Poll Star's Wonderings

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Pyramid photos now added

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Rowley Birkin's Home Town-Cairo

Can't get the photos to load in the airport, so will do that back in blighty. Here's me signing off from Egypt

Day 83 Cairo
So the night minibus was an error in judgement. It was full, I sat at the end of three seats and my neck hurt and I couldn’t sleep. Worse things happen at sea and in case I know that I not meant for night buses. Trains yes, buses no.

I was feeling like I might have a little snooze when I finally got a room just before 10, but then the fun with Glasto tickets kicked off and I was sending texts and checking e-mails to get Sozz some details. So then when I had a snooze, there wasn’t so much daytime left.

I decided to do something a little different and went to the Mr and Mrs Mahmoud Khajil museum. Mahmoud gathered an impressive collection of 19th and 20th century art. Given that he was a noted politician of the 1940s, I was a little concerned as to how he paid for it, but he clearly left it to the nation. I’m not sure it’s that visited as a tout accosted me on the way and told me there was nothing down the road.

The walk was quite odd. Cairo was orange. It had a post apocalyptic feel. The sun was hidden and the visibility was a fraction of what is normal. With the right camera or some paints it would have been very beautiful. There were many people walking around, so I guessed that a bomb hadn’t gone off and it was probably the result of prolonged winds driving the desert into the sky. The desert is surprisingly close to a city of 20 million people.

A few of the paintings in the first room had Egyptian subjects, which was quite an interesting fusion with 19th century European style. There was definitely the feeling of a private collection-furniture, pottery, vases, miniatures and a great tapestry joined the paintings.

I soon came across a Gaugin. I really must find out more about him, as to me he went to the South Sea Islands, painted topless lovelies, shagged anything in sight, then died leaving a lot of half caste illegitimates and raging syphilis. His story convinces more than his painting.

This museum had many things I didn’t expect to find in Egypt. This was best exemplified by a Pissaro of a cricket match in Bedford Park-I’d have been surprised by that in Paris or the Long Room, let alone Cairo.

Two pieces had a room to themselves. This is quite unusual, I can only think of the Leonardo cartoon having similar treatment, but that is more to do with preservation. In a small collection it was a very cool way of giving pride of place. The first one was a Van Gogh. It wasn’t spectacular, but nonetheless it was a Van Gogh-I’ll guess it is the only one in Egypt. Across the hall, the second Gaugin received similar treatment.

Although the big name pieces weren’t top notch, there was an impressive lineup: Rodin, Monet and Degas joined the others. There was a very good room of Millets, which reminded me of my old dissertation on Joseph Israels.

The collection was a in a villa and was a good size: you could contemplate each piece. It was not a showy collection, but it was an enjoyable break for me. Something very different from most of the previous 3 months. A sorbet to clear to palette if you will.

Day 84 Giza
So yesterday I met Bell. Although she’d just flown in from London, despite the fact she’s Australian, we were essentially in the same boat: overnight travel, next to no sleep, early arrival at the hostel King Tut, hoping for the room to be ready. Alas no room. So we’d chatted for a couple of hours, then agreed to have a pyramid fest today. First stop Giza. You’ve probably heard of these boys.

As the car rounded a bend, there they were poking out above the suburb of Giza. It was quite strange. The pyramids predate the Valley of the Kings. They are from the Old Kingdom: Egypt has 97 pyramids, some of which are under mounds of sand. 90% are from the Old Kingdom. I suppose they are a different approach to preventing grave robbing: while the valley of the kings relied on subtlety and hiding the tombs, the pyramids feel more like a fortress. Temples and smaller pyramids for wives were around the main pyramid, but there was no comparison in size.

Before we got to plateau, we saw a poster for the latest Egyptian blockbuster

Motorbikes and Girls. Wasim, our guide, said it wasn’t very good.

We started at the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

This is the Daddy at 146m high, 10m higher than the pyramid of his son Khafre. The latter is the one that still has an amount of its limestone casing near the apex and is on higher ground, so it often looks larger. Had I gone on my own, I don’t think I would have paid the £100 to go inside the pyramid (and as the LP said £150, I doubt I’d gave approached the ticket office). I was glad I did. I have to say I couldn’t figure why you’re not allowed your camera: there are no paintings as in Luxor, just large stone chambers. While there may not be a lot to see, it is an interesting experience to be crouching (short legs good here) your way through something 4,000 years old. The first stretch was cave like: I suspect it was burrowed after the completion as the tunnels and stairs inside were beautifully regular and in one spot the ceiling soared up like a cathedral. There’s relatively little in there, given the size of the construction and essentially we were led to one chamber, although there was a very narrow passageway leading who knows where.

Then onto Khafre, which we didn’t go inside.

before a quick look at what may be the world’s oldest boat.

where you had to wear the old special shoes.

The boys are so big that you really have to stand back to get the overview

where it’s a great spot for silly false perspective photos.

Bell’s camera was better equipped to take them, so I may have to post later on that. With the pyramids’ size, it’s easy to forget the old sphinx.

which is in much better condition than I had expected

It was quite difficult to get photos without the crowds (we’d been fairly quiet at the pyramids, but the coach and school parties were arriving by now).

Naturally I managed to start a trend

A girl saw me and wanted one. Then Bell had one. I thought there was a little tongue in hers. I’m fairly sure there are still queues of people kissing the Sphinx. The Sphinx also provided one last recurrence of a well worn leit motif: the beard is in the British Museum (I think I shall have to blog my visit to the British Museum).

From Giza we headed onto Saqqara and Dahshur, home of the oldest pyramids. The step pyramid is the tomb of Zoser

and was designed by the architect Imhotep, who seems as famous as a Pharoah. Before seeing it I had been confused by the ‘step’ description, as I felt the pyramids at Giza were stepped on the outside. Of course those pyramids were originally clad, so that the exterior was smooth. Additionally, the ‘steps’ at Giza are just one block high. Here we see a design that in more akin to progressively smaller squares laid on top of each other. The shape becomes more pyramidal from the sand and rubble sitting on the steps. It is over 4 and a half thousand years old and is the world’s earliest stone monument. It is history.

There was a considerable amount of building around the step, but I felt most had been over restored. We did make our way into a stunning tomb, much larger than those at Luxor. I hadn’t seen green before and naughtily sneaked a flash free photo.

Finally onto Dahshur, where we went into the red pyramid

The red is the oldest true pyramid (the bent pyramid doesn’t have the shape, neither the step). There are 2 chambers at 12m and 15m high and you get to them down a 63m tunnel, which is long old way bent double on a steep slope.

You can’t get anywhere near the bent pyramid, which is in a military zone. Could you want any more convincing evidence that the pyramids were built by aliens? The shape

is due them having to adjust the construction as it develop stress problems half way up. I guess this was a learning pyramid.

There’s been a lot of talk on this blog about the seven wonders both ancient and new. Partly this is because I’ve visited 4 of each in the past 9 months. Today was the last one for now and I guess I need to declare a winner. You know it’s Petra. Still not been there?

Day 85 Cairo
So. Kinda done it all. At least all I fancied doing. I ploughed back through the book to see if there was anything else that I’d want to spend a day on. There were pages and pages on Islamic Cairo, although nothing that sounded essential. Or even that good. I took a potter round and there were some nice mosques, one stunner (which was too holy for me to be allowed in), some hussle and bustle, perhaps more of a sense of the real Cairo. Had I started here, I think it would have been quite a good scene setter. As I’m finishing here, it felt familiar. I guess it was a farewell.

I had a spot of dinner at a Chinese restaurant I had tried to go to the night before, when I thought it was closed as I couldn’t open the door. Turned out it was a sliding door. First time I’d had a beer on my own all trip, pretty good too. In the lift back up to hotel, I looked in mirror and smiled. What next?

That is a very good question indeed.

Day 86 The US Masters Preview, on BBC 1
Flight’s at 4, so cab at 1, lunch at 12, so not much is going on.

Today is all about Mike Weir winning the Par 3 tournament and being back home in time to see the masters preview.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Playing it safe

I believe Butler's Cabin fell over.

Just as well as I had a cheeky covering (each way) bet on King John's Castle

Dahab take 2

Day 78 Luxor to Dahab/Day 79 Dahab
I have to admit I was a bit nervous about Egypt air. Not so much that I thought it’d crash, but I figured it would be massively unreliable-down to arrive in Sharm as 22.25 with an hour and a bit to Dahab, I wasn’t keen on a delay. I went to their website to check my flight and e-ticket and that started the alarm bells ringing. My e-ticket had the time and date for my flight to Sharm and that flight existed and was on time, but had a different flight number to the one on my e-ticket. The flight number on my e-ticket went to Cairo. You what? So I headed to the Egypt Air office, where the guy seemed to think I was a bit bonkers for questioning it and told me I was going to Sharm. At the airport, all the screens and check in had one flight number, while my boarding pass had a different one, the same as my e-ticket, which was on all the screens going to Cairo. I did get to Sharm, but it was a bit odd and half an hour late.

That wasn’t the only bit of fun in getting out of Luxor. My taxi driver tried to molest me, kept telling me how many hours Englishmen have sex for (compared to 5 minutes for Egyptians-I’m not sure what basis he was using for his statistics), going on about banana, saying ‘strong, strong man’ and pointing at his crotch saying look. I repositioned my backpack and told him to keep his hands on the wheel: my sympathy for women travelling in Egypt redoubled. Proved my point that they’re all queer as folk.

It took me a while to get into the airport. We had some great banter.


‘I don’t have a ticket. E-ticket.’

‘Print out?’

‘No. It’s on my credit card.’ {shows credit card}


‘No. I have a number written on a piece of paper.’ {shows handwritten piece of paper}


Eventually another bloke tried ‘passport’ and this gained me admittance. Of course that wasn’t the end of it. He walked through the scanner in front of me, set it off with his gun, while I didn’t. He turned round and frisked me, goes ‘what’s that?’ and I said ‘money’, ‘give me some’. I quickly tried to calculate how many countries in the world could a man on airport security ask you for cash and not expect instant dismissal. I managed to restrain my response to ‘I’m not giving you anything’. The two experiences made me think that half Egypt would be in jail in the UK. Which led me thinking who is the most famous Egyptian in the UK. It seemed hardly surprising that the man is a shopkeeper with a reputation for sexual harassment, dodgy dealings and talking twaddle. I understand his football are going to be relegated.

Before the taxi driver’s wandering hands had distracted me, I had been rather surprised to feel a bit of a pang as we headed out of Luxor. For all its faults, it is quite a place and they do light it up to good effect at night. I wonder if I will be back: I met a lot of people on Sinai who had been to Egypt before; a couple in the desert and I cannot remember meeting anyone in Luxor/Aswan/Cairo who had been before. The vibe seems to be ‘worth seeing, too much hassle to come back’.

The airport had a couple of final twists. I had a problem finding my gate. This was because gates 9-12 had been laid out (form left to right) 9, 12, 11, 10. With two flights leaving in two hours (40 mins apart), they called both of them (bloke shouts a flight destination across the departure lounge) within a minute of each other. Both need everyone to get on a bus. Oddly, chaos ensues. I really don’t look for these things.

I had felt tired after having lunch; I nearly nodded off reading in the afternoon; it was a struggle staying awake for nearly 2 hours while I waited for the flight; then I did have a doze in the minibus that had come to take me to the Pearl of South Sinai in Dahab. I was shown into room 1 and wished a good night’s sleep-it was fifteen minutes after midnight, so it was a fair assumption that I’d be straight to bed. I’d always meant to go out when I arrived to get something to drink and a quick something to eat. I was very thirsty as I had refused to pay more than 6 times the normal price for a softie in Luxor airport. So I headed out; the 2 guys in reception were clearly surprised. They jumped to their feet and asked if they could help. I said I was just off for a bit of a walk, no worries.

On the street, I walked a minute or so and then started recognising things (I’m a little further south and away from the centre of things this time). At this point I felt I was back in Dahab and I felt a weight fall from my shoulders and the tension seemed to leave me (Norbert later told me he’d had a similar feeling). Energised, my plan changed from just going to the supermarket and getting a couple of things to having a longer walk. Not long after that, I remembered that Norbert and Andrea had arrived in the morning and would almost certainly be in Rush. So I texted Norbert and headed back in that direction.

Unfortunately the Pearl of Sinai locks the front door and some poor devil sleeps on the sofa. I felt bad waking him at nearly 5 a.m., but I didn’t have much option. Never did get to the supermarket or eat anything.

I noticed on the second night they left the door ajar. They’ve got my number.

So it was time for another tour of the Dive clubs, trying to arrange the trip to Thistlegorm and Ras Mohammed. I went back to Desert Divers who pointed me to Sea Dancers, which was a little more expensive than I had been expecting. I spoke to a few others, but it seemed that Sea Dancers were the only one with an inside track on this one (owned by the same company). They’d inspired a good bit of confidence, so I wasn’t too disappointed. Steve, clearly from England, had been saying that they weren’t happy with merely advanced certified divers and normally wanted people with, I’m not sure how many, dives but I have a feeling it was 50 or so. I thought I had 12. Turned out it was 11 so I needed checking out, which means a dive at the lighthouse tomorrow.

I do love Bob Marley, like half the known universe I own Legend. This is a strange record in a way: I love it, think it’s full of great tracks and it has one of my very favourite songs in Redemption Song, yet it has never inspired me to buy any other Marley (apart from the remix of Sun is Shining that Sky use for cricket in the Caribbean. Odd really. Of course there’s a lot of Bob about here (anywhere where there’s a beach and beach bars/café, it is the official soundtrack) and while he was drifting softly in through the door, I got an urgent need to listen to the Clash-shamefully for the first time in 3 years. Hope I’m not getting a party pooper rep.

Norbert didn’t have a lot of stamina and headed off after dinner. Although I needed to get up to dive, it was Andrea’s last night so we went to the Tree bar, as it sounded like the only place with some life. I ended up describing it as a paedo club. I don’t there was anyone there in their 20s, and we were representing the 30 somethings. I got the distinct impression that mummy and daddy were spending the evening elsewhere. This impression of the Tree bar was reinforced when we had dinner a couple of nights later and there was a group of the kind of public school kids that send Sozz apoplectic wearing Tree Bar t-shirts. One beer was enough.

Day 80 Dahab
Steve had said there was no point in starting early as it was only one dive, so come along at 10. He may have been in Egypt for 7 years, but this was very much an English concept of not starting early. We’d had a fairly early night, but I still didn’t really fancy it when the alarm went off. I felt quite nervous, kitting up and managed to put my weight belt on the wrong way round twice. In myhead it was like it was an exam. The first thing that Ollie made me do was completely flood my mask, take it off, put if back and empty the water out of it-my least faoured skill. Burnt some aire, but did and after the fin pivot was away. Nioce little dive and the visibility was mega compared to the last time I was here. I don’t remember too much of what we saw as I was thinking technically the whole time_I really didn’t want ot screw this up. I passed the test and Ollie gave me some good tips-I reckon he’d be a really good instructor. As he was English, I asked him about diving back home. He said he hadn’t really bothered as it’s cold and beardy, which had been my preconception. Still, I am going to look into what’s available-I suspect it may be a lot of wrecks.

The rest of the day became something of a rush. I was supposed to meet Norbert, Andrea and Carolyn (who’s back in town) for lunch, then go back to the dive shop and leave Dahab at 11. After saying goodbye to Andrea, I pottered back to Sea Dancers, who told me the car would take me to Sharm at 6 instead. Plans of naps and blogging and leisurely dinners were out the window and I had to pack my dive gear, get a briefing and pack my overnight bag.

Along with a few folks doing another trip, I met Aussie Matt on the way down, who was doing the same as me. Getting to the boat early worked out well, as we had a briefing got our gear ready and got a pretty decent night’s sleep, which I needed after the past few.

Day 81 Thistlegorm and Ras Mohammed.
The Thistlegorm was an unfortunate British ship, which was transporting a range of hardware to support the war effort in the region. For safety they’d routed it down via the Cape and, after something like 6 months, it was closing on Sinai when it was spotted by German bombers. These bombers were on their way back from a failed mission. The Thistlegorm was not their target, but the dastardly hun took a few pot shots anyway and down the boat went in October 1941. The boat lay undiscovered until some Italians found it ’63, which surprised me. Less surprising was that they promptly lost it again and it was rediscovered in the 80s.

The LP says it is often too rough to dive the Thistlegorm. It was rough and again I was glad no to have seasickness issues. It presents diving issues though. There wasn’t much current under the water, but getting to the rope we descended by was fun and better still was getting back out as the waves wash you, the other divers, the boat and the ladder up and down.

Before the first dive I was quite nervous and felt both inexperienced and self conscious. Matt was a very experienced diver and the rest of the boat was full of Hungarians, who looked the business. Hungarian is not a language either Matt or I felt any affinity for. Sometimes you can get a sense of a language from hearing it for a while. Not Hungarian. We worked out the guy in orange was funny and I kept thinking of Keyser Sose (sic I am sure). Hungarian men appear to be tall, thick set and 8 months pregnant. The ladies are rather more trim, although I had to restrain myself from asking the girl in the porn star tight crop top if ‘those were all paid for’. Anyway, the briefings had to be translated, they were on a diving trip, so it seemed likely they knew what they were doing. There was a father and son, who had all the gear and were using nitrox: nitrox has a higher concentration of oxygen and required special training. Matt and I couldn’t help but notice that we went into the water before the nitrox boys and exited after them. They didn’t even do the final dive. I should know better than to make assumptions based on someone having all the kit-it’s about the first lesson of the golf course.

I am guessing that the most overused word in describing a wreck dive is eerie. Well, it was eerie. The first dive was the deep one and was a tour of the outside. The wreck lies on a slope, with the back (stern I believe) being the deepest spot. We headed past the captain’s cabin and then turned round the back, where the propeller made the biggest impression on me. It was massive and detached. We saw motorbikes, trucks, what looked like a freight train carriage, large shells, a defused bomb and tins of supplies. When I flipped on my back for a bit I could see the silhouettes of some very large fish hanging around the smaller shoals. The dive was quite hard work for me as we had two spells of hanging around vertically. My weighting seemed to be wrong and I had to work quite hard to maintain my depth. One of the most striking moments was just after getting in the water and seeing the aerial view.

The second dive was inside. I don’t know if anyone died when the boat sank-it wasn’t a troop transporter so there were less than 50 onboard. It seems unlikely everyone would have survived, but there are no bodies lying around which is a good thing. Mummies are bad enough. For me a lot of the fascination lay in what was in the ship, its state of preservation and how the marine life had now adapted to it. I kept seeing these solitary red fishing lurking behind doors and motorbikes; there was a lionfish who looked very comfortable. Some of the tyres looked good enough to still use, others were now alive with algae and supporting a new ecosystem. The style of the bikes and trucks had me thinking of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (for a change), although I didn’t see a sidecar for any of the bikes. There were quite a number of air pockets inside the wreck, indicative that quite a lot of structure had survived 66 years in brine. I couldn’t help but think of the poor buggers on that boat at 1.30 a.m. as we swam round the holds and up through the kitchen. I was glad Sea Dancers had leant me a torch.

The whole experience was less freaky than I thought and although you could often see a way out, there was plenty of time when you couldn’t and I was very glad we had a guide and a relatively small group of 6. Imagine swimming down a corridor with about 2 torso depths worth of gear on your back-it’s not the most room.

I clearly thought the boat was a bus, as I set about trying to crack my skull. Sea Dancers had sent me a bigger tank, which they couldn’t find on the boat when I set my gear up last night. The idea is that you set your gear up in the port, then they refill your tank when you’re at sea (no one mentioned that bit to me), so you don’t need to change tanks as the boat gets tossed about. In the morning they found my tank and I had to change it while the boat got tossed about. As it was a bigger I had to make a few additional adjustments. Not made easier as some donkeys had left their gear on the deck. When a really big wave threw me off balance, my (bizarre) instinct was to protect my gear and the donkeys’. The net result was I broke my fall using a combination of a bench and my head. The one that really hurt was after the second dive when we were trying to get out and a wave threw me up, another guide to the side and his tank introduced itself to my skull. It’s made brushing my hair an activity to be undertaken only when essential. After that, the 3 or four blows I took in the taxi back to Dahab were only to be expected.

Ras Mohammed is one of the world’s great dive sites and the drift dive we did from Shark Reef to Yolanda reef was my highlight. I somehow missed a massive barracuda, but saw a crocodile fish, which was a first for me. Mostly, as I was tired, it was back to gazing on in wonder. The coral was stunning, the fish colourful and plentiful. At one point I got very excited as I thought I saw coral in fins. When I got closer it turned out to be the coral forming on the metal from the famous container from the Yolanda. The Yolanda sank after the reef ripped the arse out of her, but the crew threw some containers off while they still had hope. This one was full of bathroom gear. I saw one bath, but it was mostly toilets-one of which is set up for you sit on and get a picture. Shall have to come back with the underwater camera. I also saw a beautiful blue spotted ray chilling on the bottom.

Taxi back to Dahab, shower, dinner at Aladdins and onto the party night at Rush. Half the dive guys I know seemed to be there. A good day.

Day 82 Dahab to Cairo
The very nice people at Pearl of South Sinai have let me keep my room for free until I leave on the night minibus to Cairo at 11. This is a calculated risk. It is quicker and they won’t check my ticket 3 times. It will also drop me straight at my hotel and save me the hassle of a taxi (I would have taken so many more taxis if they used meters). However, if it’s full, it’ll be gross.

I’ve been to the dive shop to tidy things up, changed my last dollars for Egyptian pounds and been struck by the thought that I have just 4 nights left. I plan on doing some (shock horror) shopping and having a last dinner with Carolyn and Norbert. Should be a nice day.

And if I have time, I’m having a tenner each way on Butler’s Cabin in the National. If it wins, I think I shall take my good friend Jim Nance for dinner. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Watch the final round of the Masters from Augusta next Sunday.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Ferry cross the Nile

Day 76 Luxor Temple
I have not read any Agatha Christie for something like 20 years. Obviously I bought Death on the Nile for my location; amusingly there’s an advert in it for the next Poirot, which is set in Petra, so I guess I’ll be getting that too. Have to say she’s a better writer then I remembered/expected, though I guess to sell that many books you need something (over a billion in English and the same again in other languages-I think JK Rowling has a way to go). There’s some recognisable sides of Egypt in it too:

‘If there were only any peace in Egypt, I should like it better,’ said Mrs. Allerton. ‘But you can never be alone anywhere. Someone is always pestering you for money, or offering you donkeys, or beads, or expeditions to native villages, or duck shooting.’

Well, I haven’t been offered duck shooting. Yet.

The plan for today was to go across the river to Luxor Temple, have lunch, come back and have a snooze, post the blog and then go for a late afternoon mosey round the museum, before meeting Norbert (and whoever is now keeping him company) for dinner. In the end the blog was very long, so the museum got put back-I have plenty of time left in Luxor.

Luxor temple was mostly built by Amenhotep III, although the colossal statues of Ramses II do a pretty good job of stealing the credit. I can half imahgine having dinner with Ramses II, I think there would be only one topic of conversation-Ramses II. He’s at it again here with the statues accompanied by a massive pylon (kind of like a castle gateway) covered in his heroic deeds-I recognised the chariot and firing of arrows from Abu and the Ramasseum. The common theme to these heroic deeds does seem to be Ramses in chariot driving over his enemies while firing arrows at people on foot, who are running away from him. Now maybe I’ve seen too many Die Hard movies, but I’m not so sure that’s so very heroic. It smacks of clearing up after the real fighting’s over and then bragging in the bar afterwards. In the museum there’s a mummy of another great fighting Pharoah, and the caption expresses some surprise that he is small and arthritic, given the tales of his heroic deeds: call me cynical (go on, I dare you), but it strikes me that if you’re footing the bills for huge temples and friezes, you’re probably gonna want to look like you’re in the action, not cheering from the sidelines while some Achilles figure actually does the fighting. I think some of the academics need to consider that the Pharoahs might just have been full of shit.

The temple is 3km from Karnak and the two were originally linked by an avenue of sphinxes. A fair bit remains both exiting Karnak and entering Luxor Temple.

The format is fairly familiar by now: big boastful entrance, Ramses, big hypostyle hall, Ramses, obelisks and Ramses. Here’s Ramses’ leg and a fan

Now I wouldn’t say Ramses was on roids, but he’s certainly been to the gym for this one

To try and convey the ludicrous level of artistry, here’s a little detail from one obelisk.

There was one big surprise in here (don’t get me wrong this place is beautiful and impressive, but it’s getting a bit much)

This is a Roman era Christian fresco towards the back of the complex. It is more beautiful than it looks and, for my money, I think they should give serious consideration to moving it somewhere they can control the climate. This is essentially outdoors.

Later we had some dinner, a few drinks and there were some fezs lying about, so this happened.

Day 77 Luxor Museum
Today I was meant to be going to Abydos and Dendara. The plan was always to do a day trip from Luxor for this. Well my hotel was unsurprisingly no help at all. I must have visited at least 6 places that said they did a trip to Dendara and Abydos, but none of them had anyone going at any point in time, so they weren’t actually running it. I negotiated a taxi to do it the other day, but when it became clear he didn’t know we’d have to go in police convoy (and therefore didn’t know when we needed to start), I dumped that idea. Today is going to be different though. I had a long chat with a few taxis and have agreed a price with a guy that includes both temples and back to Luxor in the police convoy and NO SHOPS. I’m meeting him at the ferry on the East Bank at 7.30. As the ferry made its way over, I watched the hot air balloons floating over Luxor.

It certainly looks a nicer way to travel than the ubiquitous cruise ships.

I feel a lot of people must expect something tranquil and exclusive and be somewhat disappointed.

Well today would have been different had my taxi man showed up: I believe the price we agreed was half the average monthly wage, so even with fuel and all, it should have been worthwhile. Still I had a feeling he’d no show.. I thought Dendara and Abydos sounded well worth a visit, but it seems no one else is going, so maybe I’m not missing much. It certainly wasn’t meant to be. The museum opened at 9, breakfast places at 10, so I sat and read my book for an hour.

Luxor museum doesn’t really feel like Egypt. First up there is film (the first time there’s been anything like that: it is a joint production of the National Geographic channel and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (you just know they’re bureaucrats wasting oxygen). Omar Sharif does the voiceover in a curious accent. It’s reasonably well done and gives you a feel for the museum’s collection, as well as setting it in some historical context-hallelujah.

The museum itself is well lit (as in it enables you to see the exhibits) and the exhibits have labels and explanations. There’s even some big screens showing the making of pots, bricks and papyrus. Interestingly, although nowhere near as big, it costs 40% more than the Egyptian museum in Cairo. And there are some really good pieces. This is actually a proper museum.

Right at the start there’s the head from a colossus of Amenhotep III: I’m struggling to imagine how big it must have been as the head is the same height as me, though much bigger than me overall. The quality of the sculpting is again extraordinary, reinforcing what was lost until the Renaissance: this is best demonstrated in a simply wonderful sculpture of Tuthmosis III, which is as good as anything I can remember seeing. It is made from a black stone called Greywacke that I’ve never heard of, but I wish Michelangelo had used once or twice. (No photos allowed in here).

In the Egyptian Museum I chose not to go and see the mummies: I’ve seen the ghoulish reactions of people in the British Museum and I have very ambivalent feeling about it. Just when is it OK to dig up bodies and put them on show? How long do you wait before it’s no longer grave robbing? I hesitated and went for a quick look. I still can’t really see the justification aside from on a commercial basis-mummies seem to be a big draw, they’re more expensive than the rest of the Egyptian museum. There’s one here they think is Ramses I, when that was discovered the museum in Atlanta gave it back. They’d recently paid 2 million dollars for it.

The Egyptian idea of eternal life and mummification and burying people with things they’d need in the afterlife means there are some interesting items in tombs. On display here was some of the furniture and sandals in King Tut’s tomb. It seems that the afterlife was going to be quite hard on shoes.

Reading the captions you realise just how much they are still finding, some of stunning-there’s a whole room full statues, found in a cache less than 10 years ago. Makes you wonder what’s still out there.

Day 78 Luxor Airport
Yeah this really has been an airport day. Pack, check out, have something to eat, hang out, read, blog. Flight’s not till 21.40, but the need to forward plan and book ahead has meant I’ve had at least 1, if not 2, too many days in Luxor, so I’m not doing much today. This is the longest I have been without flying since before Benicasim in July 2006. I am going to have buy some more trees when I get home. And one week tomorrow, I fly back to England.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Boys on their bikes

Day 73 Valley of the Kings
Although I was tempted to call this post ‘For a Fistful of Baksheesh’.

I’m staying on the West Bank. In some senses this means I am not really in Luxor, but Royal Thebes, mega city of yore and full of history. I have made a decision that there is too much history and all for me to try and distinguish intermediate period from 18th dynasty, Anubis from Horus, or much else on here. My head’s not entirely round it and it’d take forever. Luxor is mental. The LP often has 2 day plans for a city-they are 2 day or 4 day alternatives here for Cairo, which involves the better part of day away from Cairo. I have never seen a city with more than 4 days. Luxor’s West Bank has a four day plan on its own. The East Bank probably needs 2 days more. I’d like to day trip to Abydos and Dendara. For those, like me a weeks ago, who may not be too sure what of the famous Egyptian stuff is in Luxor, there’s the Valley of the Kings (including King Tut), the Valley of the Queens, Karnak, Luxor Temple and several others that are probably more visually familiar. It’s stuffed and often called the world’s biggest open air museum.

It’s also quite daunting. When and where do I start? How do I do it? First up is to choose a bank.

I chose to stay on the West as a couple of folk mentioned a hotel here and I was told the hassle is lower here. Hotel very nice, although the staff won’t be sorting out any piss ups in the local Stella brewery any time soon (took 3 people for me to be able to extend my stay). So I figured as I was already on the West Bank (admittedly only 2 min walk from the £1 ferry across the Nile) and as there was more to see that I’d start with a day or two here. First night I hired a bike, £10 a day (exchange is about 11 Egyptian to one English), and set the alarm for quite early. It’s best, in some respects, to make an early start as it just keeps getting hotter. It was hot as I ate breakfast on the roof terrace. The heat was the reason for the bike: it’s 3km from here to the ticket office, 8km to the valley of the kings and things are fairly spread out. Neither hiring a taxi for the day nor going on a coach trip held much appeal.

The Colossi of Memnon are the first thing to wake you up to being in an unusual place,

conveniently, so I thought, they’re just before the ticket office.

In case you had forgotten you were in Egypt the ticketing is a stark reminder. Despite massive signs for the Ramasseum, Valley of the Kings and all, the ticket office is unsigned and unobvious when on foot 25 yards away. Of course when you get there the fun starts. For 3 areas, or it may be 4, you have to buy the tickets at the site, not the ticket office. Everything else is split into a bewildering array of options and you can choose from a menu of 12 sights or groups of sights here. I know what you’re thinking, buy all the ones you want and then use them as you go. No, as they’re only valid on the day you buy them, raising the chance of wasting tickets or being 4 km from the ticket office at the gate of something you can’t get into without a ticket. Clearly Petra’s system of 1, 2 or 3 day tickets, where the range of sights is fairly equivalent, would be far too, well unEgyptian. Then you go to the window to buy the tickets, explain what you want and get told to go to the identical window on the immediate left; the following day when you go to that window, you get pointed to identical window on the immediate right. I guess they work one day, do fuck all the next. Pretty intense job for Egypt then.

I had what I hoped what a pretty decent plan and now I had the tickets to go with it. I was just bending down to unlock my bike, when I heard an excited shout ‘John, John’. I could tell by the depth of the voice that it wasn’t the supermodels Egypt tour calling out to me. In fact the Italian nature of the excitement could only mean Achille.

He’d even hired his bike from the same place; Ahmed used that later for the publicity shot above. Seeing as he’d been here for 2 days, which he’d spent on the East Bank, I think there was some element of destiny about us bumping into each other right at the start of looking over Thebes. It meant neither of us had seen anything, so we spent the next 2 days pedalling round together.

At the Ramesseum, one of the great names, Ramses II (Abu Simbel dude) built a big old temple to stamp his immortality on the ages. This didn’t pan out, tho clearly the Simbel did. A lot of the Ramesseum isn’t in the greatest state, although you can see the Ramses touch

My one note on the place says ‘colours’ and this is likely to be a recurring theme in this post along with the idiocy and incompetence of Egyptian antiquity management. Let’s stick to the positive for now: colour is used extensively in the decorative schemes of the tombs and monuments and where the sun can’t get at is impressively preserved.

We had the Ramesseum largely to ourselves. I’m not sure that Hatsheput’s temple at Deir al-Bahri was quite such a well kept secret

Hatsheput was a rarish lady Pharoah. The inscriptions on this bad boy, part construction, part carved from the rock suggest she presided over good times. There appeared to be no fighting, but bountiful harvests and lots of goodies for all. Interestingly, I thought, Hatsheput is sometimes female and sometimes male in the depictions, a relfection of the standardise pharaoh look in certain types of scenes. I like this one

Although this artwork is more impressive

I found it interesting that the Valley of the Kings is such a famous name, yet I had no real preconceptions and no mental picture of the place. Partly that is because on the ground it is dusty and hot and not much to look at. It is compact and unextraordinary, with no external structures aside from the modern entrances that have been built to the tombs. This is a place of death. Well, partly: more accurately a lot of effort went into trying to make the tombs inaccessible and confusing so they wouldn’t get robbed-this didn’t so much work. In another masterstroke of Egyptian tourism, you buy a ticket which allows you entry to 3 of 10 or so tombs that are open (there are 2 tombs that can be accessed with extra tickets). So if you want to see 4, you buy 2 tickets or baksheesh the guard. Even with the Lonely Planet’s help, I felt our choices were fairly arbitrary: there’s nothing in the valley to help you choose.

One surprise is how compact the valley is-the name suggest size to me, yet when we went to the ‘furthest’ tomb, it can only have been 10 mins from the entrance, if that. That was Tuthmosis III, where the tunnels are chiselled down and through the rock for a considerable distance. As Achille said ‘how many people’; the effort here is not a mere physical one removing so much rock, but artisanal and artistic too. Although not astronomical, the ceiling is covered with stars, while the walls are painted quite beautifully and include the first baboons I have noticed. I also like when you have triple or quad men-the style where the artist paints one figures then a small part of 2 or 3 more figures behind him to show numbers. I really do need to read more of the history. The final chamber in here is almost ballroom sized with two big square pillars and certainly surprised me.

You can’t take photos in here-quite right too as it would certainly harm the painted walls-and the contents have all been removed, but the tomb certainly still has atmosphere, even if at times that seems to be merely thick with heat and tourist sweat. It is really hot in here: maybe it’s the number of tourists passing through, but this is no Coober Pedy where living underground is cooler. Emerging from the tomb is a relief.

In the tomb of Ramses IX there appeared to be prototype Zorbers, Egyptian figures in large balls at very unvertical angles. We finished up with Ramses III, whose funerary temple at Medinat Habu we will see tomorrow.

Day 74 Valley of the Queens
After yesterday, I would heartily say that bike is definitely the way to go round here. It is pretty flat, although the Valley of the Kings was sufficiently into the wind and uphill that we didn’t need to pedal at all on the way back. Achille had been laughing at the fact the bikes were made in China and when mine lost 2 spokes crossing the railway line (which is currently moving a lot of harvested sugar cane) we had to pop back for another bike. I would estimate the age of our bicycle technician at 8. Happily we hadn’t gone far.

First up was Medinat Habu, which had reliefs and inscriptions on every surface, including the ceilings where the sun can’t penetrate and the colour remains. It would be great to see some kind of effort to mock up the temple as it would have looked using something like virtual reality. The effect with see with the colour removed is so different that it’s a big leap of imagination to try to get what the ancients had.

Both Achille and some other folk I chat to compare it favourably with the much more famous Karnak on the East Bank, which sounds like it is a lot larger, but in lesser condition.

The temple also includes a frieze where bean counters are counting the severed hands and genitals of some poor buggers that Ramses slaughtered, presumable for the official press release. I saw this in some tombs yesterday, I’m not sure, but it seems to be some kind of flower. Looks cool anyway.

And naturally if you want to show just what a kick arse pharaoh you are, you show that the baboons groove you

Then it was off to Deir al-Medina for the temple and tombs of Inherka, Sennedjem and Peshedu, who were artists and workers in the Valley of the King with sufficient wealth and standing to have to,bs with what I now believe to be frescoed walls rather than painted relief. So another set of skills to another exceptional standard. Achille was pleased to see the first nude of his trip in Peshedu-after all, they’re everywhere in Italia. From Peshedu you can see out over the workers’ village

Then onto the valley of the Queens, where most of the tombs seem to be for sons who died before they made pharaoh. Although you can only visit 3 out of something like 150. The tomb of Titi (the lady of the 3) was about 50m from the tomb of Khaemwaset but was essentially wrecked. The amount of paint remaining and its condition bore no compatison. I hope it’s nothing to do with the breath and sweat of tourists: it was hot enough here that we saw a new baksheesh ruse. Chop up a cardboard box and hand it out as fans. Most people seemed like me to be a little bemused and think it was the way they were counting how many people were in the tomb.

Some of this is definitely relief now and painted, so I am wondering if this is what the temples looked like. There is a lightness in the colouration, which would have been a wonderful contrast on such gargantuan structures. I am having to crouch in several rooms (Sozz, you would be in trouble) as the ceilings are so low. These kids and women must have been pretty small.

The tomb of Nefertari is supposed to be the beautiful of all. It was opened to 150 people a day for about 8 years. Now it is closed and tour groups who pay about £20,000 can get in (remember to take off one zero and a bit), so the thinking is that it will stay ‘closed’.

Verdict was the Valley of the Queens was a winner. 3 very nice tombs, no choices to make and nice and compact. Plus downhill on the way back.

Achille’s now in the zone, and leaving tomorrow, so back to the ticket office to see the tombs of the nobles. Achille was keen on the 3 that the LP recommends. By a strange quirk of fate, the three tombs were each in a separate group of tombs, so we needed 3 tickets for a total of 7 tombs (not that they had the right tickets, they just gave us ones of the right value, so we could probably have blagged it). So I remember we went to: Menna, Nakht, Ramose, Userhet, Khaemhet, Sennofer and Rekhmire.

This is a day of indecision. We get into the tomb of Ramose and this is definite relief, so it was fresco before. Maybe I should read a book. No point in asking anyone here, the guards just point at baboon, go monkey and expect baksheesh. Userhet’s is a lot more fun: the tombs of the nobles have more everyday life scenes, so here you have the barbers, folk drinking and hunting gazelle. A common theme across all the different tombs we’ve seen is boats. I think the combination of the Nile’s crucial role in Egypt and the concept of the boat to the afterlife make this a common motif. I also have to say that almost any one of the tombs or temples on the West Bank would be massively renown in most countries. There’s such a dense wealth of sights here.

I loved the ceiling in Sennofer’s tomb, it was undulating, bobbly I guess: it looked a bit like space Lego covered with grapes. His tomb also had a few figures in leopardskin, which we’d not seen before and was a potent reminder that we are in Africa. I think I prefer the nobles’ tombs, there’s lots of food, fishing, hunting and crop gathering. There’s more guys, more gals, more fun.

Size can be quite misleading in a lot of the ‘pictures’. Smallness doesn’t necessarily indicate child or dwarf. Rekhmire is four times the size of the people he is supervising-so he was either very important or insecure.

Of course we had further demonstrations of baksheesh lunacy: in at least 3 tombs there were guards using mirrors to angle the sun into the tombs and onto the paintings. Why not just use a magnifying glass and wreck the paintings inch by inch. I remonstrated, but met either feigned or genuine incomprehension was my only response. The Supreme Council of Antiquities should spend less time making up grandiose titles for itself and more getting its bloody house in order: Egypt may whore itself to tourism, but if they carry on as they are with the reefs in the red sea, guards doing crazy things, letting tourists touch and clamber on things then they’ll have nothing left to sell. And then Egypt really will be fucked.

I got Achille to take this at the tombs of the nobles to show how immediate the border between desert and lush is.

Day 75 Karnak
It’s been a while since I saw a load of good signs, but there are a few in Luxor.

What do you mean you wouldn’t trust him?

In the foreground is the sign outside the Winter Palace advertising the Metropolitan as being opposite the winter palace. In the background is the entrance to the Metropolitan.

Maybe I could twist a couple of arms and we could outdo them with the three Johns.

So, Karnak. I feel Karnak should be pronounced in that way the Rowley Birkin says Cairo. Karnak is big, it’s what the world massive was invented for. It’s like a Pharoah game of ‘You show me yours and I’ll show you mine’s bigger’. The temple complex just expanded and expanded, as each Pharaoh would add on new bits. When a Pharaoh was up himself or hated the one before, then it would be bigger than normal. I especially liked the bits where a Pharoah or two would die before their enormodome was finished, so the next pharaoh would simply removed their names and put his on instead.

As you go further through Karnak it gets more battered. I think this is at least partly due to the restorers starting at the front. One of my favourite bits was right at the beginning:

The avenue of the ram sphinxes (I had to stretch). Sadly after I found the most photogenic ram to photograph,

some muppet couple followed me and when I left took in turns to straddle it for their photo session. One of the curses of Luxor’s fame is that morons come to the world’s largest open air museum and then the Egyptians are too crap to police them. Crazy is becoming my most overused word.

This gives the very faintest idea of the size of both temple and crowds.

I’ll limit my comments to the great hypostyle hall, or this will be singularly painful. The hall has 134 columns and is 103m by 53m. The effect is that you walk through a forest of columns

I found it hard to believe that the roof needed so much support. It is very impressive, but it does seem a slightly useless room unless it was used for staging top class hide and seek. You couldn’t have addressed a crowd and been seen, while any heckler would have had plenty of cover. I think they have a scene in here from Death in the Nile with lots of sand on the floor and someone pushing a stone block at someone.

Few more pics.

Big one there.

Love these columns, should see more at Luxor temple tomorrow.

Imagine the size of this. Can you see my LP?

A stately baboon.

Temple fatigue, pharaoh fatigue, ancient history fatigue-it gets talked about a lot, but how do you know when it has set in? One indication might be that I’ve stopped reading the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt and have just been out to buy Death on the Nile, which I started reading over a late lunch of onion baji and vegetable jalfrezi (to be fair the Inidian is a long way away and I have just returned my hired bike).

And tomorrow Norbert’s coming to town.