Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Egypt - Exploring Cairo

Dedicated to Dagmar and Becky

The last few days since Christmas have been spent in Cairo.

Each day has led to the exploration of new areas within the old city. "Islamic Cairo" is the area of the city centre distinguished by the wealth of medieval Islamic architecture, a heritage far more relevant to modern history than the Pharonic cultures that have gripped Western imaginations of Egypt for so long. This is the world of the Orientalists - the artists who brought images of the exotic "East" to intrigued and fanciful Western audiences in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries.

Imagine long lines of camels loping through the ancient and imposing Arabian city gates laden with spices from Timbuktu. They are being led by men with indigo robes and curved swords, skin darkened from exposure to the desert sun, swearing in an alien language. These are all being viewed by beautiful dark-eyed women, veiled in colourful silks, through the shadowed arabesques of a meshrabeyah screened-window, high above the muddy streets.

This scene is a convoluted mish-mash of historically inspired fictions, each component drawn from a different time, region, and context. You'll find heaps of it throughout what can be called the Orientalist genre. It's an area I find very interesting, largely through it's impact upon travel narratives (both implied by authors and constructed by readers) of the nineteenth century. But in certain places in Cairo, you can't help but immerse yourself into these Western idealisations, for these are the very places that inspired them hundreds of years ago.

I have walked from the Khan to the North Gate, through streets teeming with jewellery merchants, coppersmiths, and extraordinary mosques undergoing renovations with jackhammers.

I have explored vast caravanserai, with sleeping cells illuminated by hazy, smoggy sunlight emerging from delicate gaps in meshrabeyah screens. Hyperactive guides, whose limited English was made up for by their sheer weight of enthusiasm, have taken me to rooftops to view canyons of tilted streets and forests of minarets towering over the festering urban sprawl.

I have stepped into the serene tranquility of open mosque courtyards, including the immaculately smooth white marbles of the al-Azhur and the al-Hakim, and felt with my feet the gritty aged surfaces of the Ibn Talun mosque. This was a mosque designed to hold an entire army in prayer, well over a thousand years ago. Now only a few dozen prayer rugs remain in place, and I was told that this was more than last week.

I have wound my way through homes of wealthy families built ten to fifteen generations ago, and marveled at the complexities of their adornments, secret passages, and remarkable intimacy of scale.

I have learnt about the eccentric, dangerous, tragic, and charming lives of ancient and not-so-ancient individuals - the rich, the famous, the infamous, and the possibly mythological.

I have watched a second performance of vibrant Sufi dancers and musicians in the cold night air, followed by an evening of sheesha and unusual aromatic drinks at a bustling Egyptian cafe, surrounded by wonderful locals and good mates.

And I have seen hard working tradesmen continue practicing skills within industries that may, for all I can tell, have remained almost the same since the Bronze Age.

There would be too much to list in detail, as I do not want to bore you here. One day I hope you may be able to see all this for yourself.

This is likely to be my last post of 2005. It has been a very good year for me. I wish that you may be able to say the same for yourself! But all new years come with new hopes and aspirations, and I think it is time I shared one important one here for all to see.

I have revised my travel plans to include East Africa in the Grand Tour. From the 10 January - 10 February I shall be driving from Johannesburg through to Nairobi, in a truck bearing a dozen or so backpackers. This is not my first time to Africa - I visited Kenya as a child, around 1992. The memories of cheetahs warming themselves on the bonnet of the jeep in the early morning sunlight remain vivid, amongst a host of others. I have been exceptionally keen to see this region again over the last few years, and finally reaching the island of Zanzibar bears a special resonance for me.

I shall return to Australia, and thus end the Grand Tour, on the 25th February 2006.

I do not know what you intend to do for New Year's, but if you can make it, you're welcome to join me and a bunch of mates from the Australian Embassy deep in the western deserts of Egypt, at Bahariya Oasis. We leave tomorrow at 8am. Bring a warm sleeping bag.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas!

Dedicated to Every Person I have been so fortunate to meet while travelling this year.

Thank you for all your contributions, be they inadvertent, accidental, philosophical, charming, enraging, romantic, generous, frustrating, benevolent, inspiring, gregarious, useful and/or humourous.

I am writing to wish every one who reads this - friends, family and otherwise - the very best of Christmases and an excellent New Year. I'm in Agami, a town near Alexandria, sharing a house with twelve Aussies. There's turkey and ham scents, glurg, the Viennese Boys Choir, CNN and ethnic dress. It's a lovely warm atmosphere that makes all of us think of our families at home.

We spent yesterday - Christmas Eve - in the corniche of Alexandria. The roads have flooded in many places, as deep as the car's headlights! We created a huge wake in our path which washed over pavements and into shops. So did all the other cars - mostly fiats, taxis, chevrolet utes and horsedrawn carts. It's all a novelty for us but must be terrible for the local Egyptians, who have to deal with these horrible roads for three or four months a year. That aside, seeing the Library of Alexandria and it's spectacular museum, as well as the nearby Mamluk fortress said to be built from components of the original Great Lighthouse, was brilliant. Lunch was spent in Abu Ashraf, a very local fish restaurant set in an alley covered by a green tarpaulin, deep in the grottier streets of downtown Alexandria.

May you have a very safe and happy Christmas, with as many loved ones as you can reach.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Libya - Cyrene

Dedicated to Mubaraf

Cyrene, east of Benghazi on the other side of Libya's Mediterranean coastline, is possibly the most intact ancient Greek city on earth. At least, it ought to be when it's excavated.

So far, it's like a Libyan version of Termessos in Turkey. Situated high on cliffs overlooking the sea, with temples, a theatre, and an extraordinary number of Greek statues remaining in-situ. Some were only recently unearthed by rain, looking like fossilised war crimes with impeccable togas.

(Speaking of togas, they remain traditional attire here for older men. It's one of very few places where the ancient Greek heritage has remained current, a living fossil of human fashion. They are very impressive garments, bestowing a grand air of dignity upon the wearer.)

The extensive remnants of mosiac flooring remains exposed to the elements from the foundations of an anicent mansion, and ongoing excavations reveal entire new suburbs and temples each year. Their on-site museum consists of two warehouses. One is a public space displaying the most complete and interesting specimens of marble statuary, around 1700 pieces in total. The other contains the smaller finds, and items of more specialised interest. It includes, according to the well-credited expert who was guiding us (thanks, Saffir Oustralya!), literally "sacks of coins", shelves and wrapped parcels to the ceiling, and an extraordinary gold ring with a long series of documented curse-related mishaps...

The nearby site of Apollonia reveals less spectacular remains, but I was given a Ptolemaic coin there found by the archaeologist (who said it was 2500 years old, but he had too many kilos of them to be needed for study). Aside from being seriously thrilled, it meant my eyes were glued to the ground for the rest of the time there.

The way back took us through an awesome deep wadi (canyon) lined with immense caves, undoubtedly of significance to prehistoric archaeology. In fact, Neanderthal remains have been found there, and many caves are still being explored.

I have written a great deal today, and there's more I need to do with my spare time. It has been a pleasure recounting Libya, but from here on, I will be up in Agami for Christmas with Mum, Dad, and a bunch of Embassy staff.

Happy Holidays!

Libya - Ghadames

Dedicated to Mahmoud, who grew up in this stunning city while it was still alive.

Ghadames is located far from most regions of interest, within viewing distance of the Algerian border, and an inch or two on most maps from Tunisia.

It was a long day of driving through the utterly open and flat desert plains that stretch for vast distances into the Sahara. We passed along roads streaked with wind-blown rivers of sand, crumbling clay castles, and thousands of colossal electricity towers striding single-file into the horizon. Finally, the lights of Ghadames coloured the horizon just after the last sunlight disappeared.

Ghadames (Gha-dar-mez) is an ancient settlement, datiung back maybe 4500 years. This makes it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth - and "city" is a fine description for this place of a few thousand inhabitants. It is by far the most cosmopolitan place for several days walk by camel. It's history is that of the caravanseri - trading teams on camels, carrying goods across the Sahara from Europe to the southern tip of Africa, and from Morocco to Anatolia and on through the Silk Road. Many were run by operators based in Ghadames, and this provided the community's wealth. This was aside from the reliable oasis water, ingeniously divided amongst farmers by a system that also became a unique standard for time measurement. The only real export of the city itself was embroidered slippers, now made by just one family for tourists and worn by locals only on festival days.

The old city is now a UNESCO maintained ghost town. No-one lives here any more, mainly because the buildings are too fragile to install a sewerage system of any kind (sun-baked adobe bricks that take up to six months to make and can stand for centuries in the desert become just plain old mud if you add water). It is breathtakingly beautiful.

Posters and images of the covered alleys adorn postcard stands and tourist info sites throughout Libya. It's very like a Santorini of the Sahara - every new corner produces a photogenic scene. And it's very very white, where gypsum is used to whitewash the outer walls, contrasting with the dusty and mud-brown tones of the vacant streets and incomplete buildings. The arches used to support the higher floors (most of the city is 3 or 4 stories high) are often in a Hand of Fatima style, and niches (installed comparatively recently) echo these indigenous forms. The uppermost heights feature a uniquely African triangular filial on each corner, and the roof level of the city was in fact a second city reserved for women. This way, by walking from rooftop to rooftop, they could cross the entire city without being seen by men or encountering the scum of the streets.

I am yet to review the images I have taken thoroughly, but there are several standouts already. Most are repeated views of the shadow-striated alleys, lined like what you quilters out there would call a crazy log cabin block in black and white. (Yes, I know quilters are reading this, very quietly sneaking away from Mum's blog... and no I'm not a quilter). They are haunting, hard to navigate, mesmerising and truly a world heritage treasure.

(The hotel we stayed in was designed to emulate the streets of the old city. We only realised this in retrospect. The first night we just wondered why we were placed in rooms ten minutes walk from the lobby when we were the only guests. After exploring Ghadames the layout of the corridors, the arches, the skylights, and the completely empty rooms, all made sense.)

The interior of a Ghadames house was a riot of red crosshatched wall paintings, mirrors to immerse the room with sunlight, and bronze bowls nailed to walls for both more colour and more reflected light. Colourful modern textiles lay about the floor of the central tall room, where we reclined over a communal bowl of couscous and camel, which tastes very like lamb. Once again, this is a scene deserving of photographs.

The local museum was modest, but very lovingly brought together. Labels were updated by handwritten annotations, and items on display seemed to still belong to locals. It was an excellent introduction to the old city, located in a former Italian barracks from the days of their Libyan occupation. The Italian Occupation weighs as heavily in the collective history of modern Libya as the WWI campaigns do for Australia.

That evening we visited a patch of tremendous sand dunes right beside the Algerian border. Dad and I climbed to the summit of the highest dune by ourselves to watch the sunset over the sprawling empty plains below, and counted the white border posts. No green flash this time. I ran back down the slope of the dune, leaving massive footprints in my wake, reliving the camping trips my family took to Wadi Rum in Jordan when I was much younger.

I was shaking Saharan sand from my shoes all the way to Benghazi.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Libya - Berber Architecture

Dedicated to the splendid guidance of Mr Shukri and Captain Darfir

The last few days in Libya have been fantastic.

I am writing from Cairo again, returning to a final manic day in this frenzied metropolis before joining a crowd of Australian Embassy staff at the "beach house" in Agami, near Alexandria.

There are several topics I'd like to write about. For images, I urge you to please check out Google Image Search with "Libya ---", because these places are spectacular and I still have a couple of thousand images to sift through and catalogue before I'm even looking at my Libyan photos!

The Berber are one of three main groups inhabiting modern Libya, and one of the most ancient. Their agricultural villages were centred around reliable water sources in the desert regions, and constructed from mud brick, stone and date palm timber, adhered with gypsum mortar, until a few decades ago. Now several small Berber communities are preserving their Medinas (old cities) for cultural heritage and tourism purposes. The most famous of these is Ghadames, with Ghat (way out in the deep Sahara desert, near the borders of Algeria, Libya and Chad) a close rival. I was not able to reach Ghat this time, but we stopped in a few others to study the Berber's vernacular architecture (ie, "folk" architecture). Within these sites, the most important structures were undoubtedly their fortified granaries.

We saw three very different structures over the last couple of days in Western Libya, in the Berber communities of Qasr al-Haj, Nalut, and Kabaw (aka Kabao). All of these are essentially a community bank vault, food storage facility, and architectural wonder in mud brick. Each was built in the best defensive position in the area - high up over the town, or backing onto a cliff edge. They all possess a great sense of humanity in their design - clay smoothed back by human hands, based entirely on human proportions, unadorned and rough at the edges but beautiful for their simplicity, purpose, and the nature of their materials.

Qasr al-Haj was made by a wealthy religious leader, and contains 144 rooms, one for each sura of the Koran. It is perhaps the most elegant of these structures - a perfect circle with two-storey blank walls outside, with an interior dominated by an empty courtyard used to host markets. The higher ring of dark, small chambers can be accessed by a pathway around the inner upper storey, which looks out over the vast flat desert plains and dramatic mountain range to the south-east. Each door is sealed with a sturdy arrangement of three planks of date palm wood, locked with a deceptively simple wooden key mechanism.

Nalut hosts the most complex granary in Libya. It may have began with a design like Qasr al-Haj, a simple ring of food vaults, but increasing population pressures led to the creation of more storage units. So another outward-facing hill of vaults was built in the centre area, like a giant muddy sandcastle, four stories high, and the outer walls were built progressively higher as more chambers were stacked on top. Occasionally sections of the outer wall were rebuilt (mud structures will crumble, even in the dry desert), giving locals the opportunity to fold walls like a tesseract (zig-zag, or the way an intestine folds) to make even more space for vaults. The whole effect now is a labyrinthine spiral of turbulent ups, downs, sideways, overhead and perpendicular chambers. There are numerous hanging baskets to raise or lower commodities to the least accessible locations, and thick branches sticking out to enable agile climbers to reach any opening. It is a site for excellent but challenging photography, all light earthy tones contrasted with the clear blue sky, and plenty of opportunities to explore shadow and perspective.

The last granary was Kabaw, which also requires the most needed restoration work. That said, you can do things here that OH&S requirements would completely prevent in Australia for a cultural heritage site! This was somewhere between Qasr al-Haj and Nalut for design, being a four-storey ring of uneven and asymmetrical vaults with a clear space in the centre, occupied by a white stone tomb. It has the wild and organic quality of Nalut, with more of the order and spaciousness of Qasr al-Haj. Most distinctly, it hosts vaults underground, beneath the open courtyard space. This was designed as a reaction to increased population, just like Nalut, but they built down instead of up. I followed the very nimble local guide through the tiny chambers in pitch darkness, seeing the huge ceramic vessels used for storing olive oil and other liquids, designed to be too large to remove from their tiny doorways.

The final highlight of singular buildings was another subterreanean construction - a Berber underground house in Gharyan. Basically, this is an 8m deep pit, like the foundation of a high rise office building. Rooms shared by several families are dug out to the sides, meeting in the central atrium. The whole arrangement is hard to see from a distance (great for security) and remarkably stable for fluctuating climates.

I think this post is long enough now - I'll write two more for you on Ghadames and Cyrene!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Libya - Leptis Magna

Also Dedicated to The Leader

Today was another day set aside solely to explore the vast ruins of Leptis Magna, the single most spectacular and well-preserved Roman city in North Africa. And we virtually had the whole place to ourselves! Thank you, convoluted visa system!

In many ways Leptis is much like Sabratha from yesterday. The three ancient cities (the third being Oea, virtually under modern Tripoli) formed the colony of Tripolitani, and Leptis was once the most prominent of these. One Roman Emperor, Septimus "The Grim African" Severus, hailed from Leptis and sought to develop it into a metropolis to rival Rome. His triumphal arch, adorned with triangular capitals unique to North Africa, forms a superb and powerful entrance to the city.

From there we explored kilometres of ancient cobbled roads lined with huge masonry blocks under various states of restoration. The immense Baths of Hadrian, built from limestone, marbles (including a strange green variety and Egyptian red basalt), once featured a broad ceiling decorated with brilliant blue mosaics, but these have since collapsed. There were puddles all over the place from yesterday's rain (it was excellent weather today), creating fascinating reflections of columnsm, arches, and sky.

Thousands of flocks of starlings filled the sky frequently, taking several minutes to pass overhead. The shadows they created were distractingly strobe-like. Apparently they cross the Mediterreanean in their annual migration. It was mesmerising to watch them shift like duststorms in the bowl-like airspace of the ancient Ampitheatre, where Dad lead me down to see the areas were caged beasts were released upon gladitors, slaves, criminals and Christians. The echoes from this haunting space were bizarre too - precisely one repeat, with no further sounds.

We spent the evening wandering Tripoli's Medina or old city souqs. It was dark, and most of the shops were closed, leaving long twisting alleys of shut green doors against white walls illuminated by dodgy electrics. We encountered several former caravanserai, and a stunning mosque/tomb with distinctive Libyan hand-painted tiles. It was a thrivingly local area, with no tourists whatsoever and few signs of any tourist industry. Dinner was at the most basic Libyan chicken takeaway shop you can imagine - charming and bustling with locals, plus the Arabic version of MTV. It's actually a suprisingly erogenous channel, and unusually, they give full credit listings at the end of each video clip as the songs fade out.

Tomorrow, I am travelling 600km south-west into the Sahara desert, to the 4500 year old city of Ghardarmes.

And it looks like your Christmas cards are coming with me...

Friday, December 16, 2005

Libya - Tripoli and Sabratha

Dedicated to The Leader

I've been assured that everything I write in this country gets read, so it's nice to know I have an audience.

Aside from that, Libya is actually really impressive. I mean it! The traffic will stop for you at zebra crossings, and red lights, and even policemen waving their arms intermittently are respected. The roads are smooth, long, curbed, with marked lanes and reliable lighting. There are modern facilities for tourists, all easily accessible, and I have scarcely seen a pile of rubbish anywhere.

It's has been raining here in Tripoli fairly continuously, and I mean serious drenching. Up to two feet of water on some of the main roads - but quickly sucked up by municipal trucks with huge nozzles. Luckily, the morning was spent in the Jamariya Museum (National Museum), and the afternooon in the archaeological site of Sabratha, which miraculously bore perfect weather. (It was also sublime to fly in under a full moon and stars, above blue-grey mountainous cumolonimbus (storm cloud) peaks and canyons below, with streaks of rain lighting up like sparks near the wing lights).

The Museum held several excellent mosaics, and stunning examples of North Saharan rock art. It is so dramatically different to what you may expect from Australian indigenous art - dynamic and emotive in a more realist manner, simplified and summarised rather than abstracted. There were sculptures, ceramics and other artifacts from Phoenician, Greek and Roman eras, and even entire civilisations I had never heard of - the Garamatians for example. The galleries dedicated to the Leader were unfortunately closed, and the Natural History section was a little dead and inclined towards the morbidly curious, but the folkloric sections were lively and intriguing.

The Sabratha site is a very well-preserved ancient Punic (Phoenician) - Greek - Roman - Byzantine - Islamic city, also occupied by Vandals and others over its history. Walking through it is to find yourself amidst forests of tall marble columns, ruined foundations of temples and buildings of various size and purpose, with scattered remnants of ornate mosaic floors. The Theatre is said to be the most stunnign in North Africa - and I wouldn't doubt it. It was extensively restored in the 1920s by Italian specialists and remains utterly breathtaking, with a huge three-tiered backstage facade of columns and freizes.

Tomorrow, I am off to the even larger ancient city of Leptis Magna. You shall be updated!

PS - Just so you who receive them know, I had to take the Christmas cards I wrote with me to Libya to be posted, as we were too rushed in Cairo. So they will now arrive with especially exotic stamps - Libya is tricky to get into - but most refer to Egypt. Fingers crossed for their arrival.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Egypt - Christmas Rush

Dedicated to Hazel for her recent Birthday

Also, for Nermeen and Tati's fantastic Cairo shopping skills!

I'm sorry, but this has to be a mere quick note. We are frantically trying to leave the house to go to Libya for ten days, returning on the 21st December. I have been putting together the Christmas shopping, the gift wrapping, all the cards, and helping relieve others of last-minute stress.

I wanted to write a proper blog post detailing the superb events of the last couple of days - the old men who walk with antique tripod contraptions through the City of the Dead, the panoramic minaret views, the sensational evening of shopping in the late-night historic city centre with two beautiful Egyptian women, the diplomatic parties and the long conversations with the Maltese Ambassador. But sadly, that's all the tantalising snapshot you're going to get.

Libya may have very restricted access to internet, but I will try to do what I did in Upper Egypt and give you all the longer posts you deserve on my return - your online Christmas Gift!

May you have a safe and happy Christmas lead-up, don't lose your temper or your cool, keep it real, stay ACE, be pumped, have fun, and seize the day. Oh, and Caveat Emptor while you're at it.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Egypt - Dad's Birthday and Wissa Wassef

Dedicated to Dad. Happy Birthday Dr Bob!

Dad's birthday began the traditional way for our family - and leisurely start with an elaborate breakfast in bed. I won't list the day blow-by-blow, but we had a great walk through Cairo's centre picking up a new leather jacket and absorbing ourselves in the second hand book souq. Although only around half the stalls were open, they were fascinating arrangements. Stacks of books and magazines were piled to the roof in tin sheds wide enough to park a motorbike in. They were almost entirely in Arabic, and covered every topic imaginable. Some of the treasures were impressive rare books, and Dad was very lucky to find a valuable two-volume English translation (1803) of Vivant Denon's Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt. This particular copy has been erractically annotated by a previous owner who took great hostility to not only the text itself, but how it had been translated from the French!

That night we joined a Nile cruise dinner with good mates of my parents from the diplomatic community, farewelling a couple who were very good friends of theirs. This was great fun, and hugely informative of matters pertaining to Egypt's political scene, amongst other topics. Gorgeous boat too, and just the right weather for the trip.

Today has been comparatively quiet, focussing on household matters. We've now whipped up a Christmas tree, almost as quickly as Mum realised we needed one. It's actually more shapely than the usual ones we find in Australia, but it's not quite finished yet. There are still thousands of GT photos to sift through, so it's taking longer than I had expected to put images online. Mum was interviewed by a newspaper this afternoon, so Dad and I took the opportunity to explore the Wissa Wassef complex.

Wissa Wassef is a 50-year-old project to create employment for tapestry artists by training local children in specialised skills, but never suggesting ideas of style or formal compositions to them as they grow. The underlying idea is that all humans are inherently creative, but need this creativity to be fostered by positive support and lack of interference. The results are remarkable. Their tapestries are extraordinary, and completed without any reference to sketches or drafts. No symbols or motifs can be repeated from one to the next, and all dyes are hand-made on the site from natural sources. The work is colourful and reminiscent of Gaugain, Cezanne, and Brughel.

They are now up to their second generation of artists, with five from the first still remaining (in their 50-60s). Once trained, they stay with the project for as long as possible. Women with children are able to bring their kids with them to the looms, and it's all entirely open for the public. The site itself consists of stunning mud-brick buildings (Ramses Wissa Wassef was an architect when he started the project) and is now a heritage zone due to the prizes it has been awarded, both for economic development and architectural achievements.

My mother has posted a message about the Wissa Wassef complex on her blog, which includes pictures. Not sure where it actually is though.

Back to work on the photo archive now!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Egypt - Descent into the Great Pyramid

Dedicated to Onners, Tyson, and the SLUSH

I have heard a few things about the interior of the Great Pyramid. Most people don't get to see it - after all, it is the exterior that was designed to awe untold millions of people following the death of the Pharoah Cheops. The inside is a long-term bachelor's pad never intended to hold extra guests.

Ultimately, it was the emphatic insistence of good mates in Australia that led to my return to Giza. A year or two ago several members of the Slush (a strange mob I work with in Victoria, if you aren't already familiar with them then maybe you'd better not ask) traversed the length and breadth of Egypt. Reaching the inner sanctum of the Great Pyramid was a major highlight for them, and they did not want me to miss out on this opportunity to see it for myself.

The entrance to the tomb takes you through a long and winding cave-like tunnel. It's hard to recognise the individual stone blocks at this point. It's very much like the underground cities of Cappadoccia in Turkey, with roughly worn edges and a sandy floor. After a while, you reach a fork in the cave - up or down. Down leads a long way deep into a secondary tomb, but this is locked for safety reasons. A spiralling steel staircase, recently added for tourist access, takes you a few steps up to the long crennelated chamber.

I don't know the statistics for this room offhand, but it felt about 50m long and 15m high, and just wide enough to spread out my arms without being able to touch the edges. The walls are inclined in stages to form a very steep triangular roof, and the whole room slopes up at a 45degree angle. Once climbing up the ladder-ramp, it is disorienting as to whether you are ascending or descending - there's no sensory clues apart from gravity. I was there by myself, and thumping the timber panels of the ramp made a most fantastic echo, like a deep bass heartbeart, that continued for several seconds. It is dark and shadowy, with occassional lights emanating from the floor. The air is still, warm and heavy. The smooth near-vertical walls are damp with humidity, but not glistening with moisture. It smells like dust, old human breath, and the desert outside. It feels utterly like entering a forbidden and forgotten cathedral.

At the top of this chamber, where the reverberating qualities cease due to the proximity of the terminating wall, there is a short tunnel through which you shuffle with your head bent down to your knees. There is a strange room halfway - maybe five steps - into this passage, where you can stand up easily. It has ribs running up and down several sides like galvanised iron, and the air smells fresher here. I think it was designed with a security purpose in mind, such as a heavy stone block, but could not work it out for certain while standing there.

The final tomb itself is the size of a squash court. It is almost pitch black, made from tightly-hewn granite the colour of tarmac. Even though the silence elsewhere in the pyramid was prominent, here it is palpable. The remains of part of a black granite sarcophagus lie to one end, away from the entrance, and there are two small holes in the walls wide enough to insert one's arm but too deep to tell where they end. Unlike other tombs and pyramids I have entered, there are no inscriptions or decorations of any sort.

It felt very much like a place that someone once regarded as sacred. The high ceilings, exaggerated yet oppressive acoustic qualities, utter darkness, and the challenging procedure to enter are all features I've experienced in other forms of sacred architecture. It was a timeless place, like an installation artwork, or an attempt to recreate the sense of being in a void (like outer space).

I left after fufilling a small tribute to the Slush, and I was very pleased indeed that I had been able to experience this extraordinary room firsthand - especially after seeing extensive Pharonic artifacts in museums around the country, and a few other noteworthy pyramid interiors. These chambers were not spectacular in the ostentatious sense, but they were haunting and deeply atmospheric, and I am sure to remember them for a very long time.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Egypt - The Egyptian Museum

Dedicated to Kazza - thanks for the surprise email!

As I write this, Egyptian primary school kids are singing the national anthem and their school song across the street. For the first time in a while, there have been no car horns blaring as well. It sounds like a nursery rhyme shouted in unison, but definitely not in harmony.

Yesterday was mostly spent exploring every possible exhibit in the Egyptian Museum. It's an extraordinary collection housed in a building that exemplifies archaic nineteenth-century museological approaches. Occasisional rooms have been dramatically upgraded, and some of the atrium rooms on the upper level really seem to benefit from their mode of display, but it left me with the impression that the entire museum was an exhibit in itself.

The first text label I read was a charming disappointment. In Arabic, French and English it simply read "A painted ceramic vessel", which indeed it was. But they became more informative and useful as I became accustomed to what I should expect from them. They varied from acid-yellowed columns that looked like they had been clipped from a 1950s newspaper, black and white printouts from conventional office printers, to handwritten contemporary notes in biro, and supremely elegant handwritten copperplate notes from one particular 1890s curator. These favourites of mine (for atmosphere) were scattered about the museum, often adhered to inobstrusive corners of large objects. They held an erudite air, and coveyed the impression that their author not only spoke several languages, but could also read hieroglyphics and was writing with a feathered quill.

The rooms that have been renovated included the Royal Mummies section, Tutankhamun's most precious gold artifacts, and the finds from the tomb of Akhenaten (the heretic monotheistic Pharoah). The Royal Mummies were extraordinary, as 11 sleeping Pharoahs were lined up in glass sarcophagi like something from a science fiction scenario. Some were so smooth in facial features they looked almost like they were breathing, and some even held a stature befitting an ancient King. I wonder if these faces, being depictions of deceased people with the intention of capturing that person's innermost characteristics, and made by human intervention, can be counted as portraits? You can make portraits from any substance, why not the actual head itself?

On that note, I really enjoyed the Fayooum portraits. These, amongst the most ancient forms of portraiture, were panels inserted into mummy bandages after the Ptolemaic period. They usually depict ordinary (but wealthy) individuals, and move away from the iconographic representations of Pharonic art, into a western frontal realism. They're captivating images, and I urge you to check them out online if you can spare the time.

Another highlight was the upper atrium room dedicated to miniature idols. Cupboard after cupboard of them, stuffed together like a shop window of painted easter eggs, in the best use of the nineteenth-century storage/display format. They were made from bone, turquoise faience, terracotta, and other ceramics, painted and unpainted wood, all kinds of stones and precious metals. They varied from the size of your outstretched hand to your little fingernail, and hardly any of them were labelled. Not that you'd possibly want them all to be anyway - they're just overwhelming en mass. If you were ever looking for just the right pagan god or goddess for that special someone, but simply couldn't find it on eBay, then here's your place.

There were also corridors of sarcophagi, statuary, papyrus, scarabs, furniture and plenty of other treasures from Tutankhamon's haul. Far too much to describe here. It took me around 6 1/2 hours to see everything, and I was getting fatigued around the last few painted timber sarcophagi to really appreciate their differences.

I spent the remaining hour before sunset just walking, fairly aimlessly, around the ground-level streets of Cairo. Cairo, as I've mentioned before, is built on several layers of bridge-like roads and apartment buildings. It's like a Mega City from Judge Dredd. These are areas full of very slow traffic, people strolling about chatting to friends, and laborers carrying huge loads of unusual products. Sheets are rolled out on the ground and used as stalls from everything from perscription glasses to caseless tape cassettes, parts of lamps, and colourful things made from tinsel. It's an exhilarating place to explore, loaded with energy and exotic scenes, but suprisingly peaceful and calm.

You can apply any superlative to Cairo, but two especially apt ones are "Decrepit" and "Amazing". Throughout the museum there are mechanical artifacts, which after being hidden in tombs for thousands of years, can still be wound up and activated, just as they had been by their makers. These awe-inspiring acts of functional longevity are actually just like walking through Cairo's streets. It's as if a white-gloved curator unveiled the working city, in all its chaos, and proudly announced, "Look! Even after 20 million people were added to the city, the original infrastructure still works!"

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Upper Egypt Series

I've just posted the blog updates written whilst travelling around the south of Egypt for the last few days. They've been installed at the right points chronologically, so you'll have to scan back to find them.

There's several pages of text, so perhaps you should make yourself a cup of tea or coffee before settling into them!

I'm back in Cairo for the next few days. Plans for travel through Libya are still being finalised, and I'll basically have the next few days to myself as Mum and Dad are occupied elsewhere. There's a few things I plan to do, and one very, very, important task which you shall definately hear about if it succeeds.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

(Upper) Egypt - Snorkeling by the Desert

Dedicated to DJ. (Thinking of you - Good Luck!)

Just a quick note to say I am still having a brilliant time, but it has been time spent without any internet access. I am been jotting down the posts for the last few days on my mother's laptop, so there will be plenty for you to catch up on when I return to Cairo tomorrow night. They shall be inserted at the appropriate dates for when they were written.

I can't put them up here because this is coming from an internet cafe in the Conrad Hilton at Hurghada. It's a strange place, and the second night spent in a "resort". Resorts are simply odd. They are full of Europeans who are very keen on dozing in the sun and eating to muzak. We have decided that "muzak" is defined by being equally annoying to all listeners.

This area, a long strip of utterly barren open desert laden with land mines and military outposts, bordering the long, straight, flat and coral-reef-lined Red Sea, is developing resorts like a sudden emergence of wildflowers. Colourful, repetitive, partially complete or ready to bloom, and devoid of human life. Instant artificial towns created in the absence of any appealing landscape characteristics, aside from a thin but glorious strip of coral, and the potential existence of a great deal of mining wealth. I'm sure they will make interesting archaeology one day.

I spent this morning snorkeling amongst a spectacular and phastasmagoric array of tropical fish. I was feeding them (on the resort operator's suggestion, contrary to environmental principles) with bread and subsequently immersed by schools of resplendent colourful creatures. New species emerged with each pinch, and according to onlookers they followed me like a glittering neon V-shaped school. When I emerged, the onlookers pointed out around 12-15 large grey fast-moving shapes that turned out to be sharks. Although I didn't see them whilst underwater, at one point they approached within a couple of metres from me. They were reef sharks, so not known as a dangerous species, but they were about as long as me (5'11 or 1.78m).

A wonderful experience indeed!

Monday, December 05, 2005

(Upper) Egypt – The Road to Masa Alam

Dedicated to Mahmoud, a very skillful driver.

Today was spent driving from Luxor to Masa Alam. It was a very long drive enlivened by the changing scenery from picturesque Nile farms and adobe (mud brick) villages dotted with turquoise walls, to the vast open spaces of sandy desert, and crumbling hills of weathered dark rocks. We played CDs of Oud music by a Nubian musician we met days earlier.

The highlight of the journey was Dad’s sharp recognition of rock art scratched into vertical surfaces beside the road. We stopped driving to walk a kilometer or two along the rock faces and wadis, photographing the images as we found them. There were scenes of human figures with arrows and spears, gazelle and ibex, ostriches, giraffes, lions and other locally-extinct animals. There were also several boats normally associated with the Nile, yet this was hundreds of kilometres from the river. I clambered up high several times to discover concealed carvings and take better photos of those we could see from ground level, almost most were easily accessed or partially buried under sand. Nothing was damaged, of course, and we took notes on the location of the area.

Masa Alam is a barren landscape where the rich blue waters of the Red Sea meet a beach which is simply the desert with a new title. There’s little here besides intermittent fields of resorts under construction, quite an eerie sight considering the total lack of a local population. Apparently the idea is that chartered flights will take resort-goers from Italy or Germany directly to the area, so it’s not on the tourist trails winding up and down the Nile. We are staying in the oldest of these resorts, the Kahramana, which opened in 1998, so that Dad can visit an important mining operation two hours drive from here. Most people here seem to be German or Italian, and the signage reflects this. It’s very much a resort, but it’s attractive in its own way and lined with colourful Nubian huts.

The afternoon was spent snorkeling in the Red Sea coral reefs. A long jetty takes you far out, right to the edge of the reef which descends sharply into dark blue depths. As you walk, you can see dozens of large, spectacularly coloured fish, swanning about in shallow water over coral. There were parrotfish, leatherjackets, wrasse, and far more species than I could name. It was magic to linger over these creatures, chase flickering schools, and dive along gullies of contorted coral and sponges. This was the type of place where I first learnt to snorkel, many years ago while living in Jordan, so it was a nostalgic experience.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

(Upper) Egypt - The Valley of the Kings

Dedicated to the Australian Archaeological team from Macquarie University

This was a day of tombs, temples, and professional archaeology. I was very privileged to join Dad on a visit to the Australian dig on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, where a team of around 20 archaeologists have been excavating three tombs for several years. It’s a fascinating work environment – early each morning they charter a ferry across the Nile and climb up a steep hillside laden with ancient tombs, being excavated by teams from all over the world. There are armies of local labourers wearing galabaya, carrying large baskets and moving technical equipment about the place. From distance it’s like a vast construction site from the nineteenth century.

This is not the famous Valley of the Kings – that’s a few kilometres away, deeper into the rocky, mountainous desert. That was a “secret” region reserved for Pharaohs, and now seethes with around 10,000 tourists a day during high season. Instead, these tombs belonged to major public servants, including a scholarly Ambassador/Butler and the Counter of the Cattle. They covered a great range of tomb preservation and adornment. One was extensively restored from a thick layer of soot to reveal colourful frescoes, hieroglyphics, and scenes of festivity – notably including a dynamic set of dancing girls and a sensitively depicted blind harper, and several charismatic cows. Another was lined floor to ceiling with texts, whilst the last held colossal statues, sarcophagi, and mummified remains. A couple contained deep winding tunnels to the burial chambers themselves - dark, maze-like, and distinctly emanating the odour of resident bats. It was fascinating to speak to so many of the specialists and PhD students on the site, ranging from forensic anthropologists (discussing mummies) to photographers, artifact drawers, and material classifiers. I won’t publish images from this visit online, but it was a real honour to see the cutting-edge of Australian archaeological fieldwork – something normally only witnessed by the specialists themselves and a few invited onlookers!

Later I was guided through the Valley of the Kings by a former site inspector sent by our previous guide to Karnak Temple. We saw three of his favourite tombs, at our request. The tombs of Rameses IV and IX were both colourful (in red, white, yellow and blue), very well preserved or restored, and enormous compared to the previous tombs of active excavation. They have been generally well set up for the choreography of millions of visitors each year, and the area is devoid of touts. It was good to have my mother there who last visited 25 years ago, who recalled the intensely vivid blue of ceiling paintings which have now drastically deteriorated, primarily due to flash photography and excess humidity from visitors. Luckily, Tutankhamun’s tomb completely prohibits the entry of people with cameras, and although this stops most photographers, may be necessary to prohibit them from the entire valley (photography is prohibited everywhere, but only in two languages. Taking cameras away at the beginning might be more effective if somewhat brutal). This was a very small tomb, thought by our guide to have been completed in around 70 days, but entering it will be something I want to remember for the rest of my life. He’s basically the pharaoh who has achieved the most widespread form of immortality, as he is now a household word globally.

The rest of the afternoon was occupied mostly by two major temples. Queen Hatshepsut’s temple, dedicated to the only female Pharaoh, looks like a modern three-story building set into the base of a dramatic arc of enormous cliffs looming over the desert towards the Nile. (We could see it from one of our rooms in the Old Winter Palace). As you walk towards it, it envelopes you into three tiered platforms along the gently sloping processional staircase. The effect is surreal – the whole temple seems almost horizontal when you walk through it, but vertical from a distance. Polish archaeologists were tracing hieroglyphs to plastic sheets when I was there, and apparently were responsible for a great deal of restoration. It’s a very complex and intriguing site, so unfortunately I won’t explain it all here.

Yesterday’s guide for Karnak temple took us through the Luxor temple as the sun edged towards sunset. It begins with a precarious leaning obelisk, the type of structure that leaves you lingering with a genuine concern for the safety of the structure and other visitors, and simultaneously a sadistic hope that you might be the lucky tourist who gets to see it collapse. (It’s also the seventh leaning tower of the GT. Leaning’s overrated). The temple continues through a range of religious occupations, including several Pharonic extensions, a still-functioning mosque, Coptic frescos and their destruction of “pagan” figures, and a Hellenistic temple dedicated to Alexander the Great.

The evening was spent with the Australian archaeologists in one of their apartments. They’re a lovely group of people, working very closely as a team, and are very fortunate to be doing such fascinating work. I’ve met more people who can read hieroglyphics than I think I will ever see in the rest of my life! I also enjoyed an inspiring chat with Dr Karin Sowada regarding the PhD, which has left me very excited about potential topics. It was an excellent evening, and Mum and Dad are looking forward to seeing them again in Cairo when they next pass through.

Friday, December 02, 2005

(Upper) Egypt – Abu Simbel and Philae

Dedicated to Human Achievement

The last two days have been so loaded with major events that I’ve been procrastinating to record them in the well-filled and increasingly unwieldy diary. Don’t worry, I will eventually, and I’ve made summarized memory-jogging notes so nothing will be forgotten.

I’d like to describe just a few of the most important things from the last 48 hours.

Yesterday was the last full day in Aswan, that calm and palm-lined scenic riverbend town adorned with feluccas, a barren and hilly horizon studded with tombs, and excavated ruins amongst rocky islands. We took a flight in a small plane to Abu Simbel, deep in the southernmost deserts of Egypt. The views out over the expanses of desert sands and the shimmering surface of Lake Nasser (the 500km-long body of water created behind the Aswan High Dam) were sublime, scarred with long straight roads and completely missing the lush riverbank vegetation that characterizes the rest of the Nile. Best of all was the arrival at the airport – the plane passes over the temple complex of Abu Simbel, like something directly out of Indiana Jones.

Abu Simbel is arguably the most famous Pharonic site displaced by the second Aswan Dam. It would have been lost under 170m of water had it been left alone. Losing such a treasure – the only Pharonic temples carved completely out of a naturally occurring rock face, consisting of two sacred buildings guarded by immense statues of Rameses, his wife and the gods – would have been a serious tragedy for human cultural heritage globally. It was rescued by an enormously complex operation that cut the entire temple site into manageable cubes, re-located them at the former mountain summit high over the new water level, and positioned them almost perfectly on an artificial mountain. It was a huge international effort, one of many that saved ancient structures facing submersion.

Another of these sites was the island of Philae. This, the only known temple complex built exclusively upon an island, was entirely submerged by the first Aswan dam, completed by the British in 1902. The temple was actually left standing in the water, partially submerged, and travelers used to take boats out to glide through the colonnades. All very romantic, but terrible for conservation. In another extreme rescue operation, the temples were cut apart and rebuilt on a neighbouring island, which was landscaped to match the original as closely as records enabled. It’s a stunning place, completely free of tourist touts, and distinctly otherworldly. Loved the kiosk of Trajan in particular. We explored it at sunset, and the stones were illuminated in tones of orange, casting the hieroglyphics into brilliant contrast.

The entire story of Abu Simbel is one of human achievement. You can put a positive spin on the entire thing – two amazing civilizations capable of great feats of engineering, leadership and architecture, both utterly dependent on each other for survival (Modern Egypt needs tourism based on ancient Egypt, ancient Egypt would be long destroyed if not preserved deliberately), and yet separated by immense gulfs of time. The destruction of Nubian culture and property was contrasted by meeting entrepreneurs bringing Nubian domestic architecture to the tourist industry, whose ambitions and passion for their cultural heritage were palpable. The ongoing impact of the dam is still to be realised – it has changed weather patterns, provided much-needed “clean” electricity, and was once another symbol of international co-operation, even though it began with a fanfare of warfare.

I do not intend to keep you here for too much longer. Suffice to say the evening was spent chugging a motorboat down the island-strewn Nile at night, with no moon but just enough light to cast shadows in tones of blue and grey. The scent of the river was organic, alive, but delicate and distinctive to itself. The air was warm, perfect with the breeze, and there was a superb sense of timelessness to the entire setting. We ate an excellent local fish dinner at a restaurant run by an unusually interesting chap, who brought our attention to the phosphorescent sand dunes alongside the Nile. These eerie dunes feature shadows cast as if by trees halfway up their slopes – so they are bright on the top and dark beneath – but there is no reason why there should be any shadows upon them at all. During daylight these lines are invisible. It is a very strange phenomenon.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

(Upper) Egypt - Aswan

Dedicated to Flies

My sister has commented that on some days we are flies, on others we are windscreens. Oh what a windscreen I have been today!

The morning began shaving in an orange sunrise, watching the farms and villages zip by alongside the Nile, from the comfort of a private cabin in the sleeper train from Cairo to Aswan.

The day was spent with Mum as Dad met the Governor and attended to other work matters. We set out on a slow white motorboat (too little wind for a more picturesque fellucca) and explored the lush Botanic Garden island, a peaceful and genuine Nubian village (this region is Nubia, Nubians live here. Logically, they speak Nubi, which is distinctly different to Arabic), and generally puttered about on the water. Later, we admired a spectacular sunset over the dunes and tombs, as seemingly endless flocks of black cormorants crossed overhead in loose V formations. Egyptian beer in hand, live Nubian music drifting up from the restaurant nearby (accompanied by drummers from the village and children singing from the riverboats), it was one of several classic GT moments of the day.

The evening was spent on an extensive tour of the Nubian Museum. As Dad put it, "What do you do when you build a dam that destroys a people's cultural heritage on a vast scale? Put what's left of it in a museum." Great exhibits, well designed layout, good English translations on the large text panels. Particularly liked the archival photographs of important sites now destroyed by the rising waters of the dam - it had all the symbolism I normally associate with War Memorials, a sense of profound and irreplaceable loss, contrasted against the idealism and optimistic tone of the exhibits dedicated to the international efforts to salvage sites like Abu Simbel. (Which I'll be seeing tommorrow).

On that note, I must update my diary and get in another few chapters of Alan Moorehead's The White Nile, which I've been reading in the world's most apt surroundings.