Travel stories from Egypt
I visited Egypt for two weeks in February 2018, travelling the entire length of the Nile, from Alexandria to Abu Simbel. Besides hitting the big ticket stops, such as the Alexandria Library, Pyramids of Giza, a boat ride on the Nile, Valley of Kings in Luxor, Aswan Dam, and Abu Simbel, I also had ample opportunities to check out a number of cultural shows – music and dance from Nubian to belly dancing.
This travelogue can easily be modified to a two or three-week itinerary to meet your travel needs.
Cairo is a massive city, and a vibrant mix of the old and the new. It appears like a dusty, grubby, chaotic city, but there is so much to explore here. I spent a week in Cairo and neighbouring areas in total, which isn’t much, but enough to get a general sense of the place I’m sure.
Old Muslim District
Cairo’s old El Gamaleya Muslim quarter is large enough to spend a full day there. Walking on old cobblestone streets surrounded by numerous old buildings on both sides and a generally relaxed atmosphere was a welcome surprise – I had imagined this quarter to be noisy and chaotic. The noise and chaos did come a little later, in the Khan el Khalili market. Walking through narrow alleys loaded with spice and provision stores on both sides was oddly reminiscent of any old city feel you’d get in Delhi or Istanbul or Jerusalem. It was predominantly a spice bazar, so most of the stores had rows of bags overflowing with spices and dried herbs. Ofcourse, there is a touristic section in the market, where we promptly stopped at a café for a round of tea and snacks.
Consists of a conglomeration of Coptic churches in a small section of the city not too far from downtown.
The Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt the “gift of the Nile”, since the kingdom owed its survival to the annual flooding of the Nile and the resulting depositing of fertile silt. The Nile is really the lifeline of Egypt, it has been for millennia. Throughout this journey the significance of the Nile in the daily lives of Egyptians becomes very obvious; there are laws that can put you in prison if you joke about or insult the Nile. Virtually all of the country’s population is situated along a narrow strip adjacent to the river. There are some villages in the desert, the Nile delta, and along the Red sea coast, but that’s a very tiny percentage of the country’s population.
Pyramids and Tombs
The Red Pyramid at Dahshur and the famous Bent Pyramid are must-sees for history nerds. These were evidences of early pyramids in Egypt’s history, where the architects and engineers were still experimenting and with different angles, slopes, the use of stone and construction materials. We went inside the red pyramid, along a narrow tunnel that went deep inside the chamber where the main crypt was buried. It was a spectacular introduction to the pyramids and the awe-inspiring dimensions of these structures.
Next stop was at the Saqqara complex. There are a large number of mausoleums here, the stepped pyramid being the most prominent among them. This pyramid was undergoing some restoration. We checked out some other toms in the complex and were greeted to the familiar sights and images of Egyptian hieroglyphs and carvings. It was beautiful to see various scenes of general living conditions of commoners and royals, offerings made to pharaohs and gods, and associated writings from thousands of years ago. Some of the carvings still retained the colour in them.
A relaxed tour of the Giza complex can take a full day, but most tour companies will devote half day here. There are three pyramids in the complex, and two of these are open at any given time. The lineups to get inside the pyramids are long and the tickets are pricey; if you get a chance to visit Dashur, I suggest going inside the pyramid there. There is a viewpoint a bit further away from where you could see a spectacular view of all three pyramids of Giza in the middle of the desert. The Sphinx is even more beautiful than you see in pictures. It was a cloudy day, which was fine, but I would have liked a bit less cloudy for pictures.
After nearly a week in Cairo, it was time to move on to other parts of the country.
Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast, has been Egypt’s gateway port for centuries. The city is Egypt’s second biggest, and is only a 2 or 3-hour train ride from Cairo. Besides numerous old ruins scattered around the city, Alexandria is known for its seafood restaurants, bazars, and a generally relaxed vibe.
Luxor and The Valley of Kings
Taking an overnight train from Alexandria to Luxor (via Cairo), we arrived into the small town of Luxor. This place is on the tourist highway and was therefore heavily hit by the slump in tourism.
Located in the middle of Luxor, this temple was my first to a Pharaonic religious monument of this kind, with giant statues of Ptah and other gods. Its pillars and statues glowed yellow and golden in the sunset, amplified by the yellow halogen lights that were thoughtfully placed to improve the ambience. The temple was crowded for a reason, it was in the middle of Luxor and this was a tourist city.
This large temple complex just outside the town is best visited early in the morning at the time of sunrise, to avoid throngs of tourist buses and an army of aggressive touts and hawkers. The complex is the largest religious site of its kind, and has lots of little shrines and rooms to be explored.
Valley of the Kings
Valley of Kings is spectacular and really remote. It was designed to keep tomb raiders out, but word slipped, and a number of these tombs were discovered and raided over the past thousands of years.
Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut
The mortuary temple is dedicated to Hatshepsut, Egypt’s most prominent female ruler who had to wear a fake beard and dress like a man to rule the country. Her story is very fascinating, the manner in which she took power, the way she ruled, and finally how the succeeding pharaoh tried to erase her presence from history. He must not have been very good, for we know a lot about her even thousands of years later. The temple was very impressive, and the stories of conquests, looted treasures, and slain enemies were fascinating.
Temple of Hathor and Cleopatra (Qena)
The temple to Hathor is beautiful, and in a very good state. Being off the tourist path helps that. It was also two storied, so you could climb up and see some exciting murals on preparing for death, death itself, and then the life after death. I hitchhiked here part of the way from Luxor, but this is not recommended as the security situation in the country is uncertain.
Aswan, in contrast with rest of the country, has a large Nubian population, including an island in the middle of the river which was still habitated by villages and accessible only by a boat and dirt paths. The village was quaint, the Nubian people are darker and appeared very different from Egyptian Arabs in all mannerisms – a relaxed body language, softer voice, and much less aggressiveness. This is a good city to start or end a trip to Egypt.
Convoys of pre-arranged tours depart Aswan at the crack of dawn and arrive at Abu Simbel by mid-morning. Visitors are given a couple of hours at the site before the convoy makes it trip back to Aswan. This temple was relocated brick by brick to an artificial ground at the time of the building of Aswan Dam to prevent it from being submerged. I think they did a masterful job because the temple looked completely intact in the hillock. However, if you’ve visited other temples in the country, you might be okay to miss this one.
Egyptian food is quite Mediterranean, with a number of local variations as you move down from Alexandria to Cairo to Luxor and to Aswan. The Nile deposits fertile silt on its banks during the annual flooding, making it possible for Egyptians to grow a bounty of fresh produce – fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, herbs, and spices. While salads are popular, at the end of the day this is mostly a monotonic meat and bread-oriented country. Vegetarians will easily find plenty of options though.
There are numerous venues in Cairo to find good and poor quality cultural shows, belly dancing in particular. Most dancers come out late into the night and events stretch well into late hours of the night. I saw a couple of belly dancers in Cairo, on a dinner cruise boat that drifted along the Nile. There are numerous venues that featured Sufi performances as well as Nubian shows, especially in Aswan. Egyptians love to party, it is very obvious to anyone who spends a few days here.
There is so much wealth and beauty in the tombs, pyramids, mausoleums, temples, and other buildings from ancient Egypt. But fact remains that many of these places were supposed to be the final resting places for royalty. They were not expected to be discovered, opened, let alone allow thousands of visitors through every single day. Tourists aren’t the most respecting type either – so many times we found people using flash photography, touching the paint, even scratching the surface. Guards would simply accept a tip and let people do anything they wanted to. No wonder it is estimated that the wealth of Egypt’s history will be lost in the next 50 years. It’s quite depressing.
The sites charge a premium ticket price for foreign and non-Arab visitors. Hopefully these funds are directed towards restoration and upkeep, but it didn’t appear to be the case.
Egypt’s economy, particularly the tourism industry is still recovering from the terrorist attacks and revolution. So you had these groups of hawkers and tour guides and agents and touts aggressively chasing everyone. In addition to the baksheesh culture, this was another extremely off-putting part about Egypt. Not easy to travel while being constantly hassled.