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 last pre-Covid 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! The areas are open to tourists and this is the time to begin plotting your visit for fall! The best time to visit Egypt is between October and April, when temperatures are cooler, but still pleasantly warm across the country. This makes exploring the busy streets of Cairo, visiting the Pyramids in the desert, and exploring ancient Pharaonic tombs more comfortable and enjoyable.

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 recently opened to much fanfare and has been a predictable 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

On the Road with Samer. My trusted driver, Jordan.

It’s the people you meet along the Journey. Samer was my driver in Jordan. He picked me up in a pouring rain storm at the Amman airport, it was late, and he had just returned from a weekend of visiting his parents – he takes his 6 kids to see the ‘ancient’s’ every weekend, a family ritual practiced by generations. Polite questions about his family and our whereabouts were met with some reticence, he said tomorrow we have your guide with us, she can answer all the questions.

If you think of the assets we can attribute to travel, trust and resilience come to mind. My global travel is frequently by myself, I love it and am never lonely and rarely afraid. It’s provided terrific survival skills, although my Journey itineraries include every important detail, once I arrive in a foreign country I am in the real world  —where real time and real situations can present themselves. Good or bad situations. My drivers and guides are my link to security.

Samer and Oria picked me up for our day trip and true to form, Samer let the guide own the conversation. It was at restaurants, where Samer began to warm up a bit – he was determined to eradicate my mostly plant-based diet and introduce me to their wild chickens and goats! It was incomprehensible to him that I would pass up roasted goat! One mid-morning stop, in the all-purpose petrol, bathroom, coffee, gift and buffet dining palace – I admired a colorful keffiyeh, Samer fashioned the scarf like, keffiyeh, around my head and I offered to purchase one for him if he agreed to wear it for the remainder of our Journey…we were twins for a few days.

The Art of wrapping a keffiyeh- Samer.

In the vast Jordan deserts you pass three types of businesses: road side coffee huts – as you pull up, you hand signal to the man – never a woman, serving the coffee, your preference: black or with sugar. You barely stop, roll down the window, drop coins on a tray and carry on. The other shops consist of tire huts – there were more large trucks than cars on the freeways, enormous stacks of huge tires surround the hut, shredded tires and new tires, they repair and sell tires and nothing else. The huts were marginal in size and comfort, practically every other shop was a tire hut, dotting the roads all through Jordan. For miles and miles, the only real type of store includes a petrol station – they invariably are also gift shops and many have a restaurant attached with buffet dining. I’m not one to sit in the car, not wanting to miss any photo opportunity and a chance to see how people live their lives. It is usually the only place for a bathroom break as well. Jordanians drink an inordinate amount of the bitter black Arabic coffee, so I was afforded a few ‘store’ stops!

Look the part and practice at least ten worlds of the native language, it’s a sign of respect and is appreciated by locals, no matter how you mangle the please and thank you!

The art of wrapping a keffiyeh, fully wrapped and ready to go!

After a long day of sightseeing outside the city of Amman, my end of day visit to the Vintage Car Museum was scheduled at 6 pm – I told my guide she didn’t have to tag along if she didn’t like cars. Obviously relieved, Samer took over! When he was stimulated about a subject, he was childlike in his eagerness, his voice grew louder, and his hands waved in enthusiasm, (he could have been part Italian!). Vintage cars were a passion, he insisted I sit in cars despite the no touching sign, the guards ignored us, he was a trusted expert. Strangers would have thought he was shouting at me.

One morning Samer surprised me with a candy apple red walking cane – miles of desert sand, the multiple Petra treks and the uneven ancient steps were pretty challenging to my fairly recent knee replacement.

One long driving day from Wadi Rum to the Dead Sea, dark was approaching and Samer mentioned how many restroom stops we might encounter –  there were few. We made a rapid u turn along the truck filled highway, he pulled into a large petrol shop. I dutifully followed and Samer said we will have dinner here – it’s a long drive. Who knew I would have the opportunity to dine in one of the roadway buffet palaces!?  Think old Las Vegas style buffet palaces, dim lights, no one else dining, the staff uncovered enormous pans of un-recognizable casserole dishes. Jordan actually has an abundance of delicious mezzes and vegetables, I avoided the goat one more time!

Traveling alone, my drivers and guides become my local ambassadors and ultimately trustworthy friends. It’s one reason I interview several guiding teams when I travel. Eventually, our clients will depend on these reliable guides and drivers.

Samer, the ultimate driver in Jordan!

It’s always a test and Samer passed with an A+!           Choukran, Samer.