Refreshingly the great education that Egypt’s ancient civilisation offers to students of history, archaeology, museology, architecture, art, engineering, medicine, etc is accessible at Indian prices
In 400 BCE the greek historian Herodotus wrote of Egypt that “nowhere in the world are to be seen so many things of unspeakable greatness”. This observation is as true today as it was then. The legendary Nile, the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx, ancient Luxor, Karnak, Abu Simbel, Mt. Sinai, Egypt’s rich historic legacy stretches back 6,000 years.
The land of the Pharaohs continues to attract fascinated tourists from around the world, especially when winter breezes start blowing across the desert sands beyond the Nile delta. In 2019, 13 million people visited this north African country, the site of one of the world’s oldest and greatest civilisations.
The Indo-Egyptian connection is as ancient as it is durable. Post-independence this connection was strengthened when India, Egypt and Yugoslavia authored the non-aligned movement (NAM) of newly independent nations which pledged to remain equidistant from the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War decades (1945-85). Moreover, the India-Egyptian bond has been renewed in recent years by cable television which makes Indian serials and movies easily accessible to Egyptians who love them. Unsurprisingly, following liberalisation of the Indian economy and easy availability of foreign exchange, the number of Indian tourists visiting Egypt has risen from 60,000 in 2014 to 126,000 in 2018.
Refreshingly the great education that Egypt’s ancient civilisation offers to students of history, archaeology, museology, architecture, art, engineering, medicine is accessible at Indian prices. Hotels, taxis and food are reasonably priced and Indian style bargaining is de rigueur. Excellent package tours are offered by travel agencies including SOTC and Cox & Kings. Currently ten-day package tours are priced at a reasonable Rs.100,000-110,000 including air fare and a three-day Nile Cruise. For those who avoid group package tours, flexible customised tours with transport and guide are available. Alternatively tourists can do their own thing, get the cheapest airline and hotel deals through the Internet and backpack their way through this friendly, pro-India country.
Cairo (pop. 20 million) is Africa’s most populous city and the base point for all excursions into Egypt. An all-out assault on the senses, Cairo, the admin capital of Egypt, is very much like Mumbai’s “functioning anarchy” with snarled traffic and overcrowded streets, seething with people. But it also houses the treasures of Tutankhamen, the citadel and the Khan-El-Khalili bazaar. And from its excellent hotels, the Great Pyramids of Giza on the edge of the Sahara Desert are just an hour’s drive.
Excursions ex Cairo
Great Pyramid of Giza. One of the universally acknowledged wonders of the ancient world, the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza made with two million stone blocks, stands 455 ft tall. The Sphinx, together with the Great Pyramids of the three Pharaohs — Cheops, Chephren and Micernius — are sited here. The smallest of them, Micernius, barely 66 metres tall, has three small satellite pyramids of the wives of the pharaoh. The three pyramids are arranged diagonally, in a way that none of them hides the sun from the other. Typically, each pyramid consists of a funerary temple in the valley.
The largest of the three and an engineering marvel, is Cheops, the final resting place of the eponymous pharaoh built 4,500 years ago. It took ten years to merely construct the path along which the stone blocks were hauled, a work of no less magnitude than construction of the pyramid with a cubic area of 92,315 metres, 1,847 metres wide at the base and 137 metres tall, constructed of polished fitted stone blocks decorated with animal carvings.
The Great Sphinx. Known in Arabic as Abu-el-Hol (“the father of terror”), the effigy of the Great Sphinx is sited a mere 350 metres from the Cheops pyramid. Seventy-three metres in length, this enigmatic colossus represents a lion with a human head, which some believe to be a likeness of Cephren standing guard over his tomb. During the course of centuries, the body of the Sphinx has frequently been covered by sand leaving only its inscrutable visage (5 metres tall) exposed. And through the ages the riddle of the Sphinx never ceases to mesmerise audiences.
Particularly recommended is the spectacular son et lumiere (sound and light) show every night, when the Great Pyramids and Sphinx are beamed with laser lights and visitors are transported 4,500 years back in time when the Great Pharaohs made preparations for the after-life amid pomp and ceremony, as they listed their most treasured possessions to be interred with them.
Cairo Museum with Tutankhamen Treasure. Rare is the visitor to this country of antiquity, who doesn’t visit the Cairo Museum with its mind-numbing pharaonic collection. Situated in the city centre, Cairo Museum is crammed with over 100,000 antiquities from every period of the country’s history including masterpieces like the statues of Cheops, Chepren, Mycernius, Ramses II, Tutankhamen’s gold treasure and an eerie assortment of mummies.
The museum’s piece de resistance, the gold coffin of Tutankhamen made of 450 pounds of solid gold, is perhaps the finest example of goldsmithing in history. Three coffins were used to contain the body of young king Tutankhamen, who died at age 18. The inner and outer coffins are displayed in this museum. Incidentally King Tut’s tomb was discovered on November 4, 1922 by Howard Carter, after six years of hard work beneath the rubble of the tomb of King Ramses VI in Thebes, aka Valley of the Kings.
The embarrassment of riches discovered in Tutankhamen’s tomb and on display in the Cairo Museum, is breathtaking. The sarcophagus retains its delicate paint, even though it’s over 3,000 years old, and Tutankhamen’s chariot looks sturdy enough for a ride to downtown Cairo. The immaculately preserved human remains in the Mummy Room speak volumes about the heights attained by Egyptians in the art and science of embalming the dead. The showstealer is the mummy of Seti, over 3,300 years old with teeth, fingernails and strands of hair perfectly preserved. The art of embalming bodies and transforming them into mummies was believed to be of divine origin, traced back to the God Horus, son of Osiris and Isis.
The Great Citadel. Ancient Egypt accommodated followers of several faiths and persuasions. In old Cairo one can see traces of early Judaism and Christianity, which flourished in Egypt. The St. Sergius Church commemorating the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt to escape Roman persecution, and Ben Ezra Synagogue which was originally a church, still stand after 2,000 years and attract curious tourists. Even today Christians constitute 6 percent of Egypt’s population of 99 million.
In the Islamic Quarter of the Great Citadel built by Salah El Din in 1176 is the Mohamed Ali Mosque, better known as the Alabaster Mosque, emblem of the Cairo Governate, built in 1830 by Mohamed Ali, an Albanian sent to Egypt to free the country from Napoleon’s occupation. A Byzantine style structure, it’s reminiscent of the Blue Mosque of Istanbul.
Heading south from Cairo towards Memphis, the ancient capital of the country, one passes through contemporary rural Egypt. Although, undoubtedly a third world nation, in sharp contrast with rural India, every village household is supplied with water and electricity, made available through harnessing the river Nile and Aswan Dam. Moreover, a striking feature of modern Egypt is that every child is educated, despite poverty and overpopulation. Child labour is rampant but government policy ensures that children are simultaneously educated in schools run by their employers.
This ancient capital of the pharaohs, had known centuries of great splendour. In the city centre the famous architect Imhotep Bel, built a great citadel. Today it’s an open-air museum displaying vast ruins, truncated columns, walls and statues which are mute testimony to the glory of pharaonic Egypt. With the rise and growth of Alexandria, Memphis was progressively abandoned and fell to ruin.
Sakkarah. A mere 22 km from Memphis is Sakkarah. Dominating its skyline is the oldest pyramid constructed by the first great pharaoh of the old kingdom, Zoser, in 2,700 BCE. The necropolis at Sakkarah, which stretches eight km, is the largest in Egypt, in the middle of which is the grandiose funerary complex of Zoser.
Shopping in Cairo. The buzzing Khan-el-Khalili Market, a 14th century labyrinthine souk, is pure theatre. The crowds are dense and overfriendly shopkeepers literally pounce on visitors with their sales pitch and seem to be particularly enamoured of Indians. The bazaar is choc-a-bloc with alabaster artefacts, papyrus paintings, perfumes, handblown glass perfume bottles, hookahs/sheeshas, spices, carpets and gold jewellery, gold and silver cartouches on which visitors’ names are inscribed in hieroglyphics as a memento of an Egyptian holiday. Yet for visitors to this cradle of civilisation, there’s more on offer. The 21st century is very much in evidence in luxurious hotels, busy casinos and lively nightclubs, making Cairo a most intriguing vacation destination.
Accommodation. Top-end: Four Seasons Cairo 1st Residence (Rs.21,000-313,600 per night), Mena House Oberoi Cairo (Rs.13,500-42,000), Grand Hyatt (Rs.10,500 onwards). Mid-range: Concorde (Rs.5,250 onwards), President (Rs.5,100-6,375), Pharaoh Egypt (Rs.2,150-3,150), Budget: Delta Pyramids (Rs.1,350-3,000).
The best way to explore the pharaonic splendour of Luxor and Aswan in upper Egypt is to sail down the Nile. The river is crowded with all manner of exotic luxury steamers, the oldest being the Death on the Nile steamer. But there’s also a French boat with a waterfall in the lobby and an Italian cruiser with a 24-hour cappuccino bar offering 20 varieties of pizza. The embarkation point is either Luxor or Aswan. Most people usually take a three-day cruise, but longer duration cruises are also available.
We flew into Aswan at 4 a.m and headed for Simbel, a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Aswan, undertaken usually in convoy, because security at all important tourist spots is tight. A visit to Abu Simbel is worth loss of sleep. Ramses the Great carved this magnificent temple out of a mountain between 1274 and 1244 BCE to imprint his persona on history and perpetuate his memory. Four colossal statues of his likeness, seated at the entrance, welcome visitors to Abu Simbel. Three millennia on, this awesome monument of self-celebration continues to attract thousands of international tourists annually.
Two thousand years later the challenges confronting Ramses the Great’s engineers were posed to engineers of the global community who had to save these great monuments from the waters of the Nile, which rose following the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1970. With each statue 20 metres tall and faces measuring 4 metres from ear to ear, they are symbols of the attributes of the mighty Ramses.
The danger that this great heritage complex would be covered by the water of the artificial lake made Unesco set up two commissions to salvage them. The removal of the temple from the original site with all statues and effigies was barely completed in time. By the end of the summer of 1965, the waters of the Nile slowly filled the now desolate caverns where the temples once stood.
Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser
Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city, is the country’s gateway to Africa. The glorious Nile winds its way down from the massive High Dam and Lake Nasser. To be found in this area is the famous Mausoleum of the Aga Khan leader of Ismaili Muslims who died in 1957. However, its most celebrated monument is Aswan Dam, Egypt’s “protection against hunger”. The dam built with Soviet assistance was completed on May 14, 1964 resulting in the formation of Lake Nasser with a storage capacity of 157,000,000,000 cubic metres of water, making it the second largest artificial lake of the world. Close to Aswan is the beautiful Temple of Philae situated in the midst of an evocative panorama of granite rocks, columns and pillars.
Back in Aswan we boarded our cruise ship Crocodilo. After overnight sailing we docked in the village of Kom Ombo an ancient city, home of Sobek, the crocodile god worshipped in pre-dynastic times. Our next halt was Edfu, to visit the Temple of Horus, built during the Ptolemaic period — widely acknowledged as the best preserved temple in Egypt.
On the third day of the cruise we docked in Luxor, the site of two stunning temples — Luxor and Karnak. Once the fabled pharaonic capital of Thebes, Luxor is the perfect gateway to upper (or southern) Egypt, and for good reason is referred to as the “world’s greatest open-air museum”. Wandering amid the desolate tombs, temples and ruins here, one can conjure up visions of the ancient city of Thebes in its heyday.
Apart from housing one-third of the world’s heritage monuments, Luxor, a major attraction for visitors to Egypt, is also the starting point of all Nile cruises and offers a wide range of hotels designed to meet the leisure needs of the modern day explorer.
As is the case with all major cities of Egypt, the Nile divides the city into the east bank (where the sun rises), the location of most temples, and the necropolis or the city of the dead on the west bank where the sun sets.
Valley of Kings
On the west bank in the Valley of Kings, are the fabulous tombs of the pharaohs and their wives that have yielded unbelievable riches. The history of this region began with the unlikely decision of Pharaoh Tutmose I, to distance his tomb from the funerary temple, and insistence that his remains be buried in a secret location, breaking a tradition of 1,700 years. The architect, Inani, ingeniously excavated a well-like tomb in an isolated valley carving out a steep stairway out of rock leading down to a burial chamber, thus setting a precedent which was followed by all successive pharaohs.
Despite this secrecy, pillaging and plundering of the tombs continued. In the tomb of Seti I, one of the most noteworthy in the Thebes necropolis, was discovered the pharaoh’s sarcophagus, carved out of a single massive block of alabaster. About a kilometre and half from the Valley of Kings is the Valley of Queens, the ‘Biban-el-Harini’, with 80 tombs embellished finely with frescoes and dizzying rows of hieroglyphics.
Another pride of the West bank is the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the lady who would be pharaoh (to the extent that she wore a false beard). A patron of the arts, Queen Hatshepsut ordered a funerary monument to be built for her father Tutmose I and herself. The great ingenuity of her architect-minister Senmut was the way he exploited the rocks spread out in a fan shape behind the monument, a revolutionary concept for the times.
But more than the tombs and temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the masterpieces of this region are the temples of Karnak and Luxor. These grand temples built by Amenophis III are sole witness to Luxor’s splendid past. It is joined to the Temple of Karnak by a long avenue of sphinxes with ram’s heads which the XXth dynasty substituted for the human head. The entrance of the temple is marked by a great pylon built by Ramses II, 65 metres wide and decorated with bas reliefs representing the military campaign led by Ramses II against the Hittites. The Luxor temple may be relatively smaller, but it’s every bit as stunning as Karnak, whether you see it in the heat of the afternoon or in the fading light of the setting sun.
About 3 km from the temple of Luxor is the mighty Karnak temple, acknowledged as the largest in the world. Supported by columns, it is so vast it could contain the whole of Notre Dame de Paris. Its most amazing feature is the hypostyle hall, 152 metres long and 52 metres wide, containing a veritable ‘forest of columns’ which excite tremendous emotion because of their size and the play of light and shade on them.
The Karnak complex also contains a sacred lake, 120 metres long. Today, the reflection of the imposing remains of the temple shimmer in the lake, and on illuminated nights of the son et lumiere, Thebes’ ancient splendour comes back to life.
And if all the history that’s omnipresent in Luxor begins to overwhelm you, take a stroll along the corniche, shop at the stalls lining the streets, go for a long boat ride, chill at one of the small eateries lining the river banks with a hookah or a pint of local Stella beer. According to native lore, it was the Egyptian god Osiris who taught humans how to brew beer.
No tour of Egypt is complete without a visit to Alexandria (pop. 4 million), the country’s main port. Known as the ‘Pearl of the Mediterranean’, it was founded in 332 B.C by Alexander the Great. Thereafter this city morphed into a major intellectual, political and economic metropolis which proudly bears the weight of its rich history. In the city centre, there are monuments representing various cultures including Roman, Greek, Turkish and Egyptian. Some of the must-sees are the Lighthouse (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), the Great Library, the Fortress of Kaitbay, Pompeii Pillar and the National Museum.
Accommodation. Top-end: Embassy Suites (Rs.12,440-15,550 per night), Hampton Inn (Rs.13,109 onwards). Mid-range: Montazah Sheraton Hotel (Rs.4,875-6,758), Mercure Romance Alexandria (Rs.5,575 onwards), Sofitel Cecil Alexandria (Rs.6,220-11,406), Days Inn (Rs.5,110 onwards), Inns of Virginia (Rs.6,221-10,368).
After being in a time warp for 11 days and soaking in so much of Egypt’s history, civilisation and culture, the charming beach resort of Sharm El-Sheikh on the Red Sea in the Sinai Peninsula, provides welcome rest and recreation. An international summer and winter resort perched on the edge of the Gulf of Aqaba, it offers sunny weather, spectacular sunsets, starry nights, rich scenery, palm-shaded beaches, rare fauna and an underwater paradise rich in coral reefs. You can enjoy scuba diving, snorkelling, swimming, mountain climbing or even camp with bedouins who live in the mountains.
The value addition for tourists to Sharm El-Sheikh is the Sinai mountain range, a few hours drive from there, whose important peaks are Mount Moses, (where prophet Moses received the Ten Commandments) and Mount St. Catherine, the highest on the peninsula to which the angels reportedly transported her body after she was martyred in Alexandria. Most tourists trek up at least one of these peaks.
The peak of Moses’ Mountain (7,769 ft) is accessible following a three-hour trek up the Moses’ stairway with 300 granite steps, reportedly arranged by a single monk to fulfill a vow. At the summit there’s a chapel. Most visitors prefer to await the break of dawn up here to witness the first rays of the sun illuminate the surrounding rocks and penetrate to the south until they light up the Gulf of Aqaba. Mount St. Catherine necessitates a five-hour trek to the peak crowned by a chapel where tourists can spend the night to enjoy the sunrise over the Sinai Peninsula.
At the foot of the mountains is the famous Monastery of St. Catherine, which is the smallest diocese in the world and the oldest Christian monastery in existence. It houses a rich collection of icons and precious manuscripts.
It’s difficult to believe there’s a better way to round off a tour to Egypt than visiting Sinai, the route to the Promised Land where Isis sought Osiris and the pharaohs found gold. The meeting point of three of the world’s great revealed religions and the crossroad to Africa and Asia, where Moses witnessed the Burning Bush, the Holy Family traversed during its flight into Egypt, the Red Sea Riviera offers a perfect rest and recreation stop after a cultural tour of the land of the pharaohs.
Accommodation. Top-end: Aida Beach Hotel (Rs.12,590 onwards), Camel Hotel & Dive Club (Rs.25,183 onwards). Mid-range: Fantazia Hotel (Rs.2,073-2,963), Eden Rock Hotel (Rs.7,409-14,817), Gardenia Resort (Rs.11,113-22,226). Budget: Golden Palace (Rs.5,926-11,112), Coral Bay Village (Rs.4,074-6,296).