As threatened, here is a truncated version of the trip diary for our Egyptian adventure; I say truncated, because my actual diary runs around 40K! (Yes, I write long!)
So here are the highlights –
Can a vacation be relaxing, stimulating and totally exhausting all at the same time? I think so. In fact, I know so!
Starting out was a bit of a trial – about ten days before our departure date things started going wonky at home. Our HVAC died, making us go without any AC for four or five days in the Texas heat before the correct replacement unit could be found. My hot tub, sometimes the only thing that keeps my arthritis at bay, broke and the proper part could not be obtained for over a week. Without warning our refrigerator simply died. Even the landline phone ceased to work – but it was in the switching frame, not our instrument.
And the gods weren’t finished with us yet. Just days before departure Lufthansa cancelled our outbound flight, but booked us on United with an extra leg through Houston. And that was the problem. The DFW/HOU flight was an hour and a half late leaving, giving us exactly 26 minutes to get all the way across the gigantic Houston Intercontinental Airport. Thanks to the athleticism of my husband Hiram and a lovely lady with a wheelchair for me we made our flight to Frankfort by four minutes. From then on to Frankfurt (United) and then Cairo (Egyptair) went just fine. Egyptair is wonderful! United is just meh – though I will say most enthusiastically the staff did their best to help us make our Frankfurt flight.
Our sleeping hall at Frankfurt airportAnd just to make things perfect, when we landed in Cairo the plane came down on a far runway; we came down airstairs (as usual) and got on a bus to be taken to the terminal. This is not unusual in flights to and from Middle Eastern countries. The only bad thing was that my legs were somewhat numb after many many hours of flying and I missed the step onto the bus, going over backwards and making an ungraceful one point landing right on my derriere! Ouch! (Now, even weeks later, it’s still angry at me.) There was no problem, though – almost before I did my first bounce three of the male passengers – all Arab – simply scooped me up and put me on my feet. They were all so kind… and I appreciate them.
This is my seventh trip to Egypt and Hiram’s eighth; pretty much when we’ve gone before on our own we just get off the plane, fight our way through the Byzantine labyrinth of Egyptian customs/immigration and go do what we want. This was something different; this was a luxury cruise tour lead by famed archaeologist and Biblical scholar David Rohl, so things were done much more stylishly. We were met at planeside, whisked through express customs and immigration and taken by limousine to the luxurious Le Meridien hotel, where all our group was housed for the night.
Day One – This morning after an incredible buffet breakfast (any buffet that has unlimited smoked salmon automatically gets my heart) we were all bussed to the boat, a four-story floating palace that would be our home for the next two weeks. On the lowest level was the dining room and spectacular buffet; the ‘ground’ floor (where we entered) held the lobby desk and a number of staterooms (including ours); the second floor had more rooms and a small lounge area with a couple of couches; the third floor had more rooms, a small television lounge and a much bigger formal lounge with a coffee/wine bar (I don’t remember ever seeing any hard liquor on the boat), glass walls and lots of couches and tables – this is where Dr. Rohl held our frequent lectures. The fourth level was the sun deck, with tables for when we had outdoor meals, sun lounges and the swimming pool. Yes, a swimming pool. A small one, admittedly, but cool and sparkling and very tempting.
Our room was on the smaller side, but comfortable and more than adequate. There was a picture window taking up most of the wall space, a king-sized bed and a small but well-appointed bathroom. When we arrived there was a platter of fresh fruit to welcome us and a couple of bottles of water (which were replaced every day). There was even a tiny refrigerator.
One of the most enjoyable things about this tour was that we had been joined by Grace Taylor Vogelzang and her adorable husband Leon. I have known and loved Grace since I worked for her mother and she was a tiny girl of six. I could not love her more if she were my own, and now could not love her husband more, as he not only dear but is the perfect match for her. We have stayed close over the years in spite of the fact that since she has been grown there has been the width of the country or sometimes even half the world between us. Grace and Leon’s presence was one of the major reasons I was looking forward to this trip and I was not disappointed!
A side note – Grace taught me how to play a card game called Spite and Malice (it’s simple and very fun) which I had originally taught her when she was a very young girl and later forgot for lack of someone to play with. We whiled away many hours on rest days playing this game which is very aptly named!
We spent all of the first day on the boat – checking into our rooms and exploring the amenities available, getting to know our fellow tour members, enjoying lunch, tea and dinner, and meeting our guides and the boat staff. Since this tour was so large (50-odd people) we were broken into two busloads, each with its own guide. We were fortunate enough to have Youssef Ramses, who was both knowledgeable, caring and very funny.
Day Two we were out by 7 am on the way to Sakkara, where we actually got to enter the Step Pyramid of King Djoser (3rd Dynasty) in the fabled Step Pyramid Enclosure. In all our trips to Egypt Hiram and I had never been allowed to enter the Step Pyramid – it was just too dangerous. Now after years of conservation a part of it (a very small part) has been stabilized enough that we could enter, traverse the small hall of columns and look down the dizzying distance (several modern stories) the king’s body traveled to his final resting place. While there we traversed the Heb-Sed track which runs around the entire enclosure and visited the tombs of Horemheb (one of his pre-pharaonic tombs, which was excavated by our dear friend the late Dr. Geoffrey Martin) and Meryneith, both sterling examples of non-pharaonic New Kingdom funerary architecture.
Then we drove to the Unas Causeway, a broad road set out in the middle of the desert (in the middle of NOTHING!) leading to the Serapeum, the tomb of the sacred and mummified Apis bulls. This was a first for me, and well worth the long and painful walk from the bus park down to the tomb. (NOTE – nothing pharaonic in Egypt is close to anything else. You will have to walk enormous distances, which I did in spite of my arthritis spitefully deciding to be as bad as it ever has been. Thank goodness I always travel with a folding cane, whether I think I’m going to need it or not. To make matters worse, be warned that Egypt is a land of stairs – mainly stone or concrete – and almost none of them have bannisters. Sigh. But if you really want to, you will manage.)
The Serapeum is now empty – there are no mummies to be seen there. In fact, I believe the only mummy of an Apis bull now extant is in a French museum, but I might be wrong on that, as I seem to remember a mummified bull in the animal section of the Cairo Museum. The Serapeum is still worth seeing, however, if nothing else for the size. There are miles of corridors – most of which are not open to tourists, though what is open is both extensive and long – and every couple of yards there is a huge room containing a gigantic sarcophagus carved from a single block of granite. (I think granite – I’m not a geologist, but it looks like granite.) The sarcophagi alone are each roughly the size of a bedroom in a tract house.
After that we went for lunch at the Sakkara Palm Club, a resort which has wonderful food and beautiful – if somewhat primitive – amenities. One of my cherished dreams is to stay there for a couple of days. I even used it as a model for the resort hotel where the hero and heroine of my romantic adventure THE EGYPTIAN FILE hid out from the bad guys chasing them for a while. It is delightful!
After lunch we went to Dashur to see the Bent and Red Pyramids of Sneferu, founder of the 4th Dynasty. Hiram and I had been there before. In 2000 I actually climbed the four stories of rickety stairs and went into the Red Pyramid, which was fascinating. In 2010 Hiram took the perilous journey into the Bent Pyramid – I didn’t even think of trying – it’s a physically taxing, dangerous and difficult trip. This year he did the Bent Pyramid again, and it almost got him. Exhausted and overheated, he was the last back on the bus and I told him if he ever even thought of doing it again I would simply sit on him. Some of our party actually did both pyramids, and while I think they were glad they had done it, I don’t think any of them will ever do it again!
Day Three was a special day. We went to Giza, where I had my first clash with senseless Egyptian bureaucracy. Since I was a very little girl I have always carried a knife, a small one, and think nothing of it. They are incredibly handy for everything from opening a candy wrapper to peeling a bit of fruit to cleaning one’s nails when they get dirty (and they get dirty fast in Egypt!) but at the entrance of Giza this old bi… biddy in security confiscated my knife and said I’d not get it back, as we were exiting a different place. Now this knife was very special, having been handmade for me by a dear friend and I treasure it. It is also not very threatening, having a blade less than 3 inches long. (A friend of mine said you could still kill someone with that, to which I replied you can also kill someone just as easily with a credit card or a ballpoint pen or a shoelace, and they weren’t confiscating those!) Of course I went screaming to our guide and escort (who I found out later was a bigwig of the tour company coming along just to do quality control) and both of them talked to this old bi… biddy, finally convincing her to give them custody of the knife with the promise I would not get it back until we were well clear of Giza. And, thanks be to the gods and a good tour company, that’s exactly what happened.
Anyway, because of time and heat we weren’t able to go into any of the pyramids, a trip which is vastly overrated anyway, but we walked around the plateau and saw things Hiram and I had never seen before. You could spend weeks on the plateau and never see everything, let alone know what they were. We visited a small ruin that had obviously once been a temple and Youssef explained how it had been sacred to Isis (my favorite goddess) – having a knowledgeable guide does make a difference!
Then things got special. Normally people view the Sphynx either from the road or from a high viewing platform on a bluff on the other side of the enclosure. Admittance to the enclosure is very very rare, but our group was given permission. We could walk down to the very Sphynx itself, go behind the Dream Stela of Thutmosis IV – which, along with the Sphynx’s paws, are more than twice my height – and walk all the way around the Sphynx. You do not realize just how big this incredible sculpture is until you are standing between its paws… almost unbelievable. To be allowed into the enclosure is an extraordinary privilege, which has only happened to Hiram and me once before, in 2000 when my darling friend Zahi Hawass gave us free run of the plateau.
After that we were happy to return to the air conditioning of the boat for lunch and a short rest, then we went to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (which neither Hiram nor I had seen). The exhibit of royal mummies is spectacular and very respectful and I am so glad to see that these remains of kings are given the honors they deserve. I cannot help but compare it to when they were hidden away and it was forbidden to display them. However, in 1992 my mother and I were able to see the mummy of Ramses the Great – protected by armed guards, no less! – thanks to my friend Sayyed Hassan al-Sayyed, who was then one of the curators of the Cairo Museum. To be able to actually see the face of the man who ruled most of the known world thousands of years ago was – and still is – one of the most emotional moments of my life.
The rest of the NMEC is okay, but to an Egyptomane like myself sort of meh. I much prefer the crowded and chaotic confusion of the old Cairo Museum on Tahrir Square, which has sadly been all but looted to fill the spate of new museums going up. That was our next stop, and we had hoped to meet our dear friend Salima Ikram (who had allowed Hiram and me the run of the mummy laboratory as an engagement present in 2000) for a quick chat, but between her busy schedule and a mix-up on our printed schedule we were unable to get together. Sigh.
The museum itself is much more open now, and I’m glad to see they are sprucing it up with fresh paint and such. The two colossal seated statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye are still there and probably always will be, because they are so gigantic they were put in place in 1902 and the museum built around them. The painted floor from Amarna is still there as well, though it desperately needs new glass over it – what is there now is clouded and dirty.
The Tutankhamun mask and jewelry are still there, as well as a few other things, but eventually they will be taken to one of the new museums, probably the Grand Egyptian Museum. Still, I was glad to see them again. I defy anyone to look at the Tut mask and be unmoved. It is one of the most spectacular works of art in the world. A friend on the tour was totally gobsmacked and wondered why there weren’t hundreds lined up to see it as there would be to see the Mona Lisa, because the mask is a much better piece of art. I told him it was because people didn’t want to come to Egypt because of lots of misconceptions and pure laziness, then reminded him that we got him to go mainly by pulling him by the eyeteeth! He didn’t answer.
Sadly, there were so many pieces I love that we didn’t have time to see – 2-3 hours is NOTHING when you are in the Cairo Museum. Hiram and I have been known to spend 3 days there and there are still things we haven’t seen.
Still, it was hot and we were tired and glad to return to the boat for a much welcome English tea (every day at 4 pm sharp!)
Day Four – This was a much needed rest day. We stayed on the boat , had a couple of lovely lectures from David Rohl, and sailed lazily up to Beni Suef. The passing scenery is beautiful and fantastic, whether you watch from the air conditioned lounge, the luxurious sun deck or the comfort of your own bed.
Day Five – Out by 7 am – again! – to Harawa to visit the pyramid of Pharaoh Amenemhat III, current frontrunner for being the pharaoh to Joseph of the seven fat/seven lean cows dream in the Bible. We left early so many days in a (somewhat futile) attempt to escape the worst of the heat, and it did help a little. Around two-three o’clock on an Egyptian afternoon is pure misery in September (and I can’t imagine what it is like in July and August); the sky is on ‘broil’ and makes even Texas look cooler. Maybe I should say less hot…
Getting to Hawara was interesting. Egypt is building a very respectable highway system, but sometimes the signage is either confusing or missing, resulting in our bus (a big, cross-country tourist style bus) getting off on the wrong exit, which our guide and driver realized almost immediately. Thankfully there was not much traffic, so instead of driving miles to get turned around he simply put the bus into reverse and backed up the long curved ramp onto the main road again. Having done the same thing myself on occasion this gave me a feeling of kinship with him, though these bus drivers are far more skilled than I, having the ability to put these huge busses in and through places where I would feel uncomfortable driving my mid-sized SUV!
Anyway, the pyramid is little more than a mud brick ruin, too dangerous to enter; like far too many ancient monuments the pyramid has been stripped of its polished limestone casing, harvested by succeeding generations too lazy or cheap to quarry their own stone. It happened a long time ago, but it’s still a crime.
However, we could see the irrigation canal, the ghost of a waterway the pharaoh built to facilitate the building of his funerary monument, and the foundations of what might be called the first office complex in the world. Called the Labyrinth, this was a collection of offices and storerooms and even just from the extensive foundations it is easy to see that it is very aptly named. Egypt has been called the birthplace of bureaucracy, and seeing the enormous complexity of the Labyrinth will make you believe it.
Then it was back to the boat, air conditioning and lunch, and a leisurely sail to Minya. We had two lectures that night, both excellent.
Day Six – off again early for the hour’s drive to Beni Hassan, where we were to visit the Middle Kingdom Tombs of the Nomarchs and the tomb of Khnumhotep II. This is where the gorgeous and justly famous painting of the Western Asiatics in their colorful multi-hued coats and exotic hairstyles is and I had been looking forward to it. We would also see the tombs of Khety and Baket III.
Well, I didn’t see any of them. We got to the complex, climbed 30+ steps (this time with bannisters, thank Heaven) to a primitive but lovely outdoor tea garden and saw the way up to the tombs. 200+ stone steps, all without bannisters or any shade at all, snaking around up to the top of the mountain. (Well, maybe it wasn’t a real mountain, but it might as well have been.) I decided that I would simply sit in the leafy garden, sip a cup of mint tea and watch the hardier ones of our group make the climb. I wasn’t the only one, either!
After this we went on to Amarna, the new city of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten. As this city had been brutally and thoroughly destroyed when Akhenaten fell from power (no one is really positive about what happened to him) in an effort to eradicate his heresy there wasn’t much left. Archaeologists have been able to resurrect a few foundations, but it is truly hard to imagine a great and beautiful city in this absolutely barren wasteland. On the other hand, who knows what treasures lie buried under the sand? It is that sense of possibility that keeps archaeologists constantly hunting all over Egypt.
From there we traversed great stretches of blank sand to the Southern Nobles’ Tombs. Many are unfinished and some have been vandalized (probably in antiquity) but what is left is beautiful. We saw the Tomb of Ay (TA 25) and the famous Great Hymn to the Aten. There is and probably always will be a controversy whether this beautiful hymn – remarkably similar to Psalm 104 was stolen from Akhenaten by David the Psalmist or if David stole it from Akhenaten. Either way, it is beautiful. We also saw the tomb of Pa-Atenemheb (later Horemheb).
Both Ay’s and Horemheb’s tombs were never occupied; when Akhenaten’s heresy was overthrown both moved back to Wast (called Thebes by the Greeks and Luxor by us) and returned to the old ways. Ay became pharaoh for a short time after the death of Tutankhamun and has a beautiful tomb in the West Valley, which I used that in THE EGYPTIAN FILE. Horemheb also became pharaoh and was buried in the Valley of the Kings, which meant he had three tombs – the one at Saqqara, the one in Amarna and the only one he actually used, in the Valley of the Kings.
While we had been touring our cruise boat had journeyed from Minya to the docks at Amarna and was waiting for us. We had a lovely afternoon of doing nothing but enjoying the air conditioning.
Day Seven – we went back to Amarna, this time visiting the Northern Tombs of Ahmose, Merye, Huya and Merye II. We visited the small Sun Temple of Akhenaten; most of it is in ruins, but there is enough left to visualize what it must have looked like. The idea that Akhenaten (who must have been one of the biggest egomaniacs in the history of the world) would keep all his courtiers and foreign ambassadors standing the sun while he stood above them and conducted business is horrifying. But then, he worshipped the sun and regarded himself as a god, so it’s not surprising. What is surprising is that he was allowed to destroy and pervert Egyptian religion and society for so long!
After a short drive we hiked up a tall hill to visit Boundary Stela U. There used to be boundary stelae all around Amarna, and many still exist, but this particular one is both still in good shape and reasonably easy to get to, so it’s the one tours usually visit.
Do I really have to tell you that none of the steps in Amarna have bannisters?
From Stela U we went far far far into the desert to see the Royal Tomb of Akhenaten. Yes, there were stairs down into the mountain and there were no bannisters, but there were walls, which are almost as good.
It is tragic and infuriating that so many of the beautiful glyphs and raised relief sculptured scenes have been deliberately been defaced, most likely in antiquity. What is left is but a pale shadow of the beauty they must have once shown. My thoughts about and hope for the current – and hopefully a lot hotter than Egypt in September! – location of those savages who destroyed this are not quite fit for public pixilation!
Like most tombs, the entrance (at the bottom of the first flight of steps) is guarded by a large, sturdy and imposing metal door. The guards and/or site police have keys, and they must be summoned to open the door – if you have permission to ask for it.
One unknown to me tourist on the A bus (we were on the B bus) apparently wanted to take some pictures without the annoyance of other people milling around. (Shooting pictures when there are crowds of tourists is always maddening. I hope you never have to listen to The Husband’s comments about it or suggestions for solving the problem!) Anyway, this not-too-bright shutterbug stayed behind after everyone left and was happily shooting away… until he heard the big steel door lock. He (I’m assuming it was a he) ran up the several lengthy flights of stairs and began shouting and banging on the door. By that time, however, everyone was up and on the busses and the guard had started off back to the site office.
Thank goodness our guides were meticulous about counting heads, and after two or three counts that showed one missing, went searching and heard the hapless tourist screaming and pounding on the great steel door. Then our police guard had to be summoned and sent to get the guard back and eventually the tourist was rescued. The story immediately went around the entire tour, but I never learned who it was. If I had done something so boneheaded I wouldn’t want anyone to learn my identity either!
Once we were back on the boat we spent the afternoon at leisure, with a lot of us clustering in the third floor lounge (too hot on the sun deck!) to see the spectacular cliffs that drop straight into the Nile near Manfalut. There is a road running along the top – and much too close to the edge for my comfort, but it didn’t seem to bother the few cars that zipped along. There was also a huge and beautiful Coptic monastery inside a giant cleft in the cliffs.
Day Eight – this was another intensely welcome day of leisure as we sailed lazily down to Sohag. I know it seems that we took an inordinate number of rest days, but the unending stairs, the distances we had to walk and the blistering heat made them not only welcome but necessary, even for the youngest and fittest of us. Today we had three lectures from David Rohl, and while I do not completely agree with some of his conclusions, I admire his assiduous scholarship and passion.
Day Nine – Today we sailed to Baliana, where we boarded our busses for the trip to Abydos, the temple of King Seti I. I have seen Abydos several times, but it never fails to touch me. The painted ceiling in the hypostyle hall – most of which is newly cleaned and absolutely gorgeous – and the carved King List – in spite of the ‘editing’ and deliberate omissions of the original scribes – are always awe-inspiring. We walked out behind the temple to see the geometric, almost-modern pit of the Osirion, then to the Temple of Ramses II (where the famous reliefs of the Battle of Kadesh) are.
After this long walk one of our number suffered a small heat stroke in the Hypostyle Hall – spread out on the stone floor, unresponsive – but his wife and Youssef got him back and saw him safely to the boat. Good news is that by dinnertime he was back to normal.
Once back on the boat we got underway again, sailing through the Nag Hammadi lock. I have sailed through a lock or two, but always at night when I am asleep. This time I got to see the lock in action and it was fascinating. It was also a lot faster operation than I thought it would be, considering the size of our boat and the amount of water necessary.
Day Ten – Early early in the morning – pre-5am – the boat set sail for Qena, where we got on the busses for a trip to the Greco-Roman Temple of Hathor. I personally do not like the Greco-Roman evolution of style; forcing Greek and Roman symbology and style onto the native Egyptian art forms, it makes a mockery of traditional Egyptian iconography. It’s degraded and ridiculously convoluted… no, I don’t like it at all.
Once back on the boat we sailed the short distance to Luxor, then went on south so we could enjoy more sailing on the Nile. Finally we returned to dock in time for sunset, so we could enjoy a special barbecue dinner on the sun deck. Afterwards we had a special treat – a lovely belly dancer entertained us in the lounge. What was not so funny was that she grabbed four of us – including Hiram, my darling Grace, me and someone else whom I don’t remember – to join her. It was fun and humiliating and good for a lot of laughs – but not a good thing for someone with an enthusiastically protesting arthritic knee to attempt! Ouch!
Day Eleven – Up early to go by bus to Deir el-Bahri, the mortuary temple of female Pharaoh Hatshepsut… and one of the main locations of my rather naughty time-travel romance, PASSION’S CHOICE. This is one of my favorite places in Egypt if not the entire world, but because of pure physical exhaustion and a sky set to ‘high-broil’ I didn’t enjoy it as much as usual. It is still fantastic, and the Chapel of Hathor is one of the gems of the ancient (and modern!) world. One of the most fantastic things at Deir el-Bahri are two small petrified tree stumps, carefully protected by iron cages. These are all that are left from a small forest of trees that Pharaoh Hatshepsut had brought back from her monumental expedition to the land of Punt in 1480 BC. From there we went to see the Assasif Tomb of Khernef, where there is proof of the long co-regency of Amenhotep III and his son Amenhotep IV, later known as Akhenaten.
From there we went to see the mortuary temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu, which is also one of my favorite places and one of the best preserved monuments extant. The hall where full-sized carved heads of conquered peoples protrude from the walls is simply fantastic. So are the Princes’ Procession and the Sea Peoples Reliefs and the wonderful color that is all over the place. I was saddened, though, to see that one of the best cafes in Egypt which was just across the street from the monument – the Happy Habu, where friends and Hiram and I spent so many pleasurable meals – was now closed, replaced with a shabby cold drink stand. Sic transit gloria…
On the way back to the boat we made a quick stop at the Colossi of Memnon. It was good to see that the Ranier Stadelman/Hourig Sorusian excavation of the temple behind them (possibly the largest edifice ever built in the ancient world) is progressing nicely. The first time I was there in 1992 there were just the Colossi and a big empty field. Now the Colossi sit proudly in front of recovered foundations (incomplete) and practically a forest of statuary. We had been hoping – however ridiculously – that Hourig was working there, even though it is definitely the wrong time of year. She is to be admired not only as a wonderful Egyptologist but for keeping the excavation going after Ranier died a couple of years ago.
Then back to the boat.
Day Twelve – the time of closure is coming fast, and no one likes it. I kept wondering what happens if a group of tourists simply takes over the cruise boat and refuse to go home???
Today we toured what might be regarded as the crown jewel of Ancient Egyptian monuments – Karnak Temple. As with so many monuments in Egypt no matter how many photographs you have seen you have no idea of the enormity of it until you stand there, completely dwarfed by the enormous columns of the hypostyle hall. Or the incredibly huge pylons at the entrance. Or the soaring obelisks – one of which, fallen in antiquity, has just been raised. There is the outdoor museum, where the Alabaster Chapel and Hatshepsut’s Chappelle Rouge (which really is a bright red!) sit beside stacks and stacks of carved stones from buildings demolished in antiquity awaiting their own turn at resurrection.
In places – especially on some of the stone ceilings – the intricate paintwork still not only still exists, but is bright and vibrant. To the left of the expansive temple grounds is Betsy Bryan’s Temple of Mut excavation. We didn’t get to see it this time, as it is an active excavation locked up for hiatus, but on our last trip I was entranced by the multiple statues of Sekhmet, the sometimes-berserker lion goddess – perhaps my second favorite goddess.
You can wander for days in Karnak – we’ve done it – and justice can’t be done to it in just a couple of hours. On the other hand, to experience its wonders for a couple of hours is far better than to never have seen it at all. We saw the Seti I War Reliefs, the Ramses II Battle against Israel (it’s amazing how Ramses won all the battles – even if he didn’t; after all, the Ancient Egyptians did invent political spin…), the Shoshenk I Campaign Reliefs, the sacred Holy of Holies, the hidden Chamber of Hatshepsut, the Statues of Sobekhotep IV and the Sacred Lake. I was glad to see that the sound-and-light show bleachers had been removed from next to the Sacred Lake, which means to me they are no longer given. I like that, as I always found them both silly and irreverent.
One good thing is that the refreshment kiosk next to the Sacred Lake (which is slightly bigger than an Olympic-sized swimming pool) is open again. After the unpleasantnesses of the 2011 riots in Cairo tourists simply stopped coming to Egypt and the industry as well as the country suffered. (When we went in 2015 a number of our friends were totally hysterical that we were putting ourselves in danger, and no amount of persuading either before or after our trip that it was perfectly safe could sway them. I even had to call one of them from the DFW airport within minutes of our landing to reassure her that we were safely returned!) Anyway, the ice-cream shop, as it was known, literally died on the vine in spite of the fact it was the only place you could get any refreshments inside the temple. Apparently the government would not reduce the rent to be equitable with the lack of tourism, and the shop had to go out of business. It was still closed in 2015. This trip, however, a much bigger and more comprehensive shop (including all kinds of souvenirs) was open in the old space – though totally charmless and lacking the feeling of the old shop. They had cold drinks and snacks, though, which were very much welcome. Youssef called it ‘the Temple of Coca Cola,’ a name which I will probably call it from now on.
The heat was both relentless and somehow malign, so we returned to the boat in time for lunch. Sadly, several members of our group had been stricken with covid, so our group was somewhat reduced.
Day Thirteen – Another day where we arose at a disgustingly early hour in order to try and beat the worst of the heat. We were in the Valley of the Kings by 8 am, but it didn’t help. The sky was already on broil. The Valley of the Kings is a great open valley with nothing in it. No grass, nothing green growing, nothing but beige rock and sand and sun. And people. Yes, even at that early hour the place was packed, though it was hard to tell at first glance. There are a few shades – sort of like pergolas – scattered around, and of course the refreshment house, and everywhere there was even a smidgen of shade was packed with people, people jammed so closely together they were touching. Beyond the shade – almost no one. A ticket to the Valley gives you the right to tour three tombs, but the best ones – such as Tut and Ramses IV/VI (a combination tomb) are extra. We’ve been to the Valley at least once every trip and have seen most of the tombs that are accessible without heroic effort, so we decided it was worth the extra money (just a couple of dollars) to see Ramses IV/VI, as it is one of the most spectacular tombs in the Valley. Tut we have both seen, and trust me, it is a bore. The tomb itself is ridiculously small, the paintings are stiff and lifeless and they not in very good shape. I do think everyone who goes to Egypt should see it, though, but to my mind it is not worth a second visit. (Wish we could have gone to see the Howard Carter House museum – that is fascinating, and there is an exact replica of Tut’s tomb built beside it. Unfortunately, though we had schedules to keep and a lot of people to move around. And it is not one of the ‘must dos’ of Egypt!)
After seeing Ramses IV/VI, Hiram decided to go see Merenptah’s tomb. I’ve seen it before – and it is beautiful – but the long, shadeless flight of stone steps decided me – I revolted and ran for the refreshment house. It was crowded, but the shade and a long cold drink (given me by a great group of women realtors) did a lot to uplift my mood even as it decreased my temperature. There was a dress there I really liked, but it was too small so I didn’t buy it.
Actually, this trip we bought almost nothing. Hiram didn’t get anything at all, and I got a handful of refrigerator magnets for take-backs and a cute little fabric purse to carry my room key, phone and a hanky or two when we were on the boat. I had brought one, but it was too small to zip over my phone. Sigh. I did, I must confess, buy one magnet for me – a beautiful shiny golden kepher, the beetle that is the sign of renewal and re-birth – simply because I found it absolutely beautiful.
From the Valley of the Kings we went to the Valley of the Queens, which although almost as historically important as the Valley of the Kings is visually a big bore. Then we went to the Mortuary Temple of Ramses II, also known as the Ramesseum, one of my favorite places in Egypt. For a ruin it is in pretty good shape, and I absolutely love the Ozymandias statue. A gigantic (there are not enough size-superlatives to describe Egypt, I’ve decided) fallen statue of Ramses II, from the shoulders up it lies almost face down in the sand. Ozymandias is a Greek corruption for User-ma’at-re, Ramses II’s throne name. (All pharaohs had five names.) “…look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair…” Wow. It’s a powerful poem, one which I marvel that Shelley could write without seeing the ruin.
From there we went back to the boat for lunch, a rest and tea, then a Floodlit Visit to Luxor Temple. Luxor is a small gem of a temple, beautiful, in a great state of preservation, and one of my favorite places.
The visit was a travesty. Horrible. First of all, it was packed with tourists. Not just crowded, but packed to the point every time you moved you almost had to rub elbows with somebody. Two or three guides were using green laser pointers to show things high on the columns – distracting to say the least and some of them were not as cautious with the pointers as they should be, so you had to be constantly on the alert. To make things worse, the Hanging Mosque (which really does hang over the temple, by its very existence blocking excavation of the majority of the temple) was blasting away the call for prayer and (I guess) a sermon afterwards, though it sounded more like a militaristic call to arms at a volume ten times that of any other mosque I’ve ever heard. In the forecourt closest to the mosque the volume was both palpable and painful. If this were the only time I’d ever seen the temple I would never want to go back.
The avenue of sphinxes is sort of impressive – it does not go all the way to Karnak (several kilometers) as it did in antiquity, but it is still something to see. Every six feet or so on either side of a broad single lane road there is a large-ish, oblong and somewhat squat plinth. Some even have sphynxes on them, or ruins of what was once a sphynx. It is a great visual effect, though, and in spite of being imperfect can give you a very good impression of what it must have been when it was new and a place of worship.
It was on this road that we held a little ceremony giving our two guides and company representatives a little gift of money to say thank you for wonderful service and help. They deserved it, putting up with us and making our way smooth no matter what happened. I miss them.
This was our last night on the boat, and at dinner the kitchen staff threw us a party with a great big cake and lots of singing and dancing. It was wonderful – great fun and still a bit bittersweet.
I must say a word about the food on the boat. Fantastic. Breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. There were several long (6 ft? 8 ft?) buffets. Two for desserts (ah! The desserts! Varied, beautiful and so yummy…), a station for an incredible variety of breads, tables of fruit (I still dream about the fresh mangoes), two for an ever changing variety salads, and the big main line for meat (always at least three choices), soup (two choices), vegetables (four choices.) Every meal. Breakfasts there were no desserts, but lots of fruit and yogurt and other goodies, including made-to-order omelettes. And everything was made from scratch right there on the ship.
I must say something about the potato soup. I am not particularly a soup fan, especially in hot weather, but tried the potato because it looked interesting. Then the soup man showed me that to eat it Egyptian style I should squeeze half a lime into it. Huh? Lime? Into potato soup? Well, I’m game and believe me, it was the best potato soup I have ever eaten. I’ll never eat potato soup any other way. Don’t know what it does to it, but it makes the most delicious potato soup ever.
One of the things I enjoyed about this trip was that every day when our room was cleared a towel sculpture was created on our bed. We had a rather strange looking flower, kissing swans, a sea monster that looked very much like the one in Beany and Cecil, a scorpion (or lobster), a monkey that hung from the ceiling… Now I had not mentioned to anyone that I was a multi-published novelist specializing in mysteries, but since there were people on the tour who knew it quickly became common knowledge, apparently even among the crew, because one day our towel sculpture was a body spread out over my half of the bed!
Day Fourteen – We ate a lovely breakfast, said sometimes emotional good byes to the crew, and left for the airport where a chartered flight took us back to Cairo. The crew had to work to get things ready for the next bunch of tourists, scheduled to arrive in time for lunch, for the return cruise from Luxor to Cairo. I envied them.
Once in Cairo we were taken back to the Le Meridien hotel… and things got weird. While checking in they x-rayed our bags – a precaution they had not taken when we had checked in two weeks before. My knife was carefully packed in my toiletries kit deep in the suitcase, but the x-ray showed it. The security people demanded I show it to them, and when I did they confiscated it, saying that no blades (even small fruit knives) were allowed. They never explained to me why they took it that time when they hadn’t even mentioned it during our previous visit. They did give me a receipt, though, and said I could retrieve it when we left. I did, though it took quite a while, and when my itty-bitty knife was finally delivered to me it had been wrapped and re-wrapped in so many layers of heavily taped bubble wrap it was larger than a cucumber or squash. I left it like that and just put it in my suitcase.
That night we had the farewell dinner for our group in the big downstairs buffet restaurant. After eating on the boat the food seemed rather pedestrian. Maybe it was just the magic of the Nile. After the dinner and many tearful good-byes, we started on our various ways home.
Day Fifteen – Hiram and I were fortunate; Cairo airport is very large and spread out over several terminals. We were leaving from the only terminal that connects to the hotel. All we had to do was walk across a skybridge and we were right there. This time Lufthansa didn’t mess with our flights and we were scheduled to go from Cairo to Frankfurt (drat!) and from there to DFW, which is what happened. We had to wait until the Lufthansa station opened, and as we waited Hiram fretted that we were going to be overweight (I had decided to wear my small, light backpack instead of the big, carryall – and heavy, since I always overpack – backpack I had taken over) but the gate agent was so kind – he never mentioned the overage and checked our bags all the way through to DFW.
And afterward – Be warned. While Lufthansa service is good – when they decide to give it and don’t change you to another airline – their food service has gone to pot. Lufthansa meals used to be quite good; now… between Cairo and DFW we were given three meals. One was a rather tasteless vegetarian lasagna, salad, cheese bite, cookie… bland, boring and unimaginative, but okay and at least adequate. The other two ‘meals’ were dreadful. A single sandwich of that thin, crumbly, sour-tasting German bread spread with a very odd bright red spread, two slices of cheese, a scattering of slivered carrots and two chips of a very weird kind of pickle. Thank goodness there was yogurt and a cookie bar, because I couldn’t eat the sandwich. Ick! If you fly Lufthansa, be sure to take food with you.
I have said before that I have long regarded Frankfurt airport as one of the seven circles of hell. This layover only underscored my belief. Now we knew from the beginning that we would have a fourteen hour layover in Frankfurt. Not desirable, but that’s the way the flights ran and we had planned for it. There were some nice lounges in the terminal we had left from on our way to Cairo and we decided we would just use one of them and sleep.
This is Frankfurt, though. Our flight came in at past midnight and the train that connects the terminals had quit running. The others on our flight were leaving and going out of security. We didn’t want to go out of security, and so were told we had to stay in the terminal.
The deserted, cold, brightly lit terminal had no food or drink kiosks, no lounges, nothing. We wandered the terminal and found nothing but locked doors and miles of overly-chilled marble hallways. Finally we ran across a nice man driving one of those little electric trams you never see when you need one, and when we explained he said he could help us, even though he was off duty. We got in the tram and he took us to an elevator – yes, they have elevators that fit those trams – and up a couple of floors. It looked just the same to me.
Finally after two or three turns, he stopped before a gaggle of plain black army-style cots. He said we were welcome to sleep there, as crews with short turnarounds often took naps there, and sometimes overnighted passengers used them. Plus, the nearest train station was only a hundred or so feet away. We thanked him and then he left.
It was a cold, rainy late September night in Frankfurt, and the air conditioning was going full blast. The lights were blazingly bright and never dimmed or went off. The floors and walls were either marble or glass. We were both wearing lightweight Egypt clothes and had on lightweight jackets not as heavy as a sweater. There were no pillows, no blankets, no nothing. Just cots. At least there was a restroom some fifty yards away down two more hallways. (One spooky thing – once while I was in the restroom someone came in and used the stall next to me and then left – but Hiram said no one came past him in our bedroom hallway and there was really no other place someone could have gone. ???) We used our backpacks for pillows (never knew I carried so many pointy and lumpy things!) and settled down to get as much sleep as we could.
About two hours later a Japanese (?) couple showed up and took possession of two cots maybe ten yards away. The man then proceeded to orate. He wasn’t just talking; I had no idea of what he was saying as I have no knowledge of any Oriental language, but the effect was of an old-time stagey actor wildly overacting one of Shakespeare’s more dramatic soliloquies. At another time the language and the cadence would have been interesting. At the moment I could only think violent thoughts and try to get back to sleep.
Finally around 5 am we gave up and as our teeth were chattering got up and walked around to warm ourselves. Yes, I know we could have reserved a room at the airport hotel in the first place, but as the trains weren’t running by the time we landed we might not have been able to get there, and we had agreed that the +/-$250USD it would have cost would be better saved against our next trip to Egypt.
It was like being in one of the grimmer episodes of the Twilight Zone – no people except the now-sleeping Japanese couple, just brilliantly lit, cold and featureless halls. When around 5 am a workman did go past he said the trains had just started running, so we rushed to the station only to find after two or three trains had rushed past us without stopping that this station was closed and out of service.
By this time there were people stirring, so we stopped a tram driver – who was not nice at all – who told us we’d have to walk the entire length of the terminal to get to a working station then went on her way. When we finally did get to our departure gate, the first thing I wanted was coffee and food in that order, as we hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink since that vile sandwich and a small bottle of water on Lufthansa approximately fourteen hours before. We found a coffee shop, waited for it to open, and bought a beer (this is Germany, remember), a large coffee, a large bottle of water and two chocolate croissants – for $30 American. The croissants weren’t even very good.
The rest of the trip home was tiresome but uneventful. The trouble started once we got home. Remember I told you our refrigerator had gone out just before we left? We had thought that once we got home we’d go buy a new one and it would be delivered in 2-3 days, since our requirements were modest – French door, bottom freezer, ice/water in the door – all pretty standard, and since the kitchen is light and bright with light woods and pale countertops we wanted white. Do you know that a white refrigerator is now a special order? Is it now considered racist to want white appliances? Stainless steel and black we could have had delivered in 24 hours, but as I loathe both and we do not live in either a laboratory or a morgue I demanded white. After trying several places we finally found a salesman who told us he could special order one and might be able to have it delivered in three or four weeks. I’ve heard horror stories of deliveries not being made for three or four months, but we went ahead and are ‘camping’ out with an ice chest and a little ice maker. Sigh.
At least our HVAC was replaced and working before we left, and my darling, wonderful hot tub man not only fixed my hot tub while we were gone but took the time to fill it and have it ready for me when we returned. Bless him.
I have written two blog posts (Ladies of Mystery and MakeMineMurder) on this trip, bringing the post kicking and screaming back to the subject of writing by showing that like anything else, if you want something badly enough – like this trip to Egypt or to write a book – you can do it. It only takes work and dedication and occasionally some sacrifice. I think we’ve proved that, and we’re probably going to prove it again, since we’re already planning to return to Egypt in about eighteen months. (Though I have made it very clear to Hiram that if he ever books us through Frankfurt again I just might divorce him!)
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I will admit that I did not intend to write a book about this trip or much of anything else. I don’t have a contract starting until January, so I planned to take these three months off from writing. (Yeah. Sure.)
I did want to keep a trip diary about this trip, though, and since I regard anything handwritten as cruel and unusual punishment, I proposed taking Mac, my workhorse MacBookPro laptop. Hiram said an unequivocal no, that it was old and there was too much data on it and he didn’t want it risked. I refused to take the ancient Gateway, the enormous and heavier-than-a-brick 17” PC I had carried all over Egypt in 2015 (mistake – my back still grumbles about it occasionally!) so Hiram generously bought me an older, refurbished MacBookAir which I promptly named Maxine and I love it. I worked on the trip diary almost every day… until plots and characters started banging on the edges of my mind, demanding entry. Finally I gave in (big surprise) and suddenly the book plotted itself. It takes place on a luxury Nile cruise boat (another big surprise, I know) run by the fictional FirstClass Cruises. The title is A FIRSTCLASS KILLING – MISCHIEF AND MURDER ON THE NILE. I had almost 8K words done before we left the boat; there are two discrete mysteries which must be solved (my poor lady sleuth!) and I’m having great fun with it. Don’t know when it will be finished – hopefully in a couple of months – as there are real-life things that must be dealt with.
Now for some non-trip related stuff. I will admit that I am lazy. Frankly, I have no choice but to admit that I am lazy. For the last two or three years I have coasted, enjoying myself with writing and totally ignoring both releasing and publicizing. To my shock the other day I found that, along with half a dozen books I have had reverted to me, I have another half dozen that are written and edited and need only covers to be releasable. So, like in 2014, I have decided to discipline myself and go on a publishing blitz. Back then I did a book every two weeks from 1 June to 31 October, and it almost killed me, so as I am now older (definitely) and wiser (hopefully) I have decided to do one a month. And, to keep the Egypt vibe going, I’m going to start with COLOSSUS, a tasty little psychological and scary horror story by my J. S. May persona about a reluctant psychic, a burnt-out policeman, a monomaniacal archeologist and a recently reconstructed colossal statue of a semi-legendary Egyptian pharaoh which is not only cursed, but which has started to regenerate. It is great fun! Watch for it in about a month! Future issues of the newsletter will (hopefully) have a pretty good schedule of what is going to be released when.
And…! There is news about my YouTube channel – we had barely gotten three episodes on air when the covid crazies hit and everything stopped. Well, my producer (the marvelous Karlene Schoonover) and I are resurrecting it. It will still be called Janis’ Tips and Tales, but everything else is new – shorter and more streamlined and lots more fun. We have four episodes shot, but that’s not enough to get really started with, so we’re hoping to do a bunch more before the end of the year and maybe start broadcasting in January. Keep an eye out for the Newsletter – and on my website – because we’ll let everyone know to come join us!
Take care, and have fun! (And buy books, please – we’ve got to go back to Egypt…)