Egypt: The Road Less Traveled
Egypt. The Pyramids. The reason most tourists visit this stunning country, however if you’re like me and want to travel to some of the lesser known sights in this spectacular country I’ve compiled a list of some of the best ones to visit. The may take a little more time and effort, but trust me they are well worth it.
I thought I’d start off with the Pyramids, no not those Pyramids! Everyone knows about those pyramids. There are well over 100 pyramid sites around Egypt, not just those at Giza. The site of Dashur can easily be reached from Cairo, here you will find the Red Pyramid, which is actually the worlds first true pyramid and the Bent Pyramid, which was one of the Ancient Egyptians first attempts at building a true pyramid
– hard evidence that the pyramids we not in fact built by aliens. Unless the aliens came down and built several “mistake” pyramids before building those at Giza; but I digress.
The pyramids at Dashur were built by King Snefru of the 4th Dynasty, Khufu’s (builder of the Great Pyramid) father. I find the Bent pyramid especially fascinating as the incline changes about half way up, and it perfectly illustrates that there was a learning curve with pyramid building and that art of building them did not spring from nowhere. This place will also be deserted (even when tourism picks up again), so you will have it all to yourself. You can go into the Red Pyramid which is just amazing, there is a shaky old wooden staircase leading up to the burial chamber and it’s so quiet in there you can hear your own heart beat. Don’t let your driver tell you the Bent Pyramid is in some kind of military zone, they all seem to tell you this however this is rubbish. I had a driver drive me right up to it in 2010 and I asked him about the military zone crap and he said, “this is just what lazy drivers will tell you so they don’t have to drive out here”. You can see the Bent Pyramid from the Red Pyramid.
Now this is somewhere which is on the well worn tourist trail, however the only thing people bother to visit is the famous Step Pyramid, while amazing there is SO much more to see at this site, which is Egypt’s biggest necropolis. For starters there are the Teti and Unas pyramids which date to the 6th Dynasty (Step Pyramid dates to the 3rd Dynasty) – they're not much to look at, mere piles of rubble these days, however inside you will see the first examples of the “Pyramid texts” instructions for passing into the afterlife safely, these texts became the coffin texts in the Middle Kingdom and then in the New Kingdom (the time of Tutankhamen) became the “Book of the Dead”.
Saqqara also boasts the Mastaba of Mereruka – Vizir of Egypt during the 6th Dynasty. The Mastaba tomb predates pyramid building and after the Egyptians learned to build pyramids the king was buried here and the officials in Mastaba tombs. Inside it is colourful and spectacular and there are some great examples of Old Kingdom statuary.
The Serapeaum is another odd feature of Saqqara, it is the burial place of the Apis Bulls who were thought to be the incarnation of Ra on Earth. Worshipped through out its life, the Apis bull was buried in a Kingly rock cut tomb at Saqqara in a giant sarcophagus after its death.
The best way to get to Saqqara is to hire a driver from Cairo, you can usually get a taxi driver (or sometimes local hotels can provide one) for around $40-50USD per day. You can also combine it with a trip to Dashur as they are quite close to each other.
Regarding Saqqara the is so much more to see here, however I will move it along or this blog post will go on forever.
This one is on the Sinai Peninsula and is best visited from the town of Dahab, although visits can be organised from Sharm el Sheikh which is probably a bit safer at the moment. The canyon is really pretty and miles off into the Sanai desert, you can usually get a local operator to take you out there with a group of other Intrepid travelers. Be warned, it is very hot and climbing in and out of the canyon is not easy. Take plenty of water, and I would only advise a trip out here if you possess any less than an intermediate level of fitness or above, otherwise you may fall victim to the Bedouin code – who ever falls behind is left behind, which I think is the same as the pirate code.
The White Desert
This one you will need someone to take you or at least help organise it. My good friends at the Ramses II Hotel have assisted me with trips out here in the past. You can reach the Oasis of Bahariya by public bus from Cairo, it takes about 7 hours. After you get off the bus you meet the safari operator who will take you first into the Black Desert for some exploring, then into the White Desert to see all the wonderful formations. Trips usually include a night sleeping in the desert with no facilities (if you like your creature comforts this trip is probably not for you). The guide cooks dinner over a campfire and desert foxes come from everywhere to investigate the humans which is really special. At night you sleep directly on the sand, or possibly on matresses if the operator brings some. You will get woken up in the morning by one of the most spectacular sunrises of your life and then taken back to Bahariya Oasis where you will do a bit of exploring around the Oasis and stay in a hotel here for the night before catching the bus back to Cairo in the morning.
A trip out here is not for the faint of heart. I attempted it a few times and failed and ended up doing it on my tour that went through Libya. There is a bus from Cairo, however it seems to be infrequent and one must remember that Siwa is in the middle of the Sahara Desert after all. Why go to Siwa? It is probably the most isolated of all Egypt’s Oases, the population here are Berbers and quite different to the rest of Egypt. I went because the Temple of the Oracle is here, this is the temple in which Alexander the Great was proclaimed son of a god, you can stand in this very room where this actually happened. If you want something a bit more stunning, climb to the top of the Shali Fortress at for sunset. The fortress is still inhabited and made completely out of mud brick. I will never forget the sunset I saw from the vantage point as long as I live. It was here I saw the “green flash” which until this point I thought was a myth. The green flash happens just as the sun sinks below the horizon and is said to only happen when a soul comes back from the land of the dead. I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.
About 320km south of Cairo, this will take one hell of an effort to get to. Best to do your research and try to organise for someone to take you before you even get to Egypt. I organised a private tour with a local operator before I even got to Cairo on this particular trip. Depending on what you can organise, you will need to take your passport with you to get past the military check points and possibly bribe money. (Your driver will let you know if a bribe is required.) Amarna was the legendary city of the pharaoh Akhenaten, in ancient Egyptian the city was named Akhetaten, or “horizon of the Aten”. If you’re unfamiliar with this period of Egyptian history (in case you haven’t guessed I have a degree in Archaeology, but not everyone does) Akhenaten who was the pharaoh before Tutankhamen, did away with the old gods of Egypt and proclaimed his god, The Aten (or sun disc) as the sole god of Egypt. He move the capital of Egypt out into the Western desert to a site on which the “foot steps of the other gods had not trodden” and called it Akhetaten. There is not a lot left of the city, the pharaohs who came after him regarded his ideas as heresy and tried to wipe his name from history, however you can visit the royal tombs located in the cliff face of the horizon on which the Aten sets. The tombs have of course been completely plundered and a lot of the reliefs destroyed, but still well worth the visit. Remind the driver you need to pick up the “key keeper” to gain access to the tombs. Feel like Indiana Jones yet? For more details on my trip to Amarna, visit this post from the archives here.
The temple of Dendera, was dedicated to the goddess Hathor, the cow goddess of love and beauty. This temple is much later than most of my recommendeds and was built by some of the last native pharaohs of Egypt and continued to be enriched by its leaders even into the Greek period to the time of Cleopatra. The temple is not huge, but it very well preserved. You can still venture onto the Mezzanine level and up onto the roof. It contains some spectacular reliefs, including an early depiction of the zodiac. One of the best features of this temple is that it is so well preserved much of the original paint survives and it is very colourful.
One of the most awesome and amazing sites in Egypt, Abydos is rarely visited because of its location. Right in the middle of the Nile Valley, almost exactly between Cairo and Luxor. This is one of my absolute favorite sights in Egypt and I tried for years to get to it, finally accomplishing it in 2010 by paying a taxi driver to take me – money talks in Egypt. (Didn’t really cost that much from memory) At Abydos you will find the Temple of Seti I & Ramses II a spectacular, but unusual temple. This temple is built in the shape of an “L” rather than a “T” like most Egyptian temples and it also contains the Ancient King lists on it’s walls, right down to the founding of Egypt by the god Osiris. This is where we get the entire picture of Egyptian Chronological history – well we still have to fill in the blanks where some kings have been left out for political reasons, Akhenaten, Hatchepsut etc.
Abydos, is also home to the Osirion which takes the title of the “weirdest temple” in Egypt. Thought to have been built as the tomb of Osiris, the temple was dug out, built on the bedrock and then buried, which makes sense as Osiris is the god of the underworld. Today, archaeologists have unearthed it, but due to the changing course of the Nile the Temple is now partially under the water table and therefore partially under water!
The best way to get to Abydos is to hire a taxi from Luxor, Dendera is on the way and it is easy to combine the two. Take your passport as there are military check points along the way and again take bribe money – your driver will let you know if this is required.
The West bank is most famous for the Valley of the Kings, Hatchepsut’s mortuary temps and the Colossai of Memnon, these three things will be on basically any tour to Egypt you can book, however they don’t even scratch the surface of what’s available here
The Ramesseum – The mortuary temple of Ramses II (the great), which is now partially collapsed, is one of the most evocative sites in Egypt. Historians and travelers for centuries have drawn and photographed the temple and its fallen colossus, even yours truly has a copy of the most famous picture Ozymandias, drawn by David Roberts in 1796 hanging on her wall.
Medinet Habu (Habu Temple to the locals) – This is my absolute favourite temple in all of Egypt! I’d rather be here than the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings, Abu Simbel or even Abydos! This is the mortuary temple of Ramses III and it was built in a time of war and turmoil. It is actually built more in the style of a fort rather than a tribute to the great king. The temple is epic and when you walk around it you feel like an ant. The most important thing about this temple are the reliefs inside, which depict Ramses III’s victory over the mysterious Sea Peoples, a group of raiders who single handily decimated every major power around this time. (I might be a little biased here – I wrote my masters thesis on the Sea Peoples and they’re kinda my thing)
Tombs of the Workers – these are located in the cliff face opposite the Ramesseum and while small they are oh so colourful. The workers who dug out and decorated the tombs in the Kings Valley, in their spare time worked on theirs and indeed each others tombs. I mean if you were a kick ass painter, why wouldn’t you be painting your own tomb? There are a few that are open, I highly recommend the tomb of Sennedjem, for it’s depiction of the owner and his wife working in the field of reeds in the afterlife.
Deir el Medina – located close to the workers tombs, this is the actually village in which the people who built the tombs in the Valley of the Kings lived. So much about Egyptian history comes to us through their preparations for death, its actually really nice to walk around a place, where life actually happened, oh and you know that famous bust of Nefertiti in the Berlin Museum? This is where they found it.
Well that whole blog went on for a lot longer than I wanted it too and I haven’t even covered half of what there is to see! Trust me on Egypt – you could spend 8 weeks and not see everything. I hope you will consider going and getting off the beaten path. If you’re interested how safe Egypt is at the moment, please see my earlier blog: Today’s Egypt – A Guide for traveling in Today’s climate.