Staff writer Haley Beham and Vice President David Jones break through the news cycle of the day to discover the soul of an immense country that spans from Africa to Asia. Two perspectives on two profound journeys reveal new ways to see an ancient land.
River of Dreams
A cruise on the Nile seamlessly combines luxury with the mystery of glorious, storied ruins. By Haley Beham
With a spirit of adventure and a soul longing to see the world, there isn’t a place I don’t want to experience. Even after the Arab Spring, Egypt is no exception; and so, with a feeling of excitement and curiosity, I happily pack my bags for the eight-day journey through Egypt and down the Nile River. As the gateway to Egyptian civilization, the Nile River is a link to the past, a flowing and vital life-giving source, and the route of Cleopatra’s fabled royal barge. For me, it is where the world of Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile” comes to life, and where I truly begin to understand everything I learned about the ancient civilization in school years ago.
A cruise along the far-stretching river is not only the best way to see the historic sites of ancient Egypt—renowned as some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in the world, but it is also the most relaxing mode of travel. I board the MS Mayfair that will be my home base for the next four nights in Luxor with my family and Hany, our private Egyptologist who remains with us throughout the journey, guiding us through the temples, interpreting hieroglyphics and recounting their histories.
From this luxury vessel, we disembark to experience countless wonders. Walking through the Temple of Karnak’s 50,000 square foot Great Hypostyle Hall is breathtaking, as 134 sandstone columns tower overhead and stretch toward the sky. Our visit to the Temple of Luxor as the sun sets is an equally majestic experience. As the sun goes down, hundreds of lights illuminate the columns and facades, providing a great- er contrast for reading the many hieroglyphics carved on the surfaces. To help put it into perspective, these temples are 1,500 years older than the Roman ruins we consider ancient—and over twice as big.
Life is peaceful and slow onboard the ship as we sail the iconic waters down to Aswan. The farther south we travel, the hotter the sun grows, and a dip in the pool is a welcome respite from the heat. In the after- noons, we take our tea and conversation on the lounge balcony and watch as farmers and water buffalo plow the fields and spy fisherman casting their nets into the river. These small moments count volumes, and give us the opportunity view everyday life. Two local entrepreneurs tie their boat to ours as we make our way down the river. From below, they toss colorful Galabeyas (a long, traditional tunic native to the Nile Valley) up to our balcony and call for us to drop money in the bags provided if we wanted to purchase them. Later that evening we join in the traditional Egyptian party, donning our pink, orange and white Galabeyas and dancing to folk music.
Before feasting on gourmet cuisine in the dining room each night, we gather on the sun deck for sundowners as the early evening sun dips below the horizon, turning the sky from a golden hue to a dramatic canvas of vibrant pinks, purples and blues. We watch as feluccas, traditional wooden boats with massive sails, make their way to shore. Every night on the boat presents a new cultural experience. We dance with belly dancers one night, try desperately to keep beat with Nubian drummers the next and watch in amazement as whirling dervishes spin to traditional music without growing dizzy on the final night.
Exploring Egypt this way offers a rare opportunity to see the historic sites without great crowds of people surrounding you. We are lucky to spend moments alone in King Tutankhamun’s tomb without anyone around us, soaking up the grandeur of this and other historic sites. The landscape is constantly evolving. Buried treasures are unearthed regularly, meaning there are new things to discover. In a sense, Egypt is a gift that keeps giving back. Seeing everything this fascinating world has to offer with just one cruise down the Nile would be impossible—but that doesn’t mean we didn’t try.
The New Classics
For the ultimate exploration that satisfies all five senses, discover the treasures along Egypt’s roads less traveled. By David Jones
Even the most casual historian is aware of the great Egyptian civilization and the incredible architectural wonders left behind. But what about the other Egypt? The Egypt of Alexander the Great. The Egypt of World War II. The Egypt of the Siwan people. These are what I call the secrets of Egypt—the locations and experiences that go beyond the typical wonders of this incredible country.
I start in Alexandria, a stomping ground for ancient Egyptians, Greek, Roman, Jewish and Christian cultures and faiths. “Alex” is so rich in history and culture; it is a sin to pass it by when visiting Egypt.
Certified scuba divers can dive into the harbor to view the ruins of ancient Alexandria and the Pharos, the great lighthouses once regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Travelers would journey for months from all over the known world just to catch a glimpse of these colossal structures, which guided seafarers to the center of Egyptian culture and knowledge. In the era of the pharaohs, vast collections of the world’s written wisdom and history was under safe keeping at the grand Library of Alexandria. Unfortunately the structure was destroyed during a Roman invasion, robbing the world of the richness of literature and knowledge in one mindless act. The modern structure was recreated and rebuilt, supported by nations around the world and sparked by the desire of the Egyptian people to restore the reputation of Alexandria as a center of learning by building the great Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
The Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, beneath the city, rival the Caracalla catacombs in Rome. There were many cultural and religious influences during Alexandria’s golden years; and the well-heeled wanted to make sure that when their time came, they made it to some heaven—any heaven. So the rich and powerful would adorn their tombs with Egyptian, Roman, Jewish and Christian symbols as a way of covering all their bases for the afterlife, and this interesting combination of religious icons is preserved in the catacombs.
Continuing west along the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, I visit the historic battlegrounds of the First and Second Battle of El Alamein lead by Rommel, a German general. Because of his swift and incisive engagement with the enemy, he was one of most respected and feared generals of World War II. This theatre of the Second World War is often overlooked, but was pivotal for the eventual outcome. There are three war memorials and cemeteries here: the joint British and American, the Italian and the German.
Wanting to go deeper, I drive along the coast until Mersa Matruh, where we head dead south into the great desert and the fabled Siwa Oasis. This is the kind of oasis you’d see in cartoons. Imagine traversing the desert on camel for hundreds of miles and coming upon a green wonderland. Caravans from Africa on their way to the Middle East and Asia would stop here for restores, refreshment and provisions. In fact, the patch of green springing up out of a bunch of brown desert that has been seen for centuries is exactly what I see today. One of the few places left on the planet to experience authentic culture, Siwa is a hidden treasure—kind of like its own oasis of authenticity in a world of contrived cultural experiences. The beautiful Siwan people are actually Berber. They speak a Berber language, Siwi, and maintain a rich cultural identity that has been uninterrupted for generations. The artisanship of silver work has been passed down from father to son for hundreds of years and Siwan textiles are beautifully stitched and colorful.
Here, history lives around every corner. The temple of the oracle of Amun is still intact, the very place where Alexander the Great marched his armies so he could be crowned Pharaoh of Egypt. Facing a large salt lake, the Siwans have been building bricks from the salt and mud combination for years, an architecture style that is on display throughout the town. The “Shali” (or old town) is open to wander through and admire the ruins of the original center, which was partially wiped away by a rare rainstorm in the 1970s.
Just across the lake is the unique eco-resort, Adrère Amellal, built by a successful Siwan living in Cairo as a way to maintain and display the great heritage of the Siwan people. Here there is no electricity, but there is hot- and cold-running, pure mineral water. Focused on organic food, creative and delicious dishes are shared in distinct dining venues—personalized just for me—all over the complex. Exquisite dining options abound, from having lunch in the date palms on the edge of the natural spring pool or by candle- light facing the White Mountain or desert. Prince Charles and Camilla have stayed here, and many of the privileged and famous fly their private jets into Siwa and stay off the grid at Adrère Amellal as a respite from the crazy world they live in daily.
A Siwan guide named Abdullah, speaking perfect English, takes me out into the Sahara Desert in a four-wheel drive vehicle to experience the land he calls his home. We also spend time with Mohammed, a Siwan native and one of Adrère Amellal’s excellent ambassadors. I’m lucky enough to meet his family, taste fresh dates he plucks from the top of a palm after scaling it with his bare hands and feet and spend a day hanging out with a new friend.
This side of Egypt is absent of the better-known sites, but still heavy on amazing experiences. This is the side of Egypt I like to visit again and again.
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