Exploring The Ancient Wonders Of Egypt

An exhausting but richly rewarding tour of one of the cradles of human civilisation
The river Nile
The river NileGetty Images

My journey to Egypt began over a decade ago when I laid hands on Amitav Ghosh's 'In an Antique Land'. I was a masters student of architecture in France, working in Western Africa, struggling and enthralled at the same time with diverse cultures and geographies. Ghosh's expansive tale starts from a little note he finds in an ancient library that suggests to him the journey of an individual from the Malabar coast to Europe via Egypt. Ghosh writes about ancient trade routes and present-day settings, that of a doctoral student studying an ancient form of Arabic under a scholar in rural Alexandria, and the Kuwait war forcing Egyptians to return home, painting Egypt as a civilisation both frozen in time as well as grappling with contemporary realities.

Recently, my vicarious journey culminated in a real one.

I am finally in Cairo. Still dazed from my red-eye flight, we meet our guide, who has the detailed articulation of someone who is aware that we find his accent challenging. He seems Francophone and I mentally name him 'El Monsieur'. My hotel is situated at the junction of a bridge across the storied Nile the view from the small balcony is stunning, the river majestic and shimmering in the early morning light. A 1961 tower, designed by the architect Naoum Shebib, and easily one of the most beautiful I have seen, defines the skyline.

But there is no time for lingering on this intensive tour, time for sightseeing. Coptic Cairo, our first pitstop, has a record of sorts for the oldest everything oldest church, oldest mosque, oldest synagogue and, well, the oldest part of Cairo. The Hanging Church is a quiet place. The pastor is in conversation with a gentleman at the entrance passage, the pastor nods to people and blesses them as they pass by. The entrance to this gentle building has large photographs of all past and present presidents of Egypt. Seeking the blessings of the Coptic Church is customary. The interiors are beautiful, the walls covered with embroidered curtains, decorated doors, wooden wall panels with inlay work - all set in the warm yellow light from chandeliers, giving it an immersive devotional feel.

The Hanging Church, Old Cairo
The Hanging Church, Old CairoDiego Delso/Wikimedia Commons

We walk into the ninth-century Ben Ezra Synagogue through an extra layer of security. It was here in 1890 that over 250,000 historic papers known as the Cairo Genizah documents covering the life and times of North African Jews of the 11th-13th centuries were unearthed. It was the mention of an Indian fisherman working for a Jewish merchant in one of these documents that Ghosh picked up and which eventually inspired his novel.

The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities occupies pride of place at the famous Tahrir Square. Despite decades of pillage, the museum retains some of the most important ancient artefacts. Travellers who are used to the superbly lit and perfectly arranged museums of the West are likely to find this museum confusing and even overwhelming. If all you have are a few hours I would recommend the Rosetta Stone. Carved in 196 BC, it is a large sandstone panel inscribed in three languages - official hieroglyphics, popular demotic and classical Greek - and served as the linguistic key to deciphering hieroglyphics. The Tutankhamun Galleries have a collection of over 1700 objects. The Ancient Egyptian Jewellery room is astounding, even to those who consider jewellery the surest way of frittering away large amounts of hard (or dubiously) earned money.

All the while that we are in Cairo we see innumerable pyramids - in the form of key chains, paperweights, decorative pieces in alabaster, and so on. 'All are China made,' is the dry advice of El Monsieur. We are going to the real one. Located at Giza at what once must have been a distance from Cairo but is now within city limits. We approach the pyramids on foot - they are massive, nothing like one imagines them and impossible to frame in my lens. Camel and horse-ride offers are many, and we negotiate our way to the pyramid base. For me, used to the idea of heritage as opulent, intricately carved sculptures, the pyramids are as modern a form as they can get - perfect geometry on a gigantic scale. Endless steps of human-height stone cubes taper off to form a pyramid.

The Pyramid of Giza
The Pyramid of GizaGetty Images

The Giza complex is made up of three big pyramids a number of smaller ones, which are more or less lost. A small portion at the top of the second pyramid is still clad smooth and sharp, and one gets a glimpse of what the pyramids must have looked like 4,000 years ago - perfect trapezoids emerging from the deep sands, reaching the sky, gleaming in the desert sun in communion with the gods.

Moving further down, we encounter the Sphinx with his nose ravaged by invaders and time. We barely manage to enter the complex before it closes for the day. As the sun sets on the Giza complex, for a brief few seconds the clock turns back and I am witness to a timeless moment of returning camels silhouetted against the pyramids, a sight all the more precious because everybody seems engrossed in their respective selfie projects and so few seem to be seeing beyond themselves.

One of the countless shops in Cairo
One of the countless shops in CairoGetty Images

No trip to Cairo can be complete without a visit to the old quarter, Khan el-Khalili, famous for its cafes and trinket shops. Nobel winner Naguib Mahfouz frequented a coffee shop by the name El Fishawy. It is visited by Cairo gentry, all of them comfortably there as if they've owned the place forever. El Fishawy is an animated animal. Waiters work efficiently each tabletop is no larger than a large dining plate, just sufficient for cups of coffee or chai trinket sellers peddle their wares an Oud musician is invited by a table to play his stringed instrument and everyone sings what are probably some popular old songs of Umm Kulthum, a legendary Egyptian singer.

Next stop, Alexandria. We are rushing through the desert. This is the northernmost tip of the mightiest desert in the world, the Sahara. At our first stop, the presence of security guards marks it as a heritage site. 'Catacomb,' our guide tells us. 'Claustrophobia,' I respond. But I decide to peep inside. It turns out to be a lovely well with a staircase descending along its walls like a spiral. The Catacombs of Kom ash-Suqqafa are cool and at a certain depth, the staircase opens into a series of chambers and ante-chambers. This is all limestone - easy to carve, but also easy to lose due to the action of water, time and exposure.

Alexandria Bibliotheca
Alexandria BibliothecaGetty Images

We emerge and finally I can glimpse the sea through the building-lined streets. We drive along the marina to reach an impressive looking citadel called Fort Qaitbey. The Mediterranean, in full view now, is a deep, mesmerising blue. From here we can see a long stretch of the Alexandrian coastline and on that the unusual profile of the Grand Library of Alexandria.

The library was one of the greatest of the ancient world, established by Ptolemy I in 283 BC but destroyed over time. Restored and reopened in 2002, it takes on the role of re-establishing Alexandria's position as one of the most important centres for learning in the modern world. The massive reading hall, which enjoys the natural Mediterranean sun through an interestingly arranged series of coloured glasses, is elegant and spacious. The library has a series of mini museums including that of carefully preserved manuscripts, creations of renowned Egyptian architects, film makers and artists there is also a museum of onsite ancient objects. We don't have the time to do justice to the collections, nor to their enthusiastic curators and guides. But this must surely count as one of the great international cultural projects of recent times.

The entrance to Luxor Temple
The entrance to Luxor TempleGetty Images

Next up is Luxor. We arrive a bit past lunch and are whizzed onto an island on the Nile. The Temple of Luxor, dominated by beautiful gigantic columns, remains open till well after sunset, when it is lit up. Originally, the site was contiguous with the Nile, and must have been quite a sight to arrive at sailing down (or up) the river. The temple was built largely by Amenhotep II and Ramses II and its entrance is dominated by a massive obelisk. A single piece of rock, the obelisk stands at a massive 75 feet and weighs 250 tonnes. There were two and the one on the right makes its absence felt through its barren base (its now at the Place de la Concorde in Paris). The Luxor Temple is connected to the even grander site of the Temple of Karnak by the three km Avenue of Sphinxes.

The scale is massive, sensual, well-proportioned and beautiful. There are impressive muscular statues of Ramses II and other royalty, but amongst these colonnades that seem to have been created to catch the evening light the statues almost seem out of place. Look out for the columns and their capitals hieroglyphs are carved in and colours painted on the stone slabs that seem to retain their original look and feel from over 3,000 years ago.

We want to pick up some local brew. A liquor shop owner recommends a clear rum - this is sugarcane country. Then we notice some wine bottles and discuss whether the wine is any good in Egypt. The owner overhears us and is politely miffed - 'Wine is being made in Egypt for 6,000 years'. Truly, large quantities of wines were buried in terra cotta wine flasks in the tombs at Abydos, not far from this shop. We pick up a bottle, and it turns out to be pretty good.

We are on a day trip from Luxor to the sites of Abydos and Dendara. If you look at a map you'll notice a fairly prominent bend in the Nile. Three significant sites - Luxor, Dendara (Qena) and the temple of Seti I in Abydos - are located more or less at the start, middle and end of this bend. Our first destination is the temple of Seti I. The most prestigious burial centre of ancient Egypt looks like a modern building - straight lines, neat rectangular form, a most unusual burial centre.

We zoom off to Qena, about 90 km from Abydos, to reach Dendara and its temple of Hathor. This temple is set in a magnificent landscape where the desert overwhelms the Nile valley. Abandoned as a temple and then used as a shelter, the layers of soot from fires lit for cooking or warmth have been left intact in parts, to demonstrate the contrast and the exacting work involved. The cleaned-up bits are a stunning blue and many other colours.

I hadn't paid much attention to where we were headed next, except for noting that it was going to be another early departure. The first to hit the breakfast table laid out along the Nile, we see the hot air balloons striking the horizon with bright blobs of yellows and reds. We then cross a bridge to the west bank of the Nile. The first view of the Memorial Temple of Hatshepsut is breathtaking: early morning orange lighting up a precision-cut temple blending into the cliffs. Under nearly continuous excavation since 1891, Hatshepsut suffered widespread pillage in the last century. A ramp takes us up to a terrace with colonnades on either side, shading 3,500-year-old relief and paint work.

The river Nile
The river NileFlickr

We manage to get on a train to Aswan. A wonderful way to travel through Egypt, since the rail line running parallel to the Nile allows one to cover virtually all the important sites. The views are mostly the Nile on one side and the gently raised plains on either. As we get to Aswan, the landscape gets more hilly and rocky. We are received by a soft-spoken safari-clad gent, whom I dub 'El Safari'.

Aswan is a different Egypt. While Alexandria is clearly Mediterranean, and Cairo and Luxor more like the Middle East, Aswan is all out Africa, the Africa I know from my work trips to Mali. The character of the Nile has changed and we can see that it is in its upper reaches, wading through massive granite boulder formations, narrower, deep with a faster current. Tall, cotton, white sails that catch and magnify the river breeze into effortless movement help sail an elegant traditional boat. After a quick lunch we set off for the island of Philae.

This is dam country, the Aswan Dam taming one of the world's great rivers. The low dam was completed in 1902 and the highly contested high dam in 1970. It controls the annual flooding cycle of the Nile, irrigates 30 per cent of Egyptian territory, but also displaced over 100,000 residents and led to the depletion of soil quality. The Egyptian government and institutions all over the world finally woke up to the threat of the dam waters submerging priceless heritage and scrambled to relocate numerous monuments and entire hill sides to locations like Philae island.

The Temple of Isis, relocated on Philae, has a chequered history. The cult of Isis dates back to the seventh century BC, attracted pilgrims for thousands of years and continued to operate as a pagan temple well after the arrival of Christianity here. A short slow run along stunning cliffs and Philae comes into view. We climb up to a large open-air courtyard. Colonnades play with the light. and I walk past into an intimate inner courtyard, which leads to smaller sanctuaries, quiet and ideal for reflection. Painful to think that these might have been lost to the dam waters.

Intricate details on Egyptian monuments
Intricate details on Egyptian monumentsGetty Images

Onward to Abu Simbel, where even the waters of the high dam cannot displace the feel of the Sahara. Our resort is the hottest place to be in Abu Simbel, both temperature and blue blood wise - leaders, senior bureaucrats, their security and the like mix with travellers from across the world. We are here to witness the Abu Simbel Sun festival that takes place bi-annually on February 22 and October 22. The Great Temple of Ramses II and the smaller Temple of Hathor represent one of the most unique stories in modern built heritage conservation. Carved out of mountain, the original temples were aligned such that on February 21 and October 21, Ramses' birthday and coronation day respectively, the first rays of the rising sun moved across the hall, through the vestibule and into the sanctuary to illuminate the figures of Ra-Horakhty, Ramses II and Amun. Ptah, the fourth god to the left, was never supposed to be lit. Just like the Temple of Isis was relocated to Philae, the entire hillside that comprised the two temples were cut, shifted and re-established at higher ground, reorienting them precisely to match the original, the only difference being that instead of the 21st the sun rays illuminate the statues on the 22nd.

The next day is an early wakeup with layers to protect us from the desert cold in a windy location. We get dropped off close to the site. There is a massive gathering already, so the magic moments last for but a short time. We wait patiently, it is cloudy and the light is hazy, but the statues light up as planned and the experience is amazing.

To cover Egypt from its northernmost point, Alexandria on the Mediterranean, to its southernmost point, Abu Simbel, deep in the Sahara, is probably the best way to see Egypt, to experience the grand civilisation that the Nile gave birth to. And the Nile remains the superstar.

The Information

Getting There

Egyptair and Air India have connecting and direct flights to Cairo International Airport from Mumbai and Delhi.

Getting Around

BY AIR: Egyptair connects Cairo to Luxor and Alexandria, as well as Luxor to Alexandria.

BY ROAD: Trains and buses also ply these routes.

BY RAIL: This is arguably the best way to travel around the country - from Alexandria, on the Mediterranean, to Aswan, the southernmost railhead, covering Cairo, Qena, Luxor and more.

Where To Stay

CAIRO: Hotel Royal and Osiris Hotel are central and good budget options. Five-stars abound, including the super-luxurious Four Seasons, the Ritz-Carlton and the Marriott.

LUXOR: Good affordable options include the Nefertiti Hotel and the New Pola. The Mercure Luxor Karnak offers five-star facilities for low prices. The Hilton has the poshest stay in town but the Sofitel Winter Palace offers good competition.

ALEXANDRIA: If you've saved a bit from staying at budget hotels in Cairo, why not stay at the Hilton Alexandria Corniche, or the Radisson Blu. To really splurge, though, it will have to be the Four Seasons. More affordable options include the historic Steigenberger Cecil Alexandria and either of the Paradise Inns.

ASWAN: The best place to stay in town is the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Town.

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