Thursday, July 01, 2004


I am still having the time of my trip here in Egypt, despite the fact that I haven’t encountered an honest Egyptian since I left Cairo. (That’s not entirely true. A tailor is Aswan sewed a hole in my skirt for free, but I think that was largely because I am at the point where I look like an extra from “Oliver” and he felt bad for me.) To Aswan....

Aswan is 14 hours south of Cairo along the Nile (upstream). Other than the dam, it is best known for ancient ruins and miserably dishonest tourist service. I found both these things to be more true than anywhere else I have visited. The first day I visited a couple local temples, Hill of the Nobles and Elephantine Island, nothing to impressive by Egyptian standards, but still cool. The highlight was the 95% discount on ferry tickets that my ability to mumble in Arabic earned me. And wandering through a Nubian village, which looked like a cross between an African village and an Easter Egg. (After they make the hajj, Nubian paint their families homes in “festive” colors.) On my way out of the village, one of the local teenagers though it would be a cool idea to trail me saying all the lewd things he learned in American movies. I was patient and ignored him for a while, but eventually he got bolder and tried to grab at me. I turned and told him, in my best Arabic, put your hands down! shame on you! go away! A little old lady happened to be walking in the other direction, carrying large black plastic sack of flat bread, when this happened. As I walked away, I saw her bludgeoning him with the bag of bread as she told him, loudly, what she thought of his manners. Back at the hotel, I relaxed by the rooftop pool of (yeah, pool, and the air-conditioned room cost me $5 a night - god bless developing nations.). That evening I went to the Nubian Museum, which was incredibly nice, air-conditioned and well laid out, with signs in English and Arabic where most of the words were even spelled right, though the gist of them was basically, “Thanks a whole bloody lot Nasser, you sank our culture.” I met another New Yorker there and she and I decadently snuck off to an ex pat joint for pizza and beer. It was glorious.

The next day I went to the temple at Abu Shimel. Abu Shimel is an incredible temple with giant colossuses (colossi?) and intricately carved chambers. It is also 300 km south of Aswan (translation : shouting distance of Sudan) along a road that requires an armed police escort. Islamic fundamentalists picked off a handful of German tourists (okay, 8 handfuls) in 1997 and the government is pretty keen on that not happening again. So to beat the heat, I caught the 4 am police convoy down, arriving at 7 am. The tourists were already there in force, but I still got my Indiana Jones temple-exploring fix. There were two main temples, both of which had been moved from their positions when the dam was built. It was neat to see how they had cut the things into pieces and brought them up to the new position. The first temple was aptly but uncreatively named the Great Temple of Abu Shimel. It was ostensibly dedicated to Ra-Hurakhti, but really it was just one big ego trip for Ramses II. The chambers of the temple were covered in hieroglyphs. Inside the main entrance were two rows of ten meter high statues (not surprisingly of Ramses II). Outside there were four colossuses, three of which were in pristine condition (one is missing a face that fell off during an earthquake in 27 BC.) They are 22 meters high (translation for those not on the metric system, the height of a good sized suburban office building.) The other temple was the Temple of Hathor. Nice, but got nothing on the Great Temple. The other interesting bit is the graffiti. Most of it is from Victorian travelers at the turn of the century, and it must have been done with a hammer and chisel. Can you imagine a bunch of people in waistcoats and button-up boots sneaking in under cover of darkness to tag a temple with their hammers and chisels?

That afternoon I also visited the Aswan High Dam (about as exciting as a visit to DMV) and the Philaes Temple. The Philaes Temple was also cool, on an island in the Nile with ornate columns.

***Bonus fun fact***

If terrorists were to successfully destroy the Aswan dam, 98% of the Egyptian population would be killed in the ensuing flood. (There are enough troops there to occupy Malta.)

Now the felucca. A felucca is a small sailboat that tourists rent with other tourists for a three day sail down the Nile. It is supposed to be a relaxing experience. Mine was partly relaxing, and partly not. Between the captain that would demand the goldfillings out of your teeth if he had the chance, and the four other passengers - (Ewww! I have to go to the bathroom in a bush? Dinner? That’s just rice with red sauce on it....) - it was a bit trying at times. We played a series of very international games of Uno. The captain was perma-stoned and insisted on inexplicably calling all the men on the boat “Steve,” no matter how may times he was corrected. And Cap’ couldn’t understand when I didn’t want a joint, and really thought there was a conspiracy afoot when Mexican “Steve” said no. The best part of the ride was the two “deckhands” (the boat was 16 feet long, I don’t think that any New Englander could properly call them deckhands) got out their drum. The first of my two favorites in their repertoire was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” A sample of the three Egyptian men singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”... and all this is at the same time... “In the jungle, the mighty jungle...” “[humming of Frere Jacque]” “[incoherent mumblings in Arabic]” “...stolen from Africa, brought to America...” and then, all together, “a-WEEEE-mum-mumba-way..” Things were even worse with the Macarna, which just involved random lyrics from this and that, they “HEY MACARONI.” The Mexican almost fell off the boat. The second day the wind died. Instead of sailing, we drifted downriver. The captain didn’t even pretend after a while. He just took down the sails and fired up another joint while we baked in the heat and humidity.

Today, after I escaped the felucca, I went to the Temple of Horus in Edfu. Again, incredible, and I highly suggest you go there yourself one day. It was up there with Abu Shimel for best temple in Egypt. Skip the felucca.

I am in Luxor now. Tomorrow - Valley of the Kings.

Time Out for : Myth Dispelling

For those of you who have been to the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) in New York, you know that there is a large Egyptian tomb in one of the atriums. This used to bother the holy hell out of me when I was a damn-the-man-smash-the-system-down-with-exploitation high school kid. I thought that either some old speckled and spectacled old Fifth Avenue millionaire had “found” it on some turn-of-the-century archeological dig, then “endowed” it to his favorite museum, or that the US had taken a cue from the British Museum [of Rape and Pillage] and just claimed it as some point. I was wrong on both counts. What really happened is that when the Aswan High Dam was being built, it was going to sink a ton of archeological sights. Egypt is a developing country that would never have enough money to save all of these things, so they asked for international assistance, saying they would go halvsies on anything they pulled out. The US paid to dig out and move two temples, one to higher ground, and one to New York.

No comments: