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by ZweiBieren Cruising the Nile  Big pillar, Karnak Temple
Nile cruise, Luxor to Aswan, Nov 19-26, and some general notes
Selected pictures from our Nile cruise
More pictures from our Nile cruise
Friday, Nov. 19 — Fly to Luxor, Temple of Luxor

Arising at 4:30AM, we flew to Luxor. (Domestic flights are early so the same planes can be later used for international flights.) The bus-airplane-bus trip to the ship was uneventful.

Upon arrival we had a great luncheon buffet, promising more good food in the week ahead. Unfortunately, due to my stomach bug, most of my meals on the ship were the "special meal:" boiled potatoes, rice, and boiled chicken, with sometimes some broth. The condition steadily improved and finally cleared up on the trip from Aswan back to Cairo.

Luxor temple lit at night
Luxor temple lit up

Even worse was the fact that we failed to reead the reviews on the web site. Everyone else did and learned that the aft cabins were noisy and smelly from the engines. They got themselves switched out and we were left to suffer. It was NOT a pleasant journey. The staff was great, but the ship stank, literally.

Most of the tour guests, other than myself, visited the Temple at Luxor in the evening. As did almost everyone on every other tour. The Temple is beautifully lighted, but becomes too crowded to enjoy.

Saturday, Nov. 20 — Valley of the Kings, Queena

Having heard often of the Valley of the Kings, I was eager to see it. It did not disappoint. The tour included three tombs, but not the best, so we forked over the extra nine bucks to enter the tomb of Rameses VI. It was amazing. The exqusite colors remain even today with fantastic imagery all over, especially the ceiling. The overall proportions can be seen in this illicit photo posted elsewhere on the web. One of us lost our ticket to the three tombs, so I wandered around. More interesting than tombs, I found active excavation sites. Let me tell you what happens at such a site.

The 30-50 sqaure meters of the site are divided among half a dozen pits with a crew of three or four. The crew is headed by a digger who wields a pickaxe, pry bar, shovel, or gloves as he deems appropriate. On those rare ocassions when he finds an artifact, I imagine his job includes a hearty shout to report the find. The seond man in the pit is the scraper. He scrapes the loose dirt into a basket carried by one of the toters. The two lift the basket to the toter's shoulder. He carries it to the truck. Here the dumper dumps the dirt from the basket onto the building pile in the truck. Eventually a driver takes the truck I know not where; possibly for further sifting for artifacts. While all this is going on for the various pits, another guy, the talker, carries on a running stream of verbiage. I believe he is urging more haste, but perhaps he is urging care, offering advice, or repeating prayers. (But probably not prayers to avert a mummy's curse.) Off to the side, under a canvas cover at a table, sits an overseer, who appears to be busily checking documents or a map.

After the Tombs, we visited an "alabaster Workshop," that is, an opportunity to improve Egypt's economy. The shop keeper/pitchman did an entertaining demo of creating alabaster in collaboration with six men working on various aspects of making alabaster objects. At many places in the spiel, the pitchman paused for audience echo. Whatever our inclinations to provide this, the working guys chimed in right on cue. It made for a quite electric presentation. And the time in the show was not unduly prolonged. Altogether the best "factory tour" I have been on.

In the PM we sailed north to Quena. Most tours sail directly south from Luxor to Aswan, but Grand Circle adds Quena. It may be unpopular because twenty years ago some terrorists attacked a group of German tourists in Queena. The authorities are still wary; for the cruise portion north of Luxor they adorned our top deck aft with a soldier and a card table sporting a tripod-mounted machine gun.

After dinner we joined the optional "Quena by Night" expedition. What a spectacle. They boarded us onto a choo-choo, a series of trams decked out with "locomotive" trappings on the engine. And we rode through the streets of Quena in a sort of parade. All the crossing streets were blocked by several armed guards and car traffic had to wait for us to pass. Many bystanders waved and smiled at us. However, many of us felt embarassed by the whole rigamarole. It was the exact opposite of the keep-a-low-profile approach espoused by security professionals. I sat there imagining how steamed I would be if a tour operator regularly tied up Pittsburgh traffic by parading around a bunch of visiting Egyptians.

The destination of the choo-choo expedition was the Girls Club, an athletic establishment proudly displaying its sponsorship by Suzanne Mubarack. There we witnessed a demonstration of native dances, ending with a whirling dervish. He finished his act by whirling his cape above people in the crowd. Very dramatic.

Sunday, Nov. 21 — Dendara Temple, return to Luxor, "Death on the Nile"
A guide points out the fantastic carvings in Dendara Temple
Dendara temple

Turning back south from Queena, we visited the temple at Dendara, This temple was well worth the visit because many of the carvings/drawings retained their original color. The stairs to the roof were in a squared spiral; the stairs back down were straight, SUpposedly this because the falcon spirals up and swoops straight down; and the falcon god has to go to the roof (carried) to meet hiw bride, the cow god.

After dinner the lounge featured the 1978 movie "Death on the Nile" with a stellar cast of characters. Unlike the book, the murder took place on a river boat and featured a new murder method. We had seen it a few months ago. I remembered who-dun-it, but not how, so I wathed the whole with interest. This time I could keep track of all 13 characters, which I could not during my first viewing.

Monday, Nov. 22 — School visit, Karnak temple, Sail to Esna

(Very early Monday morning, some of the others went on a balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings, more or less. Not much wind, but they all loved it.)

Our first stop of the day was an elementary school. The kids were very cute and sang to us in English. School seemed like a happy place. Classrooms held 40-60 students. Girls sit on one side of the room and boys on the other.

Later we were given two free hours in the Temple of Karnak. A huge site with many enclosed temples and monuments. The sacred pool for cleansing was in fact filled with water from the nearby Nile. Two huge obelisks grace the middle. At one time a king wanted to destroy the obelisk of Hatshephut, but the priests forbid it; so he built a huge enclosing wall. I took lots of pictures.

I read through the afternoon while others attended Bassem's lecture on modern Egypt.

For the evening entertainment they had posted a signup sheet where passengers could volunteer for parts inthe skit, "Scary Robbers & the Beautiful Princess." None of the parts--King, Flower, Horse, Robber, ... --appealed to me, and I didn't want to learn lines, so I decided not to sign up. Later they added the part of Narrator. Given how many people have told me I have a good voice, I thought I could handle that. Well. Not just a few lines, I had _all_ the lines. The script was mostly stage instructions telling the players when to be on stage and what they were to be doing. Each of the five acts ended with most of the cast milling about the stage in hilarious behgaviors. The character Curtain was evocative as she opened and closed each act. And sure enough, many people came to me afterward and said I had a good voice. Everyone, narator, cast, and crowd had a grand time.

Tuesday, Nov. 23 — Edfu temple, Kom Ombo temple, Egyptian party
The Nile shore between Edfu and Kom Ombo
The Nile shore

Everyone but I visited the Edfu temple. Then we sailed to Kom Ombo, arriving near dusk. Needing a walk, I went along to the temple. Its carvings included a calendar and a drawing of surgeon's tools. The inscriptions, we were told, were in hieroglyphics, greek, and one other language. Bassem explained my inability to see anything but hieroglyphics by saying thet the other scripts were on the top parts of the walls.

After dinner was the "Galabaya Party" where everyone was supposed to flaunt their newly purchased Egyptian finery. The more cynical of us thought this was intended to encourage contributions to the Egyptian economy. I wore my Mexican guyabara shirt and S wrapped a scarf around my head.

Wednesday, Nov. 24 — Aswan High Dam

The highlight of the day, for me, was to see the Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser. But commerce trumped tourism. First we spent an hour at a papyrus shop. A four minute demonstration of making papyrus was followed by fifty-six minutes for shopping. The art was more subtle than the old temple/tomb drawings, but not by much. Mostly black outlines colored in with primary colors, as befits a creative process where one person draws the outline and others--less skilled--fill in the colors. I went outside and tried making photos, but there was little to see.

The papyrus shop visit was an experiment by the guides and shop owner. We got up a little early and they opened the shop just for us. We had the shop to ourseelves rather than sharing with four or five other groups. I wanted to ask Bassem if sales per tourist were enhanced this way, but I didn't. At any rate, many papyri were sold.

Outside the shop were the usual assorted vendors, with slightly unusual wares: books marks, tote bags, shirts. I shunned them all. On return to the bus, several compared the prices they spent for the bookmarks; anywhere from ten for a dollar to one dollar each. After we were all aboard, Bassem came on and offered fifteen for a dollar. S got some. Then he had tote bags for two dollars and cotton shirts for three. We bought these as well. Since we trusted Bassem to have arranged fair prices, considerable numbers of goods were exchanged for dollars aboard the bus. Trust in vendors is diminished by the price haggling.

Next the Temple of Philae. With the rising water behind the 1902, British Aswan Dam (in Aswan, north of the High Dam) Philae had to be moved from one island to another. Forty thousands blocks were numbered, disassembled, moved, and reassembled. A short boat ride took us to the temple. Nice island, but nothing remarkable about the temple.

Finally, after two hours of not much, we bused along to the top of the Aswan High Dam. Very impressive. But we could take pictures only from the top of the dam. No view of it towering over us from the valley below. Secutiry was tight, with automatic weapons much in evidence.

Others took a felucca ride in the afternoon, but I read a book.

The evening activity was a Nubian Show. While a few guys drummed, six others contorted and cavorted in various ways. Too loud; we left early.

Thursday, Nov. 25 — (Happy Thanksgiving), Abu Simbel, spice market

Our 5AM departure for Abu Simbel was actually an hour later than most tours. Granf Circle does that to avoid the rush. And indeed, hundreds were leaving the complex as we arrived and we had the place practically to ourselves. When our buses left, only two remained in the lot.

The journey is three and a half hours across the Southeren Egypt desert. The sand appeared to be crusty and black; not much in the way of blowing sand or sand dunes. The terrain was pucntuated throughout with forty foot high vegetated mesas. Apparently ground level was once much higher and the flat surface was the result of erosion down to a sturdier layer.

At severlal point we passed bus stops with absolutely no sign of humanity in any direction. Is this pre-planning, wishful-thinking, or hallucination?

Accompanying us was a power line with its towers. We passed several radio antennas and buidlings, all of which needed electricity and one of which had visible electric connection to the power lines.

Abu Simbel with Ramses temple on the left and his Nubian queen's on the right
Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel was moved about a mile and relocate so its astronomical alignment is just the same; twice a year three of the four gods in the inner sanctum are illumined. I had understood that they simply moved the mountain. But not so. They cut it up into 8000 blocks of 20-40 tons apiece. They could have repaired the face of the 2nd from left king, but decided instead to move it as-was. The joins between the blocks are visible, but only if you really look for them.

The path is arranged so the faces emerge as you walk along and look to your left. They are an impressive sight. Since there are no photographs allowed inside, I took many, many phots outside from various angles. Opposite the statues across a plaza is an arm of lake Nasser. No fishing birds, so perhaps there are no fish in the lake yet.

Along side the temple to Ramses is another to his Nubian wife Nefertari (who is not Nefertiri, the mother of Tut). I found a great camera angle to show both temples and some nearby vegetation.

After such an early breakfast, lunch was not until our return at 2:15. Thankfully, the company had given us snack boxes so we did not starve on the way home. When we returned, I dallied in the room and got lunch only after they had run out of the turkey laid on for our Thanksgiving. Not too many hours later was a fancy farewell dinner.

The evening was a visit to a spice market about which everyone enthused; I read a book instead.

Friday, Nov. 26 — back to Cairo

(5AM) Fly to Cairo, Farewell party

A second early wakeup. Bus to airport. Uninteresting flight and bus back to the Cairo Marriott. I spent the afternoon writing some of this and letting others use some of my 24 hours of internet time.

Random Thoughts

During his talk on Modern Egypt, Bassem noted that Turkey gets three times as many tourists, "and our artifacts are twice as old." Among the following random notes are several that Egypt might want to consider on their drive to catch up.

• One problem is simply geometry. Turkey is a 2-D country while Egypt is mostly 1-D--along the Nile. The toruist areas are already over-crowded. So some crowd management approaches are essential. It might, for instance, be possible to replicate some of the smaller temples. Diversion of torusits to replicas would help preserve the beauties that are under constnat attack from tourist hands, feet, and exhalations. If France can replicate Pyrenees paleolithic caves and Egypt can move Abu Simbel, replication ought to be simple. On the other hand, I did not see many tourists at the Pyrenees cave replica.

• What else can Egypt/Grand Circle offer? I would have liked to have a belly dance included in the tour. It would have been nice to have taken in one of the light/sound shows that every site offers. Tours of farms and real factories would be a plus for me, thought perhaps not others.

• One of the valuable tour tools is the Whisper device. The guide whispers in a microphone and the tourists hear him/her through individual headsets. For Bassem however, this does not quite work. First of all he works with the mouthpiece too far from his mouth. Secondly, he seems incapable of whispering; his voices travels well, rendering the Whisper device moot for us. It would be invaluable for tourists hard of hearing.

• On our next to last temple, Bassem asked if we wanted to see ABGT. What's that, we asked. "Another Bloody Greek Temple." Despite skipping at least three temples I myself was thoroughly tired of temples and tombs. I took to calling each an APOR: Another Pile of Old Rocks. Sometimes I complain too much. Nonetheless, Egypt will have to develop attractions other than antiquities to increase tourism.

• Before we entered each temple, Bassem described the wonders we would see. At Abu Simbel, Rae Jean suggested a tour enhancement that I would have greatly appreciated. She suggested the guests be given a diagram of the temple/tomb/relic with the location indicated for each highlight. Besides guiding us, such charts would be valued mementos.

Egyptian carvings in a tomb in Saqqara
Tomb carving in Saqqara

• From an artistic standpoint, it struck me that the tomb/temple decorations are instances of what we call today the graphic novel. Images are highly stylized and there is considerable text describing events. In some scenes the same character appears multiple imes, indicating a sequence of events. However, the conventions of speech balloons, speed lines, dust puffs, and vertical line separating cartoon panels were not adopted.
Musculature was carefully sketched, but nowhere does there seem to have been an effort to depict actual human facial features. It is possible to know who a figure is only by an identifying cartouche. Gods have no cartouches, but each has a distinguishing feature.

• At every chance Bassem described to us how Grand Circle had enhanced the quality of our tour: sailing north to Quena, minimizing the parallel parking of boats with ours, single tour access to the papyrus shop and Abu Simbel, early room readiness at hotels. And many other examples. (Ships were parallel parked up to five deep. Inner boats had no view and peopled traipsing through the reception area from outer boats. We were always dockside and had at most one boat out beyond us.) For me the quality was diminished considerably by our noisy, smelly room.

• What did we see while sailing the Nile? Most of the time the immediate shores where planted in green crops, with some areas given to animal grazing; mules, cattle, sheep. Boats and people ashore were not uncommon. A few housew were on the banks. Beyond the shores, beige sandstone hills lined our way. The ocassional town was marked by minarets and cellphone towers. I wonder why they chose not to simply put the cellphones antennas on the pre-existing minarets. One church in Pittsburgh was able to get scrubbed from a century of smelter soot by hosting a cellphone antenna.

• Security was everywhere. Encountering no incidents, we speculated whether it was a full-emplyment measure. It certainly helps maintain one-party, one-president rule. (In fairness, Mubarack does seem to focus on the good of the country rather than enriching himself. But the recent election reiterates the futility of voting in Egypt.) We were surrounded by security in the Cairo and Alexandria train stations, and on our flagrant parade through Quena. We passed several army checkpoints on the bus ride to Abu Simbel. And all armed with automatic weapons.

• Westerners are familiar with the digits 0, 1, ... 9, the Arabic numerals. So called because some Arabs introduced them to Europe, but originally from India. Arabs countries do not use Arabic numerals, choosing another set that also came from India:

"Arabic" numerals and the numerals used by Arabs

(and Indians today use yet another set of numerals.) In text, Arabic words are spelled right to left, but the digits of a number are written left to right; "bigendian", with the most significant digit on the left.

• Education has been universal (in Egypt and also Israel and Jordan) for the last twenty years. This holds promise for the future. English and other languages are learned from early grades on. But the older generation is still stuck with menial jobs like collecting a one pound coin every time someone wants to enter a dirty bathroom.

• Trust is an issue. It was hard for me to trust vendors when the price could be so erratic. It is hard to trust women with their faces covered (though we saw only a few). It is hard to trust anyone when the majority of people one runs into are solely in it for the money. It is hard to trust anyone with cultural assumptions so different from my own. Until trust can be easily established, it will be difficult to increase tourism.

At the farewell party Farid wanted us all to tell friends, family, and neighbors that Egypt is friendly and safe. It is. Everyone was friendly, even if only to increase dollar extraction. And safety was assured by security that was ominously ubiquitous.

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