After four nights on the Nile cruise, we awoke early and boarded a short flight from Aswan to Abu Simbel for a quick tour of the two temples on site before boarding another flight back to Cairo.
Abu Simbel: Built by Ramses II, Egypt’s longest ruling pharaoh, it’s one of the most recognizable images in the country. It’s actually two temples: the Great Temple of Ra-Harakhte, fronted by four colossal statues of Ramses II and the temple of Hathos, dedicated to Ramses’ favorite wife Queen Nefertari. They were both moved to their current location when the creation of Lake Nasser threatened their existence.
With two more days in Cairo before our departure back to Jordan, our last outing was an Islamic walking tour which included Sultan Hassan’s Mosque and a walk down the main street of the walled city of Cairo, one fortified gate to another, followed by last-minute shopping in the souk.
Sultan Hassan Mosque: The Mosque of Sultan Hassan, completed in 1363, is one of the finest in Egypt. In recesses around its open courtyard, each of the four school of Sunni Islam was taught to students, and in its mausoleum, Sultan Hassan’s sons are buried.
On the drive back to the hotel after a great day of walking and shopping, Raj eyed a shwarma stand on the side of the road and asked our driver to stop to get us some. I’ll admit, I was hungry, but I knew better! Despite my trepidation with ‘street food,’ I ignored my inner voice and fell prey to Raj’s urgings to ‘live a little.’ Of course I got sick the next day (our travel day) at both the airport and on our flight home…while Raj was just fine…I suppose I have to forgive though with ALL of the bargaining he did for me throughout our shopping excursions.
On the morning of our fourth day of our trip, we boarded an early flight from Cairo to Luxor to embark on our four-day Nile Cruise from Luxor to Aswan.
We boarded, checked in, quickly drank some tea and then set off for the Temple of Karnak. This temple was built over one thousand years by generations of Pharaohs. The great “Hypostyle Hall” is an incredible forest of giant pillars, covering an area larger than the whole of Notre Dame Cathedral.
En route to the Valley of the Queens and Kings, we made a brief stop at the Colossi of Memnon, known in ancient Greek times for their haunting voices of dawn.
We stopped here very briefly and were assaulted by the throngs of vendors.
Valley of the Queens and Kings
In the Valley of the Queens, we were only able to enter one tomb, although we expected to see two. As a consolation, our guide ‘tipped’ the guard and we were able to take pictures inside (usually not allowed).
Temple of Hatshepsut: Rising out of the desert plain in a series of terraces, the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut (Ancient Egypt’s only female Pharaoh) merges with the sheer limestone cliffs that surround it.
Unfortunately, there were no cameras allowed in the Valley of the Kings. This was my absolute highlight of the entire trip! We were able to enter King Tutankhamun’s tomb along with many others. It was a beautiful, peaceful, and serene location.
Temple of Denderah: This was the Ptolemaic Temple of the Goddess Hathor. This wonderfully preserved temple complex is a rare sight to behold, complete with a massive stone roof, dark chambers, underground passages and towering columns inscribed with hieroglyphs. The main temple of Hathor is almost intact. Hathor was the goddess of pleasure and love, usually represented as a cow, or a woman with a cow’s head. She was the beneficent deity of maternal and family love, of beauty and light; the Greeks associated her with Aphrodite.
Luxor Temple: The Temple of Luxor used to be linked up with the Temple of Karnak via the Boulevard of Sphinxes.
Temple of Edfu: The largest and most completely preserved Pharaonic, albeit Greek-built temple in Egypt, the Temple of Horus at Edfu.
Temple of Kom Ombo: This temple is dedicated to the crocodile-god Sobek. The temple stands at a bend in the Nile where in ancient times sacred crocodiles basked in the sun on the riverbank.
Unfinished Obelisk: We visited a granite quarry which supplied the ancient Egyptians with most of the hard stone used in pyramids and temples to see a huge unfinished obelisk. This obelisk was used to understand how the ancient Egyptians were able to quarry such massive structures.
Temple of Philae: We boarded a ferry to the Island of Agilika to visit the majestic and romantic Temple of Philae (moved to this Island after it was flooded).
Felucca Ride: Lastly, we took a felucca ride, a typical Egyptian sailboat around Elephantine Island, Lord Kitchener’s Botanical Gardens, and the Agha Khan Mausoleum. The highpoint of this ride was watching the tiny boys paddle up to the boat to sing songs in search of money. The amazing thing is that they’re sitting on what looks like floating doors with wooden paddles in hand to propel them. It wasn’t particularly warm; it was a school day, and yet they were out in masses. Our guide told us that the boys guess the nationality of the boat and sing German, French, and English (and undoubtedly many more languages) songs in search of ‘tips.’ They thought we were a French group and serenaded us accordingly.
Lest we forget the Souk: Finally, we got to shop in the market. In part IV, I will reveal the purchases.
On the morning of day 5 on the Nile Cruise, we left the ship early to catch a flight to Abu Simbel…
Coming up…part III, Abu Simbel and Cairo (again…)
Below are hundreds more pictures for your viewing pleasure.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to travel to Egypt. Our proximity in Jordan makes getting to Egypt so manageable too (it’s only an hour flight from here to Cairo). With all of the political unrest going on in Egypt, especially in Cairo, I thought this fantasy would have to wait indefinitely. Will there ever be a good time to go? Luckily, despite the protests that were going on while we were in town, we were able to tour around, escaping any problems.
I know it’s not possible to see everything that Egypt has to offer in ten days, but it certainly feels as though we were able to see quite a bit. We started our tour in Cairo for three days, followed by a Nile Cruise for four, and ended with a flight to Abu Simbel and then back to Cairo for two more nights.
Cairo, Part I: Antiquities Museum, Memphis, Sakkara, and the Giza Plateau
Our first three nights in Cairo were spent at the Mena House Oberoi (built as a palace for the Empress Eugenie when she visited Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869). The hotel is directly across the street from the Giza Plateau and the pyramids dominate the skyline.
Antiquities Museum: Our first full day in Cairo was spent in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. Unfortunately no cameras are allowed in the museum so I don’t have any pictures of it or of the grounds. We saw the treasures of King Tutankhamun along with other amazing pieces. What I found most astonishing about the museum was it’s state of decay. I suppose this makes the museum more charming, but the debris, the dust, the didactic materials in the cases seem to be period pieces as well–information cards typed on typewriters and yellowed with age. We didn’t pay extra to see the mummy room, it just seemed wrong, but I did enjoy the mummified animals–everything from tiny lizards, to birds to gigantic crocodiles were featured along with their coffins.
As we exited the museum, we could see that our driver and tour guide were visibly distressed. They pointed out nearby smoke in the sky coming from Tahrir Square and whisked us out as quickly as possible. En route out of the square, cars and busses being turned around into oncoming traffic by protestors. We were turned around as well and made it out safely back to the comfort of our hotel, which felt miles away from any problems.
Light & Sound Show: The Light and Sound show is one of those things that tourists just have to do. As cheesy as the show and music are, there’s something to be said about hearing Omar Sharif narrate as the Sphinx in Old English. There was a wild dog, a wadi dog, who stole the show. Before it even began, the dog grabbed a seat pad and started flinging it in the air, just playing with it, and during the show it howled in concert to the music. It made up for the content of the twenty year old program that hasn’t been updated since its inception.
Memphis: This tour started with the remains of Memphis (the capital of the Old Kingdom) in the village of Mit Rahina. The highlight’s of this open air museum included a giant alabaster sphinx and a limestone Colossus of Ramses II, laid supine within a shelter.
Saqqara: This is where Egypt’s Old Kingdom royalty were buried. The highlight here is Zoser’s funerary complex and the step pyramid, which heralded the start of the Pyramid Age.
Pyramids of Giza: As our tour guide kept pointing out, we were extremely fortunate to be taking advantage of the lack of tourists because every place was empty. There were throngs of aggressive vendors and camels, but we were able to go into the smallest Pyramid of Menkaure without any lines or hassles.
Okay, so maybe this wasn’t a pilgrimage for us, but it was a pretty incredible site to visit. According to the Bible, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God at this sight. The monastery was built by order of Emperor Justinian I (525-565), enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush ordered to be built by Helena, the mother of Constantine, at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush (the living bush on the grounds is purportedly the original). This sight is said to be one of two of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world (the other one, the monastery of St. Anthony, south of Cairo, is also on my list of places to visit).
Though this place is commonly known as Saint Catherine’s, the full, official name of the monastery is The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai, and the patronal feast of the monastery is the Trasnfiguration. The site was associated with St. Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian martyr sentenced to death on the wheel. When this failed to kill her, she was beheaded. As the story goes, angels took her remains to Mount Sinai and around the year 800, monks from the Sinai Monastery found her remains on the top of Mt. Sinai and brought them into the chapel (you can see her coffin and a hand bone in a reliquary in the chapel).
A Fatimid mosque was built within the walls of the monastery, but it has never been used since it is not correctly oriented towards Mecca (you can still see the minaret next to the bell tower).
During the seventh century, the isolated Christian anchorites of the Sinai were eliminated: only the fortified monastery remained. The monastery is still surrounded by the massive fortifications that have preserved it. Until the twentieth century, access was through a door high in the outer walls (there’s a picture of it below). From the time of the First Crusade, the presence of Crusaders in the Sinai until 1270 spurred the interest of European Christians and increased the number of intrepid pilgrims who visited the monastery. The monastery was supported by its dependencies in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Crete, Cyprus and Constantinople.
We were picked up again by the tour company very early in the morning. It takes about 3 hours to get to the city of St. Catherine’s and then about twenty more minutes to walk to the site. En route, we stopped for coffee and snacks at a roadside stand (thank God because we missed breakfast because it was so early and I was afraid that someone was going to get hangry again). Along the road, the landscape changed from barren looking desert to craggy mountains, similar to the Grand Canyon. There were lots of Bedouin camps in the middle of the inhospitable landscape too. Our guide was telling us the Bedouin’s don’t bury their animals remains, so there were lots of dead camels lying along the roadside.
After what seemed like forever getting to the monastery, we parked in a parking lot and were led up a slight incline to the monastery’s entrance. Of course I was dressed inappropriately (as Raj always likes to point out) and was asked to place a scarf around my scantily clad legs. Our guide had forewarned us that there was no talking and no taking pictures inside the chapel. As we entered, it was dimly lit (to protect the icons) but it was extremely difficult to see them. We were given about five minutes to look around and then we were hurried out by the priests. As we exited, the burning bush was to our right. Even more exciting to me at this point on the trip was the WC (wash closet or bathroom) that I saw off in the distance (keep in mind the drive was over three hours long). I excused myself to visit the ‘facilities,’ but couldn’t go. It was a pit toilet. As much as I had to go, I couldn’t. I exited the bathroom telling myself I could hold it (but for how long?). This lasted about two minutes and then I resigned myself to try again. I walked back in, started dismantling my skirt-scarf, which I might add fell off and onto the the WET floor. (OMG, what was the wetness???). As I walked out again, I mentioned that the floor was WET to the woman in line behind me. She said it was just water from the hose. I went back in and there was NO HOSE…Yep, you know what it was and it was now on my scarf and I had to put the scarf back on my legs to cover them up. I went back in for a third time ready to get it over with when a woman from our group (a saint, really) came running in to tell me that the guide said our lunch place had a REAL toilet. I could hold for an hour knowing this and so I wrapped my pee scarf back on and headed out. Twenty minutes later, we were eating lunch in a restaurant and all was well.
On the way back towards Sharm el-Sheikh, we made one last stop in the coastal town of Dahab. We stopped at a jewelry store, made a couple of fabulous birthday purchases, and then walked along a promenade of shops. We were dropped off in the early evening, again exhausted from not much except sitting in a van all day. Next time we plan on doing the “Mt. Moses” tour (you’re picked up by the tour company at 10:00pm, brought to the base of the mountain (at St. Catherine’s), you climb for three hours, watch the sunrise (there are three coffee shops at the top of the mountain), then you walk down after sunrise and are driven back). We got back to our room and I was surprised to find a birthday cake waiting for me.