I think I may have been Egyptian in a previous life. No other ancient culture fascinates me more than the Egyptians. Tales of pharaohs, great pyramids, secret tombs, mummies and curses have always mesmerized me since I was old enough to read or watch TV. For awhile there I was determined to be an Archeologist so I could uncover more secrets hidden underneath the dusty dunes.
I was 27 when I finally made my first trip to Egypt in 2000 (pre digital cameras). It is still one of the most memorable trip I have ever made. Tears of joy were shed when I finally came face to face with the Great Pyramids of Giza. I was just so happy and grateful to be there, it was a profoundly spiritual experience. Amidst the dust and chaos that is Egypt, I just felt like I belonged.
Back then, my trip to Egypt was a spontaneous one.. No research, no planning. One day, my husband just decided that we should go to Egypt before Christmas. The next day we went to get our visa done, got our plane tickets and booked The Four Seasons Hotel in Giza (the one on the Nile wasn’t open then). One week later we were in Egypt with no itinerary whatsoever. The concierge at The Four Seasons took care of everything else. They planned our trips to Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel in a matter of hours.
Back then, Egypt was swarming with tourists. There were flights out of Cairo to Luxor and Aswan by the hour. You had to wake up at wee hours of the morning to get into tombs that had visitor limits and you still might not get in. There was a vibrant enthusiasm engulfing the country. Although Terrorism has always been a part of Egypt tourism (there were numerous attacks on tourist throughout the 90s, The Luxor Massacre in 1997 where an Islamic terrorist group massacred 62 tourists at Deil el-Bahri is one of the more well-known incident) I did not feel at all cautious. Yes, security was tight, but I somehow felt safe.
Fast forward 17 years later to March 2017, I felt the calling to return to Egypt (with my digital camera). However with everything that has been going on in the world, I felt more cautious this time around. This time I decided that some planning had to be involved and that we should book our trip with a tour agency who knows their way around Egypt. After much research, we settled on Abercrombie and Kent. Our trip would be 10 days long and would include stops in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan. They took care of all the logistics, transfer, tickets, itinerary and I am glad we took this option. I would suggest that if you plan to visit Egypt at this time you do the same. They had representatives for everything even representatives to help glide you through the chaos of security on the way out of Cairo. Believe me, you will need that. I have never seen such chaos at baggage checks before. Hundreds of people pushing their luggage through the x-ray machine. There was no line.
When we landed, The new Cairo International Airport greeted us. It was vast and modern but eerily quiet. We were the only airline to land at the time and the lack of people compared to the space gave the airport a ghostly feeling. Tourism went into a plunge while this airport was built so it is definitely larger than needed at this point in time. A representative from A&K greeted us and helped us through customs and immigration without any problems. We were then whisked away to the Four Seasons Hotel on the Nile. Beautiful hotel with an amazing view.
Cairo was somewhat still the old Cairo I remember. A bit of a frenzy but charming nonetheless. I did find it to be more chaotic and dirty this time around but found the chaos amusing.
My heart did beat a little bit faster when we walked through the streets of Cairo during our walking tour. Tourists were scarce and questions such as “Am I safe?” did enter my mind a lot. But I had a tour guide with me and I felt safe with her. Locals would stare a little bit too long for comfort but that’s all they did. I began to relax after a while and allowed myself to once again be entranced by the magic of Egypt.
Conversations with my tour guide revealed a dismal reality of the Egyptian tourism industry. For years since the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, the tour guides had to get by with only working once or twice a year when they previously could work twice a day. People working in the industry had to resort to other means to get by. A driver told me he had to open a jewelry store to keep the money coming, another lived off his parents who were farmers. Souvenir shops were scarce and the ones by the monuments did not have much to offer. I was hoping to visit the museum shop at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, only to find that such a shop no longer exists. The shell was still there, but there was nothing but a run-down counter selling dusty old books and reprinted postcards. My guide explained that the store had been looted during the revolution and they never really got around to rebuilding it. I also heard that the museum will be moving very soon to a much larger venue near Giza, so maybe that’s why they did not bother.
When you move inland towards Luxor and Aswan, you will notice things deteriorating even more. Beautiful hotels like the Sofitel Winter Palace in Luxor or the Old Cataract in Aswan remain charmingly elegant and luxurious. Outside, things look very different. Souvenir shops lack visitors. The owners are forced to lure you in aggressively to the point that they become pests. My guide advised me to ignore them and not acknowledge them at all even if they are in your face, unless you really want to buy something. Sometimes I would buy things just because I feel bad for them.
On our road trip from Luxor to Aswan, we stopped by the temple of Esna. A temple hidden below street level in a dense residential area. Remnants of empty old souvenir stores paved the deserted dirt road leading towards the temple now sitting in decay. The inside was filled with bird poo and we were the only visitors there. My guide explained that since the number of ships cruising the Nile deteriorated significantly in numbers over the years, the ships no longer stop in Esna but choose to dock at the more famous temple of Edfu leaving Esna empty except for visitors like me who chose travel on the road instead of the river. Even though exploring an ancient temple all by your self is definitely exhilarating, I could not help but feel sad.
The more famous sights like the Valley of the Kings and Queens still have their fair share of visitors although it was dominated by local tourist (mostly local school outings) during my visit. If you are Asian, prepare to feel like a celebrity because the students will definitely ask you for selfies. Asians seem to be rare sight for their eyes. Although it is kind of cute, my advice would be to say no from the beginning, because once you agree to a picture, they will never stop.
Some things have changed in the Valley of the Kings and Queens since my last visit. In the Valley of the Kings you now have to ride a ‘train’ from the visitor center to get to the tombs and no pictures are allowed even outside the tombs where it is practically just rocks. I found this somewhat strange.
I failed to visit the tomb of Nefertari during my visit in 2000 because they limited the number of visitors to 50 a day. I remember waking up at 3 am to secure a place in front of the ticket line only to find 100 people ahead of me. In 2017, you just need to pay. Entry to the Nefertari tomb is now about 100 USD but well worth it in my opinion. You will most likely be the only one in the tomb as most tourists are reluctant to spend such an amount. Tip the guard and you will be able to take non flash pictures of the most amazingly preserved tomb in the world. The colors will startle you.
It was a somewhat different experience, visiting Egypt in 2017. But just like Albert Einstein’s famous quote says, the only thing in life that is constant is change. Change is inevitable. Egypt may well be at the bottom of the wheel right now but the wheel is slowly turning. One thing is for sure, Egypt will always..always have my heart.