The Magic of Egypt
By Sandra Wells and Scott Smith
Anyone who has been to the great destinations of the world knows that the 3-D, 360-degree experience of actually being there cannot be conveyed by still photos — and not fully even by video with sound. That was never more true than for Egypt, whose pharaohs left the most spectacular and mysterious monuments ever built, one-third of the world’s pre-medieval antiquities and, at Giza, the only intact example of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Amazingly enough, even pre-9/11 under 300,000 Americans a year would visit Egypt. One reason is the long travel time from Los Angeles (India is the one major destination that is a bit further). What saved us during the three-stage, 17-hour total flight time it took to get to Cairo recently was the SnoozWedge www.snoozwedge.com , a specially-designed blow-up mattress that fits against the back of the seat.
Another reason is the perception that it isn’t safe to travel in a predominantly Muslim country (10 percent of Egyptians belong to the Coptic Church). Actually, there hasn’t been a terrorist incident against foreigners since 1997, when the government cracked down on radicals and put police and soldiers everywhere (there are even Tourist Police to resolve any problems visitors have). And there is hardly any violent crime or even theft even among the 18 million in Cairo (you can walk anywhere safely at any hour of the night; imagine that in Los Angeles County, with over 1,000 killings a year among its 10 million people).
But most important is simply that Americans are largely uncurious about the rest of the globe and its history, thanks to our education system (although interest in Egypt may be stimulated to historic highs with “The Quest for Immortality” exhibit that is touring the U.S. now). Egypt is a vast subject covering 5,000 years and any visitor should plan to spend a fair amount of time studying it to be able to fully appreciate what is seen (although you can quickly get a handle on the highlights).
A good balance of pictures and text for an overview is Knopf Guides’ Egypt — but there’s no need to apologize for starting with something even more basic like The Idiot’s Guide to Ancient Egypt (the top-rated web is www.touregypt.net ). It even helps to watch Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs to see how things looked before the colors faded to their various shades of beige. And if you want to stay in the time machine while traveling, read the well-researched novels of Wilber Smith or P.C. Doherty.
Those with a deep interest in the old religion (which lasted from before the country’s unification in 3100 B.C. until about 550 A.D. at Philae Island) or who want an expert commentary about controversies in Egyptology should bring along John Anthony West’s The Traveler’s Key to Ancient Egypt (he is hated by orthodox scholars, but does a good job showing weaknesses in traditional theories, without endorsing some of the wilder speculations).
The ideal way to travel for value in Egypt is on a first-class group tour led by an outfit like Abercrombie and Kent ( www.abercrombiekent.com ). If you are an experienced traveler and can’t find the exact schedule you want, you should still hire local guides to beef up your own knowledge (our recommendation would be Mona el Nahas firstname.lastname@example.org , an author of forthcoming books on Egyptology who guided the A&K group we spent half our time with, who is knowledgeable about esoterica).
We found seven days was enough for our initial visit, but there are many places we did not get to, such as Alexandria (new state-of-the-art library, Greco-Roman Museum, diving to see Cleopatra’s submerged city), Sharm el Sheikh (some of the best coral reefs on the planet), the desert (dinner with Bedouins, Coptic monasteries), and the southern Nile by boat (Philae Island, Abu Simbel). Also, plan to use one role of 400 film for each day you’re there (museums and many monuments don’t allow flash inside).
Rather than relate the blow-by-blow events as we experienced them, we’ll do something more useful in the brief space we have: tell you what we think are the must-sees for any first-time itinerary.
CAIRO IS CAPITAL
Cairo is a cosmopolitan city with just about anything a visitor with a taste for the exotic could want. It’s also chaotic: you should plan extra time to get anywhere, given that the streets are jammed with everything from donkeys carrying huge bundles of wares to crowds of school children laughing and waving at tourists. Although it will often appear that you’re about to be in an accident, the taxi drivers have a sixth sense about avoiding collisions and will manage to get you anywhere safely for $2-$6 (our starting point was the Four Seasons Hotel in Giza, across the river from downtown Cairo).
The Egyptian Antiquities Museum: There are 150,000 items on display and as many in storage, but Dr. Zahi Hawass, director of the government’s Department of Antiquities, has embarked on a revolutionary program to repatriate stolen objects in foreign museums, with 250 recovered so far. You should plan to spend a half day here if you have casual interest, a full day for serious students. Map out what you definitely want to see based on guidebook descriptions, then cruise slowly in between and see what catches your eye, starting with the Old Kingdom (3100-2180 B.C.) at the entrance. The first floor is mostly large statuary.
We quickly realized that Egyptian art is much more diverse in style than we had seen in pictures. Most strikingly different is that from the reign of Akhenaten and the legendarily beautiful Nefertiti, who instituted the heretical worship of the sun god, Aten, from 1390 to 1336 B.C. (as portrayed in the movie The Egyptian, based on the novel by Mika Waltari; there are plans to recreate his capital of Amarna as a living history center). The style is weirdly realistic — seemingly warts-and-all.
At that point, we were halfway around and decided to go upstairs to be sure we had time to see the museum’s most important exhibits: lovely Middle Kingdom jewelry, elaborately-painted coffins, chariots, and the Royal Mummy Room (Ramses II, who ruled for 67 years and is believed by many to be the pharaoh of the Israelite exodus, still has some of his hair). The latter is not morbid, as one might expect: it has the strange effect of making one feel comfortable with death as an extension of life.
Most impressive of all are the glorious treasures which filled the small tomb of Tutankhamun, son of Akhenaten and minor pharaoh, including richly inlaid thrones, intricately carved alabaster vases, and golden beds (what was in the tombs of the important leaders is almost unimaginable).
The Citadel: The great military leader Saladin began building this fortress in 1176 and it became the seat of Egypt’s governors for 700 years (don’t go into the Military Museum, which only covers the country’s modern wars). The view of Cairo from its top is impressive, but we came for two things. One was to look inside two of the city’s most famous mosques, the enormous Mohammed Ali, which has beautiful stained glass windows, and the small Suleiman Pasha, whose dome ceiling is painted with gorgeous geometric forms in the Islamic tradition.
The other reason was to watch the ritual dancing of the Sufi mystics known as the Whirling Dervishes, which were recently moved to this location (free performances Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays at 7 p.m.). As they twirl their multi-colored robes like kaleidoscopes faster and faster in their famous circular dancing to hypnotically rhythmic Middle Eastern music, the dancers and audience are carried away together into a state of divine rapture. We’re still high from it.
There are dozens of pyramids and tombs on the western bank near Cairo, which was the necropolis for Memphis, the original capital before the pharaohs moved to Thebes (Luxor). The effort to get into those at Dashur is not really worth the trip. Sakkara’s excavations are so vast, that it makes little sense to go there if you have less than four hours (if you do, be sure to see the well-preserved art in the tombs of tombs of the noblemen Mereruka and Ti, which are next to each other).
Giza: The spell of the pyramids was cast over the founding fathers, Masons who put one on the back of the dollar bill. But any mystic atmosphere at Giza is disturbed by the crowds and the souvenir hawkers (who are just trying to earn a legitimate living). But the bigger obstacle to enjoyment is something guide books don’t warn you about: the climbs inside are steep and the ceilings low, so exercise every muscle in your legs for weeks before you arrive.
Still, no one can fail to be impressed in the presence of these three remarkable structures built by pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure (2600-2500 B.C.). Zecharia Sitchin in The Stairway to Heaven makes good arguments that these were not tombs, as most Egyptologists believe, but astronomical devices, but you may not buy his argument that aliens were involved. John West lays out persuasive evidence that the Great Pyramid (whose stones could create a 10-foot-high wall around California and Nevada) was intended as a replica of the Northern Hemisphere. Don’t be surprised by the plain corridors and chambers inside: these were built before inscriptions and art were incorporated.
West makes interesting arguments that the water erosion at the base of the mysterious Sphinx means it is millennia older than the pyramids and that the face is not that of Khafre. You will also want to see the solar boat (which was to take Khufu into the hereafter), which has its own museum. There is a sound-and-light presentation about the pyramids in a stadium next to them each evening in English.
An hour flight south of Cairo is Luxor, once known as Thebes, the capital for much of Egypt’s ancient history. Plan to spend one day on the east bank (Karnak and Luxor temples and museums) and one day on west bank (tombs and temples of royalty and nobles — it isn’t worthwhile to go to a lot of them and it doesn’t matter much which ones you see, as long as the ones below are included).
The Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak: The largest of all Egyptian temples, which once had 80,000 workers, it was dedicated to the supreme deity and covers 62 acres (with another 38 acres of related monuments). Take a guided walk through its forest of pillars 82 feet high and now without a roof, creating an impression of grandeur impossible to convey in a photo. “It is a place where one could stay a very long time and in a perpetual state of astonishment,” French novelist Gustav Flaubert remarked. Take a guided tour during the day, then in the evening come back for the dramatic sound-and-light presentation on the temple’s 1,500-year history, which begins with a walk through the temple before sitting at the edge of the sacred lake for the finale.
Luxor Temple: Much smaller, but more elegantly designed and beautifully lit at night, Luxor was dedicated to the Theban Triad (Amun-Re, his consort, and the moon goddess). On one wall is carved Alexander the Great, who reconstructed the temple’s Holy of Holies, making an offering in 332 B.C. West devotes considerable space discussing the sacred science of Egyptian measurements here which carried great symbolic meanings.
Luxor Museum: Many rushed tourists pass by this state-of-the-art small museum, which is open daily until 9 p.m., allowing one to take a relaxing hour stroll through its exhibits after dinner. There are some excellent and important pieces of art, such as the alabaster statue of Sobek, the crocodile god who devoured the unjust, with the most benevolent of pharaohs, Amenhotep III “the Magnificent” (1390-1352 B.C.).
Mummification Museum: In Luxor, a morbidly fascinating display of animal mummies and the tools used in the process.
Tomb of Nefartari: Only 150 people are allowed inside each day to see the burial chamber for the queen of Ramses II, so plan to be up at dawn to get tickets. The paintings on the wall about stages of the afterlife look almost as vivid as if they had been done a week earlier.
Tomb of Tutankhamun: Small and plain, it is a must because it still holds Tut’s golden inner coffin.
Mortuary Temple of Ramses III: The last of the great pharaohs (1184-1153 B.C.), this enormous temple is most notable for the 11 cm. depth of its hieroglyphic carvings and the painted pillars, which give you a good idea of the multi-colored splendor of its heyday.
THE LIVING TEMPLES
Mona told us that those who still follow the old religion come to her to guide them through Egypt’s best-preserved temples, which still have their roofs, making them uniquely atmospheric: Abydos, Dendara, and Edfu. We visited the first two (the last is also from the Greco-Roman period). These can only be reached by traveling in a government-sponsored armed convoy that passes through a dozen military checkpoints (which is far more than is needed, since no amount of over-protectiveness provides perfect security — and Middle Egypt, too, is safer than traveling anywhere in the U.S.). It starts from Luxor at 8 a.m. and takes 10 hours over sometimes bumpy roads, so take some ginger (better than Dramamine) if you have a sensitive subject. It’s worth the effort.
Dendara: Devoted to Hathor, the cow goddess of love and pleasure, this was built between 100 B.C. and 14 A.D., with an over-the-top style typical of the age. Hathor was also a patroness of healers and the temple was a pilgrimage destination known for its miraculous cures, whether through the blessing of the goddess, magical and psychological practices there, or its hospital. The pictures on the walls comfort those who are beyond healing, showing that the gods will take them by the hand into eternity. On one outside wall is a carving of Cleopatra (51-30 B.C., the last of the pharaohs before Egypt was Romanized).
Abydos: Sacred from time immemorial, it is the most magical place in all of Egypt, and those with second sight claim to sense the ancient rites taking place in a psychic imprint (the noted English medium Omm Sety, who claimed to be in touch with the old gods, lived and is buried nearby). The main temple was built by Seti I (1279-1213 B.C.), father of Ramses II. The bas-reliefs are exquisite, some of the original color remains, and on one wall is a rarity, the official chronological list of the pharaohs (complete except for a few heretics, illegitimate, and minor rulers).
In the myth of Osiris, it was said that before he became the god of the afterlife, his brother Seth slew him and his head was buried at Abydos. Seti is believed by most scholars to have built the symbolic tomb of Osiris, the Osirieon, on the property, but it has no inscriptions and its 100-ton blocks of stone are laid out unlike any other New Kingdom building, with the roof below ground level. West believes evidence of floods indicates it was built thousands of years earlier.
Egypt left an impression on our souls of the great reality beyond these three dimensions. As travel writers, we’ve been around the world and can say Egypt was not the trip of a lifetime — it was, for us, the trip of several lifetimes.
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