Our family

Entries in Egypt (17)


Red Sea Diving

My last day in Egypt was a good one. Last night I had a nice mushroom soup for dinner, and an amazing chocolate thickshake, which was pretty much a litre of chocolate ice cream in a glass with a chocolate wafer stuck in the top. I had enough naps during the day that I woke up refreshed this morning, even with the snoring of my new roommate Ken, and today I had two wonderful dives - the Canyon and the Blue Hole.

The first dive went really well, I had the buoyancy spot on, and the dive master afterwards came up and said I was a natural diver, he was surprised I only had six dives. The Canyon was nice, but being below 18m I couldn't go in (Michelle said there were pretty much no fish inside the cavern anyway - she had trouble equalising due to sickness, and didn't enjoy the first dive much). The second dive was at the Blue Hole, a 900m deep sinkhole in the reef. We swam around the edge of the sinkhole (I went down to 30m because the divemaster was confident it wouldn't be a problem), watching the fish dart out for a metre past the reef, then back to safety. There were thousands of small orange and blue Red Sea Lions floating in schools just off the reef. I swam into the school and they floated all around me, hanging suspended like golden snowflakes...


Mt Sinai

Yesterday we drove from Cairo to Mt Sinai, across the desert of the Sinai Peninsula between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. We crossed the Suez Canal (which opened in 1869, and has allowed the intermingling of Mediterranean and Red Sea aquatic species), but didn't see anything because it is a highly guarded military facility.

There used to be Arabian lions on the Sinai peninsular, but they are now extinct. Herodotus’ description of their mating habits may provide an explanation:

It is hard to avoid the belief that divine providence, in the wisdom that one would expect of it, has made prolific every kind of creature which is timid and preyed upon by others, in order to ensure its continuance, while savage and noxious species are comparatively unproductive. Hares, for instance, which are the prey of all sorts of animals, not to mention birds and men, are excessively prolific; they are the only animals in which superfetation occurs. A lioness, on the contrary, the most bold and powerful of beasts, produces but a single cub, once in her life – for she expels from her body not only the cub, but her womb as well – or what is left of it. The reason for this is that when the unborn cub begins to stir, he scratches at the walls of the womb with his claws, which are sharper than any other animal’s, and as he grows bigger scrabbles his way further and further through the until by the time he is about to be born, the womb is almost wholly destroyed. In the same way, if adders and the Arabian flying snakes were able to replace themselves naturally, it would be impossible for men to live.

We climbed up Mt Sinai last night, about a 10km uphill walk along the camel track, followed by 750 of the 3000 Steps of Repentence. It was night, but the nearly full moon was enough to see the way. An uncomfortable combination of being icy cold and hot and sweaty from climbing, followed by a cold and uncomfortable night on the top of a church on the mountain. At three in the morning hundreds of people walked up to see the sunrise, singing Christian songs. The sunrise was not very spectacular, and I asked myself again why I climbed the mountain.

The walk down was pleasant though, I took the 3000 steps down (I doubt that there are exactly 3000 steps, the sections I counted were not exact, using the criteria of a rise of 5cm or more in the central third of the path. I guess they may have used alternative criteria, but I think they just decided 3000 was a better number than 'the 2854 steps of repentance'). I may be unrepentant because I only took them down, not up. The desert mountains were very primordial and majestic, and I used the walk down as my justification for the exercise.


What was in the tombs?

Overnight train to Cairo last night, still feeling stiff and tired. Today we went to the Egyptian Museum, to see the relics that were rescued from the various tombs (mostly in Luxour) that were not comprehensively robbed, with about 100 000 items. The museum was pretty interesting, but I am very tired at the moment.

The highlight was the Tutanhkamoun exhibition, even though he was a young and insignificant pharaoh who only ruled for nine years (dying at 18). His was the only tomb to be discovered intact so it is the only measure of the true glory of the Pharoahs - we saw his magnificent solid-gold death mask, his gold sarcophagus's, four golden shrines and 1700 other items buried with him (including multiple beds, jewels, statues, very decadent).

The other thing that was quite interesting where the mummies, there are eight in the museum (not Tutanhkamoun's though, they left his in his tomb - rather odd, if it is a sign of respect, then they missed the point, because the reason of hiding the tombs was to keep the body with all the stuff for them to use in the afterlife), including Ramsess II. Ramsess' tomb would have been amazing to see before it was robbed, considering the glory of young Tutanhkamoun, I can only imagine the riches that would have been buried with one of the most powerful Pharoahs, one who built hundreds of temples, had 400 wives and lived until he was 98. His mummy was small and withered, still with wisps of hair. We also saw animal mummies, giant crocodiles, cats, dogs, chickens, monkeys, antelope and so forth. Oddly enough, the British aristocracy used to have mummy unwrapping parties. They would purchase a mummy that had been raided from a tomb, invite all their friends over for a dinner party, and then retire to the parlour to unwrap the mummy together.


Down the Nile...

Another afternoon not moving much, because the wind was too strong to sail. We had a big party last night, most people tried the '100 club' (Beth, Gay, Justin and Andrew did it). I drank lots of wine, and with everyone drunk (except, oddly enough Michelle and Jamie) we had a bonfire, some locals came down and played the drums, I gave out izzy wizzies, and had a great time.

Since we didn't get far enough, we returned to Aswan this morning, and took a mini bus to Kom Ombo and Idfu.

Kom Ombo was quite interesting. It is a small temple, and young (~150 BCE, Ptolmic), a double temple dedicated to Sobek (the crocodile God) and Horus (the falcon God). Being sacred to the crocodile God, they mummified crocodiles here, of which we got to see three, which was very interesting. They also had a 20m deep well, connected by underground tunnel to the Nile. The huge (~10m diameter) stone well had stairs carved into the edge, for the priests to walk down. They used it as a Nilometer, measuring the height of the flood each year (used to determine taxes on farms, as a measure for likely productivity).

After Kom Ombo we drove to Idfu, a Ptolomic temple to Horus (~200 BCE). Idfu is the most intact temple in Egypt, since it was buried in sand for so long. Once it was found, they had to remove 400 houses built on the roof and uncover the sand. Inside it is completely intact, showing the full entrance way, courtyard, hypostyle hall with roof, and the inner sanctum. However the temple was lived in by early Christians, who carved off most of the statues of Gods, and lit cooking fires inside, blackening the roof and columns with smoke.

Now we are in Luxour waiting for the overnight train back to Cairo.


Travelling down the Nile...

Two days ago I was walking around temples and going on a camel safari. Today I am lying on a felucca, drifting down the Nile, the world’s longest river at 6680km.

At the temple, a guard came up to our guide and spoke rapidly, handing over a sheet of paper. Our guide turns to me, and said "My friend here has just won the lotto, and they sent him instructions on how to claim it, can you summarise it for us?" Doubtful, I took the sheet and read, it was one of those Nigerian lotto scams, just send us US$900 to claim your prize. I told the guard it was a scam, it seemed strange to me that they have the same scams here, and more obscene to swindle someone whose wages are about US$680/year.

After the temple and safari we had dinner at the felucca captain's house. We sat on the roof, covered with sand and painted pastel blues and yellows in Nubian style (very Rastafarian). We ate a beautiful Nubian meal, sitting on floor mats and listening to local music. I held their child, Habib (which means 'My love', such a wonderful name to call a child), when I passed her on she cried, so I rocked her to sleep. They also had a little boy, Andrew and Justin played soccer with him, until he discovered the better game of throwing the ball off the roof and getting Andy to fetch.

Yesterday we set off for Luxour by felucca, down the Nile. We sailed down the river, tacking backwards and forwards to use the wind, lying lazily on the mats on the deck. I spent the day reading (The history of the Arab people, and the sequel to The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, a beautiful drifting novel), napping and relaxing. We didn't go too far, because the wind was too strong.

Here is an interesting story about the Nile from Herodotus : One of the rulers of Egypt, Pheros, when blind after he speared the Nile in rage at a flood. He was blind for ten years, after which he received an oracle from the city of Buto to the effect that the time of his punishment being now ended, he would recover his sight, if he washed his eyes with the urine of a woman who had never lain with any man except her husband. He tried his wife first, but without success – he remained as blind as ever; then he tried other women, a great many, one after another, until at last his sight was restored. Then he collected within the walls of a town, now called Red Clod, all the women except the one whose urine had proved efficacious, set the place on fire and burnt them to death, town and all; afterwards he married the woman who had been the means of curing him.

Still on the felucca today, we have had to turn back because the strong wind ate up too much of our time. It has been a beautiful lazy day, one where you cannot feel guilty by choosing between sleeping, reading or simply thinking.


Abu Simbel and camel safari

We had a 3am start to drive ~400km south, nearly to the Sudanese border, to visit Abu Simbel. The tomb was amazing, carved into the mountain side with a 33m high entrance way, with two seated gods, each 20m tall, on either side of the doorway. The large tomb was devoted to Ramesses II as Pharoah and God, made ~1280 BCE. The tomb is aligned for the sunrise, on two days a year (20th February and 20th October) to strike through the entrance and crown Ramesses II seated in the holiest site at the back of the temple. There is also a smaller tomb, dedicated to Ramesses' favourite wife, Nefertari (out of his 40-odd wives) as an avatar of Hathor.

It is amazing that the entire complex was relocated up the mountain side during the flooding of Lake Nasser, and delightful that thousands of engineers spent millions of dollars to preserve such a wonderful piece of human heritage.

After falafels for lunch we went on a camel safari (dromedary) across the desert to an old Islamic monastery mudvillage. My camel was called Fire, and even broke out into a trot for me. Then a boat trip and a stroll through a botanical gardens. A most enjoyable time.



We caught the train from Luxor to Aswan this morning. After the most amazing falafals for lunch, we drove out to Aswan dam, a large dam 3.6km wide and 111m high, which was built to regulate the flow of the Nile. It took ten years to complete, and was finished with the help of the Soviets in 1971. We weren't allowed to take photos of Aswan low dam (Saddam Hussein once said that if he wanted to destroy Egypt he would just blow up Aswan dam, wiping out the 99% of the country that live on the Nile).

The amazing thing about Aswan dam is that the blockade of the Nile created the enormous Lake Nasser, flooding many Pharonic Nubian sites. The Egyptian government and UNESCO spent the ten years during the creation of the dam to relocate the ancient temples to higher ground. We caught a ferry out to Philae temple, which was one of those dismantled and reassembled stone by stone sixty metres higher up the mountain. The temple is beautiful, and quite intact being a young (Ptolemic dynesties) temple, which much added over Roman times (including a small temple to Hadrian). The temple is dedicated to Isis who found the heart of her slain brother Osiris on the island.

One of the interesting things that I learnt is that the original deciphering of hieroglyphic text was not just done using the Rosetta stone, but also required the Philae Obelisk (which like the Rosetta had multi-lingual inscriptions). Many of the god figures carved in the walls had been defaced by Coptic Christians who lived in the temple and converted it into a church, but luckily the place was too large for them to damage much of it. As an additional reminder for the bizarre things people do, a tourist group came in and had a group prayer / meditation - not in the converted Coptic church, but in the old Egyptian offering room. Very strange behaviour. Tamara later commented that at least having multiple gods like the Egyptians made sense out of evil and wrong, as the will of gods clashed, unlike "Our God". When I looked pained she said don't you agree, and I had to explain that I wasn't religious but I do agree with her analysis of one of the inconsistencies of the Christian god.


Red Sea and Luxor tombs

I just had an amusing incident. As I was walking to the internet cafe, one of the shopkeepers called out to me, "where are you from my friend?", I smiled and nodded and kept on walking, as they continued "what is a destination?". Philosophy instead of a sales pitch? I stopped, turned around and listened to the shopkeeper, a young man. He continued, "can I ask you what this word means? A destination?". I answered. He then pulled out his mobile phone and asked me to read him a message from someone written in English. I read it word for word, but didn't translate the subtext to him, which was, "I am pregnant, I need your details for the birth certificate and maybe for legal reasons and I won't ever see you again you bastard". He smiled and asked me to text her back, which I did, then continued on my way.

Yesterday I was by the Red Sea, scuba diving and snorkelling. On our first dive we went to a place that very commonly has dolphins, dove down, and saw many fish and a stingray, but no dolphins. Giving up, we got out of our gear and drove to the second site. On the way we saw a pod of twenty dolphins, he stopped the boat and we all jumped in. The dolphins swam over, under and through us, coming within a metre of me, it was beautiful and amazing. The second site was called the 'visual garden'. He gave us some fish food to take with us, and hundreds of fish swarmed in and ate out of my hands. I saw Barren Wrasse, Moon Wrasse, Bird Wrasse, Sand divers, Vermiculate Wrasse, the beautiful Spotted Sweetlips, Sunrise Dottybacks, the long thin Flute fish, Malabar Groupers, Redmouth Groupers, Scalefin Anthias (I thought they were two different types of fish, but they strong have a strong sexual dimorphism), Pennant fish, Crown Butterflyfish, Antenna Butterfly fish, Racoon Butterflyfish, Masked Butterflyfish, Lined Butterfly fish, Threadfin Butterflyfish, a large Royal Angelfish, Yellowbar Angelfish and Lizardfish. 

After the diving we joined the police convoy back to Luxor and checked into our hotel, walking through the ubiquitous metal detectors at every hotel and tourist site, that are set off by every person and ignored by the guards.

This morning I started with the Valley of the Kings, where later Pharoahs were buried once they saw that pyramid stood out and were robbed. The valley has nearly a hundred tombs in it, with no outward display, just a small entrance blocked with rubble. They have all been cleared out now (all but one by graverobbers, Tutenkahmen by the Egyptian museum). The valley is overlooked by a pyramid shaped mountain called Al-Qurn (‘The Horn’).

We visited the tomb of Rameses IV (20th dynasty), which was lived in by Coptic Christians ~150CE, and contains antique Jesus-graffiti. It was just a short passageway leading to a small room with a giant sarcophagus, but what was amazing was the carvings on every surface, hieroglyphs and religious scenes, all still with fresh colours on. The tomb was decorated with the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, the Litany of Ra, the Book of Nut, the Book of the Night, and the Book of the Earth.

The second tomb I visited was that of Rameses III (20th dynesty). This was a larger tomb, with additional chambers of mummies of musicians to keep him company. The tomb had a kink in it, as the builders bumped into a lost tomb while digging, and had to redirect their efforts. It contains paintings of the burial offerings, the king with the gods, the Litany of Ra, the Imy-dwat, the Book of Gates, the Book of the Earth, the Book of the Dead, and astronomical scenes. The third tomb was that of Rameses I (19th dynasty). It was tiny (it is assumed it was a hasty burial), but the paintings were the most vivid of all, and I could imagine the Temple of Karnak in its full glory of colour.

After the Valley of the Kings we visited the Tomb of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut was the most powerful Queen of Egypt, ruling ~1500 BCE after her husband died. She made herself coreagent, displaying her step-son, and ruled for many years, building temples and tombs, waging major wars and so forth. When she finally died, her stepson took her place and removed her carvings from all of her monuments. The Tomb of Hatshepsut is enormous, a three tier columned monument carved into the mountain, looking more like a modern five-star hotel than an ancient tomb. The area is now desert, but at the time she built a three kilometre canal to irrigate the valley and plant a garden, complete with trees imported from the land of Punt (modern Somalia, the tree roots are still in the valley.

Finally, we went to the Valley of the Queens. Like the Valley of the Kings, it is a barren valley surrounded by high stone cliffs, with many hidden tombs. We went in two, the plain Tomb of Tyti, and a Tomb to the prince Amunherkhepsef, who died when he was nine. His mother was so upset she gave him her tomb, then miscarried the child she was carrying and left it in the tomb to keep him company.

Just as a side note to the Valley of the Queens, Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian (~500 BCE) had this to say about embalming: When the wife of a distinguished man dies, or any woman who happens to be beautiful or well known, her body is not given to the embalmers immediately, but only after the lapse of three or four days. This is a precautionary measure to prevent the embalmers from violating the corpse, a thing which is said actually to have happened in the case of a woman who had just died.

On the way back we visited the Colossi of Memnon. The ancient Greeks believed they were statues of Memnon (slain by Achilles in the Trojan War), but they are actually the only remaining quartzite statues for a temple built by Amenhotep III. After an earthquake in 27 BCE a bell-like ring was sometimes heard from the statues, until the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus tried the repair the statues in 199 CE, and stopped the ringing.



A lazy day in Hurghada. A morning shopping and by the pool, a nap and an afternoon drinking Sakaras. The others are heading out for another night at the Ministry of Sound beach party.



The temples of Thebes

Last night we had drinks in Luxor, horse races until 1am for me. I find drinking games unpleasant, people end up drinking more than they want to, people pressure them too much, and they dominate the conversation. I left bored and sobering up. 


This morning though was one of the most magical of my travels. We started in the Temple of Karnak. Karnak was built over 2000 years, starting from the Middle Kingdom (c1965 BCE) to the New Kingdom and Graeco-Roman periods. I had expected maybe a pile of rubble, some ruins, but instead I found the most incredible intact temple.

Karnak was unbelievable, probably the most amazing historical site I have ever seen, humbling to my sense of time and place. The temple complex is rare in the number of different ages represented, as it was added to over thousands of years, building up to a complex 1.2km2 in size. Entering the site was a row of ram-headed sphinxes (dedicated to the god Amun (originally god of the winds and the air, a minor local god, made Egypt’s national god in the New Kingdom and identified with Re, the sun god, and his consort Mut and son the moon god Khons). I was blown away by the size of the entrance, a wall 20 metres high, carved with beautiful hieroglyphics, still perfect after thousands of years. I was admiring the intricate carvings of dragonflies and birds and the small statues and temples to minor kings for ten minutes before I looked straight ahead and saw a gate through the wall with a row of awe-inspiring columns.

The columns I had seen were from the Great Hypostyle Hall, the largest in the world. The hall was of a staggering size, with 134 columns, each 26 metres tall and ten metres in circumference. The columns, so fat at the bottom, rose up gracefully, representing the papyrus stem, and supporting a row of stone beams which used to support a ceiling for what must have been the largest room in the world for thousands of years. The hall was built by King Seti I (1313-1292 BCE) and was completed by his sone Rameses II (1292-1225 BCE) during the New Kingdom. The hall was staggering in size, before considering the age, and the enormous amount of work and skill that would have gone into plastering every surface of the hall, and carving beautiful images into the stucco. Where the stone is protected from sunlight the images still retain their colour, showing what a vibrant place the temple must have been when new.

Outside the hall were more small temples, dedicated to various gods and pharoahs, including the only Pharonic Queen, whose image was carved out by her step-son (upset at being kept waiting for the throne), and whose obelisk was encircled by stone to prevent it being seen. We learnt about Pharonic politics, the counting system (like Roman numerals) and offerings, and saw the sacred pond (representing the waters of chaos from which creation arose, and where priests bathed three times a day). Michelle and I walked through the site in wonder, then found a small niche, thousands of years old, to curl up in and savour the history of the site.

Linking Karnak temple to Luxor temple was a 3km row of sphinxes, still intact under the houses and sands that conceal them. Luxor was also amazing, a smaller version of Karnak. Luxor was started in the Middle Kingdo c2055 BCE, with most built by the New Kingdom Pharaoh Amenhotep III. It was extended by Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE), and when Alexander the Great conquered he built new additions to the temple, showing he worshipped the Egyptian gods (3320323 BCE). At the front of the temple was the massive giant seated Ramesses II, with obelisks and a naked Nefertari (his chief wife) clinging to his leg. The temple included an enormous hypostyle hall, as tall as Karnak but smaller in area, with only 34 columns (each representing a bunch of papyrus rather than a single stem).

It was hard to believe just how old the temples were. When Luxor was discovered by Islamic conquerors 1000 years ago, the temples were mostly under the sands. They found the ceilings, and used them as foundations for their buildings. They built a now ancient mosque on top, with the removal of the sands, the door to the mosque now stands 20m high. With the sands removed, the temple shows other signs of its age. In places the Roman changes to the temple are still in place - where the Romans plastered over the carvings and painted frescos, however these were not as permanent as the original stucco, and have mostly faded. There is also graffiti carved into the ruins from ancient Greek explorers, discovering the site two thousand years ago. A site so old that even graffiti written on it two thousand years later is historical...

Leaving Luxor we drove through the Eastern desert, in a police-escorted convoy to Hurghada. Stopping off at the time points, little kids with baby camels or goats came out to the bus offering to pose for photos. I gave one five pounds ($1.10) and he beamed for the next ten minutes. Now I am across the road from the hotel after a dinner and a few drinks. Everyone else has gone to the beach party.