Ask most people for their memories of Egypt and of course they’ll mention the mummies and Tutankhamen’s mask at the Cairo Museum, the tombs in The Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens or maybe even Nefertiti’s temple. But here are my recommendations – seven places to visit in Egypt that encapsulate the land of the Pharoahs.
1-Sands of time
Appearing like a mirage in the desert, the Pyramids of Giza lie right on the edge of one of the world’s most populous and polluted cities – chaos on one side, vast emptiness on the other – yet look as if they have come from another planet. It’s still a mystery how they were built and even with today’s technology can’t be reproduced. With secret chambers, hidden treasures and elaborate passages, they have survived the passing of time and sum up everything that is mysterious, fascinating and exotic about Egypt. The seventh and only remaining wonder of the ancient world, the Great Pyramid is nearly 5,000 yrs old and can even be seen from the moon. And, right nearby, the enigmatic Sphinx is also a must-see.
2-Ships of the desert
White sails billowing at sunset, feluccas float in the breeze on the River Nile at Luxor ferrying tourists to the resting place of the pharaohs. A felucca ride with a white caftan-wearing Egyptian, and a mint tea, and you’re at the Gateway to the Valley of Kings and Queens. The Nile is the only strip of water in a desert landscape. The lifeblood of Egypt, it cuts a swathe, writhing like a dark snake across the pale white skin of a belly dancer.
3-Temple of a Million Years
Under a savage sky, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand, half sunk, a shattered visage lies….” So wrote Shelley, in his sonnet Oxymandias, of a huge fallen colossus of Ramses 11 which lies in pieces on the ground. Much of the mortuary temple of Ramses 11 at the ancient necropolis of Thebes, did not survive the passage of time. This temple is known as “the temple of a million years”. Jean-François Champollion, the French archaeologist known as the ‘father’ of Egyptology, named the temple “Ramesseum” when he visited the ruins in 1829. Credited as the first to unravel hieroglyphics, he also deciphered Ramses’ name on the walls here.
4-Larger than life
Illuminated as if about to come to life, this giant statue of a seated Ramses II in the Temple of Luxor, is a colossus, dwarfing everything on a human scale. The world’s largest open air museum, Luxor, from the Arabic word (al-uksur) for ‘fortifications’, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most magnificent of all Egyptian temples, the Temple of Luxor is on the eastern bank, adjoining the modern town. At night it lights up the sky – gold against the black of the night.
At Esna, 33 kms south of Luxor and 776 km south of Cairo, Nile cruise boats stop at the Nile lock and wait to be raised or lowered. To escape the hawkers selling souvenirs who surround waiting vessels, visit the remains of the Ptolemaic Temple of Khnum at Esna, built around 150 – 250 BC. The intact roof of the hypostyle hall here is supported by four rows of massive 12 metre high columns – stone imitations of plants such as the papyrus, palm and lotus. In Egyptian mythology, Ra their Sun god sprang from one of these flowers in the beginning of the creation of the universe.
6-Ringed by gods
A dual temple on high looks down on the Nile at Kom Ombo, the last Nile River cruise stop before Aswan. The ancient Egyptians believed that by honouring the fearsome crocodile as a god, they would be safe from attacks, so half the temple is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile. The left side is dedicated to Haroeris, the ‘Good Doctor’, a form of the falcon-headed god Horus, with rare depictions of surgeon’s instruments such as scalpels, forceps, scissors and medicine bottles, thought to be the first representations of the Egyptian’s skill in medicine.
Nothing captures the romance and mystery of the Nile as much as a drink on the terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel at Aswan, perched high on a cliff edge overlooking the darting feluccas, cruise boats and Nubian lands. The spectacular pink of a near African sunset in the most southern city of Egypt is a fitting end to a watery journey. Agatha Christie sat here, sipping tea, watching the traffic on the Nile and penning notes for ‘A Death on The Nile’ from her favourite vantage point.