Egypt - Pharoah tales
My first visit to Egypt 23 years ago was an adventure I will never forget. I was in Cairo on a short business trip, but managed to squeeze some whistle-stop sightseeing in between meetings on my final day that would have even exhausted a Japanese tour leader.
Time was ridiculously tight, but I didn't mind as I was heading on to Luxor the next day for some R and R, followed by diving in the Red Sea at Hurghada prior to my flight home.
At least, that was the plan. Renting a taxi for the day in Cairo (as cheap as a single journey I had taken in a London cab), I set off for my pre-arranged appointments. My lunchtime meeting was at the venerable Mena House Oberoi hotel, right next to the pyramids at Giza. I spent lunch gazing in awe through the windows at the mighty edifices.
With another meeting due later that afternoon, I grabbed 15 minutes at the Great Pyramid of Cheops, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world - most of it spent haggling with a camel driver whose lumbering steed I clambered aboard just long enough to have my picture taken in front of the pyramids and Sphinx - before jumping back in the taxi.
Next stop was Sakkara, the necropolis for Egypt's ancient capital, Memphis, where historic structures include the Step Pyramid. The oldest of all pyramids, it lies some 30km south of Cairo past timeless rural scenes, and its lack of tourist hordes and nearby built-up areas made it feel even more special than its Giza counterparts. But there was no time to dwell. I was on a mission.
A guide took me on the briefest of tours, enlightening me by pointing out that the fishshaped hieroglyph carvings were, in fact, fish while the wavy lines above them represented the Nile. I'd never have guessed.
After a fast journey back to Cairo for my final meeting, I was dropped at the Egyptian Museum just 15 minutes before closing time. Glancing at the statues on the museum's ground floor, I sprinted up the stairs to reach my ultimate goal - the exquisite, golden mask and other funerary exhibits from the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Not only was it the climax of that trip, it was also the final highlight. That night, in February 1986, security police conscripts stormed out of their barracks in Giza, burning nearby hotels and businesses and clashing with the army. Instead of flying to Luxor the next morning I took refuge at an airport hotel when the airport was locked down and a city-wide curfew was imposed, and I caught a special repatriation flight back to the UK the following day.
I felt immensely sad, not just for my unfortunate timing but also for what I feared was the end of Egypt's tourism industry. I needn't have worried. The insurrection was quickly quelled, the capital soon recovered and the tourists returned. In the intervening years, Egypt has suffered several harrowing terrorist attacks, as have many countries including the UK, of course. Yet each time it has bounced back stronger than before.
Huge investment in its tourist infrastructure, with the development of classy, new resorts and extensive leisure facilities, has been matched by slick advertising campaigns and, just as important, a strong security presence in tourist areas.
All have helped make Egypt more popular than ever. With prices in eurozone countries rocketing because of the weak pound, it offers British tourists even better value for money compared to other holiday destinations this year.
Far from putting people off, the visible security measures are a reassuring factor. On my most recent visit, in December, I took a Nile cruise with my wife. At night as our luxury ship cruised downriver, two security guards manned a machine gun on the stern. As I photographed dawn over the Nile from the back of the ship, they nodded in acknowledgement of my smiled greeting and happily let me photograph them and the gun against the rising sun. You can't even photograph policemen without risk of arrest now in London.
One security measure which had been an irritation to visitors had just been relaxed prior to our visit. For the past 11 years, coaches travelling between Red Sea resorts and Luxor had had to travel in armed convoys, following the 1997 attack at the Temple of Hatshepsut in which 63 tourists were killed. That often led to long journey times as vehicles had to wait at convoy points and travel in line, and it also resulted in massive queues at key attractions as busloads disgorged at the same time.
We made the minibus journey from Red Sea tourist resort Madinat Makadi to Luxor to join our cruise in a comfortable four hours, and we could stop when we wanted and go at the speed our driver wanted - radar traps permitting.
Since my first, eventful visit to Egypt, I have returned a number of times and seen much of the country, both on land and below the sea. Ever since I was a child, it had always held great fascination for me. Few countries make my spine tingle and get the pulse racing in anticipation and excitement as Egypt does, when I visit.
The great monuments the ancient Egyptians and later civilisations left behind; the tombs of the pharaohs with their wonderfully- decorated walls; vast expanses of desert with their lush, hidden oases; stark mountains which glow pink at sunset; the hustle and bustle of Cairo, modern and old; timewarp towns and villages which line the verdant Nile Valley, their markets a jumble of sights, sounds and smells; glorious sandy beaches carpeting both the Red Sea and Mediterranean coasts; and the crystal clear waters of the Red Sea, rich in marine life. All make a visit to Egypt not just a magical history tour, but a holiday like you will experience nowhere else.
It has certainly made its mark on me. These are some of the country's key sights:
Bisected by the Nile, Egypt's frenetic capital is a city where the modern world collides with that of the country's ancient past. Roads and buildings have crept almost to the foundations of the Sphinx and the iconic pyramids at Giza. Yet behind them the desert stretches out as far as the eye can see. A day visit should be augmented with a return at night to watch the atmospheric Sound and Light Show.
Due to be replaced by a modern building at Giza in the near future, the Egyptian Museum holds some of ancient Egypt's greatest artefacts, the highlight being Tutankhamun's treasures. However, give yourself more than the 15 minutes I had on my first visit there as it has much else from the pharaonic era to wonder at, including the Mummy Room.
The imposing 12th century Citadel fortress was built by Saladin and looks out across Cairo's UNESCO World Heritage listed Islamic Quarter. At night the narrow streets of the quarter's Khan el Khalili bazaar come alive to raucous bartering and the cries of traders selling their wares. Nearby is the 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar Mosque, with its graceful minarets and crenulated walls.
Coptic Cairo is the oldest part of the city and includes the Coptic Museum, situated in a garden of the Roman-era Babylon Fort. El Muallaqa Church is Cairo's oldest Christian church. Dating back over 1,700 years, it is known as the "Hanging Church" as it is built over a Roman gate.
A day trip can take in Sakkara's Step Pyramid.
Alexandria and the
Founded by Alexander the Great and ruled over by Cleopatra, Egypt's last pharaoh, Alexandria nestles on the Mediterranean coast by the Nile Delta. It is steeped in history.
The Pharos (lighthouse) of Alexandria, another Ancient Wonder of the World, was the tallest structure on earth at 40 metres high until an earthquake destroyed it in the Middle Ages. Its harbourside foundations now support a 15th century fort.
Greek and Roman ruins include the Catacombs of Kom al-Shuqafa and Egypt's only Roman amphitheatre. The famed Library of Alexandria, the ancient world's largest, disappeared long ago. Its latter-day successor, the six-year-old Bibliotheca Alexandrina, features modern architecture including a raked glass roof.
Former royal palace Montazah, built by the last Khedive of Egypt in 1892, is set in gardens used for summer concerts and theatre performances. Another former palace, Fatma el-Zahara, is now the Royal Jewellery Museum. Other notable institutions include the Graeco-Roman Museum and Museum of Fine Arts.
The ancient city of Rosetta, 65km east of Alexandria, succeeded it as Egypt's principle Mediterranean port after the Ottoman conquest in the 16th century. It is known for the distinctive Delta-style Ottoman architecture of its restored merchants' houses. The Rosetta Stone, discovered there in 1799 and now in the British Museum, helped Egyptologists decipher ancient Egypt's hieroglyphics.
El Alamein, 60km west of Alexandria, was the scene of a decisive Allied victory in World War II. Now a burgeoning tourist resort with luxury hotels, it has a war muse-um and cemetery. Farther west, Mersa Matruh has white beaches, azure seas and rock formations - and the Rommel Museum. Siwa Oasis, 300km south of Mersa Matruh in the Sahara, can be visited on a tour.
In ancient times, Luxor was called Thebes - and more than 3,000 years of history are spread across both banks of the Nile. On the East Bank, Karnak Temple is the world's largest temple complex and has a spectacular nightly sound and light show. The Temple of Luxor is close to the city centre and walkable from some hotels. Visit both temples early to beat the tour buses which arrive from mid-morning onwards. Dusk turns the sky orange and pink over Luxor Temple's illuminated columns and statues.
Across the Nile on the West Bank is the Valley of the Kings, where Ramses the Great, Tutankhamun and many other pharaohs were buried in tombs where detailed carvings and painted walls still amaze. Other beautiful tombs can be explored in the Valley of the Queens, below towering cliffs, and another highlight is the terraced Temple of Hatsheput.
You can view Luxor's ancient sites from on high on a dawn balloon trip from the West Bank. Flights last up to 50 minutes. For a true experience of the Nile, sail in a traditional felucca or spend a few days on a Nile cruise.
Aswan is the gateway to Lake Nasser and Abu Simbel, where the temples and four colossal statues of Ramses II were moved to higher ground when the Aswan High Dam's construction flooded their original location.
The High Dam is one of the highlights of a visit to Aswan. Among other sights are the Old Aswan Dam, the Unfinished Obelisk and the Nubian Temple of Kalabsha. The Temple of Philae, set on an island, is bathed in lights with narration about the legends of Isis and Osiris in a sound and light show.You can sail in a felucca to visit Elephantine Island and Kitchener's Island, for the Botanical Gardens.
Agatha Christie wrote much of her Death on the Nile novel at Aswan's Old Cataract Hotel.
Sharm el Sheikh and the
Located at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, Sharm el Sheikh is the mummy of Egypt's Red Sea resorts. It originally catered purely for divers, drawn by sites such as Ras Mohamed National Park on its doorstep. But Sharm is now a top-class resort with appeal for those wanting a beach stay with all mod cons as well as for those who want to explore below the Red Sea. Lively Na'ama Bay is where to head for night-time fun and to browse its shopping mall.
Excursions include camel riding, wadibashing and 4x4 trips into the Sinai desert as well as visiting Bedouin camps to take tea or coffee or to dine out under the stars.
From Sharm you can also visit 1,500- year-old St Catherine's Monastery, built around a chapel housing the biblical Burning Bush. It lies at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses was given the 10 Commandments. A popular option is to climb Mount Sinai at night to witness the spectacular dawn from the top.
Other Sinai wonders include the Coloured Canyon, named for its brightly-hued sandstone formations, the White Canyon and several oases. Among natural atractions is the mountainous Abu Galum natural reserve, where wildlife includes Nubian ibex, hyrax and striped hyena.
At the top end of the Sinai Peninsula is Taba, across the border from Israel's Eilat, and the neighbouring, purpose-built resort of Taba Heights. A sister development to El Gouna, across the Red Sea, it is a collection of hotels with stylish designer architecture nestling against the Sinai's mountains and fronting the Red Sea. There is also a golf course. Excursions from Taba Heights go to the ancient city of Petra in Jordan with its buildings carved into the rocks.
Other Sinai resorts include laid-back Dahab and Nuweiba, much less developed than Sharm or Taba.
Hurghada and the Western Red Sea
The Western Red Sea's largest and longest established resort offers an extensive range of hotels appealing to a wide cross-section of holidaymakers. It has a lively centre with plenty of nightlife and an abundance of sports and activities along its sandy beaches. One of the region's top diving destinations, sites include offshore islands and the famous wartime wreck, SS Thistlegorm.
Hurghada's origins as a fishing village can still be seen in the Old Town, now engulfed by the modern, purpose-built resort.
South of Hurghada, fledgling resort Sahl Hasheesh features an Oberoi hotel with plans to build several golf courses, more hotels and an Atlantis-style sunken city viewable from a boardwalk.
Madinat Makadi is a resort village with a wide beach in nearby Makadi Bay. Its eight hotels include the new, five-star Jaz Makadi Golf hotel where Scary Spice Mel B and her husband Stephen Belafonte renewed their wedding vows in November. The hotel is alongside Egypt's newest golf course.
Beyond that lies upmarket resort Soma bay. It has several hotels including La Residence des Cascades, built in the centre of Gary Player-designed The Cascades golf course and housing the huge Les Thermes Marins des Cascades thalassotherapy centre.
The "Little Venice of Egypt", 20 minutes north of Hurghada, El Gouna is a stylish new resort laced by canals, with over a dozen hotels, elegant private villas, a Mediterraneanstyle marina lined with restaurants and bars, a shopping centre, casino and art galleries. There's sailing and other water sports from its extensive beaches, as well as diving.
At the top end of the Red Sea, near the southern entrance to the Suez Canal, is the developing resort of Ain Soukhna. It possesses a golf course and several hotels, as well as one of the region's largest spa and thalassotherapy centres.
The Southern Red Sea is fast developing, too. Popular with divers who want to reach less visited reefs and wrecks, it includes the resort of Marsa Alam and nearby Port Ghalib, a new marina resort development.
When to go:
Summers are hot and dry and winters are warm, with little rainfall - making it the ideal time to go. Breezes help keep Red Sea resorts cooler, while the Mediterranean coast has a more temperate climate.
Direct flights to Cairo from London Heathrow are operated
by British Airways (www.ba.com), bmi (www.flybmi.com) and Egyptair (www.egyptair.com). Egyptair also flies from Heathrow to Sharm el Sheikh, while easyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies there from London Gatwick. Charter flights operate from airports around the UK to Sharm, Hurghada,Taba, Marsa Alam and Luxor.
UK and EU nationals travelling only to Sharm el Sheikh, Dahab, Nuweiba and Taba resorts in the Sinai for up to 14 days do not require a visa. Otherwise, visas can be obtained at the airport on arrival into Egypt or from the Egyptian consulate in London (020 7235 9777; www.egyptianconsulate.co.uk).
Egyptair operates internal flights from Cairo to points
throughout Egypt. Destinations include Luxor, Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada. Other internal routes include Luxor Aswan. Local taxis are inexpensive and in plentiful supply in major cites and resorts.
UK operators offering Egypt include:
- Discover Egypt (www.discoveregypt.co.uk)
- Thomas Cook (www.thomascook.com)
Monarch Holidays (www.monarchholidays.co.uk)
- Longwood Holidays (www.longwoodholidays.co.uk)
- Peltours (www.peltours.com)
Egyptian State Tourist Office: call 020 7493 5283 or visit www.egypt.travel
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & lesiure magazine, please check before you travel to Egypt.