Tuesday, June 15, 2010


And so our adventure must come to an end. As I write this, I am high above the Atlantic on our flight from Paris to Boston. We were much delayed - sat on the plane on the tarmac for 2.5 hours - and I joked to Nate that it was the universe conspiring to keep us from getting home. When we arrived in Paris we actually discussed (only somewhat in jest) what would happen if we simply didn't get on the plane. Could we find jobs here? Could our stuff be sent over? Could we sell our house? How long would work keep paying us? (The critical question.) Now, as we sit through the final hours of our last flight, we've accepted that it's time to come home.

Home: where people have covered for us at work and taken care of our house. (Thank you!) Where we speak the language and can navigate without a map. Where (hopefully) summer is here and we can enjoy being outside in Boston. Where we can savor the little things we've come to miss like our own bed, drinking tap water and having access to a washing machine. Home is a good thing.

I've been very tuned in to the greater lessons to be learned on this trip. It was about so much more than just sight-seeing, although we saw some incredible sights. The trick now is holding on to this travel mentality: being patient, taking each day as it comes and greeting it with joy, really looking at the world around me instead of just rushing through and being aware of how lucky I am to go through life with Nate by my side. It's been incredible - hope you all enjoyed the ride. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Happy Birthday Nate!

It's Monday morning and it's time to return to the land of reality (aka, Boston, Massachusetts, USA). Here we are on our last night in Paris on the balcony of our lovely hotel looking towards the Tuileries Gardens. See you all soon!

Final day in Cairo!

We got to "sleep in" until 6:30am this morning and then we were off! Today's tour is in the old city of Cairo and then the Egyptian Museum. We boarded our last bus of the trip at 8:00am.

The first stop was at a complex called the Citadel which sits high on a plateau, visible from all of Old Cairo. The place was started as a fortified area for the rulers around 1170AD. Today, the large protecting walls are still intact - the lower levels are made of limestone grabbed from the pyramids. Nate is very upset at the people who took this limestone, since it was the nice, polished, finish layer.

The main attraction at the Citadel is the Mosque of Mohammed Ali (the king, not the boxer) which dates to the 1820s. Mohammed Ali came into power by inviting all the powerful Mamluke leaders (the rulers are the time) to his place for dinner then killing them all in the alley as they left. Nice guy. Nonetheless, he built a stunning mosque, sometimes called the Alabaster Mosque for the domes that were once covered in alabaster on the outside. The builders/architects of the Hagia Sophia in Turkey were called upon to design and build the mosque and the place definitely has a Turkish/Byzantine feel.

It was an exciting change of pace, visiting our first mosque ever. Everyone in group had dressed very modestly - most of the women covered up wrist to ankle. Some of us covered our heads with scarfs, although we were told we didn't have to, and we all took off our shoes at the entrance to the courtyard. We stepped inside and into an amazing space - a soaring dome with four central pillars under it and four semi-domes on each side. Other minor domes were arranged around the central domes. Glass globes with a single light bulb were suspended from the ceiling in the shape and size of the domes, but at a much lower height and the entire floor was covered with red oriental-style carpets. (The floor was spotless, incidentally, inside and out so didn't feel weird to be walking in socks or bare feet.) Once you go inside the mosque, you carry your shoes with the bottoms facing each other.

Our group sat down in a corner and Waleed talked to us about Islam. We learned about the "Five Pillars" the faithful follow and the way the daily prayers happen. Prayer includes kneeling and touching your head to the ground (a lot like yoga's "child's pose") and that is why you need to take your shoes off so the ground remains clean. Waleed was very open, talking about some of the myths about Islam that he hears from tourists a lot (e.g. - the 70 virgins). It was a nice moment.

We had about 2 minutes free time inside to take some pictures, which I'm sure will not do the place justice. The domes are darkly painted which makes it hard to sense their depth when looking up and the lower electric lights also made taking photos tough. I could've sat for awhile just admiring the place, but the rest of our group was out the door and waiting for Nate and I. We took a picture of the whole gang outside the mosque overlooking old Cairo.

Our next stop was the main Christian church in Cairo. The Christians here are Coptic Christians, a totally different branch of Christianity with their own pope and all. This church is called the Hanging Church because it is built literally suspended above the ruins of a Roman Fortress. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, there are some very nice mosaics in the open court entry way to the church. The inside was under restoration but had a unique wood beam roof which was supposed to mimic Noah's ark and a few plexiglass "windows" in the floor where you could see down to the fort's ruins far below. The church also commemorated the Holy Family's flight to Egypt to escape Herod and their subsequent living there for a few years.

Our last stop of the day (and tour!) was the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. We were glad to have gotten some time here yesterday, despite not always knowing what we were seeing, because we went through pretty quickly today. Waleed led us between the highlights and filled in the blanks on the history behind the pieces we saw. The display of the item's found in King Tut's tomb, though not arranged very cohesively, were very impressive especially the gold mask that went over his mummy which become rather iconic. The tomb was very small by the standard of other tombs in the Valley of the Kings, but you wouldn't believe all the stuff that was packed in there! His mummy lay in a nested arrangement of 3 coffins and 4 gilded wood boxes all of which were meticulously detailed and decorated. (The mummy itself remains in his tomb because it was too fragile to move.) Outside of the outer box were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of items with all sorts of symbolic meanings meant to provide his ka, or spirit, with everything it needed in the after life.

Our time with Waleed ended when he dropped us back at our hotel and said goodbye. Everyone was sad to see him go and for the tour to be over. We've really lucked out with this group of people. Everyone is so nice and there is never a lull in the conversation at meals. People are extremely punctual - always early actually! Many times Nate and I were the last ones back on the bus after free time at a site, feeling like we were late when we were actually a couple minutes early! There are a tame bunch though - no drinking or staying up late for this crowd! Still, we've made some good friends from around the world and I'll remember our experience here as much for getting to know our tour group members as I will for the amazing sites we saw.

We all arranged to meet for one last dinner together at the hotel that night. We enjoyed each other's company sitting outside by the pool, laughing about the crazy things on the menu and talking about getting back home. Some are very ready to go, though they enjoyed their time here. Others, like us, are in complete denial. We talked a bit about work and going back to reality and it was suddenly clear to me how used to traveling I've gotten. As you all surely know, I am an OCD organizer and living out of a suitcase usually drives me crazy. It seems normal now! The thought of staying in one place and having a schedule feels so completely foreign. Looking back on the breadth of experiences we've had and the places we've seen I can feel nothing but blessed to have had this opportunity. There's no question it has changed me.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


My how the time flies! After a very relaxing evening at the beautiful Nile Palace Hotel in Luxor, we were up early (again) and off to the airport Friday morning to return to Cairo. We were in the air less than an hour and then headed straight to our new hotel. It is a bit of a let-down after how great the last one was. It's sort of bizzare - there is a one story buiding with the lobby, bar and restaurants, then all the "rooms" are this pre-fab looking buildings out back, motel style. Each room is a little barrel-vaulted enclosure with a sliding glass door to the outside. Strange. But, it's clean enough and there's air conditioning so we don't mind!

Waleed left us at the hotel for a much-deserved afternoon off. There's another guy from the travel company who took care of checking us in who was, let's say, slightly less competent than Waleed. After a week of being well taken care of, it was a little frustrating. We finally got all checked in and were told we could catch a shuttle to downtown Cairo to explore...in 10 minutes! We threw our bags down and out we ran, guide book in hand, to brave the city.

In our first few minutes of walking around we realized that every guy and his brother on the street was going to act as if he wanted to help you (with directions, finding a taxi, etc.) but really just wanted to have you check out his shop or hop in his friend's taxi. This is very Egyptian apparently. We ignored all the dudes and with our guide book map navigated our way to a little diner/restaurant that was highly recommended. Two of our new friends from the tour tagged along.

We found the place and had the cheapest but best meal ever. See this type of diner serves just one thing - an Egyptian dish called kushari. All you have to do is specify the size you want, which was helpful since the waiter/owner didn't speak much English and we obviously don't speak much Arabic. Kushari is made of rice, spaghetti-like noodles, lentils, little macaroni pasta and onions and is topped with spaghetti sauce. It sounds sort of weird, but it is delicious, especially if you like the carbs like I do! The grand total for 4 of us to eat 'til we were stuffed plus have a soft drink was 28 Egyptian pounds - a whopping $5!! Even McDonald's can't beat that for a value!

We had more time to kill in the city before the hotel shuttle bus came back and we didn't really want to be badgered on the streets all afternoon so we decided to stop into the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. We'll be visiting again tomorrow with our guide, but admission wasn't too steep and we may not have a lot of time tomorrow. What a museum - in so many ways. It is, what I'd call, VERY Egyptian. There is very little signage and apparently no maps available. It's not airconditioned except for a jewelry exhibit, Tutankamun's room and the Royal Mummy room. The artifacts are sort of just strewn about the various rooms in out-dated looking casses, usually without descriptions, titles or adequate lighting. That being said, the pieces are incredible. (We also heard they are building a new museum, so we'll cut them some slack - no sense fixing up the old museum if a new one is coming along!)

We wandered around for a bit an admired things as varied as mummified crocodiles, ancient jewelry and even petrified bread loaves found in a tomb. Our main objective was to see the mummy room which is extra (more than the museum entry!), but since we're probably not going to make it back here again, we thought we could check them out. (We knew we weren't going with the group tomorrow.) Gross! There are about a dozen mummies in various states of mummy-hood. Some had hair, fingernails and eye lashes visible. So bizarre, yet you couldn't tear your eyes away.

That about wrapped up Friday. Tomorrow it's back on the bus for some fun in Cairo and our last day of the tour. Yikes....

Thursday? (Losing track)

We got up wicked early again, before 5:30, to 'disembark' from the boat. (Why do people have to make up words? Just say 'leave'.) Anyway, we packed up, had a quick breakfast and said goodbye to the boat. We hopped on our motorcoach and headed for the Valley of the Kings. When Luxor became the capital of Egypt (they moved south from the Delta and Memphis, presumably to enjoy the warmer weather) back before 1300BC, the pharaohs identified this valley that was fairly well protected with lots of space to dig their tombs into the rock. Already they realized that giant pyramids attract a bit of attention, and grave robbery was a 'growth industry'. So they found a valley they could guard - there is one entrance coming up from the river (a few klicks from the water) and high mountains on all the other sides of it. It would take a good amount of time to hike the entire valley - maybe you can find a map of the tombs online.

The valley was in use for a long time - there are over 66 tombs discovered so far. Tombs for Ramses II (and another for his 100 kids), a few other Ramses, Queen Hatshepsut, a whole lot more guys I can't remember, and of course King Tut. Your entrance ticket gives you access to 3 tombs of your choice, out of the 9 or 10 that are usually open at any time. (Entry to Tut and Ramses II are for an extra fee) We saw Ramses VII, IX and III. There were a lot of Ramses. They only have so many open at a time because the heat and humidity of too many visitors will degrade the artwork. And oooooh, the artwork! Again, every wall is covered in carvings, but here the tombs' carvings, being away from the Nile and underground, protected from the elements, are still brilliantly painted. Mostly yellow, blue, white and black paints, but others too. They mined various minerals from all over the kingdom (mostly Sinai I think) for the different colors, and then they mixed them with the right amounts of water, egg and honey (really). This has made paintings that have lasted 3,400 years! The scenes in the tombs always include the pharaoh making offerings to the gods, and sometimes there were warnings to potential thieves (one had a big snake drawn on the wall, ready to eat grave robbers - he was about 3 meters and had a pharaoh head. Sometimes the snakes also have wings or feet.) There were usually stories about something significant that the pharaoh did; but if you go through too quickly, you'll just think - oh, they all look the same. If you take your time, you notice little differences that are interesting or entertaining. In a side niche of one of the tombs we saw, there was a huge cobra drawn, wrapped up in clothes like the pharaoh, receiving offerings from the people. And if you look at the heiroglyphs long enough, you find some cool ones - a goose, a slug and a bumblebee, for example. And on the ceiling on most of the tombs was a goddess drawn the length of a hallway (arms and legs look normal, body stretched the length of the hall). She is shown eating the setting sun on top and giving birth to a rising sun at the bottom - a neat symbol of eternity.

So the tombs follow a general motif for the artwork and they always have an entrance, a hall and the room(s) at the bottom for the sarcophogus. There was some variety though in how you got from top to bottom though - some were more or less straight into the mountain, but most sloped down (sometimes A LOT). One of the bigger ones we saw had stairs down and into the mountain, then a long landing followed by two more sets of stairs and landings, then a very deep chamber straight back into the mountain. One of the most interesting things we saw there was built by some Japanese designers who created a 3D model of the valley suspended from the ceiling - and when you looked under it (under the valley floor), they had included the tombs going in, down, left, right into the ground. I'll try to find a link to a picture of the model if my description is a bit lacking. It was amazing. The architects that designed the tombs were very creative, and they had to keep plans of all the old tombs - one that we went into accidentally got too close to another and broke through a little. So the guys carving out the rock turned right for a bit before straightening out the path into the mountain. Nobody's perfect.

We were there, in a tomb by 7:30am. When we were heading in to our third tomb, the temperature in the valley was already over 100. This place is hot. We loved seeing the artwork in the tombs - it is handsome enough on its own, but when you think about the fact that it is 3,400 years old and still there, it is quite impressive! We still haven't perfected pen ink that doesn't smudge on your paper in 2010. Sorry, they don't allow cameras in the Valley of the Kings - you'll have to find pictures online.

When everyone had finally seen all the Valley of the Kings that they needed (give yourself a good amount of time), we set off. Oh, FYI we skipped Tut's tomb - it is small and empty; all the treasures are in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo. We'll see them tomorrow. But for now, we were off to see more temples. Just up the road from the valley is the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Long story, but Queen H only made daughters for her husband, so the pharaoh married someone else (who may have been his sister) and had a son. When the pharaoh died, 2nd wife's son was to be pharaoh, but Queen H said - not so fast! She was very smart and persuasive, and Hatshepsut got herself made pharaoh, one of 6 female pharaohs in Egyptian history. Her temple is amazing - three levels, stepped up and back into the mountain; columns and paintings and side chapels - very nice. It is not completely intact as it is more exposed to the elements than a tomb, but you could still make most of it out.

The "tuf tuf" that brought us up from the parking lot:

It is a very famous temple, especially for those who study these things, so Diana was almost crying when we got there. It was one of the early things that they sketched, inside and out, up and down, in school. She was bouncing around like a kid at a candy shop; we ran up the ramps to the top of the thing and explored all around the different levels.


There was a row of something like 26 Hatshepsuts on the second level, across the front of the place. She was dressed like a pharaoh and had only a slightly feminine face. She also had the priests make up a story about how she was definitely supposed to be there (they asked the gods), and the people accepted her. She was pharaoh for 20 years. After she died, her step-son that she had hidden away was now pharaoh (for about 30 years). To get back at her for keeping him in the shadows so long, he went throughout her temple and defaced most of the paintings of her. But it was still uncool to deface a god, so now what we got to see was a whole lot of paintings of gods receiving offerings from a mystery pharaoh.

Something's missing:

So I said that this was a funery temple - it was used precisely one time only. They brought Hatshepsut up for preparation for burial in the tomb (mummification stuff) and then carried her all the way to the Valley of Kings, a few miles away. Then they never used the temple again. Kind of silly, but this use a temple once thing does give us more temples to look at now.

Leaving the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, we passed the Colossi of Memnon - a couple statues on the side of the road. No entry fee, facilities or anything - just a couple guys selling junk nearby. The Colossi are - you guessed right - huge. They aren't in the best condition, being totally exposed to the elements, but they are very old - about 3,500 years. We just stayed 10 or 15 minutes. You know: 2 giant statues, built 3,500 years ago - been there, seen that.

Finally the highlight of Luxor was next. It was a little after 11am and already 42 degrees C, but we decided to power through and go to Karnak Temple now instead of later. The Karnak Temples (plural - there are many, many temples there) were built over the course of 1,300 years. It took some guys 20 years to build a giant pyramid - just imagine what they could do in 1,300 years! Unlike most temples that are built down one main lane, Karnak had two intersecting axes - sort of like a cross. Karnak was a sister temple to Luxor Temple that Diana wrote about last. The two are connected by the 3 kilometer long Avenue of the Sphinxes. The Karnak end of the Avenue is buried under debris, fill and houses still, so we couldn't really see that. That axis of the complex is the site of quite a few diggers, construction-type cranes and archeologists trying to find everything. All that you can see now are the huge pylons - 9 of them. Karnak is also visible from Queen Hatshepsut's temple across the river - she convinced everyone that the gods wanted her to be pharaoh that way. But I digress... The main part of Karnak Temple that you CAN see though is magnificent (that would be the east-west axis). You approach, as the worshippers would have, across a HUUUUUUUUGE plaza - it took over 10 minutes to cross. Then you enter the first of another 6 pylons. The entrance of the first pylon is flanked by a mini-avenue of ram-sphinxes (lion body, ram heads - about a dozen on either side of the walk).

Then you go in an enormous pylon and come into a worship space. In between each set of pylons is a worship space, so these naturally form 5 temples, nevermind all the side chapels and other rooms (there are many). Since the place was built over such a long time, quite a few pharaohs got to add their touch.

There are statues of lots of guys - again Ramses II is our favorite. King Tut left his mark; Queen H liked it a lot. This is the place in all of Egypt with the highest concentration of obelisks remaining (remember, of 95 originally built, there are 5 left in Egypt). There are two marvelous needles left here, along with the top of one that had fallen down. One of the standing obelisks was put up by Queen Hatshepsut - it is wonderful.

Remember her step-son defaced her temple? He also wanted to take down her needle at Karnak, but it was sacred (scenes of gods all of over it, as was typical). So he built a giant wall around it, as high as he could, so no one could see it! Well the wall is long gone now, but apparently it stood long enough that the obelisk weathered differently above / below the wall. You can see a very distinct line where the wall reached.

Then we found a decent sized man made lake that is still working - the pharaohs installed and maintained this so the workers at the temple had a place to cool off - how nice. Overlooking the pool is the largest scarab beatle statue in Egypt. The scarab was very important and sacred and adorned every tomb. It was placed over the heart of a mummy. Most of the ones we saw were an inch or two long - this one was two feet!

Finally, the absolute highlight of Karnak - there is a massive hypostyle hall. A hypostyle hall is a hall with many large, tightly packed columns. "Wow" you say. Most of the temples we saw had hypostyle halls - anything with a roof was probably one, if it wasn't dug out of solid rock. But let me tell you - this one is just massive.

The main route through, from one pylon to the next, is flanked by a dozen columns, each is 23m tall and 15m around - it takes 6 people to encircle one of these guys. These are the biggest columns around - and of course, every inch is covered in paintings (only the top most paint is visible, below just the carvings). Completing the hall around these 'giant' columns are just your run-of-the-mill 'big' columns - 122 of them! Our guide book claims that the worship space under this roof (almost all of which is missing) would be about 6,000 square meters. That doesn't really seem possible, but we didn't measure. Even 6,000 square feet is a big space, and that it was. While the roof isn't really intact, you can see some clerestory windows. Architects will appreciate that more, but they are simply vertical gaps in the stone that let good light down into the space. They were around the giant columns, where the roof went up a level from the smaller columns. I don't know - Diana was in awe when she heard "clerestory windows".

Some paint still intact (it's close because of my camera's wicked good zoom - it's about 75 feet above me):

I included some pics, but I recommend going online and getting more information. This place is big enough to spend a day in, so I can't describe everything. After checking it out for a couple hours, we were wasting away. The sun was very hot, although our tour guide Waleed did a very good job of finding shade for us to hide. Then we headed to our new hotel, the Nile Palace. It was very nice - I recommend it to anyone going to Luxor. There is a very nice pool area looking over the Nile.

Our lovely pool (our tour guide liked to say lovely - now we do it too):

We caught a very memorable sunset over the Nile with the boats and the trees and the water - it was lovely - and enjoyed a few of their 6 restaurants.

We posted our last bunch of blog entries from there - with all the moving about we fell behind a little. In Cairo now, catching up (between World Cup matches!)


Wednesday in Luxor

Ok, Wednesday afternoon: we hopped off the shipped once we docked in Luxor. It was still pretty warm out, but starting to cool off a bit. A bus was waiting for us to bring us to the Temple of Luxor: built by 2 pharaohs around 1300BC. We've learned that the Egyptian gods often came in "trios" or "trinities" of a god, his goddess wife and their son and this one is no different. The temple sits on the east bank of the Nile and was very lovely to visit as the sun dipped a little lower in the sky.

From the front, you see the additions to the Temple by the second pharoah, Ramses II. (He's a popular one because he was a prolific builder.) There are three of the original six huge statues of the pharoah and there used to be two obelisks - only one remains, its twin having been carried off to France where it still stands in the Place de la Concorde. (Incidentally, out of 95 obelisks that are known to have stood in Egypt in ancient times, only 5 remain here in the country. The others are scattered around the world, taken as "sounvenirs". When the French took the one that stood at Luxor, they gave Egypt the gift of a clock tower in return. It's at the main mosque in Cairo, the so-called Alabaster Mosque, but has apparently never functioned. Nice.)

Turning so that the temple is to your back, you see the Avenue of Sphinxes, a processional pathway that once went 3km all the way to Karnak Temple which we'll see tomorrow. There was an annual ceremony that took place involving both temples - a boat with a statue of the main god sailed from Karnak up to Luxor, entered the temple, then was walked along the Avenue of Sphinxes back to Karnak. (Or maybe it was the other way around...) Anyway, the avenue is lined on either side with small sphinxes - one every 10ft. or so! (Fun fact: Sphinxes represent the combination intelligence - the head of a human - and power - the body of a lion.) They have part of the avenue excavated at each temple and have just finished up negotiating with the locals to move out of their houses along the route so the rest can be excavated. It will be something to see when that's complete!

As you enter the pylon, you notice to your right that part of the temple is removed and a small mosque, complete with a minaret, at street level. (The Temple is excavated below street level.) You go through several courts and hypostyle halls, along with more huge statues of Ramses II. As always, every inch of the walls and columns are covered in carvings and in some places some of the original painting remains. The columns typically have capitals representing a closed or open lotus blossom or papyrus.

Tonight we spend one last night on the boat, even though we aren't sailing anywhere else. I'll leave you with a couple of pictures of our swanky Nile cruiser. (Don't mind my suitcase open in the background of one!)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"The Pilgrimage"

In the Tel Aviv airport Nate spotted a copy of the book "The Pilgrimage". It's Paulo Coelho's first book, written right before "The Alchemist". We had to buy it! I started reading it today during our relaxing day on the ship. It's about Coehlo's real-life journey across Spain along a pilgrimage route from medieval times.

I wish that I could write the way Coelho does, but since I can't, I think this quote pretty much sums up what Nate and I have been feeling and experiencing on our adventure over the last few weeks:

When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don't even understand the language the people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to attach much more importance to the things around you because your survival depends upon them. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favor from the gods with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life.

At the same time, since all things are new, you see only the beauty in them, and you feel happy to be alive.

-The Pilgrimage

Boat time continues

I'll pick up where Nate left off. We had some free time on the boat while sailing on to our next destination, Kom Ombo. We relaxed in our lovely, cool cabin and did some reading and writing. But, we somehow managed to both fall asleep and woke up in the port 10 minutes after we were supposed to have been off the ship. Oops! Rushing out, we caught the end of the line of people disembarking and with some more hustle caught up to our group. Wahleed said he had tried calling our room three times - the phone never rang. We think it might be broken. This could be a problem for our 6am wake up call tomorrow since we sure as heck aren't waking up that early on our own. Hmm.

Anyway, we joined the group, slightly embarrassed, only to find out we were supposed to get a ticket to enter the temple at the desk before leaving the ship. Double oops! Wahleed sweet talked the ticket collector guy into letting us in and later someone from the ship ran out tickets up the hill. (Even more embarrassed now.)

We soon forgot any embarrassment we had felt visiting the amazing temple of Kom Ombo. Best of all, the early evening weather was significantly cooler and we didn't have to rush between patches of shade to survive! The site of the temple is a bend in the river Nile where apparently all the crocodiles would wash up when the river flooded. Not good. All these crocs would run amuk, eating farmers and animals alike until the Egyptians said, enough is enough crocs! We will appease you by building a temple to the crocodile god, Sobek, who has the body of a man and the head of a crocodile. (This is a theme here. We've seen crocodile-, falcon-, ibis-, and vulture-headed gods to name a few.) I'm not sure if building the temple stopped the hungry crocs from munching on civilians, but the temple remains are very cool.

One of the truly stunning things about these monuments is how literally every inch of every surface is covered in carvings - hieroglyphics of varying sizes, depending on the importance of the story, and scenes or images of the gods and pharaohs. Every inch! Apparently the artists would lay out a wall in red ink, the master artists would correct as needed in black ink, then a different group of carvers would come in and create the reliefs. Mostly the outlines of the shapes and letters are carved, but some places have negative reliefs, meaning the area around the letters and figures is removed. Kom Ombo had a lot of this style carving.

Two of the notable areas of carvings are a calendar and a depiction of medical devices, both very advanced. The calendar, all in hieroglyphics, split the year into 12 months of 30 days plus 5 feast days, each dedicated to one of the primary gods. The carvings told you the date and month along with the offerings to the gods required for that day.

In the back of the temple was what they believe was a hospital or medical area or a least a place where people would come to describe their ailment to the chief priests. On the walls are many medical tools still in use today - things like forceps, needles and some sort of a bone saw.

We had some free time to take some pictures and wander around before heading back to the ship for dinner and sailing on to our next destination. It was "Egyptian night" and all the food and music corresponded. You could also buy galabeis to wear, a traditional Egyptian robe. (We passed on that.) After dinner, in the lounge, there was music and some enthusiastic staff attempting to get people to dance. But, having that 6:00am wake-up call to worry about, we soon headed to bed.

We made sure we were early this morning, Wednesday, for our visit at Edfu. Edfu is a town on the west bank of the Nile about halfway between Aswan (our southern-most point) and Luxor, our next stop. Although getting up early was tough, it was totally worth it - we were at the temple by 7:00am and the morning air felt so cool and comfortable! Edfu is one of the best preserved temple complexes from Ancient Egyptian times. It was built around the second century BC, took around 100 years and 12 pharoahs to complete. It even still has some of the original mud brick walls that would surround every temple, which is rare. The temple is dedicated to Horus, the falcon-headed god and has 4 large falcon statues, an impressively large pylon or stone entrance gate, 2 large hypostyle halls (thinking of Prof. Nicole again on that one!) and impressive carved scenes. The early morning light (and of course, temperature) made for a great visit. Oh, we also saw some very cute Egyptian kitties.

We were back to the ship by 8:30am for breakfast and a day of sailing/relaxing. Sweet! Before we got to Egypt I was worried about the overnight train and our 3 nights on the Nile cruise boat. While the train lived up to my fears, the boat has been surprisingly wonderful! Our room is really nice and quite spacious, the water pressure isn't a problem and the food is fantastic. It's been very nice to be in one place for a longer span of time and feel a little settled in. The lowest level of the ship has the dinning room and gift shop, next floor up int he reception area and the lounge bar, then 2 floors of rooms and a deck on top. We've spent the day in comfy lounge chairs up on the open-air top floor sundeck, in the shade with a nice breeze keeping up cool, watching the green, palm tree studded edge of the Nile go by. It's the first day on our trip that I have been sweat-soaked by 10:00am which I am greatly appreciating at this time. It's about 3:00pm and we should be having afternoon tea on the deck around 4 and arriving at Luxor around 4:30pm for our next tour. Stay tuned until then!

Tuesday: Abu Simbel

I forgot - Monday after dinner there was a belly dance "show". First a guy came out and spun around in circles for 10 minutes without falling over. Then a past-her-prime / never-had-a-prime belly dancer came out and tried to get people onto the dance floor to copy her. Mostly forgettable except the last dance she brought out one of the guys from our tour group (there were 4 groups there I think) and he actually danced quite well. If not for him, it may have been a disaster.

We got up this morning for our quick trip to Abu Simbel at 6am. If you've seen 3 pictures of Egypt, one of them was probably Abu Simbel. It is a temple for Ramses II, built in 1300 BC. Outside are 4 huge statues of Ramses (his foot is about as long as I am tall; he's 21m tall)

and inside are 8 more huge statues,

carvings (with some paint still visible) of battles he won and offerings he made to the gods, many chambers for making more offerings, and deep inside, 4 statues of the most important gods (one of which is Ramses, of course). The place is just incredible. If you ever get to Cairo, get down to Abu Simbel. Next to Ramses' temple he built one for his (favorite) wife Nefertary (Nefertiti). This one is half the size of Ramses' (hey, at least she got a temple) and is mostly adorned with pictures and statues of Ramses, but to make it worth her while, Ramses put up a couple statues of Nefertary (beautiful) and in the battle scenes, he didn't depict himself killing quite so many guys. But he's still killing guys.

Nefertary's temple (two of the statues are actually Nefertary):

Beautiful goddess in this picture (and behind her are statues of Nefertary):

Like Philae Temple, Abu Simbel was close to the old level of the Nile and had to be relocated when they built the High Dam. At the visitors' center there is a neat pictoral history of the effort to build a new mountain and cliff above the old one, cut up the temples into a thousand pieces, and move the temple to higher ground. Even though we new about where to look on the statues for cut marks, you really can't tell that it has been moved. When you get to the site, you start out behind the monuments and have to walk around. Knowing that it is a man-made mountain, you can see that it isn't original. But from the front, everything looks incredible and you can't tell it was moved.

One funny / unfortunate thing that happened here was: outside, on the second Ramses from the left, his head fell off. There was an earthquake back in Ramses' time (he was pharaoh more than 60 years, until he died at 97, fyi) and his face fell off this statue. The architect of the place freaked a little bit but managed to reattach it. Wouldn't you know it, a thousand years later another earthquake knocked it off again.

Well, no one noticed or anything, so as the temple got buried under sand over the next 2000 years, the head laid at Ramses' feet. When they uncovered the temple back in 1817 or so, they found the head there. When they relocated the temple to higher ground they decided to leave his face right where they found it. So as you come up to the temple the 3 faces of Ramses on 4 statues greet you, and eventually you may notice an ear or something on the ground - that's on the other smiling face. I really hope everyone gets a chance to see this temple some day ... even if only on Wikipedia or my photos.

Here's one of Ramses' kids (he had about 100 of them), he's about as tall as Ramses' lower leg:

Now for the tricky part. After a 10 hour flight to Cairo and an overnight train to Aswan, you still have an hour and a half to get to Abu Simbel. And that is if you take a small plane from the tiny Aswan airport to the even-tinier Abu Simbel airport. (Hey, 12 years ago there was no Abu Simbel airport and you had to drive 3+ hours from Aswan)

Unfortuntately there is little A/C on buses around here as well as none on the plane. The plane was a prop plane with seats for ~40. The pilots are aware that their little plane handles better than a 787 and enjoy playing with you a bit. We tore around the corner to the runway, floored it and headed up. It is a pretty quick flight, 35-40 minutes (the other time is getting to and from airports), but on the way back the wind off the desert / rising from the heat started playing games with the tiny plane. Needless to say, a couple people passed out, 3 lost their breakfast, one girl had a really annoying panic attack (I wished for the nun in Airplane to help her get it together) and everyone was on edge. I just reminded myself that they fly this way every day, these guys are professionals (a la the parking attendant in Ferris Bueller), and they - probably - wouldn't have flown if it was dangerous. It worked, and we were on the ground in no time. Knowing then what I know now, I would have been MORE excited to go - getting there and back was bad, but the sites at Abu Simbel were even more amazing than I imagined.

When we finally got back to the ship around 3pm, we were all famished and tired. We ate a good lunch and went upstairs for a nap. Soon after, the boat finally pushed off. Now we're sailing for Kom Ombo a couple hours down the river. We'll hop out and see sites there and get back on to sail for Edfu where we start tomorrow.

Monday in Egypt: Aswan

Another coach met us at the train station in Aswan, and Waleed showed us around the city. Aswan has always been an important city, but since Nasser and Sadat built the High Dam here, the city has been crucial to the progress of the people of Egypt. The High Dam produces tons of electricity and regulates the Niles' spring floods. And it seems like a nice place. Not a cool place, though - today it is 44 degrees C (I'll wait while you convert that to F).

So in building the High Dam they created a big lake (Lake Nasser as Sadat called it). Unfortunately the ancient Egyptians chose to build their monuments and temples close to the Nile (why couldn't they just drag the wicked heavy stone blocks up to higher ground?) So when Lake Nasser filled, it would have covered many beautiful and ancient things. An aside: it took about 5 years from the completion of the dam until the lake was full - that's a long time! So Egypt (and UNESCO) moved these temples to places above the prospective water line - just in time. The first one we visited was Philae Temple, a nice big temple on an island. This one is huge, so it was cut up into many thousands of pieces. Then they brought them to a new island and reconstructed it there. You can tell that it isn't on the original site if you stand all the way in the inner chapel and look out - the road curves a little. As originally built, that was perfectly straight. The Egyptians were really good builders...

The temple has neat statues, carvings of gods and pharaoh and a little graffiti. But graffiti here isn't spray paint, it's stuff like "Napoleon was here" (yes, that Napoleon) and the exact difference in longitude and latitude of the temple from Paris. We hung out there and walked around for a bit. Unfortunately for all these sites, it is crazy hot. So we suffer through mostly, but I feel like we might hang out a little longer at places if it wasn't broiling. (Not that we are rushed by the tour at all; we are usually the last ones back on the bus, but we're usually back before the designated departure time because we can't stand the heat any more). Since the temple is on an island, we took a little motorboat each way from a dock in Aswan; along the way you can see where the old island is - there's a marker, no island anymore as it is underwater.

Napoleon grafitti:

From here we were close to the Aswan Dam. This is an old, old dam that they made, mostly for flood control. It's 1890s old. It is a very handsome and pretty large dam, but it's no High Dam. So we drove over Aswan Dam and went up to the High Dam (a couple miles apart). The High Dam is protected very securely by the Egyptian Army. The lake behind it runs back some 500km from the dam; the hydroelectric power coming from the turbines creates so much electricity that now, along with existing power plants, Egypt exports electricity to her neighbors. The drop in water level across the dam is something like 60 meters, it is quite a thick wall, and it spans a huge distance. Unfortunately there was no dam tour inside the dam, so I didn't get to have the rest of my dam questions answered or see the dam turbines. I guess next vacation is to the Hoover Dam...

Dam spillway:

Dam hydroelectric plant:

Dam lake:

But no Dam tour:

After a brief stop at the High Dam, we killed some time a shop that sells the "essence" of various plants, etc. Something where you squeeze a flower really hard and collect just the oils with the essence or life force of the flower. This goes back to pharaonic times. The Nubians that they were friends with would prepare these extracts for offerings to the gods. Not to be confused with the Nubians that they weren't friends with - they tried to kill them. It was a little hokey, but they did have tons of scents that were quite nice. When you mix them together in the right proportions you get many of the popular perfumes and colognes out there (CK1, Polo, Chanel no 5).

We still had a little time to kill before we could board our boat to Luxor, so we stopped at the Unfinished Obelisk in Aswan. This obelisk was started back in ancient times, but ... never finished. Apparently the guys carving it up noticed a crack in the stone that would have prevented it from standing up for long. It is completely separated from the surrounding rock on every side but the bottom. If finished it would weigh about 1,160 tons (!) and supposedly was going to be a pair to the obelisk that now is called the Lateran Obelisk in Rome. (Maybe the size, shape and stone itself are very similar - I don't know) A note on obelisks: the ancient Egyptians carved 95 of these things out of solid granite, dragged them to the river, floated them down to their intended locations (having to wait until spring floods to make it over the cataract), dragged them back up from the river, dragged them up ramps and dropped them onto pedestals. 95! And there are 5 left in Egypt!!! All the others have been stolen and displayed elsewhere (England, France, Rome). It wasn't until the 1950s that Egyptians really put their foot down and made people stop stealing stuff, but now they really want it back. The obelisk was very neat to see - hopefully our pictures represent the scale of it well - but the granite quarry was ridiculously hot. You know how a parking lot gets really hot in the sun? Or how hot air blows in your face when you open the oven? Or the hottest days at the beach? Well from the parking lot through the quarry, the sun beat down on us, the rock radiated heat back up at us, and the wind blowing on us only made us more hot.

We got back in the (A/C) bus and headed for the cruise ship. It isn't nearly as big as the big cruise ships, but it's a good size. There are only 2 and a half decks of rooms, above us is a sun deck (sun being the important word) and down below are lounge and dining areas on another couple levels. Basically it feels like we have all the niceties of a cruise with minimal crowds. We checked in, had a quick shower (everyone stunk from not showering for the last couple days with the overnight train in between), and ate. Then we were supposed to go on a felucca ride. The felucca is the sailboat used back in ancient times to travel up and down the Nile. With minimal design changes (the fiberglass is a pretty new development over the last 5000 years), the boats look pretty much like they did back then. Unfortunately there was very little wind, so we spent 2 hours being towed by a motorboat and about 15 minutes sailing. We still got the picture and appreciated the views of the Nile. Getting back to the ship eventually, we were very happy to sit and relax for a good dinner before heading to bed, very exhausted.

What a felluca is supposed to do:

Us, getting a tow:

(All my facts and figures are from memory, I didn't write them down at the time. If you want to fact-check me, go ahead. Don't bother correcting me though - I don't care - I'm on vacation!)