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Hatshepsut, Lady Pharaoh

In the blistering desert not far from the Valley of the Kings is the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Seen from a distance, the temple appears to have been birthed by the mountain in which it rests. A long stairway/ramp leads to its three tiers.

Hatshepsut was the wife (and half-sister) of Thutmose II, and when he died ruled as regent to her stepson, Thutmose III, who she believed was too young to take the throne. According to Ahmed, she promised to turn over the throne in five years’ time, sending him away to learn the art and science of being a pharaoh while she ruled the country. But after five years the idea of relinquishing the throne must have been anathema to her, so she remained in power alongside her stepson. Scholars believe she was the second or third female ruler, and certainly the most powerful. Her temple was constructed over a period of some twenty years in the 15th century BC. She was also a prolific builder, erecting monuments at Karnak, including two obelisks that, when they were erected, were the tallest buildings in the world.

Late in her son’s reign and into her grandson’s, attempts were made to expunge physical images of her by chiseling her cartouches off walls, defacing images of her, destroying or disfiguring her statues and otherwise trying to write her out of the history of the pharaohs. Whether this was because her successors — especially her grandson — resented her legacy or opposed female pharaohs in principle, is unclear. So misogyny could have played a role (sigh).

Up in the Air!

Thursday got off to an inauspicious start. After rising early for our 6 a.m. pickup to catch our hot air balloon, we cooled our heels for nearly 30 minutes till the balloon company’s van arrived to take us to the water taxi across the river. The crossing was very slow, then we joined a chaotic queue of boats jockeying to disgorge passengers to waiting vans. More chaos as the vans hustled dozens of passengers to the launch site. Our safety briefing consisted of instructions on how to avoid breaking our legs if we crash-landed.

Ten to twelve balloons fired up as the sun was rising, and we clambered aboard with great anticipation. Our craft slowly rose to perhaps 30-40 feet and was struggling to gain more altitude. Soon we skidded hard on the ground, but rose again. Meanwhile, other balloons were rising with what seemed like minimal effort.

Suddenly we were descending again, skimming the tops of a field of corn, but we recovered. Our friend Chris reported later that there seemed to be a malfunctioning valve or feed supplying the gas that would elevate us. We gained a bit more altitude, but then there was a palm tree looming ahead (which we side-swiped) and a frightening set of power lines right in our path. The pilot managed to lift us high enough to clear them (whew!) but our ride was nearing its end. We took a hard landing in the dirt of the launch field, and that was it. Although there were mildly thrilling moments, I have to say that my first balloon adventure was underwhelming. Back to The Merit for breakfast!

Our last outing with Ahmed was to the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut’s Temple. On the way we stopped to examine the Colossi of Memnon, two enormous statues right at the side of the road. These 60-foot-tall statues of Amenhotep III originally guarded a temple, which is being excavated. An earthquake in 27 BC fractured one of the statues and subsequently people reported that it was singing at dawn; the phenomenon was later attributed to wind blowing through cracks and holes.

Beginning in the 1500s BC, the pharaohs, in an effort to foil tomb robbers, chose the remote Valley of the Kings to construct their burial places. The landscape is truly forbidding, with sheer rock faces of sandstone and vast empty expanses of desert. There are 64 tombs there, 45 belonging to kings, the rest to high priests. The most recent discoveries were in 2006.

Entry to individual tombs is tightly controlled. At any given time perhaps fewer than ten are accessible; a ticket allows you to enter a specified three. For an extra fee you can visit others, including Seti, the deepest and longest, and Tut’s. I visited Ramses I, III and IV. The images below are from IV. Not being an Egyptologist, I cannot interpret the figures, but can only appreciate them for ther beauty and obvious symbolism.

From Ramses I:

And from Ramses III;

Next time: Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple.

Sailing to Luxor

While we enjoyed breakfast onboard Merit, we sailed toward the city of Luxor and its grand temples, Karnak and Luxor. The Temple of Luxor is less grand than Karnak, which is the largest temple complex in the world.

Multiple pharaohs built the temple of Luxor and its chapels over centuries beginning in 1400 BC, including Amenhotep III, Tutankhamen, Ramses II and, during the Roman period, Alexander.

Karnak is, in a word, overwhelming, with a vast array of temples, pylons, obelisks and chapels dating from 1970 BC and onward into the 300s BC. Approximately thirty pharaohs contributed to the complex. From the outside, the entrance is nondescript, but once inside it’s hard to know where to look.

Capturing the scale of Karnak in images is a distinct challenge. At the same time, there are so many details — from hieroglyphics on columns to painted scenes on ceilings — that one doesn’t know where to focus next. The Avenue of Ram-Headed Sphinxes guides you into the complex.

Sadly, some of the obelisks have been “relocated” from both Karnak and Luxor, including one that stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Other antiquities have found their way to museums around the world, and it’s a monumental (excuse the pun) effort to repatriate them. But the effort goes on.

A Double Temple

Idiosyncrasies of the Nile: I mentioned earlier that the southern part of Egypt, near Aswan, is called Upper Egypt. The Nile flows north toward Lower Egypt (Cairo) from its junction with the White Nile, originating at Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile, from Lake Tana in Ethiopia. Its drainage basin covers eleven countries. There’s dispute about which is longer, the Nile or the Amazon. The prevailing winds, however, blow from north to south, making sailing the Nile a challenge. Our dahabiya trip was south to north, so we were propelled by a tug and the sails never raised. It took me about four days to get my head around this. Meanwhile, graceful feluccas glided past, sails filled with the prevailing breezes.

Kom Ombo is an unusual temple, dedicated to two gods, Sobek, the Crocodile God, and Horus, the Falcon. As such, it has two entrances, two sanctuaries and multiple halls.

There’s a small crocodile museum featuring mummified crocs.

Wall carvings at the rear of the temple represent surgical instruments, as well as a depiction of Isis in a birthing chair.

Our typical day would start with breakfast on Merit, followed by a site visit with our congenial guide, Ahmed, then a return to the dahabiya for lunch and a rest. One day at lunch a couple of enterprising young men approached the boat to sell us merchandise. One of them would toss an item up to the dining deck for our inspection, then the buyer would carefully lower payment back to their boat.

Aswan to Abu Simbel

The next day we were up at 4:30 a.m. for the long drive to Abu Simbel, a city in the south of Egypt — inexplicably called Upper Egypt — with a temple of the same name. Our guide, Maggie, told us we’d be driving through the desert and there’d be nothing to see, and she was right. Flat beige sand as far as the eye could see. When dawn broke we saw activity off to our east, and it turned out that they’re building a city in the desert to alleviate overcrowding along the Nile. Egypt is 95% desert, mostly uninhabited except for a few Bedouin tribes that live in the few oases. Water to this new community will be supplied by a canal fed by Lake Nasser, an artificial lake the size of Rhode Island.

The Pharaoh Ramses II, called the greatest of Egypt’s kings, built two temples at Abu Simbel in the 13th century BC; one is faced with four colossi of himself, the other smaller structure is dedicated to his favorite wife (of 41), Nefertari (not to be confused with Nefertiti) and the goddess Hathor. Entering past the 65-foot-tall colossi, one enters a series of halls containing more statues, along with wall carvings and hieroglyphics depicting the monarch’s life and conquests.

In 1964, as a result of the creation of Lake Nasser behind the Aswan High Dam, the temples were threatened with submersion under the rising waters of the Nile. UNESCO undertook a massive effort to relocate Abu Simbel, along with several other significant monuments at risk, under the banner Saving the Monuments of Nubia. Over a four-year period, the mountain and its temples were cut into massive blocks, disassembled and reassembled on a cliff 65 meters above and 200 meters back from the river. It is still considered one of the greatest challenges in archaeological engineering history.

Our first trip on the Nile took us to the Temple of Philae, dedicated to the goddess Isis. This was another site relocated to save it from the inundation of the river during the construction of the dam.

Much newer than Abu Simbel, this temple dates from the 3rd century BC, and Isis was worshipped here until the 7th century AD.

We wrapped up our temple viewing with a tasty lunch at a colorful Nubian restaurant along the shore. These water taxis are ubiquitous, especially at key sites along the river.

The Merit was to be our floating home for the next four days, and we were excited to board the dahabiya after a long, hot day. We will sail during the day and dock at night.

From the Bucket List: Egypt

I don’t know how long I’ve dreamed of going to Egypt, but its history and the romance of the Nile have captivated me for what seems like my whole life. And now I’m actually here!

Arriving in Cairo and meeting up with my group — eight travelers and two guides — we spent our first day at the Museum of Egyptian Civilization. Just inside the entry lies the oldest skeleton excavated in the country, dating back 35,000 years.

Egyptian history and mythology are intertwined, and the museum guides you on a well-organized journey through history, from the Stone Age through the Greco-Roman era to Pharaonic times, with detailed exhibits about mummification. Our guide, Ma Ha, gave us a graphic description of the process of ensuring all liquid is out of the body (mummification is basically dehydration) describing the various tools used for extracting the brain through the nose! A grisly process indeed. Important organs — the heart, kidneys, liver, stomach and intestines were mummified separately, and all but the heart were re-inserted into the body before it was placed in the sarcophagus.

There are collections of jewelry and makeup, and clothing from the Islamic era, like this wedding dress.

I fear some of the larger images aren’t loading properly, so I may have to fix them later.

Mummies hold pride of place in this museum, with more than two dozen famous pharaohs and their wives displayed on the lower level. Sadly, no photos are allowed down there, but we saw all the Ramses, Neferteri, and Hatshepsut, among many others.

A long drive with many delays took us to a Nubian village for our one-night stay at the comfortable Nub Inn. We had a sumptuous dinner of two kinds of rice, fish, chicken, vegetables, potatoes and salad, after which a group of men with percussion instruments played Nubian music and lured us onto the dance floor.

A Crazy Cooking Class and Purification

Claudia is an energetic and talkative chef who split us into three groups to make lunch. The menu included quinoa pancakes, roasted chicken, salad, roasted vegetables and sweet tortillas, washed down with a local beer. Those of us lucky enough to be in the kitchen working on the pancakes avoided smoke inhalation in the outdoor shed where Claudia’s husband was tending a fire to cook the chicken and other dishes requiring a lot of heat. Disturbingly, fluffy little guinea pigs were scampering around behind the fire; I wonder if they sensed they were destined to be someone’s dinner (guinea pigs are widely eaten in Ecuador and Peru). The pig below was not included in our lunch, but rather one Lori had ordered from the hotel so everyone could try it.

We met up with our shaman, Julio, for a walk to the sacred mountain for a purification ceremony. After about a mile and a quarter walk we ended up at a small pool fed by a waterfall. On the hillside above, Julio created a circle of rose petals, divided it into quadrants for earth, wind, water and air and laid bunches of herbs and grasses on each point. After a long prayer (in Kichwa, more or less translated by our guide, Mauricio) all who were going to participate went down to the pool and entered the water (less than knee-deep). The ritual started with Julio pouring water from the fall onto a person’s head, then the person would dump a bowl of water onto his/her own head. Using a long spear, Julio then touched different parts of the person’s body; and, after taking a big swig from a plastic bottle of what looked like plain water, he artfully spat on the person. To finish, he announced what parts of the person’s body might be in distress. Back on the hillside, he used two polished stones to knock on people’s heads. After another long prayer, we hiked back to the top of the hill.

Near sunset we spent a little time overlooking this mountain lake.

Some people we met on our walk through Mauricio’s village.

And the resident llama at our hotel.

Mystery Trip Revealed

A few months ago, my friend Lori, who runs a travel company called Focused Escapes, announced that she’d be putting together some mystery trips. She promised those of us who took the leap of faith that she’d take us somewhere out of the country we’d never been and her price would include airfare; we would only find out the destination a few days ahead of time.. Because I trust Lori and her attention to detail, I jumped right on it. Soon came a lengthy questionnaire in which I checked off all the places I had been or had upcoming plans to visit, along with queries about activities I liked and hated. Next she asked me to block off some dates in July that would be nailed down once she began working on flights. A few clues followed: I’d be flying during the day (that told me I was going south) and that the flights were short enough that I could comfortably fly coach. She said we wouldn’t need to exchange money or pack plug adapters. A couple of my traveling friends were also going on this trip, so we got our heads together to identify possible places none of us had been to.

Four days ahead of the flight the destination was revealed as Ecuador — which my friends and I had put at the top of our short list of possibilities. Turns out Ecuador is an easy trip from here: 3 ½ hours to Miami, then 4 ¼ to Quito; they use the same kind of plugs we do, plus their currency is the US dollar. Quito sits at an elevation of just under 9000 feet, surrounded by the Ecuadorean Andes.

A short drive away is Pululahua, a dormant volcano.

Ecuador sits right on the equator, and we learned during our visit to the open-air museum Intiñan that the earth bulges out at the equator, meaning it’s not a perfect sphere. At the museum you can test the coriolis effect (water draining from a sink counter clockwise in the southern hemisphere and clockwise in the northern), as well as observe water draining straight down when the vessel is positioned precisely on the equator. A stroll through the grounds takes you past a number of totem replicas from South American countries, including a moai from Easter Island.

Our drive to Otavalo took us through Cayambe, a town famous for its bozcochos, a twice-baked biscotti-like confection eaten topped with cheese and Nutella. Sounds awful, but they were delicious. This is the only place in the country where bozcochos are made.

Carlos is a ninety year-old master weaver who has been plying his craft since he was eight years old. His alpaca scarves and shawls were lovely. Our visit with him was the first of several with craftspeople practicing the old ways.

Down the street, a lady demonstrated dying wool with plants and with a bug that grows on a cactus; the bug, when smashed, creates several rich colors.

This lady makes, plays and sells pipes of all varieties in her little shop.

Get Thee to a Nunnery

One hot, sunny day, not to confine ourselves to monks, we ventured to a nunnery. The girls — I’d estimate twenty or so — were all teenagers; girls don’t become nuns as young as boys enter the monastery. The similarity was striking, however, as the girls were giggly and energetic as their counterparts in the lay world. Two of them were practicing the dungchen, a long trumpet-like horn whose sound is sometimes compared to an elephant singing! Like the monks, they also shave their heads.

A return trip to Punakha Dzong allowed us to appreciate its beauty in the daylight and capture the jacaranda trees bordering the river. Inside, we caught a glimpse of monks at their daily rituals — like college students strolling the campus. The lovely painted prayer wheel at bottom is typical for an important dzong.

What’s a Chorten, Anyway?

Our first encounter with chortens was at the top of the Dochula Pass between Thimphu and Punakha. In the center of a small field was a large one, surrounded by 108 smaller ones. Inside each one there were small figures, mostly religious relics.

A chorten is also called a stupa, and, as with all Buddhist structures, has symbolic components. The base represents earth; the dome, water; the spire, fire, and its 13 segments the steps leading to Buddhahood; the crescent moon and sun air; its vertical spike ether or the sacred light of Buddha. Inside, a carved wooden pole, called a shokshing, is the life spirit of the chorten.

The Bhutanese people (called Drukpas) believe that if one circumambulates the chorten (s)he will collect blessings emanating from it.

A typical chorten is made of whitewashed stone and is embellished with the Buddha’s eyes and perhaps bands of dark red. There is a chorten in the center courtyard of every temple or dzong., and often a large one in the center of a town.

The Royal Botanical Garden at the top of Dorchula Pass is a lovely spot for walking. Forty-six varieties of rhododendron bloom there during spring and summer; but during our visit many were past flowering and others just bore fat buds that looked ready to pop open. It must be a spectacular sight when the flowers are in full bloom. Scattered throughout are little caves for praying or meditating, painted in the exquisite decorative style we were to see all over the country.

We wandered around Lobesa, a small town known for its obsession with decorative penises (more on that later…maybe), encountering some friendly residents and shopkeepers.

The blue hour found us at the Punakha dzong, one of the most important in the country.