Egypt offers a visual potpourri of high energy and ancient mystery — from chaotic Cairo to the silent temples and tombs near Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. We explore pharaohs' pyramids at Giza and gold treasures at Cairo's National Museum. Each stop on the route — including a trip down the Nile — leaves an unforgettable imprint.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, taking a break from researching my guidebooks to be your travel partner as we explore the highlights of Egypt. Thanks for joining us.
This time we're leaving Europe to explore Egypt. In Cairo we'll climb through the ancient pyramids and swing through what feels like an urban jungle. After riding a camel, we'll go high-brow and see some ancient Egyptian art. Then we'll head up the Nile to see rural Egypt. And finally in Luxor, we'll climb through temples at Karnak and tombs of the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings.
In the southeast corner of the Mediterranean Egypt is one of Africa's largest countries. From sprawling Cairo we travel up the Nile to Luxor and then into the ancient Valley of the Kings.
We're starting with Egypt's ultimate sight — the Pyramids of Giza. 4500 years ago you could "take it with you." Or at least that's what the pharaohs thought. They spent a good part of their lives and their kingdom's wealth building huge pyramids which served as lockers for whatever they wanted to take into the afterlife...their bodies, their treasures and even their favorite people. Woe to the guy who does the pharaoh's hair.
The Pyramid of the Pharaoh Cheops is the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This grandest of all pyramids takes up 13 acres of land. The neighboring pyramids are those of Cheops' son and grandson.
No one knows exactly how these were built. Experts figure that 100,000 laborers spent 20 years building the pyramid of Cheops. According to my abacus, that's two million man years of hard labor.
Workers dragged over 2 million huge stones up ramps eventually constructing this 450-foot-high monument. In their day the pyramids were encased in a shiny limestone veneer. I hope Cheops was satisfied.
Long corridors lead to the tomb chamber. Originally, these tunnels were blocked by sliding stones — to keep grave robbers out. Grave robbing must have been hard work.
This is it...the center of this massive pyramid. The pharaoh's mummy was put in this stone sarcophagus. This entire room was filled with treasures.
Clever little shafts provided a secret passageway for the soul of the king.
The Egyptian king or "Pharaoh" was considered a living god or at least an all-powerful middleman connecting god's power with the people of Egypt. In life, kings were worshipped as gods and through their pyramids this devotion continued after they died.
Completing the scene, the mysterious Sphinx, as old as the pyramids — it was carved out of a piece of hard rock that stuck above the limestone plateau.
Early each morning the camel gang rides to work. With the start of the tourist day, camel business booms. Tourists love a romp on a camel and the locals know it.
Not driving much of bargain, I'm buying a camel ride for the cost of a taxi ride — about what this man might make in an entire day out in the fields.
Take me to the Nile. Yeh. Take me to the Nile.
Modern Cairo hits you like a cultural blast furnace. While a visit here is intense, well-prepared travelers survive and even enjoy their visit.
The cool months — October through April — are peak season. During this time, it's wise to make hotel reservations in advance. We're here in early May. Tourist crowds are down as Egypt heats up.
You'll have your choice of hotels — from five-star to humble. This fascinating, crowded, and challenging city really seems to call for a hide-away in a comfortable and secure place — like the Hotel Windsor.
Rick: Room 47, please. You know, tomorrow we go to Luxor on the train. To take the taxi, how long.
Clerk: It's from five to ten minutes.
Rick: OK, thank you.
Clerk: You're welcome, sir.
Rick: Merhaba! Do you speak English?
Elevator operator: Up and down.
Rick: Up and down. 47.
I like a few comforts . . . like an elevator. In this case, a little rickety, but it's certainly a classic. And to beat the heat, I'm looking for some air-conditioning, a convenient central location and a refuge from the streets.
The vintage elevator is a remnant of the hotel's more glamorous past. While the rooms are a little sparse now, I like to imagine that Egyptologists of the 20's rested up here after a hard day excavating a pharaoh's tomb.
And it's fun to unwind in the Windsor's bar, the British Officers' Club back when Britain dominated things around here. The officers and colonial times are gone; but the nostalgic atmosphere recalls an era of gin and tonics and stiff upper lips — when the sun never set on the British Empire.
Greater Cairo is home to roughly 16 million people. That's about a quarter of all Egyptians. Its Moslem believers worship at over a thousand mosques — the grandest is the Mohammed Ali Mosque.
Built in 1830 within the walls of a 12th century fortress, it dominates the skyline of old Cairo.
Cairo's a fascinating clash between traditional and modern, east and west. It's busting at the seams, pulsing with energy, and more than a little chaotic. Cotton khakis and cars coexist with kaftans and donkey carts. Here's where Coca Cola meets babaganosh
In a city like this, you don't need museums. The streets are living museums. You can wander for days. But always grab a card from your hotel with the name and address in Arabic. Getting home can be tricky. And on the streets of Cairo, bread crumbs just won't work.
With the hotel's card, no matter how lost I get, home is just a quick taxi ride away.
Khan al-Khalili is the megamall of medieval bazaars. Six hundred years ago it was a caravanserai — a stop on a medieval caravan trade route. Five-hundred years ago, when the Ottoman Turks took Egypt, it became a bustling Turkish bazaar.
Like a western department store, bazaars are divided into sections, or souqs. Souq al-Attarin is a fragrant and colorful spice bazaar.
Bargaining is expected here, and it should be fun. Here's where you take your time, show some humor; see it as a game. Never feel sorry for — or obligated to — the merchant. If you see something you like, determine its value to you before being influenced by the inflated asking price. And offer only what you're willing to pay.
The local hangout here is a traditional old teahouse. Tourists call this a hubbly-bubbly...for locals, it's a sheeshaw.
The tobacco is apple-flavored. My Egyptian friend insisted cigarettes are bad for you, but this is no problem. Hmmm. Tourist women are welcome to puff, but for Egyptians, it's a men-only pastime.
In Europe I usually hop a subway or bus, but with Cairo's confusion and low prices, I taxi. With the windows down and the radio up, we're immersed in Old Cairo.
We agreed on a price for a 30 minute city tour finishing at the National Museum.
Cairo's National Museum shows off the best collection of ancient Egyptian art anywhere. A visit here helps to resurrect all those ruins. Art from the age of the pharaohs dates from about 3000 to 1000 BC.
This ancient art is well-preserved because of the dry climate and because most of it was hidden away in tombs. Remember, Egyptian art is funerary art...art for dead people. What we see is mostly from decorated tombs — locked away in darkness until discovered in modern times. It was art to satisfy the Pharaoh's soul, which survived only if his body did. That's why they preserved the bodies through an elaborate process of mummification.
Egyptian art looks pretty much the same from century to century. The remarkable thing about ancient Egyptian art and society as a whole was its stability. For two thousand years very little changed.
Religion permeated Egyptian society. As long as things were going reasonably well, the gods were happy — status quo. Every year the Nile would flood, bringing water and fertile silt to the land. When the gods were happy, the people had food — and you don't change things.
And the Pharaoh was considered a god. If your leader is a god, you vote for him again. You obey the rules. You don't even jaywalk; Status quo.
Aknahtan was the one exception in a 2000 year bunny-hop of conformist pharaohs. Ruling in around 1400 BC, he was history's first monotheist. He rolled all the gods of the Egyptian pantheon into one all-powerful being, the sun god, which he called Aten.
In this relief from the reign of Aknahtan we see Aten — the sun — shining down on everything. During the time of Aknahtan, people were no longer portrayed as if they were just run over by a pyramid.
Children sit playfully on the laps of the king and queen...believable bodies, curvy bellies, voluptuous lips. This must be from the time of Aknahtan.
The overnight train ride from Cairo to Luxor is posh with great Nile views. Sleeping cars are air-conditioned and provide comfortable two-bed compartments with meals, a wash basin and fresh linen.
The overnight train from Cairo arrives in Luxor very early. Since it's probably too early to check in, drop your bag at the hotel and hop a horse carriage for the temples at Karnak. Smart sightseers get the most out of these cool and comfortable early hours.
It's been said, "The summer heat can melt car tires to the asphalt." I don't know about that, but it can be unbearable and dangerous after noon. Limit your sightseeing day to the hours between sunrise and noon. In the crisp early morning, the big tour groups are still sleeping...and so are the hustlers they attract.
Luxor temple is right in the middle of town. It's a remnant of the 4000-year-old city of Thebes. Today, Luxor is a small-town-package offering some major monuments as well as a look at everyday life in central Egypt.
This two mile long avenue of much-abused sphinxes connected the Temple of Luxor with the Temples of Karnak.
Karnak is a sprawling complex of temples. Back when Thebes was the capital, this was the most important place of worship in all Egypt. It was called the "most perfect of places." The great court is the largest single area of the complex.
Things get older and crescendo in religious importance as we wander further into the complex. It was built over a period of 1500 years.
The great Hypostyle Hall alone — with its forest of columns — is bigger than most cathedrals. These temples were not places of public worship but sites of sacred mysteries . . . where priests and pharaohs pow-wowed privately with the gods.
The columns supported a stone ceiling. You can measure the architectural sophistication of a society by the distance it can span between columns. This was four thousand years ago — the columns were close together . . . and fat.
Pharaohs erected obelisks which symbolically connected earth with the god. Pillars symbolizing a united Egypt — papyrus for Lower Egypt and lotus for Upper Egypt — mark the entrance to the very heart of the temple complex — the Holy of Holies.
This was the most sacred spot in all Egypt. On this pedestal sat a statue of the top god, Amen Ra.
While most sightseers opt for the modern tourist ferry, this morning we're riding deck class with the local commuters. It's rush hour for tourists and locals alike. These people are heading to work. And we're heading out to the Valley of the Kings and the ancient tombs.
Egypt has long been called "the gift of the Nile." The Nile Valley is a lush green ribbon cutting north and south through the desert.
To the ancient Egyptians, it seemed logical to live on the East Bank, where the sun rises, and bury your dead on the West Bank, where the sun dies each evening.
So we cross to the West Bank to find the tombs of the pharaohs. And here come the tourists. While most follow their guides to waiting buses for a tour of the tombs and temples, independent travelers have some interesting transportation options.
A taxi is the quickest and most comfortable way to see the sights. When split between a small group, a taxi for the "day" — that's 6am to noon — can be a great deal. Buddy up with travelers from your hotel and assemble a mini tour. And rented bikes work for the hardy. With today's clouds and breeze, this is not a bad option.
In one long morning, you can cover the essential West Bank sights. Here, under a huge natural pyramid, is the Valley of the Kings — where mummified pharaohs await the eternity express.
As we learned at Giza, pyramids were a forerunner of baggage insurance. Ironically, rather than protect the tombs, the pyramids actually attracted thieves. Again and again, grave robbers found ways to break in and loot the royal tombs. Pharaohs were waking up in heaven with absolutely nothing.
By about 1500 BC, pharaohs stopped building pyramids and began hiding their tombs. Mounted guards patrolled the valley. These tombs were safer than pyramids. While around 60 tombs have been excavated, no one knows how many have yet to be discovered.
This is the tomb of King Tutankhamen — Tut to his friends. Tutankhamen became king at age fourteen, but he was probably a figurehead. The country was evidently run by a civil servant and an army general. Poor Tut only lasted nine years, but he's the household-word-pharaoh because his tomb was discovered — in 1922 — with all its treasures intact.
While the walls of his burial chamber are the originals the contents of the tomb are now the main attraction at the National Museum back in Cairo.
Apparently, Tut was partial to gold — and he didn't skimp on furnishing his tomb. Even his chair was gold. His mask is almost 10 pounds of solid gold, inlaid with lapis lazuli. Tut's mummy was discovered in this first class coffin, and he headed into eternity laden with intricate jewelry.
While the royal tombs were hidden deep in the mountains, their high-profile mortuary temples were built out in the open, near the river, so the dead pharaoh could be remembered and worshipped.
This is the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut — the first woman pharaoh. In its day, Queen Hatshepsut's monument would have been splendid, surrounded by gardens and approached by a grand sphinx-lined lane.
Hatshepsut claimed a divine birth and declared herself "king." Determined to assert her authority, she even dressed as a male ruler. Statues show her wearing a beard — a symbol of royalty.
Her successor did what he could to wipe out her image and name, but history's first female "king" is remembered for a 20 year reign of general peace and stability.
Guide talking: Those different soldiers of the ancient Egyptian army who are carrying in their hands the different kinds of weapons...they are still carrying, also, the symbol of peace — that olive branch which you can see in their hand. And if you look carefully you will find the olive branch is always in the left hand. So it's the side of the heart, huh. Peace first, and then war or fighting — like the weapons you see that side.
After touring the ancient sites of the West Bank, I'm ready for a look at rural Egypt. A ten-minute pedal beyond the famous sights takes me into a timeless Egypt untouched by tourism. Over 90 percent of Egypt's 65 million people live along the banks of the Nile. Nearly half of them lead traditional rural lives.
While the flooding of the Nile has been harnessed by a dam and irrigation is now controlled by engineers rather than gods, the Nile remains the life blood of the economy.
Today's life along the Nile seems to have changed little since the days of the pharaohs.
A little poking around shows a simple but busy village economy.
Children bring home a salad for the family water buffalo. Wheat from the village fields is still harvested by hand...The grain is processed into flour in the village's low tech, but efficient, little mill.
Old fashioned stone grinding like this keeps it tasty and nutritious. And from here, it's straight to the family bread ovens.
Getting off the trampled path into a small village like this can pry open our home-town blinders.
Our neighborhood may be bigger than we think, and travel is a fine way to meet the neighbors.
As the Nile breeze fills the sails of our felucca, we'll ponder that thought and the remarkable 5000-year history of these people.
Egyptian boatmen have been sailing this timeless river since before the Pharaohs. Lounging like Ramses or Cleopatra in our private felucca is a cool and scenic way to end the day, start the night, and wrap up our visit.
Thanks for traveling with us. I hope you've enjoyed our quick look at Egypt — from ancient and monumental to its bustling bazaars and fertile fields. I'm Rick Steves wishing you happy travels. Ma salama.