Saturday, May 3, 2008

GRAND TOUR OF EGYPT #1 - Cairo, Giza, Alexandria

We booked a 12-day Grand Tour of Egypt with Globus, with the tour highlights described as follows:

"Sail through five thousand years of history on this 12-day Cruise & Tour vacation. After guided sightseeing in Cairo, you’ll visit the Sphinx, the Great Pyramids, and the seaport of Alexandria. Next travel to Memphis to admire the 40-foot statue of Ramses II and the Alabaster Sphinx before flying to Luxor. There you’ll board the elegant Oberoi hotel boat for a three-night cruise on the legendary Nile River. Sightseeing includes the stunning monuments of Karnak, the Valley of Kings and Valley of Queens, Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple, and the Temple of Horus in Edfu by way of horse-drawn carriage. Sail to Aswan where you’ll see the turn-of-the-century Old Dam, take a boat to the Temple of Isis, and enjoy a felucca ride across the blue waters of the Nile."

We added a couple of tours to Old Cairo and a plane trip to Abu Simbel with the gigantic temples of Ramses II and his favorite queen, Nefertari.

The package tour was satisfying, and I might add that it was necessary because of the scope of the places covered, the language difference, and yes, there was a degree of tension in this Arabic country. The State and tour agency assigned armed guards for our group of 30 as we rode buses, airplanes, tramped around in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, and Abu Simbel. Tourism ranks number three in generating income to Egypt, and the country does its best to protect its tourists.

While in Cairo we stayed in the Mena House Oberoi Hotel, which is at the foot of the Great Pyramids of Giza. We could see the Cheops Pyramid from our balcony, a scene which was breathtaking at sunrise. The Mena House had been someone's palace, and though converted into an hotel with additional rooms, it maintains a sense of old grandeur. A lot of five-star glitz in the reception room, rooms were impeccable, and restaurant food was fine.

We had a slight mishap because our luggage was lost, that is they didn't arrive with us because of a quick change of plane in Chicago. Because I had foolishily stuck my camera in my suitcase, I had no pictures of the Pyramids at Giza except for the solitary one I took from our balcony. I hate losing my suitcase! This has happened three times before; they always turn up, but in the meantime you are left with a sinking feeling of what-if-the-bag-really-is-lost, and it's impossible to enjoy the tour. Our tour director had to nag Lufthansa personnel for the bags, and late the next night the suitcases did show up, although my husband had a couple of things missing from his bag. Someone must have taken a fancy to his little flashlight and a tool-gadget that turned into scissors, screw driver, etc - a tool he's enjoyed in trips because we did use that thing for something or other.

But, on with the trip: Day 2 - The three Pyramids of Giza, which are the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops), The Pyramid of Kafhre and the smaller Pyramid of Menkaura, and the Sphinx, were built around 5,000 years ago (Old Kingdom). They housed the mummies of pharaohs - giant mausaleums, if you will, using up millions of huge blocks of stone. The Pyramid of Cheops alone has over 2 million blocks of stone, and each stone weighs 2.5 tons! How these ancient people moved these enormous stones around was always a question in my mind. There were two engineers in our group and I saw them puzzling over this same question as well, especially when we saw other larger temples, obelisks, and statues - simply awesome in size.

We visited the Cairo Museum, which is crammed with so much stuff - Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom - we had to skim through most of it. At night we saw the Light and Sound show of the Great Pyramids of Giza, and while it was nice to ponder on the Pyramids and Sphinx during sunset the show itself was corny. A Basil Rathbone voice boomed in the most affected way about the history of the pyramids - for example, "I have seen Cleopatra and Mark Anthony standing before me, and Napoleon as well, etc." So if you're in Giza, skip this one.

The next day we took a trip to Alexandria, a seaport city. Once out of Cairo and its notorious traffic, we started to see desert land, portions of which looked like the Sahara, although some parts looked like Palm Springs. In Alexandria we visited the Catacombs of Komel-Shokafa, which had Roman influence. A circular pathway spiraled down to the catacombs, and there were the funerary spaces and mourning areas. What stands out in my mind is the huge space for the dead horses (someone's favorites) also buried in the catacombs. We had to note the capitals of the columns, now showing Greco-Roman influence in the leaves, no longer Egypt's lotus flower.

Alexander the Great, who took Egypt from the Persians and added it to the Greek Empire, had gone through Alexandria, lending the place his name. He assigned one of his Generals, Ptolemy, to run the place which he did. When Alexander died and his generals split up Alexander's huge empire, Ptolemy kept Egpyt. The last Ptolemy was Cleopatra who did her best to keep her empire, but lost to the Romans. Here's a site with more information about Cleopatra.We also visited the National Musem of Alexandria, which used to be the American Embassy. It's a small museum, but nicely laid out.

In Alexandria, we also saw the 30-meter Pompeii Column, made of pink granite from distant Aswan. This was built by the Alexandrians as a gift to Emperor Diocletian, in thanksgiving for not slaughtering them following a rebellion.

In addition to the temples and pyramids, I would have wanted to see early Christian sites. Except for a couple of churches in Old Cairo, our tour group didn't visit Christian sites. Driving away from Alexandria, I hankered to see the Monastery of St. Catherine which was somewhere in the Sinai. I kept thinking of the Holy Family's escape to Egypt, and how they had sought shelter in various places. Many of these places now have churches to commemorate their stay. But perhaps I have to go on a Catholic pilgrimage to see these sites.

All for now, dear Readers. You will note it is 5 in the morning - yes, jet lag!
 Read also Grand Tour of Egypt #2
and Grand Tour of Egypt #3

tags: travel, Egypt, Cecilia Brainard

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