Cruising the Nile was a dream come true, what better to appreciate this magnificent river than on a luxurious boat with all the comforts of home and more. Four days of beautiful scenery, passing by towns where the call to prayer echoes out across the valley. Egyptians go about their business and children play on river bank waving out happily as you pass by.
I boarded my 4 story cruise boat in Aswan and sailed up the Nile to Luxor stopping along the way at temples and docking overnight at Edfu. It was an amazing four days of wonderful sights, fantastic service and beautiful meals.
Another way to cruise the Nile is by felucca, a cute sail boat that relies on the cool breeze of the Nile to push them along, zig zaging across the river to make the most of the wind. No plunge pool with bar service or day spa though but still quite lovely I am told. I was the only one in my tour group that took the upgrade and even though they sailed a day earlier my boat passed them within 30 minutes of leaving Aswan.
When you go to Egypt this is certainly one of the adventures that is a must, either by cruise boat or felucca it will be an incredible journey.
A trip to the Alexandria Library is well worth the visit, it is a magnificent building that has an amazing goal and purpose. While this new library may never be able to replace the knowledge lost when the Great Library was destroyed many centuries ago, they will certainly succeed in preserving knowledge for many centuries to come.
The goal of this place of knowledge is to house every single piece of literature ever publish, ambitious as it sounds they are accomplishing exactly that every day. Aside from rows of bookshelves and study cubicles, at the heart of the building large servers run 24/7 downloading and archiving new publications. Embracing the technology of today as well as the passion for knowledge, a fitting replacement for the Great Library that once stood near by.
Like any other library you will find students studying, locals wondering in to check out a book or browsing the catalogues and of course everyone is doing it quietly. It would have to be one of the most quiet places in Egypt. Believe me a quiet place in this country is very hard to find.
If you are ever lucky enough to visit Alexandria take some time to visit the Alexandria Library. The Library is not only for book lovers but for art lovers also, historic printing presses, contemporary art and sculptures are all on display. I’m quite sure my I.Q jumped up a few points after spending time amongst all that history and knowledge. Enjoy!
Next stop was a visit to Pompey’s Pillar, a giant roman pillar built on a rock terrace guarded by two sphinx and surrounded by Alexandria suburbia. While it may be named after Pompey a Roman general who fled Rome following a clash with Cesar it was not built for him. It was believed that the pillar marked the place of burial for Pompey who died in Egypt around 48 BC but the pillar was actually built centuries later for the Roman Emperor Diocletian as symbol of victory following a revolt in Alexandria around 300 AD. The downfall of the Ptolomaic dynasty led to Egypt being conquered and ruled by Rome until it was liberated by the Arabs around 640 AD. I use the term liberated because it was the Egyptian people who sort help from the Arabs to rid Egypt of the Romans.
Before the 30 meter granite pillar was built this place was actually a grand temple dedicated to the god Serapis. Known as the Serapeum or Alexandria acropolis it was destroyed by Christians in 391AD and what remains of it are the foundations and underground tunnels that were used to house the priests of the temple. The tunnels are open to visitors but there is not much to see, many of the artifacts that survived have been removed but an Apis bull is still in place in one of the underground tunnels.
I loved that this place sits in the heart of a residential area perhaps much like it would have been centuries ago but without the apartment buildings and satellite tv dishes. A typical Egyptian home is not complete with out the days washing hanging on the line outside the living room window and satellite dishes dotting the roofs. I feel like I was able to see into both past and present Egyptian living as I wondered around the foundations of what must have been an amazing place of worship.
In the past I have been quite happy to travel on my own but for the first time I decided to do a tour for the Egypt part of my travels. I’m so glad I did, not only did it provide me with an easy and safe way to travel through the country I also made some great friends who I am still in touch with today. We were a small group and met for the first time in a hotel lobby in Giza only 20 minutes before the start of our tour. When talking over lunch we discovered that each of us were worried that we would be stuck with weirdos however this was not the case for us as we all clicked right away and had the best time together.
We travelled for 2 weeks together and had a fantastic time, it was great to be able to visit incredible places and share the experience with one another. I remember traveling through Cambodia and standing in front of Ankgor Watt in complete awe and not having anyone to turn to tell them how much I loved that I was in this amazing place. Where ever we went each of us would just look at each other and smile in amazement at the magnificent places we were lucky enough to visit. It was great to be able to converse about the history and culture with each other, we were learning and best of all having so much fun together. Our guide Mohamed always referred to a family and it certainly felt that way.
On reflection I think we connected so well because as we got to know each other better it was apparent that we were all starting new chapters in lives. This trip represented a mile stone for each of us and the beginning of something new. I was blessed to meet these exceptionally kind and fun people and will make sure I will always stay in touch.
My trip to Alexandria was on my second day in Egypt, my first day was spent resting up by the pool with a fantastic view of the pyramids to help me bounce back from my 14 hour journey from Hong Kong via Amman, Jordan. I arrived in Cairo a few days earlier so that I could fit Alexandria into my trip. Named after Alexander The Great this port city of Egypt is famous for it’s grand library, magnificent light house and the legendary romance between Cesar, Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. You would be missing out if you came to Egypt and didn’t visit this interesting and historic city on the Mediterranean Sea.
The rest day was a good move as I would be up bright and early to meet my guide in the hotel lobby for the 3 hour drive to Alexandria. This would also be my first introduction to life on the road in Egypt which is another experience all together. I think if you can drive in Egypt and survive with out a dent in your car then you could probably drive anywhere in the world. The road to Alexandria seemed to be one long strait highway, wide enough for two or three lanes however lacking the white lines and order we have here on New Zealand roads. No one seems to use indicators they just seem to drift off into another lane tooting their horns to let other cars know they are coming. Absolute chaos but somehow it works!
On the way we passed a military base that seemed to go on forever and a large prison that no one would want to be a guest at. My guide Mohamed mentioned that he had been in the army as it is compulsory but the length depended on your education. The maximum time you had to serve was four years but he had attended university so only had to stay in for one year, high school level would stay in for two years, limited high school the full four. During his time in the army he had trained in the air force as para jumper, which is basically learning to jump out of a plane and fire a gun. Now he makes his living as a tour guide and is a qualified Egyptologist, such a contrast to a military life.
Our first stop in Alexandria was the the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa an ancient cemetery dating back to 1st century AD which was discovered by accident in 1900 by a wayward donkey. The donkey had fallen into a ditch in his distress had urinated which washed away sand reveling some steps. Further excavation would uncover the entrance and a spiral stair case leading down into the catacombs that had lain undisturbed for centuries. There are three levels but only access to the first and second is possible because the third is underwater. It is thought that this catacomb was originally a private tomb but at some stage was opened up to the public and in use until the 4th century A.D. Over 100 mummies were found inside and have since been removed so they can be properly preserved, they were even able to identify all of the deceased which is quite remarkable.
The spiral stair case surrounds a huge shaft which would have been used to lower the bodies into the catacombs, holes cut into the sides of shaft provides natural sunlight to give some visibility as you descend to the lower levels. Once inside the lower levels there are a number of different chambers. One chamber is referred to as the banquets hall which is where people would have gathered when visiting or placing their loved ones in the catacombs. The main chambers were beautiful with murals showing the goddess Isis, Horus and the Apis bull, the Greek goddess Medusa even makes an appearance along with images of the cobra and the winged sun disks that is ever present in all things ancient Egyptian. I think the most interesting thing was seeing representation of Roman, Greek and Egyptian in the artistry of the chambers. The clothing of depicted looked Egyptian but the hair and face would be Roman style. Medusa is from Greek mythology who could turn you stone just by looking into her eyes, perhaps her presence here was to act as some kind of guardian.
I thought it would feel creepy visiting this place considering that so many had been laid to rest here but it was just so interesting exploring the chambers and admiring the ancient art work. It is amazing that this place was able to survive over the centuries especially considering the flooding and earthquakes. Well worth a visit and as it was the low season I was lucky enough to have the place basically to myself and my guide Mohamed.
In ancient times the Egyptians worshiped those they loved and creatures they feared, that is why on the shores of the Nile you will find a temple dedicated to crocodile god Sobek and Haroeris a form of the falcon headed god Horus. This temple is unique in that it’s design was duplicated to accommodate a place of worship for both gods. It’s like it was a place where good and evil coexisted side by side to balance each other out, the right side dedicated to Sobek and the left to Haroeris. Damaged by earthquakes, Nile floods and time parts of it have been lost forever however strong columns, beautiful hieroglyphics and evidences of it’s innovative design still stand today.
This part of the Nile was known for a great place for crocodiles to hang out and sun themselves on the river banks while terrorizing locals at the same time. To foster good relationships with these fearsome creatures of river the temple of Kom Ombo was built in their honor during the reign of Ptolomey VI. Over 300 mummified crocodiles were found buried around the temple and some are on display at the museum next door. Just in case you are wondering there are no more crocodiles in this part of the Nile, they are all living happily behind the High Dam. This was one of my first questions I asked my very amused guide, same goes for the hippopotamus.
It would seem the temple priests were not the most honest and this temple is a fine example of how crafty they were. The design of the temple enabled the priests to be able to see clearly into the courtyard while they were nicely concealed in the shadows of the inner sanctuaries. When a wealthy noble was seen entering the temple he would be invited into the inner sanctuary where he could make a personal offering to the gods. Once inside this person would hear the voice of a god speak to him with promises of wonderful things, only one catch, it all depended on how abundant his offering was. Unknown to the wealthy noble was that a priest would be hidden in a secret chamber in the walls of the sanctuary, scamming him the whole time. This secret chamber also had a hidden passage that lead to the outer walls of the temple, a perfect escape route. By the time the noble emerged from the temple after his divine encounter the priest were well shot of the sanctuary, providing them a perfect alibi, they must have made a killing.
When exploring the walls of the temple my guide pointed out a section and asked me to guess what I thought the inscriptions represented, to my surprise I found myself looking at what seemed to be surgical tools. To his surprise also as not many people guess correctly. It was the forceps and blades that gave it away but on closer inspection I could also make out what looked like a drill. Is it possible that brain surgery was also attempted back in ancient times? It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest after all the Egyptians built the pyramids, great temples and had the mummification process down, so why not brain surgery.
This temple was one of the first stops on my Nile cruise, we left Aswan around lunchtime and arrived just before sunset. The Nile would have to be one of the best places in the world to watch the sun go down. While this temple is not as well preserved as others it is still worth a visit, especially at sunset. Stories of crooked priests, crocodiles and gods are all here amongst broken ruins bathed in golden sunlight on the banks of the Nile.
Throughout my travels in Egypt mosques were a dominant presence. If I didn’t see one I certainly knew was close by the call to prayer ringing out from a minaret some where nearby. Finally on my last day in Egypt I had the opportunity to visit one which was a great way to end my journey through this remarkable country. I have always been curious about what a mosque would be like to visit and traveling in a country where Islam is the majority religion only increased it.
The Mosque I visited was built for Muhammad Ali, a beautiful mosque made from alabaster and limestone. When visiting Alexandria my guide Mohamed had pointed out a grand statue of a man riding a horse in the town square. It was of Muhammed Ali a commander in the Ottoman Empire who ended the French occupation of Egypt and then became the countries ruler, his dynasty would rule Egypt for over a century. Externally the building is quite impressive especially the courtyard tiled completely of alabaster, but it was what I felt and found inside the Mosque that really moved me.
The inside of the Mosque was absolutely stunning, it felt as though I had stepped into a completely different world. It was so open and spacious, the high domes decorated in gold and blue was like staring up into the heavens. Serene is what it was like, so peaceful and calm with people just chilling out on the floor enjoying the space. One of the best vibes I have ever experienced when visiting a religious place and I certainly visited a few during my travels through the Middle East.
Haram was a word that I learnt that day. Sitting in a cafe after my mosque visit the Friday prayer session was being broadcast live. I watched as Muslims prayed and then a sermon was delivered to the hundreds in the mosque and the millions across Egypt watching the same broadcast as me. When speaking his emotions changed dramatically and the word that stood out was haram as it was spoken with such an authority and force. I asked Mohamed what it meant and what it was in reference to. He explained that it meant something that is forbidden as it goes against Alah and the sermon being delivered was about ISIS.
Thinking about a past interview I watched where a CNN reporter asked a really stupid question to a very intelligent theology professor who also happened to be a Muslim. “Why does Islam promote violence?” his response stuck with me and I now understand it more than I did the day that I watched the interview. “Religion is neither violent or peaceful it is just religion, it’s what people bring to it that can make it violent or peaceful.
That statement is so true and I really got it that day standing in the mosque, like a light bulb being switched on. When I entered the mosque I felt peace and tranquility it was absolutely amazing. A similar thing happened when standing on Mount Zion at the tomb of Jesus Christ or before the tomb of King David. While these historic religious places are all very beautiful I don’t think they actually have any ethereal presence, after all they are just made of stone. I think it was the energy of the people around me reacting to these places, positive, peaceful and love projected out for all to feel. That is what these people brought with them that day and what I was lucky enough to pick up on.
For me this hasn’t been about searching for a religion that I want to convert to and embrace. It’s about learning and making up my own mind up about what Islam represents. Peace, equality, family unity, self reflection and empathy for those less fortunate were the lessons learnt. I have enjoyed learning about Islam and grateful to the kind Muslims that I met during my travels who helped me learn about their beautiful and diverse religion.
My learning has not stopped with my travels and I am currently reading a book written by the intelligent theology professor I mentioned earlier named Reza Aslan. His book No God But God is an interesting read about the history and future of Islam.
If you have been reading my posts you will be aware of how much I loved my travels through the Middle East especially Egypt, but there is a dark side that needs to be acknowledge. During my time there I learnt about their history and visited amazing temples, tombs and great Pyramids. I also learnt about the countries revolutions and gained insight into their culture, ancient gods and Islam. The dark side of Egypt is FGM which is still practiced today even though it has been outlawed.
Prior to traveling to Egypt I came across an article in a magazine that talked about Female Genital Mutilation practices and Egypt was mentioned as a country that had extremely high rates. According to the article 92% of women in Egypt had been subjected to this barbaric and inhumane practice. Not wanting this article to be my single source of truth I looked for more information on Egyptian women and FGM. Focussing on Egyptian publications I found a barrage of information that was consistent with my original article. When I eventually arrived in Egypt I was overwhelmed at the prospect that I was actually here and set off on my adventures, however in the back of my mind I also had an objective, I wanted to speak to an Egyptian about what I had read.
I remember traveling through Luxor and passing a family coming out of a building. In the arms of a young boy was a girl who wouldn’t have been more than 7 years old, she was crying and looked to be in pain. As our van slowly passed this family I hoped that she was crying because she was unwell with the flu, that little girls face still haunts me today. Summer time is when FGM is more likely to happen as the holidays provide time for the girls to recover.
Part way through my travels in Egypt I met someone who I felt comfortable enough to ask about FGM, he had talked quite openly about politics and religion so I broached the question. What was to follow was a personal story about his mother and younger sister. His mother had gone through this procedure when she was a young girl and when her daughter was 9 years old she wanted to carry on the tradition. Fortunately for this young girl she had an older brother who took it upon himself to stand up for his sister and protect her. At the age of 15 years old the person sitting opposite me stood up to his parents and managed to persuade his mother against inflicting this atrocious procedure on her young daughter. He asked her to think about the pain and trauma that she had endured throughout her life because of what had been done to her. He then asked why she would want to do the same to her own daughter. The courage and love this person showed for his younger sister was quite moving not to mention inspirational, it also wasn’t the story that I expected to hear. Not only had he saved his younger sister from a life of pain and suffering he also managed to break the cycle of FGM in his family.
We discussed why he felt it occurred so often in Egyptian society and his perspective was that it was rooted in culture and tradition. There is nothing in Qur’an about female genital mutilation and this practice is also committed by Christians, his family was actually Christian. FGM occurs in many countries throughout the Middle East and Africa it is also becoming a problem in western countries. Nor is it a religious issues but rather a human one that requires change through education and most of all more men like the person I was sitting with standing up and protecting their sisters, daughters and nieces from this barbaric practice.
Throughout my travels there were experiences and learnings that made me really appreciate the life I have. However what I am truly grateful for is the wonderful people I met along the way who shared their stories about their own experiences to help me grow and learn. The story of a young man protecting his sister also restores my faith in humanity which is one of the kindest gifts you can ever bestow on someone. One person can make a difference in someones life, all we need is for more to realize this and stand up for those in need.