Upper Egypt

What Cairo lacked, the rest of the country made up for when we flew down south to Upper Egypt (called “Upper Egypt” because the Nile flows from south to north). It was like flying to an entirely different world from noisy, overcrowded Cairo. The indigenous peoples of this region are Nubians — much darker than the Arabs we met in Cairo, and fluent in varieties of the Nubian language. They hail from one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Africa and are split between modern-day Egypt and Sudan. Nubia is one of the hottest, sunniest, and driest regions in the world, and is where Egypt’s most impressive temples are. If you only have a few days in Egypt, this is where I’d recommend spending your time.

At 5:00 am, a tour guide and driver picked us up from our Airbnb in Cairo and took us to the dysfunctional Cairo airport, where we caught an hour and a half flight to Aswan. There, another tour guide and driver led us on a breathtaking tour of the High Dam, Abu Simbel (my favorite!), and Philae Temple.

High Dam

The High Dam was built across the Nile between Egypt and Sudan to better control flooding, provide more water for irrigation, and generate hydroelectricity. Before the dam was built, flooding was too inconsistent; some years flooding could destroy the whole crop, while other years the lack of it brought drought and famine. Unfortunately, the High Dam has also caused the relocation of over 100,000 people and many archaeological sites. Additionally, it’s created tension between various countries and contributed to the Cold War; it was partly funded by the Soviet Union.

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At the High Dam, facing Sudan

Abu Simbel

After the dam, we fell asleep in the car as our driver sped for three hours down to Abu Simbel, one of the most spectacular sites I’ve ever seen. Abu Simbel consists of two massive temples carved into solid rock cliffs in the 13th century B.C., in the southernmost part of Egypt, right by the border with Sudan. They are monuments for Pharaoh Ramses II & his favorite wife (out of 37) Nefertari, created to both celebrate his victory over the Hittites and symbolize his power over the conquered lands of Nubia. The temples are perfectly positioned so that on October 21 and February 21 (the dates of his birth and coronation), the sun rays penetrate and illuminate the sculptures deep inside the temple. Eventually, both temples were covered up by sand and weren’t rediscovered again until 1813. The entire complex was relocated in 1968 to avoid being submerged by a flood after the High Dam was built. An international team of engineers and scientists dug away the top of the cliff and completely disassembled both temples, reconstructing them on higher ground. Skip the pyramids and come to Abu Simbel instead.

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Abu Simbel
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In awe
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Entrance of the larger temple
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Entrance of the smaller temple
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We couldn’t take a photo inside, so this was the closest we got

Philae Temple

We drove another three hours back up to Aswan, from which we took a little motorboat to the island of Angilika, where the Philae Temple stands. According to legend, the god Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his brother Set, who was jealous of the love between Osiris and their sister Isis (obviously incest was acceptable back then). Isis searched for the fragments of his body and brought Osiris back to life with her magical powers. The Philae Temple is dedicated to Isis and was nearly lost underwater when the Aswan High Dam was built, but was rescued by multiple nations with the help of UNESCO. The entire island was surrounded with a dam, and the inside was pumped dry. Then every stone block of the complex was labelled and removed, later to be reassembled on higher ground.

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Taking us on his little boat to Philae Temple
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There it is!
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Entrance
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Philae Temple
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Hieroglyphs everywhere
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Christians carved off the faces of gods

After a long day, we were finally dropped off at the Basma Hotel Aswan for the night. I’m always wary of hotels that tour companies select, but we loved our stay here, especially our room with a prime view of the resort.

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View from our balcony at Basma Hotel Aswan

At 5:00 am the next morning, a different tour guide and driver picked us up from the hotel and drove us three hours to Luxor, where we visited Valley of the Kings, Temple of Hatshepsut, the Colossi of Memnon, Karnak Temple, and Luxor Temple. Luxor is often called the “world’s greatest open-air museum.”

Karnak Temple

Approximately 30 pharaohs contributed to the building of Karnak Temple, enabling it to reach a size, complexity, and diversity never seen before. In the Hypostyle Hall, 134 massive columns are arranged in 16 rows. The architraves on top of these columns are estimated to weigh 70 tons. A roof, now fallen, was once supported by the columns. In 1899, 11 of the massive columns collapsed in a chain reaction because their foundations were undermined by ground water. An archaeologist supervised the rebuilding that was completed in 1902.

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Hypostyle Hall
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Sphinxes lining the entrance of Karnak Temple
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The security guard told us to stand on these stones and do these poses — for a tip
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Obsessed with these massive columns

Luxor Temple

Unlike other temples, Luxor Temple was not dedicated to a god but was where many of the pharaohs of Egypt were crowned. During the Christian era, the hall was converted into a Christian church. Then for thousands of years, the temple was buried beneath the streets and houses of Luxor. Eventually a mosque was built over it, which was carefully preserved when the temple was uncovered and forms an integral part of the site today (scroll to the second photo below to see the mosque, and how much the temple was buried).

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Hiding behind fluted columns at Luxor Temple
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That window used to be at ground level!
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The Romans drew themselves into history

After our whirlwind of sightseeing, we spent the rest of the day relaxing in a rooftop pool at a hotel in Luxor as we waited for our flight back to Cairo. From our hotel, we could see both the Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple, as well as the row of sphinxes lining the path between the two.

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Our rooftop pool
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View from our hotel in Luxor

Upper Egypt is breathtaking. The farther south you go in Egypt, the deeper into Egypt’s African roots you discover. Abu Simbel, Philae Temple, and Karnak Temple are enough to justify an entire trip to Egypt. I wasn’t impressed by the pyramids in Giza, but in Upper Egypt, it felt like there was still a connection between modern-day Egyptians and their ancient history. Seeing these monuments still standing, thousands of years after construction, was already incredible, but learning about their relocation and rebuilding was perhaps even more impressive. For a civilization that was so concerned with preserving its legacy, it’s only fitting that the monuments ancient Egyptians left behind would undergo many rebirths and continue to influence other civilizations throughout history.

Tips for future travelers:

  1. We took all private tours using Emo Tours again, which seemed to be the biggest company in Egypt. It worked pretty well. Two out of three of our guides were wonderful. I definitely recommend having a guide at all the sites to show you the short cuts and make the vast history somewhat digestible.
  2. Abu Simbel may seem like a hassle to get to, requiring a flight and three-hour drive, but it’s worth it. Trust me. Machu Picchu, Mont St-Michel, Cappadocia, and Petra are the only other sites I’ve visited that match its grandeur. Plus, because Abu Simbel takes more effort to visit, there will be fewer tourists than all the other temples on your itinerary.
  3. At some of the sites, you have an option of paying a fee to take photos inside. Pay to take photos inside Abu Simbel. Not doing this is one of my biggest regrets.
  4. One of our best meals in Egypt was at El Zaeem, a popular koshary restaurant in Luxor. While it was just a couple of blocks from our hotel, Google Maps gave us the wrong address and we quickly got frustrated by the mix of hasslers on the sidewalks and chaotic traffic — the traffic laws are no different from Cairo, after all. Fortunately, someone noticed we looked lost and, as soon as I mentioned “koshary”, he led us two more blocks down to El Zaeem. We ordered koshary and ful (mashed fava bean dip with a drizzle of tahini).
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Ful from El Zaeem
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Cairo

Cairo was tough for us. With 20 million people and a notoriously corrupt government, Cairo was quite the culture shock after perfect, civilized Amman. We could feel the pollution in our lungs as we attempted to explore the city. We were unable to cross a street without risking our lives because traffic laws barely exist, so we resorted to shamelessly walking alongside locals who happened to be going our way. And it felt like a third of the Cairenes we met were either trying to scam us or at least pressure us for tips, as if all of Cairo were Times Square. If Jordan gave us hope for the Middle East (and humanity in general), Egypt reminded us of why we need so much hope.

That’s not to say that I regret visiting. We could have flown straight to Aswan for the temples in southern Egypt and merely stopped by Cairo on a daytrip to see the pyramids, but that wouldn’t feel right — the same way that I don’t think it’s right to visit the Yucatán peninsula without exploring Mexico City as well, or to go on a safari in South Africa without also visiting Johannesburg.

The best thing we did in Cairo was take a food tour with the only food tour company in the city, Bellies En-Route. For nearly six hours, our guide Laila impressively led seven naive tourists through the crazy streets of downtown Cairo to eight different spots. She took us to places we never would have found on our own, and everything we tried was incredible. In fact, we returned to two of the restaurants later because we loved them so much (and it’s kind of a hassle trying new restaurants in Cairo on your own).

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Koshari is Egypt’s national dish, made of boiled macaroni, spaghetti, vermicelli, lentils, rice, hummus, and fried onions, topped with tomato sauce and a garlic/vinegar dressing
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Arabic coffee is made with very lightly roasted bean that almost stays green, with cardamom
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Molokhhia: stew made with okra leaves, garlic, and stock
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Fresh sugar cane juice
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Lentil soup, fried eggplants, and lots of fava bean dishes
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Kunafa, basbousa, and zalabya

We rode camels near the Giza Pyramids. The camel rides got us some great photos, especially since the herders knew exactly where to place us for the perfect shots, but I couldn’t help but compare them to the peaceful camel rides we took through the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Like everything in Egypt, the camel ride felt transactional, and our camel herder bluntly told us to give him a tip while we were still riding our camels.

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Look how proud Anthony’s camel looks!
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Our camel herder told me to lift my arms over my head, but I couldn’t because my jumpsuit was too tight 😦

The Giza Pyramids were constructed roughly 4,500 years ago. They’re so old that the time period in which Cleopatra lived is closer to us than to the Pyramids. Pharaohs erected these massive pyramid tombs for themselves, filling them with everything one might need in the afterlife. The largest of the Giza Pyramids was dedicated to Pharaoh Khufu. Khufu’s son, Pharaoh Khafre, built the second one, as well as the Great Sphinx, a limestone monument with the body of a lion and Khafre’s own head. Sphinxes were guard dogs of the pyramids. The third of the Giza Pyramids is considerably smaller than the first two, built by Pharaoh Menkaure. The mere existence of these pyramids testifies to the resourcefulness and organization of ancient Egypt.

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We look like we’re on an engagement photo shoot
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Obligatory

While I typically don’t have much interest in Egyptian artifacts, touring the colossal Egyptian Museum ended up being one of my favorite activities in Cairo. Seeing artifacts in the actual country instead of in England, France, and Germany is a sensational feeling. Commissioned in 1835 to stop widespread plundering and looting of the country’s many archaeological sites, the Egyptian Museum is home to 120,000 Egyptian artifacts. An entire section is dedicated to Tutankhamen, the most famous of all Egyptian pharaohs, as his tomb was relatively intact when it was discovered in 1922.

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Mummy
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Queen Nefertiti. Her more famous mask is in Berin
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Guard dog

My other favorite activity was sailing down the Nile on a felucca. These traditional sailboats are perfect for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city. It was the only time I felt calm in Cairo. Even with the invention of motorized boats, feluccas have remained the primary transportation of the Nile.

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Lots of space
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We’re so relaxed!

Those were the highlights of our time in Cairo; honestly, everything else was either underwhelming or tension-filled. The airport is dysfunctional, traffic lanes are meaningless (a two-lane road becomes a four-lane road in Cairo), Ubers don’t have seatbelts, and even the supposedly fancy part of Cairo (Zamalek) felt like a desolate place to live since people just seemed to stay in their mansions. I’m reluctant to blame all of this on Egypt itself because so many of its problems stem from colonialism. I’ve been to Manila a few times, so I’m familiar with what this can do to a society. It’s a real shame, especially for Egypt, because the citizens of this country seem detached from their impressive history. We left Cairo for Aswan and Luxor, where ancient history felt a little more immediate.

Tips for future travelers:

I struggled to get an e-Visa before our trip (surprise, surprise, the website was not functioning properly), so we resorted to getting our visas upon arrival. Fortunately, this was a simple process. Just go to a bank window by baggage claim and pay $25 for a visa sticker. Bring this to customs, and they’ll put the sticker on a blank page in your passport.

Ubers are not allowed at the airport, so you’re going to have to walk out to the parking lot and request one there. Be ready for no seat belts.

Stay at a hotel. I booked an Airbnb because I usually prefer apartment rentals while staying in big cities so I can feel like a local (it really worked for us in Rome, Paris, Istanbul, Berlin, and Mexico City!), but I would not recommend an Airbnb in Cairo. It was always difficult for drivers to find our apartment, and, while we did find a decent place in the center of town, it was definitely one of my least favorite Airbnbs we’ve ever stayed in.

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View from our Airbnb

For every tour except the food tour, we used Emo Tours, which seems to be the biggest company (and probably sponsored by the government) in Egypt. It worked pretty well. Most of our guides were entertaining and knowledgeable, and the company was good about communication, but we did notice that our one-hour felucca ride ended up being only 20 minutes, and our 30-minute camel ride ended up being only 15 minutes. Regardless, I definitely recommend having a guide at the Egyptian Museum, Giza Pyramids, and Khan El Khalili Bazaar because people will hassle you less when they see that you’re with a local, and it’s nice to have guides deal with purchasing tickets.

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Khan El Khalili Bazaar

Tip everyone.

Eat koshari, ful (mashed fava beans with pita bread), ta’ameya (falafel made of fava beans), molokhia (okra stew), and hamam mahshi (grilled pigeon).

Buy basbousa and kunafa at El Abd and Mandarine Koueider.

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