Egypt Now                                  <99 Days to Panama home>

by Harriet Halkyard
May, 2011

<Jordon and Egypt Photos>

We just returned from Egypt.

Unfortunately the country was also lamenting that there were no tourists to fill the hotels and the souks.

We took a tour with Overseas Adventure Travel as they deal in groups no larger than 16 people and we like their down to earth, meet the people, attitude. There were 12 people on this trip and just 6 on the pre-trip to Jordan.


Egypt, the pyramids the sphinx must be on everyone’s bucket list and now is the time to fulfill that wish.

We were in Singapore for the spring revolution in Egypt. Should we go on the trip we had booked? Should we cancel? In our usual style we procrastinated. Then our tour company, Overseas Adventure Travel, contacted us and said that they were starting up again to take people to Egypt and we would be the first group since the revolution. We felt that we would be ok.

It was more than ok.


John had been teaching in Malaysia and Singapore for a couple of months and we met up with OAT to take their pre-Egypt trip to Jordan. We swam in the Dead Sea, explored Jarash which is an utterly spectacular Roman city and then took the King’s Highway to Petra.

Words cannot describe Petra. As you walk through the narrow, water-carved canyon or siq (seek) you can feel the passage of time.  The water-smoothed sandstone in various shades of creams and oranges change as you walk into the shade and back into the scorching sunlight. In places the canyon walls almost touch overhead. Fifty years ago when my mother walked the siq she was walking over centuries of river silt. After 9/11/01 when there was a dearth of tourists the locals were employed to dig out the canyon. They dug down to a paved road with aqueducts on either side designed to take water to the city hundreds of years ago. Alcoves with gods carved into the sandstone were discovered where pilgrims would pause to pray along the way.

Then as you wind through this channel of dark and light you suddenly catch a glimpse of the magnificent Treasury. When you walk into the dazeling open courtyard it is revealed to you in full splendor. In reality it is a sarcophagus for a cluster of tombs, long since emptied of their residents.

As you continue to walk, or perhaps ride a camel, towards the ancient city of Petra you pass hundreds of other tombs carved at various levels of the cliffs on either side. Then the pink limestone walls open out to where the city in ancient times had stood. Not much is left of it now but there is plenty to see. Petra wasn’t rediscovered until 1812 and there is a complete temple that was only discovered in 1992 by researchers from Brown University, Rhode Island, who are still there working on it.

We thoroughly enjoyed Petra, but I want you to note the number of tourists there. I have a link below to our pictures. No, it wasn’t overcrowded and the locals complained that since the troubles in the Middle East, tourism had dropped measurably. Then if you take a look at our pictures of Egypt you will see how few people were there.

Some of the most dramatic and wonderful sights in the world were peaceful and quiet without busloads of Europeans and herds of Americans laughing loudly in every corner.

In Cairo, our tour guide, Sami, jumped on the bus and proudly showed his ink-stained finger to prove that he had voted. He was fifty seven years old and that was the first time he had voted.

The country was celebrating; you could feel it in the hotels, you could feel it in the souks, markets.

Our first stop in Egypt was the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities that sits in Tahrir Square. Liberation Square, as it is known to the locals, is a complex interchange of roads with the blush pink museum anchoring one side and the burnt out ruins of the Democratic Party Building staring empty eyed next to it.  The demonstrators had stood with linked arms to protect their museum and after the unrest had cleaned up the litter from Tahrir Square.

The museum itself is a dank, dusty building that has long outlived its mission. What it contains however, is amazing. We strolled the quiet corridors overwhelmed by the artifacts of Tutankhamen and other pharoes, the mummies and items of daily life preserved for thousands of years. I would have liked to have spent all day there even though I am not usually a museum person. Fortunately there are plans for a new museum to be built out near the pyramids. The great statue of Ramses II is already there waiting for the museum structure to be built around and over it.


In Luxor the temple is in the middle of the city.  Again here, centuries of debris covered a whole avenue of sphinxes that have only been rediscovered in recent years. We meandered through the halls and courtyards of the temples as the sun set. The light changed the columns from light cream to a dusky peach. There is an avenue of sphinx with the heads of rams that once stretched from the Temple of Luxor all the way to the Karnack Temple. Now you can see just a few of them but you can appreciate the awe in which the population of this ancient city of Thebes must have felt.

The Luxor Temple is next to the Nile and right in the middle of the city. It was once used as a Christian church and then was lost and buried under shifting sand and the detritus of new Luxor. A mosque was even built on top. When the temple was uncovered the mosque was preserved and how forms an integral part of the site. I felt completely dwarfed as I walked between the colossal 52 ft columns. The colonnade leads you to the courtyard, also lined with columns designed to look like budding papyrus and this takes you to the hall of Hypostyle. But I don’t want to bog you down with history; anyone who is interested can look that up. To me it was the special feeling of being there, where great processions in glorious colors and gold glinting in the sun would have taken place. And there we were, almost alone to absorb the atmosphere.


The name Karnack means ‘most select of places’ and it was. I left our little tour group so that I could simply sit alone in among the forest of columns. Where there are usually crowds I was almost alone. Just me and a couple of sparrows.

There are over three hundred ships that sail from Luxor up the Nile to Aswan. Many carry hundreds of passenger. In February most were sitting idle. Our little boat, designed to accommodate 32 guests had twelve.

The Aswan High Dam created Lake Nasser, the second largest lake in the world. Unfortunately it also flooded many of Egypt’s ancient sites. The greatest of these is Abu Simbel.

There was huge parking lot with space for hundreds of coaches. There were just three there when we arrived in our little minivan. When those hundred and fifty or so tourists left, we were entirely alone. There was just the dozen of us to be overwhelmed by these magnificent monuments.

Not only is Abul Simbel a massive pair of structures carved into the rock. Beyond the magnificent edifices are temples, a labyrinth of halls and rooms carved deep into the rock. There was a second great engineering feat that took place here. In 1968 the entire monument was sliced apart and carried above the new water level to be reassembled onto a specially made hill.

It was hard to take in all in as we stood in the shade of a little tree while Sami gave us our history lesson. I don’t think I really heard it as I was in such wonder of the temples before me. Ramses II built this complex in the 13th century BC to intimidate his Nubian neighbors to the south. I can’t imagine wanting to wage war on someone who could create gigantic replicas of himself and his gods.

The temple dedicated to Nefertari, Ramses’ wife, was the first one we explored. There was the main hall and beyond was the rock cut sanctuary and two side chambers all with wall covered with pictures of the pharaoh and his beloved wife. Sometimes they were portrayed as gods and sometimes the gods were portrayed as animals so without a guide it was hard to tell who was who but they were all awe-inspiring and fascinating and beautiful.


By the time we reached the second and larger temple the three coach load of Germans had left and we had the temple to ourselves. When you enter you are greeted by eight imposing twenty foot statues of Ramses as the god Osiris. When you walk behind the statues you come to walls that are adorned with etchings and paintings. You can see the gods Set and Horus adorning Ramses and of the pharaoh defeating the known world and his bound captives kneeling before him. There are etchings of him defeating the peoples of what are now Syria and Libya and other faraway lands.

Yes, I know we had been asked not to take pictures and I did turn my flash off but there was no one there to disturb. The primary reason photography is forbidden is that it slows the movement of the tourists. We were the only visitors. As my eyes adjusted to the light I could imagine the priests in all their golden glory carrying incense and offerings to the gods within. To my right Ramses is wearing the crown of Upper Egypt whereas on the left he wears the crown of Lower Egypt to signify that he rules all the land.

John was the last to leave. It was just him and the two guards with their enormous keys to the temples. There was no one else on the great plaza of Abul Simbel.

Do take a look at our pictures (see below) as I just can’t do the description justice.

The legend goes that in 1817 a local boy took Italian explorers to where drifting sands had almost buried the temples. Under the protecting sand they found the temples. The boy’s name was Abu Simbel.

That afternoon I wanted to go into the souk in Aswan. Not that I really needed anything I just like to interact with the locals and I treat a market like a museum where I can take things home if I want to. I took the hotel car the mile or two and was shown a good place to buy saffron. I walked down the narrow lane sided with shops and stalls. Half were closed but those that were open overflowed into the lane. I found the spice shop and continued to walk by until the shopkeeper called to me and invited me to tell him what spice he had in his hand. I took a sniff and we discussed the numerous colored piles in front of his establishment. In no time I was inside enjoying a cup of hibiscus tea and talking about his family and where he had previously worked.

“Did you get involved in any of the demonstrations?” I wanted to know.

“No.” he cast his eyes downward. “Aswan is too small. It is too far from Cairo and the other big cities. There were no demonstrations here.”

“How do you feel about the revolution?”

Again he looked at his shoes but when he caught my eye again there was a little smile on his face. “Now I can tell you how I feel. Before I couldn’t say.”

I still get goose bumps when I remember that. We chatted some more and I made a friend.

I wandered on down the empty lane with my purchases. “Do you know what that is?” another spice salesman asked.

“Yes.” I replied. “It is hibiscus for making tea. I have some.”

“Do you know how to make hibiscus tea?”

I didn’t. He went to great lengths to explain it to me and I walked on feeling that the place was full of nice men. There were no women sales people. It was only men selling in the souk. The place was empty and I saw just two western couples.

One side of the lane was the wall of the mosque and there was a stall of postcards. I bought some and was enticed into the owner’s shop where he also sold me some papyrus pictures. I know I had just bought some but these were so much cheaper and had the images I wanted. Next time I would know better than to buy in the fancy shop with air-conditioning.

I came to a little stall in front of the mosque and approached to look at some beads.

“You know what they are?” came the familiar question.

“Yes, I think they are prayer beads.” I said without looking up. They were ugly plastic made to look like jade. There was no way I was going to buy them.

“You know what it says on them.”

“No.” It was the engraving that had drawn me to them in the first place.

“This one says Mohammed and this says Allah. So it says Mohammed, Mohammed, Allah, Allah.”

“Do you own this shop?” I looked up and saw that he was holding a little cup of coffee in his hand.

“No. I’m a barber.”

Now at this point I need to explain that I had been traveling for almost three months and my hair was so long that I was ready to take scissors to it myself. Also, I had just been shown by a charming Muslim woman in a lady’s room, how she wraped a scarf around her head to create a turban to cover her hair. If the worst came to the worst I could wear a turban for a couple of weeks until my hair grew back.

“Will you cut my hair?”

His eyes opened a little wider. “Yes. Come with me.”

I followed him about fifty paces to his shop. It was a typical barber’s shop with two chairs, a mirror covering one wall and a counter with dozens of jars containing scissors and combs and the like.

I don’t think he had ever cut a woman’s hair before. All the local women cover their heads and there is no way they would show their head to a stranger let alone permit him to touch it. But by then I was seated.

“How do you want me to cut?”

“Just a little off all around. Perhaps this much.” I indicated an inch.

He fussed about asking if he could spray water and could he do “steps” in the back which he taught would look good.

“You are the professional. You know how to cut hair. Just make me look beautiful. Whatever you want.”

He stepped back looking at my reflection in the mirror in front of us, waving his hands out to his side, one holding a comb, the other scissors not knowing what to say. He leaned forward and gave me a little kiss on the top of my head and went to work. I now have two friends in the souk of Aswan.


Sami had warned us that they sell out of tickets to enter the sepulcher inside the great pyramid so we needed to get there early. Because of the lack of tourists there were just two people ahead of us and after they left we were alone in the heart of one of the wonders of the world. It was silent and I could almost feel the pressure of the stone around us.

Earlier that week when we had visited the Valley of the Kings we had found ourselves again completely alone in the tomb of Tutankhamen. At the same time the previous year people had waited an hour and a half to be there in a hot crush or people.


I returned from Egypt with special memories of breathtaking sights and heartwarming experiences that I would not have had at any other time.

If you want to experience the best of Egypt go now before the rest of the world wakes up and crowds you out.


 Our pictures are on Facebook and available to everyone. Just go to and enter Harriet Halkyard, or use the links below.

Please leave a comment as I would love to know if anyone actually looks at them.

Amman, Jordan, including Jarash         

Petra, Jordan                                     

Wadi Rum                                         

Cairo and Luxor                                

Valley of the Queen                          

Ballooning over the Colossi of Memnon  


Shopping for dinner and Karnack, Luxor 

Nile cruise and Temple of Horus     

Kom Ombo                                       


Abu Simbel and a haircut. My favorite day

St. Simeon’s Monastery & Nubian village by camel                            

Pyramids and the Sphinx   


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