Egypt calls to the adventurer and explorer inside us, as grandeur and mystery spark awe and imagination at every turn. From the towering pyramids of Giza to the hidden tomb of Tutankhamun, eight millennia of men, gods, and pharaohs have filled the lush valley of the Nile River with secrets and treasures that modern man is still discovering. The warm, dry air from the desert makes the holidays an ideal time for an Egyptian adventure, as the days are warm, the sunsets are at their most dramatic, and the nights are cool.
A luxury cruise down the Nile is a great way to see the sacred sites along the banks the way they would have been experienced during the time of the pharaohs. You can watch the activity on the shore as you sail past villages and arrive at important sites.
Bustling Cairo is an ideal place to begin your trip. The energy of the 9.5 million inhabitants is palpable, and labyrinthine centuries-old markets are hidden between modern skyscrapers and luxury hotels. Just steps away, the ancient pyramids rise from the sand to show how thousands of years of history coexist in one place.
The Egyptian museum houses hundreds of thousands of artifacts and is not to be missed. The 1901 museum that currently houses the treasures of Tutankhamun’s burial chambers is being replaced in 2020 by a billion-dollar Grand Egyptian Museum overlooking the pyramids. Before it’s debut, private tours can be scheduled for behind-the-scenes access. From there, sail or fly down to Luxor, where you’ll find the first of the magnificent temples.
Dedicated to Amun-Ra: The Grand Temples of Luxor and Karnak
Sunset is the perfect time to visit the temple of Luxor, as the stones glow a soft gold in the dwindling light. Luxor was built by “Sun King” Amenhotep III and Ramses II. You enter the complex through giant gates flanked by two colossal statues of a seated Ramses II wearing the double crown of the upper and lower kingdom, and a 22-metre-tall pink granite obelisk stretching into the sunset, whose mate can be found in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
In the Sun Court of Amenhotep III, in the rear of the complex, lies a shrine rebuilt by Alexander the Great, who is depicted in reliefs.
A 3-kilometre avenue of sphinxes connects the grand temple of Luxor to Karnak, where construction began during the Middle Kingdom (2040–1782 BCE) and continued for 1,300 years. The Karnak complex, like Luxor, is dedicated to Amun-Ra, the supreme god of sun and air. According to Egyptian mythology, Egyptians can trace their creation to a lake here. The scale of the temple is truly striking: its Hall of Columns has 134 columns in the shape of papyrus stalks, each 22 metres high, inscribed with intricate hieroglyphs.
The Power and Love of Women: Temple of Hatshepsut and Abu Simbel
Mortuary monuments in ancient Egypt were not merely a way to celebrate the glory of the Pharaoh, but also a way to employ and unite peasants and ensure peace during the annual flooding of the Nile. Hatshepsut, a rare female pharaoh widely agreed to be one of the most successful rulers in ancient Egypt, broke with tradition and built her temple into a cliff face out of limestone. You have a long time to ponder her greatness as you climb the long stone ramp that leads to three stories of colonnades where her life is depicted in inscriptions and statuary.
A short flight takes you to the temples at Abu Simbel, which were built by Ramses II, one to celebrate the primordial goddess Hathor, who is depicted with the head of a cow, and the other to celebrate Ramses II’s favourite wife, Nefertari. The complex had to be painstakingly moved block by block as a result of the construction of the Aswan Dam, a staggering feat, considering the 20-metre size of the colossi perched on the façade. The reconstruction was unable to recreate an effect of the original temple, where light would shine through the gates to a statue of Ramses along the back wall exactly twice a year, on his birthday and on his coronation day.
Interestingly, Abu Simbel is not the ancient name of the temple, it’s the name of the local boy who showed it to European explorers in the 1800s.
Hidden Tombs: The Valley of the Kings
The Valley of the Kings is puzzling when you first arrive, as it appears to be an abandoned quarry of pebbles and dust. But this was the clever idea of King Thutmose I, to conceal burial chambers far away from their pyramids to deter robbers. 500 years of kings were laid to rest in this valley.
Once you descend into a tomb, two things strike you: The colourful hieroglyph artwork that tells the stories and conquests of the king who lies within, and the small size of the chambers. The air is close and the spaces cramped as the chambers were tightly packed with treasures for the king’s trip to the afterlife. The mummy of Tutankhamun lies in his original resting place, looking small and frail and every bit “the boy king” below the simple sign: No. 62.
Along the River Nile
Don’t forget to appreciate the river itself as you sail through these sites. Luxury ships share the water with feluccas (sailboats), which become social as they pass each other, with vendors selling jewellery, kids singing songs for coins. Docks for the Nubian villages still dot the shoreline, where traditional houses and markets can be explored.
Near Aswan, you can moor in one of the grand colonial hotels of Egypt, the Old Cataract Hotel. It was here that famed British mystery writer Agatha Christie wrote her celebrated novel Death on the Nile. Winston Churchill and Princess Diana are also counted as guests, and you can enjoy high tea on the sublime terrace above the river.
The Mysteries of the Sphinx and Pyramids
No visit to Egypt is complete without visiting its most recognizable landmarks: the pyramids and the Sphinx. The only surviving wonder of the ancient world, the pyramids are remarkable in both their scale and construction, as it inconceivable that people without machines or modern technology could build so precisely on such a massive scale. A piece of paper cannot fit between the stones of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The Great Pyramid of Giza is thought to have been built over 20 years during the reign of King Khufu of the 4th dynasty of the Old Kingdom (2613–2181 B.C.). It’s 146 meters high and comprised of over 2 million blocks of stone. Originally, it was covered in limestone that would have shone a bright white, but over the years, it was stripped down to the sandstone to build structures in Cairo. Khufu’s son Khafre is said to have built the second-highest pyramid, at 136 meters, which makes Menkaure’s pyramid look modest at only 61 meters. However, Menkaure also had three subsidiary pyramids for his queens.
The Sphinx, a recumbent lion with the head of a man, believed by most to be King Khafre, is 73 metres long and 20 metres high. It was originally painted in bright colors, and conflicting theories abound as to who built it and what became of its nose, making it live up to its riddling name.
Today, you can touch and even climb the rough stones of the pyramids while you ponder the great men who built them. Egypt isn’t merely a place to visit relics and artifacts. It’s a place that has thrived continuously for 8,000 years and continues to evolve. It’s a place one feels compelled to return to, with so much left to discover.