Ten days in Egypt
Incredible. Ten incredible days. Action-packed and mind-blowing from beginning to end. I saw and did things I never thought would be possible. And I don’t think I stopped grinning the whole time.
I had an incredible opportunity to visit Egypt--which I never thought I'd get to see--thanks to my dad, who arranged the trip to celebrate my and my brother’s 40th birthdays (mine was November 2021, and Mark’s is in March 2023). Our cousin Heather joined as my plus-one, and she turned 40 just a few months before I did, so it was a celebration for her too! I’m also grateful that my mom came up to Columbus to help my husband with our daughter while I was gone.
The four of us took a Globus tour that involved planes, water taxis, coaches, a river cruise boat, vans, horse carriages, feluccas (sailboats), and camels. Every step of the way, our phenomenal tour guide, Shereen, led us safely and confidently and answered all our questions. Our wake-up calls were as early as 2:30 am, but we filled each day with awe and magnificence. I liked every bit of the food I tried (mango ice cream with cinnamon? Yes!), loved the Egyptian people I had a chance to meet, and took more than 1,200 photos. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
This piece attempts to describe the indescribable in as few words and photos as possible. Click the photo collages below to see the top 10 or 20 pics I selected for each activity.
Saturday, 12 November
We land in Cairo at 10:30 pm, after a full 24 hours of travel from Columbus via Atlanta and London. (Pro tip: Heathrow has a paid lounge where you can take a shower and enjoy hot food and cold drinks!) Dad, Mark, Heather, and I all find our luggage and a Globus rep, who herds us together with other tour-goers while managing a missing-bag meltdown with aplomb. We pile into a van and travel to our hotel, giving me my first view of the Nile, in darkness but lit by water taxis and the reflection of chaotic Cairo. It’s 2:30 am before I collapse into bed for a few hours of sleep.
Sunday, 13 November
Early the next morning, we meet the rest of our group, and our wonderful guide Shereen, and load into a coach. The four of us snag the very back row of seats, which became our default seats for every ride. Our first stop is the Egyptian Museum*! This building has a very 1940s feel, with artifacts in simple wood and glass boxes, some cracked, and hand-written labels on yellow paper in multiple languages. Many artifacts have no labels at all, just numbers, and others are stacked up in hallways and corners. We see ancient papyrus, mummies, sarcophaguses, canopic jars, statues, and so much more. AND we see Tutankhamun’s mask, gold sarcophaguses, and other items from his tomb! (No photos allowed of the mask, unfortunately.) To say that my dad and I are excited to see all this would be a vast understatement, but this is only a small sample of what awaits us.
*The new “Grand Egyptian Museum” will open in 2023, but I’m glad we got to see the artifacts in this older one. I hope the new one isn’t too slick, losing the utterly unique charm of the old one.
After the museum, our group heads to the pyramids and sphinx in Giza! This is truly something I never thought I’d experience in my whole life, despite wanting to since I was a kid. But not only do we get to walk around the pyramids… we GO INSIDE the Great Pyramid! We crawl up a very dark and narrow passage, at times sweating and on our knees, and emerge into the burial chamber of King Khufu. His stone sarcophagus is still there, and otherwise the room is a tall, stone, windowless box. Instead of dreary, the mood is pure giddiness! Not just my family, but other people as well, all just half-stunned and thrilled and walking in circles with silly grins on our faces.
Outside, Heather and I hop on some friendly camels to ride between the pyramids and across the desert (briefly). If you’ve never ridden a camel, it’s a lot like riding a horse, just much taller. After the ride, we join our group to visit the Sphinx as the sun sets and the bustle of Cairo encroaches on land that was desert not too long ago. Near the Sphinx, we have our first experience with the ubiquitous market stalls and negotiating prices with the vendors. We get better at that throughout the trip, but it definitely takes practice and tenacity!
Our next stop is a Egyptian cotton department store (fixed price, happily), where we all get some comfortable clothes perfect for the desert. Back at the hotel that evening, the four of us eat at a Moroccan restaurant, watching the show of boats and fountains in the Nile. Our hotel happens to be hosting an opening night event for the Cairo International Film Festival, I'm a little embarrassed that I told some probably famous actress how pretty her dress was in the elevator.
Monday, 14 November
Starting with a 3:30 am wake-up call, our group heads back to Cairo airport to catch an Egyptair flight to Luxor. The airport is no more chaotic or confusing than Heathrow, to be honest. I happen walk next to a tour director from Viking Cruises, who had gotten so little sleep that she gets disoriented stepping onto a down escalator. She screams and starts to tip down the whole flight! Luckily, I'm able to grab her arm and pull her back to solid ground. Tragedy averted!
In Luxor that morning, we first visit Karnak temple, a huge complex that was one of the homes of Amun-Ra. Karnak is connected to Luxor temple with a long street lined with small sphinxes that have been “edited” throughout the centuries to show different rulers’ faces or cartouches (the special way to write a name in hieroglyphs). Each year, the king or queen would come to Karnak to commune with the god and recharge their “ka” so that the people would continue to believe they were gods. Naturally, everyone wanted to leave a mark on the temple, so the result is a huge complex with art and structures from multiple centuries.
Next, we visit a papyrus “factory” (a small shop run by artisans) to see a demonstration of making and painting on papyrus. We also board our cruise ship, which will be our home for the next four nights. There are about 300 of these on the Nile these days, and they’re similar to Mississippi river boats. To my amazement, these ships dock right up next to each other, so you may walk from shore through two or three other ships to get to yours.
Later that evening, we watch the sunset from Luxor temple, Karnak’s smaller cousin down the Avenue of the Sphinxes. While we don't walk the whole avenue, we venture far enough down to find a replica of the “solar boat” the ancient Egyptians used to carry the image of Amun-Ra, concealed, from one temple to the other during festivals. After dark, we walk back through town to our cruise boat, and then began our cruise down the Nile.
Tuesday, 15 November
When I was in 4th grade, I played Howard Carter in a video school project, complete with wig and moustache. At that time in the 1990s, Egypt didn’t seem too safe, so I never thought I’d ever actually be able to visit. And even during this visit, I never dreamed I’d be allowed inside King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Well, friend, I went inside Tutankhamun’s tomb, and I saw his mummy!
Visiting the Valley of the Kings rivals entering a pyramid for the most mind-blowing part of this trip. In addition to King Tut's, we visit three other tombs, all covered inside with gorgeous paintings and carvings: Rameses IV, Rameses III, and the joint tomb of Queen Tausert and King Setnakht (he kinda stole it from her). The photos tell these stories better than my words, because the colors and artwork just aren’t believable when described. Not even the photos do them justice. I admit to crying a little in Tutankhamun's tomb, standing there next to his actual body. Outside the tombs, it's real desert—hot, cloudless, and sandy—and we see several worksites. Archeologists are still digging, and still uncovering new treasures.
eeLater that day, we visit Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir El-Bahri, just on the other side of the mountain ridge from the Valley of the Kings, a stunningly huge building cut right into the mountainside around 3,500 years ago. And if the temple isn’t impressive enough, from its great height you can clearly see the lush Nile valley contrasted with the Sahara. I won’t go into detail here, but Queen Hatshepsut was a pretty interesting historical figure worth learning about!
Next, we stop at an alabaster “factory” run by the Morssey family, which offers a fantastic show for us. One man sings/chants in clear English about alabaster and why his family makes the best statues, complete with visual aids and call-backs from his family as they worked. Shereen told us later that he could give the same presentation in Arabic, German, Spanish, Japanese, and a couple other languages, but he couldn’t read or write in Arabic. After that, we visit the Colossi of Memnon, huge statues of Amenhotep III that used to “sing” just before dawn.
That's a lot for one morning, so we take the rest of the day to lounge on our cruise boat as we sail down the Nile. (Throughout the trip, we occasionally just look at each other in disbelief and say, "Hey, we're cruising on the Nile!") While we're chugging along, a small rowboat ties onto the side of our boat, and two men spend hours selling clothes and souvenirs to our passengers by throwing bags and money back and forth. We enjoy an onboard cocktail party that evening, during which Shereen wrties Dad’s, Mark’s, Heather’s, and my names in hieroglyphics and tells us what the letters indicate about us (eerily accurate). I stay on the top deck late that evening and watch as we navigate through a lock at Esna.
Wednesday, 16 November
The next morning, we cruise to Edfu to visit the Temple of Horus. But to get to the temple, we take a horse carriage ride through the town that's more like Ben Hur’s chariot race than a ride through Central Park. Speeding through the dusty streets, we see a little more of everyday life in Egypt, good and bad.
The impressive Edfu temple still has its main pylon intact, covered with enormous carvings of gods that truly feel superhuman. Further, the ceiling is still there, albeit pitch black from campfires lit by the Coptic Christians and others who moved in once the “old gods” were no longer so popular. On the walls as high as those ancient people could reach, the gods’ faces and legs are chiseled away, and the marks still look fresh. They also added new carvings—Coptic crosses mixed in with the hieroglyphs. Not only are the surviving decorations and hieroglyphs beautiful, but also practical, as the temple includes a counting table with symbols up to one million.
We take another daredevil carriage ride back to the ship and witness a horse collision, but no one's hurt and everyone goes about their day. We have the afternoon to rest on the boat as we cruise slowly down to Kom Ombo. I relax up on the deck, adding on layers as it gets darker and colder, until we arrive to visit the joint temple of Horus and Sobek.
Certainly a unique temple, half of it honors Horus and the other symmetrical half honors the crocodile god Sobek. Because we visit at night, the lighting adds an eerie effect. On the Horus side, there had been an ancient hospital, and the walls are carved with inventories of medical instruments and procedures. In between the two, there was a false wall where priests apparently hid to hear questions from Greek colonists and answer on behalf of the gods themselves (regular Egyptians weren’t usually allowed inside temples because they truly were the houses of the gods, not places for everyday worship).
On the Sobek side, the priests kept live crocodiles caught from the Nile to serve as the incarnation of the god. Logistically, I have no idea how this worked, and I’m glad feeding them wasn’t my job. When the captive crocodile died, it received death rituals befitting a god, including mummification and a stone sarcophagus. At the Crocodile Museum next door, we see just a few of these massive beasts. Compared to the size of human mummies, it’s beyond impressive that they were able to capture, care for, and then mummify these creatures so well!
That evening on the cruise boat, we celebrate “Egyptian Night,” in which all the food is Egyptian and we all dress in more traditional Egyptian clothes. (Every meal on the boat, there are options for Egyptian food, but also a lot of European and American food as well. I stick to the Egyptian food and am never disappointed.) There's music and dancing and a fun time had by all. Since we were on and off the boat so often, I've combined some photos of the Nile and the cruise into one album.
Thursday, 17 November
I’ve had a lot of great birthdays, but this one is going to be pretty tough to beat! It starts with a 3:30 am wake-up call, which allows us the opportunity to watch the sun rise over the Sahara while on a 4-hour bus trip from Aswan to Abu Simbel. If you think that was boring, you haven't experienced Egyptian highways. We arrive on the banks of Lake Nasser to view two of the eight temples relocated before the Aswan High Dam flooded an area with ancient temples and Nubian communities.
Ramses II was not known for his humility. Carved into the side of a mountain (yes, they moved the whole mountain from lower ground), the façade of this temple features four enormous reliefs of seated Ramses, each 72 feet tall, covered in Greek and Victorian graffiti. His figures serve as columns along the short hallway inside, and every wall is covered in stories of his glory. The next mountain over features a temple for Ramses’s favorite wife, Nefertari, which is a slightly smaller version with what I thought were six standing female figures on the facade. On closer inspection, four of these figures are humble ol' Ramses II again, and only two are Nefertari. (She really deserved a bigger temple for putting up with him!) Shereen was kind enough to extend our time here to give us all a chance to explore both, given the crowds! Sitting in the desert on the banks of a huge lake, these temples are just breathtakingly beautiful.
After another 4-hour ride back to Aswan, we watch the sunset over the Nile from a felucca circling Elephantine Island, the ancient source of the Nile and home to the god Hapy. Along the side of the sailboat, a few young boys on surfboards sing folk songs for a few pieces of candy. The ride is smooth and beautiful, and the sunset (like all sunsets over the Nile, I expect) is flawless.
That evening after dinner, the restaurant staff presents birthday cakes to me and another member of our tour group also celebrating his birthday (and also an author)! They call us up to one end of the dining room and bring out instruments to sing "Happy Birthday" in English. Then they sing it in Arabic. Then they sing another, much more danceable, song in Arabic that just goes on and on, verse after verse. Each time a verse winds down and we reach for the cakes, they launch into another verse. And of course we dance for each one--Scorpios are not shy about dancing!
Friday, 18 November
We start another action-packed day at the Aswan High Dam, admiring the Soviet construction that replaced the smaller British-built dam to control the Nile flood waters. Then we hop on a motor boat to visit the (relocated) temple of Isis on Philae. This gorgeous temple is another rescued before Lake Nasser flooded its original home, which was the burial place of Osiris (though the low dam in the early 1900s had already flooded it somewhat). The pylon is still intact, as are the unique columns ridged with vertical lines from the millions of people who have rubbed them in search of Isis’s blessing. Being a popular destination throughout history, the buildings show a mix of styles and remnants of trend changes, like the chiseled out gods and Christian altars.
We boat back to the mainland and then get a demonstration of essential oils at the Essence of Life AlFayed perfume store. Next, a short trip over to the unfinished obelisk, which quarry workers abandoned 3,500 years ago when the granite began to crack before they got it pried out of the bedrock. After all this, we finally stopped for a shish kabob lunch at Makani Restaurant on the banks of the Nile.
Our cruise officially over, we take another boat to our hotel on Elephantine island. We rest a bit and enjoy the reliable WiFi, then walk the expansive grounds to watch the sunset. That night for dinner, Dad, Mark, and I zip back across the Nile into Aswan to have a feast at Café Misr, a local restaurant with just enough English for us to manage. We all (even Mark!) love the food, though it's way too much for anyone to reasonably eat. On the street, everyone is friendly, but we don’t blend in well, so we're quickly swept into the Al Attar spice shop. We enjoy the big sales pitch and spend way too much on way too many spices, but still leave happy with what we got!
Saturday, 19 November
A 4:30 am wake-up call gives us another chance to witness a beautiful sunrise over the Nile as we head to the Aswan airport. Security there takes so long that half of the passengers are late... so they just hold the plane. On the way back to Cairo, we see the dramatic Nile valley from above and watch the landscape shift as we near the delta. Back in the city and with a handful of others from our tour group, we brave the wild Cairo streets on foot for take-out lunch at local favorite Al Agha.
Dad, Mark, Heather, and I decide to take another walk to the Egyptian Museum and enjoy it again without the whole group. Mark and Heather hit the gift shop and rest in a café. If the museum didn’t have closing hours, Dad and I might still be in there calling, “Hey, did you see this? Whoa, look at that!” Without the tour group in tow, it’s much less crowded and we have more space and time to revisit some of the items we saw the first day as well, including the King Tutankhamun treasures.
We join back with the group at the hotel that evening for a farewell dinner, drawing our tour to its official close.
I haven't said enough here about how fantastic our guide, Shereen, has been throughout the trip. She has advanced degrees in ancient Egyptian history and mythology and answers every question we threw at her--even the very silly ones ("Why don't any of these tomb paintings have anyone, you know, walking like an Egyptian?")--with grace and patience. She's been giving tours like this since the 1980s and knows all the tricks about when to arrive and where to stand. She helps us 40ish non-Arabic speakers navigate airports, restaurants, horse carriages, markets and stores, camel rides, and so much more without losing a single one of us! Having Shereen's voice in my ear through my "whisper" device is incredibly comforting, and she deserves a ton of credit for making this trip so incredible.
Sunday and Monday, 20 and 21 November
Our wake-up call comes in at 2:30 am. Poor Heather has been up with an upset stomach for a couple hours already by that time, so she hardly got any sleep at all. And that’s a rough way to start out 30 hours of travel! She toughs her way through it all and does great, despite feeling terrible.
We leave Cairo at 7:00 am local time and fly back to Heathrow, though we’re already so off schedule that we don’t know whether to get coffee or cocktails with lunch! After a few hours there, we fly to Atlanta. Dad and I say goodbye to Heather and Mark and then fly back to Columbus together.
We finally arrive home at 1:00 am Monday morning. I get to hug my husband and daughter before taking a much needed shower. I then collapse into bed and sleep like a mummy!
There's no good way to wrap up this trip, and my words and photos here fall despareately short of expressing the impact this trip had for me. I leave you with a bit of my journal passage from the plane between Cairo and London.
It will, naturally, take me a while to process all I saw and experienced in Egypt, as it did for Japan. The pyramid, the sphinx, going inside the Great Pyramid, a camel ride, Egyptian Museum and King Tut’s treasures, Valley of the Kings and Tut’s tomb, the clear and colorful paintings in the tombs, the temples at Karnak, Luxor, Philae, Abu Simbel, Edfu, the horse carriage rides, cruising down the Nile, Aswan dam and High Dam, the unfinished obelisk, views of Cairo, Edfu, Luxor, and Aswan, walking through the streets as an outsider, the markets and vendors, cotton store, fragrance store, papyrus store, spice store, the music and calls to prayer, the honking and shouting, horse carriage crash, dancing to Arabic and Egyptian versions of Happy Birthday, Egyptian night on the cruise, relaxing and chatting and reading on the deck of the boat while the farmlands and ancient stoneworks roll by, Lake Nasser, the boats tied up to ours to sell goods, the surfboards with young boys along the ferry boats, the Nubian boat pilots, the felucca ride at sunset, the chaos—seemingly—of the streets, the local lunch stop in Aswan and the dinner spot, dining and traveling with the other tour group members, Shareen’s “Habibi!” so quickly full of anxiety relief, view of the Nile Valley—impossibly narrow—from the sky and from higher ground, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the temple of Horus and Sudok, the crocodile museum, the Greek and Coptic and Victorian vandalism on the temple walls, the avenue of the sphinxes, Ramses II’s narcissism, the long bus rides, sunrise over the Sahara, luxurious hotels, dinners on the boat, cinnamon on ice cream, om ali dessert, all the breads, every interaction with an Egyptian and their culture so different than my own that I’m certain I made many faux pas but also overpaid sometimes, navigating the airports, seeing Dad’s excitement and sharing it while seeing and experiencing things we never thought we would.
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