Thursday, April 30, 2009


ISRAEL – 23 Apr 2009 --- We landed in Ashdod and were signed up for a tour to take us to Masada and then to swim in the Dead Sea.

The port security was evident, but not sure why they needed a telescopic sight.

Out in the countryside we were surprised to see forests. They have had a campaign in Israel to plant trees and the desert is being pushed back as a result. Everywhere you look there are green farm fields and tree-covered hillsides. There is still plenty of desert here, but they are shrinking it. Along the highway they had monuments to the war they had right after independence. Jerusalem was cut off and they attempted to bring convoys of supplies there most of them were destroyed. Some of the remnants have been turned into monuments along the highway.

We stopped at a highway rest stop with restaurants and shops. This camel was there giving tourists camel rides. His owner was using him to rest on while phoning. Security was in evidence here as is was near to Jericho (Palestinian).

We went via Jerusalem. Just stopped on the outskirts for a photo stop, but did not go into the city. The guide pointed out many historic features -- dome of the rock, western wall, etc. Here we are with Clyde overlooking the city.

Masada was originally built by Herod as a Roman fort. Although it was out in the desert near the Dead Sea, it had a palace and a Roman Bath. The walls were covered in stucco and the interiors had frescos. Jewish zealots (about 1000) holed up there to avoid becoming Roman slaves. They held off the roman army for 6 years and finally killed themselves rather than surrender. The Israelis have turned it into a National Park and it is high enough up that you take a cable car to reach it although the hardiest can take the “snake path” up to it. (see pic).

The Romans put the place under siege but the Israelites had enough food and water to last indefinitely while the Romans were living in tents at the base of the mountain with limited food and water. Here is what remains of their main camp.

The Romans built a wall all around the mountain so no reenforcements could get throught, but after a siege of 3 years they finally built a ramp all the way up (that took another 3 years) and attacked with a huge battering ram. There is a movie starring Peter O’Toole about it that we will have to rent when we get home. The Israelis have restored sections of it but were careful to highlight the difference between what is original and what is restored. This is what remains of the ramp.

Clyde enjoyed visiting the former commandant’s quarters and pretending he was on the lookout for Romans.

The Dead Sea was an interesting experience. It is 36% salt while regular sea water is 3% -- so you really can’t sink in it. It is shrinking every year however since less and less fresh water reaches it. This is a picture of a resort that 20 years ago was right on the shore – now they use a tram to take guests to the water.

There is an area with many resort hotels on the Dead Sea and that is where we went to go swimming. This picture is of Mary and our friend Doris floating.

There was sand on the beach up until about 2 feet from the water then there were salt crystals (see pic) and the bottom was covered with salt pebbles. It was like looking into your water softener. It was so buoyant that if you were out deeper than knee deep and were floating you could not stand up. When you pushed a foot down the torque from the effort turned you over. If you wanted to stand up you had to paddle into shallower water first.

Monday, April 27, 2009


EGYPTIAN MUSEUM -- None of the stuff that was once in the tombs and temples (furniture, jewelry, pottery, etc.) is there anymore. Anything that wasn’t looted by grave robbers or taken to foreign countries is in the Egyptian Museum. It is a beautiful old rose-colored building of two floors.

It is filled with ancient statues, sarcophagi, furniture, jewelry, pots, and decorative items. Most of the second floor is devoted to the items taken from King Tut’s tomb. Since this is the only tomb discovered intact it has provided a wealth of beautiful items and information for historians. They started working on a pharaoh’s tomb as soon as they were crowned and continued until they died – making it more elaborate as time went by. Tut did not reign very long so his tomb was relatively small. Makes you wonder what was in Ramses II’s tomb since he reigned for 67 years. Brian paid the extra fee to go into the “Mummy Room” where about 10 mummies are on display including some famous pharaohs. Ramses II is in there as is Hatshepsut. Mary felt sorry for Hatshepsut as her mummy was described as “the mummy of a fat woman” before it was identified as being her. 3500 years later she is the fat chic pharaoh.

What does a mummy really look like? They are wrapped in brown cloth strips about 6 inches wide that look a lot like Ace bandages. Some also had a few flower garlands (dried and brown of course). Most had their heads exposed. Some had their hands exposed. The skin was dark brown and pulled back from the teeth. The nose was still erect (they put peppercorns in there to keep it that way). The eyes were closed and there was no fat under the skin so the skin was very tight against the bone. Some also had hair. Surprisingly Brian did not find it at all creepy.
We had only a few hours here and would definitely like to go back someday.

GIZA – Although Egypt has some 200 pyramids, these are the most famous. Located just outside Cairo, they can be seen from the city. The biggest is the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and the next biggest is that of his son. They are both about 4500 years old – 25 centuries before Christ! Cheops’ son built one slightly smaller than dad’s but on higher ground so he was able to appear to honor his father but have the most noticeable pyramid (the one with some of the limestone outer covering still intact). You are not allowed to climb on the pyramid but are allowed to go inside. Our guide told us you had to walk bent over; it was hot as the devil in there; and there was no decoration – just plain walls. We decided we would be content staying outside.

There were hawkers everywhere and one became Brian’s new best friend and gave him a traditional head scarf, then took his picture. Naturally he wanted a big tip for this service. There are tourist police here to control the most excessive vendor and camel-driver behavior. Here is a picture of one on camelback.

Go to Egypt and not ride a camel? Not us! You have to lean way back as the camel gets up or you will fall forward over his neck since his back end gets up first and those legs are long. Getting down is the same drill. We got a 5-minute ride and had some great pics taken. Clyde could not decide which camel he wanted to be on. Brian learned to ride like an Egyptian.

This was followed by a great lunch at a nearby hotel and then back to the ship. The Mena House Oberoi Hotel was historic as it was built for Queen Eugenie of France to stay at when she came to open the Suez Canal in 1869(?). Quite a beautiful place and a great meal with great service.

One interesting sidelight. As we listened to our guide Nisham describe the religious beliefs of the early Egyptians we were struck by some similarities to stories in the Old Testament – but remember that the Egyptians were many centuries earlier. Instead of Adam and Eve, they had four original people, two men and two women (brothers and sisters). One of the brothers killed the other ala Cain and Abel. Later the earth was destroyed in a great flood. After you die there is a judgment day where your heart is weighed against a feather of justice to see if you can go to heaven. A heavy heart indicates bad deeds in your life. (I wonder if the expression “heavy hearted” comes from there). And there are other similar themes.


We flew from Aswan to Abu Simbel on Egypt Air. Got to sleep in since we did not have to leave for the airport until 0730. Clyde met Feder Bear in the Aswan airport as were leaving for Abu Simbel. Feder is from Canada and his very friendly owner whipped him out of concealment in her carryon upon seeing Clyde.

ABU SIMBEL – This is a complex of two tombs that were carved out a mountain and were going to be flooded as Lake Nasser filled. An international effort was mounted to fund their rescue and relocation. Since these tombs extend far back into the mountain and are heavily decorated with paintings and carvings internally, the engineering effort required to move them was daunting. It took two years to do it. They basically cut the tombs out of the mountain in pieces and reassembled them in a safe area on the shore of Lake Nasser creating two small mountains in the process. This is where it reached 115 f and there was no shade except inside the temples.

The smaller temple is the Temple Hathor dedicated to Queen Nefertari who was the favorite wife of the Great Ramses II. The larger temple is the Great Temple of Ra-Harakthe fronted by 4 colossal statues of Ramses II. (who built both temples.) The interiors of these temples were very lavishly decorated and the colors are still strong after 3500 years.

Clyde enjoyed meeting some security guards here. Unfortunately the picture does not do justice to the Kalashnikovs they had on their laps. He also got to hold the key to one of the temple’s great doors – it had the shape of an Ankh (the symbol of life).

We flew from there to Cairo where we spent the night at the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel.

CAIRO – Clyde enjoyed the view from the cocktail lounge of our hotel where he shared a bottle of wine with us.

Later we went on a dinner cruise on a lavish river boat called the Nile Maxim. A good meal and great traditional entertainment. A whirling dervish and two belly dancers all accompanied by an Egyptian band.
Clyde wondered what was so special about a belly dancer’s belly. Luckily she did not mind his having a close look.

Our friend Linda joined Clyde on deck for a respite from the smoky atmosphere inside. It was about 70 outside and the lights of Cairo were only outdone by the many small party boats cruising up and down with wild displays of multicolored lights flashing in weird patterns.


EGYPT Day 2 – Breakfast was 0530 (ugh). We were on our way to the Luxor airport at 0630 to catch a flight to Aswan.

ASWAN DAM – When this dam was built in the 1960s it provided more than 50% of Egypt’s electricity and also allowed this mostly arid nation to retain a lot of the water that normally ripped through the Nile Valley in the annual summer floods and keep it for irrigation. The day we visited the dam it was a national holiday and many families were picnicking under the trees on top of the dam.

Lake Nasser is the world’s largest manmade lake and stretches some 350 kilometers – about 230 miles – extending through southern Egypt and into Sudan. When they built it vast areas of Nubia were flooded. Egypt and the Sudan collaborated to build new villages for the Nubians on the shores of the lake. See pic.

An even bigger problem was the 27 or so ancient temples and monuments that would be covered by water. We went to see two of them had have been relocated – The temple of Philae and Abu Simbel.

THE TEMPLE OF PHILAE – We had to board small boats to reach the island to which this temple was relocated. It dates from the time of Greco-Roman occupation and you can see that the artwork is much different than that from the earlier periods.
There were vendors onboard the little boat. Clyde bought a Numibian camel bone necklace. Brian bought a traditional Numibian hat. He and our friends Bob and Peter decided they would form a singing group and call themselves the “Nubie Brothers” – thought it had a nice ring to it.

In the temple Mary found a cat. One of the guides said it had recently had 5 kittens. We suspect that this obvious tomcat had not. He approached each person holding a water bottle and mewed loudly. Mary figured out what he wanted. She also provided a drinking fountain for a local lizard. This is also where Cyde learned to "walk like and Egyptian"

This temple had some of its images defaced by Coptic Christians (Egypt was Christian under the Romans then converted to Islam when invaded by Arabs) and you can see the Coptic cross on this column.

ASWAN GRANITE QUARRY – This is the source of most of ancient Egypts granite monuments, sphynxes and sarcophagi. Man was it hot there. They used tools made from meteorites to chisel slots in the outline they wanted then inserted wooden wedges into the slots and wetted them. The swelling of the wood would crack the granite in the desired rough shape. One of these pics shows the slots and the other shows a huge obelisk that cracked during its creation and was left in place – it is 120 feet long. The items quarried there were then moved to their final destinations via barge down the Nile.

Our hotel was in Aswan on Elephantine Island in the Nile. We spent the hottest part of the day there and then went for a felucca ride on the Nile.

These are traditional sailing ships with triangular sails. A fun and relaxing way to see the sights including the Aswan Temple of Mickeydee. One of the sights is the mausoleum of the Agha Kahn on a hilltop overlooking the Nile (see pic). When we sailed past a Nubian village some boys paddled out in a little canoe using their hands as oars, latched onto our sailboat and began to sing. They sang Frere Jacques until they realized we were not French and then switched to Home on the Range. Nubians are noted for their linguistic abilities and these boys were now exception – got a couple of bucks for their efforts. Mary did her "Little Egypt" routine in a Nubian hat she purchased on board.

The hotel had a cocktail lounge on its top floor with a great view of Aswan and the Nile. Brian tried a martini. He said if someone would have blindfolded him and asked him what he was drinking he would not have been able to tell. Lesson learned. Last time he orders a mixed drink in a Muslim country – beer and wine only in future.