Over the last year tourists have begun to return to Egypt in exponential numbers and the Nile Scribes were happy to join them last month as part of their first Scribes on the Nile tour. Our group of fifteen travelers, most of them first-timers to Egypt, were eager to try many new experiences along the way, from sugar cane juice and camel-riding, to haggling in the souq to smoking shisha. This week we are looking back at our eleven-day trip up and down the Nile to share some highlights from our latest adventure.
Luxor, the largest Open-Air Museum
Our group arrived in Luxor for our first-stop on the tour. Undaunted by our lack of sleep and long flight from Toronto, the group was anxious to start their sight-seeing at the Luxor Museum. We were especially interested in seeing the sarcophagus of Tawosret (KV 14) installed in the museum only a month earlier, and the newly inaugurated exhibit featuring the finds from the South Asasif Conservation Project, with whom Taylor works in Luxor.
Their appetites whetted by the museum, our group was excited to visit the Ramesseum, memorial temple of Ramesses the Great. Just before, we had visited Medinet Habu, the memorial temple of Ramesses III, modelled in parts after the Ramesseum on the morning of the first day. The next day we visited the Valley of the Kings where we saw a number of Ramesside royal tombs – some tour members also visited the tomb of Seti I, among the largest and best preserved royal tombs from ancient Egypt. At sunrise, half of our group took their first hot-air balloon rides to enjoy the Theban necropolis from above – a highlight for many of our tour members.
Aswan: Egypt’s southern Frontier
While in Luxor we boarded a cruise-ship that would sail our group south to Aswan, the traditional border of ancient Egypt and ancient Nubia. While we cruised, we passed Gebel el-Silsila on the bank of the Nile, where sandstone was quarried by generations of kings for monuments that were built throughout Upper Egypt. We made stops at the temples of Edfu and Kom Ombo on our journey south, also visiting the Crocodile Museum at Kom Ombo. Hundreds of mummified crocodiles were found near the temple and a number of them and objects related to the cult of Sobek are now on display here.
At Aswan we took a felucca to Agilika Island where the multilayered complex of Philae Temple was reconstructed from tens of thousands of blocks during the 1970s to protect it from the higher water-levels brought on by the Aswan High Dam. We also made sure our group got to enjoy a lesser-visited location in Aswan, the Nubian Museum, where 3,000 objects highlight Egypt’s long relationship with Nubia. We stopped at the famous unfinished obelisk, where thousands of years ago, quarrymen were preparing a new granite obelisk before it cracked, rendering it unusable. In the evening, we drank limonana and smoked shisha in a street-side café, playing backgammon as the Aswan nightlife buzzed around us.
Cairo: from ancient to modern times
Our first day in Cairo began with a visit to the Giza Plateau. The Great Pyramid of Khufu, the only surviving wonder of the ancient world, stands proud atop the plateau flanked on its south-western side by the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure. Some of our group made their way into the pyramids’ interior like explorers from days past. For the afternoon, we drove to Saqqara and looked at the Step Pyramid complex of Djoser from the Third Dynasty. Many of us returned to Saqqara on the last day to explore the Serapeum and the huge sarcophagi of its Apis bull inhabitants.
The next day took us to Coptic Cairo which features several churches from Coptic times as well as the famous Ben Ezra Synagogue. We then headed to the Citadel where we marvelled at the hundreds of lanterns within the Mosque of Mohammed Ali. This mosque found inspiration itself after the famous Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed at Istanbul and features the typical thin needle-type minarets common in Ottoman architecture. Our group particularly enjoyed their time exploring Khan il-Khalili bazaar with its fragrant spices and ornate gifts from many artisans and craftsmen, and some returned back again that same evening!
When we came to the last day of the tour, we relaxed in the middle of the Nile for a while on a felucca. Sailing across the water in Egypt’s largest, busiest city gave us some time to reflect on all the amazing adventures and sites our group experienced over the previous 10 days and share our favourite moments.
Three Highlights of the Tour
1. Roof of the Temple at Philae
It has recently become possible (for an extra fee) to climb up to the roof at Philae Temple for a view of the island and the river. In ancient times, priests would have made their way to the roof for certain rituals and cultic activities. Seeing the island from above gives you a better opportunity to appreciate the scale of the island’s reconstruction in the 1970s and also provided us with gorgeous views of the island’s surroundings.
2. Visit to Kalabsha Island
An unplanned visit to Kalabsha Island was hastily added to our schedule at the recommendation of our good friend Mohamed Aziz. The island is now home to several relocated temples, rock grafitto, and stelae which were previously located in the path of the rising waters from the Aswan High Dam. The peaceful island is one of the lesser-visited locales in Aswan so we highly recommend a visit as you will likely have the island to yourself.
3. Egyptian Museum
The last day of sightseeing of the tour included a visit to the Egyptian Museum which is a must-visit for anyone travelling to Egypt. The country is currently in the process of completing the construction of what will be the largest museum in the world: the Grand Egyptian Museum beside the Giza Plateau. While several parts of the Cairo museum are already quite empty of artefacts, our group still marvelled at many amazing objects including the famous funerary mask of Tutankhamun. Thomas also found some excitement in the treasures from Tanis: after all, they featured a large number of lapis-lazuli fragments including a necklace with large spherical beads from the tomb of Psusennes I.
Taylor’s favourite moment
After we finished our tour of Philae Temple, Thomas and Taylor went off on our own little scavenger hunt to find Egypt’s last hieroglyphic inscription. We found our way to “Hadrian’s Gate”, west of the temple proper on Agilika Island. The gate was built in Roman times in the second century AD and contains the last hieroglyphic inscription dating to August 24, 394 AD. The two of us searched high and low, walking around the Gate and scouring the walls for the image and inscription we’ve been familiar with for so long but had never seen for ourselves. We were happy to see the figure of the Nubian god Mandulis who is shown carved next to the inscription dedicated to him.
Thomas’s favourite moment
The history of Egypt may have been the focus, but we also wanted to take in many cultural experiences of modern Egypt: one of these, of course, is its cuisine. On our visit to Islamic Cairo and the amazing Khan il-Khalili market, we took our group to an amazing restaurant not far from the al-Azhar Mosque, al-Gad. It has several branches throughout the city, but ours had chefs kneading and pounding dough for fiteer, while just outside staff made various types of shawerma. The next day we stopped at Felfela on the Giza plateau, which is well-known for its grilled chicken and other Egyptian staples. Our perhaps favourite place for eating and drinking was Safary 2000 right across our hotel. Fresh juice – a delicious treat wherever you are in Egypt, sandwiches, and, of course, many flavours of shisha were on the menu at least once a day! Our group was eager every day to experience the many delicious flavours of Egyptian cuisine!
The Nile Scribes wish to thank Michelle Habib at Sun-Ray Travel for her incredible work arranging this tour for us and accommodating all of our special requests. We also want to say shokran to Mohamed Aziz, our Egyptian chaperone, who became a dear friend to all of us during our tour – until next time! Finally, a huge thank you to our many friends, both new and old, for joining us on our first Nile Scribes tour of Egypt and for your eagerness, flexibility, and stamina. Your greatest gift to us was the chance to see Egypt through new eyes, and we are eternally grateful.