Sunday, October 29, 2023

Four Nights on the Nile

Trip date: December 2022

After spending 3 days in Luxor last December, we boarded a dhahabīyah, a traditional Egyptian sailboat (the word actually means gilded barge), for a 5 day/4 night cruise down the Nile River to Aswan. We had booked our cruise through Real Egypt Tours based on them being mentioned in my guide book/their availability/and the reviews of the boat. 

We were picked up at our hotel in Luxor and driven 1 ½ hours to the town of Esna where the boat was docked. Immediately upon boarding we were all surprised that the communal space was much larger than we expected. It looked like the perfect place to spend 5 days relaxing while watching the banks of the Nile slip by. 

Our boat, the Sacred Lotus, had 10 cabins and 22 passengers. Caitlin and I were sharing a room so had booked one of the 2 suites onboard. The room was much nicer than we had expected, with a large bathroom, king bed, 2 walls of windows, and a balcony to sit outside!

When we booked we were told that the boat didn't serve alcohol (dry country) but that we could bring our own on board. But when we gave our provisions to the bartender Moe, he mentioned he had some wine and beer for sale also. Just an fyi if you are booking something like this, they may make their decision on alcohol based on the passengers; the others on board were all American.

It was Christmas day and we were the first to board, so we had our little gift exchange in one of the common rooms which had been decorated with a Christmas tree. Our guide (the boat comes with one) Ahmed was very curious about our celebration (Muslims don't celebrate Christmas) so we shared our candy with him and told him all about Christmas tradions.
With everyone now on board we were served lunch (all meals were included and served buffet style) and then all went for a short walk to the Temple of Khnum. Khnum was the god of creation and the source of the Nile River. It felt fitting to visit this 3000 year old site before our cruise commenced!
The only part of the temple that is accessible is a hall actually built by the Romans around 150AD. The rest of the temple is still buried 29 feet under the town of Esna! This temple is also the last Egyptian temple to be decorated with hieroglyphic texts.

Back on board we set sail at sunset; it was gorgeous!
We stopped in the small island village of El Hegz to meet a local family and to hear about their water storage system which provides them fresh water for drinking and also for irrigating their farms. The family served us tea and also invited us to check out their home. They were proud of their village and also the woman speaking was very happy to speak in English as she had been practicing. 

The next morning we arrived at Elkab where we were shuttled by a couple of vans to a set of tombs cut into the rocks, believed to have been built around 1550–1295 BC. 

Inside, the well-preserved walls were adorned with stories of the buried. There were tales of politics, battles, families, etc. It was great having Ahmed explain the drawings and have an understanding of the lives of some typical citizens of the ancient village. 

As our dahabiya had no motor, most of the trip we were pulled by a tug because of lack of wind. But this time, back on the boat, the sails were raised and we all relaxed on the deck enjoying the beautiful weather. We also had another delicious lunch! The meals onboard were really great!
Our next stop was Edfu, where Ahmed offered everyone a short walk to tour the temple. Forest, Caitlin and I decided to stay on board with some wine and the sunshine. Because we were moored in this tiny conservative town Ahmed suggested that we cover up (I was wearing a tank top dress) and we keep our wine out of sight of the town people. It's was nice of him to suggest this as offending people in other cultures is definitely not what I want to be doing!

That evening, after drinks on Caitlin's & my balcony and another tasty dinner at the communal table, we were all invited to come ashore where we were docked for the night and enjoy some traditional dance and music. Now to me this sounded pretty hokey and is one reason I don't always like an organized tour. But we went and it was fun and the music was interesting. 

After a short sail the next morning, we tied up on the banks of Bisaw Island and walked to the village for breakfast. We were invited to stop and watch one of the women roll out the feteer meshaltet, a multilayered bread made with ghee that has a sort of crepe-like texture. Then we sat down to a big table of that delicious bread (which you slather with salty cheese and sweet molasses) as well as ful, falafel, eggs, and mint tea and enjoyed a really great meal!

Afterwards, Ahmed walked us around the village where we saw another type of bread being made, the local school, and a pickup soccer game. It was all interesting and I'm sure that the village receives money from the tour company for compensation, which is great.

As we walked back to our boat we were told that we could go fishing with the local men who have lived off the Nile river their entire lives. I decided to stay on board, relax in the quiet, and watch from a distance. 

When everyone was back, we waved goodbye to Biswan and set sail for our next destination. Guess what was for lunch? 

That afternoon we tied up on the west bank of the Nile at Gebel el-Silsila, a site known for its sandstone quarries. This area was absolutely fascinating! This is where much of the stone for the Temple of Karnak and other temples had been cut out and then moved on the Nile.

Carved inscriptions of the names of Pharaohs, shrines, and chapels dating from 2034 to 1650 BC are everywhere. You can also see holes carved to loop rope through in order to pull the huge slabs of sandstone onto the waiting boats. 

There were even fossils of shells and ancient footprint drawings by the coptics who had hid out in the these quarries. Seriously fascinating! 

Before reboarding our ship we visited the Speos of Horemheb, a temple for the last King of the 18th Dynasty (1323–1295 BC). And then we continued our sail down the Nile, the views of the quarry from the boat absolutely beautiful!

On our last full day on the Sacred Lotus, we docked at Kom Ombo and walked over to the temple of the same name. The temple here is quite unique as it is a double temple dedicated to the gods Sobek, the crocodile god, and Horus, the falcon headed god, built in 180–47 BC.

The temple is beautiful, sitting right on the banks of the Nile, and is absolutely symmetrical with its reliefs of both gods. And some of the reliefs are just massive in size! Interestingly most of the decor was finished by Cleopatra VII’s father, Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos.

Next door is the Crocodile Museum which has quite an amazing collection of mummified crocodiles!

From here we jumped in the back of a couple of taxi-trucks and took a very bumpy ride on mainly dirt roads to the town of Daraw. It was quite an experience seeing the menagerie of transportation on the road; tuk-tuks, donkeys, trucks, motorcycles, etc.! 

On Sundays, tribes come from all over to sell their camels at Daraw's market. Since it was a Wednesday there were only a few young camels waiting for the weekend. Most of these camels have made a 40-day trek from Sudan and other parts of Egypt. Camels at the market go for anywhere from $450 to $1600!

Afterwards we went to the center of town where the regular market is and were given time to check it out. I love a market so was very excited! Caitlin and I set out to explore the stands which had everything from vegetables to camel meat, cushion stuffing to spices.

We also noticed one of the guys who works on the boat following us. But when we asked him he said he just happened to be in the same area. Turns out Ahmed had sent him to tail us as it is very unusual for the locals to see two Western women out and about on their own (the other families had men with them). And even at the coffee shop we all met back at, it was only men. Ahmed said that local women would never come to the coffee shop but it was fine if we were there. Just very different culturally, but we never felt unsafe.

By the way, all of this was before lunch!! Once we were back on the boat, the crew hoisted the sails and we had an entire day of relaxing on the deck watching the scenery.

At sunset we watched them take the sails down for the last time, we had one more happy hour on Caitlin's and my balcony, and one more great dinner. 

We packed and settled up our tab and put tips in envelopes. We spent the last night moored just outside of Aswan where we could see the city's lights in the distance. What a fantastic journey this had been!

The next morning we disembarked our Nile cruise and set off for the next Egyptian adventure!

All photos from the Nile here.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Day 2 & 3 in Luxor, Egypt

Trip date: December 2022

Day 2 in Luxor! After a lovely breakfast in the garden of the hotel (eggs, Egyptian pita with falafel, feta, cucumber, tomato, and fresh hibiscus juice) our guide Gaber and the driver picked us up. We'd be spending the entire day exploring the East Bank. And since there is only 1 bridge in Luxor it was a 40 minute drive around. There is a ferry but it's passenger only.

The East Bank is where the main city and big hotels are. But to be clear, this is definitely a developing nation situation so the roads are dusty, many are dirt, and all means of transportation are on them; cars, scooters, donkeys, bicycles, people walking, tuk tuk, horse and buggy...and we passed our first camel!

Our morning stop was at the Luxor Museum, which sits right on the banks of the Nile looking out to the west. We started in a small room, called the Luxor Cachette, that houses 15 statues that were discovered under the Luxor Temple in 1989. We'd be visiting the temple later in the day so it was very cool to see these. 

I really liked this museum as it was small enough to comfortably cover without being absolutely overloaded. Some of the highlights for me were the collection of almost perfect statues that had been excavated, the mummy that many believe to be Ramses I (which was originally stolen by grave robbers and sold to someone in Canada!), the collection of funerary objects, and original "blueprints" of tombs!

After a few hours at the museum we drove to Karnak Temple. As this was a Friday it seemed that every man in town was on his way to the central mosque when we drove past. It was quite a sight to see, not to mention the call to prayer that was blaring from loudspeakers around town. Friday is the most holy of the Muslim weekdays we learned, so many places will close midday for a while.

This complex is huge! About 200 acres huge! It was constructed over 1500 years, entirely for the worship of the god Amun, chief god of ancient Thebes (Luxor). It is believed to be the largest religious complex ever built. Gaber had some color prints of what it may have looked like in its heyday. Incredible.

Karnak is made up of over 200 structures including temples, chaples, squares, obelisks, a lake, and the famed Great Columns. 134 giant columns to be exact, all made out of sandstone. At the time they would have supported a roof and walls.

The complex use to have 17 obelisks, 3 are still standing. The one on the left is for Thutmosis I and the one on the right is for Hatshepsut. 

It's overwhelming to try to comprehend that anything is still standing from this 3300 year old complex. I was completely blown away and before coming didn't even know anything about it! It was definitely one of my favorite stops. 

It had been a big morning and we were all looking forward to lunch. We had chosen Sofra and had invited Gaber to be our guest. It's one of the better restaurants in town so he was excited, as were we. We sat upstairs on their terrace, had some delicious fresh juices (the restaurant is dry) and an assortment of mezze at our big round table that looked like a giant tray. I ordered the local specialty hamam mahshi (pigeon stuffed with rice) and when I went to cut into it with fork and knife Gaber let me know that locals pick up the entire bird and bite right into it. Done! It was excellent!

It was late in the day and we were headed to the Luxor Temple; the sun was just starting to set and the light was gorgeous on the banks of the Nile.

First we walked to the remains of the Avenue of Sphinxes, a 1.7 mile long road which was lined on both sides with more than 1,050 statues of sphinxes and rams that connected Karnak to Luxor Temple. That's a lot of statues!

As we walked up to the temple, the first thing we saw was the last remaining obelisk in Luxor. This one has a twin which was gifted to the city of Paris and is at the Place de Concorde.  

3,400 year old Luxor Temple was built over hundreds of years. Pharaoh Amenhotep III started the construction, both Tutankhamun and Horemheb added to it, and then Rameses II finished it. 
The temple was buried under the streets of Luxor for thousands of years. This mosque was actually built right on top of it and you can still see the door, red painted around it, where the street would have been!

You'd think we would have been "ruined" by this time but everything is so damn fascinating! It was also really cool to walk through the temple as dusk turned into night.

Luxor souk is just across the street so Gaber took us inside to do a little shopping. We all found the merchants to be particularly aggressive about making a sale. If you even glanced at something they were right there starting to sell you. 
We all did end up buying some scarves as the weather had turned colder than we had expected (and packed) for. But it was an ordeal even with Gaber! This isn't a locals market so they are use to tourists.

Phew! It had been a long day! We said goodbye to Gaber and headed to the Royal Bar at the Winter Palace Sofitel Hotel. Martinis were had! Maybe 2! Pro tip: if you are in need of a cocktail in Egypt your best bet is to head to one of the large international hotels. 
We called a driver that the hotel had introduced us to the night before for a ride back to the West Bank and spent the rest of the evening chilling out in the Embrace Hotel's lovely garden.

On our last day, Christmas Eve, we were supposed to go for a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the valley. Unfortunately this was canceled due to high winds. Fortunately we got to sleep in and had a ½ day to just relax in the gardens of the hotel. 

Gaber met us after lunch and we walked down to the banks of the Nile. He pointed out some interesting things along the way, including homes that had paintings on them signifying that members of the home had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
We'd see this throughout our travels around Egypt. Much easier to decipher than hieroglyphics! 

Our afternoon was spent on a private felucca, a traditional simple wooden sailboat. We had invited Gaber to join us and we all had a great time sailing around the Nile, taking in amazing views of the Luxor Temple from the water, and checking out the other boats. 

We had an early dinner at Banana Island which is also a restaurant. After filling up on hummus, kefta, and a delicious soup we were given a huge bunch of bananas to take with us. It's a thing I guess!

Back on the boat, we shared them with the captain and his "sail boy" while sipping on hot mint tea and literally sailing off in the sunset.

What an outstanding end to an amazing time in Luxor! We absolutely loved Gaber our guide (see prior post for his contact info) and we all felt like we learned a lot about the pharaohs, temples, and tombs in the area. 

Sunday, October 8, 2023

My Birthday with Pharaohs in Egypt

Trip date: December 2022 

Last year I finally was able to visit a country that had been on my list since I was a kid; Egypt! My friends and I went for my birthday, Christmas, and New Years. It was amazing!

I flew from Seattle to London on Virgin Atlantic. Virgin had had a points transfer deal which made my Chase points worth 30% more so I booked into their Upper Class which I had never flown and was excited about. Virgin shares the Delta Lounge at SeaTac, which is really a great lounge, so I had a lovely snack paired with champagne before boarding my overnight flight. 

I always love a layflat bed when flying but I have to say that the configuration of Virgin's B787 was not good. All the "pods" face into the aisle (instead of forward) and have their back to the window. This means you are facing everyone; so weird!

Service was very good, all my food was fine (the airplane salt & pepper shakers were a cute touch), goodie bag was basic, but the jammies were great! I wouldn't choose to fly this particular metal again but that is a first world problem, I am aware. 
In London I met my friend Caitlin at our terminal for our Egyptair flight to Cairo where we would be connecting on to Luxor. As we waited to board we found out that Egyptair is a dry airline, aka no alcohol served onboard due to their Muslim ownership, but you could BYOB! So I grabbed a couple of mini bottles of wine and away we went. 

I had booked my London-Cairo-Luxor flights using miles via Amex so was also in business class. The layflat seat was very comfy and there was a ton of room! I asked the flight attendant for a glass for my wine and had a very enjoyable flight. Unfortunately Egyptair is known for being delayed and our flight was 2 hours late getting into Cairo, meaning we had missed our connection to Luxor (with our friends Forest and Thibault on it!).

Egyptair was very helpful though and not only put us up in a hotel but let us choose the Marriott which was in the airport. Since I am Marriott Gold they gave Caitlin and I a huge room with a lovely big bathroom. We ordered up some room service and caught up, forgoing any actual sleep as we had a 4am wake up call for our rebooked 6am flight. TOO EARLY!

Our 1 hour flight to Luxor was uneventful, I was even served a good breakfast and coffee in nice china in business class. We landed at Luxor airport, picked up some gin in duty free, and grabbed a taxi to meet our friends at the Embrace Hotel on the west bank. 

Dec 22nd, my birthday, and boy did we hit the ground running! We got to the hotel at about 9am and our private guide picked us up at 10am for our day in the Valley of the Kings. Hiring a private guide, we used Gaber and booked thru Yalla Travel, meant that we had an Egyptologist and a driver for 3 days to show us around and more importantly to explain the over THREE THOUSAND YEAR OLD history of what we would be seeing. 

As soon as we were on the road heading west to the Valley, Gaber was pointing out excavation sites, ruined statues, and other tombs in the hills. It was absolutely surreal! All of the area is an excavation site basically. I was thrilled!!
There are 63 tombs in the valley and 11 are open to the public, but not all on the same day. We chose to visit 4 of them, including Tutankhamun's (did you know he was buried in Luxor?).

Our first tomb was KV14 which was originally built for Queen Twosret, who was the last ruler of the 19th dynasty of Egypt. She was buried here in 1189BC. The tomb was then reused and extended by Setnakhte, the first pharaoh of the 20th dynasty. It was very unusual for a tomb to be used like this and also makes it one of the largest tombs in the valley. For an idea of the the layout of these tombs this site is fascinating! 

Next we toured KV11 which is the tomb of Pharaoh Ramesses III. Setnakhte originally started this tomb but abandoned the project when they accidently broke into the tomb of Amenmesse! 

KV62 is everyone's favorite child pharoah, King Tutankhamun. Immediately upon entering you go down a set of stairs and through a small hall before entering a chamber where Tut's body is on display! This isn't the burial chamber, you continue just a bit to enter into that small but lavish room. It's just incredible that you can be that close to the 2000 year old mummy!

And finally KV6 the tomb of Pharaoh Ramesses IX. The walls of the entrance here are covered completely in hieroglyphics but as you continue on the decorations aren't complete. They think that maybe the had to rush the finish when the pharaoh died.

Nothing can prepare you for walking into these tombs. The fact that the colors on the walls are still so distinct is mind blowing. It would be very easy to spend the day here but we had more to see! 

A short distance away we stopped at the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, built into the base of the cliffs just outside of Luxor. It looks like a movie set!
Queen Hatshepsut was the wife of Pharaoh Thutmose II and reigned from 1479 BC until 1458 BC. She is remembered as one of Egypt's greatest rulers. 

This 3-level temple took 15 years to build and was like nothing else at the time. Originally there were rows of sphinxes guiding you to the 900 foot long building adorned with 22 Hathor columns. There are chapels dedicated to various gods and walls covered with reliefs of every known plant and animal in all of Egypt. It's truly a marvel.  

The entire complex was to be used as a place for people to worship Hatshepsut in her death and to remember her greatness. Unfortunately her stepson Thutmose III hated her. After her death he tried to erase her existence by removing her name from buildings, demolishing statues of her, monuments, etc. There's a lot of drama with these pharaohs! 

And all of this was before lunch!! Gaber took us to a restaurant with a nice terrace overlooking the nearby fields for some traditional Egyptian food. And then we were off again...

Next we visited Medinet Habu. There is so much history at this site! Originally Hatshepsut built this as a Temple to the god Amun in the early 18th Dynasty. 

Then Ramesses III had more construction done to make it his Mortuary Temple. It's a huge complex with courtyards, temples, storage rooms, a palace, etc. It was very cool seeing this after visiting his tomb earlier in the day.

When you visit these sites you will see security men keeping an eye on things in the ruins. They will also offer to show you areas and rooms not open to the public... for a fee. It's a good idea to keep 5 and 10 Egyptian Pounds (20-30 cents each) in your pockets for this. We were shown a few interesting spaces including the area where animal sacrifices were made. 

It was late in the day when we visited and the light was just beautiful! And we were the only people there by the time we left. Honestly, this site wasn't on our list but our guide Gaber recommended it and I'm so glad he did! It's his favorite as he grew up in the village next to it and he use to play in the ruins as a kid! Amazing!! 

We made a quick stop at the Colossi of Memnon on the way back to our hotel, which were built in 1350 BC as part of a massive temple that no longer stands. 
And then it was time to have a drink, get cleaned up, and go out for my birthday dinner! We went to Marsam which is inside a very cool hotel by the same name. The food was great, and the restaurant served wine (most don't since it's a Muslim country), and the company was even better!

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