Sunday, November 25, 2007

Adventures in the Land of the Pharaohs

The American University in Cairo is modeled after the American university system, and this includes a Thanksgiving break. Obviously this holiday very foreign to Egypt, and I even overheard a couple Egyptians wondering why there was no class on Thursday. Many American students took off for destinations such as Israel, Jordan, and the Western Desert. I chose Luxor and Aswan. I traveled with four other AUC students, two of which I knew previously. Caryn went with me to Jordan, and Megan is a U-M student who was in my Arabic class last semester.

We decided to fly instead of taking the train because the flight was only slightly more expensive the overnight sleeper train. Unfortunately our best option was a 6:00 am flight out of Cairo, which meant I had to wake up at 3:30 am and grab a cab to the airport by 4:00. After an hour flight, we landed safely in Luxor. The views of the Nile from the air were beautiful, and it showed why Egypt is considered “The Gift of the Nile.” The river is lined on either side by a rich band of lush green agriculture that ends abruptly a few kilometers from the river’s banks. There is no middle ground—land is either rich green agriculture or barren beige sand.

After we arrived at our budget hotel, we settled in, and sipped the complimentary tea. The hotel came highly recommended by other AUC students. Not only was the price excellent ($2.50 a night), but the staff was very hospital and the facilities were clean. We decided to see the East Bank sites on the first day, so we rented bicycles and biked the two and a half miles to Karnak Temple. Karnak has an enviable reputation among all things Egyptian, and it lived up to the hype. What makes the Egyptian temples so impressive is not only their size, but also the fact that every inch is decorated in beautiful hieroglyphics and stone carvings. Originally everything in Karnak was painted, and I wish I could have seen the temple in its prime. Nevertheless, the remains are surprisingly well preserved, a result of Egypt’s warm, dry climate. Emily, one of the girls in my group, studies Egyptology, and she was an excellent guide, sharing her knowledge of ancient Egyptian history.

We biked back to the hotel and grabbed a quick lunch. We got ripped off by the restaurant because they charged us way too much for the meal, but we couldn’t argue since they didn’t have a menu. We should have asked before hand, but we assumed it would be just as cheap as all the other restaurants of similar appearance and style. We were wrong, and we learned our lesson.

After lunch, we took a ride on a felucca (a traditional Egyptian Nile sailboat) and landed at Banana Island. Famous for its fresh fruit, Banana Island is a picturesque destination, and a walk around the island is finished off with an all-you-can-eat banana buffet with no genetic modification. In the summer, Luxor can reach temperatures upwards of 115 degrees, but the end of November is beautiful. Sailing out on the water was perfectly relaxing. The warm setting sun was accompanied by a gentle Nile breeze that would have put me to sleep if not for the hot tea with two scoops of sugar. Back in Luxor, we headed off the tourist bazaar to buy a few gifts and souvenirs before finding a restaurant for dinner. My “Thanksgiving dinner” was spent munching on a pizza while gazing at the ancient remains of the Luxor Temple. Everyone was really tired by now, so we returned to the hotel to try to catch some sleep. But first I grabbed a Stella on the rooftop, read a little Steinbeck, and had a great chat with a British man living who is in the process of moving to Luxor.

Day Two

The girls wanted to take a hot air balloon ride in the morning, so they had to get up at 4 am. I chose not to go, so I got a couple more hours of sleep before taking the ferry to the East Bank We met up at the famous Colossi of Memnon and took a few pictures before driving to the Valley of the Kings. This is the burial site of many of ancient Egypt’s most famous rulers including several of the Ramses and King Tutankhamen. The tombs were spectacular in the same fashion as Karnak—impressive not only in size but also in the intricacy of detail. Unlike the outdoor temples, the bright colors of the painted tombs are still strong. One of the big news headlines here (and around the world) has been the revealing of King Tut’s face. This happened just a few weeks ago, so we were some of the first people to see him. We paid the extra fee for his tomb, but it was actually kind of disappointing. It was much smaller than the others, and all of the best stuff is now on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. But at least I got to see a 3,300 year old dead person.

After Valley of the Kings, we hiked out of the valley and down the other side to see the impressive temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The walk was worth it because we got a great view of the temple from above, something most tourists never see. After exploring the temple for awhile, we grabbed a delicious lunch at a local establishment featuring a vegetable stew with rice. I couldn’t help but notice how much better the food was than in Cairo. In fact, I think everywhere has better food than Cairo, something I can back up with every one of my trips outside the city.

After lunch, we perused the ruins of Habu Temple, which features some wonderful carvings depicting ancient wars. We returned to the hotel, grabbed a snack, and walked to the train station where we caught a ride down to Aswan. The train was an hour late and took an extra half hour to reach our destination, so we didn’t get into Aswan until 10pm. By the time we had dinner, stopped at an ATM, and finalized our plans for the next day, it was 11:30. We booked a bus to Abu Simbel, which meant waking up at 3:00 am for a 3:30 ride to Abu Simbel.

Day Three

Abu Simbel is the home of Ramses II tomb, a monument he built to himself after some kind of military victory (ask Emily for details). The temple is so far south it is only about 15 miles from Sudan. It lies next to Lake Nasser, the world’s largest artificial lake created when the Aswan High Dam was completed in 1971. Because the lake was going to flood the temple, UNESCO moved the entire temple complex up to higher ground and built a giant artificial hill to build it in. The project was of Pyramidal proportions, but at least they had the aid of truck, cranes, and the mechanical advantage of internal combustion engines.

The drive between Aswan and Abu Simbel is about 3 hours, but because of security concerns, all tourists have to travel together in a large police escort. This explains the 3:30 start time—it’s required. I’m not sure why it’s so early, but my guess is that for most of the year it gets unbearably hot by midday. For independent travelers like us, Awan proved to be very constricting. The bus to Abu Simbel was required, so we also ended up in a tour group going to other sites including Philae Temple the Aswan High Dam. While it was nice to see all of these places, the time constraints were inflexible. Oh, well. What are you going to do? Philae Temple, which is situated on an island in Lake Nasser, was also very nice (its original island was also inundated by the dam). The High Dam itself is massive, 18 times larger than the largest pyramid. The lake is very beautiful and reminded me slightly of Lake Michigan. Perhaps I’m just not used to the smell of pollution-free freshwater breezes.

We got back to the hotel with about three hours to burn, so we did a little more shopping in the giant tourist bazaar and grabbed some more of that delicious vegetable stew and a couple date desserts from the bakery. Although Aswan is nice, the touristy nature is disgusting. All the shops sell basically the same stuff, and the salesmen are very aggressive and rude. They are also very offensive to women, calling stuff out to them and making awful remarks. Because I was traveling with three other girls, they would say stuff like, “You’re a very lucky man…three wives!” and “How many camels?” This of course is asking me to sell my “wives” in exchange for camels. I felt like throwing back some four letter words, but I restrained myself. The girls felt extremely uncomfortable with such behavior, and I felt uncomfortable because I was with them. The best thing to do was just make jokes about it, but in the end it’s a serious problem in Egypt and the developing world in general. If you treat half your population like property, you’re not going to improve your situation.

Egyptian men aside, the trip was fantastic. Seeing the monuments, temples, and tombs far exceeded my expectations, and I gained a new appreciation for the greatness of the ancient Egyptian civilization. Their artistry, engineering, and empire are impressive, and we as citizens of the modern world are lucky to have so much history to explore.

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