A Few Days Along the Nile

Visiting Egypt – is that a good idea these days? For a while we hadn’t even considered it as part of our globetrotting options. We’d certainly like to go, but save it for later when it’s less scary. Then over the summer we met an American couple in Vietnam who had found a good deal on a tour, so we followed their progress with a bit of skepticism. Sure it might be really cheap, but is it foolish to go? Awfully hard to really know with today’s media. Well they not only survived but they had a great time, and this pushed us off the fence with added momentum coming from Elaine’s enthusiastic mom who has been dying to visit. She (Elizabeth) and her friend (Elisabeth) jumped on board to join this leg and thankfully did much of the planning for us.

Booking with a tour company is a rarity for us, but in this case we wouldn’t have dreamed of coming here on our own. With tourism in Egypt at 30% of historical levels (having already rebounded from a dismal 10%) it wasn’t difficult to find a price and time that worked for us on short notice. This of course removed the logistics burden, and so we didn’t think much about this visit until we left Greece and rendezvoused with the Eli(z/s)abeths in Cairo. As soon as we caught sight of the Giza pyramids through the dusk and smog we knew we were in for an amazing time.

So: time to crush our record for most ancient site we’ve visited! Until quite recently the oldest significant ruins that we had seen came from a mere 2500 years ago in Italy. We beat that by a millenium last month with Mycenae in Greece. That’s still nowhere close, however, to the oldest structures we would find here in Egypt: 2700BC, nearly 5 millenia ago. It’s astonishing, then, how well some of them have held up. A combination of dry climate, submersion in protective sand dunes, and robust civil engineering has done the trick. The Egyptians didn’t always succeed in their building endeavors but they sure had a lot of techniques perfected a long long time before most other civilizations!

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Our guide Mahmoud in front of Khafre’s Pyramid

My exposure to ancient Egypt prior to visiting was similar to Greece and Rome: I’d seen a number of the sites we were to visit in various history and art classes, picking up a (fuzzy and incomplete) sense of the culture and history. As such I was prepared for the usual: amazement at the unexpected, combined with slight letdowns from wonders less impressive than imagined. I found plenty of the former but none of the latter – ancient Egypt does not disappoint! From the massive pyramids to the delicate treasures and everything in between, we were continually awestruck as we bounced from site to site along the Nile.

We began our first day of a packed itinerary by visiting the necropolis of Saqqara, our oldest site, south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. This marks the beginning of pyramids with Zoser’s step pyramid, built by the architect Imhotep (later revered as a god, good work fella!). Our approach to the site was exactly as you would envision: the lush Nile valley and hazy city behind and below us, barren sand and rock of the Sahara ahead, the occasional camel and donkey with traditionally-clothed men hoping to snag some cash for a photo or ride. The ancient gateway, quite intact, is very at home in this environment. Our very first close look was jaw-dropping: a wall stones fit together seamlessly as if machine-cut yesterday.

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entrance to the necropolis
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Zoser’s Pyramid

Saqqara also introduced us to some well-preserved Egyptian wall carvings in the tomb of Mereruka (very precise and detailed) and gave an opportunity to head down into the burial chamber of another pyramid (Teti). It’s not everyday you’re inside a pyramid! No photos allowed inside these, unfortunately. After Saqqara we zipped over to Memphis, formerly a city and now a small fenced in area with some very nice carvings, sarcophagi, and the massive and masterfully carved Colossus of Ramesses II. This Pharaoh was one of the most successful and prolific, he has his face all over ancient Egypt.

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heading downhill into Teti’s Pyramid!

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sphinx of (possibly) queen Hatshepsut, in Memphis
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a sarcophagus lid

Still on day 1 and over to Dashur for some slighly newer pyramids (~2600BC) where the Egyptians figured out how to work the kinks out of building these structures. The large Red Pyramid gave us another shot to clamber down inside – much further this time – to some impressive high vaulted ceilings for the burial area. We closed our first day with some shishkebab at a restaurant overlooking the Giza plateau so we could see the sunset over the Sphinx and and Great Pyramids. Amazing.

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from the side of the Red Pyramid

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The Bent Pyramid

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We saw a LOT so it seems excessive to give each day a play-by-play, yet every site was so unique and impressive that it’s hard not to. I’ll do my best! Day 2 was Giza necropolis and then the Egyptian Museum at Tahrir Square. At Giza we wandered around Khufu’s Great Pyramid – huge, awesome, unbelievable – and then hitched a camel ride past Khafre’s Pyramid (only slightly smaller) to Menkaure’s pyramid, which we went inside. The camel ride was actually a lot of fun and the perfect duration at 20 minutes or so – I don’t really want to be on a camel any longer than that.

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at the base of the Great Pyramid

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After the pyramids we visited the Sphinx, as grand and noble as imagined. The Egyptian Museum, while a bit of a disorganized mess in some corners, was also very nice. Despite the best efforts of grave robbers (and the British) a great deal of magnificent items remain here in Egypt and on display. From the museum we swung by the hotel for a brief break where we had a rare chance to grab some street food: delicious shawarma and falafel. Then it was over to the Giza Rail Station to begin our overnight journey up the Nile to Aswan.

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The night train was actually pretty nice, which came as a pleasant surprise after seeing the insanely packed and riotous regular cars which rolled out of the station with people still clinging to the outside of the jammed doorways. Nobody fell off (as far as we could see) and I actually felt a bit guilty with the couple of square meters we had to ourselves for the night.

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our group getting off the train in Aswan

Once in Aswan we explored the local section of the Nile. It’s a picturesque area with clean waters, green banks and islands, and sandy hills rising to the west. We checked out the famous high dam and the huge expanse of artificial Lake Nasser behind it, then visited islandic Philae Temple which is one of many ancient sites that were relocated – block by block after being cut apart – to protect them from the new water level. We found some decent coffee on the island (thank God, we needed it!) and got a good laugh when a cunning cat swatted Elisabeth’s ice cream out of her hand. Ever cat-friendly, Elisabeth kindly broke up the remains into even portions for the ensuing feline feeding frenzy.

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approaching Philae Temple from the water

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an Egyptian column with a more recent Coptic cross carved in

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Our evening was a bit of an odd one when we visited a waterfront Nubian ethnic village for dinner. Dinner was delicious tagine dishes but first we had to endure a gauntlet of market stalls, Chinese tourists on camels (one fell off in front of us, not good), and dancing singing children that then morphed into a pack of bloodthirsty tip hounds. It was a bit much.

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on the boat ride to our dinner

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Day Four was a 4:30am departure to make the long round trip to Abu Simbel, a famed temple close to the border with Sudan. This massive site was carved into a sandstone hill along the Nile by the ubiquitous Ramesses II in 1260BC, and with the creation of Nasser Lake in the 70’s also had to be sawed apart, moved uphill a few hundred meters, and reassembled. The task of moving this huge carved structure seems to me even more daunting than creating it in the first place! The long drive was well worth it because along with the iconic facade Abu Simbel has some amazing carvings inside detailing Ramesses II’s exploits.

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two of the four massive Ramesses II statues guarding Abu Simbel

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Eli(z/s)abeth looking at Ramesses II smiting his enemies

I’ll cut it off here – you might be getting sleepy – and leave the latter portion of Egypt to a second post. You’d think after seeing the pyramids early on the remainder would be a bit of a letdown but that’s not the case. Ancient Egypt is fantastic!

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