Saturday, February 27, 2010

Christmas in Luxor

Christmas is not celebrated in Egypt as it is in the US, despite the presence of Coptic Christians there (they celebrate in January, the 12th night). However, since so many people travel through Egypt during the winter months, since it's much cooler, most hotels have some kind of Christmas celebration. We were treated (for a price) to a huge buffet with lots of vegetarian options and a show of traditional Egyptian music and dance (along with some of the western standard Christmas carols). The most unusual for us was the Whirling Dervish.
The dance was/ is actually a religious ceremony, called the sema. It's unusual because there's usually a separation between the religious and secular but this particular dance has been transformed into a performing art, particularly in Egypt. It was originally performed by the Sufi (an Islamic order) but now it may be performed by true Sufi or just a performing artist. It is amazing to watch ther performer turn or whirl endlessly all the while manipulating colorful skirts. The concentration, the ability to keep going (I got dizzy just watching) the way they move. It really was a treat! 

Luxor Luxury

Of all the hotels we stayed at in Egypt, this one probably had the most outstanding, interesting view but the least pleasant room. Once we sat outside on our terrace, we had a spectacular view of the Nile. Watching the felucas sail up and down the river, the well-lit cruise ships, the small fishing boats, it was like a slice of time, relaxing and just watching. The sunset was spectacular that night - just the right clouds in the sky.

Egyptian shopping

Now I must admit, Cairo is as modern as any other large city, filled with those marvelous malls, shopping centers and popular restaurants; McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, get the picture. However, we found that we preferred the street shopping, the small lanes, the tiny places. Not that we bought very much was much more interesting walking through. The color, the noise, the constant, insistent sellers...while annoying at times, it was much more inviting. Had a young, insistent boy want to sell me a bookmark...he must have followed us for 15 minutes, demonstrating his wonderful grasp of the English least the selling phrases he had learned. Imagine his shocked look when I didn't buy 1, I bought 20 for my kids at school. He was besides himself with glee (wish I had a picture of that). Here are a few shots of some of the colorful shops. Wish we lived there - the herbs and spices outsides the shops were gorgeous to look at and delightful to smell. (click on the picture to get a better view)

Al Zubara Fort - a side trip in Qatar....

The next three entries are from a trip we took later on in Qatar. Of course, with the blog entries being backwards....these are chronologically backwards...oh well.
Further on, we visited  Al Zubarah fort. It was built somewhere in the 1930's because Qatar and Bahrain had some  "turbulent relations". This fort is probably the most complete and best known, and picturesque enough to be used on postcards and book covers.

While most of it is empty, there are displays of findings from the nearby excavations (like the one we went to). There's also an old well - when you peer through the metal grid that closes off its top, you can still see yourself reflected in the water deep below.

When you climb up to the top you find curious holes in the metre thick walls. The holes allow light to come in but are twisted to make it difficult for enemies to fire into the fort. The local birds now inhabit these spaces. Wooden shutters are still used in the windows, and can be opened to allow the cooling wind in.

For the coolest 360 degree view of this place visit this link: Al Zubara Fort

Old village in Qatar

After we roamed about the site, we traveled to a small village that was set on the ocean. Odd rooms and buildings were left standing, along with with wind tower that encouraged air circulation -necessary in the oppressing heat during the summer months.
The village was right on the water. With the strong, historical connection to pearl diving, I'm sure that this village was prosperous in its day. It's proximity to the fort they are excavating was probably not accidental.
At the time of our visit, however, it was quite cold and windy, so we used one of the remaining set of walls to enjoy a relaxing lunch. Even built a small fire in the corner to warm up the area - difficult since there was no roof left on the building. The rain that came was refreshing - and we all just moved to the side walls to wait for it to pass.

Archeology in Qatar

This is an intermission...have to make sure you realize that there are things to see and do here in Doha. Actually if we wanted to, there's something to do just about every single weekend!! Quite amazing...camping trips, camel racing, archeological digs, truly a wealth of things.
We did take a trip out to the northern tip of Qatar to an archeological dig. Now...I must admit there wasn't a lot to see, however, it was fascinating to see just how little they have to start with and how they figure things out.
We drove out to what looked like a deserted field - nothing but hard packed sand, few scrubby grasses, and mangroves off in the distance. As we walked closer, we realized that some of the stones we saw were actually in a regular formation...a straight line. When we actually got close, we found that there were walls.
Now the first one you see is rather large and sticking up - sure sign something was going on. It's actually what is left of a corner section of a "fort" type structure. They had actually excavated down deeper but during the months when they're not on a site, they cover it with sand to protect it so we didn't get the 'full' view. Nevertheless, what they had figured out and how they determined size and structure and use was fascinating. my untrained eye, this picture is just a corner - two walls coming together. However, if you look closely, you can see the kind of structure is different, the left wall being the older of the two walls. They can use that to determine the original size of the enclosure and then which walls were added later on. Apparently this was a fairly large settlement back in its day ... had water in a well (still there) and was right on the ocean. Most likely it was connected to the pearl diving industry that was here....time will tell as they discover more. His whole talk about the site was fascinating. Would like to be able to go out sometime when they were working to see more of what they have discovered.
Here's one of the reasons they need to cover things...the shepherd's flock roamed all over the place - and at one time the ram took off after us!!! Some of the photographers get a bit closer than he (the ram) liked.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On the Streets of Egypt

Time out....time for a bit of a look at some quick shots around Egypt.  We saw literally hundreds of women balancing large packages on their heads, walking through the shops or on the rural roads we drove through. Some of the bundles were huge - this one is quite small in comparison (but the picture wasn't blurry).
Need something delivered to your home? It wasn't unusual to see all sorts of things pulled or cared by horses, donkeys or camels through the streets. Not sure what was in this big black "truck" but that poor little donkey was not moving with very much speed.
And finally, I couldn't resist this small bird, sitting on the rail of one of the many ships that sail the Nile River. I like the reflection of the bird in the window. Fortunately he was very patient - I must have taken 40 pictures to get one that came out sorta like I wanted.

Temple of Kom Ombu

Like Japan, Egypt does not lack in temples. Everywhere you look there is a temple to explore, built to one god or another by a pharaoh working to outdo his predecessor. You had to make sure you did more to appease the various gods.

These two temples were built to honor the Egyptian Gods Horus, the Falcon God, and Sobek, the God of fertility, represented by the crocodile. The columns are carved with intricate pictures and hieroglyphics. The columns in the temple are intricately carved with scenes to honor the two gods and at one time, were undoubtedly brightly painted (you can see bits of it here and there.Obviously Sobek has granted favors upon the young female behind him. 
The hypostyle hall (large hall area with lots of huge pillars) has both lotus shapes and palm trees – one style on each side. Everything was duplicated exactly – the rooms, sanctuaries, alters and chambers are identical for each of the two gods. The inner sanctuary in the back was probably reserved just for the high priest and probably the pharaoh but other areas would be open to others.
There are walls full of descriptions of daily life as well as a hieroglyphic calendare including the days and months with phases of the sun and moon. There are also walls with some pretty advanced medical instruments including clamps, scissors scalpels, bone cutters and forceps – pretty remarkable considering it was probably built right about 2 BC.

Elephantine Island

Elephantine Island is located in the middle of the Nile River at Aswan. It was traditionally the border between Lower Egypt and the Nubian lands further south. It’s also only a few kilometers north of Philae Island (check out the next posting).
People have lived on this island for thousands of years – there are literally layers of structures built one on top of the other over the centuries. Some have completely vanished, others are even now being excavated and reconstructed. It’s amazing that they can identify not only the large structures, temples, homes and such but they can also tell who built them. Quite amazing.
You can wander through some of the large excavations at the south end of the island (I think it was on the south side) and see housing, winding streets and large temple structures. It is also where one of the famous Nileometers is located – while no one uses it any more, you can still see markings along the walls that must have been records of the Nile’s rising and flooding.
Now, you might wonder why it’s called Elephantine Island…some think it’s because of the large grey boulders along the edge of the island, other’s say it’s because the island is in the shape of an elephant’s tusk. Still others say there used to be an elephant market here. We just may never know.
These days there’s a Nubian village located on the island. The streets wind around the various houses and markets and goats freely roam the streets. There’s also a pretty decent Aswan Museum with a lot of artifacts to see, along with the enterprising souls who talk to you and then expect baksheesh (tips).

Philae Temple

Egyptians have a long history of constructing dams along the Nile to help hold back the yearly flooding. The Nileometers helped them predict when floods were coming and they had various, much smaller dams, that helped to hold back waters to certain areas. Well, way back, around 1902, it was decided to build a dam, the Old Aswan Dam, to stop the yearly flooding and allow people to have a more predictable life along the river. Course this meant that the yearly fertile soil that was dropped off on the land quit happening but the people weren’t killed in floods. Anyway….the dam was built…and it flooded the island of Philae.
Now you might ask why that matters. Well…on the island was the Philae Temple, the temple built to the goddess Isis, her consort (and I believe brother) Osiris, and their son Horus. This was a popular spot for tourists to go and, at the time, the temple was in good condition. It didn’t matter, the dam was built and every year, for about 6 months, it was submerged. The rest of the year you could go out and paddle around the area in a boat. (Turns out it actually was pretty good for the temple because being submerged for part of the year protected it from weathering from the sand.)
However, when they planned to build the High Dam, something had to be done. The new dam would leave the temple permanently submerged and so a huge effort was made to move the temple onto a new island. While the colors that once graced the walls is gone, it’s still a beautiful temple with detailed carvings and reliefs. The pilings in the middle of the lake? That's where the original Philae island is located.