Not just any week in Egypt …
It has been a while since my last post and I have a very good reason for the delay – I just returned from an amazing trip to Egypt. Yes, the timing could not have been better. One could not only enjoy the breathtaking temples and tombs, no, one also could witness history! It was an absolutely extraordinary experience. One of those things one will never forget in one’s entire lifetime.
I took off to Cairo on Friday, 28th January. The airport there was rather empty and I had no mobile phone network either while I waited for my domestic flight to Luxor. I arrived in Luxor just after 8pm. And apart from a group of French tourists, myself and three security guards, nobody else was at the airport. I walked outside desperately trying to find a taxi – but there was nothing. Suddenly out of the dark a young Egyptian guy came up to me and asked in perfect English whether I am looking for a taxi. He turned out to be the only taxi driver at the airport. So, I got into his car and he told me all about Luxor and what was going on on that day and showed me the streets were the demonstrations were held, which by then were empty and guarded by military vehicles, barricades and smiling soldiers. It did not look threatening at all. This was all simply safety measures. He dropped me at my hotel – the rather splendid Winter Palace – very Agatha Christie …
Luxor was very calm and quiet that evening and I watched CNN and BBC to catch up on all the things that were going on in Cairo and Alexandria.
The next morning I was taken to the boat that was going to be my home for the next seven days – right on the river Nile.
On the first day of the cruise, things got a bit dicey in Luxor. The headquarter of the leading party was torched and our boat had to leave Luxor and go up and down the Nile as that was the safest place for us to be. We stayed on the boat and our sightseeing program had to be adjusted according to the latest political developments. Our guide, an Egyptian archeologist from Cairo, gave us first-hand reports about what was going on in the capital. In the evening, a new prime-minister, Ahmet Shafik, and, for the first time in 30 years, a new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, were introduced to the people of Egypt as a first reaction to their demands.
The evening was calm again and we could return, dock in Luxor and stay for a further two days.
On Sunday, our guide gave the green light for a few visits in Luxor. We went to see Karnak Temple (you do have to watch the 1978 Agatha Christie’s film “Death on the Nile” where the temple features prominently!) and Luxor Temple. Both are of an unbelievably beautiful and stunning monumentality. Karnak Temple alone covers over 2 sq km, large enough to contain about ten cathedrals, while its main structure, the Temple of Amun, is the largest religious building ever built – and all done about 1500 years BC and in use for almost 1500 years!
Luxor Temple was built a little bit later, around 1350 BC and it is right in the heart of the city of Luxor and makes it an amazing feature, especially at night when it is dramatically lit.
On Monday, 31 January, the police had disappeared from the streets and the people of Egypt took control and protected their museums and sights from looters themselves.
We ventured out to the Valley of the Kings and Queens. Absolutely spectacular! Again, the scale and dimension of those tombs is incredible. They are palaces dug into the mountains. For conservation reasons, one is not allowed to take photographs there. The colouring of the tombs is too delicate. But when you think of all those Egyptian-themed rooms in European palaces – they were inspired by those tombs in the valley. Stunningly beautiful. And we shared the sight with only a few other ‘brave’ tourists – which added yet another dimension to the sensation. To have those wonders of the world almost to oneself? When does that happen? …
From there we continued to the Al-Deir Al-Bahari. The temple complex is surrounded by the most dramatic rugged limestone cliffs that rise nearly 300m above the desert plain.
The Temple of Hatshepsut is one of the finest monuments in Egypt, built around 1460 BC and only rediscovered, excavated and restored since 1891 (AD!).
We left Luxor in the evening to go further up the Nile to Esna. But the police did not allow us to dock over night, neither in Esna nor further up in Edfu. So we continued all night up the Nile till we reached Kom Ombo in the early hours of the morning and there we were allowed to dock.
Tuesday, 1 February, was the day of the “March of the Millions” and a general strike in Egypt. More than 600,000 people gathered peacefully on the Tahrir Square in Cairo alone; all protected by the army. It was the biggest demonstration that ever took place in Egypt.
Where we were it was very quiet. We went to see Kom Ombo Temple which is located very close to the shore. The temple has a dual dedication to the crocodile god of the region, Sobek, and Haroeris, Horus the Elder. Apparently even Cleopatra came to this temple.
On Wednesday, 2 February, people continued to demonstrate despite the daily curfew from 3pm to 8am. President Obama gave his first speech addressing Egypt since the uprisings started.
We explored the Nile on a small boat and stopped at the Philae Temple. In the 19th century the ruins became one of Egypt’s most legendary tourist attractions. We had it all to ourselves …! The building of the temple was begun around 260 BC and continued for the next 500 years until 300 AD. After the completion of the High Dam in the 20th century nearby, the temple would have disappeared entirely. Between 1972 and 1980, the UNESCO intervened and the complex was disassembled stone by stone (28,000 pieces!!!) and reconstructed on the nearby Agilkia Island.
On Thursday, 3 February, Egypt saw the first violence when the police tried to take over again. Hundreds of people were injured in Cairo and Alexandria. It was the fourth day without any banks or shops open. People were running out of cash.
In the morning, we visited the ‘Unfinished Obelisk’ in the ancient Northern Quarries in Aswan, opposite the Fatimid Cemetery.
The obelisk is nearly 42m long and weighs 1168 tonnes. If completed, it would have been the single heaviest piece of stone the Egyptians ever did. Apparently 10,000 people worked on an obelisk like that.
In the afternoon and early evening we cruised down the Nile on one of the traditional Feluccas. A most beautiful and magical experience.
Later in the evening, the new vice-president gave a tv interview where he apologised for the violence against the people in the streets and thanked the youth of Egypt for enlightening the country and leading it to reforms.
Friday, 4 February, was supposed to be the “Big Friday”, the day when a final decision about the new government was supposed to be made.
We left on a plane from Aswan and arrived back in Istanbul at around 2pm. What a trip and what a historic timing!