Egypt

Egypt travel tips

Spending a week in Egypt has been great, and we’ve gathered a few tips and helpful things along the way. Some were passed on by our tour guide, some were learned the hard way. Here’s a list of things we think you should consider when traveling in Egypt.

1. They will ask for tips (“baksheesh”) everywhere. Except perhaps Aswan. But still, expect to be asked for tips. In most places, tips are appropriate because that is really a part of how Egyptians earn a living. Their wages are too low to depend on those alone. But be reasonable and don’t let them bully you into much higher tips that you think are deserved.

2. Nothing is free in Egypt. And if someone gives you a very cheap price on something, there’s probably a catch. For example, getting a horse carriage ride around town may only be ten pounds, but getting off the carriage afterward will cost quite a pretty penny. If vendors at huge attractions push things into your arms and tell you it’s free, don’t believe them and push it back into their hands.

3. Egyptian museums aren’t the best in the world, so we were glad we had a guide to explain most things to us. There usually aren’t signs or any details at ruins or old temples either, so either have a guidebook or an actual guide. Several people told us that the big Cairo Egyptian museum wasn’t really worth it unless you paid the extra fee to see the mummies, so we didn’t end up going. They are building a new museum with lots of exhibit halls now, but that probably won’t be open until at least 2016. When it’s open, it will be amazing!

4. Egyptians, like many people around the globe, have a very flexible, fluid approach to time. So when someone tells you “ten minutes,” don’t expect it to be an actual ten minutes.

5. Many taxis do not have meters, so it is important to negotiate a price BEFORE you get in the cab. Yellow taxis usually work by reservation only, and black-and-white taxis are more likely to have meters. All others (varying shades of white) have no meters. Often taxis will charge an extra 10 pounds to put luggage in the trunk or to turn the car off at the destination while they help you get out of the car and to the place.

6. When a temple site says “no photos,” such as Abu Simbel or the Valley of the Kings, they mean it. There are guards in normal clothing patrolling the area, watching for cameras. If you’re caught, they will delete your photos for you, and if you resist, suggest calling the police. If they begin to call the police, it’s usually because they want you to bribe them to put their phone away. So just don’t get in that situation, and enjoy the tombs and ruins peacefully.

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Coptic Cairo

On January 3rd we arrived in Cairo and gave hugs to everyone in our group, then went off in our own taxi. It was strange to be alone after being with fourteen others and a tour guide. We had booked a tiny little hole-in-the-wall hostel on Tahrir Square, which is where the Egyptian Museum and several big-name hotels are.

At 1 p.m. we were picked up by our afternoon tour company. This would have been about $60 total, but we bought the tour through our bank using our credit card points, so we didn’t actually spend any money on this, besides the tip we gave our guide.

Our guide, Soha, took us to Old Cairo to show us the Coptic churches and one of the oldest standing synagogues. This is the same district our other guide took us to a week ago, but a different part of the district. Until now, we had focused primarily on ancient Egypt (pre-Greek conquest) so I realized I had a huge gap in my history of Egypt—besides the politics of Cleopatra, I had no knowledge of old Egypt and even modern Egypt. Soha was kind enough to explain the flow: Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, built Alexandria, and left much of the common Egyptian people to themselves. When he died, Egypt was given to Ptolemy, one of his generals. Cleopatra VII was from his line. During this time, the rulers of Egypt were not Egyptian, but Greek. One of the reasons Cleopatra was so popular in Egypt was that she learned Egyptian. At this time, the Greeks called the Egyptians Egypts, which eventually morphed in Copts. So “copt” means “Egyptian.” The Romans conquered Egypt around 30 BC, and Cleopatra killed herself. The Romans ruled Egypt (not quite as nicely as the Greeks did) until the Arabs began coming in around 640 AD. Egypt only took a little over a hundred years to become Christian almost entirely, but it took almost 500 years to fully convert to Islam (around the 10th century).

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Above is me inside the Coptic Museum. The woodwork throughout the place is just stunning.

There is great oral tradition that Jesus grew up in Old Cairo, after his family flew to Egypt. Almost all churches and monasteries in Egypt have huge icons and artwork portraying the holy family and claim that they stopped right there along the way. However, it does seem to be a good guess that they lived in Old Cairo (obviously not called that at the time–actually it was sometimes called Babylon), for Joseph could work at one of the Roman fortresses and there was already a Jewish population there. I grew very excited to think about Jesus running down the side streets, playing ball with friends, and growing up exactly where I stood, just two thousand years before.

Ben Ezra, one of the oldest synagogues, was our first stop. We weren’t able to get photos inside the building, but it was beautiful. The columns had been taken from ancient Egyptian temples and much of the interior dated back before the 10th century, though that is as long as the building has been standing. Of course, both Christians and Jews (At different times) had worshipped here since around the 3rd century, but the building was destroyed in the same earthquake that toppled the lighthouse of Alexandria.


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Abu Serga everything in it was just so old. Abu serga is named for two saints that were martyred in Syria around the second or third century. The church also claims to be built above the place that Joseph, Mary, and little Jesus lived while in Cairo. During renovations in 1990 they found the bones of another martyred saint. His remains were carefully preserved, wrapped up, and placed in a protective plastic bag and put on display at the entrance of the church.

The coptic cross is quite different from the Roman Catholic or the Greek Orthodox. Its bars are the same length as one another, making it a square. The four ends have three points each, for the trinity. All points added together make 12, for the disciples, and the four decorative spaces in between are for the four gospels. It is one of the lovelier cross designs I have seen.
From Abu Serga we went to another ancient and famous worship place, The Hanging Church. It was so named because it was built atop the ruins of the Roman fortress. Today it is about six or eight feet from the ground. Back then, it would have easily been 15 feet, hanging off the Roman beams. This church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but because St. george is very popular in Cairo, icons of him were present as well. Here I got to speak to one of the priests (who are not required to be celibate) about Coptic Orthodox theology. They are separate from the catholics and Greek Orthodox and even have their own patriarch/pope. The main difference in beliefs from the catholics is their view on the divine nature of Christ. While both believe that Jesus was both God and  man, the son of God, the catholics bind up Christ’s identity much closer with God the Father. Coptics (which just means Egyptian) found a portion of the Bible that said, “give unto God’s which is God’s, to Caesar what is his, and unto me what is mine.” From that, they  believe that Jesus, although he is God, should have his manness emphasized more.this i vaguely remember learning in my early history of the christian church class. Vaguely. The Greek Orthodox differ from both the coptics and the catholics on some issue with the Holy Spirit.
We also stopped in a nunnery for st. George that had a portion of his body as a relic. The massive doors into the chapel were easily from the 15th century, though the building itself was no more than 250 years old.

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Afterward we visited a Greek Orthodox church. Like some buildings in the area, it is quite new, less than a hundred years old, but many of the accessories (doors, windows, columns, etc.) are thousands of years old. Easily.

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Directly across the street from our hostel is the Egyptian museum, built around 1898. It’s old and practically a museum of itself. Behind it, the burned building, was the political headquarters of the party the former president Mubarak worked in.

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During the revolution in 2011, as the Egyptian people mobilized, the political party realized that they would probably not survive the unrest. All the documents and proof of the decades-long corruption that riddled the “democracy” of Egypt was in the building, so they set it on fire–the easiest way to destroy it, they thought.

Tahrir Square is part of the central business district of Cairo, and much of the protests went on there. In fear of their history and culture, thousands and thousands of Egyptians went not to protest, but to gather around the museum with the military. They linked arms and stood, sometimes they camped through the night, and encircles the museum in protection. When the building next door was set on fire, the people brought water and tried to keep the flames as far from their beloved history as possible–and it worked. The museum was largely unharmed. Only minor looting occurred during one night, and it was only to minor artifacts.

The Egyptians had forethought to protect their heritage as they protested against the corruption of Mubarak and his personalistic dictatorship. And even though the results, four years later, are not what we had hoped they would be, I still have faith in the Egyptian people. One day they will have a government that serves them, I think, instead of the other way around. This is one step forward on a long road, and they are stepping nearer.

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Luxor and the return

After arriving in Luxor (ancient Thebes) we rested, then went out to a nice, Egyptian dinner. This restaurant was a little more tourist-friendly than others, partly because it was in a very touristy area. Pizzas were listed on the menu right next to camel meat. I did try the camel meat, and it tasted a lot like beef.

Luxor’s population is almost 32% Christian, though nation-wide Muslims make up about 90%. It was immediately evident by the number of church towers throughout the city. We stayed in Emilio Hotel (a nice option for people on a budget, so we recommend it) just a block from the Nile and the ruins of the Luxor Temple. While we could’ve paid to get into the temple area, instead we walked around the perimeter and saw everything we wanted to see.

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In the morning we went to the Valley of the Kings. This is rather expensive, but it’s also a must-see, so we tried not to grumble and went in. For a donkey ride to the valley and a three-tomb ticket, we paid roughly $56. There are over twenty tombs to pick from, some of which are open or closed depending on the season. Our guide suggested that we try KV14 (Tausert and Setnakht) or KV 15, KV11 (Ramses III), and KV6 (Ramses IX), because they have the most color in them. Really, it was amazing to see colorful pictures and hieroglyphics. Only two of the three tombs we went in had glass covering the walls.

“It’s really incredible,” Jordan told me. “There’s nothing here to keep me from reaching out and licking these walls!”

He didn’t. Don’t worry.

There’s a running joke among all tourists in Egypt that nothing in Egypt is free. Ever. Period. People will randomly come up to give you direction to a place you don’t want to go and then ask for a “baksheesh,” or tip (Except for in Aswan, we noticed). So while we were down in one of the tombs, a corridor was without light. A French tourist had a flashlight with him and shined it down for everyone to see. As we passed by the platform and then went on, I thanked the man for the light. He said “you’re welcome,” then laughed and stuck out his hand. “One euro,” he deadpanned. We just laughed together and moved on.

The Valley of the Kings is incredibly strict about no photographs, so I have none to share this time. Jordan was quite bereft without his cameras and made many comments about how he wished he could sneak something in. On our way out of the grounds we had to pass through a tourist bazaar, which our guide jokingly called the “Valley of the Hunters.”

After the Valley of the Kings we visited Hatshepsut’s partially restored temple. She was a very successful pharaoh and the one of the only woman pharaoh, her reign lasting around 22 years. She began as the primary queen of her half brother, Thutmose II (both children of Thutmose I) but outlived him. After a few years of acting as regent to her stepson/nephew (Thutmose III, her husband’s son from another wife) she grew tired. She then said she was supposed to have been the heir of her father from the beginning, as she was older and the child of his father’s primary wife, unlike her deceased half-brother/husband. After she died her stepson/nephew took over the throne and tried to erase most images of her as pharaoh in the country.

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Once we finished up in the desert, we had lunch with a local family in Luxor (whose dish of mixed vegetables was sublime) and later spent some free time bartering in the markets. I’m still practicing my bargaining skills, but was able to team up with a girl in the group who has a first-class poker face. I think we did well together.

It was our last night together, and we spent it hanging it out at the train station waiting for the overnight train to come. From there, we went to Cairo, the beginning and end of our journey.

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Banks of the Nile

After a somewhat lazy morning, we boarded a felucca on the 31st. This is a traditional sailboat on the Nile, used as for fishing, ferrying, sailing, and whatever else the Egyptians and Nubians can think of. We spent the afternoon lounging in the sun, drifting down the Nile. It was peaceful and beautiful.

At lunch some people in the tour decided to jump into the Nile. It was cold, around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so I elected to only wade in it. Jordan went ahead and joined the group. I guess you just have to do it—how many people can say they’ve swam/jumped in the river Nile? The water is a deep, rich shade of blue and the sunlight is always warm and yellow. Palms, farms, and herds of goats and cows lined the shore and we could just see the desert stretch out beyond the trees.

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We continued to sail until sunset, going about 20 miles in total, when we ate dinner on the service boat (run with an engine, not a sail) and got to use the bathrooms. For New Year’s Eve we sat around a small campfire, fueled by palm branches, and sang nonsense songs. Jordan and I were old fuddyduddies and went back to the felucca to sleep before midnight. Although the weather is decently warm during the day, along the Nile it gets very cold at night. Everyone wrapped up tight in blankets and sleeping bags and huddled close for warmth.

The next morning we went to the East bank and hiked up the road with luggage to a waiting van. The service boat’s sewage tank was too small for everyone, and I got to enjoy some raw sewage on my socks and in my shoes from a last-minute trip to the bathroom. That was fun.

The tour stopped in Kom Ombo and Edfu, two towns with famous temples in them. Kom Ombo was built by Ptolemy III after his son was killed by a crocodile while hunting in the marsh. He dedicated the temple to Horus and to Sokbet, the god depicted by a crocodile head. As the creator of the Nile, the Egyptians believed he protected them from the dangers but also had the power and right to bring death to whatever he wished. Edfu was a very famous temple for Horus, celebrating how he defeated his uncle Seth in a giant battle of good versus evil. There was still paint on some of the columns inside the temple, and it wasn’t hard to see how beautiful and grand everything was when first built. Throughout the entire trip Jordan and I have both been amazed at how large everything is (except for perhaps the Sphinx)! We have seen all these things in photos and been told about the pyramids, but the walk through these temples under 90-feet-tall columns and doorways is incredible.

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After a many-hours long and bumpy bus ride through rural Egypt (in which we saw sugar farms, small towns, cane factories, the ever-present Nile, and such) we arrived in Luxor. As soon as I arrived I threw my socks away and took a shower. Sailing on the felucca was great, but sleeping and stepping in overflowing toilets, not quite so much. But we are both weathering the minor inconveniences well because, hey, we’re in Egypt, and we’ll put up with a lot to be here.

Now we’re resting in our hotel (a nice hotel with free internet in the lobby and lots of toilet paper!) and will join the rest of the tour group for dinner in a few hours. I’ve picked up a little bit of Egyptian Arabic and want to try it out in the market tonight or tomorrow. Although everyone we’ve run into seems to be fluent in English, it’s nice to know a few words, just to prove that I won’t be an easily ripped-off tourist in the market.

Egypt so far really has been amazing and we’re loving it. We highly recommend visiting, especially before prices go back up and lines become long again.

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Temples and Current Events

Early, early in the morning we woke and loaded into the van at 3:30 a.m. This wasn’t too hard for any of the people coming from the States, because we’re still getting over jet lag. Right now waking up at 3 is normal for us!

After joining a long convoy of other tour buses, we began the 3 hour drive to Abu Simbel, an ancient temple far in the desert. When we signed up for this, back in August, the 3 a.m. wake up call was not advertised. But we were able to sleep some on the bus, so it wasn’t bad.

Around 7:30 a.m. we arrived in the tiny town of Abu Simbel, on the shores of Lake Nasser. This lake was created in the 1960s to stop some over-flooding of the Nile, only about 40 miles from the Sudanese border.

Abu Simbel and the neighboring, smaller temple is the famous one you’ve all seen in history textbooks. Built by Ramses II, it was erected way out in the middle of the desert along a trade route to show his power and his military prowess (carved on the walls are details of his military campaigns against the Nubians/Kushites and Assyrians). It was just massive. And gorgeous.

The temple was discovered in 1817 by a European archeologist and a local boy (named Simbel). It had been buried with sand for over a thousand years, perhaps two thousand, and they discovered the top hieroglyphics. Another archeologist arrived from Cairo to help start and expedition to dig deeper, and the famous faces of Ramses II were found. Soon the smaller temple, dedicated to his favorite wife, Nefertari, was also discovered. Ramses II placed himself at almost equal with the gods, his statues beside them to be worshipped. His wife was portrayed as the goddess represented as a cow, and hieroglyphics also show her being crowned as queen. The goddess of the cow symbolized motherhood, milk, sustenance, and nourishment.

20141230_084047After watching a video describing how the temple was cut into pieces and moved 6 km away from the flooding area, we drove the 3 hours back across the desert.

For dinner later that night our guide, Abraham, took us walking through the bazaar and to a local Egyptian restaurant. I ordered stuffed pigeon on the recommendation of Ahmed, and Egyptian on the tour with us, and Jordan ordered grilled lamb chop. Somehow by the end of the meal I had promised Ahmed that in Luxor I would try the meat from a camel’s head. I drew the line at the brain and probably the tongue also, but I suppose when in Egypt you should eat like the Egyptians.

Abraham has opened up a little bit about the revolution and his thoughts on it, which are fascinating to hear. Almost everything he has told me has been exactly what I learned in my graduate classes, so it’s niceto get confirmation that everything is accurate, and a local, eye witness perspective is really great. Most educated Egyptians, such as Abraham, are glad the revolution took place, glad the people joined together to oust Mubarak, but are very disappointed in the power grabs afterward, as well as the continued free reign of the police, which are see as brutal and henchmen for whomever is in power. The military is considered a more legitimate form of power, because they are made up of many Egyptians. Service is required from a man in the family with more than one son. While the high leadership was/is probably just as corrupt as Mubarak and his personalistic cult, the regular military men are very sympathetic toward the Egyptian people because they are their families.

However, many people in the Middle East—even well-educated ones—do not understand the concept of democracy. Expediency and ease are not the points of democracy, often, democracy slows the decision-making process down to make sure only wise decisions are made (no rash ones) and make sure everyone has had a chance to be heard. This is completely foreign to them—they would much rather get something done quickly and have strong leadership. While I already knew this, it’s fascinating to have conversations with people that believe these things. Ideas and culture really do affect the beliefs of all of us.

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Nubia

We arrived in Aswan this morning. Aswan is a city in the far south of Egypt, toward Sudan. With a population of roughly 275,000 it is one of the larger cities in Egypt.

Nubians are Egypt’s second main ethnic group, and they usually live in southern Egypt or northern Sudan. They have lived there for thousands of years, often trading or battling with the Egyptians.

While our tour group went off a did a formal tour of the city, Jordan and I opted out because it was over $30/per person. Instead, we searched online for interesting places in Aswan, then grabbed a taxi outside our hostel. The driver knew immediately where we wanted to go (Nubian Museum) and took us there–for a hefty fee because we’re tourists. Pictured below is a Coptic Orthodox church.

IMG_1090At the museum (which we both got discounted tickets for a youth and student) we saw plenty of Nubian artifacts and pictures of daily life. Afterward, we walked down the hill, guided by Jordan’s phone GPS, and slipped into Fatimid cemetery.

Also known as the Islamic Necropolis, it houses many of the tombs of the Fatimids. They were part of the Shia Fatimid Caliphate, which ruled from the beginning of the 10th century until the end of the 12th, when Saladin took over.  There are tombs here from the 9th century to the 21st.

The Egyptian men hanging out at the cemetery were very helpful in showing us which dirt paths to follow to get out the other side and didn’t even ask for any tip in return.

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We saw the famous unfinished obelisk, then haggled with a taxi to get us to the Nile ferry to Elephantine Island. The public ferry separated men and women, and I had a scarf/hijab so we tried to blend in with the locals in the boat. We had intended to visit the Aswan museum, but a Nubian man told us it was closed. We weren’t sure if we should believe him, but we didn’t know any better, so we allowed him to take us around the island, where two Nubian villages are. After going down tiny little alleys and along dirt paths past very undeveloped houses and gardens, we arrived at Animalia, another museum we wanted to visit. It was smaller and less official than what we had read online suggested. A Nubian woman came downstairs to greet us and walked us through a little museum dedicated to local Nubian life, homes, and decorative baskets. The price of admission was steep for what we got: 15 Egyptian pounds a person, but I suppose helping someone stay out of poverty by purchasing a service from them is good. Everyone was so friendly and kind.

A large portion of the Nubian people lived just south of here for hundreds of years, but flooding along the Nile was getting worse and threatening several temples and parts of Aswan. So in the 1960s the Egyptian government, with some funding from other nations (including the U.S.) moved the temples, built a dam, and permanently flooded the area the Nubians lived. About half were moved to Sudan, while the rest (around 80,000) were moved to the Aswan area. The Egyptian president Nasser declared that Nubians could claim any land between Aswan and Luxor along the west bank of the Nile.

This evening we ate dinner in a local Nubian home, and the food was delicious. Along the ferry ride we were able to see the monastery of St. Simon, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world. The ancient Desert Fathers, seeking the solitude of the Egyptian desert, began practicing Christian monasticism.

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Taking a ferry across the Nile reminded me so much of Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile.” I think Jordan was relieved because the BBC version doesn’t have any singing for me to imitate, unlike “The Prince of Egypt” (from yesterday looking at alabaster stone) or “The Sound of Music” (when going through the Vienna airport). As long as I sing quietly, no one hears me and it makes me very happy. So far, Egyptians seem to like us. Actually, I was expecting (As an American) to be met with cool indifference or slight displeasure by the Egyptians, but instead everyone is very enthusiastic about us being from America and seem very excited to have American tourists back among them.

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Land of Sand and Sun

Jordan and I arrived safely Saturday afternoon. We were unable to sleep on any of the flights, so by the time we landed in Egypt we had been without sleep for about 24 hours, with perhaps some catnaps on the transatlantic flight.

Although we had planned to take a taxi out of the airport, we saw a man with our tour’s sign, picking up other people, and we elected to join the group. Haggling over taxi fares and making sure we didn’t get lost was just too difficult on that little sleep.

Our tour has 16 people on it plus the guide, who is Egyptian. About half of the group is made up of Americans, most of which live abroad (such as teaching in Abu Dhabi or Dubai). The rest is made up of a Brit, a Kiwi, and several people who speak English fluently enough to go on an English tour. Jordan and I tend to be fairly independent, so we weren’t completely sure how we would feel stuck with a tour group. However, it has been fantastic so far. We don’t have to worry about any logistics, and we have met some really neat people.

Because this is the Budget Egypt trip (called a “YOLO trip” on the website) we have the opportunity to opt out of several tours, which can save us money.

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We drove through Cairo, and I was amazed by all the apartments and buildings everywhere. Around 20 million people live in Cairo. It is the largest city in the Middle East, I believe, and perhaps the second largest in Africa. Our guide showed us a cemetery that dates back to the 10th century. After a natural disaster, many people had to move into their cemetery plot until their home in the city was rebuilt. Each tomb has a courtyard area, and they build a small house there. Still today people live among the “City of the Living and Dead,” and it even has mosques built throughout. Three million people live there now, and it is still growing.

A fellow tour member told us that tourism used to be about 40% of Egypt’s GDP, but the industry has dropped to about 15% of its normal size in the past few years since the revolution in 2011. In fact, several people on the tour chose to visit Egypt now, while things are still cheap, rather than waiting until the rest of the world thinks things are safe again. As we toured the bazaar, it was sad to see so many shops permanently closed due to lack of tourism, and although I’m so glad they got Mubarak out of “office,” it is such a shame that even a hopeful revolution hurts regular people’s livelihoods. It made both of us thankful we picked Egypt, to do what little we could to keep someone’s job secure. So far, we have felt completely safe (although definitely out of our element in an Arabic world) and know that Egyptian police will do whatever they can to make sure tourists spread good reports about their travels.

Although Jordan and I were exhausted and went to bed by 10 p.m., we woke at midnight and again at 3 a.m., though the tour didn’t start until 8, we were ready to go see the pyramids. Jet lag is quite the thing!

The pyramids are not that far outside of Giza (a suburb of Cairo). Many people complain of how close they are to the city, but I didn’t think it was that bad. Perhaps I had been warned enough that my expectations were low. Jordan was thrilled to see the one ancient wonder of the world left standing. There are nine pyramids—three large (father, son, grandson) and six small (for wives and mothers). We were able to walk around them and enjoy the grandness of them. It really is amazing!

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Then, (because it was a novelty) we rode on a camel around the complex and a little into the Sahara desert. I got to gallop on one! I almost fell off and I bruise my thumb holding onto the horn so tight, but it was worth it.

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On our way to Old Cairo we passed a mosque built by the famous Saladin, whom Jordan admires.

During a brief walking tour of Old Cairo (entering 10th century city gates and walking around 15th century Ottoman buildings) we were able to enter a mosque. The minarets date back to the 10th century, I believe, though the building is a couple hundred years younger. It was absolutely beautiful, and while I have never been an architecture buff I was floored by the beautiful designs and geometric patterns throughout the mosque.

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As I write this, we are on an overnight train to Aswan, where we will see other ancient temples and meet Nubians, the other main ethnicity in Egypt.

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