Egypt was, without a doubt, the most interesting country I’ve ever visited. Between the filth, the danger factor, and the sight of the pyramids, three days in the northeastern most African nation were a whirlwind from the moment we stepped foot across the border. What follows is my best attempt to capture every emotion experienced from start to finish. I hope you enjoy!
As soon as we entered, we were greeted by a middle-aged man named Magdy who escorted us through the entry process which included exchanging our money into Egyptian Pounds, getting our passports stamped, and paying border taxes (approx. $30 USD per person). When we arrived at the tour van, we met two additional travelers with us: the driver and our own personal security guard. The first day involved a 10 hour drive around the Sinai desert peninsula.
Magdy explained to us that since the road that cuts through the center of the desert (near the spot Moses received the 10 Commandments from the burning bush) wasn’t secured by the army, we’d be taking the long way around using the secured road. Apparently, the authorities were notified in advance that a pair of American tourists would be traveling the Sinai peninsula so the tour company brought ample copies of the paperwork – complete with an affixed seal from their Ministry of Tourism.
It was a good thing they came prepared because every 20-30 kilometers, we were stopped at a security checkpoint. Each one featured a machine gun turret behind a wall of sandbags, armed guards checking our passports as well as the driver’s credentials, and blockades along the road so that we had to slowly swerve between the obstacles. On one occasion, we stopped and waited over 45 minutes for a police escort only to have the bright blue pickup truck (with more machine guns) that eventually arrived, drive behind us for a few hundred meters and then pull off again. We were left alone for most of the trip.
For the duration of our journey, the Red Sea could be seen outside the left window. We drove south from the Taba border until we reached a resort city right near the tip called Sharm El Sheikh and then back up the western coast until we reached the Suez, at which point we passed – through massively heavy traffic – into the African mainland for an additional 2 hour drive to the capital city of Cairo (see map above).
I can tell you, in all honesty, that day was the scariest of my life. My imagination ran away with me since anything could happen at any moment. Recently, a tour bus full of South Korean Christians was attacked by a jihadist group. Since then, the Egyptian government has closed the Taba border and the roads on the Sinai. I’m so glad we got in before any of that happened (and even more glad we weren’t attacked – as I’m sure my readers are)! Thankfully, once we were safely inside the hotel in Cairo, everything felt different and we were able to relax and enjoy the next two days.
Day one was mostly uneventful, although we spent a few hours in the National Egyptian Museum where we saw many of the treasures from King Tut’s tomb. The rest of the day was a wash, but what I’d like to draw your attention to has little to do with the sites and more to do with the city itself. Without a doubt, it was the most disgusting place I’ve ever been (and I’ve been to Cambodia and lived in Turkiye).
The sides of all the buildings were caked in a brownish dust that had accumulated over decades. The air was thick with a sandy haze that the population inhaled daily. The roads were so congested they made North Jersey roads look like empty parking lots. The streets and intersections didn’t have any lanes or traffic lights and as a result, drivers did whatever they wanted to do whenever they wanted to do it. In fact our own van was involved in minor fender-benders on two separate occasions!
In addition to the dirty and awful traffic conditions, the people (other than those employed by the tourism industry) were extremely aggressive. I’m not sure if the rest of North Africa is the same, but because of the way people approached us and spoke to one another, I worried about being accosted. The vendors were in a league of their own. If you even so much as acknowledge anyone trying to sell you something, they don’t leave you alone. They’ll follow you around like a lost puppy dog hoping for some table scraps. Interestingly enough, those who sell rides on horses, donkeys, and camels offer them for FREE only to turn around and charge you simply to get OFF their animal!
In between stops, we passed by the Nile a few times and were educated in a bit of river history. Until the government built a dam in 1971, the Nile would flood from the city center to the Pyramids! Because 93% of Egypt’s land is desert, people needed places to develop housing and the dam created extra land for people to live on. This is the major reason internet reviews read so disappointingly. Nobody wants to the nasty Cairo skyline to tarnish their pyramid photos.
Personally, I didn’t feel the city encroached on the UNESCO site much. Sure, some building could be seen from the distance, but they were far enough away to avoid stealing any of Giza‘s majesty. At any rate, if you happen to catch a glimpse of a Great Pyramid photo that makes them look like they’re in the middle of the desert, it was taken prior to 1971.
Day two was the highlight of Egypt and one of the highlights of my entire life. We visited a series of pyramids starting with the very oldest and ending with the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. We even descended inside one! Upon entering a pyramid, we learned that the valuables had been stolen as early as 900 BC. By the time the tombs were discovered in the 1800s, they’d been empty almost 2,000 years! The treasure hunters didn’t have a prayer of getting rich.
The pharaohs wanted to bring all their worldly possessions to the afterlife, but they couldn’t build their tombs without help. The ancient kings of Egypt employed thousands of workers to accomplish this gargantuan goal (and I use the term ’employed’ in its loosest interpretation). The men who designed the tombs – who weren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination – made maps of the floor plans, keeping them hidden from the Pharaoh.
Eventually, when they grew older and were about to die, they passed this very unique document to their son, who intern, did the same. For generations, the ancestors of the pyramid builders passed the treasure map from father to son until finally, the builder’s great-great grandson took an expedition and robbed the riches from the tombs… severance pay for 20 years of labor. If the pharaohs ever arrived in the afterlife, they would’ve been angry as hell for eternity without their jewelry, spices, clothes, and furniture!
Since all the tombs were discovered already having been emptied, how did Tutankhamen, with all his wealth, outlast the raiders? The answer is that King Tut was a very young and sickly ruler. He died in his teens and the pharaohs who followed didn’t like him. They felt he didn’t do anything worth remembering. So, in an effort to erase Tut’s memory from existence, they built their tombs on top of his, thereby obscuring it from anyone looking around. When the pyramids were razed, the robbers didn’t even find the entrance to Tut’s burial chamber!
The Great Pyramids are amazing. I’m not sure what else to say as words and pictures will never compare to the feeling of standing in Giza, in person and looking out over them, standing on them, and marveling at the wonder in their construction. It’s actually a shame their purpose was nothing more than housing dead corpses.
In the year 2000, I visited Chichen Itza in Mexico. Those step-style pyramids are fantastic sites as well (I really enjoyed the story about how they were built in relation to the position of the sun on the equinox); however, the largest of the Great Pyramids is over 150 meters high! Standing in their shadow made me realize how small we are. Each individual block weighs at least 2 tons! Can you imagine having to help stack them on top of one another? Good thing the Nile used to flood that far for a few months every year.
The Sphinx, contrary to common knowledge, is nothing more than a statue. It was carved from a solid block of limestone on orders from the Pharaoh Khafra. All sphinxes, including the Great Sphinx of Giza, illustrate the face of a man on the body of lion. This combination is said to symbolize the combination of wisdom and strength that all leaders in Egypt possessed. Before arriving, I thought there was more to the sphinx than that; still, it is a very impressive location to visit.
Our visit ended with a painful bout with Pharaoh’s Revenge – aka Egyptian Tummy Bug, aka Delhi Belly, aka Traveler’s Diarrhea. For lunch on our final day in Egypt, we ate some falafel from a street vendor. Apparently, the pita bread used was baked with water tainted with the third world bacteria that my system isn’t used to at all. I spent the first three days at home hobbling between the bed and the toilet. Thankfully, it only took a few days to get over and I’m back to normal. Jen ate the same falafel, but don’t ask me how she was able to avoid the tummy bug.
Everyone should visit Egypt once in their lives – and probably only once because I doubt I’ll ever go back of my own volition. With any luck, the political situation there will improve so foreigners will again feel comfortable taking a trip to this Wonder of the Ancient World!
Until Next Time…