We sit on the deck of the “Nile Legend” and raise our glasses in greeting as another river cruise boat putters along in the opposite direction. The sun is starting to settle in for the night. A lone felucca heads for home; and the sense that we are floating down the longest river and through one of the most culturally rich and historic valleys in the world is quite surreal.
Geoff and I, together with my parents, flew into Cairo from Dubai. The airport was jam-packed and overwhelming in its continuous bustle. It was sobering to take note of the prominent signs threatening the death penalty for drug trafficking. Innocent as you are, you can’t help feeling a touch shifty inside; and then there are always those horror stories of planted drugs… (Update: Between 1996 and 2001, 382 people were sentenced to death😱)
Our journey began in the sprawling capital city of Cairo, where we checked into the high-rise Ramses Hilton, overlooking the Nile. While there are many cities that claim “to never sleep”, Cairo is famous for its relentless background noise. Cars, bikes and trucks toot their horns continuously, perhaps to warn or simply greet, but these vehicles are in incessant conversation. Sirens, squealing brakes, yells from people and bursts of music, add to the chaos. And then there is the haunting call to prayer at dawn, noon, afternoon, twilight and evening across the loudspeakers of the mosques, all together forming the cacophony that is the soundtrack to Cairo, “City of a thousand minarets”. We had striking views of the river, the mosques and both modern towers and ancient obelisks.
The traffic was something unbelievable. A 1996 study cited Cairo policemen as so highly exposed to exhaust fumes that their blood contained a lead level more than three times the WHO permissible standard. Egypt has one of the highest rates of road accidents worldwide with an alarming number of fatalities.
In 1996, 42 000 people were killed in road accidents with 3,5 million injuries and more than 4,5 million incidents damaging property. Dad noticed in particular how there didn’t seem to be a single car that had intact side-mirrors!
5-minutes from our hotel, we visited the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, built in 1900. The museum houses a comprehensive collection of ancient artifacts, mummies, coffins, stones and even food types that used to be buried with the kings before death for their use in the afterlife. Many of these items date back some 5000 years. The most famous being Tutankhamon’s treasures discovered in 1922. It was interesting to note that King Tut’s coffin was made of solid gold!
Saqqara – The Step Pyramid
20km south of Giza, as part of a guided tour, we were taken to Memphis, which is the ancient capital of the Old Kingdom and home to one of Egypt’s most important archeological sites: Djoser’s Step Pyramid at Saqqara. While it may not be as impressive or as famous as the pyramids at Giza, this structure predates them and it has been vital to archeologists’ understanding of the development of pyramid construction.
The Step Pyramid was built in the 27th century BC during the 3rd dynasty rule of Djoser. It is the first pyramid built in Egypt and while it is not a ‘true pyramid’ with smooth sides, like those at Giza, it remains an important stepping stone in their development. It is also the first large-scale cut-stone structure in the world.
The structure consists of the six distinct layers, or steps, of diminishing size built on top of one another. Archeologists understand this to be an embellishment of an earlier practice where pharaohs were buried under a “mastaba”, a flat rectangular structure somewhat like a large grave covering. Djoser’s builders decided to stack several of these structures to create a more imposing monument to the pharaoh, creating the pyramid that can be seen today, standing 203 feet tall.
Underneath the Step Pyramid are a bewildering array of tunnels and chambers, the centre of which is a 90-foot-deep (28 meters) shaft that, at its bottom, contains the burial chamber of king Djoser.
Our tour included visits to a perfume factory, an alabaster manufacturer, a papyrus and art shop, and a carpet weaving business. The pressure to purchase souvenirs was quite indecent. Even more indecent was seeing the children slaving away weaving the intricate silk carpets. Clutching perfume that seemed to imitate the famous brands (but not for long); some colourful etchings on papyrus because Egyptians used the papyrus plant for making cloth, boxes and rope, but most importantly for making paper (so it seemed like a good idea at the time); an alabaster vase (since misplaced) and some brass camels (as you do); we emerged relatively unscathed.
On the right hand side is a papyrus print showing the hieroglyphic alphabet
I had always imagined the Great Pyramids to be these majestic monuments that would emerge symbolically from somewhere deep within the Sahara Desert. Possibly only after a 4-day camel ride. I would obviously be wearing flowing robes and mysterious-looking veils to shield my eyes from the harsh sunlight and the oppressive sirocco winds…
In reality, the burgeoning suburbs of Cairo have expanded almost to the paws of the Sphinx, disappointingly encroaching onto this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Khafre’s Valley temple
The valley temple, built on the edge of the desert escarpment, was the place of reception for the royal body. Khafre’s Valley Temple is linked to the pyramid by a causeway, was constructed of great monolithic blocks of granite and contained remarkable statues of the king. Near the causeway is located the Great Sphinx, which many consider to bear Khafre’s features. Our tour of the Giza plateau began here. Unusually chilly weather accompanied our visit and we had to rely on the flimsy jackets we had brought to protect us from the icy wind. Who would have thought it could get so chilly in the desert?
“Guardian of the ancient mysteries, the keeper of secrets . . .”
For thousands of years the Great Sphinx of Egypt has gazed toward the east, its eyes focused on eternity, absorbing a message in the stars that mankind most likely has long forgotten.
In many ways the Sphinx is more fascinating to me than the Pyramids. Why the half lion-half pharaoh? And to think it was buried beneath the sand for so long, a mere stroll from the great pyramids. What happened to its nose? Stories abound, some blaming Napoleon for peppering it with gunshot during a French military battle in 1798, thereby damaging the face. However the Sphinx is depicted in paintings that predate Napoleon, sans nez. Another popular scenario is that of a Muslim zealot who is purported to have hacked it off in the 15th century. But the more likely (less romantic) scenario, is that it’s probably due to good old-fashioned erosion.
There are some interesting clues that tell the story of the Sphinx. Geology and archeo-astronomy have already indicated that the lion-bodied Sphinx may be vastly older than Egyptologists currently believe, dating not from 2500 B.C., but from 10,500 B.C.—the beginning of the astrological Age of Leo. 🦁 making it the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt and one of the most recognisable statues in the world.
This aligns with the current theory that the three pyramids of Giza, standing on high ground half a mile to the west of the Sphinx, are in fact a precise map of the three stars of Orion’s belt, formed in fifteen million tons of solid stone. (Orion Correlation Theory – Bauval and Hancock)
The Sphinx was purportedly not assembled piece by piece, but was carved from a single mass of limestone exposed when workers dug a horseshoe-shaped quarry in the Giza plateau. Approximately 66 feet tall and 240 feet long, it is one of the largest and oldest monolithic statues in the world.
Inscriptions from the era refer to Ruti, a double lion god that sat at the entrance to the underworld and guarded the horizon where the sun rose and set.
For thousands of years, sand buried the Sphinx up to its shoulders, creating a vast disembodied head atop the eastern edge of the Sahara. Then, in 1817, a Genoese adventurer, Capt. Giovanni Battista Caviglia, led 160 men in the first modern attempt to dig the Sphinx out of its grave. They struggled to hold back the sand, which poured into their excavation pits nearly as fast as they could dig it out. The Egyptian archaeologist Selim Hassan finally freed the statue from the sand in the late 1930s.
Egyptologists and historians have long debated the question of who built the Pyramids, and how. Standing at the base of the Pyramids at Giza it is hard to believe that any of these enormous monuments could have been built in a lifetime. Yet Egyptologists think they were built over mere decades for the three Pharaohs who were father, son, and grandson (Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure).
Khufu’s is the largest and oldest of Giza’s three pyramids. It’s believed that this only remaining member of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was constructed over a 20-year period, concluding around 2560 BC, and a variety of scientific theories have been put forward regarding its construction techniques.
Some of the more obscure methods even include alien technologies. However, most accepted construction theories are based on the premise that it was built by quarrying stone, cutting the blocks and then dragging and winching them into place. Whether it was done by an army of Greek slaves or thousands of highly skilled workers depends on which theory you believe, but a series of worker’s cemeteries discovered in 1990 suggests they were regarded more highly than mere slaves. (Legends of the Sahara, Osiri tours blog)
With an estimated mass of almost six million tons, and with more than 2.3 million limestone blocks used, it is surely one of the greatest human achievements of all time. To think on such a grandiose scale, not only the size, but in terms of the architectural endeavour, illustrates how advanced the ancient Egyptians must’ve been.
There have been some compelling contrasting views on the building of the Pyramids and their purpose:
“A team of Japanese engineers had recently tried to build a 35-feet-high replica of the Great Pyramid (rather smaller than the original, which was 481 feet 5 inches in height). The team started off by limiting itself strictly to techniques proved by archaeology to have been in use during the Fourth Dynasty. However, construction of the replica under these limitations turned out to be impossible and, in due course, modern earth-moving, quarrying and lifting machines were brought to the site. Still no worthwhile progress was made. Ultimately, with some embarrassment, the project had to be abandoned.”
“Bauval found that the Pyramids/Orion’s Belt correlation was general and obvious in all epochs, but specific and exact in only one: At 10,450 BC – and at that date only – we find that the pattern of the pyramids on the ground provides a perfect reflection of the pattern of the stars in the sky. I mean it’s a perfect match – faultless – and it cannot be an accident because the entire arrangement correctly depicts two very unusual celestial events that occurred only at that time. First, and purely by chance, the Milky Way, as visible from Giza in 10,450 BC, exactly duplicated the meridional course of the Nile Valley; secondly, to the west of the Milky Way, the three stars of Orion’s Belt were at the lowest altitude in their precessional cycle, with Al Nitak, the star represented by the Great Pyramid, crossing the meridien at 11° 08ʹ.8”
― Graham Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization
We flew to Luxor to pick up our Nile Cruise ship. Unfortunately the flight was delayed and we lost almost half a day waiting around at the airport. It meant that we missed the sound and light show at Karnak temple as well as a later visit to the important temple of Abu Simbel. When we finally boarded our plane, it was hard to ignore the cracked upholstery and oozing foam in the cockpit – we felt grateful to land safely in Luxor at all!
Luxor is a city on the east bank of the Nile River in southern Egypt. It’s on the site of ancient Thebes, the pharaohs’ capital at the height of their power, during the 16th–11th centuries B.C. Today’s city surrounds 2 huge, surviving ancient monuments: graceful Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple, a mile north. The royal tombs of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens are on the river’s west bank
The most important thing the Nile provided to the Ancient Egyptians was fertile land. Most of Egypt is desert, but along the Nile River the soil is rich and good for growing crops. We learnt that the three most important crops were wheat, flax, and papyrus. The Nile River is also an important part of Egyptian spiritual life and the Egyptians believed that it was the passageway between life and death. All the tombs are built on the west side of the Nile because the west was considered the place of death since the sun god, Ra, set in the west each day.
Nile Boat cruise
Boarding the glamorous Nile Legend, we felt like we were stepping into an Agatha Christie novel. The decor was traditional and in-keeping with a 1930’s mood and the cabins were comfortable, providing a dreamy view of the slow-flowing river below, the lush foliage on the banks and the occasional felucca drifting past.
Valley of the Kings
The ancient Egyptians built massive public monuments to their pharaohs. But they also spent time and treasure creating hidden underground mausoleums. The most famed collection of such elaborate tombs—the Valley of the Kings—lies on the Nile’s west bank near Luxor.
Our guide Andru was a very knowledgeable Egyptologist and could speak for hours about the legends of the Egyptian Gods, the Pharaohs and the ancient history of Egypt. Andru was scathing and dismissive about Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval’s theories.
In the dry, relentless heat of the Valley of Kings we struggled to follow his complicated stories (where mortal Kings become Gods, and Death is inextricably linked with Fertility and new Life); and to understand his accent and ultimately, to distinguish one “tembul” from another.
After complaining about the cold that we experienced when visiting the Pyramids, our visit to the Valley of the Kings was extremely hot and dry.
Hatshepsut (1473–1458 BC), the queen who became Pharaoh (and the only female to be buried in the Valley of the Kings), built a magnificent temple at Deir al-Bahari, on the West Bank of Luxor. It lies directly across the Nile from Karnak Temple. Hatshepsut’s temple, was regarded as “the Holy of Holies”. The temple consists of three levels each of which has a colonnade at its far end. On the uppermost level, an open courtyard lies just beyond the portico. Andru helped us remember and pronounce her name: “Hot Chicken Soup”. This turned out to be one of the few things I recalled from the visit as I wandered around trying to find a spot of shade under the ancient stone work.
Colossi of Memnon
Known as the singing statues or “The Vocal Memnon”, the Colossi of Memnon are two great seated stone statues representing King Amenhotep III, according to prominent historian and author Bassam El Shamaa’.
Decorated with imagery of his mother, his wife and the God Hapi, the statues are 18 meters high and 720 tons each, and both are carved from single blocks of sandstone, according to Greek researcher and author Joshua J. Mark.
“They were constructed as guardians for Amenhotep III’s mortuary complex, which once stood behind them,” In 27 B.C., a fierce earthquake in Luxor caused severe damages to both statues. Moreover, many cracks appeared in both statues’ sides resulting in strange sounds emanating as the wind whistled through the cracks. These cracks have subsequently been repaired (3rd century AD) and the statues no longer sing across the desert.
Valley of the kings (3 tombs)
Probably the most famous of the Kings’ tombs, is that of Tutankhamun (sometimes called “King Tut”). He ruled from 1333 BC until his death in 1323 BC. His tomb is more significant than his short reign. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s largely intact tomb in 1922 is considered one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in the modern era.
Tutankhamun was nine years of age when he ascended to the throne after the death of the king. The “boy king” was counselled by two chief advisers. Tutankhamun died at the youthful age of only19. For many years it was believed that he died of an infected broken leg. However, in 2010, scientists found traces of malaria parasites in Tutankhamun’s remains, indicating that malaria, perhaps in combination with degenerative bone disease, may have been the cause of death.
Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter on November 26, 1922. At the time of Carter’s discovery, Tutankhamun’s tomb was still largely intact. Once inside the tomb, Carter found rooms filled with treasure. This included statues, gold jewellery, Tutankhamun’s mummy, chariots, model boats, canopic jars, chairs, and paintings
Among the world’s most famous curses is the “Curse of the Pharaoh,” also known as King Tut’s Curse. Ever since King Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, stories circulated that those who dared violate the boy king’s final resting place faced a terrible curse. It is widely claimed that many people associated with opening the tomb fell soon victim to the curse, dying under mysterious circumstances.
What a pleasure to return to our ship every day. A little sanctuary away from the hot and dusty temples, the persistent vendors and the “baksheesh” demanding beggars. We enjoyed a day of cruising and soaked up the sun on our deck-chairs, admiring the scenery that slid endlessly by.
We passed little villages, small harbours and observed the locals going about their agricultural pursuits. For thousands of years, this river has provided a source of irrigation to transform the dry area around it into lush agricultural land. Today, the river continues to serve as a source of irrigation, as well as an important transportation and trade route between Africa and Europe.
The Nile River flows from south to north through eastern Africa. It begins in Lake Victoria (located in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya), and empties into the Mediterranean Sea more than 6,600 kilometers to the north, making it the longest river in the world.
The soil of the Nile River is rich in nutrients, due to the large silt deposits the Nile leaves behind as it flows into the sea. The banks of the Nile all along its vast length contain rich soil as well, thanks to annual flooding that deposits silt. Apparently from space, the contrast between the Nile’s lush green river banks and the barren desert through which it flows is remarkable.
For millennia, much of Egypt’s food has been cultivated in the Nile delta region. Ancient Egyptians developed irrigation methods to increase the amount of land they could use for crops and support a thriving population.
The Nile River delta was also an ideal growing location for the papyrus plant. Besides using the river’s natural resources for themselves and trading them with others, early Egyptians also used the river for bathing, drinking, recreation, and transportation.
Today, 95 percent of Egyptians live within a few kilometers of the Nile. Canals bring water from the Nile to irrigate farms and support cities. The Nile supports agriculture and fishing. The Nile also has served as an important transportation route for thousands of years.
The impressive Temple of Horus at Edfu was preserved beneath sand dunes for about 2,000 years, until the 19th century when French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette rediscovered the site. It is regarded to be one of the best preserved shrines in Egypt. The temple was built in the Ptolemaic Kingdom between 237 and 57 BC. The inscriptions on its walls provide important information on language, myth and religion during the Hellenistic period in Egypt. Andru launched into the story of the ancient myth: this is where the falcon-headed god, Horus, fought a battle with his uncle, Seth, who had cruelly murdered Horus’s father Osiris. Horus represents the power and importance of the sun and sky in all aspects of ancient Egyptian life. He serves as the provider and protector of the Egyptian people, especially the pharaohs. Geoff took a liking to Horus, the majestic bird with the sun shining out of his eyes.
As Egyptian Gods go, my preference is for the wiley-looking Anubis. Anubis was a jackal-headed deity who invented and presided over the embalming process and accompanied dead kings in the afterworld. When kings were being judged by Osiris, Anubis placed their hearts on one side of a scale and a feather on the other. (The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart recorded all of the good and bad deeds of a person’s life.)
After our temple visit we strolled around the marketplace and stopped at a cafe for tea and refreshments. Geoff partook of a hookah (when in Rome…)
Kom Ombo temple
Standing on a promontory at a bend in the Nile, where in ancient times sacred crocodiles basked in the sun on the riverbank, is the Temple of Kom Ombo, one of the Nile Valley’s most beautifully sited temples. Unique in Egypt, it is dedicated to two gods; the local crocodile god Sobek, and Horus.
The Egyptians knew that building the Aswan Dam would destroy a collection of impressive temples of the ancient world. But controlling the fickle waters of the River Nile for agriculture and hydroelectric power trumped architectural preservation.
So, back in 1899, work began on the first Aswan Dam, sometimes referred to as the Aswan Low Dam. Completed in 1902, the structure plugged up the Nile and created an artificial body of water, Lake Nasser. And from December to March, Philae Temple, one of many such casualties, sat mostly engulfed, only its top peeking above the water. This dam would have completely flooded Philae. So UNESCO drove an ambitious project, from 1972 to 1980, to move the temple, brick by numbered brick, to its current home, on Agilkia Island in Aswan.
The Aswan Dam, or more specifically since the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam, is the world’s largest embankment dam, which was built across the Nile in Aswan, Egypt, between 1960 and 1970.
The High Dam was constructed between 1960 and 1970. Its aim was to increase the amount of hydroelectric power, regulate the flooding of the Nile and increase agricultural production. The Aswan High Dam is 3,830 metres long, 980 metres wide at the base, 40 metres wide at the crest (the top) and 111 metres tall. There are several negative side effects that have emerged. Most costly is the gradual decrease in the fertility of agricultural lands in the Nile delta, which used to benefit from the millions of tons of silt deposited annually by the Nile floods. This sediment that used to flow north, enriching the soil and building the delta, has begun to build up behind the dam. Instead of growing in size through the soil deposits, the delta is now shrinking due to erosion along the Mediterranean Sea. In addition, routine annual flooding no longer occurs along parts of the Nile. These floods were necessary to flush and clean the water of human and agricultural waste. As a result, the water is becoming more dangerously polluted. Some Egyptian fishermen say the water is now so toxic that they dare not eat the fish they catch.
We wandered around admiring the Aswan dam complex on Lake Nasser. We watched the felucca sailboats manoeuvring expertly up and down the Nile River. We avoided the pushy vendors who wouldn’t take “no thanks” for an answer. Geoff eventually snapped at a forceful salesman and then felt very sheepish as he realised how hurt the guy was by the rejection. Dad had a particularly obtrusive lady in the gent’s loo, insisting on “selling” a square of toilet paper; Mom was accosted by a persistent Egyptian man who seemed to think she might be interested in starting a relationship with him. All part of the intriguing adventure that makes Egypt – Egypt!
Antony to Cleopatra:
“Egypt, thou knew’st too well
My heart was to thy rudder tied by th’ strings,
And thou shouldst tow me after. O’er my spirit
Thy full supremacy thou knew’st, and that
Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods
(Willam Shakespeare, 1606)