These are the voyages of one intrepid couple. Our nine-day mission: to explore strange new places. To seek out new cultures and an old civilisation. To boldly go where few Bangladeshis have gone before! Queue music!
My wife and I have wanted to visit Egypt for a long time. This winter an opportunity finally presented itself. We had saved up some money and we asked ourselves, “Given an option where would we want to go?” The answer was obvious—Egypt. It is said to be the cradle of civilisation, the land of ancient monuments, steeped in history, folklore, mystery, fantasy and conspiracy theories.
Egypt is now super affordable. Their currency is now at its lowest in the last 10 years. In 2010 1 USD would convert to 4 Egyptian Pounds, whereas now it is at 17.88 Egyptian Pounds per USD. Hotel prices and food costs are at an all-time low. The best time to go to Egypt is from October till May, when the weather is cool and comfortable. We flew Gulf airlines, which takes about 10 hours to reach Cairo from Dhaka—five and half hours from Dhaka to Bahrain, then two hours from Bahrain to Cairo, with a two-hour stopover in between. The flight back is faster because you fly with the wind.
We went for a nine-day trip. We booked with an Egyptian tour operator in Cairo called Explore Holidays Plus. They sent us all the travel documents to help us get our travel visas. I found their prices very reasonable—at least 40 to 50 percent cheaper than our local travel agents, that too with full five-star accommodation and better tour plans. I chose them after considerable research; they are highly reviewed in Trip Advisor and other renowned travel websites and blogs. My personal opinion? They are an unbelievably helpful and professional tour operator. And the guides take excellent photos, which was a serious bonus for us! They were with us throughout the trip, every step of the way.
The weather in Egypt, from November to January, is quite chilly for Bangladeshis and a good jacket is a must. However, the sun is a constant companion (it's part desert after all), so those who want to avoid it should think twice. Sunglasses, scarves and a good sun-hat are highly recommended.
Day 1, Cairo: We landed in Cairo at around 1 pm and completed all formalities at the airport without any hassle. We then made our way to the hotel in downtown Cairo beside the famous Tahrir Square, overlooking the great Nile river. On the way there, our tour guide, Mo Sobhy (they write Mohammed as “Mo” unlike our “Md”), gave us a brief overview of Egypt and its history.
Day 2, the Pyramids of Giza: The Pyramids loomed though the fog as we drove closer and closer to the area. Even from such a distance they were massive, dominating the entire horizon of our vision. When we finally reached, the Great Pyramid of Khufu was blocking out the sun! All I could think was that my life is a lie! All our lives we have been led to believe that the present is the most advanced that humans have ever been; but there I was, standing in front of monuments which “present day” scientists have yet to figure out! I really have no words to explain the feeling of seeing the Pyramids in person and being able to touch the most ancient wonder of the world—50 stories high, four-sided triangular objects, sitting there quietly for approximately 4,500 years. Our guide told us the history and asked us to imagine ourselves 4,500 years ago, when the pyramids must have been bright with their white limestone covering and the tips made of solid gold. “If seeing them now makes you feel like this, imagine how people back then must have felt when they saw these gigantic glowing beacons from hundreds and thousands of miles away across the desert,” said our guide.
After we had our fair share of the Pyramids (along with camel rides and a thousand photos), we went to the Cairo Museum, which houses a lot of the world's oldest antiquities, including most of the belongings of Tutankhamun, found intact in his tomb.
Day 3, Alexandria: We travelled to Alexandria, the north-most city of Egypt by the Mediterranean Sea. The city gets its name from Alexander the Great. In contrast to Cairo and Giza, Alexandria feels greener with long roads hugging the Mediterranean coastline. This city has architecture from most of the world's ancient super powers. Alexandria had libraries before many of the world's people had pants! We visited the Citadel by the Bay, built where the great lighthouse was originally. We had lunch by the sea and visited some of the old Roman and Greek catacombs.
Day 4, The Citadel of Cairo and Mosque of Mohammad Ali: Early in the morning we started for the Mosque of Mohammad Ali, built from 1830-48 (brand new by Egyptian standards!). It sits atop a hill in Cairo and watches over the city like a guardian.
The mosque is made of alabaster and its domes made from limestone taken from the Great Pyramid of Khofu. People of all faiths are welcome inside the mosque. Hundreds of people were already there when we entered, speaking quietly as a show of respect. It was serene; we sat there for what felt like hours, soaking in centuries of spirituality.
Later that day, we flew to Luxor to get on our cruise ship for four nights. The ship, named 'Miss Egypt' would sail from Luxor and travel south to Aswan. It was enormous—with big rooms on either side that had views of the Nile—and had a full buffet restaurant which serves all meals, a bar, snooker table, swimming pool and sun-bathing areas. We met our new guide from southern Egypt, Ragab, and learned that the south of Egypt is called 'upper' Egypt because the Nile is higher up there. Cairo and Alexandria are known as lower Egypt. Egypt in the early days, about five or six thousand years ago, was divided into two parts—Upper and Lower Egypt—always with two different kings. Later, they were unified by strong Pharaohs, but the terms 'upper' and 'lower' stayed in practice.
Day 5, the banks of Luxor: We woke up at 5 am to a cold morning (eight degrees) and went out for the day to visit Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple in the East Bank of the Nile river, and the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut Temple in the West bank. Ancient Egyptians believed in the sun (Amun-Ra)—most of their temples are in the East bank where the sun rises and all their tombs including the Pyramids are on the West bank of the Nile where the sun sets.
Karnak temple is a huge complex built over two thousand years. More than 120 Pharaohs lived there. It's practically a city! We felt so small surrounded by the once colourful, now brown, magnificent hieroglyphs-covered columns. A few of the world's oldest obelisks can be found there (immediately made me think of the Obelix from Asterisk Comics). Luxor Temple was built in three phases—as you enter, you are greeted by the part built by Ramses II (one of their greatest Pharaohs) and then Ramses III (his son); but as you walk further in, the whole temple turns Roman! This part of the temple has Roman columns rather than Egyptian ones, and the hieroglyphs on the walls paint a story of a foreign leader. This last phase was built by Alexander the Great. He was crowned in Luxor Temple, and it is said that he was obsessed with Egypt and their Gods.
The second half of the day, the ship sailed through the Nile. We sat on the sun deck soaking in the beautiful surroundings.
Day 6, Edfu and Kom Ombo: We were promised a real-life time-travel the next morning when we reached a town called Edfu, where 80 percent of the transportation is still horse-drawn carriages. It holds the Temple of Horus, one of ancient Egypt's most celebrated Gods. In the evening, we went to Kom Ombo, another Temple of Horus, but this one was shared with his half-brother the crocodile God Sobek (otherwise known as the 'bad' god). We got to see a lot of Egyptian rural life. Children of all ages called out to us in different languages— Hello, Ola, Adios, Namaste!—to check which one would work.
Day 7, Abu Simbel: We woke up at 4 am to start for Abu Simbel—one of Egypt's great treasures—the temple built by Ramses II. Our car took us 300 km to the southernmost part of Egypt in two and a half hours, through the middle of high desert.
Surrounded by Lake Nasser, Abu Simbel is made up of two massive rock temples near the border with Sudan. The iconic entrance hosts four colossal 20 metre statues of the Pharaoh with the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt decorating the façade. The façade, 35 metres wide and topped by a frieze with 22 baboons—worshippers of the sun—flanking the entrance. The colossal statues were sculpted directly from the rock. Again, the question of how they made these with such primitive tools boggled our minds.
Day 8, More of Cairo: We caught the 5 am flight to Cairo and checked in at the La Passage Hotel near the airport. In the evening, we went to the old Cairo Muizz Street and walked around until we reached the famous Khan el-Khalili Bazaar. This part of Cairo was built 1500 years ago and is still in use. This is where the city gets its modern-day name Al Qahirah, or Cairo in English. We ate at a local restaurant where dear old Mo Sobhy helped us select the food. It was unbelievably delicious.
In general, Egyptian food is amazing! We tried Ful, Koshari, Falafel, Shwarma, Tamiya, Tahini, Hummus, Tamis, Maraca, okra cooked in tomato sauce, different Egyptian cheeses, hibiscus juice, meatballs and salads. Their foods go very well with the Bangladeshi palate.
Day 9: Packed up and headed home. We came back with more questions than answers!
Saadi Manzoorul Huq is senior manager at a multinational bank and father of two.