Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Taameya: Falafel, the Egyptian Way

One of the things I enjoy bringing back with me from Egypt is recipes. Unfortunately, often I travel to countries where it is difficult to purchase a cookbook in English. The best Egyptian cookbooks are written in Arabic, and the small vegetarian Egyptian cookbook I managed to bring back is full of odd spellings, enough so that I am determined to try the recipes a few times before sharing.

With that said, people have asked me what the food is like in Egypt. Needless to say, I was a very happy and full vegetarian on the entire trip. Falafel that melted in my mouth, hummus that could be prepared at least a dozen ways, and koshari, a mix of pasta, lentils and crispy onions in a tomato sauce were all my downfall.

Falafel, or Taameya in Egypt, is ground up chickpeas or fava beans mixed with spices and fried until they are a golden brown. These morsels are delicious on their own, or in a pita with chopped tomato, cucumber and sometimes hummus. Most American grocery stores sell falafel mix in a box which requires a few wet ingredients, shaping them into balls and frying them. Like many other good things in life, an entire article is devoted to Falafel at Wikipedia.

However, if you're up for making them from scratch, head over to Cooks.com for a falafel recipe that's sure to be a winner. If you're up for a real adventure, head over to Lizabetti's blog "Cool Stuff You Can Do" , which contains pictures and a step-by-step guide for a delectable Egyptian falafel feast.

Picture courtesy of the Falafel article at Wikipedia.org

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Trip Report: Market 101 in Egypt

Our final day in Egypt landed us in Cairo where we had a couple of choices: visit the City Stars Mall, the largest mall in Egypt (though it would not surprise me to learn that it's the largest in the Middle East), or venture to the labyrinthine Khan el Khalili Market. Of course, we had a full day and so we opted for both. We had only spent one hour shopping previously in the Aswan market (picture on left).

The City Stars Mall is a short distance from Le Meridien Heliopolis, where we stayed for our final night in Egypt. The bottom three floors are for parking, and the other seven or eight are for shopping and eating. Large glass elevators plunge through the center of the mall, and staircases wind up as far as the eye can see. This mall takes itself seriously - like the temples and tombs we visited, we were treated to a bag security check upon entering and signs posted everywhere said to hang on to your receipts for security purposes. Most of the stores and signs are either in English or in English and Arabic, though we found that many of the people running the stores did not spe
ak English. A small section in this mall is devoted to the Khal el Khalili market, and where we hoped for no hassle shopping (the regular shops behaved like a western shopping mall), the shopkeepers in this section of the mall behaved only a little less forward than those at the Khal el Khalili market themselves. Restaurants and cafes are everywhere - whatever your fancy, whether it be western or oriental style food, you will find it here. We chose to eat at Abou el Sid, a traditional Oriental style restaurant where the entire table was moved out for us as we sat down. Not knowing any better, we ordered enough food to feed a small army, but the falafel and hummus once again were mouth-watering. We also had an opportunity to try koshari, a traditional vegetarian Egyptian dish consisting of rice, difference pastas, lentils and crispy onions topped with a delightful spiced tomato sauce.

The actual Khan el Khalili market was a completely different experience. Wall-to-wall tourists and Egyptians strolled through the markets, some carrying large packages of unknown goods on their heads, or on their backs shouting "Excuse me" in multiple languages. There were no landmarks, no way to navigate other than to lose ourselves in the labyrinthine alleys and shops. Different areas of the market appeared to specialize in different items: clothes, jewelry, gaudy tourist items, sleepwear, towels & linens, and kitchen appliances. The most terrifying section was the fireworks vendors - I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if one of them became lit.

For fun, I took inventory of the most colorful sayings that were shouted out to us:
"You are a queen!" (Well, all women like complements!)
"Hey Shakira!" (Must be my blonde hair, but I'm not Spanish...)
"No hassles!" (Interestingly enough, this never meant no hassles.)
"Everything is free!" (I never had the courage to find out what this meant.)
"I have what you want!" (I'm sure you do!)
"You are a very lucky man!" (To my husband - also nice to hear!)
Interestingly enough, no one seemed to think I was American. All shopkeepers assumed I was British (by quoting in British pounds) and then Italian (apparently I speak too much with my hands). This happened in our brief shopping stint in Aswan as well, however here, our favorite phrase became "Trust me, I'm a Nubian!"

Welcome drinks were almost always offered as a the beginning bartering phase. Most often this consisted of hibiscus tea, a safe drink due to the fact that they boil the leaves first. Once the bartering began, the research we did prior to our trip gave us the opinion that we should expect to buy the items for 20-30% of the initial price, and this tended to be accurate, although sometimes vendors refused to barter lower than their initial price due to us being tourists. We did have fun, however, despite a cat knocking over a wooden ladder that crashed down a foot in front of me and a hashish pipe that fell over behind me starting a fire. When I asked the vendor I was bartering with if fires happened often he shrugged and said "No. Must be a dragon."

On that humorous note, I concluded a wonderful trip to Egypt, and if someone asked again, I would do it again in a minute.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Awakening by Kelley Armstrong

The second book in her YA Darkest Power series, The Awakening picks up where The Summoning left off, without a lot of backstory. Betrayed by Chloe's Aunt Lareun, she and her friends have been recaptured by The Edison Group. The group genetically experiments on supernatural teenagers, and it is during this stay that they learn that they are failed genetic experiments with powers that may or may not be able to be controlled. Through a series of teenage relationship posturing and bickering, including another betrayal and an unlikely friend, Choe escapes to be reunited with her friends Derek and Simon. This second book, obviously a middle book in the series, is their attempt to reach a safe haven in the boys' fathers' friend, Andrew.

One of the more unique qualities of The Darkest Powers series, as well as Armstrong's adult series Women of the Otherworld, is her ability to humanize the supernatural, which also extends to demons and necromancers. As a young necromancer, it would be easy to discount Chloe as a freak of nature, but Armstrong does a remarkable job of pulling the reader into Chloe's head and letting the reader feel her anguish and fear as she comes to grips with her powers.

If you are interested in the paranormal/fantasy genres, pick up a copy of The Summoning, Armsrong's first book in this series. After reading two of them, the series promises to be a fun romp through supernatural-dom.

Aswan: Unfinished Obelisk, Aswan Dam & Philae

Our first trip into Aswan was to a granite quarry. In the midst of sparkling pink and gray granite boulders lies the Unfinished Obelisk. Worked on during Hatshepsut's reign, it was later abandoned due to a large crack running down it lengthwise. I couldn't help but wonder what happened to the workers once the crack was discovered... Large green rocks, the size of an ancient cannonball, stand out against the pink granite and seem to lie everywhere like discarded ancient . These green rocks were once the tools used to cut out the obelisks. Five times the hardness of granite, they were banged against small indentations at regular intervals to dig the obelisk out of its stone coffin. Although a long time wasn't needed here, walking amongst the granite in 110 Fahrenheit weather and holding one of these green rocks gave a great understanding of the strength and stamina needed to create one of these beautiful sculptures of antiquity.

The Aswan Dam was our next stop. Created as a joint effort between Egypt and Russia,
the Aswan Dam's purpose was to stop the annual flooding of the Nile. A memorial to the joint effort overlooks the dam nearby. On the other side of the dam are the famed crocodiles and hippos who now live happily in Nasser Lake, the largest man-made lake in the world. Standing on the dam gives a beautiful vista of both sides of the Nile. Though zoom photography is expressly forbidden, we managed to take a few beautiful shots of the fertile Nile Valley from above.

order to get to the Temple of Philae, Isis's sacred cult center, we had to board a motor boat. Watching the chaos of the boats reminded me of Rome, and I happily boarded the boat to watch the men take a moment to physically force the other boats away so we could back out. Being on the boat gave us a moment to wiggle our fingers in the Nile, as well as to be close to the great egrets and herons that graced its waters. The Temple of Philae is not in its original location; it had to be cut into thousands of pieces and moved due to flooding. Unless you look carefully, however, you would never notice amidst the defacing done by the Christians who once used this temple as a church. Vertical scratches appear on the walls, a testament to the pilgrims of Isis who came here to claim a piece of the temple for themselves. A lone stone altar lies in the main sanctuary and I could feel the power radiating off of a stone that has existed for centuries. This temple was the last used temple of Ancient Egyptian Religion, and it seemed appropriate that it was dedicated to Isis. Perched on the rocks, the location seems magical and serene, a perfect ending point to our temple touring in Egypt.

Last, but not least, thoughts on the Nile and shopping in Egypt.

Vienna's Globe Museum & the Strange Maps Blog

I've always been a fan of cartography in all its forms, especially the intrinsic beauty in old globes around the world. This fascination once led me to the only globe museum in the world. Located in Vienna, Austria, it has over two hundred globes on display as well as a couple of hundred other assorted objects related to globes (armillar spheres, planetaria, and telluria). The main focus, however, is the joint creation of terrestrial and celestial globes made before 1850. In 2005, the museum moved to the Palais Mollard in Herrengasse. The price is only five euros, and if you are interested in ancient map-making, the museum is not to be missed. Sadly, however, no photos are allowed. More information on the Globe Museum can be found at their website.

Speaking of maps, the creator of the Strange Maps Blog, has a sit, Strange Maps, Globe Museum, Austria, Vienna, The Map Room, Where to Goplethora of assorted maps from around the world. From maps delineating how many people in Ireland speak English, to maps of shipwrecks along the Atlantic Ocean coastline, there is a map for every occasion here. Visit the Strange Maps Blog here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Trip Report: Edfu & Kom Ombo

If you are on a riverboat and wish to dock in Edfu, you must first pass through the Esna lock. Here only two boats are allowed through at a time and the amount of water differentiating between side A and side B seems pathetically small. In total, the lock takes thirty minutes to complete, and is a rare opportunity to look around at the same scenery and take some beautiful pictures. Shortly after Esna, one comes to Edfu.

Edfu reminded me of India, but with a few slight variations. Locals stuffed pitta bread loose in polystyrene bags, and falafel carts ambled by in the streets, the smell of fried fava bean lingering in the air. We were taken to the main temple of Horus via horse-drawn carriage.
I understood how a noblewoman must have felt long ago, and after five minutes in the open carriage I wondered if the wheels were actually round. Sadly, many of the horses seemed underfed, and when one of our tour group offered their horse an apple that she had taken from the boat, the carriage driver stuffed it in his pocket greedily instead of letting the poor beast partake in it. The horse-drawn carriage ride is definitely one of the main trades of the area. There is also a hospital specializing in equine health somewhere near by, and these kind people built a horse and buggy cart parking in the temple lot. Unfortunately many of the drivers chose to put themselves in the shade instead of their horses. Our driver seemed to take fine care of his horse - there were no ribs showing, and for that I was grateful. On

Edfu soars majestically above the hill as we approach in our carriage, and after being told to remember our carriage number, I walked towards it slowly, feeling the awe of an ancient people who worshipped Horus, the falcon god. Once again I was happy for the sand that covered portions of the carvings, protecting them from Christian vandals. Two granite statues of Horus flank the temple. It is here that Horus is said to have captured his Uncle Seth, the same uncle who had it in for poor Osiris and ripped him into pieces at least a couple times to the distress of Isis, his sister and lover.

Kom Ombo was covered in the afternoon, a temple half dedicated to Horus and half dedicated to Sotek, the crocodile god. Even though crocodiles are no longer on this side
the other hand, I learned on the return trip that the mare had recently given birth - a fact that the driver seemed very happy about.of the Aswan Dam, it is easy to imagine this place swarming with them and the ancient Egyptians having little choice but to pay them homage. Kom Ombo has a multi-layered history. A more recent construction, it was built by the Greeks, finished by the Romans, and then destroyed by Constantine and the Christians. Here they have one of the only full calendars of ancient Egypt. There were twelve months, with thirty days each - three ten-day weeks where the last day was a day of rest. The five days leftover at the end of the year were dedicated to the gods Isis, Osiris, Neftys, Seth, and Horus. Unfortunately this left a fraction of a day, so instead of worrying about it, every 1460 years, they tacked an extra year on. Think about how this would have been handled now where you were suddenly a year older. For those people who refuse to age gracefully, I could only laugh as I imagined the uproar.

Next up: Aswan Dam and Philae

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Trip Report: Valley of the Kings & Hatshepsut's Temple

From where the riverboats dock, getting to the Valley of the Kings is a convoluted process. First you must drive 10 km south along the bank to cross a bridge, and then you must drive 10 km north along the bank before you are afforded entrance to the sacred valley. I almost wanted to ask why we couldn't park the riverboat on the other side. On the other hand, the drive afforded us the most picturesque scenery; lush, fertile farmland with sandstone cliffs jutting up behind it as trees bloomed with scarlet flowers I tried, but with no avail, to capture on film.

When we arrived, we boarded a mini-train which took us part of the way through the valley and then it was us, thousands of tourists, and the sun, which was bound and determined to bake us into the sand. Six of the tombs are opened on a rotational basis and we had time enough to see three of them: Ramses IV, IX, and Tutmoses III. Tutmoses III's tomb is only to be visited by the most hearty of travelers. It involves several staircases and ramps in order to get inside and due to the location of the tomb, and the amount of people visiting, being inside is much like a clay oven. On the other hand, his tomb is shaped in an oval, one of the only tombs to be done so, and the drawings on the wall are unlike the characteristic carvings seen on the temple and resemble hieroglyphic stick figures. Sadly, no photographs are allowed within the tombs. All of the tombs are covered with paintings from The Book of the Dead and the same smell of the pyramids permeates the air - a cross between age-old incense and decayed bodies.

One tomb lies in the Valley of the Kings that even the most stalwart tourist will brave, and that is of King Tut Ankh Amun. An extra 100 L.E., the tomb is incredibly small, yet there are two things of note. Part of the multi-layered sarcophogus rests here, as well as the mummy of the boy-king himself. The mummy is e
ncased in a glass box, only his head and feet are visible. While staring at the mummy I remembered, with foreboding, the legend of the curse of the pharaohs. Research shows that a biological trap (perhaps a poisonous gas) was left inside the tomb, for the archaeologists who discovered and opened his tomb, all died within a short period of time afterwards.

On the backside of the Valley of the Kings is Hatshepsut's Temple. Queen Hatshepsut is a recent discovery, for her nephew, none other than Tutmoses III, attempted to erase her name from history. Fortunately for historians, news of her surfaced and her temple, a lavish three story affair was discovered. Not much can be seen after climbing the three sets of steps, but it does afford one a beautiful view of the Nile and the farmland, and one can see more tombs peppering the cliffs. Anywhere you look, it is much like a beehive, and I can imagine that many more tombs will be discovered in the coming years, perhaps one more ornate than that of King Tut Ankh Amun himself.

Driving back to the riverboat we stopped briefly to view two larger-than-life (and falling apart) statues called the Colossi of Memnon. The statues are in pieces and look like Ancient Rubiks Cubes, and are the only surviving parts of a temple from antiquity. A headless crocodile statues lies forgotten behind the colossi, keeping guard.

After this, we will set sail, soon to arrive at Edfu and Kom Ombo.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Trip Report: Luxor (Thebes)

The flight from Cairo to Luxor is little over an hour, and if you look down from the plane you can see cliffs of sandstone sprawling as far as the eye can see. It is in this landscape where lies The Valley of the Kings, the final resting place of Egyptian royalty, though the word final is somewhat misleading due to the fact that the mummies were carted away. This is also the home of Karnak Temple, the largest religious complex to one god/dess in the history of mankind.

Karnak Temple is shaped like any other Ancient Egyptian temple, in the shap
e of a human body where the head is the inner sanctuary for the god/dess and houses the sacred statue. Though being at Karnak, one has a hard time envisioning the start and end of the temple complex, for it sprawls like a megamall across the landscape. One of the most striking parts of Karnak was that it was my first temple, and where most of the Egyptian artefacts at museums are sadly without color, every once in a while turquoise, lapis and golden body parts pop out from behind columns, giving a glimpse of what this place must have looked like long ago. Two large obelisks are all that remain of the original six that went here before. A dried up harbor is evident, which was once used to float in statuary. But still, even with this beauty, the touch of tourism reigns surpreme. As we watched egrets pick their way across sandstone steps, guards filled the sacred lake from a large hose and gatorade could be purchased across the walkway for the equivalent of 40 LE (almost $8). On the other hand, there was little to deny the power of this place, and everywhere you were meant to feel small from the gaping doorways to the larger-than-life statues, hieroglyphics, columns that stretched towards the sky. Even walking once around the sacred scarab statue for good luck made me wonder how many people had gone before me.

Two and a half miles away from Karnak is Luxor Temple, once connected by two and a half miles of sphinxes. We visited this temple at night in order to see both its beauty by daytime and how it looked touched by the setting sun. One of the only statues of Tut Ankh Amun is here, an alabaster
giant, where he sits comfortably with his girl-wife. There is also a 7th-century Arabic mosque on the site, the door rests high above the ground, a testament to the sand that once took over the grounds. Only one obelisk remains here - the other is in Paris, a gift from Egypt. In return, the Egyptians accepted a broken clock (which is still broken). Many of the statues and carvings have been destroyed here, but in different styles: the Christians defaced the statues, and the Arabs beheaded them. The heads of some of the beheaded statues have been found, sadly, the defaced statues are ruined forever. Even worse is the creation of Christian murals over the Egyptian carvings in the inner sanctuary, the colors standing vivid and proud against the defacements below.

Once these two temples stood as testament to Egyptian power and influence, and I don't think there is any doubting that in their own way, they do so still.

Stay Tuned for the Valley of the Kings

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Trip Report: Giza Plateau & the Pyramids

The Pyramids of Giza loomed over us as our bus made its way up to the Giza Plateau. It's desolate - I almost expectated to see tumbleweed blow by. My first thought was - where's all the sand? The ground is rocky underfoot with a fine dusting of sand that whips about, and in patches jagged rocks jut up from the ground, a danger to all but the most sure-footed. The Great Pyramid of Giza is breathtaking and the first thing I noticed with the gaping hole near the bottom. At some point an enterprising sultan decided to drill a hole through it, and no one knows what he found, but he did build one of the most expensive mosques in all of Islam, so one can bet he found something good. Only 150 tickets are sold per day for entry to The Great Pyramid and we happened to score them. Buying tickets for The Great Pyramid is almost like purchasing a membership at a gym - you are paying for a better workout than the thighmaster. Two long shafts upward at 45 degrees await you, one of which has a ceiling that is half of your height and forces you into a duck-walk position (or a stoop, depending on your preference). The heat is oppressive, and when you finally reach the top you are rewarded with a single room with an empty stone tomb and little else but the knowledge that you have just been admitted to the Great Pyramid of Giza, and that is something in and of itself.

We did not have an opportunity to visit the other two Pyramids (not to forget the three mini-pyramids), but we did have an opportunity for that quintessential Egyptian tourist
experience - riding a camel. There is a camel parking lot at the panorama spot, so after securing your photos of yourselves standing in front of the three Pyramids, you can have your pick of camels. Clambering onto the back of this poor creature is easy. What is not easy is when the camel decides to move. Camels stand up two legs at a time and, not realizing this, I breathed a sigh of relief when I thought the camel had finally stood up and then noticed with dismay that it had two more legs to go. We were led by an 8-year old boy through the desert from the panorama to the small Pyramid - a journey of approximately thirty minutes (though perhaps it only seemed that long since I was terrified that my camel would have an individual thought and race off for freedom). I survived, however, and made sure to pet my camel in thanks for allowing me to ride on its back.

The Sphinx was our next stop, and its much like Stonehenge in the fact that its been cut off from the throngs of tourists that would wish to lay their hands upon it. First you must navigate through a small temple's ruins and then you are afforded your close-up. It's small in the face of the Pyramids, and yet ancient and mysterious in its own right. Even today, superstition abounds regarding the Sphinx and people are careful not to anger the spirits. The Sphinx was always a mighty creature of Ancient Egyptian legend, but what makes this Sphinx so notable is an enterprising pharaoh decided to put his head on the animal's body - an almost unnatural union, and one that made the hair stand up straight on my arms. I noticed with dismay how easy it is to tell how the beard, nose and cobra have been lopped off, but noticed with happiness that there is scaffolding on the rear of the Sphinx as they attempt to save it from elemental damage.

We polished off our evening at Felfala's, a restaurant within walking distance of our hotel. The food was inexpensive, delicious, and the the waitstaff was attentive, despite the final football match where Cairo was playing. I had never before tasted falafel that melted in my mouth, or hummus that made me crave seconds, and the pita bread flowed freely. Even the rice pudding I had for dessert was made with care and coconut was luxuriously sprinkled on top. All in all, a wonderful first day to this beautiful country.
Stay Tuned for Luxor - Karnak & Luxor Temple

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Trip Report: Cairo

I have returned from my two week stint abroad, and I find that the most terrifying part of Egypt was the severe lack of ability to use a computer. So here I am, two weeks later, post-camel and King Tut's Tomb and ready to make several reports as to my impressions of this beautiful country, as well as Cox & Kings, the tour operator we chose to go with.

If any non-Egyptians know one city in Egypt, it is Cairo, home of the Pyramids and the Sphinx, and many also believe it to be home to the Valley of the Kings. The former is partially true, as the Pyramids and Sphinx are located on the Giza plateau on the west bank of the greater Cairo area, but the latter is untrue, as the Valley of the Kings is located far south in Luxor, which was once Thebes.

Our plane arrived in Cairo at half past the witching hour and we were greeted by several people wearing face masks who took photos, stared at them intently, and then nodded people past. I'm not sure what would have happened if one of us had been stopped, but fortunately that did not happen. Shortly after there was a man with a sign, but instead of our names it stated WOE. Since it stated Cox & Kings, however, we took our chance and it turned out to be our South Sinai representative who we would see from time to time. He assisted us with our visa and customs entry process and then took us to another gentleman who would be our driver.

Being pitch black, we had no idea as we plummeted through downtown Cairo in a comfortably air conditioned van with someone else on our tour that we were driving by the Pyramids. They are not illuminated by night, and I found myself happy to know that they had not been disturbed with electrical monstrosities in order to cater to the tourists. On the other hand, stepping outside of our hotel room that morning was a surprise as the evidence of where we were manufactured itself right before our eyes - the great pyramid and its slightly smaller brother, capstone still intact.

We stayed at Le Meridien Pyramids and were treated to a buffet breakfast which included spiced fava beans, grilled tomatoes, rice pudding, hummus, slices of cheese, and a small, green tomato-like fruit that I never learned the name of. They had Western style food as well, though I was determined to keep that to a minimum. Here we met the rest of our group, and that there were nine of us, a very small group indeed, and one that proved to be perfect over the course of the week.

The morning stop was the Egyptian Museum. Although we did not have an excessively long time to visit, on our first day it may not have been fully appreciated anyway. We did see the fabled golden mask of Tut Ankh Amun as well as thousands of items secured from his tomb. Larger than life statues, chariots, bows and arrows, and even royal underwear with perfect seams intact were scattered through the museum and were labeled according to the age in which they occurred (Old Kingdom, First Decline, etc.). A special mummy room viewing could be ours for 100 L.E. and so we gladly paid and went inside. About 10-15 mummies of pharaohs lie about, some of them with red wisps of hair still intact and teeth jutting at odd angles from their skulls. One mummy was noticeably absent - that of Tut Ankh Amun himself. Later we learned that it had recently been put on display in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Unfortunately there are no pictures allowed in the Egyptian Museum. One is able to take photos in the courtyard, which is stunningly beautiful, however, you must leave your camera with the doorman.

Stay tuned for Giza: Pyramids, Sphinxes and Camels, oh my!