Discovering ancient Egypt

Tourism has declined substantially since the country’s 2011 revolution, but those who do visit find warm welcomes and a rich history.

Bent at the waist, head down, step by step, I climb. It’s hot, and every few seconds I stop to allow someone coming down to pass. I try not to think about what I’m doing or the solid rock surrounding me because I’m claustrophobic. Instead, I concentrate on the goal: King Khufu’s tomb, deep inside Cairo’s Great Pyramid of Giza.

The largest of the three pyramids on the outskirts of the city, it is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Egyptologists believe that the pyramid was built over a 10- to 20-year period around 2560 B.C. What I find is a large burial chamber and the
king’s sarcophagus.

This is my first glimpse of ancient Egypt—a world of pyramids, temples, tombs, gods, goddesses, kings, and queens. For 12 days, I will travel with a group of like-minded tourists and an expert guide and Egyptologist, Mohammed Bayoumy, exploring and learning.

Cairo, a city of 20 million, is in perpetual motion. Men and women dressed in galabiyas—loose-fitting, ankle-length robes—shop at roadside markets and dart across four lanes of traffic to catch one of the white van taxis that are common here. Donkeys pull carts filled with produce alongside cars in traffic. This is a city of contrasts, color, grit—and friendliness. As I walk to a market, I receive warm greetings in English and helpful comments from stall owners.

At Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, Bayoumy uses the chronologically organized first floor to introduce our group to Egypt’s complex history. Explaining the statues as we pass, he describes treasures that date back as far as 5500 B.C.

Luxor Temple photo: Marilyn Jones
Luxor Temple photo: Marilyn Jones

He tells us that cartouches—hieroglyphic names carved in the art—identify the statues and reliefs. This collection came together to protect Egypt’s artifacts, treasures, and heritage. First housed in a palace annex beginning in 1858, it was moved to its present location in downtown Cairo in 1900.

On the second floor of the museum, we find relics from King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The boy king’s tomb was left virtually undisturbed for more than 3,000 years until it was discovered in 1922 by British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter. The Royal Mummy Room houses the remains of many of Egypt’s ancient kings. I am fascinated and uneasy as I peer at their glass coffins, many with faces, hands, and feet showing.

Alexandria (named for Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.) is a bustling metropolis with too much traffic and too few traffic lights. The second-largest city after Cairo, it is on the Mediterranean Sea and is a favorite vacation destination for Egyptians. Nightclubs, restaurants, and vendors line its streets.

Pompey’s Pillar is an 88-foot-tall monolithic Roman pillar. It is the only relic remaining from a massive temple dedicated to Serapis, a god introduced in the third century A.D. to unite Greeks and Egyptians.

The entire structure, with the exception of this pillar, was destroyed during the fourth century by Coptic Christians attempting to eradicate paganism from the city. This will become a theme throughout Egypt as I travel south: many of the temples were defaced by Coptic Christians.

Abu Simbel photo: Marilyn Jones
Abu Simbel photo: Marilyn Jones

The pillar is one of the biggest ancient monoliths still in existence, and historians believe that it is also one of the largest monolithic pillars ever erected. Unlike many similar pillars that were composed of drums, this one was carved out of a single block of red Aswan granite. It is estimated to weigh around 285 tons.

Except for my tour group, there are few people here—a sign of the continuing struggle to lure tourists back to Egypt. According to Bayoumy, before the revolution in 2011, more than 14 million tourists visited the country every year. The number fell to 1 million after 2011 and has slowly climbed back to 4 million.

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The Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa, one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World, is in Alexandria. Descending a spiral staircase carved in the bedrock, we find etchings and carvings exhibiting a union of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures. From the first to fourth centuries A.D., the tombs here served as the final resting place for as many as 300 mummies. Visitors are free to explore the top two levels, which are dominated by a large funeral banquet hall and rock-carved alcoves, each big enough to hold three mummies.

After exploring Egypt’s past, we get a taste of the future with a visit to the ultramodern Bibliotheca Alexandrina, also known as the New Library of Alexandria. Second in size among libraries only to America’s Library of Congress, it can hold around eight million books. On the lower level are several art galleries and a museum devoted to Anwar Sadat, the country’s president from 1970 until his assassination in 1981.

photo: Marilyn Jones
photo: Marilyn Jones

In the evening, after dinner at a seafood restaurant on the Mediterranean, I walk along the boardwalk, enjoying the sea air and local color. Men and women, young and old, ask where I am from. I feel welcome. Countless times I am approached and addressed with “You are welcome” and “Welcome to Egypt.” With no hijab covering my blond hair it’s obvious I am a visitor. I always feel safe.

Because the Nile flows from south to north, the southern part of the country is known as Upper Egypt. Here, the cities of Aswan and Luxor bookend the route of many cruise ships and frame an entirely new area of exploration.

Aswan is a busy market and tourist center with a population of 300,000. Located just north of the Aswan Dam, which formed Lake Nasser, it is home to several ancient treasures that would be underwater if not for their rescue by the international community.

One of these is Philae Temple, built in the first century B.C. to honor Isis, goddess of beauty and love, the wife of Osiris, god of heavens and the lord of the underground world, and mother of Horus. The falcon-headed Horus was originally the sky god, whose eyes were the sun and moon. He was later assimilated into the popular myth of Isis and Osiris as the divine couple’s child. The three characters dominate ancient Egyptian culture.

Another impressive accomplishment was the relocation of the Great Temple of Ramesses II. The impressive Abu Simbel temples to the king and his queen Nefertari are 175 miles south of Aswan. Four 65-foot statues of the king front his temple. Thirty-eight-foot-tall statues of the king and queen face Nefertari’s temple. Originally constructed in the 13th century B.C., these structures each contain a maze of rooms decorated with statues and wall carvings depicting the king and gods and goddesses.

photo: Marilyn Jones
photo: Marilyn Jones

After the drive back to Aswan from Abu Simbel, we board the Princess Sarah for a three-day cruise—a relaxing way to travel between sites. Along our route, we visit Kom Ombo, a temple dedicated to the Egyptian deity Horus and to Sobek, the crocodile god. In addition to hearing a fascinating history of the temple, we visit a museum preserving the mum­-
mified remains of crocodiles dating to the first century B.C.

Edfu, a temple dedicated to Hor-
us, is another destination along the Nile. Located in a tiny village, it is the most complete temple in Egypt. We take a caleche (horse-drawn buggy) through the village to the temple built during the Ptolemaic era in the first century B.C.

It is dusk when I walk from the ship to Luxor Temple, near the Nile. The temple was built and added to by four kings—Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun, Horemheb, and Ramesses II—between 1390 and 1213 B.C. Lights illuminate the great pillars, sculptures, and etchings of the temple, which is dedicated to Amon, king of the gods, his consort Mut, and their son Khons. Toward the rear is a granite shrine dedicated to Alexander the Great.

As I begin to walk back to the ship, I see before me part of the Avenue of the Sphinxes illuminated against a sapphire sky. Originally more than a mile and a half long, the road was used once a year during the Opet festival when the Egyptians paraded along it, carrying the statues of Amun and Mut in a symbolic reenactment of their marriage. The avenue was finished during the 30th Dynasty rule of Nectanebo I in the first century B.C.

The avenue connected with the Great Temple of Amon at Kamak, the largest religious complex ever made. Covering about 200 acres, Kamak was also dedicated to Amun, Mut, and Khons. Construction began the same year as Luxor Temple and was completed in 1353 B.C.

“Valley of the Kings is a burial ground for pharaohs, queens, high priests, and others chosen for the honor,” Bayoumy says, as he passes out our entrance tickets to this site. These tombs are extravagantly decorated with scenes of what the Egyptians thought would take place in the afterlife.

Constructed during Egypt’s New Kingdom (1539–1075 B.C.), these tombs have had most of their contents removed by robbers, treasure hunters, and archaeologists over several centuries. “The contents would have included clothing, food and wine, mummified pets, sacred objects, and riches,” says Bayoumy.

It was in 1922, when many experts believed all the tombs had been located, that Howard Carter discovered the resting place of King Tutankhamun. In 2005, another tomb was discovered about 50 feet from King Tutankhamun’s. Although it contained no mummy, it held objects including pottery, linens, and flowers. Archaeologists are still working to solve its mysteries.

Back on the bus, we head to Luxor. The next day we will fly to Cairo and I will return home. When I planned this trip, I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong. The mysteries, culture, history, and beauty of Egypt are richer and more memorable than I could have imagined.    

Traveler Fast Facts

Egypt is located where Africa meets the Middle East. Bordered by Libya, Sudan, Israel, and Jordan, at the Gulf of Aqaba, it has a population of more than 90 million. Because of its predominantly barren ecosystem, 99 percent of the country’s population lives on 5 percent of its land. Their lifeline is the Nile, the world’s longest river.

Egypt is typically hot and sunny throughout the year with little rain south of Cairo. The best time to visit is from October to April when it isn’t so hot. For this reason, December and January are peak tourist months and attractions can become crowded. If you visit Luxor or Aswan between May and September, tour sites in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the intense heat.

About 25 international airports in Egypt welcome private jets. To visit the locations discussed in this article, consider Cairo International Airport, Borg El Arab In­ternational Airport (Alexandria), Luxor International Air-port, Aswan International Airport, and Abu Simbel Airport. Airlines that serve Cairo International Airport with direct flights from Canada, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia include Turkish Airlines, Air Canada, and EgyptAir.

Americans should bring U.S. currency in small bills. Many vendors will quote prices in dollars. These vendors are often aggressive, so if you aren’t interested, don’t stop to browse. If you are considering a purchase, on the other hand, note that vendors will often accept 50 to 60 percent less than their asking prices.

Because of the current political climate, you should check conditions before traveling to Egypt. (The U.S. State Department’s website has a travel-advisory section that contains up-to-date information.) The safest way to visit is on an organized tour. Police monitor all tour-group movements and are present at every major attraction.

Traveler Report Card

Hotel Mercure Cairo Le Sphinx (B-) offers a beautiful lobby and several rooms that have a view of the pyramids. Cherry Maryski Hotel (C) in Alexandria is near the Mediterranean Sea and local shopping areas, but needs updating. Helnan Aswan Hotel (A+) is a lovely property on the Nile River with beautifully appointed rooms. Mercure Luxor Karnak (B) is on the Nile and features nicely landscaped grounds, a large swimming pool, and a rooftop bar.

Kadoura (A) is an exceptional seafood restaurant in Alexandria offering fresh fish from the Mediterranean Sea. Zizo Koshary (A) in Cairo features koshary, one of the most famous dishes in Egypt, which consists of rice, spaghetti, macaroni, black lentils, chick peas, and garlic topped with a spicy tomato sauce and fried onions. Al Sahaby Lane Restaurant and Café (A) in Luxor offers terrace seating overlooking the Nile. On the menu are Hamam Mahshi—made by stuffing rice, wheat, and herbs into a pigeon that is grilled or roasted—and other traditional Middle Eastern and Western dishes.

There are seven UNESCO World Heritage sites in Egypt; most cover broad areas instead of specific attractions, so much of the country is under the UNESCO umbrella. There’s a lot to explore: deserts and oases, additional tombs at Valley of the Kings, and forts and citadels. Also, the Grand Egyptian Museum, near the pyramids, is under construction and scheduled to partially open later this year. Note that tourist sites are usually not handicap accessible and, because they have been preserved intact, they often contain pathways made of uneven stones that can make walking a bit difficult.