is today a modern vibrant nation that carries the burden of its
5,000-year history graciously
Egypt is one of the most fascinating destinations
on the world tourist map. This extra ordinary country is today the favourite
vacation spot for many, just like it was in the days of the early Greeks
and Romans. The thoroughly cultured Greeks, in particular, were fascinated
by this civilization that predated theirs by at least 2000 years. The
biggest draw continues to be the amazing abundance of historical treasures
- temples, pyramids and museums – contained in this one country.
But the destination offers more than just the wonders of antiquity.
Your visit to Egypt can be rounded off by a cruise down the Nile and
a beach vacation at the top notch Red Sea and Sinai resorts.
The unification of the Kingdoms of Lower and Upper Egypt around BC 3180
marks the point from when Egypt became a significant power. This event
is credited with Menes, who thus became the first Pharaoh. Menes went
on to establish a new capital at Memphis, just to the south of where
Cairo stands today. For the next 3000 years and under 30 dynasties of
the Pharaohs, a dynamic and culturally sophisticated civilization flourished.
It was not, however, smooth sailing for the descendants of Menes and
power was for short periods in the hands of foreigners. Historians who
as usual want to simplify things, have divided up the reign of the Pharaohs
into three periods: the Old Kingdom (2575-2134 BC), Middle Kingdom (2040-1640
BC) and New Kingdom (1550-1070 BC).
It is a curious fact that most monuments of the Pharaohs relate to death.
Though moderns may view this as an unhealthy preoccupation with death,
some scholars see it as an indication of the ancient Egyptians great
love for life and desire for continued existence. The pyramid was the
highest evolution in the practice of preparing elaborate tombs for the
departed. Pyramids were the final resting place, from where the Pharaohs
enjoyed the afterlife. The most famous of these edifices are the Pyramids
of Giza, built in the 4th Dynasty (2575-2465 BC), when the power of
these ancient kings was at its peak.
Religion was another reason for the great monuments of ancient Egypt.
The deities found deserving of worship were truly diverse. And many,
many temples were built in honour of these gods. Temples for the most
esteemed gods were quite elaborate and were administered by high priests.
Auxiliary buildings housed libraries, granaries, and what may today
be considered as research laboratories for astronomers, biologists and
other scientists. Most gods were linked with specific animals and to
whom special powers were attributed. Some gods came and went, but the
sun god was one of the most enduring. It has been suggested that the
design of the pyramids had some association with practices of the sun
cult. The Pharaoh was considered to be a living god.
The Greeks, in the name of Alexander the Great finally brought the Age
of the Pharaohs to an end in 332 BC. He founded that city that bears
his name, Alexandria. The Greeks ushered in a period of comparative
prosperity and stability under descendants of Ptolemy. Ptolemy was the
Macedonian general who was appointed by Alexander as governor. The Pharos
Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and the Great
Library of Alexandria were built in this era.
As the Greeks declined, so did the Romans rise, and they too cast a
covetous eye upon Egypt. The last of the Ptolomies was the notorious
Cleopatra, lover to both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. The Roman Empire
too declined Egypt and was torn apart by foreign armies. The most significant
event at this time was the invasion of the Arabs in 462 AD. Though other
foreigners including Ottoman Turks, French and the British, subsequently
ruled the country, it is the Arabs who brought Islam whose legacy has
been the most enduring.
Egypt is today a modern vibrant nation that carries the burden of its
5,000-year history graciously. Just like in ancient times, the Nile
sustains the country and up to 95% of the population live in close proximity
of the river. The rest of the country is desolate desert, mitigated
only by a few isolated oases and the habitable narrow strips along the
African Red Sea and the Mediterranean coastlines.
According to the tourism ministry, Egypt for the visitor is best seen
as six tourist super-sites. This covers the most popular destinations
and excludes off-the-beaten-track locations. The six super-sites are
anchored on: Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, Aswan, Hurghada on the Red Sea
and Sharm El Sheikh in Sinai. Except for Luxor, none of these destinations
relies entirely on ancient monuments to attract visitors. Egypt
tours and vacations are very competitively priced relative
to other destinations.
Cairo is a huge, sprawling
and chaotic metropolis. It has all the amenities of a modern city and
is the usual gateway for the visitor to Egypt. Cairo is a young city
relative to nearby Heliopolis, Giza and Memphis that are associated
with the Pharaohs. The city began as a Roman trading post called Babylon
- in the area now referred to as Coptic Cairo. The area was a settlement
of one of the world’s first Christian communities. This predominantly
Christian locale houses a museum that is a repository of religious art,
manuscripts, paintings and pottery.
But it is the Arab invaders who arrived in the 7th century who can be
said to have founded the city. They settled just north of the area referred
to as Old Cairo. The medieval district of Islamic Cairo is densely packed
with people and lots of mosques and temples. This is where many still
go during the month of Ramadan to eat and spend the night after a day's
fast. Giza on the Nile's west bank is where you find the Great Pyramids.
These truly magnificent monuments were one of the Seven Wonders of the
Ancient World. You will appreciate the achievement of the builders of
these edifices when you reflect on the fact that until the 19th century
they were the world’s largest buildings.
The visitor to Cairo will easily tuck in trips to see museums, mosques
and monuments such as Pyramids and the Sphinx. To commemorate your visit
to this unforgettable city, visit the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar. The wide
array of souvenirs on sale here includes jewelry, brass, silver and
copperware, carpets, perfumes, alabaster and soapstone carvings. You
will also find reproductions of antiquities, which you are advised to
buy as opposed to anything presented as original. Such 'originals' are
usually counterfeit, and it is in any case illegal to export the real
Alexandria, monument to
Alexander the Great, is located 180 km to the northwest of Cairo. The
city has a Mediterranean temper and compared to the hothouse of Cairo
has a cooler and more pleasant climate. The Greco-Roman Museum is within
central Alexandria and has on display artifacts from the period 300
BC to AD 300. You will see mummies, sarcophaguses, pottery, tapestries
and the granite sculpture of the bull god Apis. Other sights in the
area include the Roman Amphitheater, the Royal Jewelry Museum and the
Roman era catacombs of Kom el-Shukafa.
The Island of Pharos,
near the harbour is the site of the Great Lighthouse, one of the Seven
Wonders of the Ancient World. Today, what remains on the site is a 15th
century fortress. After immersing yourself in antiquity, you can take
a dip at some beach resorts within 20 km to the west of the city. At
the resort of Marsa Matruh, 230 km further on, you will find some excellent
beaches and an opportunity for reef diving. This area right from Alexandria
along the coast is part of Egypt's Med. It is still relatively undeveloped
despite long stretches of white sand beaches and turquoise waters.
If your primary interest is ancient Egypt, bear in mind that about 80%
of Egyptian antiquities are in the vicinity of Luxor. The city sits
on the site of the ancient city of Thebes and together with the surrounding
areas carries magnificent treasures of antiquity such as palaces, temples
and royal tombs. The royals of those times whiled their after-life at
what is referred today as the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens
and Tombs of the Nobles. The tombs contained treasure that has been
plundered over the centuries. Some of the more famous tombs are those
of the boy king Tutankhamen and the queen Nefertari.
On the east bank of the Nile you find the Temple
of Luxor and the Temple
of Karnak, packed with obelisks, wall murals and statues
with heads of gods. If you overnight here, enjoy the evening sound-and-light
show at the Temple of Karnak. Temples on the west bank are Queen Hatshepsut’s
Temple and The Ramesseum, a once massive edifice that is today mostly
a ruin. You need to spend at least two days here for your trip to be
worthwhile. You are also advised to hire a guide who can explain the
historical context of each artifact or monuments. Start out early each
day before the day-trippers, airlifted from Cairo arrive to crowd you
Aswan, a scenic town by the Nile lies 680 km to the south of Cairo,
in the region that was so long ago known as Lower Egypt. Though not
as numerous as elsewhere, you can find temples and tombs at those two
islands in the Nile: Elephantine and Kitcheners
islands. You can get to the islands by sailing in a
felucca. The Nubian Museum celebrates the history and culture of the
Nubian people. Aswan is also important in the history of Coptic Christians
and the ruins of the 7th-century Coptic monastery of St. Simeon laze
in this area. In today’s Egypt, Aswan is important as the location
of the High Dam that finally put an end to the annual bursting of the
banks of the Nile.
The Red Sea is well known
to readers of the Bible as the sea that God parted with his own hand
so that Moses and his people could cross over to Sinai. So named because
of its red tint mountain ranges, it is home to a number of resorts,
the biggest of which is Hurghada. The underwater world of the Red Sea
is alive with over 800 fish species and the deep-sea fishing is excellent.
Snorkellers can explore the coral reef that is reputed to be one of
the finest in the world. Hurghada aside, there are other resorts in
the area that have good beaches, coral reefs and some golfing too. The
modern day traveler escaping the city will empathise with the early
Christian hermits who built their monasteries here as they sought to
get away from it all. Hurghada lies 380 km to the southeast of Cairo.
Sinai is where Africa
meets Asia. Like the Red Sea coast, it has top resorts and is great
for water sports. Sharm El Sheikh, towards the southern tip of the Sinai
Peninsula is the most developed resort town. Here you will find entertainment
in the form of casinos and nightclubs and also some good shopping malls.
The marine life is abundant and the coral reefs are great. Sinai is
also where the three great monotheistic religions meet. You can make
an excursion to Mt. Horeb, said to be Mt. Sinai where Moses received
the Ten Commandments. For Roman Catholics, emulate Pope John Paul II
who visited nearby St. Catherine's Monastery in the year 2000. The monastery
is supposed to sit on the site of Moses' burning bush.
The people of Egypt from antiquity to the present day have always built
their lives around the Nile. It is no coincidence, therefore, that probably
the best way to see the major sites is by taking a Nile Cruise. There
are several luxury cruise ships offering Nile Cruises. The longer cruise
goes all the way from Cairo to Aswan in two weeks. There is however
not much to see between Cairo
and Luxor and you will
get better value if you take the shorter cruise between Luxor and Aswan.
This cruise, which normally takes six days, goes in both directions
and you can embark at either Aswan or Luxor. You can get to Luxor or
Aswan from Cairo by taking a flight or the overnight sleeper train.
The adventurous and thrifty can also sail along the Nile by using traditional
The summer in Egypt, which falls between April and October, is hot and
dry. The winters are mild with cold nights. The best time to visit is
between November and March, outside the intolerable summer season. Light
clothing is generally recommended though you may need a sweater and
jacket for winter evenings. Remember that this is a Muslim country and
dress for women in particular is expected to be modest. All the same,
immodest western style holiday dress is acceptable in nightclubs, beaches
and hotels in Cairo and other locations frequented by tourists.
In the cities and locations popular with tourists, you will find a wide
variety of accommodation ranging from 5-star luxury to budget lodging.
This in particular covers: Cairo, Alexandria and the north coast, Luxor,
Aswan and at the Red Sea and Sinai resorts towns. During the popular
winter season, advance booking is advised. Egypt
hotels and resorts are very good value and you will find
accommodation cheaper here than the equivalent in most other destinations.