Sunday, December 6, 2009

Look Like an Egyptian

I was utterly exhausted (just look at my eyes!), but it was a special dinner and we all wore something we had purchased on the trip. I wore my pectoral collar. It really is the most fun thing I got on the entire trip and despite the fact it looks expensive, it cost all of about 6.00. Not sure how often I can wear it in Eugene, but I'm sure I'll find a way!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Luxor Part Two--After Noon

Despite my life-long fascination with ancient Egypt, I have to admit that when I think of Luxor and Karnack, it’s not the temples or the monuments that come to mind, but Johnny Carson’s skit about Karnack the Magnificent. Apparently that bias is more pervasive than I realize because I took almost no notes as we visited these famous temple sites. Perhaps it has as much to do with the fact that they were inundated with the herds of tourist (at least the Temple of Luxor was) as much as anything else. We had definitely been spoiled by the freedom and unobstructed views we have had the last few days in Middle Egypt and landing back in the midst of thousands of other tourists was a bit of culture shock. It might also have a teeny bit to do with the fact that by the time we set out, in early afternoon, I was actually ready for a nap. But one cannot visit Egypt without seeing ancient Thebes, and so onto the bus we climbed, cameras in hand for another afternoon of Temple Tromping.

The area or Luxor has been described as the world’s largest open air museum and that’s not an exaggeration. We began our tour by visiting the Temple of Karnack, an immense complex that Pharaohs added to for more than 13 centuries. The size is simply breathtaking and the scale model in the museum is about the only way to really appreciate what it might have looked like in its heyday with hypostyle halls, courtyards, a lake, avenue of Sphinxes and temples to as many gods as Rome has churches dedicated to saints.

We were privileged to have the director of antiquities for Upper Egypt join us at the site and give us a tour of the most recent excavations. (Could I have written a more dull and boring sentence straight out of some tourist diary if I had tried?) The thing that intrigued me the most was the bathhouse, with its little “private” closets. I would have liked to have learned more about the way it was plumbed, but perhaps that’s not something the excavators know yet. In any event, it showed that the ancients were just as fond of their creature comforts, including a nice refreshing bath, as we are.

The Temple of Karnack and the Temple of Luxor were connected by an approximately two mile long avenue of Sphinxes. A cult figure of the god Amun was periodically taken from one temple to the other. As we walked through a line of the remaining Sphinxes, all I could think of was that I hoped Fadel didn’t think we had any desire to recreate that pilgrimage by personally walking the distance. There’s hands-on-history and then there is butt-on-bus history and this afternoon I am definitely in the bob category. What makes these Sphinxes unique is that instead of human heads, they have rams’ heads.

Visiting the area is a little like speed-surfing through centuries of architectural styles, historical events and famous names. Everywhere you turn, is another amazing vista—an obelisk here, a pylon there, a pillar over there, a monumental statue at the next turn. Ramesses, Tuthmosis, Hatshepsut, Amenhotep…the litany of names rolls around my head making me almost giddy. I wander in a bit of a daze, the scenes, the hieroglyphs, the buildings rising like the Nile itself in a flood in my mind. Perhaps when I put this up on the blog, I’ll just let some of the pictures speak for themselves. A picture is worth a 1000 words, right?

The next stop for the day is Luxor Temple. Our visit has been timed so that we arrive just at sunset, to take full advantage of the enchanting play of light against the stone and then the stunning effect of the artificial illumination. Fadel takes us down the other end of the row of Sphinxes that we saw at Karnack and while I’m tempted to lean against one of them, it is sunset and I recall reading that nasty creatures like scorpions and vipers come about now. Of all the things I would not like to encounter on this trip, an Egyptian cobra is probably at the top of the list, with Cleopatra’s asp a very close second. Although seeing as how this is one of the most visited tourist sites in the whole country, no self-respecting snake should be here, says the woman who came home to find a huge black snake coiled in her kitchen and she lives in the middle of the city!!!! With my ability to attract venomous creatures, I think standing instead of leaning is the wisest option right now.

The statues and pillars take on a life of their own after dark and it’s not hard to imagine being transported back to the days when the Pharaohs ruled, despite the crush of tourists. The soft yellow glow illuminating the temple almost looks like it could be flickering torches and fires and the buzz of languages—I catch bits of German, Japanese, English, Arabic, something Slavic, Spanish and Italian—becomes almost chant-like, the individual words all blending into a kind of prayer for the ages. It is an enchanted, enchanting moment in an enchanted, enchanting place.

Fadel has arranged for an authentic Egyptian dinner at a private home, but some of us, me included, just aren’t up for it tonight. It was a long day and tomorrow we have to be on the bus by 7 am to go to the Valley of the Kings, so about half of us choose to just go back to the hotel. I’m sure the meal will be outstanding, but I’m not very hungry and besides, I’ve lost my guidebook which accounts for the rather truncated historical context. Without notes or guidebook, I’m forced to rely on my memory of what Fadel told us and at this point in the trip, my memory card is getting a bit full.

There is a bookstore in a complex of shops near the hotel, along with a much needed ATM, so I decide to go there immediately and not return to my room where I would be tempted to take a hot bath and curl up watching French tv. The bookstore is small, but has a goodly selection of English books. I tell the owner that I am looking for a guidebook and he offers me The Rough Guide, which is the one I had. I wasn’t all that delighted with it, so I opt for Lonely Planet instead. If I had the carrying space, I’d have brought home dozens of marvelous books about Egypt, but I decide on just one more—a guidebook to the language of the ancient Egyptians translated into modern English—expressions that would have been in use in those times, which may come in handy if and when I ever write that novel.

I give the man my credit card and he has a problem with getting the machine to work, so he gets one of the other merchants to help. When he hands me the receipt to sign, it’s for LE15 (about $5) more than the price he quoted. I sigh interiorly, figuring this is just another one of those incidents when tourists get ripped off, but I point it out anyway. To my surprise, he immediately opens the drawer and hands me the LE15, with an apology. No fuss. No argument. Just the money back. I’ll admit I’m a little shocked. Every other time I’ve had a dispute over change, the merchant has sworn up and down that he didn’t have the change and couldn’t possibly give me anything.

I start to put my purchases into my purse when the owner softly, almost shyly says something that literally causes my jaw to drop. “Do you know Jesus as your savior?” I blink. And then I blink again. “Excuse me?” He repeats the question. I’m more than a little taken aback. “Are you a Christian?” I ask stupidly, since why would a Muslim ask me about Jesus. He nods. “A Copt?” He shakes his head vigorously. “No, I am a Protestant. I do not worship Santa Maria,” he says.
I may have just encountered the only evangelical Protestant in all of Egypt in, of all places, a bookstore in Luxor. He really wants me to answer his question and so putting aside all of my own theological conundrums and questions, my own issues with Catholicism and Protestantism, doctrine and dogma, I recall when my Nazarene minister friend insisted that I “walk the Roman road of faith” with her and so I say, “Yes, I have.” He smiles and begins to speak about his own faith and the role Jesus plays. I’ve had a good many surreal experiences in my life, but this has to be up near the top. Being evangelized in Egypt. All of a sudden, he reaches under a pile of boxes and brings out a small black-bound New Testament in English. “I’d like you to have this,” he says, handing it to me. At first I was going to refuse since I have more than enough New Testaments to start my own bookstore, but then I realize that a gift refused blesses neither of us. I thank him for it, and place it in my bag with the other two books. “If you are here tomorrow, come to see me,” he says. I tell him that we are leaving early in the morning to see the Valley of the Kings, and thank him again.

I head back toward the entrance to the hotel, barely seeing the armed guards at the entrance. From the Temple of Amun to the New Testament—a living metaphor of the history of the Middle East encapsulated in a single afternoon.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


I'm recovering from a possible case of swine flu (Oh, N1H1, sorry pig lobby). As soon as I have the semblance of a brain, the rest of the blog entries will go up. Bear with me. This trip will be finished!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Speaking of Zahi

Speaking of Zahi, our group got a shout-out on his blog. A brush with fame....

Monday, November 23, 2009

Zahi Hawass

Phyllis Brown who was on our tour just sent me these pictures. See, I did meet Zahi Hawass!!!

Day Eight--The Luxury of Luxor part One

Midway through the journey, we actually have a morning off. I suppose even the Foreign Legion got the occasional rest period. Our hotel is the Sheraton Luxor and like most Sheratons, it’s lovely and modern. Which makes it all the more difficult to remember not to put the toothbrush under the tap or take a drink of the water.
What makes this place so wonderfully amazing is the view—a balcony overlooking the Nile. Could anything be more romantic? Fadel suggested that we might want to visit the Luxor museum or the Market on our free morning, but I opted to sit outside, enjoying the slight breeze, the chirping of the birds and work on my journal and this blog.

I’m not really sure why I feel so compelled to complete the blog, at least in journal form, even if I never get it transcribed and put up, but perhaps it is so that I don’t forget, so that I remember as much of this magical trip as I possibly can. And even a few days afterwards, I know the images will begin to fade and all that will be left of the memories will be the photos. I’ve found that happens frequently. Memory will be reduced to shuttered images and the nuances, the sensations and the emotions will gradually fade. This is one trip I’m determined to hold onto as many of the thoughts as I possibly can.

In addition to writing this morning, I’m also doing some housekeeping aka washing of clothes. We had a detailed list of what to bring and while I have been okay, I haven’t been nearly as fancy or as fashionable as the rest of my traveling companions. I brought three cotton tee-shirts, a couple of long sleeved cotton shirts and two silk/cotton blend tees. The silk/cotton were a mistake because they are just too hot to wear. The cotton is by far the best; little wonder Egypt is known for its cotton. If I had it to do over, I’d bring several more tee shirts and some Capri pants, instead of the safari type pants with the zip-off to shorts feature that I did bring. And I’d put in more jewelery. All the ladies on this trip have gorgeous bangles and spangles and since I brought exactly one pair of earrings and promptly lost one of them, I’ve been the shabby downstairs maid fashionwise. I suppose it really doesn’t matter if I look magnificent since I’m a drenched puddle of dripping hair and soaked shirt 90% of the time anyway. I am going to look for a pair of earrings at the market outside the hotel so when we have our final dress-up dinner, I can look semi-put together.

The morning off is a real blessing. I need to be able to put my feet up and just let my mind absorb what I’ve seen and experienced. In fact, I think I may take a little nap before we head out to see the Temples of Luxor and Karnack this afternoon, so this entry is going to be very short. I’m sure the afternoon will make up for it!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Day Seven--Abiding at Abydos

I’m still on an incredible high from actually seeing and standing and breathing and being where Akhenaton and Nefertiti and Tut lived. Well, mentally I’m on a high. Physically I’m feeling the climbs in every cell of my body. But it was worth it. It was so worth it. Sometimes we do things that we pay for afterwards, but the price, no matter how high, is worth the experience. Yesterday was that for me.

It doesn’t help that we have a very early morning; out to the bus by 7 am, which means suitcases at the door by 6:30 at the latest. I can never quite figure out how to put everything I need for morning in a small bag and get all the rest tidied up the night before. Not to mention, I don’t understand how a suitcase can get so incredibly jumbled when I have carefully put everything in ziplock bags. Since we still have a long ways ahead of us, I am fighting the good fight to keep things in order. Entropy is winning, however.

Before we got too far this morning, the bus had a broken fan belt. We pulled off the side of the road while the driver repaired it. I’m not sure what impressed me more—the fact that he could replace the belt or the fact that he carried a spare belt with him. It made me wonder what other parts were tucked into the belly of the beast? Do bus drivers in the states carry replacement parts? Do they know how to repair their vehicles? I ponder these things as most of the people get off the bus and wander around. They seem to think it would be cooler off the bus than inside. Despite the lack of air conditioning, I think the relative shade of the bus is preferable to the heat of the outdoors. But then the thought of moving makes my legs throb and so I opt for sloth instead of seeing.

We are driving through little villages with dirt roads, narrow alleys, men milling about and children waving excitedly.
Not many women are out, unless they are doing laundry at the banks of the river or, occasionally, working in the fields. This part of Egypt has been considered dangerous for tourists, so we have at least two police guards, usually front and rear of the bus, and an on-board guard, the one who helped me climb to the tombs yesterday and gave me the sprig of revitalizing mint. It is still in my left pocket and I can smell the faint traces of the spicy aroma in the heat. One of the reasons that this area is considered a danger spot for tourists is because the University of Asyut has been associated with Islamic fundamentalists and also this area is home to a fairly large Coptic Christian population. Even while we were here, there was a shooting resulting in death between a Muslim and Christian over the price of a coke. You’d think that I would be scared, but the little girl who wanted to be a war correspondent and became a religion writer instead seems perfectly at home. After the initial shock of seeing weapons all time, I’ve become fairly inured to the sight of large weapons I can’t readily identify and don’t really want to.

I keep reflecting back on yesterday, mainly because it was the highlight of the trip for me and I can hardly believe that I actually made it to Amarna, but also because we haven’t seen much this morning. One of the reasons for the early departure was to cover the distance we have to cover. Most tourists visit Cairo and then fly to Luxor or Aswan; we are driving and that takes a fair amount of time. As does repairing broken fan belts.

Our first stop is the White Monastery, a Coptic Church founded in the 5th century by St. Shenouda, a saint I’ve never heard of, but then I’m not well versed in Coptic saints. Apparently it once housed a large monastic community, but now it seems more like a cross between a tourist attraction and a regular church. In fact, a baptism just occurred before we entered the courtyard and the proud family was taking pictures of an adorable little girl in a gleaming white communion dress. The papa handed her to one of the women in our group for pictures and then she was passed off to me. I was surprised at how light she was and how tiny, a dark-eyed beauty surrounded by white lace. The language was foreign, but the joy of the parents and the family was the same world over. A new life, entering into the old traditions, celebrating a faith and future.

What really stands out for me about the White Monastery is the bathrooms. They were wonderful, clean, spacious, with toilet paper. When you are getting used to peeing in a toilet that has been used several times before and tossing the scrap of paper the attendant hands you in a basket instead of flushing, modern bathrooms are like a little slice of heaven. They even have running water to wash your hands. One odd thing, each stall had what looked like a shower head in it as well as the fixtures. I never did figure out what that was all about and the lack of language skills made it impossible to ask. Maybe it was used to hose the stalls down at the end of the day. Or not.

I have to admit I missed a bit of the scenery today as the warmth, the hum of the engine and the rocking motion sort of put me to sleep. But by the time we got to Abydos, I was wide awake.

Abydos is considered one of the most beautiful temples in all of Egypt and I can definitely understand why. The main cult center for the god Osiris, the god of the dead, it was used as a necropolis for more than 4500 years. It is here that an Englishwoman, Dorothy Eady, took the name Omm Sety and lived for 35 years, claiming to be the reincarnated lover of Seti I. I’ve read about her story and while parts of it are completely outlandish, she did know some things about the working of the Temple and locations of relics that would be hard to explain. Maybe I’ll look up her story when I get home.

The Temple of Seti I is one of the most complete in Egypt. It is simply breathtaking. It also requires a great deal of walking. Have I mentioned that one walks and walks and walks when visiting Egypt? I don’t want to bore the reader (or the writer for that matter) by describing the layout of an Egyptian temple, so suffice to say they are long, relatively narrow and incredibly beautiful, from the stately pillars to the incredibly vivid wall murals.

I have to admit that some of the magnificence of the site is going over my head because I am so tired from yesterday. I slip away from the group now and then and lean against a pillar, occasionally sitting on a base if it looks undecorated and if no one is watching. In one of these rest stops, I look up and am captivated by the painted ceiling. How did they get up there to paint it? What sort of scaffolding did they have? The craftsmanship is still breath-taking after all these millennia. I keep bending over farther and farther until I almost lose my balance, catching myself only by backing into one of the pillars. So much for not touching the artifacts!

At one point, sunlight from a small window high on the wall streaks into the temple and I manage, in a small miracle, to capture it on film.
Even though we are no longer in Amarna, I can see why Akhenaton depicted his god as rays of light ending in hands. In this place, with the strong Egyptian sun streaming into the dimly light cavern of the temple, it is easy to see why the Sun, as the Aten or as Re, was worshipped. I pause in silent reverence for having had the chance to experience this moment of complete awe.

The colors on the murals almost defy description. They are still vivid red, blue, yellow, looking more like a Hollywood set than something thousands of years old. One of the women on the trip is an expert in dyes and paints and she asks Fadel if they used lapis or turquoise for the blue. He says lapis, but I can tell from her expression that she thinks turquoise must have been included. I wouldn’t know, but the blue is deep and rich, sometimes with a slightly green cast. In the Egyptian museum, I saw some artists’ palettes with their stone grinding kits containing ochre (I recognized that) and other minerals. I didn’t see any blue or green stone; perhaps that was too valuable to just leave lying around.

We turn a corner and my weariness evaporates as I see the famed King List! The ancients didn’t reckon time as we do, from a given starting point, marching relentlessly into the future. Rather, they dated events as occurring in such and such a year of a King’s reign. The count started over with each new king, so figuring out the sequences of kings was vital for archaeologists. And now here I am, looking at the only remaining King list still in situ. Fadel points out the solar disc and the duck signs, which indicate “son of god,” a designator of the Pharaoh. Once he has shown it to us, it suddenly appears everywhere on the wall. Isn’t that always the case? Once something comes into your field of awareness, you begin to see it all over the place. Of course, this Kings’ list doesn’t list any of the so-called Heretic Kings such as Akhenaton or Tutankhamen or that radical feminist Hatshepsut, but it does contain 75 (I think that’s what Fadel said) of Seti I’s predecessor. I’d love to reach out and touch just one of the cartouches, but if everyone did, the rock would be destroyed by the heat and bacteria on our hands, so I content myself with merely staring, gap-jawed, at the rows and rows and rows of names, all neatly tucked into their cartouches, a record of some of the greatest men to ever rule this part of the world.

Outside, behind the Temple is an odd structure called the Osireion which is partly underwater.
Seeing water in the desert is odd enough, but apparently this building was always partially surrounded by water, although the rising water table has flooded much of it today. While what we saw was apparently built by Seti I, this area seems to have been a site of worship back eons into the distant past. I wonder what it is about certain areas that cause them to give off a sense of holiness? Many of the cathedrals of Europe are built on pre-historic prayer sites, where people gathered to worship the Divine millennia before written history. This site, which seems to be in the middle of nowhere, was one of those places. Was it because there was water here? Or was it something else, something more elusive, more mysterious, more intangible? Staring down at the giant blocks of granite, “floating” in the greenish water, I feel a certain pull, a certain resonance that perhaps is my answer.

One of the things that most amazes me about these sites is how hot they are. The stones that make up the temples absorb the unrelenting heat of the sun and radiate it back in almost palpable waves of heat. I hold my hand a few inches from the stone I’m resting my elbows on and it almost pulsates. One would not survive for very long in this climate without water or shade, especially not when you are of Northern European descent and consider 65 to be a nice comfortable temperature. I’m sure that 65 would be considered arctic by those who live here all the time. In fact, I don’t think the air conditioning in my hotel rooms goes that low, but then it is in Celsius and by the time we get to the hotel each night, my ability to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit is non-existent.

We clamber back on our bus, each of us pausing for a moment at the front to pull a cool bottle of water from the chest. We who live in a land of potable water take it so for granted. Here, it is something to be cherished, treasured and even hoarded. When there is water on the bus, we all take a bottle, just in case we might need it later on. I think I have two in my case, but I grab another one, feeling only slightly guilty at having more than my share. But I rationalize by telling myself that I don’t drink any of the soda on board; just the water.

The sky here is a remarkably clear blue but it is frequently marred by plumbs of dense black smoke pouring from molasses factories. It looks like the smoke from a forest fire dangling over the Nile or volcano shooting soot heavenward. Clearly pollution standards are not the same here.
I can’t smell it inside the bus, but something tells me that a molasses factory wouldn’t be the most aromatic of places; most food production plants aren't. I remember going through a chocolate factory and while I adore chocolate, the smell was almost nauseating. And I’m really not that fond of molasses.

Jostling along, the countryside begins to become a blend of fields and villages. I find myself nodding off a bit until Fadel comes on the microphone and tells us that we are passing near Nag Hammadi hills where the famous papyrus codices including the Gospel of Thomas were found. To be honest, the hills look like all the other hills we’ve been seeing in this part of Egypt and my only thought was, “Thank God we aren’t going to climb up there and look at the caves!” I am perfectly content to see them from the windows of the bus, thank you very much. I suspect some of our group are disappointed that they aren’t doing to be able to trek up there, but I’m sure they’ll have another chance to march endless miles in the heat before we are finished.

The last stop of the day is the Temple of Hathor at Dendara. Hathor, the cow-headed, is the goddess of love.
Fadel says that he called his wife his “Hathor” and she asked if he thought she was a cow. She has a point. I understand that the rationale for having a cow be the symbol of love is because of the tender care that the cow has for her calf, but I think I might have chosen a different image if it had been up to me. It’s the ears, I think. At any rate, Hathor is one of the most recognizable of the Egyptian gods. Once you’ve seen her, you’ll never mistake her for anyone else.

We arrive at her Temple in the late afternoon, as the sun is setting and the mosquitoes are coming out. I have sprayed my pant legs with poison everyday and finally it’s paying off. Either that or the mosquitoes don’t really like the taste of very hot, tired, middle-aged woman. In any event, I’m not getting bit.

The Temple is one of the more intact in Egypt and so it’s not hard to imagine the ceremonies that must have occurred here but confession time: the temples are starting to run together a bit. Of course, I can see and appreciate the differences, but it’s kind of like visiting churches in Rome. Eventually, they begin to blur, and even good notes and pictures at night don’t always sort them out. The things that stand out here for me are the zodiacs on the ceiling (Leo is always easy to spot) and the defaced images of the goddess. Throughout the country, many of the old temples were turned into Christian churches and images of the gods and the Pharaohs were defaced, the faces and limbs hacked out. To be fair, it seems to be the Egyptian way since the ancients were chiseling out each other’s images long before the Christians arrived. But I still cringe a little to see Hathor, traces of blue still on her headpiece, her face a ripple of blank stone. Why do we feel we have to destroy what we don’t accept? This defacement is hardly different than the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddha statues; it just happened much much longer ago. I really don’t know how to express what I feel when I see a great temple turned into a Christian shrine, its art destroyed in the process. I’m sure the people who did it acted out of what they believed were the highest motives, but it still makes me sad and leaves me with an empty, bitter feeling.

As for the zodiacs, they, too, were defaced,
only this time by the French who wrenched them from the ceiling and transported them to the Louvre. A rather poor plaster replacement which is chipped and fading was left in their place.

This is one of the few, maybe the only, temple that still has the second floor intact and so we climb well-worn stairs to the roof. So many feet have trod the stones, they are worn almost to a ramp. Fadel explains some of the rituals that took place here and how they related to other sites closer to Luxor, ancient Thebes, where we will visit tomorrow. I move to the side of the wall and look out over the countryside. The sun is beginning its descent and long shadows begin to shroud some of the enclosure walls. The mud brick takes on a slightly reddish hue and the distant hills look like cardboard cutouts against the endless, cloudless sky. Our guard joins me at the wall, staring deeply into the distance. I ask him if he has a family and he says, “Not yet,” with a bit of a smile. He will leave us tonight and go home since we will soon be out of Middle Egypt and into the tourist centers of Luxor and Aswan.

We descend from the roof via a different staircase, not nearly so worn and walk around to the back of the temple where we gaze at a relief of Cleopatra (yes, the Cleopatra) and her brother/husband Ptolemy. If we hadn’t been told it was Cleopatra, I’d never have known. Even the reliefs are beginning to look a bit alike at this point.

The sun is setting as we get back to the bus. The driver speeds up, our misadventure with the fan belt has made us a bit later than planned. As we skirt the Nile, water pipes lie on the banks like giant snakes and modern pumps gush water into the fields. It’s easy to see the difference between farms. Some are very tidy, with organized rows, carefully spaced and tended. Others are haphazard, with shaky lines and meandering trails. Clearly, personality emerges even in the way the land itself is tended. The fields and trees reflect in the calm water of the irrigation canals, like an Alice in Wonderland Through the Looking Glass world of upside down and reversed images. The light is fading and it is beginning to be difficult to see, but as we pause at a corner, I notice a duck, his head tucked under his wings, bedding down for the night. Soon we will be in Luxor and we too will be able to tuck our heads beneath our wings for one more Egyptian night.