For every history nerd (or obsessive wanderers), Egypt is probably high on the list of places to visit. It is part of the cradle of civilization and simply brimming with history. Every city offers remarkable ruins dating back to the dawn of civilization and exploring the sites allows travelers to step back in time to the glory days of Egypt when Pharaohs ruled the Upper and Lower Valley. Several times I planned to visit, but each time due to political unrest or personal scheduling, it never worked out. Finally, in 2017 I was able to get leave approved and made plans with two friends to spend a few days exploring the highlights of the country.
Day 1- Cairo and the Pyramids- the most obviously desirable destination and one of the most easily accessible is visiting the Pyramids of Giza. Since using tour companies was both cheaper and easier (and probably safer) than coordinating transport and tickets, each day of the itinerary was scheduled with various Viator tours. After getting picked up from our early morning flights, we killed the time until the Pyramids opened by drinking Turkish coffee and mint tea and getting a crash course in Egyptian Arabic from our tour guide. When the Pyramids opened, we explored Giza Pyramid complex near the two largest pyramids before ascending the narrow and steep entrance in the largest Pyramid to the small chamber where it is believed that Pharaoh Khufu was buried around 2,560 B.C. We continued on to a popular panoramic spot a few clicks up the road where we climbed onto camels and took a tour around the desert.
We returned and visited the famous mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a pharaoh, the guardian of the massive tombs- the Great Sphinx of Giza. This solemn limestone statue stretches 238 feet long and is the oldest standing sculpture in Egypt. After taking cliché kissing photos with the Sphinx, we headed out to visit several of the first built pyramids at Sakkara and the original Step Pyramid. Next we headed to Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt to visit a museum containing the colossal statue of Ramses II and a great alabaster Sphinx from 3100 B. C. We finished the day with a visit to a carpet factory where traditional wool and silk rugs were being woven by local artisans. After returning to Cairo and settling into the hotel, we headed up to the rooftop to watch our first glorious sunset over the Pyramids and the subsequent laser show. Yes, a laser show, but not like one from an EDM festival or concert. This one came with a narrative like a bad 80’s film and equally cheesy lights shining up on the Pyramids. The entire show was a slightly odd evening performance, but was nonetheless informative and quite entertaining, especially from our excellent (and free) seats on the rooftop.
Day 2- Following our first long and full day of touring Cairo and the surrounding area, we kept our aggressive pace with a 2:30 am pick-up to catch a domestic flight down to Luxor. Immediately upon arriving in Luxor, the tour guide picked us up with snacks waiting in his car for our morning drive. The first stop of the day was to visit the Necropolis of Thebes on the Eastern bank of the river. Crossing the Nile, we drove out to the Valley of Kings where we spent several hours exploring tombs of numerous pharaohs from various dynasties and the Temple of Deir El Bahari. It was an incredible experience climbing down long but intricately painted tunnels into the carved out chambers far below the surface of the deceivingly plain mountains.
Every inch of the tunnel and chamber walls in the rooms were meticulously painted with various symbols and hieroglyphics that each told a specific story about the ruler or the belief systems of the era. Since tour guides are not allowed to enter the actual tombs in order to prevent congestion, the tour of the tombs turned out to be like a scavenger hunt where the guide would explain what we were about to see and what we should look out for before we headed in. At the end we were given the option of paying a few dollars more to visit King Tut’s tomb and decided to spend the extra despite our guide’s warning that it was not worth it. We were not disappointed with our decision as the tomb not only held the child Pharaoh’s mummy in a glass case, but also an exquisite golden mural which was surprisingly very well maintained! After leaving the valley, we learned about the tumultuous history of Queen Hatshepsut before stopping to visit the expansive temple built in her honor-the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut.
The expansive stone entrance led up to the multi-tiered temple with numerous statues guarding every entrance of the open air structure. Although much of the temple and all images of Queen Hatshepsut were destroyed by her step-son (and we thought the Kardashians had family drama), the temple remains an impressive historical remnant.
After exploring for about an hour in all of the rooms and courtyards, we stopped for a big lunch break to gorge on schwarma before continuing on to visit Karnak and Luxor Temples. These were some of the most impressive ruins in the area which consist of a series of temples that were built during different reigns. Starting by the Avenue of Sphinxes, we stopped at the unfinished Propylon and the Hypo style hall with its 134 gigantic columns.
Our guide continued providing interesting bits of history as we wandered around the Obelisks of Queen Hatshepsut and Tutomosis III, the Temple of Amon adorned with lotus and papyrus designs, the Granite Scarabeus of Amenophis III and the Sacred Lake. As the day began to fade, we got bags of local qasab or sugarcane juice, and made the final stop at a perfume factory where they produced the raw liquids that are sold to big name fragrance makers for wide-scale production.
Usually I am not interested in buying much on trips because I don’t want stuff sitting around my apartment, but the perfumes were such high quality and significantly cheaper than purchasing a normal bottle of Dior or Chanel, so I splurged on a bottle of Nefertiti and a bottle of white lotus. We each had several glasses of tea while haggling over prices before eventually buying a few bottles each and then heading back to the airport to catch a late flight back to Cairo.
Day 3- After sleeping in and enjoying an assorted breakfast spread, we were picked up around 8 am to head up to Alexandria by van. During the 2-and-a-half-hour ride, our guide divided the time by sharing bits of history about the sights we were going to visit and letting us nap in the comfortable air-conditioned van. The first stop was to explore the mysterious Catacombs of Kom El-Shoqafa where ancient tombs are divided into three underground levels. Inside the catacombs the engravings and tombs were a unique blend of Roman and Egyptian burial traditions. There were statues of the Egyptian Sobec and Anubis dressed in Roman armor dating back to the 2nd century A.D. guarding many of the entrances. Many of the detailed wall murals incorporated both styles and religious beliefs about the afterlife.
We continued on to Pompey’s Pillar, a massive free-standing column made from a single piece of red Aswan granite. Dating back to about 297 A.D., the column towers over the ruins of the Temple of Serapeum and is guarded by two sphinxes. Although we had planned to visit Elshawary, the Alexandria Library, unfortunately it was closed due to the Egyptian holiday equivalent of Labor Day. Instead we continued on to Qaitbay Citadel in Alexandria, which is considered one of the most important defensive strongholds not only in Egypt, but also along the Mediterranean Sea coast. Even more interesting is that the building is located on the pre-existing foundation of the legendary Pharos Lighthouse. The Lighthouse had been severely damaged during earthquakes, but the foundation was reused to build the strategically located military point and it formulated an important part of the fortification system of Alexandria in the 15th century A.D. Before beginning the trip back to Cairo, we stopped for a massive buffet and fresh fish lunch at a restaurant overlooking the sea and we made it back in time for a quick nap before the evening light show, which we managed to stay awake for the whole performance.
Day 4- The final day was originally left open to allow freedom to explore, but we ended up booking a tour around Cairo for the convenience of having a driver and someone to explain the highlights of the city. The most important stop was the Cairo Museum where the quantity and quality of the artifacts was incredible. It would be easy to spend several hours looking at the priceless artifacts filling the museum, but our tour guide took us to the most important and gave us a cliff notes version of most of the rest. Although Cairo is currently constructing a new more grandiose museum, the Cairo Museum should not be skipped! The extensive exhibit on King Tut and the priceless treasures from his tomb and the section containing the mummified corpses of several Pharaohs- we found it difficult to stick to the timeline while exploring the museum.
Our guide kept us on schedule and after hitting the highlights, we continued on to visit the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. This grand mosque is built in a classical Turkish style, but has two minarets instead of the typical one. We also visited several Coptic churches in the area to see some of the famous biblical sites including where the Holy family was kept hidden when they fled to in Egypt, as well as where Moses was found in a basket among the reeds. We finished the day with stopping by several of the local stores which sold original papyrus artwork and cotton merchandises in order to pick up final souvenirs before heading off to the airport.
Hostel Average Cost: $35. Although there are cheaper lodging options, I would highly recommend staying at either the Guardian Guest House or the Pyramids View Inn. Both offer beautiful rooftop views of the Sphinx, Pyramids and the nightly light show. Also the owners and staff at both are incredibly kind and accommodating- even packing up bags of “to go” breakfast that they woke up in order to deliver to us at 2 am before we caught our early flight to Luxor. The Guardian Guest House has the higher and slightly better view, but the Pyramids View Inn has food, shisha, and beers for sale, which is where we spent our last two evenings. Sharing a table filled with heaps of food, cold beers, and a shisha pipe while watching a magnificent sunset over one of the ancient wonders of the world is one of my absolute favorite travel memories!
Currency: Egyptian Pounds
Drink: The qasab (sugarcane juice) is freshly made and I was very proud not to spill any of this bag drink on myself. The Turkish coffee which is served thick and strong is also a necessity especially when operating on limited hours of sleep.
Food: Shawarma- fresh mounds of meat and veggies are loaded into delish fresh baked wraps or pita rolls for only a few dollars and are available on seemingly every street corner. You can’t go wrong with ordering a shawarma!
Electric Outlet: Both Type A (normal American outlet) and Type C (European)
Visa: Required- offered on arrival for $25 US.