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Jul 19

Egypt: The Nile, Death and Repression

Tutankhamun's Death MaskIn Brief—A visit to Egypt in the wake of the 1997 terrorist attack at Luxor. From Abu Simbel down the Nile to Cairo and the Pyramids, the author relates his impressions.

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Note: This blog piece provides a basic description of the sights and experiences we had in Egypt in 1998. For a more thorough explanation CLICK HERE for the photos of our trip and my comments. Bon voyage!

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Danger, Past or Present?—

Dozens of tourists enjoying a glimpse of the ancient past were slaughtered by Islamic terrorists intent on destroying not just innocent human lives but the tourist trade that was the lifeblood of Egypt. To counter this blood-soaked outrage, a top-notch travel bureau and a knowledgeable guide offered a trip that had long tempted us: the Land of the Pharaohs! Deciding that the Egyptian government would assure safety, we found ourselves flying to Egypt.

The Hurghada resort on the sparkling Red Sea was the first stop, not today’s cluster of luxurious resorts, but an early version. Despite official admonitions, a few Swedish women lay topless beside the pool. Predictably, the male Egyptian employees cast covert glances as they went about spurious duties nearby.

The first evidence of government protectiveness was the convoy that accompanied the buses and cars headed for Luxor       (ancient Thebes) and its monuments to the power of the pharaohs. Indeed, the presence of armed military and police was apparent throughout our stay. Everywhere we went, whether on the streets or in the tour buses, the military or an armed guard was there. Today, it may be worse. Repression is normal for Egypt.

Our tour guide was a walking encyclopedia. A specialist in ancient Egypt from Stockholm’s Mediterranean Museum, she was the daughter of an Egyptian father and Swedish mother. It was soon obvious that English was her first language because she counted her tour charges in English, the language her parents used to communicate when she was a child. A person will always count in the language first learned as a child. She was also fluent in Egyptian, Arabic and several other languages.

The trip to Luxor through barren desert was an education on being in a country that lacked the amenities of America. Toilets, for example. Quite aside from the ubiquitous camel rides on offer, I recommend that you carry toilet paper the next time you travel to Egypt because an attendant passed out single squares of toilet paper to the waiting women. And the camels resemble some prehistoric animal when you look at them up close.

Luxor and the surrounding area was impressive, to put it mildly. The massive monuments, the obelisks, the statues, the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens were awe-inspiring. The tour guide explained that the graffiti of Napoleon’s army, high above us, revealed that at that time the lower parts of the Luxor monuments were buried under several feet of accumulated desert sand. Moreover, then as now, politics dictated that some monuments were hidden behind those of successors.

Meals, accompanied by the ever-present sweet tea, were usually eaten seated on cushions around a low table laden with food rarely seen in the West. Egyptian bread was the utensil used to get the delicious food into your mouth…with your right hand, please. The left is for wiping one’s bum.

Traveling to and from the barren Valleys of the Kings and Queens, villages along the Nile looked much the same as they must have looked thousands of years ago. Simple houses with the only signs of modernity being the occasional bicycle or a TV aerial showing. An occasional djellabiya-clad man rode a donkey side-saddle. Nary a car was to be seen. Beyond the cultivated greenery beside the Nile, was the desert, Bedouin country.

 

The barren—and I mean barren—Valleys of the Kings and Queens were the burial sites of royalty designed to thwart the grave robbers who invariably plundered the pyramids. Despite considerable effort, nearly all of the tombs were looted. Only King Tut’s grave was overlooked because of its accidental burial by the detritus of another pharaoh’s grave.

The High Aswan Dam, built in the 1960s, was designed to eliminate Nile flooding. While it did that, environmental damage resulted. Beautiful lake and temples, but at what cost? After seeing the Isis temple at Philae, we flew to Abu Simbel. During the flight, we were invited to the cockpit to marvel at the stark beauty of the desert below. It gives new meaning to the word “barren.” Would such an invitation happen in America?

Abu Simbel was an awe-inspiring monument to Ramses II, but massive as it is, it had to be moved several hundred meters to avoid being inundated by the rising water of Lake Nasser.

On our return to Luxor, we boarded a luxurious river cruiser for the trip to Cairo. The food was delicious, the villages along the way interesting and our last night found the passengers dressed in Arabic costumes. Erik and I were in robes; Ewa and Linnea wore colorful, flowing dresses. I wonder what the Egyptians thought.

Cairo is huge, about 22 million people today. To our surprise, the smoggy city encroached on the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx. While the rest of the family browsed Cairo’s narrow, streets, I remained on the moving bus with the driver and armed guard. People live in mausoleums, shops were on the ground floors while trash filled the second floors and the alleys. The traffic was unbelievable: cars, trucks and buses compete with donkey carts.

Cairo’s Museum includes the gold mask of Tutankhamon along with numerous artifacts of Egypt’s glorious past. The mummy of Tut remains in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Our tour ended in Cairo. A more complete description of the sights along the way will be found accompanying the photos that you can access at the beginning of this piece. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to ask.

2 comments

  1. Brenda

    That would be considered a definite trip of a lifetime. Try and do that today. The memories of Egypt are wonderful, I am sure.

    1. Don Bay

      There’s no doubt that the Luxor massacre of ’97 by Islamic terrorists led us to give thought to the wisdom of the trip. We decided in favor of the trip by weighing two factors: 1) the unlikelihood of the same happening again so soon after the first, and 2) the desire of the Egyptian government to protect tourism at all costs. The presence of the heavy hand of the government throughout our trip was evidence that our thinking was correct. The repression of the Egyptian government is much worse today. I doubt that we would make the same decision today.

      All that said, the trip was really worth it. I wore two hats during the trip: the tourist hat and the observer hat. I learned a lot about humanity during that trip, that’s for sure.

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