Highlights of Egypt

Egypt's modern cities are mostly nothing to write home about, but it's definitely worth staying a few days in Cairo, which is by far the largest city in the country.   One day at least should be reserved for a look around the Egyptian museum, which is home to many fabulous treasures from the days of the pharoahs.   The museum itself was built before Egypt became independent and walking through it you might be forgiven for thinking that nothing had changed or been touched since the previous French and British curators had departed.

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The timeline of Egyptian history is very long and very full, but the museum has items from every period, including prehistoric mummies preserved by being buried in the hot desert sands, through to the Narmer palette, a perfectly preserved stone tablet which records the first uniting of the kingdoms of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt under one of the first pharoahs whose name is known to use.

Of course there are many items from the long line of Egyptian pharoahs, and more from the period after Alexander the Great brought Egypt into his empire, starting a lineage of Ptolemaic kings and queens, including the most famous Egyptian queen of all, Cleopatra VII, who married Mark Antony and thus began Roman dominance over her kingdom.

None of the artifacts in the museum is more famous than the death mask of Tutankhamun, unearthed in a remarkably good state of preservation in the Valley of the Kings in 1922.   Tutankhamun's treasures are kept in a series of connected rooms and hallways on the second floor of the museum, with some of the most valuable items within a dimly lit room where flash photography isn't permitted.

Tutankhamun (sometimes spelled Tutankahmen) was a very minor Egyptian king, but he is now extremely well known because his grave is the only one which has been found intact with virtually all of its hundreds of treasures, many made of gold and other precious materials.   As well as the death mask, there are many other artifacts such as statues of Tutankhamun and the three nested gold coffins in which his mummified body was found.

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There's also furniture like this throne, inlaid with a depiction of Tutankhamun with his wife Ankhesenamun, executed in a much more naturalistic style than most Egyptian art.   The young royal couple had two daughters, both of whom were still-born and buried with their father.

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These differences in artistic style can be traced back to pharoah Ahkenaten, shown here enjoying a quiet moment with his wife Nefertiti.   His original name was Amenhotep IV, but he changed it to Ahkenaten ("spirit of Aten") to signify an extraordinary shift he made from traditional Egyptian religion to worship of the Aten, or sun disk, whose rays are shown extended down towards the royal family.

This move to a monotheistic religion was very radical and probably alienated the traditional priesthood, so Ahkenaten tried to solidify the change by constructing a new capital called Akhetaten ("horizon of Aten"), which is now referred to as Amarna.   He also introduced many changes into Egyptian artistic expression, including unusually informal family settings like the one shown here, as well as changes in portraiture such as pot bellies and very strangely shaped hips and facial features.

However after his death the old establishment reasserted itself, all of his changes were eliminated and a systematic attempt was made to erase him completely from history by the destruction of monuments and artworks and the removal of his name from records, often by defacing his name on carved works.   It's thought that Tutankhamun was either his son or grandson, but even he changed his name Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun to signify the destruction of Ahkenaten's heretical beliefs.

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The museum isn't all pharoahs and their wives.   There are thousands and thousands of items on exhibit, many depicting daily activities like fishing, farming and agriculture.

Many of these items were commissioned by government officials, like the dwarf Seneb shown here with his wife and two children.   Following Egyptian fashion, the boy has long hair and the girl short hair and, in another Egyptian convention, males are shown with dark skin and females with light skin.

In ancient Egypt dwarves were regarded favourably and could attain positions of power;  Seneb was apparently chief of the royal textile works under pharoah Pepi II.   The modern day Egyptian government has used this image in televised family planning campaigns.

Cairo is also a good base for visiting some of Egypt's most striking monuments.   The site of the sphinx and the three great pyramids at Giza is without doubt the tourist destination people most closely associate with Egypt, and they're so near to the city that they're in danger of being engulfed by Cairo's western suburbs.   It's well worth hiring a camel or horse and a guide and taking a ride around the desert.

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The large complex at Saqqara is about 15 kilometers south of Giza and is most famous as the site of Zoser's large step pyramid and various well preserved tombs and other structures.   This step pyramid is the oldest surviving large-scale stone structure in the world.   It was designed by Imhotep, the most famous architect in all of Egyptian history, who stacked six traditional stone platforms on top of each other.

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The pyramids at Dahshur are 10 kilometers to the south of Saqqara, and have only been accessible to the public since 1996 because they were previously within a restricted military area.   Largely because of their isolation, they're considerably less known than the archaeological remains at Saqqara, but the structures are actually more impressive and at least as historically significant, with the Bent Pyramid, the Red Pyramid and the Black Pyramid all within a fairly small area.   The Bent Pyramid was the first attempt to build a true pyramid and it still retains more of its limestone casing than any other pyramid in the country.   However it appears that the builders started at too steep an angle and had to change their plans part-way through construction.   The Red Pyramid was constructed soon afterwards and was a complete success, its sides have the same 43 degree angle used on the top section of the Bent Pyramid.

There are other interesting tourist sites within Cairo, the most obvious being the Citadel built on a promontory above the city.   This was a military fortification for the Arabs, Turks, French, British and Egyptians in turn and contains several examples of Islamic architecture, such as the Mohammed Ali mosque, named after the 19th century Egyptian ruler who almost single handledly attempted to bring Egypt into the modern world.

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The Egyptian National military museum also occupies a site within the citadel walls, with displays of Egyptian military hardware, captured Israeli equipment and other artifacts intended to glorify Egyptian military achievements.   It's fun for the whole family, as you'll see from the many schoolchildren and mothers wearing all-enveloping black burqas who stroll around while enjoying the technological, historical and sociological aspects of the tanks, jet fighters and amphibious troop transports.

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The citadel also hosts cultural performances in the evening, in this case a troupe of whirling dervishes.   The dervishes belong to the Sufi sect of Islam, which originated in Turkey from the teachings of the Persian poet and theologian Rumi.   The Sufis follow a mystical approach which is very different than traditional Islam, and many orthodox muslims consider them heretical.   However its emphasis on the love of God makes it the perfect brand of Islam to present to western tourists, and the tradition of poet, dance and song makes it very well suited to this sort of display.   The audience at this performance was certainly very enthusiastic, the ushers had to continually remove barriers and other furnishings from the room so that more people could be allowed in, and there was a great deal of applause throughout the show.

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The area known as "Islamic Cairo" lies directly outside the walls of the Citadel and there are quite a few interesting sights to see, such as some of the old city gates, mosques and a few harems.   Some of these mosques were damaged by cannons fired by the French from the Citadel, and you can still see the holes in the walls where the cannon balls landed.   While I was visiting the mosque of Al Ghouri the imam kindly had one of his students show me around and take photos of the interior, even though this is a working mosque.

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Not all of Egypt's treasures are to be found near Cairo, therefore many tourists take a trip up the Nile, the most popular destination being Luxor.   Following the collapse of the Old Kingdom and a period of disintegration, Egypt was reunited with the city of Thebes as its capital.   Even though the administrative capital was later moved north to Memphis, Thebes remained the ceremonial capital, with the temple of Luxor as one focus.   The avenue of sphinxes leads to a gate between two statues of Ramses II and a 25 meter high obelisk; there were originally six statues of Ramses, four seated and two standing, and there were also two obelisks, but in 1835 one of them was taken to Paris where it now stands in the Place de la Concorde.   Inside there are various shrines and temples, as well as halls and courtyards with many columns and reliefs carved into the stonework.

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The avenue of sphinxes originally stretched for 3 kilometers northwards to the temples at Karnak, a large complex measuring 1500 meters by 800 meters.   This was an even more important site than the Luxor temple, the pylons at the entrance are twice the size of those at the Luxor temple, and inside you can still see the sacred lake and the many temples built by pharoahs over a long period of time.   The Great Hypostyle Hall shown here has many of its pillars intact, you can get a sense of its scale from the tourist dwarfed in the background, but a single photo can't show the roughly 130 columns originally holding up the roof, or the many freizes on the walls.

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There's more to see on the western bank of the Nile at Luxor, the fabled location of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.   Not only are many of the most famous Egyptian kings and queens buried in this region, but so too are many of their high officials.

Nowadays it's possible to tour many of the tombs in the region, with walls and even ceilings entirely covered in paintings and hieroglyphics.   Unfortunately, to preserve the colors of the paintings it's not permitted to take photographs, so this is something you have to experience first hand.   Some of the burial chambers still contain the original stone sarcophagai, though the unimaginable treasures that were entombed along with the occupants were stolen long ago, or were removed more recently to museums.

As well as the tombs you can also see the Colossi of Memnon, two somewhat the worse for wear seated statues 18 meters high which are all that remain of the funerary temple of Amenhotep III, which he rather foolishly built on the Nile's flood plain.

The temple of Hatshepsut is in much better condition, since it's much further from the river, carved into the mountain which borders the Valley of the Kings.   Hatshepsut was one of Egypt's most successful queens, and her temple is still in good condition, with many statues and pillars standing together with still-colorful paintings, all the more remarkable since many of them are outside and exposed to the air and sunlight.

Aswan, sometimes spelled "Assuan", is about 200 kilometers south of Luxor.   It must be the most attractive city in Egypt, perched on the banks and hills lining the Nile as it makes its way through large granite outcrops in and around the river.   These are the famous Nile cataracts, which made navigation on the river difficult and also made Aswan a strategic gateway to the trading routes of the south, and a fortress against invasion from the south.   Since it often represented the southern limit of control for the pharoahs, there are fewer large temples and ruins here than further down the Nile, but there's certainly enough history to keep a tourist's interest.   Within the city itself there is an unfinished obelisk, which would have been the world's largest worked block of stone if it hadn't developed a flaw which caused the workers to abandon it as it still lay in the quarry.   Just a little further afield is the Temple of Philae, which was rescued from the lake created by the Aswan dam built by the British between 1898 and 1902.

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The greatest of the ancient treasures in the southern area of Egypt is a 280 kilometer drive or flight further south to Abu Simbel, where the Temple of Ramses II and the Temple of Hathor stand next to each other, cut into the rocks lining this part of the Nile.   Abu Simbel is only 40 kilometers north of the border with Sudan, and it always represented the limit of Egypt's power.   The reign of Ramses II represented the pinnacle of this power, and he built these temples as a reminder to those living further south.

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Here's the temple of Hathor, which also used to face the Nile.   Over time both the river and the sand shifted and it wasn't until 1813 that the temples were rediscovered, with only the tops of Ramses' statues showing.   The building of the Aswan high dam and the subsequent filling of Lake Nasser threatened to submerge the temples, so starting in 1964 they were moved at a cost of $US80 million to a location 65 meters higher and 200 meters back from where the river had been.   The cut marks from the stone saws are still evident, but it was certainly a remarkable achievement.

The temple of Ramses is the more magnificent of the two, inside there are large statues and various rooms covered in stone carvings.   Both inside and outside there are reliefs showing Ramses subduing his enemies, Ramses trampling on his enemies' faces, Ramses leading his enemies away in chains, and so on - it seems like he had trouble making friends, but he certainly had a way of influencing people!

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Cairo with its trash, smog and traffic can get tiring very quickly, and even outside the city it's easy to succumb to temple exhaustion after seeing your 100th statue of some pharoah you've never heard of.   Thankfully, relief is available at any of the tourist centers on the beaches of the Red Sea coast, whether at Hurghada on the main coastline, or along the eastern shore of the Sinai Peninsula.   As well as the beaches, the Sinai Peninsula also has some great desert scenery, like the multi-coloured mountains at Ras Mohammed national park, which preserves coral reefs and fish life even more colourful than the mountains.

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I flew from Aswan to the southern Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, but since that area was too ritzy for me, I hired a car and drove 85 kilometers north to the more laid-back town of Dahab, whose mountains are every bit as attractive as those elsewhere.   From here you can see right across the Gulf of Aqaba to Saudi Arabia, which is probably as close as I'll ever get.   I was lucky to experience some unusually calm weather, which made it much easier for me as a free-diver to see some of the highlights of Egypt underwater.

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Of all the people I met in Egypt, the bedouin around Dahab impressed me most.   The majority of Egyptians are poor by western standards, and particularly by the standards of tourists with enough money to fly here, so it's not always a comfortable thing when they encounter an Egyptian society which has long been captive to the notion of "baksheesh", which depending on how charitable you feel is translated either as "tip" or "bribe".   I carried around a large wad of small Egyptian notes so I could keep up with the requests for baksheesh, whether in the form of a bribe to photograph (without flash) inside one of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, or in the form of a tip for the cleaning ladies who made up my hotel rooms.   However I never heard any of the bedouin request baksheesh, and one young man even refused my offer after he had gone far out of his way to show me where a place was.

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It's certainly nice to get away from all of that human history and get into some natural history.   The Red Sea is one of the world's premier dive areas, and there's plenty to see even if you're only snorkelling, such as this Picasso triggerfish in only two meters of water near the Blue Hole just north of Dahab.

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Since the Red Sea is nearly fully enclosed by land, there are many species here which are not seen elsewhere, including several varieties of butterflyfishes, surgeonfishes and triggerfish and many other small but attractively coloured fish.

I saw so many butterflyfish, including four species found only in this part of the world, that I put together a whole separate page of Butterflyfishes of Egypt.

Spending a week on the Red Sea, whether prostrated on a beach in reverence to the sun god Ra, or underwater swimming with the fishes, is definitely a nice way to recover before returning to your ordinary existence.