The spell of Egypt is hard to escape, from the bustling streets and crumbling architecture of central Cairo, with its 22 million population, to the pyramids located - incongruously to newcomers - in the Cairo suburbs, to ancient temples built in the desert along the upper stretches of the Nile. Egypt deals in the monumental: single 350-ton blocks of rose granite that make an obelisk, 90-foot temple doors once made of cedar trees from Lebanon, acres of bas-relief and hieroglyphic inscriptions that cover temple walls from top to bottom. Even the traffic jams around Tahrir Square in central Cairo that can leave you standing for an eternity at a single light are monumental and intractable.
With 5,000 years of history, Egypt naturally tends to think on the large scale, defying the ever-shifting desert sands with enormous statues that can last for millennia, greening strips of that same desert with water taken from the longest river in the world. Egyptians regard themselves as the origin and the center of civilization, something they expect outsiders to intuitively accept. And yet at the same time Egypt is currently going through a period of self-doubt as it struggles to reinvent itself after 30 years of dictatorial rule and six years of political and economic turmoil that has followed the uprising in Tahrir Square.
And so it was fitting that the LAWAC travel group arrived just in time to witness Cairenes getting ready for a do-or-die soccer game against Congo that would decide whether or not they would get into next summer’s World Cups - for the first time in 28 years. The streets were almost deserted from 7 pm, as people stayed home or gathered at outdoor cafes to watch their national team on hastily-erected wide screen TVs. The game was still drawn with a couple of minutes to go when Egypt was awarded a penalty - met with shouts of delight and nervous imprecations - even the main Egyptian TV commentator was saying prayers on air. Mohamed Salah, their star forward, put the ball into the net, and Cairo went crazy, with fire crackers and car horns sounding across the city. In fact horns were still sounding sporadically as we got our 3.30 am wake-up call for an early flight to Luxor, where we began our tour.
Luxor, located on the Nile 400 miles south of Cairo, was once the richest city in Egypt and the largest city in the world. On the east bank of the river is the Temple of Karnak, with its enchanting hall of 134 pillars that took 100 years to build. The entire temple complex is the second largest religious site in the world - after Angkor Wat - and it was built and added to by 33 pharaohs over a period of 2,000 years. (See “monumental” and “large scale” above.) We learned these facts, and many more, from our wonderful guide, Sherif Samy, whose encyclopedic knowledge and ability to string together colorful narratives quickly endeared him to our whole group. After lunch we took a ferry across to the west bank of the Nile to visit the necropolis of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens - tombs buried in the hillsides, concealing ornate sarcophagi of the pharaohs and their relatives, with colorful frescoes on the walls. After such an early wake-up and a strenuous day’s sight-seeing, some of us were tempted to take up residence in one of the tombs, but we persevered, ending with a visit to the tomb of Tutankhamun. Despite the fabulous sarcophagus and other priceless artifacts discovered inside by Howard Carter in 1922, the interior of the tomb itself is not as highly embellished as other tombs nearby - largely because the “boy king” Tutankhamun died unexpectedly when he was just 18, and so his tomb-builders had had much less time to work on his tomb than was customary for pharaohs. We were happy to finally return to the river cruise ship “Sanctuary Sun Boat IV, an air-conditioned haven of good food, cold drinks and very attentive staff that quickly restored us after so many hours on the move under the hot sun.
The ship moved downriver over the night, and next morning we boarded a bus for the temple at Denderah. As we drove through the countryside we were accompanied by a convoy of police vehicles with sirens and heavily-armed men. here had been an attack that killed a young Spanish tourist on the road to Denderah, but that was back in 1994. Today the Egyptian government is keen to show that it will go above and beyond to guarantee security around all the major tourist sites. Tourism still hasn’t recovered to anything like the levels pre-Tahrir Square in 2011 – even though foreigners were not targeted in the uprising, which has been mostly a domestic affair pitting Egyptians against each other. But the tourism industry is still suffering, and the last thing the government wants is more violence scaring tourists away again. Our group felt safe for the whole duration of the trip.
The Denderah Temple is dedicated to Hathor, the goddess of pleasure and love, beauty and light - and beautiful it is, being one of the best-preserved temples in Egypt, still with a roof intact on top. This is a relatively recent construction of the late Ptolemaic period, barely 2,000 years ago - on the back wall is a carving of Cleopatra, who ruled from 69 BC to 30 BC. We discovered that Carrie Feruzzi Wellisz had absorbed a lot of ancient Egyptian history before coming on the trip, and could have served as our guide if Sherif had lost his voice!
After a leisurely cruise back to Luxor, we disembarked to visit the Temple of Luxor at sunset. Instead of seeking out shade from the strong sun, the temperature by now was balmy, and the carvings of the 1,400 BC temple were illuminated from underneath by well-located lighting, giving the whole temple a magical air. The Egyptian spell lingers everywhere…
Back on the ship dinner was followed by performances by a belly dancer and a whirling dervish, the latter an act where holiness supersedes dizziness, somehow.
By now jet lag had abated for most of our travelers. A couple of us woke up before dawn the next morning to discover the ship was preparing to enter a lock, that would raise the ship up 22 feet to the upper stretches of the Nile. Chris Lawson and Malinda Lee sat and watched as the captain of our ship tried to rouse the lockkeeper by shining a spotlight back and forth on his control tower. t was not until one of the sailors hopped ashore and went to hammer on the sleepy river guardian’s door that we finally saw a light appear, and a man emerge rubbing his eyes to operate the controls of the lock.
After breakfast we went ashore to visit the Temple of Edfu, dedicated to the falcon god Horus, which was built in the Ptolemaic period between 237 and 57 BC. There were many statues of the stern-faced falcon Horus, and Sherif entertained us with the long saga of the god Osiris and his queen Isis, their son Horus and his battle with Set, who killed Osiris not once, but twice.
Back on the ship we continued cruising southwards up the river, where Charlie Weber and Murray Kalis did a cooking class learning to do a three course Egyptian gourmet meal which they promised to reproduce for the group at the first opportunity.
That evening we reached Kom Ombo, where we stopped to visit the Temple dedicated to the crocodile-god Sobek. The temple was built between 180 and 147 BC, and was designed to placate the fierce creatures that lived in the Nile and prevent them from attacking humans. An adjacent museum contained half a dozen mummified crocodiles that had been kept in the temple - some of them were more than 12 feet long – which explained the need to placate them!
That evening our group dressed themselves in an array of colorful Egyptian galabeya robes, which put them into the mood for dancing after dinner. Most spectacular were Colleen Enis and Patrica de Losen, as well as Frank and Linda Kilpatrick. Julie Bram had a headdress right out of the Ottoman Empire. And Suzy Moser was surprised with a birthday cake – turns out the ship had seen her birth date on her passport when she checked in!
Thursday morning the group split - half visited the statues at Abu Simbel, four 142 feet-high statues of Ramses II which had been relocated to higher ground in the late 60’s when the Aswan dam was built and submerged large areas upstream to form Lake Nasr. They also visited the sublime temple of Nefertari, the only queen to have a temple built for her.
The other half of the group went to the rose granite quarries in Aswan where much of the granite was taken for temples and obelisks throughout Egypt. Following that they took a small boat to the Temple of Philae, a remarkable building dedicated to the goddess ISIS that was built on an island in the Nile in the fourth century BC.When the first Aswan dam was put up in 1902, the temple was submerged by the rising waters. Remarkably it was later rescued in a UNESCO project in the 1970’s that surrounded the building with a coffer dam, pumped out all the water, cut the temple up into 40,000 pieces, and then rebuilt it over a period of 8 years on another island, above water level. Today it looks like (old) new!
From Aswan we flew back to Cairo, where on Saturday we visited the pyramids at Giza, the iconic images of ancient Egypt, erected by 100,000 men more than 4,500 years ago. Our tireless guide Sherif quoted an Egyptian proverb: “Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.” He wondered out loud whether more secret chambers would be discovered now the pyramids are being surveyed by Japanese drones with ground-penetrating radar – intriguing prospect. As we visited the Sphinx - with its head of a man and body of a lion symbolizing a mix of wisdom and strength - we learnt that there are 700 different hieroglyph characters, which is an impressive alphabet compared to our 26. Then we posed for a group picture with the world’s best backdrop - the Sphinx and the pyramids. Unbeatable!
That afternoon we went to the Egyptian Museum, which has incredible riches, including the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb. But the building, put up in 1902, is clearly showing its age and the displays are poorly labeled and badly lit. A new museum is being built near the pyramids in Giza, and all of Egypt is holding its breath for the new “Grand Egyptian Museum” to open - supposedly by next year. The $550 m project is designed by an Irish architectural firm, Heneghan Peng, and is slated to be the biggest archaeological museum in the world when it is finished.
On Sunday we visited parts of old Islamic Cairo, including the spectacular Sultan Hassan Mosque, and opposite it the al Rifa’i mosque, where the Shah of Iran is entombed. Later we saw the old Coptic Christian Church of St Sergius, and the Ben Ezra Jewish synagogue - still in use by Cairo’s small Jewish population. Then we drove to the new campus of the American University in Cairo, a hundred-year old institution where 6,600 students, mostly from Egypt, are instructed in English with an American-style curriculum. We had lunch with the President of the university, Frank Ricciardone, who had been US ambassador to Egypt in his previous career, and who spoke about the importance of promoting American ideals of freedom of expression and independent research in the Middle East.
Later some of our group visited an incubator space for high tech startups - ironically located in the picturesque old American University in Cairo campus in downtown Cairo on Tahrir Square. The incubator is run by Ahmed al Alfi and has some 800 tenants - some prospering, some struggling, but all seeking to build tomorrow’s Egypt. In the evening we had dinner in a fabulous apartment on the 10th floor of a building overlooking the Nile, hosted by Amr Badr, a prominent Egyptian business leader. A number of influential Egyptians were present, including Zahi Hawass, the country’s most famous Egyptologist and former antiquities minister. With the glittering lights of the boats on the Nile in the background, Hawass gave a short talk about his current archaeological excavations, and his plan to bring a Tutankhamun exhibition to Los Angeles in the spring of 2018. As we said goodbye to our hosts - who like everyone we met could not have been more hospitable - and prepared for our early wake-up calls for the return flights to LA the next morning, we realized that the spell of Egypt would not let us go, and was even following us all the way to California.