Egypt is the oldest tourist destination on earth. Ancient Greeks and Romans started the trend, coming to goggle at the cyclopean scale of the Pyramids and the Colossi of Thebes. During colonial times, Napoleon and the British looted Egypt’s treasures to fill their national museums, sparking off a trickle of Grand Tourists that eventually became a flood of travellers, taken on Nile cruises and Egyptological lectures by the enterprising Thomas Cook.
Today, the most popular places to visit are not only the monuments of the Nile Valley and the souks, mosques and madrassas of Islamic Cairo, but also fantastic coral reefs and tropical fish, dunes, ancient fortresses, monasteries and prehistoric rock art.
The land itself is a freak of nature, its lifeblood the River Nile. From the Sudanese border to the shores of the Mediterranean, the Nile Valley and its Delta are flanked by arid wastes, the latter as empty as the former are teeming with people. This stark duality between fertility and desolation is fundamental to Egypt’s character and has shaped its development since prehistoric times, imparting continuity to diverse cultures and peoples over seven millennia. It is a sense of permanence and timelessness that is buttressed by religion, which pervades every aspect of life. Although the pagan cults of ancient Egypt are as moribund as its legacy of mummies and temples, their ancient fertility rites and processions of boats still hold their place in the celebrations of Islam and Christianity.
The result is a multi-layered culture, which seems to accord equal respect to ancient and modern. The peasants of the Nile and the Bedouin tribes of the desert live much as their ancestors did a thousand years ago. Other communities include the Nubians of the far south, and the Coptic Christians, who trace their ancestry back to pharaonic times. What unites them is a love of their homeland, extended family ties, dignity, warmth and hospitality towards strangers. Though most visitors are drawn to Egypt by its monuments, the enduring memory is likely to be of its people and their way of life.
Where to go in Egypt
Egypt’s capital, Cairo, is a seething megalopolis whose chief sightseeing appeal lies in its bazaars and medieval mosques, though there is scarcely less fascination in its juxtapositions of medieval and modern life, the city’s fortified gates, villas and skyscrapers interwoven by flyovers whose traffic may be halted by donkey carts. The immensity and diversity of this “Mother of Cities” is as staggering as anything you’ll encounter in Egypt. Just outside Cairo are the first of the pyramids that range across the desert to the edge of the Fayoum, among them the unsurpassable trio at Giza, the vast necropolis of Saqqara and the pyramids at Dahshur. Besides all this, there are superb museums devoted to Ancient, Coptic and Islamic Egypt, and enough entertainment to occupy weeks of your time.
However, the principal tourist lure remains, as ever, the Nile Valley, with its ancient monuments and timeless river vistas – Nile cruises on a luxury vessel or a felucca sailboat being a great way to combine the two. The town of Luxor is synonymous with the magnificent temples of Karnak and the Theban Necropolis, which includes the Valley of the Kings where Tutankhamun and other pharaohs were buried. Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city, has the loveliest setting on the Nile and a languorous ambience. From here, you can visit the island Philae temple of Isis and the rock-hewn colossi at Abu Simbel, or embark on a cruise to other temples around Lake Nasser. Other sites not to be missed are Edfu and Kom Ombo, between Luxor and Aswan, and Abydos and Dendara, north of Luxor.
Besides monuments, Egypt abounds in natural wonders. Edged by coral reefs teeming with tropical fish, the Sinai Peninsula offers superb diving and snorkelling, and palm-fringed beaches where women can swim unmolested. Resorts along the Gulf of Aqaba are varied enough to suit everyone, whether you’re into the upmarket hotels of Sharm el-Sheikh, nearby Na’ama Bay or Taba further north, or cheap, simple living at Dahab and Nuweiba. From there it’s easy to visit St Catherine’s Monastery and Mount Sinai (where Moses received the Ten Commandments) in the mountainous interior. With more time, cash and stamina, you can also embark on jeep safaris or camel treks to remote oases and spectacular wadis.
Egypt’s Red Sea Coast has more reefs further offshore, with snorkelling and diving traditionally centred around Hurghada, while barely touched island reefs from Port Safaga down to Marsa Alam beckon serious diving enthusiasts. Inland, the mountainous Eastern Desert harbours the Coptic monasteries of St Paul and St Anthony, Roman quarries, and a host of pharaonic and prehistoric rock art, seen by few apart from the nomadic Bedouin.
While the Eastern Desert is still barely touched by tourism, the Western Desert Oases have been on the tourist trail for forty years and nowadays host safaris into the wilderness. Siwa, out towards the Libyan border, has a unique culture and history, limpid pools and bags of charm. Travellers can also follow the “Great Desert Circuit” (starting from Cairo, Luxor or Assyut) through the four “inner” oases – though Bahariya and Farafra hold the most appeal, with the lovely White Desert between them, the larger oases of Dakhla and Kharga also have their rewards once you escape their modernized “capitals”. And for those into serious desert expeditions, there’s the challenge of exploring the Great Sand Sea or the remote wadis of the Gilf Kebir, whose prehistoric rock art featured in the film The English Patient. In contrast to these deep-desert locations are the quasi-oases of the Fayoum and Wadi Natrun, featuring the fossil-strewn Valley of the Whales, diverse ancient ruins and Coptic monasteries.
On the Mediterranean, Egypt’s second city, Alexandria, boasts a string of beaches to which Cairenes flock in summer, and excellent seafood restaurants. Despite being founded by Alexander the Great and lost to the Romans by Cleopatra, the city today betrays little of its ancient glory; however, its magnificent new library, featuring statues raised from the sunken remains of Cleopatra’s Palace, and the Lighthouse of Pharos (which divers can explore) are restoring an air of majesty. Famous, too, for its decadence during colonial times, Alexandria still allows romantics to indulge in a nostalgic exploration of the city immortalized in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, while further along the Mediterranean coast is the World War II battlefield of El-Alamein. For divers, the waters off Alexandria offer an array of sunken cities and wartime wrecks to explore.
The Nile Delta, east of Alexandria, musters few archeological monuments given its major role in ancient Egyptian history, and is largely overlooked by tourists. However, for those interested in Egyptian culture, the Delta hosts colourful religious festivals at Tanta, Zagazig and other towns. Further east lies the Canal Zone, dominated by the Suez Canal and its three cities: Suez is grim, but a vital transport nexus between Cairo, Sinai and the Red Sea Coast; Port Said and Ismailiya are pleasant, albeit sleepy places, where you can get a feel of “real Egypt” without tripping over other tourists.
Top image © Marcelo Alex/Shutterstock
Egypt is one of the best diving destinations in the world. The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba are rich in sea life and home to a wonderful array of dive sites, with plenty of options for both novices and experts alike: remarkably preserved World War II wrecks, coral reefs filled with dolphins, rainbow-coloured anemone gardens, and shallow bays visited by turtles are just a few of the sites you can explore. The Sinai and Red Sea Coast chapters have detailed information on dive sites and recommended dive companies, as well as tips on safety and environmental issues.
The Red Sea’s stable climate, shallow tides and exceptionally high salinity provide perfect conditions for unusually brilliant corals and sponges – a revelation if you have previously dived in such places as Hawaii or the Caribbean, whose reefs will forever after seem dull by comparison. Created by generations of miniscule polyps depositing their limestone exoskeletons on the remains of their ancestors, coral reefs can grow by 4–5cm a year. Beside hard corals such as brain and fire coral, which have a rigid outer skeleton, the Red Sea hosts an abundance of soft corals, including whip coral and sea fans. Because most types of coral need a moderate amount of warm sunlight to flourish, the most spectacular formations are found within 30m of the surface.
Most Red Sea reefs are of the fringing type, with a shallow lagoon just offshore, whose warm water and rubble-strewn bottom attracts starfish and sea slugs. Clams and sea urchins hide in crevices, and schools of damselfish and butterflyfish flit about. Its seaward boundary is the reef flat, whose crest is usually a barren, rough-surfaced shelf, while deeper areas are rich in flora and fauna. Beyond is a coral-encrusted slope, leading to a drop-off like the edge of a cliff. Flatter areas may be dotted with coral pillars or knolls. Lower down, the coral is sparser, and you may find sandy terraces overgrown with seagrass, sustaining sea horses and pipefish. Beyond the drop-off lies open water.
Some of the Red Sea’s most colourful and endearing species are easy to spot in the shallows, where the sunlight is brightest. Among the commonest are beak-mouthed parrotfish and exotic-looking pennantfish, whose long dorsal fins end in filaments.
Wherever stinging anemones cling to the reef, you’ll see clownfish (or anemone fish). Angelfish are usually found close to the coral, while clouds of gold and vermillion anthias gather around coral heads and fans. Slopes and fore reefs are the habitat of snappers, goatfish and wrasses (the largest of these, the Napoleon Wrasse, can dwarf a person).
In deeper waters you may see sharks, including whitetip reef sharks, grey reef sharks and (occasionally) scalloped hammerheads. Spotted reef stingrays are often seen on the sandy bottom of the sea. Turtles are among the most thrilling species to encounter underwater; the Red Sea has several species, including green turtles and hawksbill turtles. Dolphin encounters are possible too, and those lucky enough to come across a pod of bottlenose or spinner dolphins on a dive are likely to count it among the highlights of their trip.
• The Arab Republic of Egypt covers 1,001,450 square kilometres, but 96.4 percent of that is desert. Only the Nile Valley, its Delta and some oases are fertile.
• Egypt’s population of 83.7 million is over twice that of the next most populous Arab country (Algeria) and a quarter of the population of the Arab world. 71 percent of Egyptians are literate. Average life expectancy is 73 years.
• Islam is the biggest religion, and some ninety percent of Egyptians are Muslim; most of the rest are Coptic Christians, with a small number of other Christians, and a tiny but ancient Jewish community.
• All Egyptians speak Arabic, but there are other Egyptian languages too: Nubian, related to the Nilotic languages of East Africa, is spoken around Aswan and Lake Nasser; Siwi, a Berber language like those of Morocco and Algeria, is spoken in Siwa Oasis; and Coptic, which is derived from ancient Egyptian, is used in church services, but not otherwise.
• Since the monarchy was ousted in 1952, Egypt has been a republic, ruled by a succession of military strongmen up until the 2011 revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. Elections in 2012 resulted in an Islamist government under President Mohammed Morsi. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is the largest in parliament, followed by the Salafist Al-Nour party, the liberal Wafd party and Egyptian Bloc.
• Tourism has long been Egypt’s biggest money-earner, followed by tolls on the Suez Canal, and exports of oil, petroleum products, natural gas, cotton and textiles. Over forty percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the economy would collapse without $2 billion a year in financial and food-aid from the US.