The Wonders of Egypt: The Pyramids Are Just the Beginning

If you mention the pyramids, what comes to people’s minds? Egypt. Would you like to visit them? “Yes!” Almost everybody would. I have had the privilege of visiting the pyramids twice in less than two years, but what I have found is that the pyramids are just the tip of the iceberg in Egypt. Egypt is a place like no other. The almost tropical scenes of the Nile allowed an amazing civilization to flourish, but the desert a few meters away preserved it for us today. It is a Muslim culture, but it is the home of some of the oldest churches in the world, some of which the large Christian minority still use. You can also find Greek and Roman history as well as the history of Arabs, Turks, British, and French. But the best part of Egypt for me is the people. They are a people who know hospitality, who are ready to dance, who know how to cook, and are ready to be your friend. For all of these reasons, Egypt is a destination you do not want to miss.

In this post, I want to describe what it is like to travel through Egypt and introduce you to the places I visited in two trips. Our trips consisted of six parts: Cairo, Aswan, Abu Simbel, the Nile, Luxor, and Hurghada. That’s our route in this article.

Cairo is huge and filled with people. About 30 million people, one fourth of the population of Egypt, lives in and around Cairo. Make sure you see it from the air as you come in to get an idea of its size. The traffic is unbelievable. It makes driving anywhere in the United States look orderly and easy in comparison.

On the edges of Cairo, you come to Giza, still very crowded. There, you find the pyramids. No matter how many pictures you’ve seen, there is simply no way to do justice to the size and wonder of these ancient structures. There are three great pyramids named after the kings who built them, Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. You come first to the largest, the pyramid of Khufu. You can enter into this pyramid and ascend to the tomb deep within the pyramids. The second largest is that of Khafre, and the third is that of Menkaure.

You can drive a little ways past the pyramids and come to an area slightly elevated above them from which you obtain amazing views of the three pyramids. Here is the place to take a camel ride and enjoy the vistas from the top of the camel. Many of our people said that this was the highlight of their trip.

The pyramids are not the end of the wonders of Cairo. You can find many of them inside the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. There, you find artifacts that are more than 4,000 years old but look like they were made last week because they are so well preserved. There, you also find the treasures of King Tut. Tut’s treasures are beyond belief. He was buried with so many beautiful treasures and so much gold. It’s even more amazing to think that these treasures are the treasures of a young and minor king who had little time to prepare (more on this later). There are so many treasures in Egypt that the government is building new museums. The new National Museum of Egyptian civilization houses the royal mummies. They were moved from the Egyptian Museum to the new museum. It’s worth watching the ceremony of the Pharaoh’s Golden Parade here.

There are so many more things you could do in Cairo, but one thing you don’t want to miss is Old Cairo. It is walled off from the rest of the city with the walls built back in the Middle Ages. It is filled with interesting architecture, mosques, and churches. People are everywhere. You can enjoy a coffee like the Egyptian novelist Neguib Mahfouz did and then bargain in the many shops for souvenirs or clothes. It’s a unique experience that will give you a taste of Egyptian culture.

The last big city in the South of Egypt or Upper Egypt (because the Niles flows north) is Aswan. Aswan is a city of 2 million people, but it has a small town feel in comparison with Cairo.

You can get there in several ways. You could actually take a cruise from Cairo to Aswan (two weeks). You can take the train. You could drive (rare). You can also fly. The first time I went there, I took the 20 hour trip on the sleeper train. That is another story. Suffice to say, I’m glad I did it and glad I didn’t have to do it again. From Cairo to Aswan, it’s much better to fly. It is a one hour flight from Cairo to Aswan. You can actually fly to all the destinations that I will mention in this post, but you may not want to, for reasons I will explain later.

In Aswan, there are many sights to explore, but let me mention two of the most important ones. The first is the unfinished obelisk. The obelisk is in some ways more impressive than the pyramids. The obelisk is one solid piece of granite. Had it been completed, it would have weighed 1,168 tons. Compare that to one brick in the pyramids, which is not small, but only 2.5 tons! This obelisk would have been cut out of a quarry, dragged to a boat on the Nile, sailed upstream to its destination, dragged to the temple, lifted in place, and set there. Once it was there, it would remain there in place without mortar for thousands of years. Visiting the unfinished obelisk will help you appreciate this.

Many of the temples that you visit were actually built by the Greek Pharaohs, the Ptolemies. One of those was the temple of Philae, which was a temple to Isis. You have to take a boat to get there because it is on an island in the middle of the Nile. It is remarkably well preserved, and it enables you to get a good idea of what the ancient temples were like. There you will also find a beautiful Roman house built by the Roman Emperor Trajan had built. Tourism in Egypt is nothing new.

Abu Simbel
In terms of amazing sites, after the pyramids, and maybe before, is the temple built by Ramses II carved into a mountain. It is called Abu Simbel after the person who re-discovered it in modern times. It is 30 miles north of the Sudanese border, and a 3.5 hour drive from Aswan through the desert. Most people go and come back in one day. They depart early to arrive as early as possible and avoid the most extreme heat (it’s always hot). The drive through the desert is interesting. You can see how the Egyptian government is trying to irrigate the desert and make use of it as a resource. The desert itself is an impressive sight, and you get plenty of it on this trip.

Abu Simbel consists of two temples. The first was for Ramses II and the second for his favorite of his 43 wives, Nefertari. In the first, there are four giant statues of 69 feet each. They are all statues of Ramses. They are carved directly into the mountain like the faces on Mount Rushmore. Inside the mountain is carved the temple of Ramses II. The second temple is much smaller, and, not surprisingly, also contains many statutes of Ramses II as well as Nefertari!

Once again, it’s hard to grasp the scope of Abu Simbel in pictures. In the picture below, my daughter is standing there by herself below the statues. What is unique about this picture is that she is the only one there. This was in May 2021, in which many nations were still trying to figure out how to deal with Covid and not traveling much. We did not realize at the time what a gift we received in being able to visit this site with so few people. The second time I went, the place was crawling with people, and I would never have been able to get a shot like this one.

What’s perhaps more astonishing than Abu Simbel itself is that UNESCO moved the entire mountain. Because of the construction of the Aswan High Dam, a lake was formed that threatened to submerge Abu Simbel. Egypt asked UNESCO for help, and 3,000 engineers and workers moved both mountains to higher ground over the course of five years.

The Nile

One of the great wonders of Egypt is the Nile River. It is what made life in Egypt prosper and flourish. It is easy to see this as you travel throughout Egypt. 96% of Egypt is true desert. 4% of it is green like Hawaii, mostly around the Nile and in the Delta and Oases. 96% of Egypt’s population lives on 4% of the land.

Perhaps the best way to experience the Nile is to take one of the many cruises that are available on it. This is how many tourists see the sites of Upper Egypt, stopping at various cities along the way. I have gone twice on the M.S. Salacia. I loved the boat, the crew, and the food. It was a great experience, and, both times, I was sad to leave. These boats are not like the giant cruise ships in the ocean. They house a couple hundred people at most.

As you sail down the Nile, you can observe the rich farmland around the Nile. Often, in the background, you will see the desert rise up behind it. You will see farm after farm and cattle grazing along the banks. You will see children playing in the Nile, and men fishing in boats. It is an extraordinary experience. I was tired when I got back on the boat after our tours of various temples, but I did not want to miss one minute of the trip where I could enjoy this natural wonder.

The cruise from Aswan ends at ancient Thebes, modern day Luxor, which was the religious capital of Egypt. Here, you will find the greatest temples of ancient Egypt. After all you have seen in Egypt, visiting Luxor can still take your breath away. I recommend exploring the West Bank first and then closing the trip on a high note with a visit to Karnak and Luxor Temples.

The highlight of the West Bank is the Valley of the Kings. It is extremely hot and dry there. That is why the kings chose it. It was far away from the life of the Nile and easier to guard. There are at least 63 tombs of the Kings of Egypt there. Only a few of them are open at any one time to preserve them.

What is amazing about these tombs is that though they are more than 3,000 years old, the paint and the colors are almost as vivid as the day they were painted. You can get a sense of what these temples must have looked like. You can pay about $15 extra to enter the tomb of King Tut. It is surprisingly easy to get to and small. This indicates what a minor king he was, and yet the gold in the tomb boggles the imagination. How much more in the other tombs? One of our fellow travelers visited the tomb of Seti I. It is the deepest tomb, and you pay $50 to enter it. I wished I had joined her. She had it to herself. The other tombs were crowded. This tomb was much larger than the others, and you could take the time to explore it.

After seeing many impressive temples, Karnak is still astonishing. It is huge in comparison to the others. It was the main temple of Egypt and constructed over a thousand years. The columns and the obelisks are magnificent. In the days of the Pharaohs, once a year, during the Opet Festival, the priests would carry the statues of the gods on the solar boats from Karnak to Luxor Temple. That road is about a mile and a half and opened to the public last November. We walked that route and experienced a taste of what it must have been like during the festivals of ancient Egypt. I recommend it, but be cautious. It is hot! Below is the entrance of the temple of Luxor.

We drove from Luxor to Hurghada. It is a long drive, and you may want to fly. However, traveling through the desert mountains was a great experience. There is a lot of natural beauty on the way. Plus, it is exciting when you begin to see the Red Sea for the first time.

Hurghada is not a place to experience ancient history. It is a resort town like Cancún. It has grown up in recent years after being a fishing village for most of its history. I like it a little bit better than the Caribbean because of Egyptian hospitality, the variety of nationalities, the beauty of the Red Sea, and the weather.

If you get to Hurghada, you can do a lot of activities for relatively cheap. We went snorkeling and went to an island in the Red Sea. Our daughters did scuba diving for the first time. The water is extremely clear, the coral reefs are large and beautiful, and so it is especially good for snorkeling or diving.

After an intense week of traveling throughout Egypt, Hurghada was a great place to relax and debrief before taking the long trip home. It is a place I would recommend simply for a good vacation.

Everybody knows the pyramids, but there is so much more to Egypt. The pyramids are just the beginning. But the best discovery may be the Egyptian people themselves who are ready to welcome you there with open arms and help you experience the wonders of Egypt.


Leave a Reply