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Egypt 2020: A Journey Back in Time, via a Challenging New Era

Egypt 2020: A Journey Back in Time, via a Challenging New Era

Old Nov 22nd, 2020, 01:07 PM
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Egypt 2020: A Journey Back in Time, via a Challenging New Era

The four of us are visiting Egypt for a little more than two weeks over late November and early December. Our itinerary takes us on the usual tourist circuit down the river Nile. We start in Cairo, fly to Luxor, sail by dahabiya to Aswan, proceed by road down to Abu Simbel, and then return to Aswan and Cairo to complete our visit.

We usually take an international trip this time of year. We discussed about half a dozen options, including Egypt, and conducted our research and planning back in late 2019. In spite of COVID-19 we continued actively planning three different destinations through the spring and early summer. We typically make our decision by June or July, but not this year - for obvious reasons. Due to the constant evolution of the pandemic, we were not ready to commit. We collectively agreed that we would not make any reservations until we had a clearer sense of virus caseload, level of spread, and permission and requirements for entry by U.S. citizens. It was not unlike the second week of October in which we settled on our destination - Egypt. We were attracted to the fabled country at the crossroads of the Middle East and North Africa by its pharonic history as well as its Islamic traditions and culture.

To help with our trip, we engaged the services of Real Egypt. We knew we wanted to sail the Nile as a part of our itinerary, but also knew we did not want a river cruise in which we were among a couple hundred passengers (our distaste pre-COVID was not the number of passengers but the herding cattle style of sightseeing). The dahibiya option appealed to us, as the focus is on the sailing and these vessels typically hold only about a dozen people. We went with Real Egypt as we hit it off from the beginning and the owner, Samir Abbass, was very responsive to our email exchanges.

COVID-19 Entry Requirements

As most countries that permit travel for tourism reasons at this time, a negative PCR test is required for entry. Egypt is no different, except that its rules are more confusing than for other countries. The requirements are:

- A negative test taken between 72 and 96 hours of departure of your last connecting flight or upon arrival in the country. Even though we successfully arrived, we arrange a test assuming the narrowest interpretation.

- That the test must be stamped by the laboratory and signed by a physician. This piece was more challenging, particularly the stamp requirement, as it is not something most U.S. testing facilities are used to. In spite of the challenges, we were able to secure a test that met these requirements, through Arcpoint Labs in Washington, DC (Arcpoint has facilities across the country).

With negative PCR tests in hand, we boarded flights operated by Turkish Airlines from Washington, DC, to Cairo via Istanbul, Turkey. Last night we arrived in Cairo, from where I am writing you after a very rewarding first day. Fingers crossed the rest of our visit remains as memorable as today.

With that, I invite you to join us on this journey back in time. I will try to share our experiences throughout our travels. Questions are more than welcome.

Come along.
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Old Nov 23rd, 2020, 03:38 PM
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Arrival in Cairo

We landed in Cairo at around 8:30 PM on Saturday night. Exiting the plane we first proceeded to the quarantine station, where we were asked to produce our negative PCR tests. The officer checked for the date the test was administered, the type of test, as well as the status of the results, but that was it. He didn't pay attention to the signature and stamp. I raise this as this is the most difficult part of the process. Most places in the U.S. that offer PCR tests share the results via email; Egypt requires printed results. Also most do not provide a stamp on the results page, but the Egyptian authorities specify this requirement. As a result, we did a bit of scrambling at the day of departure printing the results and going back to the testing facility for the staff to stamp the results with the name and address of the facility. I'm not sure whether we just encountered a lax officer at Cairo Airport or this is not necessarily needed, but at least one of the check-in agents at Turkish Airlines looked for the stamp. My advice: just get it as it is specified by Egypt. The other requirement is health insurance, which isn't an issue as we usually obtain it for travel; nobody asked us to produce our policy though.

Once past the quarantine station, the arrivals process is a familiar one - immigration, baggage claim, and customs. Egypt requires visas for U.S. passport holders. We obtained ours online before we left, even though we could purchase it upon arrival as well. Passing through immigration, baggage claims, and customs took about 45 minutes.

We were met on the other side by our driver from Real Egypt, and went on our way to our hotel. In addition to the driver and a representative of Real Egypt was an Egyptian security officer, which we had not expected. We are aware of security escorts when travelling out of major population centers to further away points but had not assumed they would be providing their services within a major city. In any case, we were escorted through the dangers that lurk with Cairo's infamous traffic and arrived at our hotel around 10:00.

Our home for five nights in Cairo is the Marriott hotel located on Zamalek Island right on the Nile in the heart of the city. The hotel occupies the palace of a king of Egypt in the 19th century, with two more recent tower additions, which houses today's hotel rooms. The palace itself is very nice. The rooms are spacious and comfortable although a bit worn.

To the Apex

We awoke early, at around 5:00. As it usually takes us a couple of days to adjust to the time difference, it made sense for us to have an early start to the day, both since we knew we be up and also to maximize day sightseeing time (as it's approaching winter, the sun sets in Cairo at around 5:00).

The day began with a delicious breakfast at the hotel's restaurant. The food is prepared and served buffet style, with staff on hand to deliver portions on the plate upon request behind face masks and plexiglass. Breakfast included familiar Western items as well as delicious made-to-order falafel; I crave it just thinking about it.

On our agenda for our first morning in Egypt was the pyramids of Giza, the country's signature icons. Why not start from the top? We were picked up by our guide and driver from Real Egypt at 7:30 for the 45-minute out. Traffic was heavy in Cairo on this Sunday morning as it was the start of the work week. It was smooth sailing once we left the city. On the way we past the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is due to open in 2021 after much delay due to revolution, the pandemic, and other reasons. The building itself is about finished, and the displays are all in place from what we're told. Just down the road from the new museum are the pyramids itself. What a sight! And we had it almost all to ourselves. No tour groups during what is normally high season.

Our guide gave us a brief overview of the site and the history of the pyramids before we made our way on foot to the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the largest of the nine pyramids on the Giza Plateau. We went up a couple of flights of stone steps and headed inside. We ascended the interior of the pyramid via a couple of flights of wooden steps. The first set of steps required us to bend over a low ceiling while the second set did not. On top of the stairs is a low entrance way before you emerged in the burial chamber, a large, empty space with an empty sarcophagus. We stayed in the room for a couple of minutes in silence just absorbing the significance of it all before making our way out. There were no other visitors inside the pyramid so we had it all to ourselves.

We walked around the base of the pyramid taking a few photos. We also saw a large empty pit from where one of the solar boats meant as an offering to the pharaoh Khufu was buried. The solar boat is now in a museum on the backside of the pyramid. Unfortunately the museum was closed when we visited; the boat is being disassembled for transport to the new Grand Egyptian Museum.

From the base of the pyramid we hopped atop camels for an hour-long ride on the plateau. The ride took us around the pyramids for the queens and the tombs of the eastern cemetery as well as the Sphinx. What a sight seeing it for the first time - on the back of a camel no less. Unfortunately given the current situation, these pyramids of the queens are closed to visitors. The camel ride was a relaxing and fun way to see the area on a warm morning. We visited a tomb in the western cemetery, went up close to the base of Menkaure's pyramid, and viewed the pyramids from a panoramic viewpoint before heading over by van to the Sphinx.

Yes, we've all seen the mysterious half man, half lion structure on photos and on films, but nothing could have prepared us from actually being within yards of it. The status looked larger and more impressive than I've imagined it. The statue is regal and majestic but felt accessible at the same time. There's a warmth that's hard to explain. And except for half a dozen other tourists who were there when we arrived, we were alone with the Sphinx for about twenty minutes - incredible!

Our visit complete, we said goodbye to our guide and driver and went over to Mena House, formerly used for in the 19th century as a palace for the king and now home to a Marriott hotel, for lunch overlooking the pyramids. We enjoyed a light meal in the gardens of the hotel. Following lunch, we traveled by taxi back to downtown Cairo, about an hour at this time of day.

Packing Up

On our agenda for the afternoon was a visit to the Egyptian Museum, located at Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Housed in a building built during the British era in the early 20th century, the museum is - or was - the most prominent home of Egyptian antiquities for most of the past one hundred years. I said "was" because the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, once opened, will claim this title. As of this writing, items are being wrapped up, boxed up, and prepared for transport to Giza.

The Egyptian Museum houses two floors of priceless artifacts stretching back several millennia. Upon entering the building we were drawn to the two large statues occupying the far end of the hall. Lining it are numerous sarcophagi from throughout Egyptian history. We then went on a clockwise loop of the ground floor exhibits. Highlights included statues of several of the well-known pharaohs such as Khafre and Ramses II (and the only one of Khufu known to exist), a chapel to the goddess Hathor, and numerous sphinxes. Upstairs on display is an exhibit describing the process of mummification as well as a recently excavated mummy from Saqqara. The painting on the casket is magnificent. Next up are the mummies, caskets, and sarcophagi of King Tutankhamun's grandparents followed up items for the boy king himself. Throne chairs, jewelry, and other personal articles were on display. The showpiece is the golden desk mask of Tutankhamun in its resplended glory behind a glass case as well as his coffin, also made of gold. And we had the room with two or three others - unbelievable!

There are numerous other items and artifacts on display although many display cases were empty, with some of the treasurers packed up and set to the side - all destined for the Grand Egyptian Museum. According to one of the staff in the museum, the downtown Cairo building is slated for closing in a few days' times, to allow the remainder of the items to be packed and carted off.

Being one of the final visitors at the Egyptian Museum, we felt like we were walking around someone's home getting ready to move out. We were definitely lucky to have been able to see the artifacts in its home for more than a century. The feeling is somewhat bittersweet as there's a sense that history is being left behind in favor of modernity - something larger, something more high-tech and more sophisticated. Speaking of history, the museum has a kitschy atmosphere to it, with its wooden cabinet display cases and information on typed paper taped to the glass.

We stayed at the museum for a little over two hours and left near closing time. From the museum we walked to Tahrir Square and across a bridge over the Nile as the sun set over the city. The cool evening with gentle breeze made for perfect strolling. Young Egyptians and young at heart alike were enjoying themselves, walking, talking, taking photos, without much care for anything going on around them, virus included. Almost nobody wore face masks, although it didn't stop us from masking up. Other than while we're indoors, this is the first time of the day we put on our mask while we were outdoors, as there were no practical way to distance.

Gezira Island and the Cairo Tower located on the island's lower third wasour destination. We enjoyed a ride up to the top and views of the Egyptian capital at night below us. From here we walked towards our hotel on the northern end of the island. We enjoyed dinner around the corner of our hotel, at Abou El Said just off 26th of July Avenue. The popular Zamalek neighborhood restaurant served several traditional Egyptian specialties and favorites. We order several items to share. The portions were large but oh so good. The stewed dishes of meats, vegetables, and grains in clay vessels called tagins were delicious. The stuffed pigeon was especially delightful. A great meal to close out a great first day.
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Old Nov 24th, 2020, 01:53 PM
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More Pyramids and Tombs

On our agenda today are the sites of Memphis, Dahshur, and Saqqara, home to an ancient Egyptian civilization that predates the people who built the famous pyramids at Giza. Memphis, located on the east bank of the Nile about an hour south of Cairo by car, was the site of the first capital city of an united Upper and Lower Egypt. Across the river just a bit upstream is Saqqara, the resting home of Old Kingdom pharaohs, members of their families, and other important people. Generally speaking, ancient Egyptians lived on the east bank of the river Nile and buried their dead on the left, as the sunrise is a metaphor for life and the sunset death.

We began our sightseeing in Saqqara. Our first stop was the Imhotep Museum, where we viewed several treasures from Old Kingdom days. The museum is named after the architect of King Djoser’s step pyramid, the first pyramid ever built in ancient Egypt if not the world. It is the King Djoser’s step pyramid where we went next. We entered the pyramid complex via an impressive hypostyle hall with 40 chubby columns. The pyramid itselfs sits on a large open courtyard, with modern entrance ways on both the north and south sides of the structure. Unlike the pyramids of Giza, the Step Pyramid's burial chamber is accessed by going up underground rather than going up to the middle of the pyramid. I was somewhat disappointed that there was nothing to see inside but a pile of rocks on which the sarcophagus once stood, and even then far away for public viewing.

From the Step Pyramid we headed to the Pyramid of Unas for a quick look. This pyramid resembles more like a pile of rubble on the outside. There is uncertainty as to what caused the present-day look. Theories involve shoddy construction, erosion, and earthquakes. Unlike the other pyramids we visited, the walls of the burial chamber of the Pyramid of Unas are decorated with hieroglyphs and art. The Pyramid of Teti was up next. Similar to Unas, Ti is decorated. Around the Pyramid of Teti are various tombs of his children and members of his inner circle. The first one we visited, that of one of his daughters Idut. This was magnificent. The paintings of real-life scenes reflected the experiences of Princess Idut over her lifetime as well as her achievements and accomplishments. The colors are amazing. And the level of detail - it's so hard to imagine. We really, really enjoyed this visit, and definitely regard it as an important highlight of the day. We also visited a tomb for Teti's son, a high priest, and physician. Similar to the royal tombs, the physician's tomb's wall paintings depict scenes of medical operations and pharmacy medication creation.

There's so much to see and enjoy at Saqqara that we could have easily spent a full day here. I expect the draw to Saqqara among tourists to continue to grow as new discoveries seem to be made almost every month. Alas, all we had was 3.5 hours given the limited amount of time we had.

Dahshur was next on the agenda, following lunch. At Dahshur we visited the Red Pyramid. Built for the pharaoh Sneferu, it is the oldest true pyramid there is. Like Unas and Teti, visitors make their way to the burial chamber by going down rather than up. The distance between the burial chamber and the entrance is further than the other pyramids we visited, and the route is steeper. This made it more challenging to navigate. There's a bit of an Indiana Jones feel to it. Like the pyramids at Giza, the Red Pyramid has no ornamentation. The construction was interesting and unexpected though.

From what I understand, the interior of the Bent Pyramid is similar to that of the Red Pyramid. Also commissioned by Sneferu, the pharaoh rejected the completed structure due to its distorted shape; thus was born the Red Pyramid. We attempted to descend to the burial chamber of the Bent Pyramid as well but time was not on our side, which made it all the more challenging as the first section is much narrower and therefore difficult to navigate.

We left Dahshur for Memphis and its open-air museum. The highlight of the museum is a colossal statue of Ramses II, found in a lake and excavated for display just a little more than a decade ago. We didn't have much time for Memphis, but we did not feel rushed.

From here it was back north. Instead of returning to Cairo, we asked to be dropped off at Giza, where we attended the sound and light show at the Pyramids. The show was created decades ago and is rather hokey recount of Egyptian history by the Sphinx, but nonetheless enjoyable.

Dinner tonight was at Beeja, a nice Egyptian restaurant located at the northern tip of Zamalek island with superb views of the Nile. This was our second memorable dinner in a row on this trip.
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Old Nov 24th, 2020, 02:11 PM
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I am along for the ride. We were in Egypt and Jordan in January, a trip right before COVID broke out worldwide. There are so many amazing antiquities in Egypt. Enjoy the next few weeks.
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Old Nov 25th, 2020, 08:40 AM
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I am considering booking a trip to Egypt for February 2021, so I am very interested in this trip report! Looking forward to more installments!

Tripplanner, I'm interested in how you said some of the displays in the Egyptian Museum were already packed and ready to go to the new GEM. I can't find anything stating the actual opening date for the new GEM, but it seems unlikely it would be open for my February trip. Have you heard anything about the opening? It would be sad to go to the old museum in February and find it mostly empty.
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Old Nov 25th, 2020, 02:17 PM
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HappyTrvlr, thank you for letting me know. I'm glad someone's ready my report. We enjoyed our time in Jordan back in 2008 and had wanted to include a return visit to this trip but the door is still mostly closed to short-term American visitors and getting from one country to another during the pandemic did not seem to be worthwhile. Some other day.

Bniemand, from what is being discussed among Egyptian Museum staff is that they expect the current facility to close as soon as December, possibly January, to allow time for the remaining items to be boxed up. Projections on opening of the Grant Egyptian Museum at Giza is sometime in the spring. There will be a period in which the treasures, regardless of which museum it is housed, will be closed to public viewing. Right now, all bets are on the coming weeks and possible through spring. As this is Egypt, I've learned that anything could happen - or not.

Medieval Times

With two full days of ancient Egypt under our belt, we turned our attention today to medieval Egypt. We visited an area of Cairo known in guidebooks as "Islamic Cairo" even though most of the city - and the rest of the country, for that matter - are Muslim. Medieval or Islamic Cairo mostly date back to the Fatimid and Mamluk periods from the 900s to the 1500s. This part of the city sat within city walls with several gates at different points along the wall. One of these is Bab al-Futuh, impressive in scale but similar to other such gateways. Leading away from Bab al-Futuh is Al Muizz Li Din Allah Street, also known as Bein al Qasreen. This street is home to several mosques and adjoining schools and other public facilities such as hospitals, all within a short street span. The first of these is the Mosque of Suleiman Silahdar. We tried to enter but were unable to do so as the admission ticket for this and the other mosques along Al Muizz Li Dun Allah Street can only be purchased from the Mosque and Mausoleum of Qalaun further down the street. So we made our way down the street, although at a leisurely pace, admiring the buildings as well as the wares of the shops that line the street. Only about half of the stores are open, possibly due to COVID-19 but possibly also due to the earlyish hour we were there (10 in the morning).

We were able to purchase our tickets at the Mosque and Mausoleum of Qalaun and immediately enter the facility. One of the custodians of the 13th-century facility proceeded to offer commentary and provide us with a tour unprompted. As he stated the amount we wanted to tip was at our discretion and we enjoyed what he had to offer, we let him continue. The interior of this mosque is spectacular. The geometric designs. The gold and silver. The scale. The intricate filigree. Oh my. It was hard for our eyes to decide where and what to lay eyes on. It may even be overwhelming, although we loved it.

Across the street from Qalaun is the Madrasa and Mausoleum of As Salih Ayyub built just a few decades earlier. Compared to Qalaun, this madrasa and mausoleum was underwhelming. We did appreciate the simplicity of this structure. And there is an elegant beauty to it. The custodian of this facility unlocked a couple of gates and invited us to the second level, from where we could see Qalaun from a different vantage point - neat!

After visiting these two sites we returned from where we came. First up Madrasa and Mausoleum of An Nasir Mohammed. Like the other two, this religious institution is also very beautiful. An Nasir Mohammed reminds me of an Andalusian-style mosque or church, with its decorative style. Further up is Hammam Inal, fashioned in the Turkish style. We popped our head into Mosque of Al Aqmar, the oldest mosque in Egypt, and then returned to the Mosque of Suleiman Silahdar. This was the most disappointing of all the sites we visited along this street, as the interior was not very interesting.

After we visited Suleiman Silahdar, we headed south again, retracing our steps one more time. We walked east to Hussain Square and Hussain Mosque, choosing the widest and least interesting street available. Distancing is difficult in this part of town as all of the shops spill out onto the streets, narrowing the available walking space. As this is the home of the souqs of Khan el-Khalili, which we would normally love to explore even if it mostly offers cheap souvenirs, this year is different given COVID-19. From Hussain Mosque, we walked over to Al Azhar Mosque for a few photos and slowly made our way to Al Azhar Park. Getting there was not the easiest, but a few polite asks on the streets did the trick.

Al Azhar Park was built about fifteen years ago, turning what was once a garbage heap to a green oasis. Located within Al Azhar Park is the Citadel View Restaurant, where we took today's lunch. Not only was the food delicious but the views were spectacular. We had direct views of the Citadel as well as portions of the Cairo skyline. Following lunch, we took in more of the city skyline and enjoyed the number of minarets that dot the landscape below. We were even treating to a call to prayer while we were there enjoying the views; the sound quality from atop made it a good experience.

From Al Azhar Park we took a taxi to the Citadel. Built by the Arab ruler Saladin as a fortress against the Crusaders, the Citadel was home to Egypt's political leadership for seven centuries. Today it is home to two mosques and several museums. We were not interested in visiting the museums; we were there for the mosques as well as views over the city. The Mosque of Mohammed Ali resembled an Ottoman Turkish mosque while the Mosque of An Nasir Mohammed has elements of Andalusian design.

From the Citadel we traveled by cab to Garden City (75 Egyptian pounds), where we had a nice evening neighborhood stroll before dinner at Eight, a fine Chinese restaurant located at the Four Seasons Hotel on the right bank. The restaurant featured classic Chinese dishes with an upscale twist to some of them.
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Old Nov 25th, 2020, 05:57 PM
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Wonderful Trip Report

Thank you for sharing. Due to COVID-19 my December 2020 Jordan-Egypt trip has been postponed to December 2021. I’m so glad you had the health & courage to travel this year with the bonus of having those Amazing sights to yourself... how awesome is that! I look forward to reading about your trip and joining in your adventures.
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Old Nov 26th, 2020, 07:43 AM
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Great trip report. Thanks for taking the time to share.
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Old Nov 26th, 2020, 10:52 AM
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What a WONDERFUL report! It sounds like an awesome trip!
Egypt was already high on my list and you've moved it up a notch or two.
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Old Nov 26th, 2020, 02:19 PM
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PureLuxury, thank you for your kind words. We feel incredibly lucky to be able to take this trip in the middle of a pandemic. But we are doing so with safety precautions including masking. It's easier at the ancient sites such as the pyramids of Giza or Saqqara but more challenging in an urban center such as Cairo given that few were practicing safety features. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask.

Schmerl, you're welcome. Hope you are enjoying it.

Songdoc, thank you. Like you, Egypt has always been on my list and I've been intrigued by it, but it has never made it to the top until now. So far, Egypt is exceeding all my expectations.

Cairo Through Other Perspectives

We had one more day in Cairo, with a few more places on our list remaining to be visited. We began our day in the Coptic quarter of Cairo, also known as Old Cairo. Cairo, and Egypt in general, remains home to a sizable Christian population. Most of them are Coptic, a branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. We traveled by taxi from our hotel to Tahrir Square, from where we hopped on the metro to the Coptic quarter. We could have taken a taxi all the way south, and it would have probably made more sense, but we wanted to check out the Egyptian capital's metro system and did just that. The metro stations we saw were fairly new and well-kept. The trains were older, but still clean and tidy. It was crowded on a weekday morning, although we waited a few minutes for the next one to come, which was not crowded.

Across the metro station at Mar Girgis is the Hanging Church and the Coptic Museum. We visited the elegant white church first. The interior is laid out like all other Orthodox churches, with an altar set apart from worshippers and icons throughout the place. Next door is the Coptic Museum, which offered a sizable collection of art and artifacts telling the story of Egypt's Coptic history. Between the Hanging Church and the museum is the remains of the Roman fortress of Babylon, still pretty impressive. Down the street and around the corner from the museum are several other churches. Closest to the museum is St. George Church, a massive temple to Greek Orthodoxy with mosaics and icons of St. George slaying the dragon. From there we made our way to another Greek church, the Church of the Virgin. Behind the altar in this church is an indisputable Egyptian fresco complete with pyramids in the desert. Not far away are the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, the Church of Santa Barbara, and Ben Ezra Synagogue. St. Sergius and Bacchus houses the cave that was supposed where Jesus and his family stayed when they traveled to Egypt. There was an active service going on at Santa Barbara so we did not have a good look but stayed to observe for a bit. Ben Ezra Synagogue was closed due to COVID.

From the Coptic quarter we made our way on foot west towards the Nile and onto Manial Island, home to the Nilometer as well as Manial Palace. Manial Island is one of two islands on the Nile in Cairo proper, the other being Zamalek Island. The Nilometer was built in the early part of the second millennium to measure the height of the river each year, as much of the political administration depended on it. Taxes were levied based upon the height of the Nile each year, and therefore the fertility of the land. Even though the purpose became obsolete, the meter was still used to officially record the height of the Nile all the way up to the middle of the 20th century, with the building of the Aswan High Dam.

Our next stop, Manial Palace, is located at the opposite end of the island. We made our way on foot, which took about an hour at a leisurely pace. The island is mostly residential, poorer at the southern end and more affluent the further north we went. We stopped at Tajoury, in the middle of the island overlooking the Nile, for a relaxing lunch before continuing to the palace. The skies opened while we were dining. It was a good rainfall that helped clear some of the dust and smog that was almost always present in and around Cairo, especially in the mornings. As this is Egypt, the rain created problems too. Even though it rained for no more than thirty minutes, it created large pockets of water throughout the city, making it hard to navigate for drivers and pedestrians alike. The water entered into shops with entrances below ground level, which forced the shop owners to close down in order to sweep water out - and with nothing but brooms and plastic buckets.

Leaving what seems like a routine ritual behind, we entered into the royal bubble that is Manial Palace. Manial Palace was built in the 19th century for Prince Mohammed Ali, governor of Ottoman Egypt. The palace complex is surrounded by a high wall overlooking the Nile. Inside the walled compound is the main palace - a large two-story home, several smaller halls, and a mosque. The architecture is a mixture of modern Western and North African; the inside is unmistakably Ottoman Turkish with its exquisite turquoise tiles, gold and silver ornamentation, and furniture. The interiors reminded me of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul's historic quarter. This unexpected but beautiful palace was definitely the highlight of the day. The palace sits on a large garden although it was closed to the public when we visited. It may be due to restoration or due to the rainstorm - we weren't entirely sure.

We enjoyed a relaxing walk along the Nile from the palace up to the 26th of October Bridge and around Zamalek Island to round out our afternoon and evening. The only issue is the piles of standing water at spots, especially on the island. Dinner tonight was Italian at O's Pasta, a small establishment across the street from Abou El Said, where we ate earlier in the week. This concludes the first leg of our trip.

It is onwards to Luxor for the next four nights. See you all up the Nile.
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Old Nov 27th, 2020, 12:53 PM
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From the Old (Kingdom) to the New

We enjoyed our final morning at the Marriott hotel with a slow breakfast before gathering our belongings on our way to the airport. We were on the Egyptair flight from Cairo to Luxor, scheduled for a noon departure and arrival one hour later. Speaking of flight schedules, this was the third rescheduled departure as Egyptair made changes to our schedule over the course of the past two to three weeks, each time without any notice. We were originally on a 6:00 AM flight that was eventually cancelled. Given the options, we selected to leave the evening before, but that too was cancelled. They finally booked us on this flight today.

Overall we've not had a good experience with Egyptair. I understand schedules change, especially in the time of COVID, with consolidation of flights. My issues are with their lack of notification of these changes, as well as the inability to change and confirm online, forcing me to spend hours on the phone with Egyptair. Our needs are mostly handled through Egyptair's New York office, which only operates during business hours and is thinly staff. Each call meant a 45 to 90 minute wait. On a couple of occasions, we were disconnected rather than patched through when we reached the front of the queue.

The trip from the hotel to the airport took about 40 minutes, at a cost of 350 Egyptian pounds. Check in was straightforward as was security. Boarding was smooth and our flight departed on time. We arrived in Luxor at about 1:00 and proceeded by taxi to our hotel for the next four nights - the storied Winter Palace hotel, currently managed by Sofitel.

Upon arrival at our hotel, we immediately dropped off our bags and headed out. We had a full agenda this afternoon with Karnak and Luxor Temples. We originally planned for nearly a full day for the east bank of Luxor; unfortunately, the Egyptair change cut our time short by a few hours.

Luxor was the capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom period. Originally called Thebes, Luxor is home to the Valley of the Kings and Queens. It is most well known for King Tutankamun's tomb, rediscovered by British archeologist Howard Carter in 1922. We leave the Valleys of the Kings and Queens for another day as Karnak Temple, located a couple of miles north of the city, called our names.

The construction of Karnak Temple began around 2000 BC and continued roughly for 1,500 years. Pharaohs added to the temple complex over the centuries, leaving their individual marks on the site including famous names such as Ramses II and Hatshepsut. Karnak Temple is the second largest temple complex in the world, after Cambodia's Angkor. The massive structure was the center of the Egyptian universe during ancient times as it is the main spiritual home of the god Amun. At the main entrance is a ceremonial Avenue of the Sphinxes which once connected Karnak Temple with Luxor Temple; this avenue is being restored today. We entered this way and were greeted by an entrance pylon that we've all seen in countless travel marketing brochures on Egypt. Even so, seeing the world heritage wonder in person is indescribable. There's so much to see and focus our eyes on that it could feel overwhelming. There's massive columns, statues, carved relieves, and hieroglyphs everywhere. A few of our favorites as there is too much to describe all that we enjoyed:

Mega-monuments - Near the entrance to the temple I could not help but be awed by the massive statues of Ramses II standing in front of the second pylon. The number of people, the amount of work that went into building the statues, and getting it to stand upright - in an era without machines - are remarkable to contemplate. The two obelisks built by Hatshepsut are equally inspiring.

The hypostyle hall - Between the second and third pylon is a large hall of 134 columns resembling papyrus reeds. The chubby columns are decorated with images of pharaohs, gods, and animals and covered in hieroglyphs. Some of the columns still retain color. The columns are large enough to play hide and seek that we took the opportunity to have some light-hearted fun. Seeing it for the first time is something I will always remember.

Euergetes Gate - The southwestern gateway to the temple complex built by Ramses III, the entryway is covered in paintings and hieroglyphs. The gate is very impressive, especially with the light rays hitting the gate as the sun was setting.

Late afternoon light - We didn't leave Karnak until a few minutes prior to sunset. Being there in the late afternoon as the sun was coming down was a treat. We experienced the sunlight hitting the temple at just the right angles, creating a brilliant red-orange glow on the temple walls and features. Walking back to the main east-west axis from the north-south axis and seeing the main part of the complex aglow is something I will remember for a long, long time.

In all we spent just under three hours at Karnak and could have stayed one or two more. Time was not on our side. We had to wrap up our visit as the temple complex closes at 5:00. From Karnak we made our way to Luxor Temple in the city center via horse carriage, enjoying the sun setting across the Nile.

Like Karnak, Luxor Temple is dedicated to the god Amun. In comparison, Luxor Temple is much smaller; we visited the entire place in about an hour. It was nightfall by the time we arrived at the city temple known at the time as Amun's southern and second most important sanctuary, and the evening illuminations throughout the complex were already lit. After admiring the massive statues of Ramses II from the outside, we headed in and was shortly thereafter greeted by a large courtyard of numerous columns and statues of the pharaoh staring down at us. From there we moved further into the temple, enjoying the large columns that more or less expanded into two-thirds it. While it was challenging to appreciate some of the details in the art at the place, we enjoyed the nighttime illuminations as it gave the building a very different feel and atmosphere.

After our visit, we headed back to our hotel for a relaxing dinner in which we shared our experiences of the day with one another.
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Old Nov 28th, 2020, 02:44 PM
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This trip continues to sound FABULOUS -- except for the calls with Egyptair. How frustrating!
Thanks for writing such a terrific report.
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Old Nov 29th, 2020, 08:08 AM
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Songdoc, thank you. The trip keeps on getting better and better. The silver lining about travelling in a pandemic is that we are enjoying all of the sites to ourselves. For two days in a row, yesterday and today, with the exception of the hot air balloon ride we took yesterday, we saw no other visitors.

The Fabled West Bank

Another two days of blockbuster sights awaited us during our time in Luxor. Our destination: the West Bank of the Nile. Most visitors devote one day to the West Bank; we opted for two. The additional time meant we could take the time to appreciate what we were seeing as well as visiting places that may not be on the well-trodden tourist circuit. On the first of two days, we visited the Valley of the Kings, Howard Carter's home, Hatshepsut's Temple, and the Colossi of Memnon. Day two included Madinat Habu, the Valley of the Nobles, the Ramesseum, and the Valley of the Queens. We also saw the sites from above via hot air balloon.

The drive from the Winter Palace to the Valley of the Kings via a bridge spanning the Nile took about 45 minutes. The Valley of the Kings lies in the shadow of a triangular-shaped mountain and was the chosen burial site for the pharaohs of the New Kingdom. Unlike their predecessors, the New Kingdom pharaohs were buried underground in burial chambers dug into the mountainsides. This was to hide the burial sites from grave robbers who plundered and pilloried the famous pyramids of all their treasures. Little did they know, the tombs at the Valleys of the Kings and Queens suffered the same fate.

There are 64 tombs in the Valley of the Kings including the A-list of Egyptian pharaohs. Of the 64, only ten are open to tourists at any given time - to control visitor numbers, to reduce the impact that visitors have on the conditions of the tombs, and to allow for continuing research and excavation. Visitors are permitted to visit three tombs at any one time on a given ticket. In addition to the 10 tombs open for visitors are 3 tombs that require special tickets. These are the tombs of Tutankhamun, Ramses V and VI, and Seti I. We visited 6 tombs in the Valley of the Kings this morning, the aforementioned three as well as those of Ramses IV, Ramses IX, and Merenptah.

Tombs fell into two categories: finished and unfinished. Teams of workers begin work on the pharaohs' tombs as soon as they were coronated. The number of workers ranged from 60 to 120, depending on the age of the pharaoh upon ascension to the throne. The thought was that they had more time to complete the tombs of younger pharaohs than older ones, as all work must be completed within 90 days after a pharaoh's death in time for burial (the amount of time it took to prepare the dead for mummification and burial). If a pharaoh's life extended beyond the planned completion of the tomb, workers simply kept working - adding to the size of the tomb and the detail of its ornamentation. Tutankhamun's is a classic example of an unfinished tomb - the walls are bare with the exception of his burial chamber as he died well before anyone had expected.

After visiting a handful of tombs, or ancient Egyptian Temples and shrines for that matter, familiar themes emerged for us that further enriched our comprehension and experiences. Each one of the kings' tombs we visited, for example, depicted them interacting with the pantheon of Egyptian gods and goddesses, in particular the god Amon; the falcon god Horus expanding his wings to protect the king; the jackal god Annubis preparing the mummy; the story of the 24-hour day with the goddess Nut giving birth to the sun in the morning and swallowing it in the evening; funerary scenes in which the people make offerings to the dead pharaoh of food and articles to use in the afterlife; and scenes from everyday life. Our favorite tomb among the six we visited was that of Ramses V and VI. The tomb is very large, the colors pop as if the tomb was painted yesterday, and each nook and cranny was covered in artwork.

What we saw at the Valley of the Kings were reinforced in the tombs in the Valley of the Queens and even the Valley of the Nobles. In the Valley of the Queens, we were treated to the tomb of Queen Titi, Prince Amunherkhepshef (son of Ramses III), and the creme-de-la-creme Queen Nefartari (wife of Ramses II), which each one being more spectacular than the one before. Queen Nefartari's tomb is unique in its design. It is much more spacious than the other tombs we've visited even if it is not the longest shaft as Ramses V and VI or Seti I. If the colors exploded in any of the tombs, it is here. Just the various dresses worn by Queen Nefartari is depicted vividly and in great detail. Every Egyptian god and goddess under the sun can be found in this tomb. Similar in quality are tombs at the Valley of the Nobles, of which there are about 850 that have been excavated and an estimated 1,100 remaining. Notable are the tomb of Sennofer, the ceiling of which are covered with grapes and grapevines, as well as the tomb of Rekhmire for its upward-sloping triangular shape. The attendant at Rekhmire even used foil and a mirror to shine light into the shaft as we viewed the artwork, mimicking how light was brought into the dark, narrow corridors in ancient times.

While the tombs carved into the mountains were mainly reserved for royalty and nobility, a small group of lower-status individuals had the privilege of such burial tombs. These are workers who lived on the west side of the job as their jobs were to make the tombs for their patrons. In their spare time, they painstakingly built their own. Although much smaller than those of their patrons, they devoted much care to the artwork that adorned their burial chambers.

Other highlights over the course of our two-day visit to the West Bank were:

Madinat Habu - Built by Ramses III to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his reign, the massive temple complex is laid out in the same pattern as the Temple of Amon at Karnak, with pylons in succession and columns in the courtyard space in between. The carvings at Habu were among the best we've seen anywhere in Egypt thus far, as the chiseling in parts are so deep that more has been spared from the course of natural erosion. Our visit early in the morning enhanced our experience as the sun's early morning rays perfectly illuminated the art that we were viewing - not to mention we had the vast site to ourselves (This is true for all the places we visited on our second day on the West Bank. The largest crowds we saw were at the Valley of the Kings and at the Temple of Hatshepsut, with about a couple dozen people). Our guide's excellent narration of the war between the Egyptians and the Hittites help bring the imagery and the hieroglyphs to life.

Ramesseum - This temple is one of many built by the pharaoh Ramses II across his kingdom during the 67 years of his reign. We were greeted by a massive toppled-over statue of the patron at the entrance. Inside were several very large statues of Ramses II as well as columns similar to the ones we saw at temples across this region.

Memorial Temple to Hatshepsut - This West Bank temple was built to honor the life and legacy of one of the most controversial female "king" of Egypt. Here we enjoyed the modern structure (modern for its day and could still be considered modern today) and the story of her life and reign through the artwork found in the temple. Constructed in three tiers, the ground tier remains under restoration while the upper two tiers drew visitors. The middle tier featured art justifying her regal legitimacy as well as her work establishing relationships with neighboring countries such as Punt (today's Somalia, Eritrea, and / or Ethiopia). The upper terrace is dedicated to the Egyptian gods, such as Amon. Also on the site is a shrine to the goddess Hathor.

Capping off our visit to the West Bank was a hot-air balloon ride over the monuments we visited over the two days. Seeing the ruins from above was definitely memorable as was sunrise over the river Nile. Magical!
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Old Nov 29th, 2020, 01:07 PM
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Off the Tourist Track in Egypt

Our agenda for our final day in Luxor had us spending time out of the city and surrounding area - way out. Our itinerary is a simple one consisting of two sites: Abydos and Dendara. Our guide, driver, and security officer met us at our hotel at 6:00 for the 3.5 hour journey north and west along the Nile to Abydos. Leaving Luxor, we drove through the Nile River Valley, passing by farms and small riverside towns. About halfway to Abydos farmland gave way to open desert. The greenery began to reappear as we neared Abydos. Abydos is home to an ancient temple built by Seti I. The 3,400-year-old temple is in very good condition. The reliefs are very clear and the colors remain vivid in several parts of the temple. Unlike other ancient Egyptian temples, which were usually dedicated to one good, Abydos featured seven, with the pharaoh Seti I as one of the seven. Also unique is the presentation of the pharaoh's son, Ramses II, beside him in reliefs in which you would typically just see the pharaoh himself.

The visit to the temple was followed by a simple but delicious lunch at the home of a local. We continued onward to Dendara after lunch, a 2-hour drive from Abydos back in the direction of Luxor. And just as we assumed we've seen the best of the best on this trip and that it cannot get any better, it actually did. According to our guide, Dendara is the best preserved temple in all of Egypt - best in that everything within the main temple is intact and most of it is in great condition even if some restorative cleaning is needed. Built during the reign of Ptolemy XII, the father of Cleopatra, some 2,200 years ago, the temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor, whose animal form is that of a cow. Her human image adorns the capitals found throughout the hypostyle halls and her animal image inside the sanctuaries. The ceilings are decorated with depictions of the goddess Nut and imagery of day and night, the days of the month, and a full-year calendar. Every nook and cranny oozed with painted reliefs of Egyptian gods and goddesses in various mythological scenes; the reliefs are so good that the figures jumped at us. I guess it is not surprising that the temple to the goddess of love and joy filled our hearts and minds with it. We spent just over an hour at Dendara and could have easily lingered and enjoyed more of it. But time called. We returned to Luxor after a long day's trip, arriving back at 5:30.

Even without COVID-19, Abydos and Dendara receive much few visitors compared to the Valley of Kings in Luxor or the pyramids at Giza, but no less spectacular. The low tourist numbers also meant additional precautions taken by the Egyptian government. While we've had a security officer escort us on the days we were on guided tours, and even on the half day in Luxor that was unguided for that matter, the trip to Abydos and Dendara took security to the next level. Once we left Luxor, we were jointed by two police patrol vehicles in a mini-motorcade. One police vehicle drove in front of us and one in back. Each of the vehicles contained four police officers dressed in fatigues, with two officers riding in the back with semiautomatic weapons pointed outward towards the sides of the road. The officers would be responsible for our safety while in their jurisdiction. Each time we moved from one governorate (similar to a state or a province) to another, the two teams would switch off in coordination, as if running a relay. During the ride, I had a lengthy discussion on the subject with our guide. The measures are partly done in the name of security as it was put in place after the 1997 terrorist attacks against tourists at the time. Yet, as with anything like this, it's now taken a life of its own as it involves a competition for national resources and power.

Enough politics though. Tomorrow, please join us as we sail upstream along the Nile towards Aswan.
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Old Nov 30th, 2020, 10:17 AM
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Hello tripplanner, I have been longing for Egypt since a short holiday there in Easter last year but have been worrying about the PCR test etc - just a quick question though: what is the situation with covid there in Egypt, i.e. the R rate?
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Old Dec 1st, 2020, 10:30 AM
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Patriciatbrogan, the R rates stands between 1.1 and 1.3. Egypt is currently reporting about 375 cases a day, out of a population of 100 million. These are official numbers; the true daily new cases is estimated to be between 500 and 1,000. Social distancing and face mask usage don't seem to be practiced here. Luckily, as tourists, we are able to keep away from crowds by not visiting markets, which we typically enjoy doing, as the tourist sites see very low numbers of visitors. We saw less than ten other tourists in the past four days. Major gathering spots such as the Islamic quarter of Cairo or the riverside promenade attract more locals and therefore require precautions.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2020, 04:58 AM
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Up the Nile by Dahabiya

After a busy eight days touring the sites of ancient Egypt, we looked forward to spending the next four days sailing down the Nile River in a dahabiya, a 19-century style sailing vessel powered by the wind. The dahabiya that we called home, the Miran, houses 6 rooms holding a maximum of 12 passengers. Given the current situation, we had the dahabiya to ourselves - it was just the four of us and the nine staff onboard.

We began with a transfer from our hotel in Luxor to the dock in Esna, from where the dahabiya was docked. Before boarding the ship, we visited Esna Temple. This is a small temple and made for a quick visit. We sailed from Esna at around 11:00 in the morning. We had one port of call for the day, at El Hegz Peninsula shortly after sunset. We went for a short evening stroll in the farming village before returning to the ship.

On our agenda for day two were El Kab in the morning and Edfu in the afternoon. El Kab is home to several burial tombs dating back several thousand years ago, even before the Pyramids. In Edfu, we visited the Temple of Horus, another magnificent structure. Built around the same time and in the same style as Dendara Temple, the temple in Edfu is dedicated to the god Horus. Beautiful statues of Horus greeted visitors at each of the temple entrances. Inside the temple are two hypostyle halls with well-preserved columns and reliefs. Also at the Temple of Horus is the story of Osiris and Iris written out in full detail in hieroglyphs.

The other upside of traveling via dahabiya is our ability to dock at places larger river cruise ships cannot. Through visits to the farming villages, we were able to view and imagine what life was like at the time of the pharaohs. Sailing down the Nile was also very peaceful, as we moved along the river at a slow pace.

The journey along the Nile continues in my next installment.
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Old Dec 3rd, 2020, 08:13 AM
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Continuing Along the Nile

The third day of our journey along the Nile took us to Bisaw Island, a small farming and fishing community. We enjoyed a morning walk in the village followed by an opportunity to get out on the water in fishing boats in which we observed how the locals caught fish.

From here, we continued to Gebel el Selsela, home to some ancient tombs as well as a large granite quarry used during pharaonic times. We saw the size and the scale of the granite blocks being carved out of the mountains to be floated down the Nile to build some of the great monuments of Thebes and Giza.

We visited Kom Ombo, home to the “Crocodile Temple” on our last day of our journey along the Nile. Dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek as well as the god Horus the temple was built in the Greek era similar to the Temple of Horus at Edfu and the Temple of Hathor at Dendara. This temple was no less impressive than the others although smaller in scale. A key feature of the temple of Kom Ombo are depictions of medical procedures and instruments, as Kom Ombo was the home of medicine during ancient times. At the temple site is also a small museum featuring mummified crocodiles on display.

Our final stop of the day - and of the cruise - was at a remote beach, where we enjoyed the fine sand and beautiful views of the Nile.

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Old Dec 5th, 2020, 01:33 AM
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Two Lakeside Temples

After four very enjoyable days on the dahabiya, our trip up the Nile had come to an end. The days and nights went by so quickly that we felt as if we boarded only yesterday. The slower pace allows us to relax towards the second half of our trip, especially after a very packed eight days before it.

Upon arrival just north of the city of Aswan, we were met by our car and driver, who took us to Abu Simbel to spend the night. We could have taken a day trip to Abu Simbel from Aswan instead of overnighting but 7 hours back and forth seemed too much to us, especially when we could afford the additional day. The additional time in Abu Simbel also meant we could relax at our hotel, the Seti First, overlooking Lake Nasser. We spent most of the afternoon enjoying the hotel and sitting by the pool and lake. We visited the temples at Abu Simbel this evening to see the sound and light show. From there it was back to the hotel for dinner as options are slim in town and even more so during the pandemic.

The next morning we toured the temple complex - two temples, one dedicated to Ramses II and the other to his favorite wife, Queen Nefertari, whose tomb we visited at the Valley of the Queens in Luxor. We’ve all seen photographs of the Temple of Ramses II at some point, with the four imposing statues of the pharaoh standing at the entrance to his temple. Statues aside, I was most impressed by the first hypostyle hall with its eight statues of Ramses II as well as images depicting the Battle of Kadesh against the Hittites. The reliefs are all in good condition, and looked almost lifelike. The inner sanctuary holds the statue of Ramses II and three important gods in the ancient Egyptian pantheon.

Next door, carved inside a mountain just as the Temple of Ramses II is a smaller one for Nefartari. Standing at the entrance are six statues, two of Nefartari each flanked by Ramses himself on both sides. This temple is also dedicated to the mother god, Hathor, so she is represented through the temple, on the columns and in reliefs. Both temples are smaller than I had imagined it, and even more so after visiting so many massive temples on this journey. The temples are nonetheless impressive, both considering what it took to build millennia ago and when it was moved in the 20th century due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the subsequent flooding of this area to create what is now Lake Nasser.

After two fulfilling hours at the complex we drove back to Aswan and to our home for the next two nights, the Old Cataract Hotel, presently in the Sofitel portfolio. We are in Aswan this afternoon and tomorrow. From there we fly back to Cairo and then home.

More to come in the next couple of days...
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Old Dec 6th, 2020, 06:49 AM
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Tripplanner, just wanted to thank you for answering my earlier question about the Egyptian Museum and the new GEM. I'm really enjoying your report, thank you for including so much detail!
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