Hello 2017! New year bringing in new resolutions and new goals, even new currency notes; and new places to travel. After having finished a couple of solo trips within the native land in the past year, the eyes were yearning to see settlements and cultures that I had not come in contact with and I did mark off my first of the year, though in a slightly disparate fashion.
Last year, sometime in october, my parents decided to visit Egypt during the winters and they found a suiting holiday package by SOTC, which cemented their intentions of making the visit. They asked me to come along, and at the initial stage I had my reservations agreeing to the plan. Being a solo traveller, the idea of going for an organised tour was a contrasting one to my views on seeing new places, but it was Egypt, a country with a history so rich that it would gravitate any travel enthusiast towards itself. After giving it a fair bit of thought, I decided to tag along with my folks for the trip and we applied for one of the tours that was scheduled for January ’17.
Finally, the day arrived and I was eager to find out if the experience was going to be worth all the excitement build up. I will share the experience with a day by day description of the tour.
Day 1 - January 17, 2017. Flight from Mumbai to Cairo, Sound and Light show at the pyramids.
Our tickets had been booked, visas were on arrival and we began our journey from home on the night of the 16th to board the flight from Mumbai to Cairo. After going through the usual fare of luggage and security check ins, we finally boarded the flight, which took off at 2:30 AM. It was a direct flight which took approximately 6 1/2 hours; most of it spent in deep slumber. We landed at approximately 6:00 AM Egypt time. Egypt is 3 1/2 hours behind IST so it was an early morning when the first glimpse of Cairo was caught by the eye. We were a group of 40 people on the tour, 30 odd of whom were travelling from Mumbai in the same flight; so we regrouped at the airport, where we met our Tour Managers Manavendra and Roshan(both from SOTC) and were further joined by our Egyptologist, Francois Nakhla, who would be our tour guide for the duration of the tour. Egyptologist is the name coined for the guides in Egypt, who are given the designation after completing a gruelling 4 year course studying the profound history of the country. This is done to maintain the authenticity of the information passed on to people travelling to Egypt, thereby preserving the true richness of the culture that prospered in these lands in the ancient times. All of us boarded the bus which took us to our hotel. The journey from to the hotel took approximately 30 minutes, where we shared a brief moment of introduction with each other and ran through the itinerary for the day. We reached our hotel, The Helnan Dreamland, without much hassle. It is located on the out skirts of Cairo. Grand hotel with cosy rooms. The weather was a chilling 10 degrees, winters are fairly cold in Egypt, with temperatures varying between 10-20 degrees celcius through the course of the day. We had a heavy breakfast, and retired into our rooms. The rest of the day spent resting and shaking off the usual grogginess that takes over, thanks to long hours of flying.
We set off for the sound and light show at the pyramids at about 6:00 PM in the evening. The bus journey was a quick one, taking less than 30 minutes to get to the venue. We took our tickets, and entered the venue to catch the first sight of the great pyramids and the sphinx, an architectural marvel dating back to approximately 4500 years, looking at us from a distance. The show began sharp at 7:00, and narrated the story of the origin of the pyramids, of how the ancient pharaohs of Egypt paid paramount attention to the afterlife, which is why the grandiose is existing and well preserved in their final resting places; the tombs, rather than the palaces where they lived their mortal lives. The show ended, throwing generous light behind the history of the pyramids of Giza. We headed back to the hotel post the show, stuffed our stomachs with dinner and called it an early night after a few swigs from the Wild Africa Cream liquor I picked up at the duty free, awaiting the adventures of the following day.
Day 2 - January 18, 2017 - Cairo-Alexandria-Cairo. Catacombs, Pompey Pillar site, The Great Library of Alexandria, Papyrus Factory.
The day began at 5:00 AM as we had to make a bus journey to Alexandria, a city situated approximately 200 KM away from Cairo. We set off from the hotel following a heavy breakfast, where we were greeted by a dense fog which distorted visibility after a few feet. Not long after beginning our journey did the fog actually stamp its authority. The bus came to a halt and the sight wasn’t pretty. We were in the midst of multitudes of vehicles all parked and no one looked in any hurry to move. That is when my tour guide informed me about how the highways in Egypt are not open 24 hours. The officials shut the gates when the weather is not suitable for travel, which was the case here and it was going to be a long, weighted wait till the journey would resume. The guys in the bus started singing songs to ward off the lull brought upon by hours of inactivity and I found it to be the apt moment to get off the bus, not that I despise other people singing.
There were a bunch of locals lighting a bonfire to keep them warm from the piercing cold, they welcomed me into the huddle and there was where I had the first opportunity to touch the local vibe of the place. Egyptians are a jolly lot. They appear to be carefree people going about their daily lives in a laid-back fashion, amidst jokes and fun and frolic. Their curiosity rose upon identifying me as someone not from there and they asked me various questions about me and India. The Egyptians also seem to be ardent fans of Bellwood, with every local found mentioning films, dialogues and names of film stars; evidently it was the easiest way to relate with Hindia, as most of them pronounce the name of our country. I detached myself from their company after chatting for a while, walking along the asymmetric rows of vehicles at a stand still while catching up with a few more locals and making small talk.
The journey resumed after an agonising wait of over three hours, by which time the fog had completely cleared. We made a small pit stop en route Alexandria to refresh ourselves with beverages hot or cold and stretch our limbs a bit while at it. Our itinerary for the day was way behind schedule and my tour manager was making frantic calculations trying to fit everything that we had to do in the remaining time. It was close to 1 PM when we entered the city and without further delay, we headed for the first stop in the city, The Kom El Shoqafa.
Kom el Shoqafa, or the hills of shards are the burial site of a single, rich family that date back to the 2nd Century AD. One can notice the Egyptian style of architecture blend in with the roman and greek styles, who were ruling Egypt at the time of creation of these catacombs. It contained 3 levels, 2 of which are now submerged under water. The first level was compartmentalised into three rooms, all guarded by Egyptian style statues, but with roman clothing, at the entry points. The rooms have holes, which were apparently made to fit the coffins. Photography wasn’t allowed inside, hence I will share a few pictures that I sourced from the internet. We spent about 30 minutes there, after which we headed off to see Pompey pillar. It is a structure created again, during the roman rule in Egypt sometime in the 2nd century AD, to commemorate the victory of a Roman emperor. It was a photo stop, where we spent not more than 10 minutes and once everyone had taken their obvious on tour selfies, we head off for lunch and I was happy as I was already starving. After satiating my appetite to some marvellous italian cuisine, I left with the rest towards the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, one of the largest libraries in the world. Its a massive structure, with over 11 levels with sections varying from children’s books to arts and cultures to even a section for the blind! Quite impressive. This library, is actually built because ancient Alexandria was home to the Royal Library, which in its time housed up to more than 700,000 scrolls of parchment containing the secrets to the arts and culture and history of Ancient Egypt. Most of it was destroyed by attacks on the library by the roman empire, a huge loss of records of ancient culture. A pretty volunteer gave us a guided tour of the library, I could see scores of youth frantically searching clues for their questions, books spewed all over the desk, reminding me of my days in school, though here, I was sure to lose myself here in this mammoth labyrinth of a library. We checked out of there and made our way back towards Cairo. It was past 8 when we reached the capital city, where we stopped by a papyrus manufacturing factory. The smiths of the factory, showed us how papyrus is made and also informed us behind the legacy of the papyrus as a sacred plant in ancient egypt, the main reason being so because the stem of the plant was triangular in shape, which resembled a pyramid. Egyptians pretty much invented paper and papyrus was the paper they made. I picked up a couple of sheets with glow in the dark artwork(trippy!) which you can see if you visit my residence. It was late by the time we reached our hotel, finished dinner and headed back to our rooms, exhausted from the days ordeals and experiences. Again a few swigs from my liquor bottle and I drifted into a slumber, dreaming of myself as a King of ancient egypt(It was only alcohol, yes).
Day 3 - January 19, 2017 - Cairo city tour - Perfumery - The Great Pyramids - Cairo Museum - Khan El Khalili Market.
Easier day today. Woke up at 7 AM and left by 9, by which the sun was out in totality and it was a bright morning. Our first stop was at the perfumery, Siwa Perfumes. The place was run by a Bedouin(Egyptian tribe) family who had been on the business for the last 300 years. It was fascinating to know how Egypt was exporting the raw materials to leading perfume makers across Europe and USA, for the flowers in the Egyptian desert make some really strong essence. I purchased a generous amount of perfume from there and since then I somehow see myself surrounded with gorgeous women all the time, call it co-incidence. The next stop was the most exciting, we headed for the great pyramids. The colossal structure loomed over as our bus reached the parking area. We got off and after a short walk I saw myself facing an ancient architectural marvel. 145 meters high, constructed by simply placing blocks of stones over each other with each stone weighing anywhere between 3 to 30 tons, the totality of stones used amounting to approximately 2.3 million; with the estimated weight of the whole structure a rough 6.5 million tons, it was really tough to absorb the fact that this colossal structure, is a mere tomb. Phew! On it’s both sides stood the smaller two pyramids, belonging to the son and grand son of the emperor who built the first pyramid. One could only enter the biggest pyramid, which surprisingly is completely empty. One can speculate this being an act of robbers, with other theories questioning the entire reason of the pyramid’s existence, contradicting the popular and most established belief of the pyramids being tombs to the great emperors of the 4th dynasty of Ancient Egypt. The temperature inside the pyramids is maintained at an exact 20 degree C, which also happens to be the average mean temperature of our planet. How the ancient Egyptians managed this feat of creating an absolute architectural wonder without the possession of modern technology or the science is a mystery, but they did it, Like a Boss. There are three smaller pyramids, which are the queens pyramids, really smaller in size situated on the southern side of the pyramids and the whole area is over looked by the great Sphinx. Sphinx was a name given to the particular structure by a greek traveller, the real name of it being lost in the chapters of history. After spending a little more than an hour at the site, we left the place and headed to the Museum of Cairo. This place holds some of the most exquisite pieces of work of Ancient Egypt, including a vast number of treasures found inside the tomb of Tut Ankh Amon, one of the most decorated(though, posthumously) Pharaohs of Egypt. There were ornaments and statues created thousands of years ago, some dating back to as old as 3000 BC, and it was awe inspiring to see how they had been preserved for so many years with some figurines even having the colour that was painted on them at the time. I moved a crossed the ancient chariots, weapons, cutlery, jewellery and coffins of ancient times into the royal hall of mummies, where lay the mummified remains of several Pharaohs. Ramses II, Amenothep IIIrd, Akhenaten to name a few lay resting in front of me, with some of them having their nails, teeth and hair intact. Mummification is a preservation process of a dead body, where in all the organs save the heart and kidney are removed from the body surgically to preserve the body from decay. It is done so that the souls of the deceased can recognise their former selves as death, for the ancient Egyptians, was only a journey after life and they believed that they would come back after finishing the journey, just as the sun rises every following day, after setting down into the netherworld which brought about the night in the mortal world. The science behind the preservation is so advance that we don’t have something as efficient as mummification in our modern day world. The tombs of the dead emperors were filled with equipments of day to day life, food, offerings, clothes and jewellery as they believed that these materials would assist the soul of the fallen in their journey of the afterlife, which explains why Tut Ankh Amon’s craftily designed tomb contained so much of treasure. History 101. Photography was again, not allowed in the museum premises. After dousing myself in magnitudes of the history, we led the museum and headed of to Khan El Khalili Market, the grey market spot of Cairo. It is a busy street stacked with tiny shops selling almost everything, from small souvenirs to massive pieces of art. I did a bit of souvenir shopping and spent some time sipping on Egpytian Coffee and puffing Shisha at a local cafe, chit chatting with the servers and other patrons in the cafe, about politics, money and culture. We head off to a floating boat restaurant for dinner and headed back to the hotel to mark an end to the last day in Cairo.
Day 4 - January 20, 2017 - Cairo - Aswan - Nubian Village
The 4th day started with fresh excitement and anticipation. New city to visit! We headed off to the airport in the morning to catch our flight to Aswan. The journey took less than two hours and we were in the city at a little past noon. Aswan is comparatively warmer, smaller city, famous for its High Dam on the river Nile, which has led to the creation of the largest man made lake in the world called Nasser Lake; which spreads across an area of about 500 square kilometres, 150 of which lays in Sudan. We had lunch in our cruise ship, a boat that houses approximately 150 guests, which was scheduled to depart the following day, beginning our 3 day nile cruise. We set off, post lunch, on a motor boat to the nubian village on the banks of river Nile. On the way I treated myself to spottings of some beautiful migratory birds, the grey heron, the egret, king fishers to name a few. The last bit of the journey was completed on camel back, which was a shaky experience. It took me a while to get the hang of balancing myself on the camel and the journey was fun. We reached the village by 5 PM. Nubian civilisation is another ancient civilisation of Africa, with earliest artefacts found dating back to as long as 3500 BC, along the land comprising of south Egypt and North Sudan. They have their own language, and the dwindling numbers of the Nubian creed are now settled across parts of Egypt and Sudan, a shade of the rich kingdom Nubia once was. We visited the village school where one of the teachers taught me the nubian language, most of it being forgotten by now. Nubian people are great artists and they have some super works of art and handicraft. It was a visual treat to walk by colourfully decorated houses and shops selling vibrant pieces of handiwork in the form of souvenirs, clothing and spices. It was night by the time we got back on the boat back to the cruise, feeling the cold breeze under the clear sky brimming with bright stars. We reached the cruise boat by 9:30, which I observed was now occupied by few other holiday makers. We had dinner at the restaurant and went off to sleep after my usual swig of the african cream liquor, slurp.
Day 5 - January 21, 2017. Abu Simbel - Aswan High Dam.
It was another early morning wake up call. We were to make a 300 KM long journey through the Sahara to reach the Temples at Abu Simbel. We left at 6:30 in the morning after a quick breakfast. The journey was to take place on a stretch of a 300 KM straight road through the Sahara with nothing but a small refreshment joint in the middle of the two destinations, where we took a pit stop. It was past 11 AM when we reached the town of Abu Simbel, an almost deserted town with few settlements and fewer people.
The temple was built sometime in the 13th Century BC by Ramses II, the most powerful Egyptian Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. The complex consisted of two temples, the larger one belonging to Ramses II and the smaller one belonging to his wife Nefertari. The temple was made out of shaping giant rocks into statutes of Ramses in different forms, one of the statues even depicting him as a God, maybe because he had reached heights of power no one in Egypt had seen before. The temples’ original site of discovery lay a few metres below their current location. The whole temple was manually cut and moved to their current location between 1961-1964 to avoid the temples from being submerged in the Nasser Lake, whose water levels were rising after creation of the high Dam. Quite incredible! The Egyptians built their temples inside out, with their innermost sanctuary chamber being constructed first and the main entry gates being constructed at last. The walls of the main temple is filled with depictions of the greatness of Ramses II, of his conquests and victories and his position eventually transcending to that of an Egyptian God. The smaller temple, dedicated to one of his wives, Nefertari who would have possibly been a beautiful Dame at the time, has depictions of her giving offerings to the Goddess Hathor, the goddess of beauty.
We left from the temples site after spending a little over an hour there, back on the road through the Sahara to Aswan. We had carried a box lunch with us, which we gobbled down during the return journey. It was past 3 in the afternoon when we reached Aswan and set off for the high dam. This dam is an important reason behind the development of modern Egypt. Built during Nasser’s reign as President in the 1960s, the dam stands 111m in length and is responsible for creating the Nasser lake. The Nile has continued to be an important source for the development of Egypt from the ancient times till the present. All the water for agriculture and electricity is sourced from the Nile, and I believe it was with the help of the Soviet that Egypt was able to complete building this dam. Near the dam lay a map, showing the origin of the Nile as two rivers, namely, the Blue Nile and the White Nile beginning from Ethiopia and Uganda respectively, eventually merging to become the world’s second largest river in Khartoum, Sudan. After spending a little time there, we headed back to the cruise where we could enjoy the rest of the evening on the sun deck watching the sun set over the Nile. The cruise started to move later that night and we were entertained on deck with a belly dancing show, which I enjoyed sipping on some Egyptian Lager beer. The culmination of the show marked the end of day for me.
Day 6 - January 22, 2017. Temple of Kom Ombo - Temple of Edfu.
It was an early morning once again, waking up at 5:00 AM. The cruise boat was docked by the time I got off my room. We set off for the temple of Kom Ombo by about 6:30. It is at a walkable distance from where the boat was docked, a mere walk of 5 minutes. The sun was just rising over the silhouette of the temple when I reached, creating a beautiful view. This temple is unique for it has a double entrance, leading to two sanctuaries; where one belongs to the God of Sky Horus(mentioned as Haroeris here) and the other belonging to the crocodile God Sobek, the God of fertility. It was built during the Ptolemaic dynasty around 180 BC. Ptolemy was the title given to the Greek rulers of Egypt, who ruled the lands for approximately 300 years since Alexander the great established his rule in Egypt.
In the temple complex, there also lay a crocodile museum where mummies of the ancient reptile are kept on display. People here in Kom Ombo gave mummified crocodiles as offerings to the temple.
Having spent a little over an hour at the site, we headed back to the boat and set sail again to the city of Edfu. The boat sailed lazily over the Nile, passing settlements after settlements, where I would wave back to kids running in parallel to the direction of the boat, shouting at the top of their throats. We reached the city of Edfu at around noon. We got off the boat and had to take a 15 minute Tonga ride to reach the gates of the temple. The Edfu temple is one of the best preserved temples of Ancient Egypt. Belonging to the Ptolemaic dynasty, the temple may have been built anywhere between the 2nd and the 1st century BC. It as yet another temple built to glorify the God Horus and his wife Hathor, and the inscriptions inside the temple narrates the legendary battle between Horus and Seth, Horus’ uncle to take the throne of Egypt and the grand ‘honeymoon’ of Horus and Hathor. Some of the paintings have the paint intact in this temple. The style of colouring here is usually Fresco, where the colours are made out of vegetables. Most of the temples of Egypt were buried under the desert sand, only to be excavated in the 19th and 20th centuries AD. Having spent a while at the temple site, we took our tongas back to the place where our boat was docked, to continue our journey to Luxor. The rest of the day was spent chilling at the sun deck, watching the sun set while chatting to fellow tourists, travellers and staff on the boat. We reached Luxor at around 7 Pm, where we docked for the night.
Day 7 - January 23, 2017 - Luxor - Hot Air Balloon - Valley of the Kings - Temple of Hatshepsut - Luxor Temple - Karnak Temple sound and light.
Welcome the penultimate day of the tour. Got up at 4 in the morning and we hurried to the hot air ballooning site at Luxor to catch the sunlight from the sky. It was pretty exciting, as it was the first time for me. Our Pilot, Ahmed gave us a good view of the structures of Luxor from the sky and watching the sun rise from a high altitude was a great experience. We touched base after spending an hour up in the air. Headed back to the boat to grab our luggage, hereby ending the cruise, and continued towards the valley of the kings.
We reached the valley of the kings, our first destination in Luxor at 10 in the morning. This place is the burial site of some of the most important Egyptian Pharaohs, containing the tombs of about 62 Pharaohs, including the tomb and mummy of Tut Ankh Amen. The place was found in the 19th century by archaeologists. The valley of queens, ministers and workers lie adjacent to the area. Having limited time, we couldn’t visit all the tombs, but I made it a point to visit the tombs of some of the most important Pharaohs of Egypt, namely Ramses II, Merneptah, Akhenaten and Tut Ankh Amen. The mummy of Tut Ankh Amen also rests at its burial site. Photography was again, not allowed inside. I came across officials harrowing the wrong doers and decided not to risk it. I never do, anyway.
The next destination was the temple of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut was an 18th dynasty Pharaoh and the second woman pharaoh of Egypt. The reason for her taking the throne was the young age of her son at the time of demise of the then existing Pharaoh, Thutmoses II. She would rule the lands until her son, Thutmoses III would come of age. This was another temple showcasing the classical architecture of Egypt, with inscriptions inside showing dedication to the Sun God, Amun.
We reached our hotel in Luxor at about 2 PM, and head off for lunch after sorting our luggage where I treated myself to some exotic stuffed pigeon. After taking a short rest of about an hour, we then set off to visit the Luxor Temple.
The temple of Luxor was constructed in 1400 BCE. It was further modified during the reign of Ramses II and the Ptolemaic era, with the architectural styles of the periods still existing. It had two Obelisks at the entrance, one of which is currently located in Paris. The temple holds strong significance to the Opet Festival, which was the annual festival in Thebes, as the city was called in ancient times. It celebrated the marriage of their Gods Amun and Nut, with a procession that used to march from the Karnak Temple, situated about 3 KM away, into the temple of Luxor. The path was guarded by 1500 sphinxes, known as the avenue of Sphinx, a part of it still existing near the temple walls. Apparently coronations of the Pharaohs of Egypt took place here at this time.
It was getting dark by the time I left the temple of Luxor and headed towards the sound and light show in Karnak Temple complex. The complex holds temples made during the various ruling dynasties of Egypt, varying from the 10th dynasty of the middle kingdom to as the last structures being created during the Ptolemaic rule. Primarily, it is a dedication to Amun Ra, or the Sun God. It features a massive hypostyle hall, sized at 5000 metre sq., making it the second largest temple in the world after Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The sound and light show was set overlooking the purification lake, a place where priests and Pharaohs cleaned themselves before praying. The sheer size of the temple was evident as it took me over 15 minutes to reach the lake, and I was walking within the temple complex. Karnak has deep and vast history associated with it. Not being able to view it during the day was a pity, but the sound and light show was a decent compensation, thereby culminating my adventures in Egypt.
Planning a trip to Egypt? Let me help you with the monies. If you are a bunch of friends or a family then you should definitely go for the organised tour package on offer by holiday companies, I chose SOTC. Here it will cost you approximately INR 90,000 inclusive of everything. You might end up spending anywhere close to INR 50,000 or more depending on the frequency of your purchasing stuff. 1 Egyptian pound equals to approximately 4 INR and 1 USD is approximately 20 Egyptian Pounds. If you are going solo, or wish to explore on your own, then a decent hotel room will cost you INR 3,500 per night onwards. There would be lesser options available but I cannot vouch for quality. The cuisine is locally Arab, but they have different restaurants and you would be spending approximately 150 Egyptian Pounds per head for a full meal.
Egypt is a wonderful country. The economy has taken a bad hit due to the two revolutions in the past, but stability has been restored since and the people are working towards making Egypt a country it deserves to be. With such rich history, one can argue that the civilisation is one of the foundation steps of the modern world, as we know it in arts, culture, science and the spirit, for it kept a part of me with it as I left the following day, munching on my pepperoni and cheese sub.