Flying to to Egypt direct from L.A. would be a 17 hour flight and luckily Gate 1 booked the flight out of New York allowing us to have a layover. At first we thought that we would take a 4-5 hour layover from JFK and continue on a red eye to Egypt, but Marla is a savvy booking travel genius and booked an overnight stay at the TWA hotel at JFK.
After landing at JFK we grabbed our luggage, asked a few questions to find the Air Train to get us to Terminal 5 and then literally followed the signs and stickers on the sidewalk to the hotel. The route lead us briefly outside in the brisk weather for the last 100 yards to the hotel.
Wow! There was a couple of 1960’s cars parked out front before you enter the lobby to the Space Age looking check in counter. It was a slow night and we were upgraded to a suite, a small suite.
This hotel was opened in 1962 at the height of 60’s space travel influenced fashion similar to the style of the cartoon show The Jetsens. Disneyland had built the Tomorrow Land with sweeping curving lines, arches and futuristic rides about the same year too. It was a thing and many jumped on board. Star Trek anyone? Lost in Space? The TWA Hotel has been featured in movies like Catch Me if You Can for that 1960’s vibe. In fact it is like being on a functioning movie set.
We cleaned up and set off to explore and find something to eat at the Food Court. The hotel has many homages to the era including a Twister ( game) room, rotary dial pay phones, sleek modern chairs with tables or booths, walls of 1960’s and TWA memorabilia and a full-size Super Constellation airplane used for a cocktail lounge.
After checking in at EgyptAir in JFK we went through the usual TSA, boarding pass check, search, grope of shame.
The boarding was running late without explanation to the point that after seeing a few people behind the counter I guessed that the PA system was broken and they were trying to fix it. Three TSA employees walked up pushing a cart with a big flight crate on it and I thought it was a new computer or equipment to replace whatever the Fk was broken. No.
The boarding was finally announced and as we scanned our ticket three cameras filmed our left, (my good side), our right and the front of our face. Ten feet later people in suits checked our passports to our tickets. Forty feet down the loading ramp TSA did the same. Then we passed by a dog who gave us a sniff and didn’t wag his tail so we were allowed to pass. After another turn down the long boarding ramp US Customs checked our passports and asked us how much money we were taking into Egypt. I said I was married and had none. They understood and let us pass.
In Cairo the boarding process was even tighter.We were x-rayed, scanned, frisked and I.D.’d upon entry to the airport.After we checked in it was off for more of the same with the Egyptian TSAOne more, scan, frisk and I.D. at our terminal.A forth and last scan, frisk and I.D. before entering the gate.
The Giza Pyramids are located about 45 minutes from our hotel (Cairo Marriott) and in order to arrive early it involved a 5:00am wake up call, 6:00am breakfast and a 7:15am departure. This was a full day with not only the visit to the Pyramids but also the Sphinx of Giza and a few camels thrown in for a little adventure.
As we approached the archeological complex gate for the Giza Pyramids we encountered four security personnel who took note of our bus and wrote something on their clipboards. One person on this security detail was armed and wearing a bulletproof vest and there was also a “Tourist Police” car nearby. This as it turns out this would be the usual protocol for all the archeological sites we would visit.
This important archeological area encompasses the three main Pyramids at Giza along with seven smaller Queens’ Pyramids that were built some 4500 years ago.
We walked around the Great Pyramid built for the Pharaoh Khufu, which is the oldest and largest pyramid of the three. We could also see ongoing archaeological digs nearby.
The Giza Pyramids are made from granite and at one time were covered with an outer layer of fine limestone which would have made them completely smooth.
We didn’t explore the other two pyramid’s of Khafre and Menkaure but could see in the distance that they are consecutively smaller.
Want to climb the pyramids? Nope! There’s a conviently located sign reminding tourists that climbing is prohibited, but there are stairs that will take you to the entrance where you could crawl in to view the burial room. Unfortunately the lights were malfunctioning on this day and therefore too dangerous for us to enter.
Next we cruised on over to the Sphinx of Giza which is located less than a mile and adjacent to the Great Pyramids of Giza. The Sphinx is a mystical creature with the head of a man, the body of a lion and is approximately 66 feet high and 240 feet long. The Sphinx is currently surrounded by scaffolding that I assume is for restoration purposes, but still quite impressive.
The Sphinx of Giza is made from one single piece of carved limestone and is missing its nose. There have been many “What happened to the nose?” theories over the years but the most plausible is that of simple erosion.
The site was crowded when we arrived but our guide did find a sliver of wall for an informative talk before cutting us free to view the Sphinx from a slight distance.
To make up for the earlier disappointment of not viewing the burial room of Pharaoh Khufu in the Great Giza Pyramid, we instead drove to Sakkara to explore the Funerary Complex of King Teti. At this site we first visited the Mortuary Temple which was covered in hieroglyphics and used for various rituals before venturing into the burial chamber.
Entering the sand covered tomb involved descending down a narrow passageway before crawling through a dimly lit space which lead to the chamber containing the sarcophagus. Being short in stature it was easier for me to maneuver through, although I did hit my head twice going in and once on the way. Also if you’re claustrophobic this wouldn’t be the activity for you which proved to be the case for one member of our group.
Onward we headed to the next archeological site the Step Pyramid of Djoser. After arriving at the complex and before reaching the Pyramid we walked through what appeared to be a complex of columns that actually is a partial recreation of what was imagined to be there based on the structures foundation.
The Step Pyramid was built in the 27th century BCE and underwent several revisions with a portion constructed in crumbling mud brick and cut stone. It’s believed to be the first of its kind and may have set the blue print for the later Great Pyramids of Giza. The complex is surrounded by a large courtyard and ceremonial structures that we walked around.
When we were in Morocco we regretted not riding a camel, so now in Egypt it was time to give that little adventure a whirl. We paid about 200 Egyptian pounds which is about 12 bucks apiece to ride these Arabian one humped Dromedaries.
After quick instructions on “How to ride a camel” by our guide, we set off to where these desert creatures were located.
To Mount the animal you first place your foot in the single stirrup on the left side of this colorful padded u shaped saddle which is called a mahawi in Arabic. Then swing your leg over in one smooth motion, except I’m short… and old… so I was pretty clumsy. Then you hold on for dear life to the camels mahawi while leaning back as the animal stands up first by its rear feet making it quite steep.
By this time my show off of a husband had already mounted his camel and was toward the front of the caravan with a different camel wrangler. However he admitted later to smacking his shin into the wooden horn on the back of the saddle while swinging his leg over the camel to get on.
After mounting my sweet ride it didn’t take long to relax and match the rhythm of my animals stride as we rode through this designated small patch of desert. My travel companions camel however had a terrible gimp which made me wonder if this activity was ok. It was all over so quick before our camel wrangler obliged us by taking photos with the Giza Pyramids in the background. This was truly a one of a kind experience, whereas dismounting these animals was a whole other kind of experience. Which brings me to the camel toe…..
Who’s that man on the bus? How could I miss a tall, good looking, well dressed man who kept to himself but also a watchful eye? Wherever we were he went, blending in the background only to emerge at a moments notice with any hint of impropriety towards us.
Let me introduce you to the Tourism Police, a governmental police force whose mission is to keep tourists safe. A group of highly trained security who looked like they stepped out of the Matrix with sunglasses, long jacket and a semiautomatic.
It would be naive not to acknowledge potential threats imposed upon travelers foreign or domestic anywhere; in this region of the world real danger has targeted tourists such as the horrific attack in 1997 which resulted in the deaths of 62 people in Luxor, including a colleague of Ibrahim’s. https://en.Wikipedia.org/wiki/Luxor_massacre Was this a prelude to the creation of the Tourist Police force?
Tourism had come to a standstill which accounted for over 17% of Egypts economy. But it was not only terrorism but political corruption and the 2011 uprising of the Arab Spring that prompted travel warnings and the loss of this valuable industry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring
Just trying to comprehend the past corruption in foreign politics here is daunting if not impossible when we can’t even grasp our own domestic political dramas.
Today the Egyptian government feels stable and I felt safe. Tourist Police are required to travel with tour groups and there is notable security everywhere.
Yes Security was everywhere. From Allan’s aforementioned blog on EgyptAir to the extremely tight airport security consisting of a series of pat downs (women and men separated), multiple luggage scans, airport screeners, random checks and innumerable passport rechecks was exhausting yet I found reassuring.
The archeological sites were well staffed with armed guards and our daily bus routes were tracked so if there were any delays from one point to another the Calvary would come. We had no delays.
Stopping at these checkpoints was initially intimidating with the armed towers and it always involved a series of questions before waving us through until we reached the next checkpoint farther down the road. What were they asking the driver I wondered? All I could ever hear would be faint chatter in Arabic, which seemed so covert.
Also wherever our Nile River boat was docked we had 24 hour armed security patrolling the boardwalk and at night the gate to the street would be locked.
After a while it all seemed so routine to the point of feeling naked when we splintered from the group and didn’t have “our guy”. Or maybe we did? It wasn’t that we didn’t feel safe but I missed our “Superman” who would step out in front of traffic so we could safely J walk to the other side.
With all seriousness Egypts measures to keep visitors safe is excellent and I completely appreciated the professionalism of our assigned security staff.
It was our pleasure today to visit the remaining antiquities at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Why remaining? Because this is a museum in transition with most of its treasures already moved to the new but unopened Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM).
Although the museum was relatively empty compared to its former glory there were some interesting items such as a scattering of statues, wooden sarcophagi and a KingTut exhibit.
So what did we miss? Well…. we missed what’s anticipated to be the worlds largest state of the art archeological and antiquities museum considered to be on par with the Lourve. The museum is 870,000 square feet and is located on the Giza plateau overlooking the Great Giza pyramid’s.
Construction of The Grand Egyptian Museum began in 2012 at an expense of $795 million only to be halted numerous times surrounding security concerns during the revolution . This resulted in the original grand opening date of 2015 to be pushed back and then delayed again in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the Grand Egyptian Museum was briefly opened in the fall of 2019 for hard hat visits, it caused the construction to slow down so much that it closed to the public.
So when will this amazing architectural glass masterpiece open? Maybe late 2022 if there are no further delays. Perhaps that may warrant another return to Egypt to visit this jewel…. or shall I say “GEM” on the Nile.
With another early start our flight into Luxor was relatively unremarkable.
Luxor the “Ancient city of Thebes” is located in Upper Egypt which is the southern portion of Egypts Nile. I liked this city’s vibe which is prettier, cleaner, smaller and more laid back then the grittier hustle and bustle of Cairo. Historical wise it’s home to two popular temples that we would visit today before embarking on the Nile.
The first of the two sites was The Temple of Karnak, which is more of a complex and array of partially decayed and unfinished temples and pillars estimated to have been built over thousands of years. This length of time in itself makes it unique with a timeline of construction beginning around 2000BCE and continuing through 30BCE.
With over 30 Pharaohs contributing to its size it was built, reconstructed, added on, destroyed to build more temples, orientation changed, parts defaced by predecessor pharaohs or jealous pharaohs all to leave their individual marks and their many different Gods.
I was initially overwhelmed by Karnaks’ size as our group maneuvered around other tour groups as a plethora of languages were spoken and all vying for that optimal sweet spot. While Ibrahim pointed out “this and that” someone would occasionally peel off to get that “photo of your dreams” while receiving Ibrahim’s voice through their listening device. It was kind of unfortunate that some of the other groups weren’t as high tech and had to speak loudly in order to project.
My understanding is that only a portion of the complex was open to the public which made its vastness of over 200 acres and being one of the world’s largest temple complexes even more dazzling. An Egyptian enthusiast could spend days here but we only had a few hours in order to keep on schedule.
On a side note after finishing our walk we noticed some people walking in circles. Puzzled I asked Ibrahim what they were doing? Ugh he said. Then he explained that some tour guides, mostly from eastern EU nations, have told their group that if you walk in a circle here 30 times it will bring you good luck. Or maybe he told us fertility or some hocus pocus magical power or whatever….. but it was kind of amusing…… or was it? Hmmmm calculating our free time with the circumference of the circle and time back to the bus …….?? Allan! Come here quick!
Onward ho we went to our new home the Queen of Hansa, which would sail us over the next 7 days down the East Bank of the Nile toward the city of Aswan before looping back up on the West Bank toward Luxor once again.
But for now it would be lunch and a much needed nap before setting out at dusk to explore our second site the Temple of Luxor.
The Luxor Temple was constructed out of Nubian sandstone and was built sometime around 1400BCE . The Temple is unusual because it wasn’t dedicated to any Gods or Pharaohs but believed to be a place where Pharaohs were crowned or an annual coronation ceremony of sorts.
In 1884 Professor Gaston Maspero was tasked with the excavation of the Luxor Temple where over 3/4’s of the temple had been partially buried from the city’s debris which had built not only around but on top of the site.
As we drove to the Luxor Temple, which was not far from the boat, my first impression was impressive. It wasn’t out in the middle of the desert but more like city center and the complex was adjacent to the Avenue of Sphinxes.
The Temples facade has two trapezoid shaped walls or a pylon type entrance with a series of statues, one large obelisk and enormous sitting statues of Ramesses ll near the entrance.
Then after entering the temple grounds we came to a courtyard with columns wrapped in kind of a papyrus pattern and between each column are more statues of Ramesses ll.
Like other sites we visited we could see where parts of the temple had been torn down in order to recycle the building material and notable deterioration of the sandstone which is contributed to a combination of groundwater, salt and humidity.
Interesting note about the Temple of Luxors facade is that it originally had two obelisks made out of pink granite that flanked the entrance; but what happened to the other one? Thus begins the convoluted story that began in 1799 with Napoleon and the possibility of bringing both the obelisks to Paris as a prize of French conquest but was never realized.
Then in 1820 Jean-Francois Champollion who was well known for the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone once again urged the French government to acquire them. At about the same time Britains King Charles X sought and was promised the Luxor obelisks for his newly opened Egyptian museum.
Eventually in 1830 both the obelisks were gifted to France in exchange for a rare citadel clock.
Finally in 1833 the first obelisk arrived in Paris at an equivalent cost in todays dollars of around $19 million; which is probably why the remaining obelisk still stands at the Temple of Luxor.
Many years ago we actually saw the other obelisk in Paris at the Place de La Concorde and thought nothing of it. But now it makes me sad to see such antiquities disturbed.
We were warned that that there would be a time on the Nile that some locals would pull next to the boat and offer goods for sell. It sounded so charming with tee shirts being thrown up and money being thrown down. Another uniquely Egyptian experience to tell the folks at home right? Did they mention that you would be hearing “hello, hello” for hours? Mr. Hello woke us up from an afternoon nap and he had tied his row boat up to the boat selling goods to someone on the top deck. How charming, get a photo of this before he goes away. Awww…
He spotted us sticking our heads out the sliding glass door and drifted up to us three decks below. We shook our heads and receded back into our room, he wouldn’t go away, we shut the curtains, ah ha! He took it as a challenge and we were trapped, we slyly cracked the curtain and he nailed us with more hellos. After a few minutes he had started pummeling other windows with hellos, and after another peek we were again spotted. He had eyes of the tiger scanning for wildebeests in the bush.
The hellos went on up and down both sides of our boat for about two hours while we were cruising. I think people bought stuff as more of a bribe for him to go away.Skills. Respect.
This morning it was off to Valley of the Kings early to beat the crowds and we did. Golf carts transported us a short distance up the hill and a dozen tombs are all within walking distance without any trek through the desert Indiana Jones style.
After a short lecture near the cafe we headed directly to the Lost Covenant of the Arc-I mean Kings Tut’s tomb after paying an extra fee to see the boy king.
This tomb is the only one with a mummy and he is sealed under glass. The keeper of the tomb offered to take photos close up and we tipped him for his service.
The tomb was not as remarkable as some others but it did have an outstanding 12 monkeys painted on the wall. Tut’s tomb was discovered by accident after years of searching and expense, a worker dug a small hole near a tent to keep some supplies cool and hit a rock, a really big rock. They were literally sitting on it.
A couple of things I had to wrap my head around was how close the tombs were to each other in fact the ancient Egyptians themselves forgot and tunneled into a surrounding tomb, made a right and a left and kept digging. Sometimes the debris from a dig would bury another tomb.
Another observation is that the colors are still vivid on some paintings having only been cleaned from dust and soot. I have to paint my house every 7-8 years and these murals have lasted over 3,000 years. Sherwin Williams would be so proud.
Any mural within reach was protected by plexiglass but all were very close.We also saw Ramses the first and third tombs both very colorful, again hard to believe the colors are still visible.