Egypt has long played an important role in connecting Africa and Asia, and the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean. The earliest signs of civilization in Egypt date back to prehistoric times, but the towns and cities can trace their roots back to approximately 8000 BC. This is when the Sahara was formed and settlers started moving closer to the fertile land of the Nile River.
The dynastic period, widely regarded as one of the oldest ever cultural periods in the world, began around 3100 BC. The first Pharaoh is generally believed to have been Menes. A total of 30 dynasties ruled over the next three millennia with many of the pharaohs leaving their mark on Egypt in the form of beautiful palaces, temples, and tombs. It was during this time that most of the astonishing sights you see today were built. Among them: the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the temples of Luxor, and many more.
At various times in its history, Egypt has been occupied by Persians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, the British and French. But it is the pharaohs that have left the most mesmerizing legacy. Who has not been captivated by the story of the young boy who became King Tutankhamen in 1333 BC, and the beautiful Nefertiti, a queen who worshipped one God.
I arrived in Egypt with a perfunctory knowledge gleaned from history and travel books, documentaries, and films. Now I get to see, smell, and touch all that it has to offer.
As I mentioned in my last post, I spent my last day in Jordan shivering under the covers in my hotel bed. I managed to drag myself out of bed and make myself somewhat presentable in time to catch an early afternoon flight to Cairo. The plan was to explore Cairo on my own for the first two days, then join some fellow women travelers for a tour of Egypt. This turned out to be a serendipitous choice since the unplanned days gave me just enough time to stay in bed, recover sufficiently, and join the group for dinner on day two.
Marta is our tour manager and she handles all of the scheduling, problem solving, and communication. Mohamed owns the local tour company and he accompanied us the whole two weeks. I have never had the local company owner in any country accompany a tour, so this was an added bonus. Rafa is our Egyptologist and the extent of his knowledge of both ancient and modern Egypt is astounding.
Every day that we were in or near Cairo and Giza we were accompanied by an armed tourist policeman. He was discreetly dressed and his sport coat covered his holstered hand gun. To be honest, I never felt unsafe anywhere in Egypt, and eventually stopped noticing the security forces present at tourist sites. Once we headed south to Luxor we no longer had our private guard along for the ride. We did occasionally have a police escort to speed our bus through traffic jams.
Baksheesh (a tip or a bribe depending on the situation) is rampant in Egypt and almost comical. We often found ourselves being ushered in to sites, tombs, and boats without regard for a queue! Then I would notice the small wad of Egyptian pounds (or better yet US dollars) exchanging hands. Which reminds me, US dollars are widely accepted everywhere in Egypt. I would still be sure to have some small denomination EGPs on hand because you rarely enter a public restroom where an “attendant” isn’t there with an extended hand. Baksheesh for the WC!
On my first outing with our small group of women (hailing from the US and Canada), we climbed onto our camels and trekked across the sand to the pyramids in Giza. I have been on a camel before (Morocco), but I was still thrilled to travel this way for my first visit to the pyramids. I often describe my travel experiences as feelings or vibes, and standing before the Giza pyramids is no different. When you have studied ancient Egypt, read books, looked at pictures….it is still difficult to imagine the feeling once you are standing right there.
The Giza pyramids were built around 2500 BC over a period of about 85 years. The Sphinx stands guard at the approach to the Pyramid of Khafre and was carved mostly from an outcrop of natural rock, then augmented by shaped blocks around the base.
We next visited Saqqara, a vast, ancient burial ground serving as the necropolis for the Ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis. Saqqara features numerous pyramids, including the world-famous Step pyramid of Djoser. The step pyramid is the first free standing stone building in history. The hieroglyphics here are incredible for their intricacy, age, and condition. If only you could pull up a chair and admire them for an afternoon.
The Egyptian Museum is not to be missed. It is chock full of artifacts that are older than anything you can imagine. The star of the show is King Tut’s death mask and tomb enclosures, but there is so much more to see. For an extra fee you can enter a climate controlled room that contains the actual mummified remains (mostly intact and in good condition) of ancient Egyptian royalty! A new and larger museum is being built and construction is expected to be completed this summer. This will allow the large number of artifacts and sarcophagi that are still in storage to be put on display.
Our flight to Luxor is short and smooth and we check in to our hotel, situated on the banks of the Nile River. There is no internet in the hotel, so I venture out into the street to find a phone store where I can buy a SIM card. I am immediately accosted by a middle aged Egyptian man in long robe and turban. He wants me to visit his cousin’s souvenir shop – “best prices! You like.” “No no, I explain, I’m just going to the phone store.” I have spotted an Orange store about a block away. The most dangerous thing you can do in Egypt is cross the street, so I am focused on oncoming traffic as the man jabbers away about the deals to be had at his cousin’s shop. As I scan the street ahead, I see the next robed man, waiting for me to discard the current one. As I realize I will be shadowed no matter what, I elect to keep my current escort. I explain to him (he has told me his name is Aziz), not sure how much he is understanding, that I would like him to escort me to the phone store. This will allow him to: “earn” a small token of my appreciation, keep the rest of the hawkers away, and he won’t have to convince me to shop. It’s a win-win for both of us.
I should mention that SIM cards can be a good alternative to expensive international plans offered by your carriers at home. In most countries, you can buy a SIM with a gig or more of data, texting, and calls for under ten dollars. The one I purchased in Egypt was $2.50 and I only needed half the data allowance. Internet is not free in many hotels or on the Nile cruise boats, so this proved to be a valuable purchase. I did not buy a SIM in Jordan because cell service there is hit or miss and I was only there for a week. Israel had the most expensive plan I have ever encountered, over $20 for a gig. I have purchased SIMs in Thailand, Morocco, Scotland, France, and many others for less than one quarter of the cost of a Verizon international plan. Best to get familiar with your phone’s SIM before you leave home and confirm with your carrier that your phone is “unlocked.”
So, back to my excursion through Luxor. The SIM purchase at the Orange store takes longer than the usual 10 minutes and Aziz waits patiently in the lobby. After thirty minutes, my purchase complete, Aziz and I exit the store and head back in the direction of my hotel. None of the hawkers approach me and I am patting myself on the back about the successful execution of my plan. At the entrance to my hotel, I take Aziz’s hand to thank him and slip him 10 Egyptian pounds (less than a dollar, but twice what his cousin would have given him). He’s happy, I’m happy, and it’s a beautiful, sunny day in Luxor.
Next up….Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, and the Nile River.