The Sphinx at Giza   

Painted Column at Philae Temple

Egyptian worker

Cairo - Giza pyramids

Egypt—January 2011

In the winter of 2011, Egypt, a key ally of the United States in the Arab world, is on everyone’s mind as pro-democracy demonstrations convulse and transform this magnificent nation of 80 million people.

We were in Egypt in January of 2011 as the first protests started and rearranged our itinerary to leave the day before flights in and out of the country were cancelled due to the unrest. You can read about our experiences on this page of our travel notes: Egypt 2011 – How we got out. But, here, we want to talk about this fascinating country, with its very ancient history, that has been and will again be one of the world’s premier travel destinations, we hope within the next year. We also hope, in that time, the demands of Egyptians for a real democracy and a better life will have begun to be realized.

We’ve all read about Egypt, with its 5,000 year old history, in our history books. To see it is to feel like you are touching those ancient days when the pharaohs ruled the Nile Valley and beyond, to the Eastern and Western Deserts, when the Greeks and the Romans saw Egypt as the center of the civilized world, when people with no modern technology built some of the greatest wonders of the world.

Memphis, just outside Cairo, was the first capital of pharaonic Egypt, founded by the Pharaoh Menes about 3,000 B.C. There is not much left of Memphis today, except for some colossal statues of the pharaohs. Ramses II, a gigantic stone statue, reclines inside a museum, with a fist larger than a modern man. Nearby is Sakkara, the necropolis of Memphis, and site of many of Egypt’s pyramids. Best known is the Step Pyramid, a six-stepped structure made of mud bricks and under renovation today. The Sakkara temples have gorgeous, carved friezes, some still with their original paint, and remarkable detail showing the daily lives of ancient Egyptians as well as the gods who so dominated their lives.

Of course, we visited Giza, where the most famous Egyptian pyramids stand. They are in the middle of the desert, but now right at the outskirts of Cairo, still dominating the landscape as they were meant to do 4,000 years ago. Today, the crowds around the pyramids are not the thousands of workers straining to move the giant stones into place, but crowds of tourists gaping in astonishment at what an ancient civilization created. Nearby, the Sphinx stands watch, guarding the four pyramids beyond.

The pyramids were built from the center out, of local stone, except for the tombs in the centers of the pyramids. These were made of red granite from the upper Nile, presumably floated down the Nile in enormous blocks. Originally, the pyramids were faced with alabaster, but these blocks were removed several thousand years ago for other building projects.

Cairo is a densely populated city. While there are many very wealthy Cairenes, most live in horrific poverty, often surviving on the huge garbage dumps that are found throughout the city. Most people travel from place to place in vans, packed inside and, sometimes, on top. We watched as one man on top of a van struggled to tie down a large suitcase while the van careened through the traffic. Inside, every seat was taken, and some laps besides.

We talked at length with our guide, Ahmed, who had been to hospitality and guide school and was very knowledgeable. We talked politics, of course, just before Egypt erupted. Ahmed told us he didn’t like George Bush and thought President Obama was all promise and no results. He thought Mubarak’s son, Gamal, was OK, but did not want to see a dynasty ruling Egypt. “We are, after all, a republic,” he said, “and republics are not ruled by dynasties.” He was not impressed by Mohamed el-Baradei, either, who, he said, had not lived in Egypt in decades and did not know the people and their problems.

Ahmed said he’d graduated at the top of his class in school. We asked him what happened to the students who were farther down the list. He told us they are the ones who greet tourists at the airport. They don’t get to guide, which is far more lucrative (provided you have tourists and work). Ahmed wants to continue his education.

The next day, we drove nearly eight hours to the Farafra Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert. Once you leave the fertile Nile Valley, which is very narrow, the desert stretches a vast distance, across Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco to the Atlantic Ocean (all of North Africa). But, Western Egypt has a long line of oases running about 500 miles from north to south, along what looks like a fault line that releases quantities of warm water through springs and wells. We were surprised that all the water used for irrigation came from warm water springs. This is a green belt that produces alfalfa, wheat, barley, rice, beans, lentils, all kinds of vegetables, apricots, apples, pears, and dates. Sheep, goats, and dairy cattle make up a key part of the economy.

We met our guide just north of the desert town of Farafra, with its 15,000 inhabitants, and took off into the White Desert to camp out overnight. This is a desert with the most fanciful and fantastic sandstone sculptures formed by wind and blowing sand. There are thousands of white sandstone mounds, some in the forms of strange creatures. We spent the night sleeping out under a full moon with a rare view of the Milky Way prior to moonrise and waking up to see the changing light on the strange sandstone forms surrounding us. A desert fox joined us for dinner and the evening, enjoying the remains of our excellent dinner of chicken and vegetables with delicious Arab bread. Mr. Fox, about four to five pounds with very large ears, made a persistent patrol around our dinner mat.

Sandstone sculpture in the
White Desert

White Desert of Western Egypt

Old Islamic city of al-Qasr

The night was very cold, right around freezing. We awoke to a striking sunrise, again lighting up the sandstone sculptures with lovely colors, and shivered our way through a breakfast of omelet and bread. The fire our guide built was more than welcome until the sun rose high enough to warm us. Then, we headed off for a hike through the desert, wandering across the hard pan through the sandstone mounds, amazed at their wondrous shapes.

As we left Farafra, we acquired Walid, a tourist policeman assigned to go everywhere with us to make sure we were safe. That is pretty common all over Egypt, as the government is understandably paranoid about protecting tourists, who provide 11% of their economy. Walid is 25, from Cairo, assigned to a small and isolated desert town. We dropped him off at a lonely police station, not even in a village, just in the middle of the desert, on our way to Aswan. From there, he would hop into another four-wheel-drive carrying a couple of tourists, whenever it came along, to accompany them back north through the desert.

We spent the day driving throughout the White Desert, to hot springs, deep caves, and beautiful dunes before ending our day at the next oasis, Dakhla, where we spent the next three days. All around Dakhla are 2,000-year-old temples, some with beautifully carved and painted friezes on the exposed sandstone walls. Nearby is a necropolis where we gazed at a group of mummies, including a sheep mummy, still in recognizable condition. While the site had a person watching over everything, the structure with the mummies had a large window open to the air—open for thousands of years.

The old Islamic city of al-Qasr is typically built of mud-brick. We wandered around the crumbling town with a guide whose few words of English included “pot” and “bed” and not much else. But, we got a picture of lives lived hundreds of years ago where people lived in small, dark houses, sharing the space with their large extended families, cooking on the roof when possible and inside when it was either very hot or very cold. The houses are all attached to one another and the passageways through the city are mostly covered and dark, appropriate for an oasis that sees summer temperatures as high as 140 degrees and winter nights below freezing.

Transportation in the desert is by truck, 4-wheel drive, ancient sedan, motorbike, donkey or donkey pulling a wagon, and foot. Rice, beans, large rounds of flat bread and vegetables are staples of the Egyptian diet, in the desert as elsewhere.  Those who can afford it also eat beef, lamb and chicken, usually saving their goats to provide milk and cheese. Alcohol is neither sold, nor drunk in this part of Egypt. Only one hotel, a high-end, simple and beautiful resort, offered wine and beer along with excellent food. The alcohol ban was brought home to us by a restaurant sign that said, “drinking alcohol is forbidden here.”

Many of the women in Egypt wear the chador, the long, black, free-flowing gown that covers a woman from the top of her head to her feet. Others wear an abaya, a full-length coat. While most women are not fully veiled, many do wear a veil, and almost every woman wears at least a headscarf tightly fitted around her face in order to completely hide her hair, even when she is wearing tight jeans. It is a bit startling to see a veiled woman with beautifully made-up eyes. Not surprisingly, the desert oases are far more conservative than Cairo and the cities of the Nile Valley.

Dakhla Oasis-al-Tarfa resort at sunset

There is lots of new construction in the desert, primarily of concrete. Most of the new buildings are apartment buildings, replacing the crumbling mud-brick houses most people still occupy. This is all government-supported, probably with foreign development aid money. We visited a “school” for carpet weavers in a village outside Dakhla, also supported by the government and a Swiss aid program. The only problem is that there is no market here or anywhere in Egypt for the carpets the weavers are making. The Western Desert has too few tourists to buy all the crafts that are made through various development projects.

We spent our last desert night at al-Tarfa, a small, five-star resort of mud-brick cottages set in a small oasis with gorgeous views of the escarpment to the east. The rooms are spacious and charming, and the food, superb. Nearby are some small, beautiful tombs and the old, mostly ruined Islamic, mud-brick city of Balat, now occupied by only ten families, but once a bustling oasis center.

Driving from Dakhla to meet our Nile cruise boat at Aswan, an 11-hour drive, we veered off the main highway to cross a short section of the Great Sand Sea, the eastern edge of massive, golden dunes that extend 300 miles from the oases to Libya and beyond. This is the Sahara in all its immense and stark beauty. We made our own pathway on the flat golden sand at 40 mph for about twenty miles and stopped by a huge set of dunes so we could climb to the top for a wonderful panorama.

 Temple of Philae at Aswan

 Temple inside Philae

Nile village at sunset

Nile farmer with donkeys

The Nile at sunset

Colossi of Memnon, Luxor

Tomb painting – workers village, Luxor

Painting of mummification
Valley of the Kings, Luxor

Throughout our drive from Cairo to and through the oases and on to Aswan, we were stopped repeatedly at police roadblocks. These are manned (no women) by the tourist police. Some of the roadblocks are literally in the middle of nowhere, many miles from any village or farm, without a blade of green grass visible anywhere. There will be a small one or two-room concrete building where the 5 or 6 policemen sleep and eat on the floor and spend lonely days stopping the occasional car crossing that huge wilderness. We gave a ride to one policeman who was headed home to Aswan for a week off, a five hour journey from his roadblock assignment, where he will be living for a year.

As we got closer to Aswan, we planned to take the Desert Road, a paved shortcut that avoids the crowded city of Luxor and the endless villages between Luxor and Aswan. That would have required two hours of driving. But, the police refused to let us take that road, citing “security." So, our drive was four hours, right along the Nile, with thousands of donkeys and carts and pedestrians and motorbikes occupying the road. Only later did we discover that there were the first signs of protest in Cairo that day.

We boarded the Oberoi Philae cruise ship in Aswan for our four nights on the Nile. While the cabins are small, they are very pleasant, with small balconies overlooking the river, and typically superb Oberoi service on board. Our first visit was to the Temple of Philae, a previously submerged temple that was moved to a rocky island in the middle of the original lake above the “old” Aswan dam. Like all the ancient temples, it was originally completely painted in vivid colors. Today, some of the painting, surprisingly, remains and the huge, richly-carved walls and columns are stunning to see.

The Aswan High Dam, built by the late President Gamal Abdul Nasser, with the help of Russian aid, is above the much older, Low Dam (still in place). While the dam provides Egypt with significant electrical power and has eliminated devastating floods, it also traps the silt that used to pour over the fields adjacent to the river, enriching their soil. Some of that silt is now dredged from Lake Nasser and trucked to farms along the river. Historically the silt was a key to agricultural productivity and farmers counted on the flood each year to enrich the soil. This became a key to taxation of the farmers. Each village had a large well to measure the flood level of the Nile. Taxes were then assessed based on the height of the flood.

The Nile cruise is a staple of Egyptian tourism. The trip down the Nile itself is short, but the stops are spectacular. The temple of Edfu is an astonishing structure, with enormous sandstone walls and columns, all intricately carved. Edfu, like many of the huge temples, was filled by blowing sand over centuries of abandonment. The ceiling, probably 100 feet up, is still black from the fires of people, some Christians escaping Roman purges, who lived inside the temples, on top of the sand. Also like most of the Nile temples, this is a Roman/Greek structure, dedicated to Egyptian gods and commissioned by a long line of pharaohs.

At night, the ship docks at one of the towns along the river, allowing passengers to stroll through the streets. They are, of course, lined with tourist shops, open as late as tourists are willing to buy. The cafes are filled with men drinking tea and watching TV. Flowers and trash abound everywhere, adding color and clutter to the busy streets. These are poor villages, supported by tourism and farming and desperately subject to the vagaries of the weather and political stability.

Once we docked at Luxor, we spent two nights onboard the ship there. Our schedule was to visit the largest and grandest temple, Karnak, the temple of Luxor, and the Valley of the Kings, site of dozens of underground tombs carved into the rock of the stark valley. Fortunately, we visited the tombs in the morning because, when we left the ship to visit the temples in the afternoon (now Friday, January 28), the tourist police turned us back, saying it was not safe to leave the ship. Luxor, far up the Nile from Cairo, was engulfed in its first day of political protests.

The tombs in the Valley of the Kings are indescribable. Long hallways, linked by stairs also carved into the stone, are completely painted with incredible scenes of daily life, activities of the gods, mummifications, and hieroglyphics. The colors, now thousands of years old, are gorgeous. These tombs, one of which was Tutankhamun’s, once contained thousands of jewels, gold relics, and accoutrements a pharaoh would need during his trip to the afterlife. Grave robbers outwitted the designers of the tombs, who thought they’d hidden them well, and stole the treasures over a thousand years ago.

After our visit to the tombs of the pharaohs, we visited the excavated city where all the tomb workers lived. They, too, had underground tombs for themselves, with more mundane, but equally fascinating and magnificent paintings of their lives and deaths. Once a tomb worker had worked on building a pharaoh’s tomb, he and his family could not leave the city.

During our days on the River, Cairo had exploded. The government had shut down the Internet and all phone communications. They attempted to black out satellite TV channels and were moderately successful in that, so we had only sporadic coverage of what was going on. We quickly decided that it would be smart to drop our last two days in Cairo and leave Egypt from Luxor. We had already figured out how to do that when we first heard about the protests in Cairo, before the Internet went down. Fortunately, our American cell phones still had service, so we were able to call my son to book our flights from Luxor to Kuwait. From there, we took a United flight home. That was Saturday morning. People we had met on the boat who flew to Cairo on Saturday were not able to get out for five more days, spending their first night at the Cairo airport before moving to a nearby hotel.

Throughout our travels in Egypt, we talked to our guides, bus drivers, waiters, shopkeepers, and others about their lives. Because virtually all these people depend on the tourist industry for their livelihood, all were greatly worried by the impending political chaos. They must have stability for tourists to come and for them to survive. At the same time, they spoke of the extreme poverty of most Egyptians and of the corruption of government officials and the brutality of the police.

We believe that Egypt will be stable again over the next year or so. While this is not the time to visit Egypt, that time will come again, and we will schedule a trip there when it does. This is a fascinating and wonderful country, so rich in history, tradition, and culture. We look forward to a better future for all Egyptians and to being able to enjoy their beautiful country again soon.

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