TEMPLED OUT

This morning saw the end of temple visits, and none too soon! At some point during the numerous dynasties (31, by last count), there must have been one of those corruption guys bribing those in power to allow all the temple building to occur, sort of like Boss Tweed in NYC or Pendergast in KC. We only actually visited six, but others were pointed out at each turn of the head. And I learned a lot—for instance, the many figures and hieroglyphs on the walls often tell a story, with sequential panels just like the Peanuts or Beetle Bailey comic strips. There was even one humorous one, alleged to be the first joke, about a donkey complaining about having had to transport the wife of the King of Punt (not Ray Guy, but the ancient name for Somalia), an obese example of too much of the good life.

The main venue of the morning was a visit to the Valley of the Kings, the most barren, desolate looking place one could imagine. I was told that the reason it was chosen is that at the head of the valley is a pyramid shaped mountain, an important factor in the location. In the Old Kingdom, the pyramid shape was chosen because the rays of the sun god Ra formed a pyramid shape when they came from the sun, and the stairstep sides could be used to ascend to Ra; the Middle Kingdom saw more pyramids but smaller, due to the economy (sound familiar? Their own building crisis?). At the same time, pyramids made it easy for tomb raiders to locate goodies. So, later leaders thought that the Valley of the Kings is a great location, it retains the Ra-pyramid connection but the tombs are well-hidden—or at least they were. It is also so dry that mummies are easily retained, and the sides of the valley block out unfavorable winds.

Another interesting thing is that as soon as a new Pharoah takes office, they start building a tomb; sort of like the figurative image of Karl Rove after Obama’s election. Many of them are unfinished due to the prospective resident dying early, or at least before his or hers was completed. I went into three of the Ramses’ set, Ramses 3,4, and 9. Ramses #2 was shut down for repairs. It was recommended by my guide to skip the King Tut tomb; he said there is not much to see there other than an empty room. The others were fraught with a plethora (like those two words?) of pictures of gods and kings doing good and bad things; hieroglyphics telling one story after another, and many in vivid colors of blue, green, red, and yellow from malachite and ochre.

My first stop on the tour was Aswan, my air destination an hour or so out of Cairo. What a pleasure! I was met at the airport by a representative of the Gezira Travel Agency, who whisked me the 25K into town along a beautiful, wide parkway which at one point crossed the old dam and then snaked our way down a well-landscaped winding one-way boulevard to my five star hotel. I couldn’t see much as it was almost midnight, but got a sense that things were going to be much different from Cairo. And I was correct; the morning revealed pastel views of a placid Nile, a few feluccas raising their sails and gliding here and there below sand and rock-covered hills behind the river’s green swath. Traffic? No traffic, if one considers something that would be normal in the US, not during rush hours. I actually saw people being courteous, and there was at least one traffic signal.

My contact took me to the tour boat at noon, and I settled into my cabin after meeting the tour guide, my partner for the next four days. I had thought I would be part of a tour group; as it turns out, tourism is sadly way down on the list of activities that people seek in Egypt, due to the revolution, and very few people are coming here. As tourism is the country’s major source of revenue, that’s a real problem. There was an extended family group from France, about a dozen, as the only other residents on the boat. We chatted occasionally,  generally around or in the swimming pool on the promenade deck, in the shade during tea time, or watching activities of the boat such as going through the two sets of locks on the river. The river, by the way, is not very deep, usually around 20-30 feet.

The boat remained at its mooring until the next day; in the interim my private guide took me to the High Dam at Aswan, from which we had a good view of Lake Nasser, a 350 mile-long body extending south into Sudan, and then a short trip by motor launch to the Philae Temple on an island below the dam. After resting for a few hours, we took another boat trip to a Nubian village almost hidden away among a host of small islands and rocky outcrops below the First Cataract, a former waterfall before the High Dam was built. All of these were quite relaxing, albeit hot! I always had my trusty backpack with water, and tried to consume some every hour or so.

From my brief acquaintance with Aswan, I recommend it as a vacation destination during a cooler season—there’s plenty to see, at a leisurely pace. I asked to visit the Coptic Christian Cathedral, a beautiful modern structure looming over one section of the city, and easily a landmark visible from the river. I did not, however, visit the local McDonald’s, although I didn’t see the usual large arches anywhere around the circular building where it is located.

The boat itself is somewhat elderly compared to some of its brethren, but comfortable. Meals were good, each lunch and breakfast beginning with excellent varieties of soup, breads, cheeses, and meat slices. Normally, meals would be buffet style, but the small number of passengers made it more efficient to have a single menu item. Last night was shish kebab, lunch today was spaghetti. I’m writing this in the forward video conference room, an air-conditioned area next to a forward lounge. The boat is air conditioned throughout, although most areas have heavy doses of tobacco smoke—many men smoke, but fu Manchu (I finally found a use for that phrase!).

We finally weighed anchor, or whatever to heck they do with these tour boats, and headed downstream toward our final port, Luxor, where I would see the Temple at Karnak, the Temple at Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, and the Temple of Hapshepsut. Along the way, we stopped at two other locations, to see more temples, I’m “templed out”. At all of these, there were stairs, and not just stairs, but STAIRS! This country must be the Stair Capital of the World. My legs are not what they used to be, which may or may not be a good thing, but my slow ascents were not from being short of breath. And then there are the flies—all the while that I was keeping a lookout for a West Nile mosquito, even on the East Bank, these flies were smacking their lips in anticipation of an American meal.  I learned why folks cover up their bodies, even in the heat, and I began wearing long pants everywhere.

I won’t go on and on about this, preferring to tell and bore folks in person, but it was great! One other good thing, I did not die in traffic in Cairo, an event which was not on my “Bucket List”, but which appeared likely each time we took to the streets. The Valley of the Kings, and the pyramids, temples, and associated antiquities have been on my list since high school, but my father wouldn’t let me start a major in archaeology when I began college. And Monday, it’s on to Stonehenge, another pebble to put in my bucket.

Always Be Happy                 To Our Youth Everyday!

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