Sunday, November 30, 2008

Luxor Trip Part I: Ancient Thebes

So, the internet has been spotty again, and it's taken me more than a week to load up all these pictures. I hope that they were worth the wait.

Two weekends ago, my travel buddies and I took a 12 hour train ride to the world famous upper Egyptian town Luxor. Luxor is famous for it's east and west banks (relative to the Nile), the east bank is simply Luxor and the west is what used to be ancient Thebes. Thebes came to prominence at the onset of the Middle Kingdom under Montuhotep II (2055-2004 BC) who reunited Upper and Lower Egypt, setting the capital at Thebes. Following Montuhotep's reign, Thebes became the religious capital of Egypt by serving as the center for the cult of Amun, while Memphis (aka Giza and the Cairo area) was the political capital.

With the end of the Second Intermediate Period and subsequent beginning of the New Kingdom, Thebes experienced a resurgence of prominence and became the most glorious city of ancient Egypt.

After getting a good night's rest and eating a hearty breakfast in the morning, we jumped in our van and crossed over the Nile onto the west bank, home of the Valley of the Kings (Queens and Nobles, as well), numerous temples, and the Colossi of Memnon. Our first stop was the Valley of the Kings.

When you go to the Valley of the Kings, you purchase a ticket and are quickly encouraged to buy a bus ticket for the long journey to the actual site of the tombs. Little did we know, but that long journey to the beginning of the valley was actually a 10 minute walk. As my roommate and I say, SNESA- Situation Normal, Egypt Strikes Again! So, the tickets we bought were eligible for viewing three tombs, so we had to be smart about which ones we chose. Our first stop was the tomb of Ramses VII, who ruled from 1136 to 1129 BC.

Picture of Ramses VII

First, I must note that we weren't allowed to take pictures. However, I was able to snap these (with my flash off of course) without damaging the art. Hopefully, I didn't damage your perception of me. Anyways, as you can see, the entirety of the walls and ceiling is covered with hieroglyphics and other carvings. The end of the walkway you see is the burial chamber. According to my guidebook, Coptic hermits once found refuge in this tomb, as evidenced by Coptic graffiti (which seems to find itself on most ancient Egyptian artifacts). From here, we began our walk to the tomb furthest away, the tomb of Tuthmosis III.

Valley of the Kings

Tomb of Tuthmosis III

Tuthmosis III (1479-1425 BC) was once called the Napoleon of ancient Egypt and was one of the first pharaohs to have his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. This tomb was very different from the first in that it was hidden high in the valley and required us to descend deeply into the mountainside. The glyphs in this tomb were noticeably different as well, since most of them looked like stick figures and lacked the detail of Ramses's tomb.

From Tuthmosis's tomb, we walked back towards where we began and decided the tomb of Ramses the IX to be our last stop.

Tomb of Ramses IX

From my LonelyPlanet guidebook: "Opposite Ramses II is the most visited tomb in the valley, the Tomb of Ramses IX (1126-1108 BC), with a wide entrance, a long sloping corridor, a large antechamber decorated with the animals, serpents and demons from the Book of the Dead- then a pillared hall and short hallway before the burial chamber." I was able to stealthily get a shot of this burial chamber, which luckily enough, was well lit. The glyphs in this tomb seemed to mark a return to the style of Ramses VII as opposed to the stick-figures from Tuthmosis's tomb. Having explored our three tombs, we hopped back into our van and made our way over to Deir al-Bahri, where the Temple of Hatshepsut is located.

Temple of Hatshepsut

The Temple of Hatshepsut is partly carved from the cliffs that rise behind it. Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC) is widely regarded as one of the most successful female pharaohs, noting her long comparatively long reign. The Temple has been vandalized, defaced, and restyled over the years; it does, however, retain many of the vestiges that gave it the name "Most Holy of Holies" from ancient Egyptian times.

As I began my ascent up the steps leading to the entrance, I noticed the immensity of this temple. Once atop, you see the carvings lining the colonnade in front, and a few of them are pictured below.

Passing through the colonnaded terraces, I walked straight into the upper terrace, with the Sanctuary of Amun opposite me. In this upper terrace I noticed a lot of damage to the glyphs and reliefs lining the walls. From this terrace, we walked down back towards the middle terrace, which divides the Hathor Chapel and Chapel of Anubis. Not surprisingly, the Hathor Chapel had many depictions of Hathor, an ancient goddess that is usually depicted as a cow, while the Chapel of Anubis had reliefs of its namesake lining it's walls.

Well-preserved relief in the Chapel of Anubis (not Anubis)

After leaving the Temple of Hatshepsut, we stopped at the Ramesseum next. The Ramesseum, as its name implies, is a massive memorial temple built by one of ancient Egypt's most famous rulers, Ramses II, who actually called it "the Temple of Millions of Years of User-Maat-Ra," and it served as part of his funerary complex. Much of the temple, as you can see, has undoubtedly felt the effects of time. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic site to see.

Entering the grounds of the Ramesseum

Standing in the Second Court

The Colossus of Ramses II

This destroyed Colossus of Ramses II is absolutely huge. I can only imagine how great it must have looked like in ancient times when it stood more than 50 feet tall. This crumbled statue actually served as the inspiration for the English poet Shelly's "Ozymandias."

One of the reliefs at the Ramesseum

One of my favorite parts of the Ramesseum was the Great Hypostyle Hall, which consisted of 29 of the original 48 columns, each of which is covered with glyphs from top to bottom. You can sort of see them in the shot of the whole Ramesseum. From the Ramesseum we went to another temple, Ramses III's memorial temple of Medinat Habu. Immediately walking towards the temple, you are confronted with two large reliefs facing you on either side. One of them depicts Ramses III defeating his enemies. If you can remember my post in which I describe the Narmer palette, I mention the importance of the smiting pharaoh. As you can see here, the pharaoh is smiting his enemies albeit this time, with more details and help from the gods.

Pharaoh smiting enemies

Another relief that became popular in ancient Egypt was the pharaoh shooting an arrow from a horse-drawn chariot, which is pictured above.

One of the better preserved reliefs

After walking around the temple and realizing how little we understood, we decided to head over to our last stop of the day- the Colossi Memnom. The Colossi of Memnom are about 18m high and were once a part of Amenhotep III's large memorial temple, which would have been the largest temple in ancient Egypt (even larger than Karnak, which will be the subject of my next post). Each colossi was carved from a single block of stone weighing roughly 1000 tons. Visitors during the Graeco-Roman times attributed these statues to Memnom, the famous African king who died at the hands of Achilles during the Trojan War.

Me with the Colossi

In one day we saw half of Luxor, so as expected, we were pretty tired. That night, we found a local bar and met some other travelers and even played pool. Needless to say, we slept well and were excited for the next day of sight-seeing.

Ma'a salaama,


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bahiriya Oasis and the Black and White Deserts

Last weekend (beginning on Thursday, Nov. 14), my group of travel friends and I journeyed over to the Bahiriya Oasis (about 4 hours west of Cairo) in the Libyan Desert in order to see the famous Black and White Deserts south of Bahiriya and north of the Farafra Oases.

On Wednesday, the day before we left, both Ike and I came down with some sickness. Ike must have had food poisoning, and I think I had a stomach bug. Both of us were bed ridden for the day, and convinced we wouldn't be joining our friends on the trip we had been planned on taking. That night, we both started feeling a little better. I picked up some medicine from a local pharmacy, and went to bed assuming I would try to go on the trip, but if I didn't feel up to it, then I wouldn't go. Luckily, I was able to wake up incredibly early 5 am, pack up, and get ready to head out with the rest of the group. We took a bus from Cairo to Bahiriya. The ride wasn't too bad, especially considering it cost us about 10 bucks each.

After driving in the desert for about 4 hours or so, you begin to notice hills in the distance, and below these hills, in the valley below, you notice a sea of green. As you guessed, we had arrived at the Oasis. To give you an idea of what it looks like amidst the desert and hills around it, I snapped a photo from our "base camp." Or as we called it, Chicken Coup Number Two (remember Aqaba, Jordan?).

The Return of the Chicken Coup

After settling into our huts, the owner of the campsite took us on a tour of Bahiriya. Bahiriya, like most oases, contains a couple of natural springs, and tons of palm trees. We visited a hot spring and cold spring. The hot spring wasn't quite what I had expected. I guess I was thinking of something I had seen in National Geographic: Little pools of hot, steamy water. The hot spring at Bahiriya consisted of a pipe coming out of the ground with water flowing out of it into a cement bath. The cold spring, on the other hand, was more of a small lake. Both, however, absolutely reeked. This took away from the experience a bit, but nonetheless, the appearance of water in the middle of the Libyan Desert was a fantastic sight to behold.

From the springs, we drove over some sand dunes (or as I like to call it, an Egyptian Roller Coaster) and arrived at Pyramid Mountain, which looked beautiful in the setting sun. 

Pyramid Mountain

After climbing up part of Pyramid Mountain and getting some pictures of the valley oasis below, we headed over to the English House on top of another hill to watch the sunset.

The English House with moon in the background

The English House seems to have been some sort of fort for the Queen's soldiers in Egypt. After trying to research this little gem, I couldn't really come up with any information other than its great location affording excellent sunset views.

Sunset at Bahiriya

After getting back from a wonderful night in Bahiriya, we all hit the hay for a long day of desert touring ahead of us.

Descending down a sand dune

As you can see, we piled into an old 4x4 for our desert adventure. Our first stop was a large dune in the black desert. We actually got stuck at the top of the dune because one of the girls screamed when she realized that we would be descending the dune, thus forcing our driver to stop. We all had to get out and rock the SUV side to side in order to get sand under the tires, thereby raising it up and allowing it to get more clearance for getting over the summit of the dune. From there, we drove through the desert until we arrived at the Dune of the Horse, a huge mountain (not really a dune) near the road. The climb up the small mountain was not the safest of ascents, but it was a fun challenge, worth the view from the top.

View of the Black Desert

As you can see, the Black Desert is true to its name: the desert is riddled with small black stones. Another long drive brought us south and closer to the highlight of the trip, the White Desert.

First we stopped at the edge of the White Desert to get some naturally growing crystals and a great view of what was in store for later.

It's amazing how different the two deserts are

Despite a satisfying lunch, Ike finally succumbed to the wrath of the White Desert

As sunset neared, we entered the prime attraction of the White Desert: an expansive plain of wind-carved white sand stone forming a beautiful contrast with the colorful setting sun on the horizon. After walking around this sea of white, we set up camp.

White Desert at sunset

As the sun dropped, the temperature fell through the floor. Before we knew it, each one of us was bundled up in multiple layers, fighting for space around a small fire our guide was using for cooking our dinner, which, by the way, was amazing and left us more than satisfied. With our stomachs full, spirits high, and at the edge of sleep, we snuggled into our sleeping bags under the beautiful blanket of stars above. The sky wasn't as quite as beautiful as Wadi Rum, but it seemed a universe away from Cairo.

Sunrise in the White Desert

The Mushroom and Chicken

Waking up the next morning felt like falling into a Salvador Dali painting. The rising sun and spectacular rock formations only reminded me of one of his surreal paintings. After eating a small breakfast, we got back into our ride and made our way back to Bahiriya, and from there, to Cairo.

Hope you enjoyed this post as much as I enjoyed going to these two deserts.

Ma'a salaama,


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Never thought I'd be doing this in Cairo, Egypt.....

About one month ago, one of my roommates, Steve, mentioned to me that he was going to start playing rugby for AUC's club team, and asked me if I might want to join. Before leaving for Egypt, I had wanted to get involved with something during my stay this semester, and I had only run into problems due to the transition to the new campus. The amount of time I spend on the bus each day really limits my time, and the physical transition from one location to another has hindered the ability of clubs at AUC from meeting consistently. However, I thought that this could be a great opportunity to meet some Egyptians, while also learn how to play a sport I've never tried before. Some of my closest friends at Georgetown, Joe and Phil, play for Georgetown's rugby team, and having played hockey for about half of my life, I was itching to get back to a contact sport. With these things in mind, I decided to head out to practice, where I was warmly welcomed onto the team.

A little about rugby: Legend has it that the sport was started at the Rugby School in England in 1823 when William Webb Ellis picked up a football (soccer ball) and started running with it. The rules for the sport weren't codified until the middle portion of the 19th century. Towards the end of the same century, a schism developed between two forms of rugby: rugby union (the original), which is played with 15 players, and rugby league (the newer offshoot), which is played with 13 players. At AUC we play rugby league.

The players in rugby are divided between forwards and backs. Traditionally forwards are the larger of the two, and the backs are the quicker. I play back, usually at the position of wing or outside center.

These are some pictures I had a friend take during our match against the Cairo Rugby Club, a much more experienced team, mainly composed of ex pats from countries with a strong rugby tradition.

I'm number 6 in the yellow shorts

Right before the match began, a dust storm had come upon the field, forcing everyone to face the other way to avoid the particles from getting in our eyes. Luckily the winds died down after a couple of minutes, and we would begin the match. At the start of the match, I had a very surreal realization: Never before did I think I would be playing rugby in Cairo, Egypt, during the afternoon call to prayer nonetheless!

The opposing team was heavily favored to win, but we put up a good fight. There were many times when the opposition was on the try line (goal line in football), and we were able to push them back and prevent them from scoring by eventually forcing a turnover. Ultimately, however, we lost by two tries. I played the second and fourth quarters of the match, 40 minutes out of the 80 minute match. I made some tackles and carried the ball for a bit, only to get tackled fairly quickly. On the whole, I had a great time, and at the next match, I started and played the entire first half. That game we won! It was the first time AUC had ever won a match (the club is only 2 years old I think), and my teammates could not have been more excited.

Since then, practices have been more infrequent and I've been trying to go on trips during the weekend, so my participation is on the beginning of dying down (we have finals in less than a month). Still, I've had a great time, and met a great group of guys.

Next up: My trip to the Bahariya Oasis and the Black and White Desert.

Ma'a salaama,


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Egyptians Weigh-In on the American Election

With a historic election underway as I write this post, I thought it appropriate to present the views of the Egyptians on this critical juncture.

There have been countless times when I have entered a cab, only to get stuck in gridlock traffic. Sometimes the cab driver will try to strike up conversation with me, and to be honest, one of the most common topics brought up is the Presidential election. Without fail, the cab driver will express his diehard support for Barack Obama and absolute disdain for the current President. But, to be fair, many times these drivers don't even know who John McCain is. They just know Barack Obama, the man with "Hussein" as his middle name, and they know that he promises to very different from George W. Bush.

I mentioned these frequent occurrences to one of my teammates on the rugby team, Amin. Amin, not surprisingly, is also an ardent Obama supporter. However, he has a better grasp of reality: While he hopes Obama is elected, he doesn't think that it will immediately change everything in the Middle East for the better. In fact, he thinks that very little will be done, especially in the case of Palestine, because of Obama's professed support of Israel (remember the speech at AIPAC this year?). Nevertheless, he did reference Obama's middle name as another reason why he appeals to him.
Another one of my teammates, Mo, had tons to say about the American election, but when asked about his politics for his own country Egypt, he had very little to contribute. In Egypt, where there is no democracy (Hosni Mubarak is the lone dictator and it has been that way for decades), there is little need for political opinions. Because of this, I think many are forced to look to the next best thing: American politics. I think Mo is a perfect example of this. I can only imagine, however, what it would be like if Egyptians had the opportunity to voice their political opinions at the polls as we Americans are so fortunate to do.

Today, on my journey back from campus, the conversation on the bus revolved around two topics: issues concerning the new campus and the presidential election, both of which are probably the most common subjects of conversation amongst my friends and me as well. This time, one of the female professors expressed her disgust for Sarah Palin when she said, "I think she is an embarrassment to women everywhere." Even though I don't fully agree with this (I'm not a big fan of Palin either, mind you), most people in the discussion expressed their whole-hearted support for this. In addition, one of the AUC school newspapers, The Caravan, endorsed Obama.

As you can see, the support for Obama here is overwhelming. While many do not necessarily know his policies, they know he has an Arab middle name, is a Democrat, and is not George Bush. For Egyptians, this enough to garner their support (but not their votes). Even though the name campaign against Barack Obama may have hurt him in the states (I watched a video of a lady say she couldn't trust Obama because "he's an Arab"), but it definitely helped him over here. I cannot stress enough, however, the importance of Barack Obama's perceived distance from George Bush. George Bush, regardless of your politics, has undoubtedly hurt our standing in the Middle East among the normal citizenry. Although the US still commits billions in aid to the Middle East (about a quarter of the new AUC campus was supplied by USAID), the policies pursued by George Bush, and even Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, have soured the opinions of many Arabs of the American presidency.

Well, now you know how the Egyptians feel about the American election. I can't wait to find out what the Americans think! I've sent in my absentee ballot. Have you voted?! If not, get out and vote!

Ma'a salaama,