Set in Stone
By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Travel Editor
©St. Petersburg Times, published November 26, 1995
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If you head to Egypt, bring an empty suitcase for the miniature pyramids, statues of the gods and goddesses, sheaves of real (and fake) painted papyrus, traditional headdresses, beaded hats, caftans and even the waterpipe you're likely to buy.
Pack some Immodium or Lomtril, a canvas shoulder sling for your bottled water and bug spray to deter the persistent flies. Check in at the county health department for shots against malaria, typhoid and tetanus.
And make sure there are pages in your scrapbook for memories of places such as these, my favorites.
Galabeena! (Egyptian, for Let's Go!)
I visited this magnificent site twice, with different guides and at different times of the day. Its original, ancient name translates roughly as "the most hallowed (or most esteemed) of places," and it was the home temple for worship of the supreme god, Amun, believed to have created himself and then the rest of the world.
For perhaps 2,000 years, pharoahs, followed by Alexander the Great and early Christians, added to or co-opted structures in this set of temples, halls and mammoth gates, until Karnak covered about 100 acres.
The result of all that adulation is a staggering variety of antiquities: giant statues called colossi, inscribed obelisks (representing the space between the sun's rays), detailed hieroglyphs on great blocks of stone, a good-luck scarab statue, an approach avenue lined with 480 sphinxes (most now buried by shifting sands).
I even saw a monkey scampering over rebuilt block walls.
But the outstanding feature is the Great Hypostyle Hall, which Egyptologist Robert Steven Bianchi refers to as the "theme park . . . for a visualization of the belief that Creation began in a watery abyss. On the First Day, the sun rose, struck the water and a primeval mound arose."
Across nearly 54,000 square feet, the ancients erected 134 sandstone columns 45 to 70 feet high. It takes nine adults with arms outstretched to circle the base of the largest. The columns offer hieroglyphs -- some still have the original colors visible -- of the Sun God's work and of pharoahs' and mortals' reverence.
Atop the outside columns were vertically slatted "windows," through which the dawn would shine. Re-enacting the Creation story, priests would prostrate themselves until the first sunbeams touched them; then the priests would leap up. (It was similar cavorting and shrieking at dawn by baboons that was interpreted as prayers to the sun, a conclusion that resulted in the baboons' elevation to gods of wisdom.)
If you knew none of this history or hieroglyph interpretation, however, the Great Hypostyle Hall would capture you because of the phenomenal visual angles presented by the columns and obelisks.
A Karnak guard, putting his finger to his lips for my silence, motioned me to a far corner of the hall, away from the corridor thronged with tourists. He then stretched his arm in one direction, showing me a wonderful sight-line for a photo. He took me to another spot, for an angle of the obelisks lined up just so.
He held out his hand for the standard tip, a pound. Just 34 cents, but at 100 times that it would have been worthwhile.
Traveler's tip: Time your visit for shortly after noon; the busloads of tourists and the babble of their multilingual guides destroy the ambience starting after 3. As for the evening sound and light show, Manhattanite Steven Bloomstein, 27, told me he found the Illuminations laser spectacle at Epcot much better; his mother, Gail, concurred, since she fell asleep a few minutes into the Karnak show.
Valley of the Kings
You will not be asked to do anything more difficult during your Egyptian visit than to look at the present Valley of the Kings and imagine a funeral procession moving up from the Nile. You might be able to mentally replace the throngs of tourists -- and the pestiferous souvenir vendors hovering around them -- with images of priests and servants bearing the deceased and a few roomfuls of treasure through the ochre- and beige-colored Theban Hills.
But it's hard to convert the current graded pathways, complete with English-language signposts, into the seemingly undisturbed mounds and rugged hills that were hiding at least 62 of the tomb caves.
What the traveler now faces is simply a choice of which three tombs to enter from among the half-dozen or so typically open. The fee is 10 pounds (about $2.95), with the same charge to use your still camera (no video permitted) inside one tomb, and 30 pounds more to visit old No. 62, better known as the Tomb of Tutankhamun.
If there is a disappointment, it is Tut's Tomb. A short entry leads to three rooms; two of them are empty except for the ubiquitous oscillating fans used in many of the historic sites. The third room, which measures about 11 by 16 feet, holds the quartzite sarcophagus and one of the three coffins that held Tut's mummy. That coffin is closed, and the mummy -- unwrapped, pawed over and partially dismembered about 70 years ago -- is now back in the coffin. This is the only discovered tomb that contains its mummy.
The walls of Tut's small shrine room are covered with beautiful, life-sized paintings of priests preparing his body.
And that's it. More than 1,700 pieces found in the tomb after it was discovered in November 1922 are on display in a mind-challenging display in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
According to the Museum's guidebook, researchers believe the small tomb in which the 18-year-old Tut was buried was not his intended resting place but that of a lesser noble that was available upon the teenage Tut's sudden demise. The four other tombs I visited were all larger, with longer entries and grander rooms.
The most impressive tombs I saw were those of Horemheb, Tuthmosis III and Ramesses IX. Each is dramatically different from the others, but essentially their wall paintings carry the themes of the dead pharoah's journey, through the symbolic night that was death, helped along by gods and mortals. The pharoah would be judged on his virtues, his heart placed on a scale. If found worthy, the pharoah would be presented to the supreme gods, for resurrection the next morning.
The paintings, with colors still amazingly bright, in Horemheb's and Ramesses' chambers are filled with typical scenes from the sacred legends:
Osiris, one of the supreme gods, has green skin, denoting he showed mortals how to survive by farming. Horemheb has reddish-brown skin, a gold head dress with the emblem of the sun in rust-red, and Anubis, god of mummification, is black. The falcon-headed god Horus has a white face and gold beak.
These figures are painted on walls that were smoothed with sandstone and then plastered. The figures would be painted in black outline, then color would be added. All of this work, as well as the digging by chopping soft stone with hard stone, was illuminated by workers holding polished alabaster to reflect the sun's light into the passages and rooms. To gauge the work required, consider that Horemheb's tomb is about 400 feet below the entrance level.
Tuthmosis' tomb, hidden well up in a cleft in the canyon walls, has an elaborate telling of the journey to resurrection, using thousands of stick-figure style characters. The sarcophagus room in this tomb is elliptical, the paintings have an elliptical border and the impressive sarcophagus is also elliptical -- symbolizing the nature of the resurrection journey to a sure ending.
Traveler's tip: The climb up a long, steep staircase to Tuthmosis' tomb was the most arduous trek I made in Egypt -- tougher than entering the Great Pyramid (see below). And the long descent into the stifling heat of the Horemheb tomb was nearly as demanding. Guide Mohammed Sherbiney told me: "When I get a tour group that is not paying attention or is acting badly, I take them into Horemheb and then Tuthmosis. After that, they give me no trouble."
And if you venture into the Valley within the next 30 years or so, observe the work in the small tented area, on the main path before the rest pavilion. This is the initial inspection area for the most significant Egyptian archaeological discovery in decades: more than five dozen rooms in an enormous tomb thought to hold dozens of the sons of the great pharoah Ramesses II.
The discovery was announced last May by Egyptian officials and Dr. Kent R. Weeks, of the American University in Cairo. As I watched, workers brought out leather pouches of debris that had filled these rooms for more than 3,000 years, and Weeks and his wife, Susan, inspected pieces plucked from the growing mound of dirt. Weeks has estimated it could take 30 years to remove the dirt, sift through it for relics and identify them.
Of all the pharoahs who ruled during more than 2,800 years, no one worked harder at literally carving a name for himself than Ramesses II. He is considered the Pharoah of the Old Testament, Moses' opponent. Ramesses ruled for 67 years and spent a goodly amount of that time ordering up more and larger statues, called colossi, and temples in his honor.
The pharoahs were great believers in what contemporary morticians delicately term "pre-need" planning. The Ramesseum, on the west bank of the Nile close to the Valleys of the Queens and of the Kings, was to be his funerary temple. Taking about 20 years to build, this complex would not be Ramesses' tomb but a place to remind the mortals just how important this pharoah was.
In the 3,200 years since it was finished, much of it has crumbled, yielding unrecognizable fields of stone debris. Workers on flimsy-looking scaffolds are busy re-plastering some massive columns.
Typically, the columns and temple walls contain similar scenes: Ramesses speaks to the god Amun, whose wife Mut stands nearby. Other reliefs portray battles, or the pharoah with significant deities.
About 30 great columns make an impressive sight in the complex. Surviving the thousands of years, some of the paint in these scenes is still visible -- turquoise, faded royal blue, deep gold, pale red.
Even the column capitals serve Ramesses' purposes. Some capitals resemble papyrus plant buds, some resemble lotus flowers. The papyrus represented Lower Egypt (the area at the northern end of the Nile), while the lotus was the symbol for Upper Egypt. Having both plants represented showed that Ramesses ruled both regions.
But to gauge the ego and power of Ramesses, contemplate the enormous statue that rests, face down, in one of the paved courtyards. This granite colossus is estimated to have been nearly 70 feet tall when it stood in the court. For centuries it lay as a testament to the vainglorious pharoah. An ancient Greek wrote an error-filled report that was the inspiration for the poet Shelley to write Ozymandias:
"Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
The pyramids and the Sphinx
From the ramparts of the great Citadel, built to defend Cairo from the Crusaders, I got my first glimpse of Egypt's landmarks. Through the sand and industrial haze, I could just make out two triangles on the horizon, more than 10 miles away.
A day later, driving the commercial boulevard that is suburban Giza's main drag, I suddenly got another view, as the Great Pyramid loomed over an apartment building.
Finally, taking a curve on the approach road, the magnificent monuments were no longer veiled by mankind's feeble interventions.
Tour buses pull up a few dozen yards from the Great Pyramid, the largest of the nine (including six little ones) on this plateau, and travelers alight, only to stand and gawk. This is an image most have known since childhood.
The great structures date to the fourth of pharonic Egypt's 30 dynasties, a time of unbridled prosperity, a male-dominated society in which perhaps 5 percent controlled the empire and its wealth. Yet the Egyptians had no written codes of law, and there is no evidence of any insurrections by the populace.
The reason for the subservience, according to Dr. Bianchi, is that "Pharoah is the law. But he does not rule in a mercurial fashion; he is morally responsible for the less advantaged . . . This elitist society suppressed individuality for the common good."
Pharoah was presented as the link between the omnipotent gods and the commoners, with the increasingly powerful clan of priests helping him. The pyramids -- there are many more than those at Giza -- were burial vaults for the powerful pharoahs, until the pharoahs and priests realized that persistent grave-robbers found the structures easy pickings. Then, burial in ceremonial caves in the Theban hills at Luxor became common.
It's best to view the pyramids at Giza from some distance; the size is both intimidating and, as you get closer and lose perspective, confusing. The Great Pyramid of Khufu, for instance, is about 470 feet tall and about 690 feet (two-plus football fields) along its base. The tallest building on the Suncoast, by comparison, is the Barnett Plaza in Tampa, at 585 feet tall but just 192 feet across its base.
The pyramids are not smooth-sided, as they appear from a distance, but are stepped layers of individual stone blocks -- an estimated 2.3-million blocks in the Great Pyramid. This, the largest pyramid ever built, was the tomb for Khufu, the pharoah's name in hieroglyphics that was later translated by Greeks to Cheops.
Entrance is through a tunnel that runs at a steep uphill angle for about 120 feet. The difficulty isn't the slope but the fact that the tunnel is less than 5 feet high, so most visitors have to scrunch over to make the climb.
This tunnel was originally created by grave robbers, who probed around with explosives and actually intersected the true entrance passage -- another 150 feet at the same steep angle, but with a much higher ceiling.
Finally you reach the King's Chamber, an undecorated room of smoothly carved granite walls measuring about 34 by 17 feet. The only thing in the room is Khufu's long-empty sarcophagus. Few guides bother to alert their customers to the precise construction of the chamber, which is about 20 feet high. Above them is not a solid pyramid but five empty chambers that removed weight from the roof of this room.
At any rate, Khufu's is the only "suspended" burial chamber discovered; all others were dug below the ground or placed at ground level, with the rest of the pyramid built above them.
The medium-sized pyramid is that of Khafre (Chephren, in Greek), and it, too, has a passageway, though most tours to the Giza plateau do not include that trip. This pyramid has large holes from dynamite explosions set off in the 19th century to locate the entry and passage to the tomb.
Hundreds of yards in front of this pyramid is that other eternal and more mysterious symbol, the 4,500-year-old Sphinx.
Compared to the enormity of the pyramids, the 241-foot-long Sphinx seems like some giant lapdog, attentive but hardly imposing. Certainly when Khafre had it cut from the limestone beds that had supplied blocks for the Great Pyramid, he intended it as a monument to his importance -- he had his face carved on the body of a lion.
But when Napoleon arrived in 1798, the Sphinx was up to its neck in sand. It took the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette's crews about 40 years, from 1853 on, to clear the sand and uncover its grandeur.
Unfortunately, winds, airborne pollution, rising water tables, trigger-happy occupation forces and even early restoration efforts have taken their toll on the noble face (and the beast's lion paws). Its beard, appended to pharonic representations to show virility, is in pieces and scattered among various museums; the nose is gone, too.
But if the pyramids demand awe by their size and the amount of human work-years that went into creating them, then the Sphinx inspires contemplation about the majesty of a world long gone.
Traveler's tips: Be sure to buy a ticket for the "solar boat," a pharoah's cedarwood barge found in more than 1,200 pieces at the base of the Great Pyramid; it was put back together over 14 years. Also, ask your guide to take you to the area beyond and above the three pyramids, the "panorama," for a dramatic view.
And if you always wanted to ride a camel, take advantage of the urge while you can: Dr. Zahi Hawas, director of the pyramids, told me in October that he is going to change the Giza plateau from "an open-air zoo" with its horse and camel vendors to a modern facility featuring two Omnimax movie theaters.
After returning from 13 days in Egypt, I spoke with three Americans who, respectively, had spent a month touring there, had spent two to four weeks at different times on business and had made a single business trip there. We were unanimous in our view that anyone visiting this country benefits from hired help at the destination.
As mentioned on page 1E, the majority of Egyptians are quite friendly but seldom speak English as a second language. French is more common and even German, because of the large number of German tourists.
Signs are more apt to be in Arabic than in English. Moving about Cairo's ancient maze can be intimidating, and, in truth, there are areas within Cairo and other parts of Egypt that are dominated by Muslim fundamentalists who see Westerners as advocates of heresy and moral degradation.
Nonetheless, Egypt is certainly worth visiting, and it has a broad infrastructure of English-speaking personnel serving tourists.
The easiest way to sample Egypt -- but not to savor it -- is aboard one of the many cruise ships plying the Mediterranean and Red seas. Typically the ships stop at Port Said or Suez, the entrances to the Suez Canal, or Safaga, on the Red Sea coast, and bus their passengers through whirlwind visits to historic sites.
Typical costs: Sun Line-Epirotiki offers a seven-day cruise-only package that starts at $1,199 per person, based on double occupancy, and a two-night Cairo package including round-trip air fare from New York and meeting with the cruise portion for $995.
The upscale Travcoa company has a 14-day "Egypt and the Red Sea" package at $4,495 per person; this does not include air fare to the Mideast but does include tours in Jordan and the Sinai.
The typical tourist visit, though, consists of a couple days spent in Cairo followed by a three- or four-night cruise on the Nile, between Aswan and Luxor. General Tours, a major package operator, has a six-night trip without the Nile cruise but including round-trip air fare from New York for $1,499 per person.
Insight International offers a "Wonders of Egypt" nine-night trip that includes four nights on a Nile cruise for $1,825 per person, increasing to $1,899 for January and February.
Overseas Adventure Travel has a 14-night package, including three nights on the Nile, starting at $3,390, including round-trip air fare from New York.
And Saga Holidays offers through its Road Scholar program a 15-night trip through Israel and Egypt, including three nights on the Nile, at $3,899 from Orlando.
For the Nile cruise alone, Nabila Tours & Cruises offers four-night trips during December for $396 per person, based on double occupancy, but a second person in the same cabin goes for $198. This does not include air fare from Cairo to the departure port, which can cost $200 or more. The better Nile ships among the 220-plus resemble small hotels and are operated by Abercrombie & Kent, Sheraton and Hilton.
For information on any of these plans, contact a travel agent or Misr Travel, the Egyptian national travel agency, at 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 555, New York, NY 10111; phone (212) 582-9210. The Egyptian Tourist Authority can also provide updated information; 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 1706, New York, NY 10111; (212) 332-2570, FAX (212) 956-6439.
BEFORE YOU GO: Visas are required and can be obtained from the Egyptian Consulate in New York, 1110 Second Ave., New York, NY 10022; (212) 759-7120. A visa can also be obtained upon arrival at the Cairo airport; if you book a package tour, it's likely the visa will be included in the price.
(Egyptian law requires visitors to have their passport and visa registered within a week of arriving; your hotel clerk or tour escort will see to this.)
No immunization is required, but several are recommended before visiting Egypt, including hepatitis A and B, rabies, malaria, typhoid and tetanus. Check your county health department for the currently advised shots.
Be sure to pack a liter of drinking water in a plastic bottle; you must avoid drinking the water or having drinks containing ice cubes, and between the airport and your hotel you'll need to supply your own water. Bottles of Baraka brand water are readily available; the French company Vittel seems to have the concession to supply all of Egypt with bottled water, under the Baraka brand. Before leaving the United States, check travel-specialty and camping-goods stores for the shoulder slings designed to hold a water bottle; the sling leaves that hand free.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi are available everywhere; you should be able to get a liter bottle from a sidewalk vendor for no more than three pounds -- just under $1 -- and this is as good a time to practice your bargaining as any.
Also pack sunscreen and an effective bug repellent; tiny, persistent flies are everywhere. I found the tried-and-true Skin So Soft by Avon to be only partly effective as a deterrent.
GUIDEBOOKS: Among the best new ones are:
Egypt, a Knopf Guide, 560 pages, including index, maps; $25. Lavishly illustrated, this is another in the beautiful and informative series by Knopf. Sections on the flora and fauna, detailed explanations of architectural techniques, lovely "aerial view" representations of regions. Better than a coffee table book, and it's portable, too.
Egypt, The Rough Guide, 634 pages, including index, maps; $17.95. Chatty yet authoritative, this is one more in a series by Britons who don't mind poking holes in the world's pretensions but still can offer praise and advice. It is aimed more for the roughing-it set.
GETTING THERE: TWA and the national airline Egypt Air fly several times a week direct from New York to Cairo; connections on numerous other carriers can be made through Frankfurt, London and Paris.
The Cairo airport can resemble bedlam as baggage handlers make mounds of the arriving suitcases just as the luggage conveyor belts enter the terminal. This leaves jet-lagged passengers to wander among mountains of leather and vinyl looking for their property. Welcome to Egypt; be of good cheer.
MONEY MATTERS: Buy travelers' checks in dollars but take lots of $1 bills, too -- they are readily accepted at tourist destinations. The major U.S. credit cards are widely accepted.
You can change money at any bank: The government sets the exchange rate, now about 3.339 Egyptian pounds to the dollar, and there is no commission for the exchange. Ask for one-pound notes to use as tips. Tipping one or two pounds to antiquities guards is standard, and your tour or cruise-ship guides are certain to suggest that you tip the help, including themselves. Be gracious about it and do feel free to offer these pounds to the elderly beggars you will encounter.
Be cautious as you haggle for souvenirs, especially with aggressive vendors, that you do not let them confuse you into paying them dollars for the price quoted in pounds. If you do pay in dollars, you have more than tripled the cost to yourself.
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