Egypt 12/10

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Pyramid schemes & ancient dreams...

Giza's windblown plateau and the great pyramids

Just how ancient? Year 0 AD, the birth of Christ, is centuries closer to present day 2010 than it is to when all of the pyramids I visited were built. Egypt screams civilization's longevity - and its decline. I can't recall a trip where I learned so much, so fast. Egypt is decidedly a third world country and a rewarding visit requires not only determination, but planning. On the advice of seasoned travelers, I used a guide (Karen of Heart of Egypt - highly recommended) and a driver for all of my excursions. Karen's role was not only to provide translation and knowledge, but also to run interference against relentless badgering for "baksheesh" (tips) in tourist areas. All that said, Egypt felt surprisingly safe and the locals I met outside of tourist spots were warm and friendly.

Saturday, December 4th - Islamic Cairo & the Egyptian Museum

I arrived from my business meetings in Amsterdam late on Friday, December 3rd. I found Cairo's airport to be quick and efficient. Karen met me at Arrivals and just 30 minutes after I landed we were heading through Cairo's always chaotic, horrendous traffic to the Cairo Marriott, located on the Nile island of Zamalek downtown. After a good night's sleep, Karen and our driver picked me up for the trip through old Cairo to Ibn Tulun Mosque. There I learned about the 5 pillars of Islam and Egypt's moderate stance. Ibn Tulun is beautiful (first two pictures below) as well as peaceful, since it's off the tour bus track.

Hot air ballooning at dawn over Luxor's west bank

Ibn Tulun Mosque light beams

Ibn Tulun Mosque corridor

Sultan Hassan Mosque prayer corner

Al Azhar Mosque courtyard & minarets

From Ibn Tulun, we drove to the site of the Al Rifai and Sultan Hassan Mosques (third picture above) near Cairo's massive Citadel. We finished Islamic Cairo at Al Azhar Mosque (fourth picture above), which is an active Islamic university. After a leisurely lunch at Felfela downtown, we proceeded to the Egyptian Museum. All the horror stories told about the Egyptian Museum turned out to be true. It is one of the worst museums I've ever experienced, albeit with one of the best collections - a national embarrassment. Very little is marked in any way and poor layout and lighting just amplifies its issues. For example, a true archeological treasure - the beard of the Sphinx - lies unmarked on the floor in a corner gathering dust with a forklift parked in front of it. Don't consider entering this museum without a knowledgeable guide. Karen was my guide and she decoded the museum for me well, making the visit worthwhile. The photo policy was horrible too - no cameras or photos of any kind are allowed. There's a lot of whining in Egypt about the ancient treasures that have been spirited away to other country's museums. In my opinion, if they were destined for the Egyptian Museum instead, they're probably better off in that other country. I finished my first full day in Egypt with a very long evening walk along the the east bank of the Nile, from my hotel on Zamalek island to the Hard Rock Cafe on the southern Nile island of Roda, where I enjoyed a leisurely dinner.

Sunday, December 5th - Pyramids of Saqqara, Dashur & Giza

A dense haze at daybreak didn't bode well for my pyramid day ahead. Karen set our agenda historically from oldest to newest - Saqqara, then Dashur, and finally Giza. Driving south at 8AM from Cairo to Saqqara, the haze was thick enough to hide the pyramids of Giza - no small feat. At Saqqara, I started with the Imhotep museum and then explored the grounds of the nearly 5000 year-old Step pyramid (first picture below), moving on to climb through Teti's tomb (second picture below) - my first pyramid interior. Karen advised me that the trick to pyramid interiors is to climb down backwards, which made the long descent much easier. I know it's a cliché, but experiencing pyramids up close and live really does add another dimension to seeing them in pictures. Their sheer size coupled with their age is astounding.

Saqqara's step pyramid - 2667BC

Saqqara entering Teti's tomb - 2345BC

Dashur Bent & Black pyramids - 2613BC

Tomb steps

Driving south from Saqqara to Dashur, the haze mostly lifted for my walk all around the outside of the Bent pyramid (third picture above). The Red (or North) pyramid is on the same site. I visited the interior of the Red Pyramid, which requires a 100ft climb on the outside (first picture below - you can see the slight red coloring of the stone) and then a long descent inside (fourth picture above - view from the bottom of the tomb looking up toward the outside entrance). From Dashur, we drove north toward Giza, stopping for a great lunch around Saqqara. Giza is perched right on top of Cairo now, with apartments, cheap hotels and fast food restaurants literally across the street from where I took the shots you see below. Entering Giza, the "guides", fake policemen and other touts were very aggressive and obnoxious, as I had been forewarned about by other travelers. Karen ran interference beautifully with them to make the visit enjoyable. Despite its crowds and other challenges, the Giza site still impressed. The second picture below shows three pyramids of Giza lined up in a row - Khafre's, Menkaure's & one of Menkaure queen's. The third picture below offers a perspective on how big each of the thousands of blocks really are that make up the pyramids. The large picture, top of page left, shows the windy, hazy view from a plateau spot overlooking the pyramids. The fourth picture below and the panorama below it were taken from the site exit as sunset approached. I finished the day with dinner at an informal, but very good pizza restaurant across from my hotel on Zamalek called Maison Thomas.

Dashur climbing the Red pyramid

Giza's pyramids in a row

Giza pyramid base

Giza Sphinx & pyramid of Khafre

Giza's Sphinx, Khafre, Menkaure & Menkaure queen pyramids panorama near sunset

Monday, December 6th - Luxor's East Bank: Karnak & Luxor Temples

I met my driver and guide outside of Arrivals at Luxor's airport after my ~400 mile morning flight from Cairo. I was struck immediately by the success of Luxor 's strategy to be an "open air museum". Landscaping, open spaces and inviting archeological sites were a stark contrast to Cairo's urban decay. After checking in and grabbing lunch at the Luxor Hilton, we were off to Karnak. Karnak is Egypt's most important pharaonic site, as well as possibly the largest temple ever built, covering 247 acres. It was the seat of power during 1300 of Egypt's glory years starting in 1500BC, about a thousand years after the pyramids. The Avenue of Sphinxes (first picture below), which is 3Km in length, leads into the site and in ancient times connected Karnak to Luxor Temple. Karnak grew through its 1300 years, so the deeper I walked into the site, the older its history became. Karnak's 134 massive columns (second picture below) are not only impressive by their size and how well they are preserved, but also by the remarkable amount of original coloring on them and their attached ceilings. After a stop downtown to visit an authentic Egyptian coffeehouse, Oumkulsuum, we headed to Luxor Temple to tour the site and then catch its lighting at dusk (third picture below). From Luxor Temple, we headed back to Karnak for the 90 minute, 6pm English Sound and Light show, which was way too Hollywood, but still a good opportunity to tour the site after dark (fourth picture below). After dinner at the hotel, I met Captain Amr of Hod Hod Soliman to finalize my transportation details for the Tuesday morning hot air balloon ride over the west bank.

Karnak Sphinx road

Karnak columns

Luxor Temple at night

Karnak facade at night

Tuesday, December 7th - Luxor's West Bank: Hot air ballooning, Colossi of Memnon, Madinat Habu, Ramesseum, Hatshepsut temple & Valley of the Kings

December 7th is Islamic New Year's day this year, but there was little effect in tourist areas. I met the Hod Hod Soliman driver at 4:45AM who took me to a Felucca river boat for the ride across the Nile to the west bank, where I boarded the hot air balloon before dawn. The 90 minute hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings, Queens and Nobles was very peaceful (large picture top of page right and 13 minute HD video embedded at the bottom of this page). Landing near the Colossi of Memnon (first picture below) I met my driver and guide. Our first stops, which were off the tour bus track and therefore deserted, were at Madinat Habu (second picture below - notice all the colors remaining on the columns and ceiling after thousands of years) and Ramesseum (third picture below - hangin out with my tall friends).


We then drove to the Temple of Hatshepsut, which was packed with tourists (panorama picture below). Hatshepsut was a colorful character in Egyptian history and perhaps at 1500BC, the earliest woman's' rights activist, taking the role of Pharaoh when that was essentially impossible for women. From the Temple of Hatshepsut, we drove to the Valley of the Kings (fourth picture below), which for no good reason allowed no cameras of any type into the complex. The Valley of the Kings is a huge site with 63 tombs, ranging from simple pits to complexes of 120 chambers. I climbed through 3 of the larger and more interesting ones - Seti II (KV14), Ramesses II (KV7) and Ramesses III (KV11). A note of advice on tombs, both in Luxor and in the pyramids up north - even in the mild weather I had December (~70°F highs), the interiors of tombs were hot and stuffy and definitely not for anyone with claustrophobia. The climbs in and out were not at all difficult, despite stories in travel books to the contrary.


I finished my last day in Egypt relaxing at the hotel pool and at its Nile-side restaurant. All in all Egypt was a challenging, yet very worthwhile trip.

Colossi of Memnon

Madinat Habu columns

Ramesseum statues

Valley of the Kings

Temple of Hatshepsut panorama

Press play above to hop aboard with me for 13 minutes of a peaceful hot air balloon ride at daybreak over Luxor's west bank

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