EGYPT & THE NILE: LAND OF THE PHAROAHS
By Sheila Charles
Exotic, magical, unequalled. Sites reflecting engineering masterpieces and artistic excellence. I am not an Egyptologist, but I would like to share with you some images of my wonderful trip to Egypt, as well as some of the insights I gained on the political environment, the unequalled archaeological sites, Egyptian heritage management and our cultural connectivity.
My trip to Egypt between March 6 though the 20th constituted the first American tour following Egypt’s White Revolution of January 25, 2011. After 30 years of autocratic rule on February 11, Hosni Mubarak resigned as President and the transitional military government instituted martial law and curfews. On television here in the United States, we watched the Egyptian Revolution develop as crowds of protestors gathered at Tahrir Square, fueled by information shared by young educated activists on social media like Facebook.
Out of the original 44 participants, there were only 15 of us who decided to continue at the scheduled date on the Vantage Tour, advertised to unlock the secrets of ancient Egypt by land and water.
Were our family and friends worried about our decision to undertake our journey when the US State Department travel warnings recommended deferring non-essential travel? Were we uncomfortable at any time? Did we see elements of unrest? I must admit yes, but travel companies were insisting it was safe and Egyptians were campaigning with the slogan, “Support Freedom, Visit Egypt.” Tourism here involves about 11% of the work force and constitutes between 5 to 10 % of the gross domestic product.
Throughout our 2 week tour, Egyptian military presence was prominent in the streets and at historic sites where armed guards and armored tanks stood watch.
As the first post Revolution group, we were filmed by an Egyptian television news crew and interviewed by the media for articles in Egyptian newspapers ** and a finance magazine. We were also enthusiastically welcomed and thanked for traveling to Egypt wherever we traveled. After learning where we were from, many times the response was “Hooray Obamaland!”
In ideal circumstances, we would have avoided traveling to sites where altercations had or could occur. But we had come to see the famous sites.
Tahrir Square, now also known as Liberation Square, is a central traffic circle in Cairo and adjacent to the famous Egyptian Antiquities Museum. Crowds continue to gather here and elsewhere, especially every Friday, to remind the current transitional government of their reformation demands.
From our bus window, we saw a colorful carnival like atmosphere in Tahrir Square with demonstrators, flags draped and flying, and vendor stalls selling Revolutionary souvenirs as well as food. Although it was peaceful during the day when we visited the Egyptian Museum, previously the adjacent government building had been gutted by fire and artifacts from the Egyptian Museum had been stolen. On March 9th violence between Muslims and Coptic Christians led to the death of 11 individuals in Tahrir Square.
That same day while we were visiting the modern Alexandria Library, another demonstration took place where Muslims and Coptic Christians linked arms and called for peace and brotherhood in the New Egypt. While Egypt’s history includes a blend of various cultures and religions, today approximately 90% of the population is Muslim and 10% are Coptic Christian.
We were encouraged to ask vendors and students at the historic sites what they thought of the White Revolution. Unanimously, they were cheerfully optimistic and voiced a renewed pride in their country as they looked forward to a better Egypt with less corruption and more tolerance. It reminded me of our renewed patriotism following 9/11.
On March 19th, we saw lines of people who later proudly displayed a pink thumb indicating they had voted on the constitutional reform referendum. For most, this was the first time they had voted or their first time voting after 30 years.
It was certainly a unique time to visit Egypt and see history in the making.
For the most part, all the historic sites as well as market places as Khan el Khalili and other street markets were open and Egyptians were back at work. But the usual tourist crowds were not present, and surprisingly we often had these unrivalled locations nearly to ourselves!! -- Including the first Egyptian pyramid, the Saqqara Step Pyramid of King Zoser, the Sphinx, the pyramids of Giza, and the mosque of Mohamed Ali Pasha.
Our knowledgeable and friendly guide, Maged Salid, was a graduate of the University of Cairo in Egyptology and a Coptic Christian. He informed us we were visiting 90% of the most important archaeological sites of Egypt. And I was not disappointed.
We began in Northern or Lower Egypt, flew to Southern of Upper Egypt, and then sailed on Lake Nassar, and then up the Nile.
One of the sites we visited in southern Egypt was Abu Simbel on the west bank of Lake Nassar. As I child in the 1960s I remember reading National Geographic and seeing photographs of the multi-national crew conducting the amazing relocation and preservation of sites in Egypt as Abu Simbel. These images helped direct me to become an archaeologist and brought me to the door of Abu Simbel where I held the anhk, the key of life!
Seeing these sites in person is an unrivaled experience. Their grandeur, colossal size, artistry takes your breath away.
Throughout Egypt, the temple complexes we visited were decorated with carved and colorfully painted scenes depicting: military conquests, the Gods and Egyptian myths, the Gods sanctifying Pharaoh, religious rituals including Pharaoh providing offerings to the Gods or funerary activities, daily activities, including medical practices, and hieroglyphic text denoting names, dates, and details of life.
Carved statues and reliefs often extend from the floor to the ceiling, and generally the ceiling images depict stars or the deities of the sky.
As some of these sites were visited for centuries, evidence in the reliefs also revealed modifications over time. For example, when an Egyptian temple to the gods was used for Coptic Christian worship or when the Pharaonic relief was plastered over and covered with a Byzantinian Christian painting.
Other sites also indicate changing site functions over time, such as the oldest synagogue in Egypt, the Ben Ezra Synagogue, located on the site reputedly where Moses was retrieved from the Nile reeds. A Coptic Church originally occupied this site, until the property was sold to pay taxes imposed by the Muslim rulers in 882 A.D. The oldest Coptic Christian church in Egypt, dating to the 3rd Century AD, is the Hanging Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was constructed above the south tower gate of the Roman Fortress of Babylon.
I cannot choose one site that impressed me more than others. So many of the sites are remarkable and it is no wonder most of these Egyptian sites are listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, to be protected with international collaboration for future generations. Seven of the 911 properties, listed on the World Heritage List for their outstanding universal value, are in Egypt.
Like at Strawbery Banke Museum, archaeological research continues to gather new information to help us understand the people who built and inhabited these Ancient Egyptian sites.
At the Alexandria Roman amphitheatre, we saw excavation under way and we also viewed sculptures recovered during recent underwater excavations in the Mediterranean near Alexandria.
Excavation has not only identified stone structures. The discovery of King Cheops (or Khufu) Funerary Boat is considered one of the most important archaeological finds in Egypt. It was discovered in a limestone slab pit on the east side of Khufu pyramid. The 23-meter long funerary boat had been disassembled after carrying the Pharaoh’s body to Giza. Due to the dry arid weather, the Lebanese cedar framing and oars, as well as rope and reed mats survived for over 4000 years! In the 1980s, 1,224 separate parts of the boat were reassembled.
The components of the temples, pyramids and tombs, in addition to these religious structures, included housing for workers, commercial structures like bakeries and stores, and craft and industrial workshops.
I realized these outdoor history sites are similar to Strawbery Banke Museum. And as I toured, I was able to compare Egypt’s methods of dealing with some of the issues we deal with here at Strawbery Banke: security, limited and rotating site accessibility, interpretation and signage, visitor access and transportation around the site.
In addition to armed guardsmen and tanks, and the armed Antiquities Police Officer assigned to each tour group, historic sites and museums had ticket sales areas, which also served as check points. Often, visitors were required to pass through metal detectors and have their bags checked by security. These measures of security were there to protect the historic resources as well as to ensure the safety of visitors.
However once you are inside, often you are left alone. Most sites had no cordoned areas; no staff reminding you not to touch lean or sit on these ancient structures.
At the famous Egyptian Antiquities Museum, which contains some of the most remarkable artifacts, sculptures, sarcophagi, jewelry, and mummies recovered in Egypt, you could stand right at the cases. I stood alone, inches away, from the glass case with the mask of King Tutankhamen!! Few of these dusty cases contain humidity or temperature controls. Strawbery Banke can be proud of their state of art display cases and exhibit panels, which contrast sharply with the old cases and labels at the Egyptian Museum. I understand no funds are being directed to improving the conditions here as a new museum is planned for a location near the pyramids of Giza.
Limited and Rotating Site Accessibility
The Valley of the Kings is one of the highlights of visiting Egypt. This deep valley lies west of the Nile opposite Luxor (formerly Thebes). For over 500 years between the 16th and 11th century BC, tombs were dug in the valley hills for Pharaohs and the upper class of the New Kingdom. Although 64 tombs have been excavated, only 18 are accessible to the public and not at the same time.
In March, three tombs were open for viewing as part of the regular visitors’ pass. And later these will be closed, and on a rotating basis and three other tombs will be accessible to the public. Additional fees were required to visit King Tutankhamen’s tomb, found by Howard Carter in 1922.
Viewing was limited not only due to ongoing restoration, but to help preserve the tombs, which contain some of the best preserved Egyptian paintings. Limited and rotating site accessibility minimizes damage associated with public usage including breathing and moisture buildup. Tour guides are not allowed to lecture inside the tombs and no photography is allowed. Generally photography was only allowed at sites where natural lighting was available as use of flash was prohibited.
Interpretation and Signage
Signage is a rare element at most of these historic sites. The few signs that were erected display a map of the historic complex or tomb and limited descriptive text. Often they are faded, discolored or deteriorated.
A modern visitors center at the Karnak temple complex, which encompassed 75 acres, included a model as well as a short black and white film on Archaeologist’s Howard Carter’s excavation of the King Tutankhamen tomb. Overall, these signs and museum displays do not meet current American museum standards of information aesthetically presented. And the short films and Sound and Light shows are poorly scripted and out of date.
Most visitors to Egypt rely upon the cadre of tour guides. We were lucky to have Maged, who was an excellent knowledgeable Egyptologist and many of the other tour guides I overheard were well versed in Egyptian history as well. Many tour companies provide their clients with audio systems. We had “Whispers,” individual receiving units with earphones connected to Maged’s audio projection unit that allowed him to speak in a quiet voice. This also allowed us some freedom of movement and chances to take photographs without missing shared information.
Visitor Access and Transportation
Visitor access to these sites of Egypt was often distinctively different than the normal mode of overland transportation to Strawbery Banke via car, bus or on foot.
Several sites required travel across the water on a boat or felucca or cruise ship. At Edfu, we traveled by horse drawn carriage. Other visitors arrived at sites by riding donkeys and of course camel riding is a very popular means of transportation!
Egypt’s Paradox of Old and New
In reflection, the character of Egypt is a paradox of old and new. While Egypt derived from a blend of cultures and religions, today religious minorities struggle for equal recognition and tolerance.
Daily life in the rural areas is based on agriculture. Along the Nile the labor is often still undertaken manually and with water buffaloes. Goat herding also continues along the Nile.
Shops in the markets and carts on the street display the local products and spices.
One of Egypt’s main crops is sugar cane, which are loaded onto rail trucks. At the end of the season, the fields are burned to replenish the soil with nitrogen.
In contrast, Cairo’s skyline is dominated by tall apartment buildings and hotels, domed mosques and pencil minarets. On the Nile, party boats are decked with colored lights!
The banks of the Nile in Aswan are like parking lots of cruise ships. And to disembark you often walk through several linked vessels. We walked from our ship through 8 different cruise ships to reach the dock.
Visitors and Egyptians are entertained by Nubian musicians and dancers, and belly dancers and tourists dressed in newly acquired gallabias and costumes.
But the highlight of visiting Egypt is the historic sites and stories of Ancient Egyptians and their beliefs. Picture Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s and later Cleopatra’s royal processions on the Avenue of the Sphinxes. Imagine archaeologists sweeping the sands to disclose monumental structures and sculptures.
I returned rejuvenated about the importance of what we do here at Strawbery Banke, conducting historic and archaeological research, interpreting a historic American neighborhood and sharing the stories of its inhabitants.
Like Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former Minister of State for Antiquities: For me, archaeology is not a just a job. It combines everything that I could want - imagination, intellect, action, and adventure. Whether the sites are 3000 years old in exotic places or less than 300 years old in our own backyards, the research and preservation of our heritage is important for current and future generations.
State: New Hampshire
Trip: Middle East Small Ship Cruises and Land Tours / Egypt & the Nile: Land of the Pharaohs
Rating: 5 Stars ★★★★★
Interested in traveling with Vantage to Egypt? Check out Egypt & a Deluxe Nile Cruise or Egypt & the Nile: Land of the Pharaohs!