I fell in love with Egypt soon after setting eyes on the legendary river Nile, although I do admit that, at first, the urban chaos of Cairo reminded me of a line in "One Night in Bangkok" from the 1980s musical, Chess: "Ya seen one crowded, polluted, stinking town . . ."
Of course, I know that Cairo has been a center of Islamic culture and learning for over 1,000 years and as such boasts many marvelous mosques, palaces, and museums. But finding one's way about this seething metropolis can be a hair-raising experience for a first-time solo visitor who cannot read or speak Arabic.
Having only a few days to see the "best" of Egypt, I had little time to waste getting the hang of things, so I figured Id be better off letting experts lead the way. Beforehand, I arranged the whole trip through JuliaTours.com, and, just as expected, my tour guide, Reda, picked me up at the airport right on schedule.
In fact, Reda became my assigned roommate for the duration of the tour, which saved me a bundle in single supplement fees. We got along fine, and I still keep in touch with him.
I did have time to spend a few hours at Cairos Egyptian Museum seeing its eye-boggling collection of antiquities assembled from the times of Tutankhamun and his ilk. This priceless collection is bound to stir anticipation of the wonders one may expect to see on a journey from Lower (northern) to Upper (southern) Egypt.
On the left bank of the Nile, some 30 km (19 miles) from Cairo, three huge structures emerge from the desert. The pyramids of Giza are probably Egypt's most photographed and recognizable ancient site, but even so it was amazing to see Cheops, Mycerinus, and Chephren up close and first hand. Along with a steady stream of explorers, I made the climb into the funerary chamber of Cheops, the largest of the three pyramids.
Later, I sat awhile observing the pyramids from the adjacent pavilion, just basking in the notion that I was on the spot where human beings had actually built these incredible structures over 4,000 years ago. Wow!
I thought it would be cool to stay around the area for the evening sound and light show with narration emanating from the Sphinx that famous colossal statue whose mysterious origins have yet to be discerned but I had a train to catch.
Several trains run between Cairo and Luxor every day. Some trains are designated "express" and some are "ordinary." Most tourists prefer the air-conditioned express routes or, because it's a 671km (419 miles) trip, the most comfortable option is the overnight sleeper operated by Abela Egypt.
Departing King Ramses Station at 8pm left little light to see the landscape between Cairo and Luxor, so I went to sleep imagining my imminent journey on the legendary Nile.
Upon arrival in Luxor about 5am, I and my group mates were met and driven to a pier where the Nile Ruby awaited. I heard that over 300 river cruisers, ranging from "cheap" to "deluxe" to "ultra luxury," operate 3, 4, and 7-night sailings between Luxor and Aswan, so finding the right one on your own could be a bit frustrating.
After the embarkation process we had free time to look around. Today's Luxor is a commercial center for tourists, but 4,000 years ago, the surrounding country on both sides of the Nile encompassed the monumental city of Thebes.
I decided to get off the tour bus and take a ride by horse-carriage. First, near city center on the east side of the Nile, I noticed the beautiful Winter Palace and gardens on the river bank. But this was a mere relic of Victorian colonization rather than the Pharaonic age. Seemingly even more outlandish in this setting, a trio of hot-air balloons caught my eye as they rose surreally in the hazy morning light and drifted across the Nile to the Valley of the Kings, the burial sites of the ancient pharaohs. I got closer to my Egyptian ideal at the Temple of Luxor (or Thebes). Dating to about 1,400 BC, this complex was begun by Amenophis III and, over time, other pharaohs put their own mark on the place as well as Greeks, Romans even an Islamic mosque was built in a courtyard. Ramses II erected a 24-meter-high pylon at the temple entrance and decorated it with triumphal military scenes and six colossal statues of himself, of which only two remain. One of a pair of 25-meter-high granite obelisks is in its rightful place; the other was gifted to France in 1833 where it now adorns Paris' Place de la Concorde. What we see in Egypt today are the leftovers from various historical exploitations.
In 1885, excavations began that eventually cleared the site of debris and unearthed an avenue of sphinxes leading to the nearby town of Karnak.
In Karnak there is an enormous complex of temples, pylons, courtyards, columns, sphinxes, and colossal statues erected over a period of 1,500 years, during the height of Theban prosperity.
Despite the depredations of time and man, these antiquities still provide an awe-inspiring display of power, especially so at night, when you see the temples illuminated and standing stolidly against encroaching darkness just as they have resisted centuries of destructive forces. Yet you know that nothing lasts forever and you cant help thinking that, in all likelihood, these man-made wonders must inevitably crumble away sooner or later.
Across from Luxor, on the west bank of the Nile, the ancient royals and nobles buried their families in extravagantly embellished tombs carved from the barren hills. Serious antiquarians could spend days or weeks crawling around dozens of tombs, but the temperature can be excruciatingly hot here, so most tourists are content to look around and then maybe see inside only two or three.
While my main reason for visiting Egypt was to see its antiquities, I must say I really enjoyed the Nile Ruby. After a long hectic day of sightseeing around Luxor, it was a pleasure to go aboard, relax, and watch the sun set over the Nile. We had a couple of memorable evenings with Arabian dinners and music by Nubian tribesmen. The only problem: no beer. Being a Muslim ship no alcohol was allowed. One night we dressed-up, and I got to feel like Lawrence of Arabia for a while.
The first port of call en route to Aswan was Edfu, via the Esna lock along with about 250 other boats. The crossing easily took some eight hours.
Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, and his Greek-speaking successors the Ptolemies ruled Egypt for about 300 years thereafter. In keeping with their Pharaonic predecessors, the Ptolemies built several temples along the Nile Valley in southern, or what is called, Upper Egypt.
The huge temple complex at Edfu honors the god Horus, the falcon-headed son of Osiris. Taking 200 years to build, it was completed about 57 BC during the reign of Ptolemy XII. He is better known as the father of Queen Cleopatra whose liaisons with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony led her to lasting fame.
About 60 kilometers south of Edfu, we stopped at the riverside Temple of Kom Ombo otherwise named the dual Temple of Sobek and Haroeris. One side was dedicated to Horus the Elder, the falcon-headed sky-god, and the other side to Sobek, a crocodile-headed god of fertility and creator of the world.
It was said that crocodiles used to bask on the riverbanks here, but these have been replaced with street vendors. I found them to be a little more aggressive than usual, but I had, by now, learned to either ignore them or enter willingly into the bartering frenzy.
Aswan, 130 kilometers (81 miles) south of Luxor, is Egypt's southernmost city. Nearby, two dam projects tamed the Nile and created Lake Nasser. Thousands of local Nubians had to be resettled from ensuing floods and archaeological treasures had to be rescued.
Just as they were about to disappear and be lost forever beneath the waters of Lake Nasser, two temples dedicated to Ramses II and his favorite wife Nefertari were relocated to safety by international teams of archaeologists. We took an early-morning bus ride 280 km south to Abu Simbel where we saw the end result of those rescue efforts.
The temples were cut up into over 2,000 blocks, moved two hundred meters away from the Nile shores and accurately reconstructed inside a mountain, which, fortunately, will preserve hieroglyphs and paintings that had already lasted over 3,800 years.
After returning to Aswan there was time to visit the High Dam. I found it worthwhile to see something of contemporary history and hear how Egyptians worked closely with Russians in rebuilding their country after years of war between 1939 and 1973.
Aswan, too, has its share of monuments, notably the Temple of Philae. There is also a colorful souq for shopping, but my favorite pastime was taking a tranquil ride in a faluka (traditional boat) to visit Lord Kitchener's Botanical Gardens located on an island in the Nile.
With evening approaching, my departure time drew near. I had a train to catch for the overnight trip back to Cairo, but not before enjoying an Arabian dinner ($6) of lamb, rice sprinkled with almonds, hummus, pita-bread, tasty tomatoes, spicy cucumbers, and mint tea.
The entire tour cost me US$2,100, including everything except what I spent on souvenirs and the occasional meal.
It was a busy schedule from start to finish, and I dont think I could have accomplished nearly as much within my time frame had I traveled independently. By leaving the details to experts, all I had to do was remember to take sun glasses, plenty of water, and sun screen.
Egyptians are friendly and, in general, traveling the country is easy and
safe for men or women. However, sporadic political dissent may erupt with violence at any time. Learn about and avoid sensitive areas.
Details: Travel Advisories.
Documents: A passport and visa are required, available in advance from Egyptian consulates. Or, tourists can obtain a renewable 30-day tourist visa on arrival at an Egyptian airport. Carry extra passport photos for this purpose.
Weather: Desert climate with hot days and cool nights. Cooler in winter January average is F57 (C13); July average is F83 (C28). Frequent sandstorms occur in April and May. Best months, February and March.