The journey to Egypt took place when we lived in Holland. We made arrangements with Insight tours, and redeemed a pair of air tickets with KLM for the flight from Amsterdam to Cairo.
While some would have gone on their own, we opted to join the comforts of a tour group where all the arrangements are made for us. This freed us up to truly enjoy the trip without the excesses of looking for transport, accommodations and the potential harrowing circumstances of navigating a foreign land where we cannot effectively communicate.
Our journey started as soon as we landed in Cairo. Our luggage had been broken into! We had already left the airport and to try making a report at that stage would be probably more hassle than living with the problem. Fortunately we did not have any valuables in the luggage, just clothes and some bottled water (this is Suan’s obsession).
Even-though this was not an auspicious start, it was a journey that we would come to remember for posterity in part due to the excellent way in which the itinerary was designed.
Cairo, home of the pyramids
Actually this city had been “official” capital only since the 10th century BC that is. Well, at least from the time of the Arab conquest, the capital has been near present day Cairo. However the capitals of the ancient Egyptian dynasties had variously shifted from the northern delta of the Nile, through to the southern end of present day Egypt. The old Memphis capital is just 20km south of Giza, and was the capital of the earlier dynasties.
But for a few millennia prior, the capitals of Egypt had been much further away. However, never too far from the mother river Nile, which is the wellspring of life of this otherwise parched land. In fact our journey will hug exclusively to the river itself.
The main highlight for us to be in Cairo is to be able to visit the great pyramids. And there are two locations which we spent a little time on – Saqqara and Giza.
Giza, being the more famous of the two in terms of namesake and also the photos was naturally an important stop. We did not join the option to climb into the chambers of the pyramid to the center where the sarcophagus is placed, staying outside to take in the views. Afterall, most if not all the artifacts are now in the museum, so it will be an empty chamber. Not nice to smell the soles and butt of the person climbing ahead of you in a small tunnel. Imagine if someone broke wind…
Part of the journey to the pyramids was a camel ride, and it came with the usual buy a photo thingy.
The pyramids were built over a few hundred years in the old Kingdom (about 3000BC). After that period, no more pyramids were built. There are three of the great pyramids in Giza – Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus. Visiting each one in turn, we arrived at the panoramic view of all three pyramids. Now you need to take your photos carefully, selecting a good vantage point.
The city is creeping all around Giza and you might just be taking a photo with the city view in full sight as the background. For all you know, someone could think the photo was taken in Las Vegas!
The largest pyramid is the one of Cheops (Khufu) which was originally 140 meters high (before the casing stones were removed), and 230 meters along the base. It’s made up of 2,300,000 blocks, with the average weight of 2.5 tons. Can’t see how people would want to climb up the pyramid though. Besides being steep and the height of stone being quite tall, it is blazing hot even in the late afternoon.
By the time we swung around to the Sphinx where the mummification temple is located, it was near closing time. The sphinx has lost its nose – it was due to a combination of abuse and weakness in the structure. As we walked up the ramparts, it was so crowded that one could fall over the edge (there was no safety railings).
Whatever its intended purpose, modern day archaeologist deduced that this statue is likely built around 2500BC, the same time as the great pyramids. We can only awe at its size and disfiguration. There probably are night performances there too, as we saw lined up deck chairs prepared in the way of a function.
But then this was all we had of Cairo, the next day we packed up and flew out to Luxor (671km away) to begin the next chapter of our journey.
Luxor and Karnak, religious capitals
Now Luxor is both an area and the name of a temple. And in the old days, religion was big business. Really big business. The priests (and priestesses) were all powerful and influential due to the enormous economic power they wielded. It is not land that they own, that’s the Pharoah and the nobility’s realm.
As anywhere else, temples receive an inordinate amount of gifts and offerings by believers and devotees. So it would not be surprising to know that the religions men (and women) engaged in financial services we would call banking today.
To be able to perpetuate this, the temples were enlarged, made more elaborate over the centuries. All of this to seal the belief of all powerful deities are to be worshipped, feasted and devoted. When we arrived after a 1½ hour flight, we were whisked on coaches to Karnak, the largest temple complex in all of Egypt.
To impress upon worshippers (and us), the way to the temple was lined with an imposing row of Sphinxes.
The Temple of Karnak is actually three main temples, smaller enclosed temples, and several outer temples. This vast complex was built and enlarged over a thirteen hundred year period. Enormous brick walls enclose the three main temples of Mut, Monthu and Amun like they were fortresses. The Open Air Museum is located to the north of the first courtyard, across from the Sacred Lake.
The main complex, The Temple of Amun, is situated in the center of the entire complex. The Temple of Monthu is to the north of the Temple of Amun, while the Temple of Mut is to the south. These are all the principal temples.
Our first stop was in the temple of Amun. You can see that the colonnades in the halls are huge! They have different top ends – some with open lotus shape and others with not.
At a height of 82 feet, the roof would have been colored blue, representing the goddess Nut (pronounced “nu wit”). We were told about the struggles between Pharaohs and the priests. The most notable being that of King Akenaten’s attempt to impose a monotheistic religion on the people of Egypt, venerating only the Sun god.
The smaller Luxor temple is another complex to tick off on the list. Built later than Karnak, again it was more of the same, perhaps on a smaller scale.
Now the really interesting place to be is the valley of the Kings. Said to be the burial place of many Egyptian Kings, it is a wonder to know that not all of them have been found or excavated. We were led through a few of the many opened tombs, walking along corridors of walls festooned with carvings. These carvings depict stories of mythology and also the lives of the Pharaoh who was buried in the tomb.
Now women around the world should celebrate that there is a temple dedicated to the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut. It’s a long walk from the entrance and we advise you take the tram.
Before we left, we saluted to the colossi of Memnon. Standing guard at what was originally Amenhotep’s temple (even larger than Karnak it is said), there is little left beyond the two damaged sentinels that bear the King’s likeness.A little further down the Nile we came to Edfu. The main attraction we touched here was the temple of Horus, the falcon headed god. This god is said to have vanquished evil, killing the god Seth. Now we know that even gods will die…In any case, be careful here. The way to the temple is via horse carriage unless you want to walk the distance. In the ensuing melee, one of our tour mates lost her wallet!
The Crocodile god Sobek (at Kom Ombo) was next. Not a major deity, yet it should be mentioned as crocodiles do roam the Nile. We are actually at the end of the free running Nile river as our boat came up against the Aswan dam.
In a place called Philae, we visited the temple of Isis. You need to know that when the dam was built, it submerged a lot of the sites. So, this temple, along with a host of others were moved from their original locations and placed on the Aglika island. It is a worthwhile visit, though for travelers making their own arrangements, you’d need to find the bus that makes a round trip stop at the various temples saved from the Aswan flooding (it is now Lake Nasser).
Abu Simbel, the frontier with Nubia
An hour’s flight and 270km away, Abu Simbel was a symbol of Pharaonic power. The imposing statues could be seen as we walked from the entrance to the grounds. However, we were told again that this was not the original position. They had been moved to ground 60m higher and also 180m further away from the water’s edge.
Now some folks (like us) fly into Abu Simbel for a simple 2-hour block of time to explore both the outside and inside of the temple. Alternatively there seems to be bus convoys departing from Aswan daily for a 3-hour drive over ~280km of desert road. whatever mode of transfer, the time taken to get here is the same. You will be left with a limited time here to take the quirky photos for instagram.
The interesting story that was shared with us was: discoverer Burckhardt was leaving the area when he looked back and saw the monument sticking out of the sands. An “accidental discovery” if you will! Our guide also pointed to us that the standing statues of the Pharaoh at the temple of Nefertari are carved in such a way that the Pharaoh’s left leg is astride ahead of the right. This was interpreted to project the martial nature of the warrior King – you start marching on your left foot.
Why did Ramses construct such a structure so far south from his domains? Our guide affirmed the historically accepted version that Ramses – fresh from defeating the Hittites in the north, was eager to impress his power upon the Nubians to the south. Sort of telling the guys to back off, or else!
Today, we are told to look back every 20m towards the monument as we return to the entrance. Take a photo, and perhaps you may come up with your own time-lapsed photography!
Back in Aswan, we took a local felucca cruise along the waterway. It was a beautiful day when little boys started paddling up to our boat. Their construct of a “boat” was nothing but a contraption of wooden boards nailed together! Such an enterprising endeavour!
Flying back to Cairo was un-eventful. We had stayed at the Marriot for the duration of the time in Cairo. It was already security heavy at the time we were there. One of the things about the Marriot is that the Italian restaurant is a must try. While not cheap, it was certainly very good. As we look back, we wonder how in those days we could muster the courage to hail a taxi to the Sheraton, just to buy the Hardrock café’s T-shirts. It’s probably highly NOT recommended these days.
Our cruising up the Nile on a boat for 4-days was a very nice way to take it slow and easy. No changing of hotels or rushing around in a coach! It’s like an ocean cruise where you disembark onto a land tour excursion every day and be back in time for a nice meal. Definitely a recommended way to travel Egypt. If only we had taken the cruise all the way from Cairo!
This journey was made in October 2004