Egypt: Yesterday and Today
In this hour-long special, Rick Steves explores the historic and cultural wonders of Egypt. In Cairo, we climb into a pyramid, greet the Sphinx, and marvel at King Tut’s gold. In Alexandria, we wander back lanes and stroll a Mediterranean promenade. In Luxor, we revel in the pharaohs' temples and hidden tombs. And after a timeless cruise on the Nile, we finish at the temple ruins of Abu Simbel.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, sailing beyond Europe this time. We're on the Nile, exploring the historic and cultural wonders of Egypt. Thanks for joining us.
Egypt — while not in Europe — contributed to the foundation of Western civilization. It's a crossroads where east meets west, north meets south, and where ancient meets modern. As we'll see, it's a long story and it continues to unfold.
In Cairo, after admiring one of the great sights of the ancient world, we marvel at King Tut's gold. We haggle with a gauntlet of eager merchants, venture into the back streets local-style, and help chisel a tombstone. In Alexandria, we delve into a vibrant market and smoke a shisha. In Luxor, we revel in the glory of the pharaohs' temples and their hidden tombs. We hoist the sail for an unforgettable felucca ride. Then, upgrade to a river boat cruise, and kick back while enjoying timeless Nile views. Our finale? The magnificent ruins of Abu Simbel.
In the southeast corner of the Mediterranean, Egypt is one of Africa's largest countries. The Nile River flows like a green ribbon from south to north. After Cairo and the pyramids at Giza, we tour Alexandria and Luxor. Then, we cruise the Nile, check out Aswan, and finish in Abu Simbel.
Cairo, straddling the Nile, is the biggest city in North Africa and the biggest in the Middle East. It's the capital of Egypt and one of the leading cities in Islam. With about 20 million people in greater Cairo, it's bursting at the seams and pulsing with energy.
Cairo's downtown is modern and can feel European. Streets, squares, and grand buildings are reminders of the country's colonial past — from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The riverfront throbs with energy — stately bridges busy with traffic, fancy riverside restaurants, and towering apartment complexes. The Nile is still the lifeblood of the city, sprawling endlessly on both sides.
The heart of Cairo is Tahrir Square. It's long been ground zero for the people's spirit. If there's a demonstration going on — and there have been massive ones in recent years — it's likely here. In addition to its political energy, the city's long been a religious capital.
Ever since the forces of Islam swept across North Africa from Arabia in the seventh century, spreading the teaching of their prophet Mohammed, Cairo has been a leading city of the Muslim world.
And today, Cairo's known as the city of a thousand minarets.
Stepping into the Al Hussein mosque, like [with] any neighborhood mosque, you'll find a worshipful tranquility. It's believed that resting here invigorates the soul. There's more intensity around the adjacent shrine, believed to contain a sacred relic: the head of Al Hussein ibn Ali, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
In a mosque, men and women worship separately. As praying can be physical, with lots of bending over, it's considered more respectful to allow woman their own space. I find that a respectful tourist is welcome to be a part of the scene.
Along with minarets, you'll see church spires — especially in Cairo's Coptic quarter. While Egypt is predominantly Muslim, today about 10 percent of the country is Christian. The Egyptian, or "Coptic," Church actually predates Islam by six centuries.
Because they [Coptic Christians] worship in an orthodox style, stepping into a Coptic Mass is like going back in time.
The faithful believe that when Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus escaped Herod by fleeing to Egypt, this very spot is where they took refuge. Later, in AD 43, it's believed the Evangelist Mark came to Egypt and established the Coptic Church. Mark was their first pope and the first in an unbroken line of Coptic popes stretching back nearly 2,000 years.
The Coptic quarter comes with high security. Throughout Egypt, travelers will notice armed guards, security barriers, and a high-profile police presence. These are reminders of a pent-up tension in Egyptian society. They reveal the challenges Egyptian democracy faces today.
While many modern Muslims would prefer a separation of mosque and state, others believe Egypt should be ruled in accordance with a strict interpretation of the Quran. Religious fundamentalism is a challenge here as it is in America.
Cairo is intense. I love traveling here, but I do it with safety and sanity in mind. While prices on the street may be cheap, if you want rich-world comfort, you'll pay rich-world prices. I sleep at in an international-class hotel. It comes with first-class security. I hope the future will be more relaxed, but for now, I splurge for the peace of mind.
The people of today's Egypt represent the latest chapter in a story that goes back 5,000 years. Even if you don't understand its long and complicated history, just observing how old and new come together is rewarding to the traveler. Egypt's heritage goes back twice as far as ancient Rome. And ancient Egypt — that's what draws the tourists.
The iconic sights of ancient Egypt — four or five thousand years old — are basically buildings and art for dead people. Back then, they believed you could take it with you. And your big challenge: to be sure your body and your valuables survived the journey into the afterlife. That's why, if you had the power and money, you'd lock everything up in a big tomb — a pyramid. These are the most famous: the Pyramids of Giza.
But the oldest pyramid is actually nearby at Saqqara, the tomb of the king or pharaoh named Zoser. This structure — which marked his tomb — is a "step pyramid." Dating from around 2600 BC, it's a century older than its more famous sisters at Giza. This first-ever towering stone structure is more than just a grave marker. With an innovative stacking of layers, it provided a new way to glorify a king: [by] creating a stairway to eternity.
A visit to Cairo's Egyptian Museum helps bring the country's many ancient sights to life. Along with the Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza, this museum shows off the best collection of ancient Egyptian art anywhere. The core of the collection, art from the age of the pharaohs, dates from about 3000 to 1000 BC.
Nearly everything filling these old halls is funerary art, art designed to help save the souls of the pharaohs: statues filled with symbolism, written prayers, and offerings to deal with the gods and help assure a happy transition into the afterlife.
This ancient art is so well-preserved because most of it was hidden away for 4,000 years, dark and dry, in tombs. This portrayal of geese from 2500 BC is perhaps the oldest surviving painting. This "seated scribe" recalls the importance of the educated elite in the court of an often-illiterate king. And this couple — a husband and wife — was also found in a tomb. It's all art for the dead, locked up until rediscovered in modern times.
Many mummies patiently await your visit. Ancient Egyptians preserved bodies through a complex process of mummification in hopes that the soul could re-inhabit it in the next world.
And the coffins were elaborately painted with an inventory of things that, hopefully, would accompany the body, and with prayers — to be sure all went as planned.
The art looks essentially the same from century to century. A remarkable thing about ancient Egyptian art and society as a whole was its stability. For 2,000 years — from 3000 to 1000 BC — relative to other times and other cultures, very little changed.
Religion permeated Egyptian society. As long as things were going reasonably well, the gods were happy — and it was status quo. Every year the Nile would flood, bringing water and fertile silt to the land. When the gods are happy, the people have food — and you don't change things.
And the pharaoh was considered a god. If your leader is a god, you question nothing. You obey the rules. Things stay the same.
Akhenaten was the one exception in a 2,000-year line of conformist pharaohs. Rather than the same, predictable idealized features, Akhenaten had his own voluptuous looks — from a strangely curvaceous body to big sensuous lips. Ruling around 1400 BC, he was considered history's first monotheist. Akhenaten replaced all the gods of the Egyptian pantheon with one all-powerful being, the sun god, whom he called "Aten."
In reliefs from the reign of Akhenaten we see Aten — the sun — shining down on everything. During the time of Akhenaten, people were portrayed looser, more intimately. Casual family scenes? Must be from the time of Akhenaten.
As always, I appreciate the services of a guide, so I'll understand the symbolism and know what to look for. So, we're joined by my friend and fellow guide, Marwa Abbas.
She explained how lots of ancient hieroglyphic writing on papyrus survives, and how it helps us better understand the mysteries of the pharaohs.
Marwa: Papyrus is made out of the stem of the plant papyrus. Which is hammered and then it is woven and then we press it in a pressing machine or stones to get those beautiful papers. These are the hieroglyphs, one of the most ancient written languages because of which we understood a lot about the civilization of ancient Egypt.
So, these are beautiful paintings of the afterlife. Even in the afterlife they were trying to bribe the gods and deities in order to help them in the afterlife path. Even here in front of the judge Osiris is a big offering pile of lotus, onions, oxen leg, as well as breads and vegetables.
Rick: Anything to make the god happy.
Marwa: Anything to make him happy.
The son of Akhenaten was Tutankhamun, perhaps the most famous pharaoh. A highlight of the museum's collection is a section filled with King Tut's treasures, from his splendid coffin to his jewelry.
Rick: This is exquisite.
Marwa: It is a beautiful piece of the jewelry of Tutankhamun around the year 1300 BC made out gold, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and you can see the beautiful symbolism over here, where you can see the scarab, the sign of existence, as well as the sun disc. The cobra is wearing the crowns of upper and lower Egypt as well as the ankh, symbol of life. The ancient Egyptians used to mummify their bodies and also mummified their organs. King Tutankhamun around the year 1300 BC had his organs inside this beautiful alabaster box and that was also inside a wooden gilded beautiful box that had the surroundings of the four goddesses for protection. So it was always about protection.
The mask of Tut looks like his face so his soul could recognize him on his journey to the afterlife. Placed over the head of his mummy, it was 24 pounds of gold, with a cobra and a vulture to symbolize the united kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt, which Tut proudly ruled.
After the museum, Cairo's characteristic old quarter is a colorful celebration of today's Egypt. Khan Al-Khalili is the megamall of medieval bazaars. Six hundred years ago, it was a caravanserai — a stop on a caravan trade route. Then, when the Ottoman Turks took Egypt, it became a bustling Turkish bazaar. Today it's a stop for every tour group and the merchants are standing by…
Merchant: How are you? How can I take your money?
…eager to charm you into a little shopping.
Merchant: Welcome, just have a look here, everything is free. Welcome to Egypt.
Merchant: Today 100% discount because today my birthday.
Merchant: Buy one, two free today. Cheapy-cheap.
Merchant: No money, no honey. No cry!
The hustlers can be intense and annoying — or fun, depending on your approach.
Merchant: Hello my friend, Good morning!
Dive in, with a sense of humor.
Bargaining is expected in Egyptian markets; treat it as a game. Never feel sorry for — or obligated to — the merchant. If you see something you like, show some interest and see how low you can get the price.
Merchant: Here, your size.
Rick: Maybe $5.
Merchant: Big size, for you. Give me $5. OK, you can buy it.
Cairo's a fascinating clash between traditional and modern, religious and secular, east and west. While its chaos can be exasperating, it can also be a rewarding challenge for the adventurous traveler.
I find that simply venturing a few blocks away from the tourist-friendly bazaar — suddenly, the tourists are gone, and I'm swallowed up in a completely local scene. Wandering through the colorful market streets here in Cairo's Islamic quarter, you feel that it goes on forever.
Three-wheeled tuk-tuks weave through the action. I love to hop in one for a quick joyride. There's something strangely graceful about this chaotic dance of careening vehicles, merchants, and pedestrians.
Exploring the Islamic quarter creates a montage of memories. It's a commotion of activity. Everywhere you look, something you've never seen before is happening. Somehow, bikers balance rustic racks of bread.
Craftsmen inscribe marble tombstones with verses from the Holy Quran: "The peaceful soul, after a blessed life, will finally rest in heaven." With a little effort, you'll find it can be easy to become part of the scene.
In this shop, a man spins delicate strands of flour that will become a favorite local pastry, kanafeh.
The classic street food here is koshary: lentil, rice, pasta, garlic, and tomato sauce, all mixed together into a quick and cheap treat. The distinctive clanging stokes local appetites.
And small bakeries are steadily producing hot balloons of pita bread — destined to be filled with falafel. Bread is subsidized by the government to make life easier for people struggling to feed their families.
Walking through neighborhoods like this, you gain an appreciation for how just making ends meet is a daily struggle for millions in a teeming city like Cairo.
I make a point to explore a variety of neighborhoods. Here in Egypt, like almost anywhere, there's a big gap between rich and poor. In the relative cool of the evening, the prosperous streets of downtown are filled with window shoppers and thriving eateries — clearly a world for Egypt's more privileged class.
And gated social clubs in a place like Egypt provide a refuge where the wealthy can live in a parallel world, protected from the gritty reality of the streets.
My friend Tarek, who runs a successful tour company, has invited me out for the evening. Tarek grew up as a member here, he met his wife here, and today their children enjoy this privileged environment almost daily.
These clubs have something for all generations — birthday parties, playgrounds, competitive sports. Adults can retreat to the no-kids zone to play a quiet game of croquet with friends they've been socializing with here with since childhood — or just to watch from the peaceful terrace.
We finish our evening just down the street at Tarek's home, joining his family for dinner.
Rick: So how do you say — in France, you would say, "bon appétit" —
Heba: Bon appétit, yeah.
Rick: …in Arabic?
Heba: Bailhana' walshifa'.
Heba: Bailhana' walshifa'.
Heba: Bailhana' walshifa'.
Rick: That's very difficult. Bon appétit.
Heba: It's easier.
Rick: I think so. Mmm!
Rick: Heba, this is so beautiful. Can you give me please a tour of this beautiful Egyptian meal?
Heba: Sure. This is moussaka; this the stuffed vine leaves…
Rick: Stuffed vine leaves…
Heba: OK, and this is okra with tomato sauce…
Rick: Okra! Nice.
Heba: …very delicious, and this is Egyptian beef with onion sauce, and this is of course, rice, and this is, then, rokak…
Rick: What is rokak?
Heba: It is some kind of pastry stuffed with mincemeat.
Heba: This is tzatziki.
Rick: Tzatziki! So, we have moussaka…
Heba: Yes, in common with us and the Greeks.
Rick: I was going to say, moussaka, stuffed grape leaves, and tzatziki — a Greek would say, "that's my food" — but it's Egyptian also?
Heba: We cook it differently.
Rick: OK…there we go. Thank you. Shukran [thank you]. So, is it normal for children to speak English and Egyptian [Arabic]?
Heba: Actually, if they're in an international school, yeah.
Rick: And your kids go to international school?
Heba: Yes — American ones.
Daughter: Sometimes on Friday or Thursday we watch on the TV, Netflix — we choose an English movie.
Rick: You can choose, Egyptian or English?
Younger daughter: Family movie!
Tarek: Family movie, yes! Every Thursday night it's family movie.
Rick: And Heba, what do you wish for your daughters, to be successful and to be happy?
Heba: To have good faith, good education as well, to be open-minded, self-confident.
Rick: Beautiful. I think you're on the right road. I think you're on the right road.
Heba: I hope so.
Cairo sprawls. It's a jam-packed city of over 20 million. Massive blocks of apartment flats spring up, many violating building codes, to congest the ever-growing suburbs. Driving through half an hour of this, we finally reach the desert — and the sight that draws most tourists to Egypt: the Pyramids at Giza, one of the most recognizable scenes in all of tourism. Towering before us are the tombs of three great kings, or "pharaohs." These monuments were built to mark and to protect the bodies of fabulously wealthy and powerful pharaohs.
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 — even their favorite pets.
The pyramid of the pharaoh Cheops is the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This grandest of all pyramids — 700 feet long on each side — was built 2,500 years before Christ. The neighboring pyramids are likely those of Cheops' son and grandson. The smaller ones? They're for the wives and daughters.
Experts guess that with 10,000 laborers hard at work, it took 20 years to build the pyramid of Cheops. According to my abacus, that's 200,000 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 sure hope Cheops was satisfied.
Long, secret corridors, originally blocked by sliding stones, lead to the tomb chamber deep in the center of each pyramid. Climbing this passage, you marvel at the design and the audacity of the project.
Finally, reaching the burial room, you're hit by the thought that this was the most sacred and precious chamber in the ancient world — silent for 4,000 years, until the arrival of tourism.
This is it: the center of this massive pyramid. The pharaoh's mummy was put in this stone sarcophagus. The sarcophagus is bigger than the passageway — so this must have been here first, and then the pyramid built around it. This huge chamber was filled with treasures.
A little shaft was designed into the pyramid to provide an escape passage for the soul of the pharaoh.
For the pharaoh, the most important treasure was his soul, which needed to be free for the ascent to the afterlife.
Back outside, complementing the scene, is the mysterious [Great] Sphinx. As old as the pyramids, it was carved out of a piece of hard rock that stuck above the limestone plateau. With the body of a lion and the head of a king, or god, it came to symbolize both strength and wisdom as it faces east and the rising sun.
But we're heading north, down the Nile to Egypt's second city, which lies on the Mediterranean coast.
Alexandria is one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. It was Egypt's capital for almost a thousand years, until the Muslims came in the 7th century. Not as big as Cairo, it faces the Mediterranean, has milder weather, and feels a bit more European.
Alexandria is a thriving port town with a busy harbor. Fishermen, as they have since ancient times, harvest the sea to help feed the city while taking advantage of this safe haven. The harborfront corniche is lined with cafes, restaurants, and people out enjoying the scene. Strolling here in the cooler hours of the early evening, you appreciate the inviting ambiance.
This beachside café has a relaxed vibe — not unlike other Mediterranean towns I've enjoyed.
Alexandria can feel spirited, young, and progressive. In fact, this city helped spearhead Egypt's Arab Spring revolution back in 2011. The populace is an intriguing blend of conservative, modern, religious, and hipster.
The city has a chaotic energy exceeding anything I've experienced in Europe. With the constant beeping of passing traffic, its center is a carnival of commercial life. Scenes like this are why many come to Egypt — and why many don't.
This urban commotion literally sits upon lots of history. But — apart from this ancient Roman theater, which dates from the fourth century — very little survives. It's mostly destroyed, in the sea, or buried under today's city.
Alexandria was named by Alexander the Great, who founded it in 331 BC. It became one of the great cities of antiquity, with a population of several hundred thousand. Queen Cleopatra ruled Egypt from here — when the city rivaled Rome as a cultural and intellectual capital of the Mediterranean world. And it's here that St. Mark introduced Christianity to Egypt — establishing what, to this day, is the "Coptic," or Egyptian, church.
Ancient Alexandria was home to two of antiquity's greatest sights, neither of which survive: a huge library, and an awe-inspiring lighthouse, one of the wonders of the ancient world, built in around 300 BC.
Imagine the lighthouse that stood at the mouth of the harbor. It was so tall that light from its fires could be seen from 30 miles out at sea. After guiding ships from across the Mediterranean safely into port for 15 centuries, in about the year 1300, an earthquake hit, and it tumbled into the sea.
Today, a 500-year-old fortress marks the spot. In fact, it's said that many of the stones from the lighthouse were dredged out of the sea to help build it. While the ancient lighthouse guided friendly ships in to Alexandria, centuries later this fort was designed to keep enemies — like the Ottoman Turks — out.
And Alexandria was famously home to perhaps the greatest library in the ancient world. No ship was allowed to dock here without giving up its books to be copied. Tragically, about 2,000 years ago, that amazing repository of knowledge was burned and destroyed.
Today, its legacy survives in the city's modern library. Built in the year 2001, [its] walls are inscribed with characters of the world's languages through the ages. An inviting gathering point for Alexandrians, the library feels promising, perhaps offering a chance to see the next generation of this country's leaders. The interior is welcoming and airy, with space for hundreds of readers to sit in its main reading room.
History has been harsh on the city, with its population shrinking to a low of around 10,000 in the 18th century. Then, in the 19th century, when it welcomed enterprising foreigners from around the Mediterranean, Alexandria enjoyed a resurgence, becoming one of the liveliest ports on the Mediterranean. The corniche was lined by fine Art Deco buildings from the early 20th century. And grand European-style boulevards graced the city.
Today, Alexandria's century-old European grandness is fading. Caked in this generation's grime as the city's population has exploded, it's become a thoroughly Egyptian metropolis of over 5 million. The cityscape includes a gritty, yet somehow beautiful commotion of towering and densely inhabited apartment flats that face the sea, glowing with every sunset.
For me, no visit to Alexandria is complete without venturing into its ramshackle market district. While you can buy just about anything in these thriving and exotic streets, there's also a strong sense of community that naturally comes with such population density.
And, to better enjoy this convivial scene, I'm joined by my Egyptian friend Tarek in a classic shisha joint. As I've done in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East, I occasionally enjoy this traditional and very social form of smoking.
Tarek: Nice, huh?
Rick: This is a beautiful scene. It's easy to relax here.
Tarek: So relaxing, comfortable. Peace.
Rick: A lot of people in the United States, they'd say this would be a "hookah" or a "hubbly-bubbly." What is this in Egypt?
Tarek: Shisha. It's called shisha.
Rick: Shisha. Yep.
Tarek: Yeah, and a few people now call it hookah, hubbly-bubbly, nargile.
Rick: Is it some tobacco, or what are we smoking?
Tarek: It's a tobacco flavored with different tastes. Could be apple, strawberry, mint…too many.
Rick: If I smoke and smoke and smoke, will I get dizzy?
Tarek: If you spend like two or three hours you will get dizzy. Finishing one of those is like finishing two packets of cigarettes.
Rick: [surprised cough]
Tarek: Sorry! But the people aren't doing it all the time — we do it casually, lets us vent out, be casual, socializing, you know, talking with friends, we do it with close friends, we vent out and talk…
Tarek: …and have fun!
While clearly Tarek could spend the rest of the evening right here, we've got some exploring to do. A short walk is filled with cultural serendipity.
And we'll start with dessert. It's hard to walk by this place without enjoying at least a taste.
Tarek: …and delicious!
Rick: That looks great. What are these?
Tarek: This is sawabe' Zainab — "Zainab's fingers."
Rick: Zainab's fingers? Hmmm. Shukran.
Tarek: Thank you! Shukran!
The key to this kind of sightseeing? Have a curious spirit, have fun, and explore. These guys are way too fast for me.
The entire neighborhood is an endlessly fascinating market — and it's open late. There's fresh bread, very fresh poultry, Olives straight from the desert, and something I noticed everywhere: friendly and inviting people. I know about six words of Arabic — but it didn't stop the smiles.
You can get whatever you need around here — including a quick trim before dinner.
OK, we've worked up an appetite. And Tarek knows a great place for fish. There's no menu — just point to what looks tasty.
Rick: Ah good, yeah!
Tarek: Freshly caught today.
Rick: Oh, that looks good, OK. I think that's good. Alright?
Rick: Thank you. Good. Alright.
strong>Rick: Bailhana' walshifa'! What is the fish? What am I eating here?
Tarek: This is "denise" [sea bream] from the Mediterranean.
Rick: OK. And then…?
Tarek: This is fried calamari from the Mediterranean, too, and fried prawns.
Rick: We dip our bread in this? And that? What is this one?
Nelly: That's tahini; that's baba ghanoush.
Rick: This is tahini?
Nelly: Tahini, yes…
Rick: I just go…?
Nelly: Of course, yes.
Rick: Mmm-hmm! And then what is this over here?
Tarek: Baba ghanoush.
Rick: Baba ghanoush — I've heard that word; yeah.
Tarek: It's made of eggplant, many herbs and dill. Dill makes it beautiful.
Rick: Mmm! I like that, different from the tahini. So, what is this one?
Tarek: This is fried eggplant, with hot chilis
Rick: So fried eggplant and tahini, you find this in many countries in the Mediterranean.
Tarek: Absolutely, and each country would claim it's "ours."
Rick: So, Israeli, Turkish, Greek… And so today we claim this is Egyptian.
Tarek: This is Egyptian, from the Mediterranean!
The Mediterranean region shares many delicious and similar dishes. What country wouldn't want to claim this as their national cuisine? But, tonight, it's definitely Egyptian.
While Alexandria sits at the delta, where the Nile flows into the Mediterranean, we're heading south, skipping Cairo this time, about 500 miles upstream to Luxor.
Luxor, straddling the Nile, was for many centuries the capital of ancient Egypt. It's famed for its tombs and temples, which were mostly built between 1500 and 1000 BC. These were the glory days of the pharaohs. From their palaces here, they proudly ruled a united kingdom — Upper and Lower Egypt together.
Luxor is a standard stop on the tourist's itinerary. While a city of about half a million people today, Luxor feels like a tourist town with its riverfront hotels, shops, and the ancient temples gathered along the Nile. The riverbank is lined with characteristic boats ready to ferry sightseers to a world of ancient sights.
Popping into its busy market, you find a colorful bazaar that serves both locals and tourists. The friendly welcome is a reminder of how important tourism is for Egypt's economy. The souvenir I take home? Memories of so many vivid snapshots of humanity.
With the smells, the colors, the faces, and the rich heritage, just lingering here is sensual — a Luxor highlight.
While I generally avoid the touristy horse carriages in Europe, here, they function as taxis, and feel more authentic. And it's cheap and easy to simply hire one for a clip-clop joy ride around town.
Luxor's charming riverfront promenade welcomes strollers enjoying the cool of the early evening. As the sun sets, we appreciate the timeless beauty of both Luxor and the Nile.
The Luxor Temple is particularly dramatic at twilight. Standing in the middle of the city, it's evocatively floodlit and welcomes visitors in the evening. The towering front wall proclaims the power and greatness of the pharaohs. This grand entry was marked with a pair of soaring obelisks. Both still stand — this one here, and its sister in far-away Paris.
This holy complex was built around 1300 BC, nearly a thousand years before ancient Greece's Golden Age. Egypt's temples were not places of public worship, but sites of sacred mysteries, where priests and pharaohs huddled privately with the gods. Reliefs show pharaohs wooing the gods with rituals and offerings. While the temple may have been dedicated to the gods, it seems all the statues celebrate the great pharaoh, Ramses II. Egypt's ultimate king, Ramses ruled for 66 years — and did a lot of building. The sheer size of the complex with its forest of massive columns leading to huge squares is a testimony to Ramses' power to get things done.
Evening's a great time to visit. Under the stars, people wander, learning and dreaming — wonderstruck at the achievements of ancient Egypt.
Luxor's other great sight — another magnificent temple complex — is best enjoyed early in the morning — beating the heat and crowds. An avenue of battered sphinxes leads to the awe-inspiring main entrance, heralding the Temples of Karnak. Karnak was the most important place of worship in all Egypt.
Back when Luxor was Egypt's capital, this sprawling complex of temples was dedicated to the grandiose holy family, a trinity of gods: Amon, Mut, and Khonsu. It was built over many centuries throughout this "New Kingdom" period, when most of the great and famous kings ruled.
The Great Court is the largest single area of the complex. It was used once a year for an elaborate festival feast celebrating fertility: fertility of the land, the people, and the kingdom.
The Great Hypostyle Hall, with over 100 columns, is one of the grandest religious structures ever built. Its forest of columns represents papyrus plants — bulging stems and flowering capitals, each elaborately carved and once brightly painted.
The many columns of this vast hall once supported a stone ceiling. You can measure the architectural sophistication of a society by the distance it can span between columns. This was the best they could do three thousand years ago: The columns were fat and close together, making the gap easier to span.
Imagine what it took to build all this: They had to design it, quarry the stones, ship 'em, stack 'em, smooth 'em, carve 'em, paint 'em — all for the glory and favor of the gods. Consider the depth of the faith: this was not for the public; it was only to be seen by the royals, the priests, and the gods.
Obelisks symbolically connected earth with the gods. These are monolithic and carved out of a single piece of granite. They were quarried about 100 miles south of here, in Aswan, and then shipped down the Nile. This one's been standing here for about 3,000 years.
Like church spires and minarets, an obelisk marked a holy place. There are only about 60 in existence. A few still mark their original Egyptian temples, but more decorate the great squares of Europe — taken there through the ages by European conquerors.
As you venture farther into the complex, things get older and crescendo in religious importance. Everything at Karnak leads to a small chamber that marks the very heart of the temple complex: the Holy of Holies.
This was the most sacred spot in all of Egypt. On this pedestal sat a statue of the top god, Amon-Ra. Amon-Ra was the god of Luxor, the god of empire, and Egypt's god of gods.
The Nile still flows as it did for the pharaohs — the lifeblood of civilization then, as today. Luxor's riverfront is busy with boats, big and small. The traditional felucca — long a hard-working cargo boat — now hauls vacationing tourists. Anywhere on the Nile, I love a felucca ride.
The hand stitched canvas sail artfully catches the breeze. Egyptian boatmen have been sailing this river for thousands of years. Today, they expertly maneuver as tourists leave every care behind, enjoying this scene — essentially unchanged since the time of the pharaohs.
Here, where the desert meets the Nile, the lush ribbon of green is a reminder of how fundamental this river is to all life in Egypt. As the sun sets, palms become silhouettes, ensuring memories created are never forgotten.
Across the Nile from Luxor are hills rich with some of Egypt's most important ancient sights.
While most sightseers cross the river on a fleet of touristy shuttles, we're riding on the public ferry with the locals. It's early morning, and these people are heading to work. And we're heading for the Valley of the Kings and the ancient tombs.
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.
While the workers head off, nearby the tourists arrive. While there are a few independent travelers, Egypt favors group travel, and most follow their guides to waiting buses for their west-bank tour.
The valley is blanketed with yet-to-be-excavated ruins. Here, two lonely statues herald a long-gone temple. And here, burrowed into an arid mountain range, is the Valley of the Kings, where mummified pharaohs hide out with their treasures, awaiting the eternity express.
This valley was all about protecting royal tombs. And so were the great pyramids before it. It was to ensure that all those valuables made it safely into the afterlife. Ironically, rather than protecting tombs, the pyramids were actually attracting thieves. Again and again, pyramids were looted and pharaohs were waking up in heaven with absolutely nothing.
By about 1500 BC, pharaohs stopped building pyramids and began hiding their tombs instead. These tombs — buried deep in the folds of this valley — proved to be more secure than the intentionally high-profile pyramids. While around 60 tombs have been excavated in the Valley of the Kings, far more have yet to be discovered.
The tomb of Ramses IV was typical. It had a long ramp, intricately carved and painted, leading to the burial chamber. This massive granite sarcophagus was slid down the ramp. It protected the mummy of the pharaoh. Slathered in hieroglyphs — prayers and symbolism — it was all designed to boost the pharaoh into the next life. Jackals stand guard, and here, a god presents two ankhs — the symbol of life.
The burial chamber walls are remarkably vivid for their age. Sealed away dry, dark, and forgotten for over 3,000 years, they're beautifully preserved. Tourists can still clearly see ancient Egypt's elaborate spiritual world.
The most famous tomb in the valley is of King Tutankhamun — a.k.a. King Tut. Another long passage leads deep into a chamber, where you find more well-preserved paintings surrounding an empty stone sarcophagus. It was one of eight nesting boxes and coffins that protected the pharaoh's body.
Remarkably, Tut's actual mummy lies nearby. The ancient process of mummification ensured that the body was there for the soul to inhabit in the afterlife. And, you gotta admit, Tut doesn't look a day over 3,500.
While his reign was of no importance historically and only lasted a few years, Tutankhamun is the one pharaoh whose name we all know. That's because in 1922 this tomb was discovered with its treasures intact.
While pharaohs hid their tombs deep in the mountains, they built their memorial temples in public splendor — in the open for all to see, so they'd be remembered and worshipped through the ages.
This is the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut — the greatest woman pharaoh. In its day, around 1500 BC, Queen Hatshepsut's monument would have been glorious, surrounded by gardens and approached by a grand, sphinx-lined lane.
The challenges of being a woman politician are nothing new. Hatshepsut claimed to be the daughter of a god, but to prove her strength she had to declare herself "king." Determined to assert her authority, her propaganda even showed her dressed as a male ruler.
Statues show the queen wearing a beard — a symbol of royalty. This multi-level temple is fit for a god and surely must have inspired great awe and respect. With ranks of imposing statues of the queen, it's easy to imagine public adulation for centuries after her death. Her formidable army carried weapons, but also carried olive branches, the ancient symbol of peace. History's first great woman ruler is remembered for a 20-year reign of general peace and stability.
A short venture beyond the famous sights takes us into a timeless Egypt untouched by tourism. The vast majority of Egypt's 100 million people live along the banks of the Nile. And most of them lead traditional lives on land made fertile by the river. Plowing with oxen, sowing seeds by hand, and harvesting their crops, they farm as they have through the millennia.
In some ways, life along the Nile seems to have changed little since the days of the pharaohs. The major difference? The annual flooding — once essential to nourish the soil with silt — has been controlled by an enormous dam. Today, fertilizing and irrigating the soil is the work of engineers, rather than the gods. With the Nile now tamed, farming in Egypt is possible throughout the year.
Luxor's a busy port for river-cruise boats. Fleets of these provide multiday Nile cruises which have become a standard part of an Egyptian tour. We're riding one farther upstream for a look at the most scenic stretch of the Nile. As if on a floating resort hotel, tourists enjoy the deck — with its pool, the attentive service, and the views from their perch atop three floors of staterooms.
The trip upriver takes you by natural beauty and seemingly ancient scenes interrupted only by modern cruise boats. Long stretches pass by timeless slices of Egyptian life as vacationers have little option but to relax and live at the pace of the steady boat heading against the current of the fabled river.
It's so peaceful, until the tranquility is broken by…pirates?! Nope! They're eager and enterprising salesmen who artfully tie up to the surging riverboats to display, model, and haggle — selling their souvenirs the hard way. Whether you buy anything or not, you can enjoy their entertaining show afternoons on both the port and starboard sides.
As the sun gets low in the sky we enter the magic hour. Scenes crescendo in beauty as they glide gracefully by either side of the boat. We pass patient fishermen, grazing cattle, farmers at work, children play, villagers do their chores, and minarets call all to prayer as the sun sets.
After two lazy days, we reach the city of Aswan, the last major port on the river. An ancient garrison town famed for its granite quarries, today it's embraced tourism, taking full advantage of its attractive riverfront.
These days, Aswan is most famous for its massive dam. It was built with Soviet technology and money back in the Cold War. A game changer for Egypt, it tamed the Nile providing electricity and controlling the flow of the once-erratic river. The dam created a huge reservoir, called "Lake Nasser." Its creation submerged many towns and ancient treasures. But the most important temple was saved.
To visit that temple, tourists catch a short flight from Aswan. It's an easy half-day side trip over one of the largest man-made lakes in the world.
The Temple of Abu Simbel, while originally built by Ramses II in about 1250 BC, was relocated here only about 50 years ago.
Abu Simbel was saved from being submerged in the lake and lost forever after an international outcry. Thanks to a heroic effort, in 1968, this ancient temple was cut into huge blocks and relocated to this spot — high and dry for at least another 3,000 years.
Four towering statues of the powerful pharaoh stand sentinel at the entry. Ramses' wife and some of his children — considered less important and therefore smaller in scale — ‑are at his feet. Inside, the central hall is lined with more imposing statues of Ramses. They're surrounded by reliefs showing off his power. Here, the pharaoh leads his army into battle, riding his chariot — thoroughly destroying his enemies. And finally, in the sacred sanctuary, Ramses assumes his place in the company of the gods.
Admiring this one last magnificent temple, you can't help but ponder the rich and complicated 5,000-year story of this civilization. I hope you've enjoyed our look at Egypt. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.