8 a.m. Blessed Land
From my ninth-floor hotel room in Cairo I look down at the Nile, still digesting what my guide had said the previous day. All of inhabited Egypt is but a thin strip, some three kilometres on either bank of the Nile, and a little more on its delta. Only 3.5 per cent of its land is occupied—all the rest is inhospitable desert. I’ve been in Cairo a day. It reminds me of my own city, Mumbai. Bustling, crowded, traffic jams everywhere and business as usual.
Egypt is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, repository of well-preserved ancient temples, colossal statues, monoliths and mummies, teeming with captivating sites I can’t wait to explore.
9.30 a.m. Treasure Chest
Half a day is all I have and it seems grossly inadequate to explore Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, heaving with statues, artefacts, mummies—a remarkable storehouse of Egypt’s history. Luckily I head inside with my guide Maged Michel, else I would’ve been lost in the monumental collections. I am enthralled by the replica of the Rosetta Stone, stunned by the beauty of the statues and colossi, gobsmacked by the mummies and paraphernalia used to ensure a pharaoh’s smooth passage to the afterlife.
The centrepiece of the museum is Tutankhamen’s treasures—most of the artefacts found in his undisturbed tomb in 1922 are displayed here. Looking at them I wonder at the wealth and riches of this ancient civilization. Tutankhamen was only a 19-year-old king when he died. I cannot imagine what the tombs of more important pharaohs like Ramses II or Akhenaten would have been like originally.
1 p.m. Lunch With A View
At lunchtime, we arrive at the Pyramids of Giza, just 20 kilometres from downtown Cairo, and head straight opposite to Christo restaurant. On a pleasant rooftop terrace I enjoy lunch with my host Mostafa Abdo and his family, while looking out at the pyramids. For about 3,000 years, a number of dynasties led by pharaohs ruled ancient Egypt. They believed that when they died their spirit or soul could survive forever if the body was kept from decomposing. So began the ancient science of mummification and the building of elaborate tombs for royalty and the elite. Ever since I figured out that the tombs and temples of the pharaohs I’d read about in history and geography class were potential places to travel to, I’ve held Egypt firmly in my imagination. And underlying the monuments and artefacts are mysteries, deep and complex sets of beliefs and rituals, and an obsession with the afterlife.
2.30 p.m. Stairway To Heaven
On the desert plateau of Giza, the Great Pyramid of Khufu towers 450 feet into the sky. It was constructed of an estimated two million blocks of stone, each weighing about 2.5 tonnes. The scale of what this means hits me only later when I venture inside it via steep, narrow passageways and stairs. This is certainly not for the claustrophobic, but I find it fascinating to be in the bowel of the only standing structure from the seven wonders of the ancient world. The tunnel ends in a chamber with an empty sarcophagus. Looking up at the ceiling I see enormous blocks of stone that weigh over eight tonnes each. Just how great a feat of engineering balancing these gigantic blocks of stone and creating these pyramids was nearly 5,000 years ago becomes even more evident. Khufu’s son, the pharaoh Khafre, built his own smaller pyramid beside his father and next to that is Egypt’s largest statue, the Sphinx. The third pyramid, only a tenth the size of Khafre’s, is that of his successor Menkaure.
8 p.m. Arabian Rhythms
I hear “Strangers in the Night” playing as I enter the boat. It’s followed by Elvis crooning “It’s Now or Never.” Before long a troupe of Egyptian folk artistes and belly dancers arrive and the music switches to the soothing rhythms of Arabian music. On this dinner cruise on the Nile Maxim, I can barely take my eyes off the Tanoura folk dancer who whirls madly in a colourful outfit strung up with LED lights. The belly dancer shimmies and twists effortlessly. Later, I step out of the restaurant onto the narrow balcony that rings the hall. There is no one else outside. I enjoy a few moments of quiet as I watch the lights of the shoreline reflected in the Nile. The slow pace of the barge makes it a very soothing ride. We pass other boats lit up for celebrations. I can see people dancing, partying, and their shrill laughter wafts over the gently rippling waters.
9 a.m. Coptic Cairo
My guide Hanan Omara takes me on a short walking tour of Coptic Cairo, home to an ancient denomination of Coptic Christians. Schools are on vacation and Egyptians are out en masse enjoying the good weather: the young and the elderly, toddlers, even infants in tow. I see them all in family groups and observe that family is very important to the Egyptian people. It’s easy to open conversations with them and the family is always a comfortable starting point. Hanan takes me through some of oldest religious shrines in the world. Past the ruins and walls of an ancient Roman fortress we stop at the 4th-century Hanging Church and a 20th-century Greek church. Nearby is the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus or Abu Serga, considered the oldest in Cairo and built at the location where baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph stayed when they fled to Egypt. Beyond this I see the Amr Ibn El-As mosque said to be one of the oldest mosques on the African continent. And then, a short walk away is the oldest surviving Jewish temple in Egypt, believed to be the spot where baby Moses was found among the reeds.
11 a.m. Mosque on the Mount
Driving through Cairo I’ve seen the landmark Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha or the Alabaster Mosque on the city’s hilltop citadel. When we enter the multi-domed Ottoman-style mosque it’s buzzing with energy. Sitting on the fraying red carpet we look up at the painted and gilded central dome surrounded by four half domes. Hanan relates the history of this early 19th-century mosque, the significance of the minbahs or pulpits in front of us, the 365 lamps that light its interior. She also points out a non-functioning clock, a gift from King Louis Philippe of France in 1845. Egyptians everywhere good-humouredly point out the irony that the clock stopped working within a year of being installed. Meanwhile the gift France got in exchange, an obelisk from the Luxor Temple, still stands tall at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
1 p.m. The Long View
Lunch is at Studio Masr in Azhar Park, Cairo’s green lung. Seated outdoors at a table on the terrace the winter sun warms my back. Our table overlooks vast gardens with the Alabaster mosque on the hill in the background. Our mixed kebabs arrive on a table barbecue unit, with assorted sides including baba ghanoush and fatoush salad. The romantic, earthy strains of music in the background turns out to be the beautiful voice of Umm Kulthum, the legendary Egyptian singer.
7.30 p.m. The Sphinx Speaks
Driving back to Giza that evening I attend an hour-long sound-and-light show at the Pyramids. It provides insight into the intriguing history of Egypt and the building of these astounding monuments. With the brisk winter chill descending, I wrap myself in a blanket, watch the colourful lights, and listen to booming voices and haunting Arabian music in a show narrated from the point of view of the Sphinx.
6 p.m. Upper Egypt
I land in Luxor and am whisked from the airport straight to the Luxor Temple. My guide, the diminutive Ahmed Aboudy, is a soft-spoken fount of knowledge. He comes from a family that takes great pride in showcasing Egypt’s heritage. His grandfather Mohamed Aboudi wrote Aboudi’s Guide to the Antiquities of Upper Egypt and Nubia in 1931, possibly the first indigenously authored guidebook to the region. In the car, I thumb my way through an ageing copy he shows me. He hands me a chart. On one side are the gods of Egypt, on the other, its kings. The two are very similar. I know I am going to need to refer to this again and again, as I hear their dulcet names roll off his tongue: Amun, Akhenaten, Hatshepsut, Horus, Seth, Isis, Osiris, Thoth…
6.30 p.m. Grand Colonnade
It’s dusk when we reach the Luxor Temple where yellow lights emphasize the two huge statues of Ramses II in front. Most striking is the towering pink obelisk built by Ramses. Luxor Temple was once linked to the temple of Karnak 2.5 kilometres away by an avenue of sphinxes, remnants of which I can see here. Aboudy walks me inside the temple through Amenhotep III’s colonnaded courtyard—two rows of 52-foot-high columns with capitals shaped like open lotuses. He directs me to a far wall where, pulling out his flashlight he points out detailed friezes. I see elaborate processions of the Opet festival during which a statue of the god Amun was sailed on sacred barges to Karnak. Looking at this stunning temple it is hard to believe that it remained buried under the silt from the annual flooding of the Nile until as recently as the 19th century.
10 a.m. Colossal Colossi
I wake up to see the red glow of the Theban Hills across the river from my hotel room. The Nile looks gentle and serene. A flock of birds fly by in perfect symmetry. There is a red-orange crown of light on the Valley of the Kings, burial ground for ancient Egypt’s pharaohs.
En route to the Valley of the Kings we stop to inspect two massive statues. They once guarded the entrance to Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple, where the pharaoh was worshipped as god. Though called the Colossi of Memnon, the 60-foot statues are in fact of Amenhotep III. I spot an archaeologist on one of the blocks of red quartzite sandstone that make up the king’s arm; restoration and excavation of this site began in 1998. It is believed that this site, a floodplain of the Nile, contains an untold number of treasures from the destroyed temple, buried in the soil.
11 a.m. Resting Place
On the west bank of the Nile in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings, about 62 tombs of pharaohs and royal elite that have been uncovered reveal the extensive and elaborate burial rituals of this ancient civilization. To deter thieves who raided the pyramids, the kings of Egypt’s New Kingdom (about 1539-1075 B.C.) decided to protect their burials by building an intricate series of underground tombs with nothing above ground to indicate what lay beneath. I walk down the deep, long corridors of the tombs. Most of them have intricate artwork on the walls giving detailed stories about the lives, deaths, and burials of the pharaohs.
11.30 a.m. Boy Pharaoh
KV 62 is the best-known tomb of the Valley of the Kings, that of the boy king Tutankhamen who died aged 19. Discovered in 1922 with its 3,500-plus treasures intact, it was an astounding archaeological find. I saw the famous gold mask and some of the burial artefacts in the Cairo museum. Here I see only his mummy. Stripped of its bandages it isn’t what I expect. The body looks like it is burnt black. Removed from his nest of three coffins the last one of solid gold, King Tut seems petite and fragile.
12.30 p.m. Queen of Kings
Built of limestone, the three-level temple of Queen Hatshepsut near the Valley of the Kings has sculpted reliefs that sit directly against the rock cliff. Hatshepsut initially ruled as regent for her stepson Tuthmosis III because he was too young, but continued in the role of pharaoh even after he came of age. On the third level Aboudy points out a series of friezes that show a boat expedition to the land of Punt, probably Somalia. Historians believe this was the first commercial expedition in history.
1.30 p.m. Local Flavour
We exit the Valley of the Kings and stop for lunch at Nour el Gourna, a rustic family-owned restaurant in a mud-brick homestead. At an outdoor table we’re served traditional fare that reflects varied colonial influences: moussaka, duck with orange sauce, cucumber salad, and a special local sourdough bread called sun bread that’s typical of Upper Egypt.
3 p.m. Karnak Complex
The Karnak Temple complex is spread out over a vast area. It consists of four main temples with the most significant one dedicated to Amun-Re. Another temple venerates the mother goddess Mut, wife of Amun-Re. In the great pillared hall I take in the 134 gigantic 75 foot-high columns shaped like papyrus buds. It’s unbelievable that 5,000 years after they were painted, little bits of colour are still visible on some columns. At every step, with every statue or wall relief I see, it becomes more evident that the ancient Egyptians were great chroniclers of their religion, art, and history.
4 a.m. Up In The air
Up before dawn, I dress warmly for my sunrise hot-air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings. In the dark I watch burners blasting hot air into the balloons as they slowly inflate. Our basket has 16 people in it, four in each corner surrounding the central pilot who controls the balloon. Very slowly we lift off the ground, floating into the sky. The Valley of the Kings comes into view, then Hatshepsut’s temple, and in the distance the Nile and the sun rising over the horizon. The laughter of the selfie-mad tourists in my group is drowned by the din of the pilot blasting hot air into our balloon. We glide through the sky admiring the gold-hued desert landscape, some of Egypt’s most important historical sites, and vast tracts of green fields—top-down is a fascinating perspective on this ancient land.
9 a.m. Thing of Beauty
It’s a four-hour drive to Aswan from Luxor. No sooner do we arrive at this city than I realise why this town was so important to the British in the 19th century. Its allure goes far beyond imperial economic interests and extends to the stunning location on a bend in the Nile.
1 p.m. Nubian on the Nile
For lunch we get onto a little boat and head to El Dokka, a Nubian restaurant on an island just across from my hotel. I order grilled Nile perch which is served with wedges of lime and brown rice topped with crispy fried onions. From my seat near a window I watch a traditional wooden sailboat, the felucca, its gleaming white sail catching the sunlight. It exemplifies the pace of life on this magnificent river: slow, serene and poised. Sometimes an image from a place captivates you when you least expect it. For me it was the moment in the middle of lunch when I looked out of the window at the boulders, the blue river, the petite boat—that is when I wanted to drop everything to gently cruise down this mesmerising river
4 p.m. Philae Temple
My guide and I take a motorboat to Agilkia Island where the Philae Temple, a place of pilgrimage for millennia, comes into view. The entire temple complex was dismantled and relocated here between 1970 and 1980. It is a majestic site with a major structure dedicated to the goddess Isis, wife of Osiris, who gained importance during the Graeco-Roman period (4th century B.C.).
3.30 a.m. Long Way To The Border
My alarm goes off at an unearthly hour. I have to be in the lobby at 4 o’clock to head 280 kilometres south of Aswan to Abu Simbel. Accompanying the daily police convoy in a bus or car is the only way to get to Abu Simbel which is close to the border with Egypt’s neighbour Sudan, a troubled but no doubt beautiful country, through which the Nile flows. The three-hour journey is remarkable only in the harshness of the landscape. Stark yellow wasteland, everything I imagine a desert to be—endless arid plains of nothingness, a few dark mounds, and then suddenly an army checkpoint with men living in extremely hard conditions.
8 a.m. Perfect Cut
I am awestruck as soon as I set eyes on the temple of Ramses II with four ginormous statues of the king on his throne. The magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site of Abu Simbel is carved into solid rock and dates back to the mid-13th century B.C. A smaller temple nearby is dedicated to his wife Nefertari. These temples were relocated from their original site in the 1960s, when the Aswan High Dam was being built, otherwise they would have been flooded out. I watch a 30-minute film that describes the massive UNESCO-sponsored effort that allowed 14 Nubian temples to be saved.
The chambers of Ramses’s temple run 185 feet into the cliff. He is portrayed as a god among gods. On only two days of the year the rays of the sun travel into the innermost sacred chamber where a statue of Ramses sits with the sun gods Re-Horakhty and Amun-Re. In the same chamber only Ptah, god of darkness or the underworld, is never lit up by light coming in.
Inside Nefertari’s temple I see reliefs of scenes from the life of Ramses II and Nefertari, the religious rituals they participated
in, the queen crowned by goddess Hathor and blessed by Isis.
4 p.m. Souk Stroll
By late afternoon we are back in Aswan. We stroll through the souk where stall after stall sells vegetables, bread, spices, clothes. I love the Nubian baskets, the racks and racks of fresh pita bread straight out of the oven, dates, spices I’m familiar and unfamiliar with, and heaps of dried hibiscus flowers.
7 p.m. Nile Forever
The view from my room in the new building of the legendary Old Cataract hotel is exquisite. I sit on the veranda overlooking the Nile. At night, a gentle, warm breeze wafts towards me, and I think about all the things I’ve learned about this unique land. I can barely tear myself away from my balcony as I watch the boulders, the docked feluccas, the twinkling lights. The scale of the monuments I’ve seen tell me why the Nile has captured the imagination of so many people historically. Life arose from the waters of this river, nourishing the rise of one of Earth’s oldest civilizations. Each flooding of the Nile deposited a fresh layer of black silt which made the land rich. I don’t for a moment doubt my guide Aboudy’s claim that the artefacts and monuments that have been uncovered in Egypt so far represent only a tenth of what actually lies beneath the soil.
Appeared in the September 2016 issue as “What Lies Beneath”.
Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through the wilderness or the by-lanes of a city. She is obsessive about family holidays and has already instilled in her young daughter wanderlust and a love for the outdoors. She is the former Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.