IMMEMORIAL CENTRES AT THE NILE – LUXOR AND ASWAN

The last station of my journey, Oasis of Siwa, near the border to Lybia had been a bit stressful overall. When returning from Siwa to Marsa Matruh at the sea, I got ill with bronchitis and was out of order for a few days.  In order to reach Aswan in the very South near the border to Sudan, I had to go by bus and train to Cairo via Alexandria. In Cairo I had to find somehow the right train station where I bought successfully a train ticket to Aswan. So even without internet, all this worked quite fine in 1985. I refrained from buying the cheapest class because this could have meant to travel together with living chickens and ducks, onions or garlic in the compartment what might have been a bit uncomfortable.

The trip with the train from Cairo to Aswan took nearly a complete day, it was really pleasant to travel through the green valley of the Nile with its long history. The train was partially very slow (ca. 25 km) due to bad rails, so it is very much advisable to be patient when travelling like this through all Egypt. The next photo shows Lake Nasr near Aswan, a water reservoir stretching to the South over a far distance in the former Nubia. From Aswan you can also visit Abu Simbel, the famous Pharaonic site, which had to be rescued and removed in the 60s of the last century when the water reservoir of Lake Nasr was constructed here.

When I was loafing through Aswan one evening, this drew the attention of a friendly and well educated Egyptian. He was interested to learn what a foreigner is doing all alone in his nice home-town. The Arabic culture implies certain ritualized forms of greeting and getting aquainted to be adhered to as a very relevant question of politeness. So diverse questioning by the guy from Aswan led to a slight cultural shock, because I admitted the truth of not being married, not having childrens and worst of all not following any kind of religion. May be he thought that I am some kind of alien now invading his life? So he was cautious but stayed relaxed when replying: “So you are a child of the wildness.” and in the same moment pointing to the South and the black heart of Africa. For me an interesting and fascinating idea and the Egyptian also remained friendly. I have often thought of this situation again lateron and still think that it is just very remarkable weird in a positive sense. The Nile means the old lifeline of all Egypt, but its green valley is just a tiny part of the big country covered mostly with endless desert land. So most people live really in this small stretch and the delta of the river, here people find fertile soil for successful agriculture since eons and hopefully forever. From Aswan I took again the train to reach the famous city of Luxor in the middle of Egypt being known also as fabulous ancient Theben.

The ancient metropole of Luxor is homeland of huge former temples, impressive monuments and archeological sites. How the old Egyptians managed to move all these heavy stones and columns is hardly imaginable today. But they did it, and their great and amazing works can still be admired today. And the analog photos shown here are now also somehow antique after a period of only 33 years.

These proofs of a high developped and sophisticated human culture thousands of years ago have always attracted other people for long time. When moving and loafing through these gigantic buildings of Luxor I felt quite small like a tiny ant, so even the antique world was able to create an own also technical cosmos beyound our individual frames. So plenty of phantastic opportunities do exist  here in Egypt for travelling, seeing and thinking about past and present times.

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Next and final Egyptian tour:  Cairo (in a few days)

Report on Abu Simbel: https://transmutation.me/2018/06/13/oriental-spotlights/
Report on Mt. Sinai: https://transmutation.me/2018/08/05/sinais-ancient-traditions/
Report on Alexandria: https://transmutation.me/2018/08/30/alexandria-greek/
Report on Oasis of Siwa: https://transmutation.me/2018/09/06/marsa-matruh-siwa/

 

EGYPT – TO THE OASIS OF SIWA VIA MARSA MATRUH

“A sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to our steps as we walk the tightrope of life.”  (Arabic proverb)

Another mythological place in Egypt is the Oasis of Siwa which was not so easy to reach in 1985. From Alexandria I took again a regional bus to the small town of Marsa Matruh being situated at the coast not far away from the Libyan border in the very West. On the photo above and hereunder you see a typical street-scene with a donkey cart and of course the old bazaar there. But I had to stay in this town in order to get a special permission from the local authorities for visiting the Oasis of Siwa (being also a military’s exclusion zone), this alone took me around 2 days. It is a rural area, just normal life and more unspectacular except one very strange and bizarre exhibition on the outskirts of Marsa Matruh.

I am quite sure that this must be the only place in the world where a museum honours the Nazi general Erwin Rommel with the still existing Rommel’s Cave Museum (see photo hereunder). Just before Rommel’s Beach is the cave system where Rommel planned the axis forces’s military operation during WW II. The caves are now home to a small museum that displays some of his personnel effects and the maps he drew up here presenting him as a hero. The Egyptians did not like very much to be part of the British Empire while their great hope to become independent after WW I was not respected by the colonial powers at Versailles. So the Egyptians appreciated when the German Wehrmacht invaded Northern-Egypt in the naive hope for a principal change of their fate after being first occupied by the Osmans for long time and then later by the British. And they especially admired the combat strategy of Rommel in North-Africa standing in the tradition of the Bedouins. Although Rommel committed suicide in October 1944 due to imminent punishment after a rebellion of officers against Hitler, this place made me dazzled and speechless however as the complete museum did simply ignore the devastation of great parts of Europe, the holocaust and the millions of deaths as a result of Nazi-German cruelties.

After this unexpected historical abyss, I was happy to leave Marsa Matruh for my visit of the Oasis of Siwa which was also reachable by a daily bus through the Libyan desert. On the way to Siwa a lot of military vehicles could be seen because the Egyptian army held some military compounds in the oasis. Those days the crazy colonel Muammar Ghaddafi was the revolutionary head of the Libyan state, and the Egyptians simply did not trust him. Therefore, the whole territory stood under special military’s control. The street to Siwa was not in the very best condition but this is nothing unusual in a desert with great differences in temperature from day to night. It took around 3.5 hours with the bus from Marsa Matruh to Siwa, so I did arrive in the early afternoon when it was really hot, not surprisingly hardly anybody on the streets of Siwa upon my arrival.Not far away from the bus station I found a rather simple hotel in the oasis, I think it was the only one, but it offered good protection against the burning sun and strong heat, what was the most important here. The breakfast and meals were of more modest character, and in the oasis in general a mediaval feeling struck my mind as if being hardly put back in time.

The oasic region of Siwa is the only place in Egypt with a Berber population (ca. 23,000), culture and language called Siwi. It is lying in the Qattara depression around 18 m under sea-level, therefore water finds very easily its way to the surface being the basis for life in a desert. The agriculture of Siwa comprises mainly the massive production of dates and olives but as well also diverse vegetables for daily life and local consumption. So vast areas are simply covered by the evergreen date palm-trees.

The history of the oasis can be followed back in history till the 18th Pharaonic dystany (1,500 B.C.). At that time the climate was much better and North-Africa much greener, hence the Egyptians erected here an important Temple of Amun – a location with a very well-known oracle. Even Alexander the Great made use of this powerful oracle of Siwa and upon his visit was welcomed as the true sun of Zeus. The next two photos show the debris and ruins of the Temple of Amun in Siwa.

The course of time created surreal landscapes here being once the meeting rooms of famous and powerful people. But I had more places to discover in Egypt, so my time in Siwa was limited because now the endless Nile valley was calling me.

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Next Egyptian tour:  Luxor and Assuan (in a few days)

Report on Abu Simbel: https://transmutation.me/2018/06/13/oriental-spotlights/
Report on Mt. Sinai: https://transmutation.me/2018/08/05/sinais-ancient-traditions/
Report on Alexandria: https://transmutation.me/2018/08/30/alexandria-greek/

 

lens-artists photo challenge

 

 

 

ALEXANDRIA – GREEK FOUNDATION IN THE NILE DELTA

After my arrival in Egypt in October 1985, Alexandria was one of the first places I did visit. It is a real Mediterranean metropole with a long and diverse history. Being founded in 331 by Alexander the Great  the Greek people and culture being and living there played an important role for long time. With the uprise of Arabic nationalism after WW II most of the Greeks however left the town and Egypt, the same applies for the Jews. So historical important aspects of this town, the culture and the country are today just missing.

We entered Alexandria on Wednesday, the 13th day of the month of Sha’ban, and spent twenty-three days at the palace of the Benefactor. We rarely went into the city and so it is difficult for me to say anything about it. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that in terms of both its geographical location and its general condition it closely resembles Frankish cities.”

Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi, “An Imam in Paris”, 1st essay
reporting here about his arrival at Alexandria in 1826 on his way to Paris

Egypt was one of the first places where the Christian belief settled down long before this could be said about Europe. The original inhabitants of Egypt, the Copts still living there as a minority, have their own style of Christian philosophy, the Coptic Orthodox Church. They have to maintain their way of interpreting the world in a country with a predominant Arabic-Muslim way of thinking since long time.  Government authorities do not support any hatred between the two religions while Jesus is regarded as well as a prophet in Islam for example.

In Alexandria I stayed in the centre of town in a normal Egyptian hotel being situated in a skyscraper of the 70s. The hotel hosted their guests in the 6th floor of this building such offering nice views on the town and the sea. In general I was content with it but one thing I did not like at all: the other inhabitants of the building. So one night I had to get up for a visit of the toilet being outside of my hotel room. So when approaching the toilet on the corridor being more sleepy than awaken, I suddenly saw a long procession of big, well nourished and black cockroaches passing my way. But I had no choice and made my way to the toilet where I did not stay longer than necessary. I have refrained from using the toilet again by night afterwards.

In the photo above you see the old Qaitbay Citadel from the 15th century being erected on the ruins of the antique Pharos. The constructors also used the materials and debris of the already destroyed famous lighttower of Pharos, one of the seven wonders of the antique world. The citadel was erected at the seaside by the Mamluks sultan as a protection against the Osmanic threat. Today it is just a peaceful, calm and historical place which reminds us to the past.

These are just some impressions from this old Egyptian town and metropole. 33 years after the visit I do not remember all what might be of further importance. 

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Next Egyptian tour:  Marsa Matruh / Oasis of Siwa (in a few days)

Report on Abu Simbel: https://transmutation.me/2018/06/13/oriental-spotlights/
Report on Mt. Sinai: https://transmutation.me/2018/08/05/sinais-ancient-traditions/

 

 

 

 

 

CLIMBING ON MT. SINAI / EGYPT

Why is a secular person like me trekking on the mythological Mt. Sinai (Arabic: Gebel Musa, 2,285 m) in October 1985, the Moses mountain being situated in the heart of a mountainous desert on the peninsula with the same name? Well, I really have to strain my brain and memory, as no diary has been written by me during this self-organized 4-week-journey through all Egypt long time ago. At least the analog photos do still exist and must serve as a quite triggering and facilitating guide.

In the 80s of the last century travelling was much more exciting and unpredictable than today. All I did in preparation for my journey to Egypt was booking a flight-ticket to Cairo, reading a little bit in advance and taking with me a travel-guide for orientation which led me reliably to the most important sites in the country. I never had a problem to find accomodation whereever, just looking and asking while speaking sometimes simply with hands and feet. I did not speak Arabic, and in Egypt not everybody spoke English especially in the more rural areas.

“Many stone inscriptions have been found in Southern Sinai, dating from the 15th century B.C. They are written in pictograms, signs representing the initial consonants of words whose meaning had been previously conveyed by a picture – a crucial stage between pictorial representation and phonetic writing. Pictograms are generally hieroglyphics but these read as Canaanite not Egyptian. So the Canaanite alphabet was the result of a conscious creative act.”

Jean Starcky / Pierre Bordreuil, 1975, “L’Invention de l’alphabet”

I reached the Sinai with the bus going from Cairo to Suez, there I took a shared taxi, an old Peugeot, being driven with great pride by a local Bedouin. The driver stopped from time to time in the Sinai desert where Bedouins settled in tents for a small talk or just waving his right hand. The left hand may not be used for greeting or eating subject to reasons I do not like to explain in detail. The only thing I can advise in this regard to have always paper tissues with you as toilet paper quite often was not available, instead just a bottle of water. The shared taxi brought me finally completely secure to the centre of Sinai and the Greek Orthodox St. Catherines Monastery (see photo hereunder).

The monastery is a quite busy place in the middle of the desert at the mouth of a gorge being situated at the foot of Mt. Sinai as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The building is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world and was built between 548 and 565. The monastery provides also the oldest continually operating library in the world. The name originates to antique tradition telling the history of Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian martyr, sentenced to death on the breaking wheel. When this failed to kill her, she was beheaded. The Christian mythology says that angels took her remains afterwards to Mt. Sinai where monks from the Sinai Monastery found her remains around the year 800. So a lot of Christian pilgrims do visit this place, and the monastery offers accomodation to them and everybody else who decides to be here and/or climb on Mt. Sinai like Moses long time ago.

So being here in a spectacular desert scenery with all these old stories and expectations implies a quite special experience. As far as I can remember I spent two nights at the monastery and one very early morning at around 4 a.m. when all was still completely dark and mysterious, I and all the others staying there (around 40 persons) started climbing on Mt. Sinai. At that time it is cool and fine in the desert, so marching to the top required only around 2.5 hours on a not too difficult path. Shortly before sunrise we reached the top of Mt. Sinai, at that moment all surrounding other mountains were immersed in a surreal blue and green (see photo above and hereunder). There was a big group of pilgrims from Austria who after singing a Christian song chanted with great pathos the hymn of their homeland Tyrole. This made it even more irreal because in the background Egyptian merchants were loudly shouting: “Chai. Hot tea.” And you would normally not expect so much life early in the morning in a desert at Alpine heights. So no, I have really not found any kind of enlightenment on top of Mt. Sinai but the magical mountainous scenery was really worth a visit. The desert is a very puristic place but risky, it can clean your mind or kill you. A lot of Europeans have a romantic view on it as visualized in films like Lawrence of Arabia. Every Bedouin prefers to stay in an oasis with water and green as a simple question of survival. The sun has an incredible drying strength and heat even in October, so moving down Mt. Sinai in the early morning for nearly 2 hours was indeed less pleasant and instead arousing a thirst.

The Sinai desert allows a lot of discoveries like canyons of all colour, prehistoric temples or the visit of an old oasis. After my visit of Mt. Sinai I spent some time at the Red Sea on the other hand, first in the quite touristic Sharm El-Sheikh and afterwards in the more Hippie-like Dahab with simple straw huts and hosted by Bedouins at the beach. There in Dahab life was easy and relaxed those days, a real welcomed and nice memory to this special and amazing land called Sinai.

Next Egyptian tour: Alexandria (end of August)

Report on Abu Simbel: https://transmutation.me/2018/06/13/oriental-spotlights/

 

linked to:   Restless Jo’s Monday Walks

https://travelsandtrifles.wordpress.com/2018/09/22/lens-artists-challenge-12-path/

 

 

 

ORIENTAL SPOTLIGHTS

Well, I really had to search my old Chinese wedding chest for proofs concerning a 4 week trip of all Egypt in the 80s of the last century. Fortunately all photos still existing after more than 30 years of storage and now somehow also antique. So welcome back to the world of simplest analog photography which I find indeed more touching than all these bits and bytes of today. It is real paper and memory to be felt, rather oldfashioned these days I know.

Abu Simbel site in Southern-Egypt by mid of October 1985
Small temple of Nefertari, 13th century BC

The Oriental world has played an important part in my life, and this trip to Egypt in 1985 was my first encounter with this fascinating cosmos. The visit of Abu Simbel in the very Southern part of Egypt near the Sudanese border was truly a real highlight in this regard because the archeological site is a quite remote place in the Nubian desert at the shores of Lake Nasser. To visit the location was quite easy while diverse agencies in the big city of Aswan offer daily trips to Abu Simbel.

We were leaving Aswan at around 4 a.m. very early (due to the high temperatures) and driving with some kind of jeep or SUV first on a road later on a good sandy piste. Camel caravans from Sudan passed our way on their way to the camel markets of Luxor and/or Cairo, food for the many Egyptians living in the valley of the Nile. The trip from Aswan to Abu Simbel takes about 3 hours, so we arrived shortly before the sun was rising above Lake Nasser. The sun is still very strong and dazzling even in October, so the temperatures increase rapidly.

With the first sunrays of the day I was able to make some photos of this spectacular place constructed by the ancient Pharaonic kingdom of Egyot. At this place in the wide desert you already get a good feeling of vast Africa stretching further thousands of miles to the South.

Zoomorphic Arabic calligraphy by Mohammed Negm, 2009
reflecting his full name in the form of an eagle. (1) (2)

linked to:   Frank’s Tuesday Photo Challenge – Age

(1)  This graphic being published under the GNU Free Documentation License.
(2)  The national emblem of Egypt is Saladin’s famous eagle – also on its flag.