When I was looking for a spring trip to take, because I realized I had upcoming vacation time and no plans yet, I started poking around various travel Instagram accounts and websites to get some ideas and then realized I had several emails from TourRadar with “sale” tours. “Ok, I have a week, what can I do in a week, I also don’t have a billion dollars, what can I make work…Egypt… that’s interesting.” And thus, ends the tale of how I chose to go to Egypt in April. The timing worked out great, the weather was beautiful and the hordes of summer travelers weren’t crowding airports and train stations yet.
My initial flight was canceled due to the EU worker strikes (I was flying Lufthansa out of EWR with a layover inFrankfurt) but I was rebooked onto a United flight EWR to Heathrow and then after a 6-hour layover (ughhh) Egypt Air to Cairo where my driver “Bob” would pick me up and bring me to my hotel. I took the 6 hour layover as a sign I should check out the United lounge in Heathrow and it was nice, but it was very crowded so I didn’t get the relaxation I was hoping for because I always feel like I need to keep an eye on my stuff rather than take a nap.
I arrived in Cairo airport around 8pm so really just enough time to go to sleep after a long day of travel. Bob(the nicest man in the world) picked me up and gave me some info on Cairo as he drove. We passed the Baron Empain Palace and the military academy where in the morning we’d see students jogging. Bob explained that Cairo and Giza city house about 10 million people, many schools, and major tourist attractions.
My actual “tour group” ended up only consisting of myself and one other solo female traveler, which worked to our advantage in that we focused on the things that interested us and had more time to relax than if the group had been large. The next morning Bob picked us up and we met our Cairo/Giza tour guide and we headed to the pyramids. The hype is real. I’ve seen a lot of pictures of the pyramids and I know they’re big but they aren’t nearly as impressive until you are standing right next to them. It’s not so much that the pyramids themselves are large, it’s the size of the stones used to build the pyramids that are impressive. The blocks of limestone are enormous and even with the mechanical ingenuity that the ancient Egyptian people had it seems insane that they were able to build these giant tombs. The Giza pyramid complex is on the edge of the desert and houses the 3 big pyramids you’ve all seen photos of, smaller subsidiary “queen’s pyramids” and the Great Sphinx. Yes, the Pizza Hut you’ve all seen photos of with the deck from which you can see the pyramids is real, you can catch a glimpse of it when looking out toward Giza City from the Sphinx, but the pyramid complex is fairly isolated, you don’t feel the hustle and bustle of a major city nearby.Everything is up a hill in the desert and the city is far enough away that it doesn’t feel like a national park in the middle of the Bronx. Aside from the size of the stones, what struck me most was something that shouldn’t have surprised me. I spent time getting a scarf, some long dresses, and linen pants because I read that shorts are frowned upon despite the heat. Egypt is a majority Muslim country and is pretty conservative when it comes to dress, and it was Ramadan during my trip so I thought it best to stay as comfortably covered as I could…apparently a lot of other people didn’t think that was necessary. The number of young women perched on camels or overlooking the Sphinx taking selfies or having someone photograph them in various stages of inappropriate attire…well I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was. I’m not looking to shame anyone’s look, but it’s just a respect thing to me- I didn’t dress like that in the Vatican and I wouldn’t in the streets of Egypt either.The one GOOD thing I noticed about the Instagram model types all posing was that they were not all “ugly Americans!” It was nice to see people from the world over acting like “tourists,” it’s good to know not all the critiques “ugly” tourists should be leveled at Americans.
After the day in Cairo/Giza we took an overnight train to Aswan to board our Nile River Cruise. I didn’t expect the train to be luxurious but…if there is one thing I could recommend to anyone booking a tour, or anyone who runs the tour groups- book a bus or a plane. The train has a LOT of stops, it’s bumpy ( I was on the top bunk and barely slept because I kept nearly falling off), it’s long, there MIGHT be one working electrical outlet, the bathroom WILL run out of toilet paper and sink water. It’s simply not an enjoyable way to be awake for 12 hours. We arrived in Aswan and couldn’t wait to shower, only to be denied that privilege because check in for the boat was not until the afternoon and it was 5am. (Seriously if you’re a person building the tours figure out a better way.) We went to the ship-walking through 2 other ships to get there (all the Nile cruise boats stack up alongside each other in each of the city “ports”) to drop our luggage off and then headed out with our guide for the Philae temple. After driving to the dock, we headed off on a small motor boat to Agilkia island. The Philae Temple was relocated by UNESCO as part of the “International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia.” When the Aswan low dam was completed in 1902 many surrounding areas began flooding regularly – so in the 1960s the temple as well as other monuments and an entire village of Nubian people were relocated to nearby areas less prone to flooding. Later in the day I got to visit the Nubian village and meet some of the residents. The village is filled with brightly colored houses and it seems every house keeps small crocodiles in a little covered pit in the living area. The language of the Nubian people is an oral tradition that they keep alive with their own schools. While the Aswan low dam caused the flooding that moved the monuments and people; the Aswan High Dam is the current sight to behold. One of the largest embankment dams in the world, the Aswan High Dam was begun in the 1950s after the overthrow of the British Monarchy. At the time planning was beginning both the United States and the USSR had an interest in helping the Egyptians to build the dam. With the cold war on the US felt an independent Egypt would help prevent communism from growing in the middle east, but after an arms agreement could not be reached between the Eisenhower administration and President Nasser the Egyptian government turned to the USSR for aid and so sits a monument in the shape of a giant lotus flower to the friendship between the Egyptian-Soviet friendship atop the dam.
On our first full day on board the ship we got a real chance to relax. The weather was warm, the sundeck was lovely so I spent a good amount of the day reading on deck until I was ready for a nap, the people of Egypt had other plans for my nap though. Early in the trip I quickly realized I hadn’t needed to change my money over to Egyptian Pounds, because everything being sold was done so in whatever currency a customer had- the preference being American dollars. At the pyramids men with tiny pyramid and sphinx statuettes yelled “one dollar one dollar, hello only one dollar!” At dock of the ship merchants with makeshift stalls selling scarves and t-shirts “one dollar one dollar, hello you American, just one-dollar, good quality.” At the temple blankets laid out with trinkets of pharos and more scarves “one dollar, hey hey only one dollar!” Each merchant, standing directly next to a merchant selling the exact same goods, for the exact same price, all willing to chase you down to make a sale. This approach is not unsettling or unexpected to many travelers (though I question the profits from everyone selling the same thing for the same price) but it wasn’t until we were sailing along the Nile that I got to truly appreciate just how eager the Egyptian merchants are to make a sale. I closed the curtains in my room and fell asleep, the ship motor humming underneath me, and then… “hey lady lady hey lady! One-dollar, best quality, lady hey lady one dollar one dollar!” I poked my head out the curtain to see a half dozen rowboats, and more at nearby ships with men trying to make sales to passengers aboard the ship. The yelling lasted, I kid you not, for over an hour. I don’t think anyone on our ship ended up buying, but I applaud the ambition of the salesmen, though I question the logic of how they’d actually make the transaction. Later my fellow tour member and I discussed the aquatic sales during the ship’s tea time, where we also spotted a British woman reading ‘Death on the Nile.’ A bit too on the nose for either of us, though we had discussed it as part of the reason we each booked the tour with the Nile cruise.
Kom Ombo Temple at night was beautiful, our tour guide for that temple was perhaps the funniest we had throughout, he showed us the ancient hieroglyphics intended for fertility prayers, and you can rest assured that humans have been drawing dicks onto walls for centuries.
The next day we toured Edfu Temple before sailing further north to Luxor where we saw the Karnak Temple complex.They were both impressive, Karnak especially, but there comes a time when a temple is a temple. Many of the temples that have been so brilliantly uncovered and taken care of are to the same gods, so there is a LOT of the same types of sculpture and while stunning, after a while it gets a bit redundant. I had, prior to the trip, thought back to one of my favorite childhood traditions- my family would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every year and while my Mom and aunts loved the costume exhibit my two favorite areas were the Arms and Armory and the Temple of Dendur. In recent years of course, society has, at least in part, started taking note of many museums penchant for housing shall we say stolen goods (cough British museum cough) and before the trip I realized I better look up how the rebuilt Temple of Dendur ended up overlooking Central Park. I came to find out the Temple had thankfully not been pillaged but was in fact a gift from the people of Egypt and was relocated as part of the aforementioned International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia by UNESCO. In 1965 Egypt presented the temple to the US as a thank you for the contribution to the project, Jackie Kennedy accepted the gift and eventually in 1967 the National Foundation on Arts and Humanities and LBJ awarded the temple to the MET. The museum built a new wing to house the temple and it still stands today and is, in my opinion, way cooler to look at than the celebrities gracing the MET gala carpet annually. My thoughts of Dendur were snapped into focus when our guide pointed out an Obelisk on the left-hand side of the Luxor Temple. “Do you see how the other one is missing? Where do you think it is?” My Irish travel companion and I both began to make the same joke(?) about theBritish museum. “No, we gave it to France, and in return they gave us a clock that does not work.”
The Valley of the Kings houses tombs of the many many Ramesses, as well as King Tut and Amenhotep III. The tombs are extraordinarily well preserved and because the interior is not as exposed to the elements as many of the temples we had seen the paint color is vivid in several of the tombs. In a few of the temples you can see the colors of paint used, particularly on the ceilings, but paint colors were more pronounced inside the Valley of the Kings than anywhere else. Considering how quickly I chip paint on doors and walls, it is amazing how this art has stood the test of time. Last and certainly not least came the Mortuary Temple ofHatshepsut. It is 3 stories tall and befits HER reign. Hatshepsut took the position of Pharaoh after the death of her husband/brother and ruled for nearly 22 years. Her reign was prosperous, she opened trade routes and started building projects. When her husband died his son was 2 years old and so she was technically the “co-regent” but not long after it is noted she took full power, based on what our guide said she MAY have had a hand in her husband’s death, and MAY have sent his son off essentially to military school so that she could be Pharaoh, but really with results like hers, who’d blame her?
Another night on the sleeper train back to Cairo. My flight home was late in the day so I got to spend the day with Bob again, where he took me to Old Cairo, and then I toured the Citadel(where the not working French clock is) as well as the ‘Hanging Church’ which is named that for less sinister reasons than I had hoped. The church’s location is suspended over a passage to a gatehouse of the Babylon Fortress. The church is actually ‘Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church’ and it is small but beautifully intricate, and historically important. The church is the home to several reported apparitions of Mary and is the current Seat of the Coptic Pope after it moved from Alexandria after the Muslim Conquest of Egypt.
Finally CAI-FRA and then FRA-EWR a lot was packed into a 6 days and I was very glad to have my head hit my own pillow upon arrival home, but I’ll not soon forget this trip and I would absolutely recommend a trip up the Nile if you can swing it, but make sure to talk to people- we were lucky in having only two people on the tour we were able to be focused on the things we wanted to see and learn about and it gave us more time to learn about our guides and drivers day to day lives. ‘Bob’ made me promise to come back and see him again and I really think I will.