Off the Deep End, Part 14

12 Feb

By Eric Shipley

Before I get to the Karnak Temple, I want to comment on recent events in Egypt. I’m hardly an expert in Middle Eastern politics, but as I wrote in an earlier blog, the abject poverty we saw in Egypt was stunning, both in extent and severity. It was all the more shocking when compared to the obscene opulence and luxury of Hosni Mubarak’s sprawling compound. I remember thinking that it was a revolution waiting to happen. It appears to have stopped waiting. I’m not going to delve into political commentary, but I will say that for me, the seminal moment of this movement was when I saw news footage of protesters forming a human cordon to protect the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities from looters—a courageous and noble act by true patriots.

Now, on to the Karnak Temple. (And no, it has nothing to do with Johnny Carson’s prognosticator.) Karnak lies on the Nile River about 1.5 miles North of the Luxor Temple. The two complexes were once connected by the Avenue of the Sphinxes. Karnak, however, is much larger—in fact, it is the world’s largest ancient religious site covering 247 acres. It comprises a vast array of temples, chapels, pylons, and other buildings and is second only to the pyramids for being the most visited site in Egypt. It also holds the record for being developed and used for the longest period of time, from the Middle Kingdom (approximately 2055 BC) to the Roman conquest in 30 BC.

Unlike our visit to the Luxor Temple, we decided to do a guided tour of Karnak. In fact, it was a sound and light show that was well worth the money. The site is much too large to navigate and take in without guidance. The show/tour began around twilight and started with the approach to complex, which is the Avenue of the Sphinxes. This leads to the actual entrance, a massive pylon much like Luxor (but without any obelisks). The scale of Karnak is also much like Luxor—massive walls and papyrus columns towered over us at every turn. Once night had fallen, the show used strategically placed spotlights combined with music and a booming narration that covered the history of Karnak. The surrounding darkness and echoes combined with the looming architecture and the interplay of light and shadow really was quite impressive, a delightful conclusion to the day.

Next: The end of the trip—the the Sphinx and the Pyramids!

Off the Deep End, Part 13

29 Dec

By Eric Shipley

The city Luxor lies in an area that was first inhabited as early as 3200 BC. It is on the site of the ancient city Thebes, which was the capital of ancient Egypt from 2055 to 1000 BC, and it contains the Luxor and Karnak temples.

On our first day of sightseeing, we focused on the Luxor temple, which was founded by the pharaoh Amenhotep III around 1400 BC and was later completed by Ramses II. Like almost everything we saw in Egypt, it was incredible. Leading up to the entrance is a processional way, known as the Avenue of the Sphinxes, that once stretched to the Karnak temple a mile away and is lined with miniature sphinx statues. The front part, including the temple entrance, was built by Ramses II and comprises a wide, thick pylon that towers 75 feet into the air. Originally, there were six massive statues of Ramses II arranged evenly in front of the pylon on either side of the entryway, but only two statues survive. They are seated but still look to be at least 30 feet high. Also, a pair of red granite obelisks (about 78 feet tall) inscribed with the story of the battle of Kadesh (where the Egyptians under Ramses II defeated the Hittites in 1274 BC) once flanked the entrance. Today, only one remains. The other was given to France in 1829 as a gift.

Just inside, we found the Abu Haggag mosque, which dates back to the 13th century. I was distressed to see it sticking out like a sore thumb among the ancient ruins, but it was built before most of the temple was unearthed, and the locals were adamant about not tearing it down when the Luxor temple was discovered underneath.

Beyond this is a processional colonnade (built by Amenhotep III) lined by massive columns carved to look like Papyrus stalks. This leads to a courtyard (also built by Amenhotep) surrounded by more huge columns—they looked to be 40 to 50 feet tall and at least 5 feet in diameter. (Amenhotep apparently had a thing for columns.) It was all very impressive. Not just because of the size of the columns, but also because they’re amazingly sculpted—there are dozens of them and they are all detailed and proportioned exactly the same. Standing among them makes a person feel insignificant, which may have been the intention.

I also remember seeing yet another statue of Ramses (What an ego!) as well as statues of Tut and his sister/wife Mut. And as you’d expect, there were hieroglyphs everywhere, some of them with remnants of color. In fact, we saw traces of color elsewhere too, but mostly it has been worn away by time and the elements. It’s interesting to see pictorial (theoretical) reconstructions of these ruins. They’re thought to have been very colorful.

One of the last things we did at the temple was take pictures of the Avenue of Sphinxes. At what is now the end of the avenue, is a raised area where an armed guard sat. He appeared to be ignoring us, but he gestured for Charlotte to come up and take pictures from his platform. I was a little uneasy about the guy with the machine gun taking an interest in my wife, but it was clearly safe, and the vantage point from the platform was great. So she got some excellent pictures. And we discovered that even the police expect tips. Sheesh! (Or rather, Bakseeskh.)

Still it was an amazing day, and we went back to the hotel with our appetites whetted to see Karnak.

Next: The Karnak temple and sound and light show

The Obelisk

Statues of Ramses II

Avenue of the Sphinxes

Tut and Mut

Amenhotep's courtyard

Off the Deep End, Part 12

5 Nov

By Eric Shipley

Luxor is in Southern Egypt (also known as Upper Egypt because it is higher in elevation than Northern Egypt) on the site where the Ancient Egyptian city Thebes once stood. It is a remarkable place—it encompasses the ancient temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor and lies on the banks of the Nile River across from the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens (where many of the royal tombs of Ancient Egypt were located, including King Tut’s).

It was indeed fascinating, but have I mentioned that it was hot? I misspoke. Imagine the inside of one of those clay ovens that reaches 450 degrees. “But isn’t it dry heat?” you ask. Yep, it sure was. And it didn’t help in the least. The heat was worse than when I visited Southern Mexico (the Yucatan peninsula) in late June when I was in high school.

Okay, so I’ve established the heat situation, which explains why we were profoundly grateful to get to our Hotel, the Old Winter Palace. Built in 1886 by the British during their occupation of Egypt, it was the first five-star hotel we’d ever stayed in. Both the service and décor were remarkable. Over the years, as we found out, it has hosted many notable guests, including Egypt’s King Farouk who used it as his Winter residence. (This is the same King Farouk who was overthrown and exiled in the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.) The Old Winter Palace was also where Lord Carnarvon (The English aristocrat who funded the search for King Tut’s tomb) was the first to receive the stunning news that the tomb had been discovered intact.

Our room was spacious and elegant and had a private balcony that looked over a beautiful garden. And, vitally important to us, it had air conditioning! We arrived at about 7 a.m., exhausted from our not-terribly-restful train trip, so we checked in and took a nap before starting what would be an incredible day of sightseeing.

Next: The Luxor and Karnak temples

Lobby of the Old Winter Palace.

Rear courtyard of the Old Winter Palace.

Hotel staff member in front of Old Winter Palace.

Off the Deep End, Part 11

17 Oct

By Eric Shipley

Getting to the ancient temples of Luxor and Karnak involved a trip on a sleeper train, something I doubt most people my age have experienced.

Another hair raisingly fast, but otherwise uneventful, cab ride landed us at Cairo’s Ramses Train Station. (Yes, that really is the name of the station.) And, as Lee warned us, we were immediately assailed by Egyptians wanting to “help.” Of course, what they really wanted was “baksheesh,” which is Arabic for “tip” or “bribe,” and they were persistent to the point of being pushy and annoying. It was mitigated somewhat, though, by the fact that they actually did help with our luggage and told us when and where to pick up our train. I even got to practice a little German with a multilingual Egyptian named Hosam, a pleasant fellow despite being a blatant scam artist.

The highlight of our wait was meeting a couple from New Zealand, Nick and Amy. Nick came up to me and asked, with trepidation, if I spoke English. I have never been happier to respond in the affirmative. After spending so much time trying to communicate with people who speak little or no English, conversing with another native English speaker was wonderful.

We watched the trains come and go, hoping desperately that ours would be one of the newer, cleaner ones. We saw several that had to have dated back to the Sixties (or earlier), and they were packed with Egyptians—people were sitting on the roofs and hanging out of windows and doors. Ours, when it finally pulled in, did look newer, and it appeared to be reasonably clean and in good repair. It also was clearly for tourists only, which made us feel a bit guilty, like we were promoting some kind of segregation policy.

A porter in a company uniform showed us to our cabin, and we foolishly thought he wouldn’t ask for a tip since he was an employee of the train line. Ha! He even pointed to the bill he wanted. It was only 10 LE (about $1.50 US), so we didn’t balk, but the constant demands for baksheesh were wearing thin.

Our cabin was clean, if austere, and fairly comfortable. There were two narrow bunk beds, both folded into the wall so that the lower one formed a couch. There was also a sink and a small closet, and we had a large window. We were trying to figure out how to lower the beds when there was a knock on the door. To our delight, we found that Amy and Nick were in the cabin next to ours. And they introduced us to another couple, Karen from England and Tim from Australia, who were one cabin further down. We spent a few thoroughly enjoyable hours hanging out in the narrow hall outside our rooms chatting and swapping stories about travel experiences. For something so seemingly mundane, it turned out to be one of the the most memorable parts of the trip.

Too soon the porter came and shooed us back into our rooms to feed us a dinner of some mystery meat, bread, an unidentifiable side dish, and a fresh orange (which turned out to be the best part of the meal). When we were done, the porter took our dishes and lowered the beds using a removable crank device he had with him. (Ah, so that’s how it’s done.) We were exhausted, so we got ready for bed and tried to catch some sleep. Not as easy as it might sound. The bunks weren’t particularly comfortable, and the motion and noise tended to keep us awake. Sometimes, the train would lean so far to one side that the blinds would dangle several inches from the window. And to make matters worse, it periodically slowed down or stopped, conjuring fears of attack—terrorist activity was more prevalent in the South where we were headed. But looking out, all we saw was desert and the occasional crumbling, dilapidated town.

Mercifully, morning came soon enough. We got cleaned up as best we could, and the porter came by with a breakfast as uninspiring as dinner had been the previous night. Afterwards, we finished packing and watched the scenery until the train pulled into the station. We said our goodbyes to our new friends and stepped off. We had made it. The ancient Egyptian city of Luxor lay before us.

Next: Luxor and Karnak

Off the Deep End, Part 10

5 Oct

By Eric Shipley

The next leg of our Egyptian adventure took us to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. After a cab ride that I’m pretty sure took five years off my life, we came to the high fence surrounding the museum, which is an imposing red brick building that looked to me to have a sort of neoclassical design. And it was fortunate that it was interesting to look at, because we had to navigate multiple layers of security, buy tickets, and stand in line before we actually got inside. I can’t really complain, though. The museum’s collection is fantastic, well worth the wait. And if I were in charge of it, I would probably be even more protective.

A major drawback to the exhibits is that many don’t have labels or signage with explanations. And of the ones that do, the language is often only Arabic. But that doesn’t detract from the awestruck sensation of seeing, and sometimes touching, art, and sculpture, and artifacts as much as 5,000 years old. One thing that was both a disappointment and an annoyance was that shortly after getting inside I saw a sign for the Rosetta Stone with an arrow pointing up a flight of stairs. Having an interest in language, this was something I really wanted to see, so we (Rob and Laura were with Charlotte and me) agreed on a meeting time and spot and I took off. Half an hour later, I’d gotten to see many fascinating things, none of which were the Rosetta Stone. It was then, after I happened to meet up with Rob, that he informed me it is resting comfortably in the British Museum in London. And as I recently discovered on Wikipedia, it has been there since 1802, which leads me to believe the sign maker for the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is either an idiot or has a seriously twisted sense of humor.

After this small mishap, we got back together and agreed, given the size of the museum, that we needed to decide on a few things we really wanted to see. The choices were the royal mummies and King Tut’s treasures. (I actually had seen the treasures before in 1977 when they were on loan to the Field Museum in Chicago, but I was anxious to refresh my memory.)

We had to buy tickets (70 pounds, about $11 USD) to see the mummies, and it wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. There was almost no information about them other than their names. I did find it interesting to see the mummy of Ramesses II, though. I had read about him—he’s generally considered the greatest of all Egypt’s pharaohs—so getting to meet face-to-face was cool (albeit one-sided).

Finally, we got to the treasures of Tutankhamen, the pharaoh who ruled Egypt for only ten years (1333-1323 BC) but is the most famous in modern times because his tomb is the only one unearthed with all of its treasures intact. All I can say is that seeing these treasures in person is an incredible experience. The sheer beauty is overwhelming. I’ve often wondered how Howard Carter (the British Egyptologist who discovered Tut’s tomb) felt when he first saw them in 1922. The detail and craftsmanship is astoundingly intricate, which is even more impressive given that the artists and artisans were working with primitive bronze tools. Photos do not do justice. You have to actually see the perfect smoothness of the gold leaf that is the skin of Tut’s death mask to appreciate it. And photos don’t show details like the delicate, alternating pattern of papyrus and lotus flowers on the feet of Tut’s inner sarcophagus. (There are three, nested inside each other.) One thing that was particularly memorable for me, though, was looking up into the interior of the death mask. There is something indescribable about seeing the inner structure, the part that isn’t supposed to be seen that rested against the face of the young pharaoh (he was only 19 when he died). Perhaps looking at the mask from that perspective connected me in a personal way, but whatever the explanation, seeing Tut’s treasures in person was a remarkable experience.

I remember thinking at the time that the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities was the high point of the trip. But there was so much more to come…

Next: Luxor and Karnak

Off the Deep End, Part 9

19 Sep

By Eric Shipley

After the Hanging Church, we piled into the magic bus and headed off to the Citadel, a 12th Century fortress located on a high limestone outcropping near the heart of Cairo. Before we could get in, though, we went through the most rigorous security check we’d encountered so far in Egypt. All bags were searched, and the men (not the women) were patted down. And both police and military guards were in abundance, all toting AK-47s.

I read that the elevation of the Citadel has always provided an excellent view and cool breezes, but I can attest only to the view. Despite the thick, smoggy haze we could see the pyramids in the distance. As to the cool breezes, though, I don’t recall feeling anything that would qualify as a cool breeze (at least in daytime) while we were in Egypt. Anyway, thanks to its location, the Citadel began in 810 AD as a simple recreational pavilion. It wasn’t until 1176 that is was fortified under the direction of Saladin (the Kurdish Sultan who united and led the Muslims against the European crusaders in the twelfth century AD). The walls of the fortress are an impressive 30 feet high and 10 feet wide and are punctuated by round towers that protrude outward. This allowed defenders to direct fire at the sides of attackers.

Unfortunately, all we saw of the original Citadel were parts of the walls. The fortress has been torn down and rebuilt several times over the years, most recently by Muhammad Ali (no, no relation to the boxer) in the early 1800s. He also built the Muhammed Ali Mosque on the grounds of the Citadel. This was the first mosque Charlotte and I had ever visited, so it was quite interesting. From the outside, the most notable features are the towering twin minarets and the huge dome. There is a large, ornate fountain in the courtyard that is specifically for worshippers to wash their feet. Not being Muslim, we didn’t do so, but we did take off our shoes, as required, before going in. The interior is expansive and richly decorated, although I found it to be overly ornate. There is a high, freestanding alter reached by a flight of steps, but other than that, the inside is open, presumably to accommodate worshippers.

After the mosque, we ate a late, and thoroughly underwhelming, lunch there at the Citadel. The mediocre meal was, however, made more interesting by an unexpected guest. A rough looking tomcat (orange tabby) joined us and flopped down a few feet from the table to watch us eat. Being an animal lover, the thought of petting him passed through my mind. The thought kept going, though. He was anything but cuddly (and there was little doubt that he hadn’t gotten a rabies vaccination). Interestingly, our dinner guest didn’t beg for food. In fact, he wandered off before we finished.

Thus concluded our first day of sightseeing in Egypt. It was exhausting and fascinating, but I found myself getting impatient to see some of the really ancient stuff.

Next: The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities

The Citadel

Foot-washing station.

The Citadel.

Our lunch guest.

The mosque altar.

The mosque dome from inside.

Off the Deep End, Part 8

23 Aug

By Eric Shipley

The next stop on our tour of Coptic Cairo was the Hanging Church. Also known as Saint Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, this is one of Egypt’s oldest churches, thought to have been built in the seventh century AD (although it has been rebuilt several times).

The nickname “Hanging Church” has nothing to do with hangings (which is the first thing that popped into my perverse mind when I heard the name). Rather, it comes from the fact that the church does not actually have a foundation. It is built over the gate of an ancient Roman fortress, called the Babylon Fortress, and is supported by massive, upright palm trunks embedded in the sand far below.

The exterior is white (I’m guessing sandstone or adobe) and is topped by twin bell towers. We approached the main entrance by a long stairway that leads to three intricately carved wooden doors. Inside is a high barrel vaulted roof and some amazing artwork. The stone and wood carvings are exquisite and include an 11th century marble pulpit and many examples of amazing inlaid woodwork. There are also a number of impressive paintings, one of which, known commonly as the Mona Lisa of Egypt, depicts Mary with the infant Jesus. We were in awe of the skill and craftsmanship of the anonymous artists and artisans that did such magnificent work.

One non-artistic sight that I found impressive, though, was a small plexiglass window in the floor that afforded a view under the church. We could see the palm logs that provide support and the sand they rest in some forty feet below (if I recall correctly). It’s an impressive feat of engineering—there never was any indication of instability.

Next: The Citadel

Hanging Church exterior.

Hanging Church interior.

Hanging Church 'Mona Lisa.'

Hanging Church pulpit.

Hanging Church woodwork.