Tombs, Scarabs and Negotiating in Egypt!

In ancient Egyptian religion, Egyptians viewed the humble dung beetle as a symbol of renewal and rebirth, they used scarab amulets to protect the living during daily tasks and the dead as they journeyed to the afterlife. The scarab (kheper) beetle was one of the most popular amulets in ancient Egypt because the insect was a symbol of the sun god Re.

Since my first African Journey, I’ve been fascinated and somewhat infatuated with dung beetles. Their lifestyle is not particularly attractive, Scarabaeus sacer are known for their peculiar habit of rolling balls of dung even larger than their actual size and depositing them in their burrows. Once there, the females lay their eggs inside the dung balls that would serve as nourishment for the larvae. Once totally consumed, young beetles would emerge from the ground suggesting they came from nowhere. In Africa, they are enormous bugs with striking iridescent bodies, awfully intent on rolling the dung ball up and down hills and through fields.

In Egypt, the beetle was associated with the divine manifestation of the early morning sun, Khepri, whose name was written with the scarab hieroglyph and who was believed to roll the disk of the morning sun over the eastern horizon at daybreak. 

Valley of the Kings, Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62)

The ancient Egyptians believed that these beetles came from a spontaneous birth from the burrows. This made the populations worship them as the Khepera or “He who came forth” – an aspect and function associated with creation god, Atum. One needs a degree in Egyptology or a detailed spread sheet to keep track of all the Egyptian gods. I’m certain our very informed guide, Haytham, frequently detected glassy gazes when he enthusiastically inquired ‘do you remember this God, Horus who…?’ Tracking the deity, Kings, Queens, mothers of, is mind boggling, particularly on 8-hour tour days in the hot Egyptian sun.

Valley of the Kings, Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) Beetle hieroglyph in left panel

Oddly enough, these critters do indeed have impressive celestial powers. Dung beetles, like the scarab, are astonishing navigators that actually use the sun as guidance when moving their dung balls. Rolling the dung ball along, the beetle will periodically stop, scramble atop its prize, look around to orient itself, and climb back down and start pushing the ball once more. Part of my fascination in watching them in the bush. They are frankly proud creatures which is evident if you observe them.

Valley of the Kings, Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) Beetle hieroglyph in upper left panel

I knew the tombs in the Valley of the Kings would have an abundance of scarab hieroglyphs. While touring the museums and temples, I was on the prowl for scarabs and ultimately when ascending into the important tombs, we spotted many. I hoped to find an extraordinary scarab memento. In an alabaster factory near the Valley of the Kings, appropriately named Hapi Alabaster, it was chock a block with objects, some rare, some not so much. Egyptian shop owners are slightly assertive; however, I take my time, contemplate and evaluate. Wandering with our group, the shop owner asked if I would like to visit the room of antiquities – at this point in conversation, any seasoned traveler should depart! A guide will always negotiate, and one understands the guide will also profit for delivering a customer. The firms we work with are particular about tourist shopping, I tell our teams – we want authentic items, and for most trips, never a rug shop! In the ‘antiquities’ room behind a closed door, I discovered an exquisite bronze Anubis canopic box, the sides adorned with vivid lapis scarabs, a jackal sits regally on the sliding top; uncover the lid to discover four small urns with animal heads used to hold body remains in mummification. Frequently seen in the tombs and museums, canopic jars were used by the ancient Egyptians during the mummification process to store and preserve the viscera of their owner for the afterlife.

The canopic jars were identified and protected by four different gods who were the sons of Horus. The names of the Sons of Horus were Imsety, Hapy, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef. The canopic jars were four in number, each for the safekeeping of particular human organs: the stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver, all of which, it was believed, would be needed in the afterlife. There was no jar for the heart: the Egyptians believed it to be the seat of the soul, and so it was left inside the body. It’s important to remember that the Egyptians understood their cosmos in terms of cycles, so death was necessary for regeneration and life to continue.

I was besotted with the bronze Anubis canopic box with the lapis scarabs, however, I didn’t want to reveal my enthusiasm, I made a small mound of chosen objects to ponder. The owner asked, would you like to see the secret room, my late father’s private collection? Did I mention depart when one hears certain phrases?  I exclaimed: you are selling your father’s treasures? Calling to one of my travel friends, come to the secret room!  We entered another closed-door storeroom; poking through a cardboard box, I unearthed a small scarab. A hand carved bone scarab wrapped in silver, with carvings on the back. I’m ready to depart, time to negotiate!

Anubis canopic box with lapis scarab

Our brilliant guide, Haytham, began the negotiations– i.e. shouting at the shop owner to gift me the scarab and lower the price of the box – she owns a high-end travel firm, she will send her clients – that’s all I deciphered from the negotiations – in the end, I received the little bone scarab as a gift and paid for the Anubis with blue lapis scarab canopic box. Our small group of agency owners stood agape at the ‘transaction’ some were also purchasing and Haytham again shouted, they own agencies! When exploring Cairo a few days later, a local guide told me the scarab was a fine piece of jewelry, she had never seen such a lovely scarab… I love it and was thrilled to have a professional endorse my diminutive scarab.

Bronze Anubis canopic box with the lapis scarabs

The beetle itself was a favorite form used for amulets in all periods of Egyptian history. Scarabs may be made from a variety of materials including carnelian, steatite, lapis lazuli, basalt, faience, limestone, schist, turquoise, ivory, resin, turquoise, amethyst and bronze. Hundreds of thousands of these artifacts have been excavated in Egypt.

A winged scarab might also be placed on the breast of the mummy, and later a number of other scarabs were placed about the body. Perhaps my little scarab will be entombed with me, not certain if the Canopic jars are practical though, I will leave that up to my son!

Bronze Anubis canopic box with the lapis scarabs – the canopic jars from inside the box

Valley of the Kings, Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) Anubis Black Dog Jackal Egyptian God of Underworld 

Anubis is known as the god of death and is the oldest and most popular of ancient Egyptian deities. The ancient Egyptians revered Anubis highly because they believed he had tremendous power over both their physical and spiritual selves when they died.

Valley of the Kings, Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) Anubis Black Dog Jackal Egyptian God of Underworld

Egypt – Chapter One

“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller,” Ibn Battuta.

Will you ever forget grade school geography books with shiny color prints of the pyramids? Stimulating dreams of exotic societies, pondering feats of impressive engineering and the mysteries surrounding the ancient people who built them for the Egyptian pharaohs who expected to become gods in the afterlife.

Sphinx at Giza, Egypt

My recent Journey to Jordan and Egypt left me wanting to explore more – typically, my introductory visits provide an overview, an outline to curate the picture-perfect Journey for our clients. I’m encouraging our clients to visit, I intend to be the evangelist for Egypt and Jordan!

There were several resonating themes: both countries are safe for Americans, I was welcomed by everyone and invited to pose in photos with locals – tall blondes are infrequent! The food is delectable and very healthy; I will never again eat pita bread in the U.S., equivalent to cardboard after snacking on hot from an oven pita bread used to scoop up an abundant assortment of garden-fresh mezzes. Transportation is best left to the professionals; however, it is a mesmerizing neck turning adventure. How one becomes accustomed to standing along the side of a busy roadway with children to catch a crowded group taxi van is still a mystery to me. Farmers piloting donkey carts overloaded with the most beautiful enormous vegetables and fruit come to the cities at dawn, in the mix of traffic, it’s a stunning fusion of moving vehicles, flowing and weaving.

Streets outside of Cairo, Egypt

And of course, the entrée – the history, the pyramids and the sphinx, and the ancient burial tombs in the midst of twenty first century life. The perfect Cairo introduction – mosey to Mena House for lunch on the terrace – the Pyramids of the Giza Plateau, sometimes referred to as the Giza Necropolis are mere feet away, looming over lunch, breathtaking! The bases of the three Pyramids of Giza together cover more than a million square feet, roughly nine midtown Manhattan blocks, sip and snack and absorb the energy of the mightiest Pharaohs – Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus. The Great Pyramid of Giza remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for 3,800 years. A short drive away, gaze at the Great Sphinx at the Giza plateau. An afternoon wandering here mingled with camels to hire, tourists, vendors – a riot of movement and local life.

Lunch at Mena House, Cairo, Egypt
Pyramids of Oranges, Memphis outside Cairo, Egypt
Giza Pyramids, Cairo, Egypt

We can reserve private evenings and private dinners in front of the Pyramids, one very fortunate client enjoyed this iconic experience years ago. Also at the Manial Palace in the Golden Room in Cairo, the Citadel and a Private lunch/Sunset Champagne on a felucca on the Nile in Cairo.

The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo

The new Cairo Museum, the Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza opens in October and is an anticipated smash. We enjoyed a visit to the current, but very old museum, The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, a historic building bursting with an extensive collection of antiquities, in original wood and glass display cases, massive stone statues and coffins draw your eye across from the entrance. Our expert guide, Haytham, steered our path sharing his excitement for the finest pieces; his mother was a history teacher and it was abundantly clear her schooling was ingrained in his passion for Egyptian history. Much to learn and captivate, we absorbed the most significant pieces before the crowds.

El hakim Mosque, Located near Bab al-Futuh, at the beginning of Al-Mo’ez Street, Egypt

A few days in and around Cairo should include a visit to Memphis, just south of Giza on the west bank of the Nile. The capital of Ancient Egypt with ruins including an enormous statue of Rameses II, the 30-foot-long limestone carved statue is on its back due to deterioration, wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt, it is a stunning flawless exhibit in an outdoor museum. A second sphinx is also here in this small compound. Nearby are the famed Dahshur pyramids, the southernmost end of the pyramid areas that begin at Giza. These transitional pyramids provide a first look at the engineering process, not as refined as Giza, but provide an initial look at how the construction of the angles took shape and evolved in Giza.

Rameses II, Memphis Cairo
Small Sphinx Memphis, Cairo
Stepped pyramid, Dahshur Egypt

Hotels – arrive to the Colorful Chaos of Cairo and you have two choices of Four Seasons Hotels, I recommend a stay at both as they are equally enchanting – you will return to Cairo before departing home, so begin at Four Seasons Nile Plaza with a balcony suite overlooking the Nile – sunset view from your terrace is spectacular. A brilliant welcome before setting out to discover the sites, exceptional dining and a beautiful spa. Stay a night or two then with the new museum opening, Mena House at Giza is the perfect next step.

Egypt is brimming with energy, acclimate before you begin the frenetic pharaoh program! Following your awe-inspiring Egyptian Journey, move across the Nile River and enjoy a few nights at The Four Seasons Hotel at the First Residence. An oasis in this never sleeping city, the pool is a quiet spot for lunch and basking in afternoon sun – save some Cairo touring for the last few days in Egypt – visit the Mosques, the 12th Century Citadel, the bazaar and the art galleries. Late night flight home deserves several hours in the decadent spa, massages once reserved for Egyptian royalty, it’s the perfect post Journey finale! Flanked by the zoo and the western bank of the Nile, with views of the pyramids and the river.

Sunset The Four Seasons Nile Plaza, Cairo Egypt

Exploration: Old Cairo including the Coptic Museum and the Hanging Church. Lunch at the charming Riad Boutique Hotel, savor authentic dining with a dazzling dance spectacle. The roof top location offers a bird’s eye view of the teeming streets below and a fascinating look at ancient rooftops. The streets are animated and buzzing, still a popular and lively neighborhood. Most traffic is banned, but scooters vie with carts for space in the narrow-cobbled streets. Vendors offer their ware, fruit stands weigh produce on ancient scales, women in hijabs sitting along the curb offer fresh citrus delivered every morning by farmers.

Old Cairo, Egypt

The Journey of Egypt. Quick early flight to Aswan, my personal suggestion, pre-boarding your boat for cruising the Nile, stay at The Old Cataract Hotel. The gates of Egypt open in Aswan, the hotel was built in 1899 by Thomas Cook to host European travelers. Relive the tale in this 19th century Victorian Palace, 5-star luxury on the banks of the Nile. This historic property has hosted Agatha Christie, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Queen Noor.

Old Cataract Hotel Aswan, Egypt
Old Cataract Hotel Aswan, Egypt

Rising grandly from a pink granite shelf at the edge of the Nubian Desert with views of Elephantine Island, this sophisticated property blends Pharaonic treasures with fine French art. The interiors in the historic Palace will take your breath away, a legendary reminder of travelling in another time, another era. A realm of Moorish arches, ruby red chandeliers, plush Persian carpets, comfy armchairs and hand-carved furnishings. It’s grand, it’s swell. After an afternoon visit to Philae Island, mosey to the terrace for a hibiscus tea or a proper sunset cocktail overlooking the Nile.

Old Cataract Hotel Aswan, Egypt

There are numerous Aswan sites to leisurely absorb: Khnum Temple, Elephantine Island and Aswan Museum before you board and sail to Kom Ombo. The Temple of Kom Ombo is an unusual double temple in the town of Kom Ombo in Aswan Governorate, Upper Egypt. Standing on a promontory at a bend in the Nile, ancient temples from the Middle Kingdom are tucked into the sand banks, just past the greenery, the desert sands creep to the river bank. In ancient times, sacred crocodiles basked in the sun on the river bank, the temple is unique because it is in fact, a double temple, dedicated to Sobek the crocodile god, and Horus the falcon. You will see wall reliefs of Cleopatra, with her brother-husband and co-ruler Ptolemy VIII. The path out of the complex leads to the Crocodile Museum which has a stunning collection of mummified crocodiles and ancient reliefs.

Adventure in horse & buggy to Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan, Egypt

One of my favorite experiences was in Aswan, I insisted on visiting the Old Cataract Hotel for sunset and a proper cocktail. My guide, Haytham, negotiated with a horse and buggy driver to deliver me to the hotel and wait while I enjoyed the sunset. The driver was a little grizzly in appearance in his long slightly soiled gallibaya, an overcoat, a loosely draped scarf and wrapped turban. Egyptians tend to shout at each other, no menace involved, an unnerving situation when you don’t understand the language. Negotiations ensued, Haytham, protecting me, took a photo of the buggy drivers’ license, made sure his cell phone worked, took his number, negotiated a firm rate and shouted some more. I assumed the driver would lose body parts if he misled or left me stranded. The pony cart took off at a fast clip, horse hooves smacking the pavement and the driver not sparing his whip. I asked him not to hit the horse, he replied you need to come sit in front, it’s better for the horse. Pointing to my new knee, I said I would not be clambering over the seat to ride front and center. A pell-mell pace ensued to the Old Cataract Hotel, it was a breathtaking adventure on my own! The hotel didn’t disappoint, a setting sun over the Nile and a perfect Rye Manhattan, I wandered the property and was elated to see my grizzled old driver waiting for me at the curb. He asked if I wanted to stop for additional sightseeing, his English was fine – I mentioned my guide would be looking for me to arrive back at the boat – he exclaimed: Oh my God, your guide, he is crazy! I explained that my guide pretty much owned me during my visit and was responsible for my safety and well being. It was a most excellent escapade and on a future visit, I will enjoy more of these experiences! Meeting locals, enjoying typical experiences adds layers to my travel, it’s the best! Donkey cart with vegetables, next time!

The Temple of Kom Ombo is an unusual double temple in the town of Kom Ombo in Aswan Governorate
Wall reliefs of Cleopatra, with her brother-husband and co-ruler Ptolemy VIII, The Temple of Kom Ombo.

Rise early and get comfy on the sundeck of your boat as you will witness men and boys along the Nile as a pictorial of ancient life, the views were mesmerizingly Biblical. Early morning farmers in long robes, scarf and turbans making their way down steep stone steps toting a bundle of just harvested green alfalfa for their livestock, mostly white donkeys and cows. Men gathered on old wooden benches quietly observing dawn, I imagined they were plotting their day. Small boats with bedsheet type sails stick close to shore, guiding the tiller with a foot thrust off the stern of the almost submerged boats. A panorama of landscapes remind you the area was described as the Bread Basket of the world, the fertile Nile banks overflow with tidy golden fields, swaying palms, sugar cane and wheat. Solitary cows, herds of goats, horses staked to a post for all day grazing – boys and men go about their morning rituals in a quiet dawn mist.

Dawn along the River Nile, Egypt

Sail on to the Temple of Horus at Edfu on the West bank of the Nile. Egyptians associated death with the west and buried their pharaohs on the Nile’s west bank. It was one of my favorite visits, as it is extremely well preserved, taking over 180 years to complete. Two large statues of Horus carved from a single block of granite from Aswan guard the entrance. The monumental entrance is a gate flanked by two massive flat embossed towers, the door was originally two large Lebanese cedar doors. Inside, 32 massive columns flank the first hall. The hall’s ceiling is adorned with astronomical imagery. At all the temples and tombs, the walls are covered in reliefs and etchings, hieroglyphics, symbols and figures, each telling a story. Many maintain their original bright hues, some tarnished by centuries of erosion, weather and people.

Temple of Horus at Edfu, Aswan
Temple of Horus at Edfu, Aswan

Inside, multiple well-preserved rooms and chambers can be explored. The most important is the sanctuary, the most sacred and significant area of the temple. It contained the sacred barks of Horus and Hathor, used in processions, as well as the permanent shrine for the sacred image of the god which was likely a wooden falcon statue. The shrine, made of black granite, is located at the rear of the sanctuary and is one of the few remnants of an older temple of Horus. 

Temple of Horus at Edfu, Egypt
Temple of Horus at Edfu, Egypt The Sanctuary

The Ancient Egyptians were obsessed with their belief in the afterlife, life after death. The pharaoh tombs and pyramids were built for the rulers. Important Egyptians were mummified, to preserve and be spared from excessive decay. The Egyptians provided the deceased with everything they would need for their Journey including valuable treasures.

According to legend, Anibus, the Egyptian god of the dead, invented mummification. Egyptian Gods and Goddesses – religion was a way to explain and understand the workings of nature. They believed that gods controlled things like floods, rains, sickness and death. There was a god for each aspect of life, so Egyptians tried to please each of their gods and goddesses. Horus was god of the sky and one of the most important symbols of Egyptian power, with a man’s body and a falcon’s head. Horus represented resurrection and eternal life.

Philae Temple Complex
Anibus, the Egyptian god of the dead, from King Tut Tomb, Egypt

Sail to Esna. Chapter Two.

Egypt funeral procession with body on stretcher men only attend.

(Egypt) is a great place for contrasts: splendid things gleam in the dust.”
― Gustave Flaubert, quote from Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour

Street Scenes Egypt
Street Scenes Egypt
Dawn moon setting over the Banks of the Nile