Saturday, January 23, 2010

Botanical Garden

Aswan has its own botanical garden on an island with a long history. It originally was settled by the Nubians, an ethnic group that lived south of Egypt, they called the island Jet Narty. Well…in the early 1900’s it was taken by or given to (depends on who is telling the story) to Lord Kitchner who had successful led the Sudan Campaign in Egypt – a polite term for fighting, I guess to make it seem nicer. He imported plants from all over the world and created gorgeous gardens. It finally was returned to the Egyptian ministry of agriculture where they had the foresight to preserve the island. It really was a relaxing place to explore and enjoy

While the gardens were beautiful, we really enjoyed the views it afforded us of Aswan and the Nile River. We could see the Old Cataract Hotel,  perched on top a granite hill. It was so named because the First Cataract (rapids) were nearby. It was actually built as a grand hotel, unlike the majority of Egyptian hotels that were originally a palace. Sadly, it is being renovated at the moment so we didn't get a chance to view it up close. You can get a glimpse of them on the right had side of the lower picture. If you look carefully, you'll see a man climbing in the riggings of the front faluca. (clicking on any picture with the little "hand" will blow up the picture.)

Ingenuity in action

The people on the Nile now have created their own niche,  to make money, to survive. Some ferry people across to the various islands on large boats, others hustle for riders on their falucas, charging the unwary tourist rather exorbitant prices for the privilege of riding on their boat. One young man joins the ferries heading off for Philae Island, bringing various things to sell to the now captive audience. Others always have a friend of a friend who has a boat and for a small fee he can take you to them. Then…always there’s the tip – they have many ingenious ways to do a little service for you so that you will give them a tip. It was next to impossible to keep the small coins and bills around to have for the inevitable. Even the bathrooms, on the road or in a big hotel…there’s always a person there whose job is to keep it clean and dispense the toilet paper. Sadly, I’m not certain if they get paid much more than the tips.

The Nile River

The Nile River…just the name conjures up visions of pyramids, pharaohs, boats floating on the river, and, if you’re an Amelia Peabody fan, visions of high adventure. The faluca, a graceful boat that dots the river around Aswan and Luxor, have huge sails that make a striking contrast against the deep blue of the river. In Aswan we had the luxury of sitting at the peak of an outcrop of rock, conveniently part of a botanical park, watching the boats ply their way across the water. We met Ishmael there and spent an enjoyable hour listening to tales of the Egypt he grew up in.

The Nile is actually the reason that one of the world’s oldest civilizations began in Egypt. The annual flooding created a fertile green valley, cutting a swath across the inhospitable desert. It was both a blessing and a problem for the early dwellers for the flooding, while it brought much needed silt to fertilize their soil, also destroyed homes and buildings. The Egyptians built early dams to help control the flooding in areas to allow farmers to somewhat control the advancing floodwaters. They also had “Nilemeters” in various places where they could map and predict the extent of the annual flooding. An amazing civilization.
As soon as Jeff gets his album posted, I'll add a link. He takes the amazing pictures - I do the touristy ones...just for the blog.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

HOW deep is the sand?

You have to wonder what still lies under the sands of Egypt. Luxor Temple lay buried for centuries, covered with sand and silt. Romans built a village there and as the village grew and expanded, the huge complex was all but forgotten. It wasn’t rediscovered until the late 19th century. One of the most interesting pieces that was left (the village was moved when the temple was excavated) was the Abu al-Haggag Mosque. It is strange to see a mosque in the middle of a pharaonic temple but it is a perfect picture to show how things change over the centuries. One of the pictures shows the original mosque entrance – about 24 feet off the ground. The other one shows a better view of the mosque. It is striking in its contrast to the culture and buildings of the temple.

Eclectic Driving

No trip anywhere in the world is complete without my noting the various driving habits and conditions of the country. Egypt is no different. Motorists here “drive by the horn”. They use it either as a form of communication or as music – not sure which. The horn could have many different meanings – “don’t move into my lane”, “I’m here”, “I’m turning left (or right)”, “I’m stopping”, “I’m coming over”, “get out of my way”, “why aren’t you moving?” (never mind that the car in front of you is at a complete stop). The list goes on and on and I never did figure it out. We spent a LOT of time sitting in large parking lots on the street, though if you actually wanted to get out of your car, finding a place to park was almost impossible. Some people stopped in the street, ran into whatever store, came back out and the traffic was still where it was. Here they just honked if they were stopping (different from Japan where they stopped also but they put on their blinkers). Ah well…I’ll leave the driving to the locals in Egypt.

Further rambling and driving

The other thing I noticed about the roads in Egypt is that they are shared with many donkeys, camels, carts, trucks, horses, sellers, walkers, drivers, buses, taxis…the list goes on… The shot of the horse and camel was taken immediately, and I mean immediately, outside the gate around the Sphinx…so much for a lonesome desert location. This variety of travelers makes for interesting traffic patterns. The sudden slowdown may be from an accident, perhaps too many cars, or a donkey attempting to pull a rather large load down the street…one just never knows.
In downtown Cairo the number of carts and such dropped somewhat but they were still there. Rides on horse drawn carriages are a big tourist pull in all of the cities so you couldn’t go far without seeing one. The sheer numbers of animals on the road increases exponentially the further away you travel from a large city.

Donkeys and horses were used to pull all sorts of things to market, out to the farm, to help a family move and who knows why else. The loads they put on them were humungous! This one was pulled by a horse – and, believe me, he wasn’t moving very quickly.

Large loads are not reserved for only the animals – even trucks sported huge loads that spilled over the sides.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Sphinx

The Sphinx is a marvel from the ancient days of Egypt – and it seems surprising that it wasn’t one of the Seven Wonders itself. It has the body of a lion with the head of a pharaoh (the shape of the headdress is the same as the one the pharaohs wore) and has come to symbolize strength and wisdom. It is truly impressive to see in person. Apparently sphinxes were commonly included as guardians to royal tombs or temples.

The Sphinx has been buried many times over the last several thousand years, most recently recovered in 1905. Just the paws are 50 feet long! Sadly, the head is battered and a lot of erosion has taken the place, smoothing out some of the original detail. The beard has broken off and the nose was shot off; according the stories, it was used as target practice by either the Turks or Napoleon. There are still traces of paint near and ear and they believe it was colorfully painted at one point in time.

Eclectic Roaming

For a start, you must realize that I have a personal vision of the pyramids. They’re out in the desert, an hour’s ride by camel, or maybe a donkey. It’s hot, the sun is shining…you crest a dune and there they are in their magnificence – the three pyramids and the fabulous sphinx guarding in front. Ah the romance…and then there is reality.
You speed down the street, weaving in and out of traffic, blaring your horn to let the other cars know you are either passing, turning left, turning right, driving on the white line or stopping. You finally get to “Pyramid Street” where you need to take a left but the traffic is so bad that you must do a long loop around so that you finally (about 30 minutes later) can make a right on the same street you were just trying to hang that left on only now you’re some 50 feet over. Ah well…travel down Pyramid Street about a mile, make a right turn at the exit and you’re in the parking lot….parking lot??? At the base of the pyramid??? My dream bubble popped very quickly. (For a great view of the pyramids, check out this video on YouTube:

The Great Pyramid – one of the Seven Wonders of the World – the only one still standing. It really is amazing to behold, despite the parking lot behind you. It was, for almost 4,000 years, the tallest building in the world. There really are lots of camels around – and available for rides around the pyramids. It looks quite picturesque camels roaming around, pyramids in the background, blue sky, cars speeding by…ah well, guess that’s progress. OK, I have to admit...I went looking for my picture of camels and discover they were horses. Finally found one - with the city in the background. More of that progress.

I do have to admit, I always thought that the pyramids were built by slave labor, however, I learned that actually, the local farmers were employed during the annual flood period when you couldn’t farm the land anyway. Cheops paid them and provided food and clothing when they worked on the pyramid. This is a view, looking up the pyramid. You can see the exposed blocks now but when it was originally built, they whitewashed it with limestone to give it a smooth surface. The cap is all that's left.

Eclectic trip through Egypt

Before I went to Egypt, I thought a pyramid was a pyramid was a pyramid and, of course, they all looked like Cheops pyramid – the big, perfect pyramid with the Sphynx majestically sitting out in front. Well…I learned a few things. For a start, not all pyramids look like one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Some pyramids, in fact, you need to use your imagination to realize they ARE a pyramid, or were at some point in time anyway.
The ravages of wind and scouring sand played havoc with these structures as well as just decades of hanging around.

There was also the issue of quality control, even way back then. Some pyramids simply were not made very well and they did not stand the test of time. Other pyramids got off to a bad start. The bent pyramid was started with a steep angle and it was going to be huge. The architect decided to change the slope – it is a pyramid but the pharaoh didn’t like it so he had another built.

The squared off pyramid was made with a step or mastaba. As the story goes, the pharaoh had the mastaba built over his tomb (they started building their tombs the minute they became pharaoh so that they’d have a wonderful afterlife – the bigger and more ornate the structure, the longer they were in power. They didn’t stop building until they died because it was thought to be bad luck). Back to the story. He had someone go off in the distance to see if they could see his tomb. Nope…so he had another mastaba added. Nope, not seen yet so added another, then another…it was finally with six levels that it could be seen from a distance so he quit.