I arrived in Cairo prepared to hate it- I’d heard nothing but horror stories, from the pollution, to the noise, to the crowds (although in a city of 25 million I suppose that’s to be expected), to the touts eager to cheat you out of your money, it all seemed like a lot of hassle. Fortunately, after Ethiopia, Cairo was a total breeze, and we actually really enjoyed our two short days there.
My first breakfast might have been what won me over: ful (basically Egyptian refried beans), sliced cucumbers, hard boiled eggs lightly sprinkled with paprika and salt, feta, falafel, fig jam and crusty bread, I was in heaven. From our hostel we walked ten minutes to the National Museum, passing through the famous Tahrir Square along the way. The museum was a complete mess, totally fascinating, but basically an unorganized garage sale of thousand year old artifacts. After wandering around the bottom floor watching people run their hands across sarcophagi and put their arms around statues for selfies, we went upstairs to see the well-guarded Mummy Room and King Tut’s mask and treasures. We passed stacks of sarcophagi in increasing sizes like Russian nesting dolls, entering the mummy room with 4000 year old royalty displayed behind glass, able to get close enough to inspect their eyelashes and perfectly wrapped bandages. From there we visited the treasures of the mysterious boy king, amazed by the sheer amount of gold in one room, humming Steve Martin’s ‘King Tut’ the entire time. Although I’d seen his mask so many times in pictures, it was even more impressive in person, made with 26 pounds of gold and inlaid with quartz, obsidian and stripes of lapis lazuli.
The next day we took a public bus to the pyramids, treating the ride as a free city tour. Our driver barely spoke English but happily played guide nonetheless, pointing out sites for us as best he could (graphically miming giving birth while we passed a hospital, for example). Cairo to me seemed like NYC and Paris had a baby- chaotic and grand, fading opulent French buildings beside tree-lined boulevards leading to bustling plazas, the Nile instead of the Seine cutting through the heart of the city, and occasional grimy overpasses that reminded me distinctly of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
After driving for an hour in what felt like an everyone’s it game of chicken, we disembarked unscathed, rounded a corner, and there they were. THE PYRAMIDS. It was really indescribable, seeing these massive, hulking, ancient creations in person, believed to serve as a three-dimensional representation of a sun ray, and therefore a physical embodiment of the divine. The juxtaposition of a modern, bustling parking lot quite literally steps from the entrance of the Grand Pyramid scrambled my brain a bit, and craning my neck upwards while resting my hands on the massive base blocks, I was surprised to find a couple tears leak out.
The rest of the day was spent in sweaty wonder, walking between the pyramids and out into the desert through sand dunes for views of all three. The sphinx surprised me with how small it actually is in person, and another unexpected highlight was visiting inside the Tomb of Nefertiti. We ended the day climbing up a long, steep shaft leading into the middle of the Great Pyramid. The oldest and largest of the pyramids, it covers twice the area of Times Square, and was built using a total of 2.3 million stone blocks, each block weighing an average of 2.5 tonnes. Apparently if each block was laid end to end it could pave a single lane road from Los Angeles to New York City, an absolutely mind boggling fact. Hot and humid inside, we crawled up slowly, the stones surrounding us all perfectly smooth and symmetrical, precise down to a millimeter. Eventually we reached the tomb and were able to stand up straight, trying not to think about the hundreds of tonnes of granite and limestone over our heads.
We ended the day at a fancy Marriott across the road, resting our tired feet over a beer and hungrily wolfing down the complimentary bread basket while watching the sun sink slowly behind the pyramids. Rather than figure out the bus back we splurged for a taxi, where in between frantic calls in Arabic to his girlfriend the driver chatted us up. “Do you have a sister? Maybe I marry her and give your father 50 camels, because my girlfriend is crazy. We go to pick her up… do not tell her I am taxi driver. She thinks I work in bank, so you just put money here in seat for me. Okay, friends?”
The next morning began with yet another 4am start, and after a taxi to the airport, a short flight, another taxi ride into the center of Aswan and a two minute ferry ride across the Nile, we arrived at our guesthouse on Elephantine Island. Flying was a treat, the Nile as impressive from above as it is from the banks. Covering 1/6th of the Earth’s circumference, the river flows over 4000 miles and spans 11 countries, the only major river in the world to flow south to north. After checking in we forced ourselves not to nap, and headed back across the river to enjoy lunch in a shady riverside park before visiting the Nubian Museum. This museum was a vast improvement from our previous experience, and even in my tired state I managed to learn quite a bit. After an ice cream break, the rest of the day was spent lazing on the rooftop watching the Nile roll past, periodically pinching ourselves that we were actually there.
Eventually we decided to walk a short distance across the island, weaving through narrow alleyways past colorful homes and fertile fields, all seemingly unchanged for centuries. Everyone we met smiled and went out of their way to welcome us or ask if we needed any help. Always cynical, we kept waiting for the sales pitch afterwards but it never came, people just were genuinely being nice. On the other side we stumbled upon a tiny restaurant right on the river bank, where we grabbed a delicious dinner of breaded chicken, spicy stewed okra, brown rice and tahini sauce, all topped with vinegar and accompanied by chewy, freshly made pita still steaming from the grill. As the sun set we watched birds flitting about attending to their business in the last remaining light, until mosquitos chased us away.
Yet another 4am start brought us to Abu Simbel to visit the temples of Ramses 2 and Nefertiti. These were discovered in 1813 thanks to one pharaoh’s head poking out above the sand, and while impressive in their own right, the damming of the Nile and subsequent creation of the world’s largest man-made lake means that the entire complex was painstakingly shifted to higher ground. Without knowing I never would have suspected the temples had been moved, both still seemed to fit seamlessly in place. While visiting the interiors I was horrified by the hand-chiseled old-timey graffiti found in various locations: ‘Godfrey 1840’ on a massive pharaoh’s beard the same height as me; ‘Rimbaud 1863’ across a set of hieroglyphics; ‘Samuel 1904’ scrawled in perfect script across a giant, sculpted quadricep. C’mon, humanity, stop being the worst already.
Yet another 4am start brought us to Luxor. Walking around this new city I found both exhilarating and exhausting, reminding me more than anything of walking around Rishikesh in India. The stagnant heat magnified the smell of exhaust mingling with the smell of fermenting fruit from the many produce stands crowding the sidewalk. We passed countless crowded cafes full of men smoking sheesha while weaving around bustling streets filled with other pedestrians, everyone trying not to get hit by speeding minibuses, motorcycles and cyclists. It was a lot, and after walking around for an hour I would need another two hours indoors to recover from the sensory overload.
The next four days were spent visiting temples, with the West Bank considered the side of the dead (believed by Egyptians to be where the sun sank down into the underworld each night), and the East Bank more inhabited, with two large main temples. While it is estimated that 70% of Egypt’s ancient monuments remain underground, the 30% of ruins that are uncovered are overwhelming in size and scope. We quickly developed a fool proof routine, that worked as follows: 1. Pop a DayQuil in the morning over an early breakfast to mitigate the colds we had both recently acquired. 2. Explore as much as we could from 8am-2pm, retreating once the heat became overbearing. 3. Enjoy a lunch of ful and falafel sandwiches plus a shared koshari from the always busy restaurant around the corner from our hostel. 4. Nap, shower, play around on the interwebs. 5. Reemerge after sunset to enjoy the cooler temperatures and figure out dinner. Oh, what’s koshari, you ask? Well, koshari is really odd and should not be quite so delicious, but Egyptians love it, and we did too. Macaroni, spaghetti, rice, lentils, garbanzos, potato chips and fried onions are all added separately, then shaken in a pint container with some sort of delicious red sauce- it is just as yummy as it is confusing.
I’m finding the idea of writing about all the temples we saw overwhelming, but here goes nothing. You may want to just skip ahead. Our first stop was Karnak, the most important place of worship during the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE). With large, blocky walls and a forest of giant papyrus-shaped columns, this temple has enough space to contain both Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica and London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, or if you prefer, could contain ten Norte Dams and eighteen Parthenons. It also contains the largest obelisk in Egypt, well-preserved thanks to Hapshetsut’s jealous stepson, who had it walled off after her death. The outer wall on the east side has the world’s first written peace treaty, and throughout the interior faded smears of color reminded me that the temple must have looked a bit like a circus tent in its prime. It turns out that the color actually hasn’t been varnished off by abrasive winds and time, it’s just covered in a millennia of dust and dirt, which was left on by Egyptologists in an effort to protect them.
I left Karnak completely awed, and we then walked to the Luxor Museum along the corniche, enjoying the fresh breeze blowing off the river. Plenty of people hassled us about taxis or boat rides, but ‘la’ usually meant ‘la,’ and everyone was really good natured and quick-witted, so at least the hassle usually resulted in a good joke or two. One time when someone did bother us to the point of frustration, he went out of his way to apologize. “Madame, your husband looks sad. Please, tell him that tourism is down and this is the only living we have. I apologize deeply and hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in Egypt.” The ‘madame’ threw me off, but how nice! People seemed really eager to make a positive impression, although the slight desperation in the hustle kind of broke your heart. One time in particular an old man followed us up a hill around Karnak in the heat, offering us little trinkets that we didn’t purchase. Watching him try and recover from the exertion, trembling and wiping sweat off his brow all over what would have been a sale of a few measly dollars, was tough. Tourism really took a hit after the revolution, and you can still feel the country reeling.
The Luxor Museum wound up being my favorite, the smaller size and highly informative plaques prevented me from feeling overwhelmed, actually allowing me to absorb some information. From there we headed a couple blocks up to the Mummification Museum, which was tiny, but totally fascinating. I learned that the mummification process took 70 days, with all the internal organs removed, covered in natron salt, and left to dry. Once dried they were washed, purified and anointed with oils, spices and resin before finally being placed in individual canopic jars. The brain was whisked to a liquid with a lil’ egg beater stuffed up the nose, then drained. The body was also salted, then stuffed with and wrapped in linen, amulets set in place within the wrappings over various parts of the body. Often a carved scarab was put in place of the heart, usually with a passage from the Book of the Dead on the back warning the newly deceased not to reveal their transgressions while being judged, cocky Egyptians hoping to pull a fast one on the gods.
Anywhoooo, all this was done so that the soul flying around after death could recognize its body and be reanimated in the afterlife, and then join the sun god on his boat during his nightly visits to the underworld, duh. We also saw plenty of mummified animals, including a cat, goose, fish, crocodile, baby crocodile, baboon, duck and goat. My absolute favorite thing were these painted, 6-inch human figurines called ‘ushabtis.’ These little dudes were placed by the hundred in a tomb, along with a spell to make them come to life, thereby providing you with a little troll army to do your biding for eternity. To borrow a phrase from Gary, “The Egyptians were into some weird shit.”
That evening we had some shawarmas on a bench next to the river before walking around Luxor Temple by night. The Avenue of Sphinxes was really haunting and perfectly lit, much of it still in the process of being uncovered. We kept getting told we walked like Egyptians, which at first we thought was because Ethiopia had helped us perfect our don’t-mess-with-me scowls, but we quickly realized it was just a line to help start a conversation. Either way, I walked back to our hostel singing The Bangles, which remained stuck on a loop in my head for the rest of the trip.
The next two days were spent visiting the tombs scattering the West Bank, built after Egyptians realized that the pyramids basically served as big arrow signs that screamed “Rob me!”. Instead, these new tombs were set back in remote hills away from the Nile, and dug deep underground, the world’s only necropolis resembling an ant colony. Our first stop was Valley of the Kings, where 62 pharoah’s tombs have been uncovered, with one remaining mysteriously unaccounted for. King Tut is probably the most famous of these despite his short time ruling, since his treasures remained safe from grave robbers thanks to another tomb that had been mistakenly built on top of his.
At any given time three tombs are open on a rotating basis, to help with preservation. On our day we drew Merenptah, Ramses 3 and Ramses 4, and opted to pay extra to enter Ramses 5/6, which wound up being our favorite. Tombs were dug as soon as a pharaoh started his reign, and with the mummification process artisans had 70 days to finish their work after the pharaoh died, but even with all that time no tomb was completely finished, and it became a fun game to find which parts remained incomplete. In each we walked down hallways decorated with elaborate paintings covering every inch of every wall and ceiling, containing both scenes from every day life as well as depictions of what happened in the afterlife. All of the colors were incredibly well preserved, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to take any photos inside the tombs unless I payed an extra 300 pounds for a photo ticket (nah brah). My favorite paintings I saw included: “Doctor Anubis”, the jackal god of embalming, looking like a surgeon standing over a tabled dead body; Frequent depictions of the fertility god with a massive erection; Greek and Coptic graffiti dating back to 278 BCE; Long arms raised up to worship the sun, often not connected to a body; The Goddess Nut eating/ pooping out the sun. I guess in theory she was swallowing the sun each evening and giving birth each morning in an endless cycle of new life, but I stand by what I said.
Impressed, we moved onto Deir al Bahri, a temple dedicated to Hatshepsut, Egypt’s most famous female pharaoh (Cleopatra was technically Greek). With 300 meter limestone cliffs serving as a backdrop, the temple is made up of three levels of architectural splendor carved out of the base of the mountain. While more stunning from a distance, it was interesting to see how she chose to be depicted as a man, fake beard and all. Historians believe she was murdered by her stepson, who after her death defaced many of her statues and destroyed her mummy.
My favorite stop of the day was Medinat Habu, a massive temple where the public could go to worship Ramses 3. It served as the center of economic life in Thebes (the ancient name for Luxor) up until 9 CE, and some of the historic mud brick walls from the village still butt up against temple. This site was a great piece of royal propaganda, with the pharoah’s war victories on the outside projecting a powerful presence to the public. As the masses were not allowed inside, the interior contains many images of the pharaoh presenting offerings to various gods, although many images were defaced by early Christians.
The next day the temperature spiked and the winds died, making everything unbelievably hot, although a tour bus full of Egyptians looking just as miserable as we were made me feel a little better. First we headed to the Valley of the Queens, pretty meh compared to all the other tombs, although I can’t say I’m surprised that women got shafted. Then, we made our way to where the workers used to live, the village ruins surrounded by their own tombs cut into the hillsides. These were the best preserved with the brightest colors, as there was no incentive of riches motivating grave robbers to break in, plus I think the artists saved their best work for themselves. These tombs were also much smaller, and there were several times I nearly concussed myself while crouching through their narrow tunnels. Finally, with the heat almost unbearable, we ended the day with a visit to the Tomb of the Nobles, a valley where over 400 noblemen were layed to rest. While they were all amazing, everything unfortunately began to blend together a bit, although my favorite standout was the Tomb of Sennofer. In this tomb the ceiling was left intentionally wavy, with each wave shifting into a new colorful geometric pattern, including triangles, stripes, flowers, cubes.
We left Luxor knowing undoubtably that the Egyptians were and always will be the greatest artisans of all time. From Luxor we made our way to the Sinai Peninsula, en route staying over night in Hurghada, notable only for the three kittens living on our hotel’s rooftop and for the food. Across the street we found a tiny restaurant that sold freshly baked flakey flatbread pasted with feta, then wrapped over itself and rebaked to crispy perfection. Costing only 5 Egyptian pounds (about .25 cents), they were too delicious not to be horrible for you. After a day in transit we reached Dahab, where over a late dinner at our hotel we were able to see distant whitecaps on the water shining in the moonlight, and the lights from Saudia Arabia glimmering across the Red Sea.
The next day was a treat to wake up and realize we had actually been sleeping right next to the ocean, while eating breakfast we now could clearly see the waves gently butting up against our balcony. Unfortunately the cold I’d been dragging around Luxor really decided to settle in and commit to making me miserable, so we didn’t do a whole lot. It was a shame to have to skip hiking up Mount Sinai or diving the Blue Hole, but luckily doing nothing kind of seemed like the whole point in Dahab. Even with being sick, I still felt like I was living my best life, lazing in hammocks, meeting other friendly tourists, eating Thai or Mexican food, tidepooling and snorkeling over the best coral I’ve ever seen at a reef just steps away from my front door.
Today strong winds have prevented us from snorkeling, and while I’m pretty bummed, in the end it’s probably a good thing, as the weather is forcing me to get a bit of bed rest and giving me some time to write all this down. We leave tomorrow on a ferry bound for Jordan (assuming these winds calm down!), but I am really wishing we had more time in Dahab, and Egypt in general. To our surprise, Gary and I have fallen in love with Egypt, coincidentally both of our 50th countries. The history, the food, the natural beauty alongside the man-made wonders, the warmth and generosity of the people, it was all wonderful, and we feel very lucky to have been able to experience it for a short while.