After weeks of singing Christmas songs to myself and planning, my brother Bruce arrived with his kids Ryan, Daniel, and Katie the evening of the 22nd. Amazingly, their flight was on time, all luggage arrived—very important to me since Bruce brought lots of stuff for me—and we repaired to Ma’adi for a big dinner prepared by Kiki. A wild evening ensued but we nonetheless were up early the next day for a trip to the Pyramids arranged by Emad. Katie’s shriek when her camel stood up alone was worth it! We entered two tombs, took lots of photos, and everyone was properly awed by what were the tallest buildings in the world until the late 19th century. BTW, click on the photos to view larger.
|McCombies at the Pyramids; I'm on the little horse|
Andrew arrived that night, again all luggage intact, and considering that he came from Los Angeles and the McCombies from Virginia, the lack of apparent jet lag has been amazing. Andrew had little time to settle into Ma’adi; the next morning, Christmas Eve, Tarek Swelim met us at the door in a bus, picked up Sarah and Mark Mineart down the street, and hightailed it to the airport for an Egyptair flight to Luxor. Our first stop there after lunch was the temple complex at Karnak—about which I wrote in November—but this time, we were guided by Tarek, and it easily doubled what we learned. The grandeur and size of the complex, all dedicated to the god of the sun, Amon Ra, boggled all our minds. It still amazes me how so many resources could be dedicated not just to a deity but to elaborate rituals and sites that virtually no one save the high priests and king ever saw. The entire complex exudes power.
|Bruce, Katie, Ryan, Daniel, Andrew, Sarah, Mark, Harris, Me at Karnak|
|Tarek brings Karnak alive|
Christmas morning began with a visit to the Valley of the Kings. The tombs we viewed, five in all, were fascinating, though I admit a strong preference for those in Saqqara of the Old Kingdom—more restrained and subtle decoration. Although not particularly beautiful since it was carved and decorated quickly, the tomb of Tutankamon was nonetheless touching. His mummy, intact and on display in the tomb, made it clear that he was indeed “the boy king.” Of course, our views might have been inflected by Steve Martin. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bl5dZxA-rZY
Check out the ongoing project sponsored by AUC to map the many tombs of the valleys of kings and queens, www.thebanmappingproject.com.
|Daniel, Bruce, and Ryan learning from Tarek, Valley of the Kings|
|Noble tombs around the Valley of the Kings|
|Temple of Hatshepsut|
After years of seeing it in classes, I finally visited the breathtaking mortuary temple of Queen Hapshepsut. Its simplicity of design could work in any modern (and very big) house, and its site,
nestled against monumental walls of living rock, made its simplicity even more striking. Hapshepsut ruled for 15 years around 1470BC, and though female, had herself declared the daughter of Amon Ra and ruled as a man would, indeed often having herself represented as a male, including a false beard.
She had her generals travel to the land of Punt somewhere in Africa to obtain spices and myrrh trees, and had this expedition recorded in detail on the walls of the second terrace of the temple. Harris and I could identify some of the fish species from the Red Sea on the walls, as well as the animals brought back (such as a beautiful lioness). Hatshepsut had other deeds from her reign recorded on the walls as well, like the creation of a massive granite obelisk brought from Aswan to the temple at Karnak, as well as sections of her temple devoted to Anubis with his jackel head, who presided over mummification, and the goddess Hathor, who combined cow and human.
|Daniel, Ryan, Bruce and Katie at Temple of Hatshepsut|
|Lioness, Temple of Hatshepsut|
We ended the day with a visit to the temple complex built by Ramses II (nothing like 67 years of ruling to build a lot), the Ramesseum. His memorial temple included the largest statue carved of a single piece of granite ever, sadly now in pieces on the ground thanks to earthquakes. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandius” ridiculed Ramses’ belief in his immortality. My favorite lines remind us of how we can always tell if a statue depicts Ramses II by his smile, the smile of “it’s good to be king”: “Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, Whose frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read.”
|Red Sea surgeonfish, Hatshepsut|
|Ramses II and gods|
|Bruce with partial head of Ramses|
Our first day of traveling included an amazing dinner at a funky restaurant on the west bank of Luxor, all traditional Egyptian food and lots of it—carrot soup, grilled meats, carrots, okra, spinach, tahihi and hoummous, and fruit and pastry for dessert. Boarding our boat took some finagling since its trip to Luxor was slow, but by 11PM when we found it, boarded, and took off, the wait was worth it. The houseboat or dahabeya Nebyt is named for one of the titles of the goddess Hathor, literally “golden pearl,” and this boat is exactly that. Nile houseboats are known as “the golden boats” and are unlike any boat I’ve lived on. The upper deck is spacious, with couches, pillows, and tables for meals; the deck with the saloon and staterooms equally spacious. Nebyt combined traditional Egyptian textiles and décor with modern comforts (like wifi), elegant and simple, with delicious food, afternoon tea with sheesha, and convivial evenings.
|Deck of "Nebyt"|
|Relaxing on deck|
Most of the staterooms have two single beds, a leather couch, bathroom, and storage; Harris and I lucked out and were booked into the Nebyt Suite at the stern. In addition to a king bed, mini-fridge, and bathtub, it sported a curved stern porch with cushions. There was enough room for us to gather there and share wine in the evenings. Every time we passed one of the big boats, I felt smug indeed. BTW, book the boat through Tarek, firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Part of a typical stateroom|
|Harris in the suite|
|Stern porch off the suite|
|Daniel bagging rays|
|The ultimate outboard motor|
The desert climate meant mild sunny days and surprisingly cold nights. We all gave up on style and quickly adopted layering pretty much all the clothes we brought for chilly evenings. One thing I noticed by default was the lack of noise. The boat itself has no engine but instead is pulled by a small tugboat against the Nile current—the ultimate outboard motor—and assisted by lateen sails that take advantage of the prevailing north-to-south wind. There is a generator on board for power but sitting on our stern porch, we could only hear the water lapping by the side. Since our cruise included lots of time on the river, the pace was leisurely. Waking up, I walked onto the porch at the stern, and smelled cooking fires from villages along the sides of the Nile and enjoyed the chill air.
|View from the stern porch|
|More relaxing on deck|
Between lovely quiet hours of cruising, we visited the cult temple of Horus in Edfu, built in Ptolomeic times between 237-180 BC, making it new by Pharoahnic standards. It celebrates the god Horus, my personal favorite because he is always depicted as a hawk with knotted brow (the original Angry Bird) wearing the crowns of upper and lower Egypt. Because it is so new, and never affected by earthquakes, the temple complex is the only one in Egypt that allows us to see what a full complex looked like, from its exterior pylons to courtyard to two hypostyle halls, offering chamber, and finally, an intact sanctuary with the electrum-plated shrine still intact. The stone roof remains intact as well, and as we walked through, I was again aware of how much beauty and decoration would have only been seen by priests and rulers. Despite its youth, the Temple of Horus was deliberately built in the style of the Middle Kingdom, akin to Karnak, so it really offers a chance to imagine what other temples would have looked like during their heydays.
|Temple of Horus pylons|
|Ryan, Bruce, Daniel and Katie, Temple of Horus|
|Andrew, me, Harris|
|Sanctuary, Temple of Horus|
A glorious afternoon, night, and morning of sailing followed, in which we imbibed refreshing beverages, listened to music, slept, and relaxed. I realized it was the longest time since last July I’d gone without having something I “had” to do.
In Aswan, we went to the deserted monastery of San Simeon, a follower of Anthony, Egypt’s founding hermit saint. Getting there meant a camel ride up a steep slope of soft sand. Tarek told tales of horned vipers leaping from the sand onto the legs of camel riders, whose only way to survive was to hack off their legs. I prudently crossed my legs over my camel’s neck and rode in lotus position. The camels were in more robust shape than those working at the Giza pyramids, which was a relief; Andrew rode one named “Bob Marli,” and I thought mine was named “Ryla” until I realized the embroidered scarf around her neck urged me to “rylax.”
|En route back from the monastery|
|Lotus position keeps the vipers away|
|Tarek is used to camels!|
The monastery was surprisingly large, with a few intact frescos. Simeon’s cell included a carved-out hold in the ceiling to which he would tie his beard while praying so should he nod off, the yank on the chin would put him back into the prayer mode. Tough work being a hermit saint. Most lovely of the ruined rooms was the arched hallway off of which monk’s cells sprouted. Its three windows let in a golden light into otherwise cool darkness.
|General view of San Simeon monastery ruins|
|Not even Andrew could move its granite millstone!|
|View of Aswan from the monastery|
Some of us opted for a visit to the Nubian market in Aswan, where vendors got in your face and promised “no hassle! no hassles!” loudly and often. The vendors that got our business were those who looked up from their newspapers as we entered, then waited. I guess the definition of “hassle” varies in Upper Egypt.
After our final night on the dahabeya, during which we enjoyed a fabulous farewell dinner and a rollicking musical performance featuring Harris’s version of Nubian dance (should be on YouTube any day), we arose on the 28th to depart the boat and head for the temple at Philae. Philae Island is largely flooded, and in the 1980s, the temple dedicated to Isis (built and re-built over millennia; what we see today dates from the Roman empire) was moved stone by stone to higher ground on a nearby island. Thanks to UNESCO and a bunch of fanatical archaeologists, it stands today.
|Temple to Isis of Philae from the Nile|
|Pylon of Philae|
I’ve written before about the little things, and there were a few striking examples on this trip. One was my conversion to sheesha, the hubbly bubbly water pipe with fruit-flavored tobacco. We enjoyed it every afternoon with mint tea and honey.
|Bruce enjoys sheesha|
Reboarding the boat after our day at the Valley of the Kings was strange. The boat was moored in a small village north of the locks at Esna. To get there, we had to ride, then walk through a village little touched by modern times. As we walked, little kids started hollering and following us; at first, it seemed like a festival of goodwill. But as we got nearer the boat, the kids began harassing us, hollering for money, until by the time we were on board, they had ganged up on the shore, yelling “MONEY!” over and over. Then the rock-throwing began. It made me muse on how rich we seem (and are by Egyptian standards) yet it distressed me to see the mob mentality and the sentiments take over a large group of children. Some adults on the shore tried to keep the kids in line, but numbers won, and when the boat pulled away with only a few rocks on deck, we were relieved. It was one of those interesting travel events that remind us, yet again, of how foreign we are. Harris noted that the safest place on the Nile is in the middle.
|Naughty kids near the dahabeya|
The afternoon of the 28th brought us to the Aswan airport, then back to Cairo. Note to self: never order food from an airport Sbarro’s. It was the only concession in Aswan, and the sandwiches were flavored with eColi. After returning to the flat in Ma’adi, I began to feel strange, and realized I had food poisoning. Thankfully, a bad night and a lot of Ciprofloxin helped, but today meant a lot of distgusting laundry.
It also meant waving goodbye to Bruce and the kids, who left for 2.5 days in Istanbul, where they will celebrate the new year. They will be back to Cairo for one last day on New Year’s Day, so when we kissed them goodbye for the airport, we promised to see them next year. Andrew, who also got some food poisoning, departs in the morning for Los Angeles, friends, and work. I’ll write again after our evening with Bruce and the kids on a felucca on the Nile.
|Ryan, Daniel, Bruce, Andrew, Sarah, Mark: Lunch, Luxor|
|Me, Harris, Katie, Ryan, Daniel, Bruce: Lunch, Luxor|