Egypt: 4,000 years in 8 days

If you could look down from outer space, you’d see the Nile delta resting like an open palm of a hand on the Mediterranean Sea. The river slithers snakelike from two sources-the Blue Nile, flowing from Ethiopia, and the White Nile, flowing from Lake Victoria.

They meld in Khartoum to make the 400-kilometre journey north to the Sea. My 18-year-old son’s interest in Egyptology kindled my curiosity enough that Matthew and I took an eight-day holiday together to Egypt.

Cairo and Nile
Our adventure began with three days in Cairo. Home base was the Sheraton El Gezirah Hotel, in the centre of Cairo on an island surrounded by the Nile, steps away from the new Opera House and countless bazaars. The view from our balcony overlooking the Nile was unforgettable. Cairo is a wonderful mix of ancient and modern, a teeming metropolis of 18 million people with an atmosphere both exciting and exotic.p>

The best time to travel to Egypt is during the fall and winter months. Temperatures at this time of year vary between 15 and 27 C. During the spring and summer, temperatures can soar to 40 C.

Visit nearby Memphis
Our first outing was to the ruins of the ancient city of Memphis, about 30 kilometres south of Cairo. Although most of the remains are not particularly spectacular from an historical perspective, it’s wise to visit Memphis before touring the Pyramids of Giza and Sakkara.

It was the earliest capital of a united Egypt and the site of two notable necropolises, or burial sites, of the pharaohs. The main attraction is the large statue of Ramses, one of a long line of King Ramses who ruled Egypt.

Pyramids stand in suburb
The pyramids are in Giza, a Cairo suburb. There was a time when you could drive miles across the desert to see these magnificent structures that date back 4,000 years, but urban growth of the city has crept close to the site.

Nothing can prepare you for their sheer enormity, the tallest at 137 metres and made up of 2.5 million blocks of stone. Groups of vendors line the way, selling everything from chocolate bars and bottled water to post cards and plastic pyramids.

Climbing is forbidden, but the more nimble tourist can take a walk-cum-crawl along the narrow shaft leading to the burial chamber of King Cheops inside the Great Pyramid. This pyramid is a marvel of early Egyptian economic planning. Besides serving as a pharaoh’s tomb, it was a great make-work project for farmers who were unemployed during the three months of flood season.

At Giza, you can have your photograph taken as you ride a camel or sit on a donkey. But nothing is free, and the custom of baksheesh, or tipping, requires you to carry small change and bills everywhere you go. A Canadian flag on your knapsack elicits excited shouts of “Hey, Canada Dry, number 1.”

Egyptian Museum is unique
Back in Cairo, we visited the Egyptian Museum, one unlike any I’ve visited in North America. The windows are cracked, there’s no air conditioning and the exhibits dusty and somehow sinister. It’s unique, thought provoking and wonderful.

The star attraction is the burial treasure of King Tutankhamen. His tomb in the Valley of the Kings is the most famous-and the smallest. Its importance lies in the fact that it’s the only one to have never been plundered. The debris from the excavation of the underground chamber of Ramses VI’s pyramid covered the entrance to Tut’s tomb, so it remained concealed for centuries.

Perhaps this is the only claim to fame of Tutankhamen. Sadly for avid Egyptologists, he died young and so his tomb was not a large one.

At the end of a full day with our shoes covered in Sahara dust and our minds full of historical fact, we retreated to our hotel for a cool shower followed by a visit to the welcoming bar. Tomorrow, another adventure for “Indiana” Stephenson and son.

History in Old Cairo
With its historic atmosphere and narrow winding streets, Old Cairo has an aura of sanctity. The three religious areas, Muslim, Coptic and Jewish, have many mosques, churches and synagogues. Numerous mosques grace Cairo, the most famous being the Mohammed Ali, which dominates the city from the site previously occupied by the Marmeluke Palace.

Most mosques are open to visitors of all religions. However, it is important to dress respectfully. Shoes must be removed and women should cover their head with a scarf. Clothing should not be revealing.

My schoolboy impression of Old Cairo was revived walking the mud-baked streets. Locals wearing the same traditional clothing of centuries ago lead donkeys carrying huge bags of produce.

Yet in the heart of Muslim Cairo is the Khan el Khalili Bazaar, where everything has to be bargained for. The narrow streets are packed with products ranging from gold and silver to modern T-shirts and CDs.

Cruise down Nile
The early morning EgyptAir flight from Cairo to Aswan to catch our cruise ship took two hours. As we landed, the sun slowly burned off the mist rising from the Nile and it was as pleasing and soothing a sight as I have ever seen.

For the first time we were aware of heavy security because of the importance of the Aswan dam. The dam controls the River Nile, and the Nile controls Egypt. Despite the presence of security forces, Aswan is a haven of peace and relaxation with a delightful dry climate.

We boarded the Hotel Ship, HSAton, which sails between Luxor and Aswan. Sightseeing tours include the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Luxor and Karnak Temples.

In Aswan, the resting place of the Aga Khan is one of the most visited shrines in Egypt. We toured the High Dam, Elephantine Island, Granite Quarries and Kalabsha Temple by motorboat and sailed past the Botanical Garden in a traditional felucca, a small boat with oars and a sail.

In Edfu, we were met by horse-drawn carriages, which carried us through the dusty, colourful noisy bazaars to the stunning temple of the falcon god, Horus.

Luxor well preserved
Luxor is home to Karnak, or Amun-Re, one of the best-preserved and impressive temples in Egypt. At 10 a.m., it was already 40 degrees Celsius in the Valley of the Kings. A hat and a supply of bottled water are essential.
It’s not difficult to understand why the pharaohs decided on this area for their tombs. It’s remote and uninviting. Today it is only possible to visit about a dozen of the great royal tombs. They are opened in rotation annually to protect them from tourism pollution and also to accommodate restoration work.

River is main highway
The royal tombs are entirely hewn out of rock, sometimes penetrating through alternating layers of limestone and flint. The surviving artwork is beautiful.

At the end of each day, aboard ship, I took a swim on the sun deck, relaxed like a pharaoh in a galapia (traditional Arab robe) and watched, fascinated, as we continued down Egypt’s main highway, the Nile, to Luxor.

Fishermen still use traditional methods. Water buffalo and donkeys plod along its banks, ploughing the fertile land. The familiar call to Moslem worship is heard from scattered villages-with a modern touch. The muezzins (Muslim criers) use microphones.