Saturday, January 31, 2004

Since this is our first access to Internet in a while, I'm adding Allen's summary of impressions of Egypt. He does a much better job, I think, of capturing the art and culture of Egypt -- here's his post to Rachel:

Our visit to Egypt has been a real eye opener. The major focus of our travels has been the pharonic monuments - pyramids, temples, and tombs (also called mastabas). Without a background in egyptology, I've found myself comparing what I've seen here to the achievements of the Mayans and the Aztecs.

To my surprise, ancient Egypt is far more impressive. The extraordinary Aztec city of Teotihuacan has pyramids that rival Giza and roads that are more impressive in some ways. The same is true for the Mayan cities of Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Copan. But what sets ancient Egypt apart is its temples and tombs, the extraordinary artistry, observation and color in the omnipresent low and high reliefs. The quality of the sculpture rivals anything I've ever seen, new or old. It's not just the consistent quality of the artistry but also the scale of it that astounds me. Compared to the Karnak temples at Luxor (formerly Thebes) even the pyramids at Giza are as child's play. Imagine a 2 mile road lined on both sides with a total of 850 sphinxes. This is the road that led between Luxor and Karnak temples. Karnak temples, just imagine a complex of temples that was built and added to over the course of 2,000 years. The temple complex is a mile by a half mile. For comparison, it would house 30 farms the size of Pam and Bill's.

Many parts of the complex soar to the height of a ten story building and everywhere there are heiroglyphs and beautiful reliefs depicting the triumphs of the pharoahs and their close relationships with their gods, a relationship that appears to be far more sophisticated than our popular culture indicates. The gods are loving and protecting and caring. Also, much of the life of the ordinary people is visible to those who care to take the time to look closely. And the artists themselves looked closely. For example, you see a man in a boat with a rope around a calf, helping it ford a river. The panicky calf is looking backward for its mother who is swimming so hard to keep close to her calf that her tongue is sticking out. That scene has been on that wall for 4,000 years and it still looks fresh, and plastic, and real.

We also wanted to study medieval Cairo. We visited some mosques, a fabulous 16th century home, some monuments, the souq (the ancient, still thriving bazaar) and the medieval neighborhood. For me, the visit was interesting but left more questions than answers. For one thing, we went into only one mosque because mom was intimidated by the culture. Also, the crowded souq required an openness, a willingness to debate and push and argue and laugh that was a little beyond your mom - so much of my focus was on protecting her. Nevertheless, I liked it a lot. Just imagine, every third alley has a thousand year old building. The gates were built by Saladin. The Mamluks were slaughtered to a man on one of the streets. And, on top of it all, the market is a rainbow of exotic color, excitement, yelling, argument, and selling.

Modern Egypt is another issue. The drivers are the best I've ever seen. They ignore lanes and traffic lights and tailgate within inches of each other even at high speed. They play chicken with pedestrians who are compelled to dodge between cars to cross busy streets. Nevertheless, accidents are few even though drivers honk constantly, cut each other off, and dive across 3 lanes to make a turn.

Unfortunately, there's much that is sad about Egypt. The country is filthy and desperately poor. Many people with university degrees can't get jobs and even those with goverment jobs are so underpaid that they moonlight as taxi drivers. There is an air of desperation about the economy and culture. You hear people constantly yelling at each other, a kind of pathology of passive aggression. Little snippets of dishonesty and self-mockery seem to be required just for the people to get by. The 5 time daily call to prayer is broadcast from the minarets that are everywhere and they seem to give comfort and meaning and organization to the lives of the people. Everywhere we go there is great bitterness toward Israel. Its treatment of the Palestinians is viewed as a great humiliation for all arabs.

We are now resting up in Luxor and revisiting the best places we've already seen to double check our impressions.


Friday, January 30, 2004

After a hearty breakfast of hot tea, fresh pita bread and yogurt and honey, I am writing today from the Internet cafe at the New Imperial Hotel near Jaffa Gate in Old Jerusalem, Israel. What a mix of impressions since we landed yesterday. Imagine moving from Egypt to Greece to Israel within 4 days! We were greatly saddened by the headlines yesterday as we walked to the busstop in Athens that would take us to the airport: 10 killed in bus bombing in Jerusalem. The bombing quite effectively stopped the current discussions between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and may block the peace process which is so badly needed.

Security seemed just about average at the airport, though, and driving in the sherut (an inexpensive van that takes 10 passengers at once) to Jerusalem led us past orderly irrigated green, green fields and barren hills with lots of trees, new and old plantings. We came upon Jerusalem, all built up on the hills, as a shining white city just as the sun was setting. Our driver, pretending not to understand much English except, for some reason, when talking with us, took us right to Jaffa Gate, one of 4 or 5 entrances to the old part of the city. Our hotel was built in 1882 or 1886 on the outskirts of the old city then. Emperor Wilhem the Kaiser visited in 1889, I think, and the ruling caliph bulldozed much of the Arabian section, so his entourage could enter freely.

The hotel is an amazing warren of rooms. Our room is rather large, incredibly high ceilings, with 3 beds, tons of blankets (thank God for the space heater), and a very European shower (handheld with a stool). My little thermometer showed 58 last night in our room -- and this morning too. We have a stunning view of King David's Tower and the street below, all cobblestones, so many different kinds of people passing below, traditional Jews on their way to Sabbath services, families in tow, wearing all black with crown like hats and very long beards and hair, Arabs, Armenians, and yes, another souk (market) that I thought we left behind us in Egypt!

Last night we ate dinner in an Armenian restaurant, a taverna underground with artifacts from Islamic, Arabic, Jewish, and Christian cultures. What a mix! Today, the Wailing Wall and the Via Dolorosa (where Christ carried the cross). It's certainly one thing to read about these places and another to walk in these narrow old streets. Yet without some kind of resolution, more violence will occur.

One of the men killed in yesterday's bombing worked with street children and had written of his feelings about this kind of violence. He said to sigh with relief that we were not hurt in any such violence is to give in to terrorism, that we must actively combat it. Another article summarized the reaction of a Palestinian family who within the space of a week lost four people to various acts of violence -- proactive and reactive. It makes me wonder how such suffering can lead to peace. Tourism is also down here as well, creating an economic impact that can only add to the general feeling of malaise about the future. I feel as if this part of the journey will have a tremendous influence spiritually, but I'm not sure how. Just to be here is very moving.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

We've settled in Luxor for a three-day rest before returning to the big city of Cairo for a last day at the Egyptian Museum. Then, we go to the airport for a short, commuter flight to Athens. I keep saying to myself that now is the time to begin thinking about what this part of the trip has meant.

Ancient Egypt. Massive temple complexes. Serenity beyond belief reflected in the statues' faces long, long since gone. What a mix of history. Here, for example, in Luxor, the former religious capital of the Middle and New Kingdoms, a major temple complex at Karnak is roughly equivalent in size to about 350 full football fields. Imagine a giant religious center where each leader adds on something new to attest to his greatness. Yes, temples, obelisks, giant commemorative statues. Ramses II set a record for adding over 350 giant columns in a massive hypostyle hall. At the very edges of walls and ceilings some colors remain from 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, vivid blue, green and some yellow. In the interiors of sanctuaries these colors glow faintly from corners.

My favorite story about Karnak is of the female pharaoh, Hatsepshut, who through a series of intrigues and deaths (some planned?) led Egypt for 20 years. She built several temples and several large obelisks. Her successor built a 70 foot wall to hide it from successive generations, but today it is recognized as the largest obelisk in all of Egypt, glowing in pink granite. She was, according to historians, the first to claim direct descendancy from the gods to support her rule -- but not the last!

I hope to come away with the essential understanding of the character of the three major kingdoms -- old, middle and new -- but i begin to see Egypt as more about its military achievements than its religious or cultural identity, that without the strong and on-the-offensive military leadership that kept its enemies on all directions as vassals, that Egypt would not have survived so many years.

After a while of stomping through the temples, a common story begins to emerge. What a close relationship with the gods and goddesses the pharaohs -- and later the nobility, the priests, and everyone else -- experienced. The reliefs and murals show the gods and goddesses very protective of the pharaoh. So, one story might show at the outside of the temple the typical war history of the pharaoh successfully smiting his enemies, but once you begin to move inside the sanctuary, sandals are removed and the pharaoh is taken on a journey -- either through the special rituals that led him to kingship, or the journey to the unknown land of the dead through specific preparations, rituals and prayers. Over and over again, the hieroglyps seem to say, this is how our rituals are completed, this is our pharaoh who will live on eternally.

Of course, the stones tumble, worn down by desert wind, the tomb robbers have stolen much riches, and the poor people take stones one by one to build houses, mixing stone with mud brick. It doesn't rain here. The Nile is the only constant. That and the tourists who come to take pictures and try to understand this ancient culture, superimposed by a Third World culture struggling with unemployment, illiteracy, and a growing birth rate. Half the population is under the age of 18.

I almost enjoy walking through the crowded bazaars (called souqs) to see the wealth of craft built around the theme of ancient Egypt. You can buy any artifact fabricated, authenticated. Spices call out: frankenscense, myrr, surprisingly bright blue indigo, cinnebar, dried figs and dates, mint for tea, hibiscus. Bright colors catch the eye, reds, greens, blue, purple, edged with gold and silver for long robes for men and women. Married women wear all black and nearly all wear scarves to cover their heads. In smaller towns, the donkey is the key transport ridden in the Biblical way or pulling a cart, heavy with sugar cane and several people.

As we rode in the train up to Luxor from Aswan, we passed small fields, too small, we read, to support any one family; most in the cities work a government job and drive a taxi to make up the difference. We are not talking about two income families here in the sense of two incomes in the US, as here it is the husband who works two jobs. Women stay home, responsible for the children. Such a melange of facts -- military service is compulsory for men but waived for university graduates.

Yet there remains a beauty here, people are extraordinarily friendly. They welcome conversations and then want to sell something, and then hug you as if you were a long lost family member. I suppose that is what I will remember the most, that and the Mona Lisa smile of the pharaohs.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Greetings from Aswan, about 4 hours south of Luxor by train. We just completed our cruise down the Nile from Luxor to Aswan (four days, five nights on a tour boat, with stops off at several major temples along the way, Luxor, Karnak, Philae, and Edfu. Of course, being on the water meant being without internet for 5 days! That was a sacrifice!

Our cabin literally had one window wall dedicated to viewing the Nile, which was quite picturesque with many faluccas (one- and two-sail boats used on the Nile for thousands of years). It wasn't as picturesque when we were moored at night about 5 inches away from another tour boat; however, we had some wonderful meals (those buffets you dream about, only here you have to imagine standing in line with several hundred German, French and Japanese tourists for the desert of your dreams).

It seems as we sailed down the Nile, that we moved from the older parts of Egypt, the Old Kingdom, to the more recent, the Middle and New Kingdom, ending here at Aswan for a rest of several days. The temples we've visited have been increasingly to reinforce the might of the Pharaoh and to remind the people of his military might. Also at Luxor, we saw the famous obelisk of Queen Hatsepshut who did the unpardonable offense of passing herself off as Pharaoh. She successfully ruled Egypt for 20 years, but her images were defaced off any temples to remove her from history. Even an obelisk (about 30 feet high) was hidden behind a wall of stone surrounding it for many generations so her name and works would be lost. Quite interesting to read all this history and realize that what we considered to be a very stable time was actually much intrigue and violence behind the scenes with lots of nice bloody wars in between to protect Pharaoh's empire.

I wish you could walk through these temples as we have, to watch the changing colors on the beautiful stone columns. My favorite goddess so far is Hathor, the Cow Goddess, typically shown as a woman with cow ears. Yesterday, we were in Abu Simbel at the famous colossal temple to Ramses II to find a slightly smaller temple to Hathor with the entrance lined with Hathor columns (lots of cow girls)!

I have a new respect for Egyptian drivers. To go to Abu Simbel, we joined a police approved convoy (the only way to get there). Despite there being no "troubles" for seven years, the first step in the convoy was having our vehicle checked by a bomb detector. That's about as close as I want to get. Then about 20 vehicles (minivans and tour busses -- we were in a minivan) headed out at a bout 65 miles an hour, practically bumper to bumper. After a two hour ride (imagine no springs in our minivan), we arrived at Abu Simbel to spend the next two hours walking around the temples.

The entire front of the Temple to Ramses II was about 60 feet high with 4 major statues all of himself, surrounded by little statues (4-5 feet) of wives and mothers. The entry featured Ramses smiting his enemies mightily, with the inner sanctum dedicated to offerings to the key gods and goddesses (remember Hourus and Hathor). This entire temple was at one time threatened by the waters of Aswan Dam, so the Egyptian government with the help of UNESCO moved it, piece by hundred-ton piece. A formidable undertaking. And they put it all back together again. Because this is a little out of the way, the sculptures and bas reliefs have not been defaced as much, and some of the original colors remain. Imagine walking through the offering rooms and then to the inner sanctum. Four statues are inside the most inner room, and twice a year, the sun comes right through the entire temple to illuminate 3 of these statues -- the dates are Feb 22 and Oct 22, the dates of Ramses II birthday and his ascension. And even with the big move, these still hold true.

So I did get sick a littleyesterday, but spent most of the day quietly, lulled to sleep by the mixed call to prayer from our local mosque, Egyptian music (kind of Indian bollywood music), the sound of conversations in Arabic, and the tooting of car horns as pedestrians make their way in and out of traffic. Because Aswan (and Luxor too) are smaller towns, there's considerably less congestion. I think we both feel a little more at home here.

We are pretty close to the Sudan here and have seen the "sea of sand" (the desert on the way to Abu Simbel). Today we spent several hours at the Nubian Museum, noting the influence of Africa on Egypt (and vice versa). Most interesting are these neat Nubian houses, so colorfully painted, and here is where all those beaded bracelets began (the ones that Rachel used to knot during middle school). Thoughts of home are constant, but each day is a new adventure. Tomorrow we hit the train again to return to Luxor for another 3 days (this time our hotel will have a Nile view). Other than missing home, family, friends, and the library, all is well.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Just a quick note to list a working itinerary, as we are hoping some of you will come visiting us.

January = Egypt (Cairo and down the Nile)
February = Israel (half the time in Jerusalem)
March = Istanbul, Turkey (more in one place)
April = Cyprus and Greece (more traveling around)
May = Italy (more on the road)
June = a month in Paris
July = London and most of the time in York (maybe)

And that's all the news from on the road in Cairo for now!
It's Sunday afternoon. We've spent most of the day hiking through Islamic Cairo, looking at mosques built during Crusader times, from about 1000 to the 1500s. We visited an Ottoman house recently restored by the government -- only 150 rooms with gardens, courtyards and separate quarters for men and wome, and all decorated with the most beautiful wooden and marble carvings, Islamic arabesque, frame and meander floral and geometric designs mixed together.

The traffic continues to amaze us. Some 16 million people live in Cairo. These people are masterful drivers. They drive with grace, not paying attention to signals, and pedestrians weave in and out of heavy traffic going 50 miles an hour as if they were dancers. Yet we've seen no accidents.

Our new hotel, the Victorian Hotel, is very quiet, a holdover from British colonial days, and our breakfasts sumptuous. Imagine a breakfast of fresh croissants, hot coffee or tea with milk, English style, then add eggs or cereal, with breakfast beans (called fool, very traditional), pita with sharp cheese. . . oh, I almost forgot, sweet rolls, green olives, lots of very fresh tomatoes and cucumbers (like we eat during summer only), and halvah (if you like it) or for that final taste treat, a bit of baklava. Ah, truly, life is rough!

Yesterday, we spent about five hours hiking around the pyramid complex at Giza. The pyramids seem much larger to me than those in Mexico, and I realize how very little we learn from photographs! When I read of how many tons each pyramid block weighed, I imagined how very huge each block was. Here, the blocks seem more manageable, but the overall size of the pyramid is truly overwhelming, a man-made mountain, awe-inspiring. Often photographed as an individual icon, the pyramids actually fit into a large funerary complex. For example, along side the largest pyramid, that of Cheops, sits three smaller little crumbled hills of pyramids which once honored his several wives and daughter.

The three major pyramids are lined up precisely, but of different sizes. What surprises me is how often we think of the pyramids as a major symbol of Egypt, yet they really were built by a father, son, and grandfather, over the space of about 150-200 years. The reign of the pharaohs lasted several thousand years, temples from many different dynasties dot the Nile; these seem a more lasting testament to pharonic culture, yet the pyramids still mystify us. Walking around the Sphinx was a real pleasure, and I did take many magnificant pictures. The most impressive of all, though, was the solar barque, the boat intended to ferry the ka-soul of Cheops to the afterlife. This amazing boat, (large enough for 24 people and their families) has been completed reconstructed and housed in its own museum. Wow!

At the pyramids we saw many Bedoin camels, all decorated with flamboyant colors. These animals are amazing -- such long, straggly, awkward legs; yet they can run like the wind, and their cries are so evocative. Traders also offered us horse rides on beautiful horses; we learned quickly how to say no in Arabic! We hiked our feet off and learned new words for sore feet! I'm slowly learning to be comfortable in very crowded streets and to duck the traffic. All is well here in the land of perpetual sun.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Just 36 hours into our visit in Cairo and we are both overwhelmed. Cairo, a city of about 12 million, is a dazzling sight, and the jewel of our two days here (so far) has been the Egyptian Museum where we've walked our feet off. Imagine hundreds of artifacts from the earliest period in Egyptian history, and that's what we've been wandering through. So far, my favorite has been the Amarna period with Akhnaton. Most of the pictures published for this revolutionary period stress Akhnaton's religious reforms, but his influence on art is equally ambitious -- and hated by priests and government administrators. His statues here are monumental, with thin, elongated faces and massive tummies and thighs! He was a very physical presence! Nefertiti also is shown "real life" and with the elongated face in a momunmental form. Very few of these sculptures are widely seen.

The other fascinating insight we've gained is over and over again how protective and loving the relationship seems to be between the gods and the pharaohs. One sarcophogus shows falcons and lions protecting the mummy of the king; another Nut, the goddess of the sky, carved in stone, her body studded with stars, immediately over the mummified remains inside the sarcophogus. I have taken many amazing pictures but can't upload any ... yet.

Traffic here is intimidating. All the cars are seriously dented and drivers forge ahead with little regard for traffic signals. To cross the street requires literally taking big risks. Some pedestrians do this with flair, gliding between the cars as if they weren't going 50 miles or so per hour. Others wait for groups (that would be us) and make a mad dash through this national pastime of playing chicken -- motorists and pedestrians.

Our hotel is lovely, complete with Arabic rock music until 11 pm when the local bars close and everyone heads home. The bakeries are incredible, many different styles of baklavaa, cakes and pasteries. Our favorite so far was the pizza stall with a medium pizza of green and black olives for about $1.50. Friday we transfer to a quieter hotel, the Victoria, for about $28 per night.

All else goes well. The computer works (electricity outlets no problem), and we are finding Internet cafes pretty much everywhere. We have already walked along the Nile River, modern buildings everywhere, and look forward to our cruise with a guide to visit Luxor and Aswan in a few days. I wish you could join me here in the land of real coffee, drunk French style with hot milk, or with tea. We so far have mastered only a few Arabic words. Most useful: Thank you (Shukran) and No thank you (La shukran).

I figured out that when it's morning there, it's evening here. Those of you at LBCC had some snow days due to ice, I think. Here, everyone is complainting of the cold, but it's warm to us!

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Only 72 hours left and packing left to do, tax forms to fill out, and a snow storm, power down for 6 hours. Our phone was out for several days, and now we're wondering whether the plane will fly on Sunday morning. Every news program reports tighter security, with planes turned away or flights cancelled. Today Brazil announced it would fingerprint all incoming US citizens, a reprisal for what we're doing here. Hints of tightened security behind the scenes.

Tomorrow our connection to Internet goes down. Have I gotten everything ready? We'll move to Internet cafes and probably won't be on line again for about a week.

Around the edges of each day are a few glimmers of what the world will be like after Sunday. My suitcase weighs 13 pounds so far, not counting books in the daypack. Tonight my task to sew secret pockets; Saturday we close down the house, all the connections that make a life will be tidily put away. I read in this month's Archaelogy that researchers are pleased to use CAT scans as a less intrusive technology, reading film instead of bones to reconstruct the past. What a pale copy even a photograph is! Perhaps like snow, and after a decade, who can remember how many days were filled with snow and these most elaborate preparations.