The detailed itinerary provides an outline of the proposed daily program. Participants should note that the daily activities described in this itinerary may be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate changes in opening hours, road conditions, flight schedules etc. Participants will receive a final itinerary together with their tour documents. Meals included in the tour price are indicated in the detailed itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=light lunch and D=dinner. Bottled water will also be provided daily during site excursions.
Giza, Cairo - 4 nights
Day 1: Tuesday 21 November, Arrive Cairo
- Introductory Meeting at 2.00pm
- The Citadel
- Muhammad Ali Mosque
- Introductory Lecture at 6.30pm
The tour commences at 2.00pm in the foyer of the Marriott Mena House Hotel. Please meet your tour leader, Lucia Gahlin, and fellow travellers for a short introductory meeting. We shall then board our coach for an afternoon excursion visiting the Citadel and the Muhammad Ali Mosque.
We begin with a visit to the citadel, which stands on a rocky promontory overlooking the city. The fortress-complex predominately dates from the medieval Ayyubid (1174–1250) and Mamluk (1250–1517) periods, while the Mohammad Ali mosque was built in the early 19th century amidst the defensive core of Islamic Cairo. The panoramic views from the citadel make this the ideal place to appreciate the topography of the city and analyse its urban development.
The Ayyubids were of Syrian Kurdish descent and their most important scion was Salah el-Din (Saladin) of Crusader fame. The Sunni Ayyubids replaced the Shia Fatamids as rulers of Egypt. It had been under Fatimid rule that Cairo was first established as the capital in the 10th century, from where the dynasty controlled its empire until the mid-12th century. Ayyubid rulers lived in the citadel which Salah el-Din had built on a spur of the Mokhattam Hills. The Ayyubids imported numerous Turkish slave soldiers, known as Mamluks, who eventually usurped power in the mid-13th century. The Mamluks held power until Ottoman (Turkish) conquest in 1517. Khedive Ali Pasha was keen to emphasise his new dynasty’s connections with – and independence from – Egypt’s former masters, the Ottomans.
Within the citadel, we visit the Mohammad Ali Mosque which dominates the Cairo skyline. Begun by Mohammad Ali Pasha in 1830 and completed by Said Pasha in 1857, the mosque was built in a distinctly Ottoman architectural style to commemorate Ali Pasha’s eldest son, who died in 1816. Ali Pasha demolished a complex of Ayyubid and Fatamid buildings to establish his own dynastic architectural presence on this summit of the Islamic centre of the city.
In the evening we regather for an introductory lecture before dining together at our hotel. (Overnight Giza) D
Day 2: Wednesday 22 November, Giza: Saqqara & Memphis
- Imhotep Museum
- Pyramid Complex of Djoser
- Pyramid of Unas
- New Kingdom tombs of Horemheb, Maya (Tutankhamun’s Treasurer) & Tia
- ‘Tomb of the Two Brothers’: Niankhkhnum & Khnumhotep
- New Kingdom tombs: Maia (Tutankhamun’s wet nurse) & Nemtymes
- Welcome Evening Dinner
We begin a morning of exploration at Saqqara with a visit to the Imhotep Museum, named after the architect of the site’s best-known monument, the first (stepped) pyramid, indeed the first monumental stone building in Egypt, the Step Pyramid of Djoser. The museum is also dedicated to the memory of the French archaeologist Jean-Philippe Lauer (1902–2001) who devoted his life to excavating, reconstructing and better understanding the site of Saqqara.
Saqqara was the main cemetery for Egypt’s ancient capital, nearby Memphis, and one of Egypt’s most significant dynastic sites. Saqqara was already the site of a necropolis during the Early Dynastic Period. We visit Egypt’s first great stone funerary complex, the aforementioned Step Pyramid Complex of the Third Dynasty pharaoh, Djoser (c. 2667–2648 BC). The complex consists of a large rectangular enclosure with a stone stepped pyramid as its focus. It marked a transition from the early royal ‘mastaba’ tomb to the pyramid form, and from use of mud brick to stone, prompted by the desire to create more durable and therefore eternal, emblems of Egypt’s rulers. The Old Kingdom nobility were buried nearby, in large mastaba-tombs – rectangular flat-topped tombs with slightly sloping sides, which look like giant benches – hence their name mastaba, (Arabic: ‘bench’).
Old Kingdom pharaonic funerary architecture developed because Egyptian concepts of the afterlife became ever more complex and the pharaohs promoted the belief that they were divine rulers, whose continuing existence after death demanded the construction of funerary complexes as resplendent as those they resided in during life. After Djoser’s funerary complex we proceed to one of the later pyramids that contains the first inscriptions within a royal tomb. This is the pyramid of Unas (c. 2375–2345 BC), the last ruler of the 5th Dynasty. The inscriptions on its interior walls, known as the ‘Pyramid Texts’, are the earliest theological writings to survive from Ancient Egypt. The Pyramid of Unas has recently reopened after nearly 30 years of being closed to visitors.
Our investigation of some of the most important non-royal tombs at Saqqara includes the Old Kingdom joint tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, renowned for the unusually intimate manner in which the two men are represented. Might they have been lovers? We also explore the New Kingdom tombs of Tutankhamun’s general (who went on to rule Egypt), Horemheb (r. c. 1323–1295 BC), Tutankhamun’s Treasurer, Maya, and Ramesses II’s sister and her husband, Tia. These have been excavated since the 1970s by a joint Dutch-British team, and have only been open to visitors for a few years. We also visit a couple of the New Kingdom tombs recently excavated by the French, and only just opened to visitors – the tomb of Tutankhamun’s wetnurse Maia, and the royal court official Nemtymes.
We stop for lunch 5 minutes from the site at the Saqqara Palm Club, a restaurant nestled among the palm trees beneath the Saqqara desert plateau.
After lunch we visit the accessible part of ancient Memphis – an open-air museum with its colossal statue of Rameses II (c. 1279–1213 BC). Memphis, south of modern Cairo, was the capital of the first unified kingdom of Egypt, and was the main administrative centre of the pharaonic state until the founding of Alexandria.
This evening we enjoy our special Welcome Dinner. (Overnight Giza) BLD
Day 3: Thursday 23 November, Giza: Saqqara & Dahshur
- Tomb of Mereruka
- Tomb of Kagemni
- Tomb of Ankhmahor
- Tomb of Ptahhotep
- Tomb of Ti
- Dahshur: Sneferu’s Red and Bent Pyramids
Teti was the first pharaoh of the 6th-Dynasty (c. 2345–2323 BC), and is buried in Saqqara. This morning we return to Saqqara, a site so large and important it demands a second visit to do it justice. We begin with visits to some of the mastaba tombs of Teti’s high officials, clustered in nearby rows, comprising a true ‘city of the dead’. Mereruka and Kagemni each married a daughter of the king and climbed high on the social ladder of the Old Kingdom, both men becoming Vizier (Prime Minister). We see scenes of daily life in the superstructures of these mastaba tombs (the burial chambers are cut into the bedrock beneath these chapels and tend to be inaccessible). These scenes of hunting, fishing, animal husbandry, agriculture and food production are rich in detail, using art and inscription to magically provision the deceased for eternity.
The tomb of Ankhmahor has only recently opened to visitors; it is perhaps best known for a relief that appears to represent a circumcision procedure. Both Ptahhotep and Ti were Overseers of 5th Dynasty royal solar temples, pyramids, and pyramid towns; their tombs are located closer to the Serapeum, the majestic burial place of the bulls believed to be the earthly manifestation of the god Apis worshiped in Memphis. These catacombs have fairly recently been re-opened after some 30 years of closure.
We stop once again for lunch at the most conveniently located restaurant – the Saqqara Palm Club.
After lunch we drive to the next royal cemetery south of Saqqara, to visit the pyramids of Khufu’s father Sneferu (c. 2613–2589 BC), the first pharaoh of the 4th Dynasty. His architects and builders experimented with pyramid construction techniques until they achieved a transition from stepped to smooth-sided monuments. We see the culmination of this process at Dahshur in the form of the Red Pyramid, but we also witness problems encountered along the way, in the form of the so-called ‘Bent Pyramid’. The smooth-sided pyramid brought with it a shift in the layout of Egyptian funerary complexes, from a North-South to West-East axis, reflecting an increasing solar influence in the religion. (Overnight Giza) BL
Day 4: Friday 24 November, Giza
- Pyramids of Giza incl. entry to the Great Pyramid
- The Sphinx
- New Grand Egyptian Museum GEM (if opened)
We spend the morning visiting the 4th Dynasty pyramids of Giza. These monumental structures, that have fascinated myriad visitors to Egypt most notably Alexander and Napoleon, were constructed for Khufu (Cheops: c. 2589–2566 BC), Khafra (Chephren: c. 2558–2532 BC) and Menkaura (Mycerinus: c. 2532– 2503). The Great Pyramid (of Khufu), which we shall enter, is the only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world that still survives.
The Sphinx, alongside Khafra’s Valley Temple, is the most compelling symbol of the transformation of a pharaoh from man to god.
If the spectacular, new Grand Egyptian Museum has opened by the advertised date, we will spend this afternoon exploring the purpose-built museum, containing an incredible array of artefacts brought here from the Egyptian National Museum on Tahir Square and other state collections across the country. The collection includes the funerary boat of Khufu, reconstructed in the 1950s from 1,224 pieces buried in a rectangular pit alongside the south face of the pyramid (formerly held in the Solar Boat Museum).
If the opening date has been pushed back (not uncommon in Egypt) we will visit the Egyptian Museum. (Overnight Giza) BL
Alexandria - 1 night
Day 5: Saturday 25 November, Cairo – Alexandria
- Lunch: Grill House
- The National Museum of Alexandria
- New Library & Antiquities Museum (Bibliotheka Alexandrina)
- Qaytbay Fortress and ancient harbours of Alexandria
This morning we drive north to the great Graeco-Roman city of Alexandria. Alexandria was one of the greatest cities of the Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean. In antiquity it was famed for its temples, theatres, library and museum, the great Pharos lighthouse – another of the seven wonders of the ancient world – its stadium, extensive palaces and villas, underground water supply and fountains, as well as its extensive economic and residential quarter. Today, however, it is above all a city of the 19th century, a symbol of Egypt’s integration into the European-dominated world economy after the opening of the Suez Canal under the British protectorate (1869).
The city was founded by Alexander the Great and became the capital of the country for 1000 years; it was also the cultural capital of the eastern Mediterranean. It was the centre of Egyptian (Coptic) Christianity and remains the seat of the Coptic patriarch. Little is exposed of the ancient city, which is buried beneath Islamic and European-style developments, and drowned beneath the sea. It is now Egypt’s second largest city and a favourite summer resort for rich Cairenes. Nevertheless, throughout its history Alexandria has had a certain glamour that is still visible in the series of monuments we shall see.
Following lunch at a local restaurant we visit the National Museum of Alexandria, which opened in 2003, with its rich collection of artefacts from the Delta region, and the New Library (the Bibliotheka Alexandrina), opened in 2000, with its small Antiquities Museum. On the peninsula between the east and west harbours stands the Mamluk fortress of Qaytbay, on the site once occupied by the renowned Pharos of Alexandria.
In the evening we dine together at our hotel. (Overnight Alexandria) BLD
Cairo - 1 night
Day 6: Sunday 26 November, Alexandria – Wadi Natrun – Cairo
- Roman Theatre and Villa of the Birds (Kom el Dikka)
- Pompey’s Pilla (Serapeum)
- Kom el-Shawqafa
- Lunch: Alexandria Fish Market
- Coptic Monastery (in Wadi Natrun)
This morning we visit the theatre in the area known as Kom el Dikka. The ‘theatre’ is actually an odeon, dating to the 4th century AD with a seating capacity of 600. This site is also where we find the ‘Villa of the Birds’, a rich Alexandrian townhouse with the remains of a mosaic floor featuring birds, occupied from the beginning of the 2nd to the end of the 4th century AD.
We next visit the site known as Pompey’s Pilla. This red granite pillar marks the location of the Ptolemaic and Roman Temple of the Alexandrian deity Serapis. The pillar was actually erected by the Emperor Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century AD and probably supported a statue of the emperor. Another site we shall visit in this area is Kom el-Shawqafa, a subterranean system of catacombs which exhibit Egyptian, Greek and Roman elements in their decorative schema.
After lunch at the Alexandria Fish Market, we set out for our drive back to Cairo via Wadi Natrun. The Coptic Church is the Orthodox Christian Church in Egypt, based on the teachings of St Mark who brought Christianity to Egypt during the reign of the Emperor Nero in the 1st century AD. The word ‘Copt’ derives from the Greek word, Aigyptos, which in turn derived from one of the ancient Egyptian names for Memphis (Hwt-ka-ptah). Our word ‘Egypt’ derives from Aigyptos. Monasticism is said to have first developed in Egypt. It began there at the end of the 3rd century AD and flourished in the 4th century. By the end of the 4th century, there were hundreds of monasteries, and thousands of monks’ cells and caves scattered throughout the Egyptian desert hills. (Overnight Cairo) BL
Minya - 1 night
Day 7: Monday 27 November, Cairo – Beni Hasan – Minya
- Rock-cut tombs of Beni Hasan
This morning we travel approximately 270kms south to Minya, located on the western bank of the Nile River. Dubbed the ‘Bride of Upper Egypt’ for its beauty and strategic location in Middle Egypt linking the north and the south, approximately 50% of its residents are Coptic Christians.
After a packed lunch we cross the bridge in Minya and drive approximately 20kms south on the east bank of the Nile, in order to climb the many steps cut in the limestone desert escarpment, up to the row of Middle Kingdom tombs. The view over the surrounding area is breathtaking and in itself worth the climb, but a visit to Beni Hasan also allows us to visit the rock-cut tombs of regional governors dating to a fascinating period of ancient Egyptian history not yet experienced on this tour. The painted scenes on the walls of these tombs provide us with an array of evidence for daily life in ancient Egypt, but perhaps most interestingly, they are a crucial historical source for the end of the difficult, politically fragmented First Intermediate Period, and the return to stable, centralised control in the Middle Kingdom. Of the four tombs we are able to visit at this site, the tombs of Khety and Baqet date to the Eleventh Dynasty, and those of Khnumhotep and Amenemhat date to the Twelfth Dynasty. (Overnight Minya) BLD
Asyut - 1 night
Day 8: Tuesday 28 November, Minya – Amarna – Asyut
- Amarna: ancient city of Akhetaten
We spend today conducting a comprehensive investigation of the archaeological site of Amarna, approximately 50 kms south of Minya, to the east of the Nile. Here we find the scant mud brick remains of a once great city, built by the so-called ‘heretic king’ Akhenaten (c. 1352-1336 BC), the pharaoh who changed the state religion from the traditional polytheism to a form of a monotheism, and who changed the iconography of Egyptian kingship to express his unique ideology.
Our exploration of this large site takes us to the mud brick remains of the ‘Small Aten Temple’, one of Akhenaten’s temples to his one god, the sun god Aten; and to the ‘North Palace’, a palace of the royal women. In addition to the mud brick remains of temples, palaces, houses, and administrative buildings, we experience the realm of the dead at Amarna – the tombs of noblemen of the day, cut high in the desert escarpment; and the royal tomb used for the burial of the pharaoh himself, his mother and one of his daughters, the princess Meketaten. The wall of these tombs are carved in sunk relief, providing us with evidence for the exceptional style of art of this period, and a very different emphasis in the decoration of élite tombs – only during this brief reign does the royal family feature on the walls of nobles’ tombs, rather than the important officials themselves. Our visit to Amarna takes us to the heart of Akhenaten’s and Nefertiti’s empire, their capital city, built on a virgin site dedicated to the one solar god. We learn of the foundation of this city from the inscription and imagery on the ‘Boundary Stelae’ cut into the desert cliffs around this ancient city.
We take a break during the day to eat our packed lunch in the site rest house, with a view across the desert towards the northern tombs of the nobles.
We leave Amarna to drive approximately 100 kms south to Asyut, home to one of the largest universities in Egypt. (Overnight Asyut) BLD
Luxor - 4 nights
Day 9: Wednesday 29 November, Asyut – Abydos – Luxor
- Temple of Seti I at Abydos
Early this morning we depart Asyut and travel approximately 200kms south to visit the magnificent Temple of King Seti I, the most impressive of the various temples constructed at Abydos during the pharaonic period. These monuments dating from the Old Kingdom through to the New Kingdom, all relate to the cult of Osiris, god of rejuvenation and the Afterlife, whose burial was believed to be at Abydos. His legendary tomb actually belongs to one of Egypt’s first dynasty kings, all of whom were buried at this site. In the Middle Kingdom Abydos became a place of national pilgrimage, particularly during the Festival of Osiris. In the New Kingdom the great warrior king Seti I and his son Ramesses II built large temples to Osiris and a host of other deities, but also to commemorate the cult of divine kingship. The temple of Seti is the best preserved with much of its original colour. Its reliefs depict the ceremonies associated with Osiris and the other gods and goddesses of Egypt, and the temple’s architecture is unique with seven sanctuaries to the pharaoh and Egypt’s major deities.
In the afternoon we continue our drive to Luxor, a vibrant town nestled on the east bank of the Nile, a town so rich in archaeology it serves as an open-air museum, often referred to by its ancient Greek name Thebes. (Overnight Luxor) BL
Day 10: Thursday 30 November, Luxor
- Colossi of Memnon
- Valley of the Kings (including Tutankhamun’s Tomb and special access to Seti I’s Tomb)
- Lunch: Africa
- Temple of Hatshepsut, Deir el-Bahri
After breakfast we depart our hotel and cross the Nile by boat to visit sites on the west bank of the river where the Pharaonic necropolis was located during the New Kingdom. As we travel from the Nile to the Valley of the Kings we will pass the Colossi of Memnon, two huge seated figures, which once flanked the entrance to the memorial temple of Amenhotep III (c. 1390–1352 BC). When it was built, this would have been the largest of the New Kingdom temples on the west bank, but within about 150 years it had been destroyed. We will gaze up at the colossal seated statues of Amenhotep III, which were left standing in front of what is now an active archaeological site. The Greeks identified these colossal statues with Memnon, son of Aurora.
From the Colossi we continue to the Valley of the Kings, the necropolis of the pharaohs and some other important individuals of the New Kingdom. We enter a selection of the decorated underground burial complexes, which present us with a completely different style of funerary structure to the Old Kingdom pyramids we visited in the North of Egypt. Most of these New Kingdom royal tombs cut into the limestone bedrock are decorated with murals, which chart the progress of a pharaoh into the afterlife, the gods he would meet and the ceremonies he would undergo. The largest of these tombs is the one quarried out of the bedrock and decorated for the Nineteenth Dynasty pharaoh Seti I, whose temple we visit at Abydos. Nine of its eleven rooms are beautifully decorated; of particular note is the painted astronomical ceiling in the burial chamber. Visitor numbers to this tomb are restricted, but our group has special access to this most impressive of tombs in the Valley of the Kings. We also visit the small tomb of Tutankhamun, which despite its size, once contained an extraordinary amount of treasures.
Next we head to the romantic ruins of Ramesses II’s memorial temple, known today as the Ramesseum. Here we see the fallen colossus of this mighty pharaoh, and scenes carved in relief of the Battle of Qadesh (c. 1274 BC) that the Egyptians fought against the Hittites in year 5 of Ramesses II’s reign. Ramesses claimed this battle as a great victory, but the truth seems to have been somewhat different!
Lunch will be served on the roof terrace at Africa, a local Egyptian restaurant with views overlooking the Nile, towards Luxor Temple on the other side of the river.
After lunch on the roof terrace at Africa, a local Egyptian restaurant with views overlooking the Nile towards Luxor Temple on the other side of the river, we visit the memorial temple of the pharaoh Hatshepsut (c. 1473–1458 BC), a three-tiered architectural masterpiece built into the cliff overlooking the flat valley stretching back to the Nile, and located on a direct axis with Karnak Temple on the other side of the river. Deir el-Bahri has been majorly reconstructed by Polish archaeologists working there since the 1960s, but the reliefs are original, and they provide us with evidence for the great achievements of this female pharaoh, particularly in trading expeditions and the transportation of obelisks from the granite quarries in Aswan. This temple is also significant for its scenes of the divine birth of Hatshepsut. (Overnight Luxor) BL
Day 11: Friday 1 December, Luxor – Dendera – Luxor
- Temple Precinct of Amun, Karnak
- Luxor Museum
- Temple of Hathor, Dendera
This morning we visit the main temple precinct of Amun at Karnak, nearly 3km to the north of Luxor Temple. Recent excavations have revealed almost the entire length of the sphinx-lined processional way between the two temples. Tomorrow evening we will see the Opet Festival reliefs at Luxor Temple, in which the cult statues of the gods Amun and Mut were shown being processed in boat-shaped shrines, from their sanctuaries at Karnak to their ‘Southern Residence’ at Luxor Temple. The temple precinct at Karnak is the largest religious enclosure in the world. Most of the buildings we visit there today were erected during the New Kingdom, but later rulers added to this temple complex. The monumental approach to this temple from the river is lined with fantastic ram-headed sphinxes. This avenue connected the precinct to the quay from which the god’s barge was launched to transfer him either to Luxor Temple or to the west bank of the Nile. Amun’s consort Mut and their child Khonsu were also worshipped at Karnak and the enclosures and temples within the precinct served as a stage for the rituals and festivals centred on this ‘Theban Triad’ of gods.
Next we visit the Luxor Museum, one of the finest museums in Egypt with its artistic display of objects from the Theban region. Here we see the famous statue of Thutmose III (c. 1479–1425 BC) discovered under a courtyard in Karnak Temple in 1904, and other works, including the perfect quartzite statue of Amenhotep III (c. 1390–1352 BC), found in 1989 under the solar court at Luxor Temple.
This afternoon we travel north from Luxor to visit the magnificent Temple of Hathor at Dendera. Its newly cleaned tombs have revealed fabulous blue ceilings with intricately astronomical details. The main temple dates from the Ptolemaic (305–30 BC) and Roman (30 BC–c. 300 AD) periods, and is distinguished by its Hathor-head column capital, being a woman’s face with heavy wig and cow’s ears. We will ascend to the roof of the temple for fine views, and to visit the rooftop chapels, one of which contains a cast of the famous Dander Zodiac; the original once located here is in the Louvre Museum in Paris. On the walls of the temple are a number of cartouches, the name rings in which the royal name were written, but they have been left blank, a reflection perhaps of the uncertain political times of the 1st century BC. Evidence of this tumultuous period of Egyptian history is spectacularly depicted on the rear wall of the temple where we see a depiction of Cleopatra VII (r. 51– 30 BC) and Caesarian (47– 30 BC), her son by Julius Caesar, later to be murdered by Octavian’s supporters after the conquest of Egypt by Rome. This is the only surviving representation of Cleopatra VII identified on the wall of an Egyptian temple. As with all Egyptian temples, the temple does not stand alone within the outer mud brick enclosure wall. We will also be able to view a smaller temple dedicated to Isis, a mammisi (divine/symbolic birth house), a sacred lake, a sanatorium (where people would go to receive divine inspiration and healing dreams), and a later Christian basilica. (Overnight Luxor) BLD
Day 12: Saturday 2 December, Luxor’s West Bank
- Valley of the Queens (with a special opening of Nefertari’s tomb)
- Deir el-Medina
- Lunch: Nur el-Qurna
- Temple of Medinet Habu
- Evening visit to Luxor Temple
Our third day in Luxor sees us crossing over to the west bank by boat to visit still more of the sites responsible for this town’s designation as ‘the world’s greatest open-air museum’. We begin the day by visiting the counterpart to the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, where we visit the decorated rock cut tomb of a queen, and of two princes, all dating to the time of Ramesses III (c. 1184–1153 BC) whose temple we will be visiting at Medinet Habu. The colours in the painted scenes on the walls of these tombs are particularly vivid, but not nearly as vivid as those in the most breathtaking of all ancient tombs, the tomb of Queen Nefertari, wife of Ramesses II whose temple, now known as the Ramesseum, we have already visited. Since the Getty Conservation Institute restored the walls of this tomb (1986-1992), visitor numbers have been restricted, but we have a special permission for an exclusive visit.
At Deir el-Medina we find the remains of a town inhabited by the artists and craftsmen responsible for quarrying out and decorating the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and Tomb of the Nobles. These men lived here with their families during the New Kingdom and left behind all manner of archaeological evidence and written records, particularly on flakes of limestone (ostraca) informing us of their daily life, both at home, and working in the tombs. They also created small but brightly decorated tombs for themselves and their families, a couple of which we will be able to climb down inside, to enjoy the vibrant painted scenes on the walls of the rock-cut burial chambers. The people of Deir el-Medina had lived not only alongside their burial ground, but alongside shrines to local gods, such as the deified pharaoh Amenhotep I (r.1526–1506 BC), and other deities of particular relevance to this community, such as Ptah, patron of craftsmen. Much later, during the reign of Ptolemy IV (r. 221–204 BC), a small stone temple surrounded by a large mud brick wall was built in the area of the New Kingdom shrines just to the north of the ancient town. This temple is dedicated to Hathor, the goddess we will met at Dendera. We take time to explore this temple, including the ‘Weighing of the Heart’ scene carved in one of the chambers.
After a local lunch in the garden of a restaurant nestled under trees at the western end of Amenhotep III’s ruined temple behind the Colossi of Memnon, we visit Medinet Habu, the best preserved of the great temples erected on the west bank by the New Kingdom rulers, in which they were venerated as manifestations of the god Amun on earth, and in which offerings were made to ensure their eternal life. This was the temple built by the Twentieth Dynasty pharaoh Rameses III (c.1184 – 1153 BC), whose palace remains we will also visit within the massive mudbrick outer enclosure wall of the temple. Among the many scenes carved in relief on the walls of this temple is the only recorded pharaonic sea battle – against the so-called ‘Sea Peoples’.
In the early evening we visit the Luxor Temple which lies parallel to the river on the east bank of the Nile. It was regarded as the southern residence of the god Amun, who by the New Kingdom (c. 1550 – 1069 BC) had been merged with the more ancient and important sun god of Heliopolis, Ra, to become Amun-Ra. Luxor was home to local rulers during Egypt’s politically fragmented Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650 – 1550 BC). They drove out the foreign rulers (the Hyksos) from the Delta, and went on to rule a united Egypt as the Eighteenth Dynasty, a particularly splendid period of Egyptian history, when pharaohs were buried for the first time in the Valley of the Kings, and Egypt controlled an empire that took in Nubia, and Syria-Palestine. The wealth flooding into Egypt through trade, conquest, and efficient exploitation of resources, resulted in much temple building, and particularly at Luxor which became the country’s religious centre, focused on the cult of Amun-Ra. Most of what we see today at Luxor Temple was built by Amenhotep III with some additions by Ramesses II. Here we see reliefs of the great Opet Festival of Amun dating to the reign of Amenhotep III’s grandson Tutankhamen (c. 1336–1327 BC), and the ‘Chamber of the Divine King’ converted into a chapel of the Imperial cult during the Roman Period. A Christian basilica was built in this temple, on top of which a mosque was later built. This mosque of the Muslim saint Abu el-Haggag continues in use to this day. So the expanse of time over which this site has been a place of worship is vast. (Overnight Luxor) BL
Dahabiya Cruise - 4 nights
Day 13: Sunday 3 December, Luxor – Esna – El Hegz
- Esna Temple
- Board our dahabiya and set sail
This morning we drive south to Esna. We visit the temple in the heart of this busy modern town. In order to reach the ancient floor-level of the temple, we must descend a long staircase from modern street-level, showing that the modern town sits on the many strata of a settlement mound (tell). The temple is dedicated to the ram-headed creator god of the south, Khnum, whom we shall meet again in Aswan. During the Graeco-Roman Period this place was called in Greek, Latopolis, after the Lates fish which were held sacred there and were buried in a cemetery west of the town. The Ptolemaic inner part of this temple is mostly lost, and what we are able to visit dates mostly to the Roman Period. The hypostyle hall (its roof supported by rows of columns with composite floral capitals characteristic of the period) is in fact the last major temple built in Egypt, and is decorated with reliefs from the 1st to 3rd centuries AD.
We board our dahabiya for lunch and an afternoon of gentle sailing. And so we begin our river voyage south, mooring over night close to the village of El Hegz, where we dine onboard. (Overnight aboard a dahabiya) BLD
Day 14: Monday 4 December, El Hegz – El Kab – Edfu – Gebel el-Silsila
- Tombs of El Kab
- Temple of Horus, Edfu
We continue sailing today on our peaceful dahabiya cruise, with two sites to visit before we moor for the night at Gebel el-Silsila. El Kab is a large, multi-period site, occupied from the Predynastic Period (ended 3100 BC), with the vulture goddess Nekhbet, a protective goddess of kingship, as its patron deity. We walk past the great mud brick enclosure wall of the ancient town to visit a row of rock-cut tombs just within the desert on the eastern side of the river. These tombs are from the period of the New Kingdom and are decorated in painted raised relief. Perhaps the most famous of these is the tomb of Ahmose, Son of Abana, who was a Chief of Sailors in the late Seventeenth-early Eighteenth Dynasties. There is an extremely important inscription on one wall of his tomb which gives us considerable detail of the Theban military expeditions north to overcome the Hyksos in their Delta capital at Avaris during the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650-1550 BC), and to expel them from Egypt, thereby reuniting Egypt under one pharaoh (Ahmose) at the beginning of the New Kingdom.
The Temple of Horus at Edfu was constructed in the 3rd century BC during the Ptolemaic Period. It is a huge and remarkably complete temple, elaborately decorated throughout, preserving valuable information on the foundation of Egyptian temples, the rituals that took place daily in the temples, and the regular festivals, such as the Festival of the Beautiful Meeting, when the cult statue of Hathor of Dendera was transported by boat to visit Horus of Edfu. The ambulatory around the temple is decorated with scenes expressing the mythology of kingship – the triumph of Horus over his uncle Seth (represented mostly as a tiny hippopotamus!).
We dine this evening onboard our dahabiya. (Overnight on dahabiya) BLD
Day 15: Tuesday 5 December, Gebel el-Silsila – el Gerdiab
- Ancient quarry and shrines, Gebel el-Silsila
Continuing our leisurely cruise south, we moor to visit further sites. Silsila Gorge is one of the narrowest points in the Nile Valley. A little to the north of here, the geology of the Nile Valley has changed – northern limestone of the Nile Valley has given way to sandstone, which then extends south far into Sudan. This site was used as a sandstone quarry from at least the Eighteenth Dynasty through to Graeco-Roman times. The blocks for important sandstone temples we have already visited – such as Karnak, Luxor Temple, Medinet Habu, and the Ramesseum – were quarried here on both sides of the river. We visit the quarries on the west bank, coming across various rock-cut shrines, the largest and best preserved of which is the rock-cut chapel (or speos) of Horemheb (c. 1323 – 1295 BC), now thought to have originally been built by Hatshepsut, dedicated to a number of deities including Amun-Ra; the crocodile god Sobek; the triad of Elephantine, Khnum, Satet, and Anuket; the god of the Nile flood Hapi; and the hippopotamus goddess Taweret.
We moor for the night close to the village of El Gerdiab, and dine onboard our dahabiya. (Overnight on dahabiya) BLD
Day 16: Wednesday 6 December, El Gerdiab – Kom Ombo – Aswan
- Temple of Sobek and Horus the Elder, Kom Ombo
This morning we moor at Kom Ombo to visit the picturesque Graeco-Roman Period riverside temple of the crocodile god Sobek and Haroeris, or Horus the Elder. The temple plan is unusual – its dedication to two gods necessitated the division of the interior into eastern and western halves that mirror each other. We find evidence for oracular consultation here, and a wall relief that has been interpreted by some as an illustration of medical implements. A small site museum has recently opened here displaying embalmed crocodiles and other ancient evidence for the local cult of the crocodile god.
From Kom Ombo we enjoy a tranquil cruise to Aswan. The granite cataract at Aswan turned the pre-dam river into non-navigable rapids, and created Egypt’s natural southern frontier. It was also the gateway to trade routes south into sub-Saharan Africa. As such it was a land of garrisons and passing merchants where the cultures of Egypt and Nubia blended and overlapped.
We dine onboard this evening. (Overnight on dahabiya in Aswan) BLD
Aswan - 2 nights
Day 17: Thursday 7 December, Aswan
- Unfinished Obelisk and Quarries
- Temple of Isis, Philae
- Nubian Museum
After disembarking from our dahabiya we spend the day exploring the Aswan area. Aswan is where the ancient Egyptians quarried the pink and grey granite they favoured for obelisks, statuary, sarcophagi etc. This morning we get a sense of the cataract, and visit a quarry where we look for evidence of ancient quarrying techniques and marvel at the size of the New Kingdom ‘Unfinished Obelisk’, some 42m long and weighing over 1000 tons, that remains in situ, semi-quarried from the bedrock. The small souk at this site presents another good shopping opportunity.
Next, we drive on to the southern side of the early 20th-century British Dam in order to board a boat to take the short journey across the reservoir formed between the British Dam and the 1960s High Dam to the temple complex that was once located on the flooded Philae Island, and was dismantled and relocated to the higher Agilka Island. To 19th century travellers, the Philae temple was ‘the pearl of the Nile’ and despite its relocation, it is still today the archetypal romantic ruined temple thanks to its idylic location. It is a Ptolemaic and early Roman Period temple dedicated to the goddess Isis, with a small temple to Hathor alongside, a mammisi (divine birth house) unusually situated within the temple and, most celebrated by early travellers, the Kiosk of Trajan. Because of its remote location Philae seems to have served as a centre for pagan worship well into the Christian era. It is also the site of the latest known hieroglyphic inscription (394 AD) and the latest demotic inscription, a graffito (452 AD). The site was finally abandoned during the reign of Justinian the Great (c.535 AD).
Following some time at leisure for lunch, we visit the Nubian Museum, an archaeological and ethnographic museum tracing the history and culture of ancient and modern Nubia. (Overnight Aswan) B
Day 18: Friday 8 December, Aswan
- High Dam
- Kalabsha Temple
- Qertassi Kiosk
- Beit al-Wali Temple
- Elephantine Island: temples of Khnum and Satet
In order to better understand the significance of the region, and the UNESCO campaign to save the monuments of Nubia in the 1960s, this morning we visit the High Dam and discuss the affects it has had on modern Egypt and its ancient monuments.
On the northern shore of Lake Nasser we board a boat to take us the short distance to New Kalabsha Island, one of the islands in Lake Nasser, the vast man-made lake created south of the High Dam. A number of different monuments saved from the rising water of Lake Nasser have been relocated to this island, so today it serves as an Open Air Museum. Monuments here include Kalabsha Temple, a Roman kiosk from Qertassi, and the Beit el-Wali Temple. The Kalabsha Temple is the largest free-standing Nubian temple. This sandstone temple was built for the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus (r. 27 BC – 14 AD). It was dedicated to the divine triad, Osiris, Isis and Horus-Mandulis (the Egyptian deity Horus syncretised with the Nubian sun deity Mandulis; in fact, this is the Greek name derived from the Nubian name Merul). The temple was later reused as a Coptic church.
The Qertassi Kiosk, with its Hathor-headed columns, originally stood at the entrance to an ancient sandstone quarry, on high ground overlooking the Nile, and was a landmark seen from miles around, probably dating to the Ptolemaic Period.
Beit el-Wali is a small rock-cut (speos) temple. It is the earliest of the Nubian temples built by the 19th dynasty pharaoh Rameses II (r. 1279–1213 BC), and was dedicated to the great Theban deity Amun-Ra, as well as local gods of the Aswan area (Khnum, Satet and Anuket), and Nubian deities.
Following lunch at a local restaurant, we travel by boat to Elephantine Island, site of the ancient town of Abu (meaning ‘elephant’ and ‘ivory’ in Ancient Egyptian), Aswan’s predecessor, where we see the remains of this trading entrepot and garrison town, and its temples, including the remains of the Temple of Khnum, the ram-headed creator god associated with the Nile and the cataract, and the temples of his consort Satet, reconstructed by the German Archaeological Institute. Here we visit the best preserved example of a Nileometer used to measure the annual flood levels. We will note the mud brick tombs of the mummified rams associated with the cult of Khnum, as we saw one of these rams on display in the Nubian Museum yesterday. We will also come across a Middle Kingdom cult shrine of Heqa-ib, a deified Old Kingdom governor of Elephantine, whose tomb we will have noted earlier this morning at Qubbet el-Hawa. (Overnight Aswan) BL
Abu Simbel - 1 night
Day 19: Saturday 9 December, Aswan – Abu Simbel
- Morning drive through the desert to Abu Simbel
- Afternoon at leisure in Abu Simbel
- Sound and Light Show, Abu Simbel
This morning we drive through the desert to the west of Lake Nasser to Abu Simbel. We shall arrive in Abu Simbel in time for lunch at the hotel.
In the afternoon there will be some time to relax and enjoy the facilities of the hotel which offers views over Lake Nasser. Alternatively you may wish to take a short walk for a first view of the temples. In the evening we attend the Sound and Light Show; the laser lighting of the Abu Simbel temple is stunning. (Overnight Abu Simbel) BLD
Cairo Airport - 1 night
Day 20: Sunday 10 December, Abu Simbel – Cairo
- Temple of Ramesses II, Abu Simbel
- Temple of Nefertari, Abu Simbel
- Midday flight from Abu Simbel to Cairo
- Farewell Evening Meal
Abu Simbel has become one of Egypt’s most famous sites, which probably has as much to do with the drama of its dismantling and re-construction in advance of the rising waters of Lake Nasser, as with its remote and stunning location. Here we visit two temples constructed by Ramesses II, which were moved to this site in 1966-1968. The relocation, which preserved the alignment of the temples and re-inserted them into the artificial hills at their new location, was a major engineering feat, as remarkable as the original construction of the temples themselves. The larger temple is in fact very carefully aligned in its new location so that twice each year (February 21st and October 21st) the rising sun illuminates the sanctuary at its rear, shining upon the seated gods. The larger of the two temples is dedicated to Amun-Ra, Ra-Horakhty, Ptah, and the deified Rameses II (c. 1279 – 1213 BC), whose four great colossi spring out from the cliff face, dominating the temple façade. The smaller temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Ramesses’s wife, Nefertari (d. c. 1250 BC).
Following a packed lunch we take a midday flight from Abu Simbel back to Cairo. Tonight we stay at a hotel close to the Cairo Airport. This evening we enjoy a Farewell Dinner in our hotel in downtown Cairo. (Overnight Cairo) BLD
Day 21: Monday 11 December, Depart Cairo
- National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC)
- Light lunch at the hotel
- Tour concludes approx. 2pm.
Our tour concludes with a visit to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) which officially opened in April 2021. The museum presents Egyptian civilisation from Prehistoric times to the present day and contains over 50,000 artefacts which were formerly held in a number of museums including the Egyptian Museum, Coptic Museum, Museum of Islamic Art and the Royal Jewellery Museum in Alexandria. Highlights of the museum include pieces from the Graeco-Roman period, rare Coptic icons, and artefacts from the Islamic era including the cover and key of the Ka’ba. Within the Gallery of Royal Mummies there is also the golden coffin of the Pharaonic priest Najm Ankh which was returned to Egypt in 2019 from the United Sates.
We return to our hotel for a light lunch after which the tour concludes (2pm) BL