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In the Steps of Pharaohs
Visiting Egypt’s Incredible Pyramids, Temples, and Tombs

The flight from Luxor to Cairo treated us to dawn-light views of the desert, the snaking Nile River, and the rugged Red Sea Mountains. As the plane approached Cairo, low clouds covered the landscape. "Look! It’s like a dream!" shouted my wife as she peered intently downwards, aiming her camera. Penetrating the thick clouds were the peaks of civilization’s oldest skyscrapers. The sight seemed surreal. "How could these Old Kingdom pyramids remain so perfect after 4,500 years?" she wondered. Our aerial view kicked off a whirlwind day in Cairo and Giza. It was a day that also enhanced our perspective of Luxor’s equally overwhelming sites, the New Kingdom temples and tombs dating back only 3,000-4,000 years.

Pyramids in fog
Viewed from the air, Giza Pyramids pierce low-lying clouds

Cairo and the Egyptian Museum

Hesham, our Egyptologist guide, pointed out the main Cairo sites as our small bus meandered slowly through the bustling city of 17 million toward the Egyptian Museum. Long-robed people in donkey carts were intermixed with suited business people and gun-toting military guards as we passed an array of old and new: a 12th-century citadel, Muslim mosques, brick tenement houses, small farm plots, and large government buildings.

Giza Plateau
Cairo from the Giza Plateau

Burro cart
Cairo residents

Hesham led us directly to the huge museum’s most famous exhibits, starting with the Tutankhamun Gallery. The gallery comprises a full wing floor to display the artifacts found in King Tut’s 3,300 year-old tomb: numerous thrones, sarcophagi, the pure gold mummy headdress, jewelry, guardian statues, swahebiti (the 365 "servant" statuettes who tended to Tut in the afterlife), beds, and models of funerary barques. As we marveled at this splendor, it appeared all the more incredible when we realized that King Tut had one of the smallest pharaoh tombs. It was the only tomb discovered with its riches intact. What riches had been stolen from the largest tombs?

The Royal Mummy Room was equally awe-inspiring, and definitely more eerie. The mummified bodies of New Kingdom pharaohs Tuthmosis II, III, and Ramses II lay next to their sarcophagi. Ramses II must have once cut a mighty pharaoh figure, for his mummified body still extended almost 6 feet, his scalp sporting his long hair. A display of implements and canopic jars used to prepare the mummies completed the picture -- extreme efforts had been made to preserve the pharaohs for their afterworld voyage.

Pyramids of Giza

As camel-riding guides passed us on the Giza Plateau, Cairo seemed close enough to touch. The largest pyramid, Cheops, towered above, rising 450 feet from a 1,000-foot-wide base. The exact method of construction is unknown, but estimates are that 100,000 workers spent 30 years positioning 2-1/2 million stones, each weighing one to thirty tons. Symmetry remains intact despite ages of plunder on the outer stones. We moved to a view site of all three Giza pyramids, Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus. Here the realization hit home -- each pyramid was merely the tomb of an Ancient Kingdom pharaoh. All this stone encased a small chamber from which each dead pharaoh had "looked back" on the world through a narrow passage.

Pyramids of Giza
Cheops and Chephren, Egypt's largest pyramids

Our visit to Giza was not complete without a visit to the nearby Sphinx. This huge statue, half man, half lion, was carved from one huge stone during Pharaoh Chephren’s rule, but its purpose remains a mystery. Its missing nose and beard were the result of target practice by invading Turkish troops. Some devastation was also later charged to Napoleon's invading troops. We finished the day with an exciting camel ride in the nearby village of Nazlet as-Samaan, followed by a visit to a rug factory where apprentice children weaved a fine-silk rug on a large loom.

The Sphinx
Face of the Sphinx

Young rug weavers
Apprentice rug weavers

Luxor’s Temples

We knew Karnak was touted as the world’s largest temple complex, but we were unprepared to be so overwhelmed as we walked among its towering portals, statues, and columns. We imagined the Egyptian priests and pharaohs walking in awe in the deep inner sanctuaries.

Great Court
Karnak's Great Court and Temple of Ramses II

The complex covers an area larger than ten St. Peter cathedrals! It was built continuously over a 2,000-year period starting in the Middle Kingdom around 1900 BC. The most dominating features came from the New Kingdom Dynasties of Tuthmosis and Ramses, over 3,200 years ago. Most of the original hieroglyphics remain intact.

Hesham guided us through the most memorable features of Amun temple: the entrance Avenue of the Ram-Headed Sphinxes; the huge First Pylon wall; the Great Court and Temple of Ramses II; the Great Hypostyle Hall, a virtual forest of 134 massive papyrus-shaped pillars; the Obelisks of Hatshepsut; and the man-made Sacred Lake where priests of Amun had purified themselves.

Our tour of Luxor Temple provided new surprises. Constructed on a smaller scale, it seemed more beautiful and luxurious than Karnak. After entering via the Avenue of the Ram-Headed Sphinxes, we again encountered colossal statues of Ramses II and a pink granite obelisk whose counterpart now sits in Paris’ Place de la Concorde. The Great Court of Ramses II included a 13th century mosque overbuilt upon one section of the court. The Colonnade of Amenophis III boasted 14 beautiful papyrus columns. The temple rooms of Amun included the impressive Barque Shrine. Alexander the Great rebuilt the shrine around 300 BC, adding relief sculptures of himself with the god Amun. Remains of a Roman fort also were in evidence around the complex…ravages of ancient civilizations upon their grand predecessor.

Ramses II
Ramses II

Karnak view
Karnak View

Heiroglyphs
Heiroglyphics

Luxor, the Nile, and Farmlands

Striking aspects of our Egypt visit included modern Luxor, the bordering Nile, and surrounding farmlands. We experienced the grandeur of the Nile on a sunset sail in a modern-day felucca, the type of native vessel which has plied the mighty river for centuries. The Egyptian-crewed boat tacked quickly upriver with steady afternoon winds, then jibed downriver as the unforgettable sunset profiled feluccas and West Bank palms and hills. Luxor city provided an interesting mixture of sights and sounds: pink-robed musicians; breakneck-speed horse carriages; noisy pottery and jewelry shops. A tour through farmlands and villages en route to the Valley of the Kings added a new range of images: farmers in long robes worked the fields with their burro carts; women layed out bread to dry in the sun as their small children played; craftsmen in the village of Gurna hawked their colorful clayware.

Musicians
Musicians

Sailor
Felucca sailor

Nile Sunset
Sunset on the Nile

Valleys of the Kings, Queens, and Noblemen

During the Middle Kingdom, Egypt’s seat of power moved south to ancient Thebes (today’s Luxor). The pharaohs had decided their tombs would no longer be grandiose and inviting to tomb raiders, but hidden deeply in the Valley of the Kings under the pyramid-shaped mountain, Al Qurn. The tombs were designed to resemble the underworld and assist the mummified pharaohs in their passage to immortality. Despite these attempts at security, raiders eventually found the tombs. The tombs were sacked of their artifacts, but the stories provided by the tombs' well-preserved reliefs and wall paintings remained intact for today's visitors

Hashem led us on a visit to the most notable tombs of the Valleys of the Kings, Queens, and Noblemen. The tomb of Ramses VI was noteworthy due to its long, straight, descending hall with 12 copiously decorated gates representing the "12 hours of darkness" of the afterlife. The tour’s highlight was a visit to the tomb of Queen Nefertari, the most beloved of Ramses II's wives. Her tomb displayed Egypt’s best-preserved paintings -- exquisitely painted scenes from her life, likenesses of the gods, and hieroglyphics from the Book of the Dead. As our small group ascended from the enforced silence of the 3,200-year-old tomb, we raved about the richness of detail and color conveying Nefertari's story.

Village of Gurna
Village of Gurna, near the Valley of the Kings

Ancient Egypt Springs to Life

The stones speak to all visitors of the ancient sites, but they literally spring to life when a knowledgeable Egyptologist such as Hesham relates their stories while walking in the steps of pharaohs. Our short visit left us awed and inspired to learn more of ancient Egypt, already considered ancient when the Greeks discovered the Giza Pyramids, naming them among the World's Seven Wonders.

Click here for details to plan your own trip to Egypt's ancient sites.

Les Furnanz
Photos by Rita Furnanz

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