A Tour of Pharaoh Egypt – From Cairo to Aswan and Beyond, including Nile River Cruise
By Richard Varr
It is the thrill of a lifetime! I’m making my way into the center of the Giza Pyramid of Khafre, just 50 feet shorter than the adjacent Great Pyramid. I’m hunched over as I maneuver through a stone tunnel no more than five feet high. Sweat starts to bead on my face as I take quick steps, breathing the thin musty air — the smell of 5,000 years.
“When a pharaoh is coronated, they would immediately start building him a tomb, preparing for his funerary furniture and his amulets – the jewelry in what we call the treasure room,” says our tour guide and expert. “They depended completely on gold, because this is the only metal that never tarnished; it’s a metal that can mean that this is eternity – it’s there forever.”
This was just one adventure of exploring Pharaoh Egypt. Yes, we’ve seen the mummies and pyramids in the movies, perused treasures in museums and read about it for generations. But climbing inside one of the three great Giza pyramids, and exploring many of the temples up and down the Nile River from Luxor to Abu Simbel, is for most a once in a lifetime adventure, if they get to do it at all.
In Aswan, we took a small ferry boat across Lake Nasser, the largest manmade lake in the world with the Aswan Dam, to the Temple of Philae, home of the Goddess Isis. In Kom Ombo, we stepped off the cruise boat to see the town’s imposing Greco-Roman temple that overlooks the Nile. The Temple of Horus in Edfu has reliefs of the Pharaoh Ptolemy XII. And in Luxor, we stopped to see the colossal Karnak: Temple of Amun, the Luxor Temple in the middle of town, and several painted tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
Perhaps the most impressive part of our journey was the separate plane ride all the way down the Nile toward Sudan to the Temple of Abu Simbel with its four towering statues of Ramses II, along with the adjacent Temple of Hathor dedicated to his favorite wife Nefertari. We were there for the sunrise – the best time to view the statues. “Every time I come here I feel it’s a dream for me – in my eyes,” says one of our tour guides. “I still have the passion of those ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses. From my point of view, Ramses deserves to be the king of kings or gods. He equated himself with the Sun God, and that’s why those two temples in particular are very special in contrast to any other temples in Egypt.”
“The highlights in this country are the Giza Pyramids and Abu Simbel – no doubt about it,” adds the guide.
Once used as fishing vessels and for traveling throughout Egypt in ancient times, the traditional Egyptian riverboat called feluccas, with their puffy sails windswept by river breezes, are now pleasure boats that dot the Nile. “In the past, some people could not go north except for feluccas. They used to get on feluccas for 12 or 15 days to get to Cairo to study or for whatever reason,” says my tour guide, “so it was a very important element of transportation in the past.”
During my trip to Egypt, our group took two rides on feluccas – a sunrise cruise in Cairo with the city’s shining towers around us, and another in Aswan amidst other party boats. The felucca dates back hundreds of years when it was used by fisherman. Today, many are not motorized and are instead powered by sail and by a man with a long pole, similar perhaps to a gondolier.
Ask Alexandrians what’s so special about their ancient city and they’ll point north – to the Mediterranean Sea.
On any given day, pedestrians flock to the seawall and walkway along the Corniche, the crescent-shaped waterfront highway curving from Fort Qaitbey to the new Alexandria Library at the Eastern Harbor. They come out to gaze upon the silvery-tinted sea and horizon – and to continue the love affair Alexandrians have had with the Mediterranean since antiquity.
“I call it the magic sea,” says a former frigate commander in the Egyptian Navy, a man I happen to meet during a boat ride on calm waters. “I feel the spirit of the sea because people from 7,000 years ago were using this sea for transportation, maybe for war, using it as we use it right now. They were sailing in the same direction to the same destinations.”
Indeed, it’s the same sea sailed on by pharaohs and city founder Alexander the Great, the ancient Greeks and Romans, and by Mark Antony and Cleopatra – all adding to the modern day romantic lure of what my tour guide calls “the other side of Europe.” Europeans – in particular, Greeks, Italians and French – sailed across the Mediterranean and settled here during the first half of the 20th century. “They came to Alexandria because it’s a coastal city,” the guide continues. “They had no interest in going to Cairo because it’s desert.”
“Cairo is more for horse riders and not sailors,” she jokes. “That’s how we think of it.”
Today, a tour inside Alexandria’s National Museum tells the real story of maritime history. It houses artifacts and statues recovered from ocean depths – relics of an age when the Romans battled for control of the city. There are pieces of stone thought to be part of the legendary Pharos Lighthouse that guided ships into Alexandria’s harbor for a millennium. Although much has been removed, those objects amount to one percent of the antiquities that remain submerged.
Other sights here highlight the era of ancient Alexandria, the antiquities, the history and how the sea helped shape Alexandria’s destiny. And history comes alive with the old Library of Alexander replaced by the new Library, the Roman Amphitheater, turreted Fort Qaitbey where the Pharos Lighthouse once stood, and Pompey’s Pillar, once part of the Temple of Serapis.