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Temples and toilets



Mark and Tricia's Egypt Diary

May 2004



Monday 3rd May


We’re here!  It’s been a long-held ambition for both of us – and the subject of a lot of planning and anticipation over the last year.  And now it’s really come true.


At the moment we’re sitting on the deck of Viking1, late in the evening.  To one side we see the Temple of Luxor.  From the other comes a warm breeze off the desert.  Tricia remarks that the ancient Egyptians could have been experiencing these very same things on a night like this over 3,000 years ago.


Our first impressions of Egypt have fulfilled our expectations.  It’s everything we hoped it would be.


But let’s start at the beginning.  We were up before 4.00am this morning after a night of occasional sleep – too worried that we might not wake in time.  Leaving Katie and Gary’s house in Grays before 5.00am, and sharing the M25 with only a handful of lorries, we allowed no possibility of missing the flight.


A few hours at Gatwick gave us a chance to relax at last.  At 9.30am we boarded the Monarch plane – much bigger than the ones we’ve taken previously (but with no more toilets).


The route gave us good views over France and Italy – including the snowy peaks of the Alps.  Our next view though the clouds was of sea, and eventually land appeared – vast expanses of sand.


The scale of the desert was awesome.  Hundreds of miles of sand, without a speck of green.  Apart, that is, from the occasional oasis that showed up as a small cluster of buildings – attached to a fine black line that was its connecting road.  These lines stood out like boundaries marked on a map.  What a way to live!  Surrounded by relentless desert with nothing to sustain life outside that tiny settlement, miles from anywhere.


As we approached Luxor, we caught our first glimpses of the River Nile.  We knew it was coming when we started to see the patchwork of cultivated fields cut out of the sand.  Closer to the river, the pattern of fields took on a very striking character – each a regular, long rectangle.


Leaving the plane, the heat hit us.  From springtime in Truro we had travelled in time to the hottest of summer days.  Time to discard the jumpers that we’d needed on the journey.  As if to emphasise what a small world we live in, we discovered that the couple in front of us on the coach to the cruiser were from Whitley Bay.  The husband was a retired postman who used to work my mum’s street.


The fifteen-minute coach ride took in an instant cross-sectional sample view of the Egyptian people at work and rest.  There were workers in the fields, dressed in traditional costume, harvesting with scythes.  There were donkey carts, families tending goat herds and, all along the route, people relaxing by the side of the road after a day’s work.


Oh, I forgot to mention one of our earlier experiences of Egyptian culture:  the uniformed customs officer holding out his hand for ‘baksheesh’ (a tip) as he checked our passports.  We didn’t have any small Egyptian change anyway, so we had to leave him disappointed.


Tuesday 4th May


We slept like a couple of logs last night.  When the alarm went off, it took a few minutes to summon up the energy to get up.  When we looked out the window, there was the Nile – and we were cruising up it, as we had imagined doing for so long.  And it was just as it should be – lined with palm trees and papyrus reeds.


Our first impression of our cabin when we entered it yesterday was that it smelled damp – perhaps not surprising as it’s on a boat.  It’s not exactly luxurious or spacious but it’s comfortable enough.


The toilet has given us some cause for thought.  The notice asks us not to put toilet paper in it.  Without going into too much detail here, I feel there are times when you need a lot of toilet paper.  At those times, the last thing you would want to do with the toilet paper is drop it into a bathroom bin – and one without a lid, at that.  I think we’ve come up with a strategy to cope with this, which involves not taking the toilet paper warning too literally.  Again, I’ll not go into too much detail.


After breakfast we sat on the deck, reading and watching the scenery.  The typical houses look unfinished, with no roofs.  We’re told that people often sleep in the open on the top of those houses.  In many cases there are shelters or screens, made from reeds, which add to the makeshift look.  It’s not uncommon to see a satellite dish up there, which is perhaps not what you might expect.


We passed a lot of people working the fields – harvesting crops, tending to goats or cattle etc.  Often they would wave or whistle to the people on the boat.  It seemed like a genuine gesture of friendliness, given that we were not in a position to buy anything from them.


Our first contact with traders had come early in the morning, when people were shouting up at the moored boat and throwing samples of their towels, gallabiyyas (long robes) etc. onto the deck.  Anyone who made eye contact would be pitched to in this way.  They were very persistent, to say the least. 


Our first excursion was to Edfu Temple, which dates from the Ptolemaic period – when Egypt was part of the Greek empire – rather than ancient Egypt.


We were taken there by horse and cart.  The horses look underfed, and you wonder whether they are really built to cope with such hot conditions, but I guess it’s a hard life for both driver and horse.  Although the drivers had been paid and tipped by the travel company, they still held out their hands for baksheesh.  We didn’t have any small enough notes anyway, so we just had to be rude and ignore it.


The temple was magnificent, as you would expect of the Egyptians.  I won’t go into its full story, but it dates from the time when the invading Greeks (led first by Alexander the Great) cleverly placed themselves as an integral part of the Egyptian religion.


Two other noteworthy aspects of the visit were:  using an Egyptian public toilet for the first time (one mark out of ten);  spotting a forklift truck on the ancient site.


The visit was spoiled by the behaviour of the traders whose stalls lined the route between the cart/coach stop and the entrance to the temple grounds.  The only way to get through was to avoid eye contact and be rude in return.  It seems an odd sales strategy, as no one from the party bought anything or stopped to look at the stalls – when they would have done if left unmolested.  Tricia has a bruise on her arm from where one trader tried to grab her attention, and some of the other women have similar reminders of the visit.


Back on board the boat, we have enjoyed some more nice meals and relaxing times.  Tonight there was a cocktail reception, at which representatives of the 46 crew were presented.  They are very nice people.  We’re particularly taken by the head chef, who is a dead ringer for Saddam Hussein but with a constant beaming smile.


Wednesday 5th May


It’s been a busy day and it’s not over yet.  This morning we were taken by coach to a quarry in Aswan from which much of the granite for the pyramids, temples and monuments was taken.  There is a mixture of red, pink, black and grey granites there, each suiting different purposes.


The most impressive feature is the Unfinished Obelisk.  At 41.5 metres, it would have been the tallest obelisk ever – had it been completed.  Having cut one face and two sides, the workers found a flaw in the stone and had to abandon the project.  As there were no inscriptions, no one knows who commissioned it.


We are getting used to avoiding the street sellers with the minimum of rudeness.  It’s a pity we have to do that, as it would be nice to look at what they are selling – and we would probably buy something.


Back on the coach, we were taken to see the old Aswan dam and then the new (1960s) High Dam.  On the drive we saw very clearly the contrast between the wet, fertile banks of the Nile and Lake Nasser and the desert beyond.  Even in the towns, the cemeteries and many other open spaces are barren – while decorative vegetation in parks and other showpiece areas is maintained by sprinklers.


We were told that Egypt’s 70 million people are squashed into 10% of the land.  The electricity and year-round water (for irrigation) provided by the hydro-electric dam has meant a higher standard of living for the impoverished people.  The Nubians (the darker-skinned people to the south of the country) had to be relocated in their thousands to make way for the lake formed.  (And the dam also excluded the Nile crocodile from its ancient habitats downstream.)


All in all, though, our guide Sherry feels it has been very worthwhile.  She also enthuses about President Mubarak’s next major scheme, to create a large new fertile settlement in the desert using water from Lake Nasser.


Egypt is a democracy, but one in which the same President is constantly re-elected by the people.  Sherry says they feel that Mubarak is a good man and they would rather stick with one they know than take a chance on one they don’t.


Our next coach stop was the Philae Temple, another one dating from the Ptolemaic times (so with Greek and Roman influences built onto the traditional Egyptian).  It was one of the temples rescued from submergence under Lake Nasser when the dam created this huge lake – the largest artificially created lake in the world.  With support from UNESCO, it was dismantled stone by stone and moved to an island within sight of its original position.


We will have to read up on all these places when we get back.  You don’t really have time to reflect fully on them while you are there.  All you can do is soak up the atmosphere and the sights, take some photos and think about it later.


Also of note at Philae Temple was a gecko, which I spotted high on a darkened interior wall, and my second visit to an Egyptian public toilet.  This time I went into a cubicle, which had no flush but was equipped with a hose and spray attachment for cleaning the bowl.


I forgot to mention that to reach Philae we had to take a motor launch – another to add to our various modes of transport.


From there it was back to the cruise boat for lunch and a nap before setting out on large feluccas (traditional boats with sails) to the Botanical Island, or Kitchener’s Island.  Given to General Kitchener as a reward for his military achievements in the area, it was turned into a botanical park.  Quite nice, if you’re into different tree species.


The highlight of the Kitchener’s Island trip was the boat ride, on which we were entertained by (and we in turn entertained) the young lad who seemed to be in charge.  He had everyone singing and dancing eventually.


It’s so easy to forget what we’ve done, it’s been such a full day.  Before the felucca trip, on our way back from Philae, we stopped at the Papyrus Institute and bought ourselves a souvenir picture.  It’s a copy of the judgement day scene, where the pharaoh’s heart is weighed against a feather.  If the heart is weighed down by sin, it will be gobbled up by a crocodile-headed creature.  If it’s lighter than the feather, the person will enjoy everlasting life.


We’re back in the boat now, having rested a little after our outings.  Tomorrow is an even fuller day, starting with a 3.00am wake-up call, so we need to wind down a bit.


Thursday 6th May


Last night a Nubian music and dance group entertained us in the bar.  It was a bit painful for Tricia, who had a headache that throbbed in time to the loud drumbeat.


Our wake-up call arrangements had changed.  It was now to be a 2.45am call, with a 3.15am departure.  We showered, and prepared everything we needed for a quick get-away in the morning, then settled down to make the most of the four hours and twenty minutes left for sleep.


I woke at about 1.00am, then 1.30am, and then decided to stay awake rather than risk missing the alarm.


Something was stirring down below (body-wise) and I went to the toilet.  As always, I will spare the full details.  Let’s just say that it became obvious that the only way I could go on any excursion would be if I could be guaranteed immediate access to a toilet all day.  Even with a toilet on the coach, there was the danger that someone else might be occupying it at any time of my urgent need.


And so, very reluctantly, we had to cancel our trip to Abu Simbel.  Hopefully we will have a chance to book a trip privately while we’re in Luxor next week.


As I write, I’m lying on a lounger on the deck.  The Immodium and Dioralyte seem to be working, although I still feel queasy.


If you have to be sick, lying on a lounger on the deck of a Nile cruiser is a nice, comfortable place to be.  We’re using the enforced relaxation time to catch up on reading novels.


Later that day:


The next outing took us by motor launch to a traditional Nubian village.  We had booked to take a 30-minute camel ride across the desert to complete the outward journey.  As things turned out, I wondered whether I had been wise to attempt the trip at all.  The stirring in my alimentary canal threatened not only to make me feel ill but to put me in an embarrassing situation if a toilet should be urgently required.  The last thing I needed was for my insides to be jiggled up and down for half an hour on a camel.  Deciding to continue by boat instead, and taking another Immodium, I soon started to feel better.  Pity about the camel ride though – I was looking forward to that experience.  On the other hand, Tricia was quite relieved – not fancying half an hour under such intense heat with no shelter.


The visit was interesting.  We got to see right inside a Nubian family’s house.  Theirs struck me as a poor but not excessively harsh existence.  I wouldn’t swap places, of course, but they do seem to have the basic necessities – including electricity, running water and satellite TV.


Of added interest was another sighting of a gecko, this time running down an internal wall in the house.  I was also amused to see an Olympic Marseille (Newcastle’s opponents in tonight’s UEFA Cup semi-final second leg) sticker on the front door.  Is it an omen?  If so, is it good or bad?  I won’t know for some time, as we have not had access to any UK/world news since our arrival.  In fact we haven’t even heard any Egyptian news.


On the way back to the launch, we passed through a succession of stalls.  The stallholders were much more polite than the others we had encountered.  Tricia bought a white cotton shirt and trouser set for £8 – and the trader gave her a white cotton scarf as a free gift.


Tonight’s outing was to Kom Ombo Temple, to which we cruised at tea time (we are now on our way back towards Luxor).


Another Graeco-Roman (Ptolemaic) temple, this one was dedicated to two gods – Horus (the falcon god) and Sobek (the crocodile god).  Because of my interest in reptiles, I was particularly looking forward to this visit.


Sobek was one of the bad goods and Horus one of the good ones.  The Egyptians prayed to both types – hoping to avoid the wrath of the bad gods and to gain the help of the good gods. 


Kom Ombo held mummified crocodiles, among other features of interest.  A couple were on display, but it was hard to get a decent photo through the glass cases.


We’ve now settled into a nice little routine on the boat.  One part of this is that Yasser, who cleans and tidies our room each day, fashions the fresh towels into a kind of towel sculpture.  So far we have had a swan, a flower and a cobra.


Friday 7th May


This has been a day for serious relaxation.  No trips today – we guess because Friday is the Muslim holy day.  Throughout our travels we have often heard the calls to prayer (five a day).


By the time we had finished breakfast (8.30am) it was already uncomfortably warm on deck, even under the shade.  Today we heard at one point that the temperature was 38ºC.  I think we’ve had it even hotter at times this week.


As the morning wore on, we had to admit defeat and retreat to the cool of the bar.  As far as activity is concerned, it has been confined to reading and resting.


We’re on our way back to Luxor, and to get there we have to pass one of the cataracts (which used to be waterfalls but are now barriers with locks to allow vessels to move from one water level to another. 


Approaching the lock, we were welcomed by children on the bank who threw empty film cartons onto the deck in the hope of having them thrown back with money inside.  Note for future trips:  ask the bank to include some small-denomination notes in the currency (or change some at the airport).  If we’d been able to give the children we’ve met the equivalent of 20p they would have been over the moon.  As it is, we can’t usually get hold of anything lower than 50 Egyptian pounds (equivalent to about £5).  No one from whom we’ve bought anything has had anything less than the occasional 10 Egyptian pound note – most don’t even have that (or so they say).  Another thought:  a bag of hard sweets would have been useful as well for the children.


As we went through the lock, an armed guard introduced himself to me and suggested I give him some baksheesh.  At this point, Tricia diplomatically drew my attention to something at the other side of the boat for which I was urgently needed.


On the whole though, we have found the Egyptians to be very friendly people.  All along our route today both adults and children at work or at play in the fields have called and waved to us.


Tonight’s entertainment is a gallabiyya party.  At the moment we’re sitting on the deck at 9.15pm in the dark of the evening, blown by a strong but hot breeze.


Saturday 8th May


The latest episode in our story of temples and toilets started with a visit to Karnak Temple.  Unlike the ones we’ve seen previously, this temple dates back to the real pharaohs rather than the Greek and Roman leaders.  The artwork is distinctly different, because the artists created it out of love for the gods rather than by command of the invaders.


It’s said to be the most beautiful of Egypt’s temples and is on a much larger scale.  My visit there was cut short – I’ll explain why in a minute – so I have to rely on Tricia to pick out some of the most remarkable features.


The hypostyle hall had a forest of 134 columns, 75 feet high and 49 feet in circumference.  The avenue of sphinxes used to run all the way from Karnak to Luxor Temple but the majority are now buried under the town of Luxor.


Like the other temples, this complex has been added to over the ages.  Uniquely, this one has images of Christian saints on some of the columns in one particular room.


The scarab beetle statue holds a tradition that you run around it once for good luck; three times for a marriage and seven times to become pregnant.  Our guide, Sherry, says she ran around it seven times and ended up divorced.


Meanwhile, I was looking for a toilet.  My tummy bug was back with a vengeance and no amount of pills could stop the inevitable.  At the temple’s WC, I was offered some toilet roll (about 15 squares, perhaps) for which I was, of course, expected to pay.  The smallest note I had was 20 Egyptian pounds (about £2).  I handed it over and looked forward to the most expensive dump of my life.  Without going into any further detail, Egyptian toilets aren’t the most pleasant.  (OK, just one extra detail:  they tend to have a thin pipe coming up in the middle of the bowl, presumably for occasional flushing of the rim by the attendant, but it’s right in the line of aim.)  To add insult to injury, when I’d finished and washed my hands another attendant offered me some more toilet paper to dry them.  I wasn’t going to cough up another £2 for that, so I ignored his prodding.


My next priority was to get some small change (i.e. less than £2) for my next visit or visits.  For that I had to leave he temple complex and buy a tinned drink from one of the stalls outside.


I then settled down on stone bench under a tree to wait for the others to finish their tour.  All in all, not a pleasant morning.  As the urge to find another toilet grew, I looked first for our bus in the hope of using the toilet there.  I could also see another public WC, which thankfully would only cost me 50p now if I had to use it.  I was interrupted in my search by Tricia, who had been frantically searching for me – having expected to find me at the temple entrance as arranged.  To cut a long story short, we found the right bus and I soon found relief – if not a flush.


From Egyptian toilets, our next port of call was a complete contrast – an Egyptian perfume factory.  There we discovered the pure flower extracts, and blends of those extracts, that go to make the world’s best-known perfume brands.  With the addition of alcohol and a famous name, they become Chanel No. 5 etc.  We chose four of our favourite smells and bought four 1.5 ounce bottles for £40.


After a lazy afternoon, we went ashore again at 6.00pm to see Luxor Temple.  Here at Luxor, as at the other main mooring sites for cruise boats, the boats line up along the bank and then others park parallel to them – several deep.  To get to the shore you have to walk through the reception area in the middle of each boat in turn.  At the moment we’re about 6 boats from the shore.  We gather that there are about 250 of these boats altogether between Luxor and Aswan.


Luxor Temple is very impressive, like everything we have seen.  The stories of the gods it honours and the successive rulers who have built and added to it are hard to remember.  They will come back to us when we read up about Egypt on our return.  Every god has stories surrounding it.  The reigns of the kings are so numerous that they are divided into many dynasties.  Overall, they cover thousands of years.  It makes the Roman and Greek civilisations – and our own – look very ephemeral.


Luxor is, again, a true Egyptian temple – but with bits added later by the Greeks and Romans.  Hopefully our photos will capture some of the beauty.  In places, in all of the temples, you can see traces of the paintwork.  The carving itself is magnificent but it must have been even more impressive when it was coloured in.


As one point in the tour, one of the party asked our guide, Sherry, a question relating to the prominent phallus in one of the carvings.  She managed to avoid the question.  We’ve noticed that both she and Mohsan, our other guide, avoid the naughty bits in the stories and pictures.  They’re both very good fun though.


For the excursions we are divided into two groups.  Ours is called ‘Habibi’ and is led by Sherry.  Habibi is an Arabic word that means ‘my darlings’ or ‘my sweethearts’.  She precedes each announcement with ‘habibi’ and calls it out to shepherd us at the sites.


When someone asked her about the five daily calls to prayer, Sherry told us that both she and Mohsan are practising Muslims who meet this obligation, like most of their fellow Egyptians.  If they are working at the time, e.g. leading site visits, they say the prayers on returning to their rooms.  Sherry says she is seen as alien by many in her society, as she wears Western clothes and no veil.  She feels in her heart that this is the right thing to do – but accepts that she might be punished in the next world for it!


Sunday 9th May


A very full day.  We were up at about 5.30am for a 7.00am departure to the Valley of the Kings and various other unmissable antiquities.  Today the temperature reached 45ºC.  By leaving early we avoided the most intense heat – but it was still sweat-drippingly hot.


On the way we stopped to view the Colossi of Memnon – two 21-metre-high statues.  The photos will show, with people standing at the base, how big that really is.  Our follow-up reading will remind us of what their historic significance is – but basically, they were at the entrance to a temple that is no longer there.


Next stop was the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut – a site of enormous significance.  Not only is it an important and beautiful antiquity, but it was the site at which tourists were massacred about five years ago.  Egypt is still recovering from that setback to its major industry.  To prevent any repetition, we tourists are constantly protected by armed guards.  Often they wear the white uniform of the Tourism and Antiquities Police;  in other cases they wear buff-coloured police/military uniforms and can be seen at the regular checkpoints that we pass everywhere we go.  Armed with machine guns, the white-uniformed policemen often board the ship for checks.  They are there when we get off, they are there at the entrances to each tourist attraction (where, each time, we have to go through something like a customs check);  they watch and follow the crowds at these sites.  Here at Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple, we can see their lookout points on the hilltops – ever watchful for a terrorist attack.  Sadly, cruising between Luxor and Cairo is no longer possible due to the high risk.  For many other tourist journeys – to Abu Simbel, for example – passage is only allowed in a police-protected convoy.


Back to the temple itself, though, our visit was all too short – but enough to make us want to find out more.


The next stop was the pinnacle of our sightseeing week – the Valley of the Kings.  The rocky, desert valley was breathtaking – quite literally.  We saw a couple of faintings, which are a regular occurrence for every party in this heat.  As we sat under a shelter, listening to Sherry’s explanation of some of the things we were going to see, sweat poured into our clothes and from our exposed hands and arms.


From the 63 known tombs, of which only a few are open to the public at any one time, we first chose that of Rameses V and VI.


The descent of the steeply sloping shaft was one of the most moving experiences of our trip – as we expected it to be.  Here we were in those very passages, of which we have all read, that lead to the tombs.  The walls and ceilings, still maintaining the colours of their illustrations, were magnificent.  Each deserved much more time for study and reflection than we were allowed.


At the bottom, we reached the burial chamber – stripped of all treasures but still containing (pieced together like huge jigsaws with missing pieces) the stone sarcophagi.  Words fail me.  You must see for yourself.


We had time to descend into one more tomb.  We chose Rameses I.  Not as large or well preserved, but it did have a huge sarcophagus at the end – this time in good repair.  As we walked around the sarcophagus, we saw a young girl (possibly French or Dutch, judging from the accents around us) with her arms stretched out in silent prayer before an image of the goddess Isis.  It’s odd that the Egyptians have abandoned the old beliefs but that, apparently, some new-age people should find comfort in them.


The tomb of Tutankhamun is another that can be viewed.  For this, an extra charge is payable.  Sherry advised the party that it’s not really worth it as all the treasures are in the museum in Cairo.  All that’s left in there is the stone part of the sarcophagus – and the mummy itself.


Given extra time, we would have gone in to see the passages and chambers anyway.  As it was, we were at least able to see and photograph that most famous of tomb entrances.  Tutankhamun, by the way, was a boy king –controlled by his stepmother – whose contribution to history would hardly have merited a mention.  His fame is due to the fact that, uniquely, his tomb was found intact by the archaeologists.


All others were robbed fairly soon after they had been sealed and hidden – by those who worked on their construction, it is suspected.  Tutankhamun’s was obscured by another above it, hence escaping attention for so long.


Driving away, still awestruck by the tombs, the landscape and the heat, we wondered what it must have been like for Howard Carter and his contemporaries – exploring the area without the aid of tarmacked roads, electricity and refrigerated drink cabinets.


Rapidly flagging under the growing heat, as it was now late morning, we drove on to the Valley of the Queens.  Here I made a quick toilet visit.  The toilet on the bus had been locked by the driver, who said it was out of order.  (On our return to the bus, it had been repaired apparently.  We later learned that some drivers falsely claim that toilets are broken, as this minimises the effort – part of their duty – of emptying them at the end of the day.  At Sherry’s request he had somehow managed to make the toilet function again!)  The use of the toilet in the Valley of the Queens was quite straightforward.  I had readied myself with an Egyptian pound note (value about 10p), for which I received, this time, about 5 squares of toilet paper.  The cubicle this time was nice and clean, with a working flush and no disconcerting extra bits of plumbing.  As this was a ‘number one’ visit, the five squares were more than adequate.  On completion, I walked briskly past the attendants to discourage any further requests for cash.


Nefertari’s (wife of Rameses II) tomb was being restored, so we couldn’t go in there.  We viewed the tombs of Titi and Amenherkhepeshef.  The latter was Rameses III’s son, but he didn’t qualify for burial in the Valley of the Kings because he didn’t become king.  Also in that tomb was the mummy of a foetus, miscarried by the Queen as she grieved for her son – who died at around nine years of age.  Again, we will have to read up on the historical significance of these people – and on the artwork we passed by so quickly.


Monday 10th May


Last night we went out to the sound and light show at Karnak Temple.  It wasn’t the high-tech audiovisual experience that some were expecting but we enjoyed the story.


As we’ve mentioned before, the temples are started by one king and continually added to by his successors.  One of the most important kings seems to have been Rameses II, who ruled for 67 years.  As well as building a lot of things, he was very successful in his wars against Egypt’s enemies.  As a measure of the scale on which he did things, he had over 90 sons and 100 daughters – having mated with three wives and also with some of his own daughters.


Tutankhamun got a brief mention.  Although he didn’t have time to do much during his brief reign as a child king, his significance (other than the fact that his tomb was not raided until the 1900s) lies in the fact that he followed the unusual King Akhenaten.


Akhenaten (with his wife, the beautiful Nefertiti) turned his back on – and banned worship of – the ancient Egyptian gods.  Instead he introduced a new, single god – the sun god Aten – to replace the many other gods, who were headed at that time by Amun.  He changed his name from Akhenamun to Akhenaten accordingly.


Egyptians were forced to worship this new god, as well as the king and queen who were the god’s only representatives.  This was all very unpopular with the people.  On his death, Akhenaten was succeeded by his son Tutankhaten – who was still a boy.  Under his stepmother’s control, the boy king decreed that the religious revolution of his father was over – and the people returned to their old ways.  His name was changed to reflect the restoration of the god Amun – to become Tutankamun.


Today is our last on the boat.  We disembark at 1.00pm.  We’re both still a little fragile.  Tricia felt unwell yesterday under the extreme heat.  She also has swollen ankles, which are presumably another symptom of the same thing.  I’ve had an over-functioning bottom, off and on, for most of the week.  That’s something that most people have gone down with at some time.


Where exactly the tummy bugs come from, it’s hard to say.  All the water we drink is bottled mineral water.  We were advised not to use the tap water even for brushing our teeth, so we have to go through a kind of purification ritual in which we sprinkle mineral water over our dental care equipment (or over Tricia’s hands before she puts in her contact lenses).  We try to stick to cooked food, although the guides assure us that all the fruit and salad has been washed with mineral water.


Tuesday 11th May


We made the move to the hotel yesterday afternoon.  It’s luxuriously spacious after the confines of the boat.  Our room has all mod cons, including a fully flushable toilet and a bidet.


For our first meal, we opted for the comfortable familiarity of burgers and chips – just the thing for our tender systems.


After tea, we ventured out to buy some water and Coke from a nearby shop.  This meant running the gauntlet of taxi drivers and felucca pilots, not to mention the other stallholders.  Unfortunately we weren’t sure which direction to go in when we left the hotel, and our obvious uncertainty made us an even more conspicuous target.  Sadly, the only way to get through these situation is to rudely ignore people.  Even a shake of the head or a ‘no thank you’ is taken as a sign of encouragement and can lead to more pestering.


Back in the hotel, we switched the TV to BBC World and listened to the news – from which we deduced that nothing different had happened in our week out of contact with it.  I did glean, from the fact that Marseille were described as UEFA Cup finalists, that Newcastle had failed to make it through.  We had also generously gifted Wolves a consolation point at St James’s, leaving them with a small achievement to remember and ourselves with a mountain to climb if we were to capture 4th place.


We decided on a quick nap before doing anything else.  We slept … and slept … and slept …  We woke at about 11.00pm, just in time to go to sleep.


This morning, I was nursing a headache and Tricia had a dodgy tummy (as well as dodgy ankles).  With a bit of a struggle, we got ourselves ready for breakfast – an extensive, varied and in some cases exotic buffet affair.  Among the less expected items on offer were pickled vegetables, something like horseradish sauce and a selection of spices.


Then we made a visit to Luxor Museum.  That was well worth a look – not too many objects to see, but a good selection to wonder at.  The fine sculpting of the granite statues particularly impresses us.  Granite must be incredibly difficult to sculpt as it’s so hard.  Among the collection of artefacts were some of the (presumably less valuable) pieces taken from Tutankhamun’s tomb.


The only thing to spoil our visit was the pestering by the attendants.  In Egypt, you quickly realise that no one talks to you unless they want to gain financially in some way.  At every antiquity site, and at the museum, there are attendants (usually dressed in gallabiyyas and turbans) who will point at an interesting hieroglyphic or artefact that you might like to photograph – and expect to be paid for passing on this inside information.  In the first room of the museum I deliberately photographed anything but the items pointed out by the attendant – and he still came up and asked for baksheesh as we left.


We’re back in our room now.  We have a balcony overlooking the Nile and, beyond that, the rocky hills in which lie the Valleys of the Kings and Queens.


Wednesday 12th May


We’ve just arrived back from another visit to Karnak Temple.  It’s taken us two hours or so to walk there, look around and come back.  I think we’ve got the balance between activity and resting just about right:  two hours’ activity and the rest of the day to relax.


A cold Coke and a shower (as well as a visit to the toilet) were our first priorities on returning.


Here in our room, we hear the noise of the busy road outside – the Corniche, which runs along the east bank of the Nile.  People sound their horns incessantly.  We haven’t worked out a logic to it yet – i.e. what are the specific circumstances under which an Egyptian driver sounds his horn.  My guess is that he sounds it at whoever he happens to be near, every half minute or so, when the urge to do it becomes irrepressible.  Driving habits are different here.  The lights on cars seem to be optional.  Vehicles seem to move a lot faster than we’re used to seeing in a built-up area.  When we were out on coach trips, I was amazed at how the bus drivers would overtake in the narrowest of gaps – presumably banking on the approaching (smaller) vehicles slowing down to let them in.  On one trip, our guide introduced us to the driver – who acknowledged the group by raising both hands in the air … as the bus hurtled along.


Health and safety doesn’t seem to be high on the Egyptian agenda.  None of the antiquity sites would pass one of our rigorous risk assessments.  We’ve seen a number of falls and minor injuries, and apparently fractures are not uncommon.  I wouldn’t fancy anyone’s chances if they tried to sue for negligence though.  I guess the Egyptians still take the sensible attitude that if someone trips and injures themselves it’s their own stupid fault for not watching where they’re going.


This morning we both spent some time in the toilet and took precautionary Immodium tables before leaving the hotel – at just after 8.00am, to avoid the worst heat.


After negotiating the first few hundred metres outside the hotel, in which pestering from taxi drivers and felucca pilots was most intense, we were largely uninterrupted on our half-hour walk along the river bank to Karnak. One horse and cart operator along the way seemed particularly disappointed and angry that we preferred to walk.


For Tricia, this was the third visit to Karnak;  for me, the first visit had been abortive (but profitable for the toilet guardian).  It was well worth another look.


Our favourite bit is the great hypostyle hall, previously described, with its 134 columns.  It’s impossible to capture the size and density of the columns in photos.  It’s also difficult to visualise what the intact temple would have been like – with its stone roofs, the light from special windows streaming in to illuminate only the central columns, and with every surface illustrated in colour.


The excavation at Karnak, and elsewhere, is still going on (only a quarter has been excavated at Karnak to date).  Many features still lie in fragments – and others are buried under the sand.  Caterpillar seems to be getting some business out of that work.


At the entrance to Karnak, there is graffiti (or, rather, inscriptions claiming discovery of the features by particular archaeologists) from the 1800s high on the walls.  This gives an indication of how deeply the temple was buried in the sand.  At Luxor Temple, there is a mosque whose base adjoins the roof of the temple – again showing how high the ground level was before excavation.


The walk back was fairly relaxed, save for a few purposeful, brisk spurts to get past the various business people.  The view across the Nile to the hills within which the tombs lie is always a pleasure.  The hills seem so close but it’s hard to capture them on the camera because of the constant haze.  Still, without that haze we might be fried by the sun.  Today it’s a relatively cool 38ºC.


Later the same day:


It’s now nearly 9.00pm and we’re back in the room after another meal.  The puddings were particularly nice:  for £1.50 each, Tricia and I had very filling, home-made crème caramel and chocolate mousse, respectively.


Hopefully there will be a good film on satellite TV tonight.  We watch so much of BBC World News and CNN that we know the stories off by heart.  Last night we watched the first half of Bridget Jones’ Diary on the Movie Channel.  Or at least I did;  Tricia was asleep after a few minutes.  I managed to see the Mitsubishi forklift truck scenes before drifting off to sleep.  I did try to call Tricia’s attention to those but she was too far gone;  I doubt if she would have appreciated being woken to see forklift trucks as much as I would have if our situations had been reversed.


We’ve enjoyed spending a lot of time reading in the last week or so.  The books I bought for the trip had a Middle East theme.  The Bookseller of Kabul was the true story of a family in Afghanistan, before and after the Taliban.  The Sands of Time was the sequel to an Egyptian ghost story.  My third choice was Brian Keenan’s account of his time as a hostage in Lebanon.  Tricia bought River God, a thick volume, which was the first in a trilogy of historical novels set in pharaonic times, and she has now moved on to Sands of Time.  She also has one of the Loveday series of Cornish historical novels.


We spent some time souvenir shopping today.  The hotel has its own shopping precinct.  While that does avoid the more aggressive selling in the outside world, the salespeople are still overly keen.  Annoyingly, the goods aren’t priced – you still have to ask for a price and then haggle.  We did manage to get most of what we needed though – and at good prices compared to home.


We now have plenty of goodies to take back for Scott, Katie and Laura.  Last night we called each of them on the mobile phone.  These can be quite unsatisfying calls at this distance, knowing that at international rates you won’t have time to talk through any problems they are having.  Sure enough, there were problems;  Scott had had to race from Cornwall to Hull the day we left (not long after my last call, presumably) as his girlfriend had been taken into hospital with suspected meningitis (which, happily, proved to be a false alarm);  Katie was keen to tell Tricia about an interview she’d had, but there was no time to hear the full details;  Laura, who came down with a tonsillitis the moment we left and had to miss a couple of days of school, burst into tears because she wanted her mum back.  (We are such wicked parents!)


The weather forecast is for warmer days ahead.  We’re told that Egypt is experiencing a mini heat wave at the moment.  Usually up to 35ºC is about the normal for this time of year but we have been seeing the sort of temperatures usually reserved for August.


As I write this, various things occur to me about life in Egypt that I feel are worth recording.  Like the fact that this is such a good place for smokers to go on holiday.  Not only are cigarettes very cheap, but there are virtually no restrictions (other than ‘please do not smoke in bed’ signs) on where you can do it.  Reception areas, shops, bars, restaurants and even, strangely to me, the sampling area in the perfume factory, are all smoking zones.


Thursday 13th May


This has been a very lazy day.  It started with a burst of activity, as we went down to the pool at 8.00am for a refreshing dip.  That set us up nicely to enjoy breakfast.


From there, it was back to our room for some reading and a rest.  The room cleaners interrupted us, late morning, so we moved to one of the bars where we sat out in the shade with our books and mango juice.


I forgot to mention that on Tuesday night we went for a pizza in the Italian restaurant overlooking the pool.  (The hotel has several restaurants and bars on offer.)  As we ate, I spotted a lizard under one of the tables outside.  From its shape, I guessed it might be a skink of some kind.  My reason for bringing this up now is that we were delighted to see several lizards while sitting out this morning.  The area in which we were sitting overlooks a grassy garden with various trees – including one laden with bananas.


The first lizard emerged from a border and gradually moved towards us, looking around for insects.  It was similar in shape to our native lizards and about the size of a sand lizard (about 8 inches).  I’ll try to identify it from its coloration when I get home.  We found we were able to get quite close to it.  Our lizards back home are so wary that even talking in their presence sends them to ground.  These lizards seemed quite confident near people.  As we watched further, several more – same species, in a variety of sizes – wandered around.  Some of them emerged from the garden and wandered through the outdoor lounge area of the bar.  Being attuned to catching glimpses of Cornwall’s elusive reptiles, these creatures were so obvious as to keep distracting me from my book with their activities.


Apart from lizards, the other obvious wildlife in the garden is the brown pigeons which we see everywhere – much less tattered than the feral pigeons back home.  There was also a large crow with a grey head and shoulders.  We’ll look those up on our return.  (The other birds we’ve seen on our holiday have included ibises, egrets and hoopoes.)


After all that excitement, we needed a rest.  Back in the room, we read for a while and then dropped off to sleep.  A couple of hours later we awoke.  It was close to 3.00pm but we still weren’t hungry enough for lunch.  We hadn’t burned off our big breakfast yet.


We had brought with us a travel games set that Katie and Gary bought for my birthday.  Tricia wanted to know how to play chess, so I showed her.  After a very creditable debut at chess, I challenged her to game of ludo.  That was followed by noughts and crosses.  The draughts and snakes and ladders championships are yet to come.


This morning – speaking of sport – I received the bad news that Newcastle had only drawn at Southampton and could not now claim 4th place.  Even a UEFA Cup place will depend on a good performance at Anfield and some lost points for Aston Villa.  Even at this distance, football can blight your life.


Friday 14th May


For dinner last night, we went Italian again.  We were thrilled to see a number of geckos while we ate.  (Tricia ascertained that the locals call them ‘bourss’ – although your guess at the spelling is as good as mine.)  They moved up and down the walls, along the rafters and – defying gravity – upside down on the reed matting above our heads, regularly striking out at their insect prey.  With their large, round, suction-cup fingertips, they are very endearing creatures.


This morning we walked along to Luxor Temple – for a second visit – and beyond.  Before we could go, there was the now-normal decision to be taken on whether we were confident we could get there and back without needing an urgent toilet stop.  After both of us had managed almost an hour without needing to ‘go’, we agreed that the trip could proceed.


We’ve felt a bit trapped this week, because of our unease at the harassment by street traders and the like.  Normally, our first instinct in any new place would be to go for a long walk and explore.  Here, that activity tends to bring anxiety rather than relaxation.


But anyway, we bit the bullet again and we were glad we did.  At Luxor Temple we took photos of some of the things we didn’t see – or just didn’t photograph – on our first visit.  Like the two colossi (giant statues) and one obelisk at the entrance – the missing obelisk from the pair is the one in Paris.


Luxor Temple was a sort of holiday home for the god Amun.  He spent most of the year in Karnak Temple, but during the festival at Luxor he spent some quality time there with his harem.


Next on our agenda was the Winter Palace, where King Farouk used to take his holidays.  Now a grand hotel, we were told that visitors could go in for drinks.  Unfortunately the café didn’t open until late afternoon, so we didn’t get a chance to see inside.


Our last port of call was the Mummification Museum.  Only a small affair, but interesting nevertheless.  Hopefully our photos of the various mummified people and animals, caskets and other tomb contents will tell their own story.  We particularly like the idea of the ushabti – dolls in the form of labourers.  In the after life, the gods will expect people to work daily.  The pharaohs were provided with these figures who would come to life – along with other statues and images in their tombs – and do their work for them.  In case this is all true, I’d like to buried with an Action Man equipped with a miniature computer terminal (or at least a pen).


Before tea tonight we took a dip in the pool.  According to the local weather forecast, we were expected to see 44ºC today.  By 5.00pm it was bearable in the shade – although even there you couldn’t walk in bare feet because the floor was baking hot.


Saturday 15th May


Today we haven’t left the hotel grounds.  Our first activity, after breakfast, was to finish our souvenir shopping.  We then spent some time in the garden, where I managed to photograph one of the lizards.


Even with no necessity to do anything, the time flies.  We filled in a few hours reading, for a start.  As well as our novels, we have acquired another guide to the main features in and around Luxor.  We bought it the other day from the Mummification Museum.  The same book was on sale in one of the hotel shops, but the shopkeeper seemed reluctant to give us a price for it unless we gave a clear undertaking that we intended to buy it.  A strange sales strategy – and an unsuccessful one in this case.  We find the procedures for buying things quite frustrating.  There’s nothing as simple as a price label.  When you ask for the price of an item, the shopkeeper usually asks what else you want to buy – as this will affect the price of the overall package.  The price, when you get it, is too high – sometimes ridiculously so.  We seem to have got the hang of deciding for ourselves what we think something is worth and then either buying or rejecting it on the basis of whether the salesman will agree.  Of course, if you go back later to buy another one of the same item you will be given an entirely different price.


We took another dip in the pool today, this time at 4.00pm – outside the hottest part of the day but still too hot to stand on the pool edge without sandals.


When we returned to the room, I was surprised and delighted to find Newcastle playing at Anfield on Egyptian Channel 2 – with commentary in Arabic – and leading Liverpool 1-0.  It couldn’t last, of course, but 1-1 turned out to be enough to clinch 5th place and the UEFA Cup slot – better than nothing.


And so to dinner time.  This evening we went to the Italian restaurant, armed with the camera to get some shots of the geckos.  My photographic activities drew attention from the waiters.  What they made of my interest, I don’t know.


Having geckos around in a restaurant is a great bonus, as far as I’m concerned, but a question does occur to me:  What happens if they’re clinging to the roof above your table and they need the toilet?


Speaking of toilets, it’s been a relatively comfortable day in the gut department.  We’ve been eating a low-fibre, low-spiciness diet deliberately designed to engender constipation as a measure to counteract our current condition.


Sunday 16th May


What can I report for today?  It’s been another day of rest.  After breakfast, we lay and read by the pool.  Then we lay and read in the bedroom.  Then in one of the outdoor lounges.  Then in another one.  Then in the bedroom again.


For dinner tonight, I chose the special British option of meat pie, chips, apple crumble and custard.  Hopefully my digestive system will find comfort in that.  Tricia also played safe with another UK favourite, lasagne.


After a quick read of today’s Egyptian Gazette (English version), we retired to our room.  Tricia had done most of the packing already.  Our last bit of preparation for leaving was to set aside whatever Egyptian money we would need for tomorrow’s lunch and the final hotel tips.  We also needed sufficient small change for several toilet visits – in case our intestines were in that kind of mood and the airport toilets had baksheesh-demanding attendants.


As we lie here watching TV, we can hear the strange wailing from the nearest mosque congregation.  We’ve just seen an advert on TV which seemed (it was in Arabic, so we can’t be sure) to be reminding people to make time for daily prayers.  It’s such a contrast to our own society, in which even attending a service once a week is seen as unusually religious.


Although we feel that the aggressive tactics of the salesmen let down their countrymen as a whole, we have quickly come to the conclusion that we like Egyptian people.  Whenever we’ve had the chance to interact with them in a non-sales situation, they have come across as very warm and friendly.  We particularly like to see the way that friends greet each so affectionately with hugs and kisses – whatever their sex.  We’ve often noticed men walking hand in hand or arm in arm.  Why are we British so reserved?  We’ve also noticed that although the conversations between Egyptians can appear heated at times, there never seems to be a hint of violence.


From what we’ve read, Egypt has an important mediating role in the Middle East – being happy to deal with both the West and the Arab world.  With deepening divisions taking up so much news time these days, it’s encouraging to see how this country can bring people together.


Monday 17th May


And so we say farewell to Egypt – or au revoir.  There is still so much that we want to see – and so many unanswered questions.  For example, Tricia wants to know why we never saw a mummified hippopotamus.  There were crocodiles, cats, sheep, birds and even fish in the tombs – but no hippo.


On our next visit, we want to take in Cairo (pyramids, the sphinx and the national museum), Luxor again (for a longer look in the Valley of the Kings) and a cruise on Lake Nasser to Abu Simbel – which we were bitterly disappointed to have missed because of my illness.


With this fortnight’s experience under our belts, we will come fully equipped next time.  That will mean larger supplies of Immodium, more shorts, dresses (Tricia, not me) and possibly an umbrella or parasol.  Our guide Sherry always carried one and it made a lot of sense when we were out in the open in the middle of the day.


Today has been one of endless waiting – for the airport coach and then the plane – which has made our leaving even more difficult.  In the days ahead we will go over our diary, look through the photos and piece together some further knowledge from our books at home.  The insight we have gained will make those books come alive for us.  One of many interesting facts that we’ve learned is that most of the Egyptians today are genetically very similar to those of ancient Egypt.  So when we read up on the country’s history, we can readily visualise what the population looked like.