Tag Archives: middle east

Egypt: Cairo

Today we do the famous parts of Cairo: the pyramids and the Egyptian museum which includes remains from various burials, most famously Tutankhamen. (I always think of a cartoon: a pyramid door with a horn and the sign “toot and come in.”)

The traffic makes itself known again, making the journey across town take some time. But the pyramids appear suddenly behind other much newer and less grand buildings. That’s the first surprising thing: you hear that they stand right next to Giza but you don’t realise just how close.

The bus practically parks in the biggest of the three main pyramids. We and the hoards of other tourists get out.

I knew it would be busy but, even so, I found the numbers surprising. You couldn’t go very far without bumping into someone, and if it wasn’t a tourist it was a man on a camel demanding you take his picture. (The Egyptians had not come across camels when they built the pyramids, which I thought an amusing twist.)

Luckily behind the second pyramid was much emptier allowing some decent, people free shots and some peace and quiet. Up close they’re rougher than you’d imagine although still in great condition to say they’re 4600 years old.

Back in the bus we head up hill to see all three pyramids from behind. Many of the images you see on postcards are from here. It’s an iconic pictures and no less spectacular for it. And then we’re back downhill to see the Sphinx.

The Sphinx is actually missing some important parts (the beard especially) but, especially given its age, is still amazing. It’s odd to see birds nesting in its face! Turns out it was an “accident.” rather than remove an extra piece of sandstone they carved it, which is why the biggest pyramid does not have one.

In the afternoon we visit the Egyptian Museum. Without the guide I would not have got a lot out of this. The trinkets and statues are many and various but without the context they would have been only that. One interesting aspect was that the Egyptians went backwards: the early stuff was by far the most intricate and well constructed. The middle kingdom especially was very simple, although still impressive.

The next day I take a tour of the religious sites of Cairo. I start on the Christian (Coptic) side in an area known colloquially as “Old Cairo.” The Hanging Church is over a number of levels and was designed to survive attack by marauding Muslims or other invader. There’s an old painting (the Egyptian Mona Lisa according to the guide). Thirteen pillars hold up the pulpit, one for each person at the last supper. I silently think that one of them is probably not supporting its fair share of the weight, only to find that in fact one of them is coloured black to represent Judas.

Next stop is a Synagogue. It’s actually pretty old, although you’d never think so looking at it. It’s been restored so well that virtually all traces of the original are gone. Although originally a Synagogue it has spent some of its life as a Christian church.

It’s interesting that non-Islamic churches have survived the onslaught.

Lastly we visit two mosques. The first is mainly outside, the interior designed to catch sunlight all day. The imam stands at the front (facing Mecca). At the other side is another where a guy repeats the sermon for the people outside — an interesting workaround until the invention of the PA system.

The Mohammed Ali mosque is much more intricate, with several tall minarets a massive dome and… a clock tower gifted by the French we were told. Inside the ceilings were painted with incredible detail and the lead roof had kept it looking remarkable fresh despite being a couple of hundred years old.

The final stop was in a lively market, with people selling both every day essentials right through to kitsch trinkets such as mini-pyramids and stuffed camels.

Overall the chaos of Cairo provided a fitting end to my two weeks in the middle east.

Jordan: Petra

Whenever you see Petra in the media you see a picture of the Treasury. I just did a web search and the top three links with pictures all used such an image, often with a camel sat in front.

Let’s not beat around the bush here: Al Khazneh, the “proper” name of the Treasury, is spectacular. It’s a two thousand year old, forty metre high carving straight into the sandstone rock face.

The surprising thing, given that it’s about the only image of the place you’ve seen beforehand, is that there is so much more to Petra than just the Treasury.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we have to get to the Treasury. Everyone starts in the visitors centre at the top in the modern town. I was amused to find the “Indiana Jones Snack Shop” here. Later on I passed a gift shop named after the Flintstones. I guess Hollywood borrowed from Jordan so why not the other way around?

The journey to the “old” bit starts down the Siq, a mile long path that narrows the further along you go. At some points it’s only a few metres wide, which wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t have to share it with camels and horse and carts hurtling around blind corners. At the wide part at the beginning you find caves in the wall, the original use of which has still not been completely determined.

As the path narrows, the cliffs get higher and more spectacular. At some points they are nearly two hundred metres high. If you are there are the right time of day the colours as the sun plays on the sandstone is amazingly beautiful. The textures and colours really are something special.

Further down the Siq, the guide turns around and points at a rock face behind me. Somewhere, he assures me, you can see the shape of an animal. He gathers the rest of the group and we’re all studying it, trying to find it; there’s a prize at stake. We all realise that we’ve been had when a minute later he points in the opposite direction and, through a gap in the cliff, we get our first glance at the Treasury.

In front of the Treasury is a mass of tourists, vendors, camels and their handlers. Everyone is stopping and taking pictures, tour groups huddle together to discuss what they think of it and the camels give their guttural cry. Even this mass of distractions don’t make the site any less impressive.

It turns out that there is a solution to the noise and heaving masses. For the last few years they have been running a tour called “Petra by Night.” You leave the town and head down the Siq by candle-light. They ask you to just take in the atmosphere and try not to talk. Thankfully most people do as requested.

In front of the Treasury are hundred of candles. We sit on the floor in their dancing glow and take in the atmosphere. There’s a murmur of conversation but mainly people are soaking in the sights, the clear desert air, the stars, that forty metre high carving. Once everyone has arrived they hand out a very welcome sage tea and two men sit in the middle and sing traditional songs. It’s quite a magical experience.

But there’s much more to Petra than just this. To the right is a path to further carvings and in the morning I take it and head up to explore dozens more buildings carved into the sheer rock, including other temples and an amphitheatre.

Another hours walk up the path, involving a little scrambling and a lot of climbing, there is another carving that they call the Monastery although they currently believe it to have been a temple. It’s location makes it only slightly less spectacular than the Treasury and it makes you wonder why some sites capture the public imagination so much to the exclusion of others.

In the afternoon I also make it up to the High Place of Sacrifice. Without a guide for this part I nearly miss the actual point of interest. Given the views from near the top I wouldn’t have felt that I completely missed out but a few more signs up there would have been useful!

When I first read the itinerary I thought that nearly two days in Petra was overkill but now that I’ve been I realise that I could easily have spent more time here. I was fascinated by the idea of Little Petra but never made it there.

Still, the tour must go on and the next stop is going to be Wadi Rum.

Jordan and Egypt

"No Camels & Horses" sign, Dahab, Egypt

I always have immense difficulty choosing my next travel destination. The bottom line is that I’d happily visit almost anywhere I’ve not been before. And even then, many of the places I have been to I’d happily go back to. With around two hundred countries in the world this presents a problem. Then you need to combine this with the fact that I love reading about travel — books, brochures, back issues of Wanderlust — and you can easily believe that it can take me months to decide where to travel to next.

I know. I lead such a hard life.

Anyway, after a relatively short holiday last year, this year was going to be India. Except. Long story short: I did not have enough leave from work to be able to do everything I wanted.

Eventually, through a process of compromise and whittling down that I couldn’t explain even if I tried, I ended up deciding on the middle east in general and Jordan and Egypt in particular. I’ve had a mixed experience with the Middle East in the past. I loved Turkey but wasn’t keen on UAE. Fortunately both Jordan and Egypt promised more of the history and culture of the former and less of the shiny, characterless modernity of the Dubai I had seen.

As I have done for the last couple of trips, I felt it made most sense to break the holiday down into bite sized chunks. I am going to cover the sights in Jordan in the following posts:

And Egypt in these: