A Middle Eastern Kingdom of History

Jordan was a target for us largely for one reason, and that is Petra. This unique ancient city could be known to you in several ways: perhaps as a World Heritage Site, maybe as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, or (for the less culturally sophisticated like myself) as the climactic scene of Nazis vs Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade. So when the Eli(z/s)abeths – Elaine’s mother and her friend – suggested adding a Jordan leg onto our Egypt tour, we were excited to both see this famed location as well as discover what else Jordan has to offer.

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Look familiar? This is the well-known Treasury of Petra. And those are camels.

As you probably know, Jordan is part of the Middle East (a region we did not anticipate visiting on our travels, not for a lack of interest!). Despite being surrounded by the hot spots of Syria, Iraq, and the West Bank, this kingdom is quite stable and secure. We felt absolutely safe walking around unescorted in the capital of Amman as soon as we arrived. It’s a nearly exclusively Sunni Muslim and so we weren’t able to find a beer to finish our travel day with, but we happily discovered that Jordanians are seriously into chocolate and pastries with some good shops right near our hotel.

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a view over the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee from Northern Jordan
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Sometimes these sorts of pastries can be bland. Not so, we can attest, here in Amman.

Switching from Egypt to Jordan brought us a new guide, travel style, and tour group (with the exception of Kurt and Beth, one other American couple). For us the change was a step or two down in quality – the perfect organization and spot-on guidance wasn’t there, and unlike Egypt we seemed to be shuffled into more eating and shopping situations that felt like rip-offs. It wasn’t a bad tour so that’s all I say on that, though it did help us appreciate even more how perfect a visit we had to Egypt!

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at Gadara with Sami our guide second from the left.

So, what did we see and do? Our five day itinerary had Petra towards the end so first we visited some Roman ruins in the vicinity of Amman at the northern end of Jordan. I suppose it’s obvious in hindsight but we were surprised by the extent of Roman sites here at this edge of their empire. We first saw Gadara which is perched over the east bank of the Jordan River overlooking modern Syria and Israel. This city is unique because a fair bit of construction was done using local black basalt. Like other sites we visited, this area is only partially excavated and probably has a rich trove of finds for archaeologists (who are absent for some reason).

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Liz orating at Gadara’s bouleuterion

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typical Jordanian meal!
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Roman columns over a flock of sheep near the Jordan River

The most extensive Roman site we saw is Jerash. This has impressive arched gateways, broad roads and central Forum, and several largely intact temples. It’s fun to see cities like this where it’s fairly easy to imagine it alive and bustling: busy streetside storefronts and food vendors, carts and chariots on the roads, working fountains, crowded theaters.

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An obligatory tour stop in Jordan is the Dead Sea which is on the border with Palestine and Israel. I have to say it was a lot more entertaining than I expected. When they say you float more than usual, they mean by a lot. You can feel yourself being buoyed up when you’re only knee deep! The salinity and minerals make the water feel strangely oily on your skin as well.

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Jordan may be a Muslim country but it covers a fair bit of early Christian sites, including where Jesus was baptized on the east bank of the River Jordan. We didn’t go there but we did see a few other noteworthy locations. The Basilica of Saint George in Madaba contains a 6th century mosaic floor map that, when it was uncovered 120 years ago, helped pinpoint the baptism site and more. From there we went to Mt. Nebo where Moses got his glimpse of the Promised Land before passing on; there is another early church here with extensive mosaics.

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part of the St George mosaic

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a view over a rainy Dead Sea from Mt Nebo – Jerusalem is just visible on the left

Christianity also made its mark here later – and somewhat more obtrusively – by Crusading around. We visited Karak Castle in the middle of Jordan which served many masters including the Second Crusader Raynald of Châtillon. Later on it was home to some Ottoman Turks. Here’s where a quick note on the weather comes in because wow, did you know that it gets freezing cold in the Middle East? Our tour brought us to higher elevations just as rain and high winds moved in. That castle was drafty and cold. We rushed around to see the interesting nooks and crannies before anyone perished (Elaine’s umbrella was KIA though).

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Day four of Jordan and we were at Petra! Thankfully the rain held off for us; it was brisk out but not unpleasant. Now Petra has what might be the best opening scene of any ancient site we’ve been to. One walks down a gradually narrowing and winding steep-walled canyon marked with occasional carvings, hearing about how the Nabataeans selected and maintained this site as a defensible city and trading hub. You travel the same entry route as visiting camel caravans, seeing the extensive water channels cut into the rock to supply the settlement with water, and the various dams built to deflect flash floods. After 1.5km the canyon tightens, darkens, and then opens up dramatically on the famed facade of the Petra Treasury! (It’s not actually a treasury, it’s a tomb, like most of the structures in Petra that persist today.)

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a water supply channel carved into the sandstone wall

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the shot that Every Petra Tourist has: the Treasury peeking through the canyon

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The best was yet to come, however, as we happily discovered that there is far more to Petra than just this well-known view. From the Treasury onward a large valley opens up to extensive tombs, carvings, and temples. There is original Nabataean construction layered over by later occupying Romans once they finally cracked the city’s defenses. We had a great day exploring the beautiful ruins which are surrounded by scenic hills and canyons. The sandstone of Petra has amazing ripples of color which pop out anywhere the Nabataeans carved into the walls.

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Elaine and Eli(z/s)abeth catching a camel scene
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really cool rock, right?

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here’s what an interior of a Petra tomb looks like

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stairs carved in the canyon walls

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hilltop ad-Deir Monastery

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Our final major destination was the southern Jordanian desert valley of Wadi Rum. This uniquely scenic area, with stark rock formations climbing out of reddish sand, was frequented by T.E. Lawrence during the Arab Revolt and later used for much of the filming of Lawrence of ArabiaIt’s home to Bedouin tribes who cash in on the hype by hosting tourists like us for jeep tours and overnight camping in traditional tent villages.

Our introductory ‘jeep’ tour was actually not in jeeps at all but rather on benches in the beds of old 4×4 pickups. Totally fine except that it was still really cold!! We had fun bouncing around anyway. Then the four of us were dropped off at the camp while the rest of the group headed back to a hotel in Amman. This was optional, we asked each other? Camping is fun, but not when it’s literally freezing…

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us six Americans in the bed of an old hilux

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We made the best of it and had a good time. A sunset camel ride (“there’s nothing else to do”, we told each other) was actually very beautiful. We managed to move our icy fingers enough to eat a delicious traditional lamb dinner, and then huddled up in our fancy en-suite tent under layers of clothing and extra blankets. If the weather had been warmer, this actually would have been quite glamorous!

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our Bedouin camp at Wadi Rum

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This about wrapped up our tour. We bumped our way back up to Amman and visited a couple sites in the city – they have an interesting hilltop citadel with ruins from many different civilizations starting from the bronze age, and a very intact Roman theater. We enjoyed our last evening with our new friends Kurt and Beth and reflected on our amazing experiences over the past couple weeks in Egypt and Jordan. We’re really glad we made the small leap it took for all of us to decide to visit these amazing countries!

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Historic Hodgepodge in Luxor and Cairo

The previous post got us to our furthest point south in Egypt: Abu Simbel, almost to Sudan. All along we had been following the Nile from north to south, or from Lower to Upper Egypt. (Think higher/lower in elevation rather than position as we’re used to seeing on a north-up map; Upper and Lower Egypt were the two ancient kingdoms united by the Pharaohs.) Now it was time to turn around and head downriver, hitting some sites we passed by on the sleeper train a couple days ago.

Our first step, of course, was retracing our 3 hour drive through Sahara sands from Abu Simbel back to Aswan. In the afternoon we went for a lovely felucca sail down the Nile, having dinner and overnight on the boat. This was nice, but also a bit uncomfortable as it got quite cold before dawn (below 10C). The more rambunctious folks apparently like this segment because it involves a night bonfire + beach party, but we were all too old and weary for that sort of thing – besides, there’s a lot more to see tomorrow!

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a felucca boat on the Nile

Day 5 was one of my favorites. We continued downriver by bus towards Luxor, stopping at two temples along the way: Kom Ombo and Edfu. The former is dedicated to the crocodile god of fertility Sobek and the latter the falcon-headed god Horus. Both have fantastic carvings on well-preserved walls, and both gave us a good sense of what these temples have experienced over the years: graffiti from the armies of passing empires, horse and camel tie-offs cut into the stone at various heights marking the level of encroaching sand, and (sadly) quite a lot of defacing by early Christian squatters.

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Mahmoud in front of Kom Ombo
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look at the colors!

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Elaine and her mother at the Temple of Horus in Edfu

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the inner sanctuary of polished granite and (replica) boat figure

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We arrived at Luxor mid-afternoon, had a break at our nice hotel along the Nile, and then went down the road at twilight to see Luxor Temple lit up at night. This was another great experience – the temple is beautiful, adorned with huge columns, big Ramesses II statues (of course), and our first obelisk looking pristine enough to have been carved yesterday. Luxor Temple also shows its accumulation of years: a mosque sits atop some of the temple columns (once at ‘ground level’ before the sand was cleared) beneath which is an even older Coptic church. Greek graffiti and Roman artwork cover some of the walls (it’s not often one finds a still-colored Roman fresco to be an annoying obstruction) and Alexander the Great is depicted in Egyptian garb paying homage to the gods.

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Luxor’s entrance at night

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Eli(z/s)abeth takes a photo

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Day 6: we’re getting there! Early in the dark we crossed the Nile to the west bank for a sunrise hot air balloon ride over Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. Elaine and I were both really excited, having tried unsuccessfully to go ballooning before. It was fantastic! The sky lightened as a dozen or so balloons filled up and lifted off; soon we were in the air with them. We had a great view of the green swath of the Nile, Luxor city to the east and abrupt transition to the Sahara on the west. After getting a birds-eye view of some temples and ruins, an unexpected bonus was sailing low over open homes and courtyards where we got a voyeuristic view into regular Egyptian life: corn drying on rooftops, various livestock in walled rooms, dark soil being tilled for planting. Our skilled pilot set us gently down near the house of Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered King Tut’s tomb nearby.

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Nile on the left and the Valley of the Kings on the right

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This was only the beginning of a whirlwind day: we followed up with the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, three tombs in the Valley of the Kings, a couple more in the nearby Worker’s Village, and finally the massive temple complex of Karnak. These were all special and awesome places. Hatshepsut’s Temple is a stark and imposing edifice jutting from sandstone cliffs, so complete (thanks to some restoration efforts) that it looks like a movie set. Her statues – bearded in homage to the traditions of patriarchal society, yet feminine in structure and facial features – line the facade. Inside are some incredible preserved colors on carved walls and ceilings.

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Temple of Hatshepsut

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The tombs, where unfortunately photos aren’t allowed, are covered top to bottom in gloriously painted carvings with colors unfaded over the thousands of years. Also, unlike the interiors of the pyramids, these tombs have plenty of headroom as you head deep into the valley rock, a feature both impressive and appreciated (by me)!

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at the Worker’s Village, under which we saw some vibrant tombs

Karnak – our final temple of the day – has a sprawl is rivaled only by Cambodia’s Angkor when it comes ancient religious sites (and Angkor wasn’t built until 9th century AD). We only got to see a small portion of the complex but we covered the most famous sections including several obelisks and the incredible towering Hypostyle Hall of 134 enormous and closely-packed columns. Our guide did a great job explaining and showing the details and intricacies of Egyptian engineering and construction involved. I was already in awe of their capabilities beforehand, but it got even better here!

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Karnak was busy with Egyptian schoolkids

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all the kids want photos with us tourists…

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This marathon day ended with a 4-hour drive from Luxor to Hurghada, a resort city on the Red Sea, for a bit of R&R. Originally we intended to get in some diving or snorkeling, but with the long day beforehand and a early flight the next we chose to lounge around and enjoy the all-inclusive food and drink. It was quite nice, but I think in hindsight we might have preferred to stay an extra couple nights in Luxor for a bit more sightseeing and rest without the extra drive. But I can’t complain as it was such an excellent trip overall, and we needed a bit of rest and relaxation.

Our 8th and last full day in Egypt got us back to Cairo early by plane and we went right into a city tour. This covered some of Old Cairo: very early and unique Coptic churches, a synagogue, and the huge Mosque of Muhammad Ali (different guy, not the boxer). The churches are quite old (4th-5th century), set on and around older Roman structures, and have absolutely astonishing intricate panelings of wood and ivory. One of these sites – St Sergius and St Bacchus Church – is built around a crypt where Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus are said to have rested during their travels.

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The Mosque of Muhammad Ali is set atop the hillside Citadel and has an expansive view of smoggy yet somewhat attractive Cairo with numerous minarets breaking up the skyline. The building is huge, with  beautiful alabaster and marble on the exterior and orate ceilings on the interior. Along with the history of the site, our guide Mahmoud gave us a great summary on daily Muslim life and the difference between Sunni and Shiite.

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Elaine and Elizabeth dressed for mosque

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hazy Cairo skyline

We ended our tour of Cairo with a stroll through the touristy Khan el-Khalili bazaar. This was not my favorite market I’ve been to, but it is one of the more attractive and historical ones. After tiring of trinket stalls we filled our time looking at the local cats.

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Whew! That lets us close on Egypt with some last street shawarma and falafel and a couple cold beers in our comfy Tahrir Square hotel. Our tour continues into Jordan but already we can uneqivocally say that this segment has been one of the most stupendous and rewarding of our global journey. It’s hard to believe that I was initially doubtful we would hit Africa at all, and now some of our best experiences have come from this amazing continent! I shouldn’t be surprised, though – that’s what traveling is about.

Specifics: we toured with Encounters Travel. As I mentioned, we rarely do the group tour thing but in this case it was excellent: extremely organized, well executed and staffed, and great fellow travelers (12 of us in all). Not having to worry about travel logistics gave us the energy to see so much more, and we learned a great deal from Mahmoud. This company seems to have great guides: we had a separate guy the first day who was spot on, Mahmoud for the rest of Egypt (great disposition, pace, and knowledge), and our friends who recommended this tour in the first place had a third Egyptologist who they also raved about. And about safety… obviously we’re no experts on the issue after a handheld and sheltered week of travel but we never felt remotely unsafe. Seeing some terrible events unfold back in the States and other “safe” countries during our travels reminds us that misfortune can occur anywhere, and I’m sure glad we didn’t let fear keep us away. Come visit Egypt before tourism picks all the way back up and these beautiful sites become mobbed again!

A Few Days Along the Nile

Visiting Egypt – is that a good idea these days? For a while we hadn’t even considered it as part of our globetrotting options. We’d certainly like to go, but save it for later when it’s less scary. Then over the summer we met an American couple in Vietnam who had found a good deal on a tour, so we followed their progress with a bit of skepticism. Sure it might be really cheap, but is it foolish to go? Awfully hard to really know with today’s media. Well they not only survived but they had a great time, and this pushed us off the fence with added momentum coming from Elaine’s enthusiastic mom who has been dying to visit. She (Elizabeth) and her friend (Elisabeth) jumped on board to join this leg and thankfully did much of the planning for us.

Booking with a tour company is a rarity for us, but in this case we wouldn’t have dreamed of coming here on our own. With tourism in Egypt at 30% of historical levels (having already rebounded from a dismal 10%) it wasn’t difficult to find a price and time that worked for us on short notice. This of course removed the logistics burden, and so we didn’t think much about this visit until we left Greece and rendezvoused with the Eli(z/s)abeths in Cairo. As soon as we caught sight of the Giza pyramids through the dusk and smog we knew we were in for an amazing time.

So: time to crush our record for most ancient site we’ve visited! Until quite recently the oldest significant ruins that we had seen came from a mere 2500 years ago in Italy. We beat that by a millenium last month with Mycenae in Greece. That’s still nowhere close, however, to the oldest structures we would find here in Egypt: 2700BC, nearly 5 millenia ago. It’s astonishing, then, how well some of them have held up. A combination of dry climate, submersion in protective sand dunes, and robust civil engineering has done the trick. The Egyptians didn’t always succeed in their building endeavors but they sure had a lot of techniques perfected a long long time before most other civilizations!

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Our guide Mahmoud in front of Khafre’s Pyramid

My exposure to ancient Egypt prior to visiting was similar to Greece and Rome: I’d seen a number of the sites we were to visit in various history and art classes, picking up a (fuzzy and incomplete) sense of the culture and history. As such I was prepared for the usual: amazement at the unexpected, combined with slight letdowns from wonders less impressive than imagined. I found plenty of the former but none of the latter – ancient Egypt does not disappoint! From the massive pyramids to the delicate treasures and everything in between, we were continually awestruck as we bounced from site to site along the Nile.

We began our first day of a packed itinerary by visiting the necropolis of Saqqara, our oldest site, south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. This marks the beginning of pyramids with Zoser’s step pyramid, built by the architect Imhotep (later revered as a god, good work fella!). Our approach to the site was exactly as you would envision: the lush Nile valley and hazy city behind and below us, barren sand and rock of the Sahara ahead, the occasional camel and donkey with traditionally-clothed men hoping to snag some cash for a photo or ride. The ancient gateway, quite intact, is very at home in this environment. Our very first close look was jaw-dropping: a wall stones fit together seamlessly as if machine-cut yesterday.

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entrance to the necropolis
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Zoser’s Pyramid

Saqqara also introduced us to some well-preserved Egyptian wall carvings in the tomb of Mereruka (very precise and detailed) and gave an opportunity to head down into the burial chamber of another pyramid (Teti). It’s not everyday you’re inside a pyramid! No photos allowed inside these, unfortunately. After Saqqara we zipped over to Memphis, formerly a city and now a small fenced in area with some very nice carvings, sarcophagi, and the massive and masterfully carved Colossus of Ramesses II. This Pharaoh was one of the most successful and prolific, he has his face all over ancient Egypt.

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heading downhill into Teti’s Pyramid!

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sphinx of (possibly) queen Hatshepsut, in Memphis
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a sarcophagus lid

Still on day 1 and over to Dashur for some slighly newer pyramids (~2600BC) where the Egyptians figured out how to work the kinks out of building these structures. The large Red Pyramid gave us another shot to clamber down inside – much further this time – to some impressive high vaulted ceilings for the burial area. We closed our first day with some shishkebab at a restaurant overlooking the Giza plateau so we could see the sunset over the Sphinx and and Great Pyramids. Amazing.

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from the side of the Red Pyramid

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The Bent Pyramid

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We saw a LOT so it seems excessive to give each day a play-by-play, yet every site was so unique and impressive that it’s hard not to. I’ll do my best! Day 2 was Giza necropolis and then the Egyptian Museum at Tahrir Square. At Giza we wandered around Khufu’s Great Pyramid – huge, awesome, unbelievable – and then hitched a camel ride past Khafre’s Pyramid (only slightly smaller) to Menkaure’s pyramid, which we went inside. The camel ride was actually a lot of fun and the perfect duration at 20 minutes or so – I don’t really want to be on a camel any longer than that.

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at the base of the Great Pyramid

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After the pyramids we visited the Sphinx, as grand and noble as imagined. The Egyptian Museum, while a bit of a disorganized mess in some corners, was also very nice. Despite the best efforts of grave robbers (and the British) a great deal of magnificent items remain here in Egypt and on display. From the museum we swung by the hotel for a brief break where we had a rare chance to grab some street food: delicious shawarma and falafel. Then it was over to the Giza Rail Station to begin our overnight journey up the Nile to Aswan.

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The night train was actually pretty nice, which came as a pleasant surprise after seeing the insanely packed and riotous regular cars which rolled out of the station with people still clinging to the outside of the jammed doorways. Nobody fell off (as far as we could see) and I actually felt a bit guilty with the couple of square meters we had to ourselves for the night.

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our group getting off the train in Aswan

Once in Aswan we explored the local section of the Nile. It’s a picturesque area with clean waters, green banks and islands, and sandy hills rising to the west. We checked out the famous high dam and the huge expanse of artificial Lake Nasser behind it, then visited islandic Philae Temple which is one of many ancient sites that were relocated – block by block after being cut apart – to protect them from the new water level. We found some decent coffee on the island (thank God, we needed it!) and got a good laugh when a cunning cat swatted Elisabeth’s ice cream out of her hand. Ever cat-friendly, Elisabeth kindly broke up the remains into even portions for the ensuing feline feeding frenzy.

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approaching Philae Temple from the water

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an Egyptian column with a more recent Coptic cross carved in

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Our evening was a bit of an odd one when we visited a waterfront Nubian ethnic village for dinner. Dinner was delicious tagine dishes but first we had to endure a gauntlet of market stalls, Chinese tourists on camels (one fell off in front of us, not good), and dancing singing children that then morphed into a pack of bloodthirsty tip hounds. It was a bit much.

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on the boat ride to our dinner

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Day Four was a 4:30am departure to make the long round trip to Abu Simbel, a famed temple close to the border with Sudan. This massive site was carved into a sandstone hill along the Nile by the ubiquitous Ramesses II in 1260BC, and with the creation of Nasser Lake in the 70’s also had to be sawed apart, moved uphill a few hundred meters, and reassembled. The task of moving this huge carved structure seems to me even more daunting than creating it in the first place! The long drive was well worth it because along with the iconic facade Abu Simbel has some amazing carvings inside detailing Ramesses II’s exploits.

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two of the four massive Ramesses II statues guarding Abu Simbel

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Eli(z/s)abeth looking at Ramesses II smiting his enemies

I’ll cut it off here – you might be getting sleepy – and leave the latter portion of Egypt to a second post. You’d think after seeing the pyramids early on the remainder would be a bit of a letdown but that’s not the case. Ancient Egypt is fantastic!