Egypt part 2 - Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and cruising the Nile

A visit to Cairo would not be complete without a visit to the Khan el-Khalili bazaar. This souk is located in the Islamic district where you will find narrow alleyways crammed with a vibrant collection of small shops, stalls, food vendors and cafes. I found this to be a fascinating place, bustling with interesting people in a variety of attire, flowing robes and more modern Islamic style contrasting against western fashion. Although the souk was crowded we felt very safe here and we were often approached by local people thanking us for visiting their country. The Egyptians really are very friendly and hospitable people and it is a shame that political turmoil of recent years and their proximity to the Middle East has had such a huge impact on tourism to this country.

Egyptian Museum of Antiquities

Security was tight as our vehicle approached Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Rioting in this area in recent times has seen the square barricaded and armed guards inspect each vehicle. The road is a major thoroughfare that leads to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. The museum is a large sprawling two storied building dating from 1902 and is soon to be replaced by the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) currently under construction.

We were here to see some of the treasures of ancient Egypt most notably those found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. I stepped out of our vehicle into the intense heat of a Cairo morning the sounds of chaotic traffic all around me was soon dulled as we entered the welcoming coolness of the museum interior. From light to dark, I had entered another dimension a place that held mysteries from long ago.

Pharoahs and Queens looked down upon me, their poses frozen in massive granite forms, I had invaded their space, uncovering secrets from their tombs. I walked the corridors and out of the darkness I could feel them following me as I explored.

I climbed the stairs to the second floor to discover the treasures of Tutankhamun. In a medium size room with basic security and protected by a crude glass case sits the most famous artefact in the world, the gold mask of Tutankhamun. It is a beautiful object and I was astounded at how well preserved it was, it could have been made yesterday. I felt privileged to be standing in front of this ancient treasure. The room contained several other objects found in the tomb including the various size coffins, jewellery, body adornments and vases with gold being a feature of many of these. 5,398 items were found in the tomb, including a solid gold coffin, face mask, thrones, archery bows, a lotus chalice, food, wine, sandals, and fresh linen underwear.

I continued on to explore other parts of the museum and found the various galleries to be overflowing with beautiful and fascinating objects and then there is the Mummy room or rooms to be exact as there are two of them. Out of our group of ten only two of us wanted to visit the Mummy rooms. Perhaps they didn't have the same fascination for the macabre as we did. The main mummies room contains the Royal Mummies, here you can see the mummies of many great Egyptian rulers, including Ramses II, the builder of the temples at Abu Simbel and also the newly discovered mummy of Queen Hatshepsut. It was a strange feeling thinking that the figures portrayed by those large granite statues lay before me in a shrunken shrouded state. Their bodies lay prostrated, their emaciated features staring to the heavens. What I remember most is their hair, the rest of the body shrivels but the hair stays the same as it did the day they died when they were wrapped in their shrouds and entombed in their coffins. I wandered out of the Mummies room pleased to leave the silence behind me.

Perhaps the next sequence of events was a message to me from beyond the grave. We lost our group and my colleague went to find them, I was left alone wandering the corridors of the museum. Time went by and no one came back for me, I was conscious that our next stop was the airport for our flight to Luxor. I was running late and rushed down the stairs not knowing where the exit to the museum was. I got to the bottom step and tripped, my ankle rolled and I felt a sharp pain. Visions of a hospital visit flashed before me as I stood and put weight on my foot. I let out a sigh of relief, I could walk and limped away to find the exit. My foot was sore for a few days but no damage done.

Luxor

After a short flight from Cairo we touched town in Luxor. The contrast between these two cities was astounding. Cairo was loud and dirty whereas Luxor was quiet and so clean. This clean and green image is thanks to the last two Governors of Luxor who established a workable environmental policy. Kornish Al Nile is a main thoroughfare of Luxor and follows the course of The River Nile. We travelled this road towards our hotel with the river sparkling like a turquoise gem in the late afternoon sun. Suddenly to my left the most magnificent structure appeared, The Luxor Temple. 

Luxor Temple, along with the temple complex of Karnak, are the most famous temple complexes around Luxor and they are both located on the East Bank of the Nile. In ancient times an avenue of sphinxes that ran the entire 3 kilometres between them to connect the two sites. This avenue is currently under excavation, but the section nearest to Luxor Temple has already been restored. 

We were visiting these two sites the next day, in the meantime we continued on to our hotel the Sonesta St George.

I awoke the next day feeling ill. We had dined the previous evening at a local Egyptian restaurant and I was the only one that was afflicted, so perhaps that mummy room visit really was cursing me.

Karnak and Luxor Temples

We had an early start to visit the magnificent Karnak Temple complex. Dedicated to the sun deity Amon-Ra (also Amun-Re) and built around 1500 b.c., Karnak consists of massive pillars, towering columns, avenues of sphinxes, and a remarkable obelisk erected by Queen Hatshepsut that stands 97 feet tall and weighs 323 tons. The Great Hypostyle Hall, one of the largest single chambers ever built, covers an area of nearly 54,000 square feet. The scale of this complex is overwhelming and nearly every pillar has intricate decoration, I stood in awe beneath these massive pillars imagining how they were built and pondering on the activity that went on within these walls. 

We were trying to beat the sun before the day got too hot as we hurried on to the Luxor Temple. Luxor temple is not dedicated to a cult god. Instead Luxor temple is dedicated to the rejuvenation of kingship; it may have been where many of the kings of Egypt were crowned. To the rear of the temple are chapels built by Amenhotep III of the 18th Dynasty, and Alexander. Other parts of the temple were built by Tutankhamun and Ramesses II. During the Roman era, the temple and its surroundings were a legionary fortress and the home of the Roman government in the area. We saw evidence of the Roman occupation at the Luxor Temple, in one of the chapels the Egyptian wall paintings had been plastered over and the walls repainted with Roman friezes. Luxor temple is much smaller than Karnak but together they form the largest open air museum in the world.

M.S. Mayfair

That afternoon we boarded our ship the M.S. Mayfair for the start of our 4 night Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan. This was a five star cruise and the ship really did live up to the marketing slogan of "modern elegance and uncompromising luxury". It was a well appointed boat my cabin was on the second level which also contained a library. The next level contained the lounge and bar and two small shops and remaining cabins. The sun deck had a jacuzzi and a selection of deck chairs strategically placed either in the sun or in one of the shaded zones. The first level had the entrance foyer and cabins and the lower level contained the dining room and spa. The temperature had soared to the mid-thirties and the jacuzzi looked an inviting way to spend the remainder of the afternoon. A perfect way to end the day with the sun casting its last rays on the Luxor Temple behind me.

We had one further appointment before we sailed that evening and that was with the Governor of Luxor. We were invited to meet the Governor at his office as he wished to have a discussion on the New Zealand perception of Egypt. Tourism to Egypt has declined dramatically in recent years to such an extent that hotel occupancy in Luxor was at only fifteen per cent. This is particularly disturbing for Luxor as tourism is the major contributor to the local economy whereas Cairo can rely on other revenue sources and is therefore not quite in the same position. The Governor's office was decorated with an array of replicated Egyptian artifacts. I was admiring a small gold sarcophagus when he offered it to me to keep, I of course politely refused. However the Governor insisted that I have it, I now have this item prominently displayed in my lounge at home. It might be just a souvenir but it has a great story behind it.

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I had always dreamt of cruising the Nile River but imagined it would be in one of the small felucca that floated past our ship. The advantages of sailing in a boat of this size was that the sundeck offered a fantastic vantage point from which to view life on the banks of the Nile. Apart from the historical aspect of visiting Egypt my most memorable moments of the trip were standing on the sundeck catching glimpses of the local farmers, families and traders going about their daily routines. "Hello ', shouted the children from the river banks as they splashed in the water, they cheerily waved to us as we sailed by. Their mothers sat by the river bank with baskets of washing, their fathers ploughing the fields with their oxen or sitting in the reeds fishing in their small boats. It seemed to me that this was what life on the Nile must have been like for centuries and little had changed.

The colours of Egypt are painted by the Nile, from the river bank the ochre coloured earth is transformed to hues of green, lush grasses sprout, papyrus reeds wave and date palms stand guard on the shores. Blue lotus flowers mirror the colour of the sky contrasting with the citrus yellows of lemon groves. The simple earthen dwellings were often transformed to works of art, the walls became a canvas painted in the primary colours found in the fruits and flowers grown in the fields, a stark contrast from the arid desert that lay beyond.

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In the distance I saw a small boat in the middle of the river as we got closer I could see it had two occupants waving to us. It didn't seem to move and I was concerned we were on a collision course. Then the boat disappeared and for a moment I thought we had hit it. I rushed to the side and looked over, there it was below us. The occupants had fashioned a lasso and were tying themselves to our ship. We discovered that they were river hawkers and would remain tied to us until we reached a river lock. This was certainly a novel way to attempt to sell produce to us. We spent the rest of the afternoon listening to them calling to us to look at their goods. As night approached we reached the lock and the ship stopped this was the moment of truth for the hawkers. Would we purchase from them, well yes of course, for them to go to that much effort we had to show some support.

The Valley of the Kings

Our first stop along the Nile began not far from Luxor on the West Bank, an early morning drive lead us through the sugar cane crops, past farmers driving donkeys and carts and roadside merchants setting up their stalls. We were on the road leading out into the desert to a location in the Theban Hills where hides the Valley of the Kings. My first impression of this place was of a barren desert wasteland, a narrow valley surrounded by high cliffs. I suppose this added to the mystery that lay hidden within this landscape.

I was disappointed that photography was banned from the valley, after all it was permissible at the great pyramids of Giza.

The Valley was used for primary burials from approximately 1539 BC to 1075 BC, and contains at least 63 tombs, beginning with Thutmose I, and ending with Ramesses X or XI, although non-Royal burials continued in usurped tombs. Even though it was still early morning the temperature in the desert had already reached 40 degrees, I was pleased to get some respite from the heat by entering my first tomb. 

The first tomb I entered was a bit of a challenge, it was The Tomb of Tuthmosis III, is said to be one of the most sophisticated tombs in the Valley of the Kings.The tomb can be found in a narrow gorge at the bottom of the Valley of the Kings. The entrance is 30 meters above ground level and is accessed by a very steep series of steps. The tomb begins with a stairway, a corridor, a second stairway and a second corridor before reaching the actual shaft. The ceiling of the ritual shaft is painted with a blue sky and yellow stars. After the ritual shaft, like most tombs of this period, there is a 90 degree turn into the Vestibule, which is then followed by the burial chamber with its four lateral annexes. The burial chamber is large, and holds a beautiful red quartzite sarcophagus. The tomb is decorated with the Litany of Ra and the Amduat, magical texts which would help the pharaoh through the perils of the Underworld so he could reach the Afterlife. I was amazed at the sophistication of this tomb and just how deep into the cliffs the corridors went. The paintings and hieroglyphs were mesmerising and I could have spent hours trying to interpret their meanings. The construction of this tomb was a marvel and I could only wonder at how this feat was achieved.

The other tomb I will mention is that of Tutankhamun's, this is a much smaller tomb with nowhere near the sophistication of the one just described. It is of course noteworthy for the amount of treasure it contained. The tomb was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter. The only decoration in this tomb are on the burial chamber walls. Inside the dimly lit chamber sat the giant red stone sarcophagus, which measures nearly 3 metres long and weighs well over a tonne, the wrapped mummy of Tutankhamun was buried in three separate coffins. The innermost coffin was made of solid gold, weighing 110.4kg. I gazed in wonder at the mummy of Tutankhamun lying before me, what would he think of the citizens of this modern world invading the silence of his tomb.

Temple of Hatshepsut

It was almost mid-day and incredibly hot as we made our way to the most recognisable building near the Valley of the Kings, the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut. This building is an example of perfect symmetry that pre dates Classical Greek architecture by 1,000 years. Hatshepsut constructed many monuments and buildings. She also had many statues of herself erected at the sites of these monuments and buildings to impress upon the ancient Egyptian people her standing as a great leader and Pharaoh. Hatshepsut’s Temple at Deir El Bahri is her greatest achievement. It took 15 years to complete.

The Temple of Hatshepsut has three levels. Leading up to the temple is a 100 foot causeway that in ancient Egyptian times was probably lined with sphinxes.The sun, high in the sky beat down on us and made progress slow as we made our way up the causeway to the temple. The effort was worth it as the ornamentation of the temple was exquisite as was the view from the third level.

Edfu

Your carriage awaits sir, in this case the carriage was a dilapidated buggy drawn by a mangy looking horse and driven by a toothless Arabic gentleman. We were docked at Edfu, a small city half way between Luxor and Aswan and on the edge of town lay the site of the Temple of Horus. Edfu was a very traditional town the inhabitants generally wearing the gallibaya (long robes) and the women head scarves. We passed markets, street stalls selling flat breads and cafes occupied by men smoking Shisha or Hookah pipes. Local farmers rode their donkeys along the streets often carrying bundles of straw. Watermelons seemed to be the predominant fruit on the stalls.

Our buggy clapped along the streets and finally onto a dirt road pulling up in a cloud of dust outside the entrance to the Edfu Temple of Horus. This temple is a Ptolemaic temple (relates to the Greek astronomer Ptolemy) built between 237 BC and 57 BC, into the reign of Cleopatra VII. Of all the temple remains in Egypt, the Temple of Horus at Edfu is the most completely preserved. The style of this temple was totally different to those we had seen previously this due to the Greek influence. The reliefs that cover the walls, columns, and doorways of the temple constitute an extremely important source of information about ancient Egyptian religious and political thought. Among the most interesting of these reliefs tell the story of Horus exacting his revenge on Seth for the murder of his father, Osiris, an event that was re-enacted annually in the temple. Other reliefs recount the stages of the temple’s construction, and provide dates for the completion of different building elements.

Kom Ombo Temple

The sun lay low on the horizon as we sailed into Kom Ombo this is the perfect time to visit the Ptolemaic temple of Herwer and Sombek and the smaller Roman era Temple of Nilometer. These temples are on the banks of the Nile, 45 kms north of Aswan. They are beautifully illuminated at dusk and make a stunning spectacle against the blue Nile in the background.

Philae Temple

Our journey through Egypt lead us to two temples that had been moved from their original sites. The first of these was these was just outside of Aswan and known as the Temple of Philae. Philae which is dated 380–362 BC was originally located near the expansive First Cataract of the Nile River in southern Egypt, the site had been variously flooded since the initial construction of the Old Aswan Dam in 1902. The temple complex was later dismantled and relocated to nearby Agilkia Island as part of the UNESCO Nubia Campaign project, protecting this and other complexes before the 1970 completion of the Aswan High Dam. The island temple was built during the Ptolemaic dynasty. The principal deity of the temple complex was Isis. This is a beautiful temple complex and is enhanced further by the location on Agilkia Island. 

Abu Simbel Temple

Our short flight from Aswan took us to Abu Simbel, a Nubian village on the shores of Lake Nasser near the Sudanese border. It is here that you will find the two great Abu Simbel temples, originally cut into a solid rock cliff. This temple complex had also been moved from its original site. Due to flooding of Lake Nasser, from 1964-1968, UNESCO set forth an initiative to move both the Great Temple and the Small Temple to a plateau on the cliffs. The temples were dismantled, moved 60 meters up the sandstone cliff that they originally stood on and were then reassembled. Built by the Egyptian king Ramses II (reigned 1279–13 BC). The four colossal statues of Ramses in front of the main temple (The Great Temple) are spectacular examples of ancient Egyptian art. The approach to the temples is from behind the cliff and as you round a bend in the path you suddenly come across these massive statues, they had such an impact that I stopped in my tracks.

The Great Temple was in my opinion the most magnificent temple that we had encountered on our journey. The interior carvings and paintings are extensive and depict Ramses II and his beloved wife, Nefertari, paying homage to the gods. The smaller temple was built for Queen Nefertari. The interior of this temple is not as complex as the larger nor does it have as an elaborate decoration.

Although Abu Simbel is quite isolated from the rest of the main Egyptian historical sites it is actually the second most visited site next to the pyramids of Giza. This was a fitting way to end our journey through the monuments of ancient Egypt.

The Old Cataract Hotel

The Nile river traffic was busy as the late afternoon sun crept behind the palm trees, the billowing sails of the large felucca's dominated the scene. Our motorboat cruised towards the grand old hotel perched on the hill in front of us and we docked at the private pier to The Old Cataract Hotel.

The scene that greeted us was not quite what we had expected. This hotel was famous for being the place where Agatha Christie was domiciled when she wrote "Death on the Nile". We were expecting to have drinks on the terrace overlooking the Nile, recreating the atmosphere of that period. Instead we found a movie crew had taken over the terrace and the place was in chaos with equipment, cables, make up crew and actors everywhere. 

We left the movie crew behind as we had a guided tour of the hotel planned and by the time we had finished they were packing up. Therefore we did get to relive the days of Agatha Christie and sit on the terrace with drink in hand and watching the sun slowly sink below the horizon.

We sailed back to the MS Mayfair in the moonlight, the warm breeze adding to the magic of the moment, a mysterious ancient land discovered, thank you River Nile for guiding us on this journey.

I would like to thank Etihad Airways and The Innovative Travel Company for making this journey possible.