Egypt 2007


It was Lyn's 60th this year and her choice of where she wanted to spend her special birthday. She chose Morocco for her 50th and our first big trip ten years ago; so it was back to North Africa again with a trip to Egypt this time.

Day Date Where (to)
  14-Feb To London
  16-Feb Salisbury
  17-Feb To Cairo
1 18-Feb Cairo
2 19-Feb Cairo
3 20-Feb Cairo
4 21-Feb To St. Catherine's
5 22-Feb St. Catherine's
6 23-Feb To Ein El Sokhnar
7 24-Feb To Luxor
8 25-Feb Luxor
9 26-Feb Luxor
10 27-Feb To Aswan
11 28-Feb Aswan
12 1-Mar To/at Abu Simbel
13 2-Mar To Cairo
  3-Mar To Heathrow
  4-Mar To Vancouver

To London then Cairo

A young customs guy at Vancouver International Airport accidently beheaded the rose I had given Lyn for Valentine's Day; he was so contrite that while we were having our traditional glass of wine in the Air Canada lounge before take-off, he tracked us down and gave her a replacement he'd bought. Nice start to our trip!

Good flight over; Julia picked us up at Heathrow (thanks Julia!) and drove us to Salisbury for our usual relaxing couple of nights there. Saturday morning: caught the 9:35am bus directly from Salisbury to Heathrow; had a 10 minute walk to Terminal 3; met the Ramblers rep and received our tickets; a couple of hours later we were in the air heading to Cairo. Smooth sailing!

Landed in cool overcast; smoothed through Egyptian customs thankful that we arranged for our Egyptian visas ahead of time; met the Ramblers group leader and boarded the bus that would become our home for almost the whole two weeks; were soon heading South across Cairo to the hotel in Giza (that's Jeeza by the way).

First impressions were of a very modern city, but that changed. Whizzing along the airport expressway we passed chic skyscrapers and groomed parks for a while but it wasn't long before we were in truer Cairo: gridlocked in thick traffic between old buildings jammed together haphazardly, looking up narrow sidestreets filled with stalls. The four lane main drag heading to our Hotel Gawharet Al Ahram (Al Ahram I think means to the Pyramids) took us south, and an hour later our bus made a U-turn to bring us into the hotel. Supposedly the pyramids are close by but today was too smoggy to get a view.

Checked in. Hotel quite nice. Not a bad room but no internet in the hotel (and as I was about to find out on subsequent days, nothing in the vicinity). Meals, as in most hotels, were an odd mixture of agreeable Egyptian dishes (beans etc) and semi-agreeable western blah food (white rolls, wieners, boiled eggs in the shell for breakfast etc etc). Civilized place to have a drink

Day 1: Egyptian museum...

Argggh! Woken at 1am by thunderous Egyptian music boomed out of the disco right below us and this went off and on until about 3am (Lyn sleeping blissfully through it all) then thankfully peace until...5:20am when the (recorded) call to prayer began to reverberate from the several hundred mosques apparently within hailing distance from us and woke us both up for good.

But the alarm call is for the crack of dawn anyway (6:45am and sometimes earlier wake-up calls here; I thought we were on vacation?) and into the bus; headed into the centre of Cairo to visit the Egyptian Museum. Took us an hour to travel the 14km odd into the center of Cairo where our bus dropped us off. Lyn pointed out the satellite dishes that blanketed the rooftops of even the most ramshackle quarters.

Then took another 30 minutes to go through the elaborate security checks that seem to be a part of life for everything here. Then one has to compete with the thousands of others already inside the gates of the compound trying to get into the museum itself. However, considering that extremists blew up dozens of tourists here a few years back we should be thankful rather than resentful.

We spent a couple of hours here and while I thought at first that 20 minutes would be enough I was still ready for more after the two hours. Lyn and I split up at one point to follow our particular interests and in half an hour of wandering around never did run into each other. The place is huge.

Walked over to the Nile Hilton for lunch after a run-in with a street hawker who took advantage of a special needs person in our group. Saw an internet connection there and thinking there would be dozens more that I could use later in the day, I passed up the opportunity. Lyn tried shopping but although wares at the Hilton are probably authentic the prices are through the roof.

Cairo TowerRest of that day not very inspiring. Sorry Ramblers, bit of a bummer. We walked a couple of kilometers taking in a ho-hum park along the way, to the Cairo Tower (built by the soviets). But after the wait for the elevator and its ponderous ascent to the top of this dilapidated relic we were rewarded with only hazy indifferent views of the city and of the hazy pyramids of Saqqara and Giza to the south.

Weather note: cold! Geez, we're all freezing. I at least brought a fleecy (for use in London) and Lyn is regretting that she didn't bring something warmer.

Day 2: Pyramids

Ramses II the 'small' one

Headed south today, to the city of >Memphis. It is only about half an hour's drive south of the hotel, along the canal (interesting watching the many Pied Kingfishers diving from the wires over the canal). This is one of the earliest capital cities of Egypt but there's not much to it today other than the Museum. Ramses II, the big statue

The Museum's key feature is an 82 ton statue of Ramses II on display but this is no more than a warm-up for the day ahead.

Head up to our next stop at Zoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara. From here we could just make out the Bent Pyramid in the distance. Repairs on the pyramid...or on the repairs?

Then on to the big pyramids at Giza (pronounced Jeeza).

This experience was far more interesting than we'd expected. Somehow we'd imagined the pyramids would be so buried in city surroundings, smog, scummy kiosks and hordes of touts that it would have lost most of its majesty. Not so. Egypt has done a good job of protecting the area and keeping it free of the several invading scums so that the pyramids themselves are as awe-inspiring as one might hope. The Egypt trip is proving to be a better experience than we'd expected. Geezers and highway patrol at pyramidsThe burbs aren't far away

In the evening I headed out yet again to find an internet cafe. This requires jaywalking across the four lane artery opposite the hotel (roughly equivalent to doing the same on Highway 1) because there are no traffic lights in Cairo to speak of. Pedestrians wishing to go shopping on the other side of the street must risk life and limb to do so. Once over, I found no internet cafe but few hassles coming out and back.

Day 3: Religious Buildings day

We again head north, joining rush hour traffic to visit the area known as Coptic Cairo.

Today, like yesterday, would be a rapid succession of visits to different religious buildings within Coptic Cairo. However unlike yesterday where the sites had major features that were easy to describe, today during our morning visits our guide dwelt more on minutae more difficult to record. We visited:

  • Coptic church
  • Synagogue
  • Coptic Museum
  • Citadel/Mosque of Mohammed Ali

Back in the bus and we're now headed for the Citadel and Mummamed Ali Mosque. We emerge from greenest Cairo, winding our way past dingy tenements (every one sporting a satellite dish) and take the highway leading up onto a sandy desert bluff, the Citadel sitting like a sprawling fortress along the its edge. We exit the bus and make our way (through yet another security check) into the enormous courtyard and thence around the outer wall of the mosque, noting the bizarre green dome of the Hall of Justice on our way.

Because the lunch place we stopped at took 2 hours to get us our lunch instead of the planned 1 hour, we only managed to scream through the bazaar, but oh well.

Day 4: To St Catherines

We board our bus in Cairo at 7:30am with a long drive ahead of us, and a slightly unnerving level of police activity now on the street. We're headed to St. Catherine's on the Sinai Peninsular and maybe it's a good day to be leaving town!

We grind up through Cairo's morning rush hour, heading up past the Citadel and through the sandstone cliffs beyond into the desert. But instead of seeing desert, we're hammering along the highway past glinting new developments. These are the new Cairo burbs—residential areas for the up and coming that the government is promoting so as to preserve the little green left in this part of the Nile delta. There are benefits: decent housing at an attractive cost less than half an hour's drive from the city; less pollution etc.

Yet as we head towards the Suez canal, there is a rapidly ramping military presence. According to the terms of the Sinai Agreement after the war in 1973, in which Egypt reclaimed from Israel some of the land it had lost in the 6 day war, Egypt is prohibited from showing significant military presence in the Sinai. There are threats from the North and East from more than the Israelis and so it is here in the Eastern desert that the bulk of Egypt's military is stationed. Moses' well

An hour or so later we are at the Suez Canal...then driving through the tunnel under it. We cannot stop and take photos here as it too is part of the military zone, but we emerge from the tunnel and continue on the highway north, we spot a large cargo ship making its way slowly across the desert (so it appears) behind us.

We are no longer in Africa but in Asia, and are soon alongside the Red Sea, heading down the Sinai coast. There is continuous industrial development along here: power in the form of wind power, natural gas generation, power generation from the natural gas, mining and so on. There are several skeletons of failed attempts to build yet another Red Sea resort. There is garbage everywhere.

The Sinai is a Mecca for that other religion in Egypt: Christianity. There are monasteries (one of which we are headed to) and other Christian hotspots. It is here that Moses visited a well (we visited the same well), encountered a burning bush (later) and received the Ten Commandments (later still). So Christians make visits, pilgrimages etc here and there is a host of agencies anxious to please that public. paddle in the Red Sea

We stop for lunch and a paddle in the Red Sea. There are major coral reefs and good diving along this stretch of the world, although you'll have to hurry as it is being destroyed a very high rate. On our left are low hills and there is evidence of rainfall (the arroyo-like ruts coming towards us from those hills). It seems that there is indeed major rain here during the winter and even snow at times, so it isn't quite desert in the sense of the Nile desert where it never rains. St. Catherine's village

Eventually, we turn inland, heading up a valley between the mountains that have been looming to our left for an hour or so. This is fascinating drive: the valley floor is flat and the road zig-zags backwards and forwards across it that only Google Earth can show reason for (ask me for the placemarks), and it continues this way for what must be a hundred kilometers or so inland. We stop briefly at the St. Catherine's nunnery to look briefly at the chapel and the gardens in this oasis in the middle of nowhere. And then continue on to St. Catherine's.

We drive past the resort we're staying at to pick up supplies in the small village just beyond. The people here are all Bedouin: fierce and friendly in equal measure. We head back to the Morgen Land motel just back down the road and check in. It's a beautiful spot, with a large swimming pool. Trouble is that imperceptably, as we wound our way up here we climbed 5,000 feet and are now absolutely freezing! We head for dinner in the barn of a dining room. Apparently 300 Nigerians have just arrived here for a convention but our own "shift" in the dining room is shared with a zillion Japanese tourists.

Apart from the electrical fire in one of the rooms below us, and the Turkish coffee that we had in the Bedouin tent by reception, there wasn't much more to our evening.

Day 5: St. Catherine's, Mount Sinai

We're Ramblers and hiking is what we do. We're all looking forward to the 2800 foot climb up Mount Sinai today.

It's cold when we start out. We reach the monastery....but there are thousands of tourists already here. Max give us our guided tour and it is indeed an interesting place, including Burning bush...with fire extinguisherthe burning bush of Moses. But it is absolutely jammed and the last place you really want to have to use the washroom but we have to do it before we embark on the hike up Mt. Sinai. Hiking at last

Soon enough we're on our way, out of the monastery, and continuing up the valley. It's a steady hike up a stony road, made no easier by the steady stream of Nigerians who have (likely) taken a camel up to see the dawn from the top, and then have either hiked back down or taken another camel down. The beasts are a hazard enough without a large Nigerian on top! It's about a 2.5 hour hike up to the first notch, where there are stores, washrooms and a small temple in the notch below us. From here the path upwards is stepped in the rocks. The 800 feet remaining vertical is supposed to take 45 minutes, so it becomes something of a challenge for the competitors in the group. I make it up in 18 minutes and Lyn is third, only 7 minutes behind but hey! whose counting? on top of Mount Sinai

The view from the top is marvellous, but we're definitely not in tropical jungle. From the top we can make out other remote monasteries and hermit's abodes on the distant peaks: it isn't hard to imagine a better place for privacy in olden times, providing you didn't mind the odd war-bent Bedouin tribal rampage.

We begin heading down with the group. However, Lyn and I break away and are soon out on our own. We reach the monastery and decide to walk the 4 extra kilometers back rather than wait for the others and the bus, and are within 100m of the Motel when the bus picks us up.

Day 6: To Ein El Sokhna

local idea of a forest

In deference to local custom, I have chosen to give this place name a different spelling each time I refer to it.

2 nights and 1 day in St. Catherine's and we're off again (at an unearthly morning hour), this time heading back to Africa (through the Suez tunnel) down the southern coast of the Red Sea to spend the night in Ain Sokhna. This first leg supposedly takes only about six hours so we're due in by about 3pm.

The route from St. Catherine's to the Suez tunnel is the same route we traveled on our way in, so that is nothing new. As we line up to get into the tunnel we get glimpses of a couple of big cargo ships going through the canal and try to get a shot of them without getting shot at myself, but the pictures don't come out. then we're through the tunnel and turning left not long after we emerge on the "Africa" side, and heading down the southern coast of the Red Sea.

This is new. It's different from the northern coast as there has been much more resort building here. Every few miles we see some stage of development between ground-breaking and empty shell—many of these have been unsuccessful. The only successful ones are those owned by the big operators who perhaps have the bucks to build a decent resort in a prime location.

There's also activity on the inland side of the bus. We're mostly looking across desert up into sandstone coastal hills, yet every inch on this has signs of activity in the sand next to the highway and it takes me a while to figure out what this is: tank tracks! Of course, this is where the military roams, keeping a keen eye on the Bedouins in them thar hills and possibly invaders from further afield. And garbage: amazing (and depressing) that there isn't a kilometer without a bunch of plastic garbage bags blowing about or trapped by the meagre vegetation. cooking with a flamethrower

We stop for a true Egyptian lunch in a nameless resort town. Max knows the owner here and we watch warily as we enter the cafe: the cook is deep frying falafel cakes in a bowl of oil...heated by four large pipes blowing propane like blowtorches at the bottom of the bowl. One false move and we're all going to complete the trip by air! It turns out to be delicious.

Lyn, Red Sea We arrive finally in Ein Sukhna on schedule, around 3pm. The resort is a Ramada Inn, our one five star experience on the trip. True, the suites are enormous. We have two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a living room the size of our house! Yet the tiling on the walkway outside our room is cracked and broken in several places. Flaw is paradise. Lyn heads for the pool (there are several; I take a nap and John IN the Red Seathen opt for a dip in the Red Sea, which is only just beyond the pools. The sea is a bit cooler than I'd expected but OK once you're in. We have a pleasant meal that evening, and next morning are on our way again: heading to Luxor.

Day 7: Onward to Luxor

This is a long leg: some 400 miles of driving and we leave Ein Soukhna at the crack of dawn. We're heading down the coast first; we take a quick drive around Hurguada, which is becoming a major vacation destination for Europeans, and then cut inland at Safagah, heading through the mountains to Qena on the Nile. We're in Bedouin territory here and many tourist buses travel in convoys . However, waiting for the convoy would slow us down too much so we are traveling with a guard. I note that our driver, Mustafa, keeps other buses and trucks in sight for as long as possible but we barrel on, zig-zagging through the valleys between these ever-changing sandstone hills.

We've been doing this for a couple of hours when finally and suddenly, the desert develops shrubs, and within a kilometer, we're in Nile pasture. Just like that. We enter the town of Qena and turn north. We have another 50 kilometers to go to Luxor and we complete this in an hour, whizzing through contrasted extremes: bleak desert on our left and your lush green Nile valley scenery on the right; there are palm trees, sugar cane plantations, green as far as the eye can see. Occasionally we'll cross a bluff and have maybe quarter of an hour of driving through low desert hills but it's not long before we're back in dry and lush.

Drove into Luxor at about 5:30pm—end of a 9 hour drive. Hotel here not the greatest but passable.

Day 8: Luxor: East Bank; Lynda's birthday!

Luxor Temple from the road

This morning we got to sleep in until 7:30am, had breakfast and headed out to have a look at the Karnak temple then the smaller Luxor Temple.

Celebrated Lynda's 60th last night with a cake and many congratulations! She's having a great time.

Lyn at 60. What a blow!

Day 9: Luxor: West Bank

Went to the Sound and Light show at the Karnak temple last night. Awful! The commentary was initially OK as it re-iterated what Max had told us already that day, but then it deteriorated into a kind of stuffy British dramatic production that might have been popular 60 years ago in the UK but was just over the top today. Ugh!

Today we visited the Valleys of the King and the Queens. Thanks to the new bridge, we don't have undergo the old rigours of a boat, bus, bus, boat journey to cross the Nile and get to the valleys nowadays. We drive north out of Luxor (on our own private bus) for about half an hour and cross the new Luxor bridge. Here, the west bank is as green and farmed as the east, and we head first south again, and then up into the low mountains opposite Luxor, passing the house-on-a-hill that used to be Howard Carter's domicile while he was here.

Model of tombs: the ones we visited indicatedWe're under bright blue, clear skies; temperature is cool (mostly because of the slight breeze). It is only 8:30am but when we arrive at the parking lot in the Valley of Kings, the place is a tourist zoo.

Plaque at tomb entrance We head first (Max leading) for the tomb of Thutmose III leaving much of the tourist crowd behind because it requires a climb up a short road, then up a steep staircase for about 100 feet; after entering the portal in the rock face one descends into the dimly lit brief labyrinth of corridors below. This is our first tomb, and once we become accustomed to the heat emitted by hundreds of tourists who have already been through here (not a great place to be if you're at all claustrophobic!) we have time to admire the tomb itself. It is relatively small (each room a rectangular one of say 8x9x10 feet) with nothing now on the floor but a single sarcophagus (the mummy now in the Egyptian Museum). But the walls are filled with reliefs and hieroglyphs depicting the Pharaohs journey to the other side and perhaps details of his life. Coptic Christians used these tombs once upon a time too, and Coptic graffiti disfigures some walls.

We move on to visit the much later tombs of Ramses III and Ramses IV and see that Thutmose's tomb was modest. These later tombs are far more elaborate and bigger, the colors on the walls still vibrant. There has, of course, been some erosion: some by weather and natural forces, some because the tombs were desecrated by a subsequent ruler, and yet others by the later invaders such as Christian Coptics or Muslims. What is amazing therefore is how much is left.

Hatshepsut's temple

On to the Memorial Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut, where we could see the incense trees (now dead) that she had imported from distant lands, as well as the elaborate chapels to Hathor and Horus. Then onto the Valley of Queens. Won't go into details for these as it becomes a bit of a blur to us after 3 hours of this but it really is quite illuminating to see this succession of two and three thousand year old tombs, sometimes incredibly well preserved and providing (via the hieroglyphic stories) such a clear description of the times.

Finally went to the workers village. We had to pay for this; I opted out; Lyn, not wanting to miss a thing, did go for it, but said that it wasn't as interesting as she'd hoped. From there we went on to have a look at one of the local sculpting stores. This was valuable as we'd wanted to buy something locally but didn't want to end up with low-grade stuff for a high price. Max helped us negotiate. I suspect that we could have done better than we did, but for roughly $120 we got quite a few good pieces.

[FootnoteDragging these around from this point on was troublesome. They wouldn't let me on the plane with one of the carved heads in my carry-on baggage as they claimed I could use it as a weapon! We were afraid that in both Cairo and London, we'd have trouble with baggage weight because of these but in the end we were fine].

Lyn and I and one other member of our group squeezed in a visit to the Luxor Museum before dinner. This turned out to be a much longer walk along the riverfront (30 minutes) than we'd anticipated, but we needed the exercise. Really enjoyed the museum, and the walk back.

Tomorrow we drive to Aswan, this time apparently under the protection of a convoy, but it is a relatively short drive. We're there for a day, and then on to Abu Simbel for a day before flying back to Cairo on Friday for our flight out on Saturday. I may not be able to get to an internet cafe so forgive me if there isn't a great deal more news until we're almost back!

Day 10: To Aswan via Edfu, Kom Ombo

Well, that was quite the trip (from Luxor to Aswan this morning). We were woken at 5:45am so that we could get our bags on the bus for 6:30 departure from our join the 7am convoy to Aswan. Our bus arrived at the gathering point about 15 minutes early, (although there were already dozens of tourist hot-air balloons in the air over the west bank of the Nile) to find a garrison of soldiers waiting to escort us (some hyperbole but..) to Aswan. At 7am sharp, about 30 vehicles move out and before long are hammering along the streets out of Luxor and through the countryside southbound. It seems as though all the traffic has been stopped to let us through and we whiz through the various checkpoints without slowing down; any local traffic is pulled over to ensure our fast passage. After about an hour, about half the convoy continues ahead while many of the tour buses turn off towards the temple at Edfu.

It's worth devoting a line or to to describing the countryside here. At first we are on a pretty good road heading south next to one of the major irrigation canals which is about 30 feet wide. The terrain is almost flat and there are lush green fields on either side filled with a variety of crops— sugar cane, bananas, alfalfa etc—interspersed with hundreds of date palms, so that the Nile itself is often not visible. Across the Nile (when we can see it), there is the same lush flatland and trees but the beige hills of the desert are not far beyond. As we travel south, our own band of brilliant green lushness narrows until we are often travelling with the desert hills on one side of the road and only a couple of hundred meters of green between us and the river. Further north still, the green suddenly disappears as the Nile travels between low sandstone hills, and we have to skirt up through a corridor of the stony peaks for twenty minutes before we emerge from them and the familiar green band re-appears on our side of the river. On the other side, however, the green is restricted to a narrow band of trees on the river bank.

For one stretch, we are driving along the road next to the river itself and can see the feluccas out on the river, and the occasional tourist river boat heading south.

We have to cross the Nile to reach the temple, and find this temple in a backstreet on the west bank of the Nile. Although it’s good to get a break, visiting yet another temple is starting to be less attractive than it was…until we see the front of the temple with its magnificent black granite statue of the falcon god Horus. And we're on a tight schedule: we have 30 minutes to do our tour of the temple at Edfu, which is one of the most well-preserved temples in Egypt. Dating back to the time of Alexander the Great (who sponsored its construction) the superb reliefs have suffered only from the chisel defacement of the Coptic Christians who came through here later.

We rushed through the temple, our guide Max rattling on at double speed, and yet were a bit late getting back to the bus and found the convoy had left. So "Schumacker" Mustafa earned his reputation by streaking through town and village for half an hour until he caught up with the convoy (this is required or the Rambler's insurance doesn't cover us!). An hour later we stopped in at the Kom Ombo temple devoted to the crocodile god, Sorbek, and the falcon god, Hathor. Another speedy trip through and then on to Aswan itself.

We were too early to check into the hotel so we did a quick visit to the quarry that supplied all the rose granite to the great temples in the south. Of great interest is the "unfinished obelisk", an enormous (1200 ton) needle of marble that would have dwarfed Cleopatra's needle in London, has been carved out in the quarry but was never moved—likely because it is clearly fractured. Fortunately, it serves to explain how these huge chunks of stone were excavated and then shipped south. A series of holes were bored into the rock, outlining the desired shape; these holes were then filled with wooden logs hammered in and which were then soaked; the expanding wood cracked the granite around the obelisk shape, allowing a narrow trench to be sawn out. Holes were then bored underneath the obelisk and the process repeated. Moving these 1000 ton behemoths is yet another story.

Check into our rooms at the Cleopatra hotel, which is quaint rather than luxurious but we're only here for two nights. And then Lyn and I split up for a couple of hours: she to go shopping and me to find an internet cafe.

Tracked down a cafe only about 10 minutes from the hotel but even the walk here illuminates a difference between the culture here and that of Luxor, 200km south. Few hassles; people were friendly and didn't bother me. The cafe itself is something else. It is a dark, tiny room with about 10 computers in it, most are busy but everyone is watching music videos and smoking! That's all they do on their computers. Interestingly a woman is running the place. I put in about an hour and she charges me E£5. That's about C$1. Mind you, I come back the next night and they charge me twice as much but I pay it without blinking!

Apparently the people here are of mixed origin. Their ancestors might have come from either Nubian Egypt or even elsewhere in Africa—perhaps the West coast, like Nigeria or Ghana. They are known to be culturally a distinct society, more friendly and easy going; even Egyptians like spending time here.

Day 11: Aswan

Spoke too soon about the lack of hassles in Aswan yesterday. On the way back from the internet cafe, I was approached a couple of times and went out for a walk later and had to endure a few of more of the less respectable street touts. However, no real problems and others who approached were quite harmless.

Today was an excellent day. Started out with a trip to the Aswan Dam, which is not only a bit of a departure from our "ancient history" orientation but an eye-opener itself. This project was conceived in the 50's, started in the 60's (eventually only the Soviets would help), and was finished in 1970. It was mind-boggling not only in size but in its impact on Egypt. Lake Nasser, created by the dam, flooded a number of villages whose inhabitants had to be relocated further down the Nile and those people of largely Nubian heritage now populate much of the area south of Aswan. Many archeological sites were also threatened and two were relocated to higher ground in miraculous feats of engineering: the temple of Filae and the temples at Abu Simbel that we would visit next.

It's now a military zone (because of a political dispute with the Sudan and resulting threats) so we were limited to a few photos on the dam, but these were impressive views. Temple at Philae

On our way into town, we took a short boat ride in the area above the old British dam, to Philae Temple to Isis, which was as much interest for its birdwatching.

Had lunch, helped by our guide Max, in a traditional Egyptian restaurant. Some of us had camel; others had pigeon; I stayed with the vegetarian (excellent).

Next stop was a Coptic Monastery on the other side of the Nile, which required crossing the Nile on a felucca,Floating in a Felucca the traditional sailing boat of the Nile. Nice leisurely trip with great views up and down the Nile. Unfortunately we were becalmed half way through the trip and had to be towed in by a power boat (probably a usual occurrence judging by the ease with which it was arranged—a holler to a passing boat, a bit of shouting and nodding and then we're in tow). Hiked up to the (ruins of) the Monastery (had the option of going up on a camel which some of the group took, but Lyn and I wanted the exercise). Monastery perhaps a bit of a yawner relatively to what we've seen, but maybe we're getting so blase about temples that anything less than 23oo years old seems ho-hum.

Saw many birds today. Now have about 40 birds that I've seen on this trip.

Then we took our felucca back to Kitchener's Island, in the middle of the Nile, to have a look at the botanical gardens there. This was relaxing as the gardens are quite splendid, but there's always someone wanting to show you "jasmine bushes this way", and regrettably, since we don't know just how many complications this will introduce, we always turn the other way.

Both Lyn and I are settling into the rythmn of being here. We seem to be dodging the ugly cough/cold that has nailed just about everyone in the group (touch wood). It is a cough/cold/runny nose thing that has seen a couple of people getting nosebleeds! Lyn looked as though it had got to her this morning but by noon she was OK and now seems "fixed". I've had an hour or two here and there when I thought I was getting it but seem to have fought it off too.

Only one more real day of our holiday to go. Tomorrow, we fly to Abu Simbel around noon, "do" the temple in the afternoon, stay a night in Abu Simbel and next day fly back to Cairo for one last night before heading home.

Day 12: To Abu Simbel

Aswan... We arose at an early hour that I didn't even know existed on Thursday morning, and sailed out to the surprisingly modern Aswan airport, where we took the 9:35 flight to Abu Simbel. It's only a 25 minute trip but from Aswan south, flying down the Western edge of Lake Nasser, it's all sand, except for 500' high pimples of rock sticking up out of the otherwise endless orange of sand for as far as you can see.

Although this was a flight to the back of beyond from almost at the back of beyond, we were on a completely full 737 (I'd expected this to be a flight on a Cessna between two airport shacks). Landed at the equally surprisingly elaborate Abu Simbel airport and were whisked off to our hotel only minutes away—lovely spot, sitting on the edge of the lake; beautiful garden with a jasmine tree right outside the door of our room. Dumped our bags, had lunch and then set off for the 10 minute walk to the Ramses/Nefertari temples that were the only reason for us flying 200 kilometers into the desert.

There are two temples here: one devoted to Ramses II and the other to his wife, Nefertari. The one devoted to Ramses is notable for the two enormous (1200 ton) statues of Ramses that form the portal to the temple buried into the rock face. The one to Nefertari is only a hundred meters or so away, and is slightly smaller. Yet perhaps the most astonishing aspect of both of these enormous monuments is that they have both been moved by modern engineering from their original location, which is now 100 meters to the East of us and 50 feet below the surface of Lake Nasser (formed in 1971, by the creation of the Aswan Dam).

Day 13: The long trip home

This was the end of our trip. Next morning, we were up at 5am again, to catch the early morning flight out of Abu Simbel, change planes at Aswan, drop down into Luxor and arrive Cairo finally at around noon on Friday. We were met at Cairo airport by Mustafa, who, having dropped us off at Aswan Airport two days earlier, had driven the bus 600km of hair-raising driving back to Cairo to meet us.

We hung around Cairo in the afternoon; some of the group took the opportunity to visit the bazaar but the rest hung around the hotel and read, taking advantage of teh unusually low-smog day to sit on the top balcony of the hotel with a fabulous view of the pyramids, only a kilometer or so south of us.

Saturday, we were able to sleep in until 6am! Got to the airport; said goodbye to Mustafa and the guides, and took a relatively straightforward trip back to London. After 7 hotel changes in 14 days no longer felt like doing a side-trip to Cambridge or Brighton we had planned for our one day layover and opted for a hotel room. Avoiding pressure from a "Hotel Reservations" desk at Heathrow to book a $800 room at the Hilton we booked over the internet at the Holiday Inn for about $125. Half an hour and a short bus ride on the Hotel Hoppa later we were in the surprisingly upscale Holiday Inn not far from the airport runway. Soundproofing in the room was amazing: I could stand by the window looking out on the road only feet away from us, and note hear teh double decker buses driving by.

Our luck continued. We found a great Indian restaurant only 10 minutes walk away that evening and had a superb Indian meal. Next morning, we got up early and having nothing better to do decided to head out to the airport four hours early. We inquired at the Air Canada desk about check-in and since there was nobody in line at that time the attendant checked us in right there, eliminating all our last worries about overweight bags, spending an hour in a line-up etc. We got through security, found the Air Canada lounge, where we idled away the next three hours, enjoyed our free breakfast and free internet connection....and planning our next trip!

Egyptian Museum

Soon to be replaced by a larger modern building outside Cairo, this museum will likely remain the favourite of those who have visited both. It is as much the casual way in which 5,000 year old relics lie piled about in familiar and friendly disarray—as though Howard Carter himself had just found them and hadn’t had time to box them up—that makes it all so awe-inspiring. In the future, when only a selection of what is now here is mounted in cute glass booths with swish modern lighting, some part of this experience will be gone.

Couldn't take photos in here, which is a pity as describing it would be a dissertation. The place is enormous. While the front foyer and three floors directly above are relatively modern, there is an even larger vault of storage rooms off these main floors where one can wander for hours. The relics in the main halls are astounding: a full chariot is on display; huge statues to Ramses II, to the Falcon god Horus and many other dignitaries and deities; superb reliefs are in evidence throughout. The side-halls provide intricate insights into everyday matters. We bought tickets to see the mummies, including that of Ramses II.

Egyptian Museum official site
Looks like a highly promising site, offering virtual tours. Unfortunately I couldn’t get the latter to work in either Firefox or Internet Explorer, but the maps and pictures may be of some benefit and you may have better luck.A Nuther site

This one is also good for photos. Not sure how this Australian chap managed to get all these but this may have occurred before the prohibition on photos, or he may have had a permit.

Memphis Museum

Our first stop in a day that would end with the pyramids at Giza, this small museum was an excellent hors d’oevre. Memphis was one of the earliest capitals of Egypt but is now no more than a nondescript village south of Cairo. While the museum is small in number of exhibits the 82 ton statue of Ramses II (regrettably, the legs of the statue are lost) and the alabaster sphinx are enough to capture one’s attention.  

Step Pyramid of Zoser

Repairs on the pyramid...or on the repairs?

This first among all pyramids was an improvement over the ancient tomb, in which a slab of rock was placed over the mouth of the tomb (basically a pit in the ground) to discourage tomb-robbers. It didn't. So the architect Imhotep designed an immense pyramid for the tomb of the pharaoh Zoser in about 2650 BC. Pyramid building would continue for another 500 years. This is called a step pyramid because its sides are indeed meant to provide steps for the pharaoh to ascend to heaven after his life.

So pleased was the pharaoh with the whole pyramid thingy that he granted Imhotep access to the afterlife as well.

We had the opportunity to walk around the site a little and see the inscriptions on parts of the small priests' temple.

Bent Pyramid

Our picture of the bent pyramid in the distanceA closeup of the Bent Pyramid

After Imhotep’s success, later architects were keen to improve on the pyramid design; the so-called “Bent pyramid” was an early half-success. Part way through construction of this larger, steeper pyramid, the slope of the sides had to be modified to prevent structural failure, resulting in the peculiar shape known as the “bent” pyramid.

Pyramids at Giza

By the time of the pharaoh Khufu (later called Cheops by the Greeks) about 100 years after Zoser, an entirely new design had replaced the external step appearance (see Step Pyramid above). It is suspected that the internal core of these new pyramids is a step pyramid. However the steps were now infilled with loose rubble to make the sides more or less flat and a new layer of limestone blocks was added over this to create the slope we see today. However the pyramid we see today is not complete. Pink granite facing was added over this layer to make a completely smooth sided pyramid and the top capped with a spectacular crown of gold and silver alloy. Naturally, the gold/silver cap was soon looted and the pink granite was removed by builders of the middle ages, who virtually used the pyramids as a quarry.

There are three pyramids in close proximity: those of (in order of size and date) Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure; thought to be father, son and grandson. Khafre is thought to have built the Sphynx.Some in our group chose to take an apparently dark, cramped and claustrophobic journey down the tunnel to the (now empty) tomb chamber beneath the pyramid. Also here is the Solar Barque Museum. Others of us went to this building nearby where the pharaoh's boat to the afterlife was stored. These enormous boats were constructed in such a way as to allow them to be disassembled and taken piece by piece down the entry tunnel into the tomb, where they were then reconstructed in a recess in the floor.

The familiar, enormous profile of the pyramids, visible on a clear day even from central Cairo, somehow seems undiminished by the encroachment of modern suburbs and the sorry detritus of daily tourism.

Other photos, references


Coptic Cairo

Coptic Cairo is part of “Old Cairo”, with its roots in the old Roman town of Babylon(no, not that one); it was built in the second century AD although it is suspected that a community had existed on the site from as early as the 3rdcentury BC. Both Christians and Jews from the diaspora migrated here.

Coptic is a western corruption of an Arabic word derived from a Greek word for Egyptian…if you follow me. Coptic Christianity broke away from the Eastern Orthodox church (or was ejected for heresy, depending on what you read) when the Easter Orthodox Churchh declared Christ to have been human and divine. Coptic Christians believe that Christ is only divine. They have their own Pope and remain separate to this day.

Although the Coptic quarter at one time was home to as many as one hundred churches, it is also the site of several historic synagogues and mosques.

Today few of any remain but the area retains a sense of collective holiness, its quiet clean narrow walkways free of traffic and commerce, but not from roving gangs of tourists. We traipsed through, in succession, a Coptic Christian church, the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the (Coptic) Hanging Church (all dating from around 500AD) and finally the Coptic Museum. It is of course crass to jumble these all together like this as each had its own unique historic perspective, often in cramped, tiny spaces. The Coptic Museum proved most interesting of all, with a mesmerizing collection of textiles, ceramics and ancient manuscripts.

Cairo:Citadel/Mosque of Mohammed Ali

Saladin began construction of this fortress on a cliff above the Eastern part of Cairo to defend the city against attack by the Crusaders in about 1176. The site proved to be a favourite with the many invaders/conquerors since then, each adding features—mosques, museums, churches and the like—so that the whole is like a small town of oddments.

The largest and perhaps most impressive (although one of its many critics called it "toad-like") of the buildings is the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, built in within the last two hundred years within the walls and on the ruins of the Mamluk mosques that he demolished. We were allowed entrance to the King Louis-Philippe's clockmosque and even to take photographs. Unfortunately, the shots inside didn’t come out and a picture of the vaulted ceiling and wall hangings would have better conveyed what words cannot. It seems a pity that the carpet—threadbare and exuding other faint memory of the shoeless feet of a million tourists—should leave the more lasting impression. In the courtyard outside, a clock tower houses a clock donated by King Louis-Philippe, for which he received the obelisk now being eroded by the traffic on the Place de la Concord in Paris. The clock, broken on delivery has never worked.

Nunnery of St. Catherine’s

In the middle of nowhere, an oasis (literally) of green appears and in the middle of it there is a small gate. We have to pay to go in. There’s a lovely garden and beyond it a courtyard and low buildings where a group from (I think) Italy is having some sort of ceremony. We enter the chapel itself. It is small and there’s not a great deal to see. Lynda buys some oranges here that turn out not be oranges but some

St. Catherine’s Monastery

The area is a main centre of pilgrim interest in the Sinai and attracts not only scads of Christian pilgrims but tourists from Japan (who I’m assuming are not Christian but perhaps they are).

It might seem odd to some that in the very place where Moses is said to have received the ten commandments of all things this monastery (virtually at the foot of Mount Sinai) celebrates the exploits of one Saint Catherine (of Alexandria not Sienna). The approach from the bus parking lot is up a stone road, passing beautiful gardens now in spring bloom. The monastery walls are visible at the end.

Established by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD to house the remains of the Saint, there’s a robust antiquity to the place. Here the monks were attacked time and again by the Bedouin and finally resorted to the less-christian but more-practical tactic of pouring boiling oil on their assailants. Today it’s still  mayhem at the monastery. We squeeze through a gap in the fortressed wall barely large enough for a single person that is currently trying to handle streams of people trying to get in and trying to get out. We arrive in the courtyard; in one corner is Moses’ burning bush (one droll chap has posted a web photo, noting the fire extinguisher attached to the wall beneath the bush) and in another, the well that Moses also is reputed to have used. We join the line to enter the chapel that we are allowed into. Two priests keeping an eye on things somewhat brusquely tell a chap who has fallen to his knees to get up! It is a small space filled with shrines that the pilgrims would dally at longer if another priest was not almost physically moving them along: bouncers of the cloth. We move around the outside walls heading for the exit to the chapel.

We pay extra to visit the museum and this does turn out to be a treat. The library here is second only to the Vatican Library in number of documents and not all are kept on display. It is as fascinating as the Coptic Museum in Cairo; the scripts as ancient and beautiful as the Book of Kells. Remarkable.

Templeat Karnak

Sphynxes lining entrance steps Statues of Ramses and NefertariThe Karnak temple at Luxor is one of the oldest, best preserved, and massive of all the temples we visited, and the most impressive.

Luxor, of course, is the modern name for the city called Thebes, that was the capital of Egypt and the seat of the Pharaoh for most of the country’s ancient history. It was from here that the Kings of Egypt were best able to control both upper and lower Egypt.

The temple has monuments going back to the beginning of the pharaohs yet the bulk of the construction is from the New Kingdom. There is still excavation going on including an attempt to recreate the ancient canal used to transport the pharaoh from Karnak to the temple at Luxor.

One approaches the main temple down steps flanked by sphinxes; two immense statues of Ramses II stand on either side of the entrance to the main temple, and inside it 134 massive columns, each with its own pageant of hieroglyphs once supported a massive ceiling that is long gone. So overwhelming is the bulk of these columns that one can easily overlook subtle details. The capitals (the cap at the top of the column) are all unique, carved in the form of either a lotus flower or a papyrus; either open or closed. Each column too is decorated with intricate hieroglyphs and cartouches. The walls provide spectacular murals and we stop to examine the detail. Behind this are the huge obelisks constructed by Hatshepsut's damaged (some say by Tutmose III) obeliskHatshepsut and Tutmose III

Many of these later reliefs were completed by Alexander the Great and later the Ptolemies (the Greeks being keen to continue plundering the resources of Egypt in peace were anxious to be seen as natural successors to the pharaohs and to be in synch with the gods).

We attended a Sound and Light show here that evening and do not recommend it. The initial half hour was interesting enough for its reinforcement of the history we had heard during the day. The last half hour, however, descended into a style of pompous and ponderous British over-dramatization that was fleetingly popular around the middle of the last century.


Luxor Temple is far smaller than the Temple of Karnak down the road but has its own points of interest, not the least that it is in the middle of town and within a short walk of our hotel. The avenue of Sphynxes, lining the route to Karnak Temple is still being excavated.

The site was started by Hatshepsut but constructed mainly by Amenhotep III; Tutenkamen and Ramses II (of course) added bolt-ons; Alexander the Great contributed “refinements”. Serious disfigurements began with the Romans who constructed a fort on the site (now buried but remnants visible) and by 14th century Arabs, who built an incongruous mosque within the walls of the temple that still stands. A village that also found its way inside has since been removed.

The temple has the same impressive columns as Karnak and although there are fewer of them, the ceiling—gone at Karnak—is still intact here. The reliefs, some added or embellished by Ramses and Alexander still have much of their colour. Unfortunately we don’t have any pictures of the main features at Luxor but the link below does provide some excellent description and pictures.

Luxor: Valley of Kings/Queens

In the Valley of Kings 63 tombs (the latest one by Dr. Kent Weeks in 1995, after it was thought that all the tombs had been found), of Pharaohs and some dignitaries have been located. Another 75 tombs of queens and princes have been discovered in the Valley of Queens. Excavations are still in progress

The Theban Mapping Project is a site in equal degree superb for its coverage of the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, and ridiculous for its lack of any mention of the Valley of the Queens. Have a look at KV34(Thutmose III), KV3 (Ramses III) and KV2 (Ramses IV) to see the sites we went to.

You can see Tutankhamun's tomb here. It is the only tomb not ransacked by tomb-robbers and found with all its brilliant contents intact, only because of an odd happenstance. Tutankhamun was a relatively insignificant boy pharaoh. It is thought that the powerful priest Ay, who likely pulled the strings during Tutankhamun's reign, took the tomb originally meant for Tutankhamun for himself and relegated the pharaoh to a lesser site. Later, when work was begun nearby on the tomb of Ramses V (that later became the tomb for Ramses VI), the rubble was dumped over the mouth of Tutankhamun's tomb, hiding it for millenia. Howard Carter made the discovery in 1922. Other useful references Wikipedia: Valley of the Queens
Nefertar's tomb
Temple of Hatshepsut (excellent photos)

Luxor Museum

The museum houses a number of impressive artefacts in better condition than the ones we see displayed publicly. This is in part because they have been selected because of their good condition and in part because they are now better protected from the elements.

Good link here ...and here

Templeat Edfu

Edfu had ties to the god Horus going back to 3000 BC but the temple at this site now is Ptolemaic—started around 237BC and not completed until almost 200 years later. It is dedicated to the Falcon God Horus and there used to be two of the black granite statues of the god flanking the entrance. Of particular interest in this temple is a groups of hieroglyphs specifying the makeup of the perfumes and incense required for daily rituals, and it is here that you can see the hieroglyphs for counting.

As with other temples, there is a depressing amount of disfiguration. Fortunately, sand blew in over the temple to sufficient depth to cover much of the building and the Coptic Christians saw fit to chisel only half of the reliefs away. Later, Napoleon’s men chasing the marmalukes cut rifle slots in the upper face of the outside walls, and the bullet scars from both sides added to the damage.

On an outside walls are some key figures that helped Egyptologists begin to unravel the clues to these stories. One particular story shows the god Seth as a Hippopotamus being destroyed by the god Horus; each successive relief showing the hippo shrinking in size until finally it is eaten to destroy evil finally.

Temple at Kom Ombo

Again, one more temple feels like just another temple until we approach and look closer...and find this is actually two temples, or actually a perfectly symetrical single temple divided into two: one side dedicated to the god Sobek, the crocodile god of destruction, and the other to Haroeris or Horus the Elder. Hathor, the cow goddess is also prominently featured.

There are many interesting features to this temple. The column capitals, for example are highly ornage. In a back corridor, we examine hieroglyphs and reliefs showing the practice of medicine with instruments. Three hundred mummified crocodiles were discovered nearby (they were bred here) and several are on display. Don't know why we didn't take more photos here.

There are reliefs of the Ptolemaic Kings Ptolemy VIII and Ptolemy XII making offerings to these gods.

Other pages
Wikipedia on Kom Ombo

Temple at Philae

What this temple dedicated to Isis lacks in ancientness it more than makes up for with a colourful history. Isis was worshipped here as early as 690 BC but Nectanebo I built most of what now stands here in the 4th century BC; Ptolemy II completed it and various Roman generals built shrines in the vicinity. However, this worship of Isis still going strong in the 4th century AD even as far away as Europe, created considerable resentment among Christians. The emperor Justinian closed the temple; Christians actually constructed a chapel here, defacing many of the reliefs, only to have the Muslims deface their own writings and defacements a couple of centuries later.

When the British built the first Aswan dam downstream of the site and submerged the temple; interest in the temple, erm, resurfaced. In fact UNESCO contributed to this first project of its kind: in which the complete temple was removed from its original site beneath the waters of the new lake and rebuilt, stone by stone, on Agilkia Island where we now were able to reach by boat from the shoreline at Luxor.

Monastery of St. Simeon

One should respect anyone who decamps to a sandy retreat in the desert on the opposite bank from Luxor; who is so devoted that they grow their hair long enough to be able to attach it to an iron ring in the ceiling to prevent themselves dozing off during meditation. Only a complete philistine then would observe that, nearing the end of a holiday in which one has come to see anything less than 4000 years old as a yawner, the most exciting part about this visit was the walk up the hill or the camel ride that others took.

Temple at Abu Simbel

We flew 400 kilometers down the length of Lake Nasser into a remote part of the desert, spending less than 24 hours here to see this one  temple, before flying back out.

There’s no doubt that on some level, this is both an ancient and modern miracle. There are two temples here, one to Ramses II, Amun and Ptah; the other to Ramses’ wife Nefertari and to the god Horus located only a hundred feet away. The four 20 meter high statues of Ramses II each weighing 1200 tons each are astounding; the smaller ones of Nefertari scarcely less so. Inside and outside, there are none-too-subtle reliefs all depicting Ramses slaying his enemies in most cases, the Hittites. Given that the Hittites came so close to defeating Ramses this represents a propagandist bending of the truth.

 It is even more astounding considering that in the 1970s these colossal temples were removed stone by stone from their original positions now submerged 200m away under the surface of Lake Nasser (which was rising because of the new Aswan dam) and reconstructed on higher ground where we now view them.

Ramses had a political motive when he built these. Here was the remote southern border with Nubia in ancient times and Ramses’ intention was to both spiritually fortify the soldiers here as well as to spook anyone passing these massive reminders of the might of the pharaoh on their way along the ancient lake. Slowly over time, however, sand enveloped even these huge figures carved directly into the stone cliffs of the lake, and an ancient earthquake broke one of the statues in half.

For some on our trip, this was the highlight of the whole trip. For others of us, perhaps now underwhelmed by yet another mammoth statue of the megalomaniac Ramses II in a blatant display of political rather than religious fervour, feelings were more mixed.