Egypt: A Land of Stories

In archaeological annals, there are stories that have become legend. To wit: A rancher in southern Colorado is looking for lost cows, comes over a hill and is the first human in centuries to see what is now known as Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park. Or the story of the water boy and his donkey, fetching water for Howard Carter’s team in the Valley of the Kings, when the donkey falls down a hole and stumbles into the entrance to King Tut’s Tomb.

These stories illustrate how close we really are to our past, to our history. The land that we walk on holds all of our stories.

Egypt is a mythic country, a crossroads of time and place. To see the Pyramids of Khufu looming in the approaching twilight as we arrived at our hotel from the Cairo airport, I felt the history. I can’t imagine that there are many people in the U.S. who have not seen a picture of the pyramids, but to experience them in real life leaves you breathless. They really are that huge, that staggeringly dramatic.

During our Road Scholar learning adventure, “Beyond the Pharaohs: Egypt, Past and Present,” we were accompanied at all times by our phenomenal Egyptologist, Hanan al Deeb. She taught us about the history, archaeology, culture and legends of Egypt. She maneuvered us through the crowds, showed us the shortcuts to get the best views, made sure we were getting the most out of our trip — and she did it all with boundless enthusiasm and endless knowledge. I was thrilled to have such extraordinary access to someone with such expertise.

ABOVE: The Bent Pyramid

After visiting the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza, we went to experience two of the lesser-known pyramids, the Bent Pyramid, where we were the only visitors, and the Red Pyramid, both at Dashur. Being able to walk right up to the base of the Bent Pyramid, with no other people in sight, was a rare treat. This is not something most travelers are able to do. To be able to stand in the shadow of this great structure, without the crowds of people, was magical. This is what I expected of a Road Scholar educational adventure. And I was not disappointed.

From Cairo, we traveled north to the Mediterranean Sea, to Alexandria. In my mind, there is not a city on earth so drenched in western history as this city of Alexander the Great. Founded in 331 B.C. by Alexander, the city was the capital of Greek, Roman and Byzantine Egypt for over 100 years. It was home to the Great Library of Alexandria, the largest in the world, built in the third century B.C. The significance of this library cannot be overlooked. It was once known as the center for learning in the western world. The original library was burned, allegedly by Julius Caesar, when he invaded Alexandria.

ABOVE: The Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The new library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, opened in 2002. It is a startlingly beautiful building; the main reading room is shaped like a sundial and faces the Mediterranean. It includes several art galleries and museums, as well as extensive digital archives, including one just for maps.

 

 

ABOVE: Elena at the Citadel of Qaitbay

Alexandria is also home to a Roman Theater and Catacombs, the Citadel of Qaitbay (which sits on the site of the Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and the Alexandria National Museum. History breathes in Alexandria. You can see it on the fog in the early morning, over the eastern harbor, as you imagine Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Antony and Cleopatra, and Julius Caesar all sailing into that harbor.

After our return to Cairo, we experienced the Egyptian Museum, the Khan al-Khalili market and other sites around the city. Then we flew to Luxor to board our boat.

ABOVE: The mortuary temple of Hatshepsut

The Temples of Luxor and Karnak are must-sees in Egypt. And they set the stage for all that was to come as we sailed up the Nile into Upper Egypt. The boat was lovely and a welcome respite to the frenetic pace of Cairo. Stops along the way included the Temple of Hatshepsut, the Valley of the Kings, the Horus Temple at Edfu and many others. After reaching Aswan, we took a short boat ride to Philae, where we visited the temple dedicated to the goddess, Isis. And then, in the afternoon, we got to take a ride on a felucca, the traditional sailboat used by the Egyptians both in ancient times and now.

ABOVE: Statue of Rameses II at Luxor Temple

The boat was owned and operated by a young Nubian man. The Nubians are tribal people from southern Egypt. After we sailed out into the middle of the Nile, his crew brought out a drum and proceeded to sing some traditional songs. We all danced and had a great time. That was one of the highlights of the trip for me. To be on the Nile, in a felucca, dancing to traditional music, was an amazing experience. I cannot imagine doing this adventure without the local expertise and experience that Road Scholar offers.

 

ABOVE: Entrance to the Abu Simbel Temple, with the four statues of Ramses II. 

After docking in Aswan, our final full day in Egypt consisted of an early morning flight to Abu Simbel. Abu Simbel is home to the Temple of Ramses II and his wife, Nefertari. It is probably the most iconic site in the entire country. After days of viewing temples and monuments, the Pyramids at Giza, the Egyptian Museum, I was still awestruck by Abu Simbel. Walking along Lake Aswan, coming around the corner and seeing the four colossal statues of Ramses II rising up in front of us was an unforgettable moment.

Words cannot adequately describe the magic and wonder of Egypt. It is a place that has beckoned to travelers since time immemorial. From Alexander the Great to Napoleon to Percy Bysshe Shelley, all have answered the call and stood awestruck at the history and majesty that Egypt has to offer.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

— Percy Bysshe Shelley


Elena Junes
Elena Ortiz-Junes is the Area Director for Road Scholar programs in the Southwest. She is also a writer and board member of the University of New Mexico’s Alfonso Ortiz Center for Intercultural Studies.

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