Getting into Sudan When There's A Coup in Khartoum

With immaculate timing the army has staged a coup in Sudan, just as I am leaving Eritrea for Addis, en route to Khartoum. They immediately shut the airport. I pass on this information to the desk clerks at Addis, when I arrive, but everyone keeps insisting the flight is still scheduled to leave. Until they finally cancel it one hour after it is supposed to depart.

Dealing With Ethiopian Airlines

Cue bedlam, as the Ethiopian Airline officials try to dispatch everyone to hotels. Somehow, I manage to weave my way out of immigration very quickly, losing everyone else in the process. I’ve no idea how to get to my hotel. There’s no bus. Eventually, a customer service agent on his way home takes pity and drops me at a different  hotel. He also, amazingly, manages to alter the airline paperwork, so that I can stay there.

I try to take stock, which is difficult, as my brain isn’t functioning. The hotel in Addis has no soundproofing whatsoever. It’s very close to the airport runway and groups of noisy passengers arrive all night. So, I haven’t had much sleep. There is no information about when flights will resume. Do I still want to go? I’m trying to find out how safe Sudan is. The FCO advice now says they advise against all but essential travel. Not a total ban then. Ethiopian Airlines say it will cost £750 to amend my ticket if I decide to go back to London. That’s not a great incentive. And my flat is booked by Airbnb guests.

Technology is against me. The Wi-Fi in the hotel crashes, closely followed by the landlines and my mobile signal, so I can’t gather any more information or take advice. It’s just a tad stressful. At midday I’m told the flight will go at four, so I decide that if it actually departs then I will make the journey.  The plane is a Dreamliner, big enough to hold all the passengers from the two delayed flights in addition to today’s manifest. It takes an extra hour to load all the wayward passengers and even then, we sit on the runway for what seems ages. I’m convinced that a cancellation announcement will be made at any moment. But, no, we’re just sitting out a storm.

Flying Into Khartoum in Coup Time

It’s a bumpy flight: ‘Rough weather ahead,’ announces the captain, to my consternation. But we make it to Khartoum, the first plane to land after the airport re-opens. The Sudanese leap out of their seats to much jollity, cheering and flag waving, the second the plane hits the tarmac. To my relief, I’m welcomed at immigration, met with no difficulty and escorted to my hotel. The streets are quiet. A policeman pours a dozen locals onto my mini-bus for a lift across town. They’re not allowed to walk the pavements.

The hotel is welcome luxury – hot water and decent food. But I’m rattling around. There are only two other people eating dinner. One of them tells me that everyone else has just left as I've arrived. Am I mad or adventurous?

Why is There a Crisis in Sudan?

An estimated two million people died as a consequence of disease, famine, and war during the Second Sudanese Civil War from 1983-2005. Children from all sides involved were enlisted to fight. The United Nations has described the Sudan/Darfur conflict fighting between rebel groups and the government one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Between 2003 and 2008, at least 300,000 people were killed, and three million displaced. In 2010, President Omar al-Bashir was charged with genocide by the International Criminal court, but remained in office. Following months of pro-democracy protests against President Omar al-Bashir, he was ousted by the military and arrested after 30 years in power. But the military took over government leading to ongoing conflict between them and pro-democracy civilians.

A Brief History of Sudan

Sudan has only taken its current geographical form relatively recently, combining the lands of several ancient kingdoms. I’ve written more than I usually do about the history of the country here, as it’s such a crucial aspect of visiting Sudan.

The Kingdom of Kush

  • The fledgling Kingdom of Kush, located along the Nile region in what is now northern Sudan, was, (driven by gold in Kush and the need for more soldiers), subsumed by the rulers of ancient Egypt into the Middle Kingdom. around 2000 BC. This era was brought to an end by the invasion of the Hyksos nomads around 1720 BC .Eventually, a culturally distinct indigenous Kushite kingdom emerged at El Kurru, near present-day Dongola.
  • Egyptian power revived during the New Kingdom (c. 1570–1100 BC), and Kush was once more incorporated into ancient Egypt, this time under the New Kingdom and governed by a viceroy.
  • Eventually the Egyptians withdrew again and in the early eighth century BC, Kush emerged as an independent kingdom ruled from Napata. The Kushitesin their turn – the so called Black Pharaohs, slowly extended their influence into Egypt culminating in the Twenty-fifth Dynasty and an empire that equalled the size of Egypt at its height. This Nubian empire terminated in the end because of defeat by the much larger Assyrian empire.
  • The Kushite court was forced to move south to Meroe near the Sixth Nile Cataract to escape successive Egyptian invasions. For several centuries thereafter, the Meroitic kingdom was able to grow independently of Egypt, though. Egyptian-influenced pharaonic tradition persisted. The rulers erected Nubian pyramids to contain their tombs. However they developed their own, Meroitic alphabet This empire was finally brought to an end when it was conquered by neighbouring kingdom of Axum. (350 AD)

Religious History

  • The three Nubian kingdoms Nobatia, Makuria and Alodia were Christianised in the sixth century.
  • The Nile Valley did not undergo formal Islamization until the fourteenth-fifteenth century, following the decline of the Christian kingdoms.
  • The kingdoms were succeeded by the Sultanate of Sennar in the early 16th century, which controlled large parts of the Nile Valley and the Eastern Desert, while other kingdoms controlled Darfur and the south.
  • During the 1820s both regions, were seized by Muhammad Ali of Egypt

Modern Sudan

  • An ongoing struggle for independence culminated in the modern Republic of Sudan formed in 1956, inheriting its boundaries from Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, established in 1899. For times predating 1899, usage of the term "Sudan" for the territory of the Republic of Sudan was somewhat anachronistic, and may have referred to the more diffuse concept of the Sudan.
  • Since its independence in 1956, the history of Sudan has been plagued by internal conflict, leading to the secession of South Sudan on 9 July 2011,

Facts and Factoids

  • The name Sudan is short for Bilād as-Sudan, which in Arabic means “Land of the Blacks.”
  • Sudan was the largest country in Africa prior to the secession of South Sudan in 2011. It is now the third largest, after Algeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • The Blue Nile and White Nile rivers meet in Khartoum to form the Nile, which flows northwards through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea. The Blue Nile's course through Sudan is nearly 497 miles. There are several dams on both rivers to provide irrigation (to the annoyance of the Egyptians.)
  • Otherwise, central and northern Sudan is dry, semi-desert, with the Nubian Desert to the northeast and the Bayuda Desert to the east; in the south, there are grasslands and tropical savanna.
  • 97% of the Sudan’s population are followers of Islam, and most of them embrace the Sunni form of Islam. The Sudanese base their legal system on Islamic Sharia Law. Women in the Sudan can be whipped in public by police officers for public indecency. Public indecency can entail getting into a car with a man they are not related to, or not dressing conservatively enough. Another legal, judicial punishment is stoning, usually for women for adultery. People can be sentenced to flogging for various crimes. In 2001, 53 Christians in the Sudan were flogged. In the Sudan, crucifixion is legal as a punishment. Alcohol is forbidden. When Sharia law was first enforced in 1983, the whole country’s stock of alcohol was poured into the Nile River.
  • The official languages in Sudan are Arabic and English.

Is Sudan a Poor Country?

46% of people live under the poverty line, however, Sudan is not eligible for sorely needed debt relief, due to still being on the United States list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Negotiation is ongoing.

Where Did I Visit in Sudan?

The Western Desert in Sudan

We’re leaving this morning for Karima, in the north, of Sudan, to escape the protests about the coup in Khartoum. Guide Diba, driver Mubarak and I, head out of town, 

Through Omdurman, Khartoum's twin city, but out of bounds because of the coup. Our highway divides the Western Desert from the Bayuda Desert, the eastern most stretch of the Sahara. For the most part, it’s a mainly level, but beautiful panorama, stretching far way to the horizon, clumps of dunes beckoning. There are scatterings of grey basalt patterning the sand: curry powder to golden, flecked with geometrically spaced scrub. There’s a breeze flowing and walking is like bathing in hot water. The few cars we meet waft orange trails behind them, camels chew laconically on acacia and donkeys line the edges of the tarmac. These are the most common form of transport, most commonly harnessed to carts.

Mubarak and Diba find a lunch spot under a suitably shady flat-topped tree and decant three chairs and a trestle table from the boot. Diba then prepares a variety of salads, arranging them artistically on platters. She has just placed the last dish, when the wind gusts strongly and deposits the whole lot upside down on the sand. We pack up, and half an hour down the road, set up again by a roadside community erected to service the road – the first in Sudan. Mubarak disappears into the café to entertain the locals while Diba and I eat. There seems to be plenty more food, enough for us to eat far too much and still leave bag-fulls with the café crowd.

Jebel Barkal, the Holy Mountain in Sudan

We pick up the Nile again after 200 miles, having cut off a huge bend and we now follow the green irrigated belt. Jebel Barkal, an isolated flat topped mountain appears in the distance, and as we cross the river, I can just make out my first Sudanese pyramids at its base. There are five and a half and two bits, circa 600 AD and some crumbling piles of others that are 1500 BC; they are magnificent, glowing in the setting sun.

For two periods Nubia and Egypt were ruled jointly (hence a crown with double cobra heads), by the so-called Black Pharaohs. The Nubian kingdom of Kush (as it was known) was actually the superior power. (See Sudan in a Nutshell.) Jebel Barkal was considered a holy mountain - no less than the residence of the super god Amun. If you use your imagination you can see the Egyptian crown complete with cobra crest in the mountain side. There are the remains of the old capital Napata and pre and post Egyptian dynasty temples to explore, round the base, unsurprisingly mainly dedicated to Amun.

Sudan Has More Pyramids Than Egypt

Much was destroyed when the capital was moved from Napata to ancient Merowe. However, there are a few pillars and some carvings remaining, and it’s still possible to get a perspective on the size and orientation of the complex, which was extended over many years. It’s approached by the remains of an avenue of sand battered rams.

The most interesting bas-reliefs are in a room carved directly out of the mountainside. The frescoes in this temple to Mut, were deliberately destroyed by fire, but are being painstakingly restored by archaeologists. Most of the famous gods of the Egyptian pantheon are represented: Mut, Amon, Horus and (outside) Hathor, with her cow ears.

Back to the pyramids, for a daytime view. Diba proudly explains that there are over 300 pyramids in Sudan, double the number in Egypt. The pyramids here are all brick built decoys - the tombs are below ground and have separate, hidden entrances. This group of five and a half, though not as magnificent as those at Giza, are striking. There’s a little museum with a few headless statues and some jewellery, but the most important artefacts are in the Khartoum museum, the one that is closed.

Atop Jebel Barkal

Diba persuades me to climb Jebel Barkal for the evening Nile view. (It’s a sign of our times that autocorrect on my phone offers Nike rather than Nile). The path is steep and it’s a climb rather than a hike. It’s also very windy on top. But there are great views across Karima, the temples, nestled way below, the pyramids behind us and the river. We descend using the fast route – sliding ankle deep, down a sand lake.


My Nubian style hotel, on the outskirts of Karima, has 22 domed rooms surrounding a circular green lawn (the sprinklers run all night). It’s very romantic, lit by hurricane lights in the evening, but I’m the only guest.

El Kurru, Fabulous Sudan

Down the road, El Kurru is the site of some of the most important archeological remains in Sudan, dating from the 25th Egyptian dynasty and the Early Kingdom of Kush. There’s a necropolis divided into three areas by two wadis: kings, queens and horses. The tomb of the pharaoh Tantamani, accessed via 33 steps, is the only one open and it’s fabulous. The decorated chamber with its star patterned roof is the equal to many of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, though, to be fair,  it post-dates these by a thousand years.

Nearby, some gorgeous mini canyon wadis and a petrified forest; hundreds of huge trunks half submerged in the sand, toppling and abandoned forever, as the Nile flood plains retreated over millions of years.

Around Karima

It’s a relaxing day. We shop for our picnic lunch at the small, quiet market at Karima. It’s next to an open British built brick souk that runs down to the river.

Next, we take a canopied motor boat cruise down the Nile, and up to the cataract, looping around tranquil islets and admiring the papery white sand stretches and the glistening rock reflections in the still water. Yellow weaver birds are darting in and out of their basket nests, dangling high over the water, perennial Christmas decorations. It’s blisteringly hot, literally. I have flip-flops on and when we moor up, to stroll across an island for cataract views, the sand I’m kicking up burns the soles of my feet. Even the giant monitor lizards are abandoning their sunbathing and are sliding into the water to cool off. We eat today’s salad and fruit at a deserted 'resort' on one of the islands and afterwards everyone dozes on the shady beds.


It’s Sudan, so no day is complete without ruins. Nuri is approached through myriad irrigation canals, dividing mango and date orchards. There are enough small bridges to rival Venice, varying from ornate painted metal to rickety planks. There’s another acropolis at our destination, with 19 pyramids and 53 tombs. One of these is the remains of what was the largest pyramid in Sudan, that of Taharqa, one of the double cobra pharaohs. We’re accompanied by a group of screaming children who assemble themselves into an orderly group and pose as soon as they spot my camera. These are the first tourists I've seen.

The roads are well maintained. The tarmac has far fewer pot holes than the streets of Brighton at the moment. It even has line markings and cats’ eyes. Mubarak keeps the land cruiser spotless and specialises in ice cold water, as well as pockets full of boiled sweets. Diba is refreshingly efficient and speaks reasonably good English. What I don’t understand I clarify on the Internet. (I’ve commandeered the modem, seeing as I’m the only guest.) It’s all, thankfully, very professional.

The hotel usually organises buffets and they are still providing a four course choice at each meal. Even our picnics are more like sumptuous banquets. I’m eating far too much at each sitting. Nevertheless, the waiters are concerned, whispering to Diba that I don’t eat much.

Everyone seems fairly relaxed about my baggy western dress, despite the fact that strict and, in some cases medieval, sharia law applies here. All the women are fully covered, and there’s definitely no alcohol.

The electricity has been off all day but it’s come back on, in time for bed.


Today, it’s the ruins at Dongola. The road east and north in Sudan hugs the edge of the fertile Nile strip, passing through more flat sand stretches - this time the golden Nubian desert. There is a small sand sea and Mubarak has a great time careering over the dunes in the Land Cruiser, while Diba and I hang on grimly. The sand is blown constantly, so the surface is pristine, like new snow. It seems a shame to step on it. The drifts accumulated on the road are cleared with caterpillar ploughs.

Dongola was an early Christian settlement and walls and pillars denote churches and palaces with a delightful setting overlooking the river. There’s a ninth century fortress  and some Sufi Beehive tombs too.

Insect Attack

The view is pretty, but it’s scorching hot and I’m not really concentrating as the sand kicks up an insect who lands in my hair. I shake my head vigorously and Diba can’t see anything, so I assume it’s leapt away. I’m happy to get back to the car and we wind through whitewashed houses and palm trees for another, much livelier market. As we park up, I’m stung above my ear. The insect has been lying low all this time - I screech and rummage in my hair and manage to knock a large winged object onto the car matting. Mubarak and Diba declare it not to be poisonous, but Diba is keeping her distance.

Lunch is taken in a traditional Nubian house, owned by a delightful family with some curious children. Whilst I’m eating, I feel a tickle on my arm. I decide my imagination has become overactive after my recent encounter. But no, I’m bitten again. I jump out and whip off my top. Insect Number Two comes flying out. Fortunately, the children have disappeared.

I come back from each of my explorations with my trainers full of red sand and Mubarak helps me to wash my feet. Then he leans over and whispers into my ear. ‘I give you massage later tonight’. Things have definitely got much too exciting. I pretend I don’t hear and resolve to make sure my door is properly locked tonight.

It’s been an adrenaline packed day.

The Bayuda Desert, Sudan

All of the landscape so far on my travels here has been desert. Desertification is a serious environmental issue in the Sudan, due to over-exploitation of the soil through human activity and climate change. And, driving to Meroe is a full on desert experience. For the first three hours we bump down Wadi Dom. The dried up riverbed is vast; the Bayuda Desert a mass of yellow volcanic rock topped hillocks interspersed with grey flat patches. Every so often Mubarak throws in some dune bashing for good measure. Kamikaze goats dash across the track, tails bobbing. The goats here are very energetic and have long floppy ears that frame their faces, King Charles spaniel style.

We stop at the ruins of the medieval Ghazali monastery and visit the nomads in their wicker houses. As with everywhere in Sudan the people are extraordinarily friendly, gentle and hospitable. You certainly wouldn’t know there was political upheaval. We picnic with the goats and donkeys, battling the wind again. The lifted sand forms a haze and makes my eyes stream.

Well, Well, Well

The highlight of the day, and possibly the whole trip, is a halt at a well,. Here pairs of donkeys haul leather bags from a deep tented bore. Men stagger with the sacks and pour the water into low edged pools. Camels gather in groups, stretching their long necks down to drink. Herds of goats also take their turn and patient donkeys hover. A seven year old boy, small for his age, manages all the camels with aplomb, brandishing a rope whip and charging after a group of twenty who are wandering away. He corrals them as effectively as any sheep dog and brings them safely back.

Today’s finale is a ferry across the Nile. The boat is metal and decrepit. It looks to me as if the bow is lower in the water than the stern, but we arrive swiftly and safely. Diba says that these ferries rarely sink - unlike the Nile pleasure boats.

Accommodation tonight is in a not entirely welcome tented camp. My tent is spacious, with beds, wooden furniture and a concrete floor. However, this is definitely not glamping. My bathroom is situated in a block behind me and I’ve been given a lecture about checking thoroughly for scorpions before I use the toilet or shower. The compensation should be a view of the Meroe pyramids, but the wind is still throwing up too much dust for me to see them.

Sandstorms at Meroe

The wind has whistled through the canvas all night, keeping me awake, and I’m having to abandon my contact lenses, there’s so much sand in the air. This makes for interesting exploration, as my spectacles are for emergencies only and distort shapes on the ground. Steps look like vertical trapezoids, so they’re not very easy to negotiate.

There’s a camel running amok in the yard, protesting with very loud braying because an over optimistic employee has been trying to break him to the saddle. A stream of men are running after it, as it tries to make a break for freedom.

Visiting Ancient Meroe

Today’s ruins, at Meroe, are over two hundred pyramids in three groups. The necropolis was built for the new capital, after it was moved from Napata. In the third century B.C., Ferlini, an Italian explorer of the early nineteenth century, taking avarice to its limits, blew the tops of most of the royal pyramids in search of treasure. He didn’t find much - most of it had already been stolen. This area has reliefs with hieroglyphics, and Meroitic script on it. The kingdom was invaded by the Greeks and then the Romans so there’s a lot of later interesting graffiti and artefacts around too.

The Qataris are now supporting a reconstruction project, with some of the smaller pyramids, antechambers and pylons, so it is possible to get a better feel for the original appearance. Although as is often the case with restoration, for me, the result is overly modern and so, less evocative.

There’s also the royal city itself, with the remains of palaces and temples - Amon features heavily again. We finish the day perched on top of a dune waiting for the sun to set over the largest, southern group of pyramids. The breeze is whipping up the sand to the extent that rivulets of sand are snaking across the top. I’m caked in tiny particles. At least it’s free exfoliation. The sky behind the monuments is so murky that the pale sun looks more like the moon, dropping into the V between two tombs.

Naqa and Mussarawat, the Best Preserved Temples in Sudan

Back to Khartoum today, via the best preserved Meroite temples in Sudan. All these temples are dedicated to the lion-headed Meroitic god, Apedemak, who takes precedence in this period, Amon is thrown in as a subsidiary on the bas reliefs, for good measure. The ruins at Naqa have been partially reconstructed and one small temple at Mussarawat fully rebuilt. Though the purpose of the sprawling main buildings there remains a mystery. One temple is dedicated to the elephant god and there are many animal frescoes. One theory suggests that this was a huge animal trading area,  dealing in exotic beasts from both Africa and Asia.

I’m still the solitary tourist in Sudan. Even if the coup hadn’t taken place, I’m not sure the sites would have been much busier. Many of the ruins have been neglected for some time; the main reconstruction took place in 1969. There was an upswell of interest at the beginning of the century, when some work was done. Very recently there have been more restorations , as the various civil wars have ended and the political regime softened. Stands for some interpretive signs have even been erected. No information has been attached as yet though.

It’s difficult not to make comparisons with Egypt. I suppose the short answer is that Sudan’s ancient ruins provide quantity, rather than quality. Karnak this isn’t. However, these lesser known archaeological sites certainly add depth to my knowledge of Egyptology and ancient history. And the everyday life of the people and the red hued desert scenery definitely make the visit worthwhile.


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.

Aswan, Egypt

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.

Abu Simbel

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.

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