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Phespirit goes to Egypt
tour     January/February 2009

AROUND EGYPT

Map of Egypt

1 Cairo

Cairo is colossal. Seen from the air, it is a dense, dusty, concrete sprawl, too large to take in at a single view.

The same could be said for the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. Phespirit spent about three hours within its walls, yet came away wishing he'd had more time. At least he had the satisfaction of seeking and finding the following important exhibits:

  • Room 43, #111: Palette of Narmer
  • Room 37, #134: Statuette of Khufu
  • Room 11, #6184: Head of Hatshepsut
  • Room 12, #62: Statue of Tuthmosis III
  • Room 3: Colossi of Akhenaten
  • Room 13, #134: Merneptah's Victory Stele
  • Room 24, #248: Statue of Taweret

Elsewhere in Cairo, deep in the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, he had the satisfaction of seeking and finding Midaq Alley. In Luxor, he found and bought the Naguib Mahfouz book of the same name.

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2 Giza

With its three pyramids and a sphinx, the west bank plateau is as unmissable as it is annoying to visit. Security is tight, the crowds are raucous, hawkers and rip-off merchancts are everywhere, and separate tickets must be bought to enter the site and each of the pyramids. But it absolutely has to be experienced.

Phespirit explored the Great Pyramid of Khufu and then set about walking full laps of each pyramid, starting with Khufu's and moving on to Khafre's and Menkaure's.

By the time he reached Menkaure's pyramid it was late in the day so he settled for an inspection of the front and one side.

Around the less visited areas it was possible to achieve moments of undisturbed peace. Rare and precious indeed.

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3 Saqqara

The Step Pyramid of Djoser was raised in the 27th century BC. It is widely acknowledged to be the oldest of Egypt's pyramids.

The funerary complex around the Step Pyramid is still the subject of much archaelogical excavation. Wooden steps at the pyramid's base descend to the entrance of a tunnel under the pyramid itself. With nobody to instruct him otherwise, Phespirit made a break for it - through the entrance, along a level boarded corridor illuminated by a string of naked bulbs, to an opening in front of a high shaft at the heart of the pyramid. Here he encountered a small, authorised group of visitors, and was immediately slung out.

Tantalisingly he wasn't able to get close enough to look down into the central space, but this brief glimpse exceeded his entitlement so he left with a smile on his face.

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4 Dahshur

The art of pyramid building began at Saqqara, and literally peaked at Giza, but its important intermediate developments happened at Dahshur.

Phespirit entered the 'Red Pyramid'. Steps ascend to an entrance a third of the way up one side. From here a steep tunnel, 1-1.5m high, with wooden boards and about 130 rungs to scramble down, descends into the musty interior. Two high galleries connected by low corridors terminate with a short set of scaffolded steps up to a final tunnel, which leads to the rubble-strewn pit that is the central chamber.

Phespirit's legs were like jelly when he eventually made it back to the surface. It took three days for the effects to wear off.

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5 Karnak

In a land whose ancient civilisations weren't afraid to think big, the temple complex at Karnak remains the most overwhelmingly vast. As a consequence of this, and of its close proximity to Luxor, it is also now the most overwhelmed by tourists.

Less overwhelming features that Karnak shares with other sites:

  • an intense rat-run of souvenir stalls at the entrance/exit;
  • temple guardians who contrive helpfulness to procure tips;
  • tourist police who contrive unhelpfulness to procure tips;
  • other tourists, doing no wrong, but always in the way.

Still, mustn't grumble.

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6 Luxor

Only upon leaving Luxor did Phespirit realise that he had ventured no further into town than the corniche. Not exactly imaginative but the corniche gave him immediate access to everything he sought:

  • the mooring of his Nile cruiser;
  • his hotel on dry land;
  • a selection of banks;
  • the Temple of Luxor (by day and by night);
  • the Luxor Museum;
  • the Mummificaion Museum;
  • the excellent Aboudi Bookshop;
  • the public ferry to the east bank.

But what had he missed? And how much did he care?

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7 Theban Necropolis

Phespirit crossed over the Nile from Luxor to visit:

  • the Valley of the Kings;
  • the Valley of the Queens;
  • the Tombs of the Nobles;
  • Deir el-Bahri (the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut);
  • Medinet Habu (the mortuary temple of Ramses III);
  • the Colossi of Memnon.

There remains so much more worth seeing. Phespirit could return again and again. Setting and substance were exceptional.

See Tomb Rater: Phespirit at the Theban Necropolis.

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8 Edfu

The Temple of Horus at Edfu is the most immaculately preserved of all Egypt's ancient complexes. Its dark halls remain fully intact, with columns, walls and ceilings all in situ and without breach.

It is impressive, but Phespirit didn't warm to it quite the same way he did the more sun-baked, time-worn, battle-scarred temples.

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9 Kom Ombo

The Temple of Haroeris and Sobek stands on the Nile's west bank at Kom Ombo, barely a few metres from the river. This was handy for Phespirit as he walked to it from his Nile cruiser at daybreak.

There are some nice details in the decorations here: hoopoes with praising arms on the hypostyle hall columns; medical instruments on the far outer corridor walls; the hands of bound prisoners being fed into a lion's mouth on the outer corridor towards the right.

Always pay attention to the details.

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10 Aswan

Aswan is probably Egypt's most beautiful city. Phespirit visited its Nubian Museum, its Coptic Cathedral, its Island of Plants and the 'Saluga and Ghazal' protected area of the First Cataract islands.

Best of all was Elephantine Island. Phespirit paid LE1 to cross by local ferry from the Aswan corniche. Upon arrival he headed south along dry mud paths, passing by Nubian villages and palm groves to visit the Aswan Museum and the ruined temple sites of Khnum and Satet.

The temple sites could never be considered among Egypt's finest, but crucially Phespirit had the whole place to himself.

A happy accident and rare privilege.

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11 Philae

The island of Philae was lost forever in the 1900s when the Aswan Low Dam and the High Dam caused the Nile's water levels to rise. The Temple of Isis on Aglika Island is still referred to as 'Philae' in memory of the innundated island from which it was rescued.

The charm of Philae is derived partly from its tasteful new setting, and partly from the appetite-whetting boat ride to get there.

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12 Abu Simbel

Phespirit enjoyed a little over two mid-morning hours in the temple complex site of Abu Simbel. The sky was cloudless, the light was good, the day was warming nicely and the crowds thinned quite a bit towards the end, all of which made for a very nice visit.

Travelling by road, he arrived in town some time after seven. There had originally been talk of leaving with a 9:00am coach convoy but once on site this was mercifully pushed back an hour. To have left at the earlier time would have been torment.

It is possible to visit Abu Simbel either by road or air from Aswan. Phespirit strongly recommends a three-hour road trip to catch the sunrise over the desert on the way there; to get maximum time on the site; and to appreciate the wonderful, bleak desert scenery on the way back. It's a smooth, comfortable road so sleep is another option for the more weary traveller.

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13 Hurghada

Ordinarily Phespirit is watchful of his daily salt intake, and mindful not to exceed a bare minimum. Whilst snorkelling in the Red Sea off Hurghada, however, he must have swallowed an entire month's salt allowance in sea water alone.

On the positive side, the water temperature was pleasant, despite it being early February, and brightly colourful fish were not hard to spot.

Alas, Phespirit saw nothing of Hurghada itself.

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14 El Gouna

This modern purpose-built resort is a rich man's show pony. It has expensive yachts in its harbour; no touts or hustlers; no history or heritage; and fixed prices that are 50% higher than prices found in Luxor.

The place is utterly soulless.

Phespirit was comfortable here, but he couldn't wait to leave.

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  1. Cairo
  2. Giza
  3. Saqqara
  4. Dahshur
  5. Karnak
  6. Luxor
  7. Theban Necropolis
  8. Edfu
  9. Kom Ombo
  10. Aswan
  11. Philae
  12. Abu Simbel
  13. Hurghada
  14. El Gouna
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Cairo Giza Saqqara Dahshur Karnak Luxor Theban Necropolis Edfu Kom Ombo Aswan Philae Abu Simbel Hurghada El Gouna