The discovery of King Tut’s magnificent tomb in 1922 has been credited by history to Englishman Howard Carter. An Egyptian scholar tells a different story. Carter’s team had been digging for five years in the Valley of the Kings when the actual find was made by a 12-year-old Egyptian boy hired to carry water to the site on the back of a donkey. While digging a hole in the dirt to prop up a water jar, the boy stumbled upon a flat stone that turned out to be the top step of the entrance to the tomb. Later, Carter’s photographer would take a picture of the boy wearing a necklace from the treasure. Until his death at the age of 80, Hussein Abdelrasoul made a living on the west bank of Luxor by showing the photograph to tourists who gave him money. His sons carried on the tradition.
Egyptians have been left standing by their country’s ancient wonders, waiting to welcome visitors. But since the Arab Spring revolution of 2011, tour groups have been scared away by fears of instability and violence. The first Egyptian we met at the Cairo Airport had a message for us to take back home: “Tell everyone our country is safe.”
Esslam greeted us with a big smile and our tourist visas in hand. He didn’t mind that our connecting flight from Istanbul was several hours late. His job is to make sure arrivals and departures go smoothly and he spends long hours at the airport waiting for the hardy souls who haven’t been scared off by the latest headlines from this part of the world. This father of two is one of the many people we met during our seven-day trip who depend on tourism for their livelihood, and they have been hurting in recent years.
We booked our trip through a US travel agent. She recommended a tour operator with long experience in the middle east. Their “platinum tour” would take us from Alexandria to Abu Simbel and we opted for most of the excursions and extras along the way. My husband, son and I usually try to “go native” by renting an apartment, mixing with the locals and finding our own way. In Egypt, having dedicated drivers and guides for our family of three turned out to be a perfect compromise between a big tour bus and trying to go it alone.
Day 1 – Cairo
The first challenge was fighting through Cairo crosstown traffic from the airport to begin our visit at the Egyptian Museum. We were lucky to have arrived on a Saturday when the weekday gridlock eases up a bit. The vintage 1902 building houses artifacts that have avoided being shipped off to the Louvre, Berlin or the British Museum, including the treasures from Tut’s tomb. Cameras without flash are allowed for an extra charge in most of the museum, but don’t even think about trying to take a picture of Tutankhamun’s golden death mask.
It was our first experience with the Egypt’s policy of declaring some of its most famous artifacts off limits to amateur photography of any kind, perhaps increasing the chances that you will buy the DVDs or the postcard pictures for sale at the site. It was also my first experience of being asked to pose for selfies with schoolgirls who apparently found my blonde hair more fascinating than the giant statue of Ramses II. Our guide, Mohamed, expertly led us through the dingy exhibit rooms filled with priceless artifacts, identified only by a few crumbling typewritten paper signs. Without a trained Egyptologist by our side we would have missed out on a lot. Tahrir Square, scene of Egypt’s recent revolutions, turns out to be a normal-looking traffic circle next to the museum.
Back in traffic, we passed the City of the Dead, a vast labyrinth of tombs where people live. Resident gangs, we were told, make it too dangerous to visit. We reached the Citadel and joined Egyptian families and school groups strolling the grounds, visiting the alabaster mosque and admiring a hazy view over the sprawling city of 29 million people. Sadly, because of our late arrival, our visit to the maze-like streets of the Coptic Christian area was cut short because most of the churches are closed by 5 pm. We did manage to visit the Ben Ezra synagogue and the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, which is believed to be on the site of a cave where Jesus, Mary and Joseph took refuge during their flight in Egypt. Sharing the streets with horses, camels and donkey carts we made our way to the Giza Movenpick, where we could see the pyramids from our hotel room balcony. And this was just the start of a trip filled with amazing moments every day!
Day 2 – Alexandria
Up early for the nearly three-hour drive to the former capital city named for Alexander the Great. Like many Cairo-dwellers, our guide said he dreams of someday moving out of the urban chaos to a single family home in one of the pop-up suburbs under construction along the toll road to the coast. Canals from the Nile provide a water lifeline.
Mohamed recalled his childhood vacation days on the Mediterranean seaside as he guided us through the city sights: Pompey’s Pillar, an amphitheater that may have been part of an early university complex, and the eerie multi-story catacombs where early Christians gathered to avoid persecution and bury the dead.
After lunch at a seafood restaurant we toured the new high-tech library which carries on the tradition of Alexander’s great storehouse of knowledge, a wonder of the ancient world. We made it back to the Movenpick to end our day with a cold drink. Keep in mind that most restaurants outside hotels are unlikely to serve alcohol of any kind, including beer.
Day 3 and 4 – Luxor and the Valley of the Kings
To beat the traffic, the hotel provided breakfast bags for a pre-dawn drive to the Cairo airport. In Luxor, a tour representative connected us with a new guide, a Luxor native nicknamed Sam. He walked us through the magnificent temples of Karnak and Luxor before depositing us at our boat, the Royal Esadora.
We opted to add a nighttime excursion to the Karnak sound and light show, enjoying the resident dogs who seemed to know the script. Sam also escorted us into the small mosque that was built in the wall of the Luxor temple. Our guide’s local savvy was invaluable when we needed to pick up something at a pharmacy or find an ATM.
The Valley of the Kings was disappointing due to the no-cameras policy. Sam blamed it on Russian daytrippers who couldn’t turn off their flash. OK, I understand that the sensitive art on the walls of the tombs must be protected. But why prohibit photos at the modern-day sign outside King Tut’s tomb? And no, I didn’t just come halfway around the world to buy a DVD or a postcard of it. Guards are watching for any sign of a camera and your guide will have to negotiate with a “tip” in hand for you to get it back if it’s confiscated — even without any offending images on it.
More welcoming to photographers was the astounding temple built by the only woman to rule as a Pharaoh, Hatshepsut. Security is understandable at tourist attractions that could be targeted by terrorists, but we found ourselves surrounded only by curious Egyptian school kids who don’t see many foreigners.
We also stopped at an “alabaster factory,” one of the many roadside souvenir stops where tea is served while you are encouraged to buy something. Watch the Luxor video here.
Day 5 – Cruising the Nile
The Royal Esadora turned out to be an efficient way to cover the vast distances between the sights while sleeping, dining or relaxing by the pool., as you’ll see on this video. The buffets were bountiful for both meat-lovers and fish-eaters, with an extra charge for beverages including water. Tea time provided an afternoon break, and a top deck bar offered sunset cocktails.
The agricultural shoreline and graceful felucca sailing boats provided a window on a way of life that hasn’t changed much in centuries, except that every guy driving a donkey or herding goats has a cellphone pressed to his ear.
We woke up in Esna, for a morning walk to a temple that was once used for storage and target practice. Here, I had a scary moment when I fell behind the group and found myself snapping pictures all alone, drawing unwanted attention from some guys in a passing car. They buzzed off when I caught up to my male relatives. Traveling as a woman alone is probably not a good idea.
Our arrival in Edfu was met by horse-drawn carriages. We clip-clopped through the busy market town to another splendid temple that could have been a set for an epic movie. By this time we were getting used to running the gauntlet of shops outside each and every attraction. With such a scarcity of tourists, merchants desperate to make a sale are literally in your face. Watch the video here.
We arrived after dark at the temple of Kom Omeo, with its ancient healing center and quirky crocodile museum. Back at the boat, it was time to “Dress Like an Egyptian” for an evening of silly fun and games.
Day 6 – Aswan
Morning tour of a rock quarry with an unfinished obelisk, followed by a drive across the old dam to reach the High Dam and its splendid views of Lake Nasser. The highlight was a boat trip to the Temple of Philae, which was moved by UNESCO to keep it above the water in a stunning new island setting. We returned to the cruise ship with enough time before lunch to browse the bustling marketplace of Aswan for souvenirs. We also signed up for an afternoon boat trip, first on a felucca and then transferring to a motorboat when the wind died.
Our destination was a Nubian village, where camels are the favored mode of transportation for tourists and locals alike. Sam explained that the Nubian tradition of hospitality requires homes to be open to visitors. Check out the video.
We were offered hibiscus tea and entertained by the household pets: cats, dogs and crocodiles. The return trip passed by the Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie stayed while writing Death on the Nile.
Day 7 – Abu Simbel/ Cairo
The astonishing temples honoring Ramses II and Queen Nefertari are worth the effort it takes to get there by plane. Travel tip: check as much of your stuff as possible and carry minimal hand baggage. There’s no place to leave it while you are walking around Abu Simbel, and you’ll be juggling your hand luggage as you take and pose for photos outside.
We were given tickets to hook up with a local guide at the site, and the roundtrip bus ride was included with our Egyptair ticket. No photos are allowed inside the temples, which look as if they’ve been there forever. Hard to believe they were moved block by block when the dam was built. You don’t want to miss the bus for your flight back to Cairo, so keep an eye on the clock as you marvel at one of the world’s most impressive sights. Video here.
Upon arriving at Le Meridien, we had a free night for dinner in Cairo. The Heliopolis neighborhood is home to many embassies as well as middle/upper class Egyptians. The hotel called a taxi, which waited as we enjoyed tasty pizza on the roof of a popular family restaurant called Bistro, mingling outside the tourist zone with Egyptians enjoying a night out.
Day 8 – Giza
Having a well-connected guide and driver can make a big difference in your visit to the pyramids. We drove around to the uncrowded far side where Bedouins and their camels were waiting. Watch the video here.
Trudging through the sand on a “ship of the desert” with the ancient wonders as a backdrop was unforgettable. Our guide also showed us a small pyramid where we could go inside. The one light bulb in the tunnel wasn’t working; only when we snapped a flash picture did we see how close we came to the edge of a deep pit. Note to self: bring a flashlight.
From there, it was on to the Sphinx, picking our way among the vendors and the mostly Egyptian crowds. Our guide suggested a break at a “perfume factory,” which provided a brief respite from the sun and another sales pitch.
More wonders awaited at the site of the step pyramid and the ancient capital of Memphis, including some of the best-preserved tomb art of the trip. We said our goodbyes to a giant statue of Ramses II. Fighting traffic once again to return to the hotel, we could see why it was a smart choice to stay near the airport for our flight the next morning.
Terry’s travel tips:
Timing is everything: It’s worth paying a bit extra to travel during the high season (spring and autumn) when daytime temperatures are tolerable. Be prepared to get an early start to avoid the hottest part of the day, and sign-up for guided nighttime excursions to enjoy the cool evenings.
Safety: We purposely avoided Sharm al Sheikh resorts at the Red Sea because of the involvement of a terrorist group in the downing of a airliner filled with Russian tourists. A big group of foreigners anywhere could present a likely target. In our small group we felt safe as long as we were with our assigned guides and drivers. Tourist police officers are visibly packing automatic weapons. All of the major sites, hotels and ships go through the motions of airport-style security. A woman walking alone is likely to draw catcalls or worse.
Money: Bring dollars to pay the required boat tipping fee and additional tour options. Also, in a country where no one wants to make change for the large bills you get from the ATM, you’ll have to scheme to get your hands on “small” Egyptian currency for the many people who will expect tips or exact change. Bring all correspondence with the travel agent booking your trip, as we had to prove to the management of the cruise ship we had already paid for two upgraded suites, and one suite with a child’s bed for our 25-year old son was not acceptable.
Be generous when tipping the guides and drivers who go the extra mile to take good care of you; they’ve earned it!
What to Pack: Women need not cover their heads unless visiting a mosque. You’ll want a hat and sunscreen; major sites have little or no shade. Both men and women should avoid exposing a lot of skin except poolside on a cruise ship or at a hotel catering to foreigners. Long skirt, pants or leggings and long-sleeved tops for women are a must. Shorts look out of place on everyone. No matter what you wear, you will stand out as different. Get used to being stared at, and smile back or just move on.
Staying Healthy: Don’t underestimate how much walking and stair climbing is involved at any of the major sites. There’s always a camel or a horse carriage standing by to offer you a ride, but generally this is a destination for the physically fit. Your shoes should be sturdy enough to withstand walking through sand, rocks and dirt. Don’t even think about drinking tap water or brushing your teeth with it. Even if you are vigilant about drinking bottled water, you’re likely to need a dose or two of an anti-diarrhea medicine like Imodium as your body adjusts to the food. Fortunately, most pharmacies are well stocked and pharmacists speak English.
Why go NOW? With Egypt’s military leader in charge, there is hope of enough stability to bring back the tourism on the scale that is needed to revive the economy. The authorities take a hard line with any type of dissent so it’s best to avoid political discussions altogether. If you keep an open mind and a willingness to be a polite guest in a fascinating country, you’ll be glad you came.