The average first-time visitor to Egypt will generally take an organized tour or a packaged trip that will almost always include a few days in Cairo, a trip down to Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, Aswan and possibly a short cruise along the Nile and a day in Abu Simbel. A week or ten days is a perfect introduction to a fascinating country with so much to see and do, but if you never get off the main tourist trail, you'll likely miss out on seeing any part of traditional Egyptian culture or visiting a ancient site or natural phenomenon that isn't inundated with buses and camera wielding tourists.
I have had the distinct pleasure of escaping the conveyor belt of Egyptian tours and experiencing a bit more of this diverse country. Granted, with my background in archaeology, it made more sense for me to seek the less trodden road, but it is one that I would strongly recommend to anyone who wants to get more out of their dream Egyptian vacation. It is definitely more difficult to find a specialized tour that will take you to alternative sites but here are a few suggestions.
If you are interested in seeing more of Egypt's natural rather than built wonders, Select Egypt (tel. +20/2-2705-7586; www.selectegypt.com) has a variety of trips to lesser known destinations like Bahariya Oasis, El Akabat, Siwa Oasis, Farafra Oasis, Dakhla Oasis, Kharga Oasis and the Sinai Desert. Tours are conducted in buses, 4WD vehicles and even by camel.
The visually stunning Siwa Oasis is situated in the Western Desert close to the Libyan border. It is Egypt's most remote oasis town with a distinct Berber culture. Siwans speak their own language and the town is known for its geographical beauty, hot springs and the fact that Alexander the Great traveled here to visit the Oracle of Amun. Select Egypt's seven-day Siwa Oasis tour begins with being picked up at the airport in Cairo and being transferred to your Cairo Hotel. Visit the Mountain of Death; Shali; the Oracle Temple with the Alexander the Great crowning room; the Amoun ruins where you can bathe in the Cleopatra Bath; Dakrour Mount where you can take a healing sand bath; Bir Wahed to bathe in salted soft water; Abou-Shrouf in the Western Desert, Zauton, a Roman olive oil factory and recently discovered Roman tombs, Coraishet and Ain Safi. The trip includes breakfast in Cairo, full board while touring, two nights in a three-star hotel in Cairo, three nights at a hotel in Siwa, one night sleeping in traditional Bedouin tents with camping equipment, all transfers (private in an air-conditioned minibus with driver and 4WD vehicle), an English speaking guide, all taxes and entrance fees for sites. This tour is priced at $423 per person for two people or down to $262 if five people are traveling together.
The four-day Desert Romance package takes travellers from Cairo to the Bahariya Oasis and the White Desert. Highlights include the Temple of Ain El Muftella, a roman water spring; the Tomb of Bannantiu; the Temple of Alexander the Great; the Museum of Bahariya with its Golden Mummies; a 4WD adventure into the White Desert; Pharos market and a hot water spring; the Black Desert dune area; El Heiz Oasis; a camel ride to Pyramid Mountain; Farafra; Cristal Mountain; El Akabat and the spectacular landscape of the White Desert. With two people this tour is priced at $277 per person, with four people $160 per person at any time of the year. Those priced include two nights' hotel accommodations in Bahariya, one night in a tent in the White Desert, all meals, transfers, an English speaking guide, taxes and entrance fees for the sites. Airfares and tips are additional.
Apart from an a huge array of ancient Egyptian, Graeco and Roman sites, Egypt is also home to a variety of Christian sites. Coptic Christians make up about 10% of the Egyptian population and their churches, cloisters, libraries and icons highlight a rich culture that dates back to the earliest days of the religion. Memphis Tours (tel. +20/2-3571-6050; www.memphistours.com) offers two Christian-based, land-only tours of Egypt taking in key sites that the Bible documents Jesus and his family visited in Egypt, as well as other significant locations in the development of Christianity. The eight-day Holy Family tour, including Cairo, Pelusium, Wadi Al-Natroun and Minia is priced at $503 per person based on four people traveling together. Visit Pelusium, the ancient seaport and one of the first resting places of the Holy Family; Bilbais in the Delta; Musturud, where a church is built over a well blessed by the Holy Family; Samanoud on the Damietta branch of the Nile, where a church commemorates the resting place of the Holy Family; Sakha, a place renowned for its Christian community in the Middle Ages; Wadi Natroun, a desert area with four monasteries; the holy well and sacred tree at Matariya; the Church of St. George, the Hanging Church, St. Sergius and the Fortress of Babylon in Old Cairo; the Church of the Holy Virgin on the banks of the Nile at Maadi; the Monastery of Arganos; the beautiful church hewn out of the cliff at Gabal Al-Teir in Minya; and the Monastery of the Holy Virgin at Al Qusiya, a popular site for pilgrims from ancient times and where it is believed that Jesus and his mother lived for three years.
If you want more freedom and less rigidity when it comes to planning your Egyptian itinerary, another option is to rent your own car and driver. This is what I did and once the cost was split between four of us, it became a very economical way to travel. Hotels can often arrange a suitable car and driver for you (albeit with a slight commission or kick back going to them).
Smaller accommodation options like Nile View Bed and Breakfast (tel. + 20/107-336-324; www.nileview.com) in Cairo may only have two rooms, but it can take care of organizing everything from your itinerary, car, driver and even accommodation in other cities. Accommodation here costs $35 per person per night (including breakfast) and depending on where you want to go and for how long, a car/driver is usually priced from around $100 per day. It is customary to tip the driver at the end of the journey and also to pay for lunches, drinks etc. while on the road. If overnight stays are involved, the ultimate price may also include accommodation for the driver.
Alternatively you can choose to go through an established car rental company that will supply you with a professional driver. The larger international brands like Hertz, Avis and Budget will have connections, but you can also try locally owned companies like M. Hafez Company (tel. +20/2- 760-0542; www.m-hafez.com/rental.htm) that specializes in supplying visitors and foreign businesses with rental cars, including luxury vehicle, and drivers.
If you have a vehicle at your disposal (whether you elect to drive or get someone to do it for you), here are a few suggestions for interesting sites to visit:
- Abydos: On the west bank of the Nile, about 90 miles north of Luxor near the small village of El 'Araba el Madfuna, lies the Osirion Temple of Abydos and the Seti I Temple. The Osirian dates to the early dynastic Old Kingdom and its monolithic 100-ton limestone blocks, columns and lintels are considered unusual in style, similar only to the two temples near the Sphinx. This is a spectacular site and one that generally does not attract mainstream tourist and large tourist buses.
- Tell el-Farama, Pelusium: Located on the edge the Sinai Desert, not far from Port Said is the Graeco-Roman town of Pelusium. Ancient Historians like Herodotus and Strabo described it as a bustling port with a significant civic and industrial area, religious buildings and public facilities like baths and theaters. The site today features the remains of an amphitheatre, a bath house, Byzantine churches, a hippodrome, roads, various second and third-century graves and a fortress among other humbler storage and residential buildings.
- Beni Hassan: Situated about ten miles south of Minya, on the east bank of the Nile, the site is home to an amazing set of rock cut ancient tombs numbering close to 40 in total. Dating back to the Middle Kingdom, these were not the catacombs of royalty, but of nobility, so they present visitors with an insight into slightly more normal Egyptian funerary customs
- Tell-el-Amarna: The scant ruins of tombs, temples and palaces are all that is left of a once fabulous capital city built by my favorite short-lived Pharaoh, Akhenaten (also known as the heretic king as he dared to be monotheistic in a world filled with a pantheon of gods). Although not so well known, his beloved Queen, Nefertiti remains immortal due to her famous sculpted image adorned with a blue crown at the Dahlem Museum in Berlin.
- Rosetta: Most closely associated with the Rosetta Stone, which was instrumental in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, the site's strategic location on the Rosetta arm of the Nile and the Mediterranean coast made it a very important military site from the pre-dynastic era through the Ottoman Empire. Although its fame is based on the artifact found in 1799 and now housed in the British Museum, today the town is a testament to the glories of Ottoman architecture. At least 22 houses of Ottoman design, along with several mosques and churches, were built using a unique brown brick featuring characteristic mashrabiyyas, intricately carved window screens known in North African architecture.
- Dashur: Located about six miles south of Saqqara is the most southern site of the Memphite necropolis. It is home to two lesser known pyramids than those in Giza or Saqqara - the Red and Bent pyramids - built by the founder of the fourth dynasty, Snofru and on a clear day, can be seen from Saqqara. It is also well worthwhile to visit Meidum and its Collapsed Pyramid, also attributed to Snofru and thought to be the first attempt at constructing the pyramid form.
- Western Desert: sites and oases like the Kharga and Dakhleh Oases, Siwa Oasis, Dush, Hibis, Qasr Labekha, Ismant el-Kharab (ancient Kellis), Deir el-Haggar and Bahariya.
- The ancient capital of Tanis (think Indiana Jones but without the "well of souls" or a lot of rhetoric), under the Pharaohs of the 21st and 22nd dynasties is now a graveyard of fallen columns from a necropolis and various temples
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