Archive for the ‘Egypt’ Category

Land of the Pharaohs

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

15 October  –  22 October 2010, Egypt

We spent just a few hours at Abu Simbel but it was more than enough to convince us that Egypt’s monuments and temples are legitimately world renowned. Eager to see more, we hopped on an early morning train from Aswan to Luxor, the “world’s greatest open air museum.” After dropping off our bags at the hotel, we covered ourselves in sunscreen, grabbed our hats and headed out into the scorching sun. Our first stop was Karnak Temple, the largest ancient religious sight in the world. This incredible complex turned out to be one of our favorite sights in Egypt. Over the course of thousands of years 30 pharaohs contributed to Karnak’s construction, making it Egypt’s most complex and diverse temple. Standing in line to buy tickets, we were approached by a man offering to be our tour guide. Sensing our hesitation, he proposed that we listen to his introduction and continue on without him if unsatisfied. We quickly realized that he knew his stuff and proceeded to spend the next 90 minutes listening to him uncover the secrets of Karnak. The temple’s most impressive feature is Hypostyle Hall which contains 134 columns, some up to 80 feet tall, depicting hieroglyphs and scenes from Egyptian mythology. After finishing our tour we wandered back to this massive room, giving ourselves more time to appreciate our surroundings and admire the sheer scale of the columns.

Portions of our time in Luxor are a bit cloudy due to a case of food poisoning that struck us both. After traveling for seven months this was bound to happen eventually. Fortunately our hotel was clean, comfortable and air conditioned and the Australian owner did her best to ensure we got plenty of liquids. We bounced back from our illness quickly and were once again ready to fight the crowds and heat. Over the course of two days, we visited the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, Medinat Habu, Deir el-Bahri , Abydos and Dendara. Nearly everyone has seen photos of these places in history books or National Geographic but seeing them in person is an infinitely better experience that I find difficult to describe.

At Abydos and Dendara, we pretty much had the temples to ourselves. It felt surreal to stand alone in the stone rooms with rays of sun shining through open shafts in the ceiling while examining carvings that have somehow survived thousands of years. Our visit to the Valley of the Kings was not nearly as intimate (an average of 4,000 to 7,000 tourists visit each day) but it was still one of our favorite sights. Carved into the mountainous desert terrain are tombs that were elaborately constructed for some of Egypt’s most important rulers. The majority of the tombs are hidden deep in the earth and from the outside are indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape. However, once we entered the doors and descended down a rock-cut corridor, we were transported to a different world. The walls are covered in surprisingly colorful bas-reliefs depicting the life of the Pharaoh once buried within. Each of the tombs we visited contained three rooms with the last being the burial chamber of the Pharaoh. Unfortunately, visitors are unable to bring cameras inside the tombs so we have no pictures to help us remember our visit to this magical place.

A real history buff could spend weeks exploring Luxor and the surrounding area but we grew weary of sightseeing and decided the pyramids near Cairo would be our last stop before hitting the Red Sea. Although the Great Pyramids of Giza are probably the country’s most famous monument, they rank at the bottom of our list of must see sights in Egypt. Contrary to what many people think, they are not in the middle of the desert. In fact, they’re found in the suburb of Giza, just 30 minutes from the chaos and pollution of downtown Cairo. Across the street from the admission gate is a Pizza Hut…seriously. it’s not that we disliked the pyramids, we just felt they were much less impressive than the other places we saw in Egypt. Unlike many of the temples, there are no carvings or bas-reliefs to admire and thus not a lot to see.  We probably could have been in and out in one hour but we stayed longer almost because we felt like we should. What surprised us most about the pyramids was their rough outer layer. The smooth bricks that once covered these massive structures was long ago removed by industrious workers in search of building materials. Probably the most frustrating thing about our visit to the Great Pyramids was the endless stream of tourists, and countless touts selling souvenirs and camel or horse rides. Desperate for a quieter experience, we high tailed it out of Giza and headed to the pyramids at Saqqara and Dahshur. Located a bit further from Cairo, they felt worlds away from the chaos at Giza. Tour buses and touts were noticeably absent and we actually had a chance to sit back, contemplate the extraordinary structures and appreciate just how impressive they truly are.

Overall, our time in Egypt was much more enjoyable than anticipated. Most of the sights we visited were incredibly impressive and nearly all of the Egyptians we interacted with were very friendly. Contrary to what many other travelers led us to believe, the touts were not all that aggressive. It’s possible that we entered Egypt with a completely different perspective simply because we had been traveling awhile and like to believe that we are pretty adept at avoiding scams. Either way, we didn’t feel like we were hassled anymore than in many other places.  For us, the downsides of Egypt were the extreme heat, the mediocre food and the never-ending stream of tourists at most major sights. Even the Cairo Museum was packed with so many large tour groups that we found it difficult to move. After more than half a year on the road, this was a first for us. Choosing sanity over elbowing our way through hoards of people, we made a dash for the King Tut exhibit. Fortunately, being able to see his elaborate mask and the treasures from his tomb made the trip worthwhile. Wiping the sweat from our brows, we descended the steps of Cairo Museum and struggled to make our way through a large crowd of people and bumper to bumper traffic. Although many of Egypt’s ancient sights more than exceeded our expectations we were in desperate need of a break and couldn’t think of anything more refreshing than five days of scuba diving in the Red Sea.

Apprehensively Entering Egypt

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

12 October – 14 October 2010, Egypt

We’d never really dreamed of visiting Egypt, so when we created our itinerary it ended up in the “maybe” column. During the first six months of our trip we moved at such a rapid pace that we both started to feel a bit burnt out. We were looking for countries to skip and Egypt would’ve likely been axed if it weren’t for the Red Sea’s reputation as a world class diving destination. Once we decided to make our way there, we couldn’t leave without seeing the country’s renowned monuments and temples.

Other travelers warned us that Egypt’s hassle factor is incredibly high. We would have to bargain for everything from bottled water to taxis, and tips or “baksheesh” would be expected for even seemingly inconsequential services like opening doors and giving directions. While traveling we regularly deal with similar situations, but had the sense that circumstances would be more taxing in Egypt. As we landed we tried to maintain an open mind but our resolve was tested only minutes after stepping off the plane. We passed through a security check and when our bags emerged from the x-ray machine, an officer handed them to us and, with a sly smile, asked “baksheesh?” Jason rolled his eyes, the officer’s smile widened, and we walked off without paying, but we realized that we might still be in for a stressful couple of weeks.

Our first stop in Egypt was Aswan, famous for its proximity to Abu Simbel. On the banks of the Nile, Abu Simbel is reputed to be one of the country’s most impressive temple complexes. Since a 1997 terrorist attack foreigners must travel in a convoy that supposedly leaves Aswan at 4 AM. This seems ridiculously early but actually makes sense because it allows visitors to explore the temples before the sun becomes unbearably hot. Bracing ourselves for a long day, we rolled out of bed at 2:45 AM and drove around the city picking up others before finally making our way to the convoy meeting point. The promised departure time of 4 AM came and went as we sat around in the dark waiting for something to happen. Just before 5 AM, our driver climbed into his seat and took off at high speed without turning on the headlights. All around us, other drivers were doing the same. Apparently driving in the dark without headlights is how it’s done in Egypt?

At no point during the three hour drive did we see any police officers, security guards or military. As far as we could tell, the convoy consisted solely of vehicles carrying foreigners. Obviously there may have been police officers somewhere amongst the large convoy but we felt justified in questioning their presence, especially once we had been in Egypt for a couple of weeks. Everywhere we went, we encountered broken metal detectors, x-ray machines that looked like they hadn’t been used in years and armed security guards playing cards and sipping tea. During our travels, we met others who questioned the effectiveness of the country’s security measures. One person in our minibus to Abu Simbel posed a good question. If foreigners really are in danger of being subjected to a terrorist attack, wouldn’t a convoy of hundreds that leaves at approximately the same time each day be an ideal target?

Despite the early morning and the inconvenience of the convoy, we were glad we made the trip to Abu Simbel. The site’s two massive temples are carved out of a mountainside and are a tribute to Pharaoh Ramesses II and his queen, Nefertari. Statues of the pharaoh standing 20 meters tall flank the entrance to the Great Temple, which opens to a series of elaborately decorated chambers. Walking through the temple, we looked up in awe at carvings depicting scenes from the Pharaoh’s victorious military battles.

The most relaxing part of our stay in Aswan was a sunset boat ride down the Nile. Floating on the world’s longest river surrounded by thousands of years of history, we watched as the sun made its way to the horizon. Our captain guided us quietly past cruse ships and other sailboats filled with tour groups. We’d paid extra for the luxury of our own boat but the privacy we gained was well worth the effort invested into negotiating a fair price. The sky grew dark as we listened to the sound of music being played on a nearby boat. Aswan’s crowded streets and the searing heat of the day seemed like a distant memory. For the first time since arriving in Egypt, we let down our guard and allowed ourselves to fully appreciate the moment.