Solo travel takes on a whole new meaning when you head to what should be some of the biggest tourist attractions in Egypt, and find that you are the only one there.
The step pyramid of Djozer at Saqqara and the red pyramid and step pyramid at Dahshur in Egypt are perhaps some of the countries most significant archaeological, historical and cultural sites, making up just two of the estimated 118 pyramids in the country and showcasing the formative steps of architecture that eventually led to the iconic and infinitely more famous pyramids at the Giza plateau.
Yet despite their undoubted importance and relative short distance from Cairo, these magnificent monuments are being almost universally ignored by so many tourists, and during my short time there I could not believe I barely saw another soul.
I had spent a good amount of time in Cairo already by the time I decided to visit Saqqara and Dahshur. I had visited Giza a number of times and spent a lot of time researching and getting inspiration for my next novel on the streets of Cairo, and I was in need of seeing something a little outside of the city.
So ignoring all the overpriced day tours and knowing that I wanted to spend more than the usual hour or two at each site, I set out and hired a driver, told him to take me to Saqqara and wait for me to take me back to Cairo at a fraction of the cost of an organised tour.
Given these great monuments are spread out between the Giza Plateau and the semi Oasis of El Fayoum just a little north of Cairo in the Nile Delta, and it didn’t take me long to reach Saqqara itself.
The forgotten tourist attraction.
I hadn’t hurried myself that morning. Normally I make a point of getting to any site early, especially somewhere as iconic as Giza, in an effort to beat the tour groups and get ahead of them, but I was feeling a little lethargic that day and frankly wanted an extra hour in bed, so I took it.
It turned out I needn’t have worried. The car park at Saqqara had no coaches in it at all, just a few taxis and beat up cars I assumed belonged to some of the locals.
Not that I was complaining of course.
After buying my ticket and undergoing the usual questioning about my camera and being fleeced for an extra ticket for permission to take photographs (seriously, this paranoia about cameras needs to stop guys, yes it is a DSLR, yes is is a good camera, yes that is a tripod, yes I bought the tripod ticket, no I don’t work for the BBC and I am not filming so I won’t be paying for a filming licence. It gets tiring!) I walked up to the famous stepped pyramid of Djoser. Alone.
I couldn’t believe it, there was no waiting for annoying tour groups to stop pretending they were holding up the pyramids with perspective shots, no trying to hustle past crowds of people to walk through the ruins or clamber inside a tomb.
It was just me.
Even most of the touts had given up and gone home, save for a few lonely ‘guardians’ of the tombs and a couple of camel herders who simply asked me once if I wanted a camel ride, smiled at my refusal and carried on chatting amongst themselves.
I did a perfunctory, unhurried tour of the funerary complex, snapping photos and taking in my surroundings before starting again and examining the monuments more carefully, trying to remember my college studies of Egyptology as I read the few information signs that were scattered about. The Necropolis itself isn’t that large and I had covered most of it by mid morning.
By this time though a couple of tour buses had arrived, I am assuming from Sharm El Sheikh in Sinai, or maybe from a hotel in Cairo, but neither were full. No more than half a dozen in each, and I watched how the few remaining touts walked over to make a half hearted attempt to act as guides or sell a few postcards the second they stepped off the bus.
It made me chuckle, in a sad kind of way.
I found a shady spot near the funerary complex of Unas, put away my camera and pulled out my notepad and pen. What can I say? I’m an old fashioned writer and prefer the tactile feel of actually writing rather than typing, and that next novel won’t write itself.
Being alone in such a significant historical and cultural site was just unbelievable, and such a privilege. I really didn’t want to miss a moment of it and wanted to take advantage of every bit of inspiration while I could.
The few small tour groups that had turned up passed me a couple of times, barely even noticing me, absorbed in their surroundings and their forced perspective shots as their guide gave them the standard history, no doubt liberally peppered with a ton of local folklore too, and the few locals pretty much left me alone.
I was happy enough with that.
It is a sad indictment of the state of Egyptian tourism that such a site is so roundly ignored that even most of the touts give up and go home. But if the funerary complex at Saqqara seemed deserted, the bent and red pyramids at Dahshur are almost ready to be forgotten in the mists of time and once again swallowed up by the desert!
The infinite solace of Dahshur.
The next morning my driver picked me up and drove me out to Dashur. Again the ride itself didn’t take long, maybe half an hour or so, stopping along the way for supplies of water, fresh oranges and bananas that he shared with me as we arrived.
My visit to Saqqara the day before was a travellers dream, marred by very few other tourists with the ability to explore a magnificent historical attraction all to myself, but this was next level.
Save for the guy in the ticket office, who I had to genuinely wake up, and a few local police and military personnel who ignored me anyway, I was completely alone. No tourists, no tour groups and zero tour coaches. At all.
Dahshur by rights should be one of the most significant tourist attractions in Egypt, perhaps even more so than the infinitely more famous Giza plateau. It holds three of the earliest examples of pyramid building including the bent pyramid, the second pyramid built by the Pharoah Sneferu and the red pyramid, widely regarded as the first true smooth sided pyramid ever built and the third largest in Egypt itself, larger even than the pyramid of Menkaure at Giza.
After climbing down the long, claustrophobic shaft into the red pyramid, normally a horrendous experience when you are hemmed in by countless tourists, I had my Indiana Jones moment climbing down into the two large, high corbelled antechambers and even larger burial chamber, and enjoying the experience of being the only person inside this ancient structure, I had to sit down and just take in the fact that I could enjoy this site all to myself.
The red pyramid, so called because the outer white limestone has long since been stolen to reveal the red, weathered limestone underneath, is a true ancient wonder on par with the pyramids of Giza, and I cannot believe that no one comes to visit. According to the extremely bored attendant at the mouth of the red pyramids entrance I was their first visitor in days.
But the red pyramid isn’t the only attraction in Dahshur, and I was determined to see them all.
There is no easy route between the sites themselves, I am assuming that if the tour coaches do turn up they will bus the package tourists between each pyramid on the long road adjacent to the military base, but since I was on my own, and there were no coaches there, I couldn’t do that. So getting there involved a few kilometer hike into the desert to get from one pyramid to the next, and that was fine with me.
Armed with plenty of water and with my shemagh firmly wrapped around my head to protect myself from the sun, I set off on my own toward the famous bent pyramid. There was never any risk of getting lost of course, despite the large distances between the pyramids the gigantic structures made for ideal landmarks to head toward!
I was a little surprised that there was no security to stop me though, the site of Dahshur is adjacent to a working military base and in fact was closed off to tourists for many years because of that. But again, I’m not complaining.
A complete lack of tourists.
The sense of complete isolation was exciting and adventurous, but it was at the same time completely surreal, knowing that by rights the entire area should be packed with tourists.
It is on par with being in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre without having to elbow your way out of the rugby scrum, or being alone at Machu Picchu at sunrise. It just doesn’t happen in the age of mass tourism.
And it isn’t as if tourism is completely dead in Egypt. It has taken a massive blow in recent years yes, but it has realy opened it’s doors to Chinese tour groups who in my opinion are probably keeping the industry alive at the moment.
The sites of Saqqara and Dahshur are hardly ignored by the tourism industry in Egypt either, in fact if you look at any hotel’s tour offerings or any organised tour of the region you will see day tours taking in both sites, usually packaged together with Memphis as well in the quick stop selfie tours so loved by package tourists. Even the package tourists on Tripadvisor are bombarded with overpriced tours the second they look at any hotel in Egypt. So it is hardly a failing of the tourism industry not pushing these sites.
I just can’t believe that despite this there are so few tourists in general in Egypt, with the biggest tourist attraction in the world at Giza not even coming close to being crowded and for many amazing sites such as Saqqara and Dashur, you can have them entirely to yourself.
It is truly staggering.
But on the other hand in many ways this is a good thing, not just for my own personal rapture at not having to deal with endless tour groups , but for the sites themselves.
Egyptian authorities have not had the greatest track record when balancing tourism with the sustainable conservation and preservation of the sites many people would want to visit, so perhaps the lack of visitors is a blessing in disguise.
Bad for the Egyptian economy maybe, but probably the one thing at the moment stopping the wholesale destruction of these ancient sites.
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