I had wanted to visit Egypt since I was a little girl. So when Noel and I received a travel catalogue from the Smithsonian Institute that included a guided tour of Egypt (with an extension into Jordan), we leaped at the opportunity. The price was extremely reasonable for almost three weeks of touring including roundtrip business class airfare. 20+ other folks also signed on.
However, about two months before we were scheduled to depart, Smithsonian dropped its sponsorship for security reasons. Nevertheless, the company, Odysseys Unlimited, with which Smithsonian had contracted to do the tour let us know that the tour would still take place. We could get a complete refund if we decided not to go or we could go and they would refund us $500 to compensate for the Smithsonian Egyptologist who would not be accompanying us. While not suicidal, Noel and I have traveled to some pretty edgy places, so we were not deterred by the Smithsonian’s security concerns. However, most of our potential fellow travelers thought otherwise and our group shrank to seven stalwarts.
I can honestly say, rightly or wrongly, that we never felt a moment’s insecurity in either Egypt or Jordan. In Egypt we were always accompanied outside our hotels by an armed security guard dressed in a business suit but with a big hulking automatic pistol bulging out from under his jacket. Apparently, the Egyptian government has provided armed security personnel for all its visitors who are on tours since before the Arab Spring in 2011. Security at the hotels is quite formidable.
All vehicles are scanned for explosive devices by metal detectors and sniffed by dogs before the vehicles can enter the fortified garages. All individuals and luggage are then scanned again as they enter the hotel lobbies. But it would be nice to think that the real security is the attitude of the vast majority of the Egyptian population who do not support the terrorist ideology of ISIS or al-Qaeda. Sadly, the Egyptian government does not seem to protect its Coptic Christian population as much as it does its foreign tourists. More on this later.
We did not tour with an armed guard in Jordan which borders Syria and has over a million Syrian refugees. The only evidence we saw of enhanced security outside of the airports was the metal detectors we passed through to enter our hotels. Airport security in both countries is intense to the point of being annoying, but better annoyed than dead.
Egypt is slightly larger than three times the size of the state of New Mexico. Its population of over 95 million is located on only 3.5% of its land mass. Deserts make up about 75% of the country. The cultivated land mass with the exception of a few oases is limited to a narrow green belt along the Nile. And the population is burgeoning at the rate of 2.5% annually. The country also has a needy neighbor to the south. In an effort to provide basic electricity to more of its population Ethiopia is in the process of building a huge hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile which has the potential of severely reducing the amount of water the Nile brings into Egypt. Hopefully, both countries can come to some kind of reasonable agreement during the talks that are currently going on.
Our tour director in Egypt was Hassan Latif, a very experienced and rather scholarly guide. We really didn’t miss the Smithsonian Egyptologist at all. When we weren’t touring, Hassan gave very interesting talks on Islam, Egyptian hieroglyphics and ancient Egyptian aesthetics. He has a great sense of humor and he is an avid fisherman. He is also a very dapper dresser. We liked him enormously.
The state of tourism in Egypt is not good, that is, there aren’t enough tourists. In fact, Hassan went four years without guiding anyone because of the fallout from the Arab Spring in 2011. At its peak in 2010, tourism in Egypt employed 12% of the population. The country was a favorite vacation spot for Russians but most of them stopped coming after the downing of the Russian plane in Sinai in 2015.
The Cairo Museum & More…
On our first full day in Cairo we spent roughly four hours at the Cairo Museum. It is a very large building but totally inadequate to house the 100,000+ truly mind-blowing artifacts in it. The lighting in particular is bad. However, a new, much larger museum is in the process of being built in Giza where the famous pyramids are located. It is supposed to open in the fall of 2018 and then apparently the Cairo Museum will be rebuilt.
The visit offered us a good overview of Egyptian history from 3000 BC through 300 BC when the country was conquered by Alexander the Great. Hassan was especially helpful guiding us through and pointing out important objects.
One astounding fact I learned about the regalia worn by the pharaohs is that not only did they wear wigs and fake beards, which I knew, but they also wore fake tails, like bulls’ tails, for god’s sake. Cecil B. DeMille didn’t outfit his pharaoh that way. In many of the depictions of various kings, you can actually see the tail attached to the royal figure by a rope around his waist.
No doubt the best known artifacts on exhibit are those from the tomb of Tutankhamun or King Tut. They take up most of the museum’s second floor. King Tut was the son of the radical pharaoh Akhenaten and possibly a sister or cousin. Tutankhamun ascended the throne at the age of around nine in 1332 or 1333 BC. Under the influence of the high priests of the traditional Egyptian polytheistic religion he renounced the radical monotheistic worship of Aten, solar energy, established by his father and reinstated the old traditions and, of course, the power of the high priests. He ruled for about ten years and then died and was succeeded by one of his high priests. There are lots of theories about the cause of his death including poisoning by one of his priestly advisors.
In the context of Egyptian pharaonic history he was not a very important king, but he was buried with a ton of gold artifacts including his famous gold death mask. The gold opulence is more of a statement about Egypt’s incredible wealth at the time rather than the status of the king, thanks in great part to the gold mines of Upper Egypt in Nubia, the southernmost part of the kingdom.
Later on during our stay in Egypt we visited the truly beautifully assembled Nubia Museum and grounds in Aswan. It opened in 1997 to house the Nubean artifacts found during the excavation and relocation of the ancient temples threatened by the building of the Aswan High Dam. The museum was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The new museum close to being finished in Giza by the pyramids promises to surpass it.
Temples & Tombs…
Our second full day in Egypt was a Sunday, the beginning of the Muslim work week. In the morning we boarded our bus for Giza where the famous pyramids are located. Our drive took us through miles of absolutely ugly multi-family apartment buildings, most of which are illegal according to Hassan. They have taken over almost all of the green, arable fields that used to surround Cairo. Giza is located three miles southwest of central Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. Traditionally, the east bank of the Nile is where the living abide, that is, the cities and farms that provide homes and food for the population. The west bank of the Nile is where the dead abide, that is, the temples and tombs honoring the gods and housing the deceased.
As we approached Giza, we could see the familiar scene of the three pyramids. Nothing very surprising from a distance. But when we arrived and were able to actually touch Cheops’ pyramid, the largest of the three, we were quite overwhelmed by its sheer massiveness. Originally, all three pyramids were covered by a smooth white limestone casing that is now mostly gone. Given their location in the desert surrounded by bright sunlight during the day and no doubt glowing white at night, they must have been astounding to see, mystical, magical passageways to eternity.
All three are tombs, Cheops the father, his son Khafre, and grandson Menkaure. Apparently, the royal treasury was starting to diminish under the burden of building these massive structures because the son’s tomb is smaller than his father’s but gives the illusion of being as large because it was built on higher ground. The grandson’s is the smallest. They were built sometime between 2560 and 2465 BC and are surrounded by other smaller flat-topped tombs called mastabas where relatives of the pharaohs and high officials were buried.
Despite their awesome mystique, they have all been looted. So much for announcing one’s godliness. Later on Egyptian royalty tried to hide their tombs and their interred wealth as we shall see in the Valley of the Kings outside of Luxor, known as Thebes in the ancient world.
Located among the pyramids is the sphinx which was supposedly built by Pharaoh Khafre of the mid-sized pyramid. It is carved directly into the bedrock of the desert and is much smaller than I thought it would be.
One of the most impressive sights in the Giza complex is the “solar boat” made of cedar that was discovered in 1954 in a bedrock pit at the foot of Cheops’ pyramid. It was intended to be part of the grave goods interred with the king. It will be the centerpiece of the new museum being built in Giza.
After lunch at a restaurant with a view of the pyramids, we were driven back to Cairo to visit the old medieval part of the city. There we toured two Coptic Christian churches and the Ben Ezra Synagogue. All three buildings have beautiful inlaid woodwork. I believe we had to pass through metal detectors to enter the Coptic churches, but the security seemed pretty lax particularly in view of the subsequent attacks on Copts and their churches further north in the delta region of the country. The Coptic churches are still active centers of worship but the synagogue is not.