Updated: May 28, 2020
The arrival in Cairo marked the end of the first part of the tour and unfortunately, it was also time to say goodbye to a big part of the group I’d been travelling through Jordan with. Only five of us would join a new group. This time we’d be sixteen instead of twelve.
Though the morning of the first full day in Cairo was officially the last, most of the members of the original group opted to join the new group anyway for one last adventure. Now a group of twenty, we were off to visit another big spot on the list - the Pyramids! In less than two weeks, I managed to check a second thing off my travel bucket list. Before going, I did know that the Pyramids were close to the city. For some reason, I still didn’t expect to them to be quite so close. That being said, in a city of almost 25 million, everything is kind of close.
The second thing I didn’t expect was just how big The Great Pyramid was. It is absolutely massive on the whole and the individual stones are surprisingly big. They do let you climb up a few stones at the bottom and anywhere there aren’t extra steps, it's quite a struggle to get up one stone from the next. And that is coming from a tall person.
Do you see me? This is about as far as you are allowed to climb up.
Visitors can actually enter one of the main galleries and burial chamber inside The Great Pyramid, for an extra fee of course. The chamber itself is not particularly exciting actually. There are no hieroglyphs or paintings, just a stone tomb in a dark and extremely hot room at the top. The climb up is an awkward one too. The first 140m or so, the passage is narrow and the ceiling is low. Not low enough to crawl but not high enough to stand, it is also on an angle of about 45 degrees going up. The tunnel eventually opens to a second set of steps where you can at least stand up. It doesn’t get any cooler though and the air is stuffy at best. One more low passageway and you hit the main room. Like I said, not much to see but just being able to be inside such a huge piece of history and incredible piece of engineering is what the experience is all about. Heading down is equally as awkward, if not more so because of the angle you move at. Passing is a dance too. It’s a tight and sweaty squeeze to get by anyone you meet in there. It was probably the only time I felt like being back in the desert heat was actually a relief. I’d do it again though.
Headed down again. A little break where you can stand up straight inside.
A little sweaty but we made it through the pyramid!
After the interior climb we spent a bit of time wandering around the perimeter then out to the viewing point. This is the area that makes the pyramids look like they are still in a vast desert. It definitely does make for nicer pictures but if you look closely, you can see Cairo in the haze behind them.
There are also about 100 people, camels and vendors in front of me but its a nice illusion to seem like you've got the place to yourself.
Photo: Rob Sharp
The next stop was the Sphinx. I was pretty excited about this one. I used to build sphinx out of sand when I was a kid. Not sure why, I’ve just always liked them. I thought it would be on the same scale as the pyramids but it is smaller than I expected.
Following the pyramids, we headed to the Cairo Museum. Again, my inner child was losing her mind with excitement. The couple hours we had there was not enough but it was enough to get in some of the highlights like the mummy rooms and the contents of Tutankhamun's tomb. His solid gold funeral mask is truly impressive. Photos are not allowed in parts of the museum to help preserve the collection but I did snap a few in the main section.
Tutankhamun's canopic jars.
Mummies! The best preserved and most important ones are in separate rooms with a strict 'no photo' policy.
Our time in Cairo was always short so after a full day of sightseeing, we headed to the Giza train station to board an overnight train to Aswan. I always like trains so I thought this was fantastic. I love watching the scenery change as you move through the country. The porter for our car was also so friendly and had an excellent sense of humor. While making up our cabin, one of the other group members came by to ask how far away the dining car was. With a completely straight face he politely informed the man that it was six cars away. He still had quite a walk ahead of him. After a moment, he turned to me with a smirk and said ‘It's actually only two cars away.”
We arrived in Aswan mid morning and settled into our hotel rooms. This hotel was the first of many that had a pretty excellent view. Though it did not have a balcony in the room, it overlooked the Nile.
The first site of the day required a boat ride out to Agilika Island, better known as Philae for the temple of the same name there. The temple is dedicated to the goddess Isis, wife of the god Osiris and mother of Horus.
While I enjoyed Philae, Abu Simbel was definitely the highlight of the couple days in and around Aswan. The temple is not in Aswan but further south heading down towards Sudan. We got up while it was still dark to make the 3 hour drive to be there when the early morning sun lights up the temple facades. Not only is Abu Simble stunning, it is also a very impressive feat of engineering. Before Nassar Lake and the Aswan High Dam were created, the entire temple was moved 65 meters higher and 200 meters back to prevent it from being flooded. The temple was cut into pieces averaging about 20 tons each and reassembled. If you look closely, the cut lines are visible in spots but had I not be told it was moved, I would have never known.
Finally caught a moment where no people were around!
Aswan was also the start of our Nile cruise in a traditional felucca sailboat. The majority of the boat was just one big covered deck with cushions with a small kitchen and bathroom at the back. This cushioned area became a living room, dining room and bedroom for our group of 16, our guide Maged, plus three crew. After sailing most of the day, we arrived in the village of Nag al Balida to spend an evening in a traditional Nubian home. When we first arrived, we decided to talk a walk around the village. Our group was the first of the year to visit the island. For the kids of the village, this was big news. 16 foreigners on their quiet island was definitely something they all needed to check out.
At first they were shy, trailing behind our group and popping out from behind walls as we walked through the village. As we walked, the group got larger and bolder. They went from following to being part of the group. They picked the group members that seemed the most interesting to them, giggled as they grabbed our hands to hold, sat close and goofed around, only communicating through laughs and smiles. We spoke no Arabic and they spoke no English.
Two boys in particular took an interest in my camera. At first it was just a curiosity but they were quick learners as I showed them how it worked. They grasped the functionality quickly but didn’t quite understand that the lens and viewfinder didn’t work the same way, resulting in laughs over some very close up shots. Once they started, the did not want to stop!
Photos: Ivi Hariyanto
While our intro to photography was going on, another group of kids had started a football match with other members of the group. There were certainly no pros in our group but the kids didn’t seem to mind and they weren’t letting these new competitors one-up them. This ended up being one of my favourite experiences of the trip. It was not organized and no admission price, just a group of complete strangers genuinely bonding and enjoying an evening together.
The games worked an appetit and we all returned to the homestay for dinner. By the time we got back, almost everything was finished so the only thing left for Lexi and I to do was cut the bread. Dinner was served on mats in the courtyard, followed by a little star gazing and more games with the kids before heading off to bed, all 16 of us in layed out in a covered section of the courtyard in traditional Nubain style.
Our sleeping area is just behind the arched doorways.
After breakfast, picking up some new henna art and saying our goodbyes, we got back on the felucca for another day of sailing. It was extremely relaxing and a nice break from the hectic schedule we'd had on land the last couple of days. The most excitement for the afternoon was a stop to swim in the Nile, which was surprisingly cold but very refreshing in the desert heat. In the evening, we moved up to the roof for dinner under the open sky and the crew treated us to a campfire, traditional songs and some dancing.
Everytime we got close to shore, there were always people there to greet us.
The contrast of the life on the Nile next to the harsh desert just beyond.
In the morning and back on dry land, we boarded another small bus heading for Luxor. The bus rides were always long. We covered so much ground in such a short amount of time but I did enjoying watching the country go by and driving though the villages along the way. While we didn’t get to experience is as much, it was nice to see little slices of the local life in Egypt.
Luxor was one of the places I was looking forward to most. Luxor, on the same site as ancient Thebes was once the capital to the Pharaohs and because of it, is home to some of the best historical sites in Egypt. I’ll admit I was verging on getting templed out by this point but Luxor turned that around pretty quickly. As soon as we arrived and checked in, we were greeted with a stunning view of Luxor Temple and the Avenue of the Sphinx that leads all the way to Karnak Temple. The avenue is still under excavation but it was really pretty cool to see an old route coming back to life.
Karnak Temple was our first historical visit. Walking through the main throughway and through the giant lotus columns is humbling and impressive. Karnak was also the first temple where we got a glimpse of how much colour was actually used in the original buildings. Everywhere we’d visited so far had mainly been stone with very little to no trace of colour. Towards the back of the temple complex, there are still brightly coloured painted ceilings and other coloured details.
The next morning took us to the place I was most excited to see, the Valley of the Kings and Queen Hatshepsut's Mortuary Temple. From the outside, it's completely unassuming and that was the point. On arrival, it looked a little like a Disneyland setup with trams taking tourists a distance that was easily walkable, to the path that leads to the entrances of the tombs. There are 62 tombs in the valley so impossible to do them all in a short amount of time.
The tombs in the Valley of the Kings were unlike anywhere we’d been so far. The preservation and colour inside them is incredible and not at all what I was expecting. I expected the tombs to be worn and muted but the colours are still very vibrant and it's hard to know where to look. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling. The entry ticket allows entry to three tombs and I bought an extra ticket to see Tutankhamen’s tomb so I was able to see the tombs of Ramses III, IV and IX plus Tutankhamun.
Ramses III ruled egypt for approximately 31 years around 1186 - 1155 BC and has one of the largest tombs in the valley. His tomb was discovered in 1886 and he is considered the inspiration for the Hollywood version of Egyptian mummy monster.
Ramses IV took the throne after his father, Ramses III, was assassinated. This tomb was actually used as lodgings for explorers in the area in the 1800’s. The tomb has been open since antiquity and was also used by Coptic Christians. If you know where to look, the tomb walls have quite a bit of Coptic and Greek graffiti on the walls. To me, the most impressive part of this tomb was how vibrant the ceiling paintings are.
Ancient coptic graffiti.
Main entry featuring Ivy and Lexi.
Ramses IX ruled for 18 years and is known for leading a stable and powerful Egypt. Considered the most successful of the Ramses Pharaohs, he established trade routes through Asia and Nubia and reestablished many construction projects across ancient Egypt. His tomb was one of the first to be discovered in the valley.
Tutankhamun is one of the most recognized names in ancient Egyptian history though he only ruled Egypt for around 9 years and died before he turned 20. Some of his fame comes from the mystery surrounding him and where his tomb was and for ‘Tutankhamun's Curse’ after his tomb was discovered because so many members of the team died unexpectedly. Most importantly, his tomb was one of the few to be found completely undisturbed and filled with amazingly preserved artifacts and wealth. Compared to the other tombs in the valley, his tomb is actually quite small. Because he died so young, the tomb was just newly under construction and was left at the size it was at the time of his death. The hieroglyphs and images in the tomb were simply painted on instead of being carved into the stone as they normally would have been. There is even evidence that the whole burial process and completion of the tomb was done so quickly that the paint was still wet when the tomb was sealed. No photos are allowed in his tomb.
Queen Hatchepsut’s Mortuary Temple sits on the other side of the valley. This has always been one of my favourite of the temples because of how unique it is and also because she was one of the only female rulers of ancient Egypt. She ruled as queen but after the death of her husband, she took over power from her young son and declared herself Pharaoh. She ruled Egypt for 20 years and established the largest army in the world at the time.
Happy to leave the desert heat behind, we headed back to the Red Sea. This time to the resort town of Hurghada. I was really hoping for something similar to Dahab or maybe just wanted to go back there but Hurghada certainly was not that. It was also the place I seemed to get the most attention. What I had hoped would be a lazy afternoon at the beach involved for more conversations about spas and tea dates that I would have liked. All harmless but mildly annoying.
Venturing out for the evening to the shops is always something I enjoy. This time I’d gotten it in my head that I needed to do laundry but was tired of paying for hotel laundry service. Our hotel bathroom had the smallest and uncontained shower and a tiny sink so naturally, Lexi and I made it our mission to find proper washing materials. Namely, a bucket. Easy to find in the local market and endlessly entertaining that it made Maged laugh so hard at me carrying a bucket around town.
Photo: Maged Bottross
While the town of Hurghada certainly wasn’t my favourite, the sea did not disappoint. The next day we took a boat out to Giftun Island for more beach time and snorkelling. I don’t care much for just sitting on the beach but the snorkelling/diving in the Red Sea is some of the best in the world so I was happy to get back in the water as soon as possible. The other thing I adored about this island is how stark the comparison of the monochromatic huts and sand of the island are compared to the stunningly blue water. While most were grabbing a beer or napping on the beach, I took a walk around the coast to take it in a try to capture a little bit of it through the lens. Photos don’t do it justice.
Mummies everywhere in Egypt!
Surprise, we headed back to Cairo again. This time, we got a little more of a taste of modern Cairo with a wander through the bazaar, an Islamic tour of the city and walking tour of Cairo. The bazaar was fun to wander through and if I didn’t live out of a backpack, I’m sure I would have made more than a few purchases. Breaking away from most of the group, 4 of us took another tour dedicated to Islam and some of the most famous religious buildings in the city. Our guide, Mohammed picked us up and we headed off to the first stop on the tour, the Citadel of Salah Ed-Din and Mohamed Ali Mosque. The mosque is relatively new by Egyptian standards, with its construction starting in 1830. The mosque is more of a tourist attraction than functional prayer space but a stunning building and the grounds offer a fantastic view of the city.
The second stop was Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan, a nearby mosque and teaching space. One of the things that struck me most about meeting many Egyptians was how open they were and how willing they were to answer any and all questions related to Islam. It was so interesting to spend a while sitting there, discussing the ins and outs of the religion because most of us on the tour really didn’t have a good understanding of it at all. What the media portrays is not the Egypt I experienced at all. While there have of course been issues, and big cities are still big cities, the glimpse of Egypt I saw was a modern city of people just being normal people. People who work, go out with friends, buy groceries and are just trying to live a good life, moving forward and out of the shadows of extremists and perversions of their religion.
We happened to be there in time to hear the afternoon prayer recited.
The evening took us on a walking tour of downtown Cairo, starting with a rush hour subway ride. The highlights for me were Tahrir Square and just getting a chance to get to know Mohammed more. Tahrir Square is of course interesting because of its recent political history and main site of the revolutions in the country. The square has seen a lot though you would hardly know by looking at it now. Almost all traces of the revolution are gone except on the walls on the street near the university. The graffiti and artwork from the revolutions are the surviving visual reminder in the area. Talking to Mohammed was also really interesting as we are similar in age and both happen to work as graphic designers. It’s always interesting to hear the contrasts and similarities between two people who seem to have a lot in common but grew up a world apart.
Our last trip outside of Cairo was Alexandria. The majority of time in Alexandria was free time which was exactly what I wanted at that point. The first afternoon was spent just wandering around the city, eating and taking a stroll along the boardwalk on the Mediterranean with local families and groups of friends to watch the sunset. As with Cairo, the only way to see the city come alive is to see it at night. The streets are all of a sudden filled with people, open shops and so many delicious smells so wandering the night markets was a must.
The other highlight of the city is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina of the new Alexandria Library. Built close to the location of the original ancient library, the new library is beautiful. Like its predecessor, it houses 5 million books though only about 500,000 are currently available for visitors to read. The library also has art galleries, installations and my personal favourite, the rare manuscript room.
The exterior is carved with 120 different dialects and characters from around the world.
My flight wasn’t until the evening so on the last day, I took the opportunity to see one more little bit of Egypt with a trip through Memphis and Saqqara and get to see some of the Old Kingdom. Saqqara was especially great because it is the precursor to the more famous Giza Pyramids. It is the first time the pyramid shape was used in Egyptian architecture. As an added bonus, there were hardly any tourists there!
The trip was an absolute whirlwind of sights, food and people. Its not at all my normal style of travel and honestly, pretty exhausting. That being said, it was an absolutely incredible experience. Climbing through the Great Pyramid is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Wandering through Karnak and Abu Simbel were truly awe inspiring. Teaching the Nubian kids to use my camera was hilarious and swimming in the Nile and the Red Sea were experiences I won’t soon forget.
Finally, I want to say a big thank you to Lexi for being a fantastic roommate, confidant, hiking buddy, photographer - most photos of me here were taken by her - and friend. I truly enjoyed this trip more because you were on it.