Over 5000 years ago the first semi divine Pharaoh united two disparate lands into a country that became so powerful, so distinctive, that it still holds a visceral fascination to the entire world over 2000 years after the last Pharaoh’s occupied their thrones.
Egypt holds an almost overwhelming allure for modern Western society, from the very first European treasure hunters to the modern day Egyptologists. It has featured in almost every medium from classic literature to modern Hollywood blockbusters and has been the focus of our imagination and attention for centuries, and this fascination shows absolutely no sign of abating any time soon.
I got bitten by the Egyptian bug very early on. I have had a fascination with ancient history in general for as long as I can remember and Egyptology was a natural progression of that obsession. My eternal geekiness as a child and a teenager extended far beyond comic books, computer games and Dungeons and Dragons (that’s old school Game of Thrones for you uninitiated), and this was back when being a geek was still considered uncool long before Big Bang Theory and before the damn hipsters got hold of the culture, and I would spend hours on my own in the library reading about traditional and alternative theories on Egyptian history, learning the established history and devouring as much on the religion and the culture as I could.
I tell you this so that you know when I travelled to Egypt it was more than just a holiday for me, more than just another backpacking trip, it was the realisation of all the fascination and wonder I had held inside me since I was a boy, the embodiment of all those hours spent in the library poring through old textbooks. It was my pilgramage, my quest.
And it did not disappoint.
From the second I touched down in Cairo at a ridiculously ungodly hour of the morning I felt that euphoric sense of freedom, that adrenaline rush of endless possibility and adventure that usually encompasses me on a backpacking trip, but this time it was much more that that. I had my backpack on, no one to hold me back and I was about to explore a destination I had dreamed about for years. The possibilities for exploration were endless. This was far more than just independent travel. This was my chance to live my own version of the adventures of the early European explorers, my chance to see firsthand some of the infamous archaeological ruins I had read and dreamed about for so long.
I was Indiana Jones!
Okay, maybe I got carried away with that – I didn’t have a fedora and a whip after all – but I did have that same feeling of impending adventure that I was filled with when watching those movies as a young boy. It was much more than the fact that I could finally see and touch the great pyramids of Giza or explore the ruins of Karnak and Luxor. It was the sense of adventure that simply being there filled me with, as if the ghosts of those early Victorian explorers had never left and were still encouraging me to discover what secrets this land held. The sense that I was here, on my own, and regardless of the very well ingrained package tour infrastructure, I was about to discover Egypt on my own terms.
“Independent travel in a land of package tours is easier than people think.”
Many people head to Egypt on a two week jaunt to Sharm El Sheik, which is technically in Sinai, not Egypt, and spend a few days being bussed around like sheep to the various places of interest. They never stray too far from their air conditioned coach of course and are cheerfully back by their pool in Sharm by the time the sun sets. Thousands of years of history and culture taken in bite sized chunks, the history and the meaning behind the sites forgotten as they pose for cheesy perspective pictures that look as if they are holding the pyramids in their hands.
That wasn’t for me.
After taking a day to get my bearings, I emerged from my room in downtown Cairo and flagged down a taxi. Cairo seemed to have a certain hue to it at this time of the morning as the glow of the newly risen sun cast a dusty haze over the city, and I warmed to the affable chattering of the driver as I waited to catch my first glimpse of the structures I had waited my whole life to see. The Pyramids of Giza. The symbol of Egypt and the subject of awe and study for thousands of years. No amount of desensitisation caused by years of exposure to the image could prepare me for that first glimpse of the pyramids themselves, or diminish the sense of wonder I felt as I saw flashes of those magnificent structures through the topography of Cairo.
I was awestruck, there is no other way of putting it. Sheer, unadulterated awe.
The driver dropped me off at the entrance gate to the Giza Plateau, almost deserted at this time of the morning apart from a few touts and camel herders and a lone cleaner lazily brushing the entrance to the incongruous Pizza Hut that sits between the dishevelled Cairene buildings. I bought my entrance tickets at the booth and waited for the gates to open, being approached by a couple of the touts wanting to sell me horse or camel rides. They weren’t too pushy at all and a friendly ‘la Shukran’ was enough for them to return to their friends and leave me be.
I was getting used to the strange solitude as I waited to go inside, but then a few minutes before the gates were due to open a whole herd of coaches arrived at once, bussing the sheep like masses to their destinations. I hurried inside, showing my tickets to the guard and looked back as the tour group leaders purchased tickets en masse for the crowds of package tourists and the touts and camel herders descended on the visitors from Sharm like vultures on a fresh carcass, far more vociferous in their efforts than they had ever been with me.
I left them to it and returned my attention to the Giza plateau itself. I was here. I had made it. And for ten glorious minutes I had the entire place all to myself as the tour groups huddled at the entrance waiting to be shepherded around the site. I got to see a side of the pyramids that very few tourists get to see, the peaceful solitude of the breathtaking plateau shared with no one but the occasional Egyptian worker or the peaceful rumbling of a horse and cart.
I made the most of my solitary experience and soaked it all in because I knew it wouldn’t last for long, and sure enough as inevitably as the sun was getting higher in the sky, more and more tourists flooded the plateau. Despite the growing crowds I still felt predominantly left alone as the touts all made a beeline for the massive tour groups like moths to a flame, viewing the walking ATM machines as easy pickings. Apart from the occasional exception they generally left me alone to wander the plateau of my own accord. Seeing the tourists herded around a very prescriptive path, I veered away from them and walked the stretch of desert to Khufu’s pyramid, walking out into the desert slightly for an even greater sense of solitude before doubling back and exploring Menkaure’s pyramid and the three queen pyramids in more detail. By this time I was never wholly alone of course, often surrounded by countless other package tourists and travellers, but by coming here on my own – independently- I was able to capture at least some moments where I truly felt I was exploring this magnificent country on my own terms.
I spent the next few days becoming increasingly familiar with the area around Giza. As well as exploring Cairo more thoroughly – an endlessly vibrant and fascinating city – which led to one of my favourite travel tales, and taking the time to continue to write my novel, I simply explored the desert region on the outskirts of the plateau, visited different areas of archaeological interest and yes, kept getting drawn back to the pyramids themselves. It was a singularly blissful experience.
This pattern was repeated numerous times throughout my time in Egypt, from Alexandria to Luxor and beyond. Almost every major site I went to I had time on my own to wander and explore before the tourist hordes descended like locusts, then time alone again as they dissipated in the heat of the afternoon. I always took the time to explore the attractions and the surrounding areas more thoroughly, to stay in the towns and cities long enough to at least get a taste of the culture, the unique pulsing beat of each place. And yes, even avoid the package tourists as much as possible. At the very least I could explore in my own time without tour guides constantly ushering me on or being hounded by touts who found it much more profitable to chase the unprepared tour groups.
But it was much more than that. When visiting Egypt you are never truly going to escape the tourism industry – huge swathes of the Egyptian economy rely on it – and you will never get away from the tourist hordes completely. Everyone wants to see the prime attractions, the great sites that have drawn visitors for thousands of years, and the major attractions will always be busy. You simply aren’t going to escape that fact. But by travelling independently you still get to see all of those amazing sites, but you get so much more too. You get to see parts of Egypt that most tourists never see. You get the time and the opportunity to visit the minor sites that are no less interesting, but just aren’t on the usual tourist trail. You can take your time and really explore the monuments and the sites in more detail, in your own time and at your own pace. You get the opportunity to take a step back from the frenzied tourist culture and meet some of the Egyptians who aren’t working in the tourist industry or their to make money off tourists, you get a glimpse into the real heart of the country, an insight into the culture beyond what any package tourist can ever see.
Egypt is a land that is set up for the package tourist, but the independent traveller can still find a place here and in my opinion get a much deeper, richer experience. Independent travel in a land of package tours is easier than people think. All it takes is a bit of knowledge, a bit of confidence and a little bit of effort on your part. Actually, forget that last one. I think travelling through Egypt independently is actually much, much easier than going on a package tour!
So I urge you, when you visit Egypt do so on your own terms. Don’t go with the package tours or the tour groups. Spend some time in Cairo and take some time to explore the city’s many unique facets instead of just going to Giza and the museum then heading back to Sharm. Visit some of the lesser known monuments and museums. Stay at least a few days in a small pension or guesthouse in each town or city instead of getting bussed in and out for a few hours with a coach load of other tourists. Make just a tiny little bit of effort to see this amazing country on your own terms and you will be rewarded tenfold for your efforts.
What are your experiences of Egypt? Have you been? I’d love to hear about it below.