This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, spring 2019, issue 112
A tour of ancient Egypt is an eye-opener in more ways than one.
It doesn’t take us long to realise that, when you are touring Egypt, there is no such thing as a typical day. There are days when we climb up secret passageways inside giant pyramids. There are days when we rise at dawn to take an early morning balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings. And there are days when we just stand and feel awestruck.
Today is one of those days. We are standing in front of the temple of Abu Simbel, carved out of a cliff more than 3,000 years ago by one of Egypt’s mightiest pharaohs, Ramesses II. Four monumental statues of the pharaoh, each one 20 metres high and carved out of solid rock, stand watch in front of the temple’s façade, which soars as high as a five-storey building. More colossal statues flank the corridor inside the temple, where the walls are covered in magnificently detailed bas reliefs depicting Ramesses’ proudest achievement, his victory at the Battle of Kadesh.
What really makes the site come alive for us, however, is our guide. Egypt is one of those destinations where a good guide makes all the difference, and Hassan is one of the best. Hassan isn’t a full-time guide; he is also a practising archaeologist, so he knows what he’s talking about. At every site we visit, he shares the sort of vivid details that give us insight into a vanished past.
In any other destination, Abu Simbel would be the showstopper – the absolute highlight of any trip. In Egypt, it’s just another day. For sheer jaw-on-the-floor moments, Egypt is impossible to beat. No other civilisation has left behind so many impressive monuments; but then, no civilisation ever matched the Egyptians when it came to thinking big.
Follow the Nile downstream, for instance, and you will reach the city of Luxor, once the site of the kingdom’s capital, Thebes. This is where you will find the temple of Karnak, ancient Egypt’s holiest temple. Its first stones were laid around the same time that Stonehenge was being erected; for 1,500 years, every pharaoh added to the complex. The entire temple now covers two square kilometres, and makes cathedrals such as St Peters in Rome – which measures a mere 15,000 square metres – look puny in comparison.
The most pleasurable way to travel between Aswan and Luxor is, of course, a cruise. A fleet of sleek riverboats ply the route, and our group spends several days aboard one of them. While we enjoy twice-daily shore excursions, the cruise is also an opportunity to wind down. Because make no mistake: as thrilling as an Egypt tour is, it is also tiring.
You will be rising early, both to escape the noonday heat and to get ahead of the pack at the more popular sights. Like our group, you probably won’t want to skip any of the excursions; not a single one of the sites is anything less than fascinating. Nonetheless, the Nile cruise offers a welcome opportunity to relax by the pool watching the felucca boats sail past.
One of the only small regrets on this tour is that we are so busy exploring that we don’t have much time to enjoy our accommodation. From our Giza hotel – where we can see the Great Pyramid of Khufu from our rooms – to the Nile views we enjoy in Aswan, our hotels are often the best in town.
Ultimately, however, you don’t come to Egypt to laze about in a hotel. You come here to explore the colourfully painted tombs of the Valley of the Kings, once heaped high with incalculable treasures, and to gaze upon the mysterious face of the Sphinx; to explore the bustling bazaars of Cairo and to view priceless treasures on display in the many museums.
Surprisingly, it is often the less-famous ruins that make the biggest impressions. While the tomb of the boy king, Tutankhamun, is disappointingly small, the little-known pharaoh Hatshepsut has a truly impressive mortuary temple.
The three-tiered building occupies a dramatic location near the Valley of the Kings. High limestone cliffs rise behind it, while the gardens that once covered the lower levels have disappeared, one hardy incense tree clings stubbornly to life, thousands of years after it was planted. More than 100 colossal statues of the pharaoh once lined the processional way and the terraces; some of these mammoth monuments are still standing.
Bas reliefs on the wall depict some of Hatshepsut’s greatest triumphs. In most of them, Hatshepsut’s face has been scratched out by some of her successors. Yes, hers – for Hatshepsut was one of the few female pharaohs. More power to her.
Bunnik Tours specialises in small-group travel. Its 12-day Highlights of Egypt starts from $6,395 per person twin share, including return airfares from Australia and internal flights in Egypt – bunniktours.com.au