5 Must-See Archaeological Sites in Egypt
As a child, my favorite T.V. channel was 19.
For those of you who didn't grow up watching cable television in Hailey, Idaho, this slot was reserved for the Travel Channel. It took me through haunted houses in Georgia, boating in the sometimes treacherous waters of Alaska, and of course, to the arid, desert expanse that makes up much of Egypt. It became habit to scan the T.V. guide in search of anything Egypt-related. As soon as I spotted something, I would whip out my latest recorded episode of Rugrats on a VHS tape, smash it into the player, and hit record.
Egypt was the ultimate travel destination. I imagined myself stretched out along the Nile River (crocodile conditions permitting, of course), watching the sun set on the Karnak Temple complex, and standing before the Great Pyramids, digesting the majesty of it all. Eventually, this dream became a reality and I found myself on Intrepid Travel's week-long Discover Egypt and Jordan tour. One I couldn't recommend more.
We chose this tour because it includes Egypt's most iconic archaeological sites, stunning cities and towns, and had excellent reviews. Though we'd never been on a tour before, we felt this would be the best way to get the most of our time in this gem of a country. There was no fussing with permits or arranging transportation, something we felt might take away from the already limited time we had in-country. We made the right decision.
However, if you decide you'd like to forgo a tour and see the sites on your own, or you are simply interested in hearing about a few of Egypt's most spectacular archaeological treasures, here is a list of five must-see archaeological sites. I hope they leave you as inspired and awestruck as they left me.
1. Abu Simbel
Not only is Abu Simbel breathtakingly beautiful, but the temples also represent the successful completion of an unbelievable feat; their complete relocation from one place to another. This was a massive undertaking, beginning in 1964 and concluding four years later in 1968. Today, the relocation of Abu Simbel would have cost approximately $300 million dollars.
The site is made up of two immaculate temples that overlook the western bank of crocodile-infested Lake Nasser. The site is an UNESCO World Heritage Site - a fact that greatly contributed to its saving from the waters the Aswan Dam pooled into (which is now Lake Nasser). The temples were originally carved into the mountainside in the 13th century BCE and when you visit them and see just how large and involved they are you won't have any question about the ancient Egyptians' insanely talented engineers and builders. Of all the archaeological sites we visited on our trip through Egypt, this one was absolutely one of our favorites.
When visiting the temples today, one typically leaves from Aswan quite early in the morning - around 2:00am or 3:00am. The trip itself - depending on the time it takes to obtain the necessary permits and permissions - takes approximately five or so hours. The early morning might sound awful to you now, but as soon as you arrive there you will be happy it's early, as temperatures steadily climb to an uncomfortable degree by the early afternoon. My greatest suggestion would be to hang out around the temples as long as possible to allow for the large tours to filter out and give you an unobstructed view of the temples. If you are patient, you might find you have the place nearly to yourself.
Another point to consider is to be mindful and respectful of the photos you take when you visit. Photographs are not allowed inside the temples, though some of the guards will tell you you may take photos for a small fee. Please don't be tempted by this. The rules exist for a reason, and we want to ensure these truly magnificent temples aren't further eroded by our carelessness. We can't afford to lose any more of global heritage.
2. Karnak Temple
The Karnak Temple Complex, most commonly referred to as Karnak, is made up of an extensive series of pylons, temples, and other monuments near the town of Luxor. This complex saw its birth during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, but continued into the Ptolemaic period. That said, the vast majority of the remaining buildings date from the New Kingdom. During the 18th century, the area that surrounds the Karnak Temple Complex was a main place of worship, and was part of the famous city of Thebes.
When planning a visit to this complex, I suggest doing so in late afternoon. Though it is possible that there will be a lot of people there at this time, you will be pleased you're there as the setting sun makes for stunning light on the temples and buildings. That and it will be much cooler than visiting earlier on in the day. I also recommend getting a walking tour of the complex before venturing off on your own so that you have a greater understanding of the life of the site and, in general, more context surrounding ancient Egyptian history in general.
This has to be one of my favorite sites in all of Egypt. The intricacy of the inscriptions and hieroglyphics on the columns of the temples (pictured above) was absolutely mesmerizing. And the size of the columns and obelisks was astounding. If ever you plan to visit Egypt, do whatever you can to make it down south from Cairo to visit this complex. You won't be disappointed.
3. Great Pyramids and Sphinx
Perhaps the most famous archaeological site in the world, the Giza pyramid complex rests upon the Giza Plateau flanking the great city of Cairo.
As most of you know, this particular site is comprised of three pyramid complexes, most commonly referred to as the Great Pyramids, as well as the protective sculpture of the Great Sphinx. What you may not know, is that this complex also contains cemeteries, a village, and an industrial complex. The complex is the oldest of the extant ancient wonders of the world.
While visiting the Great Pyramids, be sure to bring plenty of water and loose, comfortable fitting clothes and shoes. For those who aren't claustrophobic, I would also suggest climbing through the narrow shaft of the Great Pyramid of Khufu to the burial chamber. There is an extra price associated with it, but it is small one and well worth it. As far as the climb through the shaft itself, be prepared for hot, humid, and crowded conditions- and that it is sometimes closed to the public - but if you aren't particularly bothered by the heat or the narrow passage, it is an extraordinary experience. I am confident that before too long this will no longer be an option to tourists and will only be accessible to scientists and archaeologists, so if you have the opportunity to venture inside I suggest you seize it. There is no greater feeling than being so close to such astoundingly ancient history. Not only was this a highlight of my time in Egypt, but a highlight of my life.
Seeing the Great Sphinx of Giza is another incredible experience. Translating to "the Terrifying One", or most literally, the "Father of Dread", this limestone statue depicts the mythical creature of the sphinx. It has the body of a lion, and the head of a human and is believed to represent the Pharaoh Khafre. While the Great Sphinx of Giza may have its imperfections - sadly sustained in acts of vandalism and ignorance - its presence is both commanding and captivating. Take a walk around the area and take in the beauty of it, as well as its contrast to the Great Pyramids behind it. The Giza Plateau and its wonders are truly out of this world.
4. The Valley of the Queens (and Kings)
As one might deduce from the name, the Valley of the Queens is a location in which many of the queens of ancient Egypt were buried. This place was referred to as "the place of beauty" in ancient times, and though the landscape has changed and become more arid, that beauty persists today. Within the complex, there is an incredible amount of tombs, many of which are elaborately decorated with gifts and ancient inscriptions to properly send the queen off to the Afterlife. When visiting the Valley of the Queens, unlike the Valley of the Kings, you may take photos to all areas in which you are granted access. Pro tip: Get there are soon as the site opens because the scorching temperatures are enough to knock anyone on their butt and you certainly don't want to be battling a bout of heat stroke on your vacation.
Nearby Valley of the Kings, again as the name suggests, is a valley in which many of Egypt's kings were entombed. Here, unlike at the Valley of the Queens, you will be required to forfeit your cameras (though cell phones were allowed in at the time I visited in October 2017), before entering. A small price to pay for your being allowed to see some of Egypt's more outstanding tombs. If you are lucky, you will also be able to see King Tutankhamun in his tomb. A sight you aren't likely to forget.
In total, the valley is known to contain 60 plus tombs.
5. Temple of Isis, Philae Island
Similarly to Abu Simbel, the temple complex now residing on Philae Island was once on nearby Agilkia Island before rising waters threatened to submerge the complex in its entirety. When you visit the site now, you will notice water marks in various spots on the columns, buildings, and temples from where it was submerged before the UNESCO Nubia Campaign project had it dismantled and relocated to safety. In order to get to this complex you will need to travel to a port in Aswan with boats that ferry visitors to and from the island. Explore the island at your pace, take photos, and enjoy a lukewarm Coke at the small visitor center near the ferry port on the island once you're through.
Even if you are lucky enough to visit all of these sites on a visit to Egypt, there will still be so much more to explore. I feel I could visit the country a thousand times and still have so much to learn and discover. Already planning trip two, and can't wait to get back.