September 2019 Egypt, From City to River to Sea

Egypt, From City to River to Sea

The Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – and the only one still standing.
The Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – and the only one still standing.
Photo by Richard James Taylor 
Now’s the time to see the Land of the Pharaohs in all its splendor.
Standing before the Pyramids of Giza for the first time, I experienced a sense of de虂ja虁 vu. After all, I’d encountered facsimiles my entire life, every time I handed over a $1 bill. For a civilization 5,000 years past, ancient Egypt is ubiquitous, including the pyramid on the back of the dollar. Its artifacts fill museums from London to Sydney, and more original Egyptian obelisks point skyward abroad than in Egypt, inscribed with hieroglyphics that speak silently to Bastille Day celebrants at the place de la Concorde in Paris or Central Park amblers in New York.

Yet contemporary politics has complicated pilgrimages to the source of this symbology. Tourism in Egypt – one of the country’s biggest industries – took a catastrophic hit after the 2011 political uprising and subsequent turmoil, plunging from 14.7 million annual visitors to roughly 5 million. But over the past few years of political stability, the numbers have ticked back up: In the last year, tourism vaulted 155 percent, prompting the UN World Tourism Organization to name Egypt the world’s fastest-growing travel destination and landing it as a top five “emerging destination” in the Virtuoso Luxe Report, a survey of Virtuoso advisors on travel trends.
The Great Sphinx of Giza, built circa 2500 BC.
The Great Sphinx of Giza, built circa 2500 BC.
Photo by Richard James Taylor 
“The vast majority of Egyptians realize the importance of tourism and don’t want to do anything that has a negative effect on it, because when the tourism economy went away, everybody suffered,” says Randy Ney, owner of a Virtuoso travel agency. “Security is as good as it can be, and it’s a great time to go because prices haven’t yet climbed back to where they were prior to the Arab Spring.”

In March, I heeded my inner sleuth and enlisted my cousin to join me on a ten-day trip to the Land of the Pharaohs with Abercrombie & Kent, which has added 40 departures this year to meet the surge in demand. On our first morning, angling to get a look at King Tutankhamun’s golden funeral mask in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum between waves of German, Chinese, and English groups, we realized that the crowd-beating time to go to Egypt is, if not yesterday, certainly right now.

"An airplane to Egypt is a time machine,” said Ramez Salama, the bighearted A&K tour director who welcomed our group of 18 (16 Americans and a couple from Hong Kong) with an accurate description not just of encountering 4,000-year-old sites, but also traveling in a city of 20 million with rare stoplights.
Shopping Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili Bazaar.
Shopping Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili Bazaar.
Photo by Richard James Taylor 
Over the ensuing days – two weekends in the capital at the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza bracketing a four-night Nile River sailing aboard the 40-cabin Sanctuary Sun Boat IV – several travelers confided that they chose A&K for its high standards and longevity in Egypt (since 1982). Their confidence seemed well placed when, during an orientation talk, Salama offered anticipatory advice on everything from hygiene to security, including warning us to avoid eye contact with vendors, who equate a glance with an open wallet; providing change purses stuffed with small bills for tipping bathroom attendants; and noting that government-mandated guards would join every excursion.

While most of the archaeological sites I’d come to see lie along the southern Nile (called the Upper Nile, somewhat confusingly, due to its higher elevation), Cairo is mandatory for at least two reasons: first, the Egyptian Museum, presently a grandma’s attic of treasures jumbled in dusty rooms with holes in the ceilings, which is slated to be replaced with the $1 billion, 5.2-million- square-foot Grand Egyptian Museum in 2020. Next, the pyramids of Giza, massive monoliths built as shows of might for entombed pharaohs and cached with riches meant to join them on their journey to the afterlife.
Horse-drawn buggies bringing visitors to the Pyramids of Giza.
Horse-drawn buggies bringing visitors to the Pyramids of Giza.
Photo by Richard James Taylor 
Neighbor to Cairo, Giza teems with horse carts, shisha parlors, auto-body shops, and apartments under construction. Behind a skyline bristling with rebar looms the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the largest of the trio of Giza giants, a 2.3-million-block anchor of eternity amid the commotion of modern life. I squeezed up the stifling, three-foot-tall inner passage to the burial chamber, its empty sarcophagus raided long ago. Beyond the requisite camel ride and Instagram poses balancing the pyramid in my palm, I began to see the forces that erased so much left behind by Egyptian dynasties, victims of not just material greed, but also essential human need: Middle Ages inhabitants stripped the pyramids of their elegant surface stones to build homes, walls, and forts.

Pyramids, the pharaohs realized, were too conspicuous to hold their funereal caches of gems, gold, and art. Circa 1500 bc, seeking a more discreet haven, they developed a secret warren of tombs located beneath a pyramid-shaped mountain near Luxor, 300 miles south, where we flew next to continue the journey via boat.
Feluccas, a Nile River transport option of choice, sail near Aswan.
Feluccas, a Nile River transport option of choice, sail near Aswan.
Photo by Richard James Taylor 
Aerial views revealed the vitality of the Nile as it carves a lush, green course through Egypt, fertilizing riverbank farm fields between borders of sand and rock stretching to the horizon. From the panoramic windows of our second-floor cabin aboard the Sun Boat IV, we surveyed a similarly timeless landscape up close: net-casting fishermen, women hand-washing rugs, and cattle grazing on grassy islands that barely cleared the water.

Even those who haven’t noticed the Egyptian symbols in their daily lives or realized that D.C.’s Washington Monument is an obelisk know King Tut, the boy pharaoh and occupant of the sole tomb that was never raided in the inconspicuous, rubble-strewn Valley of the Kings on the Nile’s west bank. Pharaohs spent lifetimes elaborating their tombs, filling entire chambers, for example, with carvings of cattle and geese, their larder for the afterlife. Tut’s burial chamber, though relatively minimal since he died at age 19, has just been restored with radiant gilt walls portraying his postmortem deification.
A temple guard among 134 ancient columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall in Luxor.
A temple guard among 134 ancient columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall in Luxor.
Photo by Richard James Taylor 
The quiet drift of the Sun Boat IV, where staff greeted passengers with cool towels and fresh lemonade upon each return, balanced the brisk pace of the tour. From the sundeck, with its small, dip-inviting pool, we watched passing banana fields, villages where only the minarets surpassed the palm trees, and children waving from bridges. At sunset, soft ripples in our wake striped the water pink as pied kingfishers chattered from a ship railing.

As a cruise destination, Egypt is all about the ports. But time on board underscored the culture, from a cooking class in traditional foods such as koshari – a kitchen sink of carbs and legumes – to Egyptian nights, when we donned the long dresses known as galabeya for dinner and dancing. More substantively, a candid Q&A session with Salama on contemporary Egyptian life explored women’s role in society (marriage is primary), finances (Egyptians always pay in cash, even for houses), and the military (the armed forces own a third of the economy, including hotels, and allow Egyptians to serve their mandatory year of military service as hotel bartenders). No one asked about security; members of our group had already answered that question for themselves.
Admiring the ruins of the fourth- century bc Philae Temple in Aswan. 
Admiring the ruins of the fourth- century bc Philae Temple in Aswan. 
Photo by Richard James Taylor 
The talk was an exception to the historic world we spent ten days inhabiting, learning that Egyptian cotton, for example, became popular during the Civil War when the Union sought a new, non-Confederate source for the material. That drawings of the eye of Horus, the great protector god, possibly inspired the modern Rx symbol for medical prescriptions. That the Seat of Isis pose I practice in yoga – on my toes, knees bent, and arms out in offering – appears in depictions of the mother goddess from Luxor all the way down to Abu Simbel, on the border with Sudan, where we flew to see two cliff-face temples fronted by colossal 65-foot-high sculptures of the great pharaoh Ramses II, warning invaders away.

By then, I could identify Horus; Isis; the crocodile Sobek, god of fertility; and the jackal god Anubis, usher of souls to the afterlife. Days earlier, inside the elaborate tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings, the walls screamed with symbols, paintings and larger-than-life reliefs in a clearly ordered message I couldn’t decipher. Now the watchful eyes, spitfire cobras, and baboons animated a code I began to understand as vigilance, defense, and an anthropomorphic calendar, respectively – an ordering of the universe revealed 43 centuries after it was entombed. Similar signs can be found on obelisks – beacons believed to channel energy into the earth – in Rome, London, Paris, and beyond. In its afterlife, ancient Egypt still speaks. It’s just a matter of learning the language.

When to Go

  • Cooler temperatures prevail between October and April, the most popular time to visit.

Getting There

  • EgyptAir offers service to Cairo daily from New York’s JFK Airport and thrice weekly from Washington Dulles.

See

  • Abercrombie & Kent’s ten-day land-and-river trip described in this story is limited to 18 guests and bookends a four-night Nile cruise with stays in Cairo, including lunch overlooking the Great Sphinx and visits to early Coptic Christian churches. The river portion runs between Luxor and Aswan, with daily temple stops en route. During summer vacations and holiday breaks, A&K has added new ten-day family departures, limited to 24 guests, that follow a similar itinerary but include activities such as henna painting, bread making, and a treasure hunt in Cairo’s mazelike Khan el-Khalili Bazaar.
    Departures: Weekly, September 2019 through May 2020.
  • Kensington Tours’ 14-day river-and-resort tour starts in Cairo, then cruises the Nile northward from Aswan to Luxor, allowing overnights in each before and after sailing. Travelers continue to the Red Sea resort town of Hurghada for two nights. Departures: Multiple dates through December 2020.

Sail 

  • Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection offers 12-day trips that leisurely sail the Nile from Luxor to Aswan and back, including sailboat and bird-watching excursions. Back in Cairo, attend the sound and light show at the Pyramids of Giza. Departures: Multiple dates, September 28, 2019, through December 19, 2020.
  • The 54-passenger Oberoi Zahra plies the river between Luxor and Aswan with a spa, lap pool, restaurant, and two lounges aboard. Five- and seven-night itineraries visit the riverfront Kom Ombo Temple and spend a full day in Edfu, home to the imposing Temple of Horus. Departures vary; Virtuoso travelers receive a bottle of wine on arrival, breakfast daily, one 50-minute massage for two, and private round-trip airport transfers.
The Four Seasons Nile Plaza’s Zitouni Restaurant, which overlooks the river.
The Four Seasons Nile Plaza’s Zitouni Restaurant, which overlooks the river.

Stay

  • Agatha Christie wrote portions of her classic Death on the Nile at the 138-room Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan, the grande dame of the Upper Nile, featuring Moorish arches, marble floors, and ruby chandeliers. The Victorian-era resort encompasses a riverside pool and contemporary spa dispensing sandalwood-oil massages and papyrus-clay wraps.
    Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and round-trip airport transfers.
  • Traditional felucca sailboats dock below the 365-room Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza, where riverfront views frame sunsets and generous amenities include indoor and outdoor pools, a spa, and eight restaurants and lounges spanning Arabic and Chinese concepts. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 spa credit.
  • The family- and wellness-focused 269-room Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at the First Residence on the Giza side of the Nile features a riverfront pool, a separate children’s pool, and yoga and group-exercise classes. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and one 50-minute massage for two.

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