Our group of twelve was supposed to arrive in Amman on Saturday via several different airlines, but two of our party didn't make it til the next day. Four people arrived without luggage, due to weather induced misconnections. What a bumpy start to our tour! Sunday morning we all met at our hotel breakfast in the Radisson Hotel, a nice facility in Amman's luxury hotel zone, known as one of the five targets that were bombed in November of 2005. Security was evident entering the hotel, with armed guards inspecting our tour bus and entry in and out of the hotel monitored as if going through an airport terminal with X-rays. However, the great food and nice staff with their attentive service was satisfying.
Sunday morning, we visited Amman's citadel and old city (photo, Amman city view). We paid a visit to the Roman amphitheater before sitting down for a typical Jordanian lunch. In the afternoon we drove to Jerash, the most beautifully preserved and restored Greco-Roman city outside Rome, which has three amphitheaters, two Roman baths, a hippodrome, and several temples. There are still remains of the ancient shops which sold silks, jewels, wine and spices. Our guide Fatina showed us around the ruins in a clever path so we wouldn't repeat any part of the route. Still, it was a long walk to just cover the magnificent city (photo, the Forum). Walking along the boulevard built 2000 years ago (photo, Roman market street) is thrilling, especially when imagining what great shopping it must be for our ladies in the group!
Monday morning we set out for Petra, the fabulous Nabataean city carved into rose-red desert sandstone over 2000 years ago. The city was lost to the world for five centuries til 1812. We arrived around noon and immediately got into the archeological park. Some of us rode horses down to the entry to the Siq, a narrow gorge between steep high sandstone walls. The dramatic view of the so-called Treasury (photo, Petra Treasury) was made famous in the movie "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." Besides the Treasury, we visited sites near the main path at the outer edge of the park such as the Byzantine Monastery, the main temple and the Royal Tombs (photo, Royal Tombs). Exhausted from the walking, we caught a late lunch inside the park. A nice camel ride back seemed quite appealing after a long day trekking. We checked into the Nabataean Castle Hotel, a quaint and fun hotel converted from a traditional village. Each room was once a villagers' house with a small yard, thick stone and stucco walls and tiny windows. Even windows facing the valley view are narrow, something that puzzles the view-hungry Americans.
Tuesday, we spent another half day back in Petra, thanks to our guide's generosity of extending our visit as it was out of her scheduled duty. Walking the Siq is so thrilling, I think everyone embraced the experience with even more appreciation. The majority of us, including our most senior member over 70 years, old climbed to the High Place of Sacrifice (photo, high altar). On the way back down the steep canyon, a local cat jumped out as our guide (photo, canyon kitty). We drove back to Amman, arriving just in time to catch our flight to Cairo. There we were met by our local hosts, and transfered to the Swiss Inn, near the famous pyramids in the Giza neighborhood. Cairo is a huge city with some of the worst traffic we've seen, comparable to LA or Beijing. The hotel is a giant golf resort, not much different from any golf resort in Southwest US, except the place is so new the service is a complete chaos.
Wednesday morning after breakfast, our guide Osama met us in the hotel and took us to Old Cairo. We visited the Church of St. Sergius where the Holy Family is supposed to have lived during their exile from Palastine, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, supposedly near the spot where pharaoh's daughter found the infant Moses floating among the reeds. The weather cleared in late morning, and so we rushed back to the site of the Giza pyramids to enjoy the magnificent scene. Everyone knew about the pyramids with Sphinx in front of them (photo, Great Sphinx), but seeing them in person is still a shock (photo, Great Pyramid). The grandness and ageless beauty is overwhelming. Barbara thinks that she can kept staring at them forever. We took our group photo (photo, tour group) at the end and then went back into town to the Egyptian Museum. Osama holds a masters degree in Archaeology, and the benefit to us of his deep understanding of Egyptian history became very obvious. We personally consider the guide is the key to any group tour, their knowledge and passion do so much to really enhance the visitors' experience. In the evening, some of us chose the optional tour of a Nile Dinner Cruise, which was relaxed and pleasant. It's a typical tourist affair, but the last part of the entertainment featured a solo Tanoura dancer, who turned and whirled for over 10 minutes without stop, and was quite amazing to watch (photo, tanoura dancer). The evening weather was perfect so we enjoyed sitting on the top deck watching the skyline of the city sail by.
Thursday we got up super early, barely past midnight, to catch a 5 a.m. flight to Aswan. Everyone opted for the Abu Simbel tour to visit the temples of Ramses II and his queen Nefertari (photo, temple of Ramses II). The temples were raised and moved to their present location to save them when the Aswan dam was built. The work involved moving the entire hill where the temples was carved out of the rock (photo, Nefertari temple). Busloads of tourist from all over the world, mostly from Europe took the short flight from Aswan to witness this wonder. We got back to Aswan in the mid-afternoon to board our cruise boat. Richard and Barbara went ashore to use the internet, as the on-board internet and TV have weak signals. There are roughly 500 cruise boats sailing between Aswan and Luxor, carrying a total of perhaps 800,000 passengers plus 400,000 service staff. It is indeed a giant operation. No wonder tourism counts so much for the country's economy and employment. We finally got our chance for some relaxation for the first time since Amman. We will call our cabin home for four nights. What a treat after packing bags every day and sleeping in a different bed every night.
Friday the boat remained docked at Aswan. We visited Philae Temple (photo, temple at Philae), dedicated to God Isis. The site was used for 4000 years to worship pagan gods, until 500 AD when Justinian closed it. Like the temples at Abu Simbel, Philae also was raised to save it from inundation due to the dam construction. We visited the Aswan Dam, finding it rather dull as a tourist site, and an ancient marble quarry with a famous unfinished obelisk, a long broken piece of rock hardly a match to the marvelous temples. In the afternoon, we enjoyed a little boat tour (photo, felucca traffic on the Nile) around the Nile, passing Cataract Hotel where Agatha Christy wrote "Death on the Nile." Our cruise left port at 3pm to arrive in Kom Ombo before sunset. We disembarked and visited the temples of Horus and Sobek, the falcon and crocodile gods. The light shining on the temple made it remarkably beautiful (photo, Kom Ombo temple).
Saturday our boat docked in Edfu. We rode horse-drawn carriages through the early morning to the temple of Horus, perhaps the best preserved temple on the Nile (photo, temple at Edfu), and the second largest after Karnak. The scene triumphantly slaying a hippopotamus, symbolizing the evil god Seth, was repeated across the temple walls (photo, destruction of Seth). The color and carving are so intact, you might think somebody just crafted them last year -- not 2300 years ago. We rushed back to the boat to sail for Esna and through the locks. The traversal requires queuing on the river and can take several hours. The scenery along the river was totally tropical, we definitely felt that we were in Africa (photo, on the Nile). Luckily, the locks were not very crowded, so we arrived at Luxor well before sunset, in time to visit Luxor Temple and its wonderful and mysterious avenue of sphinxes.
Sunday we drove across the Nile to visit the Valley of the Kings (photo, directions to tombs), the Valley of the Queens, and the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut. This part of the country is so dry and hot that we had to break our tours into an early morning outing and a later afternoon one to escape the heat of mid-day. Many tombs in the Valley of the Kings are still in the early stages of excavation. We can see how the perfect dry desert weather preserves the tombs in near-perfect condition. Walking down the long aisle of the tombs with paintings in unbelievably vivid colors almost makes your knees tremble with joy. After lunch and a nap, we went back to visit the magnificent Temple of Karnak, said to be the largest single religious building in the world (photo, Karnak hypostyle hall). The area of the sacred enclosure of Amon alone is 61 acres and would hold ten average European cathedrals. The great temple at the heart of Karnak is so big, St Peter's, the Milan Duomo and Notre Dame Cathedrals could be lost within its walls. A city by itself, this is a grand finale to our Nile cruise adventure.
Monday we checked out of our cruise boat in the early morning and flew back to Cairo, where we immediately took the optional tour to visit the magnificent mosque of Muhammad Ali (photo, Cairo Citadel). The interior and exterior are grand and mysterious, yet very personal to each visitor. Imagining kneeling down with thousands or worshippers at the sound of the call from the minarets must be truly a touch to the heart.
We drove out to Memphis, the ancient capital of the first home of Lower Egypt, and of the Old Kingdom from its foundation until 2200 BC. So this is really old stuff including the first pyramid in human history located at Saqqara (photo, Step Pyramid). It showed the path of learning, from where the later larger ones in Giza were built.
Tuesday after a buffet breakfast, we set out to Alexandria, the Mediterranean city founded by Alexander the Great. The drive was pleasant, even with an additional guard aboard our bus with his uzi hiding under his jacket. The group went to visit Pompey's Pillar (photo, Pompey's Pillar), the Catacombs at Kom El Shouqafa, and the National Museum. Then we went to the vast park-land setting of the Helnan Palestine Hotel. The hotel is right on the Mediterranean with beautiful beach and quiet bay. Every hotel room offers an extraordinary view (photo, view from a room). We went out walking around the park and to a local market. We picked up some freshly made dinner at their deli, and some sweets to take out, and came back to the park to enjoy our picnic.
Wednesday after a leisure late morning breakfast, we left the hotel to visit the new Library (photo, New Library of Alexandria). The library is quiet amazing, built near the famous ancient library which dominated world scholarship from 3rd century BC to 4th century AD. We also walked on the boardwalk toward Qaitbay Fortress (photo, Qaitbay), where we saw school children on their field trip. The children practiced their English with our group, and giggled when taking pictures with us. Before noon, we headed back toward Cairo. On the way, we ordered Egyptian pizza at a roadside rest stop and watched them being made in front of us. In late afternoon Cairo we were let loose at the souk or old market. Most of the group had to be back to the hotel preparing for an early next morning flight home. However Richard and Barbara were to have an extra day in Cairo, so the two of us went to the music and Tanoura performance held in the Wakiti al Ghouri courtyard that used to be an old Islamic school. The musicians were superb, the dancers were astonishing and the setting was utterly beautiful. It was very clear the performers combined their entertainment duty with their religious devotion (photo, Tanoura troupe). We felt really lucky to witness it.
Thursday, with everyone else gone and on their several ways home, the two of us took a taxi to the Al-Azhar Park. The park is a conservation and urban revitalization project on the site of a former garbage dump, across from the vast graveyard known as the City of the Dead. The cemetery is used for burials, and is also inhabited by low-wage workers and rural immigrants. The beautiful day afforded lovely panoramic views of the city (photo, Al-Azhar park). The park is a local's hangout, with couple young and old sitting close and holding hands, a scene not very commonly seen in an Islamic country. There were hundreds of kids doing their field trip. Again we became their English practice target. Of course, we don't mind though their teacher, who speaks mostly Arabic and French was apologizing to us. Based on a tip from our guide Osama, we set out to seek Egyptian flutes. We walked though all the neighborhoods of Islamic Cairo, from the poor neighborhoods to their markets, schools, libraries and museums and some government offices. People we met on the street were always friendly, curious and helpful. We must have seemed pretty lost in these distinctive and non-tourist neighborhoods, but we never experienced any kind of hostility toward us during the whole day trekking. Finally we found the music shops clustered around two blocks at the north end of Muhammed Ali street, and Richard selected a nice high-pitched ney. A perfect gift to put an end to our Egyptian tour.