A colourful ode to the country of gods pharaohs, pyramids, ancient temples and a number of civilisations
A few weeks back I decided to travel to Egypt. If I am honest, the expectation was moderate, given that I now reside in the Middle East. I bounced the idea of travelling to Egypt to some of my friends; some shrugged, some yawned, others complained of poor-quality food, dirt and dust and crowded streets. I, however, remained steadfast in my decision to visit Egypt, given the country, perhaps more than any other place on Earth, has witnessed and recorded the repetitive cycle of civilisation including Pharaohs, Persians, Romans, Byzantine Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims. This is the place where voices of pharaohs can still be heard if you listen closely and the magic of an era bygone can still be felt inside the tombs.
The plan was to fly to Cairo, then catch a short flight to Aswan and travel by water from Aswan to Luxor. The idea was to explore major tourist sites while travelling on the Nile on this route. The water vessel which was the main mode of travel for me was the luxury cruise ship, Sonesta St. George.
The majestic Nile, that flows from south to north through eastern Africa, has been critical to the development of ancient Egypt. Today, 95 percent of Egyptians live within a few kilometres of the Nile. The river has also served as an important transportation route for thousands of years. It is serene, calm, even when in motion it feels still and shines like a sparkling turquoise blue stone.
Our first stop was the Temple of Philae (while our ship was docked at Aswan). Built to honour the goddess Isis, this was the last temple built in the classical Egyptian style. Construction began around 690 BC, and it was one of the last outposts where the goddess was worshipped. The temple decorations had been severely damaged by partial flooding caused by an earlier dam project. Later, a gate was erected by Emperor Hadrian in the second century AD, and the temple was converted into a Church in 540 AD, during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Philae was eventually moved to safety on the nearby island of Agilkea.
A few hours away from the Temple of Philae is the Temple of Kom Ombo. The structure rose in the Ptolemaic period and was in ruins for centuries. Celebrated for its majestic setting above a river bend, the temple is dedicated to Horus, the falcon god, and Sobek, the crocodile god. Kom Ombo has a separate entrance, court and sanctuary for each deity. Inside are two hypostyle halls, in which massive columns support the roof. Kom Ombo was in disrepair until 1893 when it was cleared by the French archaeologist Jean-Jacques de Morgan. Now, it’s inundated in the late afternoon, when cruise-boat crowds arrive. Its geometric lines are stunning to walk through and for photography purposes.
Our vessel kept moving while we had lunch. We docked again at the Edfu, Egypt’s best-preserved temple. Begun in 237 BC and dedicated to Horus, the temple was partially obscured by silt. Excavated in 1859 by the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, the temple is an ode to power: 118-foot pylon leads to a courtyard where worshippers once heaped offerings, and a statue of Horus guards hypostyle halls whose yellow sandstone columns look richly gilded.
After a whole night of travelling, we reached the ancient Thebes in the early hours where we docked for the whole day. Thebes is home to some of the greatest monuments of the ancient world – built to honour the living, the dead, and the divine. The city, known as Waset to ancient Egyptians and as Luxor today, was the capital of Egypt during parts of the Middle Kingdom (2040 to 1750 BC) and the New Kingdom (circa 1550 to 1070 BC).
“Egypt is not the country to go to for the recreation of travel. One’s powers of observation sink under the perpetual exercise of thought.” Even a casual voyager, Martineau wrote, “comes back an antique, a citizen of the world of six thousand years ago.”
In the morning, we set out for Karnak complex. Karnak was one of the biggest religious complexes in the world back in its heyday, nearly one mile by half a mile (1.5 kilometres by 800 meters), and even after more than 3,000 years, it remains one of the most awe-inspiring. At its heart is the Temple of Amun, the earthly ‘home’ of the local god. Built, added to, dismantled, restored, enlarged and decorated over nearly 1,500 years, Karnak was the most important place of worship in Egypt during the New Kingdom. The complex is dominated by the great Temple of Amun-Ra – one of the world’s largest religious complexes – with its famous hypostyle hall, a spectacular forest of giant papyrus-shaped columns. This main structure is surrounded by the houses of Amun’s wife Mut and their son Khonsu, two other huge temple complexes on this site.
The Valley of the Kings (two distinct valleys) was used to bury royalty during much of the New Kingdom era. The valley is best known for the tomb of Tutankhamun, with its legendary treasures, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Many other royals are buried here but few known tombs remain as unmolested as Tut’s. The Valley of the Kings was heavily looted in the 21st dynasty and many mummies were removed for safekeeping during this era. However, it still draws massive crowds.
However, it is the tomb of Queen Nefertari in the Valley of Queens that left the greatest mark on me. Closed to the public for much of the time since its discovery in 1904, the tomb opened officially in 1996. Given the pristine condition of the tomb, only 150 people are allowed to visit in a day for ten minutes each with a premium cost around 100 dollars. The vivid wall paintings and delicate high relief can now be seen up close, without even the plastic shielding of other tombs, and it is easy to see why specialists call this the work of some of the most accomplished craftsmen of antiquity. This tomb was more touching and perhaps more memorable than anything I saw on a week’s travel along the Nile in southern Egypt. It gives a sense of one Egyptian tomb that comes closest to representing the home, the ‘house of eternity’ that it was meant to be. There is the presence of rare sweetness and intimacy here that makes contact across the centuries seem somehow possible. Just ten minutes inside startle you, dazzle you and transform you across centuries and you actually feel as if you are walking across time. If you plan to visit the Valley of Kings, I suggest don’t underestimate the Valley of Queens, as the Tomb of Queen Nefertari is the perhaps the best one Egypt has to offer.
After getting off-board, I flew back to Cairo and spent two days there. The splendour, history, and dazzle witnessed from Aswan to Luxor, dimmed the whole Cairo experience. Egyptian museum itself creates no impression other than leaving behind a feeling of tiredness and fatigue. However, the collection of Tutankhamen must not be missed under any circumstances.
After eight days in Egypt, I walked away dazzled and awed, with a renewed respect for the ancient Egyptian civilisation. Though we should be proud of our advancements, yet everything I witnessed in ancient Egypt civilisation seemed to be above all those. One can’t miss the emphasis on the “journey into after-life” when one visits the Valley of the Kings or Queens and how ingrained and integral was this idea in these civilisations. One also gets a sense of community, how these civilizations worked together to create something so remarkable. One feels how numerous lives would have worked together through an entire lifespan to create one distinct and mesmerizing landmark left in time. The use of perishable papyrus as paper, solar boat, footwear, jewellery, and scale, size and splendour of construction in those times, makes the current times seem colourless and tepid in comparison. This resonates with what Martineau has written. How true it is: “Egypt is not the country to go to for the recreation of travel. One’s powers of observation sink under the perpetual exercise of thought.” Even a casual voyager, she wrote, “comes back an antique, a citizen of the world of six thousand years ago.”