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Glimpses down the Nile

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Egypt had always been my numero uno country to visit, partly because I grew up romantizing Cleopatra. And having lived in Abu Dhabi for a few years and seeing all the beautiful Egyptian ladies with their flawless skin, it was a place I had to visit, even more so than Paris or Rome. So when I hit a milestone birthday, hubby dearest decided that Egypt was a destination we had to go to!

Preparing for the trip After perusing through his favorite travel related portals, Trip advisor and Virtual tourist, hubby decided that unlike our previous vacations in Europe and in North America a trip to Egypt would have to be an organized tour. Meaning, he would have to book a guided tour to Egypt. We wanted a tour (operator) that would include all major tourist destinations and also provide us the flexibility of customizing the tour to our needs and requirements. He started by looking at some of the itineraries that popular travel agencies/operators such as Trafalgar and Thomas Cook had for Egypt. As he looked for more such travel operators, he was surprised to find that there were some pretty well reviewed travel agencies that operated right out of Egypt. Most of these Egyptian travel agencies had decent web sites and were pretty good with responding to email queries and available on skype as well. Based on the responses he received through skype and email, we decided to go with Memphis tours to book our tour.. The sales guy from this tour company Abdo Shwakey was quite friendly and was available to chat with hubby regularly on skype. He was even able to talk to him over the phone a few times to nail down the dates and final changes to our trip plan. Once the reservations were made it was time to get educated about Egypt and its ancient civilization. There are tons of videos on this. Netflix and Wikipedia provided all the ancient Egyptian civilzation fixings that we needed or should I say craved for. Quickly all three of us were becoming amateur Egyptologists and hubby in particular became a huge fan of Dr. Zaahi Aawas!

Heading out on the D-day The D-day quickly approached on us. All our planning and reading was preparing us for this day and trip. Everything was happening as per plan. My job workload had been quite low and things moved so perfectly without a hitch that it even made me a tad nervous. We had booked our flight with KLM and had a stop over at Amsterdam for 9 hours one our way in to Cairo. So we even had planned a mini excursion for 5-6 hours in downtown Amsterdam.

Amesterdam Stopover Our flight from SFO landed in Amesterdam on time at 11:15 AM local time. We had packed light for our carry on luggage and just had one back pack for our day trip to Amsterdam. Heading out of the Airport was a breeze. The subway/Metro comes right into the airport. We bought round trip tickets to downtown Amsterdam and before noon were on the train heading down town. The trip to downtown by train was about 20 minutes. We got out at the Central train station and found ourselves in the busiest part of Amsterdam. We had researched before hand the location of the canal tour operators and quickly located the one we wanted to take, to be just across the train station. We bought tickets for the immediate next hour long canal tour of Amstedam and by 12:30 we were cruising in the canals of Amsterdam. Amsterdam is quite a picturesque and pretty city with plenty of quaint dutch architecture and artistry on display. This kept our camera busy and clicking most of the time. Once we completed our hour long introduction to the city of Amsterdam, we hopped off the canal tour boat and hit the roads of Amsterdam. The famous red light district was just a few block away. Although I would have loved to saunter along those streets of which I had heard so much of, we decided against it as we had a ten year old impressionable girl with us. We were getting quite hungry and to our luck stumbled upon a crowded road side stall called Maniken Pis selling the famous French fries of Holland. The fries here are served with Mayo and Ketchup and onions and other fixings. This was really good and we enjoyed it thoroughly. Next we headed towards the famous coffee shops of Amsterdam and walked on streets that are famous for their shops that sold weed and ganja stuff. We had regular coffee and hot chocolate on the patio of a coffee shop on Dam square, enjoying the sight of all the people milling around us. It was a bright day with not much clouds and the streets were crowded. We were quite amazed by the number of cyclists in Amsterdam. We walked around more such streets and finally headed towards the shops that carried touristy trinkets. We picked up a wind mill, a pair of wooden display shoes and a kitchen magnet among other things and headed towards a restaurant for an early dinner around 5 PM local time. We enjoyed Pizza and an appetizer of garlic bread although the garlic bread was a bit of a disappointment. We then slowly headed back to the train station. It was already dark by then and the holiday lights were out and the streets looked very pretty at that time of the day. We were glad we spent that time in downtown Amsterdam that day. We were also lucky as the predicted light showers in the evening never really occurred and that kept our spirits dry and up. The flight on KLM to Cairo was again a pleasant one. The Indian vegetarian food that was served on the flight was awesome! Day 1 The airport in Cairo is quite modest. It was not bigger than the airports in Bangalore or in Hyderabad in India. As soon as we got out of the plane, we first had to get our Visa to enter Egypt. We had read before hand that we would need to buy a $15 voucher from the bank booth there for each visa before heading to the line to get the Visa. I gave $200 for the 3 Visas and requested to change the remaining money to Egyptian pounds. After that, getting the Visa did not take more than 5 minutes as the lines were not long.

Next we headed towards the baggage area. It took forever before our luggage finally showed up. I picked our luggage up fending off potentially porters who approached me speaking Arabic asking if I needed help. The only Arabic I knew was La-a Shukran (No Thank you). I used this sentence firmly each time some one approached me. Once we walked out of the luggage area as we were walking under the sign that said nothing to declare, an official looking gentleman approached me and spoke rapidly in Arab. I gave him a blank stare and said excuse me? He immediately changed to English and asked where I was coming from. As soon as I said US, he said sorry please continue. As I walked I noticed that most local Egyptians were being stopped and their luggage were given the third degree :(. Only then that it struck me that all three of us could easily be mistaken for Egyptians! Once we were out of the customs area we found our Memphis tours rep The person who came to receive us was Abdul. Abdul seemed very business like and did not seem personable to me at all. He only answered to any questions we asked to the point briefly. Our van quickly showed up and our luggage was loaded into our car by the driver and we headed to our hotel in Giza. Giza is exactly at the opposite side of Cairo from the airport across the river Nile. Even though it was early in the morning with literally no traffic we had to travel a good 35 minutes before we reached our hotel. The deserted streets and the few people milling around all looked so familiar to us. It was like we were on one our trips back home to India! Abdul checked us into the hotel and quickly disappeared for the day. Since we could not sleep much due to jet lag, around 8:30 Am we decided wake up. After freshening up we hit the breakfast buffet. It was a full breakfast buffet with an Omlette station and a crepe station chefs. In addition they had plenty of other items as well. I was quite happy with the breakfast spread. After breakfast the rest of the day was a free day for us. Daughter wanted to hit the pool right way so I took her to the pool while hubby decided to explore the stores close by. I discovered a grocery store and bought some supplies of snacks and bottled water. We had lunch at the hotel that day and even enjoyed a short nap in the afternoon. In the evening around 5 PM we decided to make it to the Pyramids to watch the sound light show in the evening. The sound and light show at the Pyramids was not included as part of our trip and we had decided to do this on our own. The pyramids were just about 20-25 minutes of walking distance from our hotel. Against the better judgement we decided walk hoping to enjoy a cool evening breeze. The walk unfortunately was anything but enjoyable. The roads in Giza were crowded and buses cars and people were coming along in all directions. It was like any typical Indian street :) After a stress full walk of nearly 30 minutes we finally found the entrance to the Sound and Light show.

Cairo Traffic in the evening - the city reminded us of Bangalore in ways more than one !

It was not yet dark as we got in to the viewing area and we had our very first sight of the Pyramids and the Sphinx. As it got darker before the show started I was able to click some good pictures. The sound and light show was quite good and it met our expectations. Omar Shariff narrated the story of the Pyramids providing a background of ancient Egyptian civilization. The night desert air started to chill us as we sat and watched the show.

The sound and Light show

After the show, right outside the entrance we had spotted a Pizza hut and we had decided before hand that we would eat dinner there. We hurried in there and enjoyed a Vegetarian Pizza. We took a cab back to the hotel. The cabie first quoted 30 Egyptian pounds but later settled for 20 Egyptian pounds for the ride back. I had read elsewhere that we should not pay more than 10-15 Egyptian pounds for the ride. I was too tired and wanted to hit the bed and was in no mood to haggle with the cab driver :)

Day 2 Sites: Egyptian museum, Hanging Church, Ben Ezra Synagogue, Saladin's Citadel, Alabaster Mosque This was the day our tour in Egypt formally started. We were asked to be ready in the lobby by 9 AM the previous day by Abdul our overall tour leader. The jet lag had ensured that all three of us only got sketchy sleep during the night. We were finished with breakfast and ready to go by 8:45 AM itself. Abdul showed up promptly a few minutes before 9 AM at the lobby. He introduced us to Basant our personal tour guide for the next 2 days and to the driver of our van Hamid. Basant was a cheerful young girl who could not have been older than 21 or 22 years. She wore the traditional Muslim garb with a head gear (hijab) but spoke good clear English with us. She took to instantly and always made sure her explanations were clear and simple that even my daughter could understand everything she explained. Hamid spoke little or no English at all. In spite of this we were able to communicate quite easily with him even when Basant was not around. Our first stop was at the Egyptian Museum at Cairo. The museum building was quite big and the displays were numerous, Basant however knew how to exactly navigate us through. She took us to the primary locations and explained us sometimes better than descriptions on the displays. We found statues of Pharaohs, ancient Egyptian Gods and their queens from all dynasties of the ancient Egyptian civilization. We also saw some impressive miniature art work from one of the earliest dynasties as well. Unfortunately photography was not allowed inside the museum.

In Front of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

King Tuts' Exhibits The best part of the Museum were the room of King Tut with all its exhibits and the room of Mummies. King Tut was a young boy Pharaoh who died rather unexpectedly at a young age. By his time the Egyptians had already stopped building pyramids but were still building tombs for the dead Pharaohs for their journey to after life in a place called the Valley of the Kings at Luxor. King Tut's tomb was discoverd in the valley of the kings at Luxor around 1920s. Until then King Tutenkhamun (1341-1323BC) was virtually an unknown figure. What made him famous was the findings at his tomb. Almost everything there, including his mummified body was found intact and provided valuable information about the Pharaoh, his life, his death and much more. The exhibit room had numerous items including his clothes furniture oils and perfumes (mummified of course). There were a lot of gold and other precious stones there on display as well. I was totally impressed to find a box with hinges on display. In thirteen century BC they knew how to make boxes with bronz hinges! The Room of Mummies There is an extra charge of 100 Egyptian pounds per person for this room. This price is not included in most tours. Buying the tickets and entering the room was chaotic! People rarely follow queues there. Anyhow, after some jostling around and even exchanging some sharp words with another frustrated tourist I managed to get our tickets and we entered the mummies room. Although seeing the mummies up close can be a bit unnerving especially for the younger kids, I found that it was a must see experience. The hair and nails on most of them were still intact! The cloth that is wrapped on them is still the original wrappings! Overall I felt having a personal guide saved us more than a day there. What we would have probably taken a day or two to see and explore on our own, our guide expertly navigated us through in 3-4 hours. Next we headed to the Hanging church and Ben Ezra Synagogue. The hanging church gets its name because the whole church is built on an ancient gatehouse of a fortress built during the Babylonian times. This church is located in ancient Cairo. During the time of the Coptic rule in Egypt this Church was further expanded. The Church itself is quite impressive in its architecture and is quite unique.

Left : In front of the Hanging Church in Cairo.

Right : Inside the Hanging Church, Cairo. The church had Coptic architecture which later on influenced much of the Islamic architecture..

Left : A side panel in the Hanging Church at Cairo Center : A stained glass window, Hanging Church in Cairo

Right : Another stained glass window showing the papyrus plant inside the Hanging Church, Cairo

After the church we headed to the Ben Ezra Synagogue which is also located in Coptic Cairo or ancient Cairo. According to local beliefs this was the place where baby Moses was found! This was our first visit to a Synagogue and we were quite impressed with it. Apparently there are a few hundred Jews who still live in Egypt. The Ben Ezra synagogue, is no longer used for prayers and is treated more as a Museum. After the Synagogue it was nearly 3 PM and all of us were quite hungry for lunch. Basant took us to this local restaurant that was serving buffet lunches to tourists like us. About 60% of the food in the buffet was vegetarian and we were able to find something that we could fill ourselves with. Egyptian food is quite bland compared to the food we are used to, however as a traveler one cannot be too picky :) After a late lunch we headed to the Citadel of Cairo also known as Saladin's Citadel or fort. This is an imposing fort that can be seen from most parts of Cairo as it is built on top of a hill in the center of Cairo city. The fort was built by Saladin in 1173 AD to defend against the crusaders. The main attraction to see here are the 2 mosques. The first one which is the older one is the Mosque of Suleyman Pasha which is built in Ottoman style. Here we saw pillars/columns that were taken away from ancient Egyptian temples. One of the pillars even had the sign of Cross etched on the stone which probably was done when many Christians were hiding in ancient Egyptian temples to escape Roman persecution and using those temples as Churches to pray in.

Inside the older mosque in Saladin Citadel

The second mosque was the grand Mosque of Muhammad Ali also known as the Alabaster Mosque. This was the first time I was ever visiting a mosque and was totally impressed with the architecture of the Alabaster mosque. Basant being a very religious girl used the opportunity to do her prayers while we relaxed under the huge domes of the Alabaster Mosque.

Alabaster mosque in Old Cairo - built in the style of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

We walked around Saladin's Citadel for a bit long taking pictures to our hearts content and the time was close to 5 PM already. Most tourist sights close by 5 PM in Egypt and it was time for us to head back to our hotel. Basant who lived at the other end of Cairo, got off at the center of the city as it was closer for her to get home. Hamid drove us back to our hotel.

Later that day we spent a quite evening enjoying the evening entertainment by the pool side. We enjoyed the dinner sitting on a traditional Egyptian furniture in an elegant tent like structure by the pool side. Day 3 Sites: Memphis, Sakkara, Carpet weaving factory, The great Pyramids of Giza, Papyrus Factory Today as well our day started at 9 AM like the previous one. Our jet lag had us up and ready well before that time. Since, we were going to take the train to Aswan that evening, we had to check out of the hotel room as by 9:00 AM itself. Memphis Our trip to Memphis took a good hour or so to get there and we enjoyed watching the country side and chatting with Basant and learning about Egyptian culture and people along the way. Memphis is more like a small village with one main road that was filled with pot holes and plenty of flies around!.Our brief journey to Memphis ended at the open air museum at Memphis. The museum has a number of stone statues of King Ramses II. I believe we even saw a highly disfigured statue of King Narmer there as well. Memphis was established as a capital city by Narmer (king Menes) sometime in 3100 BC. Narmer is considered to be the first Pharaoh and most lineage from ancient dynasties start from him. He was the first ruler to unite both Upper and Lower Egypts and establish Egypt as a country/kingdom for the very first time. Memphis was later abandoned as the capital city but it continued to be as an administrative city. Memphis was revived back during the rule of Ramses II in ~1300 BC.

Left : Statute of Ramses II in Memphis outdoor museum

Right : The famous standing pose of Ramses II in the out door museum at Memphis.

After we finished the tour of the out door museum, we headed to Sakkara. Sakkara was a bigger city compared to Memphis. The roads were better maintained too. In Sakkara we first visited the step Pyramids. The theory is that the Egyptians learned the art of building pyramids by building Mastabas, rectangle burial chambers, one, on top of the other. The very first architect of such step pyramids was Imhotep who was commissioned to build a step pyramid of Mastabas for his king Djoser.

The Step Pyramid of Sakarra. This was the first pyramid built by architect Imhotep for King Djoser. The Great Pyramids of Giza were later designed from the Step Pyramid.

It was quite hot and humid even in late November at Sakkara. We worked our way around the ruins there trying to stick to shaded areas as much as possible. In Sakkara we also saw early models of columns. Even though the Greek architecture is famous for columns, one must mention that the Greeks did gain much of their knowledge from the ancient Egyptians. From the step pyramids we headed to a carpet weaving factory also located in Sakkara. It is standard practice for all tour guides to take you to these factories where it is quite expensive to buy anything. We were impressed with the carpets that they were weaving and the designs as well. A 3.5"X5" silk carpet was quoted at $7,000! We also saw a number of kids being employed to weave the carpets. They called it a Carpet weaving school.

Carpet weaving in a factory at Sakkara.. The silk carpets there were just out of the world! In this picture, the weaver was a 12 year old girl.

The Pyramids of Giza Next, we headed back to Giza to finally see the great Pyramids at Giza. The Giza Necropolis contains 3 Pyramids and the Sphinx statue. Only the largest pyramid which was built to host the tomb of King Khufu is the ancient wonder of the world. Incidentally this is the only remaining ancient wonder of the world. Our first look at the pyramids took our breaths away. They lived up to our every expectation we had of the pyramids and much more. Even though the pyramids now appear as steps of stones, they had a smooth limestone finish on their surface before. We could see the smooth parts still on the tips of the second pyramid.

The Great Pyramid of King Khufu, the largest pyramid in the Giza necropolis. It was way bigger than what we had imagined it to be.

The second pyramid was built by Khafre son of king Khufu. Out of respect to his father, he had his pyramid built slightly smaller. He also had the sphinx built to stand guard to his second pyramid. The third pyramid was built y Menkaure, Khafre's Son.

The third and the smallest pyramid, which is the pyramid of Menkaure

For an extra ticket, at each of the Pyramids, one can enter the Pyramids through a small opening that will take you down a passage way to the possible locations of the tomb (Sarcophagus) and other mummified artifacts. We decided against going inside of any of the Pyramids as we were told that there was not much to see inside there. All artifacts had already been either robbed or had been moved to the Egyptian museum. Also the lines were long and with the limited time we had on hand we wanted to enjoy taking pictures and let the site soak into our memories. The Sphinx originally had the face of King Khafre and it even had the typical Pharaonic beard too. Now however much of the face has been disfigured due to weather and passing time.

The Sphinx was carved out of a single slab of lime stone. Since the time of the Romans attempts have been made to save the Sphinx from getting destroyed by the cold desert winds.

As we headed out evading the hawkers all selling their wares we learned some valuable lessons on how to avoid them. Most of these hawkers quote prices 3-4 times the actual price of these wares and one would be better off buying these trinkets at a regular market place called a Souk. We were quite hungry now as it was close to 3:30 PM and headed to have a late lunch. We had the best seat at the restaurant where we had traditional Egyptian style food served with the Pyramids overlooking in the background!

Having a late lunch with our tour guide Basant withthe pyramids to view. Couldnt have asked for a better window seating anywhere in the world !

After lunch we were taken to the Papyrus factory. It was quite impressive to see how the Papyrus was made from the stems of the Papyrus plant. We avoided buying the Papyrus there as we were warned that the prices at these factories were quite expensive. We had already planned one day for shopping at the largest Souk in all of Africa called Khan-El-Khalili in Cairo on the final day of our trip. Our final stop for the day was a store that sold Egyptian cotton clothes. Here too we did not buy anything as we did not find anything special in the cotton clothes there, except that they were quite pricey! We headed back to our hotel around 6:00 PM. It was the last day we would see Basant as our trip was taking us to Aswan by train that night. So we said our good byes to her and tipped her generously for all her time and patience with us. As per our plan, we were to leave to Aswan by train at 8 PM in the evening and we had already checked out of our hotel room. Since we still had an hour or so on hand we decided to hang around in the lobby area and use the Hotel facilities to freshen up before our train ride. Around 7:15 PM, Hamid who was hanging around tracked us down in the lobby and drove us to the Giza train station. The train was to arrive around 8:15 PM from Cairo central station at Giza. We reached the station which was just a short 10 minute drive from our hotel and were at the station well in time. The train station itself was quite dinky and nothing much to write about. Abdul our over all tour guide came to see us off in the train. Before the train arrived he gave us a cell phone with some prepaid minutes to use in case of an emergency. Train ride to Aswan The train arrived on time and Abdul tracked our wagon and we were helped in out our cabins. Each cabin in the car was for 2 passengers. Since we were three of us we were given two adjacent cabins that had a shared door between them. The cabin itself was quite comfortable with all basic amenities in them. Here are some issues that we experienced on the train and would advise against using the train for some one planning to travel. 1. The restroom is quite basic. No flush system, just a hole and a toilet seat. It can get very dirty as ours did by morning time and can be literally unusable! 2. The train itself runs on a meter (or maybe a narrow) gauge track. This means that as the train picks up speed the it shakes quite violently. Both hubby and I got very little sleep because of this. 3. The train frequently runs late as ours did! We reached Aswan at 10:30 AM instead of 8:00 AM. The train used to stop in the middle of the night and the power would be turned off for 20-30 minutes at a stretch. With no light and no A/C in the cabin we were quite uncomfortable.

Left : Inside one of our cabins in the overnight sleeper train to Aswan from Cairo

Right : The walk way inside our train car.

Other than this we did not have much issue. The food was adequate although there was no vegetarian choice. We had a piece of Chicken, fish, some rice and roll and a desert for dinner. For breakfast we had breads and jams and butter with coffee/tea. The countryside was quite picturesque as we realized this in the morning.

Day 4 Sites: Aswan dam, Temple of Philae, Quarry of Hatshepsut, Perfume and Oils factory

Our train pulled into Aswan station at 10:30 AM. As soon as we got out of the train we were received by our locally assigned tour guide Dr. Salem. Yes he introduced himself as Dr. Salem, as he had a PhD in geo-physiology from the South Valley University in Aswan. Dr. Salem was very personable and entertaining tour guide. He was quick witted and enjoyed keeping my daughter intrigued and happy with plenty of antics and stories. Since our train arrived late, he informed that there would be a slight change in our itinerary. As per our original itinerary we were supposed to join the 11:00 AM convoy to Abu Simbel on day 4 and spend day 5 viewing the sites in Aswan. Since we were already late to join the 11:00 AM convoy our itinerary was changed so that we were going to do the drive to Abu Simbel the next day and take the early morning 4:00 AM convoy and do the sites in Aswan today. This worked perfectly well with us as we had even tried to make this change before we left SFO itself. However, at that time we were told that it was too late to make changes to our itinerary.

Not having to hurry to Abu Simbel we mentally relaxed and followed Dr. Salem to our waiting transportation to see our first site at Aswan, the High dam of Aswan. The drive to Aswan dam was about 20-30 minutes long. Along the way I realized Aswan was a much better city and by far the best looking city that we had seen in Egypt. The roads were broad and better laid out and the air was not at all smoggy like it was in Giza and Cairo. The crowds and traffic was far lesser too.

Aswan Dam There are two dams in Aswan. One is called the Low Dam and the other the High Dam. Before either dam was built the Nile river regularly flooded the regions and caused numerous losses to the regions. After the British occupied Egypt they started construction of the low dam. The low dam was raised and reconstructed to handle increasing water flow three times before it was realized that building a newer and higher dam would be a better approach. The high dam was built by the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser with help from the Soviet Union. The high dam created a huge man made lake now called lake Nasser which submerged a number of historical sites under water. With funding and help from UNESCO many such submerged sites such as Abu Simbel and Temple of Philae were relocated to their newer locations. We drove on the low dam as well as the high dam and stopped briefly on top of the high dam to savor the view and take some pictures.

Atop the High Dam in Aswan, overlooking Nasser Lake Temple of Philae The temple of Philae is on a separate island on river Nile. The original temple was on a different island that was submerged when the high dam was constructed. We took a local ferry to get to the island. Most boats were navigated by the Nubian people. Yes the Nile was really blue it was of a deep blue hue. Splashing the cold water on each other playfully on a hot day while on the boat was really refreshing.

Feluccas in the background as we sail in one to the Nubian island in Aswan

The temple at Philae was built by the Ptolemic Greeks. Even though the Greeks were the occupiers, they completely accepted the Egyptian culture, their Gods and even built temples just like the ancient Egyptians did.

Temple of Philae in Aswan

Philae was also a sacred place for the ancient Egyptians. They had built a temple there for Osiris. The Greeks also constructed a temple for the Egyptian God Hathor. Both ancient Egyptians and later Greco-Romans maintained an army garrison in Philae to defend against the Nubians down south. Later Byzantine also called Coptic rulers destroyed most of the temples as Pagan temples. Christains even established a Church there which later on was closed by the Muslim invaders.

More pictures from the Temple of Philae

We were able to see works of the Greeks and later destruction by the Byzantine rulers there. Oils & Perfume Factory After the temple of Philae, our next stop was at a factory for Oils and perfumes. Since the ancient Egyptian times, Egypt has been famous for producing aromatic oils and perfumes. In Aswan during the time of Queen Hatshepsut plants and trees from different parts of the worlds were brought in to be grown exclusively to extract oils and perfumes. Many of these oils and perfumes were claimed to cure various illness and ailments.

Enjoying a shoulder massage with some therapeutic oils.

The one factory that we visited impressed upon us so many different fragrances, that they had a fragrant oil for every perfume one sees on the counter at Macy's! In addition to the perfumes they also had therapeutic oils that could be used for pains, aches and even common illnesses such as cold and head aches. We ended up buying the perfumes at this factory.

Aswan Quarry & Unfinished Obelisk Queen Hatshepsut, in ~1500 BC, while returning from one of her expeditions down south was relaxing/camping in Aswan when she came across the granite stone formations here and decided she must commission to use these stones. She commissioned three obelisks to be made of that quarry. Two of these Obelisks that were successfully carved were shipped down stream to Luxor and can be found in the temple of Karnak with a lot of details and hieroglyphic insc riptions. A third obelisk the unfinished one, was abandoned after the obelisk developed a huge crack and split the stone. This unfinished obelisk and the quarry where the stone to create the other two obelisk can still be seen here.

The third (cracked) Obelisk that did not make the cut is still in the Aswan quarry that was once carved during the time of Queen Hatshepsut. Two of the good Oblesiks adorn the temple of Karnak. Queen Hatshepsut on her way from one of her expeditions down south was resting in this area of Aswan and liked the quarry and quality of granite found here and commissioned the 3 obelisks to be done here.

Around 3 PM we had completed all the sights and we reached our hotel, Hotel Basma, that we were to stay for the night.

My I could not resist the exquisite pool that they had in the center. After a quick dip in the pool around 6 PM we decided to go to the down town area in Aswan. There was a Souk (marketplace) in down town Aswan that the concierge at the front desk had informed us about and we ventured to check it out on our own. The hotel had a shuttle bus that ran to the down town area and ran at the top of every hour until 10 PM in the night. Souk in Aswan Shopping in the Souk is not for the faint of heart. The shops are usually tiny and many of them are street side vendors. They try to get the attention of the tourists quite aggressively. They used to call us "Hey India" or "Hey Amitabh Bachchan". Apparently Bollywood movies are quite popular in Egypt as well. We spent well over an hour browsing some of the wares and even purchased a few trinkets. One needs to bargain and negotiate the price for everything. Typically if you pay more than a third of what they initially ask for, you are paying too much! We spotted a Mc Donald's and daughter wanted to have her dinner there! Hubby and I decided to go back to the hotel and have dinner at the restaurant in the hotel. Once we returned to the hotel, we were quite tired and wanted to retire early that night as we had to be up by 2 AM the next morning. So grabbing a quick bite at the hotel restaurant we hit the bed by 9 PM.

Day 5 Sites: Abu Simbel, Check in Cruise boat, Nubian Village Our day started quite early on day 5. By 2:30 AM we had packed and checked out of the hotel. our breakfast was packed for us and each of us had huge box of bread, pastries and sandwiches to carry. We had a new guide Mohammed specifically assigned to us for our trip to Abu Simbel. Our luggage was loaded into our Van and by 3 AM we were headed out of the hotel to join the convoy. Trip to Abu Simbel Abu Simbel is located close to the the border of Egypt and Sudan. The trip from Aswan to Abu Simbel is along a road in the middle of the Sahara desert. There is pretty much nothing in between the two places. The distance between them is about 300 Km and Abu Simbel is less than 100 Km from the border with Sudan. Although I could not figure out the exact reason for the need for police convoy, I guessed the safety of tourists in harsh conditions was theie primary reason for using a convoy instead of letting each car/van/bus travel and cross this desert region on their own. The cars were sent out in 2 batches. The security checkpoint has a process of documenting each vehicle their occupant count and the operator company. It took a good 45 minutes before our van was cleared to go in the second batch. The added bonus of this trip was seeing the sun rise across the Sahara desert as we neared Abu Simbel. Most buildings in Abu Simbel, even homes are built in Nubian style or architectural design with curved domes on the top as roofs. This was quite elegant to see. Before our van parked we had nibbled into our breakfast boxes and were eagerly looking to see the temples of Abu Simbel. It was a little after 7 AM in the morning when we started the trek to the temples of Ramses and Nefertari. From the parking lot we had to walk about 1-2 km. There were so many tourists there that we were just following everyone else who were walking there.

The long walk to Abu Simbel temples, in the hot, desert sun. Where are those huge statues we have heard so much about ? Will this long journey across the desert sands to the borders of Egypt be worth all the trouble ?

Seeing the huge statues in the early morning sun for the first time as we walked in was truly an unforgettable experience.

And Lo and Behold there it was in front of us....After waking up at 2am and driving through the desert in a police convoy of over 100 cars buses and Vans, we finally reached the grandest structures of alll...The temples at Abu Simbel consisting of stone statues of Rameses II and his beloved wife Nefertari. This whole temple complex and the statues were relocated from an island that was submerged in Lake Nasir when the High dam was built. The whole temple was built from a single rock. King Ramses II considered himself God and built the temple all about himself. This was the most self-glorified structure I've ever seen !

There are two temples in Abu Simbel one fore King Ramses II and the other for his beloved queen Nefertari. Ramses II was quite possibly the most powerful of all the pharaoh's to ever rule ancient Egypt! He was also very good at self glorifying his achievements. He not only had a firm control on all his regions he also took extra pains to build temples with his statues and edicts glorifying and some say even exaggerating some of his accomplishments. That said among all the temples and statues of his creation, the temples of Abu Simbel are his master pieces. The statues there were originally carved out on an existing hill. The UNESCO team that relocated both temples took lots of pains in constructing a man made hill with caves dug out for the temple and all.

Next to the Ramses Temple, was that of his beloved queen, Nefertari. He built this temple at a smaller scale than his. Althought dedicated to his wife, the entrance to the temple for Nefertari consists of 3 statues of himself, followed by 2 for Nefertari and the last one on the right of God Hator, but in the guise of King Ramses II. Blatant self-glorification, I tell ya !

We spent well over an hour enjoying the art work and admiring the hieroglyphics on the wall. After that we slowly headed back to our parking area once again avoiding the aggressive hawkers as much as possible. During the ride back we got to enjoy seeing the Sahara desert in daylight and saw some naturally occurring pyramid structures in the sands.

Naturally occurring pyramids in the Sahara desert are seen in the background at Abu Simbel

By the time we got back it was past noon. We were driven straight to the river boat where we were supposed to spend the next three days on.

The River boat The boat we were on was one of the biggest sized boats that sailed on the Nile measuring at 110 meters in length and had 5 levels.

Our cruise ship against the setting sun.

We were on the 3rd level and the 5th level was actually the top of the boat and there were no rooms there. The rooms on the boat were quite spacious and we felt it was bigger than the rooms on a typical cruise ship. Since it was time for lunch as soon as we completed checking formalities, we freshened up in our room and headed for lunch. The food was served in only one location which was the dining hall for the ship. Even though we had assigned seating, the food was all buffet style for all meals. We were quite happy with the quality of food served there and they had plenty of dishes to choose from. Nubian Village For that evening as per our itinerary we had a free evening. Our guide Dr. Salem had arranged for a trip to visit the Nubian village which is on a separate island on the Nile for an additional cost. We were escorted with another family (a mother and daughter pair) who also was touring with Memphis tours to a waiting felucca boat. The felucca boats are sail boats and have been used on the Nile rivers since the ancient Egyptian times. We enjoyed the cruising experience on the Nile as the Sun was setting across on the desert watching the camels and locals go about their life in a leisurely and timeless manner. At the Nubian island, as soon as we got out of the boat Dr. Salem took us to a particular Nubian house. Nubians are tall and have the African features except that they are slightly browner than their darker African brothers. They speak their own language. Some of them do speak Arabic. The particular house that we visited had a crocodile pit and had about 7-10 crocodiles in there. Both my daughter and I posed for pictures holding the crocodile while hubby passed on that opportunity.

They also had hookah called Sheesha and both hubby and I tried the Sheesha for the first time. Not used to smoking we did not really care too much for that experience :) We were also served traditional black tea with mint. The Nubians were quite friendly and there was this old man who played some of their instruments to which my daughter and the other girl (Diana) danced to. After thanking the Nubian hosts for their kindness we next walked around the streets of the Nubian village which had many small shops selling the usual Egyptian trinkets. It was already past 5:30PM and the sun was setting and we headed back to our boat to get back to our cruise boat. Later that night after dinner we enjoyed the cool breeze on the top deck for a short while before retiring for the night. Our boat was still docked at Aswan and would leave for our next port stop only early in the morning the next day.

Day 6

Sites: Kom Ombo, Edfu It was around 6 Am when I woke up in the morning. The boat was already moving towards Kom Ombo which would be our first port to dock at. By 7:00 AM we had reached Kom Ombo. We were asked to be done with breakfast and be ready by 8:00 AM by Dr. Salem who was also travelling on board with us. Temple at Kom Ombo As soon as we got out of the boat we were introduced to another family from NJ area. They had a 10 year old daughter and my daughter found an instant companionship with her. They were originally from Pakistan and also had a precocious 5 year old with them. The temple we visited was right on the banks of river Nile where the boat had docked. This temple like the temple of Philae was built during the Ptolemic Greek time. We saw an image of Cleopatra II there. At the ruins we saw a deep well which was used to measure the rising tides of Nile. Before the Greek there was a temple here for the Crocodile God of the ancient Egyptians. King Tuthmosis III has some hieroglyphics inscriptions here. Kom Ombo was also a garrison town that the Greek and Roman rulers used to keep the Southern regions under control.

Enjoying a brief moment at the base of a destroyed column at the temple of Kom Ombu

Our stop at the Kom Ombo temple was brief for about an hour. After that we were boarded into the boat and we set sail to Edfu.

Edfu After our lunch our first stop was at Edfu around 1:30 PM. As soon as we got out of the boat we were mobbed by the local horse carriage drivers to ride their carriage. Dr. Salem took control of them and arranged one carriage per family. We were a group of 3 families all travelling with Memphis tours.

We were told beforehand that we had to pay the carriage driver. Our driver was very friendly and helped us take a few pictures with us sitting on the horse carriage. After a ride of around 15 minutes we arrived at the temple of Edfu. The temple of Edfu is also a temple of the Greco-Roman time. The main God is Horus here and it is the second largest temple of ancient Egypt. The whole temple complex had been buried under sand deposited by the over flowing Nile and the local people had all built homes over them. In 1798 a French Egyptologist discovered the temple and the whole temple complex which was down under 12 meters of sand was dug out.

Striking an Egyptian pose at the Edfu temple

We were explained by our guide, the meaning of some the symbols of ancient Egyptians. Here too it was very obvious about the fact that the Greeks were only copying what they had learned from the ancient Egyptians about architecture. We returned back to our Carriage and as we feared was harassed by our carriage driver who was not satisifed with the tips we gave him. Adding another 5 Egyptian pounds to the 30 I had already given him did not still satisfy him! We walked away leaving him unhappy and later learned that the others had similar experience as well.. Evening on the Cruise boat We enjoyed Tea and snacks on the top deck while enjoying the beautiful scenery of Nile around us. We made many friends in the process as well. We were totally surprised with the number of travelers of Indian origin there. Many of them were from India and some of them were just travelling on their own without a tour company! There was some entertainment promised inside the lounge in the evening but it was a huge disappointment. They had fliers saying that it was a Galabea night and were even encouraging everyone to buy traditional Galabea costumes for the evening. Luckily we never bought the costume. The entertainment that was for around 45 minutes was weaker than what a bunch of 10 year old kids could come up with. They just had some lame party games, basically asking us to entertain ourselves! We felt overall the quality of entertainment on the boat was pretty weak. Day 7 Luxor, Valley of the Kings, Queen Hatshepsut temple, Alabaster factory We had reached Luxor around 8:00 AM early morning. Luxor is also referred to, by the name Thebes. Thebes was the name of this area specifically where the temple of Karnak is currently located, as documented by the Greeks. However the ancient Egyptians called it by a different name and the name Luxor was given by the Arabs which has stuck to this day. In arabic Al Aksar means many palaces. During the middle kingdom Luxor was a magnificent city with many temples and palaces. After we had breakfast our first stop was to be at the Valley of Kings. As soon as we got out of the boat a van was ready waiting for us to take us to the Valley of the Kings which was a 30 minute drive away. Valley of the Kings For nearly 500 years from 16th century to 11th century BC the ancient Egyptians buried their Pharaohs, queens and some noble men and women in a naturally occurring valley creating tombs by digging deep caves inside the sandy hills. Some say the reason for choosing this place for tombs was that the hill at the top looked like a natural pyramid! By around this time for reasons that are not clearly known the ancient Egyptians had stopped constructing pyramids for their dead noble people. Instead they used to create tombs here at this location which is now called the Valley of the Kings. In the last 100+ years a number of tombs have been unearthed here. Since, this place was forgotten over time and got covered by fresh deposits of sands it may have escaped grave robbers. When present day archaeologists started to dig up the tombs they were pretty much surprised to find them to be intact. The most famous tomb discovered here is that of King TutenKhamun. We were told that there was no point visiting the tomb of Tutenkhamun here as everything was taken out and all the artifacts from his tomb are now are in the Egyptian Museum which we had already been to.

So our guide suggested that we visit three other tombs instead. They were tombs of Ramses III, Ramses VI and Ramses IX. Incidentally our tickets only allowed us to visit 3 tombs in the entire complex. We would have to pay additionally to visit other tombs. The tombs that we visited still retained some of the original colors of the paintings on the walls and ceiling. There were tons and tons of hieroglyphics all over the place and it was quite obvious that they were narrating the stories of the life of the noble person buried there. It was truly a treat to see them. Each tomb was deep inside the hills and usually ended where the sarcophagus was buried. None of the sarcophagus that contained mummies are there any more. All the mummies and the sarcophagus have been moved to the Egyptian museum. Archaeology is still live and continuing here and discoveries of tombs and mummies are still being made here! Unfortunately photography was not allowed inside the valley of Kings.

The hills that make the Valley of the Kings

Temple of Hatshepsut The next stop for us was the temple of Hatshepsut which incidentally has been carved into the same hill that houses the tombs on the opposite side.

The temple of Queen Hatshepsut built into the valley of Kings. The hills behind the temple referred to as the valley of the kings contains the tombs of King Tut and a host of other famous Pharaohs.

Hatshepsut was a queen and a Pharaoh who ruled Egypt for around 22 years in 15th century BC. She was first a co-regent for her son but managed to rule as a Pharaoh in her own right as it was common practice in ancient Egypt to have women regents rule the land until their sons were old enough to become a Pharaoh.In order to show to her subjects that she was as powerful as any male could be she portrayed herself in the image of a man. She was also successful in battles and made the country rich with a number of treaties and trade agreements with neighboring Syria to the north and Nubia to the south. She built this temple as it was common practice for Pharaohs to build temples in the image of God for themselves during their life time. The statues here are Hatshepsut in the God Osirian form. She had the temple built in such a way that the internal passageway connected to her tomb where she was later buried. It was a hot day and was also a long walk and climb in the hot sun to reach the top of Hatshepsut's temple. We were all very tired and sticky and eagerly looking forward to the cold ice-cream as we exited the temple complex. Alabaster Factory Alabaster is a calcite mineral that is found in Egypt. It has been extracted from the rocks and used to make utensils and ornaments since ancient times here. The factory we visited demonstrated how alabaster is separated from other rocks and polished by hand. They also had many machine polished alabaster samples which looked way nicer than the hand polished ones! We passed on the opportunity to buy anything there as we were forewarned that buying anything in these factories would be expensive. We returned back to the boat for a late lunch and were free the rest of the afternoon and evening. That evening, as part of the evening entertainment, in the lounge we had a belly dancer and young lad who danced the whirling dervish. The latter was much better than the former. However the entertainment was short and left us wanting more. That night hubby had a surprise birthday celebration arranged for me during dinner time. The cake that the cooks on board had made was out of this world!

Day 8 Luxor, temple of Karnak, Luxor temple This day after breakfast we had to pack up and check out of the boat and by 9:30 AM we were all packed up and ready to leave. We boarded a waiting Van and made our way to the temple of Karnak. Temple of Karnak The temple complex of Karnak is a vast conglomeration of temples and buildings and structures dedicated to ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. The temple was originally started for the ancient Gods Amun Ra and Mut. This temple complex is acknowledged as the largest temple complex in the world and the second most visited site in Egypt after the Pyramids of Giza. The construction of this temple complex is believed to have started in 21st century BC and construction/renovation was continued to even the Greco-Roman periods of occupation of Egypt. A number of temple structures had been constructed and renovated in a span of over 2000 year which can be seen to this day here. The most notable structures are the ones installed by Queen Hatshepsut and King Ramses II. Hatshepsut had two large obelisks, that were quarried and carved at Aswan, installed in this temple. Since Hatshepsut ruled with a firm hand and she was a lady, some of her statues and works commissioned by her were later on destroyed by her successors who did not like her. One of the Obelisks was destroyed later but another one still stands tall. The reason for the one to be left alone is that she had images of one of the sacred Egyptian Gods in there. So instead of destroying this obelisk it was just covered up by a wall built all around it! The destroyed and broken obelisk still lies there.

The Obelisk installed by Queen Hatshepsut in the Temple of Karnak

King Ramses II was responsible for extending and renovating the Hypostyle hall of columns, which is a a massive structure of columns there. This hypostyle hall of columns contains about 134 columns and supported a roof over 5,000 square meter area. There is no such structure ever built anywhere else in the world! We had a great time taking pictures here especially at the hypostyle hall of columns and at the avenue of Rams.

This is the row of ram headed Sphinx in the Karnak temple. This part of the temple structure was built by Ramses II

Temple of Luxor Next stop was at the temple of Luxor. The temple of Luxor is also another ancient Egyptian temple. The building and extension of this temple was completed chiefly by Amehotep III, TutanKhamen and Ramses II. Amenhotep III first built the temple. However his son Akhnaten abandoned some of the ancient temples and Gods of Egypt and started a new city called Amarna with temples for Sun God. After him his son TutenKhamen and later Ramses II renovated the abandoned temple of Luxor.

King TutenKhamun in Luxor temple Ramses II had two large obelisks installed at the entrance to this temple. One of the obelisks was given to France and can be found in Paris. The other still stands there.

The lone standing Obelisk in the temple of Luxor. The second Obelisk that adorned the doorway is now in Paris, France. This was built by Ramses II

The avenue of the Sphinx is a long path way in front of the temple complex with rows of sphinxes on both sides. According to most current archaeology the avenue of sphinx connected all the way to the temple Karnak. Efforts to uncover this complete path and the sphinx is under way although the busy city of Luxor engulfs most of this area.

This is the Avenue of the Sphinx in the Luxor temple that is believed to have once led to the Karnak temple. Now the busy city of Luxor engulfs this temple on all sides.

By the time, we were done with the temple of Luxor, we had completed our tour in Luxor. It was still around noon time and we were shuttled to a day use hotel room. We had a relaxed lunch and later in the evening freshened up for our train ride back to Cairo. Train back to Cairo The train ride back to Cairo was pretty much uneventful. We enjoyed the trip back a tad better as our cabin car/wagon was in the middle of the train and the train ride was a little smoother. I still feel that if I were to do this trip again I would not choose the train ride instead fly into and out of Aswan. Day 9 Free day, trip to Khan El- Khalili On our return to Giza station, Abdul showed up to receive us at the station once again. We were taken back to the same hotel in Giza. Even though we reached the hotel just by 5:30 AM the folks behind the desk made us wait in the lobby a good 2 hours before giving us a room. We were quite sleepy and frustrated with the wait. Abdul had conveniently left us and was not of much help in checking us in! Since there was no tour planned for this day we decided to visit the famed market place of Cairo Khan-El-Khalili. Khan El Khalili Later in the morning we took a cab right out of our hotel to the famed market place. It was a good 30 minute drive to the market place from Giza. Since it was an election day some shops were unopened. We did enjoy the shopping experience at Khan-el-Khalili though. They were not as aggressive as the folks at the Souks in Aswan or in Luxor that we had been to. The market place was really huge and we may have only walked around 20% of the whole market place before we got tired. We were, however, able to pick up a number of trinkets. By 1:00 PM we were hungry and decided to have lunch in the square there. The square had a line of restaurants serving food at tables on the streets. There were 3 huge mosques with some impressive architecture around us. We enjoyed the food although the experience of being harassed by a number of restaurants to eat at their place was a bit unnerving.

Waiting for our lunch to be served at the busy Khan el Khalili market place in Cairo. Mom unhappy that its now time to fly back home and daughter tired from all the last-minute shopping.

Around 2:00 PM we headed back to our hotel. We rested in the afternoon and started to pack our bags for the journey back home late in the Evening. Day 10 Our flight out of Cairo was at 4:00 AM in the morning. Needless to say we had to check out of the hotel by 12:30 AM and barely slept that night. We had a different rep from Memphis tour who came to take us to the airport. There were a lot of hustle and bustle on the streets even at that late hour as election results were being announced. Our journey back on KLM was again enjoyable. After a short stopover in Amsterdam we were on the plane heading back home to SFO! Final Impressions Tourism is clearly one of the main drivers of the economy in Egypt today. The good thing about it is, that there is extra security provided at all touristy places. We felt pretty safe walking around the streets in all the cities we visited even well after dark. The downside though, is that tourists are looked at as "priced catches" at most of these places. The prices quoted for the service provided or for the shoddy pieces of work being peddled as art work can be astronomical and ridiculous! It is expected that you bargain for everything and sometimes even for a bottle of water! There is also the expectation of giving out Baksheesh or tips. You are expected to tip everyone from the guys who handle your luggage, to your driver, to your tour guide to even the conductor on the train. Some may find this a bit annoying as may times some of the people blatantly ask for Baksheesh and will even ask for more if not satisfied! Egypt is definitely a place to visit if one enjoys ancient history and wants to learn more about ancient civilizations and enjoys visiting ruins. As just a destination to vacation, where you would want to kick back and relax it may not be the ideal place to visit. I'm sure one can find sea resorts or river boat cruises in other parts of the world too and one need not have to travel all the way to Egypt for that. Personally we were very happy with our trip as we enjoyed every bit of archaeology and history that we saw and learned there. The only thing we missed out was a desert safari. Apparently you can do a 2-3 night safari out into the desert where one gets to stay with the Bedouins and sleep under the starry skies on the desert! Something to consider for the future I guess.


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