I am standing in a tomb at Saqqara, the site of King Djoser’s famous Step Pyramid, the first ever built in Egypt. Deep underground, the air is thin and the walls are inscribed with hieroglyphics more than 4600 years old. I run my hands over the walls and try to imagine the man who stood here and carved this very stone more than four millennia ago. My eyes start to sting. The local guide who escorted me here, scuttling down makeshift stairs into the tomb with practised ease, seems touched by my tears. He beams and starts humming, deep notes that echo off the ancient walls. In this magical moment, I feel like I have stepped back in time to 2648 BCE. It is positively transcendent.
And then he asks me for money.
Friends, welcome to Egypt.
The sun is everywhere here. It beats down on my back as I wander through the old city of Cairo. It reflects off the Nile. It’s ever-present in the stories of the kings and queens of ancient Egypt who believed fervently in the power of Ra, the sun god who ruled earth, sea and sky.
Egypt has held an almost magnetic attraction for me for as long as I can remember but when I announced that I was going, people seemed concerned. “Is it safe?” they asked. But what is safe anymore? A street in Paris? London Bridge? The truth is, after my first day here I feel completely at ease; comfortable enough to walk to and from restaurants alone at night and reassured by the warm and quick smiles of the locals. “The people are very white-hearted,” says Egyptologist Wael Ali El-Sweify, my private guide in Cairo. “You won’t have any problems here.”
I’ve chosen to travel on a luxury Abercrombie & Kent tour (a comfort in itself) and I have three days in Cairo, exploring the city with Wael and our driver, Zizu, before flying to Luxor to join a group cruising down the Nile.
Cairo is a revelation. A city of more than 20 million people, it’s full of old, decaying buildings that are a thousand shades of beige. It’s also a seemingly harmonious mix of cultures and religions (it’s not uncommon to see a mosque next to a Coptic Christian church). I spot a young girl in a hijab wearing a T-shirt that says, “Girl, You Are The Boss.”
And the food! Street stalls sell falafel – made with gorgeous green fava beans instead of chickpeas – that are fried and stuffed in aish baladi (the local flatbread). Atmospheric restaurants, where locals puff away on the shisha pipe, serve the smokiest baba ganoush.
It’s a city that never stops. “As we say in Cairo,” says Wael, “every hour is rush hour.” Crossing the road – where cars erratically take over every lane – is a feat only for the brave but I put my hand in the air, make eye contact with the drivers and step out.
Even at midnight on a Sunday the streets are pulsing with honking horns and people sitting outside, drinking the ridiculously strong coffee and smoking. But I’m not here for the night-life. I’m here for the pyramids.
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Before we visit Saqqara and Giza, the sites of the oldest pyramids in Egypt, Wael suggests I brush up on my history, which is why I’m standing outside the Egyptian Museum on a blistering-hot morning. “As soon as the museum opens, we are going straight to see Tutankhamun,” says Wael. “If we are lucky, you will be alone with him.”
By “him”, Wael means Tutankhamun’s funeral mask and his sarcophagus, both of which are made of solid gold. The boy king, who ruled for nine years and died at the age of 18, wasn’t one of the most famous pharaohs of Egypt until his tomb was excavated in 1922 by British archeologist Howard Carter. The only intact royal tomb to ever be uncovered, it was a treasure trove – “everywhere the glint of gold”, said Carter – of gilded statues and shrines, amulets, bracelets, collars and daggers. The discovery turned the obscure pharaoh into the legend that is King Tut.
Thanks to Wael’s strategy, I have half an hour alone with Tutankhamun’s mask and sarcophagus. It’s incredibly moving to ponder his life and death – and behold the 11-kilogram gold and lapis lazuli mask (still remarkably vivid) that was placed over his tender head more than 3000 years ago.
It could be longer. Experts are starting to believe Egyptian civilisation may have begun closer to 5000 BCE, which would make everything in the Egyptian Museum 2000 years older than previously thought.
The museum itself, a rose-pink thing of beauty that was built in 1901, is dusty and haphazard. Some items have explanations but many don’t. I see tourists touching the statues, even leaning on them. Are exhibits arranged in chronological order? Not as far as I can tell. But it has a heady charm and its chaotic nature feels in keeping with the streets outside. And the treasures it holds within its crumbling walls – they will all be moved to the US$1 billion Grand Egyptian Museum that’s due to be unveiled in Giza in the second half of next year – are peerless.
There’s Tutankhamun’s haul, of course, but another highlight is the royal mummy room, which allows visitors to get close to kings and queens, such as Ramses the Great and the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, and see their blackened mummies and marvel at the hair still on their heads.
The one king whose mummy has never been found is Khufu (also known as Cheops), who ruled as the second king of the fourth dynasty. The whereabouts of his tomb remains a mystery but the pyramid that commemorates his life is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing today. Of all 114 pyramids in Egypt, it’s considered the best example of the craft thanks to its angle (51.84 degrees). It took thousands of workers 21 years to build, using some 2.3 million stone blocks.
There are two surprises when I arrive to see the Great Pyramid of Giza. The first is that I had always imagined the pyramids to be in the middle of the desert but Giza – about 16 kilometres from central Cairo – has developed so much that the city is almost on top of the pyramids. The second surprise? The site is huge but the experience still manages to feel intimate.
So much elicits awe: one of the world’s oldest intact ships, a 43.6-metre-long vessel that was built for King Khufu to transport him to the afterlife; another tomb belonging to one of the queens; the Sphinx, of course, imposing and majestic. Egypt has a way of making you feel small, insignificant even.
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After three days with Wael, I’m becoming familiar with some of the pharaohs and their stories. So when I fly into Egypt’s former capitol, Luxor, 650 kilometres south of Cairo, I’m impatient to see the mark they’ve left in the form of the temples they built. And the best way – certainly the most magical – to get from site to site is by boat.
A couple of hundred vessels cruise the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, ferrying tourists to iconic locations such as the Valley of the Kings, where Tutankhamun’s mummy lies in its original tomb, and temples including Karnak (the world’s largest religious site built over 1700 years) and Kom Ombo, which was dedicated to two gods – Sobek the crocodile god and falcon-headed Horus.
My home for the next four nights is the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV, a stately ship with 40 cabins and suites, a lounge, restaurant and – mercifully in the middle of the 42°C days – plunge pool.
Life on the Nile quickly falls into a rhythm. We break into small groups and spend the morning and late afternoon visiting temples with our guide, Rania Ali, who shows us how the Egyptians built the staggeringly high walls using mounds of mud to push the stone blocks up.
I stand on the original granite floors at Luxor Temple and see a carving of King Amenhotep III on a chariot, crushing his enemies. I visit the biggest open-air museum in the world at Karnak – until 1960 it was used as a soccer field by the local children, who’d pick up amulets and scarabs to sell to tourists. I squeeze a doum, the misshapen brown fruit that is still around today but has also been found mummified in tombs. I gaze at medical scenes etched on walls that helped historians understand how ancient Egyptians performed surgery.
You’d think so many facts would be overwhelming. They aren’t. It’s a living history lesson on the banks of the Nile.
Even Egypt’s lifeline is more beautiful than I had imagined – the riverbank lush and green, the palms heavy with fat golden dates. The colour of the sky is something else, too. On my last day on the boat, I sit on the rooftop and soak it all in. It’s the palest blue, barely tinted, like the sun has bleached it of all colour.
After eight days absorbed in this marvellous, mystical, magical landscape, I completely get it.