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DECEMBER 10, 2007

Land of the Pharaohs



The Egyptian posts are all being written from the relative comforts of Donna's families farm in South Eastern Australia. Not only has the food quality increased ten fold but we are sleeping in a comfortable bed and no longer living out of single back pack each - I mention this only because it seems the idleness has turned my brain to mush and therefore the quality of the following pages may not be all you have come to expect - alas we shall persevere.

For those of you following our journey, our last post found us disembarking at the Aswan Ferry terminal after travelling North from Khartoum in the Sudan. Once we cleared immigration and customs Donna and I grabbed our bags and bid goodbye to the cycling Dutchman who was heading into Egypt alone by bike.

Stepping out of the ferry terminal we were immediately approached by an overly friendly taxi driver promising us a quick ride into town. Now aside from trying to charge us ten times the going rate for a taxi into town - then telling us it was six times further away than we knew it to be - after some basic haggling (with the help of some of the Egyptian travellers we had met on board the boat) we agreed on a fair price - albeit we may have to wait for his taxi to fill up. Now our driver was a little non-committal both about the fee - and the time we would have to wait - so by the time we had walked with him out to the taxi rank we were starting to get a little nervous about his code of ethics. I was approached by another taxi driver offering to take us into town and before I could start negotiating, the first driver was yelling at me to move away from him. This started a right furore with the second driver walking up to me and yelling at me right in my face - why was I ignoring him, why was I being so rude.

A simple taxi ride into town had degenerated into near violence as the two drivers almost came to blows over our fare. Donna and I took a tentative step out of the way with much yelling coming in our direction when out of the blue we were saved by a couple of friendly locals. A young Egyptian lady wound down the window of a passing taxi and asked if we wanted a lift into town. After we mentioned a cheap but fair price she agreed and within seconds we were piling into the back of her taxi. The previous two taxi drivers refocused their attentions onto us but by now we were inside the cab and safely off down the road.

Aside from this little spat - our introduction to the Egyptian people was extremely positive. Our hosts into town were a newly married couple, husband and wife sat ahead of us in the standard Egyptian cab - a nine seater Peugeot and for the whole trip were happy to talk about their lives and recent marriage. We left them at the railway station as they proceeded with their honeymoon and the driver took us onto our destination for the night - the Kilany Hotel.

"The couple were happy to touch each other - something I have never really seen between Arabic people in public "

After the last few weeks in Sudan - the Kilany was pure paradise. We were greeted at the door by a couple of very friendly staff, quickly signed in and then taken up to our room to settle in. The room itself was far beyond anything we had stayed in for some time. WIth a self contained bathroom, bar fridge, views over Aswan and...... air conditioning - we were more than satisfied with Egypt so far.

I would like to say that upon arrival in Egypt we jumped onto the tourist band wagon immediately hitting the bustling streets to take in the sights and smells of an arabic souk, boarded a felucca for a romantic sunset cruise and then wined and dined in one of the many little back street eateries - unfortunately that was a long way from our first day in Egypt. Did I mention that Sudan is a dry country - that does not just mean no rain - it means no beer, or wine or alcohol for that matter, that's if you do not count the illegal stuff sold in back streets that could just get you killed.

After a short midday snooze, a trip to the local bank to stock up on a new currency and the purchase of a sim card we did what any red blooded Aussie would do - we went to the pub. By pub I mean river side restaurant and by restaurant I mean cafe - with river views - and cold cold beer. Aaahhh - who said travelling had to be hard.

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One of things you need to get used to very quickly in Egypt if you do not want to get ripped off is to constantly ask the price of everything - and I mean everything before you buy it - then haggle till you get a fare deal. This is for everything from a cup of tea in a roadside stall, to a meal and a proper restaurant. On the tourist track (which is basically anywhere in Egypt) people will and do take advantage of tourists all the time. Having come from a country like Sudan where the people are so friendly, generous and helpful, Egypt was an absolute shock to the system.

After getting through Sudan we were in the mood for taking it easy - therefore we decided to hold off on any formal sightseeing and spend our time wandering through the back streets, visiting the local museums and wandering through the local souks. Thanks to some friendly advice from the management at the Kilany we found a neat little sharwarma stand that served up some cheap eats, and we got back a little of the energy we had lost on the way north.

Never before in my life have I been exposed to a population where the men are so rude. I know a lot of Arabic men from our time in Dubai - and as far as I am concerned they are some of the most polite and generous people I know. In Aswan however we were exposed to the dirty disgusting side of the Fellahin. We were exposed to the reason why so many people leave Egypt vowing never ever to return again - we were exposed to the Egyptian male.

How can I describe what we experienced to someone who has never experienced it, on our first trip through the souk one morning at every step we were accosted by greasy men propositioning Donna, asking how much to buy her for, offering to buy her off me, undressing her with their eyes. The words that came out of there mouths were disgusting and lewd and nothing like what their mothers would expect. In fact on later trips when the souks were bustling with local women the men were shamefully quiet and respectful - almost fearful of their mothers.

We ran into an older western woman who was in a bit of a tizz after not getting much help from the locals in finding a bank. We escorted her to a nearby ATM only to find out that she two was constantly accosted by Egyptian men, in her own words "I am an overweight 60 year old grandmother for godness sake".

To be honest it really got to me. After two days of constant hassle I was very very angry. It was not just one or two comments either - it was constant - every man on the street was the same. It was not just the sexual innuendo either. Walking around Aswan as a tourist you are constantly hassled. Every minute of the day you are offered a ride in a kalesh, a cruise in a felucca, please come into my shop and look at my goods, hire my taxi, buy this, buy that, support my business - it never ends.

Now this is not an indictment on the people of Egypt in general - merely my thoughts after spending three days in and around Aswan. In fact, after a rocky start to this country, the people we were to meet down the track made Egypt a highlight of journey to date - it is just unfortunate that a few can ruin it for the many.

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Getting around southern Egypt is not as easy as it should be, in fact thanks to Government regulation they have made it almost impossible for an independent tourist to visit the standard sights on their own. All vehicles need to travel in convoys, tourists are limited as to what trains they can catch, what buses they can ride on, and what times of day they can travel - all of this means that 99% of of people get around in either large tour groups on busses and river boats, or relatively independently in smaller backpacker type minibus tours.

This was not for us, instead, with a little extra freedom in our schedule other than a proposed meeting with cousin Yvonne in Sharm El Sheikh for Christmas, we decided to forgo the standard means of travel and persist with doing it local style - difficulties and all.

Ideally we would have crossed the border from Sudan directly into Abu Simble from Wadi Halfa, this however is not possible meaning that we had travelled for a whole day on the ferry up to Aswan, only to have to catch a bus back to Abu Simble to take in the sights. And to not do so would be a grave mistake indeed. Abu Simble is home to some of Egypt's grandest monuments, those built by the Great Ramses II as warnings to the Nubians that this was his land and all those that entered it did so at their own peril.

Because Abu Simble would be a round trip from Aswan we were able to leave all our gear safely stored at the Kilany Hotel. Getting an early morning cab from the corniche was an easy affair - and to be honest it was strange travelling with only a small day bag. We were dropped at the Aswan bus terminal where several friendly locals helped us with tickets and a hot cup of chai - everywhere in Egypt it's cheap chai.

The bus arrived on time and left a few minutes later - getting around in Egypt was a breeze - even if the Government did do everything they could to make it tricky.

As I have mentioned before - the Government makes it tricky for independent travellers to get around southern Egypt. To get from Aswan to Abu Simble most tourists travel in the early morning convoy, see the temples in the morning, then head back to Aswan in the afternoon. Travelling on the local bus meant we had the highway south all to ourselves. Now the reason for the convoy is primarily to protect tourists from bandits and terrorists known to frequent these areas. This was definitely in the backs of our minds as our bus cleared the Aswan city limits, drove through the police check point, and turned south along the barren desert highway.

Like everything in Africa, the hype is worse than the reality. Aside from a brief stop at a roadside diner for more cheap chai, the trip was about as uneventful as a Collingwood Essondon grand final. We were deposited on the side of the road a few km's out of Abu Simble at the door to the Abu Simble village. After checking into our tastefully decorated room (as the only guests for that day...) we ran into a couple of backpackers we had met a few days earlier in Aswan and joined them for our first taste of rural Egyptian food.

Traditional rural Egyptian food is not what you would call a culinary delight. Sitting on the side of a dusty road, locals milling about seemingly with nothing to do but waste away the hours, a cheap plastic plate covered with a generous serving of foul (beans) and a handful of falafels. Add to that a side bowl of salad (best left in the bowl if you value your stomach) and wash it all down with - you guessed it - more tea. The Egyptians have mastered the sweetener as well - any town with a tourist theme (which is most towns in egypt) have the unique ability to charge tourists exorbitant rates for the simplest things - with little or no other options you take what you can get - suck up the massive hike in prices and try and remember that the Egyptian pound isn't as strong as it's British counterpart.

After filling our bellies it was time to start our Pharonic adventure. From the southern most point of Egypt, only a few kilometres north of the Sudanese border and on the banks of the Nile River/ Lake Nasser, Ramses II built an imposing monument to himself - warning the Sudanese raiders that to enter beyond this point - was to be entering the land of the Pharohs.

In a country filled with tourists, it was a little eerie walking out of town. We were completely alone outside of the standard convoy timings. A few kilometres walk on a nice sunny day without a hassle in the world, no touts, no tourists, no trouble. The two temples were moved 100 metres further up the hill they were originally built on due to the construction of the high dam and subsequent flooding of the surrounding valleys. At the gates to the temple complex we were waved through by gangs of heavily armed tourist police - looking ominously like the German SS and after queuing up at the ticket counter with not a soul in sight, our premise of travelling with the locals was paying off - not only was it cheaper than a tour, but as we walked down the sandy track towards the temple complex and the Sun Temple of Ramses came into view we were literally the only visitors in sight. I am sure I heard a sharp intake of breath from Donna as we rounded the corner and the temples came into view.

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The Sun Temple of Ramses II was built sometime around 1300BC. Ramses II, the Pharaoh was waging war as far North as Lebanon and as far south as current day Sudan. Dedicated to Re-Herakhte, walking around the bluff reveals four colossi statues of Ramses, each 20 metres tall and flanked by smaller carvings of his family. Deep into the rock hewn temple lies the central sanctuary where twice a year, on the Pharaohs birthday and the anniversary of his coronation, the sun lights up three of the four cult statues, Amun-Re, Re-Herakhte and Ramses the God, leaving Ptah in darkness.

To the north of the sun temple lies the Hathor Temple of Queen Nefertari. Six 9m colossi of both Ramses II and Nefertari are hewn into the rock.

Donna and I spent the best part of two hours exploring both temples, with few tourists walking around the complex with unimpeded views and plenty of time to sit and relax, to pour over the intricate paintings and carvings, to wander through the treasure chambers and Hypostle Halls. There are no two ways about it, the temples are truly amazing, both in their scale and remoteness.

Just before we left the temples we were treated to the true Egypt - a cruise ship sailing down the Nile from Aswan rounded the final bend and pulled into the Abu Simble port. If the sight of a massive river boat wasn't enough to blight the picturesque scenery, in almost comical fashion the ship blasted Wagner's Ride of the Valkyrie from it's speakers at such a volume that we heard her coming before we actually saw her.

These are construction wonders, built not for function but for a higher order. Yet somehow, after 11 months on the road they lacked the impact they deserve. As we walked away from the temples we were not as blown away as we should have been - I am glad we made the pilgrimage south to see Abu Simble, yet the weariness and fatigue of Africa is finally having it's toll. If the lethargy was not enough, at a small cafe at the entrance to the temples we were charged ten times the going rate for a can of fanta...

Walking back into Abu Simble we were reminded once again about the ever present nature of the Egyptian security forces. A mini van rolled up and out poured a group full of Japanese tourists. First and last out of the van however were two heavily armed tourist police, ensuring safe passage for Egypt's precious tourist dollars. As Donna and I walked out the front gate we were confronted by a group of confused police, who asked "what are you doing?" Without thinking, Donna responded, "nothing". We were repeatedly challenged and confronted - they seemed bewildered that we were travelling around Abu Simble on foot.

Abu Simble as a township has very little to offer the humble tourist. With nothing other than the temples on offer we did what we do best - we ate. Now in a town that lives off tourists and fishing - you would expect there to a be a few restaurants selling a good fish dinner - wrong. Donna and I spent a good half hour walking through the back streets searching to no avail. Finally, after getting some local assistance we were pointed to a restaurant that supposedly served Samak (fish). In the back of the restaurant was a huge mound of fish, at least one metre high, piled on the concrete floor. After sitting down and ordering the fish we were politely told - there was no fish. I pointed to the fish and in my finest Arabic explained I wanted that fish - I was again told there was no fish. My Arabic stretches only so far and before long we were eating foul and falafels again. Such is life in a small town Egypt.

To cap off an odd day, while relaxing in our hotel room that night, I visited the bathroom. Much to Donna's amusement, I was locked in......with no key. Hotel management had to be called and after several unsuccessful attempts the door had to be "broken" open.

After travelling for an extended period of time you start to get used to certain hardships. The next morning found us waking at a very rude hour, packing up our gear and walking through the darkened streets to the bus stop. In the cold dawn we were once again sipping steaming cups of tea and enduring the endless wait for local transport. Somehow I find I get more of a kick out of sitting in cafes mingling with locals, spending hours in cramped conditions, and living out of a small bag, than visiting the temples that draw millions to Egypt each year. Unlike the rest of Africa - Egyptian buses are relatively clean and reliable, within a couple of hours we were dropped back at the Aswan corniche only a short walk from the Kilany Hotel.

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After nearly a week in Egypt we have developed a hidden warning mechanism to ward off the pestilent touts. Aswan on our second visit was actually quite pleasant, aside from being a pretty little town with a very nice tourist souk, we made the half day trip out to the Island of Philae. Like a lot of Pharonic Temples around Lake Nasser, the temple of Isis was moved with the construction of the Dam to Aglika Island, after several million dollars it now resembles Philae and the temples original site.

To really enjoy Egypt you need to either not worry about money - or become really good at bargaining. I chose the former option, Donna chose the latter. As a compromise I now let her do all our bargaining - and she is an absolute terrier. After a good five minutes negotiation we had a taxi hired for the afternoon at a great rate. At the Shallal docks she stood firm, and with hundred of boats available to hire managed to get us onto one suitable for our trip for a quarter of what they wanted. It's important to have in mind a fair rate and a trip to the local tourist information bureau was invaluable.

Neighbouring Philae, the island Biga was the birth place of Osiris and off limits to all but the priests and priestesses. The Island of Philae therefore became the centre of festivities and over the course of 800 years spanning both the Ptolemaic and Roman Pharaohs the Temple of Isis was constructed. The cult of Isis was perhaps the most enduring of all pharonic cults.

While the Temple complex had numerous excellently preserved paintings and relief's, an hour was simply not long enough to truly take in the magnificence. As it was we barely took in half of the island, focusing solely on the main temple and it's outbuildings. For true temple lovers three to four hours would be the perfect amount of time.

As with the temples at Abu Simble, Philae was awesome both in it's size and state of preservation. It's so easy while standing on an island in the middle of the nile with colonnades at pylons stretching into the sky to image oneself back in pharonic times. History is an amazing thing, and to be standing on the flagstones that empowers and pharaohs once stood reminds us as Australians how little real history we ourselves have.

The Temples of Egypt

Do not for a minute think that I am an expert on Egyptian temples, however after visiting Abu Simble and Philae, you start to notice definite similarities between the temples.

As it was, throughout the Pharonic times all temples retained a consistant layout. Each complex was surrounded by a high mud brick wall, inside of which the commoners could not enter. Inside of this wall, in addition to the Temple, the priests and priestesses had their residences and work shops. Depending on the cult the temple was dedicated to, the grounds also contained a sacred lake, birth house and chapel of the hearing ear.

The temple itself was traditionallyl constructed over several generations. The closer to the temple sanctuary, the older the buildings. As a progression from the earthly world into that of the divine, as you move through the temple complex, each room is darker and lower than that preceding it.

The temple is gated by two massive stone pylons, built with tapered facad's which, like every wall and surface was intricately covered by relief's depicting the gods. Once inside the main pylons you are faced by a broad open courtyard, flanked by pillared colonnades and guarded by colossi of gods and pharaohs

From the courts a second screening wall and smaller set of pylons leans into the Hypostle Hall, a forest of columns representing a papyrus thicket. From this hall a central walkway leads to several smaller vestibules and shrines.

The temple is completed by the smallest darkest room in the complex, the sanctuary. This was home to the temples god idol and a boat shaped shrine, the Barque.

Today when we visit temples we see plane stone work and the faded remnants of intricate paintings. Back in their prime however the temples were completely whitewash and painted all over in bright reds and yellows. Every wall, every nook and cranny carved with bass or recessed relief's. Between the murals depicting ancient battles and the union of the two lands, hieroglyphs and cartouches fill in all available space.

Back on the mainland, we spent the next day relaxing around Aswan, killing a little time with no real hurry to move forward as we shuffle and reshuffle our plans. With time up our sleeves until we meet friends and family in the capital we decided to forgo an organised tour up the nile and decide to tackle the public transport system ourselves - bring on Edfu and the Temple of Horus - supposedly the best preserved temple in all of Egypt.

Click here to see the our Aswan Photo Gallery
Click here to see the our Abu Simbel Photo Gallery
Click here to see the our Temple of Isis Photo Gallery

     
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