Our tour to Egypt in February 2017 was one of the first tours we have offered to Egypt on many years. The tour was escorted by company president Norman Bruce , for him, it was a return to a country he began his tour leading career almost 30 years ago. We hope you enjoy the observations and insights offered by Janine Silk who joined us on this journey of a lifetime

The Pyramids hang over Cairo and Cairo hangs over the Pyramids. You turn a corner at these iconic, monumental images of the Pyramids and pause: these are the real thing.

As previously mentioned the Great Pyramid was thought to have been commissioned by Pharoah Khufu during his reign in the Old Kingdom era, 2,589-2,566 BCE. This remained the largest building on the planet until the 20th Century, some 4,500 years. It is not known how it was engineered, but modern conjecture is that it was constructed by workers, not slaves.

We first stopped to touch and climb to the entrance of the Great Pyramid.

It was easy, with Agatha Christie and other pre-conceived notions from contemporary culture, to discern the non-Middle Eastern tourists from the locals:

To really experience the Pyramids as they once were, unspoiled, you have to go around the back, and for breathtaking views, you really need to ride a camel for an hour and a half out into the desert. No problem! – Waleed had a caravan assembled waiting for us.

Johnny, my adorable camel, acknowledged me when I patted him through his blanket and spoke his name. He was affectionate with, or indeed seeking out regurgitated food, from his fellow dromedaries. I prefer the former. My lead assured me that dromedaries don’t spit; of course I learned otherwise when I later googled it. One of the camels gurgled so profoundly that a surprising pink bladder fell out of his mouth whose contents appeared imminently to be disgorged, but thankfully that was just a show of strength. It was a delightful, gentle ride, and an unforgettable experience. However, some camels are, apparently, better than others, if you want a laugh, click on the link above, “How to Ride a Camel.”

Our experience was ethereal, calm, quiet and magical. Even as I was riding I knew it was an experience of a lifetime.

To round out a perfect day, we visited a perfumerie before heading back to our hotel. Temple Flower Essence, a perfumerie who supplies Paris with many of its essential oils, its owner had been in the family business since he was 8 years old, and he knew every perfume on the market, right up to today’s most popular brands. It was slightly unsettling to hear him listing “Passion,” “Obsession” and “Opium,” but he exuded warmth and knowledge and also provided a wonderful lunch of Falafel sandwiches and Karkady tea. His lovely staff member on the right in the last image clapped her hands and cheered after I took her picture; it was the first time a customer had asked to take her photo.

This afternoon we drove north to Alexandria. Along the excellent highway connecting Cairo to Alexandria, we passed many examples of pigeon coops which are seen all over the country. Pigeon is commonly eaten in Egypt (like chicken or Cornish game hen, reportedly delicious), and people keep their own pigeons as a food supply.

Arriving in Alexandria felt like coming home – sea air, fresh breezes and foam-crested waves. Alexandria is the northernmost city in Egypt on the Mediterranean and has a much more European (and west coast) feel than Cairo. It is much cleaner and “Le Corniche” (“the Crescent”) is a several-kilometres-long promenade along the beach.

We also quantum lept ahead to 356 BC (so young!). The city was founded by Alexander the Great (from Macedonia) and it was the greatest city in the world in its day. Like Mohammed Ali, and the Moors who ruled Spain for hundreds of years, Alexander devoured country after country but his success in maintaining power despite long absences was thru tolerance. He died at a very young age and It is unknown today whether he was buried at Alexandria or in Macedonia.

Cleopatra, Alexandria’s second-most famous citizen, also ruled from Alexandria but because the Greco-Roman Museum was closed for renovations, we didn’t learn too much about her. Cleopatra’s palace is buried at the bottom of the sea (there are points in Alexandria where you can actually see some of the ruins beneath the sea, but we didn’t make it there) and will probably one day be turned into an underwater museum. I did picture her sweeping along Le Corniche in all her majesty, black hair swept back in the breeze and lilac black-lined eyes gleaming.

We visited several sites from the Greco-Roman period, and all were enhanced with Egyptian artifacts. Pompey’s Pillar is the largest triumphal column outside of Rome and Constantinople and was carved from a single piece of stone. The pillar was surrounded by Egyptian relics including a symbol of eternity which looked like a rose of stone. We visited an ossuary and a life-sized image of the Apis Bull.

Our most important visit today was to the Alexandria Library. I was excited to see it, it was one of the attractions of Egypt for me. In its ancient day, the Alexandria library was famous; it was the most important collection in the world, with over 400,000 scrolls amassed of the most influential literature of history at that time. Sadly, that library burned down. It isn’t clear whether it was Julius Caesar, the Coptic Christians or the invading Muslims who are responsible for the destruction of the library and its contents. To me, it is fantastic that Egypt has honoured this important history with a modern library on its former site. When we visited, a large group of women who are educators was holding a conference. Imagine how significant that is in Egypt and how honoured I was when two of them wanted a photograph with me.

The stunning library, 80,000 square metres in size, was commissioned by the Ministry of Education during Mobarek’s leadership. Egyptian architectural firm Hamza Associates built it – it was designed to mirror the rising sun.

The interior of the library made me think maybe I should come here and study Egyptology, I wouldn’t be the first.

The museum has a sophisticated website. The link is:

Alexandria Library

There are several museums in the interior of the library, and Chris Mundigler recommended I visit the Museum of Manuscripts, which naturally didn’t disappoint. There was a reproduction of the Rosetta Stone, the key to unlocking the language of the hieroglyphs, the original of which is currently trapped in the British Museum (it’s my blog).

There were many beautiful manuscripts and papyri here:

We finished the day with a fresh seafood dinner overlooking Le Corniche, but I was so hungry I devoured dinner before I thought to photograph it. We returned to our elegant, older hotel where I kept expecting Agatha Christie to pop out. The cacophony of honking horns followed us to Alexxandria. I saw several funny signs in Egypt, but this one was the best, just outside our hotel. I should have taken video so the horns could be heard:

Today was mostly a travelling day, but driving back to Cairo from Alexandria we continued to enjoy watching the world go by:

and catching our flight to Aswan in southern (Upper) Egypt where I am writing now. I always love people-watching at airports, but Cairo was the most exotic yet:

It was like this everywhere we went – local Egyptians were just as curious about us as we were about them. They were wonderful to us; many people walked up to us and said, “Welcome to Egypt!” Today we were standing outside a convenience store and a woman came out and called to us, “Welcome! Is there anything you need? Can I get you anything?” Another told us she wanted to visit Great Britain but she was too afraid to go because she felt her English wasn’t good enough. It was almost perfect and we assured her that it was. Whether or not she would be able to understand some of Britain’s thicker regional accents remains a question, but we certainly didn’t raise it with her.

At the airport, our wonderful guide Waleed explained the sign we saw at the airport for the turnoff to the “Seasonal Terminal.” One of the tenets of the muslim religion is the requirement to, at least once in your life, if you are able, make the pilgrimage to Mecca during the religious season of Hajj. When a man from a village sets out for Mecca, his entire village comes to see him off. They arrive in caravans of buses and there is music and dancing and food eaten seated on the floor in the terminal. So you can imagine the chaos that would ensue at the international terminal. The villagers return to greet the returning pilgrim again and they will have the freedom of their own terminal to celebrate his return. Wouldn’t that be wonderful to witness? It takes place this year from August 30th to September 4th, probably the hottest time of year to visit Cairo.

Speaking of our guide Waleed, he is a marvel. He is devoted to and passionate about his country and has a heart of gold. He has bought us many treats and if anyone shows an interest in something special, he makes it happen. He calls us, “Family” and we have become accustomed to hearing him bellow from down a museum hall when he needs us to gather: “Fam-i-leeeeee.” He’s also an archaeologist (and, seasonally, a farmer) and when we were at the pyramids he had people approach him, touch his arm and say, “Shalom, Doctor.” He is treated with great respect and we have had access to many sites (such as going down into the tomb at the Step Pyramid) that other groups did not.

Norman, the owner of Royal Heights in Victoria, is also here working to make everything perfect for us, ensuring all our comforts are looked after, assisting Waleed with restaurant and menu choices, etc. He spent years living in Egypt giving guided tours from Scotland before he emigrated to Canada and he and his wife established their own tour company. He planned a leisurely itinerary that is not lacking in experiences, education, meaningful visits and awesome food.

He likes a beer or a glass of wine as well as the rest of us, which is not always easy to find in a country that is 90% Muslim. When we have eaten at dry restaurants we have had wonderful housemade juices – mango, lemon-mint, strawberry, etc., which are often nothing more than blended, frothed fresh fruit – like drinking a glass of Egypt sunshine.

We did have time in Cairo to visit the iconic Mohammed Ali Mosque and Citadel before we headed to the airport but I’m going to post on that separately. Tonite here in Aswan we will be crossing the Nile by motor boat to Elephant Island where we will check into the Movenpick Hotel, one of the nicest hotels in Aswan.

Of course, coming to a 90% Muslim country was top of mind given the current political situation south of our border. Many of us, without consultation, plastered Canada flags everywhere, on our collars, purses, luggage etc. It was interesting that local baggage handlers also kept the distinction in the forefront:

I don’t think I’ve ever had pre-conceived notions about Muslims; Toronto is a cosmopolitan city but I grew up in a neighbourhood that was primarily me-ish and Jewish. Before I was a Justin Trudeau fan, I was a Pierre Trudeau fan; I am proud of our openness and our refugee policy and I hope the xenophobia happening today never creeps across our border. The West may be bombing Syria for justifiable geopolitical reasons, but that bombing is leading to people fleeing their homes, and it is to me intrinsically a moral imperative that we take responsibility for them. It must be heartbreaking for Syrians to see the photographs of the destruction of Aleppo, I try to imagine if that were my home town in Victoria or Vancouver or Toronto.

I have always thought of Egypt as a moderate, tolerant, well-educated society. It may be slightly more conservative today but as I have said, most Egyptians welcome us with open arms in displays that most Canadians would be too restrained to reciprocate. I also think about my own impatience on lunch hours working in a tourist town with dawdling, gawking tourists.

Sorry for the digression, but it seems necessary.

So, it was a great experience for me to visit a mosque for the first time, the most important mosque in Cairo, the Mohammed Ali Mosque and the Citadel. Ali was a Turk who conquered Egypt in the 9th Century but, like the Moors who occupied Spain, he was only interested in collecting taxes from Egyptians and was actually a tolerant leader and did not impose his culture and laws on Egyptians. In fact, he conceived of and built the country we now know as Egypt, eventually returning Egypt to its people and ending tax collection on Egyptians so they could move forward with their own country.

Our shuttle climbed to the Citadel surrounding the Mosque, which is modelled on the gorgeous Blue Mosque of Istanbul. Gleaming silver domes and minarets rise above the city from every viewpoint.

Although the Mosque is treated as a museum, it remains a house of worship with an Imam and students of the faith. In the centre of the courtyard is a fountain where the faithful ritually cleanse themselves before entering (“Wudu”). We arrived as the call to prayer began. We women put on our scarves and we all took off our shoes and carried them with us.

Blue domes rose above the huge space. As we entered, we laid our shoes on one of the rich red rugs covering the inner surface of the mosque.

The gorgeous interior was lined with gossamer alabaster marble typical of Egypt; it glows in light.

We saw a few men and boys run to the sanctuary to pray (mostly tourists visiting the site). A leader at the front gave the word for them to stand, bend, kneel, and drop their foreheads to the ground in supplication. Some men wear bruises on the foreheads as a symbol of their devotion to Allah. Sunni Muslims follow the Quran, of course, which incorporates Christ, Moses and others as prophets in their religion.

Parenthetically, this notice on a tabletop was typical in our hotel rooms:

Orients guests to the direction of Mecca

A lovely woman outside the Mosque was happy to be photographed in a quiet moment with her baby against the Cairo backdrop.

Other mosques dotted the landscape from this high vantage point.

It was a brief passing experience, and I don’t pretend to have a full grasp of the religion, but hopefully experiences like this open doors to understanding.

Before heading to the airport, we had a lovely lunch in a garden where the Mosque still hung in the frame.

We boarded our bus this morning to Waleed’s tantalizing words: “So we have seen the Pyramids, ridden camels, visited Alexandria and the Egyptian Museum. But Family, if this trip was a meal, that was only the appetizer. Now, our tour of the real Egypt starts, and we are moving to the main course.”

Our first stop was the massive Aswan High Dam, the second in the upper Nile’s history, completed in 1970. Like so many dams, it had upsides and downsides. Its upsides were production of about 20% of the country’s electrical power, irrigation and farming benefits, but the downsides were it caused the relocation of over 100,000 people and the sinking of several important archeological sites (a few were saved and relocated).

Next we headed down a walkway past a colourful market and boarded a motor boat, where handcrafted bracelets were for sale.

Our gentle ride took us to Philae Temple, on an island in the Nile.

This was one of the relocated temples, dismantled and relocated as part of the UNESCO Nubia Campaign project, protecting this and other complexes before the 1970 completion of the Aswan High Dam. (One temple was purchase by Spain and is now in Madrid.)

The Philae obelisk had hieroglyphs which were compared with those of the Rosetta Stone, and it threw great light upon the Egyptian alphabet. Egyptologists believe that Philae was the last active site of the ancient Egyptian religion and that the last Egyptian hieroglyph was written here.

Since Philae was said to be the temple of Isis and one of the burying-places of her spouse, Osiris, it was held in high reverence both by the Egyptians to the north and the Nubians (often referred to as “Ethiopians” in Greek) to the south. It was deemed profane for any but priests to dwell there.

I haven’t even introduced the gods in Egyptian history, a mere 2,000 of them, further complicating matters. Royal Heights kindly gave us a cheat sheet and I’ve attached it. If you like, open the link at the top of the blog, “Gods of Egypt” and click on the link “Egyptian Gods.” Most of the Pharaohs associated themselves with certains gods in hopes of ensuring their stability.

Starting with the Philae Temple, Waleed used us as stand-ins for the gods to try and explain their various roles and functions and their stories.

Views of the temple’s interior:

After exiting the temple, we had some more excellent views of the site, a little shopping and an excellent cappuccino.

Before siesta, we stoped briefly at another Aswan site, a huge obelisk. Or rather, should I call it a potential obelisk? Is it really an obelisk if it never stood up? An incredible 1,100 tons of stone in one piece, lying down because, after workers shaped the monolith, a construction worker tapped his chisel, and it cracked like an overdone egg. That must have been a terrible feeling, not alleviated when it became a museum, in situ.

Our dinner at Nubia promises to be special, so more later.

Egypt’s golden era, from about 1570 to 1070 BC, when Egypt was at its most rich and powerful. Pharaohs who ensured the love, fear and respect of their people by commissioning some of the most glorious and triumphant art and architecture the world has ever seen.

A brief summary:

Amenhotep I was the second leader in this period, from 1525 to 1504 BC. A warrior, he expanded Egypt’s domination through battles in Nubia, Mesopotamia and elsewhere. Under his reign, Egypt was polytheist though Amenhotep was most closely associated with the god Horus. He greatly expanded the Temple Karnak in Thebes and was the first Pharaoh to separate his tomb from his mortuary temple, setting a trend in the royal funerary monuments to come.

Queen Hatshepsut was part of this dynasty, only the second female ruler and the most successful. More on her to come.

Next, Egypt took a brief sidestep. King Akhenaten, with his beautiful wife Nefertiti, proclaimed there was only one god – Ra, the sun god – and moved his capital city from Thebes far south to Amarna. He was unable to maintain followers beyond a single generation, and when he died and his young son Tutankhamun stepped into his role with various consorts, he rejected monotheism and declared devotion to the gods of the previous generations. Most of Amarna was destroyed and he swept back into the Karnak Temple in Thebes.

Akhenaten Colossi from Karnak Temple,
now in Cairo Museum
Stunning bust of Nefertiti I saw
at the Neues Museum, Berlin

Later, Ramesses II (or Ramses the Great) reigned over Egypt from approximately 1279 to 1213 BC, likely the longest reigning Pharaoh who lived into his 90’s. One of the most powerful and successful Pharaohs, he spent his early life devoted to building monuments and temples to honour himself. Later he expanded Egypt’s empire through several battles. His “conquering” of the Hittites, commemorated by his building of the Abu Simbel temples, was political spin – the Hittites actually signed a peace treaty and could have defeated the Egyptians because they had begun using iron weaponry. Perhaps the great diplomatic skills can be attributed to Nefertari, a powerful royal wife who could read and write hieroglyphics in a time when very few could.

It was to this, Abu Simbel, his most important temple complex, that we were travelling today. This is one of the temple complexes that was saved during construction of the Aswan dam. In a modern engineering feat, it was moved to its present site near the Sudan border on Lake Nassar.

We left before dawn, and witnessed the sunrise over the Sahara Desert.

Abu Simbel, two temples, were built in 1244 BCE to honour Ramses II and Nefertari, in surely an unparalleled demonstration of power, and of ego. Photographs cannot convey the size of these temples. You have to see them for yourself!

Known as the “Temple of Ramesses, beloved by Amun.”

Key to the temple in the shape of the Ankh

The temple interiors were equally impressive but photography was not permitted. Here a couple of images from the net:

We have seen several other colossal images of Ramses II, such as this one at Memphis:

Another was discovered only days ago, near Cairo – News Article “Colossal 3,000-year-old statue unearthed from Cairo pit“.

After a quick cappuccino, during which we were entertained by the sparrows enjoying a sugar bowl, we headed back to Aswan to turn the page to our next adventure, boarding our cruiseship, the Esmerelda.

Walking through the many markets of Egypt, the colours were matched only by the wafting aroma of the gorgeous spices employed in Egyptian cookery. Baskets of pink hibiscus petals for Karkady tea, buckets of cinmamon sticks, drawers full of cumin.

Waleed had been promising us his favourite family recipes and a guided trip to a spice market, and he didn’t disappoint. After a late lunch on board our ship, he met with us in a quiet lounge.

“The most important place to start is with the spices. In every Egyptian pantry you will find black and white peppercorns, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, saffron and bay leaves.” I was surprised at the number of dishes that contained cinnamon. One example, in rice. Add cinnamon to taste. It’s delicious!

Tonite we headed into Aswan for the night market, and Waleed directed us to his favourite spice stand. We all came home with bags of enticing spices.

Waleed had also ensured we had tasted all the most popular dishes, – Tahini, Baba Ganoush, Falafel, Shawurma, and Koshari. Some of us went for a meal of pigeon, and goat served with a selection of 9 sauces and condiments. Those of us who were too tired that night and went back to the hotel for a quick bite, also enjoyed our three rare sauces: Heinz ketchup, mustard and HP sauce!

Waleed had also ensured we had tasted all the most popular dishes, – Tahini, Baba Ganoush, Falafel, Shawurma, and Koshari. Some of us went for a meal of pigeon, and goat served with a selection of 9 sauces and condiments. Those of us who were too tired that night and went back to the hotel for a quick bite, also enjoyed our three rare sauces: Heinz ketchup, mustard and HP sauce! 

Nubian tagine

All of Waleed’s recipes are attached on a page you can link to at the top of the blog. I think my favourite is Shawurma, whether Egyptian-style or Syrian.

Waleed calls out, “Fam-il-leeee!!”, but my family’s call, Julia Child-style, is “Bonnnn Appetiiiiiiiiiit!

The Eye of Horus is an ancient Egyptian symbol of protection, royal power and good health. Clearly it was watching over me today. We are sailing the Nile with two stops, first at Kom Ombo Temple and later, Edfu Temple. Both were built by Ptolemic kings in the first or second centuries BCE. So young! The Eye of Horus must have kept me from Kom Ombo Temple.

Kom Ombo Temple is dedicated in part to Sobek, the crocodile, reptilian god. It was the only temple I missed and the only place in Egypt where we were to see a – ew, I don’t even want to say the word – cobra. I could barely touch the screen for Diane’s shot of Simon:

And that is all I have to say about that.

This afternoon, we stopped at Edfu to visit the temple there. We boarded horse-and-buggies –

– in what must be said was a somewhat harrowing ride through busy traffic with a horse of dubious age and health. Other horses and buggies roared past us. Our driver may think it was my fault, since every time he tried to use his stick on the horse, I struck him on the arm. Another driver told him to get a move on and a lengthy conversation ensued. I imagine our driver was saying he was grateful I didn’t have Amelia Peabody’s parasol.

Edfu Temple was beautiful. Sadly, much of its beauty had been erased by chisels and hammers, purportedly the work of Costic Christians who later occupied the temple. However, there were still amazing sculptures and bas-reliefs.

We didn’t have any sails, but our ship drifted down the Nile, and it was exactly as I imagined it would be and one of the trip highlights. We sat on the roof deck, beverages to hand.

For all the mystique, temples, gods, pharoahs, history, and traffic chaos we had experienced, here was simple beauty. Watch, as Upper Egypt quietly floats by.

The aptly named City of Luxor was the capital of ancient Upper Egypt (then known as Thebes) and quickly became renowned as a centrer for its high social status and luxury and as a center for wisdom, art, and religious and political supremacy.

A beautiful city in Upper Egypt today, Luxor is one of the most impressive open-air museums in the world. With two major temples within the city, Karnak and Luxor, Hatshepsut’s temple among others, and the gateway to the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, it has been a symbol of wealth and power for thousands of years. As we pulled into Luxor by ship on the Nile, our first view was the city’s elegant skyline, etched by the ancient Luxor Temple.

Pulling into Luxor

Karnak Temple

We first visited the magnificant Karnak Temple. It was built on ancient temple grounds in the Middle Kingdom, the 11th Dynasty, between 2040 and 1782 BCE, and the earliest known artifact found at the temple was from this period.

Major construction didn’t start until the New Kingdom period by Thutmose I in 1492 BCE when Thebes was capital of a unified Egypt. Thereafter, virtually every Pharaoh wanted to leave a legacy at Karnak Temple and the site is covered with impressive monuments.

Kabash path was an ancient processional roadway also later used by the Romans between Karnak and Luxor Temples – it remains evident today.

It is interesting to visit an exhibit showing the restoration of the site before heading outside to the temple.

An avenue of sphinxes leads to the pylon. These sphinxes are ram-headed, symbolizing the god Amun and a small effigy of Ramesses II, in the form of Osiris, stands between their front paws. They once would have joined the avenue of Sphinxes from Karnak to Luxor Temple.

Naturally, Ramses II added his colossal statue with a characteristically tiny image of Queen Nefetari.

The Great Hypostyle Hall was designed by Queen Hatshepsut but constructed by Seti I in around 1279 BCE. There are 134 columns in 16 rows. The architraves on top of these columns are estimated to weigh 70 tons. Ramses II, who also built Abu Simbel, completed the wall decorations on the southern side of the Hall and completed the construction of Karnak Temple.

Hatshepsut had twin obelisks, at the time the tallest in the world, erected at the entrance to the temple. One still stands, as the tallest surviving ancient obelisk on Earth; the other has broken in two and toppled. She later ordered the construction of two more obelisks to celebrate her sixteenth year as pharaoh; one of the obelisks broke during construction, and thus, a third was constructed to replace it. The broken obelisk was left at its quarrying site which we saw in Aswan, where it remains.

Some among us circled the Scarab monument 10 times for luck.

Waleed took us on a little adventure to a small temple currently being restored, and we passed by active archeological operations.

Karnak Temple is one of the most visited sites in all of Ancient Egypt.

We were lucky enough to visit the temple both day and night.

To digitally experience Karnak Temple, UCLA’s digital reconstruction website:


Luxor Temple

Luxor Temple hovers over the city like an omnipresent queen. Amenhotep III, Ramses II and Tutankhamen all left their imprint. Many pharaohs were crowned here. Alexander the Great claimed he was crowned at Luxor even though he may never have visited. Even more recently, Romans used the temple as local headquarters.

We visited at twilight.

You will by now no doubt recognize this figure (above and below):

Less familiar are statues depicting images of King Tut Ankh Amen:

The interiors of the temple are jaw-dropping:

A portion of “Sphinx Alley,” or the Kabash path between Luxor’s two temples, ends here:

In 2010, several of these sphinxes were discovered:


The magnificant obelisk built by Ramses II was one of a matched pair. The twin was gifted to France by Mohammed Ali in 1833. It first arrived in Paris on December 21, 1833, having been shipped from Luxor via Alexandria and Cherbourg, and three years later, on October 25, 1836, was moved to the center of Place de la Concorde by King Louis-Phillipe.

Surely it cannot be more beautiful than its twin, at Luxor.

In addition to several guided tours through various markets, Waleed took us to wonderful shops carrying all of Egypts finest exports – cotton, fragrances, jewelry, rugs, alabaster marble and papyrus.

The alabaster shop we visited first demonstrated their craft – carving reliefs, and using stone to carve the marble.

Light glows through the beautiful alabaster:


At the Papyrus shop, Waleed demonstrated the method to make paper of papyrus – essentially, grow, pick, soak, layer and press:

Bookmarks are drawn in hieroglyphs as simply as we write our own alphabet:


At breakfast one glorious Luxor morning, Diane, retired teacher, dropped a gem on Nancy and I, each enthused camel riders, when she asked, “Do you know the Alice the Camel song?”

We did not.

She rose, paused emphatically, and began (we now know to be) the traditional interpretation of the song using voice and movement. As the lyric became apparent, we, of course, joined in, much to the delight of other unenlightened restaurant patrons. Priceless!


How did I miss this Egyptian gem in Madrid? Debod Temple is an ancient Egyptian temple which was rebuilt in Madrid. It is an authentic Egyptian temple built in the 2nd century BCE, at the village of Devod, south of Aswan.

In 1960, due to the construction of the Great Dam of Aswan and the consequent threat posed to several monuments and archeological sites, UNESCO made an international call to save this rich historical legacy. As a sign of gratitude for the help provided by Spain in saving the temples of Abu Simbel, the Egyptian state donated the temple of Debod to Spain in 1968. It was dismantled and erected in Parque del Oeste, near the Royal Palace of Madrid.

Beautiful against an amethyst sky:

Temple of Debod


From our beautiful Luxor hotel overlooking the Nile,

we had a ride on one of the iconic, elegant sailboats that have populated the Nile River for centuries. There was little wind and it was a short ride, but precious nonetheless.

Deir el-Bahri

Pharaoh Hatshepsut is considered by most to be the greatest Pharaoh of all time. The undisputed success of Hatshepsut’s peaceful 22-year reign from 1478 – 1456 BCE, is all the more impressive because the Pharoah was a woman. It is no accident that the Valley of the Kings is nearby; successive Pharaohs sought to associate their legacies with hers by spending eternity in tombs in close proximity to her magnificent temple at Deir el-Bahri.

Hatshepsut married her half brother as a male was preferred to rule the kingdom but he died prematurely leaving her as regent for her two-year- old stepson. In the second year of his reign Hatshepsut seized the royal titulary and as king of Upper and Lower Egypt ruled the country for at least two peaceful decades.

Her accomplishments and vision are unmatched. Hatshepsut established trade networks that had been disrupted during a foreign occupation of Egypt, building the wealth and prosperity she would use to fulfill her vision of a great Egypt. She organized the first anthropological mission of all time. She brought back with her from the Land of Punt (Somalia today) 31 myrrh trres, which were transplanted at her temple, and frankincense. She ground charred frankincense into kohl eyeliner which came to be so associated with Egyptian beauty. Thank you, Hatshepsut!

Statue of Hatshepsut from
Deir el-Bahri now in Cairo Museum
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

Hatshepsut’s greatest efforts went into building projects which not only elevated her name and honored the gods but employed the people. The scope and size of Hatshepsut’s constructions, as well as their elegant beauty, attest to a very prosperous reign. We had already seen her magnificent constructions and obelisks at Karnak. Following the tradition of many pharaohs, the masterpiece of Hatshepsut’s building projects was a mortuary temple. She built hers here at Deir el-Bahri. The focal point was the Djeser-Djeseru or “the Sublime of Sublimes”, a colonnaded structure of perfect harmony built nearly one thousand years before the Parthenon. Djeser-Djeseru and the other buildings of Hatshepsut’s Deir el-Bahri complex are considered to be significant advances in architecture.

The terraced temple of Queen Hatshepsut (built c. 1470 bce), was uncovered (1894–96) beneath monastery ruins and subsequently underwent partial restoration. A fuller restoration of the third terrace, sanctuary was started in 1968 by a Polish archaeological mission. The temple was built with statuary, reliefs and inscriptions with her burial chamber carved out of the cliffs which form the back of the building.

In all her projects, campaigns, and policies she relied on the advice and support of one of her courtiers, a man named Senenmut, whose relationship with the queen remains mysterious. Van de Mieroop notes that, “he was a man of undistinguished birth who rose to prominence at court.” I was reminded of Catherine the Great of Russia. Leadership can be an isolating, lonely place for a woman. I suspect Hatshepsut, like Catherine, always had a “favourite” at court.

Still, ancient Egyptian culture was very conservative, and efforts to erase Hatshetsup from history were ultimately successful. Her name was erased from her monuments to remove all evidence of her reign. Later scribes never mention her and her many temples and monuments were often attributed to later pharaohs.

Her rediscovery is a great story in itself. Her existence only came to light fairly recently in history when the orientalist Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832 AD), most famous for deciphering the Rosetta Stone, found he could not reconcile hieroglyphics indicating a female ruler with statuary obviously depicting a male. Until these hieroglyphics were found in the inner chambers of Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri; all public recognition of her had been erased.

In 1903, Howard Carter, the British archeologist made famous by his discovery of the tomb of Tut Ankh Amen nearly two decades later, had discovered a tomb (KV60) in the Valley of the Kings with funerary furniture believed to be Hatshepsut’s. The tomb also contained two female mummies, one identified as Hatshepsut’s wetnurse, and the other unidentified.

In the spring of 2007, the unidentified body was finally removed from the tomb by Dr. Zahi Hawass and brought to Cairo’s Egyptian Museum for testing. This mummy was missing a tooth, and the space in the jaw perfectly matched Hatshepsut’s existing molar, found in the DB320 canopic jar.

“The discovery of the Hatshepsut mummy is one of the most important finds in the history of Egypt,” Mr Hawass said. “Her reign during the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt was a prosperous one, yet mysteriously she was erased from Egyptian history. Our hope is that this mummy will help shed light on this mystery and on the mysterious nature of her death.”

The full story:


Sadly, Hatshepsut’s death due to bone cancer may have been the result of her use of a carcinogenic skin lotion, not only underscoring her femininity and humanity, but also her timelessness. Ideals of beauty and eternal youth are no less predominant today than they were 3,500 years ago.

Hatshepsut seated, a profoundly
feminine depiction, at the Met.
Aerial view, at dawn

Shortly after leaving Hapshetsut’s magnificent temple, we stopped to see the Colossi of Memnon. More Ramses II colossi? No! These depict Amenhotep III who reigned from 1389 – 1351 BCE. 60 feet tall, these are believed to have guarded Amenhotep’s mortuary, a temple which was even larger than Karnak in its day. Other statues are being discovered on the site; one can be seen in the background of the second image. The statues were damaged in an ancient eathquake and since ancient times the statues reportedly burst into “song” from time to time. Considered good luck, we hoped to hear the sound, but it was not to be today. We felt pretty lucky anyway.

Entrance to Valley of the Kings

Today we visited the Valley of the Kings where no fewer than 63 tombs have been uncovered. One of the most spectacular archeological sites on Earth, it has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site. The list of royalty buried there is impressive.

We began by descending into the depths where a lovingly restored tomb was displayed in its original colours: sunny yellow, royal blue and blood red.

The Valley’s most famous inhabitant is one I am finally getting around to mentioning. Famous more for his recent history than for his ancient royal past, King Tut Ankh Amun’s tomb, and his mummy remain interred here.

Tut Ankh Amun’s tomb

Until recently, Tut’s royal lineage was uncertain. In February 2010, the results of DNA tests confirmed that he was the son of Akhenaten, the heretical king who moved his capital to Amarna. Although it was thought that Nefertiti was his mother (and there is even speculation that Tut’s famed death mask was hers), the DNA testing proved that his mother was Akhenaten’s sister and wife. Her name is unknown but her remains are positively identified as “The Younger Lady” mummy found in KV35.

It’s no wonder the young king had little influence since, in 1344 BCE, he began his reign at age 9 and he was beset, unsurprisingly, with congenital defects.

In his third reignal year, under the influence of his advisors, he did reverse several changes made during his father’s reign. He ended the worship of the god Aten and restored the god Amun to supremacy. The ban on the cult of Amun was lifted and traditional privileges were restored to its priesthood.

Amun, King of the Gods

The capital was moved back to Thebes and Tut Ankh Amun swept back into Karnak Temple where he would reign for just seven more years.

In 2014, scans showed that he had a partially clubbed foot; this was supported by the presence of many walking sticks among the contents of his tomb. It is now believed that genetic defects arising from his parents being siblings, complications from a broken leg and his suffering from malaria, together caused his death at age 19.

The source of Tut Ankh Amun’s fame doesn’t relate to his rule of Egypt. Rather, it is due to the tantalizing story of his rediscovery. Tomb raiders began robbing royal tombs in ancient times. Gold was melted down, alabaster used for new construction, jewels sold. Egyptian tombs were legendary even in ancient times, and various foreign occupiers sent in armies to Egyptian tombs on instructions to leave nothing behind. Western archeologists in modern times believed there had to be tombs that earlier expeditions had missed. One of the most tenacious of these was the irascible British archeologist, Howard Carter.

Another Brit is central to the story. Lord Carnarvon, inspiration for the character Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham on Downton Abbey, had a lifelong passion for Egypt and the money to pursue his passions.

In 1907, after three hard years for Carter, Lord Carnarvon employed him to supervise Carnarvon’s Egyptian excavations in the Valley of the Kings. Gaston Maspero, Director of the Antiquities Department, introduced the two to ensure that Howard Carter imposed modern archaeological methods and systems of recording. Carnarvon financed Carter’s work in the Valley of the Kings to 1914, but excavations and study were interrupted until 1917 by the First World War. The Carnarvons, meanwhile, opened their home, Highclere Castle, to wounded soldiers.

Carter enthusiastically resumed his work following the end of the First World War.

After several years of finding little, Lord Carnarvon became dissatisfied with the lack of results, and informed Carter in 1922 that he was giving up. Carter felt he was closer than ever to discovering an undiscovered tomb, and implored Carnarvon for just one more season of funding to search the Valley of the Kings. Carnarvon relented.

Now that the war was over, and the 5th Earl could travel to Egypt, he longed for the day he’d hear some positive news from Howard Carter. Finally … on the 6th of November, 1922 … he received this telegram:

“At last have made wonderful discovery in the Valley. A magnificent tomb with seals intact. Re-covered same for your arrival. Congratulations.”

Carnarvon and his daughter rushed to the Valley of the Kings.

Carter opened the tomb. “At first I could see nothing,’ he would later write, ‘the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.”

Inside the amazing tomb pictured above, the most important things they found:

An outer shrine:

Inside the shrine, they uncovered a gilded wooden coffin.

Inside this was a coffin of solid gold encrusted with precious gems.

Inside, they found over the face of the mummified king, the death mask which has come to represent the height of Egypt’s, even humanity’s, artistic expression, wealth, power and religious expression:

It took Carter eight years to catalogue over 5,000 items buried with the young king. Some of them, along with all of the above, occupy the entire 2nd floor of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.

Here is a video in which you can here Carter’s own voice describing the discovery:

I think back to the above list of rulers buried at The Valley of the Kings – and we didn’t even visit The Valley of the Queens – and imagine the art and riches that must have been originally buried with much more powerful Pharaohs than the Boy King. What a loss of our cultural heritage.

However, there remains the promise of more unsealed tombs. Waleed told us that he believes there is another tomb right behind that baboon wall of Tut’s tomb. Today’s technology suggests this to be true and plans are under way for more investigation:


The other good news? Construction is well under way for the Grand Museum which will be the largest archeological museum in the world and will hold many more of the estimated 1 million artifacts Egypt currently doesn’t have space to display. Within view of the pyramids at Giza, it will eventually include a monorail between the pyramids and the museum. The first phase is tentatively scheduled to open in 2018.

Visiting Egypt, the obvious pride of the Egyptian people of their rich heritage is contagious. I began the trip as a visitor, but soon co-opted their history as my own. I think Egyptians understand. You cannot see these amazing sights without feeling this is a tracing of human history, human achievement. We are, as Waleed pointed out, a family. Egyptians have gone through difficult times recently, but the country appears to be on the upswing. The West must do all it can to assist and protect this precious resource. A good place to start? Visit and be inspired!

On February 27, 2014, His Highness the Aga Khan 49th, Hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims (whose predecessor is buried at Aswan), addressed both Houses of Parliament in the House of Commons Chamber, Ottawa. His speech is meaningful, regardless of your personal beliefs.

Aga Khan

“It is an unprecedented honour for me to be here today. This is both a personal feeling and an objective observation, since I was told that this is the first time in 75 years that a spiritual leader has addressed a joint session of the Senate and the House of Commons during an official visit….

Let me end with a personal thought. As you build your lives, for yourselves and others, you will come to rest upon certain principles. Central to my life has been a verse in the Holy Quran which addresses itself to the whole of humanity. It says: ‘Oh Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women…’

I know of no more beautiful expression about the unity of our human race – born indeed from a single soul.”

~ ~ ~

Howard Carter died in Kensington, London, on 2 March 1939, aged 64. His epitaph, taken from the Wishing Cup of Tut Ankh Amun, reads:

“May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness.”

~ ~ ~

With these thoughts, we floated away…



source: janinesilk.wordpress.com

Back to Blog