Monday, 2 June 2008

Travellers in an antique land

There's two main reasons why Westerners go to Egypt - the ancient ruins, or the beaches in the Sinai Peninsula. Geeks that we are, we were there for the former - though as Lauren wrote earlier, turns out when the temperature headed upwards from 30 the appeal of lazing around by and in the water became a lot stronger!

But anyway, the history. It's awesome. Our tour began in Cairo, with the step pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, the oldest standing structure built by humans. Hearing that made me tingle with history geek happiness.

Saqqara, where the ancient Egyptians developed the most amazing technology of all - making Coke with zero sugar.

Next up was the step pyramid's most famous descendants. We've already stuck up a bunch of pics of us and our faithful camels Michael Jackson and Moses, but I couldn't let this entry go without putting up this.
After getting our fix of big triangles (and the Sphinx, which was a bit underwhelming. Asterix comics led me astray on how big it is.) it was down to Aswan in the other end of Egypt.

The overnight train was ... memorable. Kind of like a long haul flight, but with Arabic ringtones and a guy with drinks coming up and down the aisle every quarter of an hour or so. The words "chay, chay, coffee, tea, Cola Light" will haunt us forever.

Outside the train, Egypt passed by. Palm trees, mud brick houses, the domed pastel tombs of imams. Men and women in grey or brown robes tending fields of stubbly grain. Skinny cows, oxen, the odd camel or horse. Donkeys. Many, many donkeys. The desert. And, of course, the Nile.

Looking out the window, you realised just how utterly crucial the river is. It's all that keeps the country going. Beyond the river and the tiny belt of fertile land it supports, there's nothing but stone, sand, dust and heat, all the way to the sea.

One of the other things to hit you in Egypt is how poor the place is. There's plenty of wealthy people there, but the glory days are long past. It's worst in the slums of Giza, right next to the Pyramids, where kids watch over flocks of goats grazing on rubbish dumps. Everywhere you see piles of rubble, and the ugly, unadorned apartment blocks, that are the next generation of wreckage. The countryside is usually prettier - all those palms - but not much richer. Aside from the pickup trucks and sattelite dishes, things probably looked much the same in the days of Saladin.

A country village

Egyptians seem a cheerful, friendly lot - appreciating their sense of humour is crucial to spending time in the markets without biting someone's head off - but when you look at the future, I'm not sure how much there is to smile about. Simply put, there's too little land and too many people.

Still, there's always that history to take pride in. From Aswan we headed back up along the Nile to Cairo, stopping off at various awesome temples along the way. There was Kom Ombo, then the best preserved one in the land - Edfu.

Spot the guy in the Netherlands football team shirt.

Luxor though is the ultimate for ancient Egypt addicts. Our guide said it has one third of the archaeological sites in the world. Bliss. The highlights were:

The painted walls of the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, and Temple of Hatshepsut. These really gave you an indication of how beautiful the other temples must have been before the paint wore off.

Best of all, the stupendousness that is Karnak. Man, those guys thought BIG.

All the temples and ruins in the desert brought to mind one of my favourite poems, Ozymandias. Especially Abu Simbel, one of Ramesses II's many monuments to his ego.

Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

But two of my favourite memories of the place have nothing to do with old stone. First, there was watching the European Cup Final in a coffee bar with our guide, three tour friends and a horde of young Egyptian men. Talk about atmosphere. I've never been anywhere where they yell Allah! Allah! when someone misses a penalty.

Mohammed, Juan and Juliana enjoy a quiet sheesha before the game.

The other is when I wandered away from the main bazaar in Cairo and found myself in a market where only the locals go to shop. The traders didn't depend on tourists, so there was no hassling to get you to buy some cheap souvenier. People asked where you are from, with no motive other than curiosity. Everyday life. I hope they have more to smile about soon.


Sarah said...

Awesome. The Black Land, and the Red Land. Interesting comment about there being too many people, too little land. Before the dams on the Nile, the annual inundation created more of the Black Land for the people to subsist on. Also noticed your comment about the tombs being painted bright colours - Roman statues were always painted with bright colours, they didn't look like they do to us today. Did you know that the Great Pyramid at Giza used to be surfaced with smooth white limestone, with a gold pyramidion at its apex? You wouldn't have been able to look directly at it in the midday sun!
Okay, history geek lecture mode finished: I miss you guys! Sounds like you're having a wonderful time. :)

Lynda said...

Great work.