Enchanting Egypt: Ancient Land of Wonder

Grand Pyramid reflected in pool at Giza

My travel bucket list starts with Italy and Greece, then adds Switzerland, Austria, Spain and Portugal. Egypt never crossed my mind until I heard Dr. Russell Moore mention on his podcast that he would be joining a trip to Egypt hosted by Christianity Today magazine. How had this ancient land of wonder failed to come to my notice? Ten minutes of research later, I was begging my husband to go. After fourteen “no” responses, he finally agreed with one condition: I had to promise not to ask him to travel internationally again for at least five years. Deal!

Karl & Julie Johnson of First Century Voyages, Chattanooga, TN, organized the trip, in partnership with AmaWaterways in Egypt. More on these folks later. Five weeks after paying the full cost of the trip, the Israel-Hamas conflict erupted. Suddenly nowhere in the Middle East felt safe. We were nervous, but took a wait and see approach. By our late February departure date, we felt confident the trip would be safe.

Our 13-day itinerary started with three days in Cairo, followed by a cruise on the Nile to Luxor, Aswan and stops along the way. The 52 passengers were divided into three color-coded groups for our daily excursions, each led by a seasoned Egyptologist.

Not only was our Egyptologist, Kareem, vastly knowledgeable, he was also great fun. No disrespect to the red and pink buses, but the blue bus was the FUN bus! Just ask Daniel. In Arabic, “habibi” is a term of endearment, one that Kareem deployed often whenever he needed our attention.

As we collapsed in our hotel that first night, we were welcomed with plush slippers bearing the ankh symbol. The ankh symbolizes the key of life and is also thought to be the first cross symbol. I couldn’t begin to imagine the number of times I would see the ankh in the next several days.

Ankh slippers

My head is a jumble of kings and queens, gods and goddesses. I have seen wonders too amazing to describe. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try! I’ll hit the high points of our trip, mostly with photos, in hopes it might encourage you to plan your own visit to Egypt. Come with me and be enchanted!

Ancient Land of Wonder

Coming from a country whose history spans only a few hundred years, we struggled to wrap our brains around Egypt’s 5,000-year history. It really hit home when we visited the pyramids and realized that Abraham likely viewed them, too, and they were more than 500 years old even then!

Camels in front of the pyramids
Photo credit: Daniel Fong
At the base of the Grand Pyramid - Giza

I’ve seen police officers on motorcycles and horses, but never on a camel! And the dangling cigarette…just too perfect.

Policeman on camel in Giza
Blue habibis walk like an Egyptian with pyramids in background
Blue habibis walk like an Egyptian

We started our tour in Cairo, a city of 22 million. Judging from our harrowing ride through the city around 8:00 p.m., at least 20 million of them were crowding into the streets and markets, conducting business like it was noon. The traffic through Cairo is WILD! Pedestrians walk right into four lanes of traffic, where buses, scooters, battered sedans, horse-drawn carriages, and donkey carts laden with produce vie for a lane. In this case, “lane” is a euphemism, implying an order that doesn’t exist. Somehow it works.

Egyptians speak Arabic, and the people of Cairo have Middle Eastern features. (Side note: we couldn’t help but gawk at how beautiful these people are!) Ninety percent of the population is Sunni Muslim and 10% is Christian, a sect of the Orthodox Coptic Church. There are distinct sections of the city for each: Islamic Cairo and Coptic Cairo.

The two religions largely co-exist peacefully today, but Christians experience some discrimination common to a minority population. After the Arab Spring protests in 2011 (the site of which we could see from our hotel window), Coptic Christians encountered intense persecution for a period, including the burning of seventy Coptic churches, one of which killed 41 people. In 2015, ISIS filmed the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians.

The rich delta region of northern Egypt is the center of commerce and government, whereas southern Egypt is dominated by farming and industry. Counterintuitively, northern Egypt is known as Lower Egypt, whereas southern Egypt is known as Upper Egypt because it has a higher elevation. The two separate kingdoms were united around 3150 B.C. by King Menes, also known as King Narmer. The Narmer Palette in the Cairo museum depicts the unification of the two countries.

The image of an Egyptian ruler smiting the enemy can be found in nearly every temple. Dear Reader, there was so. much. smiting. 🙂

Coptic Cairo

In our excursion to Coptic Cairo, we visited the Church of the Virgin Mary. Dating to the third century, it is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. More commonly known as the “Hanging Church,” the church was built over an old Roman fortress and the nave is suspended over a passage. I loved the mosaics and the intricate carved patterns. The elevated pulpit is made of alabaster.

Coptic Cairo: Mosaic 3 in the Hanging Church

Coptic Cairo: Carved alabaster pulpit in the Hanging Church
Coptic Cairo: Arched entry to the sanctuary of the Hanging Church

Coptic Christians tattoo the Coptic cross (see the image on the right above) on their right wrist or hand to demonstrate resistance and solidarity. The tattoo is also used for security purposes. At many churches, security personnel check for the tattoo at the door.

Cairo Museum

The Cairo Museum houses the world’s largest collection of Egyptian artifacts and opened in 1902. A new museum, the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) is nearing completion and is expected to open this year. The transfer of artifacts is underway, but judging from the number remaining, the GEM opening cannot be soon. This statue of King Amenhotep III and his queen and daughters stands 23 ft x 14 ft. How would you like to move this baby?

Cairo Museum - statue of Amenhotep III stands 23 ft tall

The most fabulous section of the Cairo Museum is the King Tutankhamen exhibit, but they don’t allow photos. Darn! I can confirm that the artifacts from King Tut’s tomb are fabulous beyond description. As it turns out, King Tutankhamen was not a particularly important king. He took the throne at age 9 and died at 19, so not a lot of time to leave a legacy. He’s famous because his tomb is the most intact one ever found.

While we couldn’t photograph King Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus, we had plenty of other options available. Did you know that the sarcophagus wasn’t just one bottom section with a lid? Like Russian nesting dolls, one sarcophagus may contain several smaller ones inside. The detail and craftsmanship were mind-blowing.

Using this statue of King Ramses II as an example, Kareem explained why Egyptian kings were almost always depicted with their left foot forward. One common theory is that the left side of the body is associated with the heart, so the symbolism of leading with the heart had spiritual implications.

Cairo Museum: left foot forward

There are very few Egyptian artifacts that include references to Israel. One of the few is this “stele,” or stone monument, with an inscription that reads “Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more.” Dated at around 1200 B.C., the symbols used in the inscription refer to Israel as a settlement or tribe. This would match with the time of the judges in Israel, before it would have had a king. Saul became king around 1020 B.C.

Cairo Museum: Israel Stele

Even with many of the artifacts already moved to the GEM, the Cairo museum was fascinating. I found the head of Queen Hatshepsut and this granite sphinx particularly captivating.

Luxor Temple

We felt special to have a private nighttime tour of the Luxor Temple, made even more extravagant by a full moon. At one time, Luxor was known as Thebes, the capital of Upper Egypt. The avenue of the sphinxes is an impressive 1.7 miles long and connects Luxor Temple to the massive Karnak Temple complex.

Luxor Temple: Front Entrance
Luxor Temple: Avenue of the Sphinxes

Built in 1400 B.C. by King Amenhotep III, the temple’s colonnade consists of 14 colossal columns, 50 feet high. Ramses II later added the obelisk, itself a wonder of engineering and artistry.

Luxor Temple pano

Queen Nefertari’s Tomb

Queen Nefertari was the favorite wife of King Ramses II, and her tomb in the Valley of the Queens makes that very clear. Elaborate, colorful paintings cover almost every inch of the tomb, including a deep blue sky with yellow 5-point stars in the burial chamber. Thanks to preservation efforts that include closing the tomb to the public for many years, this tomb is considered the most beautiful and best preserved. See for yourself.

Painting in Queen Nefertari's tomb
Painting in Queen Nefertari's tomb
Painting in Queen Nefertari's tomb
Painting in Queen Nefertari's tomb
Painting in Queen Nefertari's tomb

Just days after our visit, they closed the tomb again. What fabulous good fortune that we got to see this treasure!

Tomb of Sennedjem

Kings and Queens were not the only ones who got elaborate burial sites. The craftsmen responsible for the beautiful art and design of the royal tombs had their own honored burial sites in the Worker’s Village near the Valley of the Kings. Sennedjem was a master craftsman during the time of King Ramses II, and his tomb, discovered in 1886. is gloriously well preserved.

Painting in the tomb of Sennedjem
Painting in the tomb of Sennedjem
Painting in the tomb of Sennedjem

King Tut’s Mummy

While the treasures found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb now reside in museums, his mummy still rests in his tomb. I would be remiss if I didn’t share him with you.

Aileen at the entrance of King Tut's Tomb

We learned all about the mummification process. Even though the exact steps are presumed to be known, modern efforts to replicate the process have never been successful.

In addition to important humans, the Egyptians also mummified certain animals believed to be sacred, like cats, dogs, and … crocodiles!

Old Cataract Hotel

After all the tombs and temples, it was a refreshing change of pace to enjoy a sunset high tea at the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. Built in 1899 (brand new by Egyptian standards!), the Old Cataract Hotel was home to Agatha Christie for two years while she wrote Death on the Nile.

I have long been obsessed with Art Deco style, so imagine my shock and delight upon stepping into the Old Cataract. Turns out Art Deco was strongly influenced by the Egyptian archeological discoveries in the 1920s and 1930s, including King Tut’s tomb. Maybe everyone knew that but me? Probably. Pretty sure I could live here for two years, too.

Interior of Old Cataract Hotel
Interior of Old Cataract Hotel
Sunset view from Old Cataract Hotel
Sunset view from Old Cataract Hotel

Local Industry

We made several side excursions to see local craftsmen. Egyptian cotton, of course, is the finest in the world, and we had ample opportunities to purchase. Essential oils are also a big industry in Egypt, thanks to its fertile lands.

Luxor is known for its alabaster, and local craftsmen create beautiful vessels entirely by hand.

We watched a papyrus demonstration in Luxor and created our own cartouche with our name using Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Egyptian rugs are renowned for their quality, second only to Persian rugs. They are made by hand with thousands and thousands of knots. Very young children go to schools like this one in Saqqara to learn this trade.

Felucca Ride to a Nubian Village

In the 1980s, President Nassar ordered the building of a hydroelectric dam in Aswan to control the flow of the Nile. While it clearly provided benefits, the dam destroyed many Nubian villages. Two ancient temples also had to be completely disassembled and moved to higher ground.

The Nubians are an indigenous ethic group occupying what is now northern Sudan and southern Egypt. They are black and speak their own native language, using Arabic as a second language. While we were in Aswan, we took a felucca, a wooden sailing boat, to visit a Nubian village and the Philea temple.

Feluccas

Nubian houses are painted bright colors and feature domed structures. Our Nubian hosts greeted us warmly with singing and dance, then gave us a tour of one of their homes. They offered their handmade crafts for sale, and the colorful knit caps made by this young lady made perfect gifts for my grandchildren.

Nubian Village

The Philea Temple is one of the sites that had to be moved to higher ground when the dam was constructed. Built to honor the goddess Isis, it dates to the Greco-Roman period, about 280 B.C.

Oppressed Christians later took refuge in the temple, as evidenced by the surprising presence of Coptic cross symbols. The symbol of Isis offering the ankh — life — to the king is common throughout many of the temples and tombs.

We loved the spice market outside the temple, and loaded up on saffron, cardamom, cumin, oregano and special Nubian blends. This week I savored the memory of exotic Egypt by infusing my morning coffee with fresh-ground cardamom.

Spices at Philae Temple

My Favorite Goddess

Dendera Temple in Qena is dedicated to Hathor, the goddess with a cow head. Constructed over a period of time that extended into the Roman era, the exterior wall has a depiction of Cleopatra VII (the famous one) and her son Caesarian.

The great hall contains massive pillars, each with four carvings of Hathor’s head facing each direction. The stunning detail on the ceiling, as well as the colors, captured my attention.

Dendera Temple to Goddess Hathor
Dendera Temple - ceiling detail

For all the appeal of a cow-headed goddess, Hathor was not my favorite. No, my favorite was Nut (pronounced “newt”), the goddess of the sky. She is depicted on the ceiling, completely encircling the perimeter with her arms outstretched and her legs wrapped around. For some reason, I just loved the idea of a goddess lurking on the ceiling, protecting everything below.

Goddess Nut

Scriptural Images Brought to Life

I have a completely new mental image of certain Biblical phrases and concepts after this trip. For example, several times the Old Testament speaks of what God will do with his “mighty hand and outstretched arm.” Now that phrase will forever evoke the ubiquitous smiting image.

Egyptian smiting image

Or when God says he will “make your enemies your footstool,” I will picture the many statues we saw where the base, or footstool, depicted all the king’s defeated enemies.

I never knew how closely the temple of Israel reflected the structure of Egyptian temples, with an inner sanctuary for the holy of holies. But the cornerstone was the biggest revelation. I pictured the cornerstone the way we use it in a modern building. But in ancient times, builders placed a solid block of granite in the inner sanctum and constructed the rest of the temple around it. I thrilled to lay my hands on a 3,000-year-old cornerstone.

The holy of holies in Egyptian temples also often housed an ark of sacred artifacts, like Israel’s Ark of the Covenant.

Ark in the sanctuary

Another “aha moment” came when we saw the grain silos at the Ramesseum in Luxor. Ramses II constructed these grain silos around 1250 B.C., and they likely would have been modeled on those Joseph built to prepare for the great famine. How cool is that? Now buttressed with metal arches, the mud structures are remarkably sound.

Grain Silos at Ramesseum in Luxor
Interior of grain silos in Luxor

Scenes Along the Nile

One of our favorite activities was hanging out on the sun deck, just taking in the view along the Nile. It’s a trip back in time, not that different from centuries past.

The fishermen in these small boats have an interesting technique. One spreads the net while the other whacks the surface of the water with his oar to startle them into the net.

Fishing boat on the Nile

Many Egyptians struggle to earn a living, and they display impressive creativity in their competition for tourist dollars. Three young boys on a paddle board came alongside our felucca and serenaded us in beautiful harmony. Meanwhile, our felucca captain happily displayed an assortment of handmade goods for our shopping pleasure.

Egypt: Three young boys on a paddle board serenade our felucca

Our favorites were the vendors who approached our ship on small boats and sold their goods by tossing them up to us on the fourth floor sun deck! Believe it or not, I made a one-handed catch of an item that I didn’t even know was headed my way, and I only spilled half of the coffee I was holding! Known affectionately as “pirates,” these persistent salesmen won our admiration.

Egyptian vendors selling goods from boats

Fun and Games Onboard

One of the highlights of the trip was the galabeya party, where we dressed in traditional garb and danced to Egyptian music. Oh, and we had a mummy contest!

Our Hosts

An experience this incredible doesn’t just happen. Karl & Julie Johnson of First Century Voyages start making arrangements two years in advance. Their longstanding relationship with the AmaWaterways team in Egypt means they know the quality, service and security their guests will experience. I lack sufficient superlatives to express the flawless execution of every detail by both teams.

Karl & Julie Johnson, First Century Voyages

What really set the trip apart, however, is that Karl and Julie’s mission is deeper than tourism. They specifically work with Christian organizations for the purpose of guiding their guests to a deeper understanding of biblical texts. If you EVER have a chance to join one of Karl and Julie’s trips, DO IT!

Tim & Joyce Dalrymple were the hosts for our trip, and Russell and Maria Moore were special guests. Tim is the CEO of Christianity Today magazine, and Russell is the Editor in Chief. Russell taught four lessons from the book of Exodus, expertly weaving familiar Old Testament and New Testament imagery into one seamless redemption narrative. Joyce also led three devotional sessions on the women of the exodus, highlighting their courage and faithfulness. I soaked it all up and wanted more.

Dr. Russell and Maria Moore

A few of the guests on this trip have some affiliation with Christianity Today, but most are simply subscribers. The absolute best part of the trip was the friendship we made with our fellow travelers. Much that wears the “Christian” label in America today looks nothing like Jesus, and honestly, it’s disheartening. What refreshment for our spirits, then, to easily slip into deep, meaningful conversation with fellow believers who actively live their faith. We loved getting to hear their stories and their hearts. What a treasure.

If you’ve stuck with me to the end of this very lengthy post, thank you for your generous attention! I wish for each of you the opportunity to join one of Karl and Julie’s trips, and especially if it’s the Egypt trip. Please, go see Egypt! The people are warm, generous and lovely, and we never felt unsafe for a minute. Seeing this ancient land of wonder was the trip of a lifetime for us.

One final “thank you” to the best Egyptologist ever. Kareem, feel free to correct my mistakes in the comments!

Kareem Zohny Shemis, our Egyptologist

Until next time, habibis, you will live in our hearts.

ComeOnAileen

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10 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for your beautiful memory of our once in a lifetime trip. I will definitely share it with friends who are anxious to ride about our experiences along side your specially chosen pictures out of the hundreds I know you took.
    It was a delight to meet you and Roger and be a part of the Blue Bus!

    1. Thank you, Mary Sue! I tried to be brief, but there was just so much to cover! We sure enjoyed getting to know you and Dave, and we hope to see you again sometime. All my best,
      Aileen

  2. Wow! What a fabulous travel blog post. I enjoyed remembering the adventure shared with you. Thank you for your kind words and affirmations. I can’t believe I have the privilege of planning formative and meaningful trips for such gracious people. Thank you for joining us!

    1. Julie,
      You personally were such a blessing to me on the trip. I love your spirit and your energy and your heart. What a ministry you have with your travels. I hope we can join you again on a future trip.
      Blessings,
      Aileen

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