Egypt – The Land of the Pharaohs
When I was planning a family vacation to Egypt in early November 2017, most of my friends thought I was crazy. Just a few days before I booked the tour, 300 people were gunned down in the North Sinai region of Egypt. Yet I decided to go ahead with this trip (19th Dec to 26th Dec 2017) despite the so called “turbulence” in the region since 2011, post the Tahrir Square revolution. It was not difficult to convince my wife, who loves watching Egypt based documentaries on Discovery and similar channels. This was a fantastic opportunity for us to witness the ancient monuments preserved for close to 5,000 years. Do we have similar monuments in India preserved for so many years? The answer is perhaps “No”, though our cultural legacy is much older than Egypt.
In this blog, I am not going to write about the history of various Temples and Tombs we visited since information is available on Wikipedia etc. Also after visiting so many monuments I will be taxing my brain, remembering all the details. Instead I wish to draw few parallels between the 2 civilizations – Egypt and India and also share some trivia related to Egypt (at the end of this blog).
- Alexander – The Great (popular as Sikandar in India), who founded Alexandria in Egypt had come to India circa 300 BC, after perhaps hearing about the richness of our country. The monuments he must have visited in India then (Nalanda or Takshashila), are in ruins and in very bad state unlike those in Egypt. It was amazing to see how the massive Pyramids were built with such accuracy using limestones weighing few tons, brought from distant land. Some of the Mummies; the Temples; the Tombs; the manuscripts; the jewelry; clothes; shoes; thrones dating back to 2000 to 2500 BC are still available for viewing. This is a miracle despite so many artefacts being robbed before the ancient sites were controlled by the Government. Mohenjo Daro and Lothal from the Indus Valley civilization, perhaps belong to the same era as the Pyramids of Egypt but the ruins are not as well preserved as the Egyptian monuments.
- We hear about Temples in Egypt and perhaps this is the reason why Indians outnumber tourists from other countries. But no…the Egyptian Temples have nothing to do with Hindu Gods and Goddesses. These are Temples dedicated to Gods worshipped by the Pharaohs or Kings of Egypt, that have a human body with the face of either a Crocodile, Jackal, Falcon, Sheep or other animals. Now consider the similarity with Hindu Gods. Don’t we have an Elephant headed God (Lord Ganesha); Monkey God (Hanuman); God with a Lion’s face (Lord Narasimha) and so on.
- The Cow was considered a holy animal in ancient Egypt but in some places, we also saw cows being sacrificed as well.
- The ancient Egyptians worshipped Ra-The Sun God just as we Indians worship Surya (the Sun), considered as the only living God. Could Ra be derived from Ra-vi or Ravi (meaning Sun God)…
- Siwa is an oasis in Western Egypt near the Libyan border, which boasts of Temples. Is this name derived from our own Lord Siva……
- The Pharaohs trusted the Temple Priests more than anyone else . The Priest had to certify if a prospect could become the King of the land. Alexander had manipulated the Priests when he took over control of Egypt, since he was a foreigner and foreigners were barred from ruling Egypt. Haven’t our Kings or Emperors in ancient times, respected the Priests or Brahmins and in some cases even made them their trusted Advisors. Chandragupta Maurya laid his entire trust on a Brahmin named Chanakya and this was around the same time Alexander had come to India.
- Like Indians the ancient Egyptians believed in “after-life”. However, the Pharaohs planned their after-life based on their current stature than on “Karma”. Hence the Pharaohs wanted their tombs to contain items that they wished to enjoy in their next life that included Gold jewelry, shoes, umbrella, their throne and even their favorite servants and pets (all mummified with their King).
- While visiting some of the Temples in Egypt, I was in awe of the sculptures carved out of huge stones and wall paintings. I was reminded of our own Ajanta and Ellora caves, though these monuments are not as old as the Egyptian monuments. I was amazed how the color in some paintings was still intact after more than 4,000 to 4,500 years.
- Most surviving texts in the Egyptian language were written on stone in hieroglyphs while ancient scriptures in India were written in Pali and Sanskrit on stone. Later scriptures were written on papyrus (paper) in ancient Egypt while we used palm leaves in India.
- The Egyptian Kings loved gold and jewelry just as the ancient Indian Kings. Most of the items including sandals were made of gold. Gold must have been in abundance in Egypt just like in India, during the bygone era.
Now coming back to the tour, the itinerary was meticulously planned well in advance. As we reached Cairo from Mumbai early in the morning, we preferred to take some rest at Radisson Blu, located close to Cairo Airport on “day use” basis before embarking on the arduous trip ahead. The Sound and Light Show at Giza Pyramids, that starts after sunset, is a must watch though I must admit, the narration becomes boring after some time.
On Day 2 we started our journey to Alexandria, located about 200 kms from Cairo. The highway has 6 lanes and it seemed as if we were in the U.S. after crossing the chaotic Cairo city traffic. After watching ugly buildings without cement plastering in Cairo city, it was a pleasant sight to see modern Buildings in the Tech Parks located close to this Highway. We could see Bajaj auto rickshaws from India called “tuk-tuks”, at Alexandria and later at many other Egyptian towns including Luxor and Aswan. We were at home watching the chaotic traffic at Alexandria with old trams still running as in Kolkata. We reached the Catacombs to see the tombs, that were dug deep underground. The “tomb” of a Pharaoh in Egypt is not just a graveyard. The tomb normally has a huge room containing the mummified body with side chambers containing luxury items, which the Pharaohs or noblemen wanted to take with them in their next life. The tomb included pets and servants as well, that were mummified after killing them.
Next, we visited the Royal Library at Alexandria, which is the second largest Library in the world after the Library of Congress in the U.S. The ancient Library was established more than 2,000 years ago but today it is housed in a modern building since 2002. The Library is so huge that you may need an entire day to explore. The dome shaped Library is an architectural delight since the design was approved after the Government invited entries from leading architects around the world.
Alexandria is located near the Mediterranean Sea and the Qaitbay fortress close to the sea is a must visit place. The Pharos Lighthouse (300 BC), one of the 7 ancient wonders, was destroyed due to earthquakes but the stones from this lighthouse were used to build this fortress.
On Day 3 we visited the Pyramids of Giza. The weather was cloudy early in the morning but what a sight it was to see 3 Pyramids of varied sizes with the largest being 140 meters (equal to a 40-storied modern building). It was an exhilarating moment to see these Pyramids live after watching them on our TV screen. We bought an add on ticket to go inside the Grand Pyramid and it’s a wonder how the ancient Egyptians could build something like this 4,500 years ago. We had to crawl and bend to reach the heart of the Pyramid, where the tomb was discovered. Later we enjoyed the camel ride around the Pyramids and had some great Kodak moments near the Sphinx, a mythical creature with the head of a human and body of a lion.
The Egyptian Museum at Cairo is a must see for anyone interested in Egyptian history. Established in 19th Century this Museum houses more than 130,000 artifacts collected from over 5,000 years of Egyptian history. The treasure found near the tomb of Tutankhamun at Valley of Kings, is on display at this Museum. We were overawed to see the lavish Gold Jewelry, luxurious items used by the Pharaohs, which were extracted from the Tombs. It is believed that the country lost most of the artifacts to theft before strict policing was enforced by the Government. The mummies of Pharaohs, their servants and animals are also on display at the Museum. The mummy of Rameses II, who lived for 96 years and was the most popular Pharaoh in Egyptian history, lies here. He is believed to have more than 30 wives and fathered more than 100 children. Sadly, the enormous number of artifacts from his tomb were stolen before his mummified body was discovered from the Valley of Kings near Luxor, in the 19th Century. You will need more than a day to see the Museum in detail. A new Museum is coming up in the city of Cairo and the construction work that has already started in 2006 is likely to be completed by 2020. Close to the Museum is the Tahrir Square famous for the 2011 Revolution, that was beamed live across the world. We took few photos at the huge square, though the security guards were visibly not too happy.
We visited the Papyrus Institute where we saw how paper was made from the Papyrus plant. The ancient scriptures were written on Papyrus, which is long lasting and sturdy. Maybe this is the reason why the scriptures could be retained for so many centuries. The tourists are also taken around the Gold jewelry and Perfume factories as well. But I would suggest you should spend more time at the famous El Khalili market at Cairo and visit the iconic El Fishawi Café frequented by Hollywood stars. We were allotted the same room where Morgan Freeman was seated when he visited this Café. Enjoy the apple or other fruits flavored Seesha or Hookah while sipping on mint tea. I felt as though I was transported back to the days of Arabian Nights. Hawkers, beggars, saints come inside the café to meet the customers either to sell their wares or for alms. You can shop at this market for souvenirs, cloth woven by the Nubians, carpets, bags etc.
On Day 4 we started for Aswan from Cairo. At Aswan, we had to embark the Nile Cruise, a 3-day cruise to Luxor on River Nile. Since we reached early and had more than 2 hours to check in, we opted to visit the Nubian Village accessible through motor boat. On the way, you will come across the palace of Aga Khan. The people in Nubian Village are dark skinned and they are known to be very tough and sturdy people. The Nubians are known for their handicrafts and we could see weavers on the way to a Nubian home. Visit to a Nubian home is a must, where you can encounter live crocodiles in their backyard. The Nubians, known for their warmth and hospitability, treated us to Hibiscus and Mint tea. In the evening, we visited the unfinished Obelisk, which was more than 3,500 years old and weighing more than 1,200 tons. Obelisk is a stone pillar with a pyramid shape at the top. Later we visited the Philae Temple in the dark since the sun sets after 5pm during winters.
On Day 5, we set out for Abu Simbel about 280 kms south of Aswan at 4am in the morning. The road to Abu Simbel is absolutely straight with just 2 lanes, that cuts across the Sahara Desert. There is just one pit stop but our Guide preferred not to stop the vehicle on the way due to safety concerns. On the way, we enjoyed the sunrise view around 6:30am. We also encountered mirage in the vast Sahara Desert. Normally the vehicles are accompanied by security guards to ensure safety. Abu Simbel is located close to the Sudanese border and was relocated in early 50s during the construction of Aswan Dam after it was submerged under Lake Nasser. The Abu Simbel complex consists of two temples, flanked by 4 large statues of Rameses II in the facade. The smaller temple is dedicated to Nefertari, wife of Rameses II. The Abu Simbel complex is a landmark monument in Egypt and a must see on the itinerary.
On the return journey, we visited the Aswan High Dam built in the 60s. The dam is the lifeline of Egypt, which is fed by the River Nile and the reservoir forms Lake Nasser.
As the cruise sailed to Kom Ombo we visited the Temples dedicated to the Crocodile God and Falcon headed Sky God, worshipped during the pre-dynastic times.
The 3 nights we spent on the Nile River Cruise was a wonderful experience. It has scheduled stops on the way for sightseeing at various locations. The cruise offers live shows in the evening with performances from belly dancers and whirling Dervishes. The Sun deck at the top is a great place to hang out. It has a small swimming pool and exposure to the warm afternoon Sun during a cold wintery day was a soothing experience. The cruise liner from Aswan to Luxor takes an upward journey over River Nile. Interestingly Nile, the largest river in the world, flows from South to North unlike other rivers elsewhere in the world. Hawkers can be seen on small boats trying to sell Nubian handicrafts to passengers in the ship, by using their throwing skills to the hilt. The Nile cruise offers all 3 meals for the day and the buffet spread is generally very lavish. The lounge area is used during the evenings to relax after touring various sites.
On Day 6, the cruise had a halt at Edfu, where we took a horse carriage to visit the Temple of Horus early in the morning. The temple is dedicated to Falcon God and it’s a very well-preserved Temple in Egypt built around 200BC. The horse carriage ride for about 2 kms each way was extremely enjoyable. After the cruise started from Edfu we came across Esna lock to reach Luxor. Since the cruise reached Luxor late in the evening, we had to postpone the trip to the Luxor Temple for next day.
On Day 7 we disembarked the Nile Cruise around 5:30am in the morning to take the Hot Air Balloon ride. It was the most thrilling experience of my life. We understood from Hod Hod Soliman, the company that organized our ride, that the flights were cancelled for last couple of days due to bad windy conditions. We were very fortunate to encounter pleasant weather on that day. Yet it took about an hour to get the balloon ready and hence we missed the Sunrise over River Nile. The flight on a hot air balloon is something to be experienced ourselves and what a sight it was from 10,000 feet above sea level. We could have a great view of the majestic River Nile and the lush green sugarcane fields below. As we started descending, the Pilot guided our balloon very close to the sugarcane fields and few houses. The 45 minutes ride was so enjoyable and we did not want it to end. Finally, the balloon carrying 20 people onboard, crash landed into the fields due to windy conditions but fortunately no one met with an injury.
The same afternoon we had a packed schedule to visit the Valley of Kings. Hatshepsut Temple, Luxor Temple and Colossi of Memnon. The tomb of young Pharaoh named Tutankhamun was found intact by a British archaeologist, accidentally, about 100 years ago. Tutankhamun died at the age of 19 and though his rule was insignificant in the Egyptian history, he became popular only because of this discovery. Tutankhamun’s mummified body, can be visited here for an extra fee.
However, the gold jewelry and lot of other artifacts found near his tomb, are on display at the Museum in Cairo. The Hatshepsut temple is dedicated to the Queen Pharaoh of the same name. The Karnak temple of Luxor called the “Temple of Temples” constructed 2,000 years ago, is not to be missed. It has several obelisks and towers and is the second largest ancient religious site in the world after the Angkor Wat Temple of Cambodia (see image on the right). We also visited the Alabaster factory where they make items carved out of alabaster stone. In the evening, we visited the famous souq or bazaar at Luxor, located close to the Luxor Temple. This is an ideal place to buy local Egyptian products. To avoid an hectic trip, I strongly recommend a stay of 2 days at Luxor.
On the last day i.e. Day 8, we left for Cairo from Luxor after a relaxed stay at Hotel Sonesta St George. Since our connecting flight to Mumbai from Cairo was in the evening with a 7 hour of lay-over, we decided to undertake a quick 5 hours tour of Saqqara and Memphis located about 50 kms from the Airport. Both these sites are not on the tourist itinerary and hence you will find very less tourists here. Memphis was the ancient capital of Egypt and you can see the 3,000 years old giant statue of Rameses II in standing position but today it is lying in an horizontal position with one leg chopped off. There is also a Sphinx made of alabaster in the premises. Saqqara is known for the Step Pyramid and pre-dates the Giza Pyramids by more than 2 centuries. It was the first pyramid built in Egypt. There are several tombs to be visited and excavation work is under progress. Most of the tombs contain color paintings and stone carvings that are more than 3,000 years old, which look so beautiful even today. Since Saqqara is located in a vast desert area, we had to take care of the dust storm.
Finally, we bid adieu to the “Land of the Pharaohs” after a very strenuous journey that spanned across Egypt, except the Sinai Peninsula. The memories of Egypt will always remain with us.
Some interesting trivia about Egypt:
- Egypt is called “Misr” locally, which is also referred to in India. It is the 3rd largest country in Africa by GDP. The country earns highest revenue through Tourism though it has declined steeply from 12 Billion USD in 2010 to 3 Billion USD in 2016 post the Revolution. Egyptian Pound or EGP is the local currency.
- Egypt, is a transcontinental country spanning the northeast corner of Africa and southwest corner of Asia by a land bridge formed by the Sinai Peninsula.
- The population of Cairo is around 10 million while the population of Egypt is close to 100 million. Ancient capital city Memphis and modern city Cairo can be compared to Old Delhi and New Delhi respectively
- At every bazaar or souq, we encountered friendly Egyptians screaming “Namaste India”, “We Love Indians”, “Amitabh Bachchan”, “Shahrukh Khan” the moment they see Indian tourists, who apparently are big spenders according to them. These chants from local Egyptians are still ringing in my ears. They just love Bollywood movies and Hindi TV serials, which is like their staple diet. It’s no surprise that Indians are the highest visitors to Egypt followed by the Chinese
- We should know the art of bargaining with these shop keepers who finally end up saying “Okay we are brothers and we look alike. Let me give it to you for the price you want” and “Insha allah let more tourists come from India.” Some of the items that start at 500 EGP could end up at 100 EGP.
- Never hesitate to shop near the tourist sites since you never know when you can get a similar item at that price. Shop for papyrus based products (paintings); gold jewelry, perfumes, Nubian handicraft products and sweets.
- 1 USD = 17 EGP or 1 EGP = Rs 3.50. Even after conversion, the prices are much cheaper when we compare with related products in India.
- The economy of Egypt is crumbling and today its much cheaper to buy any product, given the fall of the Egyptian pound. 1 Egyptian Pound which was Rs 9.50 in 2013 is now Rs 3.50. It is easy to convert USD to EGY and not vice versa. The common man in Egypt prefers USD to the EGP.
- Remember to tip for any service, which they call “baksheesh”, a similar term used in India. We had to keep Egyptian Pounds ready when visiting the Toilets. The Toilets are not so clean at Public places, as in India. Tipping is a very common practice in Egypt. Do not be surprised if you are asked for tips by the Airport staff
- We were bowled over by the warmth and friendliness of local Egyptians, who love India and Indians.
- Egypt is a safe country for the Tourists though the media has projected it to be unsafe thanks to isolated incidents that happen in Sinai region mostly. In general, people want the tourism industry to flourish and they are banking on Indians a lot for the revival of tourism in their country.
- You will find security staff almost everywhere with machine guns. Smile at them but do not try to strike up a conversation
- Do not discuss Israel or ISIS with local Egyptians, who may get offended
- Anwar Sadat (3rd President) and Abdel Nasser (2nd President) are their favorite leaders. Egypt is currently ruled by Sisi an ex-Military person.
- The Tahrir Square, where the 2011 revolution took place to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, is an empty place today. It is spread over a huge area, surrounded by top Hotels and Buildings in downtown Cairo
- The TV programs show Bollywood movies and Hindi TV serials that are dubbed into the local Egyptian language. These channels have the highest TRPs, as told to us.
- The Arabic spoken in Egypt is slightly different from the Arabic spoken in Gulf countries
- The best time to visit Egypt is between October to March. Summer months especially May to August should be avoided due to extreme heat. December and January is the peak season and the weather is extremely pleasant in these 2 months. Do not forget to carry woolens in Dec-Jan.
- If you speak a bit of Arabic like Shukran (Thanks) the local people like it very much. However, few dialogs from Sholay or songs/dialogs from any Amitabh Bachchan movie will make them go crazy.
- The immigration process is a breeze at the Cairo Airport and you can get out of the Airport in less than 10 minutes.
- It is better to take the Egyptian Visa from Mumbai or New Delhi embassy before travelling to Cairo (costs less than INR 2,000 per person). Though we were told that Visa on Arrival is available it is better not to take the risk. Tourist visas are issued for 90 days and for single entry only.
- Smoking is not prohibited at many public places including Restaurants
- You do not need any special converter for your electrical appliances, except 3 pin plugs, which do not work in this country.
- Try the seesha (hookah) at the El Fishawi Café at Cairo, available in various fruit flavors
- Sometimes we need to be careful while handing over our phone or camera for taking our snaps near the Pyramids. There have been instances of theft.
- Getting a local SIM for making calls could be very expensive if your trip is short. It costs about USD 25. Most of the hotels offer free wi-fi and we can use Internet based calls instead
- Egypt was ruled by Greeks, Turks, French and the English but it is not part of the Commonwealth countries.
- Muslims constitute about 90% of the population while the rest are Coptic Christians.
- Driving is on the right side and the traffic could get very crazy in Cairo. Areas around old Cairo like Memphis and Saqqara are badly maintained and the roads are very bumpy. Roads to Alexandria or to the Airport are world class.
- Most of the buildings that you come across in Cairo, have no plastering done exposing the red bricks. As per the tour guide, it is done deliberately to save on tax
- You can see lot of auto rickshaws, that are imported from India but we did not see many two wheelers. Trams can be seen at Alexandria. Carts pulled by donkeys and horses are in abundance. Horse carriages are still in vogue and you must enjoy the ride. We hired a Taxi at Luxor for a short drive to the souq from the Hotel and it is better to fix the fare in advance.
- Our tour guides from South Sinai were just wonderful people. They are extremely passionate about their job and ensure we get all the right information. One of them made the narrative so simple by enacting the scenes from the bygone era using us as the artistes.
- The Sound and Light show at Cairo is not to be missed but after some point you may get bored. Post the show, enjoy the lavish buffet dinner that is available next to this site.
- The boat ride on River Nile can be very exciting and do not miss the Hot Air Balloon ride at Luxor; the camel ride at the Giza Pyramids and the Horse carriage ride at Edfu.
- Drink only bottled water available for EGP 4 or 5 per bottle of 1.5 liters. At some places, you have to bargain but it is better to buy water at a Superstore. Do not drink tap water.
- Carry enough tissue papers and keep paper or liquid soap handy since most public toilets are not clean. Instead use the toilets at Museums or Emporiums instead of public toilets.
- Enjoy the pure Vegetarian “Koshari”, which is the National dish of Egypt. It is made of rice, macaroni and lentils topped with tomato sauce and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions.
- You can find pita bread being sold on streets and served in restaurants
- The variety of food available in Egypt is good and the dishes are not too spicy.
View all the photos by clicking on this LINK
- Our Tour of Egypt for 7 nights and 8 days was conducted by Cox and Kings
- The local partner – South Sinai Travel provided the Tour guides – Mohammad, Ahmed and Emad to name some of them. Rehan was the Tour Manager who ensured everything went off smoothly and was our go to person during the 8 days
- Hotel Cairo Pyramids, Mirage1 Nile River Cruise and Sonesta St George Hotel for the accommodation. I would recommend Sonesta, being the best property at Luxor. Cairo Pyramids is not highly recommended, though it offers a resort like ambiance. The Nile Cruise owned by South Sinai Travel was good, though it lacked in the entertainment area.
- Egypt Air for our Mumbai-Cairo-Mumbai flights and local flights to Aswan and Cairo. Though not a highly rated Airline, the in-flight service is good. Unlike other airlines operating in this sector, they allow 2 baggage pieces as check in luggage (23 kgs each)
- The warm and friendly people of Egypt, who made our trip so memorable
- And finally to all my fellow travelers – Raghavendra, Debasish, Vinayak, Patricia and their families for making this trip so memorable just as the Rising Ra (Sun) over the Sahara Desert ……………