Published: March 23rd 2009February 20th 2009
The Great Temple
4 statues of Rameses, standing 65 feet tall
The tour started with a 2:45am wakeup call from the boat, for our 3:30am minibus pickup. We knew it was going to be a shared transfer, but we were hoping that we were just sharing in a regular van. No luck, this trip was the minibus trip sold by the hostels, where they load about 20 people into a minibus. When the bus first pulled up there was only two seats left, and not together. When we stopped to pick up 4 more people, I realized what I thought were armrests and a centre isle, actually folded down into another seat. So at the very least we were able to switch with some people and sit together.
Because of the terrorist activities in southern Egypt over the last 15 years, all foreigners have to travel in a convoy system for safety. It seems really stupid as you're putting all tourists in one place at a designated time, but the Egyptian government thinks its protection. We had read there was military protection, but I didn't see any. So we met up with the rest of the buses and headed off. Just outside of the last checkpoint in Aswan, a guy at
The road to Abu Simbel
the front of the bus starts violently throwing up, just what you want to hear and smell at 4am. Luckily he did have a plastic bag, and his girlfriend took him off the minibus at the checkpoint, and we went on our way.
The ride was about 3.5 hours through the desert, arriving at Abu Simbel about 7:30 in the morning, about 40 km from the Sudan border. Abu Simel is another temple that had to be relocated because of the creation of the Aswan high dam. The original temple was cut into the side of a rock cliff, so they recreated that as well. There are two temples there, one dedicated to Ramses II, the other to his favorite queen, Nefertari. Now when I say dedicated, they were both actually officially dedicated to gods, but also to a deified version of the pharoah and his queen. Both were built in the 13th century, partly to intimidate the Nubian people as they were coming north up the Nile when they saw 4 huge statues of Ramses II along the banks. The insides of the temples are extremely well preserved.
The trip back to Aswan got a little interesting.
Apparently the minibus we were on was selling a long tour and short tour. The long tour included the high dam and Philae temple we saw the day before, so we told the driver we were on short tour. Ok. So we pull up the the high dam again. "Short tour off, long tour on". Ok. So we get off with about 8 other people and wait on the side of the road, about 8 stay on. Maybe they'll be a different bus. 20 minutes later, the same bus comes back with the people on the long tour. Back on the bus we go, off to Philae temple, drop off the long tour, then finally back to Aswan. Not too big a deal, but everybody was pretty confused, two Japanese girls were trying to negotiate our return to Aswan with some locals, but no need.
Once we got back to Aswan, we were able to return to our cabin for a few hours before we had to check out at 4pm. We ventured out into the town to stock up on bottled water where we had some fun with the Egyptian pricing system. Basically when a foreigner walks into
a store, the local will size you up, and try and figure out how much you would be willing to pay. The first store we went to, the young kid about 15 years old thought we should pay 60 le ($12) for two 1.5 bottles. No thanks. The next store we bought them for 10 le for two. When we came back to the same store a couple hours later to buy some snacks for the train, we picked up another bottle, different person working, price had raised to 10 le for one. Inflation can be brutal in Egypt.
We had a late lunch at a beautiful McDonalds overlooking the Nile. It also had free wifi, which was the big seller. Our Aswan tour operator later picked us up and dropped us off at the train station where we boarded our overnight train back to Cairo. The sleeper train was pretty grubby and stuffy, and the food was next to inedible. By morning, we were both starting to feel a little funny. When we got off in Cairo and were really thinking how nice the fresh air was in polluted Cairo, we realized how bad it was in there.
We were picked up by our familiar driver Tamer, and went straight on our city tour of Cairo. We then picked up our tour guide Sammy, the same one we had for the Pyramids tour. First stop was the Egyptian Museum. It is absolutely massive, and not very well labeled, so it was handy to have a guide. Sammy walked us through for about an hour and a half, then left us by the Tutankhamen exhibit for some free time. The riches in the exhibit are amazing, with the most well known being the 24.5 pound solid gold death mask ($350,000 with today's gold price). We also spent the extra 100 pounds to go into the mummy room, where the best preserved and most famous mummies are kept.
From the Museum we went to the Saladin Citadel, home of the Muhammed Ali mosque. It is still a functioning mosque, and no visitors are allowed during Friday prayers. Sammy gave us a little lesson about the pillars of Islam and the difference between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and politely answered my questions. I asked him about taking multiple wives. He essentially said it is mostly a financial decision now
as the average Egyptian cannot afford to have more than one. He also said it is a personal decision and not everybody would want to do it. He said his uncle currently has 3 wives, but said he is crazy for doing it as he can't afford it as you must treat all wives equally. He also told us that the 5 times a day praying is not done by all, but nobody misses the friday prayers. I thought it was a really cool setting to learn a little more about the religion.
From the top of the citadel you also get a great view of the city of Cairo. We were lucky to have a very clear day, and you could actually see the Great Pyramids. From the citadel we were off to Coptic Cairo.
Coptic Cairo is an area in Old Cairo that was the stronghold of Christianity. Originally there was 20 churches within a 1 mile square radius, 5 exist today. After the fall of Jerusleum in 70 AD, there was a major influx of Jews into this area. Coptic itself refers to the ancient egyptians who embraced Christianity, and also to their language. Coptic
view of cairo, pyramids in the distance
is the last remnant of the ancient egyptian language and is quite similar to demotic, the 3rd language on the Rosetta stone which allowed everybody to interpet ancient hieroglphyics.
We didn't spend a lot of time here, but the first place we went to was the Saints Sergius and Bacchus church (Abu Serga), dating back to 4th century AD. Its claim to fame is an underground cave that the church was built on top of, in which legend says the holy family stayed here when they were fleeing from Herod.
We also visited the Ben Ezra synagogue, purchased by Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra from the Copts in 882. It was a good opportunity for me to ask Sammy about the most recent conflict in Israel and what the local Egyptian thinks about it. He told me that most Egyptians feel that it is the fault of both sides, not just the Israelis. He said they welcome Israeli visitors and told me about a large group he had last year. I think Sammy's a little biased being in the tourist industry, but there is likely some truth to it.
With the tour being finished for the day, Sammy
picked up some schwarma's and felafel's for our provided lunch, and dropped us off to check back into the hotel. After a much needed shower and rest from the train, we took care of some money exchange and mailed postcards. For supper we walked to L'aubergine, an international restaurant recommended in Lonely planet.
There are more photos below