The Mystery and Majesty of Egypt
January 24 to February 1 or February 3, 2022
I’ve traveled a lot in my life and I’ve always wanted to go to Egypt. It’s always been at the top of my bucket list, but I’d never been. The enforced idleness of the last couple of years sharpened my desire to wisely use the time and travel experiences that I have remaining. I asked myself why I had not traveled to Egypt and I decided that the simplest answer is that as I traveled to other places in the world I was waiting for peace to come to the Middle East. Faced with this reality it became clear that, with this mindset, I would probably never see Egypt.
So I decided to make the journey. My life of travel has given me a wonderful rolodex of talented and accomplished people to call on for advice. Serifa Zuhur is a choral singer who joined us to sing The Sound of Music in Salzburg. She is also an academic and national security scholar of the Middle East and Islamic world. She was a Distinguished Visiting Professor of National Security Studies from 2004 to 2006, then Research Professor of Islamic and Regional Studies from 2006 to 2009 at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute. She has also held faculty positions at the American University in Cairo, University of California, Berkeley, and Ben Gurion University of the Negev. In other words she was way overqualified for my request to recommend a good guide to help me visit Egypt. She recommended Nibal Aziz, an Egyptologist who turned out to be one of the best guides I’ve met in my entire life.
As I went to Egypt I had limited hopes that I would find it a suitable place for a Castles and Concerts tour. Over the years Georgia and I took several scouting tours where we decided it just wasn’t a good choice to bring the group. However, by the time I returned home, I was convinced that going to Egypt with the group will be the most exciting and rewarding trip that we’ve done since the opera in Monaco in 2009. This itinerary is longer than other itineraries we’ve done. That’s because I’ve taken the time to try to share with you some of the many things that I learned about the history and the people of Egypt. Some of these were a complete surprise to me. And all of this background will serve to explain the reasons why I believe we are now in a window of time that is the best opportunity to visit Egypt in our lifetime. So, even if you know that you are unable to travel with us, I’d suggest and hope that you would find value and enjoyment in reading through the itinerary.
Finally, a note on Covid in Egypt… All visitors must be vaccinated and tested to enter the country. But the virus doesn’t seem to like the hot dry weather in Egypt. As of September 15 the New York Times covid tracker shows Egypt with 0.4 daily cases per 100,000 with the USA at 44 daily cases per 100,000. And all the guides I worked with in July had already been vaccinated.
Please contact us if you'd like to join us. Please let us know if you have any questions or there’s any way we can help.
Cairo International is Africa’s second busiest airport (after Johannesburg). There are nonstop flights from all of Europe’s major hubs. For instance, Lufthansa flies three nonstops per day from Frankfurt. So you can arrive in about the same time as it takes to get to Rome, Vienna or any other non-hub European city. (about 15 hours). We’ve hired a top-of-the-line hospitality company to greet you individually at the airport and transport you to our hotel in comfortable new vans.
You will transfer to Mena House, a former royal hunting lodge built just next to the pyramids. It was opened as a hotel in 1890. Here was constructed the first swimming pool in Egypt and the first golf course in all of Africa. It hosted Churchill and Roosevelt as they planned the Africa campaign and is where the Egyptians met secretly with the Israelis to negotiate the 1972 peace deal.
In 1889, Prince Albert stayed at the hotel. In 1909, King George V and Queen Mary stayed. In 1939, King Farouk of Egypt stayed frequently. In 1974 Richard Nixon visited. Other notable people such as Agatha Christie, Cecil B. DeMille, Frank Sinatra, and Charlie Chaplin have all stayed at Mena House. Today, under management by Marriott, it remains Egypt’s premier hotel.
We’ll spend our first three days and nights exploring the sites of ancient Memphis, become today’s Cairo. The Old Kingdom Pharaohs built their palaces and their pyramids here two and a half thousand years before Christ. Then for three thousand years, power moved to Luxor and then to Alexandria before becoming the capital once again in modern times. Today it is a thriving metropolis of twenty-three million people. Although it is 85% Muslim and 15% Christian, the country is ruled by secular laws and president Sisi made a point last year of attending Christmas mass and wishing a Merry Christmas to Egypt’s Christian minority. Cairo has constructed two new super-modern museums to properly display the treasures of five thousand years of culture. But for me, I still prefer the Victorian Era museum with rows & rows of glass and wood display cases. This is where Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney first climbed out of the mummy cases with bandages dragging to scare the bejesus out of me as a kid. And it still has that perfect vibe. Maybe we’ll see if we can get a night-time tour.
After Three days of exploring Cairo and thee nights of parties at Egypt’s premier hotel, Mena House, we will transfer to the Cairo International Airport to fly an hour south (300 miles) to Luxor. We will fly from the new terminal, #3, which is reserved for the Star Alliance airlines, including United, Lufthansa and EgyptAir.
Arriving in Luxor we will transfer to the Amwaj, a five-star family owned riverboat, for several days of cruising on the Nile. While I was on the Nile I had the opportunity to visit several riverboats, some run by large international groups and others locally owned. We picked the Amwaj because it seems to have everything that Castles and Concerts needs. It is new, it is elegant, and it has a wonderful bar with a great performance area. The cuisine is well reviewed. The cabins and bathrooms are spacious and for those who prefer even larger accommodations, there are also a dozen junior suites and four royal or presidential suites. And the vibe on the ship was great. The crew will love the music and be striving to make us happy! Our lead guide, Nibal, has taken a couple of groups on this ship and feels that it’s the best on the Nile. We have chartered it for our exclusive use.
During the Middle Kingdom, for about a thousand years, Luxor (known then as Thebes) served as the capitol of Egypt. It is here that we find the greatest art and architecture since the pyramids. The next couple of pages will give only a glimpse of the treasures that we will see.
Castles and Concerts will probably never visit a more inhospitable place than the Valley of the Kings. For a thousand years the Pharaohs were buried here. The funeral procession to bury a Pharaoh would have taken several days to get there from Thebes. The nineteenth century archeologists would have taken two days to get there from Luxor with a mule. Today we can ride twenty minutes on good roads, in air-conditioned comfort, to the parking lot at the entrance to the valley. Then we can get aboard these cute little trolleys to enter the valley. Once in the valley, we can stroll on sidewalks to the entrances to several tombs. Many others remain inaccessible because they were dug halfway up the sides of the valley walls. In the valley are sixty-two tombs that have been discovered during the last two hundred years. They are numbered in the order of their discovery with no reference to the dates the Pharaoh ruled. So Number 62 is Tutankhamen, found by Howard Carter in 1922. And these tombs are among the most astounding discoveries ever made.
As I made this journey, which was not at all difficult, I tried to imagine how much more impact this experience would have had on me in the old days, when it took months to get to Luxor and days to trek into the valley. And I felt a little envious of the impact they must have felt…… I needn’t have wasted my time on such thoughts. As I entered the coolness of the first tomb and my eyes adjusted from the light of the mid-day sun outside to the gentle light of the tomb I was literally staggered. It took my breath away and I had to hold on to the handrail. I later told my wife that it had been the most impressive travel day of my entire life.
We’ve been sailing south (upriver toward the center of Africa) for four days. The mountains start here at Aswan. And In the old days it is here where the first cataract made continued passage by boat impossible. From here the great camel caravans fanned out all over Africa. The Nile is the longest river in the world and we are not even halfway to the Nile’s origin at lake Victoria. It is here at Aswan, in 1902, that the British built the largest masonry dam in the world. It provided flood relief and irrigation to large new portions of Egypt.
It worked well and between 1960 and 1970 Egypt decided to construct the largest embankment dam in the world, the Aswan High Dam. Because Egypt had nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956 the British convinced America not to help the Egyptians. Egypt turned to the Russians for help. The Russians successfully constructed the dam. This was a major setback for US diplomacy and the repercussions from that bonehead decision continue to reverberate through our world today. In any case, this is as far south as we can go by boat, but we have one more major monument to visit.
Having visited several other great monuments of ancient Egypt, two things stand out when you visit Philae. One is the remarkable state of its preservation. This is explained by the fact that it was built during the reign of the last dynasty of Pharaohs, the Ptolemys. So it’s more than 2,000 years newer than the other monuments. It was still an active temple in the 500’s. The other strange thing is the lack of color. The monuments in Luxor were all brightly colored and much of that color remains. Philae is all raw stone. That’s because the lake behind the first Aswan Dam (1902) submerged the temple under water. Before they finished the Aswan High Dam in 1970 they took the temple apart stone by stone and moved it a quarter mile to higher ground. But seventy years under water had washed away all traces of the original paint. Strange but true.
We have made our eight nights and nine days of this trip such that it will be not be rigorous by any means. We are always in 5-star accommodations; all of our transport will be in new and comfortable vehicles, and because Egypt has been a top tourist destination since before the time of Julius Caesar, they have more than two thousand years of experience in making guests comfortable. With one exception, we will be able to visit all the major monuments and several secondary sights in comfort.
That one exception is the great temple complex at Abu Simbel, built by Ramses II in about 1250 BC. These temples became world famous when in 1968 UNESCO led the drive to save them from drowning in the new lake created by the High Aswan Dam. Unlike the temples at Philae, which were constructed with tens of thousands of cut stones, those at Abu Simbel were carved directly into the face of a cliff. So they were essentially one big (very, very big) piece of sculpture, still connected with the mountain. Moving these temples to higher ground may be the biggest archaeological project of all time.
There is no easy and comfortable way for the group to make this visit. But for those who are willing to step out of the comfort zone that we always try to provide, we will offer you the chance to visit.
Abu Simbel is 140 miles south of Aswan and there is no regular air service between Aswan and Abu Simbel. So in order to visit we will take our vans three and a half hours from Aswan to Abu Simbel. The roads are decent, but not interstate highways. In Abu Simbel we will spend the night in the best hotel in town; it’s rated 4-star, but is not luxurious. It will be very neat and clean, but basic. The next day we will visit Abu Simbel with wonderful guides, take lunch and then return to Cairo. At the time we visit Egypt Air may or may not be flying from Abu Simbel to Cairo. If they are, we will fly directly to Cairo; if not, we will drive back to Aswan and fly from there. In any cased we will arrive back in Cairo that evening, Tuesday, February 1, in time for cocktails and dinner at Mena House.
Having made this excursion you deserve to reward yourself before you return home, so February 2 will be a free day in Cairo. We’ll have the vans and guides available and offer some alternatives, or you may want to just relax in the luxury of Mena House and spend the last day by the pool in the shadow of the pyramids. We’ll enjoy one more great evening of music and fine dining and depart the next day. This will make your flight out of Cairo any time on February 3. The cost of this ad-on option is $1,400/person double occupancy with a $300 supplement for a private room.