In May 2004, a group of twenty Georgia State University students, faculty and professionals representing both the History and Heritage Preservation programs set off for a 16 day action-packed tour of Egypt. The goal of the trip was to enhance the understanding of Egypt's long and complex history, including the pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic, Islamic, and modern eras, with an emphasis on the country’s overwhelming amount of monuments, including past and current preservation efforts and the interpretation of historic sites. The first week of the trip was spent in Cairo, which would serve as our home base during the next week’s excursions to Alexandria and Luxor.
Our group assembled at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on May 14 and arrived in Cairo during the late afternoon of the following day. After coming to the realization that toilet paper is not a given, getting through passport control and boarding our tour bus, we finally got our first glimpse of the megalopolis, home to over 16 million people. Thankfully for we weary travelers, our destination was the Hotel President on Zamalek, a fairly large island situated in the middle of the River Nile, that we would eventually come to think of as “home” during our stay. After a traditional dinner that began with an assortment of mezze (tahini, Baba ghanoug, hummus, vine leaves), most of us collapsed in our comfortable rooms.
Our first day in Cairo was an easy one, entitled “Recuperation and Orientation” day. We began with a walking tour around Zamalek and got acquainted with its plethora of British Colonial era villas, most of which now serve as the well-guarded bases of foreign embassies to Egypt. One mansion, however, housed the Greater Cairo Library, which the director graciously allowed us tour, including the stacks which were located in the converted basement swimming pool. During the afternoon the group split up, with some adventurous soles going in to downtown Cairo and others further exploring Zamalek. Regardless of our destinations, each of us became acquainted with Egypt’s notorious traffic. A reading we were given in preparation for the trip entitled “Culture Shock,” warned that crossing the street was the single most prevalent cause of tourist injury and advised us to find and Egyptian that wanted to cross the street where we did and follow him. That proved to be excellent advice for the first few days, but eventually our group got pretty good at navigating the chaos of seemingly lawless traffic and made it through the entire trip with no injuries. We met back up that night for dinner in the garden of the historic Marriot Hotel that ended with several of us partaking in the local tradition of the shisha, a water-pipe smoked with a mixture of tobacco, molasses and apple.
Early Monday morning we met Dina Gamal, our fabulous tour guide that would be with us in Cairo and Alexandria, for our first big adventure, the Pyramids of Giza and Saqquara. The Giza Plateau is home to the only remaining Ancient Wonder of the World, the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), along with the pyramids of his son, Khafre, the Pyramid of Menkaure and several Queens’ Pyramids. The first pyramid we entered was the small Pyramid of Queen Heterpheres. The passage in the Queen’s pyramid proceeded down through a low, cramped tunnel and eventually ended the burial chamber, which was entered on a rickety ladder. The chamber itself was much smaller than expected, but the experience was good practice for entering the Great Pyramid, which seemed expansive in comparison. The first passage was, again, low and cramped and you had to bend at the waist to climb the 45 degree slope upwards. At the end of that passage however, the route opened up in to an amazing space with corbelled stone work that narrowed as it rose upwards approximately 100 feet. After another long 45 degree climb to the top, our entire group reached the burial chamber which was constructed of huge blocks of red granite placed so precisely that a piece of paper wouldn’t fit between them. The sarcophagus was constructed of the same material and still remains in the King’s Chamber. After making our way back down and out of the Great Pyramid, several of us took the opportunity to ride a camel and then proceeded to the Sphinx and for lunch at the historic Mena House Hotel, which boasts an impressive view of the Giza Plateau. Later that day the group toured the ancient mastabas and Step Pyramid of Saquarra, the oldest pyramid in the world.
The treasures of the Egyptian Museum and the largest souk (market) in the world, the Khan al-Khalili were on the next day’s itinerary, which ended with a lecture at the American Research Center in Egypt. Wednesday and Thursday the focus was on Islamic Cairo and the group was able to see several preservation projects in progress, including efforts at two sabils (historic public drinking fountains that were funded by local philanthropists and generally included Koran schools for local orphans on the second story) and Bab Zuwayla (the ancient Northern gate to the city), as well as the restored Beit al-Sihami, Cairo’s finest example of the traditional family mansion built throughout the city from Mamluk times to the 19th century. And of course, the tour of Islamic Cairo included several monumental mosques, including the Mosques of Ibn Tulun, Sultan Hasan, al-Rifa’I, Muhammad Ali, al-Azhar, and al-Hakim. Several of the mosques catered mainly to tourists and veils weren’t required, however, we did visit many mosques where the women of our group had to cover their heads (or at Amr ibn al-As wear a funny green robe) and in all the mosques we removed our shoes to show respect.
Friday the group toured the area called “Old Cairo,” also known at Misr al-Qadima or Fustat. Our first stop was the Nilometer on Roda Island. Nilometers were historically situated up and down the river and were a means to measure the annual flood of the Nile before the construction of the dam at Aswan. Taxes would be determined on the water level with the ideal height being 16 cubits predicting an abundant harvest and higher taxes. Higher or lower levels would predict drought or flood and therefore taxes would be lowered. We also toured several Coptic (Christian) churches and Egypt’s oldest synagogue, Ben Ezra and wound up the day with a visit to Dr. Abdalla’s al-Jeel Center. The center provides after school activities for local children and our group donated a pile of sporting equipment and toys.
After a much needed free day, the group checked out of the comfy Hotel President to explore a new city, Alexandria, two hours north of Cairo on the Mediterranean. We spent the next couple of days visiting several Greco-Roman sites, the Bibliotheca Alexandria and eating fresh seafood. Our accommodations were in the historic Metropole Hotel located across from the Corniche with a spectacular view of the Eastern Harbor. Also on our itinerary was Qait Bay fort, located on the site of the Ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria, which offered sweeping views of the Mediterranean. Our last stop in Alexandria was the gardens of the Montazah Palace, built at the turn of the century, and most of the group took the opportunity to wade in the Mediterranean’s crystal water at the estate’s private beach.
On our way back to Cairo the next day we stopped at two of the Coptic Monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun located in the desert an hour south of Alexandria. In 4th century AD many Copts fled to the desert to escape Roman persecution and several of the monasteries established at that time still remain and are open to visitors. At Deir Anba Bishoi, Monk Nikodemus was our tour guide and at Dair al-Suriyan we were treated to a lecture by a Dutch preservationist who is working to restore the ancient Coptic monastery along with the many layers of Coptic iconography painted in the ceiling domes.
Back to Cairo, the Hotel President and an early night to prepare us for the 4:15 a.m. wake-up call in order to make our 6:30 a.m. flight to Luxor. Only two words are needed to describe Luxor, fantastic and HOT! With temperatures soaring to the 120’s our itinerary was adjusted so that we would begin touring sites in the early morning and be done by lunch in order to miss the afternoon heat. Unfortunately with our 4-star hotel’s air conditioning on the blink, the heat was inescapable unless you spent some time at McDonald’s, which we did. Other than that, Luxor was amazing. Pictures of Luxor’s many temples, including the Temple of Karnak, Luxor Temple and the Temple of Hatshepsut, don’t do the sites justice. The scale of the temples and detail in the carved hieroglyphics is almost unfathomable unless you see them first hand. We also visited the Valley of the Kings and entered the Tombs of Ramses III, Ramses VI, Ramses I and Tutankhamen, which retain many of the three-thousand-year-old richly colored wall paintings. The last activity that many of the group participated in before we departed Luxor was an hour-long felucca (sailboat) ride in the Nile, but we were glad to be going back to pleasant Cairo where the high temperature during our trip only reached the high 80’s.
Our last day in Cairo was a free-day and everyone set off to accomplish their individual agendas, which might have included another trip to the Egyptian Museum, an adventure in to an unexplored area of the city, or shopping, which was largely the case. We met back up for a farewell dinner at a Nile side restaurant before our 2:00 a.m. departure for the airport.
The majority of us that participated in this adventure will forever consider it the trip of a lifetime that allowed us to experience the local culture and monuments along with preservation initiatives and behind-the-scenes activities that would have been unavailable to the individual traveler.
Thanks to our organizers, Dr. Donald Reid and Richard Laub along with the Iman, Rim, and Nellie from Egypt Panorama Tours.
|Click on pictures to enlarge|
|Pyramids at Giza||Delivering pita bread in Cairo||Greater Cairo Library on Zamalek||Camel ride on the Giza Plateau|
|Coptic Monastery of Deir Anba Bishoi||Tour guide, Dina Gamal||Mosque of Amr ibn al-As
several of the group had to wear these shiny green robes to enter
|Veiled in Islamic Cairo|
|Mounted tourist police at Saquarra||Temple of Kamak's Hypostyle Hall||Minarets of the Mosque of al-Azhar||Rim, Nellie, and Iman from Egypt Panorama Tours|
|Approach to the Temple of Hapshetsut||Wilting in Luxor|
GSU © 2004