Most people go on vacation to relax, which often requires disconnecting from reality entirely. Being wired that way, they are able to enjoy runaway resorts and places where all you do is sleep. Alas, my brain won’t accept anything of the sort: if you want me to stand still in daylight, with nothing to do, […]
Most people go on vacation to relax, which often requires disconnecting from reality entirely. Being wired that way, they are able to enjoy runaway resorts and places where all you do is sleep.
Alas, my brain won’t accept anything of the sort: if you want me to stand still in daylight, with nothing to do, you’ll have to fucking kill me.
Even if you take me on one of those traditional vacations, which has been known to happen, I avidly drink everything I can from my surroundings, and the relaxing trip turns into an emotional journey through awe, bewilderment and, often, social rage.
My last trip to Egypt hasn’t been any different.
I scheduled a set of 7 posts on this blog with the proposed schedule of our trip before my departure, primarily as notes to myself and as a guide to friends who were curious (and concerned) about my trip, but I spoke nothing on the emotional side of this journey, of what it meant to me, and what I saw was barely visible through my daily activity on the Instaplace.
Now I’m back, and now is the time for all that.
Going back to the Middle East
I was anticipating a difficult journey, emotionally speaking, for mainly two reasons (leaving out a third, being purely intellectual in nature):
1. I haven’t set foot in the Middle East since the wedding of a friend in October 2016, and not properly since around 2011: the place meant a lot to me, both personally and professionally, and I knew it was going to be tough returning for such a short span;
2. my friends are fucking killing each other.
Now, let me elaborate on the last point.
I’m pretty active on TAFKAT (The App Formerly Known as Twitter), and people have been rather vocal over there in claiming intellectuals have to take sides when it comes to the ongoing war. Regardless of the pressures, I have refused to speak anything about it, as I know people on both sides, and some of them are still unaccounted for.
As much as I’m glad that some writers have the mental clarity and culture to have this all figured out, I can’t claim the same.
And since I can’t speak anything sensible on the matter, I’ll leave the job to those who know better. People who spent a lifetime trying to understand the delicate (im)balance of that place, and people who are living this on their skin. People like this heartbreakingly talented kid.
Now, the atmosphere in Egypt wasn’t as nearly as tense as you might expect. Except for some additional caution on Fridays at the airport — a caution completely understandable considering the whole “day of rage” thing — both civilians and the military were extremely relaxed with tourists, even friendly, provided of course you behaved as a tourist is expected to: discreetly and with a good dose of disingenuous absent-mindedness. Mind you, I know what might happen if you travel to Egypt with a different kind of agenda.
Still, my time in Israel taught me not to take this kind of behaviour for granted.
I do not condone a military regime, but I’m grateful my friend didn’t have to witness any hostility.
No, I don’t have any picture of the local military: I’m not an idiot.
In this light, I was able to dive back into the happier times I spent in Jerusalem, bonding with both Israelis and Palestinians. The night we spent through the Bab El Nasr gates, drinking tea and smoking on the historical roof of a coffee house, nearly brought me to tears.
this guy was freaking hilarious.
If you’re wondering what is this thing you’re watching, it’s a traditional dance called tanoura (literally, to skirt), coming from the ancient dervish tradition of Sufi whirling. Originally a meditation technique, the dance was allegedly introduced by the scholar, poet and philosopher Jalal al-Din al-Rumi around the XIV Century, and turned it into a folkloristic dance in which the acrobat twirls to music and words that can be either religious excerpt from the Qur’an or a mix of Quranic verses and classical poetry known as Tawasheeh.
I have zero idea of what is being said in the video, and I’d appreciate it if anyone could figure it out, but the dance is evocative enough to figure out what the artist is languishing about.
Another place that brought back memories was the Khan el-Khalili bazaar (see day 2). Not because of the glasses or the brass lanterns, or the spices and trinkets you could buy. Certainly not for the people who approached you trying to sell you stuff, and I didn’t have the time to get into a shop and engage in a more meaningful conversation as I used to do in the intricate streets spanning from the Jaffa Gate to the Western Wall.
It was the tiniest of things.
After a brief tour through the streets of the Suq, we accepted the tour guide’s invitation to sit down at an indicated cafe and have a drink. Having waken up at 5, it was a Turkish Coffee for the both of us. While we were sitting there, under the vigilant look of an elderly Muslim who didn’t like my shoulders when I attempted to remove my shawl, a man approached us, holding a round sugared bread with both hands and offering it to me. Of course, you have to take it. Of course, you have to eat it. And that’s the Middle East for you. That’s the Mediterranean for you.
If you can’t see why it means so much that he offered, and why it’s so important that you take it and eat it, then I suggest you do yourself a favour and stay at home.
But enough about me and my feelings
I’m sure you’d rather see me talking about the monuments and landmarks we saw, right?
Well, you’re in for quite a surprise, but here it is. My personal top 10.
10th place: the Horus Temple in Edfu
Why is this placed last? Well, it’s not that I didn’t like it, but it’s a bit too recent for my taste. The temple comes from the Ptolemaic Era, being built between 237 and 57 BC, and the guide made an effort to connect it with the history of Cleopatra so that we might enjoy a bit of lighter storytelling. Still, it didn’t bring out too many emotions in me.
For more technical information, please refer to the day 6 schedule post. Instapost here.
The building stands with an impressive facade, and many people added to it, as it was traditional throughout the Middle and New Kingdoms. Alas, as I mentioned on the Instaplace in relation to the Temple of Isis in Philae, the Christian Copti made an effort to chisel away significant portions of the decorations, with particular emphasis on the Goddess Isis. As you might know, early Christians appropriated much of the Egyptian iconography, particularly when it comes to the enthroned Isis carrying her child Horus.
During the European Middle-Ages, the temple was mostly submerged in sand and mud, and people were living in a narrow space between the new ground level and the temple’s ceiling. Since they were using torches and lighting fires, the sign of this occupation is still visible in the form of a black coat of soot on the upper side of the columns and on the ceiling. Amazingly enough, the white paint used for the starred sky that’s typical of a Temple’s ceiling was able to withstand all of that, and is still visible if you look hard enough.
The sanctuary chamber is occupied by the replica of a boat used to carry the god Horus during festivals, and it’s impressive enough (if only people didn’t insist on blocking the line to take selfies with the Falcon god, but more on that later).
The falcon Horus is the son of Isis and Osiris. He was dead. She was a falcon. One of the most famous myths of ancient Egypt tells he will grow up to challenge his uncle Seth and win back the throne of Egypt. The story has a political undertone, Seth being the chief god worshipped by Palestinian invaders who took control of the Delta region around the XVII Century BC, the Hyksos. They were eventually chased away by Ahmose I, founder of the XVII Dynasty. The act was significant enough to mark the beginning of the New Kingdom.
Aside from the Sanctuary, I have to say that the side chambers were more impressive by a long shot. Lots of the inscriptions and decorations had escaped the Copti’s iconoclastic rampage, and a particular significance holds the chamber of ointments, densely inscribed with what has been translated as recipes and formulas for extracting perfumes. According to our guide, the French archaeologists translated this stuff and stole the secret of perfume-making, bringing it home.
Yes, modern Egyptians still have it in with the French for the Suez Canal, and you simply cannot blame them.
Special mention to the Bat-Cave, where dozens of little critters were sleeping upside down, and they could only be bothered to squeak when I cheerfully pointed at them.
Another special mention to the guy who thought it a good idea to sell Hippopotami at the gift shop of the Edfu temple: the hippo is the animal sacred to Seth, and he tries to turn into one when he sees that the battle against Horus is lost, so it’s a little bit like selling little Devil statues at the gift shop next to a Church.
9th place: the Valley of Kings
This was part of our very long tour on Day 5, one of the two toughest days in what has rightfully been defined a cultural journey more than a vacation.
I knew one couldn’t possibly see all the tombs in the valley, counting more than 65 burial sites, but I wasn’t prepared to see so little. We could see just the Tomb of Ramesses IV (KV2), the archetypical tomb from the 20th dynasty, the Tomb of Ramesses IX with its massive stone sarcophagus, and the Tomb of Meremptah. I took out an additional ticket to see the tiny tomb of Tutankhamun because I read Howard Carter’s book so many times as a kid that I couldn’t bear the idea of not seeing it.
Still, there are so many things to be seen. If you want to have an idea, I suggest you take a look at this excellent post.
Special mention to the guy who thought it would have been a good idea to let people tour the valley on colourful balloons, as it makes for a stunning sight.
8th place: the Temple of Isis in Philae
I completely overlooked this while looking at our schedule, and you won’t find it in any of the daily posts. It was done on the morning of day 7, the same day of Abu Simbel. Instapost here, where you can read the first portion of my rant against monotheistic religions and their fixation on not minding their own business. It’s worth including it here.
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The temple is (re)positioned in a suggestive position on the small island of Philae, and it is charming to reach it by boat, provided you don’t mind the eccentric local custom of using your boat to push other boats away from the pier while the tourists are boarding.
The Temple Complex is placed in the reservoir of the Aswan Low Dam, also known as the Old Dam, placed around 6 km downstream from the High Dam, and it’s worth mentioning that this is not the original island: Old Philae was placed near the First Cataract of the Nile, a place that often subjected the monument to flooding and other water damages. The International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, which also took it upon itself to relocate the temples at Abu Simbel, dismantled the temple and moved it to the nearby Agilkia Island, where it can be seen now.
Philae was considered to be one of the burial sites of Osiris, and it was forbidden ground for anyone but the priests, earning it the title of ἄβατος, the Unapproachable, amongst Greek historians such as Strabo. Allegedly neither birds nor fishes dared to approach its shores.
The Temple of Isis is the most prominent feature of the complex, built during the reign of Nectanebo I (380-362 BC), founding pharaoh of the XIII and last local dynasty. Many of the other ruins date back to the Ptolemaic Kingdom, with the exception of a shrine to Amun built by Pharaoh Taharqa of the 25th Dynasty. By the time the Greek came and built stuff, the site was not a forbidden place anymore and it was a pilgrimage destination, mostly connected with motherhood and midwifery.
When the Copti took over, they built a shrine and inscribed the site with crosses, after defacing and vandalizing the temple’s features (with all due respect for the Vandals, who were a respectful civilization in comparison). The temple was closed down in 537 AD, following an order issued by Justinian I, and this conventionally marks the end of the ancient Egyptian religion. Some lingering clandestine worship carried on throughout the VI Century.
7th place: Kom Ombo
Taking place at the end of day 6th, our visit to the Kom Ombo temple was blessed with a beautiful rising moon.
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The site is dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek, god of fertility, and to the rest of his family: his wife Hathor and their son Khonsu. As I mentioned in my Instapost, crocodiles were a central element in the worship of this temple, and a problematic one, as you might imagine. The god Sobek wasn’t considered a particularly approachable guy, as you might guess, therefore the temple was balanced with a mirrored side, consecrated to another triad: a manifestation of Horus, a manifestation of Hathor, his original wife, and their son Panebtawy, lord of the two lands. This makes Kom Ombo a dual temple dedicated to a pair of triads. That’s six of them, in case you’re weak at math.
Inside the visitor’s centre, you can see some of the mummified crocodiles recovered from the site, a testimony of the particular habit of trying to domesticate those crocodiles who might find their way into the Nilometer chamber through the adduction channel. Fun times. Fun times indeed.
Alongside the mummies, some votive tablets and shrines complemented this peculiar place of worship.
6th place: the Luxor Temple
Yeah, it’s only sixth place. Don’t get me wrong, the place is as stunning as you might expect (technical details already shared in my day 5 schedule), with its obelisk by the massive entrance, the statues of Ramesses II and all that jazz.
It’s amazing to see all the different stratification through time, as many Pharaohs gave their contribution to the temple over hundreds of years and were forbidden to destroy what had already been built and accepted by the god Amun.
The Great Colonnade Hall lives up to its reputation, being almost 61 meters long, and its 28 columns give you the impression of walking through a petrification of history itself. The temple is also one of the few things accomplished by poor Tutankhamun in his brief life, as he undertook a massive decoration project around 1330 B.C. in a vain attempt to prove he wasn’t going to reinstate his father’s attempt at monotheism.
By the end of the corridor, Alexander the Great thought it a good idea to install his own shrine, dedicated to himself, his brother and a guy with a massive dick.
I guess everyone has their own priorities when it comes to worship.
5th place: the Sphinx
I mean, it’s the fucking Sphinx. You can’t say you didn’t like the fucking Sphinx.
I find it absolutely hilarious that the human visage placed on top of the lion’s body, allegedly carved out of the remains of a local stone quarry, is supposed to be the face of King Khufu, the guy who built the Great Pyramid in the background. The only other statue that allegedly represents him, it’s 7 cm tall, and it’s possibly the tiniest one in Egyptian art. A guy of extremes, no doubt.
4th place: the Karnak Temple
I totally underestimated this one. The place is huge, and it would take a whole day to see everything properly. Alas, we barely had one hour.
Again, what’s impressive is the amount of people who worked on the main complex, adding facade upon facade and prolonging the temple’s axis. The first facade you see is the last one built, and it’s incomplete: it was started by the last Pharaoh of the last dynasty and never completed. There’s reason to believe that construction would still be ongoing hadn’t the New Kingdom fallen. I have to empathize with a perennial construction site.
We entered the temple when a nearby muezzin was reciting the adhān, the call to prayer, and it was an immensely magical moment, tainted only by some ignorant compatriots of mine who were complaining that the chant was bothering them. Again, I don’t understand why people do not stay at home.
The avenue with the ram-headed sphynxes is only the last portion of a 3 km road connecting Karkak to Luxor, originally flooded and travelled by boat but later paved to allow the procession of Amon to take place also by foot. According to our guide, the journey took Amon to the temple of his wife, and they only saw each other once a year, and that’s why their marriage lasted so long. Classic.
Inside the more recent facade, you can still see a piece of the mud ramp used to build the wall and support it during construction. It hasn’t been removed, also because I have the feeling the unfinished facade portion isn’t that stable. Few things are more challenging than building a straight, self-supporting wall, you know.
Begun by Seti I and completed by Ramesses II, the Great Hypostyle Hall certainly is the main feature of the temple complex, and it’s an absolute beauty. One hundred thirty-four columns supported the roof, arranged in 16 rows, with the middle ones being higher than the lateral ones in order to allow windows to be created in the height difference. A thing not uncommon in Romanic churches.
The great obelisk beyond this point was erected by Hatshepsut, the woman pharaoh, and it’s nearly 30 m in height. In the (vain) attempt to erase her from history, later pharaohs would gladly have taken the thing down, but they couldn’t. A piece of a temple could not be destroyed, whatever the reason, unless you were ready to anger the Sun God. And they weren’t. They tried to block the view of the obelisks by constructing a wall around it, and you can still see the difference in colour where the tip continued to bathe in the sun, regardless of their efforts. Yes, it pisses me off that they tried.
Another splendid feature is the Sacred Lake, basically the priests’ swimming pool, but it was way too hot, and I had way too little time to circumnavigate it and take a proper picture overlooking the temple.
3rd place: the Pyramids
They will tell you they’re overrated. They will pretend they were not an emotional sight. To all of that, I reply: BULL-SHIT.
Everything about them feels right. The light, the material, the position, the precision in shape. And no, I’m not about to say they’re so perfect they were built by reptilians: if you’re genuinely curious to understand how they were managed, and you’re not asking just to waste my time, I suggest you start by reading some basic book on ancient geometry such as the excellent String, Straightedge, and Shadow by Julia E. Diggins. I briefly mentioned it here.
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There’s no fucking way you can wander around and not wonder whatever the hell was going through these people’s minds.
You wonder how much of an asshole Khufu had to be, as he has you climb up corridors narrow enough to make your knees ache for days, and that’s not even his actual burial chamber: the real one is being studied right now, following the discovery of more passages, and it could be in such a treacherous position that its digging might make the whole structure collapse. He’s been dead for 4589 years, and he still manages to be an asshole. What a role model.
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You wonder how much of a clever jerk his grandson Khafre had to be, when he decided he wasn’t going to build a bigger pyramid in front of the first one. No, no. He was going to build a slightly smaller one (it measures 136.4 m, against the 146.6 m of the Great one) because it’s not elegant to enter into a rivalry with the dead. And he was going to build it behind the first one. Oh yeah. Except his pyramid is placed in a higher position — on bedrock that’s 10 m higher, to be exact — and it slaps you in the face in all its brightness as you turn around the corner.
I’m partial to Khafre also because of his granite statue at the Cairo Museum.
Take a good look at that profile.
And then there’s Menkaure, my personal favourite.
No one will ever convince me that he thought this whole pyramid thing was demodé, kitsch, improper. But people insisted you just have to build a pyramid, everyone that’s someone builds a pyramid, so he eventually yielded. “Alright, let’s build this fucking pyramid if y’all insist, but I want it small.” How small, you ask? 65 metres. Less than half the Great one.
“But sire!” protested the royal architect, “We already carved all the stone! What are we going to do with all the rest of the stone?”
The Pharaoh shrugged, already halfway out of the room. “You do you, man. Make pyramids for my wife, if you wish: they’ll make a nice present for Hathor’s Day.” And off he went to have a beer.
History will eventually prove me right.
2nd place: Saqqara
That’s right: if I have to choose, I place the stepped pyramid before the so-called “true” ones. Why’s that, you ask? I have a few reasons.
First of all, it’s a professional courtesy to Imhothep, Djoser’s legendary architect, a guy who was surrounded by people building mastabas and must have been an absolute master in thinking out of the box (see what I did here?).
In order to pull off the massive and unprecedented construction, a 1:1 mock-up of the burial chamber was carved and dug just a few meters on the side of the actual site. It’s a thing we still do.
The pyramid is 62.5 m tall, pretty much like Menkaure’s one, only it’s around 160 years older. Just to give you an idea, it’s like comparing the Empire State Building to a construction completed in 1771.
The actual burial chamber under the pyramid is a marvel of engineering: clad in smooth granite, it’s 7 m square and 28 m deep. It’s around the height of an eight-storey building, a respectable residential building of any medium-sized city, carved inside the heart of 330,400 m3 of limestone. That’s around 895,714 tons of fucking stone above your head.
I took a video of the first time I looked down into the chamber, and you can clearly see me invoking Anubis as soon as I realise the thing isn’t ending anytime soon. I had to literally brace myself against the wall and lower myself on my knees till my chin touched the wooden balustrade.
Not bad, for a 4673-year-old construction.
The rest of the burial site is impressive too, with splendid tombs like this one I literally tripped upon while I was searching for something else. It has a mama hippo giving birth to a little hippo right into the mouth of a crocodile! It has an impressively vivid selection of cattle being paraded by people! It has original colours.
I couldn’t find the mastaba of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, the first recorded gay couple in history. But they’re there. And that’s bound to be enough.
1st place: Abu Simbel
Did you see this coming? And let me be perfectly clear: when I say Abu Simbel is my number one favourite thing I saw, I don’t mean to say it was better than the other monuments. I simply mean to say that the pyramids in Giza left me in awe, the Saqqara pyramid shook me in a way very few buildings can do, but the temple in Abu Simbel made me cry.
I cried in front of the Gardaland temple.
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It’s hard to describe why this place made me so emotional, and I won’t pretend the relocation effort doesn’t play a part in it. The collective, international effort. Italian craftmanship and ingenuity that’s still being recounted by tour guides to people from all over the world. The incredible result.
Still, it’s not just that. I would have cried in front of the High Dam, if it was just that.
It’s the temple itself.
As I wrote in the instapost, this is a place where you can feel in on your skin and breathe through your lungs a straightforward fact: Ramesses II must have been batshit crazy, and he wanted everyone to know. This is a place built by a man who fought and loved fiercely, a man who blazed through history and wanted to leave a deep, scarred burn. And there are many “firsts”, in this temple as a testament that he wasn’t messing around, but two are the things that caught my attention most.
The first is the vibrant, utterly modern way he wanted to be represented in his war effort. And you have to remember that this is propaganda, as the battle of Kadesh here represented wasn’t a victory but a stalemate only to be resolved through a political marriage.
The second thing is more romantic in nature.
According to recent datation, the guy lived up to around 90 years. Allegedly, he sired between 88 and 103 children, and had eight wives. But his favourite, the first of the Great Royal Wives, was Queen Nefertari, an educated lady who was very active in diplomatic works while her husband was busy kicking asses. It’s one thing to say: “You’re my beautiful companion” (the actual meaning of the name Nefertari). It’s another thing to say: “You’re the most beautiful among women” (by some considered a more accurate translation). Mediocre guys might be content to say: “I love you.” Not Ramesses II. No sir.
The temple he built for her is one of the greatest love gifts in architecture, up there with the Taj Mahal, and it says: “I want everyone to know you’re the goddess of love incarnate, the new manifestation of Hathor, and you’re my equal.”
You might consider the last part to be a stretch. And yet, no other Royal Wife had ever been represented at the same height as her consort. No other Royal Wife will ever be for centuries to come. It’s such a giant leap, such a bold break from the artistic tradition, that you could hardly expect the man to do anything more than this. And it’s probably his most heroic effort.
There would be so many things to write, so many tales to tell about this journey, but this post is proving to be long enough already. Still, I need to include another couple of things that aren’t monuments, and I wouldn’t know where to place them in a hypothetical ranking.
The blooming desert
Trees and forests do not move me, but I’m always emotional about deserts. Their brutal beauty, their everchanging nature, their extremes.
The Sahara desert has a particular combination of black stone, sharply broken as shards of shattered glass, and fine sand hovering on top of it, like icing sugar softly blown on the surface of a pastry. Oh, and it’s green.
You heard me right.
A colossal irrigation effort is taking place near the border with Sudan, and you can see the result below.
The smooth Nile
The sea is fine and all. A lake is good. But give me a river, if you really want my attention. And the Nile is *the* river.
Smoothly riding on its surface, you feel like you’re retracing history with a wet finger. Everything turns green in your wake, and the desert looms at the back of reeds, the sun burns bright orange as it slides down fast, almost falling along the slippery dome of the sky like an egg yolk. Only the African sky will give you that.
Crossing the Dam
We didn’t actually see this part, it was late at night and I was sleeping, but I promised my friend I was going to look for a video so here it is. Do you know how a sluice lock works? I can’t embed it here, ’cause it’s a fucking short and I swear the next platform that tries to imitate the Tick Tick Tock Of The Stately Clock will drive me away from them all. I can give you a picture, though. Pictures are good. Pictures don’t have sound.
That’s all folks
There would be many other things to tell. How I had the best falafel ever near Saqqara, for instance, and how that’s something you should never ever tell to a Middle Eastern waiter unless you want to drown in extra food. Or I could give you an idea of the horrible state of poverty people in Cairo find themselves in, with half-built and half-collapsed lodgings in the very centre of the city, and piles of garbage accumulating on rooftops. Or I could talk a little about the Dam.
For now, you’ll have to settle for this selection.