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Hieroglyphs in the temple of Philae

 

Backpacking in Egypt, 2006

Tour dates: 14 October - 31 October 2006.

Map of Egypt

 

Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza and Saqqara

We had a reservation at the Hotel Luna, and for an extra fee they picked us up at the airport. Egyptian traffic is very interesting. On the four-lane freeway each way they used five lines; when it narrowd to three there were four cars side by side, and when it finally narrowed to two, they still managed to squeeze in three. Few people turn their lights on, because they need them to flash warnings at others. Everyone is honking all the time. At a few places, including the very long winding tunnel right into downtown, unlit cars were stopped on the right lane. Later we read that this is called the death road. Our driver completed the kamikaze ride with a 20-point parking maneuver at the hotel, but the entrance was so well hidden in a courtyard that I think we would have had great problems finding it alone. The hotel building has a scary shabby entrance, but the hotel on the fifth floor is clean and cheerful. It's not likely to make an appearance in a Guide Michelin though.

We arrived ten days before the end of Ramadan, the holy Islamic month of fasting. Muslims may not eat from dawn to sundown during Ramadan, but after sundown it becomes a huge exuberant party on the streets. Everyone is outside, eating, buying, selling, music and honking cars everywhere. Pure delightful chaos.

That was our first exposure to crossing streets. You can't just wait for a green light at an intersection. There aren't many of those on wide streets, and traffic rules are completely ignored anyway. Everyone just waits for a gap in the teeming mass of traffic, and calmly walks in front of moving cars, one lane at a time. It's scary to see a ten-lane street with fourteen lines of cars, dotted with pedestrians who slowly push their way across. If I tried that in Berlin, I'd probably cause a traffic jam all the way to Stuttgart, and a red smear on the road.

During Ramadan, all museums and archaelogical sites close between 14:00 and 15:00. We decided to start the following day with the famous Egyptian museum. To get into the Egyptian museum, you have to queue four times: metal detector 1, ticket, entrance, metal detector 2. They not only disallow photography, you must check your cameras at the cloak room outside. Fortunately it all went quickly. Cost is 40 pounds for the museum, plus 100 for the mummies. The museum is stunning - the number of artifacts is humongous, and they put as many items as possible into the available space. You could stock other Egyptian museums in other countries with the contents of just one of their rooms, and they have over a hundred. They have everything from the smallest jewellery to huge stone statues; lots of ornately carved cascets, papyri, statues, canopic jars, tablets, weapons... Unfortunately very little was labeled, and there are no background texts.

The mummies are grisly blackened and shrunk corpses, with teeth, fingernails, and wisps of hair still attached. One died in battle and has a big hole in his skull. But the highlight of the museum was the Tut-Ankh-Amun room. This king only ruled for a few years but he restored the old pantheon of gods, which his predecessor, Echnaton, had replaced with a single sun god, so he was buried with stunning splendor. The grave was intact when Carter found it a hundred years ago, not robbed like almost all others. There is the famous gold death mask, an inner casket made from pure gold, and a golden outer casket, and large amounts of jewellery. After four hours we suffered a massive case of "pharaonic phatigue", as the guidebook calls it.

We went to the Felfela Restaurant near the museum, two blocks south of Misan Talaat Harb square. Very good restaurant with interesting decor including chattering parakeets. Try the yoghurt with honey. Our next stop was supposed to be the train station to buy tickets to Aswan, but shop owners kept dragging us into their stores and offered us tea. We got perfume rubbed on us, several times (had to wash it off asap), and also ended up at Happy Center Travel agency. Normally it's a bad idea to buy tickets at random travel agencies recommended by touts (and a terrible idea to buy them at the hotel) because you get overcharged, but we got a good price on a sleeper train to Aswan (42 euro, regular fare; can't be paid for with Egyptian pounds. This is the most expensive way, a first-class seat costs less than 10 euro). We also reserved felucca boat rides, 22 euro for three days and two nights from Aswan to Edfu). They have lots of tours but we didn't feel like booking too much at one place. Things kept going wrong with the booked tours but the owner, Mustafa, was very good at rescuing the situation.

We got into chatting with them over tea, and got invited to a vernissage at the Townhouse Gallery later that evening. First we spent an hour at a sidewalk cafe in a quiet neighborhood street. The mango yoghurt drink was great. At the gallery, we saw a lot of interesting paintings and photographs, and guessed that the Berlin art crowd would have priced them five times as high. Other than that, the event wasn't very different from similar events at home.

Sphinx and Chefren Pyramid in Giza Cheops and Chefren pyramids, Giza
Sphinx and Chefren Pyramid in Giza Cheops and Chefren pyramids, Giza

We went to the Pyramids the next morning. It's a long drive from downtown, but the pyramids are right at the edge of the suburb of Giza. Every photographer is careful to keep the modern buildings out of their pictures of course. When we arrived, our Egyptian driver gave us a word of advice: do not talk to Egyptians. They keep most of the touts out of the pyramid area, but the camel and horse riders and even the police are all trying hard to corner you and extract baksheesh. Taking a picture of them, or them of you, giving advice, handing out tiny "scarabs", it all costs twenty pounds and up. Very annoying.

Entrance to the grounds costs just 40 pounds, but the the sites inside require separate tickets. Entrance to the Cheops pyramid is 100 pounds, but it's worth the expense. The passage starts with a roughly hewn tunnel, which soon narrows to a long straight tunnel about a meter wide and a meter high. The stones of the walls and ceiling are incredibly precise, you couldn't fit a sheet of paper anywhere into the seams. A wooden floor with metal bars for traction was added. The final section is the Great Gallery, a long ascending tunnel with a high ceiling, narrowing towards the ceiling in six steps. The impression is grandiose, one could imagine the procession of priests carrying the dead pharao up the gallery.

Step pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara
Step pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara

As I was walking up, at an incline perhaps the quarter of a normal staircase, a strange thing happened: my frame of reference realigned and I could have sworn that the floor was level, except that it was unusually hard to walk because of the incline that my mind would no longer perceive. A very peculiar feeling. A short, narrow, and low tunnel connects the end of the gallery with the burial chamber, which is fairly large but without any decoration. There is an empty sarcophagus on the far side, with damaged walls and no lid; I wonder what happened to it? Everything else was built to submillimeter precision.

The Saqqara step pyramid is some 10km south of the great pyramids of Giza. It's less grand, but it's the first pyramid ever, built by the architect Imhotep for king Djoser. It rises in six steps, and is built from much smaller stones. In the distance, more pyramids are visible, including the "bent pyramid" where the architects discovered that its sides were too steep to support its weight, so they changed plans halfway through and continued with a less steep angle. On the way back we got into the usual Cairo traffic tangle, and at one point the lines of cars got so close that the rear-view mirrors touched. Nobody stopped of course.

We had a late lunch at a street cafe, shortly before the Ramadan fast ended that day. The cafe started to fill up, and some very harried waiters were literally running and shouting and gesticulating at each other to rush the food to all patrons in time. The minute the sun set, everyone started eating and drinking simultaneously. I found the chicken and vegetables too greasy to finish, and my friend reports that the kofta (meatballs) were just cartilage with grease, but everyone else dug right in. And all around us too - the narrow back streets were all packed with tables loaded with food, and hectic waiters hurrying with more. When people have eaten, they join the maelstrom on the streets, walking, shouting, drinking, honking, dodging traffic, and generally having a great time. Many sleep during the day to spend more time outside. It's the complete opposite of the stereotype of fundamentalist mullahs who extinguish any moment of joy - these people truly know how to celebrate, and they do it every day for a whole month!

Al-Azhar mosque and university, Islamic Cairo Al-Azhar mosque and university, Islamic Cairo
Al-Azhar mosque and university, Islamic Cairo

The next morning, we walked from downtown to Islamic Cairo. Of course all of Cairo is Islamic, but the mosque density is much higher here. We used the main street, which is unbearably loud. After a short walk in the huge Khan-al-Khalili bazaar, we reached the Al-Azhar mosque. This mosque is a thousand years old, and probably the oldest teaching institution in the world. As we entered the complex, not sure if we were welcome, we got ushered in by the caretaker. He showed us around and pointed out details and history. Two domed prayer halls with their ornate niches that indicate the direction to Mekka, and another specifically for the blind with raised prayer reliefs, were built with windows from Istanbul, Italian Carrara marble, and other precious materials. We also saw the marble courtyard, and were shown through the prayer hall. It had a much lower ceiling, held up by countless columns. Picture taking was allowed. After a very big tip (100 pounds), he offered us to show the main minaret. He showed us up the narrow winding staircase, partially in perfect darkness, to a narrow balcony around the top of the tower. The view from up there is fantastic. We also got to see the roof of the gallery, which is also normally closed to visitors. Baksheesh opens all doors.

Khan-al-Khalili Bazaar, Islamic Cairo Khan-al-Khalili Bazaar, Islamic Cairo
Khan-al-Khalili Bazaar, Islamic Cairo

After leaving the Al-Azhar mosque, we plunged back into the Khan-al-Khalili market, and got a complete overdose of oriental bazaar atmosphere. Food, spices, shoes, a few souvenirs (there were few tourists), clothing, fruit, glue guns, sheeshas (water pipes), jewellery, anything you can imagine. There were cow heads on hooks, live ducks in tiny cages, people stamping spoons from metal strips, big sacks of spices... At some point we escaped to the Khan Al-Khalili restaurant & cafe to get some food and drink in seclusion. The cafe, especially the juices, are very good but very expensive by Egyptian standards. They have a metal detector out front but it's not in use. There are metal detectors all over Egypt but few of them actually work, or beep their little silicon hearts out but everyone ignores them.

Then back into the bazaar, towards the hotel along al-Muski road. It starts wide but soon becomes quite narrow, barely wide enough to press against the display tables when a cart races past. Turns out that these untouchable women with burkhas that leave only the face or the eyes unveiled have no compunctions about muscling you aside.

In the evening we walked to the Ramses train station, bought some water and cookies, and got on our sleeper train to Aswan. The train is old but I slept well, the beds are comfortable for train berths and long enough. It's not quiet like in European trains though, I used earplugs. They serve dinner and breakfast that I am told wasn't bad.

Aswan

We arrived in Aswan the next morning. The long 13-hour ride had passed quickly. We were picked up and driven to our hotel, the Old Cataract. That's not just any hotel; this is a five-star palace with a fantastic moorish decor. It feels like a huge oriental palace with striped arches, lots of rugs, ornamental lamps, wide hallways, verandahs, anything you can imagine. They have an Agatha Christie suite, where she wrote parts of her novel "Death on the Nile" (we watched the movie, starring Sir Peter Ustinov, Bette Davis, and Larry Niven before we went, some scenes were set at this hotel). There is also a Winston Churchill suite. I had made reservations here from Berlin by phone, haggling the price well below the quoted Internet special, and here I got us a free upgrade to Nile-view rooms. Interestingly, rooms here can be paid for with credit cards or euros, but not with Egyptian pounds.

Old Cataract hotel, Aswan Old Cataract hotel, Aswan
Old Cataract hotel, Aswan

Since it was still early, we spent a few hours in the nearby Nubian museum, which commemorates the Nubian culture that is now submerged under Lake Nasser, since they built the dam of Aswan. Unlike the Egyptian museum in Cairo, which is bursting at the seams with exhibits but extremely low on explanatory text, here everything is well-documented and put into historical context. After that we did a death march through the blistering sun to find the Nubian House Restaurant. The dusty road wound up a hill and seemed endless, with very little shadow. We promptly missed the unmarked turn, and were lucky that a minibus passed us and brought us there.

I write this on the shaded terrace of the restaurant, after a meal of grilled fish and several "local juices" made from mango, guave, and strawberry, with actual fresh fruit and not reconstituted. Bliss. The terrace is extremely scenic, overlooking the Nile, the Elephantine and other islands, and parts of Aswan, with the desert hills in the background. Back at the hotel, we spent the next hour in the pool and watched the sunset across the Nile, then repaired to the Cataract's terrace and sipped Egyptian wine, and juice cocktails.

View of Elephantine Island and Aswan from the Nubian
	 restaurant Spice merchant at the bazaar in Aswan
View of Elephantine Island and Aswan
from the Nubian restaurant
Spice merchant at the bazaar in Aswan

In the evening we explored the Old Cataract. They have numerous terraces and little bars along the riverfront, and their own felucca jetty. (A felucca is a traditional small boat for up to ten people with a tall mast and triangular sail.) We also checked out the New Cataract hotel, which is a faceless highrise concrete job. It looks like an abandoned Holiday Inn taken over by Russian bazaar merchants. There is a spice shop on the third floor, where I bought some extremely strong vanilla powder that I hadn't seen before. Much more expensive than on the town bazaar but high quality, stored in jars and not open baskets exposed to the polluted air.

The beds here are so good, we slept ten hours. The breakfast at the Old Cataract is ok but not up to five-star standards (miles away from the Shangri La in Bangkok I tried earlier this year), but the restaurant is in a huge beautiful octagonal arched dome. The outside temperature was 38 degrees centigrade, but very dry, and there was a cool breeze. We first explored the downtown section of the city, which isn't large and consists mostly of a long and picturesque bazaar, and a river promenade called the Corniche. Feluccas anchor here, with their pushy captains trying to drag costomers onto their boats, and also lots of big boxy tourist boats.

We then got a taxi to Philae. The taxi charged 40 pounds for the round trip, meaning that it waited for nearly two hours while we explored the temple. Philae temple was on an island that was submerged when the Aswan dam was built. Fifty years ago, when only the low dam existed, visitors could take a boat out to the partially submerged ruins, looking down at the temple through the water. In the 1960s the temple got moved to the nearby Agilkia island, which was reshaped to look like the old one. We rented a boat for 50 pounds to get across, chatting with our boat captain. The temple is fairly large, with two pylons, arcades, and many well-preserved hieroglyphs on the walls inside the temple rooms. There is also a Nilometer in a passage to the left of the first pylon: three stone markers with ridges every four centimeters that show the water level of the Nile. High water levels meant a good harvest, and higher taxes.

Then we went right back to the hotel with our happy Nubian taxi driver, who had been waiting for us. The road was empty, no car or anyone to be seen anywhere. But that didn't stop him from honking every once in a while, just for fun or out of force of habit.

Elephantine Island seen from the Nile Philae temple on an island north of Aswan
Elephantine Island seen from the Nile Philae temple on an island north of Aswan

After an hour at the pool, we took the public ferry over to Elephantine Island. The museum and excavation site were closed at this time, but there is a very picturesque Nubian town at the southern tip of the island. According to the guide book, there is a cafe where Hamdi, a village elder, sometimes tells stories about Nubia. In practice, Hamdi was already waiting to intercept tourists down at the harbor, to lead them after an informative but very brief tour to his cafe. Nice place, decorated with small and one not so small stuffed crocodiles, and masks and jars and other stuff covering all available space. Had a bad coffee and some sodas and went back out to see the rest of the village. It's quite large, with lots of very narrow twisting passages, between colorful mud brick houses. It's evidently very poor, but some houses are carefully renovated, and apparently it's possible to stay there overnight.

Since it was still early in the evening, we went back to the town bazaar, and found that it was far longer than expected. Most of the buildings there are pretty haphazard, but near the end there is a neat long row of stalls for half a kilometer or so, with very disciplined but aggressive touts. As we were walking along the middle of the street, shop owners were timing interception courses to wave T shirts, fake papyrus, spices and whatnot at our faces. That's how those little space ships in Space Invaders must feel.

Sailing by felucca on the Nile

Another slow start the next morning, and another breakfast in that wonderful restaurant hall. The felucca operator picked us up at the hotel. On the felucca, things became difficult: suddenly the boat was no longer going to Edfu but to Kom Ombo, getting there a day early, and we would be bussed to Edfu. The reason for this was first the Ramadan feast, then the wind, and finally some police regulations. Apparently this is a common racket. But although we covered less distance on the Nile, we still stayed two nights on the boat, so we agreed.

There were seven of us on the felucca, an Irish and a Spanish couple, and the captain and a boy. The Irish couple were watching for crocodiles; they hadn't seen one yet, but had already decided that if they saw one they'd name it "Daffodil".

A felucca is a small boat, some seven meters long and three wide. It has a flat deck, plus a very small cabin. A large canvas roof protects the passengers, and it has a tall mast with a triangular sail. The wind was blowing from the south, so we were tacking against the wind. We watched the sundown over the west bank of the Nile, and after another hour of sailing in the dark the captain moored the boat at the shore. The boy had been cooking a simple but delicious vegetarian lunch and dinner.

Sailing on a felucca from Aswan to Kom Ombo Sailing on a felucca from Aswan to Kom Ombo
Sailing on a felucca from Aswan to Kom Ombo

In Aswan we had been counting some fifty tour boats, big three-floor barges with garish light and big diesels. I write this on our small boat, rocking slowly on the shore of the Nile; I bet that on those pontoons they are now watching TV.

The boat goes very slowly. It's now clear that the boat goes only to Kom Ombo, 40km from Aswan. We could walk faster. The deck is hard, and it's fairly loud because of cicadas, donkeys, and a distant mosque running sermons or whatever between 3:30 and 5:00. It's also fairly cold at night. We didn't bring sleeping bags or pads, but we got blankets. The captain snores.

Two boys on a donkey near Daraw Donkey carts are everywhere, near Daraw
Two boys on a donkey near Daraw Donkey carts are everywhere, near Daraw

We didn't do much at all the next day. Sleeping, talking, taking pictures, watching the sunset. Since we had so little distance to cover, the boat was moored most of the afternoon. We could have visited a camel market, but unfortunately the others voted against it. But we did go to the town of Daraw to visit their market and buy some food. This place is really poor - completely decrepit buildings, rags strung up against the sun, simple vegetables for sale. The main mode of transport is donkeys. They ride them, pile sugarcane or cages with live chickens on them, use them to pull ancient two-wheeled carts. No touts anywhere, they evidently don't see tourists very often. In the evening, we started a campfire. Unlike the previous night, there were mosquitos, but I had brought a tube of superstrong DEET that I had bought in Mexico, so I didn't get bitten. The sanitary installations leave something to be desired, expect to find a tree once a day.

When we woke up the next morning, the boat was drifting somewhere on the Nile, but apparently there is nothing wrong with that. We watched the sun rise, had breakfast, and sailed the rest of the way to Kom Ombo, five kilometers away. We could already see it the previous evening. When we arrived, the boat tied up to some derelict boats that could be climbed to reach a decrepit squat toilet. No thanks...

Kom Ombo and Edfu

We were then bussed to Kom Ombo, a small town with a nice temple that we duly visited. It is completely symmetric, with each half dedicated to a different god. Several of the big pontoon-type tour boats were here, and some souvenir stands were trying to overcharge the tourists.

We were then supposed to go by minibus to Edfu, but there was a miscommunication and we didn't get seats. The travel agent in Cairo managed to get us a taxi at short notice, so we could follow the bus. We couldn't just take a taxi anywhere - travel was only allowed in a police convoy. It was never adequately explained why. We passed seven police checkpoints on our way to Luxor, but we stopped at only one to get a different police escort. There are lots of restrictions on where foreigners can go, and how, and many are quite illogical - it can be illegal to go by train but not by bus, or A to B is fine but B to A is not. This insanity makes it look as if the country is going to pieces.

Temple at Kom Ombo, south of Luxor Temple at Edfu, south of Luxor
Temple at Kom Ombo, south of Luxor Temple at Edfu, south of Luxor

Traffic was insane as usual - passing slower cars or donkey carts by swerving into oncoming traffic at 120 km/h, no problem, we have a horn, and there is always space for another lane... Except for a short section, the road was in excellent condition.

After an hour we stopped at Edfu. There is an exceptionally well-preserved Horus temple here. Most of the structure is still intact, including the roof. But a large number of the relief figures, mostly those outside, had been erased, leaving only outlines. Apparently it was quite common that paharohs erased their predecessor's hierglyphs and pictures, by having them chiseled out.

Luxor

In Luxor, we stayed at the Little Garden Hotel. We had called ahead from the boat. It's a simple but clean hotel, and indeed has a little garden and a pleasant rooftop terrace. We paid 24 euros per night for a triple. (Euro bills seem to be accepted universally in Egypt, if the amount to be paid is large enough. US dollars are posted only rarely now, but they are usually still accepted as well. We didn't have any luck with traveller's cheques.)

Dinner was at the Amoun restaurant near the Luxor temple entrance. It's right next to the al-Hussien (sic) restaurant and directly competes with it. Both had touts out front saying the same things, so we tossed a coin. The food was mediocre and didn't always do justice to the menu, so the next day I went to the al-Hussien.

There was a show that evening at the hotel. They had a belly dancer, some guys with sticks, a rotating dervish who yet has to learn to whirl, two guys with a blanket that looked like a horse, and loud music. They did their best and it wasn't really bad, but fell short of being actually artistic. They tried to involve the audience, with varying degrees of success. Could be quite interesting if done by professionals.

The East Bank and the Valley of the Kings

The following day was the last day of Ramadan. We walked the Corniche-al-Nil, which is a nice promenade along the Nile, fighting off aggressive taxi drivers who buzzed around us like angry wasps, trying to get our business. They must have a commission sideline going because they all pointed us to the wrong boat. Crossing the Nile from Luxor to Thebes should cost a pound, and that's what we paid. On the boat we met Yussuf, another taxi driver, but very civilized and friendly. We hired him to show us around the sights for 150 pounds for five hours, and didn't regret it. He speaks English well and pointed out the best sights and warned about the uninteresting ones, and the scams. Good guy, he really made this a wonderful experience.

Temple of Hatshepsut seen from the hill Temple of Hatshepsut interior
Temple of Hatshepsut seen from the hill Temple of Hatshepsut interior

First stop was the temple of Hapshetsut, the only ancient female pharao. It consists of three large terraces with long rows of columns. There isn't a whole lot to see at the temple itself, but the setting is absolutely stunning. It's cut into the bottom of a sheer cliff of a curving hill. We climbed a narrow and steep donkey path on the right side, until we got this incredible view from 125 meters above the temple. From up there, the hills look like a lunar landscape, nothing lives here. After climbing down, we did our touristic duty of visiting the temple itself, but it was unremarkable. Yussuf warned us about this but we felt we couldn't skip this crown jewel of the Theban necropolises.

Next stop was the Valley of the Kings. After the pharaos got tired of having their pyramids robbed, they had tombs dug in this desolate valley. Most consist of a long tunnel, up to 140 meters long, that ends in a cluster of rooms deep under the mountain. Many are closed. The ticket lets you choose any three. Ramses III and VI were closed, so we dropped in on Amenophis first. Long tunnel, several chambers, sarcophagus, the works. But the real find was Thutmoses III, whose entrance is up on a mountain to the right. First we climbed a long metal staircase, walked through a gap in the mountain, and then back down through a steep tunnel into the first chamber. On the way there is a deep pit to keep out grave robbers, now bridged. In one corner of the first chamber there is a hole in the floor with another steep staircase that leads into the real tomb.

Valley of the kings, seen from the Thutmoses III entrance Colored paintings at Medinat Habu
Valley of the kings,
seen from the Thutmoses III entrance
Colored paintings at Medinat Habu

It's a terrific sight: the chamber is oval, like a king's cartouche, and all the walls are intricately painted with pictures and hieroglyphs. There is the king beheading enemies, offering sacrifices to the gods, traveling on a solar bark. It's full of stories, some of which I recognized from the ancient Book of the Dead. Make sure you understand at least the basics of the ancient religions before visiting such a place! Otherwise a treasure like this is all going to be cartoons with funny heads to you.

What made this tomb even more exciting to me is that I had visited this exact tomb 20 years earlier as a young student, without really understanding what this was all about but leaving deeply impressed, and determined to learn much more of this culture. 20 years ago the tomb was not open to the public, and the walls were not protected by glass; I had to bribe a guard to let me in. Unfortunately photography is not allowed in any tomb, and it was closely guarded. Most of the time we were alone in the burial chamber, only watched by a guard. We spent 45 minutes there.

Our third tomb was that of Tawosret and Sethnakht, also a very good choice. It has a very large burial chamber wth a high celing and columns, and a brightly painted antechamber. I did get to sneak a few photos here.

We decided to skip the valley of the queens because almost all tombs are closed to the public. Instead, Yussuf recommended Medinat Habu, the temple of pharao Ramses III, and Yussuf knows what he is doing. The temple rivals that of Karnak, and is in very good condition. Many of the hieroglyphs were carved very deeply into the stone, over 10 cm deep, and the paint is still visible. My favorite was the great hypostyle hall, where the original paint was still visible on the walls, the columns, and the ceiling. The whole place was once brightly colored!

The final stop was Deir-el-Medina, the village of the workmen. Parts of the walls are still standing, and one can watch the intricate layout of the village from above. There are also two tombs here, of Peshedu and Ipy. They are very small so they only let in a few people at a time, but they are fantastic. They are mostly undamaged, except for some missing ceiling plaster, and they are still brightly colored as if they had been built yesterday! Many of the temples we had seen before were either sand-colored or show some faded color, but here all the paintings were preserved perfectly over the millennia. This is what they must all have looked like. The motifs are traditional, with some quirks: one shows a killer bunny in a corner, a rabbit with numerous long fangs killing a snake. I got a few surreptitious photos here because the tombs are too small for the guard to be present all the time.

On the way back to the ferry landing, we passed the Colossi of Memnon. These two huge statues are all that is left of a temple. They were once made of single pieces of basalt, but had later collapsed and were vandalized, and only reerected in modern times.

This day was the end of Ramadan. People were briefly celebrating in the streets, setting off fireworks, but after that the streets were quiet, like in Berlin on Christmas eve. I did have a great chicken casserole at the el-Hussien restaurant.

Row of sphinxes at the temple of Karnak Great hall in the temple of Karnak
Row of sphinxes at the temple of Karnak Great hall in the temple of Karnak

The next morning we first went to the train station to buy sleeper tickets to Cairo for the next day. There are only two trains in the evening and one was fully booked. Here they accept credit cards. Then we took a cab to the Temple of Karnak.

The temple is huge, with six pylons in a row, plus three more to the side. There are several sphinx rows, statues, and chapels in the first court. Then follows the famous great hall, 6000 square meters with 134 giant pillars. The roof is gone except for big decorated stone slabs that connect the pillars. The pillars themselves are covered in hieroglyphs, but large parts are missing and were filled in with smooth plaster. The hall is absolutely overwhelming with its incredible size. The next courts and pylons are severely damaged, sometimes just rubble, but the barque sanctuary was again complete with a roof, and so was the great festival hall near the end of the complex. The festival hall shows some of the original cheerful coloring, red, green, blue, and yellow on white plaster.

But despite its overwhelming size and grandeur of the Karnak temple, if I had to choose only a single temple to visit, I would have preferred Medinat Habu, the temple of Ramses III near the valley of the kings.

We had lunch at the Luxor Oasis Cafe close to the Luxor museum. This really is an oasis in the chaos of Luxor - a quiet, luxurious ambience, with good European food, in a side street at the Mercure hotel. We indulged in several mango milkshakes ther, and planned our next few days. Then we went back a block to the Luxor museum. The museum is excellent - a good selection of exhibits, carefully labeled and explained, well-illuminated. Once again, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo feels like an overstuffed warehouse with little educational value in comparison.

Walking back to the hotel, we fought our way through crowds of children who wanted to exchange hellos and learn our names. We taught them a few English words so that future tourists (that's you) have the pleasure to deal with an even more tenacious generation of touts, if this is possible. The youngest children just stick to the basics and repeat "hey money hey money", while the older ones know the stock phrases like "where are you from", which lets them launch into their spiel in the correct language. Some children will give you multiple-choice questions, "English? Deutsch? Francais? Espagnol? Italiano?". Many children carry toy guns, from pistols to miniature kalashnikovs.

Entrance to the main hall of the Luxor temple Hieroglyphs in the Luxor temple
Entrance to the main hall of the Luxor temple Hieroglyphs in the Luxor temple

The Temple of Luxor looks a little bland from the street, but the enormously tall graceful rows of columns make up for the sparse ornamentation and color. There are several rooms with columns and roofs in the rear, although none are as grand as those at Medinat Habu or Karnak. Of course they have the usual come-here-look-here-baksheesh people. After that it was just wandering along the Corniche, fending off agressive touts offering their feluccas, taxis, or horse cabs. Then another indulgence at the Oasis Cafe. We watched the sunset over the Nile in a Corniche waterfront cafe. In the evening we took the sleeper train to Cairo. Again I slept really well.

The White and Black Desert

Thu 26: The train left one hour late and arrived nearly three hours late. That made us really late for our desert trip. On the way to the bus station we somehow managed to lose each other, and had to separately race the bus with taxis.

When we finally caught the bus, we had to pay more than announced, and got shoved on the bus with no instructions or tickets. After four hours, at the Bahariyya Oasis, we finally got cell reception again and managed to ring up the travel agent to learn where to get off, just a few minutes later. We were met there by our desert guide, who first arranged lunch and then drove out into the desert.

A well in the black desert Black desert seen from the top of a hill
A well in the black desert Black desert seen from the top of a hill

South of the oasis the Black Desert begins. It's sand and gravel, with many small volcano-shaped mountains. It's called black desert because the mountains are capped with black gravel. We got out and climbed one of the taller ones. The view from up there is spectacular: desert and mountains as far as one can see, with a single road passing through but no other cars or people. With the reddish brown sand, it looks like a vast Martian landcape.

We also stopped at a well; basically a pipe coming out of the ground and gushing a big stream of water into a basin, from where it went into a small irrigation channel.

Back on the road, the Toyota Landcruiser developed a vibration and we had to stop. Turns out that three of the six bolts that hold the front left wheel had sheared off, and two more were loose. For more than an hour we sat in the desert, waiting for another car to come along to help. No cell reception here. Finally a car came, and another, then three more, and everyone was standing around our front wheel and trying to fit their tools. Finally it was decided that we could drive on with only three bolts, and everyone drove off.

Later we turned off the street onto a very bumpy desert path into the White Desert. The hills that rise from the sand here are pure white chalk. Shapes are bizarre. We stopped to watch some at sunset, then drove further to a big chalk mound with a chess rook rising from the top, and set up camp there. Our driver set up a rug tarp to protect us from the wind, and laid out a big rug and mattresses to sit and sleep on. We had a campfire of course, on which he cooked a chicken and vegetable stew with rice. Quite good. We saw a fox circling the camp.

Rock formation at night in the white desert Large rock balanced on a narrow stem in the white desert
Rock formation at night in the white desert Large rock balanced on a narrow stem in the white desert

The night sky out in the desert is fabulous. The milky way was clearly visible, and a dome of uncountable stars. It's been many years since I had seen a sky like that.

In the morning they had gotten the wheel fixed, sort of. We now had five out of six bolts, although the new ones were too short. Muhammed promised that they would hold, Inshallah (god willing). We had more time in the White Desert to look at strangely shaped chalk hills. They were formed when this desert was a sea, which left horizontal water lines on the rocks, and washed out the base of many, leaving mushroom and other shapes. Some were finely balanced on very narrow stems. We also saw the Crystal Mountain, a larger hill with many open crystals and geodes. It even glitters from a distance. Most of the crystals are hard as rock, but others crumble easily. It will probably be eroded away by tourists over time.

Back at the tour operator's base, which is also a hotel, we had some cold drinks, and then were driven over to the bus station in the oasis town. The bus was late, so we waited at a cafe (sort of) and chatted with Muhammed, who was waiting for his next tourist group. Shortly after the bus left, it stopped at a mosque, and several people got off to pray. The bus was completely packed, we didn't all get seats. And there was a woman speaking nonstop for five hours, in Arabic, and even the others couldn't stop her. We stopped for lunch at the same place halfway to Cairo.

Alexandria

In Cairo, we went to the opposite side of the bus station block to catch a bus to Alexandria at the Mediterranean coast. We had reserved a room at the Sea Star hotel from Luxor. That was quite difficult because it was the last day of the three-day feast that ends Ramadan, so all hotels we tried were packed. Even high-end hotels like the Hilton Borg were fully booked. If even the Borg are full and can't assimilate three more tourists then the situation is serious. One of our guides described the Sea Star as dark and claustrophobic, but we got one of their top-floor suites for 117 pounds (17 euros) per day. The paint is peeling a little, and the furniture is gradually losing its fight against gravity, but the beds are fine and the rooms are airy and even have balconies with a partial view of the Mediterranean. We got there by cab because the bus terminal is rather far away. The cab was a derelict Lada with only two modes of operation, braking and full throttle (which doesn't achieve all that much besides a strained whine), and an Audi Sport steering wheel.

We started the next day with a walk along Alexandria's Corniche, the waterfront road. Alexandria is a long but narrow strip along the curved seashore. The Corniche ends at Qaitbey Fort, built in 1480 but significantly restored in modern times. It stands on the site of the ancient Pharos lighthouse, like the pyramids one of the seven wonders of the world, which stood for some 1700 years. The fort itself is not especially interesting, but the view from its walls over the harbor and the city is great.

Alexandria's Corniche Fort Qaitbey in Alexandria
Alexandria's Corniche >Fort Qaitbey in Alexandria

A taxi brought us to the Fish Market restaurant overlooking the harbor. This is supposed to be best seafood restaurant in town. When you sit down, they immediately bring salad, the best bread we have had on this trip, and various kinds of hummus and other dips. Delicious. Fish is ordered from the fish counter, where all the fish are kept on ice. You pick one, the cook pulls it out, and prepares it. The only downside is that they aren't very attentive and speak almost no English, so it's kind of hard to specify exactly what you want. Our waiter seemed to think "I am only doing this until my taxi is fixed". But the food was great.

After lunch we went to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Alexandria was a center of learning with a huge library in ancient times, but marauding Christians destroyed it. Now Alexandria has built a new one. It's an impressive modern building that looks like a huge disc set into the ground at an angle. The main reading room is gigantic, and consists of a series of terraces that follow the angle of the roof. There are countless shelves there, reading desks, and terminals. Very modern and efficient.

In the evening we walked in the Anfushi district of Alexandria. This is the oldest part of town, and there are lots of twisty little passages, all alike, with old houses that look very tired. There are also some wider streets, and the inevitable markets and sidewalk restaurants. Also sidewalk sewing shops, smithies, cafes with people playing backgammon or dominoes; we saw goats on the street and playing children.

In the Anfushi district of Alexandria Reading room in the Bibilioteca Alexandrina
In the Anfushi district of Alexandria Reading room in the Bibilioteca Alexandrina

Alexandria is different than other Egyptian cities. Taxi drivers leave when you decline their offers, bazaar merchants do not run up to you and hawk their wares, the children don't ask for money. Instead, the merchants leave you alone, and people do say hello, and if they say "where are you from", and "welcome to Egypt", they do it just to be friendly and not as an opener to sell you something. Especially children are happy if you respond, and want to exchange names and shake your hand, just to be friendly. Everyone smiles and really makes you feel welcome, while in all other towns, especially Luxor, you are just seen as Euros on legs. I am glad we found the time to visit Alexandria; I was dubious at first because Alexandria has almost no ancient relics or temples that are so abundant elsewhere. But the laid-back atmosphere and the friendly people make up for that. Also, Alexandria's air is cool and fresh, while Cairo's air is hot and badly polluted, and the south is hot and dusty.

Also, Alexandria is clean. I don't understand the Egyptian attitude towards garbage. Some roadsides are just piles of garbage, and unused lots fill up with garbage. People sit on garbage-strewn lawns. I have seen a cart stop next to an empty walled courtyard, and start throwing garbage over the wall. The edges of beaches collect tons of garbage like driftwood. It floats on the Nile too. Garbage is mostly plastic containers, cans, and bottles, but on roadsides it can be stripped cars, broken wooden boxes, and rubble. The driver of the oasis bus pulled over to the left lane so he could throw his empty bottle into the desert sand. But not in Alexandria.

On our last day in Alexandria, we wanted to see the Graeco-Roman Museum, but it was closed for renovations, which would last two more years. So we continued to the National Museum, an Italianate mansion with exhibits ranging from pharaonic times to Greek and Roman, Christian, and Islamic times. They don't have huge numbers of exhibits, but it's all carefully described and well presented - unlike that overflowing warehouse called Cairo's Egyptian Museum.

The final stop that day were the Catacombs of Alexandria, a large underground network of rooms where the Romans buried their dead. There is a large deep well with a spiral staircase leading down to the first level, which begins with a rotunda around another well, and a large mourning room. The rest is a series of hallways and rooms with square tombs cut deeply into the walls. The second level below has more rooms, and the third level is flooded and inaccessible. In one corner, grave robbers had cut a passage into the neighboring tombs named after the Roman emperor Caracalla. Rooms over there look similar, but there is more brickwork and vaulted ceilings, while the original catacombs are hewn into rock. There is very little adornment. It looks a little like a bunker. It's interesting but we got it covered in 20 minutes. No cameras allowed to annoy the tourists.

We had lunch at the Coffee Roastery. Nice place, good food, big servings, but they need to work on their sandwich bread, it tasted like that flavored styrofoam stuff that US Americans call "buns". Great juices and drinks. Then it was off to the bus terminal at Sidi Gaber. Superjet runs buses to Cairo every 30 minutes, and they are a lot more comfortable than the Delta bus that had brought us to Alexandria two days before.

Back in Cairo

The Nile Hilton is a miracle of disorganization. We got there at 19:00 and were told that the room would be ready in 20 minutes. Or 30. (Checkout time is 12:00.) You see, the minibar wasn't stocked yet and such things take time. When the room was ready, the porter grabbed the key and disappeared, presumably in search of the luggage we didn't have. It took a while to locate him and wrestle the key from him. Then the double room turned out to have a single queen-sized bed, while the confirmed reservation specified twin beds. More waiting. The replacement was on a different floor than our other room, although the reservation specified a connecting door. We could have one on the same floor but that would take 20-30 minutes, and forget the connecting door. I didn't care to inquire about the minibar status. In my room the minibar that gets all this lavish attention wasn't properly plugged in, and warm. Meanwhile, the big lamp in my room was flickering and buzzing noises came from behind the sofa (the technical term for this situation is "fire hazard"). An electrician fussed over the plug until it shut up. There is also a fascinating piece of 60s-era technology bolted to the inside of the bedside table, some dials and a relais and transformer connected to absolutely nothing at all except the dust gods. Other than that, the rooms are spacious and nice, and have balconies with Nile views.

We ended the day on the roof of the tower, drinking beer and fresh juices in the Hilton's Pyramid Bar, enjoying a great view over Cairo. And yes, on the smog-shrouded horizon, you can actually see the pyramids. After a brief visit to their Jazz Up bar, which I fled after the DJ put the sound system on emergency overload, I went to bed early.

Two hours later, after midnight, I woke to someone rattling the door and knocking insistently. It was one of the hotel drones proudly brandishing two additional keycards that I hadn't asked for. Twenty minutes later the phone woke me up again. Another hotel drone who wanted to verify the spelling of my name, and what are our room numbers again? Next time we'll go with the Borg.

The next day is a mop-up operation, seeing things we missed at the beginning of this tour. First we went to the Coptic quarter, four stops south by metro. This is a walled little village consisting of a variety of churches, a mosque, and a synagogue. The hanging church, which got its name because it is built on top of a Roman water gate, was being restored, but is open. More interesting is the church of St. Barbara. We got shown around by a church attendant, and got special dispensation to take pictures, "Almani, great football, you take pictures". (Being German is usually an asset when travelling, we carry hard currency into every corner of the planet and don't throw bombs like the USA.) We saw the chapels with the Coptic altars, with very old paintings and red curtains embroidered with pictures of St. George killing the dragon and others. The Coptic St. George doesn't actually have anything to do with the British St. George the dragon slayer, but they like the image. We also wandered around the graveyards with many grand tombs, and long walls with little niches to shelve the rest.

Street in Old Cairo Entrance of a ruined house in Old Cairo, now completely
	 filled with garbage
Street in Old Cairo Entrance of a ruined house in Old Cairo,
now completely filled with garbage

Across the metro tracks from the churches, there is Old Cairo. That's a euphemism for Poor Cairo. There is the inevitable market with vegetables and bread spread out on donkey carts and the ground, free running goats and chickens, and many narrow unpaved dirt roads. Children play everywhere, and like to talk to foreigners, except that they speak no English. They did try to point me in the wrong direction, I wonder why. At a street vendor I got a great fresh lemon juice for one pound (14 cents). After an hour or so I went back to the metro station, where a goat and a cat were peacefully digging through a pile of garbage, and took a train north.

Two stops later I got out, and walked towards the Citadel. There is a small poor market on dirt roads in the middle of an abandoned construction project there, and then regular (ie. with hordes of honking cars) streets east. I passed several grand mosques, but passed because it was getting late. In several places I could see rubble heaps that were once houses, and near the Citadel a tall apartment house that seemed to have lost its top floors, now converted to a terrace; I assume these are all left from the earthquake in 1992.

Interior of the Muhammed Ali mosque in the Citadel in Cairo Interior of the Muhammed Ali mosque in the Citadel in Cairo
Interior of the Muhammed Ali mosque in the Citadel in Cairo
Cockroach in the Nile Hilton
Welcome to the
Nile Hilton

The guidebook isn't very enthusiastic about the Citadel, but I went in anyway because I wanted to see the Muhammed Ali Mosque. It has an impressive marble courtyard, and the mosque itself is enormous. Inside the concentric rings of lights and the chandelier in the center catch the eye first. The walls and columns are white marble too, and it has a fantastic central dome and numerous apses.

I went back to the hotel in trepidation. How would they goof up this time? But it was harmless, only my keycard had stopped working and they gave me a new one with little hassle. So little in fact that I wonder whether I could have gotten a keycard to one of the presidential suites, and loot it. Then a refreshing swim in the pool, and up to the Pyramid Bar on the top floor to watch the sunset. I ordered another of those great juice cocktails, and a sandwich. Thirty minutes later the waiter passed by and exclaimed, what, didn't you get your sandwich yet? A minute later I had a soggy sandwich and very cold fries. At least, after my complaint, they took it off the bill. Then the dessert buffet of the Ibis Cafe downstairs caught our eye, and we ended this trip with pure decadence.

When checking out the next morning, a giant cockroach, with a body some five centimeters long, ran along the hallway but didn't try to eat me. After getting some incorrect minibar charges taken off our bills, we got a cab to the airport; the streets were not too crowded before eight o'clock in the morning. Lots of unattended bags standing all over the departure hall. Some people travel with hundreds of kilograms of baggage, but we only had carryons.



A note to travelers: you may wonder how we found all the places we went to, all the hotels and good restaurants, and information on transportation. We brought a Lonely Planet guidebook and a Rough Guide book on Egypt. In my opinion, the Lonely Planet was the more useful one. This tour would have been impossible without it.

And of course, you cannot visit a country like Egypt, with its history spanning five thousand years, without reading up on its history before you go. I have read some two dozen books, everything from its pharaonic, Greek, Christian, and Islamic history, to its beliefs and religions, its pantheon of gods, its architecture, and even how the hieroglyphs and hieratic and demotic scripts work (although they are far too complicated for me to read). Without this background knowledge, it's all just boring stones and cartoons, but with this knowledge, it all comes alive.

This was my second tour to Egypt. Click here to read a report of the first one in 1988. Also check out my friend's much more elaborate page of this trip. His pictures are much nicer too.

I have deleted my flickr albums because I no longer trust US cloud services.


If you liked this report and would like to read my exotic travel guide, click here.

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