Down the Nile, pharaoh style

Fri, 19 Apr 2002 12:43:37 +0900

When I last reported in, I was headed out to catch a train to Aswan. I did get there. It's an 11 hour ride in a seated compartment but still reasonable comfortable.

From Aswan, the #1 attraction is Abu Simbel. If you have ever seen footage of a collection of giant statues being cut up and moved, that was Abu Simbel. Presently it sits near the shore of Lake Nasser, a stone's throw from the Sudan border. The nearest real town in Aswan, 280K to the North. The usual way you see Abu Simbel is via a very long day trip from Aswan. However, there is another way. A small town has grown up around the monument and there are now a handful of hotels. Unfortunately, only a couple have been around long enough to gain mention in any guide book and they are expensive. So, I opted for a day trip combining Abu Simbel with Philae.

The tour bus left Aswan a 4:00am. Tourist can only travel via convoy so every tour was part of the convoy. When we reached the monument, 3 hours later, the result was predictable. We had 1 hour and it was a zoo the whole time. The monument, itself, was fabulous, but I think it would have been a much better experience without the grand central station effect. Staying over should have worked quite well. All the tours arrive at the same time and they all leave at the same time. So, if you can go the temple before the tours arrive or after they leave, it should be deserted, which, IMHO, is absolutely the best way to see an ancient monument.

The Temple of Isis at Philae was the second part, taking place in the afternoon after our return to Aswan. It is another relocated temple. It now sits on an island in Lake Nasser. The water is wonderful backdrop, even if it is rather different from what the builders intended. Again, we had one hour. Still a zoo, though not as bad as Abu Simbel.

The following day, I joined up with a group of French travelers on a "taxi tour" of the little visited temple of Kalabsha. It is also a re-located antiquity. Not as impressive visually as Philae or Abu Simbel but having only about a dozen people on the whole island made it all worth while.

With the sights of Aswan finished, the next step was to travel down river to Luxor. Now one could take a train or bus, but what would be the fun in that? Many take a Nile Cruiser. The cheaper, and IMHO, better option is a falucca. That is, a traditional sail boat. I did a 2 day trip with 6 others. (We actually had 9 for the first day). I thought I would be bored stiff, but it is actually rather nice sailing down the river. The normally high temperatures are subdued by the cool water of the Nile. Along the way we visited the temple of Komo Omo. (Nice, though not spectacular by Egyptian standards). We finished just short of Edfu where we stopped to visit the temple of Horus at Edfu. This is another well preserved temple from the Ptolemic era. (It's not even 3000 years old!) After that, it was back into the convoy to Luxor. Well, almost. There was an absurd rest stop which had the most expensive munchies and drinks I've seen in the entire continent of Africa. Can you say "kick back"? I knew you could.

We arrived in Luxor in the early afternoon. Because it was well reviewed and much of our group was staying there, I decided to check out a place called Happy Land. The prices in the guide book were on the high side for Luxor but I figured, what the heck, sometimes the books are not right. They were, I prepared to move on. Now, in Egypt, they seem to have trouble distinguishing "no" from "I want a better price". In the end, #25 became #18, and I ended up staying at Happy Land for the next 7 nights. All in all, it's a pretty nice place for $4/night. Luxor is cheap.

The rest of the afternoon, I spent at Luxor Temple. It's a very large and impressive temple with huge columns. Unfortunately, it is also right the in the middle of town so it tends to be crowded at all times.

The next day, I hiked up the road to the Temple of Karnak. If you have ever seen film footage of a temple with impossibly huge columns extending forever, you probably saw Karnak. Karnak does not disappoint. It does get crowded but, the thing is, it's so huge that the outer temples are little visited. Sure, you have to hike a little way across the dirt and it is not completely clear that tourists are allowed in, but it is worth it. Finding a clearing in the main halls is seriously hard. Large tour groups are a plague. They move into the most visually interesting areas and stay there, blocking the view for anyone else. Fortunately, they tend of vacate around lunch time or when it gets hot. But the interval of (relatively) emptiness is rather short. I stayed at the temple until nearly 6:00pm, about 30 minutes past the official closing time.

Next day was the Valley of the Kings. I took a taxi in morning, fully expecting to hike over the hill when I finished. Unfortunately, it was about 110 degrees that day so I ended up taking another taxi back. I wasn't really as impressed by the Valley of the Kings. Maybe I was still thinking in terms of the epic scale of Karnak and the tombs really can't deliver that. Maybe it my choice of tombs, though Rames III was supposed to be the best tomb presently open. Maybe it was the heat and crowding. (beginning to think that Egypt has too many tourists? So am I)

I did like the Valley of the Queens, however, which was the next day. The tombs are smaller but in far better condition with (apparently) better art work. Nefartari's tomb costs 100 Egyptian pounds ( ~ $22 ) but it really is the best tomb in the necropolis. The second day was done almost entirely on foot. I walked from the ferry to the ticket office and from there to the Valley of the Queens and the Ramseum. It was probably not the best of plans (again over 110 degrees) but my determination tends to grow when someone tells me I can't do something when I know that I can, especially when that someone really wants to rent me a taxi.

Ramseum is the mortuary temple of Ramses II. At one time, it rivaled Karnak and Abu Simbel. Unfortunately, Ramses or his architect, chose the site rather poorly. The area is subject to frequent flooding. As a result, the site is mostly rubble today. But it is interesting rubble and serves as an interesting contrast to the heavily re-constructed temples that I have mostly seen.

That day ended shortly after noon. I was just too hot to do any more.

Next day, was a walk on the daring side to the temples of Abydos and Dendara. These temples lie on the southern end of that infamous no-go zone known as Middle Egypt. Technically, both are still accessible via public transport. However, I was not crazy about trying it, traveling alone at least. So, I opted for a police escorted convoy tour of both sites.

The Rough Guide talks about how you judge the danger by watching the police. This was the book calls a "heavy situation". The guards had were wearing flack jackets. A spare ammo clip was attached to each gun. At Abydos, at least, there was an armored car present.

The same time limits at crowds that afflict other convoyed tours were at work here but it wasn't quite so bad. The convoy was probably quite a bit smaller than the one to Abu Simbel.

As Karnak was "the big one", I thought I might be disappointed. No chance. While Abydos may lack the scale of Kanak, the reliefs are exquisite. Fine detail. Colors are vibrant. Beautiful textures conveyed in the unpainted reliefs. All in amazing condition. I would have thought it had to be Roman period or, at most Ptolemaic but the Temple of Seti I at Abydos actually dates from early New Kingdom. Not to be missed.

Dendara, near Qena, is rather less inspired though still worth seeing. There are stairs going up to the roof that one can climb. It is rather dark and the walls are black. Painted on the walls is a procession of gods and priests walking up the steps just as you are. It's almost spooky.

Yesterday, unfortunately, was the day the felluca trip caught up with me. The crew washed the dishes directly in the Nile. The result was what, in another part of the world would be called Montezuma's Revenge. (Drinking local water is seldom the culprit)

Today, I felt enough better to take another stab at West Bank necropolis. As I needed to cover a fair bit of ground, I rented a bicycle. Now rented bicycles almost always suck and this was so exception. A heavy one speed with not enough pressure in the tires, it was better than walking but not that much better.

As in my second trip, I was on the road before 7:00am. Fortunately, it was only in the low 90's today and there was a breeze. Well, sometimes the breeze wasn't so fortunate as I pedaled up hill against the wind on a bike with a low tire.

First stop was Hatshepsut Temple. Hatshepsut was the only woman to rein as pharaoh. Her temple is stylistically very different from any other. It has squarish columns, 3 levels, and backs up against a huge natural rock formation. Architecturally interesting but lacks the grandeur of other temples. Today it was also very crowded.

Next stop was Tombs of the Nobles. I think in this case, the enjoyment/irritation ratio went below 1. The tombs are amongst an inhabited village and not terribly well marked. Local "guides" appear immediately and insist that you can't find the tombs. They will help you. Of course, they always have their hands out at the end. The guards want to guide you as well, angling for Baksheesh. Irritating when you are trying to enjoy the art work in peace and quiet. The tombs I saw, those of Rekmire and Sennofer, are miss-able, even without the annoyances.

The Tombs of the Artisens are quite small but very well done and well preserved. I suppose that is to be expected. These are the tombs of those who did the art work in the royal tombs but could only work on their own tombs on their off days. They are very nice, if small.

Last on the agenda was Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramses III. It is in much better condition that of Ramses II. It isn't as inspired as some other temples but it is massive and well preserved, included very colorful columns.

Next phase is more or less, Western Oasis. I looked into the doing the circuit but the train to Kharga only runs one per week (yesterday). There is a bus but it takes a dreadfully indirect route through Assyut in Middle Egypt. There is also the question of whether I really wanted to speed greater than a week on the deserts. So, I am taking a train back to Cairo tomorrow night. From there I will to to Siwa Oasis. This is the furthest, most remote of the Oases and, as far as I can tell, the most interesting. It should satisfy my appetite for the desert.