Egypt. Fabled land of sphinx and pyramids, of the river Nile and Cleopatra. I didn’t think I’d ever visit here. But – thanks to my books My Librarian is a Camel, the story of libraries around the world, and thanks to Stepping Stones, the story of a refugee family – I received an invitation from an international school in Cairo to come and do author presentations for the students.
Of course, that was an opportunity to plan some travel in Egypt. But where do you start and what is possible?
We started by getting books from the library, including travel guides. We also borrowed several DVD’s, even a copy of the classic Cleopatra movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. We visited the Egypt exhibit in the BC Museum and read many nonfiction books.
Then we delved into travel sites like Tripadvisor to read about other people’s experiences. We like to travel on our own rather than with a tour group so we started by counting the days we had to decide where to go.
Arriving in Cairo, we connected immediately to a flight to Aswan, in the south of Egypt. We knew we would arrive very late, around midnight. After much research I found the perfect itinerary: booking.com showed a Nile cruise of 4 days leaving Aswan on a Wednesday and ending in Luxor. The rate was very reasonable and so I booked it, even though a Cairo travel agency insisted there was no such cruise from south to north. Research paid off.
Prior to sailing, the boat offered an excursion to Abu Simbel, ancient temples in the very southern tip of Egypt on the border with Sudan. We really wanted to see that sight so we booked it but would be picked up at 5 AM. Since we arrived at midnight, I searched for a cheap hotel and found one for about 30 euros. It was cheap but clean and they even had a breakfast box ready for us when we left. The van for our trip south showed up early, at 4 AM when we were still sleeping, so it was a mad dash.
But soon we found ourselves on our way south through the western reaches of the Sahara Desert. After the Aswan Dam the road was long and boring. We dozed for 3 hours but by the time we arrived it was light and still relatively cool. We walked around a mount and suddenly there were there: four gigantic statues, 20 meters tall, the sitting figures of Pharaoh Ramesses II, carved more than 1,200 years before Christ. The sheer size and precision of the decorations is awe inspiring. The temples are dedicated to Ramesses and his wife Nefertari, (our guide called them Ramsex and Never-tired because they had something like 42 kids…) who is shown here in the same size as him, a big exception. In most places the females are depicted much smaller than the males. Besides the incredible exterior, you can enter the temples. I had always pictured these ancient temples as small and dark. But on the contrary, they are huge and light. At 30 meters high, the ceilings and walls are entirely covered in hieroglyphs. Having seen cave paintings in Australia and many other places, I imagined that hieroglyphs would be the same: a few found here and there, small and faded. But no – these hieroglyphs look as if they were carved yesterday. They cover the entire walls and tell stories that jump right off the ‘page’. Even if you can’t read the letters and words, the pictures are clear: they pay tribute to the good life of the pharaoh and what he did. You see people fishing, specific fish that are recognizable to this day. They carry pots and fruits. They dance and pray. You can see the clothing they wore and who they met. It is incredible.
These temples and statues at Abu Simbel would have been lost forever when the dam was build that now forms Lake Nasser. So, thank goodness, the authorities had the entire site moved from down below to up high. With painstaking precision, with cranes and helicopters, the sandstone was secured and hoisted up to a level that would be well above the water level.
The lake was created and now is home to some 30,000 crocodiles. But Abu Simbel’s temples continue to stare across the land, more than 3,000 years after they were conceived.
We were lucky to be assigned an amazing guide from Abu Simbel to Luxor. His name is Mr. Hamed. He is a master egyptologist, can read hieroplyghs like we read our alphabet. He knows everything and taught most guides here. If you ever come to Egypt, book him: firstname.lastname@example.org