Monday, October 24, 2005

Dyeing, and Remembrance

I walked a friend around one of my favourite circuits the other day. This is the walk around the Tentmaker’s Souq.

I was picked up by an urger some time ago and taken into an old khan to watch men dyeing silks –which I think are rayons. I know I have put up pictures of this place before – but the colours they were working with were different and really stunning against the somewhat drab and dilapidated interior of the building. I have worked out that this place is Christian – it is not hard to make a deduction like this when the place is closed on Sunday and open at 1.00 pm on a Friday!

I also managed to get a look at the plastic bins with dyes in them as they were measuring them out.

Bins of dye

I have a lot of photos but might just let you look at all of them this time, as the blogs have been a bit light lately. The more interesting things I do the less time I have to write them up!

Click on the photos below to view a whole set of shots from the Tentmakers' Souq.
Coffee, like silken hair in a shapmpoo ad Reds, with cream behind

We moved on into the Tentmakers’ Souq and could hear a racket up ahead with a strangely squeaky voice. It was a one-man puppet show. Like shows around the world he was surrounded by fascinated children and laughing faces. It was amazingly like Punch and Judy – even to a ‘hitting Judy with a stick’ scene. I was reliably told that it was very funny, even for adults.

The puppet show

The man who ran it actually wore the theatre like a cloak with a square mounting which must have sat on his head. The puppets appeared above this. He emerged later – a bluff and older man with deeply creased laugh lines and wild grey hair – probably not helped by having a theatre rubbing the top of his head. I didn’t photograph him – I had no small money with me and was already worrying about how to do the taxi! Local taxis never have change. Not even when you have just seen them given fistfuls. Obviously it disappears into thin air.

Children watching puppets

We have just had a busy day up at El Alamein. It was the Anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein – the last of the three which clinched the victory of the Eighth Army over the German and Italian forces back across North Africa to Tunisia, where they were finally defeated in 1943. After this victory the Allies never lost another major battle of the Second World War. It was, in a way, the beginning of the end.

It was especially poignant because all the groups were celebrating – the Greeks, the Italians, and the Germans as well as the Commonwealth. We did not attend the Germans’ memorial, but all of us seemed to converge on the Commonwealth and Italian commemorations. It was very comforting somehow to have people from both sides of the battle commemorating all the dead together. It was extremely windy. Winter is on its way and it almost threatened rain several times.

Many veterans came – also from both sides. Elderly women and men sat in front of me and I watched with a lump in my throat as one woman wiped away surreptitious tears. She carried a bunch of fabric poppies with the black centres, tied with a note attached saying “For my dear brother, because I will never forget you”. When people were invited to lay their own wreaths she stayed where she was. Later, I saw her move forward painfully, leaning heavily on a stick but otherwise unaided, to put the small posy on the Stone of Remembrance.

While many wreaths were artificial poppies, there were some with real flowers. The petals danced, red carnation and rose petals around our feet, and streamed in tiny droplets on the wind, banking against the feet of nearby grave markers like drops of blood. It is hard not to feel emotional in such a place - there is such a sense of sadness and waste in the long rows of crosses. A solitary bugle played Taps, and Reveille, and that marvellous piece which goes “They will not grow old as we that are left grow old ...

In El Alamein there is no real attempt to grow western style flowers and lawn. It is a desert garden – of small dry bushes and thorn trees, and bougainvillaea with its flamboyant colour. It is beautiful in its own way.

Wreaths and a veteran

In the Italian service they had a choir and the voices were marvellous. I loved the feathers in the hats of the soldiers of the military band – with long coppery rooster feathers that must have been an infernal nuisance when trying to play wind instruments in the wind! I wonder how often they found themselves with mouthfuls of feather! The sun was setting and I had to rush as our car was holding up others – so only a couple of photographs.

Click on the photo below to view more from El Alamein.
The band at the Italian Memorial, with feathers

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Black Desert, White Desert - Honestly

I am still puzzling about why I called that last post Black Desert White Desert when I didn't talk about either. I have a LOT of pictures. Remember that Kate usually sets these up so that clicking on one will lead to the rest of that series, though I think she will leave a couple for each category for those who are short of time. Spare a thankful thought for my wonderful blog fairy. She has, ever since I have started this blog, worked behind the scenes sprinkling fairy dust to make it easier for you to read. As I send it this is a mess. A mass of text – and a stream of photos and each becomes a different file and apparently a different blog entry. Kate organises it for me, dropping photos in where she thinks they should go, and making it all one manageable file. She set the blog up in the beginning so even a computer klutz like me can manage, and she is soon to come over for a holiday – and that will be great fun. As part of her break she will teach me how to do this stuff so her slavery will end. However – if anyone wants a brilliantly done web site (like mine) I can recommend Kate Andrews and Techies! As you can see – you do not even need to be in the same country. Her own blog is one of my favourites (after my son Sam's which I think is a brilliant read). See it in the side links – The Department.

You leave Bahariya Oasis and head south to go to both regions.

I had always had the Beau Geste image of an oasis as a neat little mound of palm trees visible from far horizons. In Egypt most oases are not up at desert level at all – they are in depressions which allow the palms to tap into ground water – often fossil water seeping up from miles down as it no longer rains in these areas. Both the black and white deserts are also in depressions in the terrain – but BIG.

Egypt has a lot of desert – and the word desert in Egyptian Arabic is Sahra – hence the Sahara. Around Cairo the desert is flat and gravely and very dull. Add in the fact that road workers leave grotty little piles of asphalt drums, the deep drag lines where they scrape up fill for the road bed, and that heavy rubbish chucked from car windows stays put and driving down a road through the desert is not necessarily an enchanting and romantic thing to do. Closer to Bahariya you get the impression that there are huge moles in the area as there are enormous sharp-pointed hills of sand everywhere. They process gravel here – and the sand is the result of the sifting process. Desert wind also sifts it through car windows as you drive and through your hair if you get out.

While not romantic though, it is really beautiful in the way a wide flat sea is beautiful. I find is seems to smooth me out, and make me feel at peace with the world. Perhaps some of this is simply getting away from Cairo.

The black desert is stark and dramatic. It is not really totally black, more light coppery-gold sand and grit covered with a crust of black. Magma oozed slowly through thousands of slits in the earth's crust and pooled in a shallow crust over the surface. It cooled, and in the thinnest part of the crust, and in the 'pipes' through which it reached the surface, it has cracked and broken into many rocks, pebbles to large lumps. In the thicker areas it pooled and became basalt rock. As the sand has blown away from the areas not well covered the mountains have emerged – each with a heavy basalt crust, and basalt chunks cascading down the sides. The basalt has kept the sand in place. I hope I am getting this right - our lovely guide explained it with drawings in the sand.

Black Desert Black Desert

We took a shortish detour over the black desert. Our guide had two good friends in his car with him. As they approached an apparent precipice Stanze asked "Are we going down there?" There really wasn't time for an answer, as next second they went nose first over a hump so steep that I could imagine the car stuck on the ridge with all four wheels spinning in mid air and went straight down a very steep soft sand slope. We followed – and our driver, was Jim, Stanze's husband who is a very experienced four-wheel driver. Other than a brief check to make sure there actually was a drivable track he headed down. The last car was being driven by another good friend on his first ever desert drive. He is intrepid, and followed our tracks without a hesitation. However his passengers have renamed the large handles in four wheel drive vehicles – the ones that allow you to swing from the roof in really rough terrain. They now call them (warning – name might offend some readers!) the "Oh Shit" bars.

This bit of the trip was actually on our way back from the white desert. I am not writing this in chronological order, but in the order that you would arrive in each place as you drive from Bahariya. We drove straight through the Black Desert and past Crystal Mountain to the White Desert and did the rest on our way back.

Between the White desert and the Black Desert is the Crystal Mountain. This was explained to us as a place that has quartz crystals. I have been to places with quartz crystals and found myself searching through gravely stuff for pieces a few centimetres long. We bounced across the desert following our guide and hooked around a corner sliding in deep soft sand. I let out a shriek which had Bob muttering "Settle" as I started gabbling.

There was a gleaming shimmering blue-white crystal peak jutting from the sand beside us – so spectacular that I couldn't believe it. It was only a metre high – but HUGE crystals nestled together in tall columns. Then I realised as we pulled up (and thank goodness we stopped or I would have jumped from the window) that the hill behind was crested with crystals, and the shimmering sides were cascades of crystals – and so was the hill behind that.

Crystal Mountain Crystal Mountain

We have a strict policy of never breaking anything off – we collected some but took from tumbled areas. Bigger pieces were fragile and bits fell off as we carried them in our hats. On the whole I have a few spectacular but weathered large bits, and one could double as the icepick in whatever that terrifying Sharon Stone movie was! Also a good sized chunk but with smaller crystals that would not fall apart as I was interested in the way it is like a collapsed two storey garage with crystals instead of cars.

Crystal Mountain Crystal Mountain

We had actually driven first to the White desert, so had arrived there in the morning. With the change from daylight saving the sun was already high. I think the way to see this would be to go to camp there as the shadows must be spectacular in early morning and late evening. I would love to see this with the softness of the violets and blues you would get in the evenings.

White desert, first part White desert, first part

The terrain kept changing. You would go from little round hillocks to taller very phallic objects, to amazing twisted and weathered shapes that had us seeing them as people and chooks, and it was like spotting shapes in clouds. There are combinations of sand and pure white chalk everywhere you look, sometimes more sand and other times the whole world seems to be white.

Click on any of the photos below for more photos of tortured rocks in the desert.
Tortured rocks Tortured rocks
Tortured rocks Tortured rocks

Peppered over the ground are tiny black spots – iron pyrites crystals in amazing shapes. Some are just shiny black pebbles, some look like those balls covered with points that mediaeval fighters would swing on chains. Others are like long sticks of coral, but I was told are crystallised pieces called pyrites pipes. Most of the ball-like shapes are about two centimetres across. When you break a pipe piece there is what looks like steel in the cross section – silvery and shiny.

Pyrites scatter Pyrites scatter

We stopped for lunch, boxed by the Hot Springs Hotel. Our guide promised shade, but with the sun directly above us whe could not see how he could deliver. There was a breeze, but it was glaring in the sun and hard to see how a lunch break could be shady. Even the various formations only had pools of shadow at their sides. Our guide found a tree. It was on a hill – an acacia like my grand daughter – and obviously survived and thrived on only night dew, as there is never rain here. It was a wonderful lunch, cool an delicious with golden wattle over our heads, dropping tiny golden balls into our hair and laps. We sat on one of Egypt's wonderful rag rags and our guide (who was fasting) made us tea with mint.

Click on the photo below for some more photos of our lunch in the desert.
Tea for twelve

We drove through parts of the oasis next morning on the way to the lake – and it was so beautiful with dappling light through the palms and huge heavy burdens of red or gold fruit on the trees. It is such a generous crop, and relied on by people in the desert. The dates are crisp and slightly acrid when just ripe – and it is in the drying down stage that they go wet and sugary as we know fresh dates.

Dates Dates
Golden dates, starting to dry on the palm

Nature's weaving, fibre from date palms

It was not part of the same day, but on the last morning we travelled through the oasis to the lake – which is rapidly becoming a salt lake, I was amazed that anything can grow near it. The edges are soft and sinking – dark mud and white crystals. The views are magnificent – pale and silvery with marvellous reflections.

Click on any of the photos below for more photos of the salt lake.
Fwd: Salt and the lake Fwd: Salt and the lake
Salt and the lake Salt and the lake

We called into the Bawiti village to buy olive oil and dates – both local produce and cheap. A litre of olive oil, dark green/gold and distinctively nutty cost us fifteen pounds – about three and a half Aussie dollars.

I photographed some local doors and windows. There was a whole street we had whistled through on our first day with distinctive wall paintings in ochres and terracotta colours, like in the tombs, I will go back and find them one day for photos.

Click on any of the photos below for more photos from Bawiti.
Bawiti doors and windows and emphemera Bawiti doors and windows and emphemera
Bawiti doors and windows and emphemera Bawiti doors and windows and emphemera

The last stops on the way back to Cairo were both to see fossils. We had noticed tree trunks on the way over – lying in sand. They were obviously petrified wood. I would be scared too if abandoned in the desert for millions of years.

Petrified wood Petrified wood
Both a rock and a hard place

Petrified wood
Wood grain detail

The other stop was at a fairly insignificant hill which is a nummilite or nummulite site. I found both spellings in Google but think the latter is correct. These are coin-like discs like thick golden stone pennies. They are the fossil remains of a member of the Foraminifera family. Where the discs have split into their two parts you can see the spiral whirls left by the animals chambers.

Nummulite scatter
The nummulite hill

Nummulite scatter
Nummulite scatter

It was a truly wonderful trip – and most of it only about six hour's drive from Cairo. I was weary after it, and am weary again after writing it up! Congratulations if you managed to read this far.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Black Desert and the White Desert

We have just been out to the Black Desert and the White desert in the western desert - a fabulous trip.

We traveled with a group of good friends – Canadians and Americans – and stayed in a hotel in the town of Bawiti, in the Oasis of Bahariya. It is called the International Hot Springs Hotel – and it was great. It is run by a German, Peter Firth, and his mother and Japanese wife Miharu. I still find it astounding that anyone would see the potential for a hotel of this standard in an area like this oasis. If you think of a group of very simple and poor people, and try to imagine organizing a building of this standard complete with working western plumbing and reliable food – well the difficulties would have floored me at the very first stage.

Our group at the last tomb

The design of the hotel is beautiful with lots of rooms in unusual shapes – our room was a hexagon, with one side elongated to form the bathroom in the narrower extension.

Best of all is the pool room – and I am not talking about billiards! Every afternoon they fill this freshly with water from the Bahariya hot spring (don’t worry – I am sure the water taken out is used to irrigate the garden or nearby dates). The water comes out of the ground at 40 degrees Celsius – and it is almost painful to get into. I sat on the side with my feet in it and they were tingling in minutes. I didn’t actually swim but those who did said it was wonderful – hot at first, then tingling, then just incredibly relaxing. It is also an unusual colour because of the iron deposits in the area – a rich dark blood red.

We left Cairo at eight in the morning and arrived at the oasis at twelve, with time to check in and have our picnic lunch in the garden. We had planned a tour of the archaeological sites of the area first.


It is still Ramadan and it is really hard to do things in Ramadan. A message came from the guide (organised as a special treat to take us into the tomb of the golden mummies among other things). He was fasting, he was too tired and could not take us. However, he would make the keys available and the hotel manager would guide us instead.

This is a very Egyptian thing to happen. I am not sure what Peter Wirth thought of having to drop everything with a full hotel to take us out, but he and Miharu dropped everything and came. In fact, he was a superb guide. His archaeological knowledge was faultless, and when he didn’t know something he said so and didn’t waffle.

In the museum I quite unknowingly took a photo of part of one of the golden mummies as I was fascinated by the log cabin bandaging on them. The guard stopped me quickly with a ‘no photo’ so I put the camera away. However – I was not altruistic enough to delete the photo – bad, through glass and poorly lit – so here it is! I love the oblique parallelogram block shape and may make a quilt just like this in the same neutrals one day.

Log cabin on a mummy

We looked at Alexander’s Temple. Bahariya is a bit miffed that Alexander’s visit to Siwa Oasis is well known and much vaunted – but his visit to Bahariya seems almost unknown. He put his personal cartouche in the wall of his temple and he only used it rarely. It is not there at the moment as it was cut out to put in the Cairo Museum and no-one seems to know where it went!

We were taken into some odd areas of the town – into a yard and past a small house – and the ground of the hump in front of the house was pitted with holes. Each hole was a tomb, or a vertical chamber down to it. They had huge sarcophagus – sarcophagi?? Everywhere – lids off and pushed aside, and lids upside down. At one point in one tomb the only way through was to walk straight down the centre of a sarcophagus half full of sand. There were even piles fo bones still in some corners of side rooms. Tomb robbers have left them like this - not archaeologists.



Most of these last dynasty Pharaonic tombs seemed to have a central square room with little tombs all around. They were brightly painted in five colours – black, white, dark reddish brown, a dark vivid yellow ochre and blue – a lightish chalky grey/blue. I was really interested to find iron ore next day in the colour of the red, and yellow ochre in the colour of the paint in the desert next day. I have no idea where the blue came from, but the colours were bright and fresh and the painting less fine but more vigorous than the work I have seen in tombs around Cairo.

Paintings on the Phaoronic tombs
The gods carry ankhs as the sumbol of life

Paintings on the Phaoronic tombs
Collecting monkey urine while both Anubis and Horus hold the scales

Paintings on the Phaoronic tombs
The mummification process on the wall of the tomb

We were even taken into a couple of the ‘tombs of the golden mummies’. They are closed to the public so it was a great treat. We had expected to see the things you see in the photos - long shelves, or small individual 'rooms' off to the side of a larger chamber like ones we had visited earlier in the trip.

We had to climb down into the tombs and crawl. I still can’t believe I did this. I don’t like heights, and I don’t like being underground. This required both. There was a terrifying moment when I had to swing myself over a sheer drop of about twenty feet onto a ladder leaning on the corner of the tomb. Then I had to climb down to the bottom. The last two rungs were much further apart – and the bottom rung was about four feet from the ground. I have short legs Getting down was no big deal as I just dropped. Getting up was more complicated. Among the odd debris on the floor was a big block of stone at the bottom of the ladder. Bob suggested I put my foot on that first to give myself a bit of extra height – and it was a good idea and might have worked if it had been stone. Unfortunately it was a chunk of foam rubber.

Tomb of the Golden Mummies Tomb of the Golden Mummies

The entrance tunnel was not long, and our guides with their thighs of steel managed a ‘squat and waddle’ gait which worked and looked impressive – but I, and many others, chose to crawl. Much less dignified, and I worried a bit about the view the guy behind me had, but my thighs would never have coped.

It was a real surprise to emerge through the stone carved entrances to find that the tombs were still occupied by the original occupants. Each mummy was in place including their golden and plaster masks and bandages, and there were even tiny children. It felt like a privilege to be there, but faintly disturbing - as if I had accidentally wandered into somewhere I had no right to be! It was also very moving, a real sense of the presence of people of long ago. These tombs are not Pharaonic, despite their appearance. They are actually Roman period and share a lot with other tombs of the Roman time. The mummies are all local people, and although the gold and plaster masks and chest pieces look Pharaonic, they did not remove organs before mummification and put them into canopic jars like the time of the Pharaohs. Nor did they have the mouth opening ceremony, which inserts an ankh into the mouth to allow the soul to leave. However, the bodies were dried with salt for a month before wrapping. Unlike the Pharaonic tombs of the last dynasty which we had seen first, these tombs were not painted.

Tomb of the Golden Mummies
Children in the tomb - so touching I could have cried

Tomb of the Golden Mummies
Golden Mummies in the tomb - note the golden chest plates, and her tiny breasts

Tomb of the Golden Mummies
At peace under her mask

It was a brilliant day, and ended with a party – a local band and dinner in a ‘tent’ erected in the garden – permanent cane structure outside, tent linings inside, low tables around the walls, great local food and a dancer who had to be seen to be believed. Two wombats in a bag springs to mind. Two pigs in a gunny sack was a suggestion from an American friend. It was a local dance called the dance of the camel walk. Imagine a man in a long grey robe dancing with a long pole (horizontal unlike the usual version of pole dancing) and moving delicately and rhythmically from foot to foot very lightly, but with his back to you. I suspect that the idea is like belly dancing – which I always think should be called bottom dancing. In belly dancing the buttocks are firmly outlined and rounded with a scarf around the hips. I have now realised that this holds the buttocks together. This gentleman managed to work his quite independently of each other – it was just amazing. Because the clothes were loose it was all sinuous suggestion, rather than outrageous – but my husband kept averting his eyes and muttering boyish things, but had no problems watching a gorgeous member of the audience who got up to join him and belly danced!

I think it is a boy thing.

The camel walk dancer
The pipes that kept getting longer and longer

The camel walk dancer
Impossible to photograph without motion

The camel walk dancer
A local instrument whose name I have forgotten - made in the carpenter's shop

The camel walk dancer
Tha guest who bellydanced with the Camel Walk dancer
Artful Quilters Web Ring
Previous | Next | Random
Join | List
Powered by RingSurf