I had no time to write from the road, internet being spotty or expensive or nonexistent. Since Luxor, things have felt like a sprint: all at once I realized some stops on the tour had been skipped early on. Elephantine Island and Kom Ombo had somehow gone unmentioned, unvisited. A disappointment to me and something I found myself dealing with during the trip, to my annoyance.
Regardless, I got to visit the massive temple at Luxor, dedicated to the union of the goddess Mut and the god Amun or Amen, which contained many colonnades and beautiful holy of holies – painted and “refurbished” by Alexander the Great so that his name is written there as pharaoh.
One of my favorite temples of the trip was Medinet Habu – outside of the Valley of the Kings. It was made by Ramses III and depicted battles won against the “sea people” – one of the traditional enemies of ancient Egypt, with gruesome piles of hands and other “members” taken to prove how many enemy combatants were slain in the fighting.
From there we took a fast desert road north toward Dendara where there was a famous Hathor temple that really knocked my socks off: it was the only one I visited with an upper level intact enough to climb up.
We kept driving from there up to the next temple on our schedule at a place called Abydos where there was a famous Isis temple. It was well preserved and behind the main temple, built by Seti I and added to by his son Ramses II, there is a mysterious structure called the Osireion, which most Egyptologists claim was built at the same time as the rest of the temple, but which I find very doubtful, since it is significantly lower in the ground and built in the megalithic style. More likely, it is the elder site, as it is well know that subsequent pharaohs liked to “one-up” previous kings by marking special spots (a bit like dogs and fire hydrants).
Anyway, as I left the temple, men were selling their wares (though famous, this temple is off the beaten path for tourists, and since tourism is lagging in the country as a whole, these men were desperate). Among the items they were selling was a book called “In Search of Omm Sety” – which I had never heard of. However, it was cheap and available and I was out of reading material, minus a French crime novel I picked up on the cruise ship, which was not really my speed, so I bought it. It was a fascinating story of a woman who remembered a past life in Ancient Egypt and spent her life studying the temple that had been her home 3000 years ago!
We drove on toward El Miniah, dropping my guide to get a train back to Luxor along the way. The driver and I got to Miniah in the early evening, the Nile winding majestically through the small city as my guide stopped to ask anyone he saw how to get to the Cleopatra Hotel, since he was clearly out of his territory there. I arrived at last, exhausted by the day’s journey, and showered before heading up to dinner at the restaurant above, which was the first place I stayed with real Egyptian food on the menu – and Egyptian beer! I was in heaven! I even ordered an argileh after dinner (that’s a water pipe, or hookah).
A Maltese fellow came over to speak with me and the group he was with (Egyptian Jesuits) took me out for a night walk along the corniche – the picturesque walkway along the Nile.
The next morning my guide from Cairo, Maged, met me at the hotel and we headed out, accompanied by another driver and a security guard (apparently the area is inclined to extremism, as demonstrated by the larger number of guns I observed there). We drove to the tombs of Beni Hassan outside of the city and I noticed the people looked different there: the style of their lives and their style of dress looked a lot more like some rural villages in India than anything else I saw in Egypt and they were all smiles. The tombs at Beni Hassan are well preserved noble tombs and the valley they overlook is a heavenly image of what all Egypt must have once looked like.
We drove into the desert from there, headed toward El Amarna, the erstwhile capital of Egypt under Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s dad and the heretic pharaoh who rejected tradition in favor of his personal depiction of god as the Atun or sun disk. There aren’t many ruins to be seen there, since the city was demolished after the king’s death and many of the tombs there remain unfinished and partially destroyed as well.
We left the desert and took a ferry across the Nile to continue on to our next stop: some Roman ruins on the way out of Miniah. We meant to stop for lunch, but we ran into one of Egypt’s big issues: gasoline is limited and it is sometimes hard to find the right type. Massive lines form near petrol pumps and truck drivers wait for hours just to fill their tanks so they can do their jobs. We had to drive 55 kilometers out of the way to get gas and then made it to the last batch of tombs for the day. These were Greco/Roman so not as interesting for me, though there was a mummy in one!
Exhausted, we headed back to Cairo, dropping off our Security Guard as we left Miniah. We got back to the hotel there in the evening and I had to really negotiate in order to get tasty Egyptian vegetarian food (clearly that place catered to people who didn’t like Egyptian food and only wanted pizza!). The next morning Maged came to get me and we went to the Egyptian National Museum, where I could have spent hours and hours, days and days. I was full of questions – probably overwhelming poor Maged.
We left and got yummy lunch of Koshary – an odd sounding but delicious Egyptian specialty consisting of spaghetti and macaroni noodles mixed with rice, lentils, chickpeas, and caramelized onions to which one adds tasty tomato sauce and lime juice or spicy chilli sauce.
We went to Muhammed Ali’s mosque – not the boxer but the one-time ruler of Egypt who made massive improvements to the country and is most beloved there.
Then we went to one of the Coptic churches, clearly Maged’s favorite place to talk about.
That evening I had plans to visit friends of friends for dinner and had a nice dinner with a Lebanese family, living in Cairo for the last 25 years. Their place was in a beautiful part of Cairo that reminded me a lot of Paris. After a lovely evening, I was exhausted and took a taxi back to my hotel.
The next morning we planned to go to Alexandria, about 2 hours distance from Cairo. I wanted to see the library designed by my old firm, Snohetta among other sites in the city.
It was a beautiful day and Alexandria a lovely place.
We got lunch and ate in front of the citadel which was build on the site of one of the wonders of the ancient world, the Lighthouse of Alexandria.
It was a long drive back to Cairo, but it wasn’t until we got to the city that we started to get nervous: my flight from Cairo was leaving at 10:55 that night and that seemed like plenty of time, since it was only 6 when we got to the city. Unfortunately, the traffic was terrible and each route we tried seemed more congested than the last. Poor Maged was sweating it as it got towards 8 pm and we were still en route. After pulling an important u-turn we got on the right path and made it to the airport in time for me to be rushed through security and check in for my flight.
My connection was in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and most of the people taking that flight were on a tour to go to the Hajj. Everyone was smiling and happy, dressed in their finest and cleanest sets of clothes, ready for Mecca and Medina.
The flight was tough and I slept during the layover in Jeddah from 2 am to 5 am before we finally boarded the flight to New York.
I got back to the city around noon the following day after a harrowing flight on scantily padded seats. And suddenly, I’m home! Just in time for Spring! Nora and I enjoyed Washington Square park on Saturday, along with other New Yorkers emerging blinking into the sunlight.
Yesterday Nora and I went to have Easter dinner with our friend Anna and her family in Westport. It was fun to take the train out of the city and meet her lovely parents, especially since Easter is a holiday which I typically spend with my folks in the Ozarks.
It’s been two months since I left the country, since I was last in New York City. But it had been EIGHT months, almost to the day, since I left New York to begin my journey to Burning Man and beyond.
New Yorkers, quick to want to jump to the heart of the matter, have been full of questions: how is it being back? Will you stay in the city? How are you thinking about your trip now? My answer is that it is too soon to say about anything, really. For the time being, I am trying to catch up on my sleep and straighten out the specifics of what comes next in my life.
I will be playing a concert in Brooklyn April 11 and music takes up much of my thoughts for now. Those in the New York area should try to come! www.aftonshows.com/KiraLyra
I’ll keep blogging – stay tuned to find out what life after my travels turns out to be!
Love and miss,