Egypt: Journey Through the Land of the Pharaohs

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For two and a half weeks, we would set off on the adventure of a lifetime through the land of the Pharaohs, traveling by minivan, riverboat, felucca, horse carriage, hot air balloon, water taxi, airplane, and foot to reach all the remote sites of Egypt. Two Egyptologists would help us make some sense out of all the chaos and immense history: Omar for Lower Egypt (northern Egypt or “The Delta”) and George for Upper Egypt (southern Egypt or “The Valley”). I would learn to love Egyptian food and daily Egyptian Stella beers. So many tourists coming to Egypt pour out of air conditioned mega-buses, take goofy pictures of themselves at the sites, and head back. This is no way to truly experience Egypt….

The Egyptians

Even though the fascinating ancient Pharaonic beliefs have been scrapped, modern Egyptians share many striking similarities with the ancients, especially evident around marketplaces and farms, where busy daily lives mirror ancient Egyptian ways of life. Even the language is kept alive; we would hear the language of

the pharaohs spoken in a Coptic church. We would also see papyrus paper made by hand and ancient sculptures carefully crafted by hammer and chisel. Egypt has been through many reli

gions through the centuries, with the currently favored choice being 85% Muslim and a smaller percentage Coptic Christian. Regardless, everyone seems to get along and the Egyptians are friendly people. While I get as many candid pictures of them as possible, I always slip a dollar to each when I ask them for a photo as is expected. I inconspicuously shoot the nightlife while sipping tea with the locals who play backgammon and smoke sheesha pipes.

Lower Egypt–The Delta

Stepping off the plane into Cairo is like being transported to another strange world from a bizarre science fiction movie of a bleakly overpopulated and dirty future. My eyes burn from the thick smog as our driver races through a crazy highway of dented cars, all honking and speeding down bumpy highways, always within inches of collision and oblivious to the painted lane markings. Today is Coptic Christmas, making things even busier than usual. The government subsidizes fuel costs, encouraging as many cars as possible to keep the economy moving forward. In all this craziness, Egyptians walk around on the highways, being brushed by the speeding cars as they conduct their business and look for rides from minivan taxis where they cram in like sardines.

Giza: The Great Pyramid, Sphinx, and Solar Boat

When most people think Egypt, they picture the Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx. I walk around and shoot pictures of all three pyramids and the smaller queens’ pyramids, along with the surrounding desert people and animals. The perfectly-preserved and recently discovered Khufu’s Boat is housed next to the Great Pyramid in probably the most modern showcase in all of Egypt, where it has been reassembled from the pieces found in a pit just feet away. I descend deep into the tight, steep, musty passageways of the two largest pyramids of Khafre and Khufu. The great pyramid of Khufu was the tallest building in the world until the Eiffel Tower, and I was lucky enough to get one of the limited entry slots that allow access to its bowels within. At the smallest of the three, Menkaura’s pyramid, with no tourists in sight, a police officer offers to let me climb it for a bribe, but I refuse to add to the erosion of these marvelous ancient structures. I had always imagined the Sphinx and the pyramids were way out in the middle of a desolate desert, but would you believe a grimy little Pizza Hut right across the street offers some of the best views? The dense city of Cairo has sprawled its way all the way out to the doorstep of the Great Pyramid.

The Cairo Museum

The Egyptian Museum should be one of the wonders of the world in itself. This old worn-out, huge two-story structure is bursting at the seams with a collection of 130,000 treasures on display and with twice as many in warehouses for lack of display space. Description-less artifacts are piled high and packed together tightly. Ignorant tourists rub their grubby hands all over everything, direct sunlight burns onto ancient papyrus writings, and the smog pours in through open windows onto the world’s most incredible collection of ancient treasures. Everything will be properly displayed and protected when the Grand Museum of Egypt opens in few years. In a hall dedicated to Tutankhamun, I closely examine Tut’s elaborate series of sarcophaguses which I have read so much about and I stand inches in front of the Pharaoh’s solid gold face, staring deeply into his eyes, my mind whirling with all the unanswered mysteries around his brief rule of Egypt that his successors tried to erase from history. Dozens of the most famous Pharaohs lie under a sheet of glass, looking so frail in contrast to the grand monuments built during their rule. This place definitely requires several days (or, as Omar tells me, four months if you spend 30 seconds on each item).

Dahshur

Off the beaten path, the drive to the pyramid field of Dahshur offers a firsthand view of civilization in this part of Cairo, and I capture as much as possible through my telephoto lens. I climb 100 feet up the North Pyramid (aka the Red Pyramid) and descend inside. The 210 foot passageway is steep, narrow, low, and straight as an arrow and passes through three dark chambers terminating in a tomb covered with hieroglyphs. From a distance through the hazy air, I see the other famous pyramid in Dashur—the Bent Pyramid. We discuss the many theories of why the angle suddenly changes half way up. There are always things to talk about when you have an Egyptologist at your side.

Saqqara

The vast desert necropolis of Saqqara is home to tombs from the first dynasty. Egypt’s oldest pyramid sits here—the Step Pyramid. This oddity has been remodeled once or twice over the ancient centuries and is currently covered with scaffolding on one side. I walk all the way around it where few tourists roam. Interestingly enough, the world’s first arch is right next to the pyramid. Nearby an archaeologist and exactly one dozen workers madly haul buckets of dirt up a hill excavating yet another site. There are non-stop discoveries being unearthed all the time in the sands of Egypt.

Memphis

The town of Memphis was Egypt’s capital during the Old Kingdom. Here in Memphis lies the recumbent statue of Ramses II, my favorite statue in all of Egypt’s history. I shoot closeups of this perfectly-preserved work of art. Omar helps me in my search for a quality reproduction of Ramses II, but I can never seem to find one that has the right look.

Upper Egypt–The Valley

Luxor

Luxor is a change of pace from the bustling metropolis of Cairo. The Luxor Museum has a tiny fraction of the antiquities found in the mammoth Cairo Museum, but the items are displayed properly with decent lighting and actually have descriptions. I wander the streets of Luxor both day and night taking countless photos of the Egyptians going about their daily lives. The culture gets really interesting after heading inland from the touristy Nile bank. At one point, I am so far inland that I find myself completely lost. Obviously heading west will eventually get me to the Nile, except westerly streets all dead end or invariably loop me around to an easterly direction after every attempt, getting me deeper into unknown territory. I eventually ask a local for a little help with directions.

Karnak Temple

Luxor’s Karnak Temple, the largest place of worship in the world, is a fascinating wonderland of ancient architecture and hieroglyphs. I climb around exploring the endless halls and courts of this enormous complex. During a Hollywood-style nighttime sound and light show, I rush to set my tiny travel tripod at strategic locations to capture the dramatic lighting while walking through the ruins of the temple’s ancient glory with dramatic, multi-colored lighting choreographed to a soundtrack with a cheesy commentary and equally bad music attempting to heighten the drama of it all. The realistic surround sound effects of workers chiseling at the temple while the audience walks along one of the grand halls next to the sacred lake is the highlight for me. During the day, our Egyptologist, George provides much more useful information on the huge temple. Look closely and notice the bright ancient colors still intact in areas protected from the elements.

The Temple of Luxor

The Temple of Luxor is a spectacular place built by Amenhotep III and Ramesses II dedicated to the god Amun. With the telephoto, I was able to zoom right up to many of the Cartouches vandalized by Akhenaten when he had all mention of Amun scratched off of the walls thanks to his monotheist beliefs. I hang around for a few more hours until sundown when all the lights add an extra dimension of drama to the whole temple. Under the lights, the single obelisk shows its crisp angles in cool white in stark contrast to the warmer glow of the temple. The lone obelisk’s missing twin was sent to France as a gift in exchange for a broken clock—what a lousy deal. Egypt wants it back along with many of the other obelisks and antiquities that have found their ways into other countries over the past few centuries.

Dendera and the Temple of Hathor

Dendera and the Temple of Hathor is reached by an hour-long drive down a narrow road next to a canal of the Nile. I snap away with my 200mm telephoto at life along this unnamed Nile-branch canal, with its many farmers, small towns, and guys wandering around with rifles guarding the towns and farms. The temple is dedicated to Hathor, the cow-eared goddess of pleasure, and was constructed during the Greco-Roman era after Alexander the Great invaded and took over rule of Egypt to prove that they too were dedicated to the Egyptian gods and way of life. You can always tell a Greco-Roman temple by the Corinthian columns–an architectural “improvement” of the Greco-Romans to prove they were better architects than their Egyptian predecessors. Notice that almost all of the ancient figures have been chiseled out–this damage was done by the Christians who discovered the temple centuries later. Also note the blackened ceilings caused by Christian candle burning. Only the recently discovered basement remains un-vandalized. I climb rickety ladders, crawl through tight corridors in the basement, ascend to the rooftop, and scale giant boulders outside to explore every inch of this place.

The West Bank of the Nile

After soaring over the Valley’s West Bank of the Nile in a hot air balloon at the crack of dawn for a bird’s eye view, we would explore this land of treasures and mysteries up close. We head to an alabaster factory, where craftsmen clank away at blocks of stone. I buy Horus, Anubis, and a set of four granite canopic jars. Nearby is the Colossi of Memnon, where two massive thousand ton monuments of Amenhotep III are all that remain.

The Valley of the Kings

The Valley of the Kings lies under a pyramid-shaped mountaintop on the west side of the Nile. I’m forced to leave my camera when heading into the Valley of the Kings to walk among the 62 discovered tombs which are surprisingly close together. We descend into three tombs of different Ramses, cut deep into the earth with perfectly preserved drawings, symbols, and hieroglyphs covering the walls and ceilings. After so much reading and countless Discovery Channel shows on the topic, I’m anxious to descend into the tomb of Tutankhamun. I made sure that George can get us in, as it requires special entry and the number of daily visitors is very limited. I immediately recognize the spot where Howard Carter had first smashed through the tomb’s ancient plaster seal as we head into the darkness. As I continue to make my way down the wooden plank steps into the earth, I remember the layout of the tomb and peer to the right to see the actual burial chamber where Tut’s granite sarcophagus sits. The whole tomb is so tiny—it wasn’t meant for him, but had to make due with his unexpected death at only 19 years of age. There’s only one other ancient item in the tomb—the body of Tutankhamun himself. There he lay under a glass case on a stand in the main chamber, at rest after countless x rays, CAT scans, and even being sawed in half at one point. I think there is a pretty good case that he was murdered, but not by a blow to the back of the head as many believe. I try to slip out the lens of my iPhone to inconspicuously capture a bit of video out of the top of my pocket, but the lone security guard spots this and demands to look through my iPhone. My heart pounds as I convince him that I was only checking the time.

Hatshepsut Temple

The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut is an incredible yet imposing masterpiece of architecture against a stark mountainous backdrop from Egypt’s only female pharaoh. Ongoing excavation is revealing more and more about this place and her mummy has just been identified only two years ago by tooth analysis. Check out the incredibly-preserved colorful murals of the dog-headed Anubis and others. Also notice that the Queen is depicted with the false beard in the temple’s statues of her. Her reign has been erased from history in many areas, perhaps because her successors considered it inappropriate to have a female pharaoh.

Edfu and the Temple of Horus

Via a horse carriage through the town of Edfu, we reach the Temple of Horus. This is another temple built by the Greeks and Romans to duplicate the architecture of the ancient pharaohs but with their own “improvements” including more detail in the figures and Corinthian columns. But look closely at the main pylon for an architectural improvement that the ancient Egyptians would NEVER have included–windows that interrupt the drawings. This temple is dedicated to the god Horus, the falcon-headed solar war god—one of my favorite gods of the ancient Egyptians. Two magnificent granite statues of Horus flank the entrance to the pylon.

Up the Nile

I continue taking photos of life along the Nile as we cruise up the river—mostly farmers going about their work or praying, fisherman banging paddles into the river which somehow helps catch fish, water buffalo roaming, and the occasional village kids playing soccer on the beach. The inhabitants along the Nile are simple people, but lead busy lives. From the deck of our boat, I gaze at the passing scenery that technology and progress has forgotten. I included several photos of scenes that actually duplicate the farming and lifestyle techniques depicted in 3300 year-old drawings.

The Temple of Kom Ombo

The waterside temple of Kom Ombo, another Greco-Roman temple, sits right at the edge of the Nile. There’s something very unusual about this temple–it is perfectly symmetrical and dedicated to dual gods–Horus the Elder on the left and, on the right, Sobek, the crocodile god. At sunset, I scramble to create makeshift camera supports out of stacked pebbles to capture the temple’s warm glow from the setting sun cutting through the smoky sky. Notice the cylindrical structure that looks like a well–it is actually a Nileometer–the government would set tax rates based on how many steps were underwater. A high Nile meant good crops and thus higher taxes. The temple was built with stone blocks bonded together by joints with inserted wood that was expanded with water. Take a look at the photo of the only remaining joint with the wood still intact.

The Nubian People

The local Nubian people stand out from the rest of the Egyptians with their dark black skin and Jamaican-style attire. You won’t see any Egyptians wearing shorts and T-shirts elsewhere in Egypt. The Nubians are a proud culture with their own language and consider their land a separate territory from the rest of Egypt. The Nubians and Egyptians have gone to war many times through history. We hire a felucca to set sail towards the botanical Kitchner Island with a Nubian guy in a Bob Marley t-shirt and shorts at the rudder–Bob Marley is huge with them.

Agilika and the Temple of Philae

A short road trip into Nubian territory and ride aboard a rickety old motor boat takes us to the island of Agilka to explore the Temple of Philae, a Greco-Roman temple dedicated to Isis. The many scenes depicted on the walls feature Isis, Horus, and Hathor among others. Look at Hathor’s cow-eared face as she is starting to crack a smile. As you walk down the columns her face turns from a sad frown to her usual chirpy smiling self. Outside the huge central temple are several smaller temples, a birth house, and the Gate of Hadrian, where on August 24, 394 AD the last Egyptian hieroglyphs were crudely inscribed into stone before they became an unreadable mystery for nearly 1500 years.

The Aswan High Dam

For a change of pace, we see some modern Egypt in the Aswan High Dam, a mammoth structure that controls the level of the Nile and supplies much of the country’s power. The downside of building the dam is that it would have drowned several important ancient temples, so the temples were moved to higher ground in massive-scale engineering feats of their own. Security at the dam is high, since if the dam were to fail, Egypt would be completely washed out within hours. I manage to get in trouble with a heavily-armed police officer for over-ambitious picture taking.

The Unfinished Obelisk

The ancient obelisks were carved from single chunks of granite, mostly originating from a granite quarry in Aswan, where a giant unfinished obelisk is still attached to the ground on its underside. It is believed to have been intended for Karnak if completed, but work was halted when a crack formed, making it a lost cause. It’s a shame that most of the ancient obelisks have been plucked from their bases and relocated to other countries in recent times. Now the rest of the world has more Egyptian obelisks than Egypt has, scattered around in France, the UK, the US, Italy, Isreal, Poland, and Turkey.

The Streets of Aswan

While I wander into the heart of Nile-side town of Aswan, I stumble across a sporting complex with kids playing basketball, the train station, and the bustling marketplace. I decide I needed to continue deeper off the beaten path, so I trot on until white faces were no longer to be seen anywhere. I snapped away with the telephoto lens, trying not to be disrespectful to anyone. The Egyptians are sensitive to exposing backward aspects of their country such as donkey carts and dilapidated buildings, but they are everywhere. Aswan, like much of Egypt, is poverty-stricken, yet the people smile and say hello to me. Egyptians everywhere are very friendly people.

Abu Simbel

Egypt’s second most famous landmark is Abu Simbel, which we reached by a short 30 minute flight. The massive four colossi of Ramses II were meant to convey the might of the pharaohs to anyone who dared try to approach from the south, warning them to turn around before sailing into the land of the Pharaohs–the most powerful kingdom on earth. Notice what looks like gridlines all over the faces of Ramses–the whole temple was recently sawed up into giant slices and reassembled on higher ground to escape the encroaching waters after the high dam was built. Egypt was ready to let it submerge and disintegrate into history, “drowning the past to save the future,” but other countries, including the US, came to the rescue and engineered the gargantuan project to move it out of harm’s way. I head inside and shoot some of forbidden video of the endless hieroglyphs covering every inch of the walls of the many rooms. The clever Egyptian architects constructed the temple so that, twice a year, the sun shines all the way through the temple and illuminates three of the four gold-covered statues in the inner sanctuary–only Ptah, the god of the underworld, remains in the shadow of darkness.

The Sinai Peninsula

Armed with two drivers plus our guide Omar for a long seven hour drive, we head out for the Sinai via a road that tunneled right under the Suez Canal and resurfaced in a different continent—Asia. Destination: Saint Catherine’s Monastery and Mount Sinai. After checking into dusty little cottages, I would wake up at 1:00AM for the hike up Mount Sinai, not realizing the extent of the angry storm brewing in the sky above. While all other climbers wisely canceled any plans to climb the mountain that morning, I set off with a Bedouin mountain guide up the mountain, unaware that I was hiking directly into the greatest storm seen in over 40 years on the Sinai Peninsula. My story is here.

 

Note: I’ve removed all my dozens of Egypt photo galleries and put a few on my photos page:

Photography Notes

With a backpack full of gear and some of my favorite Canon L glass lenses, I got around 6000 photos.

It’s best to ask permission first before pointing your lens at someone up close. After getting your shot, always tip the person a dollar or couple of pounds. Like anywhere, I get the best candid shots by mirror shooting, telephoto shooting, or shooting from the hip. For the latter, you can develop really good aim with lots of practice. I always keep a custom program stored in my Canon with a higher ISO and mutli-autofocus points for quick toggling between normal shooting and “shoot from the hip” shooting.

I found I was allowed to use my camera in most places, with the following exceptions:

Museums: No cameras at all allowed inside the Cairo Museum. I was forced to hand over my expensive equipment to a woman in a shabby little wooden shed in exchange for a wooden chip with a hand-painted number on it, a nerve-racking experience. Oddly enough, they let me take my big Lowepro backpack with lenses in. I probably could have gotten away with detaching the body from the lens and packing it in the backpack–they wouldn’t have known the difference. The Luxor Museum allows you to bring your camera inside, even strapped around your neck, as long as you don’t use it.

Pyramids: I went inside three different pyramids, and none allowed photography. The keepers of pyramids of Khufu and Khafre force you to check your equipment at the door.

Valley of the Kings: No cameras allowed in the valley. Period. Luckily we had a trustworthy driver who stayed with the van (and my backpack).

Aswan High Dam: They allow photography, but don’t allow “zoom” or telephoto lenses. Very odd policy, and even odder when they examine your camera trying to enforce it.

Egypt is dry and very dusty. New spots seem to appear on my pictures after every lens change. Everything needs a thorough cleaning each night and prepare for Photoshopping endless dust spots when you get home.