Grey Wool Knickers They breathe

January 15, 2008

Nile Cruise—رحلة النيل

Filed under: Masr —مصر,Nile—النيل — Tags: , , , , , , — admin @ 11:34 pm


Embarrassing as this fact is, this was my second cruise on the Nile in only a couple months. It’s shockingly easy to live a posh middle-class lifestyle in this country with the right connections and a modest (by US standards) income. But this is not what I wanted to talk about (hopefully I’ll get up the gumption to be that reflexive about my place in this country in a later post). This cruise was part of the class on the Nile River that I and Adrienne are in. I’ve written extensively about the Nile cruise previously, here, here and here, with pictures from the trip in four previous posts (1, 2, 3, 4) so I’ll be keeping this somewhat short and condensing the four-day trip into one entry.

Day 1—Luxor (el-Uqsur: Arabic for “The Palaces”)

[singlepic=774,240,180,,right]Valley of the Workers. This place is more appropriately called “Village of the Artisans”. This was not a stop on our previous tour, so I’m glad that we went. It consists of an excavation of the village where the artisans working on the tombs in nearby Valley of the Kings lived. In part of the complex are tombs which they had built for themselves, using all the same skill they put into those of their rulers. While they may not have lived in the same luxury as the Pharaohs, they did seem to have relatively posh living conditions compared to the peasants of the era (or of the present, for that matter). They did, however, seem to have some hierarchical distinction among them, possibly based on trade and craft (excavators at the bottom and master scribes, who painted the hieroglyphs, etc., on the top). I doubt that the tombs we got to see were an option for most in the village, reflecting the concentration of power and authority found in the society as a whole. Hierarchy and coercion are unfortunately contagious.

[singlepic=778,180,240,,left]Madinet Habu. This is the location of the Temple of Ramses III, an impressive temple complex. Our guide, Chahinda Karim, was quick to point out the preponderance of scenes of war and conquest, the hallmark of a funerary temple to a Pharaoh (or several Pharaohs). She also made note of the way in which the floor of the temple rose as one entered, a signature of the temples to the gods, indicating that in a time when Pharaohs were no longer considered gods, Ramses III was attempting to deify himself, as Pharaohs had been deified in the Old Kingdom. Many of the hieroglyphs were carved extremely deeply, particularly the cartouche of the Pharaoh himself, indicating the extent to which he worried that a successor might claim his victories for himself, as he had done to his own predecessor, and his predecessor had in turn done to his predecessor and so on for generations. We were also shown the elevated rooms where Ramses III would have trystes with his mistresses. Some erosion and flaking of the massive collumns was evident, caused by the rising water table since the building of the High Dam, which causes dissolved salts in the soil to rise up into the limestone columns by capillary action, and then solidify when the water evaporates in the hot sun. The solidification of the salts causes pieces of the limestone to chip off.

[singlepic=788,240,180,,right]Valley of the Kings. This was nothing particularly new. The hoards of tourists, the people getting pictures taken of themselves with tourist police, the undercover security guy covering his automatic weapon under a fancy suit. There were a couple new things, though. There had been no active digs the previous time, but there was some excavation this time, and it was interesting to see how many local people are employed by archaeology in Luxor. Also, one cool thing, about which I have no snarky comments to make, was that in one temple, the fellow at the entrance implored us to wait at the end (where the inner sanctum is) while he turned off the lights. The light from outside shown perfectly on a rectangular panel of ancient wall paintings, indicating the precision which with the tombs were cut into the rock.

[singlepic=842,240,180,,left]Temple at Luxor. By this time, the outdoor version of museum-itis (temple-itis, maybe) was setting in and I lost focus. The temple never fails to surprise me, however, located as it is in the middle of the town of Luxor. It is even more striking at night, when the giant obelisk (there used to be two, Muhammed Ali gave the other one to the French in exchange for a defective clock tower) and the hall of columns is lit up. One of the other interesting things here is the presence of an old mosque, originally constructed on top of the Luxor Temple, at a time when it was largely covered in sand dunes. It has been a delicate process to retain the mosque in its current location in the midst of an excavated Ancient Egyptian temple. It rather reminds me of Eyal Weizman’s “Politics of Verticality“, although the stakes are clearly quite different here than in the Holy Land. It is one of the more remarkable illustrations (other than from early illustrators, such as David Roberts, at left) of the cities that had often been built in or on top of Ancient Egyptian temples and subsequently destroyed to allow European archaeologists to make their careers studying a dead civilization.

[singlepic=789,180,240,,right]Town of Luxor. Luxor is probably the most tourist-centered city of its size in Egypt, and it’s signage is indicative. Here we find a sign advertising the Mubarak Bazaar. Nevermind that “bazaar” is a Persian word not used by anyone here unless they’re selling to tourists (“suq” is the Arabic, or “su'” in the Egyptian colloquial, if you’re interested). The portrait is of Egypt’s president. I think there must be a prohibition against publishing pictures of Mubarak less than a decade old (except on the news) because they amount to spreading rumors about the health of the president (one newspaper editor was recently arrested for just that). There was also a convenience store named “Louts”. Judging from the Arabic, it was supposed to be “Lotus”. I took a picture and thought we could buy some water at a better price than on the boat for compensation. While the location was convenient, the price was anything but. Adrienne and I wanted to get some food at the Korean restaurant, but the prices turned out to be comparable to those in the US (and thus exorbitant here).

Day 2—Karnak Temple to Esna Locks

[singlepic=743,180,240,,left]Karnak Temple. Karnak is a huge temple complex, and it would take days to see all of it. For some reason, there always appear to be dogs hanging out near the front, by the mammisi (the royal birth room), or maybe they are barque shrines, I forget. One of the things we got to see this time around was the temple of Ptah, the Ancient Egyptian god who is said to have created the world by speaking it. The temple was in largely good condition and had a section devoted to the goddess Sekhmet. There was a statue of the latter in a dark room with a small ventilation hole letting light through. It was hard not to be impressed. The carvings here were also in great condition. The temple was near the north end of the complex, and provided wonderful views over the rest of the complex (which is likely why there was also a security post there). Along with numerous halls of columns and obelisks the skyline was punctured by a crane that has been in the temple complex for many years. It had been used to disassemble one of the pylons, in which were stored the piled stones of a temple apparently erected on the order of Pharaoh Akhenaten (often named the heretic Pharaoh) to the sun god Aten and later dismantled by priests loyal to the other sun god, Amun.

[singlepic=756,240,180,,right]The Cruise. After the visit to Karnak, we took a longish bus ride to meet up with the cruise ship (the Nile Admiral), just north (downstream) of the bridge to the West bank. The East bank was packed here with cruise ships waiting to head south in a race toward the locks at Esna. I made note of the ridiculous way in which the names of the ships were transliterated in Arabic. Many ships, of course, had names with “Nile” in them, which is generally spelled نيل (pronounced like “kneel”), but was invariably rendered on the side of ships as نايل (which more-or-less approximates the English pronunciation of Nile). I could find no justifiable reason to transliterate the word with the English pronunciation. Anyway, we were delayed about a half-hour by a tour group which had arrived late to the ship, causing some issues on the docks (sailing times have to be well-orchestrated in contexts like these where ships are docked as much as five deep) and greater delays upon reaching the locks at Esna, where only two ships can proceed every hour.

[singlepic=757,240,180,,left]En route, I took a close look at the agriculture and hydrology on the shores than I had on the ALI tour, my head stuffed with information from recent lectures. The air in places was caustic with the smoke from farmers burning the stubble left over from sugar plantations to clear the land and eradicate pests. In other places, the quiet lapping of waves and the low drone of the ships engines were drowned out by the clamorous racket of an un-muffled two-stroke engine pumping water out of the Nile and onto fields for small basin irrigation. In this agricultural method, fields bordered by berms are inundated for some time and then left to drain, approximating the method used for thousands of years without the need for pumping because of the Nile’s annual flood. In many places, the banks of the river had eroded because the river was no longer depositing silt as it was all impounded behind the Aswan High Dam. In addition to the lack of silt deposits, the river also ran year-round, resulting in greater erosion. I saw a few places where the erosion was so severe that palms and other trees had fallen into the river, a fact which local residents took advantage of by using them as short piers upon which they would wash clothing out in the Nile. In other places, there had been efforts to control riverbank erosion by building retaining walls of rocks, but many of these had been undermined by “scouring” from below. While the river now runs year-round, it is much more shallow in the Winter when there is less need for the water for irrigation. The low water level causes sandbars to arise, making navigation difficult for the many large cruise ships plying the waters.

[singlepic=761,240,180,,right]In addition to the agriculture and hydrology, I also found out more about industry along the Nile, including a large sugar factory with billowing black smoke and roofs covered in white powder. There was also a large dry-dock where cruise ships were repaired north of Esna. We docked just north of the locks for some time. The guys selling galabayas from small boats were out as usual, as I had described in my previous post, but they were less numerous than usual.

The lecture. While docked north of Esna, Chahinda Karim treated us to a wonderful lecture introducing the cosmology of the Ancient Egyptians and describing some of the early public works said to be organized by the Pharaohs. One of the most significant was a 300km canal running from present-day Assiut into the large desert depression that now constitutes el-Fayoum, a bit southwest of Cairo, used to divert and contain water during exceptionally high floods. Most of the length of the canal was the naturally-occurring Bahr Yussef, cut by higher floods during prehistory, but significant sections were excavated by Amenemhat IV during the Middle Kingdom to more easily divert Nile water from high floods (which were more common during the Middle Kingdom) into the Fayoum (then Lake Moeris). She also spoke about the building during Islamic times of sabils (سبيل), public drinking fountains donated by well-off people. These were once fairly involved structures, with the fountain at ground level and a kuttab (كتاب, a Koranic school) above on the next floor. The modern version is a relatively small metal public dispenser of refrigerated drinking water that has been rumored to electrocute users when malfunctioning. They are still a form of charitable public service (when functional, of course).

[singlepic=764,240,180,,left]The locks. Eventually, after some hours docked north of Esna, during which Adrienne and I played a bit of ping-pong on the sun deck (which was not very sunny at that hour), we set off into the locks, which hold only two ships at a time and take 30 minutes to fill (the one-hour transit time mentioned earlier is due to ships heading in both directions). The locks were interesting in themselves, though I’ve spent hours at a time watching ships pass through the Ballard Locks in Seattle, so it wasn’t as special for me as it was for others. There was a mosque of sorts on the wall for the workers at the locks, and a utility shed nearby was covered in football (American: soccer) graffiti.

Day 3—Edfu and Kom Ombo

[singlepic=765,180,240,,right]Edfu Temple. We awoke in the morning a little upstream from Esna at the town of Edfu, where is located the Temple of Horus. I have to say I don’t remember much about this temple other than the large crowds, the stern-looking falcon-headed statue of Horus and the copious amounts of netting, ostensibly to keep out the bats. Here, as at all the temples however, birds were everywhere, roosting in deeply cut hieroglyphs and holes in temple walls, dug by much later residents to make room for roof beams. This temple was also notable for the presence of a library for the storage of sacred scrolls and a wardrobe for sacred vestments. This is also where hundreds (if not thousands) of perfume vendors trying to hawk their wares to tourists claim to have gotten their recipes. Finally, this temple is also notable for the gauntlet through which tourists are forced to travel, at least those traveling by microbus or horse-and-carriage. [singlepic=766,240,180,,left]Our transportation to the temple was a bus shared with another (or several other) groups from the cruise ship. The tour guide on the bus was a complete prick. First, he made a point of dissing all of the horse-and-carriage operators, claiming that one in nine of them will lose a wheel in the course of a day (not true). He also claimed that nine in ten of their drivers are illiterate. While this may be true (though it is unlikely), it says nothing about their character (oh yeah, he said they were all cheats, too) or their skill in maintaining or driving their vehicles. Finally, he urged everyone to walk immediately to the ship and by no means should they cross the street to go to any of the shops. The rear exit was left closed (though it was perfectly functional upon exiting at the temple) so that everyone could pay baksheesh to the driver, as the douchebag of a tour guide instructed.

[singlepic=771,180,240,,right]Kom Ombo Temple. The other stop of the day was at Kom Ombo, a temple I believe dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god. This temple is right on the River Nile and deliberately advertised itself to mariners. It has one of the most well preserved ancient nilometers, as well as a pit going down to a canal leading to the Nile where it is postulated that priests would feed and raise baby crocodiles, so as to mummify them later. A few such mummies were on display in one of the rooms of the temple. The highlights of this temple, aside from the croc mummies and feeding pit, are the well-preserved elaboration of the Ancient Egyptian calendar system, hieroglyphs related to Ancient Egyptian medical practice and surgery (this was apparently one of the more popular destinations for people seeking the cutting-edge in medicine at the time) and, [singlepic=769,240,180,,left]as far as Adrienne and I are concerned, interesting Ptolemaic anatomical representations, including bubble-butts and sagging tits growing out of armpits (the latter apparently to signify the aging process). For those of similarly prurient inclinations, you should ask to be shown Ptolemaic representations of Hathor (for the bubble-butt) or Amu-Min for the erect penis (or “ithyphallic” representations for the prurient art-history snob), found in spades on the East bank in Luxor.

[singlepic=768,180,240,,right]On the same subject (but earlier in time), I thought I’d share this picture of one of the clothing vendors in the tourist market gauntlet outside Kom Ombo. Apparently, Egyptians, for all their fixation on modesty, do not extend this to mannequins. This picture is also somewhat funny for the opportunity it provides to inspire all manner of culturally-insensitive punchlines to the joke, “How many Egyptians does it take to screw in a light bulb.” In this case, it takes five: four to hold the ladder and one to knock over a wall of second-rate galabayas in the process of trying to screw in the light bulb (I know, it’s not that funny).

The lecture. I’m not sure, but I believe that it was this day that Doctor Rick gave us a fascinating lecture on the political history of the Nile river in modern times. It would be impossible to adequately represent the narrative he told without making this entry entirely too long, but I think I should mention the event that Rick claims is often neglected in such histories as a defining moment for the politics of the Nile. That event is the unilateral declaration by Britain of the independence of Egypt in 1922. He believes this event is important for the Nile not so much because of Egyptian independence per se, but because it effectively separated Egypt from Sudan, and, indeed, from the entire Nile basin, which had up until then been managed under a single unified plan under British control. After independence, the British initiated the Gezira scheme in the area between the Blue and White Niles south of Khartoum in order to secure an area of cotton cultivation under their control, and thus began a grand political chess game between Britain and Egypt over the use and control of the Nile’s water that persisted—with the Suez Canal and the Palestinian issue thrown into the mix—until the Nile Waters Agreement was signed between Sudan and Egypt in 1959 (and arguably much later).

Day 4—Aswan

[singlepic=712,240,180,,left]Shipwreck. The Nile river seems to be clogged all year round with hundreds (maybe thousands?) of cruise ships shuttling tourists between Aswan and Luxor. The docks at Luxor, Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Aswan are all busy and treacherous waterways, especially difficult in the shallow waters of the winter months. Nearing Aswan, our ship had a collision with another cruise ship. Adrienne and I were in our cabin when it happened. The horn started blaring and didn’t stop, and the engines went crazy, then there was finally a bit of a jolt. It seemed as though we might have hit something, so went to the deck and ran into Doctor Rick, who verified what had happened. We went to the swimming pool deck and found that much of it had sloshed up onto the deck. The bow on the port side was warped a bit. In the morning, we saw the damage in the picture at left. The most amazing part of the experience was when the ships docked up against one another, presumably to conduct some official reckoning of the incident. The captains hung out over the railings on the bridges of their respective ships, reached out their hands and shook quite calmly and cordially, then proceed to lay into one another with a great deal of yelling, screaming and gesticulation. How very civilized.

[singlepic=691,180,240,,right]Aswan High Dam & Soviet Egyptian Friendship Monument. The High Dam was just as underwhelming the second time around as the first, though I couldn’t resist taking a shot of my favorite sign (at right). “The High Dam Project is considered the Egyptian challenge against silent nature.” The monument was rather more interesting. There was some festival going on at the monument, which made it all the more interesting. The fellow at the monument looking for baksheesh and desperate enough to lie on his back and take pictures of some of the girls in the group from the ground in order to get that baksheesh was a highlight. Once again, however, I was followed by the ubiquitous mothballs, which appeared here in the urinals of the public bathroom.

[singlepic=700,240,180,,left]Philae Temple. Yet another temple. This one is remarkable for having been relocated from a nearby island that had been submerged seasonally after the building of the first Aswan Dam and then perennially after the High Dam. It was necessary to take motorboats to its new location, many of which spew a great deal of smoke from their poorly-maintained engines. They also tend to be rather cavalier in the method by which they dock together. They generally just wedge themselves by force into whatever space they can find. Passengers would be advised to keep their fingers and limbs away from the edges of the boat. The bars supporting the roofs over these boats are generally bent in various places from numerous small collisions. But about the temple. What I most like about this temple is the graffiti everywhere. Some of it is French, including a rather official-looking announcement from Napoleon’s advancing forces, marked with the date in the sixth year of the revolution. There are also Coptic crosses everywhere (the temple of Isis was actually the seat of a bishopric at some point), and some other graffiti in Arabic. I also like the way Chahinda Karim describes the flowing locks of the lion’s manes sculpted by the Romans: “as if they’ve just come from the hair-dresser” she says.

Nubian Museum. This place warrants its own entry, so I’ll post that later.

[singlepic=726,240,180,,right]Seheil Island. This was one of the rare treats of the trip, and the closest we got to visiting a village or seeing small-basin agriculture up close. Seheil Island is an island in the First Cataract (a cataract being a group of islands in a river that creates rapids and makes the river unnavigable). It is not very well known, though it has a number of Ancient Egyptian inscriptions, the most famous of which being the Famine Stela. There was even a Temple to the Nile goddess Anuket here, but it was dismantled (to make a hotel, if I recall). The path up to the top of the Island, where the Famine Stela was located, offers amazing views of the cataracts and adjacent communities, including that of the island itself, including a somewhat significantly-sized small-basin irrigated field.


  1. What’s up, its nice post on the topic of media print, we all be familiar with
    media is a impressive source of facts.

    Comment by — November 17, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

  2. Quality content is the important to invite the visitors to pay a quick visit the web site, that’s what this web page is providing.

    Comment by 4d number generator — October 28, 2015 @ 9:53 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress