My love affair with Ancient Egypt started many years ago and after thirty trips to Egypt I still get butterflies in my stomach every time I board an Egypt Air flight to Cairo. In-fact the attraction gets stronger with each experience.
Herodotus once wrote of Egypt that “Nowhere are there so many marvelous things…nor in the World besides are to be seen so many things of unspeakable greatness”.
So what is so fascinating about this country? The list is endless – the majestic Sphinx and awesome Pyramids, astonishing golden treasures of the boy King Tutankhamen, luxury Nile cruises, desert safaris, diving and snorkeling in the Red Sea, gigantic temples and a wondrous and mystical history that is universally unrivalled. All these glorious wonders of an ancient civilization – what more could you possibly want or expect in one destination!
The excitement builds as you board your direct Egypt Air flight to Cairo, and eight hours later you are walking amongst the Egyptians and eager to explore. Cairo is known as the “Crazy Horse of Egypt” and this title is well earned. The City has in excess of 16 million people, and at times if seems to have even more cars. It is the largest city in Africa and possibly the third largest city in the World. On arrival you are struck by the sheer volume of activity, but your senses soon adjust to the vibrant pulse of the city.
Cairo is home to the famous Pyramids; the last remaining of the seven wonders of the Ancient World. The Pyramids must be experienced to be understood. With their massive size and dominating presence they are still a mystery of human achievement. Entering the Great Pyramid you cannot help but marvel at their construction. The size of each stone seems impossible, and yet there are thousands. The steep corridors, narrow entrances and symmetrical chambers, make the interior of the Pyramids feel at-odds with the simplicity of the exterior. The design, and finish is sheer perfection, and the mystery remains.
After exploring, it is time to relax at your hotel. Egypt has no shortage of good hotels in all the major sites. You can choose from the more modern hotels like the Semiramis Intercontinental in Cairo or Sonesta and Movenpick chains all over Egypt, or be taken back to a bygone era and stay at the Old Winter Palace in Luxor a favorite of Howard Carter (the discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamen), the majestic Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan where Agatha Christie penned “Death of the Nile” or at the elegant Mena House Hotel in Cairo, a stone’s throw from the Great Pyramid.
The people of Egypt are extremely friendly and hospitable. Tourism is Egypt’s main source of income and all tourists are made to feel welcome and appreciated. Egypt is also very accommodating of non-Muslim Westerners. There is no strict dress rule for foreign women and foreigners can wear what ever they want except when visiting a mosque where both men and women need to cover their knees and shoulders and take off their shoes. The Egyptians have an amazing ability to recognize ascents and faces. On my third visit to Egypt, a horse and buggy man came up to me and said, “Hello, I know you”. Thinking this was just a regular scheme to entice me into a tourist shop I tried to brush him off. He persisted, “I know you, you are from South Africa, I can’t remember your name but you stayed in the Old Winter Palace and I took you shopping for carpets”. This was amazing considering it was almost three years since I had been there.
Don’t be put off by talk of “revenge of the Pharaohs”, if you are careful about where and what you eat, Egyptian food will delight you. Most hotels and Nile Cruisers offer a large variety of dishes, catering to Western, Middle Eastern and Asian palates. Expect to gain a few kilograms while visiting Egypt.
Luxor is my most favorite place in the World. The Valley of the Kings, situated on the West Bank of the Nile is where Tutankhamen and many other famous Pharaohs were buried. It is a place that makes you feel at peace with yourself and the World. Here tombs can be viewed in colours so vivid it is as if they had been finished only yesterday. Sitting on the balcony of your room at the Sonesta St George Hotel, over-looking the Nile and the West Bank you are transported back 3500 years to a time when this region was the centre of the World.
The temples of Luxor and Karnak have a splendor of scale that is unrivalled anywhere in the World. With their soaring columns, obelisks and more than lifelike statues, this Ancient City still holds around 30% of the Worlds monuments. A fabulous way to treat your-self while in Luxor is to take a hot air balloon ride over the West Bank. From this vantage point you will see temples, tomb entrances, the mighty river Nile, vast desert and farm lands etc. – a more spectacular site will be hard to match and all at a very reasonable price.
The Nile, known as ‘Iteru’ which literally means ‘river’ by the Ancient Egyptians is the longest river in the World. It starts in East Africa and flows northwards through nine countries, stretching over 6 000 km before flowing into the Mediterranean. The mere mention of the Nile evokes for modern man images of Pyramids, great temples, fantastic tales of mummies, and wondrous treasures. But the Nile represents life itself to the people of Egypt, ancient and modern. In fact, for thousands of years, the River has made life possible for millions of people and has shaped the culture we today are only beginning to truly understand.
The Nile River no longer floods in Egypt as it did in Ancient times, due to the building of the Old and High dams in Aswan. Although building the dam destroyed some of the Ancient monuments and continues to cause damage to some existing monuments, Egypt would not be able to exist today had the dams not been built so it is rather like a double-edged sword. Tourists are able to visit the High Dam (driving over the Old Dam en-route) and see for themselves this modern marvel which has created Lake Nasser.
The Highlight of any trip to Egypt has to be a Nile Cruise. What could be more romantic than sailing down the Nile on a luxury Nile Cruiser, adventuring to ancient temples and tombs along the way? Most people take a four night Nile Cruise between Luxor and Aswan. During this time the boat is your hotel, providing all meals and site-seeing as part of the package. Boats can range from comfortable 5 star cruisers with a cozy “bed and breakfast” feel to the more glamorous 5 star deluxe options with crystal chandeliers and private balconies in each cabin. A 3 or 4 night Lake Nasser cruise is also available where you sail from Aswan to Abu Simbel to see the mighty temples of Ramses The Great and his Wife Nefertari. Abu Simbel can also be visited by taking a short thirty five minute flight from Aswan or travel by road which takes 3 hours. For those tourists spending the night in Abu Simbel one cannot miss the opportunity to see the Sound and Light show at the temples, which is voted the best in the World bringing tears to most peoples eyes. The setting of the Seti I hotel on the banks of Lake Nasser is fantastic and a great way to relax and unwind. Each room has a private balcony usually covered with colourful bougainvillea bushes and the azure blue waters of the Nile just a few steps away.
Aswan is the most picturesque part of Egypt. Take a felucca cruise around Elephantine and Kitchener Islands, exploring in the footsteps of the ancient civilization. A visit to Aswan is not complete without a visit to Philae Temple, a beautiful site sometimes called the ‘Temple of Love’, situated on the Island of Agilkia. This temple is dedicated to the Goddess Isis and the last known place in which Hieroglyphic writing was carved onto temple walls. Philae temple evokes strong emotions from most travelers with many wiping away a tear or two as they board the small motor boat to go back to the mainland. Spending time in Aswan transports one back to another time and the magic of Egypt definitely casts its spell here.
Few countries will enthrall you and evoke as much mystery and intrigue as Egypt. It is a place of awesome beauty and unique history and a land that must be personally experienced in order to be appreciated and understood. You will be left with special memories of a magical time so if Egypt’s mysteries, pharaohs and pyramids fascinate do yourself a favor and book the pilgrimage of a life time – you won’t be disappointed. In closing I can’t say it any better than Florence Nightingale (1849) “One wonders that people come back from Egypt and live lives as they did before”.