Sunday, 2 November 2008

Cruising down the Nile

Last Tuesday we flew from Dubai to Cairo, Egypt with our friends Cathy and Stan who've arrived from NZ. We stayed the night at Le Meridien Pyramids in Cairo and could see the pyramids from the front steps of the hotel.

Early the next day we headed out for a full day of sightseeing, first visiting the ancient capital of Egypt, Memphis, where there is a huge statue of King Ramses II (going the Memphis to see the King....). Next stop was Sakkara to see the funeral complex which includes the world's first pyramid built by King Zosar and unlike the pyramids we immediately think of, is constructed in steps or 'benches'. I was amazed by how many other pyramids were visible from the walls of Sakkara including the "Bent Pyramid". Apparently this pyramid was built for one of the early pharaohs who, mid-way through construction, become seriously ill. Fearing the worst the builders hurriedly finished the top section of the pyramid leaving it with a lopsided top. The pharaoh recovered, took one look at the Bent Pyramid, declared it to be rubbish and demanded that a completely new one be built. I guess you can do that when you're a pharaoh. As a result, a whole new pyramid was built and the Bent Pyramid remains the only one that has never been "occupied". Next a quick stop at a carpet factory where we watched local kids making the carpets. The kids go to school for half the day then do a couple of hours work on the carpets. Their fingers move so fast on the loom but apparently they stop working at around 18 years of age as their fingers grow too large to handle the intricate knotting patterns. However, they've learnt a skill that they can use at home and then send their own completed carpets to the factory to be sold. After that we were off to the Giza plateau to see the 3 most famous pyramids. My reaction was the same as the first time I saw them nothing prepares you for their sheer size and they seem to loom over you. The main pyramid (Cheops) was built in 24 years and modern engineers have worked out the number of stone blocks that were used and that, in order to complete the pyramid in that time, the builders would have needed to place one stone block every 2 minutes. As some of the blocks weigh up to 2.5 tons it seems incredible that it was ingenuity directing raw muscle power that built the pyramids; no cranes in those days. We also went to see the Solar Boat which was housed in a special museum behind the second pyramid. The boat, which is 43 metres long and 6 metres wide, is believed to be at least 5,000 years old and is constructed of cedar wood from Lebanon. It was found in pieces, like a kitset, in a large pit behind the Cheops pyramid. There are several theories about the use of the boat; whether it was used to carry the pharaoh's body up to the pyramids for burial or whether its use was strictly symbolic. The boat has since been reconstructed from the jigsaw puzzle of pieces that were found in the pit. The reconstruction uses only ropes to hold the pieces together as would have been the way in the ancient times, and is well worth seeing.

Next was a quick stop at the Sphinx which is the smaller than expected but magnificent. We went back to the hotel briefly and then headed back to Giza to watch the Sound and Light Show.

Wednesday started with a short flight to Luxor, followed by a short drive to Karnak Temple. The temple is on a 250 acre site which once was covered by religious sites, temples, tombs etc. The temple is breathtaking, the carvings awesome and like the pyramids, raises the big question "How did they do it?" Some of the carvings are in solid granite and modern scientists have been unable to figure out how such a hard stone has been carved with such delicacy. There are colours imbedded in the granite carvings but how this was done also remains a mystery. As Assem our guide remarked, "There are papyrus which have survived from those times listing what the pharaoh had for breakfast and noting facts such as "The Queen enjoyed smelling flowers today" but nobody considered it important enough to record how the pyramids and temples were built!"

At this point Assem (who's a qualified Egyptologist) warned us to hurry along because the "Red Sea day trippers are coming". And he wasn't joking! About 20 minutes later I happened to glance towards the entrance only to see a heaving mass of sunburnt humanity exiting a fleet of buses and bearing down on the entrance gates to the temple. These were the Red Sea day trippers, tourists mainly Russian, who stay in the Red Sea resorts to sunbathe, drink and party. They only have one "culture" day so they rush through the sites like a horde of locusts (a bit of a Biblical allusion there) and then return to the resorts.

Having survived the human tsunami, we boarded our cruise ship the Ms Miriam which is home for the next 7 days and within a short time we were underway. The banks of the Nile are lush and green with agriculture still the main source of income, as was the case thousands of years ago. Round every bend in the river is a photo waiting to be taken; people working in the fields, donkeys and cows grazing down on the riverside, kids waving, guys fishing, women doing the washing in the Nile, visual overload - almost. I took some good photos of the sun setting over the Nile last evening too (even I couldn't mess up that scene.) After 4 hours of sitting on the top deck watching the world go by, we arrived at Dendara where the boat docked for the night.

Yesterday started with a visit to Dendara temple which was dedicated to Hathor, a goddess with the body of woman and the head of cow. The carvings in the temple, while now devoid of colour were very impressive.

After an afternoon of travelling back up the Nile the boat berthed and we visited Luxor Temple. Luxor Temple is an extension of Karnak Temple and was once linked to Karnak by a 3 mile long causeway lined with 1,000 small sphinx. Over time Luxor temple was buried by Nile mud and eventually people built a town right on top of the temple complex having forgotten that it was ever there. Now that restoration has started the buildings that were constructed overhead are being demolished as they come free and the free land which is now at least 50 feet above the temple floor, is removed revealing the temples, statues etc below. However one building, a mosque, remains in place, now seemingly perched on top of the pillars of the old temple and accessible only from what is still street level outside the temple complex. As the sun set the temple was lit by carefully positioned floodlights. On board the boat last night there was a floorshow with a bellydancer (local girl), live music (keyboard, riq and tabla and they weren't too bad either) and a tannoura (whirling dervish).

Today there was a 5am wake up call for an early start to visit the Valley of the Kings. We visited 3 tombs: Ramses IX, the tombs for 50 or so of the sons of Ramses II and the tomb of Tawosert and Setnakht (Tawosert built it first then Setnakht usurped it). The colours and the carvings are truly amazing. I didn't go into King Tut's tomb as the things worth seeing from the tomb are all now in the Cairo Museum that we'll visit next week. Next stop was Hatshepsut's funeral temple which is built into the cliffside in the next valley over from the Valley of the Kings. Hatshepsut was Egypt's first female ruler and despite the fact that her successor attempted to remove all evidence of her, the funeral temple remains. It seems very modern in design, three terraces linked by a series of wide ramps the entire building blending in with the surrounding hills. Strangely enough, in the past the building was used as a Christian convent. It was at this site that in 1997 fanatics killed 59 tourists in an act that crippled Egypt's tourism industry for years afterwards.

Final stop for the day was the Colossi of Memnon, which are two 18 metre high statues of Pharaoh Amenophis III. The statues, which are believed to be at least 3,000 years old, served as guardians of the entrance of a huge temple. The temple was destroyed in an earthquake about 27 BC leaving only the two statues.

We're now back on the boat heading up river towards our next overnight stop at Edfu. Shortly we'll be entering the locks at Esna which should be fun.

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