July 17 2014

The Nile is More Than Just a River

The Nile is the world’s longest river, flowing for approximately 4,200 miles and serving as a water source to eleven countries.

By both measurements, it easily beats the Amazon (~3,900 miles, 7 countries), the Yangtze (~3,800 miles, one country – albeit a massive one), and the Mississippi (~3,800 miles, 2 countries).

To ancient Egypt it was more than just a river; it was a primary source of sustenance. Although bordered by several large bodies of water – the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Suez, and the Gulf of Aqaba – Egypt is mostly arid desert. (Hint: avoid visiting at the peak of summer.)

The Nile creates a fertile green valley amid that great expanse of desert. Without it, one wonders if ancient Egypt could have risen to its heights. Egypt’s position was based on agricultural wealth, which in turn was attributed to the river.

In my infinite wisdom, I did visit at the peak of summer. But the 115-degree weather was survivable, and the highlight of my 12-day trip was sailing the Nile for four nights aboard the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV.

Sun Boat IV Outdoor Dining Room
Outdoor dining room on the Sun Boat IV

The boat itself was very nice – of the 200 or so that regularly cruise the Nile, Sanctuary’s four boats are among the most luxurious. But the sights along the way were spectacular. Indeed, while seeing the Pyramids was the motivation behind the trip, these sights further south left a greater impression.

That structures built in 2,000 BC (meaning they are 4,000 years old!) are still standing at all is impressive. That some are nearly unblemished is astounding. You can still see not only intricately carved designs, but even the colors of some painted surfaces.

Sailing from Luxor to Aswan, here are some of the sights along the way.

Luxor

The Temple of Karnak – an enormous complex of halls, temples, and other structures built over a span of almost 2,000 years – is located on the east bank of the Nile near Luxor.

A series of ram-headed sphinxes lines the approach to the temple complex:

Ram-headed sphinxes at the Temple of Karnak
Ram-headed sphinxes at the Temple of Karnak

Perhaps Karnak’s best-known feature, the Great Hypostyle Hall:

The Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak
The Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak

Also on the east bank is the Temple of Luxor:

The Temple of Luxor at dusk
The Temple of Luxor at dusk

Several statues of Ramses II (AKA Ramses the Great) at the Temple of Luxor are well-preserved, offering a detailed look at the pharaoh’s features:

Ramses the Great at the Temple of Luxor
Ramses the Great

On the west bank lies the Necropolis of Thebes, where many of Egypt’s pharaohs (including Tutankhamun, AKA King Tut) were buried in the Valley of the Kings. There’s not much to see above ground:

The Necropolis of Thebes
Valley of the Kings

The action is in the tombs below, though unfortunately the semi-dark environment doesn’t photograph easily.

Inside the tombs of the Necropolis of Thebes
Wall carvings inside a tomb

Near the Valley of the Kings is the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first female pharaoh:

The Temple of Hatshepsut
The Temple of Hatshepsut

These are the Colossi of Memnon, two enormous statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III designed to guard the entrance of his funerary temple (though little remains of the temple itself):

The Colossi of Memnon
The Colossi of Memnon

Dendera

The very well-preserved Temple of Hathor, goddess of love and joy, is near the small town of Dendera:

Inside the Temple of Hathor in  Dendera
Inside the Temple of Hathor

The ceiling was being cleaned at the time. In this picture, one side has been cleaned and the other hasn’t:

Ceiling of the Temple of Hathor in Dendera
Half-cleaned ceiling in the Temple of Hathor

Kom Ombo

The Greco-Roman temple at Kom Ombo is a double temple – it is one building containing two temples, each with its own entrance and chapel. One is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god; the other to Horus, the falcon god (and one of several sun gods).

The Greco-Roman temple at Kom Ombo
The double temple at Kom Ombo

Aswan

Near the city of Aswan (famous for its dams), the Island of Agilkia houses the Temple of Philae.

Because its original location, the Island of Philae, is now submerged, the temple was moved to Agilkia and reconstructed stone by stone.

The temple itself is fine (it’s actually very nice, but honestly I was templed-out at this point); however, the setting on an island in the Nile was by far my favorite temple setting of the whole trip.

The Nile River seen from Agilkia Island
The Nile River seen from Agilkia Island
Coffee break inside the Temple of Philae
Coffee break at the Temple of Philae?

Logistics note

My entire 12-day trip was booked with tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, which has an excellent reputation in Egypt. (The reputation is deserved, in my opinion.) At the time, in 2012, tourism in Egypt was extremely low as a result of the Arab Spring and the company offered rates that probably only allowed it to break even – at best. (I have no inside information, I’m only speculating.)

While I have not seen rates so appealing since, I would say the rates on the company’s website as of this writing are still reasonable for what you get – a well-executed tour with a luxury operator.

As for safety, I can only offer my personal perspective which is that I never felt unsafe during my visit despite the political circumstances. (A&K provided armed guards who traveled with us, which I appreciated but considered an abundance of caution rather than a necessity.)

Perhaps the news coverage we receive in the United States is hyped, perhaps I just lucked out that nothing happened the days I was there, perhaps the tour operator did a good job of insulating its clients from the “real world,” and perhaps it’s other things that don’t occur to me. But I can definitely say I had a great visit and never once felt threatened.

Better yet, when you go while no one else is going you get the sights almost to yourself. I have heard that on an average day several hundred tour buses visit the Pyramids of Giza. I counted five the day I visited. Granted, I wasn’t there the entire day, but one can reasonably infer that the volume of tourism was greatly diminished.

And I was very pleased to have gotten a 5-star, professionally organized tour at a vastly reduced cost – probably less than half of what I could have arranged on my own for comparable accommodations (even with my deal-scrounging habits).

With that, let me leave you with some pictures of life along the Nile as seen while sailing.

Life along the Nile (1)

Life along the Nile (2)

Life along the Nile (3)

Life along the Nile (4)

June 26 2014

The Ancient City of Pompeii

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it single-handedly obliterated the once-thriving ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

But the meters-thick layer of volcanic ash and rock that buried the town served to preserve it in stunningly minute detail for some 1,500 years – until its initial (and mostly ignored) discovery in 1599 and more comprehensive rediscovery in 1748.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pompeii in its day boasted a 20,000-capacity amphitheater, a sporting arena, government and religious buildings, and commercial structures ranging from stores to restaurants to brothels.

PompeiViva sign

To be honest, I hadn’t expected much of this visit. Having seen lots of ruins – Greek, Roman, Mayan, Egyptian, Turkish, you name it – I was kind of “ruined out.” On the other hand, the upside of having low (or no) expectations is that there’s nowhere to go but up.

However, Pompeii turned out to be quite interesting in its own right.

Because it is so well preserved, a visit to Pompeii affords an almost-intact look into the Pax Romana period – not only the structural and urban planning features of its towns, but also the daily life, occupational pursuits, and artistic expression of its citizens.

Sights

The amphitheater, located near the site’s main entrance, once hosted gladiator fights:

Pompeii Amphitheatre

The streets are varied. Some, like the one below, are relatively straight and flat; others are rockier, narrower, and harder to navigate.

Pompeii street

My guide seemed to talk a lot about brothels, so I ended up with many photos of them. Here’s one:

Pompeii brothel

Likely a restaurant, given the oven:

Pompeii restaurant overn

Tips

As you might imagine for the ruins of an important city, the site is sprawling. To get the most out of your visit, I would read up beforehand on not only the site and its history but also the major structures. That way, once you get there you will know what to look for and navigate toward.

Pompeii next to last

Likewise, be sure to grab a map at the entrance (or bring one), otherwise the site will seem like a huge labyrinth of rocks that start to all look the same. The place is very conducive to getting lost.

Audio guides are also available at the main entrance and from some surrounding shops.

Wear good walking shoes – there is a lot of walking to do, much of it on uneven surfaces. (Flip flops would not be ideal.)

Pompeii last

Finally, while I did not have opportunity to see it, many advise that the Garden of the Fugitives is not to be missed. It contains plaster casts of several victims – in the position where they fell and died.

For this visit I pre-booked a tour with a guide and transportation. I’m not a big fan of tours (being too ADD to appreciate lengthy lectures on historical topics, no matter how skillful their delivery), but I was pressed for time before this trip so I did not follow my own advice and read up on the site beforehand or even research transportation options. I also didn’t have much time on the ground during the trip itself, so a tour saved all kinds of time and hassle. However, I am told the site is easily accessed by train from Naples.

May 1 2014

My Favorite Travel Photobombs

If I had time for another hobby it might well be photography. As that’s just plain unrealistic for now, I’m content to remember my travels with the help of a simple camera and my primitive photography skills.

Often my attempt at a clear picture is foiled by a car or a stranger coming into view. And yet, instead of ruining the shot, they make it better.

These are some of my favorite photobombed shots, where the “intruder” illuminates just how grand and immense the intended subject really is.

Find the bus in the foreground (and remember it’s in the foreground) to see how vast the Pyramids of Giza are:

Pyramids

 

The tip of Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro:

Sugarloaf

 

The base of the Eiffel Tower (not the whole base, just the center of it):

EiffelTower

 

The Taj Mahal on a rather crowded day:

TajMahal

 

One corner of the Colosseum, also on a crowded day. It was wall-to-wall people that day, yet they appear as mere specks against the amphitheater:

Colosseum

 

Even with rudimentary photography skills, I guess after thousands of shots it’s possible to find a few memorable ones.