We took a tour of Egypt with friends, including visits to Cairo and Alexandria, and a four day cruise on the Nile with stops at the major sites along the river. It just got better and better! Our most unforgettable trip ever.
by NiceGinna on December 1, 2008
The first tip would be: Don't drive in Egypt. As our wonderful Tour Director pointed out to us, the lanes marked on the highways and streets are mere suggestions. No one follows them. If there are 3 lanes marked, there are at least 4 lanes of traffic. And what traffic! We had cause to be in taxis a few times and it is hair-raising, to say the least. Cars race each other, weaving in and out, racing and then slamming on brakes, and during all this, there are people crossing the roads! Taking their lives in their hands! I had to sit back and close my eyes.Shopping in Egypt is not comfortable. At all the markets you will be approached and offered items; as you walk away, the price will drop precipitously. Don't make eye contact if you don't want to be approached and led into a shop. Saying "No" didn't seem to help, although saying "Nein" did seem a bit effective; perhaps Germans are known not to buy anything!A lot of the stuff is not real - the "papyrus" bookmarks and other items are usually not really papyrus. There are shops were the papyrus is made - your guide will probably take you to one - and there the stuff is real. Much of the alabaster, too, is fake; again, there are legitimate shops for this.Be very careful, if you do go on your own, about a camel ride. There are legitimate people who do this and there are others who will tell you a price, and then take you out to the desert and demand a lot more to bring you back.Cairo itself is filthy and unattractive. The dust from the desert swirls in and covers everything. And garbage is left on the streets. Our guide insisted that because people were brought up with it this way they would miss it if it were cleared up. Another problem is the lack of building codes. Where we live in Nice, one must have the same color awnings and shutters as the rest of the building. In Cairo it seems that anything goes. There are windows of different shapes and materials on the same building; there are different tiles or paints on the outer walls; there are satellite dishes and air conditioners sticking out everywhere. This lack of consistency makes for a chaotic appearance; not attractive at all.
Normally we don't use tours; we like to travel on our own and be flexible and free to change our minds. But for a country like Egypt, we decided that a tour was the way to go. We used GoAHead Tours, opting to buy the land only tours since we would not be coming from the States but from Nice FRance, where we live in the winter months. This caused a bit of a problem since we arrived and the tour was NOT at the hotel they had advised us of and we had no local phone number. I accessed my email but they had sent no update and even their site did not give the necessary information; this was obviously distressing. But the hotel where we had gone helped us by calling the other hotel we would be staying at in Cairo, later in the tour, and there they were! What a relief. This was our first organized tour and we were surprised to find out that it is not as relaxing as we expected. Most mornings we were up before 6 AM and on the bus by 7 AM, ready to see the sights. We would return home to our hotel around 7:30 PM or so, have dinner, and fall into bed, exhausted. Then the next day was the same, up again before 6 AM! You really felt like you got your money's worth!Our guide, Hesham, was worth the trip. He is a true Egyptologist who has worked with the top archeological teams in Egypt, so he was very knowledgeable. He also put in a lot of time with us - one "free" evening he spent almost 2 hours with us, answering any questions we had about Egypt, ancient and modern. He was friendly and helpful with restaurant suggestions and really priceless.Another thing a guide will arrange is visits to shops that he probably gets a "kick back" from. On the other hand, he takes you to reputable dealers - real papyrus, authentic woven rugs, real alabaster. At each shop there is a demonstration of the crafts. But there's not much shopping on your own.
Our tour was booked into the Safir Dokki for a total of 5 nights, 3 at the beginning and 2 at the end. It's a decent place to stay with nice size clean rooms, TV with CNN, a safe, a refrigerator and a comfortable couch or set of chairs in the room. Each room has a balcony.There is a nice pool with a poolside bar. There was construction going on in the lobby while we were there, which did not add to the attractiveness of the place. Also, one night at 1:30 - 3:30 in the morning, they were working on the elevators which kept us awake most of the night. They gave us a mini-suite when we returned to make up for this, but we would have preferred a good night's sleep.The restaurant, The Palms (or as they call it, The Palm's) is buffet style. Our Tour Director cautioned us not to eat unpeeled fruit and vegetables unless they were cooked, so much of the food was out-of-bounds. The orange juice was labeled "fresh", so I drank it and had no problems. But salads were off-limits, except for cucumbers; I peeled tomatoes to go along with them, for a "Greek" salad. But there were many choices in a second room where hot dishes were served: always some kind of rice, vegetables, fish which was always good, lamb and/or chicken, so there was plenty to eat. And the desserts were pretty good too.For breakfasts, we used the same restaurant. There were lots of choices for breakfast rolls and buns, cereal, some fruit like melon or bananas; in the "hot room" there were eggs and omelets cooked to order, meats, cooked tomatoes, and more choices, so we definitely didn't go hungry!
by NiceGinna on January 23, 2009
Our first stop of the day was Museum Imhotep, the architect of the earliest Step Pyramid. He was also a writer and scientist, a true Rennaisance Man, but well before the Rennaisance! Then it was on to the First Step Pyramid, built about 4600 years ago! Before the Step Pyramids, there were flat-topped burial chambers called Mastabas (Arabic for "bench"). But King Djoser asked Imhotep to create something more spectacular for him. Since the King was still living, Imhotep kept adding a new level to the tomb (he didn't want to "kill the job"), creating steps whereby Ba, the Spirit on earth could climb to join Ka, the body in heaven.
by NiceGinna on January 26, 2009
Ever since we studied the Egyptian pyramids and the Sphinx when I was in third grade, I'd hope that one day I would see them for myself. I really had to pinch myself on this day. The Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khafre), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was built around 2650 BC - more than 4500 years ago! It took 30 years to build and 23,000 workers, not slaves as we had been taught. The logistics of housing the workers was itself a phenomenal feat. It was the tallest man-made structure for 3800 years! Here the embalmed body of the King was entombed with all the material goods he would need in the next world; these have been stolen long ago. Nearby are two somewhat smaller pyramids of Giza with several even smaller, all for lessor relatives.
I'd been warned not to take a camel ride as the camels are very dirty. Also, if you take the wrong ride, the leader can take you out to the desert and not bring you back until you have paid him a large sum of money. But I chanced it. Our tour guide recommended the camel ride vendor, so the danger of being "kidnapped" was eliminated. And I loved every minute of the ride across the desert with the view of the pyramids in front of us. It's a bit tricky when the camel gets up and down to let you mount and dismount: you must lean far back or you will fall off. But it's an experience I'll never forget. My camel, Michael, was wonderful
The Sphinx at Giza, with its head of a man and body of a lion, is the most famous and largest sphinx, at 150 feet in length. It was probably built around the same time as the Great Pyramid (2600-2500 BC), but no one really knows for sure. It's quite eroded and damaged with his nose and beard gone, but very impressive all the same. He stands as guardian to the Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khafre) It is thought that originally the Sphinx was painted colorfully. The Egyptians continue to do restoration work on the Sphinx; when they do such work on their magnificent ancient artifacts, they repair with a different color of stone to make sure that people can see the original and the repairs.
by NiceGinna on January 24, 2009
It was a long (2 1/2 hours) bus ride from Cairo to Alexandria, a special excursion that our tour offered and which we opted for. Alexandria was the capital of Egypt from 332 BC when it was conquered by Alexander the Great until 641 AD when conquered by the Muslims, nearly 1000 years. The East section of the city is modern and rich while the West section is much older and poorer, with an overall population of nearly 5 million. Our first visit was to the fascinating Catacombs, 99 steps under the surface of the city. Absolutely no photos were allowed here. The paintings on the walls of the Catacombs are still fresh and beautiful. Our guide explained that special oils were used to light the area for the workers so as to leave no soot. Also, plants were grown inside to help provide oxygen for the workers who were underground for long hours at a time.Our next stop was the Alexandria Library. The famed Library of ancient Alexandria was destroyed and this modern building might not appeal to everyone, but the architecture is quite interesting. The blue reflecting pool mirrors the sea and the sky, while the disk-shaped part of the building is an allusion to the world. The taller part of the building is reminiscent of the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the ancient wonders of the world; the outside walls of this part are covered with the alphabets of the whole world. The internet site for the Library is at www.bibalex.org.We had lunch at El Salamalek Hotel and Restaurant, a beautiful building on the grounds of the Palace. The restaurant where we ate was more of a casual place, but there is a beautiful restaurant and bar on the other side of the building. The lobby and these other places are beautifully furnished.Afterwards we saw the outside of the King's Palace, where Pres. Mubarak can stay when he is entertaining Heads of State, but he does not live here.Then it was on to the site of the Roman ruins of Alexandria. They are continuing to discover many artifacts buried in the sea. We saw the remains of a theater and many artifacts that have been recovered.Then it was an even longer bus ride back to Cairo and our hotel. An exhausting day!
In the early morning we flew from Cairo to Luxor where we would board our cruise ship for four nights on the Nile. How romantic that sounds! (and is!) But first we would tour the two major temples of Luxor and Karnak. We started the tour with Karnak where our guide pointed out the columns shaped like papyrus and lotus representing the Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. The columns are covered with figures and symbols: the ankh is the symbol of the Nile River and therefore of Life. Kings, Pharoahs, and gods are represented with their names incised in oval-shaped medallions called cartouches, a French word meaning cartridges. Egyptian temples were built from the back, where the Inner Sanctuary is, to the covered courtyard to the open courtyard and finally to the gate. The Inner Sanctuary, where only the King and High Priests could enter, was built around 2600 BC and the rest of the temple was built over the next 1500 years.Between the two temples at Luxor there is a grand walkway lined with hundreds of ram sphinxes. We arrived at Luxor Temple by bus and entered at the gate which is guarded by two massive statues of Ramses II. Then, as at Karnak, there is an open courtyard filled with beautiful columns and rows of more columns depicting papyrus leading to another courtyard built by Amenhotep III. Finally we reached the Inner Sanctuary.
We spent four nights on the Moon Dancer, one of the very many cruise ships parading up the Nile. It's great to get out of the dirty city of Cairo and see the scenery along the river. And it's a wonderful way to get from one historic site to another while you are enjoying a good meal and a night's rest. One day we were stuck at the locks along the river for several hours and even that was fun. It gave us a good chance to see the locks. Plus there were dozens of Egyptians selling things: they were bring their boats up to our ship, throw the embroidered dresses and tablecloths up to the decks where we could examine them and try them on. If you didn't want the items, you threw them back down. If you did, you threw down the money in another bag weighted by the item in that bag. Even though many bags fell into the water, it was fine. A fun way to spend the morning and a great way to find a galabeya to wear to "dress up" night on the ship.The boats have swimming pools and often hot tubs. There is a large dining room with buffet meals and even a nightclub. When you pull into port, the boats moor side by side. To disembark you may have to go through 3 or 4 other boats! A thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Each of the Colossi was originally carved from one enormous piece of stone, standing 60 feet tall! One has been destroyed but has been re-created.
There are 63 tombs in this location with more expected to be discovered this winter! Only 8 are open at any one time and the admission ticket allows you to choose 3 to visit. The ticket for King Tut's tomb, which houses his mummy, is an extra fee (100 LE). We chose our three and were amazed at the vibrant colors inside; sadly no pictures are allowed. The tombs are decorated from floor to ceiling and from front to back; in the back stood the sarcophagus which held the mummy. Side rooms would hold all the riches that were buried with the King. Most of the tombs were looted long ago. King Tut's tomb was under another tomb; when the tomb above was robbed, no one realized there was another tomb below and that is why we have the magnificent remains from King Tut's tomb. He was actually a rather minor king, having lived only a short time; you can only imagine what riches must have been left in the other tombs of the more important kings!The artifacts from Tut's tomb are in the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo and include the famous golden mask, several beds, several chariots, lots of jewelry, jugs which had contained oils and wine. Nearby we visited the Valley of the Nobles to visit the tomb of Ra-Moses (1700 BC) who was the mayor of Thebes during the reign of Akhenaton. This king turned away from the worship of many gods to the worship of one god, who was pictured as the rays of the sun. The tomb was left unfinished because Ra-Moses moved away, following his king, and the tomb was never used. The wife of Akhenaton was the famous Nephertiti and his son was King Tut. After Akhenaton's death, worship of multiple gods returned, probably because the Priests benefited, and his image everywhere was destroyed.In all the tombs raised relief, the most difficult and time-consuming decoration, was done while the King was still living and healthy. When he was older or more sickly, sunken relief was used to hurry along the work. Painting was done after his death, since that was the quickest form of decoration. From the date of his death until he was entombed was 102 days: 72 days to mummify him and 30 days of processions. On the decoration, a leopard skin indicates royalty. The bare breasts of the women indicate motherhood - the women did not appear bare-breasted in life. In ancient times, Egyptians wore white for mourning; black was introduced later by the Romans.
It was very unusual for Egypt to have a Queen. The most famous was Hatshepsut who had a lot of work done on Luxor Temple which we saw earlier. She had many obelisks raised in her honor and tried for taller and taller ones. She dressed often as a man, perhaps to hide her insecurity with being a woman. Her temple is amazingly modern and new looking, with its elegant symmetry. In the 1st century her monument was converted into a chapel.
This is the best preserved temple in Egypt because it was buried under sand until the 1860's. It is a Graeco-Roman era temple built around 230 BC by the Egyptians (not the Romans) to honor the trinity of Horus, the Falcon God, and his wife and son. It took 127 years to build and was in use for only 27 years. It was later defaced by the Coptic Christians who had been tortured by the Romans.There are many inscriptions on the walls of the temple, giving archeologists important information on the period and showing that it was dedicated by Ptolemy VIII in 142 BC. There is a beautiful relief of a meeting between Horus and his wife Hathor. As usual, one enters by a gate into an open courtyard; then into the covered courtyard and finally the Inner Sanctuary. The massive gate had deep grooves in it where once colorful flags hung. The beautiful columns or pilons in the covered courtyard stand 118 feet tall. On one side of this hall is a library where the Priest would study the religious order of each day and on the other side is a robing room.In the Inner Sanctuary it is thought that there was a golden statue of Horus standing on the still present granite naos.
Kom Ombo, which means "a collection of gold", is uniquely dedicated to two gods: Horus the Falcon and the Crocodile God, each with its trinity of god, wife, and son. There are two of everything, with side by side courtyards and inner sanctums, each side mirroring the other. On the grounds of the Temples is the Nile-o-Meter, a well-like structure used to measure the height of the Nile and determine what taxes would be levied each year. It the level of the Nile was high, taxes were high; when the level was low, taxes were low.There is also in the Temple a calendar incised into the walls showing what the king would do each day. There were 365 days with 12 months of 30 days each, making up 3 weeks of 10 days each. There were 5 days leftover at the end of the year.
When Lake Nasser was formed in the 1960's by the building of the Aswan High Dam, there were two temples to Ramses II and his wife Nefertari in the mountainside near the Nile. These would be submerged by the Lake and so were moved to a higher location nearby. The temples were originally built in the 13th century BC (more than 3200 years ago). They were built so far away from more populated areas because Ramses wanted to claim that he was a Pharoah, not just a king, so he built these away from the High Priests.When they fell into disuse, they became covered up with sand and were not rediscovered until the 1800's.The Great Temple honoring Ramses II is awe-inspiring, with four enormous statues (20 meters) of him seated and wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt gracing the front. Other statues are by his legs, representing his wife and children. The second temple is in honor of his wife, Nefertari, with statues of them both gracing the front. These statues are 10 meters high. Inside the temples, as in other temples, the rooms get smaller as they lead you back to the Inner Sanctum. All walls and columns are highly decorated. The best way to visit Abu Simbel is to fly from Aswan. There is a bus at the airport which will carry you to the site.
Our last stop on the cruise up the Nile was Aswan. Here we saw many things. One of the first stops was the "Unfinished Obelisk", a gigantic obelisk still in the quarry in Aswan; it broke during the carving, and was never finished.We also crossed the old dam and visited the New High Dam at Aswan. The purpose of this dam, which was built in the 1960's,was for controlling the flow of water for food production and preventing flooding of the Nile and to produce electricity.Then we went to visit the Philae Temple which is located on an island. We boarded a boat, along with several vendors who tried to sell us their goods while we crossed over to the temple. The columns of papyrus and lotus are especially lovely here in the open courtyard. There was a story told by Scheherezade about a princess being imprisoned on this island by her father to prevent her running off with her lover. Her lover seached for her everywhere but could not find her. Finally a bird told him where she was and he rescued her. This is the origin of our saying, "A little bird told me...".
One morning we headed down to the Nile for a ride on a falucca, just like the ancient Egyptians. All of our group, about 35 people, fit on one boat. We'd seen these picturesque boats sailing along the river and they looked so free and quick, we were eager to have a ride for ourselves. The Egyptian pilot and crew were dressed in light white woven shirts that came to their knees over baggy pants. They played a drum and sang and got us all up dancing and singing. While we were on the falucca, children in very tiny boats the size of a bathtub would come by singing songs like "Row, row, row your boat" and we would throw coins to them.Other Egyptians were fishing from the faluccas or selling their wares. It makes for a busy and pleasant scene along the river.
After seeing all the amazing sites on our tour, our last stop was at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Our guide took us on a 2 hour tour and then left us to wander for another hour or so. There is simply too much to see and we found it exhausting. The guided tour is best, and he saved the King Tut artifacts for the end. They are exquisite with all the gold and ivory and the furniture is fascinating. But we found the presentation a bit bleak - it was difficult to decide what was more or less important. Everything seemed to be given the same emphasis. Or maybe we had taken in all our brains could take! It was time to go home.
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