Holidays Travel

Travel: Following the pharaohs

Egypt's true wonders can be found outside Cairo, says Sean Sheehan, who guides us along the Nile and its ancient temples and pyramids

The sheer scale of the temple complex at Karnak is almost overwhelming.
The sheer scale of the temple complex at Karnak is almost overwhelming.

YOU don't have to be stone mad to enjoy a holiday in Egypt but it helps. Splendid monuments from the time of the pharaohs are the highlight of any visit, their presence unforgettable testimony to a civilisation that lasted for well over two millennia before Ancient Greece. The passage of time becomes dizzyingly long when the two and a half thousand years that separate us from the achievements of ancient Greek culture are factored in.

The simple geography behind the remarkable history – the Nile's annual flooding maintaining fertile soil either side of the river's banks – continues to explain why nearly all Egyptians still live in the margins of the river. Apart from the Red Sea resorts, your itinerary as a visitor will rarely be far from the Nile Valley and the further south you travel the more alluring the river environment becomes.

First, though, the pyramids. They have to be seen and, given how they first come into view on the outskirts of Cairo, an excursion to gaze before them and take photos takes only half a day. Having ticked that box, it is time to move on. The density and grey monotone of Cairo's visual appearance is not attractive; it feels starved of green spaces, and apart from its world-class museums there is little to keep you here. The faster you move on, the better.

The faster you can move on from Cairo, the better...
The faster you can move on from Cairo, the better...

Luxor, 660km to the south, beckons. Its population is a small fraction of Cairo's and the city is comfortably reached by air or sleeper train from the capital. Once there, you'll be busy given that both sides of the river have unmissable sites; a two-day stay is an absolute minimum.

The city is on the east bank and looks across the Nile to low-level settlements (building above four levels is illegal) fronted by palm trees. Within minutes of leaving for the west side pastoral scenes abound: fields of glistening okra and farmers tending their sweetcorn and sugar cane while donkeys stand patiently; egrets filling tree branches like Christmas decorations.

Farming life gives way to hills and the ubiquitous desert that defines the Valley of the Kings, a secret burial place for the mummies of pharaohs and belongings deemed useful for eternal life. Cut deep into the limestone, some of the chambers were soon located by tomb raiders but Tutankhamun's was only found in 1922 and new ones are still being discovered. More than 60 have been identified and the standard ticket gives entry to any three of those open at the time of your visit.

The walls of the best ones have astonishingly well-preserved hieroglyphs and paintings depicting scenes of both mythological and everyday life. Walking down past them is like scrolling through compelling images on a website.

Another must-see sight on the west side is the Temple of Hatshepsut. She was the only female pharaoh, though depicted with a beard as an embodiment of male clout, and one whose assumption of power so embittered her son-in-law that he later had images of her removed from the temple; surely the first recorded act of political censorship.

Temple of Hatshepsut at Luxor.
Temple of Hatshepsut at Luxor.

Back on the east side of the Nile at Luxor, the temple complex of Karnak displays monumental architecture on a breath-taking scale – large enough to fit in a dozen cathedrals – that dwarfs the impact of seeing the pyramids. Its obelisks, titanic columns, immense courts, and grand gateways represent over a thousand years of imperial aggrandisement and a good guide will draw attention to some of the pictorial details incised on the granite, sandstone and limestone.

After Luxor, temple fatigue is relieved by a trip to Egypt's southernmost city, Aswan. You can get there by way of a slow cruise in a wooden boat, a felucca, or more quickly by rail or road. The routes all look out at first to lush green countryside, fields of bananas and irrigation channels but gradually they give way to the encroaching eastern desert.

Aswan, close to the First Cataract (there are six between here and Khartoum, 1,000km further south) and known as 'the gateway to Africa', has long had an air of mystery. Herodotus came here in the fifth century BC to inquire about the source of the Nile and arriving today you cannot help but feel like an explorer.

The river's dreamy and languid presence gives the location an enchanting beauty and the uncongested, hassle-free town invites a shopping stroll through the souk for Nubian skullcaps and souvenirs, a visit to the excellent museum and drinks watching the sun set over a silvery Nile.

The River Nile at Aswan.
The River Nile at Aswan.

Sightseeing takes in the famous Aswan dam, the flawed and unfinished obelisk and the island of Elephantine – named after the town's important ivory trade. A guide who lives on Elephantine can be recommended for trips in and around Aswan.

The building of the Aswan dam would have submerged the Temple of Isis on the island of Philae but Unesco saved it by financing a disassembly, stone by stone, and its reconstruction on higher ground. Boat rides from Aswan to access its new home run every day while another massive relocation project, the colossal statues and temples of Abu Simbel, require a lengthier journey by car or a short flight.

The Citadel of Qaitbay was built in the 15th century on the exact site of the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The Citadel of Qaitbay was built in the 15th century on the exact site of the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.


IT can be easy to forget that Egypt lies on the Mediterranean but not if you spend some time in the city of Alexandria.

Spread out along a curving shoreline, its space and sea air makes a refreshing change from densely packed Cairo. Period cafes, like Trianon and Delices in the main square by the tourist office, date back to the 1920s and '30s, retaining their grand décor and exuding a sense of nostalgia.

A dinky castle, Fort Qaitbey, evokes the city's ancient history as do the extensive catacombs deep underground.

Best of all, this is a relaxed city where you can witness everyday life without bother. There is a politeness of the heart embedded in Egyptian culture which can be experienced in Alexandria and the city is only two hours by train from the capital.


EgyptAir (, operating Ireland's first scheduled air service to and from Egypt, flies four times a week between Dublin and Cairo.

For the sleeper train service between Cairo and Luxor, see

The most up-to-date travel guide is the 14th edition of Lonely Planet Egypt; a reliable Aswan guide, Ahmed, can be reached at; for birdwatching, see The Birds of Egypt by Richard Hoath; for general travel information, see