Ancient Egypt in one week

By Julie Skurdenis

I first visited Egypt 22 years ago. On my fourth trip to the country, in November 2004, I traveled with my 25-year-old daughter, Katie. I wanted to see her eyes light up at the sights that make Egypt one of this world’s greatest tourist destinations. I wanted her to say, 40 years from now, “Way back in ’04, I saw the pyramids for the first time with my MOM.”

Katie could only take one week off from her job. Friends and relatives questioned, “Only one week? What can you do in just one week?”

Well, as it turned out, quite a lot.

No hesitating

There are numerous companies that offer trips to Egypt. I selected one of the very best, Abercrombie & Kent, with whom I have traveled half a dozen times. A&K offers a “Highlights” series that covers the major sights of a country or area in seven to 14 days. The “Highlights of Egypt” trip was exactly seven nights long. Perfect for us.

Katie and I arrived in Cairo on a balmy morning a day in advance of the rest of our A&K group. We were both jet-lagged and sleep-deprived from the overnight flight from New York and the long 5-hour layover in London. This, however, didn’t stop us from grabbing a cab from our hotel in downtown Cairo for the half-hour ride to the pyramids at Giza at the edge of the city.

Although there are almost 100 pyramids remaining in Egypt, the three at Giza are undeniably the best known and the most visited. These were constructed between about 2550 and 2475 B.C. for three 4th Dynasty (Old Kingdom) pharaohs: Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus (whose Egyptian names are, respectively, Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure).

Katie wanted to go inside all three. I decided to sit atop a block of ancient stone and wait for her as she climbed inside both the claustrophobic pyramid of Cheops with its 150-foot-long Great Gallery and the swelteringly hot pyramid of Mycerinus. She didn’t do Chephren’s pyramid because it was temporarily closed to visitors. It reopened in January.

After her climbs, we circled each of the pyramids, a stroll of about 2½ hours (including the walk from one pyramid to the next and back), having them practically all to ourselves. We also visited the 4,500-year-old solar boat meant to serve the pharaoh in the afterlife and now displayed in a boat-shaped glass museum adjacent to Cheops’ pyramid.

Sights in Cairo

Our three days in Cairo with the A&K group included a repeat visit to the Giza pyramids, this time in the company of Hesham Abdullah, a knowledgeable Egyptologist who accompanied us throughout our trip; a close-up look at the time-worn Sphinx, which lies at the foot of the Giza pyramids, and an in-depth visit to the Egyptian Museum, displaying the treasures of generations of pharaohs.

The objects taken from Tutankhamun’s tomb alone — his lion throne, funerary couches, gold sarcophagi and solid gold death mask — fill a sizeable portion of the museum.

The Royal Mummy Room (for which there is a hefty separate charge of 40 Egyptian pounds, about $7) displays the bodies of 11 pharaohs, including Ramses II. The room is a “must see.”

Our group spent a day exploring Islamic Cairo as well, with visits to the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, encased within the huge Citadel built by Saladin at the end of the 12th century as defense against the Crusaders and extended over the next six centuries by subsequent Mamlukes and Ottoman Turks, and to the ninth-century Mosque of Ibn Tulun with its unique minaret encircled by a spiral staircase.

Next door to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun is the Gayer-Anderson Museum, two beautiful 16th-century houses full of antiquities collected by a British army major in the 1930s and ’40s.

Late one afternoon in Cairo, our group ambled over to one of the Middle East’s greatest bazaars, the Khan al-Khalili, an intricate maze of streets and alleyways lined with small shops. It’s a souvenir shopper’s paradise — delicate glass perfume bottles; aromatic spices; stone scarabs; paintings on papyrus; leather toy camels; gold cartouches inscribed with personal names in hieroglyphics, and tons of alabaster pottery.

There are also Egyptian coffeehouses called ahwas where customers can experiment with sheeshas, bulky pipes that filter tobacco smoke through water. We recommend the apple-flavored sheesha.

On our “free day” in Cairo we chose yet more of Egypt’s ancient past: Memphis (capital of ancient Egypt), to see the colossal prone statue of Ramses II; Sakkara (Memphis’ cemetery), to marvel at the Step Pyramid built by Pharaoh Zoser about 2650 B.C., earlier than the Giza pyramids, and Dashur, where Katie climbed inside yet another pyramid, this time the Red Pyramid, the world’s oldest “true” pyramid, built about 2600 B.C. by the pharaoh Sneferu, father of Cheops.

Nile cruise

We then flew 540 miles south from Cairo to Aswan where we were to board our boat, the Nile Adventurer, for three days of sailing on the Nile. But first we detoured a further 150 miles by air to Abu Simbel, where in about 1300 B.C. Ramses II built two immense temples, one dominated by four huge seated statues of himself and the other by six standing statues of himself and his favorite wife, Nefertari.

These two temples were saved from the rising waters of Lake Nasser 40 years ago in a near-heruclean operation that relocated them to where they stand today.

The next few days’ sailing the Nile were an archaeological orgy of visits to ancient Egyptian sites: the Temple of Isis (divine mother) on Philae Island in Lake Nasser; the Temple of Horus (falcon-headed son of Isis and Osiris) at Edfu, and the twin temples of Haroeris (an aspect of Horus) and Sobek (crocodile god) at Kom Ombo.

Luxor climax

Finally we sailed into Luxor, 126 miles upstream from Aswan, site of two of the greatest Egyptian temples and the jumping-off point for the Valley of the Kings, burial site of pharaohs who ruled a thousand years after the pharaohs who built the pyramids.

There are over 60 tombs in the dramatically beautiful Valley of the Kings, but we contented ourselves with visits to a handful, those of Ramses III, IV and IX and Tutankhamun. It is amazing how vivid the sunken reliefs and the color of the murals have remained within these tombs even after 3,000 years and countless numbers of tourists.

In Luxor, the temple complex of Karnak is huge, a mélange of pylons, obelisks, temples, courtyards and a sacred lake, but it is the Great Hypostyle Hall with its gigantic columns incised with carvings that takes one’s breath away. If you’ve seen the Agatha Christie movie “Death on the Nile,” you’ll know exactly what I mean.

We managed to squeeze in a visit to Luxor Temple with its avenue of sphinxes just as the sun was setting and the call to prayer resounded from a neighboring mosque. It was one of those magical moments that remains vivid in memory long after.

Then it was back to the boat, docked nearby, for an evening of feasting and dancing, because, as Katie so wisely put it, “Neither man nor woman lives by temples or tombs alone.”

If you go. . .

The “Highlights of Egypt” trip we took with Abercrombie & Kent is being offered 18 times in 2005, with departures scheduled at least once each month except June. Trips are eight nights long — one night longer than our trip — with an extra night aboard the Nile boat.

Prices range from $2,525 to $4,070 per person, depending on the time of year and the cabin chosen aboard the boat. Internal airfare in Egypt is an additional $485, as is international airfare (about $900 on British Airways from New York to Cairo via London).

Our “homes away from home” were the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Cairo, where our room with balcony overlooked the Nile, and the Nile Adventurer, an intimate-sized boat with just 34 cabins, comfortable indoor public areas and spacious outdoor decks. It also had the best little gift shop afloat on the Nile.

Call Abercrombie & Kent in Oak Brook, Illinois, at 800/323-7308 or visit In addition to Egypt, A&K offers dozens of trips to destinations all over the globe, including South Africa, New Zealand, Antarctica and the Galápagos.

Julie Skurdenis’ trip to Egypt was partially hosted by Abercrombie & Kent.