Overall Trip Impression:
Since I was a child I have dreamt of going to Egypt. I was not disappointed. There is so much history, and it is quite awe-inspiring to think you are walking in the steps of the pharaohs. Taking a cruise on the Nile is the perfect way to go as most of the sights are near the Nile. As you glide through the countryside you feel at times that not much has changed: Small villages with basic housing, children and buffaloes bathing in the river, farmers tilling their fields.
Tourism is a large part of the Egyptian economy and they do their best to ensure safely with a high level of security in museums, hotels and on cruise ships. We walked around in Cairo and Alexandria and always felt safe.
Places visited: Cairo, Giza and the Pyramids, Luxor, Valley of the Kings, Kom Ombo, Esna and Edfu, Aswan and Abu Simbel. This was all described in Stephen’s excellent fam report, so I will focus on the two places he didn’t visit: Alexandria and Sharm el-Sheikh
Alexandria: Once one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Mediterranean region, Alexandria is becoming more of an Arab city as evidenced by the fact that practically all the female students at the University now wear traditional Muslim clothing. This was not the case a couple of decades ago. Things to see are Alexandria library, Pompey’s Pillar, Catacombs and Qaitbey Fort. The original Alexander library was destroyed almost 2,000 years ago, when the story goes that Julius Caesar accidentally set fire to it and burned it to the ground. Maybe he was distracted by Cleopatra!
In 1993 a Norwegian architectural firm won the worldwide competition for the design for the new library, and it is quite stunning. Tilted towards the sun like a sundial and facing the sea it is built with space for over 8 million books, though they have a long way to go before reaching that number. The main reading room is over 70,000 square feet on 11 cascading levels and the library has a conference centre, museums, art galleries, planetarium and restoration laboratory. The library received donations from all over the world especially from the other Arab countries. Apparently a $ 21 million cheque from Saddam Hussein cleared just days before the start of the Gulf War.
Sharm el-Sheikh: Sharm el- Sheikh is a seaside resort located at the very tip of the Sinai Peninsula. It had gone from a fishing village to a major port and naval base for the Egyptian navy till it was captured by Israel in the 1956 conflict. It was later controlled by a United Nations peacekeeping force, and was returned to Egypt in 1982. Since then it has developed into a major tourist destination with over a hundred hotels, a conference center, golf courses, nightlife etc. It attracts tourists mainly from Europe, where many scheduled flights go directly to Sharm el-Sheikh. The main reasons for visiting are the abundant sunlight and the wonderful scuba diving and snorkeling, which some consider to be among the best in the world. We went out for the day on a snorkeling trip in a boat and it really was fantastic. You can also snorkel on the wreck of a Russian freighter that crashed into a coral reef; according to our guide the captain was drunk at the time.
An interesting excursion is to the St. Catherine Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The monastery is located in an inaccessible gorge and is one of the oldest working monasteries in the world. It is Greek Orthodox but interestingly also house a Jewish temple and a Muslim mosque. It is home to the burning bush seen by Moses and above the monastery is Mount Sinai where Moses received the 10 commandments. The more energetic visitors can hike up there past various chapels or take a camel ride to the top. You can tour part of the monastery and view the ornately decorated churches. There are other interesting sights such as a crypt that houses thousands of skulls, the remains of past monks. It takes several hours by bus to get to the monastery, but it is interesting to see the landscape and a few of the Bedouin camps along the way.
Travel tips: A Nile cruise is definitely the way to see this part of the world. Having a balcony is not really important here as the ships tie up 5 – 6 boats abreast so the only view you would have once you dock would be into the hopefully closed curtain of the cabin across from you on the next boat. During the day when you travel it can be quite hot and you are better off sitting on the large open top deck under an awning.
Best place to shop: Local markets or souqs.
Best things to buy: Boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl, perfumes, Egyptian cottons, silver and gold jewellery, copperware, papyrus and spices.
Best time to travel: October to May to avoid the heat.