Monday, 18 March 2013

Dashur and Memphis

Red Pyramid at Dashur
Thursday 28 March: Hiring a car with driver for the day (E135, about £13) we first head to Dashur to see the Old Kingdom's Bent Pyramid, the perfect Red Pyramid, and the Middle Kingdom's damaged Black Pyramid which the armed guards won't let me approach. Memphis Museum is all that is left of the great capital city of Memphis. The reclining statue of Ramses II and the Memphis sphinx are potent reminders of a monumental past.
Slideshow of Dashur and Memphis.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Islamic Cairo

Mamluk style Sultan Hassan Mosque
Wednesday 20 February: Walking east from Garden City I soon reach the backstreets of Islamic Cairo and the small Mosque of Sarghatmish. Stopping to look in through the window I'm ushered in to the small, quite attractive, Ottoman style courtyard and encouraged to climb the minaret. From the top there are great views towards the Citadel and down over the magnificent neighbouring Mosque of Ibn Tulun.
Ibn Tulun Mosque's simple Addasid style curves and lines are reminiscent of the great Persian mosques in Iran. Built around 1,130 years ago sultan Ibn Tulun it is the oldest mosque in Cairo. Well restored today you can climb the spiral minaret and access the roof for even better views over the dusty Cairo skyline, great.
Wandering through the narrow lanes eventually I find my way to the green and peaceful oasis of the Citadel View Restaurant in Al-azhar Park. It's an expensive lunch stop but, the pleasant vista across the park towards the Citadel, eases the pain.
Tuesday 26: Back in Islamic Cairo, the ornate Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan, built 650 years ago, is regarded as the best example of early Mamluk architecture in the city. From here I climb up to the hilltop fortress that was home to generations of Egypt's sultans, the Citadel. Saladin started building it 837 years ago as a defence against potential Crusader attacks from their Holy Land stronghold. It was subsequently enlarged by the Mamluks before it fell to Napoleon's troops and subsequently, when the French withdrew, into the hands of an Ottoman soldier, Mohammed Ali. A lieutenant in the Turkish army Mohammed Ali's rise to power was both swift and brutal. On 1st March 1811 he invited the Mamluk beys to a banquet in the Citadel in honour of his son's impending departure to Mecca. When the feast was over and the procession of mounted Mamluks, dressed in all their finery, rode towards Bab al-Azab gateway the gates slammed shut. First gunfire rained down on them and then Mohammed Ali's troups waded in with axes and swords to finish the slaughter. No Mamluks survived. He went on to destroy most of the Mamluk architecture in the Citadel and replace it with the Turkish style multi-domed Mosque of Mohammed Ali that still dominates Cairo's skyline. Today the Citadel is a large complex filled with mosques, old palaces and mediocre museums.
Walking back towards Downtown Cairo I stop for a kushari lunch (a mixture of rice and various noodles topped with lentils, tomato sauce and crispy onions) before visiting the Blue Mosque and adjacent house.
Wednesday 27: The Museum of Islamic Art is interesting but no photos.
Slideshow of Islamic Cairo.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Old Cairo

Coptic Cairo's Hanging Church
Sunday 17 February: All the trains from El-Minya to Cairo are full so, avoiding a police escort, I go to the small but chaotic Upper Egypt Bus Company bus station where a grumpy ticket seller points me to a seat. Two uneventful hours later all the people around me suddenly rush to the ticket booth. Fortunately I decide to join them and mange to fight my way to the tiny window for a (E£30) bus ticket to Cairo. Just one hour out of El-Minya the back of the bus fills with acrid smoke and we stop by the roadside. Two hours later a replacement bus arrives.
I'm not concerned as I have a reservation for the Juliana Hotel in the leafy Garden City area of Cairo, a short walk from the Corniche, just behind the British embassy. But, when I eventually arrive I'm told "We're full, another guest has decided to stay an extra night". Tired, hungry and angry I'm directed to the nearby New Garden Palace where my room initially seems fine but at bedtime I discover that the crumpled bedsheets have several pubic hairs between them none of which are mine. Knackered I unpack my sleeping bag. Not a good day.
Monday 18th: Returning to the apologetic Juliana Hotel I inspect my room carefully: crisp clean sheets, spotless bathroom and floor, patio door to an airy balcony, a large fridge, cable TV and breakfast delivered each morning to your room (E£61, about £6 a night). I like it so much that I extend my stay to a fortnight.
Sunday 24: To Egyptians Old Cairo runs from Garden City to Coptic Cairo, the historic centre of the Coptic Christian community in Cairo. To get there I walk south along the Corniche, past Manial Palace across the river, where I'm surprised to spot a colourful Hoopoe feeding on the riverbank. The Church of St George is closed for refurbishment but the Hanging Church of St Mary, built on top of the old city's Roman water gate, is open and very atmospheric.
Slideshow of Coptic Cairo:

Monday, 11 March 2013

Tel Al-Marna

Tel Al-Marna's Nile valley panorama
Friday 15 February: Based at the comfortable Akhenaten Hotel in the Nileside resort town of El-Minya I take a taxi (E£70) to the rock-cut tombs of Beni Hassian, not great (no photos).
Saturday 16: Around 3,350 years ago heretic pharaoh Akhenaten set up his new city and centre of Aten worship at Tel Al-Marna. A hard-haggled taxi for the day (E£115) runs me, via the Nile car ferry, to and around the spread out site. For security reasons I'm not only accompaied in the taxi by the key guardian but also by an armed soldier. I've never been a Lada before (96th mode of transport).
Destroyed and recycled by subsequent rulers there's not a lot left to see at Tel Al-Marna. Strictly no photos inside the cliff-cut tombs, but great Nile valley views.
Slideshow of Tel Al-Marna.

Thursday, 7 March 2013


Journey to the afterlife
Wednesday 13 February: Back in Luxor, only two Cairo bound trains a day stop at the small station of El-Balyna and as a foreigner I'm not really supposed to board these slow stopper trains. But I buy a 2nd class ticket anyway (E£26) for the three hour journey north. I'm guessing that El-Balyna station won't have have a sign in Roman script so I try and memorise the Arabic version. It looks like an elongated "W" followed by a tall squashed "w," followed by a separate "I" which I know means "El" (Arabic reads right to left), plus a few dots scattered around for good measure. Three hours later as the train slows I spot an El-Balyna sign, jump off the train and flag a tuk-tuk (E£25) for the half-hour ride to Abydos. Good, I've avoided a police escort.
I'm staying in the House of Life, a quirky mostly half-built spa style hotel, where later I talk to a young French couple who arrived with a full police escort. They've had police in tow since leaving Dendera, forced to take a taxi with the officers to Qena station, accompanied by them on the train to El-Balyna and then brought here by taxi. I guess the pair are considered potentially at risk due to the French government's intervention in Mali. This is a strong Muslim fundamentalist area of Egypt and until fairly recently it was off limits to tourists. Ever prepared, I have a stash of Stella beers in my rucksack.
Thursday 14: Abydos is the mythical burial site of the god Osiris who became ruler of the netherworld and symbol of eternal life. The cult centre for the worship of Osiris, it has been an important burial site ever since and contains the mastaba tombs of several of Egypt's 1st dynasty pharaohs from around 5,000 years ago.
From the rooftop of my hotel, the original Old House of Life, the temple's row of chunky square limestone columns almost make it look new but the surviving structure was built by Seti I and completed by his son Ramses II (the Great) around 3,300 years ago. Once inside the two hypostyle halls the reliefs are vibrant and colourful, amazing. More important to Egyptologists is the Gallery of Kings which is carved with the cartouches of all the pharaohs from the 1st to the 19th dynasties making it a vital historical document. However, the 18th dynasty cartouches of the unpopular female pharaoh Hatshepsut and heretic pharaoh Akhenaten have been mysteriously omitted. Behind the temple is another mystery, The Osireion, a submerged columned chamber constructed of great blocks of granite.
A local taxi takes me to the station at El-Balyna where I board the train to El Minya, four-hours north. It's full so I end up standing most of the way until a kind young Muslim guy offers me his seat which I reluctantly accept, I'm a guest in his country.
Slideshow of Abydos.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013


Red Sea snorkeling frenzy
Tuesday 5 February: From Luxor's scruffy little bus station, just south of the train station, it's a five hour bus ride (E£40) to the Red Sea resort of Hurghada. Templed out, I'm in need of some sea and sun. So, away from the package tourist strip, I check into the Four Seasons Hotel at Hurghada's Dahar beach. Two minutes from the sea, the bar next door has a happy hour for both food and drink that coincides with the timings of the Six-Nations rugby matches this weekend, perfect.
Friday 8: Most of the beaches are private and the public beach isn't great so I take an all day snorkeling boat trip, a chance relax and sunbathe on deck. The modern launch (95th mode of transport) is full of Swedes and Russians and at our first stop we dive along an offshore reef then, after lunch, land on Giftun Island's soft sand beach to paddle and sunbathe. Both stops are so crowded that I'm surprised there are any fish around. It's all a bit too organised for my liking but as lunch and a Stella beer are thrown in it's fantastic value (E£100, about £10 for the day).
Sunday 10: Happy hour lasts for three hours with half-price meals and bottles of Stella at E£7.5 (about 70p a pint). I'm the only customer watching the rugby and Scotland claim their first win in the championship which makes me even happier. Goddess Hathor is clearly smiling down on me, joyous intoxication.
Slideshow of Hurghada.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Dendera: Temple of Hathor

Temple of sensual goddess Hathor
Friday 18 January: Today I'm  taking a 2nd class train (E£18) north from Luxor to Qena (pronounced Kena), the nearest station to Hathor's cult temple, a three-mile taxi ride (E£25) further north, at Dendera. Hathor, the goddess of love and sensual pleasure, has been worshipped here since ancient times but, by Egyptian timescales, her temple is new.
Completed by Roman emperor Tiberius about 2,000 years ago the hyperstyle hall's magnificent 24 stone columns are adorned on all four sides by Hathor's distinctive features, her beauty only slightly defaced by Christian fundamentalists in later times. Out of reach of the Christian's wrath the ceiling retains well preserved scenes from the afterlife: colourful barques, a multitude of gods and cartouches against a powder-blue background. Deeper into the temple in the older inner sanctuary there are more reliefs of Hathor, typically depicted wearing a headdress of cow's horns. She was regarded not only as the goddess of love and pleasure but also the first lady of drunkenness and joyous intoxication - my type of girl!
Outside a deep pit filled with lush palms is all that remains of the once beautiful sacred lake but the temple's stout exterior walls remain decorated with lion-headed gargoyles and at the rear there is a large relief showing Cleopatra VII with, Caesarion, her son by Julius Caesar. Near the exit, next to an undamaged face of Hathor, is a relief of the grotesque dwarf god Bes who frightened away demons thus protecting women during childbirth.
Returning, I flag down a purple & white taxi from the end of the drive for the (E£20) trip back to Qena and a reasonably comfortable 3rd class seat (E£2) for the one hour journey back to Luxor. 
Slideshow of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Edfu: Temple of Horus

Cult temple of falcon god Horus
Tuesday 15 January: Taking a 1st class seat (E£32) south from Luxor my train soon arrives at Edfu the jumping off point for the cult temple of the falcon god Horus. A two mile taxi ride (E£10) over the Nile bridge and I arrive at the temple entrance. Falcon god of the sky Horus has been worshipped here for more than 5,000 years but the current temple is relatively new and was completed by Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy XII, just 2,070 years ago. Classically designed, the twin pylons are decorated with reliefs of Ptolemy XII smiting his enemies. The gateway between them, leading to the great court, is flanked by granite statues of the great god Horus. Beyond this a further pair of statues guard the entrance to the columned hypostyle hall with further reliefs beyond.
Now that I know the route, I walk back through town, follow the promenade north, cross over the Nile bridge, take steps down to the riverbank and follow the riverside track back to the station for lunch and an, only slightly less comfortable, 2nd class seat (E£7) for the hour long journey back to Luxor.
Slideshow of the Temple of Horus at Edfu.