Thursday, June 24, 2010

Amazing Egypt *

Ok, I've been a little hard on Egypt recently. And it probably deserved it too, but I should give [some] credit where [some] credit is due. So, Egypt... the ancient land of Pyramids, the land of amazing Arabic architecture, the land of magical stretches of sand lining the Red Sea.

Starting from the beginning, Irina and I crossed over from Israel and headed straight for the beach town of Dahab. Dahab was easily my favorite spot in Egypt - it's still Egypt, with all the negative connotations that carries in my mind, but, at least, this is a place where backpackers have always come, and while it's all grown up now (with a variety of all-inclusive resorts - we stayed at one of these), the few backpackers that still come to Egypt, do still come here, which gives the place a much more easy going vibe than anywhere else in this country. And then, there's the gorgeous sandy beaches ... it's just a beautiful place to relax for a few days. To wit:

Dahab means 'Golden' in Arabic - the beautiful golden beaches of Dahab, Egypt...

Inside of the Coralia Resort. Definite bonus points for atmosphere!

Zizo! I can't remember what it was that Irina called his position at the resort, but he was definitely in charge of keeping the guests entertained, and he certainly did a great job of it.

Irina in white, meet Irina in black... It's a small world, and there's lots of Russian tourists all over Sinai, some of them named Irina

Just our Irina, being one with the beach

Next stop was Sharm el-Sheikh. I'm certainly not like most other tourists (in my defense, I was slowly winning Irina over to my side), but while millions of tourists descend upon Sharm every year and seem to absolutely love it, I could best describe it as an abomination. An absolute abomination filled with too many people, so many in fact that the locals have long ago become terribly, horribly jaded, making them even more incredibly unpleasant to deal with, than your average Egyptian purveyor of crappy merchandise. And the place looks like an over-grown shopping mall, straight out of the American suburbs, with a bit more neon and loud music thrown in. Subtle, it is not. Over-priced, it is... And yet people seem to love it - I don't really understand people. Anyway, the only worthwhile thing we did here was a camel ride, but I'm punishing Sharm el-Sheikh anyway by not including any pictures, so moving on:

Cairo! Cairo is everything that is right and everything that is wrong with Egypt. Cairo is the home of the Pyramids, the magnificent and mind-bending structures that are over 5,000 years old!

trivia time:
Q: the Great Pyramid of Khufu was 146 meters tall when construction was completed in 2570 BC. When was the first building constructed that was taller than this Pyramid?

A. 1889, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which reached 324m in height. Being in Egypt, you note that our civilization might really not have advanced all that much in the past 5,000 years!

The ancient (well, not that ancient, compared to the Pyramids) mosques are also here, and Christian churches dating back to the times of Jesus. It's the market hub of Egypt, where you can buy anything, and somebody will always be trying to sell you something, usually something you don't actually want. And then there's the streets of Cairo... I'm glad they have a subway system! The traffic is nothing short of amazing - the way these people drive is hard to even describe, but suffice to say that you are taking your life into your own hands every time you try to cross the road. But, we are not focusing on all that right now, today, we are highlighting 'amazing Egypt,' so:

The Great Pyramids of Giza!

The Sphinx stoically guards the Pyramids

You are not supposed to take pictures inside the Pyramids... But I did anyway - take that, Egypt!

Baby Sphinx in nearby Memphis

The Mosque of Mohammed Ali in Cairo

A beautiful courtyard lies behind the Mosque

The Al Azhar Mosque, "the mosque of the most resplendent", the oldest Mosque in Cairo - construction began in 970. Impressive. They tried to make a God-fearing woman out of Irina before letting us enter, can't guarantee it worked.

Man reading the Qur'an in the courtyard of the mosque

Cairo was Irina's last stop - I escorted her to the airport, she took off for her long flight back to the real world, I remained in Egypt. If you've been reading my last few blog posts, that may have been somewhat of a mistake in the grand scheme of things, but let's not forget the amazing, there were certainly more things to see in this country. So, I boarded a 'tourist train' down to Luxor and arrived the following morning, quite comfortably, which was a little surprising. The 'tourist train' is actually pretty good value compared to the rest of the world, but is, of course, ridiculously more expensive than the normal Egyptian trains. This would be perfectly fine with me, if I, as a tourist, wasn't restricted from taking the regular trains... But I digress, Luxor!

Luxor is up the Nile and South of Cairo. Here, you are getting into what was once the Upper Nile, which was, of course, a separate kingdom and spent a lot of time fighting the Lower Nile. And then, they moved their burial sites to the Lower Nile and built the Pyramids... Twist of fate. But most importantly, at this point, Luxor is South of Cairo! And Cairo is in Africa, and it was June, and I thought my brain was going to melt. After I left my things at the hotel and headed out towards the tombs and temples, I passed by a thermometer in the center of the city - it read a remarkable 42 degrees! Celsius! And I actually thought this was Ok. That's 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit, by the way, and this was at 10 in the morning. Now, I could have taken an air conditioned car to see Luxor. This is true, and it would have been almost comfortable. However, it would have involved talking to and negotiating with an Egyptian 'fixer' on the street, who would then proceed to drive like a maniac and somehow disappoint me in the end. I wasn't in the mood, so I rented a bicycle. And proceeded to pedal against the 42 degree heat... and rising. I drank lots of water - I thought it wasn't bad, really. Still do - my brains may have melted... Since it wasn't all that bad, I parked my bike in front of the Temple of Hatshesput and proceeded to hike over a nearby ridge to the Valley of the Kings. I drank lots more water. And I stopped in every bit of shade that I could find. It continued to be miserably hot - actually it got better on the far side of the ridge where there was some wind. When I came down into the Valley of the Kings, the locals seemed pretty impressed that I had walked over the ridge, so I'm still able to impress the populace - that's worth something, right? After wandering around the Valley of the Kings for a little while, refusing to pay for the entire admission ticket (in part because it would have involved walking all the way over to the ticket booth at the main entrance - apparently they don't expect a lot of tourists to hike the goat paths over the ridge), I proceeded to bribe a guard to let me into one of the more far flung tombs (it was pretty impressive) and promptly went back over the ridge to pick up my bike. An hour and a half later, I was back at the Nile and returning the bike back to the rental shop.

This could have been a good time to stop, go back to my hotel (AC'd!) and take a nap. However, I was determined to just spend one day in Luxor, still harboring thoughts and hopes of getting a few more days for diving on the coast), so I headed up to the Temple of Karnak instead. This temple is absolutely amazing - it's gigantic, constructed, and added to over the course of several centuries by a succession of pharaohs and featuring columns grander and thicker than any I had seen in Rome and Athens (more of the how far have we really come in the past 5,000 years?). It was also stiflingly hot at 3 in the afternoon, and most of the temple is in an open area. Very open, very sun-lit, so I sort of dragged myself through the motions of documenting what was there and proceeded to head home. The good news was that I was tired enough that ignoring the touts along the way selling whatever was perfectly easy by now - just a non-chalant No, and moving on...

The final stop on the way home was the Luxor Temple... it did seem interesting, especially since somebody had apparently decided to place a mosque right in the middle of it. I looked at it and rolled over those thoughts in my head. Then I took some pictures of the temple (and the mosque) from the outside and went back to my room for a richly deserved nap!

The Colossi of Memnon greet you at the entrance to Luxor's West Bank

Deir al-Bahri, home of the Temple of Hatshesput. View from above as I was climbing up the ridge

My friend, the guard at the tomb. No, I can't remember whose tomb it actually was - an ancient Pharaoh! The guard was a nice guy too and did his best to have me enjoy my tour of the tomb. On the down side, the man smelled horribly and didn't speak a word of English, but we were able to establish some common ground on terms like Tomba, Pharaoh, and Scarab

The Papyrus Forest of columns at the Temple of Karnak. Really, if we were able to build columns this impressive in 2,500BC, how far have we come as a civilization?

The Luxor Temple, with the Mosque strategically (if perplexingly) placed right in the middle

And finally, the last stop before my Hurghada retreat was Aswan. It's even further South and, thus even hotter. I suppose my brain was fully melted by now, so I didn't care very much. Fortunately, there's not all that much to see in Aswan proper - there's a big mosque, an even bigger Christian Church, and an even bigger yet mosque under construction... Woo-hoo! The attraction here is Abu Simbel, which is another 3 hour bus ride South, almost all the way to the border with Sudan. The thoroughly amazing thing about the Abu Simbel temples is that they were going to be lost forever when Egypt built the Great Dam on the Nile, causing the water levels up the river to rise, and threatening to flood the Temple. To prevent this, international organizations (with a little bit of Egyptian input and assistance) raised a bunch of money and proceeded to cut the entire temple into portable pieces and move the entire thing, piece by freaking piece, to a new location, 65 meters higher, and safely away from the rising waters... Say what you will about the Egyptians, but that's pretty astounding. When you actually get there, very early in the morning - the bus departs Aswan at 3AM(!) and see the temples in person, it becomes even more astounding! Clearly impressed by their abilities, the archaeologists later proceeded to move the Temple of Phillae to higher ground as well. Also impressive, especially since this temple was already flooded when they started, so part of the work had to be done under water...

The Great Temple of Ramses II, dug into the side of a mountain at Abu Simbel is simply astounding. The Pyramids are surely the greatest attraction of Egypt, but I do think this was the most memorable site.

The nearby Temple of Hathor isn't too shabby either

Lake Nasser, the largest man-made lake in the world. This surely seems like a record ripe for the taking by the Chinese - they clearly just don't know about it yet

The artwork decorating the Temple of Philae - once again, considering that this was all created several thousand years before Jesus Christ even came along, it kind of makes a lot of what we've accomplished since pale in comparison a bit

Well, and that's it, really. The other thoroughly amazing part of Egypt is the underwater life in the Red Sea, but I feel like that's been covered thoroughly enough in my earlier posts, so that's Egypt for you! On to Tunisia and Italy!

* India has a long running campaign to promote tourism with the tagline of "Amazing India." Well, Egypt and India have a lot in common - both places that have some fascinating sites to see, yet both places that I was happy to leave after some three weeks in each. The reasons are different, and I've had plenty of people tell me that they had fallen in love with each (after a long adjustment period), but tying 'Amazing Egypt' to 'Amazing India' seems all too appropriate

No comments: