The Nile River with its fertile banks weaving north through the sun scorched desert evokes a powerful image of Egypt’s connection to the land on which early civilization permanently chronicled their existence. While seemingly in contrast, the Nile and the desert it divides are intertwined as two of the most powerful symbols to represent the cultivating of life since before written history. Ancient Egyptians respected both the unrelenting sun and the great waters of the river that each possessed the power to sustain and deprive.
Travelling through Upper Egypt (i.e. southern Egypt) with the opportunity to explore ancient temples and well-preserved tombs along this life-sustaining river will enable you to better understand how civilization has endured thousands of years through its connection to the land and water and, furthermore, what that connection will look like in the future.
- With a written history spanning 5,000 years, there is no better place to observe descriptions of and references to the Egyptian pharaohs and deities than amongst the abundant temples and tombs along the Nile River. Temples were built by pharaohs as sacred places to worship the Egyptian gods and goddesses, and also to commemorate themselves, as gods on Earth. Elaborate tombs and coffins were constructed to house mummies and furnished with goods that the soul would require in the afterlife. In preparation for the copious information on mortal and immortal Egyptian figures that will be shared, as well as the elaborate structures you will visit, I would recommend investing some time upfront to learn about Ancient Egypt – having even a little background will make your visit more rewarding. Professor Bob Brier’s course, The History of Ancient Egypt, in The Great Courses lecture series is an excellent resource available on Audible or as a DVD or downloadable video from The Teaching Company. Altogether the Audible lectures total 24 hours of narration, however you can pick and choose what you listen to if you can’t invest this much time.
- Booking guided tours will allow you to not only maximize your time touring, but also obtain additional context around what you are seeing, and because you’ll likely be seeing a lot, this is helpful! Guided tours in Egypt come in all shapes and sizes – from a single or half day guide, to a fully planned itinerary extending over a week or more. While travelling on the Nile, we booked a four day/ three night tour package, which, along with meals and boat accommodations, included a guide (see below for more on this). Figure out what type of tour works for your style of travelling and your budget – there are plenty of tour companies and independent guides. A side note: unless specified as only a walking tour, a guided tour will include a driver to get you from place to place as efficiently as possible.
Seeing as you will have a lot of ground to cover during your trip along the Nile, it’s best to discuss your itinerary with your guide directly and on the first day of your tour. Specifically identify what you expect to see so you don’t miss anything on account of a lack of clear communication. Don’t hesitate to raise questions or bring issues to the attention of the tour operator and/ or guide so they can be resolved timely and don’t lead to frustrations throughout your trip.
- A visa is required to enter Egypt, and for US citizens and those from 40 other countries, it is possible to purchase your visa upon arrival in the airport before going through immigration. This visa is valid for a visit up to 30 days. There is the option to have it processed ahead of time online for an additional fee, however seeing as it was very easy for us purchase it ourselves of upon arrival, this would be my recommendation. We were told to bring exactly 25 USD in cash for each visa as they don’t give change and aren’t accepting of other currencies. We came prepared with the exact amount of USD so I can’t confirm if that is actually enforced.
While at the airport, you should also exchange money for the local currency, the Egyptian Pound (EGP). This is an important step as Egypt is not only a cash-based society, but also has a culture of tipping. Whenever possible, request Egyptian Pounds in small denominations for the obligatory baksheesh expected throughout your visit (more on this below). The current exchange rate is around 1 EUR = 18 EGP and 1 USD = 16 EGP.
- The official language of Egypt is Arabic. Learning a few simple Arabic phrases will be helpful to you and facilitate polite exchanges with your hosts and other locals.
- Greeting others with Salaam alaikum or simply Salaam means peace upon you
- Expressing thanks with shukran or no thanks with la shukran
- There will be no shortage of opportunities to take photos during your visit, but at certain archaeological sites, there are strict rules limiting the type of photography. Most places allow you to take photos using your phone but prohibit or require a separate ticket for cameras. For example, while inside the temples at Abu Simbel, photos taken on a phone are allowed without exception, however you must purchase a separate ticket to use a camera – once inside the temple they will check for that ticket too. Another important point is the prohibition of drones in the country. There are signs in the airport saying you are not even allowed to bring a drone into the country.
- Most likely, your tours will be scheduled in the early morning and the late afternoon/ evening. Visiting sites at these times is advantageous as you can avoid the heat and crowds. While the early wake-ups may not be preferred on a vacation, this timetable allows for downtime to relax onboard your river cruise boat while it sails the Nile during the day.
- Accept that tipping, called baksheesh, is an inherent part of the culture. Tipping is applicable everywhere in Egypt from the standard practice of restaurants, guides, and drivers, to the more abnormal of settings when in bathrooms and upon a local taking your photo. For a small service, like using a toilet (especially if you want toilet paper), a tip of 5 EGP is appropriate. For attendants at archaeological sites that show you around and/or offer to take a photo of you, a tip of 10 to 20 EGP is appropriate. A ten percent tip at restaurants and for guides is a good baseline, but of course, appreciation for excellent service can be expressed through a larger tip. One exception to the norm of tipping on the spot was on our Nile River Cruise where they encouraged us to leave a total tip in an envelope upon check-out instead of tipping for each service aboard the boat.
- Don’t be surprised by the number of sales offers extended to you. From camel and taxi rides to hats and scarves, there is no shortage of opportunities to purchase goods and services. Your guide won’t necessarily speak on your behalf, so be prepared to negotiate a price or decline and keep walking. Approach a purchase with only mild interest and when asked what you are willing to pay, offer a lower amount than what you are actually prepared to pay. A counter offer will be returned and the negotiations will continue until you either walk away or agree to the price and thus complete the sale.
- The price of admission to sites is subject to change based on the season and year, so stated rates from the prior month can already be obsolete. We arrived at the beginning of the tourist season (November to April) and were charged 90 EGP for entrance to a site that a month earlier was 70 EGP. We were aware of the price increase because our ticket still listed the old price and our guide explained the change.
Plan to pay all admission charges with EGP, anticipating that you may need to have more cash on hand than initially planned. Your guide or your hotel can assist you in finding an ATM.
- When partaking in tours, your guide will likely propose free side trips, such as to a weaving school or papyrus museum. If of interest to you, it’s a good time to take a look, but don’t feel obliged to have to visit the proposed tours – if you are not interested, politely decline. Oftentimes there will be no fee to enter or observe, but there will be some amount of pressure to make a purchase at the end of your visit.
- Watch your belongings and don’t get caught up on distractions when approached by someone or a group of people. We had no issues with pick-pocketing, but it’s easy to see how just the smallest commotion, such as someone asking to check my ticket while we are already inside the site, could be a distraction that momentarily takes your mind off your belongings.
On the topic of crime and safety, you will encounter security checks at the entrances to practically all sites, businesses, and hotels. The checks will require you to pass through a metal detector and/or have your belongings screened by an X-ray machine or security personnel. Follow the instructions and gestures of the attendants when in doubt about the requirements.
- Our Nile River boat cruise was booked as a package deal that included accommodations, guide, meals (not beverages), and transportation. We found the tour using TourRadar, and I would classify it as neither a luxury excursion nor a budget trip, but rather a tour that would suit the needs of the average traveler seeking comfortable accommodations and reliable guide services to maximize your time at the sites – overall we were happy with what we received for the price. The meals, accommodations, and the service we received onboard our boat, the Magic, were perfect for us. We did encounter some challenges in terms of communication with the tour operator and our guide, and therefore, no matter which tour company you are travelling with, I would advise you to ask for as many details in advance as possible to ensure that the cruise and itinerary booked align with your expectations.
On the day we started the Nile River phase of our trip, we took an early morning flight from Cairo to Aswan and checked into our boat. Our boat departed from Aswan the following day and intermittently sailed north on the Nile until it reached Luxor on the fourth day. We disembarked in Luxor and spent an afternoon and evening in Luxor at a hotel that we booked for ourselves before flying back to Cairo the following morning. There are also sleeper trains that operate between Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan but the flights were quick and well-suited to our itinerary.
- If you are staying in Luxor for an extended period, or even just one night, the Hilton Luxor hotel is an excellent option. Its beautiful outdoor pools overlook the Nile River so after a day of touring, you can swim and relax poolside before watching the sunset and dining just feet from the river.
- Aswan – High Dam, Philae Temple, Unfinished Obelisk, Nubian Village or Museum
- The Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s to regulate the flow of the river waters for purposes of protecting the valuable agricultural industry, by both preventing flooding and minimizing the risk of drought through increased storage capacity of water for later irrigation. It’s an impressive 3km long and as a result of its construction, the massive reservoir of Lake Nasser was created to the south. Lake Nasser stretches all the way into Sudan where it is called Lake Nubia, making it one of the largest manmade lakes in the world. The dam was not built without controversy though and the creation of Lake Nasser displaced hundreds of thousands of Nubian people who are indigenous to the region and whose long history is intertwined with Egypt’s pharaonic era. The creation of the reservoir also brought about the UNESCO Nubia Campaign which successfully oversaw the dismantling, salvaging, and relocation of a number of ancient temples that otherwise would have been submerged.
- The first of these relocated temples that we visited was the Philae Temple. Accessible only by boat, we purchased our tickets onshore as our guide flagged over a driver and we were transported by motorboat across the Nile River to Agilkia Island where the Philae Temple has resided since the 1970 completion of the High Dam.
- The Unfinished Obelisk, while not attracting the same attention as other monuments in the area, is astonishing because of the evidence it offers about the techniques employed in creating the iconic obelisks. At more than 3,500 years old, the Unfinished Obelisk was abandoned on account of a fracture in the rock, but is still the best representation of how these massive monoliths were carved directly from the bedrock prior to their transportation down the Nile.
- A visit to the Nubian Museum or Nubian Village is an opportunity to learn more about the history and culture of one of Africa’s earliest civilizations. The ancient Nubian empire included present-day southern Egypt, which was in fact ruled by Nubian pharaohs for a period of time. The creation of Lake Nasser resulted in the displacement of the Nubian people; where after, some of the colorful villages were rebuilt near Aswan and now also welcome tourists for day visits. In addition to shedding light on the Nubian history and culture, the Nubian Museum contains artifacts that were salvaged prior to being submerged by Lake Nasser. The village is accessed via a boat while the museum can be reached by car from Aswan.
- Abu Simbel – Another set of temples dismantled and relocated under the UNESCO Nubia Campaign, the temples at Abu Simbel were built under Pharaoh Ramses II to commemorate not only the gods he worshipped, but also himself and his beloved wife, Queen Nefertari. Strategically located within the Nubian empire (controlled by Egypt at this time), his temple was adorned with four very large statues of himself that were intended to showcase the power of the pharaoh to those entering the kingdom from the south. By no accident, the eastward alignment of the entrance to the Ramses II Temple allowed the light of the rising sun to shine directly into its innermost sacred sanctuary twice a year, illuminating three of the four statues on the back wall – one of which was Ramses II. The statue of the god Ptah remained in the shadows on account of his connection to the underworld. The days of illumination are thought to correspond to significant events in the life of Ramses II – his birthday and coronation.
To get to Abu Simbel, we paid an additional fee for the excursion and were shuttled by car across the vast desert after a 4:15 AM departure from Aswan. We had a very attentive driver for the seven hour roundtrip car ride (including a bathroom break at a rest stop) and a separate guide met us in Abu Simbel to make sure we entered the site ahead of the crowds. Definitely worth the early wake-up and extra cost!
- Kom Ombo Temple – The construction of the “more modern” temple of Kom Ombo began in the 1st century BC and is unique in that it was dedicated to two separate trinities. Instead of the usual dedication to only one trinity of gods, Kom Ombo is split into two perfectly symmetrical halves with one side of the temple being dedicated to the trinity under the main god Sobek, the crocodile-headed god, and the other to the trinity under the main god Haroeris, the falcon-headed god. The temple has the first known engraving that references medical and surgical equipment and also of interest is the Crocodile Museum which contains mummified crocodiles of varying sizes.
- Edfu Temple – A highlight of Edfu Temple are the walls depicting the dramatic and everlasting conflict between Horus and Set, nephew and uncle, respectively. These are two of the more widely recognized Egyptian gods who competed for dominance, as told in the story depicted in great detail across the walls of Edfu Temple. The rivalry escalated to a pinnacle when Set cut the father of Horus, who was also Set’s own brother, into 14 pieces, which sounds a lot like Voldemort’s horocruxes in Harry Potter if you ask me.
- East and West Banks of Luxor – Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple, Valley of the Kings, Dayr al-Bahri
- The beloved Karnak Temple is a thrill to tour, but a visit is made even more memorable if it coincides with sunset as this means less crowds and beautiful lighting. The temple complex encompasses 250 acres (of which the largest precinct is open to the public) and saw 30 pharaohs contribute to the construction that began in earnest around 1500 BC. Majestic by day, entrancing at sunset, and imposing after dark, the temple complex is located in what was once known as Thebes, the prominent capital of Egypt during the Middle and New Kingdoms. Dedicated to Amun-Re, the prominent god of sun and air during Egypt’s New Kingdom, Karnak Temple is one of the best places to understand how revered the sun was in ancient Egypt and the power that it still holds as the vivid colors of a desert sunset streak between the towering pillars of the Great Hypostyle Hall. A total of 134 massive and intricately designed columns supported the roof of this hall when it was completed. While the roof is no longer intact and the inscriptions and colors on the columns are worn, it’s not difficult to imagine just how captivating it would have been to step foot in this temple during one of the annual celebrations or ceremonies carried out here.
- Luxor Temple was in ancient times linked with Karnak Temple via a 3km sphinx-lined road used only once a year for a festival procession; there are plans to re-open this Avenue of the Sphinxes in the future. Standing at the feet of the Ramses II statues guarding the Luxor Temple entrance, visitors can also witness the intermingling of beliefs and cultures with symbolism from four different religions present on site today. In addition to the prevalent references to the ancient Egyptian gods, there are remains of a Coptic Christian church, evidence of a pagan religion from the Roman time, and even an active mosque located within the temple. A convergence of cultures is found within the shrine dedicated to Alexander the Great, the Greek king who conquered Egypt in 332 BC, and is depicted worshipping the Egyptian fertility god on one of the walls.
- While the 63 known tombs in the Valley of Kings may not look like much from the outside, a few steps down into the well-illuminated tunnel and you are immediately submersed in walls of exquisite artwork that lead you further into the cavernous burial chamber. While they vary in size and plan, what they did have in common is that all contents had been removed previously – the goods from the burial and also the mummies, some of which are in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. In the Valley of the Kings, only the tomb of King Tut’s contains his mummy, which we did not visit as it required a separate ticket and we were told that the tomb itself is not as impressive given the expediency with which it was constructed on account of the sudden death of the boy king. A general admission ticket includes entry into three tombs, while separate tickets are sold for King Tut’s tomb or entrance into additional tombs beyond your selected three.
We visited the tombs of Ramses III, Ramses IV, and Merenptah as our guide said these have some of the best-preserved artwork. It was humid and crowded inside but this didn’t diminish the experience of seeing the exquisite details of the hieroglyphics up close.
- The Temple of Hatshepsut is located at Dayr al-Bahri, just down the road from the Valley of Kings. Hatshepsut was the first documented female ruler to attain the full power of the pharaoh. Her 21 year reign was a time of prosperity for the kingdom but was not without controversy. Succeeding rulers, including her stepson Thutmose III, attempted to obscure her from records. The walls of her temple that did survive defacing by priests and later rulers depict her successful trade expeditions on the Red Sea and her divine birth on account of her undisputed royal bloodline.
Integral to civilization for thousands of years, and crucial to continued development and progress in the region now, the waters of the Nile continue to be a vital but contentious resource. The Nile River basin flows through or borders eleven countries whose citizens rely on its life-giving waters for agriculture, transportation, and sustenance. The allocation of this river is an issue that impacts hundreds of millions of lives and is made even more complex by factors such as the influence of foreign investment in Sudanese farming, new dam construction in Ethiopia, and Egypt’s economic dependence on Nile tourism.
As was the case for thousands of years of ancient Egypt’s history, innovative methods of construction and communication will need to be sourced in order to overcome provocative political disputes amongst countries with competing interests. Visiting Egypt and the Nile is a truly eye-opening experience as it allows you to not only witness ancient history, but also understand the connections to our modern world.
For What to Know & What to See in Cairo and in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, check out my other posts with helpful tips. For the full details of our time in Cairo and our experience on the Nile River, I’ve posted longer recaps.