Karl’s Chronicles; Article 34 Variations In Seven
It could be easy to dismiss Egypt as a land known only for its red sea resorts, pyramids, and tombs of the New Kingdom pharaohs that line the Valley of the Kings. But with a history going back over four thousand five hundred years, the country is rich and diverse with other treasures, some barely given the time of day. The Pyramids of Giza and The Temple of Karnak are deservedly popular, an apex of architectural magnificence that still awes visitors today. Away from the familiar advantages of modern technology that underpin modern living. But the crowds and the queues can quickly erode the experience, diminishing the grandeur and cultural importance these sites generate. Dragged along in a noisy sea of visitors, whose priority can orbit around the mass generation of selfies.
Though travelling off-season and arriving at times outside tour group itineraries will reduce the numbers, there are many places you can have entirely to yourself. Egypt is blessed with too many points of interest that can be accommodated into a single program. Think outside the box, and you can experience the splendour of mighty temples and abandoned towns that rarely a soul visits, -adding to the diversity and overall adventure of a journey around Egypt. After all, the country has been welcoming foreign visitors for several millennia, accommodated by a plethora of hotels and restaurants, and supported by a decent transport system. As countries gradually take the tentative steps out of lock-down and tourism readjusts to the change, sooner rather later could offer an experience like no other.
I’ve included seven points of interest in Egypt that enjoyed a heightened magnitude from being almost forgotten. Off the tour lists, sensed with a feeling of isolation by the surrounding quietude, they offered an antidote to the mainstream.
The Zawiyyet al-Mayyiteen – is a Muslim and Christian cemetery considered to be one of the worlds largest. Over four kilometres in length, stretching between the Nile bank and the cliffs behind, with some areas climbing 300 metres into the flaky hillside. Hundreds upon hundreds of mud domes reminiscent of beehives, intercepted with alleys and lanes give this Place Of The Dead, an outer-worldly appearance. The Zawiyyet al-Mayyiteen is still a working cemetery with relatives arriving to spend time with loved ones. Like China’s Ancestral Day, families come to clean the shrines, enjoy a picnic, and simply hang out.
The Necropolis of Al-Bagawat – Resembling a landscape somewhere between a dis-used film set and an abandoned frontier town, the necropolis is one of the worlds oldest Christian cemeteries. Functioning between the 3rd – 7th centuries which was already positioned over an earlier burial ground. Many of the mud-brick tombs (263 in total) stand designed like individual chapels, adorned with pillars and external arches, internally addressed with vivid murals representing biblical stories. Of Saints and Prophets like Moses guiding the Israelite children out of Egypt and Daniel in the lion’s den.
El Serah Elbida (The White Desert) – is a 300km squared protectorate of fascinating & increasingly warped landmarks. Large chalk-white boulders supported by slim pedestals, rocket sized pinnacles, a carpet of mushrooms, fortress sized anthills, spires, inselbergs and animals, all made from rock, sculpted by sand and wind into a sci-fi landscape. The White Desert is a place of serene and surreal architecture, an open-air gallery full of Dali toned dreamscapes of brilliant white rock above a carpet of sand. Around sunrise and sunset, the sculptures absorb the changing light, with subtle hues of violet and rose. A full moon gives the White desert a haunting mythical beauty, magnified by night shadows, and the lateness of the hour. Best appreciated by camping over-night on the west side of the desert road. The Twin Peaks, 50km to the north provide some of the most extraordinary views possible.
The Fortress of Shali – Formed in the 13th century on a dome of natural rock, the fortress incorporated a web of five-storey properties, all constructed from kershif. A locally produced material of salt (drafted from the nearby lake), mud, rock, and plaster, then crafted into bricks. Palm logs were applied as beams to strengthen ceilings and external passageways below. Shali, populated by hundreds of people, remained deeply conservative, closed to outsiders for several centuries. In the mid-1920s after three days of heavy rains, the town suffered irreparable damage, more extensive than any invasion. Gradually its habitants began to vacate, enticed more by the luxuries of running water and electricity found in modern housing. Except for the King Fuad mosque with its chimney minaret, Shali remains abandoned. During the golden hours around sunrise and sunset, the ruins radiate in amber. Propelling a magical quality across the exposed houses as you wind your way up to the top for impressive views across Siwa.
Cleopatra’s beach – The luminescence of the Mediterranean west of Marsa Matruh can give the Caribbean a run for its money. Bright emerald-azure, enough to dazzle the eye, laps at the rocky coastline. Set around a slim curvature in the coast, the rock formations backed by the peacock colours of the ocean, create a heavily saturated landscape. The story has it that both Cleopatra and Mark Anthony frequented the spot for a dip.
Medinat Habu – Built as the mortuary temple to the last of the warrior kings (his Libyan victory recorded on the first entrance) Ramses III, during the New Kingdom in the shadow of the Theban mountains. The temple received additional input from Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III, all the way down to Ptolemies, remaining occupied as late as the 9th century AD. The mortuary temple was greatly influenced by the Ramesseum (also on the West Bank) by Ramses II. Amun-the local god of Thebes who became Amun-Ra when coupled with the sun held special status at Medinat Habu—encouraged by Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III temple of Amun which later became absorbed into the greater complex. Original blues and reds are still evident on the mammoth pillars in the second court, helping to invoke the opulent splendour of this barely visited temple.
Felucca sailing – Offering an ideal escape from the commotion of mainland activity. A trip in a felucca, the traditional Egyptian sailing boat is the closest you can get to the Nile. Zig-zagging from one bank to the other, observing a slower pace of life in the fertile green margins. A routine hardly changed through the years, as farmers attend to their livestock, fishermen cast out their nets, and carts leaden with dates depart from the gloom of a palmary. Untroubled by engines, the vessel, carried by the currents and the winds, glides silently along Africa’s longest river. Stopping to explore temples such as Edfu and Kom Ombo, before setting up camp along its fringed palm bank.
Facts: The Zawiyyet Al Mayyiteen is located 7km southeast from Minya, a bustling town on the West Bank of the Nile Valley. Chartering a taxi for the return journey is by far the easiest way. For a small fee, a guardian will take you around, showing you some of the more interesting shrines. Minya, midway between Cairo and Luxor is an excellent place to base yourself with hotels, and it’s on the railway line for services to the capital and all the way south to Aswan. It’s worth checking on the current security situation for Minya as it got caught up in the Islamist insurgency of the ’90s. I had no problems when I visited, but temperaments are sensitive to change.
The Necropolis of Al-Bagawat – 09:00-17:00. Located approximately 3km north from the Al-Kharga Oasis in the Western Desert, the necropolis can be reached on foot, stopping en-route to visit the Temple of Hibis. You’ll see some of the tombs from the left side of the road, spread across the desert. The Monastery of Al-Kashef, visible from the necropolis, is a further kilometre on, reached by taking the left-hand track and accessible by car. Al-Kharga is ideal for visiting other places of interest, spread across the valley floor. Buses run services to Cairo (8-10 hours) and several to Asyut (3-4 hours) on the Nile. Local buses run daily to the next western oasis of Dakhla (3-4 hours). The same destinations (except Cairo) are covered by faster service taxis which leave when full.
The White Desert is best reached from Farafra Oasis 20km away. You will need your own transport for properly exploring the surreal formations as most are too far apart to cover by foot. Standard cars will only be able to maintain traction for the first few kilometres before deeper sands increase the odds of getting stuck. A few of the hotels in Farafra organize half-day trips to the desert (overnight stays are possible) using a 4×4. The Al-Waha and Sunrise are two to consider if they are still operating. Otherwise, ask around town, mentioning where you are residing, and somebody will probably come forward. Always negotiate the price!
The abandoned fortress of Shali is located in Siwa, the first of the five Western Oasis when approaching from the coast. Conservative and traditional, the small town has several other high-lights including The hot and cold springs, the temple of the Oracle and the extensive palm gardens. Siwa has numerous hotels and a decent mix of little cafès and restaurants, many found around the central market square. Bus tickets for the few services for Marsa Matruh (four hours) and Alexandria (eight hours) are best brought a day or two before departure to guarantee passage.
Cleopatra’s beach is 14km west of Marsa Matruh, best accessed by chartering a taxi, allowing you time to explore the azure waters of Shaati al-Gharam, also known as Lovers Beach three kilometres beyond. Agiba ‘Miracle’ Beach a further 10 kilometres on and 24 in total from Marsa Matruh is a stunning cove, accessed by a clifftop path. During Summer, Agiba can be busy with day-trippers, influencing heavily on the natural beauty here. But outside of that, you’ll have the cove to yourself. Micro-buses from Marsa Matruh leave from out front of the National Bank of Egypt.
Medinat Habu – 06:00-17:00 lays across the bridge on the west bank, some 7km south of Luxor. Though it’s much quicker to take the ‘baladi’ ferry departing in front of Luxor Temple. Small motorized boats can be chartered to get you across if you are in more of a hurry, leaving from the same area. Once across, take a kabout (pick-up truck) Qurna bound which gets you close to the ticket office. If you are in a small group, it can be just as economical to charter a private taxi for the day allowing exploration of the Colossi de Memnon and The Valley of The Kings and The Valley of The Queens. Bear in mind the latter two hold enough interest to command a day each. In Luxor, many tour operators offer full-day excursions to places of interest both in town and along the West Bank, as well as organizing boat and ferry journeys, removing the hassle of negotiation with captains and touts. Luxor is heavily geared towards tourism with dozens of hotels and restaurants right across the spectrum.
Felucca sailing can be enjoyed by the hour as well as multi-day excursions. An afternoon sail upriver to Banana Island from Luxor or gliding between the islands at Aswan affords a chance to test the waters. You can request and negotiate with the captains directly, moving from one felucca to the next until you feel comfortable with the price and the crew. Aswan offers longer trips and the choice along the corniche can be overwhelming. But organizing it yourself will cut out hotel commissions and afford a feel for the boat and the personality of the captain—a lot of the captains hang-out in the Nile front restaurants such as the Aswan Moon and Panorama. The price generally includes the boat, the crew and captains wage, and all meals, but make it clear precisely what is covered. Entry fees to riverside temples are at your own expense. For a feel on acceptable prices, enquire at the tourist office or ask others who have recently embarked on a trip. Don’t pay all the money upfront and if you are on your own, try recruiting others or request a tour operator. There are no toilets onboard a felucca; you will need to find privacy onshore. Take plenty of water, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, warm clothes (evening) and a good book or two.