When I got on the plane from Abu Dhabi to Cairo I was very tired from a few active Christmas themed days so I thought even my inability to sleep on planes would be overcome. To add to this the plane was pretty empty and I had three seats to myself, which became my makeshift bed for the trip.
When I arrived in Ciaro I was greeted by a man called Ahmed, who met me before I went through immigration. He helped me with getting the visa process streamlined on arrival at the bank before I got to immigration to get it stamped (a weird but straightforward process). I should at this point mention that I organized my trip with a tour guide called Hussein, he arranged everything for me from the moment I got off the plane until the moment I got back on. So Hussein had arranged for Ahmed to meet me before I got through immigration as I said, but I’m not sure how that sort of process is even allowed. Anyway it helped me and that’s all that matters.
When I got through immigration I collected my bag and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth before meeting Hussein to start the trip. Just as I was finished brushing my teeth a guy walks in and looks at me, and I’m thinking ‘new country.. oh crap what does he want’. He says ‘did you just brush your teeth with tap water? That’s the first and last time you do that brother, the water here isn’t good, for your own sake use bottled water only’. When you arrive at a foreign country it can be quiet easy to be defensive and expect people to not like you but it was nice to start this trip with a bit of friendly advice!
After this Ahmed brought me to meet Hussein in the car park and away we went. Originally Hussein had set up a plan where I would have a rest day In the hotel before our tour began I told him before I arrived that I’m on my own, I don’t need a relax day, let’s just go for it so he rejigged the plan and we set off for the Egyptian Museum straight away when I arrived.
Day 1- Egyptian Museum, Papyrus Institute and The Pyramids
When we arrived at the Egyptian Museum I was surprised to see the large queues outside to get in. We have been led to believe that no tourist would ever go near Egypt nowadays, it’s way too scary and unsafe bla bla bla. The reality is, in my experience at least, that it has a very friendly culture, with random locals saying welcome and happy new year to me as I pass them on the street. I mentioned to Hussein how surprised I was to see so many people and he responded by saying that this was nothing, before the revolution it would be ten times this, easily.
We started the tour of the museum with a quick look outside the building where some statues that were about 4,000 years old stood. Once we got inside Hussein brought me to a plaque that showed how the hieroglyphic language could be depicted in three forms. He then mentioned that this was a replica and that the original was in a museum in London. Although the museum had over a 150,000 prices of Egyptian history it would be a common occurrence throughout the trip that something would be missing because it was in a museum else where and a lot of those pieces were acquired unlawfully in the past. Anyway as we went through the museum Hussein highlighted 15 – 20 very different items from a partially complete sarcophagus created using methods that to this day they don’t fully understand to meanings behind certain statues to items from the three main Egyptian periods. All this was before we reached the Tutankhamen exhibit, where there was so many historical items in amazing condition. See the thing about Tutankhamen is that people think he is some great king because he is so famous but the reality is that he was relatively insignificant compared to other kings he was only a young king and died at the age of 16 without having ruled through any wars or anything heroic like that. The reason he is famous is that form the 64 (to date) tombs discovered in the valley of the kings, his was the only one that was found untouched (i.e. It hadn’t been robbed previously). So the amount of items found in his tomb, and some of them are incredible, in such good condition lead to his fame, but this really makes you wonder what amount of amazing things would have been buried with the likes of great Ramses II if that tomb was found untouched. There was a special room which had Tutankhamen’s original mask and other items from his tomb which were amazing to see but no pictures were allowed in that room. The final part of the museum that I visited was the mummification room, which was extra (about 7 US dollars) but was worth it to see real mummies including Ramses II, but again no pictures were allowed in those rooms.
After the museum we headed towards Giza and I got my first glimpse of the pyramids before stopping in the Papyrus Institute to see how Papyrus was made and then we grabbed a lovely Egyptian shwarma and hit the road to the pyramids. The pyramids were everything I expected and more, just an incredible feat of engineering. I had heard how close the pyramids were to the city so I was expecting it but somehow it still does detract from them a bit. I mean in your head you imagine these majestic structures in the middle of the Sahara but in reality, yes they are amazing, but they are right beside a city. For a small extra fee I went in the third pyramid for a look, it was eerie climbing in but very cool and as I was going in everyone else was leaving so I was the only one in the pyramid which is pretty cool too. You can also go in to the largest pyramid for a few more dollars but my guide said it wasn’t worth it and is a lot more cramped which can make it unenjoyable. The second pyramid appears to be the largest but it is actually just built on higher ground, although it is the only one that has still has some of the original finish remaining on the exterior. If you look in the distance you can see some more pyramids, there are 123 discovered in total I believe and they are all aligned with a certain significance.
Before we left the area I got a chance to check out the sphinx too, although I wish I got a bit closer to inspect it. In hindsight my guide was very friendly and very clear to take as much time as I wanted in every area and take as many pictures as I wanted etc. etc. so it was partly my fault. Hussein had did his best in taking pictures but I think he sensed that I wasn’t overly satisfied by them so when we got to the sphinx area he asked another guy to take them, and the guy must have take about 50 pictures but they were all stone useless so I had to do a bit of cropping and editing myself to get a few good ones. I know you shouldn’t be going to places just to get a picture but it’s great to have a good one to look back on all the same.
That evening I took an overnight sleeper train to Luxor from Cairo. While we were waiting on the platform I was talking to Hussein about safety and the conceptions from western people etc. He explained how crime is low here in general but crime against tourists is basically non existent as it is treated with zero tolerance. Not five minutes later a man came up to Hussein and said something, walked off and came back and said something again and I heard Hussein mention ‘Irelande’ so I asked him what the guy wanted. He explained that he was undercover tourist police and just wanted to check to make sure I was ok and taken care of. So when people wonder if you are safe in Egypt. My answer would be more than you could even know.
The train took about ten hours and I had a sleeper cabin to myself (seats folded into bed). The bed was probably just a tiny bit too small, I’m six foot and it was ok but if you were much taller you wouldn’t enjoy the sleep at all. Dinner and breakfast were included in the trip too.
When I got to Luxor, Hussein had arranged for my guide for the next 6 days, Walid, to meet me, so again I had nothing to worry about in terms of having to figure anything out on the whole trip.
Day 2 – Luxor West Bank 1 (Valley of the Kings, Temple of Hatshepsut, Colossi of Memnon)
To start the Luxor trip we visiting the valley of the kings – one of the highlights to most people’s trip to Egypt. It started off in annoying fashion when the photographs curse struck again. It was frustrating to visit such fascinating places without being about to share the detail with others (and do a bit of bragging too of course). I visited three tombs in the valley of the kings and then paid extra to visit Tutankhamen’s tomb as well. The guide wasn’t allowed inside the tombs (without paying, usually guides are allowed in for free), the reason was that the tombs might get too busy if a guide spends all day explaining stuff inside. The guide picked what he thought were the three best tombs and they didn’t disappoint. The detail inside and original colours were incredible. Some of the tombs were 140m deep into the mountain, how the inscriptions and colour could be applied so perfectly in these tombs without some sort of smoke damage from if they used a flame of sorts to light the place still isn’t known. The first tomb I seen was definitely the most impressive but thats not to say the others weren’t good. I was tempted to take a sneaky picture on my phone a few times but my guide warned me before hand that it can be taken very seriously. They are worried that the flash of some cameras can damage the original colours on some of the walls apparently. After the three tombs I went into Tutankhamen’s tomb, which wasn’t very big, but as mentioned previously he wasn’t that great of king as far as kings go and basically these tombs are started once you become king and finish once you die so as a young king who died young, the work had not advanced anywhere near as much as some other tombs. The great thing about Tutankhamen’s tomb is that his mummified body is still in the tomb and so is the original sarcophagus. The detail, again, of the paintings on the wall are fantastic. I didn’t take pictures but I grabbed these from the internet to show what I seen. They might look fake but that is the quality of what you see, original) in the valley of the kings:
Next stop was Temple of Hatshepsut, this was a temple partially built into the side of the mountain, although it was good, if I was on a tight schedule it would be one of the first to get the chop, but maybe that is partially because I had just come from the greatness of the valley of the kings. Finally for Day 2 Walid brought me to see two stand alone statues called the Colossi of Memnon, we were the only people there so that was a bit like going inside the pyramid again, it’s a cool feeling experiencing such history in a way that feels a bit exclusive. After that we made our way to the hotel I was staying in on an island in the middle of the Nile. It was a resort with clusters of buildings that had suites in them, there was an infinity pool tennis courts, gym, etc. and even a guide book in the room to show you all the animals and plants that could be seen on the island. It was a really nice place and to be honest was a bit wasted on a solo traveler like me, I couldn’t help but think how nice a place it would have been to enjoy with someone…
For the rest of the day I just chilled out by the pool and kept it nice and relaxed, I even feel asleep for a while. There was barely anybody around. Later when I woke up I noticed that pattern in the tiles were like swasticas (don’t worry yourself too much it used to be a sign for peace before Hitler came along) but the funny thing is the only people I’d seen all day were Germans. A funny coincidence is all.
Day 3 Luxor West Bank (Medinhat Habu Temple, Tombs of Nobles and The Ramesseum)
I had nice breakfast in the hotel in the morning (omelettes, pancakes and waffles – not all together!) and then Walid picked me up and we headed for the Medinhat temple. The detail of the inscriptions and the colour was the best I seen in any of the temples on my trip, well worth a visit. After this we went to the tombs of the nobles. Like any society there is a hierarchy and it is not just kings and queens that get tombs but rather others too but just to a lesser extent. The ticket for the tombs of the nobles allowed us into three tombs of choosing again but no pictures were allowed… again. I managed a few sneaky ones with my go pro this time, having it perched in my pocket as if I wasn’t using it and just clicking as needed. Not many of the images came out well but interesting to see how some rich/well respected people in that society prepared for their passage to the after life as well as just royalty. Next up was a trip to Ramesseum, a temple built by Ramses. But was badly damaged in a earthquake, there was once a statue there that was the largest found in Egyptian times but it too was damaged in the earthquake. The detail and colour was a bit like Medinhat Temple but nowhere near as big. At this temple and many others there was excavations going on, as much of Egypt has been discovered there is still plenty more being recovered all the time. After this All this it was still only 10am and We went to the cruise so I could check in. I didn’t realize on this trip that I would have so much free time but so far my days in Luxor were comprised of a few hours visiting sites and just chilling out for the rest of the day. Which generally isn’t so bad, and it’s mainly the case because so many sites are close to each other but when you are traveling on your own the free time can feel like a bit of a waste after a while. Don’t get me wrong there were many additional activities I could have done (city tours, balloon rides etc.) but I was doing the trip on a budget so I opted to just enjoy the sun and relax instead. On the cruise, my home for 4/5 days on this trip, there was a buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner included every day so I was well fed too.
Day 4 Luxor East Bank (Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple)
For all the temples around Luxor they are either on the West Bank or east bank of the river Nile. The Egyptians had certain beliefs about the afterlife and the position of the sun so it should be noted that all temples are cemeteries and mortuary temples on the West Bank dedicated to death and the afterlife while the east bank is dedicated to the worship of Gods, mainly Amun Ra. So far the last day in Luxor I started off by visiting Karnak temple, the largest temple ever discovered in Egyptian history. The temple stretches over 1.5km from one side to the other. The temple is largely dedicated to Amun Ra (The king of all gods) and due to this no kings dared to mess with temple but rather add to it over time. My guide even showed me an excel like table chiseled into a wall totaling the offerings to the gods over a period of time. The scale of Karnak temple was breathtaking, hard to fathom how they could manage such tall structures back then. Another unique element of the temple was the avenue of sphinxes. There is a three kilometer avenue between Karnak temple and Luxor temple that is lined either aide with sphinxes. The whole three kilometers is currently being excavated to rediscover the remaining sphinxes but even the idea of it is very impressive.
After Karnak temple I visited Luxor Temple, the second largest temple ever discovered in Egyptian history. This temple was impressive and interesting for a number of reasons. Namely the avenue of sphinxes was outplayed more clearly on this side, and even the short stretch that was unearthed was very impressive. Secondly there is a mosque built on top of part of the temple, as it was constructed before the rest of the temple was discovered. The mosque is still in place today. Finally, there is evidence of Christian settlement within the temple as there is evidence of Christian paintings on some of the walls.
What’s very interesting from many of the temples is the evidence that shows different cultures utilizing the buildings through time. From the Egyptians to Greek romans to Christians. Some of the temples have had the details of kings, queens and gods defaced. This has been attributed to people settling in the buildings and being afraid that the images/carvings were evil spirits. It’s unfortunate but shows how long the buildings have been around that different cultures have embraced them in one way or another. Some temples and tombs are even are smoke damaged from settlers lighting fires to cook and keep warm while others even show more recent evidence of ‘graffiti’ from 1800’s onwards from when explorers marked the walls from when they passed through. In Luxor temple there is some evidence of Alexander the Greats time when the Greek roman influence was inputted. Generally, when a new people come to conquer an area they will disregard the existing beliefs of the locals and impose their own but Alexander the Great took a different approach and depicted himself as an Egyptian god and embraced the locals by this means to get them on his side.
That afternoon the cruise embarked on the journey south to Aswan. We had to pass through a barge that evening where the ship was raised about 6m before we continued on further. I spent most of the evening talking about Islam with my guide, I know a good bit from living in the Middle East but it’s always interesting to find out more about local customs etc.
Day 5 (Nile River, Com Ombo Temple, Edfu Temple)
The next morning the cruise stopped for a few hours so we could explore Edfu temple. This temple is the best preserved temple in Egypt in terms of how intact it is. It was the first temple I was in that had all the complete roof slabs in place. It boggles the mind as to they got them in place but it was impressive to see! Some of the ceilings had obvious smoke damage but the exterior and some of the walls were still very impressive. A cool thing about my visit here was that my guide and I were the first people in the temple that morning, a bit like entering the pyramid when everyone was leaving, it was cool to explore the history in an almost exclusive fashion. Although I’d spent the week being driven around in private vans like a VIP (with some of the vans even brandishing the letters ‘VIP’ on them) for some reason the trip to and from this temple was made by horse drawn carriage. Some how the locals had organsied a system that no taxis were allowed to the temple from the cruises so the horses were busy enough. Interesting to say the least!
After we got back to the cruise it set sail for another few hours while I topped up my sunburn on the roof deck before we reached Com Ombo temple. This was a temple dedicated to the crocodile god, yes a god with a crocodile’s head, basically. There are a lot of crocodiles in the Nile river and I guess it’s important to respect them and having a god to serve as protector of the waters etc. was logical I suppose. The temple was probably the least interesting of the trip but still my guide was able to point out evidence of an Egyptian calendar on one of the walls. Another element evident in this temple was a well. People had to pay taxes in Egyptian times but the taxes were based on water level. High water level meant good irrigation and good crops with taxes collected accordingly or low level low yield and low tax. This was a fair measure of taxation implemented and the wells, or tunnels in the case of other temples were used to measure water levels for this reason. 95% of Egyptians live near the Nile. So a tax based on how well the land near the Nile was irrigated was as good as any. After the temple there was a quick visit to the crocodile mummy museum beside the temple. Very interesting to see how the animal was revered by some but very strange to see such an animal mummified!
After that we got back on the boat to head further down the river to our final destination of Aswan. Luckily the cruise had premiership football on the TV and my guide was a Manchester United fan too so he came over to my room to watch the match, which united won, so that’s always good. It was New Year’s Eve so a special belly dance show and New Years party was organized on the cruise. Call me a spoil sport but considering I was on my own I didn’t fancy heading up to the bar to ring in the new year on my own so I skipped the event but I’m sure it would have a pretty good night in general.
Day 6 Aswan (Aswan high Dam, Phelia Temple)
The next morning we had arrived in Aswan so the day consisted of visiting the old dam and high dam before visiting a temple that had been moved over a period of 10 years, piece by piece. The old dam was built by the British in 1920s before being replaced by the high dam some years later. The high dam, when first in operation generated enough electricity to power all of Egypt and to this day still generates enough electricity to power about 30% of the country’s needs. The creation of the dam led to a enormous lake of water stretching 500km south, which is the largest artificially created lake in the world. This build up of water allows for the measured irrigation of land down stream towards lower Egypt (north Egypt) from upper Egypt (south Egypt). But further to this the build up of this body of water has endangered some historical monuments such as Phelia temple which had to be relocated from a lower island now covered in water to a higher island accessible only by boat. This temple was very interesting as there was evidence of heavy Christian influence with crosses etched into the walls throughout the temple as well as an alter in one room!
After this we headed back to the cruise to chill out for the rest of the day. It was only about 10 am again, Every day I seemed to have so much free time, a lot more than expected because many of the monuments were located in proximity to each other, so I thought it was worth seeing what Aswan had to offer. That evening I took a stroll through the nearby souk which reminded me a bit like old musherieb in downtown Doha. The people were really nice there and it was cool to mix with the locals.
Day 7 (Abu Simbel)
Abu Simbel is are two temples that were created by by being built directly from the mountain by Ramses II. The reason behind the temples (One for Ramses II and the second one for his wife), located in the south of Egypt near the Sudanese border, were built so far south was to show strength over Nubian people and to have a watchful eye over them when bringing the gold to Egypt. The temples were even used to store gold until it got transferred to Aswan. The temples are a good 3 hour drive south of Aswan but it was completely worth it and it was nice to drive through the open desert for the first time on the trip.
What I didn’t know until I arrived was that Abu Simbel was actually located about 400m west of its current location but that is location is now underwater in the previously discussed lake. So a massive operation was undertaken to cut the temples int0 20 tonnes pieces (by hand saw only!!) and move it to a higher location, and a mountain was even created so the temples could look like they were standing as they orginally were. That in itself was an incredible feat of engineering when you see the scale of these temples. Abu simbel was one of my highlights on the trip, but again no pictures were allowed inside the tombs. but the guards were a lot more relaxed here and I managed to get a few anyway. The temples were not as detailed as some of the others I had seen but they were very well preserved.
After we got back to Aswan, Walid and I went to a local coffee shop/shisha place and had some tea and watched some football before I got my overnight train back to Cairo. The football was put on mute for call to prayer which was something I wasn’t expecting but didn’t feel strange, most of the locals stayed and watched the match anyway. I love experiencing things like that because its always great to sample local real activities.
Day 8 (Cairo)
When I arrived in Giza from the over night train the same guy from airport met me- So again, a well organised tour and a familiar face makes things that much smoother. The train itself was 2 hours late and this is common enough I am told so dont time things too tight if you are using the trains, for your own sake. Ahmed dropped me at the hotel and I just chilled out for day, writing some of this blog and reading a book. I mentioned before that I had a lot of free time but again it was my fault because I booked my flights before actually organising the tour, great idea I know…
Hussein called over in the evening to say hello and see how everything went and we went for another shwarma – I cant resist a good shwarma! And again I got to experience some local culture as we sat outside a coffee shop eating our shwarmas and watching some old converted army VW bug vans acting as taxis driving up and down 2 streets – reminding me of a similar set up I experienced In Haunchaco, Peru last summer.
Day 9 (Coptic Cairo, Garbage City)
For my last day in Egypt I wasnt flying until nearly midnight, so I had a good sleep in before Hussein collected me and we made our way to Garbage City. I had seen some street art on the interent by an artist called El Seeb, where he painted a mural accrros the walls of 50 different buildings that could only be read correctly from one particular spot in Garbage City so since I had time, I wanted to check it out. Hussein didnt actually know about the piece but after a bit of research he was all set to bring me there. The added bonus was that it was located in the same part of Garbage city where there is a church built into the side of a mountain that I also wanted to see.
Garbage City is much like it sounds, basically all of the rubbish from Cairo is brought here and the local people in this area, mainly Christians, will sort the rubbish and bring it to recycling centres for money. It was an experience to say the least. When we got to the view point of the art piece it was a bit of a struggle to find the right spot and unfortunately when we did find it, we realised it was on the roof of a building that we could not get too, although we did get a pretty good view from inside the building. I’m surprised that nobody has cashed in on the idea of letting people up on the roof, even while we were there about 6 other people were trying to get the view too. In time I’m sure someone will cash in!
So killing two birds with one stone was made very easy as the church carved into the mountain was literally across the road from the view point. I went in and checked it out before a trip to Coptic Cairo to finish off the trip.
Coptic Cairo has some old churches and mosques in the fortress with a great story of behind those in power at the time. The main mosque is an impressive building but most of all I think the view from the fortress over the city, with the pyramids in the background is worth the visit alone, a real contrast from modern day Egypt to the past.
I visited during the Christmas/holiday break so I hadn’t experienced much of the famous Cairo traffic as schools were off but on the way to the airport I got my first glimpse of it for sure! Also on the way to the airport we passed the city of the dead, and not for the first time on the trip either but Hussein explained how it used to be a place where they did tours and it was amazing but its not considered a safe area anymore so he cant provide tours there. Its unfortunate but the story behind it is interesting that the city’s poor occupied cemeteries for shelter and have since established it as permanent place of residence. The place is not small, its not one or two cemeteries but rather like a small town as the name might suggest.
Arriving at the airport, Hussein double checked what airline I was with so he could drop me to the right terminal, a great service from pick up to drop off I didn’t have to worry about a thing. Although after he left I remembered that might flight was actually a partner operated flight and I had to get the bus (no big deal) to change terminal. Unfortunately though the terminal I transferred to was tiny and they only let you in 3 hours before your flight so I had to hang about outside, I had some roaming minutes left so used the time to catch up with friends and family before eventually heading inside. The middle east tradition of not caring about the size of your hand luggage extended to Egypt too as I tried to check in my backpack only to be waved on, ‘no, bring it no problem no problem’. So with that I was already on the way back to the middle east way of life. I would be back to reality to before long!
Tips and Prices
Normally at the end of my blog I give a detailed breakdown of costs but in this case its not relevant for 2 reasons:
1: The week before I got there the Egyptian currency’s value was cut in half, in one day alone so prices might become a bit irrelevant.
2. I booked everything through my guide, Hussein, and he will tailor your trip from really cheap to really expensive depending on what you want in particular so you are better off contacting him directly, and ask him for advice in terms of what you want to do and what you should expect to pay.
My guide (Feel free to contact him directly, and let him know that you got his information here):