Egypt's pyramids stand the test of time
The Vancouver Sun, July 6, 2019
Sitting astride a camel, one hand gripping the saddle horn and the other clutching my camera phone, I’m trying to capture the moment and not fall off as my ride lurches across the Giza Plateau in the suburbs of Cairo.
A hot wind peppers the air with sand and grit, swirling a cloud of dust into the sky and daubing it an eerie grey-blue. In the distance, the Great Pyramids of Giza rise from the sun-baked desert— these ancient monuments are still standing, on the edge of a sprawling metropolis, 4,500 years after their construction.
“Hey lady, you like camel ride?” asks the boy leading my dromedary. He guides what must seem like an endless procession of tourists across the blistering sand toward the only wonder of the ancient world still standing. Ensuring our satisfaction puts a little baksheesh into his pocket.
I nod and smile, the site before me almost too much for my jet-lagged brain to take in. An hour later, the culture shock intensifies on the walk from the tour van to see the Sphinx.
“Want to buy a dancing camel? Pyramid statue? Papyrus scroll?” Vendors assault us with sales pitches for their trinkets before we’re swallowed by the throng of tour groups angling for a glimpse of the famous statue that stoically guards the pyramids.
We strike silly poses next to the Sphinx, pretending to kiss the crumbling form whose nose, we learn, was definitely not shot off by Napoleon’s army (it most likely fell off through natural erosion, explains our guide).
It’s a whirlwind introduction to Cairo, but even the circus of souvenir salesmen, camel jockeys hawking rides, and busloads of selfie-stick-toting tourists can’t diminish the scale and grandeur of ancient Egypt. The pyramids and the sphinx, and the country’s temples and tombs, have stood for millennia as monuments to a past civilization. Seeing that history in person is why travellers come to Egypt.
“I’ve been obsessed with the pyramids since I was little,” confides Australian Isabel Ramirez, one of 11 travellers with me on an eight-day small group tour with Intrepid Travel to the country’s famous sights in Cairo, Aswan and Luxor. “We’d heard that tourism had picked up here and it was totally fine to come.”
Just a few years ago, the temples and tombs were ghost towns—tourists stayed away after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, the subsequent 2013 rebellion to oust Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, and the 2015 downing of a Russian airliner in central Sinai that was linked to terrorism.
“That affected badly the whole economy,” says Sherif Genidy, our Intrepid guide.
“Now, the political situation is stable.”
International arrivals, always a gauge of stability, have been surging upwards since 2016. The country welcomed 11.3 million visitors in 2018. In fact, Egypt has been Intrepid Travel’s top-growth region for the past two years.
Also luring in travellers are new archaeological discoveries, such as two 5,000-year-old mummies unearthed in 2018 sporting figurative tattoos—the oldest inked-up Egyptians discovered to date. Some of these new treasures and many of the artifacts currently on display at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities—including the famous gold burial mask from King Tut’s tomb—will be moved into the new Grand Egyptian Museum, a.k.a. GEM, currently under construction two kilometres from the pyramids.
“We call it the one-billion-dollar museum,” Genidy says with a laugh, referring to its reputed price tag.
A giant statue of Ramses II stands as its foundation stone, and many Egyptians stayed up all night to watch the statue’s televised procession through the streets of Cairo when it was moved into place. Boasting more than 100,000 artifacts, including 20,000 antiquities that will be displayed for the first time, GEM is a big deal. It’s hoped the museum’s anticipated opening in 2020 will give tourism a further boost, and encourage nations around the world to return pilfered artifacts to Egypt.
Sherif, an Egyptologist who’s been leading tours for 16 years, proves to be an invaluable source of information about his home country. He’s as comfortable explaining how the Great Pyramid was built as he is relaying how the current museum was looted during the demonstrations in Tahir Square in 2011. He’s a link between the order of ancient Egypt and the chaos of its modern counterpart, and helps us better understand the complex country we’re travelling through.
Two days later, I’m in a van bound for Abu Simbel, a temple complex carved into a sandstone cliff in the literal middle of nowhere (it’s a four-hour drive from Aswan, close to the Sudan border). Four enthroned statues of Ramses II tower 33 metres high on the temple’s imposing rock exterior; inside, reliefs depict gods in battle, with hieroglyphics explaining all the action.
The temples were deconstructed and reassembled in their present location by a UNESCO team in the 1960s—to save them from the rising waters of Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
Abu Simbel “is an archeologist’s dream destination,” says Rowan McBride, a member of our group who just completed his Master of Arts in archaeology at the University of Auckland.
He’s even more impressed by the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, which served as the necropolis for New Kingdom pharaohs such as Tutankhamun and Ramses II. There, 63 crypts have been discovered dug deep into the limestone hills outside of Luxor. Inside stifling corridors and chambers, painted etchings decorate the walls and ceilings, and tell the story of each king’s journey to the afterlife. Many tombs still contain a sarcophagus that once held mummified remains (most treasures have been removed or were looted long ago—only King Tut’s mummy is still there).
Even if your knowledge of ancient Egypt consists solely of the pyramids and Cleopatra, you’ll be seduced by fables of the Egyptian gods and the pharaohs who worshipped them.
“The ancient Egyptians thought the sun was being pushed across the sky by a scarab beetle, says Genidy at Karnak Temple in Luxor, explaining why the beetle (famous for rolling around balls of poop) held such an important place in Egyptian mythology.
Outside the temples and tombs, life in modern Egypt continues along the banks of the Nile. The river is still the country’s aorta, delivering life-sustaining water for crops of wheat, alfalfa, sugar cane and bananas.
Near the end of our trip we board a traditional wooden sailing boat called a felucca, and drift in leisurely zigzags down the Nile. Date palms line the banks, livestock graze in fertile fields, and children splash in the shallow water near the shore, waving as we sail past.
In this moment, Egypt is timeless. This scene has been playing out in much the same way through the centuries.
If you go:
Intrepid Travel leads a number of small group trips in Egypt. Egypt Adventure is an 8-day tour that starts at $1,315 and includes accommodations, transportation, some meals and most attractions/activities (airfare is extra). Excursions to Abu Simbel and entry into the Great Pyramid and King Tut’s tomb are at an additional cost.
It’s easy to connect to Cairo from Vancouver via Frankfurt with Air Canada/Lufthansa.
Exchange some dollars for Egyptian pounds, the local currency, when you land at the airport. You’ll need them for souvenirs, some meals and snacks, and extra charges like photo permits inside select sites.
Dress: Egypt is a Muslim country and dress is conservative, especially for women. Wear loose clothes in light colours as the heat can be overwhelming (40C and above).