If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Aswan

Something unprecedented for us: we go on a package tour. Having decided that getting from site to site would be more hassle than it’s worth, we sign up for a nine-day Egyptian tour that begins in Cairo. It’s much more fun than we would have imagined.

(In case you’re wondering, the title of this entry paraphrases the title of a schlocky movie I saw as a kid.)

Luck has a lot to do with it. Our group is made up of interesting and diverse people, most with a good sense of humour.

Our tour group

Let’s see, we have Annie from Australia, Manav and Upma from the US, Angel and Triscia from South Africa, Graham and John from Canada, Elvira and Denise from the Netherlands, the Sungai family from Zimbabwe, Kamal and Dreety from Mauritius, and many more.

First stop are the pyramids. Even after a lifetime of seeing these in films and photos, to see them in real life is overwhelming.

Pyramid scheme

It’s kind of hard to give an idea how enormous they are. As we discover, for the ancient Egyptians, bigger is always better. But even with these mountains of house-sized stone blocks to protect them, grave robbers managed to plunder the mummies out of them.

“What are the hopes of man? Old Egypt’s King
Cheops erected the first pyramid
And largest, thinking it was just the thing
To keep his memory whole, and mummy hid;
But somebody or other rummaging,
Burglariously broke his coffin’s lid:
Let not a monument give you or me hopes,
Since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops.”
– Lord Byron, from Don Juan: Canto 1, stanza 219

They certainly make a great background for photos, though.

‘Trust in Allah, but tie your camel’ – the Hadith

The same day, we visit the step pyramid of Djoser in nearby Saqqara.

On the way to Saqqara

This one pre-dates the Giza pyramids.

Some other senior civil servants are entombed nearby. Besides the great step pyramid, we explore a couple of these.

Walk like an Egyptian

We fly from Cairo to Aswan. The next day, we embark for a short boat ride to the Temple of Philae.

‘There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats‘ – The Wind in the Willows

At the Temple of Philae

Our guide, Ash, fills us in on the historic details.

Gather round, family

One feature of every country we’ve been to so so far on this trip: there’s always someone around making bread.

‘With bread, all sorrows are less.’ – Sancho Panza, in Don Quixote

At the Nubian Museum in Aswan, this woman and her family were very insistent that I take a selfie with them.

From Aswan, we awake for a long bus journey to Abu Simbel.

In case you don’t know, these were cut out from their original location in the 60s and relocated to avoid being submerged under the rising waters of the Lake Nasser reservoir.

I remember learning about this in elementary school and being fascinated at the time.

Ash holds up a photo about the great dismantling

I can scratch one item off my childhood bucket list.

Big stuff

We also visit Kom Ombo temple. Half of this temple was dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek.

Because of this, an on-site museum features lots of mummified crocs. Some are wrapped like submarine sandwiches.

And some are not. They get the same treatment as human mummies, that is, their interior organs are removed and the cavity filled with preservative substances.

Mummified crocodiles

For three nights, we cruise down the Nile on the MS Nile Jewel.

Watching the river flow

We see a woman on a deck chair is reading Death on the Nile. (As it turns out, we spend Christmas Eve watching the 2022 film version.)

Sight or Insight of the Day

Because of the crappy internet in Egypt, we are a bit behind in these entries. We are, in fact, in the Sinai beach resort of Dahab celebrating the holidays, after spending five days in Cairo.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Looking forward to new adventures in 2023.

The Alexandria Duet

That is, the two of us. We arrive in Alexandria from Dubai with a plan to spend a month in Egypt.

The first thing that happens: our binoculars are confiscated! Apparently, they have ‘military applications’. I pity any birdwatching groups entering the country with their expensive binos.

We decide to treat ourselves to a stay at the historic Cecil Hotel. The location is great.

Former guests include Winston Churchill

Our hotel is right on the corniche. Modern Alexandria is all about this sea-facing promenade.

It’s lined with bustling cafés and crowds of people day and night.

A pair of Alexandrians find a spot to enjoy the evening.

Moon over Alexandria

So does this cat.

Our hotel is ideally situated for exploring the city.

Alexandria, of course, is famous for its great library of antiquity. It has an aspirational modern counterpart in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

It’s a magnet for bibliophiles.

Bibliophile personified

Not surprising to see that most of the users are female. Intelligence will be how women advance in these countries.

Bench shaped like a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets

We visit the catacombs. (Even though they are one of the premier tourist attractions here, our Uber driver spends half an hour circling aimlessly. We get to see some interesting parts of Alexandria, so that’s OK.)

A surface tomb

Built in the Greco-Roman era, they’re deep. And Labyrinthine.

There are fancier tombs for the well-off.

And for the humble people, a simple niche.

Like many artifacts of the time, there is an interesting blend of ancient Egyptian and contemporary Hellenistic styles in everything.

We visit the Alexandria National Museum. It’s in the former US consulate.

Alexandria was once full of these elegant Italianate buildings. After Nasser kicked out the numerous cosmopolitan residents – Italians, Greeks, Armenians, French, Jews, etc. – in a fit of strident Arab nationalism, large parts of Alex fell into decay.

Faded glory

Now the streets are crowded with people trying to make a living. The economy of Egypt doesn’t exactly run at peak efficiency.

Bread vendors

So far, people have been friendly here, as long as you are not being specifically targeted for some scam or other.

Area not recommended for tourists

There is a lively market going on in the narrow alleys surrounding Pompey’s Pillar.

Many Egyptians, like most non-Western people, are cruel to dogs. But Egyptians are kind to cats. We wonder if this is a holdover from the cat worship of the their ancestors.

Fresh fish for these kitties

Under what was formerly known as Kom el-Dikka (that is, ‘hill of rubble’), archeologists have excavated a prosperous Roman neighborhood.

Ancient theatre

This is some ancient graffiti done by the supporter of a chariot-race champion, according to the explanatory plaque.

It’s Greek to me

In the ruins of a nearby villa are some impressive mosaics, including this one of a parrot.

Everyone loves parrots

We visit Pompey’s Pillar, in what was the Serapeum of Alexandria in ancient times.

The pillar is all that’s left of a complex that used to look like this:

The Serapeum was also a branch of the famous Library, where anyone could borrow a scroll or two.

One day, we hire a car and driver to visit the area of the Battle of El Alamein. The military museum has some fairly interesting exhibits inside and lots of military equipment salvaged from the desert outside.

Winston Churchill had this to say:

“Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”

We like to pay our respects at Commonwealth War Graves whenever we come across one. No matter how squalid the country they’re in, they are always impeccably clean.

We find at least one Canadian among the numerous British, Australians, New Zealanders, and South Africans.

It’s a shame that so many young men from around the world came to this distant wilderness to die defending Egypt from a dictatorial torturing warmonger like Hitler, only to have a like-minded dictatorial torturing warmonger like Nasser take over the country less than a decade later.

Because they’re in the same vicinity, we also visit the memorials of the Italians and the Germans. The Italian one is stylish.

Commemoration, Italian-style

The German one is austere.

The fortress-like German memorial

The time comes to take the train to Cairo. The train station is just a few blocks from our hotel.

Alexandria Station, exterior

The journey takes about two and a half hours. Our car is air conditioned, but kind of grotty.

Alexandria Station, interior

Sight or Insight of the Day

In the Italian war memorial, we come across the remains of a soldier with the same surname as Maria.

Long-lost family member?

UAE Interlude

We fly from Muscat to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. It takes less than an hour.

In search of a post office

See the three tall buildings behind the pinkish tower? Those are the Etihad Towers. Vin Diesel flew a car through all three. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.

Abu Dhabi skyline

My iPhone needs a new battery. As usual, the Apple Store is a marvel of design.

In the Galleria Mall

Our first stop is the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, it features bunker-like temperature controlled exhibition spaces under a lacework dome with lots of places for people to hang out in a relaxed setting.

The ocean laps at the building and provides a cooling breeze.

Nearby, another interesting building is going up. It might be the future Sheik Zayed National Museum.

Hey, they have Tim Hortons in the UAE. Who knew?

What’s the Arabic for a double-double?

This is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Grand might be an understatement.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, exterior

It’s a gargantuan edifice. (A big building, in plain English.) It’s connected to a giant underground shopping mall. This is actually a natural fit; two things that are plentiful here are mosques and shopping malls.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, interior

The columns are inlaid with semi-precious stones.

A woman takes a photo of her daughter, coaching her into this demure pose.

Smile for Auntie Fatima

We take a bus from Abu Dhabi to Dubai.

On arrival, Maria has to test a fresh-squeezed orange juice machine. It’s cold and delicious.


The one thing we consider must-see here is the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. (For now.)

From the top, you get a great view of the city-sized Dubai Mall below.

As well as the rest of the Dubai skyline.

Also in the Dubai Mall is an enormous fish tank, complete with sharks, manta rays, and sawfish.

This is the dawning of the Age of Aquariums

Another Dubai icon is the Palm Jumeirah, a palm-tree shaped artificial island.

View from the Palm Tower

From here you can see another Dubai landmark, the sailboat-inspired Burj Al Arab.

We visit the Gold Suq. Plenty of jewelry on display, but it’s more about the weight than the esthetic quality.

All that glisters is not gold‘ William Shakespeare – The Merchant of Venice

A new attraction in Dubai is the torus-shaped Museum of the Future.

It’s covered in Arabic script. (Quotes from the current Sheik that rules Dubai.) To be honest, the architecture is the best thing about it, despite the steep entrance fee..

The exhibitions about the future are not very convincing. (Personally, I can’t imagine women wearing hijabs a century from now any more than I can imagine women today wanting to wear corsets and bustles.)

It looks nice at night, too.

On our last day in the UAE, we go to Sharjah, our third emirate. (There are seven.)

Sharjah is much less glitzy than Abu Dhabi and Dubai. More working-class, you could say. Its harbour is full of fishing boats and small freighters.

Note the LNG tanker in the background

It resembles the midsized cities of Oman. Not much globally-recognized architecture here.

We’ve come specifically to visit the Museum of Islamic Civilization.

Museum of Islamic Civilization exterior

Its numerous artifacts are well-curated. We liked the special exhibition on Arabic calligraphy.

Museum of Islamic Civilization interior

That evening, we board our flight for Alexandria, Egypt.

Sight or Insight of the Day

There is obviously a lot of money sloshing around in these Gulf states. It just seems to me that most of it is frittered away in frivolous vanity projects. Nobody here is committing billions of dollars to cure cancer, or end world hunger, or ensure universal childhood education.

I’ve always thought it a bit strange that during the migration crisis of 2015, the number of refugees taken in around here was, um, zero.

Courtesy of CNN

Here are people who share the same language. The same culture. The same religion. Yet notwithstanding a generous amount of financial aid, the number of their Arab brethren they were willing to physically take in was none. Nada. Zilch. Not one.

Considering that all of these countries depend on foreign workers – in the UAE, over 80% of residents are non-Emiratis, mostly South Asians – you’d think they would have been glad to import a few million immediately-assimilable souls.

Ma’a salama, Oman!

Our last entry for Oman. From Al Hamra, we head to Jebel Shams, the highest mountain in Oman. On the way, we come across a local specialty: goat-hair carpets woven by local men.

We want to do the Balcony Walk – a hike along the ‘Grand Canyon of Oman’.

Jebel Shams in the distance

Jebel Shams means ‘sun mountain’.

On the road, we spot one of the ubiquitous blue trucks that deliver water to Omani households.

Liquid assets
The Balcony Walk

For most of the trek, you are only steps away from a long plunge to the bottom of the canyon.

Watch your step

At the end of the trail is an abandoned village.

Another abandoned village

The place is the haunt of wild goats. They are obviously used to hikers sharing their provisions.

Maria shares an apple with a local

When we descend the mountain, we explore yet another abandoned village: Wadi Ghul.

Wadi Ghul

We think the simple explanation for the high number of abandoned villages in Oman is that people just found better places to live after the modernizations of the last half-century or so.

Nobody home

Our next stop is the ancient tombs of Al Ayn.

Al Ayn

They’re supposed to be 5,000 years old. Even though they are a major historical artifact in Oman, they are extremely hard to track down.

Tomb with a view

The Rustaq Loop is our next destination. This is a trio of forts that people usually take in together. In our case, we find that two of them are closed for renovations. Only the Al-Hazm fort is open for visitors. It’s pretty impressive.

Door made in India

The fort was the home of the local powerful imam. This is the imam’s leisure room.

While walking around, we are followed by the imam’s cat. (So we call him.) He’s very friendly.

A mystery – in several regions of Oman, we pass walled areas named in English ‘old cemetery’. But inside, we see nothing but rocks. In Islam, most graves are very simple, even for eminent persons. Ostentatious grave markers are rare.

But I read somewhere – and for the life of me, I can’t find this source again – that many Omanis are followers of the Ibadi form of Islam. Some take this simplicity to a somewhat extreme degree. They inter the body and just place a rock in memory. And that’s it.

We can see that this makes sense, in a way. Almost all customs involving passed-on people are designed for the survivors, since the no-longer-living are beyond all that.

‘Old cemetery’ in Rustaq

Our original plan was to visit the Omani exclave of Musendam. Because it’s detached from the main body of Oman, we have to take a ferry. The ferry itself is very modern and comfortable, but the booking arrangements are a challenge. Can’t book a ticket online. Can’t see the schedule online. Can’t pay online.

We wanted to take Lawrence with us, but by the time we acquire tickets, there is no space for a vehicle. We leave him behind for couple of days in the port of Shinas, where the ferry departs from.

Once the ferry is at sea, they open the observation decks. There are two areas: one for ‘women and families’, and one for men only (like the rest of the boat). This is the normal gender apartheid that prevails in this part of the world.

No ladies allowed

The main town in Musendam is Khasab. The next day, we take an all-day dhow cruise that includes fjord-viewing and snorkeling.

Dhow harbour, Khasab

The dhow is relaxing. It’s a pleasant change to be transported around by someone else.

At ease
The ‘fjords of Oman’

In some places, we’re accompanied by dolphins.

…and more dolphins.

One of our snorkeling spots is Telegraph Island.

The water is emerald green and abounds in fish.

Maria, as usual, is in her element.

A noteworthy cultural trait in Khasab: every night, scores of smugglers stream across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran in small, speedy boats loaded to the gunwales with sheep and goats. They return with contraband like refrigerators and microwaves.

Iran bound

We return to the mainland on the ferry to Shinas and drive back to Muscat.

On the ‘women and families’ deck

Sight or Insight of the Day

After nearly a month in Oman, it’s time to depart. We spend the last few days in Muscat again, where we visit the extravagant Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.

On our last day, we take a day trip to the nearby Dimaniyat Islands.

These islands have some of the best snorkeling we have seen since the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. The absolute best part is the sea turtles! We see at least half a dozen, gracefully floating around and wafting to the surface just past our noses.

We’ve really enjoyed our time here. From a brief stopover a few years ago on our way to Iran, we thought Oman looked like an attractive place to visit. And so it proved.

With a heavy heart, we return Lawrence to the car rental office. We’ve travelled almost 5,000 kilometres together. He joins Uncle Joe, Shorty, and Cardashian on our list of faithful automotive companions for this trip.

More Deserts, More Abandoned Villages

From Nizwa, we drive to a place where we spend the night in the desert at the edge of the Sharqiya Sands. (We leave Lawrence behind in a village 12 KMs away and are driven to the camp in a 4WD vehicle.)

Basic accommodation

Many of these desert-camping places are expensive, and feature luxuries like swimming pools (!) and air conditioning. This one does not. Just a non-air-conditioned tent.

Our tent

Meals are included, and are served in a covered, rug-strewn dining area.

Watch out for scorpions

We go for a sundown drive.

Jumping for joy

Here are a few desert photos.

‘What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.’ -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Polish comes from the cities, wisdom from the desert.’ – Frank Herbert
‘A desert is a place without expectation.’ – Nadine Gordimer

We ask our driver, Mohammed, to take our picture. Our tent camp is in the background

Of course, after dark the sky is full of stars. Lots of meteors, too. (And aircraft flying into United Arab Emirates airports at all hours.)

Our next stop is Al Hamra. It turns out that the only reasonably-price accommodation we can find is an entire Omani house. We stay there for three days.

We have the place to ourselves, except for a young Italian woman that stays for a couple of nights.

It’s a good place to get caught up on business.

Catching up on the world

There’s a lush palm oasis across the street.

Amid the oasis are the ruins of Old Al Hamra.

These abandoned villages are a reminder of what life must have been like here before the oil money started flowing in the 1960’s.

Old Al Hamra

The main attraction is the mountain village of Misfat Al Abriyeen.

View from Misfat Al Abriyeen

Many of the buildings here are built on top of boulders and cliffs.


There are abandoned houses here, too.

Running through the village are water channels that are part of the aflaj system. We see these elsewhere in the country.

Water sign

It’s the middle of the day by the time we arrive. The temperature is in the mid-thirties Celsius.

Maria finds a shady spot

The narrow streets are fun to explore.

Misfat streets

Sight or Insight of the Day

Nothing very exciting. Just a simple observation.

For some reason, I can’t pass an animal without wanting to give it a pat.

Friend to the animals