Monday, May 30, 2011

Middle Eastern Adventure

Egpyt – March, 2011

On March 17 I was delighted to find myself in Cairo, Egypt.  After all the events beginning on January 25 my Intrepid trip was touch and go but two weeks before I left it was a GO!  I arrived in Cairo late after a long flight and booked a pick up from the Juliana Hotel ( , a small hotel in the Garden City.  My driver drove by the famous Tahrir Square which was completely empty and expressed his optimism over the recent events.  My room was clean and cheap ($31 a night) and I slept well.  The next morning I took the second class train to Alexandria and stayed two nights at the historic Le Metropole Hotel ( in a nice room with a sea view.   Upon arrival I set out for lunch nearby at Mohammed Ahmed and had fuul (fava beans baked with garlic) and ta’amiyya (falafel) – a great start to Egpytian food.  The weather was sunny and warm so I walked along the corniche to the new Bibliotheca Alexandria, an impressive building completed in 2002 as a commemoration of the library of Alexandria lost in antiquity.  That evening I picked out my fresh fish to be grilled at Fish Market overlooking the sea and enjoyed it along with rice, eggplant/tahini dip and pita bread. 

The breakfast buffet the next morning was very impressive – eggs made to order, pastries of every kind, fresh fruit, jam, cheeses, olives, etc. etc.   Afterwards I walked leisurely to the amphitheatre and a guide took me around explaining how it was used in the past.  The theater and roman baths were very well preserved and nearby in the Villa of Birds some of the floors were covered with beautiful mosaic work.  I took a taxi to the famous granite Pompey’s Pillar nearby, built in 297 A.D. and considered to be one of the largest ancient monoliths.   Wandering  along the back streets, I reached the Catacombs (meaning underground tunnels) dating back to the 1st century A.D. and discovered in 1900 when a donkey drawn cart fell into a pit.  It consists of three levels cut into the rock.  Most likely it was a private tomb, later converted to a public cemetery.  There is even a large banquet hall where grieving relatives paid their last respects with a funeral feast!!! 

I stopped at Taverna for a shwarma, an Arab pita bread sandwich-like wrap of shaved chicken, tomatoes, cucumber and onions before hopping on one of the many little vans driving along the corniche.   I stopped to visit Fort Qaitbey, built in the 1480’s on the site of Alexandria’s ancient lighthouse and then took a leisurely walk back to Delices Pastry Shop for a relaxing Turkish coffee and chocolate cake.   Dinner that night was at Rakoda ( , a fish restaurant nearby.  Next morning after breakfast I returned to Cairo.

After checking back into the Juliana Hotel I took a taxi to the Islamic quarter to visit Ibn Tulun Mosque, built in 876 AD and is the city’s oldest intact functioning Islamic monument.  On to the Christian quarter to visit the hanging church, the most famous Coptic church in old Cairo named for its location above the gatehouse of Babylon Fortress,  its nave suspended over a passage.   As I was getting ready to take a picture I realized that my camera had been stolen…What a way to treat the very few tourists now in Cairo…Kind of lost my momentum for a bit but regrouped and later had a great dinner at Abou El Sid, a funky little restaurant with hanging lamps, low tables and Egyptian music.  Had some delicious lentils and crisp lamb and cracked wheat meatballs which lifted my spirits a bit.  After breakfast on my balcony the next morning I visited the Mohammed Ali Mosque, a gorgeous Turkish style mosque which you can see from all over Cairo, and the Citadel.  Lunch in the Al-Azhar Park overlooking the citadel – a delicious tabbouleh salad with fresh pita bread and then a quick walk around.

That night our Intrepid group met in our hotel.  There are nine of us and our leader/guide Mohammed is Egyptian and very educated. After the meeting he helped me purchase another digital camera and then we all went to the Khan al-Khalili market with its endless shops and bright colored lights to wander around after a dinner of kushari at one of the little local cafes.  Kushari is an Egyptian specialty and is a bowl of lentils, dried onions, macaroni, rice, chickpeas and another bowl of tomato sauce which you add to the first bowl along with hot sauce and some garlic-herb “vinegar”.  On our way to the market we shared some kunafa, a delicious vermicelli-like pastry filled with custard.

In the morning we took a minibus to Giza to visit the pyramids.  It was a perfect time to be there as very few tourists are around.  The Great Pyramid is the oldest and largest of the three and is one of the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  You can also visit the burial chambers inside.  We rode camels to get a closer look and then visited the sphinx.  That afternoon we spent in the Egpytian Museum.  The most interesting item is the Tutankhamun galleries where the contents of his tomb (and especially the golden death mask) were discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, are displayed.  That evening we took the overnight train to Aswan.  After checking into our hotel we took a boat ride around the Nile, stopping in the late afternoon on Elephantine Island to visit a Nubian village.  Later we sat on rugs in a typical Nubian home constructed of mud walls and had a delicious home cooked meal of potato/carrot stew/yellow lentil soup/fried fresh fish/rice and homemade bread.  The wife who cooked the meal remained invisible to strangers covered in scarves in the kitchen.

Early the next morning we drove to Abu Simbal to visit the Great Temples of Ramses II and his wife carved out of the mountain between 1274 – 1244 BC and lost to the world until 1813.  They were disassembled and moved to higher ground in 1964 when the high dam threatened to cover them.  After returning to town I wandered the Souk, smelling the spices, tasting the baklava and buying a Nubian CD before we all met for dinner by the Nile at Sahah ad-Din for eggplant stew in a claypot.  The following day we took a felucca, little boat with flat mattresses and pillows, down the Nile.  They prepared lunch and dinner for us on onboard along the way.   The food was fresh and delicious and the boat ride was very restful.  We docked on the other side of the river and after a bonfire and some music we slept on our boat.  Luckily there were plenty of blankets as it was veryyyy cold that night.  Delicious homemade crepes, fresh cheese and fig jam for breakfast and then on to Luxor.

First a visit to the Temple of Karnak on the east bank, considered to be the largest temple complex in the world.   The gem is the famous hypostyle hall, a spectacular forest of 134 giant papyrus-shaped columns.  We met for dinner at Safra and I ordered the stuffed pigeon which was a bit disappointing.  However, with tastes of moussaka, rice, fava bean puree, etc. from everyone else, the dinner was a success!!!  The next morning we visited to Colossai of Mennon, two enormous seated stone figures, all that remains of Amenhotep’s Memorial Temple, the largest temple built in Egpyt.  We rode little donkeys into the rice fields and then visited the Valley of the Kings.  There are 63 royal tombs in the Valley and we visited three.  Some are very large and ornate with intricate paintings on the walls depicting animals from the book of the dead, boats taking the pharaoh to the other side, snakes protecting him, stars on the ceiling, etc.  It is fascinating to go down, down, down into the body of the tombs…  We also visited the temple of Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh, which is very modern but was vandalized and very little remains.  On to a simple Egpytian home for lunch.  We sat on the floor beside a long table and enjoyed eggplant with tomatoes, fried eggplant slices, potato casserole, thick bread, chicken, lamb meatballs and tea.  Again, the woman of the house was nowhere to be seen.  Afterwards, I wandered the souk and bought a scarf and then along the corniche until it got dark and I could see the remains of the Luxor Temple all lit up at night.  Overnight train back to Cairo where the next leg of my journey would began.  New group would meet that night at 6 p.m. so I spent some time in old Cairo in the afternoon.  I visited the Coptic Museum to see some textiles, frescos and lovely old pottery and jewelry from ancient times, some old churches and the Ben Ezra Synagogue with its delicate lamps and elaborate paintings.  After a delicious falafel pita bread sandwich I returned to the hotel for our meeting.  There are now five of us, 3 original ladies plus a German man and our leader is from New Zealand.  After the meeting we went out for a delicious Egyptian pizza baked in a wood fired oven.

In the morning we drove to Mt. Sinai and checked in at the charming Danialla Inn with its little rock cabins set among the hills.  After a wonderful buffet lunch of rice, eggplant, fish, chickpeas, vegetable stew, baklava and tea we rested a bit and then climbed Mt. Sinai, revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews alike.  It is believed that God delivered his ten commandments to Moses at its summit.  The walk took about 2-1/2 hours and the view from the top was breathtaking.  The hardest part was the walk down in the dark using our flashlights.  We had a rather extravagant dinner when we returned, i.e. lentil soup, cucumber/feta/tomato salad, spinach “lasagna”, chicken with peppers and onions and phyllo desserts.  The night was veryyy cold.  In the morning we drove to St. Katherine’s Monastery nearby and saw the burning bush where God spoke to Moses.  The chapel inside is lovely with its hanging lamps, icons, carpets and wooden choir stalls.  On to the Red Sea Camp where we each had our own little hut on the beach with a hammock on the porch.  After a delicious Greek salad for lunch – tomatoes/cucumber/olives/feta I took a long walk along the beach and then went snorkeling in the Red Sea.  There were coral reefs and so many beautiful fish – it was amazing.   Afterwards I took a hot shower and read on my little hammock until dinner time.  Dinner was grilled fresh calamari rings/peppers/onions and rice – really tasted good after such a busy day at the beach.  In the morning we will take a ferry to Aqaba, Jordan – I can’t wait!!!

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