Tell someone you are traveling to Egypt and they are likely to picture the pyramids and ancient temples. But, as amazing as its ancient pharaonic sights are, travel in Egypt has a lot more to offer.
The Greeks conquered Egypt in 332 BC, but they continued many of the traditions and religious practices of ancient Egypt. After Cleopatra’s demise in 30 BC, Egypt became a province of the Roman empire for 600 years. During that time, the monasteries and churches were established in Egypt, which became a major center of Christianity by 200 AD. The Arabs came next, with the Fatimids (Shiah) followed by the Ayyubids (Sunni), then the Mamluks and Ottomans who turned Cairo into the city of a thousand minarets. Late in the 19th century, the British occupied Egypt. That officially ended when Egypt became an independent nation in 1922, although the British managed to stay in the picture until 1956.
All of this history means travelers to Egypt can supplement visits to the tombs and temples of pharaohs with Roman ruins, churches, monasteries, mosques, palaces, and more. And, of course, the art and artifacts of all these cultures (and more) can be seen throughout the country in museums large and small.
Too much history for you?
Sit back and watch the landscape drift by as you float down the Nile. Lunch on the day’s fresh fish along the Mediterranean where you can choose whether to watch colorful fishing boats bob in the harbor or admire the futuristic lines of the new library in Alexandria. Or maybe just get away from everything on a seemingly endless strip of sand along the Red Sea or dive into the colorful array of coral and fish that await just below the sea’s surface. Of course, to really want to get away from it all, visit one of Egypt’s deserts where a harsh and oddly beautiful landscape awaits.
There’s more. But that should give you some idea of what Egypt has to offer and why this fascinating country is one of my favorite places to visit.
What’s where in Egypt
Modern Egypt includes the heart of ancient Egypt along the Nile from the Mediterranean south into Nubia (the ancient kingdom of Kush), the Eastern Desert between the Nile and Red Sea, the Sinai Peninsula, and a chunk of the Western Desert between the Nile valley and Libya.
With the exception of the Western Desert, most of which was considered a wasteland and not really under the control of anyone, modern Egypt’s borders align fairly closely with those of ancient Egypt throughout much of its history. Sometimes Egypt was larger and sometimes it was a little smaller, but the area we recognize as Egypt today is pretty consistent with what was identified as Egypt in the days of the pharaohs.
What’s the difference between Upper and Lower Egypt?
When it come to ancient Egypt, there’s a lot of talk about Upper and Lower Egypt. These terms identify the two ancient kingdoms that, together, we know as Egypt. Unfortunately for visitors, the use of these terms is both a little confusing and a little inconsistent.
Let’s start with what “upper” and “lower” mean.
These designations are NOT a pseudonym for north and south. Instead, they refer to the direction the Nile flows and the elevation of the land. And the Nile flows north down to the low-lying delta along the Mediterranean.
- LOWER EGYPT is NORTHERN Egypt. This is the Nile Delta area between Cairo and the Mediterranean port of Alexandria.
- UPPER EGYPT is upstream, SOUTH of Lower Egypt. It includes Luxor (ancient Thebes), but ends north of Aswan. (Aswan and the area to the south is part of Nubia, a distinct culture that once formed the ancient kingdom of Kush.)
They are important distinctions because ancient Egypt was made up of two kingdoms, one based in the northern Nile Delta and one based along the Nile to the south. Because we don’t know what these two kingdoms were called, they are identified by their geography as Upper and Lower Egypt. But we do know what symbols were used to designate each. The kings of Lower Egypt are identified with a red crown, papyrus plants, and the cobra. In Upper Egypt, the symbols of the king are a rounded white crown, lotus blossoms, and the vulture. Egypt was at its most powerful when these two kingdoms came together to form one kingdom. When that happened, pharaohs were identified with the symbols of both Upper and Lower Egypt, including a “double” crown that incorporates the crowns of both kingdoms. When things fell apart, Egypt broke back into two separate kingdoms again.
They are important distinctions because ancient Egypt was made up of two kingdoms, one based in the northern Nile Delta and one based along the Nile to the south. Because we don’t know what these two kingdoms were called, they are identified by their geography as Upper and Lower Egypt.
But we do know what symbols were used to designate each. The kings of Lower Egypt are identified with a red crown, papyrus plants, and the cobra. In Upper Egypt, the symbols of the king are a rounded white crown, lotus blossoms, and the vulture. Egypt was at its most powerful when these two kingdoms came together to form one kingdom. When that happened, pharaohs were identified with the symbols of both Upper and Lower Egypt, including a “double” crown that incorporates the crowns of both kingdoms.
When things fell apart, Egypt broke back into two separate kingdoms again.
And then there’s Middle Egypt
Sometimes maps also identify a swath of the country south of modern Cairo to slightly north of Luxor as MIDDLE EGYPT.
This is a naming convention developed by 19th century archeologists who apparently needed another way to categorize all of the ancient sites they were looting excavating. It serves no purpose other than identifying the location of an ancient site in Upper Egypt. If you see “Middle Egypt,” just substitute “Upper Egypt.”
The very south of Egypt is Nubian
The southernmost part of Egypt, including both Aswan and Abu Simbel, is called Nubia or Lower Nubia.
Historically and culturally, Nubia extends south into Sudan.
This was once part of the powerful kingdom of Kush. It’s always had a distinct identity – even when Kushite kings ruled Egypt as pharaohs, Egypt and Nubia retained distinct identities. Although integrated into modern Egypt, this area is home to a large population with an African culture and ethnicity quite different from the rest of Egypt.
Egyptian World Heritage sites
Egypt currently has seven UNESCO World Heritage sites spread throughout the country. These sites fall into four broad groups representing ancient Egypt, Islamic Egypt, Christian Egypt, and the natural world.
Seven sites may not seem like a lot, but some of these sites are truly massive, covering hundreds of structures in multiple locations.
The seven designated sites fall into four broad groups.
- Memphis and its Necropolis, the capital of the Old Kingdom, including the pyramids of Giza and Dahshur outside Cairo.
- Ancient Thebes and its Necropolis in and around Luxor, including the temples of Karnak and Luxor and the tombs and temples of the West Bank, including the Valley of the Kings and Village of the Workers.
- Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae, including the temples at Abu Simbel and the temple of Isis at Philae.
Cairo is one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities. Dating to the 7th century, historic Cairo includes about 800 designated monuments. These include historic mosques, madrasas, bazaars, hammams, fountains, and a variety of other structures, as well as several burial grounds.
Christian World Heritage:
- Abu Mena is the site of an early Christian pilgrimage site and monastery near Alexandria. It was a major Christian center by the year 600 AD. Today the site is identified as endangered and is usually closed to the public.
- The Saint Catherine Area includes the 6th century Orthodox Christian monastery of Saint Catherine and Mount Sinai, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims all believe God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Saint Catherine’s is the oldest Christian monastery still used as a monastery. It’s located on the Sinai Peninsula.
Natural World Heritage
The Wadi Al-Hitan, the Whale Valley, in the northern portion of the Western Desert is significant for its fossils, particularly those of an extinct type of whale that was changing from a land-based animal to the sea-dwelling creatures we know today.
Plan a trip to Egypt
When is the best time to visit Egypt?
All tourist attractions are open throughout the year.
Most tourists visit between October and April, when temperatures are cooler. However:
- European Christmas and Easter school holidays are particularly busy
- Coptic Christmas (January 7) and Coptic Easter occasionally attract violence aimed at the Coptic community.
- Spring brings a wind off the desert – Egypt’s wind usually comes from the North, but in spring it flips and brings hot, dusty, air up from the desert for a few weeks.
- Winter in Cairo and north can be unexpectedly chilly.
June – September are very hot (temperatures over 100 every day), but if you can stand the heat, prices are low.
Ramadan can be an interesting time to visit, but it’s also more challenging. (Check the calendar for dates, as it changes every year.
Websites for planning a trip
The US State Department travel page will make you wonder if you should just stay home, but you’d feel much the same after reading their info on France or Spain. But do read it.
TripAdvisor’s Egypt forum is a great resource when the information is up-to-date. If it’s more than a year old, ask what the current situation is. People who actually live in Egypt or travel there regularly are generally very happy to share what they know. (In most cases, it’s best to ignore most advice from people who visited on a tour. Unless, of course, you are taking the same tour.) While you can never completely trust what you read online, answers on the forum usually come from people with first-hand experience. Just make sure it’s up-to-date.
The Rough Guide for Egypt has a considerable amount of solid information available for free on their website. (This is not true of most guidebook publishers.)
The Local’s Guide to Egypt is a new, highly detailed resource that is expanding quickly.
Websites focused on Egyptian history and culture
The Ancient History Encyclopedia has a lot of great information on Egypt, although you may have to do some searching to find exactly what you are looking for.
Osirisnet focuses on the tombs of ancient Egypt, with many photos and illustrations. It is a very thorough, but easy to understand, website by an Egyptologist.
The Egypt Center Collection blog is connected to the Egypt Center at Swansea University in Wales. This website has an amazing amount of recent information by students and experts in Egyptology. Unfortunately, there is no index, so finding information on the site can be challenging.
The Luxor Times had a great Egyptology news page, but I’m not sure it’s still being updated.
Visit Egypt virtually
Local Guide to Egypt put together a list of 22 Egyptian sites you can tour virtually. The list includes ancient tombs, historic churches and mosques, museums, and more. These show floor plans, 3d cut-outs, and walk or zoom through tours. If you are susceptible to motion sickness, avoid the video zoom through tour.
Books on Egypt
There are many, many books about Egypt, inspired by Egypt, and set in Egypt. I’ve gathered a few of them into a virtual library.
This page is under construction.
Please use the links below to access stories, photos, and additional information on travel in Egypt.
Follow these links for my Egypt posts