Highlights from Egypt Trek

If there is one thing that can put life into perspective, it is seeing gigantic buildings and monuments built by extraordinary people five thousand years ago. Visiting Egypt makes you realize that, basically, your life is meaningless. You realize that there is no point worrying about little things like reading cases and securing employment. It also makes you thankful that, because of HBS, you can visit foreign countries and be hosted by locals who can show you the country through their eyes. In our case, Amira El-Adawi (OG) did a marvelous job organizing a Trek, packing as many sights and activities as humanly possible into only 10 days, and showing us her Egypt.

Day 1-Cairo.
Our first stop was at the Egyptian Museum, which (not surprisingly) has the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the world. For such an amazing place, it was surprising how run-down the actual museum looked. Like a good MBA, Max Coqui (OB) commented that, based on the huge crowds in line waiting to get in, it was clear that people were price-insensitive. We all agreed that the museum should increase the entrance fee from $2 to at least $5…our first day in Egypt, and already we were re-engineering the country!

There are many amazing things in the Egyptian Museum, but in my opinion the most amazing of all was the Royal Mummies Room. Lying in glass cases in a giant refrigerator were about a dozen mummies-actual preserved corpses-of ancient pharaohs. You could see their hair, their nails, their facial expressions. All I know is, I hope I look that good when I’m four thousand years old.

Later that day, Ashish Chugh (OI) strutted through the open-air bazaar at Khan El-Khalili, with Sarah Jatko (OI) and me on either side. Vendors kept asking him if he had two wives. “No,” he responded, “I have three. The other one’s at home.”

Day 2-Giza.
There is nothing more symbolic of Egypt than the Great Pyramids. They are, in a word, astonishing. The two million blocks making up the Great Pyramid of Khufu average 2.5 tons each, with some stones at the base as big as an 18-wheeler truck and weighing as much as 15 tons. Ancient Egyptians were able to construct a pyramid with perfect geometric precision-a feat that even today no one is sure how they accomplished.
The Sphinx, too, is amazing. Who would ever think of building a giant stone animal with a human head? Yet, this monument too has stood the time, and has even survived the physical abuse of leaders and ordinary men alike.

That night, we experienced a little of Cairo nightlife at Abou El-Seid, one of the city’s hottest spots. While the Foreign Minister, Ahmed Maher, and other government dignitaries dined in the next room, we had traditional Egyptian food and smoked apple-flavored hookahs. The hookah quickly became a passion for a few of the Egypt Trekkers.

Day 3-Drive through Sinai to Sharm El-Sheikh.
At the entrance to the Suez Governorate, on the edge of the Sinai Peninsula, our bus stopped and we were asked how many U.S. passport-holders there were. About half of our group raised their hands; as a result, we were kept waiting for a half hour while a police escort car was called to lead our way. Some of us were skeptical; we thought a police car accompanying a bus was a red flag for any observant anti-American terrorist. Wasn’t that akin to painting a giant bulls-eye on the roof of the bus? Thankfully, we made it safely through our destination, although it took forever. The only liability the police escort brought was strict adherence to the speed limit.

Our New Year’s Eve celebrations started at our hotel, where there was a gala dinner, but then we migrated to a club called El Tabasco which our group quickly took over. When midnight struck, it was mind-blowing to think that we were celebrating the beginning of a new year in a civilization that had existed for five thousand years.

Day 4, 5-Sharm El-Sheikh.
After a day spent on the beach, recovering from the interminable drive through the Sinai and, of course, New Year’s Eve, some of us embarked on a couple of dive boats to explore the Red Sea and its world-renowned underwater wonders. It was a little chilly, but thinking of the weather back in Boston made it easier to jump into the water. The sea life in the Red Sea is amazing, even from a mere snorkeler’s perspective. I know that most of the divers, who managed to squeeze in three dives that day, wished they had more than a few hours to explore.

Day 6-Mt. Moses, Dahab.
Actually, it wasn’t really Day 6-it was more like the Day 5 That Never Ended. We left Sharm at 11 p.m. and drove on the bus for two and a half hours to the foot of Mt. Moses, the Biblical Mt. Horeb where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. (It was reassuring to know that, between the 40 of us, we were able to remember all ten of the Commandments.) At 2:30 a.m. (that’s right, in the middle of the night) we began our hike up the mountain, with the goal of reaching the pinnacle by the sunrise at 5:30 a.m. It was a grueling, freezing hike, done in the dark with only a flashlight for guidance. The last part of the climb consisted of 750 steps called the “Steps of Repentance.”
I repented, all right.

But the hike was worth it, as the sunrise was spectacular-even if most of us were afraid we were getting frostbite. On the way back down, in the morning light, it became clear that no sane person would attempt that climb if they could see where they were going. The “steps” were actually just huge, uneven blocks of stone going randomly uphill, some covered in ice-usually at the most dangerous spots, with steep drops off to one side.
As if our midnight mountain jaunt wasn’t enough, our bus took us briefly to Dahab, a beachside town on the East Coast of the Sinai. From our vantage point at a lovely resort where we were having lunch, we could see across the water to Saudi Arabia. Dahab is more picturesque and less touristy than Sharm El-Sheikh, which for all of its liveliness and European clientele is a bit of a madhouse.

When we finally arrived back at our hotel in Sharm at 4 p.m., many of us were comatose. However, our day wasn’t over! In the evening we hopped on buses that took us a few miles out into a desert valley, for “Bedouin Night.” I was secretly afraid that it would be a cheesy, fake “cultural” show catering only to tourists, but it ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. We sat outside in tents, watched the fire and listened to our host tell us about the Bedouin history, culture and customs. Indeed, some of the HBS women were forced to adapt to the Bedouin way of life (where, we were told, the womenfolk do all the work) and made bread for the rest of us. An extraordinary (male) performer, similar to a “Whirling Dervish,” spun around and around in a dizzying dance with a contraption of hoop skirts. A female belly dancer got the crowd involved and brought Igor Polischuk, husband of Natalia (OI), on stage to demonstrate his belly dancing skills (or lack thereof). And finally, as a farewell, on a gravel bed the Bedouins wrote “Harvard” in big block letters-with fire.

Day 7-Luxor.
We flew to Luxor to board our ship to cruise down the Nile, but first we stopped at the Temple of Karnak. It is an awe-inspiring complex to which ancient pharaohs continuously added on, to increase their own glory. The main Hypostyle Hall, filled with huge, towering columns, is so big that you could fit the Cathedral of Notre Dame in it. Karnak is connected to the Temple of Luxor by an ancient road lined with sphinxes, although it has not been entirely excavated. Some of the road today is covered by modern-day homes, with Egyptians literally living on top of the ruins.

Day 8-Cruise down the Nile, Thebes.
The ancient kings placed their tombs in a nondescript valley in Thebes, in the hope of keeping grave robbers away. For the most part, grave robbers throughout the ages were clever enough to find the tombs-except for one spectacular exception: th
e tomb of Tutankhamen. When the tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, it was virtually intact, filled with priceless treasures (most of them now in the Egyptian Museum).

During our visit, we were able to enter three different pharaohs tombs, notable for the colorful hieroglyphs-many of which are still vivid-that line the walls and ceilings.

Queen Hatshepsut Temple was built by the most famous female ruler of Egypt behind Cleopatra. Hatshepsut was powerful enough to seize power from her son and take the throne for herself. The temple, set against a sheer rock cliff, is a splendor to see today. It’s imposing even from a distance.

Day 9-Cruise down the Nile, Edfu, Kom Ombo.
Resting on ancient foundations, the Temple of Edfu is one of the more “modern” temples, built by Alexander the Great as the founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in the 3rd century B.C. It has a very dramatic pylon (outer wall) with giant hieroglyphics.

The Temple of Kom Ombo was also built by a king from the Ptolemaic Dynasty, although in keeping with the ancient Egyptian religion it was dedicated to the gods Sobek (the crocodile headed god) and Haroeris (the falcon headed sky god).

Day 10-Philae, Aswan, Abu Simbel.
It was the last day, and our wonderful tour guide, an Egyptologist named Mona with nearly flawless English, took us to the LBT. “What’s the LBT?” we asked. “The last bloody temple,” she replied. The LBT (i.e. the Temple of Philae) used to be partially underwater, reached by tourists on boats. Today, it is on dry land reachable only by ferry. On our ferry we had a local Nubian native selling us jewelry made of sandalwood, lapis lazuli, and other semi-precious materials. I was in heaven: even the vendors were coming to us!

As if there weren’t enough marvels in Egypt, twentieth century Egyptians had to contribute one of their own: the High Dam at Aswan that resulted in two monumental events. First, it created Lake Nasser, the largest artificial lake in the world at 310 miles across. Second, it changed the flow of the Nile so that the Nile Valley no longer experienced the annual “inundations,” which for thousands of years had left behind rich soil to form the basis of agriculture-and thus civilization. We saw a “Nile-ometer,” one of many that are no longer in use, which is essentially an underground stone tunnel with steps leading down to it. Markings on the wall indicated the extent of the Nile flooding. Each year, the ancient Egyptians used the markings to gauge how plentiful the harvest would be that year. Imagine: the lives of Egyptians for thousands of years had depended on the natural ebb and flow of the Nile-with the Aswan Dam, man conquered nature.

Some of us (although not our guide who had given her last tour at Philae) flew to Abu Simbel, in the south of Egypt near the Sudan, on the first of four flights that day. King Ramses II, a glorious pharaoh who ruled for 67 years (1279-1213 B.C.) during the 19th dynasty, built eye-popping temples and monuments to himself and his family. His Great Temple at Abu Simbel, a 108-foot-high monument cut-literally-into a cliff wall, was so valuable that the United Nations spent millions of dollars and several years to transplant it, piece by piece, 688 feet back and 213 feet higher than the original position so that it would not consumed by the Nile flooding resulting from the creation of the Aswan Dam.

Abu Simbel was the perfect ending to an awesome trip. It is a breathtaking combination of ancient and modern wonders…just like Egypt itself.

Special thanks to Amira El-Adawi for organizing a fabulous Egypt Trek! You are the best, Amira!