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Friday, February 27, 2009

Camping in the Desert

(Remember, you can click on any photo for a larger image)

After Linda's Ladies returned from southern Egypt, their next adventure was to go camping in the desert. Not just any desert. They headed for the White Desert and the Black Desert. These two remarkable areas are located out in the Sahara, about two hundred miles to the southwest of Cairo.

This is real desert. Not much but sand to see until you reach an oasis, or the unique rock formations that were their destinations.

The basic plan for a visit to these sites is to pack up in a four-wheel drive vehicle with a driver, tour guide, desert tour guide and your personal security detail and then head for the el Beshmo Lodge in the Bahariya Oasis.

This lodge provides the last bed before camping in the desert.

Accommodations are fairly spartan at el Beshmo. Your reaction will depend on your attitude. If you thought you were going on a desert camping trip in the Sahara you'll do just fine. If you thought you were staying at five-star hotels everywhere on your trip, you may have to adjust your attitude a bit. The Roman springs have water heavily laden with iron but reportedly very good for your health.

There was a lunch break at this desert wayside. A hut with cushions inside and an oasis stream flowing through the middle. The desert guide prepared lunch while everyone stretched their legs.

The first night they camped at Agabat, an area of large and beautiful rock formations.

After a dinner of chicken cooked over an open fire the ladies and their Egypt guide gathered around the table for a rousing game of Farkle. The armed guard seemed interested in the game so the ladies taught him to play Farkle. After two rounds of Farkel the table was removed and the sleeping mats and blankets were put in place. Two of the ladies elected to sleep in tents but Linda and Mary wanted to sleep in the open air. The temperature dipped to a refreshing 50 degrees and the wind blew all night but Linda declared that it was worth the cool temperature to see the stars gleaming from horizon to horizon. (editor's note: Linda has gone on this camping expedition a couple of times. She finds it hard to choose between camping under a full moon, with constant light playing on the desert sands and this year's new moon with only stars in the sky.)

The sunset had been beautiful, too.

The next day the group bumped across sand dunes.

They found themselves stuck in the soft sand several times, until they arrived at their second campsite in the White Desert.

The White Desert is made up of thousands of chalk formations caused by years of wind erosion. Many of these formations have recognizable shapes and are known by their shapes. For example, the chicken, the rabbit, the mushrooms.

Before the camp was set up a fox came around to see what goodies he could score. The Egypt guide set a piece of cheese on a rock and all the ladies watched as the fox cautiously approached the group and picked the cheese from the rock. Several kinds of food were set out for the fox and each time he came near and took the food. The fox in the area have learned that when people are present there is food to be had. During the night Linda heard the fox's high pitched barking several times. She also heard the fox taking the lid off the teapot in the wee hours. In the morning the lid was found lying on the sand three feet from the pot. The Egypt guide reported that he had been awakened in the middle of the night when the fox was walking on him. He shook the fox off and it left the campsite.

The second night's dinner of pasta in tomato sauce was again followed by a couple rounds of Farkle. The stars were just as brilliant the second night but the temperature fell another 10 degrees to 40. Even with two extremely heavy blankets Linda was chilled to the bone. She was happy to see the sunrise and went for a walk among the chalky shapes, both to photograph the amazing shapes and to warm up.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Between Aswan and Luxor

Linda's ladies returned from southern Egypt a few days ago. After a brief stay here in the city, they departed on a camping tour of the Black and White Deserts. After returning again to Cairo, the ladies left and returned home via Amsterdam.

That means, Linda is back at the apartment and we have fresh pictures to look at!

We'll pick up her tour at Luxor. There are several ways to move between Luxor and Aswan. They have different advantages.
  • Travel by air is fast. It also offers a unique perspective. You actually get to see the blue water of the Nile, the narrow ribbon of green on both sides and the bright yellow of the sand beyond the green.

  • The trip by train between the two cities is only a couple of hours. If you want to try an Egyptian train ride, this might be a good choice. The train is a little grubby (that's in first class) but you get a decent view of the scenery. It is generally a convenient and inexpensive way to get around in Egypt.

  • Travel by cruise ship is the definite preference. There are many, many cruise ships on the Nile between Luxor and Aswan.

    Quality varies considerably. This is where a trustworthy travel agent comes in handy.
Linda and the ladies took a cruise ship up the Nile from Luxor to Aswan on this trip. Linda and Terry took a cruise ship in the opposite direction last November. Generally, a small pool is located on the top deck. The trip runs about three or four nights in each direction.

In Luxor, the ships arrive and depart from a dock very close to the Luxor Temple.

The advantage of the cruise ship is that you will get to view some of the life along the Nile without the intrusion of too much modernity.

There is still a lot of village life that makes you think you are seeing Ancient Egypt - even if you suspect that the fisherman or farmer you see has a cell phone in the pocket of his galabiya.

If you are traveling up river to Aswan, you will be greeted by a very modern bridge jolting you back to reality.

A Visit to Abydos

While you are in the Luxor area, you should take one or more side trips to visit neighboring temples. One of these is the Great Temple of Seti I at Abydos.

You'll probably take a bus ride to reach Abydos. Buses leaving Luxor line up in the morning to travel by convoy. They have a police escort to insure your safety. Along the way, you will see other guards protecting you.

When you first reach the temple, you'll be immediately impressed by the exterior of the building. But the real treat lies inside.

By this point in your trip, you will have heard the names of many pharaohs and the dynasties they were part of. You'll be wondering, "Just how do they know all this?" Part of the answer comes from Abydos. Inside the temple of Seti I you will find a "List of Kings."This is one of the primary sources for what we know about who was king after whom.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Temple of Karnak at Luxor

(remember that you can click on any image to enlarge it)

Update 2/25/09: I have modified this post to include a map of the Luxor area which I couldn't find when I made the original post. Also added a section on the remarkable "Avenue of Sphinxes."

My last post concentrated on the Valley of the Kings across the Nile from Luxor, about four hundred miles south of Cairo.

You will probably spend a night or two in Luxor as you explore the Valley of the Kings and perhaps some of the surrounding temples. Even if you don't stay at the Winter Palace Hotel, make it a point to visit there and stroll the grounds.

This map will give you a bit of an overview of the Luxor area. Their are two major temples in Luxor and the immediate area along the Nile.

These are in easy walking distance (about two miles) of each other and of the Winter Palace. I highlighted the two temples in red here and a small but interesting museum in green. The map comes from the Luxor page of this website which has a lot of good information about Egypt and its tourist attractions. At one time, the two mile route between the temples was lined on both sides with stone sphinxes. A surprising amount of this Avenue of the Sphinxes remains and you will want to join the many people who have photographed them.

I have to say that for me, Luxor was the highlight of my first trip to Egypt. Not the city of Luxor, but the amazing Karnak Temple located just a couple of miles from the heart of the modern city. In ancient times, the city in this area was known as Thebes, a name you might recall from your ancient history class. This was the capital of Upper Egypt, before Upper and Lower Egypt were united around 3000 B.C. Thebes was more of a religious center than the administrative center at Memphis (just outside of Cairo.) For over a thousand years, beginning around 1300 B.C., the temple of Amun at Karnak was constructed and enlarged.

As you can imagine, it is possible to build a pretty big building over that period of time. It is the largest temple complex ever built by man, covering about 250 acres, or around 10 million square feet. If you considered that as a single building, it would be at or near the top of any list. The Pentagon has around 7 million square feet of floor space.

The size of the columns, walls and statues in the temple are almost overwhelming. If some of them look familiar, it is because they have appeared in numerous movies. When a movie needs to say "we're in exotic Egypt," this is where the cameras come.

At night, the view of the Luxor temple is very spectacular. And of course, there is a "sound and light" show at the temple of Karnak if you like that sort of production.

A bit off the beaten path in the area between Luxor and Valley of the Kings, you may see this village near the road. One of the good reasons for touring in a small group is that you can ask the driver to stop for photo opportunities.

This village probably doesn't look much different from its appearance in biblical times.

And in the same area, you might notice some crops growing and find that makes an interesting picture too.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Heading Up The Nile

Linda's Ladies left Cairo last week for the obligatory tour of southern Egypt. While those hundred plus pyramids are pretty much clustered near Cairo, the famous ancient tombs and temples of Egypt are located several hundred miles to the south.

Here is a map photographed in the Cairo office of the Delta Tours travel agency that shows the highlights to be found in the south.

We want to look at three areas in the southern part of Egypt. First notice that little hook in the Nile. That is about four hundred miles south of Cairo and is the heart of monument and tomb territory in Egypt. This is the location of the city of Luxor, with its population of around 400,000. It is also the area where we will find the Valley of the Kings.

But while we have the map out, notice a couple of other points. The city of Aswan is another hundred and ten miles south of Luxor and from there it is another hundred and forty miles to Abu Simbel.

A trip to Luxor is almost mandatory once you have come as far as Cairo and you might as well plan on taking the journey all the way to Abu Simbel. From Cairo, your choices for reaching Luxor are two from a practical point of view. Take one of the frequent but fully packed flights by air or take a train. In spite of what this cheerful website says, you will likely find it necessary to book well in advance. It is not unusual to find yourself flying south from Luxor to Aswan in order to catch a plane going north to Cairo and so forth.

Here is the plan. You need to see the temples and the Valley of the Kings at Luxor. You should definitely take a Nile cruise ship between Aswan and Luxor. It will stop at a couple of the temples over the course of about three days. And, the side trip, either by air or bus from Aswan to Abu Simbel is worth the time and effort, no ifs, ands or buts.

So, lets get started. We don't have to worry about planes, trains, buses or ships, so we'll just head all the way South to Abu Simbel and begin there. The best view of the temple at Abu Simbel is from the air as you come in toward the tiny town.

There, you can see it off to the left. The two magnificent temples are not in their original locations. That body of water is lake Nasser, formed by the Aswan High Dam. When the dam was built back in the late 1950s and 1960s, the water threatened to bury these temples. An international effort was begun to save them. As a result, in a fascinating feat of engineering, they were cut up into pieces and raised about two hundred feet vertically to a new spot back from the water's edge.

See National Geographic, May 1969, for details.

There's really nothing else to see at Abu Simbel except the twin temples of Ramses II and his wife, Nefertari. So you will find everyone arriving at the same time and headed for the temples.

Unlike the pyramids, the interiors of the southern temples are as interesting as the exteriors. Maybe more so. According to National Geographic, this temple was constructed so that on February 22nd and October 22nd, "sunlight illuminates seated statues of the sun gods Re-Horakhte and Amon-Re, as well as a statue of king Ramses II. The statues sit in the company of the Theban god of darkness, Ptah (who remains in the shadows all year)."

The intricate carving on the interiors will surprise you.

Let's head all the way back to Luxor now and the Valley of the Kings.

You'll see that it is truly a valley. There are 65 major tombs in the Valley of the Kings with the most recent of these discovered in 2008. Many of these are tombs of nobles and associates of the kings.

Here is another view of that hook in the river as photographed from outer space. That red arrow points to King Tut's tomb.

For a list of the tombs and their placement on the sketch above, click here.

Each tomb in the valley of the kings is numbered, in order of discovery. When you visit, you will likely find about six open to visit. Which ones are open vary from time to time, rotating among about twenty.

Here is the sign out in front of KV 8. And another in front of KV62.

KV62 is King Tut's tomb. It costs substantially extra to go inside. You're not going to let that hold you back after traveling this far though, are you? I didn't think so.

While the tombs are interesting, what you will see is some paintings on the walls and not much more. Any significant items were hauled off to museums long ago. But the paintings are interesting and seeing one or two of the actual tombs is interesting too.

One more site that you will want to see in the Valley of the Kings is the burial complex of Queen Hatshepsut. Probably more famous than Tut's tomb and certainly far more impressive. This grand monument is worth devoting some extra time to.