Itinerary: Aswan – Luxor – Cairo
Since we were children, we have spent countless hours in museums looking at hieroglyphs and sarcophagi, seen the influence of ancient Egypt in so many daily parts of our lives (from Cairo Illinois and Memphis Tennessee to the Egyptian-revival architecture in some parts of NYC), and read articles about the 3,000 years of high art, sophisticated culture, and amazing art, monuments, and building of Egypt. We decided it was time to get over our worries about the crowds of Cairo and come see this amazing country for ourselves.
We decided to start our trip in the southern part of Egypt and work our way north, or “down the Nile”. After reading about how the cruise ships mostly dock in rows at Luxor and are essentially floating expensive hotels, we decided to travel by land and train, leaving most arrangements until we landed.
Before we left for Egypt, we read many guidebooks and watched too many Discovery Channel specials. This greatly enhanced our understanding of what we were seeing. In short, the history of Egypt is divided into 4 periods: the early dynasty, when the northern pyramids were built. The middle period is not known for any monuments, but instead a consolidation power and expansion of empire. The late period includes the great Pharaohs: Ramses II, Tutankhamen, and Seti I (Tut was actually a minor king who died when he was only 18). Ramses II was a ruler on steroids, who built just about every temple, erected thousands of statues, and built more than every other Pharaoh combined. The Ptolemaic period included the final ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra.
But how did this culture support 3,000 years of building and art? The Nile River valley used to flood every year. The water contained the topsoil and nutrients from central Africa. So, while the Mesopotamians, Indus Valley inhabitants, and other had to practice slash and burn, crop rotation, and deal with rapid nutrient exhaustion, all the Egyptians had to do was walk uphill for 1 mile, wait till a few months until the annual flood subsided, and then replant on their new rich soil. This allowed a massive percentage of the population to become artists, laborers, engineers, and priests.
Sadly, since the Aswan High Dam was built, the floods have become a thing of the past. As the soil becomes depleted of nutrients and suffers from salinization, the ability of the land to produce will be sharply curtailed. There are currently 77 million inhabitants in Egypt, and the population increases by 1 million every 9 months. This is not a good situation, as Egypt’s only arable land is that which abuts the Nile.
We started our trip in Aswan, certainly the smallest and quietest city of our trip. We arrived late at night after 24 hours in transit, and were very pleased to see someone from our hotel with a “Welcome Susan Yanow” sign among the throngs of taxi drivers jostling to get our attention. The 5:30 AM call to prayer the next morning immediately reminded our jet-lagged brains of where we were, coming just 6 hours after we’d arrived at the hotel. But in spite of the lack of sleep, our first day in Egypt was wonderful. We walked along the Corniche, the riverside walkway, watching the single-sail feluccas tack into the wind, and then took a ferry over to Elephantine Island, a small island in the middle of the Nile with gray boulders that give it its name, and an interesting Nubian village with painted houses and friendly people, tending their farms and repairing their boats. In the late afternoon we took a boat to the temple of Philae, as we’d heard it was beautiful at sunset. Set on an island, Philae is dedicated to the goddess Isis, and was active through 300 AD. Many people believe that Christians emphasized the Virgin Mary to compete with the power of the patronage of Isis by the people of Egypt.
Negotiating a boat was a bit of a challenge – tourism is a huge source of income in Egypt, and there are no real prices – everyone starts out asking double, triple or more what the standard price is for any service or purchase. Getting a price set is half the adventure of any experience!
As our boat approached the islands we had to pinch ourselves to remind ourselves where we were. The Philae Temple is beautifully intact, with incredible bas reliefs on tall Pylons that glow golden in the afternoon. We spent over an hour exploring the site, and ended the day with dinner on barge overlooking the water.
The ancient Egyptians seemed to have an insatiable need to write. Every tomb, temple, and monument is covered with hieroglyphic text. We were told that the text contained history, religion, and the details of the every day lives of the ancient Egyptians. In many places, the ‘cartouche’ (name of the ruler) was defaced, as if wiping out a predecessors name would make the current pharaoh more powerful. Some stonecarvers learned to make the writing deeper, like 3-4” deep, making it really hard to obliterate completely. In almost all cases, the quality of the late dynasty carving was superb, rivaling that of Greece and Rome. The pictograms were almost always a pharaoh receiving the blessings from a god. In too many cases, the faces were chiseled away by the early Christians, as they represented paganism.
The next day we got up at 2:45 AM to join a tour group south to Abu Simbel. The tours go in a caravan that leaves Aswan at the ungodly hour of 4 AM, but as the planes were sold out and Abu Simbel was a “must see”, we dragged ourselves up and then slept for a good part of the 3 hour drive south.
Abu Simbel was one of the temples rescued by an international effort when the High Dam was built. A new artificial mountain was built, and the temple (actually 2 temples) was raised to a mountain overlooking its former site – an amazing engineering feat. The temple is flanked by 4 gigantic statues of Ramses II, and is quite imposing – anyone entering Egypt from Nubia would have paused at this flexing of Egypt’s might.
We had some free time in Aswan, and as our hotel was one block from the souk, wandered through it several times – in fact, Phil got a haircut in one of the shops there, complete with shoulder massage! While of course people tried to get us into their shops, they seemed very welcoming – asking us where we were from and then saying “Obama Number One!” While we are both somewhat disenchanted with our president, it is clear that his election has bought good will throughout this part of the world. In fact, several people told us that they were so proud that Obama was Nubian – and in fact he would blend right in Egypt. The souk was also a great place to see how people live here. All the Moslem women wear headscarves, and at least 5% are fully veiled and wear black gloves. Apparently that is a significant change from 10 years ago, when many women did not cover their heads. The souks are full of spice shops, perfume shops, butchers, shops with tacky tourist souvenirs, and, our best discovery, warm fresh-baked eysh – a whole wheat pita covered with bran, truly delicious when fresh and warm and like sawdust when it gets stale the next day.
We traveled with a van tour from Aswan to Luxor, stopping at the amazing temples of Kom Ombo and Edfu. These are two of the best-preserved temples in Egypt. Kom Ombo overlooks the Nile and has Roman-influenced columns crowned with lotus blossoms. Edfu is on a mountain rise a few miles inland, with a black granite carving of Horus, the falcon god, at the entrance. Both have wonderfully preserved hieroglyphs and bas reliefs, many with the original paint still intact.
We arrived in Luxor mid-afternoon. We’d booked a B & B run by an Irish woman who fell in love with Egypt. The van took us down the dusty streets of a neighborhood near the train station, and we couldn’t quite figure out if we’d done the right thing – until the door of the hotel opened, and it was like walking into something from Arabian nights. The hallway, complete with inlaid mother-of pearl furniture, was flanked by a gorgeous public space on either side, the restaurant being particularly lovely. It had a fountain in the center, carved wood furniture, great lanterns, interesting arches, and draped fabric. When we learned that we’d arrived on one of the nights that they serve a 15-dish “sampler” menu, we couldn’t say no.
On our first evening, we wandered down to the Nile, a 25 minute walk from our hotel, to watch the sun set over the Luxor Temple, which is lit dramatically at night. It was a great introduction to the amazing sights that line both banks of the Nile here, and we were beginning to understand more about the different art forms of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms and about the various gods. We just learned enough to appreciate what we were seeing and to realize how much we didn’t know. The city of Luxor itself has no particular charm. Houses are being demolished all over the place as the streets are widened to “clean it up” for the endless numbers of tourists that come; although we never saw anyone working on either street or house construction sites. Instead, there seemed to be abandoned buildings and piles of rubble everywhere. Donkey carts are everywhere, and the drivers of the horse-drawn caliches insistently offer rides multiple times to every tourist that passes. We even saw a few camels being used in the countryside, though there were of course a few at the ruins for the tourists.
On our first full day, we joined a tour of the West Bank to get a sense of the highlights there, and visited 3 tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Hatshepsut (the female Pharoah). The Colossi of Memnon, two giant statues of Ramses II that are all that remain of what was once a huge temple and Medinat Habu, a very well preserved temple complex from Ramses III. The tombs were filled with vibrant wall paintings, almost startling in the richness of color that had been preserved. The yellows (eggs), reds (animal blood), blacks (ashes) and blues (lapis lazuli) were bright and vivid, though most had been only minimally restored. We were in awe throughout most of the 8 hours we spent on the West Bank. That evening we went into the Luxor Temple to see this amazing complex which was illuminated by well placed spotlights and the moonlight.
On our second day, we traveled to 2 temples about 3 hours north of Luxor, Abydos and Dendera. The owner of the B & B had suggested to Susan that she read about Oom Sety, the English Egyptologist born in the early 1900s who believed she was the reincarnation of a temple priestess who had been a lover of the Pharaoh Seti I. Oom Sety was allowed to live in Abydos and carry out the ancient Egyptian rituals, and she was key to many of the discoveries made in the region of the temple, which she attributed to information that Seti I gave her during regular nocturnal visits. In fact the temple of Abydos is amazing – mostly intact, with interior temples dedicated to each of several gods, with intricate well preserved wall paintings. One temple has a beautiful rendering of Goddess Nut (pronounced like “Newt”), the Milky Way which guides souls to the other world, stretched across the ceiling. Dendera is dedicated to the goddess Hathor, goddess of home and fertility, represented as a cow or as a goddess with cow ears. The columns of Dendera are each topped with a likeness of Hathor, with the paint clearly remaining. We couldn’t believe these temples had lasted nearly 3500 years.
On our third day, we decided to see more of the West Bank, and got adventurous and rented bicycles. After taking a ferry across the Nile, we found the bike rental shops. We discovered that for $2 a day, we could rent bikes without brakes, but opted for a slightly more expensive shop and got bikes that could stop as needed. After several seat adjustments we were all set. It is about 2 miles from the riverbank through the lush valley of the Nile to the ticket office at the foot of the hills that hold most of the temples and tombs of the West Bank. We were again struck with the lushness of this strip, the rich bird life including ibises, herons and cranes, and the nearly instant transition from fertile farms to stark desert at the edge of the valley. We visited tombs in the Valley of the Nobles. While the tombs of the Pharaohs are decorated with stories of conquests and meetings between the Pharaoh and the gods who will transport him to the afterlife, the Nobles’ tombs are decorated with scenes from every day life. We particularly enjoyed the tomb of Sennefer with the low ceiling decorated with grape vines and each wall showing Sennefer and his wife together enjoying their life. These tombs were not as deep nor as high as those in the Valley of the Kings, and felt more intimate and friendly. We also visited some of the tombs of the workers and again were impressed with the amazing art covering every wall.
The Ramesseum is the ruins of one of the many temples of Ramses II, who also built the Temple of Luxor and much of Karnak. We picnicked there among the toppled statues and kept pinching ourselves that we were in a temple built 4,000 years ago. We ended our day with a visit to the monoliths – 2 gigantic crumbling statues of Ramses II that are the only remains of yet another temple, that are perched in a field near the entry way to the West Bank sites.
Our last day in Luxor coincided with Eid, a multi-day celebration. The amplified calls to prayer from the mosques start earlier than usual and continue throughout the day. Unfortunately (for us and the sheep) any family that can afford it butchers a sheep in the morning to prepare a feast for family and friends. This is done in the entry way of the house, and puddles of blood are proudly left in front of the house to show that the family was able to have a sheep. We stepped around all of this as we headed for the huge Temple of Karnak, expanded by many different rulers over centuries during the middle kingdom. The nearby Luxor museum has the highlights from the ruins, and is beautifully presented.
From Luxor, we took an overnight sleeper train to Cairo. Scheduled to leave at midnight, in fact the train arrived in Luxor one hour late. As soon as we found our compartment, we had the porter turn down the beds, skipped the offered dinner, and slept deeply as the train rocked along. The room was quite ingenious, complete with sink, towels, a ladder to the top berth that telescoped down when we wanted to get it out of the way, and a fold out table.
The train arrived in Cairo about 11:30 AM, 2 hours late. We’d been dreading the fabled Cairo traffic, but because of the holiday, traffic was very light, and we got to our hotel in just 20 minutes. We’d chosen to stay in Zamalek, an island in the middle of the Nile where many of the embassies are located – more trees and less noise than most of Cairo. Our hotel turned out to be quite lovely, with a large veranda and living room with comfortable couches and wifi access. Once we got settled, we headed for the Cairo museum, looking forward to seeing some of the treasures that had been removed from the tombs in Luxor.
Unfortunately, the Cairo Museum is dusty, dimly lit, and very neglected. There were a few “don’t touch” signs, but even the tour guides leaned on display cases and caressed the 4,000-year-old artifacts. Most of the items were unlabeled, so it was easy to glaze over. However, the museum has renovated one wing to hold the treasures found in King Tut’s tomb, and these were breathtaking. Each pendant, mask and sarcophagus was a work of art, and the multiple beds and tomb casings were exquisite.
On our second day in Cairo we went to the pyramids of Saqqara and Giza. Saqqara is the earliest pyramid that exists, and is made in steps, preceding the more well-known triangular design. The spectacle of the Sphinx and Giza has been written about for centuries. We have nothing to add except that to see this iconic vista was a peak life experience. We avoided the various offers of a camel ride and walked to the base of the pyramids, trying to comprehend how it had been built 5,000 years ago.
On our last day in Cairo we went to the medieval Moslem part of town, with historic mosques and the souk. The market was fairly quiet because of the holiday, which actually made the souk more enjoyable.
One of the nicest aspects of Egyptian culture is their hospitality and warmth. People would come up to us on the street simply to say, “Welcome to Egypt” or “Obama is #1!”. The warmth was genuine, but others used this to try to lure us into shops or sell us trinkets, felluca rides, horse-and-buggy rides, and so on. While we understand that anyone who visits Egypt is, relatively speaking, quite wealthy, it’s not fun being accosted by vendors 100+ times a day. We tried speaking only Spanish between each other, claiming that we didn’t speak English. We quickly found out that about half the vendors speak a charming combination of Spanish and Italian, so we sometimes resorted to pig Latin if we needed to communicate around a persistent vendor. Bargaining is a must, and we found that the initial prices quoted by shopkeepers was often 4 to 5 times the reasonable price. We were able to avoid most of the fake perfume, spices and papyrus to bring a few small things home to remind us of this amazing country.
Hotels: Every hotel we stayed at was excellent and highly recommended.
Aswan: Keylany Hotel is modest but in an excellent location near the souk and Corniche. Hotel staff is very helpful in arranging day tours, transit to Luxor, etc.
Luxor: Mara House. www.egyptwithmara.com A B&B/Inn about 10 minutes walk from the center of Luxor. Mara, who’s from Ireland, and her family treated us as if we were royalty. Each bedroom is beautifully appointed and the public spaces are welcoming and filled with Egyptian art.
Cairo: Hotel Longchamps, located in Zamalek, a quiet island in the middle of the Nile. Though only 5 minutes from the Cairo museum (when there is no traffic) it quiet and peaceful, a welcome break from the noise and dust of Cairo.
Foods to try: We had wonderful food through out Egypt. We didn’t know much about the cuisine before we came and were pleasantly surprised at the tasty tagines, grilled kebobs, various dolmas (vegetables stuffed with flavored rice) and felafel-type appetizers that we discovered. There’s a white cheese (sometimes known as feta, although it has a consistency of cream cheese), that amazingly tasty. Egyptians have a sweet tooth, and baklavas and honey-soaked semolina cakes, as well as ice cream, are ubiquitous. Fresh and dried dates were everywhere. We of course felt obligated to try everything. Although lamb and beef dominate most menus, there are wonderful vegetable dishes as well.