A memorable journey to Egypt
Photo of the pyramids of Giza
Synopsis : Everyone should visit Egypt because there is so much history written in stones. The civilization the Nile supported flourished here for thousands of years and left its imprint on the land and its people. There is so much to see and learn that it is definitely worth a visit. People are warm and friendly who will welcome you.
Today my blog is about a wonderful country called Egypt that I always wanted to visit so one day I decided to do just that , packed up my camera and got an Egyptian visa that surprisingly took over two months to get but it was the month of Ramadan when the Muslims go on a month long fast and do little else so it was not a surprise that our visa took so long in coming. Finally one day we started our epic journey through India , Egypt and finally the United States.
One friend had warned us that perhaps we were biting off more than we could chew at our age when travelling long distances was no longer fun but a never ending ordeal to be tolerated and seldom liked. The tightly packed cabins, poor quality airline food and cramped small seats with hardly any legroom made such journeys a very unpleasant affair unless you were travelling first class which we could not afford.
So we gritted our teeth and pretended to tolerate the ever crying kids who competed with each other to see who could cry the loudest and longest so it became unbearable because these crying kids were very determined to make the passengers as uncomfortable as possible with their high decibel shrieks. You could hear the groans and curses all round and made us all wish to land quickly somewhere but the long distance flights were not called long distance for nothing.
Finally after severe turbulence over the Bay of Bengal when our very large plane packed like sardines approached the coast line of India, it was with a sigh of relief that could be heard in the cabin but I wondered if it was the turbulence or the promise of landing in Delhi when the crying kids would stop was the relief we all waited for.
I will write about India in another blog later because today I just want to write about Egypt and what a wonderful experience me and my wonderful travel companion that is my wife were about to get first hand. I always wanted to visit Egypt because it held a special fascination for me as the cradle of civilization in that part of the world where a great nation rose during their Pharaonic rules that lasted for thousands of years and left its impact that can still be seen today.
Our journey in Egypt started in Cairo as the map here will show you here.
Source: Google map of Egypt showing Luxor south of Cairo
Cairo airport is a sprawling and massive structure that is modern and literally glitters in polished marble stones of many hues and color and the immigration and others were so polite and gentle that was quite unexpected so we got out to the outside where a nice gentleman helped us find the Mohamed who had come to pick us up. It seemed that everyone in Egypt was called Mohamed but this Mohamed spoke some English and took us to our hostel which was very close to the Giza Pyramids and quite a distance from the airport.
At first glance we saw a Cairo with wide and clean highways that had no potholes so the ride was very smooth even at a great speed. Mohamed pointed out major landmarks along the way and explained that the massive citadel on top of a promontory was called Saladin’s Citadel had served as the seat of power for over 7 centuries. Its walls and ramparts looked formidable from a distance so we made a mental note to visit it soon.
Finally our hotel called Oasis turned out not to be an oasis of peace and quiet but in a busy neighborhood where the mollahs woke you up at odd hours with the loud calls of Ajaan and making you realize that you were in a Moslem country where praying five times a day was taken rather seriously by the population. But the rooms were clean, beds very comfortable and the manager called Mohamed was super nice.
The first shock came when we went out to get some bottled water and asked for some direction to stores when we found that practically no one spoke a word of English. All the signboards were in Arabic that I could not read . The neighborhood was very unlike the spic and span airport where we had landed. Now it was the crowded and cramped Egypt that we saw where garbage was scattered in some places and strong and foul smelling stores assailed your sensitive nostrils selling what else ? live chickens.
We could now see the top of the pyramids from the streets and the very next day took the tuk tuk (a three wheeler) to the gates where we were asked to pay hefty fees to enter the grounds. I will not mention the fees because in Egypt like in many countries there are hefty fees you have to pay to visit any place worth visiting. Then there are touts and guides and trinket sellers who will surround you with their offer of services so the Pyramids are tourist traps so that you know and what to expect there.
Source : Pyramid of Giza, Cairo
Source : The pyramid of Giza close ups
But the pyramids did not disappoint us. They are massive to say the least that have withstood the ravages of time for thousands of years and earned their popularity. The Arabs said that “ everyone fears time but time fears the pyramids “ which is quite true when you stand at the base and look up to see the top. They say the millions of tons of rocks cut elsewhere in Egypt were brought to the sites and piled neatly to make the greatest man made structure in the world that can even be seen from the space.
What will surprise you is the size of each block of stone that probably weighs several tons each and there are pieces that weigh over 80 tons that were brought in from distant quarries and raised to the top using only muscle power and perhaps ropes and pulleys. How they did it so long ago when there were no cranes and mechanical devises will astound you. The pyramids are much higher than the ones we saw in Teotihuacan in Mexico and are facing the true north in a very precise manner. The Aztecs built neat stairs to reach the top but here there were no stairs although I heard that there are narrow tunnels on the sides from where one can crawl up somehow to reach the deep interior of the pyramid to reach the heart of it but there are no sarcophagi or mummies so what was the purpose of such massive undertaking after all ? No one still knows.
At the base of the massive pyramids, there is a temporary shelter built to keep a huge boat they had found in bits and pieces that has been painstakingly reassembled to show you the majesty and detailed workmanship of the boats the Pharaohs used to travel on the Nile . We will see such boats in the National museum later on.
No one can get away from the the souvenir sellers near the Pyramids so we bought a few wood carvings at a tourist price but they are very well made and polished so we bought some. The horse carriage drivers are relentless also so we hired one for a short ride at a steep price because they are after your money and will not leave you in peace.
Source : Narrow stairs going down to the crypt
Photo of massive sarcophagus but how was it brought down through narrow stairs?
Then we came to an underground crypt of someone probably not so important judging by the crude crypt but I decided to crouch and scrape my skin to descend the steep stairs with very low ceiling to get to the bottom of the pit where I saw a huge sarcophagus of immense proportions that was empty and with only a few markings on the stone and the walls. I still do not know how such a huge piece was quarried somewhere and brought down those steep and narrow stairs to its final resting place because it was too big to be brought down the stairs so how was it done? No one knows.
This seems to be the recurring question in Egypt. How did they do it so long ago and with what technology? No one knows although there are many arm chair specialists who make all kinds of wild suggestions, none worth taking seriously.
Photo of sphinx in Giza near the pyramids
Then it was our turn to see the great Sphinx that sits a distance from the Pyramids that is huge by any standard and very damaged. There is a light and sound show in the evenings in front of the Sphinx that is offered to the tourists.
Then we decided to visit the most famous site in Egypt that is in Luxor , some 504 kms from Cairo so one day we took the public transport to the train station in Giza where we were told that no seats on any train that day was available so we promptly decided to go to the bus station to find out what was available which turned out to be a good decision.
The buses to the south leave from the Helmi street so we were told that a bus will leave for Luxor in two hours that came as a great relief. The Golden Horse bus line is a modern bus with comfortable seats and air conditioned so we got on our bus to Luxor with a sigh of relief and settled down to watch the scenery from the windows. We soon realized that the 9 hour long journey had to pass through the most bizarre landscape I had ever seen in any country. It was a bone dry desert of pastel light brown in color with nothing but the hills, stones, gulleys and plateaus of never ending sameness with not even any shrubs and cacti or a blade of grass so it was utterly desolate.
Source : Google photo of Western desert going south to Luxor
Egypt is mostly a desert with the mighty Nile dividing it into Eastern and the Western part. The Nile irrigates a narrow strip of land along both sides where some farmers live and cultivate to grow their food so you will see many villages close to the river and nothing else. Beyond the strip of green patch, there is nothing but the desert where some oasis can be found. We saw nothing but the bone dry desert for 9 hours on our way to Luxor and wondered why people fought over this land in the past and what for? No answers.
Then toward the evening we suddenly saw blinking lights everywhere so thought that we had finally arrived in Luxor but a beautiful girl in good English explained it was the town of Quenna but Luxor was not far away where she too was getting off. Finally we arrived at Luxor and a taxi brought us to our hotel driving some 30 kms but our long and tedious journey ended when we were shown our beautiful room.
The very next day we saw that the hotel was right by the river as everything in Egypt usually is but the view was spectacular, serene and captivating. Water means life in Egypt because without the Nile I believe no one would have come to live in this part of the world and build their mighty pyramids.
The valley of the Kings:
Paintings on the walls leading to the crypt of Ramses II in the valley of the kings
The valley of the kings is not too far from our hotel so we headed that way in a very old rickety car that was the oldest jalopy I had ever seen but now we had no choice but to go to the valley. So finally we arrived at the valley that was the most desolate desert with sheer cliffs and the valley in between them where the Pharaohs had chosen to be buried to gain their immortal status. It was bone dry, dusty and of the same pastel hued rocks and sheer cliffs but here the temperature was very high that started to dehydrate us quickly.
The fatigue you feel when you feel very thirsty, are dehydrated and anxious to get into shade somewhere quickly made the valley very unappealing but we were here to see the crypts of the most famous kings of Egypt so we bought our expensive tickets and descended the steep ramps and stairs to go deep down into the burial chambers of Ramses 2, 3 and the tomb of Tutankhamen, the boy king.
Crypt of Ramses where the sarcophagus used to be but now moved to Cairo
Source : Google photo of dazzling paintings on walls going down to crypt
As soon as you start descending down the ramps, you are bedazzled with the hieroglyphs on both walls and the ceiling that look as if they were newly painted but they were painted thousands of years ago and were completely hidden in the belly of the rocky hills. The Pharaohs had carefully chosen the place where they wanted to be buried in secret chambers cut deep into the rocks where their mummified bodies could be kept forever out of sight so all traces of a tunnel descending into their crypts were very carefully hidden from the public or that’s what the Pharaohs thought.
But in Egypt there are people just as determined as the Kings and queens who spend their lifetime searching and finding the crypts who are called the grave looters and thieves. They made it their life’s mission to find and loot the treasures buried deep in these desolate hills and valleys called the Valley of the kings. Many of the crypts were found and looted by these rascals who still manage to find treasures and sell them illegally to anyone for a price.
Once you descend down the steep ramps into the crypt itself, you will be disappointed because there you will find an empty but huge sarcophagus painted in dazzling colors of hieroglyphs and all the surrounding walls equally decorated but no mummy. Because the mummies and the treasures have long been removed to the care of the national museum or in the care of the thieves whoever was the first to arrive at the scene.
Not to be outdone by the local thieves, bigger and more powerful looters arrived called the colonial masters of the time who looted the treasures of Egypt with total impunity and carted off their loot to their capitals and museums all over Europe and elsewhere in the world. The colonial masters were the looters and thieves par excellence that the poor local thieves were no match for because they had all the resources at their disposal to move massive statues and artifacts by ship to their capitals where they can still be seen.
Source : Google photo of King Tutankhamen as he may have looked.
Source : Google photo of king Tutankhamen crypt in the valley of the kings
Then we descended down the ramp to see the most famous of the crypt of Tutankhamen for which we had to buy a special and pricey ticket but we were disappointed to see a massive sarcophagus with pictures of baboons on one wall and hieroglyphs on others . One one side in a niche we saw the mummy of King Tut himself that was covered with a white sheet showing only the head and the feet of the king. This is the only mummy we saw in the valley. The rest are moved to the national museum in Cairo.
On one side of the chamber that was small, there is a labeled door to the treasury where Howard Carter had found the immense treasures of now very famous find that took him several years to photograph and catalog but all the treasures from the chamber have been removed to other safe locations. I am told that a new modern museum of massive proportions is under construction where such treasures among other things will be on display perhaps next year. So we only saw the padlocked door to the treasury inside the chamber and no treasures of Tutankhamen even in the National Museum in Cairo. I was curious. If the treasures were moved elsewhere then why was the door to the treasury locked? Perhaps some treasures remained but under lock and keys because the thieves still lurk and waiting for a chance to finish the job.
By this time we were exhausted and nearly as mummified as the Pharaohs in the valley so we made a retreat to cooler shades of the tourist traps set up here as well where you will be assailed by the touts and trinket sellers from all sides but you just have to ignore them and move on. You just can’t walk away from these people anywhere where there is a tourist spot because this is how they make their living. What will amaze you is the high quality of the handicrafts they sell. They are very well made and absolutely superb in workmanship worth paying the price they ask and then some.
The temple of Hatshepshut:
Source : The temple of only female pharaoh Queen Hatshepshut
However, tired or not we still had to see one more majestic temple that was of the queen Hatshepshut built against the backdrop of sheer cliffs of pastel grey colored hills that was truly impressive. The trolley trains are provided to the exhausted tourists but you still have to walk a great distance and walk up the massive ramp leading up to the temple so we drank more water in the scorching heat and walked on but the temple seemed like a mirage in the distance so we lost courage and stopped just to look at the massive structure. The queen’s mummy has long been transferred to the National Museum in Cairo where we saw it later.
The taxi driver was a con man who now wanted his full payment and disappear although our agreement was for the full day to show us the other sites like the valley of the queens but he was a professional con man who took his money and we saw him no more. I thought I knew how to deal with con men anywhere but the Egyptians had been at this game far longer than one can imagine so we were putty in their hands.
On the way to the valley of kings we did see a number of massive statues and ruins of temples and took photos like other tourists because in Egypt you really want to photograph all you see knowing that you may never come back here again. But the idea of building massive temples and adorn them with 40 feet high statues of kings and queens at a place so desolate and dry made no sense to me but the ancient pharaohs perhaps saw beauty in the desolation and rocky hills bare of any vegetation.
The next day was the highlight of our visit to Luxor when we crossed the Nile in the government run ferry boat and saw the Temple of Luxor just nearby that was huge but but like everything we saw, in ruins with a few columns standing here and there reminding you of its past glory.
Karnak temple :
Photo of massive columns of the Karnak temple
Photo of the avenue of sphinx in Karnak temple
Photo of Karnak temple ruins and the obelisque
Photo of the water tank in Karnak temple that an unknown source feeds
Photo of Luxor temple
Photo of Luxor temple columns
But the main attraction of Luxor is the Karnak temple that is only a short distance from the temple of Luxor but we took a horse carriage that brought us to Karnak and waited for us to visit the site. Here stands one of the most majestic temples of Egypt that people from all over the world come to see and admire even if in ruin and scattered and destroyed massive columns. The roof had fallen off a long time ago but you can still see the faded paintings and carvings on the columns and the walls that still stand.
It will give you shivers to realize that once mighty pharaohs and their beautiful queens walked here in the newly built temple that glittered in paintings and silk, ebony and ivory objects decorating the interior and heavily armed guards were everywhere maintaining security and keeping out the rabble. Now the rabble can walk around freely taking frantic photos and no one to stop them.
Then you come to the part where you will be astounded to see a huge tank full of green water and be amazed at the sheer size of the tank that is always full of water. No one knows how the tank is filled because you don’t see any channel leading to the Nile but there must be a source for the water that no one knows about.
The tourists were circum- ambulating a huge stone scarab beetle on a pedestal that is supposed to bring you good luck. Tourists will do anything to bring them some luck so why not a stone scarab beetle?
Then we took the bus again and endured the 9 long hours of travel through the absolute desert of light brown and dun color rocks and hills and nothing else, no habitation and no structure of any kind. Who could live here without water and in such desolation?
Cairo national Museum :
Source : Google photo of the National museum in Cairo
We were now determined to see the grand museum that is world renowned for its collection of antiquities but we did not know the Arabic word for the museum so my wife showed the taxi driver a photo of the Museum she got from Google and we got there in Tahrir square in no time at all where so much history was recently created by the people of Egypt who wanted freedom and democracy.
The National museum of Egypt in light red sandstone is massive and requires many hours to see it completely so we entered the grand hall that had many sarcophagi and huge statues everywhere but the mummies of the most important pharaohs like Ramses 2, 3 and 4 ,queen Hatshepshut among many others are kept in the air conditioned sections of the museum where no photography is allowed.We had already seen the mummy of the boy king Tutankhamen in the Valley of the kings.
Source : Photo of Ramses II as he may have looked
Source : Google photo of the mummy of king Ramses II
Source : Google image of the queen and only pharaoh Hatshepshut
Source : Google photo of the mummy of queen Hatshepshut in Cairo museum
Source : Google photo of inside of the national museum in Cairo as you enter.
The second floor of the museum has many sections showing jewelries, pots and carvings, clothes and coins. There are thousands of articles to see and admire but I doubt if anyone can absorb all of it in just one visit so we just took some photos and called it quits after spending so many hours there. We saw an old royal boat or what remained of it as well and appreciated its construction and style. The royals did everything in style and large scale that has made Egypt so special.
The citadel of Saladin:
Source: google photo of the citadel of Saladin in Cairo
We took a taxi to the citadel that is so massive and spread out over acres of land on top of a promontory that discouraged us to visit its walls that were over 50 feet high and encircled a very large area because we were not prepared to walk so much in the Cairo heat. The dungeons and torture cells did not interest us to say the least so we decided to visit another attraction in Cairo that was not too far away.
The Cairo zoo:
The Cairo zoo is also very big and has a good collection of animals, birds. reptiles that one should see so we too got to the zoo and found it teeming with thousands of Egyptians with whole families that had spread out their sheets in the shade of all the trees and were enjoying the picnic because Friday happens to be the holiday in Egypt that is a Muslim country and not Sundays like in other countries.
The zoo was great and had a smaller museum inside that was air conditioned and where one can see the stuffed animals, birds, Nile crocodiles and numerous large carnivores and their bones, stuffed trophies of birds and large deers , antelopes and other animals. We were the only foreigners in the zoo and at the museum but it was worth it.
So in our two weeks in Egypt we covered the essentials as best as we could under the sweltering heat and enjoyed it because the Egyptians are so nice and helpful. Egypt is different from other countries and you notice it the moment you land. Women do not wear veil in general and just cover their heads with colorful scarfs. Some wear blue jeans and shirt and cover their heads. Others wear colorful gowns so black is not the predominant color of their dress. Men wear traditional as well as western clothes.
The Coptic Christians are dressed just as anyone would do in the west. The Arabic is their language so very few speak any other language so we learned from google certain useful words and got along fine. We found Egypt a delightful country definitely worth a visit. I should add here that their food is delicious.
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