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Tag: adventure travel

The Strange Tale of the Fighting Model T Fords

The Strange Tale of the Fighting Model T Fords

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While writing my next novel in the Western Desert of Egypt (something I’ve discussed in several previous posts), I came across an interesting local landmark. Behind my campsite in Bahariya Oasis stands a grim heap of black volcanic stone called “English Mountain”. When I asked around about this unusual name, the local Bedouin told me that it was once home to an English soldier who kept watch for attacking tribes back in the days when Egypt was still a colony. I was told the ruins of his house could still be seen.

So of course I went up to see them!

But not before taking Ahmed Fakhry’s excellent book Bahariya and Farafra out of my backpack to see what he had to say about this. Yes, I travel through the Sahara with a bag full of books.

Written in 1974 but mostly based on expeditions the archaeologist took in the 1930s, Fakhry’s book is full of useful information and folklore. In it he says that English Mountain is actually named after a New Zealander named Claud Williams, who commanded No. 5 Light Car Patrol during World War One. Williams, Fakhry says, kept a lonely vigil atop that mountain for hostile Senussi tribesmen.

And therein lies a tale.

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Exploring the White Desert in Egypt

Exploring the White Desert in Egypt

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In my last post, I looked at some of the archaeological remains around Bahariya Oasis, in the Western Desert of Egypt. Those ancient buildings had been hammered by centuries of sandstorms so the article didn’t have the prettiest pictures in the world. To compensate, I’ve decided to give you something a bit more pleasing to the eye this week.

To the south of Bahariya Oasis, almost to the next major oasis at Farafra, is a large expanse of soft white limestone and chalk that has been scoured by the wind into elaborate and surreal shapes. The view is constantly changing as the white stone takes on various hues through the day, turning a deep crimson at sunset. Anyone going to either Bahariya or Farafra Oasis will find a night or two camping out in this natural wonder one of the most memorable events of their trip.

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Greco-Roman and Early Christian Ruins at Bahariya Oasis, Egypt

Greco-Roman and Early Christian Ruins at Bahariya Oasis, Egypt

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The guard at the Temple of Alexander showing off
some of the stray finds to me and my Bedouin driver

In my last post, I talked about the Egyptian tombs at Bahariya Oasis, some 340 km southwest of Cairo. The oasis was on the fringe of civilization in those days, but became more important during the Greco-Roman period because its well-watered soil didn’t flood like the Nile valley and thus was a good place to grow grapes to make wine, something the Greeks and Romans couldn’t live without.

The oasis became prosperous during Greek and Roman rule. It gained significance right from the start when Alexander the Great passed through here on the way to Siwa Oasis further to the west, where he had his famous meeting with the oracle of Amun at the sanctuary there, where he was proclaimed the son of the god and thus pharaoh. The temple honors his visit to the oasis and is the largest in the Western Desert, with a two-room sandstone chapel and a temple enclosure with at least 45 rooms and a surrounding wall.

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On The Fringes of Ancient Egypt: Exploring the Antiquities of Bahariya Oasis

On The Fringes of Ancient Egypt: Exploring the Antiquities of Bahariya Oasis

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One of the Golden Mummies.
Creative Commons photo courtesy Roland Unger.

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently visited Bahariya Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt. The oasis became famous in 1996 with the discovery of a series of tombs of the Greco-Roman Period (332 BC-395 AD). They were found accidentally when an Antiquities Guard was leading his donkey on a sandy stretch near the Temple of Alexander the Great when the animal’s hoof broke through the surface. Once he extricated the donkey, he peeked inside and saw an underground chamber.

Famed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass excavated the site and found several tombs, removing more than 250 mummies. Many had gilded masks like the one pictured above, and the site soon became known as The Valley of the Golden Mummies. Hawass believes that he has uncovered only a tiny fraction of the tombs. A few are on display in Bahariya, including the one above, but photography is forbidden, so I wasn’t able to take any shots for you. How Roland Unger got this shot I’ll leave as a riddle unsolved.

Bahariya was an important place in Greco-Roman times, having good agricultural land that could be cultivated year-round, instead of the Nile valley that flooded every year. Thus it was a good spot for growing grapes to make wine.

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Exploring Bahariya Oasis, Egypt

Exploring Bahariya Oasis, Egypt

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A view of Bahariya Oasis from my camp on the outskirts of Biwati

When visiting Egypt, it’s hard to tear yourself away from the Nile Valley. After all, that’s where you’ll find the vast majority of temples and pyramids, as well as the lively city of Cairo, currently one of my favorite cities in the world.

On my previous trips to Egypt I’ve often looked longingly at the western horizon, wondering about the oases that are strung out across the desert far to the west of the river. Finally last month as part of researching my next novel, I got to visit one of them.

Bahariya Oasis is about 370 kilometers (230 miles) southwest of Egypt’s capital. The old caravan route (the one my characters have to take), was a waterless ten days on camel. I only had to endure a long ride on a cramped bus through a dreary landscape. This part of the Western Desert is not pretty. It’s flat, with few changes in terrain, and not even any real sand dunes to look at.

After this minimalist landscape, the road leads up a ridge of black volcanic stone and to an overlook above a wide valley. The entire valley is green with palm groves and cultivated land. The effect is startling, and must have been even more so for the travelers in the old caravans. The valley measures 94 kilometers (59 miles) long and 42 kilometers (26 miles) wide.

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Greco-Roman Mummy Masks in the Egyptian Museum

Greco-Roman Mummy Masks in the Egyptian Museum

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Mask of a boy named Heraklion, Roman Period 2nd century AD.
This painted plaster mask covered the head and chest of the
mummy. Heraklion offers a bunch of grapes to a small bird.

Visitors to Egypt tend to want to see the great sites of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. The pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, and the splendid temples around Luxor are all well worth a visit, but Egypt’s later periods are of interest as well. I just went on one of my semi-regular trips to Egypt with the specific intent to study the Greco-Roman period. It plays a role in the third book in my Masked Man of Cairo neo-pulp series and there’s no better inspiration than actually seeing the sites and artifacts themselves.

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Mack Reynolds: Science Fiction Author and… African Explorer?

Mack Reynolds: Science Fiction Author and… African Explorer?

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On a recent writing retreat in Tangier, Morocco, I was going through back issues of the Tangier Gazette, an English-language newspaper from the International Zone era. During this time, which lasted from 1924–1956, Tangier was run by several different European nations plus the United States. The governments gave people a free hand, and Tangier became notorious for allowing things that were illegal everywhere else — drugs, homosexuality, and prostitution. That attracted writers such as William S. Burroughs, Paul and Jane Bowles, and many others.

The April 6, 1956, edition of the Gazette has this little tidbit about Mack Reynolds, a prominent science fiction author of his day. His career got started shortly after World War Two in the detective pulps, and he soon branched out to write science fiction. Reynolds had a taste for travel and moved to Mexico in 1953. He and his wife soon pulled up stakes and set off on an epic ten-year trip through Europe, North Africa, and the Far East, supported by his science fiction and travel writing. The trip finally ended with their return to Mexico.

During his time in Morocco, he and his wife struck out into what is now Mali to visit Gao and Timbuktu. This is not an easy trip now, and back then it was an epic journey few attempted. Just look at what happened to Kit Moresby in The Sheltering Sky.

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Spotted in a Cairo Kiosk: Arabic Pulp Science Fiction!

Spotted in a Cairo Kiosk: Arabic Pulp Science Fiction!

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Here’s a random treasure I noticed one day while strolling past my local kiosk in Cairo. These little books of science fiction and horror can still be found in Egypt, although they were more common back in the 90s when I first started coming here.

I’m not sure what they’re called in Arabic, but in Spanish they’re called bolsilibros (“pocket books”). These bite-sized paperbacks measure roughly 15 x 10 cm (6 x 4 inches) and run 90-120 pages. In Spain, the main genres were romance and western, although there were a fair number of horror, science fiction, war, and various other genres as well. Several publishers churned out a huge variety of lines. Now only a few reprints of the big western and romance writers can still be found at the kiosks.

In Egypt, judging from what I’ve unearthed in Cairo’s wonderful used book market, the most popular bolsilibros were cop thrillers, although science fiction and horror appear to be the only genres that are still being published in that format. Other genres are now found in trade paperback, like the more serious science fiction.

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Greco-Roman Treasures in the Egyptian Museum

Greco-Roman Treasures in the Egyptian Museum

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Mummy portrait from the 2nd century AD
of two brothers who appear to have died together

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is an addictive place. On my two writing retreats in Egypt last year I found myself returning again and again. The collections are so vast, the displays so stunning, that no matter how many times you go you always find something that bowls you over.

Much of the museum is laid out chronologically, from the predynastic era all the way up to the Greco-Roman period (332 BC – 395 AD). This last period of ancient Egypt is often overlooked except for the famous mummy portraits like the one pictured above, lifelike paintings of the deceased. The rest of the art from this time is less compelling. Some of it is overdone, almost cartoonish, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Here’s a small sample of what the museum had to offer.

I apologize for the quality of some of these photos. The Egyptian Museum is poorly lit and many of the cases are dirty, making good photography difficult. Hope you enjoy them anyway!

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Reading The Lost Oases by Ahmed Hassanein Bey

Reading The Lost Oases by Ahmed Hassanein Bey

2342997I’ve always loved vintage travelogues. The world was bigger a hundred years ago, its cultures more distinct and isolated. Travel was hard and sometimes dangerous. Accounts of old journeys bring me back to a time when people could go to places like Africa and not be able to text home.

But there’s always been a problem with the genre. The vast majority of the books available in English are from the Western perspective, especially the Anglo perspective. So The Lost Oases, written by Egyptian Ahmed Hassanein Bey and published in 1925, came as a welcome change. It’s an Arab account of discovering two remote oases in the far southwest of Egypt, hundreds of miles from the nearest habitation.

Ahmed Hassanein Bey was a wealthy Egyptian of Bedouin stock who was educated at Oxford, so he is good at explaining his own culture to the Western reader and yet remains enough of an outsider that we can enjoy watching his learning curve as he visits his country cousins.

He was already an experienced desert traveler when he set out on this mission, and we’re carried through a detailed description of his preparations and planning. When all is ready, he goes to his father for a moving scene where the old man blesses him and the baggage for a safe journey.

After skirting the coastline, the caravan heads south along the Egyptian/Libyan border. At this point in history, Egypt was administered by the British Empire and Libya by Italy. The main group along the border, then and now, is called the Senussi. I mainly knew of them from their attempt to invade Egypt during the First World War at the urging of the Germans and Ottomans.

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