Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Touring Like an Egyptian

Imagine me as Katherine Hepburn (though much younger!) and Neil as (a better looking) Humphrey Bogart in the African Queen -- sans leeches. That’s how I’ve felt since we’ve arrived, as if we’re on a movie set. It seems incredible that we are walking on stones, entering gates only entered by high priests and pharoahs, reading hieroglyphs (okay, looking at, rather than reading) thousands and thousands years old. My brain is swimming with facts: how to tell a pharonic temple from a Greek one (the capitals on the columns: in the first, they’d be either lotus flowers or papyrus flowers; in the latter they’d be a combination of flowers or stylized flowers); the names of the 750 gods (I’m partial to Thut, the Ibis god of writing and wisdom); the names of the rulers (I’ve got Hatshepsut down pat because she was one of the few female rulers, during whose 20 year reign there was peace and prosperity); the different types of pyramids (mustaba, step, bent and what we think of when we say pyramid) -- the list goes on and on. Men here wear gebayahs, long tunics of blue, gray, brown and sometimes white and turban/wraps called shaal; and most women are covered head to toe, primarily in black abiyahs but I’ve seen lots of splashes of color, too. The Muslim women’s scarves are hagab (exposing only their faces) and in the country, just over their heads/hair called tarhah.

The contrast between the beauty of the creations of these ancient peoples and the dirt and poverty of most of the contemporary people I see is overwhelming. Bakreesh is a way of life -- people want a tip for everything, a smile, a scarab, a handful of toilet paper at the W.C. I realize we seem like Midas to these folks, but it makes me sad that they can only see us for the money we might give them. I’m sure I’d feel differently if I lived here for awhile . . .but still.

I know I’ll be asked what my favorite parts of the trip are. Though it’s only Wednesday (and the museum in Cairo is still to come, on our last day), I’d have to say the Temple at Karnak, a gigantic temple celebrating Ramses II; the Valley of the Kings, where we could walk into burial chambers and see the stages of the decorations there, from charcoal sketches on the wall to completed, painted hieroglyphics, looking as bright and vivid as if they were painted yesterday. I’m even glad I went into the burial chamber at Giza, though it convinced me that I would never have made it as an Egyptologist -- the way in required scuttling, hunched over, down a long, confining shaft into a musty hot inner chamber. I didn’t want to accept the guard’s offer of a flashlight to look into the sarcophagus -- what might I see there?-- but he insisted. Thank goodness, Cheops was long gone and all I saw was an empty, enormous granite box. The engineering feats are staggering -- how did they carve obelisks from one single piece of stone? How did they transport 40 ton statues? How did they stack those enormous stones into pyramids 65 meters or more tall? I learned the answers to some of these questions, but it was still hard to grasp that such things were possible.

What I loved most is the celebration of story: each temple and pyramid is ornately decorated with “pages” and “pages” of stories -- creation stories (Hatshepsut wanted to be pharoah so badly she cooked up a tale about the god Ra impregnating her mother, making Hatshepsut a god herself and thus eligible to be a pharoah, despite being female); stories of the glories of the gods and the victories of the pharoahs. Our guide even pointed out one story of a common person: there was an image of a very fat woman, and behind her a donkey. Above the donkey was written: “This little donkey had to carry the heavy load of this woman.” Too funny! I have learned to recognize a few letters: T, K, N and Q. I’m still looking for an M.(I found it -- an owl!)

Changes in me? I’ve realized I can get used to tossing my toilet paper into a wastebasket, instead of flushing it; I’ve learned a Stella (Egyptian) beer tastes awfully delicious in the heat of the day and I’ve learned that I might enjoying being covered because even with 50 SPF sunscreen, I’ve managed to get a sunburned nose. Now I get the lady who was completely covered in black, even her face, but was still wearing sunglasses.

I’ll close with a small montage of photos, taken between Cairo and Edfu. Hopefully, I’ll be able to post them when we get to Aswan, where there is supposed to be a good internet connection. At least I can afford the internet on the boat, at $10/hour, rather than the $50/hour at the hotel (okay -- I lied about the photos; can't seem to upload them but I'll do so when I get home!)

Ma salemi.

1 comment:

  1. I'm getting a nice picture of this leg of your trip from comparisons to "The African Queen":) Hopefully your motor holds up and you aren't forced to dodge rapids and enemy fire.

    It's so neat to read about someone visiting places like the Valley of the Kings. I've read about these places so much I almost forget they're real, but hearing your account reminds me they are. May your pictures upload quickly for further proof of your travels!