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Monday, January 3, 2011

Egypt, Part II

Read Part I here.

I moved a chair in front of the window in our cabin and watched the bank of the Nile. Women washed clothes in the river. Kids played and waved at the boats. Donkies, goats, and water buffalo drank or relaxed under palm trees. Mosques in the distance, so far away that you can only see the minarets in some cases.

Nile cruises work something like this: a) you get on a boat in Luxor and work your way south to Aswan, moving from lower Egypt to upper Egypt, or b) you get on a boat in Aswan and go north to Luxor, moving from upper Egypt to lower Egypt. Yes, you read that right: the northern part of the country is called lower Egypt and the southern part of the country is called upper Egypt. We did the former, starting in Luxor.

When not watching the banks of the Nile, Nicole and I followed Akhmed, our guide, to the many monuments that fill both banks. The first day we focused on the east bank, where you'll find the Temple of Karnak and the Temple of Luxor. Karnak's a massive complex, full of obelisks, great halls, columns, a purification pool--all of it awe-inspiring. Images of the gods and various glyphs cover the walls of the monuments. No space is left uncovered. The walls are as busy as the temple itself, where masses of tourists from all over the world shuffle in and out. The Egyptian economy is a mess and tourism represents one of the few sources of revenue, so it's doubtful the country will do anything to regulate historic preservation. A shame, because the sheer volume of people (brushing up against columns, for instance) certainly jeopardizes the monuments.

Karnak Temple is the largest of the temples, but nearby Luxor Temple looks pretty amazing after dark, when the lights give the place a kind of spooky appeal. You can find spots where Christians tried to plaster over images of the gods, but for the most part, the scenes on the temple walls remain intact.

The next day, we focused on the west bank of Luxor, more interesting in some ways. The west bank was the city of the dead, or Necropolis, where kings and nobles were buried. The afterlife was so central to the lives and beliefs of the ancient Egyptians that they devoted half the city to matters related to death. In the Valley of the Kings, a network of tombs for dead pharaos, you can climb down steep stairs into the empty resting places of Ramses I-IV, King Tut, et al. Why empty? Treasure hunters sacked and looted most of the tombs over a century ago. Quite a few of the tombs' treasures are at the National Museum in Cairo (which we visited later in the trip), where you can witness how packed the tombs once were. They were like storage spaces, every nook filled with items both practical and lush. So you walk down stairs, some as much as sixty meters underground, and see how the artists and designers who worked for pharaos adorned the walls. Being underground, even the colors remain intact. Anubis and the other gods--all in living color, including bright blues in some cases. Scenes like the final judgment and the funereal boatride to the afterlife.

Near the Necropolis, the Temple of Hatshepsut, Nicole's favorite. Unlike the east bank's larger temples, Hatshepsut's digs are dug into the side of a mountain, so the structure appears to be part of the natural desert landscape. Holes mark the mountain walls next to the temple, each one either a tomb for one of the nobles (who didn't get as lush a resting place as the pharaos in the nearby underground crypts) or a human-made cave dug out to serve as a break room for workers building the temple. Hatshepsut Temple was also a Christian monastery for several centuries (remember when people recycled instead of always insisting on a new thing?) and still bears the name of its Christian iteration: Al Deir Al Bahari.

Back to the boat and after two days in Luxor, it was time to move south. We read on the upper deck for part of the time--nice, because you can catch views of both banks at once--and ate meals with a couple of friendly families who were part of our group. Five or six other groups were also on the boat, all more or less following similar itineraries, one group from Lebanon, I think two separate groups from Spain. As we moved south, young guys in rowboats, rowing quickly enough to keep with a ship, came up on the sides of the ship, lassoed onto tie-ons on the ship, and began yelling for cruisers to open their windows. One guy tied on right next to our window, balanced on the back of his boat, and began offering us various items--scarves, tablecloths, gallabias/dishdashas. They know that the boats have gallabia (Egyptian gowns for both men and women) parties and really try to push fancy wear for the on-boat soirees. I asked the guy if he had another dishdasha like the one he was wearing and, of course, he did, so I bought a plain, grey-colored one, and Nicole bought a black with gold-colored trim one for her. Pretty good deals and an odd way to buy. The guy tosses items into your window, lets you try them on, tells you how good you look. If you like, he'll toss you a bag to put money in. If you don't like, you just toss the item back to him.

Overnight, we kept on sailing south, working our way toward Edfu, more or less in the middle of Luxor and Aswan. Still to come: gallabia party, the high dam, the return to Cairo, and, hey why not, more temples.

1 comment:

  1. We've all heard variations of the maxim "live for the journey, not the destination."

    I can't think of any better illustration than your travels in the Middle East... I'm very much enjoying them. Keep 'em coming!

    Glad you're safe and sound, too.