EGYPT

The Serene Spirituality of Abydos Temple

This overlooked Temple of Seti I and Ramesses II is a heavenly day trip from Luxor.

Heavenly rays of light shine through the dark temple, making it feel even more spiritual

Heavenly rays of light shine through the dark temple, making it feel even more spiritual

Our guide, Mamduh, told us he has been all over Egypt and has explored all the major temples — and yet the only one that felt truly spiritual to him was Abydos.

Duke and I can understand this. Maybe it’s the cool, dark colonnades, with beams of sunlight shining through like a celestial cliché. Or perhaps it’s the fact that there’s not one but seven sanctuaries, each devoted to a different god. It all works together to create something eternal and sacred. The site is also off the main tourist track, and aside from one small tour group, we had the place to ourselves.

The earliest pharaohs were buried here, as far back as 3000 BCE.

Later, Abydos became a center of the cult of Osiris, the god of the underworld. People believed his tomb was here.
The clean lines of this holy site feel modern, even though the temple is 3,200 years old!

The clean lines of this holy site feel modern, even though the temple is 3,200 years old!

Burial Site of Osiris and the First Pharaohs

The location, in the Sohag Governorate of Upper Egypt, was known in ancient times as Abdju and has been held as sacred from the beginnings of the Egyptian state. It’s said to be the birthplace of the god Osiris, and it’s where his decapitated head was buried by his murderous brother Set.

Wally and Mamduh from Egypt Sunset Tours make the pilgrimage to Abydos

Wally and Mamduh from Egypt Sunset Tours make the pilgrimage to Abydos

Abydos is the holiest of necropolises; during pharaonic times, Ancient Egyptians wanted to be buried here, and at one point, everyone tried to make it here on pilgrimage at least once in their lives. (If that didn’t pan out, they often depicted the journey in their tombs. Better late than never.)

The earliest pharaohs were buried here, as far back as 3000 BCE. Later, Abydos became a center of the cult of Osiris, the god of the underworld. People believed his tomb was here, though evidence points to it actually being the final resting place of a First Dynasty pharaoh, Djer.

Ramessess II added a front section to his father’s temple

Ramessess II added a front section to his father’s temple

Temple of Seti I and Ramesses II

Abydos, like so many Egyptian temples, was really an ongoing construction project, with various kings adding structures here, repurposing materials there.

King Seti I built a large complex at Abydos some 3,200 years ago to show he honored the Egyptian pantheon (and to show that he, too, was divine). A belief in the old gods was especially important to prove after the radical pharaoh Akhenaten departed from centuries of tradition and enforced monotheism, celebrating a single deity known as Aten, the sun disk. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t go over well.)

You can tell the parts of the temple that were added by Ramesses II because the depictions are carved into the stone rather than being proper bas-reliefs

You can tell the parts of the temple that were added by Ramesses II because the depictions are carved into the stone rather than being proper bas-reliefs

As we approached the temple, we paused on the open terrace to admire the precise horizontal and vertical symmetry of its exterior, which, like Hatshepsut’s funerary temple, feels modern in its minimalism.

In the first courtyard, on the second pylon wall, are scenes of Ramesses II’s military victories, including the Battle of Kadesh, which is also shown at Abu Simbel. I use the term “military victories” loosely. This is an example of the pharaoh’s fondness for revisionist history: The Battle of Kadesh ended in a stalemate.

Farther in, the columns and walls of the Temple of Seti I boast of his deeds as well as those of his son and heir, Ramesses II.

Wally and Duke highly recommend adding Abydos to your itinerary

Wally and Duke highly recommend adding Abydos to your itinerary

Mamduh, who works with Egypt Sunset Tours, stopped in front of a wall covered with cartouches, oval carvings containing hieroglyphics that represent the names of pharaohs. “This is why we know all of the dynasties and the order of the pharaohs,” he told us. The names were a long list of Egyptian kings in chronological order, going all the way back to Menes, the legendary founder of the empire, credited with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, and continuing all the way to Seti I.

The Kings List depicts the cartouches of all the pharaohs, with some notable omissions, including Hatshepsut and Akhenaten

The Kings List depicts the cartouches of all the pharaohs, with some notable omissions, including Hatshepsut and Akhenaten

Known as the Abydos King List, the relief conspicuously skips over some problematic rulers: the century-long reign of the foreign invaders, the Hyksos; the female pharaoh Hatshepsut; and the heretical Akhenaten and his three short-lived successors. Again, we see that Ancient Egyptians made revisionist history a literal art form.

Abydos isn’t one of the more popular tourist destinations — which makes it all the more special to visit

Abydos isn’t one of the more popular tourist destinations — which makes it all the more special to visit

As we continued to wander through, Mamduh pointed out a set of unusual looking hieroglyphics carved into a lintel overhead. A mysterious set of symbols appear to depict a helicopter, a submarine and a dirigible-like airship. Did they predict the future?!

I’m not one to crush anyone’s conspiracy theory dreams, but these images are actually the result of surfaces that have been reused. Over time, bits of the lime plaster eroded, leaving a partially visible set of overlapping glyphs. The initial set of carvings were made during the reign of Seti I and were later altered with plaster and re-carved during the temple’s expansion by his son.

Seti I built this as his funerary temple. He chose a throne name that didn’t reference Set, the murderous god of chaos

Seti I built this as his funerary temple. He chose a throne name that didn’t reference Set, the murderous god of chaos

Most temples have a single sanctuary, or holy of holies — but Abydos has seven!

Most temples have a single sanctuary, or holy of holies — but Abydos has seven!

The Seven Sanctuaries

At the back of the second hypostyle hall are seven barrel-vaulted sanctuaries dedicated to different deities: Horus, Isis and Osiris, with the principle god Amun in the middle, then Ra-Horakhty, Ptah and the deified Pharaoh Seti I.

The lion-headed goddess of war, Sekhmet, is the wife of Ptah, god of architects and craftspeople

The lion-headed goddess of war, Sekhmet, is the wife of Ptah, god of architects and craftspeople

Anubis, the god of the dead, with Seti I

Anubis, the god of the dead, with Seti I

Most temples have a single sanctuary, known as the holy of holies. So perhaps the fact that Abydos has seven is a large part of what lends a spiritual air to this sacred space. Six have false doors to allow the ka, or soul, to pass through. The exception is the sanctum of Osiris, whose chamber has a doorway leading to a suite of rooms — as Mamduh pointed out, the god of the underworld can travel between both worlds.

Ancient Egyptians believed that a scarab, or dung beetle, pushed the sun through the sky

Ancient Egyptians believed that a scarab, or dung beetle, pushed the sun through the sky

Isn’t he getting a bit old for that? Horus suckles on his mother Isis’ breast

Isn’t he getting a bit old for that? Horus suckles on his mother Isis’ breast

Wooden ships known as barques, or solar boats, originally stood in each of the sanctuaries. They were believed to transport the deities across the heavens and were used to transport the image of the god in ritual processions.

When you see a boy with a braided side ponytail like this inside the temple, that’s Prince Ramesses II

When you see a boy with a braided side ponytail like this inside the temple, that’s Prince Ramesses II

The Osiris Sanctuary, just one of seven at Seti I’s temple at Abydos. Osiris is depicted with green skin

The Osiris Sanctuary, just one of seven at Seti I’s temple at Abydos. Osiris is depicted with green skin

Head out the back door to walk past the Osirion

Head out the back door to walk past the Osirion

Out back, behind the temple proper, are the ruins of a primitive-looking structure built in the form of a royal tomb. Known as the Osirion, the cenotaph (a fancy word for a monument to someone whose body is buried elsewhere) is thought to be for Osiris. It was closed when we were there — though it doesn’t look like we missed much, aside from sunken granite blocks surrounded by pools of toxic-looking green water.

The sunken ruins of the Osirion, a tomb to honor the god of the underworld

The sunken ruins of the Osirion, a tomb to honor the god of the underworld

We visited Abydos as a day trip from Luxor, pairing it with the amazing Dendera. These less-visited sites are often the most unexpected, special and spiritual.

Duke and I were fortunate to have Rasha from Egypt Sunset Tours arrange excursions that suited us so well. If you want to experience the magic of Egypt like we did, book your tours through them. –Wally

The strikingly modern visitors center works as a visual reference to the temple’s façade

The strikingly modern visitors center works as a visual reference to the temple’s façade

The temple at Abydos is seen in the distance

The temple at Abydos is seen in the distance

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut

Visit Deir el-Bahari to explore the funerary temple of the first female pharaoh.

The clean minimalism of Hatshepset’s funerary temple feels strangely modern, even though it was built 3,500 years ago!

The clean minimalism of Hatshepset’s funerary temple feels strangely modern, even though it was built 3,500 years ago!

Cleopatra might be more famous, but Hatshepsut, born a royal princess during the New Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt, was the first historically documented woman to rule the powerful empire with the complete authority traditionally only given to men.

While staying in Luxor, we hired a driver and guide through Egypt Sunset Tours, and as part of our West Bank tour, we visited the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.

“They should make a movie about Hatshepsut,” our guide Mamduh said to us as we drove to the temple complex. “Maybe many movies.” It was obvious he had great respect for her.

To emphasize her authority, representations of Hatshepsut as a queen were replaced with gender-bending imagery depicting her in male pharaonic attire.

Mamduh went on to elaborate that Hatshepsut’s reign was a period of peace and economic prosperity. He told us how her ambitious building projects set a precedent for future generations of pharaohs, but that her greatest architectural achievement was the tiered mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari. It was built in the mid-1400s BCE.

Admission to the site costs 100 Egyptian pounds (about $6).

More Than a Woman

Hatshepsut (Hat-shep-soot) was the eldest daughter of King Thutmose, and the wife of Pharaoh Thutmose II, her half-brother. Thutmose Jr. reigned only briefly, and upon his death, Hatshepsut became the queen-regent of her stepson and successor, Thutmose III, who, at the time, was considered too young to rule alone. However, in her seventh year as co-regent, Hatshepsut officially assumed the role of King of Upper and Lower Egypt and ruled for more than two decades.

Once Hatshepsut took the throne, she reinvented herself and even took a new royal name, Maatkare, meaning Truth Is the Soul of the Sun. To emphasize her sovereignty, she opted for a complete gender transformation, depicting herself with a royal nemes headdress, short ritual shendyt-kilt and traditional false beard on her chin. Although standardized, her visage retained a few subtle feminine features, including a fullness of the face, widely spaced almond-shaped eyes and benign smile — though her breasts disappeared.

Fit for a Queen

Hewn from limestone, the linear geometric volumes of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple have an understated elegance, appearing as if they’ve always been part of the rugged desert landscape. Staggered terraces jut out from the imposing rock cliffs and a central ramp ascends from the temple base to its uppermost apex.

Construction lasted over a decade, the site chosen for its location in the Theban Necropolis. This region was long considered sacred to the goddess Hathor, who, among her attributes protected the dead on their journey to the great beyond. The temple’s axis was positioned to align with Hatshepsut’s Temple of Amun, the eighth pylon at Karnak across the Nile on the East Bank. In addition, on the east side of the Valley of the Kings, directly behind the complex is KV20, the tomb Hatshepsut commissioned for herself and her father.

Mamduh walked with us up the processional path leading to the temple and explained that originally 100 or so sphinxes bearing images of Hatshepsut’s head lined both sides of the avenue. Wally and I had previously seen one at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

We paused in the forecourt, which once held exotic myrrh trees and other specimens brought from the ancient land of Punt. You can see the withered and desiccated stumps encircled by a low iron fence and sign.

Hatshepsut’s name meant Foremost of Noble Women, and as a young princess, she was appointed the religious title of God’s Wife of Amun, a high priestess who served as a mediator between the chief god and the pharaoh. She would later use this title as the underlying principle behind her sovereignty, claiming that she was acting as a divine instrument under the will of Amun and that the god himself was her father.

Only stubs of columns remain in the courtyard of the top terrace

Only stubs of columns remain in the courtyard of the top terrace

Upper Court

Wally and I took the central ramp to uppermost terrace. Only a few of its columns still stand within the large open courtyard, and most of the Osiride statues of Hatshepsut (showing her depicted as the lord of the underworld) enclosed within its niches have been destroyed. The most sacred sanctuary, the holy of holies, is entered through a large granite gate in the center of the rear wall and was dedicated to the god Amun-Ra.

Wally stands in the granite portico leading to the sanctuary of the great god Amun

Wally stands in the granite portico leading to the sanctuary of the great god Amun

This terrace played an important role during the annual Beautiful Feast of the Valley festival, or Hab Nefer en Pa’Inet. A cult image of Amun-Ra was placed on a miniature ram-headed barque, or solar boat, and transported from the Temple at Karnak on the East Bank of the Nile to the temple of Medinet Habu, eventually coming to rest in the shrine here at Deir el-Bahri on the West Bank. Inside the sanctuary, the curved vaulted ceiling is decorated with celestial stars against a deep blue background. Niches, now empty, would have contained statues of Pharaoh Maatkare and most likely other members of the royal family.

We were amazed at the colors that have withstood the centuries, and particularly liked the star pattern on the ceiling

We were amazed at the colors that have withstood the centuries, and particularly liked the star pattern on the ceiling

The majority of the excavation, reconstruction and restoration work has been carried out by the Polish-Egyptian Archaeological and Conservation Mission, located at the site behind a wooden door that, I believe, once led to the chapels of Hatshepsut and her late father.

What a woman! Hatshepsut styled herself with a lot of the symbolism only male pharaohs had used in the past — including a false beard

What a woman! Hatshepsut styled herself with a lot of the symbolism only male pharaohs had used in the past — including a false beard

Middle Court

Among the impressive features of Hatshepsut’s temple are the colossal Osiride statues here. What makes these figures unique is that they are depicted grasping four symbols of royal authority and divine power, two in each hand: the ankh and flail in the right and the scepter and crook in the left.

Duke and Wally mimic the Osiride statues of Hatshepsut

Duke and Wally mimic the Osiride statues of Hatshepsut

A temple employee in front of some of the statues — note the reddish color on their faces

A temple employee in front of some of the statues — note the reddish color on their faces

At either end of the middle court are two chapels. To the south of the colonnade is the Chapel of Hathor and to the north the Chapel of Anubis.

The chapel to the goddess of fertility sports Hathor columns, topped with her head

The chapel to the goddess of fertility sports Hathor columns, topped with her head

A procession of soldiers carrying shields and spears

A procession of soldiers carrying shields and spears

In addition to her role as protector and travel companion to the dead, Hathor is the Egyptian goddess of sexual love, fertility, music, dancing and the sky. Inside, the now-roofless chapel includes a 12-columned hypostyle hall with four Hathor-headed capitals, resembling a super-sized sistrum, an Ancient Egyptian percussion instrument associated with the goddess, that rattles when shaken.

Colorful friezes in the Chapel of Anubis

Colorful friezes in the Chapel of Anubis

The god of mummification is one of Wally’s faves. Jackals were often seen around cemeteries, leading Ancient Egyptians to believe that Anubis watched over the dead

The god of mummification is one of Wally’s faves. Jackals were often seen around cemeteries, leading Ancient Egyptians to believe that Anubis watched over the dead

After visiting the Hathor chapel, Wally and I wandered over to the Chapel of Anubis. What struck me most was the abundant amount of natural light illuminating its interior. Inside walls depict scenes of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification, and Osiris. There were also a couple images of Hatshepsut, which sadly have been chiseled away.

Most temples in Ancient Egypt feature one or more colonnades like this one

Most temples in Ancient Egypt feature one or more colonnades like this one


Lower Court

The lower court contains two important sets of reliefs. To the south was the Birth Colonnade, which Wally and I must have somehow missed. I read that a relief and inscription within depicts the myth of Hatshepsut’s immaculate conception — the god Amun, in the guise of her father Thutmose I, impregnated her mother, Queen Ahmose, with his divine breath. Given Jesus’ similar birth centuries later, this method of storytelling shouldn’t seem so strange to us. At the time, it certainly wasn’t unusual for pharaohs to claim dvine birth.

The Punt Colonnade contains bas-relief scenes documenting the royally sponsored trade expedition to Punt, which was undertaken to export exotic goods, including cinnamon, ebony, ivory, gold, incense and myrrh, for the cult of Amun-Ra (and the pharaoh herself, of course).

A beautiful carving of a lion, one of the exotic animals from the expedition to the mysterious land of Punt — no one is quite sure where exactly it was

A beautiful carving of a lion, one of the exotic animals from the expedition to the mysterious land of Punt — no one is quite sure where exactly it was

Thutmose III, although not technically the king during Hatshepsut’s reign, was not sitting idle; he had been honing his military skills by leading the armies of Egypt on successful campaigns of conquest. However, it’s been speculated that after his step-mother (and aunt’s) death, he attempted to erase her legacy, ordering many of her images to be systematically chiseled off temples and monuments.

Additional damage to the temple occurred during the Amarna period, when images of Amun were removed by the so-called heretic King Akhenaten. Then, the ancient Copts reused the temple’s upper terrace and built a mud-brick monastery there, which gives us the name of Deir el-Bahari, Arabic for Monastery of the North.

Looking into the sanctuary of the Chapel of Hathor

Looking into the sanctuary of the Chapel of Hathor

Visiting these temples was a lifelong dream for Duke, who has been obsessed with Ancient Egypt since he was a kid

Visiting these temples was a lifelong dream for Duke, who has been obsessed with Ancient Egypt since he was a kid

Wally preferred other temples to Hatshepsut’s, but it’s still worth a visit

Wally preferred other temples to Hatshepsut’s, but it’s still worth a visit

Thanks to our knowledgeable guide Mamduh, Wally and I came away with a solid understanding of the amazing Hatshepsut and her mortuary temple before exploring it.

If you’d like to take a moment to recharge after — the Luxor sun can be brutal — there’s a café pavilion on the premises offering a spectacular view of the complex, along with ice cream treats. –Duke

The innovative terraced and columned Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in what was once the city of Thebes

The innovative terraced and columned Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in what was once the city of Thebes

 

Medinet Habu: A Reflection of Ramesses III’s Military Might

This Luxor temple depicts the victory over the Sea Peoples and includes carvings of severed penises. It’s also the site of the murderous Harem Conspiracy.

When in Luxor, be sure to visit Medinet Habu, an often-overlooked temple

When in Luxor, be sure to visit Medinet Habu, an often-overlooked temple

The temple wasn’t even on our itinerary, but it ended up being one of our favorites. We had some extra time after a morning wandering the cool tombs of the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple. Rasha, who runs the highly recommended guide service Egypt Sunset Tours, suggested we add on the Tombs of the Nobles and Medinet Habu.

Admission to the temple costs a mere 80 Egyptian pounds (about $4.75), making this the cheapest of all the sites we visited.

The exterior wall is yet another sign that Medinet Habu was built to resemble a fortress

The exterior wall is yet another sign that Medinet Habu was built to resemble a fortress

On one hand, all the temples of Ancient Egypt begin to blur together, their elements similar: a heavy pylon entranceway, staggeringly tall colonnades, small, secret sanctuaries at the back.

But, in truth, each temple has its own distinct personality. Karnak sprawls, much of it in ruins, its piles of rubble evoking Ancient Rome. Dendera has a magical feel, with its turquoise blue ceiling painted with astrological iconography. Luxor’s colonnade is open to the sky, reveling in the light and warmth of the sun.

And Medinet Habu, too, has a unique design; it evokes a feeling of military might not found in other temples. This martial flair is fitting, for Ramesses III built the structure to celebrate the victory of a battle that threatened to end the Egyptian Empire for good.

Duke and Wally loved visiting the temple complex, which was quite deserted

Duke and Wally loved visiting the temple complex, which was quite deserted

New evidence revealed that Ramesses III did meet a gruesome end at the hands of his conspirators.

CT scans of his mummy found a deep slash across his throat.
The bas-reliefs on the pylon gateways depict Ramesses III’s victory over the fierce Sea Peoples

The bas-reliefs on the pylon gateways depict Ramesses III’s victory over the fierce Sea Peoples

Pirates of the Mediterranean: The Sea Peoples’ Slaughter

They came from the sea, though historians aren’t quite sure of their homelands. They were fierce, ruthless and mighty warriors. All around Ancient Egypt, neighboring empires fell under the Sea Peoples’ barrage. They even conquered the Hittites, Egypt’s sometimes-friends, sometimes-foes.

Some of the bas-reliefs were still works in progress

Some of the bas-reliefs were still works in progress

Chariots helped Egypt gain advantages in battle

Chariots helped Egypt gain advantages in battle

If you defeat warriors who were undefeated, you brag about it, like Ramesses III did

If you defeat warriors who were undefeated, you brag about it, like Ramesses III did

So when they finally came for Egypt in 1179 BCE, Ramesses III must have been worried. He staged the war on two fronts. One, a land battle at the delta of the Nile, was successful, but its lack of detail belies the probability that losses were severe (and therefore glossed over in the official record).

We know more of the second battle, which went more strongly in Egypt’s favor. This naval skirmish wiped out the Sea Peoples, beginning with a hail of arrows and ending with the capsizing of the Mediterranean ships.

Ramesses III turned his mortuary temple into a war memorial, calling it the Mansion of Millions of Years of King Ramesses, United With Eternity in the Estate of Amun. That’s quite a mouthful, so I’m glad the site now goes by its Arabic name.

The temple is infamous for being the site of the Harem Conspiracy

The temple is infamous for being the site of the Harem Conspiracy

Inside Medinet Habu

The imposing entrance pylon façade strikes the visitor immediately as severe, a brutal sand-colored monolith. This is the fortified gatehouse Ramesses III built and was modeled on Syrian migdol gates he had encountered on his military campaigns. Adding to the fortress feel was a high mud-brick wall that once enclosed the complex.

Upon entry, there are decaying statues of Sekhmet, the lioness-headed goddess of war

Upon entry, there are decaying statues of Sekhmet, the lioness-headed goddess of war

Aside from towering depictions of pharaohs, you don’t see many statues in temples

Aside from towering depictions of pharaohs, you don’t see many statues in temples

What deity did Ramesses choose to feature immediately inside the gate? Why, none other than Sekhmet, the fierce lioness-headed goddess of war.

It was in these rooms at the top of the structure where Ramesses III hung out with his many wives — and where he met his demise

It was in these rooms at the top of the structure where Ramesses III hung out with his many wives — and where he met his demise

Treason in the Harem

The top floor of the gatehouse was where Ramesses hung out with his harem. The carvings here show Ramesses III in intimate poses with various wives or relaxing in a chair playing board games.

But all wasn’t as idyllic as pictured. “There was something about the claustrophobic atmosphere that fed the bitter jealousies and personal rivalries of the king’s many wives,” writes Toby Wilkinson in The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. “With little to occupy their minds besides weaving and idle pleasures, the more ambitious concubines nurtured resentments, angry at the lowly status of their offspring and wondering how they might improve their own and their children’s fortunes.”

The Second Courtyard later became a Christian church in the 9th century

The Second Courtyard later became a Christian church in the 9th century

The statues were preserved because they were covered in mud by the Coptics

The statues were preserved because they were covered in mud by the Coptics

In 1155 BCE, one of the pharaoh’s secondary wives, Tiy, plotted to assassinate Ramesses III as well as his heir apparent, Prince Ramesses, and install her son, Pentawere, on the throne. The plot, known as the Harem Conspiracy, grew to include a mutiny in the army and a revolution in the countryside. But as the plan became intricate, more and more people became involved, and eventually someone blabbed.

The conspirators were arrested and tried at a tribunal. Found guilty, they were forced to commit suicide. Those who were involved to a lesser degree were horribly disfigured, their noses and ears hacked off to permanently mark them as convicts.

Not only was this a mortuary temple, it was also Ramesses III’s palace. It was very unusual to combine both of these buildings into one complex

Not only was this a mortuary temple, it was also Ramesses III’s palace. It was very unusual to combine both of these buildings into one complex

New evidence revealed that Ramesses III did meet a gruesome end at the hands of his conspirators, though. Researchers reexamined his mummy with CT scans and found a bone-deep slash across his throat that would have been fatal.

Medinet Habu is a beautiful structure — and the site of a pharaoh’s assassination

Medinet Habu is a beautiful structure — and the site of a pharaoh’s assassination

The underside of this gateway shows the winged sun amongst other paintings

The underside of this gateway shows the winged sun amongst other paintings

Like many other Ancient Egyptian temples, you proceed through a series of courtyards

Like many other Ancient Egyptian temples, you proceed through a series of courtyards

From Temple to Amun to Mortuary Temple to Christian Church

The temple within dates to 1490 BCE and was dedicated to Amun, the god of creation and fertility, by Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. It was deemed a magical site, and even today, local farmers are said to believe in the protective powers of Medinet Habu.

Is Duke feeling the magic that Egyptians to this day believe is imbued in this holy site?

Is Duke feeling the magic that Egyptians to this day believe is imbued in this holy site?

Medinet Habu includes a larger version of the Ramesseum. Seems like Ramesses III had to one-up his father

Medinet Habu includes a larger version of the Ramesseum. Seems like Ramesses III had to one-up his father

Ramesses III chose this spot for his mortuary temple. It’s essentially a larger-scale version of the Ramesseum, Ramesses II’s mortuary temple — which makes me feel less bad that we skipped visiting that particular temple in favor of this. The pharaoh enclosed the temple within his own, larger complex.

The site functioned as the administrative center of western Thebes, and it was here that the workmen who constructed the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings went on strike when their payment was late.

The shaded parts of the colonnade still have blue paint visible

The shaded parts of the colonnade still have blue paint visible

These symbols were ankhs (representing life) with arms holding was scepters (power, dominion)

These symbols were ankhs (representing life) with arms holding was scepters (power, dominion)

Shh! Don’t tell anyone, but Wally liked Medinet Habu better than Hatshepsut’s temple

Shh! Don’t tell anyone, but Wally liked Medinet Habu better than Hatshepsut’s temple

After the Ramesside period, Libyans took control of Egypt, and Medinet Habu gained a dubious claim to fame. The Libyan rulers plundered the tombs of the pharaohs, taking all the riches to the state treasury, and unwrapped the royal mummies in the hunt for hidden jewels. Under the orders of Butehamun, the scribe of the necropolis, in 1066 BCE, the mummies were taken to Medinet Habu for processing and rewrapping before being unceremoniously dumped into the tomb of Amenhotep II.

Hundreds of years after Medinet Habu was built, in the 9th century, Rome’s dominion stretched into Egypt, and the Coptic Christians established the first church in the country. Its ruins remain, off to the right side of the complex. The monk cells behind the church were used for medical experiments, our guide Mamduh told us. Yes, there once was a time when religion and science were seen as compatible.

Look closely: In addition to hands, soldiers are presenting war trophies of chopped-off penises to claim their bounty

Look closely: In addition to hands, soldiers are presenting war trophies of chopped-off penises to claim their bounty

Chopped-Off Hands and Penises

In the first courtyard, there’s a window of appearances, where the pharaoh would greet his subjects and reward military commanders. This portico connects the temple to the palace. One of the bas-reliefs on the wall here shows soldiers collecting their bounty by presenting the severed hands of their enemies to the pharaoh. But, Mamduh told us, some of the soldiers tried to double up on their rewards by cutting off both of their victims’ hands. So the king decided to come up with another prize to collect. Gee, what’s portable, and something men only have one of? If you look at the carving, you’ll see that in addition to tossing out hands, the soldiers are also presenting severed penises.

A popular design element in Ancient Egypt was the lotus column, constructed to mimic the plant that symbolized Upper Egypt

A popular design element in Ancient Egypt was the lotus column, constructed to mimic the plant that symbolized Upper Egypt

Out back is the Great Hypostyle Hall, modeled after Karnak’s — again Ramesses III gained inspiration from his father, Ramesses II

Out back is the Great Hypostyle Hall, modeled after Karnak’s — again Ramesses III gained inspiration from his father, Ramesses II

Only the bases remain of most of the columns

Only the bases remain of most of the columns

There are four rose granite statues at the very back of the complex. They depict Ramesses III with Maat, the goddess of truth and justice, and Thoth, the god of wisdom

There are four rose granite statues at the very back of the complex. They depict Ramesses III with Maat, the goddess of truth and justice, and Thoth, the god of wisdom

This delightfully grisly scene is just one reason this temple, so rich in history, is well worth visiting. So don’t dick around — add this to your Luxor itinerary. –Wally

The design of Medinet Habu borrows from the military gatehouses Ramesses III encountered in Syria

The design of Medinet Habu borrows from the military gatehouses Ramesses III encountered in Syria

 

Abu Simbel: Ramesses II’s Ego Run Wild

This stunning but crowded day trip from Aswan has been moved from its original location.

Add Aswan to your itinerary and spend a morning at Abu Simbel

Add Aswan to your itinerary and spend a morning at Abu Simbel

Pharaoh Ramesses II embarked upon one of the most ambitious construction programs in Ancient Egypt. But it was his temple in Abu Simbel, far from the judgemental eyes in Memphis and Thebes, in the southernmost part of the Egyptian Empire that he gave his megalomania free reign.

There’s a discrepancy in the dating of the site, but it took place over two decades, either 1264-1244 BCE or 1244-1224 BCE.

The Abu Simbel temples were chopped into 16,000 or so blocks — and reassembled like a giant-sized puzzle in an artificial mountain 200 feet higher.

Carved into the side of a sandstone cliff, Ramesses II’s temple to his own awesomeness immediately impresses the visitor with its four massive seated colossi of the king that rise 69 feet high. One, sadly, has lost its torso, which now lies shattered at its feet.

Four seated colossi of Ramesses II are larger than life, at 69 feet tall

Four seated colossi of Ramesses II are larger than life, at 69 feet tall

A carving of Ra-Horakhty, the conflation of two sun gods (noticeably smaller than the statues of Ramesses II), stands in the center of the façade. A line of baboons decorates the top of the exterior, which faces east, with the rays of the rising sun bathing the frieze in light. Baboons were associated with the sun, as their cries were thought to greet the dawning of a new day.

Inside, the first hall contains eight giant-sized replicas of the pharaoh in the Osiride style, meaning they have their arms crossed over their chests to portray Ramesses as Osiris, lord of the underworld.

We don’t call him Ramesses the Great for nothin’.

The first hall features eight giant statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, the god of the underworld

The first hall features eight giant statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, the god of the underworld

Ramesses II was quite the egotist — his image is all over the temple

Ramesses II was quite the egotist — his image is all over the temple

It’s crazy to think that the temple is around 3,200 years old!

It’s crazy to think that the temple is around 3,200 years old!

In theory, though, the Great Temple was dedicated to Ra-Horakhty, Amun (creator god of Thebes) and Ptah (creator god of Memphis). Oh, and the deified Ramesses II rounded out the grouping, of course.

It’s a family affair at Abu Simbel — those smaller statues at the bottom are Ramesses’ wife, mother and children

It’s a family affair at Abu Simbel — those smaller statues at the bottom are Ramesses’ wife, mother and children

Building the temples in the southernmost part of the country, facing Nubia, also acted as a deterrent to any invaders coming from that direction. They would see these massive statues of their enemy and would hopefully be frightened away.

The temple was a genius stroke of propaganda. The famous Battle of Kadesh, in which the Egyptians fought the Hittites, actually ended as a stalemate. But that didn’t stop Ramesses from declaring a victory and commissioning numerous carvings portraying himself as the protector god and showcasing his “triumph” over one of Ancient Egypt’s archenemies.

Other reliefs on the interior walls are decorated with scenes showing the king defeating the Syrians, Libyans and Nubians, presenting prisoners to the gods.

The reliefs inside showcase Ramesses’ military “victories,” including the famous Battle of Kadesh, which actually ended in a draw

The reliefs inside showcase Ramesses’ military “victories,” including the famous Battle of Kadesh, which actually ended in a draw

Abu Simbel was built on the border of Nubia as a deterrent to invasion, and shows a line of Nubian slaves

Abu Simbel was built on the border of Nubia as a deterrent to invasion, and shows a line of Nubian slaves

At the very back of the temple, carved deep into the mountain, lies the innermost sanctuary, the holy of holies. It houses four statues. There are the three great state gods of the late New Kingdom: Ra-Horakhty, Ptah, Amun-Ra and, no surprise here, the deified Ramesses.

Sunlight bathes these three of these gods on two days only: February 21 and October 21 (some sources say it’s the 22nd), one of which is thought to be Ramesses II’s birthday, the other possibly his coronation day. The figure of Ptah, associated with the underworld, remains in partial shadow.

The temple next door is fit for a queen — in fact, it’s dedicated to Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari

The temple next door is fit for a queen — in fact, it’s dedicated to Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari

Nefertari’s Temple to Hathor

Nearby is another temple, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, though it really seems to be for Nefertari, Ramesses II’s chief wife (pharaohs were polygamous, with a harem full of spare wives). Even here Ramesses insisted upon sharing the spotlight: Out front are two 33-foot-tall statues of the queen, along with two more of the king. Diminutive figures of their children round out the family portrait.

What was groundbreaking at the time, though, was that Ramesses II portrayed his favorite wife as equal to him — her statues on this temple are the same size as his.

Inside, while it’s still impressive, the pillared hall didn’t get as much attention as the one next door. The Hathor columns, a popular style at the time, where the pillars are topped with the head of one of the most revered deities in the Egyptian pantheon, look downright amateurish in comparison. Hathor, considered the first goddess, was depicted with bovine features. The heads atop the columns all have cow ears.

Don’t have a cow! These Hathor columns aren’t as ornate as those in Ramesses’ temple

Don’t have a cow! These Hathor columns aren’t as ornate as those in Ramesses’ temple

On the rear wall, Hathor is depicted as a cow emerging from a mountain, with the king standing beneath her chin. Nefertari is shown participating in the divine rituals — on equal footing as Ramesses.

Nefertari is shown as a divine being, being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis

Nefertari is shown as a divine being, being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis

Fun fact: Abu Simbel isn’t what the complex was called in ancient times. In fact, it’s supposedly named after the local boy who led one of the archeologists to the site. Abu Simbel is a bit more catchy than the original name, Hut Ramesses Meryamun, the Temple of Ramesses, Beloved of Amun, if you ask me.

The entire temple complex was cut into pieces and relocated on higher ground to avoid it being flooded by the Aswan High Dam

The entire temple complex was cut into pieces and relocated on higher ground to avoid it being flooded by the Aswan High Dam

A Monumental Relocation Project

The Abu Simbel you’re visiting today isn’t at the same spot it was in ancient times. The original site has been submerged beneath the waters of the newly formed Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan High Dam. What happened to the temple complex?

Egyptians (and UNESCO) couldn’t bear to have such a stunning monument lost beneath the water. So, from 1963 to 1968, teams underwent an impressive undertaking. They chopped up the entire temples into 16,000 or so blocks — and reassembled them like a giant-sized puzzle in an artificial mountain 200 feet higher.

Instead of repairing the sculptures — as mentioned, one of the colossi has lost its head (and upper body) — the project team chose to keep the temples exactly as they were before the relocation.

If you arrive close to opening time, you’ll be stuck with busloads of other tourists. But around noon, the complex was much less crowded

If you arrive close to opening time, you’ll be stuck with busloads of other tourists. But around noon, the complex was much less crowded

Visiting Abu Simbel

If you’re staying in Aswan, chances are your guide will want to get an early move on. Abu Simbel is, after all, a three-hour drive away. But if you leave at the crack of dawn, around 6 a.m. like us, you’ll arrive at the same time all the massive tour buses pull in as well. That meant we arrived at the impressive edifice along with swarms of other visitors. There’s nothing that takes you out of the experience more than having to share an enclosed space with throngs of tourists taking selfies for Instagram and moving en masse all around you.

We suffered through a claustrophobic exploration of Abu Simbel, then went over to see the Nefertari temple. When we returned to Abu Simbel, it had largely emptied out since it was around noon. Only then did we experience the awe of this sacred space.

If you want to take a picture without swarms of tourists, snap one as you come back from Nefertari’s temple, where a low wall obscures the crowds

If you want to take a picture without swarms of tourists, snap one as you come back from Nefertari’s temple, where a low wall obscures the crowds

In an effort to prevent congestion, guides can’t go in the temples, so Mamduh, from Egypt Sunset Tours, gave us the rundown and then set us free, meeting us back at the café near the entrance.

Admission costs 200 Egyptian pounds, and be sure to spring for the 300 L.E. photo pass. This was one of the sites where we saw guards forcing violators to delete the pics right off their phones.

Like most sites you’ll visit in Egypt, you have to walk through the bazaar on your way out. As we hurried through, a dagger with a curving horn handle caught my eye. Duke likes to joke that everywhere I go I look for daggers and dollies (it’s funny cuz it’s true). I negotiated a price of 350 L.E., or about $20. I could have probably gotten him to go lower, but I was OK with that price.

As we exited on the other side of the temple hill, a policeman smiled and began chatting with us. Of course we had no idea what he was saying, but it seemed like he wanted to pose for a picture with us (for a tip, naturally). He presented his machine gun like he was offering for us to hold it, but I hope I was wrong about that. –Wally

 


Al Moudira: A Dream Oasis in Luxor, Egypt

Escape the hassle. This idyllic, under-the-radar Luxor hotel on the West Bank of the Nile has plenty of personality.

This elaborate woodwork forms one wall of the central courtyard

This elaborate woodwork forms one wall of the central courtyard

Wally and I found ourselves on a narrow road, passing children driving donkey carts, wagons piled high with sugarcane and the rugged otherworldly stretch of the Theban Mountains on the horizon.

Once we arrived at the Hotel Al Moudira and told our guide Mamduh this was where we were staying, he became visibly concerned. He even accompanied us to reception to confirm that this hotel, in the middle of nowhere, was where we really wanted to stay.

We could understand his apprehension. The sprawling Al Moudira is set back from a dusty two-lane road, in the midst of a tiny rural village surrounded by acres of fertile farmland. Mamduh just couldn’t understand why we would want to stay outside the urban center of the East Bank. But Al Moudira’s remoteness is a large part of its appeal.

The minute you enter the confines of the hotel, you’ll know you’re someplace special

The minute you enter the confines of the hotel, you’ll know you’re someplace special

We stopped by the reception room to check in and were each served a refreshing glass of karkadeh, sweetened, chilled hibiscus tea. I quickly asked if there was a bathroom nearby, as we had driven from Aswan to Luxor that day and it was a long distance between our last stop at Edfu and the West Bank. As I passed a trio of colorful wooden figurines, and saw the vintage oil-painted portraits — one of a man with a rather bushy moustache, and the other a silver-haired matron wearing a pearl necklace — outside their respective bathrooms, I knew we had found the perfect place to spend the next four nights.

The reception area

The reception area

Quirky artwork can be found here and there, revealing the proprietress’ sense of humor

Quirky artwork can be found here and there, revealing the proprietress’ sense of humor

For Wally, all he needed to see was the gurgling fountain in the open-air central courtyard, and he was grinning from ear to ear. And that was before he knew we had our own fountain in our room!

Our room opened to a courtyard filled with vibrant flowering bougainvillea, a fountain, and a sitting area

Our room opened to a courtyard filled with vibrant flowering bougainvillea, a fountain, and a sitting area

A Tour of Al Moudira

We passed through the entrance hall, which leads to the stunning central courtyard. The fountain stands in the middle, while at the far side, light filtered through an intricate cedarwood mashrabiya screen integrated into the main pavilion, creating an inviting seating area complete with cushioned banquettes for guests to perch and relax on.

A raised platform in the courtyard is gorgeously appointed and is a great spot to relax before dinner

A raised platform in the courtyard is gorgeously appointed and is a great spot to relax before dinner

Garden paths made of repurposed tile meander throughout Al Moudira

Garden paths made of repurposed tile meander throughout Al Moudira

The man leading us to our room stopped to introduce us to a dark-haired woman. “This is the boss!” he exclaimed. “Al moudira! She is the owner, the designer, the manager — basically, she does everything!”

It wasn’t until later that we made the connection that Al Moudira means “boss,” specifically the female form of the word.

The junior suite Wally and I stayed in was airy and spacious (not so “junior”) and included a generous sitting area, a central fountain surrounded by cushions, air conditioning, a minibar and a king-size canopy bed. The Wi-Fi was weak in our room, but that’s the point. The vibe is low key and has been designed for you to unplug. Don’t worry, though. You can still post to Facebook and Instagram (though don’t you dare check that work email) with the Wi-Fi in the main courtyard.

Our spacious room had a fountain in the middle of it!

Our spacious room had a fountain in the middle of it!

Every morning, light filtered through the colored glass set into the vaulted domes of our enormous en-suite bathroom.

The complex itself is comprised of a maze of open arches, crowned with cupolas and enclosed inner courtyards, each with its own fountain and verdant oasis.

The beautiful objects found throughout the hotel have been collected by Zeina, the owner

The beautiful objects found throughout the hotel have been collected by Zeina, the owner

The Boss Tells Us the History of Al Moudira

One evening while Wally and I were relaxing on the central courtyard terrace, we met Al Moudira again, the charming multilingual Lebanese proprietor, hostess and creative force behind the hotel, Zeina Aboukheir.

I casually asked if anything had stood where the hotel was and she paused our conversation to retrieve a scrapbook that a close friend had made for her, documenting the process and various inspirations for her desert palace. A dedication on the first page caught my eye. It read, “Al Moudira, ou la folie de Zeina” (the madness of Zeina — or as we might say, “Zeina’s crazy idea”).

Construction began in 2000, but the hotel feels old and grand, due to the vintage finds and architectural salvage Zeina has amassed from her travels and effortlessly layered into her labor of love, including Persian carpets, salvaged wooden doors and mother of pearl-inlaid chairs.

I told Zeina I loved the artworks that adorn the walls of the Eastern Bar, hand-colored boudoir images from a series titled Femmes de Bou Saada, and she replied, “Yes, aren’t they wonderful?”

The Eastern Bar has naughty artwork, games and a piano

The Eastern Bar has naughty artwork, games and a piano

Enjoy a cocktail before and/or after dinner

Enjoy a cocktail before and/or after dinner

The bar evokes a cozy parlor in a British mansion

The bar evokes a cozy parlor in a British mansion

Zeina purchased the desolate plot of land and set out to transform it into a storybook refuge. She hired Olivier Sednaoui, who specializes in vernacular architecture, which incorporates traditional regional and indigenous styles. Sednaoui had previously built his own home near Medinet Habu, inspired by the methods and techniques of Hassan Fathy, a pioneer in sustainable mud brick architecture.

The hotel is named for Zeina’s nickname: the Boss Lady

The hotel is named for Zeina’s nickname: the Boss Lady

Zeina and the architect had many spirited debates over the concept of the hotel complex.

“Did you get your way?” Wally asked.

“For the most part,” Zeina said, smiling.

She added, “He was very good at brickwork. But that’s all he wanted to do. When that was finished, he left.”

No shrinking violet, Zeina persevered over the following years, assembling a team of local workers and craftsmen, along with Lebanese artist Mario Dahab, whose flourishes can be seen throughout the boutique hotel. This can-do spirit earned her the nickname Al Moudira. When it came time to decide a name for the hotel, she already knew what to call it.

Lush plants, soothing earth tones, arches and cupolas are all part of the relaxing aesthetic at Al Moudira

Lush plants, soothing earth tones, arches and cupolas are all part of the relaxing aesthetic at Al Moudira

“The Only Place Possible in Luxor”

The hotel’s interiors have a theatrical quality, blending Egyptian, North African and Near Eastern styles. As Zeina told us, “I find things I like…and then figure out where to put them.” For example, the piano in the Eastern Bar was discovered at a flea market in Alexandria.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised when she told us that the hotel has received celebrity guests, including French fashion designer Christian Louboutin, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger and supermodel Kate Moss — who we learned, much to our dismay, was there just a few days before we were.

Wally and I ate breakfast and dinner al fresco in the communal courtyard, partly because there wasn’t another option nearby, but also because the meals we had there were delicious. The menu changes nightly and features a variety of Mediterranean, Eastern and European-inspired dishes — all at a remarkably affordable price.

Lunch of mezze, or small dishes, which we enjoyed al fresco by the pool

Lunch of mezze, or small dishes, which we enjoyed al fresco by the pool

The central courtyard is where most guests have breakfast and dinner

The central courtyard is where most guests have breakfast and dinner

Service was warm and hospitable, and we felt like we were guests at a lavish caliphate’s winter palace. I enjoyed hearing the sound of rustling palm fronds and birdsong as well as the occasional call to prayer while exploring the beautifully landscaped grounds. (We got a bit lost on more than one occasion.)

During our stay, the large swimming pool was the perfect place to seek refuge from the strong midday sun, and Wally and I looked forward to spending a few hours reading and relaxing poolside after exploring the hot and arid West Bank.

The pool is where the action is in the afternoon

The pool is where the action is in the afternoon

Get a drink or a bite at the pool pavilion

Get a drink or a bite at the pool pavilion

You will have to share your stay with flies, but there were small brushes placed everywhere (Wally called them shoo-flies), which act like a horse’s tail to swat away the pests. Duke would rest the shoo-fly by his head, convinced that this trick kept the flies at bay.

If you’re planning on visiting Luxor and are looking for the perfect place to stay within close proximity of the ancient pharaonic sites of the West Bank, and prefer a restful refuge not in the midst of the Luxor chaos, look no further than Al Moudira. You’ll soon learn that a stay here is the perfect getaway, or to, quote Louboutin: “For the most divine hotel owner, Zeina, and for the garden — basically the only place possible in Luxor.” –Duke

Forget downtown Luxor — we recommend staying at this refuge on the West Bank

Forget downtown Luxor — we recommend staying at this refuge on the West Bank

Hotel Al Moudira
Luxor
West Bank,
Hager Al Dabbeya
Egypt

 

Shopping in Egypt

Whether you’re hitting the Khan el-Khalili or the Luxor souk, here’s what to expect — and how to get the best bargains.

A lot of the handicrafts in Egypt are cheap-looking — probably cuz they were made in China

A lot of the handicrafts in Egypt are cheap-looking — probably cuz they were made in China

Zeina had warned us — but we didn’t heed her advice. She owned the hotel we stayed at in Luxor, and would make the rounds at dinner, stopping by the tables to chat.

We asked her about good shopping in Luxor, and she said if we wanted handicrafts we should head to the souk.

We weren’t 50 feet inside the Luxor airport before we were detained.

She pleaded with us to resist buying anything that even remotely resembled an antique, launching into a tale about how the model Kate Moss and someone from Christian Dior had stayed at her hotel last week, and even though they had a private plane, they were delayed two days because something they had purchased at a shop below the Winter Palace hotel looked like it might be a relic.

Cotton candy becomes an artistic medium at Khan el-Khalili in Cairo

Cotton candy becomes an artistic medium at Khan el-Khalili in Cairo

Aside from the odd street vendor, this is the only food you’ll find at Khan el-Khalili. There aren’t any cafés — just coffeeshops, where the most you can ingest is shisha (hookah) smoke

Aside from the odd street vendor, this is the only food you’ll find at Khan el-Khalili. There aren’t any cafés — just coffeeshops, where the most you can ingest is shisha (hookah) smoke

The next night, it was someone else who bought something at the same shop, who also had a private plane, but this poor gentleman had been sleeping at the police station for three nights while an expert took their sweet time checking the authenticity of the item.

Afterward, Duke and I smiled at each other. Zeina seemed to be a storyteller. And I’m OK with that. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. And I figured there was an underlying morale to her tales, a warning we shouldn’t ignore.

The Luxor Souk has one main drag — and some good finds

The Luxor Souk has one main drag — and some good finds

The Luxor Souk

We arrived at the souk relatively early, around 10:30 a.m. Because it was a Sunday (Easter, to boot), all of the Coptic Christian stalls were closed. Apparently there are a lot of Coptics in Luxor.

We had just entered the bazaar when I spied a shop I knew would appeal to me and Duke.

And sure enough, once we were inside, we started putting items aside: a stone Anubis head as well as a faded blue baboon statue head, a worn-looking blue ushabti servant figurine and other items you could imagine had just been dug out of the desert after being hidden away for centuries.

In other words, we were doing exactly what Zeina had told us not to do. But we couldn’t help ourselves; old-looking shit is our passion.

In less than 10 minutes, Duke and I had piled a dozen pieces onto the table.

A good portion of stalls are shut on Sunday at the Luxor Souk, since the Coptic Christians are at church

A good portion of stalls are shut on Sunday at the Luxor Souk, since the Coptic Christians are at church

It was tough to gauge how much all of these should cost, but we had heard people calling out very low prices at the bazaars you have to walk through before leaving every temple you visit. (Exit through the gift shop.)

So when the vendor said, “$360,” I acted sad and a little disgusted and muttered, “That’s way too high. This is our first shop of the day. We’ll keep going and come back.”

“OK, OK,” the shopkeeper said, laying a hand on my shoulder to prevent me from leaving. “What’s your price?” I was aiming for $50, while Duke quietly said he’d be good with $75.

So I typed 45 on the calculator, to give myself the slightest bit of wiggle room, and the man countered with $150.

“Let’s go,” I told Duke. My famous walk-away ploy.

Again, I was stopped by a hand on the shoulder. “What’s your lowest price?”

“$50,” I said.

“You are tough,” the man said to me. Then, like a predator sizing up the weakest prey, he turned to Duke in a flash. “What’s your final offer?”

And I stood there in a daze as Duke said, “$150.”

“What happened to $75?!” I exclaimed.

But it was too late. Once you agree to a price it’s poor form to then back off.

I shook my head in dismay. But Duke hadn’t done any real shopping the entire trip, and I think he was suffering withdrawal.


The bazaars are a bit of a maze and can get quite claustrophobic

The bazaars are a bit of a maze and can get quite claustrophobic


Motorbikes whizz through the souk — as it got dark, one almost ran right into Duke!

Motorbikes whizz through the souk — as it got dark, one almost ran right into Duke!

How to Get Detained at the Airport

I told the shopkeeper about my fear that we’ll be detained at customs. He laughed it off but said he’d give us documentation. So before we left I reminded him of this, and he scribbled some Arabic on the back of his business card. He told us he had written that we had bought 13 items that were reproductions. We put that into our bag, along with the receipt.

And sure enough, we weren’t 50 feet inside the Luxor airport before we were detained. We had put our bags through security, and the guard said, “Statues?” and called us off to the side.

We spent the next 30 minutes (which felt like an eternity) uncomfortably watching the man slice into the carefully wrapped items, opening them for a woman in a headscarf who scratched at them with a paperclip and held a lighter to them. She always lit them near the top, but I didn’t feel it was my place to suggest she try the back or base instead.

Every time she burned a section, she’d smell it and, without fail, would rear her head back, her nose scrunched up, obviously having smelled something unpleasant — namely, the synthetic materials used in the (all-too-convincing) replicas. But every time she’d grimace at the smell, a wave of relief washed over me.

In the end, she had taken notes on our items, copied down my passport number, then set us free to pack up the wreckage and go on our merry way.

A vendor sips Turkish coffee at Kahn el-Khalili souk in Cairo

A vendor sips Turkish coffee at Kahn el-Khalili souk in Cairo

How Not to Bargain

I was upset with Duke for having caved under the pressure — especially since it was the second time it had happened on the trip.

Despite our better judgement, we had decided to go to an alabaster shop suggested by our guide. In Egypt they’ll suggest alabaster, papyrus and perfume “factories.” At these shops, they’ll show you the creation process (which is actually quite fun), all the while insisting there’s no pressure to buy.

Of course that’s not true. After the demonstration, you’ll be ushered inside and served up a drink (I went for Turkish coffee), a salesperson hovering nearby.

We had decided to get some small flint canopic jars, the four containers in which Ancient Egyptians would place certain organs during the mummification process. I had played hardball, insisting on a low price; the salesman got frustrated, and pounced on Duke like a cobra, waving me away.

The man had started at the absurd price of $65 apiece, and Duke caved at $125 for all four.

As a rule, it’s best to avoid these types of tourist traps, and a good guide won’t pressure you to go to them. (They get a commission or some small payment for luring in unsuspecting victims.)

But you will hear the depressing refrain, “Everything in the souk is made in China,” so perhaps those type of stores are one of your only guarantees of quality materials and handcraftsmanship.

The charming Linda at her Luxor shop, Habiba Gallery

The charming Linda at her Luxor shop, Habiba Gallery

Habiba: The Best Shop in the Souk

If you’re in Luxor and want locally made handicrafts, you have to stop into Habiba Gallery, a darling shop Zeina had recommended, just off of the main street of the souk, toward the Nile and the ruins of Luxor Temple. It’s run by a friendly Aussie named Linda, who has lived in Egypt for 20 years. Her mission is commendable: She only sells items that are indigenous to regions where they’re made. Some whimsical plates with gorgeous trees and serving dishes with a goat’s head and tail were part of a project for children to try their hand at pottery after school. Now two of those kids have grown up and started a business, which is now one of Linda’s suppliers.

The selection at Habiba is amazing — we just kept adding more and more to our pile, including a handwoven hammam towel, scented soaps, a veiled doll with silver bangles, a framed piece of jewelry and a cloth with a local village scene woven onto it.

The best part is that the prices are fixed and totally fair. Take a break from haggling and stop in for a chat with the charming Linda. You’ll come away with some great finds — whether you give them as gifts or keep them for yourself. –Wally

What You Need to Know About the Valley of the Kings in Luxor

Pharaohs were buried in elaborate underground tombs depicting their life and accomplishments and filled with everything their spirit would need for a comfortable afterlife.

When visiting Luxor, you must plan a morning excursion to the Valley of the Kings

When visiting Luxor, you must plan a morning excursion to the Valley of the Kings

Visiting the Valley of the Kings, the mortuary complex of Ancient Egyptian pharaohs has been a lifelong dream of mine. The massive royal necropolis is located in Upper Egypt on the West Bank of the Nile, opposite the ancient city of Thebes, now known as Luxor.

The ancient Egyptians believed that life was merely a brief passage of time followed by another where the deceased pharaoh would gain eternal access to move freely between the world of the living and the dead. The tomb provided a secure resting place and access to the supernatural realm, ruled over by the gods.

The Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul split into two parts after death. The ka, or life force, was the individual’s double, which received the offerings it needed to survive. The second part was the ba, represented as a human-headed bird, which flew around during the day but returned to the tomb at night.

By the time Amenhotep I came to the throne, kings had learned from bitter experience that a monumental tomb, especially a pyramid, was more of a curse than a blessing. Advertising the location of the royal burial for all to see merely attracted the attention of tomb robbers and almost guaranteed that the deceased would not remain undisturbed for eternity. If the king were to enjoy a blessed afterlife, as intended, the nature of the royal tomb itself had to change.

As part of his wider program of religious remodeling, Amenhotep I implemented just such a radical redesign. From now on, the royal mortuary complex would be split into two distinct elements. A mortuary temple, sited prominently on a plain, would stand as the monarch’s permanent memorial and would act as a public focus for the royal cult. Quite separate, hidden away in the cliffs of western Thebes, a royal tomb cut deep into the rock would provide a secure resting place for eternity, without any outward sign to attract unwanted attention.

–Toby Wilkinson, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, 2010

Our guide Mamduh, from Egypt Sunset Tours, picked us up from our hotel at 8:30 a.m., and we set out on our West Bank excursion, which included the Valley of the Kings, the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut and the Colossi of Memnon. Because we’re ancient temple junkies, and we still had the better part of the afternoon, we also added the Tombs of the Nobles and Medinet Habu. Prices included a comfortable air-conditioned car, a driver, our English-speaking guide, Mamduh, and general entrance fees.

Wally and I arrived at the site around 9 a.m., avoiding the tourist rush and blistering heat of the late afternoon. It was already 87ºF and would climb over 100º.

The site was chosen in part because its tip, the peak of El Qurn, resembled a pyramid

The site was chosen in part because its tip, the peak of El Qurn, resembled a pyramid

Despite the name, the Valley of the Kings is comprised of two distinct valleys. The East Valley is where most of the royal tombs can be found. The site was chosen, in part as it was secluded, but also because it is dominated by the peak of El Qurn, a geological formation resembling a pyramid, sacred to the goddesses Hathor and Meretseger, both of whom were regarded as protectors of the dead. The West Valley contains the tombs of nobles and members of the royal family.

The official name for the rugged landscape in ancient times was Ta Sekhet Maat, or the Great Field, and beneath its barren surface lie more than 60 man-made subterranean tombs cut into the rock to commemorate the lives of New Kingdom pharaohs and wealthy nobles, which date from 1500 to 1070 BCE.  The site’s most famous and intact tomb is that of the boy-king Tutankhamun, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Other famous pharaohs include Hatshepsut, the only female king, and a slew of Ramesside period monarchs.

Don’t you dare graffiti these tombs like those Coptic Christians!

Don’t you dare graffiti these tombs like those Coptic Christians!

To enter the World Heritage Site, Mamduh paid the entrance fee of 400 L.E., which included admission for only three tombs (you’re dependent upon which ones are open that day), a policy implemented to reduce crowds. We paid an additional 500 L.E. to see the tomb of Tutankhamun, and because we wanted to take pictures inside the tombs, we sprang for a 300 L.E. photography permit. (Note that you won’t be able to take photos inside King Tut’s tomb, even with a photography permit.) The tomb of Seti I, which also requires an additional fee, was closed at the time of our visit.

The bas-reliefs in the tombs are amazing, and many retain their original paint

The bas-reliefs in the tombs are amazing, and many retain their original paint

Heads up: If you’re considering taking your chances and skipping the photo permit, don’t. We witnessed more than one tourist asked to show their permit, and when they didn’t have it, they were pulled aside and forced to delete their photos.

We took a yellow trolley up the paved road leading to the site entrance and disembarked at a secondary checkpoint, where you’ll be asked to show your tickets. All of the tombs are assigned a number, preceded by the acronym KV (Kings’ Valley), in the order of discovery, a system established by British Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson in 1827.

You can take one of these cute little yellow trams to get to the archeological site

You can take one of these cute little yellow trams to get to the archeological site

Show your ticket at every entrance, and the guard will punch a hole in it to assure you only visit three.

You’ll be able to see three tombs per ticket at the Valley of the Kings

You’ll be able to see three tombs per ticket at the Valley of the Kings

Tomb Raiders

Building a tomb was a massive undertaking and preparation for burial within the necropolis began the moment a pharaoh ascended the throne. The Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul had dual counterparts and split into two parts after death. The ka, or life force, was the individual’s double (represented symbolically with what I like to refer to as “goalpost hands” atop its head). The ka entered the tomb through a false door, usually above the sarcophagus, to receive the offerings it needed to survive. The second part was the ba, the mobile part of the soul, represented as a human-headed bird. The ba was thought to fly about during the day among the land of the living, but needed to return to the body at night.

The human-headed birds at the bottom are the ba, the part of the soul that can fly around and protect family members after death

The human-headed birds at the bottom are the ba, the part of the soul that can fly around and protect family members after death

A traditional tomb plan consisted of a long corridor, descending through one or more halls, reflecting the nightly descent of the sun-god Amun to the underworld. Most royal tombs had multiple rooms, with the last serving as the burial chamber. Egyptians believed that when a pharaoh died, he (or she) became Osiris, the god of the dead and ruler of the underworld.

Royal tombs have a long, slow descent to the burial chamber

Royal tombs have a long, slow descent to the burial chamber

Another feature common to most tombs is the well shaft, which may have originated as an actual barrier intended to stop seasonal floodwaters from entering the lower parts of the tombs but also served to provide water to the ka.

Although tombs were originally sealed after construction and the burial was completed, many were robbed by the workers of Deir el-Medina, the nearby village which was home to the artisans employed to build and decorate them.

This diorama shows the tombs they’ve discovered — which may be just a fraction of what’s buried in the valley

This diorama shows the tombs they’ve discovered — which may be just a fraction of what’s buried in the valley

Our visit to the Valley of the Kings was a truly memorable experience, and because you’re limited to only three, be sure to take your time and don’t rush through them. –Duke

 

21 Egypt Travel Tips

How to get a visa for Egypt, navigate a police state, exchange money, and be able to take photos in the temples and tombs. Oh, and why you need small bills to go to the bathroom.

Egypt is a trip of a lifetime — but you have to know what to expect. Here Duke and Wally are set to explore the Temple of Philae in Aswan, one of the best-preserved ancient sites

Egypt is a trip of a lifetime — but you have to know what to expect. Here Duke and Wally are set to explore the Temple of Philae in Aswan, one of the best-preserved ancient sites

Egypt isn’t an easy country to navigate — Cairo in particular. It just doesn’t have the sophisticated tourist infrastructure so common in other parts of the world. Plus, it’s essentially a military dictatorship. In many ways, it reminded us of traveling through India, just on a smaller scale.

That being said, Egypt has a mind-boggling amount of temples and tombs to explore. They’re some of the oldest structures on the planet and are remarkably well preserved, having been buried in the sand for thousands of years.

We watched temple guards grab the phones of people who hadn’t bought a photography pass and force them to delete their photos!

Here are 21 tips to help you prepare for a trip to Egypt.

1. If you learn one word, it should be “shokran,” thank you.

When you say this, some people will burst into a huge smile. “You speak Arabic?!” one man exclaimed, joking. It’s great that something so simple can bring so much pleasure. And it goes to show how few travelers — or should I say tourists? — take the time to even bother learning one simple word.

Here’s another easy word: Salaam. It means “peace,” and works as both a greeting and a farewell.

Do you dare wear short shorts? Yes, it’s hot in Egypt, but respect the culture

Do you dare wear short shorts? Yes, it’s hot in Egypt, but respect the culture

2. Follow the dress code.

It’s not mandatory (there aren’t any morality police like in Iran), but do you really want to be the tourist that disrespects the culture of the country you’re visiting?

For men, T-shirts are OK, and I suppose you can get away with wearing shorts, but why? You won’t see a single Egyptian wearing them. Just bring along a couple of pairs of lightweight pants. Maybe it’s time to invest in a pair of linen pants, which travel extremely well.

For women, you don’t have to wear a headscarf — in fact, plenty of local women forgo this. Just cover your shoulders and wear pants or long skirts and dresses, preferably to the ankle. Again, you can get away with less coverage — heavens knows Egyptians see all sorts of lack of modesty at tourist attractions — but why be that person?

3. Pack sunblock.

Cuz it’ll be sunny, dusty and hot. Very hot. It reached 100 while we were there in late April.

4. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t drink the water.

Always have bottles of water to stay hydrated and to brush your teeth. You may not think that you’re getting dehydrated, but trust us, this can happen swiftly, and heat exhaustion is no joke. Duke suffered a mild case of this which caused him to have prickly heat, lightheadedness and diarrhea, which is no fun when most of Egypt’s sites are in the blazing sun.

5. Upper Egypt is the south part of the country, and Lower Egypt is the north.

Yes, this is counterintuitive to the modern brain. But the River Nile flows northward, so the Ancient Egyptians’ perception of the world was the reverse of ours.

6. You have to stake your ground in lines.

If there are any gaps, people will weasel their way in and have no qualms about cutting in front of you. While waiting in line for customs, a woman behind us kept tapping my backpack to get me to move up, as if pressing into each other would make the line go faster. Eventually, Duke and I formed a line with an annoyed fellow American to block the path of anyone trying to barge past us.

This happens on planes, too. I’m not saying Americans are the models of decorum, but when it comes to disembarking from a plane, no one would ever consider rushing up the aisle. We very patiently wait our turn and let everyone sitting in front of us get off before us. Not so in other parts of the world, including the Middle East. You have to rush into the aisle to prevent fellow passengers behind you from rushing ahead.

7. Getting a visa upon arrival is ridiculously easy.

No paperwork. Just US$25 and you get a sticker.

For other countries we’ve traveled to, like Vietnam and Cambodia, we had to send out our passports to the embassies in Washington, D.C., putting our faith in the U.S. Postal Service. India’s was an even more-elaborate affair, requiring a picture to be taken.

But the visa for Egypt can be purchased at a bank kiosk to the right of the line for customs.

8. It’s a good idea to get a data plan for your cell phone.

Not that we had great luck with Uber in Cairo (we thought we’d never escape from the Khan el-Khalili souk, after waiting for a couple of hours for various Uber drivers who never arrived). But we communicated with our guide service via email, and Wi-Fi was spotty at one of our hotels.

9. Prearrange pickup from the airport.

A mass of guys in navy blue jackets will call out, trying to get you to take their taxi. We like to have our hotels pick us up.

If you do need to get a cab, negotiate the price before you get in. When we returned to Cairo from Luxor, a charming man who played Western pop music took us to the Mena House for 400 Egyptian pounds, while the hotel was going to charge about 1,300 L.E.

Get used to seeing policemen and soldiers toting semi-automatic machine guns everywhere you go, including the gorgeous Dendera Temple

Get used to seeing policemen and soldiers toting semi-automatic machine guns everywhere you go, including the gorgeous Dendera Temple

10. There are machine guns and metal detectors everywhere you go.

You’ll see them at the numerous military checkpoints on the road and outside tourist locations. It’s unnerving to see the tip of a machine gun peeking out a window in a small square tower as you drive down the street or enter the grounds of a temple.

It certainly was the first time we had to go through metal detectors as we entered our hotels. You’ll probably set them off, but they’ll wave you through.

When you’re visiting a site, there’s usually a bin or flat surface to place your cell phone before you pass through. If you’re bringing a bag, expect to have it screened.

The machine guns it seems every police officer and military personnel carry are made of tarnished silver, like something from generations past. And despite their toy-like appearance, resembling what you would play at a shooting gallery on a beachside boardwalk or a traveling carnival, I don’t doubt their lethal power.

11. Don’t expect to get a lot of money out of ATMs.

They’re certainly not as common as in the States, which is to be expected. But the maximum amount you can withdraw is 3,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $175 at the time we visited.

Sometimes the ATM would reject this selection — maybe there wasn’t enough money left — so we’d try 2,000, which usually worked.

The Egyptian pound is abbreviated as L.E., from the French livre égyptienne.

Resist touching the walls: The oil from our skin darkens stone carvings, like these hieroglyphics

Resist touching the walls: The oil from our skin darkens stone carvings, like these hieroglyphics

12. As tempting as it may be, don’t touch the temple walls.

You can see the dark, shiny stains where people have touched certain spots too often. Our guide in Cairo, Ahmed, saw a guy touch the walls of a tomb, and he told him not to. “You’re breaking my heart,” he said, then grumbled to us, “They wouldn’t go to the Louvre and touch the paintings!” He did have a point. These structures have survived thousands of years and still sport their original paintings. Let’s help preserve them for another thousand years.

I know, I know. Wally’s not following his own advice — he’s touching the carvings!

I know, I know. Wally’s not following his own advice — he’s touching the carvings!

13. Get small denominations (especially 5 L.E. bills) cuz you’ll need ’em to go to the bathroom.

Almost every WC (as they’re usually marked, from the Britishism water closet), has someone out front collecting payment of 5 L.E.

Fives are also handy to tip small amounts to someone who helps you in a small way, like a bellboy.

Hopefully you’ll luck out with a friendly, knowledgable guide like Mamduh

Hopefully you’ll luck out with a friendly, knowledgable guide like Mamduh

14. Hire guides everywhere.

There are security checkpoints all over the country, where they record the license plate, telephone number and other information in a ledger. (We always heard the term “Amrikiya,” which I assume meant we were Americans.) These checkpoints are facilitated with a guide and driver. I’m not even sure you could get into sites without a guide.

Plus, you know, it’s nice to know what you’re actually looking at. By the time we had spent a week with Mamduh from Egypt Sunset Tours, Duke and I felt like minor Egyptologists.

Added bonus: The vendors might be a tad less pushy. If you don’t have a guide, I imagine you’d be picked apart like a vulture with carrion. As it is, you’ll still have to ignore endless entreaties from shopkeepers inviting you to their stand, hoping to make a sale.

The roads are much less crazy outside of Cairo, but you’ll still be sharing them with a variety of transportation, including donkey carts

The roads are much less crazy outside of Cairo, but you’ll still be sharing them with a variety of transportation, including donkey carts

15. Egypt is definitely one of those countries where driving is insane.

Horns honk nonstop and pedestrians walk in the street, crossing traffic without a care in the world. I watched a woman with two small children talking on her phone cross a busy street without even a glance at oncoming traffic.

In Cairo in particular, drivers act like they’re playing a real-life video game, narrowly dodging other cars, horse-drawn carts, auto rickshaws, trucks loaded with produce, donkeys and motorbikes, often with a woman on the back sitting sideways, a child in her arms.

Cars come from all directions, and there aren’t any lines on the road. Vehicles speed along, weaving between traffic, straddling two lanes, zooming along at an alarming clip. At night many don’t even use their headlights.

16. Most sites have an extra photography pass you can buy — though a lot of tour guides fail to mention this.

If you want photos, just ante up the 50 to 300 L.E. or so and get the pass. If you don’t, be warned that the guards can be ruthless. At Abu Simbel, for instance, we watched them take the phones of people who didn’t buy a pass and force them to delete their photos! Fortunately for us, our guide Mamduh always asked us prior to purchasing our tickets.

17. Just because you pay for a car for the day, doesn’t mean you get to go wherever you’d like.

The concierge at our hotel in Cairo said we had a driver and guide for the full day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. But we learned that unlike other places you travel to, you’re limited to their itinerary and can’t go off script.

Our guide, Ahmed, made our experience extremely unpleasant, rushing us through the sites of Giza and Saqqara, until we said we had come all this way and wanted to see everything we could. He refused to take us to the Mena House for lunch, telling us that it was ridiculously spendy (and even though we had discussed this with the concierge at the Kempinski the night before) or any other sites, even though we still had hours left.

What’s strange (I’m being sarcastic) is that he would have made the time to stop at the papyrus and perfume shops at Giza, or the carpet schools at Saqqara, if we had accepted his offer. Having suffered through these tourist traps, where guides get commission if you buy anything, we knew to avoid them like the 10 plagues.

18. They don’t believe in seatbelts in Cairo.

Very few drivers bother to wear them, and not many of the backseats have working seatbelts, especially in Cairo. There’s nothing you can do but pray to Osiris or Allah that you’ll safely reach your destination amidst the chaos of the roads.

Thankfully, the other parts of the country we visited, Aswan and Luxor, tended to have working seatbelts — though our driver only slipped his on when we reached military checkpoints.

19. You’ll see a lot of Egyptian men with dark circular marks on their foreheads.

At first we thought these gray smudges might be ash — we visited over Easter and figured it might be some Coptic Christian tradition — but after a while I realized it was the type of mark you’d get from repeatedly rubbing your forehead against something. I suspect it’s a mark from prostrating themselves and bowing their heads to the ground five times a day during their prayers. I imagine some wear it proudly as a public display of piety.

Duke learned this mark actually has a name: zebibah, or raisin. (Given its size, it’s actually more like a prune.)

The one downside to staying on the West Bank in Luxor were the ever-present flies

The one downside to staying on the West Bank in Luxor were the ever-present flies

20. Get used to flies.

They’re everywhere, especially in Luxor. We noticed a slew of small red bites on our lower legs the morning after our first night on the West Bank, and although we didn’t see any mosquitos, they were obviously there. So you might want to pack some bug spray, too. We used Repel 100, which kept those pests at bay.

21. Not to be rude, but you should expect to smell B.O. quite often.

It’s obviously most noticeable in confined spaces like an airplane or a car. This isn’t a dig at Arabs — I suffered through many a stinky bus or metro ride in Europe, believe me. –Wally

Is It Safe to Travel to Egypt?

Turns out it might actually be the best time to visit the temples and pyramids at Karnak, Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. Tourism has suffered — which makes for less crowds.

Margaret riding a camel at the Pyramids of Giza

Visiting Egypt has always been a dream for us. In fact, little Duke created a set a laminated cards to teach people about Egyptian gods and games.

He pretended the lean-to in the backyard was a pyramid.

He even pickled dead birds (naming them all Birda) and wrapped them in tin foil as an attempt to mummify them.

And when his family visited Toronto, Canada, Duke wanted nothing more than to see the King Tut exhibit.

There’s an embarrassment of riches. Everywhere we turned, there was something amazing that had been built two or three or four thousand years ago.

I was lucky enough to see it in Seattle, Washington, where I grew up.

But Duke’s parents thought the tickets were too expensive. A kind museum guard took pity on the heartbroken little boy and let Duke watch his monitor as the security cameras switched from room to room. In this way, Duke sort of got to see the Tutankhamun exhibit.

Entrance to the main temple at Abu Simbel

The two of us have traveled some places that could be considered dangerous (there was a café bombing in Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square in Marrakech, Morocco, the year before we visited, for example). But for some reason, both of us are intimidated by Egypt. I had such high hopes for the Arab Spring, but the world just seems such a mess now.

So I’m always happy to hear about people who have gone somewhere we’ve avoided, like my friend and coworker Margaret. She was astounded by the sights in Egypt — and enjoyed how empty many of the tourist sites were (though she felt sorry for the locals who are dependent upon tourism).

Moral of the story: There’s only one place where a Wonder of the Ancient World still stands. And there’s no reason not to go.

Here’s Margaret’s interview about her trip, accompanied by her father David’s amazing photography. –Wally

Carriages are an alternative to camels when visiting the pyramids

What made you go to Egypt?

I visited Egypt in the spring of 2016 because my cousin was living there at the time. She was teaching at a school in Cairo, but after nearly five years in Egypt, she was preparing to move on. So it was basically my last chance to visit with a built-in guide. I traveled with my dad, who had always dreamed of visiting the pyramids, along with my uncle, another cousin and a family friend.

A colorful fruit stand in downtown Cairo

What was your itinerary?

We made Cairo our home base, spending most of our time there. But we did travel to Upper Egypt (which, confusingly, is the southern part of the country) to visit Luxor and Aswan.

In Luxor we visited Luxor Temple, the Valley of the Kings (which houses 60-some tombs including King Tut’s), Karnak Temple and the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.

Our intrepid adventurer in the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, the only female pharaoh

While we were in Upper Egypt, we took a military convoy to visit Abu Simbel, which are absolutely awe-inspiring temples carved into the mountain around 1257 BCE.

 

With all the turmoil going on, were you nervous at all?

I wasn’t particularly nervous, no. My cousin and several family members had visited Cairo over the last few years and never encountered any problems.

I was a little concerned about being hassled or harassed in the streets, especially after reading all the warnings in guidebooks. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much people left us alone.

 

Did you ever feel in danger?

No, I never felt like I was in danger. There is a military/police presence everywhere, and an intense focus on protecting foreigners.

It was a little disarming to pass through metal detectors to go in and out of hotels or museums, but at the same time, it gave you the perception that there was a lot of security.

That said, there were a few instances that reminded us that we were visiting what most consider a military dictatorship. For example, one night we had drinks at sunset at a decaying restaurant/bar built into the Mokattam Hills surrounding Cairo. It was beautiful looking down at the city as thousands of green minarets lit up with the call to prayer, and we were taking lots of photos. The staff warned us not to take any photos to our right, as we were situated over a military facility. It was sobering to imagine what might be happening down there, but as tourists, we clearly weren’t at any direct risk at all.

Margaret’s father, who took all of these photos, jokes that this guy was searching for Pokémon on his phone

What was the best part of your trip?

This is hard, as it was truly a trip of a lifetime. In Luxor, we visited 3,000-year-old statues that were only discovered several years ago, our guide informed us. And the famous avenue of sphinxes at Luxor Temple is only partially uncovered — they simply haven’t been able to dig them all up yet.

That kind of sums up the embarrassment of riches. It felt like everywhere we turned, there was something amazing that had been built two or three or four thousand years ago.

The pyramids, of course, rise to the top. They are much bigger and more impressive than you could have imagined.

I was also shocked by the gorgeous carvings and paintings in the tombs in Luxor. Miraculously, their paint is still bright red, blue and yellow, some thousands of years after they were created.

 

What was the worst part?

Tourism used to make up a good share of Egypt’s economy, but it has taken a steep decline in the last few years. As a result, we did face a lot of attention from vendors at the tourist sites and museums trying to sell us their products or get us to take a picture with them and their camels (for a tip).

It was a little frustrating constantly getting hassled at these sites and in markets or souks, but at the same time, I understood why they were doing it. As several people explained to us, they were struggling to make ends meet for their families, given the lack of tourists.

 

What was the food like?

We ate a lot of familiar Middle Eastern staples like hummus, tabbouleh, lentils, grilled meats and bread. Because of the lush Nile delta, the fruits are really fresh and delicious.

There are very few bars in Cairo, given its conservative Muslim majority, but my cousin did take us to some wonderful places that felt stuck in time, and in those dark, fading establishments, we drank Sakara beer and ate fava beans.

Ahoy! The captain of a felucca on the Nile River

One afternoon, we picked up Egyptian potato chips to bring with us on a felucca sailboat ride on the Nile, sharing them with our boat captain, who stood at the stern and pushed us along with a long wooden stick.

Take a felucca sailboat ride to see the grandeur of the Nile

Another day, we stopped for tea in the famous Khan El-Khalili, sitting in carved wooden chairs amid the bustle of the market, which sells ornate lanterns, carvings of all kinds and antiquities both fake and real.

All this to say for me, as someone obsessed with food of all kinds, the joy of eating in Egypt was more about the experience than the food itself.

 

How were the people?

They were friendly, open, curious and funny.

We were lucky enough to hire Egyptian guides and drivers to show us around the various sites, all of whom were generous with their time and knowledge about their culture. I loved seeing their pride and enthusiasm about the truly remarkable feats of their ancestors.

Everyone was happy to see Americans visiting again, since there has been such a steep dropoff in tourism, and they were incredibly accommodating to us wherever we went.

I did get a fair amount of stares and a few marriage proposals, but it never bothered me too much. And so many people wanted to get their pictures taken with us, which made me feel like a celebrity. For some reason, lots of mothers gave their babies to my very tall dad to hold, apparently to bring them luck? I never did fully understand that, but I loved their openness.

I did get a fair amount of stares and a few marriage proposals, but it never bothered me too much.