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Friday, April 18, 2014

SAILING DOWN THE NILE







 If you’ve never been on a Nile River cruise, I suggest you mark this on your ‘bucket list’. It was something I’d always wanted to do, though I’d often visualized myself on one of the Nile sailboats called a felucca. However, fortune had it that I was invited on a tour of Egypt that included a Nile cruise. 
 
The Sonesta Star Goddess
We boarded our river boat, The Sonesta Star Goddess, at Aswan. We were greeted at the gangway by the crew dressed in navy middies, and escorted into the elegant lounge where we were offered warm scented cloths to refresh our faces and hands, and a drink of citrus juice.  After having traveled by plane and van for many hours, this was indeed a welcoming! Then we were shown to our suites.
 
The Crew


The lounge
 




The cruise ship has 33 suites. Mine was a two-room suite with all the amenities and a small balcony overlooking the river.

 


After we were settled  we were invited for cocktails on the deck and given a tour of the ship. There’s everything a larger cruise ship might have including a spa, exercise room, dining room, bar where there is evening entertainment, various small shops. On the top deck there’s a swimming pool, hot tub, bar and lounge area where you can sit and watch the river slide by.




Sonesta’s fleet of five Nile River cruise ships offer 3-, 4-, and 7-night trips between Aswan and Luxor. http://www.sonesta.com/nilecruises/

I’d had no idea that the Nile River was quite as wide or as beautiful as it actually is. It’s the world’s longest river, flowing approximate 4665 miles out of the heart of Africa, northward to the Mediterranean Sea. There are two sources: The White Niles from equatorial Africa and the White Nile from the Abyssinian highlands. The cataracts, a progression of white rapids form the southern border of Egypt at Sudan. The First Cataract is at Aswan.
 
 
 

 
We traveled north from Aswan to Luxor on our three-day voyage, stopping each day to visit archaeological sites. Usually we set sail in the late afternoon, sailing during the evening and early morning. It was remarkable how quiet it was, as if the ship was sliding with the current, the pastoral shores slipping by like a silent movie.
Nile Sunset

Past Aswan, at Edfu, the great Nile Valley begins. Limestone cliffs run parallel along the shore for more than 400 miles, sometimes stretched toward the desert. These cliffs reach heights of 800 feet in some places with mesas and plateaus. The cliffs on the west are like sentinels standing before the Libyan Desert, and on the east they withdraw into the Arabian or Red Sea Deserts. At the delta in Lower Egypt, it fans out with seven major tributaries into the Mediterranean Sea.


For some reason a children’s song kept running through my head as I sat on the deck watching the river flow by:

Oh she
sailed away on a
pleasant summer's day
on the back of a crocodile.

You see, said she, "He's as
tame as he can be, I'll
float him down the Nile."

But the
croc' winked his eye as she
waved to all good-bye,
wearing a sunny smile.

At the
end of the ride the
lady was inside, and the
smile on the croc-o-dile!

But it seems there are no crocodiles lurking that part of the Nile now. Since the building of the Aswan Dam in 1960 they all reside on the south side of Lake Nasser, in the White Nile. However, I’d learn later that there is a crocodile museum at Kom Obo.
I was also reminded of Agatha Christie's book Death on the Nile and a friend pointed one out that would have been just the kind of Nile boat (a felucca) that Christie wrote about.
 

 
My travel friends and I enjoyed lounging on the upper deck in the warm March sunshine, watching the shoreline slip by. The river’s annual floods deposit fertile soil along its banks so the Nile sustains a variety of fish and fowl. In the reedy marshes egrets, ducks and geese nest. The Nile was known to nurture the sacred lotus, reeds and papyrus plants that were later used for writing on. The ancient Egyptians called the river  the “Father of Life” or “Mother of all men”.
 
Markos, Linda and Yves enjoy a relaxing afternoon

There is always a parade of farmers leading donkeys laden with produce or cut suger-cane and reed, boys on ponies walking along the river bank under the palms. People toil in fields, and there are herds of goats and cattle grazing near the shore.  The name of the river is Greek in origin, a version of the Semetic word “Nakhal”. The ancient Egyptians called it Hap-Ur or Great Hap. The river was the manifest of the god Hapi, a divine spirit that blessed the land with rich silt deposits. The Nile is Egypt’s life-blood.



These days, with tourism at a low ebb, there are few boats operating on the river. Out of more than 200 ships, there are currently only 11 on the river.  They provide an opportunity for guided excursion to explore the historic landmarks along the river: temples, tombs and ruins, with Egyptologist escorts. And there are plenty of leisure activities on board.
 
One day the Sonesta operations manager, Mr. Ahmed Tawfick, invited us to tour the kitchens and wheel room. We had been enjoying such amazing gourmet meals it was fun to go into the kitchen to meet the head chef and other staff who daily prepared our delicious meals.
 

 

In the wheel room we watched the pilot skillfully navigate the ship up the river. Mr Tawfick explained that there are only three families who are, by tradition, pilots of the Nile cruises and this man has been at the helm for 40 years.
 


Every night there was entertainment in the bar lounge. The first night was our Captain’s cocktail dinner. The next night was a ‘Gallabria Party’ where passengers dressed in Egyptian costumes and danced to Egyptian music. The third night was a belly dance show with the most amazing dervish who whirled dizzily in colourful skirts.
whirling dervish

On the morning of the fourth day we met in the lobby and prepared to disembark for our cross-country tour van trip through the desert to the Red Sea. I felt sad about leaving the ship after such a welcoming and relaxing cruise. But there were lots more adventures waiting at the Red Sea!
Sonesta’s fleet of five Nile River cruise ships offer 3-, 4-,and 7-night trips between Aswan and Luxor. http://www.sonesta.com/nilecruises/

 

NEXT: DAY 1 OF THE CRUISE WE STOP AT EDFU AND KOM OMBO 

 

 

 

Friday, April 11, 2014

THE TEMPLE ON AN ISLAND


THE TEMPLE OF PHILAE

After our tour around the Aswan Dam we boarded our Nile cruise ship which would  be our home for the next three days.  These river cruise ships are small but just as luxurious as big liners. I had a posh two-room suite with a small balcony where I could sit and watch the river. The ship’s name was the Sonesta Star Goddess and I’ll write more about the actual cruise later.

After lunch and a rest, we set off to visit the beautiful Temple of Philae on Philae Island. We would reach the island aboard a small craft piloted by a handsome young Nubian helmsman. Our guide, Hannan, explained that these boatmen, usually dressed in traditional costume, including most of the hawkers who sell souvenirs, are Nubians. They are an ethnic group originally from northern Sudan and southern Egypt and are one of the oldest cultures in Africa.  Because most of their agricultural communities were flooded with the building of the dams, now these largely marginalized people live in small settlements along the river.

 
River boats
 


Nubian settlement
We boarded the boat along with our two ‘bodyguards’ and set sail for a rocky island in the middle of the river once known by the Greeks as “Elephantine Island”, probably because it was an important center of trade, especially ivory.

 
Linda and me having fun on the boat.
The island of Philae was once the centre of commerce between Egypt and Nubia. The granite quarries nearby attracted a population of miners and stonemasons. When the first Aswan Low Dam was completed by the British in 1902, many ancient landmarks including the temple complex of Philae were in danger of being submerged.  It was decided to relocate the temples piece by piece to nearby islands but instead the foundations were strengthened instead though the colors of the temples’ reliefs were washed away.  In 1960 UNESCO started a project to try and save the temples from the destructive effects of the Nile waters. By then the island was submerged up to a third of the buildings all year round. Various methods were used to try and pump the water away but eventually every building was dismantled and transported to a nearby island situated on higher ground.

Philae
 
 
Trajan's Kiosk
The temple was built during the Ptolemaic dynasty, its principal deity being Isis but there are other temples and shrines dedicated to other deities such as Hathor. The most ancient temple was one built for Isis (380-362 BC). It was approached from the river through a double colonnade. Isis was the goddess to whom the first buildings were dedicated

 
Temple Heiroglyphs
 
 


Enjoying myself in this beautiful place

Because it was supposed to be the burial place of Isis’s husband, Osiris, Philae was held in great reverence both by the Egyptians to the north and the Nubians in the south. Only priests could dwell there. On the walls are inscriptions telling the story of Osiris and how he was murdered.  There are also inscriptions from the Macedonian era and sculptures representing the birth of Ptolemy Philometor (383-145 BC) under a figure of the god Horus. There are monuments of various eras, from the Pharaohs to the Caesars. The temple was closed in the 6th century AD by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. After that Philae became a seat of the Christian religion. Ruins of a Christian church were discovered on the site.  Many of the sculptures and hieroglyphics on the walls of the temple were destroyed or mutilated by these early Christian inhabitants

 
Christian cross carved into ancient heirglyphs
I was intrigued by the beautiful columns of the temples. Their capitals represent variations of the palm branch and the lotus flower. The walls were painted with bright colours and because of the dry climate they have lost very little of their original brilliance.

 
Beautiful columns
Our Egyptologist guide, Hanan, made the stories of the past come to life as she explained the stories depicted on the hieroglyphics that told of how Isis took revenge on her husband, Osiris’s, murderer, and explained the significance of their son Horus, the falcon-headed god. Most of Horus’s statues were left unmarred and in many of the wall scenes, every figure except that of Horus and his winged solar-disk were scratched out by the Byzantine Christians, perhaps because they saw some parallel between Horus, the god’s son, and the stories of Jesus.
As we pulled away from the island our two escorts decided to tempt each other by standing on the prow of the little boat. Until then they had stayed pretty well out of sight, dressed in their suits and ties, looking quite business-like. As they were fooling around, threatening to capsize the boat or knock each other into the river, the wind blew their jackets up and to my surprise I spotted two very lethal looking weapons tucked into the backs of their pants. They really were bodyguards! But at that moment we wondered if we'd have to rescue them!

After this fascinating tour of Philae it was time to return to the Sonesta Star Goddess for dinner in the first-class dining room and a welcome long night’s sleep in my lovely luxury suite.

NEXT: Cruising down the Nile to Edfu and Kom Ombo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, April 03, 2014

FLYING ON A WING AND A PRAYER TO EGYPT

PART ONE: My Egyptian Adventures



It was with some confusion and a certain amount of trepidation that I found myself at the check-in counter of Egypt Air in Toronto on March 13. There had been no clear advice on the meet-up so I got there 3 hours ahead of flight time and waited. I had no idea of who I was to meet but I spotted a young woman with reddish blond hair who was carrying a back-pack and talking on her cell. I figured she might be one of us, and she was. This was Linda, who was to be one of my travel companions on this special media trip to Egypt courtesy of Egyptian tourism.

We waited together at the check-out area, and when nobody else showed up, we decided to go through to the boarding gate. We sat a while and Linda made some calls to the Montreal office of the trip organizer. He assured us that our contact, Marko was on his way by car from Montreal. Trouble was, there had been white-out conditions in Toronto when I had landed the night before, and I knew by TV that the highways were choked with snow and traffic.

Then I spotted a gentleman carrying a back-pack and camera equipment. He looked like a journalist, so I asked him. Yes, he was Yves, from Quebec. And where were the others? There were supposed to be six of us and we wondered if any of the others had arrived.

Once on the plane, Linda got seated next to another man who was with our group. He said that one of the women had herself bumped to first class. But where was Marko?

It was still a puzzle as I stepped off the plane 11 hrs later. Would I be abandoned in the Cairo airport? (Some of my friends had expressed this worry before I accepted this trip!) But no, there they were: Linda. Yves, the illusive Marko and the other two journalists. We were met by a handsome Egyptian tourism rep., Peter, who escorted us to the visa office and then to the boarding gates for our ongoing Aswan flight.

An hour later we touched down in Aswan and from the moment I stepped off the plane I felt that, at last, my adventure in Egypt was more than just a dream.


ASWAN

We were met in the airport at Aswan by Hanan Eldeeb, an Egyptologist who would be our guide through all the ancient sites along the Nile River. First stop: to view the High Dam. This dam is one of the most important achievements in the 21st century in Egypt. The Dam was constructed between 1960 and 1970. The Dam is 3,830 metres long , 980 metres at the base, 40 metres wide at the crest and 111 metres tall. About 11,000 cubic metres per second of water passes through the dam per second. The Nile valley and delta benefit from this because due to an absence of rainfall, Egypt’s agriculture depends on irrigation and the high dam at Aswan releases water into the irrigation canals so it has had a significant impact on the economy. I was amazed at the size of the dam which separates the upper and lower Nile. Before the dam was built the Nile River flooded every year in the late summer. The dam provides protection from floods and droughts and helps increase agricultural and electricity production and provides employment.

Unfortunately, the dam flooded a large area and submerged several archaeological sites. Over 100,000 people had to be relocated and some of the archaeological treasures were moved as well.

One of these important archaeological sites is the Temple of Philae.  Our Egyptologist guide suggested that we should rest up and have lunch and then we would visit this unique temple on an island in the Nile. But first, we stopped by the gravel quarries to see the enormous unfinished obelisk that lies in situ in the quarry. These gravel quarries produce all the red granite used in the building of many ancient structures.  The unfinished obelisk, left where it was because the granite cracked marring it, was discovered in 1922. It would have weighed over 2.3 million pounds making it the world’s largest piece of stone ever handled by man.


Before we left to board the boat that would be our ‘home’for the next three days, we stopped to see the monument of the Arab-Soviet Friendship that commemorates the completion of the Aswan High Dam. The monument is dedicated to the Soviets who provided technicians and heavy machinery in the building of the dam. The coat of arms of the Soviet Union is on the monument along with the coat of arms of Egypt. This towering edifice was the work of Russian sculptor Nikolay Vechkanov.

(photo by Yves Ouellet)

And so, we were here at last, in Egypt, and very soon would board the cruise boat that would take us on a memorable adventure down the Nile River.

NEXT: The Temple of Philae

 

 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

I HAD A DREAM...


I had a dream, that one day when my novel Shadow of the Lion was published, I would go to Egypt especially to visit the city of Alexandria which I had done so much research about -- from it's beginnings and through the dynasty of Ptolemy Soter, Alexander's illegitimate half-brother who help build the city and brought Alexander's body there to be buried.




I've had this dream to visit Egypt for many years. As a youngster I knew about Egypt from Bible stories, and later through the research for my historical fiction novels. A friend and I had made a pact that once my novel was publisher and she had obtained her Master's degree, we'd hop a cruise ship in Greece and sail there, to Alexandria.  Little did I know then that suddenly one day I'd get a phone call from Montreal offering me a trip, all expenses paid for, to go with a travel writer's delegation. The purpose is to interest people in travel to Egypt and this 'gift' was given to me by the Egyptian Tourism.

 
The Valley of the Kings
 
It hardly seems real yet, that in just a few days from now I'll actually be sailing on the Nile and viewing all those magnificent ancient edifices that I've read about in history books and novels for so many years!

The itinerary is spectacular:  from a Nile Cruise to a visit to the Valley of the Kings, the pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx as well as a few days at a luxury spa resort on the Red Sea.  And then a return to Cairo to view the museums and even visit Memphis. (Yes! I'm goin' to Memphis....Egypt, that is!)

 



And as a special treat for me, (because I happened to mention Shadow of the Lion and my research), they have arranged a two day escorted trip for me to visit Alexandria!



Cartoche with Alexander's name.

I can hardly believe it!  Will I wake up and find out this really IS just a dream?  For sure, it's a dream come true and I am so excited about this wonderful opportunity. I just know it's going to be one of the most magical mystery tours of my traveler's lifetime and I very grateful to the Egyptian Tourism, especially to Mr. Mostafa Sallam, the Consul director of Egyptian Tourism in Canada. Shukran, Mr. Sallam, I truly appreciate the special honor of going to your country to write the stories that will attract others who might have had the same dream as me!