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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.