The number-one attraction in Egypt is the Great Pyramids, but there is much more to see in this country where recorded history dates back more than 5,000 years, and the pharaohs shaped their legacies by erecting temples and monuments that ooze with inscriptions marking their quest for the afterlife.
Tombs were stocked with writings and symbols indicating life would continue, but they were also stuffed with treasures that were believed somehow would go with the departed. Unfortunately, most golden valuables have been plundered to the point where modern-day archaeologists are happy to find the former because very little of the latter remains having long since been lifted by the tomb raiders.
So, if your intrigue runs to culture study and what motivated this civilization, there is much to be found from the fertile valley of the Nile to the desolate Valley of the Kings. If you are fascinated by riches and wealth, well, there is that, too.
The famous King Tut tomb went undiscovered until an Englishman, Howard Carter, discovered it in 1922. It is believed that grave robbers perhaps overlooked this tomb because Tut was merely a "minor king." The Cairo Museum houses his "minor" riches, which are nothing short of stupendous. His coffin alone weighed 242 pounds made of solid gold. His throne is gold leaf plated and contains many semiprecious stones. In total, 3,500 items were discovered in his tomb. The thinking goes that Tut was a boy king dying at 18 years old and thus the kings living to old age would have had much more wealthy tombs had they not been robbed.
The tomb of the most famous king, or Pharaoh, Ramses II, was discovered in 1881, and although the riches buried with him were long gone, his mummy was found intact and rests on display in the Cairo Museum. He has a very prominent, long, thin, hooked nose set in a long, narrow, oval face with a strong jaw. He was large for an ancient Egyptian, standing some 5 feet 7 inches tall. His mummy's gray hair had been dyed red, and modern technology has proven that in his youth he was a redhead, which was not a common trait of ancient Egyptians.
New discoveries are being made every year in Egypt, and recently around a hundred mummies were discovered in a desert oasis west of Cairo. It is believed that possibly as many as 10,000 more may be found, and excavations could take decades.
But the old monuments offer much to the casual tourist. And the mummies present a preservation of the human body unlike anything found anywhere else in the world.
The Great Pyramids stand today as an engineering feat of epic proportions.
At the Giza Plateau, three pyramids lie perfectly aligned. With the Great Sphinx, they make up the necropolis complex that housed ancient burial sites from around 2600 B.C. This plateau stands on the outskirts of Cairo only 12 kilometers (just over 7 miles) from the modern city.
The largest pyramid, called Khufu (Cheops in Greek), measures 138 meters (approximately 452 feet) in height and contains around 1,300,000 blocks ranging in weight from 2.5 tons to 15 tons. This pyramid represented the tallest structure on Earth for over 3,800 years. It took tens of thousands of workers 20 years to build it.
You can ride a camel around the pyramid or from the Great Pyramid to either of the smaller pyramids. The camel kids have fun with the tourists (many of the owners are kids about 10 years old; smiling youths trigger weightier tips), but beware they want handsome compensation. Fees for camel riding are about $10 plus a $3 tip. And pictures are still more.
If a camel jockey rides up to you and says to take his picture, expect to pay. If you take his picture, he will dismount faster than John Wayne jumping off his horse to capture a bad guy. And he may harass you even more.
Thirty years ago when I visited here, the camel people would wrap you in native robes and headgear to take pictures. They don't do that now. My guess as to why is that it takes too much time. There are literally thousands of tourists now, and they need to move on to their next mark.
Everywhere you go, the Egyptians want you to buy something or be tipped for a service. And yes, that includes the restroom. With a towel boy or not, you will pay $1 if you don't have Egyptian currency. If you carry Egyptian money, it will be what amounts to about a quarter.
The Old Kingdom capital city of Memphis is also found just outside of Cairo, and a monumental statue of Ramses II lies housed there in a covering to protect it from further damage. It originally stood 14 meters (45 feet) high but was felled by an earthquake in the 1700s. It still stretches more than 10 meters (32 feet) and can be viewed from above in the tailor-made housing. A current archaeological dig operates in Memphis, with new discoveries being made every day.
Just down the road a few kilometers is found another necropolis site at Saggara. The oldest pyramid in the world stands here, constructed about 3200 B.C. In the courtyards around this site, 40,000 shards have been found from which 4,000 vases have been reconstructed.
From the beginning of the New Kingdom (1550-1069 B.C.), kings were no longer buried in the north of Egypt. Rather, the Valley of the Kings became the select place for the pharaohs to be buried in elaborate tombs similar to those of Ramses II and King Tut.
An hour plane ride south from Cairo gets you to Luxor, which lies in a beautiful green valley on the Nile where you can visit the Temple of Karnak and the Temple of Luxor. The Valley of the Kings takes a one-hour drive out to desolate land once again. During the New Kingdom period, the kings lived in this area.
For the ancient Egyptians, death was not the end but the entrance to eternal life. Those who could afford to spent the greater part of their adult lives making preparations for it. Soon after his coronation, the king would instigate work on his tomb where his transfiguration, resurrection and final union with the gods would take place.
Both the Temple of Karnak and the Temple of Luxor contained a "holy of holies room." A quote from a tourist book: "The temples dedicated to the gods were not places of worship in the modern sense.... Only the priests seem to be allowed into the temple to carry out the rites. ... Only the outermost parts of the temple were accessible by other people."
And: "Each temple built by the ancient Egyptians represented the Mound of Creation, which had risen from the primordial ocean at the beginning of time."
The Luxor temples exhibit magnificent architecture with dozens of columns and hundreds of engraved panels, and most scenes have something to do with achieving eternal life. Many symbols and inscriptions represent keys, paths and various rituals of how it will take place.
Ancient pagan sites are not the only attractions in Egypt, however. Way up north in Egypt, near the shores of the Red Sea, stands St. Catherine's Monastery. This fortress was built about 500 A.D. and represents the place, at the base of Mount Sinai, where Moses saw God in the burning bush and received the Ten Commandments. Monks have inhabited the monastery for about 1,500 years, and it contains biblical manuscripts that are not available to the public.Today, Egyptians are mostly Muslim, having converted in the seventh century, and can be seen regularly praying at their appointed times of day.
If you go . . .
Getting there: Flight from New York is 10 hours and 30 minutes on Egypt Air. Tour groups often give you better prices and also get you around the country.
Accommodations: Stay in the best hotels. Americans customarily get touches of sickness in Egypt, and the food isn't always familiar even in the best hotels. They will tell you not to even brush your teeth with the water here.
Safety: This can be an issue, especially if you wander about alone. Another reason to go with a group.
Night life: Belly dancers and other traditional Egyptian entertainment are best found at resort hotels found on the shores of the Red Sea.