Ever since visiting Egypt in February of this year, I’ve been meaning to write a travel blog. Together with Marein Meijer, who works at the National Museum of Antiquities (check out the awesome exhibition she made), I spent a couple of days in Cairo and over a week in Luxor. In light of the recent troubles in Egypt, I thought it would be interesting to share my experiences here.
As Egyptologists, we share a passion for an ancient culture that has left more traces in the archaeological record than we can ever imagine to visit (both in Egypt and outside of it in museums). But there is also a hugely complex present-day country to reckon with, with its own history, problems and charms. When I visited Egypt for the first time, I was twelve years old, and I could only be impressed by Cairo’s bustle, the fantastic Pharaonic monuments and the great river Nile. When I studied and travelled there for a longer period at age 21, I had more eye for the pollution, inequality and hardship that goes with living in Egypt, although needless to say always from an outsider perspective. It was both a bewildering and enriching experience that made me appreciate the country and its people even more, despite some near-death experiences featuring different modes of transportation. Since then, I have returned both for archaeological projects and holidays.
Cairo: white sheets in a dusty city
Last February, some people discouraged me to go to Egypt. I appreciated their concern, but went nevertheless. Every time something happens in the region that reaches the news, I re-evaluate whether I think it is wise to go, where to go and what to do once I get there. A couple of years ago, it was still OK to travel to Middle Egypt and the Sinai. Now, when visiting Saqqara (a one-hour drive from Cairo), we took a taxi arranged by the hostel and told everyone where we were going. Also, I check whether people I know are in Egypt. Fellow archaeologists, Egyptologists and students. Since the NVIC’s Cairo semester wasn’t cancelled, colleagues were guiding tour groups and others went on holiday as well, I figured it would be relatively safe to go. Reasons to visit Egypt in February were the event of the Cairo Book Fair, the fact that it was now possible to take photographs in the Cairo Museum, and that three news tombs were open for visitors in Luxor. And because Egypt is a great place to escape from the boring Dutch winter.
This mother of cities, the city that never sleeps, has everything to offer from museums, ancient sites and Islamic architecture to endless markets, luxury spas and shopping, the cheapest and best food, Egyptian and foreign, from sushi to koshari, thousands of taxis, smog, dust, green parks and soaring buildings, hidden gems and abounding friendliness.
In Cairo, we stayed at Dahab Hostel, which is cheap and centrally located on the rooftop of a building just off Talat Harb Square. The elevator is ancient, and the upper floor is only accessible by stairs, but the rooftop is surprisingly colourful and cozy, with pretty desert plants and rickety seats. The staff is friendly, there is free WIFI and they will pick you up from the airport for a very decent rate (75 LE). It was exceptionally cold in Cairo when we were there, so I ended up sleeping with my clothes on, but I imagine this is not very common. Also, the rooms and facilities are very basic, but if you’re the hippie type, you’ll survive. Hotels in Zamalek, a district on Gezira Island where a lot of foreigners live, are way more expensive, but will probably speak more to those who seek actual comfort during their holidays. The five star hotels on the corniche (along the banks of the Nile) I have never been able to afford, although I always enjoy a visit to the glittering toilets of the former Nile Hilton, now Nile Ritz-Carlton.
Dahab Hostel: rickety but colourful
There is a Coptic bakery on the corner of Talat Harb for breakfast needs, and for Egyptian food Felfela (both a restaurant and take-away) is the place to be. If you like a varied menu, Zamalek is your destination. You will find all kinds of food here, from sushi to Korean (Hana Barbecue) and Egyptian chic (Abou El Sid). Also, pasta is available in abundance, at La Bodega (great vegetarian couscous as well), La Mezzaluna, Didos Al Dente and my latest discovery: O’s Pasta. Housed in a tiny space opposite Abou El Sid, it offers some of the best pasta I have ever tasted. The menu is small but excellent, and they serve surprisingly tasty herb juices, with ingredients like mint and basil. If you’re in for a party (and have money to spare), head to Sequoia. This hip club on the tip of the island has a cover charge, but once you’re in you might as well feast on overpriced screwdrivers, shisha and sushi. For an American-type breakfast or lunch with pancakes, Oreo shakes and salmon sandwiches, Beano’s is the place to go to. It’s located both in Downton (in Mohammed Mahmoud Street off Tahrir Square) and in Zamalek (near the Marriott hotel). Expect blazing airco, friendly staff and a place to sit for as long as you like, while charging your phone or working on your laptop. Alternatively, there is the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, which has good cappuccino and cheesecake.
Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf
During the few days we were in Cairo, we visited the Egyptian Museum, Giza and Saqqara. On all itineraries these are a must.
The Egyptian Museum is hard to miss: a great pink building just off Tahrir Square, which is now surprisingly calm, and has traffic lights (!). In the garden, some pieces of Pharaonic artwork can already be admired, such as the granite sphinx on which people like to place their children in order to pose for photographs (!). On the left end of the garden, you’ll find the tomb of Auguste Mariette, founder of the museum. After a decade, it is now allowed to take photographs again inside the museum. This rule however has some flaws in its implementation. Outside, you can buy a photo ticket for 50 LE, but when you try to enter the museum with more than one camera, you are required to either buy a second photo ticket or hand in one of your cameras at the booth outside. This causes the occasional frustration among tourists. Furthermore, you are not allowed to take photographs with your smartphone. This sub-rule however is very ambiguously applied, as Egyptians are constantly taking photographs with their smartphone, with or without placing their children on ancient statues in order to pose for the photo (!). Also, for some reason you are not allowed to take photographs of the mask of Tutankhamun and of the Tanis treasure.
Since the museum has hardly changed its appearance since the 19th century, lighting is of inferior quality, and many splendid pieces are left in the dark, making them hard to photograph. In spite of the hard work of the personnel to clean the glass of the showcases, some of it (especially with the sarcophagi on the second floor) is still monumental glass that is yellow and wavy. Having said this, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is still the most splendid collection of Egyptian artefacts you will find in the world, until the Grand Egyptian Museum will be ready in a couple of years. Perhaps then the bowels of the museum (its basement, filled to the brim with objects sometimes unseen since their excavation) can be brought to light and its contents studied by hundreds of Egyptologists for the next century to come. One can only dream.
Giza is a place of wonder, but also of mixed emotions. The pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure are splendid as they tower over the city below, but the truth is that these monuments are now almost completely surrounded by development on all sides. This can be aptly spotted on Google Earth. All along the edge from Abu Roash north of Giza to Medum, 65 km to the south, the remains are shattered of mortuary architecture from the Old Kingdom to the Late Period. Pyramid complexes, sun temples, mastaba tombs, rock-cut tombs, temple tombs, shaft tombs and other monuments are under threat from development, tourism and, in some cases, illegal digging. It is a double feeling that tourism both holds the key to the preservation of sites through the generating of the funds for their upkeep, and the attention rendered, but also eventually to their demise. The mastaba fields surrounding the pyramids of Giza are littered with refuse, while camels are stationed between the monuments, and tombs and pyramid chambers are used as toilets by guards.
While in the Netherlands, you are often not allowed entrance to a museum with a large bag or backpack, in Egypt tourists can scour decorated tomb walls with their backpack without problem. Also, guards encourage people to touch certain hieroglyphs for ‘good luck’, causing oil stains on the walls of temples and tombs. There is an unwritten rule that photography is allowed inside temples, but not in tombs. I’m wondering whether this has to with the Islamic belief and respect for the dead, but since modern flash photography doesn’t harm coloured surfaces, and photography is usually allowed anyway after five minutes of small talk and a tip at the end of your visit, it seems like a useless rule. In fact, crowdsourced images of tomb decoration shared online can be a great base for scientific research and even (3D) reconstructions, before the originals are slowly deteriorated.
A great monument to visit in Giza is the mastaba of Meresankh III, who was the granddaughter of Khufu and wife of king Khafre. Her tomb is splendidly decorated with painted reliefs showing her and her entourage, and with statues half emerging from the bedrock. The relief scenes are elegant in their Old Kingdom stiffness. Although several signs are placed to guide the visitor towards this tomb, the mastaba streets can be maze-like, but you can always find a friendly guard or tourist police officer to show you the way. There will always be several mastaba chapels open for visitors at any time in the Eastern Cemetery, so just ask around until you’ve located them. Of course, there is also the Sphinx to view down the causeway, next to Khafre’s valley temple. This is a great place to end the day, enjoying the bustle of touts and senselessly scarcely-clad tourists. If you’re hungry by now (always bring plenty of water and salty food), Pizza Hut has a great view of the plateau.
Pyramids in the rain
One of my favourite sites in Egypt is Saqqara. Containing both the most ancient and youngest monuments in Egyptian history, this is a great place to spend the day. Prepare for lots of walking. We paid 200 LE for a taxi through the hostel, that would drop us off at 9 and pick us up at 4, when the site closed. During this time we subsequently visited the Djoser complex, Egypt’s oldest stone monument and first pyramid in history, the mastabas of Idut, Unisankh and Niankhkhnum & Khnumhotep (or ‘Two Brothers’), the New Kingdom necropolis with the tombs of Maya (including its underground chambers now located in the first courtyard), Horemheb, Pay & Raia and Meryneith, the mastabas of Ti, Mereruka and Kagemni and the pyramid of Teti. Bring plenty of water, bananas, crisps and small change for tips. Take your time even though the guards sometimes tend to hurry you through a monument. Always try to locate the right guard with the right key first. Be patient. And in case no guard is around but the door is open, gently switch on the light before you enter and off when you leave (!). Part of the tickets can be bought at the ticket office at the foot of the plateau, part next to the entrance to the pyramid of Djoser. You are free to roam the site on your own, and this is a wonderful experience of desolation whilst enjoying the beauty of the Saqqara desert.
We had planned our stay in Cairo to coincide with the Cairo International Book Fair. As a big fan of both the Diwan and AUC Press bookstores, this was a bit of a Walhalla for me. This is your chance to spend big on discounted study-related books about Egyptology, but also translated Arabic literature and English literature. We didn’t even come round to the second-hand books. The book fair is located at the Nasr City fairgrounds, in the direction of the Airport. Entry is 1 LE. Be amazed at the size of this book fair, the amount of (Arabic-language) publishers present, and the crowd it attracts from all ages. I could find everything on my list and more. The rest of the afternoon we spent at the City Stars mall, with its own grand piano, glass elevator, fountains, cinema and food court.
Luxor is a place to wind down and relax, but also the starting point for dozens of trips to temples, tombs and more temples and tombs. A big open-air museum, but also a conglomeration of villages each with their own character.
When in Luxor, I love staying on the West Bank of the Nile, as it is more cosy and quiet than the East Bank, and has smaller hotels that are cheaper. Most of the sites are located on the West Bank, and the East Bank is a convenient boat ride away. The only thing is that the airport is located on the East Bank, so you either have to take a long detour via the bridge, or let the taxi drop you off at the municipal ferry (1 LE) and take a small motor boat (5 to 10 LE) to cross the Nile. The Nile Valley Hotel is located conveniently next to the ferry on the West Bank, and has Nile View, a roof terrace and a swimming pool. It is run by Karin, a friendly Dutch woman, and her Egyptian husband Hamada, who speaks Dutch as well. The staff is kind and well-trained, and the owners regularly check in to ask if all is according to wish.
Nile Valley Hotel
Eating is one of my favourite occupations, and there is plenty of food to be had in Luxor. Fresh fruit and vegetables abound, but you’ll find that a lot of food is very fatty. Live in Luxor and you’ll easily gain a hundred pounds. On the West Bank, I love the Amon Hotel with its well-groomed tropical garden. There is no menu to choose from, but sit down and the kind grandfather will bring you bread, tahina, soup, salad, meat/fish/chicken, rice and stews with potato and aubergine until you’re at bursting point, and a little something with puff pastry for dessert. After this copious meal, accompanied with fruit juice and tea, you are presented with a bill that is so modest that you’ll think they’ve made a mistake. Love this place.
In between sight-seeing on the West Bank, there is the conveniently located Marsam (former Sheikh Ali), a hotel that is swarming with archaeologists during the fall/winter season. Nothing is as rewarding as sipping lemon juice in the shaded garden of Marsam, with a view of green fields and the Memnon Colossi in the distance. For lunch, you are presented with the choice between fish, meat and/or chicken, and the scene of Amon Hotel repeats itself. This is the point of getting fat in Luxor: copious breakfasts (tea, coffee, fruit juice, omelet and bread with feta cheese), lunches and dinners. But for desert wanderings, popping in and out of tombs and cycling to distant temples, this is exactly the food you crave.
On the East Bank, one of my favourites is Sofra for Egyptian chic. I love their geometric tiles and classic Egyptian entourage. Reserve some time for dinner here on the screened terrace, whilst enjoying perfect fresh fruit juice (pomegranate!) and mezze, and the noise of a nearby wedding. The stews here are delicious, presented in simmering clay dishes. Rice has to be ordered on the side. Another favourite place is Pizza Roma in El-Mahdi Street, with its delicious pizzas and pastas, and when they can get hold of mascarpone, wonderful tiramisu.
There is no end to things to be seen in and around Luxor. We took a motor boat to Karnak temple, where we spent the morning roaming the forest of giant columns in the hypostyle hall, and examined the remains of this vast temple complex. For 1 LE we took a local microbus back to the city center. The next day we rented a bike for 15 LE on the West Bank, and cycled first to the Memnon Colossi and ticket office, and then to the temple of Seti I, where we were the sole visitors. After lunch at Marsam we visited the Ramesseum, whose ruins now have an open-air feeling to them, offering a splendid view of the mountains of Thebes. We spent one morning at the Luxor Museum, which unlike the Cairo Museum is set up in a modern way with well-lit artefacts and clear signage. At the time, photography was not allowed but I believe that a ticket can be bought for this now as well. We reserved a day for the newly opened tombs at Qurnet Murai and nearby Deir el-Medina. Qurnet Murai is located opposite of the ticket office on the slope of the hill that still has some houses of old Qurna on it. The following tombs were open: Amenemhab (TT 277), Amenemone (TT 278) and Amenhotep-Huy (TT 40).
The latter is famous for its scenes of foreign peoples and exotic animals. All three tombs are beautifully painted, sometimes in a touchingly awkward way. After this we walked on to Deir el-Medina, the workmen’s village where the artists lived who decorated the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, with their tiny houses, some of which we know the inhabitants by name and trade. The hoard of documentary ostraca found here paint a lively picture of the town’s inhabitants during the New Kingdom, and to add to this we have found many of the elaborately painted tombs of these people. The tombs of Sennedjem, Inerkha and Pashedu were open for visitors, and there is a small but pleasant Ptolemaic temple to be seen as well.
The next day, we paid 110 LE for a taxi that would take us to the Valley of the Kings and Deir el-Bahri. In the Valley of the Kings, we visited the awesome tombs of Thutmose III (up in the mountainside), Siptah, Tausert/Setnakht, Seti II, Horemheb (newly reopened, great in showing the phases of the decoration process) and Ramses V/VI. The mortuary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri is lovely for an end-of-the-day visit, when the temperature drops and the place is less crowded. This elegant terraced temple offers great sculpted and painted decoration of Hatshepsut’s rise to power and expedition to the land of Punt. You can see her mother Ahmose, pregnant from the god Amun, and marvel at the Hathor sanctuary against a backdrop of rocky cliffs. Hatshepsut’s image as king is neatly chiseled out by a later ruler, as it didn’t fit the traditional story of male kingship. From the upper terrace, the temple of Karnak on the other side of the Nile can be glimpsed, emphasizing Hatshepsut’s godly claim. This year, a new part of the temple was opened for the public, being the temple of the solar cult on the right side of the third court.
Another day was reserved for Tombs of the Nobles, at Qurna (Userhat, Khonsu and Benia), Khokha (Nefersekheru, Djehutymes and Neferrenpet) and the Asasif (Pabasa and Kheruef). Tickets for the Qurna/Khokha tombs can be purchased at the regular ticket office, for the Asasif tombs at Deir el-Bahri. Most of these are New Kingdom tombs, except Pabasa, which belongs to an important figure from the Saite Period. There are plenty more to be seen at Qurna and Dra Abu el-Naga, but these we had visited previously.
The next day it was off to Abydos and Dendera. For this it is best to order a minivan with a small group, as it makes the journey significantly cheaper. It is best to take the Desert Road, although for some reason this well paved road is deemed unsafe by the local police, and tourists are required to take the much longer, bumpy and tedious road along the Nile. However, taking the Desert Road will allow you to view both locations in one day, which is really worth it. At Abydos, there is the brilliant temple of Seti I to be seen, which has its roof intact and contains beautiful relief decoration. The enigmatic Osireion is located at the back. Heading northwest from the temple on a sandy road into the village, you will soon stumble upon the temple of Ramses II, which doesn’t appear to have a clear ticket office, but has some beautifully painted scenes still in place. After a further drive to Dendera, the Ptolemaic temple there offers a splendid ceiling (half-cleaned from thick black soot) and unfortunately damaged Hathor columns. There are two stairs leading up to the roof, a long and straight one and a short winding one (sounds like life, doesn’t it?), from which a great view is offered over the surrounding mudbrick enclosure wall. The astronomical ceiling that once adorned one of the sanctuaries on the roof is now housed in the Louvre museum. Don’t forget to check out the lake by the side of the temple, now empty safe for some palm trees.
On our last day in Luxor, we strolled through the Luxor temple by night, located in the middle of town. After its demise as a temple, the site was subsequently used as a Roman military camp, Coptic church and 19th century housing area, and it contains a working mosque to this day. Afterwards, we went to the hectic Soukh for some souvenirs. Habiba is a nice quiet store in one of the first side streets on the left hand side, owned by a kind Australian lady. Here, the items are pre-priced and you can browse in peace. The Happy Time is Egypt’s equivalent to MacDonald’s, offering fries, milkshakes, panini and a view of the Luxor Temple from its balcony. Thus ended our wonderful trip.
As I see it now, I would gladly return to Egypt for a holiday or study project. So far, I have never felt unsafe there. That said, it is always wise to exercise common sense when visiting a foreign country, and to respect the rules and ways of its people.
Luxor Temple by night