Wednesday, January 04, 2012

7 days in Egypt December 2011 - revolution, tanks, crashes and caleches


Day 1:  Evolution of a revolution
Our first trip to Egypt after the Egyptians call the ‘25 January Revolution’  or simply the ‘Revolution’. So what’s different? Well, visually, we’ve spotted tanks, passed lots of armoured personnel carriers on the road on our round trip to Aswan, over 200 new sleeping policemen (in Egypt that can mean a number of things) at every junction, a local roadblock and election posters everywhere. Troible – not a sign.
Speaking to people, it’s also clear that some wrongs have been righted. In Luxor, the Mubarak Mayor and some of his cronies have been arrested and sentenced. These are the people who bribed their way to success. A good example is the guy who owns the restaurants on the lower walkway along the Nile. It turns out he had no alcohol licence, nor permission to build his restaurant on the banks of the Nile, so he was sentenced to 15 days in jail and is now keeping a low profile. Land has also been colonised by poor people who see an opportunity to better themselves. On the whole, people seem less afraid of the police and willing to stand up to them when they perceive that their approach is wrong. We saw this during the night at a checkpoint, where our driver challenged the need for us to be ‘escorted’.
In general, people are positive but nervous; nervous about the results of the election. They know that the Muslim Brotherhood will gain a large share of the vote but also say that this may be no bad thing. If the Brotherhood fail or push too far in the direction of religious strictures, they will be seen as failures and voted out. Many simply crave the sort of social and security stability that the Brotherhood promise. Luxor, Aswan and Upper Egypt in general, is a long way from Cairo, and Egypt is not Cairo. Nevertheless, even those who are critical of the continuing chaos seem glad that Mubarak and his kleptomaniacs have gone.
On the other hand, each evening we saw TV and web images from Cairo with women and men being beaten savagely, some dying from gunshot wounds. Al Jazeera were, once again at the forefront of the news, the BBC and CNN miserable failures. Al Jazeera was so active that their journalists were sought out by the regime, their cameras smashed and personnel beaten. This, of course, is massively counterproductive, as the military are now losing ground as a force for good.
But the big difference is the absence of tourists. They’re thin on the ground and we often found ourselves alone in sites or on the road. The Nile boats have a handful of people as they pass. This is a real shame as many Egyptians rely on tourism to feed their families and many have lost their jobs. In an admirable gesture, the European managers at our hotel have sacrificed their salaries for two months to keep their staff in employment. As Tim says, “We have to visit their past ruins to support them in the present, and stop their future from being ruined”.

Day 2: Luxor Temple
Luxor Temple in the morning with Tim and Sarah, who are visiting Egypt for the first time. I’ve been to this temple many times and it never fails to impress. Still standing after more than three thousand years, it’s a great place to witness the huge sweep of Egyptian history. Built on earlier structures (to be seen in the open air museum at the back), what you see today is the result of two of the greatest Pharaohs (Amenhotep III and Rameses II), as well as the man who played a huge role in changing Egyptian history, Alexander the Great. There’s also extensive 4th century Roman work as the Temple was a Roman fortress, the remains of Byzantine churches and a mosque reflecting the great 7th century shift towards Islam. And today we saw election posters on its walls, a Syrian market on the east side and the citizens of Luxor out with their children in the new park on the east side. The Temple is still the focal point of the town.
You may wonder why it lies on a N-S axis, when most Egyptian temples lie E-W? This is in response to its religious function as a destination from Karnac to the north, via the avenue of the Sphinxes, which is now almost completely uncovered. The earliest part of the Temple is at the back, a block of rooms, renovated by Alexander, who depicted himself as a Pharaoh. You can see his cartouche on the walls here. Amenhotep III originally built this block as well as the huge, adjoining, peristyle court. His work was interrupted when Akhenaten decided to abolish polytheism for sun-god monotheism, and moved his capital north to Amarna (now that WAS a revolution). But the experiment was short lived and Tutankhamen continued what Amenhotep had planned, with the pillared colonnade. Half a century later the shy and retiring Rameses II, not to be outdone, added another huge court, a pylon, four statues of himself and two obelisks. After several hours, we emerged ready for some beers in Sinbad’s Café (the cheapest Stella in town 10 LE - but watch out for the 2.5LE sales tax!).

Thoughts on obelisks
It’s a shape we’re all familiar with, graceful needles of stone covered in hieroglyphics. The remaining obelisk at the entrance to Luxor Temple was one of a pair, the other is now in the Place de Concorde in Paris. Rome, Paris, London and many other cities have been graced with these fine monuments, often outshining modern, public sculpture. But few know much about their purpose. How many graves and war monuments mimic this form in the UK?
Of course, everything in Egypt starts with the sun and this is sun inspired art, lightning rods for the sun. As a nation it is largely a river that runs through a desert, so it hardly ever rains. The sun is a dominant presence. Obelisks pointed to the sun and were designed with electrum and gold tips to reflect the sun. Their pyramidal tips are part of the same iconography as the great pyramids of the old Kingdom. They are, in many ways, the great emblem of Egyptian art; simple, monolithic, soaring pinnacles to the sun.

Day 3: West Bank
Medinet habu
Medinet Habu by taxi with the redoubtable Tim and Sarah. This is Rameses III, who wanted to emulate his father, so we have huge battle scenes against the Sea Peoples and Libyans. Row upon row of captives, with their hands bound behind their backs and their place names in cartouches. The battle scenes are a mixture of the abstract and naturalism, Rameses shown as a giant figure but the battlefield a mass of thriving and dead bodies. But it’s the post battle scenes that shock, with piles of chopped off tongues, hands and penises. Rameses III was well aware of the possibility of erasure, so chiselled his name often four or five inches deep to prevent them from being wiped and overcut. You have to imagine the canal that came up from the Nile almost touching the walls. Again, every temple tells a story through reuse, and this one was used by the workers who built the tombs and was a full blown town as well as containing a Byzantine church. Two bee-eaters were zipping around the Nilometer, which is well worth a visit on the north side.

Deir el Bahri
This huge temple complex is ramped with famous scenes from Hatshetsup’s expeditions to Punt. I don’t particularly like this temple as I think it fails to provide the reveals and sense of place of other sites. The cliffs, however form a superb backdrop, the cream rock sharp against the deep blue sky.


Thoughts on Egyptian art
David Hockney, in his new book, claims that Egyptian art is the high point of human art. That’s a challenging statement so can it be defended? There’s several features of Egyptian art that have to be recognised as important.

First, its ubiquity. Barely a surface is free from painted or carved art. Entire walls, pediments and columns are covered in hieroglyphics and relief carving. Even their tombs are saturated with high quality images.

Second, its permanence. Blessed with an abundance of limestone, sandstone, granite and other rock types such as alabaster and basalt, close to a navigable river that has continuous northerlies ND floods once a year, access to huge amounts of building stone was an advantage. But they built for eternity, their temples and tombs designed for the infinity of time. There is nothing half-hearted about Egyptian art. It’s produced to be part of a never-ending future.

Third is the exquisite use of colour. Mineral colours were used giving a permanence that organic colour does not. So the ruins that were uncovered in the 19th C had much of their original colour intact. Unfortunately, much has been, or is still being rubbed or eroded away. It’s still hard to imagine the riot of colour that the temples would have shown in their time. The use of foreground and background effects, along with transparency in clothing is still there to be seen.

Fourth is the idea of text as art. No written language I know of is as beautiful as Egyptian hieroglyphics, their columns of pictures and symbols, so representational that they fooled linguists for hundreds of years into thinking they were just that – pictures representing words. It took the genius of Champollion to realise that they were a mixture of representational symbols and sounds. At time, especially in Seti’s Abydos, the hieroglyphics are executed in relief with astounding precision and artistry.

Fifth is intent. There is no ‘artist’ as such, only art with a purpose, that purpose being mostly life and death. In this sense, there is little art for art’s sake or art as a thing in itself but it is this freedom from fashion that is so compelling. They were not interested in temporary, temporal art only art that was eternal.
As to the charge that’s it’s formulaic, repetitive and therefore a little tedious, you need only visit the tomb paintings in the British Museum or the battle scenes at Medinet Habu to see otherwise.


Day 4: West bank ferry and cycling
Across on the local ferry (10p) and up to Mohammed’s Bike Shop for our usual bike hire (£1 for the day!). You get accosted by taxi drivers here, but it’s all a bit of a laugh and they soon leave you alone. We have two cards with the words ‘Taxi Drivel’ and ‘Taxi Diver’ which prompted the later reflection that these were a deliberate ploy to catch the eye and get a laugh. In Luxor, where the rich and poor collide, everyone has an agenda.
Then off to see the new excavations at Amenhotep IIIs temple (the one fronted by the statues of Memnon). We weren’t allowed on the site so used binoculars to see the stele and newly excavated statues, This was a huge complex, and reckoned to inspire the greatest  production of statuary in our history. The guardian asked to try our binoculars and was delighted, clearly his first time as he was clearly startled. ‘Everything big’ he shouted.
Temple of Ay and Horemheb (almost completely ruined), Tutmose III (recently excavated), then down into an excavated section of the processional way from Deir el Bahri, where the guardian sneaked us in for some baksheesh. There’s the finely finished walls of the processional way and the site is littered with hieroglyphic covered blocks.


Haggling on the move
We also visited three tombs in the almost deserted Valley of the Queens, where I bargained for a set of canopic jars on the way out. We came down from 180LE to 70LE but my final offer was 50LE, so I walked off, sure in the knowledge that it was not over. Sure enough, as we cycled way down the road, after a couple of hundred yards, we heard the motorbike. It was the guy chasing after us, so we negotiated on the move. I got them for 50.


Back alleys and fields
We cycled back through the sugar cane fields and villages, along dirt roads and immaculately and incongruously dressed locals in what look like squalid houses. I really recommend this mode of transport on the West Bank. You get a real feel for the landscape, smells, people and sites, and nothing but smiles and waves.


Caleche crash
Sitting in a bus waiting to go back to the Jolie Ville, we heard a crash, turned and saw a caliche crash into the back, the horse rearing up onto the pavement. The caliche driver carried on as if nothing had happened. This meant we had to act as witnesses and gave a written statement to the Tourist Police. As you can gather, driving is a skill that is in short supply in Egypt. As it turns out this was not the only crash we’d see this week.


Day 5: Caleche
Morning in Luxor at Gaddis (great bookshop) where I bought ‘The Complete Temples’ by Richard Wilkinson. I’ve read its companion piece ‘The Complete Pyramids’ and this is just as well written and Illustrated. We threw in a couple of alabaster candle bowls.


Pizza Roma
It may seem odd eating pizza in Egypt but this small restaurant’s a real find. Besides, we managed to fix up a drive to Aswan with the waiter (another Mohammed) who showed us his car and gave us a good price. Deal done. I hate using foreign tour companies here. The locals deserve our support.


Caleche
You can’t come to Luxor and not take a caliche. It’s a black, horse-drawn buggy driven by Luxor’s famous hasslers – the caliche drivers. They will pester you, follow you and cheat you if they can (no change, money for the horse etc.) But to be fair, some of them are fine, and great characters. In this case we got one all the way back to the hotel. I made the mistake of climbing on board first, and while picking up the reins for a photograph, it took off! The driver was none too pleased but after an apology we were off, clipping along under the stars, Sarah driving. On previous trips we’ve has chariot type races, a wheel fall off and an overshoot past the hotel entrance that had our horse slam on the hoof brakes. This was just a pleasant saunter in the cool night air – wonderful end to the day.


Day 6: Aswan
Up at around 6, in our friend’s grey Hyunda, It was around £12 for each of the four of us for the entire day and I mean the entire day as we had him and the car at our disposal for over 15 hours and over 400 Km.


Esna
When we first visited this temple, 22 years ago, the interior was still full of unexcavated dirt. It sits right in the centre of town underneath the houses. In fact, what you see is only a fraction of the temple complex. It’s Ptolmeic and has a number of cartouches representing Roman Emperors. Inside the forest of pillars is impressive and some colour remains. Tim bought a rather fine cane. I recommend the caravanserai just back from the Temple entrance. It has some finely carved woodwork.


Sugar cane
A pit-stop for some sugar cane juice. The guy pushes a few stalks of sugar cane into a grinder, where water is added and out pours a light green liquid that is cool and sweet. The vendor wanted our photos and up popped an old woman with bottle-bottom glasses who insisted on being in the photo. She was great, so we snapped her on Tim’s iPhone and showed her the photo – she howled with laughter.


Roadblock
Beyond Esna, we came across a local roadblock. Men in Jalabas and big white turbans had put barriers across the road but they saw that we were tourists and waved us through. These disputes are common, we hear, as people express their newly found freedoms. This one, apparently, was about the lack of gas canister deliveries and rising gas prices. I suppose I was surprised at this, as the Aswan Dam must supply plentiful electricity. Cooking, I suppose.


Crash
How would you describe the driving in Egypt? Erratic, chaotic, downright dangerous? All of these and more. Rather worryingly, our driver explained that many, including himself, had never sat a test - you get a licence by paying for it. He also explained how he liked the occasional spliff! On roads where you have to contend with boys and men on donkeys (up to three at a time) donkey carts, bicycles, motorbikes, tut-tut taxis, dolmushes that stop and start along the entire road, buses and articulated lorries, and pedestrians jumping on and off these vehicles as well as walking and crossing, is it surprising that accidents are common? There’s a sort of ‘inshallah’ attitude to driving. In any case, while crossing yet another sleeping policeman, so high they often scraped the bottom of car, a crazy guy in a pickup got impatient and tried to overtake on the speed bump. Unfortunately, there was not enough space for him to squeeze through so he smashed along the entire side of a new car coming in the opposite direction. The last we saw was the car driver heading towards the pickup – we scarpered, as it’s unwise to be involved as witnesses. By the way no one has insurance.


Kom Ombo
We were the only people here, at this famous double-entranced temple, famous for its medical instrument carvings, which we found (again with great difficulty). The huge sugar acne factory was not operating today, so the usual fumes were absent.


High Dam
This is a huge construction and the view back over Lake Nasser stretches off towards the Sudan. A product of the now forgotten cold war, built by the Russians to stymy American foreign policy, it transformed Egypt providing much needed electrical energy and control over its agriculture, through irrigation, rather than inundation. A vast temple to a Godless world?


Past tanks to Kalabsha
Having been to Philae several times, we decided to try the Temple of Kalabsha, also on an island. The problem was getting past the tanks! We stopped staring right down the barrel of of a camouflaged tank and asked the guy with the Kalashnikov whether we could pass to hire a boat to the island. I heard him say ‘La’ (no) but our intrepid driver persevered and he let us go on to the next obstacle, some soldiers manning a gate. Again some sweet talk and we were through. Vive la revolution! We negotiated with boatman and he sailed us across a calm and flat Lake Nasser to the island in the evening sun. This temple, like Philae, was moved here when the dam was built. It is Ptolemaic, dedicated to Augustus but has some interesting Greek inscriptions from the 5th C AD and Christian crosses from the time it was used as a church. It’s unfinished and you can therefore see exactly how they dressed the walls and carved the outer reliefs. There’s also a Nilometer within the Temple, almost identical to the one at Kom Ombo.
There’s a smaller temple on the back of the island which Ken and I walked round to, Beit el-Wali, with Rameses battles and carvings of an ostrich, elephant, giraffe, baboons and antelope. This is a Nubian monument and you get a real feeling for the proximity to central Africa. Other early pre-dynastic rock carvings and two other temples are on the island. This was well worth the effort. On the sail back as the sun set, we were all in that Twilight zone, when the light is warm, the water calm and no need to speak. Then back past several tanks, which we surreptitiously photographed, and back down into Aswan.


Meeting mum
Our driver had a surprise in store. He drove us into a poor, residential area full of honking cars and donkey carts. The cacophony from their horns and general traffic chaos, was quite dirfferent from the clam of the lake and temple. We stopped and started past little shops, hanging meat and eventually through the back streets to mum’s house. This was a flat entered through a dark close and she was great, feeding us fruit and tea. It was a real privilege to meet her. We did the usual showing each other pictures of sons, daughters and grandchildren. Mohammed went of to pray at sundown.


Mosques
Aswan has two fine mosques, one cream coloured in the centre of town, that sits atop a hill, a beautiful and graceful building that crowns the hill with two minarets and a domed hall. An even larger one, similar in design, in pure white marble, sits on the north side of the town. We saw this at night with its pure white interior and gold trimmings. It was spectacular.


German motorcycles
On the drive back (nearly three and a half hours without stopping) we saw Egypt at night. Men with shishas in cafes, groups watching TV as in a mini-cinema. It rarely rains here so life is lived outdoors. There’s blokes everywhere but few women to be seen. Blokes tend to sit in small groups or watch in groups as one bloke does some digging There also appeared to be a shortage of blokes in some areas as they were being transported in batches up the road hanging onto the back of trucks. We reckoned on a ‘bloke’ apprenticeship of around two to three years, perfecting that middle-distance stare and relaxed demeanour.
As we neared Luxor we were stopped by the police and told to wait. Apparently, a local village head had got a bit agitated and threatened to have a go at us tourists. Our driven was non-plussed and argued with the two policemen – how things have changed. He argued that it was fooling to have all of your eggs in one basket, an argument of which I wasn’t entirely convinced. After 15 minutes a siren driven police truck arrived and off we went, the BMW motorbikes roared off too fast for the police escort and we were left behind as the police escort tried to catch the Germans.


Day 7: Dark clouds
Over the last few days we’ve seen women almost beaten to death by clubs, a girl in a black burka stripped to her underwear and attacks on women unheard of in Egypt, but not, unfortunately Bahrain. Soldiers fired into unarmed protestors. Military leaders appeared on television sounding just like Mubarak. The revolution is far from over. I spoke to two young women who were full of hope but also full of apprehension. There may be few tourists in Egypt but it is history and not holidays that matter. The tourists will return. It remains to be seen what sort of country they return to.

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