Egypt: Ancient, Beautiful and Complicated
Last June, my friend Judy Schrafft, who is a member of the Explorer’s Club and dives all over the world, was reading an archaeological magazine in my kitchen and fell across an ad for a trip to Egypt that included a fair amount of time with Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s ex-minister of antiquities and the maker of many television documentaries.
I started reading about Egypt when I was 10 and some of the earliest pieces of jewelry I made were reproductions of ancient Egyptian work. Well, prices are half-off in Egypt and there are no tourists… so I was game!
We flew over on Valentine’s Day (somehow slipping through a tiny period right in the middle of new York snowstorms) on Egypt Air: economy ticket is $900 and change.
I was surprised to be able to convince three other friends to join me, the architect Nic Dubrul, the art historian and jewelry designer (my partners in a very fun Aspen, Colorado business); Maja Dubrul and their enchanting 12-year-old daughter, Gabi. All three would eventually be seen sketching on a regular basis — a charming tourist tradition dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries that is almost non-existent today!
Atypically, our first day in Cairo it rained (as even more so, it did two other days while I was there), but that was our day to recover from our night flight.
The next day we saw the famous pyramids at Saqqara and Dashur (see the picture of the bent pyramid) and entered some of them — given that most tunnels into them are 3½ or 4-feet high, sometimes tricky for this 6’2” guy. Something that I didn’t know was that one pharaoh had built two pyramids which turned out to be structurally unsound before he got it right. Fortunately, he had a very long reign and the third was indeed finished before he died. The second of those pyramids, the “bent pyramid,” I found quite beautiful. By the way, the pharoah’s name was Snefru, he was the father of the builder of the great pyramid – Khufu – and they were members of the 4th dynasty of the Old Kingdom, circa 2600 B.C.
Next we flew to Luxor and started living on our medium-sized boat, the Concerto, which had 60 voyagers on it.
The greatest temple in Egypt – Karnak – was next up on our itinerary, as were the valley of the kings and its tombs covered with exquisite low-relief carvings, some of which retain their gorgeous colors, including the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, who was Egypt’s famous female pharaoh from 1508-1458 B.C., (18th dynasty, New Kingdom). Convention required she wear a false beard in all representations of herself — but we came to realize that ancient Egypt honored its queens and princesses much, much more than most ancient — or, dare I say, modern cultures.
We embarked and visited what turned out to be my favorite temple — Edfu, or the “horus” (falcon-god) temple, the pylons of which (double structures on either side of a major temple’s entrance) also seemed to me to be the biggest we encountered.
Awareness dawned that the Nile is a tiny, green, life-giving thread in the middle of bare rocky mountains and immense deserts. And that Egypt is not an “Arabic” country, but a very real amalgam of the original Egyptians: Nubian conquerors as well as Hyskos and Hittite ones, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Jews, Coptic Christians and Arabs.
Next was Aswan, where we saw the immense dam that was built with help from the Russians and the immense Lake Nasser it created, and two temples saved from the rise of its waters by UNESCO and its member countries: the island temple of Isis at Philae and the best known of Egyptian ruins: Abu Simbel (with its four huge statues of Rameses the Great – he had over 100 sons, and lived into his 90s! (1303-1213 B.C.; he was the third pharaoh of the 19th dynasty.) He built a second temple to his favorite, “great” wife — Nefertari — next door to his own. It was also undoubtedly a cautionary edifice for Nubian kingdoms south of it (now the two Sudans) which tended to want to take over Egypt. This last involved a 3 ½ hour drive. It was the only time we were in convoy and with a police escort.
Returning to Luxor, we visited the small Luxor museum – which happens to have some of the very best ancient Egyptian sculptures, and were treated to a nighttime trip to the spectacular temple of Luxor, alone with Dr. Hawass and illuminated just for us! The amazing renowned and seemingly endless avenue of sphinxes starts at its entrance.
It was there that Dr. Hawass told us that immense obolisks were always raised on either side of a temple’s entrance and that one obelisk had been taken from each of the greatest temples; they are now set up in New York City (behind the metropolitan museum), in Paris’ Place de la Concord, in London, in Rome and in other places.
Another thing we learned: Egypt is in terrible trouble financially.
The only groups of tourists we encountered were 20 to 40-year-old Russians and there were one or two groups of Germans, Italians, Spaniards). I was able to buy five scarab bracelets for a total of 80 cents and, worse, the crew of our boat was fired when we left it in Luxor because there was no further work available for them.
Back in Cairo, we had an after-hours visit to the incredible Cairo museum — less of an honor than it might have been as dusk was at 5 p.m. and the lighting there is abysmal (but I was lucky to be able to go back in the day-time), but made unique by the double row of manned-tanks (30? 40?) immediately outside it (it borders on Tahir Square, where the last two sets of popular demonstrations/revolutions took place).
Our final day in Cairo took us to just about everyone’s life-time dream when thinking of Egypt: a visit to and climb into the King’s Chamber inside the great pyramid. The pyramid has 2.3 million stone blocks, each of which weighs 2.5 tons.
Despite efforts to the contrary, I’ve never been able to get the 26 Egyptian dynasties straight. What I did understand is that, simplistically speaking, roughly every thousand years Egypt had a great dynasty (or two). In between there was chaos, the break-up of Egypt into many small states and foreign invasion and occupation; a cautionary tale especially for we Americans who think our supremacy can last forever regardless of the salient examples of the short supremacies of Rome, Turkey, and Britain.
While I’ve always been interested in the Ptolomaic dynasty (started by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, and of which Cleopatra was the last), it’s art is characterized by the “softness” and/or weakness of it’s copies of earlier Egyptian styles (in attempts to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Egyptian people). The buildings later added by the Roman emperors Hadrian and Trajan are actually often more on target aesthetically and historically. Every pharoah and/or ruler seems to have attempted to add their imprint to earlier temples, the better to be worshipped —and some public relations for themselves.
Our last day in Egypt comprised a trip to Alexandria, the highlights of which (for me) were hearing Dr. hawass refer to Cleopatra (at a temple by the sea which may well have been the sight of her tomb) with an earthy term (a first for me, but probably how any queen or king stayed/stays in power more than five minutes; I saw that archaeologists become much more personally and emotionally involved with their subjects than I’d thought) and a tour of the very large and very appealing modern library recently built to replace the world-reknowned library that burned during Julius Caesar’s visit, causing the loss of numberless priceless and original manuscripts.
Having been part of President Mubarak’s inner circle, Dr. Hawass had been fired as Minister of Antiquities and was under indictment while he was with us. Fortunately, he was acquitted the day after our official tour ended. He is writing yet another book — which he’s doing at Lake Tahoe.
Luckily, three different, although slight, acquaintances had entertained me, wonderfully and over and over, in Cairo and leaned on me to stay past my planned departure time, which I did five times!
As a result I was able to visit the brilliant Coptic museum — itself in between the ancient, Coptic “hanging church” and the ancient Ben Ezra synagogue.
I met writers, diplomats, government officials, including the foreign minister, journalists, one of the 50 framers of the new Egyptian constitution, intellectuals and others who have been part of the very fabric of Egypt and have supported their country, in many cases these are people well into their 80s — Christians, Jews and Muslims, none of whom had fled the country (though they easily could).
I found the Egyptian people extremely gentle, welcoming and friendly.