This ancient land has seen it all before. The popular uprising of 2011 is just a blink in time. The monuments of the pharaohs still loom impassively as they have for millennia. The Nile still flows. The dune-rippled sands of the Sahara continue to shift subtly back and forth. Egypt’s current political turbulence barely registers against the greater rhythms of history and nature.
When you tour this remarkable country, you adjust to a whole new scale. Egypt is older and vaster than you can easily imagine. Against this backdrop, you begin to feel very small indeed, especially when you turn away from the familiarity of the country’s headline attractions and strike into the unknown hinterland.
We have been driving across flat, featureless desert for most of the day, heading southwest from the Mediterranean coast toward the border with Libya.
What could possibly be worth the unnerving tedium of a full day’s drive through vacant scenery in a sweltering SUV? For thousands of years, travelers who made this desert crossing (including Alexander the Great and Cleopatra) were probably plagued by similar doubts.
Apart from occasional teasing mirages, the view ahead of us is unrelenting; the arid terrain offers no hint of relief. Until, in late afternoon, the horizon softens and the yellow sand gives way to an unlikely explosion of greenery fringing a shimmering expanse of water. The long, boring journey was the price we had to pay for the magic of this moment: our first view of Siwa Oasis.
Siwa is the most famous of the five major oases dotted across the expanse of Egypt’s Western Desert, and it provides a gateway to the country’s remarkable interior.
The town is not just an oasis of water and vegetation surrounded by the desert; it is also a cultural oasis, with customs and a language — Siwi — unique to this remote corner of Egypt.
The current population is largely descended from Berber nomads who, on reaching this lush paradise many centuries ago, lost the urge to move on. But they were not Siwa’s first inhabitants. In 2007, the world’s oldest human footprint was uncovered here, dating back 3 million years.
In the morning, we tour the extensive palm groves in a donkey-drawn cart. The sounds and sights have changed little in centuries. Here, under dappled shade, we are lulled by the gentle movement of the cart and feel removed from the chaos of modern Egypt.
Looming in the center of Siwa are the ruins of a 13th-century fortified settlement, Shali. The mud buildings have been eroded by weather, providing a reminder of the fragility of life within the Sahara, the world’s largest desert.
By midday, the desert heat is becoming oppressive, and we seek refuge in the town’s most famous natural spring, which is known, perhaps inevitably, as Cleopatra’s Bath. It is one of many bathing pools dotted around Siwa, some fed by hot springs, others by cold.
The crystal-clear water of Cleopatra’s Bath is as warm as baby’s milk. We wallow in peace until a group of local boys arrives, shattering the tranquility by dive-bombing each other. It is all good-natured fun, but we decide to leave them to it.
After lunch, it is time to venture into the forbidding terrain beyond the oasis. The Sahara Desert is not a single, uniform entity. Rather, it is a varied patchwork of ever more breathtaking and bizarre landscapes.
Immediately south of Siwa, our convoy of SUVs enters the classic desert of the Great Sand Sea, with its huge sand dunes stretching across an area the size of New Mexico. This is one of the most inhospitable spots on the planet, though it can be experienced safely and in relative comfort on a tour run by one of the local safari operators.
Although we have opted merely to skirt the edge of the rolling ocean of sand, serious multiday expeditions are also available. Only the most intrepid travelers can experience the obscure wonders at the heart of the sand sea, such as the silica glass field, where multicolored glass pebbles are strewn across acres of parched ground.
We have neither the time nor the courage to expose ourselves completely to the risks of desert storms and withering heat. That evening, we watch the sun set from the crest of a high dune, camp in its lee under the glittering stars, then resume our journey at first light, joining an off-road route heading southeast.
We stop at Farafra Oasis, then enter another world. The familiar yellow Saharan sand abruptly thins out, giving way to a bleached landscape of surreal chalk formations. This is the White Desert, unlike anywhere else we’ve ever been. Even behind sunglasses, our eyes struggle to cope with the blinding dazzle.
After a few hours of driving, our surroundings undergo another startling transformation, and we enter a realm of charred, cone-shaped hills: the Black Desert. “I feel like we’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up on Mars,” says one of my companions.
The geological contrasts of the desert are merely a prelude to the most jarring contrast of all. After three days in Egypt’s sparsely populated interior, we brace ourselves for a return to Africa’s largest city, Cairo. The transition is dramatically sudden. Within just a few miles, the desert highway plunges into the maelstrom of the city suburbs. By the time we become ensnared in the perennial traffic jams on the banks of the River Nile, the tranquility of the desert seems as remote as a dream.
The Nile is Egypt’s lifeblood, giving rise to one of the earliest human civilizations. The remnants of the pharaohs are scattered along the fertile floodplains of the great river. The Egyptian Museum, on one side of Tahrir Square (the focal point for continuing popular protests), provides a valuable overview of the layers of human habitation going back more than 7,000 years. It puts the careers of stubborn politicians into perspective.
Musty museum exhibits are one thing, but on the city’s eastern outskirts we find ourselves on our hands and knees, scrambling into the burial chamber of Khafre’s Pyramid, one of the iconic pyramids of Giza. There is little to see — pyramids are best viewed from the outside. Yet nothing can prepare you for the sensation of being in this tiny space hemmed in by millions of tons of limestone blocks. This is the perfect place to discover if you’re claustrophobic.
Outside, we fend off the constant attentions of hawkers touting camel rides and enjoy a postcard-perfect view of the Sphinx with the pyramids in the background.
This is merely a taste of Egypt’s ancient treasures. The following day we take the hour-long flight to Luxor, which, with some justification, styles itself “the world’s greatest open-air museum.”
It is difficult for modern tourists to comprehend fully Luxor’s historic sites. Temples, gigantic statues, obelisks and royal tombs are clustered on both banks of the Nile. Many of them are beautifully preserved, belying the fact that they have stood for nearly 40 centuries.
The attractions of Luxor are so extensive that it is impossible to see everything. But most tours will include the temples of Karnak, the Luxor Temple, the temple of Hatshepsut and the amazing Valley of the Kings, which was the final resting place for at least 63 pharaohs, including Tutankhamen.
Following our sojourn in Luxor, there is time for one last dramatic contrast. We catch a flight for the short hop across the Red Sea to the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt’s premier beach resort, Sharm el Sheikh.
For the majority of European tourists, this is Egypt. Sharm is a well-established package-tour destination offering luxury hotels, thriving nightlife and abundant water sports. But this North African country has so much more to offer, and as we sink into our sun beds after our wide-roaming tour, it is with the knowledge that we have barely scratched the surface.
Egypt is a land of “best-kept secrets.” Beyond the obvious highlights of the ancient sites and the Red Sea resorts, there are other riches waiting to be discovered. High among these are the Mediterranean resorts. Curiously, the geographic fact of Egypt’s long Mediterranean coast, dotted with white-sand beaches, has long been neglected by tour companies. That is beginning to change, with current promotional efforts focusing on the town of Mersa Matruh. Besides its increasing number of resort hotels, the town was a key World War II battleground, and the caves in which Field Marshal Rommel plotted his military campaign have been turned into a museum.
Mersa Matruh serves as the perfect staging post for a desert safari, with a good road providing access to Siwa Oasis, 183 miles inland. Alexander the Great made the arduous journey from the coast to the oasis in order to consult the Oracle of Amun, where the priests informed him that he was the son of the god. three miles east of Siwa, you can tour the ruins of the Temple of the Oracle.
Trips into the depths of the Sahara should not be undertaken lightly. There are several specialist safari companies offering expeditions. One of the best is Egypt Off-Road (www.egyptoffroad.com).
Even for experienced travelers, the first encounter with Cairo can be something of a cultural shock. Old and new, rich and poor seldom coexist as starkly as in this bustling metropolis. For full immersion in Cairean life, venture into the labyrinthine alleys of Khan el Kahlili, a crowded market that has been popular with local shoppers for nearly 700 years.
One of the premier historic attractions is the formidable Cairo Citadel, which has presided over the city from its hilltop location since the 12th century. there are great views of downtown from the citadel’s ramparts.
The unmissable Pyramids of Giza are an easy half-day excursion from Cairo. other archaeological wonders within the vicinity include the remains of the ancient city of Memphis, 12 miles south of downtown on the west bank of the Nile.
Most of your time in Luxor will inevitably be spent visiting the headline attractions such as the Valley of the Kings and the temples of Karnak. But be sure not to miss the superb Mummification Museum, which provides a vivid explanation of the motives and methods of Egyptian embalming.
Sharm el Sheikh recently gained notoriety following a succession
of shark attacks on swimmers and divers. Water sports have resumed after a short
hiatus, and the resort is eager to recapture its position as the foremost Red
Sea diving center. However, some of Sharm’s best attractions are to be found
inland, including Mount Sinai and St. Catherine’s Monastery,
one of the world’s oldest Christian sites.
Info To Go
Cairo International Airport (CAI) is the only Egyptian airport served
NOTE: The security situation in Egypt remains volatile. For the latestofficial
ADRÈRE AMELLAL DESERT ECOLODGE
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MENA HOUSE OBEROI
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SOFITEL WINTER PALACE LUXOR
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