Friday, January 01, 2010

Trip Report: Egypt

These posts are mainly for the benefit of my family and friends, but all are welcome to read it. They constitute a trip report for my recent vacation to Morocco, Egypt and Dubai.

Please forgive my tragic misspellings of placenames; I jotted down what I heard, and I'm going to avoid too much fact-checking just to get this up on the blog quickly. Likewise, I'm not editing this too closely, so you're reading whatever I blathered out in that evening after the tours finished.

I will put large blocks of history/trivia in red so that, if you're not interested, you can skip quickly over that material.

Lastly, my husband is quite a bit shyer than I am about having details of his life put up on the internet, so I'll refer to him as "El Husbando" everywhere. Those of you who know his real name can substitute it in yourselves. :-)

Day 9, Cairo

We caught a flight at midnight to Cairo and arrived about six in the morning, slightly dazed but still excited.

Egypt has 80 million people. 20 million of them live in Cairo. We were told the traffic in Cairo was some of the craziest in the world, and what we saw certainly was impressive. Lanes are a bit of a fluid concept, and I saw a taxi basically slaloming around the cars in two lanes. He occasionally shared a lane (side by side) with another car.

Horns are used often in Cairo, but they're used for communication, not to express anger like they are at home. The message is usually something like, "Hey, I'm cutting in front of you; slow down," or "Yoo hoo, I'm here where I'm not supposed to be; don't scooch over any further or you'll squish me." The volume of cars is large, but not as large as Bangkok, and the traffic does keep moving (unlike Bangkok.) Pedestrians and other cars are constantly zipping in front of you, but everyone seems quite comfortable with this, and as in Morocco, there seems to be no road rage (despite the fact that everyone drives aggressively.) However, our guide, Riham, mentioned there are 20,000 accidents per year on the ring road that encircles Cairo.

From our point of view, the pollution was actually the worst aspect of the traffic. Gas is cheap, and smog is pervasive. When we first arrived, the whole city looked foggy because of it.

That actually created a rather pretty effect, however. As we drove into Cairo, we passed an area where there were a lot of mosques and mausoleums, and some of them were spectacular. A single one might have several domes and one or two high, thin spires that are about four or five times higher than the domes. Both the domes and the spires were heavily decorated, and as they slid out of the smog/dust, it created a surreal, fairy-tale effect, especially compared to the other buildings, which are often left unfinished so the owners don't have to start paying higher taxes.

It was equally impressive, and very exciting, when we looked over and realized the pyramids had just appeared in the same manner out of the haze above the city.

The sides of the Nile valley rise suddenly, about 50 metres, to the Giza Plateau and Sahara desert. As a result, the division between green spaces and desert spaces is abrupt. The valley floor is lush, and then you drive up a hill and it's stark silver dirt to the horizons. I can see why people fall in love with the desert, however; it's a stunning landscape and feels very clean and wild.

The big pyramid (built for Cheops II) was made with 2.3 million stones weighing an average of 2.5 tons but going up to 15 tons. They were transported 900 km by boat to reach the Giza plateau, and the pyramids were assembled by building sand ramps that the blocks were dragged up. While the pyramids were being built, they would have looked like huge spiral cones of sand.

El Husbando and I did the tourist thing, i.e. we took a zillion photos of pyramids, camels and desert. Then, we paid a small fee to enter the second pyramid (for king Chephron, which still retains a bit of the white limestone casement that used to cover the pyramids' exteriors.) Inside the pyramid are some teeny, heavily sloped tunnels you must hunch down to waddle along, interspersed with a few open areas and followed by the (looted, and thus empty) burial chamber. We saw tunnels to other rooms, but they're closed to the public. It was all very neat!

After the pyramids, we drove over to the Sphinx and the small temple near it. When they say you couldn't slide even a piece of paper between the blocks of the temples, they're not kidding. The edges of the stones are completely straight and fit one to the other with no space between them. It's beautiful work.

By the way, the pyramids were only built in the first handful of Egyptian dynasties, because at that time, the rulers were seen as gods. Most of the workers were not slaves, and you pretty much need religious zeal to erect something as impressive as a pyramid.

Next, we went to the Egyptian museum and saw--well, oodles. The scale of the pieces in there was what impressed me most. The thought of people dragging that much stone around four thousand years ago is astonishing.

There's a lot of the stuff from Tut Anhk Amun's (Tutankhamen) tomb at the museum. We saw the guardian statues that stood in front of his tomb, a gold throne, an ostrich feather fan (very well preserved), a fold-up camping bed, a golden bed for at home, the decorated alabaster box for storing his internal organs (lungs, intestines, stomach and liver; his heart was left inside his body for final judgment), the four gold-plated cedar boxes that nested one inside the other to hold his sarcophagus, and we of course saw the sarcophagus and the famous mask. The mask is 11 kilograms of 22 carat gold; the inner coffin is 210 kg of 22 ct. gold. All this for a boy who ascended the throne at age 9 and died at age 18.

We didn't go see any of the royal mummies because it cost extra, but we did get to see some animal mummies and some non-royal mummies. We also looked at a lot of Tutenkamen's jewelry, his chariot, some papyrus, and a whack-load of other things that are a bit of a blur because we were so tired. I even saw a case of tiny statues of people in various poses that reminded me strongly of the collections people create now-a-days of their Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft figurines.

That evening, we stayed in a lovely hotel that had all the individual rooms at ground level and facing onto gardens. El Husbando commented it was like being in an oasis--not from the desert, but from Cairo. If you stepped out the hotel complex's front door, it was all traffic noise and city again, but inside, it was quiet and green. Near our hotel was also this crazy villa that has to be seen to be believed. It was huge, blue and white, and built like a confection of domes, balconies and spires--Aladdin on amphetamines.

We went to the sound and light show at the pyramids that night, which is where they give you an audio presentation while they shine light, projected images and laser images on the walls of the pyramids, the Sphinx and the temple in front of the Sphinx. The presentation managed to be both cheesy and very interesting, and we enjoyed it.

One of the neatest things happened before the presentation, however. At sunset, mosques broadcast a call to prayer over their loudspeakers. In town, you would generally only hear one mosque at a time, but out in the desert, we distinctly heard one mosque begin the call to prayer, and then other mosques begin to join in. The sound swelled until the whole city was buzzing with the singing, and this went on for several minutes. It was a powerful and lovely experience.

Day 10, Luxor

We were picked up at 4 AM for our flight to Luxor to begin our Nile cruise, although our tours didn't officially start until the next day.

In Cairo, we taxied in the airplane for so long I joked we were actually driving to Luxor, but it's only that the Cairo airport is so huge. Sunrise over the desert was lovely, with a spike of cherry-pink light stabbing over the horizon, then growing bigger. From the air, the division between the Nile and the desert is pronounced. Near the river, the ground is lush. Further out, the green fades a little into brown, and then it ends and you have nothing but desert beyond that. I saw a single road running through the desert, and it was like a line of thread laid across a sandbox.

At the Luxor airport, we saw several air balloons on the horizon, and we've seen several since. I would think that's a lovely way to look at the area. Luxor has half a million people, and the area near the Nile is quite beautiful, with palm trees, reeds and birds, and the desert plateau rising behind it.

Day 11, Luxor

Today we saw the temples of Karnak and Luxor. The two temples used to be connected by a 3 km road, and the city of Luxor (half a million people) plans to rebuild this avenue. The priest used to walk with a statue of the God Amun between the two temples during a yearly festival celebrating the God's marriage.

Our guide, Medhat, has a degree in Egyptology and seems like a rather awesome guy. Because of the degree, we got a lot of history along with our sighteseeing.

The Egyptian civilization started in about 3200 BC. It was all one nation but had two kings, one for the north (Lower Egypt, since it's closer to sea level) and the south (Upper Egypt.) The first of 31 dynasties began when a king finally united the both upper and lower Egypt under his rule.

There are three ages to Egyptian civilization, the old kingdom (when the pyramids were built), the middle kingdom, and the new kingdom (Karnak and Luxor were built during this age.) Only the kings of the new kingdom were called pharoahs; before that, they were just kings. The word pharoah meaning "the great house."

The word Luxor came from the Arab name Al Khosar, which means "palaces", because they mistook the many temples for palaces.

When the Egyptians moved their centre of administration to Luxor at the beginning of the new kingdom, they elevated the local god Amun to the supreme god, but called him Amun Rah to associate him with the sun god Rah, who was previously the supreme god.

Kings had both a temple and tomb. The tomb was for their body, and the temple celebrated the great deeds of their life. They used to be built at the same location, but starting with the new kingdom, temples and tombs were separated to protect the latter from tomb robbers. The priest would make offerings in front of the statue of the king instead of his mummy.

The temples were placed on the east bank of the Nile because sunrise was associated with birth and life, and the tombs were on the west bank because sunset was associated with death. Apparently Egyptians still use the euphemism, "He went into the west" to say someone has died. (It reminds me of the expression Tolkien used to describe the elves leaving middle earth.)

I'll give a little more history of Egypt here: The old kingdom lasted 1100 years, starting in 3400 BC), and Memphis was its capital. The first dark period ended that age. It was a time when they have no records of anything that could be called civilization happening. The dark period lasted 200 years, and to give you an idea of how brutal the time was, at one point, Egypt had 40 kings within the space of 70 days.

When a king finally reunited Egypt, that started the middle kingdom. It ended when the Hexos people invaded from Asia and Egypt was divided again. No one is quite sure where the Hexos came from, but they brought horses to Egypt (and the Arabs later brought camels. The pyramids were made without either.)

Ak Mosa drove out the Hexos around 1570 BC. That began the new kingdom, and Egyptian civilization is considered to have ended when Alexander the Great and the Greeks, then later the Romans, conquered the nation. Egypt didn't have a native Egyptian ruler again until modern times. Interestingly, there were 7 Cleopatras in total, the famous one being the last, and they were all Greek. Cleopatra is not considered an Egyptian queen, although she was queen of Egypt (if that makes sense.)

All temples dedicated to gods (rather than kings) were in fact dedicated to a family group of three gods: god, his wife, and their son.

Karnak is actually a series of temples, and so it's huge and has ten "pylons", which are the flat walls that loom around the main entrance. (Most Egyptian temples have a maximum of two pylons.) Karnak's first pylon is covered in huge etchings of Egyptian gods and kings, and since this was the first time we'd seen that, it had a huge "Oh, wow!" factor for us.

All temples had mud-brick walls around them to protect them from the Nile flood, but these had to be reconstructed regularly or the water would eventually wash them away. Karnak's was 10 metres high and 7 m wide.

The street leading into Karnak is lined with statues of ram's heads on lion's bodies, and they have a small statue of Ramses II just above the lion's front paws. Then you pass through the pylon and into the chamber of pillars. HUGE pillars. I had trouble taking photos of them because I couldn't zoom out enough. These were also covered in carvings and hieroglyphs, and here we started to see the graphiti of Ramses II.

Ramses II seems like a complete megalomaniac. He systematically went around Egypt and erased other pharoah's names off their monuments to replace them with his own. Luxor temple (described later) had a huge scene depicting his victory in a particular battle. However, he actually lost that battle; he just told everyone he won it.

Ramses was a great king, however. At the time, Egypt ruled the area from Iraq to Sudan, and Ramses ruled for 67 years, dying when he was 97 in a time when the average man died at about 50.

He also had three royal wives when the norm was one, and hundreds of concubines. He had 139 children at least, and, rather ickily, he married four of his own daughters during his lifetime.

Kings are depicted with their left leg forward in statues. They aren't sure why that is, but it might be that soldiers start marching with their left leg. After a king's death, however, he is portrayed with his legs together and his arms folded across his chest. Kings depicted during their lifetimes had straight beards, while gods and kings depicted after their deaths (when they were considered to have joined the gods) had curved beards.

After the hall of columns, we saw an area that originally had 4 granite obelisks, but now only has one. The remaining one is 18 m high and weighs 125 tons. It terminates, as all obelisks do, in the shape of the pyramid to celebrate the sun god Rah.

Many obelisks were taken from Egypt by other nations before Egypt made this illegal. One of the three missing obelisks is now in New York, one is in Istanbul, and the third is one of eight obelisks that are in Rome.

All obelisks were cut from a single piece of granite in Aswan, which is 210 km south of Luxor. To crack the stone out, they chipped a dashed line of holes around the shape of the obelisk, then inserted wood wedges and soaked them in water for 20 days. The wood swelled and cracked the stone. Then they would chip out the sides of the obelisk and repeat the process to crack out the underside of the obelisk.

The obelisk was transported along the Nile, and to stand it upright, they carved a tongue-and-groove base for it to fit into, then created a sand ramp for the obelisk to slide up on. Then they pulled on the top of the obelisk with ropes while undercutting the sand ramp near its base until they had pivoted it up and into its slot.

The remaining obelisk was partly covered up at one point. I'll talk more about Egypt's only queen, Hatchetsup, later in the report, but her stepson went to great pains to erase her from history. He defaced most images of her, but in the case of the obelisk, which is dedicated to Rah, he didn't dare, so he covered it in mud-bricks high enough to hide his stepmother's image.

Our guide showed us how the Egyptians built such beautiful carved buildings. The building was created out of stone, chipped into the right shape with chisels, then plastered with sandstone and lime to a depth of about 20 centimetres. When the plaster was dry, they carved the images and hieroglyphs into it. Thus, the buildings appear to have been made of perfectly shaped sandstone.

Next we saw the holy lake where the high priest would cleanse himself before his rituals, and a large statue of a scarab. The superstition is that is if you walk around the scarab (anti-clockwise) five times, it brings good luck. Six times will help you get married, and seven times will help you get pregnant. I walked around it five times; El Husbando instructed me to count very, very carefully!

We got to run around Karnak for a while, and it was huge, beautiful, and difficult to do justice to in words. The stone is gold and the pillars and roofs rise over you like a cathedral. Smaller buildings are covered in ornate and detailed carvings, and the insides of rooms still show quite a bit of colour from the paint that once decorated the carvings within.

After Karnak, we went to a papyrus factory and saw a demonstration of how papyrus is made. Basically, they slit the reed to its centre lengthwise and unwrap the layers. Then, they squish these to press out most of the water and natural sugars. Then the strips are soaked in water for 20 days or more, and then they are layered together and pressed again. The remaining sugar is enough to stick the strips together permanently, leaving a strong and supple sheet to write on.

After that, we went to Luxor temple, which is smaller than Karnak but arguably more beautiful (so hard to make the call!) We saw it at night, well-lit-up, and it was quite magical. They have reconstructed a portion of the road that used to join Luxor and Karnak, and that section is lined with statues of sphinxes. They all have slightly different faces; the statues aren't identical. The temple itself is dedicated to the god of fertility, Amin Min.

The pylon of Luxor is again beautifully carved and shows horses (remember they weren't common in Egypt), and there are two large statues of kings bracketing the main entrance. Inside is a statue of Tut Anhk Amun (Tutankhamen) and his wife, although Ramses II carved his name over Tut Anhk Amun's.

All of Luxor was buried under silt, and a mosque was built atop it 700 years ago. They knew there was a monument of some kind under the mosque, but didn't think anyone would ever clear it out. In 1869, however, someone started, and 43 years later, they finished. The mosque still stands atop the pillars in one corner of the temple, and is still being used.

The god Amin Min is portrayed with one arm, two feathers on his head, and a huge erect penis. The story is that he was a man who, being one-armed, was left behind by the army when the Pharoah pursued Moses (by the way, no one knows which Pharoah tangled with Moses, although they have a few guesses.) When the soldiers returned, they found many, many of the women pregnant. Rather than killing Amin Min, they elevated him to godhood.

When you enter Luxor you pass through the pylon, which had huge statues, two seated and two standing, in front of it. Most of these remain. Next you pass the statue of Tut Anhk Amun and his wife, and the hall of columns. These are as big as at Karnak, and slightly cigar-shaped (as they were at Karnak.) The open courtyard comes next, and it is surrounded by pillars. These were actually taken apart and reconstructed with concrete bases in 1994 because the ground water was slowly destroying them.

Most temples had a deep canal dug around them, and no one knew why. The local government had drained the one near Luxor and was using it for power lines, etc. They tried all kinds of measures to protect the temple columns from the effects of the ground water, but finally discovered that leaving the deep canal in place was the best way.

An interesting thing our guide mentioned is that when they were reconstructing the bases for the pillars in Luxor, a statue was discovered. When they dug it out, they discovered 3 more underneath it. They kept going and discovered 24 statues in total (these are all in Luxor museum now.) Apparently this sort of thing happens regularly because the priests would often hide things to protect them from thieves. They estimate only 30% of Egyptian antiquities have been found; the rest are still hidden somewhere.

In 61 AD, St. Mark introduced Christianity to Egypt. At the time, Christians were heavily persecuted by the Romans, and many of them fled to southern Egypt. These people often lived in the temples, and in some cases defaced, in others plastered over, the carvings on the walls. In Luxor, there's a section of plaster that has been left on the walls, and you can see a bit of the decorations the Christians painted on it.

This is close to the inner sanctuary, which is a small, rectangular, heavily carved chamber.
Alexander the Great broke, then rebuilt the inner sanctuary (I didn't hear why; sorry.)

After this, we ran around Luxor in the dark for a while, then hopped on our tour bus to go back to the boat for the night.

Day 12, Collosi of Mnemnon and Valley of the Kings

We saw the Collosi of Mnemnon first, which are two large statues that are all that remains of a temple destroyed by earthquakes and floods. They're gold stone, and we saw them on a lovely morning with blue sky and the desert hills behind them, and with hot air balloons drifting down to land nearby. There are birds nesting all over the Collosi. Our guide warned us the vendors in the area were very aggressive, but we didn't have much trouble, perhaps because we were there so early.

We saw some donkeys or burros carrying tourists there also, and it gave me an appreciation for how strong those animals are. They look tiny and cute, and are carrying people who look nearly as big as the animal, but those burros pranced along as daintily as if they were carrying nothing.

The Collosi are 3300 years old, and their name is a mistake. When the Greeks controlled Egypt, they heard the morning wind whistling through cracks in the statues and thought it was the hero Mnemnon (killed by Achilles) whistling to greet his mother, a goddess. Restorations have silenced the whistling, but the name stuck.

Next we drove to the Valley of the Kings, which are located in a dramatic region of desert hills, cliffs and stone. There is a mountain above it all that naturally takes the shape of a pyramid, which is part of why the location was chosen. Also, it was put far from the Nile in hope of protecting the region from tomb raiders, although Tut Anhk Amun's tomb was the only one (of 64 tombs) that was found intact.

There was one pharoah who was a bit of a maverick. At the time, Egypt worshipped over 740 gods, but Ak en Atem decided they should worship only one god, Atem. Temples for his new version of the religion were left unroofed and were open to everyone, not just priests.

The priests didn't like this at all, and Ak en Atem ("Atem rises in heaven", where Atem was the new god's name) moved his capital city to a town north of Luxor for eighteen years, and even had his wife, the famous Nephriti, rule in his place when he left the country for a while.

The new religion didn't last past him. Ak en Atem believed himself the only conveyor of the new religion to his people and didn't leave a high priest to carry on after him. His heir, the famous Tut Anhk Amun was only nine when his father died, and the high priests grabbed the opportunity to reassert the old religious system. They took the boy back to Luxor and made him worship Amun again. In fact, Tut Anhk Amun's original name was Tut Anhk Atem, which means "living image of Atem", the name his father intended.

Tut Anhk Amun is famous only for his tomb being found (mostly) intact. He died when he was eighteen, so he didn't really accomplish much as pharoah.

There's an interesting story about how his tomb was found, however. Howard Carter was digging in the area using the funds of Lord Carnarvon. Carter had found fragments of jars with Tut Anhk Amun's name on them, so he knew there was a tomb to be found, but he kept this very quiet. Carnarvon eventually got tired of paying for excavations that weren't producing anything and decided to end the expedition.

In the last few months before it all ended, Carter found Tut Anhk Amun's tomb with only a few broken jars and some upturned furniture in it. Robbers had found the area. However, there were two statues standing against the wall as if guarding something. Carter made the decision to break down the wall, and behind it found Tut Anhk Amun's tomb with its four nested gold-plated crypts, granite sarcophagus, gold sarcophagus and famous gold mask.

When a king died, they had only 70 days to inter him, so all work on the tomb was halted the day the king died. If the tomb was unfinished, so be it. It took 40 days to mummify the tomb, and the last 30 days were to stock and ready the tomb. After the tomb was sealed, the entrance was covered so the area looked just like the rest of the mountainside. There was nothing left to mark its place.

There was one pharoah, Tutmoses (also know as Gehoty Ness), who left records stating that only he and his architect knew the location of his tomb. This probably meant they killed the workers who built the tomb. However, this appears to be the first and only time such a thing was ever done by a Pharoah. Likewise, human servants were never walled up in the tomb with the king, as is sometimes rumoured. Small statues of servants were included instead.

At another point in our tour, Medhat also noted that while Egyptians pretty much made offerings of anything and everything to their gods, they never had human sacrifices.

Our tour included three tombs, although guided tours aren't allowed in the Valley of the Kings (neither are photos of any sort), so our guide, Medhat, gave us a bit of description of what we would see, then let us loose.

The first tomb was Ramses the 9th, the second was Ramses the 3rd, and the last was Tutmoses the 3rd.

The tomb of Ramses the 9th sloped down into the earth gently, and the beautiful painted/carved hieroglyphs are behind plexiglass so you can stick your nose up very close. The paintings are very detailed, with even the birds in the smaller hieroglyphs having eyes and feathers. The carvings tend to be more detailed than the paint, however, with things like bracelet links and the textures on the outfits carved in.

All the tombs were very well-lit and didn't feel claustrophobic at all except for the fact of being underground.

The tomb of Ramses the 3rd had a similar quality of hieroglyphics in it, but the side chambers were more finished looking, and it had this lovely blue-black ceiling with five-pointed stars painted on it, and a gold-paint banner running down its centre with writing on it.

The tomb's corridor has a kink in it because the workers ran into another tomb as they were digging. The small room at the kink has some very pretty paintings in it.

Before the tomb was a pillared room, with side rooms attached to it, all of them beautifully decorated. However, the large area right in front of the tomb was unfinished because the king had died before it could be. The tomb itself was brightly painted but not carved. There was also a strange smell in the tomb; El Husbando thought it smelled like bread, but I thought it was a burnt smell.

The tomb of Tutmoses the 3rd was really interesting. First, we had to climb quite a few stairs to get into a pretty little slot canyon half way up a cliff that led to the tomb's entrance. Then, we had to climb down into the tomb itself. This tomb was a bit tight in some places; the modern staircases take up enough space that you have to limbo down the steps to keep from whacking your face on the roof. The tomb was also a lot hotter than the others.

After the first set of stairs, there was a big pit with a painted ceiling. I assume this was a trap for robbers. We crossed on a bridge of wood.

After the second stairway down, we got into some beautifully painted rooms, including the tomb itself. This was an earlier tomb, so there were no carvings on the walls, but the paintings were still brilliant and vivid. They could have been made ten years ago.

The tomb itself is a large pillared room with very stylized black and white hieroglyphs, a star-painted ceiling, and stripes of colour along the bottom third of the walls. The sarcophagus is also there. It's made of shiny brown stone and covered in carved hieroglyphs. It's also shaped like a cartouche, which is the symbol of eternity that kings always wrote their names inside. You've probably seen those gold necklaces people wear that have their name written in hieroglyphs inside it--that's the shape of a cartouche. It's a rectangularized oval with little lines extending like wings on the two lower edges of the oval.

On the black and white hieroglyphs on the walls, you can actually see corrections. The images were drawn in red first, then painted over in black. If the person writing in red messed up a little, you can see the faded red beside the black.

After we had seen our three tombs, we wandered around the area to look at the entrances to the other tombs, then headed back to our bus.

Our guide warned us that after the Valley of the Kings, you have to pass through the "Valley of the Shops" to get to the bus. As previously, the vendors weren't quite as aggressive as he described, but we're glad he gave us an idea of what to expect and how to react, or it could have been a very alarming experience. They do get into your face.

After this, we stopped at an alabaster carving store where they put on an amusing little show to demonstrate how the statues get carved (using tradition instruments) and how to watch out for fake alabaster and stone.

Afterward, we went to the temple of Queen Hatchepsut, who was Egypt's only queen (remember Cleopatra didn't count because she was Greek.)

Queen Hatchepsut was a pretty interesting character, as was the matter of how her stepson reacted to her rule. In general, Egyptians would not suffer a queen to rule them, but while Hatchepsut's father had sons, he had no sons by his royal wife, which is why she ascended the throne instead.

Queen Hatchepsut did several things to cement her rule. She first had herself portrayed as a man in most of her monuments, and she secondly said she was a divine conception, that Amun Rah had impregnated her mother.

She married her half-brother, Tutmoses II, which was common in order to make sure the next Pharaoh had pure royal blood.

The pharoah after Queen Hatchepsut was a different half-brother (whose name I forgot to write down) by one of the royal concubines. Hatchepsut kept him in the shadows for 32 years while she ruled, and he only got himself into the royal lineage by marrying one of her daughters (very tangled blood relations, there.) After that, he likely murdered Hatchepsut in order to take the throne, and his hatred of her is pretty obvious by his actions thereafter. He ordered all her monuments defaced, and although he only ruled for 34 years, his records say he ruled for 54, because he counted the start of his rule as the start of Hatchepsut's 20 year reign. In other words, he tried to erase his half-sister/mother-in-law from history.

Hatchepsut's temple is a beautiful rectangular building with many pillars along its front, many (defaced) statues, and a limestone ramp leading up to its entrance. It's made of the local pale gold stone, and it's situated in a spectacular setting. A gentle slope leads up to it, but yellow cliffs rear up behind it with the blue sky above them. It's gorgeous and almost blinding in the sunlight. Hatchepsut imported 31 types of trees to Egypt for their use as incense, and you can still see the stump of one of them in front of the temple.

We didn't get much time at the temple, but did get to run around a bit. The sheltered areas have colour left on the carvings, and the carvings themselves are very beautiful and detailed. Only images of Hatchepsut were defaced, so what remains is still very lovely. We saw temples later in the tour that Christians had done a lot more damage to.

After that, our bus had to sprint back to the boat before it sailed. On the way, we saw these flowering trees growing wild by the roadside that had vivid blossoms--magenta, orange and purple. There was also palms, man-tall grasses and lots of birds. The houses were sometimes unfinished, but one small mosque was very pretty, with gold stone walls, carved cedar doors, and old, old stone mini-minarets.

When we got to our boat room, by the way, the chamber staff had folded our extra blanket and fresh towels into the shape of a crocodile on the bed! It was very cute, as was the towel-monkey we got the next day.

The boat sailed for about five hours, which was heavenly; the Nile is so pretty in the rural areas. There are islands, tall reeds and grasses, palm trees, birds and the sunset (where I may have seen the green flash, but I'm not sure.) We also saw locals doing everything from washing laundry to playing soccer.

After dark, we got to the town of Esda, where we went through a lock that lifted our boat by about six metres. Then we sailed on to Edfu. The lock was such an odd experience. At the start, you're looking up at some fellows walking along the top of a concrete wall ten feet above the deck of the ship. At the end, you're looking down on them, and some part of your brain just can't compute how that happened!

Probably more fun than that was the vendors trying to sell textiles to us just before the lock. They pull up beside the cruise ship in little row boats with their tablecloths, etc. sealed in plastic bags. Then they yell "hello?" up at the boat, and if people appear and show the slightest interest, they throw the plastic bags up onto the deck to be inspected. Their hope is the tourists will decide to keep the items and throw money down in exchange.

El Husbando said the goods were really cheap, and our guide warned us many of the items have been dunked in the Nile more than once thanks to previous tourists having poor aim when they returned the wares. El Husbando also said the guys in the boats appeared to be having too good a time for the exercise to be a genuine attempt at making a living--and we did smell marijuana smoke right before they rowed up.

Day 13, Edfu temple, Kom Ombo temple

Edfu temple has a very impressive pylon with deeper carvings than we had seen elsewhere. You can clearly see from a distance who the god is (Osirus), as well as the features of the god's wife and the king smiting his enemies in front of the god. There are smaller hieroglyphs below the large images.

The king, by the way, is Ptolomy, a Greek. He is portrayed exactly the way an Egyptian king would be, however, in terms of artistic style and how he is dressed.

Above the door of the pylon is the symbol of Horus and Rah unified, which is a sun disk bracketed by two cobras and a pair of blue wings. (Horus and Rah joined forces to kill the evil god Seth, who killed Horus' father Osirus out of jealousy over Osirus' wife Isis.)

The front of the pylon features two grooves where flag poles were erected to fly different colours for the five principle festivals celebrated at the temple.

Edfu is in great condition because the temple was covered in silt. However, Christians did a lot of damage to it. They removed the faces of many of the gods, and later removed the hands and feet (so the gods couldn't chase and catch them.)

The Christians saw a lot of similarities between their own religious stories and practices, and those of Egypt, and to keep their people from melding their beliefs with those of the Egyptians, they tried to erase things they thought were too similar. Thus, in carvings that show the king being cleansed with water (depicted as a trail of ankhs), they chipped out the water, thinking the ritual too similar to baptism.

There is other damage from the Christians, too. They lived in the partially silted-in temples, and so there is smoke damage from cooking fires on the ceilings.

Edfu temple was created during the Greco-Roman era. Egyptian civilization is considered to have ended when Alexander the Great and the Greeks conquered it, but in order to keep Egypt passive, the Greeks and the Romans after them worked very hard to convince the Egyptians they were not there as conquerers but to worship the Egyptian gods. Thus, a lot of beautiful and impressive temples to the Egyptian gods were created during this era.

You can tell which temples were made during the Greco-Roman era because the capitals on the pillars are quite ornate. The Pharonic temples have very simple stylized capitals representing papyrus or lotus flowers. The Greco-Romans ones combine the papyrus and lotus blossoms on one capital, symbolizing the unity between the north and south of Egypt.

The high priest spent 12 hours a day on rituals, but only during daylight. During the night, no one was allowed in the temple--not the high priest, not even the king (who was considered a high priest at any temple he visited.) To make sure the priest got out in time, he fastened a chain to his leg in the morning and wore it inside the inner sanctuary. If he fell down dead while inside, the other priests could drag him out at sundown.

It's hardly noticeable, but the temple's floor slopes upward, and its roof downward, as you approach the inner sanctuary, as if the whole temple is focusing on that room.

There is an altar for sacrifices outside the temple, but only an offering table inside the sanctuary. At Edfu, the table is made of very shiny granite that almost looked metallic.

At the sides of the temple, there are small rooms for storing incense, perfumes and offerings. In one of these, there was a beautiful painting of Nuut, the goddess of the sky, on the ceiling. She is always portrayed bending over, so that she almost forms a rectangle (and thus fits on a square ceiling nicely) because she is reaching for her lover, the earth, who she was separated from by her disapproving father.

The outside walls of the temple depict the stages in the struggle between the god Horus and his uncle Seth, who is shown as a hippopotamus. Our guide went through the whole story with us, and it was very interesting, but I'll spare you all that!

Afterward, we sailed on to Kom Ombo, which means "mound of gold". It was used as a gold trading post by the Greeks, but it had a bit of a crocodile problem. Thus, the temple of Kom Ombo is unique: it's a double-temple. One side of it is dedicated to Horus, and the other to Sobek, a crocodile god who was considered evil but was hopefully going to be appeased by the worship.

Kom Ombo has the largest sugar plant in Egypt, but it's a dirty factory because they burn the sugar canes for fuel. As a result, the area smells like a campfire.

We walked from the boat up to the temple just at sunset. A lot of the temple walls and even the tops of some of the pillars are missing because the place was used as a sandstone quarry by the locals (the Parthenon in Athens had a similar problem.) One cool thing that results from that, however, is that you can see the grooves for the tongue-and-groove construction that kept the big stones of the temple together. Our guide Medhat noted that, just on the foundation stones, the grooves were a little bigger than the tongues. It was thought this was done to help earthquake-proof the building.

The double temple is very interesting, but some of the coolest things at Kom Ombo were also some of the plainest structures. They have a deep well that was not a well; it was a Nile-o-meter. The well was connected to the Nile, and the area's tax level was based on the maximum height of the river during flood season. In years when the flood was either too high or two low, both resulting in failed crops, the farmers paid no taxes.

Occasionally baby crocodiles made their way into the Nile-o-meter, and because the temple worshipped the crocodile god, the priests not only fed these trapped crocodiles, they also fetched the body of any crocodile that died in there and mummified it, then interred the body in a small (about the size of two compact cars) building shaped (very approximately) like the head of a crocodile.

Beside the Nile-o-meter was a small well that the priest would pour water from the Nile into, to allow sediment to settle out of it. Once clear, this water was poured into a long channel to drain toward a pool where the high priest could cleanse himself before performing his rituals. On the way to that pool, the water passed through about 20 filter points where it would travel through clean linen and fine sand to clear out the last impurities.

Between the two sanctuaries for the temple was a small crypt with an opening to the sky. At sunset, the high priest would wander among the local people who had gathered near the temple to hear the god Horus' medical advice. In this way, the high priest would get an idea of what was ailing certain people, and then he would go down to the crypt and call out the god's advice. Because no one could see him, it was taken as a bit of a miracle.

One of the unique things about the temple at Kom Ombo is that it shows the Egyptian calendar. There were three seasons: flood season, agricultural season, and harvest season. The Egyptian year had twelve months, each consisting of three ten-day weeks. This means every month was 30 days, and the year was 360 days long. However, at the end of the year, the Egyptians also celebrated five festival days for the birthdays of certain gods, so their year was 365 days long really. (By the way, their new year started with the Nile flood, which always happened in the second to third week of July.)

The calendar carved on the wall of Kom Ombo is fairly easy to read if you know the hieroglyphs for the numbers. The start of the month shows what season that month falls in, and the last day of the month is labelled with the symbol for "ba'ah", which means "finished" or "it's done". Beside each day, the calendar shows what sacrifices should be made on that day.

Another interesting thing carved on the temple walls is a panel showing various surgical instruments. These include scalpels and scissors, and also a needle instrument that was used to drain excess fluid from a newborn's head if it had swelled in the womb and was making birth difficult. Apparently modern doctors use an instrument not too different than this when the same situation occurs today. All the instruments were depicted beside a carving of Emo Hotep, who was a great architect and surgeon who was elevated to godhood, and who is also known by his Greek name Asclepius.

After Kom Ombo, we dodged the shops and went back to our boat to sail to Aswan.

Day 14, Philae temple, high and low dams, Aswan

The word "Nub" means "gold", and the Nubians were active gold traders. They have darker skin than most Egyptians, as well as their own language (which they don't like to teach outsiders) and culture. In ancient times, they were one of Egypt's more challenging enemies. Most Nubians live in Aswan now because when the high dam was built, it flooded their traditional homelands. The Nubians weren't happy with this, obviously, but accepted it with compensation from the government.

The dam also would have submerged 23 temples, but the government rescued all of them. The temple on Philae island was relocated to Ajelica island by being separated into 47,000 pieces and shifted. The most expensive part, however, was reshaping and landscaping Ajelica island so that it resembled Philae island.

When the god Seth killed Osirus, he split the body into 13 pieces and scattered them all over Egypt. Isis hunted for the pieces, and the legend says she found the last piece on Philae island.

For unknown reasons, the Christians defaced the carvings on the left side of the temple but didn't do much to the right side. Also, inside the temple, there is a carving of Isis nursing the god Horus, and the Christians thought this too close a parallel to the story of Mary and Jesus, so they didn't just deface Isis' face on that carving; they gouged that chunk of plaster right out of the wall, leaving a hole about ten centimetres deep.

In fact, the temple is the oldest Coptic Orthodox church in the world, as the Christians carved an altar into the wall of the hall of pillars and used the room for religious ceremonies.

On the left side of the open courtyard of the temple is an innovation which is only seen in temples from the Greco-Roman time: A divine birth house. This was a separate area where the rulers would celebrate their birthdays, but the "divine birth" name refers to the birth of Horus by Isis. The pillars are capped with Isis' face, which features cow eyes and ears, because the Egyptians thought cows had very beautiful eyes, and Isis was the goddess of love and supposed to be beautiful.

One of the fun things about the temple is that there were mistakes made on purpose in the carvings. This only ever happened in temples during the Greco-Roman times, and it was done to ensure the king of Egypt (a foreigner) still had to ask the high priest for help in doing the rituals; he couldn't rely on what the walls depicted.

We took a short boat ride both to and from the island, and on the way back, our guide Medhat joked that "the Nubian duty-free shop is open," because our Nubian boat owners let a few of their friends come on and sell necklaces. These were actually quite pretty and very reasonably priced, and in general, we enjoyed shopping around the Nubian vendors because they weren't aggressive the way vendors in other towns had been.

Next we went to a showroom for perfume, aromatherapy and massage oils. Aswan has a good climate for growing flowers and plants, so the region has become famous for these oils. They crush 220 pounds of flowers with wooden presses to get 4 or 5 tablespoons of oil. This oil is kept in alabaster jars underground for 3 months, just as the ancient Egyptians used to, to remove the last of the sediment.

After we were done there, we drove across the old dam (British dam) to get to the new dam (Russian dam). The old dam was constructed to control the Nile flood, but it never did an adequate job. The new dam does, and the old dam is now used to generate hydroelectric power.

The second president of Egypt after the revolution was in fact the first elected president. His name was Nasser, and he initiated the project of building the new dam. The lake that formed behind it is now called Nasser lake, and it is the largest man-made lake in the world.

The high dam is 40 m wide at its top and 980 m (almost a kilometre!) wide at its base. It took 11 years to construct and is 17 times the volume of the great pyramid at Giza.

All crocodiles on the Nile are now confined up-river of the high dam. It's against the law to kill crocodiles, but Medhat said they made an exception a few years ago to get rid of a monster that was 12 m long (about 40 feet) and had eaten two fishermen and their donkey in one sitting.

Finally, we took a faloukah ride back to our cruise ship to check out. A faloukah is a sailboat, and one of the sailors pulled out a drum and had us sing along to a traditional Nubian song on the way.

We flew back to Cairo for one night before heading to Dubai. The drive to the Aswan airport did provide one memorable moment, however. We saw the sunset over the desert through a field of high voltage electrical towers. The dust in the air turned the sky a delicate shade of pink while the sun looked peachy-yellow. The desert mirrored these colours, and the combination of spidery electrical towers and sand dunes looked alien and amazing in that light.

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