Egypt Holiday 2014: Temples and Tombs (Overview: 14th-17th November)

Panorama of the Red Pyramid
Panorama of the Red Pyramid

Back in November 2014 John and I went on our second ever holiday to Egypt – the previous one had been five years earlier. It had been a bit of a saga getting to go because we’d booked on two different trips (which were cancelled because of restrictions on travel) before we finally got to go. The official name of the trip we went on was “Daughters of Isis” but I thought “Temples and Tombs” summed it up a bit better (if rather less snappily) particularly as the itinerary had to change from the original one (again because of restrictions) so it was a bit less focussed on Isis or women in Egypt. It was run by Ancient World Tours who I would thoroughly recommend. They’re rather pricey but you get very very well looked after during the trip. Our Egyptian guide was Medhat Saad and the group was also accompanied by a British Egyptologist – Dylan Bickerstaffe. Both were good – very knowledgeable, and good company during the trip. Medhat didn’t socialise with us much, but Dylan did – as we developed a core group of “people who had dinner together” he was very much part of it.

The previous trip we’d been on there’d only been four of us so this one was a bit different with 16 of us. With one notable exception* the people were lovely, and it feels like we’ve made some new friends who we will hopefully keep in touch with (certainly I’ve added all that I could on facebook which makes that rather easier!). We were a bit surprised there were several non-Brits, somehow I think we’d both assumed as the tour company was British so would the clientele be. But as well as several British people based in Britain there were also 3 from the US, 2 from Australia and a Scot who lives & works in Saudi Arabia.

*She’d booked at the last minute and I think had rather misunderstood the nature of the trip – we were not New Age spiritual people. She was only with us for a couple of days in the end.

It was an incredibly packed trip, we had 9 real days (plus 2 travel days) and we visited at least 2 sites per day (often several more). In the first few posts I’m just going to give an overview of where we went on which day, with a selection of photos that are biased towards the people rather than the places. The plan (hopefully I’ll finish the project!) is to write another post about each site with more photos, aimed more at the Egypt nuts rather than the people who are just curious to know what I did on my “summer” holidays!

The photos for this overview series are up on flickr, in a set here, they are about half taken by me and half taken by J. Not all of the photos in the set are in these posts, so do go look at the rest 🙂 If you click on any photo it’ll go to its flickr page. Maps are linked to a custom Google map with all the places on, click on any map to go to it. Once there you can click on the place names in the key to the left to zoom to them or turn on & off the visibility of the layers to see particular days on their own. Hotels are green marks, sites are red.

14th November

The first day was entirely filled with travel – as the flight was mid-afternoon we’d decided just to drive to Heathrow in the morning and that turned into a bit of a nightmare trip with two different bits of the M25 at a standstill due to accidents. Thank goodness for satnav and detours down side roads! We eventually made it to the airport on time and after that could relax.

We bumped into Dylan as we were checking in, then again on the way to the departure gate (somehow going through security to departures we’d been waved off to a different scanner and lost track of him). While waiting at the gate we also met several of the other people on the tour, some of whom Dylan already knew.

The rest of the travel was uneventful really – got met at Cairo airport by the Traveline rep who whisked us all through customs and off onto a coach to get to the hotel. As we were staying Giza, at the Mövenpick near the Pyramids, we had about a 45 minute drive to get to the hotel. By the time we were checked in (handled by the Traveline guy) and found our room we were about ready to crash – only problem was the TV was playing a welcome menu thing complete with muzak and there was no remote control for it, so we had to wait till someone delivered one before we could get some sleep!

15th November

map of places visited on 15th November

The first real day dawned early – not as early as our mornings were going to get, but it felt pretty damn early after the late night. Up, breakfast and out on the coach at 8am where we met our guide Medhat. The original plan for the day was Pyramids then Cairo Museum, but as it was so hazy Medhat had swapped the order round and so we were driven back into Cairo for the museum first. Traffic was actually not that bad and so we got to the museum earlier than it was open and the coach went on a little detour around Cairo – we took a lot of photos out of the coach windows on the way to & around Cairo 🙂

Cairo StreetsCairo Streets
Cairo Streets

In the museum the group split into two – some people who’d been to the museum several times went off to explore by themselves, and six of us followed Medhat for a tour first. He took us around some of the highlights of the collection, in roughly chronological order, and then we too got to go off & explore on our own. This time J and I knew that there were two Royal Mummy rooms, so that was our first port of call. Followed by several quick looks at other things we’d particularly wanted to see (or see again). It’s the sort of museum where it feels like you’ll never be able to see all of it as there’s just so much stuff there.

For lunch we were driven back to Giza and had lunch in the restaurant at Mena House which is a very fancy old hotel near the Pyramids. The decor of the restaurant and surrounding areas was beautiful – lots of wooden geometric patterns on the ceilings and walls, and spectacular chandeliers. And the dining room had views of the Pyramids!

After lunch it was on to the Pyramids. The haze had mostly gone so we had much better views than we would’ve done in the morning. As there aren’t as many tourists these days there were still tickets available for the Great Pyramid (when we were in Egypt before you had to turn up soon after 9am for those) – so obviously we got those as we’d not had the chance to go in before. Actually being inside really brings home the scale of the structure. We also visited the tomb of Merys Ankh III – the wife of Khafre (who built the second pyramid), and possibly also daughter of Khufu.

Me and PyramidsJ and Pyramids
Pyramids at Giza

In the evening we got food in the bar at the hotel with some of the others – we’d originally planned to go to one of the restaurants there but it was closed. We found out why a bit later on – there was a wedding reception being held at the hotel and they came through the bar area where we were sat (which was right near the reception desk). A very joyful happy party, it seemed – as the couple came in they were surrounded by musicians playing trumpets and drums, and there were several pauses during the procession to the restaurant for dancing and singing.

Wedding Party
Wedding Party in the Hotel

16th November

map of places visited on 16th November

The cold I’d been brewing up since before we got to Egypt hit me at full force on this day – even had to take medicine for it, but it didn’t spoil the day. This was the first of our desert days, and we left the hotel early in several jeeps with our overnight stuff (we were coming back our hotel rooms in the Mövenpick the night after). We were in a jeep with the other John (yep, two Johns on the tour, also two Margarets, nice & confusing) and Kay, and also the woman who was to leave the next evening.

Inside the Red Pyramid
Inside the Red Pyramid

This was a day of pyramids, and our first stop was Dashur where we visited two of Sneferu’s pyramids. First the Red Pyramid (the first true pyramid, c. 2500BC), where we got to go inside and see the impressive corbelled ceilings. The other pyramid at this site was the Bent Pyramid, which was an earlier attempt during Sneferu’s reign at a true pyramid – but part way up they changed the angle of the walls, probably due to structural concerns, and so it looks bent.

Bent PyramidMe at the Bent Pyramid
Bent Pyramid

We then drove to our next site, picking up a military escort that Medhat had requested for these two days somewhere along the way – they checked out the sites when we got there, and kept an eye on the surroundings. The site was the pyramid at Lahun – the first totally new site of the trip for me & J. This was the burial monument for the Middle Kingdom Pharaoh Senusret II, built around 1880BC. Petrie excavated here so there’s a lot of stuff (including many papyrii) in the Petrie Museum in London from the village where the priests of Senusret II’s mortuary cult lived.

Panorama of Lahun Pyramid
Panorama at Lahun Pyramid

Our final site of the day was Hawara to see the pyramid of Amenemhat III (another Middle Kingdom Pharaoh, his pyramid dates to around 1840BC). This site is also where the haunting Roman era mummy portraits were found. And also the site of the Labyrinth – believed to’ve been the inspiration for the one in the tale of the Minotaur. Actually this building wasn’t built as a maze, instead “just” a large temple as Dylan told us later in the day. One of the fascinating things about this site is that where the Labyrinth stood (there aren’t any above ground traces) the ground was covered in bits of broken pottery everywhere you looked of all different types.

Hawara PyramidLunch at Hawara
Hawara, Pyramid and Lunch

At Hawara we also had our lunch, prepared by the drivers of the jeeps. As it was now 3pm and breakfast had been at 7am it was a very welcome lunch! And also very tasty – bread and variety of dips & salads. After lunch we drove on to our hotel for the night – the Auberge on the shore of the Qarun Lake. It was a lovely hotel, but felt like it had seen better days – apparently it always used to be packed and difficult to get a room. But since the troubles and with the decline in tourist numbers in general it has been empty a lot of the time – we were the only tour group in the hotel, and I think it would otherwise have been shut. We had our evening meal here, after which Dylan gave us a talk on the Labyrinth as he’s made a study of it. And then a group of us retired to the bar to chat and have a few drinks 🙂

Auberge HotelDrinks after Dinner
Evening at the Auberge Hotel

17th November

map of places visited on 17th November

Our second desert day started bright and early, and we were off into “proper” desert (the various pyramids the day before had all been accessed by real roads). I’ll mention the bad bit of the day now & get it over with – I was really quite sick at the first site, probably something I’d eaten at dinner the day before. But Medhat gave me some medicine for it which quickly sorted me out and I was feeling pretty much 100% better by the end of the day. I also had to change jeep as I couldn’t swap to the front seat in ours – so I spent the rest of the day’s journeys in a jeep with the other Margaret, Jan, Tammy and Dan.

Driving into the DesertMe at Dimai
The desert, and me at Dimai

However, the rest of the day was still awesome 🙂 Instead of pyramids we visited towns and temples, as well as a couple of stops to see the desert itself. The first stop was a Ptolemaic era city called Dimai, which had once been a port on the shores of the lake (which has shrunk considerably since then. There are still large mud brick walls left, not just the stone buildings.

Our next stop wasn’t an ancient Egyptian site, it was a petrified forest! I thought this was really cool, and we hadn’t been expecting to stop there so it was a great surprise treat 🙂 There were bits of fossilised tree as far as the eye could see. Some were fairly large bits of tree trunk, some just branches or fragments. We also stopped at what I think was near the site of a prehistoric settlement in the area – nothing to see of the archaeology, but the scenery was spectacular.

Tree "Hugging"Tammy
Getting Close to the Petrified Forest

The next Egyptian site of the day was Qasr el Sagh, which was a small temple that’s in the middle of nowhere these days. When it was built (either Middle Kingdom or possibly even Old Kingdom; Dylan and Medhat disagreed) it was part of a thriving trade network running across the desert up to the Mediterranean and east to the Nile Valley. From here we could see back to Dimai across the desert. This was where we had lunch – well, I skipped it as although I was feeling much better than a couple of hours earlier I thought it’d be safest to wait a while before trying to eat anything. Once again it was cooked by the drivers, a similar but not identical meal to the day before.

Qasr el Sagh Temple
Qasr el Sagh

Our final site of the day was Karanis. This is the site of a large (450 acre) Graeco-Roman city with temples dedicated to Sobek. There’s also an open air museum with bits of sculpture excavated elsewhere (Crocodilopolis I think). We had a look around a couple of the temples, plus some of the remains of mudbrick houses.

In and On a Temple in KaranisTammy and Dan
Exploring at Karanis

After that we headed back to Giza to our hotel, which was quite a long drive first through desert and then on a large road that was still being built before reaching the city. In the evening we ate with some of the others in the hotel bar again, although I avoided the alcohol despite feeling better.