I just boarded EgyptAir to Cairo. Dulles.
I’m very buzzed. The flight is “dry”—as is Egypt.
I’m never a morning drinker, but…
Olives for breakfast.
What a terrifying night and drive.
The prediction for snow had been “negligible.” 1 or 2 inches of “sweepable” snow.
It started snowing early on Friday afternoon. It continued all day. And night.
I couldn’t sleep for the stress.
Should I bail?
Risk driving down the mountain covered with snow and… ?
Would I end up in a ditch or wrapped around a tree?
I decided to leave at 7:30 a.m. for a noon flight. On a good day, Dulles is about an hour, and you’re supposed to arrive at the airport 3 hours before an international flight.
Well, it all worked out.
I tapped my brakes constantly coming down. Every couple of seconds.
“Tap, tap, tap…”
And frightened of the stomach-churning slide that might start on any slope.
When I got to the bottom and it was level and straight from here on out, I stopped and said an “Our Father.”
All the real roads were dry and white with salt.
I stopped at the warehouse to print out my itinerary. I had plenty of time.
The airport was almost deserted. The only other flight I saw in the A and B Gate area was Avianca—going to Bogata.
I had to walk past a hundred gates to find a bar open.
My friends in Luxor told me that I should have a drink if I could.
Tea is the strongest offering on the flights.
I was exhausted. I worked so hard on Friday.
I had everything set—except for the snow.
Flying from Virginia at noon, I would land in Cairo Sunday at 6:45 a.m. their time.
I hope I can sleep for all those hours over the Atlantic.
But there is a baby behind me…
The cabin looks about half full. I only see two women with uncovered heads.
I didn’t see anyone else that looked like an American tourist in the boarding area.
The light comes on.
I can’t figure out what time it is. But the flight is only a couple more hours.
Egypt is 7 hours later than home.
Another big meal is being served. I passed. Too much food.
We are flying over Athens. When will I get to visit Athens? Heading southeast toward the mouth of the Nile River. 800 more miles. I’m exhausted. There are a half dozen babies on board, and one or another screamed the whole way. We land at 6:45, and my flight to Luxor is at 7:45. The gates can’t be too far apart.
It is a marathon trip. 10 hours from Dulles to Cairo. 1:25 layover. 1 hour to Luxor.
Add in the hour drive to Dulles. The three-hour excursion in the airport. However long it will take to get from the Luxor Airport to the Hilton Hotel.
You can throw in the sleepless Friday night. Packing. Prepping the house.
The very little sleep aboard the plane.
My last act before stepping out onto the crunchy snow in the dawn’s light was to turn off the well pump and water heater and then open the lowest spigots in the house so the pipes would empty. If the power goes out for an extended period, the pipes might freeze and break. Then if the power returned, there would be flooding and damage.
We are over Cairo. It is as sprawling as I remember it. It’s covered in a yellow translucent haze. Pollution, I think.
We will be on the ground at 6:45 a.m. Sunday.
I barely slept on the plane. The mom and baby behind me kept bumping my seat. The noise. The stress. The discomfort.
On a little plane to fly to Luxor. As before, I think I am the only western tourist onboard.
But if all goes well, I’ll be in Luxor in an hour.
Ray and Jay* arranged for a guide and a driver. I am supposed to be met.
* Friends from Frederick and Luxor. I’ll write more, but want them to review it. Perhaps next story.
The first crazy experience in Egypt took place in the Cairo airport. The gate I landed in and the gate I was to leave from were both in the same terminal. Terminal 3. I landed at Gate 62. Departure Gate 21. I had an hour to make the next flight. No problem, right?
It was actually a long walk to Domestic Transfers. The signage was iffy. No numbers. No gates. I finally asked a woman in uniform, “Luxor?”
She defaulted with a shrug to a guy. He pointed back to a cutoff that was just a few yards behind me. Not marked in any way. It felt like a back hallway in an old high school. Down some steps, and there was a single middle-aged man seated at a desk. Next to him was a metal detector gate I would need to walk through. It was clear what he wanted, so I produced my passport, Egyptian Visa, Negative COVID test and Vax card. He studied them and then stamped my passport. It was just the two of us. I then passed through the gate sans shoes, belt, wallet, phone…
A hundred yards on, I came to another checkpoint. There was a line this time. Same procedure, except I needed no documents. Just the pass through of the metal detector and then putting myself together.
Some distance on, I went through exactly the same procedure.
Getting through that gate, I hustled onward, the minutes ticking closer to takeoff.
Eventually, Gate 31 was visible in the distance. I hurried. The 7:45 a.m. takeoff was just a few minutes away.
I arrived. Walked down a long stairway. I needed a restroom. NEEDED. Would that make me miss my flight?
Nope. I was the last on a bus that drove a very long circuitous route around the airfield.
I’d hoped for some good views flying down the Nile, but the windows were filthy.
It’ll be nice to brush my teeth and take a shower. I guess I left the house about 16 and a half hours ago. But I’m not sure. I don’t have enough fingers to calculate it. The memory of the white-knuckle drive down the mountain remains. I wouldn’t have risked it but for the trip. I’d have plowed the driveway normally. That may have made the trip down my steep paved driveway easier or icy and worse. It depends what’s underneath. Then I’d either leave or wait it out. I couldn’t risk waiting it out.
We are over desert now. Endless miles of tan sand. Later, my guide told me it only rains every other year in Luxor. All I can see is desert. Weird shapes sculpted by wind and rare raining floods. These dry river beds—wadis—could have been formed decades ago or centuries. Not a road or other human mark to be seen. I’m on the port side. For hundreds of miles, it is desert until it runs into the Red Sea. On the right side of the plane must be the Nile and its fertile valley. Beyond that are thousands of miles of Sahara Desert until you get to Morocco and then the Atlantic.
A land of desert and oasis.
When I bought out my mentor Carl Sickles in 1983, he reminded me I needed to change the name. I had some brainstorming sessions and decided on Book Oasis. I even had some pens made up. The plastic cap was in the shape of a palm frond.
I’m glad I came up with “Wonder” instead because once upon a time, I was a Wonder Boy.
When we landed in Luxor, I was exhausted. I’d barely slept on the 10-hour trip. Not for want of trying. I hadn’t slept the night before due to snowaphobia. It might be midnight at home. There were about five babies on the plane. When four weren’t screaming, one was. The family of four behind me had one for those babies as well as a toddler. In addition to its sibling’s screams, the toddler would periodically kick the back of my seat. The father would appear periodically and flop down in the empty aisle seat (I had a row of three to myself.) He would cradle, rock, put a pacifier in or otherwise tend to the baby.
Egypt must be fertile.
Landing in Luxor had the vibe of a Caribbean airfield long ago. We walked down a stairway pushed to the plane. A bus met us, and we were dropped off at a door that opened onto the baggage claim. There were a number of young men wearing burgundy polos. On the back, they all read:
While we all were waiting for bags to begin to be vomited up onto the long stainless-steel rotating conveyor, I was approached many times. Did I need:
One guy was persistent.
In Egypt, I learned last visit:
- Ignore them.
- Don’t make eye contact.
- Repeat, “No.” “No.” “No.” …
“Are you from the US?”
‘No,’ I thought.
But I did. I’ve had bag problems recently.
I followed to… I thought my doom.
We crossed into another space. My bag was spit up from the netherworld.
“International arrivals,” he told me confidently.
Wow. I wasn’t huckstered.
He rolled my big bag to security and put it on the conveyor.
He retrieved it at the other end.
“Duty free?” he asked.
At 8 a.m. in tiny Luxor airport?
My friends, Ray and Jay, had told me gin was a precious commodity in Egypt. I’d put some in my carry-on, thinking it might be confiscated. I bought cheap gin in plastic bottles. No big loss.
He led to an invisible little shop.
“You can buy just 1 liter,” I was told by an officious suited middle-aged man.
I chose a bottle of Beefeaters. The only price on it was $15 US. Not a bad price.
Paying for it was a bureaucratic “neural numbing.” No less than 4 officious gentlemen poured over my passport and documents.
“Did you purchase at Cairo Duty Free?” I was asked. The stamped passport page being inspected closely by three sets of eyes.
‘It was 6:45 a.m. then, and I barely had time to use the bathroom,’ my consciousness complained.
“No,” I replied flatly. I’ve dealt with bureaucrats so many times. They only want black and white. Humor and irony is lost on them. When they leave today, they will tick off 1 fewer day til retirement on their life calendar.
My huckster friend returned holding a printed sheet of white paper.
He was expectant. I assented that was me.
He took my bag out to the small parking lot, and I met Medhat. My guide whom I was to spend a number of days with.
The huckster looked expectantly. Usually I’d tip a dollar to someone who had hijacked me, but this guy actually saved me some time and helped me secure liquid gold.
I gave him 5 $1 bills. An Egyptian pound is about 6 cents. So, I’d given him about 75 pounds for 10 minutes of work.
He seemed pleased.
Medhat introduced to me the driver, Romany, and we headed to the Hilton.
Not so fast.
5 big security guys demanded their documents. They were in a group wearing plain clothes. Fancy clothes. One six-foot handsome guy in a camel-hair coat could have been an NFL player or a fashion model.
They inspected their ID cards and other documents. Over and over again.
I was never noticed seated in the back seat of the Kia.
We were released a half hour later.
I never learned what the issue was. I asked.
Medhat’s reply was, “Pandemic.”
The source of all our discomfiture.
I was soon at the Hilton.
At the gate, the driver’s documents were confiscated. The gatekeeper walked around the car, inspecting its undercarriage with a mirror at the end of a stick. Looking for a bomb? 8 bollards sunk into the ground. We drove across a quarter mile of gardens and trees in the hotel’s tree-lined compound.
Check-in was smooth. My room had a view of palm trees and the Nile.
Day 1 had begun! At around noon, I was in my room showering.
…then a nap.
I’d meet Ray and Jay and get a tour of Chicago House* later in the afternoon.
* Chicago House is the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute headquarters in Egypt.
Have I told you I am DRIVEN?
I caught up on two days’ missing sleep in a couple of hours.
I met the driver and was taken through third-world scenes of donkeys and dust, women’s clothed heads, faces and bodies to the ankles in black, kids and moms sitting on dirt or pavement, crazy unfathomable businesses, crumbling storefronts—literally crumbling…
Then onto the fancy old-school Corniche motorway along the Nile and to a police checkpoint. The Chicago House was only yards away.
I’d heard of this place for 25 years. My beloved departed friend Barbara Mertz created a mythology about it over the many years we sat and communed in the Maryland countryside.
I had to come. Now! This was Ray’s final year in charge (whatever that meant.)
He’d been an Egyptologist since 1978. He was retiring.
It is a long, long way from rural bucolic Fredrick, Maryland to exotic eternal Luxor.
I was led, dazed and confused, to a yellow stucco walled compound and back into the early 20th century.
This year is the 100th anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery of the only unpillaged Egyptian pharaonic tomb:
My Maryland friends led me around another world.
Inside the compound was a lavish garden of trees and plants and flowers. Many put in long ago by the iconic University of Chicago and the Oriental Institute Archaeologists and Egyptologists.
Odd birds flitted about.
My friends have LIVED here half the year for decades.
Parts of the building were inaccessible. COVID.
But I was invited into the scholarly, academic, mystic, magic rooms.
The Library. The best Egyptology library in Egypt. Room after room. The building was very Graham Greene.
The library… lazy ceiling fans. This could be Rick’s Place in Casablanca during WWII.
There are many rare books as well.
That got me thinking about the enormous set we’d rescued several years ago in Ashburn. That whole collection had to ‘rest’ until the mothball odor dissipated. It took several years. I pulled out the 4 four volumes and had some research done on them:
The Temple of King Sethos I at Abydos
London: The Egypt Exploration Society and Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1933-1958. Printed in Great Britain by the Chiswick Press, London. 4 volumes. Elephant folio, 19″x24″, 880oz. Beige cloth with gilt hieroglyphics to the front board. The four volumes contain brief introductions, notes, and 231 plates covering the seven chapels, Osiris complex, and second hypostyle hall of the Seti I Temple. Very Good set. No dust jackets, as issued. There is a tiny, pencil-eraser sized stain to the rear board of Volume I. Volume 3 is a bit bowed with a half-dollar sized scuff to the rear board. The interior is toned with foxing to the endpapers, and some additional, though very light, foxing to the remainder of the front matter. A very nice set! (Egypt, Abydos, Egyptian Temple, Temple of Seti I, Osiris Complex, Second Hypostyle, Antiquities)
The set was put together by a female Egyptologist Amice Calverley.
Another groundbreaking woman in what had traditionally been a men’s only domain.
…like my friend Barbara…
Did I say the 4 volumes were enormous?
Inside, though, is where the show is.
Stunning huge color images throughout.
I was led up the outside route to my friends’ upper floor patio. Their suite was off limits. COVID.
It had a lovely view over the wall, over the Nile… and beyond to the red brown Theban Hills among which lie the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Valley of the Nobles and the Valley of the Artisans.
Martinis were brought out on a tray by Jay (I think.) We toasted our beloved departed Barbara and the Maryland connection that turned acquaintances into friends and neighbors.
It was one of the most memorable, civilized, exotic cocktails I’ve ever had.
And there was an amazing sunset as well. I was told I’d brought it with me.
We stepped outside to meet our ride, and the sky show continued. And the call to prayer began.
After, we went to the Hilton and had a wonderful meal and… cocktails.
Medhat and the driver picked me up. The first stop was the Karnak Temple, but only to buy the Luxor Pass, which gets me entry into just about everywhere.
That was another odd bureaucratic experience. The office had just one young man in it.
The room wasn’t much bigger than a closet. It was tucked away with a subtle sign above the door.
He was young and tall. He wore a blue jean jacket and jeans.
His desk was small but filled the room. It looked very much like a US gray metal issue—from the 1960s. A battered safe was behind his left shoulder, its white paint chipped and scored.
He offered us coffee. I demurred.
Medhat and the young man discussed the situation in Egyptian—at length.
Occasionally, Medhat told me to produce something or other.
200 US in cash.
Sign here. There.
The young man attached the ticket to my passport copy. He was very, very precise in aligning it.
He practiced writing the start and end date on a piece of scrap paper before putting the data on the actual pass.
He carefully extracted a rubber stamp from a drawer. That process, too, had to be done just right. He set it down on an angle across the borders of the 2 attached pages. The folded passport copy was larger and there was an inch wide border. He tweaked the rubber this way and that til it was just right. He half stood and then pressed down methodically and evenly so the mark it left was perfect. He repeated the process three more times.
Medhat and the young man exchanged more conversation while I sat smiling and looking at the blank wall.
Finally, we left.
I was driven to Luxor Temple about a mile away. Jay is doing conservation work there. He had shown me some of the process the day before on his laptop. He is mapping inscriptions and figures carved into walls. Many of these unpainted features are nearly invisible to the eye. Photographs leave out a great deal of detail.
When he is done with a section—a “register”—it can be printed out. When a wall or room is finished, it can be published.
This is what these look like finished.
The work is preserved for eternity. The wall can be read in its entirety.
He even let me try my hand. I chose a simple image. An eye. Horus?
Getting a tour from an expert is far more enlightening than using a guidebook or a guide.
I “saw” things I wouldn’t have seen had Jay not pointed them out and explained what I was seeing.
We stopped next to a statue of a seated couple. Kinda nice but no Colossus.
“Ray found her head in the basement of the Cairo Museum. He saw it and knew right away where it belonged.”
It had been languishing there for many decades.
The Luxor Temple is stunning. A huge space with statues and wall carvings and architectural styles everywhere.
He led me to his second “office.”
It is over 6 meters high. We climbed up. I didn’t like the occasional wobbling. Jay spends hours here most days.
He told me to stay up so he could get a picture of me.
I may be smiling on the outside. On the inside, I just want to get down.
More columns and Colossi. A chamber Alexander the Great had built during his conquest and brief tenure as a “pharaoh.”
He took me out of the “block yard.” Thousands of carved stones that had been stolen and reused as foundations for medieval homes. They have been rescued and the painstaking process of matching them has fallen to a young Egyptian woman there. I was introduced, and she led us around, explaining the process and pointing out some of the successes.
So much of what is going on now is restoration—putting walls and statues and colossi back together.
A photo can’t show the enormity and beauty of the place. You should buy a book about it.
It is colossal.
Outside, there is the Sphinx Road. It once was lined with hundreds of sphinxes. It leads to the Temple of Karnak a kilometer or two away. The road was used for processions. Especially important was the king being carried from one temple to other on his royal boat. There were three other boats as well.
From there, we headed to the Winter Palace to meet Ray. Barbara used to love to stay there. She always occupied a massive top floor corner suite with a grand balcony.
On the way, we stopped at two iconic bookstores. Gaddes—since 1906—which is sinking into the ground. And Aboudi where Barbara (a.k.a. Elizabeth Peters) was well represented with dozens of copies of fiction and non-fiction Egyptology books.
I was given a tour of the grand old hotel, and then we headed to the marvelous gardens out back. About a dozen men in green jumpsuits were meticulously working the beds. Several were seated, edging the beds with what appeared to be a putty knife.
Labor is cheap. The government goes to great pains to employ people. I saw so many men on random streetcorners pushing old beat up brooms in desultory fashion, creating little piles of dust. There are miles and miles of dust-lined gutters everywhere.
We went back to a beautiful pool and dined next to it. It was all so civilized.
Salad Nicoise and a Cinzano—neat.
Then we met Medhat and the driver, Romany. We were dropped off at Karnak Temple.
The complex is either the largest or second largest compound in the world. Angkor Wat apparently keeps increasing in size as satellite imagery reveals more and more of it buried in deep jungle.
We walked and walked and walked. And walked.
I took so many pictures—it is impossible to choose just one or two. Check the Instagram accounts if you want to see more.
But one of the most impressive parts was the Great Hypostyle Hall.
There are 134 enormous columns. Note the scale versus the humans around its base.
And the Obelisk of Hatshepsut—the only female Pharaoh. It is 97 feet tall, and how it was transported from Aswan—400 miles away—is unknown.
When we were exhausted, I was taken back to my hotel. When I stepped into the pool, steam hissed, and the water boiled around my feet.
That gets us to Tuesday.
I’ll need to get back to that in next week’s story.
I’m being picked up soon to drive to Dendera.
But I’ll tease with a visit to the Ramessium where lies Ozymandias.
I met a traveller from an antique landPercy Shelley’s “Ozymandias”
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
And on a visit to Medinet Habu Temple.
It is a fascinating compound. Most of it is by Ramses III.
Ray was able to join us. He could also inspect the works. He supervises this and many others for the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. Throughout the site (and others), eyes would light up when he appeared.
“Doctor! Doctor! Doctor!”
At one part of the site, workers were making mud bricks using the ancient formula.
Each brick is stamped with the University for Chicago logo. This will differentiate them in the future as “modern.”
Using bricks of the same material they used in ancient times is also very good for the old mud-brick walls they are stabilizing or encapsulating.
Ramses would appear for an audience and adulation from a door-like opening about 15 feet up in a wall covered in thousands of images done in bas relief. They took to a room outside that temple room where the Pharaoh would prepare or rest up.
This is Ramses’ bed:
This is Ramses’ throne:
This is Ramses’ W.C.:
I don’t know the mechanics for the removal of the waste. Perhaps there was some kind of royal flush.
The walls were often covered in battle scenes. Ramses was always depicted as the largest figure. He was always performing great feats of prowess.
There are many scenes of captives bound up as prisoners or slaves to be or destined to be sacrificed.
There are numerous images of one oval after another. Inside each oval is a head in profile. It is easy to detect the geographical source by the features and by the ornaments on the head. These represent cities or regions conquered.
In one section, there were clear images of many dozens of severed hands.
“This was how they counted the enemy’s dead.”
But they discovered there was cheating going on. Hands from their own army were being turned in.
They came up with an alternative.
“Do you know what these are?”
Hmmmm… nah. Couldn’t be.
“They could tell which team these belonged to. The Egyptians were circumcised. The enemies were not.”
That way, they knew they were counting the enemy’s d… ummm… dead.
There’s a lot more to Tuesday, but that’ll have to wait til next week.
But here are some impressions I wrote Wednesday:
Valley of the Kings
Across the wide water, a far long high reddish ridge rises.
“What is that called?” I ask.
“The Valley of the Kings,” my friend replies.
My breath is shortened.
My gaze fixes.
Thousands of years just across the water.
The river happens to be the Nile.
We scrabbled up dusty rubble slopes.
Dun dirt, lifeless, a desert where nothing lives.
We were in search of eternal life.
There were holes in the dead crumbling rock. We clambered into and down them.
Thousands years ago, nameless human laborers cut and bored and chiseled into these barren cliffs.
“As fresh as the day the paint was applied.”
In February 2022, my friend spoke those words.
He has spent a lifetime here and commands the works to find, protect and, often, put the ancient broken pieces back together.
The uniformed security guard says in pleasure when he sees him, an Uzi strapped across his chest.
The artist recording nearly invisible carved images on worn stone implores.
The European master mason measuring an ancient block with a surveying transom.
The laborers in long “skirts” with scarves wrapped round their heads making mud blocks smile broadly, often with crooked broken teeth. They are making mud blocks exactly as they were made thousands of years ago.
We walk this earth three score, four, perhaps a little more.
We leave behind a little pile. Paper, crafts, money, memories… work—the flesh and blood behind it is forgotten after grandchildren pass.
The gatekeeper touches his forehead wrapped in a scarf with a few fingers of his right hand.
Curing the ills of the dead fifty centuries gone. Preserving their immortality for another generation or two or three.
Down, down, down into the heart of stone. The dead dusty rubble far behind and above us.
The soldier, the courtesan, the lawyer, the contractor… live on painted walls and ceilings, incised in stones hard and soft, their names raised in relief by artisans whose own names are the dust above us.
I am a traveler to this antique land. I know this place and these works on paper. Words and pictures from a long ago childhood. Words and pictures my friends have shared on the far shores across a sea and ocean.
I live in a new world whose recorded history is one-tenth five thousand.
A new world whose sophistication struggles to match these painted walls.
“Fresh as the day the artist laid down these strokes.”
Grapes, vines and wine drunk fifty centuries ago are before my eyes.
“Look on my works and despair,” say the tyrant, artist, billionaire in 1850 and 1920 and 1960.
“Look on my unattainable beauty and athleticism,” the actor and champion said when I was young.
“What was her name? What record did he break? “
We, all of us, leave far less than a shattered visage in a distant desert.
Colossal statues grand pulled from pedestals, faces erased from walls by jealous or angered descendants…
A lifetime is nothing.
A millennium is nothing.
Four thousand years four times nothing.
We climb, scrabble and emerge, borne into the light.
Before us dust and rubble. Land that could never have been alive. It rains here but once every other year.
Down the slopes. Each pair of boots branding its signature prints onto the powdery earth.
Cloudless azure sky. A fuzzy white disc pouring heat and light all over us.
The sun drops, yellows, reddens and kisses the mountain top to the west. Slowly, slowly but in only a few moments its flaming eye blinks shut.
Drink the wine. Eat the bread. Do the work of your span.
And the day ends on the shore of this ancient river. Another day closer to the end. A day ticked off long from the first.