29 June 2015

Cruising Up the River, Egypt 2008

A modern Sun Goddess, unlike the ancient figures we've been visiting, greets us dockside on the Nile at Luxor. Cruising is a novelty at this point of my travels and looks oh-so-appealing after our long sweaty trek through and around the enormous Karnak Temple site. Karnak was the pilgrimage centre of worship for several ancient gods and covers about two hundred acres. It felt like we walked all of it. 

The famed temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor are on the east bank of the Nile, the "side of life," so says Hami Habiba our guide. There is so much to see and linger for, but Hami likes to keep us moving with “mooshi! mooshi!” which means hurry up you dumb tourists.
So the river scene is enough to help us cool down. The ship is comfortable, enjoyable; ninety cabins, each with two beds and not much room for anything else. Doesn't matter; being up top when sailing is the main thing. There's a pool on deck and the food is wonderful. From dining room at the bottom to the sundeck, five flights of stairs, 80 steps who's counting? opportunity for more exercise training (they do have elevators!). We are one of a score of similar ships plying up and down the river. However it's rush-rush through our first impressive five-course dinner because Luxor Temple is waiting for us before sunset.
Again, everything is on a gigantic scale. Once the ages-old city of Thebes, the stone remains were uncovered beneath the sand and the town that superseded it. Once again we are overawed with the magnitude of proportion and design. We are bone-tired by the time the sun goes down. It goes down fast in Egypt. Our companion Joe still shaken by a stubborn camel at Giza causes a stir, getting lost and confused in the blackness pierced only by strategic floodlights. With relief I could finally settle on the ship's deck for a nightcap, keen to watch the quayside activity. A wedding party is whooping it up at a disco and passersby are merrily invited to join the celebration.
National Geographic, Keith Garrett
 Next morning, still Luxor, early rising. A group of fifteen is going to the west bank of the Nile, the "side of death." We are bussed, trammed, bussed, to the immense Valley of the Kings. The heat in this extraordinary desert bowl is ferocious, the reason we started so early. Ancient labourers dug down to bedrock to excavate the royal burial chambers. Tutankhamen’s tomb is not open to the public right now. We are allowed to visit three tombs that are mainly empty, i.e. none of the original accoutrements or sarcophagi. No warning that the first, for Ramses IV, was a horridly steep, narrow descent crammed with tourists moving each way; one line going down, one line coming up. The press of bodies, the stale air, and lack of circulation are too much for me. Wuss! ... halfway down I join the going-up line.
The next tombs are less daunting to access — the artwork on the walls and ceilings is amazing to behold in their original colours, many depicting the guide to the underworld. The symbolism, the gods they worshiped, the history, are complicated as the centuries rolled on. Hundreds of tourists file slowly back and forth, heads canted up for best viewing. Disturbing the rhythm by lingering invites nasty remarks or trampled toes. Security here seems pretty relaxed for protecting the priceless sites.
 Absorbed in the magnificent frescoes until a shove in the kidneys snaps me out of it, I lose my group somewhere. But I find a third tomb to visit on my own. Later I manage to relocate my buds in time to move on to the memorable tomb/temple of Queen Hatshepsut, dedicated to the sun god; she was a queen who actually ruled.
Then we go on to the nearby Valley of the Queens where we climb a zillion stairs. Here are buried many royal consorts and notables, dozens and dozens of tombs! Did I mention the temperature in this valley must be close to 50 degrees celsius? The unlucky few of us hit with the Egyptian flu are desperate for the W.C. There goes Joe. Did someone put a curse on the poor guy before he started his travels?

Back to the ship, a very full day already, and it's just lunch time. Now our cruising upriver begins. Every day features tea on deck at 5 pm. The group checks their various bruises, sprains, and shaky limbs did we know that hiking, scrambling, stumbling over archaeological sites required fitness training prep? The first lock on the river appears after dinner; it takes two ships at a time so we are jockeying in a lineup.
Despite the darkness, the “boat boys” are out in force to sell their wares. What a hoot for a couple of hours. They throw parcels up to the deck on request ... dresses (djellabayas), carpets, scarves, jewellery ... and we throw down the packaged money after a great deal of boisterous price haggling. Shoppers gone berserk!

Arriving at Edfu means a carriage ride to the remarkably well-preserved Temple of Horus. It was equally interesting to see the streets of the town as we drove through. “No shopping, no shopping,” Hami cries as we eye the vendors. A river of people streams through the monument. Built by the Ptolemaic dynasty to honour Horus, mythologized as the son of gods Isis and Osiris, the temple is on the site of a battle won by Horus. His life and myth are memorialized throughout; pilgrims would come to bring ritual offerings to the god. Later Ptolemies added their own royal self-depictions.
 Back to the ship for a sail to Kom Ombo. It feels like royalty to sit on deck watching scenery and agricultural life go by. Marshy islands. A few passing pleasure ships. Little or no small boat activity. Late afternoon docking at Kom Ombo with a short walk to the Greco-Roman temple. When we see tourists by the hundreds being funnelled into a very small entrance, once again I say no way. Later I hear almost everyone had been dismayed by the claustrophobic and chaotic crowds. The strongest elbows and shoulders won the shoving matches; apparently the Germans prevailed.
Instead I wander off toward the shops and stalls along the quay. The vendors are thick as flies but I don’t mind. Good humour is the key. Then I run out of shops after the sun sets and the remainder of the quay leading to the ships is inky dark and deserted. I approach Mr. Policeman to ask if it's safe to walk to my ship along the unlit section. No English, but he recognizes the word “ship” and escorts me along to the Sun Goddess in companionable silence. Just as well, because the ship moved from the position where we left it.
Tonight the ship decrees we dress up like Arabs for buffet dinner on the deck. My buddy looks very exotic, right from the desert. I do an Aw-renz (Lawrence) imitation with my camel shirt and makeshift keffiyeh. Another camera fail! There is belly dancing entertainment and the party goes on but the elbowing and shopping and the heat took their toll and we have to rise at ...

... 4:30 a.m.! That’s the call for a few who booked an optional excursion (flight) to the greatest highlight of the entire cruise: Abu Simbel!

Worth every extra penny. Our ship has taken us to Aswan overnight, Nubian country. Here is Lake Nasser created by the dam, over 500 km in length. We are shuttled across the famous dam and do the airport-waiting thing; it's a gorgeous airport. Our flight passes over the famous towering statues into a very steep landing at Abu Simbel.
Ramses II Temple
Queen Neferteri Temple
Creating the dam would have submerged the monumental 3,000-year-old statues and temples erected by Ramses II for himself and his Queen Neferteri. And so they were moved higher from their original position carved into a cliff a gigantic international engineering venture in the 1960s. Incredibly painstaking planning and equipment managed the process of new site preparation, the dis-assembly and reassembly. The inner rooms of one temple reach sixty metres back into the mountain. There's more effort here at security, and fewer crowds. More leisure time to enjoy the temples' masterpiece interiors. All this and the day is only half done when we return to Aswan for a city tour. 
 A felucca sail is fun the next day. Sailing is a two-man job and the men prove admirably skillful with the huge sail on an unusually windy Nile. We spot the tomb of the former Aga Khan on a hill. Eventually the main crewman produces a drum-like, tambourine-type instrument and gives us a few Nubian songs. All is authentically pleasing until he breaks into “She’ll be comin’ around the mountain.” Spontaneous laughter but I feel sorry about the disconnect. Hami then announces a “commercial break” with a straight face and the same crewman unfolds his jewellery table for us all to pounce on. Total disconnect :-D !

Rather soon we are leaving the splendid Sun Goddess which will take another load of tourists back downriver to Luxor. 

Egypt ... always a bundle of contradictions.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

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