Seeing Egypt’s pyramids is a lifelong dream for many of us. Unfortunately, the Middle East doesn’t have the best reputation as a safe destination at the moment.
Egypt’s tourism industry as a whole, including the many cruise lines and tour operators in the region have fallen on hard times. Still, visiting the nation with a safety-oriented tour operator — at a time when crowds and pricing are both at their lowest level in decades — is a good idea for the right traveler.
Security in evidence
Arriving in Cairo for what would be a 16-day journey through Egypt and Jordan, culture shock set in rather quickly. At the airport, I was prepared to stand in line for the required multiple entry visa. It was reasonable to assume that entry to this volatile part of the world would also require passing through a variety of security checkpoints. Rightfully so. The week before our arrival, a group of tourists from Mexico were accidently killed by Egyptian military forces out in the desert when mistaken for insurgents — an incident that became international news.
As anticipated, security forces seemed to be everywhere: on street corners directing traffic, on every tour bus, outside the entrance to hotels, as well as hovering near restaurants and shopping venues. Clearly, this was no place to wander off on our own. After a few days though, we settled in and became accustomed to the extra security, something we found out later has always been part of the Middle Eastern experience.
Would anything top the pyramids?
Frankly, my biggest fear had nothing to do with news, terrorists and safety. I worried that once the pyramids were viewed, was that it? Would the rest of the experience pale by comparison? Actually, the iconic ancient structures were just the beginning of what would end up being an engaging travel experience.
Accompanied by a certified Egyptologist, with luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent we saw and experienced all we ever hoped Egypt would be and much more. By land, river and air we explored the country without incident, perhaps due to the appropriately higher level of security at every turn.
Interestingly, the Nile River cruise portion of our trip took up only four days of the itinerary. Along the way, bombarded by all things Egyptian on all fronts, we became comfortable with the reality of today’s Egypt; a marvelous place to visit with a warm friendly people eager for tourism to return. Case in point: the Islamic call to prayer, heard over loudspeakers from mosques around every city we visited.
Embracing the locals
At the start of the cryptic call, Muslims are reminded to pray throughout the day. My western culture induced first thought was “any religion that prays five times a day must not be all bad … unless they are praying for me to die.” Of course, they were not, as our Egyptologist explained. The scholar blamed Muslim extremists who had been cherry picking and promoting parts of the Islamic religion that could be interpreted in a negative way.
Over the course of the trip, many of us went from viewing locals in traditional Islamic dress as potential terrorists to making eye contact and saying “hello” as we passed on the street. Never in a million years would I have thought that immersing oneself in a destination could bring such distinct personal change and understanding.
Learning the story of Egypt could have happened a number of ways. Had we visited the legendary monuments in safe hands and come home to tell about it, that experience could very well have been counted as a win. Simply running through ancient Egyptian history could have kept us occupied. Avoiding potentially dangerous areas? That would be easy enough to do with a police escort and chase cars accompanying our tour bus. We did more.
On the carefully crafted itinerary, we covered the past, present and what is thought to be the future of Egypt from political, economic and social view. The pyramids? In reflection those are just one tiny part of what Egypt is all about.