Places To See
Lake Nasser is the world's largest artificial lake. Its statistics are staggering - an area of 5250 sq km (2027 sq mi), stretching 510km (316mi) in length and between 5km (3mi) and 35km (22mi) in width. Numbers aside, the contrast between this enormous body of water and the remote desert surrounding it makes Lake Nasser a place of austere beauty.
Created when the High Dam was built near Aswan, Lake Nasser covers the land of Nubia, site of hundreds of tombs, temples and churches. Many monuments were moved from their original sites prior to the building of the dam and are grouped together at four locations: Kalabsha, Wadi as-Subua and Amada (both accessible only by boat) and, of course, Abu Simbel with its famous Temple of Rameses.
Temples of Karnak
A fitting monument to Egypt's New Kingdom power, Karnak is a mind-blowing complex of obelisks, columns, sanctuaries and pylons dedicated to the Theban gods and the glory of Egypt's pharaohs. Built and added to for over 1500 years its million-plus square metres a offer a crash course in ancient Egyptian architecture.
Although the earliest structures at Karnak date back to the Middle Kingdom, when Thebes was eclipsed by Memphis in the north, Karnak was ancient Egypt's most important place of worship in throughout the new kingdom. Called 'the most perfect of places', at its height during the reign of Ramses II some 80,000 people worked in or for the complex. At its centre was the enormous Amun Temple Enclosure, which covers more than 260,000 square metres and was dedicated to the god Amun. Most famous of all the many monuments here is the hypostyle hall, a forest of 134 papyrus-shaped columns that has stunned visitors for centuries. The temple is easily accessible from Luxor's town centre and can be seen at night if you can brave the faux-Shakespearean kitsch of the sound and light show.
More than 120,000 relics from almost every period of ancient Egyptian history are housed in this remarkable museum. Beyond arranging the exhibits chronologically, little has been done to present any sort of context to the exhibitions but the museum's eccentricity is part of its charm; accidentally stumbling across treasures in somewhat musty rooms is half the fun.
Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx
The sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza live up to more than 4000 years of hype. Their extraordinary geometry and age render them alien constructions rising out of the desert. The Sphinx sits nearby, a 50m-long feline character carved from a single block of stone.
There are swarms of visitors to the site, attended by swarms of camel and horse touts, but they fail to destroy the wonder. If you want a peaceful view of the pyramids, it's best to take a horse ride in the area at around 5pm - you won't see them close up, but it can be a lot more atmospheric than battling around close to the monuments.
The Pyramids at Giza are the planet's oldest tourist attraction; built by successive generations of pharaohs, they were already more than 2500 years old at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ. The wonder of the Pyramids lies in their age and in the twin mysteries of how they were built and what they were used for. Despite all the evidence, there are still those who refuse to accept that the ancient Egyptians were capable of such an astonishing achievement.
These amazing architectural accomplishments are part of a massive necropolis, or burial site, attached to the ancient capital of Memphis, south of Cairo, a city that predated the founding of Cairo by more than 3500 years. While there is nothing much left to see of Memphis itself, the monuments in which its dead kings and nobles were buried remain hugely impressive.
The key sites to visit are Giza, closest to Cairo, and the day-trip sites of Abu Sir, Memphis, Saqqara and Dahshur. The oldest pyramid at Giza and the largest in Egypt, the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) stood 146m high when it was completed around 2600 BC. About 2.3 million limestone blocks, weighing around 2.5 tonnes each, were used in the construction of this giant. Although there is not much to see inside the pyramid, the experience of climbing through such an ancient structure is unforgettable. Along the eastern and southern sides of the pyramid are five long pits that once contained the pharaoh's boats. You can see one of the boats in the Solar Boat Museum.
Known in Arabic as Abu al-Hol (Father of Terror), the Sphinx is carved from the natural bedrock at the bottom of the causeway to Khafre's pyramid. Recent geological and archaelogical survey has shown that the Sphinx most likely dates from Khafre's reign, and probably portrays his features, framed by the striped nemes headcloth worn only by royal personages. Unfortunately the monument is suffering the stone equivalent of cancer, and recent restoration attempts have sped up, rather than halted, the decay. The cheesy sound and light show held near the Sphinx is a painless, albeit pricey, way to see the Pyramids by starlight.
Dahshur is an impressive 3.5km-long (2.2mi-long) field of 4th- and 12th-dynasty pyramids, older cousins of the Pyramids of Giza. Of the original 11 pyramids here, only the Bent and Red Pyramids remain intact. Also worth a look are the mud-brick remains of the Black Pyramid, which contain a maze of corridors and rooms designed to deceive tomb robbers.
Pharaoh Sneferu (2613-2589 BC), father of Khufu and founder of the 4th dynasty, built Egypt's first true pyramid here, the Red Pyramid. He also built an earlier version, the Bent Pyramid. These two pyramids were the same height. They are also the equal third-largest pyramids in Egypt, after the two largest at Giza.
Many cluey travellers are choosing to visit Dahshur instead of the Giza Plateau for three reasons: the pyramid is just as impressive as its counterparts at Giza, the site is much more peaceful and the entry fee here is significantly cheaper.
The Islamic (or Hejira) calendar is a full 11 days shorter than the Gregorian (Western) calendar, so public holidays and festivals fall 11 days earlier each year. Ras as-Sana is the celebration of the new Islamic year, and Moulid an-Nabi celebrates the Prophet Mohammed's birthday around May. These celebrations include parades in the city streets, with lights, feasts, drummers and special sweets. Ramadan is celebrated during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It was during this month that the Quran was revealed to Mohammed, and out of deference the faithful take neither food nor water until after sunset each day. At the end of Ramadan (Eid al-Fitr) the fasting breaks with much celebration and gaiety.
Eid al-Adha is the time of the pilgrimage to Mecca, and each Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage (haj) at least once in a lifetime. Streets are decorated with coloured lights and children play in their best clothes. The ritual of Mahmal is performed in each village as passing pilgrims are given carpets and shrouds to take on their journey.
When to go?
The best time to visit Egypt depends on where you want to go. Generally speaking, winter (December to February) is the tourist high season and summer (June to August) is the low season in all parts of the country except on the coasts, and to a lesser degree in Cairo. Hotel prices reflect this. Weather-wise, June to August is unbearable almost anywhere south of Cairo, especially around Luxor and Aswan, where daytime temperatures soar up to 40\*C. Summer in Cairo is almost as hot, and the combination of heat, dust, pollution, noise and crush makes walking the city streets a real test of endurance. On the other hand, a scorching sun might be exactly what's wanted for a week or two of slow roasting on the beaches of southern Sinai, the Alexandrian coast or the Red Sea - just be prepared to fight for hotel rooms with locals on their summer holidays and Gulf Arabs escaping the even greater heat in their home countries.
When visiting somewhere such as Luxor, winter is easily the most comfortable time. Cairo isn't quite as pleasant, with often overcast skies and chilly evenings, while up on the Mediterranean coast Alexandria is subject to frequent downpours resulting in flooded, muddy streets. Even Sinai's beaches are a little too chilly for sunbathing in January. The happiest compromise for an all-Egypt trip is to visit in spring (March to May) or autumn (September to November).
Throughout Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, many cafes and restaurants are closed during the day, while bars cease business completely for the duration. Offices also operate at reduced and very erratic hours.
Travel Visa Overview
Most foreigners entering Egypt must obtain a visa. The only exceptions are citizens of Guinea, Hong Kong and Macau. There are three ways of doing this: in advance from the Egyptian embassy or consulate in your home country, at an Egyptian embassy abroad or, for certain nationalities, on arrival at the airport. This last option is the cheapest and easiest of the three. Visas are available on arrival for nationals of all western European countries, the UK, the USA, Australia, all Arab countries, New Zealand, Japan and Korea. At the Cairo airport, the entire process takes only 20 minutes or so. No photo is required. Nationals from other countries must obtain visas in their countries of residence. Processing times and costs for visa applications vary according to your nationality and the country in which you apply.
European plug with two circular metal pins
This serious and potentially fatal disease is spread by mosquito bites. If you are travelling in endemic areas it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal.
If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you.
If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for malaria once you return home as you can harbour malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom free.
Travellers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times. The main messages are: wear light-coloured clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave.Use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) - it may be worth taking your own.
Don't paddle in the Nile!
Also known as bilharzia, this disease is carried in freshwater by tiny worms that enter through the skin and attach themselves to the intestines or bladder. The first symptom may be tingling and sometimes a light rash around the area where the worm entered. Weeks later, a high fever may develop. A general unwell feeling may be the first symptom, or there may be no symptoms. Once the disease is established, abdominal pain and blood in the urine are other signs. The infection often causes no symptoms until the disease is well established (several months to years after exposure), and damage to internal organs is irreversible. Avoid swimming or bathing in freshwater where bilharzia is present. Even deep water can be infected. If you do get wet, dry off quickly and dry your clothes as well. A blood test is the most reliable test, but it will not show positive until a number of weeks after exposure.
A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required from travellers over 1 year of age coming from infected areas. The vaccine against yellow fever is effective. Yellow fever is transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito. Symptoms of yellow fever range from a mild fever which resolves over a few days to more serious forms with fever, headache, muscle pains, abdominal pain and vomiting. This can progress to bleeding, shock and liver and kidney failure. The liver failure causes jaundice, or yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes - hence the name. There's no specific treatment but you should seek medical help urgently if you think you have yellow fever.
Egypt's climate is hot and dry most of the year. During the winter months - December, January and February - average daily temperatures stay up around 20°C (68°F) on the Mediterranean coast and a pleasant 26°C (80°F) in Aswan. Maximum temperatures get to 31°C (88°F) and 50°C (122°F) respectively. Winter nights only get down to 8°C (45°F), a very Egyptian version of chilly. Alexandria receives the most rain, with 19cm (7.5in) each year, while Aswan is almost bone-dry with just 2mm annually. Between March and April the khamsin blows in from the Western Desert at up to 150kmph (93mph).
History and Culture
Until very recently, Egyptian life and lifestyle have remained as it had been for hundreds of years. However, 21st century commercialism, tourism, satellite TV and urban migration have made inroads on traditional culture. But, for the majority fellaheen (peasant farmers) population, the fatalism that has helped them survive for centuries, despite poverty and political turmoil, remains strong. This doesn't seem to stop music, art and writing from thriving, however.
Pre-20th Century History
The Nile's fertile banks - the source of economic, social, political and religious life - gave birth to the world's first nation state and a powerful civilisation that invented writing and erected the first stone monuments. Around 5000 years ago the independent riverfront states were unified under Narmer, giving rise to the first dynasty of pharaohs.
The pharaohs were considered divine and they ruled over a highly stratified society. The first pyramid was built in the 27th century BC; over the next 500 years the monuments grew increasingly grand. Monarchical power was at its greatest during the 4th dynasty, when Khufu, Khafre and Mycerinus built the Pyramids of Giza. Through the 6th and 7th dynasties power was diffused and small principalities began to appear. A second capital at Heracleopolis (near present-day Beni Suef) was established and Egypt plunged into civil war.
An independent kingdom was established at Thebes (present-day Luxor) and, under Montuhotep II, Egypt again came under the control of a single pharaoh. From 1550 to 1069 BC, the New Kingdom bloomed under rulers such as Tuthmosis I, the first pharaoh to be entombed in the Valley of the Kings; his daughter Hatshepsut, one of Egypt's few female pharaohs, and Tuthmosis III, Egypt's greatest conqueror.
Amenhotep IV renounced the teachings of the priesthood, took on the title of Akhenaten in honour of Aten, the disc of the rising sun, and established a new capital called Akhetaten devoted solely to the new god. Soon thereafter, Egypt was ruled by generals: Ramses I, II and III, and Seti I. They built massive monuments and temples, but following their reigns the empire was in disarray, allowing the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great to arrive in 331 BC and establish a new capital.
Under Ptolemy I, Alexandria became a great city. The Ptolemies ruled Egypt for 300 years, but their reign was plagued by great rivalries amongst the nobles. Meanwhile an expanded Roman Empire began taking an interest in Egypt. Between 51 and 48 BC, Egypt was ruled by Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra VIII, and Julius Caesar sent his rival, Pompey, from Rome to watch over them. Ptolemy had Pompey killed and banished Cleopatra. Caesar came along, threw Ptolemy into the Nile, appointed another of Cleopatra's brothers, Ptolemy XIV, as joint leader, and became Cleopatra's lover. In 47 BC Cleopatra gave birth to Caesar's son and two years later had her brother killed. When Caesar was assassinated the following year, Marc Antony - one of the new ruling triumvirate - came to Egypt and fell in love with Cleopatra. An unhappy Roman senate sent Octavian to deal with Marc Antony 10 years later. Following the defeat of their naval forces at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, after which Egypt became part of the Roman Empire.
When the empire fell apart Nubians, North Africans and Persians invaded, although Egypt remained relatively stable until AD 640 when the Arabs arrived, bringing Islam. They established Fustat (on the site of present-day Cairo) as the seat of an unstable government until the Fatimids took power, building the prosperous city of Al-Qahira (Cairo).
Western European Christians seized much of the weakening empire in the Crusades of the 11th century, but in 1187 the Syrian-based Seljuks sent an army into Egypt and Salah ad-Din (Saladin) fortified Cairo and expelled the Crusaders from Jerusalem. Salah ad-Din enlisted Mamluks (Turkish mercenaries), but they ended up overthrowing his dynasty and ruled for two and a half centuries before Egypt fell to the Turks in 1517. Since most of the Mamluks were of Turkish descent, the Turkish Ottoman sultans, based in Constantinople, largely left the Mamluks alone, as long as they paid their taxes. This state of affairs continued until Napoleon invaded in 1798, only to be ousted by the British in 1801; they were in turn expelled by Mohammed Ali, a lieutenant in the Albanian contingent of the Ottoman army. Said Pasha, Ali's grandson, opened the Suez Canal in 1869.
Crippling national debt enabled British and French controllers to install themselves in 1879, and the British terminated the suzerainty that Turkey had over Egypt. During WWI Egypt aligned itself with the Allies, and shortly afterwards the British allowed the formation of a national political party - the Wafd. King Fuad I was elected head of the constitutional monarchy and for the next 30 years the British, the monarchists and the Wafdists jockeyed for power. The Arab League was founded after WWII by seven Arab countries, including Egypt, but the war had left Egypt in a shambles, and its defeat in Israel's 1948 War of Independence saw the chaos escalate. In 1952 a group of dissident military officers, led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, orchestrated a bloodless coup. The British and French were loathe to relinquish control, so they invaded. The USA and the Soviet Union joined the United Nations-deployed peacekeepers and insisted that the invaders should leave. Nasser became a hero, particularly among Arabs.
Nasser attempted to unite Egypt, Syria, Yemen and later Iraq in the late 1950s, emphasising Arab unity and demonising Israel. Following months of heightening tension between Egypt and Israel, the Jewish state attacked on 5 June 1967, starting the Six Day War. Israel destroyed the Egyptian air force, captured Sinai and closed the Suez Canal.
Anwar Sadat, Nasser's vice president, took over from Nasser when he died in 1970, and set about improving relations with the West. On 6 October 1973, the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Egypt launched a surprise attack on the Israeli occupiers of Sinai. Its army initially beat back the much better armed Israelis; although these initial gains were later reversed, the ceasefire agreement favoured Egyptian interests. In 1977 Sadat began making peace with Israel, leading to the 1978 Camp David Agreement. Israel agreed to withdraw from Sinai, and Egypt officially recognised Israel. Many in the Arab world felt Sadat had betrayed them, and he was assassinated on 6 October 1981.
Hosni Mubarak, Sadat's vice president, was sworn in and has been the country's leader ever since. Mubarak has surprised many with his deft political footwork in the troubled region, improving relations with Israel and other Arab states. With the rise of fundamentalism in the Arab world, Mubarak's position has at times been precarious and he has suffered numerous attempts on his life. He sent 35,000 troops to fight against Iraq in the Gulf War, and although the war was seen as Western imperialists fighting Arabs, Egypt's commitment proved useful in improving its relations with the West.
In 1992 Islamic fundamentalists began a campaign of violence and intimidation against tourists and Egyptian security forces. The mid-1990s were characterised by tensions with Sudan over the contested Halaib territory, severe flooding in 1994 and a series of conflicts with fundamentalists culminating in an assassination attempt on President Mubarak in 1995. In 1997, the massacre of more than 70 people, most of them tourists, by Islamic militants shocked Egyptians and caused thousands worldwide to rethink their holiday plans. The subsequent government crackdown contained but a rapidly growing population, coupled with high unemployment and increasing poverty undermined economic and social reforms.
President Hosni Mubarak was elected to serve his fifth term as president in Egypt's first contested presidential race in 2005. Although he won by a large margin, allegations of voting irregularities and heavy-handed policing have contributed to ongoing criticism that Egypt is far from democratic.
On the surface, it seems that Egypt's economy has heaved forward in recent years: growth hovers at 7%; record foreign investment floods in from moneyed Arab states; and tourism seems to have rebounded from Sinai's spate of bombings in 2005-6. But the vast majority of Egyptians still live in a grinding poverty that tarnishes any outwardly signs of success. While the threat of an Islamic uprising seems remote, the deep dissatisfaction with the status quo will continue as long as basic wages keep falling far behind the spiralling costs of staples such as food, fuel and building materials. Ballooning government subsidies for basic goods alleviate some of this shortfall (at the cost of a sizeable budget deficit), though many today feel that more profound changes are needed to take the country forward.