In Aswan, we were hoping to see Abu Simbel, which is about three hours south of the city, but because of bus schedule issues, we missed this part of it. However, I WILL be going to Abu Simbel later because I definitely need to go before the end of this semester!
It was actually good that we missed the bus, because now we had a full day to explore Aswan. We wandered for a bit along the Nile, amazed at how blue the water is. Aswan is said to have some of the nicest, most beautiful areas of the Nile. It definitely was prettier here without the hectic surroundings of the city of Cairo and its 26 million residents.
When approached by a trustworthy Nubian man who offered a felucca trip to us, we accepted and hurried down to the shore. A felucca is a boat that floats slowly down the Nile and allows you to really soak in your surroundings. He offered us an “Egyptian price,” which sounded reasonable to us.
We slowly and carelessly journeyed down the Nile and stopped at many of the tourist sites. We stopped by the botanical gardens, which had species of plants from all over the world. We saw Elephantine Island and even the Old Cataract Hotel where Agatha Christie wrote her famous mystery Death on the Nile.
Mostafa, our felucca driver, took us to his village, the Nubian village where all the locals live. We docked our boat and walked on shore, through the quiet alleys between the houses. We found the house we were looking for and went up the stairs to the covered rooftop where the woman of the house was waiting for us. We were served tea with mint and drank it slowly, taking in our surroundings.
The men took out a baby crocodile and insisted that we hold it. It was about the size of an iguana, a very small crocodile indeed. We smiled and nodded appreciately to indicate our gratitude for this opportunity. They assured us that they would not make us hold the bigger crocodile as it was dangerous. I was incredibly glad they did not let the bigger baby crocodile out of its cage!
The local Nubian woman offered us henna tattoos. While I’m ordinarily not fond of henna tattoos, I decided to get one just for the experience. She used black henna, which she said is a Nubian type. It lasts longer and is much darker than regular henna. She even added my name in Arabic to the bottom of it.
As she sounded out my name she laughed. She told me that my name, Shelby, is very similar to a man’s name – Shelaby. She made sure to spell it right because they didn’t want me to have a man’s name on my arm. All of this I understood through very few English words. She kept repeating “Shelaby … mustache,” meaning that it is a man’s name, and since I do not have a mustache, my name is different.
All the local people found this hilarious, laughing about the idea of me having a mustache. We sat for a while longer, waiting for our henna tattoos to dry. I bought some jewelry from the local women, and we decided that we needed to head on out if we wanted to make our train to Luxor. As we approached our docked felucca, two boys ran up to us, stopped and started singing to us in French! They sang “Alouette!” We had to catch our train though, so we sailed back.
Train to Luxor
The train was packed. They oversold the seats, so some people were left standing. A man gave up his seat next to me when an Egyptian woman had no place to sit. She sat next to me for the next hour and a half, spending most of her time staring at me and the book I was reading.
I smiled at her and she immediately tried to attempt a conversation. However, we both had equal knowledge of each other’s language, meaning we spoke very little we could both understand. We started with identifying colors on our clothing and things around them. I taught her the English words for them, and she taught me the Arabic. We held a very limited and stunted conversation. I learned she had come from Edfu, visiting family and she was returning on that train back to Cairo where she lives with her family. I explained that I was a student at the American University in Cairo.
She shared her food with me on the train. While I tried to politely refuse, I soon learned that would be offensive to her, so I ate what she handed me. She gave me a carrot and told me its Arabic name, gazar. She also gave me a bread-like Egyptian dessert, sweet with honey.
She seemed concerned about my health. I was sniffling a bit as I had a cold the previous week. She wanted to know if I was sick, and no matter how hard I tried to tell her I was fine, she didn’t believe me. Soon a group of the standing Egyptians began to form around me, confused and curious about the foreigner on their train. Each one tried to speak Arabic with me although my knowledge of Arabic is shwaya (little).
The woman sitting next to me on the train told these men about my cold, and they all immediately started to overreact. One man told me in Arabic that I NEEDED to take medicine for my cold. Again, no amount of persuasion could assure them I was fine. I got off the train in Luxor and said goodbye to my new friends who were happy to have a seat finally.
The next morning we saw Karnak Temple, a temple complex of ancient Egypt that is just huge as most of the pharaohs added on to the building in some way, adding halls and statues and pylons. This took a good 3 hours to see, and it was well worth the time, wandering and looking at inscriptions. There is just so much to see and take in, I can’t even explain it. One of my favorite parts was the grand hypostyle hall, an area filled with colossal columns reaching into the sky.
After this we headed to Luxor Temple, a much smaller temple with brilliant construction and detail like Karnak. I feel that I can never fully appreciate sites like this as they are so overwhelming and amazing. I wish I could spend hours upon hours at each of these sites, soaking it all in. However, time passes so quickly here that I have to move on before I am done.
That night I went to the Sound and Light show in Karnak. This was perhaps my favorite part of the whole trip. We entered the temple complex in a group after dark. The walls and statues were all lit up, and the sound of the pharaoh’s voice rang overhead, echoing through the complex telling the tale of the history of Karnak. Each pharaoh was given the chance to tell which part of the temple he built and why.
While most people would find this overly cheesy, I thought it was fun and actually fairly informative. Plus, it was amazing to see it at night, away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist crowds. It seemed so much more peaceful and serene in Karnak at night. This was more of a temple atmosphere.
Valley of the Kings and Queens
The next day we awoke early for our tour of the West Bank of Thebes. We first headed to the Valley of the Kings, where we got in trams that took us up to the tombs. The tombs our group entered were at the bottom. We went in Ramses I, IV and IX tombs. They were so incredible, I can’t even describe. The colors of the paints were still vibrant after all these years.
I bought the extra ticket to see Tutankhamun’s tomb and I was not disappointed. While his tomb is much smaller than the other pharaohs’, it was still beautifully rendered with all the images necessary for a tomb of a king. Tutankhamun now lays in his tomb again, after all these years. In the corner, his small body lies in a glass display case. His body is pretty well preserved and his facial features were easy to see.
I got goosebumps just being in this tomb! Ever since I was a little girl, I have heard about King Tut. He made an appearance in children’s books and jump-rope rhymes. When I got a little older I saw images of Howard Carter’s discovery and all the treasures that lay inside this untouched tomb. Walking in, I remembered those scenes that are imprinted in my mind and could imagine the chariot wheels and huge statues and bed that once lay there. Again, I wished I could have just lingered in the tomb forever and absorbed everything. But alas, I had to return to my tour group.
We next headed to the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, one of the few female pharaohs in Egyptian history. Again, this was something I had dreamed about seeing, and it was amazing to be able to see this architectural feat first hand. I was able to explore the temple for a while, looking at all the reliefs illustrating her power and her reign.
Our next stop was the Valley of the Queens, which is highly underappreciated by the general public. The Valley of the Kings had about ten times as many visitors as the Valley of the Queens, but I found both to be equally interesting. The Valley of the Queens was where the queens, princes and princesses were entombed. We went into one young prince’s tomb where there were depictions of the small boy and his father, the king.
Our last stop was the Colossi of Memnon, which were very impressive. While they appear to be quite damaged, I find them incredibly interesting. These statues of Amenhotep III were the entrance markers for his mortuary temple. Due to the yearly inundation of the Nile, these statues faced the ravishes of the water, and the stone wore away.
I find these statues particularly compelling for this reason. Amenhotep III chose this location because he wanted these statues to be flooded. Once the water dried from the statues, the statues re-emerged and were reborn, signifying the cycle of life and death so prominent in Egyptian thought.
Exhausted but very pleased, we journeyed home to Cairo. Away from the land of the pharaohs, we re-entered the world of the modern Egyptian people. A stark contrast in some ways, these two worlds are actually intermingled more than one would assume. This is something I notice every day I walk around the city of Cairo.