Thursday, November 23, 2023

New Year's Eve Inside Egypt's Pyramids

Trip date: December 2022

We arrived at Giza station, having taken the overnight train from Aswan, at 7am on New Year's Eve. It was super quick to get an Uber and, being so early on a Saturday morning, we were at our hotel in the Zamalask area of Cairo in about 15 minutes. 

The hotel very nicely let us check into one of our rooms so that we could freshen up and store our luggage. We had a private guide picking us up at 9am for a full day out in Giza and Saqqara visiting the pyramids; we were all VERY excited!

Our guide, Sherine, came recommended to me by another friend who had just been to Egypt. She picked us up in a very comfortable SUV and told us about the 3 different pyramids as we made the 30 minute drive out of Cairo. We needed to decide if we wanted to buy tickets to visit just the grounds or additional tickets to go inside the Great Pyramid, Khufu's, and/or Khafre's Pyramid (the second largest). 

Walking up to the Great Pyramid is nothing short of awesome. It's unbelievable that these huge structures, built in the early 26th century BC, so putting them at about 4600 years old, are still standing. I've had the opportunity to visit Ġgantija in Malta, which is even older at ~5700 years old, but it's nowhere near this size! This pyramid is the only remaining structure of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and was the tallest built structure for over 4000 years at 481 feet tall. 

It was really surprising to me how HUGE the blocks of limestone and granite are that make up the pyramid. And they are super rough as what is left is just the core, 4600 years ago they would have been covered with polished limestone and gold capstone tops!

Nearby the pyramid are the remains of a temple, a cemetery, and a few very small pyramids that are almost just piles of rubble. There are also boat pits, which had full-sized ships in them, for the pharaohs to travel to the afterlife in.

Most people were taught that the pyramids were built with slave labor, but more modern historians have found that to be false. It is believed that the Great Pyramid was built by about 5,000 paid construction workers and probably around 20,000 more temporary workers. There are cemeteries nearby for the workers who died during the construction.

As we wandered around, we also thought it was quite weird to see Giza, a city of over 8 million people, just in the backyard of these world wonders! And it was incredibly smoggy, you couldn't hardly see it!

Based on Sherine's info and suggestions we had purchased additional tickets to go inside Khafre, the 2nd largest of the pyramids. We had a short queue and noticed that everyone that came out of the pyramid (there is only one way in and out) looked very relieved and very winded!

The entrance was tiny! And as soon as you entered you had to crouch low, as the ceiling was only maybe 3' high, and you are walking down quite a slope. It's also quite narrow so, even though everyone has to exit the same way, you will be squeezing past people as well as crouching low!

It's also hot! After about 10 minutes we came to an area that we could stand up in but just barely (I'm 5'6" and I had about 3" of head room). It was much more comfortable to walk down this corridor but the fact that you are in the middle of a pyramid made me feel like there wasn't much oxygen! 

You then enter the burial chamber which, as with the others, is completely bare and empty. They were all believed to have been robbed sometime between 2081 and 2055 BC. And the pyramids were built before decoration and hieroglyphs became a popular way to adorn the insides of tombs, so there isn't anything on the walls. 

We headed back out, this time having to crouch and climb uphill in the corridor. When we finally got to the exit, we understood exactly why everyone exiting looked relieved and out of breath! We were VERY happy to have done the smaller pyramid as the Great Pyramid takes much longer to climb into. If you have claustrophobia I'd say to give this a pass! But it was a fantastic and incredibly unique experience. 

We headed back to Sherine's car and she drove us to an amazing viewpoint of all 3 of the pyramids where we spent some time taking photos. Incredible!

Then we got back in the car and drove to the Great Sphinx which sits in front of the Pyramid of Khafre and in fact was carved in the pharaoh's likeness.

Sherine didn't feel like walking far to the site so she ended up parking in a load zone in front of the security office! She was pretty funny and seemed to know everyone!

What an amazing statue! 66 feet tall, 241 feet long, and carved from a single limestone block (it has since been restored with multiple blocks), the 4500 year old sculpture is missing parts of its nose, beard and has other damage, but you can still see some of the red paint that originally covered it!

The Great Sphinx has spent much of its life buried under sand and was only fully uncovered in the 1920s. There are lots of unknowns about the sphinx, including who built it and how it lost its nose. It was pretty unreal to be standing so close to it!

And all this before lunch! We made our way back to the car and Sherine maneuvered through the crazy traffic in Giza. It's had to describe the madness of cars, donkeys, people, camels, motorcycles, and bicycles all on the hard packed dirt roads. Sometimes it seems like there is no rule on which side to drive on! Cars and trucks honk to communicate with the others instead of just following rules of the road. It's loud and a bit crazy and we were very happy to have Sherine at the wheel!

We stopped at a very touristy spot for lunch called Alezba Village, but surprisingly all of the food was excellent! When we walked in, there were women displaying how bread is made, there was a playground for kids, and horse rides. 

They brought a little hibachi to our table with grilled chicken and beef. There was a selection of appetizers and veggies, and even beers! 

We continued on the road towards our next stop Saqqara; Egypt's largest archaeological site. This area has been used as a necropolis for over 3500 years. The entire area is a mortuary complex with various temples, tombs, chapels, and of course the Step Pyramid of Djoser.

We entered the enclosure wall, which has a facade of gorgeous polished limestone, hand carved niches, and there would have been towers on either side. There are also a series of false doors which would have been for Djoser to use in the afterlife.

Inside the corridor is lined with more highly polished stone and a series of columns which all lead you to the outside courts. We continued along past the Heb-Sed court, an ancient festival for the king after 30 years of reign that would have taken place after he was dead presumably, and past huge pedestals which once held statues of the king and his family. Many of the buildings we passed are still a mystery to archaeologists. Inside one of the pavillion buildings there is graffiti that is believed to be from the 18th century.

There is also a serdab, a small, enclosed chamber which has a statue of the deceased Djoser. You had to peek through a hole in the wall to see it! Very cool!

The Step Pyramid is the world’s first and oldest pyramid, built over 4,700 years ago! Before pyramids, Egyptian pharaohs were buried in rectangular flat-roofed tombs called mastabas. This pyramid is comprised of 6 of those stacked on each other but no one knows why. 

We had purchased a ticket to enter the pyramid, this one was much easier as you can just walk in upright and the corridor isn't narrow. It is still inside a pyramid however, something to keep in mind if you are claustrophobic!

Once you get to the end, there is a railing that you can look over and see where Djoser's body would have been laid. His body has never been found though, as the tomb had been looted like the rest in the area a long time ago. 

After exiting, we explored the other side of the complex and walked around the South Tomb but didn't go in.

This area is so completely different than the Pyramids of Giza, I'm really glad we visited both! 

That evening, back at the hotel, we played games and drank champagne (that we had packed with us) before having drinks and burgers in the hotel bar. It had been a VERY long and exciting day so we were all pretty exhausted and turned in before midnight. But as I lay in bed reading I could hear fireworks and looked to see them right outside my window! A pretty awesome end to an amazing day!

All photos from Giza and Saqqara here.

Monday, November 13, 2023

48 Hours in Aswan, Egypt

Trip date: December 2022

After departing from our Nile cruise, we were picked up by a private tour guide in Aswan for a day trip to Abu Simbel Temples. It's a long day, about 3 ½ hours of driving each way, and our guide was an hour late and was less than professional so I will not be recommending them, but I do recommend making your way to this fascinating site!

Leaving Aswan we crossed over the High Dam. When it was completed in 1970, it was the highest dam in the world at 364 feet. Its reservoir, when filled, would have submerged the Abu Simbel Temples so they were relocated to location we were driving to. 

About 1/2 way through the Nubian Desert, we stopped at a rest stop of sorts. There were toilettes, coffee, and snacks. As we sat having a drink I looked across the highway and saw a mirage! It was so cool, I have never seen one before! I ran across the road to take a few photos.

When we arrived at the site of the temples, our driver let us out and our guide walked us to the entrance, which is on the west bank of Lake Nasser and 12 miles from the border of Sudan. There's a town with a small airport nearby and that's about it. These massive rock-cut temples are in the middle of nowhere!

Started in 1264 BC, there are two temples; the Great Temple, dedicated to Ramesses II, and the Small Temple, dedicated to his wife Queen Nefertari. The four 66-foot tall statues of Ramesses flank the entrance, smaller statues of his wife and family members are around his feet. 
Inside, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt each have a side dedicated to it. The walls are decorated with scenes of battles, offerings to the gods, and life with his family. As you make your way to the back the rooms get smaller and smaller. It's not a great place if you are claustrophobic! 

Next door is the smaller temple dedicated to Nefetari; the statues on either side of the entrance are of her and Ramesses II.

Inside there are 6 pillars with scenes of the queen and various gods and goddesses. The walls in here are also decorated with scenes of the King's victories, his reign, and of both of them making offerings to the gods. 

Both temples are totally impressive on their own, but then you remember they were moved here to escape being submerged! But even before that, these temples were covered almost entirely by sand, having been forgotten by the now modern locals, until accidently discovered by a researcher in the area to examine another temple in 1813! You won't spend as much time visiting the site as you do travelling to and from it but we all thought it was a really cool outing.

We assumed we would stop for lunch before making the drive back to Aswan, but instead our guide ran into a restaurant and brought us out take out kefta, hummus, pita, etc. Not only is it impossible to eat on a bumpy road through the desert, but the food was awful. Our first bad meal in Egypt!

The road between the two towns actually closes at 6pm, so it was important to make it back by curfew. Luckily that wasn't a problem and we were dropped off at our hotel, Obelisk Hotel before sunset. 

This was a very good, although very basic, hotel for our one-night stay. It's right on the Nile with spectacular views of all the boats. We grabbed seats and drinks on the terrace (they also serve alcohol) and watched the sunset show.

That evening we went out for cocktails at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel. We were excited! This is where Angela Lansbury wrote "Death on the Nile" and is one of the grand dame hotels of Egypt!

The grounds were lavishly decorated for the holidays; fountains, monogrammed lamps, and twinkly lights everywhere. It was so pretty! 

We made our way inside the grand entrance to the busy bar area. Unfortunately here is where things went downhill. Maybe they were understaffed? They definitely were not interested in waiting on us! And when Forest and I finally did get our martinis, they were vermouth only! I explained to the waiter that we ordered gin martinis and watched as the barman added gin to each existing cocktail. No stir or anything. And they were crazy expensive. We left after one. 

We also were told that we were suppose to have paid to be on the grounds! We didn't but just an FYI if you are visiting. 

The next day we arranged for a late check out so we could spend the day relaxing by the pool. After packing we had a late lunch on the terrace of the hotel and then had the hotel grab us a taxi to go to the train station. Watching the driver pile all of our luggage on top of the car was both amusing and concerning! 

We got to the train station about an hour before our overnight train to Cairo which was more than enough time. Pro-tip: all over Egypt people will try to help you with your luggage for tips. It's easy enough to say no thank you, but some are pretty assertive and will actually just start walking away with your luggage!

The cabin manager greeted me as I boarded, took my bag, and lifted it up above the top bunk to the luggage rack. Very nice! Caitlin and I shared a cabin and Forest and Thibault had one next door. Unfortunately they weren't connecting even though there was a connecting available. We opened it up and used it to play some games and drink some wine (that we brought onboard). 

We were served dinner, which was better than the lunch we had eaten in our car the day before, and breakfast at a god awful early time the next day. The cabin manager was really great, fantastic customer service and super friendly!

The train was very old and very dirty, not for the faint of heart! And with middle of the night stops, none of us got much sleep. But it was a very fun experience and when we got off we were in Cairo!

All Aswan/Abu Simbel photos here.

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