, 2011
One of the most desired tourist destinations in the world is Egypt; the country that links the northeastern region of Africa to the Middle East. The mysterious ancient culture of the Pharaohs, their monuments, and their advanced civilisation has powered the imaginations of writers, photographers and filmmakers for centuries. Yet, the remnants of a well-organised ancient culture that lasted for centuries is visible and ready to be explored.
Egypt has held a deep fascination for me since childhood, and finally my dream to visit this amazing country is going to be realised. Our travel agent in Eaton Mall, Oakleigh runs this specific tour, and it includes everything I want to see , plus more; a trip to Jordan. Natasha is living in London and this is an opportunity for her to join us whilst we visit the historical sites across the mysterious country of Egypt.
There is unrest in nearby Tunisia caused by unemployment, inflation, corruption, and poor living conditions. It threatens to extend to other countries in North Africa.
We arrive in Cairo on the cusp of the Egyptian Revolution, and leave mere days before the country erupts into violence. Most of the time, we are blissfully unaware of the political tensions, although when security is tightened on our transportation, we realise that our safety may be at risk. Our tour is the last one to be fully completed before the January 25 Revolution breaks out, and all other tours are halted and tourists evacuated.
Our tour of Egypt is wonderful; well-organised and designed to provide the best that Egypt has got to offer. The small annoyances we experience during our stay in Sharm-el-Sheik are mostly due to an experienced tour guide unable to cope with the volatile political situation, and could have been avoided if he had been more honest with us regarding these issues. Despite our disappointment in not reaching Mount Sinai and St. Catherines, the tour company took the necessary steps to ensure our ongoing safety, and we can only be grateful for the care they have taken.
DAY ONE: CAIRO
THURSDAY, JANUARY 6, 2011
Upon arrival into Cairo airport, you will proceed through customs and immigration formalities. Our representative will be waiting to meet you holding a 'Top Tours & Travel Exotic Egypt' sign. You will then be transferred to your luxury hotel. Today is a free day to relax or begin your discovery of the triumphant city of Cairo.
Evening option: Sound and Light Show Cairo/Pyramids & Sphinx (own expense)
We arrive in Cairo in the late afternoon after a rather uncomfortable flight from London. Natasha is with us and we are very much looking forward to experiencing the sights that Egypt has to offer. As the sky darkens the evening cools quickly, a sure sign we are not too far from the desert. Over the included dinner, we introduce ourselves to the rest of the tour members, many of whom travelled to Cairo together from Australia.
We board the bus and drive to the outskirts of Cairo and upon alighting from the bus, we are quickly directed to a bank of seats assembled on a cluster. Dark black triangular shapes loom in front of us as we wait with an air of expectation for the show to begin.
It is a simple story of Pharaohs, curses and the like, modern technology projecting images on the surface of a four-thousand-year-old structure provides not only entertainment, but the opportunity to see these iconic buildings in a new light. A Disney-type production, this most definitely is not. But it is charming and it is enjoyable and I'm glad I'm here to enjoy it.
DAY TWO: CAIRO
FRIDAY, JANUARY 7, 2011
The city of Cairo is marked by traditions and influences of the east and the west, the ancient and the modern. After breakfast, we will begin our tour in old Cairo where we will visit the Citadel and the famous Mosque of Muhammad Ali, who was the energetic governor of Egypt under the Ottoman sultans from 1805 to 1848. This mosque represents just one of the many projects commenced by Muhammad Ali. We will also get a glimpse of both the Coptic and Islamic parts of Cairo.
This afternoon we will continue onto the Egyptian Museum, which is filled with over 120,000 Pharaonic artifacts. Pride of the collection are the artifacts collected from Tutankhamen's tomb, as well as excellent pieces from every period of the Egyptian history.
This is our first real view of Cairo as we speed towards the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. We pass busy streets filled with all types of transport and shoppers going about their daily business. Once on the freeway, we pass blocks and blocks of unfinished flats; an indication that housing is in short supply. The bus pulls up outside a complex of buildings; a mish-mash of architectural styles; Islamic, and medieval in particular.
The Citadel had been the seat of government in Egypt and the residence of its rulers for nearly 700 years from the 13th to the 19th centuries. Its location on a promontory of the Mokattam Hills near the centre of Cairo commands a strategic position overlooking the city and dominating its skyline. When it was constructed, it was among the most impressive and ambitious military fortification projects of its time. It is now a preserved historic site, including mosques and museums. We begin our tour inside the museums; a brief history of the buildings, but I am perhaps a little more interested in the working archaeology site on the terrace. From this vantage point, we have a view of Cairo like none other and the sight of the Pyramids of Giza on the horizon remind me that I am really here in Egypt.
It is around this time that I witness my first instance of police corruption. To use a bathroom, I am supposed to pay an attendant a few coins. I have forgotten this and I indicate to the attendant that I will pay on my way out. No sooner am I in the stall when I hear a commotion. A man screaming at the woman and I realise that he has come to collect the money I should have paid. Ratting through my purse, I find a small note and a number of coins, which I slip into my pocket. Returning to the attendant, I know that my actions are being observed, so as I place the coins in the jar, I slip the note into the lady's hand. A policeman is waiting outside the door. A policeman, who earns a wage. As I leave to return to my group, I turn to see him enter, empty the contents of her jar into his hand and leave. A policeman has just ripped off the toilet attendant and this is obviously accepted behaviour.
There are four mosques on the site, but we've only got enough time to visit one. Situated on the summit of the citadel, one of the highest points of Cairo, the Mosque of Muhammad Ali is the largest to be built in the first half of the 19th century. We are all modestly dressed, but since Natasha's legs are showing, she is given a gown to slip over her clothes. Designed by Yusuf Bushnak from Istanbul, the mosque was built between 1830 and 1848. Before completion of the mosque, the alabaster panels from the upper walls were taken away and used for the palaces of Abbas I. The stripped walls were clad with wood painted to look like marble. In 1899 the mosque showed signs of cracking and some inadequate repairs were undertaken. But the condition of the mosque became so dangerous that a complete scheme of restoration was ordered by King Fuad in 1931 and was finally completed under King Farouk in 1939.
The mosque was built with a central dome surrounded by four small and four semicircular domes. It was constructed in a square plan and measured 41x41 metres. The central dome is 21 meters in diameter and the height of the building is 52 metres. Two elegant cylindrical minarets of Turkish type with two balconies and conical caps are situated on the western side of the mosque, and rise to 82 metres. We explore the vast interior of the mosque before moving back to the bus.
We arrive at the Egyptian Museum. Directed to leave all large bags, cameras, and phones on the bus we feel cheated as we slight from
the bus. We are about to see some of the most iconic artifacts, including the rooms dedicated to Tutankhamen and to the numerous mummies. And we are unable to take any photos. The displays are unbelievable; huge columns covered with hieroglyphs, papyrus, coins and more. Then we squeeze into the crowded room dedicated to the contents of Tutankhamen's tomb. It's walls painted black, the death mask is the main attraction. Clicks and flashes from phones and cameras held by loud, chattering Asian tourists. I am angry because we have followed the rules. The security at the gate of the museum should have confiscated these illegal items. The security guards in the room ignore the obvious snub at the rules, so I complain. What is one rule for us should have been extended to all tourists. As they room empties, I have a better view of the remaining artifacts. Many have been removed for a forthcoming exhibition to be held in Melbourne. Inside a large glass case is a jumble of artifacts from the tomb, presumably arranged higgeldy-piggeldy, just as they had been found in the tomb by Howard Carter in November, 1922. This is really what I want to see and I'm not disappointed. With just a pane of glass between us, I can see the beautiful items that once belonged to an ancient king.
The museum is meant to be closing sometime in 2011 and the artifacts are to be moved to the almost complete Grand Egyptian Museum. Our tour guide has indicated that Egypt would like the many artifacts that are currently housed in museums across the world to be returned when the new museum opens. I am not convinced that they should. Egyptian exhibitions in major museums across the world provide an insight into Egyptian life for people, most of whom will never be able to travel to Egypt.
DAY THREE: CAIRO
SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011
After breakfast we will visit the famous bazaar of Khan El Khalilli where you can bargain for exotic local wares or just sit in one of the many cafes watching the colourful life of the ancient streets.
After lunch we continue to Giza to unravel the secrets behind the Great Pyramids, which served as tombs for the ancient Pharaohs. Visit the enigmatic Sphinx, which dates from 2565 BCE and is probably the country's most famous monument located just west of Cairo beside the Great Pyramids.
A short distance away, along the freeway, behind construction sites, small peaks appear. Getting off the freeway, the bus negotiates the narrow village streets, where, like a mountain peak, a four-thousand-year-old structure looms behind the Art Deco-style buildings of the town of Giza.
Until we started our descent into Cairo a few days ago, it hadn't occurred to me that the Pyramids of Giza sit in the outskirts of the capital city. Perhaps I should have done more research before arriving here. Now, as the bus drives through the streets of Giza, the pyramids grow larger. Negotiating a narrow strip of road, we leave the town behind, and we are suddenly here. In the desert.
Once I step out of the bus, all memory of the city disappears from view and mind as I try to believe that I'm actually here. As the tour commentary providing the history and other facts is beamed through earphones, I stand and look at these monoliths in awe. The mathematics required to build with such precision structures is an amazing feat, but also to cut rocks to precisely the right size and to transport them from goodness knows where to this place is like an impossible task. But here it is. Right in front of me.
The commentary completed, we have time to walk and explore. I touch one of the stones at about my height and try to absorb the history and events that have passed since this very block of stone was laid. Tickets are sold out to enter the Great Pyramid of Khufu, and we observe the people waiting their turn to enter through the Robbers Tunnel. We can, however, explore the Pyramid of Menkaure. Together with Natasha, I descend the narrow passageway. It's slow-going since there are literally hundreds of tourists moving in both directions in the compact space. In some parts, we have to bend over almost double and somehow scoot along. The first antechamber has decorative panels on its walls, whilst the next one has niches set into the sides. I can imagine treasures stored in these shelves; treasures that have long been removed. We wait our turn to slowly return to the outside air, where it smells fresh and certainly a lot cleaner than down in the depths of the pyramid's chambers. I'm certainly glad that I not only had the opportunity to visit the interior of the pyramid, but took that opportunity. Many on the tour wouldn't attempt it for a variety of reasons. Despite it being a little crowded, perhaps claustrophobic, it is important to challenge oneself to do things that are out of the ordinary. This may be the only time I'll visit Egypt, so a little discomfort isn't going to stop me from immersing myself into the whole experience. Since cameras are not permitted, I have to try to remember the small details.
When a Pharaoh died, all the worldly belongings he owned had been placed in the the antechambers along with his
coffin. There is another important item for the Pharaoh's journey to the afterlife; his boat. The Khufu ship is an intact full-size vessel that was sealed into a pit at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza around 2500 BC. The ship is now preserved in the Giza Solar boat museum. Khufu's ship, the oldest, largest, and best-preserved ritual vessel, was sealed into a pit carved out of the Giza bedrock and was perfectly preserved by the dry atmosphere.
A few kilometres away is a wonderful vantage point, where tourists can capture the full vista of the pyramids into one frame. It's also a great spot for 'trick' photos or selfies. We do return to the complex and explore the Sphinx, a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human. It is the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt and is believed to have been designed, sculpted, and constructed during the reign of the Pharaoh Khafre (c. 2558–2532 BCE).
We reluctantly leave this amazing place as the sun starts to bake. Nearby, we visit a papyrus store and gallery, where we watch a demonstration on how papyrus has been made for thousands of years. Unfortunately, once the demonstration is complete, the hard-sell commences. We do purchase a couple of small souvenir pictures, which we will frame when we return. I'm surprised that we have been hurried from our visit to the pyramids, yet appear to have all the time in the world for shopping in this store. The kickbacks must be enormous.
Due to recent bombings of Christian places of worship, we stop only briefly to view the Coptic churches from the bus as we return to central Cairo. Our guide is very descriptive, as he talks about not only the architecture of the churches, but the history of the church in Egypt. Our bus stops at the bazaar of Khan El Khalilli and we wander through the streets for a short time as vendors aggressively attempt to push their wares at us. It is probably a little bit of a joke, but it becomes rather wearisome when we are offered anything from chickens to goats for our daughter. Natasha ignores them and takes it in her stride, but I hope this is not going to continue throughout the tour. We stop at a restaurant and order coffee to avoid the person who is trying to clean my shoes. He persists, even sitting under the table to complete the job I not only didn't ask for, but didn't really want. I find this situation a little disconcerting and ask the tour guide to tell him to go away. I understand the poverty, but I do find some of the tactics used to elicit money from tourists not only tiresome, but intimidating. I reluctantly put a few coins in his hands. I feel that he was about to ask for more, but caught the eye of the tour guide before disappearing into the crowds to look for another victim. Once the situation is handled, I can relax and watch the traders and the shoppers along the crowded street, whilst savouring a well-earned cup of coffee.
DAY FOUR: CAIRO-LUXOR
SUNDAY, JANUARY 9, 2011
After breakfast and hotel checkout we cross the Nile River to Saqqara, and ancient burial ground, to visit the first step Pyramid. Exciting archaeological discoveries are still being made on this site today. This afternoon we will transfer to Cairo Airport to board our flight to Luxor. Upon arrival in Luxor we will be transferred to our hotel. Tonight will be free to begin discovering this magnificent city.
We travel about thirty kilometres south of Cairo, into the desert. According to the tour guide, only ten percent of the antiquities and tombs have been found to date. I stare out the window at the endless desert, which reaches far beyond the horizon and I can believe that it is probably true.
Saqqara is the earliest colossal stone structure in Egypt. The The 6-tier, 4-sided structure is the central feature of a vast mortuary complex in an enormous courtyard surrounded by ceremonial structures and decoration. Sitting beneath a bright azure sky, the Step Pyramid of Djoser is every bit as exciting today as the Pyramids of Giza were yesterday.
Adjacent to the pyramid and in several places nearby archaeologists are unearthing new ancient artifacts, removing rock and unwanted debris as tourists watch.
We wander through the site, marvelling again at the way in which the buildings have been preserved. The Egyptians take great pride in their country's unique antiquities. Donkeys and camels mingle freely with tourists. The Step Pyramid has scaffolding around part of it as repairs are being made to prevent erosion and damage to the ancient structure. From a vantage point we can see the Pyramids of Giza along the horizon, so we are not that far away.
We reluctantly leave the desert and a short time later arrive at a fertile place where many palm trees grow. Here, we're shepherded into a carpet factory. We watch the demonstration and whilst the ever-eager sellers try to hook us into buying a carpet, Tom and I slip outside the building and into the fresh air.
Suddenly we hear someone shouting. Creeping around the side of the bus, where we had a good view of the road and what was happening, but at the same time, concealed enough, we saw something that made our blood turn cold.
Just a few weeks ago, on the 17th December, 2010, a Tunisian fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in response to the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by a municipal official and her aides. This practice of stealing or destroying the produce of poor street vendors by corrupt police officers and council members is widespread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. When Bouazizi died on January 4, 2011, civil unrest turned into violent demonstrations.
A policeman on a motor scooter had stopped a fruit and vegetable vendor on the road. Clearly we cannot hear what or understand exactly what is said between the two people. Suddenly, the policeman picks large out large oranges - one in each hand - and smashes them violently on the ground, at the time screaming at the vendor. The vendor quickly jumps on his motor cycle and drives away from the policeman before any more damage is done to his wares. Slipping quietly back to the entrance of the carpet factory, Tom and I join the rest of the group, a little shaken, if not stirred by the incident. Later, we discuss what we have witnessed with our tour guide. Although sympathetic that we had witnessed such an incident, we do understand that corruption is rife here and when we see it, we shouldn't report it.
We escape the carpet factory with our lives and without having been coerced into buying one. We are now on the way to the airport to travel to our next destination.
DAY FIVE: LUXOR/NILE CRUISE
MONDAY, JANUARY 10, 2011
Luxor is the world's greatest open-air museum, filled with the awe-inspiring monuments of an ancient civilization. After breakfast and hotel check-out, we will be taken across the Nile to the West Bank to visit the Necropolis of Thebes, which was the capital of Egypt during the period of the Middle and New Kingdoms. Continue our journey to the Valley of the Kings. This is where the pharaohs were buried and believed to meet their God in the afterlife. We then carry through to the most beautiful temple of Royalty, the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut and end our day at the Colossi of Memnon, which consists of two massive stone statues built to guard a temple, which no longer exists. This afternoon we transfer to our Nile Cruiser, home for the next four nights. After lunch we will have the remainder of the day free to enjoy our surroundings.
We have a very long morning ahead of us. Natasha is up before light streaks across the skies as she is joining a few other intrepid souls for an early-morning hot-air balloon ride over the temples and burial ground of the Pharaohs. We drift off to sleep, waking when it is light enough to watch for the balloons to appear as they pass our hotel.
We arrive at the Karnak Temple Complex as it opens; before the crowds and before it gets too hot. Karnak is the modern-day name for the ancient site of the Temple of Amun. The Temple of Amun is one of the largest religious buildings in the world and honours not only Amun but other gods such as Osiris, Montu, Isis, Ptah and the Egyptian rulers who wished to be remembered for their contributions to the site.
As I pass through security and into the courtyard, I'm not prepared for the immense buildings in front of me. Each side of the entrance path into the temple complex is flanked with ram-headed sphinxes, which serve to attract the eye of the visitor to wonder what is behind the gates.
It's easy to rehash the words from Wikipedia and other texts, but it nearly impossible to describe the sense of awe I feel as I walk toward the temples. My breath catches in the back of my throat as I stand next to huge structures, some of which date back nearly 4,000 years. For once, I'm dumbstruck, unable to speak as I try to process the information we are listening to through our headphones, whilst standing in amongst these ancient buildings.
It is here that we first see the inscriptions, the sculpted hieroglyphics, and the friezes filled with images of everyday life. Huge statues, pillars, temples, obelisks, mounds of ancient carvings fill the spaces and I simply cannot see everything or absorb all the information that I'm being bombarded with. Best to enjoy what I'm seeing. I'm interested to see creative jealousy between artists and one dynasty unfolds into another, serious acts of vandalism are evident as current kings try to obliterate the work of their predecessors.
The beautiful azure sky and bright light highlight the carvings into nearly every visible surface. Tentatively, I put my hand out and trace the outline of a duck with my forefinger, tracing the outline and wondering whether the artist ever thought that their work would be on display in thousands of years in the future.
A few minutes later, we arrive at the Luxor Temple, dedicated to the rejuvenation of kingship. It is thought that the Pharaohs may have been crowned in these temples.
As expected, there are many similarities between the Karnak and Luxor temples, but that doesn't detract from the magnificence of the immense buildings, monuments, and statues. If anything, the pillars are perhaps a little more refined.
We enter through the Temple Pylon of Ramesses II. Two massive seated statues of Ramesses II guard the huge gateway and are flanked by four standing statues of the king. Two 25 metre obelisks once accompanied them but today only one remains; the other stands in the Place De La Concorde in Paris.
The column capitals are varied. The Colonnade of Amenhotep III has seven pairs of 16m high open-flower columns, which still support their huge architrave blocks, while the columns with bud capitals belong to the court of Ramesses II. Hieroglyphs are carved on almost every surface.
Again, we see signs of vandalism, even Christian paintings cover some of the walls. They themselves are important artifacts, but they do obstruct the view of much earlier work. I have an overwhelming feeling of how small we really are in comparison to the megalithic structures surrounding me.
As we leave the temple via an avenue of sphinxes, which once connected this temple of Luxor to the one at Karnak, I can only marvel at the ingenuity, the advanced knowledge of mathematics, engineering, and construction of the Egyptian people. If not for their insatiable need to build such huge monuments to themselves, documenting their lives as they lived them, we would not be standing here today with such an extensive insight into the lives of the ancient people of this land.
DAY SIX: lUXOR - EDFU
TUESDAY, JANUARY 11, 2011
This morning we discover the Temple Complex of Karnak, the largest temple in Egypt, and the Luxor Temple, also known as the Southern Shrine. Back to the cruiser to enjoy sweeping views of the Nile as we sail to Edfu.
We are up bright and early again today. Our tour guide has switched the days over and we find ourselves speeding towards the Valley of the Kings. Not long after leaving the city of Luxor, we are confronted with sand dunes as the desert lies just beyond the city limits. The landscape is fairly desolate with few mud-brick buildings dotted here and there. The entrance to the valley is forgettable; just a sentry box on the roadway, but very soon we are spilling out of the bus to view some of the tombs that are open to the public.
The paintings on the walls are delicate and can easily be damaged by flash photography, thus all cameras are banned for use within the tomb chambers. The tombs are numbered according to their location from the entrance of the valley, and we explore several with
our tour guide. The following tombs are open: KV1, KV2, KV6, KV9, KV11, KV15, KV16, KV47 and KV62, but time is short and we are taken through the tombs with the very best artwork, including KV11, the tomb of Ramesses III. I realise that I personally could spend the entire day here, just wandering and observing the incredible funerary arrangements made by these kings. Of course, many of the tombs had been looted centuries ago, so archaeologists have had to rely on the painting and hieroglyphics to gain an insight into the lives of the pharaohs buried within.
But one tomb was found almost in its entirety; the tomb of Tutankhamun, which was uncovered by British explorer, Howard Carter in 1922. Known as KV62, it contained so many artifacts that it took eight years to empty. We are a little unlucky today, even though it is still early in the morning, we are unable to enter the tomb because numbers of visitors are strictly limited ahead of the impending closure of the tomb in a few days. A replica will be built to accommodate the tourists, thus preserving the original forever. The tomb itself is quite unremarkable since it was emptied of its contents. For some reason, perhaps because of his early death, the walls had not been decorated to the same extent as the other tombs in the valley.
As often happens on these tours, we leave the wonders of the Valley of the Kings to arrive into the clutches of workers in an alabaster factory. Again, once the demonstration is complete, there is a lot of time wasted as salespeople attempt to wrestle as much money as possible out of the visitors. We resist, as usual.
Leaving the alabaster factory by bus, we basically drive round a bend. There, nestled into the mountain, is a magnificent and huge temple; the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. Unlike the tombs we have visited to date, the temple includes three levels of colonnaded terraces. This temple appears to be more elegant and more 'feminine' than those preceding it, but it was not built without some controversy. Queen Hatshepsut was a dynamic and exceptional female ruler; her reign was the most peaceful and prosperous in Egypt's history. Upon her death, her step-son, Thutmose III became Pharaoh. Despite wishing to obliterate his step-mother's very existence from history, Thutmose III defaced the temple as well destroying many public monuments dedicated to her. For some reason, he dumped the debris of the wreckage near her temple, thus not realising that this action would provide archaeologists a fairly complete overview of her life. Unbelievably though, the wall paintings had been left largely intact, and these provide a small glimpse into the life of an ancient female pharaoh.
The building is magnificent from every aspect. Every step I take presents a new view, a new aspect of the paintings, sculptures, even remnants of the gardens, which once grew abundantly in this desert.
Golf carts are used to ferry visitors back to the carpark, where our bus is parked. A child hangs precariously off the side of the vehicle, trying to sell copies of a book. He is unable to understand why we refuse to purchase the book from him. The child has an extraordinary grip of the English language, so wouldn't he be better off at school rather than peddling books on behalf of an exploitative adult?
On the way back to our cruiser, we make a short stop nearby to see the huge Colossi of Memnon, two statues of Amenhotep III, which once guarded a temple built around the same time as the statues. The temple was destroyed by an earthquake soon after it had been built, the two statues survived, somehow almost unscathed.
We sail along the Nile river, sitting on the top deck and admiring the villages and people carrying out their daily tasks. As the sun dips down behind the horizon, the sky is resplendent in its bright orange finery. As the shadows lengthen and the sky turns inky-black, peddlers paddle to the ship, selling galabias from their boats. All are the same price. We select the items we want, and they throw them up, very accurately, I must say. Nothing falls into the river. As we agree to purchase the goods, we drop the money from the ship into their little boats. It may be a different type of floating market to the ones I've seen in Asia, but it's another small experience unique to this country.
DAY SEVEN: EDFU - KOM OMBO-ASWAN
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 12, 2011
After breakfast we will visit Edfu Temple and the second largest and best preserved temple in Egypt, the Temple of Horus. We continue to sail towards Kom Ombo to the temple shared by the two gods; Sobek and Haroeris. Afternoon tea on deck. Tonight dress like an Egyptian Goddess or Pharaoh wile we enjoy divver followed by a Galabia party.
Built between 237 and 57 BCE, the Temple of Edfu is probably one of the best-preserved temples in Egypt. Almost every surface is covered with writing and imagery describing the language, myth, and religion of the people. These are important texts relating to the conflicts between Seth and Horus.
There is nothing ho-hum or repetitious about these temples. Each day brings forth a new temple, from a different era, but all providing the history and stories of the people at the time of construction. It saddens me to see such obvious and vicious vandalism of the buildings and sculptures. Ironically, that vandalism is every bit as important, historically, as the buildings themselves. Followers of Christianity are probably responsible for much of the damage in this temple, although the obliteration of faces of pharaohs and gods was common practice by reigning kings through Egypt's history. There is evidence of an arson attack in the Hypostyle Hall; its blackened ceilings still noticeable two centuries later.
Although I'm not surprised that over time, the buildings display features common to Greek and Roman styles, such as the refined and columns and decorative capitals, however the artwork, in particular the depictions of people and animals in the bas relief on the buildings had not evolved.
The Temple of Edfu had been dedicated to Horus, the protector of the ruler of Egypt, and many images of the falcon-headed man appear throughout the temple. This is a beautiful example of Egyptian architecture, fortunately preserved intact due to it being buried under metres of the shifting sand.
Returning to the boat, we enjoy our lunch as the cruiser continues along the Nile River, passing the bustling town of Kom Ombo. We wave at the passengers inside a very overcrowded motorboat, which serves as a passenger ferry. On the other side of the town, temple ruins loom beyond the river bank. Along the waterfront, a busy market is operating. I promise to return as I want to buy some accessories to wear tonight at the Galabia Dinner.
The Temple of Kom Ombo is unique because it's 'mirror' design includes duplicate buildings, which are dedicated to separate gods; the crocodile god of Sobek in the northern part and Haroeris (Horus the Elder) in the southern section.
Although of a similar era as the Edfu Temple, Kom Ombo is not as well-preserved, having survived flooding, earthquakes, and builders who stripped it of its stones. Later, damage by the Copts, who used the temple as a church.
As the days progress, I am able to fully appreciate the advanced technologies the ancient Egyptians possessed and exhibited in the building of these enormous structures. With the worship of the Sun God, Amun-Ra, the position of buildings to capture the sun rays is a demonstration of their advanced scientific and mathematical knowledge. More than two thousand years ago, people spent their entire lives carving their history into the walls of their temples. Because of its environment and location, these are almost perfectly preserved so that we may gaze with awe at these works of mathematical genius and design.
Just before boarding our boat at the designated departure time, I spend a short time exploring the market on the river bank. It's a slight respite from the thrumming of facts, figures, and information, which is swimming through my head at the moment. I'm looking forward to taking part in the Galabia evening whilst we gently sail towards our next destination.
DAY EIGHT: EDFU - ASWAN/NILE CRUISE
THURSDAY, JANUARY 13, 2011
Aswan is one of the most scenic locations along the Nile River where the Nile meanders around scattered botanical islands and rocky cataracts. This afternoon enjoy a relaxing felucca ride on the Nile River. Afternoon tea on deck.
Morning option: Abu Simbel by flight.
It is still dark when we arise and leave the boat this morning. It's a forty-five minute flight from Aswan to Abu-Simbel and it's timed perfectly for our arrival at the site just before sunrise.
As the sun creeps up from the horizon, the early-morning light bathes The Great Temple in hues of gold. Almost as quickly as it appears to shine, the rising sun and the brightening sky serve to return the stone to its normal beige-colour.
The guides are not permitted to talk inside, nor are we allowed to take photos inside the temples. But standing here from a distance and attempting to fit The Great Temple, the temple of Ramesses II, into the frame of a photo, its sheer size is apparent.
Then there is the small added factor that this temple and the one next to it, the Temple of Nefertari, had been moved to this location, in their entirety, between 1964 and 1968. The relocation of the temples was necessary due to the creation of Lake Nasser after the building of the Aswan High Dam. We don't know what other ancient buildings had been sacrificed and now lie at the bottom of the lake. But due to the work of UNESCO, several structures of historical significance, including the Temples of Abu Simbel, were delicately moved to locations that now provide protection from the elements.
I feel very insignificant as I walk through the massive gateway, between the enormous seated statues of Ramesses II. Before the camera ban that is invoked as soon as I step inside the expansive space, I manage to snap a photo of the columns inside, all carved with the face of Ramesses II. Along the back of the temple are statues, which sit in total darkness for all but two days of the year. On October 22 and February 22, the rays of the sun penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall, except for the statue of Ptah, a god connected with the Egyptian underworld, who always remains in the dark. The relocation of the temples had to accommodate this peculiar solar alignment. Although we don't manage to arrive on one of those days, I'm sure that many tourists arrive on those significant dates to witness this event.
The second temple is dedicated to the wife of Ramesses II, Queen Nefertari, and is unique because the statues of the Pharaoh and his Queen at the front of the portal are of equal size.
I haven't mentioned anything about the massive project to relocate the temples to this site. This is perhaps better explained in the various documentaries on the subject. Needless to say, the monumental feat of moving these temples and to reassemble them in this location was a task that was not only difficult, but required precise planning.
By 10am, we are back on the bus with the passengers who had opted not to see the Abu Simbel temples. I must admit that I don't understand why someone would come all this way to Egypt and decide not to visit one of the most significant sites; each to their own, I suppose.
From our vantage point from the road, we can see the engineering marvel, which is the Aswan High Dam. Built to control flooding, increase water storage for irrigation, and to generate hydroelectricity, the Aswan High Dam was designed to provide a better, more predictable life for Egyptians and neighbouring Ethopians.
After lunch, we set off from the ship once more to explore the Nile by felucca, a small sailboat, which ferries tourists to a small Nubian village not far away. It is relaxing on the water, and although there is some litter floating on the water, the area is surprisingly clean.
I relax as the warmth of the sun starts to penetrate through the layers of clothes. It's been a long day so far and I begin to drift until I notice a small boat coming towards us. A young boy is paddling out towards the boat. One of the things I find most disturbing in some countries is the readiness to exploit young people to make money. Children's earning capacity detracts from longer term employment offered by getting an education. Of course, we are sitting ducks. However, a gimmick is always good for tips, and as this young lad approaches us, I'm fascinated to see that he has cardboard tied to his hands, which serves as paddles. As he joins us onboard, we are treated to live entertainment, and despite my misgivings, I do enjoy his entertainment and provide him with a tip.
Most people alight from the boat to take a camel ride into the Nubian desert. I opt to stay onboard and ride to the village, which is our destination. I can see Tom and Natasha through the zoom lens of the camera as they sit aloft camels led by Bedouins. I'm surprised to see one of the young people from our tour return to the boat as we cast off to complete our journey. He appears agitated and after a few minutes, he explains why he didn't join his mother and sister. Apparently the handler had purposely separated him from his family then offered him 'cheap hashish'. In all the years I've been travelling, I've never come across a situation where people had been offered narcotics. Perhaps I'm just naive, or this is the first time I'm on a tour that is not completely made up of geriatrics. I'm equally shocked to learn that this isn't the first time this has happened to him and that he had been offered drugs by a cop at the pyramids a few days ago. A nice, cleancut young man, this trip of a lifetime is his 21st birthday gift from his family. He had the sense to walk away from a potentially bad situation, but I wonder how many people get caught unawares.
We arrive at the Nubian village around the same time as the camel riders and join up to tour the village and attend a demonstration on village life. It's been a long but fulfilling day, and one which I will remember always.
DAY NINE: ASWAN - LUXOR - SHARM EL SHEIKH
FRIDAY, JANUARY 14, 2011
After breakfast we disembark the cruiser and board our coach to visit the Aswan High Dam and the Philae Temple. At noon we enjoy the drive back to Luxor through the villages and little towns, watch the farmers working on their fields. Upon arrival at Luxor Airport we board our flight bound for Sharm El Sheikh (Red Sea). Once we arrive we will be transferred to our luxury resort for check in.
Since we had visited the Aswan High Dam yesterday, we drive directly to the Philae Temple. Philae Temple was originally located near the first cataract of the Nile and after construction of the Aswan Low Dam, was subjected to flooding, prompting UNESCO to relocate it under the Nubia Campaign project to Agilkia Island.
Since Philae was said to be one of the burying-places of Osiris, it was held in high reverence both by the Egyptians to the north and the Nubians to the south.
The most striking feature of the temple complex at Philae is the variation of architectural styles that span from the Pharaohs to the Caesars. However, it's interesting to note that despite the evolution of the architecture, the pure Egyptian-style artwork survives centuries after the reign of the last Pharaoh. The zeal of early Christians is probably responsible for the extensive mutilation of the sculptures. It's interesting to see that one of the most distinctive buildings, the Kiosk, bears a striking resemblance to Greek and Roman architecture.
We are all somewhat aware that this monument to the great Egyptian builders may be the last that we will see here in Egypt and we spend some time absorbing everything that it has to offer to the historian, the artist, and the tourist. This temple is a wonderful and important example of the longevity of the craftsmanship of those who sought to build monuments to themselves and to that which was important to them.
As we head towards Luxor, this time by bus, I can appreciate all that I've seen and although our experiences from tomorrow shall bring new pages of the history book to light, this is the reason why we came to Egypt. Everything else we see from this time forward is a bonus.
DAY TEN: SHARM EL SHEIKH/PETRA, JORDAN
SATURDAY, JANUARY 15, 2011
Sharm El Sheikh is known as Egypt's premier resort. It is located southeast of the Sinai Peninsula and here, combined with the simplicity of sun, sea, and sand, you can enjoy the marine life, water sports, shopping, and entertainment. Free day at leisure. Why not relax by the pool, enjoy the beach, or take a full day snorkeling trip to discover the wonders lurking beneath the Red Sea. All meals, drinks, and local spirits are included at Sharm El Sheikh Resort.
We rise early and arrive at the airport before the sun rises. This morning we are leaving Egypt temporarily to visit the historical city of Petra. Not quite as old as many of the sites we've visited over the past days, Petra is nonetheless a very interesting place to visit.
The journey from the airport at Aqaba, Jordan to Petra takes two hours along the Desert Highway. the terrain is similar to that in Egypt. We are surrounded by desert; treeless, and sandy. The rocky hills show stripes of colour variations as the sky lightens and sandy outcrops show signs of erosion from the ever-relentless wind. We pass villages of low-set adobe houses and tents pitched in the desert by nomadic people.
About halfway into our journey we stop at a rest stop high up in the mountains. It's cold here and the wind is icy. When our tour guide disappeared last night, he failed to advise that we needed cold-weather gear, so whilst our jackets sit in our hot hotel room back in Egypt, we are feeling very cold.
As we arrive in Petra, I can see tomb entrances and other edifices carved out of the rock. I didn't have time to do too much reading about Petra, so I've come unprepared for what we are about to see. Leaving the bus behind us in the carpark, we follow the local guide to an opening in rock. We enter the 1.2 kilometre-long siq, the long narrow gorge, which leads to the ancient city. Similar to a slot canyon, the Siq is a natural fault that had been formed by tectonic forces. The walls of the canyon are between 91 and 180 metres high, so I feel very insignificant against the height of the rock. Our walking tour guide is animated as he points to points of interest and fills us in on the history of the Nabataeans, the people who inhabited this part of Jordan.
We pass niches, which have been carved into the walls of the canyon, and even walls built to store water after the infrequent rainfall. The Nabataeans controlled floods by building dams, cisterns, and water conduits, which enabled the people to survive during prolonged droughts. The Nabataeans were nomadic traders, which generated considerable revenue. Petra became the focus of their wealth, providing a secure place to store their wealth. The Nabataeans were accustomed to living in the barren deserts, unlike their enemies, and were able to repel attacks by taking advantage of the area's mountainous terrain, which provided a natural fortress.
We continue walking, admiring the texture of the rock, in parts displaying undulating colourful stripes; erosion caused by flash flooding and the evidence of tectonic shift. As we walk further into the canyon, we see carved rocks and hand scooped-out channels designed to direct fast-flowing water into storage areas.
Then I walk around a bend and beyond a crack, between the walls of the canyon, it is there. Rose-coloured stone delicately carved into the side of a mountain: The Treasury.
The Al-Khazneh is a mausoleum and crypt, which had been carved out of the side of a sandstone rock face at the beginning of the first century AD. Its Arabic name 'Treasury' derives from one legend that bandits hid their loot in a stone urn high on the second level. Significant damage from bullets can be seen on the urn. It is believed that the facade had been carved from the top down, and holes, where wooden steps had probably been used by the craftsmen are still evident. The architecture is Roman, and indication that the Nabataeans had once been part of the Roman State.
Nearby is an enormous theatre, which had been cut into the base of a mountain; the surrounding hills are filled with tombs. Further on, the monastery, and other buildings, cobbled streets, columns and remnants of structures all add to the experience that has so far been far beyond our expectations.
We make our way back along the Siq and to our bus, eventually arriving back in Sharm El Shiekh just as the sun is setting. Exhausted, but buzzed with the amazing experience we've had today.
DAY ELEVEN: SHARM EL SHEIKH
SUNDAY, JANUARY 16, 2011
Day at leisure to further discover the Red Sea's coral and marine life. Due to the Red Sea temperatures of 20 degrees plus, high water salinity, and a surrounding desert climate that is very dry, coral and marine life flourish off the Sinai Peninsula creating an underwater wonderland. One hundred and fifty species of coral alone may be found here. Visibility underwater is exceptional with fifty metres not an uncommon distance.
***We are advised that the Mount Sinai climb has been brought forward a day***
Before midnight departure from Sharm El Sheikh to St. Catherine's for those who would like to take the opportunity to climb Mount Sinai. The challenge of climbing the mountain, which is 2,286 metres high followed by 700 steps, is well rewarded by watching the remarkable sunrise from the top. Camels are also available to take you up the mountain. There will be a high involvement of physical activity and therefore not recommended for those with medical conditions
The resort is overrun with Russians. In fact this is the only place in Egypt, so far, that we've been unable to change Australian dollars into the local Egyptian pounds.
After our exhausting day yesterday, we decide to walk down to the beach and view the sealife from the comfort of the jetty. Natasha is happy to swim in amongst the fish in the warm water. We've been advised that there will be an excursion to a local market this evening. When we left Luxor a couple of days ago, the main guide returned to Cairo to spend a few days with his family whilst we are in Sharm El Sheikh. He will meet us in Alexandria in a few days. However, the second guide, who has been with us since day one, appears and disappears at will, so we're really not sure where he is or what is going on.
We are advised that there has been a change to the itinerary and the Mount Sinai climb will take place tonight, instead of tomorrow.
DAY TWELVE: SHARM EL SHEIKH
MONDAY, JANUARY 17, 2011
Today we will be driven to St. Catherine's (approximately a 2.5 hour drive) to visit the oldest Christian monastery still in existence. Here you will gain an understanding of the significance of the area to early Christianity. We then travel back to our resort in Sharm El Sheikh.
Last night, we had been told that the midnight walk to Mount Sinai will not go ahead. There is no explanation why it has been suddenly cancelled. We had been assured, however, that the drive to St. Catherine's, the location of the 'burning bush' will go ahead as planned.
We gather in the foyer of the hotel at 5 AM for our bus to St. Catherine's. The minutes tick by, as we wait for the guide to turn up. There's no bus waiting outside. After half an hour, neither the breakfast boxes nor the guide has turned up. I wander down to the reception and ask for the whereabouts of the guide and an indication of what time the bus is leaving for St. Catherine's. He advises that the tip has been cancelled.
Later, we decide to see if we can hire a car to take us to St. Catherine's. The reception staff tell us that we're to stay inside the resort. So we go out on the street and hail a cab. Our driver, Frank, makes a few calls and advises us that the monastery closes at 11 AM each day, so it would be impossible to arrive before it closes. He says he'll make arrangements for us to visit tomorrow. In the meantime, we decide to go into the little township of Sharm El Sheikh, stopping first at a shopping centre nearby, which is all but deserted.
Frank refuses payment, saying we can pay him once he delivers us back at the hotel. We make arrangements to meet him at our drop off point and set out to explore the little shopping village. This too, appears to be quite deserted, but we manage to make a nuisance of ourselves, purchasing some silver jewellery, checking out the spices and other odds and ends outside the spice shop. We slip into a homewares bazaar. This is probably the first place that we are not harassed, instead we are welcome to look around and the shopkeepers, all of whom are more than helpful. We find a cafe and enjoy a couple of cups of real and tasty coffee, eventually returning to the hotel. Just a couple of kilometres from the hotel, Frank points out a resort, similar to ours, but surrounded by a high, security wall. It looks like a jail, but we're informed that inside is a resort, which is currently the venue for urgent peace talks with members from almost every country. A huge photo shows Bill Clinton amongst others meeting with President Mubarak at this place. I wonder whether this is the reason we have no internet access at our hotel almost next door. Suddenly things start adding up. Is this why the Mount Sinai climb and the visit to St. Catherine's had been cancelled? Is this why we were told not to leave the hotel?
We spend the evening around the hotel. The Russians organise a 'disco'. At this point, I might as well mention that although everything is included, the meals are basically the same every night. Clearly they suit the Russians on holiday from the cold winters in their homeland. We are going to try out the Korean-style BBQ tonight for a bit of variety.
We've hardly seen a soul from our tour today. I hope they haven't fallen down the same rabbit-hole as the tour guide.
DAY THIRTEEN: SHARM EL SHEIKH
TUESDAY, JANUARY 18, 2011
Day of leisure?
Slipping the resort's wrist band off our arms, we call Frank and wait for him to arrive out the front of the hotel. Our tour guide still hasn't surfaced, so the day is ours to fill in. Since its our last day in Sharm El Sheikh before our ongoing journey to Alexandria, we decide to go out for coffee. We had asked Frank about taking us to St. Catherine's today, but when he made enquiries he had been advised that it has closed indefinitely. We still don't put two and two together.
Although the little village of Sharm El Sheikh has been fairly quiet on our previous visits, today seems more so. We wander up a small alleyway to look at some of the small stores; the cacophony of smells of the spices blend in the still air; not unpleasant, but still unable to discern one from the other. I bend over a basket of richly fragrant nutmegs and vanilla pods and almost jump out of my skin as a speaker above my head blasts out the call to prayer. I swear, I nearly have a heart attack! It may explain the absence of people, though. I cannot bring any of the spices home with me, but I do purchase a small sample of hibiscus tea, to which I've taken a liking. It's just enough to last the remaining days of our journey.
Over coffee, we reminisce about the tour to date and despite the disappointment of not seeing Mount Sinai and St. Catherine's, we both agree that the added tours to Abu Simbel and Petra have been absolute bonuses. Out of respect for Frank, who may be visiting the mosque, we wait until the men start appearing on the street again before calling him to take us back to the hotel.
We travel back on the well-worn road passing prison-like resorts. The presence of security guards standing at close intervals around the perimeter of the resorts and policemen systematically probing the desert sand are views we've become accustomed to over the past three days.
Just as we approach the roundabout in which the huge photograph of the peace delegates is displayed, Frank swerves off the main road and drives into the desert. It's an old car, and he is not speeding, but he seems to be looking for something or someone. We probably had known that we are taking a risk leaving the compound as we have done each day, but we had no reason to suspect that Frank was any more than a taxi driver whom we had engaged over the last few days. In fact, we trust him. Uneasily, I glance at Tom, who is decidedly looking a little green, and made a 'throat-slitting' gesture. Is this it? Frank isn't saying anything as he concentrates on the little compacted trail we are driving on, nor has he made any threats or indicated that he means to hurt us. I'm concerned, wary, and a little frightened, but not terrified. Not yet, anyway.
For what seems to be an eternity, but is probably only about ten minutes, I see shops ahead of me; of all things the side of a Subway store, and realise that we have arrived in the little commercial area near our hotel. As Frank pulls up outside the door of the hotel, he explains that the soldiers had blocked off the main road, enforcing us to take another route virtually through the desert; one that he'd never taken before. Our gut instinct that Frank was a trustworthy person is correct and we are very pleased that all has ended well for us in Sharm El Sheik.
DAY FOURTEEN: SHARM EL SHEIKH - ALEXANDRIA
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 19, 2011
After breakfast, check out of our luxury resort. We will be transferred to Sharm El Sheikh airport for our flight bound for Alexandria. Transfer to your luxury hotel in Alexandria for check-in and fee time before dinner and overnight.
We are surprised to see the tour guide return to the fold after four days of being 'missing-in-action'. The time away doesn't do anything to his demeanour and he is not a happy person. Since we really haven't met or even seen anyone from our tour over the days since we visited Petra, we are happy to regroup and chat to them as the tour guide and the reception staff organise stowing our luggage on the bus. We are only going as far as the airport this morning.
It's a mundane sort of day, as we virtually spend a large part of the day managing luggage, checking in, going through security, and eventually taking our flight. At the other end is much the same. Security is tight and everything is checked and checked again.
We arrive in the magnificent Mediterranean city of Alexandria as the light is fading on the day. Awaiting in the arrivals area is our regular, and much-loved tour guide who has returned to us from his family celebrations. Next to him is another gentleman, who oversees the packing of the luggage into the bus, marking the names of the members of the tour and who is seated in the front next to the driver. He is introduced as our security detail and we're told that he will accompany us for the remaining days of the tour. Since we had no internet access during our stay in Sharm El Sheikh, and no English television stations, we've been virtually cut off from world news for almost five days and a lot has happened during those days. It appears that the peace talks in Sharm El Sheikh may have concluded without any resolution, and I get the feeling that the political climate in Cairo may be more volatile than when we left a couple of weeks ago.
We settle into the hotel and enjoy a meal together with the group. Tomorrow is going to be busy.
DAY FIFTEEN: ALEXANDRIA
THURSDAY, JANUARY 20, 2011
Alexandria, also known as the Jewel of the Mediterranean, is distinguished by its strategic location, moderate climate, and its beautiful fine, sandy beaches. After breakfast we have a full day of touring this beautiful city.
Begin our day visiting Pompey's Pillar, which was constructed in honour of the Emperor Diocletian and is the biggest memorial column in Egypt. The Catacombs is next, which was discovered in the 1900s by pure chance when a donkey-drawn cart fell into a pit. We continue onto the grand and impressive Roman Graeco Theatre. Over thirty years of excavation have led to the discovery of many Roman remains, including this well-preserved theatre with marble seats for up to 800 spectators, galleries and sections of mosaic flooring.
We finish sightseeing in Alexandria with a tour of the newly-completed Great Library. This library was built after the destruction of the old library, which ravaged Alexandria.
Not as ancient nor as frantic as Cairo, Alexandria is perhaps more relaxed and definately more cosmopolitan. Alexandria is the 'baby' of the main Egyptian cities, having been founded by Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, in about 331 BCE. Upon our arrival in Alexandria, our journey through Egypt has fast-forwarded almost 1,500 years, and we are now looking at the influence of the Greeks and Romans. Two features of Alexandria are really famous; the Lighthouse of Pharos, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the Library, which held over one million documents from Assyria, Greece, Persia and other nations. Both of these iconic buildings were destroyed; the lighthouse by earthquakes and the Library by fire. This city, therefore, is a centre of culture and learning.
As we leave the hotel, the wide promenade, which travels along the side of the Mediterranean is filling with people. Unlike other Egyptian cities, there are a lot of women walking along the beautiful walkway. Out towards the sea, I can see the Citadel of Quaitbay, the fortification built on the site of the original lighthouse, which had been progressively destroyed by a series of earthquakes. The foundations of the citadel and the area beneath the water, where parts of the lighthouse are located are part of a push by UNESCO to name it an historical site.
Alexandria, like most other Egyptian cities, is built on ancient relics. The city is made up of a series of archaeological digs and will be forever a centre of learning as generation after generation digs deeper to find evidence of the civilizations that preceded even those that have been uncovered to date. It is, in essence, a huge outdoor working museum.
We can see Pompey's Pillar for a long time before we actually arrive at it's location. A Roman triumphal , Pompey's Pillar had been erected to honour the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, in 298-302 AD. The column rises out of the ruins of the Temple of Serapeum, a magnificent structure that once stood here. Like so many of the ancient sites here in Egypt, there are odds and ends half-uncovered, but probably very, very old. Constant digging of artifacts costs a lot of money, a commodity Egypt simply doesn't have very much of.
This site is in the centre of a residential area; blocks of flats surround it.
We leave the site and return to the bus. As we drive through the streets, it's easy to see that this city is susceptible to earthquakes. Rubble where buildings once existed remains. Maybe previous owners picked through the balls of concrete to collect whatever belongings were left after the building fell. There the buildings sit, waiting for someone to clear away the mess. Here also, we see a different style of building to other areas. More Mediterranean, shuttered windows and final details, which are more suited countries on the other side of the sea.
We arrive at the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa is a necropolis used as a burial chamber from the 2nd to the 4th centuries AD. Built three levels through solid rock, the third level is completely below the water. A central staircase leads down to the tombs, which were tunnelled into the bedrock. The Principle Tomb Chamber is interesting in that the facade and carvings bear features from Ancient Egypt, such as lotus and acanthus, yet are decorated in Greek and Roman adornaments. No photographs are permitted in the catacombs. We rise to street-level again and board the bus; sunshine and blue skies warm us up after spending an hour underground.
The Roman Amphitheatre was constructed in the 4th Century AD and was probably built to host musical ceremonies during the reign of the Romans in Egypt. It features a marble audience section, which could hold up to 600 people. There is architectural evidence that the amphitheatre may have been used for three hundred years through the Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic eras. This site was discovered as recently as 1960, when the land had been cleared to construct a government building.
We look down at the excavation site from the street level; columns, marble seating, and even ancient mosaics, which are synonymous with Roman architecture are evident. I can't wait to walk down there to explore further. The compact seating area comprises thirteen rows, all numbered with Roman numerals and digits. Perhaps reserved seating was important two thousand years ago. Although it is thought that there had been a roof over the the theatre, there was a nifty feature, which guaranteed perfect acoustics. A stone circle placed on the ground and facing the audience is the ideal spot to stand. Any sound; a song or recital is amplified, ensuring even those sitting in the very back row can clearly hear what's going on. This is a brilliant feature and it displays the high level of 'technology' and innovation that ancient civilisations in this region had. In the forecourt of this outdoor museum artifacts collected from under the water are displayed. Centuries of exposure to water may have smoothed many of the inscriptions, but most are largely intact.
We make our way to the library, the most famous landmark in Alexandria.
Libraries in the ancient world were created to promote Hellenistic culture and learning throughout the known world. They enhanced a city's prestige, attracted scholars, and provided practical assistance in matters of ruling and governing a kingdom. The Library of Alexandria, however, was unprecedented due to the scope and scale of the rulers ambitions; unlike their predecessors and contemporaries, the Ptolemies wanted to produce a repository of ALL knowledge. The exact layout of the original library is not known, but ancient sources describe the Library of Alexandria as comprising a collection of scrolls, Greek columns, a covered walkway, a room for shared dining, a reading room, meeting rooms, gardens, and lecture halls, creating a model for a modern university campus. The partial destruction of the original library by Julius Caesar in 48 BCE resulted in the loss of many valuable texts.
A local guide shares the story of the ancient library with us as we explore the many ancient exhibits. This building in which we are now standing, is just nine years old and functions as a modern library and cultural centre, and which commemorates the ancient library. As we walk through the manuscript room, ancient scrolls laboriously copied by hand on parchment and papyrus, it is apparent that the preservation of ancient texts is not only valuable from an aesthetic point of view, but provides and insight into the state of the world at the time they were written. This library, with it's modern, open design is a true honour to the original one and it's obvious that once again, Alexandria can boast of its place as the cultural centre of Egypt.
Our morning has been busy; our heads filled with history. Despite the presence of the personal security person, many of us decide to explore the city further. Perhaps Alexandria is safer than other parts of the country at the moment.
We wander through the streets until we find what we are looking for. Today we notice that, in this very cosmopolitan city, the coffee shops are very much like the Greek ones from Australia. Piles of delectable biscuits are arranged in the window as the smell of espresso mixes with the delicate baking-biscuit smell. We order coffee and some sweet treats and discuss how a day or two could have been deducted from Sharm El Sheikh and added to Alexandria. We cannot appreciate everything this lovely city has to offer because we simply do not have enough time.
DAY SIXTEEN: ALEXANDRIA - EL ALAMEIN - CAIRO
FRIDAY, JANUARY 21, 2011
After breakfast and hotel check out, we drive toward El Alamein (approximately 337 kilometres), a ground of the Second World War. Here we visit the War Museum filled with German and English war equipment used during the Second World War, followed by a visit to the Australian Cemetery, We will then continue our journey back to Cairo for check in and overnight. Tonight we will enjoy a Farewell dinner and entertainment on a Nile Dinner Cruise.
Despite the long day ahead of us today, it's a bit sad because this is our last full day on the tour. Tomorrow, Natasha is flying back to London and we'll be flying to Singapore.
We drive away from the beautiful city of Alexandria, along the coast and passing through lush date plantations. It's a pretty drive for a while, but not long before arriving in El Alamein, the desert sands once again take over. From my window seat, I watch the passing scenery; fishermen, food crops, and huge beehive-shaped and decorative dovecotes.
We arrive at the Military Museum of El Alamein and enter the main space, where battles are recreated in diorama format. The glass display cases include exhibits of items that belonged to members of the Australian Army, and references to the Rats of Tobruk.
We leave the museum and travel to the War Cemetery. Most war cemeteries I've visited in the past are beautifully laid out in lush green gardens. El Alamein War Cemetery is a beautifully cared-for military cemetery and at first, the lack of green lawns is a little surprising at first. But we are in a desert and the lines of markers are accentuated with desert plants, like succulents, grasses, and bougainvillia. Bruno Grollo, and Italian-Australian has erected a memorial to our fallen soldiers, which is rather beautiful.
From travelling in time over four thousand years to the Second World War, we've felt, at times, that we've been in a time capsule.
We have a long drive back to Cairo this afternoon and as we travel on the highway from El Alamein, the bus starts to sway. Given that there had been a tragic bus accident along this very road in 2006, where Australians had been killed, we asked that the driver slow down until the bus felt stable by the passengers. There must be some sort of wind tunnel along here, which causes this to happen. This results in a long delay and our arrival in Cairo is quite late. With only minutes to spare to settle into our rooms and change our clothes, we prepare for our final night with our tour on a dinner cruise along the Nile.
DAY SEVENTEEN: CAIRO
SATURDAY, JANUARY 22, 2011
Today we say goodbye to the Land of the Pharaohs. After breakfast and hotel check out, we will be transferred to Cairo International Airport to board our flight home bound.
Most of the tour group have travelled together from Melbourne. Since we had arrived from London, we are booked on different flights. Natasha is also returning to London today, so our flights and hers are at a similar time, which means we have some time to explore the nearby streets this morning.
After saying goodbye to our tour companions, we ask for directions to some shopping centres. After a short walk we find the centre that had been recommended by our hotel and wander through. It is not a Westfield. Nowhere near that - more like Lucky Plaza in Singapore, so we spend some time wandering in and out of the small shops. Tom buys a mug, whilst Natasha is looking for another bag in which to pack her purchases. The security guard has been dispatched to the airport with the bus.
Returning to the hotel, we complete our packing and before checking out, I pick up a novel to read on the plane. Noel Barber's 'A Woman of Cairo'. Set in Cairo during the turbulent years of the Second World War, I am looking forward to settling into the plane to start reading.
We leave the hotel in a minivan, supplied by the hotel, with not only a driver but a member of the hotel's security. On arrival, Natasha is asked to leave the minivan. Her luggage is assembled and she is accompanied inside by the security man. Watching them through the plate-glass windows, we are surprised to see him check Natasha's luggage in, fill out forms, then accompany her to security before returning to the van. When asked why we can't go in with her, maybe have a coffee with her going to our terminal, he explains that his instructions are to ensure that we have entered security before he can return. We are then taken to our terminal and the process begins again; check in, and straight to security. It's probably best not to argue. We now feel a slight tension in the air, and this guy probably needs to advise the tour company that he has seen us enter the secure area of the airport.
I start on my book whilst waiting to board the plane, and before long, I recognise the scenes set by Noel Barber, a renowned British war correspondent and author.
TUESDAY, JANUARY 25, 2011
We return to our Orchard Road hotel after a long, hot day wandering around the streets of Singapore. Before long, Natasha calls and asks us whether we've seen the news on TV. We switch on the TV and to the BBC news channel.
All hell has broken loose in Cairo. Protesters line the streets, whilst shopping plazas are set alight. I'm sure that I recognise the shopping centre in which we wandered just three days ago as protesters set fire to it. The museum, in which we had spent wonderful hours exploring, had been broken into and looted. Hosni Mubarak, the President, who had been in peace talks in Sharm El Sheikh at the same time as us with leaders across the world, is overthrown as violence extends across Egypt.
Violent clashes between security forces and protesters result in the deaths of about 850 people and over 6,000 are injured. Protesters retaliate by burning over 90 police stations across the country. The protesters focus on legal and political issues, such as police brutality, state of emergency laws, lack of political freedom, civil liberty, freedom of speech, corruption, high unemployment, food-price inflation, and low wages. The protesters' primary demands are to end the Mubarak regime and emergency law. Strikes by labour unions add to the pressure on government officials. During the uprising, the capital, Cairo, is described as a 'war zone' and the port city of Suez sees frequent violent clashes. Protesters defy a government-imposed curfew, which is impossible to enforce by police and military. In the chaos, there is looting allegedly instigated by plainclothes police officers. In response and to protect residential neighbourhoods, watch groups are organised by civilian vigilantes. [source: Wikipedia - Egyptian Revolution of 2011 (last edited April 16, 2020)]
In addition to this, the words, I'm reading in Noel Barber's novel are being reflected by what I'm watching on the television. The Muslim Brotherhood uprising, of which Barber describes is playing out over fifty years later.
We have dodged a bullet. Our luck with our almost uneventful tour has to do with timing, and the exceptional care taken by Top Tours, who organised this magnificent tour, and who quietly but effectively shielded us from the growing unrest within Egypt. We are the lucky ones. The tour group that had been half-complete, and the one that had just arrived in Cairo have been sent home. Nobody knows whether or when Egypt will reopen to tourists.
I reflect on our wonderful tour and I cannot help but be thankful for being able to visit Egypt and to experience it in the way we have done so. Yes, we've seen the corruption of the police in various places around the country, but being aware of it makes it easier to avoid getting into situations beyond our control. Our tour guide has been excellent, a wonderful man who steered us effortlessly through the country. His assistant was not so good. His disappearance when many of our group needed direction is really unforgivable and this will be discussed with the travel agent. During this crisis all tour guides need to be vigilant and ready to advise. However, I would not have swapped this tour for anything.
As we prepare to return to Australia over the next few days, we have much to be thankful for, but in particular, for being able to immerse ourselves in the amazing Land of the Pharaoh.