Note: I started to write this blog in March, shortly after I returned from Egypt, and then life changed. Many (healthy) months later, I finally returned to my writing desk.
Egypt – with its mysterious ancient religion, iconic giant structures, and the longest river in the world – has continuously fascinated people all over the globe.
Egypt has the longest history of any country, going back to six thousand years B.C. (give or take a thousand), and it’s an exotic melting pot of culture: an Arab Republic on the African continent bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Like many, I first learned about Egypt in elementary school as the “cradle of civilization” and was mesmerized by the colorful symbolic representation of the people – the hair, the clothes, the poses, the rituals! I renewed this enchantment in my art history classes at Vassar College. So, when I had the opportunity to join a small group who were going to spend 8 days touring many of the famous places, I jumped on it. I had no idea how fortunate I was to just barely avoid the coronavirus pandemic.
I left NC on Feb 25, flew JetBlue to JFK and then Egyptair, landing in Cairo on Feb 26. It was my first flight where the direction to Mecca was posted along with the other stats like speed, altitude, outside temperature. At that time, there was only one reported case of COVID-19 in Cairo and the full horror of this virus was yet unknown. I only saw a few people in the airport wearing face masks. Discussing this with my companions for this first leg of the trip, a retired MD and nurse, we agreed that if we were attentive to washing our hands, sanitizing our phones, and not touching our faces, we’d be okay. I’ll tell you right now that, luckily, we were!
Cairo – first impressions
We checked into our upscale hotel, the Hilton Heliopolis, near the airport. The hotel staff discouraged us from wandering off the grounds to explore. We stepped out anyway for a just few minutes and found out why. Confronted by a LOT of noisy traffic, we quickly returned to walk the lush grounds and relax by the pools instead.
The next day we met our lovely guide Nihal and were driven to another part of town to take a lazy ride down the Nile on a felucca, an Egyptian wooden sailboat. With high-rise modern buildings and hotels behind us, we precariously crossed several lanes of aggressive traffic to reach the riverbank and virtually stepped back in time to a marina of shacks, tents, and colorful old boats. It was a smoggy day with little wind, so we had to be towed upriver by a motorboat so we could float back down. Our guide pointed out several sites, such as King Farouk’s palace, and we had our first of many, many opportunities to buy jewelry and handicrafts from peddlers both on and off the boat.
Afterward, we took a walking tour of the area, which housed several foreign embassies in old mansions, and I understood why we were discouraged from wandering around. These grand buildings — amid the smog, dirt, dust, noise, traffic, broken sidewalks, and litter — made an eye-opening introduction to the sad relic of this once-great city.
At our hotel that night, we connected with the other people in the group. The next morning we flew to Aswan and boarded our Nile cruise ship.
We spent the next three days and nights sailing down the Nile — from Aswan to Kom Ombo, Edfu, Esna, and finally Luxor — visiting all the attractions along the way. Sailing down the Nile!!! The ship was only three decks high, all the cabins were outside, the riverbank was always close and visible, the desert scenery ever-changing.
I was mesmerized by the view from the main areas and my room. I woke early to see the sun rise over the hills.
The first day was heavy on engineering triumphs. Passing many shopping opportunities, we boarded a motorized tour boat that first took us to the High Dam. Built in 1960, it controls the supply of water and electricity to all of Egypt. Not really scenic but, at two miles, it’s impressively big. We continued to a rock quarry to see the Unfinished Obelisk that gives you an idea of how these ancient people managed to build giant stone pillars. A lot of rocks, stones, and dust.
My first Egyptian Temple
You never forget your first! Next stop was the Philae Temple. As an ardent feminist, I was excited to visit a main temple to the goddess Isis, but it also fascinated me for other reasons.
- The Philae Island flooded when they built the High Dam, so the Egyptians physically moved the temple to another location! They surrounded the temple with a dam and pumped the inside dry. Then, they labelled every stone block of the entire temple complex and moved them to be re-assembled, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, on the higher ground of Agilka island. It took ten years. I was duly impressed when I heard the story and then floored when I saw the massive size of this reconstruction. (I can’t imagine doing this in the USA. Here, we put oil pipelines through sacred valleys and native burial sites.)
- Also, this was my first view of Egyptian hieroglyphics and the intricate, expansive, and symbolic ornamentation that seems to cover EVERY inch of EVERY surface of EVERY temple and tomb. I uttered my first big “WOW!’ here, one of many to come.
A quick stop at the Aswan Botanical Garden was soothing, its greenery and shade was like an oasis in the middle of the desert. We followed that with a leisurely and scenic boat ride around Kitchner Island and stopped at the Nubian Beach to dip our feet (or swim) in the Nile, and commune with (or ride) the camels.
Returning to our cruise ship as the sun set was memorable.
We had three more days of cruising and touring the ancient tombs and temples. At every stop we saw the great marvels of the world. We went through locks at Esna at night and witnessed this engineering feat under a starry sky. It was all impressive and exciting. Then we returned to Cairo to explore the many wonders of the city. Stay tuned!
Coming soon — Touring Egypt on the Verge of the Pandemic: Parts 2 and 3