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The mighty Nile and magnificent monuments entice many to Egypt while the beguiling desert and lush delta wow visitors. Add in the country's long and lingering past and culture full of stories, it is a travelers dream.
Pyramids & More
With sand-covered tombs, austere pyramids and towering Pharaonic temples, Egypt brings out the student in all of us. Visit the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, where Tutankhamun’s tomb was unearthed, and see the glittering finds in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Hop off a Nile boat to visit Dendara, Edfu or one of the other waterside temples, cross Lake Nasser to see Ramses II’s masterpiece at Abu Simbel, or trek into the desert to find the traces of Roman trading outposts. You never know – your donkey might stumble across yet another find, for that is the way many previous discoveries were made.
Egypt once ruled an empire from Al Qahira – Cairo, the City Victorious. The metropolis is packed with soaring minarets and medieval schools and mosques, some of the greatest architecture of medieval Islam. At the same time, Egypt’s native Christians, the Copts, have carried on their traditions that in many respects – such as the church’s liturgical language and the traditional calendar – link back to the time of the pharaohs. Tap into the history in Cairo's early churches and in remote desert monasteries.
Beaches & Beyond
That empty beach with nothing but a candlelit cabin, and a teeming coral reef offshore: they’re waiting for you in Egypt. The coast along the Red Sea has a rugged desert beauty above the waterline and a psychedelic vibrancy below – rewarding to explore on a multiday outing to one of the globe’s great dives or on an afternoon’s snorkelling jaunt along a coral wall. There is even more space and just as much beauty in Egypt’s vast deserts. Whether you’re watching the sun rise between the beautiful shapes of the White Desert or the shimmering horizon from the comfort of a hot spring in Siwa Oasis, Egypt’s landscapes are endlessly fascinating.
Going With the Flow
The old saying that Egypt is the gift of the Nile still rings true: without the river there would be no fertile land, no food and a lot less electricity. Although people's lives are increasingly physically detached from the water, the Nile still exerts a uniquely powerful role. Luckily for visitors, the river is also the perfect place from which to see many of the most spectacular ancient monuments, which is one reason why a Nile cruise remains such a popular way to travel.
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Amun-Ra was the local god of Karnak (Luxor) and during the New Kingdom, when the princes of Thebes ruled Egypt, he became the preeminent state god, with a temple that reflected his status. At the height of its power, the temple owned 421,000 head of cattle, 65 cities, 83 ships and 276,400 hectares of agricultural land and had 81,000 people working for it. The shell that remains, sacked by Assyrians and Persians, is still one of the world's great archaeological sites, grand, beautiful and inspiring. The Quay of Amun was the dock where the large boats carrying the statues of the gods moored during festivals. From paintings in the tomb of Nakht and elsewhere we know that there were palaces to the north of the quay and that these were surrounded by lush gardens. On the east side, a ramp slopes down to the processional avenue of ram-headed sphinxes. These lead to the massive unfinished first pylon, the last to be built, during the reign of Nectanebo I (30th dynasty). The inner side of the pylon still has the massive mud-brick construction ramp, up which blocks of stone for the pylon were dragged with rollers and ropes. Napoleon’s expedition recorded blocks still on the ramp. Great Court Behind the first pylon lies the Great Court, the largest area of the Karnak complex. To the left is the Shrine of Seti II, with three small chapels that held the sacred barques (boats) of Mut, Amun and Khonsu during the lead-up to the Opet Festival. In the southeastern corner (far right) is the well-preserved Temple of Ramses III, a miniature version of the pharaoh’s temple at Medinat Habu. The temple plan is simple and classic: pylon, open court, vestibule with four Osirid columns and four columns, hypostyle hall with eight columns and three barque chapels for Amun, Mut and Khonsu. At the centre of the court is a 21m column with a papyrus-shaped capital – the only survivor of ten columns that originally stood here – and a small alabaster altar, all that remains of the Kiosk of Taharka, the 25th-dynasty Nubian pharaoh. The second pylon was begun by Horemheb, the last 18th-dynasty pharaoh, and continued by Ramses I and Ramses II, who also raised three colossal red-granite statues of himself on either side of the entrance; one is now destroyed. Great Hypostyle Hall Beyond the second pylon is the extraordinary Great Hypostyle Hall, one of the greatest religious monuments ever built. Covering 5500 sq m – enough space to contain both Rome’s St Peter’s Basilica and London’s St Paul’s Cathedral – the hall is an unforgettable forest of 134 towering stone pillars. Their papyrus shape symbolise a swamp, of which there were so many along the Nile. Ancient Egyptians believed that these plants surrounded the primeval mound on which life was first created. Each summer when the Nile began to flood, this hall and its columns would fill with several feet of water. Originally, the columns would have been brightly painted – some colour remains – and roofed, making it pretty dark away from the lit main axis. The size and grandeur of the pillars and the endless decorations can be overwhelming, so take your time, sit for a while and stare at the dizzying spectacle. The hall was planned by Ramses I and built by Seti I and Ramses II. Note the difference in quality between the delicate raised relief in the northern part, by Seti I, and the much cruder sunken relief work, added by Ramses II in the southern part of the hall. The cryptic scenes on the inner walls were intended for the priesthood and the royalty who understood the religious context, but the outer walls are easier to comprehend, showing the pharaoh’s military prowess and strength, and his ability to bring order to chaos. On the back of the third pylon, built by Amenhotep III, to the right the pharaoh is shown sailing the sacred barque during the Opet Festival. Tuthmosis I (1504–1492 BC) created a narrow court between the third and fourth pylons, where four obelisks stood, two each for Tuthmosis I and Tuthmosis III (1479–1425 BC). Only the bases remain except for one, 22m high, raised for Tuthmosis I. Inner Temple Beyond the fourth pylon is the Hypostyle Hall of Tuthmosis III built by Tuthmosis I in precious wood, and altered by Tuthmosis III with 14 columns and a stone roof. In this court stands one of the two magnificent 30m-high obelisks erected by Queen Hatshepsut (1473–1458 BC) to the glory of her ‘father’ Amun. The other is broken, but the upper shaft lies near the sacred lake. The Obelisk of Hatshepsut is the tallest in Egypt, its tip originally covered in electrum (a commonly used alloy of gold and silver). After Hatshepsut’s death, her stepson Tuthmosis III eradicated all signs of her reign and had them walled into a sandstone structure. The ruined fifth pylon, constructed by Tuthmosis I, leads to another colonnade now badly ruined, followed by the small sixth pylon, raised by Tuthmosis III, who also built the pair of red-granite columns in the vestibule beyond, carved with the lotus and the papyrus, the symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt. Nearby, on the left, are two huge statues of Amun and the goddess Amunet, carved in the reign of Tutankhamun. The original S anctuary of Amun, the very core of the temple and the place of darkness where the god resided, was built by Tuthmosis III. Destroyed when the temple was sacked by the Persians, it was rebuilt in granite by Alexander the Great’s successor and half-brother, the fragile, dim-witted Philip Arrhidaeus (323–317 BC). East of the shrine of Philip Arrhidaeus is the oldest-known part of the temple, the Middle Kingdom Court, where Sesostris I built a shrine, of which the foundation walls have been found. On the northern wall of the court is the Wall of Records, a running tally of the organised tribute the pharaoh exacted in honour of Amun from his subjugated lands. Great Festival Hall of Tuthmosis III At the back of the Middle Kingdom Court is the Great Festival Hall of Tuthmosis III. It is an unusual structure with carved stone columns imitating tent poles, perhaps a reference to the pharaoh’s life under canvas on his frequent military expeditions abroad. The columned vestibule that lies beyond, generally referred to as the Botanical Gardens, has wonderful, detailed relief scenes of the flora and fauna that the pharaoh had encountered during his campaigns in Syria and Palestine, and had brought back to Egypt. Secondary Axis of the Amun Temple Enclosure The courtyard between the Hypostyle Hall and the seventh pylon, built by Tuthmosis III, is known as the cachette court, as thousands of stone and bronze statues were discovered here in 1903. The priests had the old statues and temple furniture they no longer needed buried around 300 BC. Most statues were sent to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but some remain, standing in front of the seventh pylon, including four of Tuthmosis III on the left. The well-preserved eighth pylon, built by Queen Hatshepsut, is the oldest part of the north–south axis of the temple, and one of the earliest pylons in Karnak. Carved on it is a text she falsely attributed to Tuthmosis I, justifying her taking the throne of Egypt. East of the seventh and eighth pylons is the sacred lake, where, according to Herodotus, the priests of Amun bathed twice daily and nightly for ritual purity. On the northwestern side of the lake is part of the Fallen Obelisk of Hatshepsut showing her coronation, and a giant scarab in stone dedicated by Amenhotep III to Khepri, a form of the sun god. In the southwestern corner of the enclosure is the Temple of Khonsu, god of the moon, and son of Amun and Mut. It can be reached from a door in the southern wall of the Hypostyle Hall of the Temple of Amun, via a path through various blocks of stone. The temple, mostly the work of Ramses III and enlarged by later Ramesside rulers, lies north of Euergetes’ Gate and the avenue of sphinxes leading to Luxor Temple. The temple pylon leads via a peristyle court to a hypostyle hall with eight columns carved with figures of Ramses XI and the High Priest Herihor, who effectively ruled Upper Egypt at the time. The next chamber housed the sacred barque of Khonsu.
This ancient monastery traces its founding to about AD 330, when Byzantine empress Helena had a small chapel and a fortified refuge for local hermits built beside what was believed to be the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses. Today St Catherine’s is considered one of the oldest continually functioning monastic communities in the world. If the monastery museum is locked, ask at the Church of the Transfiguration for the key. The monastery – which, together with the surrounding area, has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site – is named after St Catherine, the legendary martyr of Alexandria, who was tortured on a spiked wheel and then beheaded for her faith. Tradition holds that her body was transported by angels away from the torture device (which spun out of control and killed the pagan onlookers) and onto the slopes of Egypt’s highest mountain peak. The peak, which lies about 6km south of Mt Sinai, subsequently became known as Gebel Katarina. Katherine’s body was ‘found’ about 300 years later by monks from the monastery in a state of perfect preservation. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian ordered a fortress to be constructed around the original chapel, together with a basilica and a monastery, to provide a secure home for the monastic community that had grown there, and as a refuge for the Christians of southern Sinai. Since then the monastery has been visited by pilgrims from throughout the world, many of whom braved extraordinarily difficult and dangerous journeys to reach the remote and isolated site. Today a paved access road has removed the hazards that used to accompany a trip here, and the monastery has become a popular day trip from Sharm El Sheikh and Dahab. Travellers visiting should remember that this is still a functioning monastery, which necessitates conservative dress – no one with shorts is permitted to enter, and women must cover their shoulders. Touring the Monastery Inside the walled compound, the ornately decorated 6th-century Church of the Transfiguration has a nave flanked by massive marble columns and walls covered in richly gilded icons and paintings. At the church’s eastern end, a gilded 17th-century iconostasis separates the nave from the sanctuary and the apse, where St Catherine’s remains are interred (off limits to most visitors). High in the apse above the altar is one of the monastery’s most stunning artistic treasures, the 6th-century mosaic of the Transfiguration, although it can be difficult to see it past the chandeliers and the iconostasis. To the left of and below the altar is the monastery’s holiest area, the Chapel of the Burning Bush, which is off limits to the public. It’s possible to see what is thought to be a descendant of the original burning bush in the monastery compound; however, due to visitors snipping cuttings of the bush to take home as blessings, the area surrounding it is now fenced off. Near the burning bush is the Well of Moses, a natural spring that is supposed to give marital happiness to those who drink from it. Above the Well of Moses, and the main highlight of a monastery visit, is the superb Monastery Museum, which has been magnificently restored. It has displays (labelled in Arabic and English) of many of the monastery’s artistic treasures, including some of the spectacular Byzantine-era icons from its world-famous collection. There are numerous precious chalices, and gold and silver crosses, along with displays of ancient manuscripts. In the lowest room of the museum is the prize exhibit: parchments from the Codex Sinaiticus, the world's oldest near-complete bible. The monastery’s library, the second largest in the world, contains a priceless collection of illuminated bibles and ancient manuscripts, including a hand-written copy of the New Testament, and has reopened to the public after three years of restoration. Just inside the monastery walls you'll find a gift shop selling replicas of icons. In the wider monastery grounds, outside the thick walls, are the guest house and a lovely courtyard area with a cafe (though it was closed during our last visit due to lack of custom). As tourism numbers are down, the narrow lane inside the monastery is pleasantly crowd-free but when tourism picks up again be aware that the monastery can get crammed with tour-bus crowds, particularly on Saturdays and Mondays.
This Ptolemaic temple, built between 237 and 57 BC, is one of the best-preserved ancient monuments in Egypt. Preserved by desert sand, which filled the place after the pagan cult was banned, the temple is dedicated to Horus, the avenging son of Isis and Osiris. With its roof intact, it is also one of the most atmospheric of ancient buildings. Edfu was a settlement and cemetery site from around 3000 BC onward. It was the 'home' and cult centre of the falcon god Horus of Behdet (the ancient name for Edfu), although the Temple of Horus as it exists today is Ptolemaic. Started by Ptolemy III (246–221 BC) on 23 August 237 BC, on the site of an earlier and smaller New Kingdom structure, the sandstone temple was completed some 180 years later by Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos, Cleopatra VII’s father. In conception and design it follows the general plan, scale, ornamentation and traditions of Pharaonic architecture, right down to the Egyptian attire worn by Greek pharaohs depicted in the temple’s reliefs. Although it is much newer than cult temples at Luxor or Abydos, its excellent state of preservation helps to fill in many historical gaps; it is, in effect, a 2000-year-old example of an architectural style that was already archaic during Ptolemaic times. Two hundred years ago the temple was buried by sand, rubble and part of the village of Edfu, which had spread over the roof. Excavation was begun by Auguste Mariette in the mid-19th century. Today the temple is entered via a long row of shops selling tourist tat, and a new visitors centre that houses the ticket office, clean toilets, a cafeteria and a room for showing a 15-minute film on the history of the temple in English. Touring the Temple Beyond the Roman mammisi (birth house), with some colourful carvings, the massive 36m-high pylon (gateway) is guarded by two huge but splendid granite statues of Horus as a falcon. The walls are decorated with colossal reliefs of Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos, who is holding his enemies by their hair before Horus and is about to smash their skulls; this is the classic propaganda pose of the almighty pharaoh. Beyond this pylon, the court of offerings is surrounded on three sides by 32 columns, each with different floral capitals. The walls are decorated with reliefs, including the ‘Feast of the Beautiful Meeting’ just inside the entrance, the meeting being that of Horus of Edfu and Hathor of Dendara, who visited each other’s temples each year and, after two weeks of great fertility celebrations, were magically united. A second set of Horus falcon statues in black granite once flanked the entrance to the temple’s first or outer hypostyle hall, but today only one remains. Inside the entrance of the outer hypostyle hall, to the left and right, are two small chambers: the one on the right was the temple library where the ritual texts were stored; the chamber on the left was the hall of consecrations, a vestry where freshly laundered robes and ritual vases were kept. The hall itself has 12 columns, and the walls are decorated with reliefs of the temple’s founding. The inner hypostyle hall also has 12 columns, and in the top left part of the hall is perhaps this temple’s most interesting room: the temple laboratory. Here, all the necessary perfumes and incense recipes were carefully brewed and stored, their ingredients listed on the walls. Exit the inner hypostyle hall through the large central doorway to enter the offering chamber, or first antechamber, which has an altar where daily offerings of fruit, flowers, wine, milk and other foods were left. On the west side, 242 steps lead up to the rooftop and its fantastic view of the Nile and the surrounding fields. (The roof is closed to visitors.) The second antechamber gives access to the sanctuary of Horus, which contains the polished-granite shrine that once housed the gold cult statue of Horus. Created during the reign of Nectanebo II (360–343 BC), this shrine, or house of the god, was reused by the Ptolemies in their newer temple. In front of it stands a replica of the wooden barque (boat) in which Horus’ statue would be taken out of the temple in procession during festive occasions: the original is now in the Louvre, Paris. On the eastern enclosure wall, look for the remains of the Nilometer, which measured the level of the river and helped predict the coming harvest.
The first structure you’ll see at Abydos is the Great Temple of Seti I, which, after a certain amount of restoration work, is one of the most complete, unique and beautiful temples in Egypt. With exquisite decoration and plenty of atmosphere, it is the main attraction here, although the nearby Osireion is also wrapped in mystery and the desert views are spectacular. This great limestone structure, unusually L-shaped rather than rectangular, had seven great doorways and was dedicated to the six major gods – Osiris, Isis, Horus, Amun-Ra, Ra-Horakhty and Ptah – and also to Seti I (1294–1279 BC) himself. Less than 50 years after the end of the Amarna 'heresy' – when Pharaoh Akhenaten broke with tradition by creating a new religion, capital and artistic style – this is a clear attempt to revive the old ways. As you roam through Seti’s dark halls and sanctuaries, an air of mystery surrounds you. The temple is entered through a largely destroyed pylon and two open courtyards, built by Seti I’s son Ramses II, who is depicted on the portico killing Asiatics and worshipping Osiris. Beyond, originally with seven doorways but now only entered through the central one, is the first hypostyle hall, also completed by Ramses II. Reliefs depict the pharaoh making offerings to the gods and preparing the temple building. The second hypostyle hall, with 24 sandstone papyrus columns, was the last part of the temple to have been decorated by Seti, who died before the work was completed. The reliefs here are of the highest quality and hark back to the finest Old Kingdom work. Particularly outstanding is a scene on the rear right-hand wall showing Seti standing in front of a shrine to Osiris, upon which sits the god himself. Standing in front of him are the goddesses Maat, Renpet, Isis, Nephthys and Amentet. Below is a frieze of Hapi, the Nile god. At the rear of this second hypostyle hall are sanctuaries for each of the seven gods (right to left: Horus, Isis, Osiris, Amun-Ra, Ra-Horakhty, Ptah and the deified Seti), which once held their cult statues. The Osiris sanctuary, third from the right, leads to a series of inner chambers dedicated to the god, his wife and child, Isis and Horus, and the ever-present Seti. More interesting are the chambers off to the left of the seven sanctuaries: here, in a group of chambers dedicated to the mysteries of Osiris, the god is shown mummified with the goddess Isis hovering above him as a bird, a graphic scene which records the conception of their son Horus. Immediately to the left of this is the corridor known as Gallery of the Kings, carved with the figures of Seti I, his eldest son the future Ramses II, and a long list of the pharaohs who preceded them. The stairway leads out to the Osireion and the desert beyond. One of the temple’s most recent residents was Dorothy Eady. An Englishwoman better known as ‘Omm Sety’, Eady believed she was a reincarnated temple priestess and lover of Seti I. For 35 years she lived at Abydos and provided archaeologists with information about the workings of the temple, in which she was given permission to perform the ancient rites. She died in 1981 and is buried in the desert.
Carved out of the mountain on the west bank of the Nile between 1274 and 1244 BC, this imposing main temple of the Abu Simbel complex was as much dedicated to the deified Ramses II himself as to Ra-Horakhty, Amun and Ptah. The four colossal statues of the pharaoh, which front the temple, are like gigantic sentinels watching over the incoming traffic from the south, undoubtedly designed as a warning of the strength of the pharaoh. Over the centuries both the Nile and the desert sands shifted, and this temple was lost to the world until 1813, when it was rediscovered by chance by the Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt. Only one of the heads was completely showing above the sand, the next head was broken off and, of the remaining two, only the crowns could be seen. Enough sand was cleared away in 1817 by Giovanni Belzoni for the temple to be entered. From the temple’s forecourt, a short flight of steps leads up to the terrace in front of the massive rock-cut facade, which is about 30m high and 35m wide. Guarding the entrance, three of the four famous colossal statues stare out across the water into eternity – the inner left statue collapsed in antiquity and its upper body still lies on the ground. The statues, more than 20m high, are accompanied by smaller statues of the pharaoh’s mother, Queen Tuya, his wife Nefertari and some of his favourite children. Above the entrance, between the central throned colossi, is the figure of the falcon-headed sun god Ra-Horakhty. The roof of the large hall is decorated with vultures, symbolising the protective goddess Nekhbet, and is supported by eight columns, each fronted by an Osiride statue of Ramses II. Reliefs on the walls depict the pharaoh’s prowess in battle, trampling over his enemies and slaughtering them in front of the gods. On the north wall is a depiction of the famous Battle of Kadesh (c 1274 BC), in what is now Syria, where Ramses inspired his demoralised army so that they won the battle against the Hittites. The scene is dominated by a famous relief of Ramses in his chariot, shooting arrows at his fleeing enemies. Also visible is the Egyptian camp, walled off by its soldiers’ round-topped shields, and the fortified Hittite town, surrounded by the Orontes River. The next hall, the four-columned vestibule where Ramses and Nefertari are shown in front of the gods and the solar barques, leads to the sacred sanctuary, where Ramses and the triad of gods of the Great Temple sit on their thrones. The original temple was aligned in such a way that each 21 February and 21 October, Ramses’ birthday and coronation day, the first rays of the rising sun moved across the hypostyle hall, through the vestibule and into the sanctuary, where they illuminate the figures of Ra-Horakhty, Ramses II and Amun. Ptah, to the left, was never supposed to be illuminated. Since the temples were moved, this phenomenon happens one day later.
Built to honour the goddess Isis, this was the last temple built in the classical Egyptian style. Construction began around 690 BC, and it was one of the last outposts where the goddess was worshipped. The cult of Isis continued here until at least AD 550. The boat leaves you near the Kiosk of Nectanebo, the oldest part, and the entrance to the temple is marked by the 18m-high first pylon with reliefs of Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos smiting enemies. In the central court of the Temple of Isis, the mammisi (birth house) is dedicated to Horus, son of Isis and Osiris. Successive pharaohs reinstated their legitimacy as the mortal descendants of Horus by taking part in rituals celebrating the Isis legend and the birth of her son Horus in the marshes. The second pylon leads to a hypostyle hall, with superb column capitals. Note also the reuse of the temple as a Christian church, with crosses carved into the older hieroglyph reliefs, and images of the Egyptian gods carefully defaced. Beyond lie three vestibules, leading into the Inner Sanctuary of Isis. Two granite shrines stood here, one containing a gold statue of Isis and another containing the barque in which the statue travelled, but these were long ago moved to Florence and Paris, and only the stone pedestal for the barque remains, inscribed with the names of Ptolemy III and his wife, Berenice. Take a side door west out of the hypostyle hall to the Gate of Hadrian where there is an image of the god Hapi, sitting in a cave at the First Cataract, representing the source of the river Nile. East of the second pylon is the delightful Temple of Hathor, decorated with reliefs of musicians (including an ape playing the lute) and Bes, the god of childbirth. South of this is the elegant, unfinished pavilion by the water’s edge, known as the Kiosk of Trajan (‘Pharaoh’s Bed’), perhaps the most famous of Philae’s monuments and one that was frequently painted by Victorian artists, whose boats were moored beneath it. The whole complex was moved from its original location on Philae Island, to its new location on Agilkia Island, after the flooding of Lake Nasser. A major multinational Unesco team relocated Philae, and a number of other temples that now dot the shores of Lake Nasser. You can see the submerged original island a short distance away, punctuated by the steel columns used in the moving process. Don't miss the sound and light show at night, the least cheesy of the sound and light 'extravaganzas'. On your feet, look out for the extremely creative guards who will do all in their power to get in your photos, or to point out the hieroglyphs that you can quite clearly see yourself, all for some baksheesh (tip)!
Upon first glimpse of the 300-sq-km national park of the White Desert, you’ll feel like Alice through the looking-glass. About 20km northeast of Farafra, on the east side of the road, blinding-white chalk rock spires sprout almost supernaturally from the ground, each frost-coloured lollipop licked into a surreal landscape of familiar and unfamiliar shapes by the dry desert winds. These sculptural formations are best viewed at sunrise or sunset, when the sun lights them with orangey-pink hues, or under a full moon, which gives the landscape a ghostly Arctic appearance. The sand around the outcroppings is littered with quartz and different varieties of deep-black iron pyrites, as well as small fossils. On the west side of the Farafra–Bahariya highway, away from the wind-hewn sculptures, chalk towers called inselbergs burst from the desert floor into a spectacular white canyon. Between them run grand boulevards of sand, like geologic Champs-Élysées. No less beautiful than the east side of the road, the shade and privacy here makes it a great area to camp. About 50km north are two flat-topped mountains known as the Twin Peaks, a key navigation point for travellers. A favourite destination of local tour operators, the view from the top of the surrounding symmetrical hills, all shaped like giant ant-hills, is spectacular. Just beyond here, the road climbs a steep escarpment known as Naqb As Sillim (Pass of the Stairs); this is the main pass that leads into and out of the Farafra depression and marks the end of the White Desert. A few kilometres further along, the desert floor changes again and becomes littered with quartz crystals. If you look at the rock formations in this area you’ll see that they are also largely made of crystal. The most famous of the formations is the Crystal Mountain, actually a large rock made entirely of quartz. It sits right beside the main road some 24km north of Naqb As Sillim, and is easily recognisable by the large hole through its middle. At the time of writing, foreigners were officially no longer allowed to camp overnight in the desert, but in reality many people do. The tourist police turn a blind eye, but it pays to do the trip with an experienced safari outfit. As well as the national park entry fee, you pay a LE20 fee for each night you sleep here. If you come as part of a group, the fees are included in your tour. You can usually buy tickets at the entrance to the park, but don’t worry about going in without one; you can just pay the rangers when they find you. Sleeping anywhere in the park, surrounded by the white formations and visited by friendly fennecs, is an unforgettable experience.
The west bank of Luxor had been the site of royal burials since around 2100 BC, but it was the pharaohs of the New Kingdom period (1550–1069 BC) who chose this isolated valley dominated by the pyramid-shaped mountain peak of Al Qurn (The Horn). Once called the Great Necropolis of Millions of Years of Pharaoh, or the Place of Truth, the Valley of the Kings has 63 magnificent royal tombs. The tombs have suffered greatly from treasure hunters, floods and, in recent years, mass tourism: carbon dioxide, friction and the humidity produced by the average 2.8g of sweat left by each visitor have affected the reliefs and the stability of paintings that were made on plaster laid over limestone. The Department of Antiquities has installed dehumidifiers and glass screens in the worst-affected tombs. They have also introduced a rotation system: a limited number of tombs are open to the public at any one time. The entry ticket gains access to three tombs, with extra tickets to see the tombs of Ay, Tutankhamun, Seti I and Ramses VI. The road into the Valley of the Kings is a gradual, dry, hot climb, so be prepared, especially if you are riding a bicycle. Also be prepared to run the gauntlet of the tourist bazaar, which sells soft drinks, ice creams and snacks alongside the tat. The air-conditioned Valley of the Kings Visitors Centre & Ticket Booth has a good model of the valley, a movie about Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun and toilets (there are Portakabins higher up, but this is the one to use). A tuf-tuf (a little electrical train) ferries visitors between the visitors centre and the tombs (it can be hot during summer). The ride costs LE4. It’s worth having a torch to illuminate badly lit areas but you cannot take a camera – photography is forbidden in all tombs. The best source of information about the tombs, including detailed descriptions of their decoration and history, can be found on the Theban Mapping Project website. Some tombs have additional entry fees and tickets. Highlights include Tomb of Ay, Tomb of Horemheb (KV 57), Tomb of Ramses III (KV 11), Tomb of Ramses VI (KV 9) and Tomb of Seti I (KV 17).
The last remaining wonder of the ancient world; for nearly 4000 years, the extraordinary shape, impeccable geometry and sheer bulk of the Giza Pyramids have invited the obvious questions: ‘How were we built, and why?’. Centuries of research have given us parts of the answer. Built as massive tombs on the orders of the pharaohs, they were constructed by teams of workers tens-of-thousands strong. Today they stand as an awe-inspiring tribute to the might, organisation and achievements of ancient Egypt. Ongoing excavations on the Giza Plateau, along with the discovery of a pyramid-builders' settlement, complete with areas for large-scale food production and medical facilities, have provided more evidence that the workers were not the slaves of Hollywood tradition, but an organised workforce of Egyptian farmers. During the flood season, when the Nile covered their fields, the same farmers could have been redeployed by the highly structured bureaucracy to work on the pharaoh’s tomb. In this way, the Pyramids can almost be seen as an ancient job-creation scheme. And the flood waters made it easier to transport building stone to the site. But despite the evidence, some still won’t accept that the ancient Egyptians were capable of such achievements. So-called pyramidologists point to the carving and placement of the stones, precise to the millimetre, and argue the numerological significance of the structures’ dimensions as evidence that the Pyramids were constructed by angels or aliens. It’s easy to laugh at these out-there ideas, but when you see the monuments up close, especially inside, you’ll better understand why so many people believe such awesome structures must have unearthly origins. Most visitors will make a beeline straight to the four most famous sights; the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid of Khafre, the Pyramid of Menkaure and the Sphinx. But for those who want to explore further, the desert plateau surrounding the pyramids is littered with tombs, temple ruins and smaller satellite pyramids.
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