Monday, August 9, 2010


Hello everyone! It's been such a long time since I've written anything I hope I still know how to spell. Seriously. As expected, the internet connections in Africa were a little slow and made blogging a little difficult. Plus, let's be honest, we were having such a blast all over the continent that we didn't have time for sitting at a computer! Africa in its entirety was an amazing experience, but I can't write about it all at once, so I'll have to start at the beginning and take it from the top, of the continent that is. Hopefully I'll remember all of the highlights, but please ask questions to jog our memory!

Back a long, long, time ago, around the end of May, 2010, Chris and I arrived in Cairo, Egypt. Luckily we were well rested after spending a few days with Chris' friend Stefan and his girlfriend Barbara in Singapore. It was a well needed rest before our long tour of Africa began. Egypt was actually not originally planned in our trip, but Chris being the romantic he is surprised me last year when he was booking our RTWT tickets with a 5 day whirlwind tour of Egypt. He even found a great tour guide, Hend, to show us around. Since we only had 5 days to see all of the wonders of Egypt it was great to have a tour guide. We hadn't had one for any other part of our trip to that point and it was nice not to have to worry about where we going to eat, sleep and do for those days.

We got into Cairo pretty early in the morning and wasted no time. Hend picked us up from the airport, whisked us away to the hotel to check in and we were immediately off to go see the great pyramids. It is hard to describe what it is like to see the pyramids and Sphinx in person. First off, they are right on the edge of town and people pass them all of the time during their day to day routines, just commuting to work or going to the store. Second, they are huge! Not just their height, but also the blocks they are made from. As you can see from the picture below, some of the blocks are nearly as tall Chris and I. The Sphinx is also huge, I believe it is the largest statue in the world carved from a single rock. The rock it is made from was actually not moved to its current location in Cairo, it is sitting in its original position and the Egyptians (or whomever was responsible for carving it) just carved it on its spot. Another interesting fact is that the Great pyramid, attributed to Khufu was originally 480 feet high, while the second highest pyramid, attributed to Khafre was 470 feet high. What is interesting about this is that Khafre is Khufu's son and his pyramid, while in truth shorter, actually looks taller because he built it on ground 33 feet higher. What a faker!

We spent a few hours looking at the pyramids and Sphinx and marvelled as to how they were actually built and for what purpose. The main theory supported by Egyptologists is that the pyramids were built using some kind of ramp system and by moving the rocks from their original location using boats on the Nile. Additionally, conventional wisdom dictates that the pyramids were built for 3 pharaohs of the old kingdom as temples to help them reach the afterlife. I'm not an engineer, so I can't really comment on how plausible the engineering theory is, but there I do question whether or not the pyramids really are temples for kings. Later in the trip we go to Luxor to visit the Valley of the Kings where the majority of ancient pharaohs are buried. The pharaohs buried here are from both before and after the time of the pharaohs from the Great Pyramids at Giza. The operative word is BURIED. All of these kings, including Ramses the second, one of the greatest rulers of ancient Egypt were all buried underground, with all of their stuff, as our Luxor guide put it, with many hieroglyphics stating their greatness and showing how they will make it to the afterlife. Why is it that three pharaohs went out of tradition with pharaohs that came before them and it was only these three pharaohs that changed tradition? Additionally, why are didn't they put their names all over their temples like other kings? Something about that seems odd to me. I'm not an expert, but I definitely think the pyramids hold more mysteries than we know and were built for reasons we aren't able to fathom yet.

After visiting the pyramids, we ended the night on a dinner cruise on the Nile. It was an interesting experience. I'm not a huge fan of dinner cruises as they are so very touristy and this one was no exception to that, but I'll give it higher than average marks for the entertainment. Besides having a belly dancer and whirling dervish, they also had a little person whiling dervish. Now, that's original!

My highlight of our second day in Cairo was going to see the Egyptian Museum. It's amazing how many artifacts they can fit in one spot. Really, its just amazing how many artifacts they have in Egypt. One joke we heard was that if you kick any dirt in Egypt an artifact will pop up. I wouldn't doubt it. I think there were millions of artifacts in this museum alone. The main attraction in the Egyptian Museum is, of course, mummies! At first, I wasn't too ecstatic to see thousand year old bodies, but once we were in the first mummy room I was hooked. It is surreal to see these historic people close up and to know they were actually alive over four thousand years ago and that you can see their hair and eyelashes all in tact! It was really creepy and awe inspiring at once. I'll let Chris go into more detail about this because I think it has been one of his highlights of the entire trip.

After visiting a few churches and a mosque, Hend took us to eat some local food which was spaghetti with about five other toppings besides marinara sauce including lentils, chickpeas and lemon. Sounds a little gross, but it was delicious! Later on in the evening of the second day we boarded a train for the overnight trip to Luxor. The train was actually the nicest we've been on during our entire trip. The room was just for the two of us and it even had an attendant and a washing sink in the "room". We settled in for the night, had an uneventful ride, and arrived in Luxor at 5 am. Even getting off the train at that time of day we could tell that it was going to be hottttt in Luxor! As it turns out it ended up being well over 110 in the heat of the day.

In Luxor we had a different tour guide, Mohamed. Although it was early in the morning, he took us straight towards the Valley of the Kings to get in line to be one of the first into the monument. Sure enough, even at 5:30 in the morning there were people lined up to get in. I think this had to do with the fact that Luxor is so hot and also that the tunnels leading down to the tombs and the tomb areas are so narrow. Luckily we were one of the first in so it wasn't too hot and it wasn't too crowded. In the Valley, there are over 60 pharaohs buried, but only some tombs are open each day. Every visitor is only allowed to see three of the tombs. We went on the advise of our tour guide and saw two of the Ramses tombs (III and IX, I think) and also a tomb of Merenptah. All of the tombs have similar set ups, a long long narrow hallway with rooms off to hold all of the pharaohs' stuff, as Mohamed so eloquently put it. Along the hallways there are intricate hieroglyphs depicting the pharaohs' trip to the afterlife with the pharaohs' heart being weighed against a feather overlooked by the gods Osiris, Anubis and Horus. The paintings along the hallways are in amazing condition and nearly all of the original paint is still on the walls. The most prominent colors are yellow, blue, white, with a few red and green highlights.

After we checked out those tombs, we paid extra to see King Tut's tomb. King Tut's tomb is one of the most famous in the Valley of the Kings, not because it is an impressive tomb or because King Tut was a particularly great pharaoh, actually he died young and was only pharaoh for a few years, but because his tomb was found with all of the "stuff" in it. All of the other tombs that have been found in the Valley were already raided for all of the riches the kings took with them into the afterlife. King Tut's tomb entrance was hidden under another tomb entrance, hiding it from robbers. When it was discovered, it actually had nearly all of the original riches, which can be seen in the Egypt Museum in Cairo. Considering that Tut wasn't a very important pharaoh and that he died on short notice and the ancient artisans only had a few weeks to put his paintings, casket, etc. together it is easy to imagine how great the treasures were for a long reigning king such as the Great Ramses the 2nd. It made me wonder whether any of those treasures exist in tact today or if they were all melted down and destroyed over time.

After the Valley of the Kings, we headed towards the Valley of the Queens, but made a stop at the great temple of Hatshepsut, a great female pharaoh of Egypt. She made an altogether different type of tomb for herself as she believed that she was a God herself. Interestingly, she portrayed herself to look like a male pharaoh in all of her statues and paintings. She was pharaoh because she took over the power from her young son Tuthmosis III, but as you can imagine, once her son came of age he took the throne back and at the end of his reign tried to destroy all of the memory of her. This is shown at her temple where many of the faces of Hatshepsut are vindictively destroyed. Regardless of her son's efforts, her memory remains as a unique pharaoh in Egypt's history known for her many building projects.

After Hatshepsut's temple, we made our way to the Valley of the Queens, where as you can guess many of the Queens and the pharaohs children were buried. The most beautiful of all of these tombs is that of Nefertiti one of the most beautiful women in history. Unfortunately, her tomb was closed for cleaning. We did get to see three other tombs of children of pharaohs that were mostly in better shape than those at the Valley of the Kings in that the paintings were all in tact. The pictures were very similar to those in the Valley of the Kings, showing the journey to the afterlife, but the main difference is that the child's father, the pharaoh of the time is depicted as leading the child in the journey.

At this point in the day it was getting very hot. We decided to move quickly to the last few sites before the heat of the day came. The last two places that we went were to me, the most impressive of anything else we saw in Egypt. These were Luxor and Karnak Temples. Both were temples used during ancient times for ceremonies of the high priests. Each temple had multiple areas, each getting more and more exclusive to those that were allowed into each area as you got closer to the inner sanctum where only a few high priests and the pharaohs were allowed. The two temples were connected at one point by a river lined with hundreds and hundreds of sphinx as the two temples are kilometers away. Now, even four thousand years later, some of the paint is still on the columns that are entirely outside and the sheer size of the columns and statues will impress anyone, even from this modern day. Ramses the second left the largest imprint on these sites, being the builder of the largest columns in the world. In one of the inner sanctums called Hypostyle Hall there are literally 134 of them. These massive columns that stand up to 68 feet tall hold blocks that are estimated to weigh over 70 tons! If you ever go to Cairo to see the pyramids, I would definitely suggest a side trip to Luxor to see these grand temples!

After visiting all of these great sites in Luxor we took a break from the heat of the day and cooled off in an air conditioned hotel lobby until evening time. Hend, our tour guide in Cairo, was nice enough to talk to the tour company in Luxor and set up a horse-drawn carriage ride around Luxor at night. It was a nice ride through the old cobblestone streets of the city and we enjoyed seeing the old market from our perch in the carriage. After this tour we scraped ourselves onto the overnight train, where we were greeted by the same person servicing our room as the night before. We immediately put down the bunk beds and exhausted, fell asleep. In the morning, the room butler woke us up with breakfast and let us know we were only an hour away from Cairo. He seemed to linger in the room and we weren't exactly sure why until he said - "You were here yesterday, right?" We replied yes and he still hung around. Eventually we noticed that he was palming some cash in his hand that he was showing to us! He was waiting for us to tip him! Of course, EVERYONE gets tipped in Egypt. How could we be so naive. We handed over some money and he let us off the train when it stopped in Cairo.

Hend picked us up and whisked us back to the hotel. We were still exhausted from our whirlwind journey of Luxor so we rested for most of the day and had a great chicken dinner at a place called Tikka Chicken, just down from the hotel. The next day was our last in Egypt and as our flight wasn't leaving until 11 pm, we took one last tour with Hend. This time we went to Alexandria! It was about a three hour trip, which we enjoyed in the air conditioned van. Air conditioning is important in Egypt, even in May, with temperatures well over 100. We got to Alexandria around 10 am and immediately noticed a difference in the climate. Alexandria sits on the Mediterranean and looks like it could be in Italy or any other Mediterranean country. It was gorgeous. First we visited some underground catacombs, then we went to an amphitheater that had been excavated. After this we visited the library of Alexandria. Alexandria had the first library in the world and recently made a new library in honor of this tradition. It is a beautiful building and the perfect place to read a book or study. They even keep archives of all of the pages of the internet, backed up every few days and saved in computer storage donated by the city of San Francisco! After our tour of the library, we went to the same Tikka chain restaurant as we went to in Cairo, but this one specialized in seafood. It was a delicious treat to have fresh fish from the Mediterranean Sea. Our final stop in Alexandria was to see the spot where the great Alexandria Lighthouse once stood, which now has a citadel that was built in apprehension of an attack on the city that luckily never came. We enjoyed some locally made ice cream and the seaside and then hustled back to Cairo to catch our plane.

As you can tell, our trip to Cairo was jam packed. There is so much to see there and I am so grateful to Chris for putting this on our itinerary and finding such a wonderful tour guide for us. I'm positive we wouldn't have seen nearly half of the things we saw in that short period of time if we didn't have her. Thanks babe!


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