Temples, Toilets, and Tombs, Oh My — Introduction

Wherein lightning strikes twice

There is the old and useless adage to the effect that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Says who? I ask. That would mean, unless you take the idea only in its most literal sense, that there are no second chances in life, which is too horrible a thought to contemplate.

Last year, as some of you may remember, we were COVID-ed out of the trip of a lifetime to Egypt, the assumption at the time being we would never get the opportunity again, at least with the same cast of characters. Yes, Cindy Kline and the folks at Shai Bar Ilan Geographical Tours might put together another similar excursion, but how would they convince their star attraction, scholar-in-residence Rabbi/Professor Joshua Berman, to interrupt his busy schedule to return to the Land of the Pharaohs?

But out of the blue a few months ago we received a Cindy-gram letting us know that tour would be repeated – actually twice – this January and February. Which one did we want to join? As if there were any question that we were going. We decided on #1 and sent in our deposit.  Then I began to worry (maybe, ‘obsess’ would be more accurate). What could go wrong now to keep us from going? It was clear to both of us that this was it. If we flunked out this time, there would be no third try. Two strikes and you’re out in the old ball game.

Two strikes and you’re out

It almost happened. We received a message from Shai Bar Ilan that there was some kind of difficulty, and they could not book the flights to and from Egypt that they had announced. We would have to make our own arrangements. Had they also insisted that we arrange our own flights within Egypt as well (Cairo to Aswan and then Luxor back to Cairo), that would have been an automatic deal-breaker. As it was, it came close, as in, why are we doing this and why aren’t they? We (well, Barbara) called our esteemed travel agent, Mark Feldman of Zion Tours, and explained our problem. He was, shall we say, flabbergasted at this turn of events but arranged our flights for us. It would cost us more money than we had anticipated, but even worse: his office could not get us on that EgyptAir flight direct from Ben-Gurion to Cairo. We would have to settle for a flight to Jordan on that country’s national carrier and from there to Cairo, meaning we would have to be at the airport sometime after 5AM, meaning our trusty cab driver, Dudu, would have to pick us up at 4:30, meaning we would have to ‘get up’ at 3:30. All this to make a flight at 8:10, arriving in Amman less than an hour later (two hours with the time change). As we are fond to telling one and all, we can see Amman – at least the city’s lights – looking out from our apartment. One could drive there from here in an hour or less. But in today’s cockamamie world, we would make the journey by plane in four and a half hours. By the time we landed at the airport in Cairo, we had been on the go for something like nine hours, which is crazy. You might ask, what was the problem between Shai Bar Ilan and EgyptAir? I don’t know and I don’t care. I just hope they figure something out for the next group.

One problem solved, but I still had this nagging feeling that something – who knows what – could go wrong. Then we got a phone call from our dear friend Richard Levine. A few weeks before we were set to leave, The Levines had spent their typical long Shabbat with us. Right after they returned to their mountaintop up north, I came down with my typical winter cold, all stuffed up and sneezing, and, being a good husband, I shared it with Barbara, who spent more than several days coughing to beat the band. It was then that Richard announced: I’ve got COVID.

NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!! Was that why I had been sick and why Barbara couldn’t stop coughing? Supposing we were COVID-ed again? That would have done it; not only cancelling the same trip twice but doing so for the same reason. Can you imagine trying to explain our dilemma to the insurance people and hoping they wouldn’t put us on a permanent ‘Do not even answer their phone calls from now on’ list?  Barbara calmly finished her breakfast before taking a home COVID test, while I paced the floor nervously, imaging the worst. What a relief, Barbara’s test was negative; we didn’t have COVID. Another bullet dodged; time to start packing. It appeared that ‘fate’ was running out of things that could go wrong, for we made it to the airport on time, arrived in Amman and then in Cairo as scheduled, even finding our luggage waiting for us at the airport – always a harbinger of good things to come.

Au contraire, mes amis

In the time leading up to our departure, I learned a thing or two about how the trip to Egypt had come to be. I had assumed (never do that!) that Rabbi/Professor Berman had been coaxed, cajoled, enticed to be the scholar-in-residence, which is why I had assumed the tour wouldn’t be repeated. Au contraire, mes amis, it was his idea all along. R. Berman has been interested in ‘Israel in Pharaonic Egypt’ for quite a while, and in the winter of 2021 during the height of COVID, he took advantage of the tiniest window of opportunity to fly to Egypt and join a group of Egyptologists – headed by his mentor, James Hoffmeier – who were touring the country. That led R. Berman to fantasize about bringing groups of Jews to Egypt to share what he was learning. And then he thought, why wait for Mashiach to arrive to do so? What’s wrong with now, or at least as soon as the pandemic is over?

When he returned to Israel, he began looking around to see what travel company – if any – would be interested in his proposal. He turned to his neighbor Cindy Kline, who brought the idea to the good folks at Shai Bar Ilan Geographical Tours. That, she thought, would be the extent of her involvement, a dutiful shaliach. Little did she imagine that she would be asked to be the organizer for these trips, but that’s what happened. Now, by popular demand, they were doing it again.

And so we arrived at the Cairo airport, Barbara and I, Cindy Kline and R. Berman, and two other couples, waiting patiently for the rest of the group to arrive on the direct flight, the one we couldn’t get on. Then, and only then, would our tour bus leave the airport on its way to downtown Cairo. Our journey was beginning, and now it’s my turn to summarize in words and photos (wait until you see some of the great shots I took!) the nine days of our journey, traveling up and down the Nile, looking at the remains of an ancient civilization and commenting on a country 2,000 years past its prime.

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