It started with a book. A trashy history novel, no less.
I’ve had a life long obsession with Egypt. The pharaohs, the tombs, the hieroglyphs and the mysteries. Since I was a kid, this country had held a strong sway over my imagination. I longed to go and explore, but it always seemed like a pretty far fetched dream.
Last year I was reading a book set in Ancient Egypt. It set my imagination running yet again, and I started researching more and more about the country. The longing to visit came back. And then a thought struck me – why not go? Now that I’m a working adult with time and income, there’s nothing stopping me from going. So why not?
And so set off a plan to travel the world, starting in Egypt. I’d been planning to take a bit of time off to travel for a while, but this thought finally firmed up the idea in my head. I’d quit my job and head off travelling, starting with Egypt.
So, one month ago, I did just that. I packed my bags, said goodbye to friends and family and set off to explore the world.
Three days after leaving New Zealand I landed in Cairo International Airport (after a short stop in Dubai). My heart was thumping, to say the least. From the outside, Egypt currently looks like a pretty unstable and dangerous place. The NZ Government travel advice basically says ‘don’t go’. As a compromise to myself I’d decided to book a tour with Travel Talk, with the hope that this would be a more safe option.
The tour started off the following day with a pretty interesting introduction to Egypt – a evening dinner boat cruise on the Nile, featuring belly dancers and spinning men in big skirts for entertainment. I can’t say the belly dancer really lived up to expectations, but the spinning man in a big skirt was pretty amazing. He somehow managed to balance a glass on a tray on his head, and then poured water into the glass while spinning. If that’s not talent, then I don’t know what is.
Day two, however, was where the real Egypt began. We were up early in the morning to head to the famed Pyramids of Giza. I was fizzing with nerves and excitement. Arriving at these ancient wonders was nothing short of breathtaking. To finally be standing in front of them – some of the most famous (if not the most famous) structures in the world – was a dream come true. They’re far, far bigger than I imagined up close. The blocks that make up the structure at the base are almost as tall as me. I stood for a few more moments just absorbing the excitement of being there.
The moment didn’t last long, however. Within moments I was being greeted by numerous Egyptian men lurking at the pyramids, hawking their wares or offering a guided tour. One of the downsides of all the turmoil in the Middle East has been a major downturn in tourism, and as a result, people are more desperate for foreign money and far more incessant about getting it. Here and throughout Egypt we were constantly approached by locals selling things, or just outright asking for money for nothing in exchange. A common tactic was for locals to start talking at you at a historic sight, and then demand money two minutes later for their unsolicited advice. Even guards and policemen were not above asking for money.
Despite the pesky locals, it was still a big tick on my bucket list. And no trip to Egypt would be complete without a ride on a camel, too. So we took a short and surprisingly comfortable five minute ride through the desert and got the obligatory profile photos before we set off on our 10 hour bus ride to Luxor.
Luxor (known as Thebes in ancient times) is basically the ‘captial’ of Ancient Egypt tourism, with a huge array of stunning archeological sites. First on the agenda for us was Hatshepsut’s Temple (which we were told to pronounce like “hat cheap suit” in case you were wondering). An amazing temple carved into the rockside on the west bank of the Nile, this was our first real taste of the real Egypt, full of hieroglyphics and artwork, much of it still in its original colour.
Next up, though, was a real treat and a major bucket list item for me – the Valley of the Kings. This is the ancient desert valley where most of the pharaohs from the New Kingdom (16th to 11th century BC) were buried. Their tombs are grand underground complexes, resplendent in rich and colourful artwork on all the walls and ceilings. While much of it has now faded, it was still an amazing and eerie feeling walking downwards into the tombs of ancient kings. Adding to the eeriness was the knowledge that most of the artwork on the walls comes from the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’ – advising the deceased on how to navigate the perils of the afterlife.
We also took a short glimpse inside one of the most famous tombs of all – Tutankamun’s tomb. Unfortunately this is one of the smallest and simplest tombs in the valley, but it was still super exciting to enter a tomb I’d read so much about as a kid. His mummy was also there, in an amazing state of preservation.
The next morning was an awful start time of 3.30am in order to reach Abu Simbel – an ancient temple near the Southern border of Egypt with Sudan. This temple, carved into the cliffside, was completely deconstructed and moved (including the hill it lived in) when the area was inundated with the construction of the High Dam.
I didn’t have high expectations for this temple (and they were considerably lower considering the lack of sleep) but man, was I wrong. The outside is flanked by four colossal statues of Rameses II, and inside was a maze of richly decorated and almost entirely intact artwork. Here and there I managed to be alone in one of the rooms, and just for a moment I could imagine myself being transported back into Ancient Egypt.
That afternoon we boarded our Felucca – a traditional sailing boat on the Nile, which was to be our home for the next two nights. The boat is super simple, with just a large flat surface of mattresses to sleep on (it slept 15) and a cloth cover. We sailed for a few hours each day, watching the fertile shores of the Nile float by and intermittently lying in the sun, playing games, drinking Egyptian beer and swimming in the river. It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic way to spend your time in Egypt.
Once our Nile getaway was over, we spend the next few days exploring various ancient temples around Aswan and Luxor. Most of these, particularly the nearly entirely intact temple of Edfu, completely blew my mind. In my head I expected that what remained of Anicent Egypt was only sparse and disintegrating ruins. Instead, many temples like Edfu, Philae, Karnak and Luxor are huge, vast and in an amazing state of preservation. Edfu, for example, is still a large standing roofed structure, retaining almost all of its original artwork (albeit lacking the original colour).
What is sometimes disappointing, though, is the lack of infrastructure to add to the visitor experience. They’re some of the most incredible and preeminent archeological sites in the world, with thousands of tourists passing through a day, yet there’s very little in the way of signs telling you what you’re seeing, or railings protecting the artworks or carvings, or printed guides at the entrance. In the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, for example, only rickety wooden railing protected the more fragile parts, which the guards then invited us to hop over anyway in exchange for a sly tip. Similarly in the Egyptian Museum, most of the priceless artifacts were either not encased at all, or in simple wooden/glass boxes with bits of paper attached that look like they were made in Microsoft Word by a teenager for a school project. While the entry price for all these places is admirably cheap (on average NZ$5 – $10), I feel as though the price could be comfortably doubled in exchange for some decent infrastructure.
After a long bus ride back to Cairo, our final day took was a tour around the crazy, bustling dusty capital. The major stop was the Egyptian Museum, home to tens of thousands of priceless ancient artifacts. The most famed, and most staggering, naturally, was the treasures of the tomb of Tutankhamun. This was the bit I was most excited about, but I still wasn’t prepared for when we walked around a corner and BAM! saw the huge gilded shrine that he was buried in. This massive object that I’d seen so often in pictures, finally right in front of me. The famed golden mask and coffins, also, were a mesmerising sight to behold with my own eyes. The pieces were stunningly intricate and detailed, and it was incredible to think that these were all made by artists who lived over 2000 years ago with none of our modern tools.
At the end of this day it was time to wrap up the tour. I’d never really liked the idea of going on a tour and dreaded the prospect of being stuck with people I didn’t like for nine days, but this tour, and the amazing people I met on it really did manage to change my mind. I’d highly recommend Travel Talk if you’re thinking of exploring Egypt.
This left me with two days on my own in Cairo. The first was almost entirely filled with collecting my thoughts and catching up on sleep. The second was far more adventurous, when a well meaning taxi driver insisted on detouring to show me all the sites in the Islamic Quarter. He drove me to what he claimed was a ‘beautiful’ mosque where I could climb the minaret for ‘the best views in Cairo’. As soon as we arrived I knew I’d been duped. A man grabbed me by the hand and pulled me inside a decidedly plain looking mosque, where he claimed he’d show me around, take photos, get the imam to pray for me and my family and take me up the minaret. All this, naturally, would cost me money, but he was speaking and talking so fast that I barely had a moment to argue. Before I knew it, I’d handed over a decent chunk of cash and was walking up a tiny pitch black staircase, alone, and wondering if they were going to shut the door behind me and whether I’d ever make it out alive. Thankfully, I made it to the top (for a very disappointing view) and back down to search for my driver on the street, who was to be found smoking shisha and yelling on the phone in Arabic at a cafe down the road.
Thankfully I made it back to my hostel alive, and vowed to use Uber instead when I caught my ride to the airport the next day (at absurdly cheap prices). And so concluded my whirlwind tour of Egypt!
Next stop, Israel!