Some twelve years ago, my friend and I were heading off on holiday together and wanted a destination that was completely different to anywhere we’d gone before.
After tossing around ideas, we made up our minds and when other friends asked what we’d be doing whilst they got smashed in Magaluf, we arched a disapproving eyebrow above our monocles and replied that we would be, “…soaking up the culture in Cairo, darling…“
(Side note: I probably threw up more than they did… don’t drink even a drop of the water.)
I’ve had an interest in Egyptology since childhood. Part of it stems from the adventurer inside me, wanting to emulate fictional characters such as Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. Much of it comes down to my fascination with their ancient gods and goddesses, the associated myths and inevitable superstitions. And if you’ve ever worked in the British education system, you can pretty much guarantee that every child will study the pharaohs at some point before the age of ten!
So, with a couple of days in the capital for pyramid spotting and then a week floating down the Nile, we set off on our North African Adventure!
Arriving at night in Cairo was not the most calming introduction to the country. I’m hoping in the last twelve years that drivers have discovered lights and lanes but I doubt it! As our transfer vehicle careened from one side of the road to the other, suddenly screeching to a halt as lights appeared out of nowhere (attached to a truck that opted to be in stealth mode), we clung to each other thinking those fish bowls in Magaluf sounded like a better idea…
However, once at the hotel we relaxed, refreshed and prepared for our early morning start to view the last of the remaining Seven Wonders of the (ancient) World.
We’d arranged back in Britain to have a private guide, a lovely lady, who was able to navigate the motor chaos with the back of her head whilst she talked to us in the rear seat. I must have looked like the whitest white girl ever.
Spending the morning at the Egyptian Museum, we viewed many of the fascinating artifacts collected from the ancient tombs, including Tutankhamen’s iconic death mask (it’s just a shame the photos didn’t survive). Our guide then took us to meet some friends for lunch, after which we whisked off to the pyramids at Giza.
My first thought was ‘wow’. My second that the Sphinx was tiny. My third: that Pizza Hut and KFC really ruin the atmosphere!
Yep, do a 180º when facing the pyramids and you’ll find the fast food outlets only a few hundred metres away. The fact is, the site of the ancient monuments is right next to the city, literally on the edge of the road. Cities sprawl, monuments may crumble but seemingly everyone will always want pizza.
How these great structures were created is incomprehensible when you stand next to them – for instance, Cheops (the Great Pyramid) is made up of 2.3 million limestone blocks, each as tall as me! And its smaller brother, Chefren, is the only one that still retains some of the smooth white, limestone cover, that would have once reflected the African sun like a beacon.
(Interestingly, for 4000 years Cheops was the tallest structure on Earth until a cathedral, only a short drive across the river from me, was built in Lincoln. Bank that for your pub quiz night!)
But the one we entered was the smallest: Menkaure. A steep, narrow tunnel led down to the outer chambers that protected the burial room. It was an incredible feeling to think that thousands of years ago, a pharaoh had been transported down here in his sarcophagus en route to the afterlife.
Once we’d climbed out, it was time for the obligatory ride on a ‘ship of the desert’. We were led off across the plateau but poor Emma was not made for camel riding and I remember her disappearing into the distance, bouncing uncontrollably like a ragdoll, as the animal took off with its owner in hot pursuit! I think the traffic system seemed calm after that!
The following day, we sat at the boarding gate with baskets of live chickens and goats (yes, you read that correctly) waiting for our transfer to Luxor for the cruise.
We’d managed to get a great deal going in August, but we soon found out why it was so cheap – because it was hotter than the surface of Mercury. Which meant our days started about the time our friends living it large in the Balearics were just stumbling in!
But we soon got used to 4am wake-up calls to avoid the sunshine and there was something very satisfying about viewing these beautiful tributes to the great dynasties as the sun came up.
The Hypostyle Hall at Karnak remains one of the best monuments I’ve ever visited, being up there with the Pantheon in Rome. The detail in the hieroglyphs was amazing and the fact that many of the colours have stood the test of time is incredible.
I could have wandered around looking at the columns for hours – except looking upwards is not a great idea in a rubble-riddled ruin and I fell, almost breaking my ankle. SO embarrassing, especially as our resident Egyptologist, Hani, gallantly carried me back to the boat, where I was then fussed over for the next few days with ice packs and offers of being my personal Hodor!
Seeing the edge of the Nubian desert, a serene trip on a traditional Felucca boat and watching some stunning sunsets are all fabulous memories. Running the gauntlet of vendors at the bizarre (especially when your friend is blonde and considered some kind of goddess), dodging the wares slung through your cabin window as the boat slowed for the lock at Esna and being asked to buy a child by a woman with a mouth full of gold teeth are all equally great, if weird (and somewhat troubling!)
But the highlight for me required an earlier than usual get-up and a skip across moored boats in the dead of night. Our dawn ride over the Valley of the Kings in a hot-air balloon!
For the first half of the journey, I was so terrified that I plastered myself on the bottom of the basket, unable to stand. Eventually, with courage back intact, I was able to witness the sunrise as we flew over the famous archeologist Howard Carter’s house and the ancient cemetery of pharaohs with the only sound an occasional blast from the gas. Bliss!
At the time of visiting, Egypt was becoming mainstream popular with package deals to the Red Sea and although, due to recent troubles, it may have seen a dip in tourism, I think it’s a shame that many people I know who’ve been only experience the commercial, beach resorts of the country and forgo the history . I’d rather pass on the cocktails and all-night party scene – instead, I’ll be in the corner, dusting off a gilded scarab beetle!
Image Credits: All mine (with thanks to Emma for taking some), so please be sweet and ask before sharing. 🙂
These were all taken on a less than great, old-school 35mm camera (before I semi-knew what I was doing) and scanned, so clarity isn’t wonderful but c’est la vie!