Mark Tanner - Adventurer, Writer and Amateur Beatboxer

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Temples, Tombs and Pyramids

18 February 2003

 

As a kiwi I come from a land that, in both geological and civilization terms, is still a tot. With Maori inhabitants enjoying our little piece of paradise for little more than a millennium and Europeans, just a smidgen over 150 years, there is an inherent fascination with the ancient lands of far away. When one ponders primeval places, it is often the majestic pyramids, temples and tombs lining the glistening River Nile that spring to mind. 

 

Drawn by a romantic curiosity to Egypt, I put my yearning to rest and finally visited the cradle of civilization. 

 

My first impression of Egypt was along the militia-lined promenades of Cairo; Egypt and Africas' largest city teeming with around 20 million locals and a sense of energy that would rival even that of the big apple. The city's crowded streets ooze chaos, with horn-blowing cars and trucks squeezing into every paved gap amongst donkey-pulled fruit carts sporting booming radios, and bread delivery boys weaving their way on antiquated bicycles balancing trays as long as their bicycles on their heads stacked with freshly baked bread. After sunset, the balmy evenings see Cairo's pandemonium continue, with the city lit up by a myriad of neon illuminating everything from fake palms to Nile cruises, reminiscent of a tacky 1970's Vegas less the overweight slot-players wearing big hats and leather boots. The sounds, smells and sights of Cairo exude an exotic colonial flavour with an Arab twist that triggers a sense of excitement and enthrallment with every turn. 

I was lucky enough to be staying with Anna, a friend of a friend living in Cairo working by day for an NGO (Non Government Organisation) helping women and teaching English to Sudanese and Ethiopian refugees by night, I couldn't have asked for a better host in the capital city. Aside from the fact she lived in a big old colonial home on the outskirts of downtown Cairo, she also exposed me to an intriguing side of the city that I probably wouldn't have seen as an ignorant tourist staying in a hostel.

 

Over the course of my stay I visited some NGO offices, sat in on a refugee English lesson (adding one or two words to the syllabus that will probably hinder rather than help the students), bought some Sudanese art in a back street gallery, saw music legend Mohammed el Ameen, an almost blind Sudanese guy with an incredible voice, odd-looking guitar and 10-piece band. It was an experience, with Anna and myself making up the entire non-Sudanese contingency in the large crowd, although the extremely hospitable crowd made us feel like we'd been reared in Khartoum, pulling us up and involving us in the dancing and finger clicking up to Ahmed himself (a gesture to show their appreciation for the music). 

 

Such an old and populous city, Cairo is full of places of interest. Obviously the must see for everyone is the sole surviving wonders of the ancient world, the pyramids and sphinx of Giza. The remarkable sight is even more spectacular if you can drag yourself out of bed to witness them as the red desert sun rises from the east, flooding the massive masterpieces with a ruby tinge. Another advantage of being there early is to make the daily quota allowed inside of the biggest pyramid to escape from the assertive camel-renters and wandering locals looking for work as guides or photographers. I weaved around a few of the steep, low-ceilinged passageways through the belly of the massive construction only to be greeted by a ring of barefooted hippies from Northern Europe in the main tomb, burning strange scents while performing some bizarre ritual, oblivious to the bemoaning security guy proscribing their exploits. 

 

The Egyptian Museum in the heart of Cairo contained what must be some of the most amazing exhibits on public display around, although, aside from King Tut's treasure, a few mummies, some statues and chariots, the national treasures were cluttered in an ad hoc manner, reminding me of a pawn shop on the outskirts of a medium-sized city. Something that did fascinate me were the ancient jandals (thongs – although not of the pelvic variety, rather the feet). I was surprised they had been used for thousands of years in the sands of the Sahara as I had always believed that they were just recently invented by some drunken Auzzie thug with a beer gut that made it very uncomfortable to tie laces in the heat of the sun. 

 

With all there is to see in Cairo, my personal favourite would have to be the historic Islamic Cairo. Although there are signs of Muslims everywhere in the city, nowhere is it more prevalent or celebrated than within Islamic Cairo. Beautiful old sandstone buildings strew the narrow streets surrounding the grand domes and towers of mosques popping up everywhere. The vehicle-free streets teem with tached Egyptians, amongst the disorderly stalls broadcasting Arabic pop and selling everything from spices to saucepans to stilettos. It was there, having just finished my 7th kebab that day (I got sick of the sight of them shortly after) that I met Mohammed Ahmed Ahmed Mohammed, the first Egyptian I had encountered on the street who didn't want to exchange some sort of good or service for Egyptian Pounds. Mohammed spoke English well and had some interesting tales to tell, so I spent a good part of the afternoon in his local shi sha house (a place to smoke tobacco through a big bong thing, the social meeting point for most Egyptian men, kind of the pubs in Ireland or cafes in France) with him and his friends drinking hibiscus tea, spinning yarns, and helping him write a love letter in English to a European girl he had fallen hopelessly in love with.


The Pyramids and Sphinx of Giza and Islamic Cairo


Saying my goodbyes to Mohammed and Cairo I headed south to the Mediterranean for the coastal city of Alexandria. Guidebooks and personal accounts I had heard depicted the city as the 'Paris of Egypt' to 'Cannes with acne', and in a lot of ways Egypt's second largest city did have a certain French feel to it. 

 

The city stretches beside a long sandy beach straddling the Mediterranean and lined with palm trees and hotels catering for the abundance of wealthy Arabs who frequent the holiday spot. Gone was the sweet aroma of camel poop, polluted air and harassment from the locals. The city had a greater sense of wealth and order than it's big sister up the Nile. 

 

Alexandria is a pleasant city to just stroll around along the beachside where the fresh salt air makes for a much more comfortable temperature than other parts of Egypt. I visited the recently built Alexandria Library, something every local in the town is staunchly proud of, and justifiably so, a magnificent modern structure populated by well groomed and courteous service people and the some of the cleanest loos I had even utilized (which is very unusual for Northern Africa). I visited a mosque and tried to participate in a prayer session with more than 100 other devoted prayers, although my absence of a mustache and obvious lack of familiarity with the prayer, blew my cover during the kneeling and bowing, but the regulars were very hospitable and accommodating to my efforts. 

 

The seafood in Alexandria is supposedly delectable, so I made a special effort to dine at one of the highly regarded restaurants, Kadoura on the quays, and was spoilt with a beautifully cooked and presented serving of fish that I had only minutes earlier selected from amongst the ice on the ground floor of the eatery. During the walk home, I stopped for a chocolate ice cream from a local street vendor, which was the worst, most rubbery frozen treat that I have ever licked – the other end of the scale from the delightful dinner I just relished. To top things off, I called in for a pricey pint at the exclusive Sheridan Montazah where I was befriended by a drunken Egyptian called Abdul and his brother Ali who bought a few rounds before being asked to leave the ritzy establishment for disorderly behaviour. 

While on the Mediterranean coast, I caught the 50c, 1 hour ride to Rosetta where the western arm of the Nile Delta meets the sea. The journey was interesting to say the least, crammed into crowded mini van with thunderous Arab tunes adding the ambience and a friendly horde of passengers who warmed to the little Arabic I could speak. 

 

Rosetta was a fairly non-descript town with an abundance of busy fruit stalls in a central dirt square with cluttered mud roads branching out in every direction. The obvious absence of tourists in the village meant the locals were even more hospitable and were keen to keep me in their company to practice their English, although I was hoping to reach the end of the river before nightfall, so I had to keep my conversations with the baker, orange salesman and numerous pedestrians relatively short. I had heard that the River Nile spills out to the Mediterranean, just a few kilometres from the town, so I decided it would be a nice walk. 3 or so kms turned out to be more like 10, and with sore feet, a few hours and many villages later, I made it to the unremarkable, derelict site populated by an old military building and a couple of military men looking for money from tourists straying from the beaten path. After dipping my foot in the med, dreading the trip back, I was lucky to meet a fisherman who had just finished for the day and kindly drove me back in town.

 

Alexandria and Rosetta in Northern Egypt

From Alexandria, via Cairo, I caught the overnight train to the other end of the country, a nice way to get to where I was going while I was asleep, but a bit of ridiculous extravagance as it cost the equivalent of almost 200 minivan trips to Rosetta. I arrived in Aswan and wandered around in the glorious sunshine for most of the day before taking a felucca ride around Elephantine Island with Captain Ahmed and Nasser as the late afternoon sun illuminated the desert hills rising from the pristine blue waters of the River Nile. Ahmed and Nasser were such outstanding company, I was sold on a three-day and night felucca ride down the Nile.

 

Before setting sail, I rose at 3am to join the convoy of tourists jammed into a multitude of minivans for the three-hour drive through the desert to see the temple of Abu Simbel. The sight was well worth the early morning and cramped ride, being the most aesthetically impressive of all of the temples I saw in Egypt, although they were not as they were originally built long before Christ and had been uplifted and restored in a seemingly empty area on the banks of Lake Nasser (the largest lake made by people in the world) hundreds of miles from everything except a tiny village a few miles away. Enormous statues guard the entrance to the temples, etched into the side of a hill containing more magnificent statues and artwork within. 

 

Next on the agenda for the convoy was the unremarkable Aswan Dam followed by the beautiful island temple of Philae, a picturesque shrine built gracefully on a granite island in the Nile covered with colourful flora. To complete the daytripping we dropped in on the unfinished obelisk, the site of an old masonry workshop which showed how some of the massive monuments were chiseled out of the granite hillside before being transported down the Nile to assume permanent residence in all of their imperial glory, although in saying that, there wasn't much to see there.

 

Aswan, Elephantine Island, Abu Simble, Temple of Philae and the unifinished Obelisk

It was well into the afternoon before the provisions were on board and we had left the Aswan dock in a northerly direction. There wouldn't be many things more peaceful than sitting on a pristine white felucca floating soothingly through the calm sapphire waters of the Nile as the jumbled settlement of Aswan faded into the distance behind us. Our destination that night was Captain Nasser's Nubian village, which we weren't to reach until late that evening, so most of the sail was under the sky full of remarkably bright stars. With the breeze having died down, the moon cast its silver glow highlighting any imperfection in the glassy river. It was a little nippy, but wrapped up in a sleeping bag there wasn't too much to detract from the magic. 

 

Nasser's house was a charming baby blue abode sitting a top of the hill overlooking the village and the Nile guarded by a noisy donkey. We were treated to a princely feast prepared by his lovely wife Hebba (the dirty dog also had a girlfriend, which is apparently very common in Islam, its not just the wealthy aristocrats who have multiple lovers). After an equally impressive breakfast in Nasser's front yard, a cold shower and some struggling with the squat toilet we looked around the village learning about how things work there including the irrigation system from the Nile, a joint venture between the locals and the Japanese. 

 

For the next couple of days, the glistening Nile curved its way between lush palm-lined banks contrasted by the dry desert mountains rising behind them. We floated past donkey riders and farmers, working the fields with ancient tools as they have for thousands of years. We passed many villages, with the local kids playing football on the sandy shores waving out and calling Arabic greetings as the sun lit up their smiling faces. We stopped at the famous temple of Kom Ombo named after the crocodiles that used to dwell in the area, but I was more fascinated by the less commercialised, rustic temples that dotted the route. Food was always scrumptious and in abundance cooked by the chief chef Captain Ahmed, the highlight being some fresh Nile fish we bought from a local fisherman whose livelihood was the river. 

 

Anyone going to Egypt would be foolish not to savour the magic of a felucca ride. If you're up in Aswan, look up Captain Ahmed and Nasser, for their web site, click here. 

 

On the felucca from Aswan to Luxor

 

The felucca ride ended just south of Edfu, and after a short trip in the back of a ute with decorative cabin riveted onto the tray, I was standing amongst crowds of Egyptian families at Edfu temple. While waiting in line, some shallow small talk in Arabic aroused a fervent response and before too long, I had a horde of resident kin wanting photo opportunities with their newfound friend, something I found a little odd as I was dirty and unshaven after 3 days on a boat. 

 

After a relishing the temple and a very cheap (US$1) horse and cart ride (a teaser in which they try and upsell you services if you're not careful), I caught a 3rd class train to Luxor. The grimey cabin was full of smoke representing a 1970's airplane trip and the windows were filthy, functioning only to let through a pale light and provide a blurry vista of the passing scenery outside. Characters paraded their merchandise up and down the isle trying to be more innovative than the last in their pursuit to offload the produce. It was rather intriguing. The other passengers were forthcoming, seemingly a little chuffed that a tourist was riding in their carriage, altogether making it by far the most interesting so of all the train rides I had been on in Egypt. 

 

Luxor was more relaxed with less tourists than I had imagined, apparently the town had been badly hit after the terrorist massacre in the area in 1997 and I was told that the number of tourists passing through the town had dropped from 6K a day to just 800. I had heard many accounts of how touristy Luxor was, but it seemed the tough times seemed to make the locals more appreciative and more polite to foreigners who played such an integral part of their economy. 

 

It wasn't long after stepping off the train that I was greeted by Tito, a local tourism wheeler and dealer who had been in the business since the age of 12. He had a greeting for every nationality and claimed to have girlfriends all over the world, including a kiwi girl (he later showed me photos and love letters from a few of them). Tito turned out to be quite a host, and although he must have been getting some sort of cut, he sorted out some good value activities in the locale and told me of a few others worth seeing. 

 

My run of sightseeing began with the Karnack Temple, a short walk from the centre of Luxor along the riverside promenade, in which I was entertained by a friendly chap called Dermot from Northern Ireland, living in the UAE, traveling with a Saudi sidekick called Mohammed who was pretending to be Egyptian to get the local rates. The Karnack temple was just the start of the attraction, being part of an area that incorporated a massive collection of temples, pillars, obelisks and many other colossal structures each a testament to a different Pharaoh, trying to outdo their predecessor while making the town of Thebes the most grandeur and awe-inspiring sites in Egypt, quite possibly the world. I walked around between the massive monuments with my mouth wide open, in fact I was so impressed, that I mulled around until after sundown to see the same sights again from a completely different perspective at the nightly lightshow extravaganza. 

 

The following day, I joined a small, but very informative tour group on the west bank. The east bank where the sun rises, is considered the area of life housing Thebes and Luxor, and the west where the sun sets, is the area of death, housing only embalming/funeral temples and tombs - mostly in the Valley of the Kings. The temples were amazingly extravagant, especially considering they were only used for a few days during the funeral ceremony. The longer the reign of the Pharaoh was, the larger and more impressive the temple, as construction began with the rule and did not finish until it the rule ended. I was most impressed with the temple of Ramses III, which still contained the intricate paintwork after more than 3,000 years – unbelievable considering a house these days needs a paint after 5-10 years. The tombs in the Valley of the Kings that were dug randomly into the side of the mountains were remarkable in their own right. They were considerably different from tomb to tomb, each with their own devious traps to keep the thieves at bay.

 

I couldn't have asked for a better way to spend my last night in Luxor, and pretty much Egypt with Tito watching a belly dancer. It was a most interesting evening, being the only whitey in there and observing the antics of the locals, all of whom were gasping for breath as the beautiful performer worked her magic.

 

Edfu and Luxor in Upper Egypr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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