Monday, July 8, 2019

Egypt - Exploring a lost empire

View from our hotel room in
Giza
Pyramid of Khafre
Egypt had been on our bucket list for a long time. With one of the oldest known and and well documented cultures of the world, and history that dates back at least 5000 years, it's a must for any traveler even remotely interested in learning about ancient cultures or architectures.
It must be noted that Indian citizens need a visa in advance for Egypt, except if they're residents of GCC countries with visas valid for at least 6 months, or if they're travelling as a part of a tourist group of more than 10 people with a guide, they can get visa on arrival. Though, with the administrative mess and the language barrier than exists in Egypt, I'm not really sure if the latter really works.
Panoramic view of the pyramids
We landed in Egypt after about a week exploring Jordan. Our flight from Amman to Cairo arrived at around 8:30 pm local time, and after passing through immigration at the airport we were on our to the hotel via Uber. The taxi took about 40 minutes to reach our hotel, as fortunately there was none of the infamous Cairo traffic along the way.
Our hotel had panoramic views, and in our opinion the best views, of the pyramids. We hit the hay soon after, as it had been a long day of travel.
Day 1 (Giza): For our first and only full day in Cairo, we had booked a 2 day package via a local tour operator, Emo Tours. Around 7:30 am local time, we were picked up by our guide Mohammed, and his driver Arafa.
Step pyramid at Saqqara
Funerary temple of Djoser at Saqqara
We were then driven to the entrance, where we had to pay the entry fees (160 EGP ~ $9.50 USD) and get through security. Our first stop was the pyramid of Khufu, which is the largest of all the pyramids. We were really amazed to see the size of the pyramid up close, and it does really live up to the hype. This was followed by a visit to the pyramid of Khafre, and Menkaure, the two smaller pyramids on the side of Khufu, the largest one. The pyramid complex is fairly huge and walking along all sites and viewpoint would be a time consuming and tiring task. Fortunately, there're roads that lead almost right up to all the pyramid entrances, so there really isn't much walking required, if you visit with a guide/driver or a group tour.
Roofed colonnade corridor
 leading into the complex
Bent Pyramid of Dashur
Another advantage of having a guide is that you're not pestered by the vendors and the camel carriage riders, who can be really annoying and persistent.
After that we were taken to a panoramic viewpoint of the pyramids, where you can see all of the 3 majors pyramids in a one close view.

Our next stop was Saqqara and Dahshur , a vast, ancient burial ground in Egypt, serving as the necropolis for the Ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis.
What is unique about visiting Dahshur is that you won't find the crowds of Giza.

Passageway inside
the red pyramid
Red pyramid
This site also one of the oldest complete pyramids built - the step pyramid. The Step Pyramid stands 60 meters high and is built of locally quarried clay sandstone of poor quality. You can no longer enter the pyramid due to safety issues. The chambers and passages in the interior of the pyramid served partly for the burial of close relatives of the King (in particular those of his sons who died in childhood) and partly for storing grave-goods for the use of the dead.
Djoser's funerary complex, built by the royal architect Imhotep, further comprises a large number of dummy buildings and a secondary mastaba (the so-called 'Southern Tomb').

Our next stop was the the Red Pyramid, also called the North Pyramid, is the largest of the three major pyramids located at the Dahshur necropolis in Cairo, Egypt. Named for the rusty reddish hue of its red limestone stones, it is also the third largest Egyptian pyramid, after those of Khufu and Khafra at Giza.
Statues of Ramasis II in Memphis
Pyramid light show 
You can go inside this one for free and it's as interesting as going inside the main ones in Giza. There is a long passageway that goes about 150 steps deep into the pyramid. Once you get to the bottom of it, there're what appears to chambers for storage, followed by more rooms and chambers. I don't think anybody has firmly established the purpose of these chambers, but they appear to be for some kind of storage or a vault of some kind.
Our final stop of the day was the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. Within the museum in Memphis is a giant statue of the Ramasis II carved of monumental limestone, about 10 meters in length, which was discovered in 1820.
Saladin's citadel
This ended our first full day in Egypt. After picking up dinner from a near by hotel, evening, we watched the Pyramid light show, from our hotel terrace.

Inside Mosque of Muhammad Ali
Day 2 (Cairo): Our second and last full day in Cairo started at 8 am local time. After getting some breakfast at our hotel we were on our way to explore a couple of the city's main attractions.
Our first stop was the Cairo citadel.
The Citadel was fortified by the Kurdish ruler Salah al-Din (Saladin) between 1176 and 1183 AD, to protect it from the Crusaders. However, most people visit the citadel to see the the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. Commissioned by Muhammad Ali Pasha between 1830 and 1848, this spectacular mosque was built to rival the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. It is also known as the Alabastr Mosque as the lower storey and the forecourt are tiled with alabaster.
You can also get a view of the Mosque Madrassa, from the citadel and also a panoramic view of the Cairo city.
Our final stop of the day was to the Egyptian museum, which is home to an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities. Built in 1901 it is one of the largest museums in the region.
Karnak temple
There're several pieces of interesting artifacts and also a mummy's room where they've kept all the dug up mummies from the Valley of Kings and Queen in Luxor, though that requires a separate entry fee.
Afternoon, we took the flight from Cairo to Luxor, from where were about start our cruise further south of Egypt to Aswan.
Day 3 (Luxor)
Our first day in Luxor started with breakfast at our hotel. The owner had specially asked the cook eggs and other stuff for breakfast, as we were the only guests staying there, at that point.
Luxor temple
After a sumptuous breakfast, we were picked up by our guide from Imperial Egypt and taken to the Luxor temples - Karnak followed by the Luxor temple.

Hot air balloon being prepped
for flight
The massive temple complex of Karnak was the principal religious center of the god Amun-Re in Thebes during the New Kingdom (which lasted from 1550 until 1070 B.C.E.). The complex remains one of the largest religious complexes in the world. However, Karnak was not just one temple dedicated to one god—it held not only the main precinct to the god Amun-Re—but also the precincts of the gods Mut and Montu. Compared to other temple compounds that survive from ancient Egypt, Karnak is in a poor state of preservation but it still gives scholars a wealth of information about Egyptian religion and art.
Karnak temple view from the hot air
balloon 
The Luxor temple was built by Amenhotep III (1390-52 BC) but completed by Tutankhamun (1336-27 BC) and Horemheb (1323-1295 BC) and then added to by Rameses II (1279-13 BC). Toward the rear is a granite shrine dedicated to Alexander the Great (332-305 BC).
The temple has been in almost continuous use as a place of worship right up to the present day.

After our tours of the temple complex, we were guided to our Nile cruise and our room for the next 4 nights. The cruise ship functions as a floating hotel for the first couple of days and then sails from Luxor to Aswan via Edfu for the next 2 days.
Colossi of Memnon
Day 4 (Luxor): We had booked an early morning (4:30 am) hot air balloon ride with our tour operator the day before, so got up early and were on our way from our cruise after being picked up at 3:30 am. We were then drive to a couple of hotels were they picked up some more passenger for the balloon ride and then drove us to a dock from where we crossed the Nile by a Felucca motorboat to go to the West Bank, where lies the Valley of the Kings. On the short boat ride, we were offered some tea/coffee and biscuits.
The hot air balloon process was very interesting, and I had frankly never thought about the effort, and the science that goes into the flight.
Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut
The basic principle behind hot air balloon physics is the use of hot air to create buoyancy, which generates lift. A hot air balloon consists of a large bag, called an envelope, with a gondola or wicker basket suspended underneath. A burner sits in the basket and is used to heat the air inside the envelope through an opening. This heated air generates lift by way of a buoyant force, which can create an incredible amount of heat when inside the balloon. It was really uncomfortable at times, and as it felt like my back was on fire.
The views of the Nile and the Valley more than made up for it.
Valley of the kings
After about an hour of flight, we landed on the east bank, as the weather did not permit us to land on the west bank as originally planned. After driving from east to west bank, we visited the Colossi of Memnon. The statue faces are mostly destroyed because of the earthquakes, however, they're the tallest statues in Egypt.
This was followed by a visit to the valley of the kings and the temple of Hatshepsut.
The valley of the kings is famous for it's tombs made over a period of nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC, rock cut for the pharaohs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom.

Edfu Temple
The temple of Hatshepsut, with Stepped platforms, pillared porticoes, and vibrant reliefs set against the desert backdrop make it an architectural masterpiece.
The walkway around the Edfu temple
at Edfu for प्रदक्षिणा 
After our last stop, we were driven back to our boat. Afternoon temperatures in southern Egypt can reach in the highs 40s 'C, so it's not recommended to step out after, afternoon until the sun sets.
Day 5 (Edfu and Kom Ombo)
The boat set sail on the previous day after our trip from the valley of the kings in Luxor and crossed made it's way to to Edfu, which is about half way between Luxor and Aswan, sometime around midnight.
The 365 day calendar
About 8 am in the morning our guide picked us up from the boat and took us to the Edfu temple on a horse carriage.
Edfu was one of several temples built during the Ptolemaic Kingdom, completed around 57 BC. The Temple is still very much intact and definitely one of the best-preserved archaeological sites in all of Egypt.
After about an hour at the temple we set sail to our next destination the Kom Ombo temple. Kom Ombo's Pylon originally had two gateways, but the left-hand half has completely disappeared, and only the lower parts of the central pillar and the right wing survive.
Random shots from the cruise
along the Nile
Kom Obmo Temple
Just as at Edfu's Temple of Horus, the forecourt here was originally surrounded on three sides by colonnades, but only the lower halves of the 16 columns remain today. The temple also depicts one of the first 365 calendars.
As the afternoon heat got unbearable, we headed to our boat for the day.
Day 6 (Aswan)
Our last day of the cruise was a rough one for me as I had an upset stomach from the food on the cruise. So I rested most of the day in the room. My wife however did go an early morning tour of the high dam in Aswan and the Phile temple dedicated to the Goddess Isis. Below are some of her shots from that day.
The temple of Isis
Aswan Dam
Egypt-Russia
Symbol of friendship











Day 7 (Aswan to Cairo)
Our last day was our flight back to Cairo and then to our home base of Toronto. We took the afternoon flight from Aswan as we did not want to chance our luck with a connecting international flight booked separately. We booked an Airbnb for our 10 hour layover in Cairo as we wanted to rest some before our long flight back. Our host was super cool and even made us sandwiches on arrival as it was Ramadan and most restaurants were closed. Evening, she even invited us to Iftar dinner with her sons and their families.

This brought to end our 2 weeks in Jordan and Egypt. With history that dates back at least 5000 years, if not more, it should be a must on every person's travel bucket list, at some point in their life.

What businesses did we use?
Tours: 2 day Cairo by Emo tours
Hotels: http://www.pyramidsviewinn.com/ and Rezeiky Camp
Cruise: Imperial Egypt



Thursday, June 6, 2019

Jordan - An odyssey through time

Downtown Amman and the
Jordanian flag
Wadi Rum in Jordan

Despite visiting almost 30 countries across 4 continents till now, we had never been to either the middle east or the continent of Africa. This was about to change after we booked our flights to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Arab republic of Egypt, via EgyptAir, and planned our itinerary there.
Jordan has always had a visa on arrival policy for most countries, including India. Also, it is worth mentioning, the Jordan Pass, which gets you access to Petra and several other sites in Jordan, also waives off the 40 JOD visa fee on arrival, so it is definitely worth buying in advance (I think, it's required to be purchased at least 48 hours before arrival to be recognized by their systems), if you're planning to visit Jordan.

Roman Theater from the citadel
Day 1 (Amman, Jordan): We landed in Amman around 9 am local time and took a taxi for 27 JOD (~ 38 USD), which was about 10 JOD higher than usual, but we were too tired to negotiate and there were only a few taxis at the airport, to our hotel from the airport. The airport is located about 30 km outside the capital, so it takes 30-45 min, depending on traffic, to get to downtown Amman from the airport. The Amman Pasha hotel reception was kind enough to permit an early check-in for us at 11 am.
Roman Hercules Temple

After checking into our room, we rested for a few hours while catching up on lost sleep.
Afternoon, we made our way to the Amman Citadel, which is about 1.5 km on curvy uphill road from downtown Amman. The citadel boasts a diverse range of previous occupants: from the Assyrians to the Babylonians and from Persians to Greeks and Romans. Visitors can trace the great ancient civilizations through the remnants of a Roman Hercules Temple, a Byzantine church, a spectacular Umayyad palace.
The citadel also offers a panoramic 360 degree view of the Amman city. From the citadel’s vantage point, situated atop the highest hill in Amman, you can see far out in every direction across the beautiful city. As you look west, the tallest freestanding flag in the world flies proudly in the wind. At the foot of the hill the amphitheater and downtown Amman buzz with life.
The citadel is also a nice place to relax and just admire, away from the Amman traffic.
Afterward we made the stroll downhill to our hotel, getting some water for our trip along the way. Ramadan is a very different time in Amman, all restaurants are closed during day time but open all night along till sunrise, and people remain awake for most of night time.

Earth or Mars?
Jebel Burdah Bridge in Wadi Rum
Day 2 (Wadi Rum): The next day morning, after breakfast at the hotel, we were picked up around 8:30 am by our rental car company owner, Mohammed, and taken to his Amman office a little outside the city, for the car pickup. Once we signed all the papers and made the payments we were on our way to Wadi Rum, which is about a 4.5 hour drive south of Amman, near Aqaba. The drive is pretty much a straight road, once you get past Amman and the airport. Along the way, there are diversions to go to Petra and the dead sea, and of course, Jordan also shares a big border with Iraq and Saudi Arabia, so there's roads leading there as well.
Our camp in Wadi Rum
Around 1:30 pm, we reached the Wadi Rum Rest area, where we were supposed to meet with Mahmood, a guy who, with his family, runs a Bedouin camp ground, and join a jeep tour of the reservation area.
The 4x4 Jeep made stops at all of the famous sites of Wadi Rum including Lawrence’s Spring and Khazali Canyon where you can visit ancient Nabatean inscriptions which are about 2000 years old.
After the jeep tour we were taken back to the campground for some traditional Bedouin tea and relaxation.
After sunset, the men showed us the traditional preparation for dinner, for the meat, which is cooked underground.
We enjoyed dinner in a grand tent, where everything was served buffet style for all members who were staying in the tents at the campground. The beauty of wadi rum is very different during night time, were you can see the stars, across the desert landscape. It's a scene that resembles a different planet because of the landscape.

Al Khazneh
Siq, entryway for Petra
Day 3 (Petra): The next day morning, we were presented with some delicious Bedouin breakfast,  after which we were driven back to the village rest area, where our car was parked. Around 10 am were on our way to see one of seven wonders of the world - Petra.
The drive which was mostly on cliffs, actually resembled the internal landscape of Los Angeles, windy cliff side road through barren lands. There were odd towns here and there along the way, though. After about a couple of hours, we reached our hotel in Petra.
In the afternoon, after a bit a of much needed rest we drove to the Petra parking lot, which was about a 10 min winding down-ride from  our hotel. As we had taken the 2 day Petra access option with the Jordan pass, we were able to visit the site comprehensively across two days.
The royal tombs
Amphitheater
The pass has to be checked and stamped for the visit at the ticket counter before you head to the entry gate, where the stamp is then verified. After that, it's about 1 km walk to the Siq (narrow canyon), and about another 1 km walk to the Treasury(Al-Khazneh), in the Siq. There are no overhead covers when walking inside, so this should be taken into account, especially during summer months (May to August).
The treasury is definitely a sight to behold and appears almost as surprise, out of nowhere, at the end of the Siq.
The actual ground of the treasury is littered with vendors and shouting "guides" all around, so it's not the experience you would expect, and it's best you go very early at 6 am if you'd want to beat the crowds.
After taking a photo from a vantage view point near the treasury, we made our way about 1/3 way through the city, crossing the street of the facades, royal tombs and the Roman theater along the way, before making our way back due to the excruciating heat.
We ended our day with a traditional Jordanian dinner at the hotel, prepared by the owner's wife.
Al Deir, Monastery
Qasr al bint, main temple
Day 4 (Petra): For our second day in the ancient Nabatean city, Petra, we wanted to try visiting it from it's back entrance. However, the tricky part is, this entrance is not really something the management advertises as it's not maintained at all and there is about a 4 km dirt road followed by an up hill-down hill hike for about a couple of kilometers through some curvy mountainous terrain. The reward however is that, you get to see the Monastery first, and then hike down instead of up, the 800 steps leading to it from the museum.
City Center
Colonnaded Street
The scenery along the hike
We had arraigned for a private 4x4 vehicle from a local Bedouin through our hotel owner. The price agreed on was a little steep (70 JOD ~ $99 USD). The driver picked us up at the Petra parking lot and then drove us to the back entrance, driving us through little Petra along the way. Once we reached the back entrance, we had to show the Jordan pass to a person operating out of little makeshift hut, who barely looked at the pass, asked if it was our second day and let us go. After that it was about 2-3 km on a dirt road, which is why you need the 4x4. Following the drop off, we hiked along the path that was supposed to lead to the monastery. The hike goes through some breath taking scenery and although not as challenging as the 800 steps, is sufficiently exhausting. You would need to be at a certain fitness level to complete this hike, without many breaks. There a couple of stalls of Bedouin people along the way, which offer tea and light snacks, if you need them.
The reward at the end of the journey is that you can see the Al Deir, Monastery, which has only a few people compared to the myriad of people at the Treasury.
There is also a restaurant opposite, where we sat down for some tea, while admiring the Monestary and taking some rest, before restarting our hike to the Treasury. After sufficiently admiring and taking some photos at the monastery, we were along our way.
Dinner at Aswar Al Balad
Before making our way to the treasury, we went by sites such as the Qasr al bint (main temple of the city), the city center, the colonnaded street, the royal tombs and most of what we had already seen on the first day, before making ending our hike at Treasury and then back through Siq and to the entrance.
While it is perfectly possibly to visit the Monastery from the main entrance, visiting it from the back side gives one a unique perspective and a different experience than the latter.
We ended our day with dinner at a local restaurant.

Ajloun Castle
The Dead Sea
Day 5 (Dead Sea and Ajloun): The next day, we left Petra in the morning around 10 am and start our way to Jerash, via the Dead Sea and the Ajloun Castle. The roads from Petra to dead sea are not well marked, but we trusted Google maps to take us to the right destination in reasonable time and we were not disappointed. The terrain along the way is hilly, as most of the this region in Jordan is. However, once you hit highway 65, it's pretty much a straight road ahead.
The Dead Sea, is actually a salt lake. It has a single source, the Jordan River, and is not connected to the ocean. Its landlocked nature causes the water to evaporate and leave behind massive amounts of salt, making it so dense that people can float on top of it. The salt content of the water is far too high for any plants or animals to survive, at about 1,400 feet below sea level, this is the lowest point on Earth that people can travel to and still be in the open air. The sea is also believed to have healing properties.
Drive along the dead sea,
with Palestine/Israel across the coast
The highway 65 goes in parallel to the dead sea and you can see the salty waters, with the Israel/Palestine shores across the sea, and along the way. We made a brief stop to test out the waters, but did not have the time nor the proper apparel and fresh water showers handy, to take a dip, so we just went knee deep into the waters. You can feel the salinity of the waters even after you come out, and the water almost seems to have an acidic property.
From top of Ajloun Castle
After the stop, we head to Jerash via Ajloun. Along the way, you have stops like The Baptismal Site of Jesus Christ and the King Hussein bridge to Palestine.
Our next stop was the Ajloun castle, situated right on top of Mount Jabal Auf. The castle towers above the historic town of Ajloun. The castle was constructed between 1184 and 1188 AD by the nephew of the Muslim military leader Saladin. Saladin fought against the Christian military during the Crusades in the 12th Century. The strategic location of the castle enabled Saladin’s army to look out across the Jordan Valley for invaders.
Although the castle does not contain many original features, it does boast magnificent views of the city below.
We ended the day at the Hadrian's gate hotel in Jerash, where the owner, Ismail, welcomed us with some Turkish coffee and watermelon.

Roman theater
Oval Plaza from the top of  the
amphitheater
Day 6 (Jerash, Mt Nebo and Madaba) Our last day in Jordan, before our 8 pm flight to Cairo, Egypt, was reserved to see the Jerash Roman ruins.
The Roman ruins in Jerash the most well preserved Roman ruins outside of Rome. It was actually founded as a Greek city by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. But it was under the Romans about 300 years later that it truly began to flourish.
Jerash and Petra both existed at the exact same and were just 300 kilometers apart. And they were both in this economically-glorious position of being in the middle of overland trade routes connecting the India and China to Europe.
At the entrance is a large arch and then the site stretches out in front of you. You can't see the end of it from the entrance, it's that big.
Temple of Artemis
There is huge Roman theater at the entrance. From the top of the theater you can get a good view of the entire city from the vantage point.
Harian's Gate
You can overlook an impressive Oval Plaza with the colonnades, that’s 90 meters by 80 meters and dominates one side of the city.
Stretching out from there is the Cardo, the main axis street that is 800 meters long and has columns all along its length. There are few things in the world straighter's than a Roman street and this is a perfect example.
At the extreme south of the site is the striking Hadrian’s Arch, also known as the Triumphal Arch, which was built in AD 129 in honor of the visit of Emperor Hadrian. Behind the arch is the hippodrome, which hosted chariot races in front of up to 15,000 spectators.
View of the promiseland
from Mt Nebo
We spent about 2.5 hours here, which is about the right time to explore the city. You can also get a guide to walk you through the city, at the entrance of the site.
After leaving the site, steeped in Roman history, we went back to the hotel where we'd parked the car. The owner had offered us some Turkish coffee, even though we had technically checked out, which was too tempting of an offer. After the coffee, we were on our way to Mount Nebo.

Mount Nebo is significant to Christianity as The Bible says that was where Moses lived out his final days and saw the Promised Land, which he would never enter. It is said that Moses’ body may be buried here, although that has yet to be proven. After Mt Nebo, we made a brief stop in the small town of Madaba, before making our way back to the rental car office near the airport to return the car.

This brought to an end an amazing 6 days in one of the most interesting country we've been to. I was amazed and the amount of diverse and interesting things Jordan has to see from a traveler's perspective, and should be on everyone's bucket list.

What businesses did we use?
Rental Car: Reliable rental car
Hotels: Amman Pasha, Petra Princess Hotel, Hadrian's gate
Excursions: Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp
Flights: Egypt Air