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Cairo - Day 1

MarHaban from Cairo, Egypt. This will be a different kind for trip for us. It is primarily a river cruise on the Nile, and our first time traveling with Uniworld. Wendy did a Galapagos cruise and we did spend 3 days on the Yangzi River as part of our China trip, but that was part of a much longer tour and this is the first time the lion's share of our trip will have been on the water.

Since the bulk  of the trip is on the boat, our opportunities to find amazing local restaurants (and then share the pictures and descriptions with you!) will be severely limited. But hopefully, there will be enough sights and experiences to keep you interested for the next 11 days.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

We left O'Hare at 4pm on Thursday. 8 hour flight to Frankfurt, 5 hour layover, then a 4 hour flight to Cairo (including a special Holiday dinner of "traditional roast goose"!). As we were nearing Cairo, the captain told us that "some of the checked bags did not make it onto the plane". Normally, this would not be an issue for us as we go carry-on, but we had to check our two bigger bags at the gate as they were oversized for this particular plane.  Luckily, they showed up on the baggage belt! Whew!!!  We were met by our UniWorld driver who took us to our hotel. Though it was about 8pm, and it was Friday ("our weekend starts on Friday", he told us), there was still plenty of traffic. It reminded us somewhat of Bangkok (but without the swarms of motorbikes), or Delhi (but without the constant honking), but also had a different wrinkle: most of the way we were on a very wide street, but it had no lane markings. So cars just drove and wove wherever they wanted! And very few traffic signals! We stopped counting near misses after 20.  Along the way he told us that Cairo has 25 million residents, out of Egypt's 100 million. In the whole country, about 75% are Muslims, 24% Coptic Christians, and 1% other...including 25,000 Jews. "We never have problems with other religions. We all get along fine." Hmmmm.....we heard the same thing in Morocco.  

Finally, at about 9pm we got into our hotel...a long day and a half...and crashed. Our room overlooks the Nile (reminiscent of our room in Bangkok which overlooked the Chao Phraya River!).

Here is the view in the daylight. If you look way in the distance over the sail boat you can see some pyramids!

The tour does not officially start until tomorrow. So we signed up for a half-day optional tour of Old Cairo today (Saturday) that they offer.

Our first stop was the Hanging Church, originally built in the 4th century AD (but rebuilt many times since). It is called this because it is built spanning two towers of the old Roman fortress of Babylon. The Christians did this to show that, after hundreds of years of persecution by the Romans, they had survived and thrived. This is a Coptic church. "Copt" is believed to come from the earliest name of the land, Gopt, meaning "dark ground". The Copts split from other Christians in 451 over different interpretations of "the Holy Spirit".

The courtyard features some beautiful mosaics, all in the Egyptian style, but none are original (they have been redone in the last few years).

Another interesting mosaic showed the Holy Family entering Egypt (complete with pyramids in the background).  Apparently, the historical veracity of this was doubted by Rome for centuries, but the Pope finally approved this fairly recently!  

Many of the walls have intricate inlays of wood and ivory. This style came to be known as Arabesque; literally Arab-esque, meaning "in the Arabian style".

Next we went to Ben Ezra Synagogue. this was originally an 8th century church, but it fell into ruins and was taken over in the 12th century by Abraham ben Ezra, a rabbi of Jerusalem. This synagogue, like many others in Egypt, was abandoned as Jews flocked to the new state of Israel in 1948 (with further migrations during subsequent wars in 1956, 1967, and 1973). Photographs are not permitted, so here is one from the internet.

Next on to the Church of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus, Egypt's most famous church. Many believe that it is built on the spot where the Holy Family stayed during their flight into Egypt.

Then, a quick picture stop at the Mosque of Amr ibn al-Aas (there was a funeral going on so we could not go inside).

This was the first mosque in Egypt, as well as on the entire African continent! Originally built around 640, the oldest existing parts date from the 900s; much of it was rebuilt in the 1980s.

Our last stop of the day was at the medieval bazaar of Kahn al-Khalili. This is primarily an open-air market selling jewelry, clothes, and metal ware, but our guide told us it is geared toward tourists. Though there were some spice sellers, we did not see any other food vendors.

We really did not spend a lot of time there, which was just as well since this market was not as good as those we have seen in Istanbul, Jerusalem and Morocco (Marrakesh and Fez).  Maybe that's because we've been to so many markets.  Or you  could say we're market snobs.

This post is notable for its absence of food mentions! Here is why:

Breakfast:  the buffet was nice but after last year's Israeli breakfasts, we were kind of spoiled.  Although...they did have donuts!

Lunch, such as it was, was a quick break with the group (6 of us) at a cafĂ© in the market (vouched for its "hygiene" by our guide Osama). We ordered coffees and teas, and shared a basket of Egyptian pitas and hummus. Again, nothing special.

And dinner tonight will be at the hotel in an Italian (!) restaurant, so we are assuming it will be good but not blog-worthy.

Therefore we will say maa as-salaamah (goodbye) for now.

Love, w&w

Cairo - Day 2

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Finally the tour officially starts! We met the group (only 22 in total!) at 8 a.m. Our logistics guide Mohammad went over the plans for the next few days. We don't actually get on the boat until tomorrow, after we fly to Luxor.

So today was an official tour of two of the main spots to see in Cairo: The Egyptian Museum and the Mosque of Mohammed Ali (no...not that one; the Egyptian one!).

As most of us probably know, the British and French carried off many Egyptian antiquities over the years. But a Frenchman Auguste Mariette oversaw the building of the Egyptian Museum, which was completed in 1863. the current building, still designed in the French Style, opened in 1902

There are over 270,000 items that are contained in the Egyptian Museum (not all are on display).  We saw many amazing examples of carved stones (pillars, figures of all sizes, hieroglyphics, etc.) covering a period of several thousand years, the oldest being from around 3,100 B.C.  Here are some examples:

Notice the royal left leg forward.
The same pose that Wendy uses
5,000 years later!

King Chephren (or Khafra) of the 4th Dynasty (c. 2,575 - c. 2,465 BCE),
builder of the Second Pyramid. Our guide told us that this, along with
Michelangelo's Pieta, are considered the two finest sculptures in history.

A very detailed carving of a scribe (with his carved roll of papyrus).
The eyes are made of glass, so when you shine a light on them
they seem to move and watch you!

The "Meidum Geese", also from the 4th Dynasty, executed in painted plaster
was discovered in 1871 by Mariette. Why is this considered one of the major
treasures of the museum? First because of the detail: you can see individual feathers.
Second, because these are the original colors! Over 4,000 years old!  

Shrine of the family of Akhenaten, c. 1,351 - c. 1,334 BCE

One item we did not see (though there was a poster of it) was the Rosetta Stone, which is in the British museum in London.

One of the major holdings of the museum are the 5,500 items discovered in King Tut's tomb, the only Pharaoh's tomb that has ever been found  and opened intact. Almost 2,000 of these are on display,
Here are a few:
Tut's throne from shortly after he became
Pharaoh at age 9. Wooden with inlays.

His throne a few years later (he died at age 18!):
gold with lapis lazuli and other stone inlays.

Tut with (probably) some of his wives.

Unfortunately, the most famous, the solid gold Death Mask, as well as a number of other golden pieces, are in a special room where no pictures are allowed. We remember going to the King Tut exhibit at the Field Museum in the 70's, so we may have seen it there as well. Here is an internet picture:

The other big attraction at the museum are the mummies of many Pharaohs, which have had their heads, arms, and feet unwrapped! On many you can still see the teeth, hair, and finger and toe nails. Pretty creepy. photos are allowed in these rooms, so here is one you may have seen before. It is Rameses II:

Sitre or Tia-Sitre, was the Great Royal Wife of
Pharaoh Ramesses I of Egypt and mother of Seti I

Here are some photos of long papyri scrolls found in some of the tombs. Again, these are the original colors!

Finally, two relics born in the mid-20th century A.D.

Next, we had a quick lunch at the Ritz Carleton, which is right next to the museum.
Culture note: So far, in every restaurant, they have asked two questions. One we used to hear all the time; the other which we have never heard. First, they ask "Smoking or non-smoking?". Remember those days? The other: when Wayne orders a beer, before they pour it from the bottle, they ask "Foam or no foam?"!!!

Then we drove to the other side of the city to see the Mosque of Mohammed Ali. It is actually part of the Al-Qalaa - the Citadel - which was originally built in 1176 by Salah ad-Din (known in the West as Saladin). The mosque itself dates from the 19th century. It is commonly known as "The White Mosque" (to compete with "The Blue Mosque" in Istanbul), since much of its outer walls are covered in alabaster. Alas, the constant wind-borne sand coming off the desert, and recently, the pollution from so many cars, has turned the surface to brown.

A bas relief showing the Mosque and Mohammed Ali.
Ali came to power in 1805 and is regarded as the Father of Modern Egypt.

The courtyard features a large clock which was a gift from King Louis-Phillippe of France in exchange for the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris (sounds more like a pay-off than a gift!). Oddly, the clock was damaged during shipment to Egypt and has never been repaired! The tower was covered in scaffolding, so no photos here, but maybe that means they are finally fixing it!

The inside of the mosque is very dark. Since it has a huge dome, and four half-domes, it was hard to see, let alone photograph, the beautiful ceiling. But it was nowhere near as beautiful as Hagia Sophia.

And, even though people must remove their shoes (as in all mosques), the carpet was very dirty. This may be due to all the tourists, but perhaps also partly due to the droppings of the birds which were flying around!

The location of the Citadel was originally chosen because it is on the highest point in the area. As such it gives a tremendous view of most of Cairo:

Notice that, even though we are much farther away from the Nile, we can actually see the Pyramids better here than from our 17th floor hotel room.

And this gives you a pretty good image of our impression of Cairo. Though our guide says it is called "The Paris of Egypt", we have found it to be smoggy, monochromatic, crowded, and gritty --reminiscent of parts of Casablanca.  We did not see any "grand buildings"; they may have been here but perhaps we were just overwhelmed by the unbelievably crazy traffic and hub-bub. It's hard to say. We did see some fountains, parks and statues but the traffic was predominant.  Perhaps there is more here than we have seen. Perhaps......

Speaking of tourists: Our guide Ossama told us that before the uprisings in 2011, tourism made up 75% of the national revenue. Immediately after those events, tourism dropped to almost zero. It has been slowly rising since, but is nowhere near what it was.  This is evidenced by our group being only 22, while the ship can accommodate 84. He has also told us several times already how good the security is. "If it is a 10 in other places, it is 11 here". This is to make us feel safe, of course, but also so that we can go home and spread the word to other potential travelers. We have seen such measures before, and sadly, they are now all too normal. I don't know about you, but having to constantly go through x-ray and metal detectors at every public building and hotel does not make us feel safer. It just highlights how crazy our world is. All that said though, we have not felt any less safe here than anywhere else we have been (including places in the U.S.).

So ends our first stay in Cairo (we return next Monday). Our next post will be sent as we float UP the Nile ( actually flows south to north, as Africa is higher in the middle than at the northern / Mediterranean edge).

Love, w&w.............

Luxor - Day 1 Temples and Tombs

Monday, December 18, 2017

After braving the early morning traffic in a smoggy Cairo, a 45 minute flight took us to Luxor (the drive of 400+ miles would have taken a bone-jarring 10 hours). The temperature was noticeably warmer (upper 70s) and the surroundings as we descended were clearly desert.  During the 30 minute ride to our boat, we passed by many banana and sugar cane farms. These are irrigated by canals that were dug in the mid-20th century. Egypt is now a big exporter of both crops.

And then...finally. we climbed aboard the MS Tosca! (Although....we don't actually sail until Wednesday!).

The ship is quite lovely, and we were welcomed aboard by all the staff with cool towels and glasses of fresh lemonade.

Our room is incredible! Almost as big as the one at the Four Seasons! And two huge sliding glass doors to allow for great river views.

We quickly went down to the dining room for lunch, as we only had 1 hour until our tour of the Temple of Amun in the Karnak complex. It was a very nice buffet, and the staff patiently explained to us what each dish was. One of the choices was Nile River perch...probably just caught this morning. Yum!!!

Then a 20 minute bus ride over to the Temple of Amun at Karnak. This sprawling (over 200 acres) complex was first started about 2,200 BCE, and was enlarged many times over the next 2,000 years. (From Wayne...That is quite the Capital Campaign. "You can pledge $200 a year for the next ten years or a dollar a year for the next 2,000 years.").  It actually was completely covered by desert sand until discovered in the mid-19th century.

The Hypostyle hall contains 134 massive columns, the largest such room of its type ever constructed. There are also several side chapels, including the Holy of Holies into which only the Pharaoh was allowed to enter.

Many of the columns and walls in the chapels still show colorful designs after over 4,000 years.There are also hundreds of hieroglyphs, some carved deep into the stone, others carved into plaster (applied to the walls) and still others in bas relief. We are learning how to read hieroglyphics.  We even learned how to write/read our names.  Not as difficult as Hebrew but challenging nonetheless. 

Original colors are still visible!

It has many huge statues of gods and Pharaohs, including Ramses II. There are at least three huge granite obelisks still standing (there may have been more, but they have been lost to time and the rare earthquakes that hit this area). Amazingly, these obelisks are all carved from individual pieces of stone!

The obelisk erected by Queen Hatshepsut (1473 -1458 BC) is 97 feet tall and weighs approximately 320 - 700 tons. All of them were taken from a quarry over 120 miles away, sledged to the river, floated downstream, and then sledged to the site. But no one knows for sure exactly how they were finally erected (they only had one chance to get it right!). To read more, click here.

As it was nearing 5 pm (closing time), and the sun was setting, we headed back to the bus. We had a "welcome Reception" to meet all the staff, then our first dinner aboard the ship, and a long night of deep sleep.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

We finally caught up on some sleep!  The morning tour today, to drive 40 miles (but it takes 2 hours!), visit Dendara (another Pharonic temple), and then drive back, was scheduled to leave at 7 am, so we decided the night before to sleep in.  Thus we had the whole morning free. The weather has been perfect so far (high today of 85), and we took advantage by spending a few hours on the ship-top sun deck. When the rest of our group returned most said that the ruins were very impressive, but the ride there and back (which apparently included several armed guard checkpoints and neck massages) was a killer.

After lunch, the group headed to the Luxor Papyrus Museum. There we saw a demo of how the Egyptians invented the first paper out of papyrus stalks (hence, the name). This was a major advance in being able to capture and store information. That is why many of the temple columns we have seen are crowned with either "open" or "closed" papyrus shaped tops.

The "museum" of course was really a store selling beautiful Egyptian scenes hand painted on papyrus. They ranged in size from about 4" x 6" to 4' x 6'! And prices from about $20 to several thousand. Much as in the many rug shops we have visited in the last few years, the tourists went crazy! The salesman did a semi-hard sell. (What was different here from other retail stops we've known and loved is that, once you expressed interest in a canvas, the salesman "curtained" you off so he could negotiate with you privately.  Very funny.  We found (and bought) a small one of Ramses II in action (no....he does not look like Yul Brynner).  Typical fun tour stop.

Then a short ride to the Luxor temple. Our guide said it is best seen around and after sunset, when it is lit up and the crowds are smaller; he was right.

Like the Temple of Amun, this was also built by several pharaohs over several centuries. At the front is an 82-foot high pink granite obelisk weighing 120 tons.

There originally were two of them, but one was given by Mohammed Ali to the French and is now in the Place de la Concorde. Actually, he gave both of them to France, but once the French engineers had managed to move the first one from here to Paris, they sent word of "merci, mais uh non" on the second one.

This temple also features an incredible hypostyle hall, but this time there are only 32 columns. At various times in history, this temple was used by Alexander the Great and the Romans, who also made contributions to its size and decorations.

It is just mind boggling to realize that the sun has risen and set over 1,460,000 times since these monuments were built.

After that, it was back to the boat for tonight's special program: belly dancing and a Whirling Dervish. Totally kitschy but fun. The belly dancer (accompanied by drums and electric piano) danced for about 20 minutes.

Then, during the next dance she tried to get people to dance with her (only women, as our guide explained, belly-dancing is not to be done by men). Out of the dozen or so women in the room only 2 went up with her; you can probably guess who one of them was!!

Then the Dervish came on. This was different than the ones we saw in Turkey.

There, it was more of a religious activity. This time it was purely for entertainment. As the music played, the Derv spun his very colorful "skirt"; it was whipping around like a hula hoop. While he was spinning, he also performed some kaleidoscopic maneuvers with 4 one-foot diameter cloth cushions.

He went on for about 15 minutes non-stop (how do they do that?). At one point he lifted one of his "skirts" over his head and spun around the room while spinning it over his head like a giant pizza! Alas....he did not solicit volunteers!!

After working up an appetite with the belly dancing and derving, we headed into dinner.   It was very delicious (so far all the food on the boat has been excellent), but not picture worthy.

Another early start tomorrow as we head to the Valley of the Kings and then (finally!) set sail (set engine?).

Love w&w............