I recently praised Silversea Cruises for the excellent service it provides on its cruise to ports in Egypt and Jordan aboard the luxury cruise ship Silver Whisper . It was a first-class experience from start to finish, and a good way to reach some key tourist spots without a lot of anxious overland travel with a military escort. This week, I’ll take you off the ship to visit some of those sites. For me, it was the trip of a lifetime.
Cairo and the Pyramids
Cairo is a vast and exotic city, the largest in the Middle East and Africa. It has more history in the sand on its streets than many destinations offer in their entirety.
My visit coincided with the holy days of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. Interestingly, Egypt consumes more food during Ramadan than at any other time of year, and the citizens of Cairo certainly know how to celebrate the daily end of fast. As I walked through the streets, the sweet smells of grilling kabobs mingled with clouds of smoke from the men’s shisha pipes. Party boats cruised all along the Nile, as revelers danced and sang to thumping music.
I was surprised by the number of Cairenes who spoke English; they welcomed me to their city with genuine enthusiasm. “It’s good to see Americans visiting us again,” one man told me. Unfortunately, the happiest people to see me were crowds of aggressive souvenir hawkers and would-be guides, who depend on tourist dollars for their livelihoods. If you are interested in their merchandise or services, you must figure out a fair price and then hold your ground against their very insistent demands. If you are not interested, you must say so very firmly.
Just a few hours into my first Arabian night, I had an unexpected wakeup call. At 4:30 a.m., the mosque next door issued the morning call to prayer over its loudspeakers. I stepped out onto my balcony and watched as men dressed in pale blue robes put down their prayer rugs facing east, as they have for centuries.
Later that day I headed out to see the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx. Fortunately, these ancient wonders are built atop the Giza Plateau, well above Cairo’s gritty smog. Climbing the pyramids is forbidden, but those who are adventurous (and don’t have claustrophobia) can venture inside two of the pyramids and climb up to the large, empty burial chambers. The Sphinx is smaller than I expected, about the size of a large American house, but it is a fascinating sculpture to behold. During my tour, scaffolding was being erected in preparation for a Bon Jovi concert the next evening. A rock concert by the Sphinx — what would Cleopatra think?
Back in Cairo, I toured the vast, marble Egyptian Museum. There are 120,000 artifacts on display here, an amazing catalog of Egypt’s history. The most famous pieces are Tutankhamen’s famous golden death mask and the mummies of 11 kings and queens (yuck!).
Egypt was once the most powerful civilization in the world, and there is no better place to experience that grandeur than Luxor. Not far from the banks of the Nile is Karnak Temple, the largest temple complex in the world — big enough to hold 10 Notre Dame Cathedrals and 20 Parthenons. Even today, in ruins, it is an awe-inspiring sight, even more so at night during the sound-and-light show. Other can’t-miss sights here include the temples of Habi and Queen Hatshepusut and the Valley of the Kings, with its colorful and dramatic tombs of Tutankhamen and Ramses. Luxor has the best-known collection of colorful hieroglyphics, and many Egyptologists believe more tombs and treasures will be unearthed here in the years ahead.
Saint Catherine’s Monastery
Egypt is also home to the oldest operating Christian church in the world, St. Catherine’s Monastery, which was built 1,500 years ago in the desert at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. The church is sustained by about two dozen resident monks, who conduct five services a day in Byzantine Greek.
Within its giant, fortified walls are a church, a mosque and many biblical touchstones, including the well where Moses is said to have met Zipporah, whom he would marry, as well as a large collection of ancient biblical manuscripts that is second only to that of the Vatican. But the monastery is most famous for having the “Burning Bush,” in which Moses heard the voice of God. Oddly, the bush is a species of wild raspberry that is not native to the desert. The monks claim that the monastery’s bush is the actual burning bush from 3,000 years ago; others say it is a descendant of the original burning bush. In either case, the monastery is protecting the bush against all eventualities, human or divine: You can’t miss the bright-red fire extinguisher close by.
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One thing that may take you aback when touring Egypt is the constant presence of armed tourist policeman on every bus and van. If you are touring in a very large group, as I was, you will travel together in a convoy with a military escort at either end. An armed police presence is necessary as tourist attractions have been the targets of bomb attacks in Egypt. The most recent attack occurred in April 2006 in the Sinai resort town of Dahab, and it killed 23 people, mostly Egyptians.
So why go? Why take a chance? My experience in Egypt was a pleasant one and uneventful, and everyone I met was terrific. I look forward to returning someday. But safety is certainly an issue, and it’s important to tour with reputable tour operators and experienced guides; they are your best safety net.
Touring Jordan is a little more relaxed. There are no armed guards on tour buses, and while there is a military presence, it is not nearly as overwhelming as in Egypt. Indeed, the Jordanians are the peacekeepers in this tumultuous region; they have graciously taken in refugees from Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, and Jordan is home to more than a million displaced Palestinians. Our Jordanian guide told us that Jordan welcomed all to their country and wanted only peace.
The most famous tourist attraction in Jordan is the ancient stone city of Petra, built some 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans, a nomadic and trading people. What makes Petra so special is the vividly contrasting colors of the stone, which range from rose to apricot to ochre to brilliant white. The colors change around every turn and are especially spectacular when it rains.
The best way to get into the city is to take the one-mile hike through the narrow canyon called the Siq and, oh!, what an entrance it is! Nobody forgets his first view of Petra. I’ve never experienced anything like it; it literally takes your breath away. My experience was almost ruined by a pesky vendor hawking necklaces. I tried repeatedly to dismiss him but eventually lost it and shouted, “You’re ruining my moment, man!” The subsequent echo through the canyon scared the vendor, made a donkey jump and had fellow tourists laughing.
The signature monument in Petra, called the “Treasury” but more likely a royal tomb, is carved directly from the sandstone cliff. It’s so magnificent that it looks like a movie set. In fact, it was used for the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” But wait, aren’t those columns Greek? Yes. The builders of Petra borrowed from the Greeks and from other civilizations as they constructed their city, which eventually comprised 400 square miles. The site also includes some 20,000 caves, some of which were used by Bedouins for shelter until 1990, when the Bedouins were moved to a new village. Now these last of the Petra dwellers come only to hawk their wares.
About 40 miles from Petra is Wadi Rum, the most spectacular stretch of sand on earth. The area was made famous by T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” Lawrence described the area as ”vast, echoing and God-like,” and as our Bedouin guide sped across the sands in a Land Rover, I knew exactly what he meant. The hypnotic dunescapes of apricot-colored sands and the hulking, sheer-rock formations rising to 5,000 feet dwarf all human enterprise.
And yet the Bedouin call it home. Spotting one of their simple black tents — so tiny against a huge outcropping of boulders — gives one perspective on life. For thousands of years the Bedouin have been the masters of desert survival, and that day I was thankful we had a Bedouin driver at the wheel. When our Land Rover got stuck in the sand, he used a clever tumbleweed technique to free the vehicle. As we paused at sunset to watch the colors of the rocks and dunes burn bright, he told us that at night, the stars light up the sky.
Between the war in Iraq and the recent 34-day “conflict” between Lebanon and Israel, it’s easy to have second thoughts about visiting the Middle East. Take your time if you have to, but keep Egypt and Jordan on your travel list. These are truly sights you must see.
Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006." E-mail Anita or visit her Web site anitavacation.com.