By Arlene Larsen / Photos by Thor A. Larsen
Anyone who has seen the great classic movie, ‘Cleopatra’, or had an afternoon perusing the Egyptian Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will admit to harboring a desire to seeing it all in person. It was in that vein in 2008 that we contacted ‘Viking Tours’ in Toronto, Canada to arrange a tour to some of the major sights of this intriguing part of the world. The Viking Tours spokeswoman repeated herself several times that the tour would be ‘private’ at a very reasonable comparative price. After some study, we provided the Viking Tours people with a recommended itinerary. Upon arrival at the Cairo airport, we were met by a young, handsome Egyptian who spoke perfect English.
There is no way to totally prepare yourself for the awe and wonder you experience when faced with the immense monuments and temples of Ancient Egypt. While these architectural marvels are quite familiar to us from history books, movies and travel magazines, the sheer size is staggering when you are there observing them in person. Of course, the idea that these colossal structures were built five thousand years ago with limited tools and technology just adds to our sense of wonder.
Our tour started at the huge pyramid complex on the Giza plateau, outside of Cairo, which served as the burial place for Egyptian kings five thousand years ago. The pyramids were built by three generations of kings of the 4th Dynasty starting circa 2690 BC, by Kings Khufu, Khafu with the smallest built by King Menkaure. The largest pyramid for King Khafu is made from two million, (perfect), blocks of stone. Internally, the largest pyramid has shafts and chambers that the tourists are provided access to. Noting the oppressive desert temperatures, crush of tourists, tight, narrow steep sloping internal path inside the pyramid, the internal exploration of the large pyramid is not for everyone.
As you go around to the other side of the Giza plateau you come upon the magnificent and serene sculpture of the mythical creature, the great Sphinx of Giza. This monument, built in 2500 BC, is 66 ft. high with the body of a lion and the head of a man missing his nose and false beard. The massive Sphinx seems to be guarding over the complex. Looking up at the sand mounds surrounding the monument you can’t help noticing Egyptian soldiers sitting up there on camels carrying machine guns not only guarding their treasures but also securing the safety of the tourists.
The Meridien Pyramidis Hotel in Giza was very comfortable with large rooms, and a restaurant with a café terrace overlooking the entire lobby. The place was the most entertaining hotel that we had ever stayed at because every night we could look forward to observing an elaborate Eqyptian wedding ‘social hour’ held in the lobby before the guests headed to dinner in the private ballroom. One after another, the ladies paraded down a grand staircase to the lobby wearing beautiful, colorful silk gowns with gorgeous gold necklaces, diamonds and gems. These ladies were joined by their husbands in formal wear, who along with their wives would sing and dance being entertained by brilliantly dressed musicians. Sitting in the terrace café, we experienced the best shows nightly in Cairo.
The ancient ‘Old Kingdom’s capital of Memphis developed an area nearby, known as a city of the dead, called Saqqara where Egyptians through the ages perfected different kinds of monuments to honor and help the pharaohs and their entourage journey into the next world. These structures were the precursors to the pyramids at Giza. It is here you find many Mastada’s, box-shaped mounds to house a body and early, poorly made (and now, crumbly) pyramids. In addition, one would find the famous ‘step’ pyramid for King Djoser, designed by Imhotep. We were also able to visit the very unusual tomb built by a high priest of King Djoser. The tomb contained magnificent wall paintings that retained their quality after five thousand years.
We boarded our boats to sail up the Nile, like the pharaohs, to visit the magnificent temples at Karnak and Luxor. These temples are located right on the banks of the Nile. The temples contained many statues of gods, pharaohs, and queens, some exceeding 30 feet high. The temples themselves were built with many rows of 50 foot plus high columns and walls containing illustrations. There was also a broad avenue with sculptured sphinxes which link the two temples. Walking through these temples makes one feel insignificant.
Across the Nile from Luxor was ‘The Valley of the Kings’ where the grave of King Tut was found with all its treasures in 1922. In addition to visiting a number of underground pharaoh burial tombs, we explored the stately, grand temple of Queen Hatshepsut with its large terraces and colorful wall carvings. Interesting that Hatshepsut, a female ruler of Egypt, had her image carved with fake beard, the same as the men would wear.
Our final destination of our Nile cruise was Aswan, where we switched to a sail-boat known as a felucca to visit an island which had the beautiful Temple of Philae (transported there before the dam was completed from a region that would be under water in the future.) The Aswan Dam itself is an enormous structure, built in the 1960’s to contain flooding of the Nile and provide significant percentage of the country’s electricity needs. The lake created, Nassar Lake, is 35 km wide and 550 km long. Our stay at Aswan was at the modern and very comfortable Movenpick Hotel on the Elephantine Island. We especially enjoyed the superlative view from the high vantage point of our balcony where we could watch the bright white sails of the Feluccas gently glide along the glistening Nile in the late afternoon sunshine.
Our next journey was the most spectacular of the tour, traveling by plane and then bus to close to Sudan to see the Temple of Abu Simbel. The Abu Simbel temple is considered one of the most beautiful of all the Egyptian temples and actually even more spectacular than the temple at Luxor. The temple’s entrance is flanked by four 20 meter statues of the pharaoh in charge of its building, Ramses II. The temple was carved out of a mountain side, and cleverly and with much difficulty moved to avoid submerging with the building of the Aswan Dam. The temple’s interior, a triangular layout with the narrowest area in the back has walls richly decorated with bas-reliefs depicting glorious battles undertaken during Ramses long reign.
The last two days of the tour had us located in central Cairo at the Hilton. One day we managed to see the famous, large Alabaster Mosque built by Mohammed Ali in 1830, the Salah ad-Din’s Citadel as well as the ancient Coptic churches as well as an old synagogue in old Cairo, a very ‘full day’ ! Our last day we leisurely strolled through the riches of Egyptian history in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities including a very close look at the treasures of the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen.
In summary, a first visit to Egypt was an exciting experience enriched by our well-educated guides. The warmth of the Egyptian people made us feel comfortable and welcome. Hopefully, the current turbulence will soon settle down and peace returns to this lovely land.