2003- Egypt

 18th October

Departed Heathrow on Saturday afternoon by Egyptair.  The flight featured a close-circuit television broadcast first of the runway ahead of us, and then, after take off, of the ground we were travelling over.  We were not certain but it appeared that we flew over our area and land.  When we neared touch-down, again we had the same transmission and were able to get a clear sight of the land around the Nile Delta north of Cairo.


 19th October

Our first trip out -starting with the traffic jams of Cairo and the locals' unique driving methods.  The pyramids of Giza are in a vast desert area immediately behind modern buildings.

We were interested to see that whilst in our coach being addressed by our guide, we were the centre of attention for a large group of Egyptians.  The people are known for their hospitality, but it is difficult to distinguish this from the desire to sell you something or to obtain baksheesh.

Our first stop was the Great Pyramid. (2589-2566 BC). It is certainly huge and at 480 ft approx., can be seen at a considerable distance in town.  Even stripped of its outer limestone casing, it is hugely impressive.

Only 100 people a day can enter - with tickets being sold at 7.00 a.m.  We would go in another which, internally, is apparently identical.  Instead we fought our way past the postcard sellers, camel ride people and those offering to take photos.  We had been told of a 5000 year old ship discovered in 1956 housed in a building behind the pyramid.  At a guess 80 feet long, it is in incredibly good condition - far better than the  more recent 'Vasa' in Stockholm or the Mary Rose.  It had a large cabin towards one end of the banana shaped hull and was powered by 6 or 8 large paddles.

Hurrying back to the coach, we were taken to the two adjacent pyramids.  The Great Pyramid was built by King Khufu and is the largest.  The two we were now visiting are those of his son Khufu and then, smallest of all, the pyramid of Khufu's successor Menkaure.  The former is a little smaller than the Great Pyramid but, being on a higher site looks bigger.  The latter was the one that we visited close up so that we could go inside.  That was an experience!!  The shaft varied in height from perhaps 4' to 6'6''.  It sloped steeply down for about 90' and was just wide enough to squeeze by other people coming out.  A continuous line of people descended in gloom past a continuous line ascending. 

It ended in a small chamber with the inevitable guide and also ended with the equally inevitable tip.  There were two lower sections with smaller chambers.

We moved on to the Sphinx.  By now it was extremely hot being around noon.  The Sphinx was highly impressive, a short distance in front of the Pyramids and standing 60 feet high.  It is the earliest known large sculpture in Egypt (2500 BC).

The next stop was a Papyrus Gallery where there was a demonstration of how papyrus is made from the reed .  It is then hand painted and sold to tourists at high prices - about 3x that of the hotel price we later found as we brought our treasures back to the hotel.

Lunch at a very pleasant restaurant about 15 minutes ride away formed a welcome break.  For Jill the break began a little earlier and lasted a little longer as she got locked in the Ladies' toilet and had to have a man climb over the side to force the bolt back and let her out.  Poor old Jillie.  Still the lunch was very good!!  

We moved on to Memphis, now a village but originally the capitol city of the Old Kingdom and Pharaonic period and long  before Cairo.  There, while we waited to enter a museum, we saw camels carrying loads of rushes and donkey carts carrying all sorts of things.  The fields are divided into small plots where rice, cabbages and other vegetables are grown.

In the open air museum we saw a 60 foot high statue of Rameses the second, now lying on his back as his feet and lower legs were missing.  The detail was remarkable especially the muscles - well before the  Greeks and 2600 years before Leonardo da Vinci rediscovered such detail. There was another large Sphinx and a couple of other monumental statues as well as sarcophagi covered with hieroglyphs  translated for us by the guide.

Our final stop was the Stepped Pyramid at Saqqara. This area is rich in archaeology and  contains the earliest Egyptian funerary structures.  The pyramid was built as 6 steps by the architect Imhotep around 2700 BC.  It was surrounded by a 34' high stone wall 5 miles in length.  Inside are vast open courts and pavilions.  We entered through a gateway and then colonnade of 40 pillars.  From this site we caught a glimpse of the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur which is the earliest true pyramid because until then pyramids were stepped.

Then another battle with traffic and a return a little after 5 p.m.  All told, a very full but fascinating day.


 20th October

Another long day leaving the hotel for a one and a half hour coach journey to central Cairo for the Museum of Egypt.  Much of the time is spent picking up from hotels which are not really on our way, but at least we get to see life as it is.  Much is reminiscent of parts of South America with small dark workshops, many battered cars and donkey carts mixed up in the huge traffic jams.  They have traffic lights but as we were told on our first day they are for decoration only.  Every roundabout and cross roads is manned by half a dozen police who hold up one road until there is a real jam and then releasing it to form a long queue on another.

We commenced our tour of the museum with the Tutankamun treasures.  These were notable for the sheer number, the abundance of gold and the detailed skilful workmanship.   It is truly mind blowing to see such fine works made 3,500 years ago.  Having been in an airtight environment they include sandals, bead and cloth work as well as precious metals.  There is even a papyrus chair that he used in his lifetime and a folding bed.  This latter had modern style hinges!  To our surprise there were  2 chariots with spoked wheels - we did not know that they had invented such a thing so long ago. In a separate room was jewellery, his mask and the mummy case.  The were found in three rooms all gold lined and built within each other.

After visiting the gift shop (they haven't got organised yet - about a 20th of what one would have in England) we did a lightning visit to a display of 12 mummies including Rameses II.  These were not the sarcophagus but the mummified body - rather macabre and not what they intended by the afterlife I am sure.

Then to a fairly good lunch on a boat during which we took a long call from Zoe saying that she had withdrawn from the purchase of the flat in Cambridge.

Then a visit to a 4th century Coptic church - surely the oldest we have been in and yet large and not seeming anything like that age.  In turn this was built on a Roman fort built 98 B.C. and parts of which could be seen through a glass section of floor.  This is certainly a country that displays more antiquities than any we have been to.

Next was a new (1830s!) mosque in the style of the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. Very large and elaborate.

Our final visit was being let loose in a market where we were accosted often with the usual 'Welcome to Egypt" followed by a long handshake leading to the inevitable sales pitch.  The most honest was "How can I take your money!

Jill, mistaken on several occasions for a French woman, really got into bartering and secured our 13,14 and 15th papyri for a snip!  The shop owner seemed to revel in it which only made Jill worse!!

Then back home and a brief period to do the diary and to eat.  Then as we were leaving Adrian could not find the credit card.  Quick panic and questions of the hotel etc but then we had to leave.  At the airport we tried to phone the card insurance company but despite several attempts that evening and at the hotel in Luxor where we arrived at mid-night, we achieved nothing.  Just as well actually and the next morning Jill suggested it might be in the money belt, which of course is where I had put it for safety!


21st October

A fairly noisy and short night followed by a more lazy  start as we did not need to leave the hotel until 11.30. We got involved in a few purchases at the hotel shops and a few phone calls from Zoe re another flat on our phone card!!

At 11.30 a crowd of people left the foyer and we followed as sheep./ Fortunately  it was right and a short coach ride brought us to our ship.  It looked a bit disappointing after some we had seen, but inside it is quite smart.  There are about 80 people.  We had a brief introductory session, a pleasant lunch of which we partook only little as Jill has an uneasy stomach. A coach ride of perhaps 10-15 minutes took us to Karnak.  Here statistics lose meaning as it is all so vast. 

Surrounded by a wall of great height - guess at 25-40 metres, the site covers over 200 acres of temples and other buildings dating from 2600 -1080 bc.  A monumental gateway leads to a large courtyard and then the Hypostyle Hall of 134 columns made famous inn Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile!!

The columns and the walls are all covered with endless pictures and hieroglyphs.  The art is amazing in its detail and accuracy.  Our guide constantly spoke of how much more realistic it is than Greek and Roman art.  One tends to think of Egyptian art as very stylised, but here was anatomical accuracy plus simulated movement or snapshots of events rather than posed photos.

The columns are immense as are 2 huge obelisks.  Our guide speaks of 117 recorded, of which 90 are known about but only 11 remain in Egypt.

Later we visited Luxor Temple in the darkness that had now come and again these artistic features and the crispness of these 3500+ year old hieroglyphs are amazing.

The heat drops from around 37 to a bearable 27-30(?) with the coming of night.  It is fascinating but exhausting.  Tonight we get time off for good behaviour in readiness for our call at 4.30 a.m. for....a balloon ride.

Wednesday 22nd October

a  brief cup of coffee and slice of cake and then off by mini bus to a ferry and then to the west bank where our balloon awaited.  Day was now broken and the sun just above the horizon. 

Like many of the Egyptians, our pilot had a good sense of humour and the whole trip was great  fun.  The passengers numbered 15, divided amongst the four compartments plus pilots section  of the large oblong basket.

The balloon was partially inflated and then lifted to an upright position before we boarded and therefore with a few blasts of the burner we were quietly lifted aloft.  I say quietly, that is when the burner is not in use. When burning there is a loud roar and a blast of heat on our heads.

We started by drifting over the village that sits at the foot of the barren hills that contains both the Temple of Hapshutset and the Valleys of the Kings and of the Queens.  This in itself was fascinating as we were only 200 feet or so over the houses and so saw clearly the nature of these.  Some had internal courtyards and others walled enclosures of animals.  People were still in bed in the courtyards or outside their houses.  Some children waved but we got the impression that at least some of the adults were less keen on our 6 a.m. visit in 5 hot air balloons.

As we rose to 1500' we could see clearly the temple and also the colossi of Memnon - 2 huge statues that we would see later when we rejoined the others from the boat who had not been on the balloons.  The degree of control of the balloons was very impressive since the pilot told us not to strain to see the temple as he would be turning us round to enable us all to see.  In fact the whole one hour or so trip was in the general area. 

The other feature of particular interest was the agriculture. The flat land was a riot of different crops benefiting not only from any groundwater (probably little) but also from extensive irrigation channels.  These permit paddy fields as well as maize and several other crops.

The pilots like to show off their skills as on several occasions we came to just brush the crops as we hovered over them.  All told a truly unforgettable trip.

Rejoining the others we headed the short distance to the Valley of the Queens arriving about 8 a.m!!

Here we ran the usual gauntlet of stall holders pushing their souvenirs before being the only group at our first tomb.  This was apparently for a queen but the prince died young and so had his mum's tomb instead.  The inside was lined with beautifully coloured pictures.  Our guide told us that all pictures tell a story.  They are from the Book of the Dead which contains 5 sections starting with the Gates, including the Last Judgement and ending with Paradise. In this tomb the young prince was being led to the gods by his father.

On the way Jill had been given a "gift" by a trader and we knew that the price would be the purchase of postcards and in this case a book also.  Jill had asked the guide what we should expect to pay.  He had said 30 for the book and  10 for the postcards.  Our friendly Ahmed started at 140 LE.  Jill haggled it down to 70 but when we got to the coach our guide had got the book for sale at 15!!  Adrian would have paid 100 quite happily!!    

We then took a short ride to the Valley of the Kings.  Extremely arid and rocky.  Here we visited one tomb with our guide and then went on our own to two other tombs, Ramesis III and IX. Again there was rich fresh looking decoration, damaged and missing in parts, but incredibly well preserved considering the intervening 3500 years.  The tombs are caves and passages penetrating deep into the hillside.  They are carefully worked tunnels with upright squared walls and flat ceilings.

Our final stop was the Temple that we had seen earlier.  This again had a story in the pictures, this time of Queen Hapshutset.  Her husband had died and not being royal herself, created  the story that she was the daughter of a god.  The story showed how in history the Queen had gradually taken on the appearance of a man complete with false beard!.  Her son Tutmosis III was one of the great builders (Luxor Temple) and also the proud possessor of one of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.  This, like the inside of the pyramid that we had visited had a steep sloping passage to a chamber some 90 feet down.  We had given this one a miss.

Then back to the boat for lunch and our first bit of cruising.  It was great to be indoors and experience some air conditioning.  For the afternoon our first experience of relaxing - difficult.  Still we have a 4.15 a.m. departure on Saturday to look forward to as we take the desert road to Abu Simbel, a three hour journey.


Impressions so far:  

Friendly, good humoured people but with a strong desire to sell.

A country with an unbelievable wealth of history and archaeology, far exceeding anything we have previously experienced.  There is just so much one wonders how they can ever conserve it.  One also wonders upon the impact of tourism, but there is no mention of this, only the guides encouraging us to think favourably of their country and to tell our friends to come.

As I type this we are gently travelling up the Nile flanked by a narrow ribbon of trees, crops and greenery before the barren hills close to on the east side but several miles away on the west.  There are people every few hundred yards bringing livestock to water at the river, or filling containers, or fishing from small boats. It is easy to see how dependent this country has been upon the Nile.

How did these  people create such incredible structures and art in such a hostile climate and environment?  I have gained an immense respect for them as my understanding of their achievements has increased a little.  Whatever happened to the barbarous stone age man?  The more I see of ancient civilisations, whether in the flesh or on television documentaries, the more I see this as a very misleading over-simplification, even for Britain.   

The guides have several times spoken of how lives were lived preparing for eternity.  How from the moment a king was crowned, work would commence on his tomb and all that was needed for his afterlife.  What truths there are in this.  One guide expressed it along the lines, "they lived as though this day might be their last, and yet everyday they were given was to prepare for eternity.

No women! We had 2 women guides in Cairo and alsowomen staff in hotels.  Since then we have not seen any, in hotels, streets or anywhere that I can recall other than tourists.

Tipping is a curse.  It is not that one minds the money.  Even then one is conscious that the tips of groups can amount to a large sum by Egyptian standards, their pound having 1/10 of the value of ours but the same relative purchasing power as ours.  It means that combined with the high pressure selling, you suspect the motives of everyo0ne who speaks to you.  This is such a pity as the Egyptians are regarded as particularly friendly and hospitable.

Thursday 23rd October

We are allowed a lie in today provided we get to breakfast by 9.00.  No great problem Adrian having been woken before the 4 a.m. call to prayer and then the noise and shouting of the boat getting under way about 4.30.

After breakfast we settled down to read at the front of the ship and after 20 minutes or so noticed people streaming off the ship.  The 11.30 departure for the temple had been moved to 9.30 and whilst we were last having just grabbed hats and left books (but did not get water) we found several others had been caught unawares.

The town of Edfu is much more rural although still quite big and bustling and frequented by passengers of several ships.

The Temple of Horus is "new" being only 2nd century B.C.  It was totally covered by sand from 800 to the 1820s and so is in very good condition and complete with roof.   Again, numerous elaborate incised carvings each telling  a story, usually in a linear series of incidents.

Having rushed out so unprepared we were delighted that this temple retains its roof which affords shade and makes the interior cool.

In the afternoon we sat in the shade on deck but even so felt scorched and overheated.

At 5.00 we set off to the temple of Om. Again 2nd century B.C. but this time in much poorer condition.  Generally it had no roof and much of it was missing.  However, there were still walls perhaps 40 feet high as well as pillars. All were again highly decorated. 

The site was known as a medical centre and much of the hieroglyphics contained recipes for medicines and pictures of medical instruments. 

Again we ran the gauntlet of traders but this time there was an invisible line in front of their stalls that they were not allowed to cross and this made it easier.

We had a purchase in mind as that evening we had to dress as Egyptians. Adrian had hired a giboula and Jill had bought one, both at the ship shop.  We wanted a fez and Jill some headwear.  We found some that started at £24 and Adrian got confused and settled at £18 before realising that this was 10 times what our guide had said we should pay.  We went back to check with the guide and then Jill came back and got both items for £2!!!  One could accept that they mark up perhaps to double but to mark up from £2 to£24 is extreme!

In the evening we all duly dressed as Egyptians and some had the most elaborate costumes.  The evening ended with music and dancing which we opted out of after perhaps half an hour as the days are both active and long.


Friday 24th October

6.00 a.m. call to leave at 7.00 for a coach ride and then a small boat to the Temple of Philae.  Once again 2nd century but fairly complete.  What is more remarkable is that it was moved in 1970-1981 to escape the lake behind the dam that had been built earlier and making use of a diversion of the Nile orchestrated to enable the high dam to be built and Lake Nasser to be formed.  The Lake is the largest man-made stretch of water in the world. 

Jill had felt light headed and weak all morning probably due to de-hydration, but perked up by lunch.

We visited the high dam and then a granite quarry where a part finished obelisk lay.  It had been cut out on 3 sides using diarite but the quality of the stone was inadequate and it had been abandonned.  It would have been higher than any other in Egypt.

A stop at a papyrus shop and then back to the boat.
Boat ride 3.30 p.m.
Tea 4.30
Perfumery trip leaves at 5.00
Settle all bills at 7.00 - cashier available.
Tipping for staff - envelopes at Reception - guidelines per tourist given there in English pounds.  This means that people behind the scenes are  included.  Can give in US dollars, UK £ etc.
Dinner at 8.00 p.m.

Leaving for Abu Simbel - wake up call 3.15. No flash photography in Abu Simbel.  Leaving at 4.00 a.m.  Take cardigan with you to leave on coach.
3.30 a.m. tea/coffee in Lounge.  Breakfast Box.
Take hand luggage with you.


Saturday 25th October

I write this as we travel at around 80-90mph through the Nubian Desert.  At each side is flat sand stretching into the distance.  In places there is nothing else.  Often there isa light covering of black or grey rock fragments, just as one sometimes finds on the sand on a beach.  Elsewhere there are largely black outcrops of rock sticking up here and there - for a long time the ones we passed were pyramid shaped, worn this way by the wind erosion.  Always there is on one side of the road a line of electricity pylons.

It is 10.50 and we have been travelling for an hour since leaving Abu  Simbel, the site of the Great and Small Temples of Ramesis II.  So, from memory this must place them about 1280BC.  They are entered through doorways between huge statues. In the Great Temple there are 4 of Rameses II and in the other the same again but with the addition of 2 of his wife Nefatari, a Nubian princess.  Inside is a main chamber leading to the altar area where there are statues (Great Temple) of Rameses and of Gods.  Twice a year the sun shines deep into the temple to reach these statues.  The walls are lined with large relief and incised coloured paintings stgill very clear and bright.

What is almost more remarkable is that until just over 30 years ago the entire 2 temples and statues stood carved iut of living rock  in cliffs about 80 metres away.  That site is now under the waters of Lake Nasser.  A huge rescue operation involved cutting them into segments, re-building them and burying the interiors in artificial hills.  Truly impressive on all counts.

The day had started with our alarm call at 3.15 a.m. for a 4 a.m. departure.  We joined a collection of around 20 coaches for "a police escort".  We are still not clear what that meant.  We did have an armed policeman described as 'the chief of  police', who came and sat at the front of the coach.  We could see one coach behind, but nothing else.  This procedure was repeated for our return, and indeed were kept waiting 50 minutes for this party to assemble.

Coming, it had been dark for perhaps half of the journey, but  both ways we saw a canal that is intended to provide an overflow for the lake to prevent any disaster at the High Dam.  Also there is an experimental area where water has been used to create a green farming oasis.  We do not know if this is the canal water or artesian, there being a huge amount of water under the desert here.  Egypt currently has only 5% of its land populated and there is a national plan to raise this to 25% by 2015.

We felt really tired on getting to our hotel.  This, the Oberoi Aswan, is a fairly modern hotel on Elephantine Island in the middle of the river and reached by its own ferry.  After an hour or so lie down we had a brief meal of an adequate rather than special quality from a buffet which was very similar in type to what we had received on the boat.

At 5.30 we set off to visit again the Temple of Philae for a sound and light show.  Again our valiant coach driver of that morning was waiting and took us to the boat to the island.

There were no announcements and no clear indication of where to go. It turned out to be a recorded dialogue between the River Nile and the goddess Isis whose temple it was.  Starting with the myth of Isis, the death of her husband Osiris at the hands of her brother Seth, and the birth of her son Horus, it then told the story of the temple to the present day.  During this parts of the 2nd century BC temple were illuminated and we progressed to different sections before ending for the last half in a seated area.

Personally Adrian found it rather disappointing but that was because of expectations of there being live participants and grand music, of which there  were neither.  Nevertheless, the sense of history was significant.

Unable to keep awake too long but conscious of limited food in the day, we settled for Room Service before going to bed at 10pm


Sunday 26th October

Much refreshed we set off this morning at 8.00 a.m. for a trip to visit a Nubian village and the botanical garden in the grounds of Lord Kitchener's home, again on anisland and only a short distance from our hotel.

The garden was delightfully cool and had birds and plants of interest, but also the inevitable people trying to sell us things from plant leaves and flowers upwards.  We settled for a musical instrument that Jill thought might be useful for school.  Thsi came down from 50 to 20 LE but another in our group bought one from the Nubian village at 10!!

The boat took us up river towards the dam passing ibis, heron, osprey, buzzards and even a crocodile sheltering in the reeds at the water's edge.

At the village we did not meet any other tourists, but clearly they are geared up to them as again traders were busy, although in very small numbers.  The Nubians used to occupy land to the south of Aswan, but now have had to relocate since all their land is now under Lake Nasser.

We visited a blue mud brick and plaster house which our guide told us was 600 years old, in this village which was itself 5,000 years old.  The entrance door led to a courtyard with 3 rugs on the sand floor and was loosely roofed in dried reeds.  There were 2 rooms and a kitchen.  Clearly life took place in the courtyard.  The rooms had no windows and with its domed roof the rooms were reasonably cool. 

We were given a short talk by our guide before being offered mint  tea or hibiscus tea.  As he counted numbers and then said that some people had not selected either drink, we felt obliged to take some, despite our greatest efforts all week to avoid local water!

Following a soup and an Egyptian dessert (delicious!!) we had a sit down for a while.  During our week we had shared several occasions and most of the recent ones with a couple in the 30s who come from Manchester.  As I write this we are about to set off to the market with this couple, Andy and Jane (a nurse).