Cairo, Giza, and a Nile Cruise
06/01/2007 - 06/10/2007 85 °F
Detail of the Hellenistic Egyptian ruins at Philae - an island near Aswan, Egypt
The pyramids...Ramses II's colossal temple Abu Simbel...the sprawling temple city of Karnak -- I'd wondered beforehand what would be the highlight of Egypt for me? I'd never guessed it would be the island temple complex of Philae, a tiny speck of land in the Nile at Aswan. As we leapt onto the dock from our tiny boat, though, the afternoon sunlight was striking an inviting peach glow from Philae's walls and columns. The temple was not overrun with large groups of tourists, like the pyramids had been, a day earlier. Our guide did not rush us through our visit, either, for a change. We lingered, marveling over the thousand year old carvings on the walls: The pharaoh smiting his enemies, the gods conferring their favor on him, and hieroglyphs and images on every surface. After finishing our tour of the complex, our guide waited in the cafe, while Jenny and I wandered the island, exploring semi-ruined temples, tumbled city gates, and taking photos at our leisure. This was the tonic we'd needed, after our jumbled arrival in Egypt two days before.
The last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World - the pyramids at Giza
The best part about our arrival in Egypt was the jet's approach to Cairo airport. I was in a window seat watching as we followed the Nile south, seeing the cultivation and slowly increasing signs of urbanization. As we turned to line up for landing, the ground below abruptly turned brown. And there, spread out beneath me, like an architect's drawing, were the pyramids of Giza. What a sight! Unfortunately, this auspicious arrival was short lived. We soon discovered that our luggage had not made it on the plane. Since we had four hours of connection time in JFK, the obvious culprit was Delta -- who probably did not bother to connect our bags to EgyptAir. Our local Egyptian tour company, ironically named Delta Tours Egypt, helped us file our claim, then drove us to the Hotel Zoser in Giza. After more than 24 hours of travel, this 4-star hotel was an air conditioned oasis of comfort. We'd both been expecting something a little less deluxe, considering how inexpensive our package was. We relaxed a bit, then went out to explore our surroundings, including finding a shopping mall for clothes in case our bags didn't show up the next morning.
I am not a fan of guided tours. We'd booked this one because I'd read that certain sights in Egypt permit only a limited numbers of visitors per day. We didn't want to get "closed out" of seeing a highlight, so thought a tour a necessary evil. Plus, we figured transportation could prove difficult to arrange on our own. And finally, the price was simply too good to pass up: $595 for 10 days, including all our hotels, transportation, three night Nile cruise, many meals, and our own private guide. Our sightseeing program began the next morning with our visit to the pyramids of Giza (plus a number of other sights). We had our first miscommunication with Delta Tours almost immediately, though. When our guide and driver showed up, they insisted we were supposed to check out of the hotel. The itinerary they'd given to us the day before stated we didn't check out till that evening. They shooed us back inside, anyway, to hurriedly pack our few belongings.
So, what to say of the pyramids that visitors haven't been saying for more than 4,000 years? The thing that struck me first was how big they are when viewed from afar. They are a man made mountain on Cairo's skyline, thickly massive and towering much higher than any building. Seeing them while driving down the street is akin to looking up in Seattle and catching a glimpse of Mt. Rainier. As we drove slowly up the plateau, there was a great view of them, gleaming brightly in the morning sun. We'd expected them to be blanketed in tourists. The mob scene that awaited us did not disappoint. Our guide gave us a quick briefing/explanation in the air conditioned comfort of the van, then turned us loose to explore Cheops, the first and largest pyramid...for 30 minutes. The deadline irked me, but we knew we had a lot to see that day, so didn't protest (we were a defiant 15 minutes tardy). All we had time to do was circle the base of the pyramid, fighting off all the hawkers selling various souvenirs, or the tourist police trying to scam bribes by pointing out good spots to take photos.
From Cheops, we drove to a vantage point where all three pyramids were lined up photogenically. Hundreds milled around the same place, though, edging in front of each other for that "me standing in front of the pyramids" shot. It's interesting to note the photographic tendencies of various nationalities. Japanese and Chinese stand at rigid attention in front of the sight, while Italians and Spanish play cutesy games like holding out their palm, so the photographer can frame the shot so they appear to be holding aloft the pyramid...or kissing the sphinx, or whatever. Me, I like to take a shot of the sight with as few people in the frame as possible (unless I want someone in there for scale). But yeah...good luck with that at the pyramids!
From the scenic overlook, we drove to the pyramid of Chephren. The guide once again gave us her air conditioned briefing, then cut us loose. The attractions of Chephren are that it still has some of its original limestone facing at the top and bottom, and that you can actually go inside it. No cameras are allowed, and the ascent/descent is not for the feeble...or claustrophobic. You immediately plunge down a shaft set at about a 30 degree angle. the passage is so low that you must go bent over double, and it is barely wide enough for two people to pass. With no ventilation, the heat and humidity were thick as a sauna. The panicked looks on some of the faces going the other way told me that perhaps this experience was not everyone. When Jenny and I finally entered the burial chamber, there really was nothing to see: Bare walls and an empty granite box where the sarcophagus had lain. Any paintings had long ago worn away. It was fascinating to be inside a pyramid, though. Plus, being in reasonably good shape, it wasn't the traumatic experience that others were having. It WAS nice getting back outside in the fresh air, though!
From Chephren, we drove to the Sphinx for the day's biggest tourist mob. Honestly, I never expected to have Egypt to myself, but the short amount of time at each sight that our guide parceled out meant we had to hurry in, wrestle the crowd to snap a few pictures, linger tardily for a few moments, and scramble back to the van. I wasn't particularly enjoying Day One of package tour travel, but it was about to get worse. First our guide suggested a switch in itinerary, replacing the stepped pyramid of Saqqara (one of the oldest, a kind of proto-pyramid) with the Egyptian Museum -- which was scheduled for when we returned to Cairo, towards the end of our 10 days. I said No. I wanted to study up before our museum visit, but was secretly afraid that somehow we'd end up not getting back to Saqqara if we lopped it from today's itinerary. She then took us to the "Perfume Museum" -- a visit that was not on our itinerary, and nothing more than a hustle to try to get us to pay $240 for four bottles of perfume...er, excuse me, "essences." We bought nothing, but I was seething that our guide had skimped time on world class sights like the pyramids and the sphinx in an attempt to snag a commission on what we might purchase. We made it clear that we wanted no more unscheduled stops at papyrus factories, carpet museums or anything else of the kind.
Saqqara - not a true pyramid, but a six-layered Mastaba, a forerunner of the pyramids
Saqqara was dry and dusty, but an interesting sight, nonetheless. Technically, it is not a true pyramid -- it is a six layered, pyramid shaped mastaba. Contrasting its crude stepped sides to the perfectly formed, sharp angled masterpieces at Giza was interesting. Plus, there were way fewer tourists there, and we were allowed to roam free and explore the site. Upon returning to the van, we were told the bad news that our bags had not showed up on today's EgyptAir flight, either.
We went downtown and met with Delta Tours' president (to pay for our tour). He promised they'd do their best to get the bags sent to Aswan (our next stop) when they arrived. In the meantime, he agreed to postpone our Nile felucca boat ride and substitute a visit to the shopping mall to buy more clothes. Afterwards, our driver took us to the Khan il-Kalil market to browse its tangled alleyways for souvenirs, for an hour or so. Jenny and I were worried that we'd never get our bags, at this point, and were fairly unenthusiastic shoppers at the bazaar. It was interesting to watch the behavior of the Egyptians during Ramadan, though. Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink during daylight hours. So, at sundown, things got quite festive in the bazaar. Wealthy merchants set up tables in the street, gaining Allah's blessings by feeding folks for free. Men and women would stake out their spots at the tables, patiently waiting as the merchant and his family set out bread, juice and then a foiled-wrapped dish of cooked chicken or fish. When the sundown prayers commenced, the scarfing began. As we walked by, folks eagerly motioned us to join in on the feast. Jenny and I demurred, but did eat a quick dinner of kebab in a cafe on the square.
The island temple of Philae - much of it from the Hellenistic era, when Egypt was actually ruled by Alexander the Great's successsors
Finally, we were taken to the train station. Through my travels, I've always enjoyed trains. In my opinion, it is the most comfortable form of travel. You can get up and walk around, unlike in a bus or car. You can see the countryside go by, unlike in an airplane. They are usually faster than buses or cars, but slower than airplanes. They're a great compromise...except for overnight trains to Aswan! Our train was the noisiest, jerkiest rattle-trap I'd ever ridden on. Sleeping in our sleeper cabins wasn't easy even with earplugs. Nevertheless, it got us to Aswan, where our tour company picked us up and whisked us to our hotel. Along the way, we were given the best news we'd heard since arrival in Egypt: Our bags were waiting for us at the Aswan airport! After claiming them and snatching a quick shower at the hotel, we were off for another day's sightseeing.
Here, we met Mohammed, our guide for the next four days. First, he took us to the "Unfinished Obelisk." It would have been Egypt's largest, but work on it was abandoned when it developed a large crack. Then, we were off to the Aswan High Dam, which actually wasn't that spectacular, as dams go. Back in town, on the Nile's banks, Mohammed hired a small boat to take us out to Philae island, which is the site of a temple complex with buildings dating from several eras of Egyptian history. The main temple is dedicated to Isis and is constructed in the ancient Pharaonic style, with twin triangular "pylons" flanking the entrance. It was built during the period of Macedonian Greek rule, or the Ptolemiac period. These descendants of Ptolemy, Alexander the Great's general, embraced Egyptian culture -- to the extent of some even marrying their own sisters, daughters or mothers to legitimize their line. They depicted themselves as reigning pharaohs on the temple walls and in statuary, in full regalia, wearing the double crown of upper and lower Egypt. Philae's walls and columns, carved with intricate depictions of gods and pharaohs, glowed golden in the late afternoon sunlight, complimented by a gorgeous blue sky. One monumental building from the mid-Roman era caught my eye. It was constructed by the emperor Trajan, who styled himself as a Roman Alexander the Great. It soaring columns and symmetry reminded me of the Tetrapylon in the Roman ruins of Palmyra, Syria.
Majestic Abu Simbel - the reconstructed temple to Ramses II is truly a highlight of Eygpt
The next morning was our earliest of the trip: Mohammed and our driver picked us up at 3:15 am for our trip to Abu Simbel, near the Egyptian-Sudanese border. He explained that we had to join a convoy for the three hour drive, I assumed for security reasons. So, we stopped at a police checkpoint, which checked out our vehicle from the outside, and then were motioned down the street to the assembly point. At first, we hoped it would be a small convoy, as there were only two other vehicles present. Then the first tour bus showed up. And another. We sat and waited --reminding me of my "hurry up and wait" Army days. Eventually, more than 60 vehicles, from cars to vans to tour buses, were lined up when the convoy was finally motioned forward. What followed was laughable. If the convoy was for security reasons, I think I understand the outcome of the Arab-Israeli wars a bit better! It was like a herd of New York taxi drivers unleashed as each vehicle tried to pass the other, and the slowest vehicles were left behind in the dust. We never saw a police or army vehicle during the entire drive up or back. Probably the most annoying part of the convoy, though, was that it meant nearly the entire day's worth of tourists descended upon Abu Simbel at the same time. If I were to come again, I would try to overnight there, so that I could experience an Abu Simbel lonely of tourists.
Nevertheless, Ramses II's masterpiece temple was impressive. It sits on the banks of the Nile, its entrance guarded by four 70 feet tall statues of the pharaoh gazing serenely eastward. As guides are not allowed inside (to prevent bottlenecks), Mohammed gave us his description outside the main entrance, as we stood gazing up in awe. He then waved us forward and we took photos, then ducked inside. Although packed with people, the temple was incredible. On either side of the main aisle, 20 feet tall statues of Ramses doubled as columns. All four walls were carved with hieroglyphs or scenes of the pharaoh slaying his enemies or receiving the blessing of the gods. One entire wall was carved with depictions of the Battle of Kadesh, Ramses bloody draw (which he glorified as a victory) with the Hittites. I'd seen images of these carvings for years in books on Egyptian history. It was amazing to see them in person, and my neck was soon sore from looking up, examining it. I saw the ordered line of Egyptian chariots, their archery tumbling Hittite charioteers to the ground. I found the depiction of the Egyptian camp, its walls composed of tombstone shaped infantry shields, beset by Hittite hordes. I even located Ramses' legendary pet lion on the wall. After exploring the temple thoroughly, we went "next door" to Ramses' temple honoring his wife, Queen Nefertiri. Its line of statuary flanking the entrance was nowhere near as gigantic as Ramses' temple, but was still huge and impressive. All too soon, though, it was time for us to join the "convoy" back to Aswan. Once back in Aswan, we checked into our Nile cruise ship. Dozens of these boxy but luxurious ships ply the river between Luxor and Aswan. Most of the guests on ours were from a large, German tour group. Our cabin was nice, though, and the food was...well, okay. Nile cruise cuisine is definitely not up to the decadent standards of Caribbean ones!
The ruins of the Temple of Satet on Elephantine Island
After lunch, we decided to take a ferry across to Elephantine island, which was the main inhabited area in the ancient Egyptian days. Our ferry docked in the middle of Elephantine's "Nubian village," inhabited by descendants of the ancient Nubians, an African people who alternated as enemies, allies, subjects and overlords of the Egyptians. We were looking for the Temple of Satet, and despite our long, looping path across the island, we did eventually find it. We stumbled across a number of other ruins on the way, and met some interesting people, too. It was definitely a pleasant afternoon, and we would remember it as a nice interlude of exploration by ourselves amidst all the guided tours. Later, in the evening, we delved into Aswan's bazaar, where Jenny picked up a number of gifts for her family. I had no luck finding what I sought: A limestone obelisk liked I'd seen in our Hotel Zoser's gift shop.
We were awakened the next morning rather abruptly by a phone call from Mohammed: "Get up!" We had less than an hour to see the Temple of Komombo (where we'd docked early in the morning) before the ship sailed. Our information from Delta Tours stated that we'd see Komombo AFTER breakfast. We'd inquired the night before, and been told breakfast was at 8 am. Turns out there was a change, and we sailed at 8 am, eating breakfast after sailing. We scolded Mohammed for not giving us a solid itinerary. We'd seen one posted in German in the lobby for the large tour group, but no one had given us any kind of schedule for the ship. Our hurried visit to Komombo was all the more frustrating because the place seemed overrun by tourists from a fleet of cruise ships. The effect of the early morning light on the temple was lovely, though, and Jenny and I snapped photos rapidly. The 2nd Century B.C. temple was dedicated to two Egyptian gods, one of which was the crocodile-headed Sobek, who was clearly depicted in carvings on the walls. We lingered as long as we could, then hurried back to the ship, five minutes before sailing.
Carvings on the Temple of Komombo, sacred to the Egyptain crocodile-headed god Sobek
After breakfast, Jenny and I went up on deck to watch our passage up the Nile. One thing I found unusual about our three day cruise north from Aswan to Luxor, was that we actually spent only one calendar day in motion. We left after midnight of our first "night" aboard the ship (so early Day Two, in reality), and would dock late that same night in Luxor. So, we knew this would be our only chance to watch the Nile scenery slide by. I was immediately struck by the stark division between cultivated, irrigated land and the desert. The greenery on the banks was lush and thick with crops and vegetation. Just beyond, and much closer than I'd expected, was the lifeless brown of the desert. Villages passed by on both sides, each replete with square stucco buildings, mosques and hanging laundry. Children cooled off swimming in the water (must be no Nile crocodiles here!), and oxen, donkeys and farmers worked under the fierce sun. Ahead and behind us, we could see we were in the middle of a long column of cruise ships plying the waters. When ships passed going the opposite direction, each blasted its horn merrily.
Sun sets along the Nile, perfectly by the minaret of a mosque
We were ready and waiting when we docked at Edfu. Mohammed, Jenny and I were the first ones off the ship, and he quickly hired a horse drawn carriage to take us to the Temple of Horus. This was another Ptolemaic era temple, and was the most complete one we'd see in Egypt, with all of its roof, columns and walls intact. Just inside the entrance, 18 huge columns shaped like papyrus plants soared to the dim ceiling. Each was carved in bands, alternating rows of hieroglyphs with figures of gods and people. Mohammed pointed out the significance of various carvings as we worked our way back towards the inner sanctuary, which housed the sacred boat carrying the god's image. Normally, you can climb up to the roof of the temple at Edfu, but it was closed today. So, Jenny and I contented ourselves with exploring every nook of the sprawling complex. Mohammed made sure we'd seen everything we wanted before leading us back to the ship. He was catching on that we enjoyed taking our time and were not content with superficial visits.
A typical Nile cruise ship sails past ours
That evening, we had a good time with our tablemates on the cruise ship, Dennis and Jenny (easy name to remember, eh?), from California. This was their second visit to Egypt and they gave us some good advice. At both Jenny's prompting, I told them stories of my travels to various places around the world. I felt uncomfortably like I was dominating the conversation, so I kept asking about the Californians' own considerable travels. They were good companions after dinner, as well. We enjoyed drinks on the upper deck, watching our ship's progress through a series of locks.
The next morning we awoke in Luxor, where our cruise ship was docked directly across from the famous temple. However, Mohammed led us to a waiting car for our day's visit to the Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs of New Kingdom Egypt (around 1000 B.C.) dug their tombs into the cliffsides. The tombs were fascinating, their painted walls still replete with lifelike color. Each tomb was composed of a passageway (MUCH wider than the pyramids!) which angled downwards, passing through anterooms before finally arriving at the burial chamber. It seemed every inch of wall and sometimes ceiling was decorated with paintings. We filed past, amazed and incredulous that we were looking at images more than 3,000 years old. Our tour included visits to three tombs (Mohammed chose Ramses I, III and VI, if I remember correctly), but you could easily visit more in a day. However, they DID begin to look the same after three, and the sun beat down upon the white rock furiously, sapping our will to lobby for more tomb visits.
Another must-do in Egypt -- the Valley of the Kings with its temples buried deep within the rock
Next, we drove to the Valley of the Queens and visited the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. This interesting woman reined as pharaoh for 21 years -- having herself depicted on temple walls as a man with false beard, wearing the double crown, and so on. Eventually, her irked and passed over son engineered her overthrow and erased her name from all monuments. Hatshepsut's sprawling temple was designed to impress her subjects with the story of her divine birth, and thus fitness to rule. Constructed on three levels, the temple has wide plazas that the sun beat down upon without mercy, making visitors scurry to the shade of its columned porticos. One of the temple's wings was dedicated to my favorite Egyptian god, Anubis. His image on the walls still retained its color, despite being painted in 1470 B.C. After a brief stop at the Colossi of Memnon, we returned to the ship, having successfully stretched our visit almost two hours longer than the schedule regimented. Mohammed apologized that this meant we'd missed the ship's lunch, but we laughed and told him we'd skip lunch every day for more time at the sites, if needed!
Some of the paint on the columns, still surviving after millenia
The day's heat must have affected Jenny's head, because I was able to talk her into eating lunch in the modern, air conditioned confines of...you guessed it...Pizza Hut! Another country, another Pizza Hut dined at! Afterwards, we stopped by an internet cafe to update everyone, then walked the main drag back towards the ship. Luxor is the reputed "hassle" capital of Egypt, and it lived up to its billing. It's impossible to walk 50 yards without some tout trying to sell you a carriage ride, boat ride, souvenirs -- whatever. It seriously detracts from the experience of an otherwise pleasant town. As we neared the ship, the late afternoon sun's rays bronzed the columns of the Temple of Luxor enticingly. We paced along the fence, taking photos and breathing in the beauty...our reverie interrupted regularly by calls of "Felucca ride? Caliche?" We returned to the fence later that night to use my mini-tripod to get some shots of Luxor illuminated.
Temple paintings on the walls at the famous female pharaoh's temple, Hatshepsut
After dinner, we spent a pleasant time with Mohammed, looking out over the temple from our upper deck. Jenny and I enjoyed a couple Egyptian beers, while Mohammed, a good Muslim, had tea. As he is an Egyptologist (and a staunch partisan of his favorite pharaoh, Ramses II), I plied him with tough questions like, "Who really won the Battle of Kadesh?" and "Do Egyptians consider the Kushite/Nubian Pharaohs of the 22nd Dynasty 'Egyptian'?" I had a fun time, teasing him for his partisanship and pride. Of all our guides in Egypt, Jenny and I enjoyed Mohammed the most. He sensed our interests and responded to them, allowing us more time to sightsee, and plying us with details he might not have otherwise with less historically minded tourists.
The Temple of Luxor illuminated at night
The next morning, as we crossed the street from the ship to Luxor temple, we were amazed to see it pretty much free of other tourists. Mohammed joked that he'd arranged a private visit because he liked us so much. It made our time in that soaring temple all the more special to have it to ourselves. The columns seemed even more incredibly tall as we wandered among them. The statues of Ramses II, who in his 67 year reign had lots of time to leave his mark on Egypt, were everywhere, and gigantic in size, but as smooth and perfect in proportions as an ancient Greek athlete. Awed, I took dozens of photos. Jenny was obviously enraptured. I smiled as I watched her following in Mohammed's wake, unconsciously mimicking his gestures as she listened spellbound to his descriptions.
From Luxor, we rejoined Tourist Egypt with our visit to the sprawling temple city of Karnak. The soft early morning light had given way to mid-day's harsh glare, so I took fewer photos here, even though the ruins were as impressive and the columns even greater, if possible. I wasn't as bothered by the tour groups elbowing past us as I had been in other places, after this morning's gift of Luxor alone. Much bigger in size, Karnak seemed to stretch on and on. So many temples, obelisks and rows of columns crowded in upon each other that it overloaded the senses. You couldn't really plan a visit, but had to wander its maze numbed by the size, scale and splendor of the place. With our visit concluded, we had to bid goodbye to Mohammed. He was catching a bus home to Aswan, so we exchanged e-mail addresses and I promised to send him a link to this travelog once it was written.
So many must-see's in Egypt! Here, the Temple of Luxor
To be honest, Luxor seemed a little empty without him, and Jenny and I kind of coasted the rest of the day. We visited the Luxor Museum (saw two pharaoh's mummies!), lingered over meals, found an internet cafe to update everyone, and wandered the streets. We were biding our time till our sleeper train back to Cairo. It was a bit easier to doze off, this time, as we knew what to expect. However, we were much happier to see the beds of our hotel Zoser in Giza, the next morning. We had a short nap there, then were picked up for our final "scheduled" day of sightseeing (the day after was a "free day").
We started the day with the medieval era Citadel of Saladin, though we actually visited only the Muhammed Ali mosque on the fortress' hilltop grounds. Our guide was different than our previous Cairo one, and she was quite chatty, going on at great lengths about Egypt's more recent history. I thought it was particularly interesting how she rationalized as a GOOD thing the Islamic tradition of allowing four wives, from a woman's perspective. I didn't quite buy her story that "women outnumber men in Egypt," so if she wants to get married, it'd have to be as a second wife. I think she was just trying to be a good Muslim, selling the infidel tourists on Islam's benefits.
Afterwards, we delved into Coptic Cairo, visiting two Medieval era churches and one synagogue (which requires government permission for Jews to hold a service there). Then, the day's grand finale was the sprawling Egyptian Museum. Our guide did a good job of touching on the highlights, then allowing us free time to roam and wander. Seeing King Tut's gold mask was my favorite. Although I'd seen countless photos of it, the beauty and grace of the artist's work comes through best in person. We skipped the mummies, as we'd seen some in Luxor, and basically wandered through various sections. I also liked the reconstructed chariots from the tombs -- they were much bigger than I'd envisioned them.
Carved columns at the Temple of Karnak
We closed the day's sightseeing with our Nile felucca (boat) ride, which we postponed from our earlier stop in Cairo. It was definitely a different perspective from the chaotic, crowded streets. It was quiet out on the water, and a relaxing way to unwind from our rapid paced sightseeing. After dinner, we wandered the streets, as it was Ramadan's final day. We learned that the main celebration would be the next day -- our last night in Cairo.
We'd been debating on what to do on our "free day" in Cairo. We'd been leaning towards visiting the City of the Dead (Cairo's medieval cemetery), which was supposed to be fascinating. In the end, we chose to hire a taxi, though, and visit Darshur -- site of the Red Pyramid (Egypt's first, true, smooth sided pyramid). Our guidebook said it was off the tour bus circuit, and that from there, we could get views of two other pyramids, including the interesting "Bent Pyramid," which predates the Red Pyramid. We decided to splurge a little and used the hotel's taxi desk to hire our car (I'm sure it would have been cheaper on the street), figuring the language barrier would be less of a problem with a hotel taxi. I'm glad we did, as for about $20 each, our driver took us the 45 minutes to the Dashur, let us wander as long as we wanted, and tossed in a visit to the ancient capital of Memphis for free.
The Red Pyramid was great. It is called red for the color of the granite blocks that it was constructed with. The guidebook was right, and there were very few tourists present. When Jenny and I climbed the pyramid to its entrance, then followed the shaft down into the burial chamber, we were the only visitors. It was equally as steep and claustrophobic as the shaft at Chephren, but with no other people present, much less stuffy and humid. It was neat to be alone in the center of an actual pyramid, looking up at the triangular roof of the burial cavern. Not quite an Indiana Jones experience, but the closest we'd come to it in Egypt! Once outside, we circled the base of the pyramid, and had a good view of the so-called Bent Pyramid. This construction began as the first attempt at a smooth sided pyramid, but when the foundations began to show signs of extreme stress, the top one third of the pyramid was completed at a less steep angle. This gives it a "bent" look, and almost the profile of a circus tent. We couldn't visit that pyramid because it is inside a military base. As a matter of fact, Dashur is so close to the base that we had a plain clothes policeman follow us around the pyramid to make sure we didn't make a break for forbidden territory!
The Red Pyramid of Dashur -- off the beaten path of the tour bus crowds at last!
Our stop at Memphis suffered in comparison to the Egyptian Museum the previous day. There is a colossal statue of Ramses lying on its back that was interesting, but the rest of the open air museum was short of anything unique. We then drove back to the hotel, dumped our stuff, and wandered out for a late lunch to a local restaurant which specialized in spicy chicken. The streets were packed with post-Ramadan revelers, and they only got more and more crowded as the day went on. We gave up trying to get into an internet cafe, as they were all jammed with teenagers. All the restaurants and stores were similarly packed, and it was interesting wandering around, enjoying the festive atmosphere.
We'd decided to cap our Egypt trip with the Sound and Light show at the pyramids on our final night. We knew it'd be cheesy, but the chance to see the Giza pyramids illuminated at night seemed worth it. The show lasted quite a bit longer than I thought it would, and the pyramids lit up were impressive. The narration was cheesy, as I expected, supposedly recounted by the Sphinx itself, which was 100 yards or so in front of us. The laser light projection of a pharaoh's face on its features was cool, though. I was equally amazed at the stupidity of the crowd, though, who constantly tried to take flash photographs of the pyramids, more than a mile away. All it did was blind everyone around them for a few seconds, having no effect on a subject that far away. You think they'd learn after the first attempt that the flash was having no effect on their picture, other than to throw into stark illumination the backs of the heads of the people sitting in front of them! Ah, well...I guess I needed one final reason to vent my appreciation of tour groups!
Sun sets along the Nile turning it to gold
So, all in all, Egypt was an amazing time with incredible sights. I think, with proper research, it would be quite possible to visit Egypt without a tour package. You could arrange your hotels ahead of time and simply hire a driver for each day's sightseeing. I am not disappointed with the memories from our tour, though: Philae Island on a golden afternoon; Luxor Temple to ourselves one magical morning; The studious lectures of our Egyptologist Mohammed -- all are wonderful pictures that will stay in our heads for years. Picking one place as the highlight of 10 days in Egypt is a meaningless exercise, in the end. There were too many...orange sunsets on the Nile, a vibrant painting 3,000 years old, all the colors, all the sights of the big palette that was Egypt...one highlight after another.