Monday, 10 December 2007

We checked out of the cruise boat this morning, the kids hugged Cecilia goodbye (they had told their other friends goodbye the night before), and we set off into Luxor. We will stay in a hotel two nights here before returning to Cairo. Our first stop was the Luxor temple, which was only a few blocks from our hotel. It is a giant ruin, and reminded me of the ruins we saw while we were in Rome. Lots of giant columns and crumbled rock. One of the most interesting things about this temple was that it was connected to the Karnak Temple, which is just a few miles away. They were connected by a narrow pedestrian street lined with statues of lions with ram’s heads. This street has been covered by civilization, as were the temples until they were reclaimed from the sands, but the current mayor is dedicated to moving all the people who currently live here so the street can be reopened and the temples reconnected.

All sorts of ruins are still buried in Luxor, but Azza said unless they can prove exactly where these things are, it’s hard to get permission to dig. Especially since they are covered by hotels, streets, and large office buildings. As we walked around, I got this cool feeling that we could be walking on unknown treasure at any moment, just beneath the surface of the ground might lay enormous statues or undiscovered tombs. It is a mysterious feeling.

We went to the Karnak Temple next, which is a huge complex. The most impressive section is where there are 134 columns, giant columns. Azza said it would take eleven people to encircle one of them with their arms. They stretched high above, carved at the top with lotus flowers. It was a beautiful place, open to the sky, massive and impressive. It was a place to wander, but we soon found when we were exploring by ourselves that if you got off the beaten path, you found men digging just around the other side of walls. They would beckon you closer, show you an interesting perspective for taking a picture, then hold out their hand for a tip.

After the temples, we went back to the hotel, ate some lunch by the pool which was surrounded by a bunch of people sunning themselves (the water was too cold to swim), then did school and journals, much to the kids’ dismay. That night we headed back out that evening for a sound and light show at the Karnak Temple. I had built this up for the kids, thinking it would have lasers and cool special effects, maybe some fireworks at the end. I was wrong. The sound was a booming voice over loudspeakers, dramatically chronicling the lives of the kings and the gods. The lights were just that, lights that illuminated the temple as we walked through with a bunch of other English-speaking tourists. The temple was beautiful at night, the starry sky framed by ancient columns, and the music and lighting were very nice. I would have liked to walk around with just music playing, on my own, and make up my own stories about the pictures on the walls and the giant statues at the doorways.

Both Benji and Nate got a little cat nap when we settled on some bleachers near the sacred lake and listened to some more sound and saw some more lights. It was all very dramatic, they said things like “the houses were pleasant, filled with maidens in transparent gowns”, and they used words like “thou” and “thy”, maybe to sound ancient. We picked up little bits of wisdom, like “the only way to understanding is through dreams”. Hmmmm. Clay had this weird dream the other night that he could ski down stairs. I don’t think he gained any understanding, but he woke up really disappointed that he wasn’t able to ski down the stairs in our hotel.

 

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

This morning we joined a caravan of busses and other vans to travel to the temple at Abydos, and then to the temple in Dendara. If it sounds like we’re seeing a lot of temples in Egypt, you’re right. It’s interesting, though, there is something different and unique about each one of them. The caravan was led by a police escort, and we were the first car in line so we were able to watch the policemen in front of us. At one point it was just two men in uniform, but the escort changed later on to include three armed men in helmets and bullet-proof vests, their rifles bristling out of the windows of their covered pickup truck. The back was open, so they could jump out quickly if they needed to. At every major intersection or village along the way, there was an armed man, in a galabia instead of a police uniform. Clay thinks our escort phoned ahead and let them know we were coming so they could man their posts. I wondered if maybe they were always there, their rifles under their arms while the kids ran around playing and donkeys laden with loads of sugar cane ambled down the road.

One of the most interesting things about this day was the drive. We learned a lot about the land, how it is farmed and lived on. As we headed out of Luxor we noticed many buildings, they looked like apartments, some two or three stories tall. Although they were being lived in with laundry hanging from the walls, they didn’t look finished. Each one of them had columns with rebar sticking out the tops on the roofs, and many roofs were only covered with simple straw. Azza explained that they build up as high as their money allows, they are privately owned and when the owner has more money, they add another floor.

We learned that when farmers have a good crop of sugar cane, they sell it and then instead of improving their standard of living by buying a new bed or sofa or table, they buy their wife jewelry like a gold necklace. The wife wears it to the river the next morning while she does her laundry, her friends all admire it, and they feel safe knowing they can sell the necklace if they are ever in need. They have all they need if they have their shelter and their food. Instead of improving their lifestyle with creature comforts, they would rather spend the extra money on something that retains its value and can be easily sold if times get tough.

When the farmers harvest the sugar cane, they burn the roots so that sugar is released into the soil, making it richer. Then they grow a short crop of alfalfa, which they can feed to their animals and further nourishes the soil. The land all around us was rich. Donkey were loaded high and wide with big bundles of sugar cane, often led by kids no older than Nate, maybe a little sibling or two in tow. Some kids walked down the street, sucking on a long piece of sugar cane, a giant piece of candy. We loved the kids, they all came running when we drove by, our long convoy of busses and vans, smiling and waving, knowing they would receive nothing in return but a waving hand and a friendly smile.

Bougainvilleas lined the road, twelve different colors in shades from pink and red, to yellow and white. We drive along a narrow canal that eventually reaches the Nile. Fishermen fish two to a boat. One man smacks the water with a paddle, scaring the fish onto the other side of the boat where the other man holds a net to catch them. The plots of farmland are small, Azza says most farmers have 5 to 10 acres that they farm for themselves, and this grows enough because the soil is so fertile. Big plots of land are owned by wealthy men who live in the cities and then rent it out to be farmed by these smaller landowners.

Did you know that if you eat a Pepto Bismol tablet at night after you brush your teeth, in the morning your tongue will be black? As we sped down the road, Clay spent some time googling things on his Blackberry. I didn’t realize until later the reason. He hadn’t linked his black tongue in the morning to his Pepto the night before, and was finding out all sorts of horrid reasons why his toothbrush came out black this morning. Most disturbing was the “hairy black tongue”, a result of very poor hygiene when a fungus actually grows in your mouth so thick it looks like hair! He was relieved to find out his condition wasn’t quite as disgusting.

There was plenty of time to stare out the window, Google on the phone, read, and play twenty questions. I felt like we dug our toes a little deeper into the Egyptian soil as we traveled into the fertile heartland of Egypt. Seeing the sights along the way, how people live day to day, brought us closer to what the country is really like.

The first temple we went to was at Abydos, and this is where I finally got one of the Egyptian god stories straight in my head. Here’s the basic storyline: Seth fell in love with Isis, who was married to Osiris and loved him very much and wouldn’t be unfaithful to him. So, Seth tries to kill Osiris so he can have Isis, but it takes fourteen tries to do it. He finally does, and cuts the body of Osiris up into fourteen pieces and sends them to fourteen different places in Egypt (isn’t that a nice bedtime story!). Distraught Isis searches everywhere, gathering up the pieces of her husband, finding the last and final piece, the heart, at the temple we visited in Abydos. Later, Isis gave birth to Horus and nursed him until he was very old, always feeding him revenge, so that he would avenge his father’s death by killing Seth.

So, this temple at Abydos is thought to be very special. Azza said there are people who come here and stay for many days, visiting the temple over and over and even bathing in the nasty ground water that seeps up through the so-called tomb of Osiris. It was green and dirty, and I’m sure these people get dysentery or worse wading around in the muck.

The next temple we visited was exciting because there were puppies in front of it, frolicking around and letting us pet them. The kids loved this way better than the cool underground crypt we crept into, or the roof we climbed onto with its carvings and columns and pretty view. How could anything compete with puppies? As we made our way back to Luxor I made the kids turn off their DS games so they would look out the window. Benji said, “Nate, Mom said you have to watch the sun set.” I’m such a meanie.