Pharaohs & Pyramids

Egypt’s enduring appeal is revealed by a spellbound George Epaminondas who marvels at honeyed sunsets, ancient artefacts and Nile-side temples.
August 2022

Egypt casts a spell like no other place: as a cradle of civilisation, a wellspring of cultural inspiration and a bucket-list destination. Foreigners have flocked to the land of the pharaohs since Roman times but there’s never been a better time to visit than now. This year marks the centenary of Howard Carter’s excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Opening soon is the long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) in Cairo, a billion-dollar complex whose collection includes never-before-seen artefacts and the entire collection of King Tut’s riches. Meanwhile, Death On The Nile is back on the big screen to whet our appetites, while Gal Gadot will play Cleopatra in an upcoming film about the charismatic queen.

Abercrombie & Kent, which has been bringing travellers to Egypt for more than four decades, is the ultimate tour operator, as I discovered on a pre-pandemic foray. We scooted from Cairo to the historical attractions of Aswan in the south to the coastal glamour of Alexandria in the north. It was a dream trip and one that I would happily repeat. Our odyssey began at the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza. The elegant lodging, an oasis of serenity in this teeming metropolis of more than 20 million people, is in a leafy quarter of the capital. Standing in the lobby was a man with an infectious grin, eminent qualifications and a passing resemblance to the late actor Robin Williams. “My name,” he told me, “is Hesham Abdulla and I will be your Egyptologist.” It was music to my ears, not least because I was carrying a dog-eared copy of Toby Wilkinson’s seminal book, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt.

Our first outing was a walking tour of Old Cairo with its mosques, minarets and markets. Sultan Hassan Mosque, a stately 14th-century building, was a standout with its four vaulted halls, ornate niches and mosaic floors. At Khan El-Khalili bazaar, an Aladdin’s cave of textiles and trinkets, a wisecracking shopkeeper asked, “How can I take your money?” But I was distracted by a teenager who balanced multiple loaves of bread on his head. At El Fishawy cafe, Cairenes were enjoying hibiscus juice and hookah, and an oud player performed. Later, I took an Uber to Zööba, a fast-casual eatery across town, for exceptional ta’ameya, the local falafel made with fava beans instead of chickpeas.

The next day, in an air-conditioned van manned by an unflappable driver, we made the 30-minute commute past dusty residential buildings to the pyramids of Giza. Visibility was poor but when the necropolis came into view it was truly staggering. Made from 2.3 million blocks and standing at 146 metres, the Great Pyramid of King Khufu was the tallest structure in the world for 44 centuries. Hordes of visitors scrambled up the massive lower blocks, while others rode camels around the perimeter of the plateau or snapped Sphinx selfies. How these architectural marvels were constructed is still a matter of intense debate, but Hesham confirmed a vital ingredient: milk. “They sprinkled it under the pulleys, so they could pull the sleds carrying the rocks,” he said.

Later that day, we were fortunate enough to be granted a preview of GEM. We began in the atrium, ornamented with an imposing statue of Ramesses II, and proceeded to an adjacent building where preservationists were avidly preparing antiquities. “For the first time since 1922, all of King Tutankhamun’s 5,000-plus artefacts will be displayed,” said our guide Faten Mohamed. As she spoke, I watched staff sprucing up the boy-king’s gilded funerary beds, multicoloured faïence necklaces, and gold and ivory fans missing their ostrich feathers. “He had eight fans,” Mohamed added. How many fanners, I asked. “Maybe two.”

An oversized fan would have come in handy on the terrace of the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan, where we arrived the following day after a 90-minute flight. It was a sweltering 45°C in Upper Egypt — named for the upper portion of the Nile — which underscores why it’s advisable to visit between October and April. We took a motorboat to the island of Philae and the cinematic Temple of Isis, lovingly fashioned by the Ptolemies and the Romans — Egyptian culture evidently captivated the nation’s conquerors too. But before I can pray to the goddess Isis for relief from the intense sun — she was the goddess of healing after all — I was spirited back to poolside cocktails at the Sofitel. The A&K team is superb at striking the perfect balance between antiquity and urbanity.

That pitch-perfect mix is on display the following day, too. After a short flight from Aswan, we arrived at Abu Simbel, the jaw-dropping, rock-cut temple commissioned by Ramesses II more than 3,000 years ago. Over 170 pharaohs ruled Egypt across roughly thirty dynasties for more than three millennia yet, as this imposing structure confirms, Ramesses II was the most powerful of them all. The larger of the two temples is fronted by four colossal statues of the acclaimed pharaoh and, perhaps even more impressive, the whole thing was dismantled and relocated in the 1960s owing to Lake Nasser’s rising water levels. Hours later I was admiring the silvery green water of the Nile as we boarded the Zein Nile Chateau, our floating residence for the next four days. Take that Ramesses.

The sleek Zein Nile Chateau, our dahabeah, equipped with every modern flourish you could desire, is available for private charters of up to 12 guests. As an acolyte of Ra, the sun god, my favourite feature was the top deck. Up here, you can’t help but be immersed in the past as we glided by tropical riverbanks, lush farmlands and signs of life as beautiful as tomb paintings — from teenagers splashing in the water to locals riding donkeys into a village. Though it’s a sailboat, a tugboat pulls the craft along to maintain a tranquil journey for its pampered guests. If that isn't indulgent enough, the Zein’s crew, outfitted in stylish grey gallabiyyas, are outstanding in anticipating every need, from a G&T to sunscreen.

As we sailed to temples of the crocodile god Sobek at Kom Ombo and Horus the hawk at Edfu, with Hesham sharing fascinating morsels about the various deities and dynasties, I also had a chance to dig deeper into Egyptian cuisine. Chef Hosni Badawi was generous in explaining classics like koshari, a hearty dish of pasta, lentils and rice topped with spicy tomato sauce, and one morning he showed me how to prepare baba ghanoush from scratch. He is also adept at making desserts, including kunafa, a cream-filled spun pastry confection, and om ali, a tastier version of bread-and-butter pudding. Maybe the only thing sweeter is the honeyed sunset that fills the sky every night.

Colour is mostly lacking from the temples we visit, faded or destroyed over time. So it is startling to encounter it at the Valley of the Kings. Many of the subterranean tombs still have technicoloured wall paintings. Seti 1’s tomb is especially majestic, inscribed with gorgeous images from the Book of the Dead and other ancient texts in blue, red and gold. Later that afternoon, we stopped at a nearby alabaster studio, where artisans shaped the pale mineral into fetching figurines that are dyed into equally brilliant shades.

You can glimpse the Valley of the Kings from the windows of the Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor. Built in 1886 by British explorers, it still has a palatial ambience with manicured gardens, stately furnishings and large marble bathrooms in the guest rooms. We bid adieu to our beloved boat — the crew sent us off with an animated Nubian song — and decamped to this hotel where Agatha Christie wrote Death On The Nile.

After a flight back to Cairo, our whistle-stop tour continued apace. Next was Alexandria, a seaside city with cosmopolitan flair, pastel-hued buildings, distinguished cafés like Trianon, and stellar seafood restaurants. At the Four Seasons Alexandria at San Stefano, a resort-like hotel with its own private stretch of sandy beach, we gathered for a languorous lunch by the Mediterranean. We enjoyed sublime mezze, fattoush salad and grilled local prawns. Back at the main building, bedizened guests lounged by a disc-shaped pool, while yummy mummies filed into the spa for pharaonic massages with mint and thyme.

Back in Cairo, I made a beeline for Zamalek. The pedestrian-friendly enclave is peppered with design stores, art galleries and atmospheric eateries. Abou El Sid, for one, is dressed up in 1940s kitsch. On our final night in Egypt, the group assembled for iftar, the evening meal where Muslims end their daily fast for Ramadan. The dinner was orchestrated by the Four Seasons at the First Residence. Situated along the west bank of the Nile, with green-filled vistas of the pyramids, the hotel has opulent rooms and top-notch service. Our sociable host, Hibba Bilal, explained specialties such as kunafa nabulsi, a dish that combines shredded filo pastry with stretchy cheese and red dye. It was sweet, savoury and surprising, just like Egypt.

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