It had been a long, tiring flight on Egypt Air, from New York to Cairo, but my fatigue melted away as I entered my Nile-view room at the Ramses Hilton. The evening haze glowed orange, incandescent from the setting Egyptian sun, which reflected in the waters of the Nile. In the distance were the silhouettes of the Great Pyramids of Cheops, Chefren and Mycerinus. It was mind boggling to think that this view had been awing new visitors to Egypt for almost five thousand years.
I wandered downstairs into the hotel’s lobby, passing a lounge where business suited Egyptians sipped Turkish coffee, smoking pungent “sheeshas” or water pipes and listened to the keening strains of traditional Middle Eastern music. After a traditional Egyptian dinner topped off by Turkish coffee and delicious pastries I said “dispah ala kheer” (good night) to my waiter and retired early in preparation for my first day’s sight seeing. EMECO Travel had arranged for me to have my own personal guide, driver and car optimizing my travel experience and day one found me at the site of the Great Pyramids. Riding a camel to the 4700-year-old edifices I dismounted and proceeded to explore the interior of the Pyramid of Mycerinus, making my way down the cramped corridor to the chambers in the heart of the edifice. They were bare, long ago emptied of their riches by the tomb robbers in ancient times. Exiting the mausoleum I walked around the larger pyramids of Cheops and Chefren, visiting the building housing the 4700 year Solar Boat found buried nearby and still looking sea worthy millennia later, though it was intended to cruise not the ocean but the sky as transport for the departed pharaoh. That evening I returned and watched an incredible sound and light show describing the history of the plains of Giza and narrated appropriately enough by the sphinx.
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is a must see for all visitors. It contains such a wealth of artifacts that some say they basement will have to be re-excavated one day to find many of them. Of particular note are the treasures of King Tutankhamen. His solid gold burial mask immortalizes the youthful face of the pharaoh who died in his late teens, and was quite unknown until Howard Carter found his untouched tomb in 1922. An apparently well-documented series of events followed the opening of the crypt, including the devouring of Carter’s “lucky” canary by a cobra the night of the find. The cobra is the royal insignia of Lower Egypt. Lord Carnarvon, Carter’s patron, died shortly after from an infected mosquito bite at which point the lights in Cairo mysteriously went out for 12 hours, and the Lord’s favorite dog back in England let out a howl and keeled over dead. Supposedly quite a few others who entered the tomb died of unusual illnesses, though Carter, the main culprit if Tut was looking for retribution, went unscathed (if we discount the loss of his canary). Other treasures include Tut’s solid gold coffin, much meticulously crafted jewelry and a throne which has a remarkable relief of Tut with his wife Ankhesenamen.
A visit to Cairo is not complete without a trip to The Citadel. This was the former headquarters of Saladin, the remarkable ruler who routed the Crusaders from the Holy Land in the latter part of the 12th century. The Citadel also provides a remarkable view of Old Cairo where a sea of minarets ensures none of the pious will miss the muezzin’s call to prayer. The 19th century mosque of Muhammad Ali (not the boxer, but the Albanian who took power after Napoleon’s troops vacated Egypt) provided a quiet refuge where my guide, Rania, explained some of the philosophy of the Islamic religion. In those grandiose surroundings I confess she almost made a convert of me. Later we visited Coptic Cairo. Ten percent of Egypt’s population are Christians who were converted during the time of the Roman Empire and these are the true descendants of the ancient Egyptians. The only modern use of the ancient pharaonic language is during their religious ceremonies. At St. Sergius church tradition holds that the Holy Family hid out in a crypt in the basement during their flight to Egypt. Unfortunately the crypt is flooded by the rising ground water which plagues modern Egypt. Much of Coptic Cairo is under reconstruction at present, which disturbs the traditional peacefulness of the district. Also worth a visit is the Ben Ezra Synagogue with a shrine that traditionally marks the spot where Moses was found in the bulrushes.
The Khan el Khalili bazaar is a paradise for shoppers, but a must see for everyone. The winding streets, exotic goods and galabiyya-clad peddlers make the district look like a scene from the Arabian nights. Best buys include gold, silver and colorful hand blown perfume bottles. Make sure the precious metals are stamped and that the glassware will be appropriately wrapped after purchase. Be prepared to bargain hard as the goods are marked way up for tourists. On my departure I found most of the things I purchased were cheaper at the airport gift shop!
The next leg of my trip was a flight to the city of Luxor in southern Egypt (also known as Upper Egypt because it is upriver, as opposed to Lower Egypt, which is north and down river). Here I boarded a cruise boat, The Nile Plaza, my home for the next four days. Cruising is the best way to see this part of the country and provides a leisurely way to observe rural life along the Nile. Luxor (from Arabic El Uqsor, “the palaces”), called Thebes in ancient times, was capital of Egypt for over one thousand years and repository of some of its most fantastic archeological treasures. The temple at Karnak is one of the largest temple complexes in the world, covering about sixty acres. The famous hypostyle hall contains almost two hundred monstrous columns, topped by lotus and papyrus motifs. Try to find a spot where there are no other visitors, close your eyes and imagine the sound of the sacred procession leading the statue of the god, Amun-Ra out of the sanctuary during the Opet Festival. The smaller temple at Luxor also has many fine reliefs and an evening visit to the flood lit structure worthwhile.
Overnighting on board The Nile Plaza, we had an early visit to the Valley of the Kings in the desert on the western bank of the Nile. We managed to visit four tombs including that of King Tut. It was actually one of the less impressive dwellings in the necropolis with reliefs found only in the actual burial chamber. The pharaoh’s mummy is still on site in its huge red stone sarcophagus. More impressive was the tomb Thutmosis III, one of the greatest of Egypt’s New Kingdom pharaoh’s. Despite the inaccessible site a good hundred feet up the side of the cliff, it was also robbed in antiquity. Interestingly the tombs were rarely finished. Usually as soon as the pharaoh died work was stopped, so many walls are unfinished, or partly finished with only the overseers’ sketches present. Also, despite the fact that one expects the tombs to be gloomy, the neon bright colors actually are quite cheerful, at least in the glare of electric lights. By the way, bring a flashlight, as the guards have been known to turn out the lights in the tombs and demand a little “baksheesh” to turn them back on.
While in the necropolis it is worth seeing the funerary temple to Hatshepsut, a woman who ruled Egypt for years as pharaoh, even having herself depicted wearing a beard. The building is surprisingly modern looking despite being over three thousand years old. Most of her inscriptions were scraped off by her irate nephew, Thutmosis III whose power she had usurped.
Further upriver we visited the well-preserved temples of Horus at Edfu, and the Temple of Sobek and Haroeris in Komombo built in Greco-Roman times. Our cruise terminated in the town of Aswan in Nubia, where the fabulously preserved Temple of Philae rests on a lush island in Lake Aswan. Almost completely intact, it was built by the Greek Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, who took power after Alexander the Great’s conquest (and included Cleopatra, who was actually Greek, not Egyptian). Later additions were constructed Roman emperors as late as the 2nd century AD. This temple was the site of active worship of the Egyptian mother goddess Isis until the sixth century AD. Unfortunately most of the reliefs of the lithe, unclothed goddess were defaced by prudish Coptic Christians who occupied the temple after its closure
After visiting Philae we took a ride on a traditional felucca, the single masted lateen rigged vessel, which has cruised the Nile for millennia. Sailing on Lake Aswan we glided past the fabled Elephantine Isle, with its thick cloak of palm trees and foliage, and scattered ancient ruins. In contrast to the west the yellow sands of the Sahara reach right to the shore. Myriad other brightly colored boats plied the waters of the lake. Our Nubian helmsman grinned toothily, his burnoose streaming in the breeze and as he tacked our vessel towards shore. I turned to one of my fellow passengers, a producer for the Discovery Channel. “Sandy”, I said, “There may be more exotic things we could be doing right now, but for the life of me I can’t think of any”. She smiled and nodded.
The cruise terminated in Aswan and for the final leg of my trip I flew to Abu Simbel, deep in the heart of Nubia and only a few miles north of the Sudanese border. Here lies the great temple of Abu Simbel rescued from the rising waters of Lake Aswan by a joint international effort after the High Dam was built. Carved in solid rock in the 13th century BC, the edifice is faced with four massive colossi of Ramses II, each almost seventy feet high. It is said that in ancient times marauders from the south bent on plundering Egypt would take one look at the brooding countenance of these colossi and would flee terror stricken. I believe it.
My trip to Egypt had been brief, but incredibly packed with history and new and exotic experiences. For those with limited amounts of time a well-organized tour can eliminate hassles and free up time to do more enjoyable things.
Camel Back Photo By George Burden – All Rights Reserved
Tomb Entrance – Public Domain
Giza View From Plan – Creative Commons
First Published In The Medical Post, March 6, 2001
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