Egypt Travel

Climbing Mt. Sinai – An Unforgettable Experience

One of our most memorable experiences in Egypt was visiting St. Katherine’s Monastery and climbing to the summit of Mt. Sinai. It’s about a two and a half-hour drive through the unforgiving interior desert landscape from the resort of Na’ama Bay to St. Katherine’s Monastery, where the hike begins to Mt. Sinai.

A view of the Sinai peninsula landscape on the way to Mt. Sinai.

A view of the Sinai peninsula landscape on the way to Mt. Sinai.

St. Katherine’s Monastery

This area has been a pilgrimage site for centuries and is holy ground to three religions: Christians, Muslims, and Jews. According to the Old Testament, this is the place of numerous revelations by God (including the Ten Commandments) to the prophet Moses. The Israelites camped in this area for some time after miraculously escaping from the Egyptian armies by crossing the Red Sea on dry land.

The Bell Tower at St. Katherine's Monastery. It houses 9 bells donated by Tsar Alexander II from Russia.

The Bell Tower at St. Katherine’s Monastery. It houses 9 bells donated by Tsar Alexander II from Russia.

Considered one of the oldest continually functioning monastic communities in the world, much of the compact monastery is off limits to tourists, but it is still worth a visit and is the spot where all tourists begin their hike up Mt. Sinai.

A view of the Monastery walls and some local camels.

A view of the Monastery walls and some local camels.

The 20 or so monks living here are Greek Orthodox and the first church was built here in about 337 AD, commemorating the spot where God spoke to Moses in the form of a burning bush. Interestingly, a descendant of an evergreen bush which grows nowhere else in the Sinai is found here.

This evergreen is believed to be a descendant of the burning bush. Transplanted here in the 10th century from the nearby chapel of the same name.

This evergreen is believed to be a descendant of the burning bush. Transplanted here in the 10th century from the nearby chapel of the same name.

The Byzantine Emperor Justinian fortified the location and built the main Basilica of the Transfiguration in 527 AD on the grounds of the original church which became the origin of the monastery.

Mt. Sinai

There are two ways to climb the Mount (altitude: 2,285 meters or 7,500 ft). There is the “camel path” which is wider and more “gently” sloping, or taking what is called the “Steps of Repentance” route– a very steep climb of 3,750 steps (hard on the knees) which was built by a monk doing penance—what a price to pay! We took the camel path, and it joins the “Steps of Repentance” path 750 steps below the summit.

On the trail with Mount Sinai behind me - about halfway up.

On the trail with Mount Sinai behind me – about halfway up.

Going through a narrow gorge. Getting ready for the final ascent.

Going through a narrow gorge. Getting ready for the final ascent.

Hiking up the last 750 steps to the summit. In the distance below is Elijah's basin. The cypress tree is thought to be 1,000 years old. Those who traveled with Moses up the mountain waited here while he ascended to the summit to speak with God.

Hiking up the last 750 steps to the summit. In the distance below is Elijah’s basin. The cypress tree is thought to be 1,000 years old. Those who traveled with Moses up the mountain waited here while he ascended to the summit to speak with God.

You can take a camel up the path but we decided to hike it, and even at a good pace it took us about 2 hours to reach the summit from the Monastery. This is not an easy hike, and several members of our group ended up not making it to the top.

The Chapel of the Holy Trinity at the summit of Mt. Sinai.

The Chapel of the Holy Trinity at the summit of Mt. Sinai.

A magnificent view from the top of Mt. Sinai.

A magnificent view from the top of Mt. Sinai.

A lot of tourists leave at around 3 am to reach the summit for the sunrise. We were not that ambitious and arrived at the summit around noon. My wife and I had the top of this sacred mountain to ourselves at that time of day. The views are incredible and although the landscape is harsh (reminding me a bit of Death Valley), it was thrilling to be on the Mount which holds so much historical and religious significance to many people.

References: Lonely Planet Egypt, DK Eyewitness Travel Egypt.

The Sinai Peninsula – A Totally Different Egypt and Gateway to the Red Sea

After two weeks touring the dusty ancient ruins of Egypt, we felt like we had traveled to a different planet when we arrived at the Sharm el-Sheikh Airport from Luxor. While both airports are modern, the minute you step outside in Sharm el-Sheikh you notice the difference – the more humid air, and the end of bargains. The taxi drivers wanted E£ 200 (at the time about $40 USD) for a 2-3 mile ride to our hotel that would have cost E£ 15-20 in other parts of the country, and they would rather walk away than bargain.

My sister on Na'ama Bay beach.

My sister on Na’ama Bay beach.

Lots of water toys available for rent in Na'ama Bay.

Lots of water toys available for rent in Na’ama Bay.

We stayed at the Hilton Hotel in Na’ama Bay (a bit more resort-like and next door to the larger town of Sharm el Sheikh) which felt more like Cancun than Egypt – a promenade with lots of restaurants, posh hotels and tourists—especially from Russia.

The promenade at Na'ama Bay - lined with restuarants and shops.

The promenade at Na’ama Bay – lined with restuarants and shops.

Even though it’s more of a cushy resort area, nice hotels can be had for about $50 US per night.

One of the nine pools at the Hilton Sharm Dreams Resort. Great hotel.

One of the nine pools at the Hilton Sharm Dreams Resort. Great hotel.

This is a divers’ paradise. The Red Sea has some of the best diving in the world. Lots of tour companies will take you out for day trips to the reefs and shipwrecks. Unfortunately we’re not divers, but we did enjoy snorkeling. My sister and her husband took a glass-bottom boat tour.

One of the glass bottom boat tours available in Na'ama Bay.

One of the glass bottom boat tours available in Na’ama Bay.

The water is incredibly clear and full of life, with unique coral formations and marine species not found elsewhere on the planet. We took a taxi out to Ras Mohammed National Park and did some snorkeling from the beach. Lots of dive boats were just off shore; this is one of the best spots in the Red Sea.

The imposing entrance to Ras Mohammed National Park.

The imposing entrance to Ras Mohammed National Park.

An incredible beach at Ras Mohammed National Park.

An incredible beach at Ras Mohammed National Park.

One of the coral walls that goes straight down into the depths at Ras Mohammed National Park.

One of the coral walls that goes straight down into the depths at Ras Mohammed National Park.

Sharm el-Sheikh was claimed by Israel after the 1967 war (it was returned to Egypt in 1982 and that is when development took off), and it experienced some terrorist activity about 10 years ago. However, it is probably one of the safest tourist spots in Egypt now. There are security barriers and guards at the entrance to the town. Your car may be checked, but this is for your protection as a tourist.

A view of the shore heading back to Na'ama Bay from Ras Mohammed National Park.

A view of the shore heading back to Na’ama Bay from Ras Mohammed National Park.

It would be a huge mistake to visit Egypt and not go to the Sinai. We also climbed Mt. Sinai (think Moses and the 10 Commandments) and I will discuss that day trip in a separate post.

Giza Plateau – Home to the Greatest Wonder of the World

Regardless of which list of the “Wonders of the World” you consider your favorite or the most accurate (my son and I have argued about this), the Pyramids of Giza have to be on every list. For most tourists flying into Cairo, Egypt the first sight you see as your plane turns to make its approach into the Cairo International airport are the Pyramids at Giza. They look a bit surreal from the air, and I could hardly believe my eyes, seeing these massive structures for the first time. The scale and magnificence of the Pyramids of Giza pretty much defy description.

This photo of me by the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops) puts into perspective how massive these structrues are.

This photo of me by the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops) puts into perspective how massive these structrues are.

We still don’t really know how the ancient Egyptians (more accurately their slaves) managed to build these structures, with almost perfect engineering strength and accuracy. Built with stone blocks that weigh 2.5 to 15 tons, they have been standing almost 5,000 years. The greatest difference in the length between the four sides of any pyramid is 2 inches.  The largest pyramid is 450 feet high.

The Great Pyramid. 450 feet high. The haze is the smog of Cairo - which was very bad on the day of our visit.

The Great Pyramid. 450 feet high. The haze is the smog of Cairo – which was very bad on the day of our visit.

All this said, Giza was probably my least favorite spot of the places we visited in Egypt simply because the tourist crowds and smog of Cairo made our visit a little less appealing.  My favorite pyramids were south of Giza and Cairo, in Dahshur and Saqqara, which I will cover in another post. The main sights at Giza (which is just south of the Cairo suburbs), include the three large pyramids made so famous in many pictures and the Sphinx sculpture.

My in-laws at the Sphinx (Great Pyramid of Khufu in the background).

My in-laws at the Sphinx (Great Pyramid of Khufu in the background).

The three large pyramids are: The Great Pyramid (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or Cheops), Pyramid of Khafre (Khufu’s son), and the relatively smaller third pyramid called Menkaure, who was Khafre’s successor).

The third of the great pyramids, Pyramid of Menkaure. It's quite a distance from the other two to this one (the little pyramid at the left is one of his queen's tombs).

The third of the great pyramids, Pyramid of Menkaure. It’s quite a distance from the other two to this one (the little pyramid at the left is one of his queen’s tombs).

These pyramids were built as tombs during 2600 – 2100 BC, making them over 4,500 years old. These were not the first pyramids built in Egypt, the oldest is the Step Pyramid (King Djoser’s Pyramid) in Saqqara (2665 BC). While these pyramids are the main attractions at Giza, there are other less-visited sites such as the much smaller Queen’s pyramids which are more intimate and fun – very few tourists visit these tombs, which are near the largest (Great) Pyramid.

In front of the Queen's pyramids next to the Great Pyramid.

In front of the Queen’s pyramids next to the Great Pyramid.

The Giza site is very spread out and somewhat confusing – there is no signage to speak of and I got differing directions as we tried to find a few other tombs (such as the Tomb of Khentkawes).

I believe this is the Tomb of Khentkawes, which was closed.

I believe this is the Tomb of Khentkawes, which was closed.

At the time we visited a few years ago, it was possible to only visit one pyramid on a given day (they also rotate closures), and we were able to visit the Pyramid of Khafre, the 2nd largest (slightly smaller than Great Pyramid, even though it looks larger).

My mother-in-law and wife in front of the Pyramid of Khafre. It's the only one with a bit of the brillant outer limestone layer left at the top.

My mother-in-law and wife in front of the Pyramid of Khafre. It’s the only one with a bit of the brillant outer limestone layer left at the top.

I could not get a picture inside this pyramid, and the tunnel is very long and steep.  Be prepared to stoop as you climb the whole tunnel length. It is also humid and stuffy in the main room.

Climbing out of the Queen's Pyramid, giving an idea of what the access tunnels are like.

Climbing out of the Queen’s Pyramid, giving an idea of what the access tunnels are like.

There really isn’t much to see, other than the sarcophagus of the Pharaoh Khafre, but it’s one of those things you have to do!  If you’re claustrophobic it’s probably a good idea to stay outside.  For an overview of places we visited in Egypt, click here.

My brother-in-law doing the touristy thing (why not?) in front of the Pyramid of Khafre.

My brother-in-law doing the touristy thing (why not?) in front of the Pyramid of Khafre.

References: DK Eyewitness Travel Egypt, Lonely Plant Egypt.

Egypt – Go Now

The great Sphinx at Giza.

The great Sphinx at Giza.

The news websites and TV stations flash scenes of angry crowds, fires and riots in Cairo and Americans stay away. What we don’t understand is that the news is focusing on a very small part of the country and even a very small part of Cairo.  Although it was a few years ago, we did a self-guided tour of Egypt and had a great time.

My wife and mother-in-law at the Luxor Temple.

My wife and mother-in-law at the Luxor Temple.

With the current political situation in Egypt many people would probably not consider a visit let alone a self-guided tour, and yet now is a good time to go, because there are far fewer tourists.  Over a series of posts I will share the highlights of our trip, but in this post I will provide a few tips and overview of our route (below):

  1. Getting around. I am a pretty brave car driver in other countries, but I have my limits. I will not drive in Cairo. I think Cairo traffic takes top prize in chaos, perhaps on par with India, and perhaps even more so. Our modes of transportation on our trip took various forms: we hired drivers for day trips, flew on Egypt Air (a great airline), and took a couple trips on trains, including an overnight train (in a sleeper cabin) from Cairo to Luxor—which was a fun experience.
    Arriving in Luxor after an overnight ride from Cairo.

    Arriving in Luxor after an overnight ride from Cairo.

    Interior of a train sleeper cabin. (A bed folds down above the seats).

    Interior of a train sleeper cabin. (A bed folds down above the seats).

    Making reservations on Egypt Air’s website for internal flights in Egypt was a bit of a nightmare. The Egypt Air New York office only wants to deal with the lucrative overseas flights.  Once we got to Egypt, it was easy to go into a local Egypt Air office and make changes, get seat assignments, etc. Cairo taxis are a bit of a challenge, in that there are no meters, and you have to guess what to pay the driver, or try to negotiate a fare before you hop in.

    Eating dinner with our driver (on left) and his colleague after a day of touring Cairo.

    Eating dinner with our driver (on left) and his colleague after a day of touring Cairo.

  2. Safety. Except for one taxi incident that my sister experienced in Cairo, where the driver acted a bit threatening and wanted more money (even though my brother-in-law had paid generously), the people were very friendly, and helpful. There were Tourist police (in white uniforms) in many locations and they provided directions and helped us cross very busy streets (cars are king, and pedestrians take their lives in their hands).
    Tourist police at the Pyramids of Giza.

    Tourist police at the Pyramids of Giza.

    We never feared for our safety, and walked the streets of Cairo and other locations at night.  In fact, the night scene is more lively when families and children come out to play (probably due to the generally hot climate).

    Cute Egyptian children.

    Cute Egyptian children.

  3. Tipping. Plan to give lots of tips (backsheesh). The local population lives on these tips, and the tips amount to perhaps 50 cents in many cases. You’ll find many locals at the tourist sites want to show you a few things and expect a tip in return.
  4. Best time to visit.  We visited during early November, and found the weather to be great.  Warm enough to go swimming, but cool enough to wander through the desert sights and not die of heat exhaustion.
  5. Cost. Egypt is inexpensive for the most part, especially if you’re doing a visit on your own. We stayed in a decent hotel in Luxor for 18 (USD) per night.  It was not fancy, but was a decent hotel. About 5 Egyptian Pounds to the USD.

    Purchasing some fruits from a street vendor (great oranges!).

    Purchasing some fruits from a street vendor (great oranges!).

  6. Standard of Living. Egypt is a poor country, and not the cleanest country.  We saw piles of trash in different places and dead animals occasionally. There are many unfinished buildings and others that are falling apart. It’s all just part of the experience.
    Typical housing in Cairo.

    Typical housing in Cairo.

    Street scene in Alexandria.

    Street scene in Alexandria.

  7. Culture shock.  When we flew from Luxor to Sharm el-Sheikh (Sinai Peninsula), we felt like we were entering another world. Sharm felt like Cancun and everything was far more expensive (similar to US prices). The Sinai Peninsula is completely different than the rest of the country. However, the hotel prices in Naama Bay (next to Sharm el-Sheikh) were still pretty good, my sister and her husband got a nice hotel room (Tropicana Rosetta) with a great pool for $50/night.

    Pool at the Tropicana Rosetta Hotel in Naama Bay.

    Pool at the Tropicana Rosetta Hotel in Naama Bay.

Itinerary

We spent about two weeks in Egypt. We started in Cairo for about 3 days, then took the train to Luxor and spent 4 days there, then flew to Sharm el-Sheikh for about 3 days, then flew back to Cairo and drove out to Alexandria for 2 days, then took  a train back to Cairo before flying home.

Major locations visited in Egypt.

Major locations visited in Egypt.