Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo Egypt
Monday morning I was up bright and early to watch the fishermen and farmers near our anchored boat. For me, this slice of National Geographic never gets old. I sat and chatted with Annie and Roscoe at our buffet breakfast and watched as we headed closer to the locks. (The level of the Nile outside Esna has two different levels and hence the need for locks.) We were told that there would be no wait (which was unusual as there was apparently a 2 hour delay the day before). So we entered the locks with one other boat (a huge steamer) and watched as the gates closed behind our boat, they anchored us to the side of the wooden walkway and then waited. It did not take long before the water was flowing underneath our boat and we continued to rise to the water level on the other side of the locks. It was fascinating to watch and only took a very quick 15 to 20 minutes.
Once we passed through the locks, we docked in Esna. This was rather cool because the large boats do not dock here so this was yet another (in a long list of many) reasons to travel by dahabiya. We were going to spend an hour or so walking around Esna before heading back down the Nile. I ended up walking through the village with Irv, Sharon, George, Stephanie and their guide. We walked down the dusty dirt road to a chorus of hellos. We walked past by the butcher shops (think Cusco with meat hanging in the hot sun with flies buzzing all around) and the dozens of fruit and nut stands. Wherever we walked we were treated like a novelty act. People stared. People pointed. People wanted to converse. Salaam alaykum (peace be with you) became the common words between everyone. I, however, even ventured so far as to ask “Ismak eh” (what is your name?) and “Ismi Deborah” (my name is Deborah). Seemed to really break the barriers down because I soon found women following me… (actually a welcome relief from the badgering Egyptian men). However, I quickly found that some (not all) of these women wanted a handout. “Baksheesh Baksheesh” they would say with an outstretched hand. Gack! What have I started. I would just shake my head and walk on. (Baksheesh is an Egyptian word meaning tip and is asked of tourists at literally every place from bathrooms – want toilet paper pay baksheesh – to guards at sites who may point out an interesting hieroglyphic or statute. However, these folks just wanted a handout for nothing.) Even the kids got into the spirit with the request for baksheesh. Geez. Nothing like starting them early.
Anyway, baksheesh aside, we wandered through the streets and really enjoyed absorbing the different culture. We stopped at one shop and watched as a young boy, Mohammed (of course) stuffed cotton by hand into long cloth tubes used to make beds and pillows. Apparently this is a craft that has been handed down through the generations and Mohammed’s family has at it for centuries.
We finally got to the end of the road and decided to visit the Temple of Khnum (or Esna Temple). The temple sits at the bottom of a very deep pit having previously been covered by centuries of sand and dirt. Only part of the temple is visible, and the part that was visible was damaged by an explosion (apparently the Egyptians at one time stored bombs in the building and one went off).
Anyway, Khnum was the ram headed creator god who apparently made humans on his potters wheel… (huh?? … so much for all the sex education stuff in school….) Anyway, the remains of the temple featured a main doorway over which outspread wings decorated the arch. (This is apparently typical as outspread wings in ancient Egyptian times signified a doorway or entrance.) The roof of the portion of the temple remains in tact (unusual for these temples we have been viewing) and there were 18 columns with beautiful hieroglyphics and papyrus and lotus flowers accenting the top of the columns. The colors on the hieroglyphics and reliefs were quite exquisite and better than what I had seen in Cairo (and parts of Luxor).
The temple was rather small so after about a half hour, we moved back to street level and I proceeded to watch Irv and the others negotiate with a local cotton dealer for the purchase of these flowing robes that are a common site in Egypt and in particular the lower Nile. Now I am all for supporting the locals, but I had no interest in purchasing one. (The ladies said they would use them for bath robes… sensible, but quite frankly I like my fuzzy pink robe just fine.) Anyway, I wandered up and down the street as the others bartered back and forth. I ended up buying a bottle of water and fought off the vendors as I watched the proceedings.
After fifteen minutes or so with purchases in hand we headed back to the boat and set sail for Edfu. The afternoon was extremely hot (45 celsius or about 125 fahrenheit) so I opted to take a nap for a couple hours in my air conditioned room. At sunset we pulled up to a farm and anchored for the night. As we pulled up, we watched the farmer and his sons feeding the donkeys and cows, watched cows feeding their babies and watched Irv get off the boat in his white caftan and proceed to talk to the farmers. Uh wait a minute… what’s Irv doing? For the next 10 minutes the staff and the guests proceeded to watch Irv make friends with the farmer and then be offered a ride on a donkey. We were in hysterics. Irv is not a small man and the donkey was tiny, tiny, tiny. Quite frankly, I think Irv could have supported the donkey on his back. Anyway, after a brief walk up and down the Nile embankment Irv got off the donkey (thank God I was afraid we may all have to shell out some Egyptian pounds to buy this farmer a new donkey). However, I think it made the day of the staff on the boat. They were all laughing.
We ended the night with a fabulous barbeque on the deck of the boat with the stars overhead, the donkeys baying, the cows mooing and the water lapping at the boat. It was a fabulous way to travel down the Nile…. until 2 in the morning when I ended up getting up violently ill. Uh oh.
I proceeded to spend the next two hours throwing up. I finally managed to get some sleep and dragged myself to the deck at 9:30 in the morning. We were still anchored, only no one was around. Where the heck was everybody? Breakfast was supposed to be from 8:30 – 10:00. I felt like crap and really just wanted to go to bed, but desperately needed water. Finally, one of our waiters, Ahmed, walked out of the field and spotted me on the deck. He came running. Within minutes I was surrounded by staff. (Apparently as a surprise, the staff fixed breakfast among the sugar cane fields for everyone who also got a tour of the farmer’s farm … and CRAP I was missing it.) Apparently, everyone else was fine, and I was the only one sick. What the hell? Why was I the only one sick? I was eating the same thing as everyone else… unless .. that damned bottle of water I bought in Esna? (I still have no idea what made me sick, but the bottle of water in Esna was the only thing the day before that varied from everyone else.)
Ahmed immediately went into action and made me this horrible tasting concoction of wheat grass, camomile, lime and honey. Mother of god it was awful, but they insisted I drink it. Then our captain gave me some tablets, said to take one in the morning and one at night for dehydration and to go back to the cabin to rest. We would be sailing all day and would not arrive in Edfu until 4:30 and would not leave for a tour of the Temple of Horus at Edfu until 5:00. Perfect. I should be better by 5:00 right? Uh … not a chance. Throughout the day Sharon checked on me as well as the staff to make sure I was ok (ie not dead), but the stomach would not settle… Nevertheless, I hauled myself out of bed at 4:00. Showered. Put on some clothes and dragged myself to the deck. I was not going to miss Edfu.
When our guide showed up, I explained that I was sick and may lag, but just ignore me and not to hold up the other 4. I still have no idea how I managed to walk around Edfu for an hour and a half without collapsing, but I made it. (I actually think the only thing keeping me going was the thought that I we had a whole day on the Nile on Wednesday with no activities planned so I would be able to rest and recover the next day. I didn’t travel half way around the world to miss out on one of the most important temples in Egypt.)
So about Horus. The temple is considered to be the best preserved temple in Egypt (although many of the faces of the reliefs have been scraped off.) Construction on the temple began around 246 BC and was not completed for 180 years (by Cleopatra’s father). At one point the temple (like that at Esna) was covered by sand and dirt. The temple was constructed to honor the falcon god Horus (the god of the sky).
In order to understand the worship of Horus, you have to understand the story of Seth. The story goes that Seth (the god of the underworld) murdered his brother and Horus’ father, Osiris, because Osiris married Isis (who Seth wanted to marry). Seth (represented by a hippopotamus) cut Osiris into 14 pieces, but only 13 pieces were found by Isis (hence unlucky 13). Horus avenged his father’s death by wounding Seth 14 times and bringing him before a panel of judges (including 3 women judges). The judges ordered Seth to be cut into 14 pieces like his brother (an eye for an eye). The temple honors Horus and his decision to seek justice rather than to take justice into his own hands (although I don’t know about those 14 wounds).
As you approach the sandstone temple, the pylon (entry) is fronted by two large falcon statutes, and as you pass through the pylon you enter an enormous courtyard called the Court of Offerings. This was the only area of the temple where the “common people” were permitted. Once a year a golden statute of Horus housed in the Sanctuary of Horus in the temple was paraded around the Court of Offerings for the Common People to see during the Festival of Victory, which featured the reenactment of the drama of Seth, Osiris, Isis and Horus. (It is believed this was the first drama ever performed.)
As you pass through the Courtyard of Offerings, which is surrounded by massive columns, you approach a granite falcon statute. (Apparently there were 2, but only 1 has survived.) As you pass the statute you enter the Outer Hypostyle Hall which held the library (including the first evidence of an attempt to catalog a library) and the Hall of Consecrations (ritual robes and vases were kept there). As we passed into the next hall the walkway through the temple continued to increase in elevation. We next arrived at the Inner Hypostyle Hall which was noteworthy for a room that housed the laboratory where the perfumes and incense recipes were brewed. The wall had numerous hieroglyphics detailing the ingredients for the perfumes and incense. We walked through the hall to the offering chamber where the priests made daily offerings of the food, fruit and flowers to the god Horus.
As continued up and up the ramp to the Sanctuary of Horus, where the gold idol of Horus was housed, fewer and fewer people were permitted entry (admission was based upon your rank in the community). Admission to the Sanctuary of Horus was restricted to the high priest of the temple and the pharaoh. The Sanctuary contained a granite box that once housed the gold idol of Horus, which has long been lost. The Sanctuary also contained a replica of the wooden platform on which the gold idol would be carted out during the Festival of Victory.
We walked out of the Sanctuary of Horus and to the outer enclosures that surrounded the temple. On one side of the outer enclosure we saw the Nileometer – a very clever device that measured the level of the Nile floods to help predict the amount of the expected harvest and thus helped to establish the amount of tax a farmer would pay based upon production.
The outer walls also contained a series of magnificent hieroglyphics and reliefs telling the story of Seth, Osiris, Isis and Horus. This temple was well worth pulling my butt out of bed to see. (And quite frankly, the only way I actually made it was the fact that it was so late in the day. I would not have made it in the mid day heat. In fact, it was lovely to see the sun setting over the temple as we left for the dahabiya. The other benefit going late in the day is that there were no tour groups and very few people at the temple. That made it a whole lot easier for me in my sickened state.)
Once back at the dahabiya, I immediately waived off dinner, had the crew mix up an electrolyte drink I had brought with me just in case I became sick and crawled into bed. About 11:00, I heard the sounds of drums and singing. GACK! I hate missing out. I threw on my bathrobe and walked out on the lower deck to watch Roscoe’s 50th birthday celebration. He and Annie had lovely pointy hats on and the crew was leading everyone in a dance and song to honor Roscoe. How cool! It was a bummer that I couldn’t participate, but I was happy I at least made it out on the deck to watch the festivities. Such a truly touching moment and one I am sure Roscoe and Annie will never forget.
The next morning, I slept in knowing that we were only going to be cruising for the day. I felt better, but figured I was only at around 50%. I had some fruit and the remainder of my electrolyte drink for breakfast on the deck plus a huge bottle of water. I went back downstairs and laid in my room and watched the farms along the Nile pass by. By lunch I felt even better and managed to have some chicken soup and a bit of dry bread.
I spent part of the afternoon on the deck watching the cows, farmers, fishermen and palm trees pass by with the others. By mid afternoon it was far to hot to sit outside and like most of the others on the dahabiya, I retired to my cabin for some rest and to cool down.
At dusk I headed back up to the upper deck to watch the crew tie up and see the sunset over the Nile. (I have seen the sunset over the Nile every night we have been on the dahabiya and it NEVER gets old.) This huge orange ball in the sky just sinks right into the farmland. It is spectacular.
I made it through dinner, but ate very little. Mostly salad, flat bread, some vegetable broth and some fruit. I headed off to bed about 11 and by morning I was feeling about 90%.
Thursday morning we docked in Kom Ombo (pronounced come umbo), to see (what else) the Temple of Kom Ombo built to honor both the crocodile god Sobek and the god Haroeris (Horus the Elder). It was unusual in Egypt to have one temple dedicated to two gods, and quite frankly, I think the dedication to the second god was a ruse because there is very little mention around the temple (or the guidebooks) of the significance of the god Haroeris (I still have no idea what his was relevance was in ancient Egypt.)
Sobek is another story. The area was originally replete with crocodiles who used to migrate ahead of the floods and sun themselves on the banks of a very large bend in the Nile. (The Aswan Dam put an end to the croccodile migration and now the crocs are all on the other side of the dam.) The temple was built on the banks of the Nile and included a very elaborate trap system that allowed the ancient Egyptians to capture a crocodile where it was housed in a well for up to a year. The crocodile could be observed and honored from above, but was never fed. Once the crocodile died, it would be mummified and buried in a tomb like the pharaohs (seriously… you can’t make this stuff up).
Anyway, the temple contained dual chambers of everything (since it was a dual temple) including dual Inner and Outer Hypostyle Halls, and dual sanctuaries to Sobek and Haroeris where statutes to the two gods would reside. Quite frankly, I did not find anything particularly remarkable about this temple, although the hieroglyphics and reliefs depicting Sobek were in very good shape. The only other item of significance were the reliefs on one of the outer walls that were described to us a surgical instruments. Our guide theorized that the temple may have been used as a teaching school for the mummification process, so I presumed that the surgical instruments were used in turning the poor starved to death croc into a mummy. (At this point I was quite thankful that they did not worship me as the whole starving the croc to death thing seemed at odds with the idea of worship.)
By the time we left it was absolutely baking outside and we (Annie, Roscoe, Terry, Deb and me) all needed to get to our rooms to cool off. One of the really wonderful things the staff does for us (which I assure you is a VERY long list) is to greet us back at the dahabiya with a wonderful scented cool washcloth and a mint and lemon drink. Both really take the heat off and act as a real pick me up.
Now about the staff on the ship. There is 16 staff and only 13 passengers. Our captain (Victor), his assistant, two waiters (Ahmed (an absolute sweetheart) and Mohammed), one cook, two cooks assistants, two cleaning staff, and seven deck hands. Each one of them is eminently charming and hospitable and literally bend over backwards to ensure that we are well cared for and enjoying ourselves. I have to say that each day as we have sailed every so slowly down the Nile, we have passed a myriad of huge steamer ships and just shake our heads at the floating hotels passing by. Not only are the boats large and garish, but the folks on these boats are flying by so fast that they are missing everything along the Nile that we on the Dahabiya have been privileged to see.
And the food. OH MY GOD! The only thing I can say is that it may have been good for me to be sick because I was in jeopardy of gaining some serious weight. Breakfasts are beautiful buffets on the deck as we sail along the Nile. Huge 6 course lunches and dinners with magnificent deserts and of course the final course: fruit and CHEESE. Unfortunately, we are usually so stuffed we never see the cheese. However, on the second day Annie and I stayed for the fruit and cheese after lunch and Ahmed brought out two plates for us. He made us close our eyes, put the plates in front of us and then when we opened them we saw the cutest presentation. Ahmed was so proud of the creation. Delightful!
So late in the day Thursday, Victor told me we would be anchoring in a very clean, fast flowing part of the Nile for a swim. I was not going to take any chances with my compromised immune system so I did not plan to go in, but I thought it would be fun to watch. The staff spread a tarp on the sand, brought out a bucket of beer and soft drinks, and most of the folks on the boat took at dip in the Nile. I watched on the tarp (and literally burned my ass sitting on the tarp as the hot sand seared through the tarp) and took a bunch of pictures. Pretty soon Ahmed was motioning to George to follow him and the next thing we know George and Ahmed appear on donkeys. Hilarious!
Thursday night the dahabiya docked on the edge of a farm at the base of sand dunes. It soon became apparent that we would be dining on the top of the dunes. The staff carted tables, tables cloths, chairs, silverware and food up the steep sand dunes (and in the still boiling hot air) and set up a lovely outdoor candlelit dinner among lapping waves of the Nile and the palms. As the sun set you could hear bats flying overhead, wild dogs barking and donkeys baying. The chef dug a small pit in the sand and using some wood and palm fronds built a fire, set up a spit and charred an already baked side of beef. Then Ahmed and Mohammed brought out an array of salads, breads, grilled vegetables and rice. Each of us took turns at the spit, but I think kuddos go to Annie for spending the most time slowly turning the beef and charring at perfectly.
The setting was surreal. Just as we thought the night was ending, the guys brought out a gorgeous cake to celebrate Ryan and Andrea’s wedding. It was beautifully decorated with doves and the staff was so so excited to present it to Ryan and Andrea. It was a lovely, touching moment. Then the fun began as the staff brought out a drum, Ahmed began to sing and the boys got everyone up to dance. Annie took the prize (she was crowned Queen) for not only lasting the longest, but really shaking her groove thing! It was a wonderful night.