Story and Photos By Philip Schweier
Planning our trip to Egypt took the better part of a year, but it was well worth it, and any concerns we may have had evaporated as soon as we arrived at the Cairo airport. We were welcomed by Mohamed – a representative of our tour company, JourneytoEgypt.com – who ushered us through the tourist visa and passport process quickly and efficiently. In no time, we were on our way to our hotel, in the shadow of the Great Pyramid. Marriott’s Mena House dates back to 1886, and has undergone many renovations to maintain its reputation as one of the finest hotels in Cairo. Famous visitors over the decades have included Prince Albert Victor of Wales, Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, Frank Sinatra, and many more. Many of its rooms offer spectacular views of the pyramids of Giza.
DAYS 1-3: CAIRO AND MEMPHIS
In the morning, we were picked up at the Mena House by our driver, Moustafa, and tour guide, Sally, for a day-long tour of the major sites of Cairo. We began with the Pyramids, which were constructed between 2900-2500 BC. Most notable is the Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops, to the Greeks). Adjacent sites include the smaller pyramids of Khafre (or Chephren) and of Menkaure (or Mykerinos) to the southwest. The pyramids served as tombs for the deceased pharaohs who ruled ancient Egypt. In addition to the embalmed body of the king, they also contained various items he would need in the afterlife.
For the people of ancient Egypt, mortal life was of far less importance than the afterlife. Proper care was necessary in order for the Pharaoh to perform his new duties as king of the dead. The smooth exterior of the pyramid was made of a fine grade of white limestone, which had to be carefully cut to ensure the structure remained symmetrical. Stones were transported from the quarry by barge, and dragged up ramps to the construction site to be fitted together. In later years, many were taken for use in other projects, exposing the inner layer of stone that has gradually eroded away over the centuries.
Adjacent to the pyramid complex is the Sphinx, the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt. It is a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human, believed to be that of Pharaoh Khafre. Cut from bedrock, it measures 240 feet long from paw to tail, 66.31 feet high from the base to the top of the head, and 62 feet wide at its rear haunches.
How the nose of the Sphinx was damaged is unknown. One story suggests it was destroyed in 1378 AD, when a Sufi Muslim found local peasants making offerings to the Sphinx. Enraged, he destroyed the nose, for which he was later hanged. Another story claims the nose was broken off by cannon fire from Napoleon’s soldiers, but sketches of the Sphinx without its nose published in 1757 – 12 years before the birth of Napoleon – disprove this. In the evening, we ventured into Cairo for dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant. Rather than order entrees, our meal consisted of a variety of Middle Eastern appetizers. It turned out to be quite the bargain.
The Egyptian pound (£E) is worth about 6 American, and dinner for five came to about $27. The next day, we journeyed to Memphis, about 12 miles south of Cairo. Memphis was the first capital of Egypt when Menes united Upper and Lower Egypt, around 3000 BC. The seat of power moved to Thebes (now Luxor), around 1700 BC, but Memphis remained a regional center for trade, serving as a distribution point for food and other goods throughout the ancient kingdom. The modern English name Egypt is believed to come from “Ai-gyptos,” the Greek name of the city’s famous Temple of Ptah, now an open-air museum.
The temple was built by Ramesses II, who reigned from approximately 1279 to 1213 BC. He is regarded as one of the greatest and most powerful pharaohs in Egyptian history. More statues of him survive than of any other pharaoh, including a giant limestone statue approximately 30 feet in length. It was discovered in 1821 lying facedown in marshy ground near the south gate of the temple. Several attempts were made to lift and turn the colossus over, but it wasn’t until 1887 that a British engineer succeeded using a system of pulleys and levers. To protect the statue after it was moved, a building was constructed around it. Because the base and feet of the sculpture are broken off, it is displayed lying on its back. Our final day in Cairo was spent touring the religious sites of the city, starting with two Coptic churches. Coptic Christianity was founded by St. Mark in the 2nd century. Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church was built in the 4th century, supposedly at the location where the Holy Family stayed when they fled to Egypt to escape the persecution of King Herod.
The Saladin Citadel is a medieval Islamic fortification on Mokattam Hill near the center of Cairo. It features three mosques: • Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque was built in 1318, as the royal mosque of the citadel where the sultans of Cairo performed their Friday prayers. Though many repairs have been made over the centuries, it has maintained its 14th-century appearance. • The Mosque of Sulayman Pasha, built in 1528, is the first of the citadel’s Ottoman-style mosques. • The Mosque of Muhammad Ali was built between 1830 and 1848, although not completed until 1857. Muhammad Ali Pasha, an Egyptian reformer of the early 19th century, is entombed in the courtyard. Modesty is required when visiting a mosque. Long pants covering the knees must be worn, women must wear a scarf, and shoes are removed.
During our visit, our guide, Sally, requested a prayer for safe travels from the imam. For almost two minutes, the prayer, presented as a traditional Muslim chant, echoed throughout the courtyard of the mosque. We ended our visit to Cairo at the Khan el-Khalili market, shopping for souvenirs. Bargaining is expected, and we were advised by Sally not to pay more than 400 £E (approximately $22).
DAY 4: ASWAN
The next day, we caught an early morning flight to Aswan, approximately 425 miles south of Cairo, where we were greeted by Osama Rashad, the owner of Journey to Egypt and our host for the remainder of our visit. He took us to the Aswan High Dam, an engineering marvel built across the Nile in the 1960s. Not only does it help control the flooding of the Nile, it also provides water for irrigation and hydroelectricity to the region, all of which contribute to Egypt’s economic stability. The dam also led to the creation of Lake Nasir, one of the largest manmade lakes in the world. It is 340 miles long and has a surface area of more than 2,000 square miles. The creation of the reservoir threatened more than 20 historic sites. UNESCO launched an effort to save as many as possible, including the Philae temple. The monuments were cleaned and measured, to insure precise reconstruction. Every building was dismantled – about 40,000 units in total – and transported to higher ground, some 1,600 feet away. By mid-afternoon, we were exhausted, and ready to check into our hotel.
The Old Cataract is a glorious piece of Old World elegance built in 1899. Entering its lobby is a step back to 1920, when one might see archaeologist Howard Carter or mystery author Agatha Christie enjoying tea in the dining room. In fact, portions of Christie’s Death on the Nile are set at the hotel, and it was used in the 1978 film based on the novel. We were given a tour of Winston Churchill’s suite, an extravagant apartment with a private porch overlooking the Nile.
The next day began very early, leaving the Old Cataract before sunrise for the 75-mile drive to the twin temples of Abu Simbel. The façade of the larger temple features four seated figures more than 65 feet tall, and is dedicated to Ra-Harakhty, Ptah and Amun. The smaller temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor, personified by Nefertari, Ramesses’s most beloved of his many wives. Like the Temple of Philae, Abu Simbel also was threatened with flooding from Lake Nasir in 1964. A multinational team of archeologists, engineers and skilled heavy equipment operators worked together to dismantle the entire site, cutting it into large blocks averaging 20 tons each. The pieces were then lifted and reassembled more than 200 feet higher and 650 feet back from the shore.
Arriving back in Aswan, we boarded the cruise ship, Farah, bound for Luxor, and spent the afternoon relaxing in the sun on the upper deck.
After three days enjoying a Nile River cruise aboard the Farah, we arrived in Luxor. The city is built upon the site of the ancient city of Thebes, which became the capital of Egypt around 1700 BC. Luxor stretches to both sides of the Nile, including the richest and most famous necropolis in the world.
DAY 8: THE VALLEY OF THE KINGS
Deir El Bahari, one of the most splendid temples in Luxor, lies to the west of the Nile, at the base of a small mountain. It was built around 1500 BC, by Queen Hatshepsut, whom Egyptologists regard to be one of the most successful female pharaohs. She ascended the throne of Egypt in 1478 BC, ruling for 20 years as regent on behalf of Thutmose III, her husband’s infant son by a secondary wife. On the other side of the mountain, further west, lies the Valley of the Kings, the principal burial place of the major royal figures, including Ramesses III. Egyptian royalty had abandoned pyramids in favor of underground tombs. After the mummified bodies of the pharaohs were laid to rest, the passages were sealed and covered with rock and rubble. With the entrances totally obscured, the pharaohs were confident that their tombs, unlike those of their ancestors, would be safe from thievery. They were mistaken. Almost all of the tombs were pilfered over the centuries, but they still give visitors an idea of the opulence and power of the pharaohs. The tombs are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology, and offer clues as to the beliefs and funerary rituals of the period. Exploration, excavation and conservation continue in the valley, with the discovery of two additional tomb entrances as recently as 2008. To date, the valley is known to contain 63 tombs, ranging in size from a simple pit to a complex tomb with more than 120 chambers. It is best known as the location of the tomb of Tutankhamun (c. 1332–1323 BC). Theories strongly suggest that Tutankhamun is the son of Akhenaten (also known as Amenhotep IV), who is noted for abandoning the traditional practice of worshipping multiple gods in favor of a single god, Ra. However, these religious shifts were not widely accepted, and after his death, traditional practices were gradually restored. Akhenaten was discredited, his monuments dismantled and hidden. He and his immediate successors – including Tutankhamun – were excluded from the official dynastic lists. Tutankhamun was not a particularly noteworthy ruler due to his young age and short reign. Evidence suggests his tomb was robbed soon after his death. When many of the tombs from the Valley of the Kings were dismantled (c. 1100 BC), it is believed his was overlooked due to his family’s fall from grace. As a result of this oversight, his tomb was nearly intact when it was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. More than 5,000 items were found in the tomb, which took 10 years to catalog.
Many of the treasures are on display in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, including Tut’s ceremonial gold burial mask. It is perhaps the most impressive piece in the collection, comprised of 25 pounds of solid gold, inlaid lapis lazuli, carnelian, obsidian, colored glass, quartz and turquoise. The museum, constructed around 1902, contains many important pieces of ancient Egyptian history, including the famed Rosetta stone, a stone tablet measuring approximately 52 inches long and 30 inches wide. On it is carved the same writing in three scripts – Hieroglyphic, Demotic Egyptian and Greek. Because Greek was well known among scholars, the stone became the key to deciphering the Hieroglyphics. During the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the museum was broken into, and several artifacts – including two mummies – were damaged. Around 50 objects were lost, but since then about half have been recovered. A new state-of-the-art museum is currently under construction in Cairo. At a cost of $790 million, the Grand Egyptian Museum will occupy 5.2 million square feet, and is slated to open in 2020.
DAY 9 On the west bank of the Nile is one of the most visited historical sites in Egypt, the Temple of Karnak. Construction of the temple complex began c. 1500 BC, and continued for several centuries. Approximately 30 pharaohs contributed to the buildings, enabling it to reach a size, complexity and diversity unlike any other in the world. One famous feature of Karnak is the hypostyle hall – 50,000 square feet, with 134 massive columns arranged in 16 rows. There are also a few smaller temples and sanctuaries that connect to the nearby Luxor Temple, a large complex constructed approximately 1360 BC. The earliest structures were erected by Amenhotep III, and he and Rameses II were responsible for most of the temple’s huge colonnades and courts. Luxor Temple suffered some damage in the reign of Amenhotep’s son, Akhenaten, when the name and figure of Amon were erased, but it was reconstructed in the reigns of Tutankhamun and Horemhab (1306 -1292 BC). While in Luxor, we stayed at the Hilton Luxor Resort and Spa, a luxurious hotel that offers every amenity one might expect. Its pool deck overlooks the Nile, where we enjoyed a comfortable climate averaging about 80 degrees. The adjacent dining area features a broad menu of both Middle Eastern and European/American selections.
DAYS 10 AND 11 For our final two days in Luxor, we were joined by Amr Elsharkwy, an Egyptologist who shared much of his professional insight into the culture of the ancient Egyptians. Many of the sites we visited were less frequented by tourists, and free from heavy crowds. Thanks to Amr, we had a virtual private tour among the tombs and temples of Upper Egypt. For several thousand years, Abydos flourished as a cemetery for the people of Egypt. The most famous building at Abydos today is the Temple of Seti I. This temple was begun by Seti I and completed by his son, Rameses II. It is elegantly decorated and uniquely well-preserved, one of the masterpieces of Egyptian art and architecture. The temple features the Table of Abydos, listing many dynastic pharaohs of Egypt. Though some names were deliberately omitted (such as Akhenaten and Tutankhamun), it has been compared to the Rosetta Stone for its archaeological significance. Within the temple are seven chapels built for the worship of the pharaoh and principal deities, being the “state” deities Ptah, Re-Horakhty, and (centrally positioned) Amun-Re; the remaining three chapels are dedicated to the Abydos triad of Osiris, Isis and Horus.
The Dendera Temple complex is one of the best-preserved temple complexes in Egypt. The main building is Hathor temple, and on the rear of the temple exterior is a carving of the well-known Cleopatra and her son by Julius Caesar, Ptolemy XV. The next day, we returned to the east bank of the Nile to visit the Valley of the Queens. Amr and Osama took us to the Tomb of Nefer tari, Ramesses II’s favorite wife. It is considered the best preserved of any Egyptian burial site. The astonishing reds, blues, greens and golds remain as vibrant as if they were painted yesterday.
Adjacent to the Valley of the Queens is Deir el-Medina, an ancient Egyptian village that was home to the artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, c. 1550–1080 BC. The village may have been built apart from the greater population due to the secretive nature of the work carried out in the tombs. The site spans almost 400 years of ancient Egyptian culture, providing one of the most thoroughly documented accounts of community life in the ancient world. There is no comparable site in which the organization, social interactions, working and living conditions of a community can be studied in such detail. That evening, just prior to our final full day in Egypt, we visited the Luxor bazaar for shopping. Souvenirs of all types can be found, from t-shirts to jewelry to miniature replicas of Egyptian monuments, and the prices are fair, depending how much one is willing to bargain. The vendors expect their customers to haggle, until both are satisfied with the price. In all, our tour of Egypt was the trip of a lifetime. The Egyptian people appreciate American visitors to their country. Osama and his team at Journey to Egypt provided every accommodation we could ever need and their attention was invaluable in making this an unforgettable journey.