Egypt is the gift of the Nile for Egyptians and the gift of Egyptians to humanity.

In September 2019 the Friends ran two tours to Egypt and Jordan, in association with Innovative Travel, whose Cairo-based director is Elhamy Elzayat MNZM, CEO of Emeco Travel, Egypt’s leading travel and destination management organisation. At all times we felt completely safe, accompanied by Emeco staff, local guides and security, as well as Rene Wilson, former New Zealand ambassador to Egypt.

Before the main tour, some of us visited Alamein and Alexandria. Walking around the extensive rows of Second World War Commonwealth Graves at Alamein, in the searing heat and glare of the Egyptian desert, made us very aware of the sorrow and loss to many New Zealand families and communities. These young soldiers lie so far from home, their neat white headstones marking the bitter battle dates of 15 July, 22 July, and 24 October 1942.

Modern Alexandria is a no longer the elegant cosmopolitan city that our fathers knew, but like them, we got to stay in the elegant Cecil Hotel on the Corniche with its still elegant interiors and beautiful Venetian chandeliers. A highlight was our visit to the stunning Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a modern architectural masterpiece that commemorates the Library of Alexandria lost in antiquity and seeks to recreate its fame as a centre of learning and study, with vast specialised libraries, art and exhibition galleries and museums.

Back at Mena House, we woke to the Great Pyramid of Giza just across the lawn and began our packed tour of ancient Egypt– its magnificent architecture, art and history. We heard from world-renown Egyptologist Dr Zahi Hawass, a former Minister of Egyptian Antiquities, how exciting new discoveries are ongoing, with maybe 70% of Egypt’s ancient monuments still to be unearthed. We marvelled at the Sphinx and learnt how King Khafre’s head was placed on a lion’s body to show his strength. We had a sneak preview of The Grand Egyptian Museum which will open in 2020. It came with a private tour of the museum’s conservation centre, which is working overtime to restore and prepare the exhibits for what will be the world’s largest Museum.  We entered the main entry foyer to be greeted by the massive 14-metre-tall status of Ramesses II – age 3200 years.  The foyer itself is unbelievably large, placed midway in the 4.8 square kilometres Building. While it will be the ‘must see’ place for visitors, no short visit will ever take in more than a fraction of the history and displays.

We flew to Luxor (ancient Thebes), staying in the imposing Sofitel Old Winter Palace from where Howard Carter announced the discovery of Tutankhamum’s tomb. Later in Cairo we saw the tomb’s treasures at the Egyptian Museum. Luxor highlights were the imposing Karnak Temple complex and the exquisitely painted tomb of Queen Nefertari. From Luxor we sailed up the Nile on the luxurious Sonesta St George, visiting the Valley of the Kings, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut and the tomb of Tutankhamun, then on to Edfu and the perfectly symmetrical Kom Ombo temple. At Aswan we sailed in a felucca on Lake Nasser, flew down to spectacular Abu Simbel, and enjoyed the splendours of the Old Cataract Hotel – we wished we too could stay for months like Agatha Christie and Winston Churchill.

Egypt is a beautiful but extraordinary experience – its magnificent past; the lush tropical growth along the Nile that ends abruptly in barren desert; Cairo’s teaming 38 million population; vast numbers living in terrible poverty; the chaotic roadways; streets and waterways liberally strewn with rubbish; the army overseeing huge-scale construction of new modern cities and roads spreading out into the bare desert, while the Mediterranean coastline has become built out.

The Jordan tour was a delightful coda to the Egypt tour. The two countries could not be more different. While the rest of the middle east is in turmoil Jordan is a country of sanity possessing extraordinary landscapes such as Petra, the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum. The last an intriguing visit, as we kept recognising views previously seen as Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars or The Martian to name just a few films made there. Swimming in the Dead Sea is an unreal experience. You discover, regardless of gender that the human largest buoyancy area is the hips.  Floating on your back is essential to stop your head from being forced under as a result of bottoms-up. Greek and Roman history is everywhere with such fine examples as the city of Jerash.

Spread over a steeply mountainous landscape, Amman is a large but wonderfully organised city of four million people. Here the seasons change between winter snows and searing hot desert summers. We explored civilisations far older than Rome and modern markets, and the King gave our tour party a lift to his car museum in his historic fleet of regal transport. The museum holds every car that the Royal family has ever fancied, including one of the first Benz motorcars that led to motorised transport of today.

In both Egypt and Jordan, we learnt to cope with 400 plus temperatures, say shakkrān (thank you), and adapt to IBM – Insha’allah (God willing), bukra (tomorrow), maalesh (too bad, there’s nothing to be done about it). Everywhere, the people were friendly and welcoming, the food was delicious, missing those fresh dates! We had the most wonderful time, a huge thank you to all involved.

Elizabeth and Crispin Kay