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EGYPT

Commanding pyramids reaching towards the gods ... piercing obelisks adorned with hieroglyphics ... caravans of camels trudging across ocher sand dunes—Egypt is a land of profound majesty and mystery, and a magnet for treasure hunters, history lovers, and adventure seekers. At its heart is the mighty Nile, a true oasis in the desert and the life-blood for Egypt’s enduring history and culture. The first settlers were drawn to its fertile banks in the tenth millennium BC, making Egypt one of the world’s oldest nation states. Over time, these primitive hunter-gatherers evolved into a formidable civilization ruled by pharaohs and marked by incredible prosperity. During their dynasties, these rulers left indelible marks on the Egyptian landscape. Tombs, temples, and monuments sprung up all along the Nile, and culture flourished, too: Writing, agriculture, and organized religion all developed under the pharaohs’ authority.

But their power was fleeting. Egypt’s prime location between Africa and Asia made it a target for conquerors, beginning with the Persians in 343 BC, and followed by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, and Europeans. Each of these rulers left their own mark (the Arabs, for example, transformed Egypt from a Christian country to an Islamic one). However, none of these governments could undo the pharaohs’ spell—their influence is as profound now as it was millennia ago, and relics of their reign are regularly uncovered by eager archaeologists and everyday Egyptians alike.

In recent years, Egypt’s ruling class has been in turmoil once again: the Arab Spring unseated longtime president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and his successor, Mohamed Morsi was removed from power just two years later. Yet in spite of this unrest, there’s one thing that Egypt’s 92 million residents can be sure of—that the ancient allure of their country will always endure.

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Cairo

Cairo may call to mind the mighty pyramids, the enigmatic sphinx, and other pharaonic splendors, but the capital of Egypt has come into its own as a modern metropolis in the past couple of centuries. This modernization was achieved in the 19th century when Khedive Ismail came into power. Ismail had a vision that Egypt was part of Europe and Cairo was Egypt's Paris. The romantic appeal of the City of Lights inspired some of Cairo's downtown architectural treasures and was the start of Cairo's transformation from a quaint city to an urban hub.

Now, as one of the largest cities in the world, Cairo has adopted some modern features while maintaining its ancient allure. Just outside of the city center, you'll step back into antiquity during an exploration of Giza's iconic pyramids and sprinkled throughout historic Cairo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you'll find more ancient landmarks, including Ben Ezra Synagogue—the oldest Jewish temple in the city—and the Basilica-style Hanging Church, which is located in a Babylonian fortress dedicated to the Virgin Mary. You'll also come face to face with the glimmering gold death mask of the boy king Tutankhamun at the Egyptain Museum and explore the winding labyrinthine pathways of the medieval Khan al Khalili bazaar.

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Abu Simbel

Johann Luwig Burckhardt's, a modern Swiss explorer, discovered Abu Simbel in the early 1800s. Drowning in the desert sands, the only visible features of Abu Simbel that caught Burckhardt's attention were the heads on the King Ramses II statues. Over a century later, Abu Simbel faced drowning again, but this time the destruction would be far worse.

In the 1960s, the Egyptian government's plan to build the Aswan High Dam threatened the existence of Abu Simbel. Lake Nasser, a man-made lake that was created as a result of the dam's construction, would have submerged the ancient temple, but fortunately, UNESCO was able to lead a team in relocating Abu Simbel to a nearby site located above water level. Nearly 25,000 workers carefully deconstructed the temple into over 1000 blocks, each weighing around eleven tons. The blocks were transferred to a cliff where they were put back together out of harms way. The project took almost five years and millions of dollars to complete.

Simultaneously, the local Nubian people who lived here were threatened as well. Around 17,000 families were displaced as a result of the dam and relocated to another area. Meet with the Nubian locals and learn about the struggles they have faced relocating their lives and the efforts they are making to preserve their distinct culture.

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Suez Canal

For millennia, man had dreamed of building a waterway between the Asian and African continents to connect the Mediterranean to Red Sea. In fact, evidence of canals linking the Red Sea to the Nile (which empties into the Mediterranean at its northern-most point) date back as far as 1850 BC. Pharaoh after pharaoh attempted and abandoned canal projects through the centuries. Even modern-day emperor Napoleon Bonaparte contemplated canal creation in the early 19th century—but he, too, abandoned the idea when faulty survey measurements suggested that locks would be required to make up for a 30-foot elevation difference between the Mediterranean and Red Sea. It wasn’t until 1859 that construction began on the canal the world knows today.

With the blessing of Egypt’s government, French diplomat and entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps established the Suez Canal Company with the express purpose of finishing the waterway once and for all. Fortunately for Lesseps, a new survey revealed that no locks would be needed to make up for differing sea levels—but that didn’t mean construction was simple. In fact, during the first few years, tens of thousands of peasants were forced to dig the canal by hand under threat of violence, and some 120,000 laborers are believed to have died in the process. Eventually, forced labor was banned, and the Suez Canal Company changed tactics, using custom-made machinery to complete the excavation. The Suez Canal officially opened on November 17, 1869, and quickly revolutionized world commerce.

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Giza Pyramid Complex

Stretching out across a tawny plateau in the Libyan Desert, the Great Pyramid Complex is one of Egypt’s greatest icons, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At its heart is the Great Pyramid, which was built around 2560 BC by the Pharaoh Khufu (also known as Cheops). With an apex piercing 481 feet into the sky and three elaborate burial chambers tucked inside its limestone walls, the Great Pyramid is not only the largest pyramid ever constructed, but is also the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that remains today.

This impressive structure is flanked by two smaller pyramids—the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure—built to honor Khufu’s son and grandson, respectively. These three temples are surrounded by satellite structures, including “queens” pyramids, mastaba tombs, and a workers’ village. And then of course, there is the Great Sphinx. With the body of a lion and the head of a man, the Sphinx is believed to represent the Pharaoh Khafre. Built around 2558 BC, this limestone statue is the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt.

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Karnak Temple Complex

The story of the Karnak Temple Complex is intertwined with that of the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes. As the city increasingly became ancient Egypt’s political and religious center, Karnak became the singular expression of royal power for each passing pharaoh.

Comprising a vast mix of temples, chapels, pylons, and other buildings, Karnak is the second largest religious complex in history—only Angkor Wat in Cambodia is larger. Karnak’s walls and even its very foundations tell the stories of more than 30 pharaohs who contributed to the complex. The pharaoh Merneptah commemorated his victory over the Sea Peoples, a sea-faring clan of raiders, in hieroglyphics, while the pharaoh queen Hatshepsut reconstructed the complex to change its central focus to her whims. Rameses III had his own hieroglyphic stories carved deeper than previous rulers to ensure his legacy could not be overwritten.

While all ancient monuments in Egypt are windows into the empire’s fascinating past, Karnak is like the massive stained-glass tapestries of European cathedrals—complex, multifaceted, and endlessly arresting in its mysterious beauty.

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Valley of the Kings

Nestled on the western bank of the Nile River, the Valley of the Kings offers an intimate look into the life and opulence of Egypt’s pharaohs. The Valley of the Kings’ story is still being told—excavations are still taking place after over 200 years.

While from a distance the Valley of the Kings looks like any other river bank, the inside holds almost unsurpassed archaeological wonders. Between the 16th and eleventh centuries BC, pharaohs, nobles, and their families were entombed in this royal burial ground. The 63 tombs underneath the sand range from a hole in the ground to sprawling underground complexes—one named “KV5” has over 120 chambers. While the walls are covered in the stories of those buried there, you can also see the legacies of ancient Greek and Roman adventurers in their graffiti dating back at least to 278 BC. Though many of the tombs have been robbed over the centuries, the tomb of the eminent King Tutankhamun was found nearly completely intact, giving archaeologists an exhaustive look into the lives of ancient Egyptian royalty.

The Valley of the Kings is an encyclopedic chronicle for the Egyptian experience of death—understanding their journey to the afterlife fosters a deeper understanding of being Egyptian.

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Nile River

Flowing 4,258 miles from south to north, the Nile is the longest river in the world. It spans eleven countries, including Tanzania, Uganda, and South Sudan, but it is widely regarded as the epicenter of Egypt. With an average annual precipitation of around one inch in most of the country, the Nile River is Egypt’s only real water source. It comes as no surprise that most of the country’s major cities and historic sites—from Cairo to Luxor—grew up along its fertile banks.

But there’s more to the Nile than its nourishing waters: The river also serves as a major transportation route, particularly when the basin and surrounding roadways flood. While it’s common to see motorized barges today, the traditional mode of transportation is the felucca. With a simple wooden hull and single crescent-shaped sail, these graceful vessels have been zigzagging along the Nile for centuries, and are the preferred option for visitors seeking peaceful passage.

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Most Popular Films

Films featuring Egypt from international, independent filmmakers

Um Hashem's Story

Hear of a mother’s fight to keep her daughter in school despite her father’s wishes to marry her off.

Produced by Oliver Wilkins

7 Days in Egypt

Take a panoramic tour of Egypt's most beloved highlights, from the Pyramids and the Sphinx to Karnak Temple.

Produced by Kristian Hampton

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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.

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Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

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Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

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Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.

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Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.

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Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.

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