Monday, March 2, 2009
Grand World Voyage Part 6 - Egypt!
I just realized that I've done things a little out of order, as we stopped at Safaga, Egypt prior to traveling through the Suez Canal. Safaga is small port city, located south of the Suez Canal. This was the first of two very long excursions in Egypt. The antiquities that we all want to see are far from the port cities. Our excursion was to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. We boarded buses that drove in a long caravan with police escort, to protect us from any untoward happenings. Despite the police escort, we never once felt unsafe on this trip to Egypt.
The scenery after leaving Safaga was fascinating. It started out with sharp-peaked mountains, switched to lower, rounded hills, with small amounts of surrounding sand, and finally, very suddenly, the lush and intensely green Nile Valley. There was a sharp line demarcating the desert from the Nile Valley. We got to see the river as we crossed over into Luxor. We went straight out to the Valley of the Kings, where we were able to choose two of the three open tombs to go into. In the visitor center they have a model that shows all the tombs, including their form and how deep they go into the ground, which is a really great exhibit. The tombs, themselves are wonderful. The walls are covered with plaster painted with hieroglyphics, in beautiful colors. It was disappointing to be unable to take photos inside, but the use of flashes on cameras would destroy those well-preserved ancient works of art. Unfortunately someone I knew of snuck a camera in and was taking pictures. Obviously they had no idea of the harm that comes from flash photography; or, they didn't care. The day we were there the temperature was in the range of 110 degrees, which is not tolerable for too long, but it was very much worth seeing the Valley of the Kings.
In the afternoon we went to Luxor temple, a grand structure. It is minus one of the two obelisks at the entrance. Apparently it was given as a gift to France; France reciprocated with the gift of a clock - that has never worked! What struck me most here was the grandeur of the building. It is almost overwhelming to walk through such an imposing structure. After seeing Luxor Temple, we went to see (from a distance because entry was not included in our tour) Queen Hatshepsut's tomb and also the Colossi of Memnon. Both of these were awesome sights. We had an early buffet dinner at the Sonesta St. George Hotel Luxor. Our seating arrangement gave us a nice view of the Nile River.
For the evening we went to the sound and light show at Karnak Temple, which is even greater than Luxor Temple. The visit was a disappointment, however, because we were there after dark and lighting was limited to what the show illuminated for very short periods of time. After walking through the temple we ended up on bleachers where we heard a story about Egyptian history, with various aspects of the temple illuminated to go along with the story. The story part was way too long, and what little we were able to see of this magnificent temple made me wish we could see it in daylight, so we could truly and fully appreciate what we were seeing. After the light show we got back on the bus for our long ride back to the ship at Safaga. I hope to return one day and see Karnak during the day, and would highly recommend that if you go, see the temple during the day and skip the light show.
I had been to Alexandria a couple of months prior to this while on another cruise, and the experience had been rather unpleasant, so I was glad we'd signed up for an excursion this time. The excursion was a very long one (6 AM to midnight) to Cairo and the pyramids. It is a little startling to see that Cairo has grown out to where the pyramids are. As with our trip to Luxor our buses went in caravan, but this time with armed guards on each bus. The trip took 3-4 hours each way, and the traffic going into town was absolutely crazy and chaotic. Once we arrived in Cairo we went to the Egyptian museum that is jammed with all the artifacts imaginable, from sarcophagi, large stones with hieroglyphics, mummy cases and coffins, jewelry, pottery, sculptures, and chariots. This was an amazing museum that was impossible to see thoroughly in the short time allotted for it.
We had a wonderful buffet lunch at a hotel close to the pyramids. The pyramids are amazing to see in person. They are magnificent, and it is sad to see how they are crumbling. We had the opportunity to go into the burial chamber of the middle pyramid, the one that still has a plaster cap. One of the things we learned was that the pyramids were all originally coated with plaster, and the cap on the middle one is the sole remnant of the plaster left today. Back to the burial chamber. Our guide pretty much discouraged us from going in, telling us that if we had breathing problems, heart problems, bad knees, bad back, or claustrophobia, we should not go in. Since Tina was going, I decided to go also, despite having 4 of the 5 conditions (my heart is good). It is definitely hard on the body to go in, since most of the way you are in a crouched position going up or down a ramp. And there is nothing in the chamber except an empty sarcophagus and a 'banner' (really graffiti) written high on the wall. However, it was worth it to go in. How many people can say they've been in the burial chamber in a pyramid? Many people went in halfway and then turned around.
After the pyramids we went over to see the Sphinx. Again, a magnificent creation, which is sadly deteriorated. You can't get close enough to the Sphinx to touch it, which I'm sure is helpful. It was also good to learn that it is undergoing restoration. It is very sad to see that half the face is missing. The deterioration has probably been accelerated by the advancing of the big city with all its pollution.
By the time we got back to the ship it was midnight and we were exhausted. This is not the kind of trip one can do very often, but it is definitely worth it if you have the opportunity. Alexandria is an interesting city and has much to see, but I would definitely recommend an excursion planned through the ship rather than venturing out on your own, especially if you are a woman (or group of women).
One of the most important lessons I learned while visiting Egypt is that the countries with depth of culture, such as Egypt or Malta, have a far greater impact on me than countries that do not have their own ancient culture.