Voyage Through the Red Sea

Published on Wednesday, February 01, 2012

  • West Bank, Luxor, Egypt

  • Amman, Jordan

  • Amman, Jordan

  • Amman, Jordan

  • Petra, Jordan

  • Petra, Jordan

  • Petra, Jordan

  • Petra, Jordan

  • Petra, Jordan

  • St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt

  • Wadi Rum, Jordan

  • Wadi Rum, Jordan

  • Wadi Rum, Jordan

  • Wadi Rum, Jordan

  • Ras Mohammed, Egypt

  • Ras Mohammed, Egypt

  • Ras Mohammed, Egypt

  • Mount Sinai, Egypt

  • Luxor, Egypt

  • Luxor, Egypt

  • Luxor, Egypt

  • Luxor, Egypt

  • Luxor, Egypt

  • Luxor, Egypt

  • Luxor, Egypt

  • Luxor, Egypt

  • Luxor, Egypt

  • Luxor, Egypt

  • Luxor, Egypt

  • Suakin, Sudan

  • Suakin, Sudan

  • Suakin, Sudan

  • Cairo, Egypt

  • Cairo, Egypt

  • Cairo, Egypt

  • Ras Mohammed, Egypt

  • Ras Mohammed, Egypt

  • Ras Mohammed, Egypt

  • Ras Mohammed, Egypt

Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - Amman, Jordan: Many of us arrived in the wee hours this morning. Once we were up, we could admire the beautiful grounds of the Möevenpick Dead Sea Resort. We met our guide Madji, driver Mohammed, our bus-butler Issa, and our very kind security officer Mansour, all of whom would be with us over the next four days. We also met part of our expedition staff: Expedition Leader, Jeff Gneiser, and lecturers Steve Sidebotham (archaeology) and Emily Teeter (Egyptologist).

Amman is the ancient Philadelphia. It was built on seven hills to which now huge blocks of apartments and buildings cling. The strict zoning of the city mandates that all buildings must be painted a beige-tan color which gives the city amazing uniformity. We first visited the acropolis and stopped before the pillars of the Temple of Apollo. Then we visited the National Archaeological Museum. Highlights were the oddly flattened, abstracted figures of humans from Aiyn Gazel that date to about 7000 bc, some of the earliest human representations in the world.

We walked through the Umayyad palace and the ruins of a Byzantine church, reflecting the different levels of occupation of the city. We could see a large Roman theater far below, and drove past it on our way to lunch at el Badawwi, where we sat under tents around large copper tray-tables that were laden with plates of delicious mezza, or appetizers. In spite of the huge number of mezza, big trays of kofta (ground lamb fingers), kebab, and chicken appeared, as well as bright green mint lemonade.

We headed back to the hotel for a rest, and then a cocktail welcome and dinner at the Dead Sea Resort.

Wednesday, November 9 - Kerak Castle / Petra: Morning departure to the south to visit Kerak Castle. In the 12th century, this entire area was divided into a number of Crusader States that battled the Muslims for control. Kerak was built circa 1166 on a promontory with a view of the Dead Sea and the passes to the southwest, making it an outpost for the passage from Egypt to Syria. We could see the different stages of building—the lower sections being Crusader work, and then the later Muslim additions, including a palace and a mosque. The views toward the Dead Sea were fantastic. After the tour, we enjoyed an elegant buffet lunch in a domed room of the castle outbuildings.

On our way into Wadi Musa, the little town where Petra is located, we dropped some of the group off at the nearby Made in Jordan shop for a chance to buy local handicrafts. We checked in at the small but very elegant and well-located Möevenpick Petra in the afternoon and got settled into our rooms.

Steve kicked off the lecture program with a discussion on Petra, held on the roof of the hotel. After a buffet dinner, we walked to Petra for the evening program. Our walk down the Siq was lit by a full moon, and at the end we found the Treasury (Khazna) beautifully illuminated with hundreds of luminaries.

Thursday, November 10 - Petra: After breakfast we walked with Madji to the entrance to Petra and through the Siq, noting the details of big square blocks thought to be sacred to the god Dusharra, as well as some of the niches and the water channels that we could not properly appreciate in the darkness of the previous night. We gathered in front of the Treasury, which is likely a royal tomb. The pediments and decoration of Castor, Pollux, and “Isis” at the top are all indications that it is a later building, probably 1st -2nd century ad. In the last few years, the Jordanian antiquities organization excavated in front of it and discovered a lower level of tombs.

We followed Madji past some of the more simple rock-cut tombs with Assyrian crow step decoration, and reached the theater. Walking past the Street of Façades, a series of earlier tombs, we sat in a little café with a view of the Royal Tombs. From there, we turned the corner to walk down the Colonnaded Street with its Roman paving, going by a large structure that is being excavated and restored by a team from Brown University. Near that was one of the few freestanding buildings, the huge Qasr el Bint el Faroun (The Castle of the Pharaoh’s Daughter in local lore) that was probably a temple to Dushara. It felt good to sit for lunch on the patio of the Basin Restaurant that was reserved especially for our group. The buffet was full of Jordanian specialties, including fatush (chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, parsley with pieces of dry pita bread in a zippy lemon and pomegranate dressing), mutaabel (mashed eggplant), kofta, and falafel.

We were free to explore the site on our own after lunch, and many of us made the climb to the Deir, or Monastery, which was a good 45 minutes over stairs and stone paths. The views were extraordinary. Once at the Deir, the scale of the building was astounding, especially when people stood by the entrance. Others in the group visited the royal tombs, the Byzantine church with its wonderful mosaics of animals, people and plants, and/or the Brown University project. We straggled back to the hotel, dead tired, but excited about the wonderful day. The sunset that evening was memorable with the full moon shining over the valley.

Friday, November 11 - Petra / Aqaba / Embark Clipper Odyssey: The morning began with a lecture by Emily on the Monuments of Luxor: Why and How in the beautifully decorated bar of the hotel. We boarded buses for Wadi Rum, and drove through dramatic landscapes, over high ridges and brown valleys; gradually the landscape changed to a flat plain with huge sandstone outcroppings. Once in Wadi Rum, we transferred into 4x4 vehicles with Bedouin drivers. The surface of the wadi was flour-fine red sand that had eroded over ages from the tall sandstone pinnacles. We saw the Seven Pillars, a huge outcrop after which T.E. Lawrence named his book, and another outcropping that looked like melted caramel. After Madji gave a briefing, some of us walked into Khazala cave to see some very fine ancient petroglyphs.

Two of the cars went in search of birds, sighting a mourning wheatear, migrant black redstart, and black-eared wheatear.

We continued to another spot in the wadi for lunch. We were astounded to see a number of Bedouin tents, inside of which were tables set with linens, centerpieces, and stemware, all overseen by an army of waiters and cooks. One of the highlights was a traditional, and rare, dish called zorb, consisting of chicken, lamb, and potatoes that was cooked for hours underground. We also had chicken sharwma  and the usual mountain of salads and desserts. A folkloric group of men dressed in Bedouin police dress uniform performed a hopping, stamping dance to the accompaniment of men with drums and a bagpipe. We met more of the staff—Giovanna Fasanelli, our marine biologist, Jonathan Rossouw, wildlife and birds, and Allan Langdale, art historian and photographer.

We loaded back into the 4x4s and headed to the bus for our drive to Aqaba, where we embarked the Clipper Odyssey under the command of Captain Peter Fielding, with our cruise director, Julie Fielding, on hand to greet us.

Saturday, November 12 - Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt / Sinai: Today we had a choice of snorkeling or going to the Monastery of St. Catherine. After introductions by the guides, we entered the Monastery and visited the Church of the Annunciation. Icons lined the walls and were hung on the columns, and the ceiling dripped with silver lamps and ostrich eggs encased in silver, all gifts to the Monastery. We viewed the Burning Bush and visited the wonderful museum with its collection of icons, some of which date as early as the 6th century. Several leaves of the Codex Siniaticus, the earliest copy of the New Testament, were on view.

We had a buffet lunch at al Sefsafa Restaurant with a view of the Monastery. We saw, and some of us chatted with, a large Nigerian group who was visiting holy sites in Egypt and Israel, while the birders hiked into the hills above the Monastery, finding such Sinai specialties as the smart Sinai rosefinch, Tristram’s starling, and the elusive sand partridge, as well as dapper white-crowned wheatears and desert larks. Stopping off in the Sharm waterworks at dusk brought a flurry of migrants, including swirling flocks of house martins and barn swallows, shorebirds busily feeding along the edges of the water, and even a huge roost of white storks.

Those who chose the snorkeling tour headed to the national park of Ras Mohammed. They cruised past dramatic scenes of yellow and pink desert landscapes falling away into a sparkling blue ocean. They found healthy, colorful coral reefs festooned with bright, carefree fishes of all sizes and shapes. Anthias clouded the edges of the shallow reef while the endemic Klunzinger’s wrasse dazzled with its fuchsia pink and baby-blue body paint. They found 11 species of endemics over the course of three snorkel sites such as exquisite, crown, and Red Sea racoon butterflyfish, masked puffers, two-banded anemonefish, Arabian Picasso triggerfish, and Sohal surgeonfish. They also spotted a giant green turtle sleeping on the bottom and a large barracuda.

After setting sail, Emily gave an introduction to reading ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and explained sign direction and the general way the language and script work. This evening, we attended a festive captain’s welcome dinner.

Sunday, November 13 - Safaga / Luxor: We arrived at the port of Safaga and made our way to Luxor, where we visited the excellent Luxor Museum that features artifacts from the surrounding area. Each piece was a masterpiece.

After a buffet lunch at the newly renovated Luxor Hilton and Spa, we headed off to the Karnak Temple where we were greeted by John Shearman, Associate Director of Luxor Operation of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE). John explained the successful project that is draining excess groundwater from the vulnerable sandstone foundations of the temples, before we went to the Khonsu Temple. Here, John showed us a normally closed chapel of Ramesses with its perfectly preserved pigments that were once completely obscured by soot from the fires of people who lived in the chapels. At another chapel that is being conserved and cleaned, it was incredible to see the dark soot-covered walls, with test patches where the grime has been removed to reveal the bright pigment. After saying thank you and good-bye to John, we resumed our tour of the huge Karnak Complex before returning to the Luxor Hilton and Spa for dinner and overnight.

Monday, November 14 - West Bank, Luxor: Early this morning we headed to the Ramesseum to board hot air balloons! There were two balloons, each with a basket that could hold about 25 people. Once aloft we enjoyed incredible views of the temples and tombs, and the green textures of the banana and sugar cane fields. We then drove to the Colossi of Memnon, two 68-foot-tall statues of King Amunhotep III, where our guides pointed out the Greek and Roman graffiti on the right statue’s foot.

Afterwards, we headed to the small Amun Temple, which is closed to the public, where we met W. Brett McClain, Senior Epigrapher of the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Brett gave us background on the history of the Oriental Institute and its commitment to making accurate copies of historical and religious texts and the accompanying images. We then walked through the temple of Ramesses III, the walls of which are covered with reliefs and inscriptions.

We continued to Deir el Bahari, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, to meet with the Polish Archaeological Mission who has worked at the site since the early 1970s. We were told about changes in the architecture under Hatshepsut, and were able to visit the normally closed sanctuary of the temple. The quality of the carving and painting was extraordinary.

After lunch at the Crocodile Restaurant, some of us continued to the Valley of the Kings, while others went back to the hotel to rest and enjoy the pool. The Valley of the Kings was the burial site of the kings of the New Kingdom. We visited the small tomb of Tutankhamun, where the outmost of three coffins are still in the tomb, resting in a quartzite sarcophagus. We also visited the tomb of Ramesses VI with its beautifully painted astronomical ceilings showing the constellations and the images of the sun passing along with the goddess Nut.

After we returned to the hotel, we were invited to Chicago House, the headquarters of the Oriental Institute in Luxor, established in 1924. Brett walked us though the gardens and gave us further information about their work. We then traveled by horse-drawn carriages to the Old Winter Palace, a great pile of British Colonial architecture, to have dinner in the beautiful garden.

Tuesday, November 15 - Luxor / Safaga: We began at the Luxor Temple where the reliefs and inscriptions on the walls are most visible in the morning light. The temple was built by Amunhotep III, Tutankhamun, and Ramesses the Great. Functionally, the temple was linked to the Karnak temple during the annual Opet Festival when the main gods of Karnak, Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, and a statue of the king, traveled down the avenue of Sphinxes to the Luxor Temple. In the course of the festival, the king was associated with Amun, expressing the pharaoh’s divinity.

We then boarded our buses and headed to Safaga, arriving in time for lunch onboard the Clipper Odyssey. In the afternoon Jonathan gave an ibis’s eye view of the birds and wildlife in the region with Bridging the Divide: Birds of the Red Sea, incorporating images from the Egyptian monuments. The birding highlights of the day were small flocks of spotted sandgrouse scurrying across the desert, a group of Nile Valley sunbirds, and a fine pair of migrant bluethroats.

This evening we enjoyed a Farewell to Egypt cocktail party hosted by Zegrahm Expeditions, The Oriental Institute, and The Explorers Club, followed by dinner.

Wednesday, November 16 - At Sea: Our schedule has been so jam-packed that everyone was looking forward to a relaxing day at sea. We attended a mid-morning lecture by Giovanna on Life in the Red Sea, with wonderful photos of the fish that we hoped to see, and Allan spoke on Monasteries, Icons, and Iconoclasm, illustrated with images of monasteries and icons from Greece, the Black Sea, and Sinai. In the evening, Emily briefed us on the history of northern Sudan from ancient times up to recent days.

Thursday, November 17 - Suakin, Sudan: We arrived at the narrow channel that leads to Suakin just opposite the island with the abandoned city of Suakin, before splitting into groups for the city sites and birders. The old city has been reduced to undulating heaps of coral blocks, with little recognizable architecture—the minarets of several mosques still stood, and some walls. We drove a short distance to the local market where we fanned out among the vegetable sellers and butchers to get a glimpse of local life. The foods on offer looked good and the people in the market were welcoming, giving us a thumbs up and a smile.

We continued to the Suakin Museum where the walls were hung with fascinating photos of old Suakin; it was astounding to learn that much of the city was intact until the 1970s. Later, we enjoyed a folkloric performance by men dressed with raffia skirts, anklets made of crushed cans, and horns much like water buffalo. We then drove a short distance from the museum for a camel race, which morphed into more of a concourse d’elegance, with each rider running by us, being judged on style rather than speed.

Meanwhile, our intrepid band of birders headed north, finding a plethora of birds among the informal settlements, including black scrub-robin, black-crowned sparrowlark, and Kurdish wheatear.

At recap Jeff gave a briefing on the next day’s activities; because of political issues in Eritrea, we wouldn’t be able to visit, so it was back to Egypt!

Friday & Saturday, November 18 & 19 - At Sea / Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt: Two days at sea with beautiful temperatures and almost flat seas. Our lecture series continued as Emily spoke about building techniques in ancient Egypt, as well as Egyptian Antiquities: Legislation and Politics and later Giovanna discussed Sharks in the Red Sea. We heard from Jonathan regarding Tropical Seabirds: Seabirds of the Red Sea, and Steve spoke about Ancient Ports of the Red Sea.

Saturday afternoon, Allan showed a presentation of images from the trip. Beautiful images of places we have seen, fun shots of our fellow travelers, and amazing artistic details. Petra was only ten days ago, but it seems like ages with all we have done since. We pulled into Sharm el Sheikh in time for the captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner.

Sunday, November 20 - Sharm el Sheikh / Giza (Cairo): Our  group split for snorkeling and a tour of the Nadq Nature Reserve. The latter group traveled about an hour to reach Nadq. We drove the sand and dirt tracks to a mangrove swamp, then further on to a 1980s shipwreck just off the coast. In the desert, we saw lone tamarisk trees and strange, low-growing plants, called handal; the animals eat them, and the fruit is used as a medicine for sore throat. We headed back to the ship for lunch, before a few people took a shuttle to Naama Bay.

The snorkelers took a private boat out to Ras Mohammed. They enjoyed stunning seascapes of crystal clear turquoises and aquamarines set against stark, rugged, breathtaking desert backdrops. The bommie was awash with reef fishes feeding and being cleaned. Ten endemic species were found including Klunzinger’s wrasse, the exquisite Red Sea raccoon and crown butterflyfishes, and Arabian Picasso triggerfish.

After an early snack, we said goodbye to the ship’s crew who had taken such good care of us, and headed to the Sharm el-Sheikh airport for our charter flight to Cairo. We checked in to our hotel at Giza, the Mena House Oberoi, named for the first king of Egypt. The hotel has a fantastic location, overlooking the Giza Plateau.

Monday, November 21 - Giza and Cairo: Imagine our surprise when in the light of the morning, drawing the shades, there, almost blotting out the sky were the pyramids of Khufu and Khafra! A lovely start to our last day. We had two tours to choose from, with Emily leading Classic Cairo. This started at Saqqara, the first capital of Egypt. Saqqara likely has the greatest concentration of private and royal tombs in Egypt including pyramids of the Old Kingdom. We started with the very fine and relatively new Imhotep Museum that gives a good background on the site, and continued to the Stepped Pyramid of Djoser, the first large-scale monument built of stone. We visited the tomb of the Princess Idut, the walls of which are covered with scenes of fishing, fowling, tax collectors, religious rituals, boating scenes, and more, and then the tomb of Ny-ankh-Khnum and his brother Khnum-hotep.

Lunch was at Andrea, a famous chicken barbeque spot near the hotel. We toured the Giza plateau, stopping by the Great Pyramid of Khufu and the Solar Boat museum. One of the most incredible sights in Egypt, the 144-foot-long boat from the burial of King Khufu is made of cedar from Lebanon. It was found disassembled in a pit, upon which the museum is built, next to the Great Pyramid. We walked to the second pyramid of Kahfra, and most of us went inside the pyramid on Menkaure, the smallest of the three major pyramids. We then drove to the panorama for photos, and saw the Sphinx, most likely built by King Khafra, the son of Khufu.

Steve took the second group to Coptic and Islamic monuments including the Citadel, the walls of which were built by Saladin. The group then saw the Mosque of Sultan Hassan with its four sections for the four schools of Egyptian Sunni Islam, and the mosque of el-Refai, which now shelters the tomb of the former Shah of Iran. They then toured Coptic Cairo including the fine Coptic Museum before a late lunch at El Azhar Park, an urban project of the Aga Khan Foundation that turned acres of garbage dumps into well manicured gardens.

In the evening we met in the Mamluk Bar at the Mena House for a farewell cocktail followed by dinner. Most of us had flights through the night and early morning, so it was good to have a chance to all get together for a final time to celebrate a most memorable adventure.