Saturday, October 25, 2008

Pyramids of Meidum and Dahshur

A couple of weeks ago, my Egyptology class took another field trip, but instead of just going to a museum, we went to two different pyramid sites. The first site we visited was Meidum.

The Step Pyramid at Meidum

The drive down to Meidum took about 90 minutes. Located south of Giza on the west side of the Nile, Meidum hosts one major pyramid and an array of mastabas (tombs made of mudbrick). The Meidum Step Pyramid was originally intended for the last Pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, Huni. However, it was uncompleted until King Snofru, Huni's successor, rose to power and completed for himself around 2600 BC. The history of the pyramid reveals the development of the architecture of pyramids in ancient Egypt. Originally, royals were buried in mastabas- tombs with a mound of earth as a superstructure and rooms in the substructure. Eventually, this "tumulus" became more structured and began to be built with mudbrick so as to appear to be a house for the deceased or something more permanent than a mound of Earth. Mastabas became more complex when levels were built upon level, eventually resembling the step pyramid you see above. Snofru actually filled in the gaps of the Meidum pyramid, and at one point, it appeared to look like the famous pyramids at Giza. Now, however, Meidum's outer casing has fallen away (or taken to be used for other pyramids).

My class went inside the pyramid. We had to enter from above the first level and go down a very tiny corridor until we reached a flattening point. From here, we had to climb up some ladders to arrive at the actual tomb within the pyramid. It was very small, but I thought it was pretty neat to be inside one of the oldest pyramids of ancient Egypt. The tomb smelled really bad because of the guana (bat feces). After climbing back out of the pyramid, we went inside a mastaba adjacent to the pyramid called Mastaba 17. I thought the name sounded like some new indie rock band, or a star or planet that was really discovered by scientists.

Inside Mastaba 17

Similar to the Step Pyramid, we had to descend deep into the Earth. However, unlike the pyramid, we did not have to climb up again to reach the mortuary chamber. Getting around in the mastaba was more difficult as we had to crawl on our hands and knees and fit through small openings in the limestone in order to reach the tomb. The sarcophagus inside the tomb was interesting because the mallet used by grave-robbers thousands of years ago still holds the top of the sarcophagus up, revealing the inside of the tomb. It doesn't contain anything anymore, but I thought it would be funny if someone hid inside it and scared the rest of the class when they came in. Professor Ikram promptly vetoed my idea.

From Meidum, we headed north towards Dahshur, where King Snofru had two more pyramids built in his honor. According to Dr. Ikram, my Egyptology professor (you can read about her on wikipedia), Snofru was one of the most egotistical pharaohs, second to Ramses II.

Professor Ikram (right) and this other Egyptologist at Dahshur

Bent Pyramid at Dahshur

The first pyramid we visited at Dahshur was the Bent Pyramid. Apparently, when it was being built, the architect thought that the angles were too steep, and decided to make up for this mistake by making the upper portion at a lower angle. As you can see above, the pyramid still has much of its outer limestone casing. The corner that looks like a wrecking ball hit it is another example of the ancient Egyptians taking materials from one site to use at another. The site of Dahshur is actually right next to a military complex, which actually included the pyramids a decade ago. As such, the pyramids aren't as oft visited as the ones at Giza. However, the public is not yet able to go inside the Bent Pyramid. Leaving the Bent Pyramid behind, we headed over to the Red Pyramid.

The Red Pyramid

The Red Pyramid is the world's first true pyramid. Reflecting a culmination of developments in pyramid building. The inside is more complex than Meidum with multiple chambers finally leading to a much larger tomb. The picture below was taken inside the tomb. The corballed ceiling resembles what I saw in Meidum.

Inside the Red Pyramid

I had to get up pretty early, so I was pretty happy to get back on the bus and head home after a long day of pyramid exploring. I love my Egyptology class a lot. It's the only class I have with Egyptians, and it covers unique material that I would never be able to learn at Georgetown. I'm lucky to have a great professor like Dr. Ikram, who knows this stuff inside and out, has worked in the field, and written about all of it. It's nice to go to these ancient sites and know you're going to learn a lot and have a fun time doing it. Hope you enjoyed the pictures.

Ma'a salaama,


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Petra Part V: Wadi Rum

The morning after Petra, we hopped on a bus headed towards our next stop- Wadi Rum. Wadi Rum is about an hour and a half south of Wadi Musa in southwest Jordan. Wadi means valley and rum is usually considered to mean "high" in this context. Wadi Rum is the largest wadi in Jordan covering about 720 sq. kilometers, and as a result, it receives a fair amount of tourists each year. However, because of its huge size, you don't feel like you need to content with other tourists. Towering mountains of sandstone and granite dominate this desert area and have made it a popular rock climbing, hiking, and trekking area. Today, Bedouins live in the surrounding area and offer tours via camel, jeeps, or hiking.

We arrived in the small town right outside of the actual Wadi Rum park about 9 or so in the morning. We were really hungry and most of us ended up eating what was supposed to be our lunch: a cucumber, tomato, plain yogurt, a candy bar, a cookie, and some bread. The owner of the trucks that were going to take us around Wadi Rum, Zidane, gave us a run-down of the day that lay ahead. After taking only the essential things we would need for the coming day and night, we hopped in a 4 x 4 and headed out.

Slush puppy shirt came to Jordan!

You can't quite see them clearly, but the above picture shows some ancient rock drawings. Though crude and rudimentary, they depict stick figure humans and some animals.

The ride was pretty rocky, and at times, it seemed like our truck might flip. Still, the views were stunningly beautiful and some of the historic sites were very interesting. While Wadi Rum has been inhabited by different peoples since prehistoric times, it is most known for one former resident in particular: the famous British officer, author, and orientalist, T.E. Lawrence. During the Arab Revolt in the early 20th century, Lawrence took residence in Wadi Rum.

This is supposed to be the house where T.E. Lawrence lived while staying in Wadi Rum leading the locals in their fight against the Turks and Germans. We saw some other things that were also linked back to Lawrence as well; including, some fountain where he drank and a mountain called the "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" referring to Lawrence's book of the same name (people think the rock was named after the book in honor of Lawrence). I think the emphasis on Lawrence is more of a business scheme than anything. Most people in the world have never heard of Wadi Rum, but many know of T.E. Lawrence or at least, the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Anyways, Dad, I know you would have really liked those things.

The Rock Bridge

The above picture of the Rock Bridge is one of the famous sites at Wadi Rum because it forms a natural bridge. To climb up it, we had to scale the face of the rock to the right of it, which was an exercise in conquering your fear. The nearly vertical climb up was not for the faint of heart, and I would be lying if I said it was easy. Once atop, I quickly walked across the bridge and descended (which was even more difficult) to the safety of the ground below. On the way down, as I'm slowly making my way, some Bedouin tour guide is calmly and confidently walking down the rock face as if it's nothing. It was a pretty funny sight: I'm doing a crab walk next to someone walking normally.

Another one of the fun things we did is climb up some sand dunes. These dunes were really high and trying to hike up them was quite the challenge! But going down them was so much fun. You could jump once and drop 10 feet on nice soft sand, and do this 10 times on your way back down. I wish I would have put a picture of the dunes up, but hopefully I'll see some in Egypt. But the red sand contrasted with the bright, clear blue sky for an incredible view. After a long day in the back of a 4x4 and climbing around huge mountains and sand dunes, we finally reached where we would be spending the night- a mock Bedouin tent complex.

Before we had dinner, we all took naps and then went to a mountain in the distance to catch the sunset. While we were there, we would all be silent and for the first time since I can remember, I experienced absolute silence. That was really neat. It definitely gave some backing to the old saying "the silence is deafening."


After catching the sunset, we ate a traditional Bedouin dinner in one of the tents. The food was absolutely delicious, and it was fun to talk with Zidane about the Bedouins (He's Bedouin). He played some Bedouin instrument, a sort of archaic cello that was really, really small, but played with a bow. After stuffing ourselves full, we went outside and sat around a fire while one of Zidane's assistants played the Oud, the Arab version of a guitar. Because there was no light pollution in the area, the sky above was filled with stars. We decided to take our mattresses from our tent and sleep outside. That was my favorite part of the entire trip- sleeping under the stars. I will never forget such an amazingly beautiful sight as that. Never before had I seen so many brilliant stars in the sky. I wish I could have snapped a picture, but it made such an impression on me that I will always remember the starry night at Wadi Rum.

The next morning, we woke up early enough to catch the sunrise from another mountain top. After that, we ate some breakfast, then headed back to town, and from there, all the way back to Cairo.

I had a fantastic trip and would recommend anyone to go to Jordan if they can. I wish I could have stayed longer, to be honest, I was excited to get back to Cairo as well. Hope you enjoyed the descriptions of the places I went, and someday, in shah Allah, you will go there and see them for yourself.

Upcoming posts: Pyramids at Maidum and Dahshur, Egyptians on the American Presidential Election, and Rugby at AUC.

Ma'a salaama,


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jordan Trip Part IV: PETRA

The day after our Dead Sea day-trip, my group of friends and I went to Petra, the gem of Jordan. We woke up around 5 am in order to beat the tourist crowds, and made the 20 minute walk to Petra from our hostel. By the time we got there, light had just begun to show over the mountainous horizon. We followed the main path with some carvings on its periphery and eventually entered the famous siq. Siq, meaning shaft, is a narrow enclosure between two gorges. At some points, the siq is only a couple of meters wide. Along the siq, we noticed what looked like a gutter carved into the stone. This was originally intended to supply the entire area with water. The Nabataeans are considered to be excellent engineers for their ability to use flash foods and create an artificial oasis amidst such an unforgiving environment. After passing through the siq, you could just begin to see the one of the most amazing monuments in the world- the Treasury!

In front of the Treasury

The Treasury, or Al Khazneh, is the most spectacular site at Petra. In Indian Jones: The Last Crusade, its facade hid the final resting place of the Holy Grail. Lo, there is no grail here today. Nevertheless, it is absolutely stunning. Petra is oftentimes referred to as the Rosy City, due to the red coloring of the sandstone. Because we were arrived so early in the morning, you cannot see how red the stone actually is. Still, however, it was so peaceful in the morning, and I was so glad to be able to take a picture with the Treasury in the background without any half naked tourists all around me. Originally, the Treasury was a royal tomb finished around 100 BC to 200 AD. Its current name derives from folklore- legend has it that pirates hid their loot in an urn on the second level. After taking our time at the Treasury, we moved on and continued down a siq until it opened up into a large open area with carvings representing tombs all around us.

The Urn Tomb at Petra

The Urn Tomb is another popular attraction at Petra. This was actually converted into a church at one point. It was fun climbing up to it because you had to go scale some ancient stairs and shoddy wooden bridges. The area inside the Urn Tomb was a huge open space. Opposite the Urn Tomb is the ampitheatre, which was constructed by the Romans after they had included Petra in their empire in the 2nd century AD.

The Colonnaded Street

From the ampitheatre and Urn Tomb, the main path leads to the Colonadded Street. This area was constructed by the Romans and its left side is lined with traditional columns, eventually leading to a Roman temple. The next major monument at Petra is the Monastery, or Al-Deir.

I'm actually in the doorway of the Monastery

The trail up to the Monastery is a very strenuous climb taking about half an hour or so of purely up hill (rather up rock face) hiking. Along the way, there are tons of Jordanians trying to sell trinkets and other touristy nick nacks. Although tough, the hike was definitely worth seeing the Monastery and the other views a top Petra. The Monastery was a place of pilgrimage during ancient times. The sheer magnitude is hard to convey in a picture, but hopefully you can see me in the doorway, which alone is 8 meters high. A short walk away from the Monastery are some fantastic views. We climbed atop a cliff and relaxed for a while to take it all in.

I'm on one of the cliffs that overlooks the valley below.

The view was incredible and breath-taking. It was hard to leave, but we wanted to check out some more of what Petra had to offer. Walking back, we went atop another gorge called the "High Place of Sacrifice," which was used for sacrificing animals. From there, you could see Aaron's Tomb (Moses' brother) glimmering in the distance. After our descent, we walked back and took some much-needed naps.

Petra was touted as the must-see attraction in Jordan. Hopefully my pictures do it justice because it truly is one of the most amazing sites I have ever seen or visited in my life. It was definitely the high light of my trip to Jordan.

Next post on Wadi Rum.

Ma'a salaama,


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jordan Trip Part III: The Dead Sea

Before going to big Petra, we decided to take a day trip to the Dead sea. We ordered a private bus the night before to take us early in the morning to the Dead Sea. Even though the it isn't too far away kilometers-wise, the trip required us to go through some mountains, making the trip last about 2.5 hours. Here was a picture I snapped while we took a break at a scenic spot.

Along the way to the Dead Sea, I knew we were getting close as a noticed some salt deposits, and what looked like some factories that may have been used for refining the salts. Our driver dropped us off at a private beach, where we had to pay about $15 USD just to enter the beach. The place we went to was the equivalent of a resort hotel without the hotel part. There were some nice pools, a gift shop or two, and if I remember correctly, even a restaurant. However, we were there for one reason, and we marched through the mass of people straight to the beach area.

Immediately upon entering, the first thing I noticed was the pleasant temperature. It felt as though I was swimming in warm bath water. Once I reached a point where the water was up to my waist, I could just sit down, and float. This sounds so simple and unexciting, but it is honestly one of the most unique things I have ever experienced. This is due to the Dead Sea's high salinity (about 9 times saltier than the ocean, the Dead Sea is second only to Djibouti's Lake Asal). You can try to swim, but you can't put your head under the water, or the salt will get in your eyes, which is extremely painful. At one point, the cuts on my hands I had incurred since the beginning of my trip were burning so bad that I had to get out of the water and chill out in the pool for a while. Nevertheless, I got some much needed relaxation by just laying down and floating effortlessly in the water.

Floating in the Dead Sea

View from one of the pools

Some interesting facts about the Dead Sea:
  • Its shores are the lowest point on the surface of the Earth
  • At 330m, it is also the deepest hypersaline lake in the world
  • It is 42 miles long and 18 miles across at its widest point
  • It is considered one of the world's first health resorts (King Herod used it for this purpose)
  • Its mud is considered to have special healing and therapeutic uses

Although an expensive day trip, our visit to the Dead Sea was fun and relaxing. The scenic drive to and from also offered some more great views of such a beautiful country.

Petra up next!

Ma'a salaama,


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Part II: The Little Petra that Could

You'll first have to excuse me, I'd like to save big Petra (the normal one) for a later post. To be sure, the next post will be on the Dead Sea, and following that, the main event- PETRA. In order to be forthright, I must admit, the Holy Grail, as portrayed in Indian Jones and the Last Crusade, is not housed in Petra. So, if you were waiting for that whole part, I'm sorry.

Anyways, back to Aqaba. We left the chicken coup early in the morning (officially my birthday now), and headed to the main bus stop in Aqaba, assuming we would take a large bus to Wadi Musa, the town overlooking Petra. Instead, we met a very nice driver who offered to take just our group for only a couple more dinars. We thought this would be a better idea, and we were definitely rewarded. The drive to Wadi Musa was stunning. So much of Jordan seemed to be untarnished by human hands, and left to its own natural setting. This couldn't have been more different than the huge metropolis I'm living in, and I appreciated such a drastic change of scenery. Within a couple of hours, I was able to see a desert, mountains, and beaches. Jordan truly is a unique country worth visiting. Our driver stopped at a couple of points to let us take in the view (and snap some pictures as well). I got a picture with him at one of our stops with the Jordanian landscape in the background.

Me with our driver

We arrived in Wadi Musa early midday. We considered this day a travel day, but upon reaching our hostel, we were told we should try to see Little Petra. Never having heard of it, but told it's free to visit, we thought we'd give it a shot. Again, we couldn't have made a better decision. The ride over to Little Petra was quite the experience as well. It may have only been about 10 minutes, but it might as well have been an hour long roller coaster ride. All seven of us fit into the back of a truck. Surrounded by a whirlwind of sandstone mountains, we were going up and down and careening around corners with hundred feet drop-offs. Danger aside, the ride was spectacular.

This is the beginning of the path leading to Little Petra.

Not really knowing what to expect, we were happy to have our first taste of Petra. As you can see, the facades are carved in the side of sandstone. Much of the design reflects western influences, which is not too surprisingly, knowing Petra was a center of trade between the east and west. Much of the Petra carvings (both Little and Big) were done by the Nabataeans, between 200 BC to 200 AD. While you might expect to find a room beyond this facade, you will only find a small enclosure the width and height of the doorway. Continuing on our short hike, we encountered a couple more carvings.
In front of the first carving at Little Petra

I thought the columns at this site were pretty interesting. I wanted to climb up to look inside the room, but decided it probably wasn't the best idea to risk my life on my 21st birthday.

We continued walking for a while until we reached a small passageway in between to large sandstone pieces (or mountains, I don't know which is the most appropriate term). We were told by some young Jordanian girls that "many foreigners have fallen." Not surprisingly, we trudged on, and scaled the steps until reaching the top, where we were greeted by a young Jordanian man, trying to get us to rest after our feat and drink some tea with him. Politely declining, we walked a little more and reached a nice flat area from which we could see more of Little Petra.

Five of us on the side of a rock

We ended up walking back and got back into the back of the truck for another crazy ride. What could have been a wasted day turned out being a great introduction to one of the most famed areas in the world.

Ma'a salaama,


Monday, October 6, 2008

Jordan Trip Part 1: Aqaba

My first stop on my trip to Jordan was Aqaba. After a long bus ride through the night, my group arrived at Taba, Egypt around 6 or so in the morning. The sun had just risen, and the air was nice and cool. After crossing the Egyptian border into Israel, we had to pay Israel about about 30 USD to get in there. We took a cab through the town of Eilot, the small, southernmost town in Israel,  nestled on the northern tip of the Red Sea. Even though our cab ride was only 10 minutes long, we noticed a remarkable difference between Taba, Egypt and Eilot, Israel. Eilot was a bustling, yet clean beach resort area. It had very modern looking buildings, and seemed to represent an example of Israeli success. It couldn't have been more different than Egypt. Hopefully, on my Israel trip in December, I'll be able to see more of the country. After quickly passing through Israel, we reached the Jordanian border and crossed over into the country where we would spent the next five days. We took a cab to our beach side resort in Aqaba, Jordan's Red Sea city.

This is a picture of where I spent my first night. We dubbed it, appropriately the "Chicken Coup." Obviously, our living arrangements for the first night weren't the  most "resort-like" in the world, but it did the job nonetheless. However, the two minute walk to the beach made up for our little hut.

Within 10 minutes of arriving in Aqaba, we set out for the beautiful, secluded beach to get some much needed rest. The water was perfect, the sun was as high as the spirits in the group. We were excited to be in Jordan, and everything had worked out swimmingly thus far. The Red Sea is actually one of the premier scuba diving and snorkeling areas in the world. After swimming a ways out, you could admire the beautiful coral just under you in the water. I have never been in water with coral, so this was pretty special for me. Also, I swam out far enough to see the end of the reef, where the sea floor just seems to drop a hundred feet. At that point, I saw the most blue water I have ever seen. Imagine that artificial blue in the water at putt-putt courses, but put coral around it and make it naturally beautiful- that is what I swam in.

The guys: Hunter, myself, and Ike
Sunset at Aqaba

That night, we celebrated my 21st birthday. My group surprised me in the chicken coup with some drinks. We had a great time, and later that night, we went down to the beach again to watch the sunset. I cut my foot on some coral, and a girl from our group accidentally stepped on a sea urchin. Injuries aside, Aqaba was a great start to a fantastic trip, and I couldn't have been happier to spend my birthday there amongst some good friends.

Stay tuned for part II: Wadi Musa and Petra

Ma'a salaama,