Some time last year Dave Valaika and Sue Douglass, of Indian Valley SCUBA in Pennsylvania, wrote me an e-mail. Using my blurry old glasses, I thought they suggested I join them for dessert. Being on a perpetual diet due to chronic bouts with VET (Video Editing Tummy), I knew I couldn’t afford the calories. I cleaned my glasses and re-read the e-mail to find they were inviting me to join them in the desert to dive the Egyptian Red Sea. Being one of my bucket-list dive destinations, I readily accepted their offer. Besides, I knew by traveling there I could lose a few pounds… Egyptian pounds (about eight to the US dollar).
After my return from several weeks of diving in Palau last spring, I received their proposed itinerary. Not only would we spend about 10 days diving in the Red Sea. but there would be tours of the usual sites in Cairo, Giza and Luxor. I had contemplated trips to Egypt several times since the spring of 2001 only to have my plans dissolve due to one crisis or another there. Yes, our media still presented issues about going to Egypt, but the threat of ISIS was largely contained in the northern Sinai while the government was anxious to protect those traveling to the areas we were visiting.
I first flew on United Airlines to Philadelphia to spend a few days with Dave at Indian Valley SCUBA. In all, I made nine flights on this trip and United was the only domestic carrier I chose… and the only one to lose my baggage. Fortunately, they dropped my dive gear off at Indian Valley SCUBA after it paid an unscheduled visit to my hometown of Chicago. From Philly I flew Qatar Airways to Cairo via Doha, Qatar, and had a much more pleasant experience. Our route took us over Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but I rejected pleas from acquaintances in the CIA to do a little airborn surveillance. After all, those guys are mostly Yalies. Almost half our group had flight cancellations on another domestic airline in the States that forced them to arrive a day late.
In Cairo the next morning we were met by a marvelous Egyptian tour guide, Manel, who was well versed in the history of her country. We were driven to the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx in Giza and even entered the pyramid of Menkaure, but the tomb contained no mummy (or daddy). The three Great Pyramids were built for Cheops (aka Khufu), his son Khafre and grandson Menkaure around 2,500 B.C. Cheops’ pyramid at 481-feet tall stood as the largest man-made structure in the world for nearly 4,000 years. An estimated 2,300,000 stone blocks weighing up to 80 tons each were used in constructing the pyramid of Cheops and transported to Giza from quarry sites 500 miles away in Aswan. Current knowledge says the pyramids were built by tens of thousands of paid workers rather than Hebrew slaves or extraterrestrials. However, I had heard my friends from the planet Xanadu had offered to help back then.
In Cairo we visited the Tutankhamun exhibit in the Egyptian Museum. Tut ruled from about 1332 to 1323 BC. Many are familiar with the items retrieved by Carter and Herbert after the discovery of his intact tomb back in 1922 since they have been displayed in a traveling exhibit around the globe. Cameras were not allowed, apparently in case we were thieves plotting to steal King Tut’s treasures. I’m not a fan of jewelry, but must admit that the items in the exhibit displayed an unexpected level of craftsmanship for such an ancient time in human history.
We also visited a perfumery, which interested me only because we were given very cold glasses of red hibiscus juice (a common beverage during our stay). That was very welcome since Cairo set a record that day for hottest temperature. We also toured a papyrus plant where we were shown how papyrus was made. I didn’t think blank papyrus would work well in my computer printer so I refrained from purchase!
The other major attraction we visited was The Citadel. This high point in the landscape was fortified by Saladin, Sultan of Egypt, in the late 1100s BC to defend it from the Crusaders. Saladin was the Muslim military leader who recaptured Jerusalem from the Christian King Baldwin and his European Crusaders. I became intrigued with him after watching the movie “Kingdom of Heaven,” and wanted to know more about him since the movie was in part fictionalized. In 1805 Mohamed Ali became ruler of Egypt and built an impressive mosque on this site between 1828 and 1848. Ali is considered to be the founder of modern Egypt and instituted many reforms in the country. Cassius Clay adopted his name when he became a Muslim.
From Cairo we flew Egyptair to Hurghada and were whisked away in vans to our dive base, Roots Luxury Camp north of El Quseir on the Red Sea. I’ll focus on that experience and the diving in future columns, but for now we’ll head to Luxor after our diving there and join our guide Emil who showed us the sites of this ancient city. Due to the impact of thieves on the early pyramids at Giza, the entombment of later pharaohs was at the Valley of the Kings. Again cameras were not allowed here, but we were permitted to enter three of the tombs. I had the option of paying extra to enter King Tut’s tomb and see his mummy, but declined since I’m not a vertebrate biologist.
After crossing the Nile in a felucca (sailboat), the Temple of Hatshepsut (or “hat” + “cheap suit” as guide Emil told us) was our next destination. She ruled Egypt beginning in 1478 BC. Some suggest she was an early example of women’s lib, but it was not entirely unprecedented for a female to rule. Hatshepsut was a prolific builder and her ability to undertake many construction projects undoubtedly reflects the prosperity her administration brought to Egypt during her reign. Following her death many of the depictions of her on temples and other buildings were chiseled out due to possible jealousy.
The Temple of Karnak was one place where Hatshepsut’s image was defaced. Many pharaohs built additions to this vast and impressive place of worship. We even entered the room where sacrifices to the god Amun were made. Fortunately, these ritual killings did not involve human beings. While we were there, I kept an eager eye out for Carnac the Magnificent (also known as Johnny Carson), but had no sightings. I did frequently see a mysterious Egyptian redhead whose face was partially obscured by a modest scarf.
Although we had only a single day each in Cairo and Luxor to sightsee, the efficiency of our guides allowed us to see quite a bit. Some have asked if I ever felt threatened while in Egypt. I can honestly say no. I felt quite safe. The government does everything it can to prevent any acts of violence against Americans. All of the people I met in Egypt wanted us to know that they want Americans to return to their country. We apparently are much better tippers than the Russians or Europeans (even this impoverished dive bum), but I also got the feeling they liked us better (who wouldn’t… tee hee).
As for security, we always had an armed guard accompany us and in Cairo three armed police followed our tour van throughout the city. The only “threat” they had to deal with were the souvenir touts harassing us at Giza. Other than here on my safe little island, I think the only time I felt less threatened was during one of my Harvard reunions. Classmate Al Gore, then sitting vice president, attended… along with about 50 Secret Service agents. You could always tell when Al was approaching due to the men in black with the earphones. On top of that, they closed part of the Mass Turnpike and we had a massive police escort as our buses headed to the city for a Boston Pops concert. I wonder if he’ll make our next reunion?
Stay tuned for future columns about diving in the Big Red… the Egyptian Red Sea (no relation to Wrigley’s Big Red).
© 2015 Dr. Bill Bushing. For the entire archived set of over 650 “Dive Dry” columns, visit my website http://www.starthrower.org
Image caption: The pyramids at Giza and Mohamed Ali’s mosque at The Citadel; Hatshepsut’s Temple and the Temple of Karnak.