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.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Day Six--Amarana Part Two

Akhetaten, the city of Akhenaten. I can see why Egyptologists call it Amarna or Tel Al Amarna instead of Akhetaten. I can never keep the name of the King and the name of the city straight and I’m betting neither can most people.

This is the reason for my trip. The reason I can on this tour and not another. To visit Middle Egypt. To see the land where Akhenaten and Nefertifi set up their new city. To be honest, there isn’t much to see. A crescent of desert bounded by the Nile and high rocky cliffs But the very air is infused with the romance of the period and I am excited beyond imagining.

We drive to what I can only describe as a landing area, where we park the bus and Fadel points up the side of the high cliffs where little dark blotches appear—the royal tombs. That is our first destination.

There are stairs, many many many stairs, leading up the side of the cliff, but fortunately there is also a trail alongside them. It’s much easier to trudge up a trail in blinding sun and broiling heat than it is to do a stairmaster in the same condition. I have a couple of bottles of water in my pack, but I’m really wishing I had gotten a camelback pack so I could just drink and pant. The climb may not be all that tough in reality, but it is hard for me. Not only because I’m out of condition, but because every step grates on my knees, but I am absolutely determined that I will finish the climb, no matter what. I trail behind the rest of the group, but in some ways that’s a relief because I know I’m not obstructing anyone. I’m panting. No, I’m gasping. Fadel’s assistant who has accompanied us on this part of the trip, a beautiful young woman who works as a professor of architecture most of the time tells me to breathe through my nose instead of my mouth. I would if I could, I think. Right now I’m just focused on breathing period.

Our armed guard, who rides on the bus, notices me and waits at one of the slightly more level spots, his eyes questioning. “I’m okay,” I say. Well, that’s probably a lie. I’m probably near heat stroke, but if I have to die, Amarna is as good a place as any. I stop, red-faced and puffing, about 15 steps from the top and the guard takes me by the arm and pulls me the rest of the way.

I am standing on the rim of train far above the valley floor. My God, I’ve made it. I’ve made it to the Royal Tombs of the Heretic King.

Now I’m not sure if my heart is pounding because of the climb or because of excitement or some of both. There are 25 tombs in this area, but we are visiting only three of them. (Thank God. Walking a narrow ledge on the side of cliff in the desert isn’t on my list of things I want to do very often.) The tombs themselves aren’t awesome in the same way that the Temple of Karnack is said to be awesome, but what makes them so incredible to me is that I know members of the royal court stood here, on the same ground I’m standing on. It’s a bit like standing in the agora at Athens and realizing that St. Paul debated the philosophers in that very place. A tangible connection with history in way that erases the centuries. My mind is swirling and I’m almost dizzy. Not from heat stroke, but from the realization that I am actually here.

As Fadel guides out of the tomb of Ahmose, “Fan-bearer on the King’s right hand,” I linger a bit, standing in front of an image of the King and Queen on their way to the Aten Temple. The curtain of time parts for just a moment and I feel as if I am actually witnessing the moment in reality, the first recorded worship of a single god by a monarch. I wonder where the belief in monotheism came from? Did Akhenaton get the idea from the Hebrews? Some people suggest that Moses might have been raised with him or been his tutor and he developed his idea of a singular powerful god from that influence. I’m not sure the time frame of the Exodus has ever been clearly established so without access to some current data, I can’t say if that’s plausible or not. The similarity of Ahkenaten’s hymn to the Aten with the Psalm is striking however. It simply can’t be coincidence that two prayers, from the same part of the world, would be almost word for word identical. I remain in front of the painting as long as I can, in an act of homage and reverence. It is a holy moment for me, a moment suffused with grace and gratitude, a moment to be tucked away in my soul forever.

We walk slowly, walking quickly in this heat and ledge edge would be very unwise, to two more tombs, including the tomb of either Pentu, the royal physician, or Panehsy, a priest. I honestly can’t remember which is which. Now if their names didn’t both begin with “P,” I might have had more luck.

The bus is very very far below us and with an unpleasant jolt, I realize we do have to walk back down there.

Fortunately, we do not retrace our steps, but the trail down is steep enough to cause an ache in the thighs. I stumble once and the guard catches my arm. I’m not panting nearly as much on the way down as the way up so I don’t think he fears for my life. He hands me a spring of mint that he found god knows where. Surprisingly, the crisp fresh aroma is invigorating and I crush the leaves to release their scent.

Once we are back at the bus, we proceed along flat nothingness to what was the Northern Palace. I hadn’t realized just how large Amarna was. It’s about nine miles from side to side and three to four from the Nile to the rock cliffs, a massive undertaking for a city that would exist only 30 or so years and become a highpoint in artistic design. The Northern Palace was Nefertiti’s home near the end of the period. Her mother in law came for a visit and shortly afterwards, Nefertiti and the children moved out of Ahkenaten’s palace to this place on the northern edge of the city. I wonder what the mother in law said or did that created such a rift in what had been a happy family? One of the little human dramas lost literally in the sands of time.

The traces of the palace can be seen in low walls and flooring. It doesn’t look like much now, but once upon a time it was the epitome of modernity with bedrooms, bathrooms, public rooms, reception rooms, gardens, pools, and servants’ quarters, complete with structural details that caught the northern breeze and created a sort of natural air conditioning. Even though the area is guarded by barbed wire and I couldn’t actually walk on the palace floor, just knowing that I was within feet of where Nefertiti and Tut, Meretaten and Ankhesenpaaten, Horemheb and Ay lived, loved and plotted takes my breath away. (And I have recovered my breath since the cliff trek!)

From the Northern Palace, we drive a surprisingly long way to the ruins of the Temple of the Aten which consists on one rather phallic looking column and the broken remains of the main altar. It’s difficult to mentally reconstruct what this must have looked like, even with the evidence of paintings and murals which are now in places like the Cairo museum. I try to imagine how the area would have been laid out, but one pillar just isn’t enough to give a clear idea. I’ll have to find a recreation somewhere. As I stand next to the column, it reminds me of the single pillar that remains of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, a lonely reminder of what was once one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. In its own way, this temple too, was one of the marvels of the ancient world and now it has been reduced to a solitary sentinel.

We retrace our route out of the desert back to the fertile land bordering the Nile to the ferry that will return us to the other side. This time, we share our space with a donkey cart and a truck.
Our fashionista is not called on to drive the ferry this time; maybe it’s a different captain or perhaps it’s nearing the end of the day and there is no time for frivolity. Just get over the river and back to home. We reboard our big bus (we had taken a smaller, almost van-like bus to the actual site), I look out over the land, seeing what King Akhenaton saw for the land cannot be all that much different than it was when he first decided to build here. The sweeping scope of the flat plain, the soaring cliffs, the broad Nile with its rich fertile banks. No modern structures, no cell phone towers or electrical wires mar the vista. It possesses a certain timelessness that I can only hope will last another thousand years.

Our hotel for the night is, well, interesting. It is apparently a private hotel for employees of a cement company, sort of like a corporate residence. The rooms are enormous. You almost need a breadcrumb trail to get from the bed to the bath, but the sheets are threadbare and slightly stained, the shower sprays everywhere but down and in place of a washcloth, we have a sponge mat. I wash the dirt of the day off my face and hands and go down to the dining room for dinner, where we are served kushari, a traditional Egyptian meal, consisting of rice, lentils, chickpeas, macaroni, and caramelized onions. It sounds like it might be a heavy pasta sort of meal, but it’s actually very light and flavorful. I guzzle water, wondering where I put my Advil, listening to my fellow travelers chat about the day. My mind is no longer here. It is somewhere back on a rock cliff, overlooking a gleaming city rising out of the yellow sand, returning to vibrant life after millennia of sleep.

I have fulfilled my dream. I have seen Amarna. Everything from now on will be lagniappe.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Day 6 on the way to Amarna

I wake up with an incredible surge of excitement. Today we are going to Amarna. This is the reason I am on the tour. I would have paid the entire price just to go to the site of Akenaton’s city. I have dreamed of this place and visited it a thousand times in my imagination. To see Amarna with my own eyes. Can it even be possible?
But to prolong the anticipation or maybe because of the way the roads run, we first are going to Tuna el Gabal, the necropolis for the ancient city of Hermopolis.
I’m beginning to grow accustomed to the sight of mud brick houses with dirt floors, and ducks, donkeys, goats, and buffalo on the front porch, but I am still startled to see a woman sweeping the ground with a reed broom just a little bigger than a whisk broom under the gaze of a satellite dish. Fadel calls Egypt the land of contradictions and indeed it is—arid and fertile, modern and ancient, donkeys and cell phones. It is as if the front foot of the land has stepped into the 21st century while the back foot remains in the 1st.
If I can divert a bit from the travelogue, I think it is the mixture of the new and the old that most Westerns can’t understand unless they experience it first hand. The people retain a sensibility of the centuries, of farming, of living along the river, of the vast desert. Their minds and mindset are still shaped by the same forces that shaped the lives of their ancestors. And yet they now talk on cell phones, carry submachine guns and drive motorcycles, all the while transporting sugarcane to market on donkeys and washing clothes in the river. It’s no wonder they see the world in ways those of us who have never pounded our underware on rocks can’t understand. Ancient minds in a modern world make for a tinder keg where responses to situations can have disasterous consequences. Until we who live in the West realize that just because someone wears a tie and carries a iPhone, he doesn’t think the way we do, I believe there will be continual misunderstanding and confusion. And yet, especially here in Egypt, the people are gentle, kind and hospitable. It is possible for the world to live in peace. We just have to work a little harder at it.
Okay, small political commentary over. I’ll try to stick to ancient sites for the rest of the entry. As we pass a Coptic Church with a large mosaic image of Our Lady on the front, Fadel says that Egyptian tradition holds that Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to Heliopolis, the City of the Light, when they fled Israel to avoid the Massacre of the Innocents. It’s interesting to realize that I have been to Jordan where Jesus walked as an adult and now to Egypt where he walked, or rather toddled, as a child.
It is very early in the morning…at least for me since we got on the bus by 7:30 am. In the villages or even larger towns instead of workers heading off to offices, the water buffalo are being brought to the fields. Every now and then I see a man with a briefcase waiting to cross the road alongside a buffalo. That’s certainly not something you’d see anywhere in America. Because it gets so hot here, work starts in the cool of the morning. I see a man wielding a hoe in the field looking exactly as if he has stepped out of a wall carving. His hoe unchanged in four millennia. He raises it over his head and pulls up a chuck of dark, black soil. Over and over, he carves the earth, readying it for planting. In the next field over, another man sows, flinging seeds from a leather pouch over his shoulder just as his ancestors have done from the beginning of agricultural cultivation. The seeds spray in an arc and almost in the same motion, he reaches into the pouch and repeats the gesture over and over.
A small truck passes us, overladen with cabbage,cauliflower, tomatoes and at least three people standing on the bumper, hanging onto the top with one hand. Fadel says that a recent law has made talking on the cell phone while driving illegal because it is too dangerous. Apparently falling off the back of rapidly moving vechiles isn’t a danger, but I’d take cell phone chatting over holding on for dear life any time.
I’m surprised by the number of Christian symbols I see in this part of Egypt, even though the Copts were among the first believers in Christ. I just assumed that Chrisitianity had been completely supplanted by Islam and so seeing crosses and images of the Virgin stop me. I am particularly surprised to see a mosque right next to a Coptic church. The minuret next to the Cross. I wonder what the Crusaders would think if they could see the at least nominally hospitable relationship?
Tuna el Gabal is another one of those remote, rarely visited by tourist sites. I sometimes get the feeling we are waking the guards up from their naps when we drive up to the gates. Fortunately for me and my aching legs, we aren’t going to be doing any climbing until this afternoon. The catacombs of the god Thoth are an easy walk from the guard stations.
I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew that Thoth was represented by either an ibis or a baboon and that these catacombs had been used to store mummies offered to him, so when we descended, not all that far under the ground to see a city of the dead was breathtaking. As far as you can look are corridors filled with little niches for ibises and bigger niches for baboons. In some areas, piles of pottery are tossed aside, either because it is worthless or because it awaits further investigation. Either because we are with Fadel or because so few tourists visit the area…or both…the guard brings out an actual ibis mummy for us to touch. The resin coating makes it very hard and very heavy, almost like a brick. Despite the layers of wrapping and coatings, you can still see the shape of the bird, with his head tucked back under his wing as if he had merely been asleep for centuries and might, at the behest of the god, suddenly awake from his slumber and send forth his call of adoration. The guard also brings out a sarcophobus filled with ancient linen wrappings. We are allowed to touch. I can barely believe it. We are touching a mummy and its wrappings. The linen is very heavy, finely woven, but weighty. It still remains its white color although additional fabric on the bottom is a deep saffron.
I could have stayed in the catacombs for much longer, just staring into the niches and exploring the area devoted to baboons where a sculpture of a baboon scowls across an offering table and a baboon mummy, its unwrapped skull grinning in grim amusement. Even in life, baboons are unattractive animals with their large canines and pointed snouts and mummification does little to improve their appearance. With reluctance we waddle after Fadel back out in the heat of the desert. If this is what it is like in November, god help us what it must be like in July or August. I either would never go outdoors or die instantly of heat stroke. I’m quite sure those would be my only two options.
Before we leave this site for Amarna (Oh Amarna, I’m coming; I’m coming. It won’t be long now.) we visit the tomb of Petosiris, a man who lived at the time of Alexander the Greek and who had his tomb done in the new-fangled Greek style. Well, sort of done. All the scenes are typical of Egptian tombs with the characteristic front/profile posture of all Egyptian art, but the clothing is Greek.
I’m getting anxious to see Amarna. I’m sure Petosiris and his tomb are very interesting to scholars, but I have deliberately avoided anything to do with the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian history on this trip, Perhaps another time, to see Alexandria and explore that later facet of history. But not now. Now I want to see what I came to see. The city of the Horizon of the Aten, the home of Akenaton and Nefertiti and Tutankamen—Amarna.
But not yet. I’m beginning to feel like a kid on Christmas eve, thinking that Christmas morning will never come. We bundle back into the bus and watch the movie of life stream past the window. More villages, more children, more laundry, more donkeys, more dirt roads. We stop to see all that remains of a Temple to Thoth, two huge baboon statues. People leave the bus to take pictures, but I am too excited to waste energy on Thoth, so I snap an image through the bus window and take a deep breath. Soon. It has to be soon.
Fadel tells us that we will be leaving our bus to take a ferry across the Nile and board a smaller bus that will take us to the actual site of Amarna. The ferry is definitely not for tourists. We share it with schoolgirls in their navy clothes and white veils, obviously some sort of uniform; mothers, babies, a vegetable truck and a donkey cart. We are as much a source of intrigue and amusement to the other passengers as we are to them. I catch the eye of one young mother who has been staring at me and smile. She smiles back, clearly embarrassed that she has been seen, but the universal language of the smile erases the unease. A grandmother sends a frightened young boy and a bold young girl over to shake my hand and welcome me to Egypt.
As we pull away from the dock, our fashionista, who has never met a stranger and who is one of the most outgoing, exhuberent women I have ever seen, gets invited by the captain to steer the ferry. I suspect it is on underwater steel cables, so she won’t be able to drive us around on a sandbar, but her blond presence in the wheelhouse causes amusement among Americans and Egyptians alike.
Finally, we get on the bus that will take us to Amarna. As we pass by a newly cultivated field, a cloud of white butterflies performs a ballet in the blinding sunlight. My heart dances with them.
I am almost there.
What is it like to visit the place of your dreams? Sometimes, when you see something you have imagined forever, it isn’t what you expect and you are, as much as you hate to admit it, just a touch disappointed. I felt that way when I saw the Mona Lisa. So small. So unimpressive. So not what the Mona Lisa was supposed to be like. Part of me was fearful that I would experience that same sense of disappointed when I finally laid eyes on the Temple to the Aten, the Northern Palace, the Royal Road. But the part of me that could have been an archaeologist knows that there probably won’t be much to see, except rubble and sand, and besides, it isn’t the ruins, but the land, the horizon, the place that I have come to experience. If nothing remains to be seen, so much the better for then I shall see what Akenaton saw when he sailed the Nile and declared, “Here I shall build my city and here I shall live for the rest of my life.”
At last we are there. How can you even begin to describe what is being processed internally while still trying to describe what is being seen externally? How do you step back enough to report while being flung mentally back and forth over the centuries? How do you put a dream into words?
Amarna is desert. Pure and simple, both in the metaphorical and actual sense. There is nothing here but rocks, dirt, sand and heat. Akenaton was looking for a virgin location to establish his new city and this certainly would have been that. Even now it’s about as desolate as you can get and still be near the banks of the Nile which we know the city was from ancient illustrations and documents. But it is filled with light, filled with the glory of the one God, the Aten. The words of his Hymn to the Sun, which are almost identical to Psalm 102 of the Hebrew Scriptures, fill my mind:
Because Thou has risen, all the beasts and cattle repose in their pastures; and the trees and the green herbs put forth their leaves and flowers. The birds fly out of their nests; and their wings praise Thy Ka as they fly forth. The sheep and goats of every kind skip about on their legs, and feathered fowl and birds also live, because Thou has risen for them.
Why does Akenaten’s hymn sound so much like a prayer to Yaheway of the Hebrews? Could it be that Moses, raised as one of the children of the Kap, the household of the Pharaoh, might have been Akenaten’s friend? Could he have passed on the idea of the one god to the man who would be King? The similarities are too close to be mere chance. Somehow there is an overlap of influence here. What might have happened to the world if Akenaton’s beliefs had prevailed? How would the course of history have changed? Things to ponder in the night.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Day 5--Entering Middle Egypt

Day 5 Middle Egypt
Today we begin our journey into Middle Egypt, an area of the country where tourists rarely go because it simply hasn’t been safe in the past. I’m not exactly sure it’s safe now, but this is the reason I’m on this trip. The things I want to see the very most are located in Middle Egypt—Amarna in particular.

But first we head to Al-Fayyum and the Pyramid of Maydum. The images flicking by my window are endlessly fascinating. I’ve discovered that I prefer to sit on the starboard side of the bus. Not exactly sure why, but I instinctively favor that side and when I’ve been forced, like today, to take a port seat, I kept scouring the bus for an empty seat on the right (literally) side. As we leave Cairo, the fields unfold like black and green leaves of a living book. When the field is freshly cultivated and the rich black soil mounds, herons fill the rows like strings of white fairy lights. Every now and then the head heron must give a signal because they all fly to a tree and perch there like Christmas tree ornaments until it is time to redecorate the fields.

As the bus stops for a non-existent traffic light, a family dashes across the street—the father in one of the long grey robes whose name escapes me, but I’ll eventually look it up, the mother in a burka and the little boy in a full-on military uniform with shoulder epaulets and chest medals. I wonder who is the ruler in that household? The little family disappears in the village streets and then the village itself is left behind as we make a sharp turn onto another road.

We are on the Desert Road which runs parallel to the Nile in the, yes, desert. This part of Egypt is filled with a good deal of rubble. Half-build, or half-destroyed—it’s hard to tell the difference houses and multi-story buildings are everything. As are piles of dirt that look like miniature pyramids, made of rocks, dirt, yellow sand, red sand, chunks of old concrete, limestone bricks, red bricks and even just plain garbage. This is truly a land of pyramids, some intentional, some accidental. What puzzles me is where the garbage comes from in the middle of the desert, for with that shocking abruptness that is so characteristic of Egypt, we have crossed from the Black Land to the Red Land in a literal heartbeat. Perhaps it blows in across the miles of undisturbed sand. Where the sand is not criss-crossed with wheel marks (and at least 90% of it is), the land does look like waves on a red, dry ocean. Every now and then, we see a camel or a donkey, the ships that sail this desolate landscape. Next to the road, lies a dead water buffalo. He looks as if he had simply dropped of exhaustion and dehydration, his legs giving way to breathe his last on the scorching desert. I have expected to see vultures circling, but maybe it’s too hot even for scavengers.

Everywhere in the midst of this nothingness are short, as in one or two brick high walls or small triangles, like corners of imaginary houses. Fadel explains that these are the way people mark their land. Even if you should purchase the land officially, it would hard to prove it is yours without these boundary markers. Akhenaton did the same thing when he moved his capital from Thebes to Amarna—established his domain with boundary stellae in the desert.

All of a sudden, and I do mean, all of a sudden, we are surrounded by lush green, palm trees and flowers—the Al-Fayyum oasis. In Pharoanic times, it was a favorite hunting area of the Kings. While the area has been modified since Amenemhet I of the 12th Dynasty drained the swamp and formed a reservoir, the Aswan Dam has blocked the flow of fresh water and the once vibrant area used for water health cures has become small, polluted and salty. However, the area is still a literal oasis.
I never really understood what an oasis was like until now. Imagine nothing as far as you can see but sand. Imagine being as hot as you have ever been…and then upping that by about 10%. Your mouth is cotton, your head is aching and you are on the verge of heat stroke when you see green. A mirage? A hallucination just before you drop to become bleached bones? No, it’s real. Trees, grass and blessed, life-giving water. Your relief, your joy, your gratitude would be almost indescribable. You who were near death have been given life again. We who live in areas of mountain rives cannot fully appreciate the importance of potable water.

Soon we are at the Pyramid of Maydum, another not on the tourist trail site. Maydum is of interest because it is the transitional form between the Step Pyramid and the true pyramids of Giza. It’s sort of hard to describe, so I’ll put up a picture as soon as I can. What’s very cool is that we get to go inside—and not with hoards of other tourists clamoring about the site, vendors hawking the same identical wares for “one day alone” bargains. Just us and the Ministry of Tourism guards—and their guns. I don’t know guns, but they carry heavy-duty firepower. I definitely don’t want to be in a situation where they decide to open fire.

To get into the Pyramid of Maydum, you climb up the pile of rubble that extends maybe 1/3 of the way up the side and then mount a rather precarious wooden stairway with those unpleasant open steps that look way way down. Once you get to about the middle of the pyramid (have I mentioned we have been doing a great deal of climbing? If no, we have.) you descend a steep ramp/stair of a type favored by the inside of pyramid conservators all the way to bedrock. At that point, you (or we) are once again at the very bottom of the structure. Then begins the fun part—an Indiana Jones type ladder ascending to the burial chamber which is about 2/3 of the way back up the Pyramid. I don’t like ladders. I don’t like ladders that go straight up a Pyramid in the dark. But this is one of those things that you either commit to or don’t but there’s no changing your mind part way through. So up and up we go. The burial chamber which, like all the others, is empty, is also extremely hot and crowded with sweaty American tourists pretending to be Egyptologists. The main feature of this pyramid, besides being a transitional form between the Step and the “real” is the corbelled ceiling which will eventually reach its zenith in the Grand Gallery of the Great Pyramid. However, being hot, tired and facing the descent down the Temple of Doom ladder, architectural features are not exactly captivating my attention at the moment.

Back on the bus (obviously I survived getting out), we leave the desert to return to the banks of the Nile where small villages with dirt roads, smiling children and omnipresent, overloaded donkeys reemerge. Everywhere laundry hangs from upper story windows, the whites blinding in the unrelenting sun. How they get their whites so white is a mystery since the women pound their laundry on the roads along the side of dirty irrigation canals. I can’t see how they can get anything clean in such filthy water. I can’t even get my socks clean using Woolite in a hotel sink! The women use large flat metal basin to cart their laundry to and from the river. In one home, a woman with a heaping basin hangs her clothes to dry while three children play in the dirt courtyard. As we leave the village, a young boy on a donkey try to race the bus. As we pull ahead, he smiles and waves. I suspect the donkey merely pants.

Old fashioned hand pumps pop up every few “block” so it is clear that the houses do not have running water. With my American sensibilities, I find it a bit disconcerti8ng to see goats, donkeys, dogs and children all going in and out of the streetside entrance to the house.

One of the most striking features of this part of Egypt is that almost everything under current construction is built of white brick with mud mortar. The fresh limestone gleams in piles but once used in contraction, the wall takes on a grey hue as the black mud stains the stone.

Once again images race by: A man trotting on a donkey, talking on his cell phone. A woman kneeling on a dirt street, rinsing clothes in a huge basin. Children smiling and waving. Men smoking water pipe, their beautiful silver and ornate designs a jarring contract to the dirt floor homes. Little shops with bottles of coca cola. Bread makers, their grills smoking. Fruit stands with lush looking, not to be eaten by delicate travelers, fruits and vegetables. Bundles of reeds stacked by the side of homes. Those same reeds—and corn stalks—creating fences around courtyards and homes.

And in the distance, the high hills of Middle Egypt.

I won't have internet connection for several days, maybe inshallah, so I probably won't be posting. I appreciate the comments. It's a blessing to share this trip with you who are reading.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Day Four--Storehouse of the Pharaohs

Today’s schedule features the Cairo Museum, a visit to several mosques and shopping in the Khan el Kahalilli market. As we maneuver the incredibly crowded streets of Cairo in our huge bus, suddenly there it it—the striking pink Cairo Museum, the premier museum of the world for Egyptian antiquities—which only makes sense since it is in Egypt.

The crush of the crowd pouring into the garden area is dizzying. I catch snatches of German, Japanese, Italian, British English and American as we pass through the security screening and follow Fadel into the first room where we cluster around Namer’s Palette, the commemoration of Menes’ unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. One of our group keeps muttering, “It’s Namer’s Palette. It’s Namer’s Palette. Oh my god, it’s Namer’s Palette.” I have to admit it’s almost surreal to see something I’ve known from art history classes, Egyptology reading and the history of the ages. Pristine, unmarred by the centuries, it is an astonishingly beautiful piece of functional art.

But there is no way to linger as the crowds press behind us and we sweep into the Great Hall which looks a bit like a cross behind an exhibit hall and a storage area. Everywhere the eye feasts on a buffet of history and art until the mind can barely absorb more but it would take a lifetime or perhaps two to look at every object, so gapping and gawking, we attempt to keep up with Fadel’s voice on our radios as we make our way to the second floor where Tut’s artifacts are kept.

I have seen some of these when they toured the United States in the 70s but a finely orchestrated exhibit of select pieces isn’t the same as seeing the objects together. I’ve seen many pictures of Tut’s tomb…the first book I read as a girl was an account of Howard Carter’s discovery, but the size and the extent of the objects is almost impossible to grasp. No wonder the only thing he could say when he was asked if he could see anything was, “Yes, wonderful things.”

We move from case to case, looking at Tut’s famous mask, his sarcophagus, his jewelry, his clothing. In one of the displays holding the third of his nested chapels is a piece of linen that looks as if it were a modern polka dot scarf. The dots appear to be sequins sewn onto the material, but I can’t see the underside. It is so contemporary in appearance, I thought for a moment it was a protective drape, although why a drape would be polka dotted did cross my mind.

After racing through some highlights, like a sarcophagus that was cracked in construction, the famous statue of the dwarf, his wife and children, daily artifacts and a blur of other objects, we are given 45 minutes to return to areas we most want to look at. (Just an apologetic aside here. Somewhere along the line, my Guidebook to Egypt has gotten lost so my memory not being what it could be, I’ll have to fill in the names of things like the dwarf when I find another Guidebook, or get home, whichever comes first. )

I immediately head back to the Amarna Gallery and after circling through the cases holding Kiya’s canopic jar, a rough-cut head of Nefertiti and exquisite wall paintings of marsh lands, I slide down, back to the wall to commune with the statue of Akhenaton. Looking into the slightly almond shaped eyes, noticing the rather delicate hands, large hips and full lips, I feel like I am truly seeing the Heretic King. I can’t stop staring into his eyes. What made him decide to abandon the old ways and worship a single god? What made him move his capital from Thebes to the desert and build an entirely new city? What was it about his passion that made the beautiful Nefertiti become his companion in the new religion? I ask the questions much more educated scholars than I have asked for centuries, but Akhenaton merely smiles that slight smile as if he knows we still search his mind for answers.

I decide to return to Tut’s exhibits while I still have a few minutes and, as I turn a corner near a staircase somewhere in this labyrinth of a museum, I come across a smallish case holding the funeral bouquet that Tut’s wife placed on his coffin. I couldn’t be more awestruck if I came across a relic of the True Cross. This is it. This is THE artifact that began my fascination with the Boy King, the Heretic King and the 18th Dynasty of Egypt. I can remember reading about this bouquet when I was five years old and trying to imagine what it looked like. In my mind all these years, it’s been a wreath, but this is much more like a modern funeral spray, the stems bound at one end. The petals are all dried to the same brownish color, but for a moment I see them in their vivid freshness—yellow, orange, red, blue—the same colors of the flowers that we see today at the side of the road. I can see the young Queen placing them on her husband’s coffin, her eyes red-rimmed, but her composure intact, as befits a queen. Perhaps the closest we have seen in modern times were Princess Diana’s boys, racked with grief at the death of their mother, but composed and old beyond their years. Such a very human object in the midst of all the splendor. A bunch of flowers, carefully gathered and laid on the lid of Tut’s coffin, a final gesture of affection that we all can understand, King and commoner, no matter how much millennia separate us.

I check my cell phone time and I have about 15 minutes left. Museums with their miles of corridors and marble floors are tiring places at best and I’m truly on sensory overload. Not to mention I ache from my shoulders down. I must find a place to sit, away from the crush of tourists where I can regain a modicum of mental, physical and spiritual equilibrium, so I slide between two massive columns, perch on one of the marble steps and gaze down the main gallery of the museum, past the mosaic floor that came from Akenaton’s palace to the great statue of Amenhotis III and his wife Ti. The museum is not especially well lit and this gallery is particularly dim, which is somehow quite fitting. It lends a mysterious, almost eerie air to the exhibits, an atmosphere of the ancient which no modern museum, no matter how well built, can ever completely convey.

It’s time to meet up with the group for the next part of the day’s activities and I have an agenda. I don’t always mean to take the road less traveled, but this time I feel compelled. I am going to remain here at the museum while the rest of them see Islamic Cairo, have lunch and go shopping. I have come this far and two hours with these treasures is not long enough. Perhaps there will be another time for mosques and another day for shopping. If not, I am making the choice that is right for me.
Having informed the guard that I was going to return and praying he understood, I leave the sanctuary of artifacts and emerge into the almost blinding sunlight. We are to meet at the garden pond which is planted with blue lotus and papyrus, probably the only place we will actually see these plants that were so important in ancient times. The lotus looks just like the paintings or perhaps one should say that the artists of old exactly capture the image of the lotus. A bit like a water lily, its vivid blue flowers, which apparently have some kind of opiate like property, rise on the end of long floating stalks to dot the surface with splashes of color. The papyrus is a reed with a very feathery top that looks a little bit like the crown of a miniature palm tree. It quivers in the slight breeze, make the whole grove look like it is dancing.

I tell Fadel that I am not going with them and return to the museum. I have a twinge of regret that I’m missing out—I think we all want to do everything and hate to think someone has had a better time than we have had—but life consists of choices. We have to choose and not look back because each of us, even if we are together on the same trip, has a different journey. And mine is at the museum.
The first thing I want to see is the mummy room, which costs an extra $20. When I think I’m looking at the faces of the some of the greatest personages of history, $20 seems a bargain. When I think I’m paying $20 to look at dead bodies, it seems a little macabre. No benches are in this room and it’s not permitted to lean on the cases, even to hold your place in line, so I sit on the floor. I’ve sat on many a floor in many a museum over my lifetime so now I can add the Cairo museum to the collection. I’ve got my back against the wall, staring at the profile of Tutmosis III and butts of tourist. The tourist butts come and go, but Tutmosis is still. He is very small, as are most mummies, partially because the body is completely desiccated and partly because the ancient Egyptians were smaller than we are today. His skin is polished black leather and his face looks almost like it has been shrink-wrapped with his flesh. I consider how mummies were created to preserve the dead for eternity and sitting here on the floor of the Cairo museum, I say part of the ancient prayer of the Dead, asking that his Ka and the Ka of all those in this room live forever and reminding him that he is, even now, remembered by the living. If being remembered and prayed for is immortality, then those in this room have achieved it.

Moving along the rest of the cases, I’m suddenly dumbstruck. My god, I've just looked into the faces of Hatshepsut, Ramses the Great and Seti I. I’ve seen portraits of these Pharaohs, seen wall-carvings and drawings, but now I have seen them, their mortal remains, the visages of men and women who left their indelible mark on history. It is almost incomprehensible.

Hatshepsut was my age and fat. Good heavens, I have something in common with her! Apparently she also had bad teeth, but fortunately I don’t share that attribute. Seti I was a very handsome man, even in death, his strong smooth forehead and almost kindly or at least placid appearance is striking. He looks like a man you could enjoy a beer with. Ramses was old…and he looks it. His once-white hair, now stained a yellow-red by the mummification process—was wispy and thinning. He looks like he was a crabby old man. Since we get the face we deserve, he probably was. Of course, like Hatshepsut, he had very bad teeth and I can personally attest that when you are in a lot of pain, you look and act rather crabby, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

The crush of the tour tourists has dissipated and I return to Tut’s gallery where only a handful of people remain. I stand before his throne, his baby head that Carter wanted to take out of the country, his gloves, his underwear, his sandals, his pillows with no one else around. I can look for as long as my over-stimulated brain can take it is. I do wonder how he wore the underwear, however. In two pieces, it looks a bit like an oversized diaper with a sash. I think the museum should put up a picture of how it was worn. His shoes look exactly…and I mean exactly…like today’s flip flops. Same identical design. If you worn them on the streets today no one would give you a second glance.

I simply meander through the chambers, finally finding a bench behind his folding throne with its black and white paw design in, portable folding stools on my left and another smaller stool with lion paws on my right. As I write in my journal, a young girl with a bright pink head scarf smiles shyly at me. Suddenly a woman in her late 20’s wearing a gorgeous brunt orange veil, says “Excuse me.” I look up, thinking perhaps I’ve taken someone’s place, but the woman says that her niece wants to talk to me, but is too shy. So with her auntie translating, we have a long conversation. She tells me I have beautiful eyes and wants to know if I have a handsome son. Apparently young girls all over the world are the same!

I’m glad I didn’t opt for the walking/shopping tour. I’m tired and the fibro makes my legs ache horribly. I sort of wander from bench to bench which is fine because everywhere I perch I see something incredible, something I could stare at for hours. Part of me wishes I had taken this trip a few years earlier, when I wasn’t in quite so much pain from the fibro, but then I realize that everything happens in its own good time. I worry that I am holding up people on the tour and I probably am overcompensating by walking faster than I need to, but I don’t want to be that “fat old lady on the trip who always worn green and made everyone wait.” Now that that little rant/confession is out of my system…the next thing I stumbled on were the sarcophaguses of Tut’s fetuses, tiny little coffins that spoke of parents’ grief. I felt a wave of compassion for Tut’s wife, losing her babies and her husband at such a young age. Then at the next corner I encounter three wigs from the 22nd dynasty. They look like giant tightly curled Afros with long braided plaits down the back. They also looked very hot and very itchy.

As I keep wandering, more and more artifacts sweep in and out my vision. Tools, cosmetic cases, vases, lamps, bows, weapons, statues…it’s beginning to be a mental blurr. One of the things I’ve noticed is the windows in this place. They are extremely high on the walls and most of them are open. Clearly rain damage isn’t an issue, but I wonder if they are ever closed and how they would ever reach them to close them. I’ve been approached a few times by men wanting to give me a tour—“Best guide in museum” and I’ve had opportunity to practice my “La!” but I’ve learned that I am unapproachable when writing in my journal. Aha!

The next room brings me Tut’s royal chariots. They are gorgeous, the Lamborghinis of their day, I’m sure, inlaid with ebony and gold, but they also are rather frail looking and I think they must have been dangerous to drive at high speed with their spindly wheels and delicate bodies. Maybe, like other tomb goods, these were never meant to be used in this world, but merely in the next. However, the chariots, like all the other objects are astonishingly beautiful. Mundane objects, perhaps, but infused with an incredibly artistry and craftsmanship. What is our culture going to leave behind? Flip phones and plastic bottles?

One small dim room contains jewelry from various dynasties. The pieces are very modern in appearance, perhaps because there are only so many ways to make earrings and necklaces, string beads and assemble pendants. Many of the pieces appear too heavy to wear. The earrings in particular would require ear piercings at least the dimension of a pencil, perhaps larger and they look as if they would weigh the lobe almost to tearing. I would like a pair of earrings from Egypt, but not a replica of these.

I circle back to Tut’s nesting chapels, looking for the front and back signs Fadel pointed out. Apparently on the front of each is a lion’s head and on the rear the lion’s tail, a rather ingenious way of keeping front and back clear when they packed the chapels one in the next. I start to sit on a bench to write, when a woman security guard moves it and I back away, but she gestures that I should sit. So I do and she begins to talk to me, asking questions and telling me that her job is to keep people from talking pictures. I ask her about her headscarf and she takes the one peeking out of my bag and arranges it on my head so that I look like a proper Egyptian woman. Then she uses my cell phone to take my picture and I chuckle at the incongruity of a no picture guard taking my picture. I am almost unrecognizable hidden like a Muslim woman. (When I can get the picture off the phone, I’ll put it up here.) She summons another guard and insists that I take a picture with her. I’ve been paying and paying to take pictures of people here and now someone wants my picture. She is sad to learn I am not married and don’t have a financee, but says, “Someday!” with enthusiasm. She talks and talks to me, telling me how to get a taxi and not to pay one pound over 20 pounds to get from the museum to the Sofitel El Gaziah, our hotel. She then walks me to the way out, saying over and over she wished that I would stay longer in Cairo and she would show me her city. That would be nice, but alas, I’m on a tour that resembles the Bataan death march and I must not linger.

Getting the taxi was truly one of the most frightening adventures of my life. The guards at the gate summoned someone for me and after a bit of negotiating he agreed to take me for 20 pounds, always wheedling for at least 25. We approach a street with 8 lanes of traffic and he says, “Take my hand.” I do and we dive head-long in the squealing, swirling, honking maelstrom. A bus comes within inches of my knees and the taxi driver slaps it on the front to make it stop. We weave in and out of cars in a way that would give every American mother heart failure if their children did it and finally come to the medium. I wonder if he is going to ask for the additional 5 pounds. If he says 25 pounds or I leave you here, I’d gladly give him 50 because there is no way in hell that I could ever get across the next four lanes. I’d either be hit or have a heart attack or both. But he doesn’t hesitate and we plunge back into the fray, dodging and darting buses, carts, cabs, cars in a blinding dash. His cab is surrounded by other cabs and I wonder how he will get it out, but squeezing through holes with a good quarter inch on either side, we are swept into the stream of traffic. I’m not sure I’ve made it clear where I wanted to go, but after crossing several streets where I was utterly convinced we were going to die, we arrive at the back gate of the hotel. I pay him his 20 pounds and stumble out of the cab, mentally and physically whipped.

I go out on the balcony of my room, pretending that I don’t have any acrophobia or vertigo. The din of the city below is almost deafening…honking horns, police sirens, the rumble of motors and yet, somehow, serene at the same time. Above the surges of sound, comes the call to prayer, a high haunting cry that soars above the clamor, reminding me that no matter by what name we call the Divine, we are here, on this earth, as his (or her) children and all we experience, including our very lives, is a result of that Divine Creative force and love. The lights of the city begin to twinkle and I can see the faint wake of a small motorboat making its way up the Nile. Tomorrow we will be following him.

Just as an update: I don't know if there will be internet access the next few days, but as soon as I can I'll be logging on.