Saturday, October 30, 2010

Giants from the Past

These twin 60-foot statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III have guarded the Theban Necropolis across the Nile from Luxor since 1350 BCE. Called the Colossi of Memnon, these awe-inspiring figures were our first site-seeing treat when we reached Luxor.

Ashley poses at the base of one Colossus.

Birds perch on the motionless, timeless giants.

The Colossi of Memnon originally stood at the entrance to a mortuary temple for Amenhotep. Though once the biggest and most opulent temple in Egypt, there is almost nothing left of it now, due to degradation from the Nile floods and later rulers' common habits of dismantling previous temples and reusing the stones.

After the Colossi, we visited Medinet Habu, a mortuary temple for Ramesses III famed for its inscribed images of battles against the mysterious "sea peoples" in the 12th century BCE.

Misha in the courtyard of Habu, dwarfed by statues and pillars.

The courtyard.

The huge temple echoes with hieroglyphs that Ramesses was determined would not be forgotten. He purposely had his workers carve the symbols deeply into the walls, so that they would not easily be scratched out by successive rulers.

Habu temple, with the mountains behind.

Misha, Josh, and Growl in front of Habu.

Misha before a celebration of Ramesses' success in battle.

Appreciating some very deeply-carved hieroglyphs.

More hieroglyphs that have stood the test of time. Note that they are even deep enough for Growl the Bear to sit inside.

More scenes from the walls of Habu.

Some of the inner walls retain their color, like this image of the keys of life

and this beautifully engraved column.

The final part of our tour for the day was Hatshepsut's Temple. Hatshepsut was one of Egypt's most successful pharaohs and the longest reigning woman of ancient Egypt. Her masterpiece building project was her mortuary temple, built into the cliff face. An advanced, symmetrical structure, her temple predates the Parthenon by 1000 years. This site was of such importance that other rulers continued to build near her temple. Thus, this region later became the Valley of the Kings.

Her temple was once surrounded by beautiful gardens.

The columns up close.

Bud, walking up to Hatshepsut's temple.

Since we started touring insanely early in the morning to enjoy the coolest weather possible, we were finished by 10 a.m!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Kom Ombo and Edfu

Kom Ombo and Edfu - such unique names are definitely worth titling a post after. What are they, you ask? They are two small villages on the Nile, both with ancient temples named for the towns that are home to them. After seeing the sites in Aswan, we arranged for an air-conditioned mini-van to take us to Luxor, but along the way we stopped at these two temples. We took turns braving the fierce heat to see them, while one of us stayed with the kids in the cool air.

First, we entered the Temple of Kom Ombo. It was much more complete than the ruins on Elephantine Island, and more like the Temple of Philae (and in fact was built around the same time period as Philae). It was built during the reign of several Ptolemies, from about 180 BCE onward.

For some perspective, there is little me in front of the temple.

Josh can barely contain his excitement.

According to Wikipedia, the temple was dedicated to Horus the Elder (the falcon god) and Sobek (the crocodile god), pictured on the wall of the temple. Living on the Nile placed the Egyptians in a special relationship with the crocodile. Several mummified crocodiles have been found in catacombs near the temple here.

Sobek the crocodile god, god of fertility and co-creator of the world, is pictured again.

One of the most exciting parts of viewing the temples is that everything is available to all of your senses - including touch.

From wall to wall and column to ceiling, the surfaces are filled with hieroglyphs!

Josh and Bud in Kom Ombo.

Bud and Ashley

Ashley surrounded by messages from the past.

Our next stop was Edfu, a humongous temple second in size only to the Temple of Karnak in Luxor (which we will come to later!) and one of the best preserved in Egypt. It was built between 237 abnd 57 BCE. The inscriptions on the temple walls give information regarding its construction, creation myths, and the conflicts of Horus and Seth.

The most important myth for the ancient Egyptians of the New Kingdom (generally referred to as 1550 to 1069 BCE, its most prosperous time) is the myth of Isis and Osiris, also involving Horus and Seth. Images and text from this myth are everywhere in ancient Egypt. As expected, there are many variations of this myth, but one of them goes as follows: Osiris was a ruler of Egypt married to Isis, goddess of motherhood, fertility and magic. However, Osiris' older brother Seth was so jealous of him that he plotted his death, creating a human-shaped coffin fitted perfectly to Osiris. At a party, Seth had everyone "try on" the coffin, and when his brother's turn came, he slammed the lid shut and threw the coffin in the Nile. Isis searched for her beloved husband, and, finally finding it, she left it by a tree. Seth appeared once more and dismembered Osiris' body into 14 parts, scattering them throughout Egypt. Isis again searched long and far for her husband's body parts. She found 13 of the pieces, missing only the crucial one. So, she simply fashioned a phallus out of gold, revived her husband, and conceived a son. Osiris, now dead-but-alive, became the Lord of the Dead, and their son Horus became Seth's perpetual enemy.

This myth became part of the cycle of death and rebirth, central to an agriculture-based society. Interestingly, the same idea was expressed in Greece with the cycle of death and rebirth of Demeter at about the same time. Also fascinating is the many striking similarities between Isis and her magically-conceived son and the Virgin Mary and her immaculately conceived son. Isis was often depicted in art nursing her son.

Josh and I at the first entrance to Edfu.

Bud and Misha at the first entrance.

Josh and I before the main gate to Edfu. To appreciate the enormous size of the human forms depicted on the wall, take a look at Misha below:

Tiny Misha looking up at a great figure.

Josh, Bud, and Misha stand below the gods. To the right, notice the bird statue. Now compare it with Misha below:

The inner courtyard.

I love the pillars.

Misha wandering through doorways. The temple was huge and fantastic for exploring. The doorways and narrow hallways went on and on, leading to small rooms, big rooms, or even more stairs and corridors. Better than Hogwarts! Misha loved investigating.

Endless hieroglyphs.

Off to explore inside! As you can see, we got to enjoy the temple without the crowds.

Josh and Bud enjoy their vacation.

Josh in an engraved hallway. The stairs wind around and around and up and up, where you can peek out of a gated doorway way up high.

Admiring the artwork.

Maybe he's decoding? This looks like a scene from one of the Mummy movies, when their young son is deciphering the hieroglyphs. (By the way, we just showed the first Mummy movie to Misha, and he loved it. He was excited to see the pyramids in the opening of the movie and he can't wait to watch the remaining Mummy installments!)

Josh in front of a beautifully engraved scene.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Down to Upper Egypt

When we stepped off the sleeper train in Aswan, even though it was 9 in the morning, we experienced the relentless dry heat of Upper Egypt - reminiscent of Saudi Arabia. (Even though we were in southern Egypt, it is called Upper Egypt because it is actually higher ground than the North.) Summer is off-season for tourists in Egypt, and we could see why. However, there are significant perks to touring in the summer. First, you don't have to share the sites with crowds of people. Often, we were the only people wandering around inside a temple, as if we were the first explorers to come across it. Second, summer rates are far cheaper. We were told that hotels, taxis, and entrance fees all triple during the cooler months for tourist season.

While the Cairo area is famed for its pyramids, it is the South that is home to the ancient Egyptian temples, with their regal columns, towering statues, and walls covered from corner to corner with enigmatic hieroglyphs. History class in school is not fondly remembered by most people, due to boring textbooks that boil down history to a flat, featureless canvas of names and dates. However, almost everyone has positive memories of learning about the ancient Egyptians - the mummy-making process, the huge pyramids, the mysterious symbols of their writing system. Not even the most boring history class can succeed in making the ancient Egyptians just another page in a textbook.

Due to the extreme heat, we took it slow and alternated seeing sites to spare the kids having to be out in the sun. For our first day in Aswan, Josh, Bud, Ashley, and Misha went to the Temple of Philae, while I stayed in the hotel with Sebby. They reported back to me with stories and photos. The heat was almost too much for Misha, so I was glad I didn't attempt it with Sebby.

The Temple of Philae:

Approaching the temple, which is on an island in the Nile, by boat.

The temple's walls are inscribed with the story of Isis over and over. Above, Horus sits by rows of hieroglyphic text.

Misha in the "window" of the temple, surrounded by ancient script.

Misha up close.

Columns surrounding the doorway, overlooking the Nile.

The Coptic Christians later took offense at the multiple gods depicted on the ancient temple, and they actually had the nerve to scratch them out.

The Coptic cross superimposed on hieroglyphs.

Bud and Ashley at Philae.

More images and hieroglyphs.

A corridor of columns. One of the guys from our small tour sweetly carried Misha through the temple.

Botanical and Elephantine Islands:

The next day, Josh stayed in the hotel with both kids and the AC while Bud, Ashley, and I hit two more islands in the Nile.

We walked to the Nile from our hotel and boarded a small motor boat, which took us to

Botanical Island, a tropical paradise. It was amazingly green and full of species from different countries. We walked along in the humidity admiring baobab trees, exotic birds, and spices including lemon grass and cinnamon.

Then the boat transported us to Elephantine Island, which features a small museum and ruins from three temples. Though the crumbling, reconstructed walls of Elephantine's temples were not as impressive as Philae, for me they were fantastic. We were the only people there, traipsing through broken walls and statues missing all but their feet, the sun beating down oppressively. (Thank goodness for our water bottles, sun hats, and sunglasses.) It felt like we were in an Indiana Jones movie, or perhaps in the computer game Myst that had come to life and it was our job to discover what civilization had created these structures and symbols and why they imparted them so much significance.

Bud and I stand in a huge, ancient doorway.

Indiana Kula and the Temple of Doom.

More hieroglyphs, including the key of life, known as "ank."

A bit of color remains in this scene.

More hieroglyphs.

That evening, we swapped again and Josh took Misha, Bud and Ashley to the Nubian village tour arranged for us.

On the boat once more.

A quick pause for a dip in the Nile!

A somewhat-traditional-slash-touristy experience of eating a Nubian meal in a Nubian home. The Nubians are an ethnic group originally from Northern Sudan.

The family had some baby alligators, and they offered Misha a stick to demonstrate the speed of a baby alligator's attack! (He was indeed fast.)