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Published: April 1st 2013
OK so let's get a few things straight right from the start. Firstly, Egypt is absolutely safe to travel. (Disclaimer:that's just an opinion, should you get taken hostage or injured in Egypt that'd be a blow, but please don't try and sue me!) The Arab Spring of 2011 swept across some 16 countries or so and is still continuning now, and it seems the constant media attention showing the melting pot of anger has blurred the lines between countries, protests and repurcussions, which has resulted in the vast majority of tourists being scared to travel to the entire region. Great news for us as less queues, but bad news for countries like Egypt who are so reliant on the income of tourism. It needs to be put in context: the people were tired of being ruled by a dictator for the last thirty years who gave police almost unlimited power under the 'Emergency laws', meaning constitutuional rights were suspended, censorship legalised, and protests banned, whilst allowing the government to imprison individuals indefinitely and without reason. Freedom of speech and all other rights become non existant, wouldn't you want an end to that? So the people protested, the police reacted violently leading
to many deaths and inciting the crowds further, thus the cycle of violence began and continued for 2 weeks. Eventually the will of the people won and President Mubarak stepped down, he was convicted to life in prison on the basis of a failure to stop the killings(he somehow got away with the mass money laundering),meanwhile elections were held and the people had a say again (admitedly the new guy they chose Morsi doesn't sound entirly angelic either). But the point is this was never about attacking tourists, taking hostages or hating the west etc, Egypt is not Syria with shellings and a guerilla war. Myself and the whole tour group felt absolutely safe for the entire 9 days,not once did we feel we were in danger and there was no underlying tension or atmopshere we could sense, I found the Egyptian people (minus the annoying touts!) warm, friendly and hospitable and the country is too good to be missed due to scaremongering news coverage. Tour Groups
There is a neat correlation in the Egypt story I suppose, because just as with Mubarak 30 years have passed in a flash and I can no longer do things the
way I used to. The energy sapping challenge that was India last year finished me off and may well have led to the retirement of my independent backpacking ways and I just couldn't get my head around trying to begin planning a trip around Egypt. So I cheated, and this trip was done under the supervision of the pretty much flawless onthegotours.
It felt unnatural and dirty, travelling is my mistress and she has been good to me over the years as we have satisfied each other copiously, but now I feel the need for that little blue pill of Viagra that comes in the form of a tour group. As the words of that great novel the Bible say “How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!” (The weapon of war is my penis, it's a metaphor see?) But having finished this tour and been delighted with the outcome I think it is the way forward for all my trips. Obviously it limits my freedom and independence and there isn't the same sense of adventure, it is regimented and can be just as tiresome in a whirlwind of bus rides, guided tours and checking out of
hotels seemingly moments after checking in. To finally put a nail in my free wheeling coffin I went on the tour with my dad who has always fancied a bit of a Egypt. But a tour group is the way forward I think, it takes care of everything and anything for you, your only concern is what time is the wake up call and where are we meeting for the coach. Transfers that run like clockwork, fantastic 4 and 5 star accommodation, transport to the best sites and a guided tour around each, personable trip leaders(have to mention Momo
, fantasic guides with encyclopedic knowledge and a passion for the job), not to mention the group dynamic of travelling with 25 other people for a length of time allowing bonds to be formed, laughes to be had and lonliness to be averted. The company I use is a halfway point between an 18-30 style drunken debauchery and a Saga OAP tour so there was an eclectic bunch. Apologies for the gushing rhetoric but honestly I have nothing but positive things to say about this tour and I'm glad I have booked to use them again in the Summer. But
anyway enough of all that, let's get down to business, the many wonders of Ancient Egypt. Cairo El Alamein
We booked on to the 9 day King Tutankhamen tour that covered such highlights as the Pyramids, Sphinx, Valley of the Kings, Luxor, River Nile, and of course Mr Tut himself. Names which roll off the tongue and evoke half remembered memories of stories, TV programmes and myths from my youth. We arrived a day before the tour started to sneak in an extra trip to El-Alamein, the site of a huge battle in 1942, often cited as a subsequent turning point during World War II , certainly Churchill thought so "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat." This trip was especially significant and poignant for us as my grandfather actully fought in this battle and for my dad it was the chance to wander around the place his father had spoken about and to explore the 13,000 graves that no doubt contained the remains of his colleagues and friends. There is only really the war cemetery and museum there and it was a 3 hour trip to see
it so perhaps only history buffs or those with a family interest like us should visit but it was an interesting and powerful excursion that brought home what people like my grandfather and his generation went through to ensure our freedom, the type of freedom that Egypt is currently grappling to obtain. Pyramids of Giza, Sphinx and necropolis of Saqqara
The next day the trip itself started with a packed itinerary. It began with those imposing behemoths the pyramids of Giza, the sole survivors of the ancient Greek listed Seven Wonders of the World. You go through such a range of emotions when staring at them, initially it was 'I can't believe I'm looking at the pyramids' then it changed to 'They aren't as big as I imagined' before finally going up close and settling on 'Ok they are actually pretty massive'. It takes a while to appreciate the impossibly huge scale of it all and the intricate technicalities needed to build them, not to mention the sheer age of it all. The oldest pyramid in Giza is known simply as The Great Pyramid and was finished in 2570BC, that date itself defies belief, I was staring at
The Great Pyramid
It was once topped with gold until stolen
a structure that was built 4600 years ago, 2500 years before that bloke Jesus produced a few magic tricks. The pyramid itself is 146 metres high, a feat of precise engineering as each weighs about 2.5 tonnes and there are a staggering 2.3 million blocks in all
, the weight must be incredible. As stunning a sight as it is, it was once even better, when originally completed they were covered in a smooth white limsetone which can still be seen on the second pyramid, which would have resulted in the sun gleaming off them casting a glow for miles around. Not only that, many suggest the great pyramid was originally finished with a gold capstone that has long since been looted. Sitting alongside are two further pyramids, Khafre's which looks larger from some angles and so even more impressive but is techincally smaller and then there is the runt of the litter Menkaure. The entire site has not only the 3 grand pyramids, but also alongside each has it's own funerary temple, plus there are smaller pyramids for the Queens, stone paved causeways, tombs and a cemetery, not to mention the iconic Sphinx so all told is it a stunning
spectacle. You can also venture inside the pyramid and we went inside Khafre's, there isn't much to see inside and the Pharoah's remains have mysteriously never been found, but the experience of clambering through one and then standing inside such a creation is unforgettable. Sadly you can't take your camera inside but the memory of doing it will live with me beyond any photo. The pyramids were the first thing we saw and remained the highlight for me and were every bit as stunning as I hoped, sure the touts were a pain and it was also right on the edge of the city which lost a little of it's ancient allure but overall it was spectacular. After this we visisted Saqqara which is famous for containing the oldest pyramid of all, although it was less impressive and was more a dummy run of how to build a pyramid the fact that it was constructed in 2700BC made it worth a visit, nearly 5000years ago they had the intelligence and know-how to build such structures and these modern day giants of steel and glass don't even come close to comparing. Aswan
After this we took an overnight train
to Aswan, a 14 hour epic journey though barren landscapes and half built homes. There is a law in Egypt that means any house that is deemed completed must pay extra tax, so everyone builds their houses then lays the foundation for a top floor but leave it unfinished, which gives a very false third world impression. It seems some sort of perverse irony that they can build pyramids but not a simple two storey house. The trains were pretty decent and the train stations a world away from Delhi etc, even the meals were edible. Our hotel was situated right on the impressive Nile and water was our theme for the day as we headed off to see the Aswan Dam which stops that mighty river flowing and in turn created the worlds largest artificial lake. I say lake but it looked more like the sea as it was water as far as the eye could see but the politics behind it was perhaps more interesting than the dam itself. We next went to Philae Temple which was one of the many sites originally lost when the dam was created, the build up of water flooded huge areas and
this temple and many others, not to mention lots of homes, were initially lost as Egypt could not afford to save them. Luckily UNESCO got involved and painstakingly moved this temple brick by brick to higher ground. It started a theme within Egypt for us, you see something like this temple and get your first sight of the hieroglyphics and columns, the gods and insicriptions and think it's stunning and can't be beaten,but then later on you see bigger and even better. Many of the inscriptions were defaced by pesky Christians and as I said we saw better temples later but still it was was impressive and worth a visit. Abu Simbel
The temple was beaten the very next morning by the impossibly grand Abu Simbel, a temple built by Rameses II in 1200 BC to show off his power to any army arriving into his lands from the South. The whole structure was carved out of a mountain 30 metres high and outside four gigantic statues stand guard 20 metres tall, themselves looked over by a falcon headed sun god. They guard a temple decorated with statues, walls depciting battles and Gods, hieroglyphics telling tales and like
Heading inside the pyramid
Steep steps and at a crouch
something out of a movie a specially built sun room that illuminates a statue of Rameses and Ra once a year on the exact day that he was coronated. The Egyptians construction feats know no bounds. Next to the Great Temple is a smaller but similarily rock cut temple, this time with six 10m high statues of Rameses and his wife and similar features inside but the overall feel of the site is one of grandeur and is very impressive. Amazingly this place was also once lower down and flooded by the waters, it seems the Egyptians didn't really think this dam business through, and in the 1970s was moved a rock at a time higher up and set back on the mountain side which was nearly as impressive a feat as the original. The 3am start and 3 hour bus ride there was a kick in the groin, but Abu Simbel is to many people the highlight of Egypt and did not dissapoint. River Nile Cruise, Aswan-Luxor.
The next stage of the tour involved a cruise down the longest river in the world, the Nile. The tour here split into two groups which was a shame as
it affected the dynamic a little and you were always wondering if the other group were having more fun! One half went off and did a felucca cruise, basically sailing down the river on a small boat, sleeping on the deck and using basic amenities (duck behind a bush and avoid the camels). The other option was a five star cruise ship which remsembled the Titanic, only with less ice and less topless women asking me to paint them, sigh. In a move which lowered my free wheeling coffin into the ground I chose the cruise liner, this Littlest Hobo has well and truly become a Corgi. I'm not sure if it was the air conditioned luxury room, the all you can eat buffets, the gym, internet, bar, sun deck or swimming pool on the roof that swayed me, or perhaps more likely I just have to accept I'm a poshpacker now. And so passed a lazy few days of relaxing with the obviously better half of the tour group in the blazing sun, drinking the occasional beer whilst watching Egypt float past, all sand dunes and plam trees and half finished housing, mosques with mystical calls to prayers and
Stepped pyramid of Djoser
First ever pyramid, 2667–2648 BC, that's 4600 years ago!!
the wide expanse of water pushing us relentlessly on, only stopping to go and eat the buffet or drink high tea on the sun deck at 4pm. I'll be honest people, I've had more stressful times. We got off the boat a couple of times to see a Nubian village where we engaged in a spot of crocodile holding and also disembarked to visit temples, firstly at Kom Ombo,
an interesting although partially destroyed temple dedicated to a falcon and crocodile god with some great hieroglyphics and mummified crocodiles on display. The Temple of Edfu
had more to hold the attention as it is one of the best reserved temples in all of Egypt and was built much later than others in around 57BC during the Greek occupation of Egypt. It is therefore in effect a homage or replica to earlier Egyptian temples 2000 years before. The huge gates stand 36m high and included interesting little details like the original blueprint for the temple and the architects designs chiselled into the wall. We finished off this section with a night time visit to Luxor Temple
, which was great as the temples had a very different aura when seen at night.
Luxor used to be known as the mighty city of Thebes and the temple was built in 1400BC, it contains huge pylons, a wonderful obselix, as well as court yards, colossus and inscriptions, and it was a completely different atmosphere to witness this at night. In front of it a 2km pathway adorned with sphinxes leads the way to the massive complex known as Karnak
. Karnak is essentially a massive open air museum and Wikipedia tells me it is the largest religious site in the world and second most visited site in Egypt after the Pyramids. This occurs because of how it developed as over 30 pharoahs contributed to its features, each new ruler essentially adding his own bit on the end, enabling it to reach a size and complexity not seen anywhere else. It's size is it's problem though, it is just so big that it is overwhelming and this was on the last day by which time we were templed out and the temperature was 90 something degrees. I'd like to say I fully appreciated it but it was certainly impressive. Valley of the Kings
First thing to mention is that our planned hot air balloon
ride at dawn over the valley was cancelled due to the recent disaster there but they restarted them the day after we left...not that I'm bitter...The Valley of the Kings wowed us anyway, for those not in the know it is a place where for 500 years they buried any Pharoahs or noblemen who died in that time, it contains an amazing 63 tombs and chambers. The tombs are decorated with fabulous scenes from Egyptian mythology and give clues to the beliefs and funerary rituals of the period. Sadly almost all of the tombs have been opened and robbed at some stage, but they still give an idea of the opulence and power of the Pharaohs. The most famous of these was King Tutankhamun who died in 1323BC at the age of 19. The irony of this is that he only ruled for a short time and didn't do anything out of the ordinary or unique, he was no Rameses II who ruled for over 60 years and fought important battles etc, and his tomb is comparatively small suggesting he may have died suddenly. However, the boy king is famous because his tomb was discovered nearly intact and hordes of
The mummy pose
stunning treasure were found inside. The tomb was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter underneath the remains of previous workmen's huts which explains why it was spared from the worst of the tomb raiders, robbers had been inside it since Tut died but they failed to find the secret passageway inside, Carter did. He found many artefacts such as chariots and furniture, funeral beds and statues. But the big find was inside the burial chamber, which had four wooden shrines gilded with gold, one inside the other like some kind of Russian matryoshka doll. Inside the smallest was a granite sarcophagus, and inside this lay three mummiform coffins, the outer two made of gilded wood while the innermost was composed of 110kg of pure gold. The mummy itself was adorned with the infamous death mask of King Tut, a gold mask inlaid with glass and precious stones and weighing 11 kg. What I'd give to be Howard Carter finding all that. Pretty much everything is now within the Cairo Museum and is simply beautiful to behold, again the craftsmanship on his death mask and many bracelets and coffins etc is just breath taking to behold especially when the year it
was made is taken into account. King Tut himself still lies mummified in his tomb gloriously unaware of the fuss. The other tombs within the Valley (sadly your ticket only allows you to visit 3 so you have to listen to your guide and choose wisely) are more decorated and intricate, some descending deep underground with twists and turns and all brilliantly decorated. Being so far underground and away from sunlight the images have retained their colour, sadly again I couldn't take pictures but the detail and colour is something to be in awe of as you stare at something that a worker drew on over 3000 years ago. I could drone on about the tombs but this blog is long enough, again just go. Later that day we also visisted the Temple of Queen Hatsheput
but it was a recent rebuild after collpasing and quite frankly not worth the visit. Cairo, again.
Finally we arrived back in dusty old Cairo, after the somewhat more well maintained and ordered Luxor it was a shock to the system. Cairo is certainly more less chaotic than any Indian city I visited or even Vietnam etc but it is a country
that has over 80 million people all crammed within just 6%!o(MISSING)f the land around their life giving river,the majority of which, over 20 million in fact, seem to be in Cairo at any given time. The nature of the tour meant I didn't get to explore Cairo a great deal except passing through on a coach and a brief market visit but it was essentialy a lot of people, mainly living at the poverty line or below it, lots of touts harassing tourists and traffic traversing with carefree abandon. We did visit the Cairo Museum
, a place so large and filled with ancient artefacts that it would take you days to see properly, we had a couple of hours and did our best. The undoubted highlights being King Tut's treasure and it was worth paying the extra money to see the mummified corpses of the pharoahs. Especially that long lasting Rameses II who lived on until his 90s, his mummy is so intact and well preserved right down to his hair, teeth and adams apple that you could believe he only died last week, I gawped at it for who knows how long.
And so that was Egypt
done, although how much of it I understand I'm not so sure. I just can't quite figure it out, a country that was clearly light years of others for so long and with so much potential has not been realised in my eyes. They had culture and society, women were free and had equal rights, they were capable of building such fantasic structures of ingenuity and genius some 5000 years ago, yet just when they seemed to lead the charge and push on they stopped. The pyramids, temples and tombs are spectacular and it seems once they had this idea they stuck to it and simply replicated it every time. They didn't leap forward, expand into other countries or leave any enduring legacy on the world outside of Egypt itself. Every memory or image you have of Egypt is contained within Egypt itself, the Greeks went on to dominate the world-Alexander himself ruled Egypt and named Alexandria-and the Romans went even further and dominated even more, Cleopatra et al, not to mention the Arabs and the spread of Islam. Yet Egypt seemed quite happy to plod along and keep itself to itself thank you very much. Stonehenge was built around
the same time as the pyramids and they clearly bettered us there, but the countries are poles apart 5000 years later. What they did accomplish in Ancient Egypt is unbettered and unparalled though, I have been mesmerised by what they created and were able to achieve and I encourage anyone reading to go there,and I don't just mean the Costa del sharm el sheikh either. I also can't speak highly enough of On The Go tours and the amazing people I met on the trip who formed 'the family', it made the journey all the better and I'll meet up with them again soon for definite. And so until the next trip and the next part of my travelling journey, it's no longer how I used to do it but it is a new phase, as Churchill put it about the battle of El Alamein:
"This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
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