Several chapters ago, number 70 I think, I wrote about my bucket list. I do enjoy sharing these chapters with you and the comments you often send me about them. This chapter led to an unexpected phone call. It seemed that two friends of mine from Australia were planning a holiday and after reading about my bucket list, decided to invite me to come along with them. The reason was that they were going to Egypt. I hemmed and hawed, but after a bit, (and with some pretty powerful arguments from Lorraine and Kathy) decided I would indeed join them on the trip.
As it turns out, there will be nine of us going and the trip will include a couple of days in Cairo, a day in Luxor, seven days on a Nile cruise, and then a couple of days in Petra, Jordan. Sitting here in a hotel in Luxor, I was trying to figure out how to write about the trip. I have been sending my grand daughters post cards on the trip each day. Not real postcards – I figured that it could take ages for them to arrive, so instead, I have been making electronic post cards (click here to see one of them) and then emailing them to the girls at least once a day. I suppose I could have sent these to everyone, but I didn’t. So instead, here is sort of an abbreviated day-by-day diary of the trip.
Day One: I flew from Palma to Barcelona, and then on to Cairo. One of my struggles is the entire concept of travel. I don’t think I mind actual flights, but ‘travel’ is a real bugger for me. Here is what I mean. I left Sol y Mar at 0900 and with the help of a friend, went to the airport in Palma. My flight wasn’t until almost 1100, but with all the security checks, you never know how long the queues will be at an airport, so I knew I had to get there early. But as it turned out, the flight was delayed, so I didn’t even arrive in Barcelona until well past noon. This was followed by an almost three hour wait for the Cairo flight. See what I mean? Travel = massive amounts of waiting time, and I really don’t like that. Okay. So the flight to Cairo did take off more or less on time, and after another four hours, landed in Cairo Egypt. By now it was 2300, and I was dead knackered. But was in Cairo. The hotel in Cairo (actually it is in the suburb of Giza) was the Mena House. If you ever want to go to see the pyramids, the Mena House is THE place to stay. Literally in the shadow of the pyramids, the Mena House is wonderful.
Day Two: This day was set-aside for two purposes. One was to just get some rest – the leftovers of the GBS do wreak havoc on me, so rest is always a good thing. Besides, this is supposed to be a holiday, so part of the day was dedicated to doing absolutely nothing. (In my lexicon, nothing is an all-comprehensive descriptor that includes doing writing work, of course). The first part of the day, however, was dedicated to visiting the Cairo Museum. When I lived in London, I had been to the British Museum several times and had been hypnotised by the antiquities taken from Egypt. But here I was in Egypt, and knew that the Cairo Museum had a huge collection of archaeological finds. I was quite eager to see them, so, with the tip to be at the museum for its opening smack at 0900 (not 0915, not even 0905 we had been told…0900), we arrived and began the process of paying for just about everything imaginable. After going through the metal detector, it became apparent that cameras were not permitted in the museum. I assume this was because of potential damage to some of the antiquities from flashes. So, cameras were turned over to the camera check-in desk just outside the building and then it was back in to see what could be seen.
The exhibition cases in the various rooms at the museum are filled with everything from small needles to chariots to amulets to jewellery to anything that a Pharaoh might need in the after-life. By the size and scope of the things that had been discovered in the various tombs that had been excavated in the past hundred years, a Pharaoh had pretty many needs. After wandering amongst the various artefacts – each one seemingly more marvellous than the previous one – we came upon an entire room dedicated to the Pharaoh Tutankhamen.
The room was an archaeologists dream come true. Okay, I am not an archaeologist, but even I was gobsmacked by what was there. The two inner sarcoughogus’ (sarcophagi?) that housed the actual mummified remains of the Pharaoh were in separate display cases, as was the often photographically reproduced life mask. All of these relics were made of gold. Solid gold. To be in the same room as these relics was so special, but what made it even more special was the fact that there was no one else there. The throngs of tourist groups that were pouring into the museum hadn’t yet made it this far yet, so being there, in the room, with all these relics was unbelievable. I quickly discarded the idea of nicking the gold death mask, as I figured it might set off the airport metal detector on my way back home. Instead, I just stood there in awe. And then the silence of the moment was broken. In a darkened corner of the room sat a guard, who said, in what sounded like a blend of Arabic and English, ‘you have camera?’ As he said it, he looked around, probably making sure his supervisor (assuming he had a supervisor) wasn’t nearby. They may have collected everyone’s cameras at the front door to the museum, but they had not asked for mobile phones, so I whipped out my trendy iPhone and snapped away…and then filled the guard’s outstretched hand with currency, as you do for just about everything here. Within a couple of minutes, a throng of tourists entered the room and began their ooohs and ahhhs. We buggered off, the entire feeling of being there alone having changed.
I must tell you that whilst seeing all the archaeological finds is so very special, it does bother me that seeing all these things means that someone has dug up someone else’s burial place. I do understand that this is the only way that we have learnt so much about the time of the Pharaoh’s, but I wouldn’t be that thrilled with the thought of someone digging up my grandparents graves, and consequently, I think it is pretty sacrilegious to know that it is through grave-robbing that we know all we know about early Egypt. Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, used to be one of my heroes. Used to be.
This was ‘visit the Pyramid’s day’ according to the big travel plan. I thought that it might be nice to, instead of trudging around the pyramids on foot (it was hot and dusty and hot), to take a horse-drawn carriage ride, so the hotel manager arranged for one. At just before 0900, this little man brought his carriage up to the front door of the Mena house – which, as it turns out, was the first time that this had happened. Apparently the ‘rule’ was that carriages could only wait for passengers outside the secured gates of the hotel grounds, so it caused quite a stir amongst the locals that someone managed to be able to accomplish this.
Abdul (I have no idea what his name actually was, and calling him Abdul is no doubt a racist slur…my apologies) bundled us into the carriage and off we went. First it was around the Great Pyramid, then on to the second pyramid, and finally the third. There is no way to accurately describe what it is like to see the massively huge stone structures, so I will leave it to you to comprehend what it must have taken to build something with something like 3,100,000 stone blocks that weigh about 4 tons each, with each one being dragged to Giza by hand. The pyramids truly are one of the wonders of the world. As I was totally in awe of what was in front of me, I asked Abdul to stop the carriage so could get off and take more photos. It was then that Abdul 2 (again, apologies) approached. This man was on a camel, and in a flash, he dismounted and approached me, babbling on about me wanting to have my photo taken on his camel. I declined. He pursued the offer. I declined once again. And then in another flash, he put a keffiyeh on my head and a caftan-like robe over my shoulders as he thrust me onto his camel. Okay. So by now I was figuring ‘what the hell. When in Egypt, and all that. So there I was, sitting on the back of this camel, dressed as if I was about to enter the Lawrence of Arabia look-alike contest, and actually feeling like I would do rather well. We walked around for a bit – well Abdul 2 was walking; I was being thrown from side to side as the camel lurched along the sand dunes surrounding the pyramids. After determining that I would not be able to plant a flag and claim the land for the Queen, I managed to dismount and return the authentic garb to the man who probably last washed it in 1958.
The carriage driver (Abdul) then took us to see the Sphinx. This, once again, was a sight to be marvelled at. With the head being carved out of a single block of stone, and the body and legs being constructed of more massive stone blocks, the Sphinx lays in front of the pyramids, providing an image that is unforgettable. On the way back to the hotel, I managed to convince Abdul to return to the pyramids before letting us off. One of the images I had when I first saw photos of the pyramids when I was ten or eleven was being able to actually climb up the Great Pyramid. I didn’t have a desire to actually go inside, but to be able to climb up loomed large in my to-do list. So he dropped us off as close as he could, and then it was on foot for a bit. Years ago – well actually not that many years ago – it was possible to do just about anything anyplace at the Giza site. But all the tourists have caused massive damage to the archaeologically important sites, so now access is restricted heavily. None-the-less, there is a way to climb up the massively huge stones a bit. And that is exactly what I was able to do. This was a day in which I was able to wonderfully tick off several items in my bucket-list. A day I will never forget.
This was to be the day to fly from Cairo to Luxor. And even though I hadn’t written about this in my bucket list, something that was pretty important to me was to visit the El Zahraa stud of the Egyptian Agricultural Organisation. Some of you may know that years ago (in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, I had an Arabian horse farm in America. I was very proud of Pine River Farm and it provided many hours of enjoyment for me. The horses that I loved the most were all from Egyptian Arabian bloodstock, and to be in Cairo, the home of the El Zahraa stud and where most of the good Egyptian Arabian horses have come from, was too good to be believed. So before leaving, we took a taxi to stud at El Zahraa. With over 500 purebred Egyptian Arabians walking around in pastures was a sight to behold. (Now, if you are not a horse lover, you may just want to skip this paragraph.) What made it even more special was the fact that the stud, originally located on the outskirts of Cairo, is now surrounded by the city and it gives the feeling of being an oasis in the middle of an urban desert. Two staff members of the stud took us around, first to see some of the stallions, then the mares, and then the fillies and colts of this year. Whilst seeing the artefacts from the tomb of Tutankhamen was special, and climbing on the Great Pyramid was mind-boggling, being amongst all the straight-Egyptian horses was inspirational. I could have stayed there for hours…or days. But the EgyptAir flight to Luxor was not about to wait, so it was off to the airport for the next part of the holiday adventure.
Luxor is, well, Luxor. Located smack on the Nile river, Luxor is not exactly a pretty town, but then again, most places that survive solely on tourists coming from around the world to gawk at terribly old things wouldn’t be. From a different perspective, Luxor was pretty spectacular. We stayed at the Winter Palace hotel, which is located on the Nile River. With an incredible history that dates back to, the Winter Palace is a classically designed Victorian structure that gives the impression that England still has a colonial empire. Whilst the building was pretty spectacular, the food was rather mediocre. On the other hand, breakfast was served on the terrace overlooking the Nile, so it wasn’t exactly hard duty. Mid-day, a large black people carrier appeared and we were hustled off to the Oberoi Zahra.
The boat, one of 300 that we were told go back and forth between Luxor and Aswan, was wonderful. Whilst most of the river cruisers held 150 or more people, the Oberoi Zahra has been kitted out to carry only 48 passengers, and yet the amount of staff was almost the same as on the typical boats. Needless to say, it was a tad posh. We all checked into our cabins and met for dinner and hours of conversation. (Some of our group had already been in Egypt for a week or so).
After breakfast, we met our group’s tour guide. Rina Aboel Wafa was a lovely young woman whom we all fell in love with. It didn't take too long for Rina to call all of the boys her 'Habibi's,' which means sweethearts or darlings. We loved it.
On our first day (yes, this may be a bit confusing to follow, as this was day six of my trip, but day one of the Nile cruise part) we all piled into a large people carrier provided by the Oberoi people, and we went to see the Valley of the Kings. It was hot. No, seriously…it was flippin’ hot. The daytime temperature on every day in Upper Egypt soared well into the mid-40’s centigrade, and there we were, walking around in the Valley of the Kings. No shade to speak of, just a lot of sun and rocks and tombs to explore. (Just a point to explain something here – I could go on and on about each tomb and temple we visited, but you would probably be bored out of your mind or my website service provider will explode, so I will just touch on some of the highlights. If you really want to know more, you can always ask) Each day after slogging around in flippin’ unbelievable heat at a tomb, we would be taken back to the Zahra to do whatever we wanted for a few hours. In my case, that meant plunging into the onboard pool to cool off a bit. Which I did. Every day. The swim that day was especially great for, as I was swimming in the boat’s pool, the boat was sailing downstream to Quina. I suppose at this point, I need to provide a bit more clarification. We began the sailing part of the trip at Luxor and the overall voyage was going to be to Aswan. Aswan is south of Luxor, but upstream, as the Nile runs from south to north. Our voyage to Quina took us in the direction of Cairo, or in non-sailing terms, we went way out of our way and would have to come back toward Luxor. The purpose of this little diversion was to let us see another town, as well as see more of the river.
In the evening this day, we went to visit the Temple of Denderah, who as you may know, was dedicated to Hathour, the Goddess of music, love, and joy. Right. It was in fact, pretty spectacular, especially as we were there as the sun was going down and there were no other tourists around; something the Oberoi people had arranged for us.
(Just to keep track, this was the second full day onboard the Zahra…do try to keep up). We sailed back to Luxor and disembarked to visit Karnak Temple. This temple is far larger than the Denderah and covered an immense piece of land. Whilst most of the temples we saw did have what appeared to be a central building (the ‘temple’ itself), the entire grounds around the structures were all part of what was known as the temple. This started out a bit confusing for first-time junior Egyptologists, but we did quickly understand the definitions of terms.
Later in the day, the Oberoi people arranged a quick tour of some of the back streets of Luxor. It is simply incredible to see the way that the locals who don’t have direct contact with the tourist industry live. Actually, this was one of the real memorable parts of the trip (yes, one of quite a few). On the way back we stopped and did a bit more shopping and then sat for a bit in a very ‘local’ café. Whilst sitting there amongst women walking around pretty much completely covered up, and men sitting smoking water-pipes, Russell and I decided that ‘when in Luxor, do as the Luxorian’s do.’ Rina, who seemed to know everyone where we were, told a man who worked at the café that we wanted to try a water pipe, and within minutes, Russell and I were having some serious apple-tobacco through the interesting-to-operate water pipe.
Another land trip, this one to the Valley of the Queens, which, as one might assume, is not that far from the Valley of the Kings. Incredibly hot, but even we were getting used to the mid-forty-degree temperatures as we would prowl around 4,000 year-old structures and tombs. It was interesting to find out that, because the Egyptian government is very conscious of possible terrorist attacks on tourists, that our boat had armed guards on for most of our voyage. Interesting, but a bit disconcerting to see military-types armed with some serious fire power lurking about once in a while. Upon our return to the boat, we sailed to Edfu.
At first light (okay, about 0700, after a rushed breakfast onboard), we visited the Temple of Edfu. This had been billed as the ‘best preserved temple in the ancient world,’ and the hype was only surpassed by the reality of what we saw.
After returning to the Zahra, so overwhelmed by what we had seen, I barely could drag myself into the pool (yeah, right) as we sailed on to Kom Ombo. In the late afternoon, we visited the Temple of Kom Ombo. One side of the temple is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile God, God of Fertility, and the Creator of the World. The other side of the temple is dedicated to the Falcon God Haroeris, who is (we were told) also known as Horus, the Elder. At each temple visit, Rina would whip out more facts than Wikipedia has online, and whilst we tried to listen intently to her stories, often some of our group would wander away to explore on their own and take as many photos as they could store on their memory sticks. I was usually one of those who would wander away, trying to simply get a grasp on all that was in front of me. About the time that Rina was notice that her group of nine was now a group of 4 or 5, she would, in a rather shrill voice, holler out, ‘Hallo.’ This was our call to re-group again, and being good little tourists, we always did. Well most of the time. Whilst we were having dinner back onboard the Zahra, we sailed to Aswan.
This was going to be a bit of a touchy day for me, as we went via private coach to see the Philae Temple. I say we went by coach, but actually what we did was go by coach to a little harbour of sorts and boarded an old rickety wooden boat and putted our way to the island the temple is located on. This was the first time I had been on anything other than a seriously large boat since I had my GBS and found out that my equilibrium is pretty well shattered, so I was more than a tad nervous about this. But being on the little boat (about seven meters long) wasn’t a problem. The problem arose when I went to step off the boat. Touring the temple was a bit wobbly for me, but it was worth the effort.
The temple was one that had been re-located during the construction of the low dam over the Nile. Quite a bit of land was flooded after the dam’s completion and to avoid loosing the priceless Philae Temple, it was cut apart, block by block, and re-assembled on higher ground. The higher ground is now and island. (Just another side note here: When the high dam at Aswan was constructed from 1960 to 1971, it formed Nasser Lake, which is the world’s largest man-made lake and doubled the countries power-supply because of its generators. The same thing happened to the four statues known as Abu Simbel, and they were cut, moved, and re-assembled on higher ground as well. I didn’t get to see Abu Simbel on this trip…note the ‘this trip.)
When we arrived back on the Zahra, I made an appointment for a serious leg massage, and feeling quite a bit better, joined some of our group as we did some serious shopping in the Soukh. The Soukh is, well, as with most things I experienced on this trip, pretty hard to describe. Close your eyes and imagine walking down very narrow streets, filled with traditionally dressed Egyptians, all rushing around getting ready for the arrival of Ramadan, with what appeared to be thousands of little shops selling just about everything you can imagine. Now imagine that every ten or twenty steps, a shop owner would step out in front of you and try to entice you in to buy something. It was straight out of a Casablanca-type movie. Some of the shop owners were a stitch. They would first accost you in German, English, Spanish, or sometimes French. Then after you responded with a courteous ‘no thank you’ – the signal you spoke English, they would try just about everything in their limited English vocabulary to get you in their shops. That night, after thinking we had heard it all, one shop owner looked up from where he was sitting smoking his water-pipe and said, ‘I don’t know what you want English, but I have it inside.’ Brilliant. As we walked along, simply cracking up at the rather clever approach, within 100 meters, his cunning approach was surpassed when a shop owner of a spice shop leapt out in front of us and said, ‘Spices? Saffron? Viagra?’ Right. I don’t think anyone bought anything that night, but we had a fab time in the Soukh, and when we were back onboard, all related our stories whilst on the top deck of the Zahra in the cool night air.
Whilst some from our group went off on an expedition of their own, most of us sat by the pool and simply did nothing. In this case, doing nothing included reliving some of the spectacular sights we had seen and comparing notes about this-or-that temple or tomb. Not a bad way to spend the day actually. That evening, it was gala night onboard the Zahra. Now this may seem like a rather naff way to spend an evening, but it was really quite special. The staff prepared a dinner that managed to out show the previous evening’s selections, which would have rated high marks in any posh restaurant on land…anywhere. And after dinner, we all gravitated to what had become our place on the boat at night, the top deck. We talked, we laughed, and we tried to digest all that we had seen on the Nile Cruise. And then it was over.
Our group of nine suddenly became a group of seven as we disembarked from the Zahra and flew from Aswan to Cairo. After some sad good-byes, four of us then flew to Amman Jordan and then took a car to Petra. It was a long, not-so-fun day, but Petra had been so high on my bucket list that even sitting in the car on the 2-1/2 drive south from Amman was filled with excitement.
On the way, I was talking to the driver, Mohamed, and couldn’t resist asking him questions whilst his car hurtled along the King’s Highway. One of the questions was something that I had asked Rina whilst we were sitting in the café learning how to smoke the water pipe. I had said to her, ‘what do the people think of President Mubarek (of Egypt)?’ Her response was that the average Egyptian knew who he was, but didn’t like him at all. They did like the previous president Anwar Sadat, and very much liked President Nasser. This made pretty much sense, as Nasser was the one who nationalised much of Egypt’s economy following the devastation that King Farouk had bestowed on the country. I went on to ask if the average Egyptian knew who the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was, and she said, yes, it is Tony Blair. Okay, so they missed that one a bit. Some people liked him, but some didn’t she went on to say. And then she volunteered that no one likes the American president Bush. Interestingly enough, Mohamed volunteered the same answers, with the exception that in Jordan, the leader is King Abdullah II, the son of the late King Hussein, who the people also liked.
Petra. I really have no idea what to write about Petra. When I was 10 or 11, I had read the book by Richard Haliburton that I talked about in an earlier chapter. That is when I first learned about Petra, and if there was ever anything in my bucket worth wishing to see, it was Petra.
According to an information brochure, Petra was re-discovered in 1812 by a Swiss traveller named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. I can only imagine what he felt as he walked along the deep, long, narrow gorge that leads to the site. After many twists and turns, (the gorge is 1200 meters long) all with the stone gorge walls looming overheard, you finally begin to get a glimpse of what the Nabataeans built thousands of years ago. Whilst I had thought that Petra was what is known as Al-Khazneh (the Treasury), it is really a very large site that is comprised of many buildings. Now here is the incredible part. All of the buildings were cut into solid sandstone canyon walls. No bricks, no mortar, just cut directly into the rock walls. Damn, it is simply incredible. We just sat there for a while, completely gobsmacked.
We had thought about walking in, but instead, we hired two horse-drawn carriages that had bounced along through the gorge. But once we were there, and after trying to catch our breath from the awe that we were seeing, we began to walk along through more gorges and down the road (and I use the term ‘road’ rather euphemistically) through the rest of Petra. Some of the places we saw included the High Place of Sacrifice (always a treat if you are feeling rather frisky, as the term ‘high’ does refer to the fact that you have to climb up quite high; the street of Facades and an amphitheatre that the Nabataeans built to hold 7,000 people. We also saw many Royal Tombs and the Palace Tomb, as well as a colonnaded street that was built with a heavy Roman influence.
We then plodded our way back to Al-Khazneh and just sat, speechless. We were quite lucky, as we had first gone through the gorge at 0730, which was well before all the tourists (shed-loads of tourist flood there daily) had arrived, so we pretty much had the vistas to ourselves. But by the time we walked back, the area in front of the Treasury was filled with gawking tourists and after a while, we found our buggy drivers and went flying back up the gorge, feeling very much like Indiana Jones.
I have always liked writing these “Letters from the Village,” mainly so my friends and family could vicariously experience what I have been experiencing since moving to Mallorca. And whilst I have never really struggled to share these experiences, with you, this chapter has proved to be a real challenge. Not a challenge because I forgot how to type, but a challenge because my experiences on this trip have been so incredible, it is difficult to put them into words.
I have learnt so much on this trip. Many of these learning’s have been about the cultures of ancient Egypt and the people who built Petra in Jordan. But perhaps my greatest learning has been that dreams are so very important, and so good to have as children. The only thing better than having those dreams is doing something about them whilst you still can. I will never forget this trip, and am incredibly thankful to my two friends who read the chapter on my bucket list, and then pressed me enough so I would be able to tick these two things off the list. It has been the trip of a lifetime.
Note: I have already been told that it would be nice to put some of the 500 photos I have on-line in a full-size format. If you click on this link - Middle East Memories - you will be able to see some of them.
the first of the cards I sent to my granddaughters
a street corner in Cairo
the view from my room at Mena House in Cairo
the first night in Cairo
ramadan lights for sale on the way to the Cairo Museum
a guard at the Cairo Museum, not looking too happy
a (secret) photo of the sarcoughogus of Tutankhamen
no, not Lawrence of Arabia. This is JBR of Mallorca
climbing the Great Pyramid
the scale of the pyramids is immense
the entrance to El Zahraa stud in Cairo
so hard to believe that this is in the city of Cairo
young mares at the stud
one of the offspring of Rawwah
some of the hieroglyphs at Luxor Temple
the Valley of the Kings (with Tutankhamen's tomb lower right)
not exactly playing the clarinet in Luxor
sailing back to Luxor from Quina
a local girl, no doubt soon to be the next Iman
inside Edfu Temple
a pharoah that was apparently quite happy to see us
sailing to Aswan
walking through a temple
Rina and the Habibi Brothers
a part of the Temple of Philae
a spice shop in the Soukh
getting ready to walk like Egyptians on a special dinner evening
the desolate King's Highway on the way to Petra
in the gorge to Petra
why going through the gorge is worth it. The Treasury at Petra
the Urn Tomb in Petra
copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, James B. Rieley