Link to the story on The
Seattle Times website:
Egypt : 5,000
years of mystery
By William Dietrich
Pacific Northwest magazine staff Writer
The Seattle Times, December 2005
Also see Bill's new book,
Pyramids. Website: http://www.williamdietrich.com/
Lying down in the stone
sarcophagus in the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid is like trying
eternity on for size. It turns out the granite is neither too warm nor too
cold, there's plenty of foot room and an unexpected feeling of peace as I
stare up at the flat granite monoliths holding millions of tons of stone
Our small tour group has been granted a rare two hours alone in this last
of the ancient world's seven wonders, time enough to repose like a pharaoh
-- except that no mummy was ever found here.
The missing mummy is just one of countless mysteries surrounding this
ancient structure, built across the Nile from Cairo. Why are its
dimensions so precise? Why does its shape seem so perfect? Why the odd
slopes of its passageways? And why does one feel benign focus, instead of
terror, in its dark chambers?
Our leader, Ruth Shilling, of All One World Egypt Tours, and a gifted
musician, adds to the spell by starting a humming chant as I lie in the
granite box. We've tried sound before in visits to other pyramids,
sometimes resulting in a feeling of levitation. This time her sound
spontaneously descended, warbling, as if I'm listening while sinking into
"I don't know why it came out like that," she said later.
Because the notes are appropriate.
Three weeks in Egypt feels like submergence in time, retrogressing to a
lost world of sublime architecture, mystic mystery and animal-headed gods.
By bus and boat, we move south through ruin after ruin, up the eternal
No nation has more history heaped into so small an area. The Nile artery
has been an oasis of civilization for at least 5,000 years. When Herodotus
was a tourist here, in about 430 B.C., the pyramids were older to him than
the Roman Coliseum is to us. Layered on top of the Egyptian kingdoms are
traces of Greek, Roman, and Muslim history, including the graffiti early
Christians left while hiding from Roman persecution.
Tied to history
Yet ancient Egyptians often seem endearingly close when we see tomb
paintings of everyday life, paired statues of married couples or read
ancient love letters.
Not to mention the opportunity to meet mummified kings and queens up close
By the time my wife and I reach the magnificent, brooding temple of Abu
Simbel near the border with Sudan, guarded by titanic seated statues of
Ramses II, I can actually make some sense of the hieroglyphs and paintings
on the interior walls.
The stone glows pink as the sun rises over Lake Nasser. The temple's
innermost sanctum, we are told, is lit by a ray of sunrise just twice a
Jetting back to Cairo is like surfacing from a dream.
Few travel destinations have the hypnotic allure of Egypt. The knife-edge
contrast between the green of the irrigated fields and the dazzling desert
beyond is like the line between life and death that so fascinated the
Egyptians. The scenery is unexpectedly beautiful, lush, stark and
The Cairo Museum is a crammed curio house of spectacular statuary,
mummies, and King Tut treasures never seen in the United States. Luxor's
museum is modern and better displayed, while Aswan's Nubian Museum is an
architectural jewel of a lesser-known side of Egypt that might be of
particular interest to African Americans.
Equally fascinating is how modern Egypt crams more than 70 million people
onto an irrigated and urban strip that makes up less than 4 percent of its
land area: a ribbon of green about one-seventh the size of Washington
state. Egypt as a whole is about as big as France.
Cairo alone has 16 million people who mingle cell phones and satellite
dishes with calls to prayer and donkey carts. There are mosques and belly
dancers, caged chickens and honking Mercedes, broad avenues and twisting
There is so much to see that choices must be made.
It was in Egypt that the idea of a triad of gods first came about, and a
trio is a simple way to organize thinking for Pacific Northwesterners who
will come primarily for the ancient ruins.
Those ruins fall into three main categories: pyramids, temples and
cave-carved tombs. There are three primary centers for exploration: Cairo
and the pyramids to its southwest (try to get to Saqqara and Dashur as
well as Giza), Luxor far up the Nile, and Aswan farther yet. Luxor has the
greatest concentration of spectacular temples and tombs. Aswan is more
scenic, and is the jumping-off point for Abu Simbel.
Many visitors take a Nile cruise, as we did, between Luxor and Aswan.
While interesting, this was our least-favorite part of the trip. The
convoy-like chain of cruise boats seemed regimented, temples were swamped,
and there's better scenery on the Columbia. Other travelers, however, were
more enthused than we were.
Egypt has relatively little to offer foreign children, and we saw almost
While it is possible to be an independent traveler in Egypt -- the nation
has been handling tourists for 2,500 years -- first-timers will probably
be happiest on a tour. Driving is chaotic, most signs are in Arabic
script, tipping and bargaining have mysterious rules and guides are
necessary. English is spoken at tourist hotels and sites, but not in
Plenty of protection
The situation is complicated by the requirement for police escort to
less-frequented sites. At one point our American group of 10 had our
American guide, an Egyptian guide, a driver, a special agent with
submachine gun on our bus, an escorting police car with four officers, and
more guards at the visited site.
Tourism is Egypt's biggest industry, and a successful terrorist attack,
such as occurred at Luxor in 1996 or Sharm el-Sheikh in 2005, can cripple
its economy. Despite (or because of) all the guns, I felt safer in Egypt
than in Europe. Muslims have a generous hospitality toward travelers that
would put some Christians to shame. Souvenir vendors will bargain your
underwear off if you let them, but pickpockets and muggers are extremely
rare. And all the Egyptians we encountered were friendly toward Americans,
despite the war in Iraq.
There is a treadmill tour route between the major ancient sites, with
scores of fiercely competing tour companies and hours of the day when
temples are inundated after an invasion of buses or tour boats. That means
you have to be smart, careful and lucky in picking out a good tour that
pays attention to timing.
Our guide Shilling launched her own tours after being dissatisfied as a
tourist with the hurry-up pace of others. While many groups spend half a
day on the west bank of Luxor with its profusion of tombs and temples, we
Her selling point isn't luxury but time, going to places others don't,
getting into tombs others can't, and visiting at hours they aren't there.
We had a lecture between the paws of the Sphinx when all the other
tourists were kept at bay. She's also the most empathetic, solicitous and
organized guide I've encountered, handling a variety of personalities with
It was a shock to go from her nurturing approach, after two weeks, to a
more run-of-the-mill Nile cruise with perfunctory lectures and herd-like
tours. So, what to look for?
Time is key in booking
Study the itineraries with an eye to having enough time to really see what
you're interested in. Our full day on the Giza pyramids gave us time to
get inside, see subsidiary ruins and feel the magic. On Luxor's west bank,
time gave us the opportunity to see rarely-visited sites such as
spectacular Medinet Habu Temple -- second only to Karnak in size -- or the
tombs at Valley of the Workmen, which I found more interesting than the
more famous ones at Valley of the Kings.
Good guides, usually Egyptians in partnership with an American or
European, can make all the difference. Those with connections, like
Shilling and her Egyptian associates, can sometimes get you into places
others don't go. A tour affiliated with a museum or university may give
you a depth of appreciation you'd otherwise miss.
Consider going off the beaten track. Our visits to the Pyramid of Meidum,
the Tombs of Beni Hassan, the ruins of Tell el-Amarna or a catacomb of
mummified baboons in Middle Egypt not only took us to places rarely
visited, it showed us "real" Egypt outside the tourist orbit.
Similarly, I found the splendid temples of Dendara and Abydos, a long
drive from hotels, at least as evocative as the more famed Luxor and
Karnak temples in the middle of town.
Generally, you get what you pay for. You generally need a
"five-star" hotel to get American-level plumbing and air
conditioning. Fancier Nile cruises go the same places as cheap ones, but
are less crowded. Food is cheaper than the U.S. -- you'll find yourself
affording swank restaurants that would be a splurge here -- but don't go
to Egypt for the food. It's good, but not memorable.
Visit in spring or fall
Seasonal timing is also important. Summer is too hot, and even in our
September tour we had several days that peaked near 110 degrees.
Mid-winter can be jammed. Spring and fall -- October, November, February
and March -- are a good compromise between climate and crowds. Most
travelers will want to avoid the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, however,
which changes dates each year. Guides warn that some shops will be closed,
and Egyptians can become tired and grumpy from fasting all day and then
spending much of the night feasting and partying.
Don't ignore modern Egypt in your enthusiasm for the ancient one. Islamic
and Coptic Cairo are fascinating. Our group had an opportunity for two
lunches with Egyptian families that really revealed the warmth and charm
of Egyptians when they're not competing to sell you something. A cheerful
police general who gave one of our group a vigorous back massage belied
the grim Muslim media stereotype.
If possible, walk or ride a bit in the desert. It has real beauty and
Above all, Egypt rewards the effort you put into understanding it. While
it's hard to sort out 5,000 years of history, those who come with some
knowledge will appreciate the ruins far more. Our group crawled down dusty
tunnels into cubbyhole tombs, took turns trying to read hieroglyphics,
shared lectures on subjects we knew, rose before dawn to ride hot-air
balloons, and came away feeling we'd experienced something special.
It was reassuring to climb back out of that sarcophagus, however.
William Dietrich: 206 -- 464-2373; firstname.lastname@example.org
Be sure to look for Bill's new book about Napoleon in Egypt. http://www.williamdietrich.com/