Queen of the Nile: A guide to Egypt

The Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, the Nile. These are the sights bucket lists are made of. Though, if you're going to do Egypt, JOANNA HUNKIN suggests doing it right.

A camel in front of the Pyramids of Giza.

Konrad Kasiske

It’s a little before 7am and all is quiet on the River Nile. The drove of children who can usually be seen – and heard – enthusiastically splashing and jumping for our attention have been herded away for the morning, leaving us to cruise the mirrored waters to Aswan in near silence. The temperature is just coming up to 30 degrees and as I sip my coffee, drinking in views of the palm-studded riverbank, it is the coolest and calmest I have felt in days.

I imagine Queen Nefertari – or any of the seven Cleopatras – making this same journey, breathing in the tranquil air and gazing upon the verdant green shores, which glow in contrast to the desert horizon. Not for the first time, my mind stretches and contracts trying to grasp just how much life and history has played out on this river. Mental gymnastics are a daily activity on any tour of Egypt, where mind-blowing facts and figures are casually lobbed at you on a near-hourly basis. As I rejuvenate in the morning serenity, I am still processing just how long 3000 years really is.

Today, we are still closer in time to Cleopatra and the final days of ancient Egypt than she was to the first Pharaohs and the construction of Giza’s pyramids. Poof. There went my mind.

Approaching the Pyramids of Giza on the freeway.

As it turns out, this is far from the most interesting fact to come out of my week-long tour of Egypt but it’s a good place to start and helps contextualise just how overwhelming this country can be – especially in 2023, which has seen Egypt skyrocket to the top of travellers’ wishlists and visitor numbers reach new heights, on track to pass the previous record set in 2010.

Mentally and physically, it’s a lot to take in, particularly when married with temperatures hitting the mid-40s some days. Of course, you don’t have to go in the height of summer – many would choose not to – but you will trade cooler temperatures for hotter crowds, with up to 10 times more visitors between September and April. In a city as chaotic as Cairo – more populous than Beijing or Mumbai – that’s 10 times more hassle than I personally could ever cope with.

The Great Sphinx of Giza.

Our time in Cairo comes in the midst of a massive urban regeneration project, which involves a new administrative capital, dubbed New Cairo, being constructed 45 kilometres from the current city centre. In 2019, the government also announced plans to rid the city of all slums, demolishing thousands of sub-standard houses and relocating residents to new apartment blocks. The interim result is a frenzy of rubble and dust. Roads that once connected key tourist sites have been closed and rerouted. Even our highly experienced driver comes unstuck as we turn off the freeway to be met by a blockade. “There was a road here last week!” exclaims our guide Abbie, a professional Egyptologist who has been sharing her city’s history with Abercrombie & Kent clients since 1989.

Giza’s Pyramid of Menkaure reflected in the Marriott Mena House pool.

Long-term, the result should make Cairo a more liveable, traversable city. There are already clear benefits to be seen, Abbie says, as she points towards the 12th century Citadel. “Before, we could never see the fort from here. There were so many houses.”

This is our first introduction to Cairo and a pertinent reminder that despite the abundance of history to be marvelled at, this is a real world city that continues to evolve and progress – and has seen its share of conflict and political unrest.

Twelve years on since President Hosni Mubarak was deposed during the violent Arab Spring uprising, its legacy remains – most notably in the militant security measures in place around all airports, tourist sites and hotels. Bomb-sniffing dogs and metal detectors greet you on every arrival. We are strongly encouraged not to leave our hotel without our guide and driver.

For some travellers, this will be confronting and challenging. But this is the reality of coming to Egypt; it’s not an ancient Disneyland. Our experience is made as frictionless as possible by the team from Abercrombie & Kent, who greet us before we have even passed customs at Cairo Airport. They take care of our entry visas, collect our luggage and usher us into a waiting, air-conditioned van. In addition to our Egyptologist guides, an A&K co-ordinator greets us each day to facilitate any special requests and guide us through all transfers and check-in processes.

Walking through Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili bazaar.

Our first day in Cairo begins at the Egyptian Museum, where Abbie stops us in front of the replica Rosetta Stone (the real one is in the British Museum, along with countless other Egyptian artefacts). This, she explains, is the key to everything we know about ancient Egypt. Through translating and decoding the decree inscribed on the stone, written in ancient Greek, hieroglyphs, and Demotic script, scholars were able to decipher the screeds of hieroglyphs that adorn every tomb and temple across Egypt, and gave rise to the scientific study of Egyptology. Before this, the symbols were considered nothing more than decorative art. Poof.

Put simply, without this slab of rock – uncovered by a group of French soldiers in 1799 – more than 3000 years of history would have remained lost to us forever. Instead, it spawned a wave of Egyptomania that led to the discovery of key archaeological sites and artefacts, including Tutankhamun’s tomb and the entire Valley of the Kings. Poof, poof.

A mural inside a tomb at the Sakkara necropolis.

Understanding this central detail doesn’t just set up our museum visit – which includes viewing the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb up close – but unlocks everything to come over the next seven days and begins our journey of bewilderment and awe.

The next day, we head to Sakkara and Giza to visit the pyramids and the Sphinx. I won’t wax lyrical but suffice to say there is a reason they are some of the most visited tourist attractions in the world. From there, we fly south to Upper Egypt (named for the higher ground from which the Nile flows north) and discover the temple of Abu Simbel.

Getting to and from Abu Simbel requires three flights and a start time of 5am. Combined with 46 degree temperatures and an inedible packed lunch, it is the most challenging day of our itinerary. But as you stand at the feet of the colossal stone carving of Ramesses II and his wife Nefertari, it’s worth the journey. The temple is incredible in its own right but made more so as you hear how a group of archeologists relocated it in 1968 – block by giant stone block – to save it from rising lake waters following the Aswan Dam construction. This came just 150 years after the temple was rediscovered, having been almost entirely covered by a sand dune for more than 2000 years. Poof.

It’s not long after this, I find myself sitting aboard the Sanctuary Nile Adventurer enjoying my moment of morning serenity. The four-night cruise is a welcome change of pace after the chaotic adventures of Cairo and Abu Simbel. While there are still daily tours and activities – a temple visit here, a Whirling Dervish there – the intensity is dialled down as we slowly make our way from Aswan to Luxor.

Inside the Step Pyramid of Djoser in Sakkara.

Along the way, we disembark to learn about the unfinished obelisk, the temple of Philae, and the crocodile god Sobek, among other things. Our small group of 10 – all well-educated, worldly adults – morphs into a gaggle of naughty school children as we struggle to keep up with our guide’s regular quizzing. We lose it completely when he points out – with total professionalism – the god of fertility, Min, complete with a raging boner. I may not remember all the gods’ names but Min will stay with me forever.

Just when temple and tomb fatigue threatens to take over completely, we arrive in Luxor, the jewel of the Nile. Our morning starts with a boat ride across the river, before we ascend to the sacred burial ground known as the Valley of the Kings. To date, 65 royal tombs and chambers have been uncovered here, including Tutankhamun, with the most recent discovery taking place in 2007. Poof.

A horse grazing on the banks of the Nile.

It takes some grappling that this royal resting place now operates as a tourist attraction but the mood in our group is respectful. Visitors are free to choose which tombs they visit – with three entries included in their general admission pass. Those wanting to visit Tutankhamun can pay extra to do so – though our friends who do report back it’s not actually that impressive. The best and most intriguing tomb, according to our guide, it that of Seti I, which at 137 metres is one of the longest and deepest tombs in the valley. Seti may no longer be a household name but he clearly inspired enough followers in his day to create the most richly decorated tomb of his dynasty. Every surface of the multi-chambered tomb is covered with brightly coloured murals and hieroglyphs, including a rich blue ceiling covered in thousands of gold stars.

The entrance to the Step Pyramid complex in Sakkara.

The Egyptians’ bold use of colour was a revelation earlier in our trip, as we visited the temple of Esna and learned how a team of archeologists are in the process of cleaning the pillars and ceilings to reveal the original, vibrant colours. As if the elaborate carvings and artwork that adorn the giant stone structures weren’t enough, it turns out the ancient Egyptians used to add egg white to ground minerals, such as lapiz and turquoise, to bring a technicolour finish to their creations. Poof.

The restoration project at Esna began in 2020, with the hope to roll it out across all major historical sites in years to come. It’s already underway at Karnak Temple in Luxor, which is where we head next. After six days, we’ve become somewhat jaded about temples but Karnak sees any cynicism evaporate as our mouths are left hanging once more.

To this day, Karnak is the largest religious site ever built – more than twice the size of the Vatican. Poof. While the size and scale of the complex is impressive, it’s trying to understand how they built it, how long it took, and how it has stayed standing (for the most part) for nearly 4000 years that threatens to shut down your brain altogether.

We end the day at the temple of Luxor, where Roman frescoes and the mosque of Abu Haggag (itself nearly 1400 years old) reveal what came next for these sacred sites, once the ancient Egyptian era finally came to an end in 30BCE. The late afternoon sun casts long shadows as we attempt to decipher centuries of old graffiti carved into the walls and wrestle with just how inconsequential we all are in the grand scheme of things.

Rather than feeling bleak or dispiriting, it comes with a sense of liberation. The Egyptians – regardless of their status – were obsessed with the after-life and living their best death. They called their tombs their “eternal homes” and spent their entire lives designing, building and even remodelling them as trends and fashions changed. Poof.

A restored pillar at Esna reveals the original colours.

Loyal servants and artisans dedicated their lives to constructing and decorating Pharaohs’ tombs in the belief it would bring them favour and blessings in the afterlife. Standing here today, it’s clear they were misguided. Instead, their hard labour continues to benefit the living. And as I stand in the giant shadows of their toil, I am filled with both gratitude and relief that I live in a very different world.

Returning to real life, it takes a few days of normality for the inertia to ease and to properly process the experience. My time in Egypt has left me with an expanded mind and, at times, my comfort zones tested. It’s been a potent reminder that life is short and history is long. And that the most powerful travel experiences should leave you with more than just pretty pictures.

How to get to Cairo, Egypt

The most direct route to Cairo from Australia is via Dubai. With Cairo located three hours’ flight from Rome, or five hours from London, we recommend Australian travellers add an Egypt tour onto their next European itinerary. Alternatively, extend your stay in the Middle East and explore the sights of Jordan and Israel, including Petra, Wadi Rum and Tel Aviv.

Booking Info

Abercrombie & Kent offers a range of Egypt Journeys, ranging from 9 days to 22 days, with prices starting from $8770 per person, which includes entry to all sites, expert Egyptologist guides, transport, luxury accommodation and some meals.

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