Egypt is a country rich in history and constantly evolving, with new discoveries unearthed regularly and monuments two thousand years older than the Roman Coliseum. In March, Ker & Downey’s Haley Beham traveled with her family to the ancient country and recounts her travels below.
In March I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Egypt with my family. Being in the travel business, we’ve done our fair share of traveling, however, we hadn’t traveled as a family together since 2004, so this trip was long overdue. In the weeks leading up to our trip, Egypt spent several days in the news. With a balloon crash in Luxor and rioting at Port Said days before our departure, the Egyptian tourism industry hasn’t been able to catch a break in the two years since the start of the Arab Spring. As a consequence of all the negative media attention, its no wonder the country has seen a loss of 3 million tourists annually and left potential travelers asking themselves whether or not it is safe to a travel to a country beset with turmoil. Admittedly, even my own personal tendency is to shy away from controversy.
From the moment we stepped off the plane, all possible fears were assuaged. We were greeted by airport staff immediately off of the airplane and driven by golf carts past the other passengers to the VIP lounge to sip on cold drinks and have a bite to eat while customs and immigration procedures were cleared on our behalf. After a long international flight, I enjoyed the service provided at the Cairo Airport – a service that’s standard for our Ker & Downey clients in Cairo.
We met our private Egyptologist Hany at the airport and began our tour of Cairo by heading to the Mosque of Mohammed Ali at the Citadel, a wonderfully ornate mosque of alabaster stone, followed by a tour of the Egyptian Museum. It was at the museum we first realized just how bad the tourism industry in Egypt is suffering. A few years ago, the museum would have been full of tourists, shuffling from room to room, peering over shoulders to get a peek at King Tutankhamen’s gold mask. By contrast, we practically had a private tour of the museum at 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon.
We finished our first evening off with a late lunch at Abu El Sid before transferring to the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at First Residence. The following day we met Hany and our driver for a half day tour of the pyramids, Solar Boat Museum, sphinx, Hanging Church, St. Sergius and Bacchus Church, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue before transferring to the Cairo Airport for our flight to Luxor. In Luxor we stayed the night at the Hotel Sofitel Winter Palace in a beautiful room overlooking the Nile River. In the evening we dined on international and Egyptian cuisine at La Corniche Restaurant, and capped off the night with tea in the Royal Bar and chatted about Winston Churchill and other dignitaries that enjoyed cigars and after dinner drinks in that same bar.
We spent the following morning touring the West Bank, where the landscape is constantly evolving with new monuments excavated on a regular basis. Within the last 10-12 years, 35 statues have been found behind the Colossi of Memnon, including an alabaster hippopotamus. The Colossi of Memnon used to be the largest temple in Egypt, but only the two large statues in front remain. Besides a few tour groups here and there, we were the only people touring the Colossi of Memnon, El Deir El Bahari of Hatshepsut, and the Valley of the Kings. As we walked into King Tut’s tomb, two other tourists walked out, leaving us to view the tomb as just a family, an incredible experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
That evening we toured the Temple Luxor, a massive temple of Ramses II, as the sun was setting. At dusk the temple is illuminated, creating a dramatic scene that shouldn’t be missed. Currently, archaeologists are working to restore one thousand sphinxes on a mile and a half road linking Luxor Temple to Karnak. Once completed, it will be reminiscent of the original processional road built by Amenhotep III.
We spent four nights aboard the M/S Mayfair on the Nile River sailing from Luxor to Aswan, with stops in Edfu and Kom Ombo. Out of 300 boats on the Nile River, there are only 50 or 60 that are currently operating, while the rest sit docked, waiting for tourism in Egypt to return to normal. Of the 50 to 60 boats that are sailing the Nile, they are operating at less than full capacity. The Egyptian people are very hospitable, and George, the M/S Mayfair’s General Manager, was no exception. He presided over each meal, making sure food was cooked to our liking and suggested wine parings for dinner.
Each temple we visited along the Nile was unique and magnificent and I was shocked at how well preserved the hieroglyphics and paintings are. In many areas of the temples, the colors are still so vibrant that you can almost imagine yourself transported back in time, walking along the halls of these great temples.
At Karnark, the massive 134 pillars in the Great Hypostyle Hall drew me in. Karnak is one of the most visited sites in Egypt, second to the pyramids at Giza, so I was surprised that while it had one of the biggest crowds of tourists we saw on the trip, we still had moments of solitude at the columns to stand among them and marvel at their grandeur.
In Edfu we visited the temple of Horus, which is perhaps one of the best-preserved temples in Egypt, before sailing for Kom Ombo to visit the double temple of Sobek and Haroeris. We visited the temples just before sunset, which provided some nice light for photos.
In Aswan we visited the Temple of Philae on Lake Nasser, accessible by a short boat ride. In 1902 the Aswan Low Dam was built, and as a result, flooded the Temple of Philae. A UNESCO building project in the 1960’s removed the temple piece by piece and reassembled it on higher ground about 1600 feet away from it’s original site. We finished the night with a relaxing felucca ride on the Nile River and watched the sun set aboard the MS Mayfair.
We stayed our last night in Aswan at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile and where part of the film was shot. The hotel was built in 1900, but recently underwent a renovation and is possibly my favorite hotel. It is located on the banks of the Nile River overlooking Elephantine Island and the outdoor terrace is the perfect setting to watch feluccas pass by on the Nile.
On our final day, we flew to Abu Simbel for a day trip to the temples of Ramsses II and Neferteri before continuing on to Cairo. Like the Philae Temple, the temples at Abu Simbel were also deconstructed and relocated on higher ground, a pretty magnificent feat considering they were both carved into the side of a mountain. Tourists usually visit the temple of Ramsses II first because it is the first one you approach as you walk to the temples. Knowing this, our guide Hany took us to the temple of Neferteri first, and we were able to visit both temples in grand solitude.
It would be almost impossible to travel to Egypt without an Egyptologist. We saw many groups with Egyptologists, but in groups of thirty people. With Hany as our private Egyptologist, we not only saw the “highlights” at the temples, we received tours suited to our family’s interests. In the end, we all agreed it was one of the best trips we’ve ever been on.