It is a vista we have seen in a thousand postcards and read about in a hundred Egypt travel guides earlier: The Pyramids of Giza, venerable and majestic. And we have steeled ourselves for any tinge of disappointment. But no, as my husband and I shiver slightly in the mild cold of late February, the pyramids rise up in front of us as if from the very sands.
That is when we realise we have not prepared ourselves for the sense of awe, the frisson of shock that spreads through our bodies as we crane our necks to look up and wonder: Why did the ancient Egyptians even conceive of such a thing?
When my guide Eman tells me that the old Arabic word for Egypt is Misr, I immediately speculate on whether it is connected to the word misri, Hindi for “crystallised sugar”. For travel in Egypt has been nothing but delightful, the slightly turbulent political scenario not touching us in any way.
Egypt has been on our travel list for so long that we had jumped at the chance to discover the country, one we have been dreaming about for many years. Indeed, when we sat together planning the trip, our head was filled with vignettes of the sinuous River Nile, the mysterious Queen Cleopatra and the dozens of powerful pharaohs who have collectively fascinated Egyptologists and common men for centuries.
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Eman tries to show us the other sights of her city, but Cairo feels a lot like home to us, given the general chaos and the crowds on the streets. We are also eager to head on towards the greatest sight of them all, the pyramids. After a morning at the fabulous Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, we drive to Giza; the only surprise here is how it now seems to be almost enfolded into actual city limits, and not far out into the desert as I had imagined it.
Ignoring the calls of the camel owners to take photos with the animals or rides into the desert, we walk towards the pyramids purposefully. Much as we try, we just cannot wrap our minds around this perfect symmetry, this gigantic ode to science, this astonishing use of engineering — created over 4,500 years ago. Close to them, there is the limestone statue of the Sphinx, a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human, its broken nose not making any difference to its magnificence.
But it is really the pyramids that keep drawing our eye. The three of them sit unruffled under the desert sun, as they have for more than four millennia now, as we continue to gape at them. The largest of them, known aptly as the Great Pyramid (of Khufu) towers over the others at 146m, and was believed to have been constructed with 2.3 million blocks of massive stone.
Back in the city, we sip on cocktails at a trendy bar right by the Nile, watching the ebb and flow of contemporary life along the river. Our overnight luxury train takes us to Luxor, where we board our cruise on the Nile, our floating home for the next five days. During this time, the river reveals her many moods to us: Silent, naughty, capricious and above all, nurturing. All through this cruise and the various stops, it is evident how the Nile has been the incessant source of all life in this region.
The cruise goes by in a blur of history and mythology, and we fall into an easy pattern of shore excursions in the morning, followed by lunch and a quick siesta, before heading out again in the evening. We wind down with sunset drinks on the top deck, enjoying the cool river breeze on our faces. Dinners on the boat are elaborate affairs, and we particularly enjoy the Egyptian koshary, a one-pot dish of lentils, rice and macaroni, topped with a spicy tomato sauce and garnished generously with fried onions and garlic. It is a taste that is at once exotic and familiar.
Eman regales us with trivia about the kings and queens, gods and goddesses — Amun, Ra, Isis and Osiris merge effortlessly into Hatshepsut, Rameses and Tutankhamun — all of them pouring out of our ears by the end of our very first day out. This trip is to the east bank, the temples of Karnak and Luxor, with their imposing columns and open courtyards lit up just after sunset. We are grateful for Eman, who is not just ready with the stories, but also points out hieroglyphs and paintings hidden amid the pillars and walls of the monuments that we would have never noticed on our own.
The Valley of Kings on the west bank is equally impressive, explored in the bright light of the next morning. This walk through the royal tombs gives us a deeper understanding of the mummification and burial rituals of the ancient Egyptians. This is also a fascinating peep into their unshakable faith in the afterlife and the extent to which they went to ensure that the elite stayed comfortable in the thereafter.
Then there is the Valley of Queens, the assorted temples in Edfu and Kom Ombo before we arrive in Aswan. If Egypt so far has felt Middle Eastern to us, we finally get a sense of being in Africa; there is definitely more colour and cheer in this part of the country. Later in the evening, we hop onto white feluccas, traditional sailboats, for a leisurely spin along the villages lining the banks. By then, we have both come to love the sensation of constant movement on the cruise boat, and this feels even better, much closer to the water.
Fittingly, the last day of the cruise is reserved for the most stunning experience: An excursion to Abu Simbel nearly 300km down south into the desert. We are told to be ready in the boat’s lobby by 4am, since this trip is only conducted as a convoy of tourist vehicles accompanied by police escort. We are bemused at this early start, but once we see the harsh and desolate landscape whirring past on either side of the bus, we understand what the fuss is all about.
If the pyramids of Giza are impressive, then Abu Simbel manages to take our breath away, especially since we have not anticipated this. The main attraction at this Unesco World Heritage Site is the temple of Rameses II, with his four enormous statues staring out at the river, as if daring any invader to approach. This is entirely in line with his own belief as a king among kings, a mortal with god-like qualities.
Once again, my husband and I look at each other and wonder: Why did the Egyptians build such marvels? And how? We don’t know the answer, but we are certainly glad for this chance to feast our eyes upon them.