This is the second part of our Egypt trip summary. For Part 1, our visit to Cairo and Aswan (including total costs for the trip), see this post.
The Nile, lifeblood of ancient Egypt (even today 95% of the Egyptian population lives within a few kilometers of this river). Its floodwaters left behind fertile soil for crops and irrigation systems were developed along it to increase usable land for crops. Papyrus grew in the Lower Egypt delta and, in addition to its importance as a writing material, papyrus was used to make boats, mats, ropes, sandals and baskets. The Nile also provided drinking water and was a vital trade and transportation route, enabling the ancient Egyptians to transport the stone necessary for their megalithic monuments.
Our journey on the Nile began in Aswan. The cruise from Aswan to Luxor is typically 3 days in length and our guide suggested that the 4-day cruise in the opposite direction, from Luxor to Aswan, is a better way to see the sites as it tends to be less rushed.
Our first stop along the Nile was the unusual double temple of Kom Ombo. Dedicated to two separate gods, the crocodile god, Sobek, and the falcon god, Horus, Kom Ombo consists of two symmetrical temples, each with its own gateway. Hundreds of mummified crocodiles were found in Kom Ombo and the museum next door has 22 of them on display. Carvings found in this temple are also unique – carved on one wall in the northern section are what appear to be surgical instruments and on one wall in the southern section of the temple is a calendar. Egyptians divided their year into three seasons which were tied to the flooding of the Nile. Each season was divided into four months of 30 days with 5 bonus days tacked on to the end of the year. It wasn’t perfect but with modifications by Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory XIII it formed the basis for our modern calendar.
Luxor (the ancient city of Thebes) is often referred to as an “open-air” museum with the amazing temples of Luxor and Karnak, multiple monuments, and the nearby Valley of the Kings. Supposedly much more of Luxor is waiting to be uncovered and discussions are ongoing over the possibility of relocating much of the city’s population in order to conduct extensive excavation – I imagine that ambitious goal is not without significant stumbling blocks. Luxor is a complete contrast to Cairo, sunny, clear skies, little to no trash and clearly geared towards tourists.
Constructed over hundreds of years (beginning around 1400 BCE) the temple in Luxor was not necessarily dedicated to a specific god or even a deified version of a dead pharaoh, but rather was intended to reassert the power and glory of Egyptian royalty. Luxor may have become the prime location for coronations – even Alexander the Great claimed to have been crowned at Luxor – and construction projects were undertaken by multiple pharaohs including, Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun and Rameses II. Inside the temple is the Colonnade of Amenhotep III containing 14, 16m high, stylized papyrus columns (Tutankhamun actually completed the colonnade); two seated statues of Rameses II flank the entrance to Luxor, each carved from a single piece of granite – stunning!
Lined with approximately 1,350 human-headed sphinxes, each with the figure of Amenhotep III carved between its forelegs, is a 3km stretch of road running south from the Luxor temple to the temple complex of Karnak. Restoration of this avenue has been ongoing over the past five years and the avenue is set to open to the public in late 2021. Karnak is considered the largest religious building in the world, rivaled only by Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Built over 2,000 years, beginning in 2055 BCE, Karnak is remarkable and massive in scale. The Hypostyle Hall is truly awe-inspiring – 134 columns, arranged in 16 rows, covered completely with carvings, many of which still retain their original colours and soaring to heights between 10m and 21m. Equally as impressive as the Avenue of Sphinxes leading from Luxor to Karnak is the Way of the Rams, the western entrance to the Karnak lined with ram-headed sphinxes. Everything about this temple complex is breathtaking.
Valley of the Kings
Quick note on terminology – king v. pharaoh. While the word pharaoh has become synonymous with the rulers of ancient Egypt, it wasn’t until roughly 1210 BCE when Merenptah came to power that the term “pharaoh” was actually used instead of “king.”
Even in ancient times, Egyptian tombs were ransacked, and with a massive pyramid marking the spot it wasn’t too difficult for grave robbers to have a general idea of where to dig! So the Egyptians began building tombs underground. Once the king (pharaoh) was entombed, the entrance was sealed and concealed, hopefully, though often unsuccessfully, making them less susceptible to looting. The tomb of Tukhentamen (identified as KV62) is case in point, and as he is considered a fairly minor king with an “insignificant” amount of wealth, imagine what might exist in some yet undiscovered tomb!
The Valley of the Kings was used primarily for burials between 1539 and 1075 BCE and to date 63 tombs have been discovered. Upon a king’s accession to power, construction of his tomb began and the longer he was in power, the more elaborate the tomb became. Traditionally text from the Book of the Dead was reproduced along the walls of the tomb, together with depictions of the king’s journey to the afterlife; carvings of offerings and scenes underscoring the king’s achievements in life were also included. All of it was meant to appeal to the gods and ensure the tomb owner’s safe arrival in the afterlife. In an effort to stave off further deterioration of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, access for visitors is rotated between tombs, and tour guides are not allowed to lead tours inside the tombs which prevents large groups congregating inside. Visitors are expected to quietly proceed, single-file, through the tomb, which lends a certain reverence to the viewing experience. During our visit, KV6 – the tomb of Rameses IX, KV8 – the tomb of Merenptah, and KV 11 – the tomb of Rameses III were open to us. WOW – we knew that all Egyptian monuments and temples had at one time been painted, but the interior of these tombs really brings to life the vibrancy of the colours. Truly a highlight of any visit to Egypt would be stepping inside any one of these tombs.
Another highlight for us was a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the King. This was the first time I’d been in a hot air balloon – what a thrill, a completely different perspective on the landscape, and worth crawling out of bed at 3:30am.
One of the more interesting Egyptian rulers, at least to my mind, was Hatshepsut. Without going into great, sordid detail, Hatshepsut was acting as regent for Thutmose III, the infant son of her deceased husband/half-brother, when she took power for herself by asserting that she had been chosen by the god Amun-Ra. When Thutmose III came of age, she retained her singular power by appointing him head of her armies and sending him off on various military campaigns. In 3,000 years of Egyptian history she is only one of three women to have truly ruled Egypt (Cleopatra and Nefertiti being the other two) and perhaps because she knew that a female king/pharaoh was a tad controversial, she directed that her image on any statue or painting also include the male characteristic of a beard. Egypt was peaceful and prosperous during her reign, and one would think grandiose monuments to her achievements would be everywhere. Well, they were, but following her death, once Thutmose III had the throne to himself he directed that any reference to Hatshepsut’s rule be obliterated, and where that wasn’t possible he expropriated the monuments for himself – I guess he was harbouring some ill will towards his stepmother! An example of an expropriated monument is the magnificent structure built into the cliffs of Deir el-Bahari, which was actually Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple. Fortunately, while the temple had been rededicated, a complete overhaul of the imagery and hieroglyphics inside was incomplete and archeologists re-discovered Hatshepsut’s legacy! The three-tiered temple is a unique departure in style from the other temples we saw in Egypt and should be included on any visit to the area.
Hurghada – Diving
We ended our Egyptian tour with a few days on the Red Sea in the resort town of Hurghada. The Red Sea is considered to have some of the best scuba diving in the world, and we were excited to experience it for ourselves. The diving we’d done in Turkey was a bit disappointing when compared to diving in Hawaii, and even Mexico, but it did afford us the opportunity to increase our dive count and gain experience at a very reasonable price. The Mediterranean is not a tropical environment, so it does not have much coral, nor pretty fish, so we had high hopes for diving the tropical waters of the Red Sea; it did not disappoint! The corals were gorgeous (perhaps the best we’ve ever seen) and the abundance of colourful fish was fantastic. The camera simply can’t fully capture those colours, but trust me when I say this day of diving was an underwater rainbow experience. Although the air temperature in Hurghada was in the 30’s celsius, at this time of year (October) 5mm wetsuits were recommended and that was definitely the right call! We’re certainly not experts, but the corals off the coast of Hurghada appear to be very healthy, unlike Hawaii where reefs continue to die. We did our day of diving with Dive Point Red Sea, which was a great company. Incredibly responsive to our email queries, highly professional, very personal service and good equipment. Had we been in the area longer we would have been more than happy to do several more dives with them.
The number of tourists visiting Egypt has dropped in the years since the 2011 Arab Spring (or as the locals prefer to call it, The Egyptian Revolution) and the COVID-19 pandemic has obviously had an impact too. Our tour guides felt the number of visitors now was sitting at about 30-40% of pre-pandemic numbers. Most of the sites we visited had a very comfortable number of visitors, in our opinion, we certainly weren’t alone at most of the monuments, but we weren’t shoulder to shoulder with tourists – except for Kom Ombo and Luxor. If the number of visitors at those sites was only 40% of normal, I cannot begin to imagine how crowded, claustrophobic and generally unpleasant that would be! Overall, we thought the timing of our visit to Egypt was perfect. Off to the World Expo in Dubai!
We found English was spoken everywhere. Still, here are some useful words to know (and our tour guide in Cairo made it her mission to ensure we knew these basics!)
- Salaam‘alei-kum – Hello;
- Ma’as es-sa-la-ma – Goodbye;
- Min faDlak – Please;
- Ah – Yes;
- La – No;
- Shuk-ran – Thank you (combined with “la” when speaking to vendors);
- Yalla – let’s go (we heard this often from our tour guides);
- Maa-shi – Okay (maashi, maashi was the “expected” reply to “Yalla” from a tour guide);
- Bi-kam da? – How much is this?;
- Ki-tir aw-wi! – It is too expensive!;
- Aa-sif (male) / As-safa (female) – Sorry as a sincere apology;
- Ma’lish – the Canadian “sorry”.