For the last few years I have had Egypt on my bucket list. My first memories of world history involved the pyramids, the pharaohs and the mummies with special reference to Tutankhamen. There is so much to Egypt that it is difficult to capture in one visit. But we did try to cover as much as we could. The month of February was a great time to be in Egypt with the days being warm and the evenings being cool and breezy.
Our Egyptian sojourn began with the capital city of Cairo. Instead of the city, we actually stayed at Giza to be able to visit the 3 Pyramids which were the main attraction of Cairo. The sound and light show at the Pyramids of Giza is an hour long show. It was not as mesmerizing as I had expected it to be, but the pyramids and the Sphinx looked beautiful with the lighting effects. Its worth a watch but not a must do.
The Pyramids looked much more glamorous the next day in the sunlight as they loomed large in all their magnanimity. Each stone of the Pyramids weighs 2-3 tonnes! We did not go into the Pyramid of Khufu which is the tallest one as our guide told us it is pretty difficult and time consuming. Since there is nothing inside the Pyramids, he suggested we could go into the smaller Pyramid of Menkaure to explore. Even the smallest pyramid had a steep climb inside into the empty burial chambers. The tombs in the Valley of Kings in Luxor have much better interiors with a glimpse of the paintings, inscriptions and architecture. Inside the Pyramid of Menkaure, we had to use our cell phone lights to make our way through. If you have knee problems or have claustrophobia, wouldn’t recommend going inside the Pyramids.
After the tour and some great photo shots of the pyramids, we went to the Great Sphinx, probably one of the most impressive man made sculptures. The Sphinx which is the head of a human on the body of a lion is the National Symbol of Egypt. While its origin is still debated, the surrounding temple complex provided us a view into the Egyptian architecture. It was hilarious to see people standing with their pouted lips trying to get a picture of themselves kissing the Sphinx.
We also visited the Coptic church which gave us a good insight into Christianity as practiced in Egypt. Our visit to the Egyptian Museum was a highlight as we got to see the treasures from the tomb of Tutank Amun that are now restored in the museum. I was awestruck at the amount of gold, the finely carved furniture and the level of detail in everything that the king would need that was stored in the tombs. There was a separate ticket for the gallery of the Royal Mummies. It was intriguing as well as a bit tragic to see the mummies of the kings and queens. The museum is huge and one should plan for at least a couple of hours there.
We also went to the Khan-El-Khalili souk, one of the biggest bazaars in Cairo city. I would suggest you pick up any souvenirs you want from Egypt here as there is abundant availability and bargaining. You can start with as low as 25% of the quoted price and go a bit upwards. I am not kidding, you will be surprised at the amount of bargaining that happens in that market. You will find the same stuff all over Egypt so it is better to buy it here as there is better availability.
Our next destination was Aswan (we flew from Cairo to Aswan). This is where we boarded our Nile Cruise. At Aswan, we started with the Temple of Goddess Isis in Philae. The Temple of Isis is one of the greatest Temples in Egypt and it occupies about a quarter of the island of Philae. It is difficult to believe that this temple was relocated stone by stone and reconstructed exactly as the original one. The temple walls are resplendent with scenes from Egyptian History, something we were to discover in all the temples across Egypt. Other than the Temple of Isis, the Roman Columns and the Kiosk of Trajan were also impressive.
We also visited a Nubian Village (we were told that it is the only inhabited Nubian Village remaining in Egypt) from Aswan. A boat ride took us to this very colorful village. It took me a while to get comfortable with the hanging mummies of crocodiles in the Nubian house! The village while still inhabited looked more of a fair to me as it was thronged by tourists and it seemed that tourism was now the primary business in that village. The stories of rivalry between the Nubian and Egyptian cultures were nothing short of the Romulan and Vulcan cultures as the Star Trek fans would know!
The next day, we left at midnight to drive to Abu Simbel, a village in Nubia-southern Egypt near the border with Sudan. This was going to be the beginning of our temple run across Egypt. The Pharaohs built their own temples and were worshipped as Gods leading to the abundance of temples across the country. The Abu Simbel temples are two massive rock temples of the Pharaoh Ramses II and his queen Nefertari built by the king to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Kadesh. The temples had been covered in sand and were rediscovered by the Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni in the 19th century. The legend is that ‘Abu Simbel’ was the name of a young local boy who guided these early re-discoverers to the site of the buried temple which he had seen from time to time in the shifting sands. Eventually, they named the complex after him. These temples were also relocated in 1968 to save them from submerging in the waters of Lake Nasser.
It is believed that the axis of the temple was positioned by the ancient Egyptian architects in such a way that on October 22 and February 22, the rays of the sun would penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall. These dates are apparently the king’s birthday and coronation day, respectively. We were lucky enough to be there on February 22nd to witness this. While it was interesting to see the revelry at the site with cultural groups from across the world joining the celebration, I must say, this is highly overhyped and the few seconds are really not worth the effort and experience of the crowd specially since the screen on which you can see the phenomenon is so small that it’s a blink and miss opportunity. For the travelers interested in exploring the culture and history, I would recommend avoiding these dates to get enough time inside the temples.
The Nile Cruise:
Our cruise sailed on our return from Abu Simbel. The room in the cruise liner was comfortable with twin beds, a fully functional bath room with bath tub and a small sitting area to enjoy the views from the window as you look at the voluptuous Nile! Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served on the cruise. The food was primarily for the European taste. Don’t expect much from the buffet though it had something for everyone. The cruise also has a small spa, a jewellery shop and a clothes shop. Surprisingly people could bargain at the clothes shop on the cruise too!
Our first stop on the cruise was the Temple of Kom Ombo. This is a double temple for the worship of two Gods, Sobek- the Crocodile God and Horus- the Falcon God. The temple has a marvelous setting overlooking the Nile and as the walls get lit up in the evening, the view becomes even more enthralling.
We then sailed to Edfu. The Temple of Edfu, dedicated to the Horus – The Falcon God, is the best preserved temple in Egypt. The inscriptions on its walls provide important information on language, myth and religion of ancient Egypt.
From Edfu we sailed to Luxor where we visited the Temples of Karnak and Luxor. Both the temples with their giant columns and huge statues were fascinating. The Sphinx Avenue at the temple of Luxor looks really mesmerizing when lit up at night.
The Valley of the Kings was the highlight of Luxor. The deserted surroundings with tombs all over gave an eerie feeling. One can enter any 3 tombs with the entry tickets. Some of the tombs like that of Tutankh Amun have an extra charge. It’s not worth paying the extra charge just to see the empty chambers as the treasures are stored in the Egyptian museum. This is also the smallest tomb but gets its fame from the fact that it was the only tomb discovered with the treasures intact. We went into the tombs of Ramses II (the second most colorful tomb due to preserved paintings but the path to the burial chamber was closed) , Rameses III which was really steep but led to the burial chamber and Ramses IV. Carry a bottle of water with you as there is a lot of walking involved and nothing available nearby.
Our final temple destination was the Temple of Hatchepsut, the only female Pharaoh. The temple which was behind the Valley of Kings, was somewhat different from the others as the 100 feet causeway led to 3 different levels with the altar at the 3rd level. The temple was small inside. The residence of the Polish restorer of the temple opposite to the temple also offered a scenic view though I was intrigued as to how someone could choose to live in the deathly valley of tombs. There is a café next to the Temple of Hatchepsut to have a quick snack or drink if you get tired walking all the way.
Each of the temples had a plethora of interesting stories. Would recommend you read up a bit about them before you travel to appreciate the inscriptions even more.
With this, our Nile Cruise ended and we moved to our next destination Sharm-El-Sheikh. There are no direct flights from Luxor to Sharm-El-Sheikh so we went to Cairo and then flew to Sharm.
Sharm – El – Sheikh:
Unlike the other destinations in Egypt which were replete with the Egyptian history and culture, Sharm-El-Sheikh is a beach destination thronged by European and Russian tourists. Known for Snorkelling, Scuba diving and other water sports the buzzy feel of the Soho Square and the nightlife gives it the reputation of the Vegas of Egypt. The best place to stay is the Savoy hotel right next to Soho Square. You can enjoy the beach during the day and the lively square in the evening. The shops and restaurants at the square open at 6 p.m and are shut only after midnight.
We also went for scuba diving and snorkeling. The waters of the red sea were clear and pristine blue. The sight of the corals and the colorful marine life across the corals made the dive completely worth it even for non-swimmers like me! Credit also goes to the instructor who really knew how to calm people when we were reduced to a mass of nerves. I thought the price for scuba diving at USD 15 was really economical. We also got lunch on the boat after the dive. I would highly recommend it.
Given that the beach at our hotel was a coral beach, we even had the opportunity to go ahead on the makeshift jetty and snorkel for ourselves the next day. In the evening we went for dinner to the touristy Namma Bay which had many pubs, cafes, hookah joints and shops. It’s a pedestrian street and worth a visit. It marked an apt end to a wonderful holiday!
Before I wrap this travelog, a few tips for Egypt travel:
- It is very common for shop keepers to call out to you as ‘Indians’. It sometimes gets offensive as well as they come after you, even offering gifts. Just do not engage with them and they will go away.
- If you want normal coffee with milk, just ask for Nescafe. It is available all over Egypt.
- Many vegetarian dishes in Egyptian cuisine are served cold. Check before you order.
- On the cruise quite a few dishes have beef which may not be called out on the menu. Check before serving yourself.
- Bargain in every street market. You will be surprised how the same thing is bought for 50-500% more by people. Start with a quarter of the quoted price. Best strategy is to not show that you really want it. Walk away and the shop keeper will bring down the price. However if you really like something, buy it because you may not be able to find your way back to shop again.
- It won’t be surprising to have a passerby make a sleazy comment on women travelers given Egyptian men are still somewhat orthodox.
- International calling cards are not easily available but you get data cards really cheap. Take a data card as Wi-Fi is not available everywhere especially on the Nile Cruise where it is not free and only accessible in limited areas.
- Be prepared for multiple checks at airport including taking off your belt, jacket, shoes etc every time. At Cairo airport frisking is so rigorous it may appear to be going beyond boundaries and may feel offensive.
- Egyptian pounds and USD are accepted everywhere. ATMs are available all over.
- There is no currency exchange at the departure terminal in Cairo so change your currency before you reach the airport.
- Where to stay in Cairo– Hotel Mena House which is a Marriot property is right opposite the Pyramids of Giza. In Cairo, the Radisson is very close to the airport and a good choice.
- Where to eat n Cairo– try the Cafes at Khan-El- Khalili. If you are staying at or near the Radisson, a small restaurant called Alladin in the lane next to Radisson has awesome Egyptian food. The juicy grilled chicken, steaming lamb koftas, soft Egyptian bread and the spicy aubergine were to die for!
What to buy in Egypt- Papyrus paintings from genuine stores, trinkets, Egyptian cotton scarves, handpainted pieces of limestone with paintings of Egyptian Gods, Alabaster vessels. A cartouche with your name in the Egyptian alphabet is also a good souvenir to carry back from Egypt.
Egypt is a wonderful destination and highly recommended for every traveler. The history blows off your mind and one cannot help be awestruck at the amount of inscriptions the Egyptian ancestors created on the temple walls for the generations to remember. They probably mastered the art of blogging centuries ago! A civilization that was far ahead of its times and left a legacy par excellence.