PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Into Egypt, Day 9

I woke up early after a very good night’s sleep and had a chance to watch the sun rise over the Nile as we cruised down the river, one of those surreal experiences I will never forget.

Our first stop of the day was Edfu Temple, but to get there we took horse carriages, which was an unexpected treat. Because we traveled in pairs, I ended up with our guide, Hany, and I was delighted because he is a Coptic Christian and it gave me a chance to learn more about the denomination and their life in Egypt.

The word Coptic literally means Christian and until the rise of Islam around 640 CE, most Egyptians were Christian, so the ones who didn’t convert are literally “Egyptian Christians.” Christians are 10 percent of the population and 90 to 95 percent are Copts.

Hany reiterated that there is no systemic discrimination against Christians, and it has gotten better since the downfall of the Islamic Brotherhood, which ruled for a year after the Arab Spring and tried to make Egypt a more fundamentalist Islamic state. During that time, the Brotherhood burned churches, but when the people and the military threw them out and began putting them in jail, things got much easier for Christians.

Hany said the main conflicts are in rural areas and they are often over marriage and love. It is illegal for a Coptic male to marry a Muslim woman, as he would be thrown in jail. If a Muslim male married a Christian woman, though, he most likely would have to leave the country. It is very much “stay in your lane and we can get along well,” as any attempt by a Christian to convert a Muslim in any way results in prison.

Some of the most interesting things I learned: All businesses that serve liquor need to be owned by Christians; six of the 10 richest Egyptians are Christian and because of the tightness of the community, which is stronger in the south, while not all are rich, being destitute is unheard for Christians; poverty is more common for Muslims.

I also asked about belly dancers and was told that a Coptic belly dancer would be rare, but most who were Muslims did so because they fled abuse and it was a way to survive. However, most of the most famous belly dancers are Eastern European, which I found interesting. Prostitutes are also trafficked Eastern Europeans, though like drugs, is rare. Fascinating conversation!

Edfu Temple is “fairly recent” by Egyptian standards. It was built out of sandstone over a 180-year period by  the Romans (circa 327-57 BCE) and is the best conserved temple in all of Egypt. The Romans built it to assuage the Egyptian people and curry their favor, dedicating it to the god Horus.

The thing that I will remember most about this temple is that the Christians used as it as a safe space when they were being persecuted as well as during the years after Constantine made Christianity legal in 313 CE. In an effort to prove their piety, Christians destroyed the depictions of the gods on the walls, and if they couldn’t destroy the entire god, they stamped out their face. So the entire temple is in superb condition, with the exception of the fact that much of it has been essentially “scribbled over” in the way one would do with sandstone carving.

We returned for a relaxed late morning and afternoon cruise down the Nile to our next location, Kom Ombo Temple. It was hot (91) so the cool breeze felt good.

Kom Ombo, like Edfu, was built by the Romans out of sandstone and dedicated to two Egyptian gods — Horus and Sobek. It was built on the site of a Pharaonic temple.

You get to a point sometimes in the midst of the magnitude of all of these monuments to find that they can blend into one another, but I discovered each one was unique things. What struck me about Kom Ombo was the precision of the carvings, which really were true to the human form. In addition, there were some very fascinating carvings, including one of medical instruments, one of a woman giving birth in a squatting position and one where a man who seemed to be throwing incense into a cup. Cindy thought this might have been the first game of beer pong, however. The other great thing was that because of the location close to the Nile and its flooding, no images had been etched out because early Christians did not hide there.

Kom Ombo also had a really nifty museum at the end that included a whole bunch of mummified crocodiles. The crocodile represented one of the gods and so when people died, mummified ones were placed with them. It was both unique and fascinating.

We returned to the ship for a nice before dinner drink on deck and then one of the best meals I’ve had since I’ve been to Egypt. It was an Egyptian night and the food was spectacular.

Following that we went to a Galabeya night. Galabeya is the loose-fitting garments connected to the Nile Valley. Because we were invited  by Egyptians and encouraged to wear the garments, I decided it was not cultural appropriate. It was really fun dancing with people from all over the world and the crew.

Now I am sitting by open window as we cruise toward our dock at Aswan. I am planning to get to bed before 10 p.m. so I can wake up at 3:30 a.m. to cheer on the Huskies and then prepare for our last full day on the cruise.

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