2000 Egypt

The Curse of the Pharao’s

During one of our diving classes my friend Luciano and myself discussed the idea of going on a diving holiday somewhere in spring. It did not take long before Egypt grabbed our attention so we started to look for a trip that fitted us. We found a special offer for a 2 week holiday to Hurghada but instead of staying there for the 2 full weeks we decided to split it up and travel the country for a week before starting the diving. So once our almost 5 hour flight landed and we had checked in at our hotel we immediately started to look for ways to get to Cairo. That turned  out to be pretty easy so the same  evening we boarded a night bus for the 450km trip to  Cairo where we arrived about 6 hours later.

What better way to start the exploration of the Egyptian culture than paying a visit to the Egyptian Museum which houses the world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities. First we checked out the ground floor and watched an extensive collection of papyrus and coins used in the ancient  world, as well as statues, tables and sarcophagi.

On the first floor we saw tombs of several of the pharaoh’s as well as many artifacts from the Valley of the kings, that we would visit later. In two special rooms we saw a number of mummies of former kings and of course we could not leave without admiring the famous mask of Tutankhamun, which is made of 11kg of pure gold.

The next day we visited what must be Egypt’s most famous site, the pyramids of Giza, at the outskirts of Cairo. All three pyramids were built according the same principle. Aboveground burial chambers, a mortuary temple and a causeway leading down to a valley temple. Without doubt the pyramids speak to everybody’s imagination and needless to say both of us were very eager to explore the site.

As soon as we arrived we were hassled by touts (so called private guides) and camel drivers who all wanted our business. It was difficult to make clear to them that we wanted to walk on our own and the constant hassle made our visit a bit cumbersome. The next thing that caught our attention was how dirty the area was and how many plastic bags were laying around and blowing in the wind. This was certainly not the state we had expected one of the seven wonders of the ancient world to be in. In some ways we were to late anyway. For centuries, the pyramids were encased in smooth limestone, but this was plundered in our era to build Cairo, it’s a true shame no one can nowadays see the pyramids in their full glory.

We tried to ignore the hassling and made our way to the pyramids. It was an impressive sight indeed seeing them with our own eyes. We entered the Great pyramid of Giza (aka the pyramid of Cheops)  through the Robber’s tunnel  and made our way to the Kings room through a set of narrow, steep and very warm alleyways.

Once we got out of the pyramid of Cheops again we admired the smaller pyramids of queens, the cemeteries and two boat pits. After that we headed back for a closer look of the great Sphinx and the temple of the Sphinx.

That evening we took the night train to Luxor where we arrived early in the morning. We found a picturesque hotel at the west bank of the Nile and after we checked in started our exploration of the area.

First we took the ferry back to the east bank and visited the Karnak Temple which was known as Ipet-isu when it was built. Actually it is a city of temples built over 2000 years from around 2055BC to 100AD. It was dedicated to the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu. It’s the largest religious building ever made, so it took us a while to visit all sights.

We made our way through the first pylon, the great court and the Ramesses III Chapel to the Hypostyle hall and were amazed by the beautiful Hieroglyphs we saw. The good thing was that once we passed the many private guides outside the temple we were left alone inside so we could admire the building at our own pace without being disturbed.

There was so much to be seen, the Tuthmosis III Hall, The (now dried out) sacred lake, The Thutmose III Pylon and the Temple of Khonsu. Both of us tried to fantasize how things must have been here thousands of years ago. The vast amount of priests, the ceremonies performed to regenerate Amun, recreate the cosmos and transfer Amun’s power to the Pharaoh. Thousands of people were waiting outside, waiting for the Pharaoh to emerge from the Temple sanctuary. It certainly were impressive times, especially if you belonged to the happy few within the inner circle of the Pharaoh and his priests.

The next day we decided to make a donkey tour to the valley of Kings but first entrance tickets had to be bought. Luciano was extremely keen on visiting the Tomb of Hatsheput but that was limited to only 50 guests a day in order to preserve the stunning hieroglyphs. In order to be one of the lucky few you had to be at the ticket counter at 5:30 in order to buy one of the much desired tickets. Fortunately this could be arranged for us at a small fee so we could have a bit of a sleep in. Having said that, life starts early in Egypt as the heat becomes to much for some very quickly.

As soon as we left the flatlands surrounding the Nile the landscape became dry and brown. We started the ascend, comfortably sitting on our donkey while the guide was leading us towards the valleys. The first stop was the Theban Necropolis, which was used for ritual burnings during the Pharaonic Times.

We passed the temple of Hatsheputh but left visiting that site till our return from the Valley of Kings. It was impressive though to see it from above and both of us were extremely liking our trip, in spite of the ever increasing heat.

The last bit into the valley we needed to cover on foot and this time we really realized how warm it already was at this early point of the day. Finally a long path led us through narrow gorges towards the once well hidden valley of Kings. Here there were many tombs to be visited and both of us were amazed how the work on these tombs were completed thousands of years in complete secret and not to be discovered until many many hundreds of years later.

Totally stunned we kept the Thomb of Hatsheput for last. We were lucky to have two tickets of the very limited daily quota but in spite of the hefty fee of 50 US$ we were only allowed to stay in for about ten minutes and needed to be on the move constantly. The hieroglyphs were absolutely breathtaking though, maybe even more so than the hot stale air inside the Tomb.

Back out of the tomb again we were totally overwhelmed by what we had seen the last couple of hours. The detail of the hieroglyphs were absolutely stunning to look at. It made it even more special to know it was a coded language, only known to a few telling stories about kings and queens, Pharaoh’s and priests, their constant power struggles, battles, victories and losses.

Our final stop for the day was the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, which we saw earlier that day when passing by on the cliffs above. It is an incomparable monument of ancient Egypt but also the site of the massacre where 62 people were killed by extremists in November 1997. Now two and a half year later no remains of that attack were to be seen so we tried to focus on the beauty of the site itself. Originally the temple had three levels of which two have been carefully restorated. At the time of our visit the top level was still under reconstruction so we could not go there.

In the evening we made a felucca ride, a traditional wooden boat that offered a quieter and calmer mood than a motorboat has to offer. It was the perfect way to finish of our stay in Luxor. Whilst enjoying an extremely beautiful sunset both of us were fantasizing about times long gone, a time of which we were only able to see some of the remainders as most of it had been plundered and vanished throughout the years.

We talked to our boatsman about our wish to visit Abu Simbel and he ensured us it was no problem for him to arrange. As things had been taken care of so well during the felucca tour we decided to give him the business and let him join us further south.

Next day we started our trip to Abu Simbel. First we visited the temple of Luxor at the site of the famous city of Thebes. Although the mud-brick houses and palaces have disappeared its stone temples have survived. The most beautiful one is the Temple of Luxor so we did not want to leave the area without a visit. Waiting in line for the ticket counter I once again had an argue with an Egyptian tour leader who tried to force her way to the beginning of the queue. She was a tour leader and therefor of great importance. I corrected her that I was a tourist and therefor of even greater importance. Without tourists there would be no tour leaders so I did not allow her to pass me which left her agitated and grumpy, but so were we. Unsurprisingly we bought our tickets before it was her turn…

We continued our trip following the Nile and late in the afternoon we made it to the Aswan dam. It’s Egypt’s most important dam which not only prevents the Nile from flooding every year during late summer but it also has a major impact on the economy and culture of Egypt.

By now, according to the planning we should already have been in Abu Simbel but that was still a 4 hour trip one way to go. We were now halfway our holiday and decided not to sacrifice at least another 2 days of diving so we cancelled the remainder of our trip and took a night bus to Hurghada. Our bus was driving in a convoy to be more secure from terrorist attacks and there were regular check-ups at military and police posts. During these check-ups we had to cover ourself and pretend sleeping as we were traveling in a local bus, not really meant for tourists. It was a bit surreal as this was not mentioned by our guide before. It seemed that organizing this trip had gone way beyond his capacity.

We arrived safely in Hurghada in the morning and decided to rest for the remainder of the day. The next days we went diving twice a day. The underwater scenery was amazing end both of us enjoyed it thoroughly. This was really vacation time. Enjoying the sun whilst en route to the dive site, followed by a dive in which one pair of eyes was simply not enough. It was the first time for the both of us we were diving in tropical waters and there was so much more to be seen than the cold murky waters of the Grevelingenmeer in the Netherlands where we were used to. After the first dive we enjoyed some more sun whilst we had lunch and waited for the second dive. Late afternoons we returned to the hotel where we relaxed at the pool.

The highlight of our diving week would be a day tour to the wreck of the Thistlegorm. Unfortunately I was not very well on that day so I had to skip the first dive, not feeling able to make the 30m descent. The second dive in the afternoon Luciano convinced me to go along which I did so the long boat trip to the dive site was not made for nothing. Gladly the day after I felt much better so we could continue our diving together for the last couple of days.

During the evenings we went out a couple of times to the old center of Hurghada but pretty soon were fed up by the merchants who hassled us non stop in a quite aggressive manner to get us into their shops and told us we were insulting Egyptian hospitality when we ignored them. It simply was impossible to stroll through the streets without the feeling being a walking wallet. At the end we gave up and stayed at the hotel for dinner.

Egypt, the country with without doubt some of the most iconic archeological sites and treasures in the world. Unfortunately they have been plundered for hundreds of years and little of the treasures are still to be seen. When visiting the sites one has to be vigilant as terrorist attacks are always a possibility, as the massacre at the Temple of Hatshepsut had proven. We had seen the extreme security measures ourselves when driving back at night to Hurghada. Finally most historic sites and tourist areas are surrounded by some of the most disrespectful and irritating touts, merchants and so called private tour guides. They really put a dark cloud above our visit. Although we certainly enjoyed our trip neither of us thought we we would ever make the effort to return to Egypt.

It seems that somehow Egypt has enough of it’s exploitation and plundering the last couple of centuries and something or someone is trying to stop people from visiting and enjoying these impressive places. Is that the curse of the Pharaoh’s?