I’ll never forget the first time I saw a pyramid in Egypt.
About an hour into our drive from the airport to our hotel, I saw the unmistakable peak of a pyramid poking above the modern city skyline.
Immediately, I teared up, realizing what I was seeing for the very first time.
Ancient Egypt was my favorite unit in history class as a kid. I watched countless documentaries about the mysteries of the pyramids. As a child I dreamed that one day I would get to see them with my own eyes.
I grabbed Tim’s arm, “It’s the pyramids!”
Tim excitedly joined me in looking out the window to catch a glimpse of the pyramid before it dipped out of sight as we squeezed through Cairo traffic.
Eventually the pyramid reappeared, this time much closer. From this vantage point I noticed a few things that surprised me.
First, it was smaller than I expected. Second, it was oddly shiny and metallic. And last, it was attached to the top of a modern rectangular building, construction in progress.
“Our new museum!” our guide exclaimed, gesturing to the pyramid.
I gave Tim a sheepish smile tinged with a hint of embarrassed disappointment. “Oops!”
- Days 1-2: Cairo
- Days 3-4: Luxor East and West Banks
- Day 5: Edfu
- Days 6-7: Aswan
- Day 8: Cairo
Dates: September 6-14, 2018
We finally arrived at our hotel and checked in an hour and a half after leaving the airport thanks to heavy traffic. First, we immediately explored the building because I’d heard that there is a spot in the restaurant where you have a distant view of two of the pyramids.
We walked into the restaurant on the top floor, past the confused staff who didn’t realize that we didn’t want to sit and eat, and over to the window.
Sure enough, two peaks stood tall on the horizon, just beyond the line of city buildings in the distance. It hit me for real this time, that I was staring at the Great Pyramids. These same pyramids covered so many pages of my school text books and were the subject of several documentaries that never failed to fascinate me.
I could hardly wait for the next morning, when we set out with our guide to visit Memphis, Saqqara and lastly the Great Pyramids to top it all off.
Our guide, Ahmed, was a tall, enthusiastic Egyptian man, about my age. His excitement to show us these places mirrored our own for getting to finally see them!
We drove outside the city to Memphis, the former capital of the unified Upper and Lower Egypts in 3100 BCE. In its heyday, the city had so many palaces and temples that it was the cosmopolitan hub of the Kingdom of Egypt.
Today, it’s an open-air museum that I could barely recognize as ever having been a city. Hardly any of the ruins remain, but it’s an important historical place to see. Though the ruins are few, there are many large statues that remain.
The most notable is the upper half of a statue of the Pharaoh Ramses, which lays horizontal on a rectangular base. Standing next to it and seeing it from that perspective (rare, since most statues are standing vertical), brought to life the sheer scale of the monuments Egyptians built.
After exploring this part of Memphis, we went to Saqqara, which was basically the massive cemetery of ancient Memphis. This is where Egyptians built the first pyramids, and there are 11 here in total.
The first was the Step Pyramid of Zoser. This was originally just one mastaba (or rectangular royal tomb). In 2650 BCE, Pharaoh Zoser asked his chief architect, Imhotep, to add another layer to make it taller. And then another. And another. Eventually they ended up with the world’s earliest stone monument.
Ahmed then told us we’d get to venture inside one of these pyramids, which was the tomb of Unas. The pyramid once stood 43 meters high, but today it’s a pile of rocks.
To get inside, we had to walk down a steep wooden floor and duck to navigate through the tunnel. We found two small rooms at the bottom. Hieroglyphs line the walls from floor to ceiling.
Seeing hieroglyphs for the first time was another one of those moments where the significance and history of what I was seeing hit me hard. I’d seen hieroglyphics in museums, but never in situ and to such a grand scale.
This is also the earliest known tomb in which the walls have such decorations. Even more significant, these hieroglyphs are the earliest examples of the funerary inscriptions we now call the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Just outside of the ruins of Unas’ pyramid sits the tomb (mastaba) of his probable daughter, the Princess Idut. Reliefs depicting daily life (like fishing, hunting, and slaughtering) line the walls of her tomb. Tim and I were impressed by the details that have lasted so many millennia.
Great Pyramids of Giza
Our day culminated at the iconic Great Pyramids of Giza. The pyramids are actually very close to the city, and the demarcation between the crowded city buildings and the desert is dramatic. As we drove close to one of the pyramids, I had butterflies in my stomach from the excitement of being so close to these amazing ancient monuments.
Ancient Egypt captured my imagination as a kid, as it does for many people. It’s incredible to imagine the technology Egyptians had 4,500 years ago.
There are four main sites that people visit at Giza – three pyramids (Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid of Khafre, the Pyramid of Menkaure) and the Sphinx.
I remember learning in school about the size and weight of each of the stones used to build the Pyramids of Giza and seeing them in person really hit home the incredible scale of this place.
The average block weighs in at 2.5 tons, and it took nearly 600,000 of them to build the pyramids at Giza.
According to Live Science, it took more than 4,000 workers using pure strength, sleds and ropes over 20 years to build the pyramids. Today, even with the advantages of vehicles, cranes and helicopters, it would take 2,000 workers at least 5 years and cost $5 billion.
Visitors today can go inside and onto the pyramids. Standing next to the giant blocks, which were almost as tall as I am, it’s impossible not to be impressed.
After getting up close with the Great Pyramid, we drove to a view point behind the three pyramids facing the city for some photos.
Then, we again drove to another spot where we could see the Sphinx, the mysterious half lion, half man statue that guards over the pyramids.
The ancient Greeks gave the sculpture the name Sphinx after their mythical winged monster who killed anyone unable to solve his riddles. Similarly scary, it’s known in Arabic as Abu Al Hol (Father of Terror).
Although nobody knows for sure what it’s purpose was, Egyptologists believe the face of the Sphinx was modeled after Pharaoh Khafre, who ruled from 2532-2503 BCE.
I was excited to see the Sphinx in person, but like many people when they see it, I was surprised by how small it is. Perhaps because the Pyramids and the blocks that form them are larger than life, people expect a comparable impact when they see the Sphinx. Alas, it’s just a cute little cat.
After this full day of sightseeing, there was one adventure left in store for us – an overnight train to the city of Luxor in the south.
The idea of an overnight train was intimidating to us the first time we did it in Thailand in 2014, but now that we’ve taken sleeper trains in Vietnam and most recently twice in India, we are almost pros.
The sleeper train in Egypt wasn’t too bad. We had our own cabin for just the two of us with a door that locked. We had clean blankets and pillows, and dinner and breakfast were included (but not good). The only issue was that it was a bumpy ride through the night. Tim and I both woke up a few times. All in all, though, it was nice enough for one night.
When we arrived in Luxor our new guide, Michael, who would be with us until we returned to Cairo, greeted us.
We made a quick stop at the river boat we’d be sleeping on for the next 4 nights to drop off our luggage and then set off to explore. Even though it was only 6am, he was ready to take us on a tour of the magnificent ancient temples on the east bank of the Nile River.
The ancient Egyptian people almost always built anything pertaining to life on the eastern side of the Nile, and anything pertaining to death on the western side.
Why? Because they worshiped the sun, which rises (lives) in the east and sets (dies) in the west.
Luxor, Egypt is a great example of this. Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple, where Egyptians worshiped their gods, are on the eastern bank of the Nile, while the many tombs in the Valley of the Kings all sit across the river in the west.
We started our morning at Karnak Temple, which in my mind is easily the most impressive that I saw in all of Egypt. The temple is dedicated to the worship of the gods as well as the pharaohs. The Temple of Amun-Ra dominates the site, and it’s one of the largest religious complexes in the world.
The many rooms and statues are overshadowed by the forest of thick columns known as the hypostyle hall. Each of the 134 columns has hieroglyphic engravings from floor to ceiling, and in its prime around 1500 BCE, they would have been completely painted in bright colors. Some of this color remains today!
After exploring Karnak, we drove to the town center. Michael must have been able to tell we were groggy because he insisted on buying us each a coffee at a local cafe.
With new energy, we visited the nearby Luxor Temple. We learned that the Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple used to be connected by a 3km long street lined with Sphinx statues. It must have been such an impressive complex.
Luxor Temple was mainly used for annual celebrations starting when it was built by the New Kingdom Pharaohs Amenhotep III (1390– 1352 BCE) and Ramses II (1279– 1213 BCE).
There are many courtyards and rooms to explore that demonstrate the greatness of the ancient Egyptians. However, I found some of the more recent additions to be the most fascinating. The first were the markings from early Christians who used the temple as a church. Today you can see the partial remains of a fresco painting on the walls. The second is the 14th century mosque built right on top of the ruins, that remains open to this day.
For me, these unique details demonstrate how Egypt’s history is so much more than just the ancient temples and pyramids we often think about first. In this one spot, you can see how culture and religion in Luxor changed over thousands of years.
By this time, it was late morning, and we were already done for the day. This meant Tim and I could unpack, relax and settle into our cabin. We were both so happy to not have to repack or move for 4 whole nights!
Our Nile River boat was very nice. We were on the Concerto and would be traveling from Luxor, to Edfu and lastly Aswan. The itinerary for each of these boat trips is the same, and the only difference is the level of luxury and quality of food.
Our boat was luxurious, and the food was delicious. Since all our meals were included we were happy that the food was so good!
After lunch, we did decide to visit the nearby Luxor Museum on our own. It’s a small museum, and since every item is fascinating, we took the time to look at each and read about them. Particularly interesting are the two mummies on display. You can still see their hair!
That night before dinner, our ship hosted a cocktail party. This was our opportunity to see who else was on this boat. We were excited to see if we could make any friends. Unfortunately, the party was only 30 minutes long, and only the day-drinkers were drunk enough to start dancing. Tim and I enjoyed the people watching, but didn’t quite fit in with the crowd, as enthusiastic as it was.
Memorial Temple of Hatshepsut
The next morning, still in Luxor, Michael met us after breakfast to venture to the west side of the Nile, where we’d peek into the ancient rituals of the afterlife.
We started at the Memorial Temple of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut (ruled 1473-1458 BCE) is one of only two queens (the other was Cleopatra) who ruled Egypt like a Pharaoh. Her impressive monument honoring her life and death sits beneath dramatic limestone cliffs. Just on the other side of these mountains lies the Valley of the Kings, a vast area of pharaohs’ tombs.
In its prime, a sphinx-lined causeway led to the temple, the courtyard was a garden of exotic trees, and the temple was linked east across the Nile to the Temple of Karnak.
You may recall that the Luxor Temple was also connected to the Temple of Karnak by a 3km sphinx-lined road. This means that all three of these complexes, each stunning on their own, were once all connected in what must have been a dramatic and impressive mega-temple.
Exploring this temple, Tim and I were once again astounded by how much color remains in the painted reliefs on the walls. The vibrant paintings tell the story of Hatshepsut’s divine birth. This story justified to the people her rule over Egypt.
We left Hatshepsut’s temple (which, by the way, is one of the hottest places on earth) and then drove to the Valley of the Kings.
Valley of the Kings
Even with our wonderful guide, the Valley of the Kings was a bit overwhelming. There are 18 tombs that visitors can choose to explore, but the entrance ticket is only good for three of them, and several will be closed to the public on any given day. Even so, it’s hard to choose which tombs to visit!
The whole scene in the valley is interesting. Tourists mill about a central walkway from which short paths shoot off to the entrance stands of various tombs on either side. It reminded me a bit of the midway at an amusement park or state fair.
Michael recommended the tombs of Ramses III, Ramses IV and Merenptah. We bought a photo pass so that we could take pictures. We also had the option to visit the famous King Tut’s tomb. We opted against visiting it, since it has an extra charge and is mostly empty since its treasures and the sarcophagus are all on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Our exploration started with the tomb of Merenptah (ruled 1213-1203 BCE). Like the tomb we visited in Saqqara, we had to walk down a steep, narrow tunnel to enter the tomb. Although flooding damaged the lower parts of the walls, the reliefs on the upper portion are still colorful. There are a few small rooms on the sides, and eventually we arrived at the tomb room, where two granite tombs sit. This Pharaoh’s mummy sat inside four stone sarcophagi originally, nested one inside the other. The Egyptians believed this would better protect them in the afterlife.
We then visited the tomb of Ramses III. This is one of the most popular tombs, and with good reason. As we walked through the hall, we admired the colorful paintings and hieroglyphics on the walls and ceiling. It’s a very immersive experience into the heart of a 3000-year-old tomb.
The last tomb we visited was that of Ramses IV. Like the others, it’s very vibrant inside. The most unique feature is its painting of the goddess Nut, who brought the sun every day. This is the only tomb which also has texts from the Book of Nut. Admittedly, not being Egyptologists, this didn’t mean much to us, but we still appreciated learning about it!
Colossi of Memnon
After this, we left the Valley of the Kings and made our way back towards our boat on the east side of the Nile. On the way, we stopped at two large statues called the Colossi of Memnon. They originally represented Pharaoh Amenhotep and stand 18 meters tall. Behind them, archaeologists are excavating the ground, slowly uncovering the remains of yet another magnificent ancient temple.
We arrived back on our boat with plenty of time to rest before lunch and setting sail for our next port in Edfu. We spent the afternoon relaxing and enjoying the rooftop pool and Nile views as we pulled away from the big city.
The next morning, we arrived in Edfu to visit the Temple of Horus, the falcon God. This is one of the best-preserved examples of ancient Egyptian architecture.
Even though it only dates from 237 BCE, it was designed in an “old fashioned” way that reflects the style of Egyptian monuments from 2000 years prior.
The fact that it’s new, combined with having been buried (and thus undamaged over time) under sand for hundreds of years, has left the temple standing as visitors see it today.
It was also around this time that a bit of “temple fatigue” began to set in. We were still in awe of everything, but the initial amazement of seeing these ancient wonders had started to wear off as we became habituated to seeing one amazing place after another. I had to remind myself to take a step back in my mind to fully appreciate the scale and grandeur of it all.
In the afternoon we visited another temple at Kom Ombo. Unlike other temples, this one glorifies two gods – the local crocodile god Sobek, and Horus. Particularly interesting are the carvings on a back wall of the temple that display surgical instruments. Michael explained that this temple likely served as a hospital. These symbols tell us about the medical technology of the time.
After wandering through the temple, we visited the Crocodile Museum. Because the ancient people of the region worshiped crocodiles, there are dozens of mummified crocs of all sizes here. They are both very cool and very creepy to see.
From there we returned to our boat for an evening sail south to Aswan.
The next day we visited the Aswan Dam and Lake Nassar. Completed in 1902 to control seasonal flooding of the Nile, the Aswan Dam (Old Dam) was the largest dam in the world, measuring 2441m across, 50m high and 30m wide.
Seeing the dam and the resulting Lake Nassar set the stage for our next stop – a visit by boat to the island of Agilkia to visit the Temple of Isis.
This temple, built in 690 BCE, was originally located on the island of Philae. With the completion of the dam, the island and temple sat underwater 6 months of the year. Visitors would come by boat to float through the temple. The floods would have overtaken the temple altogether had preservationists not moved it brick by brick to the neighboring island Agilkia.
This recent history alone made it a fascinating temple to explore, but admittedly my favorite parts were seeing all the resident cats roaming around and befriending a local grounds keeper. It was a great way to complete our time exploring ancient Egyptian monuments.
That evening Michael took us on falucca (traditional sailboat ride) along the Nile to get a sense of local life on the river before dinner. After dinner, he met up with us again, on his own time, to walk us through the night market. We stopped at a local cafe, had a hookah and watched the people pass by. It was a great way to get a taste of Egyptian life today.
Nubian Village of Katodool
The next morning, we took another boat ride further down the Nile to visit the Aswan Botanic Gardens (which were fine but not amazing), and to the nearby Nubian village of Katodool.
For thousands of years, Nubia referred to the land between Aswan in Egypt and Khartoum in Sudan. Today, the Nubian people maintain their ancient traditions, including speaking their own language and painting their homes in bright colors.
We visited one of these homes, where we enjoyed traditional Nubian snacks of a very salty cheese and a very sweet molasses with bread and tea. We also saw their pet (?) crocodiles, which Nubian families keep in tanks for good luck.
I never love seeing animals in captivity, but animal ethics is rarely cut and dry, especially when ancient traditions are involved. I try to observe and learn with curiosity and without judgment.
After our brief visit, we returned to our boat to rest before our late-night flight back to Cairo.
The next morning in Cairo, our first guide Ahmed met us at the hotel. Though sleepy, we tried to muster our energy to enjoy our last day in the city.
We visited the 12th century Islamic citadel and the magnificent Mosque of Mohammed Ali (also called the Alabaster Mosque), before then exploring the Coptic Christian quarter of Cairo.
Ahmed then led us through the market before wrapping up our day at the Egyptian Museum. The highlight, of course, was seeing all of King Tut’s treasures, including his famous gold mask. A photo of the mask covered one of my high school history textbooks. Seeing it in person was a final reminder of how powerful and influential the ancient Egyptian civilization was.
Though we had to leave Egypt the next morning, we’re not done with this fascinating country yet. We want to return and visit Alexandria, the western desert, Abu Simbal and the Red Sea and Sinai Peninsula.
People have asked me if we felt safe in Egypt, and honestly, I have to say yes. Many people fear traveling in Egypt. There’s the global threat of terrorism, and Egypt’s reputation for petty crime and hassles. Obviously, no one can guarantee absolute safety, but we never felt threatened by anyone.
If anything, I would say the current climate of fear makes it the best time to visit Egypt. Tourism is way down across the country, meaning we had many of the sites all to ourselves. Plus, because the livelihoods of many depend on tourism, the people are welcoming.
Egypt is a complicated place, but I can say with certainty that we are excited to return someday!