We’ve waited a year since our last visit to the land of the Pharaohs and it’s high time to return! This time we’re on a bit of a different mission, combining the beauty and history of this ancient land with modern efforts to preserve the fragile ecosystem of the reefs of the Red Sea – a perfect combination for adventure, education and a ‘Leave No Trace’ approach via the support of sustainable travel through Indian Valley Travel.
Part I – The Journey Our adventure will start with our group gathering in Cairo and taking in the cultural highlights of that bustling metropolis, then we’ll tone it down a little as we journey southward and up the Nile to the city of Luxor, and finally, we’ll swap cameras and sunhats for work gloves and neoprene and begin the actual working portion of this travel odyssey along the shores of the Southern Red Sea in El Qusier, as we join forces with representatives of HEPCA on conservation projects they have started along the shore . A perfect trifecta of seeing what was, what is, and what we can do to protect for future generations!
My American sidekick for this adventure is Joe Cox, a fellow diver and neighbor, who is working his way through his ‘bucket list’ of places to dive and see in his lifetime. Egypt was high on that list, so the timing of our Red Sea visit was just perfect. We’ll join up with local forces and some other folks traveling in from Europe to assist us on the project tasks, but first, we’ll have a few days to relax and breath in the historical air of this land.
Joe, a travel professional in his “day job”, booked himself on a Turkish Airlines flight out of JFK through Istanbul and then on to Cairo. “Man, that’s nuts!”, I thought, and I booked myself on tried and true Delta Airlines, starting in PHL getting to Cairo via stops in New York and Paris. So I said goodbye to Joe as he headed out early Saturday morning to drive to New York and begin his adventure. Heck, I had a whole day at home ahead of me, not departing PHL until 6:30 this evening.
Well the weather got a little funny later that afternoon, and a tornado actually touched down just outside of NYC, so guess what? Yes, the FAA issued a ground hold for flights coming into the New York airports and we got to sit in Philly for a bit longer. Long enough, in fact, for me to miss my connecting flight to Paris by the time we arrived at JFK. Great! Well to Delta’s credit, they entertained me for the night, and re-booked me the next day on, yep, you guessed it, the same Turkish Air flights that Joe took today! So an uneventful night in the city, without my luggage, and finally I was jetting off across the Atlantic to catch up with Joe, albeit a day later!
Now it’s funny, because I usually have a TSA nightmare to share when I travel, but today, when they spun the big wheel, the arrow landed on “Joe”, and he got to take the brunt of America’s first line of insecurity all by his lonesome. Seems Joe was traveling with a 30 cubic foot pony bottle (small scuba cylinder) in his checked luggage, with valve removed and no pressure inside, so totally and completely safe and within every published TSA and FAA document that exists. Now of course, yes, by the use of the word “document” there, it would imply that the worker bees in the front lines actually took the time to read the rules they are supposed to be enforcing. In Joe’s case, it was pretty obvious that they had not!
So after Joe had checked his bags, gotten his boarding pass, cleared security, and made it to the gate, he was called on the PA system to return to the ticket counter. Turns out that the TSA agents did not like his cylinder, and said it could not go in his back. He was a bit befuddled, thinking he was about to abandon his tank, but the Turkish Airlines representative stepped up and said, “We could put it in a box.” Well, that solved the problem, and Joe’s possible HazMat / WMD item was safely taped into a cardboard box and laid on the conveyor to be loaded on the plane, not “inside” his luggage (that would be bad!) but “next to” his luggage (which evidently is A-OK). When someone can figure out the logic in that, please call me!!
Back to our flights – Joe arrived on time, with all his stuff, minus his cardboard box. He was met by our man Afifi in the terminal, received his required tourist visa, and took the opportunity to relax for the day in our luxury hotel, the Mena House, to await my arrival. He was informed that I was not coming that evening, but in the morning, and not to worry, he was not being abandoned in a foreign land!
So I arrived in the morning, and after traveling all night, and I have to say, the Turkish Airlines international flight was absolutely first class, in the attitude and attentiveness of the staff, the condition of the plane, and nearly everything else. Now the domestic flight was something entirely different, with no one paying attention to seat assignments, lots of staring at the gringo, quite a bit of pushing and shoving, and a real wake up call that I was not in Kansas anymore! But we got there, I met Afifi, got my visa, and found out that my luggage had failed to make the connection somewhere, so I was bagless in Cairo. However, on a positive note, Joe Cox’s box was there, but they could not give it to me, cause I was not Joe. Rules, we have rules…sometimes! Geeesh! I tried to trace my bags but that was an exercise in frustration, so I emailed my friends at Delta and left it in their good hands, believing I’d see my stuff soon enough. Oh well, on to the start of the tours! Outside I re-connected with my driver from last year, Mohammed, and he told me that his van needed a new IVS sticker, so I promptly took care of that!
Part II – Ancient Cairo Monday morning was bright and sunny – what a surprise, since it rains a maximum of two days a year here! But the weather didn’t matter, cause it was time to immerse ourselves in history! We met our certified Egyptologist, Manal, and our driver Farag, at the hotel, to begin a day of education and familiarization with this land so rich in history. Manal was my guide during my last visit also, and she truly is an expert in everything Egypt that takes her job to heart. We had such a wonderful time last time I was here that I wanted to give her a big hug, but had to restrain myself – men hugging woman that are not your wife is definitely not cool here! So, a respectful handshake had to suffice.
Our first spot was the Temple of Memphis, located just south of Cairo. Memphis was the ancient capital of Aneb-Hetch, the first nome (administrative disttrict) of Lower Egypt. There were 42 nomie in all of Egypt, and Aneb-Hetch had the distinction of being District #1. According to legend, the city was founded by the pharaoh Menes around 3000 BC. It was the capital of Egypt during the period known as Old Kingdom, and even after that it remained an important city throughout ancient Mediterranean history. It occupied a strategic position at the mouth of the Nile delta, and was home to feverish activity during its heyday. Its port harboured a high density of workshops, factories, and warehouses that distributed food and merchandise throughout the ancient kingdom. During its golden age, Memphis thrived as a regional center for commerce, trade, and religion.
Memphis was believed to be under the protection of the god Ptah, the patron of craftsmen. Its great temple, Hut-ka-Ptah (literally, the “Enclosure of the ka of Ptah”), was one of the most prominent structures in the city. As a side note, the name of this temple, rendered in Greek as Aί γυ πτoς (Ai-gy-ptos) by the historian Manetho, is believed to be the etymological origin of the modern English name Egypt. Like most of Egypt’s historical centers, its eventual downfall is most likely due to the loss of its economic significance as the nearby coastal port of Alexandria rose in prominence. To add to the uniqueness of our experience here, we had the opportunity to chat with a team of Japanese scholars and archaeologists who were here on a project doing 3-dimensional mapping of the carvings on the temple walls. Pretty cool!
And no visit to Cairo is complete without a visit to the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the El Giza Necropolis bordering what is now modern day Cairo. It is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact. Egyptologists believe that the pyramid was built as a tomb for Pharaoh Khufu during the 4th Dynasty, over a 10 to 20-year period approx. 2,560 BC. With an original height of 481 feet, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years.
And talk about serious construction project: The Great Pyramid consists of an estimated 2.3 million limestone blocks with most believed to have been transported from nearby quarries. The Tura limestone used for the casing was quarried across the river. The largest granite stones in the pyramid, found in the “King’s” chamber, weigh 25 to 80 tons (each!!) and were transported from Aswan, more than 500 miles away. Traditionally, ancient Egyptians cut stone blocks by hammering wooden wedges into the stone which were then soaked with water. As the water was absorbed, the wedges expanded, causing the rock to crack. Once they were cut, they were carried by boat either up or down the Nile River to the pyramid.It is estimated that 5.5 million tons of limestone, 8,000 tons of granite (imported from Aswan), and 500,000 tons of mortar were used in the construction of the Great Pyramid. Access to the interior is provided via the “robbers tunnel”, bored in approx 820 AD, which was used to penetrate and loot the burial chambers – amazing how some things never change, eh?
From there we headed down to the Giza Plateau, the site of numerous pyramids, and there we were able to visit a burial chamber (looted, of course), and toured a few of the other ones. Joe got his mandatory camel ride in here too, so that’s off his ‘bucket list’! There are approx 100 pyramids remaining in Egypt today, many in terrible condition, but there were quite a few more over time. As the powers in charge changed, old pyramids were no longer guarded or respected, so not only did you have grave robbers going for the treasure, you also had ever Tom, Dick & Mohammed who had a local building project and who need stone or granite facades going there and dismantling the pyramid – I suppose we can trace the roots of recycling and “building Green” back to the Egyptians too, eh?
Time for lunch so we visited a local eatery and ate an unidentifiable meal, but heck , it was good! Then we drove over to a carpet factory and watched them hand weave carpets. What an intricate process, and I’m not saying anything, but I don’t believe they have very strong child labor laws here either!! Just saying!
Next on the list was the Papyrus Institute, where we were given a hands-on demonstration in the making of original papyrus-based paper. The papyrus plant, native to the shores of the upper Nile, played a large roll in the early documentation of history and the creation of easily transported documents. Paper was a huge step in the advancement of civilization as we know it today. I know it’s hard for some of our younger readers to remember, but there was in fact a time before email and texting!! OK, OK, grandpa’s going back to his rocker now!
We wrapped up a whirlwind day with a visit to perhaps the most well known and highly photographed symbol of ancient Egypt, the Sphinx! Considered by many to be the greatest monumental sculpture in the ancient world, the Sphinx is carved out of a single ridge of stone 240 ft. long and 66 ft. high. The head, which has a markedly different texture from the body, and shows far less severe erosion, is a naturally occurring outcrop of harder stone. To form the lower body of the Sphinx, enormous blocks of stone were quarried from the base rock. The origin and period of construction of the Sphinx is highly argued among Egyptologists and historians; some maintain that the Sphinx was constructed in the 4th Dynasty by the Pharaoh Chephren, but most think that the evidence points to a far greater age. With absolutely no inscriptions on the Sphinx, or on any of the temples connected to it that, there is little scientific evidence to tie it into any specific period.
Some even argue that the erosion on the body of the statue actually is from water, not wind, and that could take the age back perhaps to 10,000 BC, based on astrological studies, and other theories. No matter how you look at it, the Sphinx is truly amazing and a true wonder of the world! Time to head back to the hotel and catch up on some much needed rest! Whew!
Tuesday started off bright and early with a 7:30 pickup my Manal to pick up where we left off yesterday. The Department of Tourism must have been a little slow, so we picked up an additional escort to help ensure that our experience in Egypt was without incident. Our first stop is the very famous Mosque of Mohammed Ali (the ancient Egyptian, not the boxer!). Also known as the Alabaster Mosque from the material used in it’s construction, it towers over the city of Cairo on a commanding bluff. Constructed between 1830 and 1848 by Muhammad Ali Pasha in memory of his oldest son Pasha, who died in 1816. Situated on the summit of the citadel, this Ottoman mosque, the largest to be built in the first half of the 19th century, is, with its animated silhouette and twin minarets, the most visible mosque in Cairo.
Like so many other key historical projects in this land, prior to the completion of the mosque, the alabastered panels from the upper walls were taken away and used for the palaces of Abbas I. The stripped walls were clad with wood painted to look like marble. In 1899 the mosque showed signs of cracking and some inadequate repairs were undertaken. But the condition of the mosque became so dangerous that a complete scheme of restoration was ordered by King Fuad in 1931 and was finally completed under King Farouk in 1939.
One of the highlights of the mosque is a brass clock tower in the middle of the northwestern riwak, which was presented to Muhammad Ali by King Louis Philippe of France in 1845. The clock was reciprocated with the obelisk of Luxor now standing in Place de la Concorde in Paris. Good deal for the French, the obelisk is perfectly functional, yet the clock never worked!
One of the impromptu highlights of the trip so far was our group gathering in a circle on the floor of the mosque and engaging in about a two hour discussion of religions, history, world affairs, and how they are all tied together. Our guide Manal was a wealth of knowledge to share with regards to thousands of years of religious history in the middle east, through conversions, invasions, suppression, politics and other affairs that impacted the who/what/why of religious practices and choices (or non-choices) for those involved. Thank you Manal!
As we strolled around the mosque grounds, which were built on an original citadel, built to defend the city two hundred years ago, we took in some other historical sites too. During the period that Nageb Nassar ruled Egypt, a huge network of political prisons were built to control the population and limit free thinking, and one of the largest complexes were built right under the shadow of the Alabaster Mosque. The prisoners were liberated and the facility demolished by Anwar Sadat when he came to power in 1972, but the ruins remain as silent testimony to the terror that the people must have lived under during that time.
Our next stop stop was one of the most famous in Cairo, the National Museum of Antiquities. On our way, we passed through the world’s largest Muslim cemetery, over 8 square kilometers covering both sides of the highway for several miles. A pretty amazing site, and Manal pointed out the variations in the tombs, the mausoleums, and the houses that were scattered all through this very holy site. Lots of history and even more to be learned here, that’s for sure!
Finally we arrived at the Museum, and no matter how many times you visit this place, you only leave thirsting for more. It is the holy grail of ancient preserved history, and you could spend a couple of weeks here just taking it all in. Sadly, we only have a couple of hours, so we’re doing the “Cliff Notes” version of 10,000 years of history!
The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities contains many important pieces of ancient Egyptian history. It houses the world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities, and many treasures of King Tutankhamen. The Egyptian government established the museum in 1835, and moved half a dozen times over the years before ending up in 1902 at it’s current location adjacent to Tahrir Square, the site of the major protests that led up to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The respect of the people is so great for their history, that a human chain was formed around the museum during the conflict, and no damage was suffered at all, minus a little looting of the gift shop and the destruction of two mummies as the robbers searched for treasure on the bodies.
After our visit to the Museum it was time to move on, and grab a bit of a late lunch before heading back in the direction of the hotel. Manal had a special treat for us today, a visit to the El-Fishawy coffee house in the middle of Khan el-Khalili bazaar, once the center of all trading in Old Cairo. Built in the 1300’s, the bazaar has been operating continuously since. She ordered us a tray of drinks and then disappeared around the corner to negotiate some little delights for us, Foul and Felafel, served in a little bag. The Foul (yes, auspicious name I know) kinda looked like re-refried beans in a pita bread shell, with some other stuff in there. They were OK. Our favorites though were the Felafels, which were some sort of meat-bearing mix with some greenery rolled up, breaded and fried. These were good, so good in fact we ordered a second round!
Located in the the heart of the center, al-Fishawi (El Fishawy) is Egypt’s most famous, and most exciting coffee shop. Al-Fishawi has been open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for hundreds of years, and used to be a favorite haunt of artists and writers such as Nobel prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz. How’s that for a little Egyptian trivia?
The so-called “cafe of mirrors” extends along the side of one of Khan al-Khalili’s narrow alleyways, and has a gorgeous, carved wood (mashrabia) interior. These days, the sheer volume of people visiting al-Fishawi means rickety wooden tables and chairs spill out in to the alley itself, with the effervescent waiters fighting a constant battle to squeeze the extra bodies in somewhere – we witnessed this the entire time we were there! The atmosphere is chaotic, with a heady mix of tourists, locals, shop-keepers and trinket-sellers variously drinking, shouting, and pushing their way through the throng. Sometimes the vendors get a tad aggressive, and the word “No!” does not seem to exist in their dictionary – think Tijuana or Jamaica, but with a gallebaya.
Finally, one last long trek through rush hour traffic and absolutely insane drivers to our hotel, to pack and await our 4:30 a.m. wake-up call for our flight to Luxor.
Part III – Luxor on the Nile The alarm rang waaaay too early but it was time to get our move on and head to the airport. We packed, grabbed an early breakfast, and piled into the van for a ride across town to the Cairo airport. Along the way we passed queues of vehicles lined up for fuel; it seems that one thing that has not been restored since the revolution has been the timely delivery of fuel to the gas stations. Sorta reminded me of the U.S. in the 70’s! Never the less, our tank was full, so not to worry – today! Once we arrived at the airport, we unloaded, bid goodbye to our driver, and passed through security with nary a glitch. No need to remove anything like electronics from our bags, just pile them on the belt, no need to space them out, bags on top of bags….it would be impossible to actually “see” what was in the bags through the monitor, if anyone was really looking. It certainly makes you wonder if this is a charade, because not a single bag didn’t make it through and there was no secondary inspection at all. I’m not even sure the metal detector was turned on as I walked through it with a few things in my pocket that should have caused at least a little sound. Aaah, the beauty of domestic travel in a foreign country!
We arrive at the ticket counter, and here is where the inefficiency kicks it into high gear. The ratio of Egypt Air employees to passengers in line is like 3-to-1, and it takes an amazing amount of time to get checked in and our boarding passes printed. I cannot for the life of me figure out what could be so complicated, but it just was. Good thing we were plenty early for our flight; traveling on “Valaika time” woul d have been a disaster here! We finally are ready to receive our boarding passes, but wait, we have an extra bag each, according to the ticket counter (but not according to the airline website). Who’s to argue though, so I get the cost, and everyone says just put it on your card and we’ll give you cash. OK, no sweat….I whip out my MasterCard, but guess what? No money is taken at the ticket counter; I need to go to the cashier located practically in the next terminal to give them my money and get my receipt stamped. Off I go, leaving my bags guarded by the others, and find the cashier station, three guys behind a desk with a couple of hand-held credit card swipers. Process completed, receipt punched and stamped a few times, I head back to the original counter, work my way through the throng, and my agent then starts to finish the processing of our boarding passes. But wait, I only have one receipt, and we have multiple passengers! Aaaaarggh! He finally figures it out, and we get our passes. Whew!!
So in the end, the combination of confusion between the “two free checked bags” and “only one carry-on” worked in our favor as we had our camera and electronics gear in a couple of backpacks and duffle bags with us, and no desire to check any of this sensitive stuff! So paying the extra bag fee was probably a wise investment. Finally, boarding passes in hand, we head towards our gate, and hunker down for a cold soda and free WiFi at the Coffeeshop Café before boarding our plane. Of course, we have to pass through another security screening station at the gate, but we got the same passing grade as the first one, so we were good to go.
It’s a relatively short flight and we’re greeted by our new guide and driver at the Luxor Airport. Emile will be our guide, and he’s got a great command of local and national history to share. I notice the cross tattooed on the inside his wrist, and ask if he is Coptic, and of course the answer is yes. Coptic mothers tattoo their young children as a sign that they are “Coptic for life”, a tradition dating back hundreds of years. During our next two days together, he provides a very good insight into the two primary religions in the area, the history and relationship between them, and how they affect life in this country even to this day.
We get checked into our hotel, the Sheraton Luxor Resort, and thanks to my Lifetime Gold status with them, our rooms are upgraded to riverside balcony suites! Nice!! We decide to take a couple hour break before beginning our tour, grab some lunch, and retire to our rooms to refresh.
Our first stop is the massive Temple of Karnak, comprised of a vast mix of decayed temples, chapels, pylons, and other buildings. Building at the complex began approx 2,000 BC and continued until the time of the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC. It served as the main place of worship and a community center during those two millenia. During that period approx. thirty different Pharaohs contributed to the construction, enabling it to reach a size, complexity, and diversity not seen elsewhere. Each one added another wing, or column, or fountain, and of course statues, usually bigger and more intricate than what had been done before…yes, a little competitive nature existed even back then!
Today, the complex is a vast open-air museum and the largest ancient religious site in the world. It is believed to be the second most visited historical site in Egypt, second only to the Giza Pyramids near Cairo. It consists of four main parts of which only the largest is currently open to the general public. The three other parts, the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Montu, and the dismantled Temple of Amenhotep IV, are off limits. There also are a few smaller temples and sanctuaries located outside the walls, as well as several avenues of goddesses and ram-headed sphinxes connecting the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Amun-Re, and the Luxor Temple.
One famous aspect of Karnak, is the Hypostyle Hall in the Precinct of Amun-Re, a hall area of 50,000 sq ft with 134 massive columns arranged in rows. Some of the columns are 65 ft tall, with diameters or 10 ft. The caps on top of these columns are estimated to weigh 70 tons. Many theories abound concerning the means of construction, but no matter how, they got it done and it just blows you away to be standing in the middle of it!
Well enough of huge, historical sites….almost! The sun is getting low in the sky, and it’s time to head down the road a bit to Luxor Temple, just about 3 kilometers down Sphinx Avenue. This site was constructed approx 1,400 BC as part of the overall Karnak / Luxor temple complex in what was then known as the capital of the civilized world.
The actual purpose of the temple is unclear, however it it has been determined that the Luxor temple held a great significance in the annual Opet Festival a celebration of life and fertility in the Nile Valley. However, as the ancient religions came to pass, the temple fell into disarray. From medieval times the Moslem population of Luxor had settled in and around the temple, and as the cities population grew, they began building on top of and around the Luxor temple, piling centuries of rubble into what had been this most historic and beautifl place. In fact, it is estimated that the rubble had accumulated to the point where there was an artificial hill some forty-eight or fifty feet in height. In the late 1880’s historians began the process of excavating the temple and starting the restoration process. Today, it is one of the most beautiful historic sites in all of Egypt, and certainly one not to be missed!
With the ‘East Bank’ behind us, it was time the following morning to cross the Nile to the ‘West Bank’. The significance, in ancient times, of the two sides of the river was that the sun rose in the east, bringing “life”, and then it set in the west, bringing “death” to each day. So the east side of the river was full of life, the community was built there, the temples and government centers, all that was Luxor in its heyday. At the same time, the opposite bank became an area for burials, in keeping with the ‘death’ theme, and was covered with tombs and burial grounds of every order of magnitude, from massive memorial structures, deep, hidden underground tombs for leaders and the nobles, and simple ‘potters field’ sites for the common folk and worker-bees.
Valley of the Kings was the first stop for today, and headed on in to explore. Unfortunately, this is a “no cameras” zone, so we’ve got nothing visual to share. This is a natural valley between some large sandstone hills that served as a central pathway for the excavation and construction of massive tomb networks for a number of pharaohs and some of their family members. Some of the tombs are absolutely massive, extending hundreds of feet below the ground and with dozens of huge, ornately decorated chambers and rooms, while others are a tad more modest, maybe only 100 feet in, and just a couple of chambers, in addition to the burial chamber itself. The tombs were built over many years while the intended permanent resident was still alive, and were never completely finished while that person was alive; that would bring bad mojo into the otherwise gifted lives they led. However, as soon as the last breath had passed their lips, a seventy-day clock started for the simultaneous embalming/mummification of the corpse, as well as the completion of the tomb. It was also very interesting to note how the complexity and grandeur of the tombs declined in line with the economic position and power of Egypt over time. Rameses II was by far the largest as was the tomb for his 70-some sons, while by the time they got to the era of Rameses V and VI, those two ended up sharing a tomb for eternity. Of course, the tombs fell victims to grave robbers over the years, and often the robbers, pressed for time during the crime, simply hauled the mummy off site to strip them of any treasures buried inside the body, then dumped the corpse along the road side. Sounds like parts of Mexico today, eh?
Cameras back in hand, it’s time to head down the road a piece to one of the most beautifully restored memorial sites in Egypt, the ‘Holu of Holies, more commonly known as the Deir El-Bahri Temple. This mortuary temple was constructed over a period of fifteen years during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, the only female Pharaoh in the history of Egypt. She is actually the only female ruler buried in the Valley of the Kings, a testament oh her behalf that she was as powerful and important as the male rulers before her. In fact, she actually kind of stole the crown when her older brother died, and before her much-younger brother Tuthmose III could ascend to the monarchy. Now I’m no expert, but according to my observations, this evidently didn’t go over well with him, and in today’s perspective, he could probably have benefited by some anger management counseling. Hatshepsut’s cause of death is unknown (hmmmmm…) but you can guess who ascended to the throne with her out of the way. It’s interesting, and perhaps I’m reading too much into this sibling rivalry, but after Tuthmose III became the Supreme Ruler, he made a point of having every painted or carved image of his sister that he could find chiseled away from every temple wall, monument, and any other place her image has been pasted during her twenties years of leadership. Not too suspicious, I know, but I’m just wondering if there might have been a connection between his “issues” and her passing!
It’s almost time for a lunch break before we get on the road to El Qusier, but we can’t ignore another of Luxor’s fabulous and historic sites, the ruins of the Temple of Memnon. This was built by the Greeks and named in honor of Memnon, at the time the King of Ethiopia, and a hero in the Trojan War.
The Colossi of Memnon are two massive stone statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III that stood guard at the entrance of the temple, which at the time was the most massive and opulent in the world, dwarfing even the Temple of Karnak. They have stood for nearly 3,400 years (since 1350 BC) and remained essentially untouched until the temple was destroyed by an earthquake in 27 BC. An interesting note is that one of the cracks that came as a result of the earthquake is such that on certain days, usually at dawn, the breeze coming in from the Nile causes the statue to “sing”, just adding even more legend and mystery to the site.
For those readers with a special place in our hearts for sliderules and the such, here’s some Engineering Factoids: the statues are made from blocks of sandstone, quarried from a site near Cairo, and transported 420 miles to the site of the Temple. They are 60 ft tall, and weigh in at 720 tons each. Yes, 720 TONS! It leaves me in a state of awe just pondering how they managed to excavate, load, transport, carve and then erect these statues in place, all without the benefit of modern technology and equipment. My hat is off in respect to the engineers behind so many of the monuments and temples that were designed and constructed in this land over the the thousands of years of ancient Egyptian history.
Finally it’s time to say goodbye to the city of Luxor and it’s beauty, and get on the road. We’ve got a 4 1/2 hour ride to El Qusier to being the next phase of our adventure, and see Egypt from a whole different perspective – underwater! But first, we need to eat, so what better than a local establishment like the Oasis Palace in downtown Luxor. Built in a converted luxury apartment building from the 1800’s, it in itself just requires you to stroll through and take in the beauty and dated charm of what must have been one of the fanciest apartment buildings in town at the time. We enjoyed some more of the local culinary delights, and Joe was proud to model with his meal before we dug in and enjoyed!
The ride across the desert was uneventful, and we enjoyed several more hours of interactive Eypytian Q&A with our guide Emile. This is a vast land, with sweeping expanses of desert and rocky mountains as far as the eye can see. We passed a number of Bedouin villages, repleat with camels and pickup trucks, situated in the harsh landscape. It is amazing how these hardworking people have managed to learn to exist and endure in the conditions, yet they continue to thrive there today.
Part IV – The Red Sea Finally, we arrive at our destination – Roots Luxury Camp on the shores of the Red Sea in El Qusier! Our hosts Clare & Steve Rattle meet us and give us the complete tour of the upscale camp and resort. It is a very unique operation with 36 rooms that vary from traditional thatch-roofed open air bungalows to air-conditioned suites with in-suite bath and more. There’s a lovely restaurant / dining hall for meals, exquisitely prepared by Roots’ head chef Bibo and his staff, along with a bar, patio area, and sheesa court for our enjoyment. Two hundred meters away, situated right on the sandy shores of the Red Sea, is Roots Beach, with another bar and dining facility, tables & umbrellas on the beach, a bathhouse, and a full range of watersports activities for our pleasure.
Also on site is Pharaoh Dive Club – El Qusier, one of the top dive centers in Egypt. Founded in 2005, Pharaoh has grown to be the destination of choice for discriminating divers who demand the best conditions, highest level of services, most attentive staff, and first class training while enjoying the world class diving the Red Sea offers. Primarily drawing on the Western European markets (France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, and the Scandinavian countries), they are also seeing a growing population of US visitors who come to take advantage of the fantastic conditions and great values the Red Sea center offers.
We’re joined this week by a group of 16 from Diving 2000, a dive center in Denmark, along with some additional travelers from the UK. The camaraderie and social energy at the camp is immediately apparent, with lots of smiles, friendliness and conversation all around. This is going to be a great week here, we can tell already! The camp hosts a great sand volleyball court at its center, and there’s plenty of action going on there to join in on!
Our mission here is two-fold: to dive and take in the splendor and wonder of the Red Sea, and to work with some local environmental organizations to develop programs for our returning divers to participate in when this visit on upcoming Red Sea adventures we have planned for 2013 & beyond. Once we’re settled in, and set up our gear at the dive center, it’s time for a couple of check out dives to make sure everything is good to go for the week.
We jump in the van and head down to El Qusier harbor, where we’ll use Pharaoh’s 80 ft “mother ship” as our staging area, then, since the dives are so local, we’ll actually conduct them from their 20 ft high-speed inflatable, returning to the big boat for in-between dive snacks and surface interval times. Our first dive is to a site called Pirates Boneyard, and if you could ever imagine a dive center based on the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, this would be it! With massive canyons and caverns to explore, this site, located just outside the harbor entrance, has managed to collect more than its fair share of drifting nets, ropes and lines, and other various other bits of marine debris, so the effect as we swam through the canyons was utterly breathtaking, with the decorations hanging from above as we passed along. The corals and sea life evidently haven’t suffered either, and we enjoyed the colorful display of a huge variety of hard corals, many indigenous to the Red Sea, as we spent an hour in this nautical wonderland. What a great way to start it off! After a short interval, we’re back in the water for dive #2, enjoying the tremendous array of reef critters large and small, and all colorful, that flourish here.
And if that wasn’t enough to kickstart our Red Sea diving adventure, we participated in a night dive off the beach right here at the camp, spending a hour and a half exploring all the wonderfully cool critters that live in the nocturnal world. Huge, and I mean huge, Flamingo Dancer nudibranchs, crabs, snails, urchins, octopus’s, turtles and more made for a very colorful and interesting dive!
And while we were enjoying ourselves underwater, Bibo and his team were busy topsides, setting up and cooking for a delicious beach BBQ for our group, served under the stars at Roots Beach. Several meat choices, plenty of veggies, desserts, and refreshments, along with a lot of great conversation and laughter, really brought this first full day at camp to a wonderful conclusion.
Day two, and it’s time to begin getting involved with the what we hope to accomplish on research dives on the reefs, as well as looking at the logistics of setting up some clean up dives on the reefs. While not planned for this visit, we’ll also look at including a beach clean activity on our upcoming trips.
We started with a briefing with representative of QDSM – Qusier Dive Site Management, a local grassroots environmental organization dedicated to the preservation of the beauty and health of the Red Sea reef system along the coast of Southern Egypt. They explained their programs and core objectives for upcoming week, which include:
Marine Life Surveys
 Monitoring marine life on specific reef areas, recording and documenting sightings to measure the abundance and variety of fish and invertebrate populations throughout the year in specific reef locations. The long term goal is to be able to distinguish ecological cycles on these reefs, enabling future identification of specific threats to the ecological balance.
 Setting up for the dives preparing equipment and determine areas of research. This will be slates, tape measures, cameras, grids etc.
 Complete research dives taking measurements and photographs of the area aimed at the specific tasks.
 Analyse the research and record findings.
Reef Clean Dives
 Our objective in this phase is to reduce the negative impact of human activity in the seas. Primarily the removal of fishing lines and general garbage from the reef and sea. The briefing included potential hazards from marine life such as fire corals and dangerous marine fish. On certain sites this could include the installation of marker buoys or light weight permanent dive boat moorings.
 Set up for the dives preparing equipment and determine areas of cleaning. This will be cutting tools, gloves, collection vessels and land logistics for removal of debris.
 Complete Reef Clean Up Dives.
 Evaluate the debris collected record findings.
Dive Site Management
 This is a combination shore-based & underwater activity, with the key objective being to reduce the negative impact of human activity in the local environment. QDSM has selected a dive site and is seeking ‘sponsors’ the oversee the continued management of what we can acomplish in the initial phase of the program. The principle actions will be provision and installation of:
- Road side dive site markers
- Easy vehicle access to a parking area
- Permanent sun shelters
- Waste collection bins with daily evening removal service
- Dive site map board
- Dive safety information board
- Scheduled beach and reef clean ups
 We’ll visit several of the selected sites to survey what is required to achieve the objectives, including diving the site to research for producing a detailed map of the site.
 Upon our return to base, an action plan will be prepared, which includes recruiting help from the community for the clean up of the beach. In accordance with local regulations, permission is also required from the Coast Guard for erection of any signs or shelters in the beach area.
Morning came, and it was time to head out and begin diving in earnest! Today we planned some shore dives planned, three in all, at Roots Beach, El Makluf, and Abu Hamra sites. Our dive leader was Moudi, a PADI Staff Instructor for Pharaoh Dive Club, and a registered Egyptian Professional Diver. The second is the key to shore diving here in the Red Sea, because unlike places like Bonaire, the Coast Guard requires that shore divers are accompanied by a registered guide, and Moudi is a fantastic one at that. His briefings are first class, preparing us for the dive at hand, and he is extremely adept at locating and pointing out many of the better-camouflaged creatures that inhabit the sea here. He’s truly an asset on our dives, are we are thankful that Clare & Steve have chosen their staff so carefully. Our crew brings the gear out to each site for us, and after the diving is complete, they wash, dry and pack the gear for our next excursion. Truly the definition of Platinum Service!
Some of the dive site entries are pretty unique here, with an access hole coming in via a cavern from the reef wall face, and then up through the top of the reef. We walk on out across the reef, and then climb down into the hole, following the pathway out to the open sea. Pretty cool, and pretty different too! There is marine life aplenty on top of the reef and inside all the cracks and crevices too, so something for your eyes to feast on no matter which direction you turn! One of the interesting things here is that the brittle stars are all out on top in the reef in direct sunlight, whereas back in the Florida Keys or the Caribbean they hide under rocks all day, only coming out at night. In fact, if you shine a light on one there, they quickly disappear into the darkness of a hole, but that’s not the case here for sure! Interesting!
On all three dives we managed to complete surveys by species and quantity of the reef fish population, and this information was turned into QDSM for incorporation into their marine survey database. Coupled with the date, time, and conditions under which the counts are taken, these tools prove valuable in establishing a baseline, from which a more thorough understanding of the normal fish population counts and trends though day, the seasons, and even with events such a varying water temperatures can be achieved. The work being done here closely parallels that which R.E.E.F. (the Reef Environmental Education Foundation), located in Key Largo, Florida, is so actively involved with worldwide. Indian Valley Scuba has been a REEF Field Station for nearly ten years now, so conducting these sort of fish count surveys is something we’ve grown quite familiar with over the years. Even so, it’s pretty thrilling when your counts includes all sorts of new species that you have never seen before!
Back at the ranch, it was time for another great dinner, and some after-dinner conversation and laughter before calling it an early night and getting rested up for tomorrows activities!
Another bright and beautiful morning beckoned us as we looked out our windows on the flat, calm blue waters of the Red Sea. Today, we’re heading back to El Qusier harbor, and onto the boat, for a couple of dives in the cavern system that runs all through that area. Gear on board the mother ship, we kitted up and climbed into the zodiac for a ten minute run to the dive site. About seven minutes into it though, we were rudely interrupted by an enormous splash directly in front of the boat, causing our driver to promptly back off the throttle. Splash! There it goes again! Dolphins! Three of them, just begging us to stop and play with them! OK…..hold on that dive site we were headed towards, we need to tend to this matter…now! Masks on, regulators in mouths, and over the sides we rolled, and sure enough there were our friends waiting for us. We spent about fifteen minutes hanging with them as they cavorted through and around us, just teasing us with their closeness. It was early in the day, and they were full of energy, that was obvious! It looked like it was as much fun for them as it was for us, too. Finally, they had enough, and as if on cue, they sped off into the blue. We climbed back on board, got re-organized, and finished the balance of our trip to our dive site, known as Pharaoh’s Tomb.
A great dive, and we headed back to the big boat for a short break and to get ready for our next dive, Fanadir Reef. We climbed back on board the zodiac, enjoyed the short ride to the reef, and dropped in. Once we gathered on the bottom, we started down the reef, and no more than five minutes into our exploration, suddenly ‘Swoosh!’ ..we were being buzzed by our three friends from earlier. Well so much for this reef, our focus now turned on our visitors, or were we visitors to their world? Matters not, because we were all enjoying each other now. For over an hour they cavorted with us, mimicking us when we laid on the bottle, or spun upside down, and the circled us with tails kicking up rings of mud around our group, kinda like a game of cowboys & indians. Cooler than words can convey, just feeling so blessed to be able to share this hour with some of God’s most majestic creatures. Absolutely awesome!
Stay Posted….Plenty more coming!!!
Filed under: Cavern Diving, Dive Trips, Drift Diving, Egypt, IAHD, Indian Valley Scuba, Indian Valley Travel, International Association for Handicapped Divers, International Travel, Red Sea, Shore Diving, Tec Diving, Uncategorized, wreck diving | Tagged: Cairo, Egypt, El Qusier, IAHD, IAHD-Americas, Indian Valley Scuba, Indian Valley Travel, Luxor, Pharaoh Dive Club, Red Sea, Roots Luxury Camp, Sidemount Diving | Leave a comment »