A Few Things Learned in Egypt

The Pyramids, the Sphinx, and a drawing of a Pharaoh wearing a striped headdress—these are iconic images of Egypt that most of us learned to recognize in childhood. I know I did, and, now, after a lifetime, I’ve finally learned something of the reality behind them.

As a case in point, there is the Giza Sphinx: What does it symbolize and why is it located where it is? Its human face is thought by some to the portrait of the Pharaoh Khafre whose tombstone is one of the three pyramids behind it. One can imagine the Sphinx as standing guard over the whole plateau. Although perhaps apocryphal, the story of its genesis is a good one: When the pyramids were built about 4,000 years ago, what is now a statue was then an enormous rock of limestone protruding from the floor of the desert. It couldn’t be moved, so instead it was carved into the figure of the Sphinx, an inspired solution.

Although Giza’s is the largest, it is one of hundreds of other Sphinxes that once adorned the temples of ancient Egypt. The temples of Karnak and Luxor, for example, were linked by a three-and-a-half-mile-long avenue lined with them. Today, that avenue is being rebuilt. When it is finished, it will once again contain 1300 statues of the mysterious figure

Step Pyramid

As for the pyramids, whose idea were they? It started with a pharaoh named Zoser, who reigned from 2667 to 2648 BC. Before him, pharaohs’ tombs were crowned with a Mastaba, a rectangular monument of mud and brick with sloping sides and a flat top that some liken to a bench. It was Pharaoh Zoser in the year 2650 who commissioned his architect Imhotep to extend the idea of the mastaba upwards in six tiers or “steps”, making the first pyramid. What’s more, Imhotep built his pyramid in stone, creating the world’s first stone monument. The Step Pyramid is located within the funerary complex at Saqqara near Aswan in Upper Egypt.

As an aside, thinking about Upper and Lower Egypt can create moments of cognitive dissonance for us. That’s because Upper Egypt lies south of Lower Egypt.

The history of Egypt, along with that of India and China, is one of the longest of any country on the planet. It extends back more than 5,000 years and traditionally begins with the reign of King Narmer, the first Pharaoh to unite Upper and Lower Egypt in about 3100 BC. We’ve learned much of that history from the hieroglyphics carved into the walls of ancient Egypt’s temples and tombs.

Temple of Kom Ombo

As a first-time visitor, I was amazed at the state of preservation of these monuments, some of which are well over 4000 years old. While those of other ancient civilizations have either disappeared entirely or been so degraded that their original state can only be surmised through the use of models and renderings done by archeologists, many of Egypt’s are remarkable for their persistence and the clarity of their reliefs and inscriptions. The Egyptian climate is largely responsible for this. The pharaonic necropolis known as the Valley of the Kings, west of the Nile at Luxor, is a land where it never rains. The aridity of the soil and the fact that the tombs are underground means that the inscriptions, reliefs, and even the colors in some places are preserved in nearly their original state.

Ramses II at Luxor Temple

However, most of the ancient temples, above ground and subject to the depredations of waves of invaders, are not so intact. Yet what remains of them is still remarkable. Of course, most of the treasures that once filled the tombs and graced the temples are gone. Some are in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum while many others were carted away and are to be found in the British Museum, the Louvre, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum, which houses the entire Temple of Dendur in an addition built expressly for it.

The story of that acquisition, told to us by our guide, is that the temple was a gift to the United States from Gamal Nasser for President Eisenhower’s help in resolving the Suez Crisis in Egypt’s favor in 1956. It was Nasser, who after taking power in 1952 and ending the reign of King Farouk, Egypt’s last monarch, had the vision to build the Aswan High Dam, the word’s second largest. When the European Powers refused to lend Egypt the money to build the dam, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, sparking the Suez Crisis, an invasion by Israel, Britain and France to reclaim it.

Temple at Kom Ombo

As with my trip to Iran last year, I shared this year’s Egyptian adventure with friends and acquaintances based in Turkey, Britain, and Canada. The trip lasted nine days, including the flying time from and to Istanbul. Kay chose not to accompany us on this occasion, and her choice not to come was probably a good one, for in my opinion, the travel and touring would have been too rigorous for her. There were early morning departures and days full of walking and climbing.

Five of those days were spent in and around Cairo, split between the beginning and end of the tour, while in the middle we traveled from Aswan to Luxor on the Minerva, a large, luxurious Nile river boat.

The Hanging Church

In Cairo, we toured the Coptic and Islamic quarters and parts of the Egyptian Museum. We visited many temples, tombs, churches, and mosques.

We rode in horse-drawn carriages and . . .

Khan al-Khalili

pushed our way among the shops and through the crowded lanes of Cairo’s medieval Al-Khalifa district, a world unto itself.

In the City of the Dead

On the penultimate day of the tour we walked through the City of the Dead, a cemetery, as its name suggests, but an anomalous one as it contains as many living residents as dead ones. Once again, this phenomenon has an interesting story. In 1967, Israel invaded Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, causing many of its residents to flee to Cairo, which could not accommodate them in a normal fashion. So they settled in the City of the Dead, squatting in the centuries-old mausoleums and building low-rise apartment houses among the grave stones. There they remain today but now with a few shops and small businesses around them.

Overall, Egypt is a poor country, and the residents of the City of the Dead must be some of the poorest of the poor, yet as we walked through their neighborhood, gawking and snapping photos, we were greeted and smiled upon. There was no sign of the hostility and resentment we would meet in similar circumstances in other countries. We felt this was an insight into the Egyptian character.

Although I was often tired and torn between trying to take in what our guides were telling us and my impulse to look around for myself, I have to report that, on balance, I learned a lot during those nine days

The mythological and religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians were rich and elaborate. Their panoply of gods and goddesses were real for them and beautifully depicted in sunken and raised reliefs on the walls of their temples. Judging by what I saw, Isis, Osiris, and their son

Horus were three of the most important deities with the falcon-headed Horus most often seen together with a pharaoh. Amun Ra, originally the local deity of Thebes, the present-day Luxor, became the state god during the historical period known as the New Kingdom. Beside these mythological beings, Egyptians deified creatures from their everyday world. There was Sobek, the crocodile god, who was worshiped for its strength. Along the Nile there is a small museum with a glass enclosure containing about twenty mummified crocodiles.

Egyptian Museum

Although mummification has been used in other societies, it was most widely practiced by the ancient Egyptians, who developed it to a high art. First in line were the pharaohs, whose bodies needed to be preserved for the afterlife. In a ritualistic process that lasted many days, the viscera were removed first and stored in a set of canoptic jars. The brain was removed by drawing it through the nasal passage. All moisture was removed from the body with the use of salt. Finally, the desiccated form was wrapped in linen and placed in a coffin.

Of the animal mummifications introduced to us, the most astonishing was that of the sacred Apis bulls, incarnations of the god Ptah. These mummies were kept in an underground necropolis known as the Serapeum at Saqqara that has been partially excavated and open to visitors. It is huge. Walking along a wide, well lit corridor upon a wooden track, we passed deep niches with enormous sarcophagi, each containing a mummified bull.

Edfu – Temple of Horus

No photo can do justice to some of the sites we visited. They are so large and impressive they have to be seen in person to be appreciated.

Pyramid of Khufu

Even without their vanished outer layer of smooth limestone, the pyramids at Giza are enormous. They are constructed of giant stones, dressed and fitted together. Some of these may weigh as much as twenty tons and were set in place by thousands of men working in unison. The common belief that this was slave labor is not true. These were free men, agricultural workers mostly, who would spend part of the year working on the pyramids. What’s more, they were content to do so, in the belief they were glorifying the pharaoh, their demi-god.

All but four of Egypt’s pharaohs were male. Of the exceptions, the most well known to us is Cleopatra VII, who married Julius Caesar and later Mark Anthony. Cleopatra was a brilliant politician but then so was the much earlier Queen Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC,)

Queen Hatshepsut

who, after the death of her husband, acted as regent for her nephew Tuthmosis III, the young and future king. She ruled in his place as pharaoh for years because she made no wars and set her army to creating wealth that she shared with her people who loved her for it. After her disappearance, Tuthmosis III tried to erase all memory of her, yet her Memorial Temple survived, half buried for the ages by sand and debris.

Memorial Temple of Hatshepsut

Today, it stands restored right at the base of a rugged 300-meter cliff, looking almost modern, as it blends perfectly with the limestone from which it is partly cut. On the temple’s second level are a series of statues of Hatshepsut wearing a false beard and looking like a man.

Solar Boat

Our three tour guides, who led us at different stages, were each well informed but with differing personalities and approaches. Hala, our first, accompanied us to Giza and was convinced above all that we needed to see the Solar Boat, a very large wooden craft that was taken apart and buried in a deep pit 4500 years ago. Its purpose was to convey the soul of the departed pharaoh on his journey to his afterlife. Kudos to the craftsmen who figured out how to assemble and restore this wooden treasure, which is protected in its own museum-like building near the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Again, it is due to the aridity of the soil that its cedar elements were preserved in such good condition.

Our Guide Medhat

Our second guide Medhat, who led us around the sights of Upper Egypt, named our group Ramses and summoned us to action with the cry Yalla, Yalla, meaning, Let’s go. His specialty was telling stories of the ancient myths that he would assign members of the group to act out.

Cairo – The Citadel

Back in Cairo, it was Samir who took us to the enormous Citadel begun in 1176 by Salah Al Din (Saladin) to protect the city against the Crusaders. The Mamluks who followed Saladin’s Ayyubid Dynasty enlarged the fortress, adding palaces and harems. The Ottomans (1517-1798) expanded it again, but it was the ambitious Mohammed Ali who came to power in the 19th century that added the huge mosque that is visible throughout the city.

Mosque of Mohamed Ali

Our first stop in the Citadel was Mohammed Ali’s mosque that, to me, very much resembles the imperial mosques of Istanbul.

From a terrace of the Citadel I looked over the city and noticed two things: The first is that Cairo has hardly any parks or green spaces. This in a city of twenty million. The second is that there seems to be no major new building in progress. I saw none of the construction cranes that are ubiquitous in most cities we visit. Coming from Istanbul where large-scale construction is forever reshaping the city, I found this remarkable.


Ours was a cultural tour. We didn’t come to Egypt to learn about the country’s economy or its politics, and I’m not sure we would have been welcome to do so. Security is a big concern. On our Cairo bus, Samir was accompanied by a quiet man in a suit who was introduced as a policeman, there to monitor our activities.


In any case, there is no need to come to Egypt to learn about the country’s politics. Egypt’s recent history has been well documented by the media. Since my return home. I’ve even read about the new capital the government is constructing thirty miles east of Cairo. I guess it will be much harder there for the country’s youthful have-nots to besiege and protest its leaders. Or, maybe Cairo’s dirt, confusion, and nightmarish traffic are responsible for the initiative.

One doesn’t need much time in Egypt to realize that life is hard for most of the population.

Until recent times, foreign tourism was a source of income for many Egyptians. It’s true that since the repressions that followed the Arab Spring’s 2011 revolution and the rise of mid-east terrorism much of that tourism has ended. The crowds that surrounded us in the churches, museums, and temples seemed to be mostly locals.

Where will Egypt go from here? Unlike other middle-east countries that were artificial creations of the Sykes-Picot Treaty, Egypt has been a nation state for 5,000 years; it is united in ways its Arab neighbors can only dream of. A second fact is that the country has a very young population that, despite the current authoritarian rule, is capable of providing the energy to complete the revolution of 2011. My first-hand experience gives me a special interest and hope for a positive outcome.