Friday, December 26, 2008

Egypt Day 8 – Cycling on West Bank

Up at 6 am and off to the west bank using the local ferry. We hired bicycles at an astonishing 10 LE a day (£1.25) from Mohamed at the start of the road west to the Colossi, and set off for the Temple of Deir el-Shelweit, four kilometres  beyond Medinet Habu, across a desert road and past Malquata. It’s Ptolmeic and dedicated to isis with a gateway still half standing. Various Roman Emperors are represented and we were surrounded by the usual haggle of children.

We cycled right across the mortuary area to the north end to visit the Seti I temple past the newly excavated canal leading to Hatshetsup’s temple. Then back across on the ferry and back to the hotel and a final meal before heading home. This is a great way to do the West Bank – everything is within cycling distance of the ferry and you get a good feel for the geography of the area.

Although there’s new cars among the Luxor’s blue and white  taxi fleet, the majority remain the old Peugots, which seat seven, but are usually filled with fumes. Our taxi today had no handle on the inside of the door, so the driver had to lean out of the passenger window and open it from the outside. What hasn’t changed is the driving. There’s no real adherence to whatever road rules whatever there are. They drive too fast, tailgate, don’t wear seatbelts and overtake too early, too late, on the inside, through the middle and so on.

Once again, we were sad to leave Egypt and the sun, and wished we were there for another week, but Christmas and family stuff calls. Not to worry, we'll be back next year.

Egypt Day 7 – Tod, Moalla and El Kab

As there are no convoys, one is free to visit sites that were never possible before so we hired a driver and taxi to take us south today, to three very different sites. 

First to the Temple of Tod, in the middle of a village 25 kilometers south of Luxor. It took some finding, and we were entirely alone. There’s a Nile quay, processional dolmus with sphinxes, through a mini pylon then a Ptolmeic temple and small Roman kiosk. The sacred lake had also been excavated. The famous Treasure of Tod, now in the Cairo museum was found here.

On the way to Moalla, we had a near death experience when our taxi and a truck both raced to get through a checkpoint. Our wing mirror was broken clean off. The driving here is appalling.

Moalla is a beautiful  4000 year old tomb. We were clearly the first people to visit for a long time, as the guard was puzzled as to where we had purchased our ticket (Luxor Temple). The tomb was exquisite with naturalistic and relaxed images of rural life, cows, fishing, cooking, donkeys, birds, dogs, deer and a man holding a hare. There were boats with oars and a relief of the Governor and his wife above the deep rock-cut tomb. The pillars were carved from the rock itself. The afterlife here is depicted in simple terms and little has changed here since Pharonic times. The same donkeys, dogs and cows are to be seen within yards of these sites. One difference is that the desert wild life, mainly deer, onyx etc along wit their predators, have been hunted to extinction.

At El Kab we visited the first row of rock-cut tombs, with their barrel vaults. We then drove up the valley across the desert to the Kiosk of Amenhotep III, then walked over to rock outcrops where we saw lots of prehistoric carvings of deer and hunters then. We had to put the site guide in the boot of our car, as it was full. On the way back, stopping at another small kiosk and tomb, we found that he had disappeared from the boot! Then in the distance we saw his light blue jalaba. He had dropped his shoes, leapt off the back of the car and was running to catch us up! This site is at the mouth of a valley running through the mountains leading to ancient gold fields. The tombs and temples are covered in 19th century graffiti.

Our driver was stung for 20 LE by the police on the way back from El Kab – no wonder corruption is rife, if you can’t trust the police and army, then how do you complain? The Egyptian people are genuinely friendly and open but their corrupt leaders really do let them down.

Out for a meal in town, then a Calesh back to the hotel with my two sons – nice to get some cool night air and hear the sound of horse’s hooves.

Egypt Day 6 – Abydos and Dendera

Six thirty start to Abydos along the banks of canals and the Nile, but no armed convoy this time. Abydos is one of the finest temples in Egypt with Seti I art that is one of the high spots in its entire history. We arrived by taxi to find we were the only two people there, so made the most of it by exploring every wall and image. The Ramses II work is the usual deep cut bombast, but once you enter the Hypostyle Hall, the Seti I art is sensitive and graceful. The wall of the pharos is an important stone document as it hels define the chronology of Egypts rulers. We managed to determine the order and decipher many of the cartouches. This was ancient Egypt’s Mecca – the place to which everyone wanted to take a pilgrimage. The whole area is thick with a carpet of ancient pottery. After emerging from the back of the temple and skirting the Osirion, we walked north to the Ramses 11 temple, which is literally chopped off at head height. What remains retains its colour and for that reason it is well worth visiting, although we had a security guard with an Uzi machine gun accompany us there and back.

Then off to Dendera, which  was similarly deserted, but the work here is much later and of inferior quality. Nevertheless, the images of Hathor, Cleopatra, the famous Zodiac Dial (original in the Louvre) and roof temples are unique in Egypt.

Drove through Dishna, famous in Egypt as a sort of Dodge City, full of gunmen and vendettas. On the whole this is agricultural country, but not by western standards. There’s a few tractors but many still travel by donkey and cart. Some houses are no more than mud hovels. Those living on the edge of the desert have it hardest, although when they tried to move the inhabitants of El Gourna, for centuries the home of tomb robbers, they resisted resettlement on richer agricultural land, as they were from arab stock, and preferred arid desert surroundings.

Our taxi driver was 31 and unmarried, as it cost around 200,000 LE to get married, 70,000 LE to get an apartment, gold, a cow and various other possessions, to attract a wife. An apartment here costs around 7-8000 LE. A flat bread or short service taxi ride costs 50 piastres. Average salaries in Luxor is around 400 LE a month.

Egypt Day 5 – Day of rest

Day in the grounds where I met a couple of birders. They had spotted bee-eaters, goshawk, falcon, Nile sunbirds and lots of other species. Really a day by the pool reading and learning hieroglyphics. The sun was once sacred here and it’s still an attraction, especially the sunsets where the great orange disk drops down behind the west bank palm trees. A dusk walk to the south of the island found some bulbuls and black shouldered kites. Grey England seems like a long way away.

managed to amass some fine books on Egypt and highly recommend:

British Museum's Dictionary of Ancient Egypt

Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt by Helen Strudwick

The Complete Pyramids by Mark Leher

The Blue Nile by Alan Moorhead

Nefertiti by Philipp Vanenberg

Valley of the Kings by John Romer

Death in Ancient Egypt by A J Spencer

Napoleon in Egypt by paul Strahern

The Great Belzoni by Stanley Mayes

Egypt Day 4 – West Bank walk

Boat to the local ferry terminal then a walk up to the Colossi and a view of the recent excavations in Amenhotep IIIs mortuary temple. The colossi and the temple were regularly flooded, having been built too close to the Nile, then robbed to build Merenptah’s mortuary temple. These acts of destruction were common in Pharonic times.  Then to Merenptah’s mortuary temple, with its beautiful small museum. Not much remains of the superstructure, but the jackal sphinxes and coloured panels in the storage rooms are well worth the visit.

From there we walked to Medinet Habu, one of Egypt’s finest temples, with its Rameses III war scenes, all chopped hands and penises, to the numbers of prisoners on the south wall, along with the unusual hunting scenes. There are also numerous Coptic crosses to be seen from the period when the temple was a Coptic community and church. The colours on the roof, pillars and aisles are still strong.

A quick peek at the Temple of Amun, just 200 yards to the south of Medinet Habu, then a walk across the desert to St Tawdros, where we had to knock on the door to enter the monastery, with its 31 nuns, where Ken bought some honey as a donation. The church has beehive cells for the nuns, and a church with crude columns and vaults. The monastic tradition itself goes back to St Anthony in Egypt.

From the monastery we walked through Amenhotep’s palace to the mounds from the Berkut Habu, a huge harbour attached to the palace, 18 feet deep, used as a pleasure lake or for ceremonial purposes. Having spotted these mounds on Google earth, I found an excellent paper on the harbour, printed off the Google images, and used them for our walk. The children from the villages found these Google earth images fascinating, especially when they spotted their own houses. The adults seemed just puzzled. A walk back along the canal took us through the village back to the main road where we caught an alabaysha to the ferry.

Back to the hotel then out at 7 pm to see a lecture by Edwin Brook, who has been excavating around Karnak.  A new sewer has uncovered Akenaten’s temple and lots of other promising future discoveries. The Karnak complex is not delineated by the current Ptolmeic walls, it was a far more extensive complex. The lecture was rather short, and poor on context, but worth attending.

After the lecture, we had a meal at El Khahaby’s for John’s 50th birthday, then taxis home after midnight.

Egypt Day 3 – Karnak

Susan Mubarak is staying in the rooms next to us at the Jolie Ville so we woke up to security guards, police and sniffer dogs everywhere. Then off to Karnak, passing the same Coptic Church but this time speakers were blaring at top volume at the church from across the road. So much for the Islamic tolerance of other religions.

Ken and I spent nearly five hours in Karnak deciphering cartouches, working out the chronology of the buildings and generally admiring one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world. Karnak doesn’t look that grand from a distance, and I still don’t believe the famous story of the French troops bursting into applause when they first saw it. It’s only when you pass through the second pylon and look up at the huge columns then wander into them, that you get the sense of scale. The middle would have been reasonably light but the forests of columns on either side were dimply lit and mysterious in Pharonic times. The Seti 1 art was, as usual, superior to that of Rameses II, who was more interested in legacy and avoiding erasure by incising his image, name and reputation as deeply into the surface as possible. We took some time to look for the holes where the Akenaten statues had been found along with the battle scenes on the north wall. The botanical garden was a revelation this time, showing the cultured Seti’s wish to bring knowledge back from his campaigns. Taxi back to the Jolie Ville where Susan Mubarak was sitting watching the sunset, before having her evening meal in La fleure. The sunset was a magnificent red, violet and pink colour.

People talk of the ‘hassle’ here – the preferred tourist word, but it’s all in good humour and done with a smile. There are the usual scams (I’m the cook at your hotel) that the locals rightly pull on the rich (tourists), but overall everything is fun and cheap, if you bargain. There is no real sense of menace here and the only grumpiness is to be found among, mainly English, tourists, who see hustling as impolite.

Susan Mubarak did a short walkabout in the hotel – then was off to her room, we think to watch Strictly Come Belly Dancing. We were told that you’re always within 100 yards of someone in Egypt to wants to kill Mubarak. Corruption and a lack of care for the poor are the main gripes, with an especially corrupt police force, army and civil service. Money flows up the system away from the poor and money that is supposed to cascade down never quite gets there. In spite of the , sometimes desperate, poverty, the people are almost always in good humour.

Interesting comments from a volunteer we met, who comes out four times a year to work at a British funded orphanage. The kids there are mostly abandoned babies, the result of one night stands or worse, ‘If they find the woman’ he said ‘they kill her’. They had recently built three buildings on the outskirts of town and have 85 orphans. He explained how rampant corruption was with long chains of bribes necessary for any progress to be made with building work of any kind.

Reading Napoleon in Egypt by Paul Strathern, a readable account of the event which created Egyptology and changed our view of History. I’ve seen the graffiti on temples by Desais, Denon and others that date back well over 200 years from this expedition. When they headed south they were absolutely amazed to see the size and sophistication of the temples and tombs. Before this the Greeks were seen as the start of civilisation. With his savants this was a colonial act that was much more civilised in intent than the subsequent British efforts.

Egypt Day 2 – Royal Meal

Up early in the morning sun to see the birdlife – little egrets, purple gallinules, bluethroats, moorhens, kingfishers, swifts, hoope, grey herons, and squacco herons, then a full breakfast in the sun on the terrace.

Took the boat into town and walked from Luxor Temple to Karnak along the avenue of the sphinxes. Lots more of this Necantebo monument has been uncovered, with houses being demolished to reveal the full processional way, and the original limestone road is in great condition, but access to Temple of Mut was not possible, so we walked up to the two southern gates at Karnak, where we saw a grey fox and a beautiful bee-eater. Eventually, one will be able to follow the route the barques made on their round trip to and from Karnak. We popped into a Coptic church which was busy and well guarded. These communities are under siege but sizeable populations of Christians still live in Egypt.  We headed back along the corniche, had a beer by the banks of the Nile then back ot the hotel.

A swim in the afternoon then table tennis and a game of giant chess in the gardens. While Ken was playing Callum various guests came up and made comments, holding their hand to their chin and shaking their heads at ken’s moves, even suggesting he plays their six year old son!

That evening all 23 of us got a fleet of taxis to the local ferry (1LE each) where we crossed the Nile. This is a great way to get to the West Bank at night. We walked to Tutankhamen’s restaurant, favoured by West Bank archaeologists and we’ve eaten here before. It’s good Egyptian food on a terrace overlooking the Nile. After negotiating a discount (35 LE each down from 40LE) we settled down to a huge meal of salad, chicken, rice, spicy tomato potatoes, spinach and chickpeas, spicy vegetables, beef and cauliflower, then fruit and date cake, followed by mint tea and coffee. Royally stuffed we negotiated a boat (100LE) that took all 23 of us back 2/3 kilometres up the Nile to our hotel. It was dark but as the cruise ships passed and buffeted our small boat, the lights on both banks lined our voyage, until we sailed past Luxor to Crocodile Island – pure magic.

Egypt Day 1 – Dec 17 2008 - Official chaos

Sixth time in Egypt and fourth in the Jolie Ville Hotel, two kilometres south of Luxor on an island in the Nile. On the flight out Jackie and I practiced our hieroglyphics, mastering the alphabet and testing each other with words that we had to translate back into English. Also mastered the number system.

Thomas Cook have their usual scam at the airport siphoning off tourists to get their visa at £13 rather than the correct £10 at any of the Egyptian banks before passport control. The journey to our hotel was longer than usual as the lines on the roads were being painted (by hand) in preparation for the (hated) Susan Mubarak’s visit. We ended up going over the railway line and the wrong way up the dual carriageway against on-coming traffic. It was great to be back and we celebrated with a  lovely walk along the Nile, with bats swooping round our heads.