I've Moved!

My new blog is called Reflections from a Global Nomad, in order to acknowledge that we no longer live in Maadi and that we are, in fact, global nomads, not staying in one place longer than two or three years. Please join me at http://DeborahReflections.blogspot.com

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Change in Plans

So remember how I said yesterday that I made no promises about telling you about the Nile cruise today? It turns out that that's a good thing.

Jeff and I have plans for later this week--I'll tell you about it later--and I realized today that I have so much to do in the meantime that I just don't have time to blog right now. I may be able to get in another post or two this week, but it's looking doubtful.

I'll plan on updating you next week ... I promise I'll try not to get lazy about blogging again.

In the meantime, I hope all of you have a great week!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Dendera, Luxor Temple, and A Show

On Tuesday morning, the Sun Boat IV left Luxor and headed north. "North?" you say. "But isn't Aswan south of Luxor?" Yes, indeed, it is, but we weren't headed to Aswan just yet. We had another visit to make, one that I'm very glad was included in the cruise.

Dendera is home to the Temple of Hathor, which was recommended to us so highly that we were encouraged to spend an extra day in Luxor to visit it if it wasn't included on the cruise itinerary. (Dendera is about an hour's ride by car from Luxor, just across the river from the city of Qena.) It didn't take long to see what all the fuss was about.

The surroundings were absolutely beautiful--lush green fields against the stark brown desert and bright blue sky. The temple compound was large and imposing. Most of it was very well preserved, the exception being some images of Hathor that were defaced by Christians who hid in the temple during a time when they were being heavily persecuted by the Romans. Before we went inside the temple, we spent some time walking around it, seeing the carvings on the exterior walls. The carvings told stories of Cleopatra and her son offering gifts to the gods, particularly to Hathor, the goddess of love, music, and fertility.

After seeing the outside of the temple, we went inside. Hesham told us to look up. We did, and were amazed. One half of the roof was pitch black; the other half clearly showed artistic patterns complete with bright colors. The colored half of the ceiling has been restored--not repainted, just cleaned. The black half shows how the temple was found. Apparently, when the early Christians lived in the temple, hiding from persecution, the sand had partially covered the site, making the ground close enough to the ceiling that the soot from their fires turned the ceiling black. But the colors underneath hadn't faded; all it took was a good cleaning to reveal them in all their splendor. The pictures were beautiful, and the colors were vibrant. The colors were most vibrant where they had been restored or where they had been covered with sand; they were least vibrant on the unrestored portion of the ceiling (obviously) and on the parts of the walls that had been touched by way too many tourists. Here are a few pictures of some of the vibrant designs:

After seeing inside the temple, we went onto the roof and into a smaller chamber up there, a small temple dedicated to Osiris. In that room is located one of the highlights of this temple: the circular zodiac. Unfortunately, the original zodiac is not there; it's in the Louvre. However, there is a replica zodiac that at least looks like the original looked when it was found--unfortunately, they didn't realize that there probably were colors underneath the black exterior, so the replica also replicates the layer of soot over the colors.

After that, we headed back to the ship for lunch and a leisurely afternoon while the ship traveled back to Luxor. Jeff and I spent the time on the sun deck, reading, sipping lemon juice (me) or water (Jeff), and enjoying the fresh air and beautiful sights. Of course it probably struck some as funny that we were up on the sun deck, and I kept shifting seats to stay in the shade ... but I didn't want to wear sunscreen or get burned, so shade was my only remaining option.

After tea, we went on an evening excursion to Luxor Temple. It's located on the east bank of the Nile, so it was a temple for the living. It was dedicated to the god Amun-Re, his goddess wife Mut, and his god-son Khonsu. I have to be honest here and admit that I was tired, a little chilly, and probably didn't pay as much attention as I should have to what Hesham told us about this temple ... I wish now that I remembered more of it, but I don't wish it quite enough to do a lot of research about it. I'll settle for linking to a few websites that contain information about the temple and showing you some of the pictures we took.

After we visited the Luxor Temple, it was back to the ship for dinner. But after dinner, the fun wasn't over--we still had a show! That night, a belly dancer and a whirling dervish both performed in the lounge. I wasn't as impressed with the belly dancer as I expected to be--I'm not sure if it was this particular dancer, or if I'm just not a fan of belly dancing in general. (It was my first time seeing a belly dancer, so I have nothing to compare it with.) However, the whirling dervish was amazing. I was very impressed with his balance and endurance.

This first video is part of the belly dancer's performance. It's about a minute long.

This next video is part of the whirling dervish's performance. It's around four and a half minutes long. It starts getting more interesting just shy of the 1-minute mark, and it starts getting even more interesting just before the end (sorry for the inopportune ending time).

Tomorrow (hopefully, no promises): Day 3 of the Nile cruise, including a visit to the Temple of Horus at Edfu and the Temple of Sobek at Kom Ombo.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Luxor With Hesham

Full disclosure: This was the longest day of sightseeing, and therefore, this post is pretty long. If you don't have time, you may want to read it later, just skim it, or skip it altogether.

On Monday, the first day of our Nile cruise, we got up bright and early to check in. Shortly after checking in and getting settled in our room, we headed back down to the reception area for our morning excursion--a tour of Karnak Temple. As we entered the reception, we were directed to a group that was led by Hesham, who would be our guide throughout the cruise. Here's a picture of Hesham that was taken later on, at the Unfinished Obelisk in Aswan:

Once we were joined by the rest of our group, we left the ship, climbed the stairs to street level, and boarded our tour bus. It didn't take long to get to Karnak Temple, but on the way Hesham gave us the crucial information--how long we'd be gone, water is available for free on the bus to take with us, cameras and video cameras are allowed at Karnak for no additional charge. Once we arrived, he passed out the tickets and we entered the site.

After passing through a large open square, we entered the Avenue of the Sphinxes. This is a road, lined by sphinxes on both sides, that used to connect Karnak Temple with Luxor Temple. Over time, the sands covered the avenue, as well as partially to completely covering most or all of the ancient sites. Before the avenue and its path was discovered--or maybe just before people started caring about it, I'm not sure which--several buildings were built over parts of it, including mosques, a hospital, and Luxor Museum. Apparently the Ministry of Tourism is trying to figure out whether and how to relocate these structures so that the complete Avenue of the Sphinxes can be excavated.

Just past the Avenue of the Sphinxes is the temple's facade. Hesham pointed out that temples always were built from the back forward, so the facade is the newest part of the structure. The temple complex was not built on the command of a single Pharoah; around 30 of them contributed to this massive compound. I think Hesham said that Ramses II was a major contributor. After passing through the facade, we entered an open courtyard, which contained a temple for Ramses IV, a couple of smaller temples for the goddess-wife and god-son of the main god Amen-Re (if I'm not confusing this temple with one of the many others we saw later), and a collection of sphinxes that had been moved from the Avenue of the Sphinxes for safekeeping.

After passing through this courtyard, we entered the Great Hypostyle Hall. This hall is 50,000 square feet and contains 134 columns arranged in 16 rows. The central columns are 69 feet tall! The columns used to support a roof over this hall, but the roof is long gone now. These stunning columns were described by Hesham as the "paper" for the temple--they were carved top to bottom with hieroglyphs. There also were a few more recent additions--graffiti left by early explorers, with their names and the dates they were there. It was interesting to see the different heights at which the graffiti was left, reflecting the differing depths of the sand cover at various times.

Through the columns, we could see two obelisks rising from the temple's ruins in the next part of the temple, the Obelisk Court. These obelisks are each carved from a single piece of granite. At least one of them was erected by Queen Hatshepsut, possibly both of them; I don't remember. Hatshepsut's stepson (or was it her son?) erased monuments to her by defacing her cartouche (the pharaoh's name carved inside a border that was reserved for pharaohs alone) and then having his own cartouche carved in its place, but he couldn't do that on the obelisk. Granite did not accept corrections--once it was defaced, that was it; there was no carving over it. And because obelisks were monuments to the gods, there was no way a pharaoh would deface it and leave it that way.

Passing through the Obelisk Court, we entered the central court. There wasn't much left to see there, so we quickly walked around the side to see something far more interesting: ancient Egyptian bookkeeping. One of the ancient pharaohs wanted to keep track of the offerings to the gods that were presented at this temple, so a carving was made on the wall. Each vertical slash indicates "1," the inverted Us indicate "10," and the funny little staff thing indicates "100." Each column represents offerings of a certain type that were given throughout the year, and the bottom row is the total. For some of the columns, it's hard to see if the math is right because of the missing row in the middle, but it seems to be accurate.

After that, we quickly saw the sacred lake and some other artifacts in the area, then returned to the ship for lunch. Following lunch, we took a motorboat to the west bank (we were docked on the east bank) to see the sites over there. Hesham explained that the west bank was considered the land of the dead, because the sun sets in the west, whereas the east bank was the land of the living, because the sun rises in the east. So temples built on the east bank were for those who were alive--the pharaohs and high priests would offer sacrifices, and the people would be allowed, on rare occasions, to enter. On the west bank, there were tombs and mortuary temples for the mummification of the dead.

Our first stop on the west bank was the Valley of the Kings. Cameras weren't allowed at this site, so I have no pictures to share with you. For around 500 years, pharaohs were buried in tombs at this site. A single ticket gains you access to the three tombs of your choice; men are stationed at each tomb to punch a hole in the ticket when you enter a tomb to keep track of how many you've seen. You can enter the tomb of King Tutankhamen for an additional fee. From the outside, the tombs don't look spectacular. Once you enter them, though, you can see wonderful hieroglyphs and paintings on the walls and ceilings. It's also interesting to see the steps that were taken to foil grave robbers--one king's tomb had three separate security measures, although I only recall the first: a sudden, unexpected turn that made it look like the tomb ended in an already-looted chamber. If you're interested in detailed information about the Valley of the Kings, including pictures and maps, I would suggest that you check out this website.

Our second stop of the afternoon was the Valley of the Queens, similar to the Valley of the Kings but smaller. We only visited one tomb at this site, as time was short and the tombs weren't as impressive anyway. This site held the tombs of the pharaohs' wives and youngest children--I think Hesham said that boys under 12 were buried here, whereas boys over 12 were buried in the Valley of the Kings.

The third stop, and the first where we could use the cameras, was the Temple of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut was one of the few female Pharaohs. This temple was impressive for its size and the grandeur that it apparently had before her stepson defaced it. The temple was approached via a 100-foot causeway, which includes 3 terraced courtyards. There were statues of lions at some of the ramps. The walls are covered with depictions of Hatshepsut's life, including her purported divine birth (a requirement to be a pharaoh), her trip to Punt, and her offerings to the god Anubis. There also is a depiction of Hatshepsut being suckled by the goddess Hathor. This depiction is the only one of Hatshepsut that was not defaced by her stepson; I don't recall why it survived, if it was oversight or if there was a particular reason why it would have offended the gods for that one to be defaced. Here are a few more pictures of this temple:

Our final stop of the day was a photo stop at the Colossi of Memnon. These are two huge--colossal, if you will--statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. The mortuary temple that used to be at this site is pretty well gone by now. If you want more information, you can look here. There's not too much else to say, so I'll just show some pictures of the colossi and the surrounding area. It was starting to get dark by that time, so some of the pictures have deeper shadows than we'd prefer, but you can get the idea.

Next stop on our Nile cruise: the Temple of Hathor at Denderah. Hopefully I'll be telling you about that tomorrow, but no promises.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sun Boat IV

Yesterday I told you about our afternoon in Luxor, the day before we actually went on our Nile cruise.

Today, I want to tell you about the ship and the service. I'll tell you more about the actual trip later, but for now, I just want to share my awe.

We boarded the Sun Boat IV on Monday morning in Luxor. At the time, it was docked at the end of a long long line of cruise ships. It shared a dock with two or three other ships. The ships in Luxor dock parallel to the shore, with a gangplank from the shore to the nearest ship. To get to the ships that are further out, you simply walk through the reception area of the first ship, out the door on the other side, and then step across a short gangplank onto the next ship. So we saw at least the reception areas of several ships throughout this cruise, as we walked from ship to ship on our way to and from the shore. Judging solely from these reception areas and what we could see of the other ships' decks, I have to say that the Sun Boat IV is the most luxurious ship on the Nile River.

Here, take a tour with me:

This is the dining room, framed by its own doors as they open. The breakfast and lunch buffets were set up on the center island and table, and we had assigned seating for the duration of the cruise.

This is the lounge, where we had afternoon tea (I feel very British saying that!) and where the belly dancer and whirling dervish performed. There also was an "Egyptian Night" party, but we didn't go to that--I was inexplicably exhausted that night and just went to bed instead.

This is the shaded deck--which, incidentally, is on the back half of the same deck where our cabin was. We had breakfast and lunch out here on the one day when it wasn't too windy.

This is the Sun Deck. On days when we spent the morning or afternoon sailing from one location to another, most of us spent a good bit of time up here, sipping drinks, reading, and watching/videoing the beautiful scenery. It was so idyllic!

This is our cabin. The bathroom was off to the right and was about the size of a very large shower stall. The shower stall itself seemed microscopic at first, but it worked well enough. If it hadn't, the bathroom was designed so that you could leave the stall door open and use the entire bathroom as a shower with no problem.

And the service was everything you'd expect in those surroundings. We never carried our luggage anywhere; it miraculously appeared in our rooms. The service in the dining room was phenomenal, especially after the staff found out from our guide that I'm pregnant. Before they knew, I received the best service I've ever received anywhere (with the possible exception of Condetti, with which the service tied); after they knew, I never carried my own plate or slid in my own chair, and I often wasn't even allowed to go get my own juice from the breakfast buffet!

The service wasn't all that was excellent in the dining room, either. I gained 5 pounds that week, and I'm pretty sure the pregnancy had nothing to do with it. For breakfast, there was a buffet with a variety of hot and cold dishes--potatoes, sausages, fuul, pancakes, cold cereals, and fruit, among other options, which varied from day to day. You also could order off a menu--omelets, waffle, Eggs Benedict, and more. Jeff and I both ate an omelet, a waffle, and a few dishes off the buffet each and every morning ... looking at our plates, it seemed like so much food, but we were hungry again by the time lunch came around. Then it was another buffet with all sorts of delicious options. Afternoon tea consisted of tea, coffee, or fruit juice, plus fresh fruit and sweet pastries. Dinner was a more formal affair--we were given a menu each night. We chose our appetizer, main course, and dessert, usually from three options of each, and we also had a soup course. The one exception was Egyptian night, when we had a buffet of traditional Egyptian foods such as schawarma and koshary, not to mention hummus and tahina (similar to hummus but with a different taste). I'm gaining more weight just thinking about it!

The service was exceptional throughout the ship. Our room was cleaned, with fresh sheets and towels, every day. While we were at dinner, someone came in and turned down the bed. If we were on the sun deck, it was rare to not be offered a drink, and even when there wasn't a waiter, there was a cooler full of cold bottles of water to which we could help ourselves. When we came back from shore excursions, we always were met at the door by a man with a tray of warm, wet towels so we could wash our hands and faces. After the longer excursions, there also was a man with hibiscus or lemon juice.

Speaking of excursions, the system for that made the cruise feel like a small, intimate affair. There are 36 cabins and 4 suites, so I think a total of 88 passengers can be accommodated, but we were put into groups of 12 to 14 people who all spoke the same language. Our group was assigned to the same tour guide, Hesham, and we were together throughout the cruise. Our dinner companions were members of our group, too. I know that there were many people on the cruise other than the ones in my group--I noticed at least a few of them, and there were significantly more than 14 people at dinner each night--but in many ways it seemed like the only other people on board were the members of my group. The whole experience was made more enjoyable because I never felt lost in a crowd or overwhelmed by the number of people.

So that's the ship ... hopefully tomorrow I'll tell you about our guided tour of Luxor's most important sites.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Luxor On Our Own

I realized last night that it has been a good bit longer than I realized since I last posted anything here. I have good (or at least semi-good) reasons for it, I promise! First I was out of town for a week (more on that below), and then when we got back I was ... not particularly quick ... at getting back into anything resembling a routine. In fact, I'm still not there. It may have something to do with the fact that I wasn't in anything resembling a routine before I left, either, what with the first trimester exhaustion and all. But now I'm not as tired and I need to get myself on some sort of schedule to keep me that way--I've realized that if I just laze around, I stay tired, but if I'm active (even if only intellectually by typing away online), then I have more energy. All that to say that I'll try to do better about that--primarily about the routine and activity, but that will include posting here more frequently again too.

So now that's out of the way ... on to today's real topic!

I was out of town from 31 January to 5 February because Jeff and I were on a very special trip--a Nile cruise! We booked this vacation last fall, I think, well before we got pregnant, so I was very relieved that pregnancy and its symptoms in no way interfered with our trip. In fact, in some ways, it made it better!

Let me start at the beginning. Several of our friends have gone on Nile cruises, and they all highly recommended (1) that we go on a cruise and (2) that we go on a ship owned and operated by Abercrombie & Kent. Because we had so many recommendations for this particular cruise line, we didn't even bother to check out any others. I've since heard that Movenpick and a few others are good too, but most everyone agrees that A&K is top of the line. So we picked out dates and contacted a local travel agency to handle the details. We decided on a 4-night cruise from Luxor to Aswan, with a night in a hotel in Luxor so we didn't have to get up early enough to fly from Cairo to Luxor and be at the ship by the 9 a.m. check-in time.

On Sunday, 31 January, we took the hour flight from Cairo to Luxor, where we were met at the airport and driven to our hotel, a wonderful place called the Steigenberger Nile Palace Hotel. Both of us breathed deeply the moment we stepped off the plane--the last few days in Cairo had subjected us to particularly "crunchy" air, and Luxor had clear blue skies with no hint of pollution. We arrived around lunchtime, so after we checked in, we went in search of food. But not before checking out the view from our large balcony.

Nice, isn't it?

Anyway, we decided to just get lunch at one of the four or five restaurants in the hotel rather than taking the time to go find something somewhere else. We chose the Lebanese restaurant, where both the service and the food were excellent. We appreciated it even more that night when we got around to looking at the hotel information in our room and realized that we'd sat at one of their tables and been served with no problems over an hour before they actually opened!

After lunch, we went back to the room, where Jeff kindly agreed to put the sightseeing on hold while I took a nap. He sat out on the balcony with his book while I slept for an hour. Then, refreshed and ready to go, we decided to walk out to the Corniche (I assume that's what the road along the Nile was called, at least the part that had the wide park-like strolling area; that's what all such roads in Egypt seem to be called) and see what was there. As we left our hotel and walked down the road, we saw hotels on the left (the Nile side) and shops and restaurants on the right. Taxi drivers and horse-drawn carriage drivers alike asked if we wanted a ride; many promised "Five pounds! Five pounds tour of Luxor!" We didn't fall for it. We just kept walking, and soon enough we came to the Corniche.

We walked along the Corniche for a while, all the time looking for a stand or someplace where we could reasonably buy just two bottles of water without being expected to buy an entire meal. We saw a vast number of feluccas on our left and the ruins of the Temple of Luxor on our right. Eventually we decided to go down a set of stairs to the narrower walkway that was closer to water level--signs indicated that there were shops down there. We quickly found some bottled water and, refreshed, kept walking along. We tried not to look at the shops we passed; the vendors were even more aggressive than those in the Khan! As usual, I was unable to resist giving some response; I'm a nice Southern girl, after all, and I was raised to have manners. So I kept responding "La, shukran" or "La, mish ayziin" to their pleas for us to come in and look--after all "No cost to look!"

Eventually one of the vendors slipped beneath our defenses. He seemed genuinely impressed that I was responding in Arabic. He asked us where we were from, and--conscious of the dislike that often flows toward Americans abroad--we replied that we live in Cairo. "Ah! My brother! My sister!" I'm not sure what it was about him, but before we knew it, Jeff and I were in his shop, trying to explain that although I would love to accept his hospitality and have some tea, my pregnancy prevented me from drinking it. He showered us with congratulations about the baby, seeming even more delighted with us when he asked what we do for a living and I replied that I'm a sett beyt (housewife). He showed us pictures of his beautiful wife and adorable children. Eventually we made our excuses and left, and I honestly believe that he had enjoyed our chat and didn't mind that we hadn't bought anything.

As we continued down the walk, we allowed our experience with this friendly man to lull us into complacency. We soon found ourselves in another man's shop. While he also seemed genuinely friendly at first, he quickly turned on the pressure to buy. We left his shop disgruntled and ready to be done with the shops for good.

At the next stairway, we went back up to the street level, where the only vendors were selling taxi, carriage, or felucca rides. These were much easier to ignore. We walked a little while longer, then sat for a while on a bench overlooking the Nile when I got tired. Not too long after that, we took a taxi back to the hotel.

That night we ordered room service and went to bed early--I was still so tired I could barely think straight. We were offered, and considered accepting, an early morning hot air balloon ride, but we turned it down. We had decided that we wanted this trip to be a vacation (characterized mostly by rest and relaxation) rather than an expedition (characterized more by a sense of adventure and constant activity). In retrospect, I'm very glad we turned the balloon ride down. The next day was the longest and fullest day of the vacation, and I wouldn't have made it had it been any longer. My mother-in-law also pointed out that balloon rides are not exactly recommended for pregnant women, a fact that I should have considered but that frankly didn't even occur to me at the time.

The next morning, we had a delicious breakfast--included with the reservation--at the hotel, then were ready and waiting for our pick-up and transfer to the ship. But of course we had to get one more picture first, from the balcony.

If we make it back down to Luxor again, we'll have to plan to be on one of those.