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Cruising Down the Nile in Upper Egypt

Sept 4-6

We had a long, but comfortable overnight train ride from Cairo to Aswan. It took some 14 hours to complete the journey, delayed by a few hours by a section of track near Luxor which had been flooded by Nile water the day before. The train had to proceed slowly through this stretch to avoid pushing the rails down into the waterlogged ground.


Traditional Egyptian felucca

Aswan is Egypt's southernmost city. In ancient times, it marked the frontier of Upper Egypt. The pharoahs used Aswan as a base to guard Egypt from southern invaders (namely the Nubians). Today, it serves mostly as a winter holiday destination. Although there are a few ancient temple sites nearby, there isn't a lot of ancient architectural interest here. Aswan is mostly a place to relax while enjoying the beauty of the Nile, or to stage felucca and cruise trips down the river to Luxor.

Nubian Kids

Nubian kids on Elephantine Island

Aswan is the only place in mainland Egypt we visited which we considered to have real natural beauty. It enjoys a picture-perfect setting on a particularly scenic section of the Nile. All along the wide river here, there are peculiar outcroppings of granite boulders and palm-covered islands fringed by tall reeds and grasses. Traditional broadcloth-sailed feluccas cruise the dark waters around the area, adding considerably to the natural romantic charm of the river here. The people are also much nicer in Aswan than they were in Cairo. Many of them are Nubians, dark-skinned people which lived for millennia in the region south of Aswan, before the flooding caused by the construction of the Aswan High Dam drove them here. Today, you can still visit traditional Nubian villages on Elephantine Island, a pretty, elongated island which lies in the middle of the river near Aswan's town center. As we wandered around one of the villages, we were captivated by the unique qualities of the Nubian culture. The colorfully painted mud brick houses, narrow dirt backstreets and throngs of brightly-dressed, ever-smiling children made us feel as if we had suddenly been transported much further south, into black Africa. The Nubian culture is a unique and vibrant one which stretches back at least as far as the Ancient Egyptians'. We would have liked to spend more time amongst their colorful villages and friendly people, but alas, we were on a tour schedule so we had to move on.


Felucca at Elephantine Island

Just south of Aswan lies one of the world's great modern construction projects, the Aswan High Dam. Completed in 1971, it harnesses the power of the great Nile, providing more electricity than Egypt currently needs -- the excess is sold off to neighboring countries. The dam created Lake Nasser, the world's largest artificial lake. After the dam's construction, the rising waters of Lake Nasser drowned out much of the Nubian homelands and forced the relocation of tens of thousands of Nubians north, toward Aswan. It also buried many ancient sites under water. Some of them, like the impressive monuments of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, have been relocated to higher ground for preservation. We visited the dam and we came away disappointed -- it's not as grand as we thought it would be. Hoover Dam on the Arizona/Nevada border back home is much more commanding. But Lake Nasser itself, now that's an impressive sight. It's positively huge, stretching all the way from the High Dam hundreds of kilometers south into Sudan.

Temple of Isis

The beautiful Temple of Isis at Philae

One of the most beautiful of ancient sights around Aswan is the Temple of Philae. Built on a solitary, boulder-strewn island in the middle of the Nile, between the High Dam and the old Aswan Dam, approaching the temple by boat is a revelation. This temple, like Abu Simbel to the south, was moved to higher ground due to flooding back in the 1970s. It dates back to the 3rd century AD, constructed by the Ptolemies as a monument to Isis, the Mother Goddess. Although many of the carved reliefs were long ago defaced by the early Christians, who converted part of the temple into a chapel, the structures are in a remarkably good state.

In Aswan, we learned what real summer heat is like. During our several days in Upper Egypt, the mid-day temperature was never lower than 40C (103F)! On a couple of occasions, it even crept a few degrees higher. At such lofty temperatures, it's virtually impossible to get anything done in the middle of the afternoon. We had to get our sightseeing done early or very late in the day.

Kom Ombo

The watchful eye of a guard, Kom Ombo temple

Since we were in Upper Egypt, we absolutely had to take a cruise down the mighty Nile. In Cairo, we had signed up for a five-day package which included our tours and hotels in Aswan and Luxor, as well as a two-night cruise between the two cities. The experience of cruising down the Nile, watching traditional life go by on the beautiful green riverbanks, was really something special. We watched farmers work their irrigated fields while young men herded goats and young kids splashed around in the river (now that's a scary thought, swimming in the Nile).

Unfortunately, our reality on board the ship didn't exactly match the idyllic scenery floating by. "It's a Five-Star ship!" exclaimed our tour operator as we asked questions about our boat before boarding. We were assured of the best of the best. Naturally, we were skeptical because we paid a very low price for our tour package -- too low, we were sure, to put us on a "Five-Star ship." Our suspicions turned out to be correct. While the Nile was beautiful and our cabin comfortable, the ship's service was deplorable. The staff couldn't even tell us what time meals were served, we would get kicked out of the dining room if we lingered too long after "official meal times," and nobody would go even the slightest bit beyond their railed-in duty to help us if we had a question. The crew, obviously undertrained and not too fond of their work, would run and yell down the hallways in the middle of the night like adolescent boys. On our second day, the ship travelled too slowly and missed its window of opportunity to pass through a lock, leaving us parked on the river bank for over six hours while we waited for the lock to open up again. This experience provided us with a new addition to Jen & Mike's Golden Rules of Travel: Never go cheap on a cruise ship package! It's just not worth the pain and torture. You're a captive audience, and you can't get away. Next time, we'll spend the extra money and do it right, or not do it at all.


Of Kings and Temples in Ancient Thebes

Sept 6-9

Modern-day Luxor was known as Thebes in ancient times. Situated on the Nile some 180km north of Aswan, the Luxor area contains the greatest concentration of ancient monuments in Egypt. In the town proper are the remarkable temples of Luxor and Karnak. On the opposite side of the river (the "West Bank") lie the fabled Valleys of the Kings and Queens. Luxor is filled with amazing sights, if you can only beat away the money-hungry hawkers and street vendors long enough to enjoy them all. We found the hassle factor here to be nearly as bad as it was in Cairo. Combined with the scorching heat, we were only too happy to leave after two days crammed with sightseeing here.

Valley of Kings

In the famous Valley of the Kings

We disembarked from our horror of a cruise ship (after steadfastly refusing to "tip the staff for services" despite demands for baksheesh), quickly transfered to our hotel in Luxor. Then we were off for our first tour: the West Bank. We visited the Valley of the Kings, the famed burial place of many of Egypt's pharoahs. The Valley of the Kings was exactly as we had imagined it -- a gorge-like valley surrounded on three sides by steep, barren cliffs. Nothing grows in this parched land; it's a fitting place for the dead. We visited three of the 60+ tombs here: those of Ramses VI, Ramses IX, and Merneptah. We were surprised by the excellent state of preservation some of the tombs remain in, especially in Ramses VI's tomb, where the stunning colors of the original paint remains on most of the walls. As we walked out of Ramses VI's tomb, we stood in front of King Tutankhamun's tomb entrance, debating over whether we should go in or not. We decided against it, as all of the tomb's contents are sitting in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and there is an additional charge of 40 Egyptian Pounds (about $12 US) just to go inside the boy king's tiny tomb! If there is any way to get more of your money, they'll find a way here in the land of the pharoahs...

Ramses II

A statue of Ramses II, Karnak

We also visited the Valley of the Queens, a less-visually spectacular area, but with some remarkably well-preserved tombs as well. On our way back to Luxor, we also made a stop at the huge Temple of Hatshepsut, erected by Egypt's first female pharoah. But by this time, we had seen so much and it was so scorching hot that we really just wanted to get back to town for some rest. We began to be "ruined-out" in Egypt!

Ramses II

Statues of Ramses II, Luxor Temple

Karnak Temple

The impressive Hypostyle Hall, Karnak

The next day, late in the afternoon, we visited the Temple of Karnak, probably Egypt's most stunning monument after the Great Pyramids. Built and enlarged over a period of 1500 years, many pharoahs made their mark here at Egypt's grandest temple complex. Most impressive are the massive stone columns of the Great Hypostyle Hall. To look up at the giant papyrus-shaped columns is to stare face-to-face with the grandeur and power of Ancient Egypt. The Temple of Karnak is an awe-inspiring place. On a much smaller scale, but still impressive, is the nearby Temple of Luxor.

After our whirlwind tour of Luxor's many ancient sites, we caught a morning flight to Sharm el-Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula...

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