Dining at 9:00 or 10:00 pm, although a standard practice in Egypt, I could not adjust to the time even after living and touring the country for close to a month.
In June 1995, my husband Stephen and I were married and we had hoped to honeymoon in Egypt, but the way in which we had wanted to experience the country was going to be very expensive and we wanted to take in the country for more than just a few days or a week.
We decided to put a plan into action and be in Egypt for the turn of the millennium. After extensive research, our Egyptian excursion, inclusive of RT flight, accommodations, meals, private car, private tour guide and translator, film, souvenirs, miscellaneous expenses and etc., was going to cost in the neighborhood of $40K. We saved up for five years and economized in every way so that we could experience Egypt the way we wanted. After all, I had some experience at how to save and budget, having just finished paying for my own wedding at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY which at the time cost $24K.
I chose to put $200 aside from my salary each week and cut back on some of my typical splurges such as buying an extra pair of designer shoes for myself and really limiting ourselves going to the cinema. In 1997, movies cost about $6.25 per person in NY. I remember it well because it would be $15 to buy two tickets and a small popcorn to share. If you wanted a water or soda you were pushing into twenty bucks.
Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, didn’t even exist yet, so curbing ourselves on this form of entertainment was a real discipline since we both enjoyed the movies. We had a video membership to local places like Blockbuster Video and Captain Video which archived so many VHS movie tapes but if you got there too late on a Friday night there was nothing to choose from or worth watching, slim pickings. It was also necessary to bring the tape back on time otherwise you got charged a late fee and rewind fee.
I also chose to cut back on buying that morning cup of Starbucks coffee in the Metro North Grand Central New York train station and saved that $1.37 for a black tall cup.
Every now and then, I’d treat myself to a glass of wine at the end of a long, deadline-oriented work day in the photo news agency, from the bar cart attendant that would stand at the entrance to the train gate, but even those wines at $2.75 got expensive. I liked fresh flowers arranged in my home but I also cut back on the purchase of them that I’d often buy at the vendor in the train station on each Monday night. Instead of buying $10 bouquets, I bought $5 bouquets and did it every other week instead.
My dry cleaning was costly and those days, it was still business casual, but since I was in management, I wore suits.
I’m traditional in the sense of cooking and often cooked at home each night, so I didn’t really cut back much on food. Throughout the week, I’d maintain some of the staples in the house such as fresh garlic, onions, potatoes, celery, tomatoes so I could often add in a protein and put a meal together from what I had stocked.
Although newlyweds, we did dine out occasionally, but I’d choose Prix-fixed menus so as to avoid a la carte prices. And if we wanted to dine at a restaurant that was pricey, we often shared an appetizer, entree and dessert. We were still enjoying the experience of dining out occasionally without the excess.
Stephen didn’t and doesn’t drink so ordering an overpriced bottle of wine was not part of the bill. Every other Friday, I’d often get off at the train station and we’d meet at the local restaurant by the Hudson River to share a couple of appetizers, listen to live jazz being played by the band and I’d have a glass of wine. The restaurant was fairly new at the time and we helped promote it. I’d tell a few friends that we’d be going and then they would usually buy drinks and food so we became almost regulars. The chef knew Stephen liked desserts so he’d often create a new dessert and he’d be his taste tester. My wine glass was almost always full and we never felt deprived for our economizing. We tipped well and gained mutual respect by not only the chef, but the waiters and band members.
I also chose to roll my own film and split the cost with another photographer friend. We’d buy it in 50-foot bulk from Adorama. A roll of Ectachrome 36 exposure was $3.85 at the time. It was a lot cheaper to buy it by the foot and teach ourselves to roll it in the bathroom without the light on since it was the darkest place in the house.
Saving at Christmas was difficult because I always wanted to splurge on my little nieces and nephews. I swore to myself that my gifts not be coloring books with a box of crayons or underwear since that was often given to me as a child. PlayStation and Nintendo were always coming out with new cartridges and at $60-$70 bucks a pop, gifts got pretty expensive.
But all of these conscious daily choices of saving, really added up. After almost 5 years, we had quite a stash set aside and were able to pay for our trip to Egypt three months before 1999 came to a close.
Recalling the technological chaos and fear that planes would drop from the sky with “Y2-K”, we were confronted by family and friends pleading with us to choose an alternate calendar date. Computers have an internal clocking system and no one knew if they’d just stop working all together because of the numbering system. It was a serious fear among many.
The plane did not drop from the sky or I obviously would not have been able to write this article. But what did occur was definitely life changing in every capacity.
It was January 1, 2000, and both my husband, Stephen and myself had finally arrived in Cairo, the capital of Egypt, the largest in the Middle East and Arab world, after a 14-hour flight from New York JFK airport. It was not only New Year’s Day but it was an entire new millennium. Setting foot on land that dated back historically more than 2000 years was more than humbling. It had been another dream come true to finally step foot in the country that we both have been so fascinated with and admired but longed to visit and experience. The weather was crisp and cool but not frigid. We needed a light jacket and sunglasses to shield the sun and desert sand from the gentle winds.
It took a while to adjust to the calendar year beginning with a 20 instead of 19, and the time difference also was more than challenging. Having travelled internationally numerous times already to Asia and Europe for photo journalism assignments may have prepared me for jet lag, currency conversion confusion, language and even food challenges on my stomach.
The single most vivid memory of being in Egypt that lives within me to this day was hearing the prayer alarm five times daily to alert people to literally stop doing whatever they were engaged in and pray at Dawn (Fajr) around 5:20 am, Sunrise around 6:30 am, noon (Dhuhr), mid-afternoon (Asr) around 3:00 pm, (Maghreb) around 5:30 pm, and (Isha) around 7:00 pm.
I was extremely intrigued and in great admiration of this 5x daily prayer practice, and learned from Amr, our private tour guide and interpreter, that this ritual prayer practice known as “salat” came from the Quran, holy book of Islam, and that it was a form of discipline to preserve the spiritual being and honor Allah, God.
Raised as a Christian and Catholic, I was absent from knowledge about the Muslim religion, although I acknowledged a Buddhist belief system and considered myself a novice enjoying yoga classes at the Sivananda Yoga Vendata on West 24th Street in New York City.
The experience of seeing people 5x daily kneel in the street, along the sidewalks, in courtyards and outside small shops, was even more profound then actually climbing down into the belly of the Giza pyramids and already having gazed at the vastness of the Sphinx missing a nose.
As far as the Sphinx not having a nose, Amr shared that it is a two-fold belief that it was due to erosion over time but that if a statue didn’t have a nose, it would not be able to breathe in the afterlife. It is still debatable if it was in fact destroyed by Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr, a Sufi Muslim, disliking such devotion. He also told us that although legend says that Napoleon’s French troops may have been known to destroy it with a cannonball during the late 1700’s, it is most believed to be a form of iconoclasm. I didn’t know what that word meant at the time and he explained to me that it is a form of destruction by people who protest against it. We were not allowed to touch the Sphinx since moisture from our hands can destroy the structure and we were also restricted to walk by the base of its paws. Legend further says that there is a maze below it containing records of astronomy, magic, medicine. Amr mentioned to us that although the Great Pyramids are the most popular architecture being built for the pharaoh Khufu, and then later Cheops and Menkaure, it is the Sphinx that is thought to be actually older and built between 5000 and 7000 BC and quite significant.
Driving with Amr and a private car was the absolute best decision we made, and I was feeling blessed with his patience answering my relentless questions. Digital technology was not prevalent yet in the year 2000, so things like GPS coordinates and or Google searches didn’t exist. Neither Stephen or I spoke Arabic and having a translator enriched our experience to a level that was superior.
I’d often ask to get out of the car to take pictures and although I carried my backpack often, it was so helpful to have extra water in the car to drink along the journey, a chair to sit and an opportunity to avoid sand storms. As a photo journalist, my camera equipment was Canon “old school” with Fuji Ectachrome slide film, grainy Agfa and many lens to affix to the camera bodies.
Often at road stops there were army checks with fully guarded soldier’s and weapons checking our passports and papers to be sure that we were legitimate travelers. I recalled back in 1988, when I saw soldiers fully armed with rifles at the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in France on guard for any terrorism and bombings. It became the norm for me to see such a thing while traveling overseas and I was reminded how we as Americans live with a lot more freedoms. At first, there was a sense of uneasiness to see armed soldiers, but then an immediate real sense of protection.
It helped that I was working at the time for a reputable stock photo agency, named Corbis, as a Senior Account Executive managing a team of six, gathering images for leading print magazines and pitching stories to them so that each time I did take a photograph and needed proof of identity, I could show my work credential from the states.
I had accumulated about 6 weeks of vacation, yet it was important to me to regularly remain in contact via international cell phone with my team in order to continue to meet quarterly goals and to write off some of my expenses through the company. Several of my photographs were accepted by Corbis’s editing team when I arrived back in the USA and later licensed globally in textbooks, magazines and billboards. In 2000 at the Giza Pyramids, cellular service and satellite WI-FI was not accessible, but I knew it might be in the future so my foresight of staging a shot at the pyramids using my husband as the model in front of a laptop and talking on the cell phone was a hit. This image sold several times across the globe.
I was grateful that we chose to do this excursion while still very agile and young in our early and late thirties. Climbing down into the tomb of Khufu pyramid was a task that took careful precise footing, although the tomb guide, a native Egyptian, wore flip flops and climbed effortlessly. The air gets thinner on the way down and I was in great appreciation that due to the “Y2-K” fear factor, tourism was so low at the time of our visit and therefore, a lot less crowded. We were the only two people, along with Amr, and the pyramid guide, entering the tomb. I couldn’t imagine swarms of tourists, and was thankful for the undivided attention.
It is remarkable that colors preserved so well in the pyramid’s hieroglyphics. I could have stayed in the tomb all day if I had more air and light. The air quality was very dusty and I couldn’t imagine being there in the middle of summer with heat temperatures rising to 115 degrees in the desert.
To avoid any paint discoloration in the hieroglyphics, I was not allowed to take photographs with a flash. So, I was able to capture some of the drawings by increasing my ISO to 800 and used mostly my f/2.8 lens. I improvised with items in my camera bag—placing a flashlight on the floor shining up to the ceiling, and a tiny mirror that reflected light off of the mirror onto the wall to catch some color that was still quite prevalent in the drawings. Yet, without my tripod, another thing to carry down into the pyramid, my photos didn’t come out as I’d have liked.
Picture taking is mindless now-a-days with smart phones. Most people are absolutely clueless as to what other people who have pioneered before them had to do to capture amazing images.
Our excursion included the six-step pyramid built for the pharaoh Zoser in 2680 BC, the precursor to the pyramids at Giza, all of which towered way beyond all of the tons of limestone, but nonetheless, magnificent in concept to think that such a tomb was being built for the pharaoh, wife, family and their slaves.
By the time we climbed up and out of the tomb, I was famished. We were promised a feast but not until we had a chance to ride a camel. It was far more comfortable than I imagined but it could have been the woven colorful fabric of orange, bright pink, bright purple and yellow and red lined in between the humps. Extremely gentle and well trained, the camel bended down to allow for me to sit on it, and sitting on top so high was absolutely incredible. There was a distinct smell and Amr later mentioned that it was from the camel’s urine because sometimes they pee on their legs to cool off in the desert, going for days, sometimes 10 days, without water. I asked how tall the camel stood and Amr translated in Arabic. The camel owner, who’s teeth were so poor, said that it was about 11 feet high and weighed about 1000 pounds. Riding a camel was one of my biggest Egyptian thrills and I tried to imagine that Egyptians travelled in the desert for long extended journeys in this manner.
We ate at a local restaurant from family style bowls with mashed fava beans, hummus, olives, fish, lentils and onions, chopped tomatoes, and two kinds of bread, saboob (flatbread) and aish baladi. I remember it well because I liked the way Amr said it. I liked “saboob” more with its crispy crust made of flour, salt, milk and oil.
We returned that evening for the Giza Pyramid sound and light show that lit beams of light above the pyramids triangular point in direct position to the skies. The history is narrated as if the Sphinx is speaking and it was absolutely incredible to see the magnificence of this being one of the Seven Wonders of the World and imagine what life might have been like thousands of years ago for Egyptians.
The next several days and weeks ahead we journeyed to the Valley of Kings & Queens which sits on the West Bank of the Nile opposite of Thebes. We visited the antiquities at the Cairo Museum and the most famous of pharaohs being King Tutankhamen, Seti I, and visited the Great Temple of Ramses II. The Valley of Kings are the burial grounds for the royals and date back to the 11th century. Thutmose I was the first ruler to be buried there and Ramses XI being the last. Inside the tombs, jewels, furniture and treasure were stored.
To prepare for new life, it was thought to be buried with one’s prized possessions. Egyptians believing so very much in the afterlife, filled these tombs with all of the riches but didn’t account for the thieves and looting that would take place centuries after pharaohs no longer reigned. I picked up three small limestones from the grounds and put them in my pocket of Hatshepsut, woman pharaoh buried in Valley of The Kings dating 1479-1457 BC, Thutmose II dating 1496-1419 BC, and Nefertari dating to the 13th century in Abu Simbel Temple (dedicated to the sun gods) in the upper Egyptian region of Nubia.
It is believed that Nefertari, King Ramses II’s favorite wife, Ramses had over 200 wives and lived to 96 years, she was known otherwise as the Goddess of the people but was disregarded from her reign and lost respect from her husband because of her failure to produce a male heir and she was replaced by Kiya.
Amr mentioned that in ancient Egypt, it was customary to marry your sisters, cousins and anyone related as a sign of divinity. Since a Pharaoh was believed to be divine, he could not marry just anyone. Ramses II is believed to have had more than 100 children including 52 sons. I couldn’t imagine calling all of them for dinner let alone, remembering all of their names!
Hatshepsut, although female, was probably one of the greatest rulers of Egypt allowing for it to become an extremely wealthy country for the land and artistry authorizing expeditions of vast riches such as ivory, gold, leopard skins. She believed in trade verses reign with war. She demanded all statues erected of her be in male nature and full beard in order to receive full recognition as a Pharaoh. She became the queen of Egypt at age 12. Cleopatra also reigned with steadfast powerful trade ethics, but not until fourteen centuries later.
The history of Egypt is and will forever be extremely fascinating to me and I cannot seem to ever grasp enough knowledge surrounding the stories of how pharaohs were buried and mummified using canopic jars protecting the liver, lungs, intestines and stomach. The heart was the organ for reason as opposed to the brain so it’s interesting that the brain was discarded.
We visited the Temple of Edfu known for the Falcon god of Horus and Temple of Philae, Temple of Luxor, Temple of Kom Ombo.
So many of the hieroglyphics and statues were destroyed with chiseled faces and noses. So many statues have arms broken off or feet broken or ears cut. It is very much an obvious destruction by the people to disapprove in the royal allowance to live on. They believed in reincarnation so much that if an ear was missing, the spirit could not hear or the spirit without a foot could not walk or a statue without an eye would be blind. It’s extremely difficult to comprehend such destruction. Yet, a Pharaoh would encourage if not demand the people to deplore all of their riches, their wealth upon the king in order to gain lifetime protection in the afterlife. Punishment and cruelty existed daily as intimidation. I can grasp the idea of donation or charity. But the idea that absolutely everything you earn must go to the welfare of the Pharaoh is way to breed a life of constant reliance upon an entity other than yourself, life in fear while brewing a sense of real defiance and disapproval.
Amr explains, monotheism was not a belief or practice in ancient Egypt until Akenanten, the 10th ruler reigning in the 18th Dynasty from 1353-1336 BC, and such a religious belief in one God went against what Egyptians had been practicing and believing in many prior centuries. Akenanten was a king loved by many but he was also extremely hated by many and probably the most hated. He worshiped Aten, the Sun-disc and formed a new religion known as Atenism. Athough Zoroastrian, known as one of the first monotheistic religions existing in Persia over 4000 years ago, it is Judaism that is considered one of the oldest monotheistic religions, 8th century BCE descendant from Israelites.
I learned so much about religion on my Egyptian excursion and was also enlightened about the Coptic Christians, largely known as Copts, believing so much in their monotheistic belief patterns and church largely contributed and destroyed much of the enriched early Egyptian antiquities and relics. Yet, the persecution of the Copts and discrimination against them are not only historic but very much widespread in Egypt to this day. I struggled with the awareness that although religion is supposed to unite us as a people, it actually separates us and draws distinct lines between belief patterns leading to debates that although should be healthy, become antagonistic, hostile and belittling.
One thing for certain though is that I learned a true sense of the word Ra as being the belief of creation and life, Earth, Heaven, and the underworld. In ancient Egypt, people believed that Ra created animals, plants, seasons and humans themselves. Amr shared that many Egyptians to this day still believe that Ra, being the sun is the creator of the universe, giving warmth, life and growth. Hathor, a sky deity, was also known as Ra’s mythological wife and could often be depicted by the cow horns adorning a sun disc above her headdress. She is known to help diseased souls transition into their afterlife.
Each night that I lay my head to rest while on the Egyptian journey, I was physically and mentally exhausted. Although I was enriching my soul and experiencing and gaining incredible knowledge with various discussions of the many deities, Gods, timelines and historical artifacts, I occasionally longed for some simplicity in a day.
While on expedition, I could not drink enough tea. It was offered to me everywhere I went and I found it calming and an actual time in which I could not only savor the flavor but also to help digest what I was intellectually ingesting. It was always served in a clear glass cup and I experienced so many varieties some light and fragrant, some with sugar, milk and honey, some bold, bitter and black. Tea is definitely an experience in Egypt and there is a deep connection in sharing it by the person of whom made it.
We took a ride with a local Nubian down the Nile River and Red Sea toward the Aswan Dam. It is the Eastern region of the Sahara Desert and southern most city of Egypt. We had the pleasure of meeting up with a couple while on the Nile cruise and we were later invited to their home while in Alexandria, city from Hellenistic period, also home to the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC it was home to many Greeks and Italians and largely populated by Christians and is to this day. It was fascinating to be invited for tea in their home and interesting to see decor and paintings of the New York City skyline on their walls. To be so far away from USA and see that native Egyptians admired an American city the way I admired decor of Egypt.
Mt. Sinai was a must for me being born Catholic and we opted to drive ATV’s and go to St. Catherine’s Monastery located and the Chapel of the Burning Bush. It was truly powerful to stand in the exact footing of where Moses is said to have stood and God appeared. We were up at about 3:00 am to watch the sunrise. I remember seeing a scarce number of Bedouin figures aligning the desert with tents and camels. There were at least four of us on ATV’s and one guide. I said a prayer to God that we’d get back safely before I got on my ATV and rode in front of Stephen’s ATV. It was dark and with only the headlights, I could see the reflection of sand kicking back from the wheels of the rider driving in front of me. As the sun began to rise, and the light enabled me to see the vast Sinai desert, I drove over a large sand dune and it propelled me to fly off the ATV and land on my back. Thank God, I definitely was protected that day wearing my camera backpack. We also witnessed the safe haven where the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary & Joseph are said to have hidden from King Herod for six months El Moharraq.
We didn’t walk the streets much without Amr, our guide, and didn’t mind it really since he knew many of the locals and we were able to dine from non-tourist restaurants. Upon one occasion, he even invited us to his home since he wanted to change his clothes having been in them all day and night passed 24 hours. We grew to really like him and only wish the internet was available back then as we would have been able to keep in touch much easier with email. He took us to a street food market, a village in the province of Fayoum called Santa Claus village, and we watched a chicken be slaughtered and handed to the local buyer. Everywhere we went, I watched Egyptians dressed in their vibrant colored robes and it felt like the Christmas nativity set was coming to life before my eyes.
Karnak Temple is and will be one of the most spectacular places I have ever seen in my lifetime. The sky was clear blue absent of clouds allowing for a fantastic background for the vast pillars. It is considered to be the largest religious building in the world and Amr said that you could probably fit the Cathedral of Notre Dame inside of it. It’s over 54,000 square feet and the Milky Way is said to be perfectly aligned with the Temple. It was built in honor of three gods, Montu, Amun and goddess Mut. They are known to be the sacred family, the Theban Triad. Millions of people worked to build such monumental architecture and I remained speechless as my eyes tried to absorb the immense, colossal structures. Dating back to 2055 BC, I couldn’t fathom the fact that there were no advanced machinery or tools to build such structures of enormity.
I ate some of the most delicious food and recall the fragrance and flavors of curry, ginger and cumin that inspired me to create a recipe called “Lentil Egyptian Soup” and included it in my book, Yvonne’s Cookbook “Let’s Eat!” Authentic Neapolitan Recipes and World Travel Inspired Meals, sold globally on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Bookbaby. I make this soup for family and friends and everyone seems to enjoy it and that I share the inspirational story of my excursion in Egypt.
Back in 2000, there were no additional charges for suitcases and or extra weight beyond 50 pounds so I can’t tell you how many souvenirs and stones we took back to the USA with us. Papyrus paintings, a miniature goddess of fertility statue, a watering clay jar. We even had a custom-made replica of King Tut’s sarcophagus with our names in hieroglyphics on the inside, made and shipped to us in NY inside a wooden crate. It took 4 months to receive it from Egypt. I was not home when it arrived but Stephen talks of it often in terms of how it looked like a casket being delivered. He said he wants our ashes buried in it.
On my long flight home back to the USA with my cartouches, carefully designed jewelry to share amidst my family and friends, I had a lot to decipher. In the beautiful immensity, I no longer romanticized about Egypt the way I did prior to my journey. I also couldn’t help myself feel a sense of the kings and pharaohs all having had a profound personality disorder to reveal such grandiosity about who or what they thought themselves to be. There definitely reigned a level of narcissism to the highest extent. I researched in the Bible and then later asked Jewish scholars to see if the term narcissism was even a learned term and the equivalent is translated as insolent pride. Pharaohs in ancient Egypt were bullies to the highest extent and in the greatest interpretation I could see. Narcissists love to be in power and use the power to control every willful thought. Aside from inbreeding being present in almost every dynasty in ancient Egypt, their people all wore clothing adorned with gold and jewelry emphasizing wealth before one’s inner beauty. All drawings show some form of facial makeup to enhance the vanity. In the vast richness and spiritual beliefs of over 2000 Gods and Goddesses, ancient Egypt’s religion was a complex system of many polytheistic beliefs.
Although the country remains with a majority of Sunni Muslim and minority of Coptic Orthodox Christians, one thing for sure is that most Egyptians still thrive in the culture and reality that they live and breathe on land that has ancient structures that all people from all over the world and every religion come to see and experience.
In a sense, there is a reincarnation of stories to be told to all children from all religions Muslim, Christian, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. There is in essence through religion and all of the many wars and cruelties and injustices, a definitive commonality of a supreme being to worship and a very common golden rule. Excluding science, God is the Father of all humanity and all religion. How we all choose to pray and worship is what makes us all different.
If praying five times a day is what gives people a feeling of peace, then let us unify. Let us say firmly, all religions have survived and or endured through so many thousands and thousands of years. Praying once a day will never be enough for all of the sins that we all have committed as humans upon one another since the beginning of time.