Today’s journey takes us from the M/S Nile Dolphin in Luxor to Sharm el-Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula. This means we must part ways with our friends Mark and Janice. We’ve been together for nearly four days straight but they’ve chosen a different resort town on the Red Sea for scuba diving. When their taxi arrives, we say farewell. For the next hour, the kids are depressed, especially Kate. Goodbyes are tough, I admit. We linger in the ship’s lounge as we wait for our ride to the airport. I field many questions about why we cannot go with them.
Our flight from Luxor to Sharm el-Sheikh is uneventful enough. I do notice there are very few women on the flight or working in the airport.
Memphis Tours picks us up at the airport and we meet Gomaa (which means Friday in Arabic), also known as Ahmed Gomaa. The van delivers us to a large, beautiful resort where an English woman in the lobby tells Kai they serve “20 kinds of pudding” at the dessert buffet at dinner. “How long until dinner?” he asks.
The property here is so expansive that we need a golf cart to take us and our luggage to a spacious, second-floor suite, way across the complex. As we drive, we get a glimpse of the spectacular pool.
This resort has everything we could want... except internet in our room. Over the next two days, we make many phone calls to the front desk to remedy this situation. We’ve been on a Nile cruise ship for three days so we need to blog and email. We relax in our really nice room and do some laundry in the sink.
The sun sets behind the mountains as we walk to dinner.
We dine in the gigantic dining room amongst hundreds of people. This is the largest hotel complex I have ever seen and the amount of people here is mind-boggling. Each buffet serving area is beautifully arranged but packed with people. As you stand in line for the salad, someone else simply walks up - without waiting in line - and cuts in front of you. It’s maddening. We fill our plates and wait for the staff to refresh the dessert table. Once it’s full of beautiful offerings, we converge and each make a plate with samples of everything.
The next day is an official day of relaxation at the pool. Kurt and I both have varying degrees of Pharaoh’s Revenge and need to find a lounge spot which is near the restroom, the kids’ pool and the wifi hot spot. The kids have a blast playing all day in the pool.
Kurt discovers that the hotel is hosting a physician’s conference and I do notice the small number of Western tourists. I feel self-conscious at times because I’m wearing my swimsuit. The Muslim women are completely covered up even when they’re in the water. At times I feel people are staring at us because I am uncovered. Kurt is convinced that people are looking at the kids’ hair color instead. The fact is that we simply look different from Egyptian people and that is enough to illicit stares. Still, we enjoy the cool pool and the sunset, framed by the mountains, at the end of the day.
After dinner, we linger around the pool area as the kids’ club hosts a disco. The group leader hops up on stage and shows the kids some choreography as they play children’s songs in different languages. Then a man takes the microphone to inform us it’s nearly time for the snake and cobra show. What?!? Kurt’s excited and grabs front-row seats for us. The kids are into it, too. So I wonder, is there something wrong with me? I want to run, screaming, as far away as I can while there’s still time.
Sure enough, at 9:00pm, the kids clear the stage, the pulsing music gets louder and two men and a woman wait at the back of the stage. One of the men sets a large wicker basket on stage, and the woman, in a black bodysuit, takes the lid off the basket to pull a cobra out! She swings it by its tail as she moves to the beat. The cobra begins to retract and move its head about as it swings.
Then she puts the cobra down on the stage and she gets down on hands and knees to look the cobra in the eyes. Her hand pounds the stage. The cobra strikes and she dodges. She flicks its tail around and it strikes again but misses her. It’s like a deadly dance. I am terrified and tell Kurt that I’m going to watch the show from the back row. Kai decides to join me so we bolt out of our chairs and head about 5 rows back. We are not the only ones. Kai wants me to pick him up, however, so he can still see what’s going on.
The woman places her hands over the cobra’s head and presses down on it. The cobra seems to instantly go to sleep right there on the stage. Then she picks it up by the tail and swings it back and forth like a pendulum to wake it again. She leaves it coiled on the stage and steps back carefully to the basket for a second cobra. She swings it around and plays the same game, dodging as it strikes at her. She engages both cobras, managing to get out of the way every time either one strikes. She brings out a third cobra from the basket, swings it around and plays with all three. Then she puts the cobras to sleep, one by one, and leaves them lying on the stage.
Now she wants volunteers from the audience to come “help.” Three unwitting young people are led up on stage. She wraps a “sleeping” cobra around each volunteer’s neck and waits for the audience to take pictures. Then each cobra is laid back on the stage and the volunteer has to kiss it. Volunteer one and two do as their told but the third girl is scared beyond belief. The snake woman whispers something and the girl leans down to kiss the cobra. Just as she’s within inches of kissing the cobra, the snake woman jerks the cobra’s sleeping body to tease the girl, who screams and nearly begins crying. Eventually, she, too, kisses the cobra.
Once the cobras are wound up like rope and put back into the basket, the woman opens a large trunk and pulls out a fat boa constrictor. She puts the snake around her neck and comes down into the audience to see if anyone wants to hold it. Both Kate and Kai are interested so they go touch the snake. But I am done. What a terrible way to make a living, I say. Can we go to back to the room now?
All in all, the snake and cobra show lasts a total of 15 minutes. The woman and her crew hang out at a table near the stage after the show. The wicker basket sits on their table. The lid rises and lowers slowly (because the cobras are pushing on it!) as she talks to members of the audience.
Luckily, there are no cobras in my dreams. The next morning we take a long van ride into the Sinai desert to see the Monastery of Saint Katherine. We pass two Bedouin villages and a U.N. Peacekeeping outpost on our three-hour drive. The rocky desert landscape looks inhospitable but ruggedly beautiful. The sandstone rocks have different colored streaks running through them, some red, some brown. No greenery can be seen anywhere until we reach the entrance area of the monastery.
Our guide, Gomaa, tells us that St. Katherine was originally born Dorothea in 294 AD into a wealthy noble family in Alexandria, and she was later baptized as a Christian. Her father sent 30 wise men to change her mind, but they all ended up converting to Christianity. Unfortunately, she was martyred in 305 AD. Her remains were delivered to Sinai by angels and were discovered perfectly intact by monks in 800 AD on the slopes of a nearby mountain, now named after her.
This holy site at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the Tablets of the Law and saw the burning bush, has been acknowledged through the ages: In 330 AD, Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine was so impressed with the sacredness of this area that she had a small chapel built on the site of the Burning Bush. Then in 530 AD the Emperor Justinian ordered the construction of a larger basilica, which became the Church of the Transfiguration, and built the fortress walls to protect the holy property from attack from local Bedouin tribesmen.
In the 12th century a mosque was built next to the bell tower. Gomaa tells us a story about muslim troops marching toward the monastery to capture the site. The monks hastily constructed the mosque (albeit facing the wrong direction). When the troops arrived and saw the mosque, they decided not to attack to fortress. The prophet Mohammed granted protection of the monastery to a delegation of monks who sought him out. (After our tour, we research the timing on these items and they don’t match up. There’s more information which we are probably missing.)
At the entrance of the present day monastery, Bedouin workers in the gardens are caring for the trees and blooming bushes. Well water makes the gardens possible. The stone buildings in the complex blend perfectly into the mountainside and the green garden provides a stark contrast. Above the fortress door are two large wooden boxes where soldiers could lay in wait to pour boiling oil over unwelcome guests.
Just inside, we present our tickets and Kai is handed a sarong to cover his shorts and bare legs. We proceed down narrow passageways to a spot where we see the Burning Bush. It’s a healthy, thriving plant sitting atop a stone wall.
The tour book says the bush we see was originally growing inside the small Chapel of the Burning Bush but it was transplanted just outside to “permit the erection of the altar over the roots.”
Next we see Moses’ Well. The story goes that Moses met his future wife, the oldest of Jethro’s daughters, at this very spot. High above us are the Bell Tower and the mosque’s minaret. We also meet a talkative black cat who lets us pet him.
Among the many places we are not allowed to take pictures is the Church of the Transfiguration. Like other churches we’ve visited, we cannot take photos and we must observe silence while we walk through. A Greek Orthodox monk dressed in black ushers us into the sanctuary and allows us to look around for a limited time. There’s so much to see from the entrance door, dating back to the 12th century, to the decorated marble floors with their inlaid geometric patterns to the 18th century wooden ceiling with gold stars on a green background.
Lamps and candelabra hang everywhere, especially in front of the iconostasis, a four-piece wooden panel, inlaid and gilded with pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. Katherine and St. John the Baptist. These particular iconostasis were gifts to the monastery from the Russian Orthodox church. Behind these iconostasis are the high altar with its marble slab and the prized Mosaic of the Transfiguration, dating back to the 6th century. Two marble sarcophagi, gifts from Peter the Great of Russia (prior to his rule), hold valuable relics including some remains of St. Katherine.
We visit the museum of religious and historical artifacts which hold many old books, icons, paintings and over 6,000 manuscripts. The Codex Syriacus, dating back to the 4th century, and Codex Sinaiticus, two of the most well-known codices of ancient times, were discovered on this property at the end of the 19th century. Paintings of St. Katherine also are displayed here.
Before we leave the monastery, we walk up the rocky hillside to “make the panorama,” as Gomaa calls it. He means he’ll take our family’s picture in front of the monastery.
Once all pictures have been taken, we drive to Dehab, a coastal town on the Red Sea, for lunch. Gomaa takes us through a parking lot where a sign basically says, “No Camels Past This Point.” We pass a gauntlet of stores until we finally reach a seaside restaurant with a beautiful view and enjoy milkshakes and kebobs. Our companions are the overly friendly local cats that are brave enough to get into Kurt’s lap and bold enough to then try and nab the bread off his plate.
After the long drive home, we squeeze in some pool time before dinner in the huge dining room.
In the morning, we have a ride to the airport to return to Cairo. When we get off our Egypt Air flight, we see Hamada waiting for us. The kids run and hug him. He asks all about our time in Sinai and the kids are eager to tell him about the pool at the resort. We request the Sound and Light Show at the Giza Pyramids for our evening entertainment, including dinner at a nearby restaurant with stunning views of the pyramids.
An hour before we leave for dinner, we see Mark and Janice at the pool in our hotel. How can this be? They have just returned from their scuba diving adventure in Hurghada, another coastal town on Red Sea, and have one last night here in Cairo before heading home. We are heading out, so we plan to have a drink with them later.
The Sound and Light Show happens at the foot of the Sphinx. At sunset, the three pyramids are lit with different colored lights as the narrator chronicles their creation. The pharaohs’ stories are told through dramatic readings and orchestral music. A golden funerary mask is superimposed over the Sphinx’s face and hieroglyphics are traced out in laser lights at its feet. Very interesting.
We return to our hotel and find Mark and Janice at the roof-top cafe next door. They've caught glimpses of the light show during their dinner. We visit for over an hour and really savor this unexpected bit of time with them.
The following morning, they’re on a flight home before we even wake up. Still, we’re up early to meet Shaimaa for a day of touring religious sites and museums in Cairo. We pass the Amr Ibn Al-As mosque, the oldest mosque in Africa, built in 642. We won’t be going in, though, because of Friday prayers.
We enter the Christian part of Cairo, known as Coptic Cairo. The streets are full of people, especially young teens, who are off from school today. Here, women do not cover their hair, faces, necks or arms. They dress like we do, still I am self-conscious because we are stared at constantly. A group of four young boys hangs out nearby, leaning up against a car to look at Kai while we listen to Shaimaa.
We see the remains of a Roman tower, built in 98 AD as part of a riverfront fort on the banks of the Nile. This tower and it’s partner tower formed a western gate and now mark the entrance to the Coptic compound we’re in.
We arrive at the Hanging Church, also called the Suspended Church because it was built, in the 9th century, over the Water Gate of Roman Babylon. We see a service in progress but are still allowed to enter and observe. The priests are pouring wine into cups, singing everything instead of simply speaking. Above their heads are wooden panels with ornate paintings of the 12 Apostles.
The congregation is divided into men on the left and women on the right of the sanctuary. Yet people move about during the service to receive communion, to come and go through the doors or move from pew to pew. It’s an active, almost noisy service.
The exterior doors of the sanctuary are wooden, showcasing beautiful geometric designs with ivory inlay and tiny crosses. A poster outside the sanctuary shows the path the Holy Family took through Egypt. We walk past the Church of St. Sergius, which is supposedly built over a cave where the Holy Family took refuge. Here, too, is a Mass in progress but this time it prevents us from entering or seeing the cave (now a crypt) on the other side of the altar.
We also take a peek inside the Ben Ezra Synagogue, dating back to the 12th century. The guide book tells us that the spring next to the church is supposedly the spot where the pharaoh’s daughter found Moses in the reeds and where Mary gathered water to wash Jesus.
On the way to our next stop, we pass the City of the Dead which is a cemetery but also houses much of Cairo’s homeless community. At the top of a hill overlooking the cemetery is the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, a massive building with three, large (and several small) alabaster domes. The Turkish influence is evident in the architecture. This mosque, built in 1848, has a very large courtyard which features a fancy clock from King Louis-Philippe of France. This clock was a gift of thanks for the Pharaonic obelisk (from the Temple of Luxor) which now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. However, the clock was damaged upon delivery and has never worked.
We take off our shoes to walk over a large, carpeted area for worship inside. Thousands of lamps are suspended from the incredibly high ceiling, resembling stars in the sky. They seem to orbit a giant chandelier. Although these were once oil lamps, today they each hold a lightbulb and create a magical effect when you’re inside.
Shaimaa describes the muslim prayer process for us on a personal level because she is a muslim. Five times a day, she must pray. If she is working when the call to worship happens, she can finish her work day and pray when she has free time. If she cannot get to the mosque, she says she can pray at home. Worshippers must bend down while facing Mecca into many prayer positions, which she also demonstrates for us. During prayers inside the mosque, women pray at the back of the room because so as not to distract the men due to the kneeling and bending-over-type positions. She is honest about how she prays and patiently answers all of our questions.
Twice during our time inside the mosque, we are interrupted so local people can take Kai’s picture. We always give the children the choice to agree to the photo or not. We see three girls about Kate’s age, hanging around behind Shaimaa, looking at us and listening as she speaks. There’s never a moment here when we simply blend in.
On our way to the Egyptian Museum, we pass Tahrir Square in the city center. There’s a protest happening today with about one hundred people standing around, and the traffic is forced to move around the crowd. As we get closer, our van is stopped and flyers are handed to the driver. Shaimaa summarizes the flyer saying the protesters want swift justice for former President Mubarak. She also mentions that she has seen small groups of people here since the revolution but this is crowd is a bit bigger than in the last few weeks. As it turns out, these protests briefly turn violent in the coming days just as we leave the country.
At the Egyptian Museum, we have approximately 3 hours to cover centuries’ worth of items. We’ll concentrate on the treasure found in King Tut’s tomb and the mummies - pharaohs and animals. We check our camera at the front gate (near the sphinx) since we can’t bring it in. Inside we pass lots of statues and Shaimaa gives us the highlights on our way to the mummy rooms.
The mummy rooms are the only air conditioned rooms in the museum. In the first room we see about 10 mummies, most of them pharaohs. The small faces are a brown/black color similar to a fire pit after the fire, not the gray/white color of a bare skull. You can also discern a bit of the facial features, too. Some pharaohs still have hair attached to their heads. Cloth covers their bodies but their hands are visible. At first the kids are grossed out but their interest increases as we talk about the temples we’ve visited and which pharaohs connect with each temple.
A majority of the second floor of the museum is full of items found in Tutankhamon’s tomb like interestingly-shaped and designed thrones, loads of statues and the four gilded wooden shrines which housed the three coffins. Two large chariots are on display as well. A separate room showcases all the jewelry found in the burial chamber, the golden funeral mask and two of the coffins themselves.
In the second mummy room, we see Ramses II, Ramses III, Amenhotep, and Hatshepsut among others. We also take a look at an animal mummy room. Seems the ancient Egyptians liked to mummify sacred animals like crocodiles, cats and birds. Creepy stuff. A museum guard rushes us through these two rooms as he wants to close the mummy room a half hour early.
As we walk out of the museum, Shaimaa points out a burnt out building next door to the museum. Apparently this building was burned by the Mubarek government during the January revolution in an effort to destroy records.
Next we head to another part of town where I need sunglasses and a smile - the bazaar. We walk through one narrow alleyway after another looking at everything from housewares to camel leather goods to clothing to knives.
Shaimaa invites us to tea at a cafe deep inside the bazaar. Our table is barely out of the way of the foot traffic in this narrow stretch of sidewalk between merchant tents. Many merchants approach us, trying to sell wallets, kleenex, bread, necklaces, etc. Shaimaa and our security guard sit at the table with us and they talk with the merchants, mostly to shoo them away. Men on a nearby couch smoke on a hookah, a traditional water pipe.
Kai has hot milk with sugar and we leisurely drink our tea, enjoying the unexpectedly relaxing turn the afternoon has taken. A few of the merchants try repeatedly to get our attention when Shaimaa is not looking. We watch the people walking past the cafe and see an occasional Westerner but mostly it’s local people looking at us as we look right back.
Dinner is pizza by the pool at our hotel as we prepare for a side trip to Alexandria. In the morning we’ll take our travel family with us on a weekend Egyptian road trip.