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Off the Beaten Track in Ancient Egypt

Story and photography by Nicholas Grundy

Egypt is truly timeless. Whether you’re a photographer, an adventurer, a history buff, or a budding archaeologist, it’s the dream destination with something for everyone. On my trip, I broke away from the norm by journeying, for the most part, alone. While most visitors immediately link up with a tour group, I grabbed my camera gear from the baggage carousel and found my way to Cairo’s upmarket Zamalek district. The affluent agglomeration of high-rises sits atop the northern half of Gezira Island, surrounded by the Nile on all sides. Fortunately, I was not entirely by my lonesome at first, as my friend Khalil awaited my arrival. He is an American expat who was living in Cairo for twelve months, and his fluent Arabic would prove invaluable during my two-week journey.

Khalil’s penthouse commanded views across nighttime Cairo, lights flickering faintly as I dozed off after a long flight. Blazing through the window the next morning, the sun prompted a visit straight to the famed Pyramids of Giza. Although absolutely stunning in proportion, more surprising was their proximity to Cairo’s western suburbs. Evading the tourist hordes on the first of many occasions, I hailed a taxi to whisk us southward. Our driver stopped beneath the lesser-visited Red Pyramid, his car dwarfed by the towering tomb. Donning my headlamp, we clambered cautiously down into the very center—a tight descent not for the fainthearted! Next, we visited Pharaoh Djoser’s Step Pyramid further on at Saqqara. Retiring from a busy day, we plunked ourselves into the plush seating of Sequoia, an exclusive restaurant jutting out into the Nile. Here we rubbed shoulders with Zamalek’s social elite, sipping cocktails as sailboats fluttered past.

A camel lying down in front of a pyramid in Egypt.
The Pyramid of Djoser is an unusual stepped pyramid located south of Cairo at Saqqara.

After another day of sightseeing at Saladin’s Citadel and the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, it was back to the airport. With Khalil suddenly required in Cairo, I was officially flying solo for the next week. This daunting realization necessitated a crash course in Arabic as a light aircraft ferried me south across the desert; this would provide me enough bartering and navigation skills to survive. Touching down in darkness only miles from the Sudanese border, orange daylight soon peeked over the horizon. Bathed in the warm morning glow were the magnificent temples of Abu Simbel, perched on the banks of Lake Nasser. Long shadows stretched across the ground, cast by the soaring statues of Ramesses II and his Queen Nefertari. I grabbed a quick snack and raced back to the airstrip, meeting the northbound plane to Luxor with only minutes to spare; slightly later and I’d have been making an epic ten-hour bus journey. The scorched orange earth zoomed beneath the wing beside me as the aircraft hurtled down the runway and up into wispy white clouds wafting through azure skies.

Situated on the east bank of the Nile halfway between Cairo and Abu Simbel, the ancient city once known as Thebes is home to two magnificent temples. The sprawling Luxor Temple complex is characterized by towering columns and halls, while Karnak is home to awe-inspiring obelisks, erected by Queen Hatshepsut and still piercing the heavens some 3,500 years later. While immensely impressive to say the least, the temples are far from the only attraction here. Catching a lift on a traditional felucca sailboat, I crossed the Nile to find my guesthouse a literal stone’s throw from yet another massive antiquity, Medinet Habu, the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III. Its vaulted halls are reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie. While any treasure was looted long ago, I found it ironic that the guard entrusted with the temple’s care was fast asleep when I visited. Creeping up with camera in hand, I crouched down and took a quick snap without disturbing his slumber in the slightest. Devoid of any tour groups, the maze of passageways and chambers within were mine to explore with only my trusty headlamp to guide me.

I person riding a camel in front of the great pyramid of Giza.
The Pyramid of Khafre, second largest of the three Pyramids of Giza

Hastily wolfing down breakfast the next morning, I rushed off into the pitch blackness to photograph the remaining sites at dawn. Ascending the western hills offers the perfect 360-degree vantage point. Dots of light flickered into life in the distance as local goatherds arose and lit their morning campfires. From out of nowhere appeared a robed Bedouin man, a shotgun dangling lightly from the fingertips of his left hand. “Salaam alaikum,” I uttered, in the hopes of a friendly response. The man smiled, my Arabic obviously passing the test. He nodded and replied in kind. And with that, he disappeared back into the fog. Out of breath, I stumbled atop a ridgeline to be greeted with a phenomenal sight: the tour groups across the river had taken to the skies in eleven hot air balloons, the gleaming sun behind them making them an even dozen orbs. A better way perhaps to take in the view—without working up such a sweat!

With the balloons drifting gently on the breeze overhead, I descended into a compact valley to enter the necropolis of Deir el-Medina. Here one finds the unexpected miniature pyramid of Sennedjem, caretaker of the site’s royal tombs. Pushing through the clouds, the sun bathed the surrounding slopes in shafts of amber light. Higher up, a multitude of cave tombs also emerged from the darkness. Bats shot out as I entered one of the caverns. Breathing in the stale air, I felt for a brief moment like a real-life tomb raider. A steep track led out of the ravine and up to an incredible lookout, providing panoramic vistas over the funerary shrine of Hatshepsut, one of Egypt’s renowned female pharaohs. My boots dislodged crumbs of earth that trickled down the cliffs. Below, clusters of tourists busily darted about, resembling colonies of ants, and behind the escarpment lay the Valley of the Kings, the final resting place of Egypt’s ancient leaders. Descending the rocky outcrop, I discovered yet another modern-day Egyptian snoozing peacefully. A member of the local tourist police, likewise charged with protecting relics, he sat passed out inside his guardhouse, his arms jutting out into the burning midday sun. This time, however, I barely managed to hide my camera before my presence was discovered.

The Karnak Temple in Egypt
The sun’s arrival at Karnak Temple casts a striking shadow from one of the towering obelisks.

Returning to Cairo by train was a real test of my limited language skills. Luckily, neither I nor my luggage got lost in translation, and I was met by Khalil beneath the ornate ceiling of Ramses Station. He had arranged a jaunt for us through the sprawling western deserts. With our guide, Omar, at the wheel, our off-road SUV tore down empty desert highways before veering off across the sand. Unbeknownst to me, my two companions planned to head well off the beaten track. The engine revved like mad as we shot up an almost vertical sand dune, our backs pressed into our seats like astronauts at liftoff. Until that moment, I thought I’d seen photos of every famous site in Egypt. But, after we crested the dunes, I stared out at wonders the likes of which I’d never seen before.

Below us stood looming rock formations looking like the halls of Luxor’s temples fading into the distant haze. Winding down through these natural behemoths, we rolled across the Black Desert, a region littered with basalt rock. Past the jet-black outcrops, we entered the contrasting White Desert, where bleached limestone pokes up through the shifting sands. We sat down and reflected on an extraordinary day of discovery, making camp for the night among the area’s chalky, sculpted rock features. Meanwhile, Omar whirled into life, lighting a fire to boil up some tea before unwrapping blocks of halvah, a local sweet delicacy. With the sun setting across the vast flatness, thousands of stars began shimmering above.

As we returned to the bustling metropolis of Cairo, it was difficult to imagine we’d been surrounded by such stillness only the day before. On my last evening in Egypt we ventured up to Khalil’s rooftop for the final sunset. A breathtaking sight unfolded westward as the pyramids came into view at the city’s edge, juxtaposed against apartment buildings peppered with satellite dishes. For one last time, a flaming sun dipped below the horizon and the stars emerged overhead. Gazing skyward, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia already, grateful for this rare opportunity to catch up with an old friend while photographing a land of golden hues.

— V —

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