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Into the Wilderness of Egypt: Climbing Mount Sinai

Into the Wilderness of Egypt: Climbing Mount Sinai

January 10. 3 pm. The summit of Mount Sinai, Egypt.

I’m sitting at the top of a mountain I’ve only ever read about…and certainly never thought I’d climb. From this vantage point, I can see a huge portion of the Sinai Peninsula. I can also see the wide open plain where Moses, Aaron, and the ancient Israelites camped at the base of the mountain over 3,000 years ago.

In every direction, nothing but desert spreads out before me. The landscape is stark but strikingly beautiful, changing colors every few seconds as clouds drift by overhead. It was almost a 3-hour hike to get here, but the rewards far outweigh the effort.

This, dear readers, is my journey to Mount Sinai.

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Our day began at the not-terribly early hour of 7 am. We awoke in our seaside bungalow at Amanda Hotel, an absolutely delightful place to stay. The owners, Mohammed and Rita, warmly welcomed us in and treated us like family.

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dahab

dahab

The hotel sits right on the coast of the Red Sea, which is a stunning shade of deep blue. Tall desert peaks surround the coastal town of Dahab, our home for the next five days. And across the water, we had perfect views of the craggy coast of Saudi Arabia.

dahab

dahab

dahab

dahab

The best part of our morning (and every morning we were there)? Ali’s incredible Egyptian breakfasts. Each day there were different, but each day they were literally a work of art — ful, omelets, cheese, veggies, the works.

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Fueled up for the day, we climbed inside our waiting car with our driver for the day, Ahmed. It took about two hours to get through at least 10 security roadside checkpoints and into the interior of the Sinai Peninsula. At every checkpoint, we had to show our passports while heavily armed guards with German shepherds sniffed our car (the dogs sniffed, not the guards).

With such heavy security here — and everywhere in Egypt — you’d think it would make you feel leery. If anything, it’s just the opposite. They’re protecting these sites and the people who live there, and they’re doing a darn good job of it. We wondered if there would be any sort of negative reaction to our American passports because — let’s face it — America’s not exactly the most loved country at the moment.

Especially in this part of the world.

To our surprise, though, we were met with nothing but smiles, hellos, and warm welcomes (from the guards, not the dogs). In fact, that’s pretty much been the reaction everywhere in Egypt. The locals make a few jabs at Trump, we agree, and everyone gets a good laugh out of it.

Seriously, Egyptians are some of the most open-minded people I’ve met anywhere. Nothing at all like they’re portrayed in the media.

But anyway, that’s another tale for another blog.

Onward and onward we drove, past miles and miles of barren mountains and sand, before we arrived at last at St. Katherine’s Monastery.

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Located at the base of Mount Sinai, this is the oldest working Orthodox monastery in the world. It also contains the world’s oldest continually-operating library. It’s home to the 4th-century Syriac Sinaiticus and the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus, considered to be one of the best-preserved Greek texts of the New Testament.

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

After a brief tour of the monastery, we fueled up for our climb with two hearty bowls of vegetable soup and a few cups of delicious Bedouin tea. This delicious concoction is made with black tea, sage, thyme, mint, cardamom, and plenty of sugar. No joke — I drank about 5 cups a day while we were in Sinai, and I brought a big bag home with me!

Anyway, I digress. We pass security checkpoint #247 (they are thorough, I give them that!) before we meet our Bedouin guide for the day, Abdul. As we began our hike past St. Katherine’s and into the wilderness, we quickly got a sense of just how isolated and alone we were.

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There was no one — literally NO ONE — on the entire trail. Abdul explained that most visitors make the trek overnight so they can see the sunrise. That’s actually how our tour company had it set up for us, but I nixed that one real fast.

Climb a deserted mountain in the middle of the night? In near-freezing temperatures? And forfeit an entire night of sleep when we’re already exhausted?

No thanks. I don’t value the sunrise that much — not even on Mount Sinai.

Because we chose to make our climb in the middle of the day (trust me, it was still PLENTY cold enough), we had the entire mountain to ourselves. It was just us, Abdul, and a camel named Paris (more on him later) for six hours up and down the mountain. We did not pass another soul!

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sinai egypt

sinai egypt

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s return to the base of the mountain near St. Katherine’s, where I found myself wishing I really, REALLY didn’t have to climb this mountain today. Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to — badly. But after a long travel day the day before and eight straight days of a crazy tour schedule, I was exhausted.

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Yes, I was gonna do it. But I was exhausted.

Well, miracles have happened in this region before. In a way, one kinda happened for me too. Right at that moment, out of nowhere, a Bedouin man and a camel appear and begin walking alongside us.

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At first, I don’t pay them much attention. I figure Mr. Bedouin and Mr. Camel live somewhere nearby and they’re headed home for lunch or something. Nope. As fate would have it, the kindly Bedouin man asked if I would like to ride his camel (Paris) to the top of Mount Sinai.

Why, yes, good sir. You must have been reading my mind. I would like that very, very much!

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sinai egypt

I gotta say — my mood improved considerably once I was seated on Paris’ tall back (hump?). Jeremy and Abdul continued on foot while the still-unnamed Bedouin led me and Paris up, up, and up the winding trail of Mount Sinai.

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sinai egypt

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Camel selfie!

Gradually we overtook Abdul and Jeremy as we made a steady, lumbering trek up the mountainside. Not much for me to do except sit back, take pictures, and enjoy the scenery, including Paris’ long neck and adorably cute camel ears.

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sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

When the Bible describes the barrenness of this wilderness, it’s hard to imagine just how barren it really is. Even now, thousands of years later, there’s still virtually nothing here. No water, no trees, not a single blade of grass. It truly was only by God’s power that the Israelites survived for 40 years here!

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sinai egypt

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sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

At last we reached the shade of the mountain’s summit. All that remained was a dizzying 750 steps to reach the top! At this point, I bid farewell to Paris and my helpful Bedouin and enjoyed the view while waiting for Jeremy and Abdul to catch up.

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I’ll always have Paris!

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sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

We’re nearing the end of our climb. The temperature’s dropping as the elevation increases, so we throw on an extra layer and prepare to continue. On foot, Jeremy, Abdul, and I begin the final steps that will take us to the glorious summit of Mount Sinai.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

And then…we’re there. Standing an impressive 7,496 feet (2,285 m) above sea level, on top of one of the most famous mountains in mankind’s history. The view was breath-taking…and not just because we were out of breath.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

What’s at the top of Mount Sinai, you may wonder? A monument to Moses?

Nope. When you reach the summit, all you’ll find is a small covered area for hikers to sleep, a few rundown Bedouin shacks, and the unfinished remains of both a church and a mosque (both started in 1865 and never completed).

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sinai egypt

sinai egypt
Bedouin tea atop Mount Sinai

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It was an epic day, an epic climb, and an epic sight. Abdul asked if we wanted to stay ’til sunset, but we didn’t feel equipped to hike back down the mountain after dark.

So instead we sat and enjoyed the views in the late afternoon sun, marveling at the fact that the view probably wasn’t much different all those millennia ago.

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The Temple of Karnak and Luxor: Where Time Stands Still

The Temple of Karnak and Luxor: Where Time Stands Still

January 8. 4 pm. Luxor.

I’m sitting on the deck of an old-fashioned felucca, the same sailing boats Egyptians have used for thousands of years. Our captain, Saleh, works with his first mate to unfurl the sails and push the tiny boat into the Nile’s mighty current.

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luxor

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There’s no motor on this boat, which means it’ll be slow going today. But that’s okay. There’s nothing we want to do for the next hour except lay back, drink some karkade (hibiscus tea), and reminisce about the two incredible days we’ve spent in Luxor.

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Our horse ride yesterday morning was spectacular – a perfect introduction to the region’s impressive history. In the afternoon we met our guide for the next two days, Rumany, a big jolly man somewhat reminisce of an Egyptian Santa Claus. Rumany had a habit of cracking himself up with his own jokes, which made our tours that much more entertaining.

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We began on the East Bank with what would be both my and Jeremy’s favorite temple in Egypt – Karnak.

It’s a city of temples constructed over a period of 2,000 years (2055BC-100AD), back when the surrounding city was known as Thebes. The temple is dedicated to the worship of the Theban trinity of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu. It’s considered the single largest religious structure ever made, covering a total area of 200 square acres.

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To put it into perspective, the inner Great Temple area alone is large enough to hold St. Peter’s Basilica, Milan Cathedral, and Notre Dame Cathedral side-by-side inside it.

Okay, so it’s big. But how does it look?

In a word: Awe-inspiring.

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The most impressive feature is the Hypostyle Hall, consisting of 134 towering columns spanning an area of 54,000 square feet (16,500m). 4,000-year-old paint still clings to some of the hieroglyphics. Only 20% of the original temple remains, but it’s a darn impressive 20%.

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luxor

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luxor

With the sun sinking lower, we made the short drive back into the heart of Luxor. Next stop: the appropriately named Luxor Temple. It spans over 1,000 years of history, from its original construction in 1390BC to the granite shrine dedicated to Alexander the Great in 332BC. It also houses a Coptic church and a mosque.

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luxor

Though not as large as its cousin Karnak, it’s still a beautiful and impressive sight. We wandered its ancient columns, pillars, and obelisks as dusk faded and the temple lit up.

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This blog wouldn’t be complete without a shout-out to Sofra, a traditional Egyptian house converted into an elegant, affordable, and delicious restaurant. The food was so great we dined there three nights in a row! Among their specialties we tried were stuffed pigeon, stewed rabbit, roasted lamb shank, and a dizzying variety of hot and cold mezes (appetizers).

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luxor

luxor

Breakfast at our hotel was not overrated either. Ful, an omelet station, fresh bread, veggies, and four types of cheese. I see nothing wrong with this picture!

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We needed the fuel for another long day of touring. Rumany picked us up again (all smiles and laughter) and we crossed the bridge to Luxor’s West Bank to begin our day.

Once the ancient Egyptian capital shifted from Memphis in the north (near Cairo) to Thebes (now Luxor), the kings decided to hide their burial chambers in the mountains rather than build huge pyramids. Thus, the Valley of the Kings (and the Queens) began.

To date, 64 tombs have been discovered in the Valley of the Kings, including the still-intact tomb of Tutankhamun. This was noteworthy because the other tombs had long ago been pillaged and robbed of their treasures.

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King Tut’s tomb was believed to be “cursed” because Howard Carter and the men who discovered it all died within two years. In reality, though, scientists suspect something used to preserve the mummy slowly “poisoned” the air over thousands of years.

Whichever theory you subscribe to, it’s an incredible sight to behold. We toured three of the 64 tombs, all of which are empty now except for giant sarcophagi (yes, that’s a word) and floor-to-ceiling hieroglyphics. Sorry I don’t have photos for you, but cameras aren’t allowed inside the tombs!

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luxor

luxor

Next stop: the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The only female Pharaoh in Egyptian history, theories abound about this powerful woman. She’s often portrayed as a man and supposedly claimed to be a demi-god. Could she have been the woman who found and raised baby Moses?

No one can say for certain, but her tomb carved into the mountain speaks of Egypt’s once-mighty status. Interestingly, despite her impressive mortuarium, her remains have never been found.

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luxor

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Speaking of queens, the last stop on our West Bank tour was the Valley of the Queens. 80 tombs have been discovered here, although nowhere near as large or ornate as the Valley of the Kings.

We were literally the only ones there!

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After a quick stop at the Colossi of Memnon and a farewell to Rumany, we took the ferry across the Nile and enjoyed a leisurely lunch on the riverbank. When we were offered a private felucca sail for 100 pounds (about $5), we couldn’t resist.

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So here we are, drifting lazily down the Nile in our very own felucca. Saleh even let us pilot his boat for part of the journey!

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Luxor has been beyond amazing – sights, people, horses, food. I can’t wait to see what Dahab and the Red Sea have in store for us!

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Hoofprints Through History: Horse Riding in Luxor

Hoofprints Through History: Horse Riding in Luxor

January 7. 7 am. Luxor.

We awoke bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in our hotel room in Luxor, eager to begin our day. For me, this ride was going to be a highlight of my visit to Egypt – right up there with riding past the Pyramids in Giza.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that horse riding is a top priority anywhere I visit. But riding in EGYPT? Native home of Arabian horses, my all-time favorite breed?

I’ve died and gone to equestrian heaven!

We’d arrived after dark on the train from Aswan the night before, so we had no idea our room looked out over the grounds of Luxor Temple. In the streets below, horse-drawn carriages clip-clopped by, along with an interesting mix of taxis, donkeys, and pedestrians.

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luxor

If you removed the taxis, you could easily be seeing the city as it’s looked for the past 4,000 years.

Have I mentioned Egyptian breakfasts yet? Let me tell you – this culture does it right. It’s particularly great at this hotel, where a smiley Egyptian man expertly whips up eggs and omelets. Along the buffet line you’ll find a feast of ful (mashed and spiced fava beans), potatoes, crisp vegetables, four types of cheese, and freshly baked bread and fig jam. Add in a cup of Arabica coffee or Egyptian tea, and you’re set for most of the day.

We wait outside for our pickup to the stables, which seems to be taking a little longer than usual. When I finally call to inquire, I’m told that the boatman is there waiting for us right behind the hotel pool.

This is a fascinating twist, consider our hotel has no pool, nor is located on the river!

After some confusion and laughs, we realize that the stables had us down as staying at the Hilton outside of town. Nope, I say, definitely not staying at the Hilton. (One can dream…) A comedy of errors later – including a taxi ride, the boatman’s brother, and a tiny tuk-tuk – we’re across the Nile to the West Bank and headed to the stables of Luxor Equestrian Adventures.

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As I imagined, this place is GORGEOUS. No skinny horses here – the British owner Emma keeps her herd in flawless condition. Their diet of clover, barley, chaff, and quinoa (these horses seriously eat better than I do) show through in their bright eyes and shiny coats.

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We meet our guide for the day, Sayyid, and the three beautiful gray Arabian horses we’ll be riding – Luna, Gypsy, and Amira. Just like my old horse Jon, Luna has a sweet disposition, a thick white mane, and a pink nose.

It’s love at first sight.

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Our three-hour ride took us through an incredible variety of settings – a chance to see the “real” Egypt off the beaten tourist trail. We rode through small villages, along cart tracks where they transport sugar cane, wheat fields and family farms, colorful bougainvillea and flower gardens. Everything was so lush and green!

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We also rode past a few historical sites, starting with the Colossi of Memnon. (Photo op!) Off in the distance, up on the mountainside, we could see the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut and the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.

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Awesome.

After riding past a few more temples and villages, we entered the open desert. Nothing but us, sand, and barren desert mountains.

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Again, awesome.

It could’ve been 2018AD or 2018BC, and we wouldn’t have known the difference. It was just us, the blazing sun, and our trusty steeds…the same as it’s been for Egyptians for thousands of years.

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luxor

Our return to civilization brought us through more villages and sugar cane, boys riding donkeys and men working the fields. It was a portrait of Egypt past, present, and future, and it wouldn’t have been the same from the window of a car.

Luna and Gypsy behaved beautifully for us, and Sayyid was a kind and knowledgeable guide. We were sad to return to the stables at the end of the morning, but time was pressing on, and we still had an afternoon tour to get to.

I have nothing but high praise for Emma, Sayyid, and the beautiful, well-trained horses at Luxor Equestrian. Something tells me I’ll see them again someday soon!

Aswan & Abu Simbel: Jewels of Upper Egypt

Aswan & Abu Simbel: Jewels of Upper Egypt

January 6. 3 pm. Aswan.

I’m sitting on the east bank of the river Nile, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun. In a few moments we’ll be heading to the train station and onward to Luxor, but for now I’m reflecting on two days spent in Upper Egypt (which is actually the southernmost part, because the Nile flows from south to north).

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aswan

Anyway. After a surprisingly pleasant 14-hour overnight train ride from Cairo, we arrived in Aswan yesterday at 10 am. Instantly it had a different “feel” than Cairo did. Cairo, for the most part, felt like a crowded and more hectic version of a large European city.

When we got off the train in Aswan, on the other hand, we were definitely in Africa. The streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages and donkey-drawn carts. Although temperatures were warmer, the locals were more conservatively dressed, especially the women. Most people had much darker skin, too, evidence of their ancient Nubian background (which they are indeed very proud of).

We meet our driver and head to our hotel, situated a few miles out of downtown on a hilltop overlooking the Nile. For the moment, we appear to be the hotel’s only guests. Since our tour doesn’t start until later in the afternoon, we enjoy a leisurely lunch on the empty but beautiful pool deck.

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aswan

There’s no menu, but the cook, Gaman, proudly assures us he can cook any Nubian dish we like. Since we know nothing about Nubian food, we ask him to surprise us. He soon returns – wearing a jacket and tie this time – with enough food to feed the Egyptian army.

No, really.

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aswan

Gaman presents us with bread, rice, salad, carrot-lentil soup, a whole grilled chicken, pickled vegetables, and our first taste of molokhyna, a local green sauce made from spinach, okra, and mild spices. The food was delicious, his service exceptional, and the whole thing was a little surreal, considering there was not another soul in sight.

With overstuffed bellies (we barely made a dent in all the food he provided – I do hope the staff finished it!), we headed outside to meet our guide and another young couple from Brazil. We transfer to a minivan and are joined by a couple from Philadelphia (the first Americans we’ve met on the trip) and the six of us set off for the famed Temple of Philae.

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This temple is noteworthy for a few reasons.

First, it was built around 280BC by Ptolemy II, son of Ptolemy I (one of Alexander the Great’s Generals who ruled the divided Greek empire after his death). It was built on an island using features of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian architecture. And for hundreds of years after Christianity spread through Egypt, it was used as a Coptic church.

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aswan

But what really makes this temple interesting? The entire thing was deconstructed, moved, and rebuilt on a different island during the 1960s.

Why? Because of the construction of the Aswan High Dam during that decade. The dam resulted in the creation of Lake Nasser, one of the largest manmade lakes in the world. This enormous reservoir required many things to be relocated, including hundreds of Nubian villages, the temples at Abu Simbel (more on those later) and also the beautiful Philae Temple.

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You’d never know it wasn’t in its original location, because it was perfectly reconstructed. It’s a unique blend of architectural styles, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Coptic crosses, Greek and Coptic writing, and a spectacular setting.

To reach it, you pass through a small Nubian market and board a local ferry boat. The boat ride alone is a treat; the temple itself is the icing on the cake!

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After returning to the mainland, we made a quick stop at the top of Aswan High Dam, where we learned more about its construction and impressive size. The dam is over half a mile wide at its base and has a volume greater than SEVENTEEN Great Pyramids of Giza!

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aswan

Interestingly, the dam also created a protected habitat for Nile crocodiles in the reservoir behind it. There are no wild crocs anywhere in Egypt beyond the dam, from Aswan all the way to Cairo and the Mediterranean.

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Thanks to lingering jetlag and our very early start the next day, we crashed around 7 pm. Received a wake-up call bright and early (dark and early, actually) at 3:30 the next morning so we could prepare for our tour of Abu Simbel.

For this tour, we joined about 20 other travelers on a full-sized bus. Thank goodness, because the journey south to Abu Simbel (near the border of Sudan) takes over three hours each way. We snagged a few more hours of sleep before the bus rattled to a stop on the side of the highway so we could enjoy the sunrise over the Sahara.

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After driving past sand, sand, and more sand, we arrived at the waterfront temples of Abu Simbel. These majestic structures sit on the shores of Lake Nasser, the same artificial lake created by the Aswan High Dam. We were over a hundred and fifty miles south of Aswan at this point, but we’d barely covered a fraction of the lake’s shoreline!

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Like Philae, these iconic temples were also relocated from the original place. Otherwise, our guide explained, they’d be located about 200 feet underwater. They were carved during the reign of Ramses II and his wife, Nefertari, in the 13th century BCE.

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aswan

Our visit was memorable but short, as we had to be back to Aswan to catch our afternoon train. Four hours later we were back in Aswan, where we now sit enjoying a final view of the Upper Nile.

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And now…off to Luxor!

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aswan

Mummies, Museums, and Mosques: Touring Old Cairo

Mummies, Museums, and Mosques: Touring Old Cairo

January 5th. 8am. Somewhere between Cairo to Aswan.

I’m sitting on the overnight sleeper train, a few hours away from our destination of Aswan in southern Egypt. We (wisely) decided to upgrade from seats to a private sleeper, which includes two bunk-style beds, two meals, our own sink, and total privacy.

It was an investment well worth it! Aside from being a little chilly (as Egypt is this time of year), it was a very pleasant way to pass the evening. And now that the sun’s up, we’ve got a never-ending view of palm trees, barren hills, rural villages, and the occasional lake.

It’s stunning, really. Don’t get me wrong – I love beaches and mountains as much as the next person. But there’s something about the desert, too, a sense of quiet and tranquility I don’t experience in any other setting.

Its beauty is its starkness.

But anyway. I’m not a poet, especially not this early in the morning. Let’s move on.

After our epic day touring Saqqara, Memphis, and the Pyramids, it was time to explore the city of Cairo. Makmud once again picked us up, this time with a lovely Egyptian woman, Fatima. Having spent four years studying inside the Egyptian Museum – among her other education – Fatima, I believe, knows everything about everything relating to Egyptian history!

We spent a starry-eyed two hours wandering the famed Egyptian Museum, hearing stories of pharaohs, mummies, hidden tombs, and buried treasures. We saw Tutankhamen’s gilded funerary mask and all the treasures buried in his tomb. We saw canopic jars, ancient jewels, alabaster sculptures, and dozens of sarcophagi.

The museum even has a section dedicated to mummified animals, which included birds, dogs, a horse, and a 22-foot-long Nile crocodile.

Why anyone would want to mummify a crocodile is beyond me, but hey…it was kinda cool.

Our next stop was Coptic Egypt, where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus supposedly stayed during their exile here. The narrow, partially underground streets are a veritable maze connecting centuries-old churches, synagogues, and Roman fortresses. There’s even a secret passage from the Hanging Church all the way to the ancient Citadel, which was used as an escape route for persecuted Jews and Christians.

cairo

cairo

After lunch and a quick stop at a perfumery/essential oil shop, we braved the city traffic and arrived late afternoon at the mighty Citadel. Perched high atop a hill in central Cairo, this was the seat of the Egyptian kings for over 800 years. Today it houses a military academy, several military museums, and the beautiful Mohammed Ali mosque.

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Through the sunset and the sand, we even caught a glimpse of the Pyramids off on the horizon.

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But time was slipping away, and we still had a train to catch. We bid farewell to Fatima and Makmud delivered us at our hotel, promising to return in an hour to pick us up. We stocked up on goodies at the local grocery store and snagged a quick bowl of koshary for dinner before heading over to the train station.

As you might imagine, the train station in Cairo is sheer chaos. Fortunately for us, Makmud escorted us all the way through security and to our platform and waited with us until the train arrived.

But that was last night, and this is this morning. In a few hours we’ll arrive in Aswan to continue our tour to Philae Temple, Aswan Dam, and Abu Simbel.

Stay tuned – our tour of Egypt is just getting started!

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Saqqara, Memphis, and the Pyramids – Touring Ancient Egypt

Saqqara, Memphis, and the Pyramids – Touring Ancient Egypt

January 4th. 5 am. Cairo, Egypt.

I’m listening to the call to the prayer (the first of five for the day) from the nearby mosques. Through the walls of the hotel room, the beautiful, haunting sound reverberates loudly, assuring everyone is awake.

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Well, not to worry – with the jetlag, I was already wide awake anyway.

I’m sitting in what’s arguably the softest, most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. The funny thing is that the 3-star hotel we’re staying at, across the river from downtown Cairo, has definitely seen better days. The shower is so small I barely fit inside it. The bathroom door doesn’t actually latch shut, and, like everywhere else in Egypt, there’s no heat in our room. (Granted, most of the year it’s scorching hot here, but the first week in January? Not so much).

Anyway, I digress. My favorite feature of this old-but-charming hotel? The elevator doesn’t actually have any doors. You step inside, press a button, and watch the floors go by as you ascend or descend. (Don’t get your fingers caught!)

And yet, despite its humble appearance, this rundown hotel has the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. This hotel seems to be a tiny representation of Egypt as a whole – ancient, rundown, yet strangely and surprisingly comfortable.

Let’s face it – Egypt has always been a wild card on the world scene. From Biblical times all the way up to the 2011 Revolution, Egypt has been a major player on the world scene. For over 4,000 years it’s flexed its mighty muscles, exerting a powerful influence on the politics and social structure of the Middle East.

To be fair, most of what we hear of this ancient country – one of the oldest civilizations on earth – is negative. We hear that it’s dangerous, dirty, crowded, and unpredictable.

Is it true? That’s what we came to find out. And yet – like this deliciously comfortable bed in an old hotel – we’re already discovering there’s a lot more to Egypt than meets the eye.

Arrival in Egypt

If you know us at all, you know we’re typically very independent travelers. Given the uncertainty of the times and the enormous scope of the country, we opted to use a tour company this time around. I gotta say – it was awesome to step off the plane in Cairo and find a smiling Egyptian man holding a sign with my name on it!

We breezed through immigration and hopped into a private car (no taxi queues here!) to be whisked away to our aforementioned hotel. The driver was lovely, pointing all sights along the Nile and downtown Egypt along the way – in perfect English, I might add.

When we reach the hotel, we’re greeted by a pretty blond Hungarian woman named Emily who now calls Egypt home. She sits us down to review our 14-day itinerary – every tour, every flight, every train ride. She explains we’ll have a private driver and guide each day (with the exception of Petra, where we’ll join up with a larger group). Then she shows us to the local supermarket, ATM, and Vodafone store, where we got Sim cards for our phones. She wished us well and made us promise to call if we encountered any issues.

After that, we were officially on our own. Since the tour didn’t start until the following day, we had the afternoon to ourselves.

Cairo: Day 1

Item number one on our list (shockingly) was getting some lunch. Since you know we’re major foodies, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

We took the locals’ advice and sat down with two big bowls of koshary, the unofficial comfort food of Egypt. Prepare for a carb coma, because you’re getting a bowl layered with pasta, rice, more pasta, lentils, and tomato sauce. Garnish with a few fried onion, zesty vinegarette, and a dash or two of hot sauce, and you’ve got a delicious meal for about $1.

cairo

RIP, my low-carb diet. See ya in two weeks!

Our jetlagged bodies were begging for rest (especially after consuming 19 pounds of rice and pasta), but we knew better than to give in. To combat our drowsiness, we grabbed and Uber and sat in traffic for over an hour (welcome to Cairo) to go get a late afternoon glimpse of the Pyramids.

A few fast facts about Egypt:

100 million people, 90% of which live along the fertile Nile River.

25 million in Cairo, making it the largest city in all of Africa.

NO TRAFFIC LIGHTS.

Yes, you read that right. 25 million people, no traffic lights. I’ll let you imagine what the roads look like.

But you know what? With the horns honking and the horses and donkeys clip-clopping and the Arabic music blasting over the taxi’s speakers, it’s kind of awesome. All the dust you inhale because the windows are down? Not so awesome – but hey, that’s what showers are for).

Along the main road through Giza leading out to the Pyramids, you’ll pass A LOT of police checkpoints. In fact, even our humble hotel greets guests with a massive metal detector. Roadblocks are set up everywhere to slow traffic down (not that you’re moving fast) so heavily-armed police can keep an eye on things. At one point, close to the Pyramids, they even had dogs sniffing all the vehicles and trunks.

A little unnerving? In a way. But in a place like this, I’d rather see them take extra precautions than not enough.

Our Uber delivers us at the historic Mena House Hotel, a 5-star gem that’s sat in the shadow of the Pyramids since 1869. If Disney World had an Egyptian themed resort, this is what it would look like. 40 acres of lush green lawn, fountains, gilded ceilings with glass lanterns, colorful archways, and a too-good-to-be-true backdrop of the Pyramids in their backyard.

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

Once we’d retrieved our jaws from the floor, we took a seat at Terrace 139, their beautiful outdoor restaurant. Over pots of Egyptian mint tea, meze platters, and a tandoori platter, we drank in the sight of the only-remaining Ancient Wonder of the World.

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

Then the sun started to go down and the temperature plummeted, reminding us that our Thai blood and flimsy coats weren’t doing us much good. We sat in our first Cairene traffic jam on the way back to “our side” of town and succumbed to jetlag at the ripe ol’ hour of 7:30 pm.

Mint tea and in bed before 8 pm. We’re a couple of real party animals!

It’s okay, though, because we needed some energy for the day that lay ahead.

Cairo: Day 2

We awoke stupid early (thanks to jetlag and the aforementioned call to prayer). Eventually, the breakfast buffet opened and we headed downstairs to find nothing less than an Egyptian feast spread out before us.

We’re talking falafel, freshly baked bread, soft Egyptian white cheese (similar to feta), crisp veggies, boiled eggs, fried potatoes, and our personal favorite: ful (pronounced “fool”), a savory dish of cooked fava beans, cumin, garlic, lemon, and other spices.

Good thing we were hungry!

At 8 am, our guide for the day, Abdul, and our driver, Makmud, arrive to claim us. Both men speak impeccable English and are warm and friendly. We’re feeling very good about our upcoming day!

First Stop: Saqqara

We head south out of Giza about 45 minutes to the ancient complex at Saqqara – both the oldest and the largest archaeological site in Egypt.

saqqara

It’s kind of surreal driving along the relatively green Nile Valley, where palm trees and tall grasses abound. Then, all of a sudden, you come up over a rise and there before you is the great Sahara Desert. It’s nothing but you and sand for almost 3,000 miles – a distance greater than the width of the entire United States!

But don’t worry, Mom – we’re not venturing out into the desert (not this trip, anyway). For now, we passed through three more security checkpoints (lots of big guns and bigger dogs – these guys are no joke) before we parked at the nearly deserted entrance to Saqqara.

saqqara

Perhaps the biggest surprise so far is how EMPTY everything is! From what we hear, prior to the 2011 Revolution, you’d be jostling through these sites with thousands of other tourists.

But these days? It’s like a ghost town – a little eerie considering the sites are full of crypts, tombs, and mummies!

I’m not complaining, though, because empty historical sites make for fantastic pictures. (Do we really want to see a Chinese tour group in every photo?) Abdul leads us through the columned entryway and over to the Step Pyramid of Djoser, believed to be the oldest pyramid in Egypt.

saqqara

saqqara

saqqara

saqqara

Next, we got to climb down an ancient shaft beneath another burial mound to see an (empty) sarcophagus and hieroglyphs from floor to ceiling. The passageway was maybe four feet high, so you’re crouched pretty low – recall my morbid fear of caves? – so I dove right in before I had the chance to change my mind.

saqqara

saqqara

Next Stop: Memphis

After touring a few more tombs, we climbed back in the car and headed next to the Memphis Museum. This open-air museum contains artifacts that remain from the ancient capital city of Lower Egypt (remember that the Nile flows from south to north, so the southern half is “Upper Egypt” while the northern part is “Lower Egypt”).

Highlights here are the fallen statue of Ramses II, the second-largest sphinx in Egypt (believed to be Queen Hatshepsut), and an alabaster mummification table.

memphis

memphis

memphis

memphis
Mummification table

Making papyrus

On the way to lunch, we stop briefly at a papyrus shop to see first-hand how the world’s first “paper” is made. Then we pull up the stables near the Pyramids, down a quick bowl of koshary, and prepare for our ride.

Horse Riding Around the Pyramids of Giza

We’re introduced to Horus and Aziz, our fearless mounts of the day. Our ride takes us through the crazy streets of Giza, up a tall sand dune, and across the open desert south of the Pyramids.

cairo

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

Since a picture’s worth a thousand words, I’ll let my photos do the talking here:

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

Words cannot describe how monumentally SMALL you feel gazing at these magnificent structures. It was also incredible to be almost the only ones there, save for a few other tourists riding camels and horses nearby.

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

If you’ve ever wondered if the Pyramids are overrated – they’re NOT.

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

In fact, I can’t think of a more perfect introduction for our trip to Egypt!

pyramids