The message from the cradle of ancient civilization is: Go now, before the masses return.
Egypt is essential to the very story of humanity, of governments forming, religions flourishing, and agriculture developing. From the ancient port city Alexandria in the north to the towering rock temples of Pharaoh Ramses II near Egypt’s southern border, the country has witnessed 5,000 years of history.
But more recent history has kept many travelers away. The revolt of 2011—part of the Arab Spring—that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak after his 30-year reign, the subsequent military coup, and the 2015 bombing of a Russian airplane all contributed to a precipitous drop in tourism. Pre-revolt, 14.7 million visitors annually rode camels on the Giza Plateau, cruised the Nile, and pondered hieroglyphics. After it, the numbers plunged to less than 5 million, according to some sources.
Since 2017, tourism has been rebounding: Some 8.3 million travelers visited that year, up 54 percent from the year prior. Tourism revenues spiked 77 percent through June 2018, compared to the same period in 2017, and in fall 2017 the World Tourism Organization named Egypt the world’s fastest-growing travel destination, with arrivals up 55 percent over the previous year.
Egypt has doubled down on investments to renew its appeal, led by the new Grand Egyptian Museum, expected to open in phases beginning in 2019. The sprawling 5.2-million-square-foot center, the world’s largest museum devoted to a single civilization, will house the entire 5,000-piece funerary collection of King Tutankhamun, including his sandals, chariot, and cheetah-skin shield, long exhibited in the overstuffed Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square. The collection comprises 100,000 objects, 50,000 of which will be on display, including 30,000 never before shown to the public. The soaring glass walls of the GEM, as it is known, will frame views of the pyramids at Giza a little over a mile away. Farther away in Saqqâra, famed for its stepped pyramid of Djoser, the just-opened tomb of Mehu welcomes visitors to a 4,000-year-old burial chamber decorated in vivid wall paintings and hieroglyphics. When day is done, travelers can cool off in the rooftop pool of the Kempinski Nile Hotel or rest like a pharaoh at the rooftop bar of the riverside Nile Ritz-Carlton.
To celebrate this renewal, we sent photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz on a new trip from small-group tour operator Abercrombie & Kent. Abdulaziz journeyed to Cairo, Abu Simbel, and Aswan, capturing Egypt’s ancient ruins, its modern wonders, and a bit of local life along the way.
Made of an estimated 2.3 million blocks of stone cut by hand, the 450-foot-tall Great Pyramid at Giza dwarfs visitors.
The largest city in the Middle East, with an estimated population of 22.9 million in the metro area, Cairo has been a crossroads of civilizations for at least 1,050 years.
Thousands of years ago on the Giza Plateau, anonymous laborers crafted the monumental Great Sphinx—240 feet long and 66 feet high—from a single slab of limestone. The body of a powerful lion is topped with the head of a man in a headdress, believed to be modeled after Pharaoh Khafre, who was king around the time the Sphinx was constructed, roughly 2500 b.c.e.
Approximately 8.3 million travelers visited Egypt in 2017, up 54 percent from the year prior.
Abercrombie & Kent’s 40-cabin Sanctuary Sun Boat IV ferries passengers between Aswan and Luxor, stopping on the way for archaeology tours to the tomb-riddled Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Kom Ombo, devoted to the crocodile god Sobek and the falcon-headed god Horus. Between stops, travelers can enjoy tea, Egyptian cooking classes, and whirling dervish shows on the ship.
Eight Ways to Explore Egypt’s Revival
Head to Luxor in luxury
Travelers can follow the journey seen in this story from AFAR’s January/February 2019 issue by signing on with luxury specialists Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) for a 10-day land-and-river tour. The trip begins in Cairo with a visit to the Great Sphinx and a trip inside the Great Pyramid, where visitors will see the tombs of its builders. Travelers then fly to Luxor and spend four nights on the Nile, docking at private, crowd-free berths in Luxor and Aswan. In addition to exploring ancient Thebes, passengers will leave the beaten path to ogle the soaring columns of the Temple of Khnum at Esna, take a shipboard Egyptian cooking class, and cruise the Aswan islands in a felucca, or traditional sailboat. Ten-day trips start at $5,395 per person with optional extension in Jordan.
Go with an adventurous group
In another sign of the country’s rebound, longtime operator Geographic Expeditions plans to resume group trips to Egypt—including an all-woman excursion—in November 2019. Until then, the company’s 12-day private-trip itineraries, which can be customized, include a dinner in the home of an Egyptian host, visits to Coptic and Islamic sites in Cairo as well as the ancient Egyptian ones, and seven days on a dahabiya, a traditional sailing ship that holds up to 12 guests. The dahabiya will ferry passengers from Aswan to Luxor, stopping to view such treasures as the mummified crocodiles in the temple of Kom Ombo. Twelve-day trips start at $11,400 per person. For a completely personalized tour contact Kate Doty, a member of AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council.
Opt for a small sailing
India-based Oberoi Hotels & Resorts operates two Nile cruise ships, both of which carry travelers from Aswan to Luxor. The 44-passenger Oberoi Philae offers four- and six-night itineraries that include motorboat excursions to the Nubian Museum in Aswan and sunrise visits to the Valley of the Kings; the 54-passenger Oberoi Zahra follows the same route but provides five- and seven-night options. Both cruise ships feature a guest-to-staff ratio of nearly two to one, as well as spas, pools, and large cabins with floor-to-ceiling windows that open to the desert breezes. Trips start at $3,042 per person.
Take it slow
Nour El Nil’s four hand-built dahabiyas, each with eight to 10 whitewashed cabins trimmed in colorful textiles, take their time sailing the Nile. The languid pace—five nights to cover 155 miles—gives travelers the opportunity to soak in the sites from a top-deck hammock and savor Egyptian dishes such as Nile perch and fresh falafel served at outdoor tea tables. Six-day excursions from Esna, just south of Luxor, include carriage rides to the Temple of Horus at Edfu, an overnight stay moored near the Temple of Gebel el Silsila, and a day of hiking to hieroglyphics, before ending in Aswan. Six-day trips start at $1,255 per person.
Reflect on the Nile River
A pioneer in river cruising, Viking recently launched the new 52-passenger Viking Ra on the Nile, with balconied cabins and sun and pool decks. The trip starts with three pyramid-combing days in Cairo followed by a flight to Luxor, where guests board the ship for seven nights, including an evening spent taking in the sound and light show at Philae Temple in Aswan. On shore excursions passengers visit the textile market and ancient temple of Esna, decipher hieroglyphics at the Luxor and Karnak temples with an Egyptologist, and explore the Edfu market with the ship chef. Twelve-day trips start at $5,899 per person.
Customize your time in Cairo
Jim Berkeley, the Nashville-based owner of Destinations & Adventures, lived in Cairo for five years before founding his bespoke agency in 1995. The company customizes Egypt trips based on travelers’ interests, and offers exclusive access to experiences such as visiting the base of the Great Sphinx. Follow in King Tut’s footsteps from Giza to Luxor, cruise Lake Nasser and see the rock-cut temple to the sun god Ra, or go deeper on a 15-day land and river journey that combines highlights and less-trammeled attractions. You can even embed a safari in Kenya in your Egypt trip. Prices vary, but a seven-day overview starts at $2,995 per person.
Pick your price point
Kensington Tours does Egypt in style across the price spectrum, from value-focused trips to custom luxury itineraries. Even week-long starter itineraries offer travelers insider access via Giza tours with an Egyptologist, sunset dinners in the desert, and guided browsing of Cairo’s Khan Khalili Bazaar at night. More deluxe options add in Jordan and Israel, Nile cruises, and Red Sea resort stays. Kensington handles details such as securing expedited visa service at the airport, and tailors family trips with camel treks and palace stays. Six-day trips start at $1,974 per person.
Try an unexpected experience
A specialist in Africa, certain parts of the Middle East, and such European countries as Greece, Spain, and Portugal, Heritage Tours has recently added Egypt to its destination portfolio. Beyond visiting the country’s must-see list of attractions, custom-designed private tours let you experience winemaking in the Gianaclis vineyards near Alexandria, camping and sandboarding in the desert, and Nubian family life on Soheil Island. Or check out the greatest concentration of medieval architecture in the Islamic world in Cairo, go hot-air ballooning over the Valley of the Queens, or contemplate 250 mummies in the White Desert. Prices vary, based on itinerary, but an 11-day trip starts at $5,395 per person.