Friday, December 28, 2007

December 22, 2007
Winter Palace
Corniche el Nil, Luxor

We were in Cairo last week and this week is Luxor. I’m sitting in Paul and Carolyn’s room, which is adjoining to ours, while Maeve goes to sleep. This is an older hotel, with very tall ceilings and 19th century ideals of propriety – as in no bathing suites outside the pool precinct and coats and ties in the main restaurant. But the adjoining rooms are great, the garden out back is a wonderful view from our balconies and the location right downtown south of Luxor temple is the best.

The trip to Egypt was fine. We were a bit worried as we had a 3.5 hour lay-over in London and had to go from Gatwick to Heathrow, but we had plenty of time. Mike found his parents, amazingly enough, in Heathrow. Their trip over was a bit more difficult, with some delays on their planes, but they arrived in time just a bit tired. We were met in Cairo airport by a representative of the company we’d used to book our tickets and hotels. One rep led us through the airport, and then met up with another outside that went with a driver to take us to the hotel. Apparently, you need a special permit to work in the airport. We saw president Mubarak’s residence on the way to our hotel in Giza, and finally got in to bed close to midnight. Long day.

Our hotel was the four seasons in Giza, which was the fanciest hotel I’ve ever been in but unfortunately not in down town Cairo. With no traffic, it was a 20 minute taxi ride downtown – so it’s not really that far. However, no traffic does not really ever describe Cairo. The worst ride was the day it took and hour and 45 minutes to get back – most usually it took between 45 minutes and an hour.
Cairo is an amazingly huge, trafficy and polluted city. One week there was enough, despite the many interesting things to do there. We were all very happy to get here and get the black pollution junk out of our noses and be able to see the other side of the Nile without squinting through the murky haze.

Our first day in Cairo we went to the modern part of the city to figure out guides for our day trips. We visited 3 tourist agencies recommended in the Rough Guide and decided to hire Thomas Cook for the day trips. They were the only ones that had a list of possible trips and prices. We then went out to eat kushari, a mix of pasta, rice, lentils, spicy tomato sauce, and sautéed onions. All four of us ate for 22 Egyptian pounds, and then we got a rice pudding for dessert. It was fast and yummy. One other day we went by the same place and got take out. Maeve is a super big hit with everyone, when leaving the restaurant, one of the waiters was taking her picture with his cell phone.

One day in Cairo we went to the Egypt museum. We hired a guide outside, which was well worth it to make it thought the highlights. Our guide was quite good, explaining pharonic statutes (two hands crossed on the chest is the mummy pose (often with cook and flail), one hand flat on the leg means peace, one hand is usually grasping something – a hankie, a flail or a third thing that we can’t remember. The massive amount of stuff they recovered from King Tut’s tomb is also amazing, I can’t imagine how much there were in the tombs of kings that were in power for a while and who had time to prepare and build real tombs. Tut’s is just the only one found intact, out of over 100 Pharaohs. Unbelievable. The number of beds, for example, including a fold-up one, and the layers and layers of wooden caskets, both for the body and for the canopic jars holding the organs.

Other interesting factoids we learned at the museum keep getting repeated and put to use as we see monuments. For example, I now know the crowns of upper and lower Egypt, and we often see carvings of the pharaoh on the outside of temple doors, on one side wearing the crown of upper Egypt and on the other the crown of lower Egypt. We also learned that the direction of the birds in hieroglyphs show the direction to read it, reading from the beak to the tail.

At our hotel, we asked if there was anywhere nearby in Giza we could walk to that had Egyptian food. The concierge at first recommended restaurants in the hotel, or other tourist stops, but I really suggested we wanted normal Egyptian food. So they recommended a restaurant called Gad, a chain that the Rough Guide also recommended. So we got directions from the concierge, and one day set out on foot to find it. We walked past the supermarket where Mike and Carolyn had gone to get supplies for Maeve, and Gad was supposed to be 2 minutes further on. We couldn’t find it, so turned around and got bread at the market and picnicked in our rooms. Later, coming back from the pyramids, we saw the restaurant, about 1 block past where we’d turned around. We went back there and ordered Egyptian pancakes, a couple filled with veggies and a couple sweet ones. They were good, and the sweet ones were very very sweet. We also got falafel, which Maeve loves, and it came with hot pita-like breads that were very good. I don’t know if I’d order the veggie pancake again – in the menu it was the fasting Christian pancake – as it was full of peppers, which aren’t my favorite, and black olives, which Carolyn didn’t much like, but it was good to try them. One of the sweet ones was with honey and cream cheese. Yummy.

We also spent two days at the pyramids, one at Giza and one at Saqqara. We had a mediocre guide for Giza and a good one for Saqqara, and that made a big difference. The Giza pyramids are just huge, we most enjoyed pyramid #2, which is not currently open to go in, as it was less crowded and had 3 smaller pyramids around it (belonging to wives of the pharaoh) and we could wonder around. Mike and his mom went into the great pyramid, of Cheops, and said it was not that interesting – they were only allowed to go in one tunnel to the sarcophagus room and then back out. Paul and I walked around outside with Maeve, avoiding the people aggressively selling stuff. Perhaps the most interesting part for me was the funerary temple that went with pyramid # 2. The spynx was part of this complex, and there were remains of the causeway that they used to carry the corps from the valley temple to the mortuary temple and then up to the pyramid. I didn’t know that the spynx was carved in situ, out of rock that was just there. It’s also pretty neat.

On the Saqqara day, we first went to Memphis, which was the capitol of the Old Kingdom. It’s right south of Cairo, not really in the delta, which was lower Egypt, but very close so it was chosen for the location as the kinds from upper Egypt (the Nile valley) had conquered lower Egypt and wanted to make a capitol close to the conquered lands to keep them under control. There is absolutely nothing left there – all silted over and covered by a village, but the do have an outdoor museum with a number of statues. The highlight is a huge statue of Ramses (no?) that is now lying supine and is covered in a barn. We then went to Saqqara, which is the home of the first pyramid, which was a step pyramid built by Pharaoh Zoser. Until him, the kinds were buried in mastabas, which are graves dug into the ground and covered with a big slab of rock. Zoser wanted something more kingly, so his architect, Imhotep, built him a bigger mastaba and then put smaller mastabas on top to make a step pyramid with 6 steps. Not a true pyramid, but the first step. There was also a huge temple complex around the pyramid. From there we could also see the bent pyramid at Dashur off in the distance. At the end of the trip, we went into a couple of mastabas and looked at their decorations, including the false door for the soul, and lists on the walls of all the offerings the dead guy gave to the gods. The drawings were amazing.
One dinner we went to an upscale Egyptian restaurant recommended by the Concierge. We first walked along the Corniche, which was full of floating restaurants, and at 5 took a taxi to the restaurant. Our time was not great, as that day was the first day of an Eid, or holiday, and was the fast day. Day 2 was the feast, but on that day, many people had fasted until sundown which was at 5:00, so when we got to the restaurant it was packed. We had to wait 30 minutes for a table, and then our service was very very slow, much slower than everyone else’s. The food was quite good – we got a selection of mezze, which are appetizers. Ours included falafel, tzaziki, tahini, fuul with pepper and onions, grape leaves, and several other dishes. The grape leaves were the best I’ve ever had. But, the restaurant also was a sheesha, or waterpipe bar. Lots and lots of people were smoking, and there was one staff member whose job was to service the pipes, bringing around coals and whatever else they needed. It was super-smoky. We all felt that it was interesting to see, but have no interest being in such a smoky place with such bad service ever again.
Our last day in Cairo, we visited Coptic Cairo. It’s a small enclosure, in the old Roman walls of Byzantium. It’s filled with old churches, most Coptic, a synagogue, and the main Orthodox Christian church for Egypt. The churches tended to be small, and had rooms off to the back that had relics or pictures of saints in them. The people going to these chapels took off their shoes. They also were touching the pictures of the saints and then kissing their hands. It seemed that many of the people visiting these churches were practicing Copts who were perhaps tourists but also felt the religious significance of the churches. From there, we took the metro to Garden City where we ate lunch at a Lebanese restaurant in the Embassy area. The metro is cheap – 1 Egyptian pound each, and that day, also holiday, it was full but not too crowded. Then a taxi back to the hotel to catch our afternoon flight to Luxor.

Our first day here in Luxor we went to the Luxor museum. We walked up the Corniche. Here, the Corniche is wide, with nice views of the Nile and the tons of tourist boats that are moored here. The sidewalks aren’t cracked, there isn’t much trash, and the air is breathable. What a change from Cairo. The big drawback here is the touts. I’m not sure how many times we were asked if we wanted a taxi, a felucca ride, a 1 Egyptian pound ferry to the West Bank, or a caleche ride, but almost certainly we said no a couple hundred times between our hotel and the museum. People are nice, but they all approach you and ask if you want whatever service they’re offering.
The Luxor museum is small, but very very good. The exhibits have English explanations, and it’s all high-quality and clearly laid out. We spent a good 2 hours there looking at statues, mummies, etc. I particularly liked the statues of Sekmet, the goddess of war who has a lion head. There were also some displays on architecture, included potsherds that were recycled as architectural drawings. At the end of the museum was a reconstructed wall from a temple built by Akhenaton, the Armarna heretic. The temple had been destroyed and used a pylon fill at Karnak, but had been found during excavations and reconstructed.

We had decided to have Thomas Cook arrange our day trips in Luxor, but had not been able to get to the office in Cairo to pay for the trips, as most of the offices were closed due to holidays. So the rep we’d worked with in Cairo had called a rep in Luxor and said we could get the same trips for the Cairo price quote. So we’d gone by there, and at first they were quoting us a much higher price, but we found the rep who had talked to the rep in Cairo, and he matched her price, with just a 10% markup for private guide. Mike figured that 10% just went in his pocket, but the prices were still competitive. As an incentive, he through in a free felucca ride, so we did that the first afternoon. Our captain took us across the river at 3:30 until sunset – we were back a bit after five. 90 minutes was long enough to keep Maeve entertained in a small boat. They offered us water and tea, which was strong and sweet. The oars are just pieces of wood with handles at one end, but the oaring surface area is no larger than the shaft. It seems inefficient. We also saw a small fishing boat laying out a net and then picking it up, catching very few fish. The ride was very peaceful.

Day 2 (today) we toured the East bank, which includes Luxor and Karnak temples. In ancient times, people lived on the east bank and buried their dead on the west. Therefore Cairo is East of the river and the Giza pyramids are west. Memphis is now west of the river, but it used to be east of the river and the Saqqara pyramids were to the west. For the new Kingdom, their capitol was east of the river in Luxor and the Theban necropolis was west. So today we did the East, land of the living and temples to the gods. Our guide, who we were supposed to have for 4 days, was not very good. We couldn’t hear her, she didn’t understand enough English to understand our questions, and once we could get her to understand our questions, she didn’t know the answers. We’re getting a new one tomorrow who will hopefully be better.
Nonetheless, the temples are amazing. We thought Luxor temple was big, but it’s nothing compared to Karnak, which was the main temple to the main god, Amun-Re, the sun god who is also represented with a ram’s head. The pylons, or gates, there are just huge, and Pharaohs would destroy previous pharaoh’s work to use their stones as rubble fill or building materials for their new construction. We saw closed and open papyrus topped columns, remainder of the ceiling of hypostyle halls (the temple was organized from outside in, into pylons separating halls, open-air courts where common people could go, hypostyle halls which were closed and for royalty, and the sanctuary where the god’s icon lived and was only available to high priests and the pharaoh. There is a side temple to Ramses (no?) which in miniature repeated the temple layout. There are also two obelisks left, one by Queen Hatshepsut and another by Amenhotep III, who came after Hatshepsut and tried to erase everything she’d done, either because she had been his regent and he hated her because he couldn’t wrest power from her or because he didn’t like the idea of a female pharaoh. Karnak is just so huge, it’s hard to make sense of it all.

Afterwards, we went to the temple at Luxor, which is much smaller, although still huge, and was primarily built by 2 pharaohs, although there were additions by others, including the Romans and Christians. It was easier to make sense of, in part because it followed the same layout of open air court, hypostyle hall and sanctum. The carving was again amazing, in some places you can still see the brown coloring of legs, blue sky with yellow stars, or red and green vegetation designs. There is also part of the avenue of the sphinxes, which used to lead all the way from Luxor to Karnak, as Mut and Khonsu, the wife and son of the god AmunRe, lived in Luxor and the two temples were both dedicated to the Theban triad. At the end of the tour, we dissed our guide to be able to wander around a bit more on our own and walked back to our hotel. I think we’re lucky because it’s winter. We all got some sun, but it’s quite pleasant outside. In the summer, it must be unbearable. I left Maeve’s diaper bag in the van, which we picked up this afternoon and Mike gave the driver a $1 tip. A good tip, but we were happy to have Maeve’s diaper rash cream back.

After Maeve’s nap this afternoon, we tried to go swimming. The pool is supposed to be heated and was warmer than air temperature, but still not very warm as by 4:15 when we got out there, the sun was no longer up very high. They close at sundown, which is about 5:00, but told us they were closing at 4:30. We went in for 5 minutes, which Maeve didn’t like as she was cold, got out and showered and went out for dinner. We decided to go to a restaurant mentioned in the guide book that had a view of the Souk. So we walked down Souk street, which has a wooden awning over most of it, which probably really helps make it more pleasant in the summer. It’s lined with tourist shops, every single one had a person sitting in a chair on the side of the road who would say something like “nice shop here” or “scarf only five Egyptian pounds” or “nice family look my shop” or “papyrus?” or something like that. The street was level, pretty clean, and pedestrianized. Just one block off, you could sometimes see donkeys pulling carts or other signs of non-tourist life. While we were eating, Paul and Carolyn saw a cobbler opening up his shop and setting up his sewing machine, just one quarter block off the tourist strip. It was very interesting.

Tomorrow we’ll head out early, 7 AM, with a new guide to do day 1 of the West Bank.

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