Egypt holds a fascination for many travelers, and it's no wonder. The ancient country has one-of-a-kind monuments like the Great Pyramids and Abu Simbel, the world's longest river (the Nile), a unique culture, and an ever-changing political climate.
I enjoyed a few days in Egypt in 2006 on an ocean-going cruise on the Silver Whisper, but had not sailed on the Nile River, so I was anxious to return. This omission was corrected in September 2012 when I took a 12-day "Splendors of Egypt & the Nile" cruise tour with the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. I had sailed in Europe on two of Uniworld's ships, the S.S. River Antoinette and the River Beatrice, and loved their luxury river cruise product. I was excited about sailing on their Nile River ship the River Tosca.
Ever since the Egyptian revolution of early 2011, I had wondered how the country had changed. What I found was not unexpected. Egypt is slowly changing, and the effect of the new leadership and constitution on its citizens and visitors is unknown. Tourism is a major part of Egypt's economy, so I am hopeful that access to its marvelous ancient wonders will not be impacted by these changes.
Day 1 - Arrival in Cairo and the Four Seasons Hotel at Nile Plaza
Although I arrived in Egypt on September 15, just four days after the Tahrir Square demonstrations were broadcast around the world, I never saw any demonstrations or felt unsafe in any way. Whenever our group of 10 traveled by bus, we had an armed guard onboard, but that level of security was in place in 2006. If we hadn't seen workers re-sodding the grassy circle in Tahrir Square, we might have never known of the demonstrations if we hadn't seen the reports. I can't promise that you will be safe in Egypt, but if the flights are going, the river cruises are running, and the U.S. State Department (or your government's equivalent) hasn't changed its security alerts for Egypt, then it's probably as safe as it's ever going to be.
Uniworld certainly did its part to make sure we were safe and had a memorable time in Egypt. A knowledgeable representative met our flight at the airport, we cleared immigration and customs, and were out of the airport within 30 minutes of landing. At Uniworld's suggestion, we had purchased a Egypt tourist Visa before leaving home, which greatly expedited our entry. Our driver patiently navigated the traffic-clogged Cairo streets on the 15-mile ride to the Four Seasons Hotel - Cairo at Nile Plaza. This ride usually takes 45 minutes or more, depending on the traffic. Our car was checked by security when we entered the hotel drive, our bags were screened through an x-ray machine, and we walked through a metal detector like they have at the airport before we were allowed into the hotel. I really appreciated this level of security, and the hotel elevator required a hotel key-card to activate.
This hotel is one of the nicest I've ever stayed in, and the staff were very accommodating. The room had a large balcony and good views of the Nile River. The hotel lobby was filled with gorgeous flower arrangements, and the hotel was attached to the Nile Plaza shopping mall with an ATM, bank, and department store. The hotel had several restaurants, and for security, we ate our "free time" meals at the hotel rather than venturing out.
Cairo had the same strong smokey smell I remember from my last visit, and it was very smoggy over the city when we landed. Clean air is not a top priority at this time for the Egyptian government. Although our hotel was only a few blocks from Tahrir Square, we did not hear any demonstrations or see any fires during the ride in from the airport or from our balcony.
The next day in Cairo we were to visit the Citadel and the Egyptian Museum. After flying overnight from the USA, sitting through a long layover in Paris, and then flying another four hours to Cairo, my friend Julie and I were both ready for bed!
Day 2 - Tour of Citadel and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo
Our first full day in Cairo was a good one. We had a 6 am wake-up call, followed by a delicious buffet breakfast, filled with Mediterranean, American, and Egyptian delights. Like most hotels and river cruises in Egypt, the Four Seasons does not serve pork, but we had a selection of turkey, beef, and Egyptian sausage and bacon.
We met our group at 8 am and were surprised to find only eight other travelers--six from Alberta and Saskatchewan traveling together and a couple from Melbourne, Australia. Our guide's name was Abdu, and he traveled with us the entire trip. His English is excellent, and we had those listening devices that make touring with a guide so much better. Abdu led a briefing in the hotel lobby, and we were soon on the bus. The traffic was horrendous, and it took us over an hour to drive the three miles to the Citadel.
The Citadel is a fort on a hill overlooking the city. Since it can be seen from around Cairo, it is one of the city's iconic sights. Our bus took us up most of the way to the top, so we didn't have to walk very far. The Citadel was quite impressive, and the rulers of Egypt used it as a home for over 700 years. Saladin began the construction of the Citadel in 1176 to ward off the crusaders. The Citadel was expanded in the 16th century, and even Napoleon's expedition leaders who arrived in Cairo in 1798 thought the buildings were fine examples of Islamic architecture.
Mohammed Ali ruled in the early 19th century, and he tore down all the existing Citadel buildings and constructed the huge mosque (Mosque of Mohammed Ali) seen in the photo above. He did leave some of the original guard towers and the wall around the Citadel.
We walked around the Citadel area and went into the mosque, taking off our shoes as required by all mosques. We sat on the carpet while Abdu told us about the mosque and its features. He then gave us about 30 minutes free time to take pictures of the views of the city. When I asked, he told us the city was always smokey from the pollution and the open fires used for cooking. From the hilltop, we could see much of the city and the Al-Rifa'i Mosque (also called the Royal Mosque) where the last king of Egypt, King Farouk, and the former Shah of Iran are buried.
We left the Citadel about 10:45 and went to the Egyptian Museum. On the way, the driver went around Tahrir Square so that we could see the demonstrators had gone home. Abdu pointed out where they burned a car, and we did see about a dozen large vans lined up along one of the streets. He said it was a good sign that workers were digging in the huge grassy flower bed in the center of the square. Officials also had removed the barricades blocking the street to the U.S. Embassy, which is less than a block from the square and only about six blocks from our hotel.
The Egyptian Museum building sits right on Tahrir Square, so I was glad things had calmed down for our visit. The building is quite nice on the outside, but the inside doesn't look like it has been remodeled since the museum was built in the early 1900's. However, the artifacts inside the museum are mind-boggling, so it's easy to overlook the poor presentation. I had mixed feelings about how vacant the museum seemed from when I visited in 2006. Although we didn't have to fight the crowds to see the most popular artifacts, it saddened me to see so few visitors in one of the world's most important museums.
Many pieces date back over 5,000 years, and the statues, papyrus, and gold (and gold leaf) items are very impressive. Of course, most of the Pharaoh tombs were looted centuries ago, so there's not as many items from the Pharaohs as you might expect. King Tutankhamun (King Tut) was the only one with an undisturbed tomb, and it was discovered by a small Egyptian boy in 1922. However, Howard Carter, the English archaeologist, gets the credit since he was in charge of the archaeological dig. The golden mask (25 pounds of pure gold) and golden sarcophagus are the most expensive items, but the jewelry, chairs, etc. are all quite remarkable.
We had 45 minutes of free time to explore, and Julie and I visited the optional mummy room (100 EGP or about 17 dollars). The mummy of King Tut is still in his tomb at Luxor, but the room does feature mummies of several other Pharaohs, the most notable of which is Ramses II. Leaving the museum at 2 pm, we returned to the hotel for a free afternoon. Abdu suggested that we stay in/around the hotel since he wasn't absolutely sure that the demonstrations weren't scheduled to restart later in the evening. Julie and I put on our swimsuits, paddled around in the pool and hot tub, and sat in the shade. Very relaxing afternoon. It got dark in Cairo about 6pm, so we just ate an early dinner outdoors by the pool. (Note: Lunch and dinner were on our own; we skipped lunch since we had a huge breakfast.)
It was good that we were in bed early. Our wake up call for our flight to Luxor was at 4 am the next morning.
Day 3 - Karnack Temples in Luxor
Early the next morning, our group flew on a commercial jet from Cairo to Luxor. We arrived there about 10 am after a minor delay at the airport. Our wake-up call was at 4:00 am, baggage outside the room at 4:30, and downstairs ready to go at 5 am for our 7:15 am flight. A couple from Florida who were on the shorter 8-day Uniworld tour, "Classic Egypt & the Nile" joined us for the flight to Luxor and part of our cruise on the River Tosca. The Four Seasons Hotel provided a nice box breakfast for each of us, so we all munched on it on the way to the airport.
Traffic was surprisingly very light, and we arrived at the airport about 6 am, passed our checked and hand luggage through a scanner, and made our way to the Egypt Air line for domestic flights. The queue was long, and 9 of the 13 of us got checked in fine and received our boarding passes. The last four travelers ran into a problem when they were told the flight was sold out and that there were no more seats, despite the fact that they had confirmed tickets. Anyway, after a whole lot of hassle (there were others in line who were also involuntarily bumped) and much arguing in Arabic, the four people in our group got boarding passes for first class seats. We were all very happy Abdu was with us. The 13 of us quickly walked to the boarding gate, but by now it was 7:15--time for the flight to take off. Needless to say, they held the plane for us, but there must have been another issue, or maybe it was just getting all the bags onboard, since we didn't take off until about 8:30. It was a long time sitting on a very hot airplane. Guess the joys of flying are the same world-wide.
We made it okay to Luxor, but since we were delayed, the temperatures were well over 90 degrees by the time we arrived in the mid-morning. Our only tour that day was of the Temples at Karnak. It was a fascinating tour, and I loved seeing all the monuments again. As expected, everyone in our group was enthralled. The Great Hypostyle Hall of the Amun Temple, with its 134 gigantic pillars, is so large that it's difficult to grasp the size. However, both St. Peter's in Vatican City and St. Paul's in London would both fit inside this monumental hall. Karnack also has an imposing granite colossos of Ramses II, one of many in Egypt. And, the towering obelisk and the rows of sphinxes connecting Karnack with the Luxor Temple are quite impressive.
We spent about two hours at the site, which is the largest ancient temple complex in the world. As we had seen in Cairo, the aggressive vendors outside the site were attracted to Julie like flies to honey. She showed great self-control and just kept saying no. Vendors throughout the Middle East and Asia consider bargaining over an object's price as part of every sale. Visitors have to be flexible and just firmly say no if they don't want to buy.
When we were in the Egyptian Museum, I noticed the place was almost vacant compared to what we had seen six years ago. However, the Karnack Temples site was filled with tourists.
Although the Karnack Temples are impressive, we were all ready to see our home for the next seven days--the River Tosca.
Day 3 - Boarding the River Tosca in Luxor
We left the Karnack Temple complex about 12:30 and arrived at the River Tosca before 1:00 pm, and were quickly settled in our cabins. (With only 12 people, it didn't take long.) The ship is lovely, and our cabin was much more spacious than what is seen on European river ships. After washing up a little, we had our first lunch, and it was delicious. Minestrone soup, a nice selection of salads, small sandwiches (beef with caramelized onions/cheese), chicken with eggplant, Nile River perch, pasta made to order, etc. were all on the buffet.
After lunch, we unpacked. Julie donned her swimsuit and went up on the deck to sit in the shade and take a dip in the swimming pool. It was a nice, relaxing afternoon, but very hot if you didn't sit in the shade.
The River Tosca staff served a welcome champagne cocktail, and we had the introduction of the staff and officers before dinner. Dinner was excellent. Sixteen Swiss tourists flew non-stop from Zurich to Luxor and were on our 7-day cruise. They had the same shore excursion tours as our group, but had a German-speaking guide and a separate bus. Having 28 guests on a ship that carries 82 meant we all got a lot of special attention from the staff. The welcome-aboard dinner was exceptional. Julie had a salmon roulade appetizer, a tiny bowl of both soups (consomme and cream of asparagus), grilled tilapia, and a chocolate soup with a scoop of ice cream for dessert. I had the artichoke sampler (about 4 different bites of artichokes cooked different ways), cream of asparagus soup, surf and turf (shrimp and steak), and a tart with hazelnut ice cream for dessert.
After dinner, we went up to the top deck and sat for a while. It was gorgeous outside--about 70 and clear. Several of the staff onboard went out of their way on our first day on the ship to thank Julie and I for coming to Egypt. This continued throughout the time we were there. When vendors or people we met in the country learned we were American, they all thanked us profusely and asked us to go home and send our friends and family to visit.
We were in bed early again since we had a 5:30 wake up call for our ride to the Temple of Hathor at Dendera.
Day 4 - Temple of Hathor at Dendera
We had another early wake-up call the next morning on the River Tosca. Egypt does not observe Daylight Savings Time, so it is daylight before 5:00 am. September is a hot month, so it's better to get an early start and avoid the 100+ temperatures of the afternoon. Our intrepid group of 13 (1 Egyptian guide, 4 Americans, 6 Canadians, and 2 Australians) left Luxor at 7 am sharp and rode north along the river and through the countryside towards the Temple of Hathor at Dendera (also spelled Dendara).
The drive was about an hour and a half, but the time passed quickly since we drove through many small towns along the way. The road was not the main highway connecting Cairo with Aswan, but still had plenty of traffic of all types--cars, buses, vans, small and large trucks, motorcycles, pedestrians, and many donkey carts or just plain donkeys. The lines painted on the two-lane highway were definitely only a suggestion, as oftentimes there might be two cars on one side. Wild traffic. Many of the villages we passed through had either speed bumps or barriers to make the traffic slow down. The drive through the Luxor and Qena provinces was in the Nile River valley, so was very agricultural (cotton, corn, bananas, sugar cane, rice, etc.). Hard to believe that the desert comes right up to this valley. It almost never rains in this part of Egypt, which probably contributes to the pollution levels. Abdu easily provided the exact date of Luxor's last rain (November 2, 1994), and said it rains about every 80 years. No wonder mud bricks are used in so many homes. This building material is much cooler than concrete, and residents don't have to worry about them melting in the rain!
We all enjoyed the 1.5 hour ride (about 60 km or 40 miles). It was especially interesting to see local people who are not connected to the tourism industry in their own element. The schools looked very nice on the outside, but because of the population growth, many schools run two sessions. We saw kids walking to school at 7 am and then coming home in the very early afternoon while another session was starting. Most of the schools seem to require uniforms. The girls wear long dark robes with lighter scarf head coverings, and the boys wear dark pants with white shirts. Many of the rural schools look alike, so it appears the small villages all used the same architect and builders.
I was surprised how many men were just relaxing in cafes or along the streets, but Abdu said they were mostly farmers, and their work was cyclical. Many of the farms in this area are small and owned/operated by one family. Fewer women are out on the streets since they are working at home. I was mesmerized by the donkeys and donkey carts carrying all sorts of stuff like sugar cane leaves, which were used to weave baskets. Egyptians use the smaller of these baskets to store bread since the moist sugar cane leaves help keep the bread soft.
After passing through the large city of Qena, the bus arrived at the Temple of Hathor at Dendera. Like many of the other sites we saw, this temple site has been used for over 3000 years, but the current temple on the site was built during the Greco/Roman time (54BC to 20BC). The temple is covered with a roof, which is different than the Karnak temple to Amun we visited earlier. The Hypostole Hall is especially impressive, with its 24 huge columns, each topped with the face of Hathor, the goddess of beauty. She is always an easy goddess to spot, because she is shown with cow horns. In ancient Egypt, to tell a woman that she looked like a cow (i.e. like Hathor) was considered a big compliment. The ceiling of this large hall still has much of its original colors, and the pattern includes signs of the Zodiac, which were introduced by the Romans. It also features images of the sky goddess Nut who swallowed the sun disc each evening in order to give birth to it once again at dawn. This remarkable story is shown high on the ceiling of the large temple. Archaeologists have determined that all of these tall buildings were built using huge ramps and then the artwork was added as they tore the ramps down, so the top of the ceilings and walls were decorated first. Clever, isn't it? Build up, decorate down.
The rest of the temple was very interesting, and we were able to go out on the roof to see the surrounding countryside. On the ceiling of a top floor room is a copy of the famous "Dendera Zodiac". The original was taken by French archaeologists in the 19th century and moved to the Louvre Museum in Paris, where it still remains. The stairs to the roof are winding, and walls are carved, much like the walls seen in every temple we visited. The crypt was also open, and brave Julie went down the ladder and crawled under a wall to see it. (I skipped it, but she said I didn't miss anything.)
On the outside back wall of the temple is a relief of Cleopatra VII. She's the one Elizabeth Taylor played in the movie. Cleopatra VII completed the construction of the current temple after the death of Ptolemy XII about 51 BC.
After touring the temple and checking out the sacred lake and birthing houses on the site, we re-boarded the bus and headed back to Luxor and the ship via the same road. On the way, we had bus trouble, which was a little scary for a few seconds since I pictured us standing by the roadside in 100 degree heat waiting for a replacement. However, I forgot our Swiss friends (the other 18 passengers on the ship) had their own bus and were right behind us. So, we left the poor driver with the bus and joined the Swiss for the short ride back to the ship.
Day 4 - Luxor Temple
The hungry passengers enjoyed another good lunch when we got back on the River Tosca. The soups and salads were especially good, and there was always a sandwich selection, many freshly baked breads, pasta, and two or three hot main courses. Our table all agreed the "lemon mousse" was the best dessert of the day. We decided it was made with mascarpone cheese, heavy cream, and lemon. What's not to love?
After lunch, we sailed up and down the Nile River for a couple of hours, marveling at the mountains, lush river valley, and occasional ancient structures along the way. Very relaxing. Julie and I sat outside on the deck and drank a sangria. It was hot, but we sat in the shade and had a light breeze. By 4 pm, we had re-docked and were on the bus again for a tour of nearby Luxor Temple. This complex is smaller than Karnak and nearer the river, so it is has been flooded more often. We loved the shape of the large columns and the site was spectacular in the late afternoon sun.
Back at the ship, it was time for dinner. I had a yummy Caprese salad (tomato and mozzarella cheese), consomme soup, and grilled salmon. Dessert was ice cream and fruit.
After dinner, we had a belly dancer along with three musicians (keyboardist, drummer, and tambourine player) entertain us. She only danced about 30 minutes and even got some of us to participate. We had such a small group, she tried to recruit ALL the women, but only three of us took the bait. The highlight of the evening entertainment was the whirling dervish male dancer that followed. He spun around for about 15 minutes solid, with his huge skirt standing straight out. At one point he used round wooden boxes as props, then he transformed the skirt (without stopping the spinning) into a lighted costume. Pretty amazing and well worth sitting through the not-so-attractive belly dancer just to see his performance.
Since we had another 5 am wake-up call the next morning, we were all soon off to bed. Our group voted unanimously to leave for the Valley of the Kings at 6 am the next morning to avoid the heat of the desert. Another exciting day awaited us.
Day 5 - Valley of the Kings near Luxor
Even though it was daylight, 5 am came very early, and the sun was up when we left the ship at 6 am. It was a great idea to do an early tour since the Valley of the Kings is in the desert and gets very hot. As I noted before, the Nile River Valley is narrow, and the scenery changed from lush vegetation into desert immediately when the bus passed where the original flood plain (and fertile, irrigated soil) was. We were the first tour group of the day to arrive at the Valley of the Kings, so we had the place almost to ourselves at 6:30 am in the morning. Uniworld provided tickets into the Valley of the Kings, but Julie and I also purchased tickets to enter King Tutankhamun's (King Tut) tomb, which cost 100 EGP or about $17 extra. These tickets must be purchased at the ticket office, which means visitors can't wait until they get into the desert valley to decide whether or not they want to to into King Tut's tomb (unless they want to return to the ticket office down the hill).
This desert valley is desolate and almost monochromatic. Sixty-five tombs have been found and named with the KV designation, but only 62 have been fully excavated. The pharaoh buried in the tomb has only been identified in about half of the royal tombs. Each day three tombs are open to visitors, but no cameras are allowed on the site. We visited the tombs of Ramses III, Siptah, and Ramses IX. Tutankhamun's tomb still is the only tomb undisturbed by tomb robbers when it was discovered in 1922 by an Egyptian boy and then excavated by Howard Carter (British). The only reason it was undisturbed was because the workers digging a new tomb next to Tut's threw all their rocks and debris on top of King Tut's tomb. So, Tutankhamun's burial place remained undiscovered for over 3000 years.
The three (four including Tut) tombs we visited were all slightly different, but all featured spectacular painted walls and ceilings, each telling a story in pictures and in hieroglyphics. Seeing all this ancient writing certainly gave me a new appreciation as to why the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 was so exciting for archaeologists and Egyptologists. (The Rosetta Stone has essentially the same story in three written languages--hieroglyphics, ancient Greek, and Demotic (Egyptian) script. It served as a key for scientists to translate hieroglyphics.) The paint looks so fresh, it's hard to believe that it's over 3000 years old! One scientist spent his whole working career trying to re-create the paint formula and finally gave up.
Grave diggers always started digging the tomb of a new pharaoh the day he assumed power, and the digging and painting continued until the day he died. Therefore, a tomb of a long-lived pharaoh is larger and more elaborate than one who only lived a few years. For example, Ramses III, the first king's tomb we visited, served for 31 years, so his tomb was much more elaborate and larger than Siptah's (the second tomb we visited), who only served 6 years. His tomb was fairly large, but less than a third was "decorated". Tutankhamun only served 9 years, so his tomb is very tiny, but they did leave his mummy inside, although all the riches, gold, etc. are in the Egyptian Museum. Since he was Pharaoh such a short time, only the walls around the sarcophagus were painted. The old photographs Howard Carter took when he finally broke into the tomb are displayed in the tomb, and it's interesting to see the original resting place of the tomb's riches at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Day 5 - Hatshepsut Temple near Luxor and Sailing the Nile on the River Tosca
Leaving the Valley of the Kings about 8:30 am, we drove around the desert hills to the nearby Temple of Hatshepsut, the only woman to actually rule as pharaoh of Egypt. She ruled for 15 years during a time of peace and growth, but is usually pictured as a male with a beard. Hatshepsut also was married to her half-brother. Interesting life! This temple is in a dramatic setting, but many of the paintings/carvings have been defaced or completely destroyed over the centuries. There is a nice view from the third (top) level of Hatshepsut's Temple, so be sure to walk up to the top when you visit. Some energetic visitors hike over the mountain the lies between the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Hatshepsut, but the trail is steep and hot.
We returned to the ship by 10:00 am and had free time the rest of the day. The River Tosca sailed south (upriver) about noon, and it was fun to see the people, towns, and scenery along the river. As usual, it was hot outdoors, but tolerable in the shade. When we approached Esna, the ship slowed way down to go through a lock. Abdu had warned us to expect vendors to come out to the ship in small boats and try to sell stuff, but little did we know that they would throw galabiyas (traditional Egyptian robes) up on the ship in plastic bags for us to look at. You pick out the one you want, haggle over the price and then put the money in one of the plastic bags of the items you don't want, and throw it back, while keeping the purchased item. We all wondered how many bags went into the river! These industrious vendors tied their boats to the ship (one on each side) and bombarded a group of Swiss women with the plastic bags filled with galabiyas and towels. What a hilarious way to shop! As we approached the lock, the small boats had to untie from the River Tosca, but lo and behold, more vendors were on the sides of the lock. We had already walked through two gauntlets of sellers ashore that day (at the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Hatshepsut), so the fun was over very quickly. Fortunately, we lost all the vendors when we got into the lock.
Dinner was a gala Egyptian buffet. We all wore our galabiyas (most of us had bought them on the ship for $10), and it was a lot of fun. The food was delicious. Julie was especially happy to see falafels, one of her favorite foods. Overall, the meal was terrific, and we got to try some unusual (to us) Egyptian foods like kushari. After dinner, we had a crew show where they played and sang Arab music while we all danced.
We got back to the cabin about 10 pm and the River Tosca was docked in Kom Ombo early the next day.
Day 6 - Temple of Kom Ombo and the Crocodile Museum
The next morning we awoke in Kom Ombo on the Nile River, having sailed overnight from Luxor and arriving there in the middle of the night. Neither Julie nor I felt the River Tosca dock--guess we were both wiped out from the Egyptian dinner, music, and dancing the night before. Our group didn't have to even ride a bus to see the Kom Ombo Temple; we just walked about a half block to the ancient site. This temple is one of the highlights of ancient Egypt and was dedicated to two Egyptian gods--Sobek, the crocodile god and Horus, the falcon god. It was almost like there was a line down the middle of the temple and it was shared by the two religions. As seen in the photo above, they even had a wall with the daily schedule of events carved in hieroglyphics! When Abdu pointed it out, we could clearly see the month/day and times of services. Massive schedule, but it worked.
We walked around the temple for a while, noting that the reliefs--both carved into the stone and carved out of the stone--were some of the most detailed and well-preserved (least defaced) we had seen in Egypt. Abdu was especially excited about showing us the wall with all the medical teachings. Egyptian physicians were way ahead of their times in diagnosing and treating the sick. A huge papyrus has been found that lists 500 illnesses of the ancient times. After the papyrus was translated, modern doctors identified all but 14 of the illnesses, and assume that somehow those 14 are diseases that either we have become immune to or the virus/bacteria mutated to a non-threatening form. The Kom Ombo Temple also had over 100 reliefs of all the medical equipment and devices needed by ancient Egyptian doctors.
The details of the reliefs and carvings at Kom Ombo were very impressive, but after touring the temple for about an hour, we only had 30 minutes to tour the mummified crocodile museum next door. These mummified crocodiles weren't as large as the ones at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but there were many more. The small museum was interesting, and the displays were more attractive and better labeled than the huge Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Of course, leaving the museum and walking back to the River Tosca, we had the usual gauntlet of vendors. Abdu told us to just keep saying "no" and (more importantly) walk forward without making eye contact. They keep throwing out prices, but the prices don't really mean anything. They just want to engage you. Being bombarded by vendors ashore is certainly not as much fun as we had with the vendors at the locks the day before.
The rest of the morning, the River Tosca continued to sail south (upriver) from Kom Ombo, heading towards Aswan and the High Dam. The ship arrived in Aswan during lunch. As usual, we had another great meal. All of us loved the delicious food on the ship. The salads and fruit were especially good, and the oatmeal was some of the best I've ever tasted.
Day 6 - Tour to the Unfinished Obelisk and High Dam in Aswan
After lunch, we left the River Tosca and went to three places in Aswan--the unfinished obelisk, the High Dam of Aswan, and the Philae Temple. I was pleasantly surprised by Aswan, a city of about 300,000 residents, including many Nubians who relocated there when the Aswan High Dam was built. The city is the southernmost in Egypt and is much cleaner than Cairo. Located just downriver from the first cataract of the Nile River, Aswan has long been frequented by visitors. Like Luxor, Aswan is a tourist town, but the city also is a government and university center. Its southern location makes it a popular winter destination.
Aswan has most of Egypt's granite quarries, and many of the country's monuments (and the two dams at Aswan) were built with rocks from the area. Stone cutting was an important occupation in ancient Egypt. The famous unfinished obelisk was lying down at one of the granite quarries and had been there for over 3,000 years, dating back to the New Kingdom. The obelisk is huge--over 130 feet long and weighing almost 1,200 tons. Three sides of the structure have been carved, but it is still attached to the quarry floor. When the obelisk was being carved out of the granite, workers discovered a major flaw, so they abandoned the project. It was interesting to learn that no one knows which Pharaoh commissioned the obelisk. Evidently, politicians did not like to acknowledge failure in ancient times either. We only spent a short time at the quarry, but seeing the obelisk lying on the ground gave us a good perspective of just how large these pillars could be.
Aswan High Dam
Next, we rode across the old Aswan Dam completed in 1902, and then went to the High Dam a little further up the river, which was completed in 1971. We also rode across the Aswan High Dam and stopped at the visitor's center at one end of the dam and the lotus-flower-shaped Friendship Monument, which celebrated Soviet and Egyptian friendship, at the other end. According to our guide, the USSR loaned Egypt the money to build the dam when the USA would not. The USSR added two interesting stipulations to the loan (other than it had to be repaid, which it was). Egypt agreed to ship raw cotton to the USSR and Egypt to allow USSR citizens to visit or vacation in Egypt at a very low cost. Completion of the Aswan High Dam prevented the inundation, which was the annual flooding of the Nile.
The Aswan High Dam was completed between 1960 and 1971, during the term of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The high dam is over two miles wide and over 350 feet tall. Disagreements over the funding of the dam led to a souring of relations between Egypt and the USA. The lake formed by the damming of the Nile River was named Lake Nasser in honor of President Nasser, who died of a heart attack in 1970.
Our third stop of the afternoon was at the Temple of Philae, which was rescued from the waters of the Nile River when the dam was built and is discussed on the next page.
Day 6 - Temple of Philae in Aswan
Our third stop in the afternoon was a boat ride to Agilkia Island, the site of the Philae Temple, one of Egypt's top ancient sites. This Isis temple complex is particularly interesting since it was moved to the site in the late 1970's from Philae Island that had been underwater since the Aswan Dam was built in the early 1900's. In order to move the temple complex, a dam was built around Philae island, the water was drained out, the mud was cleaned off the temple complex, and then it was cut into 47,000 pieces.
These pieces were moved to higher ground on Agilkia Island, just a short distance away. They were re-assembled exactly as before, and look absolutely spectacular today. The mud covering the complex for over 70 years helped to protect it. This whole project was done from 1972 to 1980, with over three years dedicated to re-assembling the buildings, columns, reliefs, etc.
One of the main buildings had crosses carved into many of the columns and walls, which meant the early Christians (Coptics) used the old temple as a chapel. The whole re-located complex was very impressive, even though the temple only dates back to about 380 BC and then was added onto for the next 500 years.
We didn't get back to the River Tosca until after 6 pm, and we had to be at dinner at 7 pm. It was another good dinner of shrimp cocktail, consomme (other choice was pumpkin soup), grilled fish, and ice cream. No evening entertainment, so we got to bed early since we were flying to Abu Simbel the next morning.
Day 7 - Abu Simbel
The next morning, we left the River Tosca and Aswan for a half-day tour to Abu Simbel. Although my primary fascination with Abu Simbel is the story of how these two huge temples were moved to save them from the rising waters of Lake Nasser, this ancient site has long been on my bucket list because of its remote location and magnificent sculptures, reliefs, and artwork.
Julie and I and the six Canadians, plus Abdu, our guide, flew from Aswan to Abu Simbel to see the famous temples of Ramses II and his wife Nefertari. The two Australians chose not to go on this optional excursion, which was expensive, but worth it. The other two Americans were on a shorter, 8-day tour and flew back to Cairo from Aswan that same day and then home.
These two temples were carved out of a cliff in the 13th century BC. Ramses II was narcissistic in the love of his own image and was certainly very egotistical. He seems to pop-up throughout Egypt. We saw his mummy in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and statues of him in almost every place we stopped.
The town of Abu Simbel and the nearby temples that carry its name are about 40 km (25 miles) north of Egypt's border with Sudan, right on Lake Nasser. It's also almost 300 km (180 miles) south of Aswan, so flying is the best option. The 30-minute commercial flight from Aswan was on a regional jet and was packed with mostly tourists. Some of the same people who flew over to Abu Simbel with us on the 10 am flight were also on the 1 pm flight back. The flight was over the Sahara Desert and Lake Nasser and was mostly desolate--no roads, towns, or buildings. The huge Lake Nasser reaches 510 km south -- all the way from the High Dam at Aswan into Sudan. That's over 300 miles! The lake is between 3 miles and 22 miles in width. The lake is so remote there are only a few villages, so it appears very austere and clean. The fishing is quite good (we've really enjoyed dining on the Nile perch), but no one goes swimming because it is heavily infested with ferocious, aggressive Nile crocodiles that can exceed 15 feet long. Professional fishermen (about 5000) use small boats to catch fish about 6 months out of the year. (The heat keeps them away in the summer months since temperatures are often above 120 degrees.) The lake is also a haven for migrating birds; gazelles, foxes, and several types of poisonous snakes live along the shoreline.
Enough about the lake and the flight. Moving onto the remarkable temples at Abu Simbel. These temples were among the 17 sites that were saved (many others were lost underwater) when the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960's/1970's. Many member countries of the UN contributed money, labor, expertise, or volunteers, but five countries (one of which was the USA) did most of the work (and contributed most of the funding) through UNESCO. Unlike Philae, Abu Simbel was not cut into thousands of small pieces and moved, it was cut into huge blocks and raised 213 feet above and 688 feet back from its original location on the edge of the Nile River in the late 1960's. An artifical cliff, which is a reproduction of the original natural one, was made to attach the colossal statues to, and the reliefs and temple aftifacts were placed inside the new artifical dome inside the cliff. The result--from the front, the temples look exactly as they originally did before being moved.
Almost everyone from the plane to Abu Simbel was on the shuttle bus to the monuments/temples. A very few people were staying in one of the handful of hotels in the town of Abu Simbel, but I can't see doing that unless you wanted to visit the archaeological site late in the afternoon or early in the morning.
The ride to the Abu Simbel temples from the airport was less than 10 minutes, and you walk up behind the huge cliff along a paved path. The view of the four huge Ramses II statues in front of his temple and the 2 statues of Nefertari and 4 statues of Ramses II at her temple (I told you he was more than a little egotistical) is spectacular. Ramses II used these temples to announce his strength to anyone sailing down the Nile and entering Egypt. No photos or guides are allowed inside either of the two temples, but I can tell you they both have more than just a little of the "wow" factor. The interiors are very well preserved, given that they are over 3300 years old and have been untouched. I guess being buried in sand for hundreds or thousands of years (until 1813, when they were re-discovered), probably helped.
The facade of the Ramses II temple has the four huge (108-foot) statues of Ramses II sitting on thrones. (His cartouche--name in hieroglyphics--labels each of the colossi). One of the four lost its head in an earthquake in 27 BC, but the others are remarkably intact. The temple is dedicated to the patron gods of Egypt's 3 largest cities--Amun of Thebes (Luxor), Ptah of Memphis, and Ra-Harakhty of Heliopolis. However, you will find more reliefs and statues of Ramses II than of the three gods.
As you enter the temple, the right side of the Hypostyle Hall is carved with stories of Ramses II' great victories (like the one over the Hittites in Syria at the battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC), showing numbers of enemies killed/captured, chariots destroyed, etc. This accounting also shows the numbers lost on the side of Ramses II, so it's somewhat like a news report. Our guide says he sees this side of the hall as the true historical side of Ramses II rule. The left side is the public relations side--it shows Ramses driving a chariot and shooting a bow simultaneously, killing one man by stepping on his head while killing another by choking with his arm, etc. What a fierce warrior (he thinks) he was!
Large statues (over 30 feet tall) line the hallway leading into the temple, some wearing the champagne-bottle-shaped crown of Upper Egypt and the others wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. Several claustrophobic niches/storerooms are off the hall. These niches were used to store offerings to the gods and have gorgeous paintings and the ever-present hieroglyphics. The second big room after the Hypostyle Hall is the vestibule, which has scenes of Ramses and Nefertari making offerings to the gods, followed by the Inner Sanctuary with four statues lining the back wall of the temple. Three are of the 3 gods to whom the temple is dedicated, and you can guess who the 4th is--Ramses II. Twice each year (October 22 and February 22), the sun's rays reach all the way back to these four statues and three of them are illuminated. (Ptah is not, because he is a god of the darkness.) The statues were gold-covered at one time, and I'll bet they really shone! The statues were also illuminated in their original location, but one day earlier. It must be magical to see the sun rise, make its way through the Hypostyle Hall and the vestibule before reaching the Inner Sanctum.
The second temple is Nefertari's. It is dedicated to the goddess of Hathor, the one who looks as beautiful as a cow. Julie and I also went to a Temple of Hathor at Dendera earlier in this trip. This temple has some gorgeous statues and paintings, the most famous of which is Nefertari flanked by Hathor on one side and Isis on the other. Our guide said this picture is worth what we paid to fly over to Abu Simbel for a 2-hour visit, and I agree. Not sure if I'll ever learn all the names and how they are usually depicted, but it's certainly not that important to most of us. We just know the depictions are gorgeous and so important to our understanding of the ancient world.
We got back to Aswan (another uneventful flight) about 2 pm and were at the ship by 2:30. They had lunch waiting on us (the others had eaten earlier.) It was another delicious meal of soup, salads, hot dishes, and desserts.
Day 7 - Felucca Ride on the Nile River and High Tea at the Movenpick Hotel
At 4 pm that afternoon, we boarded a traditional felucca (a Nile River sailboat) and sailed slowly and quietly up the Nile for about an hour to the Movenpick Hotel for high tea. The ride was relaxing, and we all enjoyed getting to sail on one of the feluccas, especially since we have seen hundreds of them along the river. This hotel, which is one of the nicest in Aswan, features a rooftop glass restaurant on the thirteenth floor with great views of Aswan, the Nile River, and the surrounding countryside. Plus, it was a very nice tea service.
We were back at the River Tosca by 6:30. I took a quick shower and was at dinner by 7 pm. Julie decided to have a leisurely shower and skip dinner, but she did join us for coconut ice cream for dessert. I loved the phyllo pastry with feta cheese, salmon, and coconut ice cream. The other main course was steak, which also looked good.
At 9 pm in the lounge, we had a Nubian music and dancing show. The Nubians once lived in the area between the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan and the Sudanese border. This part of Africa was called Nubia or the Kingdom of Kush. They are Egyptians, but black, and their homeland was flooded when the Aswan High Dam was built. The music and dancing reminded us a little of the Caribbean, but many Caribbeans have African ancestry. Of course, they got us all up dancing, and at one point a man in a gorilla suit joined us. I never did understand the significance of this gorilla in the desert, but it was great fun. The dancing also seemed a lot like some of the steps and music we use in my Zumba class back home.
We all have moments that remind us just how small this world is. While we were dancing, the River Tosca hotel manager came over and told me someone who knew me was there. It turned out to be Tom Baker, a travel agent and writer from Houston whom I have sailed with a few times. He and some friends were sailing the Nile on another river vessel and were also docked in Aswan. They had walked down to the River Tosca to have a look and tour the ship. He came into the lounge with the hotel manager, looked around and said, "Hey, I know that woman dancing with the gorilla". Small world, isn't it?
The River Tosca spent the night at the dock in Aswan. The next morning we were going to visit a Nubian village.
Day 8 - Visit to a Nubian Village near Aswan
Guests on the River Tosca were up by 6:30 am in Aswan, having spent another night at the dock. We left the ship at 8:00 am via a small covered motorboat with a local Nubian guide named Diaa. Abdu stayed behind, happy to have a morning off, I'm sure.
Since they are black and often tall, Nubians look more like Africans than Egyptians, but they have a distinct language. Nubian children learn to speak Nubian at home, Egyptian Arabic when they start school, and then English in school from age 8. By age 12, most Nubian children can speak at least three languages.
Very long ago, Nubia (also called the Kingdom of Kush) was distinct from Egypt and stretched from the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan south to the Sudan border. Although a small minority in numbers, the Nubian people have long been a part of Egypt, and the Egyptians and Nubians have inter-married and had the same religion (Islam) for centuries. When the High Aswan dam was built, about 140,000 Nubians living in Egypt and Sudan had to be moved since the rising water was going to cover their homes. According to our Nubian guide Diaa, the Egyptian government treated those re-located in Egypt right. They gave them new farmland, houses, free medical care, free electricity, free schools, and other assistance in exchange for the loss of their land. Our guide added that although the Nubians were happy before, they are much better off now.
Diaa pointed out numerous birds as we cruised along the Nile River towards the Nubian village. Many were feeding since it was early and still (relatively) cool. He said 168 species of birds either live year round on the Nile near Aswan or migrate through there. A nice breeze made the ride quite pleasant, and we all loved cruising on the small boat as we passed by the botanical gardens, the huge sand dunes on the Nile, and the house and mausoleum of Aga Khan III, the billionaire spiritual leader of an Ismaili Muslim sect, which is a branch of Shi'a. Although Aga Khan III was born in Pakistan, as an adult he and his family stayed in their Aswan home a part of each year, and he loved the place so much he wanted to be buried there. His son, Aly Khan, was once married to Rita Hayworth.
We arrived at the Nubian village about 9 am and toured one of the homes and had tea and cake at a small cafe overlooking the Nile. Diaa spent a while explaining how Nubians live and work, and it was all very interesting. The homes were neat, large since several generations share a home, and colorfully painted. The homes sit on the desert, so the floors are sand, which is cheap (free) and can be easily changed every few years. The homes are built of mud bricks and have high domed ceilings to keep them cool. (Temperatures sometimes reach over 120 degrees in the summer and easily average 105-110). The Nubians appreciate the extra money they get from allowing tourists to visit their homes, and they also sell handicrafts. No hassle either! Like the rest of Aswan, they know that 80 percent of the local economy is dependent on tourism, and they want to do their part to help encourage more visitors.
Going back downstream, we returned to the ship via the east side of Elephantine Island rather than the west side we took going to the village. We passed by the famous Old Cataract Hotel, where most of the rich and famous Aswan visitors have stayed over the past 100 years. It's still the most expensive hotel in Aswan. Agatha Christie wrote "Death on the Nile" while staying at the hotel.
Day 8 - Cruising the Nile River on the River Tosca
We were back on the River Tosca by about noon, ate lunch at 12:30 and sailed downstream (north) for Luxor. We would overnight in the town of Edfu before passing back through the lock we went through on the trip upstream, and arrive back in Luxor by the early afternoon. Sailing north from Aswan, it was a gorgeous day, and since we had covered most of this distance during the evening hours a few days before, it was all new to us. There was a strong hot breeze, which kept the top deck much cooler than on other days. The ship has very comfortable padded chairs and a refreshing pool, so we wore our swimsuits to sit outside in the shade and take in the scenery for part of the afternoon. Julie also had a nice massage in the small spa, and I worked on my journal and photos.
The Nile River scenery is mostly either desolate desert, with sandy hills or rocks, or lush farmland with crops and animals. It all depends on the irrigation. It was great fun to listen to the donkeys braying as we sailed by, along with people taking time out from their work to wave and smile or just holler "welcome" (in English) or "hello" (in English). Julie and I split a beer and she went to the sundown yoga class outdoors on the deck.
The dinner theme was Oriental, but we decided it was really Turkish since we started with a mezz of half-dozen items along with the delicious bread selections. We had hummus, a yummy green paste made of a type of beans and parsley and herbs that looked yucky but tasted very good, salad, and tabouleh. The soup was a hot yellow lentil that looked like carrot or pumpkin but tasted like lentil, a choice of either talipia or a mixed grill of lamb, beef, and chicken, and a sampler of three Egyptian desserts. Very good and filling dinner.
The River Tosca docked in Edfu during dinner. Early the next morning, we would take a traditional horse and buggy ride to the Temple of Horus at Edfu.
Day 9 - Riding in a Buggy to the Temple of Horus at Edfu
Our suite overlooked the dock area in Edfu, and I was awoken by the Iman calling the faithful to prayer at first light--4:25 am. A second mosque's loud speaker went off at 4:33 am. Guess the River Tosca was docked near a couple of mosques!
The ship had overnighted in Edfu, and we took an early morning horse and buggy ride from the ship to the Temple of Horus at Edfu for another walking tour. Abdu took care of paying and tipping the drivers, so we could sit back and enjoy the ride and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of Edfu early in the morning. Riding in an open buggy provides a completely different perspective than riding on a bus or walking. We were all a little surprised at the number of tourists at the Temple at 7:15 in the morning. We are thinking that some of them must have been on one of the other ships that had a lock appointment later in the day. The River Tosca had to sail from Edfu at 8:30 in order to get to the lock at Esna in time.
The Horus Temple at Edfu is the second largest temple in Egypt, after the complex in Karnack. Sand buried the Temple for over 2,000 years, so the reliefs and carvings were very well preserved. However, many of the faces had been defaced by the Coptics who occupied the Temples for a while during the time of the Roman persecution of Christians.
After over a week in Egypt, Julie and I were really getting to be experts at ignoring the vendors. We walked the gauntlet of sellers without even blinking and even ignored our driver's plea for more money for water and food for his horse (Abdu had told us they would ask, but assured us they were being well-paid and not to pay them any more.)
We had continental breakfast--homemade rolls and coffee/tea before going to the temple, but a full buffet breakfast outdoors on the sun deck when we returned. It was a windy morning, so was quite nice outside. After a leisurely breakfast, we met in the lounge with Abdu who briefed us on our Cairo schedule for our last two days in Egypt. He also spent about an hour answering general questions and filling us in on the educational system, healthcare system, family life, and political climate. He was very interesting, although I think he sometimes paints a more rosy picture of things in Egypt than others might. He is cautiously optimistic about the new government.
After our meeting with Abdu, our group of 10 had a tour of the galley and the navigation bridge. Our captain is Egyptian and I don't think he speaks much English, but he has spent his entire life on the Nile River and knows it well. As is common on a river ship, the galley is much smaller than your would think it would be.
Lunch followed our ship tours--delicious onion soup, variety of salads, some type of okra concoction, hamburgers, chicken fingers, french fries, two types of pizza, and the rice of the day. (Every day they've had some special rice dish at lunch.) After lunch, we sat up on the top deck, watched a cooking demonstration, and took in the Nile River scenery. Life on this river has mesmerized us all--watching the landscape, animals, farmers, families, and many other boats, both large and small.
Julie and I had an early dinner because we were going to the 8 pm "Sound and Light" show at the Karnack Temple. The winding stairs going down to the dining room were lined with votive candles in alabaster vases, and all the tables had the same. Lovely for our farewell dinner. Only three of us were going to the show (one of the Canadian women), so we had kind of a private early dinner at 6:30 while the others weren't eating until an hour later. It was another great meal--one of the best. I had a grilled shrimp appetizer, gazpacho soup, veal with mushroom sauce, and fruit for dessert. Julie only had the soup and the Egyptian nougat appetizer, which I should have gotten also. It had ice cream cut in bars like nougat candy and was very good.
A driver and escort picked us up and we went to the show, which lasted about an hour. It's kind of hokey, but the temple complex is quite lovely and a little mysterious at night. Bleacher seating is provided near the Sacred Lake, but most of the hour-long-show is presented while you are walking through the complex. Taking along a flashlight is an excellent idea. The Sound & Light Show is presented in several languages and multiple times each evening. An Italian show preceded ours, and a German show followed.
The ride back to the River Tosca was particularly interesting since none of us had ventured ashore after dark. The cafes and streets were busy with men socializing and smoking their hookah pipes. Most of the Egyptian women were at home.
We were back on the ship by 9:30 and finished our packing.
Day 10 and Day 11 - Return to Cairo and the Ancient Capital at Memphis
Return to Cairo
The tenth day of our trip, we sadly left the River Tosca in Luxor at 8:15 in the morning and went to the Luxor Airport. We had an uneventful flight to Cairo and a long drive back to the Four Seasons Hotel - Cairo at Nile Plaza. The traffic in this town is continually snarled and packed with honking vehicles. Glad I don't have to drive in Cairo. The bus rode right through Tahrir Square, and it looked quiet, much like the week before. They did have police checking some vehicles, and the street going up to the US Embassy was barricaded. We got to the hotel about 1:30 and decided to just hang out by the swimming pool until time to go to the Sound & Light Show at the Great Pyramids.
The afternoon was much cooler than when we were last in Cairo. I think the temperature was only in the mid-80's! Julie and I sat by the pool and ate a late lunch/early dinner outdoors around 4 pm. At 6 pm, we joined the group on the bus for the ride out to Giza to the Sound and Light Show at the Pyramids/Sphinx. The setting was spectacular with the lights on the sites. There was a breeze, and it was almost cool. Quite a change from what we've gotten used to. The ride to and from the Pyramids was hectic, but it was fun for us to watch from the bus.
Memphis - Ancient Capital of Egypt
We left the Four Seasons Hotel about 7:30am on our last full day in Egypt. Since it was so smoggy, we toured some of the ruins at Egypt's first capital city at Memphis and the oldest pyramid site in the world a little southeast of Giza at Saqqara. (The smog/haze was so thick we couldn't have seen the tops of the Great Pyramids had we gone there in the morning as planned.)
We first stopped at Memphis, not to visit Graceland, but to see the site of where the Pharaoh Menes (also called Narmer) unified predynastic Upper and Lower Egypt about 3100 BC. Lower Egypt was the area of the Nile River Delta north of the site at Memphis and Upper Egypt was all the lands in the Nile River valley south of Memphis, so this place was a symbolic selection--kind of like the selection of Washington, DC as capital of the USA at the dividing line between the southern and northern states.
Memphis was the first capital of unified Egypt, followed by Thebes (near Luxor), Alexandria, Old Cairo, and now Cairo. Not that this will get us anything, but Julie and I are now so knowledgeable about Egyptian royalty we can identify the two crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. (Upper Egypt's crown is white and shaped like an upside-down champagne bottle, and the Lower Egypt crown is red and shaped like a basket. Pharaohs were wearing both crowns in most of the drawings, statues, and reliefs we saw on this trip.)
Not much of Memphis is left for visitors to see. All we saw at the old site of Memphis was the outdoor museum, which holds a colossal statue of our old friend Ramses II, the self-centered pharaoh who loved his own face so much that he plastered it all over Egypt. This statue has fallen over, and a pavilion was built around it. We could see the details very well since it was lying down, even down to Ramses' pierced ears.
Guess it was fitting to have seen his mummified body in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, far up the Nile at his temple at Abu Simbel, and then later in Memphis in the same trip to see similar statues of this famous pharaoh. The Memphis museum also has the largest remaining alabaster sphinx, and two other large statues of Ramses II. Much of Memphis remains unexcavated, so no telling what else lies under the sand there. Abdu said archaeologists' digging is much slower now than it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries since the current policy is not to dig if you don't have a plan in place to protect and preserve. Good policy.
Day 11 - Pyramids and Tombs at Saqqara
Saqqara and the Step Pyramid
We left Memphis and drove the short distance to Saqqara, the cemetery/necropolis for the city of Memphis. The citizens (and royalty) of this old capital city used Saqqara as a burial place for over 3500 years. Like many other ancient sites in Egypt, only a small part has been excavated. All of Saqqara was completely covered with sand when the first archaeologists arrived in the mid-19th century. The famous French archaeologist Auguste Mariette began work at Saqqara in 1926 and continued till his death in 2001. That's a lot of digging! And, a lot of history uncovered and clarified for generations to come.
The Saqqara pyramids and tombs date back to 2650 BC, older than the pyramids at Giza by about 100 years. Guess you can think of these as "practice" for those at Giza since most of these do not have the perfect pyramidal shape as their more famous neighbors a few miles north. I'm not sure why not many tourists visit here, because we found the structures and tombs fascinating. It was almost peaceful, and security was high. You have to almost be on a guided tour to visit since the whole Saqqara burial ground covers a 7-km (about 4-mile) stretch along the edge of the Western Desert (the Egyptians always used the west bank for burial grounds since it followed the sun.)
We first stopped at the Step Pyramid, the world's oldest pyramid and part of the 40-acre Djoser complex at the Saqqara site. This pyramid started out as a mastaba, which was a simple, rectangular tomb used by pharaohs as mausoleums at the time. The mastaba covered the burial site/tomb. Previous mastabas (and all structures in ancient Egypt) were built of mud bricks, but this one was the first stone building ever documented. It is called the "birthplace" of the pyramids since using stone enabled the builders to create more complex structures. This Step Pyramid designed and built by the famous architect/builder Imhotep, is really just a series of mastabas stacked on top of each other, with each one being smaller and smaller. The structure reaches for the heaven and symbolizes a stairway for the pharaoh to use to permit his heavenly ascent in the afterlife. The Step Pyramid was originally about 203 feet tall (62 meters) and had a base 358 feet wide by 410 feet long. The Step Pyramid is also called the Pyramid of Djoser since he was the pharaoh buried there.
The enclosure wall surrounding the whole Djoser complex and the entrance to the Step Pyramid were also especially interesting since they looked like they had been constructed just a few years ago instead of over 5000 years ago. The entrance had a 20-column colonnade (each column was about 25-feet tall) that had been "repaired" by the Romans about 100 AD, and the older part of the columns was holding up as well (if not better), than these "new" sections.
Teti Pyramid and the Mastaba of Kagemni
After visiting the Step Pyramid, we rode a short distance on the bus to the Teti pyramid, one of the few in Egypt (97 pyramids have been discovered in Egypt, with about 20 in Saqqara) to have hieroglyphics lining the walls. Even claustrophobic me couldn't resist going inside since there was something to see. It was narrow, low, and dark, but the walk was not too long since the pyramid was relatively small. The text on the walls was very impressive and was a precursor to those we saw on the walls of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, which were done after the capital was moved to Thebes.
Teti's pyramid tomb was followed by a tour of one of the mastabas, which were single-story mausoleums of the rich non-royalty of Memphis. Abdu took us into the Mastaba of Kagemni, which was filled with relief carvings of everyday life in Egypt, which are called pyramid texts. Since it was the burial place of Kagemni, who loved fishing, many of the reliefs featured fish or fishing-related pictures. They were so well done and well-preserved! The reliefs were raised by just a small amount, which is the most difficult type to do since if you make an error, it's almost impossible to cover up.
Next stop for the day was at a rug-making school and shop, where we watched several students at work. When you look at all the tedious knot-tying involved, it's easy to see why handmade rugs are so expensive. Several in our group purchased small rugs, but it seemed like to me that the school had an awful lot of inventory--another sign of the poor economy.
Lunch was at Elezba, a nice outdoor restaurant in Giza. This restaurant had seating for over a hundred and looked like it catered to tourists. Ours was the only group there, and we had a nice table for 10, enjoying a variety of mezz dishes, followed by a mixed grill of chicken and lamb burgers. They even brought the small hibachis right to the table so the meat would stay hot. Julie and I both thought the lamb burgers were some of the best flavored lamb we have ever tasted. After a nice breakfast at the hotel, I didn't even feel hungry, but still managed to eat way too much. It was just too good to pass up.
After lunch, we had our last tour in Egypt, and the one Julie had waited 50 years to see--the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza.
Day 11 - Great Pyramids at Giza
After lunch, we went to the site of the Great Pyramids and Sphinx of Giza. We got stuck in a major traffic jam for about 30 minutes. Finally, our armed guard on the bus got fed up with the stalled traffic, got off the bus and waved his gun around to direct traffic. He might have gotten shot doing that back home in Georgia! His magic gun-waving did the trick and our bus finally got around the mass of vehicles (including a truck hauling cows and a couple of donkey carts).
I had been to Giza on my first visit to Egypt in 2006 and had told Julie she was going to be speechless, and she was. The pyramids and sphinx were so much more impressive by daylight than the night before at the Sound and Light show. They may be almost 5000 years old, but live up to their "seven wonders" award. Scientists now believe that the builders of the pyramids were mostly farmers who couldn't farm for parts of the year when the Nile was flooded. Today we'd probably call it a giant jobs project. Archaeologists have found ancient settlements near the site that were used by the workers. Each of the three pyramids took about 20 years or so to build. The Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) is the largest, standing over 1500 feet high. It has over 2,300,000 blocks, with an average weight of 2.3 tons each. Much of the rock was brought downriver from the quarries near Aswan. The Nile River was once closer to the site at Giza than it is now, so the blocks weren't transported as far from the river as it looks like today. When you see the preciseness with which they were built, you can understand how the rumors got started about alien involvement. However, as Abdu said, the older, simpler pyramids we saw at Saqqara demonstrate how the builders evolved their skills over time.
We spent time at each of the three pyramids, which were built for three consecutive pharaohs. We even climbed up a couple of levels on two of them, but they no longer allow tourists to go up to the top. Julie went inside the third pyramid, but the other two weren't open. Our armed guard exited the bus and walked around the sites with us--a little unnerving, but nice to have someone to fend off the swarming vendors.
Julie and I found time to take a short ride on a camel. I forgot how tall they seemed! Abdu negotiated the price for us -- 20 Egyptian pounds each, or less than $4! Good deal, and the 10 minute ride was long enough.
Day 11 - Sphinx of Giza and Conclusion
Great Sphinx of Giza Our last stop of the tour in Egypt was at the Great Sphinx, carved from a solid rock. Impressive, although Julie and I agreed it looks small when compared to the pyramids. Sadly, the Sphinx is deteriorating rapidly due to pollution and the rising ground water level. Some of the restoration efforts actually harmed the sphinx rather than extended its life. Let's hope scientists can determine a way to preserve this marvelous historic artifact.
All too soon it was time to return to the hotel for dinner and bed. Since Julie and I had a 2:30am wake up call, we were in bed early. The hotel provided us a box breakfast the next morning (really the middle of the night), and our our flights home were completely uneventful, which is always a good thing to be able to say. Amazing how you can leave Egypt at 6:30am and be home in Georgia at 6:30pm the same day. Of course, the 6-hour time difference helped, but it was like going from one world to another--ancient and modern Egypt to small town Georgia.
I am so happy that I got the opportunity to see more of Egypt, and the Nile River cruise tour was even better than I expected. Our guide Abdu wouldn't say anything negative about the country he loved, and he is cautiously optimistic that things will be better when a new constitution and parliament are in place. I hope he is right. Our escort to the airport was worried about the new Muslim Brotherhood regime and whether they will push his country towards the more conservative Sharia law, which might make Egypt less attractive to western tourists.
The saddest part is that terrorists have long recognized the best way to weaken Egypt is by attacking its economy. The easiest way to do this is by attacking the tourism industry, which is where the country has traditionally brought in billions of dollars each year, most from visitors from outside Egypt.
Although the recent demonstrations in Egypt were led by a tiny faction, it doesn't take much to scare visitors away. Just with our short time in the country, I don't see things getting any better soon due to the poor economic conditions. It's certainly a marvelous, magical place to visit for those who love history, but (like almost anywhere in the world) if terrorists want to disrupt the economy by attacking tourists, they will continue to do so.
I can't guarantee your safety on any cruise, tour, or even trip to the local grocery store back home. I do know that Uniworld Boutique River Cruises (and other travel operators) work diligently to make an Egyptian vacation the best and safest it can be. I also know that the majority of Egyptians are very proud of their history and love sharing their unique heritage, monuments, and culture with those who choose to visit.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.