The harsh, lunar landscape of the Valley of the Kings is the resting place of numerous New Kingdom pharaohs, whose remains were interred in tombs burrowed into rock. The 60-odd tombs which have been discovered (which may represent only half of the total tombs in the area) are identified by number rather than the name of their original inhabitant, and a handful of tombs are closed at any one time for restoration. Nonetheless there is more than enough to see, and it is better to pick out a representative sample rather than try to see every tomb.
Grave-robbers and museums have nabbed the items which were supposed to accompany rulers into the afterlife, but you can still see the work of some of the finest artisans of the ancient world, who glorified pharaohs in frescoes and wall reliefs. Graffiti shows that this extraordinary ensemble of antiquities was already a tourist attraction for the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza still live up to more than 4,000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow alien constructions; they seem to rise out of the desert and pose the ever-fascinating question, 'How were we built, and why?' The oldest and biggest pyramid is that of Cheops, and you can go inside this one if you don't suffer from claustrophobia. Once they were covered in smooth white marble but that was taken for temples over the centuries, but you can imagine how even more impressive they would have been then. Climbing on the pyramids is strictly banned.The sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza still live up to more than 4,000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow alien constructions; they seem to rise out of the desert and pose the ever-fascinating question, 'How were we built, and why?'
Philae was a holy island in the Nile River where the ancient Egyptians built a temple to the goddess Isis. With the projects to dam the Nile - first with the Aswan Dam, then later in the 1960s with the High Aswan Dam - the island became increasingly submerged and the temple threatened. As part of UNESCO's project to rescue the ancient monuments threatened by the river damming, the island was itself dammed, surrounded by a high wall, until all the water was gone and the building could be cut into sections and moved. The project took 10 years.
Now the temple is on the higher, nearby Agilka Island and worthy of a visit. Isis was a very important goddess in ancient times. She was known as the Mother of God, giver of life, protector and healer of kings and her temple was once the site of many pilgrimages.
With so much to see in the Egyptian Museum, trying to get around everything in one go is liable to induce chronic 'Pharaonic fatigue'. The best strategy is to make at least two visits, maybe tackling one floor at a time. Unfortunately, there's no best time to visit as the museum is packed throughout the day.
Without doubt, the exhibit that outshines everything else is the treasure of the young New Kingdom Pharaoh Tutankhamun - don't miss the astonishing solid-gold death mask. Other highlights include the Royal Mummy Room; the Amarna Room, devoted to Akhenaten, the 'heretic king' portrayed with Mick Jagger-like lips; the Greco-Roman Mummies; the glittering galleries in Room 2 that display an astounding array of finery extracted from New Kingdom tombs found at the Delta site of Tanis; and the larger-than-life-size statue of Khafre (Chephren), which many consider to be the museum's masterpiece.
The enormous Luxor Temple was one of the great constructions of the New Kingdom (dating from the 14th century BC) dedicated to the god Amun. It was known as the “Southern Sanctuary” and was the site of ceremonies aimed at encouraging the life-giving Nile floods.
Once through the processional Avenue of Sphinxes you come to the First Pylon, which announces the phenomenal scale of the stonework here: statues, columns and obelisks all compete with each other in a race to the sky.
Ensuing civilizations have also left their marks: there’s a shrine erected by Alexander the Great, Roman wall frescoes as well as a 14th century AD mosque, ensuring this remains a place of worship in the present day.
The vast Temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari rivals the Pyramids as one of the great funerary monuments of the ancient world. Built into the towering cliff face which shelter the Valley of the Kings on the other side, it rises on three enormous terraces connected by ramps, each level marked with a colonnade of stark, largely unadorned square pillars.
Its namesake was one of the few female pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who not unfairly called her monument “Splendor of Splendors”. However, much of the construction dated from earlier rulers, starting with Mentuhotep II in 2050 BC. Numerous sphinxes and other statues have since disappeared, making the whole structure appear even more monolithic.
The cool stone interior provides welcome relief from the pitiless heat of this region, and features well-preserved wall reliefs and hieroglyphics, some in brilliant colors.
Little remains of the once impressive Amenhotep’s memorial temple. But the two imposing statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, erected to guard the ancient entrance, still stand watch some 3,400 years later. Today, travelers can venture to the shores of the Nile, just across from the city of Luxor, and revel at the giant manmade sculptures.
In addition to these impressive twin statues, travelers can check out two smaller figures of the Pharaoh’s wife, Tiy, and mother, Mutemwia. Visitors can also get an up close look at the sandstone panel carvings that showcase images of the Nile god Hapy. Even if most of the Colossi has been lost to weather an the ages, travelers can still get a sense of the wonder this site once held.
Built in the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam was an engineering marvel at the time and changed the face of Egypt. It increased the cultivable land by 30% and doubled Egypt's available electricity supply. It also created Lake Nasser, at the time the world's largest artificial lake, which would have covered the important Abu Simbel Temple monuments if not for the support of UNESCO and a worldwide appeal for funds to move them to higher ground, a massive feat which was successfully achieved.
The dam itself is massive, containing 18 times the material used to build the famous Pyramid of Cheops at Giza. It is 11,811 feet (3,600 meters) long, 3,215 ft (980 m) thick at the base, and 364 ft (111 m) tall. Today, it provides visitors with wonderful views up and down the Nile River.
Measuring 4,150 miles (6,680 kilometers) from end to end, the Nile River is the world’s longest and arguably the most important in the region. Egypt’s some 83 million residents, living along the edge of the pitiless Sahara Desert, have always relied on the waters of the Nile for basic sustenance.
More than 240 riverboats sail up and down the waters of the Nile River between Luxor and Aswan, and cruising on one of them tops many an Egyptian travel itinerary. Along the way, you’ll make stops at a few of the countless temples dotting the shore, including the Temple of Edfu, built in honor of the god Horus and better maintained than any other Pharaonic structure along the river, and the Temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek.
At Aswan, marvel at the controversial Aswan High Dam, a feat of engineering responsible for harnessing the Nile and creating the world’s largest artificial lake.
Old Cairo is a relatively small area but it is rich with history. Also known as Coptic Cairo, Fustat (in reference to the first Muslim city established there), and Masr al-Qadima to the locals, it has been inhabited since the 6th century BC. It has been a Roman fort protecting trade routes, a Christian city from around the 5th century AD, a Muslim army camp from 641 AD, then Egypt's capital city until yet another conquest in the 10th century.
The main interest these days is in its role as Coptic Cairo. The narrow cobbled streets contain the Religious Compound, full of churches including the Hanging Church (dedicated to the Virgin Mary and still in use), the oldest synagogue in Egypt, the remains of the Roman fortress, and the Coptic Museum. Just northeast is the site of ancient Fustat which contains the oldest mosque, Amr Ibn al-Aas.
The Great Sphinx of Giza is the greatest monumental sculpture of the ancient world and measures a massive 240 ft (73 m) long by 66 ft (20 m) high. It is generally believed to have been built around 2,550 BC but may well be even older. Legends and superstitions abound about the Sphinx, and the mystery surrounding its long-forgotten purpose is almost as intriguing as its appearance.
These days the Sphinx has been given a new role as part of a nightly Sound and Light show telling the history of Egypt with the Sphinx as narrator. Several times each evening, colored lights bounce off the pyramids as the story of an ancient world is told.
Jaundiced travelers often dismiss the Khan al-Khalili as a tourist trap; there's no ignoring the fact that it's a favored stop of tour buses and has all the associated annoyances (touts and tat) that come with them. But it's worth remembering that Cairenes have plied their trades here since the founding of the Khan in the 14th century - the buying and selling didn't begin with the arrival of the first tour group.
Today the market still plays an important role in the day-to-day commercial life of thousands of locals. In its narrow streets you can buy anything from shoes to souvenirs to clothes, chess sets, cushions, ceramics, brass, gold, silver, rugs, fabrics and on it goes.
The city of Memphis was the capital of ancient Egypt. It was the King's residence and the political and administrative centre until around 2,200 BC. It had impressive fortifications and temples, largely to Ptah, the god of creation and artworks. Estimates of population vary from 6,000 to 30,000 but either way, it was one of the larger, if not the largest, cities of its era.
Archaeological digging in the area has uncovered a Temple of Ptah and sculptures, including a sphinx (smaller than the one at Giza but still impressive), and the Colossus of Ramses II. These are now housed in the outdoor Memphis Museum in Mit Rihina, the modern town in this area. In 1979, UNESCO designated the area a World Heritage Site.
One of the oldest of the world's famous skylines, the Pyramids of Giza have had no trouble commanding attention throughout the centuries. Their mysterious history permeates the plateau from which they rise, and one of the three in particular, the Pyramid of Khafre, has its own tale to tell.
Also known as Pyramid Chephren, this tomb was built under the direction of the fourth-dynasty Pharaoh Khafre. Its condition and elevation give it the appearance of the largest of the pyramids, although it is actually several feet shorter than the tallest pyramid of Giza, the towering Great Pyramid. The Valley Temple and Mortuary Temple help make up the Khafre pyramid complex, and the Great Sphinx stands nearby.
Sprawling over a limestone spur on the eastern edge of the city, the Citadel of Saladin (or Al-Qalaa) was home to Egypt's rulers for some 700 years. Their legacy is a collection of three very different mosques, including the Mosque of Mohamed Ali, several palaces (housing some underwhelming museums such as the police and military museums) and a couple of terraces with city views.
The area was fortified around 1180 to protect it from the Crusaders. In the 1860s, ruler Khedive Ismail moved to newly built Abdin Palace, ending the citadel's role as the seat of government.
Think of Dahshur as pyramid-proving grounds: Although not nearly as famous at the pyramids of Giza, the structures here pre-date the Great Pyramids and highlight the engineering progress and understanding that took place on the way from a stepped structure to a true pyramid. The royal necropolis at Dahshur comprises a two-mile (3.5-kilometer) field of pyramids that date back between the fourth and 12th dynasties, and although 11 structures once dotted the landscape, only two remain: the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. Nearly identical in size, these two pyramids are the third-largest in the country after the two biggest at Giza. The Red Pyramid is the older of the two and the only one that visitors can actually enter.
The Unfinished Obelisk is a huge discarded granite obelisk. Three sides of the shaft, which is nearly 138 feet (42m) long, were completed except for the inscriptions. At 1,168 tonnes, the completed obelisk would have been the single heaviest piece of stone the Egyptians ever fashioned. However, a crack appeared in the rock at a late stage in the process. So it lies where the disappointed stonemasons abandoned it, still partly attached to the parent rock, with no indication of what it was intended for. It does give us an excellent insight into how these massive stone sculptures were made however.
Upon entering the quarry, steps lead down from the surrounding ramp into the pit of the obelisk where there are ancient pictographs of dolphins and ostriches or flamingos, thought to have been painted by workers at the quarry.
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Hanging Church, which is still in use, is called the Hanging or Suspended Church as it is built on top of the Water Gate of Roman Babylon. Steep stairs lead from the forecourt to a 19th -century façade topped by twin bell towers. Beyond is a small inner courtyard, usually filled with sellers of taped liturgies and videos of the Coptic pope, Shenouda III.
The interior of this 9th-century (some say 7th-century) church, renovated many times throughout the centuries, has three barrel-vaulted, wooden-roofed aisles. Ivory-inlaid screens hide the three haikal s (altar areas), but in front of them, raised on 13 slender pillars that represent Christ and his disciples, is a fine pulpit used only on Palm Sunday. One of the pillars, darker than the rest, is said to symbolize Judas. In the baptistry, off to the right, a panel has been cut out of the floor revealing the Water Gate below. From here there is a good view of one of the gate's twin towers.
The citadel of Saladin - and indeed, the Cairo skyline - is dominated by the Alabaster Mosque, or Mosque of Mohammed Ali. Modelled along classic Turkish lines, it took 18 years to build (1830 - 1848) although later the domes had to be rebuilt. It was commissioned by Mohammad Ali, ruler of Egypt from 1805 - 1849, who lies in the marble tomb on the right as you enter.
Perhaps the most evocative description of it is in Olivia Manning's The Levant Trilogy: "Above them Mohammed Ali's alabaster mosque, uniquely white in this sand-coloured city, sat with minarets pricked, like a fat, white, watchful cat." It has never found much favor with writers, who have criticized it for being unimaginative, lacking in grace and resembling a great toad. Note the chintzy clock in the central courtyard, a gift from King Louis-Philippe of France in thanks for the Pharaonic obelisk that adorns the Place de la Concorde in Paris. It was damaged on delivery and has yet to be repaired.
The boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, who ruled the New Kingdom in the 14th century, enjoys fame disproportionate to his short reign and modest achievements. This is mostly due to the discovery of his largely intact tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, his mummy adorned by a dazzling gold mask (now in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, along with most of the tomb’s other bling).
Having risked the curse said to await anyone who disturbs the tomb’s rest, visitors may be slightly disappointed by its modest scale and relative lack of adornment. “King Tut” is, however, still in residence, his linen-wrapped mummy visible in a glass box watched over by richly colored wall paintings.
Sandwiched between the ruins of Abu and the Mövenpick resort hotel are two colorful Nubian Villages, Siou and Koti. Strolling through their shady alleys and gardens is a wonderful way to experience life on modern Elephantines. A north-south path across the middle of Elephantine Island links the two villages and about halfway along is the Nubian Café, with a shady garden beside a traditional Nubian house.
Close to the wall separating the Mövenpick from Siou village is Nubian House, where the owner serves tea, sells Nubian handicrafts, and can arrange live music and dancing or henna 'tattoos' with local women. Western women should be respectful of local tradition and wear modest clothes.
Ben Ezra Synagogue used to be a Christian place of worship by the name of El-Shamieen Church and according to a legend, the building was built on the exact spot where Moses was found as a baby in his basket. However, when the Coptic Christians owning it weren’t able to pay the annual taxes imposed by the Muslim rulers any longer, they had to sell the church. It was sold to Abraham Ben Ezra, who purchased the building in 882 AD for 20,000 dinars and turned it into a Jewish synagogue.
The synagogue became a place where North African Jews congregated for major festivals and famous rabbis came to worship on their visits to Cairo. Then, during a restoration in 1890, the most famous and diverse Geniza in the world was found. In an empty space below the roof, roughly 300,000 priceless manuscripts were hidden away, a collection that is now known as the Cairo Geniza. The manuscripts have long since been transferred to different libraries.
The Giftun Islands are a popular excursion from Hurghada, offering snorkeling, diving, sunbathing and a welcome retreat from the mainland bustle.
Offshore reefs provide spectacular drop-offs for experienced divers, hiding moray eels and fish in amongst the corals. Closer to shore, the coral reef snorkeling is superb.
The islands are famous for their pristine protected beaches, and a resort on the larger island provides all the facilities you need for a day by the sea, along with tours and windsurfing.