Photos: by Pamela A. Keene

This is part 1 of a 2-part series on Egypt. The final part will be published in the February edition.

Camels, pyramids, ancient pharaohs, time-worn monuments, mosques and whirling dervishes. Crowded markets, 24/7 security and police protection, the world’s oldest stone structure, stray cats, and temples in the daylight and at night.

My third trip to Egypt was by far the most amazing and immersive of my visits. For three weeks, Rick and I were exposed to multiple means of transportation – including a camel ride and a pre-dawn flight in a hot air balloon, among others – new discoveries and experiences filled with surprises.

Traveling with Overseas Adventure Travel, we spent time in Cairo before boarding the private river ship Nefertiti for a 7-day cruise up the Nile headed south, back to Cairo for more ancient and modern wonders, and ending with four days in Alexandria on the Mediterranean.

Immersive doesn’t begin to describe the itinerary, taking us from one end of the Nile to the other with new adventures and discoveries every day.

My regular Facebook posts drew multiple claims by friending saying Egypt was on their bucket list. My question – why not go? The country is enjoying a resurgence of tourism; the Egyptian government wants to keep it that way. Aside from oil, tourism is Egypt’s second-highest economic driver.

We traveled in a group of 22 Americans, one of three groups on this journey. Each group had its own trip leader. All three, Marwa, Dominque and Amr, are Egyptologists; Marwa also has a degree in archeology. This was not a sightseeing trip. It was a chance the learn the stories behind the stories, the myths and the legends.

Ancient Cairo

The traffic in Cairo makes Atlanta traffic look like a picnic. Twenty-one million people live there; most have cars, taxis, vans, motorcycles, tut-tuts, buggies, commercial trucks, bicycles. It seemed as though every time we left the hotel in our motorcoaches – always with a police car escort front and back and an armed plain-clothes security guard in the front seat – the whole city was on the highways, streets and alleys.

Arriving a day early, we had a private driver, who turned out to be the head of ground movement and security for Overseas Adventure Travels in Cairo. As we made our way to an out-of-the-way neighborhood, he explained that the lines on the roads were just for decoration. I can believe it. Left turns from the far right lanes, small cars nudging their way in front of delivery trucks and buses, and motorcycles speeding between rows of vehicles, but we never saw an accident.

Five times a day the Muslim call to prayer rang out from broadcast towers and minarets, often in multiple musical keys from every direction. After a while, we didn’t even notice it over the droning of traffic and the blaring car horns beeping incessantly.

Our first outing took us to Sakkara in Memphis, an active archeological excavation site with several temples and the 4,400-year-old Step Pyramid, thought to be one of the world’s first stone buildings. Unearthed in 2014 about eight miles from the Great Giza Pyramids, it continues to draw world attention from historians.

From one of my Facebook posts while still in Cairo: “Sakkara and the Step Pyramid today. The most amazing thing. Crews of archeologists doing digs in this very rich part in the Sahara Desert where more royal tombs are being unearthed.”

We didn’t go inside the Step Pyramid but visited the interior of a temple and several tombs nearby, with Marwa explaining the hieroglyphs and drawings carved into the walls more than 40 centuries ago.

The Egyptian Museum holds many of the treasures from the tomb of the Boy King, Tutankhamun, along with other monuments, sarcophagi and artifacts. Many items have been moved to the soon-to-open Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza near the Great Pyramids, but the special display of King Tut artifacts includes the Gold Death Mask, one of the gold coffins and relics from the burial chamber.

Not that Ali

Our time in Cairo included a visit to the palace of Muhammad Ali, the prince that never became king. No! Not the boxer! The opulent palace and gardens featured a display of taxidermied animals, including the heads of three ferocious lions.

Time to head to Luxor via a 75-minute flight where we went first to the Temple of Karnak, to view the complex that was built in 19th century BC and expanded multiple times over the next 1,300 years. The Hall of Pillars contains 134 giant columns deeply carved with hieroglyphs and figures telling the story of the dynasties and their rulers. The tallest obelisk in Egypt, created by Queen Hatshepsut in honor of the god Amum, stands 97 feet tall beyond the Hall of Pillars and weighs more than 320 tons.

Our ship awaits

Docked near the Winter Palace, our 75-passenger Nefertiti would be our home for the next seven days, taking us up the Nile toward Aswan into Upper Egypt. But first, we cruised north toward Qena and the Dendera Temple. Built with influence from both the Romans and the Greeks, the exterior wall features a relief of Cleopatra VII and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion. Inside the main entry, the Hypostyle Hall is filled with massive carved columns that soar to a colorful painted ceiling.

Back in Luxor, our evening’s visit to the Luxor Temple was impressive with up lights showcasing carved columns with ornate lotus-blossom-shaped capitals. It’s a popular activity in Luxor, where one end of the recently restored Avenue of the Ram-headed Sphinxes leads back to the Karnak Temple as the site of ceremonies and parades.

Many of us rose at 4 a.m. for a hot-air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the monument of one of Egypt’s greatest rulers, and one of its only female pharaohs. As the sun rose over the Nile, more than 30 balloons rose into the cloud-streaked sky for amazing views and a wealth of stunning photos.

King Tut’s tomb

Later that morning, we journeyed to the Valley of the Kings, the ancient tombs of pharaohs and priests. Best known as the site of King Tut’s tomb, discovered in 1922 by British archeologist Howard Carter, it features nearly two dozen tombs built into the mountainsides, open on a staggered schedule. They are just a few of the many tombs yet to be excavated, although most fell victim to grave robbers thousands of years ago who stole the rich artifacts buried with their owners to assure their lifestyle in the afterlife.

From another of my Facebook posts: “Friday somewhere on the Nile river south of Luxor. Headed by ship to Upper Egypt. Minarets have come to life as the sun starts to set on another amazing day. Predawn hot-air balloon ride with 30 to 40 other aeronauts floating high over the Valley of the Kings against a blood-orange sky.

Then back across the Nile for breakfast on the Nefertiti before returning to the Valley of the Kings to explore six tombs of kings, including King Tut.

Stunning colors within rock walls deep inside the stone-covered mountains reminded us 21st-century travelers of the powerful kings and pharaohs who ruled this mighty land.”

Rick and I were eager to compare our experience with our visit four years ago, just days before King Tut’s tomb was officially opened following a 20-year restoration. Very different. Instead of walking past various niches and chambers from our previous visit, the walk took us down a long single colorful hallway to the burial chamber where on one side a wood sarcophagus lay surrounded by scenes of monkeys and other ancient symbols painted on the walls. On the other side, Tut’s mummy lay encased in plexiglass. The gold inner coffin was gone, most likely moved to the New Egyptian Museum.

To be continued next month … we traveled up the Nile toward Aswan and the mysteries of Abu Simbel. Then back to Cairo before ending our Egyptian adventure in the modern city of Alexandria.