Egypt is the oldest tourist destination on earth. Ancient Greeks and Romans started the trend, coming to goggle at the cyclopean scale of the Pyramids and the Colossi of Thebes. At the onset of colonial times, Napoleon and the British in turn looted Egypt's treasures to fill their national museums, sparking off a trickle of Grand Tourists that, by the 1860s, had grown into a flood of travellers, packaged for their Nile cruises and Egyptological lectures by the enterprising Thomas Cook.
Today, the attractions of the country are little different. The focus of most visits remains the great monuments of the Nile Valley, combined with a few days spent exploring the souks, mosques and madrassas of Islamic Cairo. However, possibilities for Egyptian travel also encompass snorkelling and diving along the Red Sea coasts, remote oases and camel trips into the mountains of Sinai, or visits to the Coptic monasteries of the Eastern Desert.
The land itself is a freak of nature, whose lifeblood is the River Nile. From the Sudanese border to the shores of the Mediterranean, the Nile Valley and its Delta are flanked by arid wastes, the latter as empty as the former are teeming with people. This stark duality between fertility and desolation is fundamental to Egypt's character and has shaped its development since prehistoric times, imparting continuity to diverse cultures and peoples over five millennia. It is a sense of permanence and timelessness that is buttressed by religion, which pervades every aspect of life. Although the pagan cults of ancient Egypt are as moribund as its legacy of mummies and temples, their ancient fertility rites and processions of boats still hold their place in the celebrations of Islam and Christianity.
The result is a multi-layered culture, which seems to accord equal respect to ancient and modern. The peasants (fellaheen) of the Nile and Bedouin tribes of the desert live much as their ancestors did a thousand years ago. Other communities include the Nubians of the far south, and the Coptic Christians, who trace their ancestry back to pharaonic times. What unites them is a love of their homeland, extended family ties, dignity, warmth and hospitality towards strangers. Though most visitors are drawn to Egypt by its monuments, the enduring memory is likely to be of its people and their way of life.
REGIONS AND HIGHLIGHTS
Each of the regions is discussed in its own chapter introduction; what follows is merely the briefest outline of the main attractions.
Most visitors arrive at Cairo. A seething megalopolis, its chief sightseeing appeal lies in its bazaars and medieval mosques, though there is scarcely less fascination in its juxtapositions of medieval and modern life, with fortified gates, villas and skyscrapers interwoven by flyovers whose traffic may be halted by herds of camels. The immensity and diversity of this "Mother of Cities" is as staggering as anything you'll encounter in Egypt, while just outside Cairo are the first of the pyramids that range across the desert to the edge of the Fayoum, among them the unsurpassable trio at Giza and the vast necropolis of Saqqara. Besides all this, there are superb museums devoted to Ancient, Coptic and Islamic Egypt, and enough entertainments to occupy weeks of your time.
However, the principal tourist lure remains, as ever, the Nile Valley, with its ancient monuments and timeless river vistas - felucca sailboat cruises being a great way to combine the two. The town of Luxor is synonymous with the magnificent temples of Karnak and the Theban Necropolis, which includes the Valley of the Kings where Tutankhamun and other pharaohs were buried. Aswan, Egypt's southernmost city, has the loveliest setting on the Nile and a languorous ambience. From here, you can visit the island Philae temple of Isis and the rock-hewn colossi at Abu Simbel. Other sites not to be missed are Edfu and Kom Ombo (between Luxor and Aswan) and - for those willing to chance their luck on the fringes of potentially risky Middle Egypt - the amazing temples of Abydos and Dendara (north of Luxor).
Only accessible to tourists in the last two decades, the Western Desert Oases are scattered across a vast, awesomely desolate region. Siwa, out towards the Libyan border, has a unique culture and history, limpid pools and bags of charm. Another option is to follow the "Great Desert Circuit" (starting from Cairo or Assyut) through the four "inner" oases. Though Bahariya and Farafra hold the most appeal, with the lovely White Desert between them, the larger oases of Dakhla and Kharga also have their rewards once you escape their modernized "capitals". And for those equipped to make serious desert expeditions, there's the challenge of entering the Great Sand Sea or tracing part of the infamous Forty Days Road. By way of contrast to these deep-desert locations are the quasi-oases of the Fayoum and Wadi Natrun, with their diverse ancient ruins and Coptic monasteries....Continua