Immigration officers frequently raise an eyebrow as they scan through the many pages of our passports when we return to the US from yet another trip. Certainly unusual places and interesting people are a motivation for this odyssey. But historical sites are also a strong attraction. No place could provide more history and setting than Egypt. The British Empire dominated history for over 200 years and the Roman Empire for over 500 years. Egypt has been a national entity for 5,000 years. The study of ancient Egypt began before the birth of Christ.
Most of the sites we have visited and even the place where we live is defined by a river. Early on for us it was the Thames and the Seine and a year by the Rhine. The Vitava provided the charm of Prague, the Chao Phraya the energy of Bangkok and the Ganges the holiness of Varanasi. The Volga, the Danube and the Yangtze have been our choices for river cruises.
the Nile is seemingly eternal and not only does it define Egypt, it really is Egypt. This magnificent river is still beautiful, vibrant and teeming with life after so many millenniums. It runs fro 4,000 miles north to the delta from its source in East Africa. With the construction of the Aswan High Dam by the Russians in the 1960’s the Nile no longer overflows each spring to provide the silting that fueled a level of agriculture which could support a great civilization. The agriculture continues today but is dependent upon fertilizers.
Our trip progressed along the Nile valley from the Old Kingdom sites of the period about 3,000 to 2,000 BC at Memphis ( near Cairo) and Giza to Middle Kingdom ( about 2,000 to 1500 Bc) areas including Aswan to the New Kingdom ( about 1500 to 1000 BC) capital of Thebes, now Luxor. We experienced both Egypt of the past and Egypt of the current day. After arriving at Cairo airport, our drive to the hotel was under police escort. All hotels employ security procedures at the entrance similar to airports together with armed guards outside. On our mini bus carrying our small group to various sites was a burly young man in a dark suit with an automatic weapon under his coat. All tourist sites have their own contingent of armed security police. this has been standard procedure since the terrorist murder of a German group in the late 90’s. Surprisingly, this does not create a tense atmosphere. Egyptians are warm, friendly and relaxed and many speak at least a little English. We wandered freely through markets, bazaars and historic sites. The locals often approached us to talk, displaying a sense of humor similar to Americans, not what you might expect in a Muslim society.
Everywhere in Egypt there are signs of western influence with TV ads and signs featuring young women in provocative situations wearing minimum clothing. Large numbers of Arabs from all over the Middle East vacation annually in Cairo attracted by the open atmosphere. Women participate in many occupations including police, the military and judicial positions. Appeals by religious leaders to observe traditional Islamic practices have led to increasing numbers of young women wearing head covering in public. At the same time their modest dress often displays high fashion and is accompanied by attractive makeup.
After being greeted at the airport by the OAT staff and collecting luggage we were transported under police escort to the Mena House Oberoi in Cairo. This hotel is a famous colonial era complex originally serving as a hunting lodge. The main portion of the hotel retains the Moorish influence of the original establishment. It is set on a large expanse of lawns, palm trees and fountains dominated by the pyramids of GizaThe next morning we left to spend the day touring the pyramids. Our guide, Amir, graduated from the university of Cairo as an Egyptologist. He is a 34 year old young man with a good sense of humor and an obvious interest in our learning about his native country. On the mini bus was a delightful guard, Hamed, armed with a German MD5 automatic rifle, who accompanied us throughout the day. As we drove through Cairo on our way to the tombs and pyramids, Amr pointed out the irrigation canals that bring the water from the Nile to the agricultural areas around Cairo. the water is then piped from the canals to the fields. We also noticed many horse and donkey carts with a water buffalo tied behind. These water buffalo were being taken to the fields to work. We also noticed many 3-4 story apartment buildings that had the top floor unfinished. Amr told us that this is a common practice since a building does not need to pay taxes if it is unfinished. The inside of the buildings are finished and occupied but the outsides remain unfinished to avoid taxes. There were many tall, statuesque date palms lining the roads as we drove along. We also observed large conical shaped, plaster structures with many holes. These are pigeon houses where individuals raise pigeons for food which is a delicacy here in Egypt.
The first location of the day was Saqqara, the ancient site of the first pyramids with monuments that go back to over 3,000 BC. Our first stop was a the tomb of Mererucka, a minister of Agriculture and the son-in-law of Teti who was the first king of the 6th dynasty. The tomb from 2400 BC was discovered in the late 1800’s. This site was most interesting since within the tomb were many well-preserved paintings on plaster over limestone depicting every day life events during the Old Kingdom period. All of the paintings showed Mererucka as a very large figure in comparison to his wife and children. This would be a technique that we would become very familiar with as we toured other tombs. The person buried within the tomb was always shown as a large, dominant figure. We also became familiar with other symbolic representations within the tomb – a child, in this case Mererucka’s daughter- was depicted holding a lotus flower to her face with one braid hanging over her shoulder. The braid over the shoulder always depicted childhood. The lotus flower depicted Lower Egypt and or the northern Nile while the papyrus signified upper Egypt or the southern Nile.
From this tomb we proceeded to the step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara. This pyramid was a prototype for the later pyramids and was constructed for King Kjoser by his high priest, Imhoptep in the 27th C. BC. Prior to this pyramid all of the royal tombs had been underground with a mastaba or low, flat raised mud-brick covering. Imhoptep used stone rather than mud-brick for King Djoser’s tomb and built a series of six mastabas , graduated in size one on top of the other.
As we left Saqqara and proceeded to Giza we observed more and more tourist and antiquities police many riding camels. Each of these uniformed police was heavily armed. As we approached the pyramids our van was stopped at a checkpoint and Hamed had to identify himself and our group prior to entering the pyramid complex. Once inside the complex area we had the opportunity to ride a camel to our next destination.
In the space of about 500 years Egypt’s Old Kingdom pharaols built more than 80 pyramids with only a small fraction remaining today. At Giza, we visited three of the most significant. The Giza plateau was the royal burial ground for Memphis, the captial of Egypt, about 5,000 years ago. The pyrqmids were built by the early kings as their burial tombs. Frequently these were built long before the death of the king and took many years to complete. The Cheops Pyramid is the largest of the three pyramids in Giza.
This pyramid was built for King Khufu (Cheops) in the 4th dynasty, 2589=2566 BC. Estimated to contain two million blocks of stone weighting an average of 2.5 tons with some weighing as much as 15 tons, this pyramid is amazing in its size. Each side is 756 feet length. The Two pyramids flanking the Great Pyramid are the pyramid of the son of Khufu, Khafre, that is almost as large as his father’s and covered with pink limestone and the smaller pyramid of Menkaure, Kharfe’s successor. Pyramids were usually begun when the king or pharaoh first took power since it would require 20-40 years to complete the structure. The last and smaller pyramid of Menkaure might reflect a change in priorities but also is enhanced with a covering of pink granite.
After the pyramids,we visited the Sphinx. This immense carving is credited to King Khafre around 2500 BC and is believed to be the earliest sculpture of ancient Egypt. It is 66 feet high carved from a natural outcropping of rock. The figure is that of a human face, probably that of Kharfre, on a body of a lion with outstretched paws and a royal headdress. The nose has been destroyed and has a variety of explanation for the loss including being shot off by the Mamluks, Ottomans or Napoleon’s Army. However, it is believed it actually fell off sometime in the 15th C.
The next morning began with an hour-long lecture by a professor from the University of Cairo. He provided interesting explanations on the Muslim religion and woman’s role in Islam. He first pointed out that there is a strong linkage between the doctrine of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. the Koran has similar themes to those found in the Bible. Islam means submissive. The words of Mohammed received from Gabriel in the month of Ramadan state that the followers of Islam must believe in Allah as the one God, resurrection is an eternal state and where on lives in the eternal life depends upon deeds performed in one’s life. The hadith is the teachings of Mohammad. Examples include that to smile brings peace and to gossip is a big sin. Practices include daily prayer (salah) practiced 5 times a day. This is an obligation described in the Qu’an (Koran) this salah should be performed in a mosque but when not possible can be done facing the East or Mecca where ever the person is. The Azan is the call to prayer that we heard before dawn, at daybreak, at noon, at 5 pm and then late evening. Each Muslim performs ablution (cleansing ritual) before entering the mosque as we observed in India. The Imam is the leader who leads the congregation in the prayers. Fasting occurs annually during Ramadan. Our lecturer pointed out that the Coptic Christians of Egypt fast for 55 days before Easter eating nothing that has a “soul” or only vegetables cooked in oil. In the Moslem fast no food or water is taken between dawn and dusk. This is believed to teach control. During Ramadan Zakat is practiced. This is the giving of arms to the poor. During the ‘break fast” meals are taken together after dusk. Parents invite relatives and friends to the home to eat. Exemptions of the fast are pregnant women, women who are breast-feeding or menstruating, persons who are traveling and the elderly. If one received an exemption, it must be made up before the next Ramadan. 70 days after Ramadan is Haj or the pilgrimage to Mecca. Each Muslim is expected to go to Mecca once if physically and financially able. 3.5 million persons travel to Mecca each year. A benefit of the trip to Mecca is the quality and harmony of all persons in Mecca on pilgrimage. Each person wears the same clothing and practices the same rituals. There is no distinction between an individual’s position or rank.
The next topic was the role of women in Islam. According to our speaker, mothers are honored next to God. A daughter will guarantee the father a place in paradise. A wife, according to Islamic law, rules the family. The parents arrange the marriage. The man must buy a house, furniture and provide a dowry either to the woman or to her parents. The man also pays all he wedding ceremony expenses. After marriage the man’s money is shared with the wife but the wife’s money is hers alone. Divorce is easy in the Islamic culture. The couple would appear at the registry with two witnesses and the marriage would be dissolved. The wife receives the children, the house and the furniture, child support and alimony.
After the lecture we began our morning tour of the spiritual centers of old Cairo. We first visited the Hanging or Suspended Church
(Al-Muallaqa) named such because it was built on top of the Water Gate of the old Roman fortress. The original structure was built in the 4th century AD on wooden pillars to raise it above the floods from the Nile but was destroyed and rebuilt in the 11th century.
We then visited the Ben Ezra Synagogue. This structure was originally a church dating from the 8th century. 300 years later it was destroyed and the site and its ruins were given to Abraham ben Ezra, a 12th century Rabbi of Jerusalem . This site is linked to the discovery of Moses in the bullrushes by Ramses II. It is believed that in 1234 BC Ramses II found Moses on the edge of the Nile in this spot and raised him. It is believed that Ramses II son, Merenptah, was the Pjaraoh of the Exodus. The rationale for this is that the Pharaoh of the Exodus is reported to have drowned in the Reed (Red) Sea. Merenptah’s mummy is full of salt so this supported the report. The Star of David of the Jewish faith is also the shape of the shield that David carried which when dropped would stick into the sand on a point wherever it falls.
In 1920, an Egyptian woman left Egypt and went to England for education. When she left she was wearing the veil but when she returned she no longer wore the veil. This was the beginning of a loosening of the custom of wmen wearing the weil. However, we saw many young women as well as older wearing headscarves. The Burkar dress, which covers the woman’s entire body allowing only eye slits, is a cultural and not a religious requirement. Certain Arab tribes and ethnic groups follow this tradition and we have observed that dress in Jordan and others parts of the world. Islamic religion requires only the female head covering as did Judaism and Christianity until modern times.
In Egypt there are only 20,000 Jews of the 72 million inhabitants of the country. There are 17 million coptic Christians. The three religious groups, Islamic, Jewish and Christian, Living together with no conflict. The Jews left Egypt after the revolution in 1952. Prior to this many Jews owned businesses in Egypt. When Nasser gained power he took the businesses from private owners. Many Jews went to South America particularly Argentina and Brazil. After the 6-day war, other Jewish persons then left for Israel. Again after the Yom Kippur War in 1974 more Jews left to go to Israel. There are only 15 synagogues in all of Egypt.
We then went to the Church of Saint Sergius, a Coptic Church. In Egypt no religion can display the symbol of their religion since it is viewed as an arrogant act. The Church of Saint Sergius is also believed to be the spot where the Holy Family found sanctuary when fleeing after the birth of Christ. There is a crypt in a cave where the family is believed to have stayed.
The final stop was at the Alabaster Mosque of Mohammed Ali. This enormous mosque was built between 1830 and 1845 and is a replica of the Blue Mosque in Turkey. Mohammad Ali was an Albanian soldier who came to Egypt to fight against the Mamluks and the Ottomans winning the battle in 1805. After taking power as Pasha or ruler he eliminated the Mamluks by inviting them to a banquet and then having them massacred as they left the meal. He was the first ruler to build schools, send girls to school, send students Europe for further education, plant cotton as a primary agricultural product and establish an army. He was the ruler of all Egypt, Sudan, Syria and Lebanon. King Farauk was a direct descendant of Mohammad Ali. When Nasser took control of Egypt he suppressed the history of Mohammed Ali and his descendants in Egypt. This information is now being included once again in current histories of the Egyptian rulers.
The mosque is situated within the Citadel, a fortress on a rocky height constructed in 1176 by Saladin to defend against the Crusaders and was the seat of power in Egypt for 700 years. We also stopped above the Northern Cemetery of The City of the Dead that is the very large cemetery area of family tombs where 1200 homeless families live within the tombs which included a room where family and visitors to the tomb could rest and stay overnight.
Following these visits we went for lunch at a very nice restaurant adjacent to the Khan al-Khalili Bazaar. this is on of the world’s oldest shopping districts – the Cairo of Ali Baba and Aladdin. Merchants had been trading here since the 14th century when traveling trade caravans were lodged and locals came to inspect and purchase their wares. The slave market closed in 1870 and diamonds are no longer traded but little else has changed. Textiles, numerous spices and gold jewelry still abound. After lunch we had free time to walk around the bazaar. Warren and Marilyn found our second security guard, Ahmed, sitting in the lobby of the restaurant and invited him to join us for our walk within the bazaar. This made us feel quite comfortable since he could help us negotiate the narrow alleyways and streets within this cavernous complex. The vendors were very friendly with a great sense of humor. One of them smilingly said us us “what can I do to take your money?” Others would beckon us into their shops with comments such as “just look” or “no hassle”. What a colorful bustling spot this was and a great treat especially since Ahmed was with us the whole way. Many of the vendors would say “welcome Americans” or “we love your country”. Certainly this was a fun and surprisingly pleasant way to the afternoon.
This evening we went to an upper middle class Egyptian family’s home for dinner. The husband owns a food service business serving hotels and restaurants. He is a hunter and fisherman.They have two sons,the older son is down in the Red Sea learning to be a dive master. The younger son, Kalim is 20 and in his last year at the university of Cairo. Kalim did most of the the talking. His mother, Nadia, understand some English but does not speak it. We really talked a lot about family life. Nadia is a stay-at-home Mom and does have a maid. Her niece was also there to help with the meal. The meal began with hibiscus juice which was delicious. The buffet dinner included moussaka, a phyllo dough quiche type dish with a variety of vegetables, a beef dish, roasted chicken, a creamed potato dish and french fries. Desert included two different kinds of pastry and a creamy rice pudding. Kalim shared with us that he would like to be a pilot but his father does not wish from him to pursue that career and he said that he must respect his father’s wishes. This seems to be a general practice since Amr also indicated that young men of his generation usually follow the guidance of their fathers in any decision making process. He also said that he would expect his sons to follow the same practice. Nadia said that she goes to a sports club with her female friends and also travels with her friends. She feels that both men and women should have opportunities to have separate pursuits and approves of her husband, Osmond’s, trips to the south for hunting and fishing. Nadia’s trips take her to Lebanon and Syria. We also talked about women’s roles. Nadia wears the head scarf whenever she is in the presence of men. The head scarf is not a full veil but does cover the whole head and upper part of the body. Her niece however did not wear the veil and one of Kalim’s tutors, a young woman, also did not wear a veil. They seemed to indicate that this was more a generational practice even though we frequently saw young women wearing the headscarf. We also talked about birthing children. All women go to the hospital to have babies delivered by doctors. Nadia’s brother is a neurologist in the U.S. Another relative is the Minister of Education in Egypt. Kalim speaks three languages: Arabic, English and French. He began learning English at the kindergarten level. He began at a private school and then continued his education at the American School. The government schools are for more lower income children and although English is taught, the teachers are Egyptian rather than Westerners. Once again we noticed the presence of security waiting for us when we left the apartment after our dinner. Parked outside across the street was a security vehicle with armed guards inside. As we walked to our van, the security car followed us and then drove off once we were in the van with Amed who had accompanied us on the van tonight.
We spent the morning at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. This world famous museum,located in the to become well known Tahrir Square, is housed in a immense building filled with relics from the tombs and ruins of the Early Kingdom through the Late Kingdom of Egypt. Highlights for us were the Tutankhamum Galleries including th Gold Mask found in the tomb as well as his throne, the Collossus of Amenhotep III and the Statue of Ka-Aper as well as the Royal Mummy Room located on the second floor where the mummies of Tuthmosis II, Set I and Ramses II were exhibited . A frieze from the Old Kingdom of meldum geese, painted on plaster about 2620 BC was so striking and looked as fresh as if it were painted within the past few year.The seated statues of Prince Rahotep and Princess Nofret from the Old Kingdom were also amazing in their lifelike representation. We also saw a replica of the Rosetta stone, a lovely statue of Hathor, the cow goddess of love, joy, maternity and magic, a white marble statue of Tuthmosis III, the Pharaoh Akenaton who integrated all the gods to one God – the Sun God Ra,and a lovely statue of Nefretit, wife of Akenaton. An awe-inspiring morning.
We then flew to Aswan arriving around 10 pm and proceeded to our hotel.
Aswan, situated down river from the first Nile Cataract, is Egypt’s southern most city. It is a dramatically different setting from the wide expanse of the Nile as it flows north to to the delta from Cairo. Here the Nile is narrow and winding among numerous islands with the desert coming down and meeting the narrow green belt bordering the river. Numerous felucas, sailboats from ancient times, ply their way up and down. The view of this scene from our room in the New Cataract Hotel was stunning.
We began the day with a visit to the Philae Temple ( 200 BC-200 AD) that is one of the temples that ws moved from the river edge up higher onto the banks to avoid the floods caused by the Aswan Dam project. The temple was dedicated to the Goddess Isis, wife of Osiris, who was the goddess of magic. Scratches on the pillars were left by pilgrims who believed that the material of the pillars contained magic powers of Isis.
The next morning we flew to Abu Simble. In the 13th century BC Ramses II constructed the Great Temple of Abu Simbel to honor himself and his queen, Nefertari. The main temple is 108 feet high with two immense figures of Ramses II flanking the entrance. Ramses is wearing the double crown to signify the Pharaoh of both Upper and Lower Egypt. The adjacent small temple is called the Hathor Temple and honors Nefertari. The frescoes and columns in the interior of the temples were in excellent condition with lovely colors and intricate paintings. They were cut from the mountain where they were built and then moved to an artificial cliff 688 feet back from and 213 feet above their original site by UNESCO in 1960 when Lake Nasser threatened to cover these beautiful historic sites. In order to move these great edifices, each section was numbered, cut and reassembled in the new site. It is difficult to imagine the scope of this undertaking let alone admire the ability to retain the lovely frescoes painted on plaster over limestone.
After our morning in Abu Simbel we flew back to Aswan and went to The Nubian Home Restaurant for lunch. This building represented a typical home of a Nujbian family with an adjoining restaurant built our on an open patio overlooking the Nile. After lunch we were able to tour the rooms and admire the wall stencils and many colorful rugs and pillows arranged in the rooms. The lunch included a number of vegetable dishes in tomato sauce that seems to be a common method of preparing vegetables. This time we had okra, eggplant and various beans in sauces. In addition to beef and chicken we were served delicious Nile Perch which was very tasty and delicate.
The next morning we left early to cross the Nile into the desert where the Monastery of Saint Simeon is located. We first rode via motorboat to the island where the monastery is located. This desert monastery was built in the 7th century AD. We rode via camel back about 30 minutes to this monastery built as a fortress located on a high hill overlooking the desert. Our camels were named Lulu and Oscar and we were accompanied on our ride by armed security guards also on camels.
Until 900 AD there were up to 300 monks living with the fortress. We toured through the monastery with a Nubian gentleman who had a great sense of humor and enhanced his limited English with wonderful demonstrations to describe the uses of the many rooms we toured. After our tour we rode our camels back into a Numbian Village called Koba which required a much longer camel ride leaving many of us happy to dismount on the outskirts of the village. We entered a Nubian home where 10 adults and children live.Two middle-aged women and an older woman who was the mother-in-law of the two younger women greeted us. The younger woman who did most of the speaking told us that she is married to her cousin whom she had known as a child. Marriages are all arranged. Normally the women are 17-18 years of age when they marry. There were 6 rooms in the home and the children all sleep in one room.The main crops of the village are mangos and dates although they do grow other vegetables and alfalfa for the camels. There are several mosques and a hospital in the village. The government appoints the council members who run the village. Most Nubians are now Muslims having previously been Coptic Christians. We asked the woman a number of questions as we enjoyed either hibiscus or mint tea, falafel and cabbage leaves boiled and wrapped around rice. The government has a pension program for persons who have reached 60 years and have worked for the government. Young women going to high school will wear jeans but still wear the headscarf, as do all the women in the village. The only persons who can see an adult woman without her head covered are the woman’s brothers and her husband. When a young woman becomes engaged, her fiancee can see her without her headscarf. Nubians have some resentment toward Nasser due to the flooding of villages from the creation of Lake Nasser. Although Nasser warned the Nubians that the villages were to be flooded they believed that if they did not move they could block the construction of the high dam, Of course this did not happen and much land was lost under Lake Nasser. After our tea and visit we then took a motorboat to our ship, The Hathor.
The next morning we visited the Nubian Museum. This is an excellent museum with each artifact clearly marked and presented in very easily viewed cases or raised columns. The museum traced the life in Nubia which is the area between Aswan in Egypt and Khartoum in Sudan from Paleolithic times through the Early Kingdoms to the New Kingdom. There were displays of Nubian crafts including basket weaving and pottery and a very instructive display describing the UNESCO work in saving the Nubian monuments from the flooding of Lake Nasser.
Our next stop was to a food market where we were required to bargain and buy a list of vegetables for a dish we would be preparing for dinner in the evening. Each small group purchased different ingredients. Out assignment was to buy tomatoes, lemons and garlic. The lemons in Egypt are the size of key limes- very small. We found that garlic was by far the most expensive item on our shopping list and Donna, our assigned negotiator, had great difficulty coming to a reasonable price for our 1/2 kg of garlic. It was a fun experience interacting with the local shoppers and vendors. Everyone was extremely helpful and enjoyed talking with us. Many Egyptians speak some English so we were able to communicate a bit. At one point, one young man went running off through the market to find garlic for us since not many vendors sold this item.
In the evening we returned to the ship for Galabaya Night on the ship. Each person was dressed in a galabaya that is the traditional garb of the
Egyptians for our dinner and evening festivities.. We had prepared an okra, tomato and garlic dish as part of the meal from the ingredients we had purchased at the market. Later some of us went with our guides to a village coffee shop. This was a tent like room decorated in the style of a Bedouin tent with cushions on the floor and a colorful draped fabric forming the roof and walls. Some of us had peppermint tea while others had hibiscus tea. We also tried the hookah or water pipe- it had been a long time since either Warren or I had tobacco but we wanted to participate in this popular social practice of the Egyptians. It took a great deal of draw to actually inhale the very mild, sweet tobacco from the pipe. The tobacco is placed on top of a burning chunk of charcoal which is on top of a tall container containing water. A flexible pipe runs from the base of the water to the tip through which one draws the tobacco. When one draws on the tip of the pipe the smoke from the burning tobacco is drawn through the water and up the pipe This was certainly a one-time event for us but another fun experience.
The next morning we sailed for about 3 hours after breakfast arriving at Edfu. From the boat we took a horse and carriage out to the Temple of Edfu. This was an experience in itself. Our driver Moustaffa and our horse Benoir took us on quite a ride., Moustaffa obviously enjoyed driving very fast through the congested streets leading to the temple. At one point, he tried to pass between a large tour bus and another carriage hitting the side of the bus, tipping the carriage and causing Benoir to actually rear up on top of the back of the carriage in front of us. This little episode was observed by the traffic police who followed us to the temple. When we arrived at the area for us to get out of the carriage the police spoke to another group of police and Moustaffa quickly got out of the carriage and went over to the police. Money was exchanged and he was obviously chastised for his machismo.
Edfu is believed to be the sacred site where the God Horus fought a fierce battle with his uncle, Seth, who had murdered Horus’s father, Osiris. The temple is dedicated to Horus. It was buried for over two thousand years under sand and silt which preserved it well. Construction on the temple began in 237 BC with the inner temple being the first to be completed. The main temple complex took 25 years to complete. Within the temple are many representations of the gods including the falcon god Horus, Isis, the goddess of magic, Seth shown as a hippo and ibis, the god of Wisdom.
The next day we sailed 4 hours to Luxor. We first visited the Luxor Museum. this famous museum is well laid out with two floors of artifacts and statuary taken from the temples and tombs of the Luxor area. The most striking of these included the beautiful gilded head of Hathor, the cow goddess found in the tomb of Tutankhamum in the Valley of the Kings, a large pink granite head of Amenhotep III as well as other pieces from Tutankhamun’s tomb including a funerary bed and models of barques. that evening we had a farewell dinner on the ship since we would be leaving the ship in the morning.
We sailed in to Luxor the next morning and departed our small cruise ship. This is the heart of ancient Egypt. Together with the pyramids of Giza, the great Temples of Karnak and Luxor provide the most spectacular and unforgettable sites of any of the great world civilizations. Possibly the largest temple complex ever built, Karnak grew in stages over 1500 years. The original sanctuary of the Great Temple of Amun was built in the Middle Kingdom about 1900 BC. Major expansions took place during the reigns of the New Kingdom pharaohs from Hatshepsut through Ramses II. More than a temple it was the residence of the pharaoh and the center of administration and treasury. Only priests and royal retinue were permitted to enter.
A row of ram headed sphinxes ran over a mile from the Nile to the Karnak temple entrance. Beyond the entrance into the Temple of Amun stands an enormous granite statue of Ramses II leading into the incredible Great Hypostyle Hall. This is a veritable forest of 134 columns over 50 feet high each with a girth requiring the outstretched arms of six adults to surround.
The original brilliant colors still show on many columns’ tops and lintels. This giant complex was buried under sand for over 1000 years before discovery in the mid 1800’s.
We then checked into The Winter Palace. this famous lodging on the Corniche was founded in 1887 and has hosted many famous persons including Russian Czars, Marshal Tito, the Shah of Iran and Noel coward. It is a lovely old Victorian style hotel with beautiful grounds and a large outdoor patio on the front with a pleasant view of the Nile. The Corniche is the scenic and colorful broad main avenue of Luxor passing beside the great temples and bordering the Nile.
In the late afternoon we visited the Temple of Luxor. Luxor is an arabic word meaning city of palaces. The temple was built by 2 pharaohs, Amenhotep II and Ramses II. Two immense colossi of a seated Ramses and an 82 foot obelisk flank the entrance.There were originally two obelisks at the entrance but the Egyptian ruler, Mohammad Ali, in the early 19th century gifted one of the obelisks to the people of France and it is in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The temple was discovered in 1886. Covered in sand the town of Luxor was built on top of it with houses dispersed among the capitals ( tops) of the tall columns below. It was sunset as we toured the final temple and the setting sun added lovely colors and shadows to the columns and walls of the temple.
Viewed from our hotel the west bank of the Nile consists of a short green agricultural ribbon bordering a barren sun-scorched range of high hills cut by rocky valleys. This bleak setting away from the lush Nile is one of the richest archaeological sites on earth. During the New Kingdom period after 1500 BC when Egyptian civilization dominate the Middle East, every pharaoh was buried in deeply sunken tombs of incredible beauty, decorated from floor to ceiling with brightly colored paintings of life and afterlife. These chambers were filled with treasure. Nearly all were subsequently looted. Each tomb is different but all feature a long corridor which descends to an antechamber or pillared hall ending in a burial chamber.
There are 62 known tombs in the Valley of the Kings but only a few are open at any onetime. We first entered the tomb of Ramses IV discovered in 1874. Our trip had progressed from the amazing Early Kingdom pyramids and mastaba tombs at Saqqara and Giza to the monumental temples of Upper Egypt. Here isn the Valley of the Kings, to walk these long, underground corridors to the burial chamber surrounded by brilliantly colored reliefs on walls and ceiling was a dramatic conclusion to our exposure to the civilization of ancient Egypt. The vivid scenes from the Book of the Dead were rendered less stylized and formal than temple and palace reliefs and seemed to personalize the dead pharaoh.
The goddess Nut stretched across the blue ceiling studded with five pointed stars of the burial chamber looking down on the enormous pink granite sarcophagus.
Today we flew from Luxor to Cairo for our final day in Egypt. All but five of our group will continue on to Jordan. When we returned to the hotel after our farewell dinner there was a wedding in progress. We stood in the lobby and watched for quite a while. The stairs to the second floor were decorated with flowers and white netting. The bride’s Dad escorted her from the second floor down to the first landing on the stairs with a horn announcing her arrival. He then handed her to her fiancee and they stood in front of the gathered family and friends who were standing at the bottom of the stairs. The groom removed the bride;s white veil and kissed her on the forehead before they stood in front of the guests. Everyone was clapping and tonguing with a band playing in the lobby. The two mothers were dressed all in black with headscarves covering their heads and after awhile moved to the bottom of the stairs and made specific hand motions up to the bridal couple.Eventually the couple walked down the rest of the stairs and progressed out of the lobby to a reception room. As we watched the crowded celebration we were reminded of the terrible bombing in Amman, Jordan a few days earlier at a similar reception.
Egypt was truly the trip of a lifetime. No other land on earth can match the unique history and enduring geography of the Nile Valley. We were so fortunate to experience this place before the political turmoil which was to come. We left Cairo and moved on to see other ancient sites in Jordan in spite of three hotel bombings at our destination two days before our arrival.