Articles/Travel/Travelogue/Egypt (2009)

Date of Trip: February 20 - March 4, 2009

Planning:

I have always wanted to go to Egypt and I finally decided to book a trip there through the tour operator Cosmos. It was my first overseas trip, having only been to Mexico and Canada prior, and my first trip to a predominantly muslim country, which made it very exciting for me.

Day 1

Today, I left Cedar Rapids airport on a flight to Atlanta, then connected to New York's JFK, where I boarded the flight to Cairo. I was very nervous and excited at the same time since it was my first Atlantic flight. I was seated next to a fellow archaeology enthusiast who was also taking a tour and had previously been to Macchu Picchu, one of my intended future destinations. Delta planes aren't too bad, but next time I am taking an aisle seat since there is not much leg room at all.

Day 2

I spent the morning flying, this time over Europe. It was cool seeing the Alps and such below, but I just wanted to get off the bloody plane really bad. I was unable to get much sleep during the night due to the uncomfortable seating and cramped legs so I spent the whole time reading a book about the secret life of Howard Hughes. Late in the morning we hit the Mediterranean, flew over the tip of Italy and finally I saw the Nile River Delta below. Egypt at last! As we flew in for a a landing, I caught a glimpse of the pyramids in western Cairo.

The airport was pretty decent, I exchanged some money for Egyptian Pounds, got my Travel Visa, and met Mr. Whalid, the tour operator from Cosmos. He is one cool fellow, wearing a sharp suit and sunglasses. He ushers me and two other Americans out of the airport and into a van. One thing that I notice immediately is how many armed police are around with assault rifles. Egypt takes good care of its visitors and posts police all over the tourist areas and has heavy security checkpoints and blockades at most tourist sites and some hotels.

The drive across Cairo to the first hotel was nothing short of terrifying. I am from the quiet town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where people mostly obey traffic laws. In Cairo, it is traffic anarchy, with people cutting in and out of lanes, constantly honking horns, and nearly running over pedestrians. At intersections, everyone just floods in from all directions and weaves their way through, there aren't many traffic lights in Egypt. Most of the cars had a lot of dents and scratches and traffic was a bit slow until we got on the highway, where it was much better. Needless to say, I was glad that I was not driving because I would probably get killed and/or total my car. Along the street, cars were parked two or three deep and I have read that people leave their cars unlocked so people can push them out of the way and get out when they are parked in.

The first hotel was the Movenpick Pyramids, which is basically right across from the Giza Plateau. You have a stunning view of the pyramids from the hotel and it has a nice rooftop cafe. I had a sandwich up there and looked over at the pyramids, it is a strange sight to behold in person. The rooms there were nice and I had no complaints really. The only bad thing is that there isn't anywhere to eat around there, most of the commercial development is over by the entrance to the Giza Plateau.

I took a walk around the area with the two Americans, one of whom was wearing a short skirt and low cut blouse. The looks she got from the blue collar Egyptians in the area weren't exactly approving and there were a number of car honks, but no comments were made. I thought she should have wore something more modest to avoid drawing attention, but at least we weren't accosted. I bought some bottled water to avoid getting diarrhea from the tap water, which we were told not to drink by the tour director. There weren't many white people walking around so we got a lot of funny stares, as well as taxis stopping near us and asking us if we needed a lift. At every corner there was a police officer in a black uniform and beret with an AK-47 so I always felt pretty safe. I went back to the hotel room later and watched some Egyptian TV, there are some pretty cheesy sitcoms, just like in the United States.

Day 3

Today was the official start of the tour. Our tour guide, nicknamed Mido, was a nice fellow pursuing a doctorate in Egyptology. He explained that Egypt is very overpopulated, with about 26 million people in Cairo alone. The city is very polluted, with garbage in the canals and along the streets, and it has a very outdated transportation infrastructure, as I detailed earlier. Most people live in a flat with 2 or 3 families. Needless to say, Egypt is a country with many problems.

After the short overview, we went on a bus to the Cairo Museum, where no cameras were allowed inside. As usual, there was a security gate and metal detector and the inside of the museum was quite crowded with many tour groups. Mido did his best to lead us around to the important things and explain what he knew about them. A lot of the museum's collection comes from King Tut's tomb. I found it remarkable that they had found an intact perfume bottle in his tomb that still held the liquid inside. They even had King Tut's cotton underpants! Inside, they also have some mummies, King Tut's famous sarcophagus and golden death mask, and gigantic statues of various pharaohs and gods. It is an excellent museum and I wish I had had more time to see it. I believe they are moving the whole museum out to the Giza Plateau eventually, which is not a bad idea at all. It is currently situated in downtown Cairo and it is inconvenient to go through traffic and there is also not much parking.

After that, we drove to the Giza Plateau and walked up to the Great Pyramid. Surprisingly, there were only about 50 people there, so it was not crowded at all. The pyramid is gigantic and although you are no longer allowed to climb to the top since it is quite dangerous and wears out the blocks, you are able to climb a bit on some stairs. It is very remarkable to imagine what it was like constructing such a monstrous thing with simple tools and a whole lot of manpower. Next to it was the smaller pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure, which we did not drive up to. We did, however drive next to them and go to a vista with a great view of all three of them. If you ever go to the pyramids, beware of the hustlers who try to take your picture and then demand tips. Similarly, avoid the camel rides, which can take you out into the desert and demand money to take you back.

Finally, we drove over to the other side of the plateau and saw the Sphinx. It is a rather small monument compared to the pyramids, but still something to see. Unfortunately it has endured much wear and damage over the years, but I was still glad to see it and get a nice photo of it with the pyramids in the background. After that, we went back to the hotel, where I left for a dinner cruise on the Nile. The cruise wasn't too bad, but the food wasn't very good. Fortunately there was some entertainment, including some Egyptian pop singers, a belly dancer, and some costumed performers. There was an old Japanese tourist who couldn't get enough of the belly dancer and kept snapping pictures, which I found quite amusing. Unfortunately, I was seated next to some British snobs who pretty much ignored me the whole time and complained about everything.

Day 4

Today we left in the morning for Saladin's Citadel, an ancient fortress built by Saladin and the muslim invaders who took over Egypt. Inside is the Mohammed Ali Mosque, a gigantic mosque with towering minarets. It was my first time inside of a mosque and I found it very interesting, since the architecture is so much different than churches. You have to take your shoes off to go inside to avoid getting the carpet dirty (people press their heads to the ground in prayer) and are asked to dress respectably, which is about the same as any other religious place you would find in western countries. Inside, Mido talked about Islam and explained the layout of the mosque and the basic tenets of Islam. Overall, it seems like a pretty good religion, essentially an extension of christianity and judaism.

I was amazed by how little I and most people seem to know about this religion, so here I will relate the most interesting parts of the religion. Muslims give a good portion of their money to charity and family and friends in need if they make more than a certain amount. There are no income taxes. The fasting in Ramadan is intended to make rich and poor alike feel hungry and thirsty to humble themselves and become closer. Pilgrimages to Mecca are encouraged if you can afford the trip. Men pray separately from women since it involves bending over and it is distracting. Prayer is done several times a day, pointing toward Mecca. There is a call to prayer in the mornings, which is the purpose of the minarets. In the mornings, some poor fellow used to have to climb the tall minaret and call muslims to prayer, now it is done with audio recordings and speakers instead. It is very loud and woke me up pretty much every morning at around 5 AM, but I found it interesting since it isn't something you experience in the United States. Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worship the same God, and muslims believe in Jesus, they just follow the teachings of Mohammed more.

The interior of the mosque was pretty much hollow, with huge arched ceilings and painted glass. In the center was the biggest chandelier I had ever seen, but with some of the worst electrical wiring I had ever seen. The lights were off at first, but then they were turned on later so I got a pretty good look at the interior. There is a staircase and a place for a prayer leader to speak from and give sermons, much like the pulpit in churces.

After focusing on Islam that morning, we drove to the Coptic area of Cairo, which is where some of the oldest christian churches in the world stand. In Egypt, muslims and christians live together in harmony and have for a long time. The Romans, however, weren't so kind and we saw a dungeon where christians were tortured. Built above this dungeon was the Hanging Church, which is a quite old christian church with the standard layout with pews and a pulpit and altar at the front.

At this point, the tour director told us with great sadness that a bombing had occurred the night before at the Khan-el-Khalili Bazaar that we were going to go to at the end of the week. A French tourist was killed, along with a number of Egyptians and at least 20 Egyptians were wounded. The Egyptians do not tolerate this terrorism and take great care to prevent it, but a terror attack like this has occurred once every few years. As a precaution, we were to take the desert road to Alexandria instead of the farm road and an undercover police officer was placed on our tour bus with a submachine gun under his suit jacket. Although it was depressing, I was not too worried, especially since it was clear that the Egyptians were just as angry as we were about it. More Egyptians were killed and injured in the attack than westerners and the bazaar is probably the most popular shopping area in Cairo, so it would be like a bomb going off at your local shopping mall.

The drive to Alexandria through the desert was fairly uneventful, however I was able to see bedouin farmers herding sheep and goats, as well as the ramshackle homes that dotted the landscape. The desert was mostly barren, but it was sad to see so many plastic bags blowing in the wind and stuck on most of the brush since nobody cleans up the roadsides. Alexandria is a much more luxurious city than Cairo, and it is where the middle class and wealthy go for vacation. Many of Egypt's oil and natural gas is in the area so there is a lot of money going around. Alexandria is also an important port on the Mediterranean.

After seeing the tragic poverty and pollution in Cairo, it was nice to see the more westernized Alexandria. Driving along the Mediterranean was beautiful, although Alexandria also suffers from terrible traffic due to lack of traffic lights and enforcement, so it took a long time to get up the strip to our hotel. We stayed at the luxurious Sheraton and my room was way up on the 15th floor, with a great view of the sea and street below. That night I took a stroll along the main drag for about a mile and saw many restaurants and bars with people sitting inside with water pipes, smoking flavored tobacco and watching soccer. There was even a KFC and a Starbucks and one gentleman invited me into a club to see dancing ladies. Most men were wearing jeans and nice shirts and the ladies were often similarly dressed, although most sported shawls around their heads. I stopped in a shop and the shop owner even offered me some tea and crackers, nice fellow. Despite all the talk about how conservative Egypt was, it seemed a lot like your average big city in the United States.

Day 5

Today we started the day by going to the catacombs. These catacombs contain about 3000 tombs, possibly more. It was supposedly hidden for hundreds of years under a rubbish dump until a man's donkey fell through a ventilation shaft. Most of the tombs were simple holes carved in the wall, but there were also several larger tombs with elaborate carvings made for what seemed to be a rich Greek man. It was a creepy experience, being so far down in the ground surrounded by tombs.

The next stop was Pompey's Pillar, a massive Greek pillar standing in the middle of a dig site, fronted by two stone sphinxes. It was an interesting site, and below the pillar they had excavated ancient ruins, supposedly there are all kinds of ruins under the city streets in Alexandria. They had also excavated a number of artifacts and laid them out, including a number of statues and various pillars that illustrated the various styles from the Greek and Roman empires.

After that, we drove back to the main drag, to the new Great Library of Alexandria. This is a fairly new construction with a very interesting shape, sort of like a section of a cylinder, cut at an angle. Inside, it was very modern and well outfitted, with something like eight million books. They also run a digitization program for books and house one of the copies of the Internet Archive (archive.org). Our final stop after lunch was to Fort Q'ait, but unfortunately we could not go inside since they were renovating.

That evening, I walked over to the beach and met an Egyptian man employed by the hotel, who seemed very interested in talking. He knew very little English, but we were still able to make some conversation with hand gestures and simple words. The topics of discussion ranged from George Bush (bad man) and Obama (thumbs up), to the Iraq War, to SCUBA diving, and our families. At one point he looked around cautiously and then started making amusing gestures about sex, apparently asking about American women and revealing that he liked American women with big breasts. Later he made us some tea and he played some Egyptian music on his cell phone and we also talked to his friends that came by. When I gave him a nice tip and prepared to leave, he seemed very grateful, took hold of my arm, and led me through the terrifying traffic, back across the street to the Sheraton. There, he asked me to return tomorrow, although I explained I couldn't since we were headed west, and then bid me farewell with a rapid kiss on each cheek, which I found very awkward since nobody does that in the USA. Overall, it was a very interesting experience since he brought up taboo topics I was told not to discuss and I had never had to engage in communication using so many hand signals before.

Day 6

Today the first stop was the Montaza gardens and royal palace, a huge park with all kinds of different plants, with a gigantic palace on the coast reserved for the Egyptian president and neighboring leaders and royalty. After that, we left Alexandria for Marsa Matruh, a city that is further west along the Mediterranean and fairly close to the Libyan border. Where Alexandria is a the vacation spot for the middle class and wealthy, Marsa Matruh is the vacation spot for the commoners. Along the way, we stopped at the museum for the World War 2 battle of El Alamein and the cemetery where allied forces were buried. It was pretty sad to see all the graves, but as a WWII buff I found the museum very interesting. It had many artifacts, including old tanks, guns, and uniforms.

When we entered Marsa Matruh, we could see that the city was like a ghost town since it was still winter and most people there were year-round residents. It didn't have the nice hotels or high rises that covered the coastline at Alexandria and it was clear that it was less prestigious, but it was still a charming little town. We stayed at the Cleopatra San Giovanni hotel, which is a nice place right on the beach at the west end of town.

The hotel was pretty big and mostly empty, but I managed to enjoy myself by chatting up the staff and convincing one of them to let me go on the beach (which was closed). I was told not to go across the street since it was military property and they will seize your camera if you go onto it or take pictures of it. There is a military installation in town with a lot of Egyptian Army personnel.

Day 7

Today we started by going to Cleopatra Beach, just up the road from the hotel. At this beach, which is quite lovely, is a giant rock with a cave inside, where Cleopatra supposedly hid from the Roman forces under Octavius Augustus. We also visited a private beach for the muslim ladies that is flanked by two giant walls for privacy so men can't ogle them in their swimsuits.

Also in town was Rommel's Cave, a cavern where they have stowed a bunch of Erwin Rommel's belongings, including his old desk, overcoat, hat, and some other things. At that time, it began to rain very heavily. In a desert town like Marsa Matruh, rain is unusual, let alone a deluge. As we drove downtown for some shopping and an ATM stop, the streets were flooded and cars were nearly swamped. It seems that the city lacks storm sewers sufficient to handle such a quantity of rain and therefore it collected in the streets at a depth of over one foot. The residents were quite amazed by this phenomenon, as was I, and for the next hour or so, I watched people driving through the flooded streets with looks of wonder on their faces and snapping pictures with their cell phones. Pedestrians were forced to remove their shoes and hike up their pants to avoid getting soaked. Of all the things I expected to see in Egypt, this was certainly not one of them! The tour director said it would please the Bedouin farmers a great deal, since it would cause plants to grow and feed their animals.

Day 8

This morning, the rain continued, although not as heavily. It seemed the hotel was not frequently tested by heavy rain, since the roof was leaking heavily and dripping onto the floor. Buckets were all over the place and the poor staff were struggling to cope with the leaks by moving furniture out of the way and pushing the water into drains. Luckily, rooms were not leaking, only the main hallways, since the roof had a lot of poorly sealed glass skylights.

Later, the rain let up as we departed for Cairo once again. Along the way, we stopped at the St. Bishoy Coptic Monastery. There, over 100 coptic monks live, growing food, worshipping god, and giving tours to visitors. The monastery is truly ancient and has high walls to keep out bedouin raiders.

The last stop was supposed to be the Khan-el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo, but we decided against it due to police recommendations and the bombing earlier that week. Therefore, we drove to the Le Passage hotel near the airport. I was tired and we had an early flight to Aswan the next morning, so I hit the bed early.

Day 9

After a brutal 2 AM wake-up call, we made our way onto the bus to go to the airport and take an EgyptAir flight to Aswan, at the southern end of the country, to start our Nile cruise. Security wasn't very tight and I was even able to take two bottles of water from outside on the plane without any questions. In Aswan, we arrived at the airport and climbed onto our new bus.

The first stop was the Aswan High Dam, which was built with help from the Soviets. It is a gigantic dam with a built-in hydroelectric power station that provides electricity for the entire country. The dam also created a large back-up of water, creating Lake Nasser. The dam is constructed of rock and sand in order to make it resistant to earthquakes. The only bad thing is that it keeps fish from getting to the northern part of the Nile River, therefore the price of fish in Aswan is very cheap, whereas in Cairo it is very expensive.

Our next stop was the Temple of Isis, which is located on an island and had to be reached via motorboat. There, the tour director pointed out some interesting hieroglyphics and also explained the ancient Egyptian concept of creationism. After that, we split into two groups, one of which was going back to the Nile cruise ship, the Movenpick Radamis II, and the other going to Abu Simbel in the south.

I couldn't miss the chance to see Abu Simbel, so I joined the latter group, shelling out $90 for the privelege. Myself and about 12 other people were on the bus and we drove to a meeting point in town to join a number of other busses and create a convoy. Trips to Abu Simbel are always in groups for safety reasons, since the area is very remote and bandits have been known to attack vehicles going down there.

As we neared the south of Egypt, we saw small, natural granite mounds where early Egyptians had mined material for monuments and the pyramid casings. We also saw canal systems that had been developed to draw water from Lake Nasser and allow for planting of crops in the desert land. At last we reached Abu Simbel, which is very close to the Sudan border.

Like almost every enclosed Egyptian tomb, cameras were not allowed inside and guards were prepared to seize cameras if people were seen snapping pictures. The reason for this was that color still existed inside (even after thousands of years) and flash photography causes fading. Cameras were, however, allowed outside. The entrance to Abu Simbel is the most amazing part, with four giant statues of Rameses II seated. Inside are many carvings and several passageways with hieroglyphics, depicting Rameses II as a macho pharaoh, slaying all of his enemies singlehandedly. Next door was a smaller monument for his queen, with similar carvings and decor. One of the most interesting things about this monument is that it was moved after the construction of the high dam, since the rising waters of Lake Nasser covered it in its original location. With much effort, the entire construction was cut into pieces and reassembled on higher ground at the present site.

Day 10

Today, our cruise ship remained docked at Aswan for a time, allowing myself and a small group to take a motorboat to a nearby Nubian village. There, we were able to ride camels for about fifteen minutes up the sand dunes into the village. It was my first time on a camel, and after seating upon it, I had to hold on tightly as it stood up, first in the rear and then in the front. My camel was quite speedy and I was allowed to take the reins and charge ahead of the group while a young Nubian boy took my camera and snapped some pictures of me.

In the village, we went to a family's home and were treated to tea and cake. Inside the man's house, he kept several juvenile crocodiles that we were allowed to pick up and pet. Supposedly there aren't many crocodiles in the Nile River there, but it is not adviseable to swim due to the parasites. After walking around the village a bit, we returned to the cruise ship and set sail!

I took the opportunity to climb up to the deck of the ship, standing at the front to feel the strong wind and smell the river. The river's smell reminded me much of the Mississippi River, although the scenery was quite different. I saw all sorts of farmers along the river, as well as small boats and wild animals.

We docked after a while to walk up to the Temple of Kom Ombo, which is slowly collapsing as earthquakes occur over time. The ancient Greek engineering did not plan for earthquakes, but it was in surprisingly good shape considering how old it was. The next stop was up the river at Edfu, where we took horse-drawn carriages to the Temple of Horus. It was nighttime by the time we got there, so it set a mysterious mood with the lights shining up on the ancient walls and pillars. Unfortunately, our miserable carriage driver relentlessly hounded me for tips, claiming that his horse was sick, pregnant, starving, and proceeded to mock me when I refused. When we got back, the tour director had a loud shouting match in Arabic with him before paying the punk.

Day 11

Today, the boat docked at Luxor, which is a very bustling city with much to see nearby. To beat the crowds, we immediately went to the Valley of the Kings, which gets very busy very quickly. At the Valley of the Kings, they have a large collection of tombs cut into the hills, constructed for pharaohs long ago. Only three are open at a time and there are heavy steel gates with padlocks on each of them to keep vandals and hooligans out at night. The three open that day were the tombs of Rameses IV, Rameses IX, and Tausert/Setnakht.

Each of the tombs was unique and interesting, all of their walls and ceilings were covered with paintings and carvings. The color in this artwork was remarkably well preserved and vivid since the Valley of the Kings was hidden quite well until its discovery by archaeologists. It was also interesting to see that at the end of each tomb was an unfinished area, sometimes with unpainted sketches where the artists had to stop before they could finish. The reason for this is that the tomb builders and artists would work on a pharaoh's tomb for the entirety of their reign, then immediately stop after the pharaoh's death and move onto the next pharaoh's tomb. As a result of this, the length of the tombs varies based on how long a pharaoh reigned and lived.

The next stop was the Deir el-Bahari, the Temple of Hatshepsut. This temple is really amazing since it is gigantic with a long staircase and several large platforms to walk around on. It is built at the base of some large hills near the Valley of the Kings and nearby are tombs of royals, cut into the hills. The Egyptian authorities conveniently provided a tram system to shuttle people from the parking lot to the temple, since it is a bit of a walk.

The final stop of the day was the Collossi of Memnon, two old and very large statues that have been carefully reconstructed, despite heavy damage. Most of their features are gone now, but it was still very interesting to see. Later, I strolled along the river on Aswan's east bank, checking out some of the shops. The hustlers along the stretch offered me everything from hashish and prostitutes to sunset rides in a felucca, all of which I politely declined. One guy kept following me and trying to talk to me so I started running, and the persistent fellow kept running alongside me, much to my amusement, but eventually gave up and looked for another tourist to harass. After such a long day, it was good to get back to the cruise ship.

Day 12

Our last day, we went to the Temple of Amon Ra, a magnificent complex featuring large obelisks and gigantic pillars. It was very busy, even in the morning, with all kinds of tourists crowding the massive temple. Later, we went to the nearby Temple of Luxor, which was smaller and much less crowded, featuring a giant obelisk (the other was sent to Paris), some huge statues, and some interesting carvings from Alexander the Great's period.



After the temples, we stopped at the local McDonald's where I ate a double cheeseburger. It was the only American food I had the entire trip, and it was pretty tasty. Apparently McDonald's is pretty prestigious and not many can afford to eat there in Egypt. That afternoon we went to the Luxor airport and took an EgyptAir flight back to Cairo, returning to the Le Passage for the evening.

Day 13

Today, I left the hotel in the early morning for my flight back to the USA. I gave my best to Mr. Whalid, who was now sporting a sharp suit and his standard shades. He saw me playing Sudoku and smiled, saying that he does the puzzle in the newspaper every morning. The Egyptian security at the airport made me toss my safety razor, but it wasn't too bad. The flight back was pretty uneventful and I spent most of my time doing Sudoku puzzles. I was glad to be back in the USA, but it was one trip I will never forget.

Final Thoughts

Overall, it was an amazing trip and I felt it was well worth the money. There is more to see in Egypt than the pyramids and I highly recommend seeing the city of Alexandria and taking a cruise up the Nile River. In spite of the small terrorist attack, I never felt unsafe and the fact that the Egyptian government is willing to provide undercover police to tours and place police on street corners really says how much they care about their tourists. However, I do recommend taking a tour if you do go to Egypt, since it makes it much easier to get around. Don't expect to rent a car and drive around Cairo, since it is a nightmare for motorists, although you might not have too much trouble driving around the rest of the country. Although I may never return to Egypt, I am very happy to have had the opportunity to go and see the ancient wonders, as well as meet the nice people who live there.