Egypt, Africa: The world’s most ancient civilization (and it has the dust to prove it).
Despite what the media proclaimed, Wael Ghonim, the marketing guy from Google didn’t start the Egyptian revolution in February 2011. The “Arab Spring” wasn’t started by Twitter. Or Facebook. No, it was started by something bad. Something so intolerable that it finally set the Egyptian people off. Something so agitating that they were pushed too far. And I’m fairly confident that something was us.
My wife and I visited Egypt at the end of December 2010 and we (okay, I) had a habit of asking the locals what they thought of Mubarak. Not because we were all that curious about Egyptian rulers—not current ones, anyway—but just because his huge, swarthy mug was everywhere in Cairo. That, and because we were frequently at a loss for conversation topics. (“Hot enough for you?” doesn’t really translate.)
Each time we asked the locals their opinion of president-for-life Hosni Mubarak, their reaction was the same: they’d do a quick look left, then right to make sure no one was listening, and then they’d curse in Arabic for five minutes. Not two months later, Mubarak and his oppressive regime was forced from power. Coincidence? Obviously not. That’s a textbook causal relationship, not simply correlation (ask any scientician.)
Three hours into the 11-hour flight, I was bored, tired and crammed into United’s Economy seating praying the guy ahead of me wouldn’t put his seat back and snap my kneecaps. I placated myself with the belief that all the pain would be worth it. This was my chance to see remnants of the world’s first great civilization. To gaze upon the last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World: the Pyramids of Giza. And to touch a camel inappropriately.
Not just a vacation, a pilgrimage.
Unlike religious-types who go visit “holy lands,” I was going to visit the birthplace of civilization itself. A journey back to my roots as a human being who doesn’t like living in caves. Ancient Egypt was the first major society where people elevated themselves from a solitary, sustenance existence to a fully realized society complete with a class structure allowing the privileged few to exploit the masses. Where the abject oppression of entire peoples finally became possible. Yes, this is where the modern world all began. Oh, there were probably some advances in science, art, and medicine, too.
After a brutal 24-hour flight that was scheduled to only last 11, we made it to our hotel, the Movenpick, located on Elephantine Island in the middle of the Nile river. Though it’s a Swiss hotel chain, they tried to keep the place Egyptian-looking, but the furnishing still reeked of Scan Design. In its wood-paneled lobby, we met our tour representative for the next day’s pre-dawn, three-hour drive out to the temples at Abu Simbel. He explained that he was neither our driver, nor our Egyptologist, merely the guy who would make sure that we found them both tomorrow. (This sort of “hand-off” approach is apparently common in Egypt and is a good reason to book your travel as a package.)
Our alarm went off at 2:30am causing us to seriously rethink the wisdom of opting for the “Sunrise” tour. But we managed to drag ourselves out to meet our personal rep who handed us off to both our personal driver and Ishmael, our personal Egyptologist. It was all very personal.
Sunrise at Abu Simbel. (Well, almost.)
From the river bank, we were driven to a military check-point where a number of large tour buses, cars and minivans idled in the subfreezing morning air to generate heat for their passengers. Army troops and police milled about checking paperwork, identities and backgrounds.
At around 4:30am, with the authorities satisfied, we all drove off single-file like a funeral procession. Police and military forces rode motorcycles alongside and/or blocked roads along our path to prevent other drivers from entering our tourist convoy. They were pretty damn serious about security which was simultaneously comforting and terrifying.
We soon left the city and hit the highway, a straight asphalt-covered, 187-mile straight shot into the barren desert. After a few hours of sleeping in the van, we awoke to find that even at 110kph (65mph), we had missed sunrise by a mere two hours (a split second in “Egyptian Time.”). Still, we got there alive and in one piece—which was more than a group of unfortunate American tourists who followed us 4 days later could say—so we were not complaining.
Our driver parked in a big lot behind two massive hills giving us our first glimpse of Lake Nasser, the largest man-made lake in the world. Walking around the front of those hills, we saw that two temples had been carved into them.
Abu Simbel (meaning “Two Temples”) is our first example of Ancient Egyptian art/architecture and it didn’t disappoint. From the outside, both temples are enormous—ginormous, even—and for good reason: the temples were built to scare the fecal matter out of any invading armies and I have no doubt that many invaders, after seeing these behemoths, had to go and change their armor.
The two temples are, in a nutshell, humongous. Even by today’s standards. Honestly, I’m not even sure you could find a contractor who’d undertake carving such a structure. (“By carve it, you mean, dynamite it, right?”) Or be able to get the permits. (“So, where are your fire exits going to be?”) What made these structures even more remarkable—and not simply that they were carved 3000 years before the invention of the pneumatic jackhammer—was the fact that if the guys who hand-chiseled them messed up, they had to start over. On a different mountain. (And you know that cost is totally coming out of their retainer.)
Of the two temples, the first and larger temple was built for Ramses II. His likeness was carved on the front in four different poses meant to represent his four different personas which, if I remember correctly, were “Man,” “Pharaoh,” “God” and “Notary Public.”
The second, smaller temple was built for Ramses II’s wife—most likely because he didn’t have a Tiffany’s retail store in Cairo back then. Inside the temples, the statues and hieroglyphics were pretty much what you’d expect from a civilization that basically invented the idea of grandiose extravagance—i.e., pretty damn sick.
Imposing statues of godlike figures lined the entrance hall like godlike figures lining an entrance hall. Around and behind those, hieroglyphics occupied every square inch of wall- and ceiling-space. Though nearly devoid of color and hue, the hieroglyphics were nonetheless textbook lessons in technique for any modern slaves currently being forced to carve graphics into granite for a megalomaniacal man-god.
Mentally exhausted from trying to cram Ancient Egyptian’s larger-than-life accomplishments into our own pathetic excuse for an existence, we headed back to the van feeling like failures. There, we found a fresh, well-rested replacement driver behind the wheel ready to make the 300km road-trip back to our hotel where we promptly slept the sleep of the dead.
What Egyptians call “breakfast.”
We nearly forgot that Egypt was a Muslim country until 5:30am the next morning when we were awoke to the static-y refrains of the Muslim call-to-prayer. Well, that, and the absence of pork. Due to religious restrictions, Egyptian “sausage” and “bacon” is either made from chicken or beef, which is both weird and wrong. Though, in their defense, they DO have the delicious “Ful Medames”—a hearty bean dish that you put lots of spices on—still, I couldn’t help but think how much better the dish would be with bacon and/or sausage.
Cruising the Nile in Egyptian style.
Amy had booked us on a Nile Cruise to from Aswan to Luxor, so after “breakfast,” we packed up and waited for our ride to Aswan port. As we drove, our rep informed us that our ship, the Sonesta Moon Goddess, would be waiting at a different dock than our paperwork indicated. We felt relieved until our car pulled up in front of a boat landing where an entirely different cruise ship sat docked. Our rep insisted that this was the correct dock and carried our bags on-board.
Not wanting to get separated from our luggage, we followed him, walking straight across the boat’s main lobby and then immediately off the port side. What should have been one doozy of a step down into the Nile river instead put us right in the lobby of the Moon Goddess, which was docked alongside the first boat (see photo).
Compared to ocean-going Carnival Cruise Ships, the Sonesta Moon Goddess was small, tastefully designed and more reminiscent of a Mississippi river boat (sans the kitschy paddlewheel). There were four floors in total, three above deck and a basement dining room and kitchen. Our room was on the second (third) floor with a balcony that let us watch the Nile’s lush, rich pastoral scenes of camels, donkeys and Sphinxes pass by.
The roof of the ship was covered in miniature golf “grass” around the pool with a canopy-covered eating area and full bar. Though the cruise staff had “fun” (and sometimes racist) events planned to entertain us every moment of every day for the four days we’d be confined to this floating hotel, we spent most of the time on the sun-deck enjoying Egypt’s warm sun and cheap beer.
So that’s where the phrase “Nubian Princess” comes from.
Before leaving for Luxor the next day, we walked around Aswan and visited the Nubian Museum. The Nubians were a race of people who lived in a valley south of Egypt and who would, from time to time, attack. Yet just as often, they were trading partners, so it was sort of a love/hate relationship. Oddly, despite its name, the Nubian Museum focuses less on the Nubians and their culture and more on Egyptian history and the Egyptian’s impact on them.
What the Felucca?
Our cruise director arranged a Felucca ride—what non-Egyptians would call a “sailboat ride”—on the Nile around Aswan. The otherwise relaxed experience was marred only by a succession of young children on wave-boards paddling up to our Felucca singing French songs badly in hopes that we would give them money to go away, (we assumed).
Back on the boat, we blew off the planned “Nubian-themed dance party” they had planned and watched “Goodbye Lover” on an awesome Arabian Movie channel that played all old American movies in English.
We awoke the next day to find a fourth ship docked alongside us. Still, since we didn’t actually leave until later in the day, we re-visited Aswan with a guide who helped point out all the things we missed when we’d walked the place ourselves—things like the Temple of Isis at Philae.
The Temple of Isis, goddess of “making babies.”
Like pretty much everything in this country, the Temple of Isis is a notable architectural marvel. Not just because this incredible structure was built in the first place, but because the entire temple had once been located in a valley many miles away.
In the 1970s, every single one of its 70,000 bricks was dismantled, transported away and reassembled on Philae, a tiny island in the middle of the Nile near Aswan. Even after transport, the Temple Of Isis is in surprisingly pristine shape considering its advanced age (much like Madonna).
In fact, despite being relocated brick-by-brick, the temple’s only real damage was inflicted by the Coptics, a monotheistic group of jack-holes who believed that their single, omnipotent god theory was more credible than Egypt’s multiple gods for every conceivable thing theory.
The Coptics overran Egypt in 300-400AD and did their best to destroy the temple’s “craven images” by defacing it with chisels. (Upon hearing that Isis got pregnant by her husband, Horas, the falcon god, after his death, the Coptics got pissed off because they had a trade-mark on Virgin Births™.)
Fortunately, the Coptics—better known in the rest of the world as “Christians”—didn’t have the kind of arm-strength early Egyptians had and failed to inflict substantive damage on anything other than the faces of Isis and the other gods. Still, without the Coptics’ religious intolerance, the Temple Of Isis would have survived the eons entirely unscathed.
The Coptics weren’t the only militant groups to occupy Egypt in its history. The Greeks, by way of comparison, ruled Egypt much more respectfully. Not only did the Greeks not destroy any existing temples, they actually helped design new ones (though the Egyptians still built them). That’s a lesson in religious tolerance we could all use today.
Dam that damn Nile, eh what?
Aswan is the Southern-most city in Egypt, yet it’s technically upstream from Cairo and Luxor, because the Nile flows North. Starting in both East Africa and Ethiopia, the Nile snakes through Africa for around 4,150 miles on its way to the sea.
Every year, the Nile floods into the cities and towns which line its banks—a real pain for everyone living near the Nile (which is everyone). So naturally, Man, being Man, tried to control Nature and prevent these yearly floods.
Back in 1899, British occupiers first attempted to solve the flooding issue by damming up the Nile. And it worked, sort of. The Nile flooded less, but it still flooded.
In the 1960s, the Egyptians were finally fed up with wet ankles and asked the Soviet Union to help construct an even higher dam further South which they called, the “High Dam.” To fund this economy-crippling endeavor, President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and used taxes and fees from that critical passageway to bankroll what would be the 3rd largest hydroelectric dam in the world.
The High Dam was hailed as a great idea with only two minor drawbacks: 1.) Many of Egypt’s temples and architectural treasures would be submerged in a huge, man-made lake. And 2.) 100,000 Nubians, who previously lived where the lake would be created, would drown.
Luckily, international aid via United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) poured in to rescue the temples, statues and to print up “Guess what? You’re moving!” cards for the Nubians. Over the course of 11 years, from 1960-1971, the temples, statues and Nubians were all relocated or resettled and the High Dam was successfully built.
What can The Nile do for you?
The power of the Nile was put to good use in Ancient Egypt as a shipping lane. Boats and barges were the fastest method of transporting goods from city to city. They were also the only method of transporting heavy materials like granite and sandstone.
Granite was always in huge demand as Pharaohs wanted everything they built to last forever. Since Aswan was one of the few places in Egypt with granite quarries, most granite was mined there and ferried up or down the Nile to other locations.
At one such quarry we saw the Unfinished Obelisk, a massive 120’ tall, single piece of granite so named because they never finished carving it. And it’s no wonder—granite is an extremely difficult stone to work with. So difficult, in fact, that Ancient Egyptians only had one thing capable of putting a dent in it—a substance known as diorite.
We were given a piece of the stuff and asked to chip away at some of the granite (or at least try). After repeated bashings with diorite, the granite showed absolutely no damage at all (unlike my nearly shattered wrist). Clearly, early Egyptians were far stronger than modern advertising copywriters.
Kom Ombo is not a song from the lion king.
Generally, Ancient Egyptians had a strict “One God, One Temple” construction policy, so it was odd to find a temple built for two deities. And that’s only one of the reasons why the temple at Kom Ombo is unique.
Around 80-51 BC, Ptolemy XII and the Greeks built a temple at Kom Ombo for BOTH the falcon god, Horas, and the crocodile god, Sobek. The temple further deviates from Egyptian MO by ditching the frontal treatments and using an uneven number of 15 columns in the portico.
Kom Ombo also contains what’s thought to be the world’s first representation of medical devices—images of scalpels, forceps, dilators and scissors from the Roman occupancy are engraved into one wall.
Still, beyond its dual-use, 2-for-1 prayer utility, hieroglyphical depiction of medical instruments, awe-inspiring size, and flawless condition, Kom Ombo is pretty much like every other Egyptian temple. Yawn.
Back on the ship that night, we skipped the Captain’s cocktail party and watched “The Skeleton Key” instead.
Temple of Edfu, beware of silt.
Of all the temples we visited, only Edfu Temple was preserved by Nature itself. Over the course of two thousand years, any and all inhabitants were slowly driven out by that most fearsome of horrors: silt.
Edfu Temple (between 237 and 57 BCE) was slowly buried under layers of sand and silt brought in by winds and flooding. As the silt layer rose, more of the temple became buried and inaccessible to dick-weeds like the chisel-happy Coptics. Eventually, these deposits reached so high that only the tops of the huge pylons were visible.
In time, people forgot there was even a temple beneath them. And so it remained, perfectly preserved in silt until 1860 when a French Egyptologist rediscovered it with, I’m guessing, a leaf-blower.
Valley of the Kings, no digging.
We next arrived in Luxor (which means “a hotel in Vegas”). Across the Nile from Luxor, on the West Bank, lay the Valley of the Kings. It’s a cavernous valley in the shadow of a huge triangular mountain where 63 Pharaohs got screwed out of getting their own private pyramids.
Why? Because building monolithic pyramids every couple of decades proved so economically disastrous for Egypt that someone wisely proffered the idea of “maybe just digging a long tunnel into a mountain that looks like a pyramid (it did) and just tossing the man-god’s carcass down the hole” as a budgetary cost-cutting measure—it was adopted in a 25,000,000-to-1 vote.
From the outside, these more frugal tombs were purposely made incognito as “tomb-robber” was an incredibly lucrative career choice back then. Without the current gravel road and helpful signage, you’d never know this valley was anything more than just “that place where you got heat stroke.”
While the tomb’s exterior was certainly nondescript, the interior was more descript, yet it lacked that over-the-top, obscenely opulent gold and jewel encrusted decor you expect in a pyramid burial chamber.
Once past the front door, there was a single, long tunnel angling downward that culminated with a small chamber housing the Pharaoh’s sarcophagus. The hieroglyphics covering the walls and ceilings were immaculate, fully protected from the ravages of both erosion and time. As a result, they were uncharacteristically vibrant and colorful. Or, put another way, “garish” and “tacky.”
To my eyes, the Ancient Egyptians’ liberal use of brilliant, primary hues made their habit of gold-plating everything seem tasteful and refined by comparison.
The Separate, But Equal, Valley Of the Queens
The Valley of the Kings, like its name suggests, was a “boys-only” club—the Queens of Ancient Egypt were buried in the next valley over. Not surprisingly, the Valley Of The Queens wasn’t as exclusionary. In fact, not only were 80 queens buried there, two Princes were, too—we never found out why, but we have our suspicions (wink, wink). Still the most interesting character buried in the Valley of the Queens was Queen Hatshepsut (1508–1458 BC). She was rumored to have been a transvestite, a woman who wore the clothes of a man—outrageous! She even acted like a man. Certainly, constructing a massive temple at the foot of a monstrous mountain proved that men aren’t the only ones who overcompensate.
“Karnak, the Magnificent” is right.
Back on the East Bank of the Nile, we walked to the Karnak Temple Complex, built in total by over 30 different Pharaohs. Beyond acres of vast, open plaza, planed flat and smooth by centuries of Nile flooding stood Karnak’s obligatory twin pylons rising from the sand.
We strode along a path lined on both sides by ram-head sphinxes on raised platforms to the Hypostyle Hall, possibly the most mind-bending human creation ever.
Entering the temple, you can initially only see twelve enormously thick and tall columns that line the main hall—they’re nine feet wide and sixty-three feet tall. Insane, sure, but you quickly realize that behind those twelve behemoths, there are 122 only slightly shorter and smaller columns behind them on each side.
Yes, that’s 134 columns in 16 rows. One hundred and thirty-four granite columns, each carved smooth, then etched with hieroglyphics and somehow erected and placed right next to the previous column with a stone architrave on top that weighs about 70 tons.
Now, repeat that 133 more times.
Considering the “technology” available to Ancient Egyptians—namely human muscle and dirt ramps—Karnak is a staggering achievement of nigh magical proportions. Words and pictures can scarcely capture the scale and scope of this architectural accomplishment (but UCLA’s animations certainly help).
After seeing this temple, it is not unreasonable to assume that Ancient Egyptians were at least twice the current size of humans. Or that they got help from aliens. Or even that their gods were actually real. Karnak is truly magnificent and must be seen to be believed.
Who knew Luxor wasn’t just a casino in Vegas?
The Luxor Temple, on the other hand, is merely just impressive. Among its numerous treasures, there’s a well-preserved seated Ramses II statue as well as a recently discovered and excavated Avenue Of Sphinxes they found buried along a 3,000km path running from the Karnak Complex to the Luxor temple lined with small sphinxes every ten feet.
But sadly, Luxor suffered greatly by comparison to the Karnak Complex. For that reason alone, I’d recommend visiting Luxor first to avoid the inevitable disappointment and despair you’ll experience seeing it after Karnak, like we did. It was brutal.
Road to Cairo (okay flight-path)
Having reached the end of our 4-day cruise, we flew back to Cairo to see the Pyramids Of Giza that we’d seen in those Brendan Fraser Mummy movies.
The cab from Cairo International Airport took us onto the oddly named “October 6th Bridge” which arced up and over almost the entire city, past 6th floor apartment windows and into the worst traffic crawl we’d ever experienced. Ever. Including the 405.
Cairo is the largest city in Africa and the 16th most populace area on the planet. It’s considered a mega-city with a population of somewhere around 20-25 million, though no one actually knows for sure. That’s around 40,000 people per square kilometer and all of them apparently own cars.
Driving in Cairo is, from all outward appearances, like driving in Los Angeles during rush hour after everyone’s been dosed with PCP and Angel Dust—including the pedestrians. In Cairo, lane markers are routinely ignored as are speed limits, crosswalks and common sense.
Cars and trucks split lanes at speed while dodging donkeys pulling carts and pedestrians with a death-wish. Like blood cells through an artery, vehicles ebb and flow through the streets of Cairo bumping into each other constantly. Scraped side-panels and crunched quarter-panels are so common as you’d think cars come from the factory that way.
Worse, the Egyptians are horn happy. They beep constantly. Not in an angry way—they just beep as if to say, “Hey, I’m doing something pretty darn crazy over here, so you might want to get your affairs in order.”
As a result, the level of hectic in this city is off the charts. Cairo is, quite simply, a 24/7 cacophony. Without question, it’s the loudest city I have ever visited. It’s also the most polluted. Cairo is 5000 years old and has 5000 years of soot and dust to prove it. Frankly, the whole city could use a power wash. Yet since it rarely rains there, layers of dust constantly accumulate on building walls, car roofs and people laying out by the pool. By way of comparison, Cairo makes Beijing look like the land of Na’vi.
The fact that cars, mopeds and Egyptians belch smoke continuously surely doesn’t help. If we didn’t get lung cancer by walking on the street for five minutes—we certainly got it when two of our cabbies lit up cigarettes in the car.
Luckily, we weren’t in Cairo for the fresh air. We were there to see the Pyramids. So we paid 450 Egyptian pounds (about US$80) to a guy named Iman to pick us up at 9am in a minivan (complete with driver) and take us to Giza. After seeing Karnak, I was a bit worried that the Pyramids would be disappointingly small in person, like the Statue Of Liberty. Or Tom Cruise. Fortunately, I had nothing to fear.
The Great Pyramids live up to their adjective.
Shortly after crossing the Nile bridge, we could see faint, triangular shapes looming off in the distance through the haze. They seemed close, but that was only because they were so huge (like glaciers in Alaska). Up close, you could barely fit one entire pyramid in your entire eye frame. Taking pictures required a wide-angle lens and even then you had to back up all the way to Luxor.
We were entranced by the Pyramids, yet when given the opportunity to spend another 100 Egyptian Pounds and twenty minutes climbing up a dark, narrow tunnel hunched over with other sweaty, smelly tourists just to see an empty burial chamber, we regained our senses and opted out.
Currently nothing more than a geometrical pile of stacked rocks—though, an unbelievably awesome geometrical pile of stacked rocks—the pyramids were, at one time, even more impressive. When first built, they had a surface coating of smooth white stone that reportedly gleamed in the Egyptian sun making it visible for miles across the desert, producing the kind of dazzling light show that would’ve easily convinced the average dirt farmer of a Pharaoh’s divinity. And probably blinded him in the process.
The real riddle of the Sphinx: Why isn’t it bigger?
Unlike the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx does suffer from “looks bigger in pictures” syndrome much like the aforementioned Mr. Cruise. Constructed from nothing more than left-over pyramid stones, this symbol of a believable religion is nonetheless impressive to see firsthand.
Sadly, the mighty Sphinx hasn’t weathered eternity as well as other Ancient Egyptian structures. Luckily, it’s being restored with different colored stones so you can tell what was original material and what was implants and Botox®.
The Egyptian Museum: Try not to trip over all the sarcophagi, okay?
The designer of the Egyptian Museum was an Italian architect who created a mash-up between Ancient Egyptian and Classical Italian styles. The result of which was a very cool columned and domed structure. A very cool columned and domed structure in downtown Cairo, unfortunately.
That horrible location doomed the attractive museum to a lifetime coating of soot, sand and dirt. But on the plus side, all that soot tempers what was the building’s one very questionable design element—its paint job. The exterior is painted a shockingly brave shade of…wait for it…coral. Yeah, wtf?
Inside the museum, it was standing room only for 3,000 years of incredible sculptures, sarcophagi, hieroglyphics, mummies, and dirt. Photography is strictly forbidden inside, not because of anything like the King Tutankhamun exhibit that was there, but probably because of how filthy the place is.
The place is like an Ancient Egyptian flea market only without the carny folk. But it’s still really amazing. Out of the blue, our tour guide asked me if I was Christian. Confused, I told him that I was raised Christian, but that I wasn’t a believer. “If you’re not religious,” he asked, “why do you say, ‘Jesus!’ all the time?”
I laughed out loud.
Khan el-Khalili, isn’t the villain from Star Trek.
On our last day in Cairo (and Egypt, for that matter), we went to Khan el-Khalili, a major commercial area in the Islamic district. It evidently dates back to 1382, and judging from some of the merchandise for sale, that date feels about right.
The whole area is set up like a giant, outdoor Walmart, with touristy stuff and cafes on the outside edges. Further in, there were sections (aka, city blocks) dedicated to things like Small Appliances, Jewelry, Clothing, and Groceries. The area is cramped, pushy, and the antithesis of the Western shopping experience, but it was also very fun and different. If you’re a brave shopper, you can have a good time there.
Wrap it up like a mummy, yo.
Cairo is great, but it’s not for everyone. If the noise and lights of Vegas make you tense, Cairo will absolutely destroy you. Despite all its problems, Cairo still works. Somehow. The noise. The dirt. The cabbies. The crazy pedestrians. All 25 million of them somehow all get along and go about their business without missing a beat.
Frankly, had I known I was going to one day visit Egypt, I would’ve paid more attention to Art History classes. Of course, had I done that, I would’ve stopped to gape in awe at every amazing piece of art or architecture and be boring you (more so) with endless paragraphs about Hotep hieroglyphs instead of answering the one question you’ve probably been asking: Should I go to Egypt?
The answer to that timeless question is an unqualified and enthusiastic, “Probably. Sure, why not?”