By JENNA SY
A photo of my late Uncle Jonathan riding a camel in front of the Giza Pyramids back in the ’80s was my favorite photo of him. That was eight years ago, and I have become an independent, solo female traveler, and Egypt has always been in my travel bucket list. I’ve always been curious about it. The pyramids have always been an iconic representation of ancient civilization—so iconic that even a five-star luxury hotel was built into a shape of a pyramid in Las Vegas. So, about half a year ago I decided to experience what my Uncle Jonathan experienced, and bought a travel guidebook about Egypt.
When I got there, I decided to stay along downtown’s Taharir Square where the Nile River and the Egyptian Museum are only a stone’s throw away. Among a handful of things to do, and things to see, I did what “had to be done.” I went across the Nile, to Giza, first thing in the morning.
The Pyramids of Giza were next in my list. Found in Cairo, the Pyramids of Giza were built to bury the pharaohs during the Old Kingdom, back when Cairo was the ancient capital. The higher they are, the closer the pharaohs are to the heavens, where they will become Gods in the afterlife.
As soon as you enter the site, the biggest among all three, the Pyramid of Khufu, standing about 140 meters high, welcomed you.
I knew I had to go inside it and climb it. It is only 309 steps, how can it be difficult? It shouldn’t be difficult, if not for the darkness and the steepness. The passageway and the steps were very tiny—they’re not for the claustrophobic. Upon reaching the top, I saw nothing but a tomb in an empty room. But it was one of those places I wanted to experience. How often can you say you’ve climbed inside the Great Pyramid? After all, it is the oldest and only surviving Wonder of the Ancient World.
In that moment, I learned to appreciate these ancient tombs more than it being a mere background to my travel photos. It took decades to complete just one pyramid. Although majority have been stolen, removed, and used elsewhere by the following non-pharaonic rulers, limestone was originally used as outside casing to have the structures majestically gleam in the sun. The blocks were neatly polished, precisely measured, and are bigger than the average human, especially blocks found at the base. The insides of the pyramids are not hallowed, either. They are filled with the same sizeable blocks to hold everything altogether. How did they come up with such great achievement? And, how did they transport all the massive blocks from the Lower Nile Valley to Giza? Discovering the mysteries of this ancient wonder made me feel small. The pyramids are more than enough evidence on how impeccable the great ancient Egyptian civilization was. I am humbled by the brilliance of their architecture, engineering, and labor.
Behind the greatest of the three pyramids is his son Khafre’s, which is about as high as his. Khafre’s just looks a bit higher as it is on a much elevated plateau. The last of the three is Menkaure’s. Menkaure’s reign was short, and he died before his pyramid was finished, which explains why it’s much, much smaller, with some of the stones unpolished. After visiting the three pyramids and the smaller Queen’s Pyramids beside them, I went to the close-by site for the best panoramic view of the great three. I then ended my visit at the base of the plateau, where I witnessed Khafre’s famous human-headed lion, the Sphinx. It was a very long and tiring day, but a once in a lifetime experience nonetheless.
Back in downtown Cairo, I walked north of my hotel to visit the Egyptian (Antiquities) Museum. Even before visiting the pink building, I prepared myself as I knew I will be spending hours looking at each artifact, piece of jewelry, tomb, and mummy. I, too, have heard about how big and disorderly the Egyptian Museum is. Since it opened in 1902, some much recent discovery with more significance like Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 took a large chunk of space from the museum’s original layout. While some of the objects were taken by the British and French during their colonial years in Egypt, and others have already been moved to the soon-to-open Grand Egyptian Museum, there are still too many treasures and too little space. Inside you’ll find some sculptures untidily wrapped and scattered in the corners. They no longer try to keep the eyesore away from visitors. Yet, it is still a place that lets you travel back in time. True enough, I spent about four hours in the museum despite not having to crowd and queue with group tours.
Inside, I found myself gazing at the masterpieces displayed, particularly of Khafre’s from the Old Kingdom, and Ramses II’s, Ramses III’s, and Hatshepsut’s from the New Kingdom. Though undoubtedly, the highlight of the visit is the fascinating showcase of boy king Tutankhamen’s valuables. It is only King Tut that has complete treasures in Egypt. His tomb was famously unearthed by archaeologist Howard Carter later than the others, and it was only then that Egypt implemented a law on returning historical artifacts as such to the government.
Outside the short-lived pharaoh’s tightly guarded room number three were a clutter of his statues, throne, toys, and his enormous gilded shrines. Apparently, they made seven of these coffins with each fitting one inside the other to make it difficult for thieves to rob his treasures. All six are displayed in the museum, except for the third, which was left with his mummy in his tomb in the Valley of Kings in Luxor.
After taking a good look at the king’s possessions, I finally went inside room number three to see the museum’s most prized pieces. I thought I have seen enough of the mummies and other regal belongings in the museum, until I saw Tut’s 110-kilogram sarcophagi and 11-kilogram mask. Both made from pure gold, they were no less astonishing. And just like how I felt at the pyramids, seeing these small yet powerful objects from the past made me feel very privileged. The boy king only ruled for nineyears until his untimely death at age 18, yet treasures in his tomb are already so overwhelming. I can only imagine how many more, and how much grander are those of the other pharaohs’ who have reigned much, much longer. If only they weren’t stolen and lost in time.
Having been immersed with Egyptology in Cairo, I followed the path of the River Nile and headed to where the New Kingdom moved its capital, ancient Thebes—present day Luxor. The Nile is very important in the Egyptians’ daily lives since the ancient times. Thus, temples and tombs were built along its southern end, making Luxor “the world’s greatest open air museum.” As Luxor has the most concentration of ancient monuments in Egypt, I had spent a good couple of days in this legendary city, and even took a short trip to Aswan, down the Southern Nile Valley. But that’s probably another story to tell.
Tips on Exploring Egypt
- There’s so much to do, so much see in Cairo, aside from the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum. A tour around Coptic and Islamic Cairo will walk you back in history during the Roman and Islamic Empires.
- Life in Egypt only starts after sundown. The souqsand shops in every corner only open at night. Moreover, prepare a change in diet as breakfast is nothing but bread and yogurt, heaviest meal lunch is stretched to 4-6 p.m., and dinner is eaten at around midnight.
- It can be very busy in Cairo, but you can always do what the Egyptians do to slow down in the middle of the hustle and bustle—sip tea and smoke shisha.
- Cairo is the most accessible city being the capital of the country. Local flights to other tourist cities are regularly available, while intercity buses run almost every hour.
- You can never avoid a scammer trying to be clever. Always be alert. It also helps to keep small changes in your wallet as bakeesh(tip) has become obligatory—though you can be firm and say no if they ask and you’re really not satisfied with the service.
- Be it a tour, a taxi ride, or a souvenir shirt, always haggle down to half of the price.
- It is not in the cultural norm for Egyptian women to show skin since majority of them are Muslims. Cover up. Breathable long sleeves or t-shirts, and long pants will protect you from the heat as well.
- Egypt is not for the inexperienced travelers. Join an all-inclusive group tour if you don’t want to tire and stress yourself on your holiday.