The Pyramids/The Egyptian Museum

You know what they are, you know what to expect.  But believe me – you cannot prepare yourself for seeing the Pyramids for the first time.  As we drove through the hectic streets of Cairo, over the river into Giza, the Pyramids almost sneak up on you because you don’t think that they’ll be THAT close to the city.   And then, “Whoa!”, there they are in all their glory.  As much as I hate to make this reference, and I’m laughing at myself right now for doing so, the experience is a little similar (just a teeny bit) to seeing the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas as you’re driving through the desert, but on a much smaller scale.  The Luxor would have to be like eight times the size of the U.S. Capitol building to meet the magnitude.

I already described the hysteria with the camel rides in the previous post, so I won’t get into that again.  After the camel rides, we had the choice of going into the Great Pyramid or the smaller Menekaure’s Pyramid.  We opted for the smaller pyramid due to the fact it was 30 Egyptian pounds per person and that the entrance fee for the Great Pyramid was much more expensive (I failed to record the price, my bad).  But nonetheless, the Great Pyramid on the outside was spectacular enough that we didn’t feel like we had less of an experience by not going into it.

Going inside the pyramid was extraordinarily claustrophobic, even more so than going into the tombs at the Valley of the Kings.   I would not recommend the experience to anyone who is the least bit uncomfortable in tight spaces, and/or has back problems because you literally have to crouch down an incline for about 50 meters. Once inside, the interior was pretty anti-climactic and we came out of it with only the feeling of accomplishment that we A) made it in and out without completely freaking out and B) that we were inside a pyramid.

Once we got out, the fresh, cool air never felt so good.  As we strolled around a little more, another thing I’d like to point out is that the second largest pyramid, Khafre, still actually had some of the original smooth casting stones on its apex allowing you to see/imagine how amazing the pyramids all originally must have looked thousands of years ago.  I’ll also say that at nighttime, the pyramids on the horizon are actually pretty ominous looking.  The silhouette of the pyramids was actually relatively frightening and it’s not hard to see how the villagers of the time viewed the pharaohs as nothing short of godlike.

From there we took a short walk down the hill and a got a look at the Great Sphinx (which was one of the few things I expected to be a little larger, but was still cool nonetheless).  I had no idea the “What has four legs at sunrise, two legs at noon, and three legs at sunset?” riddle that I’d heard before was the question the Sphinx asked.  I’m glad I would have known the answer (it’s “Man” btw if you didn’t know) because the Sphinx ate those who got it wrong. The one annoying part of that area was the millions of girls trying to take pictures of themselves giving the Sphinx a kiss (a little to the left, a little to the right, lift your chin up a little more, go on your tip toes a bit, crouch down a little, turn you head…)

We moved onto the Egyptian Museum in the center of Cairo next.  As much as I would have loved to take pictures of the amazing displays – once again, no photography was allowed inside the museum.  We were able to take some snapshots from the outside though.  The building itself is actually a historical landmark and it has the same 1930s Indiana Jones feel to the architecture.  However, any blogging I do about the artifacts inside wouldn’t nearly do the museum justice.  So here are just two tips.  1) Dedicate a full day to the museum, that’s how big it is and you’ll regret it if you don’t give yourself the necessary time to wander around and discover everything.  2) Pay the extra money to see the mummy room.  It’s worth every penny (though admittedly little morbid) to see the actual mummies of many of the famous pharaohs of Egypt.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Luxor and Karnak Temples

When we were back at Luxor for the second time, we were able to see some of the sights that we didn’t get around to seeing on the day we arrived.  Two of the main highlights were the Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple.  The Luxor Temple was much like the Edfu Temple in size and look, and was conveniently located a few hundred meters from our boat.  The few highlights of the Luxor temple include the remains of some Christian murals that were painted over the original hieroglyphics and one of the first Islamic mosques that was over the temple.

The Karnak Temple was about a mile down the road from Luxor and it wins the prize (hands down) for the most impressive temple due to its sheer scale.  The Karnak Temple was not even close to being finished, but what had been built over the course of 2,000 years was amazing.  Of all the temples, it’s probably the most recognizable one from film (I personally remember seeing it in The Spy Who Loved Me during the scene when 007 is evading the henchman Jaws).  I’m just glad we didn’t visit Eygpt when they were filming the new Transformers movie there.  Imagine traveling all that way just to show up and the temple is closed because they’re making a third installation to what is a pretty horrible movie.  But alas.

It’s funny how incomplete the place is due to the fact that with each new pharaoh, started new building projects in or along the temple without finishing the previous king’s projects.  So it’s sort of like a potluck where each dish that everyone brings is only half cooked or prepared.   I’m not going to lie – thoughts of how amazing it would be to play hide and seek in this complex crossed my mind.   I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, but here are a few other things first:

-When you first walk into the Karnak Temple – look to your right.  You’ll see behind the left pylon the reminiscence of what used to be the dirt mound the Egyptians used as scaffolding.  That’s how the discoverers new that the temple wasn’t just a ruin that had fallen apart over time – it was actually incomplete.

– See the nighttime light show; it’s about 60 Egyptian pounds per person.  It’s a great experience, one that’ll give you that feeling you had the first time you saw an IMAX movie.  You walk through the temple and the lights project images on the sides of the temple walls and columns as a booming voice narrates a story.

-Try to find the graffiti left by Champollion, the man who deciphered the Rosetta Stone.  If you do find where he scratched his name, you’ll see how high up on the column it is.  It illustrates where the sand/ground level used to be and how massive of a excavation the Karnak Temple is.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Camel Riding

What do you think of when you think of Egypt?  You think of the Pyramids.  And you think of camels.  Now before our trip I made it a goal to make sure that I got a chance to ride one of these bad boys.  My enthusiasm however was stunted a little bit before we even went to Egypt because I had heard all these horror stories about peoples’ not so joyful camel riding experiences.  Specifically, that the camel drivers were going to rip you off, make you pay extra to take a picture, make you pay extra to get off the camel, things of that nature.  But nevertheless my intent was still there and I had the opportunity to ride on the camels twice – both being two very opposite experiences.

My first camel riding experience was in Aswan.  When we mentioned to our guide at the time that we wanted to take a camel ride at some point he told us, “The camel drivers in Cairo are thieves.  They’ll charge you a ridiculous amount.  Pure thieves.” This statement pretty much supported what I had heard at home before we went on the trip.  But he told us that he could take us to a place in Aswan that would give us an opportunity to ride the camels at a more legitimate rate.  Now our guide was doing this out of the kindness of his heart, since this wasn’t on the normal tour itinerary, so he asked us not to mention to anyone on the boat that he was doing this favor for us.

We took a quick boat ride across the Nile from Aswan to the base of the Tomb of the Nobles (you can see it easily from Aswan).  The motorboat ride cost us $60 round trip (however, our guide was with us so you’ll probably have to pay more unless you’re really good at bargaining/speak Arabic).  Once we arrived on the opposite bank we took a quick 3 minute walk up to the base of the tombs and, low and behold, sitting there was a group of camels.   Our guide was able to get us 30 minutes on these camels for only 30 Egyptian pounds a person (which is about $6).   In Cairo, our guide told us he’d heard of some camel drivers charging 500-600 pounds to some poor unsuspecting tourists.

My excitement was at its peak as I hopped onto the back of a feisty, male camel.  As he stood up, I almost lost my balance as I wobbled upward.  The camel driver I had was an elderly man who didn’t speak very good English.  Now I’ve never ridden a horse or anything like that, so when part way through the ride my camel driver gave me the reigns, I thought he wanted me to hold them momentarily while he tied his shoes or something.  No, he was giving me control of the camel, which at first almost ended in disaster.  My driver started saying things in Arabic and I really couldn’t tell if he was giving orders to me or the animal I was riding on.  Definitely at one point, my camel got seriously pissed at something and started sprinting (yes, it started fucking sprinting) away from the group.  I had NO idea what I was doing and it took me a little too long to realize what the camel rider was yelling in Arabic was essentially to pull back on the reigns to get the camel to stop.  I pulled back so hard, that the camel stopped so suddenly, I almost flew head over heels off the damn thing (my crotch actually slid forward into the horn of the saddle which was extremely painful, but the only thing that stopped me from flying off).  Once the camel calmed down, and I figured out how to get the reigns to make the camel go where I wanted to go (he was a feisty one throughout, but I did like his spirit) it became a much more pleasant ride.  My mother and sister both had teenage boys leading their camels and these boys were more than happy to take several photographs of us (they seemed to really be enjoying playing with the digital cameras).  At the end of the ride, we were on cloud nine.  The ride was so much fun, and the camel drivers were absolutely great.  We paid them the agreed 30 pounds a person, and we gave them each a hefty tip (which they accepted with great appreciation.  This is something I’d like to point out now and go back to).

Our second experience was not so enjoyable.  When we arrived in Cairo (I’ll explain more about Cairo in the next post), we were all running on about 3 hours of sleep since it was New Years Eve the night before.  Being in Cairo we were going to have a new guide, and on the very first day we were supposed to see the Pyramids of Giza.  We arrived at the Pyramids, and our guide essentially told us we really should ride the camels.  All of us weren’t totally in the mood since we were so tired, and we had done it already in Aswan so we didn’t feel the need to go a second round.   But this guide of ours just kept pushing it, and pushing it.  We finally figured out that this guide was pretty much getting paid off by one of the camel drivers.  The guide was quoting $40 American for each of us for 30 minutes (versus the $6 in Aswan).  Then he dropped it down to $30.  At this point, we decided, if we could get it down to $20, we’d do it (I mean it was a camel ride next to the Pyramids, so we guessed we’d probably regret passing up the chance).   He gave us $25 and were like “Fine, whatever, we’ll do it” as much out of wanting him to stop pestering as actual enthusiasm.

So we board our camels, but of course this time around I know what to expect/know what I’m doing.  My camel driver was a chatty fellow who didn’t have the same kind demeanor as the fella in Aswan.  My sister had a kid no older than 5 pulling her camel along, which was actually quite disconcerting.  We get to a point where the Pyramids are behind us and the camel driver offers to take a picture.  So I give him my camera and he takes some shots of us with the Pyramids.  When he comes back, he doesn’t give me my camera back – he holds out his hand.  I literally am like “Are you serious?” He says “C’mon give me a tip”.  I’m not going to win this one, so I start pulling out money (the guy even says to me “Give me American dollars).  I give him 10 Egyptian pounds (which is like $2) and I tell him “Give me my camera back, now“.  He gives me my camera back, and I look over to my mom and sister and motion to them to put their cameras away or we’ll be quickly losing more money.

We ride along a little bit further and the older man and the young boy leave (inexplicably) and we’re left with a teenage boy who ties all our camels together and has the camels start running back.  In the midst of all of this running, the bouncing causes my mother’s camera to pop out of her pocket.  We scream at the kid in front (who doesn’t really speak English either) to stop the camels.  We check the saddles of the camel (quite thoroughly, keep this in mind), but don’t see any camera.  We spend the next half an hour scouring the desert for the camera on the ground.  It was bizarre because we could see the tracks where we had come from and the camera shouldn’t have been buried by any sand in the 30 seconds the camels were running.  We’d almost given up on the camera and were getting ready to head back with out it when I have the head camel driver (who had come back to help find the camera) check the camel’s saddles a second time.  This time the camel driver “finds” the camera relatively easily.  Now, I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but we find it rather suspicious that the camera was discovered so easily in the saddle after my mother, sister and I all looked through it pretty thoroughly.   Once again, he holds onto the camera, even though I motion to him to give it back, and smiles “We’re all happy now, yes!”  We get back to our Cairo guide, who has a big smile on his face hoping that it’ll charm us to go easy on him, and I try to get the camera back again.  The camel driver says “Are you happy?”  I reply, “I guess”.  He puts out his hand and says “Show me”.  So I give him 50 Egyptian pounds and he shakes his head.  Once again, with no one to back us up (the police standing there couldn’t care less to help), and our Cairo guide just standing there, there no way to win this one.  So I give the guy a second 50 and he gives me the camera back.  I look at my family and they gave me the same look that said it all.  We wish that our memory of camel riding was isolated to the experience in Aswan.  The drivers there were humble, kind, and a pleasure to be around – the total opposite of the drivers in Cairo.

After that, it was only the fact that the Pyramids were so amazing to see in person that saved the day for us.  So if you’re ever in Egypt, heed this warning:  BEWARE THE CAMEL DRIVERS AT THE PYRAMIDS.  One way to get around getting screwed is to have one of your party walk along with the camels and take pictures (but you’ll really owe the one person who doesn’t take the ride).  Or do like we did the first time and find a place to take the camel rides in the non-touristy areas.   But in the end, you can’t get around it.  We got some pictures of us in front of the Pyramids, riding on camels, so we’ll choose to forget the ordeal we went through and just appreciate that we have them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Abu Simbel

I’d like to make one quick statement.  I’m so glad we got in and out of Egypt when we did.   I can understand the hostility towards the government however.  We noticed that there was some unhappiness amongst the Egyptian people, and saw first hand a group of store owners getting thrown out of their stores by the police and forced to shut down their business because the government wanted the land.  But did I think this revolution would occur a mere couple weeks after leaving?  No way.

Moving along now, one of the most popular excursions from Aswan is a trip to Abu Simbel to see the two temples.  In order to get to Abu Simbel, it takes a 6 hour bus ride or a quick 45 minute flight from Aswan.  We took the 5 A.M. flight to get there because the views of the two temples is ten times more spectacular if you can catch it with rising sun shining on them.  I’d like to also take a moment to recognize the travelers who were killed in the bus crash on their way to Abu Simbel.  The accident occurred the day before we went and needless to say it shocked all of us on the boat.

Like I said, our flight was ungodly early, but from everything we heard, this was a place we HAD to see.  Most of the people at the Aswan airport that morning looked like they just rolled out of bed and were heading to Abu Simbel as well.  Once we landed, after a little bit of confusion trying to figure out which bus to get on (TIP: If you visit Abu Simbel via EgyptAir – EgyptAir has a free shuttle that goes back and forth from the airport to the temples) we arrived at our destination.

The gate to the temples was about 400 meters away from the sight so we weren’t able to see anything from the start.  We followed the crowed down a path which led around a large cliff along the beach.  Still not able to see anything, we walked down the path towards the beach on the right edge of the cliff.  It wasn’t until we looped around and looked over our left shoulders that we saw:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So needless to say, it’s quite a shock to see that all of a sudden.  I was awe-struck at how well preserved the carvings were, and how massive the figures were that were embedded in the cliff.   Once again, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the temples (although once inside I did see a few folks taking a few quick snapshots.  I wish I had done the same, but I decided not to risk getting arrested).  However, I will say about the interior that the paintings inside were the most interesting and exciting of all that we’d seen in Egypt.  Most of the illustrations depicted the King Ramesses II conquering his enemies in battle to in order to intimidate the Nubian neighbors.  I could certainly see how anyone walking into the temples and seeing this would be immediately humbled.

Here’s another tip if you’ve taken the flight to Abu Simbel.  Take your time.  Seriously.  You’ve probably booked a flight that only gives you about an hour to see the temples (you’ll want two hours).  You’ll feel like you need to race back to the shuttle.  You’ll get anxious as you see the time ticking past the usual 30 minutes before the flight leaves boarding time.  You’ll get on the plane.  And then you’ll realize, the plane won’t leave until everyone gets on board.  So you’ll sit for another hour on the plane while the rest of the passengers slowly stroll on after taking in the Abu Simbel temples at a leisurely pace.  So do yourself a favor and enjoy the temples, the plane won’t leave without you.  And you never know when you’ll be back.

Aswan

Easily the most serene and beautiful part of the journey was our couple days in the city of Aswan, which was the furthest south we went on the Nile cruise.  People, many of whom were Nubian, in this city were much calmer, and had a much more peaceful temperament.  When walking around, they were far less in your face when trying to negotiate for goods.  There wasn’t as much hustle and bustle as Luxor, and far less chaotic that what Cairo is like.

A few of the highlights of Aswan include the site of an unfinished obelisk.  This site is a granite quarry where they attempted to carve a obelisk out of the bedrock.  But once they saw that the obelisk that they were carving out was beginning to crack, they left it as it is.  While the sight may not be mind blowing, the thought itself of how they carved and moved these giant obelisks back before they had cranes, drills, and scaffolding is.

A second highlight of the city is a trip out to the Aswan High Dam.  This dam helps maintain the water level of the Nile River.  If it were not for the High and Low dams in Aswan, much more of the areas along the Nile would be submerged.  Think of it as the Hoover Dam of Egypt.

The third sight we saw was the Philae Temple.  In order to get to the temple, we had to take a water taxi out to the island on which it stood.  The water taxi ride itself was an experience.  About twenty water taxis carrying various different tourists essentially played bumper cars on the docks while the taxis came in and out.  There was no order in the process, but somehow we all got on board, and went on our way.  Once we reached the island, the temple itself was very similar to the Edfu Temple.  I won’t go much into the descriptions due its similarities, but I would like to mention one cool fact.  The island where the temple stands today is NOT the original place where it was built.  Amazingly, the temple was moved piece by piece to the island where it is today because the original location was flooding due to the construction of the Aswan Dam.

We were also able to have some of the best local fare we had on the entire trip.  If you want to find a place that’ll serve authentic, local food, go to Makka Restaurant in Central Aswan.  We had some lamb kofta, ground lamb patties, as well as stuffed pigeon.  The stuffed pigeon is stuffed with a spicy rice and is eaten entirely with your hands.  It was messy, but delicious.  The mezze was also quite good, with the highlight being the Molakheya.  Molakheya is like a spinachy, kaley, oil dish that you can either eat with flat bread, or just like a soup with a spoon.  It’s a phenomenal vegetarian dish that any meat-eater, such as myself, would love.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Up next, the adventure to Abu Simbal

Egypt – Bloopers edition

So over the course of the trip several odd things occurred.  Like any trip to another country, there are going to be experiences that you wouldn’t think would be normal at home, but are probably perfectly routine where you’re traveling.

For example, the airports in some of the small cities don’t have the strictest guidelines regarding where they park their planes.  If they did, our airport bus wouldn’t have taken us to the WRONG plane and let us almost get on board.  Yes, our bus drove about 50 people up to what we thought was our plane.  We got off, walked up the stairs to the door where passengers on the plane were trying to get off.   Needless to say, complete confusion on the part of the passengers, bus drivers, and flight attendants insued.

Or at home, it’s not uncommon to have a fender bender with another car every once in a while.  But in Egypt, apparently cruise ships have fender benders.  No joke, our boat at one point was backing up out of the dock and backed right into another ship with a huge crash.  And I’m pretty sure we committed a hit and run, because we straight up cruised away after the impact.

You’d also think the weather would be hot and sunny the entire time in the desert.  No, in fact our cruise was a little delayed going back up to Luxor because there were reports of rain and even snow at the Kom Ombo temple region where we had just been a couple days earlier.  Because the entire cruise was thrown off its timetable, the poor folks on our boat who were seeing the Kom Ombo temple on the way back up the river, had to go see the temple at night.  This wouldn’t have been a problem except that the storm knocked out the electricity.  So they had to walk through the dark and used the light from a few peoples’ iphones to look at the place.  I’m just glad we were able to see it in the daylight on the way down.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Edfu Temple

Before I get into our next stop, I have to tell you all about the experience of leaving Luxor.  As we departed the city, we were put into a holding pattern at one point with several other boats.  Here’s the deal with the Egyptians: they’ll find any opportunity to get a sale.  It’s the dead of night without any light other than that coming from out boats, and a fleet of rowboats comes along side our ship.  All I hear is commotion, so I go up to the top deck to investigate.   I see a crowd of my fellow shipmates looking over the side and down at a bunch of sellers screaming “Hey Lady!  Look over here!  Look over here! You like this carpet?!  You like this shawl!?  Pure Egyptian cotton!”  It was highly amusing and bizarre.  Just when I was thinking to myself, “how are they planning on getting that stuff all the way up here?”, I see one of the sellers hurl a carpet up four stories onto the top deck.  It was unbelievable watching items and money being thrown back and forth from the rowboats to the top decks of our boats.

After the show that evening, we finally made our way to our next stop: Esna, which was the town that had the Edfu Temple.  In order to get to the temple we took an enjoyable donkey carriage ride into town.  The Edfu Temple is the first temple we had seen on this trip and it was pretty amazing to see how well the structure had held up over thousands of years.  It was so well maintained and intact, I could have used an extra hour there to explore.

Once inside the temple, here are a few of the highlights:

-The Greeks actually built this temple, but were paying homage to the classical Egyptian style.  On the walls were several hieroglyphics portraying the god Horus slaying Set.

-A giant portrayal of the Goddess Nut.

-The Nileometer which was a room with a set of stairs connected to a canal that measured the level of the Nile during the year.  You could see how high the river was based on at what stair the level of the water was at.  Although the temple seemed a little far from the Nile, back thousands of years ago, the river was far higher, larger and closer to the temple.

-One of the rooms was a laboratory.  On the walls were carved several “recipes” for incenses, elixirs, and medicines.  For example, there would be a carved image of Horus holding a cup with grapes in it, or some sort of cauldron, or some other item and next to it was the hieroglyphical ingredients for the item.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.