Saturday, July 6, 2019

In the Land of Pharaohs

Two things comes to your mind when you think of Egypt: Pyramid – the wonder of the ancient world, and the blue river along whose bank a great civilization flourished. 

According to Arab legend when God created nations it gifted it with counterbalanced qualities. Syrians received intelligence with fatuousness, Iraqis got pride for hypocrisy, and Arabs had good health in return for hardship. To Egypt he gave abundance at the cost of humility. Cleopatra VII Philopator (51 BC – 30 BC), the beautiful and charming queen of the mighty Egyptian Empire, was anything but. That would turn out to be her Achilles heel. Cleopatra managed to keep her empire together despite troubles from different quarters by forging powerful alliances through love, lust and war. It took an empire mightier than her to eventually trounce her. With the victory of Rome, the great empire came to an abrupt end. There are rumors that before Cleopatra committed suicide she unsuccessfully tried to help her son Caesarion to escape to India. On virtue of being amongst the oldest civilizations on earth, India and Egypt share an ancient connection. The Indian king Ashoka the Great mentions about Egyptian King Ptolemy-II in his edict. While Mahatma Gandhi and Saad Zaghloul shared the common vision of gaining independence from British Imperialism, Abdel Nasser and Jawaharlal Nehru shared the vision of Non-Alignment Movement to keep powerful nations at bay. With such a close-knit connection between the two nations, it was no wonder that Egypt was at the top of my bucket list.

Egypt is not known as a safe place for tourists, especially after terrorists slaughtered few tourists decades ago. Terrorism still exists, and there was an attack in a church couple of weeks before our travel. However, all these attacks are in no-go zones, away from the tourist places. There is heavy military security, which makes the tourist spots as unsafe as New York, London or New Delhi. The presence of militaries with machine guns might feel intimidating at times. I had a good friend and ex-colleague who live in Cairo with his wife and daughter. He assured us that there are no security issues in the places we plan to go. I trusted him. Thank Amun, I did! Egypt has always been one of my dream destinations, and I exultantly landed in Cairo International Airport on the winter of 2017 with my wife and six year old daughter. My daughter has already read about Pyramids, Pharos, and mummies. She was excited to be able to finally meet them. As we drove from the airport to our hotel through the bustling city and maniac street with the sound of the constant honking mixed with Azan reverberating in our ears, I felt the ancient connection at once. With a population of around 1.95 crores, this chaotic city is no different from Delhi. There was a mixture of ancient and modern architectures all round. As you drive through the downtown you will find plenty of brick walled houses that have not been painted, as these unfinished houses do not need to pay taxes. Just like Delhi, there were cars that did not follow lanes, and people who did not care about zebra crossing. The only difference between Cairo and Delhi was that there were donkeys on the road instead of cows. We reached Steigenberger Hotel in the evening and settled down for the night.

The next day was a big day as the oldest and the only remaining Seven Wonders of the Ancient World awaited us. Before boarding our car I went to the nearby back to exchange our currency and get Egyptian pound. US dollars are in high demand in Egypt, and go to the bank to get good rates. Our guide was waiting for us in the car. I would recommend taking a guide, without whom you would be lost amidst the giant piles of stone protruding out of the vast desert. There is also another advantage of taking a guide. He will save you from the unwanted attention of the local hawkers and camel drivers. Be careful about not letting anyone click your photo. They might charge you for it. The guide, however, would know the best photogenic spots.

The Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest of the three pyramids, and is also known as the Pyramid of Khufu after it’s creator Pharaoh Khufu (2589-2576 BC). The first thing that strikes you is the size and the age. It’s bigger than you thought. How on earth could a group of people build a 146.5m tall pyramid almost 5000 years ago? It took around 20,000 skilled labors, working for over 20 years, to put together 2.3 million blocks of stone to build what was then the tallest man-made structure anywhere on earth. No one could build anything taller for the next 3,800 years. The second most famous pyramid is the pyramid of Khefre built by Khufu’s son (2576-2552 BC). As you wander through the marvelous piece of architecture in the land of abundance, you wonder why. Why did someone attempt to build something like this? 

All pyramids are built on the west bank of river Nile at the site of setting sun, which has been associated with the realm of the dead. It is possible that the ancient Egyptians believed that the pointed shape of the pyramid helped launch the soul of deceased pharaoh directly into the abode of Gods. There is a common myth that there are mummies inside the pyramids. The pyramids are part of the Ancient Kingdom (2686–2181 BC) when the process of mummification was not yet invented. There are plenty of archaeological remains in Giza to take your entire day. Some of those worth mentioning are Pyramids of Queen, Pyramid of Menkaure, boat pit, tombs, temples and the solar boat museum. You can also enter the Great Pyramid, for which you need to buy tickets from the ticket office. Do get your ticket early as it is only restricted to few hundred people a day. One thing you cannot miss once you are in Giza is the Great Sphinx. Sphinxes are mythical creatures having body of a lion and head of a human. This particular one is said to have the face of Pharaoh Khafre, the king who ordered to build it with lots of pride. The Mamluks later destroyed the pride when they invaded. After having lunch in Giza with the view of the pyramids, we went to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.  It has breathtaking collection of Pharaonic antiquities, from statues, jewelries to even mummies. You are not allowed to take photographs in the special chamber where the mummies are displayed. One of the popular attractions here was the grand exhibition of the collection from Tutakhnamun’s tomb. These are now being shifted to the Grand Egyptian Museum that is planned to open in 2020.

Day three was the last day of 2017, which we kept for city tour. First we visited the Citadel of Cairo where you will also get to see the Alabaster Mosque of Mohamed Ali. The view of Cairo from the citadel is spectacular. Far away in the horizon you can see the pyramids peeping out behind the busy Cairo city. 

Our next stop was Coptic Cairo, part of old Cairo, which encompasses the Babylon Fortress, Coptic Museum, the Hanging Church, The Greek church of St. George and many other Coptic churches. It is believed that the Holy Family stayed this area with Baby Jesus. 

We spend the New Year’s eve with the family of our Egyptian friends in the lively El Moez Street with busy markets on either side. This is a good place to buy souvenirs if you can bargain. The special day called for a special dinner. Our friends took us to the Koshary Abou Tarek Restaurant, which served authentic Egyptian cuisines. Koshary is a must try if you visit this restaurant. Other local foods that are must try are hawawshi, fatteh, sayadeya and besarah.

At the first sunrise of 2018 we flew from Cairo to Aswan for a three-night cruise on River Nile. Herodotus said that Egypt was the gift of Nile. Without the river, there would be no Egypt. She drains almost 10% of the African continent. Nile, the longest river in the world, has influenced the culture of Egyptians. In fact, it created it. The Egyptian calendar is based on the three cycles of Nile. Each cycle, named Akhet, Paret and Shemu, consists of four months of 30 days each. Akhet is the flooding season, Paret is growing season and Shemu is the dry harvest season. 

We took lunch in our motor ship and then went for the felucca ride. It started as a relaxing ride passing by the botanical gardens and mausoleum of Aga Khan. There were boats of all shapes and sizes around us plying their business of fishing, transporting goods, ferrying locals, and luxury cruises. Our way back was against the strong wind the sailor maneuvered the felucca like a pendulum by tilting it to almost ninety degrees. As the boat swung left, we hurried with our hearts in our mouth towards the right, and then back towards the left when it swung the other way. Only later did we realize that he was having some fun with us innocent tourists, trying to paint some unforgettable memories that I still relish to this day. We returned to our cruise ship in the evening to sail for Kom Ombo.

The blue river takes a sharp bend around which the ancient city of Ombos sprang to life. The turn made it an important trading hub. Kom Ombo (180-47 BE) is a rare double temple dedicated to two sets of god. The south is dedicated to crocodile god Sobek, the god of fertility and creator of the world. The falcon god Haroeris had the north. Along the sandy beaches of Kom Ombo the crocodiles once used to sun themselves. Numerous crocodile mummies have unearthed from around the temple, which are now displayed in the crocodile museum of the temple. 

After Kom Ombo we returned to our cruise ship to sail towards Edfu. But our luck ran out and the ship in front of us got stuck in the silt. It took hours for the rescue boats to dig it out of trouble. By the time the ship ot out, it was too late. We sailed overnight for Luxor. We were enchanted by the view of Nile at night as the full moon showered her light upon it. That night the river turned into a magical world. Through our big glass window we could see the glittering waters of Nile, at the bank of which were the forts and palaces lit up as if the kings and queens were still celebrating the commencement of a new year.

It was day six when we visited the Valley of the Kings. This is the sacred valley where the mummified pharaohs of New Kingdom were secretly buried. 63 such tombs have been excavated so far. To enter the tombs one needs to get the ticket from the visitor center near the entrance. The ticket covers any four tombs. Most of the tombs are same. There are extra charges for the special tombs, like Tutankhamun. In fact, Tutankhamun’s burial chamber is one of the least impressive. It became popular because the archaeologists found it before the robbers did and thus got hold of the complete artifacts, which you would see in the museum anyway.  The entrances to the tombs are painted with colorful texts and illustrations from Book of the Dead. The beautiful paintings have mesmerized the onlookers for thousands of years. Other places in the world might claim to have produced beautiful paintings, but none cam claim to be this old. The book describes the Pharoah’s last journey through the 2 gates of the 12 hours of the night, plagued by nasty beings like serpents and crocodiles. Finally he arrives at the court of Osiris for confession. This it the nervous moment for the pharaoh as his heart is weighted for truthfulness and purity, as the dreadful monster awaits eagerly for the dead to fail the test. If he passes the test he would evade the torments of hell and get his ticket to heaven. Some of the most significant tombs are of Rameses IV, Ramesses III, Ramesses IX. Not far away are the valley of nobles and queens.

Our next stop was the Hatshepsut temple. This temple was very different from what we saw so far. The temple, with the rectangular pillars, looks very modern. This semi-circular temple is surrounded by mountains and is partially cut into the rocks. This first of its kind mortuary temple is dedicated to Queen Hatshepsut (1507-1458 BC), the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt. She is often called the first known great woman in history of the world. She married her half brother, and after his death she claimed the throne. The walls are painted with the stories from her life, including her divine birth. Unfortunately, there was a deliberate attempt of erasing her records later by pharaoh Amenhotep II. Many of her statues were defaced. 

Not far from the temple is the imposing Colossi of Memnon, the massive twin statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. From there we went to see the Temple of Rameses III. This grand temple was added to our itinerary as a compensation for missing the Edfu temple. I was told that this one is better than Edfu. This temple is important not only for the grand size and the beautiful paintings, but also for the history of rise and fall of Sea People that are depicted in the inscribed relicts.

After lunch we went to the gripping Karnak Temple (2055BC-100AD). It’s original name Ipet-Sut means ‘The most esteemed of Places’, and quite rightly so. The two rows of ram headed sphinxes on either side welcome you as you enter the temple complex. 

Karnak is one of the longest active temple, and also one of the largest. It is dedicated to Amun, Mut and Khonsu. If you look closely, in some of the cealings you would still find the ancient color intact. In addition to the main sanctuary there are other smaller temples and the large sacred lake. Form Karnak we drove to Luxur Temple, our last stop of the grand tour. There was once an avenue of human headed sphinxes that connected the two temples. You could imagine the juggernaut celebrations that happened here annually during the Opet festival. Dressed up Egyptians paraded through this street carrying the huge statues of Amun and Mut to re-enact their holy marriage. This old sacred path is now being renovated. Luxor, the city of hundred gates, was the capital of Egypt from the twelfth dynasty (1991 BCE). The temple has been in use till present day. During the Christan era the hypostyle hall was converted to a church. Later, the Mosque of Sufi Shaykh Yusuf Abu al-Hajjaj was built over it.

What fascinated me about Egypt is its grandness. It is like a magical land that popped straight out of the fairy tale book. The strange world of pharaohs and their attempt of immortality, the splendid Gods, the imposing Pyramids and the vibrant temples, they are mysterious, scary and charming at the same time. It is dismaying to see the fall of the grand civilization and the struggles of modern Egypt. According a 2015 survey 27.8% of Egyptians live below national poverty line of EGP 482 (~2000INR).

But, deep in their heart they are still revolutionary. They threw out a dictator in 2011, and later removed the conservative Muslim Brotherhood who tried to restrict the freedom of minorities. My friend was involved in both revolutions as he spent nights in the Tahrir Square. Bit by bit, they are putting together the spirit of Egypt like goddess Isis who put together the pieces of her deceased husband Osiris. Osiris, the first pharaoh who united Egypt was betrayed and killed by his brother Set, just like the extremists are trying to break Egypt. The ancient fight between the forces of righteousness and chaos, between Ma’at and Isfet, still continues. Ancient Egyptians believed that both are necessary, and one cannot live without the other. It is through the fight between the two that balance is maintained not just in Egypt, but also all over the world. Our holiday has ended and it is time for us to return home. With a heavy heart we bid adieu to the land of magic as our driver drove us to the airport.

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All pictures copyright belongs to Subhrashis Adhikari. May be used with permission.

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