Monday, May 10, 2010

Egypt and the Nile

In this, my first post, I'd like to tell you about our recent trip to Egypt. We've been back in NY for two months now so it may seem odd that I'd choose something that dated rather than something more timely for my first post. But the fact is that this was the trip my wife had wanted to take ever since she was a little girl and it was in a way the culmination of her travel dreams. So what, after all.could be more appropriate for my first post?

Day 1: FRIDAY, 2/26/10: NEW YORK
We were scheduled to fly out of JFK on EgyptAir at 6:30 PM, arriving in Cairo the following day at 12:15 PM Cairo time. Unfortunately, New York had just been hit by the biggest storm of the season with more than 16 inches of snow falling in Manhattan and we were uncertain whether we’d be able to get out at all. The airports remained open but hundreds of flights had been canceled or delayed. As it turned out, we were extraordinarily lucky: our flight not only was not canceled but it took off on time and actually arrived in Cairo slightly ahead of schedule the next day! An auspicious beginning for what would turn out to be a terrific trip.

Day 2: SATURDAY, 2/27/10: CAIRO
Our flight took about ten and a half hours and was r
elatively smooth and uneventful. Dinner and breakfast were served on board and were no better nor worse than what one might expect from airline food. We arrived in Cairo at about noon Cairo time (which is seven hours ahead of NY time so it felt like 5 AM to us). Cairo was bright and sunny and the temperature was in the mid-70’s, in sharp contrast to the weather we left behind in NY.

We had arranged our entire trip through Homeric Tours which prides itself on providing a quality of services equivalent to that of Abercrombie & Kent, but without charging Abercrombie & Kent's premium prices and, based on our experiences on this trip, they succeed in doing so. Nour, Homeric Tours’ Cairo representative, met us at the Cairo airport as we disembarked and transferred us by private car to our hotel, the Ramses Hilton. He was charming and very professional and set a wonderful tone for our trip.

The Ramses Hilton is a large modern four star hotel located directly across the street from the Hilton shopping mall. It has adequate but not outstanding dining facilities but there were a number of restaurants in the mall that represented attractive dining alternatives. In any event, the hotel was more than satisfactory for our needs since we planned to spend very little time in the hotel itself.

Since the hotel was within walking distance of the Egyptian Museum and we had a few free hours to spare, we negotiated our way to the Museum by foot through horrendous traffic. The Museum’s collection is extraordinary. We managed to take a few photographs of some of the statuary on the grounds outside the museum but photography within the museum itself was not permitted.

A couple of hours later, we wended our way back to the hotel where we grabbed a bite at the Garden Café in the hotel, returned to our room and awaited Nour's return.. Around 5 PM, Nour picked us up at the hotel and transported us by private car to the Sound and Light Show at the Pyramids. The show was a bit hokey but some views of the pyramids lit up at night were truly impressive. After the show, Nour brought us back to our hotel.

We were exhausted and our bodies didn’t know whether it was time for breakfast, lunch or dinner so we just ate a couple of candy bars from the mini-bar and crashed.

Day 3: SUNDAY, 2/28/10: CAIRO/LUXOR
We left a wake-up call for 4:30 AM since we were scheduled to be picked up at the hotel at 5 AM to be transported to the airport for an early morning flight to Luxor, but the wake-up call really wasn’t necessary . We awoke on our own at about 3:30 AM (which still seemed like 8:30 PM to us since that's what time it was in NY). We checked out of the hotel and were met by Nour (brandishing box breakfasts for us) in the lobby at 5 AM. He then transported us by private car to the airport to catch our 7 AM flight to Luxor.

The flight from Cairo to Luxor was uneventful (which is just the way we like our flights to be) and we arrived in Luxor at 8 AM. There we were met at the airport by Ahmed, Homeric Tours’ Luxor representative. He, too, was a delight. He transported us by private car and settled us into our Luxor hotel, the Sonesta St. George, even arranging on his own for a free upgrade of our room to a suite with a great view of the River Nile. The Sonesta St. George was another large modern four star hotel with satisfactory but not outstanding restaurants (which didn't matter much since we didn't plan to be spending much time in this hotel proper either). The suite itself was splendid and we particularly enjoyed the view from our hotel window of hot air balloons flying above the Nile.

While we were settling into our room, our Luxor Egyptologist/guide arrived at the hotel. The guide was also named Ahmed (and to distinguish him from Homeric Tours’ representative, I will refer to him as Ahmed 2 from here on out). Ahmed 2 began our private Luxor tours with a visit to the Tombs of the Nobles on the west bank, comprising a number of areas containing 400 tombs. We followed that with a visit to the Habu Temple, the last great architectural work of the pharaonic period, built in the 12th century BC. We returned to the hotel for lunch and took a brief nap in the afternoon before Ahmed 2 returned at 5 PM to pick us up for a private tour of the Luxor Museum. The Luxor Museum is a small beautifully constructed building with a charming collection of pieces in perfect condition and of excellent quality.

We had dinner at the hotel and sacked out.

Day 4: MONDAY, 3/1/10: LUXOR
After a buffet breakfast at the hotel, we were picked up at 9 AM (a late start today!) by Ahmed 2 and were driven by car for our private tour of Dendarah to see theTemple of Hathor, which dates from the first century and took about 100 years to build. The drive to Denderah took about one and a half hours but was spent enjoyably with Ahmed 2 explaining the principles of Islam to us and providing us with the apparently official Egyptian line regarding the use (or non-use) of slave labor to build the pyramids:

(Interestingly, Ahmed 2 was but one of our several guides who made a point of insisting to us that no slave labor had been involved in the building of the pyramids and that the pyramids had been constructed entirely by skilled Egyptian workers who had been well paid for their labors. We were quite surprised by this contention since Muslims believe not only in the Koran but also in the Old and New Testaments. They consider Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus to have been prophets who preceded Mohammed and we found it difficult to understand how they could square their belief in the story of Exodus [in which the Jews were slaves in Egypt in the time of the pharaohs until they were rescued by Moses] with their denial of slave labor being used in the building of the pyramids. And yet while the Egyptians we met reluctantly did admit that the Jews may have been "mistreated" [one of our guides' actual words!] or perhaps even enslaved in the time of the pharaohs, they refused to admit that their slave labor was utilized in the building of the pyramids.)

But back to Dendarah Dendarah is reputed to be one of the best preserved ruins, if not the best, in all of Egypt and we could see why. It was truly extraordinary and well worth the long trip. Following our visit to Dendarah, we were driven back to the hotel (another one and a half hours) in time for a late lunch. We walked around Luxor a bit but there really wasn't much to the town itself and we returned to the hotel for a buffet dinner.

And so to bed.

Day 5: TUESDAY, 3/2/10: LUXOR/NILE CRUISE
Following breakfast at the hotel, we checked out and were met in the lobby by Ahmed 1 who transported us by private car to our cruise ship, the Movenpick Radamis 2, where we were settled into our cabin for our four-nights Nile River cruise. The Movenpick Radamis 2 is an excellent well-appointed ship and we had a large comfortable stateroom with a queen-size bed, located just below the top deck (the top deck itself contained no cabins bus housed the swimming pool, lounge chairs and an open-air restaurant/bar). All in all, it was much more than we had expected.

We were served a large buffet lunch on board the ship and, following lunch, we were escorted off the ship by Hamouda, our English-speaking Egyptologist/tour guide, together with a group of about 20 other English-speaking passengers, for guided tours of the Temples of Karnak and the Luxor Temple on the East Bank.

The tours from the ship were the only group (i.e. non-private) tours we engaged in but the ship’s guide, Hamouda, was wonderful and we were not disappointed. The Temples of Karnak were overwhelming and were my favorite site visited on our entire Egypt trip.

We returned to the ship for a buffet dinner on board and remained overnight on board the ship in Luxor.

Day 6: WEDNESDAY, 3/3/10: NILE CRUISE
Following breakfast on board, we were again escorted off the ship by Hamouda, this time for guided tours of the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut at El Deir El-Bahari and the Colossi Memnon statues, all on the West Bank.

We were returned to the ship by noon, at which time the ship began to sail to Edfu. While sailing to Edfu, we had lunch on board and then drifted up to the top deck where we had afternoon tea. We had dinner on board and remained overnight on board in Edfu.

Day 7: THURSDAY, 3/4/10: NILE CRUISE
After breakfast on board, Hamouda escorted us to visit the Horus Temple in Edfu and then returned us to the ship for lunch. While we were lunching, the ship sailed to Kom Ombo where we visited the temple shared by two gods, Sobek and Haeroris. We returned to the ship where we had afternoon tea and dinner on board while the ship sailed on to Aswan. We remained on the ship that night in Aswan.

Day 8: FRIDAY, 3/5/10: NILE CRUISE
Following breakfast on board, we visited the Aswan High Dam and the unfinished Obelisk, neither of which did wefind overly impressive, and the Temple of Philae which was much more impressive. After returning to the ship for lunch and afternoon tea, we were escorted from our cruise ship to a felucca (a traditional small Nile sailing ship) on which we sailed around Kitchener's Island. We then returned to our cruise ship for dinner on board.

We slept overnight on our ship in Aswan. Our cruise was almost at an end and it had been a wonderful experience - everything we had expected and more. We had sailed on the Nile for several days and nights from Luxor to Aswan, stopping in Edfu and Kom Ombo and while on the cruise, we had visited the Temples of Karnak, the Luxor Temple, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut at El Deir El-Bahari, the Colossi Memnon statues, the Horus Temple, the temple shared by two gods (Sobek and Haeroris), Aswan Dam, the unfinished Obelisk, and the Temple of Philae. It had been overwhelming..

Day 9: SATURDAY, 3/6/10: ASWAN/ABU SIMBEL/CAIRO
The cruise was over but our trip to Egypt was not yet over by a long shot. Next stop: Abu Simbel.

Following our last breakfast on board, we checked out and were met on board the ship by Mayada, the next in the series of excellent private guides provided to us by Homeric Tours. It was Mayada who would escort us to Abu Simbel.

We drove with Mayada to the Aswan airport where we boarded our flight to Abu Simbel. While waiting for our flight to take off, Mayada received a call on her cell phone from the Movenpick Radamis 2 to inform us that we had inadvertently left our cell phone and charger behind in our stateroom. There was no time to do anything about it before we went to Abu Simbel, so the ship arranged to send the phone and charger to the Aswan airport to be delivered to us by courier on our return flight from Abu Simbel to Cairo when we stopped for 45 minutes in Aswan. They did and all went smoothly. Overall service on this trip continued to be outstanding.

We flew to Abu Simbel (a short hop of less than an hour) with Mayada for a tour of Ramses II Temple and the temple of Athor. The temples were absolutely breathtaking and, if anything, exceeded our expectations. Mayada was a fine guide (and a very attractive unmarried young Muslim woman who shared with us much of what it’s like to be in her position in Egypt today).

Following our tour of the Abu Simbel temples, we flew back to Cairo with a short stop in Aswan. We didn’t have to change planes and while we remained on the plane, our lost cell phone and charger were brought to us in our seats.

When we arrived in the Cairo airport, we were met right on time by Nour who again transported us and settled us in our room at the Ramses Hilton Hotel. In the evening, we strolled over to the shopping mall across the street from the hotel and found a charming Lebanese restaurant for dinner. Dinner was very good and we were very tired. We returned to the hotel for a needed night’s sleep

Day 10; SUNDAY, 3/7/10: CAIRO/MEMPHIS
After breakfast, Nour arrived to introduce us to our guide for the day, a very competent and personable woman named Iman. We began our tour by driving with her to Memphis, ancient Egypt’s first capital, where we visited the Memphis Museum before continuing on to the necropolis at Saqqara and the site of Djoser’s Step Pyramid. The Memphis Museum was not very impressive, certainly not in a class with either the Luxor Museum or the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. But Saqqara and the Step Pyramid were well worth seeing.

From Saqqara and the Step Pyramid, we returned to Old Cairo where we had a private tour of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the oldest Jewish place of worship in Egypt dating from the ninth century, as well as a number of ancient Coptic Christian churches and the Khan El Khalili bazaar. From there we were taken to lunch at the Studio MISR Restaurant in the Nile City, a ship docked across the Nile from our hotel. After lunch, we returned to the hotel, had dinner there, and retired for the night.

Day 11: MONDAY, 3/8/10: CAIRO/ALEXANDRIA
Nour arrived after breakfast to introduce us to one of his associates who accompanied us by private car to Alexandria, a three hour drive from Cairo. When we arrived in Alexandria, we were met by our next guide, Jovidan, another personable and highly professional woman who took us to the National Museum, the Catacombs of Kom El-Shogafa, the Roman Amphitheatre, Pompey’s Pillar and the new Alexandria library. The National Museum, Pompeys’s Pillar and the library didn’t do much for us, but descending into the catacombs was a fascinating experience and viewing the Roman Amphitheatre and the surrounding area (and actually discovering some Roman pottery shards circa 400 AD which we we were allowed to take with us) added to our enjoyment.

We were taken to an excellent Egyptian lunch at the Fish Market restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and then returned to our hotel via another three hour drive from Alexandria to Cairo. It was to be our last full great day in Egypt but a tiring experience. We snacked from the mini-bar in our hotel room, packed, and went to bed.

Day 12: TUESDAY, 3/9/10: CAIRO/NEW YORK
After breakfast, we were picked up by Nour at our hotel and driven to the airport for our return flight to New York. We took off only a few minutes late at about 10:30 AM Cairo time and flew for about 11 hours, arriving in JFK at about 2:30 PM New York time (which now felt like 9:30 PM to us, given the seven hours time difference between NY and Cairo). We sailed through immigration and customs, caught a cab, and were home by 4 PM. The trip of a lifetime was over.

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