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by Larry and Judi Fenson

We exited our cabin on the overnight train from Cairo and hired a carriage to take us to our hotel. The scenes along the way were ones we will not forget. We rode by men wearing long robes (galabayas) and headdresses. Most women were dressed in the traditional loose robes of Islam and covered their heads and part or all of their faces. As we clip clopped along the cobblestone streets, we passed wheeled pushcarts and primitive looking donkey wagons piled high with produce or other goods. We saw "newer" buildings constructed in front of, around, and on top of crumbling mud and stone structures. Calls to prayer emanated from loudspeakers in the minarets, exhorting the faithful. We caught sight of narrow lanes with stands displaying spices, delicately colored glass perfume bottles, alabaster vases, hand-crafted boxes decorated with inlaid mother of pearl, sparkling copper and brass implements and wall plaques, and other enticing handicrafts. We passed small cafes with men smoking exotic-looking hookahs (water pipes). We knew we were near the legendary Valley of the Kings, near Karnak, and near Luxor Temple, and were alert for a glimpse of one of these sites. As we passed by shops we could hear scratchy sounding Egyptian pop music accompanied by braying donkeys and squawking chickens. It was January 1994 in Luxor, Egypt. We had set foot on African soil for the first time three days earlier in Cairo, and we were well into our crash course on Egyptian Independent Tourism 101. Cairo was definitely non-Western but Luxor seemed utterly foreign and exhilarating. We felt as if we had been transported back in time. And in many respects, we had indeed.

We have returned to Egypt many times since, most recently in December, 2012. Remarkably, there has been little apparent change. From the visitor’s viewpoint, Egypt is still about pharaohs, pyramids, camels, mummies, tombs, and the Sahara desert. It was the legacy of the ancients that attracted us to Egypt the first time. We have been drawn back time and again by a continuing attraction to that extraordinary culture and to the Nile upon which that culture as well as modern Egypt is totally dependent. But we are also drawn by contemporary Egyptian culture, which offers many dramatic contrasts with Western societies. And the political upheavals resulting from the Arab Spring have added an important new dynamic, though the outcome remains unpredictable.

The story begins at the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago. In 8000 BC, most of the world's inhabitants were hunter-gatherers. As conditions moderated, the nomads of the Nile Valley began to domesticate local plants and animals in loose-knit communities, working first with stone, then copper implements. Over the next 2000 years, the northern and southern regions emerged as more or less separate entities, sometimes warring with one another. But it was not until King Menes succeeded in unifying the north and the south around 4000 BC that a relatively integrated Egyptian state came into being --probably the first "country" to evolve anywhere in the world. Amazingly, a beautifully carved plaque depicting Menes as a conqueror has survived the past 6000 years and can be seen in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo today.

This state was ruled by a succession of increasingly powerful pharaohs. By 2700 BC, the power and resources of the pharaoh had become so vast that the rulers of the Old Kingdom (2700 to 2180 BC) were able to build some of the greatest structures in all of history--the pyramids. These rulers set the tone for a period of nearly 3000 years during which flourished one of the most extraordinary civilizations the world has ever known.

The ancient Egyptians left a remarkable collection of pyramids, tombs, and temples. We have had the good fortune to see many of the legacies of this civilization, which marked the transition from prehistory to history.

The Great Pyramids are the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the only one that still stands. Urban growth has crept within blocks of these giants. These three structures, no doubt the best-known site in Egypt, were built during the reigns of three pharaohs (father, son, and grandson) during the Old Kingdom between 2550-2450 BC. Khufu's pyramid (the tallest by a mere 8 feet) is about 40 stories high. It remained the highest structure on the planet for nearly 4400 years, until the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1899.

The Great Pyramids were preceded by some earlier structures. The oldest is the Step Pyramid, about 15 miles south of Giza in the important archeological district of Saqqara. The Step Pyramid, the world's oldest, (begun in 2650 BC) and the world’s first large stone structure, stands as one of the single most picturesque sights we have seen in all of Egypt.

Ten miles further south at Dashur are two other fascinating pyramids, the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid, built by King Sneferu (the father of Khufu), beginning around 2610 BC. They are on a military reservation and were off limits to tourists for about 50 years until 1996. Like the Step Pyramid, they truly are in the middle of a desert, the setting in which most people expect to see pyramids and, indeed, the setting in which they should be seen.

The Tombs on the West Bank at Luxor
The ancient Egyptians focused much of their energy around preparations for the afterlife. Enough funerary artifacts have been recovered by archeological expeditions in the past 150 years to fill exhibits in countless museums around the world. The premier site is the ancient capital of Thebes on the West Bank of the Nile, across from the present-day town of Luxor, 415 miles south of Cairo. In this moonscape setting lie the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Each of these sites contains underground tombs where pharaohs and other royalty were buried in elaborate sarcophagi in multi-room structures adorned by beautiful artwork and artifacts thought necessary for the afterlife.

A growing understanding of the representational power of art dramatically changed preparations for the pharaoh’s afterlife. In the pyramid era, the pharaoh’s burial chamber was stocked with food and practical items that a living person would need, and servants were sacrificed to serve the pharaoh after death. Gradually these practices gave way to visual images as a symbolic representation of needed items. Art then assumed a critical function. Depictions of the pharaoh, placed near his burial place, permitted a continuing link between the pharaoh and the living; his “ka” or spirit was believed to travel from his body to these representations to receive the continued supplication of his people. These beliefs account for the high quality of the artwork that can be found in the tombs at Thebes. The need for the ka to have an intact home base explains the practice of mummification.

While most people are generally familiar with pyramids, tombs, and mummies, far fewer seem to know of the many temples built by the Egyptians. These are monumental structures of striking grace and beauty, often in a remarkable state of preservation. What's a temple? The closest structure familiar to most Americans might be the Parthenon in Greece. The temples were constructed to honor key gods and to immortalize the reigning pharaoh. Here's a brief overview of the major Egyptian temples.

Abu Simbel
Incredible beyond words---one of the greatest sights in Egypt. Abu Simbel is the most impressive of the many structures built by Ramses the Great, the most prolific builder of all of the Pharaohs. Ramses II was Pharaoh for 67 years from 1304 to 1237 BC, during the New Kingdom era (1567 to 1085 BC), when pharaonic building reached its zenith. The most spectacular feature of the Abu Simbel complex is the series of four huge statues of Ramses II himself guarding the entrance to the temple. Nearby these four 72 feet high goliath’s, carved out of a single rock face of pink sandstone, is an adjacent temple built for Nefertari, reportedly the Pharaoh's favorite wife

This giant temple complex near Luxor (250 acres) was under continuous expansion by dozens of pharaohs over a 1500 year period beginning around 1900 BC, though the most active period was during the New Kingdom era from 1567 to 1085 BC. A colossal figure of Ramses II dominates one area of the temple. Other areas contain courtyards, chambers, and great halls demarcated by elaborately carved stone colonnades. Near the center of the complex rises the tallest obelisk in Egypt (100 feet), commissioned by Queen Hatshepsut. The sound and light show is very impressive and a “must see.”

Medinet Habu
This beautifully preserved temple is situated on the West Bank of the Nile near the Valley of the Kings. The impressive wall reliefs vividly depict battle scenes and other aspects of Egyptian life. Relatively few tourists visit Medinet Habu for some reason, so there is a serenity about the place. The temple is also notable for the color remaining on some of the columns and walls.

Luxor Temple
Especially appealing at night, this temple dating from about 1380 BC is in the middle of the town of Luxor, along the east bank of the Nile. During her reign, Queen Hatshepsut had the entire distance of 2 miles from Luxor Temple to Karnak connected by a dual row of sphinxes. A small portion of the avenue still remains as you approach Karnak.

Temples at Edfu and Kom Ombo
These beautifully preserved temples are generally visited on Nile cruises. The temple at Edfu honors the falcon God Horus and is reached by horse and carriage. It is perhaps the best preserved of all the temples. Kom Ombo, which homors Sobek, the crocodile God, is generally visited at night and is a very impressive sight when lit up. It is just a short walk from the boat.

Philae is the temple of the Goddess Isis and is dramatically situated on an island a few miles from Aswan. It sits among several very craggy islands and the approach by boat is very dramatic, even a little mysterious.

The Nile runs the length of Egypt (640 miles) flowing from south to north. Hence the southern area around Aswan is called "Upper Egypt" while the northern region around Cairo is called "Lower Egypt." The Nile produces a narrow fertile strip of land that varies from 2 to 8 miles in width. Beyond that is the Libyan Desert to the west and the Arabian Desert to the east, each dotted with an occasional oasis. More than 95% of Egypt's population of 82 million live along the Nile valley and in the adjacent towns and cities, on 5% of the land.

Seeing the Nile
One of the most fascinating features of Egypt is the seemingly unchanging pattern of life along the river. Whether observed from the train or from a river cruise, the scenes must look very much like those of a thousand or two thousand years ago.

By Train
The Wagon-Lits sleeper train between Cairo and Aswan is one of our very favorite experiences in Egypt. (We have ridden it 6 times!) Ramses Station in Cairo is built in the classic style, open at one end to permit the trains to pull in and out. The train generally pulls out of the station on time at 7:30 pm, arriving in Luxor around 5:00 am and its final destination of Aswan between 8:30 and 9:30 in the morning.

On a river boat
Cruise boats continually ply the waters between Luxor and Aswan. Almost all of them have a dining room at water level, a lounge and reception area one floor up. Two upper floors have cabins, topped by an open air sun deck and bar, usually with a small swimming pool.

The continuing views from your cabin are transfixing: the brilliant green fields and graceful date palms framed by steep, chalky, barren hills not far beyond the banks of the river, all kinds of resident and migrating birds, large and small (egrets, ibises, mongooses), mud-brick dwellings, camels and donkey carts piled high with sugar cane, plows pulled by water buffalo, and the ever-present domed mosques and minarets. From time to time, we would hear calls to prayer from the small villages. Galabaya-clad scarecrows could be seen in the fields. Most boats make 2 stops, one to see Kom Ombo Temple, the other at Edfu Temple. Both sites are exceptional.

The Egyptian Museum, like the Vatican, has so many treasures that you see rooms in which precious items that might serve as centerpieces in lesser museums are stacked as in a warehouse. In the Vatican, it is paintings. In the Egyptian Museum, it is mummy cases. There are treasures everywhere, most displayed adequately, but not artistically. The building itself is gorgeous, with columns and marble stairways, but the displays and labeling leave a lot to be desired. A new Egyptian Museum is to be constructed at Giza near the Great Pyramids. Its opening may dictate the timing of our next visit to Egypt but we're not holding our breath. A good description of the Egyptian Museum can be found in any guidebook. We comment here on the two best exhibits.

King Tutankhamun
The tomb of the boy-king Tutankhamun, who assumed the throne at age 9 and ruled until his early death at age 18 (of unknown cause), was discovered by Englishman Howard Carter in 1922. It was the most sensational archeological find of the 20th century. Over 2000 items were found in the tomb. Many are exquisite: they include his throne chair, 4 alabaster canopic jars in which his internal organs were placed, an elaborately-carved gold container holding the canopic jars, and his 3 intricately decorated sarcophagi (outer, middle, and inner), one of solid gold. The centerpiece of the collection is his gold funerary mask. It is the most striking artifact we have ever seen. Most everyone has seen it pictured. To see it in person is an amazing experience. It has an almost supernatural aura.

The Royal Mummies
In the mid-1870s, a large number of New Kingdom pharaonic burial objects began to appear on the European black market. Egyptian antiquities authorities called upon an American student of Egyptology to root out the source. He came to Luxor and put out word that he was willing to pay well for such artifacts. His efforts paid off in the identification of a local family who had been slowly pilfering a burial site they found on the West Bank near Hatshepsut's temple. Further investigation revealed a most remarkable find: a cache of relatively intact mummies of many of the most famous pharaohs of the New Kingdom era including Ramses II, Tuthmosis II, Ramses III, Seti I, and many others. They had been moved from their burial tombs in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens and hidden in a deep chamber around 950 BC, near the end of New Kingdom era. The mummies were loaded onto the deck of a boat and ferried to Cairo, leaving in the middle of the night in what must have been an eerie scene. It is said that while the boat passed by villages along the shore, people wailed and mourned to pay their respects to their ancestors.

The most significant of these mummies are now on display in Cairo in a special exhibit that is tastefully done. Each mummy is encased in an individual temperature and humidity controlled glass case in a dimly lit hushed room. It is a remarkable exhibit as the facial features of the mummies are quite distinct; you can clearly see what Ramses II looked like when he died at the quite advanced age of 92. He and the others were seeking immortality and in a different way than they envisioned, some 3200 years later, they achieved it.

In addition to the King Tut and Royal Mummies exhibits, help yourself to a staggering collection of intricately carved and painted reliefs, statues of gold, alabaster, and limestone, jewelry, and mummies, lots of mummies, of humans, dogs, cats, monkeys, birds, rams, baboons, fish, and crocodiles.

We've highlighted some of the legacies of the ancients that we find most compelling. Beyond these specifics, there remains something about the country that we find so intriguing, so vibrant that it keeps luring us back. It's hard to define what it is.

Yes, there has been vast social change with the overthrow of Mubarak and there is undeniably a new energy and a sense of excitement among the populace – and some dread (e.g., among the Coptic Christians). And it is exciting to talk with Egyptians about their hopes and aspirations and fears. But the allure of Egypt goes well beyond contemporary politics.

We think it has to do with the presence of so many vivid contrasts. We've already commented on the striking juxtaposition of the emerald green banks of the Nile and the barren desert not far beyond. But this drama repeats itself in so many other ways: a rudimentary pushcart and a sleek, modern vehicle side by side; ancient temples and contemporary high-rises visible within the same panorama; traditional souks wedged between gleaming galleries; traditionally dressed men in their long robes chatting amiably with associates in Western style business suits; the enduring beauty and elegance of the ancients contrasted with the superficiality of contemporary pop culture; the disparity between well-to-do tourists or locals and the destitute; a computerized bureau of change adjacent to a bank with accounting procedures straight out of the 1940s; the undeniable organization of the ancient builders contrasted with the clear inefficiency of contemporary Egyptian society. These contrasts may be found anywhere. But somehow, in Egypt they seem magnified. Perhaps because of the pervasiveness of antiquity and tradition, these frames of reference are never far from your mind. In any case, you really do feel as if you're in a different place almost anywhere in Egypt. It's definitely not home and it's certainly not business as usual.