Where the desert meets the sea - exploring Egypt’s ancient cities and landscapes

Pip
June 15, 2015

The name ‘Egypt’ immediately creates exotic images of ancient pyramids housing pharaoh’s tombs and lush, palm-fringed oases that emerge within sprawling deserts. This country in the far northeastern corner of Africa bridges the continent with Asia and is traversed by the mighty Nile river, dotted with ancient temples and whose waters feed the rich agricultural lands of the Nile Delta. To the north, the Mediterranean Sea coastline is infused with European influences, while the Red Sea to the east is famed for its magnificent coral reefs and marine species. From being immersed in the bustling madness of Cairo to the desolate expanses of the country’s great deserts, Egypt stands as one of the world’s favourite tourist destinations.

Cairo and Surrounds

Cairo

While Cairo can be confronting on first glance, it is a ‘must’ to really understand Egypt and its people.

Most Egyptian adventures start and end in the chaotic capital of Cairo. Home to more than 20 million people, this buzzing metropolis is the heart of not only Egyptian politics, but culture, art and history. Neighbourhoods such as Khan el-Khalili are home to exquisite palaces, bustling souks and elaborate mosques such as Al-Hussein, one of the country’s holiest Islamic sites, while its Old Town is home to ancient Coptic and Greek Orthodox Churches that reflect Egypt’s Christian legacy. A good starting point is the Egyptian Museum, home to more than 100,000 items in their collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities, including the intact tomb of Tutankhamun. While Cairo can be confronting on first glance, it is a ‘must’ to really understand Egypt and its people.

Pyramids of Giza

The recumbent lion of the Temple of the Sphinx is one of Egypt’s most iconic structures.

For many, the reason they come to Egypt is to witness the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, some of the ancient world’s most impressive wonders and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At any time, two of the three pyramids are open to visitors, allowing you to walk through the interior passages and take in the incredible feat of their construction. The nearby recumbent lion of the Temple of the Sphinx is equally impressive and one of Egypt’s most iconic structures. Take the time to visit the Solar Barque Museum that displays a reconstructed ‘solar boat’, buried along with its pharaoh, and venture out on horse or camel back into the surrounding desert from where some of the best photos back on the Pyramids of Giza can be taken.

Ruins of the Nile Delta

Just to the south of Cairo at the mouth of the Nile Delta lie the ruins of Memphis, Egypt’s former capital during the Old Kingdom. It dates back to at least 3100 BC and the ruins that remain reflect its prominence as a centre of trade, commerce and religion. Its cemetery is found at the nearby Pyramid of Saqqara and, together with its surrounding tombs, comprise one of Egypt’s most extensive archaeological sites.

Mediterranean city of Alexandria

The Qaitbey Citadel, built to defend Alexandria from an advancing Ottoman Empire.

Two hundred kilometres to the north west lies Alexandria whose European feel contrasts distinctively from Cairo. Situated on the Mediterranean, it is named after Alexander the Great who founded the city in 331 BC and is home to the ancient Alexandria Library and beautiful Royal Gardens of Montazah. Explore the Qaitbey Citadel, built to defend the city from an advancing Ottoman Empire, and visit the Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa, one of Egypt’s largest and most impressive Roman tombs.

Along the Nile

Stretching almost 7,000 km, the Nile River is considered the longest in the world, originating in Central Africa and flowing north into the Mediterranean Sea. It is the lifeblood of Egypt and one of the most spectacular ways to visit the country is by boat along its course. Traditional felucca boats ply its iconic waters, or more modern vessels allow you to sightsee in style, taking in its fertile floodplains and ancient temples.

Luxor’s temples and tombs

Just to the north of Luxor lies the incredible Karnak Temple, often referred to as the ‘Vatican of the Pharaonic Age’. Its monumental gates, pillared halls and elaborate wall carvings date back to 3200 BC and comprise part of the greater city of Thebes. Also on the east bank of the Nile sits the impressive Luxor Temple and its chapels, built from Nubian Sandstone around 1400 BC using a common architectural technique to allude the eye known as ‘illusionism’. Its grand and imposing appearance was later utilised by the Roman government when it functioned as a military fortress.

On the western side of the Nile in Luxor the Valley of Queens exhibit the decorated tombs of Egypt’s pharaohs wives.

On the western side of the Nile in Luxor the Valley of Kings and the Valley of Queens exhibit the decorated tombs of Egypt’s pharaohs and their wives. Backed by barren hills of layered limestone and sedimentary rocks, the isolated rock cut tombs were designed to deter robbers, whilst still being near Luxor. Nearby lies the well-preserved town of Deir el Medina, once home to the pharaoh’s workers and now their tombs.

Edfu and Kom Ombo

The Ptolemaic Temple at Edfu, dedicated to the Egyptian deity, Horus, is one of the best-preserved temples in Egypt, around 100 km south of Luxor. It features impressive carved reliefs depicting ancient conflicts, as well as inscriptions detailing the myths and religions of the civilisation. An further hour south the unusual double temple of Kom Ombo is also worth visiting and features beautifully carved friezes, dedicated to both the crocodile god, Sobek, and the falcon god, Haroeris. All of its structures are duplicated for both sets of gods and while earthquakes and Nile flooding have destroyed some of its structures, it still remains a fascinating insight into ancient Egyptian architecture.

Aswan

One of the most spectacular ways to enjoy Aswan is by traditional boat (felucca) along the Nile river.

Further south in Aswan, get a glimpse into Nubian life on Elephantine Island, home to a number of archaeological ruins and the fortress town of Yebu, and explore the antique shops and handicrafts on sale in Aswan’s bazaar, considered one of the best in Egypt. Don’t miss a visit to the High Dam of Aswan that has transformed the Nile and the lives of those who inhabit it since its construction in the 1960s.

Aswan also makes an excellent base to explore the island Temple of Philae, featuring beautiful carvings on its columned structure, while the Temple of Kalabsha is noted for its carved reliefs depicting ancient Egyptian life and boasts stunning views of Lake Nasser from its rooftop. Don’t miss the Unfinished Obelisk, the largest ancient Egyptian obelisk ever attempted, carved directly out of the granite bedrock.

Abu Simbel

On the far south of Lake Nasser’s western shores lie the magnificent rock temples of Abu Simbel, carved under the command of Ramses II in the 13th Century BC.

On the far south of Lake Nasser’s western shores lie the magnificent rock temples of Abu Simbel, carved under the command of Ramses II in the 13th Century BC. Home to the Great Temple, built for a deified Ramses, and Small Temple, dedicated to Nefertari, they are noted for their colossal statues, pillars and elaborate inscriptions. They were relocated in 1968 to this artificial hill following the formation of Lake Nasser, and are visible example of the effects of Aswan’s High Dam on Egypt’s ancient structures.

Deserts and Oases

No visit to Egypt is complete without visiting its iconic deserts and oases. While most travel by 4x4 vehicle, embarking on a camel trek or quad safari allows you to really be immersed in your environment, with plenty of time to stop and explore by foot along the way. Known as ‘ships of the desert’, camels enable you to travel as Egyptians have done for centuries, slowly taking in your surroundings as they pass you by, while quads can get off the main routes to access less-visited regions.

Al-Fayoum Oasis

To the southwest of Cairo the Bahr Yussef canal feeds the depressed basin of the Al-Fayoum Oasis. This fertile region features fields of flowers, fruits and vegetables, dotted with small villages such as Al Nazla where traditional pottery has been created since Pharaohs inhabited the region. This rich area of cereal and cotton production is home to the Wadi Al-Rayan valley where natural water springs feed cascading falls and flamingoes wade through artificial lakes.

To the west of Al-Fayoum lies the UNESCO World Heritage listed Wadi Al Hetan or ‘Valley of the Whales’.

To the west of Al-Fayoum lies the UNESCO World Heritage listed Wadi Al Hetan or ‘Valley of the Whales’. Here fossil remains of the earliest suborder of whales can be found and illustrate the animals progression from a land-based animal into an ocean-dwelling mammal.

To the northwest of Al-Fayoum Oasis stretches the small saltwater Lake Qarun, all that remains of the ancient freshwater Lake Moeris. On its western edge sits Qasr Qarun, the ancient town of Dionysias that was the start and end point of the caravan route to the Bahariya Oasis. One of its most impressive structures is the temple dedicated to the crocodile god of Sobek, dating back to the Ptolemaic period.

Bahariya Oasis

One of Egypt’s most popular oases to visit due to its accessibility is Bahariya, a barren desert, dotted with natural springs surrounded by shady palms. Its agricultural history dates back to Pharaonic times and the recent discovery of a Roman-era mummy, together with vessels, coins and masks, has re-ignited interest in the region’s past. Today’s inhabitants of Bahariya are descended from Libyan Bedouin tribes and have a rich traditional music tradition.

Black and White Deserts

Surreal white chalk rock formations resembling animal and human faces create what is contrastingly known as the White Desert, a designated national park within the immense Farafra Depression.

South from Bahariya, dark dolerite layers the mountains in a spectacular region known as the Black Desert. Recent geological surveying has uncovered a large dinosaur structure on its edge, confirming these ancient animals were once present here. Climb to its highest point on the ‘English Mountain’ for impressive views across this volcanic landscape.

Fifty kilometres south, surreal white chalk rock formations resembling animal and human faces create what is contrastingly known as the White Desert, a designated national park within the immense Farafra Depression. It is home to natural water wells, such as the Roman spring of Ain Bishay that feeds a lush area of date palms, citrus and olive trees, creating the quintessential oasis landscape.

Oases of the Libyan Desert

Further south the Libyan Desert stretches west into the Sahara. Here lies the large Kharga Oasis, once known as the ‘Southern Oasis’ by Ancient Egyptians and home to the Christian cemetery of Al-Bagawat. It was once an important stop on the caravan route between Middle Egypt and the Sudan which transported gold, spices and ivory. The nearby Dakhla Oasis is also worth visiting, dotted with small village communities, each with their own distinct cultural identity. Its beautiful landscapes, coupled with an interesting human history, has led it to become a major excavation area for archaeologists studying the changing environment’s effect on human habitation.

Siwa Oasis

Temple of the Oracle, dedicated to Amun and consulted by Alexander the Great, in the Siwa Oasis.

In the far west of the country near the Libyan border is the Siwa Oasis, appearing as a lush Garden of Eden amidst the desert dunes. It is famed for the Temple of the Oracle, dedicated to Amun and consulted by Alexander the Great. Explore the hillside tombs of the Mountain of the Dead and swim in Cleopatra’s pool where the Egyptian queen herself is believed to have bathed.

On the edge of Siwa’s Great Sand Sea the freshwater lake of Bir Wahed is a popular sunset excursion, its bubbling sulphurous waters making for a perfect soak on the edge of the dunes. Just to the south lies Dakrour Mountain whose hot sand baths naturally heal rheumatism and arthritic pains. The Siwa Oasis is dotted with springs, including Koraishet, Ein Safi and the palm-fringed waters of Abou-Shrouf that make for an idyllic swim.

Red Sea Coastline

Sinai Peninsula

The inland desert of the Sinai Peninsula is traversed by nomadic bedouins and in the centre of the peninsula lies the mesmerising rock formations of the Coloured Canyon.

Jutting into the Red Sea to the east of Cairo towards Egypt’s border with Israel is the Sinai Peninsula, a triangular piece of land that forms a bridge between Africa and Asia. It is home to a remote and spectacular desert mountain range that drops to the plains and the turquoise seas of the Mediterranean to the north and the Red Sea to the south.

The inland desert of the Sinai Peninsula is traversed by nomadic bedouins and in the centre of the peninsula lies the mesmerising rock formations of the Coloured Canyon. Perhaps the Sinai Peninsula’s most famous destination, however, is the pilgrimage site of Mount Sinai. Rising 2,285 metres, it is said to be where Moses climbed to receive the Ten Commandments from God. It is home to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Catherine built in the 6th Century and believed to be the oldest continually inhabited Christian monastery in the world.

The former Bedouin village of Dahab on the Sinai’s east coast makes a tranquil and low-key base for those that want to explore the peninsula’s sights, as well as access the magnificent underwater world the Red Sea has to offer.

Sharm El Sheikh diving paradise

At the very southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula lies the resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, one of the Arab world’s most popular tourist destinations and diving meccas.

At the very southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula lies the resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, one of the Arab world’s most popular tourist destinations and diving meccas. A visit to the underwater wonderland of Ras Mohammed from Sharm El Sheikh is a must. Its deep overhanging walls display a spectacular diversity of coral reef marine species, together with large schools of pelagic fish. For those who want to escape the crowds, the nearby areas of Ras Um Sid and Shark’s Bay also offer easy access to Ras Mohammed with a quieter atmosphere.

Hurghada’s resort towns

The Red Sea is famed throughout the world for its beautiful coastal scenery, beach resorts and superb marine life, and Hurghada on its western edge, together with Makadi Bay further south offer pristine white sands and world-renowned diving. Fanadhir Reef is a short boat ride from Hurghada and home to blue spotted rays, lion fish and stunning coral. If you want to get away from the mainland action, head to paradisiacal Giftun Island where the offshore snorkelling is just as tempting as kicking back on a sun lounger and doing absolutely nothing.

Almost 300 km south lies Marsa Alam, another resort town offering easy access to the Red Sea’s wonders and famed for its turtle sightings, making it well worth the trip.

The Red Sea is famed throughout the world for its superb marine life, pristine white sands and world renowned diving.

History meets natural beauty in Egypt’s iconic landscapes

While one may instantly associate Egypt with the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza, the country that expands in all directions from Greater Cairo is filled with impressive landscapes, natural wonders and historical sights. Deserts meet with perfect stretches of white sand offering a quintessential resort getaway while ancient ruins are draped in an enticing history that spans millennia. Whether you are after sun, sea and sand or a cultural-infused holiday, Egypt offers a taste of everything.

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