© LeslieAnn Williams 2002


Thirty-five years after I was thwarted by the Nassar’s war in the Suez to see Egypt, I met two friends in Cairo--the pyramids, temples and monuments along the Nile are better than anyone can describe.  Despite the claims of the father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” let me assure you everything was invented in Egypt over 3,000 years ago!  The boomerang, folding camp bed, brain and heart surgery, and the ancient Egyptians could determine the sex of a baby (pregnant woman urinates on wheat and barley; if it grows green, it’s a boy, yellow, a girl; so where did pink and blue come from?).  Cairo is like Los Angeles, Mexico City, New York, any big city.  Hordes, smog, roads and freeways parking lots at all hours of the day and night.  Unlike the US, Cairo drivers completely ignore the lines in the streets.  Our Egyptian drivers were amazing, completely at one with their conveyance—each driver could sense within inches how close he could get to a nearby car, truck, donkey cart.  Not a ride for the faint-hearted or back seat driver!  

Interesting factoids:  Every 23 seconds a baby is born in Egypt, which adds one million to the population every nine months.  Can you imagine the crowds since 95% live on 5% of the land?  And you thought Hong Kong was densely populated.  Even though Islam is the state religion, women aren’t required by law to wear the all black religious clothing, although I saw many variations of it.  From the abaya, burka, chador, to gallabiya with hagab (long scarf covering hair and forehead), to long jacket over long skirts or pants with hagab; the critical element is that men mustn’t be able to discern a woman’s figure (somehow I doubt that’s written in the Koran).  Noha, our Egyptologist and guide, said she tried to conform to the dress regulations after her pilgrimage to Mecca, but it was too hot and sweaty despite her religious commitment.  Egypt has had only three rulers in the last 40 years—Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak (with no heir as yet anointed).  Under Sadat all University graduates were guaranteed jobs.  Currently, over one million grads are awaiting their promised job assignment; lots of highly educated, multi-lingual store clerks, drivers, hotel personnel.  After Israel, Egypt receives the most US aid (hmmm). 

The Nile runs 3,800 miles, 1,600 miles through Egypt and Sudan.  Beginning in the lakes of Ethiopia and Uganda, the Nile has no tributaries, and little or no rainfall.  The annual inundation of ancient times and (dam-controlled today; the Aswan Reservoir contains enough water to withstand a 10-year drought) comes from the monsoon rains that feed the lakes where the Nile originates.  We saw an original nile-ometer, where ancient priests measured the rise of the water and prophesied the bounty of the upcoming harvest. Upper Egypt is the southern part of the Nile and Lower Egypt is the northern part of Nile.  Remembering your history/geography class, the Nile flows south to north emptying into the Mediterranean. 

The Cairo Marriott (with the requisite portraits of the Marriott boys who never age), where I checked in at 9PM and promptly went to sleep and didn’t wake up even when my roommates came in around 1 AM, is the former Gezirah Palace built by Khedive Ismail to host the royal guests attending the celebrations marking the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869, particularly Empress Eugénie, whose room we did not occupy.  Besides being gilded, gloriously ceilinged—carved and painted, every room has an arrow that shows the guest the direction of Mecca so s/he can pray correctly.  What if you got turned around and faced west praying to the great satan—omigod.

The Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, contains 2.3 million limestone blocks, each weighing an average of 2.75 tons, was 482 feet high, although now down to 449 because its shiny outer casing has sloughed off.  An ascending, narrow, torturous corridor leads to the King’s Chamber.  I posed for the requisite photo in front of the sarcophagus sans mummy in order to forestall my descent through said torturous tunnel.  My thighs gracelessly wobbled by the time I crawled, slithered down the claustrophobic, humid, steep, and body-odor-permeated tunnel.  Talk about your sweat—I was way beyond glow!  And I paid for the privilege.  There are over 100 pyramids in Egypt, about 80 around Giza and the Sphinx.  Built over 35 centuries ago, the two others next to Cheops were for Chephren, son of Cheops, and Mycerinus (all early pharaohs).  The Sphinx remains a mystery as to whom carved it and for what purpose. The theories of the sphinx are: with a lion’s body, human face and royal false beard of a Pharaoh, perhaps it was Chephren who had the Sphinx carved in his own image; it was built by people of the (ever-popular theory) lost civilization more than 2,600 years before Chephren; it was an artist’s idea for an entryway.  Pick one.  Pyramid is a Greek word meaning “cake.”  The Egyptian word for pyramid is “mir”(as in the space station) meaning “to ascend to heaven.”

The pyramid sound and light was spectacular, a little kitsch, but with a glass of subtly dry, yet unpretentious with a whisper of lotus, Egyptian red, feet elevated, and a balmy, starry night, it was transcendent.   The pyramids were not built with slaves despite Cecil B. DeMille’s rendering.  The temples and pyramids were built by willing peasants who were paid with lentils, onions, leeks and were led by a few thousand skilled craftsmen.  Only periods of wealth and stability could provide the necessary authority and administration for such a huge undertaking.  Even the function of the pyramids is up for grabs: tombs for the pharaohs, a home for his living soul in the afterlife; some claim the sides of the pyramids represent the sun’s rays; the step pyramid represents a stairway to heaven; the pyramids were ancient granaries in which Joseph stored the corn that saved Egypt from famine; the pyramids mirror the constellation of Orion and that the size of the pyramid reflects the brightness of the star to which it refers, all of this being an attempt to unite the dead pharaohs with Orion, the constellation of Osiris, the god of the afterlife.  My theory: what do you do with all those people who are farmers and can’t farm during the inundation?  Give ’em a magnificent time-consuming project, especially when they’ll work for lentils!

Imhotep, later deified for his accomplishments, constructed the first stone building in the world, a step pyramid in Saqqara for Pharaoh Zoser about 2650 BC.  The Step Pyramid is part of a large funerary complex (necropolis) west of Memphis, the first capital of the united Egypt. In the town’s open-air museum there is a limestone colossus of Rameses II and a New Kingdom sphinx made of alabaster—both awesome and beautiful. In the Cairo Museum we paid an additional fee (after the entrance and camera fee) to look at really, really old dead people in the mummy room—including Amenophis (Amenhotep) I and Tuthmosis IV from the 18th Dynasty and Seti I and son Rameses II (who looks a lot better as a colossus even though seeing his strands of red hair was very interesting—ghoulish, but interesting) from the 19th Dynasty, all found in 1875 in Deir el-Bahri where Amelia Peabody and her adoring husband and Egyptologist partner, Emerson, Father of Curses, were always getting into trouble (You must read the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters).  No mummies of any royal women have been acknowledged found; they’re believed to have been stolen for their aphrodisiac value.  One was reputed to be on the Titanic.  We saw King Tut’s royal linen underwear, looking like rather like oversized diapers (ancient Depends?).  He seemed to prefer briefs to boxers.

Tut basically was an un-noteworthy pharaoh (except for his incredibly rich tomb) since the Amen-Ra priests were running things when he became pharaoh at age nine.  I’m sure the priests killed him because they were still re-indoctrinating the Egyptians with the ancient worship of all the gods, instead of the one god religion of Akhenaten, the world’s first monotheist, who may have been visited and influenced by Jews.  Akhenaten ended the priesthood of Amen altogether, decreeing the god, Aten, a minor god in the panoply, would become the only god worshipped in Egypt and Pharaoh would be the only priest.  Akhenaten defied more than two thousand years of tradition. In year 12 of his 17-year reign, Akhenaten’s beautiful queen, Nefertiti (whose exquisite painted limestone bust is in the museum in Berlin), died, as did his mother, Queen Tiy and two of his daughters (really bad year for Akh). These losses, particularly that of his beloved Nefertiti, hardened Akhenaten’s resolve to rid Egypt of its traditional gods.  His workmen ran around Egypt wiping out references to other gods.  Akhenaten brought about a new style of art, a realism that the prior 2,000 years of Egyptian art did not have.  For the first time, paintings, carvings, statues showed intimacy, family and illustrated motion.  Previously regardless of their actual appearance, pharaohs had always been depicted as youthful, handsome and athletic. Akhenaten, in a departure from this tradition, had himself portrayed as he was with spindly arms and legs, saggy chest and belly, and rather wide child-bearing hips, somewhat androgynous shape.  Although known for his attempt to promote one god, he wasn’t much of a ruler and Egypt’s enemies took advantage.  When he died, it was fairly easy for the priests to take over again because Tut was only nine.

Ancient Egyptians believed that Osiris (myth recorded by Plutarch in the 1st Century) was born a god, though grew up as a man.  They credit Osiris with civilizing Egypt, organizing agriculture and the cultivation of vines and grapes; Osiris was the first person to drink wine. (So goes the myth; however, I suspect even Zinjanthropus figured out fermenting).  When Osiris became king, his sister, Isis, became his wife and queen (guess Egyptian gods and pharaohs didn’t worry about the genetic side effects of in-breeding) and everything in the Nile valley blossomed and all was copacetic until their brother, Seth, became jealous.  He trapped Osiris in a coffin and threw him into the Nile.  The coffin floated into the Mediterranean and was washed up on the Syrian shore, where it was encircled by a tree that eventually became a pillar in the royal palace at Byblos.  Isis found Osiris’ body and took him back to the Egyptian Delta, where she and sister, Nephthys (also Seth’s wife), mourned him.  Images in temples at Abydos, Dendar (now in the New York Met) and others show Isis as a bird, hovering over Osiris’ erect penis (Yes, I took pictures); that hottie Isis was able to revive Osiris just long enough to conceive their son, Horus.  Seth, however, hadn’t finished with his brother; when he found the grinning corpse, he cut it up into 14 pieces and threw them into the Nile. Some 13 pieces were washed up at various places along the Nile.  Guess which piece was eaten by the Nile perch (often tastily grilled with a lemon butter sauce)?  Isis, in the form of a turkey vulture, scoured the lands for her brother-king-husband.  With the help of son Horus, Anubis, the jackal god of funerary regalia and procedure, and Thoth, ibis-headed god of wisdom and writing, Isis reassembled Osiris’ body at Abydos, adding a necessary penis (no mention as to whose it was) and wrapping his body in bandages to, voila, making the first mummy.  When son Horus reached manhood, he avenged his father’s death in a heroic struggle with his Uncle Seth (who got be a god with a dog’s head) for control of the kingdom of earth.  Horus then guaranteed his father’s immortality by feeding one of his own eyes to Osiris.  Osiris sits in judgment of all who want to enter heaven.  He watches as your heart is weighed on the scales against that of an ostrich feather from the goddess, Maat, who stands for truth and balance.  No buying your way into heaven here.  No last minute forgiveness either.  Ancient Egyptians had to lead a good life to get into heaven—light-hearted and pure in thought and deed.

In Luxor we stayed in the Winter Palace of King Farouk (now a Sofitel struggling to keep up the old glory), who apparently had palaces everywhere— trés elegant, high ceilings, wide corridors, gilt, baroque-carved everything.  The Winter Palace is on the Corniche, a beautiful walkway along the Nile that the government keeps spiffing up.  We walked through the Temple of Luxor and had a tour of the ruins—a very fine obelisk, a dramatic processional walkway of sphinxes, and several Rameses colossi—always amazing in quantity and beauty.

The scale of Karnak, on the opposite bank, surpasses all the other temples and monuments, over 100 acres devoted to the gods.  For 13 centuries successive pharaohs added and remodeled to make this the most magnificent temple complex in the world.  Massive Brobdingnagian was the word of the day.  The great hypostyle (roof supported by pillars) hall was unbelievably magnificent—columns over 140 feet high.  Definitely made one aware of one’s mere insignificant mortal status.  The 12 columns with papyrus capitals, and 122 columns with papyrus bud capitals, with some of the original coloring remaining, were just too stunning.  The walls are covered with bas-reliefs of offerings, cult scenes, and the ubiquitous war scenes with pharaoh always holding a bundle of enemy heads.  The Karnak sound and light, a long 90 minutes, was worth it.  I could feel the anciently engineered awe-inspiring grandeur, strolling through the dramatically lighted processional and great hall.  Periodically the tourist horde stopped and listened to the story of Karnak.  As we shuffled to our next stop on the warm, balmy night under a glorious Milky Way with the occasional shooting star, a toddler in her stroller sang, “twinkle, twinkle little star,” reducing Karnak to an oversized pile of big old stones.

Pharaoh Hatshepsut, the one known female pharaoh, has a very modern looking temple built into the limestone Theban hills.  She is known for having sent an expedition to Punt (probably Somalia) which returned laden with exotic trees, myrrh, incense and several royal Nubians.  Her brother, Tuthmosis III, came to the throne with clearly strong sibling jealousy and deleted her name from the “kings list” and from all monuments attributed to her, destroying her image wherever it might be throughout Egypt (today he’d probably be a serial killer) because she prevented him from ruling.  Hatshepsut, meaning “most noble of ladies,” is one of my ancient heroes.  She wore the short kilt of men, shaved her head like a pharaoh, drove a chariot and led the army into battle, hunted, exercised with the army, did exactly as she pleased.  Daddy Pharaoh made her co-regent during his reign when he became tired of all that power because he knew she’d make a better pharaoh than his son, Tuthmosis III.  When Dad died, Hatshepsut needed to legitimize her role as pharaoh because ancient Egyptians weren’t so accepting of a female pharaoh even though she strutted around wearing the false beard and double crown of pharaoh.  To support her claim to the throne, Hatshepsut carved on her temple walls a tale of how the god Amen took on her father’s appearance the day she was conceived – making her the daughter of the big kahuna, capo di capi, god of all gods.  To solidify her position, she married her brother striking a deal so she could rule as Pharaoh and he could dally as was his wont.  She then gained support by appointing new officials who relied on her for their position and salary.  Hatshepsut reigned for 22 years—22 years of peace with an Egyptian woman in power.  She ordered many obelisks during her reign to be carved with her name and contrived story.  Weighing more than 300 tons and standing 30 meters tall, obelisks became the defining monument of the New Kingdom (the ones in Central Park and Paris are from ancient Egypt).  Hatshepsut ordered carvings that praised her beauty, and in an attempt to strengthen her position as pharaoh, also had herself depicted as a man.  Hatshepsut and her architect, Senenmut, were apparently quite chummy; his tomb was built next to hers.  Some of the 3,000 year-old graffiti suggests sexual liaison; rumors were rife among the ancient hoi polloi.  ‘Twas ever thus.

When Hatshepsut died, Tuthmosis III, driven by a desire to immortalize himself went on to extend Egypt’s boundaries in every direction, conquering more land than any pharaoh before or after him.  Back to the male war formula for economic progress.  Tuthmosis had been head of the army under Hatshepsut; upon succession to the throne, Tuth was keen to prove himself with even greater military exploits. Twenty thousand soldiers were enlisted, voluntarily and by force, and trained for an attack on the important city of Megiddo, the capital city of Egypt’s enemy, the Hyksos. To determine the number of enemies slain in battle, the Egyptians cut off their right hands and counted them. The decorated walls of Karnak temple contain a carved record of the spoils Tuthmosis brought back after his success against the Hyksos—birds, animals, piles of precious stones, pots of grains and foodstuffs, women, children, (not slaves, but people to be integrated into the Egyptian population) and baskets of hands.

The tomb of Nefertari, beloved wife of Rameses II, in Biban el-Harim looked as though it were completed yesterday.  There are a limited amount of tickets available each day, so we were up, breakfasted, on the road and at the kiosk by 6AM to obtain the coveted ticket.  Although Rameses II spent his reign ensuring he was seen as the most powerful influence in the known world, including presenting himself as a god, his love and admiration for Nefertari shows through all of his self-glorification.  Rameses wrote of his adoration for his Queen: “My love is unique—no one can rival her, for she is the most beautiful woman alive. Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart.”  Theoretically, she was training to be a musician priestess when he saw her.  Love at first sight.  Nefertari’s tomb, the ultimate tribute to Rameses greatest love, is the finest in the Valley of the Queens, containing intricate paintings using an extensive array of colors.  The paintings used the time-consuming “relief carving” technique, where the intended design is painstakingly carved so that it projects from the surface.  Nefertari’s tomb did not, like most others, refer to specific events in her lifetime.  It was very funerary in theme, no doubt because Rameses was devastated by her death.  Well worth the early wake-up and expense.  Rameses ruled for 67 years so he missed Nefertari a long time.  Rameses lived to the exceptional age of 93 with his head of famous red hair in tact, and is believed to have fathered over 100 children.  However, since he so loved Nefertari, I’m quite sure all of those children were adopted, which was the custom—take the best and the brightest from peasants and nobles and raise them with the royal court and keep the gene pool viable.

The temple complex at Abu Simbel is 175 miles south of Aswan.  Egypt Air flies the tourist shuttle at 9:30 AM and the flight returns at 1:30 PM, just enough time to tour the temples.  I always think of Abu Simbel like the Taj Mahal, a monument of a man’s love to his adored wife.  In this case: Rameses II and Nefertari.  Nerfertari’s tomb is unlike any other tomb I saw—very feminine with the columns representing women and female gods.  The temples of Rameses and Nefertari were carved out of the rock cliff faces originally in a bend in the Nile which would have made an awesome scene as one rowed around the corner.  Of course, the temples were relocated to high ground as part of the high dam project.   Carvings of the Pharaoh greatly outnumbered those of the Queen, and the temples were intended to indicate the power of Egypt to those living further south in Nubia. Rameses again illustrated the love and respect he had for the wife he called, “the one for whom the sun shines.”  Ahhhh, what a romantic guy.

When the first and smaller Aswan Dam was built, the Temple of Isis at Philae was partially submerged during the annual flooding.  Tourists had to go by row boat and could see only the tops of the temples.  Only built 700 years ago, mainly by Ptolemaic and Roman rulers, who wanted to identify themselves with the Osiris and Isis cult, Philae was one of the last places to give up the ancient religion.  With UNESCO and the Egyptian Antiquities Organization the island of Agilka was reshaped into an exact replica of the island of Philae.  The Temple of Isis, Temple of Hathor (patroness of music), and Trajan’s Kiosk were dismantled and relocated—a beautiful blend of Egyptian and Greco-Roman architecture.  In 1980 the temples with their tide marks were re-opened.

With all the armed protection available for tourists, it didn’t prevent me from being lured by an armed tourist guard to follow him off-limits where he said I could see some new tombs (I know, very dumb, but Amelia Peabody would have done it and I did have a relatively heavy purse).  When a gallabiya/turban-clad chap joined us and I was being led into a narrow, dark area, I said, “I’d better go back and join my big group who are probably missing me (I hoped).”  They said, “Just a little bit farther.”  I know, I can’t believe I kept going with them either.  And I did see some newly opened tombs with marvelous paintings and carvings.  Some I even foolishly went inside, while others I saw with the Egyptian high tech version of lighting—cardboard covered with tin foil angled to send the sun’s rays into the tomb.  My excitement to emulate my fictional hero, Amelia Peabody, overcame my little voice of caution (gift of fear).  I snapped a few photos, thanked the two men profusely, apologized for not having any piastres, and gratefully set off with my body and handbag in tact.  Noha gave our personal guard a vociferous Arabic talking to, even though I begged forgiveness for worrying everyone.

Took the de rigeuer ride in the felucca on the Nile.  Since I had to swim in the Nile, I jumped overboard and hung onto a rope getting pulled along and enjoying the feel of the Nile.  A loverly way to body surf; the water was warm, clear.  I’m quite sure I swam in this river in a past life; it just felt right.  I think I may have clung to a vine drifting behind Rameses II’s barque trying to get a look at the royal crowd, since I was no doubt a peasant temple worker who liked to swim and dodge crocodiles.  Our poor guide, Hamoda, panicked and chained-smoked the entire time I was in the water.  Poor man, if he weren’t Muslim, he would have had a double of something with a high alcoholic content.  I wasn’t thinking, “American.  Big liability.”

Ancient factoids: baboons are sacred because they are the first animals to praise the rising sun each morning (one interpretation of their early morning babbling); King Tut and his wife shared a pair of sandals instead of wedding rings; carvings show them each wearing one sandal; obelisks are symbolic penises—earth penetrates sky (Mut) and begets Osiris and Isis; obelisks were always made in pairs representing Upper and Lower Egypt; there is no word in ancient Egyptian for “tomb,” a burial place was called “house of the soul.” No word for “death.”  Passing over to the other side was referred to as “west.”  Egyptians, who could afford it, built their tombs and were buried on the west bank of the Nile.

Most of the temples I saw were part of a 5-day Nile cruise on ships that looked like the Mississippi paddle-wheelers.  We moored each night with the morning finding our ship one of 6-10 ships stacked up in the same spot.  We had boarding passes to identify which boat was ours since we walked through several lobbies looking alike getting to shore with the order of the boats having changed when we returned from a temple outing!  We went through a lock along the Nile.  As we approached the lock, it one of the last opportunities for the local enterprising sales reps to entice us to purchase caftans, belly dancer outfits (No, I didn’t), tablecloths, scarves and veils.  The sellers came out in row boats and threw their various wares from the river to the third story top of the ship.  Tourists would examine the item.  Price negotiation took the form of yelling and hand signals. 

Then the money placed in the plastic bag the items was thrown up in, was tossed back down to the boat.  The guys kept throwing, even when I shook my head no.  I threw the caftans back.  Sportswoman I’m not; all my attempts at accuracy went into the water.  Major League Baseball might consider recruiting here.  These guys could accurately fire this stuff over the 3-story railing.  When you take this cruise, remember the price of your caftan gets lower the closer you get to the lock!  Although not from the river merchants, I did buy an Egyptian, hand-tied-by-children-at-the-rug-factory rug.  The rug school was very interesting.  Children are recruited as young as six so their fingers can be trained in the dexterity it takes to tie the knots.  The kids were, of course, adorable and I handed out ballpoint pens by the handful, hoping they would concentrate on school instead of a future with back and neck problems as they sat all day on the cement floor tying knots.

Favorite image: Saudi man in full robe and red and white picnic table head gear sitting in the Cairo flight lounge with expensive wrap-around sun glasses (very few people wear sun glasses), big gold and diamond Rolex, and the pièce de résistance, leopard skin clogs.

Next time: the western desert, Alexandria, the Red Sea.

© LeslieAnn Williams 2002

Egypt