A visit to Cairo and cruise down the Nile
My first impression on the ride from the Cairo airport to my hotel was: Big city.
Cars and motorcycles battled for space in the traffic, their horns raising a constant din. Lighted signs for McDonald’s, Burger King and other familiar fast-food restaurants vied for attention with billboards touting trendy women’s fashions.
Gradually, more anticipated touches of the destination began to catch my attention. Street vendors maneuvered pushcarts laden with foods that were new to my eye.
Towering minarets pierced the skyline. Ramshackle apartment buildings draped with laundry drying in the sun stood next to modern high-rise hotels.
Welcome to Egypt — land of pyramids and pharaohs, a millennia-long history, and present-day life that keeps one foot planted in the past as it strides toward the future.
The goal of most people who travel to this ancient land is to see the pyramids, Sphinx and other storied monuments, and perhaps take a felucca ride on the Nile River. Others hope to meet and mingle with people who live as they have for centuries, merging ageless traditions with modern mores.
After experiencing the inclusive two-week itinerary that my wife Fyllis and I followed with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), we returned home with a sense of awe at Egypt’s most iconic attractions, an appreciation of its fascinating culture, and a new awareness of below-the-radar appeals that can be overlooked in the hoopla over its more celebrated draws.
Cairo’s main attraction
The first view of the pyramids immediately makes clear why they’re included among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a listing first compiled in 225 B.C.E.
The Great Pyramid is one of more than 100 throughout the country and the largest of three at Giza, a suburb of Cairo. It was built more than 4,000 years ago to serve as the tomb of Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops).
Its size alone — its original 481-foot height was equal to a 48-story building — accounts for much of its claim to fame. Standing at the base of this massive structure adds to the appreciation of what architects designed, and what men using primitive tools created, so long ago.
How did workers cut 2.3 million massive stones, move them to the building site and elevate them up the sides of the pyramid as it grew?
Lying in the shadow of the Giza pyramids is another world-class treasure. The Great Sphinx, a mythological creature carved from a single piece of limestone, dates back at least to 2,500 B.C.E., and some geologists believe even earlier. Featuring a lion’s body and human head adorned with a royal headdress, the 240-foot-long figure is among the largest sculptures anywhere.
Papyrus and mummies
A wealth of information about everything Egyptian awaits discovery at two outstanding museums in Cairo. Displays at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (commonly known as the Cairo Museum) range from coins and bits of papyrus that display Greek, Latin, Arabic and other languages to life-size statues and sarcophagi (the heavily decorated coffins prepared for mummies).
Speaking of which, the main attraction at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization is a collection of 22 mummies that have been recovered from their original resting places and put on display. They include 18 kings and four queens, whose preserved bodies rest in repose.
Gazing at these once-powerful rulers, my imagination pictured them coming to life after the museum closes to recall their days as leaders of great civilizations.
This museum also houses collections gathered from other institutions that tell the story of civilization in the region from prehistoric times to the present.
Advantages of group travel
Along with Egypt’s ancient artifacts and historical accomplishments, introductions to contemporary everyday life add to the enjoyment and education of a visit to this fascinating society. For me, going with a tour group enhances the experience.
In addition to the must-see places and activities, our itinerary included some that are below the usual tourist radar. Our congenial, knowledgeable local guide, Hussein — who is well on his way to earning a Ph.D. in Egyptology — went out of his way to establish ad hoc encounters with everyday Egyptians.
Several times, he randomly approached locals, asked if they would be willing to speak with visitors from the United States, and served as interpreter.
Among results of these chance meetings, I gleaned information about topics ranging from education (we met several young people whose accomplishments and aspirations speak well for Egypt’s future), to women’s rights (they are slowly improving).
A day in a village
One day spent with a family in a typical small village demonstrated that, while Cairo is leapfrogging toward the future, rural life continues much as it has for centuries. Subsistence farming remains the staple industry in tiny towns of modest mud brick and concrete houses.
The addition of modern amenities like television and air conditioning hasn’t changed age-old practices. We saw women grinding seeds into flour between two stones and men planting crops using tools that might have been passed down for generations.
Fyllis and I also spent a week aboard the Nefertiti, the OAT-owned boat that served as our home during a cruise down the Nile River. That led us to some of Egypt’s most impressive shrines and temples that lie near the riverbanks.
The temple complex at Karnak, on which construction began in the 19th century B.C.E., encompasses shrines and monuments dedicated to a series of rulers. Walls are covered by hieroglyphics that are as deeply etched and detailed as when they were carved, and by paintings whose colors are as bright as the day they were created.
The temple at Luxor, perched on the east bank of the Nile, was a center for some of Egypt’s most powerful pharaohs. They included Ramses II, whose reign lasted 67 years, and Tutankhamen (popularly known as “the boy king”), who took the throne at the age of about eight and died nine years later.
The Nile cruise became another high point of our trip in other ways as well. It provided a passing parade of classic Egyptian scenes.
Seated outside on our stateroom sun deck, we waved to villagers who greeted us as we floated by, spotted fishermen in tiny boats, and admired felucca, traditional wooden sailboats that continue to be used to ferry goods and people.
We saw men sitting in the sun enjoying their morning tea and shisha (hookah) pipe, and admired the graceful minarets that look over each low-rise village.
We also came to understand how important the Nile is, and has been, in the lives of Egyptians. Without the river, there would be no fertile land, little locally grown food and electricity would be costly.
Thanks to the Aswan Dam (completed in 1970), the Nile’s floodwaters can be captured during rainy seasons and released during drought. The dam also generates significant amounts of electricity for the country.
The Nile flows between a narrow stretch of verdant land along each bank, which quickly gives way to barren desert. It’s little wonder that over 90 percent of Egypt’s population lives along the Nile, on 3 percent of the country’s territory.
Seeing the dramatic change from a ribbon of green winding through an arid wasteland, and visiting villagers whose lifestyles have changed little over centuries, would be reason enough to visit Egypt. Throw in its rich history, and magnificent monuments to that past, and it’s clear why the country ranks high on many a bucket list.
If you go
Egypt is generally safe for visitors, who often are greeted by passers-by with a smile and nod. One reason may be that it has been attracting sightseers since the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who came to goggle at its structural treasures.
While temperatures during summer regularly pass 100 degrees, the humidity is low. In winter, overnight lows in places drop into the 50s and comfortable daytime highs are about 80.
Our trip to Egypt with Overseas Adventure Travel enabled us to pack as many experiences as possible into every hour of every day. From interactions with locals, including a home-hosted dinner and farm family visit, to having most tips included, from discussions of “controversial topics” to sailing along the Nile on the company’s own private boat, and internal flights by charter plane, every detail was taken care of.
Our 16-day tour with Nile cruise starts at $4,995/person, including international airfare.
For information about Overseas Adventure Travel, call 1-800-221-0814 or visit oattravel.com. Read more about Egypt at egypt.travel.