THE ANTIQUITIES OF EGYPT AND PETRA
This is a description of a tour of Egypt and Jordan put together by Lindblad Expeditions. It included several days in Cairo visiting museums, mosques, and churches; several days on a Nile River boat visiting tombs and temples; a few more days in Cairo; and then an optional extension to Jordan especially to visit Petra. For the first part of the trip we were part of a group of 30. Of that group, 17 continued on to Petra.
Given the terrorists attacks that have happened in both countries, we felt some concern. Security in both countries was extensive, especially for tourists. We always had an armed police man on the bus. Occasionally we also had a police escort. Since tourism is the number one source of income in both countries this wasn’t surprising.
With Bush’s misadventure in Iraq I expected to encounter some resentment from the people in these heavily Moslem countries. Quite the contrary. People on the street went out of their way to greet us. When they learned we were from the US they were even more welcoming. There is, however, a great fear as to what country Bush will attack next. They are, of course, aware that the invasion of Iraq was based on lies.
Another concern was the weather. When we started planning the trip we were expecting heat. As we looked into the literature we found that it is cool in the winter there. As it turned out, the temperatures and weather were almost perfect; the sky usually clear; and rain absent, except for one night. In spite of the comfortable temperatures, all the hotel rooms were warm and stuffy. Setting the thermostats as low as they would go had no affect. Fortunately we could open the room windows letting in cool air. The only functional cooling we found was on the Nile River ship.
Jan. 8. Cairo
We arrived at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Cairo, across the street from the city zoo, at 12:30 am. The British Air flight was 1 hour late departing LAX because of a faulty wind screen heater. This late start didn’t really matter since we had a 4 hour lay-over in London after the 10 hour flight from LA. We flew in a 747-400 which had the fully reclining seats. Despite this, I didn’t sleep. It was another 5 hours to Cairo.
When we arrived in Cairo we had a long, serpentine hike to the immigration area. We were met there by a Lindblad rep who pasted the visa stamps in our passports and we got in line. After some wait we were passed through and found the rep with all our luggage. After a very cursory customs exam we trooped out to the bus and set off for the hotel.
Even at this late hour traffic was chaotic. The white lines on the street seem to be only advisory. In addition, many drivers do not turn on their lights at night. As a contrast, many drivers have placed arrays of flashing blue and red lights about their cars. One reason for the heavy traffic was that Jan 7th was the Coptic Christmas so celebrants were still out. Another reason was that a Moslem holiday was just starting. Because of this holiday we saw many flocks of goats at various places in the city. Goats are slaughtered for this celebration.
Driving in Egypt, especially Cairo, would be impossible without a functioning horn. Horns and hand signals prevail over stop signs and traffic lights. Short blasts of the horn mean, “Watch out.” A long blast means, “I’m coming through.” Raised finger tips pinched together means, “Wait.” Among all the rush of cars, taxis, and buses there is the occasional placid donkey cart, seemingly oblivious to the surrounding traffic.
Our large room at the Four Seasons Hotel at the First Residence was quite elegant. The large, tiled bathroom had two sinks in a marble counter, a shower and a tub, and a bidet. Bottled water was provided., as it was at all hotels and the ship on this trip. Paid, wired Internet access was available in the room. When the persistent haze in the air lifted enough we could see the pyramids from our balcony, which also overlooked the zoo.
We woke at 6:30 and showered then had breakfast in the hotel restaurant. There was quite a large variety of food - Egyptian, European, Western, and Asian. Jodie became a fan of the spiced beans which were present at all our breakfasts.
Today was the Egyptian Museum day. When we were ready to leave on a bus for the museum a plain clothes, armed tourism policeman boarded the bus. There are also police in front of the hotel. They communicate with a central location when we leave and know where we are going. The driver checks in when we arrive and we are checked out when we leave. All locations are populated with armed police. They were even present at the jewelry shop we visited today.
We arrived at the museum at 10 am and had to pass through a metal detector and send any carried object through an x-ray machine to enter. There were a large number of armed military around the museum. There seem to be many armed security people around the city. Egypt has compulsory military service, with some exceptions. Some of the conscripts are assigned to the Tourism Police, others to the army.
Our guide, Ghada Doss, led us through the museum explaining the things she felt were significant. The place is littered with antiquities. It is old (1863 and 1902) and poorly organized. The quantity of stone statues, hieroglyphic panels and other artifacts (120,000 on display and 150,000 stored in the basement) is overwhelming. The most amazing part was the floor devoted to the 1,700 items taken from King Tut’s tomb. Of course, his famous gold mask and two coffins, one gilded wood and one solid 24 K gold were the most impressive. One of his thrones on display has a foot rest on which his enemies are depicted. They will always be under his feet.
We also visited the mummy room. There is an additional cost to visit this room however it was included in our tour, as were all entry fees during the trip. I wondered how these kings and pharaohs of 3,000 years ago, who were expecting to spend eternity in paradise surrounded by their burial finery, would have felt about laying in a temperature and humidity controlled room in plain glass cases being gawked at by tourists. Tutankhamun is not on display here but is still in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, however Ramses II was here.
The ancient Egyptians were prodigious builders. The country is literally covered with ruins. In addition, museums around the World are crammed with relics. Of course, they had 3,400 years to accomplish all this building.
After the tour we returned to the hotel and had lunch at the attached mall in a very nice restaurant set in the mall atrium. We had our first taste of Egyptian wine, Omar Kayam, which became our staple throughout the trip. Then we had a nice nap before a lecture by Dr. Abdel Halim Nour El Din. Welcome cocktails and dinner were at Le Pacha 1901, a dinner ship tied to the banks of the Nile. This was our introduction to what would be typical meals, appetizers were middle Eastern, made from chick peas, egg plant, cucumbers, and yogurt, served with pita bread. Main dishes were chicken, beef, lamb, and occasionally fish. Desserts were always exceptionally sweet.
Jan. 9. Cairo
Today was the day for religion. We toured two mosques, two Coptic churches, and one synagogue. The Mohamed Ali mosque was built in 1830 in the Turkish style and was part of the Citadel, built by Salah ad-Din. This complex was the home of Egyptian rulers for 700 years. The Mosque of ar-Rifai contained several crypts, most notable those of King Farok and the deposed Shah of Iran.
Our guide is a Copt who explained some aspects of the religion to us while visiting the Hanging church, so called because it is built on top of the water gate of an old Roman fortress. The Coptic religion is close to Greek Orthodox with some differences. The patriarch of the church is located in Alexandria. One requirement is that priests must be married. I guess this would avoid some of the problems that the US Catholic church is currently experiencing.
The second church, Abu Serga, is most notable for the claim that the crypt under the church was the supposed home of the Holy Family when they lived in Egypt. Both churches featured many ikons. The roofs are supported by rough cut beams that are supposed to represent the timbers of Noah’s Ark. The altar is hidden from view by screens and curtains except during worship services.
There are only a few hundred Jews in Egypt, and only two active synagogues, one in Cairo and one in Alexandria. We visited the Ben Ezra Synagogue. It is not active however it is reputed to be on the site of the first synagogue ever built in the world. It became a Christian church then was sold back to the jews when the Christian religion was suppressed. After Nassar nationalized things in 1952, most of the Jews left Egypt and the synagogue fell into poor condition. An American Jew donated $1 million to restore and maintain it.
One of the interesting problems in the area is the rising level of the ground water in the area. The Aswan dam is 800 km from Cairo however its impounded water has raised the ground water level here. Measures have been taken to lower the level however they must be careful since the stone foundations have been saturated and might collapse if the dewatered too rapidly.
We had a late Lebanese lunch. There was the usual round of middle Eastern appetizers made mostly of yogurt, cucumbers, chick peas, and sesame seeds made into various pastes and consumed with peta bread. The main course was grilled ground lamb, chicken, and beef accompanied by rice and a tiny portion of vegies.
The restaurant was buried in the Khan el Khalili bazaar. We reached it through a narrow passage between many open fronted shops, requiring us to run a gauntlet of aggressive salesmen. On the way out Jodie decided to buy a galabeya, a long decorated dress. When she was enticed into a shop one of the neighboring merchants followed her in and tried to get her to leave and go to his shop. This led to a heated exchange in Arabic between the two merchants. Her resulting purchase seems well made and fits quite nicely. It was the hit of a couple of dinners during the trip.
Jan. 10. Cairo/Luxor.
We flew from Cairo to Luxor on an early morning charter flight. We awoke at 5 am and were dressed by the time our 5:15 room service breakfast arrived. Our bags were out before the 5:30 deadline and we enjoyed our poached eggs and elegant service. At 6:15 the bus departed for the airport. The Petroleum Air Services Dash 7 charter arrived and we departed somewhat later than the 8 am schedule. The flight over the barren desert was an uneventful hour and a half. When we arrived at the very modern Luxor terminal we boarded buses and set off immediately for Karnak.
All of the displays of Egyptian artifacts I have seen in various museums, including the Egyptian museum in Cairo and the British Museum in London, have been pale melanges compared to Karnak Temple in Luxor. Instead of scattered pieces lacking context, the temple displays it all the way the builders intended it to be seen. The size of the individual columns, walls and statues and the overall breadth is overwhelming. This is the location of two magnificent obelisks, two of the three remaining in the country.
We approached the temple through an avenue lined with ram-headed sphinx. Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple are connected by this 1.2-mile avenue. Unfortunately, the town of Luxor was built on top of the avenue. Actually both temples were covered by the town. Now both have been excavated however most of the avenue is still covered.
Although many of the structures have collapsed over time, much is still standing and more have been restored. Almost all surfaces are covered with cartouches, hieroglyphics, and pictures. One can easily imagine royal processions marching down the avenue, entering through the first pylon and proceeding through the massive columns and majestic figures. Of course, at that time, all surfaces were brightly colored. Now, thousands of years later, only vestiges of these colors remain on protected surfaces.
To make the paint, natural mineral colors were mixed with egg whites and applied then covered with wax. Red and yellow were made from red and yellow ocher; green from malachite; white from lime; black from soot; and blue from lapis lazuli.
This is not a single temple but a huge complex of temples created and modified by the whims of several kings. Many figures have been defaced by following kings who wished to obliterate traces of their predecessors. Some changes were made in the interest of economy; why make a new figure when an old one could be renamed.
After the temple visit we boarded the M/S Triton and had a late lunch and then rested/unpacked. Our cabin was quite large. When the ship was retrofitted in 1985, the number of cabins was reduced by making the cabins larger. The ship now accommodates 40 passengers. Our cabin had been two, as evidenced by the two air conditioning controls in the room on either side of the door. We had a king-sized bed, a couch, easy chair, and dressing table, and generous storage. There were also a TV and VCR, a refrigerator, and two large picture windows. The bathroom shower was strange. The shower head was pointing straight down from the ceiling and very close to the wall. If you stood directly under it you would stand on the drain and close it. Whenever we showered we flooded the bathroom floor.
We remained on the ship until 4 when we went to Luxor Temple which is quite close to the ship. This is a much smaller complex than Karnak but nearly as grand and has the remaining obelisk. (The later rulers of Egypt saw no value in the obelisks and gave them away as gifts to various countries. Many went to Rome during the Roman Empire.) Both complexes were very crowded. We remained at Luxor Temple until dusk then went to the very new Luxor museum. There is a very nice display of many statues that have been recovered, some from a pit in the center of the Luxor Temple. They were apparently placed there by priests to preserve them when the civilization was collapsing.
The Abu al-Haggag Mosque was built on top of the temple, using part of the temple structure for a foundation. When the temple was excavated, the mosque was left in place, this being a Moslem country. Now it is perched on the edge of the excavated temple complex, looking very much out of place.
Jan 11. Luxor.
The ship remained in Luxor over night. This morning we left at 8 to visit the Necropolis on the west bank, in Thebes. Our first stop was the Mortuary Temple of Ramses II, the Ramesseum. Ramses II ruled from 1279 to 1212 BC. This temple was nearly destroyed by an earthquake and is currently being restored. In addition, there was a photographer there who was making detailed digital photos of the columns.
One fallen statue of Ramses II was the inspiration for Shelly’s poem “Ozymandias.”
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
When it was determined that pyramids did not deter grave robbers (and also probably when the effort became excessive) the kings moved to burial chambers dug into the sides of a canyon, now known as the Valley of the Kings. The valley now looks nothing like it did when being used. A wide, well paved road leads up into this relatively narrow canyon. All tomb entrances are dressed with stone. The original idea was to make then invisible. This goal obviously was not achieved. King Tut’s tomb was the only one not cleaned out by the robbers. His was preserved by accident. Its entrance was covered with the debris from the excavation of the tomb of a subsequent king. Howard Carter discovered it in 1922. Actually a water boy discovered the entrance steps when digging a spot to store the water jugs.
His chamber was quite small with comparatively little decoration. After his tomb we visited two others that were quite extensive and elaborately decorated. Apparently his sudden and unexpected death did not allow enough time for more work. As soon as a king came to power he started planning and excavating his tomb. The after life seems much more important than the present. The tombs are decorated with drawings of everything they will want in the hereafter.
We returned to the East Bank, the Triton, and lunch around 1:30. When we left the ship it was tied up next to the bank with another ship tied to it. When we returned we found it third from the bank so we had to cross through the two other ships to reach ours. Another ship was outboard of ours. Our scheduled departure slipped until the other ship left. Then, however, the fuel barge arrived and we took on fuel. So rather than leaving as soon as we reboarded, we left quite late.
The guides promised that the lock transit at Esna would be quite an experience with peddlers surrounding the ship and throwing merchandise to us. However, the ship transited the locks in the dark and late at night, then tied up. We were asleep and not aware of the locks. I don’t know what the peddlers were doing. At 4 am she resumed the voyage.
The Captain’s “Gala” cocktail party and dinner was that night. It turns out there is no captain. The person who drives the boat is called the Pilot, and he has three assistants. At this time of year the shallowest depth of the Nile is controlled to 2 m. The ship draws 1½ m so the pilot does not like to travel at night. This ship is one of over 200 large tourist ships that ply the Nile. The pilot sits, cross-legged, in a large padded chair on the simple bridge. Rudder control is by a small lever which he sometimes moves with his foot. Engine control is by two push buttons, one to increase engine speed and one to decrease it. There are very few instruments on the bridge.
Jan. 12. Edfu
After a leisurely morning we left the ship at 10 am. A short drive brought us to the Temple of Horus, one of the best preserved, perhaps because it is of later construction, 287 BC. It was designed to resemble an earlier temple. Repeated flooding by the Nile buried it under silt, thus preserving it. Although early Christians defaced many of the carvings it is still a remarkable sight. Most of the structure remains intact including the roof. From this visit it became clear the intended structure of the other temple ruins we have seen.
Following our 2-hour visit we returned to the ship and headed on up the Nile.
Jan 13. Aswan.
The ship arrived at Aswan during the night. When we departed for our early morning flight to Abu Simbal we had to cross through three other ships to reach the shore. The same charter company that brought us to Luxor took us to Abu Simbal. Airport security is an interesting adventure. You and your hand luggage must pass through x-ray and metal detectors to enter the terminal and then again to leave and board the aircraft.
Abu Simbal is the most famous of the over 20 temples that the international community saved from the rising waters of Lake Nassar. It was cut into manageable sized pieces (20 T each) and reassembled into an artificial cement cliff 213 feet higher up. The cement was covered with stone so that it resembled the original cliff face. This move not only included the imposing facade of four seated Ramses II but the temple structure behind it that had been excavated into the wall. The condition of this temple was quite good since it was located far from populated areas and not subjected to the early Christian destruction. There are actually two temples, the larger honoring Ramses and the lesser one, the Temple of Hathor, devoted to Nefertari, his favorite wife. The alignment of the temple reconstruction was critical since on two days of the year the Suns rays are to illuminate the statues in the inner sanctuary. The rebuilders missed the dates by one day each.
Our visit to Abu Simbal was all too short. Even so, we returned to the ship at 1 pm, about an hour late. At 4 we left and walked down the river bank for a ride in a felucca from which we saw the mausoleum of the Aga Khan. It was built by his wife who would place a red rose on his tomb whenever she was in town - about 6 months of the year. During the cruise the crew laid out a selection of jewelry for our consideration. A shopping frenzy ensued. After the ride we visited the new Nubian Museum. This red granite lined building was built to house the Nubian artifacts recovered from the area covered by Lake Nassar.
After dinner there was a lively presentation by a Nubian song and dance group.
Jan 14. Aswan.
Our more leisurely departure this morning first took us to a granite quarry in the center of Aswan. Its most notable feature was the remains of what would have been the largest obelisk to be erected. Unfortunately during its processing a large crack developed before it could have been cut loose from the rest of the stone. So it was just left laying.
Then we visited Philae Temple, another temple rescued from the flood. We traveled by bus and then ferry to the island to which it was moved from its original home on a nearby island. It was partially flooded by the first Aswan dam but then completely inundated by the high dam. A coffer dam was built around the island to dry it out so that it could be moved to the near-by higher island. It is smaller than Abu Simbal and also not in as good condition. It was also quite crowded.
We also made a brief visit to the famous, or infamous, High Dam at Aswan. There are actually two dams at Aswan. The British built a lower one between 1898 and 1902 in an unsuccessful effort to control the Nile. Its height was raised twice. The so-called High Dam was built by the Russians from 1960 to 1971 and really isn’t very high, 364 feet, but quite broad, 12,562 feet. It has controlled the Nile and produces significant energy. It also retains the silt that used to enrich the fields in the annual flood so the farmers now must resort to chemical fertilizer. The build-up of silt behind the dam is becoming a problem.
Lake Nassar stretches 310 miles south and is 590 feet deep at its deepest point. It extends some distance into the Sudan. Almost 800,000 Nubians were displaced by its waters.
On the way back to the ship we visited a perfumery where the salesman explained the extraction of the oils from the plants. We sampled various pure essences including one that is supposed to drive men wild when worn by a female. Jodie bought two bottles along with other scents.
The ship left as soon as we boarded and stopped at 5 pm so that we could visit Kom-Ombo Temple. This was a healing temple that features carvings of medical instruments on the walls. There is also an Egyptian calendar. The formidable crowds prevented extensive viewing of either feature. The temple is dedicated to two gods, Horus the Elder and Sobek, the local crocodile god. There is a pit in which live crocodiles were kept and there is a display of mummified crocodiles. We left as the full Moon was rising over the illuminated temple.
After we boarded, by walking through 5 other ships, the Triton departed.
Jan 15. Esna-Luxor.
We awoke this morning to find the ship tied up to another at Esna. Sometime after breakfast we resumed our voyage by passing first through an open lock in a dam and then a much larger lock where we descended at least 20 feet, accompanied by a smaller ship. This single lock is a choke point on the river. Ships are often delayed hours here. A second, longer lock is currently under construction.
We reached Luxor around 2 pm and almost immediately departed for another tour of the West Bank. We started with a brief visit to the Valley of the Queens where there are 80 tombs. We saw the tomb of one of Ramses’s sons. If a male died under the age of 13 he was entombed near his mother. Decorations within the tomb depicted the boy being escorted by his father and being presented to the gods. The colors were still quite vivid.
The next stop was Deir el Bahary, the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut. This is an elaborate facade cut into the face of a hill. The surrounding hillsides are filled with small tombs of those who wanted to be near the queen’s temple. She was the queen who began calling herself a king and also claimed Devine birth. After a successful 22-year rein, she was buried in the Valley of the Kings. In revenge for her forwardness her successor Thotmos III eradicated her images from her temple.
By now, dusk was setting in and we rushed off to see the tombs of the nobles. These are located in the village of the tomb robbers. Rather than the usual hordes of souvenir peddlers we were surrounded by a few kids selling stuff. The security guards kept shoeing them away however they persisted.
We first saw the tomb of a wealthy merchant. It was small but elaborately decorated. Then we visited the tomb of a court noble. Illumination in this dark chamber was provided by mirrors. One man was at the rim of the excavation with a mirror with which he reflected Sun light into the mouth of the tomb. A second man redirected this light various places in tomb.
After dinner we had a belly dancing show. The musicians consisted of a synthesizer player, two drummers, and a tambourine player. There also was a male singer. The performance started with a remarkable whirling dervish kind of male dancer. The female belly dancer was awful.
Jan 16. Luxor
After one last unsatisfactory breakfast on the M/S Triton we departed at 9:15. Ths ship was tied 5 or 6 boats from the shore, requiring all of our luggage to be carried, piece by piece, by the crew across the boats and up the steep steps to the street. The departure of the two minibuses to Denderah was delayed because of some problem with our police escort. If we had departed at 6:30 we could have gone with the massive bus caravan with security escort. Lindblad chose to pay for its own escorts so that we could leave at a more reasonable hour.
The trip up and down the Nile on the Triton was really rather short. It did allow some nice views of the country side. Older villages were located on high ground that wouldn’t have been flooded in the old days. In spite of the fact that 200 boats ply up and down the Nile constantly, people, especially kids, are anxious to wave a greeting as the ship passes by.
A very nice feature of the Triton was free laundry. We could leave it in a sack on the bed in the morning and it would be returned that afternoon, clean and ironed. Socks and handkerchiefs were not only ironed but they were individually packaged in plastic sacks.
One interesting aspect of shipboard life was the decorative folding of the towels. Each night when we returned to the cabin after dinner we found the towels folded in a creative way on the king-sized bed. We had a palm tree, a lotus, a crocodile, a monkey hanging from the AC vent, and on the last night an effigy of the two of us in bed, wearing some of our clothes and hats.
I’ll take another opportunity to discuss security. We had two tourist police on the ship. Each time we were on tour there was a plain clothes police man on each bus, armed with an automatic weapon. There seemed to be a system to track our whereabouts with some police check-points on the roads. A large number of tourist police were present at each site. On our two-hour trip this day we had an escort police van in front of us in addition to the usual plain clothes man in each van. There were quite a number of check points along the way. We had to stop at one point while the bus caravan returned. There must have been at least 100 buses with security trucks interspersed occasionally.
We visited the Dendara Temple. Because of our later departure, we were the only group there. The temple is dedicated to Hator, the patron god of women, particularly the protector of women in child-birth. Hator gave birth to Horus’s child, Ihy. With the exception of the usual Christian defacement, the temple is in fairly good shape. Within the temple there is a relief of Cleopatra, with her son by Julius Caesar, making an offering to Hator. We took the stairs up to the roof, following the same route that the priests took each spring with the statues of Hator and Horus to allow them to bask in the Sun and refresh their relationship. The steps to the roof are so worn from years of use that they have almost become a ramp. In the form of a square-circular staircase they wind their way to the roof. The sides of the stairway are decorated with scene from the procession bearing the statues to the roof.
Our access to the highest areas was restricted since two tourists have fallen recently. We did visit the embalming structure whose ceiling is decorated with signs of the zodiac. The down steps were in a straight line.
In Egypt one is expected to tip for anything, especially to use a toilet. I came to feel that the Egyptian handshake was the holding out of a hand and rubbing the thumb and forefinger together. This demand for a tip was the absolute worst at the toilets in the temple complex. They were filthy, nonfunctional, and the seats falling off. Still, a man positioned himself at the entrance and demanded a tip before you could enter. He obviously did nothing to maintain the toilets.
When we returned to the buses we started on our ample box lunch from the Triton as we returned to Luxor. One of the really nice parts of this trip was this ride through the countryside. We passed by many small towns and saw much field work. The primary beast of burden in Egypt is the donkey. We saw them everywhere, pulling carts, carrying huge loads of sugar cane, or just being ridden. Outside of Cairo, the most common form of dress for both females and males was a simple, long dress that fully covered the arms.
In Luxor we checked in to the Sunesta St. George hotel, our home for the night.
That evening we attended the Karnak Temple Sound and Light show. We entered the temple in a large pack shortly after sunset. The mass of people proceeded a short way and then were halted and the show started with various structures illuminated while the recreated voices of the kings and priests discussed what they had done or recited prayers. This process of surging forward and then halting for a presentation continued until we eventually reached an array of bleachers set up by the sacred lake. Then the show continued with more strident music and voices representing several kings and others. It was ok.
Our Italian buffet dinner at the hotel after the show was mediocre, as was the hotel.
Jan 17. Luxor-Cairo.
Our charter Petroleum Air Services Dash 7 took off on time (since it was a charter, any time it takes off is on time) and we arrived in Cairo shortly before noon. After the luggage arrived we all boarded the bus for the Mena House Oberoi Hotel which is located at the foot of the Pyramids. The original building was built as a hunting lodge for the Kedive Ismail in 1869. It has been considerable expanded since then, and I think that the plumbing has been updated. We had a marvelous view of the pyramids from our balcony.
We had the afternoon free however because of our late arrival we had little free time until our departure for the Pyramid Sound and Light show. This was quite a bit better than the Karnak one. We were seated on chairs in front of the Sphinx. At various times the Sphinx and the Pyramids were illuminated in various colors as strident music and voices assaulted our ears. There were also projections on the wall of a funery temple in front of us. Lasers also were used to display cartouches and depict a burial procession into the Great Pyramid.
Although it rained after we left Cairo, the cleansing affect of the rain seems to have been lost already. It is just as dusty and the air smelled just as bad as it did when we left.
Jan 18. Cairo.
Today we did the three big pyramids. It was a very short ride from the Mena House since it is right at the foot of the pyramids. There really isn’t much to see after you walk up to the things. The number of obnoxious vendors is somewhat reduced from our last visit here, although some are extremely persistent. Even some of the tourism police were looking for a handout.
The most spectacular visit of the day was to the reassembled Solar Boat. This was stored in a stone pit next to the pyramids in kit form for the use by the pharaohs in the after life. It consisted of 1,224 pieces of Lebanese cedar wood, marked to show which pieces belonged next to each other. The pieces are joined with rope, which is made from vegetable fibre. The pit in which it was found was covered by 42 giant blocks. It is in beautiful condition.
We mucked around a bit longer while those who wished could go inside a pyramid, then drove up to the overlook where Jodie and other members of the group rode camels.
We returned to Mena House for a very late large lunch at the Khan el Khilili so late that we canceled our dinner reservations. When we returned to our room after 3 pm we found that it was still in the process of being made up. Service here is not great. Although we are supposed to receive a bottle of water every day none was left and the man cleaning our room could do nothing about it.
Jan 19. Cairo.
For our last day touring in Egypt we first drove to Memphis, an early capital cleverly built on the Nile flood plain. About all that is left is the remains of a temple in very poor condition. There is a colossal alabaster statue of Ramses II that was heavily damaged from being buried in mud for millenniums. Since it is lacking feet it is displayed laying on its back.
Saqqara was our next stop. We visited an elaborately decorated tomb of an official. Most of the colors are still vivid. Some of the wall decorative carvings were unfinished. The carvings (bas relief) depict life and also items he would need in the after life.
We then visited a second tomb, also with elaborate carvings including many fish and animals.
We also went down into a burial chamber of an old pyramid. This required going down a long passage way while bent over and then traversing a shorter passage, also bent over. The walls were covered with hieroglyphics.
The final stop was at the step pyramid of Djoser. The designer, Imhotep, is credited with the first successful pyramid design and was the prototype for all subsequent pyramids. The elaborate tomb and passage were all excavated out of the base rock while the pyramid was constructed on top. The complex includes nicely restored courts and pavilions with a colonnaded passage. This was by far the best visit to a pyramid.
Since this was the end of the Egypt tour there was a grand cocktail party and dinner this night. The cocktail was in a very large room with a bar at one end. The room was much too large for the small group. After an hour or so we wandered into the dining room where we had a elegant meal. The usual Egyptian appetizers followed by almost pure meat. I think we had a hunk of veal done in a sauce and then a rather tough but very tasty piece of steak. A couple of singers entertained during dinner. After dessert there was a very good performance of folk dancing, sort of belly dancing with three male and three female dancers. There was a solo female who danced with a candelabra on her head. Finally there was a spectacular whirling dervish. We then bade farewell to 13 members of our group who were not going on to Jordan.
Jan 21. Cairo-Amman
Its amazing how a 55 minute flight can occupy an entire day. We were scheduled for a “leisurely morning” at the hotel with an 11 am departure. Then it was changed to 10:30 then to 10, with the excuse that since this was the first day of the Africa football cup the traffic would be bad. This was Friday, the Moslem Sunday and there was no traffic. In addition, the first game was in the evening, long after we would be gone. I believe that the hotel wanted us out. So we arrived early at the airport and endured the two x-ray exposures and then finally boarded the Royal Jordanian Airbus 310 for the 55 minute flight to Amman, arriving about 3 pm.
Immigration was an interesting experience. We followed our guide as we completely by-passed the lines. We presented our passports to an inspector who collected them and we went on to the baggage area. Eventually the Lindblad rep reappeared with our properly stamped passports. After our luggage arrived it was all piled on a cart and we headed toward the exit, only to encounter another x-ray machine into which all of our hand carried luggage and checked through luggage was fed. Finally we boarded the bus.
The Amman airport is a gateway to Iraq. There was an ad in the airport for rental armored vehicles for use in Iraq. We encountered some young American civilians who had been working on a biometric measurement project on prisoners in Iraq.
Amman is the “white” city. For many years all new building has been covered with white marble. Now they are using limestone Between that and the clear air, it was a pleasant contrast from Cairo. Another pleasant contrast was the polite drivers and lack of horn blowing. At 2,800 feet, it was also pleasantly cool with a stiff breeze blowing. The threatened rain came that night but was gone by morning.
Amman is one of the oldest inhabited places in the World. It was named Philadelphia in the 3rd century BC.
When we arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel we entered through a little security kiosk, an obvious addition since the bombings. It was just like security at the airports. The car-park under the hotel has been closed. Both police and the military were guarding the hotel.
Dinner at a Mexican restaurant in the hotel finished the day.
Jan 21. Amman-Petra
We awakened at what seemed to be an early hour. When I put my watch on after showering I was startled to see that it indicated an hour later than my travel clock. The travel clock is able to synchronize to radio time signals in four different formats, US, Europe, Japan, and Britain. It works in the US but it has never worked anywhere else. When we arrived in Egypt I switched it to Europe however nothing happened. Sometime during the first night in Jordan it found a signal and synchronized, one hour earlier than the actual time. Fortunately we still had sufficient time to get ready.
After checking out of the Intercontinental Hotel we set off in the bus through Amman. This bus was pleasantly large and comfortable, as compared to the cramped minibuses we used in Egypt. Our first stop was at the Citadel, the ruins of an old Roman Temple atop a hill. So little is left that about all it offered was a fine view of the city, including the Roman theater with 6,000 seats. There is a fine, small museum there that contains, among other things, some fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and some statues dating to 6,000 BC. The city is built on 23 hills. There was also a fine view of what is reputed to be the World’s largest flag. This Jordanian flag is flown from a 123 m pole. The flag itself is 40 m high and 94 m long. Thanks to the stiff breeze, the flag was standing proudly from the pole.
Next was the ruins of Jerash, a very large, fairly well preserved Roman city north of Amman, that has been covered by the contemporary city. Only 40% has been dug out. One highlight was a brief performance by a Jordanian bag-pipe band at the 3,000 seat theater. The reserved seats were marked with Greek alphabet characters. There is an audio focal point in the center of the floor. If you stand on the exact spot your voice seems amplified however if you move as little as a foot from it the effect is lost.
The primary East-West street once had 520 columns, many of which are still standing. This street also had a sewer running underneath which caught the rain water and still had traces of the grooves caused by chariot wheels. There was also a 90x89 m oval plaza in which the colonnaded street terminated.. Restoration of the hippodrome is almost complete so that races may be held there again. Several churches, mosques, and temples have been unearthed. We spent 2 hours touring the ruins.
This area north of Amman is quite lush and green with many olive groves. The area immediately south is desert.
Lunch was at a Lebanese restaurant set in the middle of an olive grove. The food was quite similar to what we had in Egypt.
Our 4 hour drive to Petra was broken in the middle with a stop at a restaurant-souvenir store. We sampled mint tea and Turkish coffee, sweet and very strong.
We arrived at Petra after dark and found a unique lodging at the Sofitel Taybet Zaman. It is built on or uses the buildings of a 19th century Ottoman village. Our room had a patio. There are two stone arches separating the entry area, the bedroom, and the dressing room. The bathroom is off of the dressing room. Each of the rooms or cabins are unique.
Dinner at the hotel was a typical middle Eastern affair. As we were leaving the restaurant we found most of our group sitting in the lounge sharing a water pipe. They were smoking apple-flavored tobacco. A quantity of the tobacco is placed in the bowl atop the pipe and is covered with a perforated piece of foil. A pellet of burning charcoal is placed on top. After much pressure I tried it. Of course, it is quite cool and the smoke is flavored with the apple. It was quite a humorous affair as each user tried to inhale and then exhale the maximum cloud of cool smoke. In the interests of sanitation, each user is provided with his own plastic mouthpiece.
Jan 22. Petra.
Petra at last! We left the hotel around 8:30 and drove 15 minutes to the visitors’ center. There is a long gravel path that parallels the path used by the horses which one may rent to ride to the entrance of the siq. Along the way there are remnants of tombs carved into the sandstone. Eventually we entered the siq, a narrow, twisting sandstone canyon that is 1,200 m long and up to 80 m deep. There are remains of carvings along the walls. Also, the remains of the water collection system are on the walls on either side. Some of it was a covered trough but other parts were ceramic pipe. Modern construction consists of diversion dams to prevent flash flooding of the gorge. Roman road paving stones are still present in parts of the siq. The solitude of the canyon was frequently broken by the rapid passage of rental horse carts.
The climactic moment is when the Treasurery first comes into view through the very narrow walls of the canyon. This 30 m wide by 43 m high tomb of a Nabataean king is the most famous structure of Petra and the best preserved. Best is a comparative statement; all the sandstone carvings are eroded. The Treasurery was carved into the sandstone around 100 BC.
As we approached the view point, our guide Michel, halted us and asked us to line up so that each person could take unobstructed photos. Some of the group complied however others just forged ahead, heedless of the rest.
The massive structures of Petra are carved from the soft sandstone walls of the canyon as opposed to the structures in Egypt that are constructed from carved granite. All are supposedly tombs, the larger ones of the royalty or wealthy; the smaller of the less wealthy. The softness of the sandstone, the flash flooding of the canyon over the eons, and Earthquakes all have contributed to the deterioration of the place.
Until recently the tombs and caves were inhabited however the residents were moved from there to a government constructed village nearby. There are many, many vendors offering postcards and souvenirs. There are also many drivers offering rides on donkeys, horses, horse carts, and camels. There is an automobile access road coming into the lower part of the canyon. This road seems to lead to the relocation village.
We slowly hiked down the Street of Façades pausing frequently for “guiding.” We passed by a 7,000 seat theater and the royal tombs before going up a hill to a Byzantine church. A stroll down a colonnaded street brought us to a restaurant complex around 1 pm where we had lunch. Then we were free to make our way back. You could rent a donkey or a camel to ride back to the Treasurery however we decided to walk. The total elevation loss for the hike was 580'. Of course, we regained that so all in all we did no work in the classic sense.
Dining tonight was a unique experience. We went to the Petra Kitchen. We, the guests, prepared the meal under the guidance of the chef and two assistants. This meant chopping and peeling and sauteing. All in all, it was great fun. The only downer was the discovery that the raisins used in the dessert had weevils and maggots.
Jan 23. Petra-Dead Sea.
We left the reconstructed or replica village this morning and headed back North. Our goal was first to visit St. George Greek Orthodox church, 560 AD, in Madaba which contains the remnants of a mosaic map of the Middle East. It was originally 16x6 m and used 2 million stone pieces. According to our guide Michel Safar this map was sufficiently detailed to allow archeologists to locate some previously unknown sites. To get there we had to wander through the street of the town, crossing through traffic several times.
After the church we visited a mosaic “factory” where we were shown how mosaics were made and then given the opportunity to buy almost any object covered by mosaics. The cheaper ceramic ones do not have chips on them; the design is scratched into the surface and then they are painted.
We next drove to Mt. Nebo, reputed to be the place where the Lord allowed Moses to view the Promised Land and where he was buried. Some monks built a church here to commemorate the spot. Since many pilgrims would want to visit, they also built facilities for them to stay. All of this fell into ruin however it has been reconstructed to some extent and the ruin covered with a good metal roof. There are excellent mosaics on the floor. At one time some patriarch became enamored of the Muslim prohibition against depicting living things and ordered the mosaics destroyed. Instead the monks covered them with mosaics with geometric patterns. The better ones were discovered during the restoration so the geometric patterns are now on the walls, restoring the finer ones to sight once again.
Mt. Nebo is just a couple of thousand of feet high however it allowed a good view of the surrounding country, including the Dead Sea through the haze. The Dead Sea was our destination for the night. As we were heading down we saw some tents and flocks of goats. The Bedouins had moved into the area for the winter. Talk about shattered illusions; they travel by pick-up trucks and seem conventionally dressed, no camels and flowing robes. They rely on large water tanks pulled by tractors rather than finding springs.
When we reached the road along the shore we encountered a military check point. This was much more elaborate than the many police check points that we continually encountered throughout the country.
Our destination for the night was the Mövenpick resort. This was a very nice, very large resort. Our room was quite nice with a lovely patio which we didn’t use. Its beach on the sea was not available; we had to use the Marriott’s beach next door. The Mövinpik is building a new beach facility. As the sea continues to recede the hotels chase in down the slope, extending their coverage.
Jodie decided to take the plunge. I guess plunge is not the right term given the high salt concentration. Probably “bob” is the better term. She also tried the beauty mud. She smeared a coating on her legs and then allowed it to dry before removing. Of course, how could anything make her any more beautiful? The high salt content caused burning of any irritated or scratched skin that persisted until it was rinsed off. The beach was not sandy but covered with large rocks with areas of sharp pebbles between. Walking into the sea was difficult. The high oxygen concentration resulting from the -1,300 foot elevation caused no noticeable effect.
Our farewell dinner was at The Grill restaurant that night. Beer and wine were freely poured, perhaps too freely. The meal was excellent, including some very large, delicious prawns from Dubai and a tender fillet from the US.
Packing for our return home wasn’t a problem since we had been living out of the suitcases since leaving the Triton.
Our day started rather early with a wake-up call at 3 am. Our flight was due to leave at 7 am from the Amman airport and we had about an hours drive. We reached the airport and immediately passed through the x-ray, metal detector complex with our luggage then checked in. After a wait we passed through immigration as a group, sailing through with the same speed that we experienced when we came in.
The British Air flight to London took 6 hours. The seats on the Airbus were not as elaborate as we experienced on the later 747 flight. We spent the 4 hour lay-over in the very nice British Airways lounge with free Internet access after changing from terminal 4 to terminal 1 and going through security again. The flight to LA took 11 hours and was in daylight all the way.