Few countries grip the imagination quite like Egypt. Just hearing the name conjures images of mighty pharaohs and massive pyramids, sprawling temples and secret tombs, colossal monuments and crowded markets—and cutting through it all, the life-giving Nile River, without which none of these other sights could have existed.
The World’s Longest River
The Nile originates in the Central African nations of Burundi and Rwanda and flows north for over 4,000 miles through 11 countries before ultimately joining the Mediterranean Sea. Since the story of Moses in the basket, though, the Nile has always been most closely associated with Egypt.
Victorian travelers to Egypt popularized leisure cruising down the Nile in order to see the incredible archeological marvels near the riverbanks. Today, Nile cruises are more popular than ever, bringing visitors to Ptolemaic temples and offering easy access to sites like Philae, home of the Temple of Isis. In a country filled with amazing sights, seeing the ancient monuments lit up at night from a perch atop the water is a vision that lingers in the memory forever.
Dig Deeper in Cairo
There are many cities that blend the old world and the new. Then there’s Cairo. Officially founded in 969 AD, Cairo can trace its roots back 4,000 years to Memphis – not the musical capital of Tennessee, but rather the ancient capital of Lower Egypt. It is a city where towering skyscrapers overlook 1,000-year-old monuments, and where getting around could mean hopping on the world-class metro system or catching a relaxing ride down the Nile on a felucca, a traditional wooden sailing boat.
Travelers can often be found wandering the winding alleys of Coptic Cairo, home to the city’s oldest structure, a Babylonian fortress, as well as Africa’s first Christian church and oldest Islamic mosque. The gardens of Al-Alzhar Park, named one of the world’s 60 great public spaces by the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces, are also a tranquil spot for a stroll while taking in the beautiful spires and domes of the city’s skyline. For those hunting for the perfect Egyptian souvenir, there’s always Khan El-Khalili, a labyrinthine bazaar where one can find anything from spices to jewels—while always being prepared to haggle.
Pining for Pyramids
Of course, some of the sights that draw the most visitors to Cairo sit just outside the city. The three Pyramids of Giza are among the most famous structures on Earth. The Great Pyramid of Giza, also called the Pyramid of Khufu in honor of the pharaoh entombed within, is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one still intact today. At 481 feet, it held the record of world’s tallest manmade structure for over 3,800 years.
At the eastern end of the Giza pyramid complex sits another of Egypt’s famous monuments, the Great Sphinx. Egyptologists believe the head of the sphinx is modeled after Khufu’s son, Khafre, who was entombed in the second pyramid.
The Djoser step pyramid at Saqqara, the necropolis of ancient Memphis, actually predates its more famous cousins at Giza. Built in the 27th century BC, the tiered structure is one of the oldest stone buildings in the world.
Many Nile cruises begin in Luxor, a city known in ancient times as Thebes, capital of Upper Egypt. Luxor boasts a dizzying array of ancient monuments. The most famous include Luxor Temple, built in part by famous pharaohs including Amenhotep III, Ramesses II, and Tutankhamun; and the enormous temple complex of Karnak, home to the Temple of Amun-Ra with its enormous papyrus-shaped columns.
Across the Nile lays the Valley of the Kings, where for 500 years pharaohs like King Tut had their mummified remains buried along with their most prized worldly possessions. Just south is the Valley of the Queens, resting place of Queen Nefertari, among many other wives and relations of pharaohs, both male and female.
Open the Gates
Egypt is a truly remarkable vacation destination unto itself, but it can also be the perfect starting point for an even grander journey. Sometimes called “the gateway to the Middle East,” Egypt’s proximity to sought-after destinations such as Israel, Dubai, and Petra, Jordan makes it the perfect place to begin the sun-soaked adventure of a lifetime.
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