Having just returned from a most magical trip to Egypt, I struggle to convey the totality of the experience. A span of 5000 years of convoluted, dense history resulting in monuments galore is challenging to meaningfully describe in a few-minute blog. We spent 15 FULL days exploring Egypt starting at our most northern city of Cairo and driving/sailing south along the Nile River to our most southern city of Abu Simbel, close to the Sudanese border. The time was far too short! It goes without saying, that the more you prepare ahead of time, the more meaningful will be your experience. If your goal is simply to obtain awesome Instagram shots, then no need to prepare. But, if your goal is to gain an understanding and appreciation of Egypt's rich culture, civilization, and history, then BEST to prepare.
Egyptian History in a Nutshell ...
At the risk of being oversimplistic, I would recommend thinking of Egyptian history in three major intervals ... the Old Kingdom, the New Kingdom, and the Greek (or more accurately, Macedonian) Period. The Old Kingdom dates from about 2500-2000 BC and is the time of the great pyramids. The New Kingdom dates from about 1500-1000 BC and is the time of the "big names" like Tutankhamun, Ramses the Great, and Nefertiti. The Greek Period dates from about 350-30 BC and is the time of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies, and the "famous" Cleopatra.
Visitors from King Tut's time left GRAFFITI at the Pyramid of Djoser, which by then was already over 1000 yrs old! Hard to even imagine.
The amazing pyramids and the not-so-elusive Sphinx are found on the Giza plateau by Cairo. Three massive pyramids stand on the plateau. Their circuitous and narrow shafts which lead all the way to the inner-most burial chamber of the pharaoh can be entered and visited. This is certainly a fun experience, but not meant for the claustrophobic! The even older and smaller pyramids, like the Step Pyramid at nearby Saqqara, and the Bent and Red Pyramids at Dahshur, should also NOT be missed.
The purpose of the pyramids was to serve as the eternal resting place, or tomb, for the pharaoh (and sometimes the pharaoh's wives). The pyramids took decades to complete. Thousands of people were employed at any one time on the Great Pyramid projects. Some men worked in the quarry chiseling out blocks of stone. Others hauled the vast stone blocks from the quarry face to the construction site. Each block weighing a ton, or more, had to be levered onto a wooden sledge and dragged by ropes along a track. Finally, the blocks needed to be taken off the sledges and moved carefully into place, then shaped and finished. In addition to the stonemasonry, dirt ramps needed to be built, the wooden sledges and tracks needed to be maintained by carpenters, water carriers needed to lubricate the passage of the sledges, potters needed to make jars for the water carriers, smiths needed to forge and sharpen the many copper chisels and mallets, and bakers, brewers and cooks needed to supply food for the entire workforce. This was a state project and the ultimate projection of the absolute power of the Pharaoh.
The "Big Names" like Tut, Ramses, and Nefertiti belonged to the New Kingdom which was based in the middle of the country in Thebes, current-day Luxor. During their time, they no longer built pyramids. Instead, they buried their dead in tombs along the valleys on the West Bank of the Nile, to mimic the setting of the sun. There lay the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, and Valley of the Nobles. The tombs were designed to be inconspicuous in an effort to elude the attention of tomb robbers. The tombs consisted of multiple rooms, hallways, and burial chambers dug deep into the mountain, as shown in the model below. Each exquisite tomb was for only one individual. The tombs were meticulously crafted, with sacred hieroglyph carvings, prayers, instructions for navigating the underworld, and colorful murals of offerings to gods and goddesses. A special group of artisans, who lived with their families in an isolated, "secret" village, The Place of Truth, began constructing the pharaoh's tomb in the Valley of the Kings from the day of the pharaoh's coronation to the throne.
The Greeks, while based in Alexandria, on the Mediterranean Sea coast, built numerous temples along the entire length of the Nile. Being a foreign power they ingratiated themselves with the native Egyptians by adopting the Egyptians' regional gods and then honoring them with temples. Hence, they built temples to Horus, Hathor, Sobek, Isis, Amun, Khnum, and others. They also built MAMMISIS, or divine birth rooms, whose purposes were to justify the pharaoh's divinity and entitlement to the throne. The mammisis were decorated to illustrate that the pharaoh was a direct descendant of the gods, 'a divine child', often showing the pharaoh being nursed by a goddess. The wall reliefs during the Greek period appeared more realistic in character, consistent with classical Greek influence.
Commonalities that spanned the time periods ...
Some themes have been present from the earliest Old Kingdom, throughout the many centuries to the Greek period, and beyond. One such theme is the AFTERLIFE. The importance of the afterlife is evident in the monumental pyramids, the decorated tombs, the sanctuaries, and the offering temples. Funerary texts carved onto the walls and painted onto coffins instructed the deceased regarding how to navigate the underworld. GRAVE GOODS of everyday objects, furniture, jewelry, and foods were buried in the tomb chambers beside the deceased so that the deceased could use them in the afterlife. Even statues and models of servants were buried with them to serve the deceased. MUMMIFICATION of people (and animals) was important to preserve the body of the individual so that the spirit could re-inhabit the preserved body in the afterworld and essentially be reborn with Osiris.
A pantheon of GODS and GODDESSES existed since the dawn of Egyptian history. Each god and goddess served a specific function such as power, creation, fertility, beauty, strength, kingship, protection, justice, wisdom, healing, etc. Offerings to the gods were made by all in an effort to please and appease them. They believed that good things and bad things resulted because of the satisfaction or anger of the gods, respectively. There exist countless TEMPLES, chapels, and sanctuaries throughout the country to honor the various gods and goddesses. Some were built by an individual pharaoh, while others are huge complexes built by several different pharaohs, throughout the centuries. Both Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple, for example, have multiple sections, halls, courts, and obelisks with contributions from numerous pharaohs.
Kingdom built on the Nile
The ancient Egyptian Kingdom, as well as the current country of Egypt, WAS and IS completely dependent on the sustenance provided by the Nile River. It is visibly apparent that life clings to the winding river. The very narrow band of fertile soil with lush vegetation contrasts sharply with the vast arid and sandy desert that constitutes the rest of the country. The Nile is their life and always has been. Hence, it was very exciting for me to experience it. The true gem of our trip was peacefully sailing along the Nile River on a Dahabiya sailboat which moored at several remote locations along the Nile coastline in waters so shallow the large cruise ships couldn't access. We were able to visit quiet villages, quarries, temples, and hidden tombs. Traditional Egyptian food and refreshments were served on the sailboat. There were 8 passengers and 10 crewmen, including a chef and an English-speaking Egyptologist. The cabins were very comfortable and the spacious deck allowed us to see glorious sunrises and sunsets. It was the most magical experience!
Finally, a few practical tips ...
Familiarize yourself with a little Egyptian history prior to your trip. You won't regret it (and your guides will LOVE it, too!)
Hire an Egyptologist guide and a driver (the roads are crazy and you will not want to rent a car). I know a few excellent freelance guides that I can recommend.
Have small bills available, both Egyptian pounds and US dollars. You will need them for everything and everyone. Their livelihood depends on tips (baksheesh). Everyone will wait on you hand-and-foot and everyone will expect a tip; porters, chambermaids, toilet attendants, food servers, tomb guardians, photographers, boat workers, drivers, and guides. No services are done or questions answered without the expectation of a tip. But don't stress about it. The amounts will quickly become apparent. Just remember to take many small bills!
Books and references that I used to plan our trip were Lonely Planet: Egypt Travel book, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson (I read it three times, as it is excellent, to familiarize myself with Egyptian history), Djed Egypt Travel at www.djedegypt.com, www.nile-dahabiya.com, Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff by Rosemary Mahoney (for a fun read).
If your budget allows, take a 4-day Dahabiya sailboat cruise along the Nile. It was the most enchanting thing we did! We sailed on the Orient in the suite, which I particularly recommend.
Buy a few souvenirs, but beware of fakes and scammers. Gift ideas to consider are objects made of papyrus, alabaster, hieroglyph jewelry, and cotton products.
Interact with the locals in the cities and the villages. They are extraordinarily friendly, warm, and welcoming. I found them to be genuinely fascinated by tourists and show a great desire to engage in conversation.
Women, dress modestly.
Lastly, have an AMAZING time!!
This blog, I know, provides a very cursory overview of all that Egypt has to offer. I plan to post more blogs from our trip that will discuss finer details of Egyptian history and cover other awesome sites that we were fortunate to visit. I also plan to share some recipes of delicious Egyptian foods we ate. I hope you enjoy them and follow along! would love to read your comments below.