Thursday, August 30, 2007

Thoughts on temples

Really there is just so much to say about all the history here it is crazy. I am just afraid of passing on incorrect info so try to keep it simple.
It is really hot here still and the rest of the group is looking forward to cooling down as summer ends. It was torture listening to them whine about needing aircon down south. They probably had it half of the time though I personally believe in conditioning myself to the local conditions so I don't wear out while sightseeing during the day.
But then again the heat seems to have affected their brains a little. I kid you not but dad made a horrible cup of instant coffee (or so all that tried it said) as soon as he arrived in Cairo. Everyone was sitting around wondering how the tap water here got so bad until Savannah looked in the little kettle we are carrying around. Sure enough, there was dad's underwear, freshly boiled and adding all that quality flavour. Who pours water in the kettle without looking inside it? Then again, who stores their underwear in the kettle?!?!?!?!? See what I have to deal with out here....... Now you know why I am in charge....
As to my favourite temples, I'd have to say that Dendara was my favourite. Personally I like having lots of glyphs carved into the walls. The really old temples, pyramids and tombs were disappointing to me simply because they lacked that type of decoration. Some of them had paintings but it's just not the same as looking as the incredible amount of work to carve floor to ceiling throughout an entire complex and on each pilllar. Some of these places took ages to finish. I guess I just appreciate the craftmanship. I don't know why but I don't like the coloured ones. I've always been that way though and prefer stone or woodwork by itself and find that the painting detracts from the craftmanship. My all-time favourite ruins ever is the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia. Amazing work and tons of atmosphere. Back to Egypt though. No tourists is obviously a plus for the atmosphere and that goes for entire countries too. I'd rather be somewhere where tourism is minimal. The beams of sunlight coming through the dark temples, especially with the dust in the air to really emphasize it is awesome and I'm sure the others agree. I really enjoyed Karnak despite the number of tourists at first. I still can't believe they got pillars to stand that tall so long ago. It's huge!
Grady is leaving us tonight which is really sad because we've had a lot of fun with him here. He is a star!!
We are still waiting for word from the Libyans regarding our transit visa so we may be stuck here for a while still. As to our route south, well, can't you tell we're just making this up as we go? I hope we even get to the south before we go off on another crazy side trip. We'll go west and do as much as we can safely (in a very bent and loosely defined kind of way) then fly to the east side to head south. Thanks for the warning Shean, believe me I am looking into everything as much as I can. Things change really fast in Africa unfortunately and as there are 50 countries on the mainland, without some specific names it is hard to say what is good and bad. Every region seems to have a healthy mix.

We are having fun making the videos with Rhiis, here is the latest installment, the look at the pharaonic side of the bills here :)


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Luxor 2

Like I said before, we found ourselves back in Luxor, though after our previous experience there, not too thrilled about it. It didn't really change either as we continued to suffer harrassment every time we left the hotel. Fortunately we found a nicer place to stay and were able to relax a little. The reason we stayed in Luxor at all was because it is the best place to base yourself for seeing two other rarely visited but very nice temples a little farther north.
The first temple is Dendara, another "newer" temple and dedicated to the Godess Hathor. Because anywhere north of Luxor is considered middle Egypt, and all of middle Egypt is considered "unsafe" for tourists, therefore requiring convoys, escorts and lots of police harrassment, the majority of package tourists don't include the area and most backpackers couldn't be bothered. Fortunately for us, we have Rhiis and he's been everywhere. It's so nice to go somewhere without the package tourists crowding us out and an empty Dendara is without a doubt the nicest temple in Egypt now. It is one of the largest and most intact, still retaining it's roofing and covered with reliefs. With nobody there you can walk around the dark rooms and up the winding staircases poking around with the beams of natural light coming through small squares in the high ceiling. Lots of atmosphere and character. Organized tours that do come out all arrive at the same time and stay for only an hour but we stayed for about 5 1/2. Ok, we didn't need to be there that long but with the filming we've been doing lately we decided that the best way to show you what it's like was to make a little horror movie. We're just finishing it up now but it was fun to do over there. Nothing like having a real setting to play in.
The second temple, about 2 1/2 hrs north of Luxor, is Abydos. It is the death cult temple of Osiris. He is one of the most important Gods in the old system and was killed by his brother, etc, etc and it is said that his body was buried there. The temple has been around for 3300 years but the site has been holy for a lot longer than that. It was important to the ancient Egyptians as the site that all aspired to make a pilgrimmage to once in their lives, much like Mecca or Varanasi today. It is also said that the temple is a little haunted and that sounds can be heard at night. I don't know about that but it is a pain to get to with all the police following you around and asking a million questions. We were also there filming for another 5 1/2 hours and like Dendara it is full of atmosphere and has the roof intact. Again lots of fun when the guards weren't yelling at us :) From there we stayed a couple days resting in Luxor before coming back.
As for the architectural style, there isn't a whole lot of difference to a tourist. The Ptolemies (the Greek rulers) tried to copy the old style exactly to enhance their legitimacy to the throne of Egypt. There is no real old style vs new style as much as there was a gradual change or differences between different eras before that as well. We are talking about thousands of years even before the Greeks came and capitals in different places, different Gods gaining prominence, etc. Just talking about who was the most important God is difficult because it depends on the period. Amun Ra was later, and is somewhat different from the Osiris, Seth, Isis group. As it was, the Greeks and, later, Christians just adopted whatever was popular and made converted it into their own theology. The religions get so muddled up when you look at them this far back. The Cross, Virgin Mary, the Greek Gods all came from the ancient Egyptians. Even one of the Psalms of Solomon in the old testament is almost an exact word for word translation of a song the ancient Egyptians used 500 years earlier!
There are some technical differences regarding the style of reliefs, robustness of the figures and the like. In general there just seems to be more work done on the reliefs and figures carved out though some of the work by Ramses II, over 1000 years earlier at a very proserous time, is also amazing. Most of the earliest stuff, including the pyramids are very plain and usually have nothing on the inside. They are slowly restoring many of the temples, repainting and that sort of thing so I don't know how much that affects the overall look either.
As a side note, I've been saying ancient Egyptians as opposed to just Egyptians. The people are quite different and the ancient Egyptians were not Arabs as the modern ones are. The ancient ones were very different and Ramses II, arguably the most important or powerful of the Pharoahs actually had fair skin and curly red hair. He is more related to the Berbers (another group in North Africa) than the Arabs.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Aswan, Abu Simbel, Felucca

Sorry it has been a while but we were busy down south. We took an overnight train to Aswan and based ourselves there for a few days. It is the city furthest south and is a huge center for the Nubians now. Most of their traditional homeland along the nile is in the south of Egypt and north of Sudan and with the building of the Aswan High Dam decades ago, a huge percentage of it was flooded. It created lake Nasser, the world's largest reservoir, flooding back the nile for 500km all the way into Sudan. A lot of people and monuments had to be moved including Abu Simbel temple, the main reason tourists go so far south.
Abu Simbel is a bit of a joke though. A few years ago it was considered to dangerous to drive out there so all tourists had to fly to the temple and back. These days there is a convoy once a day for everyone to take. It is insane. It leaves at 4am and ours consisted of 50 buses at least (I counted over 40) though this is supposed to be the slow season. As I was saying, the convoy is for "safety" though what that means is anyone's guess because that seems to be the default answer to everything in this country. What actually happens is that without any kind of escort or police presence to protect us, they let loose all the buses and the whole thing quickly devolves into a formula 1 style race with all the buses trying to set new speed records on 280km of empty desert roads out to the temple. It's a wonder all the tourists aren't dead from accidents, and yet the whole thing is done in the name of "safety". The temple itself is cool. It is the most famous and impressive temple in Egypt after the pyramids. It was formerly built into the side the banks of the Nile and had to be cut into blocks and moved to higher ground before the dam was completed. Unfortunately now that there are so many tourists crawling over each other as they all arrive (and must leave) at the same time there is no atmosphere in the place. It would be spectacular if nobody was there but it is disappointing in all the crowds. We were also taken to the High Dam and to the Temple of Philae. Philae is dedicated to the Godess Isis and is on a little island between the 2 dams at Aswan. It was also the last temple to stay in operation, lasting well into the Roman times. Those things were nice but the next biggest highlight to a trip down to Aswan is taking a felucca ride down the nile for a couple days.
The felucca is a small river boat for about 10 people and has been used since ancient Egyptian times. We had one to ourselves with a crew of 2 to cook and drive though most of the time we were just floating downstream. We rode for 3 days, mostly just lounging around or jumping in the Nile. It's fast and clean enough down there to be safe, though I wouldn't go swimming elsewhere in Egypt. It was the perfect ride. We really needed the outdoors laziness with fresh air, it'd been too long.
The boat takes you down river to near the temple of Kom Ombo. It's dedicated to the crocodile God, Sobek and back in the day had lots of them crawling around on the bank nearby (none in Egypt anymore though). From there another mandatory convoy onward to Luxor via the Edfu temple. Edfu's temple is dedicated to the falcon-headed God Horus, and would also be a great highlight if not for the crowds. The newer temples like Philae, Edfu and Dendara (next blog I guess) are Greco-Roman built but of the Egyptian style as they still had the same Gods back then. The newer temples are perhaps more impressive simply because they have more of the glyphs and reliefs carved into them though the early Coptic Christians came around and defaced or hacked into almost all of them.
We stayed in Luxor for a few days as well to see a few more things but that will have to be the next blog.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


In continuation of the last blog, a couple weeks ago we came back up to Cairo for work and it didn't turn out. There is a lot of battling going on with the agents right now with tons of misinformation going around so the work has pretty much dried up and we are no longer trying to do any anymore. It was interesting while it lasted and most of us were barely able to break even on the money to stay here for the 4 months it's been already. Some of the earlier movies and commercials that some of us have been in have already come out and a few people in the shops around our hotel have recognized dad and made comments. It's interesting. I haven't actually seen any of the end results myself as I don't watch Egyptian tv.
So we found ourselves in Cairo again trying to sort ourselves and a new schedule out. We went and visited our old haunts and kept working on some new little videos to keep ourselves amused.

The "kids" (including Rhiis) even went back to Alexandria for a few days to get away and cool down in the sea breeze. We came back just in time to pick up Sandra from the airport. She'd arranged a 24 hour stop-over on her way back to Kenya. That is her 4th meeting with us now. The rest of you guys are way behind. It was fun but far too short and we were sad to see her disappear again.
The good news for the rest of you guys is that we are now seriously planning the next leg of the trip and have just applied for a Libyan transit visa. Bit tricky so pray it goes through. We are leaving tonight to go to Aswan in southern Egypt and see more temples until the end of the month.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Real Luxor Story

Well, I think you guys get the point so I don't need to rant any more. But just let me finish by saying that I now firmly believe that it is the unofficial policy of the Egyptian government to make life difficult for independent tourists here. I now know why they don't have many backpackers despite lots of hash and cheap prices in this country. As an example, we (and not locals) get our bags searched going in to temples, we are followed and harrassed by police when just sitting in a train station. When attempting to take the cheaper trains they will try everything short of arresting you to convince you to take a different one, though in no way is there a law written that I cannot take a 3rd class train to Alexandria. And, worst of all, in Luxor it is impossible to buy your own train tickets to get back to Cairo on a couple days or a day in advance, not because there are no seats available, but because the entire town is involved in a conspiracy to cheat all tourists. They will not sell you a ticket or even look on the computer thereby forcing you to use an "agent" from a hotel or elsewhere so that they can charge a huge commission (up to 50%) which they split with various people in the station. It is cheaper to jump on the train and pay the fine for not having a ticket than to go through that unofficial official scam. I have never been more subject to more blatent and proud racist abuse ever in my life than in Luxor. It is absolute hell. I suppose it is good to go through once in a while because now I know what it feels like to be an oppressed minority group. It's most frustrating.
Anyway, enough of that.
Luxor is the ancient site of Thebes, second capital of ancient Egypt after Memphis. Luxor is built up now on the east side of the nile but most of the monuments are on the west side. Thebes is about 1000 years younger than Memphis too so the monuments and sites go back to about 3500 years old (1500BC or 17th dynasty) though there are a few mounds from a little older. Rather than pyramids like in earlier times, the Pharoahs of those dynasties (including the most famous like Tutankhamun and Ramses II) chose to be buried in the valley of the Kings. Walking through the bare hills that make up the valley you can't help but think the tombs are all on top of each other. There 60 something found so far but there area is full of potential for many more. From the outside there is nothing at all to see. The tombs themselves are tunnels down into the hills, often elaborately painted or carved with a few false burial rooms or treasure rooms before the final chamber. Only a few are open and in a way the Valley of the Kings is a huge disappointment after all the hype and compared to the temples and funerary complexes nearby. The highlight of the west bank is Queen Hatchepsut's funerary complex as it is the most complete stucture and sits right up against the bottom base of a cliff and exposed to the open. It was the site of the massacre of 58 tourists by Islamic extremists back in 1997 which toasted the tourism industry here for years and got all this police presence throughout the country really started. I don't feel any safer now than they would've back then but that is besides the point. There are tons of package tourists all over the place and very few independents like us despite being the slow season for southern Egypt right now. There is also a Valley of the Queens, misnamed because there are high officials and children buried there too. It was probably more interesting than the Valley of the Kings simply because it wasn't crowded and one of the tombs (very similar to the King ones, just a little smaller) had a mummified royal fetus that spontaneously aborted. They mummified everything. We've seen mummified snakes, crocs, baboons, monkeys, cats, falcons, ibises, dogs, sheep, horses, chickens and just about anything else living you could think of. There is also the ruins of a workers village built and lived in by those that actually worked on the tombs. Artists, masons and the like. Some of the more important built their own tombs as well. The craziest thing is that Rhiis (who has been many times and knows the whole area well) knows of 2 spots where there are mummies lying out in the open. We saw one of them. The upper half of a human mummy just lying in a whole under some garbage so guides in the know can just pick it up and parade it before people. I don't know how many people do know about it but it is strange to be poking a real mummy out in the ruins. The bones feel like worn thin sheets of wood. Anyone that believes that Egypt cares and is protecting it's ancient heritage should worry. There is so much garbage and neglect going on it's insane. It's not like they can't afford it. They are raking in the dough. On the contrary, there are political groups that have openly declared their intention to do as the taliban did in afghanistan and blow up all non-islamic monuments should they get in power. Wow.
The east bank of Luxor is better. Karnak and the Luxor temple are on the east side. Luxor temple is right in the middle of town and ages ago, there used to be an avenue of sphinxses that lined the 3km road north to the Karnak temple. Karnak is really cool. 1300 years of continuous worship and construction resulting in a massive temple complex dedicated to Amun. It was hot, busy and very interesting. I liked it. Best of all was sneaking off to end up on the wall of one area and finding a hole with dozens of large bats flying around. Very cool. It was 40-45C but not as bad as you'd think. I think it wasn't much worse than Cairo because it was less humid and the air a lot cleaner. Pollution takes a lot out of you.
We left Luxor and came back to Cairo because we were supposed to work. The job never happened but that is a different story.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


First of all I want to say I am so surprised that Grady made it back again so soon and I am glad that he will be able to finish off the rest of Egypt that he missed.

After being stuck in Cairo for so long, it was a great relief to hit the road once more and see something new for a change! I have to admit, I have missed the joys of REAL travel since we've been stationed here in Cairo. I am anxious for more crazy adventures.

It was great seeing Luxor and exploring all of the Ancient Egyptian sights.......Once we arrived after 12 hours on train, we found our hotel, dropped our bags off and went straight to the Luxor Temple, Luxor Museum and Mummification museum. It seems there is an endless amount of history here and it is absolutely overwhelming. It's extremely hot and coming home after a long day of sightseeing, getting into trouble and exploring off limits, it was amazing to have A/C in our room for once. The harassment was through the roof and got on all of our nerves.

Well it's great to be back travelling with the Watkins family and their new recruited movie producer Rhiis. I'm sitting here in an internet cafe in Cairo as I am typing this blog and I feel half dead - not because of the abuse Savannah has given me (although that is a very large factor in my feeling half dead), but because of the pollution in the air here. There is just something about living in a city that's as polluted as Cairo that just saps the energy right out of you; since I got here I've felt like my body has only been operating at about 75% of its usual capacity. The air is so pungent and abundant with cigarette smoke, exhaust, heat and methane gas from Ammon's butt after a meal of foul (bean mulch and mixed vegetables thrown into flatbread) that I can't even take a breath without feeling like I'm suffocating slightly. It was great to get out of Cairo to go down to see Luxor, partially because I didn't get a chance to see it the first time around, but mostly because of the pollution. Now, Luxor is very notorious for harassment from the locals, which became quite evident to me during the few days we had stayed there. Despite the fact that almost all humanity in Luxor was beyond redemption, the sights did not disappoint me. The highlight of going to Luxor was definitely going to Karnak Temple and climbing through a partially collapsed, off limits passageway. Not only were we having to walk over scarab beetles and dodge bats, but we had to do it in near pitch darkness, with the exception of a small flashlight that Rhiis had brought. We saw a beam of daylight projecting itself through a hole in the collapsed section of ceiling at the end of the ancient staircase. After clambering out, we found ourselves on top of a section of the Temple's walls looking about 3 or 4 stories down at the other oblivious tourists and security guards. Feeling exhausted from the heat, we sat down to take a rest and recalibrate clothing and what not to adjust for the intense heat, which was probably sitting at approximately 40-45 degrees Celsius at the time, when we heard the familiar squeaking of bats. We knew that there must be a bat cave close because of the few bats we had seen in the passage way coming up. We climbed up to investigate the sounds when we came to an open cavity in the temple wall which extended all the way to the ground. Inside the cavity we could see a few bats in a door shaped opening at the opposite end of the cavity. We stood our ground to observe and I don't know if it was the sight of humans that got them riled up, but a few bats turned into a few more. Minutes after hearing the squeaking from just a few bats, which was now more of a screeching of bat commotion, the cavity had been consumed by a whirlwind of bats, some which would have probably had a wing span close to 2 feet. Eat your heart out Indiana Jones.

Savannah and Grady

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Neighbourhood videos

Well, you guys wanted to know what it is like out here. Not really a vacation and lazing on the beach. This is the real Cairo that we deal with every day. Jealous?


Part One:

Part Two: