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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).