COPTIC HANGING CHURCH, Cairo, Egypt
Built upon the 3rd century ruined gate of the Roman fortress, layers of palm tree logs and stones were used to construct the foundation for the Hanging Church. Probably the most famous church in Coptic Cairo, the Hanging Church is also one of the oldest. Between 7th and 13th century, the Hanging Church was the residence of the Coptic Patriarch. Although much of what we see today of the church’s exterior is from the 19th century, many of the interior architectural features and objects date back to various periods in history, including the 110 Christian icons in which the oldest dates back to the 8th century. Some parts of the church was off limits to tourists during our visit, but nonetheless the Hanging Church was the highlight of our visit of Coptic Cairo.
After Coptic Cairo, we spent much of the afternoon at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the huge museum filled with treasures from ancient Egypt since 1901. The exhibits seemed disorienting at times, though its collection of the 120,000 ancient Egypt artefacts, such as papyrus, stone statues, jewellery, royal mummies (famous pharaohs such as Ramses II), and funeral accessories were truly magnificent. The most impressive of all was undoubtedly the treasures of the tomb of boy King Tutankhamen. According to plan, the Cairo’s Egyptian Museum would be replaced by the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza in 2021. Unfortunately, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic would likely affect the visitor numbers for the new museum at its grand opening.
Leaving the museum, we strolled along the Nile and saw a few felucca owners cleaning their boats. We didn’t have the interest to hire a felucca. Instead, we headed to Cafe Niche for a quick bite. Back at Luna Hotel, my two travel buddies rested a bit before heading to the train station for their quick visit of Upper Egypt. For me, I thought more time would be needed for a decent visit of Luxor and Aswan in Upper Egypt. Instead, I planned to spend the remaining few days in Egypt on my own. My destination was off the beaten track at Siwa Oasis and the Western Desert.
GREAT PYRAMID & SPHINX, Giza, Egypt
In the 2nd century BC, Hellenistic poets and historians came up with a list of marvelous sights to be recommended for ancient tourists in the Greek and Roman world. These seven sights of impressive construction and architectural genius became what we now refer to as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Of the seven iconic landmarks, only the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest of them all, remains standing today. Known as the Pyramid of Khufu, the Great Pyramid is the largest and oldest of the three pyramids in Giza. Together with the Great Sphinx and surrounding pyramids and tombs, the Great Pyramid and the Necropolis of Giza have been widely recognized as the cultural symbol of Egypt for thousands of years. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Great Pyramid had already been around for over 2,500 years. To them, the pyramid was as ancient as the Parthenon is to us. Not to mention that the Great Pyramid was the world’s tallest man made structure for over 3800 years. No wonder why so many have considered the Great Pyramid as a symbol of human civilization. To say we were overwhelming excited as our car was approaching the Giza Plateau was not an overstatement.
After Saqqara and Dahshur, our visit to the necropolises of ancient Memphis brought us to the Giza Plateau, the world famous site of the Great Pyramid, at the edge of the Western Desert. The site of the Great Pyramid complex is quite large, despite its close proximity to the city of Giza. Unlike promotional images depicting the Great Pyramid in the middle of desert, in reality the Giza pyramids stand awfully close to modern roadways and bounded three sides by low-rise building blocks. The site was crowded with tourists as expected, so as plenty of pushy camel handlers. Completed at around 2560 BC, the 146.5m Pyramid of Khufu, or commonly known as the Great Pyramid of Giza, is the largest Egyptian pyramid in the world. 2.3 million blocks of limestone and granite were used, some of which weighing up to 80 tonnes. The pharaoh’s tomb lies in the heart of the enormous structure. Not far from the Great Pyramid stands the iconic Sphinx. The limestone statue depicts a reclining lion body with a human head, which many believe was the representation of Pharaoh Khafre. As the son of Pharaoh Khufu, Khafre was also a prominent pyramid builder. His pyramid in Giza is the world’s second largest.
Standing furthest at the southwest of the complex is the smallest of the three pyramids in Giza: Pyramid of Menkaure. In the 12th century, the second Ayyubid Kurdish Sultan of Egypt attempted to demolish the pyramids of Giza. His recruited workers started with the Pyramid of Menkaure. The task proved to be too difficult and expensive that the attempt was stopped after eight months of hard labour. Due to the sheer size of the stone and the surrounding sandy environment, the workers only managed to remove one to two stone blocks a day. After eight months, they only managed to create a vertical cut on one side of the small pyramid in Giza. This might explain why the Great Pyramid remains as the sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After 4,600 years, only the outer layer of stone cladding was gone. The structural integrity of the Great Pyramid appears to remain invincible at our times.
SAINT CATHERINE’S MONASTERY, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt
In the shaded valley of Mount Sinai stands the 1500-year fortified Eastern Orthodox monastery named after Catherine of Alexandria, the Christian saint and virgin who was martyred in the early 4th century in hands of Emperor Maxentius. Monastic life had been known since the 4th century at the Sinai location, in the barren land of austerity and remoteness. In AD 330, Empress Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, built the Chapel of Burning Bush and a small hermit refuge at the site where Moses was supposed to see the burning bush and was named by God as the leader to lead the Israelies out of Egypt. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of the monastery complex that we see today to house the Chapel of the Burning Bush. Amazingly the monastery still remains functioning as a Christian monastery today, and became one of the oldest monastic communities in the world. Due to the site’s significance in the Old Testament, the monastery is considered a sacred pilgrimage site for all sects of Christianity, Islam and Judaism throughout history.
After a sleepless night and hours of hiking in the rugged Mount Sinai, we finally made it to Saint Catherine’s Monastery at around 08:00. From the outside, the monastery resembles a highly fortified defense complex. It was hard to imagine that beyond the high stone walls stand one of the world’s oldest monastery, together with the oldest library in the Western world. The thousand-year-old library contains 3300 manuscripts written in 11 languages: Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Georgian and Slavonic. These manuscripts have became an extremely precious collection: classical Greek texts, medical writing, monastic documents and other texts created in different period in history, including some splendidly made manuscripts with glided letters and illuminations crafted in Constantinople. While the library is off limits to tourists, most visitors and pilgrims who have braved the harsh landscape and remote location of Sinai would find peace and bliss for the real life encounter with the legendary Burning Bush mentioned in the Book of Exodus.
We waited outside the monastery for about an hour until 09:00. Inside the complex, only the main church, a small museum and the exterior courtyard where the Burning Bush stands are opened to the public. At the crowded courtyard, everyone was trying to take pictures of themselves with the legendary Burning Bush. We wandered around the complex for a while and slowly returned to the parking lot of Mount Sinai for the tour minibus. We were quite sleepy and tired by the time we reached Bishibishi. At the hotel we grabbed a quick bite, packed our backpacks, and took the 14:30 bus leaving for Cairo. It was a long journey, passing by the Suez Canal at sunset, and reached Cairo after 8.5 hours on the road. At the bus station in Cairo, we took a taxi to Midan Talaat Harb, a star-shaped plaza at the centre of a shopping district, where our guesthouse was located. It was 23:30 when we arrived, but it felt like 20:00 as most shops and restaurants were still busy. After our hermitic days in the Arabian desert of Wadi Rum and Sinai Peninsula, the vibrant scenes of Cairo almost gave us a little shock.: the way people drive, cross the streets, yell in the shops, and occasionally intimidate tourists for a little tip. This is Cairo, the largest city in Africa, Middle East and the Arab world, with over 20 million of inhabitants who are proud of their pharaohic history.
THE RED DESERT OF LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, Wadi Rum, Jordan
In June and July 2008, a retrospective screening of David Lean’s films took place at BFI (British Film Institute) London Southbank. We picked an evening show of Lawrence of Arabia as an after work treat. Watching the 1962 classic on the big screen was a fantastic experience, especially for the majestic desert scenes that reminded me of my brief stay in Wadi Rum back in 2006. Wadi Rum, an UNESCO World Heritage site acclaimed for its desert landscape, is a popular filming venue for epic movies from Lawrence of Arabia of 1962 to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker of 2019. Wadi Rum also put its mark in modern history when T. E. Lawrence passed through the desert numerous times during the Arab Revolt of 1917-18. Together with the iconic red dunes and rugged plateaus, the memories of T. E. Lawrence has made Wadi Rum, also known as Valley of the Moon, the most well known tourist attraction in Jordan after Petra.
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At around 09:00 we arrived at Wadi Rum Visitor Centre where our guide Attayak greeted us at the ticket office. After we got the admission tickets, Attayak drove us into Rum Village and stopped at the Resthouse Cafe, where we met Shaba, our desert guide for the day. The first thing we did with Shaba was to get bottled water and the red and white keffiyeh. We put on the keffiyeh with Shaba’s help before hopping onto his Toyota Land Rover. Our first stop was the Spring of Lawrence. Story has it that the spring was the spot where T. E. Lawrence bathed and relaxed himself during his stay in Wadi Rum. Reaching the spring was a 15-minute climb up a slope of boulders, about 200m high. We were a little disappointed to find the spring was no more than a tiny pool, perhaps an outlet of underground water. Though we were rewarded by the magnificent panoramic view of the desert.
Our second stop was a cliff of ancient petroglyphs, where figures of camels, goats, and humans were found. Petroglyphs and inscriptions could come from the ancient desert nomads 12,000 years ago, or any desert dwellers thereafter, including the Nabataean caravans 2000 years ago when Wadi Rum was situated in the crossroad of caravan routes between Saudi Arabia and Damascus. In the shade of a rock plateau, we got off the Land Rover once again for our first desert lunch. Shaba took out canned tuna, fresh tomato, mixed beans, cheese, and bottled orange juice. He then started a fire to make our cups of mint tea, a common practice for the nomadic desert Bedouins, who have roamed the Arabian desert for centuries. Despite circumstances after World War II that led to mass sedentarisation for the Bedouins, the carefree lifestyle of the desert nomads continues to inspire literature and cinema, consolidating the cultural heritage and promoting tourism of the Arabian Desert. Today, most Bedouins have moved to houses or apartments. The few Bedouin tents remaining in the desert are erected mainly for tourists. As globalization continues to reach the different regions of the Middle East, nomadic traditions of the Arabian Desert are becoming a collection of romanticized stereotypes reconstructed solely for the commercial value of tourism.
SOLDIER’S TOMB & SNAKE MONUMENT, Petra, Jordan
Passing through the Siq once again, we entered Petra at around 08:30. Before reaching the theatre, we made our way to a stepped path towards the High Place of Sacrifice. For an hour we hiked up the hill behind the Royal Tombs with occasional views of the ruined city and surrounding landscape. We finally reached the high alter where ancient Nabateans made sacrifices to their gods, an open area with a raised platform for ceremonies. From High Place of Sacrifice we walked west toward Wadi Farasa and the Snake Monument. At Wadi Farasa, we arrived at the Tomb of Soldiers. Due to the sculpted armour on the statues, many believe the tomb were belonged to some Roman officers in the 2nd Century. Though some historians disagreed, arguing that many architectural elements on the tomb facade actually predated the Roman Conquest of Petra, and the tomb was probably constructed in the 1st Century.
At around 14:30 we made it to the Snake Monument, a destination that requires one of the longer tourist hikes. It took us a while to actually locate the snake monument. In fact, we saw the monument only after a local Bedouin pointed it out for us. At the Snake Monument, we encountered a Bedouin family who still lives in Petra. There were two kids in the black Bedouin tent (probably made with goat hair according to traditions). We played football with them for about 15 minutes before heading back. Before Petra was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1985, there were about 150 Bdoul Bedouin families living in the caves of Petra. After Petra was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list, most families were relocated to the new village of Um Sayhoun nearby. Today, about 10 families who refused to move out still remain inside the archaeological park, living off mainly from the tourist industry.
Back at the Royal Tombs, we decided to hike up the hill opposite to the famous Treasury for the famous birdeye view. The steps were steep, and the hike took approximately 45 minutes. The view was quite impressive despite the Treasury was in shade. On our way down, we got ourselves a can of refreshing pop. Without it, we would probably take us two times longer to reach the exit of Petra.
The Cult Chamber is an interesting and mysterious small building in a valley in Wadi Farasa East. Its original purpose was unknown.
The boulders and stones surrounding the Cult Chamber are resulted from occasional flash floods.
Known as the Renaissance Tomb, Tomb BD 229 contained features that resemble the style of Italian Renaissance.
The interior of Renaissance Tomb was excavated in 2003. Containing 14 pit graves, all had been looted in the Middle Age.
Near Wadi Farasa, the Soldier Tomb complex once housed a tomb and banquet hall accessed via the central courtyard surrounded by columns.
At the area of the Snake Monument, we arrived at an open valley with tombs and small structures along the rock cliffs.
It is hard to believe such rugged landscape was once hosted a majestic capital city.
We were distracted by a group of goats appeared near the Snake Monument.
The goats belonged to a Bedouin family living in the area.
Since 1985, most Bedouins living in Petra were relocated in a modern settlement nearby.
We met the two Bedouin kids who invited us to play football with them.
We had some brief fun with the Bedouin kids despite the afternoon heat.
Back at Palace Tomb, we decided to head for the lookout of Jabal al-Khubtha.
The 40 minute hike to Jabal al-Khubtha proved more than worthwhile.
Jabal al-Khubtha offered one of the best view of the Treasury.
Unless arriving at Jabal al-Khubtha in the morning, one would likely find the Treasury in shade.
ROYAL TOMBS, THEATRE & MONASTERY, Petra, Jordan
After the Treasury, we turned right and walked towards the centre of the former Nabataean capital city. On the hillside of El Nejr, a splendid theatre was carved out from the red sandstone in the 1st century. The 45 rows of seats could accommodate an audience of 8,500 people. Standing at the theatre offered us one of the best view of Petra: numerous rock cut mausoleums, commonly know as the Royal Tombs, carved into the great massif of Jebel Al Khubtha. From the theatre, we made our way uphill towards another icon of Petra: the Monastery (El Deir). It took us roughly an hour to reach the Monastery from the theatre. The Monastery was an important ceremonial temple for the Nabataeans. Similar to the Treasury, the Monastery is a rock-cut building carved out from the cliff. There is a large forecourt in front of the Monastery, probably a venue for religious ceremonies. Many believed the building was used as a church during the Byzantine era, which explained where the name Monastery came from. We sat down at an open tea shop across from the Monastery, where we rested for an hour with the iconic front elevation of the Monastery.
We visited two more lookouts uphill to see the arid valley scenery surrounding Petra. On our way out we stopped by more royal tombs and small cave dwellings. We were exhausted from the hike and heat, and our attention had shifted to the unique rock patterns that could be found allover Petra. From the centre of the lost city, it was another 2km before we returned to the visitor centre. Everyone seemed to be leaving at the same time, by horses, by donkey carts, on foot, etc. In the evening, we had a Bedouin cuisine dinner at Red Cave Restaurant and stayed a bit at the Internet cafe in Wadi Musa.
Probably constructed at around 70 AD, the Urn Tomb is one of the first Royal Tombs that we encountered in Petra.
Many believe the Urn Tomb was the final resting place of Nabataean King Malchus II who died in 70 AD.
The main chamber of the tomb was converted into a church during the Byzantine era.
Beside the Urn Tomb stands the Silk Tomb, a mausoleum well known for its rich sandstone patterns.
Nearby, the Corinthian Tomb resembles the feature of the iconic Treasury.
The facade of the Palace Tomb is three storey high. Some believe the Palace Tomb was inspired by Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House) in Rome.
Most of the tombs, caves and tunnels in the “Rose City” was built between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD.
15m in height and 8m in width, Tomb BD 70 is one of the few freestanding structure in Petra.
Both Tomb BD 70 and BD 69 are typical Hegra type tomb structures.
All the rock-cut structures have gone through two thousand years of erosion.
The main theatre of Petra faces east, and was renovated by the Romans during the 1st and 2nd century.
The seating area was entirely carved out of the rock cliff.
From the theatre, we could take in a fantastic view of the Royal Tomb cluster.
Qasr El-Bint (Temple of Dushares) is the largest freestanding structure in Petra.
Lion Triclinium was built in the 1st century intended for ritual banquets. The name obviously came from the two weathered lions at the entrance.
The trail up to the Monastery involves an uphill climb of 850 steps.
The walk to the Monastery took about 45 minutes to an hour.
Scenery of the arid valleys of Wadi Araba was one of the biggest rewards for the hike up to the Monastery.
Apart from the Treasury, the Monastery is probably the most famous structure in Petra. Dedicated to the Nabatean King Obodas I , the ancient temple was built in the 1st century AD.
FIRST GLIMPSE OF THE TREASURY, Petra, Jordan
At the ancient crossroad where Silk Road caravans crossed the trade routes of the Jordanian Rift Valley, the Rose City once thrived as a major trading hub between the Asia (China, India and Arabia) and the Mediterranean world, and the capital of Nabataean kingdom. From 4th century BC to the 4th century AD, Petra flourished for seven centuries until the shifting of trade routes and the Galilee Earthquake of 363 AD, which led the city into a irreversible decline. Petra was enlisted to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1985 and has become one of the most iconic attraction in the Middle East, thanks to After a peace treaty was signed in 1994 between Jordan and Israel, tourism has thrived in Jordan ever since. From 138,577 in 1994 to 918,136 in 2010, tourist numbers have skyrocketed until the Syrian Civil War broke out and greatly affected international tourism throughout the region. Back in 2006, our two full days at Petra was definitely the biggest highlight of our experience in Jordan.
After a long day on the King’s Highway, we had some good rest at Petra Moon Hotel. After an early breakfast at 6am, we quickly headed down the road for a 5-minute walk to Petra’s ticket office. After obtaining our tickets, we walked over to the entrance of the Siq, a narrow gorge serving as the natural entry path into the lost city. At several occasions, the Siq became so narrow and dark that made us felt like walking in a tunnel no wider than a car. A water channel, at about 1m above ground, was carved on the cliff surface along the Siq, reminding us the marvelous engineering in the ancient times that brought water from flash floods into Petra for storage and daily use.
At the end of the Siq, about 1.5km from the gorge entrance, we arrived at the spot where every visitor would stop for the iconic photo of the rock-cut Treasury (Al Khazneh). No matter how many times the Treasury has appeared on travel photos and TV travel shows, nothing could prepare us emotionally for our first encounter with the stunning view. Groups after groups of tourists gathered in front of the iconic Treasury building to take photos. Taking the iconic photo of framing the Treasury between the narrow Siq passage without any tourist required good patience. Unlike how Steven Spielberg depicts in his movie, fans of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would be disappointed to find no deadly traps, fancy sculptures or glittering treasure behind the famous rock facade. The interior of the Treasury is actually just an empty cave carved out from the cliff. Legends have it that robbers and pirates might have used the building to store their looted objects. Probably this explains the reason why the building is called the “Treasury”. Though most archaeologists would agree that the Treasury was likely used as a temple and a royal tomb of the Nabataeans.
A sandy path led us towards the entrance of the Siq.
One of the first monuments we encountered was the Obelisk Tomb. The four obelisks on the tomb facade are actually nefeshes, pointed pillars to embody the people buried in the inner chamber.
The rugged desert canyons at Petra is largely made of sandstone.
We followed a few local visitors to enter the Siq, the winding and narrow canyon leading into the lost city.
The 1.2km Siq passage provides the most dramatic approach to the lost city.
The Siq is formed by a geological fault split apart by tectonic forces. The height of the cliffs range from 91 to 182m in height.
From aerial photos one can clearly see how narrow the Siq is – a split in the rose-red sandstone plateau no wider than 3m at some points.
Under the early morning sun, the rock cliffs along the Siq glowed in a golden colour.
Certain parts of the Siq are in shade for almost the entire day.
The 1.2km long water conduits along the Siq are still visible.
The water conduits and the pavement were built in the last decades of the 1st century BC.
At last, the majestic view of the Treasury of Petra emerged between the cliffs.
The famous rock facade of the Treasury was a prominent filming spot for Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The Treasury, or Al-Khazneh, was carved out of the sandstone rock cliff as the mausoleum of Nabatean King Aretas IV in the 1st century AD.
In the 19th century, nomadic bedouins in the region believed the iconic structure contained treasures left by bandits or pirates.
Humidity from tourist crowds and years of touching and rubbing have caused damages to the sandstone building.