By Paul Motter Nov. 16, 2006
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The Road to Luxor
We awoke early to a room service breakfast. Soon we were on the pier with other passengers waiting to go from Safaga to Luxor on the Nile, a two-hour drive through the desert. The transition from stark desert to green, irrigated farmland is instantaneous. While Egypt is the about the same size as Texas and New Mexico combined, more than 90 percent of the population lives in the Nile Valley, which is about five percent of the total country.
Silversea Coordinates the bus caravan
Our Guide Magdy, With Armed Guard riding "shotgun"
One of many checkpoints along the way
Security Guards Everywhere
Armed security guards went along on all the buses, which had to travel together the whole way. We passed through about 10 security checkpoints along the way, each with armed guards. In addition, most exit lanes to village roads from the highway had a local, non-uniformed civilian guard posted, usually holding a shotgun.
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Silversea again provided us with a top-notch guide named Magdy. He is getting his Ph.D. in Egyptology, and there wasn't a thing about the history of Egypt he didn't know. Silversea guides are experts in their field first and guides second -- and all speak excellent English. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and they can answer any question you can conjure.
Yet, as wonderful as Magdy is, the Egyptology expert for the Silversea world cruise coming in January is Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. You have probably already seen him on the National Geographic Channel. He narrates and guides us on the National Geographic Explorer's Egypt's Hidden Treasures, which airs Sunday, December 15, on MSNBC. He is considered Egypt's foremost Egyptologist, responsible for several of the most important and newest discoveries and antiquity recovery projects in Egypt.
Karnak and Luxor
As we reached Karnak - the site in Luxor that was the temple of the sun god Ahmen -- Magdy prepared us for our tour. -- Click for Magdy Video --
The pictures tell how several pharaohs used Karnak as the place of worship, each building additions to it. After our three-hour tour, we were driven to the Sofitel Hotel. Our luggage was taken off the bus, and we ate another delicious Middle Eastern meal.
After lunch, we visited the ancient site of Luxor, for which the modern city is named. Magdy led us through the site with finesse, showing us examples of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the signature left by Alexander the Great, and some of the world's earliest examples of Christian artwork. Egypt was conquered by the Greeks in the last millennium BC and by the Romans in the first century AD. As the Roman Empire entered the Byzantine Era, Egypt was a Christian nation from about 300 to 700 AD, at which point the rise of Islam took the country over and so it remains to this day.
At sundown we returned to our hotels for a shower and came back out to see the Karnak Sound and Light Show. Tourists pass through the ancient walls of Karnak after dark and watch a display of lighting, music and dialogue designed to re-create a sense of ancient Egypt through storytelling. It was one experience I would not have minded missing, though some people liked it. Dinner back at the hotel included native music and dancing.
Karnak at Night
Light and Sound Exhibit
Day Two: Valley of the Kings
As we watched the sun rise over the Nile from our balcony the feeling of ancient magic and mystery was palpable, as if the pharaohs themselves had been reborn that morning. A dozen hot air balloons rose from the west side of the Nile, soaring over boats coming up the river. That morning marked the end of Ramadan, and the Imam proclaiming this from a minaret in the nearby mosque sounded so full of life he could leap over those balloons directly to heaven. It is one of the most joyous holidays in Islam, and I felt bad for the hotel workers who had to be on the job.
Riverboats at Nile Sunrise
After breakfast, on our last day in Egypt, we went to the Valley of the Kings, across the Nile from Karnak and Luxor. It contains the tombs of the most important pharaohs, including the one where Tutankhamen and his treasures were discovered. The Egyptians open a few tombs for display on a rotating basis so they can keep most of them sealed much of the time and not let them deteriorate. Some, however, have already been open for centuries and so are not closed down.
We saw the tombs of Rameses II and Tutankhamen, among others. It is hard to remember all the Pharaohs' names and history, but seeing the tombs is fascinating for their detail. Later we visited the temple/tomb built for Queen Hatshepsut and then the tomb for Ramses III, one of the more accomplished Pharaohs. The outside wall of his tomb tells his life story in hieroglyphics.
The life of Rameses III
told in hieroglyphics
The last things we saw were the Colossi of Memnon, two similar statues built to guard the later tombs in the Valley of the Kings. From there, Magdy treated us all to a ferry ride back across the Nile to our hotel. Along the way we snapped pictures of camels next to Bedouin shacks along the river, and traditional Egyptian sailboats known as feluccas. On the ferry we took our last pictures of our new friends and walked back into the hotel to rest up for our journey home.
Murals of Rameses III
Collossi of Memnon
Boarding our Riverboat
Goodbye to Magdy and our ever-silent armed Guard
Goodbye to Camels sunning by the Nile
One last note about the Egyptians - click on the picture above of our guide and guard. They were originally a Caucasian race, who conquered the Nubians in the South, who were black, and inter-married. Over the years they conquered, and/or they were overrun by the Arabs, Persians and Orientals. You can see all of those aspects in their faces, some of the most mixed genes in the world, and it is fitting since Egypt was the the crossroads of human civilization probably longer than any other single society in world history.
My wife and I and two other passengers were leaving the cruise early, so we didn't accompany the others back to the ship. Instead, Silversea arranged for us to have late checkout at our hotel, and at 10:30 p.m. Magdy, showed up with a bus to accompany us to the Luxor airport - prepaid.
That kind of attention to passenger care is almost unheard of these days, and in my mind is more than enough to compensate for the "luxury problems" I mentioned earlier. The suites on this ship are beautifully appointed, with separate bedrooms, double sinks, etc. but the TV sets are the old-fashioned rounded-screen models, many with VCRs instead of DVDs. Even for the DVDs, our remote didn't work very well (stop-and-go, but no scene selection). While most people raved about the food on board, I found it a little bland and not the cutting-edge cuisine I expected. The lobster came smothered in mushroom gravy, and one could bend the croissants without breaking them.
While the staff was helpful when problems arose, I encountered them more than I cared to -- wrong orders from room service, missed wake-up calls, a surly shore excursion department. All were fixed to perfection, but this is Silversea, a very expensive cruise line and the experience of a lifetime, so they should not have happened in the first place. My biggest personal disappointment was not being able to take advantage of the only special dining venue onboard, Le Champagne, because there is a mandatory $150 per person charge to dine there. This is the only luxury line that charges for alternative dining other than a modest $6 service charge on Crystal (which is not an all-inclusive line). The charge is to cover the premium alcohol, which accompanies all six courses of the meal they serve. I am sure the price is justified, since it covers rare and fine wines you might not taste any other way. We didn't feel like drinking, but there were no exceptions to the rule. And apparently this is a new rule, as I have read guidebooks suggesting that one can dine there and only pay for the alcohol if you choose to drink it.
Le Champagne Restaurant
A Magnum of Moet.
Still, I choose to cruise because I am a traveler. And for cruise/travelers like me, it is hard to find a better line than Silversea. Because of their attention to detail, it is difficult to imagine anything going wrong on a tour -- and in places like Egypt and Jordan, that is invaluable. Silversea will take excellent care of you, both onboard and off. On a Silversea cruise, you are a first-class passenger from your airport arrival to your final departure, and that's the only way to go.