Egypt

Sean’s Top Ten Countries of the Middle East

*disclaimer #1 – All photos were taken by myself or Kim on our travels.

*disclaimer #2 – This is a (rare) blog post by Sean. Kim’s top ten could indeed be very different, and she does not take responsibility for any potential repercussions from my rankings.

*disclaimer #3 – These 10 countries are countries I have actually been to (or seen) in the Middle East. There are many other countries that are in the middle east that I am sure are fantastic, I just haven’t been to them…

*disclaimer #4 – I wanted to get to “10” countries, so I kind of cheated with 3 countries… I have never been in Iran, Iraq or Saudi Arabia, but I have seen them, in person, with my own eyes, so that counts right?

More accurate title for this blog post:

Top Ten Countries in the Middle East¬†(that I have been to…or seen…or been 20 feet away from…)

Ok, enough with the disclaimers.

I felt like I needed some kind of closure after our 2 years of teaching in Kuwait. We have seen and done a great many things these past couple of years, sometimes amazing, sometimes horrifying, and sometimes just plain mundane. But I wanted to conclude our stay in the middle east with a look back on some of my favorite memories and reminisce with you about the good, the bad, and the ugly (but mostly the good ūüėČ

So, for your reading pleasure, here is “Sean’s Top Ten Countries of the Middle East” ranked by my personal experiences.

#10 – Saudi Arabia (or rather the border of Kuwait/Saudi…)

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I never actually got the chance to go to Saudi Arabia, but the picture you see above is indeed Saudi Arabia in the background – I promise! This is a photo of Kim and a friend at the border of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. It is rather difficult for a westerner to get a visa into Saudi Arabia. For a long time we talked about getting a 24hr visa (which would be much easier to get for us in Kuwait) in order to drive through Saudi to get to Bahrain. I hear the drive there is quite scenic with a 365 view of sand, sand, and more sand…

#9 – Iran (or rather, as seen from a boat in the Strait of Hormuz…)

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The photo above is the Strait of Hormuz and one of the 14 behemoth oil tankers that passes through there each day. Twenty percent of the worlds petroleum passes through this narrow stretch of sea from the oil rich countries of Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi, Iraq, and UAE out to the rest of the world. On one side is Musandam, which we were visiting at the time, and on the other side is Iran. You can see the rocky cliffs between the strait leading to the “fjords of the middle east”.

We were told by local Omani fishers that the smuggling between Iran and Oman/UAE is quite frequent. We even saw some Iranian smugglers when local Omanis clued us in on how to spot them. “Look for the mustaches” they said. When we asked what they were smuggling they told us that the Iranians wanted “American Cigarettes” and what did the Omanis get in return? Goats. Lots and lots of Goats. The middle east is full of them…

#8 – Iraq (or rather the border of Kuwait/Iraq)

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I ranked this number 8 because the experience I had was so surreal and strange compared to the other “border” or “view from afar” countries.

We drove out to Mutla Ridge in Kuwait (highest point in Kuwait), and decided to keep on driving to the Iraq border, you know, to see what it was like. Maybe we’d see a tank, or fire, or explosions, or lots and lots of guns!

Nope. It was a pretty ordinary border crossing with a lot of trucks of supplies and local people going through. There was only one point of entry and only a few cars in the 30 minutes we were there.

We pulled up and parked in a flat, desert-like parking lot next to the crossing. And we just started…walking up to the gate. You know. To see how far we could get before they….I don’t know….gunned us down?

When we got to the 1 car entry point the guard you see above in the full camo smiled and waved us over. Surprisingly he knew little English (most people in Kuwait know English quite well). We asked him basic questions like “Is that Iraq?” and “Can we go?” and “Can we take picture?” Note that there were giant signs on the way up saying “NO VIDEO OR PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED”. He smiled when we pulled out the camera, grabbed our friends shoulder and offered to be in the picture. Meanwhile, the Kuwaiti man in the car (who wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon) got out and decided he was going to be in the picture too, just, because… (he is on the phone on the left). The guard in the camo then called over the other guard to come join us in the picture too (man in blue with gold shoulders). My friends and I then pose for what was the most surreal photo experience of my life – on the border of Kuwait and Iraq.

#7 – Kuwait

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Kim and I lived in Kuwait for two years. By the first week we had seen pretty much everything Kuwait had to offer. Unfortunately, the outdoor activities that Kim and I truly enjoy are really nonexistent in Kuwait. And Kuwait is not what you’d call a “tourist country”.

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Kuwait does have a long path along the Persian Gulf (or “Arab” Gulf as we were forced to write in our textbooks over the word “Persian”). It is really quite pretty most days. On Eid al-Adha, however, you might want to avoid this area if you are squeamish (or any area really). On Eid al-Adha, Muslims celebrate the day Abraham was going to sacrifice his son for God, until God said, “just kidding”, and so Abraham sacrificed a lamb instead. In celebration of this day Muslims kill their own sheep, and when your whole country is pretty much Muslim, that’s a lot of sheep…and blood…

So what happens to all these sheep carcasses? Well, some are thrown into the ocean and eventually wash up on shore. Then they get buried in the sand and are pulled up by middle school children during a community and service “beach cleaning” event…

…to the horror of everyone.

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A common theme in the middle east is the sometimes stark contrast of hyper-conservative tradition paralleled with more liberal western influences. The gulf countries especially are going through a clash of middle-east meets west and different countries are dealing with it in sometimes comical, sometimes depressing ways.

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The first week that Kim and I arrived in Kuwait we were taken to a bookstore to get school supplies. The only way to get to this book store, however, was to walk through an amusement park with rides and mini-roller coasters. As we walked through, there were Kuwaiti mothers completely covered in black burqas, dishdasha-ed man, and western dressed children speaking English to the Indian, Sri-Lankan, and Pilipino ride operators. As we walked through this confluence of cultures our ears were blasted by, get this, hardcore rap music. This ultra-conservative society was basting F-bombs by Jay-Z and 50 cent in a children’s amusement park. These blatant contradictions turned out to be a common theme throughout the middle east.

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Mutla Ridge, the highest point in Kuwait at a staggering “nosebleed” level of 475 feet, is one place in Kuwait that I quite enjoyed the view. At the end of our hike along the ridge which has the occasional Kuwaiti “desert camping” (see Kim’s previous blog entries for what that really means), we reached a protruding peninsula that provides one of the coolest views of the Kuwait skyline (as seen above in the picture).

Lastly, Failaka island was a very unnerving and surreal experience. Failaka is an island in the Gulf that is part of Kuwait. In the 1980s Kuwaitis lived on the island, had homes there, had cars there, mosques, banks, etc. But in 1990 Iraq attacked Kuwait, invaded the island, and drove all the Kuwaitis off of it. It was never rebuilt and remains frozen in time to 1990. It was fascinating, humbling, and horrifying to walk through people’s homes and see bullet holes in the walls, bullet shells on the ground, and see people’s clothes, books, and dishes still lying around the home.

#6 – Qatar

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Kim and I went to Qatar our first year in the middle east. We had a long weekend over thanksgiving and decided to go to Qatar because, well, when else would we ever probably be in Qatar? Qatar, although it is building up, is not exactly know as a vacation destination. In fact, when we arrived in the Doha airport, an American family that was on the same flight from Kuwait asked us why we came to Qatar. We told them vacation, they looked at us, as if we were joking, then realizing we were not, laughed and asked why, insisting there was nothing to do in Qatar. In many ways, they were correct.

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One of my favorite places in all of the middle east, however, is in Qatar. It is the beautiful and unique building you see behind us in the picture above. It is the Museum of Islamic Art. Designed by famed architect I. M. Pei, it is a spectacular building sitting on a peninsula opposite Doha city proper across the bay. Inside the museum is a collection of the most brilliantly preserved, priceless, and unique items of Islamic history and art from the 6th century to modern day. Much of the art focuses on the Medieval era, or the golden age of Islam. Most of my favorite works were from Iran. The Persian art is more relaxed when it comes to showing living things, where as most Islamic sects forbid it.

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On the top level was a modern Arabic calligraphy artist that took lines from famous Arab, Turkish, and Persian poems and wrote them in the most delicate and beautiful script. I found a quote that really jumped out at me, and had great meaning for myself. It gave me a connection to this museum I won’t long forget. My favorite quote was from a poem in Ottoman Turkish by Hami-i Amidi, translated it said,

“Some among the sensitive and cultured people come to live where they find their heart’s desire. To some, strange places will become home, and sometimes some will stay home but find it strange.”

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Souq Waqif is one of my favorite souqs in the middle east (a “souq” is a marketplace). It has a rather modern main streets but the side streets will bring you back hundreds of years to the time of pearl diving and camel caravans. You’ll find everything from Qatari daggers, to jewelry, to spices and perfume. We eventually accidentally walked into a “hawk shop”. In the picture above Kim is holding a real, and very living, falcon. The man in the shop could tell we obviously weren’t here to buy a falcon (which many Qatari’s do, and walk around with on their arm because, why not?), but he was so eager to show us his birds. So, we put on the glove, pet, and even fed the falcon. When he took the sleep mask off the falcon, and you looked into her large and beautiful eyes, you felt like she was peering deep into your soul and judging everything you had ever done. Like no animal I have ever encountered, nothing past or present gets by a falcon.

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As I said, Qatar is growing, and although it is not currently a major tourist destination, they are the up and coming in the gulf region. Walking through the streets they are ecstatic about, and make it well know to you, that they are hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022. The photo above is from the area of Doha know as “The Pearl”. When the construction is finished (whenever that might be…), it will be pretty spectacular and will rival the Dubai Palm in most ways.

#5 – UAE (Dubai)

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Dubai, as you may notice in the picture above, has some rather unique architecture. When Kim and I first visited Dubai we were blown away by the modernity of the place. My friend described Dubai by saying, “It’s architecture is so modern, you might not be surprised to see George Jetson fly across the sky in a spaceship.”

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Dubai is a perfect example of the middle-east meets west clash and contradictions. We would walk around the Dubai Mall (the largest mall in the world by area), and see Emirati¬†Women, dressed in a fully covered Burqa, walk into Victoria’s Secret, with mannequins and posters of half naked women. Or we would see Emirati¬†Men (and all Gulf coast men), drive around wearing ghutras on their head that completely block their peripheral vision. It seems rather dangerous to us.

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In an attempt by the Emirati to hold on to their traditions, they still have a traditional souq (which is mainly run by expats such as Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, or Filipinos), and they have dhows (boats) to take you across the Dubai Creek. It was pretty cool having someone take a raw coconut, chop it up, stick a straw in it, and then jump on a boat to take you across the creek. All the while being surrounded by buildings of architecture of the future.

Dubai - Burj Khalifa

You may have noticed the rather tall building in these pictures. It is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Kim and I did take the elevator up a staggering 124 floors to the (open air!) observation deck. We watched the sun set across the desert in the distance. You can truly see for miles and miles with nothing to hinder you view (except the occasional dust storm).

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I do have a lot of respect for the people of Dubai economically. They have the foresight to realize that one day their oil money will run out. So instead of saying, “Well, let’s just live large and ride this gravy train until it derails”, (like Kuwait), they said lets use this money to invest in a tourist economy that will last long after the oil has run dry. In that regard, they have preserved the few physical cultural heritage sites that they have.

The photo above shows some of the arrowslits of a fort that was built in Dubai in 1787. They have preserved it and turned it into a museum. It was one of the most informative places I have been to in the middle east in terms of showing daily life of the Arabs long ago. The fact that it was built of rock, and mud, and even ocean coral, makes it even more impressive that it still exists today.

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(If you click on the picture above, it will open in a new page so you can view the panorama in greater detail.)

Dubai is the epitome of a city in constant contradiction. Check the news, everyday the Emiritis are struggling with the balance between, or the blatant contradictions of, the progressive nature of modernity and the western culture that comes with it, and their hyper-conservative Islamic traditions and laws. For all of its faults, Dubai has become a major player in not only the middle east, but now safely holds its own on the world’s stage.

#4 – Musandam (Oman)

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Ok, I cheated again. Musandam isn’t its own country. It is “technically” part of Oman, but it is cut off from Oman culturally, linguistically, geographically, and even physically! Musandam is a peninsula, jutting out into the Strait of Hormuz, and it is not connected to Greater Oman. The only way to get to Musandam from Greater Oman is to either drive through the UAE, fly there, or take a boat around the UAE coast. So that is why I made it my #4 country, deal with it : )

The picture above is one of my favorite photos that I have taken in the middle east. This inlet of water surrounded by the rocky fjords of Musandam is called Khor Al Najd (which possibly means “hidden place”, but I wouldn’t go throwing that around with any certainty). Kim and I flew into Dubai and rented a car. We then drove across the UAE and crossed the border into Musandam. From that point the scenery became spectacular. Giant rocky cliffs falling straight into the crystal blue-green ocean. We climbed the extremely steep dirt road from the inland side in our rented two wheel drive car and when we reached the zenith the view before us was jaw-droppingly beautiful. We stayed there for hours taking in the view and walking around the little paths from the viewpoint.

MusandamTentRockKimWe brought our tent on the plane and just lived out of our car for the weekend. In all of Oman you can camp pretty much wherever you like. In the picture above we set up camp on a rocky cliff that dropped over the ocean and watched the sun set reflect on the mountains in the background changing them from the most brilliant red, to pink, to purple.

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The next day we chartered a dhow cruise through the fjords. The best, and only real way, to truly experience Musandam is by boat. Weaving in and out of the inlets of water you dive deeper into the heart of Musandam. We explored an island with the ruins of a colonial fort, brightly colored fish swimming through coral, and small Omani fishing villages living on the edge of existence. We were able to snorkel and swim in a few places. When we got back on the boat, we had a few marine friends following us.

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At least 5 times we had dolphins skimming along next to our boat. They would go under us, behind us, jump out of the water, and squeak at us. There was a particular family with a baby that kept following us. It was a really cool experience, and the first time I have seen dolphins in the wild.

MusandamKimTentBeachThat night we asked the boat driver to drop us off at a secluded beach only accessible by boat so we could camp for the night (a common request). He dropped us off, gave us some firewood (a rarity in the middle east), we set up camp, and hoped he would remember to pick us up the next day. It was the most picturesque beach cove – I could have sworn I was on a movie set. It was called “Seebel Kareeb” – a¬†perfect half circle of soft sand completely hidden by the surrounding mountains. We swam, cooked dinner on the fire, and slept under the shooting stars. It was unreal.

Musandam_3355The last day in Musandam we followed the one road through the peninsula as far as it goes. To our great surprise it dead ends into a forest. Now, if you know anything about deserts…there’s not a lot of forests. We got out and followed the many herds of goats through the forest, around trees, and sometimes up into the trees. Yes, these goats climbed trees. There were plenty of places to camp but we had to get to Dubai that night and so our Musandam journey had come to an end.

Musandam is quite unknown, even within expat communities in the middle east. This makes it an infrequently traveled, untouched enclave among the major tourist destinations in the Gulf.

#3 – Egypt

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Number three was a difficult choice. I was torn between number two and three. In the end, Egypt has the population factor and the stress that comes with it that pushed it to my number three.

Egypt is fantastic. Don’t let the current political situation dissuade you from any thought other than the fact that Egypt is fantastic. From north to south it has over 6000 layers of history that sometimes you literally see “layered” in the ground. Egypt contains remnants of human existence from the pharaohs, the biblical Jews, the Hittites, the Nubians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Nabataeans, the Seleucids, the Romans, the Arabs, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, the French, the British, and I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting. Can any other country in the world claim that kind of diverse history. It is astounding and visible.

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When I was in middle school I went to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. I had seen many pictures of it and expected it to be huge. When I got there, it was rather incredible, but it was smaller than what I was expecting. With the pyramids, I think I’ve seen thousands of images of them in my life and expected them to be huge again. When I got there, they were BIGGER and grander than I could have ever imagined – and they are so numerous that they stretch along the Nile for miles and miles. Seeing these gargantuan stones, over 4500 years old, piled up on top of one another in perfect mathematical alignment, and then being able to actually go inside them… to me, it was like a kid in a candy store, if the store was also made of candy, and the candy could be inserted directly into your veins. I was high on history.


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In our trip we visited no less than 7 temples (I lost track). I was given free range to meander through these structures, witness the great artistic skill in carving the hieroglyphs, listen to the echos in the inner chambers bounce off Isis, Horus, and Seth, and feel the eternity of the stones…oh, if walls could talk…

In the valley of the kings there were no temples, but tombs where the pharaohs were buried. As the quality of the wall carvings and paintings got better (more preserved), I couldn’t help but realize how alike these ancient people of the past were to us today. Especially in the necropolis of the wealthy and workers tombs where they depicted scenes from everyday life on their walls. A son helping his father carry baskets of wheat, a man sleeping on the shore of the Nile while his friends fished, a wedding with man and wife holding hands surrounded by beautiful riverbed flowers. In these 4000 years, our relationships and the emotions of our human interactions haven’t changed much.

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The way that Egypt can transition so flawlessly from 4000 years ago, to 2000 years ago, to modern day, all on the same block is a uniqueness all its own. Cairo is a mega-city. It is the most populated city in Africa with streets and city planning created over 1000 years ago. Cairo hustles, it churns, it¬† spits, it screeches, and it does it well into the night. The streets have shops, in front of shops, in front of shops, in front of other shops and you wonder where people walk, and where they actually drive. Some parts of Cairo are a fluid of people. But then you’ll turn down a side street where cars can’t go, and you’ll find a thousand year old mosque. You wander inside and see the most beautiful stone insets, geometric shapes, and delicately drawn Arabic calligraphy. This is where the Fatimid Caliphs, the Mamluk kings, and the Ottoman Sultans prayed and meditated on their next conquest.

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Turn the next corner and you’re smack in the middle of Tahrir Square, the heart of the Egyptian revolution, where effigies hang from light poles. We talked to a lot of people throughout Egypt about the revolution and they all knew, without hesitation, that turmoil, and uncertainty, and even bloodshed were likely repercussions for the revolution, but they wanted it so badly, they¬† were willing to accept it. That was the sentiment when we were there in January of 2013 – now I don’t know if they would say so much. I think now they are more angry and divisive than they ever were with Mubarak. As one Egyptian dhow sailor told us in Luxor, “The Revolution is like giving birth to a new born, a new nation. It’s exciting, it’s emotional, and it’s messy!”

When I think of the revolution, I always have to put things in perspective and think, it took the United States 13 years, and essentially a civil war to get rid of a Monarch. Egypt does not appear to need all that. Inshallah.

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Visiting Egypt made me glad that Kim and I included a reading of an ancient Egyptian poem in our wedding. The following are my favorite lines from that poem, translated from the hieroglyphics on a wall in a temple built some 3000 years ago:

“With my hand in your hand
we shall wander together in beautiful places,
my soul inspired,
my heart in bliss,
because we go together.”

#2 – Jordan

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My number two, Jordan. Oh, how I love this country. It is amazingly vast and diverse for a country little bigger than Maine. Although a good area of land is desert, the remaining topography has mountains, hills, valleys, wadis, lakes, oceans, and rivers. Not only is it a beautiful country, but the people are so genuinely nice and helpful (and not just because you’re a tourist).

The above photo was taken from one of my favorite places in Jordan known as Wadi Dana. If you ever visit Jordan, please book one night in the little medieval village of Dana. If you look closely, you can see the entire village hanging perilously on the edge of the valley in the center left of the picture. The reason I say “medieval” village is because the rooms you stay in are the ruins of a village built in the middle ages. We hiked up to the ruins of a Roman bath on the left side of the picture where the water is held in an underground well and slowly trickles down a stone built aqueduct to the village and into the wadi (a “wadi” is a dry riverbed). It becomes quite green in the rainy season.

At night, Kim’s family and I huddled in a majlis tent with a few Bedouin where we smoked shisha and drank “Bedouin tea” (which was sage and sugar). One man played the oud, another drummed, while the last man danced, clapped, and sang. For a goat herder he had quite the moves.

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Like Egypt, Jordan’s history is long and convoluted. There are castles upon castles in Jordan from the many crusades and crusader states set up here. My favorite is the one in the picture above, Kerak Castle. This castle is huge, don’t be fooled by the photo. Where the photographer is standing is also on top of the castle with many rooms and tunnel ways underneath. What you see before you is only the very top of the castle. This castle is my favorite because it was attacked and conquered by one of my favorite characters from the crusades, Saladin (Salah al-Din). Saladin was Richard the Lionheart’s bitter rival, but they had a relationship of mutual respect and admiration. In fact, the 3rd crusade actually ended with a rather fair peace treaty for the middle east.

The guide told the story of Saladin when he attacked this castle. The castle was controlled by a Templar Knight named Raynald de Chatillon. He was a rather ruthless man. He used to throw Muslim prisoners off of the castle walls (into a deep valley below) with a wooden box fitted around their head, just to make sure they didn’t pass out before they hit the ground – the goal being that they stayed awake to feel all the pain associated with falling that great height. He frequently attacked Muslim pilgrimage caravans and slaughtered them. When Salah al-Din conquered the castle, he let the Christians go uninjured, except for Raynald, whom he personally beheaded. Ah, I love history!

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Step back another thousand years and you’re in the time of the Nabataeans. Petra is truly one of the great wonders of the world. When you approach Petra from the outside, you cannot see anything other than rocky hills. Then you wind your way through a narrow passageway at times only six feet wide that goes straight up hundreds of feet. You continue walking about 20 minutes like this until you reach the opening of the Siq, and you’re standing directly in front of beautiful sandstone like building carved directly into the wall. But there isn’t just one, there are over 800 carved tombs in the walls as the walls in the valley open up to the size of a football field. But soon you realize it isn’t just tombs, there was a thriving city here, complete with aqueducts, homes, and even a carved in amphitheater. We spent three days in Petra and did not see everything.

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Further north is the Roman town of Jerash. Because it was completely built by Romans, and it was abandoned and never built over, it is one of the best preserved Roman cities in the world. It even boasts the best preserved hippodrome in Asia. In fact, they even perform Roman military formations and a chariot race in the hippodrome with ex-Jordanian military men dressed in complete Roman costume. Unfortunately, it rained the one day we went to Jerash and they canceled the chariot races. Jerash was the first place I had ever seen Roman ruins, and if you know me, you know how much I love ancient Rome. It was a seminal event for me.

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Separating the countries of Jordan and Israel are the Jordan river and the Dead Sea. At 1,400 feet below sea level, it is dubbed “the lowest place on earth.” In the picture above, the rocks are not covered in snow, or sand, rather they are covered in crystallized salt. The water has no where to go but up when it evaporates, making the Dead Sea one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. We jumped in and could not sink though we tried. You just bob like an apple. As I listened to the waves lap across the salt baked rocks, from the southern shore of the Dead Sea I looked to my right at the hills of Mt. Nebo, where Moses viewed the promised land but could not enter – and I looked to my left where the light dome of Jerusalem bounded upward behind the hills of the river valley and instantly everything felt so ancient and unending. Much like the country of Jordan.

#1 – Oman

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And my number one is….Oman! People that know Kim and I are probably not surprised. Oman is by far our favorite middle east country. In the 2 years that we were living in Kuwait we went to Oman 3 times (that’s 3 times more than any other middle east country). Oman has everything an outdoors lover would want including mountains, wadis, lagoons, soft sand beaches, rocky beaches, waterfalls, caves, coral reefs, sink holes, and real wildlife (a rarity in the middle east). It is a country just daring you for adventure.

The above panorama (click to enlarge) was taken at As Sifa beach about an hour from Muscat. You have to drive some astoundingly hilly roads but your reward is the most beautiful beach I have ever been to. Flawlessly white powder sand only a tiny village nearby. There is a major hotel that just opened up and the coolest restaurant serving the freshest seafood right on the beach. You can put your toes in the sand and watch and listen to the waves lap up on the beach. We camped right on the beach.

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You can camp virtually anywhere in the entire country. In our main trip to Oman we brought a tent and sleeping bags on the plane and then rented a car when we got there. We had a long 5 day weekend and I wish it was longer. We drove all around the mountain and gulf coastal region and just pulled over to set up camp whenever we were getting tired. We camped in Wadis, on beaches, on mountains, and even once under a tree next to a mosque where we were greeted in the morning by a rather loud call to prayer and a handful of overly friendly goats.

The above photo is not staged in any way – it is me just pointing my camera down at the beach sand in a town south east from Muscat called Sur. I couldn’t believe it, there was no sand! The entire beach was shells and coral. Unfortunately we did not have time on our trip, but right near Sur is a sea turtle sanctuary where you can go with a guide and watch baby turtles hatch out of their sand nest and crawl to the ocean.

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Throughout Oman are either original, remnants, or restored sand colored forts, castles, and towers. Some are Omani made, some are Portuguese made. The oldest ones dating back to the 1200s! There are over 500 in the whole country. The picture above is the giant fort in Nizwa. In the picture below you can see a tower near the center left on the mountain. They are a cool aspect of Omani culture and Sultan Qaboos (who I am fascinated with and you should read about him) has done a great job restoring and maintaining them.

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The first time we visited Oman we went to a conference in Muscat for only a couple days. We immediately were enamored with the country. The people are so friendly. Oman does not have as much oil money as the other gulf coast countries and because of that the people seem to be more down to earth, middle class, and genuine. Oman is rich in culture and history. Even the clothing the men and women wear are colorful (unlike the black and white clothes of the other gulf countries). Trade with India over the centuries has created an infusion of outside influences.

We didn’t stay in Muscat, actually, we stayed in a smaller area that is attached to Muscat called Muttrah. The above photo is of the Muttrah corniche and we actually did a hike over the mountains you see in the background. Problem was I had just dislocated my knee the week before and had a straight leg cast on. But that didn’t stop Kim from pulling me up that hill to the reward of a breathtaking view over the ocean and Muttrah coast.

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Our favorite thing about Oman were the Wadis. A wadi is a dry canyon or riverbed. Except these wadis are almost never dry! The mountains in Oman create clouds and more frequent rain which fills these slot canyons with steams, pools, waterfalls, waterslides, and just plant life and animal life in general.

The above photo is from Wadi Shab. Starting from the Ocean where the water empties into, you step into this gigantic canyon with 90 degree angle sides. In order to get into the Wadi you have to either take a boat across the initial river of water or just wade across. Of course we waded across waist deep in the water. We were in our swimming suits anyway because at the end of the hike (after hours of pools, and canyons, and cliff climbing) you reach a few narrower pools that have an underground waterfall. The waterfall is in a cave and the only way to reach it is to swim underwater through a 5 foot wide tunnel about 20-25 feet and then come up for air once you’re inside the cave. It took a lot of coaxing but eventually I got Kim to do it. It was very cool.

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Our favorite wadi was Wadi Bani Khalid, but not the tourist side (although it is beautiful and also includes a long and deep waterless cave), the down stream side of Wadi Bani Khalid. It seemed virtually untouched and we only encountered one other group of people the whole hike. You follow the wadi which is quite dry initially until the canyon becomes much more rocky and narrow. Then out of no where the water starts flowing with huge pools and 30 foot waterfalls. We watched the other group actually jump from the top of one of the waterfalls into a pool below (Kim wouldn’t let me do it…). We went swimming and had a picnic near one of the waterfalls and about 5 lizards came out from under the rocks to meet us, eager to steal our food. I liked them but they kind of freaked Kim out.

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My last story about Oman is a bit embarrassing. Like I said, we drove around and camped the whole time we were there. We never had a problem finding a place to camp, especially along the ocean. However, one night when we were driving down from Jebel Shams (a beautiful mountain), we arrived to the village inside of Wadi Bani Khaled in the dark. We went to the Wadi pools on the tourist side and it was wall to wall people with noise and trash everywhere. This was because it was Eid al Adha and everyone was off work vacationing. We decided there was no way we were going to camp there tonight.

So we drove back into the village but the canyon walls around the city did not allow any open space for camping. We even drove back towards the highway and found a place near there that we thought might be ok, albeit noisy, but it was pitch dark and there was a human like shape laying under a tree two feet from where we wanted to camp. The paranoia got to Kim and “there is no way I’m sleeping here” she said. So we drove back into the village and looked around again. After a couple hours of this we found the Wadi Bani Khaled visitor center, which had a parking lot and we thought, whatever, lets just camp in the parking lot. A man came out and asked us what we were doing. We replied that we needed a place to camp. He told us, no problem, of course we could camp in the parking lot. So we went around what appeared to be an animal pen (with no animals) and set up camp for what was a somewhat restless night.

When we awoke, we were greeted with the most serene, awe inspiring and exquisite view. Because it was pitch black when we set up camp we did not realize that we were at the top of the valley overlooking a forest of palm trees encircled by imperial canyon walls. The sun was just peeking over the mountains and the moisture from the pools of water evaporating created this mist over the place that was ethereal and magical.

There truly is no bad place to camp in Oman.

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Egypt: The Grand Finale

 

Happy February! Tonight I aim to bring my blogging of Egypt to a close. It’s been incredibly fun remembering our adventures and straightening out the Egyptian history in my mind, but there’s a lot happening in Kuwait right now that I’d love to share with you, too! Thus, today I will finish Egypt, then talk about our recent adventures.

Our last few days in Luxor were a mix of exploring the town, visiting a few more temples, and checking out some swanky hotels. I would love to go back to Luxor in the future and cruise the Nile in a sailboat for a week. It was so relaxing and beautiful. I could picture Cleopatra sailing through the azure waters being fanned and fed grapes : )

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On our final afternoon we relaxed on the roof of a restaurant drinking smoothies and smoking shisha. You can see Luxor temple in the background, then the Nile, and across the Nile is the West Bank and Valley of the Kings. What a view!

 

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Sean and my dad visited Karnak temple together while my sister and I went swimming and caught up on our girl talk. Karnak temple is actually more like a city,

spanning 247 acres. It is considered the “sacred place”, and the main site is the Temple of Amun. Sadly, there are only a few obelisks left there, as most of them were looted and carried off to Europe. (Which Sean and I saw when we visited Rome!)

 
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Another photo from when Sean and my dad visited Karnak temple.

 
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Sean, me, and my dad standing with the statue of Horus at the temple of Edfu. Horus was the patron god of Egypt. Can you believe this gorgeous statue is over two-thousand years old? I can’t even begin to fathom it. (It was constructed in the 200’s BC.)

 

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Art inside the temple of Edfu. You can see the gods Horus (with the falcon head), Toth (with the Ibis head, the god of wisdom), Hathor (with the disc and horns above her head, the goddess of love and beauty), Sekhmet (with the lion head, the god of destruction), and a Pharaoh in the center.



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Sean outside the Temple of Edfu.

 

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We took our lunch break at a McDonald’s in Aswan, on our way to the Temple at Philae. I hadn’t seen my sister look so happy our entire trip!

 

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Here I am at the Temple of Isis at Philae. It is an island temple on the massive Lake Nasser. UNESCO saved the temple when the government dammed up the Nile and Lake Nasser was flooded; the water damage to the Temple would have corroded it to nothing in a matter of decades. Luckily, UNESCO moved the entire temple to a higher island in the lake, deconstructing it and rebuilding it piece by piece.

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Isis is pretty much the most important female goddess in Egyptian mythology. She is known as the “mother of God”, and is the wife of Osiris (the god of the dead) and the mother of Horus.

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Here you can see the Temple of Isis at Philae from the boat we took to get to the island. It was so surreal!

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After all those temples and history lessons, it was time for a break! We found the Hilton in Luxor and lounged the day away.

 

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Transportation in Luxor.

 
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I made some friends while walking around the town of Luxor. They were so cute and spunky! I talked to them for a while and luckily had a few chocolates in my bag.

 

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Baking bread in Luxor.

 

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This man was truly amazing. He had a jewelry store that was about as large as a walk-in closet. The gems, which he polished there in front of you, were unlike any I had ever seen before.

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We spent a long time looking at his stones and even bought a few.


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On my mom’s last day, we booked a Nile cruise with a man we found along the shore of the Nile. He seemed really nice and offered us a good deal. We were glad we chose to go with him, it was a real treat! Emily and I loved lounging on top the boat while we cruised the Nile.

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My dad, loving life, on board the boat.

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Lunch on the boat. It was fresh-caught fish, cooked on the boat. The rice was made by our captain’s wife, and it was my favorite! It was an unexpected feast.

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We stopped the boat to explore a banana plantation. We climbed around an old building for a beautiful view of the Nile from the West bank.

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My mom loved the bananas on the plantation! I have to admit, they were delicious, and I had quite a few myself.

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My family and I walking around the island.

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Our boat captain, Galal. He was fantastic.

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My sister in the street by our bed and breakfast in Luxor. Call it dingy, but I love how authentic everything is! In Kuwait everything feels new and fancy. Egypt was the true, romantic Arabia!

 

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My mother and sister were on a quest for perfume. Last year when we were in Jordan they found some perfume that they absolutely loved. While they may not have found the perfect match, they still found some enticing scents!

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The entryway of our bed and breakfast, Mara House. I can’t recommend it enough!

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Transporting of goods outside of Luxor.

 

Overall, our trip to Egypt was amazing. It was intense, and I returned home with a completely new understanding of Egyptian culture, both living and historical.

Would I return to Cairo? Absolutely. Luxor? You bet.

The food was excellent, the people were friendly, the history is astounding, the Nile is, well, it’s the Nile. Need I say more?

If you ever get the chance, you should undoubtedly go.

I’ll send you my itinerary : )


 

 

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Luxor: Part One

Hello all! Hope you are having a lovely weekend. Here in Kuwait the weather has been sunny and mild. I’ve gotten out and about with friends, and today am going to the doctor to get the bandages on my wrist changed. I have healed perfectly, and will find out the test results this week.

On a somber note, I don’t know if you have been following the news, but Egypt isn’t looking so hot. The unrest there is tragic. When we were there, there had been protests and such, but all before we arrived. Our two weeks were over the holidays, so I think the volatility of the situation was on a bit of a hiatus. Now, though, it seems like it will be a while before things are resolved. I know I said, “Go! Visit Egypt!” in my last post, and I still think you should go. These people that are unhappy have nothing to do with the tourist industry. The tourist areas will remain stable and safe.

After we left Cairo, we went to Luxor, the main tourist city outside of the famous pyramids of Giza. We flew to Luxor from Cairo, which only took an hour. The only other way to get there is by an eleven-hour overnight train. I’ve heard good things about it, but we were short on time so opted for the flight.

When we got to Luxor, the weather was just perfect, and we walked around a bit to get our bearings.

IMG_3834Above is the main city center of Luxor. As it is right on the bank of the Nile, it was a pretty lush city with lots of palm trees and greenery. (Everybody looks pretty tired in the above picture! We sure did a lot of our vacation!)

IMG_3835Luxor temple is the most famous temple complex in the city of Luxor (along with Karnak temple). It was built in 1400 BC, and much of it remains to this day. As you can see, the city has built itself around it, with a mosque from the Middle Ages constructed literally on the side walls of the temple!

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We saw many, many cruise ships on the bank of the Nile. While in theory a “Nile cruise” sounds decadent, I was happy we chose not to take one. The boats stacked next to each other on the bank, the smell of gasoline, the approach ¬†of “get off at this port and do a quick drive-by of everything in forty-five minutes” was not how I wanted to see Egypt.

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Instead, we chose to take a sunset cruise on a “felucca”, otherwise known as an Egyptian sailboat. We met a guy with a nice boat on the bank of the Nile, and he took us around for the evening and to watch the sunset. It was blissfully quiet and surreal!
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The next day we began a tour of the West Bank of Luxor. Since the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, the West Bank was where the famous mortuary temples, tombs, and celebrations of the dead took place. Our first stop was the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut (they told us to say “hot chicken soup). The coolest thing about this temple? Queen Hatshepsut was a female pharaoh! Historically, she is known as one of the first great women in history. She reigned for over twenty years, and was known as a very peaceful pharoah. She wasn’t buried here, as this is only a mortuary temple.
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A column with the goddess Hathor at the top. The goddess Hathor was the god of music, beauty, love, wisdom, and dancing. My favorite goddess!

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Sean outside the temple of Queen Hatshepsut. If you look at these statues, they are wearing the double crown of unified Egypt. Upper Egypt is the center, bowling-ball-looking crown, and the crown of Lower Egypt is the bucket-like-crown surrounding the bowling ball. It was believed that King Menes unified Upper and Lower Egypt around 3100 BC – such a long time ago!

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Here we are walking into the temple of Medinet Habu. It is the mortuary temple of Ramessess II.
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We had a great guide, Mohammed, who interpreted the hieroglyphics  architecture, and history for us. It was fascinating! These columns are inside Medinet Habu.

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Can you spot Sean standing outside Medinet Habu? It was a gigantic temple complex! One of my favorite.

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Sean is inside one of many underground burial chambers that we explored while in Luxor. I believe this one was in the Valley of the Kings, where many of the¬†Pharaohs¬†and their¬†descendants¬†were buried. I am fascinated at how well the color has been preserved over thousands of years. If you look at the wall behind Sean, you can see the¬†pharaoh¬†on the far right side; you can identify him by the double-crown of unified Egypt I described above. He is making an offering to two gods, one I can only identify as the goddess Hathor (by the circle and ‘horns’ above her head). The other god may be Amun, the god of creation, only because I can see the feathers above his head, which is how he can be recognized. There is so much to interpret in each tiny etching!

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Sean standing at the Colossi of Memnon. They are two giant status of the Pharaoh Amenhotep. The only reason they are named “the Colossi of Memnon” is because the Greeks, in 20 BC, thought the statues were singing (or whistling) at dawn. Memnon means “Ruler of the Dawn”. The reason they were whistling though was because they had crackes in them from an earthquake. When the wind blew through the cracks, they whistled!

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My first time seeing a scorpion. It was a quick crawler!

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Our morning breakfast in Luxor. We stayed at Mara House, which really made our trip easy and fun. It was a great place!

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The next day we woke up to explore the temple complexes of Abydos and Dendera. Our first stop was Dendera, which is known as one of the best-preserved temple complexes in Egypt. The main god of this temple is the goddess Hathor. Each temple is generally dedicated to a particular god or goddess. Also here is where it is believed that Isis was born. Isis is the goddess of healing and magic.

The above picture is a relief of Cleopatra and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion. Is it one of the few known artistic representations of Cleopatra in the world. Isn’t that amazing?!

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Interesting hieroglyphics at Dendera.

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This is inside the Dendera temple complex. It is famous for it’s beautiful colors that have been preserved for so long. Can you see the goddess Hathor’s head on each column?

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The ceiling of Dendera. The reason this temple is so preserved is due to the draining system they had on the roof. Water couldn’t accumulate and weather the stone. The above picture represents the passage of night with the help of the goddess Nut, the goddess of the sky. Sean took an amazing panorama of this artwork, ¬†which I will share with you in a “best of Egypt” post!

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Walking down into the crypts of Dendera…

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Hieroglyphics inside the Dendera crypt.

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The god Horus, wearing the crown of Egypt, and his mother, the goddess Isis. ¬†(Do you see the helicopter above Isis’ head? Proof that the Egyptians were visited by aliens!)

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This is another¬†controversial image in the crypts of Dendera. While many people believe it is a snake and a lotus flower, common in Egypt, others believe it is a lightbulb. They think the Egyptians were visited by aliens and given advanced technology, or that the Egyptians themselves had supernatural powers and created things far beyond their time. I’ll let you decide ; )

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Inside the temple of Dendera. If you look at the top of the columns, you will notice the goddess Hathor’s face is scratched out. In the middle ages when the Coptic Christians began to occupy these temples and use them for their own worship, they scratched out ¬†all of Hathor’s faces as she represented sinful acts and polytheism to the Copts.

 

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The same wall as above, with the relief of Cleopatra and her son.
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Sean inside the temple of Abydos, which was the temple for the god Osiris, the god of the dead.

IMG_4013Sean liked this relief  inside the temple of Abydos, which depicts Pharaoh Seti I with Prince Rammeses (Rammeses II), roping a bull.

Overall, these two days of tours (West Bank and the day we visited Abydos and Dendera) were fascinating. We learned so much history and saw so many beautiful things. I think by the end of it though my sister was a little bit tired of eight-hours-a-day-ancient-history. Regardless, it was an unforgettable experience.

I hope to conclude Luxor in two more posts, and then, who knows? I may begin to talk about our trip to Bangkok… but that’s a tale for another time.

 

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Tahrir Square, Cairo, And Blogging With One Hand

Hello again! I know it’s only been a few days between posts, but I am unable to go in to work today so I thought I’d make progress on sharing our trip to Egypt with you.

I can’t go to work today because I had surgery on my wrist yesterday. I had a strange build up of blood/fluid in my vessels around my wrist. The doctors used the words “hemangioma” and “blood-filled tumor” interchangeably, and honestly don’t know what caused it. It first arose five years ago when I was waitressing in college. The doctor I saw in the States just told me to sleep with a brace on, because it caused me pain the most when I slept. Over the next five years it would sporadically hurt and swell, and has been a continuous issue the past nine months here in Kuwait. Our insurance here is great and so is the medical care, so I had it removed at the behest of my orthopedist here. They say it’s benign, but have sent it to pathology, and we will know for sure in about a week. When they removed it the doctor said it was a mess, having swelled and clotted all around my muscles and veins. He did a great job though, and took all of it out. I think it’s from waiting tables and carrying massive tray of dishes and bus tubs for six years when my muscles were developing the most. Either way, it’s all better now.

But I should cut to the chase, seeing as I am only typing with my left hand. It takes me forever to peck out a simple sentence! My right hand is my dominant hand, too, which makes my left hand quite the pathetic typist.

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Al Seef hospital in Kuwait. It was like a hotel suite in there! I felt so safe and well-taken care of. My lovely husband kept me company all day, too. I am so blessed.

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After they removed the wrapping, I was amazed at how small the surgery site actually was!

Okay, time to move on to our pictures from Egypt. I will keep you updated on the wrist, I promise. For now, though, let’s focus on Cairo!

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Sean at Tahrir Square. It was very, very quiet. I was paranoid we’d be trammeled by protesters, but it was just guys drinking coffee and snapping pictures of the place with their cell phones. We sat in a cafe for a while on the edge of the square and marveled at it all.

IMG_3789Street art around the square.

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There is so much meaning going on in every inch of art. I love it!

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A view of Tahrir Square from another angle. Can you see the hanging effigy doll? That was the strangest thing in the whole place. Everything else was calm and subdued.

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After Tahrir Square, we wanted to explore Cairo on foot. This is the view from the Kasr Al Nil Bridge, crossing over the Nile River.

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Another shot of the Nile. What did YOU picture the Nile looking like before these photos? I sure didn’t picture it cradled in a¬†metropolis!

IMG_3809We found the museum of modern art!

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Sean took this picture of me and my parents admiring the revolutionary art. It was an amazing place; you were able to see what the young artists of Cairo thought of the revolution in every piece of art.

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An example of the art in the museum. Sean liked this particular painting.

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Emily taking a break to smell the roses on Zamalek Island. (The posh district of Cairo, an actual island on the Nile.)

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A great little cafe where we feasted on sandwiches and tea after our long walk around Cairo. Don’t you love the greenery in every picture? Cairo has trees and plants every where : )

IMG_3830My mom, happy with all the sightseeing, and proud she braved Tahrir Square!

If you’re thinking of traveling to Egypt, don’t hesitate! Book your flight today. We had so much fun in Cairo, and felt so safe and welcomed the entire time. Don’t be fooled by the CNN effect!

That’s all for today, next post will be on Luxor, and hopefully with an update on my wrist!

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The Pyramids

When planning this blog, I thought to myself, “Perhaps I should condense some days in Egypt. I could combine the pyramids with… no, I can’t. It’s the pyramids.”

You really can’t “share” the pyramids with anything else. They need to stand alone in all their glory. We hired a guide and driver to help us see the pyramids, and I am glad we did. We didn’t only see the Great Pyramid, but we saw Giza, Memphis, Saqqara, and Dashur! I used to think that there were only 3 pyramids in Egypt, and they were alone in the desert, far from the city. Little did I know that there are still hundreds which border the city of Cairo, and you can even explore the interior of a few of them!

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Our first stop was the Bent Pyramid. It was built by the Pharaoh Snefreu around 2600 BC. It was the first “true” pyramid. (We will see one pyramid that came earlier, but it was built in a series of ‘steps’, rather than with clear linear sides.)

The reason it is called the “Bent” Pyramid is because, as you can see, the angle of the sides is bent about halfway up. Sneferu most likely wanted it built too steep, and when the builders were constructing it they realized they had to taper it off earlier than anticipated to avoid collapse. To this day, it still retains a lot of the original limestone casing; the pieces that make the sides smooth, not choppy like Lego blocks. Another cool fact? This pyramid has two entrances, not just one!

 

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Here is Emily with the Red Pyramid in the Dashur area. (The Dashur area is where the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid are located.) This is the third largest pyramid in Egypt. It is called the Red Pyramid because when seen from a certain angle and in a certain light, the pinkish limestone appears red to the eye. This pyramid was also built by Sneferu.
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Our lovely guide Mohammed held my camera while we explored the INSIDE of the Red Pyramid! He snapped a few cool photos of us making our way to the entrance. The Red Pyramid is the first successful attempt (in history) at building a smooth-sided pyramid. What was it like inside? Really hot! The heat gets trapped in there. Other than that, it is eerily “perfect”. The angles inside are perfect, the chambers are perfect, the chutes and channels are perfect. It is difficult to fathom that such perfection was achieved 5,000 years ago, and is still “perfect” to this day! I don’t have any photos inside the pyramid, as cameras were prohibited, but with a simple Google search you can see the inside for yourself ūüôā

 

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After Dashur we went to the ancient city of Memphis. (No, not in Tennessee.) It was the capital of the Old Kingdom (when the Dashur pyramids were built), and is famous because of all the statues that were found there.  The above photo is my sister and I with the Alabaster Sphinx. Yes, made completely out of alabaster!

 

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Sean and I with a statue of King Rameses II.  He is one of the most well known Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. He is seen here wearing the false beard, signifying royalty, with his left foot forward, also a stance of the royals.

 

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Inside the museum at Memphis is a giant statue of Rameses II. It is around 10 meters long, and is carved out of limestone. My favorite cool fact about this one is all of the cartouches he had carved on it. A cartouche is an Egyptian hieroglyph; you can see one on Rameses’ shoulder in the above picture. A cartouche is an oval with a horizontal line at one end, indicating that the name inside the oval is royalty.

So, when Rameses II had this statue built, he had at least ten of his own cartouches carved into he statue. Why would he have it carved so many times you ask, when once would have clued us in just as well 5,000 years later? Well, archaeologists found hundreds of cartouches of other Pharoahs all over Egypt that Rameses had defaced and replaced his own name on. Therefore, when he had his own statues made, he ensured that nobody like himself could cover up his name in the future! What audacity!

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Here is the Step Pyramid, the oldest pyramid in all of Egypt. It was built for the Pharoah Djoser by the famous¬†architect¬†Imhotep. If you’ve seen the film The Mummy, then you know that the whole movie was based around Imhotep himself. While he was a famous, historically-significant architect, his body remains undiscovered, which makes him the perfect candidate for a mysterious blockbuster film…

Anyways, the Step Pyramid was the first pyramid of Egypt. Before pyramids, simple “mastabas” were built. A mastaba is a flat-roofed structure with sloping sides. Well, Imhotep began stacking mastabas and adding more to the layers as he went along, and ended up with the first pyramid ever.

The tunnels beneath this pyramid for a maze about three and a half miles long. Wow.

 

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Imhotep was also famous for building the first columns ever in history. Sean loved this fact, seeing as he is has a major in ancient Greece and Rome, the “kings” of the columns. Here we were in Egypt, looking at the birth of the first columns ever!

The funny thing was that when Imhotep had these columns built, he didn’t believe they could stand on their own, so he had a small brick “supporting wall” for each column. As we now know, those could have been removed and the columns would have functioned just as well. Pretty neat!

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After all of this build up, we finally visited the Great Pyramid of Giza. One of the Seven Wonders of the World.  The Great Pyramid of Giza was built for the Pharoah Khufu (Cheops) around 2560 BC.  It is aligned perfectly with true North, and scientists to this day still cannot replicate the engineering that took place to build such a monument.

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The view looking out over Cairo from the steps of the Great Pyramid. (It was so sad to see such a small amount of tourists, on Christmas day!)

IMG_3717This is a shot of the Grand Gallery inside the Great Pyramid. Can you believe the engineering that had to have taken place for this to work?! The stones are laid at a slightly steeper angle with each layer starting up from the floor, so each stone fits into a perfect slot cut in the roof of the gallery. Each block supports the others around it, not only by the base of the block alone. ¬†I can’t believe they were able to build such cavernous interiors which still exist today!

Once you walked through the Grand Gallery, you were inside the King’s Chamber. It is entirely faced with granite, and the original sarcophagus is still inside.

IMG_3731Sean and I on Christmas day, looking out over the Pyramids of Giza.



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This boat was what blew my mind the most out of everything we saw that day. No joke. This is called the Solar Boat, and was discovered buried next to the Pyramids of Giza in the 1950’s. They dug up a pieces of wood perfectly inscribed with numbers for reassembling the boat ¬†– imagine “attach piece 145 A to 145 B”.

After fourteen years, they had reassembled a cedar-wood boat 143 feet long.

The cedar wood was brought from Lebanon almost 5,000 years ago when the boat was first built.

That’s right. You’re looking at a five-thousand year old boat.¬†I can’t believe it either.

It is called the Solar Boat because it was built for Khufu in the afterlife. When the Pharaoh died, he was going to sail through the sky with the sun, thus the need for the Solar Boat.

Further, they tested the wood while they were excavating, and determined that it had been, at one point immersed in water. Therefore, they can conclude that the boat was built for Khufu’s death, then sailed from Cairo (Memphis) to Aswan, the city of the dead and then back again. Aswan is the city of the dead because it is the home to the god Osiris, the god of the dead. I love this stuff.

 

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Lastly, we finished our day with the sun setting over the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids. It was a perfect day. I think I may quit my job and go into Egyptology…

Stay tuned! There is still lots more of Egypt to discover!

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Egypt: Islamic Cairo (Day 1)

First of all, let me say that I love Cairo. I love it for its speed, its noise, its throngs of people, its culture.

The people that shout, that smile, that laugh, that form the lifeblood of a city that has one hand giving a high-five to tradition and the other grabbing the short-skirted behind of capitalism and freedom of expression.

Cairo is a beast of a city, a pulsing heart running a marathon. If you ever make it to Cairo, you will be amazed at the layers of human experience.

From, literally, the oldest civilization in the world, to a mixing of cultures: Arabs, Islam, Christianity, Crusades, Colonialism, French and British influence, World War II, and McDonald’s. Every bit of rubble has a story to tell.

These are the people who live in the largest city in Africa.

Sean and I arrived two days before my parents and sister. We instantly were shocked by the sheer size of the city. It was a magnitude that we have never seen before. Sure, New York City is big, but it’s all in English, and you have the glitter of Times Square and a cop on every corner to point you to the nearest metro station and public bathroom. In Cairo, you are in a jungle of Arabic script and honking horns, with the smell of shawarma wafting through the air. We dropped off our bags and went for a walk.

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I was hoping for a side of french fries to go with my felafel sandwich, but I ended up with two sandwiches: one filled with felafel and one filled with french fries. Both were equally good.
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We found a warm, quiet cafe on the street near our apartment. We settled into the comfy, overstuffed chairs with a cup of chai, shisha, and the lovely drink I had come to be addicted to: sahleb. A delicious, thick, pudding-like drink that warms you from the inside out. We returned to this cafe multiple times not only for the shisha and chai, but for the $4 pizzas, too!

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Before my parents landed, Sean and I went to the Cairo museum. It was fantastic. We bought a book in order to be able to navigate the countless mummies, statues, and sarcophagi.

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Street art in Cairo.

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Once my parents arrived, we explored Medieval Cairo. While Sean and I enjoyed navigating the city by ourselves, it was truly exhausting. Therefore, we organized a guide for much of our stay in Cairo so that we could relax and enjoy the company of our family as well as genuinely understand the city. (We booked through a wonderful woman named Mara, who was fantastically helpful in arranging everything for us. She has hotels in both Cairo and Luxor, and can organize any tour you need.) The above picture is of Bab Al Nasr, or the Gate of Victory. It was the gate the victorious warriors would return to the city through after their conquests abroad.

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Once inside the area of Medieval Cairo, we visited the Mosque of Al-Hakim. It was a beautiful mosque, but the guy who built it was a little unhinged. (He is known as the “Mad Caliph” in Western literature.) Al Hakim passed a law that prevented women from wearing shoes so that they couldn’t go outside. He also killed all the dogs in Cairo because their barking annoyed him. He would wander around at night, and ordered all the streets of Cairo to be illuminated for him. (Before electricity.) Then, he changed his mind, and ordered everyone to be indoors by sunset. ¬†Then, at the age of 36, he¬†disappeared. (And who says history isn’t fascinating?)

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Inside Bayt al-Suhaymi, or, an incredibly rich person’s house during the Ottoman era. Every part of the house was beautifully adorned. In the background, you can see me, my mother, and our AMAZING guide, Mohammed, looking at an Islamic rug.
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The view out one of the women’s windows at Bayt-Al-Suhaymi. The point was that I could see you, but you couldn’t see me…

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A ‘living room’ type area at Bayt Al Suhaymi. Isn’t it just gorgeous? And to think, this was in the 1600’s!

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After Bayt Al Suhaymi (I am so tired of forcing my fingers to type that name… try it, it’s tough!) we visited the hammam of Sultan Inal. A “hammam” is a public bath, which were incredibly popular for a long period of time. Not many exist any more in Egypt; people now visit spas, and, obviously, bathe within their own homes. I have been in quite a few hammams in the Middle East, some still in operation and some such as this that have been preserved, and you can recognize them all by their beautiful stained glass ceilings. (If you go to Egypt, be careful with your Arabic; my students in Kuwait told me that “pigeon” and “bathroom” both sound like “hammam”!)
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This was one of the most beautiful places we visited: The Mausoleum and Madrasa of Sultan Qalawun. (There’s one of those names again…) A madrasa is a learning center. In the above photo you can see the place people would pray. (The Imam reads from the Quran in the wooden pulpit, and the arched area is pointing towards Mecca.)

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This is looking at the tomb of Sultan Qalawun. I am in love with the beauty of Arabic script, and the beautiful woodworking of the Ottoman era. (And remember, this is Egypt, wood is hard to come by!)

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Walking through Medieval Cairo. I love how the old architecture towers over the modern traffic. (And, trust me, this is NOT a typical street in Cairo!) The rest of Cairo has about four cars fitting into the width of this walkway.

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Here we are in a Sufi monastery built during the Mamluk period. Can you see, behind the “gazebo” style structure, the small doorways? Those were small rooms, where the Sufis lived. They would spend their entire lives within the confines of this complex. (Unfamiliar with Sufism? They are a sect of Islam that brought us the concept of the “whirling dervish”.)

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Again, inside the Sufi monastery. The prayer area. We were the only people there!

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Our final stop brought us to Khan El Khalili, or the famous bazaar of Cairo. We spent a few hours perusing the shops and feasting on felafel and eggplant¬†sandwiches. (And, admittedly, giggling while my mom and sister got targeted by shopkeepers for “one time deals” and “special prices”.)
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Dad, are you upset you didn’t bring one of those lamps home with you?

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More of Khan El Khalili. It was great to be in a place that didn’t allow vehicles. In this photo, I am standing outside of a shop where my father bought frankincense. Very cool, huh?
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Before we got in the car to return to our apartment, Sean snapped a picture of some boys playing soccer. Like I said, it’s a city of many voices.

(Check back soon! There is lots more Egypt to share with you! And, wow, in typing this blog, I am amazed at how much I learned!)

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