The Good Life

A dream of a lifetime had finally come true for us as we set out on a trip to Egypt, land of the pharaos, pyramids, buried treasure and ancient grave robbers.

After a VERY long flight to Cairo, we spent our first day there relaxing and getting over jet-lag by the hotel pool, and learning the first lesson about the Arab mentality - nothing ever turns out the way you had it planned! Our carefully arranged day-by-day itinerary was literally turned upside down, but in the end it all worked out, so we didn't argue too much about minor details such as dates or times!

On the second day, off we went to the famous pyramids at Giza. We got our first taste of Cairo traffic in the process...the city is dusty and noisy to begin with, but you only really appreciate how much so once you're stuck in a hot VW van in round-the-clock rush hour traffic, surrounded by cars honking their horn constantly for no reason at all, and pedestrians, street-vendors and donkey-carts squeezing in and out between the cars. One-way streets are completely ignored, of course!

Pyramids Finally, we arrived on the slightly elevated plateau of Giza, and THERE THEY WERE! The scene had the unreality of a movie set - your brain just can't take in that something like this actually exists. The three pyramids, built around 2,600 B.C., are truly awesome. The largest (Cheops) is 137 meters high and its summit still bears traces of the original limestone coating that once covered the entire construction, which is made up of blocks weighing 2 1/2 tons each. The two smaller pyramids were built for the Kings Chephren and Mykerinos. Cheops can actually be entered, there is a shoulder-wide, very steep corridor leading up to about mid-height inside the pyramid, ending in a chamber containing an empty, broken sarcophagus. Not for people with claustrophobia! The air is hot and stuffy, and the lighting basic, to say the least!


Our next stop was of course the famous Sphinx. Somehow, we had always imagined it to be larger than it really is. Still, its front paws resting on the sand are about a man's height, and the face radiates peace and serenity despite being badly damaged and eroded.

On the way back to Cairo, we stopped at one of the several papyrus institutes where we were shown how papyrus is actually made, and where ancient tomb paintings are copied onto papyrus sheets for the tourist trade.

Mosque Back in Cairo and up a narrow, winding road to the ancient Citadel and the alabaster mosque of Muhammad Ali. The mosque is a beautiful piece of architecture with a classic half-dome in the center, flanked by two tall, slender minarets. Inside, the floor is covered in lovely carpets, the walls are carved alabaster, the windows wrought- iron in intricate patterns.

Onward to the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, a maze of shops where you could easily be tempted to wreck your entire holiday budget in a few hours. Silver and gold work, inlaid boxes, alabaster pieces, galabeyas (Egyptian caftans), rugs, semi-precious stones, big burlap sacks full of delicious spices, henna and saffron. Haggling is a must, and half the fun of buying!

Next day, the famous Cairo museum, for a glimpse of treasures, statuary, and mummies, all taken from the tombs we would visit later. Unfortunately, money is tight in Egypt, and to maintain such a vast collection of artifacts properly takes much more than is available - a very sad sight to see these fabulous things in dark, dusty rooms, obviously deteriorating over time.

Onward, on a flight to Luxor, 680 km south of Cairo. Quite a difference in climate - the heat is very, very dry, the air much clearer and easier to breathe. Luxor is a lovely little town, its main attraction the famous temple of Luxor, and a few kilometers away, the temple of Karnak.

calecheThat's me in "native garb" taking in the sights of Luxor!

Karnak, dedicated to the god Amun-Ra, is a giant puzzle of many temples from many different time periods added to one another. Giant pillars once supported roofs, now gone, and you can still see some of the original paint way on top of the pillars where erosion and pollution haven't done their damage yet.

The temple at Luxor is similar to Karnak, except smaller. It is also dedicated to Amun, and his likeness is seen everywhere, carved into the massive walls and pillars. The great obelisk still stands in the courtyard, a twin to the one now at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Next morning, the Valley of the Kings...a dream come true! We were ferried across the Nile to the West Bank and driven into the valley on a winding road flanked by huge cliffs riddled with holes, where archaeologists and tomb robbers had dug over the years.

Hatshepsut's Temple

The first stop was the famous temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the only female pharao ever to rule Egypt. The temple is hewn out of the face of the cliff, an architectural masterpiece of harmony, proportion and beauty. The walls still bear traces of the original paintings.

And finally, we were actually descending into the famous tombs of kings and nobles, deep down inside the rock. All tombs have the same basic layout - a narrow, steep corridor down into the rock, opening up into one or more chambers, sometimes square, sometimes dome- shaped, some with square pillars supporting the ceiling, and all painted in the most vivid, beautiful colours you could possibly imagine. The walls along the entrance corridors are covered with thousands of hieroglyphs, texts from the 'Book of the Dead', and the burial chambers themselves depict scenes of mummification, preparation of the deceased for the after-life, with the various gods guiding him to the netherworld. It is very hot and stuffy and one is very aware of the hundreds of tons of rock above ones head...but you forget it all when faced with these absolute artistic masterpieces. Everyone of course wanted to see 'King Tut's' tomb, although it is one of the more crudely made and does not have many wall-paintings. The stone sarcophagus is still in place in the burial chamber, with the outermost gold-covered coffin in the shape of the King's body still lying in it, containing the King's mummy - the only one to be returned to its rightful resting place rather than to be on exhibit at the Cairo museum.

Tut's Mask

Some of the tombs we were able to enter had no electric lights inside, and we felt very strange crawling into dark small spaces deep within the earth, armed with a lantern whose light suddenly made the invisible walls explode and come alive with colorful figures and hieroglyphs. In some tombs, not even a light was available, and the "guardian" of the tomb would sit at the entrance with a large mirror, catching and directing the sunlight into the tomb with it. Quite an exhausting adventure, but worth it!

Noble Tomb

The next morning, we started our five-day cruise up the Nile. It is a very relaxing journey, watching the banks of the great river slowly glide by, seeing an occasional mud-brick village, children leading water buffalo down to the water to drink, farmers plowing fields in the same way they did thousands of years ago.

Feluccas at Aswan

The end of this part of our journey came at Aswan, a beautiful town and since ancient times one of the winter resorts for Egypt's rulers.

It was hard to leave Aswan to fly back to dusty Cairo, but we had one more 'expedition' planned - to Memphis and Sakkarah.

The road to Memphis follows the Nile valley, which is incredibly fertile. Date palms, sugar cane and corn fields line the road. Memphis is about 35 km south of Cairo and used to be the capital of the Old Empire up until 350 A.D. All that's left of a once great and powerful city are a few broken pillars, and the beautiful 'Alabaster Sphinx', carved out of a single, huge block of alabaster.
A few kilometers west of Memphis is Sakkarah, the site of the oldest stone structure ever built by man, the 'stepped pyramid' of King Zjoser. This is the edge of the Sahara desert, and the pyramid rises like a vision out of the blindingly white sand. All around the pyramid are the Nobles' tombs, which contain some of the most beautiful reliefs to be seen in Egypt. Unlike the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, which only depict scenes of death and the afterlife, these reliefs show the daily life of the ancient Egyptians. They can be seen building ships, plowing their fields, making wine, and tending their cattle. There is a special feeling about descending from the hot surface of the desert into the cool, below-ground tombs, where it is quiet and peaceful.

The visit to Memphis and Sakkarah was a fitting end to our journey in Egypt, leaving us with precious memories. It is truly a land of opposites, rich and poor, squalid and grand, fertile and desert-dry, and having had a glance at its great past left us filled with awe at what people had been able to create for their rulers and for us to enjoy thousands of years later.

For more interesting reading about ancient Egypt, click here. This is the homepage for the Theban Mapping Project, detailing all tombs in the Valley of the Kings and other sites, as well as the ongoing excavations in "KV5", the tomb found by Kent Weeks, believed to have contained the mummies of some of Ramses II's sons.