Egypt - the heart of ancient civilisation is simply overflowing with archaeological treasures - so how does one choose where to go and which really are the best places to visit in Egypt?
We've list our top places to visit in Egypt below - from the legendary Pyramids of Giza to the tomb strewn Valley of the Kings in Luxor, to places off the beaten track such as laid back Dahab on the Red Sea Coast and Siwa in the far north east where secluded communities continue to follow age old beliefs.
Sole survivors from the ancient Greek-listed Seven Wonders of the World, the amazing pyramids at Giza are the planet’s oldest tourist attraction! Known as Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus, the pyramids were already more than 2,000 years old when Herodotus the Greek historian visited them (5th century BC).
A highly skilled corps of mathematicians, masons, surveyors and stonecutters did the job of building the Pyramids. 100,000 slaves were used to carry out the backbreaking task of moving and laying the stones of the largest pyramid-Cheops. About 2.5 million limestone blocks, quarried locally and weighing in excess of 6 million tonnes, were used in the construction of Cheops.
To date 138 pyramids have been discovered in Egypt. Most were built as tombs for the country's Pharaohs and their consorts during the Old and Middle Kingdom periods. All Egyptian pyramids were built on the west bank of the Nile, which as the site of the setting sun was associated with the realm of the dead in Egyptian mythology. The Pyramids contain a maze of passage ways, designed to protect the Mummies of the Pharoahs and the treasure which they would take to the afterlife.
Possibly the most awe-inspiring temple of all ancient Egypt, with its gargantuan rock-cut façade, the great Sun Temple of King Ramses II at Abu Simbel was created to revere the mighty pharaonic ruler King Ramses II. Guarding the entrance to the temple and hewn into the side of a mountain are four famous colossal statues of the pharaoh himself.
In a fit of precision and architectural egotism, Ramses II had the entire temple carefully angled and oriented in order that the sun’s rays would align twice a year on his date of his ascension to the throne (21 February) and on his birthday (21 October) and illuminate the inner sanctum of the temple. This incredible natural phenomenon provides for a most spectacular sight, which has come to be referred to as the Sun Festival of King Ramses II. Crowds pack in to the temple before sunrise and watch the shafts of light slowly creeping through the rock hewn inner Hypostyle Hall (replete with further statues of the king) and through to the Sanctuary. Significantly, the sun illuminates statues of Amun-Re, Re-Herakhte and Ramses the god, whilst the statute of Ptah - the god of darkness - remains in the shadows.
Over the centuries, the desert sands imperceptibly shifted until the temple was all but lost to humanity. It was rediscovered by chance in 1813 by a Swiss explorer called John Lewis Burkhardt. Only one of the heads of the pharaohs was showing and only a small part of the rest of the colossal temple peeked above the desert sands. It wasn’t until the British happened upon Abu Simbel and starting excavating, that the full glory of the temple of Abu Simbel was revealed to the modern world.
Famously, the temple was re-located in a multi-million dollar operation in 1972, further up from the shoreline of Lake Nasser, which had threatened to erode the foundations of this monolithic temple complex. For this reason, the sun now strikes a day later than Ramses had originally planned, though the event itself is no less stunning.
Home of the legendary Valley of the Kings and Temple of Karnak, 4000 year-old Luxor is ancient Egypt at it’s best. Highlights include the legendary Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The Valley of the Kings is studded with often highly decorated tombs, constructed to once house the regal sarcophagi-enclosed mummies of the mighty pharaohs awaiting their passage into the after-life. Some of the best known tombs are those of Ramses II, Seti I, Amenhotep II and of course, the tomb of King Tutankhamen.
In all, more than 60 tombs have been excavated. There are at least 75 tombs in Biban al-Harim, the Valley of the Queens, around 4 of which are open. Deir al- Bahri, otherwise known as the famous Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, rises out of the desert plain in a series of terraces. Partly rock-cut, partly freestanding, it is one of Egypt’s finest and most photographed monuments.
Siwa, once the most mysterious of all Egypt's oases, is also the most fascinating. It's history has not only been shaped by all major civilisations, but also by the contrast of the surrounding desert with the lush soil of the oasis setting. The modern town of Siwa is set among thick palm groves, walled gardens and olive orchards, with numerous freshwater springs and salt lakes. Siwan people have their own culture, customs and language. Women still wear traditional costume heavily laden with locally crafted antique silver ornaments. There is plenty to keep us busy in Siwa, walk, hire a bicycle or ride in a caretta (donkey cart) and explore the ancient fortress of Old Shali - made of salt and mud-brick, visit Mountain of the Dead - the Roman necropolis strewn with dozens of rock-cut tombs, Cleopatra's Bath and the famed Temple of the Oracle – where Alexandra the Great visited in 331BC, seeking confirmation from the Oracle that he was the son of Zeus.
Discovered intact in 1922 by Howard Carter, the Tomb of Tutankhamun is possibly one of the most dazzling archaeological finds ever. Tutankhamen lived over 3,300 years ago during the New Kingdom period. For two centuries, Egypt had ruled as a world superpower, while its royal family lived an opulent lifestyle. The powerful priesthood of the god Amun had controlled vast temples and estates. Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) -Tutankhamun’s father renounced the multitude of gods worshipped by the Egyptians, abolished the priesthood and established a new order to worship the sun god Aten and changed his own name to Akhenaten, meaning "servant of the Aten."
Upon the death of Akhenaten, Tutankhaten (Tutankhamun) became king at the age of 9yrs. He ruled for a very short time and died in 1325 BC of somewhat mysterious causes. After 70 days, King Tut’s mortuary tomb was sealed and remained untouched until Carter’s astonishing find. King Tutankhamen’s solid gold funerary mask and his priceless cache of treasures entombed with him for his journey to the afterlife, are now on display at the world famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo and a visit is highly recommended.
Settled originally by the Bedouin, Dahab (which means ‘gold’ in Arabic) is a small, somewhat unspoiled and almost intimate coastal resort town on the Sinai Peninsular. Just 90km from the more commercialised and glitzy Sharm el-Sheikh and around 7 hours drive from Cairo, Dahab has developed from a hippy village to a respected haven with a solid infrastructure for scuba divers, snorkellers and travellers seeking sun, sea and relaxation. Hotels tend to be more basic than in other locations in Egypt. By being mindful of this and keeping your expectations simple, you’ll love Dahab’s simplicity. Located alongside some of the best reef waters on the Red Sea coast, Dahab offers mostly shore-diving to around 30 diving sites for both beginners and the more experienced diver. You’ll usually be driven along the coast by jeep, to ‘gear-up’ at water’s edge and commence your dive or practical side of your chosen PADI dive course.
The pictureque town of Aswan is set on the River Nile and it's start point for both the felucca journey downstream to Kom Ombo & also optional Abu Simbel excursions.
Elephantine and Kitchener Island are worth exploring and sampling the restaurants along the corniche is a good bet. Head out by boat to Agelika Island to explore the Temple of Philae belonging to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. The largest monument of the island is the temple of Isis - occupying about one quarter of the island. The walls are covered with scenes of Ptolemic kings and Roman emperors performing daily and ritualistic ceremonies. Later, when this temple became a church, Christians added their crosses to the stones.
The laid-back Nubian town itself is also a highlight for visitors as it is overflowing with colourful markets, spicy aromas, Pharaonic and roman ruins and antiquity from the ancient land of Nubia.
Situated in a 2000 sq km depression about 330km south-west of Cairo is Bahariyya Oasis. Dating back to ancient times, it was prosperous until the 4th century, when attacks from surrounding tribes and the decline of Roman rule left much of its agricultural land to be reclaimed by the surrounding desert. The Western Desert around the oasis forms a very unusual moon-like landscape. Remote and surreal, it makes a great place to visit. The oasis itself has local villages which can be explored, with ancient streets and mudbrick houses that sheltered the population of long ago and still do today.
In the last few years, the oasis has received considerable archaeological attention, following the accidental discovery of a field of tombs dating back to the Graeco-Roman period. There are believed to be as many as 1,000 mummies in the area, but only a few have been excavated so far.