Some trips live up to their billing and many don’t. Few exceed them. This summer, I finally went to Egypt after having heard for years from the most seen-it-all travelers how spectacular it is. I had been meant to go as a child with my family on an Abercrombie & Kent trip in the ‘70s but after attacks on tourists, the trip was cancelled. Then, we planned to bring our own kids a few years ago and cancelled again for the same reasons. Finally, this summer I went, and found it exceeded even my long-fostered expectations.
I admit travel can bring out the nerd in me. I love learning about art, history and current events and for someone who is turned on by knowledge, I cannot think of a destination that offers more layers of culture easily explored than Egypt. After all, Egyptology is a whole field of archaeological study devoted to the country’s history, language, literature, religion and art. Greece, India and China certainly compare, in terms of rich civilizations, but their geography alone makes getting a concentrated grasp much more complicated.
Egypt’s treasures are concentrated between areas near Cairo and up the Nile along the east and west banks between Luxor and Aswan. In addition, there are so many articulate Egyptologists to guide you around the monuments that you are spoon-fed wisdom and discovery day after day. In fact, by the third day of my trip, I had been so bowled over by the magnitude of what I had learned and seen just at Giza and Luxor that I couldn’t imagine that blockbuster sights were still to come. The Valley of the Kings, Queen Hatshepsut’s temple, Philae Temple, do they compare or exceed the impact of walking in the shadows of Karnak Temple or the Pyramids? It is impossible for me to pick which is most extraordinary because complex after complex was truly awe-inspiring. I felt like I was taking a crash course in the greatest hits of monuments, with every visit of grand finale proportions and yet they kept on coming.
The time spent between the sights was memorable too, because traveling down the Nile was mesmerizing. The landscape, where palm trees and greenery along the river’s edge quickly gave way to desert and mountains of sand, had a hauntingly familiar quality that I realized came from the fact that it remains so little changed from the way it must have looked in Biblical times. We passed mud villages and donkeys that evoked memories of the stories that have been passed on for centuries. No wonder, it was mesmerizing. And then after the Nile cruise, I spent a few days in Cairo, which provides an incredible glimpse into the complexities of the modern Middle East, where a tug of war is being waged between modern and traditional Islam. To see the ancient monuments without visiting modern Cairo is like seeing only one side of a coin. My ten-day trip left my head spinning with new insights into ancient history and current events and a sense of renewed wonder at what makes a civilization great and how it disappears. But then Mark Twain expressed more beautifully than I can, the sense of awe that Egypt inspires. He wrote of being in the presence of the Sphinx:
“After years of waiting, it was before me at last. The great face was so sad, so earnest, so longing, so patient. There was a dignity not of earth in its mien, and in its countenance a benignity such as never any thing human wore. It was stone, but it seemed sentient. If ever image of stone thought, it was thinking. It was looking toward the verge of the landscape, yet looking at nothing—nothing but distance and vacancy. It was looking over and beyond every thing of the present, and far into the past. It was gazing out over the ocean of Time—over lines of century-waves which, further and further receding, closed nearer and nearer together, and blended at last into one unbroken tide, away toward the horizon of remote antiquity. It was thinking of the wars of departed ages; of the empires it had seen created and destroyed; of the nations whose birth it had witnessed, whose progress it had watched, whose annihilation it had noted; of the joy and sorrow, the life and death, the grandeur and decay, of five thousand slow revolving years. It was the type of an attribute of man—of a faculty of his heart and brain. It was MEMORY—RETROSPECTION—wrought into visible, tangible form. All who know what pathos there is in memories of days that are accomplished and faces that have vanished—-albeit only a trifling score of years gone by—will have some appreciation of the pathos that dwells in these grave eyes that look so steadfastly back upon the things they knew before History was born—before Tradition had being—things that were, and forms that moved, in a vague era which even Poetry and Romance scarce know of—and passed one by one away and left the stony dreamer solitary in the midst of a strange new age, and uncomprehended scenes.”
Read our Cairo insider’s report
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