By Lee Foster
For as long as I could remember, a trip to encounter the pharaonic treasures of ancient Egypt, those monuments from the era of the pharaohs (roughly 3150-332 B.C.), had been near the top of my travel wish list. Finally, my time had come.
I would not be the first pilgrim to make this journey. It is amazing to think that when the curious Greek historian, Herodotus, sailed up the Nile in the 5th century B.C. to see these massive artifacts, some were already 20 centuries old.
As I boarded my Egyptair flight to Cairo, I wondered how ancient Egypt would compare to other major cultural experiences that had enhanced my vision of life, such as seeing China’s 5,000 buried terra-cotta warriors at Xian or the ancient Thai capital of Sukhothai. Little did I know then how profoundly my sense of the wonder at human achievements would be enlarged in the next 10 days.
During the flight over, I also pondered how important Egypt was to us today as a force affecting peace and prosperity in the Middle East. Egypt was the first country that both Israelis and Palestinians turned to for negotiation assistance. As the first Arabic country to accept the existence of and make peace with Israel, Egypt has a critical modern role. As an American taxpayer, I am also contributing to the millions of dollars a year we invest in Egypt, second in country investment only to the funding we provide for Israel.
My jet flight arrived in Cairo, the most populous city in Africa, with fully 18 million residents. Egypt is also the most populous of the Arab countries and one of the major Arabic cultural forces, partly through such subtle factors as its prominence in regional TV media.
Cairo: The Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum
Although the 25-hour commute from my home in Berkeley, California, to Cairo had left me with some jet lag discomfort, I was impatient to get going at once and see in Cairo the great pyramids at nearby Giza and the storied artifacts in the Egyptian Museum.
From my ninth floor vantage point room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Cairo, I looked down on the ancient Nile River, the 900-mile-long life blood of Egypt. At several points on the horizon of the city I would see the thin towers of Islamic mosques. Both at dusk and dawn the sounds of the city were supplemented by the chanting call of the holy man, the muezzin, for prayer, a cry that has been heard here since the arrival of Islam in A.D. 640.
My ride out to the nearby pyramids of Giza and the adjacent Sphinx plunged me into the challenges of modern Cairo, which has a major air pollution issue. The struggle of people to survive marginally in this relatively poor country was everywhere apparent.
The pyramids are on high ground a few miles from the river. They were located on high ground to avoid the annual flood of the Nile. A year in ancient Egypt was divided into four months of flooding, four of planting, and four of harvesting.
The pyramids are stunning in their simplicity. The pyramid of Cheops is 508 feet high and 700 feet wide. Next to it is the equally imposing pyramid of Chephren. Each pyramid took perhaps 20 years to build after 10 years had been spent on the causeway, a road along which the blocks of stone were dragged after being cut at a quarry across the Nile. In the ancient period the pyramids were covered with a white limestone coating, which must have made them striking against the blue sky.
In a conversation I had with Zahi Hawass, a chief archaeologist at the Giza Monuments, in his office near the pyramids, I learned that there are 108 pyramids in Egypt, of which the 3 at Giza are among the most prominent.
“We are learning more about the Giza pyramids each year,” said Mr. Hawass. “They were tombs. They were steps to heaven. But what we are learning now especially is more about the people who built the pyramids and their relationship to the pyramids. We have unearthed from 1990 to the present many new tombs of the workers.”
“When you visit these worker tombs,” he continued, “you will see the tomb of a baker and of a priest in charge of purification of workers who die. What we are learning, reading the inscriptions on their tombs, is that building the pyramids was considered a privilege. The builders were not slaves, but volunteers. Unskilled workers volunteered for the assignment, possibly 20,000 at a time, usually for one year, during the four flood months when they were idle in the fields. Skilled workers remained at the site year-round. We have found tombs of workers, plus tombs of their wives and children. It was considered a high honor to die while working here because then you would be buried near where your king, god’s representation on earth, would be buried, and you would be close to him in the afterlife.”
Zahi Hawass and another of his archaeology colleagues, Mamdouh Taha, took me to a spot a few hundred yards from the pyramids, where about 2,000 tombs of the workers had been uncovered.
When I went to see the tombs, one of the dramatic experiences was the speed with which blowing sand can cover anything in this desert. A wooden walkway built to reach the excavation site was already half covered with sand. It was interesting to see how a trained Egyptologist like Mamdouh Taha or Zahi Hawass could easily read the stone tablets that had just been unearthed. On the tablet of the baker was a symbol of the bread and beer created for the workers.
After looking at the pyramids, I stopped to see the Sphinx, which is close to them. The role of this huge catlike man is shrouded in mystery.
Next I went to the great Egyptian Museum in Cairo, primarily to see the remarkable artifacts found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen (14th century B.C.).
The Egyptian Museum has about 120,000 artifacts on display and another 80,000, it is said, in storage. There are rooms devoted to everything from jewelry to household items, such as combs, metal fish hooks, and sewing needles from ancient Egypt.
However, the discovery on November 4, 1922, of the elaborate tomb of the 18-year-old King Tut, located in an area known as the Valley of the Kings, on the west bank of the Nile near Luxor, yielded a range of artifacts that simply overwhelms the imagination.
The tomb was both a burial chamber and a treasure house. The gold mask of the king, gold throne, and gold coffin are among the treasures. However, the items found included even his gloves, socks, and underwear for the afterlife, all placed into the chamber. His chariots were dismantled for storage and use in the afterlife. His bows and arrows, from the time of his early boyhood until his death, were carefully stored for his pleasure in the afterlife. Statues of his servants were included in the tomb so they too could be there to assist him. Tut ascended to the throne at age 9 and died at 18. The craftsmanship and wealth that were found in the tomb simply astound. All the important rituals of the then prevalent religion had been observed in the burial. For example, his internal organs were appropriately processed and then stored in beautiful alabaster jars.
My experience in Cairo, even before I went to visit the Egyptian treasures farther afield, led me to the conclusion that you must have a good guide, a university-trained Egyptologist, to enjoy the country. Egyptology, the study of ancient Egypt, is so complex that a university-trained and tourism department-certified guide greatly enhances the experience of the trip. I was fortunate to have such a guide throughout the trip. There is a large corps of freelance guides readily available to the Egypt traveler.
Abu Simbel: The Colossal Ramses II Statues
My next adventure, following the typical pattern to experience pharaonic Egypt, was to fly south from Cairo up the Nile to the city of Aswan and then 180 miles beyond in another flight to near the Sudanese border and the town of Abu Simbel.
This is the ancient land of Nubia, where a black-skinned people would occasionally amass their forces and attack the Egyptians, who lived farther down the river, to the north. Nubia, where precious gold was mined, means “land of gold.”
I flew to Abu Simbel to see the temple where Ramses II ordered giant statues of himself carved into the stone hillside as a psychological threat to any Nubians who might sail down the river with hopes of conquest.
These four 60-foot-high stone statues breathe fresh life into the word colossal. The intricately carved and painted interior of the rock-hillside temple depicts much about Ramses’ reign and life in ancient Egypt.
The size of the sculptures was meant to reflect the power of Ramses and intimidate any potential aggressors. The location of the statues at a remote site along the invasion route showed further audacity.
One could imagine an invading cluster of Nubian war canoes sailing down the river. The warriors might view the 60-foot-tall statues and ask, “Is this invasion a good idea?”
Cruising the Nile: Aswan to Luxor
I then flew back along the river to Aswan so that I could take a cruise boat (one of about 300 on this stretch of river) that would travel the river route between Aswan and Luxor.
Before departing on the cruise, I looked at the Aswan High Dam, which has stabilized the flow of water in the Nile, preventing flooding and allowing for extensive irrigation. The 120-foot-high dam also provides a substantial amount of the country’s electricity. The dam is a feat of engineering in modern Egypt as impressive as the monuments of ancient Egypt.
In Aswan I also enjoyed the Nubian Museum, which depicts the artifacts of these ancient people, and the Temple of Philae, honoring Isis, Osiris, and Horus, chief players in the cast of deities that controlled life in ancient Egypt. The Temple of Philae is particularly dedicated to Isis, who was a parallel to Aphrodite in Roman lore and the Virgin Mary in Christian traditions, including the story of a virgin birth.
Cruising on the Nile for four days on the Tamr Henna, named after an Egyptian flower, gave me a sense of the fertile fields of dates, vegetables, and sugarcane that grow near the river.
Most of the cruise boats have the same basic design, with roughly 60 cabins, all outside-facing rooms. The boats have either large windows that open or small balconies for viewing the river. The top of the boat amounts to a sun deck, often with a swimming pool. Food service on board is adequate. The Tamr Henna falls into the higher class of boats.
As I steamed down the Nile on this small cruise boat, there were stops at several interesting temples.
The Kom Ombo Temple, where the sacred crocodile god Sobek was worshipped, was also a major medical center in ancient Egypt. Carved on the stone walls from 320 B.C. were the surgeon’s instruments, including a scalpel, scissors, and pliers. (At the Nubian Museum in Aswan I had already seen the skull of an ancient Egyptian who had been trepanned, cut into in a circular surgery penetration. The skull bone had healed following the operation, meaning that the patient lived for at least a few years afterwards.)
Farther down the river, another impressive stop was the Edfu Temple of Horus, with its gigantic pillars, granite inner sanctum, and wall carving still showing the paint of the ancient times. Gradually, a traveler learns to identify the code appearance of the gods, such as Horus as a figure with a hawk-like head.
After a couple of days on the river, I could appreciate how the precious fertile area along the Nile is relatively narrow until the river reaches Cairo and then fans out into a broad delta. Beyond a mile or two of greenery on a typical riverbank, I could see the rock desert hillsides rising in the background. Up and down the river, feluccas, graceful sailboats of ancient design, carried passengers and freight.
The Splendors of Luxor
Although all the sights that preceded it were extraordinary, my day at Luxor surpassed everything I had yet seen.
I traveled first to the west side of the river, where the tombs of pharaohs from a roughly 600-year period (1480-900 B.C.) are located. Knowing that pyramids were readily vulnerable to tomb robbers, these later pharaohs selected the stark limestone hill for their tombs, choosing an underground burial strategy because then the entrance could be sealed, hidden, and guarded.
The most striking known tomb of all (who knows what may be discovered in the future?) is that of Nefertari, the most favored wife (among 41) of the most prominent pharaoh of all time, Ramses II. The colors of the painted walls in her tomb are so fresh and bright that you might have guessed they were painted only yesterday. The tomb was discovered in 1903 and restored starting in 1987, but the restoration did not add any paint. All the colors are original. Much lore from ancient Egypt can be seen on the walls, such as the gods Isis, Osiris, and Horus. Nefertari herself parades through the scenes in a kind of fashion show of the era. One tableau shows an early version of chess. The tomb is sometimes closed to the public because humidity from human breath can coat the walls, damaging the painting.
I also looked at a few other tombs in this area, known as the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. I saw the tomb of King Tut, the contents of which had dazzled me at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. Next to it is the tomb of Merenptah, successor and son to Ramses II. The tomb of Ramses IV had a lovely blue ceiling and the largest sarcophagus of the known tombs. Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple was a columned tour de force cut out of a rock hillside. (In 1997 Islamic terrorists slaughtered 52 foreign travelers with a volley of gunfire at Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple. Then they killed themselves. This attack cast a pallor over Egyptian tourism.)
Then I journeyed back across the river to look at Karnak Temple, the temple of all temples. This edifice in honor of the god Amon, god of gods, has the largest columns I have ever seen. The temple includes a literal forest of 134 gigantic columns in an inner chamber. Several pharaohs contributed to the prominence of Karnak, each trying to outdo his predecessor. Ramses II, the most prominent of all the pharaohs, was the most ambitious builder of monuments here. Ramses II ruled for 67 years and had 41 wives, 92 sons, and 106 daughters. Two obelisks from the reign of Hatshepsut depicted in hieroglyphics her good deeds, as the first woman to become pharaoh, and the good deeds of pharaoh Thutmosis I.
After Luxor, I flew back to Cairo and returned home, thoroughly satisfied with the cultural enrichment of my Egyptian odyssey.
I have taken many trips and visited numerous countries, but few places have so energized my sense of the wondrous story of human history as did my encounter with pharaonic Egypt.
Egypt: If You Go
One source of traveler information about Egypt is the Egyptian Tourist Authority at www.egypt.travel.
Egyptair, the national carrier, is one of the main airlines bringing in travelers. Flights to Cairo originate from the USA and Canada.
The guidebook that I found most useful was Lonely Planet’s Egypt.
A visa needed to visit Egypt can be arranged at the Cairo airport.
To stay healthy in Egypt and avoid stomach problems, always drink bottled water rather than tap water. Be sure to brush your teeth with bottled water also. Concentrate on eating cooked food and peeled fruit, rather than salads, so that stomach discomforts can be avoided.
Winter is a pleasant time of moderate temperatures, and is the preferred months to travel. Summer is extremely hot.