Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sinai sunrise

The sunrise from the top of Mount Sinai was awesome. Cold. Very cold for me; I booked as fast as I could to the top and was a little sweaty in the early morning hours. But it was definitely worth it. LOVED this trip. Sorry it is in descending order. I don't feel like fixing it, it takes forever to upload pictures here. :D Enjoy.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I have gotten through about one-third of my trip so far. I hope that you find it interesting. I am trying to write in reasonable detail because this blog is also my journal of sorts because I do not have time to write everything twice. I encourage you to read the Egyptian postings in numerical order even though they go down to up on this page. I'll be back whenever I can, and I'll try to get some pictures up soon.

Egypt 4

Let me tell you a little about modern Egypt. I will return to the account of my travels in a bit. Life surrounds the Nile. 94% of the country is desert, on either side of the Nile. There are people who live in those areas, but not nearly as many as by the river. Bedouins are nomadic desert-dwellers that the government is trying to get to settle down with gifts of water and homes, but they continue their nomadic ways, leaving their government-subsidised homes to their cattle. Cairo is a large city, with little to no municiple trash collecting. Thus it smells and there is trash everywhere, often in burning heaps. There are modern elements and very outdated elements. Most of the dwellings are brick cubes in large buildings, most of which are unfinished, with rebar sticking out the top. I hear that this is because of taxes on finished buildings are higher than on unfinished ones. Basically every brick structure is unfinished, all are surrounded by trash, and most have laundry hanging out the windows. The water is unsafe for foreigners to drink. Almost everyone in our group got sick notwithstanding our efforts at not drinking the water and taking careful showers. I still feel a little ill after I eat and find myself running to the restroom at random times, and it has been a few days since we got back. Pre-med majors keep prescribing me stuff that sounds iffy, hahaha. I think I will see one of the two real doctors on staff here today, to get my stitches out and see what I can do about my stomach.

Oops, stitches. That happened before Egypt playing volleyball. It was a really good play, but there was a wall in the way of my really good play, and it did not yield to my elbow. Four stitched later, I'm doing great.

Back to modern Egypt. The Nile is really a beautiful river. There are farms running up and down its sides wherever there are no buildings. There are canals all over the place, bringing Nile water to wherever farmers and anyone else needs it. There are hundreds and hundreds of mosques everywhere, and when the call to prayer sounds, there is no escaping the sound. It is a drone over the entire city, and a sort of eery drone at that, because of allof the different mosques all playing different songs at the same time. Individually, they are each very, very cool--I love the system of music they used to create those songs, it is just so different from western music.

The people are generally poor and kind, and generally think of Americans as money bags to be pilfered any way possible. They are still kind, I promise, just trying to get by. The men wear American style cothing in the cities and galabeas in the country areas. Galabeas are basically thin man-dresses. My roomates picked some up. They are not flattering on the white guys, haha. Women cover all of their skin except for their faces and hands while in public.

There are guns everywhere. Every block has bored gaurd in a white "tourist police" uniform sitting next to his assault rifle or directing traffic with a pistol on his hip. Every once in a while, at the most important places, there are either regular army forces or special forces, I am not sure which, standing or sitting next to trucks and behind bullet-proof barriers in their dark green uniforms. THe heat must be terrible, it was tough for me in light pants and a t-shirt.

Egypt is an amazing place that is loaded with history. Around every corner there seems to be a run down building, and they are all important historical markers. I remember passing a random set of ruins on the road, unmarked, ungaurded, and unkept, sitting between a building and a field; a student asked what they were and what era they were from to a guide or professor, and he explained that these remarkably well preserved walls once held government offices . . . three or so thousand years ago. Absolutely incredible.

Egypt 3

Our next stop was an indoor/outdoor collection of important artifacts from the . . . can't remember which dynasties, sorry. Ramses II was there, so it must have included the 19th dynasty, which was 1300ish BC and later. There were some incredibly well preserved artifacts and statues among the items there, including one massive Ramses II with his feet missing due to erosion from the annual flooding of the Nile (which stopped once the Aswan Dam was built, the first built in the early 1900s and the final one built in the fifties).

An interesting sidenote: Words in languages from this area come in three-consenant roots that are altered to change the meeting slightly. Therefore words life book, page, paper, and desk might all have the same root and then vowels are changed between the three letters to specify the meeting. So the root "mss" means "son of" or "son of the god __," with the blank being filled by the prefix to the mss. Thus, "Ramses" or "Rameses" [Ra-mss] means "son of the god Ra." (Ra is the head of the Egyptian pantheon, the most powerful of the gods). And "Moses" means "son of the God . . ." They did not know who Moses' god was when he was drawn out of the water. In Hebrew, "Moses" means "drawn from the water." Fascinating how the roots work.

Back to Ramses II. Some people think that he is the Pharoah of the Exodus. He was the greatest of the warrior Pharoahs and has some astonishing niches in his belt: He built one of the greatest empires of Egypt, walked into the first recorded ambush in the history of warfare in a campaign against the Hittites (and then turned the battle in his favor), and signed the first peace treaty known to mankind, also with the Hittites, who lived in the Syria to Turkey region. He built tons of new things, treasure-cities, incredible stonework, and temples. It is kind of hard to tell what is his and what he stole from previous pharoahs because he often etched out their names and placed his own in their place. Pharaohs put their names deeper in the stone after him, haha.

A word about names of Pharaohs. They were each given new names in temple ceremonies, after a washing and anointing. The dipictions in the Luxor and Karnac temples show a washing or anointing followed by a covenant made between the pharoah and the god Amen-Ra (same as Ra, he merged with a local god Amun or Amen and stayed at the head of the pantheon); the god has his hand to the square and is pronouncing a promise to the king. Other depictions have the god's hands or hand on the king's head--our Egyptian guide said that represents an investiture of authority from god to pharoah. Finally, the pharoah was caught in the sacred embrace with Amen-Ra and promised godhood in the hearafter.

Dang. I just realized that Ihave been spelling "pharaoh" wrong, and I do not really want to go through and fix them all. Oh well. You'll just have to suffer with my lack of strictness in that regard. I am learning Hebrew, and vowels don't really matter all that much, so I am beginning to get lax in my vowels, mixing them up and around. Alas.

Egypt 2

Our first night was spent at a middle quality hotel on the Israeli side of the border. The shower worked (although it had no seperate floor, there was just a drain in the middle of the bathroom. An interesting innovation, perhaps), the beds had no bugs, and we were safe. It was a fun night playing games, and some people took taxis to the Red Sea. Word is that there was some skinny dipping. Let it be known that I had nothing to do with that, haha :D

After crossing the border, which I explained in "Egypt 1," we went to Cairo and saw the Pyramids. It's funny, I always thought that they were in the desert a ways, but that is just because the pictures we see of them are facing away from Cairo. In reality, they are very close to residential areas and downtown Cairo.

The Pyramids were more impressive in person than I possibly imagined. Millions of tons of stone stacked perfectly, each block 2.5-5 tons, with hundreds of thousands of blocks. The pyramid of Khufu was the tallest man made structure in the world for 3800 years. They were built in about 2600 BC. Incredible. The inside was less than spectacular, a shaft running upwards to the middle, where and empty tomb room sat. No circulation of air, and thousands of tourists coming through is bad news. The gaurd out front offered me two hundred camels for the girl I was walking in back of. I declined the offer.

Egyptian religion surrounded the afterlife with an obsession that seems intense to me. Every aspect of the pyramids represented resurrection or eternal life or the afterlife or judgement, and as we learned about Egypt in our Ancient Near East class (from Professor Andrew Skinner, a well known scholar and Egyptologist), it was clear that life was good and fleeting and the afterlife was better and permanent for Ancient Egyptians. Everything revolves around judgement day, and having your heart weighed against the feather of Ma'at, which is truth, justice, goodness, balance, well-doing, and all sorts of other things like that. If your heart is heavy with mistakes and misdeeds, you are consigned to the underworld. If your heart is light, you enjoy the embrace of Osiris, the god of resurrection, and you may return to your body (which was why mummification and statue building was so important--either would work) and enjoy the afterlife and becoming one with Osiris, becoming a god yourself. If your body is destroyed, so is your afterlife. Bummer.

Anyways, the pyramids were incredible. So this is random: we watched a light and sound show at the pyramids, and there was an Egyptian bagpipe orchestra that performed there. Awesome. And I have a video of me dancing in front of the pyramids. Yes, ballroom in front of the pyramids. Woot.

The sphinx was cool and a bit smaller than I thought it would be, but I was not feeling very well at that point and do not remember anything. "Awesome: A big lion with a man's face," were my feelings at that point. Lots of people were lining up carefully to get pictures that looked like they were kissing the sphinx, positioning themselves just so that their heads looked similar in size and the lips were just right, and I almost stole a kiss from and unsuspecting Emily Page as she lined up her picture just right, haha. Fortunately I had mercy (and wisdom) enough not to engage in such frivolity :D

Egypt 1

The first site we stopped at on the trip to Egypt (we were still in the state of Israel at the time) was an overlook/park/memorial for David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. It is a lush little park overlooking the Judean wilderness in the area that the camp of the ancient Israelites probably stayed for 38 of their 40 years of wandering. It was desolate, utterly devoid of water, with few plants and lots of rocks. It was beautiful, in its own way, and I am thinking of putting up pictures against the rules of the center, because this diaogue really could use some multimedia and everyone else is putting up pictures on their blogs. Hrm.

Anyways, it was beautiful and not as important or interesting as some of our other stops. The second one was a stop at the ruins of a fortress that was built in the third century BC on an important trade route. I do not recall the civilization that built it (and consequently got that question wrong on my quiz today), but the Romans took it over when they got into power and then it became Byzantine when the Roman Empire split. It remained Byzantine and an important waystation for travelers because of the aridity of the climate and complete lack of water. The ruins were massive, because each new group built onto the existing structures and built their own to complement them. The most impressive were two large churches built by Byzantine Christians-- they were large and had much still standing from about 1700-2000 years ago. We were still in Israel at this point.

The border crossing going into Egypt was not difficult at all. About 90ish people in our group (79 students and a dozen or so adults) got through together in about an hour, maybe a little more, without mishap or standing in too many lines. Both sides were kind and willing, and US airport security is probably a little bit tighter than what we had to go through to get into Egypt. Once accross, Egyptian security for tourists is intense. Much of their economy relies on tourism, and when there was a terrorist act against a fairly random bus many years ago, GDP was affected in a huge way as people stopped coming to Egypt for a time. So now, the buses travel in caravans for long trips, guarded by a dozen men in trucks ahead and behind, each man with an AK-47. On the bus, there was a handsome gentleman in the front with a larg submachine gun at his hip, poking out under his suit coat. This is standard for all tour busses in Egypt. Ironically, travel in Egypt is very safe compared to travel in many places around the world, and places like Los Angeles have many, many times the homicide rate as Egypt does for tourists, even without security. There are two professional drivers on each bus, and how professinal they were. Driving is . . . crazy in Egypt. There are no stop lights and many busy intersections, and bus drivers treat their vehicles like taxis, pushing into traffic and flooring it and driving against traffic on the freeway (no kidding, I have video footage of us doing it) and doing whatever else they need to do to get people where they want to go on time. Everyone was incredibly nice to us. Touching of women was rarer then we expected and not at all as bad as it could have been (unwanted shoulder contact is better than contact elsewhere), but that could have been because we were diligent and very very loud when it did happen. A small part of me wants to have an excuse to punch someone in the face for something like that, but I am very glad I did not have need to resort to such drastic measures.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Back from Egypt!

My goodness, what a trip. Unfortunately I do not have time to go into depth about each of the tombs, temples, and ruins we visited or all of the modes of transportation we used and all of the illnessess and craziness that happened, but I hope I will soon. What an intense trip.

We spent one night on the Sinai peninsula on the way down, then into Cairo, then Luxor, back to Cairo, back to Sinai (this time the mountain), and then back here.

One thing I must mention: I fee like a new man. This trip has given me a new perspective on life in the real world, outside my posh existence. My opportunities are endless and odds are if you are reading this, so are yours. Most are not so fortunate, and it really isn't their fault, the opportunities simply do not exist for them. One small example of what I mean is that there seems to be no municipal trash collecting in Cairo, or perhaps there is for the few who can afford it. This means that there is trash everywhere, in burning heaps or moldering heaps, floating down the canals and the Nile, right next to children playing in the water and a farmer washing his produce (which we were not allowed to eat, of course, no water from the tap, no fresh fruits or vegetables, nothing that hadn't been cooked, and nothing that looked iffy, meaning we had bread, meat, and rice for eight days. Mm-mm :D Almost all of us got sick anyways, and I still am).

And life is amazing, I am so happy to be back in Jerusalem in my own bed. It's funny that coming back from Egypt was coming home. Jerusalem is home now. I love it. Have a great day, and I will try to find time to tell you about Egypt and answer all of the questions I've recieved; alas I have a seven page paper (single spaced, a warm welcome to Palestinian essays) I have to do today.