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Some of life’s comforting moments: seeing your luggage come safely down the carousel after a long trip; tasting some of your wife’s home-brewed coffee; snuggling under the comforter in your own bed at night…. Ah, heaven (or at least as close to it as one can imagine having here on earth). On the other hand, Sir Richard Burton once said, ““Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure on a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off, with one mighty effort, the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares, and the slavery of Home.” I believe the two are complimentary.

The water feels rather oily and thick, almost scummy but it’s clean – and you float as if you’re floating on air. I have never been able to float in my life – my bones and I always sank like a stone but on the Dead Sea I finally was able to do it: lie flat on my back, head tilted back with absolutely no effort whatsoever and with no fear of sinking! What a marvellous feeling gazing up at the sky and simply being…. And not even being able to sit up in the water – no treading water here; hell, I could hardly even get my legs down into the water! What an odd feeling.

But I’m ahead of myself. I’m talking about the end of my trip rather than starting at the beginning. However, where are the rules that say one needs to be logical when describing a wonderful experience? Why can’t one simply jump from one thing to another – it’s the experience that matters, not the chronology.

Cairo is a big city. And like most big cities there is horrendous traffic, bottlenecked roads, vehicular pollution – and people. Fortunately the pyramids are in Giza, a city across the Nile River from Cairo and it is relatively quiet.

In E. M. Forster’s phrase: I had a Room With a View. We were close enough to the pyramids that one could have walked there (which I didn’t do as [a] it was late evening when I arrived and [b] we were going to go there early in the morning in any case). When one travels one is always aware of the fact that one could have been desensitized to the ‘view’ one is going to see because of previous exposure to that view – e.g., through photos, movies, literature, etc. To my surprise (and delight) I only experienced this minimally; from afar it’s the same old pyramids one has seen in countless images but from up close it’s a different story altogether: the immensity of them, the overwhelming sense of ‘How did they do this?’, the gargantuan blocks of stone, the geometry and alignment of the three pyramids – all joining together to create a feeling of awesomeness and yet smallness.

There is nothing I can add to describe my feelings; one simply has to stop for a while and bask in the glory of it (in the full sense of the word: to revel in and make the most of….). Yes, I heard what the guide had to say about them (but who can remember much of the patter when one is concentrating on making photos while at the same time trying to drink up the experience?); fortunately one has Google to rely on when one returns home plus the myriad booklets and pamphlets one picks up along the way.

Before I left Vancouver I had promised Lucy that I would bring home samples of the sands of Egypt and Jordan from the various deserts such as Wadi Rum and the mud from the Dead Sea . (In our travels we have always brought back one thing that exemplifies the trip – quite apart from the countless images that have been taken!) So I dutifully dug into my camera bag, withdrew a small vial and filled it up with sand from the Giza Pyramids!

Fortunately no vial was broken on the trip – it would have been interesting to see what I would have done to try and separate the various sands (which could have been done, albeit painstakingly, as much of the sands were of different colours).

The Sphinx was a bit of a disappointment. The poor old Sphinx is quite corroded by the weather and its face is almost obliterated; as well, they are restoring it so there is much construction surrounding it. Nevertheless, it was worth it. It’s smaller than I expected but I remember having read somewhere that that was one of the ‘disappointments’ of the Sphinx. And as is so often the case with non-photographic expeditions, we weren’t there at a very auspicious time as the light wasn’t very good – i.e., we were facing the Sphinx in a westerly direction, facing into the sun fairly directly. I don’t blame the tour organizers as they have to try and fit everything into their schedule. On a photographic expedition, however, the light determines the schedule, not meal times or otherwise! This time I was comforted by the fact that the rising sun in the east symbolizes the return of life each day (and for which, each day, I am thankful!) and the setting in the west its resting.

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In Cairo we also went to the Egyptian Museum with its many Egyptian antiquities including the famous treasures of the young king Tutankhamen and his famous solid mask of gold. (We were to visit his tomb later on in the Valley of the Kings further south.) The disappointing thing was that one was unable to take any photographs while inside the museum. To ensure this, you have to check your camera equipment at the door. There would have been much to photograph but…. All in all, it was rather overwhelming with thousands of statues, jewels and artifacts from nearly every period of ancient Egypt on display – from about 2700 BC to the 6th century AD. Add to that the names of the pharaohs, their progeny and wives and concubines and – well, you can figure out the rest in the midst of my confusion. And, oh yes, I cannot forget the mummies. I still don’t know how they did it but they are remarkably preserved.

In our driving from one place to the next in the city we took advantage of the fact that the police had opened up Tahir Square in Cairo and we were able to drive through it. Up until then it had been closed after the demonstrations following the Arab Spring/Revolution in Egypt. To a certain degree the square has now been hijacked by anyone who has some sort of grievance and there are a number of tents set up with signs presumably signifying their grievance (I don’t read Arabic in spite of my many accomplishments – sic!). So it was relatively quiet with a light police presence. We ran across several demonstrations during our trip but they weren’t of the intensity or magnitude of the Tahir Square ones.

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Note the blackened building in the background. This was President Mubarak’s political party headquarters.

One of the demonstrations took place in and amongst the towns around the Valley of the Kings: in the past the local street vendors had never paid any taxes to the govt. and now the new govt. was imposing some kind of tax on them. Well, that would never do so they formed moving picket lines at the entrances to the various tourist attractions. We spent the rest of that day going from one attraction to another after having determined which one was free of a picket line! It was like a game, really, with respect shown and no violence exerted.

I’ll mention the vendors at this point because they were ‘with us’ for the entire trip. Not the same ones, of course, but the same level of assertiveness and sticktoitiveness. It’s the usual – they start at an exorbitantly high price and the ‘let the bargaining begin’ game ensues. The worst (or most persistent and even aggressive) vendors I have ever experienced were those in Marrakesh, Morocco last year. If you didn’t buy or even acknowledge them they would swear at you in language that was pretty basic (I was going to say even I would blush at, but I won’t ‘cause I’ve heard some pretty tough and gamey words and phrases!). But in Egypt, although they were persistent, they knew when to draw the line and withdraw. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t bothered (approached) by them too much; they probably could read me pretty easily (we’re not going to get much out of that old bugger!) whereas others in the group were consistently approached and hounded. One has to learn to say ‘Lah, shukran’ in no uncertain terms (‘No, thank you’). I never blamed the vendors for their aggressiveness as tourism and its consequent sales has dropped considerably in Egypt since the Revolution.

The bane of all travellers is having to pack and unpack every day so it was a sublime relief to board our ship for a four day cruise up the Nile. (I have a case which can be expanded to accommodate further items; after one day, because of the hassle of having to pack ‘properly’ each day and having to struggle to close the suitcase, I soon expanded the case in order to be able to close it easily. That’s what’s called taking the path of least resistance!)

In reading about the various temples in Egypt I have never been able to distinguish between one and the other and to a certain extent I still can’t! It’s not that they are all the same; it’s just that there are so many of them and each in its own right quite majestic.

Our first temple was the Karnak complex, with its incredible forest of tall columns and obelisks seemingly receding into infinity. Of course, it owes its magnificence and complexity to additions made by succeeding rulers over a period of 1200 years (why can’t these guys just leave well enough alone?!) and they all make their mark by carving out a cartouche – an oval or oblong enclosing a group of Egyptian hieroglyphs, typically representing the name and title of a monarch. So you see these things all over the place in all the various temples. I call it one-upmanship.

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Note the obelisk in the background – over 100 feet tall made from one piece of stone

Along the way to ‘another temple’ (I was beginning to call this the ABT tour: Another Bloody Temple tour) we stopped to view the Colossus of Memnon. You may recall from your high school days studying Shelley’s famous poem ‘Ozymandias’ (“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Boy, talk about a threat…). The Colossi of Memnon (known to locals as el-Colossat, or es-Salamat) are two massive stone statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III (if you can keep these guys’ names clear in your mind, then you’re a better man than I). For the past 3400 years (since 1350 BC) they have stood across the River Nile from the modern city of Luxor.

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From there on to the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Kings also known as the necropolis of Thebes, a vast City of the Dead where magnificent temples are raised to honour the pharaohs entombed in the nearby cliffs. Here the tombs of queens, royal children, nobles, priests, artisans, and even workers were built, ranging in quality of design and décor according to their social status. (This is where we played our game of hide and seek with the vendors who were striking as we strove to find an open attraction.)

The tombs are empty given the long period of time in which grave robbers have been able to have their field day. However, what is remarkable about these tombs is the artistry that is displayed within them. The colours are bright and clear, the artisans having used vegetable dyes as their paint – and the engravings and carvings are magnificent. If one has studied Egyptology, one could easily decipher the stories that are being told; in fact, however, a layperson can get a pretty good handle on interpreting the carvings when one sees scenes of battle with bows and arrows, chopped-off heads and supplicants on their knees with the pharaoh lording it over all of them as well as other more pastoral scenes.

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Life on board the ship was rather pleasant – a nice refuge after a day in the sun. Like most cruise boats it had its usual amenities of sun deck (more sun?!), lounge, good and varied food, comfortable cabin, etc. However, unlike most cruise boats, there were about half the number of people aboard: our group of eight persons plus another thirty or so comprised the paying passengers (again, a victim of the economic downturn). The normal number of guests is 80. That suited me well as I hate being on a ship with tons of other people (much like when we came home from China on the Queen Mary II back in 2008 – ugh!).

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Sanctuary Sun Boat IV

Oh yes, and you can disabuse yourselves of the thought that all belly dancers are fat (or at least heavy)! The belly dancers I saw on this trip were quite svelte (and they were very good dancers as well – like I could tell the difference!). I must be an easy mark as this is the second time in as many years that I have been ‘chosen’ by a belly dancer to join her in her dance. Somewhere in my files I have a video of me dancing in Morocco (no, no, it was quite a respectable restaurant) – but I don’t think you want to see that one (or this one, for that matter!).

On to more temples (I told you: the ABT tour): Dendera with its reliefs of Cleopatra IV and her son and the hypostyle hall in Hathor Temple (the word hypostyle comes from the Ancient Greek hypóstȳlos meaning “under columns” where hypó means below or underneath and stŷlos means column).

One of the most magnificent temples is Luxor on the Nile River, founded in 1400 BCE (Before Current Era). We had arrived towards the evening and were rewarded with the temple and columns being lit up.

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And on to other temples: Rameses III, Rameses II (I mentioned there was no chronology to this, did I?), Edfu, Horus, Kim Ombo, , Philae, Isis, Aswan High Dam, now Dasher, now Dancer, now Donner and Blitzen…. culminating in the highlight of Egypt for me, Abu Simbel Temples.

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Not only are these temples magnificent but it’s all the more remarkable in their having been moved from their original place piece by piece in order not to have them submerged by the reservoir made from the Aswan High Dam. It’s simply majestic!

And this ends the first part of my journey. I will be posting my images on my website as soon as I can (I will let you know when) with further comments on the images. I will also be continuing this blog with my notes on Jordan with its impressive (and, again, magnificent) city of Petra.

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Sunset on the Nile

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