Of all the countries I’ve traveled in this world, it was Egypt that made me faint. It wasn’t the sheer wonder of the pyramids that caused the weakness in my knees; it was the extreme heat, the heavy air and a severe miscalculation on my part not to keep completely hydrated. Seven thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians dynasties knew how to keep cool in their arid landscape by taking milk baths, ordering servants to fan them and shaving their hair. Aristocratic men would not only shave their faces, but also their heads and bodies. When they died, copper and bronze blades for shaving would be found in their tombs – tools to ensure they wouldn’t overheat in the afterlife.
One other source of comfort for the Egyptians was living near the Nile. A few days before my fainting episode, my family and I cruised upriver, which meant we traveled south from Cairo to Luxor. On our riverboat, we craned our necks, trying to catch a glimpse of Nile crocodiles that tend to warm themselves on the river’s banks. In Luxor, one must travel across the Nile to the Valley of the Kings, where the tombs of more than 60 pharaohs, including Rameses the Great and the young King Tutankhamen (King Tut), were constructed. When we visited, we were allowed to enter King Tut’s tomb and the cavernous hallways of other pharaohs. On the walls, hieroglyphic paintings depicting ancient stories and symbols in immense details and colors surrounded us. Most of the tombs have since been robbed and ransacked, and now most are closed to visitors, including King Tut’s. A few remain open but tourists should also spend time browsing the artwork found on the walls of Queen Hatshepsut’s temple at Beir-el-Bhari.
On the other end of the Nile north of Cairo is the city of Alexandria, home of the oldest library in the world. But it is majestic Cairo, Egypt’s modern capital, which is the largest city in Africa and the Arab world. Most tourists linger in the city of minarets and grand Islamic architecture as long as it takes to check into their hotels and unpack before heading out for the real reason they came: to see the pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx. When my family got there, we couldn’t stop staring. I remember how huge they were; looking at pictures in text books and magazines doesn’t give you an idea of their sheer enormousness. Built to house the remains and spirits of deceased pharaohs, the pyramids remain an architectural mystery.
As I stood on one block, which was taller than six feet and weighed about two tons, I couldn’t imagine how much human energy it took to pull these heavy loads one on top of another. In the late 1980s, we could crawl up on the blocks, but that is no longer permitted. You can still go inside the pyramids through a small tunnel, but make sure your knees are strong and you don’t suffer from claustrophobia. The ascent to the middle of the pyramid is steep and at times you have to crawl. There are limited tickets to go inside so get there early.
You can go between the pyramids on camel – as my brother did – but make sure you haggle over the price before climbing on. Nearby, you can visit the mysterious Sphinx, a cat-like structure with a pharaoh’s head carved out of a single stone and a chapel between its paws which has long since deteriorated. The Sphinx is believed to guard the pyramids. At night there is a narrated sound and light show that illuminates both the pyramids and the Sphinx – a required photo-op. Also worth seeing is the Great Pyramid’s predecessor, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, thought to be the first pyramid ever made during 2800 B.C.
Although the pyramids and ancient ruins are mesmerizing, no trip to Egypt would be complete without a souk or bazaar shopping experience. We headed to the famed Khan Al-Khalili, one of the world’s oldest. Bargain for hookah pipes, silks and jewelry but know that in the end you most likely got ripped off. If you wish to save your money, just stroll through the markets anyway – the smells, souvenirs and sounds are part of Egyptian local life – just like watching a tourist fainting from dehydration.
Krisha Chachra is a native of Blacksburg, a Ph.D. candidate at VT and a member of Blacksburg’s Town Council and is a founder of Up on the Roof, Blacksburg’s Creative Professional’s mixer. She is a regular columnist and author who has traveled to 40 countries in 6 continents and reported and hosted shows for public radio and television. Her book about returning to Blacksburg, Homecoming Journals, may be found online or in local bookstores. Email her at email@example.com.♦ End