For a while there, it looked like Egypt’s ancient wonders might be off limits forever. Years of tumult following the 2011 revolution, as well as a number of terrorist attacks, saw Egypt’s tourism industry – one of the country’s main revenue generators – virtually dry up. Now, however, things are looking up.
Tourism figures are growing steadily, tripling in the last year alone, thanks in part to increased security and more investment in infrastructure, including tens of thousands of new hotel rooms. What is perhaps most surprising is that, in this very ancient land, there are so many new attractions to discover.
The most talked-about newcomer is the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM). More than a decade in the planning, the archaeological museum will be the largest in the world when it opens at the end of this year. You can already admire the building, with its elegant alabaster façade, on your way to the pyramids; when it opens, its collection will include every item, all 5000 of them, found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, many on display for the first time.
Until GEM opens, the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo remains the must-visit museum. This cluttered, slightly chaotic museum is a storehouse of treasures, where you can find everything from giant stone statues to delicately crafted jewellery to the mummies of some of Egypt’s most powerful pharaohs.
Cairo with its medieval mosques, bustling souks and the mighty monuments at nearby Giza is a tourist destination in its own right, but Egypt’s most glorious treasures lie further up the Nile. They include the extraordinary temple of Abu Simbel, dominated by five pharaonic statues, each as tall as a five-storey building. The greatest concentration of ancient sites, however, can be found arrayed along both banks of the Nile in Egypt’s ancient religious capital of Memphis, known these days as Luxor.
On the east bank lie some of the country’s most remarkable temples. Foremost among them is Karnak temple, which covers two square kilometres. Every pharaoh for 1500 years added to the complex; its soaring columns, monumental statues and elaborately carved walls are simply awe-inspiring.
Even at Karnak, new discoveries are still being made. Archaeologists recently discovered that the avenue of ram-headed sphinxes lining the entry to Karnak actually stretches for two kilometres, all the way to Luxor temple, joining up with that temple’s avenue of sphinxes. Excavations are nearing completion and the reconstructed avenue is expected to open later this year.
Many of Luxor’s treasures are found on the western bank of the Nile. In ancient times, this bank, where the sun set behind high cliffs, was known as the land of the dead, and was the site of Egypt’s rulers burials, all carefully hidden to thwart tomb robbers.
In the Valley of the Kings, more than 60 royal tombs have so far been discovered, only a handful of which are open to visitors. The most famous is, of course, Tutankhamun’s, the only pharaoh’s tomb to be found with its grave goods intact. The tomb is remarkably small, indicative of the fact that Tutankhamun was still young when he died.
Far grander is the tomb originally built for Ramses V, later taken over by his uncle, Ramses VI (both pharaohs were buried there). The tomb is 120 metres long and covered in vivid images of the pharaohs, their triumphs and the pantheon of gods that watched over Egypt. The bright colours used in the tombs were also used in Egypt’s temples; however they have been largely bleached away by thousands of years of sun and wind.
Pharaohs weren’t the only ones to be buried on the West Bank. Not far from the Valley of the Kings, you will find the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Nobles. The latter in particular is often overlooked by visitors, but some of its tombs – more than 400 have so far been found – are simply spectacular. Particularly entrancing is the tomb of Ramose, a noble whose impressive list of titles included vizier, mayor, superintendent of royal works and overseer of priests and temples. His tomb contains detailed depictions of his funeral, including a banquet table laden with baskets of grapes and figs, beer, wine, fish and fowl, and even lettuce, and illustrations of his family, that delineate every fold in their clothing.
Tombs aren’t the only things found on the West Bank. When the pharaohs decided to hide their burial places, they had to provide a separate location where priests could conduct elaborate ceremonies to honour their memory. A number of pharaohs, including Ramses III, therefore constructed elaborate mortuary temples on the West Bank. Ramses’ temple is one of the largest discovered in Egypt, its courtyards and halls – all covered in elaborate reliefs – covering more than 66,000 square metres.
Arguably the most spectacular temple on the West Bank belongs to one of Egypt’s most intriguing pharaohs. Hatshepsut was one of the few female pharaohs to rule Egypt, and she was an enthusiastic builder. During her reign Luxor’s avenue of the sphinxes was completed and a pink granite obelisk reaching nearly 30 metres was raised at Karnak. Her greatest achievement, however, is her triple-tiered mortuary temple, perfectly positioned in a valley surrounded by high limestone cliffs.
The pools and gardens that originally covered the lower levels have disappeared, as have many of the 100-odd colossal statues that once lined the processional way and the terraces. What remains, however, gives you a sense for the might and magnificence of Egypt’s ancient rulers, as well as their keen sense of self-promotion. Extensive wall space has been given over to carved illustrations of Hatshepsut’s successful trade missions with the nearby kingdom of Punt, from where Egypt sourced luxury items such as ebony, ivory and incense trees. In fact, the withered remnants of two incense trees can still be seen in front of the mortuary temple, clinging to life more than 3000 years after they were first brought here.
Take me there
Fly: Emirates flies from Sydney or Melbourne to Cairo via Dubai. Return fares from $2045 (ex-Syd), $2029 (ex-Melb). Alternatively, Etihad flies from Sydney or Melbourne to Cairo via Abu Dhabi.
Stay: The more than a century-old Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor was originally built for Egypt’s royal family and is where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile. The hotel has generously sized rooms, grand interiors – the central staircase is simply stunning – and an extraordinary garden. The huge outdoor swimming pool is a great place to cool off after a morning exploring the area’s magnificent monuments. Rooms from about $140.
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