Tag Archives: Egypt

Mount Sinai

Mount Sinai is in the center of the Sinai Peninsula, in eastern Egypt, which is located between Cairo and Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. It is a famous mountain for many historical reasons, and is where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Mt. Sinai is about 7000 feet high, similar to the tip of Blackcomb mountain.

We wanted to climb the mountain at night, to see the sunrise from the top. After spending the day wandering the beaches of Dahab, we left at 11 PM on a minibus with about ten other people who were crazy enough to do the same. They included a family of three from Mauritius, a couple of guys from Japan, one from Korea, two women from somewhere in Europe, and an Egyptian dentist.

We arrived at the trail head at about 1 AM. It was pitch black and bitterly cold. We brought every piece of clothing we had with us, each bringing two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, two shirts, our fleece jackets, windbreakers, fleece hats, and gloves. Diane also brought a sweater. Collectively, they weren’t enough.

Our group had a Bedouin guide, who led us up the wide smooth trail in complete darkness. We were constantly adjusting layers as the group wound its way up into the darkness.

Some tourists choose to accept the offers of local Bedouins, and ride their camels up the trail. The temperature was close to freezing, and sitting still for any length of time seemed unimaginable. Camels have large soft padded feet, and are virtually silent in the darkness. Their approach is heralded only by their strong smell, and the occasional grunt or fart, at which point we hugged the cliff to give them passage.

The Egyptian dentist was in trouble almost from the beginning, having difficulty keeping up with the group. Within 30 minutes, the European girls had taken his pack and shared its contents between them. He spoke good English and Arabic, and was able to communicate with the guide, who spoke no English. As the incline steepened, he began to fall behind, In the darkness, we heard frequent cries of complaint in Arabic, imploring the guide to slow down. Diane and I had no trouble with the pace, and Diane’s sprained ankle was not a problem.

About half way up, the ground was covered with snow. Our trail runners held up well, but weren’t really the best footwear for the conditions. We hiked upwards through the snow, passing tea houses along the way.

The last twenty minutes to the summit are composed of 750 stone steps. These are the uppermost of 3700 stone steps making up an alternate trail, which comes up from the other side of the mountain. These Steps of Repentance were built by single monk as an act of redemption. We were the first party to reach this point. The steps were steep, and were covered with ice and snow. We still had about an hour before sunrise, and the guide recommended that we stop at the last tea house to wait, not only to try to stay warm, but perhaps to let another group break trail.

The tea house was built into the cliff face, consisting of rock walls and a wood and tarp roof, with stones on top. It was dark and cramped, lit by a single kerosene lamp. We squeeze in, and huddled together for warmth. Egyptian tea, for which Egyptians pay less than 1 Egyptian Pound in the cities, was available for 10 Egyptian Pounds (an exorbitant price, but more understandable given that both the water and fuel to heat it had to be carried up the mountain by the proprietor). Diane and I rented a blanket for 20 Egyptian Pounds (about $5 Canadian), which was highway robbery, but necessary given that we were no longer moving to stay warm.


After about thirty minutes, we climbed the last three minutes to the summit, as the sky was colouring. On the summit was an old church, made of rock on the exposed summit. We shared the sunrise with several other groups, who had each made the climb during the night. The majority were religious groups, making their pilgrimages to this holy site. The Russians sang as the sun rose.


After about an hour on the summit, we hiked down past St. Katherine’s monastery, probably the oldest continually operating Christian site.  The Roman empress Helena had a shrine built here in 330 AD, near the bush where they believed that God spoke to Moses.

The next day, on the bus to the departure point of the ferry for Aqaba, we met an Australian who had made the climb a couple of days before. Near the start of the steps, he pulled his calf, and was unsure if he would be able to complete the climb. Luckily there was also a doctor climbing near by, who diagnosed it was a calf pull, and not an Achilles tear. She gave him 2 pain killers, and said that he could continue if he could stand the pain. He made it to the top, and on the way down, he road a camel as soon as he reached the part of the trail that they could traverse. On the bus, he told us that both he and Moses had climbed Mt. Sinai, and that they both received 2 tablets!

Egyptian Hospitality

Today is Yom Al-gu-m’a, or Friday in English, the weekly Muslim holy day. The mosques peal five times each day, the first before sunrise, and the last well after sunset, but on Fridays at around noon they also broadcast their ‘sermons’ over the loudspeakers. We’re getting used to it, and I’m sure it would be very interesting if we spoke Arabic. The location relative to the street and the nearest mosque are essential criteria when evaluating a hotel room in Egypt.

We’re writing this from seats 19 and 20 on the bus to Dahab Egypt. A mere 20 hours from now, around noon tomorrow, we’ll have driven under the Suez canal, crossed the Sinai peninsula, and we’ll be in a relaxing seaside community on the Gulf of Aqaba, near the Red Sea.

We’ve been in Luxor for the last 3 days, visiting the ancient tombs and temples of Egyptian royalty and gods. In pharaoenic times Luxor was called Thebes, and the history here is amazing. It makes England’s long history seem like the recent past. Almost all of the monuments we saw were about 3500 years old, the complex construction and artistry of which is still truly impressive today.

Yesterday was a great day. We got up early, took a ferry across the Nile to the west bank, and negotiated a taxi ride to the Valley of the Kings. Here, the tombs of sixty-three pharaohs have been discovered so far. Some have been open since antiquity, and contain Roman graffiti that is 2000 years old. The most famous of these is King Tutankhamen’s tomb, which was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. This was the last tomb found in the Valley of the Kings until 1995, when a large new tomb was discovered. Exploration and excavation of the valley continues to this day.


We visited the tombs of 3 pharaohs — Ramses IV, Tuthmosis III, and Tawosret/Sethnakht. Each tomb goes deep underground or into the base of the cliffs, contains many rooms and passageways, and is decorated with carvings and paintings. Some still contain the stone sarcophagus of the original occupant.


Afterwards, we hiked out of the valley, and walked to Deir al-Bahri where the temple of Hatshepsut is located. A steep trail, though not as steep as the Grouse Grind, led upwards for about 20 minutes, where we reached a ridge with a spectacular view over ancient Thebes and the temples below.

Later that afternoon, we were invited for dinner to the house of a young Egyptian man named Ahmad Ali, whom we met in his shop when we stopped to buy water. We’ve experienced Egyptian hospitality twice on this trip. The first time was in Aswan, when we met a nice man of about fifty-five named Mahmoud, who every evening sat outside the barber shop of a friend, and engaged us to practice his English. We visited with him twice, helping him with his already impressive English vocabulary, and he in turn, teaching Patrick some basic Arabic.

We had our hotel manager go with us to buy some Egyptian sweets, which we took to Ahmad Ali’s house as a gift. His family’s home was an old four story building, with a dark staircase and small rooms. We were met on the stoop by his father’s mother, who he insisted on referring to as ‘grand-father’. Ahmad Ali took us first to the roof top to proudly show us his goats and chickens. Included in the small herd of goats were two newborns a couple of days old, and a pregnant female who, after he checked her privates, he said would delivery tomorrow ‘en shalla’ (god willing), He was surprised to learn that we did not have any goats, chickens, or cows.

Ahmad Ali and his entire family live together. We met his two sisters, mother Saida, his nephew Hussein, and niece Jasmine. When asked how long his family had lived in the house, he didn’t seem to understand the question. He talked about his grandfather, but I think he didn’t know because it had been in his family longer than anyone can remember.

Ahmad Ali’s sisters and mother made us a fabulous traditional Egyptian dinner of salad, rice, fuul (a cooked bean dish something like refried beans) roasted chicken, and two kinds of bread. They set us a communal table on the living on the floor and Ahmad Ali sat with us and ate dinner. The ladies did not join us until later for tea. Ahmad ate with gusto, and talked with his mouth full. I think he said that he only eats one meal each day. Diane, a lefty, had to stay conscious to remember to use her right hand only.

Over tea, we talked with Ahmad Ali’s sister who knew some English and was interested in learning more. She sat with Patrick looking at the Lonely Planet guide book’s Arabic language section. Patrick continued to develop his ‘shoia-shoia’ (little bit) of Arabic and she practiced her English. Meanwhile her 2 year old daughter Jasmine, who was quiet shy, was doing everything she could not to not let us see her look at either one of us. After many friendly smiles Jasmine and Diane played a game of peak-a-boo. Before the evening was over Jasmine had warmed up to us and even shook our hands good-bye.

Ahmad and his family were extremely gracious, showing us true Egyptian hospitality. It was an amazing experience. We hope that if we have the opportunity to show the same kind of hospitality to travelers to Canada that we will do the same. How many Canadians would invite total strangers to their home for dinner?

Felucca

We’re writing this after dark from the cushions where we will sleep on the deck of our felucca. A felucca is an Egyptian sailboat, which have been used on the Nile for thousands of years.

Our felucca is only 20 years old, but it has a new sail, and a good crew.

Today was our second day on the felucca, sailing from Aswan down the Nile to Daraw, a village within driving distance of Luxor.

We arranged the felucca by talking to locals near the harbour. Our first two attempts at negotiation failed, one due to a high price, and the second due to Diane’s bad feeling about the captain. On the 3rd try, we found a good captain, and negotiated a reasonable price. After inspecting his boat, we made arrangements to return after dinner, to meet the other crew member and go shopping for food in the local market.


The captain’s name is Hamedi. He is 32 years old, and is due to be married within the year. He comes from a village on the Nile near Aswan. He is Muslim, and prays every time we stop the felucca. He is one of 11 brothers and his 84 year old father has dementia. He speaks very little English.


The other crew member, who is also the cook, is named Saeed. He is 55 years old. He was born is Sudan, and first came to Egypt down the Nile from Sudan when he was 9 years old. As a boy, he worked driving camels from Sudan to Abu Simbal, near Aswan. The camels traveled in the desert in the night, so as not be distracted by the greenery of the Nile, and to avoid the snakes and scorpions. Each trip took 30 days, and they navigated using the stars. Saeed speaks some English, but never went to school, and cannot read or write. Saeed has 3 children – 2 boys and a girl, who recently gave him his first grandchild, a girl. Saeed’s wife died when his son was 6 years old. She was recovering from some sort of abdominal surgery, and aggravated her injury when rescuing her son from the Nile.

Both Hamedi and Saeed are smokers, who smoke cigarettes laced with marijuana and hashish. They have spent their whole lives working on the Nile, and take good care of us. In fact, the last 2 days have been very relaxing. Hamedi sails, and Saeed cooks. He makes us Sudanese food, which includes vegetables, rice, bread, lentils, and perhaps some meat. For breakfast today, he made us eggs, and with our bread we had jam and some sort of cheese resembling cream cheese.


Our felucca is named Sendbad. I think it’s supposed to be Sinbad, after the famous sailor and adventurer. It is about 7 meters long, with a draft of 1.5 meters. It has a large triangular sail, and a keel which can be lifted up in shallow water. The rudder is large and made of wood.


We sleep on some boards spread between the 2 sides of the felucca, which are covered with cushions. They provided Diane and I with two blankets, by special request, which we use one on top of the other for extra warmth. There is a canopy, which is closed on 3 sides, made of an old sail. There are no mosquito nets, but there is no malaria in Egypt, and there are surprisingly few bugs.

The total distance we’re traveling is not great, about 35 kilometers, but feluccas only go about 15 to 20 kilometers per day. We are traveling the whole way with the current but against the wind, which requires tacking from one side of the Nile to the other, and provides us with great opportunities to view things along the banks. This morning Patrick steered the felucca, until he was relieved of command by Hamedi, probably for going too slow.


The Nile is a busy river. In addition to the many feluccas, there is the occasional ferry, or dredge, or rowboat with a fisherman. There is a steady stream of cruise ships, which travel between Luxor and Aswan. The clog the waterfront in Aswan, up to 100 ships at a time, blocking the view of the Nile, and running the engines all night long for power. As a result, the riverfront restaurants of Aswan are not what they used to be when Agatha Christy wrote “Death on the Nile” here.

The last two days have been very relaxing. We spend our time reading, eating, drinking Stella, and taking small walking excursions on the shore. Tonight, we sat around a fire on the shore, before returning to the felucca to write this and head to bed. It is said that a trip to Egypt is not complete unless you have traveled on the Nile. It is one of the world’s great rivers, and has been a terrific experience for us.

The Pilgrimage

Yesterday, we set out on a hike through the desert near the city of Aswan. After taking a ferry across the Nile, we started walking near the Tombs of the Nobles, ancient Egyptian tombs from 2000 BC. We hiked up to a citadel high on a hilltop, then headed cross-country to an abandoned Christian monastery.

The monastery of St. Simeon was built in the 10th century. From this monastery, monks traveled south to Nubia (current day Sudan), hoping to convert the Nubians to Christianity. It was destroyed about 900 years ago, but was later used by Muslims as a stopping point on their way from Africa to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.

Our trek started well, with much hand holding, picture taking, etc.

The return trek was harder, and the sun hotter.

Things were looking bleak…

Just then, out of the desert sands, two young Nubians appeared on camels. They offered us a ride, and although our situation left us in weak bargaining position, Patrick negotiated a lower fee.

Diane white-knuckeled her camel saddle.

Patrick stayed astride his saddle expertly, even when it released unexpectedly from his camel, and both he and the driver came crashing down on the desert sand.

You don’t know how tall a camel is, until you fall off one onto your shoulder. It is far better to be on a camel, than laying beneath one (have you smelled their breath?)

After re-saddling the wicked beast,

whose name was Caroline,

we were once again headed across the desert.

With the assistance of our desert rescuers and their furry friends,

we made it out of the desert, in time to enjoy much needed refreshment from a boat on the banks of the Nile.

P.S. Diane has taken a liking to an Egyptian beer called ‘Stella’, which has been brewed in Egypt for over 100 years. It goes particularly well with Aswan “targen” (tar-jen), braised dishes of meat or vegetables cooked in clay pots.

Observations from Egypt

  • Every hotel room is a smoking room.
  • Even the straight men hold hands.
  • People here dress better than we do.
  • People are generally very friendly. Most don’t have the language skills to carry on a conversation with us, but you can tell that they want to.
  • Everyone says “welcome”. The trick is to figure out which ones are using it to try and sell you something.
  • Their follow-up to our response of “Canada” after their question “Where are you from?” is invariably “Canada Dry” and a big smile. A soda pop seems to be our most recognizable cultural contribution to Egypt.
  • Most retail shops are open 6 days a week, from 8 AM to midnight. Even businesses that aren’t open late at home like barbers, toy stores, etc.
  • Everyone seems to stay up late, even the children.
  • There don’t appear to be any noise bylaws.
  • Headlights at night are a signaling device, and not for lighting the roadway.
  • Traffic regulations are irrelevant, and the car horn is an essential part of the drive train.
  • Crossing the street is like russian roulette. The cars have the right of way, and will not stop even if you’re directly in their path. It’s like the game frogger, but with your life. The 3 techniques seem to be: 1) Cross at an angle, facing the traffic. 2) Walk behind some Egyptians, and use them like a human shield. 3) Close your eyes, and put your faith in Allah.
  • Children go to school from Saturday to Wednesday.
  • Friday is a work holiday if you’re Muslim, and Sunday is if you’re Christian.
  • There are lots of police in all tourist areas to protect the tourists, and therefore the tourist trade, which is over one-fifth of Egypt’s economy. It would be foolhardy to hurt or steal from a tourist here, but it is good business practice to separate them from their money in any way possible.
  • Baksheesh (or tips) grease the wheels of Egyptian society, for locals and tourists alike.
  • No building is ever finished. The upper floors are always in a continual state of expansion.
  • Egypt is a Muslim country. There are mosques everywhere, with prayers called from the loudspeakers 5 times a day.
  • Some tourists are either totally clueless or totally disrespectful, like the girl who wore the micro-skirt, see-through tank top, and black bra to the pyramids.

One Night in Cairo

We arrived at Cairo airport from London at about midnight. We cleared immigration on the 2nd try, after we went were sent back to buy a Visa stamp. Fortunately, it was $15US each, rather than the $25 we expected. Upon exit from the arrival terminal, we were fully expecting to be swarmed by airport “touts”, and had spent time on the plane discussing our strategy. The best approach seemed to be to push through the wall of men offering help with a taxi or hotel, and negotiate closer to the street. The guide book said 35 Egyptian pounds (E£35) was a good negotiated rate for a taxi to the airport, but this may have been only from the city to the airport. After negotiating with several guys, an impromptu auction arose, with Patrick talking to a group of men all at once. Eventually Patrick got a guy to agree to E£45.

He walked us away from the airport and down a long tunnel, which was a bit worrisome. We got to his small car, and Patrick got his first request for baksheesh (alms or a tip) from a nearby taxi driver, which was declined, because this other fella hadn’t done anything for us. Diane rode with our packs in the back seat. Why? Because it is easier to exit the cab for the agreed upon fare if you bags aren’t held hostage in the locked trunk. The car didn’t move for about 3 minutes, which seemed like an eternity, but I think it was because it may have been prayer time, as a chant came across the car radio.

Exiting the airport, the driver wanted Patrick to pay the E£5 airport fee, and he wouldn’t until the driver agreed that his remaining fee would now only be E£40. A bit of shouting ensued, but he was under pressure because we were blocking the toll booth. He reluctantly agreed, but it didn’t seem like he was committed to it, or very happy about it. He drove us to town, but didn’t know where the hotel was. After talking to a number of cab drivers (some while both cab were in motion) and a couple of street police offers, we made it to a huge locked gate on a very dark and dusty street with a painted sign that said “African Hotel” illuminated by a single incandescent bulb. Diane stayed in the car, which we couldn’t afford to lose until we confirmed that we could get in, while Patrick checked the gate. There was an old man on a cot inside the gate, who rose slowly, almost painfully, to unlock the chain that held the very old heavy cast iron gates closed.

We walked down a large hallway into what was once a grand old colonial building, with sparse lighting illuminating pealing paint. We climbed 3 flights of wide stone stairs, following small signs that said “Africa”. On the 3rd floor, we found a small, dimly lit room with a desk, and a helpful young Egyptian. He had our name already written in a book, from our online reservation done in London the night before, the technological advancement of which was in stark contrast to the environment we now found ourselves in.

We were shown to a huge room, with 15 foot ceilings, high door ways, and 3 beds. You could tell this was once a beautiful old building. It still was, if you could see through the dirt and the many layers of cracking paint. The old floorboards flexed so much when Diane walked on them, she was worried she might fall through. The sheets seemed cleaned based on the sniff test, and we locked ourselves into the room using an old-fashioned key from the inside of the room.

At this point, Diane was stressed almost to her limit, and it took some time for her calm down. Patrick laid out our sleeping sheets (individual sleeping bag liners made of silk), into which we put our money belts and ourselves for safekeeping. Diane clung to Patrick as loud noises outside made sleep difficult.

We wrote this the following morning, so we obviously survived our first night in Cairo. It was an exhilarating introduction to one of the world’s great cities.