Cairo – Aswan
October 12 – 14, 2008
Woke up nice and early on the 12th, had a nice chat with my roomie Sarah and headed down for breakfast (the usual Egyptian fare of bread, bread, bread and overcooked eggs) and a tour meeting. Met the rest of the people on the tour, and tour leader Dave, then it was off to the pyramids with our guide for the day, Sahar.
The pyramids are now on the outskirts of Cairo instead of being in the middle of the desert like in times past. The urban sprawl of Cairo is now such that they have started having to create cities in the desert on the other side of the pyramids just to house and hold everyone who calls Cairo and the surrounding area home. The pyramids are pretty impressive. They are HUGE, MASSIVE – nearly impossible to get good pictures of, they are that big. When we arrived, those on the tour who opted to go down into the tomb of the Second Pyramid headed off. The ramp goes from ground level, down about 40 feet into the pyramid via a small, cramped, hot, sticky sauna-esque tunnel to a small chamber, from which you go about 60 feet up into the pyramid via a smaller, more cramped, hotter, more sticky, more sauna-esque tunnel to reach the actual burial chamber, which was an average sized room with a vaulted ceiling and was hot, sticky and sauna-esque. There were no decorations inside, but I could see where the sarcophagus would have been. Totally worth it!! Unfortunately you are not allowed to take pictures inside, but basically imagine small, cramped and hot – the Egyptian sun felt like a cool spring day compared to the inside of that pyramid!
Then it was time to take pictures, soooo many pictures! Here, there, everywhere! All around the Great Pyramid (Khufu’s pyramid) and the Second Pyramid (Cheop’s pyramid), and the surrounding little temples. We saw the hole in the ground where they had excavated the boat that Khufu wanted to take with him to the afterlife, and were harassed by all of the Egyptian guys wanting to sell us random touristy things and camel rides. I did end up riding a camel at the pyramids, on the plain overlooking the three pyramids. I bargained hard for Fred, Laura and I to each ride a camel for 15 Egyptian Pounds (about $3 Canadian) – the key to getting the price you want is to be totally stubborn and pit them against each other: “Did you know he (motion to other camel guy) wants 20EGP to ride that camel??” Ahh the joys of bargaining :o) It was really fun, we had a total blast. About 10 minutes on the camels, took a quick walk around on them, took some pictures and tried not to get thrown off of one when they stand up and sit down again – leaning WAY back is the key.
Next up was the Sphinx. It’s actually not as big as I thought it would be, but totally as impressive. I liked how you could still see where the tail wrapped around the body. Got a few good pictures and took a walk through the temple where they found an Aswan black granite statue of Ramses II that is now in the Egyptian Museum. After the Sphinx we stopped quickly to get a shwarma (basically the Egyptian version of a giros) and headed off to the Egyptian Museum.
Ahh the Egyptian Museum. Now, I have been in a significant number of museums in my time. Various museums in Vancouver forced on me by school field trips, museums in the Maritimes I went to with Mom and Dad, museums I’ve seen in Canada and the States by choice because I’m a dork, and the museums in practically every city I’ve ever been in over my four trips to Europe (sometimes more than one per city) . . . a lot of museums. I can quite honestly say that of all those museums, the Egyptian Museum is the WORST museum I’ve ever been in. Seriously. Although it houses the best collection of Egyptian artefacts anywhere in the world, the whole thing is over crowded, poorly lit, poorly organized, poorly signed and HOT because there is no air conditioning for the poor pilgrims of Egyptology that flock to its doors. I saw someone faint right beside me on the second floor. Crazy. However, all those horrible things said about the museum, it was still pretty incredible to see all of King Tut’s grave goods (SO much gold! And he was only a minor pharaoh, who did practically nothing for Egypt and only reigned for 10 years ~ mind boggling to think what other royal tombs might have held), the Royal Mummies from numerous different dynasties (including Ramses II and Hatshepsut), Hatshepsut’s face carved in Aswan black granite, the only statue of Khufu ever found (it’s about an inch high), rows of carved sphinxes, sarcophagi, and endless other tidbits of fantastic-ness. Lots of people I’ve spoken to who have taken tours of museums complain about the lack of freedom to see what you want to see, I have to say that for this museum, I would have been utterly lost without Sahar, because in addition to being the worst museum ever, there are also no maps of the building or displays *sigh*. She was great and very knowledgeable and took us around to all the good stuff.
It was a pretty packed day of seeing lots of incredible things. As far as days of travelling and seeing stuff go, I think that one might have to top them all. We got back to our hotel at about 4 in the afternoon and had a couple of day rooms to freshen up in and chill out before dinner and our overnight train to Aswan that left at 12:45 am. Trains in Egypt, as my previous experience with the train back from Alexandria had taught me, are pretty much anything goes. Tour leader Dave was telling us a horror story of a previous tour of his that caught the overnight train and did not get into Aswan until 10:30 pm the next night!!! We arrived at about 3:30, so we figured we were 7 hours early!
Once at the hotel in Aswan we had time to freshen up and stretch our legs before heading out to see the Light and Sound Show at Philae Temple – totally cheesy touristy show, but really cool to see the temple all lit up at night. It’s also located on an island, so we got to take our first of many little ferry rides on the Nile! A great way to spend the evening, I would recommend checking out at least one light and sound show if you ever travel to Egypt. Most of the temples offer them, and it’s really interesting to see them by night. The temples are also HUGE. Giant complexes, bigger than most Grecian sanctuaries and often (perhaps strangely) more complete in terms of columns etc. Hit the sack nice and early for two reasons: 1) I was totally wrecked from the night on the train 2) we had a 2:45 am wake up call to get on the bus by 3:15 to go to Abu Simbel in the middle of the desert to see the temples there!!
By the way, our hotel in Aswan was a dry hotel – no alcohol – I know for some of you this might come as a shock, but alcohol can be difficult to come by sometimes in Egypt, however, it seems to be the unofficial duty of the tour leader to always have a source of libation: well played Dave, well played.
I digress. Abu Simbel, Oct 14th. Up way before the crack of dawn to get on a bus, where we all promptly fell asleep until Dave woke us up to see the sun rise somewhere in the desert. Very cool. Had a great time at Abu Simbel, took another million or so pictures and went inside both the ‘Great’ (Ramses II’s temple, built for himself) and the ‘Small’ (Ramses II built it for his Nubian princess wife, Nefertari) temples. No pictures allowed inside, but really got a hint of what all future temples would be like – COVERED in hieroglyphs from floor to ceiling. The temples still had some paint left in them, which was great to see as well. Interesting fact: both Abu Simbel and Philae Temple are no longer in their original positions. With the damming of the Nile in the late 19th century and again in the 1950’s the waters rose so much that they covered Philae completely and nearly covered Abu Simbel. The Egyptian government and UNESCO along with a whole bunch of other nations got together to save both sites, and painstakingly cut them apart into thousands upon thousands of pieces, numbered them, moved them, and put back together the world’s largest jigsaw puzzles to preserve the temples. When you see them in person, it’s almost impossible to believe that they were actually moved.
Three hour bus ride back into Aswan, then onto Philae Temple by day – so impressive! And very interesting as you can see how it was constructed in the Grecian times (Alexander the Great), added to in the Roman times (I think it was Hadrian who has an unfinished temple there), and then used as a Christian Church later on. Next was an ancient Aswan pink granite quarry, where the Unfinished Obelisk of Hatshepsut is still hanging around. Hatshepsut was the only woman pharaoh, and wanted to have the largest obelisk in all of Egypt. They started to quarry the granite and were working on the shape of the obelisk (which was supposed to be 42m high) when they discovered a flaw in the granite halfway up the shaft and just abandoned it in the quarry – and its been there for the last 3000 years or so! Hatshepsut eventually got her obelisks at Karnak Temple, and they were the highest, at 39m.
That night we took a sunset camel ride in the Sahara Desert to an 8th century monastery and then had a traditional dinner at a Nubian village on the Nile. I kid you not – amazing evening! Got our first taste of night on the Nile as we had to take ferries to and from the Nubian village . . . we all enjoyed it very much and were pretty excited to start our felucca journey the next day!!
Next up – felucca sailing down the Nile, Nubian bonfires and two more temples!