The five hour flight from Rome to Cairo is passed with delicious food: salmon, rosemary potatoes, side Caprese salad, rolls with an incredible spreadable cheese and a delectable peach tart. We deboard and are met by a man named Amad who walks us through our entry procedure. He bypasses the visas/customs line and we meet our first Cairo tour guide Zizou who immediately treats us to some Egyptian mint tea. It’s boiling hot, ultra sweet & unfiltered. It's amazing but it scalds us with every turn in traffic as our driver Akmed weaves through the honking mass of cars. Holy traffic! Cairo is insane. It is the capital of Egypt and the largest city in the Arab world. Its metropolitan area, with a population of over 20 million, is the largest in Africa, the Arab world, and the Middle East, and the 6th-largest in the world. The cars move like snakes through the sand with no attention to lanes, almost brushing against one another in a permanent haze of unending horn noise. In Hawaii it's rude to use your horn and here it seems rude not to; like it's the language of the road.
After an hour and a half commute we arrive at our hotel. We don't speak Arabic and the hotel staff seems to speak minimal English so Zizou checks in for us. The room is large compared to the European spaces we had grown accustomed to but extremely run down and completely without locks on the doors. The road below the balcony is loud and constant with an off key continual drone of honking. We order room service for dinner. Two bottles of water, one minestrone & one lentil soup totaled 62 Egyptian pounds (about $3.70 USD). We jam chairs under the doorknobs to “lock” them for the night. Between the loud bangs from the wedding going on a floor below us, people trying to open our door all hours of the night and the honking horns, we are both ill slept but positively excited for the day to start. Hiding under the darkness last night the view from our balcony reveals the tip of the pyramids through the haze about 2.5 miles away. Downstairs we indulge in the continental breakfast; marinated olives, foul medina (pureed fava beans), potatoes, eggplant, boiled eggs and labenah (white cheese).
Our morning hopper flight to Aswan was moved to 4:15pm and checkout is at noon. Deciding to go out for a walk to not waste the entire first day in Egypt, we were relentlessly harassed the moment we hit the street by men trying to sell us rides and get us into dodgy looking vans. There seems to be no personal boundaries here. After a few blocks and multiple incidences we turn back to the hotel now understanding why it’s guarded by men with machine guns. A simple search of the hotel name (which the company withheld) resulted in endless warnings, bad reviews and questions as to why the company we hired would have put us here.
The cab back to airport is way less hectic. This time not during rush hour. The flight to Aswan is short and uneventful but when we land we can't find our contact so we call the company. They assure us he’s waiting outside. We step just outside the glass doors of the airport to look and are aggressively swarmed by taxi drivers. We try stepping back in but the heavily guarded airport security say we must stay out since we've already left. We go back in anyway giving the gunmen looks that scream, "Really?!?". We are just out of the cabbies physical reach but they are still relentlessly verbally hassling. The guards seem to ignore us so we stay seated, tightly gripping our belongings trying to work things out on the phone with the tour company. A man walks up saying he’s looking for two Americans. We are extremely skeptical and suspicious of anyone at this point, so we ask him to give us our names. He calls his agency, confirms our names and we sigh a slight sigh of relief before following him to the van. Once with a local the previously aggressive cab drivers seem to back off. It seems the company had given him the wrong name and description. He’s extremely apologetic. He puts us on the phone with our Aswan to Luxor guide, Haytham, who apologizes profusely as well and confirms our Philae temple tour at 5:30am the next morning. We take guarded checkpoints and gates to the Aswan boat accommodations. We make it to our three story river cruise boat on the Nile river. The boat seems nicer than anything we've seen in Egypt so far. The room is quaint and clean and for the first time since landing in Egypt we feel safe enough to sleep.
The next morning we meet Haytham in the boat lobby. There's a welcome calmness about him that we need. He briefly describes the itinerary and we’re off before sunrise to the temple of love, Philae. Before Philae we make a short stop at the High Dam and Russian friendship statue. The Russians were instrumental in helping build the dam and erected a statue in honor of the task. We were disappointed to hear all the crocodiles were removed and relocated to one of the largest man made lakes in the world, Lake Nasser. Even more saddening was to hear of the Nubian people's resettlement.
We reach the river's edge and take a small Nubian boat to the island temple of Philae. Philae is mentioned by numerous ancient writers, including Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Ptolemy, Seneca & Pliny the Elder. Since Philae was said to be one of the burying-places of Osiris, it was held in high reverence both by the Egyptians to the north and the Nubians to the south. It was deemed profane for any but priests to dwell there and was accordingly sequestered and labeled "the Unapproachable". The area is stunning. The rock island structures jut out of the glassy river and the colorful Nubian houses dot the sides. A short watery ride through a rock garden leads us to an ancient ruin resting atop a low land mass. Cats meandering the rocks come into view. The boat captain jams the boat into a sliver of an opening, scratching and pushing the other small boats out of the way so we can jump onto a rickety wooden dock.
The giant columns and walls are covered in hieroglyphs baring stories of the Pharos before and the markings of all the eras that took over after. It was easy to see the beauty but also sad to see its state after endless years of abuse from the Romans who attempted to make it their own by removing and scratching out parts of older reliefs. The giant columns leading into the main temple were scarred with deep gashes. It was thought to be used as a meat market and certain stone columns as knife sharpeners. The cats roam the structures, some more tame than others. They did however have “handlers” that would ask for a tip if you pet them. We wander through the remains, take it all in and return back to Haytham at the far end of the temple.
Upon returning to the main boat ramp we find Nubian artists set up for the day selling carvings by the water. The detail and craft that went into making them is apparent unlike the replicas we had been seeing elsewhere. They don’t hassle you like most selling in Egypt so we were able to spend time perusing hand carved scarabs, pyramids and rocks.
Before going back to our accommodations on the Nile, Haytham, remembering from conversation that we are interested in herbs, spices, soap and perfume crafting, takes us to an Egyptian perfumery. In love with the exotic pure flower pressed scents of lotus and papyrus, we buy more than we should. We also purchase lavender and sweet orange blossom essences. Offering a free massage while packaging the essential oils is an odd gesture but we don't want to be rude and who doesn't love a massage. A woman named Karina takes Bimini up stairs, helps her undress and motions her to lay face down on a very communal looking bench cushion. Using eucalyptus essence and massage oils she gives a speed massage. Keith’s massage is less private in the middle of the perfume show room on a similar looking bench. We laugh about the crazy experience once in the car as we head to a spice market. The town looks like the set of an old western but the buildings were stone rather than wood. The owner of the spice shop welcomes us and introduces us to new spices. He has a sense of humor; dirty dad humor to be precise. He is hilarious in a 1980s sort of way. Initially not planning to get anything since we were running out of cash nearing the end of our trip, they of course take credit card. We end up getting fresh ground cinnamon for cooking as well as sandalwood, lotus and papyrus incenses. The boat sails at 2 pm to Kom Ombo so we have to get back. Haytham rescues us from more jokes and gets us to the car.
We arrive to the Temple of Kom Ombo just after dark so the experience is completely different. The temperature is dropping from the upper 70s to the lower 50s. We bundle up and walk the plank to the land. The magic feels real and the hieroglyphs are more vivid with the upward lighting at the foot of each pillar and wall. The building is unique because its 'double' design meant that there were courts, halls, sanctuaries and rooms duplicated for two sets of gods. The southern half of the temple was dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek, god of fertility and creator of the world with Hathor and Khonsu. Meanwhile, the northern part of the temple was dedicated to the falcon god Haroeris ("Horus the Elder"), along "with Tasenetnofret (the Good Sister, a special form of Hathor or Tefnet/Tefnut) and Panebtawy (Lord of the Two Lands)." The temple is atypical because everything is perfectly symmetrical along the main axis. The temple hieroglyphs contains instructions for surgeries, dentistry, remedies and fertility among other things. On the same grounds is the The Crocodile Museum. A few of the three hundred crocodile mummies discovered in the vicinity are displayed here.
Nightly dinner buffet on the Nile is one of the many amazing sensory delights in Egypt. The food is delicious, the staff is friendly and the chef is happy and cracking jokes. There's a rooftop bar as well for sunsets, star gazing, tea, beer, wine and sightseeing. We go to bed early to be ready for another early morning. We depart the boat before daybreak, this time on a horse pulled buggy. We ride the ancient, dusty cobblestone streets and dirt roads to Edfu temple. It’s absolutely freezing this early with air from the speed of the horse directly on our faces. The welcome kiss of sunrise warms us. We dive out as soon as the carriage stops. On the go, Haytham tells us about the history and symbols. He’s a fantastic guide with a degree in Egyptology. He's quiet but loud enough, kind and thoughtful.
The Temple of Edfu is a temple located on the west bank of the Nile in Edfu, Upper Egypt. The city was known in the Hellenistic period in Koinē Greek: Ἀπόλλωνος πόλις and in Latin as Apollonopolis Magna, after the chief god Horus, who was identified as Apollo under the interpretatio graeca. It is one of the best preserved shrines in Egypt. The temple was built in the Ptolemaic Kingdom between 237 and 57 BC. The inscriptions on its walls provide important information on language, myth and religion during the Hellenistic period in Egypt. In particular, the Temple's inscribed building texts "provide details of its construction and also preserve information about the mythical interpretation of this and all other temples as the Island of Creation." There are also "important scenes and inscriptions of the Sacred Drama which related the age-old conflict between Horus and Set." They are translated by the German Edfu-Project. The temple of Edfu is the largest temple dedicated to Horus and Hathor of Dendera. It was the center of several festivals sacred to Horus. Each year, "Hathor travelled south from her temple at Denderah to visit Horus at Edfu, and this event marking their sacred marriage was the occasion of a great festival and pilgrimage." There’s a short exit video we watch before getting back on carriage and back to the boat. We have breakfast onboard then we go through the Esna locks.
A lock is a device used for raising and lowering boats, ships and other watercraft between stretches of water of different levels on a waterway. Two barrage bridges straddle the Nile at this point in Esna; one built by the British in 1906, and the "Electricity Bridge" built in the 1990s. Navigation from Aswan to Luxor can be held up for hours while vessels negotiate their way through the lock system. Our guide tried to warn us about how insane the Nile pirates are during this down time but we are still caught off guard. To prepare to go through the locks the boat slows which allows pirates in smaller boats to maintain similar speed and harass or even grab onto to our boat. Screaming at any passenger visible they demand your attention. If you look in their direction they toss ferociously at you things like blankets, shirts or towels. We witness a lady get knocked in the face and almost lose her glasses to the river. They yell out prices like angry auctioneers once their product is on board. They scold women that didn't pay enough for things they didn't want. It was intense. Seeing the game they played and the remaining time left to play it, we wait until the boat has almost sailed away from the final lock before coming out of our cabin. We acknowledged a man with a pink King Tut towel. He tosses it up with another to put cash in and toss back. We put the cash in the second towel and chuck it back as the boat sails away. No time to haggle or complain, the vendors words are lost on the wind as we sail away. We unwrap the towel and realize it says "King Tot". Ha. It's either a misprint or paying homage to the youngest pharaoh known to date. Either way, the towel works.
5pm we arrive at Luxor temple. The town of Luxor is new, clean, green and way less populated. It’s where Haytham lives. The modern city sprawls to the site of the Ancient Egyptian city of Waset, also known as Nut and to the Greeks as Thebes. Luxor has frequently been characterized as the "world's greatest open-air museum", as the ruins of the temple complexes at Karnak and Luxor stand within the modern city. Immediately opposite, across the River Nile, lie the monuments, temples and tombs of the west bank Necropolis, which includes the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens.
The massive Luxor temple sits in the middle of town and was constructed approximately 1400 BC. The Luxor Temple had begun to be excavated by Professor Gaston Maspero after 1884, after he had been given permission to commence operations. The excavations were carried out sporadically until 1960. Not only was there rubbish, but there were also barracks, stores, houses, huts, pigeon towers, which needed to be removed in order to excavate the site. There still exists a working mosque within the temple. That part, Abu Haggag Mosque was converted to a church by the Romans in 395 AD, and then to a mosque in 640. More than 3400 years of continuous religious worship makes Luxor Temple the oldest building in the world at least partially active for other than archeological or tourist purposes. Huge sitting statues of Ramses II (the ginger haired pharaoh as they called him) guard the entrance to the temple as well as a thousand sphinxes that make up Luxor dromos; an avenue of human headed sphinxes which once connected the temples of Karnak and Luxor. It’s breathtaking!
After hours in the temple we visit a papyrus making workshop where we learn how to make paper from the pretty umbrella like water plant found growing throughout the Nile. We buy a small piece of art then Haytham takes us to a local hookah bar. We get weird looks anywhere we go not being local but women especially do. We sit outside at a bench and wait for Haytham to come back with unfiltered mint tea and a hookah. Our teeth are stained a few shades darker from all the delicious unfiltered beverages and it's only been a few days. Late night we get back to the boat slightly spinning and ready for dinner. We eat and crash.
We wake excited for the West Bank and the Valley of the Kings. The valley is known to contain 64 tombs and chambers (ranging in size from KV54, a simple pit, to KV5, a complex tomb with over 120 chambers). It was the principal burial place of the major royal figures of the Egyptian New Kingdom, as well as a number of privileged nobles. The royal tombs are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology and give clues as to the beliefs and funerary practices of the period. Almost all of the tombs seem to have been opened and robbed in antiquity, but they still give an idea of the opulence and power of the pharaohs. So many tombs are scattered beneath the mountains in the valley; some already excavated, some being excavated and others still being discovered. The valley was made famous for the discovery of the intact tomb of boy ruler Tutankhamun aka King Tut by Howard Carter in 1922 and its rumors of the curse of the pharaohs. This renewed the world's Egyptomania and in 1979 The Valley of the Kings became a World Heritage Site. On our way into the valley we see famous Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass coming out of a live dig and stop for a quick word. We go in three tombs. Deep slanted shafts with hieroglyphs and ancient art of the various gods and goddesses lead down to open chambers holding now empty sarcophagi.
On the way out we drop into an alabaster workshop. They show us the process of making alabaster carvings. We get a few gifts while Haytham surprised us with homemade falafels in pita bread from a friend's wife. The owner of the alabaster shop asks for a quick photo with Keith; he calls him Tom Cruise. Our next stop is the Deir el-Bahar, a complex of mortuary temples and tombs including the Mortuary Temple of Hatsepshut in Queens Valley. She was the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt and the second historically confirmed female pharaoh. Her commissioned buildings were grander than any of her predecessors'. The main and axis of the temple is set to an azimuth of about 116½° and is aligned to the winter solstice sunrise, which in our modern era occurs around 21 or 22 December each year. The sunlight penetrates through to the rear wall of the chapel, before moving to the right to highlight one of the Osiris statues that stand on either side of the doorway to the second chamber. Yes; Indiana Jones.
School field trips flood the site with kids from all over. Everyone wants a selfie with Bimini. Haytham says the only time they see blonde hair is on tv. The crowds and Bimini's inability to say no to a kid's photo request make it nearly impossible to see the full tomb before it's time to turn back. The next visit we make is to Karnak Temple & the Open Air Museum. The complex consists of a mix of decayed temples, chapels, pylons, and other buildings. It covers more than 100 hectares, an area larger than some ancient cities. It's said to be a cult temple dedicated to Amun, Mut and Khonsu as well as the largest religious building ever constructed. We could have spent days here. We have lunch on the boat before saying goodbye to Haytham, giving him nearly all the cash we have left as a tip and boarding our flight back to Cairo. We can't say enough good things about him. He truly pulled our once disastrous feeling trip together and made us comfortable again.
Upon landing back in Cairo our luggage is delayed 45 minutes and no one shows to pick us up. We call the company again. Zizou eventually meets us outside the airport. We commute to a hotel near the pyramids called Mercure Cairo Le Sphinx Hotel. It’s much nicer that our last Cairo accommodation. It's a real hotel, the doors lock, the balcony has a close view of the pyramids, outside doesn't seem as dangerous although there are still armed guards and metal detectors. There is a money exchange in the lobby. Cash is a must have here and we are running out fast. We exchange our last few bills in hopes of lasting us until we leave. I walk by the window but stop. They're right there, larger than I've ever seen them. The pyramid shape is said to hold many secrets and properties. Maybe that's true because I can't stop staring.
Another early morning, another continental breakfast and we meet our amazing new Cairo guide Mina. He's a wealth of information and has family in North Carolina near where we were born. Small world. We play six degrees of Kevin Bacon but no connections that we know of. He takes us to the pyramids first as it’s a clear morning without the usual fog and before the crowds arrive. Thursday night through Saturday is the weekend here so many stay up until 4-5am and sleep until 2pm the next day. The streets are almost empty as we arrive to the complex. The Giza pyramid complex consist of the Great Pyramid (also known as the Pyramid of Cheops or Khufu and constructed c. 2580 – c. 2560 BC), the somewhat smaller Pyramid of Khafre (or Chephren) a few hundred meters to the south-west, and the relatively modest-sized Pyramid of Menkaure (or Mykerinos) a few hundred meters farther south-west. The Great Sphinx lies on the east side of the complex. Current consensus among Egyptologists is that the head of the Great Sphinx is that of Khafre. It's argued that before that it was the head of a lion. Along with these major monuments are a number of smaller satellite edifices, known as "queens" pyramids, causeways and valley pyramids. The site also includes several cemeteries and the remains of a workers village. We take it all in for a while then enter the Great Pyramid Cheops.
It is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact. It is estimated that the pyramid weighs approximately 6 million tonnes, and consists of 2.3 million blocks of limestone and granite, some weighing as much as 80 tonnes. Originally, the Great Pyramid was covered by limestone casing stones that formed a smooth outer surface believed to be brilliant white and reflecting the sun for miles; what is seen today is the underlying core structure. Some of the casing stones that once covered the structure can still be seen around the base. There have been varying scientific and alternative theories about the Great Pyramid's construction techniques but no-one truly knows how it was built. The Pyramid is actually 8 sided and one can only tell by arial view at certain times of the day.
All these thoughts as the vertical climb in a squatting position most of the way up has our thighs burning. Deep in the pyramid we venture into a chamber that holds a massive red granite sarcophagus. The sides of all three of the Giza pyramids are astronomically oriented to the north–south and east–west within a small fraction of a degree. The arrangement of the pyramids is a representation of the Orion constellation according to Orion correlation theory. There are also theories comparing the dimensions of Earth to the Great Pyramid and many other entertaining, thought provoking possibilities about them. Nikola Tesla thought they could be transmitters of energy & Aleister Crowley claims he was possessed here. There is an Arab proverb that says, "Man fears time, but time fears the Pyramids." This makes one wonder if civilization after civilization kept finding them and making them their own like the Romans did with the Egyptian temples, pagan religions and much more. It is possible that the Pyramids have existed longer than any of our history books, bibles, scrolls or texts. There's are numerous tunnels and mysterious chambers and shafts under the pyramids that are forbidden. The tunnels excavations are supervised by the government and the information held with a high level of confidentiality. The details of the commodities found under these pyramids have never been shared with the public. They could possibly change the historical narrative of mankind all together for all we know.
After our morning stair master workout we decide to take a camel ride away for a better view. Camels are a strange sensation if used to horse back riding. They tilt in all four directions vs the two main directions of a horse's gallop. Our guide, Mina, is a great photojournalist and comfortable with the camera. This was a definite highlight of the trip. No matter who you are or where you live, the Pyramids are somewhere on your bucket list. It's engrained in the subconscious of the human species with geometry and then promoted heavily and romanticized by the media. Egyptomania is real and still alive. How many Mummy movies have there been?
We hop in a car to the far side of the complex to see the Sphinx and surrounding tombs then to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. The museum is like stepping back into the early 1900s. Built in 1901 by the Italian construction company Garozzo-Zaffarani to a design by the French architect Marcel Dourgnon, the edifice is one of the largest museums in the region. In 2021 the museum is due to be superseded by the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza. There is so much to take in here. The intricately carved and crystal inlaid sarcophagus on display are beautiful. Thuya and Yuya’s mummies and belongings from their tomb were fascinating. Mina gives details about each piece we stop at. The 7 miracles of Egypt perfume which were used to mummify bodies, protect skin and stop decomposition were fascinating… Coming soon to The Craft of Wandering new product; Ha. All but two of the ingredients(Sweet almond oil and Papyrus oil) are still a mystery. It is believed that some of the essences are from extinct trees/plant species.
King Tut’s tomb was on display. Tutankhamun was originally named Tutankhaten. This name means “living image of the Aten”. The iconic black and gold death mask that is synonymous with Egypt was there as well. Even more amazing were his 8 sarcophagi casings completely covered in pure gold; like a russian nesting doll of golden rooms one fitting inside the other resulting in the richest archeological find in history. His coffin alone was 240 pounds of solid gold. He wasn’t a long ruling King so he had the smallest tomb in the valley. They imagine most tombs would have originally contained equal or more riches but his tomb is the only untouched they have uncovered. We leave the museum in awe.
Mina chooses a restaurant that accepts credit card for us and we let the chef surprise us with the dishes. Lamb meatballs, stuffed grape leaves and french fries with tahini dip are an appetizer followed by rotisserie chicken and rice. We order the local beer named after the pyramid Sakara and an “Egyptian mojito” (sprite, rum and a sprig of mint). Throwing on our winter gear we get ready for the nightly Pyramid sound and light show at the Sphinx. It's a bit outdated but feels fitting.
We get a few hours of sleep before waking at 4am to start our long journey home. There's much to process while sitting on the floor waiting to board the plane. A range of emotions were felt during this short stay in such a foreign land. The occasional harassment when not with a guide, the lack of personal boundaries and initial experience in a bad part of town had us a bit out of our comfort zone but do the rich history, friendly encounters, amazing food, smells and sights as old as time make up for it? You'll have to decide that for yourself; all we can do is share what we've learned through our experiences.
Words & Photos: KeithKetchum