Adventures in the Middle East

Saturday, June 20, 2009

My Mom and step-dad came to Doha in early April for a few days of sightseeing and then a trip to Egypt. In their couple days in Doha they got to see the souq, malls, cornice, and go on a desert safari. Then we hopped on a plane to begin our week in Egypt. I was looking forward to seeing more besides just Sharm el sheikh and getting to show them around a little more authentic/historic part of the middle east. Our first night in Cairo we were very lucky to be invited to dinner at the home of one of my friends who is from Cairo. He and his wife have a lovely home and the dinner was amazing. It was a good introduction to the country.

The next day we dug right in to the "must-see" list for Egypt, starting with the Pyramids at Giza. We learned quickly that nothing is free in Egypt (posing for a picture, directions to a good viewing spot, lowering a rope to a side area. All were eager for a little baksheesh (tip). The same day we saw the step and false pyramids at Sakara and the old city of Memphis. After that busy day we took a short rest and then a stroll along the Nile in search of nice views and a good restaurant (found both).

We woke up on Saturday and started out on a city tour of old and new Cairo. Our first stop was the Citadel where we saw some real relics from Egypt’s military history and the Mosque of Mohammed Ali (not the boxer). Our guide shared a few of his views on Islam and how Egypt had gotten the bad end of

a deal where they traded an ancient Egyptian obelisk for a fancy clock tower that has never worked. The same day we also visited some of Cairo's other religious monuments including a Coptic cathedral where it is said Jesus and Mary slept when they came were hiding from the authorities in Jerusalem. We also saw the Ben Ezra Synagogue which claims to be near the place where the Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses in a basket in the weeds.

Wrapping up the day we spent 4 hours exploring the Egypt museum. We walked through the whole thing but I think it would have taken much longer if we had wanted to give every piece our full attention. It all became a bit overwhelming by the end. It's easy to forget that everything you are looking at is 3000+ years old. The standout collection by far however was the group of artifacts from Tutankhamen’s tomb. While he was not a long-lived, powerful or otherwise noteworthy king, he did have the good

fortune of having is tomb go undiscovered until the 1920's when its contents were catalogued and put on display. It really makes you wonder what the original tombs of some of the more significant kings would have looked like.

If that weren't enough, we boarded a train to take the overnight to Luxor. Straight from the train to a cab we were at the Karnack temples by 630am before most of the crowds. We later went to Luxor temple, wandered around for a couple hours and then arrived at the hotel before noon. At that point, it was time for Lunch on rooftop restaurant and a shower/nap at the hotel to beat the mid-day heat. We stayed at a nice little out-of-the-way place on the West Bank that didn’t see anywhere near the traffic the East Bank did. Later in the afternoon, we caught the ferry across the river and wandered around East bank. During the process, a carriage driver attempted to rip us off on a ride (be sure to be crystal clear about Egyptian pounds vs. UK pounds). Luxor museum was small but filled with excellent pieces, much better preserved than what I saw in Cairo. Unfortunately later we went to the mummification museum which was smaller but infinitely less impressive. Polishing it all off with dinner on the bank of the nile; not bad for the first three days.

The next day we set out for what would be a full day exploring all of the sites on the West Bank. The first site we came to were the Colossi of Memnon. These two Giant statures are part of a temple that is now completely gone, but they stand in the middle of a field, protecting the path to the Valley of the Kings where many of Egypt’s Kings Were buried. The Kings Valley /Queen’s valley and Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir al-Bahri are all spread over a large area and we had a guide and car to get us between the different locations. We saw in the Valley of the Kings, tombs of Ramses I, Ramses IX, Tuthmosis III. The Tuthmosis tomb was one of the best hidden, deep at the head of the valley, down several steep shafts and corridors. . Although it was only April, it was already summer. The sun was beating down and the tombs were filled with stale air made more uncomfortable by the crowds of sweating tourists. The art and carvings in the tombs were interesting but all the artifacts had been removed to museums. Still, it was an experience and worth doing, unless you are not good in confined spaces. The same day we also went to the Valley of the Queens and saw the tomb sof Titi, Khaemwaset, Amunherkhepshef, the wifeand sons of one of the Ramses'.

The next morning we left early to travel down to Aswan stopping at Edfu temple (temple or horus) and Kom Ombo temple on the way. At Kom Ombo we were the only ones in the place which was really special considering all the tourists in most other places in Egypt. After arriving in Aswan we checked into a slightly dodgy hotel with a very dodgy elevator (only stopped working one time) but what do you expect for $10 per night. It did have a great view from the rooftop (see below). Later we had a sunset meal overlooking the Nile and finished night walking through the souqs.

For our first day in Aswan we started on a felluca ride with a captain I met the day before in an internet cafe. A felluca is a traditional sailboat and was a very nice way to move around the river. We made stops in the botanical gardens and elephantine island where we saw a sad little museum and remnants of Temple of Abu. We then hopped in a cab and rushed to see the Nubian museum before it closed for the afternoon. After the museum we grabbed a quick bite of lunch and then later in the evening we went to have dinner at a Nubian Village. The visit to the village ended up being a disaster with a tour guide who was very friendly but not very good. We basically walked up and down a street where we were hassled to buy things and almost run over by camels schlepping tourists. After that we had dinner at someone’s home, no interaction, just dinner by ourselves in the living room. Oh, and they showed us a “Nile Crocidile”, 16 incles long in a fish tank in the living room. Nevertheless, our guide seemed terrified. The night ended with our guide crying and apologizing to do better after I responded to his question of what I thought of the tour.

The next day we got up really early for a 3am departure to visit Abu Simbel, Philae Temple, high dam and the unfinished Obelisk. The only way to travel down to Abu Simbel is a 3 hour bus ride in a convoy at crazy speed on marginal roads. The convoy was an experience; everyone meets at the edge of town before dawn and then easily 100 busses, vans, and cars all take off with police/military in the lead towards Abu Simbel. Then for the next 3 hours they all compete to see how dangerously they can overtake each other (including into oncoming traffic). I recommend sleeping, ignorance is bliss. Once there, Abu Simbel was amazing. It was better preserved than anything else I had seen. What is even more incredible is that it was all cut up and moved block by block in the 1960’s to higher ground to protect it from the rising water of Lake Nasser.

After stopping at the Philae Temple (excellent) and High Dam (not worth it) we decided to skip the unfinished obelisk and make it back to the hotel. After a very full day, got on a train for the overnight trip back to Cairo on the train. At this point in time, I’m sure my parents were thinking it was the last time they ever authorized me to plan as much as possible into one week. Our last day and a half was around Cairo where we got the chance to explore the city in more detail and do some souvenir shopping. We literally spent the entire day walking around old Cairo (10 hours)! It was a great way to see the city and really get a feel for the culture. You know you are doing something right when the street is coursing with people (and animals) and there is not another tourist in site. It was a good way to end our trip. I got on a plane and headed back to Doha and my parents survived another half day on their own before flying back to the US.

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