Just because the Sultan Hasan Mosque is 600 years old doesn't mean they can't use modern technology to keep it clean.
The grounds of the Adrere Amellal where, for one precious day and night, I was the only guest in the entire 40-room lodge (five visitors from France arrived on day two...) The impossible silence each night, coupled with the multiple and even more impossibly fantastic shooting stars through the night sky, made it all feel like it was just a dream.
The day had been spent speeding (and tumbling in my case) down enormous sand dunes on questionable snowboards, a pastime that filled one's head with sand and spirit with unending exhilaration. We had swum in hot springs and very cold springs, taken our meals of locally grown cucumbers, tomatoes and cheese on a blanket in the shade of a palm tree, and held on for our dear lives as our Toyota Land Cruiser raced mercilessly across the dunes. As the sun set over the dunes, however, we all began to feel the calm of night. Two of my friends sit below the dunes enjoying a moment to themselves, shared only with Mother Nature.
You could spend a lifetime examining the more than 120,000 items in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, in Cairo. The collection is as vast as it is priceless. The cluttered rooms and dusty display cases give the museum a colonial charm. One of the highlights of the Egyptian Museum is the Tutankhamen room. You can view the pharoah's exquisite gold funeral mask, and a variety of jewelry recovered from the tomb. Just outside this room are the larger contents of the tomb. It’s hard to imagine so many items packed into such a small chamber. The museum’s other big draw is the Royal Mummies Hall. This special room is the final resting place of 11 mummies of former kings and queens. While you can visit the museum on your own, the experience is much richer with an Egyptologist. My guide, from Abercrombie & Kent tours, brought the exhibits to life and showed us so much more than just artifacts. Alison Cornford-Matheson traveled to Egypt courtesy of the Egypt Tourism Authority and Abercrombie & Kent. Her highlights are part of AFAR's partnership with The United States Tour Operator Association (USTOA), whose members provide travelers with unparalleled access, insider knowledge, peace-of-mind, value, and freedom to enjoy destinations across the entire globe. See more about Alison's trip at the USTOA blog.
Spending time with Tarek Labib was a perfect welcome to Cairo. We couldn't have asked for a more charming and engaging host, and his home was an exact expression of himself: tranquil, worldly, artistic, irreverent.
When visiting the Temple of Hatshepsut, be sure to hike over the top and descend into the Valley of the Kings. The hike takes 30-45 minutes and is accessed by a trail head near the visitor's center. From the top you can take photos, but will not be able to once you get into the Valley of the Kings area.
The Egyptian city of Sakkara (or Saqqara) is famous for two things: its UNESCO designated temple complex and its hand tied carpets. In an attempt to fight illiteracy in rural Egypt, Sakkara funds a plethora of carpet-making schools. In addition to learning to read and write, children here learn the ancient art of carpet making. Their education gives them the opportunity to stay in their town and earn a good wage for a skilled trade, or continue their schooling elsewhere. The children are eager to demonstrate how they create these beautiful carpets from delicate silk thread. The speed and precision of their fingers as they knot the colourful carpets is hard to believe and mesmerising to watch. After watching the demonstration, you’ll be welcomed into the showroom to view carpets of all shapes, sizes, and colors. You’ll be served tea and soft drinks and there is no pressure to buy, but if you do, haggling is mandatory. Alison Cornford-Matheson traveled to Egypt courtesy of the Egypt Tourism Authority and Abercrombie & Kent. Her highlights are part of AFAR's partnership with The United States Tour Operator Association (USTOA), whose members provide travelers with unparalleled access, insider knowledge, peace-of-mind, value, and freedom to enjoy destinations across the entire globe. See more about Alison's trip at the USTOA blog.
I wanted to visit a Nubian Village in Aswan that did not see any other tourists; my guide delivered! We spent hours with this wonderful family in their home. The extended family arrived a bit after we did. We had an extremely enjoyable morning, just talking with them and watching them go about their daily routine (as best they could with us there). This young girl was so excited when she received a phone call from her father, that she shared the phone with her grandfather. ......so many differences, yet so many similarities....
Cairo Tower, also known as El Gezira Tower or Borg Al Kahira, is considered one of the most prominent features of the Egyptian capital. Its partially open lattice-work design is intended to evoke a lotus plant. Visit the tower at night, where you can take photos of the beautiful panoramic view.
This gentleman caught my eye from his stool in the back of the store as I wandered through the narrow alleys of the Khan el-Khalili souk in Cairo, and he beckoned me to come in. Thinking of my already overstuffed suitcase and still a bit skittish from the hard sales tactics of the other shopkeepers, I shook my head and remained on the street, but when I raised my camera to signal my desire to take his picture, he readily consented and even posed a little. Now I wish I had stopped and ventured inside his shop. It was an oasis of calm in the chaos of the rest of the souk, and it smelled wonderful. Next time I'll definitely stop in, and I'll remember that when properly motivated, I can always make a little more room in my luggage, especially for something small like spices, the smell of which can quickly bring me back to just such a moment.
I can't describe the feeling that I got when we arrived at the Pyramids for our Farewell party. It was incredible.
Traveling from Alexandria to Abu Simbel gives you an astonishing sense of Egypt and it's ancient treasures. Pyramids, tombs, and heiroglyphics are set on a burning hot backdrop of smoggy cities, tour busses, and one salesman after the next chanting "I give you good price". After being blown away on the final day of our trip at Abu Simbel, we drove back to Aswan in our police convoy and at sunset pulled over to the side of the road. Thinking someone had a flat tire, we got out to stretch our legs and before us was a golden expanse of desert so vast and flat, where no tourist trail feet had walked. Silence and light were the real wonders to be taken in, and we felt cleansed from 10 days in a country that balances chaos and magic on a single grain of sand.
I spotted my name on a piece of paper and I was greeted by a very young, strong looking Egyptian man who had a quiet stature and strong disposition. He shook my hand and I knew I was respected. The weather was impeccable in Cairo that day. The sun was out, the skies were blue, and there was hardly any trace of smog. There was no traffic and we made it from the airport the the Giza Pyramids in record time of 35 minutes. It was a miracle indeed because by the time we arrived at the entrance to the pyramids they had already said it was closed 15 minutes ago, but with begging, pleading, and bribery I somehow managed to get myself in. The Pyramids. The amazing perfect pyramids in their place, but never the same. Each time I visit, I feel a sense of hello again; I get reacquainted with this mysterious figure hovering over me asking me to tell them my dreams and desires. I feel overwhelmed by THEIR Presence. I could see from where I was standing that it waited for me to arrive to unveil to me the most amazing and mightiest of sunsets I have ever seen in my life. It became more apparent to me that I have grown so much since the first time I stood before these figures who know me more than I know myself. The first time I spoke to them I said, "Send me on a whirlwind journey to see the world so that I can learn more about myself and the people you want me to serve." That was exactly three years ago and I realized that my wish was granted. The mighty sunset smiled.
Don't be fooled by camels. Cute and adorable-looking on the outside, these guys like to snarl. And spit. And try to make it really clear that they don't actually want you to climb on their back so they can hoist you in the air and be led to and fro across the sandy desert, as you have romantic fantasies about a swarthy character in one of the Arabian Nights stories. But I asked my camel nicely, and he obliged.
This was a pretty emotional moment at Cafe Riche, a historical cafe in downtown Cairo. I was talking with Azer Farag Azer, a businessman (pictured in the middle above) who has been a customer of Cafe Riche since 1960. He was speaking about a lot of the things he has seen happen over the years here, when he called up the waiter, Felfel (pictured on the right), who has been working at Cafe Riche since 1943. Azer called Felfel the most honorable man he knew and called him on stage.
While one typically envisions riding camels through deserts when they imagine Egypt, there is so much more to Cairo. Although the donkey carts and women in gallabeya do exist, one can't help they are walking in Europe when they pass through the architectural masterpiece that is Korba. Next to Heliopolis, where the old Cairenes dwell, Korba is home to the works of classic French architecture courtesy of Alexander Marcel, who implemented aspects of South East Asia into some of his pieces such as "the Baron's palace."
Cairo is more than camels and desert, although they have that too. The areas around the Nile are green and lush with trees. Sometimes when I'm walking in Dokki or Zamalek I feel like I'm walking in my hometown in downtown Chico. Unlike the posh island of Zamalek, that's filled with expats, Dokki is quite authentic. This bustling very local area is full of interesting and unusual restaurants such as my favorite, the Yemeni restaurant. You can also find delicious Sudanese food nearby.
Offers of camel rides are a standard feature of visits to the pyramids. While I resisted all attempts to get me to take advantage of riding or having my picture taken with one, I did look for opportunities to include them in pictures I was taking of the pyramids. This scene really caught my attention as the camel herder relaxed while his camels enjoyed a meal in the shadow of the great pyramid.
At Nasser’s stables, I hoist myself up into the saddle of a mottled Arabian mare. She’s small, but spirited, and we canter for a while into the dark gray void that appears abruptly at the edge of Giza and doesn’t end until it spills into the Atlantic Ocean three thousand miles to the west. Here the Sahara is fine grit and jagged rock, no gently rolling white sand dunes. After a quarter of a mile kicking dust, Nasser reins his mare in at the base of a hundred-foot up-thrust of rock. “Up there you will get the best view,” he says. “I’ll wait with the horses. If you see any camel riders, stay down. It is the police.” “I thought you knew them all.” He laughs. “I do. That’s why you should stay down.” Scrambling to the top of the butte, I watch a gradually widening band of lighter gray on the horizon as the aten—a blood red solar disc—rises. And with the morning light comes khamussin—the Saharan wind. Airborne sand draws a curtain across the plain of Giza, slowly diffusing, then erasing the three distinct shapes breaking the horizon to the north like much-too-perfect mountain peaks. They are like nothing I have ever seen in my life, like nothing else on the face of the Earth. Battered for at least five millennia by the elements, pillaged by generations of by soulless marauders and avaricious monarchs, probed by scores of archeologists and armies of thieving diggers, the pyramids of Giza still beggar the imagination.
When you find yourself in the middle of a desert trying to flag down a camel caravan for help, you’re obviously in a bit of a predicament. That’s the situation my wife and I found ourselves in when our guide’s Land Cruiser broke down in a rather remote part of Western Egypt’s White Desert. We were several miles west of the only road between Bahariya and Farafra oases. After futilely trying to jump start the loaded-down vehicle in the thick sand, we settled in for a wait until someone spotted the caravan. But even with help of two camel guides, our group of six could not push fast enough to get it started. Fortunately, our situation was just a fiasco, not a matter of life and death. Our guide and driver had satellite phones that could get a signal from the top of nearby peaks. We also had enough food and water in case it took all day for them to swallow their pride and use the phones. Finally, they did so, and we were rescued within a few hours. But not before teaching Ramadan and Hemada how to play gin rummy. The guys didn’t know how to play cards, but caught on quickly and wanted to play for money in no time. Being stuck was a bonding experience—and there was no better place to be stranded than in the fascinating alien landscape of the White Desert. The surreal rock outcroppings that look like outsized mushrooms, kneeling camels, ducks, and other fantastical figures provided great shade while we settled in, played cards, and drank Bedouin tea.
I was fortunate enough to stay at the Old Cataract Hotel by the River Nile a wonderful experience in itself. But the stay would not have been complete without a very restful trip in one of these lovely old wooden sailing craft. Just the sounds of the breeze wafting through the sail and the water breaking over the bow.
Walking in deepening twilight past a towering obelisk, and then through the Hypostyle Hall and colonnade of 134 massive pillars—10-12 meters tall—capped with stylized papyrus and calyx, into a broad solar court, I was able to envision only the most subtle blush of the 18th Dynasty’s unparalleled magnificence. Through the lotus capitals, across the Nile’s western bank, an oblate sun disc was setting beyond the Valley of the Kings, where so many of the Tuthmosid clan’s buried secrets were revealed. We’ve come to understand just how prominently the support of Amun-Re’s priests—as political partners, co-regents, corporate executives, lovers, and nemeses—figured in this epoch of Egypt’s golden age. At Karnak and Luxor, Pharaonic Egypt reached a powerful zenith—a politically balanced symbiosis of the sacred and secular. And it was here that the consort of Thutmosis II—Hatshepsut—rose to become the longest-reigning Egyptian woman in history.
Bab Zuwayla was part of the original walls of Cairo built in 1092. The Zuwayla gate is one of the most well known landmarks in the city and is also one of three remaining gates of the Fatimid dynasty. This historic gate contains twin towers, each with a minaret. Originally these towers were used by soldiers to keep watch over the southern countryside, however today they provide some of the best views of Cairo. For a small fee, you can climb to the top of each tower and get a glimpse of the surrounding buildings, streets, and daily life. I felt on top of the world as I gazed downward at the opposing tower of Bab Zuwayla and took in the scenery of this ancient city.
The night I spent in Egypt’s White Desert, the moon shone so brightly that the rocks towering over our campsite cast shadows on the sand. The White Desert is known for its stunning rock formations, made of pure-white “chalk rock” that the wind and sand have sculpted into an incredible array of shapes. A trip here is like an afternoon of cloud-gazing. (There’s a mushroom! And that one’s a chicken!) In pre-historic times, a sea covered the area, and you can still find fossilized sea shells imbedded in the rocks. In the evening, a serenity settles over the sands. After a gourmet dinner cooked over an open fire, and we sat for hours, enjoying the cool air and each other’s company. I went for a barefoot midnight stroll and then curled up on my mattress under the stars. The only way to see the desert is in a 4x4 and preferably with a Bedouin guide who knows how to navigate the terrain. Most guides are based out of the nearby Bahariya Oasis, and many of them can arrange to pick you up in Cairo, a four-hour drive away. I highly recommend waking up early enough for a sunrise hike. Perch yourself atop your favorite rock and watch the sunlight break over the wave-like sands and silhouette the sculpted rocks. You might even catch a glimpse of the nocturnal desert fox heading home after a hard night’s work.
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