Travel back in time... Egypt Today
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Keith Grenville

Lecturer in Egyptology, he has been leading tours to Egypt for more than 20 years.  He is Founding Chairman of  The Egyptian Society of South Africa, and now Patron of the Society, former member of the pre-eminent London-based Egypt Exploration Society, regularly lectures throughout South Africa and Egypt and has travelled extensively in Egypt for over 30 years. He is the owner of Egypt Today CC, now in its 13th year.

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Travel back in time to Egypt

Egypt is one of the most fascinating countries on earth - offering a good rate of exchange, excellent accommodation starting from a few Rand, unparalleled sight-seeing, sun-drenched beaches, picturesque markets, entertainment and friendly, good natured, hospitable people. Transport within Egypt is cheap and comprehensive, from camel to air-conditioned car or coach, from donkey to boat or aircraft. A romantic form of luxury travel is on a Nile cruiser or for the more adventurous a sailing boat or felucca.

The principal tourist centres are Aswan, Luxor and Cairo - holding many mysteries of ancient Egypt. "Fun in the sun" lovers should include Hurghada or Sharm El Sheikh on the Red Sea and Alexandria, the Pearl of the Mediterranean coast.

Aswan in Upper Egypt is situated at the first obstructive cataract of the Nile which is the limit for the majestic cruise ships which ply the eternal Nile between Aswan and Luxor 220 kilometres to the north. Aswan with its picturesque situation and colourful markets boasts two river islands - Kitchener's Island named after the British Field Marshal of Khartoum fame who owned the island, now a flourishing tropical garden - the other island, the larger of the two named Elephantine Island, or as the locals call it "Elephantina", has an ancient temple, Nubian villages and a very up-market hotel.

Close to Aswan is the romantic Temple of Isis on the island of Philae. This beautiful temple with superb stone-work reliefs was threatened by the encroaching Nile waters due to the building of the famous Aswan High Dam in 1964. Stone by stone the temple was transferred to a nearby island and rebuilt.

One of the greatest temples of all, also saved from a watery grave is the great Temple of Abu Simbel in the Nubian Desert south of Aswan. Ramses II, Egypt's longest serving pharaoh who ruled for 66 years and died in his 90's, built the Great Temple of Abu Simbel and many of ancient Egypt's grandest and most superb figures of a youthful Ramses. These figures are 20 metres high, the measurement across each face from ear to ear is 4 metres and the line of the lips one metre depicting a contented but firm expression of godlike authority. There are eight more statues of Ramses as Osiris inside lining the pillared way past superbly carved and coloured wall reliefs to the innermost sanctuary where, guess what ... yes, we find yet another statue of this less than retiring pharaoh - only this time he is seated with 3 gods for company. This fearsome foursome stare stonily towards the main entrance - but not without purpose! On two significant dates during the Spring and Autumn - 3500 years after the temple was built - they await February 22nd, said to be Ramses’ birthday and October 22nd the date of his coronation, when the rising sun penetrates the length of the temple to bathe the great Ramses II in sunlight - his immediate neighbours the god Amon-Re and Harmakis are only lightly brushed with sunlight whilst the fourth statue, that of Ptah is never touched by the sun - for the very good reason, he is a god of the underworld and forever in darkness!

A few metres away from this Great Temple, Ramses II magnanimously erected a Temple dedicated to his favourite wife Queen Nefertari, not to be mistaken for Nefertiti who lived nearly a century before. This is the sole example of a Pharaoh's wife shown on the front of a temple and equal in size to her husband. There are 6 figures - 2 of Nefertari and, not to be totally upstaged, 4 of Ramses. Ramses II died in 1213 BC.

There are flights from Cairo and Aswan to Abu Simbel or you can hire a car cheaply in Aswan and travel the ancient caravan route across the Libyan Desert - two and a half hours by air-conditioned car. Luxury coaches also ply the route, and a fascinating and beautifully presented Sound & Light show can be seen at the temples at night for those who opt to stay overnight at Abu Simbel.

Luxor, the most important and sensational centre of all Egypt has an astounding concentration of ancient sites. The town is greatly geared to the tourist but nevertheless retains an atmosphere of dignity and justifiable pride in its priceless links with a glorious past. This small dusty town built on the site of the ancient capital of Thebes - not to be confused with the Greek Thebes - is situated on the east bank of the Nile where Luxor temple and the 25 hectare Temple complex of Karnak are found.

The oldest hotel in Luxor must surely be the stately Winter Palace Hotel pleasantly situated on the Corniche, almost alongside the Temple of Luxor. Modern hotels abound with swimming pools for those hot afternoons - then there are hostels and pensions.

The markets or souks of Luxor and the side streets are best explored on foot. For the footsore taxis are available and, as in Aswan, the picturesque horse drawn carriages or garrys, with their stout leather hoods, highly polished horse brasses, mirrored decorations and many types of gimcracks. The gallabiya clad drivers call out as they pass to solicit passengers and will take you the length of the Corniche or on a stately tour of the town for a few Egyptian pounds. The driver will trot, canter, or in the cooler evening may gallop the horse with all the trumpery on the carriage ringing, rattling and clattering you to your destination.

It is always useful to do some elementary homework before visiting Egypt, preparing for the onslaught of 3,000 years of pharaonic history, before Christ. Temples dedicated to a variety of gods were built and extended by succeeding pharaohs - the enormous temple complex of Karnak is a clear example of this. Building started about 1938 BC and continued for 2,000 years. The temple of Karnak is approached along an avenue of sphinx-like rams, passing through the first massive pylon or walled gate into a great courtyard. Off this great pillared courtyard are further temples and chapels. A towering granite figure leads the visitor into the mammoth hypostyle hall consisting of 134 massive columns, over 20 meters tall creating a forest of sand-stone. The scale of this unique hall, measuring five and a half thousand square meters, is simply amazing. It isn't difficult to imagine the central aisle being used for ceremonial processions on great occasions. To walk through colossal pillared halls and colonnades following the footsteps of the pharaohs, viewing the splendour of these evocative temples with some of the original paintwork still pleasing the eye after thousands of years, defies description.

The mountains, valleys and desert of the west bank were chosen for the sacred necropolis where we find the Valley of the Kings containing the tombs of the Pharaohs, the Valley of the Queens which also includes tombs of royal children, the great Funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, colossal statuary and other temples. The Valley of the Kings alone contains over 60 royal tombs - many of which can be visited. By comparison with most of the tombs, Tutankhamun's the most famous of all, is minuscule. Surprising therefore that such a quantity of treasure filled that small area. One wonders how much treasure must have been in the larger tombs, alas now lost for eternity.

The stupendous treasures from Tutankhamun's tomb are in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, including the solid gold sarcophagus and the incredible gold mask of the young king. Cairo, the capital of Egypt is also the largest city in Africa with an estimated population between 13 and 15 million. A city of enormous contrasts, modern and ancient buildings, evidence of pharaonic cults Christianity and Islam - side by side, jostling for space in this pulsating city where the motor vehicle reigns supreme. The most famous tourist site is, of course, the Sphinx and the Pyramids on the threshold of the city and the desert. Built before the Minoan civilization, the Trojan War, the Roman Empire, before Abraham, Moses and 2,500 years before Christ - they were named as one of the Seven Wonders of the World and still hold their fascination after 4,500 years.

© Keith Grenville
November 2004
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