The previous post got us to our furthest point south in Egypt: Abu Simbel, almost to Sudan. All along we had been following the Nile from north to south, or from Lower to Upper Egypt. (Think higher/lower in elevation rather than position as we’re used to seeing on a north-up map; Upper and Lower Egypt were the two ancient kingdoms united by the Pharaohs.) Now it was time to turn around and head downriver, hitting some sites we passed by on the sleeper train a couple days ago.
Our first step, of course, was retracing our 3 hour drive through Sahara sands from Abu Simbel back to Aswan. In the afternoon we went for a lovely felucca sail down the Nile, having dinner and overnight on the boat. This was nice, but also a bit uncomfortable as it got quite cold before dawn (below 10C). The more rambunctious folks apparently like this segment because it involves a night bonfire + beach party, but we were all too old and weary for that sort of thing – besides, there’s a lot more to see tomorrow!
Day 5 was one of my favorites. We continued downriver by bus towards Luxor, stopping at two temples along the way: Kom Ombo and Edfu. The former is dedicated to the crocodile god of fertility Sobek and the latter the falcon-headed god Horus. Both have fantastic carvings on well-preserved walls, and both gave us a good sense of what these temples have experienced over the years: graffiti from the armies of passing empires, horse and camel tie-offs cut into the stone at various heights marking the level of encroaching sand, and (sadly) quite a lot of defacing by early Christian squatters.
We arrived at Luxor mid-afternoon, had a break at our nice hotel along the Nile, and then went down the road at twilight to see Luxor Temple lit up at night. This was another great experience – the temple is beautiful, adorned with huge columns, big Ramesses II statues (of course), and our first obelisk looking pristine enough to have been carved yesterday. Luxor Temple also shows its accumulation of years: a mosque sits atop some of the temple columns (once at ‘ground level’ before the sand was cleared) beneath which is an even older Coptic church. Greek graffiti and Roman artwork cover some of the walls (it’s not often one finds a still-colored Roman fresco to be an annoying obstruction) and Alexander the Great is depicted in Egyptian garb paying homage to the gods.
Day 6: we’re getting there! Early in the dark we crossed the Nile to the west bank for a sunrise hot air balloon ride over Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. Elaine and I were both really excited, having tried unsuccessfully to go ballooning before. It was fantastic! The sky lightened as a dozen or so balloons filled up and lifted off; soon we were in the air with them. We had a great view of the green swath of the Nile, Luxor city to the east and abrupt transition to the Sahara on the west. After getting a birds-eye view of some temples and ruins, an unexpected bonus was sailing low over open homes and courtyards where we got a voyeuristic view into regular Egyptian life: corn drying on rooftops, various livestock in walled rooms, dark soil being tilled for planting. Our skilled pilot set us gently down near the house of Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered King Tut’s tomb nearby.
This was only the beginning of a whirlwind day: we followed up with the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, three tombs in the Valley of the Kings, a couple more in the nearby Worker’s Village, and finally the massive temple complex of Karnak. These were all special and awesome places. Hatshepsut’s Temple is a stark and imposing edifice jutting from sandstone cliffs, so complete (thanks to some restoration efforts) that it looks like a movie set. Her statues – bearded in homage to the traditions of patriarchal society, yet feminine in structure and facial features – line the facade. Inside are some incredible preserved colors on carved walls and ceilings.
The tombs, where unfortunately photos aren’t allowed, are covered top to bottom in gloriously painted carvings with colors unfaded over the thousands of years. Also, unlike the interiors of the pyramids, these tombs have plenty of headroom as you head deep into the valley rock, a feature both impressive and appreciated (by me)!
Karnak – our final temple of the day – has a sprawl is rivaled only by Cambodia’s Angkor when it comes ancient religious sites (and Angkor wasn’t built until 9th century AD). We only got to see a small portion of the complex but we covered the most famous sections including several obelisks and the incredible towering Hypostyle Hall of 134 enormous and closely-packed columns. Our guide did a great job explaining and showing the details and intricacies of Egyptian engineering and construction involved. I was already in awe of their capabilities beforehand, but it got even better here!
This marathon day ended with a 4-hour drive from Luxor to Hurghada, a resort city on the Red Sea, for a bit of R&R. Originally we intended to get in some diving or snorkeling, but with the long day beforehand and a early flight the next we chose to lounge around and enjoy the all-inclusive food and drink. It was quite nice, but I think in hindsight we might have preferred to stay an extra couple nights in Luxor for a bit more sightseeing and rest without the extra drive. But I can’t complain as it was such an excellent trip overall, and we needed a bit of rest and relaxation.
Our 8th and last full day in Egypt got us back to Cairo early by plane and we went right into a city tour. This covered some of Old Cairo: very early and unique Coptic churches, a synagogue, and the huge Mosque of Muhammad Ali (different guy, not the boxer). The churches are quite old (4th-5th century), set on and around older Roman structures, and have absolutely astonishing intricate panelings of wood and ivory. One of these sites – St Sergius and St Bacchus Church – is built around a crypt where Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus are said to have rested during their travels.
The Mosque of Muhammad Ali is set atop the hillside Citadel and has an expansive view of smoggy yet somewhat attractive Cairo with numerous minarets breaking up the skyline. The building is huge, with beautiful alabaster and marble on the exterior and orate ceilings on the interior. Along with the history of the site, our guide Mahmoud gave us a great summary on daily Muslim life and the difference between Sunni and Shiite.
We ended our tour of Cairo with a stroll through the touristy Khan el-Khalili bazaar. This was not my favorite market I’ve been to, but it is one of the more attractive and historical ones. After tiring of trinket stalls we filled our time looking at the local cats.
Whew! That lets us close on Egypt with some last street shawarma and falafel and a couple cold beers in our comfy Tahrir Square hotel. Our tour continues into Jordan but already we can uneqivocally say that this segment has been one of the most stupendous and rewarding of our global journey. It’s hard to believe that I was initially doubtful we would hit Africa at all, and now some of our best experiences have come from this amazing continent! I shouldn’t be surprised, though – that’s what traveling is about.
Specifics: we toured with Encounters Travel. As I mentioned, we rarely do the group tour thing but in this case it was excellent: extremely organized, well executed and staffed, and great fellow travelers (12 of us in all). Not having to worry about travel logistics gave us the energy to see so much more, and we learned a great deal from Mahmoud. This company seems to have great guides: we had a separate guy the first day who was spot on, Mahmoud for the rest of Egypt (great disposition, pace, and knowledge), and our friends who recommended this tour in the first place had a third Egyptologist who they also raved about. And about safety… obviously we’re no experts on the issue after a handheld and sheltered week of travel but we never felt remotely unsafe. Seeing some terrible events unfold back in the States and other “safe” countries during our travels reminds us that misfortune can occur anywhere, and I’m sure glad we didn’t let fear keep us away. Come visit Egypt before tourism picks all the way back up and these beautiful sites become mobbed again!