Of Pyramids, Pharoahs and a Prodigious Pantheon
Anyone who has spent any amout of time perusing travel blogs will likely be aware of the ongoing debate concerning the differences between a ‘tourist’ and a ‘traveller’. A quick Google will reveal a plethora of answers (see this page, for example), many of them contradictory. Some people say there is no difference; others believe there is a difference in attitude; some say that it is a matter of geography (a tourist will see only the main sights, whereas a traveller will get off the beaten path and find things that aren’t mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide). I think my favourite definition of all, though, comes from one Mr. Craig Heimburger, who said:
Tourists expect toilet paper — travelers carry their own (with the carton roll removed and pressed flat).
This made me laugh out loud. We do indeed carry our own loo roll wherever we go, but this is not always as usfeul as you might think, especially in countries where they operate a Menaces Money system for public toilets (more on this later).
Personally I think that the terms ‘traveller’ and ‘tourist’ are closely intertwined. During this trip we have made our own way through countries without any real idea where we’ll end up from one day to the next (Vietnam is a good example of this), but we’ve also spent a fair amount of time on pre-paid tours being ferried to major tourist destinations. I don’t feel that one approach is better than the other. As far as I’m concerned, travelling on an air-conditioned bus with a guide and set itinerary is better than not travelling at all!
The reason I bring this up at all is because for the Egyptian part of our trip we decided to go ‘’tourist” all the way. Instead of spending hours trawling the Internet for the best flight and hotel deals, we talked to see a travel agent in the UK and said, “Find us a cruise ship, please, and make it a nice one.” We deliberately chose a luxury package rather than our standard cheap-and-cheerful affairs, ‘cos this was one of our top three Must-See destinations, after all.
If I’m honest, though, that wasn’t the only reason we wanted a high quality tour. Safety was another serious consideration, given that Egypt has had its problems in the past. We also weren’t sure whether there was going to be a strong anti-Western feeling running through the country. (Our paranoia is justified on this score, I think, given the negative reactions we had from the locals when we missed a connecting flight and were forced to spend the night in Bahrain.)
So, for all these reasons and more, we sat back and let somebody else do all the work. (We booked with these guys, by the way, and highly recommend them.)
Of course, booking with a reputable company is no guarantee that Mother Nature won’t find a way to throw a spanner in the works... this time in the form of an Icelandic volcano.
Actually, I have a sneaking feeling that that might be my fault.
See, the week before we decided to take a last-minute break in the Canary Islands - primarily to escape the evil British weather. This was not by any stretch of the imagination a luxury trip, and the journey to Fuerteventura was hell-on-two-wings. In mathematical terms, I would describe it like this:
cramped seating + noisy, inconsiderate passengers + unruly kids fighting in the aisle = Julie + (alcoholic miniatures x 20)
In other words, I soon found myself praying to any gods that’d let me join their fan club that I wouldn’t have to suffer the flight back. The very next day: volcano!
I should have been more specific in my prayers, however. No one had any idea how long we were going to be delayed, and we weren’t sure that we’d get back to London in time for our flight to Egypt. In the end we took matters into our own hands and arranged alternative flights via Madrid. It cost a small fortune, but that was better than losing out on our cruise altogether.
Getting there early had its advantages, however, ‘cos it meant that we got an extra day in Luxor (we weren’t actually due to arrive until 9.30 that night). I’m glad, in a way, ‘cos this was the one lazy day we got to have that week. The rest of it was a gruelling schedule that made us wonder whether we’d mistakenly ended up at boot camp. You think I’m exaggerating? Well, I am... but only a bit.
To give you an idea, this is what we did on day 1 of our cruise:
We were woken up at 5.30 am by the sadistic crew (*) for the first of our route-marches through Luxor. We met in the lobby, a collection of shell-shocked, sleepy Brits, wondering what on earth we’d let ourselves in for.
(*) Just kidding, they were all kind, friendly people with a great sense of humour.
This is what the River Nile looks like at six o’ clock in the morning, by the way:
Our itinerary for the day consisted of four interesting sights (and one Blatant Shopping Opportunity), starting with the Valley of the Kings. This was excellent news, ‘cos the VotK was one of my absolute must-sees while we were there. Also, because we were leaving so disgustingly early in the morning, the weather was still cool and pleasant, and once I’d woken up a bit I was really able to appreciate the fact that I was finally getting to explore a genuine ancient Egyptian site. After many years reading about ‘em and watching National Geographic documentaries, this realisation gave me a real thrill.
A word about our tour guide: We were in the care of a lovely fella named Ehab. As well as being our point-of-contact and general trouble-shooter on the ship, Ehab was also a fully qualified Egyptologist. Because we were by no means the only tour groups in the area (everywhere was heaving, even at 5 o’clock in the morning), he gave us a group name of ‘Ramses’ for easy identification. One memory of this trip I will always carry with me is Ehab holding his pink clipboard in the air and shouting, “Ramseeeeees!” then hurrying off to the next destination, us lot scurrying along behind trying to keep up.
Our visits were generally divided into two parts: a guided tour with explanations from Ehab, followed by a short period of time where we could explore by ourselves, take photos, get harassed by vendors or just find somewhere cool(ish) to sit for a few minutes. At the valley we only had time to visit three tombs. (I would have spent the entire day there, given half a chance!)
The Valley of the Kings is an area on the west bank of the Nile where Pharoahs were buried for almost 500 years. Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered there by Howard Carter in 1922. Although all the valuable stuff is now on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, you can still go into Tut’s tomb and have a look at his now-mangled mummy. Sadly we were told to leave our cameras on the bus so I can’t provide pictures, but you can see some good ones here.
Next came the dreaded Blatant Shopping Opportunity. They give us one every trip. This time we were taken to a family workshop where they produce Egyptian tat... sorry, souvenirs from alabaster. I have to admit, though, despite being an obvious attempt to separate gullible tourists from their money, these guys put on a great show. They gave us a carving demo at the beginning, with one fella giving the explanation and the others providing a kind of chorus. Their script was beautifully worked out and very funny in places. Main guy would say something, then the ‘chorus’ would chip in with a comment or two of their own, usually sarcastic. At one point they were illustrating the difference between items made from basalt and those made from cheap plastic (plastic burns, alabaster doesn’t); when he set fire to the plastic thingy, the chorus started singing ‘Happy Birthday’!
We still didn’t buy anything, though.
And they hassled us for tips on the way out.
A note about tipping: The Egyptians are all very keen to point out that tipping is optional in their country. What they don’t point out is that if you fail to respond to a request for baksheesh, you are likely to be followed and harassed by an annoyed vendor/taxi driver/maid for the next ten minutes. In our hotel in Cairo we even had staff come knocking on our door when they had no reason to do so, obviously just looking for a handout. This is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that it is almost impossible to find small change. ATMs all issued large denomination notes which our hotel reception couldn’t exchange; even the bloomin’ shop owners told us they couldn’t break large notes (and lost our custom because of it). I have a theory, however. I know who has all the small coins in Egypt: the Menace Money ladies!
A note about Menace Money: Some countries have an unusual approach to public toilets. Instead of providing loo roll and hand towels inside, you have to purchase these items before you are allowed in. These Guardians of the Public (In)Conveniences are little more than schoolyard bullies, and heaven help you if you try to get out of paying. To be fair, they do only charge a small amount, but again this can be a pain if you don’t have any coins, ‘cos the Menance Money people are often reluctant to give change. Don’t think you can get away with it by trying to take your own paper in with you, either: I saw one M.M. lady having a full-blown argument with a couple of tourists in the Egyptian Museum because they refused to cough up; on another occasion the attendant actually followed someone inside, yelling at them all the way. We discovered later that most M.M. attendants will usually accept US/British/European money, so we made sure we carried some pence and cents with us at all times after that.
And so the route-march went on. Once we’d escaped from the Alabaster factory, we were taken to the Tomb of Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s only female Pharoah:
Hatshepsut wore men’s clothing and even had a fake beard, but she wasn’t fooling anybody; she was still a girlie even if she was Pharoah, and the misogynists of that time strongly disapproved. Her successor and nephew, Thutmose III, even had her name chipped off all the temple walls when he came to power some twenty years later. (She obviously wasn’t his favourite aunt!) Still, Egypt was prosperous during Hatshepsut’s rule, so she couldn’t have been all that bad.
This was followed by a five-minute stop to see the Colossi of Memnon:
These fellas are two humungous statues of Amenhotep III. They used to stand guard at the entrance of the Pharoah’s memorial temple, but floods and thieving construction workers destroyed the actual buildings.
Finally, we ended up at the temples of Karnak. Quite frankly most of us were too hot and tired to really appreciate it at this point, which was a shame ‘cos it’s a fascinating place.
Karnakian crowds. It was like this pretty much every place we visited in Egypt, but it was slightly harder to cope with here because of the lack of shade. Tour group leaders are pretty good at spotting cool places to hide, but, even so, we still had to stand in direct sunlight being lectured for half an hour at a time. Don’t they realise we’re British, for heaven’s sake? We don’t know how to cope with sunshine!
Karnak, for the uninitiated, is a complex of temples, chapels and other buildings, and is the largest ancient religious site in the world. One of the big differences between Karnak and similar sites is the length of time over which it was developed and used. It was built and extended over a 1,300 year period, and approximately thirty pharoahs contributed to it.
By the time we were all convinced we were going to die of starvation or heatstroke, we were finally herded onto the bus and taken back to the boat. We ate lunch in a daze, and most us napped that afternoon. Everyone agreed that the pace was quite manic. (We also agreed that we needed to take more water, sunscreen and snacks on subsequent trips!)
Temples were a major feature of our tour. Here are a few more:
Top left: Edfu, dedicated to the hawk god, Horus. Amongst other things, the Egyptians believed Horus was responsible for ensuring the sun rose every morning.
Top right: Kom Ombo, which we got to visit at night, hence the unusual colours. This is a double temple, dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek, and Horus the hawk god.
Bottom left: The Philae temple complex had to be dismantled and moved, due to the construction of the Aswan Dam. It is dedicated to the gods Isis, Horus and Osiris.
Bottom right: One of the two rock temples at Abu Simbel (*). It was designed to commemorate the reign of Pharoah Ramses II and his wife, Nefertari. These temples also had to be relocated to an artificial hill – again due to the Aswan Dam.
(*) Abu Simbel was an optional tour, which required a 3 a.m. start and an half hour flight. The airline gave us the best safety briefing I have ever heard: “There are four exits,” the stewardess said, “two at the front and two at the rear of the plane. There is a safety card in your seat pocket. Read it.”
These temples were remarkably similar in many respects. The interior walls and ceilings were covered with painted heiroglyphics and scenes depicting the Pharoah’s life, and many rooms contained enormous statues in various states of disrepair. The exteriors also had elaborate carvings with repetitive themes, such as the one shown below:
The scene on the wall shows a Pharoah making an offering to a god. This is common in Egyptian artwork - unsurprising really, given that there were over 2,000 gods and goddesses in the ancient pantheon. For example, they had Anubis, a jackal-headed god devoted to embalming; Bastet the cat goddess of protection; Horus the hawk, god of the sky; Sobek, the crocodile god of the Nile; and Khnum, the goat god who created mankind on a potter’s wheel and breathed life into them.
Can you imagine what it would have been like if all these deities had turned up to receive their offerings at the same time? No? Let me paint you a picture. This is what I think the average Pharoah went through on offering day:
So, who’s first? *whistles* Come on, Anubis, here boy. I’ve got some nice Pedigree Chum for you. No, don’t growl at Bastet like that, you bad dog, or I shall whack you on the nose with a rolled-up papyrus!
Bastet... ah, we’re out of Kibble, I’m afraid, so I guess you’re on your own today. You’ll have to go and catch yourself a nice mouse or something. Or a bird, you say? Yes, you could do that instead. No, don’t go hunting Horus. He’s a very busy avian – he has to battle the forces of darkness every night just to make sure that the sun rises in the morning, you know. If you eat him, the sun won’t come back and the slaves will rebel. I can’t have that right now, ‘cos I need all the bodies I can get to finish building my pyramid. Actually I’ve being thinking about making some changes to the design. I mean, pyramids are so fourth dynasty; I’d like something with a few more curves. I’ve talked to Imhotep about it, but for an architect he is so one-track-minded. “Pointy, pointy,” that’s all he ever says.
Khnum, how are you doing, my goat-faced friend? Ah, you’ve already eaten, I see. What is that sticking out of your mouth, anyway? My altar cloth? Okay. And you’ve also eaten Queen Hatshepsut’s false beard, three tunics and some mummy wrappings. Well, I’m not surprised you’ve got indigestion. Chew your soft furnishings slowly in future, okay?
Who’s next? Sobek. Right, then, let’s see what we’ve got for you today... What d’you mean you want sausages? Well you can’t have any; the Greeks haven’t invented them yet. How d’you know about those, anyway? You saw ‘em in a Punch and Judy show? Sobek, have you been hanging around the mummification room again? You know that sniffing embalming fluid makes you hallucinate. So, no sausages. Try again. Oh, so now you’d like a nice leg of human, would you? Who d’you think we are? Aztecs? No, mate, we don’t do human sacrifices here. Leave that to that bloodthirsty lot in Mexico. No, I don’t know if the Aztec pantheon is hiring. Well, it wouldn’t hurt to send in an application, I suppose. Go find a scribe and we’ll write up your resume. Of course, given how complicated our alphabet is, this may take a while. By the time it’s done, they may well have invented sausages. Here, how do you spell your name, anyway? Horizontal bar, black squiggle, lower leg, feather and some kind of basket-shaped thing. No, I don’t know how to spell ‘sausages’; I keep telling you, they don’t exist yet.
Blimey, I can’t wait ‘til that heretic Pharoah Akhenaten gets rid of you lot and introduces a monotheistic system of worship based on the sun. It’s like a zoo in here!
There, I feel better now. This blog entry was getting way too factual, and I wouldn’t anyone to accuse me of coherency or anything.
So, enough silliness, and enough of temples, too! The main attractions in Egypt have got to be the Sphinx and pyramids at Giza, and we weren’t leaving until we’d been for a gawp along with everyone else. We flew up to Cairo after the cruise, determined that our route-marching days were over. We made a cursory enquiry about bus trips, pulled faces when they told us the schedule they had in mind, and immediately hired a private tour guide named Dahlia. Dahlia came with a flexible schedule, an air-conditioned car, a driver and a whole wealth of knowledge gained during her seven years studying Egyptology at university. She was a fabulous guide, so interesting and full of useful information; I wish I could remember a fraction of the things she told us!
So, there we were, standing in the Sahara desert and staring in awe at three humungous pyramids, and wondering, like so many before us, just how the ancients managed to build such impressive structures with such limited technology.
I am sorry to tell all you conspiracy theorists and tin foil hat wearers out there that the pyramids were not built by aliens. Dahlia was having none of it: “People and hard work,” she insisted, over and over again.
The high point of the day (aside from the one on the top of Cheops), was being allowed inside a pyramid. We’d asked about this in advance and were told that it was possible; what we weren’t expecting was to be allowed inside the Great Pyramid itself! It was an interesting climb, to say the least. There was only one passageway open, which was basically a steep wooden ramp. It was very narrow, so you had to bend over or crouch as you climbed, and it was very congested because the ramp had to contain people coming down as well as those going up. At the top we ended up in a plain room that contained a sarcophagus and not a lot else. They wouldn’t let us take photos in there, the meanies (they even confiscated our camera at the front entrance), but for a bit of baksheesh the camera-confiscator took a picture of us inside the entrance (even though he said he wasn’t supposed to).
We also saw another pyramid that day, one which was quite unexpected. We were driven to Sakkara, the place where the very first pyramid was built for Pharoah Djoser.
It was designed by an architect called Imhotep, who had quite an impressive career. He had many titles:
- Chancellor of the King of Egypt
- First in line after the King of Upper Egypt
- Administrator of the Great Palace
- Hereditary nobleman
- High Priest of Heliopolis
- Chief Carpenter
- Chief Sculptor
- Maker of Vases in Chief.
I think they missed one, though:
- Pharoah’s pet.
The highlight of my week, though, had to be the Egpytian Museum. I loved this place and could’ve spent the entire day exploring it. Dahlia, excellent as ever, hit the high points for us. We learned how to interpret the statues, and saw the loot from Tut’s tomb – for real! (We’d already seen mock-up versions in an exhibition in Barcelona, but nothing can beat the real thing!)
And that was the end of a fantastic – if exhausting – week. The whole experience was amazing, beginning to end. Despite its sometimes frenetic pace, this trip will definitely be one of our highlights!
More from the road soon,
Julie & Pete