Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Philae: Temple of Isis

Goddess of magic's cult temple
Two main types of temple were constructed in ancient Egypt: mortuary temples, dedicated to the memory of a pharaoh and his journey to the afterlife, and cult temples, dedicated to a deity linked with a particular place. Funerary temples were always built west of the Nile, a direction associated with sunset and death, whereas cult temples were usually built in the east, a direction associated with sunrise, birth and life. Philae temple, where the beautiful cult goddess of Isis was worshipped, was constructed relatively recently during the Ptolemaic (33rd) Dynasty, a mere 2,300 or so years ago.
Tuesday 25 December: My Christmas treat is to visit the legendary 19th century Nile cruise destination of Philae and a taxi from Aswan soon drops me off near the temple ticket office at Philae's boat jetty. Ticket (E£50) in hand I soon realise that a motorboat to the island is charged extra. I know this and, of course, the boatmen know it too. I'm over a barrel and I know it, they know it, and they know that I know . . .
A small fortune later (E£70) and the elegant columns and bulky pylon towers of the temple slowly appear above the rippling waters of Lake Nasser. It's almost lunchtime and, apart from a Chinese family, I have the whole island to myself, I've chosen my time wisely.
Often appearing in Victorian sketch books the small columned kiosk of Roman Emperor Trojan is far less impressive than the double-colonnaded approach to the massive twin pylons of the Temple of Isis. The front wall has deep-cut reliefs, one featuring Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra VII's (of Caesar and Mark Anthony fame) father smiting his enemies. Many of the columns are decorated with reliefs of Isis and her consort, obscure Nubian lion-headed goddess, Arensnuphis. As well as being the goddess of magic, Isis was also the protector of mothers, children and the Ritual of Life. Daughter of the sky goddess Nut, she married her brother, Osiris, and conceived Horus with him. Exalted throughout ancient Egypt the worship of Isis spread throughout the Greco-Roman world, to as far afield as Britain, before being usurped by the later cult of Christ.
Like a giant children's Lego kit the whole temple was dismantled, block-by-block, during the construction of Aswan High Dam and reassembled here prior to the original site being flooded by Lake Nasser in 1980.
Slideshow of Philae Temple.

Sunday, 27 January 2013


Feluccas bob gently on the Nile
Sunday 23 December: The first-class sleeper train from Cairo (93rd mode of transport) is slow but remarkably comfortable, squeaky-clean with crisp white sheets. Alcohol is no longer served (shame I really was looking forward to a cold beer in the lounge car). At US$80 for the overnight trip, including dinner and breakfast, it's a fair deal and by mid-morning I'm strolling down Aswan's riverside Corniche towards my hotel.
Located on a pretty section of the river, Aswan is Egypt's southernmost town and a good base for exploring Upper Egypt's monuments, tombs and temples. I have a large en-suite room with a twin-aspect balcony in the El Salam Hotel on the Corniche. There are great views from the rooftop restaurant where a simple breakfast of boiled egg, soft cheese wedges, bread, jam and tea or coffee, is served daily. At first glance the hotel itself looks a little grubby but actually it's perfectly clean and tidy, just a little bit old and tired. At E£88 (about £8.80) a night it's difficult to find fault.
Sunday 25: It's Christmas evening and I intended dining out in the Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christi wrote Death on the Nile, but as business is slack their only open restaurant is the reasonably priced French style 'The Terrace'. Unfortunately it's an outdoor terrace which is slightly chilly after dusk. So I only stay long enough to see a glorious sunset from the Old Cataract's bar before heading to a good old Arab restaurant, El Masry, in town. The food here is good Egyptian fare - charcoal grilled chicken and lamb, various soups, rice and salads but no alcohol is served. Aswan is quiet at night so I head back to the El Salam where there's a few cans of beer that I bought in Cairo (just in case!). Relaxing I open my laptop and a beer, and then do what most people do at this time of the year - drink too much and watch an old movie - a 1978 whodunit - Death on the Nile.
Wednesday 26: Taking the local ferry across to Elephantine Island I visit the ancient ruins of Abu but there's little to see and I end up spending most of my time sitting in one of the riverside restaurants trying to spot bird life and watching the feluccas (sailing boats) gliding across the Nile until sunset. I had hoped to remain in Aswan for the whole of the festive season but I'm going to head north to slightly livelier Luxor for the New Year, I'll be back.
Sunday 20 January 2013: I'm back in Aswan to visit a must see, Abu Simbel temple on the banks of Lake Nasser, a four-hour drive south. But today I'm just hopping over to the west bank to check out Aswan's Tombs of the Nobles. Refreshingly, non-flash photography is allowed and I tackle the tombs in chronological order.
Tomb of Mekhu & Sabni (# 25 & 26)
A double tomb for a father and his son from the time of 6th Dynasty, Old Kingdom, pharaoh Pepi II, about 4,300 years ago. Prince Mekhu was killed in battle in Nubia and the colourful reliefs show Sabni, his son, avenging the older man's death.
Tomb of Sarenput I (# 36)
 A large tomb from the reign of 12th Dynasty, Middle Kingdom, pharaoh Sesostris I, around 3,950 years before present. The vault is undecorated inside but reliefs cut on the outer wall, behind the outer pillared courtyard, depict Sarenput with his dog and wife, on the opposite wall a queue of flower-bearing concubines approach the seated governor. Heaven indeed.
Tomb of Sarenput II (# 31)
The grandson of Sarenput I, he governed Upper Egypt during the reign of 12th Dynasty pharaoh Amenemhat II, about 3,900 years ago, and his tomb is the most striking of the group. The access corridor, lined with six statues of Sarenput in side niches, leads to a four square-pillared burial chamber with a deep recess painted on each side with scenes from Sarenput's family life.
Outside, views from the tomb path back down to the Nile and beyond are a pleasant fresh-air diversion between the stuffy tombs.
Nubia Museum

Tuesday 22: Again, with non-flash photography allowed, the Nubia Museum is a real highlight of my visit to Aswan. I just love the early non-pottery stone bowls (how did they do it?) and small copper chisels used to carve rock as hard as granite, yes this was all the ancient builders had. Sightly later statues too - marching Nubian warriors, goddess Isis suckling a baby Hathor, god of wisdom Thoth in the guise of a baboon, a super head of 25th Dynasty black Nubian pharaoh Taharka, a near complete statue of the great builder Ramses II and an almost perfect black stone-carved image of Hathor, goddess of love. In the side-hall there are several mummys saved from the lands now beneath Lake Nasser. A mummified goat and the exquisite guilded-golden face of a nameless princess stand out among them.
Wednesday 23: A short stroll behind the Nubia Museum is an ancient quarry where a huge pink-granite obelisk remains in place. Flawed and discarded in antiquity you can still see how it was excavated. They slowly pounded away at the hard rock with slightly harder black cobblestones to produce deep channels on either side. This must have taken an age - but how the hell did they plan to move such a massive column without snapping it?
Slideshow of Aswan.

Friday, 25 January 2013


Sneferu's unusual Bent Pyramid
Friday 21 December: A handful of miles south of Saqqara is the bleak desert landscape of Dashur where two later, Old Kingdom, stone-built pyramids still survive, both constructed by 4th Dynasty pharaoh, Sneferu, around 4,600 years ago.
Bent Pyramid
Sneferu's architects built the bottom-half of this smooth limestone-clad structure at the same steep angle as Zoser's earlier step pyramid. But following the collapse of a similar pyramid at Meidum they were forced to complete the top-half at a reduced building angle, thus producing the misshapen 'Bent Pyramid'.
Red Pyramid
Lessons learnt, Sneferu's builders started again and constructed the whole of the Red Pyramid at the same shallow angle as the top-half of the Bent Pyramid. Perfectly symmetrical and a joy to admire the Red Pyramid remains the world's oldest true pyramid. The fine-quality limestone cladding was removed in antiquity exposing the red masonry beneath that gives the Red Pyramid its name. The steep entrance tunnel leads down through two anti-chambers to the amazing high corbelled-ceiling of the burial chamber where, it's thought, Sneferu was interred. It seems hardly surprising that he would have chosen to be entombed here rather than within the uglier double-sloped Bent Pyramid nearby. 
Slideshow of Dashur

Wednesday, 23 January 2013


Zoser's stone stairway to heaven
Thursday 20 December: I'm in Cairo, Egypt's capital, a teeming north African city of 20 million inhabitants and today I feel like I've bumped into all of them. Chaos, uncertainty, infrastructure breakdown, dust, dirt, cigarette smoke, noise, air pollution, horn after horn pumping loudly, market traders shouting, bus televisions and taxi radios blaring. But, warts and all, I like this city. Popping down to Tahir Square I take a look in on Garden City House, an old British archaeologists hang-out that I know well, then I return to Cairo's magnificent colonial-style Ramses station to book my sleeper berth south to Aswan. As much as I like Cairo it's getting cold in the evenings and there's likely to be violent protests this weekend, so this is just a short visit. 
Friday 21: For all map-makers out there, not surprisingly, Mubarak metro station has changed it's name but at other stations down the line the name 'Mubarak' has simply been crossed out, not yet replaced. I'm taking the cheap and surprisingly clean Metro (92nd mode of transport) southbound to Giza Station and, once there, I find myself sitting in one of those noisy taxis, radio blaring, driver chain-smoking, but I'm happy, I'm on my way to Saqqara.
Step Pyramid
My reason for travelling to this remote spot, southwest of Cairo, is that I want to to see the Step Pyramid, or Zoser's Pyramid, the world's earliest cut-stone structure. Also it's the world's oldest pyramid, built in 2,650BC (nearly five-thousand years ago) by 3rd Dynasty royal architect Imhotep as the tomb for his pharaoh, Zoser. In Old Kingdom Egypt royals were normally buried in underground vaults marked only by a mud-brick mastaba but Imhotep originated two innovations. Firstly, he used quarried stone as a building material and, secondly, he constructed a pyramid-shaped structure with it. This was a colossal step both in tomb design and also in project management. This innovation heralded not only the construction of all of Egypt's later architectural wonders but many other pyramids including the world's newest and Europe's highest, London Southbank's glass-clad skyscraper, The Shard.
Interestingly, despite much research over many years, the location of Imhotep's own tomb remains a mystery. Don't you just love it? I've been here before, years ago, but since then several new discoveries have been made and I'll soon be coming back to investigate them.
Slideshow of Saqqara.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Egypt: Dahab

Laid-back backpacker's haven
Tuesday 18 December: The slow ferry docks at Neweiba, Egypt's gulf port, at 5:00am - that was quick. But, we are kept on board for a further two hours until the customs officers arrive, it's not the ferry that's slow! Eventually I get a shared taxi south to the laid-back beach resort of Dahab where independent travellers are still the rule rather than the exception. The restaurant-lined beach is back-dropped by the desolate desert mountains of the Sinai Peninsula, and the Bedouin run compound-style Golden Star Hotel is my kind of place, I'll stay a couple of days.
Slideshow of Dahab.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Wadi Rum

Lawrence's desert vista
Monday 10 December: From Aqaba, Wadi Rum is an easy, if brief, day trip (the last bus back is at midday). So I take the 7:00am bus to ensure that I have time for a two-hour trek up to and around the Seven Pillars of Wisdom rock outcrop.
During the 1917 to 1918 Arab Revolt, British army officer TE Lawrence used Wadi Rum as an operations base and much of the epic movie Lawrence of Arabia was shot on location here. You can just imagine Lawrence's ragtag Arab cavalry charging the fleeing Turkish troops across the desert sands.
Slideshow of Wadi Rum.

Thursday, 17 January 2013


Jordan's duty-free Red Sea resort
Saturday 8 December: Aqaba's a short bus ride from Wadi Musa and it's a surprisingly enjoyable place to relax for a few days. It's a duty-free zone with a laid-back secular atmosphere, bars, a castle, peddle boats, glass-bottomed boats, cheap liquor stores and a friendly hassle-free, almost cosmopolitan atmosphere. I like it. It's good base to visit Wadi Rum while waiting for a visa from the Egyptian consulate, north of town.
Tuesday 11: I've been staying in Moon Beach Hotel next to the promenade and castle, which is fine, but today I'm moving to Darna Village, a low-key resort along the Gulf of Aqaba coast towards the Saudi border. It has a pool and the beach, away from town, is better. I am tempted but it's a little cold for a swim.
Thursday 13: Back at the Moon Beach I now have a six-month multi-entry Egyptian visa (only 15JD) which was turned around in a day by the friendly consular staff but it took me a day to find their new small backstreet office. I also have a ticket (47JD) for the slow overnight ferry to the Sinai port of Neweiba across the Gulf of Aqaba, in Egypt. This also took me a whole day to organise: the Aqaba to Taba ferry is return only and the fast daytime ferry to Neweiba no longer runs.
Sunday 16: Changing my array of Jordanian dinars to Egyptian pounds I wait for an age for the midnight ferry to depart. More comfortable than I expected we eventually leave at 2:00am.
Slideshow of Aqaba.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013


Petra's rock-chiseled beauty
Wednesday 5 December: Approaching the ancient entrance to Petra you first pass two buildings on your left, one atop the other. The upper, Obelisk Tomb, clearly shows both Eastern and Western influences with a Graeco-Roman style niche in the centre of a row of Egyptian-like obelisks. Below, the chambered Bab As-Siq would have been used as a feasting hall for the Nabataeans, the caravan merchants, who settled here and created this great city. These are just a hint of the wonders to come.
The main ancient entrance to Petra is through The Siq, a deep, narrow and twisting gorge a mile or so long. Feeling hemmed in by the soaring cliffs and water channels on both sides I eventually get a glimpse through the crevice ahead and then quite suddenly, The Treasury, Petra's rock-chiseled beauty, looms up before me in all it's splendour. Elaborately carved by 1st century BC Nabatean craftsmen, the sandstone still glows honey-red in the morning sunlight. Petra's rock-hewn facades are not particularly special, the geology is a little better, but what makes the place come alive is the combination of the two, almost as awesome now as it would have been to visiting caravanners 2,000 years ago. Can you imagine their reaction?
From here the main track leads past more facades, past the impressive Roman influenced rock-cut theatre, through the crumbling city, and up 800 rock-cut steps to the  of the hilltop Monastery, well-worth the effort. From here it's back to look at some of the colonnaded tombs and caverns before hurrying back, before the chill of dusk, to the British run Saba'a Hotel in the centre of nearby Wadi Musa, the dormitory town for Petra. It's a good choice.
Thursday 6: The curse of World Heritage status, Petra is an expensive site to visit, it's 50JD (about £50) for the first day and 5JD for subsequent days, but only if you are staying locally. Day-trippers, mostly from Israeli package-holiday resorts, pay a whopping 90JD entrance fee for a short visit.
My second day is even better, and armed with a pack lunch, I have the whole day. It's great to get away from the tourist hoards. Scaling the rugged outcrops and clambering through these wonderfully sculptured sandstone chambers, streaked with all the colours of the rainbow, glistening gold, is simply sublime.
Slideshow of Petra.