Once called “Paris on the Nile,” Cairo itself started to fall into disrepair in the 1950s. 70 years later, and after the tidal wave of recent troubles, it is at long last being dramatically restored and revitalized, building by glorious building.
Egypt is long over-due for another age of glory -- and it may be underway now. No other civilization on the face of the planet has gone through so many tidal waves of change over so many millennia. 5000 years of rising and falling. Great empires here and gone. Astounding works built and destroyed. Debilitating wars, invasions, famines and religious revolution. Like a millenia-old tennis match, it has gone from foreign occupation to proud independence, over and over again, right up until present time.
Since the 2011 revolution and the ousting of Mubarek, Egypt has been struggling through one of these chaotic “intermediate periods”. Strife, political uncer and economic hardship has characterized the land for much of the last ten years. Each year during this troubled decade, I have personally journeyed to Cairo and Egypt as a traveller, tour leader, and even an archaeology student. Yes, I have been under Egypt’s spell my whole adult life - even getting married there in 2015 near Karnak Temple in the blistering heat of Augu.
I have visited Giza when it has been like a ghost town and climbed into the Great Pyramid, all alone.
I have seen the tombs in the Valley shut their doors, dwindling down to a mere few open for business due to lack of tourists and resources.
I have seen guards in tattered clothes leaning against their posts with broken, duct-taped machine guns. Shook my head as those iconic grand hotels of Cairo boarded up their doors.
Witnessed heaps of rotting garbage piled up around the great avenue of the Sphinxes, and in great tombs grown desolate.
Been rushed by young boys in the street begging me for a few pizza crusts because they were desperately hungry.
And I don’t even want to talk about the camels, donkeys, horses and dogs.
Hard times indeed. A dearth of tourists, no money and bleak prospects for jobs.
But all this has now changed – or is in the process of changing fast. Sisi, that respected pharaoh of today, has channelled his strong military background to restore “Maat” admirably, keeping security strong and making critical steps to boost the economy, which is largely reliant on tourism.
People, prosperity and pride returning to Egypt
Crowds of joyful tourists are again flooding the plateau, museums and the great sites. The parking lots full of buses again. The travel warnings lifted. The streets are clean and safe. The boats are on the Nile. Hotels are re-opening, refurbishing – even expanding. The great sites are neatly swept and back in business. Travellers from Asia, Europe, Russia and the Americas are flocking back to stand in awe before the great wonders, filling the streets with multi-tongued chatter, laughter, shouts, excitement… and hope. Ahhh… to hear “Welcome to Alaska” and other local clichés bellowed with a renewed vigour and enthusiasm by those pesky vendors in the marketplace, waving Tut busts and flapping Pyramid postcards, so relieved to see the customers finally return, wallets wide open.
A city ready to shine again
Once called “Paris on the Nile,” Cairo itself started to fall into disrepair in the 1950s. 70 years later, and after the tidal wave of recent troubles, it is at long last being dramatically restored and revitalized, building by glorious building. What’s driving this momentum? Certainly, Cairo must boost its economy, to ensure a future for its youth -- and the preservation of its great past. But, at the forefront driving change is a massive investment in the greatest museum of them all, the GEM, slated to open its doors near the pyramids next year…
Here are five reasons to come back to witness to rejuvenation and triumphant rebirth of Egypt, and Cairo in particular, in coming years.
1. The Grand Egyptian Museum: Late 2020 opening?
Egypt is building a new monument known as the GEM, according to Tarek Tawfik, director general of the Grand Egyptian Museum. When finished, it will be, bar none, the largest archaeological museum in the world, displaying Egyptian artifacts from eras ranging from the pre-dynastic (before 3100 BC) through the Greco-Roman (up to AD 395), and situated in the most spectacular location: just 1.2 miles from the Giza pyramids. The aim? To enhance but not overshadow the great wonders-- and provide striking views. (The project’s price tag is $1.1 billion, $750 million of it in loans from Japan. The opening date is in 2020—inshallah. The museum’s star attraction will be Tutankhamun—all of the 5,400 artifacts Howard Carter discovered in his tomb in 1922. And this goes beyond masterpieces behind glass. You will be able to experience his lifestyle up close and personal, see his shoes, examine his nick-nacks and feel, more or less, as if you’re attending his funerary procession.
2. Experience Moorish Grandeur and Ghost Stories at The Hindu Palace
In ancient times, Heliopolis was the centre of the sun cult of Egypt. Today it is a once-dazzling suburb of sprawling Cairo (near the airport) buffing up its grandeur again. Heliopolis was developed in part by a Belgian builder and industrialist Baron Empain during the Beaux Arts age, a man who also built the Paris Metro. His crowning achievement in the area was his fabulous Great Hindu palace (or Baron Empain palace), a part Moorish, part Persian, part Indian architectural coup inspired by his travels in Angkor Wat and constructed between 1907 and 1911, Sadly upon his death in 1929, the Baron passed it on to a few irresponsible heirs and it finally fell into disrepair after the 1952 revolution. Stories of mysterious deaths (like the Baron’s wife who fell from a tower), wild parties and weird satanic rituals during it abandoned years, has lent mystery and intrigue to the magnificent structure, with its stunning winding staircase. After a USD $6 million-dollar restoration, the Hindu palace of Heliopolis should re-open to the public late in 2019.
3. Venture Inside The Bent Pyramid – for the first time in more than 50 years
Yes, there are pyramids in Egypt that actually pre-date the wondrous ones at Giza. And they as amazing, arguably even more-so. Now, you can travel to Dashur (half an hour or so from Giza) to visit King Sneferu’s Red and Bent Pyramid – and actually crawl inside its scary passageways. The Bent was the third pyramid ever built in Egypt (after the Step and Meidum) – but Sneferu’s builders got the angle wrong, so it is terribly crooked. It also did not help that it was not built on a firm base, just the shifting sands of the desert beneath. It is a fabulous pyramid just to view from the outside retaining much of its limestone casing which would have gleamed in the sun. For the first time in 5 decades, the general public can crawl inside this marvel that is the Bent pyramid. Dare to enter where for years only bats flew, and explore its eerie corridors. The Red, the first perfect pyramid, is also open nearby at Dashur, and has been for years. It is a challenging climb, but for me The Red has always been a highlight of my pyramid explorations, even ahead of the ones at Giza.
By the way, Lahun pyramid from the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000 BCE) has also recently re-opened. This collapsed mud brick pyramid of Senwosret II, however, is located a fair trek from Cairo, so it is definitely an off-the- beaten-track excursion.
4. See Royal Mummies at The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization
As if the old Cairo museum and the new one in Giza weren’t enough, there is yet another extraordinary museum now open, at least in part in Cairo. The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC) situated in the area of Old Cairo is a palatial structure in gleaming granite, massive inside. It aims to highlight the technologies of Egyptian civilization—how through the ages Egyptians wrote, wove, worked in wood, made jewelry, built homes, and more. Right now, there’s a temporary, one-gallery exhibition, “Egyptian Crafts Through the Ages,” organized to give a taste of what’s to come. Plus, there its star attraction is royalty itself. The Royal Mummies have been transported here from the Egyptian Museum to become the NMEC’s main draw. This is where you can come pay respects to the impossibly handsome Seti I, or gaze on Ramses the Great, with his Romanesque nose and orange hair.
5. Witness The Rebirth of the Old Egyptian Museum in Cairo Reborn
For me, it will always be one of the most magical places in the world, let alone Egypt. The century-old Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square, once overflowing with 170,000 antiquities has been more of a warehouse than a museum, another true wonder of Egypt, where the spirit always resides. Today, many of its antiquities have been transported (or are in the process of going) to the new museum in Giza and the NMEC. But this ‘grande dame’ of Cairo now has a wonderful new lease on life. Big plans are afoot for a transformation and facelift. Auguste Mariette’s 117-year-old antique will be re-invented as a ‘museum of museums, the only structure in the world immersing the visitor into the world of museums of the past. By the time GEM opens, this will be another masterpiece of Egypt. Its contents? Why 5000 of the most iconic pieces of Egyptian history.
What’s also exciting is that there are plans for the museum to remain open at night – and for subways to connect all three of Cairo’s unique museums!
Did I mention plans for a new Cairo area airport too? The Sphinx International airport at Giza is coming…soon I hear. Imagine just flying in for the weekend to pop into the Great Pyramid, then drinks at Mena House… Ahhh… splendid times ahead, for certain.
As the world still weeps following the terrible disaster at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris (a place dear to my heart), it occurs to me how lucky we are that the Egyptians built so many great works in stone and mudbrick. That said, who is to say what wondrous wood creations from antiquity have been lost through fire? More than we know, I am certain. One great work that was lost --not through fire but through dismantling by man -- was Akhenaten’s Great Temple of Aten, a strange roofless cathedral of built during a bizarre period of Egypt’s history.
As history’s first monotheist (more accurately ‘henotheist’, as he allowed minor household gods) the heretic king Akhenaten has been called the inspiration for Moses. As such, what an interesting figure to consider during this season of Easter and Passover. Freud actually called Akhenaten “the first idealist” while his contemporaries called him “The criminal”. People either love him or hate him. Akhenaten elevated the status of the Sun god “Aten” to be the ‘one god’ of Egypt -- worshipped strictly through him. He briefly changed the entire religion, capital, art and culture of the country, so no surprise his rule of 17 years ends mysteriously -- and his ‘cathedral’ to the Aten was ruthlessly destroyed, along with his “sun city” by successive kings to obliterate his memory. His son was the famous boy king Tut – who under the strong arm of elder advisors, restored Egypt to traditional ways.
Excavating at the first pylon – a dream come true
On my very first trip to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Akhenaten’s elongated and strange but alluring appearance in colossal statues mesmerized me – I was under his spell and thunderstruck with a passion for ancient Egypt and the Amarna age. Fast forward to 2013 when I had the honour of working aside the legendary Barry Kemp CBE, the director of the Amarna project for a few weeks – in the initial stages of the re-excavation and rebuild of his Great Aten Temple. It was a dream come true. I fondly remember breathlessly sifting sand in the spoil heap in front of the first pylon searching for lost treasures in the early light of morning—being careful to not damage the fragile mud brick. Eating ‘second breakfasts’ of foole sandwiches and hot black tea in a pitched tent. Learning snippets of Arabic from the friendly, brown-teethed workmen - like the word for spade, bucket and brush (‘for-sha’)… and dreamy evenings watching pink skies fade to black as the Aten sank in the west; those sunset G&Ts on the roof of the 100 year-old dig house in Middle Egypt with the small convivial team of archaeologists.
Exciting news on sixth dig season
The Amarna Project is about to start its 6th season at the Great Aten Temple, with excellent progress already made on preserving the original mud brick floors and rebuilding many pylons, ramps and columns. I just received exciting news on the excavation – personally from the archaeologists Anna Hodgkinson and Miriam Bertram… including some thrilling updates on an opportunity for people to have their name etched for eternity at the rebuilt temple…
A place to satiate a hungry god – and feed the common people?
The Great Aten Temple is unlike any other temple in Egypt, for countless reasons, too many to mention here. First it is largely roofless, which makes sense: the god worshipped here is the actual sun above, so no need for a dark shrine to conceal a golden statue. Another striking feature is the staggering number of offering tables within and outside the main temple where fresh food was piled up for morning and evening rituals. Close to 2000 at current count. One can only imagine the enormous slaughter of animals required to provision these tables– and the dreadful stench of meat left to rot all day under the hot sun. We surmise (and hope) that once ‘the Aten’ symbolically feasted on the victuals, the people of Amarna flocked to the court to partake of the food themselves. Another curious feature is a grouping of rectangular basins in the court (I actually got to assist a little in clearing them in 2013). Based on their length and shape (along with other factors), Barry Kemp suggests they may have been used for laying out human bodies. Could people have actually brought their dead relatives into the temple grounds to join them in rituals -- and a good meal? Ewww! When it comes to Akhenaten, there is an abundance of strangeness to ignite debate, fascination and occasional disgust.
“As soon as we are back at work, we will continue to remove the spoil heaps to the south of the main temple building to see if there are any structures, says Miriam Bertram, a lead archaeologist on the project. “Then, we’ll remove more rubble in the front of the temple. “In the past, it revealed very interesting material, like a big fragment of a statue of Nefertiti and a gypsum head of Akhenaten – and huge amounts of pot sherds and stamped mud jar sealings that I am working on right now. We’re also reconstructing a ramp that led to a big platform in between the first stone pylons”
To define the temple boundaries and protect it from encroachment from the nearby village, the Amarna team is also marking the main outlines of the temple in new limestone blocks. This project has sparked a creative and what I think is a brilliant fundraising campaign. For a nominal donation – as little as 5 euros - you can have your name inscribed on one of those Tura limestone blocks – to be part of the Great Aten Temple in perpetuity! Your funds will be used to support the Amarna project in all its efforts to partially rebuild and preserve this important temple. Sound like a great cause and opportunity? Buy one block for 5 Euros and help us reconstruct the Great Aten Temple! Visit the fundraising site now.
Akhenaten’s Great Aten Temple and his sun city have no equal in Egypt – nor in any ancient civilization. His is one of the most remarkable stories in Egyptian history. I would add too that the archaeology being conducted at this rare urban site – a site occupied just once for a period of only 12 years - is one of the most significant and detailed excavations underway in Egypt. Learn more about the Amarna Project and Great Aten Temple here.
Another wonder is being built in Giza Egypt close to the pyramids- slated for opening 2020. Read about The Grand Egyptian Museum - the largest most technologically advanced archaeological museum in the world.
Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) – Set to Open near Egyptian Pyramids by January 2020
By Laura Ranieri
It’s bigger than Khufu – and just one year away from opening….The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), set to be the world’s largest archaeological museum costing $1 billion dollars will “open” in Giza, January 2020. Really, it’s true – though you perhaps have heard it before, and so have I. This time I have it on trusted words from our tour agents in Egypt that there will be an unveiling (at least) of its star attraction – roughly 5400 objects from Tuts tomb -- by early next year. As monumental and innovative an undertaking as the building of the Great pyramid itself, GEM is 85% complete now – the hard work, passion and genius of 5000 labourers, architects and scientists --100 curators and 100 conservators -- working around the clock, on this milestone project began in earnest more than a decade ago. As with the Great Pyramid project that Khufu began over 4 centuries ago, ambitions are great to build a monumental structure to exceed all previous works of man -- a true wonder of modern architecture that surpasses the grandeur of any other world museum in existence today. Imagine: 490,000 square feet of galleries with 28 shops, 10 restaurants, a children’s museum and vast gardens on the edge of the plateau? When you comprehend the enormous scope of this undertaking, it becomes easier to understand why it is taking so long to finish. Even if the GEM is not fully complete by early 2020 (and it won’t be), those travelers who plan to visit Cairo in early 2020 will be among the lucky few to enter inside this modern wonder for the first time and view its initial collections.
World-class labs now in operation:
Currently, foreign ambassadors, leading scientists and top museum directors from Japan, France, India and beyond are flocking to Giza to witness GEM’s 19 state-of-the-art conservation/restoration laboratories and leading-edge technologies capable of bringing the past back to life as never before. Below, Dr. Tarek Tawfik, the museum's director, presents the lab to the Japanese Ambassador and his officials.
A portal to the past – like none other:
The museum – located in view of (just 2 kilometres from) the ancient wonders of the Giza Pyramids – aims to revolutionize the display of ancient Egyptian artefacts, underscoring the social, political and religious contexts in which they were made. 7000 years of Egyptian history (from pre-history to Roman times) will be presented chronologically through 50,000 stunningly displayed objects (half of the total collection). Another 20,000 items will be those never shown in museums before, including recent discoveries and monumental pieces too enormous even for the old Egyptian Museum in Tahrir – but easily accommodated in GEM’s palatial galleries with ceilings up to 20 metres high.
Be immersed in Tut’s life and death:
And when it comes to Tutankhamun, visitors will not only be able to marvel at his mask and dazzling treasures, but be totally immersed in his court, his lifestyle and funeral, according to museum director Tarek Tawfik, through galleries telling the whole detailed story of the young king’s life and mysterious death.
The full and complete opening of GEM is fittingly scheduled for 2022 – the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter.
Interested in seeing GEM – and traveling to Egypt in 2020 or 2021 with a small cultural Your Journey Travel group led by Egyptologists Laura Ranieri and Ramy Darwish? Two spots remain for Pyramids and Temples Alive with Abu Simbel tour 2020 -- and 2021 tour has just opened for booking.. If you are interested in grabbing the last seats or joining our 2021 tour – please email Anna ASAP.
Considered the best preserved temple in Egypt, Edfu is traditionally reached off the cruise ship - via caleche (horse and carriage). It's an experience in itself traveling through Edfu town. The temple to Horus built in Ptolemaic times features two levels, some magnificent Horus statues - and a replica of a barque shrine in the inner sanctum. Take a look at the ride there.
From the Movenpick on Elephantine Island you can enjoy gorgeous views of the Nile - and the Old and Middle Kingdom tombs across on the west bank. The day before, we had taken an exhilarating camel ride across the escarpment to see the tombs. This is one of the most peaceful and idyllic places in Egypt - Take a look:
A true highlight of any off the beaten path Egypt tour is a camel ride to San Simeon monastery - up in the hills of West bank Aswan. We started our trek in the morning and gave the camels a little sustenance to start the journey. From San Simeon - we even rode the camels 1/2 hour across the hill to Qubbet el Hawa - ancient tombs of officials and Nomarchs from the Old and Middle Kingdom... an intrepid desert adventure! Special thanks to our band of female camels: Coraline, Lolo, Cinderella, King, Lolita, Concorde and a few other fine girls... Yasmina the camel (featured here eating our apples) refused to stand up to take the journey and I had to switch to Coraline. (Perhaps one too many apples!)
November 26, 2017 - A few days ago we enjoyed a marvelous trip to Sakkara - Ancient Egypt's immense necropolis of the North - from the 2nd Dynasty onwards... Djoser's Step Pyramid is one of the great highlights of Egypt - the first stone structure ever built in the world around 2630 BCE. And its enclosure has buildings equally impressive - that strive to preserve the perishable world (logs, wood, reeds) in imperishable stone. The enclosure was brilliantly restored by French architect Jean Philippe Lauer - Join me for a walk inside!
It's discovery time all over again at the Egyptian Museum. Since many objects (including one of the great funerary beds) have moved to the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza (slated to open - perhaps- next year) more things have been found in storage. These include at least 55 pieces of fabric decorated with gold from Tutankhamun's tomb discovered by Carter in 1922 - and this extraordinary piece. Join Ramy Darwish and me to take a closer look...