In life’s travels, we often take side trips. Some side trips prove to be integral aspects of our life’s journey, as in higher education, career choices, marriage, and having children. Others prove to be enlightening and exciting diversions.
Now that warm weather is no more, and winter is officially here, memories of summer vacations keep me cozy. Like many Americans, my idea of a vacation has often been camping in the mountains or sunning at the shore, but in July 1995, I wanted to do something a little different. Although I had traveled and lived throughout the United States, I had never ventured overseas. After much discussion, it was decided that we would spend two weeks in Egypt, and I am glad we made that choice.
Egypt has a rich culture that dates back more than 5,000 years. Because of the dry climate, many of the monuments of that ancient culture have survived to this day. The Sphinx, the pyramids, the obelisks, and the temples still stand, a lasting tribute to humankind’s ingenuity.
Our first stop was Cairo, Egypt’s capital city. Called the City of the Thousand Minarets, nearly 90 percent of Cairo’s denizens are Sunni Muslim; however, Christian and Jewish citizens also live in the city. Churches, synagogues, and mosques are situated within walking distance of one another. Although these groups live in relative peace, this is not to say that all is kumbaya in Cairo. Violence does erupt, often without warning. These underlying tensions were apparent in the aggressive driving habits of the city’s residents. Switching lanes on the Cairo streets is like running the gauntlet. Turn signals were ignored in favor of honking horns before cutting you off. Also unsettling was the presence of police carrying automatic weapons on nearly every street corner. Sadly, instead of making me feel more secure, I felt less safe.
Anyhow, for four days, we explored Egypt’s capital. On the first day, we visited Old Cairo (the Coptic Christian sector) and the 19th-century section of the city, toured the Al-Azhar Mosque, and shopped at Khan el-Khalili (a huge bazaar).
On the second day, we ventured to the Giza pyramid complex. Standing at the base of the Great Pyramid, the oldest and largest of the three pyramids at Giza, I was awestruck by the power of the human mind and the strength of the human spirit. More than 2.3 million limestone and granite blocks were pushed, pulled, and dragged into place to create this structure, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Each of the base stones measures approximately five feet high and weighs about 2.5 tons. Nearby, the Sphinx is sprawled in the hot sand, soaking up the summer sun.
On the third day, we toured Saqqara, home of Egypt’s “other” pyramids. One of the most visually interesting pyramids is the Pyramid of Djoser, more commonly known as the Step Pyramid. Another fascinating one was initially considered a mistake: Snefuru, the Bent Pyramid. We also visited several intricately painted tombs. The coolness of these underground tombs was a welcome respite from the blazing sun. After we finished at Saqqara, we went to the ancient city of Memphis where we toured an open-air museum containing ruins, a sphinx, granite statues and monuments. The most impressive artifact is inside the courtyard, lying on the ground: a 33-foot statue of King Ramesses II.
Our final day in Cairo was spent in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Also known as the Egyptian Museum, this museum is packed to the gills with history and cluttered with artifacts. Some of my favorite areas were the Tutankhamun galleries, the Egyptian jewelry collection, and the royal mummies collection.
The next day we headed to the Nile to board our river cruise. For ten days, we would travel down and back on this north-flowing river, visiting ancient temples and other sites. Our boat housed two travel groups, one from the United States and one from Germany. The cabins on the boat were minuscule. We had two cot-sized beds that folded up against the walls. The bathroom was a squeeze with the toilet and micro-sink, which also folded up, separated by a foot or two. Above that “open” space was the shower head with the drain on the floor below. It was obvious that these rooms were only intended for sleeping.
Our first stop of the cruise was the temples of Abydos and Dendera, two of the best-preserved temple complexes in Egypt where the full color is still visible on its walls. The bas-relief in the Temple of Seti I is absolutely exquisite. I also loved the reliefs of Cleopatra VII and her son via Julius Caesar. Unfortunately, the Dendera zodiac no longer graces the Hathor Temple ceiling. In 1821, the zodiac was stolen by a French antiquities dealer who commissioned others to remove the zodiac and bring it back to France. In 1822, Louis XVIII had it installed in the Royal Library. One hundred years later, in 1922, the zodiac was moved to the Louvre where it remains to this day. (I did, however, see the zodiac on my visit to France three years later.)
The next day we went to the Karnak temple complex. For nearly 2,000 years, pharaohs added their own additions to this complex. Ramesses II, a megalomaniac, displayed his image and cartouche throughout the country. In an attempt to claim Karnak as his own, Ramesses II erased other pharaohs’ cartouches and engravings by chiseling his own over them. The Great Temple of Amun at Karnak, the second largest religious building ever built, was the main house of worship for Amun, Thebes’ patron deity, and the residence of the powerful Amun priesthood. This temple is known for its ten large pylons, the Great Hypostyle Hall, a sacred lake, sub-temples, shrines, and obelisks. One of the sites we visited at Karnak was Khepri, the scarab statue. Legend has it if you walk around the statue three times, your wish will come true.
After Karnak, we ventured to Luxor Temple. Luxor was not dedicated to a god or ruler. At the height of the Egyptian pharaohs, the temple of Luxor and the Karnak complex were connected for several miles by a statue-lined avenue. For more than 3,500 years, Luxor has been a site of continuous worship. Situated atop the Luxor walls and amidst its ruins is the mosque of Abu’l Haggag. The mosque replaced an earlier Christian basilica that had been built there.
Bright and early the next morning, we met at the shuttle to begin our excursion to the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. The tour guide wanted to get an early start so as to avoid the intense afternoon sun. At 5:30 a.m., roll call was taken. All members of the American party were present and accounted for, but the German contingent was M.I.A. Nearly half an hour passed before they finally boarded. We were off!
Tombs of dozens of nobles and royals, including King Tutankhamun and Queen Nefertari, are found at the Valleys of the Kings and Queens. Since I had already viewed many of the items found in King Tut’s tomb at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, I was able to visualize what the tomb must have looked like when it was first discovered.
Not far from these burial grounds lies Deir el-Bahari, which boasts the Mortuary Temple of Mentuhotep II (11th Dynasty pharaoh who reigned for 51 years and reunited Egypt, thereby becoming the first pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom), the Temple of Thutmose III (sixth pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty who ruled for nearly 54 years), and the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut (fifth pharaoh of Egypt and the second who was female). These temples are surrounded on three sides by high ground—a tall canyon wall borders the back. Standing on that canyon and the other high ground were men watching us. As I walked around the temples, I couldn’t shake a feeling of unease. I felt both trapped and exposed, a bit like fish in a barrel. (Unfortunately, it seems that my discomfort was justified. Less than two and a half years later, while I was touring Italy, Sky News reported that 62 people, most of them Swiss tourists, were massacred by six men at Hatshepsut’s temple. For 45 minutes, these men, armed with automatic firearms and knives, went on a killing spree. The dead included a five-year-old English child and four Japanese couples on honeymoon.)
After seeing Deir el-Bahari, we went back to the boat and continued upriver. The next day trip we took was to the temples of Edfu and Esna. The temple of Edfu is the largest temple of Dendera dedicated to Horus (the falcon-headed god) and Hathor (the cow-headed goddess). The temple of Esna was dedicated to the goddess Neith (the first and prime creator), as well as to the god Khnum (the ram-headed god), his wives Menhit (the lion-headed warrior goddess) and Nebtu (goddess of the desert oasis), and his son Heka (the god of magic and medicine). Esna is known for its beautiful site and magnificent architecture. Constructed of red sandstone, the portico is made up of six rows of four columns each with lotus-leaf capitals, each one different from the others.
The next day trip was to Kom Ombo, a double temple for two sets of gods. One temple was dedicated to the crocodile-headed god Sobek, god of fertility and creator of the world, along with Hathor and Khonsu (the god of the moon). Dozens of mummified crocodiles, honoring Sobek, have been unearthed here. The other temple was dedicated to the falcon god Haroeris (Horus the Elder), Tasenetnofret (an early version of Hathor) and Panebtawy (Lord of the Two Lands). Kom Ombo is unique because everything is perfectly symmetrical along the main axis.
After Kom Ombo, we ventured upriver to Philae. Situated between Ancient Egypt and Nubia, Philae boasted the Temple of Isis. This temple, considered one of the most beautiful and best preserved, had a mammisi (birth house), commemorating the birth of Isis’ and Osiris’ child. The nearby island of Biggeh housed an abaton, one of the tombs of Osiris. The island of Philae was once located in the Nile River at the First Cataract, south of today’s Aswan High Dam. For years, these temples would flood when the Nile rose. Then, starting in the 1960s, the island of Philae remained flooded year-round with one-third of the buildings submerged. Something had to be done to save these historical structures. UNESCO stepped in. First, a temporary dam was built around the islands, creating an enclosure. The water was then pumped away. Next, the monuments were cleaned and measured. Then, these temples were disassembled and rebuilt on Agilkia Island. After the temples were relocated, the Aswan High Dam, which was being constructed throughout this process, was completed, and the islands of Biggeh and Philae were completely submerged beneath the waters of Lake Nasser. After Philae, we went on a tour of the Aswan High Dam. This huge hydroelectric dam provides most of the electricity for the entire country.
The next day, we had the option to visit Abu Simbel, the site of two temples built by Ramesses II. The Great Temple at Abu Simbel took nearly two decades to construct and was dedicated to the gods Amun (early patron deity of Thebes who was believed to create via breath and the wind), Ra-Horakhty (a composite of deities Ra, the sun god, and Horakhty (the sunrise-oriented aspect of Horus), and Ptah (the demiurge of Memphis and god of craftsmen and architects), as well as Ramesses II himself. The second temple, known as the Small Temple, was dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Queen Nefertari, Ramesses II’s chief consort. Statues of the pharaoh and his wife stand sentinel at the entrance. Like the temples of Biggeh and Philae, Abu Simbel would have been flooded upon completion of Aswan High Dam. Again, UNESCO intervened. Between 1963 and 1968, workers excavated the top of the cliff, completely disassembled both temples, and then reconstructed them on higher ground, more than 200 feet above their previous site.
When we weren’t on day trips, we gathered in the lounge area, at the bar, around the table for meals, or at the pool. One of my favorite memories is when we gathered in the lounge to listen to traditional Egyptian music. The band played a bendir (wooden-framed frame drum), a mazhar (large tambourine), a riq (hand-held tambourine), a tablah (goblet-shaped drum), and a tar (single-headed frame drum). After an hour of music, the band produced a set of sagats (finger cymbals) and a sequined hip scarf: We were going to learn to belly dance. Several male crew members demonstrated the proper way to move and then both female and male passengers were given the chance to try. Some of the participants made us laugh until we cried, especially a much older man who, despite his expanded waistline and less-than limber joints, was determined to belly dance, gosh darn it! Then came my turn to undulate to the drum beat. I am not sure how much justice I did to this traditional dance, but I sure had fun!
Another favorite memory is when I shared smiles with some of the crew one hot afternoon. I was sitting at the bar sipping qasab (sugarcane juice), desperately trying to stay cool in the sweltering heat. As I was savoring that cold, sweet drink, I chatted with the bartender and two of his colleagues, one of whom would soon be going to college in the States. Knowing the reputation of American tourists, I inquired what they thought of us, assuming that I would hear some “ugly American” stories. Instead, they said, “We like you guys. Now, the Germans, well…” and laughed. Witnessing the shenanigans of a few of the Germans on our cruise—demanding pork for supper, sunbathing topless at the pool in full view of other boats and denizens along the shore, and consuming vast qualities of liquor at all hours (all of which are forbidden by the Qur’an), I could certainly comprehend what the ship’s staff was implying. When we visit another country, we must adapt, not them.
It is these thoughts of Egypt that will warm me through these cold, winter days. I am so glad that I chose to travel somewhere “a little different” that year. Although the mountains and the beach will always be pleasant places to sojourn, the beauty of Egypt was breathtaking, and the memories, like its history, are timeless.