After digging in the sand in Israel on a volunteer archeological project, and trying to discover new history, it was imperative that Egypt was next. The two countries are so tightly bound throughout biblical history, but the Bible glosses over many of the particulars. For instance, referring to the Pharaoh as just that: Pharaoh – without any designation. I needed to see what else was left out…
And where better to start the journey than the Cairo Museum – also known as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities! Built in 1901 and boasting over 120,000 historical artifacts, it is at the end of its lifespan. For 2021, a brand new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza will be launched. Though, the wood and glass display cases with brass type-writer-print labels were reminiscent of a particular movie series that is the backbone of my life.
The stolen antiquities market is booming around the world. A stolen statue of Tutankhamun was sold at Christie’s auction house in London for almost five million pounds. It’s a perpetual effort by the Egyptian government, and other international agencies, to recover and repatriate these.
It’s a full day experience, and a guide is essential. Otherwise you’ll be roaming the halls overwhelmed with information that will seem unretainable. Mind you, it seems almost everyone walking the street, including your private driver, will call themselves an authentic Egyptologist. Make sure to tell guides upfront that you already know the Osiris myth, otherwise you’ll be bound to hear it over and over again.
The story goes that the Egyptian god Osiris is murdered by his brother Set for his throne. Set had a huge party, invited his brother over, and showed him a giant wooden chest. The first person to fit in the chest perfectly would be allowed to keep it. Unbeknownst to Osiris, his brother had measured him while asleep and hired a carpenter to make it a flawless fit after he crossed his arms. His brother slammed it shut and dumped it in the Nile.
Osiris’s wife, Isis, bolted to the river and found the chest after days of searching. She hid the body in the grass and planned to perform resurrection rituals. However, Set found the body and cut it up into fourteen chunks and scattered them throughout the entire country.
Isis transformed into a huge bird and managed to collect and reassemble thirteen of these, minus his penis – which was allegedly eaten by fish in the Nile. With the help of the gods, a full moon, and some classic mummification techniques, he was brought back to life. Unfortunately, he already had a new title waiting for him as being the King of the Afterlife, but promised her that a new son, Horus, would soon be delivered to her that would defeat Seth.
Old Cairo is a great place to stroll the streets and see some of the origins of Egypt’s Coptic Christian heritage. Notably the The Hanging Church, The Coptic Museum, and the Fortress of Babylon. Islam — which is now its predominant religion (up to 95%) now dominates the country with mosques seemingly every few blocks.
I had a hard time picking just one or two…. so I dragged my poor friend through what must’ve been eight or more. Honestly, they look mostly the same. Pick one and fly with it! Women are often either not permitted to enter mosques, or are required to pray in separate areas. When permitted inside, a head covering for women, sometimes even full robes, are required. For men, show up in your t-shirt and jeans.
Cairo Tower & Ramadan
When I was atop the Cairo Tower for a sunset dinner over the Nile, I accidentally ordered alcohol. I learned pretty quickly to be mindful if travelling during Ramadan, the holy month. It’s not permitted to eat, drink, smoke or have sex from dawn to dusk. While some locals tolerate foreigners who don’t respect this tradition, it’s very likely you’ll meet some pushback at less touristy destinations.
Garbage & Traffic
I heard rumours about how bad the garbage was in the country, and it is very noticeable in some areas like old Cairo. Apparently only six percent of the waste produced gets processed, and even less recycled. The rest gets chucked in the city streets, water ways, and illegal dump sites. The traffic is just as crazy as other developing countries. When crossing the roads, maintain a steady but quick pace and make eye contact with the drivers. They will go around you.
Ramesses II Statue
The Ramesses II Statue is a prime example of the ample Ramesses statues you’ll find around all of Egypt. He erected more statues than any other pharaoh. He would even go as far as to change existing inscriptions on previous pharaoh’s statues to glorify himself.
So, I was debating if I wanted to share this memory or not. But, I was going to the elaborate Khan el-Khalili street market and pounded back a random beverage. I have eaten street meat in Peru, food off the floor in my kitchen, and dined in family restaurants all over India, but have never been instantly sick like that. To this day, I still have no clue how I was poisoned, but it didn’t stop me from going back. I had a mission.
I wasn’t in search of your typical trinkets. I was in search of something more… something that was more than meets the eye. Embarrassed by what I was asking for, I browsed a few local shops and nothing quite matched what I wanted. I caved and tried to discreetly explained to the shopkeep that I wanted an old looking oil lamp made of brass. He came back three or four times before I nodded. He grimaced. His laugh bellowed. “Ahhhh…. you want Ala-ddin’s lamp!” he said. I went beat red, but he wasn’t wrong.
Pyramids and Sphinx
Pyramid of Djoser
The pyramids on the Giza plateau were one of the seven wonders that I was itching to have off my list. The step Pyramid of Djoser is the oldest of all of them dating back to the 27th century BC. The nearby structures are adorned with cobras, which signify royalty and were also often found as head ornaments on masks.
Pyramid of Unas
At the same complex, the Pyramid of Unas was unique because you could actually go inside! The stain of ochre still was prominent on the hieroglyphs decorating the walls.
Unlike English, hieroglyphs can be read left to right or right to left. It depends which way the characters in the script are facing. Cartouches are ovals surrounding a set of hieroglyphs, indicating a royal name.
Originally the pyramids had capstones covered in gold or electrum (a mixture of gold and silver), but many haven’t survived to this day except for the one at the Pyramid of Khafre. Which also happens to be the iconic spot to hop a camel and get your photo with the pyramids in the background and also kissy photo with the Spinx.
The Sphinx, also which I should mention, is exponentially smaller than I had imagined: only about three two-story houses tall. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t a cannon ball that took off its nose during Napolean’s reign, and it was actually removed mysteriously between the 3rd and 10th centuries.
For less than one hundred bucks, we were table to take a full day tour to Alexandria – the legendary old capital city that once featured the famous Lighthouse – one of the original Ancient Wonders.
After a series of catastrophic earthquakes hundreds of years ago, it became nothing more than ruins. That was until the Qaitbey Citadel was built overtop. It used many of the original building stones to save time and money.
Library of Alexandria
In 2002, a new Library of Alexandria has been built. While it can’t remotely compete with the immensity of the British Library, or the Library of Congress, it is still a gorgeous architectural sight.
Ancient Roman Amphitheater
If you’ve never done one before, check out the Ancient Roman Amphitheater. It’s the only one of its type in Egypt. It was actually only recently discovered in 1960 when work was underway to construct a new local government building!
Erecting giant pillars was a sign of societal greatness and military conquest. Standing at almost 27 meters, Pompey’s Pillar is the tallest monolithic column!
Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa
The Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa are unique because they were a burial chamber to intern multiple cultures over time. The ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. It gets its name, which literally translates to “Mound of Shards” for the immense amount of broken pottery found at the site. Ancient Egyptians used to bring food and drink offerings to the deceased so that their souls could absorb the nutrients from the afterlife.
Due to our limited time, we skipped the camping portion and made it a single day trip out to the Black and White deserts. Apparently, the temperature drop at night on the sand is intense!
Made of chalk, the White Desert is notable for its mushroom shaped rocks which were eroded by wind and sand over thousands of years after the ocean retreated. At its heart, stop by the Valley of Agabat (Aqabat) for some additional gorgeous formations.
The Black Desert contains volcanic-shaped cones littered around seemingly at random. The black color comes from dolerite and black basalt (ba-salt).
Crystal Mountain isn’t a mountain per-sey but a series of small dunes littered with calcite crystal. A great place to amplify your hippie energy.
If we had enough time, the Siwa Oasis would’ve been a dream to see as well. Instead, we settled for the Bahariya (ba-har-ee-ah) Oasis. I’m pretty sure I wanted to see the nearby Salt Lake, perhaps? I was so keen on hot water my guide tried to appease us and took us to a tiny rectangular pool with water that was nearly boiling! Ooops?!
In the 60s, the Aswan Dam was created to bolster hydroelectric power, and control the flooding of the Nile to maximize agriculture. Unfortunately, the ancient temple of Abu Simbel was in the way!
Besides the pyramids, Abu Simbel is one of the most recognizable locations in Egypt. Built in 1244 BC, they were carved into a mountainside but later relocated to make way for the dam. It was a multinational effort. The temple was carved up block by blog, tagged, and reassembled 180 meters west of their original site.
The temple itself has four statues of Ramesses II at the entry way, about 70 feet tall each. On two days of the year: February 22, and also October 22nd, the inner chamber is illuminated by the sun. Historians believe these represented the days of his birth and coronation. Nefertari, his wife, also has a temple on-site.
The Philae Temple, on an island just south of the city center, honored the cult of Isis for over 1,000 years. We heard a story about how a celebrity essentially “rented out” the entire island for a day for tens of thousands of dollars. Due to the massive decrease in tourism, we had almost the same experience for free!
Temple of Kom Ombo
The Temple of Kom Ombo was next on my list. City taxis often aren’t allowed to take tourists outside of certain permitted safe zones. We worked a deal with a local, and were taken to a sketchy back alley, where we prayed everything would go as planned. My travel partner was getting concerned, and dipped back to the hotel. I continued onwards…
The temple is unique because it’s one of the only temples that is dedicated to FOUR gods. Sobek, the crocodile god of fertility and creator of the world. Hathor – a god with roles from everything from music and dance to the sky and motherhood. Khonsu – the god of the moon and time. And Horus the Elder – one of the numerous forms of the Horus deity.
Monastery of St. Simeon & Nubian Village
The Monastery of St. Simeon is a 10th century complex that housed the monks that attempted to convert the nearby Nubians to Christianity. Nubians are from south Egypt and Northern Sudan. Today, they are known for their brightly colored buildings, but Ancient Nubia was a portal for luxury items like ebony, incense, and ivory. They were also infamously known for their accuracy in archery.
The Unfinished Obelisk was to be one of the greatest ever created at 42 meters; however, after years of carving out of the nearby bedrock, massive cracks began to appear throughout it and the project was abandoned. Because it is unfinished, it gives some clues to the stone-working techniques of the ancients.
Temple of Horus
The spirit of my inner adventurer came out when I came to the incredibly well-preserved Temple of Horus at Edfu and I bolted through the temple gates. It contains detailed accounts of the battle between Horus and Seth from the Osiris myth, and his eventual victory. Honestly, at this point, I was in massive temple burnout and everything was starting to look the same. But the best was just ahead…
Valley of the Kings
The Valley of the Kings, in Luxor, was one the greatest archaeological finds of all time. The Kings and Queens of the New Kingdom (1500 BC later) weren’t entombed in pyramids. Many theories exist for this including engineering and degradation issues to grave robbery. These tombs had some of the most complete, untouched, artifacts ever found. Mind you, while you’d find things like golden masks, other less thrilling items like furniture, pets, and even underwear were buried. This is also the resting place of the boy king Tutankhamun.
Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut
The nearby Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut is astronomically aligned for the winter solstice sunrise, and had she had it built in such grand scale to ensure her image and status would outlast her mortal life. Drop into an ancient workers village nearby as well.
Built by Ramesses III, Karnak is an impressive complex, and one of the most visited in Egypt. It was a place of worship where the god Amun would interact with everyday people. It is also the largest religious building in the world at 200 acres, but the folks in Cambodia at Angkor Wat (only 162 acres) beg to differ.
Luxor Museum & Temple
In Luxor itself, there is the Luxor Museum which is a skip as it’s no comparison for the one in Cairo. The Luxor Temple is particularly unique because it is not for godly worship, but dedicated to the rejuvenation of kingship – a spot where Kings and Queens were crowned.
Temple of The Goddess Hathor
I wouldn’t normally egg you on and tell you to do more temples, but the Temple of The Goddess Hathor an hour and a half north, has very well preserved relief work. The most impressive of all of them being the Zodiac on the ceiling of one of the chambers. I’m glad I didn’t miss that!
It was adrenaline time! Arriving in Hurghada, near the end of our trip, I quickly Googled some final attractions. It was time to spice things up and forget about temples. After a crash course in how to drive an ATV on the dunes, we raced through the desert sand to a settlement where we had a chance to eat some local food, get spat on by camels, smoke hookah, drive off into the setting sun, and light a fire circle around ourselves in gasoline! Epic…
Day two of adventuring I felt like I was going to die. My friend booked us into a scuba experience in the Red Sea. She had done a fine job of humoring the rest of my itinerary, and scuba had been on my bucket list for ages. The guides spoke virtually zero English, and I think I was expected to know what I was doing as she had PADI herself. One linked arms with me and dove… down… down… my head felt like it was going to explode! Thankfully, I realized I had to plug my nose and blow to reequalize my air pressure. And, I did get to see some amazing fish. But, one dive was more than enough without training!
Our very last day, we headed to Desert Breath, which is a seemingly random spiral land art exhibit in the desert. You can even see it on Google Earth! It was built in 1997, so it was looking a little rough these days.
Mini Egypt and Sand City
The cute way I wrapped up the trip was by going to Sand City and Mini Egypt. It was a fun way to recap all the major attractions I had seen. It really felt like I had done it all after walking through those two parks.
I could finally say it… Mission accomplished…