Ha, ha! We were both fast asleep by 6:30pm, and missed dinner, the show, the tour of Kom Ombo. After our gallabiya ordeal at the Cairo market, we never got to wear them. But we woke up this morning feeling great! Today we cruised north along the Nile all day. It was a deliciously slow and peaceful day. I spent hours and hours simply gazing at the shoreline going by.
We were fortunate to have a cabin on the West side of the ship, because we enjoyed an unobstructed view of the river, rather than another ship a foot away. First thing this morning, we looked out to see the lighting of a bonfire on the shore. We found out later that agriculturalists along the Nile burn the leaves of their sugar cane and banana trees, once they have been removed from the plants. The bonfire actually served to give me some peace about the constant orange-brown air with a nasty taste. Perhaps it’s as simple as widespread burning, and not the toxic pollution I was imagining.
During the night we had cruised to Edfu to be in place for our first tour of the morning. The Ptolmeic Temple of Horus at Edfu is a huge complex and extremely well-preserved due to being buried in sand for many years. Like most of the temples we saw, this one was begun by one king and added to by others. Ramses II may have contributed to the original part. After work by several kings, it was not finished until around 60 AD.
The standard structure of ancient Egyptian temples is to have two massive “pylons” on either side of an entrance. Originally, the pylons were carved with hieroglyphics, covered in brightly painted illustration, and adorned with gigantic flags on poles that reached as high as the pylons. Today nearly all of the colour is missing from the pylons, and much of the carved hieroglyphics are missing because of erosion and vandalism. Successive kings who wished to add their part, would often fund a plaza, or another pylon entrance. This created several entrances, separated by gorgeous plazas filled with incredible columns and statues, sometimes additional small temples. As we walked through these entrances toward the back, we reached the older portions of the temple.
The small room (when I say small, I mean in comparison to the huge complex) at the very back, Hossam called it the Holy of Holies, was the most precious sacred site. This was the oldest part of the temple in every temple, and only the high priest and the king were allowed into it, or to see into it. Only priests and the king were allowed into the front plazas. Common people were never allowed into any part of the temple, but they did worship and celebrate right in front of the temple.
We stood in front of pylons with Hossam as he explained how we could tell what gods were being honored. The kings, queens, and gods are stylized on every temple. What differentiates between them are the additional symbols. Of course a cartouche with the figure’s name will be present, but if you can’t read hieroglyphics, you can pick out the symbols. The type of crown worn will identify the figure in nearly every case. The size of the figure will identify who is being honored more. A king may be larger than life, with his powerful queen standing only as tall as his knee.
The scenes on the walls are all very important – nothing was thrown up there for entertainment value. The scenes can tell stories of history – how the kings are related to gods, for example, or how a god was born. They will explain what happens in the afterlife, or what role a leader played during a time of war. What Hossam pointed out to us most often was how the hieroglyphics were a testament to the greatness of some king. Maybe that was a common theme, or maybe that’s what Hossam focused on, but these scenes were constantly surrounding us.
Ancient Egyptians believed that they could earn a better place in the after life, and so they spent a crazy amount of time having their great deeds and offerings and qualities explained all over the walls of the temples. They believed that the better job they did of explaining how great they were to their gods, the better chance they had of being important in the after life, rather than just another character. The goal was to be granted god status in the after life. The larger the figures representing the kings and gods, the more awesome they apparently were. The longer the lists of sacrifices, the more apparent it is that they served their gods well, and thus deserved favor. Lists of what they dedicated to their gods would cover an entire wall: 100 cattle, 240 pheasants, 5 piles of gold, 5 piles of silver, 80 bottles of fragrant oil, etc. Seriously! Big long lists on the walls, next to a picture of the king himself, holding some of the stuff he dedicated to the god. Sometimes the king would be pictured holding a scroll of papyrus in one hand. One can assume that the scroll contains a list of more good deeds of the king, or perhaps descriptions of the greatness of whatever god the king is trying to impress.
At Horus’ temple I learned the meaning of what I had fondly come to think of as “the dancing king.” While just about everyone else on the walls posed standing erect with their left foot forward, signifying action, leadership, and strength, one of the classic poses was instead a king balanced on one foot with his other foot lifted behind him in almost an arabesque. His arms were spread wide with one arm above his head. All that activity made me think he must be dancing. Hossam pointed out key elements of the design that I had missed: the arm held out in front of the king controlled a group of prisoners (carved small to show their insignificance), held up by their hair in the king’s fist. His raised arm held a stick for beating the prisoners. The scene shows that one aspect of his leadership is that he punishes people when they are bad. So…a little more violence than I was thinking.
The remainder of the day was arguably my favourite part of our journey, because there was no agenda, no shopping, and no guide telling us to be back at the bus in twenty minutes. Rather, we had hours upon hours of sun on the water. I stood forever at the railing of the ship, watching the coastline pass. From the ship I got to see what I want most to see in another land: daily life. In the rural areas, there were people working in the fields, donkeys pulling loads on wooden carts, boys throwing stones, women balancing sacks of goods on their heads, and fishermen spreading nets.
When we passed towns I looked hungrily up the tourist-free streets at the markets and people as I imagine they function on any ordinary day. I’m amused at the buses, pickups and vans full, and spilling over with humans clinging to the vehicle with only fingertips and toes in their need for transportation. I saw truckloads of camels rumble past. Donkey-drawn carts are rather common in all the smaller cities and towns. Uniformed security personnel are everywhere: city police overlapped with regional and state police, overlapped with Egyptian military. They are all quiet, grim-faced, and holding automatic rifles at the ready. I never felt intimidated by the presence of security and guns. After a few examples of how they are quick to step in at a hint of trouble, they made me feel safe. I wonder if Americans playing this role could keep their mouths shut and hold still for so long while nothing bad was happening. I don’t think so; and therefore, I don’t think we could pull this off in the United States.
The crops along the river were mainly sugar cane and bananas. Sometimes we saw large areas of a short plant growing in standing water, and we guessed it may be rice. Perhaps there were other crops we didn’t recognize. One curious thing is that we never spotted orange groves to explain the heaps of oranges for sale in many city streets. Another common commodity are carrots, but a carrot crop would be hard to spot from a ship. Carrots here are orange and red – red like beets. They are beautiful.
In towns everywhere we see obvious encroachment of apartments onto land that was previously crops. There is finite fertile land in Egypt – too bad there isn’t a law against building on crop land. In the short term, sure, I can see the appeal of developing or selling to a developer. But in the long run, it’s such a sickening
waste of the dark soil to plant a row of brick cube towers.
The apartments everywhere look exactly the same to me. All the same construction. First, a concrete shell is erected. This will consist of supporting beams on the four corners of the building, and at strategic places throughout. There will also be a concrete staircase built into one wall. When the concrete sets, the building contains many open “windows.” Workers then fill the windows in, one by one, with common red bricks. From the outside, one can see how workers struggled to get the topmost bricks into the window-hole.
They often resorted to cramming pieces of bricks at the top – likely remnants of re-sized bricks from elsewhere on the construction project. I don’t know anything about architecture, but the buildings seemed unsteady due to the sagging brick lines and the rubble at the top of each filled in brick section. But then… perhaps the concrete shell is the building’s support, and the bricks are only for protection from the elements.
There does not appear to be a global economic meltdown affecting construction of apartments in Egypt. Apartment blocks are sprouting like some kind of concrete-and-brick weed. They tend to be six- to ten-stories high, have identical designs, and are placed side by side to maximize the use of the land for housing. At least half of the apartments we saw had concrete reinforcing rebar thrusting through the roof – as if awaiting the next floor’s construction. Hossam explained that some buildings are legitimately incomplete, but many are also intentionally left undone, because the taxes on a finished building are much higher than taxes on an unfinished building.
This was the one and only day in Egypt with extended relaxation. I stood at the railing and tried to soak up as many sights as possible, since everything I saw was remarkable and unusual to me.
The shore of the Nile is as beautiful as you have imagined it, with forests of palm trees growing wild, acres of green green fields, and brown desert mountains soaring up behind it all. Any reasonably sized cluster of habitation would erect a mosque and minaret. This made for postcard images in almost every scene. The only down side was a significant one: the air remained thick with brown-yellow particles obscuring what could likely be astonishing long-distance panoramas.
We waited a long time at a bridge, until they opened it for us to pass through. While we waited, I was able to take a more intimate look at an Egyptian city. In this case, the city was Esna.
Beyond the bridge were the Esna locks. I don’t recall having been through a lock before. This one is huge! We were the first ship of the day into it, and another cruise ship settled in behind us. They closed the lock and as the water level receded we sank quickly! Most of our time spent in Esna was waiting for them to get ready to accept us into the lock. Once we were in, the action happened and we were cruising north toward Cairo again in 15 minutes.
We were dropped on the shore south of Luxor where we boarded buses to Luxor Temple in the dark. Night visits offer a unique view of the temples bathed in lights, and also cut out the crowd of tourists. We were almost the only group there tonight. The city was quiet, the weather warm, and the entire visit was peaceful. We were allowed a generous amount of time to simply wander the grand and beautifully restored temple grounds.
At Luxor Temple I also got a better education about sphinxes. Yes, we had seen The Sphinx at Giza. Prior to my visit, I thought there was only one. In Luxor alone, we saw hundreds of sphinxes (the Greek word for a statue of a reclining animal with a human head). Luxor Temple contains the remains of an avenue of sphinxes with human heads. These apparently were rebuilt to replace the original avenue of sphinxes with ram heads built by Amenhotep III that stretched 3 kilometers – all the way to Karnak Temple, which we will be touring tomorrow.