Shelby in Cairo

Shelby is a junior with majors in history and anthropology, and a minor in classical studies and Latin, in SMU’s Dedman College. This Spring she plans to take Egyptology classes at the American University in Cairo, in preparation for a career in Egyptology, and she also is looking forward to traveling and exploring the region.

Indiana Jones for a day

DSC03181.JPGEver since I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I always wanted to see Petra in Jordan.

When this movie was filmed, the building chosen to house the Holy Grail was actually a real site in Petra, not just an elaborate set. One of my favorite parts of the movie is near the end when Harrison Ford and Sean Connery are riding on horses through the narrow pathway and all of a sudden they see this elaborate structure peaking out from the high rocky cliffs surrounding them.

I can’t emphasize exactly how much I wanted to see Petra. When I was accepted into the AUC study abroad program, I immediately started anticipating my travels, where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see. Jordan is so close to Egypt that I knew I would finally be able to see Petra!

Airfare was quite expensive, so I started looking at other alternatives. I found a great tour company that offered tours to Petra that would take you from Cairo to Petra and back again in a little bit more than a day. This was perfect for me, as it was the most inexpensive option and was a feasible trip when I just had a weekend to spare.

Ferry to Jordan

The tour company picked me up in an air-conditioned minivan from my dorms at 11 Thursday night. We drove through the Sinai peninsula and reached our destination, the Taba Marina, in about 6 hours. The Taba Marina is where the ferry boat leaves, taking travellers to Aqaba, Jordan. This is the best way to travel from Egypt to Jordan as it eliminates the need to travel though Israel’s borders. The ferry took about 45 minutes and the water was extremely choppy! I’m glad I don’t get seasick!

I arrived in the Aqaba port and was met by one of the tour company representatives holding a sign. His name was Mostafa, and when I told him I was American, he said “Best country in the world!” Off to a good start, we began our drive from the port to Petra, about two hours away. I learned that he had studied history both in Iraq and Syria, and while he loved studying there, he was one of 11 children, so his father did not have enough money to support his education.

The Jordanian desert was beautiful to drive through, but I was antsy to get to Petra. I was met by my guide, and we set off on a three-hour tour. There were tons of tourist groups, but Saml (my guide) told me that March was a much more popular month for tourists, and when it’s busy there are so many more people swarming the ancient city.

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Path to Petra

Only one path leads you into the city, so Saml and I followed it, stopping to look at interesting places on the way. One of the most interesting things I learned was that the ancient Nabateans built aqueducts to lead water into the city. Saml showed me how this was done by pouring a bottle of water down the side of the cliff. The water trickled down to accumulate in a carved gutter in the rock. That water then started traveling down in the direction of the city. In this way, the rainwater could have been collected and used by the Nabateans!

Along the way we saw shrines to the local deities, which looked nothing like those of ancient Egypt. They had huge eyes and block-like bodies. Unfortunately the rain has eroded a lot of the carvings. One carving showed a caravan bringing trade into the city. When I walked further along I saw another image of a caravan going the opposite direction!

I honestly had no idea we were close to the famous treasury. I was trying to get my guide to take a picture of me, and he told me he wanted to tell me something first. I couldn’t figure out why he was so insistent that he would take my picture after but I grudgingly agreed to wait.

He pointed me away from the ancient city and asked me what I saw. I thought about it for a while, unsure of what answer he wanted to hear. I answered “Well, I see the path we just came from. And a lot of rocky cliffs.” He was still looking at me so I continued with my unsure answer, “Oh … and that rock kind of looks like an eel or an eagle.”

He asked me, “Do you know what I see?” I shook my head and he continued, “I see a beautiful girl in front of one of the most amazing ancient sites.” I turned around and there it was. The treasury of Petra peeking out from little more than a fissure in between the two closely positioned cliffs.

We were standing in the darkness made possible by the shade of the colossal cliffs surrounding us. Yet the treasury was bright, glowing in fact, lit by the light of the sun. I stood there in awe, not wanting to move any closer quite yet because I wanted to make this experience last forever. As I approached this luminous structure, slowly more of it was revealed and the light bouncing off the rose-colored stone pervaded the entire space.

Like I was in a trance, I slowly staggered forward unable to control my motions. My mouth was gaping open, my feet were dragging in the sand, my mind could not think to control my words so I just kept saying “wow” “Oh my God!” “That’s so amazing” “I can’t believe it” over and over again. My guide just laughed at me, as he had seen it so many times that he was blase to its brilliance.

However, I think if I saw this every day for the rest of my life, I could never feel apathetic toward it. Tons of people were swarming the entranceway of this remarkable structure. Pushing toward the front, I finally was able to see what was inside. It was a shallow room with high ceilings. It had no decoration and only had one doorway in the back, although I’m not sure where that leads.

I learned from my guide that this was not a treasury at all. The Ottomans, when they found it, believed there was treasure in the globe-like decoration near the top. So they constantly tried to shoot and break this, so that they could gain access to the treasure. In fact, the building was instead originally used to prepare bodies before funerals and was where the priests would perform all necessary rituals.

This was only the beginning of the city, and we had so much more to see. A lot of it is a blur, as after seeing the treasury I was in a state of antiquity-induced euphoria.

Beyond the treasury

I learned that they carved the city entirely using flint stones. The only building that was not carved from the cliff was a palace built for a princess. It was far away from many other structures of the town. The rumor goes that she refused to marry any of her suitors. The only man she would marry, she said, would be the man who could extend the aqueduct to her palace, a task that no one had been able to do. A poor Greek man was able to do this, and they wed.

I learned that when the dead were buried they were buried with a vial of tears, something that has recently been analyzed and confirmed by scholars. And I learned about the Nabateans’ personal form of makeup, acquired from the multicolored rock.

I ate lunch and we continued on our journey. I had to meet Mostafa so he could drive me back to the port, so we thought of the best way to do this. Saml told me there was a lot to see if we chose to go a different way rather than just backtracking our steps. Only this way required a donkey ride.

Up for anything, I agreed. And we hopped on our respective donkeys and rode up the rocky landscape. My donkey was either very tired or extremely melodramatic as he wheezed continuously and moved at a snail’s pace. Perhaps, I wasn’t as threatening as the other donkey drivers!

I was only in Petra for a short time, but I am definitely glad I got to see it. The travel to and from Jordan was hectic and exhausting, but it was completely worth it. On the way back, I got two bodyguards to accompany me in the minivan all the way to Cairo. When I questioned why they were there, the tour company representative said, “They’re here because you’re American.”

I’m still not exactly sure why I got bodyguards, but I’m glad they were looking out for my safety. It made me feel like I was famous.

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All Greek to me

After nearly a full day of traveling both by train and by bus, I arrived in Athens. While it took a while to get there, I recommend the sleeper train if you are traveling from Istanbul to Greece and want to save a bit of money. The compartments were immaculate and the pull-down beds were surprisingly comfortable.

The hostel I chose was in the heart of Plaka, the more touristy area that is close to all the major sites. This area allows only pedestrian traffic, so tourists and Greeks alike walk to their destinations. The hostel couldn’t have been more conveniently located.

The Acropolis was just steps away, which I was incredibly pleased about as I was dying to see the Parthenon. Since it was Spring Break for many other students, the Acropolis – and all tourist attractions, for that matter – were packed.

Walking up to the Parthenon, all I saw was a wall like that of a fortress. I couldn’t even really see what I was approaching, which added to the excitement. From the higher elevation I could see just how beautiful Athens is, complete with green grassy areas, houses lining the hillsides and the wide expanse of clear sky surrounding me.

DSC02948.JPGI followed the mass of tourists up some stairs and through a covered area constructed of stone. When I emerged, I was in the presence of the Parthenon, rising majestically from the ground.

At first, the clearing in front of the Parthenon was sparse with people, as if they were afraid to get too close to this colossal structure. Even though they are in the process of stabilizing it and parts are covered in metal scaffolding, it stands just how it has and will stand for thousands of years.

I loved just wandering around this amazing area. I would have stayed longer, but it started to rain, so I had to leave. The rain surprised me. I have been living in one of the most arid places for the past three months and haven’t experienced much rain recently.

I saw just about everything there is to see in Athens. I saw Hadrian’s Arch, the Temple of Zeus, the Agora, Kermakios (the first cemetery), the National Archeological Museum and so much more.

The Agora was fascinating to just wander through and imagine how it must have looked in ancient times. They have a reconstruction of the covered market place where stalls would have been set up with vendors hawking their wares. This was especially fascinating as I have always imagined how they would look.

The Archeological Museum was stunning. I could get lost in there! The guide books said this was one of the world’s greatest museums, and they didn’t lie! Being a lover of museums, I was incredibly pleased.

DSC03003.JPGI took two day trips to sites I never thought I’d be able to see. The first took me to Mycenae and Epidaurus. Mycenae is one of the towns involved in the Trojan War and mentioned in Homer’s Iliad.

Henry Schliemann, the archeologist who discovered Troy, also discovered Mycenae. This was a beautiful location with just a gorgeous environment and atmosphere. If I thought the area surrounding the Parthenon was beautiful, I couldn’t have even imagined seeing something this stunning! I can see why the Mycenaeans built their civilization here. I got to see the famous lion gates that are featured in all college art history books, too!

DSC03054.JPGEpidaurus had an enormous theatre and is considered the best preserved. My tour guide demonstrated the acoustics of the theatre, and I was impressed at how well the theatre was constructed to be able to project the speaker’s voice to the audience.

I also got to go to the tomb of Agamemnon, which was perhaps my favorite part of this day trip. The inside of it was completely circular, with a domed roof. The outside had a massive stone entrance, obviously marking the tomb of an important king. This tomb helps explain why Agamemnon’s body was not among the graves Schliemann discovered at Mycenae. I never thought I’d see this.

My final day tour was to Delphi to visit the ancient oracle of Delphi. The oracle isn’t actually there anymore, unfortunately, but I did get to see the temple where the prophesies once took place! Delphi again was simply a gorgeous site. It’s up high on the cliff at an elevation of 700 meters above sea level. All alone on the top of this mountain, it’s easy to see how this could be such a religious site for the ancient people. It was so amazing to see this sight I’d always heard about, but never expected to be able to see.

Sad to leave, as I am with all my travels thus far, I packed up my bags and headed back to Cairo to finish up my last five weeks in Egypt. It’s hard to believe Spring Break has already passed! I feel as if I just woke up in my bed in Cairo – and Istanbul and Athens were but a dream.

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If you have a date in Constantinople, she’ll be waiting in Istanbul

DSC02639.JPGOur Spring Break in Egypt fell much later than it did for many American schools. We had ten days off from school, and I decided from the beginning that this would be an excellent time to travel. There are so many interesting places within close reach. Many of my friends did a Middle East tour. However, I have always dreamed of seeing Turkey and Greece. Flights were fairly reasonable, so I jumped on this opportunity.

Istanbul was my first destination. I landed and was amazed at how clean the city was. The streets are well maintained, with tulips of every hue decorating the medians. I was amazed to see people following traffic laws and staying within their lanes on the highway! It was a nice change from Cairo.

As my taxi driver drove into Sultanahmet, the area in which my hotel was located, I saw beautiful streets, paved in cobblestones like many old European cities. There were people walking everywhere as my taxi weaved through the winding streets.

Language barriers

I kept trying to use my Arabic with shop owners and waiters. I’d be in mid-sentence before I realized that they had no idea what I was saying. It was difficult when inquiring about the price of something not to just blurt out “bi keem?” (How much?).

Turkish is such a different language, but very interesting. It was such a change from hearing Egyptian Arabic all the time. While I heard plenty of Turkish in Turkey, I heard so many more languages. I heard so much Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Italian and many other languages I didn’t recognize.

In fact, often shop owners would have difficulty identifying the nationality of myself and the other people I was with. They often thought we were Spanish or French and would try speaking to us in those languages, extremely confused when we didn’t respond. People especially thought I was Australian and would address me as such.

Turkey is also a Muslim country; however, there is much less obvious emphasis on the religion, at least in public. For example, I saw very few women wearing a hijab. The call to prayer didn’t seem as loud as it is in Cairo also. Although all of this could be simply related to the area I was in. The call to prayer was much different than that of Cairo, and in a way, I liked it better. It was very calming and seemed to flow better together.

Restaurant owners shout at you to try to lure you into eating there with their promises of delicious food. We simply ignored these people, as we had already eaten and had no need for a restaurant at the moment. However, one man was incredibly persistent telling us of his tasty food. We kept walking when he shouted “Are you student? Are you student? You look poor!” Somehow, this did not entice me to want to eat at his establishment.

The sights

DSC02590.JPGI was able to see all the major sites in Istanbul. The Blue Mosque (in photo above) and Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofya, as all Turkish people call it – in the photo right) were steps away from my hotel. Hagia Sophia was so much bigger than I ever expected. I have always wanted to see it, and while I had seen pictures, I really didn’t know what to expect. I can’t even describe how beautiful it was on the inside, you’d really just have to see it yourself.

I felt like I could see the history within it, and see the different developments over time within this amazing building. The domed ceilings reach into the sky, while the rest is decorated with intricate mosaics and majestic columns. In one area there is what is called the weeping column. Here people rotate their thumbs in an indentation in the cold marble. If your thumb returns wet, your wish comes true. I wasn’t quite sure whether my thumb was wet or just cold from the marble. So I’m not sure if my wish came true or not.

I saw Topkapi Palace, which covered so much space. I explored this area for hours, deciding that I would one day live in a palace like this. I saw the Kariye Muzesi, which is a beautiful church about fifteen minutes away from Sultanahmet. It is worth the taxi fare, for sure. It is a small church that is just filled with intricate religious mosaics detailing stories from the Bible. They cover the ceilings of the entire church, and everyone just stares up in wonder at them, taking pictures to try to capture how awe-inspiring they are.

Below Istanbul

But perhaps my favorite place in Istanbul was the Basilica Cistern. It is an underground structure that once provided the Great Palace of Constantinople and other surrounding sites with water. It sounds like just a well, but it was so much more than that! I went when it opened at 9 a.m. as it had been pretty crowded all the other times I passed by. I was one of the only ones at that time to descend into its depths.

Dark, but with orange dimly lit lights, I could see the water that spanned out from the walkway I was standing on. Beautiful columns arose from the water, giving the space an eerie, otherworldly feel. The one big sight was the Medusa head columns, tucked into a corner. Medusa’s head formed the base of these two columns. Oddly enough, in one her head was turned sideways and in the other her head was upside down. It was especially scary following the path to go see them as the signs pointed in one direction “Medusa” and in the other “Exit.” All my knowledge of Medusa and the gorgons told me that I should avoid the direction that led to Medusa. However, I ignored my inner voice and ended up safe.

Istanbul was beautiful, and I was sad to leave, even though my next destination was equally amazing. I got on the 12-hour sleeper train and headed to Greece!

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In Moses’ footsteps

shelby-DSC02542-sm.jpgThis weekend was one of my favorites thus far. While I feel that way after most of my trips, this one was particularly fantastic.

Our first destination was Dahab. This is a beach town in Sinai. Most everyone I knew had already been; some had even been several times! When I asked anyone what their favorite place was so far, everyone unanimously replies Dahab. Everyone had such strong, positive feelings about Dahab, so I knew it was something I had to experience.

Getting there takes quite a while. It is a nine-hour bus ride from Cairo. We left on the overnight bus Thursday night hoping to get lots of sleep on the bus. Unfortunately we did not meet our goals. They played action movies at full blast, and there was a security checkpoint at least every hour, when we were woken to show our tickets and passports. I was so excited about going to Dahab though, I really couldn’t care less whether I slept well.

Beach break

The contrast between Dahab and a city like Cairo is extreme. Dahab was so relaxed with fewer people and a lot of space to move around, even on the board walk. It was comparatively quiet, too, without the sounds of cars, people and amplified calls to prayer. This was a wonderful change from Cairo.

While I love being in Cairo and experiencing everything in a city so large and teeming with life, I needed a break from the pace of city life. Dahab was my answer and I was immediately relaxed when our taxi driver dropped us off at our hotel.

shelby-DSC02570-sm.jpgWe decided to go straight to the beach. We threw on our swimsuits and went in search of food, eventually deciding on a shorefront cafe called Nemo’s. Themed like the Disney Pixar movie, Nemo the fish was featured on the sign and the menus telling restaurant patrons certain Arabic phrases. Nemos says, “Lau Semat means excuse me.”

Wanting nothing more than to lie on the beach, we found ourselves some chairs and soaked up the sun for hours. It was good that we got some rest and relaxation here because tonight would be an eventful night for us. We were climbing Mount Sinai in the middle of the night so that we would be there to see the sun rise from the top.

The dark journey up

We left our hotel in a shuttle at around 11pm. We got to the base of the mountain around 12:30 and started climbing with our guide after 1 am. I was in a group of about sixteen people, most of whom I didn’t know. However, we all got very close as the night went on. After all, friends who climb mountains together stay together.

Our first fifteen minutes took us through what I like to call “the path of camels.” Here we passed narrowly through the walkway while camels grunted at us and the camel drivers yelled “Camel ride! Camel! Camel! Good Price!” Assuring them I had no desire to ride a camel up a treacherous mountain in the pitch black of night, I continued on.

It was so dark that we couldn’t even see the outline of the mountain. I had no idea how high it was, or what exactly I was getting myself into. Looking back on it, I am actually very glad I didn’t know how high it was! I would have been overwhelmed!

We started up the mountain looking down at our feet the whole time trying not to trip over rocks and slide on the sand. I was incredibly glad I had bought a flashlight for this, because otherwise I think I would have fallen many times! Following the mass exodus of people, we slowly journeyed up the mountain. Some were slower than others. I was definitely one of the slowest in my group. If only I had known that I would actually be climbing Mount Sinai with a group of mountain men!

I was exhausted when I looked up and saw the top of the peak. We were almost there! Not two seconds passed before an Egyptian man stationed with a camel told me “Halfway there! You are halfway!” Apparently, I was nowhere close to the top!

We kept moving up the mountain with several other tour groups right around us. A large Spanish-speaking tour group was climbing behind me with several of its members riding camels. The path was incredibly narrow at this point and the group was attempting to pass our tour group, camels and all. Needless to say, I was nearly sandwiched between camels. I had to push the camels away from me just to get out! I was not expecting so many people to be climbing the mountain this early in the morning. It seemed even more like a pilgrimage with all these people around me.

There were rest stops and numerous people offering us camel rides for if we were too tired to climb anymore. However, I felt a lot safer on my own two feet, so I happily declined.

We were told to dress in layers, because of how bitter the cold was. Nothing can prepare you for how cold it is up there. As long as I kept moving, I didn’t really feel it. However, once I stopped the cold penetrated my clothes!

The last 750 steps

Near the end of the trail there is a series of 750 steps that lead to the top of the mountain. These steps are huge stone blocks, seemingly randomly placed and fairly deep. Finishing these steps felt like the biggest accomplishment of my life. I was so proud that I made it all the way to the top! They had a stand where we could buy hot chocolate and coffee to warm us up, which I was grateful for.

I highly recommend renting a blanket up there. They offer them for 20 pounds and it’s much better than shivering on the mountain top waiting for the sunrise for an hour and a half.

I laid down on the cold ground, huddled in my blanket and just watched the stars while I waited. I have never seen so many stars in my life! They were so well defined and I could easily make out some of the major constellations. All I could think about was what a contrast this was to Cairo. I’ve seen probably one or two stars in Cairo, and that’s if I’m lucky!

shelby-DSC02527-sm.jpgAll of a sudden the sky began to light up. The sky slowly transformed into different colors of pink and blue and purple. The colors swirled together forming different shapes as the time went on. Everyone else realized that it was actually happening, we were watching the sun rise from the top of Mount Sinai.

Everyone stood in awe for a while, trying to absorb all of this majestic beauty. As more and more light filled the sky, the peaks of the surrounding mountains were illuminated and we began to see our surroundings. Everyone around me seemed to be speaking a different language. I heard Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian and many other languages. While I am not fluent in all these languages, I could understand exactly what they were saying. Everyone was expressing the same emotion: awe.

While we stared at the sky in amazement, the light began to get brighter. The woman in front of me started jumping up and down. I began to smile in anticipation. The sun was peaking out from the horizon, rising to greet this new morning. Its blazing orange color stood in stark contrast to the purple skies surrounding it. We collectively sighed with appreciation at this remarkable sight.

As the sun rose higher and higher, I thought to myself what an amazing opportunity this was. I had read Exodus in the Bible. I knew the story of Moses climbing this mountain to receive the Ten Commandments from God. As a child, I remember hearing this story in church and imagining what the mountain would have looked like and how tall it was. However, I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would ever see it, let alone climb to the top and watch the sun rise!

It truly was like a pilgrimage, to climb in the footsteps of Moses and see something so majestic and serene. Whether you are religious or not, the sheer beauty of the nature surrounding you was an amazing experience. As the sky lit up with the new day, I finally was able to look down and see exactly where we were.

Surrounding us were jagged peaks of rock. As I leaned over the edge of the mountain, I saw just how high we were. The mountain is 7,500 feet high, something that I only learned upon my return to Cairo. I felt as if I were at the top of the world right then.

shelby-DSC02540-sm.jpgJourneying down the mountain we moved together as a mass of humankind. Slowly stepping back down the way we came I was able to see just how steep some of the areas were. It looked like there were thousands of people in front and behind me on the way down. I shared this amazing moment with so many other people, of all different ages and from all over the world. Seeing their faces, I knew that most everyone appreciated it as much as I did.

In the heat of the sun we journeyed down, finally making it to the base. Here we saw St. Catherine’s Monastery, which is located right at the base of Mount Sinai. The most exceptional part of this was the burning bush. The story from the Bible says that Moses saw this bush that was aflame, but none of its branches were burning. This bush survives in the monastery and we were all allowed to take pictures with it.

shelby-DSC02541-sm.jpgLooking forward to the sleep I would get during my nine-hour bus ride, I still did not want to leave the mountain. It was a beautiful experience and in many ways cannot be completely described. In that respect, it was all the more memorable. I don’t have words to describe this experience, but I have the feelings and emotions that come with my memories and that will survive forever.

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Journey to ancient Egypt

shelby-DSC02322-sm.jpgThis weekend my friends and I finally made it to Luxor and Aswan!

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.

shelby-DSC02071-sm.jpgWhen 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.

shelby-DSC02218-sm.jpgKarnak Temple

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.

shelby-DSC02312-sm.jpgI 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.

shelby-DSC02346-sm.jpgOur 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.

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A trip to the first pyramid ever built!

Shelby-DSC02013-sm.jpgMy classes at the American University in Cairo are amazing for several reasons. They are very small, giving us students the opportunity to pursue a more interactive classroom experience. My classes are also highly specialized. While I am taking all Egyptology courses, a narrow field in and of itself, these classes are further focused on one particular aspect of ancient Egypt: culture, history, etc. However, perhaps the greatest perk of my classes at AUC is the field trips sponsored by the school.

Today, my history class and I ventured out to Saqqara. This site is perhaps most notable for the Step Pyramid of Djoser. Built in the 3rd Dynasty, this pyramid is the predecessor to the Giza pyramids of Khufu and Khafre, which I visited several weeks ago. It is built with a series of mastabas or steps, six in total, forming a pyramid-like shape. Seeing it up close, it is understandable how this design could easily morph into that of the Giza pyramids.

We entered the complex through the mortuary temple, which consisted of a long corridor with columns on either side holding up a stone ceiling. As I walked down this corridor, there were niches on either side where statues likely would have been housed.

As we exited the mortuary temple, we were immediately accosted by the bright sun reflecting off the white sand. Up ahead was Djoser’s famous pyramid, bigger than I imagined it to be! This isn’t as popular of a tourist site as Giza even though they are very close to one another. It is a shame that Djoser’s pyramid doesn’t get as much attention as Khufu’s (the Great Pyramid). I feel that it is equally majestic and fascinating, if not more so since it was the first pyramid!

We hurried along the site seeing the surrounding complex. As we approached one building, we came upon a group of schoolchildren, age eight or nine. They were there with a few adults, likely their teachers. They were screaming and laughing as we approached them. They were playing some sort of game, but it took me a while to realize what was happening. They were playing tug of war, with about 20 people on each side. However, there was no rope! They were holding tightly onto the waists of the person in front of them and pulling! When one side lost, everyone cheered and jumped up and down. An interesting site at the Djoser complex. Surely this wasn’t what Djoser imagined for the atmosphere of his final resting place!

Shelby-DSC02036-sm.jpgThe next site was the pyramid of Teti, the first king of the 6th Dynasty. The picture (right) is of my friend Rebecca and me in front of this pyramid. While it looks more like a pile of rubble on the outside, the inside is far more interesting. We descended into the depths of the tomb with dozens of other people into a small antechamber.

There was a chamber on either side with a small doorway leading to each. On each of these walls was inscribed in very neat, precise hieroglyphics the Pyramid Texts. These are the famous religious texts from the Old Kingdom. These are spells specifically intended for the pharaoh and serve to guide him safely into the afterlife.

It was amazing to see these texts encompassing the entire wall. It took every ounce of my being to keep from touching them. But I resisted, because I understand how damaging the oils of our hands can be to ancient artifacts.

The chamber to the right was perhaps the most interesting. On the other side of the wall with the passageway, the pyramid texts continued as before. I looked up and was shocked to see stars carved over the space of the whole ceiling! These stars were the typical five-pointed stars that have graced their way across every modern child’s drawings at some point in time. I am surprised that our basic depiction of stars has remained the same for thousands of years!

As we left the pyramid behind, with the sun blazing on the hot sand, I felt very grateful to have this opportunity. After all, it isn’t every day one gets the opportunity to take a class field trip to such ancient sites as these.

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Exploring Alexandria, Egypt

shelby-DSC01902-sm.jpgAs I sit here, planning out my travels for my remaining weekends, I remembered that I forgot to write about my travels to Alexandria weekend before last! It was one of the best weekends I’ve had here in Egypt, yet I somehow neglected to write about it.

Our train tickets were for 7 p.m. on Thursday, and we all intended to get to the train station with ample time to spare. But when you are travelling with 12 people, this doesn’t usually happen. We made our train with barely two minutes to spare!

The train station is quite confusing for foreigners as our tickets were entirely in Arabic with Arabic numbers. It was difficult to find our train and even more difficult to find the right carriage! We had bought second-class tickets, as they were cheaper, and we anticipated some uncomfortable crowded seating. But when we entered the train we were pleasantly surprised as each seat was plush and roomy with ample legroom!

Two and a half hours later we arrived and poured out of the train. We had a hard time getting a taxi because none of them had heard of the hotel we were staying at and almost none knew of the street it was on. We got in a taxi whose driver said in Arabic that he didn’t know exactly where the hotel was but he knew the general area. We got there and went in the building with the sign of our hotel hanging above.

The hotel was actually on the top two stories of a general office and business building. We piled in the elevator and pressed the button. As we rose, the elevator played an Arabic song, which we soon realized was part of the Qur’an, sung as it usually is in the call to prayer. I’ve heard my fair share of elevator music, but this was new to me!

Egypt has almost no rainfall, but the entire time we were in Alexandria it was cold and rainy. Not the typical weather you imagine when you think of Egypt, that’s for sure. While I was there I wore everything I brought all at once, simply to stay warm! We started our days early and tried to see everything we could.

Museum highlights

On Friday, we first tried to go to the Greco-Roman Museum, and after getting extremely lost, we learned that it was under renovation. We then went to the Alexandria National Museum, which was perfect for a museum lover such as myself. I won’t bore you with the details or my many pictures of the Egyptology collection.

shelby-DSC01885-sm.jpgAfter spending some quality time with the ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses, we moved on to the Roman Amphitheatre. We were the only people there for a long time, as it was so cold and rainy. Walking up on the “stage” of this theatre, we all were talking and laughing when all of a sudden my voice was booming, amplified much louder than normal. I was standing right at the sweet spot, which the Roman engineers had created through their architecture. All amphitheatres were created in a way that the actors’ voices would project to the audience, even if they were speaking in a whisper. This is evidence of the earliest microphone, so to speak.

For dinner, we went to a restaurant called the Fish Market. Here you went right up to the iced case of fish and pointed to whichever fresh fish you wanted. The chef then suggested the best way to prepare it, and he hurried it back to the kitchen. I chose sole, and it was delicious.

To the catacombs

The next morning we woke up and headed to the catacombs. On our way there we were waiting on the sidewalk when an Egyptian mother and her three small children walked by. They were laughing and chattering as they approached us. One of her daughters, about age eight or nine, was just looking at us with wide eyes. Her mother joked with her and then dropped her hand and left her right in front of us, laughing as she walked past, as if to say, “You want to stay with them? I’ll just go on with your brother and sister.” It was all very lighthearted.

I smiled at the little girl and her face lit up and she smiled and ran back to her mother. As she was walking away, hand in hand with her mother, she looked back at us. I smiled and waved at her and she quickly turned away embarrassed. She turned back to me again when she worked up her courage. I waved at her again, and she smiled widely and waved excitedly at me. Her family smiled and laughed along with her as they continued on their journey.

We got to the catacombs as it was pouring rain and descended down the steps, into the abyss. When we got to the bottom of the stairs, the rooms opened up, and it was a series of large underground chambers with extremely high ceilings, which is generally not associated with the word catacombs!

The first chamber was a triclinium, a dining room where the Romans would dine during their visits to their dead ancestors. Squeezing through nooks and crannies, we saw many other chambers with cut-out sections intended for bodies, although there were none, to our disappointment.

We saw carved out of the stone the images of the ancient Egyptian gods such as Anubis, some still with remnants of their original paint! Going down further, we went through a part where we had to walk on boards raised above the ground because the catacombs had flooded.

After that, we went to a juice bar called Malak al Mango, which all the tour books had said sells the best juice you will ever taste in Egypt! Malak al Mango was amazing, with a tiki hut atmosphere and oranges hanging from the ceiling. I had fresh-squeezed mango juice, and when I was finished with that I had coconut juice. I have never had juice that was this delicious! Here in Egypt, I have been spoiled by all this fresh, delicious juice. I will suffer greatly when I have to return to the States and have juice from concentrate! The horror!

We caught our train shortly thereafter, and I returned to Cairo with my lungs filled with fresh air and my stomach filled with tasty fruit juice.

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Tragedy in Cairo

Editor’s note: The American University in Cairo has confirmed that no SMU or other students at the university were affected by the February 22 incident. SMU student Kelsey also shared her thoughts on the event.

Today was a scary day in Cairo as the famed Egyptian Bazaar I wrote about three weeks ago was the site of a terrorist bombing. It happened in the evening today as I was sitting at my computer doing my homework for tomorrow.

My friends came into my room telling me that Khan el Khalili had just been bombed. Assuming they were making a horrible joke – as they are often the pranksters in my dorm, rearranging my furniture when I leave the room or freezing my roommates’ keys – I didn’t believe them at first. However, I looked it up online and I saw the news reports posted only minutes ago. As we waited and kept checking other sites, the news hit big news sources: CNN, the BBC and the New York Times.

I started recieving phone calls from many of my friends here, making sure that I was not at the Khan today. We called our friends who had gone out to dinner to account for their safety. Later we learned one of my guy friends was there right before the bomb went off! I was actually there on Friday, and I have been multiple times to buy touristy items such as scarves and papyrus art. Any of us could have been there that day and could have been the subject of this attack simply by being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

At this time, I have limited information on the event, as many news sources are contradictory. From what I understand, the bomb was thrown into the open area in the front of the Khan where there are many restaurants across from a small grassy knoll. Only one of two or three bombs went off, and while I am writing, officials are working on detonating the others.

More than 20 people have been injured and one is dead. Many of the victims are French, but it is unsure at this time whether the terrorists aimed for this nationality, whether they were aiming for tourists in general, or whether this was a random public act. Khan el Khalili has been the site of a prior terrorist attack. In 2005, a similar event happened, killing two and wounding 18. My heart goes out to all who were affected by this terrible act.

The International Student Office on AUC’s campus contacted me on my cell phone, asking me if I was all right, and the RA in the dorm went room to room to find out whether we were all ok. While we all sit gathered in our rooms, calling our concerned parents and calmly assuring them that we are, in fact, fine, the subject comes up, will we have to evacuate? What will happen next?

However, right now we understand this as an unfortunate random attack, not directed at anyone in particular. As such, there is no reason we should not just continue on with our daily lives here. Now we continue on, going to school, traveling and living in Cairo, except we must remain ever more aware and cautious of our surroundings, as they can change abruptly at any time.

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Visit to Old Cairo

S-photo.jpgToday we visited Old Cairo, also known as Coptic Cairo. This is the area of town where the old capital of Egypt, Fustat, flourished until 1169 A.D. Travel books told us that this would be a lovely place to visit, filled with 7th-century churches and winding cobblestone paths waiting to be explored.

We arrived with few plans on where to go and how to get there. I brought one of my guide books with me, and we set off in one direction hoping to find some of the churches it featured. Within minutes we found the Church of Saint George.

This church was originally built in the 7th century A.D., but was reconstructed after a fire in the 19th century. It’s said to be built on the foundations of where Saint George was imprisoned. I’m not sure whether this is true or not, but I do know that it is built on the foundations of a Roman fortress built by Roman Emperor Trajan. The church was raised up, and there were massive stairs leading up to the entrance of the church. Looking over the edges as I was walking up, I saw the ruins of the ancient fortress!

When we went inside the church, a priest was giving a homily in Greek as St. George is a Greek Orthodox Church. We quietly stood near the entrance observing and looking up into the high vaulted wooden ceilings complete with a large iron chandelier.

We continued roaming and we came upon a fenced-in stone building with its foundations far below the street’s surface. Not understanding what it was but knowing that important things are always fenced in, we moved closer to see. While there was no sign or personnel to confirm this, we determined that it was more of Trajan’s fortress.

Some young Egyptian boys came up to us, fascinated and wanting to know where we were from and why we were there, not even breathing or pausing between questions to learn our answers. Nonetheless, they made it into our pictures.

We came upon another church with writing on the outside in Arabic. Having no idea what it said, we entered and explored the church. It was beautiful, with white marble columns, tapestries and ornately carved wooden banisters, railings and such. Exiting the church we saw the sign that said it was the “Hanging Church,” a very famous church we had been looking for! This church is so named because it is built on top of the old water gate over the Roman fort of Babylon (Trajan’s fortress).

We wandered some more, and once we were about two blocks away we were in an average Egyptian neighborhood. It was fascinating to amble along these cobblestone streets. We walked past people carrying out their normal Friday activities: slaughtering a rooster over an upturned fruit crate and buying oranges from a stand. A donkey was chained to its cart, looking forlorn next to a pile of broken amusement park rides. Needless to say we were the only foreigners wandering around. However, I didn’t feel that out of place as most of the neighbors continued to carry out their daily tasks without concern.

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The first lady of Egypt comes to school

Today was the inauguration for the recently finished “New Campus” for the American University in Cairo. There were a lot of festivities planned; over 1,500 guests were invited to this exclusive event. For days, the campus tested its sound systems, playing the 1812 Overture over and over. The gates were decorated with huge specially made banners commemorating the event and huge white tents were set up.

The campus understandably wanted perfection; this was an important event for the school. However, it was especially important that this went well because the special guest for the inauguration was Suzanne Mubarak, the first lady of Egypt.

I was able to participate in this special event as students, both international and Egyptian, were offered the opportunity to greet the first lady upon her arrival. When I arrived, early this morning, I joined hundreds of other people waiting to be cleared by security. There were about 30 students who were to greet the first lady.

Finally, she arrived! There were several golf carts set up to whisk her and her entourage to the ceremony. She got on the cart, and the parade of golf carts passed us as we clapped. She smiled and waved at all of us. In the cart behind her was her son, Gamal, and his wife. He is rumored to be the Egyptian regime’s choice as the successor to Hosni Mubarak upon his death. So not only did I see the current first lady of Egypt today, but I saw the probable future president and first lady!

Today involved a lot of fanfare. While I only saw the first lady for a couple of minutes, it was exciting to be a part of a procession for the first family of another country. After all, it isn’t often that you encounter the leaders of another country!

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