Farewell to Egypt and The World’s Oldest Monument

For my last day in Egypt I had arranged to visit the “other” pyramids at Dashur and Saqqara, close to, but further away than, the better-known Giza pyramids. I didn’t want to book a guided tour and instead went with an Uber taxi driver I had met two days earlier. He was almost unique in that his car had rear seat belts, he spoke some English and (especially rare) he drove carefully.

I had a clever plan for the day – I needed to check out of my houseboat, so planned to take my luggage with me in the taxi and then go straight from the pyramids to the airport. This would save time and solve the problem of where to keep my bags. My clever plan began to seem a bit shaky when my taxi driver texted me that he could not find the houseboat. It took several explanatory messages, and finally sending him my location on Whatsapp, to bring him to the right place.

After this hiccup, we made it to Dashur without incident. The whole plain south of Cairo, from Giza to Dashur, is dotted with ancient pyramids in various degrees of preservation – this area was close to the capital of ancient Old Kingdom of Egypt, Memphis. First I visited the Red Pyramid, Egypt’s first successful attempt to build a large smooth-sided pyramid. It was built from 2575 to 2551 BC and is the third largest pyramid in Egypt (after Khufu and Khafre in Giza). 

The Red Pyramid with the Bent Pyramid in the background

A long and steep passage led down into the heart of the structure and the pharaohs burial chamber – not a place for the claustrophobic!

The steep descent into the Red Pyramid

It was an elegant structure, but I think I preferred the nearby “Bent Pyramid”. This was constructed slightly earlier. Initially, it was constructed with a steep angled slope, but when it was half finished, it became clear that it was not stable. The builders changed plans and began to build with a more stable, shallower slope – giving the pyramid its unusual shape.

The quirky Bent Pyramid

From  Dashur we headed back towards Cairo to visit Saqqara, the place where pyramid building started. It is home to the step pyramid of Zoser, whose building was started in 2650 BCE. The construction was a radical step-up in complexity from the simple graves of earlier pharaohs – tombs dug into the ground, topped by a small mud-bricked structure. It was reputedly designed by the brilliant architect Imhoptep and is the world’s oldest ever large stone monument. Imhoptep is a shadowy figure. He was little mentioned in texts around the time of his life, but his popularity grew in the 3000 years following his death, until he became one of very few non-pharaohs to be deified. In contemporary culture, he survives as the main antagonist in the “Mummy” films. If indeed he did design this pyramid, he succeeded brilliantly, and his work survives today, over 4,500 years later.

The Step Pyramid of Zoser
Inside the Step Pyramid

Although smaller than the pyramids at Giza, I found Saqqara more impressive, since it marked such a dramatic change from anything humanity had attempted before. The site was also much more pleasant to visit – only a handful of people hassled me for a camel ride. Climbing the embankment that surrounded the pyramid I was treated to a magical moment. In the distance I could see the pyramids of Abu Sir, and beyond them the great pyramids of Giza. Other than them, the land was a totally empty expanse of sand, which the wind blew up into small clouds. Suddenly the call for prayers started and wind carried the sound from the hundreds of distant mosques in Giza and Cairo to me, as I stood beside one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

The view from Saqqara to the pyramids of Abu Sir, with the giant pyramids of Giza in the distance.

From the main attraction of Zoser’s pyramid, I explored further  and found the Serapeum, a temple dedicated to the god Serapis, who was associated with the sacred bull Apis. The main site visible today is an underground complex, built by Ramses II, containing dozens of huge black granite sarcophagi – the tombs of sacred “Apis” bulls.

Finally I sought out the tomb of Ti, the overseer of the Abu Sir pyramids and sun temples under several kings in the 5th dynasty. His tomb probably dates from around 2450BC, and had astonishingly fine artwork, chronicling daily life in this period.

The tomb of Ti was the very last thing I visited on my tour around Egypt. From there, my driver took me straight to the airport in time for the long flight home (my clever plan had worked!). It was a fitting end to a trip that saw me visit some of ancient civilisation’s greatest achievements – as well as enjoy the river Nile, the Red Sea, and the frenetic metropolis of Cairo.

Farwell, Egypt. Detail from the Tomb of Seti I, my personal highlight of the trip

I will leave the very last word to Ti. The heart of his tomb contains a “serdab”, or small room containing his statue, with two small holes for him to look out at the world. Ti has been staring out from his resting place for nearly 4,500 years – who knows how much longer he will keep his vigil?

Ti stares out for eternity

The overpowering maze of Islamic Cairo

The next day I set off to explore “Islamic Cairo”, and area of maze-like twisting streets and dozens of ancient monuments – mostly mosques and madrassas (Islamic schools).

Entering “Islamic” Cairo

I started my walk on the main street, Al Muizz Li Din Allah, which is lined with pretty minarets. Occasionally I ducked into side streets to find them teaming with local life – tiny cafes and restaurants, bakeries, grocers.

A typical scene in one of the side streets

There are hundreds of historic buildings in the area, so I had to be selective as to which ones to visit. First I chose the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Qalaun, dating from 1279.

Inside the Madrassa of Qalaun

I continued south, through the gold and silver market. I had chosen a Friday to visit (the first day of the Arab weekend), so this shopping area was slightly less busy than usual- which was just as well, since I still found the area very busy.

Gold- and Silver-smiths Market

To recharge my batteries, I found a rooftop café with a great view of the minarets of the area.

Space to breathe!

Partially refreshed, I continued further south to Bab Zuweila, one of the ancient gates of the city and dating from the 11th century.

Bab Zuweila from the bottom…

I climbed all the up to the top of one of the minarets, for a spectacular view of the chaotic sprawl below. It was prayer time in the mosques and the different imams’ sermons were relayed to worshipers in the street by deafening loud speakers. The jumble of sound added to the visual sense of disorder and chaos.

…and from the top

I continued south, next through another market.

More markets….

The streets became increasingly narrow and anarchic. I was continually dodging other pedestrians, cyclists and small vans. As before, there were many interesting historic buildings to admire, but the effort of moving forward, combined with the continual noise and the strange smells made my progress increasingly stressful. I was relieved when my narrow road arrived at a big open area, where I got a view of the Citadel, a walled city within Cairo. In front of the citadel was the huge Mosque of Sultan Hassan, built from 1356 to 1563. After my claustrophobic and slow passage through the old town, it was a relief to sit in the huge, quiet courtyard located in the centre of the mosque.

Cairo’s citadel
A moment of peace inside the Sultan Hassan mosque

I could have continued my walk on into the Citadel, and have visited yet more mosques, but I was tired. I headed back to my houseboat to recharge my batteries after an exhausting day. My guidebook advised to visit Islamic Cairo in several small chunks – they were right, but I did not have enough time to allow this.

In the evening, I had a pleasant problem. I was due to leave the next day, but had changed too much money into Egyptian pounds. It was hard to change money back into dollars, so I needed to spend what I left. For my last night I found the most expensive restaurant serving Egyptian food – and booked a table. The food was very good, but the live entertainment – which I had not been expecting – was even better.  First there were two very good Egyptian singers, a man followed by a woman. Then there was a traditional Egyptian band with dancers.

Traditional Egyptian music and dancing

Finally there was a belly dancer. This form of dance was invented in Cairo, and is still popular here. The performer didn’t seem to dance much with her belly, instead she shook various other parts of her body vigorously. It was a complete contrast to the heavily covered women I had seen in Islamic Cairo.

The performance attracted a crowd of mostly local people, who seemed to be enjoying themselves enormously. It was interesting to see how much fun people could have without needing to drink alcohol. I stayed until nearly midnight (the manager proudly told me that they were open until 1.30am) and slept soundly back in my houseboat.

Cairo – the city that never sleeps

From El Gouna I started the long way home by taking the 7-hr bus ride back to Cairo. When I arrived, I lost the data connection on my mobile and had a frustrating time trying and failing to order an Uber whilst surrounded by persistent taxi drivers. I didn’t want to take a taxi off the street since my accommodation was located in a very unusual, hard to explain, place – but one that was listed on Uber.  After restarting my phone a few times, I finally managed to get a connection and soon arrived at……..a houseboat on the River Nile, which was to be my base for the next few days.

My home in Cairo

Equipped with a new sim card that I had bought the previous evening, the next day I set off to explore Cairo. Mostly I used Uber to get around, which removed all the hassle of negotiating a price and explaining where I wanted to go – most taxi drivers didn’t speak English. Uber’s “Comfort” category even offered the possibility (but not guarantee) of a seat belt in the rear seats. My first destination was Cairo Tower, an attraction popular with locals which offered views over the city – including, once the morning haze had cleared, the pyramids at Giza.

The view from Cairo Tower
Another view, with the Giza pyramids in the distance

From there I visited the Manial Palace, built between 1899 and 1929 by Prince Mohammed Ali Tewfik, a member of the Egyptian royal family in the period when Egypt was an monarchy under British “protectorate”.  His palace comprised several different buildings in large, pretty gardens – the prince was a keen collector of rare plants.

The Gardens of the Manial Palace

Most interested was the Residential Palace in which the prince lived, which was richly decorated in a variety of styles – Ottaman, Moorish, Persian and even European.   

The entrance to the Residential Palace at Manial
A reception room

Also interesting was the Throne Palace, which was built to impress.

The Throne Palace at Manial

Manial Palace was spectacular but for some strange reason, the gardens and many of the most interesting rooms were roped off, meaning you could only look at them from a distance.

It was approaching noon, and one of the guardians insisted I share his lunch with him – falafel and eggplant in a piece of bread. Such small acts of kindness are common in Egypt; the previous night someone had spent twenty minutes helping me buy a new sim card. Unfortunately, many offers of help later turn into a request for baksheesh or pressure to buy something, but I was getting better at guessing which proposals were genuine and could be accepted without later being hassled.

Next, I headed off to visit the nearby Monastirli Palace to find that it had been long since closed. However, there was a curious attraction nearby – a nilometer for measuring the depth of the Nile. There were many such instruments along the Nile in Egypt (see my Aswan post); this was built in 861 AD.

The Nilometer

From there I headed back to my houseboat to enjoy some of the afternoon sun. Having such a relaxing place to retire to for a break was a real pleasure. Cairo is a bit like an Arab New York – sprawling, full of interesting places to visit, but also busy, dirty and crowded. Visiting takes a lot out of you.

Recharging my batteries on my houseboat in the early afternoon

Having recharged my batteries, I made a second visit to the chaotic collections of the Egyptian museum, one of the highlights of my first two days in Egypt.

More treasures of the Egyptian Museum
Yet more priceless relics….but no explanation or labelling anywhere

It was late afternoon, and my guidebook recommended a walk around the Garden City, an area of pretty but crumbling mansions from Egypt’s colonial period.  Sure enough, it was a very pleasant part of the city, and I took lots of photos.

A mansion in the Garden City
Old wooden building in the Garden City

I discovered that walking in Cairo requires bravery. There are few pedestrian crossings or underpasses, and to cross the street you need to stride forward confidently into the dense traffic, holding out your arm to the oncoming traffic (pleading? praying?). Since I am small and easily overlooked, I didn’t dare try this on my own, but waited until someone local ventured forth. I would then cross with them, making sure that they were between me and the onrushing cars.

I survived my walk, and after another couple of hours chilling in my houseboat, headed out for dinner in the upmarket area of Zamalek. Cairo was an exciting city, but the continual bustle and noise makes it a tiring place. Back in my comfortable houseboat, I settled down to sleep, using a pair of earplugs to keep out the sounds of traffic (all night), partygoers in passing cruise boats (until 2am) the mosque’s call to prayers (5am), and the shouting of rowing coaches to early morning rowers on the Nile (from 7am). Cairo is a 24-hour city.

Time Out – Chilling on the Red Sea

Today I left Luxor to head to the Red Sea. On the way, I made a brief stop to see the Temple of Hathor (goddess of love) at Dendara. It is relatively recent by Egyptian standards, with its main structures being built under the Ptolemeic pharaohs just before Roman rule. The art work on the columns and ceiling was amongst the most beautiful I had seen in Egypt.

Richly decorated columns and ceiling
A dark, atmospheric main hall

It is one of the best preserved ancient temples, and still has its roof – which you can walk up on to.

Amazing detail on the ceiling
Me on the roof

An hour after Dendara, the road reached the coast and then headed north. To my left, was desolate, empty desert. To my right, all along the sea, there was mile after mile of ugly concrete sprawl around the main city called Hurghada. Many buildings had been abandoned unfinished – perhaps the Egyptians like ruins so much that they skip the “completed” stage of a building project and go straight to “ruined”. But when I reached my destination of El Gouna, things completely changed – the town was surrounded by lush green vegetation, which contrasted with the barren sand all around. There was a security check to enter town, and the buildings suddenly became modern and well-maintained.

After ten days of intensive visiting of ancient ruins, I had booked a couple of days here to unwind by the sea. On my first day, I wandered around the town. It was built around a lagoon, with many gated communities and some impressive private houses – again, with their own security. It felt more like the US than Egypt.

An impressive private house on its own island
The sea behind me, mountains in the far distance

When I reached the beach, I found that El Gouna was popular with kite-surfers. The wind was strong, and good kite-surfers had fun making extravagant jumps, whilst beginners struggled to stay upright. The location was beautiful, with the mountains of the Sinai peninsula in the background across the sea. I have always wanted to try kite-surfing, but with a wind like this a little fluffy bear like me would have been blown all the way to Sinai.

My own sport is diving, and I did a couple of dives the next day, the highlight of which was seeing a worryingly large (remember I am small!) camouflaged octopus. After diving there was not a lot to do except laze by the pool – the weather was just warm enough for this, with the late February sun.

My hotel
Chilling by the pool

It was nice to recharge for a couple of days after seeing so many ruins. My next stop was Cairo, which would require all of my energy…

Luxor’s West Bank Day 2 and the Valley of the Kings

I started today with a visit to the Temple of Hatshepsut, the impressive building I had seen from a distance the day before. Viewed from afar, it is indeed an amazing sight, sitting at the base of sheer cliff in its own valley.

Temple of Hatshepsut – best enjoyed at a distance

Closer up though, the temple was less interesting than many others I had visited before. To make things worse, it was hugely popular with tour groups. Hatshepsut was a rare female pharaoh, whose reign was marked by prosperity and many building projects. She was initially supposed to be only a temporary regent for the infant Thutmose III, but refused to hand over power to him and reigned until her death. As an act of revenge Thutmose III had her name removed from every Egyptian monument when he finally became pharaoh.

Close up view of the temple and surrounding cliffs

After a quick exploration of the temple itself I set off on a detour to see some nearby tombs. They were only moderately interesting, but the walk provided a spectacular view of the site.

Next I visited the house of  Howard Carter, the British archaeologist famous for his discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

Howard Carter’s modest house

Back then, searching for ancient artifacts was done by various foreign teams, of which Carter’s was one. The many other expeditions have been long forgotten, but Carter was lucky, being the discoverer of a very rare tomb not be completely emptied by grave robbers. The simple house – with its archaeological instruments, letters from Carter’s sponsor the Earl of Carnarvon and some paintings by Carter – was an interesting change to visiting ancient monuments.

Inside Carter’s house

In the garden was a recreation of Tutenkhamun’s tomb with some interesting information. Tutenkhamun died young, and probably unexpectedly, so his burial was rushed and his tomb was small. His famous death mask may even have been modified from an already available mask intended for someone else – a woman, since it has holes for earrings which only women wore. His cause of death is not known, but DNA analysis suggests it might have been malaria. Thieves attempted to rob the tomb at least twice, after which the main passage leading into it was deliberately blocked off with dirt to discourage further attempts. This made the tomb hard to find and its location was forgotten until Carter stumbled on it, thousands of years later.

A replica of Tutenkhamun’s tomb

Having seen a replica, I set off to see one of the highlights of any visit to Egypt – the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. My driver told me that the day before it has been packed with visitors, so I crossed my fingers. I had aimed to start my visit at 1pm – the usual lunch hour for tour groups. As we rounded the final bend into the valley, the visitors’ car park was only partly full – I was lucky. At the Valley of the Kings, you buy a ticket to enter the site, and this gives the right to visit any three tombs – excluding the tombs of Ramses VI/VII, Seti I and Tutenkhamun which require special additional tickets.

The Valley of the Kings

As you visit each tomb, the guardian punches a hole in your ticket, and after three holes, your ticket is no longer valid. I had some more luck, since at the first two tombs I mistakenly gave the guardian my ticket for Carter’s house, which looks identical. The first two guardians didn’t notice the mistake, so I got two extra visits. The kings’ tombs were much bigger and more richly decorated than the tombs of the nobles or the queens. Most had a very long shaft leading deep into the ground, ending with a series of rooms where once would have been the pharaoh’s sarcophagus.

The walls were decorated with scenes from sacred texts, like the Book of the Dead, pictures of the pharaoh’s soul reaching the afterlife and of the gods welcoming the pharaoh. Work started on a tomb during the intended occupant’s lifetime, but stopped as soon as he died. This had two curious results. Firstly, many tombs had unfinished portions, cut out from the rock but not yet decorated, and secondly the pharaohs that reigned the longest had the biggest tombs. For this reason Tutenkhamun had one of the smallest and most unremarkable tombs of all.

Siptah’s unfinished tomb

First, I visited various tombs included with the general entry ticket. I chose at random; some were almost empty of tourists, whilst others were very busy.

I had the Tomb of Ramses VII to myself
The (too) popular tomb of Merenptah

As I headed further into the valley, the number of visitors to each tomb dropped, as people used up their free visits.

I wanted to save the best to last, so after using my “free” visits, I went back to visit the special tombs for which I had bought additional tickets. First was the dual tomb of Ramses V and VI, which had a spectacular painted ceiling.

The spectacular ceiling of the tomb of Ramses V/VI
The reconstructed sarcophagus of Ramses VI

Finally came the highlight of all of Luxor – the tomb of Seti I, whose special ticket is very expensive. Seti I was one of Egypt’s greatest and longest rulers, so his tomb was huge and richly decorated. After a long walk down, several remarkably decorated rooms opened up, their walls painted with scenes of Seti’s journey to the afterlife and of him being greeted by different gods.

The long way down to Seti I’s tomb
Beautifully painted columns
More remarkable painting – 3,400 years old
Inside Seti I’s tomb

The place where Seti’s sarcophagus would have been was empty – it was taken off to the British Museum long ago.

Where Seti I’s sarcophagus would have been

I stayed nearly half an hour in Seti’s tomb, soaking in the atmosphere. Apart from the tomb’s guardian, I had the place to myself – other visitors being put off by the high price of entry. It was a fitting end to one of the greatest tourist destinations of the world, the Valley of the Kings.

The god Amun-Ra greets Seti I in the afterlife

Back at the hotel, I suddenly wondered where the tomb of Ramses II was. He was the longest reigning pharaoh, and also an egomaniac who liked building huge monuments to himself. I did some research and found out that his tomb was indeed the biggest of all. However, he chose a poor site for it, and it was frequently flooded. Its decorations have long since been destroyed by the water and its contents plundered by thieves. As I enjoyed another fish tagine with beer and a view of the Nile, I reflected on the impermanence of the existence of even the greatest humans (or bears).

Luxor’s West Bank – tombs galore

I had decided to spread my visit of Luxor’s west bank – site of countless ancient tombs – over two days. It was a wise decision.  My hotel provided me with a car and driver and I set off.  The entry to the west bank is guarded by two giant statues of Amenhotep III, which were rather worse for wear and now resembled modern art sculptures. 

Ancient art begins to look like modern art…

Behind these statues a large area was being excavated, which my driver said was the site of a huge, now totally ruined, temple – possibly even bigger than Karnak.

We headed first to the ticket office. The west bank can be frustrating to visit – tickets to many sites are only sold at the central office, so you need to plan in advance exactly what you want to visit, if you want to avoid having to come back to buy more.

Tickets in hand, I went first to the temple of Medinat Habu, dedicated to the local god Amun and built by Ramses III around 1150BC. Though it is not one of Luxor’s most famous places, I enjoyed its graceful structure, setting amongst hills, and well-preserved painting and stone relief carvings. A particularly striking set of reliefs showed Ramses III slaughtering Libyan invaders, with many scribes counting the thousands of prisoners. Some of the latter were shown later with their heads cut off – no Geneva convention in those days!

The entrance gate (“pylon”) to Medinat Habu
Ramses III slaughters many Libyans as his scribes count the bodies and prisoners
Inside Medinat Habu

My next stop was Deir al Medina, where many of the painters and sculptors who made the rich peoples’ tombs lived and were buried.  There are hundreds of tombs here, and the hillside sometimes looks like Swiss cheese, but only a few of them were open. The few I managed to visit were all similar – small, with wall paintings of the owner’s body being prepared for the afterlife by mummification. The painting seemed like a recent restoration, rather than the original paint, but there was little explanation available anywhere. The tomb particularly recommended by my guidebook needed an extra ticket….which of course I had forgot to buy at the central ticket office.

A restored tomb of one of the painters who worked on richer people’s tombs

From there I headed on to the Valley of Queens, who were buried in a separate area to the male pharaohs. These tombs were more elaborate than those of the workers but still fairly small and modest compared to what I would later see elsewhere. The most famous tomb is that of Ramses II’s favourite queen Nefertari, which is small but extremely richly decorated. However, to preserve the paintwork, visits of this tomb are limited to a maximum of ten minutes and required a separate and very expensive ticket. I decided to pass, and thought I had made the right decision when I saw a long queue outside. 

The next best tomb to Nefertari’s is that of Amunherkhepshef – actually not a queen, but a prince. I had the place almost to myself.

Tomb of Amunherkhepshef, in the Valley of the Queens

My final stop of the day was to visit the Tombs of the Nobles. These were by far the most impressive tombs of the day. They were built deep in the ground and their walls were covered with scenes of their daily life. My favourite was the tomb of Sennofer, the mayor of Thebes in time of Amenhotep II. Its roof was covered with paintings of vines and grapes – Sennofer was presumably a bon vivant.

Tomb of Sennofer, a man who obviously liked wine – area of the Tombs of the Nobles
Some of the tombs are very deep in the ground, down steep stairs

From Sennofer’s tomb I headed across the dusty site to the more remote tombs of Menna (an estate inspector) and Nahkt (an astronomer). These were locked, and I had to wait for the guardian to come and unlock them for me.

The tomb of Menna

The guardian also showed me the tomb of Amenemore, a high priest in the reigns of Ramses III, IV and V. This was not supposed to be open to tourists. It was not the best-preserved tomb I had seen, but its remoteness and the sense of being invited to see something that is normally off-limits made it one of my favourites.

Tomb of Amenemore

I thanked the guardian with some baksheesh, and he invited me to have some tea with him. His little hut was simple but had a great location on top of a small hill, with a view over to the Nile and Luxor in one direction and to the Temple of Hatshepsut in the other. From a distance, the latter looked like an IT-billionaire’s house in California….

The view back to Luxor
The view inland to the Temple of Hatshepsut

I headed back to the hotel to relax and went out to dinner in local restaurant in the village. After days of eating only fish (freshly caught from the Nile) or vegetables I took the risk of eating meat, and was rewarded with an excellent chicken tagine.


Today I crossed the river again to visit the sites on the Luxor’s east bank.  I reached the centre of Luxor, which was much nicer than the part I had visited the day before, with a pretty waterfront opposite the Temple of Luxor.

The view across the Nile from Luxor’s corniche
Luxor Temple from the outside

My first visit was to the Luxor museum – a small but high quality collection of the items found in the area. I particularly liked this statue of the god Sobak with pharaoh Amenhotep III.  There were also two mummified bodies on display; I wondered if the owners would have appreciated being dug up to be inspected by tourists.

The god Sobak, Pharaoh Amenhotep III and me
Mummy of Pharaoh Ahmose

From the museum I walked up along the Nile to Karnak, a place of superlatives. This complex of temples became Egypt’s most important religious site when the kingdom’s capital was moved to Thebes (now called Luxor) and royalty started to be buried in the Valley of Kings on the city’s west bank. Starting around 1950 BC, for nearly 2000 years  successive pharaohs sought to leave their mark for posterity by adding to the previous structures. The most impressive and largest buildings were constructed during the reigns of Seti I and Rameses II, around 1290 BC.  The final complex consisted of a huge central temple to Amun, the local god, and several smaller temples devoted to other gods, and covers a vast area. The central Temple of Amun alone is bigger than St Paul’s Cathedral and St Peter’s Basilica combined.

The entrance to Karnak

Just past the entrance archway – or “pylon” – an incredible sight opened up of the 134 huge decorated columns that make up the Great Hypostyle Hall, part of the central Temple to Amun. Entering this area felt like going into a thick forest, with huge stone pillars instead of trees. I wandered around, straining my neck to look up at the fragments of the ceiling, some of which still carried the original painting from ancient times. I stayed for thirty minutes, soaking  in the sheer vastness of the temple, and feeling smaller and smaller.

The Great Hypostyle Hall
A forest of huge decorated columns
I felt smaller and smaller…

After this amazing sight, I explored the central area further. Then I wandered further south to find a “no entry” sign apparently blocking further progress. A guard gestured to me to come through, and led me to a small Temple of Horus. We were completely alone, and it felt a world away from the crowds in the centre of the complex or the bustling city of Luxor. This temple also gave a good view back over the main complex.

Looking back at the central temples of Karnak

I continued exploring these remote outer parts of the complex. Many areas had “no entry” signs, but friendly guards would usher me through in the expectation of receiving “baksheesh” when I had seen everything. In these little-visited places, I wondered if the guards hadn’t put up the “no entry” signs themselves as a way to augment their salaries. I finally ended up at the remote Temple of Mut (the mother goddess) on the very edge of the site.

Mut and me

Beyond it lay a marsh – a reminder that in ancient times, the temple complex was often flooded by the Nile. After three hours of walking and admiring the vast monuments of the Temple of Amun and the quieter smaller temples in the outskirts, I felt that the marsh made a logical end to my visit of one of antiquity’s most impressive monuments.

The complex of Karnak finally ends

I found the southern gate to the complex where a long, straight ancient road led back to Luxor Temple – the recently-excavated Avenue of the Sphinxes, so called because for the entire 3km of its length the path was flanked by statues of sphinxes, rams or cows on either side. I thought about the countless Egyptian priests that must have used this path for hundreds of years – it was a wonderfully atmospheric way to say goodbye to Karnak.

The Avenue of the Sphinxes
Luxor Temple comes into view

The temple of Luxor was something of a disappointment in comparison to Karnak. It was less impressive than other temples I had seen in Egypt, and was much more crowded than Karnak had been.

The entry to Luxor Temple

The best time to see this temple is at night, when it is illuminated, but I was tired after so much walking and did not want to wait. Instead I strolled down the Corniche along the Nile, admiring the view as the sun set.

Sunset on the Nile

It was very pleasant, and even the continual approaches by taxi drivers, people selling things and caleche owners did not spoil my mood. Some of this hassle was done with a good dose of humour. Some examples:

“Why you walk like an Egyptian?” (taxi and caleche drivers)

“Welcome to Alaska” (salesmen trying to get your attention)

“I will hassle you tomorrow” (taxi driver who had stopped working for the day, said with a big smile)

To round off the day, I popped into Winter Palace, the grandest and most historic hotel in Luxor. It was here that Howard Carter announced the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. It had a wonderful colonial style including a comfortable bar where I had a drink and a snack to celebrate the day’s sightseeing.

A well-deserved drink at the Winter Palace

At the beginning of the day, I was worried about having “ancient ruin fatigue”. But the huge, sprawling Temple of Karnak was a sight that even the most jaded traveller would find awesome.

Aswan to Luxor – yet more temples

The next day, I left Aswan for my next destination, Luxor. On my way I visited two more temples. The first, Kom Ombo, is dedicated to both the crocodile-headed god Sobek and to Horus. Its courts and sanctuaries are all duplicated for its two gods. It was built around 100BC by Ptolemaic pharaohs. Although damaged by earthquakes and by builders seeking materials for other projects, the temple has a great site on a bend in the Nile, and I found its ruins very beautiful.  

Kom Ombo Temple

Near the temple was a museum with mummified crocodiles – sacred crocodiles used to live in a pool on the site.

Mummified Crocodiles!

The second temple on my route to Luxor was Edfu, which was built from 237 to 57BC and is dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus. Like the Great Temple of Ramses, it was forgotten and covered by sand until it was excavated by a French archaeologist in the mid-19th century. It’s long period of burial means that it is very well preserved, and unlike most other ruins, still has an almost intact roof. As a result, the interior of the temple was dark and atmospheric, quite unlike all of the other places I visited in Egypt, which were open to the skies.

Edfu Temple
The atmospheric inside of Edfu Temple

Edfu was a very impressive temple, but I felt I was reaching saturation point for seeing ancient ruins. This was a little worrying, since I was due to spend four days in my next destination, Luxor – home to some of the world’s most famous archaeological sites.

As we approached Luxor my driver scratched his head and looked hard at his sat-nav. We were heading for the west bank of the Nile, not the busy east bank where most of the hotels are. We entered a village-like area with narrow dirt tracks and simple buildings. We had to turn around once, as the route indicated went down a street too narrow for our car, but finally found my hotel – a huge place looking like an Arabian palace, totally unlike the modest houses all around.

My unusual hotel in Luxor

The hotel had been constructed by an Egyptian architect and his English wife. Neither had ever managed a hotel before, never mind built one, and the place had some quirks resulting from their inexperience. However its plus points easily outweighed these disadvantages. It occupied a huge plot, and behind the main building was a long strip of land with a pool and gardens, reaching right up to the River Nile. On both sides were fields with horses and buffalo.

The view across the Nile from the hotel’s garden – in the middle on the opposite bank, you can just see Luxor Temple

I was a bit worried about our remote location, but the hotel owner came to greet me and told me that they operated a free ferry across the Nile to get the city. After enjoying my room for a while, I decided to use this facility to cross the river to check out the centre of Luxor. It was now dark, and on the way to the pier, I got to enjoy another aspect of the hotel’s design. 

My hotel at night

The ferry dropped me off in a particularly drab part of Luxor to the south of the centre, and as I explored on foot, I was continually hassled by taxi drivers and the owners of horse-drawn carriages. I got a bite to eat in a pasta restaurant and headed back to the comfort of my hotel. My lodgings were really nice, but I had not liked my first impression of Luxor, and wondered whether I really wanted to see even more ancient ruins…….no matter how impressive they might be.

A temple like no other

The next couple of days were devoted to temples…and lots of driving. First, I made the long trip south to Abu Simbel, near the border with Sudan to see the Great Temple of Ramses II, one of Egypt’s most famous monuments. Getting their required a three-hour drive. After a couple of hours being driven through featureless, dull desert, the side of the road suddenly became green with crops grown using the water from Lake Nasser – but soon that too became rather boring. Fortunately, the temple was worth the effort of getting there. It was located on a pretty site, next to the bright blue waters of Lake Nasser.

The spectacular site of the Great Temple of Ramses and the Temple of Hathor

The temple has a long and interesting history. It was built in the 13th century BC in the reign of Ramses II and orientated such that the rising sun would shine right through the temple to its inner sanctuary on exactly two days each year – Ramses’ birthday and the anniversary of his coronation.  After the fall of the pharaohs, it was forgotten and was almost completely covered by sand. A Swiss archaeologist stumbled across the top of the head of one of the four giant statues of Ramses that guard the temple’s entrance and started excavating to uncover the Temple of Ramses and the nearby Temple of Hathor. The temple was nearly lost again when the Aswan dam was constructed. Like the Temple of Isis at Philae, it was one of several important archaeological sites that were moved to higher ground by an international group of archaeologists to save them from being submerged. The Great Temple of Ramses II was possibly the most challenging such project. It involved cutting the temple into hundreds of blocks, averaging 20 tonnes each, creating an artificial hill to provide the temple’s backdrop, and rebuilding the temple in the newly created cliff. The engineers also tried to mirror the orientation of the old site as closely as possible but could not get an exact match – the rising sun now illuminates the sanctuary one day later than it did the original temple. I had timed my trip well – my guest house owner had advised to leave early, and many people leave at six in a convoy of vehicles from Aswan with a police escort, a relic from the time that the road was considered a target for terrorists. Instead, I left at a leisurely half past eight and arrived at half past eleven, missing all of the tour groups.

The temple of Hathor with the Great Temple in the backgound

First, I visited the Temple of Hathor, the goddess of love. The entrance had three large statues of Ramses and his favourite queen, Nefertari; unusually she was represented on the same large scale as her husband (usually wives and children were carved much smaller).

The temple of Hathor
Inside the Temple of Hathor

Next, I visited the main attraction, the Great Temple of Ramses II. It is dedicated to the gods Ra, Amun and Ptah………but is mostly a tribute to Ramses II himself. The four huge statues of him at the temple’s entrance are one of Egypt’s most widely recognised sights, and in real life are just as impressive as they are in photos.

The Great Temple – Ramses II’s ego trip

The interior of the temple has scenes from the life of Ramses II. He probably became pharaoh at the age of 21 (though some sources say even earlier) and may have died aged 90 – a reign of around 70 years. Egyptians say he was a “busy” man. He fought many battles – including a key victory over the Hittites that secured the independence of Egypt- constructed cities, temples and monuments and had over 100 children from fourteen wives. His favourite wife was Nefertari, and he built a magnificent tomb for her in the Valley of the Queens in Thebes (now Luxor).

Ramses slaughtering the Hittites

Several passages led into the rock away from the main temple – probably they were storage areas
Yet more Ramses statues inside

The Great Temple is an amazing sight and a monument to the things humans capable of when they work together. Construction of such a large and beautiful temple, 2500 years ago, at the very edge of the area controlled by Ramses’ Egypt was an astonishing achievement. But so too was the international project to save the temple from flooding by moving it piece by piece to a new location. If only today’s humans could rediscover this spirit of cooperation.

A Day on the Nile

Today was a very busy day. I had breakfast on my guest house’s roof terrace just as the sun was rising.

The view at breakfast

Then I crossed over the mainland with the public ferry and made a short drive by taxi to the banks of Lake Nasser (formed by the Aswan Dam) to visit the Temple of Isis at Philae. It was the last day of Egyptian school holidays, and the temple was a popular destination for local tour groups and families with children. At the lake’s edge, many boats jostled to take visitors over to the island where the temple was located. I negotiated a rate for a private boat. The boatman seemed very happy to take an exotic passenger rather than yet another group of locals – not many bears visit Egypt.

Boats jostling to get to Philae Island

The Temple of Isis is relatively modern by Egyptian standards. It was started around 690BC, though most of it was built around the third century BC by the Ptolemaic pharaohs (Egypt’s last dynasty of pharaohs before Roman rule). The Romans added some sections of their own – the Egyptian goddess Isis had become popular throughout their empire. After the Romans adopted Christianity, the temple was used as a Christian shrine, and most of the images of Egyptian gods were defaced. After the first Aswan dam was built in 1902, the temple was regularly flooded. The second Aswan dam in 1970 threatened to totally submerge the temple forever, but it was moved piece by piece to a new island with higher ground as part of the international effort to save the antiquities threatened by the new dam.

The Temple of Isis

I spent an hour and half admiring the different buildings making up the complex – including the courtyard of the main Temple of Isis….

…….its interior…….

……and the kiosk of Trajan, named after the Roman emperor.

The site was busy, and I found I could take some of the best pictures – without anyone getting in the way – from the boat on the way back.

The Temple of Isis seen from Lake Nasser

Next my taxi dropped me off at the Nubian Museum in Aswan. This catalogues the history of the state of Nubia, that spent most of its existence being occupied by, or having to pay tribute to, its more powerful Egyptian neighbour to the south.  The history was interesting, but the items on display suffered from comparison with the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which I had visited only two days earlier.

In the Aswan museum

After visiting the museum, I had lunch and a coffee in a café overlooking the Nile and then I set off on a trip on a “felucca” – a traditional Egyptian sailing boat..

Starting my Felucca trip

The weather was warm and sunny, and my trip offered great views of the mountains on the west bank of the Nile – every hill seemed to have some ancient ruin built on it.

The West Bank of the Nile at Aswan

I asked the boatman to drop me briefly at Aswan’s botanical gardens, located on one of the many islands in this part of the river. In Victorian times, the island was given to the British general Lord Kitchener, who was passionate about exotic plants and turned the area into gardens. The story about their foundation was more interesting than the gardens themselves, and I was soon back on my boat enjoying the early evening sun.

Kitchener’s Island, home to the Botanic Gardens
The Mausoleum of the late Aga Khan – head of the Ismaili Muslims

The boat dropped me off back at my guest house on Elephantine Island and I set off immediately to the northern tip of the island to enjoy the sunset from the ruins of Abu. This area contained ruins of many different ages – some as old as 3000BC and some as recent as the 14th century AD – all jumbled together and most in an extreme state of dilapidation. One of the most interesting ruins was a “nilometer” – a set of steps going down to the river, flanked with stones with measuring markings that showed the height of the Nile. This was a very important instrument, because in ancient times, the pharaoh set taxes based on the maximum height of the river during its annual flood. A higher flood meant more water and more rich sediment washed down from central Africa, and so better crops for the kingdom’s farmers.Getting in was a typical Egyptian experience – the security guard said the site was closed for the evening but I could get in if I paid him the normal entrance fee. The ruins were just that – ruins – but the site was a great place from which to enjoy the setting sun.

Sunset at the northern tip of Elephantine Island

The final part of the day was enjoying an early dinner and a fiery red sunset from a restaurant in Aswan city.

A Nile sunset

It had been a very busy day, but I got home early enough to write a bit of my blog and make my first post before collapsing into bed. My guesthouse had basic furnishings, but its internet worked a lot better than that of the modern hotel I stayed at in Cairo.

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