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Egypt’s Nile, Alexandria, and Luxor

Exploring the Nile Valley from north to south, we see the highlights of Egypt. In the fabled city of Alexandria, we venture through a market wonderland, smoke a shisha, and stroll a Mediterranean promenade. In Luxor, we explore the pharaohs' tombs and temples before sailing on a timeless felucca. Then we kick back on a riverboat cruise, enjoying iconic views of palm trees, minarets, and rustic villages. Our finale: Ramses II's magnificent temple at Abu Simbel.

Script

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 is essentially a big desert, with a lush green ribbon, the Nile River valley, running right through its middle. This is the Nile, and the vast majority of Egyptians live along its banks. In this program, we'll sail much of it and visit many of its greatest sights.

Saving Cairo and its magnificent pyramids for another episode, we'll visit cities and sights all along the Nile. Exploring the fabled city of Alexandria, we'll venture into a local market, and enjoy a shisha. In Luxor, we'll revel in the glory of the pharaohs — their temples and their hidden tombs. We'll hoist the sail for an unforgettable felucca ride. Then we'll upgrade to a river boat, and kick back while enjoying iconic Nile views and a glimpse of timeless rural lifestyles. 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 from south to north. We start in Alexandria, fly to Luxor, cruise up the Nile to Aswan, and finish in Abu Simbel.

We're starting in the north, on the Mediterranean coast, in Egypt's second city. 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 seventh 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 cafés, restaurants, and people out enjoying the scene. Strolling here in the cooler hours of the early evening, you appreciate the inviting ambience.

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 this 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.

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. It lets us vent out, be casual, socializing, you know, talking with friends, we do it with close friends, we vent out and talk…
Rick: Yeah.
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&mdashand 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.

OK, we've worked up an appetite. And Tarek knows a great place for fish.

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! 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 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, to Luxor, about 500 miles upstream.

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.

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.

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 — 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. 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.

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.

And those treasures are now back in Cairo. Tut's mummy was in this extravagant coffin. He was wearing a dazzling mask — 24 pounds of gold, inlaid with lapis lazuli and filled with symbolism proclaiming the greatness of this boy pharaoh.

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.

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 Alexandria, Luxor, and some of the wonders of the Nile. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.

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