Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamed of going to Egypt. The stories of mysterious gods, King Tut, and the Pharaohs captured my imagination from an early age. From the Great Pyramids to Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Egypt seemed mystical, magical, and the one place I had to visit if I was going claim I had seen the world.
My elementary school self watched as the Treasures of Tutankhamun Exhibit toured the US. When I heard it was coming to San Francisco in the summer of 1979, I conceived elaborate plans to take a trip there from my suburban Denver home. I would join the Girl Scouts, sell a bunch of cookies, and convenience the troop leader to take a road trip with the proceeds. The Boy King’s solid gold death mask was going to be less than a day’s drive away from me, and I had to see it!
The dreams of youth don’t always come true, but they never die. I never did see that exhibit before it left the States. When the January 2011 revolution happened, my dreams were on the ropes again. Slowly but surely, Egypt picked itself up, and tourists returned. Finally, after three years of travel writing and world touring, I received an invitation to visit Egypt. I knew I had to go.
I’ve written about the Egyptian history every tourist needs to know and about is Egypt safe for a solo female traveler? This piece is about what it feels like to fulfill your lifelong dream. It’s told in four parts and plays out like a symphony of discovery and excitement.
The First Movement – Allegro of Arrival
When the pilot announced our initial descent into Cairo, my head buzzed with a million thoughts colliding at once. I was halfway across the world, alone, and about to step into the second-largest city in Africa. It’s larger than New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago combined. I strained to see pyramids out the window, but all I could see was squat brown hi-rise buildings poking out of the dusty desert.
Like an open fifth played pianissimo by tremolo strings, the chatter rose around me. By the time I left the plane, the noise was deafening. I followed the crowd towards customs when I saw the Innovative Travel sign that said Welcome Jennifer Coleman. It rang through the cacophony like a perfect fifth emerging. From that point on, I was under the care and guidance of one of Egypt’s most respected tour companies.
Marriott Mena House
What I came to love about Innovative Travel was how well they knew Egypt, inside and out. Every step along the way, they surprised me with something amazing, be it a curated property or local experience. Despite all their accolades, I wasn’t prepared for the Marriott Mena House. It’s a five-star property with 16 hectares of gardens, but what sets it apart is the location right at the base of the Giza Pyramids.
After our in-country liaison procured our rooms, Natalie and I wandered into the gardens. The Great Pyramid hung over the azure blue fountain so close we could almost touch it. I couldn’t believe this was the same view I had from my balcony as well. I was a little afraid to go to sleep that night, for fear I might wake up as my 8-year old self hearing that the King Tut exhibit left San Francisco and the US without me getting to visit.
The Second Movement – Scherzo on the Sahara
A Scherzo, Italian for a joke, is meant to be executed playfully. It rises and falls in rounded binary form. Ordered. Melodic. Playful. Beethoven slipped a scherzo into the second movement of his glorious 9th that taunted his critics who felt he didn’t adhere to classical form. John Williams’ Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra introduced the classic Indiana Jones theme at about the one minute mark. Great creators find a way to slip scherzos in where you least expect them.
I have to admit that I felt a bit like Indy as I climbed inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. I also felt like I was part of some ancient joke. The steps were too high. The walls were too close, and the ceiling was definitely too low. Hunched over, we trudged up a steep slope until we were deep inside the structure. I was mind-blowing that I was inside the only remaining wonder of the ancient world. As my physicist husband pointed out, there was an almost statistical certainty that I was breathing air that was in Khufu’s last breath.
Wonders of the Giza Plateau
Khufu’s Great Pyramid isn’t alone on the Giza Plateau. It’s joined by the Pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure as well as the Sphynx and some smaller associated structures. I have seen this scene ever since I was a little girl, and now I was here in person. I knew the pyramids were big, but I never realized how big they were until I was standing right next to them. Each block in the structures was roughly the size of a Volkswagen.
Nihal, our guide from Innovative Travel, proudly displayed her wealth of knowledge from years of intensive training. I had less training to be a white water rafting guide than she did as a tour guide. There was so much to learn and so much to see. I captured the highlights in my Egyptian history piece, but there was much much more. You have to be there to believe it.
Even in the blazing heat of mid-summer, the tourist zone was crowded. Thank goodness we stayed at the Mina House so we could get some open shots in the cool morning. Looking across the throngs of visitors, I remember our guide’s morning instructions about how to stay safe at Giza. Tips like the camels parked in photo ops with owners waiting to demand a service fee or, worse yet, people who offer to take your picture and just walk off with your camera. Thanks to her, our group had no problems.
The final joke was turning around and seeing the sprawl of Cairo creeping up towards the pyramids. This is the view I never saw in National Geographic.
New Grand Egyptian Museum
One of the things I loved most about my Innovative Travel tour was how well they knew the country and how many connections they had. They arranged for us to take a behind the scenes tour of the Grand Egyptian Museum months before it’s scheduled opening in 2020. Since it’s only ten minutes away from the Giza Necropolis, it makes the perfect complement to the great pyramids.
The real problem with my behind the scenes tour was how much time I actually spent behind the scene. I would love to give you a sneak peek of the new museum, but no sooner than we arrived, we had our vests and hard hats on. We were whisked away into the workrooms, and there was no photography allowed…..but they did allow us one shot 😉
That being said, my visit was nothing short of incredible. My school-age self was going crazy, surrounded by over 100 pairs of King Tut’s underwear. Of course, that inner child couldn’t help laughing at the size of King Tut’s butt. Being a woman of a certain age, I remember Johnnie Cochran’s closing argument of “if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” OJ’s leather driving glove shrank a lot in the year that followed that fateful night in Brentwood. I can only imagine how much those nether garments of the boy king shrank in 700 years.
I turned around to see King Tut’s death mask lying out on the restoration table right next to me. It was so much closer than it would have been if I made it to San Francisco so many years ago, and I didn’t have to sell a single thin mint to see it!
Adagio Molto Down the Nile
The slow, lyrical third movement of my Egyptian symphony features variations progressing and elaborating on the central themes and melodies. As our riverboat made its way down the Nile, there was always another temple, but each one showed me something new. The Nile is in no hurry. It has been there for thousands of years, and it will flow for thousands more. I was just along for the ride as we traveled from Luxor down to Aswan.
Islam, our Innovative Travel guide for the entire Nile cruise, interpreted the stories written in stone for us. We saw Alexander the Great’s signature in the Luxor Temple, proof that he was, in fact, coronated at the capital. The wall of Kom Ombo told stories of advanced medical techniques and surgical instruments from the time of Cleopatra, but what intrigued me the most was the defacing of the Temple of Edfu by Christian zealots
Of All of Pagan Gods
The Temple of Edfu told the story of the Island of Creation and the conflict between Horus and Seth and, farther down the river, the Temple of Philae spoke of Isis. When the Greeks came to Egypt, the interpreted Horus as Apollo and found a way to blend the two worlds. When the Romans converted to Christianity, there was no such compromise. Islam showed as the defaced carving of Isis feeding Horus in the Temple of Philae as evidence of their attempts to remove all history of pagan gods.
Watching this mighty civilization wax and wane from my cabin reaffirmed my belief that the world has a certain eternal melody. The themes may rise and fall in multiple variates, but there is always a balance between harmony and discord if you can slow down long enough to listen.
Finale on the Shores of Lake Nasser
A well-formed finale repeats a piece’s major themes. They blend and merge in progressive variations until the grand reveal. That moment when everything comes together in clear and perfect harmony. In Beethoven’s last symphony, this is when the Ode to Joy theme is finally introduced by the cellos and double basses. It’s perhaps the most transcendental moment in musical history, and you never forget your first time hearing it.
As I left Aswan for Abu Simbel, way to early in the morning, there was a feeling of ‘been there, done that,’ and ‘oh so many temples.’ A lot of heat and even more walking had worn me out. I fell back to sleep as soon as I hit my seat and didn’t wake up until we landed. There was no anxious straining to see pyramids out the window this time.
Look on my Works
The temple of Abu Simbel is a scherzo unto itself. For thousands of years, it sat along the banks of the Nile, shouting out the Nubian lands (Sudan) – “My name is Ozymandias (Ramses), king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” That is until the 1960s, when the plans for the Aswan dam would have submerged the site under the waters of Lake Nasser. The world came together to move this great temple to higher ground and placed it into a man-made mountain. It took Ramses twenty years to build the original and modern world two years to move it.
Slowly, methodically, we walked through the shopping square at the entrance to the site. The goods were nice enough, but we had all had our fill of shopping at this point in the trip. Our guide led us out of the market on a wide stone path. We still couldn’t see the massive facade of the temple that struck despair into the Nubian world, but we knew it was there, like an orchestra of strings lowly humming a recitative. Then I rounded a corner and caught my first glimpse of Abu Simbel. It was like hearing chord progression of the Ode to Joy rising up out of the chatter of strings.
The Most Pharaonic of all the Pharaohs
In his poem Ozymandias, Percy Shelly described Ramses II as the king of kings. From the stories our guide told, I believed he was the most pharaonic of all the Pharaohs. He ruled for 67 years and didn’t wait for his death to declare his divinity. He won innumerable conquests into Canaan, but perhaps his greatest triumph was signing the world’s first peace accord. He fathered 162 children with scores of wives, but it was his great love of his Queen Nefertari that moved me.
He constructed Abu Simbel as his temple to a ruling god-king. Everything from the imposing entrance to ornate interior befits this great man. It was so well-conceived that twice a year sunbeams penetrated the inner sanctum to illuminate the gods of the living world while leaving Ptah, the god of the underworld forever in shadows. Nefertari’s temple next door is nearly as magnificent. It’s an eternal display of love, and quite a compliment almost being equal to a living god.
Coda and Conclusions
After this trip, I am more certain than ever that you can’t see the world without going to Egypt. There’s no other civilization who’s influence traveled across three continents and three thousand years. There’s also no archeological site nearly this grand. It’s awesome in every sense of the word.
You don’t have to take an Egyptian tour, but I am thankful that I went with Innovative Travel. They gave me the confidence to explore and the freedom to discover. I’ll always have the friends I made on the trip. Who would have thought that a group of women smoking shisha in a park in Edfu could have forged that strong of a bond? Between the blistering desert sun and tower temples, they were my constant companions. It’s precisely the definition of transformative travel and the food for dreams and imagination for years to come.
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