This was our 1st venture with a Guide, and was my 1st taste of proper desert. We got to clamber down inside a tomb, stooping as we descended a 45 degree shaft deep underground. Tres cool.
Used as a burial ground for thousands of years, Saqqara hides its secrets well under desert sands. Despite virtually continuous excavations for some two centuries, much of the area remains to be excavated. The site stretches six kilometers from north to south and more than 1.5 kilometers across at its widest point.
CAIRO. Landed 1am local time. Approaching the city the internal video screens on the plane showed a forward camera (pilot) view – darkness lit up by eerie yellow green glow ahead. Ghostly. My mind is whirling. Cairo. Location of many scenes for the book I wrote (God Seed) – the Pyramids are down there. Flying over the city I see just how big it is and I say out loud “oh my God”.
Cairo airport – fast and efficient processing of us human traffic. We’re met by our rep, Mohammed, aka Mo. A short young guy with powerful shoulders and bulging pecs. He’s charming, efficient and friendly. Lots of Egyptians lounging around, I get the feeling I’m being reviewed by several sets of eyes at any moment. There’s only a few tourists here in the concourse at this early time.
Outside Cairo airport several guys scramble to help us with our bags. Mo – our guide – walks us to a small passenger van – the bag carriers start shoving their palms at us asking for English coins. Mo barks at them in Arabic and they back off. “I’ll cover tips whilst I’m looking after you,” Mo explains to us.
2 AM and we’re blasting along Ramsis, through Heliopolis, past President Mubarak’s residence with armed guards clustered around the entrance to the walled enclosure, past a section of the city reserved for military people to live in. It’s a long drive in. Then we’re up on a raised highway, passing Ramesis station below us to our left (built by the British) and heading deeper into the City.
The edge of the Nile is lit up from the glow of boats and restaurants, young Egyptian men lounge against the low walls, or walk across the road through still-heavy traffic with no regard for being struck down. Then we’re across the 6th October bridge and the long drive through Giza to our hotel. Mo checks us in, past armed police & metal detector outside the main entrance, and makes sure we’re happy before leaving us to it. A bellhop carries our bags up to our room – crossing an external walkway at one point – I can’t see anything out there in dark beyond the hotel. Where are the pyramids….
3.30 AM, lying in bed, trying to get used the idea of where I am. I don’t sleep, not properly. My mind is buzzing. At some point I’m aware of the whole room shuddering –as if a vast underground cavern was collapsing miles below the ground. Hmmm. Are the Pyramids near? Masks of Nyarlathotep populates my head with images. Houdini and his escape below the pyramids, after being kidnapped and lowered down into a deep shaft. What is down there? Really.
It’s in the morning, walking down to breakfast, recrossing the external walkway that takes us between two sections of the hotel, that I look out beyond the hotel and see the Pyramids. Zoom. There they are. I’m seeing them. My eyes. My brain. Reality. God Seed and Adam Kyle. Call of Cthulhu. And further back into the romantic day dreams of my teenage years and childhood. Being 9 and getting into Alan Parsons Project, Lap of the Gods, the album sleeve showing a man sitting in a hotel room as if having woken from a nightmare, the Great Pyramid visible through the window beyond. All my life I’ve known this image and wanted to be there. Now I’m standing above the immaculate garden/grounds of the hotel, gazing at them.
Despite our late arrival Mo is meeting us at 10am to introduce us to our guide for our 3 days in Cairo. Outside we climb into another small people carrier and meet our driver. Mo departs promising to see us later. Meanwhile, Jo, myself, our guide and driver head South, to Saqqara and the funeral complex of Zoser. I get my first understanding of how the Nile is a narrow strip of abundant fertility bordered immediately by desert. Working the land is sacred and an honour for the people who have land to work here. We pass houses that follow a canal of filthy brown water, these houses have no running water, yet they leave large urns outside their homes filled with water for people with even less than they have to drink from.
Arriving at Saqqara we park up and our guide walks us inside the Mastaba of an important noble. She talks us through the inscriptions on the walls and suddenly ancient Egypt comes to live in my mind. Our guide unravels the meaning behind the carved/painted images and I start to see what my eyes were not able to actually perceive. It’s a wonderful sensation – a feeling of deep understanding. Without our guide we would have simply wandered through these rooms like an ignorant child, maybe impressed by the concept of antiquity and history presented by the walls – but not seeing them – not understanding.
Leaving the Mastaba we walked to the entrance of another tomb. Our guide left us to descend a steeply sloping shaft so low we have to crouch. Down down down. Then further in following a horizontal passage, still crouching. Vast weight of stone above us. Into a small chamber with walls divided into neat columns of hieroglyphics. The lighting in the tomb created an optical illusion – it seemed that the hieroglyphics were floating above the surface of the wall like holograms.
After Saqqara we had lunch in a small establishment. Hummus, warm bread, chicken on skewers. Delish. Then back into our people carrier and drive North and West, back to Giza. To the Pyramids.
I’m here. At last. I’m really here. We drive through the heavily armed security area and cruise along towards an area that our Guide says will gives us a fabulous overview of the area. I’m surprised how uneven the ground is. The pyramids are all on different levels, and the ground in between is broken, littered with ancient rubble. Unlike some tourist locations that disappoint you with over-developed commercial tourist traps, or are somehow nothing like what you imagined them to be, the Pyramids simply blow you away. The Sphinx, equally, is an amazing object to stand and gaze at. I was struck by the thought “how many great heavyweights of history have stood here, in this very area, staring, contemplating the mystery of these colossal structures.” Forty Centuries of human history has taken place beneath this silent eyes of the pyramids and the Sphinx.
Being dropped off at the hotel in the afternoon, I was knackered from zero sleep but rather than crash out in bed Jo and I flopped down beside the swimming pool. 27 C. Sunshine. Cool blue water. Awesome. I lay on a sun-lounger with tunes playing, gazing at the Pyramids.
Bomb attack and shoot-out in downtown Cairo. The media will no doubt play the suicide-bomber = terrorist card but this attack seemed to be no more than a couple of lunatics. Same bloke that lobbed a bomb in the old Market couple of weeks ago. He jumped from a bridge near the Egyptian Museum and exploded. Then two veiled women (his sister and g/f I think) opened fire on a tourist bus – except the bus then just drove off, so the two women killed themselves. Almost comical. Heavy police presence, all guides informing police of your location and planned destinations, and the overwhelming friendliness of everyday Egyptians made me feel very safe.
Our rep came to collect us that night with a different driver – took us to the Sound & Light Show, which was excellent, if not somewhat anachronistic with it’s 1960’s British actor’s giving commanding narratives to music that sounded like it came from The Omen.
Next day – up early again – met our Guide and went to the Egyptian Museum. Again, the Guide delivered her value in gold – walking and talking us through the major exhibits, expanding our understanding and comprehension far more than if we’d just bought an entrance ticket and wondered around with blind eyes.
After two days in Cairo/Giza I wanted to serious down-time. Holiday. Chill out. Camped out beside the pool with William Gibson – Pattern Recognition, and a stack of mini-discs and just relaxed for a whole day.
I wanted to go back to the Pyramids. We’d dispensed with our Guide. The Pyramid looked not-too-far away so decided to walk it. Grabbed a bottle of water, threw on some long trousers, changed from sandals to trainers and headed out the hotel. I was the only white guy I saw. Crossing the roads. No lights. No system. Just had to judge it and go for it. Bright sunlight. Dry dusty air. Lots of traffic. Lots of people wandering around. Lots of stares, some smiles. A lot of taxis pulling over, again and again and again. Do I want a taxi? Do I want to go to the Pyramids? Very cheap. Only five Egyptian pounds (yeah, 50p, very cheap, but it would be via one of their mates houses/shops to buy some papyrus, statue or cheap trinket). One guy told me it was dangerous to be walking around, and that I should get into his car. I walked on, laughing, and said to him “nowhere is safe, and you shouldn’t be selling out your country with statements like that”. Another guy pulled over in his SUV, jumped out and said “Hello! I work in the coffee shop of your hotel.” Very Nice, I said. No you don’t work in my hotel I realised, and kept on walking, leaving him to stare after me with bemusement. A guy shouted hello at me a dozen times from the other side of the road, then ran across the road and walked quietly behind me for 10 minutes. The closer I got to the entrance to the pyramids the more young men were loitering around the pavement, studying me with appraising looks – hustlers – grifters – I was walking into a pain in the ass. Then the hairs on the back of my neck started to prickle up, and a voice in my head said something is not right. I don’t know what I sensed, or if it was genuine, but my water was almost gone and I was getting sick of being hassled so turned back.
Leaving Cairo, en route to the local airport, I realised I knew nothing about what was ahead of me. All my life I’d focussed my imagination and interest on Cairo and the pyramids. I realised my adventure was actually just about to begin.
Landed in Luxor – ancient Thebes – at midnight. Met by another rep, driving to the Nile where our ship was moored. The rep made sure our booking and accommodation was all A-ok, then handed us over to two guides (who would later divide the ship into two groups, Ramesis and Horus).
The boat had a delightful character about it. Very grand marble floored entrance with brass railed staircase leading up and down to different decks, but the rooms themselves had less grandeur and more simplicity. Bed. Storage space. Fridge. Air con. Shower and toilet en-suite. Big round porthole just above the water-line.
We would be staying moored for another day and a half. Luxor was a centre for number of excursions.
I’d never done a cruise before. In a way it’s a floating hotel, but whereas most guests in a hotel will simply get on with their own bubble world and mix infrequently with other guests, the enclosed psychology of the cruise ship meant everybody made a big effort to get to know everybody else. I’d say there were about 40 to 50 people onboard. Breakfast the next day had a role to play because we were allocated to tables according to room number, which had an important consequence of determining who you shared with. We had two people at our table. Enter B and L. Quiet people with big characters. L is the daughter of B’s sister-in-Law, and so was in a way her custodian for the trip. 35, a free spirit and artistic, L was responsible for our first real adventure and a great bonding experience, our 2nd night in Luxor.
1st excursion was to the Valley of Queens, and the temple of Hatshepsut. This had poignancy for me. It was at Hatshepsut in 1997 that nearly 60 tourists were murdered. This led to my trip (I was a week away from leaving) being cancelled, money refunded, which led to me going back to Newcastle for the watershed Christmas of 1997. A time which saved my family, and led to the wonderful family harmony I enjoy now with both my parents.
Valley of the Kings. I was struck by the intense heat and the stark landscape. After entering several tombs I wandered away from the main groups and found myself climbing a lonely path into a smaller valley. The sounds of people dropped away instantly and I experienced a moment where I could imagine being here utterly alone.
When the boat set sail we embarked on an journey where days melted into each other and I lost all track of time, and lost all worries and cares of my own reality. Breakfast, lunchtime, afternoon coffee & cakes and dinner were all announced by a crew member walking through the ship ringing a bell. Each day had something organised. Something happening. You didn’t have to participate if you didn’t want to. The guides took us off the ship as we stopped at various points up the Nile, visiting temples and places of interest. The people on the ship coalesced into small tribes. Most people were lovely, but there was nobody who spoiled the trip. Even the few bizarre characters added to the fun of the trip and gave everybody something to chat about.
Highlights for me were the Temple known as Kom Ombo, which is actually two temples consisting of a Temple to Sobek and a Temple of Haroeris (the colour of the sunlight, the atmosphere of the place and the vivid description of human sacrifice that took place there); another highlight was waking at 3am, leaving the ship and joining a convoy of vehicles blasting deep into the Sahara Desert, getting a view of a vast canopy of night without city lights to spoil the view of the glittering stars, sunrise over the desert, the beauty of the Temple of Abu Simbel (two temples built by the pharaoh Ramesses II near the border of Egypt with Sudan), and then the return daylight journey back through the endless desert.
The greatest achievements of the pyramid builders were the Pyramids of Giza, built near the capital city of Memphis for the fourth dynasty kings Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure who ruled through 2589-2504 BC. But pyramid building soon waned as the power and prosperity of the kings of Egypt weakened with the end of the Old Kingdom.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza is the largest of the pyramids of ancient Egypt, and was regarded by the ancient Greeks as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Khufu (Cheops to the Greeks) ruled about 2589-2566 BC when the Old Kingdom of Egypt was nearing a peak of prosperity and culture. After his death, he was entombed in a pyramid that is astonishing for both its size and mathematical precision
One of the tourist police takes a rest from the intense heat.
The Sphinx is one of the best known monuments on Earth and dates back over 4,500 years to the Old Kingdom and the time of king Khafre – builder of the second largest pyramid on the Giza plateau on Cairo’s outskirts. The head of the Sphinx probably depicts Khafre, while the body is that of a recumbent lion
for most of its history, the Sphinx has been at least partly covered in sand. The first recorded clearing took place in the 18th Dynasty when a prince, who later became the pharaoh Thutmose IV, ordered that the sand be removed. This happened after he supposedly had a dream in which he was told that he would become pharaoh if he cleared the Sphinx.
This was placed over the head and shoulders of his mummy, so that his Ka when it returned would know it was him. The boy king died before he was twenty. Some same murder, although current opinion is he died from an infection after a fall.
Back in 1997, a number of armed men arrived in taxis and herded frightened tourists up these ramps as they started to spray them with bullets. The gunfight with a light security contingent last two hours. 57 tourists died here. I was a week from flying to Luxor. My trip got cancelled. I went home to Newcastle for Christmas that year and our family came together – so out of horror some goodness came.
1st proper night on the ship, L, suggests grabbing a calesh ride around Luxor. After dinner we head out into the sultry heat of Luxor, meet a young lad called Achmed and negotiate a price to go to a few markets. Achmed fetches a calesh and we all climb aboard, B, gets the front seat and Achmed confidently hands him the reigns of the horse. Next thing I know is we’re trotting off down a main road with cars whizzing past us, horns blaring, our lives in B’s hands. He did a fine job – even when we were going the wrong way down a main road into on-coming traffic. Achmed didn’t seem to mind. Nobody did.
At several points we found ourselves trundling down very narrow alleys lined with markets – some stalls nothing more than dirty straw mats on the earthen ground with old vegatables or other things to sell.
This is the night L was almost seduced by some horrible fat shop owner – the infamous line “may I touch your lips with my lips”….. eeeeuuuurrrch.
On the east bank of the Nile at Luxor lies the magnificent Luxor Temple which was dedicated to the great god Amun-Re, his wife Mut and their son Khonsu (the moon god) – together representing the Theban triad.
On the Nile
Our cabin was on the lower deck, just above the water line – I found this a more interesting view than the more expensive cabins higher up. I mean, if you wanted a fab view you just climbed onto the sundeck, flopped down on a lounger with an ice cold bottle of water and watched Egypt drift by.
Image of falcon headed Horus giving the Pharaoh the key of life (ankh)
This shrine, or naos, dates from a much earlier temple. It would have housed a statue of Horus. Looking back from the shine is a view through several doorways leading right through the heart of the temple and out into a courtyard of columns. From the outside traveling inwards each doorway got progressively smaller (from the height of two houses down to just above the height of a man) giving the impression that a person approaching was given larger stature the closer they were allowed to approach Horus.
Edfu is spectacular because so much of it is intact – you can really get a sense of adventure by wandering into the inner aspects of it.
Kom Ombo is home to an unusual double temple built during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. The temple is dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek and the falcon god Haroeris (Horus the Elder). Despite being badly damaged, the temple is a beautiful sight as one approaches from either direction on the river, particularly as sunset nears and the colours change
This was my favourite temple. The way it perched on small rise above the Nile, in a place where the Nile curved round, giving it a majestic aura as you approached from the river. The sunlight was magical here. A place of human sacrifice, the atmosphere was tangible. You could see the low wide altar stone in the forecourt where they would have butchered their screaming enemies; you could see the holes were their blood would have drained. You could picture them carrying the body parts, freshly severed, pink internal flesh and gleaming white shattered bone, being carried over to the large shaft where crocodiles splashed around in filthy water.
Sobek was the crocodile-god who symbolized the fertility of the Nile River and the authority of the pharaohs. He was a son of Neith. Revered for ferocity and speed of movement, his cult originally flourished around El Faiyûm, where some temples still remain; the area was so associated with Sobek that one town, Arsinoe, was known to the Greeks as “Crocodilopolis”. Sobek-worship flourished in and after the Twelfth Dynasty, with major centres in Kom Ombo and Thebes. In later times, he was regarded as a manifestation of the universal god Amun.
The Book of the Dead relates that Sobek assisted in the birth of Horus, was responsible for fetching the sisters Isis and Nephthys to protect the deceased, and had a role in the destruction of Set. Other mythological sources credit Sobek with catching Horus’s four sons in a net as they emerged from the waters of the Nile in a lotus blossom.
Gazing through doorways to the gods.
We moored in Aswan for a couple of days: across from us were the tombs of important nobles, lit up with amber lights. One of the best parts of the trip started here. We were woken by ships crew at 3am, then by 3.30am we were out of the ship clambering into vehicles with armed guards to join a convoy, blasting 250 km into the Sahara. The sky was sackcloth scattered with precious gems – glittering with colour, no city lights to spoil the view….
…then the sky began to lighten, the stars faded and the sun came up.
The Great Temple is dedicated to Ramesses II and a statue of him is seated with three other gods within the innermost part of the rock-cut temple (the sanctuary). The temple’s facade is dominated by four enormous seated statues of the Pharaoh (each over 20 metres or 67 feet high), although one has been damaged since ancient times.
Banks of the Nile north of Aswan. I’ve got fab memories of lying on a lounger next to the edge of the ship, tunes in my ears, with this scenery drifting past. Lush plant life, the most fertile green you can imagine, and then without any fading zone, desert, endless, harsh, stretching beyond. I remember seeing young children splashing around in the water laughing and enjoying themselves, several older boys standing waist deep, washing a donkey, veiled women washing clothes by the edge of the bank. My favourite memory is seeing a farmer lying down in the shade. I raised one arm and extended my fingers to wave. He pushed himself up eagerly and waved back. Wonderful connection between two human beings of different worlds.
Lady! Lady! You English? As soon as we were through Essna lock the boat came to a halt. Suddenly there was lots of shouting and commotion, and everybody ran to the edges to peer down 3 floors. The boat was being assailed on all sides by these commercial pirates flogging stuff.
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