Here we are in front of the smaller temple at Abu Simbel

A funny thing happened as we started our Nile River cruise: our boat didn’t go anywhere. Well, that’s not exactly true, but we spent the first three nights of the seven-night cruise tied up a few miles north of Aswan. We took two short trips on the river but didn’t actually move downriver toward Luxor until our fourth day. A little strange for a river cruise, but there was plenty to see those first few days.

Day 1 was a very early flight out of Cairo down to Aswan. We knew the cruise company was going to pick us up at the airport but weren’t too sure what would come after that; we would get in by 8:00 AM and didn’t expect they’d have our room ready on the boat that early. To our delight, though, they took us right to the boat and let us on, much better than having to cool our heels waiting. The only strange thing as far as we were concerned was the distance from the Aswan airport to the city itself, something like a 45-minute drive. What’s that all about? Here we are out in the middle of the desert where there’s a whole lot of nothing, everything is flat and dry, and they put the airport way out there? Strange.

Sunset on the Nile

So, after checking in and chilling out for a bit it was time for lunch and then an afternoon journey first to the Aswan High Dam and then on to our first temple. The High Dam was built in the 1960s and, along with the Hoover Dam and Three Gorges Dam in China, is one of the largest in the world. The annual flooding of the Nile River, based on annual rains in its East Africa drainage basin, made the Nile River flood plain one of the most important agricultural centers of the ancient world. Strange as it is to contemplate given its massive desert, Egypt was known as the “breadbasket of Rome” during the empire’s heyday. But at the same time the flooding could be disastrous: unusually high floods could ruin an entire year’s crop while low floods could leave farmers unable to plant adequate fields. Thus damming and controlling the floods was a major priority after the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952 and the start of the Egyptian Republic.

One thing I learned in all this was that the High Dam – the construction of which I have vague memories of from my childhood – wasn’t Egypt’s first dam on the Nile. Way back in the late 19th century, when Egypt was a protectorate of Victorian England, the English built what is now known as the Low Dam a few miles downriver from today’s High Dam. It was a nice little bridge, but wasn’t at all up to the job of managing the mighty Nile.

Our approach to the temple at Philae

So we drove down to the High Bridge with our guide Rena and discovered that, well, there’s really not a lot to see. You get a nice view of the northern edge of Lake Nasser, one of the world’s largest man-made lakes, but as it’s some 300 miles long it’s really just a tiny speck of the lake. What you see, though, is beautiful, as blue as any lake water I’ve seen save for perhaps Lake Tahoe. Sadly we didn’t see any crocodiles though; there are thousands of them but again, it’s a big lake.

Next stop was the temple at Philae which, a temple to Isis, one of the great goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon, built about 250 BC under the Greek Ptolemaic rulers. It was said to be one of the burying places of Osiris, husband of Isis, and thus was a major tourist destination in its time; indeed, it was so holy that birds didn’t fly above it nor did fish swim near it. That’s their story, at least.

Philae temple

This was the start of learning about Egyptian temples but for me the most interesting part of it was that in the 1960s UNESCO led a successful effort to move the massive temple. The island it was situated on was just a bit upstream from the Low Dam, constructed in the 1890s and was nearly always at least partly under water. As that was not sustainable over the long term UNESCO had this fantasy of cutting the temple up block-by-block and moving it to high land about half a kilometer away. And astonishingly to my mind at least that’s exactly what they did. The various buildings were chopped into 40,000 pieces, moved a bit, and reassembled. Amazing.

Day 2 was a trip to Abu Simbel, massive temples just north of Egypt’s border with Sudan. To get there you drive back out to Aswan’s distant airport and take a 30-minute flight, then drive out to the temples. All I can say is “Wow!” I thought the temple at Philae was impressive, but wow. They date to the 13th century BC, built during the reign of Ramses II as a monument to, well, himself, and his favored wife Nefertari. The exterior was carved out of the mountain while the interior is just chock-full of carvings and art and all that. And did I mention that it is well over 3,000 years old?

Mark in front of the entrance to Abu Simbel. Back in the 1960s they cut out those statues from their original rocks to move them here to higher ground.

And then on top of all that these temples, too – a big one for Ramses, a smaller one for Nefertari – were also moved, in this case to avoid being submerged when the High Dam was built. This was even more difficult than moving Philae, as the (massive) exterior had been carved directly into the mountain. But over several years and at a cost of some $300 million in today’s dollars, UNESCO again led the effort to save these historic treasures, moving them to high ground and replicating nearly identically the setting of the original site. Really impressive, but then it would have to be to justify flying all the way down there just to see them.

One sad thing to note here is the impact Egypt’s 2010 revolution has had on tourism and thus on the lives of people dependent on that tourism. Our guide here told us that once there were 17 flights a day into Abu Simbel while now there are only three or four. They say tourism is starting to pick up again but it’s sad to see people paying such a high price for finally turning out someone like Hosni Mubarak…

Of course, some people still make a living on tourism. This is Rena, our tour guide. It seems pretty unusual to have a woman tour guide in a Moslem country but she’s really good.

Day 3 then was another temple, Kom Ombo, a dual temple to a crocodile god (Sobek) and a falcon god (Horus) that dates to about 150 BC. This time we sailed to near the temple and then, after our guide Rena did her usual great job of explaining things and showing us how to read hieroglyphics, we sailed back to Aswan. For me the highlight of the day was a tour of Aswan’s botanical garden. We took a “falouka” – the Egyptian sailboat – out to an island and discovered this lush garden. We’ve been in botanical gardens in poorer countries that are just sad but this was nice.

Aswan’s botanical garden, a surprising oasis in a poor place

Now, after our first three days around Aswan we sail north. More river, more temples.

Looking out over Lake Nasser

The temple at Philae, moved stone-by-stone to this island out of harm’s way

Mark and I at Abu Simbel

The massive statue at Abu Simbel

Here’s a strange one. At Kom Ombo, a temple dedicated in part to the crocodile god, there are lots and lots of mummified crocodiles.

Mark and Rena at the botanical garden

Our boat ride back from the garden

A whole bunch of faloukas (faloukae?)

Mark on the falouka

One night on the boat there was a little reception and some local Numidian culture. This is a guy dancing like a whirling dervish, just spinning and spinning and spinning.

Mark enjoying this great couch they had set up by the pool, a perfect setting for a good read

We spend lots of time in cities but every so often we like to get a bit off the grid. Al Tarfa definitely qualifies as “off the grid.” Almost precisely in the center of Egypt, well down into the Sahara Desert, Al Tarfa is a desert lodge whose closest town is El-Rashda. And no, no one else has ever heard of El-Rashda either.

To get down here takes a 90-minute flight from Cairo and then a two-and-a-half hour drive across the desert. And then, suddenly out in the middle of nowhere is this charming little lodge, a fabulous place to get away from everything.

Hard to believe you’re in the middle of the desert when it’s this beautiful

This is the sort of place where everyone staying arrives on the same day and leaves on the same day, so our time there – from the flight down on Petroleum Air Services to the drive out and then back up to Cairo three days later – was with four Egyptian women from Cairo who became great friends. Two of them, Iris & Dina, were Coptic (i.e., Christian) Egyptians, sisters about my age who had grown up in Cairo. They both became anesthesiologists and now live in Bethesda, MD; they come back a couple times a year to visit their apparently quite active 84-year-old mother. The other two women, Sally & Dareen, were 30-something friends living in Cairo but whose English – like the older women – was pretty much perfect.

The six of us hanging out in the mostly abandoned village of Al Qasr. To my left that’s Dina, Iris, Sally, Mark, & Dareen. Such fun getting to know them all.

Spending time with these four women was always interesting, often helpful as they translated and explained for us, and often insightful as we could understand contemporary Egypt better through their eyes. Iris & Dina, Christians quite apparently from a privileged family, and Sally & Dareen, secular Muslims with good educations, had different life experiences of course but still helped us understand modern Egypt.

And then there’s the whole ancient Egypt part, the stuff you come to see. Our first excursion was to Al Qasr, an Ottoman oasis town dating from the early 16th century. Now largely abandoned (though there is a nearby town of a few hundred people), the old town consists of a warren of narrow streets between buildings of mud brick that apparently do a remarkable job of keeping this (comparatively) cool in the summer heat. And just how hot does it get? I asked our guide and he said that in the summer it can get to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Yeah, the desert. Oh, and dry too – he said it last rained 12 years ago. Since then you might get a little spritz a couple times a year but the last real rain was 12 years ago.

The old mud brick buildings of Al Qasr

At any rate, the old village made for a lovely little excursion. But there was more, too, ancient Egyptian stuff, old Roman ruins that seem practically new in comparison, a necropolis. It’s a little hard to get your head around this notion of people living in this dry, hot, remote place, but they have for millenia and, because of the dry climate, the ruins are often in surprisingly good shape. And apparently whenever you’re in the desert they arrange for at least one sunset out on the dunes. This one didn’t include sparkling wine as others have, but it was still beautiful and just great fun to walk around in just a remote place with just nothing at all except the sand dunes, a surprising spring-fed pond, and four new friends. And then the excitement of getting stuck in the sand as the sun was setting, not at all sure if we would be able to get the vehicle out. (We did.)

Sunset across the desert

Through it all, the star of the show was Al Tarfa Lodge itself. When we weren’t out exploring ancient ruins you could just hang out in the glorious quiet and read and relax, maybe chat with your new friends. The food was great; we are addicted to this Egyptian dip of a relatively light feta cheese blended with olive oil and then mixed in with a bit of chopped tomato; it’s heavenly. All that just remarkably inexpensive, so all in all it can’t be beat. If you’re ever in Egypt do yourself a favor and head out there. It’s worth the several hours it takes to get there.

How remote is Al Tarfa? That’s the baggage claim area for the “airport” we flew into.

From there we flew back to Cairo before heading down to Upper Egypt (yes, Upper Egypt is south of Lower Egypt, as all that is relative to the Nile and the Upper Nile is in southern Egypt) for a week-long cruise.

Our home for three nights. The same mud brick construction they’ve used here for hundreds and hundreds of years but fortunately filled with modern amenities like running water and electricity.

Our last dinner together was a beautiful candle-light affair. Sally in particular wanted to be in bed by 8:00 PM but she stayed up for this barbecue.

Mark wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the couch at Al Tarfa

Mark & I in front of an unexpected little lake on our sunset excursion

That’s a lot of nothing out in the desert

That little dot is me out there, just taking a walk. I wasn’t really that far away and was careful to keep our friends and the jeep in sight.

Mark with Dina & Iris

Here I am hanging out with Dareen & Sally

Iris at sunset

And with the sun setting we suddenly found ourselves stuck in the sand. It took a lot of digging and pushing and sweeping and pushing to get us out and for a while Mark & I were distinctly skeptical of our chances but apparently the guides knew what they were doing and we managed to escape.

Meanwhile, back at Al Qasr our guide had a little sidekick, Yusuf, who was just the cutest little kid. Never said a word as far as I remember, but always there to do whatever little odd job the guide needed.

One of the little figurines for sale, an old muezzin calling a prayer from the Koran

And here we have an imam pulling a little boy’s ear for not studying the Koran properly while his little friend looks on in fear

On our way out of Al Qasr we came on this guy making serrated knives. Basically he took knives and one-by-one filed individual teeth into them. That’s a pretty laborious way to do the job.

A view from outside the old town of Al Qasr

Here we are outside an ancient Egyptian temple. At the time I’m sure we were told what it was, when it was built, and who it honored but … for now let’s just say it’s an old Egyptian temple.

Sisters Iris & Dina. While they’re both anesthesiologists living in Bethesda, their little sister is completely different. She’s an anesthesiologist living in Pittsburgh. Completely different.

One of the things that just astounded us in seeing these old Egyptian ruins is that here we are, thousands of years later, and the colors still show up

See what I mean by color?

Mark and Sally outside one of our last stops

Me & Dareen waiting to board our flight back to Cairo

Here we are on the tarmac, bidding adieu

Here we are outside the Great Pyramid

We made two quick stops in Cairo, a two-day/three-night stop and then a one-day/two night stop, sandwiched around a trip into the Egyptian desert. While I was excited about going to Alexandria but ended up being disappointed, I wasn’t so eager about spending time in Cairo and ended up genuinely disappointed we didn’t have more time. I guess you can just never tell.

The capital of Egypt, this city of nine million people along the Nile River is the largest in the Arab world. Egyptian friends we made while out in the desert described it as Egypt’s New York City, with all the buzz and excitement and pollution and problems to go with it. There is a lot going on and a lot to see, more than you can do in the three days we had.

Looking out over a smoggy city from our hotel room

The first thing to see, and it is totally a must-see, is the Egyptian Museum of Cairo. With over 136,000 items on display it is by far the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in the world. And as a bonus it is laid out pretty well, meaning that while yes, your eyes glaze over at some point and you are just kind of going through the motions, you actually learn something about ancient Egypt. Part of what you learn, of course, is just how old it is. I like to remind people that we are closer to the time of Cleopatra (about 2,000 years) than she was to the builders of the Great Pyramids (about 2,500 years). That’s ancient.

What’s so special about a couple of geese? These geese from the Egyptian Museum are some 4,600 years old, from the tomb of a brother of one of the great pharaohs. What fascinated me was the color; you just don’t often see colors that last that long.

There was a LOT of stuff from the tomb of King Tut in the Egyptian Museum, including little statues of animals with their tongues sticking out. How cute is that?

And then of course you have to go see the pyramids out in Giza, a 30-minute cab ride out from downtown. The biggest of them, the Great Pyramid, dates from about 2750 BC and can make a lot of claims: one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it was by far the oldest; it is the only of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing; and it was the tallest building in the world for 3,800 years. That last one just boggles my mind.

Of course, everyone has seen pictures of the pyramids so I was not expecting to be that impressed. But I was. They’re just really big and really, really old. With a special ticket you can even go in the Great Pyramid and climb up a bunch of steps. Not recommended, though; it’s steep, you have to bend at the waist to climb up a good chunk of it, it get’s crazy hot as you near the top, and, to top it off, there’s nothing to do or see in there. Really kind of a bust. From the outside, though, the pyramids are worth the trip.

And just outside the pyramids, of course, is the Sphinx, proud here to be posing with me

But that’s not all. We also went for a great walk through part of the old city with great winding roads and all the street life you might hope for in an old Middle Eastern city. Definitely not a lot of tourists there but just loaded with atmosphere and really friendly locals.

Mark in the old city

And still there was more. On our last day we walked down into the Coptic section of Cairo. The Copts are a sect of Orthodox Catholics indigenous to northeastern Africa; not just a different religion, they maintain a separate ethnic identity from Muslim Egyptians and generally reject an Arab identity. The part of the city that is historically associated with Copts has the oldest church, the oldest synagogue, and the oldest mosque in Cairo. One of the of the main tourist draws is a church built around a cave said to have housed the Holy Family when they fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution. I’m not entirely sure how they know that (maybe the Baby Jesus carved his initials into the wall?) but it makes for a good story. The other big deal there is the Shrine of St. George, a big hit for us.

Inside the Shrine of St. George is the very chain – the very chain! – that was used to hold George before he was martyred. And yes, they allow you to put it around your neck so some of the magic can wear off.

Ultimately it felt as though we almost rushed through Cairo. We had a couple of really good Indian dinners at a restaurant in the Sofitel and a couple good lunches at a classic old restaurant. Oh, and one of the worst meals in a long time at an Italian restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton. I mean, we figured, “How bad can an Italian restaurant in the Ritz be?” Really bad, we discovered.

Would I come back to Cairo? I just might. The weather is gorgeous this time of year and while the traffic and the noise and pollution and all can be overwhelming you just have the sense that there is a lot to discover here. So maybe some day.

Did I say that the locals on the streets of Cairo were friendly?

And how’s that for a street scene? The dog, the old car, the chicken … and we’re in one of the biggest cities in all of Africa.

Street market

More produce

Statue of King Chefron, builder of the second biggest pyramid. Some consider this the finest of all ancient Egyptian statues.

Another room, another statue

These guys were cool. While Egyptian statuary is typically pretty static – just the same structure and pose over and over and over, century after century – this really stood out.

The crowning of Ramses III

One last picture from the Egyptian Museum. The central figure here is Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaten and one of the most beautiful women of all the ancient world. Akhenaten died around 1335 BC, but before then he was a big modernizer. He abandoned Egypt’s long-held polytheism and introduced worship of Aten the Sun God. And on top of that he encouraged exploration of artistic expression, making this art utterly different from what came before and after.

After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and the Greeks moved in there was a slight change in their art. Notice how while this guy has the classic Egyptian pose he has the face of a Greek!

Another of those statues from the tomb of King Tut

Lunch in a classic old Egyptian restaurant

And dinner outdoors along the Nile

The kind of meal you dream about – great grilled veggies, great baba ganoush, and a spicy cheese dip we have all over Egypt that we LOVE.

Mark on our way to the Egyptian Museum in whatever fog/smog/haze was hanging over the city that morning

And Mark on a long climb up the Great Pyramid. He still looked happy because we hadn’t gotten to the hottest part or discovered that there was nothing there.

A cool street view

We were walking past an old mosque and a guy asked if we wanted to go in. Sure, why not, knowing that of course he would expect a little tip for the tour. There was nothing that interesting about it, but there were a lot of birds in one open-air section.

We weren’t the only ones happy with Cairo. Boston Bear got a little special treatment at the hotel, too.