Thursday, February 26, 2009



It was Tuesday, January 27th. We completed the Egypt portion of the trip and flew the chartered PAS plane to the sleepy King Hussein International Airport in Aqaba. In Aqaba, at the Northern tip of the Red Sea, one can see 4 countries--Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the unidentified country between Egypt and Jordan. We made our way on the coach through the stark desert landscape reminiscent of the American Southwest, to Wadi Rum. In Arabic, a wadi is a valley. Rum has nothing to do with the drink, which is difficult to find in Muslim countries. Rather, rum is an Aramaic word meaning "high" or "elevated".

This is Lawrence of Arabia country, the haunts of the intrepid Englishman, T.E. Lawrence who was instrumental in overthrowing the old Ottoman Empire by organizing a 1917 Arab revolt. His actions essentially redrew the map of the region. The 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia was filmed on location here. This area was also featured in the 2000 movie, Red Planet, depicting the surface of Mars.

We drove in 4 wheel drive jeeps for an hour, off road, through the sandy desert to a small Bedouin trading post composed of a few tents near a high rocky cliff face. The early inhabitants of this region drew petroglyphs on the rocks. They were pictures of camels! It could have been an early billboard for a popular brand of cigarettes, but most likely it wasn't. It showed that the camel, the ship of the desert, has been an integral part of the locals' lives for many centuries. We didn't hang around the trading post very long because it had no W.C.

We continued on in our 4WD's, almost getting stuck several times in the loose sand, which is comparable to driving in deep snow. Soon after, we arrived at another Bedouin tent city for our lunch. It was a buffet style with traditional Middle East fare of shish kabab, couscous, rice, hummus, pita bread, washed down by Coca Cola, and our hungry crew devoured it. At that point, we would have eaten 'most anything, but the food was very good.

Our destination that day was the Marriott Petra Hotel located on a mountaintop in Wadi Moussa, not far from the legendary Petra. Previous Tauck tours stayed at the classic Movenpick Hotel, a tourist attraction in its own right because of its rich history. That hotel is across the street from the entrance to Petra. Although the hotel is open, and we stopped in for ice cream and shopping after the Petra tour, it is now undergoing renovations.


I've observed that people named after states are usually colorful and adventuresome, like Minnesota Fats and Hannah Montana, and Indiana Jones, though a fictional character, certainly fits the bill. We drove down the mountain the next morning through the town of Wadi Moussa (Valley of Moses) which got its name because it was the Biblical location where Moses struck the rock with his staff and water flowed forth.

We were dropped off at the entrance to Petra. Unlike Disneyland, you can't just drive in there, you have to walk, although horse and carriage or donkey rides are available. The trip is 1 1/2 meandering miles through the siq, a narrow fault line between two mountains which are over 1500 feet high. The rocky road, which is paved in places with uneven paving stones laid by the Romans, winds through beautiful rock formations. The siq is as narrow as 15 feet wide at times, but up above, it is sometimes even narrower, blocking out the sun. Many of the rock formations have caves dug into the rock faces--these were Nabatean burial places.

After a long walk, the road opens up to that magnificent structure carved out of the sandstone rock face that we know as Petra. That familiar structure is called the Treasury, and like the U.S. Treasury--it's nearly empty. We went inside. The holy grail from Indiana Jones isn't there either. It's not really a treasury building, but to early European explorers, it looked like one.

Petra was created by the Nabateans, an Aramaic speaking, trading people between 330 B.C. and 200 A.D. They loosely controlled a trading network covering a large area from the Euphrates River to the Red Sea, and Petra was the capital, with about 30,000inhabitants. Water was scarce in Petra, and the Nabateans excelled in water conservation. They were also fierce fighters who held the Romans at bay several times, but they signed a treaty with them in 106 A.D., agreeing to allow Roman influence in the city, which is reflected in the buildings and columns.

After the Nabateans' downfall, Bedouins settled in Petra over many centuries, occupying many of the caves. In recent years, the Jordanian government relocated them to a newly constructed village about a mile away. Many were not happy about being moved, but they adapted. They began to recognize that tourism can be a lucrative business.

There is more to Petra--much more. It is estimated to spread over 30 square miles, and much has not been uncovered yet. We circled around the Treasury and walked another mile or so, viewing numerous cave openings and buildings like the Treasury, carved in the rock faces. Numerous Bedouins were hawking postcards, cheap jewelry, coins and even rocks. Kids as young as 5 or 6 were selling colored rocks. Many other kids were soliciting us for donkey rides and camel rides. One camel driver was wearing a T-shirt with the graphic message, "F---You". I guess nothing is shocking anymore. This guy probably didn't speak enough English to know it said. He was wondering why business was slow for him that day.

After a buffet lunch at the restaurant run by the Crowne Plaza, we had a choice of hiking up to the "Missionary"--approximately 700 steps of varying heights--a 45 minute climb. The other choice was a climb up to the 4 Tombs--only 191 steps, about 200 feet above the valley. About 5 of the younger members of our tour climbed up to the Missionary. We took the latter choice which was a very difficult walk, as it required climbing on rocks alternating with soft sand next to 100 foot dropoffs. We went up with 3 other couples from the tour, and we helped each other navigate the trail. The scenery was spectacular with rock faces streaked in shades of browns and reds. We got to the Tombs and looked inside. There is nothing in them except for trash thrown in by inconsiderate people. I don't think they have a regular cleaning crew. But it was a great view of the valley.

On the way up, we visited a 5th century Byzantine church featuring well preserved, once colorful Mosaic tile floors, faded by centuries of wear, but clearly showing pictures of a variety of animals and personifications of the Seasons, Ocean, Earth and Wisdom. The church was built over Nabatean and Roman remains which were destroyed in an earthquake in 383 A.D. It was discovered and excavated in the 1990's.

And everywhere we went, the pesky street vendors went also. Even climbing the 700 steps to the top of the Missionary, the vendors were persistently selling, we were told. If they can sell rocks in the desert, maybe they can get us out of the Recession.

We climbed down and caught camel rides back to the Treasury, with the other couples from the tour. We had our own caravan with about 10 camels nuzzling each other, and it was a lot of fun. Camels look awkward, but the ride is quite smooth. You don't want to fall off, because it's a long way to the ground, as camels are much taller than horses.


That evening, we were invited to the home of a Bedouin family for tea. It's a normal house, not a tent. Our tour crowded into the guy's living room. He lives there with his wife and several children, some grown with their own families. They served sweet tea. It would be considered rude to refuse it.

The man, who used to be the Vice Mayor of the town, works in construction, and he built the house himself. He was dressed in Bedouin garb. We were free to ask questions about his family, the government, education, etc. The locals wear Western clothes, or Bedouin clothes, depending on the occasion. He told us that his tribe, which dates back to one ancestor in the 1600's, has 700 members. We later learned that all the Tauck tours go to the same guy's house.

After the visit, the tour group went to dinner at a local restaurant where we were entertained by Bedouin dancers--7 men in traditional costume with swords.

NEXT: Life at the Dead Sea--Maybe on Saturday Night?


Monday, February 23, 2009



Monday, January 26th. Today we saw so many sights, it's hard to keep them straight. We checked out from the cruise boat in Luxor to spend that evening in the Steigenberger Nile Palace Hotel where we were assigned to an unbelievable two room, two bath suite. We thought we had died and gone to Heaven. The bedroom was approximately 20' X 15', and the living room was the same. The two bathrooms were huge. The room had a wraparound terrace patio overlooking the pool area and facing the Nile River. I thought about the high roller suites in Las Vegas, and they don't even have gambling in Egypt. Unfortunately, we were spending only one night and were flying out in the morning.

The hotel's owner lives in the penthouse on the roof of the hotel. For several years, the Meridien hotel chain was operating it, but the owner grew dissatisfied. When the contract ran out, he hired the Germans (the Steigenbergers) to run the hotel with Teutonic efficiency. We weren't disappointed.

In the evening, the hotel provided first class entertainment. The dancers marched in, accompanied by the March from Aida. The floor show had the Sufi whirling dervish, the same guy who performed on the cruise boat the previous night. The two restaurants overlook the lobby and the stage. We ate at the italian restaurant with Lynette and Dave from St. Louis, the only other Midwesterners on the tour. They are football fans, excited about the Cardinals (and QB Kurt Warner) playing in the upcoming Super Bowl, even though the team doesn't play in St. Louis anymore. I guess I should have been excited too, because the Cardinals used to play in Chicago, in my old neighborhood no less. But Egyptian TV doesn't have much Super Bowl hype. In fact, in a sports bar we went into, we asked if they were planning to show the Super Bowl, and the bartender said "What's that?" Lynette is an avid scratch golfer who organizes charity golf tournaments. Really nice folks.


During the day, our Odyssey started in Thebes at the Colossi of Memnon, which are two 60 foot high statues of Amhotep III and his queen sitting on the flat desert on the West bank of the Nile with nothing else nearby. These sentinels originally guarded the massive tomb of Amhotep, which fell prey to the plundering of later pharaohs and the annual floods. Regardless of their significance, their sheer size commands your attention.

We moved on to the massive Medinat Habu Temple built by Ramses III which contained his palace, among other things. One of the interesting things was the king's private toilet area. Obviously, the ancients had to go also, and the Egyptians had a somewhat sophisticated plumbing system to carry the waste away from the living areas.


We were privileged to tour the beautiful and elaborate tomb of Queen Nefertari, favorite wife of Ramses II. It was discovered in 1904 by the Italian Ernesto Schiaparelli. It is beautifully decorated with vivid colors of scenes evoking the ritual journey of the soul to the underworld.

We didn't have the opportunity to explore the massive temple of Queen Hatshepsut (pronounced "Hot-cheap-suit") which was recently reconstructed at the base of a sheer limestone cliff face. The building resembles the Prairie School of architecture popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, although it predated him by a few thousand years. Queen Hatshepsut, of the 18th Dynasty (1473 B.C.) was one of the few female pharaohs, but what I found interesting was that her statue has a beard. The beard was the symbol of power, like the scepter, and apparently she wore a fake beard when conducting state business. She took over the throne after the death of her husband, Tuthmosis II (also her half-brother). In her 22 year reign, she was known as a patron of the arts more than as a military leader. She was considered a progressive ruler, re-establishing trade networks with other countries which created prosperity in Egypt.


There were 31 dynasties in ancient Egypt, so there's a lot of tombs out there. Actually there are 62 known tombs in Thebes, with many more to be discovered. Ancient Egypt had over 200 pharaohs in all, spread over about 3000 years, including some of the well known ones like Alexander the Great, Cleopatra VII, and Ramses II who were so well portrayed by Hollywood. Who can forget Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Yul Brynner in those parts! The earlier kings, from the Third to the Thirteenth Dynasties built pyramids and obelisks. The first tomb in Thebes was that of Thutmose I around 1520 B.C. who broke with tradition and separated his tomb from his mortuary temple and was buried in a secret, inaccessible place.

Unfortunately, he and his successors were not to rest in peace because thieves systematically plundered the tombs for the precious furnishings. The priests, loyal to the deceased kings, moved at least 40 of the bodies from one site to another, and eventually to a secret cave built in a mountain. For example, Ramses III was buried 3times. Each pharaoh was interred with a name shield around his neck for identification. That secret common tomb was re-discovered by accident in the 1870's by a young tomb robber who, after enriching himself over a few years by selling the ancient objects, showed the site to Emil Brugsch, a German who was vice director of the Cairo Museum.

The best known tomb in the Valley of Kings was that of Tut Ankh Amun, whom we know as King Tut. It was discovered by the Englishman Howard Carter in 1922. Carter lived down the road a bit in a hilltop house which we saw but didn't go inside. Carter's mentor, Lord Carnarvon, died a year or two later, which fueled talk of the Curse of King Tut. Bad luck seemed to shadow everyone associated with the find. By 1929, eleven people connected with the discovery of the tomb had died, including two of Lord Carnarvon's close relatives, and Carter's personal assistant. Carter died in 1939.

Until Carter discovered it, the tomb was so well hidden that nobody stole the gold and jewels, unique in Egypt. We were told they killed everyone who worked on the tomb. The workers are believed to have been prisoners of war who were considered expendable. In any event, the Egyptian government today earns foreign exchange by sending the treasures around the world for exhibitions. We saw them on exhibit in Chicago a few years ago. The Egyptian government doesn't loan out King Tut's funeary mask anymore because, as we were told, during the 1972-79 World Tour, the Japanese switched it out for a really good copy. The authorities couldn't tell the difference, but the copy turned out to be too perfect. The original had some defects. I did some research and could not verify that explanation. The official explanation is that the mask is too fragile to withstand travel, and the Egyptian government will not allow it to leave the country.

We followed in the footsteps of Howard Carter and explored the tomb and like other tombs, the wall paintings were beautifully painted and well preserved. To find the sarcophogus, Carter had to break through several doors and walls. It was well hidden, partly because other tombs were built over it, probably because the location was lost in the annual floods. What was remarkable was that King Tut died at age 19 so there wasn't enough time in his reign to organize the massive public works projects of some of the other kings. His death was sudden, but experts aren't sure if he was murdered or killed by accident. The gold and jewels foiund in the tomb appeared to be strewn in haste, rather than by design. Some of this stuff would have been hard to move. For example, the gold coffin weighs 242 pounds. Today, these treasures are displayed in the Cairo Museum in a special, spectacular exhibit.


The Temple at Luxor and Temple at Karnak, two vast open-air museums are about 2 miles apart in the City of Luxor, joined by a road, lined with sphinxes with human heads, built by the Greeks of the 30th Dynasty. Once again, these temples leave you gasping because of their enormous size and excesses. Karnak is the largest temple ever built by man and took several centuries to build, covering several dynasties. The total area is about 247 acres. The site includes the 100 acre site of the Temple of Amun with 134 huge stone columns, arranged in 16 rows in the Hypostyle Hall. They support beams and doorways which weigh 70 tons. Lifting them up there (and balancing them) without power equipment was a job and a half!

Did I mention obelisks? The obelisks of King Thutmose I, of which only one is still standing (an earthquake knocked down the others), are 23 meters high and weigh 143 tons. That one is surpassed by that of Queen Hatshepsut which is 30 meters high and weighs 320 tons. And of course, all of these are covered by colorful pictures and hieroglyphics depicting Egyptian life and mythology. Then you have an avenue of dozens of "small" sphinxes with rams' heads. The sacred lake of the dominion of Amun covers several acres. Heck, the portal leading into the hall is 100 feet high!

One of the more interesting characters portrayed on the walls is the ubiquitous Amun-Min, the one armed and one legged god of fertility. He is also portrayed with one other organ in a constant state of arousal. The story is that while the other gods were off fighting, they left him in charge of the tombs, the temples, and of course, the young ladies who all turned up pregnant. To punish him, the gods cut off his arm. The gods went off to war again, leaving him behind--I guess they didn't learn from the first experience. Well, the young ladies came up pregnant again, and this time they cut off his leg. If they were really determined to stop him, they could have... After all, he was the god of fertility!


Late in the day, we had the opportunity to sail in a felucca, a small sailboat with a very tall sail. These boats have been used by Nile fishermen for hundreds of years. The boat ride went for 2 hours down the Nile from Luxor. Each boat carried about 15 people. We were served drinks with nuts and olives. We had the choice of Stella Beer and Obelisk Wine, the popular brands in Egypt. The wine is quite good in Egypt. We were advised not to swim in the Nile because a few crocodiles still lurk in the waters. Also the murky water carries parasitic diseases which are common with the natives.

We enjoyed the beautiful sunset and since it was our last day in Egypt, we reflected about how to make sense out of all the overwhelming sights we experienced. The Egyptian people were friendly and hospitable, and we would recommend the trip to anyone like us who is not content to sit by the pool for days.

NEXT: Off Road Racing in Jordan; Explaoring Petra in the Footsteps of Indiana Jones



Monday, February 16, 2009



Friday, January 23rd. We set the wake up call for 2:30 A.M. so we could catch the 4o'clock bus to Cairo airport for the flight to Abu Simbel in the southern part of Egypt. We flew a small turboprop P.A.S. (Petroleum Air Services) charter plane, which seats about 50 passengers. PAS is a commuter sype airline which services the oil industry executives in the Middle East.

Abu Simbel is a relatively new city built in the 1960's when the Aswan High Dam was being built. The dam created a 300 mile long lake, Lake Nasser, which would flood many archaeological sites, especially this one. An effort by UNESCO in 1960's resulted in spending millions to break up this site, block by numbered block, raise it several hundred feet above the level of the lake, and re-assemble it. The architects of the plan did so admirably.

This impressive site features giant temples dedicated to Ramses II and Nefretari with their statues almost 100 feet high sitting on their thrones, facing the Nile River. I won't bore you with details of the temples, but essentially, it's pictures, hieroglyphics and columns from floor to ceiling. When you see these types of breathtaking sites every day, you begin to get jaded. We toured Abu Simbel for over an hour and then set out for a 2 1/2 hour drive through the Sahara to the Aswan High Dam, which was actually the second Aswan Dam. The initial one, 4 miles away was completed by the British in 1902, but it proved inadequate to hold back the raging power of the river.

The highway crosses the top of the dam, similar to the Hoover Dam in Nevada. The dam looks unimpressive, nothing like the Hoover Dam. This dam has its plusses and minuses. On the positive side, the dam supplies 40% of Egypt's power needs and helps to irrigate the farmland. The annual Nile floods ended in 1964. Crocodiles cannot get past the dam to terrorize lower Egypt.

The main negative is that the dam is an ecological disaster. The Greens or the Sierra Club would never allow a dam like this to be built today. The annual floods formerly delivered silt to lower Egypt to nourish the land. The farmland soil in lower Egypt is now saline and needs chemical fertilizers to grow crops. Certain crops won't even grow in Egypt anymore. The large lake has altered the climate, making it more humid. The extreme desert heat is bad enough when it is dry, but when humid, it is unbearable. Even the fish catch in the Mediterranean has been adversely affected.

There's more. The Nubians and Sudanese found their farmland flooded by the lake. The Egyptians had to buy them off, relocating over 60,000 people, using Russian money. The Russians charged 14% interest on the loans, and the Egyptians paid back every ruble. The Russians were like the bull in the china shop. As creditors, they ran the dam and threw their weight around the country.

Close to the dam was the 4th Century B.C. Greek temple on Philae Island dedicated to the goddess Isis. It was raised up out of the water where it had been flooded out by the first Aswan Dam in 1902. It was partially submerged for most of the year. Italian engineers figured out how to relocate and reassemble 42,000 blocks from the water to dry land, and the temple is quite beautiful. We had to take a ferry to get there.


At Aswan, we boarded the Nile Adventurer, one of the numerous cruising boats plying the Nile. The cruise goes from Aswan to Luxor, a distance of several hundred miles. These are all fairly similar in size, although ours was newer and perhaps more luxurious (to meet Tauck Tours standards). Dianne's lifelong dream was to take a cruise down the Nile, and here we were finally doing it. The boat is much smaller than ocean going cruises like those of Royal Caribbean or Carnival Lines. It accommodated about 50 passengers--the 35 from our tour, a large family from New Zealand having a reunion, and a rival tour director and his wife previewing a tour for his company.

The dining room is intimate by cruise ship standards, but it was certainly big enough for the passengers. The meals were buffet style with Egyptian food and wines. Nobody went hungry, although there was no midnight buffet like on the large cruise ships. Our stateroom was comparable to those on large cruise ships, with a large porthole.

In our two evenings on the ship they entertained us. We had a traditional Egyptian "Galabeya Night" where the guests (us) donned galabeyas which are traditional Egyptian gowns worn by both men and women. We purchased galabeyas, headscarves, and veils for the women. I wore a fez and scarf on my head, and Dianne wore a veil with tassels. The crew staff treated us to traditional Egyptian music and dancing.

On the second night we were entertained by a belly dancer and a whirling dervish. A whirling dervish is a male, bearded dancer who spins around for about a half hour wearing several full colorful skirts, creating a beautiful effect. He removes each of them in the course of the dance. I guess the best way to describe him is a male burlesque dancer, although he walks off the stage wearing clothes. The dance has a religious significance of the Mehlevi Order in Turkey. The whirling dervish is defined as a mystical dancer who stands between the material and cosmic worlds. Got it?

The attractive belly dancer invited several male members of our tour to dance with her. A staid, retired banker from our tour, who shall go unnamed, was, to the dismay of his wife, a willing participant in the dance, which we found more entertaining than the belly dancer herself. What happens in Egypt stays in Egypt! Our fellow travelers are all well-traveled folks seeking adventure and are willing to try most anything. As they say, a good time was had by all!


The boat made two significant stops on our cruise. The first was the Kom Ombo Temple which was built by the Ptolemies under Roman influence fairly recently in ancient Egypt chronology. The temple was built originally to accommodate the sailors going up and down the Nile who would stop and pray at the Temple and trade. The temple building is symmetrical with two entrances, two halls and two sanctuaries, because it was dedicated to two gods--the falcon god Horus, and the crocodile god Sobek. Noteworthy are the many columns carved with the lotus of upper Egypt and the papyrus of lower Egypt to signify their union.

The town of Kom Ombo is populated by Nubians who were relocated there after the construction of the Aswan Dam. We toured a Nubian village and were invited into a large tent covered by rugs to smoke hashish from the large water pipes that are sold in many shops across Egypt. The nubile Nubians took photos of our tour members. Once again, what happens in've got the idea. Hopefully the negatives were destroyed.

Nubia is where black Africa begins, and many, if not most Egyptians appear to be of mixed race in that their skin is dark although their features appear Caucasian. A few years back, there was an Afro-Centric movement in American archaeology in which certain scholars held that the ancient Egyptians were Black. I think we've seen enough ancient pictures and writings to conclude that some Egyptians, probably the Northern ones, were Caucasian, while the Southern ones, from Nubia were Black.
Most likely, they intermarried, even in ancient times, and most Egyptians carry the features of both parts of the country.

At the other stop was the Temple at Edfu which was also built by the Greek Ptolemies.
It stands halfway between Aswan and Luxor. This temple was buried in sand and mud until it was unearthed in the late 1800's As a result, it survived the great earthquake of 27 B.C. which destroyed many of the Egyptian temples, and it is remarkably well preserved. This thing is huge. The front is as large as a modern sports arena.

Edfu is dedicated to Horus, the god of protection, and who is symbolized by the body of a man and the face of a falcon on the wall carvings and statues. The temple's significance is to mark the location where the falcon god Horus fought a fierce battle with his uncle Seth who had murdered Horus's father Osiris. Seth (not related to the son of Adam and Eve) was the evil model for Satan in the Christian world.

The reveration of Horus carries over to the present day. The "all-seeing" eye of Horus is featured on the Great Seal of the United States and is pictured on the back of the one-dollar bill. That eye signifies healing and protective power, but for many it is associated with secret societies, esoterica and the occult.

Next: The Great Karnak, Luxor and the Valleys of the Kings and Queens


Thursday, February 12, 2009


Wednesday, January 21st. We awoke early to visit the sights of Cairo, an enormous city, larger than New York. The Egyptian population has grown exponentially in the last 50 years, and the city has grown haphazardly. Many buildings appear to be unfinished as I explained in my last installment, and the reason may be the taxation system and the corruption in government. Money allocated for public works tends to disappear. The city is lacking in the delivery of essential services like trash removal and clean water supplies, although we also saw nice neighborhoods which compare to those in New York or London.

Our first stop was the Egyptian National Museum which houses the antiquities which Egypt is so famous for. The museum was an antiquity in itself and is badly in need of renovation. Many of the exhibits are behind worn out plexiglass. The glass reflects sunlight, so it is difficult to see many of the exhibits. No photographs are allowed, but I don't think the flash bulbs would make a difference at this point.

The museum is full of statues, sarcophagi, hieroglyphics, not in their natural settings, but similar to museums in Europe and the U.S. The prize exhibit is the Rosetta Stone, which is not the real one. The original resides in the British Museum in London, and although Egypt has attempted to get it back, the best they could do was make a copy. The Rosetta Stone, discovered by the French in 1799, is a translation of the Egyptian hieroglyphics into Greek. It was the key to reading and understanding everything in ancient Egypt. It was commissioned by Ptolemy V, a descendant of the Greek general who started the last dynasty after the death of Alexander the Great. History owes him an enormous debt.

I was interested in how normal Egyptians looked and lived. The museum contained many lifelike statues of regular folks. Upon death, even these people were mummified. Although the museum contained a wealth of information, we were surprised and amazed by the sheer volume of artifacts we would later see on site in the pyramids, temples and other structures of the ancients. And it is estimated that today, only about 30% of the ancient works have been unearthed. So there will be job security for archaeologists for centuries to come.


After the museum we visited the Mohammed Ali Mosque, a huge Muslim mosque in Cairo, named, not after the boxer, but a 19th century king of Egypt as I'll explain in a few moments. It contained a spacious marble floored courtyard where the common people congregate in the hot sun. The elite get to pray in the shade. We were required to take off our shoes prior to entering. The beautiful tapestries inside every mosque contain intricate geometric shapes but no human faces.

After lunch we toured the bazaar in Old Cairo. As bazaars go, this one is bizarre. We wandered through narrow streets and cross streets past numerous little shops containing linens, Egyptian cotton, jewelry, 3-foot high water pipes (for smoking), pots and pans and dishes, and of course T-shirts. The vendors agressively attempt to pull you into their shops. You end up paying about one-tenth of the original quoted price. When you're walking, you learn not to make eye contact, or they won't let you go. It's like walking a gauntlet between the lines of vendors. The Egyptians apparently smoke a lot of hashish because we saw many stores with inventories of large water pipes. Later in the trip, in Nubia, we were invited to try smoking them. My friends at the American Cancer Society will be relieved to know that I passed on that.

The food is good in Egypt. The meals consist of generous portions of lamb, beef or chicken, but no pork. Also rice is common, plus cooked vegetables like tomatoes, green peppers, onions and zucchini, not to mention hummus and yogurt.

They make a distinctive bread, similar to pita bread which is very tasty. The water comes from the Nile River, and tourists are advised to drink only bottled water, even in nice hotels. You can see why, when you see people throwing trash into the canals which lead into the Nile. Stomach ailments like dysentery are common among the locals.

Later that evening, we were treated to the light show at the Sphinx. We saw a 45 minute show with bagpipe music, lights and ancient Egyptian history. We were surprised to learn that bagpipes originated in the Middle East and were brought to England and Scotland much later, in the Middle Ages. We got the best seats for the show because the Tauck people learned long ago that baksheesh goes a long way in Egypt. They schmeer the right guy, and the tour gets the best of everything, best seats, best parking place for the bus, etc.


The next morning, Thursday, we started the day with a 2 hour lecture about the modern history of Egypt (last 1000 years) by a female professor who was very articulate in English. She also covered Egyptian politics and economics. I found her presentation very interesting.

Until the 1800's Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire (along with Arabia, Palestine, Turkey and others). In 1798, the French under Napoleon Bonaparte invaded and occupied Egypt. They sought a foothold to threaten British influence in India. The French weren't around long, and their fleet was destroyed in 1801 by the British under Admiral Horatio Nelson. The result was a power vacuum, and in a power struggle, the Albanian leader, Mohammed Ali out-fought the others and took control. To eliminate his adversaries, he invited 500 Mameluke emirs to a banquet and massacred them on their way home. You don't want to get into a fight with Mohammed Ali!

He created a Western style army and set out to industrialize Egypt with mixed success. His expansionist policies achieved some military victories in Greece, Arabia and Sudan, and threatened the Ottoman sultan and the European powers. He finally pissed off too many people, the British intervened, and he had to back down. Ali died in 1849, and after a few ineffective successors, Khedive Ismail took over. Ismail attempted to modernize Egypt, building railroads and a postal service. His great weakness was his appetite for rich food. His great achievement, if you could call it that, was that he had the Suez Canal built in 1869. Actually, the French had been promoting it, and they slipped it into the fine print of a contract that he signed over a pasta dinner. The contract, which he didn't read, gave the French all the rights to the canal. The Egyptians didn't get control of the canal until the 1950's. Khedive Ismail's other great achievement was the construction of the Mena Hotel where we stayed. He had built it as a hunting lodge to impress his friends.

To continue the brief history, the last in his line was King Farouk who was deposed in 1952 and, according to the Western media, spent the rest of his life carousing on the French Riviera. Gamal Abdul Nasser, the young military officer who overthrew him, nationalized everything in Egypt, giving power to the people. He brought in Soviet Russian influence and seized the Suez Canal. He got the Russians to build the Aswan Dam, but they didn't do it for free. The Egyptians had to pay back all the Russian loans. Nasser drummed up popular support by starting several wars with Israel, but he managed to lose them all. He died in 1972, and Anwar Sadat came in to pick up the pieces. Sadat eventually signed a peace treaty with Israel, won a Nobel Prize, kicked out the unpopular Russians, and brought some prosperity with U.S. aid. For his efforts, the secretive Muslim Brotherhood assassinated him. The Egyptians we talked to had high reverence for Mr. Sadat.


We put on our blue suede shoes and drove down to Memphis to look for the King. We found him--Ramses II who ruled Egypt for 67 years and died in his 90's. We saw his mummy (and his daddy too) in the Egyptian museum in Cairo. He was a small, wiry guy, but then he was over 90. In Memphis, the capital of ancient Egypt, lies a 50 foot statue of Ramses lying on his back in a building built to house it.

Memphis was a treasure trove of statues and artifacts. When upper and lower Egypt were unified, it was chosen as the capital because of its relatively central location. Aside from the statue of Ramses II, Memphis was an outdoor museum displaying an alabaster mini-Sphinx, and various sarcophagi. Did I mention that the ancient Egyptians were pre-occupied with death and the hereafter?


Nearby we visited Saqqara, the home of the supposedly earliest pyramids. We entered the Pyramid of Titi (6th Dynasty) through a passageway about 3 feet high. We had to walk bent over for more than 100 feet to enter the main part. The walls contained many hieroglyphics detailing that Pharaoh's life. In effect, the Egyptians were writing the guy's obituary. This is the only pyramid where these ancient funeary writings are accessable to the public.

Next to the pyramid were tombs which we entered. Once again there was a wealth of hieroglyphics on the walls. The ancients had carved them on plaster and then affixed them to the stone walls of the tombs and pyramids. The tomb of Mereruka, Titi's son-in-law, has wall paintings, including a marsh scene with Mereruka hunting among birds, fish and hippopotami, and another showing tax evaders being punished.

Then there was the tomb of Ankhma-Hor, known as the Physician's Tomb because of the wall paintings depicting surgical operations, including a circumcision. Ouch! These types of graphic illustrationss are very common in Egypt, but because of the large quantity of images, you need a tour guide to tell you where to look.

What amazed me was that people were stealing the carved wall coverings until just a few years ago and the Egyptian government wasn't doing anything about it. Mind you, this stuff wasn't easy to haul off. Unfortunately impoverished people have no sentimentality about historic objects; they steal this stuff just to survive and sell it on the Egyptian version of eBay.

In Saqqara, you find the Step Pyramid of Zoser, built by the legendary architect Imhotep. It is considered by Egyptologists to be the first one, and it is relatively crude, compared to the Great Pyramid. Some scholars believe the Great Pyramid was the first one, built by an unknown civilization pre-dating the Egyptians, and the Step Pyramid and Bent Pyramid were relatively clumsy attempts to replicate it. Whatever you believe, these pyramids are quite awesome in their own right.

We met a friendly Arab entrepreneur who agreed to take his picture with me. He placed his burnoose on my head and gave me his robe to wear, switching clothes with me. We have a great photograph of me in native dress.

Not far away, in Dahshur, the Bent Pyramid was another example of on-the-job training by the ancients. This time, because of settling, they had a change of plans in mid-stream. The builders had to alter the angle of the structure halfway up. This pyramid is unique because most of the shiny limestone casing is still intact so one can envision how impressive the pyramids must have looked in their time.

Our tour group trekked around the Bent Pyramid, accompanied by soldiers on camels. I got my picture taken with a soldier. He let me borrow his hat, but not his machine gun (just to hold!). I asked.

Next: Down South to Nubia and that Darn Aswan Dam. Also, Rescuing the Temples of Ramses and Nefretari from the Nile waters.


Monday, February 9, 2009


Tuesday, January 20th, Inauguration Day in the U.S., we finally met our tour guide, Matt Curran and the other 33 people on the tour. Matt, from Rhode Island, is a friend of our Spain tour guide, Joe Periera, from nearby Fall River, Massachusetts, which, incidentally was the home of the infamous Lizzie Borden. Joe had recommended Matt to us when we were in Spain over a year ago. We weren't disappointed. He is a genial young man (at least young to most of the people on the tour), who was on his 60th trip to Egypt. He is quite knowledgable of local customs and he answered all our questions.

Our fellow travelers are not the sort of people who are content to spend a vacation on the beach. They arrived eager to see and learn as much as possible, and many wrote their impressions of the sights in their notebooks and diaries. Dianne and I were the only Illinois people on the tour. On the first day, I wore my Illini sweatshirt, because if I take my picture in an exotic locale with Illinois regalia, the alumni magazine will print it.

Our tour was accompanied by a licensed Egyptologist, a middle aged lady named Mona who explained much about the Egyptian people and customs. For example, most Egyptian women dress modestly with their hair covered--even non-religious women.

After the introductory lecture, we hopped the tour bus for a short trip down the road to the Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu). It's a block or two from our hotel. As one can imagine, it's quite impressive, with over 2 million granite blocks, each weighing several tons. The area of the base covers 13 acres. The blocks were cut in the quarries near Aswan, 600 miles away and floated down the Nile during flood season to install on the site. This pyramid was the tallest building in the world until the 525 foot spire of Lincoln Cathedral in England was built in 1300. That height is considered by historians to be doubtful, but in any event, it blew down in a storm in 1549. So if you don't count that, the pyramid was finally surpassed by the Eiffel Tower in Paris in the mid 19th century. It is about 455 feet high today, although it was about 481 feet high originally. The polished facing stones fell off during various earthquakes, and many were used to build mosques in Cairo. You can even climb up on the pyramid, but it's a long way to the top.

The Great Pyramid has certain features which are not present in the other pyramids in Egypt such as ascending and descending passages, and the great chamber. There are hardly any inscriptions inside the pyramid (we didn't go inside), and many speculate that the ones relating to Cheops were added by him to a pyramid that long pre-dated him.

Some theories hold that the structure was actually built by aliens, and I agree. Joseph and his people in biblical times crossed over the border from Israel during a famine, to get the good construction jobs on the pyramids. Whether they were considered illegal aliens is open to question. Modern historians believe that armies of skilled workers rather than slaves actually built the pyramids, and excavations nearby appear to support that explanation.

Seriously, though, the Great Pyramid is of superior construction, compared to the other 103 or so pyramids in Egypt, and nobody is buried in it. The so-called ventilation shafts are aligned with certain stars as they appeared almost 10,000 years ago. The North Star in early Pharaonic times was not Polaris, but rather, Thuban, in the constellation Draco, and alignment to that star is correct. The ancients had superior mathematical knowledge which was lost for thousands of years until relatively modern times. The mathematical alignments of the pyramid were remarkably accurate. So where did the ancients learn this stuff? Carbon dating does not work for dating pyramids because the stone is not organic.

Although this theory holds that the Great Pyramid pre-dated the Egyptian culture, conventional wisdom is that the first pyramids in Egypt, the Step Pyramid of Zoser, and the Bent Pyramid, were built by the great architect Imhotep in nearby Saqqara. Imhotep was an interesting historical figure; until fairly recently, we weren't sure he really existed. He was a commoner who, because of his many accomplishments, was enshrined as an Egyptian deity. He is considered the world's first named architect, as well as the first doctor, who identified and treated over 200 diseases. He was a high priest and chief minister to King Zoser, and he served under 3 other kings as well. He also found time to be a scribe and write poetry.

To the casual observer, it looked like he was learning by trial and error. One must wonder, where did he acquire his architecture experience, and who was his teacher? You could ask the same question about Bezalel in the Bible who was recommended by God to Moses to build the Tabernacle and Holy Ark when he was 13 years old. (see: Exodus 31:1-6, Sanhedrin 69b). Son, lemme see your resume. How many temples have you built? Oh, the big guy recommended you. OK. But I'm getting off the subject at hand.

There are two other large pyramids close by the Great Pyramid plus little makeshift pyramids for the queens. Archaeologists are uncovering a nearby graveyard for the workers.

On the back side of the Great Pyramid, archaeologists found a large wooden boat over 150 feet long, buried in rocks. They excavated it, restored it, and built a museum to house it. It was a solar boat (not solar powered) so the sun god could come back after traveling around the world each night.

After marveling at the magnificent solar boat, we drove up the hill to a small bazaar with many camels and their tenders. It was a great spot for a photo shoot, overlooking the 3 large pyramids, and we took a group photo. We rode camels down the hill and back up again. Camels are much bigger than horses, and you don't want to fall off. You hold on the saddle horn for dear life. It turns out to be easier to ride a camel than a horse because your legs don't have to be bent unnaturally to keep your feet in the stirrups.

On this West side of the Nile, the land is absolutely barren. This is the Sahara (which means "desert" in Arabic). Thus if you say "Sahara Desert" it's redundant. There's nothing except sand and rocks. Nothing grows here, not even desert plants. Now, I've been several times to Death Valley in California, about as hot and barren a place as one can imagine, and even there, one can find desert plants. But not here.

From there, it was a short drive, a mile or so, to the Sphinx. The Sphinx is a lion's body with the head of a man. Once again, it's not clear when it was actually built, and multiple theories abound as to what it actually represents. Some scholars believe that it was originally carved as a lion, and the Pharaoh's head was fashioned thousands of years later. A thousand years ago, the Sphinx was completely buried in the sand except for the head. The Mamlukes who ruled Egypt at the time used the Sphinx head for target practice. Religious fanatics tried to destroy it by hacking away at the head. fortunately, they didn't have the means or technology to completely destroy it. People didn't have the same reverence for history until modern times.

Today, the Sphinx is located on the edge of town, across from a KFC and Pizza Hut, about 200 yards away. A rundown hotel called the Sphinx House is next door to the fast food restaurants. The Hard Rock Cafe is down the street. In the U.S., they protest a new WalMart a mile away from Gettysburg Battlefield--in Egypt the authorities and people don't have the same qualms.

Walking around the Sphinx, and every other tourist attraction, you're accosted by street vendors selling doodads. Even little kids are peddling bookmarks and stuff. You can't ignore these people, as they get in your face. Despite all that, street crime is very low in Egypt. That may be due to heavy security to protect the tourist industry.

The Egyptian government really stepped up the security after a 1997 terrorist attack near Luxor where 58 foreign (mostly German) tourists and 4 Egyptians were murdered by Islamic extremists, presumably in an attempt to de-stablize the pro-Western government of President Mubarak. Now, one sees tourist police, antiquities police and assorted security of all types as well as metal detectors. The police carry automatic weapons. Even our tour bus requires an armed guard. I was told that security is a government program that puts a lot of people to work. The Egyptian government can't make it on its own economically, and the U.S. pays substantial foreign aid which subsidizes many of these programs.

Americans are well liked in Egypt. Ordinary Egyptians, learning that we are Americans, exclaim, "Ah-med-ee-cahn, Barack Obama!" President Obama is very popular in Egypt, at least for now.

We finished our tour for the day and obamulated up to the hotel lounge to watch the Inauguration on CNN with others on our tour who were fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. For example, we met Barbara and Toby from Long Island on the tour, two Jewish grandmothers who were the political odd couple. Traveling together and sharing a room, Toby is a liberal Democrat who showed tears of emotion watching the Inauguration, and Barbara, a conservative Republican. We spent a lot of quality time with these wonderful ladies on the trip, discussing the issues of the day. Fortunately, we were all on the same page to experience as much as possible and political differences were set aside.

Next: Walkin' in Memphis, looking for the King, and we even found him!
Also: Don't mess with Mohammed Ali!


Saturday, February 7, 2009


It was a sunny and mild January 18th, 2009 when we arrived at the airport in Cairo, Egypt after a 3 1/2 hour flight from Frankfurt, Germany on a cramped Lufthansa flight. The weather was a pleasant respite from the frigid Chicago winter where a day earlier it was -20F.

We made our meandering way through the somewhat decaying airport and were fortunate enough to spot our Tauck Tours representative who, among many others, was holding up a sign. Our guide, Ahmed greased our way through customs, and we followed him outside to a waiting van for the long ride to our hotel.

We noted that, although the airport is rundown, the government is building new roads and terminals to modernize it. The Egyptians are known for their architecture, but most of it is over 3,000 years old and still standing. On our one hour drive to the hotel, we traveled on a new highway which was in the process of being landscaped. Because of Egypt's rapidly growing population, numerous apartment complexes are being built. Much is misleading, because most buildings appear to be in a state of incompletion with loose construction rods sticking out of their top floors. We noticed this all over Egypt. We learned that many families build houses, leaving the top floors under construction until their families expand or they raise more money to finish them. We were told an unfinished building is subject to little or no taxes, so they're not in a hurry to finish them.

Cairo is a huge city of 20 million, located next to the Nile River. Adjacent to Cairo is Giza, a suburb I guess, although a pretty large city itself. I expected the Nile to be much wider, like the Mississippi river. And it used to be, during flood season. There hasn't been a flood since the Aswan Dam was built in the 1960's.

Driving through Cairo, we found that Egypt's drivers pay little heed to striped lanes. A 4 lane road becomes 6 lanes of traffic. In addition, the well worn cars in traffic compete with pedestrians, camels and donkeys on the teeming streets. Most of the cars are tinny models, made in Egypt. Foreign cars are subject to 100%tariffs, so a Chevrolet can cost $100,000.

Cars are seen traveling the wrong way against traffic. Horns are honking. Donkeys pull carts piled high with carrots and oranges. Most of the people on the street smoke. Many of the stands display cartons of Camels or Winstons. A pall of air pollution hangs over the city. The main street through Giza is divided by an irrigation canal running down the median. Into that canal, many people dump their trash, even when trash containers are close by. We even saw a dead horse lying in the canal. Our guide told us not to buy vegetables on the street, which were probably irrigated by that canal.

The only war we saw in Egypt was the cola war between Coke and Pepsi. On virtually every bodega was a Coke or Pepsi sign.

The Egyptian people are relatively well educated for a Third World country. The children attend public school, but the graduates are trained for bureaucratic jobs assuming they can find them. They often have to wait several years to find jobs. The elite send their kids to relatively expensive private schools so they can qualify for better jobs in the private sector and for multi-national companies.

We finally arrived at the Oberoi Mena Hotel, which is an oasis in a dusty city. This world famous hotel was originally built as a hunting lodge for Khadive (King) Ismail in the 1860's, in the shadow of the Great Pyramid, which is right down the street. The movie, "Valley of the Kings" was made here, starring Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker. Although not related or married to Robert, Elizabeth Taylor stayed there also. During World War II, Churchill and Roosevelt stayed there. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed at the hotel.

The hotel was named after the first Pharaoh, Mena. Travel and Leisure Magazine lists the hotel as one of the 500 best hotels worldwide. It is even listed in the book 1000 Places to See Before You Die. It is gated and surrounded by a wall to keep out the persistent street hawkers and cab drivers. Security is high. To get inside the hotel, you must pass through a metal detector, manned by armed guards.

After a well deserved rest, the next morning we explored the hotel and had lunch outdoors by the pool. Trying the Egyptian food, I have the tasty lamb shawerma, which is rolled bread with ground lamb and vagetables--comparable to a burrito. The Egyptian lentil soup resembled split pea soup and was very good.

After lunch, we ventured out of the hotel grounds into the crowded streets. We were instantly accosted by cab drivers and shopkeepers. Although we were not in danger and not assaulted, we couldn't escape the persistent peddlers. One driver, Ashraf, offered to take us around the city for $5 per hour in his beat up taxi. He promised to show us the papyrus museum, perfume museum and cotton museum. After some negotiation, we finally agreed.

We came to find out the "museums" are not really museums, but are shops to sell you something. We saw about 20 papyrus museums, while driving around Giza. Presumably, Ashraf and the other cabdrivers get commissions from the "museums" if the tourists buy things. We, of course, didn't know that when we accepted the ride, but we enjoyed the experience anyway.

At the papyrus museum, the owner demonstrated how to make paper from a papyrus plant, the cross section of which is shaped like a pyramid. She squeezes the water from the stalks, flattens it, and dries it for several days. Then the artist paints the famous Eqyptian scenes on the resulting paper. We bought a beautiful water color painting for about $100 plus another $25 to ship to the U.S. by FedEx. The original quoted price was about $500. After we saw the stuff the street hawkers were selling, we believe we got a good deal on this painting, and now that we have it, we're very happy with it.

We then went to a perfume factory where the various perfume essences like lotus and jasmine were trotted out for us to sniff. They rub the stuff on your hand and proceed with the sales pitch. Dianne likes Shalimar and won't buy anything else. We ended up buying 3 unique perfume bottles for 50 L.E. (Egyptian pounds--about $9 U.S.) Our hosts brought us tea (Lipton) which we were obliged to drink, as it would be considered rude to refuse.

The cotton factory was just a clothing store, and we quickly left and asked Ashraf to take us back to the hotel, which he did. The Egyptian people we met were very friendly and gracious. Obviously they want our money because unemployment and poverty are prevalent. Tourism is the major industry in Egypt. Some of the street vendors appeared desperate to make sales. Overall, we found the people to be honest, and even apparently happy, despite their obvious poverty.

As I mentioned earlier, driving is an adventure in Egypt. Just driving a mile or so, we narrowly avoided accidents on several occasions and almost hit several pedestrians. There aren't a lot of personal injury lawyers in Egypt, and accident damages are typically resolved between the people's tribal leaders.

We went to the golf course across the street from the hotel but decided not to play. The Great Pyramid looms up right behind the golf course, but at least, it's not behind a WalMart or a McDonalds. The Sphinx is a different story as I'll explain in a later installment.

Several times a day, we heard the loud cacophonous sounds of the muezzins call to prayer in a Muslim country. These consisted of horns blaring and loud music. Although some people do go to the mosques at that time, I had expected that the people would be streaming, like lemmings toward the mosques. But no, the city did not shut down for every prayer session, and people went about their own business.

At dinner, in the hotel, I feasted on sea bass tegen, which is a fish stew with ginger and tomato base. When in Egypt, I not only walk like an Egyptian, but I also eat like one.

Next: the Great Pyramid: Built by Aliens?