A Solo Traveller’s Guide to Jerusalem- Part 3

I was probably 9 or 10 when I first read about the Dead Sea in a school textbook. It fascinated me! My father told me stories of how people could relax and read a book while floating in the Dead Sea and that became the subject of my dreams for several nights after. Back then if anyone had told me “You will float in the Dead Sea one day”, I’d have laughed it off because in my mind the Dead Sea was an exotic, other-worldly place that was almost didn’t exist in real life. But this little girl’s dream came true!

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The Dead Sea

The trip to Dead Sea was obviously highly anticipated and it did not disappoint! It is about an hour away from Jerusalem and you can make quite a day of it. I’d booked an unguided tour with a company called Tourist Israel which worked out very well as they provide tours in groups of 10 or less along with a driver. You will be driven to the locations on the itinerary and left to explore by yourself as you wish. All in all it was the best and most economical option for a traveller like me who doesn’t like to be rushed or guided every step of the way.

We were a group of 8 on the tour that day and our driver was a very pleasant, chatty old man who kept pointing out interesting things while on our way to the Dead Sea. He told us about the nomadic Bedouin tribes who live in the desert area between Jerusalem and Dead Sea and how some of these areas can only be accessed by camels or helicopters- talk about extremes!

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A Bedouin boy with his camel

We passed Jericho on our way which is considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world- ever since 9600 BC! I wish I had had a couple of days to explore Jericho and the Qumran Caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

Before driving down to the Dead Sea, we were supposed to make a stop at Masada which is an ancient fortress built by King Herod in the Judaean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. When Masada was besieged by the Romans during the First Jewish-Roman War, close to a thousand people including women and children living inside the fortress had committed mass suicide to prevent themselves from being enslaved by the Romans. It is possible to hike up to Masada in certain seasons or very early in the day when it isn’t too hot. For other times, there is a cable car service that takes tourists up to the fortress.

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The cable car ride up to the Masada fortress

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A view of the Dead Sea from Masada

Later we proceeded to the Dead Sea where we were left to enjoy by ourselves for a couple of hours and I finally had the surreal experience of floating in the sea at the lowest point on earth.

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Floating in the Dead Sea

The next day would be the last of my wonderful vacation and I had reserved the morning for a trip to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. Although many travellers book private cars to go to Bethlehem, it is actually extremely easy to get there by public transport. One can take a blue and white ‘Arab’ bus (as they are called) from the Sultan Suleiman Bus Terminus next to Damascus Gate and it’s about a 40 minute ride to Bethlehem for just 7 shekels. It is very important to carry your passport and visa slip as you will be going back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian territory; your travel documents will definitely be checked on the bus on your way back to Jerusalem. Once you get off the bus, there is a pretty long walk down a straight road to The Church of Nativity. The Church can get pretty crowded as people come from all over the world to one of the holiest sites for Christians.

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The exact spot where Jesus Christ is said to have been born

Upon returning to Jerusalem I took another ‘Arab’ bus up to Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. The bus drops you off in front of the Chapel of the Ascension which is believed to be the place from where Christ ascended to heaven after his resurrection. Further up the road is the highest point on the Mount of Olives from which one can enjoy a fantastic panoramic view of Jerusalem city.

As the day was waning, I sat by myself at the viewpoint and watched young couples enjoying a romantic evening out. I will remember those moments as one of the most peaceful and happy ones of my life as a beautiful breeze fanned my face and the sun set over this magnificent city and my time in it.

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A panoramic view of Jerusalem

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Yours truly!

 

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A Solo Traveller’s Guide to Jerusalem- Part 2

Old Jerusalem is a maze of charming cobblestoned streets and bazaars which thankfully Google Maps has made easy to navigate. Early on my second morning in Jerusalem I set off on foot for the Temple Mount complex, which was high on my list of places to visit. I’d read stories of how difficult it had been for some tourists to get into the Temple Mount and how elusive it can be due to its restricted opening hours and strict dress code. I didn’t want to take any chances and did my homework before visiting this wonderful piece of history that is at the heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I was the very first tourist to arrive at the Temple Mount that morning even before 8.30, which is when the complex opens. I was dressed very modestly in loose Indian attire fully covering my arms and legs. The guards were surprised to see a solo Indian woman traveller and remarked that they don’t see many of those, but they were very friendly and told me how much they love India and its movies.

The only entrance to Temple Mount for non-Muslims is through the Mughrabi gate located next to the Wailing Wall. Jews are not allowed to pray inside the Temple Mount, so they usually pray at the Wailing Wall (also called Western Wall).

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Jewish women praying in the women’s section of the Western Wall

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A Jewish girl reading her Torah at the Western Wall

The Temple Mount complex contains some of the holiest sites of the Abrahamic religions and many significant events are said to have taken place at this site. Jews believe the walls surrounding the Temple Mount are parts of the Second Jewish Temple built in the first century BCE and is the exact place where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son Isaac. For Muslims this site is significant as it houses the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of the Rock, with its striking gold dome, comes up in every image of the Jerusalem skyline and is said to be the place where Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven for his Night Journey. The Al Aqsa Mosque is also an extremely important prayer site for Muslims all over the world. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter either of these buildings but can walk around in the open space of the complex.

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Dome of the Rock

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Al Aqsa Mosque

I happened to come across an employee who works at the Temple Mount and had a wonderful discussion with him regarding the ongoing Israeli-Palestine conflict and its problems. Wandering around inside the Temple Mount complex with very few other tourists around is the best experience as you can absorb and reflect on everything you see at this wonderful historical site. As more tourists started to come in, I left the place to explore the Souq in the Muslim Quarter. Colourful stalls filled with souvenirs and other knick knacks and as always the friendly Arab shopkeepers cheered me up as I was trying to figure out a way to get to my next stop – the Israeli Museum.

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The Bazaar

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Colourful stones for sale in the bazaar

I had underestimated the distance to the Israeli Museum and started walking there since it was one of the few places not easily accessible by public transport. In hindsight, it may have been a better idea to hire a cab this once. The main attractions in the museum for me were the Dead Sea Scrolls and some early human remains found in the region. But as always, interaction with local people is the best experience of any trip and I had one such encounter at the museum. I met an elderly gentlemen who works as a guard at the museum and the moment he saw me he started singing the biggest hits of Bollywood from the 60’s and 70’s fluently in Hindi. He laughed at my bewildered face and explained that he spent his childhood in Bombay and his parents who were Indian Jews migrated to Israel decades ago and settled there.

I had reserved the next morning for a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. I took the light rail up to Mount Hertzl where one has to cross the road and either make the somewhat long walk down to the museum or wait for the free shuttle bus that Yad Vashem provides for tourists. Nothing prepares you enough for the deeply scarring and emotional experience it is to tour Yad Vashem. I’d advise sensitive people to brace themselves for this tour, but I cannot recommend it enough. That’s where one can actually realise the magnitude of the horror that was the Holocaust when you see live footage of the atrocities and the tiny little trinkets left behind by victims which would otherwise be of little value. It makes you realise how people hold on to seemingly meaningless things in times of utter despair as a last ray of hope. It is not permitted to take photographs inside the museum.

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Every tree planted around Yad Vashem has been dedicated to a ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ recipient (an honour given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust)

I spent the rest of the day wandering about and visited King David’s Tomb and the Room of the Last Supper which are within the same complex at Mount Zion.

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At the entrance to King David’s Tomb

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The Room of the Last Supper where Jesus dined with his disciples

Watch out for my next blog on my experiences at the Dead Sea, Bethlehem and more!

A Solo Traveller’s Guide to Jerusalem – Part 1

This blog post has been due for almost a year! In fact I’d been putting off chronicling my travels of the past year due to this, that, and the other; I hope to finish writing a series of blogs over the next few weeks.

Jerusalem! This city that has been captured, besieged, built and rebuilt countless times over the last 5000 years has been the bone of contention among humans and remains so to this day. Jerusalem has fascinating stories to its credit and is on top of every history lover’s travel list. It feels like stepping into the pages of a history book when one sets foot in this city. A Holy City for all three Abrahamic religions : it attracts pilgrims from all over the world.

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Heart of Jerusalem with the Wailing Wall on one side and the Temple Mount on the other

Modern Jerusalem is blessed with all sorts of conveniences and a fantastic public transport system. Staying as close to the old City as possible is a good idea as all the major sights within the Old City walls will be within walking distance. Be prepared to do a lot of walking. Jaffa Gate or Yafo Gate is a major landmark and is one of the surviving gates of Old Jerusalem built by the great Ottoman king Sultan Suleiman. Jaffa Gate is a good place to start your tour of the city. I joined a guided walking tour on my first day in Jerusalem to get a lay of the land, but I wasn’t too satisfied with it as I felt hurried and couldn’t enjoy the interesting sights at my own pace. I revisited the places I particularly liked on my own over the next few days. If you use a map on your phone it is pretty easy to navigate the city and my broken Arabic helped to break the ice with many of the Arab shopkeepers in the bazaar and get friendly tips from them, although most of them speak at least a smattering of English.

Old Jerusalem city is divided into four main quarters – the Christian, Armenian, Jewish and Muslim quarters. Each has its distinctive architecture and holy sites and the inhabitants are from the respective communities of Christians, Armenians, Jews and Muslims. All the four quarters culminate at the centre of the city which houses some of the holiest sites in the world for all three Abrahamic religions like the Temple Mount, Wailing Wall, Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa Mosque and a number of other minor sites.

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An alleyway in the Jewish quarter of Old Jerusalem

The most important site in the Christian quarter is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This imposing structure with breathtakingly beautiful ceilings is the supposed site of Jesus’ crucifixion and also contains his empty tomb in which he was buried and resurrected. Christians of almost all denominations come to pray and offer their respects at this Church.

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Ceiling of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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Outside view of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Dusk was approaching as I sat inside this beautiful church observing pilgrims from every corner of the world making their journey of a lifetime when suddenly the imposing gong of the church bell rang out through the entire building and I discovered a young priest ringing the giant bell. All the priests gathered together for the evening prayer as I left them to go explore the bazaar next to the Church.

I’ll be back soon with accounts of my exploration of the rest of Jerusalem. Stay tuned!

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Experiencing Sinai the Bedouin Way

It is unusual for Indians, especially for two Indian women, to go backpacking to the Sinai. Most Indians who do visit Sinai for the Holy Land tour, do so in large groups. So when my sister and I travelled there we were met with surprise almost everywhere we went. We hadn’t planned the Sinai trip until the last minute; we were enjoying our Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor and wondering how to get to Sinai and where to stay once we got there. There was precious little information available on the internet; however after considerable research I found the Sheik Mousa Bedouin Camp which looked promising and inexpensive. We called the number listed on their website and asked the man, who we later came to know as Saleh, if we could be picked up from Sharm el Sheikh. We were to finish our cruise at Luxor, take a bus from Luxor to Hurghada, hop on a flight from Hurghada to Sharm el Sheikh and then head to Saint Catherine which would be our final destination.

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The Sinai desert

Hurghada is a typical resort town along the Red Sea coast with pretty beaches and with numerous options for snorkeling and diving enthusiasts. We spent a night in Hurghada at a cheap hotel called the Golden Rose. It had big, clean, functional rooms and gave access to the public beach to all its guests- essentially it was completely worth the price we paid since we were only passing through Hurghada and not planning on spending much time there. The flight from Hurghada to Sharm el Sheikh across the Red Sea is the shortest one I’ve been on in my life so far- 20 minutes end to end!

We were picked up at Sharm el Sheikh airport by Mohamed – a member of the Jebeliya Bedouin tribe that lives in Saint Catherine. The Sheik Mousa Bedouin Camp is a collaborative effort by the Jebeliya community to ensure all the tribe members are suitably employed.

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The Jebeliya Tribe elders enjoying their morning tea

The Bedouins are a fascinating people. If you’ve never sat around a bonfire out in the cold desert bathed in magical moonlight listening to Bedouin folk stories, you’ve missed something in life! That’s what we did on our first night in Saint Catherine. Saleh and two of his tribesmen, Yasser and Said, took us pretty deep into the desert in the dead of night to gaze at the stars. The sky was crystal clear with the bright moon hanging over us like a chandelier. Being a city girl, I’d never seen so many constellations and planets so clearly ever before! The temperature was sub-zero and I wrapped myself in two heavy blankets to keep the cold out.

Said, a musician, had brought his Oud along and he entertained us with soulful renditions of Arab folk songs of love and loss. The Bedouins are philosophical people and Saleh regaled us with stories of their tribe’s history and folklore. The story of how the Jebeliya tribe made Saint Catherine their home is pretty incredible. About 1500 years ago forty Bedouin families, who were Christians at the time, were ordered by Emperor Justinian to come to Saint Catherine to protect the monastery. Over the ages, the Jebeliya embraced Islam as their religion but they still remain protective of the monastery and view it as a symbol of their history and culture. For the Bedouins, camels are a way of life. They form an integral part of their existence in the harsh conditions of the desert. As a result most of their folk stories and songs prominently feature camels and when they offer a bride-price to the girl they want to marry, they express it by the number of camels they’re willing to give- the more the camels, the more valuable the woman is!

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Listening to Bedouin stories around the fire

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Said playing the Oud

Saleh is a uniquely interesting man- one might even call him the Bill Gates of Saint Catherine. A very enterprising businessman- he is dedicated towards improving the conditions of his tribe, especially its women. He’s surprisingly modern and progressive- he supported the education of two of his sisters and one went on to become a qualified lawyer and the other a teacher. He wants his 17 year old daughter to become a doctor someday. Through his NGO he enables local Bedouin women to earn some money by making handicrafts. Along with running the Bedouin camp, he owns several other businesses and properties all over Saint Catherine. In spite of being such a busy man, you’ll always find him greeting the guests at the camp, taking the time to show them around and narrating interesting stories.

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Entrance to the rooms in the Bedouin camp

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The stunning backdrop of the Bedouin camp

The Bedouins have almost an independent economy running on a small scale in Saint Catherine. The tribe has appointed leaders- one who represents them and their concerns to the government, one who takes care of economic matters and one who settles disputes.

If you stay with the Bedouins, they will take you up to Mount Sinai (locally called Jebel Mousa– the Mountain of Moses) on a path different from the usual tourist route. This is the path the local Bedouins use and you will not meet any other tourists on the way. We had decided to climb Mt. Sinai to watch the sunset rather than the usual sunrise climb. To watch the sunrise one needs to start climbing at night as it takes about 4 hours to reach the top. We started in the afternoon at 1.30 pm to catch the sunset at 5.30. It was a picturesque route with many beautiful sights to see, including snow! I’m not a seasoned trekker so I found the trek very exhausting, but it was worth all the interesting sights along the way. It is unbelievable how the Bedouins have created a thriving community in these rocky desert mountains in the middle of nowhere with very little vegetation. Yet they have their small gardens and farms of desert plants and they walk miles and miles each day to graze their herds of sheep.

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A gorgeous tree standing proud

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A well in the middle of nowhere

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A monastery high up in the mountains

 

The trek up to the top took longer than expected and we reached huffing and puffing a few minutes after sundown. It was freezing by then and we collapsed on the bench as we entered the café at the top of the mountain. Our Bedouin guide though was as energetic as ever and immediately got down to the job of making us some hot tea. He hadn’t even had a sip of water throughout the trek despite being offered several times and wasn’t out of breath at all! I, for one, let him know that there was no way in hell that I would make my way down that mountain again that night and I needed accommodation for the night. He called Saleh right away and arranged for us to sleep there overnight. As we waited for dinner to get ready, I realized I needed to use the restroom and ventured outside to locate it. I regretted it immediately as I was hit by a blast of icy cold wind and in spite of 3 layers of warm clothes, my insides froze. I tried to finish up and rush back to the relative warmth of the café as soon as possible.

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With our Bedouin guide Yasser

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Our snow-laden path to the top

Once I was back, Samira, the pet cat decided her perch would be my lap and made herself very comfortable there. Samira means ‘sweet company’ in Arabic and sweet she was! This darling cat, who started following us when we were a little more than halfway up the mountain, acted as my inspiration when I almost thought of giving up on account of my exhaustion. She would wait for us to make our way up and then go ahead a few more steps to wait again. Although she’s a pampered little cat, she’s a free spirit that roams the mountains on her own and comes up to the café every two or three days. Once the delicious dinner of roast chicken, rice, vegetables and hot soup was served, Samira stationed herself under my seat and demanded bits of chicken at regular intervals. After dinner we made our way to the room prepared by our guide and the café owner for us to sleep in. They had very kindly made beds for us and provided us with several blankets and we were given sufficient privacy by screening off a section of the room with curtains. In the morning this room would turn into a café serving hot tea and coffee to the sunrise climbers. Despite using 3 heavy blankets, my feet remained frozen through the night which resulted in a disturbed sleep.

We awoke at 4.30 the next morning to watch the sunrise which was supposed to be at 5.15. There were already close to a 100 other tourists who’d turned up for the sunrise by the time we woke up. After a highly welcome hot cup of tea, we wrapped ourselves in a blanket and made our way up the last hundred steps to reach the sunrise point. It was still dark and our hands were numb from the bitter cold. As the dawn broke across the sky, we witnessed the glorious sun emerge from the horizon and spread light and warmth over the valleys below. I experienced something close to an epiphany of how Moses must have felt all those thousands of years ago, standing high up on this very mountain looking over the world below and receiving the word of God.

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At the top of Mt. Sinai

After the sunrise we started making our way back down. We were to stay at the camp that night and leave for Cairo by bus early next morning. As our stay there was drawing to a close, I wished we could stay longer and know the people better. Bedouins are some of the most warm and hospitable people who go out of their way to make you feel comfortable and welcome. Of all the travel experiences I’ve had, this one will surely remain in my heart as one of the most memorable ones. Saleh was sad to see us go and gave us friendship bracelets as parting gifts, a gesture that really touched me. We bid goodbye and boarded our bus which made its way through the stunning, stark landscape of the Sinai desert towards the bustling city of Cairo.

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The desert road snaking its way through the stark landscape

What to See in a Day in Cairo

What if you’re on a business trip to Cairo or just passing through the city for a day? Even if you have one free day on your hands, don’t waste it in this fascinating country. Go out there, see the sights, eat some traditional Egyptian food and have an unforgettable experience!

There’s quite a lot you can do with your day in Cairo and my blog today will cater to the many different types of travellers one comes across in this world: the history lover, the music lover, the architecture enthusiast, the one who likes a bit of everything.

The Great Pyramids of Giza are of course a must on every person’s list and rightly so! Believe me when I say I got goosebumps the first time I stood in front of the Pyramids. All the history books from my schooldays came alive and I was filled with awe at the sheer perfection of this magnificent structure. That’s when I had second thoughts about completely dismissing the conspiracy theory I’d heard of earlier: that the aliens actually built the Pyramids! Jokes aside, how did humans build such a monument more than 4500 years ago with such precision and took care to align them with the magnetic North Pole and other celestial bodies?

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Reaching for the skies!

The Pyramids are open to visitors from 8 A.M. onward, so the earlier you’re there the better. The entrance fee is 80 Egyptian pounds(LE) for foreigners, roughly $5 and if you want to go inside any of the Pyramids you have to pay an additional amount: 200 LE for the Great Pyramid of Khufu and 40 LE each for the 2nd or 3rd Pyramid. The moment you enter the Pyramid complex you may be hassled by the guides present there. In my opinion, it’s best to avoid them and take a tour by yourself (do some reading up on the history beforehand) or arrange for your own guide. For those who’d like to, there are camel rides available within the Pyramid complex close to the Great Pyramid. Their standard rate is 50 LE for half an hour but if you choose to hire the ride from anywhere else near the Pyramids, they will try to fleece you, so beware!

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For those deeply interested in history, you could finish your tour of the Pyramids by 11 A.M. or so (assuming you were there at 8) and then head to the Egyptian museum. The museum is a treasure trove of artifacts from Egypt’s glorious past. For more details on the museum you could read one of my previous blogs on the subject : Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. You need at least 3-4 hours to have a reasonably good tour of the museum(it is immense!). They don’t allow visitors to enter beyond 4 P.M. and it remains open till 7, except on Sundays and Thursdays when the museum is open till 9. The entrance fee is 75 LE on normal days and 120 LE on Sundays and Thursdays. The Mummy Room has a separate fee of 100 LE. You have to buy a separate ticket of 50 LE for photography (Note:no photography allowed in the Mummy Room).

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To admire Islamic architecture, you could head straight to the Cairo Citadel and Islamic Cairo from the Pyramids. The Citadel is a medieval fortification built by the legendary Salah al-Din between 1176 to 1183 AD to protect the city from the Crusaders. The citadel also hosts the Muhammad Ali mosque also called the Alabaster mosque which was built in the 1800s and is now the chief attraction at the Citadel. The inside of the mosque is beautifully lit with hundreds of lamps. The mosque is the highest point of the Citadel and you can get a panoramic view of Cairo from here. Entrance into the Citadel costs 60 LE.

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From the Citadel, proceed to Bab el Futuh which stands at the northern end of the historic Al Muizz Street. The word ‘Bab’ means ‘gate’ in Arabic and Bab el Futuh literally translates to ‘Conquest Gate’. It is one of the three remaining gates of the old city of Cairo also called Islamic Cairo or Old Cairo. Muizz Street is a long, winding, cobble-stoned road approximately one kilometre long (feels much longer) that has an incredible number of medieval Islamic structures. If you enter at the northern end, you will first come across the Al-Hakim Mosque which I personally find one of the most peaceful places in Cairo. You can just sit there and do nothing but soak in the serenity! If you happen to be there on a quiet afternoon, you will usually find little kids playing in the distance, a few families spending some quiet time together, perhaps a girl in the corner reading her Qur’an or a schoolboy finishing up his homework.

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Al-Hakim Mosque

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Al-Hakim Mosque

Al Muizz street is lined with many beautiful mosques, shops selling knick-knacks and of course food; you could grab some delicious shawarma on your way. The other end of the street opens up onto the Spice Market and Khan el-Khalili which is the go-to place to buy souvenirs from Egypt. There are many interesting shops in Khan el-Khalili, although I usually always go to a store called Jordi as they have very reasonable and fixed prices. Taking a tour of Old Cairo during Ramadan is again a different kind of experience which you can read about here: Ramadan in Egypt-A walk through Old Cairo.

If you’re musically inclined and happen to be in Old Cairo on a Monday, Wednesday or Saturday, do NOT miss the Tanoura show that takes place at Wekalet el-Ghouri Arts Center at 7.30 P.M. It’s usually a full house so be there early enough to get a seat. The entrance fee is 30 LE. It’s right next to Khan el-Khalili and if you ask around, someone will give you directions. It is an incredible show, especially the first half which includes mainly percussion and music. The second half introduces the whirling Dervishes which is also a spectacular sight!

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Sufi music

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Whirling Dervish

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It’ll be an exhausting day but completely worth your while! You will come away feeling satiated with all the different experiences and take back fond memories of this wonderful city of Cairo.

Upper Egypt(Part 4)- Of pharaonic temples and mythical gods

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Ram-headed sphinxes at Luxor

I’m back with the last leg of my trip to Upper Egypt. I’d hoped to write this post sooner but got caught up in a flurry of activity. I saw some of the most incredible sights on this part of my journey in Luxor which was the ancient city of Thebes. There are important sites to be visited on both the East Bank and West Bank of the Nile flowing through this city. We started with the West Bank which houses most notably the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Temple of Hatshepsut and the Colossi of Memnon among other ancient sites.

Our first stop was the Valley of the Kings where one can visit upto three tombs on one ticket barring a few tombs that require a special ticket. Words fail me when I try to describe the incredible beauty I witnessed at the Valley of the Kings! Beautiful scenes painted in vivid colours all along the walls of the tombs, unlike anything else you might see in the other sites of ancient Egypt. Photography is strictly prohibited at this site and that is probably why it has been preserved so well through the years combined with the fact that it’s situated in a valley guarded by mountains on all sides. Most of the tombs have similar layouts with a few additional chambers in some that were used as decoys to prevent robberies.

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Basic layout of a tomb

Before reaching the main burial chamber, one would have to pass through decoy rooms that were filled with sand and made to look like there were no rooms beyond them. We visited the tombs of Ramsses IV, Ramsses IX and Merenptah of which Merenptah’s tomb was the largest with a number of decoys such as sand rooms and a well. The well was designed in such a way that if anyone managed to cross the sand room and tried to pass on to the next chamber, they wouldn’t easily notice the well underneath and would fall into it. It’s physically impossible to climb out of that well once you’re in it. In spite of all these precautions, through the ages tomb robbers have managed to loot and plunder these tombs of all their wealth. Only a few tombs that were forgotten, remained undisturbed and were found fairly intact. One such tomb is that of Tutankhamun and from the amount of wealth that was found in his tomb alone, one can imagine what might have been the wealth contained in the tombs of the more important pharaohs!

Close to the Valley of the Kings is the Motuary Temple of Hatshepsut who was one of the most powerful female pharaohs of Egypt. The temple was constructed under the direction of royal architect Senenmut and its architecture is markedly different and modern compared to other structures before that time.

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Temple of Hatshepsut

This temple has suffered a lot of damage at the hands of many over the centuries but especially by Thutmose III, her stepson, who tried all he could to erase Hatshepsut’s name from all pharaonic records and destroyed her statues and royal decrees. A Polish-Egyptian collaboration has painstakingly reconstructed some of her statues which can be seen at the third level of the temple.

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Statues of Queen Hatshepsut

We proceeded next to the Colossi of Memnon which are two gigantic statues of Amenhotep III in the seated position. Although the facial features of these two statues have been badly damaged, their sheer size is overwhelming for any visitor.

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The Colossi of Memnon

We crossed over to the East Bank to visit the two most important temples- Karnak and Luxor Temple. The vast Karnak temple complex is the second largest ancient religious site in the world after the Angkor Wat of Cambodia. This complex was built over many centuries from the Middle Kingdom right up to the Ptolemaic period with many pharaohs contributing towards various aspects of its construction. There are a number of pylons, columns, temples and one of the largest obelisks built by Queen Hatshepsut.

Back in those days, an avenue of around 1350 sphinxes used to connect the Karnak and Luxor temples of which around 850 have survived to this day. Luxor Temple by night is a beautiful sight to behold as it is lit up and the numerous columns of the temple look breathtaking in the soft light. This temple used to hold the annual Opet festival in the ancient times and was probably the site where the crowning ceremonies of pharaohs were held.

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This place is a living example of how history tells the story of human civilisation. Over time, three-quarters of this temple had been covered in rubble and people of different eras had come and gone and built their settlements over it before excavations began again in the 1800s. This is probably the only place in the world where you’d find a mosque built over a church which was built over a temple. One can clearly see the remains of a structure built by the early christians and over it now is a fully functioning mosque! Funny how the human story progresses isn’t it?

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A modern day mosque built over the remains of ancient structures

Upper Egypt is a marvel and to visit Egypt yet not see it is a huge loss. Though Egypt is usually always associated with the Pyramids, this trip down to the south of Egypt is something I would recommend to everyone as it is truly an experience of a lifetime!

Upper Egypt(Part 3)- Of pharaonic temples and mythical gods

Unlike the Kom Ombo Temple which is right on the banks of the Nile, the Edfu Temple can be reached by horse carriage once you get off your cruise boat. It’s a lovely ride through the quaint little town of Edfu which still looks like it’s in the Middle Ages. Within 10-15 minutes the Edfu Temple comes into view.

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This temple was built in the Ptolemaic period between 237 and 57 BC and was of immense religious significance. The temple is dedicated to the falcon god Horus and is one of the most well-preserved temples of Upper Egypt. As in many other temples, the carvings on the walls of Edfu temple were also defaced by the early Christians and later the entire temple was buried under 12 meters of sand until it was rediscovered in 1798. One of the reasons the temple managed to remain in good shape was because of being buried underground for centuries. In that sense the early Christians unknowingly did us a favour.

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Entrance to the Edfu Temple

The Edfu Temple is one of the largest temples with a massive public court and as many as 10 storage rooms! This was due to the 21-day harvest festival that used to be held in honour of Horus every year. The reliefs in this temple depict a number of strange mythical creatures like winged snakes among others and there’s a very angry-looking Horus in the form of a falcon at the entrance to the temple.

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Horus in his falcon form

I found two features most interesting about this temple. One was the shrine that is shaped like a bird cage signifying the main deity of the temple. The other is the stairway that was built to allow the falcon god to fly up to the open roof and enjoy the freedom a bird deserves. Just as a falcon rises upward by flying in circles, the stairway going up was built like a spiral and the one coming down was a straight slope because a falcon always swoops down to the ground. Even the metallic boat that was carried by the priests to circumambulate the temple with the idol of Horus has been preserved perfectly.

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The bird-cage shrine and boat

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Depictions of Horus and Hathor

We sailed the rest of the day and were on our way to Luxor which we were to reach next morning. Apart from the mesmerising beauty of the Nile, the most significant event I witnessed was when we were crossing the Aswan High Dam. As there is a huge difference in water levels, there is a special mechanism to help boats and ships pass through. We were going from high to low and our ship had to first enter a specified area which was then cut off by closing the sluice gates. Then the gate of the lower side was opened to let the water flow out and become level with the lower side. As that happened, our ship started descending along with the descending levels of water. I found this quite fascinating as I’d never experienced it before!

My next and last piece on Upper Egypt will be about Luxor. It’ll be up soon; till then I hope you enjoy reading this one.

Upper Egypt(Part 2)- Of pharaonic temples and mythical gods

I’m back to take you on my exciting journey through the rest of Upper Egypt! Our cruise was supposed to sail in the afternoon of the second day; so we thought of utilising the morning to take a peek at the famous Abu Simbel temple. Abu Simbel is about 300 km by road from Aswan, so we set out at 4.30 am to be there by a reasonable hour and be back to the cruise by afternoon.

The temple of Abu Simbel is a living testament to the great warrior king of ancient Egypt: Ramesses II. This temple was built by the pharaoh himself and also dedicated to himself- yes, he had an extremely high opinion of his own prowess, and why not? He was one of the most successful pharaohs of Egypt who led numerous military campaigns and ruled his kingdom for a good 66 years! In popular culture, he is also credited with being the Pharaoh of the Exodus when Moses led the enslaved Hebrews out of Egypt; although there is no compelling evidence supporting this fact.

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Four colossal figures of Ramesses II at the entrance

The entrance to the temple is flanked by four colossal figures of Ramesses II in the seated position. The shrine or sanctuary inside is dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty and Ptah as well as Ramesses who had elevated his own position to equal that of the gods.

The original temple of Abu Simbel was carved into the mountain but it had to be relocated due to the creation of Lake Nasser to avoid being submerged. But during relocation, engineers and architects had to rack their brains and do their math to maintain the most interesting aspect of this temple : The ancient Egyptians had built the temple in such a way that every year on February 22 and October 22 (the king’s birthday and coronation day), the rays of the sun would penetrate the sanctuary and shine on the faces of the statues except that of Ptah as he was the god of the underworld and always remains in the dark. The design and layout of the temple also ensured that the sun would shine longest over Ramesses himself, indicating his habit of self-glorification. Well, what the ancient Egyptians could do all those thousands of years ago was not perfectly maintained by us modern folk. During relocation, the entire temple block was lifted 65 meters higher and lodged into an artificial concrete hill with just one small error- we are about one day off in our calculations of the solar alignment! The walls inside the temple have fantastic depictions of war scenes and victory parades of the Pharaoh and some of them have retained their original colours.

The other smaller temple in the complex is dedicated to Goddess Hathor represented in the form of Queen Nefertari, the most beloved wife of Ramesses II among his many other wives. As photography is not permitted in the inner sanctuaries of either temple, I will leave you with pictures of the facades.

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Statue of Queen Nefertari(middle) flanked by Ramesses II on either side, Temple of Nefertari at Abu Simbel

We headed back to our cruise only to learn that it would not sail that afternoon as planned due to inclement weather. We were docked for almost the entire night and started sailing only in the early hours of next morning. Our next stop would be the Kom Ombo Temple which we reached at about 7 in the morning.

The Kom Ombo Temple is considered unusual as it is a “double temple” dedicated to two gods : Sobek and Horus. Most temples of ancient Egypt had 5 main elements- the pylon(entrance), the public court, priest’s chamber, storerooms and the sanctuary or shrine. The temple of Kom Ombo is perfectly symmetrical along the main axis and each element is replicated on both sides with one side dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek and the other to the falcon god Horus. I must share an interesting anecdote our guide told us about the priest’s room which comes right after the space meant for offerings : there is a small tunnel priests could go through and sit on a pedestal, away from the eyes of the devotees who came with offerings. After being seated, the priest would pretend to assume the voice of God and instruct the devotee to bring the desired offering thus ensuring the temple always received the offerings of choice or things it lacked.

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Kom Ombo Temple

The Kom Ombo temple complex also contains a Nilometer which was the ingenious way ancient Egyptians used to measure the floodwaters to calculate taxes. The interesting thing is that the Nilometer is shaped like a Key of Life indicating the importance of the Nile for the Egyptian civilisation. The complex also houses a museum for crocodile mummies as Sobek is one of the gods of the temple. However, photography is not permitted in the Crocodile Museum.

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Nilometer shaped like a Key of Life

After Kom Ombo, our next stop would be the Edfu Temple in a few hours. In the meanwhile we enjoyed cruising along the magnificent Nile with beautiful greenery on either side. As we sailed, I looked around at the glorious natural beauty and thought to myself, “No wonder Egypt is called the Gift of the Nile!”

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Read Part 1 here: Upper Egypt(Part 1)- Of pharaonic temples and mythical gods

Upper Egypt(Part 1)- Of pharaonic temples and mythical gods

After a really long hiatus I’m back to writing about my travels. I’ve been travelling quite a bit within Egypt in the last couple of months and I’ll tell you all about it in this and subsequent blog posts. I’ve dearly missed writing my blog! Luckily, the school I work at is off for Easter break; so I now have time to gather my thoughts and put pen to paper.

Normally the first thing that comes to mind when we talk of Egypt are the pyramids. But Egypt has so much more! Every nook and corner of this country is steeped in fascinating history. Just the other day archaeologists found a massive statue of a pharaoh, possibly Ramses II or Psammetich I, inside a slum in Cairo submerged in dirty muddy water. I often let my imagination run wild and feel thrilled thinking, “What if Ramses II or Queen Hatshepsut has set foot exactly where I’m sitting right now? All those thousands of years ago!”

Visiting Upper Egypt and looking at all its historical treasures is the most enchanting and awe inspiring experience! I travelled there in March and was lucky to experience pleasant weather (it is normally hotter than Cairo). Booking a Nile cruise is the best way to see the sights as you simultaneously get to enjoy the natural beauty of the Nile and the historical sites. We travelled by an overnight train from Cairo to Aswan where we were supposed to board our cruise. We reached Aswan in the afternoon at around 1 pm and directly went to see the Unfinished Obelisk, the Aswan high dam and the Philae temple before proceeding to the cruise.

The Unfinished Obelisk was commissioned by Queen Hatshepsut and is located in the stone quarries of ancient Egypt which has now become an open air museum. The obelisk was carved directly out of the bedrock but the project had to be abandoned as cracks started to appear in the granite. This site provides us with valuable insights into how ancient Egyptians used to cut stone to build their maginificent structures. The Egyptians had devised an ingenious way of cutting out gigantic pieces of rock despite the complete lack of modern technology. They would carve out small rectangular incisions on the rock at regular intervals and insert wooden spikes which would then be wetted till saturation. The wood would expand due to the water and thus crack the rock. Transporting such huge pieces of rock seems to be another insurmountable problem, but the Egyptians found a way around that too! The quarries were located conveniently close to the banks of the Nile and when the river would flood its banks, they would use rafts to transport the rocks to different parts of Egypt.

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The Unfinished Obelisk

We proceeded next to the Aswan High Dam which was built between 1960-1970 by the former USSR on a loan to Egypt. This dam supplies about 10% of Egypt’s power and controls the yearly flooding of the Nile. Lake Nasser is the reservoir created by the dam and is named after the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser during whose time the dam was built. It is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world.

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View of Lake Nasser from top of the Aswan dam

Our next stop was the Philae temple which is one of the several temples that had to be relocated due to fears of being submerged under Lake Nasser after the Aswan dam was built. If building such a beautiful temple thousands of years ago was an achievement, removing it from its original spot and painstakingly rebuilding it block by block is another feat! But that’s what a team of deidicated archaeologists made possible. This restored temple is located on an island on Lake Nasser as was the original. In ancient times, the island used to be treated as neutral territory where Egyptians and Nubians would come together to trade, much like a modern free trade zone! The main temple is dedicated to the goddess Isis and was built during the reign of pharaoh Nectanebo I. The remaining additions were made largely during the Ptolemaic era.

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This temple is a melting pot of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures as it has representations from all three eras. It has also been victim to extensive defacement by the early Christians, Napoleon’s soldiers, visitors from the 1800s and Egyptologists who wanted to leave their mark by carving their names on some of the walls. The early Christians, particularly, had taken great pains to mutilate the “heathen” sculptures of this temple.

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Columns leading up to the main temple of Isis

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(Defaced) Carvings on the face of the temple wall

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A victorious message of conquest left by Napoleon’s soldiers

There is also a smaller temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor and an open roof structure called Trajan’s Kiosk built by the Roman emperor Trajan.

We ended our first day in Upper Egypt tired, but thoroughly soaked in wonderful history. We retired to bed pretty early as we were looking forward to our trip to the famous temple of Abu Simbel early next morning. So wait for my next post as I take you through the rest of my journey to the fascinating temples of ancient Egypt and much more!

Baked Chicken Breasts with Parmesan

I came across this scrumptious recipe when I was looking for an easy chicken dish that wasn’t my usual chicken curry. Of course, as always, I modified the recipe and used my own imagination. The result was a delicious, mouth-watering meal of chicken breasts with toasted bread on the side. This dish takes very little effort and is perfect for those times you’re looking for a quick fix dinner. It’s also delectable enough to serve to guests if required.

The marinade mainly consists of garlic, parmesan, italian seasoning, a dash of butter and olive oil. I would recommend marinating the chicken for about half an hour before baking so that it really absorbs the flavours well. But you could also bake it immediately after coating with the marinade if you’re short on time.

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Ingredients

  • 3-4 skinless chicken breast pieces
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic finely minced or 1 teaspoon of garlic paste
  • Half a cup of grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter(melted)
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon of standard Italian seasoning
  • Half a teaspoon of ground black pepper
  • Half a teaspoon of salt or to taste (reduce the salt if using salted butter)
  • Half a cup of bread crumbs

Method

  • Make little incisions in the chicken breasts for the marinade to seep in easily.
  • Melt the butter in a bowl over low heat.
  • Mix all the ingredients for the marinade (except the bread crumbs) in the bowl. It’s preferable to prepare the marinade while the melted butter is still warm.
  • Pour the marinade over the chicken and coat the pieces well. Let it sit for 25-30 minutes.
  • Grease a baking dish or line with parchment paper and place the chicken pieces in it.
  • Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the chicken.
  • Preheat the oven to 180-200 Deg C and then bake the chicken for 25-30 mins. Take care not to bake the chicken till it turns dry- it should remain juicy.

The chicken will come out golden and slightly crispy on top and juicy inside. Serve with bread and steamed vegetables on the side and you have a hearty meal ready at the snap of your fingers!