Guest post by Paulette Hannah
I pulled out my rusty travel bucket list and there it was—Egypt. We were finally going to see the Great Pyramids, the temples, tombs, treasures and more, all in the AmaWaterways elegant style of travel.
Secrets of Egypt and The Nile was an 11-night package that included four total nights in Cairo and seven nights on the AmaDahlia. It would be a busy itinerary. We would see more ancient Egyptian sites than I ever expected to see in my lifetime.
The tour began in grand style from the moment we arrived. We were met at the airport by Kareem, their friendly representative, and quickly whisked through customs into our awaiting transport. He narrated sights through Cairo in perfect English. Our room was exquisite, with a view of the Nile.
We were split into three groups, each assigned their own Egyptologist and color-coded bus for the duration of the trip. We quickly bonded with a new Kareem on the short bus ride to the Egyptian Museum. His enthusiasm and passion for ancient Egyptian history was contagious.
Kareem walked us through the museum and highlighted key pieces, including the famed golden mask of the Boy King, Tutankhamen, and a replica of The Rosetta Stone.
We headed to Memphis, Egypt’s first Capital, to see a monumental statue of Ramses II, the greatest pharaoh during the most powerful period of ancient Egypt. The massive, 32-foot long statue offered a hint of the scale of monuments, pyramids and temples to come. We were then taken to Saqqara, a large desert necropolis where the very first stone pyramid, the Step Pyramid, was built.
Here we were introduced to Egyptian vendors. Assertive but friendly, you would think we were best of friends. Kareem gave us guidance on how to politely say “no thanks” (la shokran) or negotiate with them if we chose to buy anything.
We were rewarded with a first-class reprieve from the warm morning sun—lunch at the five-star Mena House hotel — with a breathtaking view of the Giza Pyramids. It’s difficult to convey their magnificence. You can just feel it as you gaze into the distance. They would be our next stop.
We stood in the shadow of the 478-foot-high Great Pyramid of Giza and wondered, how were these built so long ago? That is one of the three remaining mysteries of ancient Egypt that eludes the greatest scholars, Kareem informed us. Theories abound, yet efforts to replicate building these dramatic structures are still unsuccessful.
As we pondered this, another treat was in store for us–a camel ride. With the Giza pyramids in the background we captured one of our most memorable moments of the trip.
Next up, one of the most famous landmarks of Egypt, the Great Sphinx. The sheer scale of this is breathtaking—240 feet long and 66 feet high. It had been a long day but very rewarding. And we had not even sailed yet. That portion of our journey would begin after a quick flight to Luxor, 418 miles south of Cairo. There we boarded the AmaDahlia.
Onboard the AmaDahlia
Each night’s Sip and Sail happy hour would provide a chance to make new friends. We watched cooking demonstrations and napkin folding. There were entertainers at night, belly dancers and Nubian drummers. One night there was an Egyptian costume party. We heard educational lectures and had informal discussions with our guides about life today in Egypt. The warm weather provided ample opportunity to enjoy the sunset and reflect on the amazing times we were experiencing.
Along the River
The vendors followed us everywhere, day or night, even while the boat was sailing. They would lasso the ship and toss up their wares in a plastic bag, crying out, “Hello, would you like to buy?”
The protocol was to catch the bag, select your souvenir, place your money in the bag, and toss it back to them. At the Esna Loch, groups of small boats filled with vendors surrounded the ship, hoping for a quick sale.
Luxor Tomb Tours
Visits to tombs and temples illuminated ancient Egypt’s strong belief in the afterlife. We started by visiting the Valley of the Kings and Queens. About 3,500 years ago, the pharaohs chose to be interred in this remote desert to elude tomb robbers.
We saw King Tutankhamun’s royal tomb, discovered in 1922. The Boy King’s royal treasures are now in the Egyptian Museum but his mummified body is on display, a big draw for tourists. Kareem told us that their mummification process is still unknown to modern science, the second unsolved mystery of ancient Egypt.
The tomb of Ramses’ favorite wife, Queen Nefertari, was everything you can ever imagine about hieroglyphs and painted tombs. It has the most vivid surviving paintings of any tomb. The paintings cover every wall and ceiling in her tomb. Luckily there were few crowds that day.
The tomb interior was warm and stuffy but well worth the temporary lack of adequate ventilation. There is a ten-minute limit inside her tomb, but it was a big highlight of our trip. I couldn’t take enough photos. In our remaining free time we wandered into a couple of more tombs until my curiosity was sated.
We cruised the Nile with quick bus access to the seven different temples we visited. While the pyramids and tombs were all about death and the afterlife, Egyptian temples were about living, making offerings to the gods, re-enacting mythology, rituals and celebrations. Thus, temples were built on the east side of the Nile, where the sun rises and daily life renews. Tombs were built on the west side, where the sun goes down, representative of the end of life. The pharaohs had divine power and dedicated temples to specific gods. Horus was the god of kingship, healing, protection, the sun and the sky.
We flew to Abu Simbel temple alongside Lake Nasser, famous for the colossal statues of Ramses II in relief. The entire complex was saved in 1968 when the Aswan High Dam project threatened its existence. An international effort led by UNESCO saved this spectacular site from submersion. This was one of the highlights of my trip.
The temples kept getting larger as the tour progressed. The huge, 247-acres Karnak Temple complex is second only in size and stature to Angor Wat in Cambodia. It was truly overwhelming. An entire avenue of ram’s head sphinxes greeted us as we walked across the pavilion toward the main structure.
A towering forest of 80-foot high columns with hieroglyphs left me speechless. It would be easy to get lost among the 137 columns of 16 rows. I spun around and looked up until I was dizzy. Beyond them, a 60-foot tall obelisk pierced the bright morning sun and commanded our attention. Kareem explained that in ancient Egyptian religion, the obelisk symbolized the sun God Ra. Carved from a single piece of granite with minutely detailed hieroglyphs, the question is, how were these 350-400-ton structures erected? “That is the third unsolved mystery of Egypt,” he said, and smiled.
After all this ancient Egyptian history and touring, everyone was ready for a break. I was overcome by tombs and temples, yet humbled by it all. What an experience of a lifetime! Luckily, AmaWaterways provided many opportunities for rest and relaxation. As the tour wound down, we had late afternoon High Tea on the banks of the Nile at the famous Old Cataract Hotel. This is where Agatha Christy wrote “Death on the Nile.”
The fading sun cast a warm, pink glow over us as we sipped our tea and relished what we had seen over the past twelve days. A private tour of the sprawling grounds and opulent interiors capped a perfect day.
AmaWaterways had another treat in store for us before the tour ended. Following an early morning flight back to Cairo, we toured the country’s Abdeen Palace. Magnificent and aristocratic, it houses several museums in addition to serving as the current residence of the President of Egypt. The lavishness of this palace cannot be overstated, it ranks right up there with any European rival. We only saw a handful of the 500 rooms, then lunch followed.
The excellent Egyptologists were our sherpas on this extraordinary AmaWaterways travel experience. The mysteries of ancient Egyptian culture continue to feed our fascination 5,000 years later. For those who are curious, now is the time to go to Egypt. It is the trip of a lifetime.