22 September 2010

Magic and the Bad, Lazy Boys...the first bit

Having just started to get over a fantastic holiday in Egypt, I've decided to split the account of the last couple of weeks into two separate posts...just one on all our adventures would be far too much to absorb.

There were two things about the trip which initially worried me, the first was the heat and the second was going down with a dose of the dreaded Pharaoh's revenge, which thankfully didn't happen, mainly due to the judicious use of vast quantities of anti-bacterial hand gel and staying strictly away from the local tap water... we even cleaned our teeth using bottled water.

But then there was the heat. The sun rises inexorably every day into a clear blue sky...stepping off the aircraft in Luxor mid-afternoon was like stumbling straight into a brick kiln. All through the holiday, the temperature was never less than 44 and reached 50degC on the last afternoon around the Temple of Karnak.

We transferred to the delightfully air-conditioned cruise ship (MS Stephanie) without complication and retired to the bar for one or six well earned beers...if you've ever seen the famous clip from 'Ice cold in Alex' you'll have some idea of just how hot it was. We'd opted for the 'all inclusive' deal which meant that local drinks (as well as unlimited amounts of bottled water) were included as part of the package, thus taking away all the angst of the "can we afford another beer dearest?" situation.

The package though, included all local spirits and never being one to be a little shy in trying anything out of a bottle (within reason) I thought I'd give the Egyptian Whiskey a punt one evening. The barman tipped me a good 'glugful' into a glass and I have to say, it looked the right sort of amberish colour, so I had a 'nose' before attempting a sip.

Odd, very strange...I couldn't quite place where I'd smelt that before, so I tried again and still I couldn't place it. On the third attempt I finally stuck gold and without any sort of exaggeration (not that I'm prone to that sort of malarkey) it had the nose of the finest, vintage, cask strength disinfectant...and didn't taste much different either! However, you'll no doubt be pleased to know that as I'm a big believer in 'waste not want not' it eventually went down the hatch, but it was the only one that week.

We were sorted into two groups, one being 'Tuti Fruiti' under the guidance of Wahid, whilst ours was the Magic group under the most excellent leadership of Majred or strangely...Magic. Both our tour guides were highly qualified having to gain MA's from Cairo University before being allowed a license to act as a tour guide. The guides were enthusiastic almost the point of fanaticism when talking about the ancient kings and queens of Egypt...you could almost feel their reverence for their long dead rulers. They vividly brought to life the depictions of the temple hieroglyphics, which incidentally, Magic could read. Whist it's possible to see the sights independently, a really good guide will explain all the detail which otherwise would be so much 'wallpaper'...very ancient wallpaper to be sure, but still wallpaper if you don't know what you're looking at.

Did I mention the relentless, baking heat? All scheduled visits were planned whenever possible to start as early as possible in the morning, so that at least part of trip would be in 'moderate' conditions...a mere 30degC or so. Longer visits ended in the full, glaring, white heat of the noonday sun, one of which was to the Valley of the Kings and then onto the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut in the Valley of the Queens. Magic recounted that he had a lucky escape from the Luxor massacre which took place at Queen Hatsheput's temple (pic taken here from a hot air balloon) in 1997 as he was due to be in that spot at the same time as the terrorists opened fire, but was delayed in the Valley of the Kings as one of the party had a dose of 'gypo tum. He clearly remembers hearing the staccato bursts of automatic gunfire coming from the adjacent valley and freely admitted that the old gods were looking after him that day.

One of the odder things for someone coming from Europe was the continued presence on every corner of the so called Tourist Police, which seemed to consist of a bunch of lack lustre, scrawny, scruffy individuals, each toting an AK47 over their shoulder...perhaps the events of 1997 had something to do with it, but they certainly didn't inspire confidence.

Part of the trip was to inevitably cope with the street vendors, who seemed to sell an unending assortment of T shirts, spices and 'tack' (souvenirs) There was the most delicious and wonderful assortment that I've ever seen...quite outstanding! Their selling routine was unrelenting, being straight out of the Dell Boy school of charm and salesmanship...

"Hello my friend, where you from, you English? Lovely jubbly! Come in... see my shop, I give you very good price...come inside, we friends..."

The pic shows Alyson accepting a 'gift' of an alabaster pyramid (now residing in the 'smallest room') from one of the better emporiums where we stopped after our visit to the Valley of the Kings. Magic advised that the only way to deal with them (and we had to run the gauntlet at the exit of each temple) was to act like a camel...plod on regardless, head down and make no eye contact. Stop and your a goner...just plod on wearily and say nothing almost to the point of rudeness.

Once the Stephanie had sailed from Luxor, the Nile drifted by at a leisurely 10 knots. It was easy to see from the houses on the shore that little had probably changed since the time of the Pharaoh's...the houses were crudely built from mud brick with a few palm leaves stretched across the top to keep out the fiercest of the sun's rays. It was also very evident that the dunes of the Sahara desert sometimes came with a few metres of the river...to the West there's nothing but sun blistered desert for 3000 miles.

After our visit to the Valley of the Kings, the first temple we visited was at Edfu. As Magic explained, many of the best temples were built during the Late Kingdom period, starting at around 1700BC and Edfu "is one of the best ever" having the most impressive state of preservation. When you stand just outside, the sheer scale of the two pylons is breathtaking with many of the carvings in the stone work as crisp today as when they were first chiseled over two thousand years ago.

Perhaps one of the highlights of the week was the visit to Abu Simbel, located some 150Kms south of Aswan on the banks of the recently made Lake Nasser. Again, the sheer monumental scale of the incised rock sculptures is simply staggering...the journey across the Sahara was a long, bumpy one (we even saw some mirages on the way back) but to stand in front of the images of Ramses II made it all worthwhile. What's equally impressive is that the whole structure was cut up and lifted vertically block by block a total of 65m. The complete thing was then re-assembled on higher ground so as to be clear of the rising waters of the lake.

Magic was at some pains to explain to us some of the the various complexities of the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms and was in no doubt that the "lovely pharaohs" of the New Kingdom were the "best ever." They were of Greek origin, but as they seamlessly assimilated the religion and culture of the Egyptians they brought the civilization to the height of it's power and glory. In contrast, the rulers of the Middle Kingdom, shown buried in these rock tombs, were the "bad, lazy boys" and did nothing to promote trade or to protect the borders of Egypt, generally being thought of as a bunch of nere'do wells.

Another aspect that took the breath away were the granite obelisks, especially the 'Unfinished Obelisk' in the quarry at Aswan. This cracked during the three year process of extracting it from the rock, but it's estimated to have been the largest single piece of granite ever quarried, weighing over 1000 tons. Note I said 'single'...they were all cut and transported at the time as single pieces of rock. In contrast, the technology of the late Victorians was unable to handle the single obelisk that now stands on the bank of the Thames...it had to be cut into four pieces for transportation and final erection...

...and discussing such things, the Temple at Kom Obo offered a fertility treatment to the hierarchy. Careful scrutinization of the cartouche shows that it appeared to work!..didn't I mention that a good guide was invaluable?

One of the more surprising aspects of the week was Alyson's eagerness to give this bad boy a little cuddle. The little chap seemed quite cute, but his brothers in the same enclosure were slightly larger and capable of ripping a finger off for a little midday snack.

Undoubtedly, the highlight for me was the Temple of Karnak, which was just stupendous in it's size and grandeur. Strolling amongst the 134 vast columns of the Hypostile Hall I felt totally overwhelmed...I couldn't point the camera anywhere and capture all the columns. In fact the site occupies 64 acres, with just a couple left of the 40 odd granite obelisks that once stood on the site. The incised carving at the base of one of the obelisks is as crisp today as when it was first executed thousands of years ago.

This about wraps up the first part of this mammoth post...to be continued.


Anonymous said...

Glad you enjoyed your Hol. - we did the same thing in 1995 but the whole boat came down with the "Gypy Tummy" - never did finish the Karnak Tour!


Anonymous said...

Brings back memories. Glad you enjoyed it!