EGYPT doesn’t disappoint with its stunning architecture, history and sights – and that’s before the heatstroke and delirium kick in
The tour guide has slumped to a resting stop in the shade, reclining in a street café somewhere up ahead, gathering himself and trying to find the inch of seat that isn't to his backside what hot sand is to the soles of a lizard. I'm not surprised. It's 8pm and we've been walking all day in 42-degree heat. We're goosed.
The greatest female pharaoh of them all, Queen Hatshepsut (1458 BC) had to have her shade on a vast scale, be it a chapel or temple amid the hundreds of awesome buildings still standing from her reign. Those kings down Luxor way knew a good few months digging into the hillside could do wonders for your air conditioning if you persevered too. But I and 20 or so other tourists are peching our way round a nine-day Egyptian tour crammed tighter than Tutankhamun's tomb with sights, so a chance to stop off in the shade and sip a little hibiscus tea as the locals gather at Khan El Khalili market mosque for the fourth salah (prayer) of the day is most welcome.
For Egypt is epic. Don't let anyone who has “grabbed a last-minute cheapie to Sharm El Sheikh, never left the sun lounger" tell you otherwise. It is epic in its geology, its history and, for a westerner, certainly, its assault on the senses, from the swirl of Cairo's Tahrir Square to desolate stretches of land as the Nile takes you south to the Valley of the Kings.
We land in Cairo late at night, so awaken to the sounds and speeds of the city. The felucca boats are out on a Nile so thick with grime they're steering through caramel. We're headed for the now famous Tahrir Square, a city centre construction with squares off squares and roundabouts off roundabouts and all the horn-tooting and pedestrian confusion that goes with a city of 16m people and counting. All roads, however, lead the eye to Cairo's crowning glory, the Egyptian Museum, the museum of antiquities – notoriously looted during the Arab Spring of 2011. And who could not be thrilled at the Indiana Jones adventure made true as you stare Tutankhamun's death mask in the face or wander round the mummified pharaohs, just some of the restored museum’s treasures? It's the stuff of childhood dreams.
Truth be told, however, I am relieved to get away from the dirt and darting eyes of the city and break out into the country on an overnight train to Aswan. It is more Darjeeling Limited than Orient Express, but adds to the adventure of seeing the vast desert of Egypt via its lush spine, the Nile. The rickety train's journey in and out of country stations gives a view of Egyptians in their domesticity and, had it not been clear from Cairo's suburbs, it certainly is here, that striking poverty runs to the core of Egypt's troubles as deeply as the river itself.
Aswan is a desert city, but its monumental High Dam (think opening scene of GoldenEye) backs up the Nile to form the world's largest reservoir, the 500km-long Lake Nasser. In temperatures too hot even for louping lizards, the sight of a vast water supply brings on hallucinatory glee as we stroll along it in full knowledge that aquatic surroundings can not be far. Our guide, however, teases us with a trip to Aswan's Temple of Philae, dedicated to the goddess Isis. Some of the fascinating carvings in the interior of the temple still retain their rich colours, such was the sophistication of the early Egyptians’ craft for visual storytelling and the dry climate's wondrous preservation. Isis is depicted as the ideal mother symbol, not least when she is presented as the mother of Horus, god of war, and one of the most celebrated gods of Egyptian history. Not a bad lad to have brought into the world.
With that sail around Egyptian mythology and family values, we are escorted on to our boat for the ultimate in Egyptian sightseeing, a three-night cruise up the Nile to the spectacular Valley of the Kings in Luxor. It is here that the temptation to start aligning your fellow tripsters with Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile characters proves too much. Among the youngest in the party, we have great fun imagining the lives, loves and misdemeanours of everyone as they parade round the boat-top pool by day and the buffet table by night.
The aforementioned Valley of the Kings and the Temple of the Queen Hatshepsut are our destination. The Valley sits across the Nile from Luxor (formerly Thebes) and was the burial ground of Egypt's nobles for over 500 years. With little visible from the road other than magnificent limestone mountains, on closer inspection the Valley is an utterly discombobulating experience. Carved into the mountains are over 60 tombs, most of which have numerous chambers.
It was here that Tutankhamun's tomb was discovered, and around these hills are the chambers of generations of Rameses. Hatshepsut is here too, resting from her celebrated and peaceful reign. Descending the minute steps into these tombs can be perilous, but the pay-off is an insight into the carvings and scripts worshipped as narratives of faith and decorative enablers into an afterlife by the pharaohs. In the cool, low light the air is still and sacred. Exiting is as dazzling an experience, as the searing sun and lack of any modern reference for miles disorientates you in the living history of this place.
Venturing back to Cairo via the Red Sea Riviera resort of the Hilton Hurghada, it's clear the unchanged nature of Egypt's great architecture and landscape is exactly what makes exploring it such a mindblowing experience. Not just to stand beside, but to touch the only remaining Ancient Wonder of the World, the Great Pyramid of Giza, completed in 2560BC, is to shake your certainties of time, history, faith and civilisation to their core. We've established that 42 degrees with no shade delirium may have kicked in a while back, but these experiences cannot be underestimated.
The pyramids are fascinating in their juxtaposition against the city of Cairo, with its ongoing surge for revolution fuelled by entrenched disparities between classes and the sexes. My impression is that a woman in Cairo is made aware of her minority and rarely in the most subtle of manners by the packs of men passing hours in the streets, with barely a female Egyptian visible in public life. Dynasties have passed since Queen Hatshepsut's awe-inspiring reign, but so much of Egypt remains still in her wake.
The Travel Department (0131-516 3885, www.thetraveldepartment.co.uk) runs escorted holidays to Egypt from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Cairo with British Airways (via London Heathrow) from £1,099 return for nine nights. Bookings are now being taken for trips starting on 26 September. Included in the deal is luxury coach transfers, excursions, meals, three nights’ accommodation in four-star hotels the Shepheard and the Oasis, Cairo, two nights at the Hilton Hurghada Resort, as well as a three-night, five-star Nile cruise.
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