Tonight was cultural arts night aboard the Viking Ra, and all hands were decked out in their finest Egyptianized evening wear, in celebration of our host country.
It provided the perfect opportunity for women to shimmy in their cotton camel PJ pants, embroidered tunics, and spangled belly dance costumes,
while a few men rocked the casbah in their galabeyas (long shirts) and keffiyehs (square-shaped, cotton scarves).
Personally, my taste borders on Tommy Bahama does Margaritaville at REI, with little to no resemblance of anything Middle Eastern-related, so I reimagined a hand towel as a Nemes (royal headdress), and called it a night. Leah chose to ignore the fashion directive.
It was also a time for traditional Egyptian cuisine–served family style–followed by an hour of Sufi-themed music and dance.
With the riverboat tied up in Esna for the night, Viking passengers benefited from a wealth of local talent who came aboard to showcase their cultural arts–steeped in a medieval tradition of Islamic spiritualism that deals with purification of the inner self through a deep devotion and physical experience of God.
As enchanting as it was hypnotic, a member of the troupe performed the tanoura (Arabic for ‘skirt’), a trance dance not unlike the Turkish Whirling Dervishes, but with an Egyptian “spin.” Its origin dates to 13th century Egypt, when whirling in place became a means to reaching karma. The dancer spins anti-clockwise–which symbolizes Muslim pilgrimage around the Kaaba, while also preventing dizziness.
Our dancer wore a multi-layered tanoura of many colors (collectively weighing over 50 lbs.), as he performed his meditative ritual for over 15 minutes, dancing with trays, and scarves. Unbelievable!
Then the ship lights dimmed, and the tanoura turned psychedelic!
In ancient times, the Nile split the imperial city of Thebes in two parts:
On the east bank, a fertile garden where 80,000 Egyptians lived and worked, called “City of the Living;”
and along the west bank, Egyptian royalty huddled with their architects and priests to select the best nest for rest in “City of the Dead.”
Occasionally, it was a family affair, with namesake mummies networking in the same vicinity–no doubt, making it easier to pay respects on Pharaohs Day.
Unlike Giza, the only thing resembling a pyramid in the Valley of the Kings is Al Qurn, the highest peak in the Theban Hills at 420 meters.
Perhaps this gave the pharaohs some ancestral comfort, knowing their final journey to eternity had topographical similarities.
At last count, international expeditions have excavated 65 crypts concentrated within the Valley of the Kings and Queens, with only 11 tombs available for viewing.
But the most remarkable thing about this vast necropolis is what’s waiting to be discovered. Hardly a day goes by without hearing of a new discovery from the dozens of white “dig” tents that dot Luxor and Giza.
Easily, the most famous discovery came from British archaeologist, Howard Carter,
whose remarkable discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 created a global sensation.
But seeing is believing.
Viewing the tomb requires a special ticket, and admission is limited.
Equally impressive is the remote Temple of Deir el-Bahri (KV22), anchored to the rockface below Al Qurn.
It was commissioned by Hatshepsut, who broke the aristocratic glass ceiling in 1480 BC by becoming Egypt’s first female pharaoh. Throughout her 22-year reign as king, she cross-dressed as a male, wearing a fake beard, a traditional headdress (nemes) with cobra, and a short kilt like her male predecessors.
While controversial as a female pharaoh, and all but erased by her successors, Hatshepsut’s place in history was secured as the only female interred in the Valley of Kings.
Nearby, the Valley of the Queens is only 2 km away by club cart conveyance,
where the shining star of the valley is Nefertari’s tomb.
Officials require a special admission ticket–that only allows 10 visitors at a time to roam through the chambers for only 10 minutes–upon theorizing that reduced traffic likely reduces environmental impact.
Nefertari was the first of Ramses’ II Great Royal Wives (6 in total). In fact, he was so smitten by Nefertari’s beauty, that he built her the grandest tomb on the block, and shared his glory side-by-side at Abu Simbal.
Besides her good looks, Nefertari earned her place at the palace table as the king’s court communicator. She was a writer, a strategist, and a skilled diplomat in support of her husband.
A long tunnel empties into an antechamber…
followed by a second staircase,
that leads to a burial chamber…
supported by elaborately painted columns,
with finely decorated funerary rooms at the wings,
featuring the sacred bull and seven celestial cows, who collectively represent the Goddess Hathor.
Given today’s global issues of gender identity, glass ceiling theory, propaganda, and branding, it might be wise to take a papyrus out of ancient Egypt’s playbook for the benefit of clarity.
If temples had beauty pageants, then Dendera’s Temple of Hathor would surely win. Only an hour’s float downriver from Luxor, Dendera Temple shines like a polished gemstone on the Nile for all of Hathor’s devotees.
Regarded as the “Mistress of the Vagina,” Hathor exemplified ancient Egyptian femininity as the goddess of love, beauty, music, dancing, fertility, and pleasure…and its all on display at her temple.
From a distance, it’s an unassuming temple,
obscured by a surrounding wall of mudbrick rubble with a golden glow.
However, it stands wonderfully intact for a structure built 2000 years ago, albeit atop the remains of another sanctuary that predates its commission by 2250 years.
While Temples of Karnak and Luxor were built to worship Amun-Ra–the alpha-male of all New Kingdom deities, who brought sun, light, and daily creation to the world–their energy is very androcentric.
Whereas, the Temple of Dendera exudes a powerful yet feminine charm,
evidenced by the 18 four-sided capitals of Hathor–with her cow-eared likeness–supporting the Hypostyle Hall.
Unfortunately, all carvings of Hathor were deliberately defaced by Christian iconoclasts who sheltered within its walls.
Their open fires lined the chamber surfaces with centuries of soot–obscuring the bas-relief paintings–
until a delegation of French archaeologists recently restored the artwork to its original colors.
Hathor’s temple was most likely commissioned during the second rule of Ptolemy XII in 54 BC until his death in 51 BC, and overseen by his successor daughter, Queen Cleopatra VII and her son King Caesarion until her suicide in 30 BC. They are both enshrined on the temple’s outer rear wall.
Romans embellished the temple compound by constructing the Gate of Domitian and Trajan in lieu of a traditional Egyptian pylon,
but stayed true to the Greco-Egyptian design by invoking Nekhbet (vulture goddess and protector of Upper Egypt and its rulers) beneath the lintel.
and beyond the temple columns.
Emperor Trajan also completed a Roman Kiosk in the forecourt.
There’s a wealth of illustrations and hieroglyphic stories throughout Hathor’s temple…
However, the real beauty can be found in the artistic renderings of astrological symbols painted across the Hypostyle Hall, where Goddess Nut ordains the passage of time in a celestial barge.
The masterpiece of the temple is surely the circular zodiac chart of the ancient sky that’s located on the ceiling at the entrance to the Chapel of Osiris–
accessed via a processional staircase that leads to the temple’s rooftop.
Amid controversy, the original engraving was blasted from the ceiling in 1821, and stolen away to France, where it currently hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Alas, a replica hangs in the chapel.
Which begs the question: Was it guilt and reparations that brought the French back to Dendera to supervise the restoration?
After 3 days in Cairo, Leah and I were on the move!
We boarded a chartered prop jet with our fellow river cruisers and flew to Luxor,
to greet the Viking Ra–currently tied up alongside the Nile’s east bank. Ra was to be our floating hotel through the following week.
After attending an obligatory safety briefing aboard Ra,
we were soon exploring Luxor and it’s ancient counterpart, Thebes–home to kings and queens from the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000–1700 BC) through the Ptolemaic Kingdom (305–30 BC)–spanning 15 centuries of rule, until Egypt surrendered to the Romans.
Our tour of Luxor began with a visit to the Karnak Temple Complex, encompassing 247 acres, and considered the largest religious structure ever built.
Ram-headed sphinxes (called criosphinx) adorn both sides of the avenue leading to the unfinished, first pylon to honor Amun-Ra, Egypt’s most powerful god and Thebe’s patron deity of the Great Temple of Karnak.
The criosphinxes continue inside the Ethiopian Courtyard (IX Dynasty)–each one cradling an erect statue of Ramses II (c. 1279-1213 BC) between its forelegs.
It flanks the entrance to the temple of Ramses III.
The most impressive feature of the temple of Amun-Ra is the Great Hypostyle Hall, a forest of 134 sandstone columns centered by 12 colossal columns soaring 69 feet,
which supports the remains of a stone roof enclosed by massive walls,
and features intricately carved relief sculptures and hieroglyphs of religious and historical significance…
to honor each of the 30 kings who once ruled the imperial city.
After 3300 years, the site remains substantially intact, yet benefits from painstaking restoration.
After listening to commentary from our onboard Egyptologist, Leah and I strolled the grounds of the ancient temple trying to imagine the enormity of its scope:
while realizing that 3 other sections–the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Montu, and the Temple of Amenhotep IV–are also part of Karnak, and still under excavation and reconstruction.
Leah and I arrived at the Egyptian Museum to dig a little deeper into some of the earliest and most significant discoveries of ancient Egypt.
Of course, we would have preferred touring the Great Egyptian Museum (G.E.M.), but the many delays since construction began (2012)–complicated by supply chain dynamics and coronavirus has pushed the official opening to sometime in 2023, optimistically.
However, when the museum eventually opens, it will be the world’s largest archaeological museum, housing 100,000 artifacts from hundreds of tombs and temples, and the entirety of the Tutankhamun collection.
But for now, we must adjust our expectations by visiting the fabulous Egyptian Museum instead, where a smattering of the riches belonging to Tutankhamun’s tomb have been on view:
including his incomparable solid gold mask,
and triple coffins staged within his sarcophagus–yet unfortunately, all without the possibility of photography once we entered the special exhibition room.
There were, however a few items from Tutankhamun’s tomb displayed in the general exhibition hall that were equally as impressive, including:
A gilded throne beside an inlaid and painted ceremonial chair.
There were so many more treasures to appreciate beyond the towering entrance and throughout the wings of the cavernous exhibition hall.
From the moment we entered the building, we were confronted by a stone Colossus of King Merneptah, successor to Ramses the Great.
Along our stroll, we stopped to appreciate a 2-foot palette of some of the earliest hieroglyphics ever found.
This palette, with reliefs on both sides, commemorates the victories of King Narmer, who came from the south of Egypt to invade the Delta in about 3000 BC. It represents the most important evidence that the first political unification in the history of mankind occurred in Egypt. The two faces of the artifact are topped by the name of Narmer inscribed inside the Serekh, or rectangular frame. In hieroglyphic signs, the chisel reads mr and the catfish reads naar.
The upper section of the back side shows the king wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, followed by his sandals bearer and preceded by his vizier and four standard bearers. Next comes a scene depicting the corpses of 10 beheaded men. In the middle section, two men are holding two felines with extremely long necks representing the people of the North and South under the control of the king and his men. The lower section shows a bull, representing the king attacking the walls of a northern city.
The Serekh is flanked by two female heads having the ears and horns of a cow, which could be the first representation of the goddess Hathor. The scene on the front shows the king, followed by his sandals bearer and wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt, smiting a helpless foe from the North. The falcon Horus of Upper Egypt stands upon a bunch of papyrus plants holding a northern prisoner. The lower register, or scene, depicts two other northern enemies running away from the king. Inscribed upon their heads are hieroglyphic signs indicating their names or those of their localities.
We stood in awe of the oldest known life-size statue found in Egypt.
It depicts King Djoser of the Third Dynasty seated on his throne and enveloped in a jubilee cloak. The statue was entirely coated with white plaster and painted. The deep-set eyes were once inlaid. The king has a ceremonial false beard and wears a black wig topped by the royal Nemes headdress. The front side of the pedestal is inscribed with hieroglyphic text, indicating the name and epitaphs of King Nethery-khet of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Next, we got acquainted with an exquisite 4600-year old polished, gneiss statue of King Khafra, builder of the second largest pyramid in Giza.
It was found in a pit in the antechamber of his Valley Temple in Giza. The king is seated on a throne flanked by lion heads. The two sides of the throne are decorated with the Sema-Tawy, symbol of the unity of Upper and Lower Egypt. Khafra wears the nemes headdress, surmounted by the uraeus, or royal cobra. He wears the royal pleated kilt. Attached to his chin is an artificial ceremonial sacred beard. He is protected by the god Horus, represented as a falcon, perched at the back of his neck.
Nearby was a triptych of King Khafra’s neighbor, King Menkaure.
King Menkaure built the third and smallest of the Great Pyramids of Giza. The triad of Menkaure was intended to represent him with the personification of the nomes, in the presence of gods, especially Hathor. The king wished to enjoy resurrection and fertility from Hathor and endless offerings from the nomes. He is represented here in an idealistic form between Hathor, with her horned sun disk crown, and a figure of the personification of the nome of Diospolis Parva.
Sheikh el-Balad, Arabic title for the chief of the village, was the name given to this remarkable wooden statue discovered by the workmen of Auguste Mariette, the French archaeologist, because it resembled their own village chief.
The statue depicts Ka-aper, the chief lector priest, in charge of reciting prayers for the deceased in temples and funerary chapels. It is one of the masterpieces of the private statuary of the Old Kingdom.
The arms were separately modeled and attached to the body, a technique frequently used in wooden statuary. A wooden cane supported the left arm, made out of two pieces of wood joined together. The eyes are inlaid; the rim is made out of copper and the white is of opaque quartz, while the cornea is made out of rock crystal.
Also of interest is a small stone carving of Seneb, an Egyptian dwarf who was the chief of all the palace dwarfs, and charged with the care of the royal wardrobe.
He is seated on a rectangular seat together with his wife, Senetites, and his children stand before him. He has short black hair and wears a short white kilt. His wife rests her right hand on her husband’s shoulder and her left hand on his left arm in an affectionate pose.
Senetites, who held the titles of Priestess of Hathor and Neith, wears a black wig that reaches down to her shoulders and a long white tunic. The artist rendered her face with a smile to show the woman’s satisfaction at being depicted with her husband and children.
The son and daughter are shown standing in front of their father in the place where the legs should be. Here, the Egyptian artist succeeded in creating a balanced composition for the figures of the family.
Protected in a nearby glass box was another painted couple. Rahotep might have been a son of King Senefru and thus, a brother of King Khufu. He held the titles of High Priest of Ra at Heliopolis, General of the Army, and Chief of Constructions.
He is seen here wearing a short kilt, short hair, a fine mustache, a heart-shaped amulet around his neck, and inlaid eyes. Rahotep’s wife, Nofret, is described as “the one acquainted to the king.” She is seen wearing a shoulder-length wig, decorated with a floral diadem and a broad collar. Her natural hair can be seen under the wig.
We recognize the distinction in the skin coloring of the two statues: reddish brown for the man and cream wash for the woman. This was an artistic convention followed throughout ancient Egyptian history. The colors are well preserved and the faces have realistic expressions.
However, Queen Hatshepsut was a rare exception. She’s regarded as the most successful woman ever to rule Egypt as Pharaoh (18th Dynasty), and considered an equal among all kings. Hence, her skin color is always portrayed as reddish brown.
Advancing to the mummy exhibition, we were treated to the gilded plaster, funerary masks of Thuya and Yuya.
Yuya was the father of Queen Tiye, wife of King Amenhotep III, and husband of Thuya. Yuya came from the town of Akhmim, where he probably held estates, and where he was a priest of the Egyptian god Min, the chief god of the area, while Thuya held important religious titles, in addition to the title of the Royal Mother of the Great Wife of the King.
As part of the royal family, they were attributed royal burial rites and mummified, guaranteeing them an extraordinary eternity as museum masterpieces.
Leah and I later visited Yuya’s son-in-law, King Amenhotep III, and his daughter, Queen Tiye to share a moment of eternity inside his sarcophagus, under their protective gaze.
But remembering our plan for a night out at the market, we had to put our hereafter on hold.
When Leah and I disembarked from our Northern Lights cruise aboard the Viking Star on February 4, 2020, the entire cruise industry was sinking from the spread of COVID-19. And the travel industry was unable to forecast with any assurance whether or when it would be safe to cruise again. Nonetheless, Leah and I reserved passage on Viking’s Nile River cruise (risk free) 2 years ago, and patiently waited for the coronavirus tide to wane.
Fortunately, Egypt had been less affected than many surrounding North African countries, so we waived our cancellation guarantee 3 months ago, and finally embarked on our eagerly-anticipated journey.
After 2 airport layovers–with extended delays between 2 sunsets–we touched down in Cairo to experience what we hoped would be a trip of a lifetime. We also elected to tack on a 4-day extension to Jordan to experience the “Rose City” built into the pink sandstone cliffs of Petra. And we would finish our Middle Eastern adventure with 9 days in Israel on our own.
We also chose to travel with Viking for their immersive programming, delivered by two resident Egyptologists, Khadiga and Youmna, who offered comprehensive commentary every step of the way.
After a night of well-deserved sleep at the Sheraton Cairo Hotel and Casino, we awoke at 6 AM to the muezzin’s prerecorded call to morning prayer,
and began our tour with an excursion to Cairo’s Citadel of Saladin, the largest citadel in the Islamic world opened in 1176,
for magnificent views of the entire city–a massive sprawl sheltering nearly 22 million people within its metro borders, with what also seems as many stray cats and dogs–
and access to the Mosque of Mohammed Ali Pasha, also known as the “Alabaster Mosque” built in 1848, with twin minarets reaching a height of 84 meters, the highest in all of Egypt.
The prayer hall inside can accommodate 10,000 worshippers under a large central dome surrounded by four semi-domes,
supporting a massive crystal chandelier that has recently been repaired after a 3-year restoration project by Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.
Across the marble tiles to the east is an adorned, gilded pulpit of carved wood for the chief Iman.
Within the center of the mosque’s massive courtyard of 47 arched doorways finished with 45 domes stands an elaborate alabaster fountain for requisite ablutions.
The copper-clad clock tower rising above the courtyard in the center of the south façade was a gift from Louis Philippe, the King of France in exchange for one of two ancient obelisks discovered at the Temple of Luxor that still stands in the Places de la Concorde in Paris.
Unfortunately, it was a bad trade for the Egyptians, as the mechanical clock is only accurate twice a day since never working properly after installation.
After roaming the courtyard,
it was time for our next excursion to the Egyptian Museum, where we motored by bus through the busy streets and circles of Cairo, while managing to avoid hundreds of pedestrians who habitually cross the roads in all directions, without any regard for traffic or life itself.
Thanks to an earlier tour of The Cave Víðgelmir, Leah and I rolled into Reykjavik @ 4pm–an hour ahead of schedule–and it made all the difference. I immediately found a legit parking spot by the side of Grandi Center Hotel, and we quickly settled into our suite long enough to unzip and freshen up. Before long, we were out the door and heading for the harbor by foot.
As we were in a hurry to walk the 1 km, there was no time for snacks…although, passing by Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur was tempting…
This little stand has been serving “the best hot dogs in town” since 1937, hence the name translated; although, some fast-foodies claim they’re the best in the world. In fact, hot dogs are so pervasive throughout Iceland, they are jokingly referred to as Iceland’s national dish.
As much as I wanted a wiener, my mission to conduct hard research on “pizzles,” at the Icelandic Phallological Museum was time-sensitive; we only had an hour before closing.
The phallo-logic behind this museum is best expressed by Sigurður Hjartarson, the museum’s founder, who recently sat down with Felix Bazalgette, contributing writer for The Guardian.
In Sigurður’s words…
For most of my life I’ve been a teacher in Iceland, where I was born. In the 60s, I did a postgraduate degree in Edinburgh, but in the 70s I settled into life as a history and Spanish teacher in Akranes, a town north of Reykjavík.
One night in 1974, I was having a drink with my fellow teachers after school and playing bridge. The conversation turned to farming in Iceland – we were discussing how the industry finds a use for every part of the animal. Take lamb, for instance: the meat is eaten, the skin used for clothes, the intestines for sausages and the bones turned into toys for kids. Someone asked if there was a use for the penis, which made me recall how, as a child, I had been given a dried bull’s penis as a whip, to drive the animals out to pasture every day.
I was telling my fellow teachers about this and said that I would be interested in finding a whip like that again. “Well,” said one of my friends, “you might be lucky.” He was returning to his family’s farm that weekend and offered to find me some “pizzles” (a very old word for penis). I agreed, and the next week my friend came back with four bulls’ penises in a plastic bag. I took them to a local tannery and had them preserved. I gave three away as Christmas presents and kept the fourth. That was the start of my collection.
At first, it was a bit of a joke. It was very common then for teachers to have other jobs in the farming and animal industries, such as whaling. So to tease me, other teachers began to bring me penises from their second jobs – whale penises, sheep penises. I started learning how to preserve them. Then, gradually, the collection took on a life of its own. I thought: what if I collect the penises of all the species of Iceland? So that is what I tried to do.
I kept an eye on the news; if an interesting whale was found beached on the coast, I would try to get the penis as a specimen, or if an outlying island was infested with black rats that had escaped from a ship, I’d ask the pest control technician to send me one. (I’ve always had a rule that no animal would be killed for my collection.)
By 1997, I had amassed 63 specimens and the story of my collection had become more well known. I was invited to display it in a small space in the centre of Reykjavík, and my penis museum, or the Phallological Museum, to give it its proper name, was born. There are a lot of different ways to preserve a penis and I have tried all of them, so the collection varies between dried, stuffed and mounted penises, and also those floating in alcohol or formaldehyde.
The collection is very large today, as people have sent in specimens. The largest, from a sperm whale, is about 6ft long, while the smallest, from a European mouse, is less than a millimetre and must be looked at through a magnifying glass. We have one human penis on display, from a 95-year-old man who left it to us in his will in 2011. A few well-endowed humans, one from America and one from Germany, have promised to donate theirs when they die. They are young, though, so we will have to wait a while for those.
You might call me a bit eccentric. At first people thought there was something wrong with me, but over time they saw I was a serious collector who was precise and accurate with the information I kept, and that there was nothing pornographic about the collection. I’m happy that people don’t think I’m a pervert any more.
I’m now 80 and have retired to a small town in the north. I’ve had great fun building the collection over the years and starting the world’s first penis museum; before me, there had been some small collections of penis bones – which many animals have – but not a more comprehensive collection of all these different types. Some people collect stamps or rare coins; I chose instead to collect the phallus. Someone had to do it.
In the words of Sigurður Hjartarson, Fri 22, Apr 2022–as told to Felix Bazalgette
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a museum where the patrons have been so animated. Women easily outnumbered men by 2:1, and everyone seemed to be engaged. I saw no evidence of embarrassment, and selfies dominated most picture-taking opportunities.
But what surprised me most were all the children running through the exhibits like they were at a petting zoo. And their small hands were very busy at the gift shop,
where I found a great souvenir,
and many more items…
for more sophisticated palates.
All in all, it was an uplifting hour, yet extremely humbling for human egos.
Imagine an aquatic gallery of ephemeral ice sculptures in varying shapes, sizes and shades of blue, dancing around a glacial lagoon before floating out to sea or washing upon a black, sandy beach.
After our hike at Skaftafell, Leah and I were expected at Jökulsárlón for a late afternoon amphibian boat tour of the glacial lagoon, but not before a required stopover at Fjallsárlón for a dramatic view of an outlier glacier…
receding into a volcanic valley,
with chunks of ice fighting for a place to thaw.
I could have spent hours at the shoreline photographing the amorphous shapes, but our boat excursion across the road at Jökulsárlón was soon boarding.
We rolled off the moraine in fat tires, and effortlessly glided onto the lagoon for a chilly boat ride surrounded by orange vests and hulking ice.
Our captain cautiously piloted the amphibian as close to the bergs as allowed, to limit the wake of curious kayakers,
and knowing that hidden ice is usually more voluminous than exposed ice.
Also present in the lagoon was a resident colony of surreptitious seals,
anxiously awaiting high tide to feast on herring and cod swept into the icy inlet.
After disembarking, we crossed to the Atlantic, where jewels of ice wash ashore,
and decorate the beach,
a fitting terminus that would gain Banksy’s approval and mine.
Imagine an amphitheater of “organ pipes” carved out of a grass-topped lava field with a 20-metre waterfall plunging down its center into a roiling pool of green water.
It sounds impressive, but seeing is believing, so Leah and I navigated to Skaftafell, a nature preserve in southeast Iceland that belongs to Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland’s largest park with 18% of the island’s land mass, where Svartifoss is one of the featured attractions.
We arrived at the Visitor Center parking, and cursed the ATMs for making paying for parking so difficult. We hiked through the campground before arriving at the Visitor’s Center.
I was literally speechless. Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður? Really!? How could there possibly be a word with a V, a K, two Js, and a letter that’s stuck between a b and a p? And how about the pronunciation? And what does it even mean?
But there was no time for questions. We were there to hike, and there was a waterfall to explore.
We caught the trailhead past the same campground and began our ascent. The trail was wide and steep at the start. So much so, that metal mats filled with crushed stone lined the path to keep erosion at a minimum. We caught our first view looking east when we cleared the trees.
We continued above Gomlutun, across Estragil gulley on a footbridge, past two waterfalls (Hundafoss and Magnusarfoss),
until we reached the approach to Svartifoss.
My pulse quickened. I sensed this waterfall was special. I zoomed in until the falls filled my frame, and I lingered before I pressed the shutter.
I raced around the side of the canyon for another perspective…from the bottom.
Svartifoss translates to “Black Falls” and it lives up to its name,
as it showcases a splendid backdrop of charred columns of basalt.
Svartifoss was the inspiration behind Gudjon Samuelsson’s design of Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland’s celebrated cathedral in Reykjavik.
We were down the mountain and at the Land Cruiser after 2.0 hrs. in Skaftafell, which included our lunch at the overlook and a potty break.
It was time for more sightseeing down the road, and we were on a schedule!
But first, some unanswered questions:
Apparently, Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður is a real Icelandic word,
As a young boy growing up in the ’50s, I was fascinated by the circus. Toby Tyler, written by James Otis was a bedtime favorite, and fueled my fantasy of running away to join the circus. Alas, over time, the circus has fallen out of favor as family entertainment.
After incessant criticism by animal rights activists and the advent of video gaming and media streaming, the 1905 Gavioli Band Organ Wagon (with 367 wooden and metal pipes, 2 drums, a cymbal, and a 17-bar glockenspiel) which once heralded the arrival of the circus train…
has now been relegated to a circus museum with fifty other antique circus wagons within the W.W. Deppe Wagon Pavilion…
at Circus World in Baraboo, WI,
conceived on grounds known as the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers,
who launched their first circus tour from Baraboo in 1884.
As we walked the grounds,
we realized that the circus is more than the sum of its parts.
It’s more than the costumes;
more than the animals;
more than the performers;
more than the sideshow attractions;
and more than the music;
It’s a longing for our youth,
and our feelings of wonder before we were forever trapped in our responsible, adult bodies.
Billings was our final stopover in Montana before continuing east to Deadwood, SD. Upon arrival, Billings health officials issued a local advisory restricting outdoor activity due to a blanket of smoke and ash that had invaded the valley from several regional fires that were burning unabated.
While we would have preferred exploring the winding trails through the Rimrock Bluffs–overlooking the Yellowstone River and town–we lowered our expectations, given the extreme heat and unhealthy air quality index, and opted for a brief walking tour through Pictograph Cave State Park, known for its natural and cultural significance.
Just a 5-mile jaunt south of Billings, we approached a sandstone bluff in the shape of a horseshoe, and turned into an empty parking lot. Surprisingly, the Visitor’s Center was open and filled with a variety of artifacts that WPA workers recovered from the cave floor between 1937 and 1941–considered the first major archeological excavation on the Northern Plains.
In all, over 30,000 artifacts were discovered, with some dating back over 9,000 years.
We cautiously hiked up a narrow, sandy footpath through sprigs of yarrow and juniper shrubs, hoping to avoid an encounter with a prairie rattlesnake or bull snake…
until we reached the mouth of Pictograph Cave, revealing a stone wall that was once part of a ceremonial lodge. The dotted line above the left side of the wall structure was drawn by WPA workers to mark the original floor line before they began digging.
We stood motionless for a beat to allow our eyes to adjust to the shadows, before scanning the cave in search of ancient charcoal and red markings. Even with the help of graphic displays that emphasized these creations,
it was no less a challenge to identify the drawings due to a veil of calcium that had formed over the pigment during a dry period. These figures were carbon dated between 1480 to 1650 A.D.
The red pigment was created from an ancient recipe combining ground up hematite (concentrated iron ore) with assorted binders such as animal fat, berries, blood and adjusted with water or urine while heated to form a paste that was applied by finger or stick.
A rack of flintlock rifles that were painted within the last 200 years is located no more than 15 feet away from the other figures.
While not the easiest to decipher, a nearby graphic makes it more apparent.
Continuing our walk along the cliff, we reached a middle cave with evidence of clams fossils and other sea life embedded in sandstone that likely lived during the late Cretaceous Period when this portion of America was under water.
Then up a rising that followed the curvature of the cliff, we reached the Ghost Cave. While no drawings were discovered here, a series of round boulders known as concretions formed as a result of a clam bed that was exposed when the sea eventually receded.
These cliffs continue to evolve as winter ice cuts through brittle stone; massive rains charge over the cliffs, turning into intermittent waterfalls; and smoke ash eats away at porous surfaces.
While the evolution of our landscape is inevitable, we must look for ways to tap the brakes on what’s creating the intensity and severity of our man-made issues, and allow nature to take its true course.
After all, it’s not supposed to be this hot; it’s not supposed to be this dry; and it’s not supposed to be this smoky during Montana summers.
Few places on earth are more perfect for burying 10 aging Cadillacs nose first, than a hay field along I-40 East, just beyond the Amarillo, TX border.
Commissioned by Amarillo eccentric and millionaire, Stanley Marsh in 1974, Cadillac Ranch was the brainchild of Ant Farm, a San Francisco collective of architects whose counter-cultural take on consumerism inspired a Route 66 installation that’s still attracting tourists and future graffiti artists.
It was a carnival atmosphere when Leah and I arrived one late afternoon. Food trucks and vendors selling spray paint were parked inside the farm gates tending to families who had come to showcase their tagging talents…
albeit temporarily, since it never lasts for more than a moment when others are there for the same purpose.
Over time, the paint build-up has transformed the Cadillac shells into grotesque casualties of Rust-oleum polymers,
leaving behind a graveyard of cans…
atop freshly, blazed signatures.
Fortunately, there are advisory signs directing people to act responsibly.
But signs are just a distraction from the real business at hand,
which is group participation in a colorful experiment of American culture and capitalism.
With rainy weather on the horizon in Oklahoma City, Leah and I opted for indoor entertainment, which brought us to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, home to the most extensive collection of art and artifacts of American West and American Indian culture. With more than 28,000 pieces in its collection, The National Cowboy Museum is an obvious choice for history buffs and art aficionados.
But not for Leah…
“I can’t believe we’re here, she lamented. “This is so ‘not me’.”
“You’re kidding me. We’re talking about a place with the largest barbed wire collection in the world! More than 8,000 different kinds.” I persuaded.
“Barbed wire isn’t really my thing,” she confessed.
“Then how about the turn-of-the-century western town that’s been recreated indoors?” I implored.
“Certainly, you’d be interested in the structures along the simulated street that have been painstakingly rendered according to scale and design?” I wondered.
“This town may even be set up for some shopping,” I offered as an inducement.
“I’ll have to see about that when I get there,” she proposed.
“What about their Frederic Remington collection? I read that there’s an entire gallery devoted to his work,” I advertised…
“There are small bronzes…
and large bronzes…
and paintings, too,” I hyped.
“That might be interesting,” Leah affirmed, warming up to the idea.
“Maybe we can stroll around the garden behind the museum,” I suggested.
“I believe the outdoor space might be as big as the museum galleries…
and we can pay homage to Buffalo Bill while we’re in the gardens,” I encouraged.
“That’s a possibility,” Leah conceded.
“We could also visit the Western Performers Gallery,” I recommended…
“Y’know, we’ll have a look around at all the memorabilia from our TV star cowboys,
and movie star cowboys,” I proposed.
“That could be fun,” Leah predicted.
“And let’s not overlook the western art created by all the great masters and contemporary artists,” I urged.
“Okay, okay! We may as well go through the place since we’re already here,” Leah admitted.
“Finally! So how about a photo of you in front of the wagon?” I suggested.
“Absolutely not!” she insisted.
Once through the entry vestibule, it was difficult to ignore the immensity of the space. Occupying a floor-to-ceiling, window-lit, cul-de-sac at the far end stood the plaster cast of End of the Trail, James Earle Fraser’s iconic 1894 image of a bowed Native American…
and his weary horse, symbolizing the defeat and subjugation of a people driven from their native lands.
“Wow, that’s impressive,” Leah remarked.
Turning the corner, we were met by an impressive stagecoach…and I could see Leah’s layers of resistance slowly fading.
We wandered past Abraham Lincoln,
and Ronald Reagan…
through rodeo trophy rooms, the Native American galleries, the Gallery of Fine American Firearms, the American Cowboy Gallery, and more…
and determined that this was two hours definitely well spent.
As we were leaving, I coaxed Leah once more, “Now can I get a picture of you by the wagon?”
My buddy, Lee (who I’ve known since nursery school) escorted Leah and me to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, his local art museum in Bentonville, AR. Imagine, a world class museum in the midst of a population center of 50,000, courtesy of Alice Walton, heiress to the Walmart fortune.
Alice assigned renowned architect, Moshe Safdie to design a space, anchored by ponds and forest using generous amounts of glass and wood.
The 217,000 sq. ft. complex includes a sculpture garden,
and a restaurant named Eleven, to commemorate the day the museum opened (11/11/11). And admission is free!
It quickly became apparent that there was so much to see that we could have easily spent days walking through the wings, just to take it all in; it was overwhelming. And some of the rooms had walls that were tiered with art from floor to ceiling. It’s no surprise that museum officials have recently announced plans to increase gallery space by an additional 100,000 sq. ft.
Wanting to see as much of the space as possible, we quickly steered through the exhibition halls looking and reflecting, before moving on to the next art moment. However, some of the art that caught my eye has been curated for this post (in no particular order).
As much as I enjoyed documenting the paintings, collages and sculptures within the museum, I found it impossible to ignore the fantastic geometry that surrounded us that was equally worthy of photographing, like the echo dome in the museum vestibule…
or the Fuller dome in the garden…
But the final shape I reserve for Lee and Deb for their Arkansas hospitality.
If you’re searching for a town that’s so proud of their community attraction that their town is named after it, look no further than Natural Bridge, Virginia. It’s an unincorporated town tucked within the Shenandoah Valley…
that unsurprisingly features a rock bridge of limestone located in Rockbridge County.
Leah and I masked up, and approached the Georgian-styled Visitor Center to surrender $18 to view this natural wonder.
Our downward trail followed a moss-laden terrace of twisted roots and vines laced with wisps of water…
descending into enchanted dripping pools falling on flat rocks…
until we reached a T-shirt concession at rock bottom and an imposing graphic…
that tells the story of Natural Bridge:
The arch is composed of solid grey limestone. It is 215 feet high (55 feet wider than Niagara Falls) 40 feet thick, 100 feet wide and spans 90 feet between the massive walls.
The span contains 450,000 cubic feet of rock. If man had scales to weigh it, the mass would balance about 72,000,000 pounds, or 36,000 tons. The rocks that compose the bridge are early Ordovician, about 500 million years old. The internal forms of these rocks that break and fold in the layers were imposed on them during the Appalachian Mountain building process toward the end of the Paleozoic Era, more than 200 million years ago. At its highest point, the bridge is approximately 1160 feet above sea level.
This was Nature’s working material. Her tool, Cedar Creek–a simple mountain stream flowing toward the sea. With these, Nature achieved her miracle. She painted her masterpiece with dull red and ochre, soft shades of yellow and cream, delicate tracings of blueish-grey.
Before white men came to our shores, the Monacan Indians considered this ancient wonder a sacred site, and called it “The Bridge of God.”
According to legend, in 1750 the youthful George Washington, engaged by Lord Fairfax, proprietor of the Northern Neck of Virginia, surveyed the surrounding acreage of Natural Bridge. During his visit, he scaled some 23 feet upon the left wall of the bridge and carved his initials, which may still be seen today.
On July 5, 1774, Thomas Jefferson purchased Natural Bridge and 157 surrounding acres from King George III of England for the “sum of twenty shillings of good lawful money” (about $2.40). Jefferson visited the bridge often, surveyed the area, and even drew a map in his own hand. In 1803, two years before becoming the President of the United States, he constructed a two-room cabin on the grounds.
From the literary classic Moby Dick, to such paintings as The Peaceable Kingdom, Natural Bridge has been used to portray the ultimate wonder. Edward Hicks, one of America’s foremost folk artists, used the Natural Bridge in his oil painting of about 1825-30.
Amongst many artists to paint or sketch an image of the bridge was Frederic Edwin Church, followed in 1860 by Davis Johnson, a second generation Hudson River School artist.
In later years, Natural Bridge became a merchandising magnet.
Personally, I was equally as intrigued with Cedar Creek as I was impressed by the monolithic bridge…
Even today, Lee Highway (U.S. Route 11) runs across the Natural Bridge, and that’s a very good thing, because we crossed many times to access our KOA campground down the road, and more importantly to visit Elvis at the Pink Cadillac Diner.
The above-mentioned poem and pics were motivated by a day-trip to Myakka River State Park, outside Sarasota, Florida.
Originally, my early inclination was to post this as a stand-alone, abstract reaction to all the hate that’s been circulating around the country of late, but as luck would have it–at Leah’s urging–I walked along Sarasota’s Bayfront…
and discovered the 18th Annual Art Exhibit Celebrating Diversity and Inclusion.
Almost immediately, after walking through the exhibition, I realized that showcasing birds and preying reptiles was too esoteric in getting my message across.
And I knew I had to include a sampling of the thoughtful, amazing talent from local and international students…
who have found a way to express themselves both poetically and graphically in ways that astound me, and give me hope for the future of our planet.
50 panels are spread throughout a marine park setting frequented by families, dog-walkers, tourists, and boaters, etc.,
interacting among billboard-sized art.
Indeed, a captive audience for a captivating display of enlightenment that’s too good to ignore.
As an automobile enthusiast, I had occasion to visit the recently opened Classic Car Museum of St. Augustine on a drab weather day. It was a fitting opportunity to take my newly acquired Porsche 718 Cayman out for a drive before the expected rain.
The 30,000 sq. ft. garage displays 80 cars from Sidney Hobbs’ collection,
showcasing every decade through the 20th and 21st century,
with a miscellany of antique and classic cars from private collectors consigned for sale.
While I appreciate the automobile in its entirety, it’s the design nuances that steer me to it–the features of the vehicle that typically connote high style–always balancing the form and function:
like fins from the 50’s;
or hood ornaments;
Sometimes the accents serve little purpose…
and sometimes they do.
And sometimes it nothing more than a bunch of hot air.
But the unspoken truth is, none of it really matters unless the car is driven.
Despite the three years since Leah and I visited Mt. Rushmore, what could be more American than re-posting this visit on Independence Day? And still, there’s great turmoil within the country. A trip to Mt. Rushmore means many different things to different kinds of people. One person’s treasure is another’s abomination. To visit was once considered patriotic. Now it’s an act of partisan politics.
There’s no better way to celebrate the 4th of July, than a trip to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sure, the crowds were large; that was to be expected. But once the cars were garaged, the pedestrian traffic was easy to negotiate. And with everyone looking up at the mountain, the Presidents’ faces and intentions were never obstructed.
It was also a time to celebrate family. There were plenty of kids riding in strollers, hanging from moms in carriers, or balancing on dads’ shoulders. Generations of families–many of them immigrants–had gathered to pay homage to the principles of freedom that make our country a beacon for the oppressed and downtrodden.
Seniors were being escorted through the Avenue of Flags by their grandchildren. Extended families organized group pictures at the Grand View Terrace, unified by their love of democracy and their reunion T-shirts.
All expressed awe at Gutzon Borglum’s grand vision and remarkable achievement–the transformation of a mountain into a national symbol visited by approximately 3 million people every year.
The 14-year process of carving the rock began with dimensionalizing the Presidents’ portraits through Plaster of Paris masks, on view at the sculptor’s studio-turned-museum.
Additional exhibits detail the construction of the memorial, and the tools used by workers, like the original Rand & Waring compressor, which powered the jackhammers for all the finishing work.
An overlooked fact–Mt. Rushmore was once intended as a tribute to the “Five Faces of Freedom,” but funding ran short when Congressional appropriation for the monument approached $1 million during the Great Depression. Hence, the unfinished carving of the Great Ape to the right of Lincoln serves as a reminder that we are never far from our true ancestors.¹
No less ambitious, and equally as impressive, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a work-in-progress located 16 miles away in the heart of the Black Hills–considered sacred land by the Lakota people.
Conceived by Korczak Ziolkowski in early 1940s,
the memorial, when completed will stand 563 ft. by 641 ft. across, and is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world. Already, the completed head of Crazy Horse measures 60 feet tall…
…twice the size of any of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore. While the first blast was conducted on the mountain in 1947, the current prospects for the memorial are to complete the outstretched arm during the next twelve years. There is no completion date available for the finished carving, which has been financed entirely by private funding since its inception.
Mt. Rushmore was created by a Danish American. Crazy Horse was created by a Polish American. And visitors to both destinations manifest the melting pot that has brought us all together as Americans. It’s our diversity that makes us strong, our ambition and determination that makes us great, and our compassion and sacrifice that make us whole.
These are the values reflected from the faces we’ve immortalized in stone. Yet, we would honor them more by living according to these principles.
Happy Birthday, America!
¹ Just kidding, but the photograph is real and has not been retouched.