By Vanya Akraboff
Heading to Egypt? The myriad prospects of ancient history (pyramids!), packaged tours, bustling (and most times hustling) cities, and, of course, sand and sun can be a little overwhelming for the independent backpacker. Here are three ideas – one a place, one a site, and one an activity – to get you started.
Aswan is one of Egypt’s southernmost cities, prized for both its sunny resort climate and relatively safe and laid-back atmosphere. After Cairo or Alexandria, the smaller, more intimate feel and navigable streets of Aswan are welcoming to independent travelers. The town is somewhat touristy, though not without good reason, as Aswan is ideally situated as a Nile cruise stop-off on the eastern banks of the Nile. Often thought of as Egypt’s gateway to Africa, Aswan has a distinctly African feel as well as a strong Nubian history, with many traditional Nubian villages in the area. For those looking to avoid the packaged tour industry that seems to have a stronghold on Egyptian tourism, Aswan is a good place to while away a few sun-soaked days on the Nile (though you’ll most likely be in the company of many cruisers, Aswan also attracts a fairly youthful, backpacker crowd).
For those confident of their haggling skills, the large city market is a good place to find souvenirs as well as get a feel for what the town might have been like as an ancient caravan crossroads. Away from the city streets, there is no better way to take advantage of Aswan’s beautiful setting than with a felucca ride on the Nile. There are numerous enthusiastic purveyors lining the banks in Aswan, so it’s worth taking a look around as prices vary. Sometimes the best bargains are found by those looking to spend a few days (as opposed to a few hours) cruising the surrounding area in the wooden sailboats. Once on the water, sailors should make their way over to Elephantine Island, the largest island in the area that also has variety of predynastic artifacts.
Aswan guides often tout the High Dam and Unfinished Obelisk as must see sites – probably to keep up with other legitimately fascinating cruise stops that cater to tourists who want to “see” the most of ancient Egypt. For the most part, neither of these is worth a visit unless you are in a photo op competition – if you really want to get some history in, visit the modern Nubian Museum.
The Karnak Temple is the largest religious site in the world, as well as the largest temple complex built by man. The Karnak Temple, located just north of Luxor, is the most-visited site in Egypt after the pyramids at Giza. An absolute must for anyone interested in ancient Egypt or art history, the temple complex is important not only for its size, but for the 1500+ years it spent in construction. Started in the 16th century B.C., each successive pharaoh added onto the existing structure during his reign. As a result, the temple complex (with three main temples, and many outlying buildings and halls) is large and quite complicated, with layer upon layer of ancient history and religious significance built on top of one another in varying states of disrepair. For those so inclined, some informative pre-departure reading and a virtual tour of the grounds can be found here.
Due to the size and complexity of Karnak (which is the modern name for the group of temples, as well as the small village nearby), a guide is recommended, especially if you are interested in deciphering some of the temple’s religious iconography and architectural history. Aside from personal tours given by accommodating locals, the site also offers an open-air museum and evening sound and light shows (both for an additional price). That said, the temple complex, which is open from the early morning to early evening year round, can be especially magical in the morning, with the sun low over the Nile and scarcely another tourist in sight. Just don’t forget your bug repellant when touring the temple, as the sand flies can be nasty, and allow at least a half-day for exploring the grounds to avoid feeling rushed.
The Karnak Temple is located on the east bank of the Nile, and is a popular stop for both Nile cruises and “classical” Egypt tours. Its close proximity to Luxor makes it an ideal destination for more independent travelers, as Luxor is a well-developed, albeit touristy, town with plenty of accommodation and services. The entire Luxor area is good for exploring ancient Egyptian sites, as the majority of Egypt’s antiquity-era ruins are located here.
Not only is a cruise down the Nile the most romantic way to see Egypt, it is also one of the most ancient, ingrained in the history and development of the country itself. The temples surrounding Luxor used to be accessible only through a Nile cruise. With romance, however, comes popularity, and there are hundreds of cruise operations on the Nile and any combination of tours with sometimes stratospheric prices. There is nevertheless plenty to tempt the budget-minded adventurer, as many companies offer custom and budget tours – checking out your options once in Egypt is a good, if less reliable, way of finding the right cruise. For those looking to avoid the floating hotel atmosphere many cruises offer (including budget cruises) a self-designed felucca trip is a good way to go, just be sure to be choosy about your captain if you are heading out for more than a day or two. And remember, there’s nothing wrong with a little pampering once in a while, especially if it’s at a bargain.
Most Nile cruises navigate the 125 miles between Luxor and Aswan and range from four to fifteen days. Almost all cruises feature a pharaonic antiquity-heavy itinerary, making a cruise still the best way to see ancient Egyptian sites. Although different cruises offer varying amounts of independent time and planned site-seeing, most include a standard set of the most popular sites and temples as well as private guides. Though it may seem that every local you come across in Egypt claims to be a qualified guide for wherever you are visiting, cruise guides are generally quite knowledgeable and full of insider tips. Cruises are available year-round, and peak season (with the best weather and highest concentration of tourists) runs from November to March.
A good place to begin sorting through your options is at www.egypttourism.org.