While the Pyramids of Giza hog the limelight being the last Wonder of the Ancient World to survive, far more spectacular monuments awaited me in Abu Simbel, Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.
Think about all the things that have happened in the world since Cleopatra decided to shuffle off this mortal coil with a stab from her pet asp thus bringing to an end the Age of the Pharaohs. The Fall of the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Henrys I to VIII, the Russian Revolution, the two World Wars, the Moon landing, the Cold War, 9/11, Star Wars Episodes I to VII, the rise of Apple, YouTube, the Kardashians….
Now what if I told you the Age of the Pharaohs lasted as long and in fact a little longer than all of the time that has past since! It was such an extraordinarily rich, complex and advanced civilisation of the kind the world has never seen since. Its monuments still stand silent and enigmatic and so utterly alien amidst the modern chaos of the country Egypt is today. Visiting these monuments felt nothing short of a pilgrimage to me.
I went to Egypt in October 2010 a few months before the Arab Spring. I never felt unsafe or threatened but I do have to mention the constant nuisance of men coming up and trying to talk to me as I was walking down streets or through markets. It wasn’t really eve-teasing, more of an annoyance than anything. Sometimes they try and get you to enter their souvenir shop or try their restaurant. Sometimes they foist unwanted advice and directions if you are looking remotely lost and then try to charge a fee for it. After a while the relentless hassle gets on your nerves, the smile on your face feels more and more strained and you resist the urge to scream and run. Often they would try and guess my nationality as a way of starting up a conversation. And because a few guessed I was Indian a constant refrain was “Shah Rukh Khan? Shah Rukh Khan?” Shah Rukh Khan is one of the biggest stars in the Indian film industry and clearly a bit of a cultural icon in these parts of the world as well. I didn’t really know what they expected me to say “Yes I’ve heard of him, yes I think he’s great, no I don’t know him personally?!”
I felt it wasn’t safe encouraging a conversation so I would just shake my head and walk on and that would be that. Luckily for most of the tour, I was part of a larger group and accompanied by a local man as a guide who shepherded us around and shooed these pests away. I would definitely recommend doing the same so you can focus your energies on marvelling at the sights. But if that is not possible I still wouldn’t be dissuaded for this reason from visiting Egypt. As a matter of fact I explored Cairo on my own, albeit only by day, and as I mentioned before never felt physically threatened even once.
I used the travel company G Adventures, going on their 8-day “Budget Egypt” tour in October 2010. The tour started in Cairo then went on to Aswan via the Great Pyramids, then Luxor and ended back in Cairo.
Egypt Travel Diary Part 1: Cairo
My first impression of Cairo was that it was interchangeable with any city in India. Crowds of people everywhere, honking traffic, brightly lit shops with everything from wind-up toy soldiers and tacky souvenirs to pyjamas and vegetables stacked on wooden tables spilling onto the pavements. And everything covered with a thin film of dust. The dust was everywhere there was no escaping it for the entire time I was in Egypt – pretty much as it had been while growing up in India. You have to make your peace with the dust. The sandy bedrock of the city bursts through cracks in the pavements then gets teased and whipped into clouds by the hot breeze. When you return home and wipe your face with a pad of cotton wool it turns completely black like with soot!
The haze of dust that covers the city is most noticeable when you climb the Citadel of Cairo and look over the urban sprawl. Once you climb the winding pavements of the fortified citadel built by Saladin around 1180 A.D, at the summit you come upon the imposing Mosque of Muhammad Ali. Its sheer size is hard to convey in words. It was built in the Ottoman style – a low flat body topped by bulbous silver domes and surrounded by tall slender minarets in all corners. As you enter the first thing you notice is a curious low-lying chandelier-like structure with glass lamps hanging down in concentric circles and bathing the interior with a dull gold glow. The interiors of the immense domes also look like they are covered in burnished gold with intricate detailing in green. On all four corners are circles painted green and covered with gold stylised Arabic scripts, not unlike the names of the apostles carved around Christian basilicas.
This was my first introduction to Islamic design and architecture. The emphasis seems to be in the intense intricacy of details. As you look closer you notice a profusion of different styles – geometric, floral, interspersed with flowing scripts. Using different coloured marbles and inlaid gold the designs often cause a sort of optical illusion as you walk past.
Egypt Travel Diary Part 2: The Pyramids and the Sphinx
Seeing the pyramids for the first time is a bit like seeing the Taj Mahal – its such a familiar sight that when you finally see the real thing your instinctive reaction is “yep, that’s pretty much exactly as I’d imagined it”. On a flat desert plain the Pyramids stand silent and mysterious as they have for thousands of years. There are three large ones and a few little baby ones built for the Pharaohs’ Queens.
The tour into the interior of the Great Pyramid is a very surreal experience. If you imagined walking through passages lit with flaming torches and past walls covered with hieroglyphics you would be very much mistaken. The Pharaohs used to fill their tombs with all their most prized possessions and treasures believing these would help secure their passage into the afterlife. This meant they also lived in a real dread of unscrupulous tomb raiders breaking into their graves. So the Pyramids were really not meant to be accessible in any way to visitors. They are not hollow but in fact solid inside with chambers carved into the interior that used to hold said Pharaoh, his wife and their treasures. The Tour consists of crawling through what is ironically called the “Robbers’ Tunnel”, a tunnel dug by grave robbers much as the Pharaohs had feared. It’s a very small space with a rough scaffolding which you scramble over, sometimes on all fours. As a warning I have never been claustrophobic and I felt moments of genuine panic so confined is the space. Once you’ve started there is no turning back for the simple reason there is no space for you to turn around and squeeze past the person behind you so you should think about whether its a good idea for you to do this at all. The tunnel ends in the King’s chamber which is pretty much pitch black, musty and stinks terribly. There must be some sort of hidden ventilation but none that is visible. Knots of tourists gather around their guides as they point their cell phone lights around the chamber. There is nothing to see really bar a sort of sarcophagus which at some point must have held the remains of the King.
But if your guide is good he will use this opportunity in the dark silent womb of the Pyramid to give you all sorts of tidbits about its construction. For e.g. the perfect symmetry of the dimensions, the precision with which the building blocks fit together, the fact that the ratio of the perimeter to the height of the pyramid almost exactly equals 2 Pi, the fact that the material used as mortar which has held the stones in place for nearly 4000 years has yet to be reproduced successfully. And the fact that the stepped, brown exterior of the Pyramids that we see now used to be covered with a smooth white casing which makes you imagine how they must have gleamed and shimmered in the desert sun in their heydey.
The Sphinx is a slight disappointment just because it hasn’t weathered the centuries as well as the Pyramids. The proportions are not quite as they are depicted in paintings and postcards. I imagined the Sphinx with a towering head and a perfectly proportionate body. But in actuality the head looks a lot smaller, the body a lot larger and flatter, and the outstretched paws at the front seem disproportionately long. The edifice of the body is crumbling and the features on the face are worn. Yet as you walk along to the front and see it in its full glory with the pyramids looming behind, it is quite a sight. The calm, beautifully androgynous face gazes calmly into the distance – as it patiently guards the last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World.
Egypt Travel Diary Part 3: Abu Simbel
I have to give a special mention here to the train journey we took from Cairo to Aswan. The trains were absolutely filthy with mice darting around the corridors and seats that looked like roaches might crawl out of the tears in the cushions. Luckily we had some interesting company to keep us distracted. There were a couple of hippieish American girls sharing our compartment – all dreadlocked hair, harem pants and beaded bracelets. They turned out to be volunteers with the Peace Corps who had been living in some obscure African village for the past few months. They were refreshingly honest when they spoke about their experience and didn’t try to romanticise the privations of living in a primitive environment worlds away from the comforts of their hometowns. One of them recounted with a chuckle how ecstatic she had been when a care package sent by her mother arrived with chocolates. The chocolates had melted in the heat of the journey yet she licked the packet clean saying it was the happiest she had ever felt in her whole life.
The temples of Abu Simbel were I think the highlight of my trip to Egypt. There was something so dramatic about these temples carved into the face of sandy cliffs with the desert stretching out behind and the brilliant blue waters of Lake Nasser in front. At the entrance to the temple are four giant seated statues of Ramesses II. With their eyes closed, their faces calm and expressionless, their palms facing downwards and resting on their knees, they have towered over millions of visitors who have walked past them humbled and in awe for centuries. There are smaller figures standing between their legs which represent Queen Nefertiti and their children.
What is apparent as you visit various sites of the Egyptian civilisation is the sheer narcissism and megalomania of its rulers. They wanted to leave behind as many giant God-like statues of their likeness as they possibly could all over their lands to ensure their legends would live on in posterity. And they certainly succeeded.
Our guide told us an interesting anecdote. Apparently, the temples are not at their original site. The construction of a dam on the River Nile threatened the submergence of these ancient marvels and it was only by the heroic efforts of archaeologists and engineers funded by voluntary donations from around the world under the aegis of UNESCO that they were carefully dismantled, lifted and relocated onto a higher ground further back from the rising waters of the reservoir.
Inside the temples are more statues and carved pillars, the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with reliefs depicting battle scenes and military victories. The interior is quite dark, and a quirky feature of how the temples are built is that on two particular days of the year the rays of the sun penetrate right through the interior to light up the sculptures on the back wall. No one is sure of the significance of these two days. A popular theory is perhaps one of the dates was the King’s birthday and the other the day of his ascension to the throne.
Egyptians painstakingly covered every possible inch of their temples and tombs and other monuments with incredibly detailed carved reliefs depicting their times and mythologies often accompanied by reams and reams of explanatory hieroglyphics. These are a wonderful window into their world and you can’t help but feel gratitude even though you know the human cost of these works. Imagine the thousands of poor slave labourers who must have toiled in the relentless heat for hours every day to produce these. Some would have balanced themselves on tall ladders or scaffolding all day to carve at the tops of walls and pillars with the only relief possible when they simply fell off in exhaustion and died.
There are recurring themes in Egyptian carvings. Like the unmistakeable figures of Pharaohs and Gods. Their figures are always taller and bigger than the rest and distinguishable by their elaborate head-gear. The Gods are often seen passing talismans to the Kings indicating divine blessing for them to assume the throne as well as the promise of protection against their enemies. After a while you start recognising the Gods. There is Isis with a giant solar disk on her head supported by carved horns on the sides. There is the sky god Horus with a falcon’s head and Anubis with a jackal’s head who is the God overseeing funereal rites.
The reliefs often show smaller “normal” people lining up in front of the Gods with offerings of fruits and vegetables on platters, or amphora filled with wine. Then there are depictions of Pharaohs sailing on military barges or standing tall and smiting huddled Lilliputian masses of some enemy army cowering at their feet. There are elaborate carvings of flora and fauna. Some of the more curious ones being baboons raising their arms in supplication and queuing up in front of a God or King, eagles with outstretched wings carved over doorways and the much-mythicised scarabs (sacred beetles).
Often there are mutant creatures for e.g. one with the head of a falcon and the body of a Jackal and of course the Sphinx. The women featured in the carvings often wear some sort of chain-mail like wig and elaborate necklaces not unlike Liz Taylor in the movie. But they are usually completely naked or wearing a simple sarong-like skirt, unlike her flowing silk gowns. The pillars have papyrus leaf designs carved at the top but if you notice closely no two pillars’ leaves will be exactly the same, a quiet nod to the inexhaustible variety that exists in nature.
Egypt Travel Diary Part 4: Sailing down the Nile
Most organised tours at this point take you on a Felucca cruise down the Nile from Aswan towards Luxor. This is a lovely little break from tramping around in the sun. The Felucca is a flat barge with mattresses on the floor and a cloth awning overhead which provides a welcome shade from the beating sun. It slowly makes its way down the legendary river and you get the blessed opportunity to take naps, chat with your fellow travellers, read, write or do absolutely nothing but stare out into space. After a brief stop to picnic on the banks, you spend the night on the Felucca under the startling black of the night sky as the rhythmic lapping waters of the river lull you into a peaceful sleep.
Egypt Travel Diary Part 5: Karnak
The Karnak temple complex near Luxor was the most impressive of all the temples I visited in terms of the sheer size and variety of its features. An avenue lined with seated statues of some sort of mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a ram leads to the main gate. The most jaw-dropping part of the complex is the Hypostyle Hall or as it is popularly called – the Forest of Pillars. Its a hall filled with rows of pillars totalling 134 in number. The pillars are absolutely massive some as big as 21 metres tall and 3 metres wide. And of course they are covered with drawings and hieroglyphics and their tops are carved into varying designs of papyrus leaves. Some of them have faint traces of coloured paint that have survived and they startle you into the sudden realisation that back in the day the pillars were completely painted in vibrant colours from top to bottom. Statues of kings and queens and carved obelisks litter the rest of the complex.
We were in for a special treat when our guide bribed a guard into letting us into a cordoned off section that was under restoration and showed us a chamber which had its painted interior wonderfully well preserved. The walls were painted white and the carvings and hieroglyphics on them were coloured in bright blues, yellows, greens and reds. The skin of the kings was painted reddish-brown like baked clay, the jewellery was painted gold with blue designs, the headdresses were made of a ribbed, chain-like gold material, the eyes were cat-like and lined with kohl. That’s when it hit me that all the temples and all the carvings that I had seen till now must have once looked like this. The colours really brought the carvings to life and I wished desperately I could have just a fleeting glimpse of the entire civilisation as it must have once been.
Egypt Travel Diary Part 6: Valley of the Kings
On the way to the Valley of the Kings, we stopped by Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple that is carved into a sheer rock face. It is some way back from the main road and I remember being absolutely baked to a crisp as I trudged across the flat land in the harsh blaze of the relentless sun. Our guide helpfully told us this was one of the hottest places on the face of the earth (actual recorded fact). I believed him.
The temple is a curious structure literally carved as I mentioned into a sheer side of a rocky cliff. It is made up of three horizontal collonaded terraces layered atop each other with a long sloping ramp connecting them. Back in the day, the terraces used to be covered with gardens made fragrant by exotic trees and shrubs like myrrh and frankincense. One of the ceilings of the temple is painted blue with gold stars across it and a row of gold snakes around the edges. At the corners are eagles with elaborately feathered outstretched wings painted in the colours red, white and blue!
Scattered across the surrounding hillsides we noticed little openings which our guide explained rather morbidly were the mouths of burial caves which served as group tombs – cemeteries carved into the rocks if you will.
Apparently the only way to proceed to the Valley of the Kings is by riding on mules. They were fairly well trained and didn’t become skittish even as we trotted them down highways with noisy trucks rattling past us.
Unfortunately you are not allowed to take photographs in or around the Valley. It is a dusty, mountainous terrain and it must have been by sheer accident or the passing down of folk tales from generation to generation that grave robbers and later archaeologists discovered the tombs of the kings that were so carefully hidden amongst the rocks of this Valley. I remember lining up in long queues at the entrances of the various tombs and shuffling through the underground chambers.
The interiors were well preserved though of course bereft by now of the riches and treasures they must have once held. The walls were painted white and covered with colourful depictions of the Pharaoh. These paintings offered a detailed insight into the funerary rituals and beliefs about the afterlife that formed such an important part of the Egyptian civilisation. For e.g. there were paintings showing the path to the Afterlife which Egyptians believed consisted of passing through multiple portals or chambers, each of which was guarded by an evil looking supernatural being that was part animal. Helpfully there were spells inscribed underneath these paintings that would help the deceased get past these monsters. After which came the Judgement where the God Osiris weighed the deceased’s heart on a pair of scales against a feather. If the heart was as light as the feather and hence bereft of the heaviness of sin, the deceased was permitted passage into the afterlife – a utopian land lush and fertile and aptly named the Field of Reeds. There were also paintings of the deceased’s eventual ascension to the sky and his passage across the heavens on the Sun God Ra’s chariot. However if the heart proved heavier than the feather there was a rather vicious looking beast that was part crocodile standing by to devour the unfortunate sinner.