Egypt Diary 4

Chapter Four

Day Five.

We left for Abu Simbel at 4 am in the morning. It was dark and quite outside and we did not see many people on the road except an occasional policeman.  After a very short ride, we were stopped at a check post just before entering the desert. There were a number of tourist buses and private cars full of tourists before us in the queue. We were told that the post would open at 5 am, which meant a halt of about 20-25 minutes.

It was pitch dark, breezy and cold outside, so we sat in the car and waited. I was feeling a bit sleepy so I kind of dozed off. When I re opened my eyes we were well into our drive to Abu Simbel and the day had just broken out. As I looked out of the window of the car, this sight greeted me, a beautiful sunrise in the desert.

Beautiful sunrise in the desert on way to Abu Simbel from Aswan

The Abu Simbel Temples, built by ancient Egyptians in a village in Nubia region are near the Sudan border, which explains the checking and presence of Police and Army in the area. The temples are about 300 kms from Aswan and are on the banks of Lake Nasser. They are UNESCO World Heritage Site and were relocated to their present site after the original site was flooded by the Nasser dam.

The Abu Simbel Temples.
The hypostyle hall of the Great Temple, with eight Osiris pillars (shot from outside).
Rock carvings outside the temples.
The Abu Simbel Temples.
Panoramic view of the Abu Simbel Temples on the banks of Nasser Lake.

For the Egyptians in particular, the temples hold a very special place as they were built in 13th century, during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II,  by cutting into the rock. They were called “Temple of Ramesses, beloved by Amun Ra”. They were built to commemorate his victory in the Battle of Kaddish and to remember his queen Nefertiti.

In 1968, after the Nasser dam was built, these temples were submerged in the water and had to be relocated to their present site. Till 1813, these temples were covered in sand till they were discovered. The legend has it that Abu Simbel was the name of the local boy who guided the re-discovery.

They are truly awe inspiring structures and one wonders how they were built in the first place and later shifted to their present site. Truly these wonderful monuments should be on every traveller’s bucket list. Sadly though photography is not allowed inside the temples.

After visiting the temples, we returned to Aswan, and headed straight to quick lunch near the railway station as we were going to travel to Luxor by Egypt Railways train at 3pm. More about the journey and food later.

 

 

Egypt Diary 3

Chapter Three

Day four.

We had an early morning flight from Cairo to Aswan. While going to the Airport another myth about Egypt was broken. I saw girls out on streets of Cairo at 3 am walking without fear, unaccompanied by any male, something I haven’t seen in India. Later I was told that Cairo never really sleeps, juice shops, tea houses, pharmacies, restaurants and clothes shop never really shut in Cairo and the people love to party.

In Aswan, the weather was very windy when we landed and we had to rush to the Airport lounge from the aircraft.

Aerial view of the desert en route to Aswan from Cairo.
Panoramic view of the Aswan Dam.

After collecting our luggage we headed straight to the Aswan Dam or Nasser Dam. Before this dam was built in Egypt, it faced a problem of flooding in the Nile and the other dam was inadequate to meet the growing water requirements of the country.

The Aswan dam was built between 1960-1970, during President Nasser’s time to control the flooding better and increase the water storage. Some people refer to as Nasser dam as it was built during his Presidency.

No photography is permitted except via cell phones as it the dam is higher than the city and is considered a security risk. The entire area surrounding it is controlled by the Egyptian Army.

The dam is 3830 meters long and 980 m wide at the base and can hold 132 cubic kilometers of water. A lot of people and monuments had to be moved / relocated to construct this dam. Abu Simbel temples were also moved from the original site. The Russian President played a crucial role in its constructions and on completion called it the eighth wonder of the world.

From here we moved to the Philae temple which were constructed on an island inside the low dam. This site was constantly damaged due to floods and some serious irreparable damage has been caused to the temples and other monuments.

Philae had been the burying place of Osiris and both Egyptians and Nubians hold it high esteem. Its location, close to Tropic of Cancer makes its remarkable for effects of lights and shades. There are numerous monuments of various eras here.

On way to the Jetty.
Philae temple.
Philae temple.
Philae temple.
Philae temple.

While we were there on the island, the weather suddenly turned bad and we were hit by a severe sand storm. For  a few minutes everything turned yellow (the colour of the sand) and we had to cut short our stay and move to the main land. In fact our was the last boat to leave after that the Police stopped tourists from visiting the island.

Nubia settlement covered in thick dust.
Shot from the car – dust all around.

We reached the city and went for a late lunch. After lunch we headed straight to our Hotel as we had to leave for Abu Simbel Temples before the crack of dawn. It was after all a six hour drive to and from Abu Simbel Temple.

It was indeed a beautiful evening in Aswan and the view from our Hotel’s rooftop was simply unbelievable. Across Aswan, right opposite our hotel was Tomb of Governors, the Keeper of the Gate of the South, which was lit up in the evening. We didn’t have time to go there but enjoyed the view from our Hotel rooftop.

View of the Nile in Aswan from our Hotel’s rooftop.
An early evening in Aswan.
Noble’s tomb all lit up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Egypt Diary 2

Chapter Two

Day two. We drove to the Saladin Citadel on the Mokattam hill near the center of Cairo and part of the Islamic Cairo. This hill is famous for fresh breeze and a grand view of the city below. The Citadel is breathtakingly beautiful and is now a World Heritage Site. The Eagle of Saladin from this very Citadel became the coat of arms of Egypt and other Arab countries.

Mohammed Ali Pasha mosque
Minbar inside Mohammed Ali Pasha mosque.
Cupola of the mosque inside.
Chamber inside the mosque.

The Citadel was built by Ayyubid ruler Salah al-Din between 1176 and 1183 CE. After he defeated the Fatimid Caliphate, he started building a wall around Cairo and Fustat, the first capital of Egypt and Citadel was to be in the center of Cairo. However, he died before the wall could be completed. He also built a 85 meter deep well to supply water to the Citadel via aqueducts, called the Well of Yusif or Joseph.

There are three mosques in the Citadel including the Mohammed Ali Pasha mosque built between 1830 and 1848. It was built in the memory of Tusun Pasha, son of Mohammed Ali, who died in 1816. It is also known as the Alabaster Mosque and is the largest mosque to be built in the first half of 19th century. This Ottoman mosque is the most visible mosque in Cairo and one of the most beautiful mosques, I have seen. The ceiling of the mosque is really very beautiful.

City of Cairo as seen from the Citadel.
Inside the Citadel.
Babylon Fortress in ruins (visitors are not permitted inside).
Entry to the Hanging Church.
Inside the Church, the 29 steps.

From there we went to Coptic Cairo which is a very unique place. The mosques, churches and synagogue all peacefully co-exist here. It is part of the old Cairo which houses the Babylon Fortress, the Coptic museum, the Hanging church and the Ben Ezra Synagogue.

The Coptic Cairo was a stronghold of the Christian community till the Islamic era. Most of the churches here were built in the 7th century after the Muslim conquest of Egypt.

The Hanging Church is also known as Saint Virgin Mary’s church as it is located above a gatehouse of the Babylon Fortress, where no visitors are allowed now. It is one of the oldest churches in Egypt dating back to 3rd century. The church is approached by 29 steps and is built in Basilican style. From inside the church the fortress below can be seen though a glass piece mounted on the floor.

The Babylon Fortress can be seen from the floor.
Inside the Church.
Streets of Coptic Cairo.
Streets of Coptic Cairo, where time has stood still.
Streets of Coptic Cairo, where nothing has changed in centuries.

The Ben Ezra Synagogue built in 1115 was initially a church, which was sold to raise funds to pay the taxes at that time. Sadly no photography is allowed inside the synagogue.

Our next stop was Khan el-Khaili, one of the major souks (market) of Islamic Cairo. At the entrance of this souk is the al-Hussein Mosque and the Al-Azhar University is also near by. Where the present souk stands, it was originally the site of a mausoleum known as turbat az-zafaraan (Saffron tomb).

There are many shops in the narrow alleys of the market selling souvenirs, jewellery and antiques co-existing with many traditional workshops. These are many restaurants, street food outlets, Coffee shops and Shisha shops with Fishawi’s being the oldest, established in 1773.

Outside the Synagogue.
Another Church.
al-Hussein Mosque.
Shops inside the souk.

Sadly this market has been targeted by terrorists many times, in an attack on 7 April 2005, 21 people were killed while on 22 February 2009, 22 people were killed. These two incidents have greatly affected the tourism industry as a whole in Egypt and the country’s economics is still feeling the pinch though it appears the tourism is revving now.

 

Egypt Diary

Chapter One

Egypt had been in my bucket list for a long time. I just did not realize that we will visit it so soon.

After a 3 1/2 hour early morning flight on a Saturday, we reached Dubai. There was a brief halt of 2 hours and then we boarded our next flight to Cairo. It took another 3 hours of flying and we reached Cairo in the early evening.

Our pick up car was there with a guide who helped us get through the immigration and customs and dropped us at our Hotel, Hilton Ramses. There was a lot of traffic on the way and the ride took almost an hour although the hotel was only 1/2 hour away. The hotel reception was very quite busy and it took us quite some time to check in.

After almost 12 hours of flying and lounging at the airport we finally hit the bed early that night as our city tour was to start really early the next day.

Egypt actually turned out to be really opposite of what we were told about it. The city and Nile river below our hotel looked beautiful in the morning from our 18th floor window.

Egypt or the Arab Republic of Egypt is surrounded by Sudan, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, although the last two do not have a land border with it. It is the most populous country in North Africa with 9.5 million people of which 2 million live in Cairo alone.

Bulk of the country’s population lives along the Nile river as the rest of the country is a desert.  The areas around the Nile are quite green, something we did not expect to see. They grow a kind of grass called Clover right next to the canals, which jet out of Nile. This is used as fodder for the camels and donkeys. Apart from it the main agriculture produce are Barley, Wheat, Sugarcane, Figs, Melons, Olives and Pomegranates.

There is a lot of agricultural activity around the canals originating from the Nile.
The ancient burial site of Egyptians, the step pyramid.
Gigantic pillars in the tomb.
The Step Pyramid.

Our next day started with a visit of Saqqara region, the ancient burial ground of Egypt where we saw Djoser’s Step Pyramids. Different kings chose different sites for their Pyramids as Saqqara was the royal burial ground. Though the step Pyramid is made of stones the others, Pyramid of Unas and Userhaf are made of a core consisting of rubble. Extensive restoration work is going on in this site.

Pyramids of Unas and Userhaf have been damaged and are being restored.
Pyramids of Unas and Userhaf have been damaged and are being restored.
Only this remains out of a once beautiful statues of the King, Queen and their children.
Damaged statues.

From here we moved to the south to the city of Dahshur where the first Pyramids were built by Shepseshaf. It is here that the ancient Egyptians mastered their art of building Pyramids from step pyramids to smooth-sided ones. King Sneferu built the bent pyramid here and learning from his mistakes his son, Khufu built his pyramid in Giza. From Dahshur, we headed for an Egyptian lunch and after that to Giza.

The pyramid at Dahshur.

The Giza Pyramid is the oldest and the only surviving ancient wonder of the world. King Menes founded a unified kingdom in 3150 B C which ruled Egypt for three millennia via a series of dynasties. Among them the third and fourth dynasties constructed many pyramids, with the fourth dynasty constructing the Pyramids of Giza.

The Khufu Pyramid is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the complex in Giza. Based on the artifacts and writing discovered there, it is believed that it was built over  a period of 10-20 years. For over 3800 years, it is the tallest man-made structure in the world.

It was initially covered by stone casing with a smooth surface, some of which can be still seen lying there. Inside the pyramid there are three chambers, for the King, the Queen and an unfinished chamber.

Pyramids of Giza.
The Sphinx.
Our camel ride.

While on a camel ride these three pyramids appear to be like a fairy tale structures right before you. Another structure there is of Sphinx, a mythical creature with a head of a human and a body of the lion. It is believed that those who cannot answer its riddles are killed and eaten by it.

With this the day came to an end and we headed back to the hotel.