It was Egypt that really ignited my travel curiosity. I was already besotted with the ancient history – all those intriguing myths. Mummies and weighing of hearts. Tombs and curses.
A friend’s husband, Ian, showed us slides of his student travels. He only took canned food along, to avoid the stomach bugs. I was hooked. Several years later I finally got there, on a package tour to Cairo, Giza, Luxor and Aswan. (It was a long time ago - you can tell by the pictures).
Egypt - in a Nutshell
A Brief History of Egypt
- This is one of the cradles of civilisation, with recorded habitation along its iconic Nile (longest river in the world), dating back to the sixth–fourth millennia BC.
- The Nile has brought Egypt its wealth, with its regular inundations (floods, bringing fertile mud down river and into the enormous delta). This is why Egypt is known as The Gift of the Nile.
- Much of Egypt's fascinating ancient history was a mystery, as no-one could decipher the ubiquitous Egyptian hieroglyphs, until Champollion finally got to grips with them, thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. This stele was inscribed with a decree, issued in Memphis, in three languages: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Ancient Egyptian Demotic script and Ancient Greek. all saying virtually the same thing. (It's in the British Museum.)
- The long and illustrious history of Egypt stretches back to the first farmers of 5,000 BC.
- Ancient Egyptian civilization proper dates back to around 3150 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first king of the First Dynasty, Narmer. Ancient Egyptian history is divided into the Old Kingdom (pyramid building and the invention of writing), the Middle Kingdom (more pyramids and the Israeli exodus) and the New Kingdom (huge temples and the tombs in the Valley of the Kings). The kingdoms were divided by more chaotic interim periods when invaders arrived. At times, the empire stretched to include substantial proportions of Nubia, in current day Sudan.
- Predominantly native Egyptian rule lasted until the conquest by the Achaemenid Empire in the sixth century BC.
- In 332 BC, Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered the Achaemenids in turn, introducing the Hellenistic Ptolemaic Kingdom. The death of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemy, ended the nominal independence of Egypt, and teh country was subsumed into the Roman Empire.
- Roman rule in Egypt (including the Byzantine era ) lasted from 30 BC to 641 AD
- After the Muslim conquest of Egypt, Egypt was divided into provinces of successive Caliphates and other Muslim dynasties, including the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750), the Abbasid Caliphate (750–935) and the Mamluk Sultanate (1250–1517).
- In 1517, Ottoman sultan Selim I captured Cairo, absorbing Egypt into the Ottoman Empire. Egypt remained entirely Ottoman until 1805, (excepting a brief French occupation, under Napoleon).
- In 1867, Egypt became a nominally autonomous tributary state called the Khedivate of Egypt, but this was swallowed up by the British in 1882.
- British occupation lasted until the modern Republic of Egypt was founded in 1953
Facts and Factoids
- "Egypt" is the English name for the country of course. The Egyptians call it Maṣr. The English name "Egypt" is derived from the Ancient Greek "Aígyptos", as used by Homer.
- Egypt straddles both Asia (the Sinai peninsula) and Africa. The great majority of the Egyptian peoples live near the banks of the Nile. They have to - much of the remainder of the land, in the Libyan and Sahara Deserts, is arid and unhospitable. They get one inch of rain a year on average.
- This is the most populated country in the Arab world, a melange of Islamic (since the seventh century BC) Mediterranean and African culture.
- The language is Arabic, the currency the Egyptian pound.
Cairo, the Capital of Egypt
My tour doesn’t begin very auspiciously. I take a photo of a donkey pulling a rubbish cart on my first day in Cairo and am immediately ‘arrested’ and escorted down to the police station. The Egyptians, it seems, are not keen on having their garbage collection advertised. I hadn’t even realised that it was rubbish. I was only interested in the cute donkey. After an ear-wigging (how was I to know? – not the best way to encourage innocent tourists I think), they remove the film from my camera and let me depart. It is a rude shock and almost cures me of my travel ambitions. However, I recover and carry on.
Cairo is huge and sprawling - it is both the biggest city in Africa, and in the Arab world, with an urban population of over 20 million. The traffic is terrible and there is (it seems) no Highway Code. There are a lot of cemeteries alongside the roads. The name Cairo is derived from the word for Conqueror, but Egyptians generally refer to Cairo as Masr (as in the name of the country) as their capital is so important to them. It sits right at the junction of the Nile Delta.
We're visiting the Ottoman Muhammad Ali Mosque, the Sultan Hassan Mosque and al-Rifa'i Mosque and the Egyptian Museum. The renowned museum, a ‘trove of antiquities', is almost an antique itself, still very thirties, with wooden glass fronted cases guarded by men with AK 47s. It’s fascinating, but my run of luck isn’t getting any better - the most famous exhibit, the Tutankhamun Mask, is touring and is in Germany. And I can’t find the entrance to the celebrated bazaar, the Khan el-Khalili. Surely there must be more shops than this? There’s also a very famous authentic café, El Fisahwi, which at least is a good place to relax after all the stress…
The history of Cairo, of course, goes back a long way too. Ancient cities nestle around it. Heliopolis was associated with the sun god Atum, who came to be identified with Ra and then Horus. It was home to several obelisks. One, the oldest in the world, remains, the others were stolen (the so- called Cleopatra's Needle now lives on the banks of the Thames).
Giza, the Second City of Egypt
Giza is very close to Cairo, but it's a city in its own right. In fact, it's the second largest city in Egypt, close to the site of the ancient pharaonic capital, Memphis. The must see is the necropolis on the Giza Plateau: the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure, along with their associated pyramid complexes and the Great Sphinx of Giza, several cemeteries and the remains of a workers' village.
They were all built during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, between 2600 and 2500 BC. The Great Pyramid was one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, listed by the ancient Greek poet Antipater of Sidon. (Despite being by far the oldest of the Ancient Wonders, it's the only one still in existence).
The pyramids are three huge edifices (though not as big as the ones in Mexico it has to be noted). magnificent when viewed from expensive hotel rooms or during the nightly Son et Lumiere. However, it has to be said that they are all slightly disappointing inside, empty and smelly. I’ve read that they are still discovering internal hidden passages in them.
The Sphinx is enigmatic, as promised, if a little battered. This iconic statue is 73 metres long, with the body of a lion and the head of the pharaoh Khafre. Sadly, it seems that the story that Napoleon shot his nose off with shells is not true. He didn't have the explosives necessary at that time in history and apparently it's been missing for over a thousand years.
A camel ride in Giza is almost compulsory, but the camel owner leads me round the back of the pyramids. ‘Nice long ride’, I think naively. But he refuses to bring me back until exorbitant amounts of baksheesh have been paid. Egypt isn’t the most comfortable place to visit, I’ve decided.
Saqqara was the necropolis for Memphis, the ancient capital. The step pyramid here (for Djoser) is not only the oldest pyramid in the world, it's also the oldest stone building complex. It was built in the 27th century BC. The complex was built by the chancellor (and high priest of Ra) Imhotep. He certainly set some impressive precedents.
Luxor is reached by overnight train. This is a Russian relic and the toilet is a steel cuboid free-for-all. To be avoided, as far as possible. But Luxor is amazing, It is built over Thebes, the ancient capital of the Pharaonic, Middle and New Kingdoms. The colossal temples (hieroglyph-covered Karnak and Luxor) are incredible,
You can't miss Karnak. It's the biggest religious building in the world and dates back over 4,000 years. It is staggeringly enormous and would swallow dozens of notable European cathedrals without blinking. It also boasts the largest room of any religious building. The Hypostyle Hall is 134 columns spread over about 16,500 square metres. You'll recognise this from James Bond, (The Spy Who Loved Me), Agatha Christie (Death on the Nile) and numerous other film sets. It's dedicated to a triumvirate of gods, Amun, Mut, and Khonsu and has been added to and altered over the centuries of pharaonic rule. Although much of it is now decayed and damaged, as with most of the temples, there's still enough to leave you thoroughly open mouthed.
The Luxor Temple Complex dates to 1400BC and is dedicated to 'the rejuvenation of kingship', rather than any particular deity. It's thought this is where the pharaohs came to be crowned. It's joined to Karnak by a 2,700 metre long row of statues called the Path of God, or more colloquially, The Avenue of the Sphinxes. An annual procession took place along this avenue during Opet, the 27 day festival of regeneration. It was developed to bring fresh energy to the rulers and their kingdom.
On the opposite bank of the river to Luxor, is the astonishing Valley of the Kings. In an attempt to thwart grave robbers, the pharaohs of the New Kingdom (16-11th century BC) began to construct hidden burial tombs, cut into the rock in this huge necropolis. They weren't entirely successful. Many of the tombs were robbed not very long after they were built and sealed (despite builders and servants buried inside, to keep the secrets, we are told.) Famously, the only tomb to survive more or less intact was that of Tutankhamun. That's the most expensive to enter of course, along with the most highly decorated tombs, like that of Amenhotep IV. There's also a Valley of the Queens and Valley of the Nobles, but you don't hear so much about those.
Also classified as part of the Theban Necropolis, and close by, is the fascinating Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, built into the cliffs of the rocky desert at Deir el Bahri. This female pharaoh ruled during the first dynasty of the New Kingdom (or the 18th Dynasty counting from the beginning). That's 1550/1549 to 1292 BC. This temple is built over three levels, capped by a small pyramid, which covers the tomb. It's directly aligned with the Eighth Pylon, that Hatshepsut had added to the Temple of Karnak. Hatshepsut means "Foremost of Noble Ladies". She looks very kind in her statues.
Egypt is definitely one of those places where you run out of superlatives. It's seeing a favourite story book come to life. Perhaps my favourite sight, also on the opposite bank of the Nile to the city, is the the Colossi of Memnon, two massive stone statues (18 metres) representing Amenhotep III, the pharaoh 3,400 years ago. Shelley's great poem Ozymandias, sums the scene up beautifully and has to be one of the most evocative pieces ever written. How can you not want to come and see that?
My only complaint is the early departure times. But it’s August and hitting 50 degrees in the shade by noon, so a dawn start is a necessity. Throughout our tour of the towering Karnak Temple we are harangued, through the railings, by the driver of the horse carriage, who has taken us there. 'Baksheesh, baksheesh', he wails. The visit was arranged and paid for by the tour company, but he feels he was not sufficiently (additionally) rewarded for his efforts.
Down the river to Aswan, stopping at smaller temples dedicated to mummified crocodiles, cats and monkeys. Edfu is the site of the Ptolemaic Temple of Horus, with inscriptions which depict the pharaonic death rituals. Delicate pillared Philae has been moved to safety, when the Russians built the giant Aswan dam. Philae’s ruins include the columned Temple of Isis, dating to the 4th century B.C. The architect who supervised the relocation is there to tell us all about it.
The azure Nile is mesmerizingly beautiful, the local felucca boats dotting the skyline, sails billowing. Downriver, a felucca ride away, Elephantine Island holds the Temple of Khnum, from the Third Dynasty. Just below, is the so called First Cataract and this area has important links with Nubia (in modern day Sudan). The kingdoms overlapped in later years, with the Nubians even dominating Egypt at one point. The desert is atmospheric, and Aswan suitably relaxed, if still baking hot. The irrigation is fascinating; there are still numerous Archimedes screws, just visible as we drift along the banks. I’m trying to photograph them successfully. Eureka, I have it!
The stone quarries of ancient Egypt are located here. They used a granitic rock called syenite. to build the colossal statues, obelisks, and monoliths which are found throughout Egypt. You can visit and walk on The Unfinished Obelisk, commissioned by Hatshepsut. This is the largest obelisk ever attempted. It began to crack, as it was hewn, and so was abandoned in situ.
I'm also intrigued to lodge at the renowned Cataract Hotel, built in 1899 by Thomas Cook. All manner of celebrity guests have stayed in this colonial edifice: Tsar Nicholas II, Winston Churchill, Howard Carter, Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter, François Mitterrand, Princess Diana and Queen Noor. I'm more interested in the Agatha Christie connections. She set part of 'Death on the Nile' here and it was used as a set for the film too.
Sadly, I'm in the newer budget wing (built in 1961). This was known as the New Cataract Hotel, until Sofitel bought up the whole site and renovated it.
A final visit, to another relocated temple site. Abu Simbel, 200 miles south, is the highlight of Egypt for me, headless statue and all (there was an earthquake which dislocated one of them). The story of the reconstruction of the gigantic two temples (30 metres high, just look at the tiny people, to save them from the inundation forming Lake Nasser, when the Aswan Dam was finished, is enthralling.
The twin temples were originally carved out of the mountainside, in the 13th century BC, during the nineteenth Dynasty reign of the Pharaoh Ramesses II. to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Kadesh. His wife Nefertari and children are included, as smaller figures by his feet, (because they are less important) in Ramesses temple, but Nefertari is permitted a temple of her own, as well.
The flight there and back isn’t much fun. Nearly everyone by now has travellers’ diarrhoea (as foretold by Ian), but the plane toilets are forbidden - too much desert turbulence.
Sharm El Sheikh, Red Sea Snorkelling in Egypt
Sharm el Sheikh, sandwiched between the desert of the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea is a return visit. But now I'm in Asian Egypt.
Naama Bay, is beyond touristy, with its all inclusive hotels, palm tree-lined promenade, shisha bars and kebab restaurants. Camel rides and desert adventures galore. But I've come for the snorkelling. Ras Muhammad National Park delivers here - these are amongst the most famous reefs in the world. We take out a boat, (and see dolphins) but there is really excellent snorkelling, just off the beach. There's a huge drop off at El Fanar (Lighhouse) Beach, though, sadly you have to walk over the coral to get to it. The water is surprisingly chilly, though it is February.