First impressions set the tone for meeting a person or a place. Very quickly our minds register a like or dislike, and often we refer back to our initial feeling. I was soo excited for this girls trip to Egypt, but the start to the trip was somewhat unexpected.
My first impression of Cairo started in the airport when we met our transportation guy and navigated out of the airport. It was one of impatience, inefficiency, and annoyance. Primarily from our driver not listening where to meet our other friend and the men continually approaching us for a cab we clearly didn’t need.
Opening my 8th floor window shades the next morning, it was awe of wasted empty buildings and ruins, thousands of satellites, and blah same colored everything with low visible from what I assume is smog from this city of 25 million.
Walking 1 km to breakfast with my girl friend it was concern, feeling like I didn’t belong, and general uncomfortableness from the blatant staring and catcalls.
But, then I started talking to people. Our breakfast server was so kind and tried to help us figure out how to eat the typical Egyptian breakfast we had ordered, and we met our super sweet tour guide Shrouk. After having a mother ask me to take photos with her toddler kids and then asking for a selfie I decided to embrace the mentality that maybe the people aren’t staring to make me feel unwanted and uncomfortable, they may just not see six foot blondes very often. I certainly didn’t see many tourists or other people who looked like me and my friends, at all.
Then the next day I walked around a corner and saw the Great pyramid of Giza. Suddenly the monotone tan color was miraculous and stunning. I can’t imagine what the impression the 3 pyramids must have left when they were covered in sun basked white limestone 4000 years ago.
It was an immediate feeling of giddiness that I noticed all of my friends sharing. I soaked in everything our guide had to say about the only surviving ancient wonder of the world, and want to do my best to explain the impression that they left and some details I learned.
The original temples were built in staircase style, the deeper meaning was that these were the staircases to heaven. Later, the pyramid design was adapted from the idea that the suns beams make a pyramid as they’re seen shining down to earth. The king had his architect build this idea so he could more easily make the journey to meet god Ra, the sun god, and heaven. The first attempt on this new building shape was a failure and was bent.
But they got it right. There are theories about how the great pyramid was built, and they’re still finding rooms with our advancing technology that they still can’t find entrances to. The great pyramid of Giza has 2 million 300 stones. It was built by the farmers during flood season as a national project. The brilliant archetict who erected this 138 meter limestone covered beauty got his credit in the form of a statue I got to see in the Egyptian museum. It was all of 2 inches high, and is the only known form of recognition the man who built something we haven’t completely figured out 4000 years later got.
We soaked it all in, rode camels around, saw the Sphinx, and pretty much thought we had the best day ever and the trip couldn’t possibly top that day.
That evening the adventure began.
I don’t mean touring ancient temples, riding a traditional Egyptian boat, swimming in the Nile, or navigating bazaars. I’m talking about finding wine.
I’m not going to sugar coat it, we are a drinking group, especially on vacation. I was fully aware we wouldn’t have alcohol readily available in Egypt, but it just wasn’t really available at all. So, we decided to go on a wine mission before our 13 hour sleeper train. We got an Uber to one of the very few ‘liquor stores’ in Cairo, which was 3 miles but 20 minutes away at 10pm.
It consisted of a corner you pull up to and tell the guy who runs to your car what you want. We didn’t know that’s how it worked so we got dropped off and asked to enter the large closet size place of business. There we found 3 brands of wine, a few bottles of different alcohol, a fridge of beer, and a fridge of the equivalent to a variety pack of Smirnoff ice. Well, we bought a few bottles for the group & ordered an Uber. Which never showed. Neither did the 2nd one. At this point it’s been like 45 minutes, so we just grabbed a taxi. The taxi who didn’t speak English and apparently couldn’t read a map or know Cairo whatsoever. So I had to turn by turn use my hands to indicate turning left right or continuing as we navigated via my spotty GPS service through heavy traffic the all of 3 miles but 30 minutes to the hotel. It was probably the most frustrating part of the entire trip for me and that was the only booze stop after that experience!
Personally, the wine was primarily for my first sleeper train as I was nervous I wouldn’t sleep on the 13 hr journey and just be miserable. Wine helps with both the sleeping and not being miserable part. Little did I know I would end up with my intoxicated friends hopping car to car to the ‘bar car’ which was of course 9 cars away at the other end of the train because someone told us they had more wine. Which they didn’t. On the way there one friend kept looking into the rooms with their doors open and exclaiming about how they set up their tiny room. Frankly it is amazing how accommodating the tiny space can become. And on the way back another friend proceeded to tell everyone we saw or had their door open good night, sleep tight, sweet dreams, or any other sweet southern nighttime well wish. As if we didn’t create enough attention for ourselves by rolling 5 deep walking through the carts with our glasses in hand.
Then the wine massacre happened. Jessica’s wine accidentally got hit and went in the air, dramatic slow motion style. It ended up all over her, running down my back and backside, all over the hallway wall, and we later discovered it was somehow all over our door. Thankfully the attendants loved us and found us hilarious. He was the one insisting that we take pictures of Jessica and her new wine colored T-shirt, annnnnd he brought us extra chocolate with our dinner.
But then they miraculously turned the couch in our room into 2 beds and I slept like a baby on my first sleeper train!
Aswan was the next stop on our itinerary. We immediately went to the temple of Isis on Philae island and got schooled on Egyptian mythology and the gods and major deities worshiped in ancient Egypt. Im a nerd and wanted to play Isis, the namesake of the temple and the god prayed to for health, happiness, passion, basically all female qualities. She had quite a following and this temple in southern Egypt was one of the longest temples still used to worship any god in all of Egypt.
Perhaps this would be a good time to introduce the key players in Egyptian mythology. The stories are extremely detailed and entertaining (there are so many that have to do with a specific male part), but I’ll try and break it down.
Ra, the sun god is the creator. He sometimes takes on the name Atum, and fathers Shu as life and Tefnut as maat (which means truth, justice, & order). Tefnut gave birth to Geb (earth) and Nut (the sky). They did not want to be parted and therefore couldn’t have children so Shu had to separate his children and lifted up Nut and placed Geb under his feet.
After being separated they gave birth to the gods Osiris, Seth, Isis, and Nephyths. Now for a briefing on the gods you see over and over again…
Osiris- he presides over paradise and the afterlife. He was Isis’s husband (and brother) and the father of Horus. He was locked in a chest alive by his brother Seth, thrown into the Nile, and at some point chopped into pieces. His loving wife Isis and her sister, Nephthys, took the form of birds (Isis is magic) & flew over Egypt looking for him and put his pieces back together to make him whole. Except his man part because it was eaten by fish or something in the Nile. He still managed to get Isis pregnant (again, she’s magic, and revived Osiris’s sexual powers) with Horus who then took the throne after Osiris became the judge of the afterlife.
Seth and Horus were natural enemies. Seth was associated with danger and disorder and Horus was the embodiment of kingship. From birth Horus was hidden from Seth so he could be the next king. Each king of Egypt was referred to as a ‘living Horus’. Seth took Horus’s eye, and Horus cut off Seth’s penis. Yes, lots of manhood problems in Egyptian mythology. Anyhow, they have a big fight or war for Egypt and Horus wins fulfilling his destiny to become king. The eye of Horus design is found everywhere in Egypt, I myself bought a gold charm to wear for protection, health, and prosperity. That, and I like the design.
Isis is my favorite. She was a boss lady and made things happen all while being feminine and passionate (with some magic thrown in the mix too). She’s the most widely worshiped diety and was loved for her maternal tenderness to her husband and son and eventually all humanity. She was ‘cleverer than a million gods’, and a better guardian of Egypt ‘than millions of soldiers’. She was credited for good harvests, and also portrayed as a grieving woman for her husband with sorrows and emotions and unselfish love.
Knowing just these few people and recognizing their hieroglyphs was so helpful in understanding the temples and tombs we later saw. It’s exciting when you can point out one of them in a scene and have a small gist of what was going on. What’s not helpful is how they are all portrayed like 5 different ways.
We also got an insight into the Nubian cultures and way of life during a dinner at a home. The delicious dinner (seriously, all of the food was soo good) ended with some drums and dancing and suddenly 4-5 woman came in and took the dance party to a new level. We later found out it was a ‘bachelorette party’ preparing the bride for her week long festivities, and some 2000 guests as this is the tradition for most Nubian weddings. After the food and the dance party, I asked if anyone needed a date. Obviously.
Abu Simbel is a major player in the Egyptian temple game. Good ol Ramses II was one of the most beloved King’s and was known for all of the buildings that he ordered. My opinion from what he has left us is that he was beloved by himself most of all, and I think I saw his statue throughout Egypt more than all other statues combined. He lived to be in his 90s, so that’s a lot of buildings and statues. Abu Simbel has to be the best tho. It’s built on the Sudan border, like literally across the manmade lake is Sudan. The location was prime to set an example of Egypt’s wealth and power in ancient times to the enemies who live over the border. So Ramses had giant versions of himself carved into a mountain. Four of himself to be exact, and then four more on his wife, Nefertari’s, temple right beside it. She did get 2 statues built in between his, and was the first queen to have her own temple.
Inside are, you guessed it, more statues of Ramses II. BUT, the coolest one is 60m inside straight back from the entrance door. There are 4 statues in a small room, Ramses II and 3 others. Sooo on 2 days of the year light shines directly through and illuminates 3 out of the 4. The other is the god of darkness, therefore he stays in darkness. The dates are Ramses II’s birthday and his coronation date. Pretty cool huh?
Fortunately the temples were saved when Egypt decided to build a dam that would have submerged them in the 60s. They actually cut the temple into 1060 pieces and moved it 800m away onto another mountainside. That’s crazy enough (the temple of Isis was also moved in this way…) but get this… Over 10,000 engineers helped on this project and it was still slightly messed up. Remember those dates that the sun perfectly illuminated the statues in the temple, yea… it’s now off a day on both dates. We couldn’t recreate what was done in 2000 BC…
Also noteworthy from this excursion is how the temple got the name Abu Simbel. In 1813 a discoverer saw the baboons on the very top of the temple on the mountainside. The rest was covered or buried in sand, I don’t know. He had no idea what it was but asked a local boy about it and was led to a path to the entrance. The little boys name was Abu Simbel.
One of my favorite experiences of the entire trip was being on a boat. Not just any boat, but a felucca, a traditional sailboat in Egypt. It’s all open air and the main floor was filled with mattresses stacked side by side and pillows against the windows. It was basically a giant sleepover. AND they stocked the boat with beer and wine that we had ordered. So I got to sunbath on the rooftop of a sailboat drinking a beer while sailing on the Nile River. Then we got to swim in the Nile. I know, I know… but Upper Egypt (it’s actually the south, but is referred to as Upper because of the flow of the Nile) is where the Nile starts and is the freshest, and supposedly there were no crocodiles. Either way, we jumped right in and swam around in the year round freezing water. Family style dinner on the rooftop was finished off with card games and then a bonfire and our crew playing the drums and teaching us dances. Then Monique played drill sergeant, got us in line, and we thought them some dances 😂. A giant sleepover with my girlfriends on the Nile River… it was a dang good day.
Luxor was next. We did some jewelry shopping, and visited my favorite temple, Karnak, and the valley of the Kings.
Karnak was unexpected. I’m not sure how I missed reading about the 200 acre freakin compound that is still the largest religious building ever made. Just the main sanctuary, Hypostyle hall, has 134 columns and there is a sacred lake that has never gone dry. The building on Karnak began in 2000 BC and ended in the 1st century AD. But even then, it’s not exactly finished. The unfinished entry wall is a great insight into how they built these high walls that are still standing. They built mud brick to climb up and deposit the stones to construct the walls.
Some of the hieroglyphs still had color and it gave just a small insight as to what this place must have looked like in all its glory. Every king had to travel to Karnak and pay his respects to god Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, the gods the temple is dedicated to. Most added onto the temple in order to preserve their name in history. In fact, there is a king that isn’t found anywhere else in history except for his name being dedicated to a room in the temple.
We arrived as the sun was setting not knowing how long we would have inside as it was closing soon. Lucky for us, the rules aren’t strictly enforced and closing time was apparently a suggestion. The guards let us roam around well after closing time and we nearly had the temple to ourselves at sunset. It was magical.
Next on the list of must see’s, the Valley of Kings in Luxor. Tomb raiding was prevalent even back then, and the Kings of the New Kingdom (1600-1000 BC) decided to hide their final resting place and all of the treasures that went with them.
The location for the Valley of the Kong’s is quite unassuming as you’re driving away from the Nile. Look at the photo below and you’ll see a peak at the top of the mountain. This was the chosen place because of that point, which could be abstractly viewed as the top of a pyramid. Remember, this shape of a final resting place allows the easy transition to meet the god Ra and afterlife.
So some 62 tombs have been discovered in this valley, and it’s widely agreed that more are still hidden. The tomb raiders found the location unfortunately and ransacked most of the final resting places. Probably the most widely known king these days, King Tut, wasn’t discovered until 1920’s and had remained sealed for more than 3,200 years! Funny enough, King Tut died at 19 years old, barely old enough to establish much of a reign, and wasn’t mentioned in Egyptian history at all. Fast forward a few thousand years and he’s famous!
The displayed tombs rotate as they excavate more, and we visited Ramses III, VI, & IV. The first thing you notice as you enter a carved hole in the mountainside is the color. It’s so vibrant and detailed 3000 years later! The color comes from grinding stones of different hues, combining the powder with egg, and sealing it with wax. Simple recipe with lasting effects.
Since this was one of the last stops, we were able to apply our new knowledge and pick out gods, kings, and characters in hieroglyphs making walking the walls of these tombs that much more interesting. While we are talking about final resting places, the mummification process is a huge part of ancient Egyptian culture. It could take up to 90 days to fully prepare the body for its journey into the afterlife, and depicted on the walls are different stories to help the deceased make the trip. The mummy was left with treasures, mummified pets, even food and drink to be enjoyed in the festivities once the journey had been completed. The main test being when you meet Ra and he must judge if your heart is lighter than a feather, meaning you have lived a good and honest life. You enter into ‘heaven’ and the afterlife if it is. There is sooo much more to the afterlife journey and that, plus the mummification & tomb building processes, could be an entire post in itself.
The last stop on our 10 day tour was Alexandria. I’ve enjoyed reading about Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra so I had high hopes but expected to be disappointed. The city from Cleopatra’s time in 30ish BC is underwater, and the current Alexandria is a busy city of 9 million and doesn’t have the monumental temples and sites of our previously visited cities.
But Alexandria was my favorite. The location on the Mediterranean supplies a nice clean breeze that was certainly lacking in the south and Cairo. The people didn’t haggle us to buy stuff constantly, and it’s the only city I felt 100% comfortable walking around and going for a sunrise jog. Liana and I got up before the chaos of the cars and people moving about to appreciate the beauty of the pearl of the Mediterranean for our one day there.
I sat on the sea wall and looked out over the submerged ancient city and tried to imagine the wide street filled with parades and triumphs, the melting pot of people from all over, and the best minds and resources of the time. It was where the rest of the word turned to for knowledge, fashions, and trade and it was supposedly extravagant in every way. In my mind I placed the palace that Cleopatra had that faced the sea and the famous Alexandrian lighthouse that helped guide ships carrying goods from around the world in. The fortress of a 19th century sultan is in the place of the lighthouse, so there’s a point of reference to start the imagining. Even farther back, Alexander deeming this the perfect trade city to be the center of his conquered world and leaving his general and best friend Ptolemy to build it in his name. The Egyptians loved Alexander and would have mourned his loss and cried in the streets when Ptolemy brought his body to rest in his forever tomb in this city.
For those who want more than an imagined ancient Alexandria, you can dive it. Yesss, you can go diving through the ancient ruins of the city. And yes, I have to come back to do this. We also visited the beautiful 19th century Montaza palace and the gardens before leaving the Mediterranean.
I’m on the bus riding back to Cairo now and flying out tonight. Transit time is typically when I slow my go go go mind down and process places and how I feel. I’m ready to be home but sad to leave. It’s hard to wrap my head around everything that I’ve seen in the past week. Just typing that makes me feel so unbelievably grateful for this trip and this place. I’m thankful for 11 women who wanted to take on a country that plenty of people questioned us for going to. Our guide, Shrouk, was perfect for us. Right now she’s sitting in the window seat in the row behind me beside Liana. She feels like more of a member of our travel group than our tour guide, yet she has been so full of excitement to share her culture and history that we’ve learned more than I could have hoped. We really got lucky to have her with us.
Finally, I want to address the main concern I heard before the trip, our safety. I’ll start with the fact that we had a police escort and the tourism police contacting our guide daily. But yes, the effects of the 2011 revolution are still very apparent. It’s not only ancient Egypt we were educated on, and my takeaway is simply sadness that a place full of so much potential, and whose people want change, is stuck. The number of times we were told that we are ‘welcomed’ is probably in the hundreds. Especially after they asked where we were from. So many kids asked to take photos with us. Every man we came into contact with wanted a picture, the barista, someone we stood in line for a temple with, the police escorting us. It’s been a little overwhelming with all of the attention. American women, if you need a confidence boost, come to Egypt. I had a point here….
Oh yes, they want us to travel here, and they need our tourism. The freakin exchange rate is 18 Egyptian pounds to 1 dollar y’all. My meal of a falafel sandwich and French fries was like 80 cents! We have a police escort and all of the effort on their behalf to ensure we feel and remain safe in hopes to increase tourism again. That’s what we are told at least. Intrepid and our guide have done a great job with the itinerary and transportation, and I have not one single time felt unsafe or scared. Annoyed with the constant souvenir peddling perhaps, but never unsafe.
I’m home now, and still searching for a word to describe the way I feel about Egypt, as a simple ‘amazing’ doesn’t seem to do. This is a bucket list trip, there is no doubt about it. I’m certain that I will think of the places that I’ve mentioned with a memory of ‘awe’ for the rest of my life. My life, which seems so short and minuscule in comparison to the ancient world I got to see and experience a part of.
Egypt left that kind of impression.