Mark and Melinda's trip to the Middle East

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We spent a little over 3 weeks visiting Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. We flew to Cairo (1), spent 4 days there, and then flew to Aswan (2). We took a 3-night cruise on the Nile from Aswan to Luxor (3), spent one night in a hotel in Luxor, then flew to Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula, and took a taxi from there to Dahab (4), where we spent 2 nights and went snorkeling. We took a bus from Dahab to Taba, Egypt, and then walked across the border to Eilat, Israel (5). We took a bus from Eilat to Masada (6), spent one night there and then took a bus to Ein Gedi (7), spent one night there and then took another bus to Jerusalem (8), where we spent 4 nights. We then took a bus back to Eilat (5), walked across the border into Jordan, and took a taxi to Wadi Rum (9). After camping 2 nights in the desert, we caught a ride to Petra (10), spent one night there and then took a bus to Amman (11), where we spent 2 nights before flying home.

Slide Show: Top 25 photos from the whole trip:

(scroll down for more photos)

Cairo

On our first day in Cairo, we visited the Egyptian Museum. It has an amazing collection, including the contents of King Tut's tomb, but it is not well labeled, so we hired a guide inside the museum. For dinner we had fiteer, which is like pizza except it's made with filo dough.

On the second day, we hired a guide and a driver to show us the pyramids of Giza, Saqqara, and Dahshour. The Great Pyramid of Giza is the biggest. The photos are a bit hazy because of the smog. The pyramids of Saqqara and Dahshour are older and more remote. We also saw the Great Sphinx at Giza. At Saqqara, we saw some tombs that were opened to the public for the first time 2 weeks before our visit (in an effort to increase tourism). There were a lot of tourists at Giza, but very few at the other sites. Our guide, Hamada, was very good. We had dinner at a restaurant that only serves kushari, a dish that contains rice, pasta, lentils, garbanzos, fried onions, tomato sauce, garlicky vinegar, and hot sauce. It was good.

We spent our third day walking in Islamic Cairo. We visited 2 very impressive mosques and a citadel, and got lost walking through narrow ancient streets.

Walking in Cairo was challenging for several reasons. Crossing the street is very difficult since the car traffic is very heavy and the cars don't stop for traffic lights. When we were in the more touristy parts of Cairo, we were constantly harrassed by people who wanted us to come into their stores. The sidewalks were often blocked by vendors or parked vehicles, so we sometimes had to walk in the street. And it was very hot. But it was definitely an interesting experience; we would not have experienced the “real Cairo” without walking. It reminded us of walking on the streets of Delhi.

Luckily we got out of Cairo several days before the resumption of protests and violence in Tahrir Square.

Cairo slide show:

Upper Egypt

Southern Egypt is known as "Upper Egypt" because it is at a higher elevation: the Nile flows from south to north. We flew to Aswan, and then took a cruise on the Nile from Aswan to Luxor. Because of the small number of tourists, the cruise that we originally booked was canceled, and we got upgraded to a more expensive cruise ship (the Sonesta Star Goddess). It is a very luxurious, all-suite ship. Our suite had a living room, a bedroom, and a bathroom. The food on the ship was very good. Even after combining two cruises into one, they still only had 20 passengers on a ship that can accommodate 66. The cruise included guided tours of the sites along the way.

On the first day of the cruise we took a tour of Aswan. We visited Isis Temple on the Island of Philae near Aswan. The temple is from c 200 BC and has amazing stone carvings. They took us there using a bus and then a small motor boat. After that we went for a short sail on a felucca (a small traditional Egyptian sailboat). We also visited a stone quarry that included an unfinished obelisk, and the Aswan High Dam. The next morning we sailed to Kom Ombo, where we visited the Kom Ombo temple (c 100 BC), then sailed to Edfu, where we visited the Temple of Horus (c 200 BC), and then sailed to Luxor.

On the way to Luxor, we sailed through the Esna locks late at night. That's where we encountered the craziest, most aggressive vendors of the whole trip. When the ship stopped to wait for an opportunity to pass through the locks, the vendors approached the ship in rowboats, and tied their rowboats to the ship. When the ship started moving again, the rowboats were pulled by the ship at a very high (and unsafe) speed. The vendors on the rowboats shouted at passengers on the boat, threw them carpets and other goods, and demanded that they throw money back.

On the third day we did a tour of the West Bank of Luxor. In the West Bank, we saw the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Both were very impressive (especially the Valley of the Kings), but photography was not allowed. We also saw the Temple of Hatshepsut (c 1450 BC), where Queen Hatshepsut was mummified before being buried in the Valley of the Kings. About 80% of it was reconstructed. We were surprised by how modern the temple appears.

Our cruise ended with a tour of Luxor's East Bank, including Luxor temple, in which different parts were constructed by 5 different cultures over the past 3300 years (ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Christians, and Muslims). We then checked into a hotel in Luxor. Luxor was hotter than Cairo (105F vs 95F), and much smaller (450,000 vs 20 million people). Walking in the street was much easier, since there is less traffic (crossing the street in Cairo was very difficult), and the touts are less aggressive. Everything closes in the afternoon in Luxor because of the heat. We visited the Luxor Museum and the Mummification Museum. The Luxor Museum has a very good display of Egyptian antiquities. It has a much smaller collection than the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but it has air conditioning, and everything is described in English and Arabic. The Mummification Museum was a bit disappointing. It was very small, and most of the information about mummification was information we already knew.

Upper Egypt slide show:

Dahab, Egypt

We spent 2 nights at a resort in Dahab, Egypt, which is on the Red Sea coast of the Sinai peninsula. Dahab is very relaxed. It feels like it's not in the same country as Cairo. We went snorkeling with a Welsh guide (who is a podiatrist!). It was very affordable, and was just the 3 of us. The water is very clear, and we saw lots of colorful fish and coral, and a blue stingray.

There are lots of cats in Dahab. They are very friendly, but also very aggressive. At dinner a cat stole Mark's fork (!), and then later returned to steal his fish. The fork was metal; we assume he was attempting to steal the fish that was under the fork, but grabbed the wrong thing in his mouth. The fish was a whole, local fish; Mark had already eaten about 3/4 of it. It was good.

Dahab slide show:

Masada, Israel

We hiked up to the top of Masada, a 300m elevation gain. It was hot. At the top is a palace built by Herod the Great in c 40 BC, which overlooks the Dead Sea.

Masada slide show:

Ein Gedi, Israel

We spent one night at a guest house in Ein Gedi, on the Dead Sea. We went for a hike in Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, where we saw some ruins and some hyraxes (a large rodent) and went for a refreshing swim under a waterfall. We also swam in the Dead Sea. The water in the dead sea was very warm, almost hot, and because of the famously high salt content, we were able to float effortlessly.

Ein Gedi slide show:

Jerusalem

We stayed at the Gloria Hotel, which is inside the wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, near the Jaffa Gate. On the first day, we took a bus tour of Jerusalem (Egged 99), and visited 3 museums along the way (the Herzl Museum, the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem, and the Israel Museum). All 3 museums were very good, but the bus tour was disappointing and 40 minutes late, leaving us less time than we would have preferred to visit the Israel Museum.

On the second day, we walked around Jerusalem's Old City, both on our own and with a guide. We saw the Dome of the Rock, which is the 3rd most holy site in Islam (after Mecca and Medina). The dome is covered with 80 kg of pure gold. It was built on top of the Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in Judaism. Jews pray at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount 24 hours a day. We took an underground tour where we saw portions of the Western Wall that are now underground, and also saw ongoing archaeological excavations. We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which was crowded with pilgrims who believe it is where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. We also visited the Tower of David Museum, which is housed in an ancient fort and explains the complicated history of Jerusalem.

On the third day, we walked around outside the Old City walls. We visited the Museum on the Seam, which is housed in a former military building on what was once the border between Israel and Jordan. (Jerusalem was reunified in 1967.) The museum displays modern art that is inspired by conflicts, including the current Israel-Palestine conflict and the Iraq war. We walked through Mea Shearim, an ultra-orthodox neighborhood. We had falafel and baklava for lunch at Mahane Yehuda Market, a large outdoor market.

Jerusalem is more modern, Western, and clean than we expected. The food is better than the food in Egypt, although the prices are much higher (they're about the same as US prices). Crossing the border from Egypt into Israel was similar to crossing the border from Mexico into California. In Egypt, most of the tourists were European, but in Israel they were mostly American. The number of tourists was much larger in Israel.

Jerusalem slide show:

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Our trip from Jerusalem to Wadi Rum, Jordan, using 1 bus and 4 taxis, went smoothly. Wadi Rum is a small village in beautiful desert, famous for its rock formations and red color. Lawrence of Arabia was filmed there. We camped there for 2 nights and did a full-day camel ride, which was a pain in the butt, literally. Wadi Rum was extremely hot in the afternoon, comfortable at dinner time, and cold overnight. In the afternoon it was so hot that when we took a water bottle out of our backpack, we almost burned our mouths on the water. Overnight it was so cold that we had to use 3 blankets to stay warm.

Wadi Rum slide show:

Petra, Jordan

We were planning to take a bus from Wadi Rum to Petra, but the bus wasn't running, either due to lack of passengers or due to a holiday (we got different stories from different people). We were very lucky to get a ride in a rental car with 2 young women, one from Houston and one from Australia.

Petra is a beautiful ancient city that was the capital of the Nabatean empire. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was filmed there. The highlights are tombs that were carved out of the mountain c 200 BC. The entrance is via a siq (long narrow canyon or gorge). At the end of the siq is the famous Treasury. From the Treasury we went on a long uphill hike to get to the Monastery. Petra was crowded from the entrance to the Treasury, but the crowds thinned out beyond the Treasury, since most tourists don't want to walk any farther.

Petra slide show:

Amman, Jordan

We spent one day walking around Amman. We first hiked up to the ancient citadel, which is the highest and oldest part of Amman, dating at least from the Bronze Age. We then walked down to the Roman Theater, which was built c 150 AD when the city now known as Amman was called Philadelphia and was part of the Roman empire. The theater is in amazingly good condition and is still occasionally used for concerts.

Amman slide show:

Jerash, Jordan

We were planning to take a bus tour to Jerash, but the bus tour was canceled due to lack of tourists, so we took a public bus instead. The public bus was old and lacked air conditioning, but it got us from Amman to Jerash and back quickly (50km each way) and cost about $1.

Jerash is an ancient Roman city (1st century AD) in what is now northern Jordan. Because of its dry desert location, it has been preserved better than the Roman ruins in Italy. It was very impressive. Excavations are continuing.

Jerash slide show:

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