Travel notes: Exploring Egypt’s temples and tombs

Riding camels at the Pyramids of Giza.

Egypt had beckoned me for years — the Pyramids of Giza, pharaohs’ tombs in the Valley of the Kings, incredible history going back 6,000 years — and of course, I envisioned myself riding a camel in the desert. Egypt’s antiquities proved as amazing as anticipated, but the camel ride… not so much.

I finally experienced Egypt in late 2022 on a long-awaited tour with Overseas Adventure Travel. My small group of 15 traveled from the capital of Cairo to Abu Simbel, just 12 miles north of the Sudan border. Egypt’s peoples and cultures have always been situated mainly along this fertile stretch bordering the Nile River.

In Cairo’s National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.

Cairo is an overwhelming city: Its metro area now stretches to within view of the Pyramids of Giza. Its 2022 population: nearly 22 million people. Traffic congestion makes getting around difficult, whether by vehicle or on foot. However, Cairo’s National Museum of Egyptian Civilization is a must-see as preparation for the temples, tombs and historic sites in the rest of the country.

The new Grand Egyptian Museum will open in 2023 to expand such exhibits of Egypt’s history. Located near the Pyramids of Giza, it will showcase more than 100,000 artifacts, including the entire treasure from the tomb of the “boy king” Tutankhamun.

Great Pyramid of Khafre and the Sphinx.

The Pyramids of Giza were built as tombs for pharaohs of Egypt’s Old Kingdom (2700 – 2200 BC). Three principal pyramids dominate the skyline: the Great Pyramid Khufu (originally 481 feet high, also called Cheops); Khafre (471 feet); and Menkaure (213 feet). Adjacent are the iconic Sphinx and smaller tombs.

The Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years. It was the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – and the only one to remain largely intact. Much of its limestone covering and cap was removed over the centuries, reducing its height to the present 454 feet.

Here at the pyramids, tourists like me can fulfill their camel-riding inclinations. However, Egyptian desert is not smooth sand dunes. I found myself hanging onto the saddle pommel for dear life as my camel jolted along rocky, slightly hilly terrain. And staying in the saddle when the camel got up or down was another distinct challenge. Ironically, my lower spine later felt like it had had a chiropractic adjustment – for the better!

Tuk-Tuks on Fares Island.
Eating lunch with a farming family on Besaw Island.
Watching a crate maker chop palm fronds to assemble crates like the ones behind him (used for everything from mangoes to live chickens).

Camels were just one memorable “transportation” experience. My group enjoyed a wonderful six-day Nile cruise on a small river yacht from Luxor to Aswan. We went ashore to explore via horse-drawn buggies, three-wheeled tuk-tuks and pick-up trucks. In small villages, we lunched with a local farming family, watched craftsmen at work, and saw camels bought and sold at a lively camel market.

The pyramid-building age ended with the New Kingdom (1550 – 1069 BC) when pharaohs shifted their royal burials to the Valley of the Kings, west of Luxor. Pyramid tombs had been looted, so here tombs were cut into the valley’s rock walls to hide them.

Valley of the Kings overview.
King Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus.

For nearly 500 years, pharaohs and their queens, high priests and nobles were buried in the Valley of the Kings. Most of the 63 tombs discovered to date had been looted, however… except that of King Tutankhamun. It is an experience to enter Tut’s tomb, but only his sarcophagus remains there – all his treasures are in the museum.

Several other royal tombs are also open to visitors. We explored the tombs of four kings named Ramses: III, IV, V and IX. Sloping corridors lead down into the burial tombs. Intricate, painted wall carvings honor each king to ensure his passage into the afterlife; many are still remarkably vivid.

Painted wall carvings in Ramses IV tomb.

Egypt’s kings built magnificent temples as well as tombs. Often these temples were constructed over hundreds of years; numerous kings expanded them to make their mark in history. Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple are two of the most famous in today’s city of Luxor, historically known as Thebes.

Ancient Egyptians believed creation began at the site of Karnak Temple, connecting them to the sun god Amun-Ra. This dramatic temple complex covers more than 200 acres. The Avenue of the Sphinxes links it to the impressive Luxor Temple, one of the best-preserved, ancient Egyptian monuments. Luxor Temple is still used as a place of worship today.

Karnak Temple
Luxor Temple at twilight.

My tour visited many other impressive sites. Esna’s Temple of Khnum had the best-preserved artwork on soaring, 39-foot-tall columns supporting its stone roof. The Temple of Horus in Edfu was dedicated to the falcon god Horus, while the Temple of Kom Ombo was unique for honoring two deities: falcon god Horus and crocodile god Sobek. Adjacent is a small museum of mummified crocodiles.

Abu Simbel – Ramses II Great Temple. The entrance features four, 66-foot-high statues of Ramses II.

Two temple complexes were saved by monumental UNESCO efforts before the Aswan High Dam opened in 1970; it flooded an enormous area and created Lake Nasser. In Abu Simbel, the Ramses II Temple complex – with its four, 66-foot-high statues of Ramses – was disassembled into 16,000 blocks and moved over 200 feet to higher ground. Near Aswan, the Temple of Philae complex was cut into 48,000 pieces and reassembled on Elephantine Island. Both the Philae and Ramses complexes are UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1979.

There is so much more to see in Egypt. The temples, tombs and antiquities visited only intrigued me to want to experience more of this ancient land.

Learn more at here and here.

— By Julie Gangler

Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.

 

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