While walking from our hotel, Ramada in Amritsar to the Golden temple we came across the World’s first Partition Museum, right next to the Town Hall. Sadly we were not allowed to go in on that day, as it was 6.05 pm and the Museum shuts down at 6 pm. So we visited it the first thing next morning.
It is simply a must visit place both for Indians and non Indians, to understand the greatest tragedy that shook the Indian sub continent and redefined the history of two nations forever.
An estimated 18 million people lost everything they had and about 2 million people lost their lives. For the rest, in both nations, life has never been the same.
As India gained independence from the British, in August 1947, they hurriedly divided India into two countries on religious lines and lives across the border were effected forever.
The Museum was set up in October 2016 in Amritsar, a city that witnessed the maximum damage both to lives and property.
Since the museum is about people and their lives, it stores their oral history, their personal artifacts and letters. Most of the galleries contain things which the refugees carried with them from across the border and each of them conveys their personal experiences. Just by looking at them you realise how many memories are associated with each display and you understand the pain which they must have gone through while parting with their memories.
The Museum is spread across 17,000 square feet of space across 15 rooms over two floors. The Arts and Culture Heritage Trust (TAACHT) has been working on this concept since 2015 and the Museum now stands as a testimony of the labour and hard work put in by a lot of individuals and families associated with it.
We started from our hotel right after breakfast at 8am. It was a beautiful day and the drive was good. Our first stop after driving for about an hour was for coffee after which we headed straight to Alexandria and reached there almost 3 hours after leaving Cairo.
Our first stop in Alexandria was Catacomb of Kom el-Shogafa, a place which was discovered by accident in 1900. Legend has it that on 28 September 1900, a cart full of stone was travelling when the donkey took a misstep and disappeared in a hole. When people tried to rescue the donkey, they discovered a set of rock-cut tombs in an ancient catacomb. It is a matter of record that somebody by the name of Monsieur Es-Sayed Aly Gibrah reported that he had accidentally broken into a vault of an underground tomb.
The catacomb is truly an amazing structure 100 feet below the ground constructed in 2nd century AD in a mixture of Egyptian, Greek and Roman styles. It is believed that this catacomb was initially started for a single family but was later expanded for reasons yet unknown to us. There are stairs leading to the base of the tomb with places for sitting. There is a round shaft in the middle of the structure.
In excavations a lot of pottery was discovered which were bought by the people bringing in food for those buried there. Bones of horses, were also recovered proving that the favourite horses were also laid to rest there. The entire area outside the catacomb is littered with the archaeological finds.
Our next stop was the only surviving Seven Wonders of the World, Pompey’s pillar or the Memorial of Diocletian. It is a 28 m high red granite pillar and the highest memorial column in Egypt. It has a diameter of 2.7 m which tapers to 2.3m near the top. On its top, on the western side, there is an inscription that the invincible Postumus has erected this monument in honour of the Roman Emperor, Alexandria Diocletian between 284-305 AD. Around the pillar is the Serapium temple which lies in ruins now. It was dedicated to Egyptian Greek God Serapius and was built by Ptolemy I in 300 BC. It was destroyed in 391 AD by a Christian mob led by Bishop Theophilus.
After this we headed to the Fort Qaitbey built in the 14th century by Sultan Qaitbey to defend Alexandria from the Ottoman Empire who actually took charge of Egypt in 1512. The fort is built on a narrow piece of land which extends from the cornice. It offers a fantastic view of the Mediterranean sea. The fort was badly damaged by the British in 1882 but was later restored around the turn of 20th century. Currently it houses a small navy museum.
Next we headed for lunch at Athineos for a typical Egyptian grilled fish and rice lunch. It was an awesome lunch and view of cornice from the restaurant window was simply superb. From here we went to Alexandria library.
The Royal Library of Alexandria was one of the largest libraries of the ancient world and was dedicated to Muses, the nine goddess of the arts. It flourished during the Ptolemaic dynasty, from 3 century BC to 30th century BC. There were lecture halls, meeting rooms and gardens in it. Most of the books of that time were on Papyrus scrolls.
Sadly Julius Caesar’s army burned it down. During 1980s, a new library was built here by contributions from many countries around the world notably the Middle East and France. On 17 October 2002, 1600 years after the original was destroyed the new library was commissioned.
The new building has a Conference Center and a Planetarium apart from the main library. There is a library for visually impaired people and a restoration library. The building can house 20 million books and currently has 200,000 copies, 10,000 manuscripts and 50,000 rare books apart from a state of art book binding and a automatic copier on premises. It has been designed to last two centuries and currently receives about 800,000 visitors per day.
From the library we returned to Cairo bringing our Egypt holiday to an end. We returned home via Duabi with a truck load of sweet memories of mystical land Egypt.
Our flight from Luxor landed in Aswan before time. Luxor was cold and windy when we left but in Aswan but there was no wind, though it was cold too. At the Airport, it took a very long time for our luggage to arrive and by the time we reached our Hotel it was midnight. Being Thursday night Cairo was in a mood to party hard, and there was a lot of traffic on the roads. We finally checked in our hotel and headed straight to our room. Since we had not planned anything for Friday we were planning to sleep late.
After a relaxed morning we gave a miss to Hilton’s breakfast and instead headed straight to Felfela in Hoda Shaarawy Street, off Talat Harb in downtown Cairo for breakfast. I would definitely recommend this place to anybody visiting Cairo. After breakfast we roamed a bit in downtown Cairo, had a nice lunch in Akher Saa and came back to the hotel to take rest. In the evening, we had booked the Nile Dinner Cruise.
In the evening, we were picked by the tour company and taken straight to the jetty. Our boat had not still arrived. It was cold and very windy so we preferred to wait in the car. The boat arrived late but the 2 hours cruise on the Nile in the night was really worth the wait. Nile looked simply beautiful in the night with colourful city lights.
The food on the cruise, was okay and not that great or may be the food in Hilton Ramsesses had spoilt us, but the in-house entertainment on the boat was really good. The belly dancer, an American and the spinning Tanoura artist were really good as was the singer who was accompanied by foot tapping live music.
As the cruise ended, it was really hard to say good bye to the boat and return to land. But we had to as we were leaving for a day’s trip to Alexandria but we returned with loads of beautiful memories.
After a good Egyptian Kebab lunch we headed straight to the Aswan Railway Station to catch our train to Luxor. The train and platforms were much cleaner than I thought they will be. The seats in the train were comfortable and our ride to Luxor took three hours. While on the train, we also got an opportunity to see a bit of Egypt countryside, which was quite greener. We reached Luxor in the evening. The Luxor station was more crowded than Aswan.
From there we went straight to our Hotel. The Hotel, Emilio in Luxor was in the middle of the market overlooking the Nile. The views were very good but our stay was average.
Our first stop the day after, was The Valley of the Kings, on the west bank of the Nile. It was a long drive from our Hotel but totally worth it. At present in the valley, there are about 63 tombs dating back 500 years from 16th to 11th century BC. All these are royal tombs cut into the rock for Pharaohs and other powerful nobles. Among them is also the famous tomb of Tutankhamen.
Most of these tombs have been plundered and looted of the riches, but they still gives a fair idea of their opulence. The floods, the toxics in the air and even mass tourism have taken a toll on them. So now only a few tombs are open to tourists. Yet the Tutankhamen tomb remains most famous archaeological sites in the world. It is part of the World Heritage site.
To avoid further damage dehumidifiers have also been installed inside and the tombs are opened on a rotation basis to tourists. To protect the paintings on the rocks photography is not allowed inside the tombs.
The tomb of Ramesses II.
It is a complex tomb about 125 meters long, from the entrance there is stairway leading to the 1st corridor with small annex on either side. This then leads to a second corridor leading to a dead-end room. This is because by miscalculations they hit another tomb and abandoned the work. Later Ramesses III continued with the 3rd corridor, though access to it for tourists was blocked and we were not allowed to go further.
Tomb of Tutankhamen.
Most of the things that were found here have been moved into the museums.
Next on our tour was the Temple of Hatshepsut.
This temple lies beneath the Deir el Bahari cliff and is a very beautiful structure. There were terraces, gardens of frankincense trees and other rare plantations. It was built by Queen Hatshepsut and there were a number of her portraits on the rocks which were later destroyed on royal orders after her death. In the surviving portraits, she appears as a male pharaoh with royal headdress and kilt and sometimes with a false beard.
There is a ramp leading to the courtyard and from there is another ramp leading to the terraces, where off course access to tourists is not allowed.
Our next stop was the Temple of Karnack. It is huge complex which was built over 2000 years and has many temples dedicated to God Amun Ra. Although most of it is in ruins it can still give a run for their money to many modern-day structures. Their size and grandeur is unmatched even today. You just keep wondering, how did they do it in those days thousand of years ago.
It is the largest religious place ever built and had been a place of pilgrimage for almost 2000 years. It is spread in 61 acres and is virtually impossible to see it in one day. So we visited the most important sites.
The Hypostyle hall is 54,000 sq feet and has 134 columns and is most definitely the largest hall any religious place has in the world. Apart from columns there is a beautiful lake which is now artificially filled with water. There were gardens and aviary surrounding it. The festival of Opet used to commence here and the procession ended at Luxor temple, 2.4 kms away.
From here we moved to our last stop in Luxor, the Luxor Temple. During the early days Thebes, the city of hundred gates stood where the modern town of Luxor is now. It was the capital of Egypt. The Temple of Luxor is built on the banks of river Nile by Amenhotep and completed by Tutankhamen. Later Ramses II also added some structures. The granite shrine near the end of the temple is dedicated to Alexander the Great (332-305BC).
From Luxor temple we returned to the Airport for our flight back to Cairo.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Last Sunday I along with a few of my friends traveled to Rajasthan in search of Angrez Bazaar in Bandiqui, Duasa District, about 200 km from Gurgaon.
We left early at 6 am on a cold and foggy morning. Surprisingly the fog on the way, was only on the right side of the NH8 and none on the left.
The drive was beautiful and our first stop was Abaneri Chand Baori (step well) about 12 km from Bandiqui. I had visited this place a couple of years ago when not many people were aware of its existence but this time we saw a lot of tourists.
The Abaneri village, about 95 km from Jaipur was originally known as Abha Nagari or “city of brightness”. It is now in ruins but the good news is that it has started attracting tourists from across the world.
Right next to the Baori, lies the Harshat Mata temple, which also is in ruins. The Chand Baori was built by King Chanda of Nikumbh dynasty during the 8th century as a dedication to Harshat Mata, the goddess of joy and happiness. It was built to conserve water and was used as a community resting place during that period. It is the oldest landmark of Rajasthan consisting of about 13 stories with 3500 narrow steps leading to the water, which makes it one of the deepest and largest step well in the country.
After spending some time there, we moved to Bandiqui, where another surprise was waiting for us, the old abandoned Church, built in Roman style with pink sandstone.
Bandiqui was chosen by the British, due to its location, between Alwar and Jaipur, to build India’s first Railway Junction in 1873. Along with the British, many Anglo-Indian families too moved there as in those days Railways was a big employer of the community. Once settled, the christian community decided to build a Church near the Railway station.
Slowly, the town lost its importance after other Railway junctions were set up, and the Christian pollution began to decline and the Church was neglected. The local miscreants took advantage and looted the windows, stained glasses and even Jesus’ statue.
In 2013, the Government of Rajasthan pledged to restore this and another Church in Ajmer but with Rajasthan having 1% of its population as Christians, it is not surprising that this has remained only a promise. Now with a right-wing government in power, you cannot expect much, though there is an urgent need to protect part of our heritage.
There are some beautiful Colonial Raj style bungalows too in Bandiqui, some of which are occupied by Government Officers but most are lying neglected. One Bungalow in particular was built-in 1898 and is simply beautiful to look at, and needs to be preserved as part of our Heritage.
On our way back, we stopped for tea at Neemrana Fort Kesroli and watched the beautiful sunset and with the sun going down, our short holiday also came to an end.
Yesterday we again drove to FarrukhNagar which is about 33 kms from Gurgaon. It is a historical town, established in 1732 by Faujdar Khan, the first Nawab and Governor of the Mughals. It was named after the Mughal ruler, Farrukh Shah, who also built the beautiful Sheesh Mahal here in 1711.
The town has been ruled by Balochs, Mughals and British with each leaving some marks over its building, sadly not many have survived. Most surviving buildings here bear testimony of the turbulent times this town has seen. During the heydays of this town, this town flourished in salt trade, till the British took over. The British established the first Railway Station here in 1873 to transport salt to Delhi. However, in 1923, the British however shut down the Salt production here throwing the town into an economic crisis.
The Sheesh Mahal was constructed with red sandstone within the Fort and has a large courtyard in front. The Fort had 5 gates into the town. However, only one of its gate, the Dilli Darwaza survives today.
There is the two story Sethani Ki Chattri, built by a rich merchant 165 years ago as part of his private residence. There were rooms on the outside, though sadly none of that exist today.
There is also the octagonal Baoli built by Ghaus Ali Shah, in the same octagonal shape as the town.
From Farrukh Nagar, we headed to Sultanpur National Park. During season about 250 different kind of birds come here from far of places like Europe and Siberia.
Some redevelopment work had been done here recently, which may be good for tourists but I am not sure if it suits the migratory birds. The day we visited there were a number of small children in bright winter wear, which drove the water birds deeper into the lakes.
My personal view is that all visitors to this Park should be made to pay a bit more than Rs 10-, so that only serious bird watchers come here rather than visitors who come here for picnic.