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Zhu-Zhu, Sphynx, Tuts Mask and Tomb Raider
Rating: (4.9) (72 Votes)

Cairo and Luxor, Egypt
Tuesday, April 12th, 2005

Pros: Treasures of Tutankhamun were incredible
Cons: Touts

Factoid 1: The Great Pyramid of Khufu (built in 2570BC) remained the tallest structure in the world until the building of the Eiffel Tower in 1889!

Factoid 2: The percentage of Egyptian girls aged 16-19 who said that a wife needs her husbands permission for everything = 89% ... 'Egypt Almanac' American University in Cairo 2003

Quote of the Day: "Very big!.....Very old!..." camel owner at the pyramids

Arrived in Cairo to 13 degrees - chilly! Cairo museum with the treasures of Tutankhamun, 400year old mummies, pyramids of Giza for the all important camel ride, stella beer & kebabs before heading south to Luxor, for several days of temples, tombs and culture.

Nitty Gritty:
Having had our airline tickets reissued a matter of hours before we were due to fly, we thought we were home and dry.....until we got to the airport....we were not allowed to board the flight as we had no yellow fever vaccination document - ours had been in our bag that was stolen. After an agonising wait, and after scrutanising our police report of the theft, we were escorted to a medical room, where after hearing our story, we managed to come to an arrangement with the medical officer - pay her $80 and she would reissue us with vaccination cards, without having to have the jab again!

The flight to Cairo was via the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, where most of the planes were those of the UN, and a number of aid workers got off the plane. It took ages for our plane to recieve clearance to take off and we were kept amused by a family of three from Americas deep south who complained non stop about the delay and anything else they could think of - the words 'why didn't you stay at home' sprung to our minds.

It was great to be met at Cairo airport (the hostel we had booked provided this service if staying 2 nights with them) as the flight was over an hour late and it was gone 11.30pm local time by the time we arrived.As we sped through the suburbs to the downtown area we were amazed at how clean Cairo is and how beautiful some of the bulidings are. The downtown area is very Parisien with small squares/roundabouts with tall thin bulidings with shutters and balconies. The hostel was in one of these bulidings and occupied a large apartment, our room overlooking the street with a small balcony and great value - could have done without the hard sell for tours of Cairo at midnight though.

Breakfast was included and we ate it on our balcony watching the street life below - the garlic vendor, with his horse cart piled high with ropes of garlic bulbs, the gas vendor, with bottles attached to his specially modified bicycle and banging the bottle with a metal object to advertise his wares.

It had been only 13 degrees when we'd arrived last night, but had warmed up by the morning (which was just as well as we'd sent most of our cold weather gear back to the UK with R's mum) as we set off for Cairos Ramases station to book tickets to Luxor, in the south (the man at the hotel had wanted to charge us $20 to book the tickets for us!). We could not believe the difference between Nairobi and Cairo, the obvious difference being the skin colour and religion, most Egyptians being Muslim. No more fried chicken and chips, this was the domain of the kebab and G would spend the next 3 weeks in search of the perfect kofta kebab - indeed he has eaten so many so far that I think he'll go into withdrawal when we leave.

The rest of the day was spent in the wonderful Cairo museum where we fought the tour groups to get into the place in the first place and hired a great little audio tour which helped us to work out what to see first out of the huge collections of antiquities that are housed there. Most of the tour groups only spent a few hours there so it didn't take too long before we had much of the place to ourselves. The collection that kept drawing us back time and time again was that of Tutankhamun. R can still remember seeing some of this when part of the collection came on tour to the UK when she was very young.

The mummy collection was fascinating - a collection of 10 or so kings and queens, wonderfully preserved and difficult to believe they are 4000 or so years old. Some had complete sets of teeth and hair, some still curly and the skin shrunken but still intact, as was the muslin cloth that wrapped the bodies. One even had flower garlands covering it and these looked like modern day dried flowers. Amazing.

In another part of the museum was yet another example of how clever these ancient folk were - a clock, the first known example - a marble or alabaster bowl with holes drilled in it and it would have been filled with water , each level representing an hour of time. Small glass vases with long necks, made by moulding glass around a rod to enable to anable the first long necked vases to be produced without the need for the glass to be blown.

Animal mummies - pets to accompany the pharoah to the afterlife, food for his journey, votives and sacred animals. There is even evidence of a mummified elephant! Model boats, to aid the pharoah to the afterlife, complete with minature men rowing, a toy farm with spotted cows, similar to todays fresians to amuse the pharoah on his journey.Boomerangs, somewhat later and independent of the Aboriginies.Hyroglifics and carved reliefs of a scene of pounding grain - the hyroglifics translating to something like 'make sure you pound it fine - I'm already doing all I can!'.

The treasures of Tutankhamun were incredible - 4 huge boxes that fitted together like russian dolls, in which the 3 sarcophagi were found and inside these the mummy of the king with burried with 143 objects including the famous gold and lapis death mask. The treasures found in the tomb are mind blowing - the jackal god Anubis (god of death) sitting on top of a huge box which carrying handles like a paloquin, golden thrones, board games, an ornate alabaster canopic chest containing the internal organs of the deceased pharoah.The outer layer of the mummy being secured by an elabourately inlaid decorative binding.

There was an impressive room of ancient jewellery including a 5000year old gold and turquoise bracelet of small vultures heads - exquisit - a gold shell used to hold black kohl for the eyes.Wonderful.A fabulous sculpture of a priest with a bald head and amazingly realistic facial features - lines and folds on his face, in smooth granite.

All of these wonderful things we mulled over and enthused about whilst supping the local stella beer at a great local beer hall close to one of Cairos universities and again, amazingly Parisien in feel. Locals were playing speed chess in one corner, a man was shining shoes whilst patrons had a tea or a beer, students and lecturers discussed this and that.

The following morning we tucked some pizza into our bag and took a taxi to the Pyramids of Giza, unbelievably close to the Cairo suburbs. Our taxi driver earned his tip by fending off a tout who tried to get him to go to the enterance close to some souvenir shop or other - the police have done much to stop the vendors / touts from entering the site to improve things for the tourists who were there in their thousands, but there were still some wiley types behing the toilet block whispering to you to have your photo taken in a Laurence of Arabia outfit.

We were both a bit disapointed by the pyramids close up, but they looked majestic from a distance. Being pretty expensive to go inside each, we opted for the largest, Khufu, which consisted of a steep climb , bent double at times, through a tunnel, to reach the inner sanctum.Huge blocks weighing an estimated 2 tons each slotted together without the need for cement, quite incredible. 2 vents allowed fresh air to enter - hard to believe this amazing monument was 4500years old. Our visit coincided with a Japanese tour group who delighted us with their 'Ahh!, owwwrrr! etc in their quiet way.

A huge boat used to transport the sarcophagus to the pyramid and burried along side it for use by the pharoah to reach the afterlife is on display in a museum close by. The boat whilst impressive to see, was a bit to over restored for us and indeed looked a bit too like a reproduction rather than the real thing.

The third pyramid, the smallest of the three, shows a scar down one side where an attampt to dismantle it was made over the ages - only a few blocks had been removed and this represented 8 months work.

The police had a harder job with the touts over the far side of the complex and we were besieged by men on camels and horses eager to take us for a ride (in body and wallet). After a bottle of cold water from a very charismatic old Bedouin man on a donkey (the donkey's saddle bags contained iced drinks), we negotiated for a camel ride ending up with Zuzu the male camel who G liked the as he seemed to be well looked after and had furry ears and muzzle. We both hopped on his back and after much giggling we set off for one of the distant sand dunes for an impressive view of the pyramids. Zuzu was very obliging and R got to steer him - G was having trouble and suffered from camel legs for the rest of the day. Our Bedouin camel man was eager to take photos of us and kept the camera poised for that perfect shot - pitty most of the shots had us headless!The pollution ravaged sphinx was a bit of an anticlimax especially as it shows the scars of sevarl bad restoration attempts.

Culture starved for the last few months, we opted for a change of scene at the Mr & Mrs Mahmood Kahlil museum. For us this place was a little jewel. A private collection turned into a museum and housed in the family home, a wonderful french looking mansion on the banks of the Nile, we were the only visitors so it felt like our own private gallery (wishful thinking). The Khalil's had been art collectors and Mr Khalil was president of the local art society. Over three floors was housed 10 Rodin sculptures, a Gaugin, a wonderful Van Gough, Degas, Monet, Pissaro, Renoir, Ming & Ding dynasty vases, a wonderful collection of Chinese inlaid snuff boxes etc etc. We couldn't stop raving about the place and we were able to view the collection on our own as there was no one else there - shame we weren't able to take bags in.....From the museum (next door to the prime minister's residence) we walked back to our beer hall across the bridges that span the Nile - strange to think we were rafting the source of the Nile a few months ago.

G, having a voracious appetite for books, had run out so we hopped on the Cairo metro to one of the northern suburbs to a book market where we managed to stock up on some G had been wanting to read. Unfortunately R started to feel unwell so the rest of the day was spent sleeping and it was touch and go as to whether to take the train to Luxor tonight or delay it.After several hours sleep and a lamb kebab, the train it was and very luxurious it was too - like business class on a plane, with huge reclining seats - quite comfortable, pity we didn't manage to sleep.

Arrived in Luxor at 7am and let a tout take us to a cheap hotel - it was really hot, even at 7am. Much of Luxor was really touristy, although we were tucked in the old part of town. Luxor musuem had a much smaller collection of antiquities than in Cairo and they were beautifully dispayed. The hightlight for us being a small exquisitely carved ebony sculpture of a pharoah with wonderfully curly hair and fine features and a pleated skirt.

It was simply too hot to wander around in the heat of the day, so it was a perfect excuse to go back to our room and sleep / read until dusk when we set out to visit Luxor Temple which was illuminated at night and G partilcularly liked the avenue of small sphinxes which at one time would have been 3km long - he irritated R my shouting sphinx in a way only he can for the rest of the trip whenever a sphinx homed into view!!!!

The following morning we set out in a taxi for the west bank of the Nile and the hightlight of any trip to Luxor - the amazing tombs of the valley of the kings and queens. As it was so hot, we opted to spent 2 days looking at everything rather than a whistle stop tour that may prevent us remembering anything. We started at the valley of the nobles which for us had the best tomb paintings we saw. The colours were so fresh it was hard to believe they were 3000years old. One had a famous relief of 3 beautiful female musicians, another a man carrying fish from a pole slung across his shoulders, a butcher with ducks hanging from a rafter above his head, a priest wearing a leopard skin. We were very distressed as few of the tombs had perspex to prevent people touching the reliefs and as the ceilings were low and painted, nothing to stop heads scraping the ceiling. Although there were guards, a little baksheesh would allow the unscrubulous to take a flash photo.

There were so many people at Hatshepsut Temple that we felt like we were in a theme park - didn't really like that feeling and got very distressed seeing people on tours touching the reliefs and sitting on ancient relics and scraping their back packs against the stone.

The Valley of the Kings was a very impressive sight - very Indiana Jones and it was easy to imagine the excitement of tomb discovery. Our ticket allowed entry to 3 tombs, the famous one of Seti I being closed whilst the powers at be work out how to protect it from tourists. Those we did see were wonderful, the best being the small tomb of Ramases I with wonderfully intense figures and vivid colours and a rickly painted ceiling. We liked the tombs so much that we returned to see 3 more (well 2 more as we revisited Ramases I) a few days later.

Karnak Temple, also in Luxor is huge, added to by various pharoahs, the most amazing part for us was a huge hall containing 134 huge ornately decorted (with hyroglifics) columns that would once have held up a huge roof. The tops of the columns were shaped like flowers and remnants of the paint used to colour them was visible. Many of the images of pharoahs had been chiseled away by successors, keen to obliterate images of previous kings.

Not feeling too much like zooming arounf Egypt trying to see too much, our final trip outside of Luxor was to the temple at Edfu, about 140km south of Luxor on the banks of the Nile. For ease, we opted to take a taxi which mean't an early start as we had to tavel in a tourist convoy - for our protection - we felt somewhat like sitting ducks though, as any selfrespecting terrorist knows what route the convoy starts and at what time. Our driver was directed to be second in line behing the leading police car, but drove slowly so that we had a few tour buses overtake us.

Edfu, a relative youngster, being only 2000years old had some impressive carved reliefs and the outer walls were carved with some huge figures and was definitely worth the trip.We finished our Luxor trip by returning to the west bank to the valley of the queens - only actually 1 tomb of a queen and 2 of princes, a few more temples and the tombs of some of the workers that had built and decorated the kings and queens tombs. Some of these were wonderfully decorated too, one with fresian looking cows, a worker lying on a bed shaped like a lion being tended by the Jackal god Anubis, a figure with draped in a leopard skin with the head looking over his shoulder,and another with a roof design of cow heads.

The BBC were in Luxor filming and the producer gave a lecture about the series they were filming - q 6 part doco drama to be screened in September dramatising the stories of Tutankhamun and Howard Carter who found his tomb, Cleopatra and the breaking of the hyrpglific code, and Ramases II.Really interesting stuff.

We had at last found the perfect kofta kebab in Luxor at a small local restaurant - kebabs, bread, dips, fruit juice.Mmmmmm. …