Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Land of Ozymandias (Pt. IV) — Slow Life in Aswan: January 18-20th

One of my warmest memories of Egypt will always be my time in laid-back Aswan.

Located in the extreme south of Egypt on the spot where ancient Egyptians believed the Nile was born out of a mighty spurt from the ground, the sleepy city of Aswan competes strongly for the title of best tourist town in Egypt. For any visitor coming to see the iconic temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, Aswan is a necessary stopover, but it is so much more than a place to pass out between sweaty tours. Thanks to its easy-going Nubian heritage and the scorching sun above that complicates any concerted effort outside, Aswan moves lugubriously like the lazy Nile alongside it. A chilled-out evening on one of the many riverside restaurant terraces has one watching felucca captains effortless maneuver their wooden vessels gracefully through the mighty granite boulders and isles that segment the waters. Hookah (Sheesha to you Europeans) gets started up upon nightfall and the beer—yes, there is beer aplenty—fuels the relaxation well into the eve. Furthermore, the locals are true to their humble roots and seem to be the least pushy folks in all of Egypt. The hawkers may even treat you like a real person!

If that doesn’t have you sold, the attractions around Aswan will. The plethora of tombs and temples in the environs of the town are absolutely worth a detour, including the ones at Abu Simbel, Philae, and the monastery of St. Simeon. It may not have the overwhelming archeological selection that Luxor has upstream, but it certainly makes up for the lack of places in terms of quality. Plus, it’s worth it to see the area’s monuments for the simple fact that they were all to be destroyed by the Aswan high dam and Lake Nasser, and were only saved through the inestimable efforts of an international UNESCO team in the 60’s. The temples and monuments were meticulously taken apart, stone-by-stone, and reassembled on high ground in the exact forms of their originals by archeologists collaborating together from all over the world. This success of international cooperation alone is enough to see places like the island temple of Philae.

The Journey South:

I got to Aswan by taking a 60 USD per-ticket night train south, which included but not drinks nor demanded tips from train personnel. This issue was actually quite a thorn in my side on the trip; each cabin is serviced on the Cairo-Luxor-Aswan sleeper train by ingratiatingly servile men who are literally trained to not look you directly in the eye without bowing and nearly whispering with reverence. You feel disgusting when addressed like this, as if you just beat the shit out of the fellow and he’s deathly afraid of round two. But it’s all a big ploy for them to get tips from you, and my attendant asked “What do you want for me?” at the end of the trip in an effort to indirectly get me to cough up change. I had nothing left (true story) so I gave nothing! Despite this, the train was a comfortable choice, although I had no other because the other passenger trains had been shut down due to a massively fatal train crash in Giza two days prior.

Aswan Highlights:

Abu Simbel: this awe-inspiring rock-cut temple of mighty Ramses II, featuring four mega-scale seated figures of the pharaoh and the gods, was originally built to scare the bejeezus out of invading African tribes from the north so much that they’d turn back home rather than face the colossal Egyptians. After being re-discovered in 1814 by an Italian traveler who saw the tip of the far-left head peeking out from under a sand dune, it became a hit tourist site. 150 years of Graffiti from careless visitors marks the torsos of the figures and parts of the interior temple, but the general beauty and pure strength that the structure communicates are totally intact. In the 60s, the site was moved to a man-made rock face to save it from Lake Nasser, and the movers did a damn fine job keeping it the way it is. I personally loved the temple to Ramses’ wife, which had much more intricate carvings than her husband’s!


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Nearly every hotel and every tourist agency offers trips which start in the early morning (3:30-4:00) and arrive at the site around 7:00. Tourists are given a few hours to mosey round the main temple and that of Ramses’ favorite wife, Nefertari (Not to be confused with Nefertiti), and then the buses return to Aswan in the late morning. Tickets to the site are not usually included with the transport cost.

Philae: located on an island surrounded by Lake Nasser, this graceful temple provides repose from the hustle and bustle of an Abu Simbel morning. To get to the island, you need to pay 25 EP and get a private boat there. My travel mates and I haggled hard to 20 pounds for five people, but as a condition of the low price we only stayed on the island for around 45 minutes.
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The temple, dedicated to various gods like Hathor and Osiris, has a unique asymmetrical layout and is fun to wander through sanctuary to sanctuary. One of the fascinating aspects to notice about the place is the brutal iconoclasm of early Christians, which destroyed many of the reliefs and left rough crosses carved into the limestone walls. However, I discovered a sweet carving of a monkey-dog playing a lute in the temple to the arts, and the huge-columned Kiosk of Trajan will forever change your perception of just how big a kiosk can get. I would have preferred a full hour or one-and-a-half to see everything, but I made do with the demands of our jilted boat driver.
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St. Simeon Monastery: this early Christian monastery is the real deal when it comes to seeing the tranquility and roughness of monastic life in the desert. Although the structure is in ruins, its picturesque location and solitude really communicate the spirit that early Christians sought to better ponder God and Jesus.
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The Ins and Outs of Visiting St. Simeon (And other tales):

It’s an unvisited place with crappy winter hours—only open until four—and transport there is a little more complicated than for other sights. I met up with a German friend named Martin and we took a swift felucca from the eastern bank to the western in about 25-30 minutes. The ride was awesome as we got to glide in between the currents of the Nile and the imposing boulders that are strewn about in it; felucca captains use a zig-zagging method of movement down the river to catch unfavorably-directed wind and use it to push the boat in the right direction. Our captain, “Nimo”, advised us to get back before it got dark (Jackal zombies, most likely), and upon landing we jumped out and trekked up purposefully the path towards the monastery.
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The mud-brick complex sprawled across the empty wastes of the desert. It looked so cool. But it was all closed up. Damnit! However, we didn’t despair, and I found a low-level wall that my friend and I could jump over and we more-or-less broke in. Despite the questionability of this, we were both rational lovers of history and thus any damage to the site would be unthinkable to us. I wandered around on my own through some chapels, hermit cells, and the soft darkness of the main hall. The second floor was inaccessible, probably because stomping around in a 1600 year-old mud structure is inadvisable. Yet it was all really fun to silently admire, even though medieval Arabic graffiti is splattered all over many surfaces. In one place, the marauding Arabs never looked up (haha, stupid-heads!) and the original frescoes of saints remain on the 8 foot-tall ceiling remain intact.

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We mounted a crumbling perimeter turret to watch the sunset and then got out without a soul seeing us from nearby. As hardy kindred adventurers, we decided that a saunter cross the desert back to the ferry loading point a few kilometers north of where our felucca dropped us off would be a most enjoyable idea. So we marched on over dunes and across an empty tract, before scaling the muscle-aching incline of a large hill covered in sand. Dripping with sweat, we got to the top and were struck by the marvelous view of Aswan in the fading dusk light, with the lazy Nile below. It was a great climax to an awesome day. On the way down, the going got bumpy as we were without lighting devices (Oh, that’s what the felucca captain was talking about) but we at least could go towards floodlights placed on the hill by the tourist authorities to illuminate some rock-cut tombs. These tombs also received a short visit from us, and I must say they looked deliciously evil with bats flying around in the dark and the pale crescent moon above.
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We later caught a ferry and chilled out at Saladin restaurant, smoking hookah and discussing Western and Egyptian cultural differences, along with a pinch of linguistic chat thrown in there. Martin introduced me to the ugliest word I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear, which is “cuckoo clock” in some variety of Swiss German. There is not one but three iterations of guttural throat sounds in the word, giving it resemblance to an emphysematic’s dying cough.

And that was just about it for my time in Aswan. The next morning I ran around the city looking for feluccas to take me to Luxor like how people went the old days, but no cheap and quick ones were to be found so I settled for a luxurious two night Nile Cruise that shall be lauded in the following blog post. So, if you’ve gotten thus far, thanks for reading and check in soon for the ins and outs of my Death on the Nile experience without the death!

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The Land of Ozymandias — Pt. III (January 16th): The Big, Four-Sided 3D Triangles of Giza

A trip to Egypt without the Pyramids of Giza is like a stand-up routine without jokes. Nothing can really justify a holiday in this crazy country and the long haul necessary to get here without the experience of these colossal humblers. As the world’s oldest continuously-visited tourist attractions, the Pyramids have withstood four millennia of concerted sandblasting and opportunistic looting to keep humans stroking their chins in wonder. And the sight of these glorified tombstones is enough to make a moderner stop and ponder with envy: why can’t I have my own army of drafted laborers build a man-made mountain for me?

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It’s frankly amazing that something built two thousand years before the ancient Roman Empire, something that was already an antiquity in Antiquity, can still inspire a tremor of alien fascination in the hyper-stimulated mind of today. In the Era of Glowing Rectangle Love, every bit of larger-than-life entertainment we could possibly want is coming at us at blinding speeds through the internet and the myriad of electronic gizmos that surround us, and within this bubble it’s possible to encapsulate yourself in a fantastical dream-state of never-ending artificial enjoyment. As a victim of this, I can attest that it doesn’t take long before reality begins to shrink in its grandeur. CGI effects and intricate video game graphics inure us to mind-blowing scenes that would shatter the perceptual worlds of our forebears, and watching New York get ripped apart by cosmo-robots wielding skyscrapers for truncheons is something we don’t even blink at. Because of this, perhaps the most awe-inspiring fact of the Pyramids is not that they are simply enormous or venerable, but that they can still cause us, We the Attention-Deficited of the Future, to say, “Wow!”

Okay, some of you may want that inevitable grain of salt about it all. It’s not all perfect, sure—nowadays the Pyramids are being encroached on by the bacterial urban sprawl that Cairo has vomited all over its western bank, and the pollution can occasionally make them invisible. And that’s just the beginning; while you are struggling to reconcile the city’s proximity to the Pyramids (right up to the eastern lip of the complex, in fact), you will assaulted by hordes of souvenir and camel ride touts whose shameless brazenness will leave you speechless as they clean out your too-polite pockets. My story, told from the perspective of a lone backpacker, will illustrate the struggles quite clearly for you, but I can’t iterate enough that the Pyramids are 100% worth a solid visit.

First Stop Dahshur: The Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid

The day I visited the monolithic trio, I began by taking a taxi (225 Egyptian Pounds) down to the pyramid field of Dahshur. This place was my primer for the real deal and I’ll remember it as one of my journey’s definite highlights. It’s located about 35km southward from Cairo and features two excellent examples of pre-Giza pyramids that stand as benchmarks in the development of pyramid architecture. As a refresher for all you who just started reading, Egyptian funerary monuments developed from mastabas—designed as underground burial chambers overheaded by rectangular mud edifices—to pyramids in the course of a few hundred years during the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods (3100 BCE  – 2181 BCE). Both of the pyramids at Dahshur—the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid—are in pristine condition and have the smooth sides that we all know and love. Plus, they are totally out in the empty desert, permitting you a much more authentic and tourist-free setting than what you’ll find at Giza.

I first hopped up a wooden staircase on the Red Pyramid’s north face and got in by descending a tiny diagonal chamber that takes some sturdy legs to move up and down quickly. The interior of the pyramid has about three chambers, two of them high-ceilinged corbel vaults, and the last one being the half-caved in burial chamber. I would say it’s all in great condition and worth a peek, but it is breathtaking how insufferable the smell is that permeates the structure—literally. Be warned: the Red Pyramid has the odor of an ancient piss-trap, splashed over by gallons of tourists and localites’ urine with no drainage system of cleaning apparatus to deal with it all. I saw one suave-looking European fellow and his guide spend approximately two minutes glancing around before fleeing back to the surface for fresh air. However, I suppose that if you can deal with the reek of urea, the inside is just as charming as any other pyramid’s!

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After a few photos of me and the red-colored outside, I hit up the Bent Pyramid and walked a counter-clockwise circle around its huge base. This pyramid is named for its sides, which don’t stay straight but break to an odd lower angle about halfway up the structure. Along the way, some bored police officers toting rusty AK-47s on patrol caught up with me and helped take some photos. One of the wildest things on my holiday happened when I was posing for a shot in the doorway of a queen’s pyramid, and right as the officer was taking the photo, the mother-flipping door I was leaning on broke open and I tumbled down the pyramid shaft. In a matter of seconds I was sliding into inky darkness, luckily on my back facing forward, and I tried to gain control of slide using the soles of my feet. As I quickly flew downward, I caught a glimpse of the sand and rubbish at the bottom of the shaft and thereafter crashed into it with a huge plume of dust. The alarmed police officer called down to me, and after coughing up a pound of mummy particles I notified him of my good health and thanked my lucky stars I was okay. A few minutes later and I had climbed out of the shaft by positioning my feet on the opposite walls to slowly wedge my body upward. When I reached daylight, the officer, still standing there with my camera, chuckled at the sight of me and helped me dust off. Eventually he and his partner wanted a tip for their invaluable contributions to maintaining my safety and their photo-taking, but they kindly let me depart without paying up!

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Onward to Giza! And Surviving the Hawker Trap

Having survived the isolated plain of Dahshur, I was ready for the real deal at Giza. My taxi got me there after an hour-and-a-half of traffic jams northward and I recall taking a pleasant short nap in my reclined passenger seat. But when I awoke, I was unprepared for the incomparable onslaught that is entering the Pyramids. You see, the moment your taxi gets around the illogical traffic circles and their accompanying legions of automobiles into the 400 meter road leading to the northern entrance of the complex, the gauntlet of hawker doom begins. This is what happens. All around you, sprinklings of men, who at first are just standing on the curb looking idle, suddenly come to life at the sight of your taxi—fresh blood—and run towards your car like the starving undead. Then, they nearly collide with the vehicle and run along its sides screaming:

“CAMELRIDEONEHOURMYFRIEND20POUNDSSPECIALPRICEJUSTFORYOUYES!!!”

While you are recoiling in horror from the dirty fingers that are slapping against your window, their masters hungering for your attention, you push the door lock down as fast as you fucking can. But it’s too late: one of them, an extra pushy undead fellow with a hat and greasy black hair, has thrown himself into the backseat and proceeds to tap on your shoulder with a “’SCUZEME ‘SCUZEME ‘SCUZEME”. If you’re like me, you first tell your cab driver to drive past all these bastards, and when he does a shit job of it and now the hawkers have blocked your cab’s way, you simply have to ignore the guy tapping on your shoulder in the back seat trying to get your attention and repeat “LA SHUKRAN” (No thank you) until it becomes as familiar as your first name. To add to the ridiculousness, the fellow pretends to act insulted when you don’t acknowledge his presence past this and says “HELLO I AM HERE”. It’s a surreal game to be a part of. Meanwhile, other hawkers have gotten into fights with each other outside the car and are yelling at each other with accentuated finger-jabbing for unknown reasons.

Anyway, this process repeated itself between 2-3 times more, I lost track, before we got to the parking lot where my taxi dropped me off to buy my ticket. Within a second of getting out, a man had confronted me professing to be an employee of the site, wearing a tattered shirt and a head-wrap, and I brushed him off like all the others. More got in my way but I got to the ticket booth and entered the site without much else happening except for a security officer pushing away the head-wrap guy who was still after me. Once in, on the north side of Khufu’s Pyramid, the chaos of camel ride vendors harassing me for rides started right back up, and at one point I simply snapped and said to one man, “No, fuck off.” The bespectacled fellow got surly and shot back, “Do not say bad things to me or I will say some bad things to you!!!” Whatever, dude. I received more angry comments from those I ignored, some mounted on camels and somewhat hard to get away from, until after about five minutes I had safely reached the eastern side of Khufu’s Pyramid and away from the main cadre of vicious touts. Whew!

Sauntering Round the Pyramids and a Conversation with a Sex Tourist

The complex around the first pyramid, known as the Great Pyramid because it is the highest of the three, was teeming with visitors and it didn’t suit me much; especially after seeing Egyptians illegally climbing on the blocks of the slowly-eroding base, which is now darkened from the grubby hands of millions of visitors every year (A huge threat to virtually every worthwhile monument in the country). So, I took off southward toward the seemingly-bigger and more isolated Pyramid of Khufu. And during my saunter across the emptying sands, the feeling hit me—that wonderful, goosebumpy, and somewhat frightening sense of being dwarfed by the majesty of a colossus. It happens on hikes in high-elevation mountains, it happens when you are on a breaker gazing out over the ocean, and it happened right when I found myself between the two pyramids. With this sensation, I got a huge rush of adrenaline and I was compelled to see the entire site in the measly hour that I had left before closing time at 5PM. My destination was the super-famous picture spot in the southern desert where the most quintessential photos of the Pyramids are taken from.

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I trekked and trekked over the beige land, into the setting sun past the ruins of funerary temples, straggling Egyptian tourists and a few touts before getting to the smaller pyramid of Menkaure, famous for being the unlikely victim of Islamic fanaticism when Al-Malik Al-Aziz Osman bin Salahadin Yusuf, a 12th-century sultan and pipe-dreamed religious nut, tried to tear the pyramid down. He only succeeded in leaving a vertical cut in the north face, more blemishment than an accomplishment. I hopped an enclosure wall surrounding it all and hit the desert proper, happily heading out to the sands that flow into the desert south of the complex. Feeling oh-so-fine, I summited a hill and got my own postcard-worthy pics of myself and the three biggies with the smaller ones of their queens out in front. Heading out there is a must for any intrepid visitor with a good set of legs (or the patience to endure a tout and his camel ride there for an hour). Up on the hill, I encountered a strange Norwegian fellow in his fifties or so with a petite Egyptian girl, maybe 12-15, on a camel ride. The girl was definitely with the white guy as no family members were present, she was uncovered, and she had the same awkward demeanor I’d seen a boy prostitute have at dinner with a fat white guy in Laos a few years back. “Sex tourist alert!” I thought.

Then, the man and I commenced a conversation, in which he revealed he was an active adventurer who had kayaked from Norway to Israel or something crazy like that, and had motorcycled all the way from Alaska to Argentina at one point in his life. Of course, these are definitely amazing accomplishments, but then he went on to disparage America’s “close-mindedness” and delivered a lecture about the evils of the Midwest. Yea, so America is evil and bad and stupid and what not, and you’re just a paragon of European enlightenment by sticking your prick in an adolescent Arab girl driven to desperation for cash by poverty in a country where she could risk her life and future for such an act? Pardon my crudeness, but sex tourists really ought to be more charming to make up for their creepiness, don’t you think?

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Still, that time on the hill was glorious, and I felt like a total boss heading back towards the main site. I ran virtually the entire way, past rock-cut tombs looming eerily in the sunset, as the complex was beginning to ring with klaxons signaling closing time. Fortunately, I managed to take some sweaty-ass photos at the Sphinx on my way out. Running through sand certainly gets those pores open. Then, I had to vault up the modern road that bisects the area and convince a group of security officers to let me through a closed road to the north parking lot. They listened to me pant for a minute and then waved me through, and I got back to the taxi all right.
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Totaling up Two Days of Ancient Fun:

The day was a total success—I saw the cream of the pyramid crop that Egypt has to offer, and I got some great exercise walking and running around it all in the process. Breaking it all down:

  • Financially, it set me back 450 Egyptian pounds for two days of travelling by private taxi and 110 pounds for tickets (Saqqara=30, Dahshur=20, Giza=60). So, around 80 USD—for any enthusiast of large-scale history it’s a fair price, although splitting the cab costs with someone is advisable.
  • Experientially, backpacking solo there was a good choice. I was able to see everything on my own at my own speed, and that allowed me a great deal of comfort and enjoyment with the three pyramid sites. Tours risk being far too fast and stressful for those who want to really feel the vastness of the places that the pharaohs originally intended.
  • Serenity-wise, Giza is a bit of a mess for its hawkers and Saqarra suffers a little from this as well. Dahshur was the best here by far, although I would still recommend checking out Giza despite the partial madness of getting in.
  • Final result: Dahshur and Giza are Musts, although I’d put off Saqarra if you don’t have time to stop there on your way to Dahshur or if you don’t want to be let down by the restoration. Two days is plenty of time, and if you are a real marathoner and can start at 7AM and go till 5PM, all three sites are doable in one day (though I’d avoid it personally).

To all travelers heading to Egypt soon – Have fun going pyramid crazy. I certainly did!

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