As travel resumes and picks up again, Egypt is unveiling lots of new attractions that will be new even to those who have visited Egypt before. Even without these new openings (which include several new museums and lots of new infrastructure), there are dozens of other magnificent sites to see beyond the primary tourist sites that visitors typically only have time to hit on their first trip to Egypt.
NEW: Episode Transcript
Hey, everyone! Sabah il kheir, mesh’ il kheir, good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, depending on when you’re listing to this latest episode of the Egypt Travel Podcast. I’m your faithful host, John Nicholson, who is always excited and pumped up to talk about Egypt with you and share my nearly two decades of experience of traveling to and around Egypt with hundreds and hundreds of friends, guests, clients, and total strangers from afar who have become good friends over the years.
In this episode I want to talk about taking a 2nd or 3rd trip to Egypt. In other words, for those who have already visited Egypt once and want to go back again, how you should think about the trip, planning advice, where to consider visiting and what to consider doing that most people wouldn’t have an opportunity to do on a first trip, and so on.
There are just so many things to see and do in Egypt that it’s literally impossible to fit them all in on a first trip there. The overwhelming majority of people who visit Egypt only do so once in their lives, and that’s understandable. It’s far, it’s difficult to navigate and get around, you really need to be under the helping hand and guidance of a good company to set everything up for you and provide trusted staff to work with you on the ground there. It’s a big endeavour and a big trip.
And on a first trip to Egypt, there are some major sites that are must-see sites, like the Giza pyramids compound outside of Cairo, which contains the Great Pyramid of Khufu most notably because it’s the only wonder of the ancient world still standing, two additional pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure, 6 smaller queens pyramids which are mostly in ruins but still discernible, and nearly as famous as the great pyramid – the Sphinx.
By the way, I sometimes call the sphinx at Giza the Great Sphinx to distinguish it from other sphinxes. There are many sphinxes still standing in Egypt, mostly at temples in the south in and around Luxor. But because the one left standing at Giza is both much more massive and much more well known, I like to give it the gravitas I think it deserves by referring to it as the Great Sphinx so that you always know I’m talking about the one at Giza and not another one.
With many of these monuments, a lot of people don’t realise that there are more than one of them all over Egypt. Everyone knows of the 3 kings pyramids at Giza. Some people know about the equally interesting and significant pyramids about a half-hour south of Giza at Saqqara, where the Step Pyramid is, and Dashur, where the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid are located. But most don’t know that there are about 100 other pyramids still standing in Egypt today, and who knows how many more there were in antiquity that have either crumbled or had their stones recycled over the past 5,000 years.
Well it’s the same case with sphinxes, temples, and tombs. Most people know of the most famous ones, usually because they’re the largest ones left standing or the best preserved. But there are countless other examples of things like sphinxes, tombs, and temples still standing in Egypt too that many people have never heard of, and many more that no longer exist but which were much larger and more significant than the ones that we’re left with, which are still plenty magnificent and grand and impressive.
For example, the mortuary temples of the pharaohs Amenhotep III and Ramses II no longer exist. The remains of these temples have been found and excavations are ongoing, but these were two of the richest, most powerful, and greatest pharaohs in 5,000 years of Egyptian history. You can only imagine how enormous and splendid their flagship temples were in their ancient capital cities near the site of modern day Luxor.
People often associate the temples at Abu Simbel with Ramses II because they’re the most well preserved of his temples still remaining. But as enormous and impressive as Abu Simbel’s temples are, these were just a couple of smaller satellite temples on the far remote borders of the empire in the south compared with his much more massive and glamorous flagship temple in the capital.
I mention all of this for the first point I want to talk about today with respect to planning second or subsequent trips to Egypt, and that is that there are a lot of additional historic and highly significant sites to see beyond just the main ones and most famous ones that you should make sure you see on a first trip to Egypt. If you’re into ancient Egyptian history, you could plan a visit out to the pyramid at Meidun, which is also south of Giza but which most people doing to see because they just don’t have time, especially if they’re fitting in Giza, Saqqara, and Dashur.
You could also return to Saqqara and spend some time exploring the tombs there. Saqqara wasn’t just the site of the Step Pyramid, but it was an entire royal necropolis much like the Valley of the Kings was in Luxor. But most people who visit Saqqara only have time to see the Step Pyramid and then they head further south to Dashur. However, there is a lot more to see at Saqqara, including some very well preserved tombs and chambers that have been excavated, some very recently, and are open to the public now.
Saqqara is also a very active archaeological site right now. Over the past year or so, there have been several new discoveries there of new tombs with intact sealed mummies that have been unearthed, and excavations are ongoing so it’s likely that there will be more discoveries over the next year or two also.
Down in the south of Egypt, first time visitors usually rightly concentrate on visiting the Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut’s Temple, and Karnak and Luxor temples in Luxor. But for those who have already seen those sites, you might consider using Luxor as a base again to explore some more sites further out.
Abydos is a city about 3 hours north of Luxor where some of Egypt’s earliest confirmed pharaohs from the Early Dynastic Period are believed to have been buried. Abydos was also a cultural center later during the Middle Kingdom period, after the Egyptians mastered temple and monument building. There were quite a few temples built at Abydos, but the best preserved remaining one is the Temple of Seti I. Few people venture up to Abydos to see this temple, so it’s likely that you may have it – and the other nearby sites and ruins in Abydos – all to yourself if you make time to go up there and visit it.
Similarly, Dendera, located between Abydos and Luxor, is the site of another set of temples that few tourists visit. The Ptolemaic-era Temple of Hathor in Dendera is one of the best preserved temples in Egypt and is one of the few places in Egypt that still has clear original depictions of Cleopatra VII – the famous one – and one of her children, Caesarion, who was fathered by Julius Caesar right before Rome conquered Egypt an ended the ancient civilization.
There are also another few cities south of Luxor which those traveling between Aswan and Luxor often stop at, or at least one of them, but which a lot of first-time visitors still don’t see. Those are, of course, the temples located in the cities of Edfu and Kom Ombo between Luxor and Aswan.
The one in Edfu was dedicated primarily to the god Horus, who was the god of the sky and which you may recognize as the symbol of Egypt’s national airline, EgyptAir. Sometimes this temple is referred to as the Temple of Horus and Hathor because she is also commemorated at the temple too alongside Horus.
The temple that remains standing at Kom Ombo was dedicated to the gods Sobek and Haroesis and is actually two temples in one because the classic parts or elements of an ancient temple, like the sanctuary, were actually built twice within this temple complex.
The god Sobek is actually unique because he was the crocodile god who could protect the ancients from the wild dangers that lurked in the Nile back then and also help with fertility, although don’t ask me about how those two are related. But anyway, he appears in carvings and statuary as having the head of a crocodile, which makes him look quite fierce and unique among the gods.
And on this theme there’s also a small crocodile mummy museum in Kom Ombo too. The crocodiles in there are enormous, ancient, and rather scary looking. But don’t worry. The damming of the Nile pushed the river’s crocodile population further upstream into Lake Nasser south of the Aswan High Dam, so anywhere upstream of the dam, meaning from Aswan all the way north to the Mediterranean, doesn’t have to worry about crocodiles anymore, so Sobek’s all but out of a job now, except for his role in fertility, I guess.
For those with limited time who need to chose between stopping in Edfu or Kom Ombo, I almost always recommend Edfu because the temple there is better preserved. The only exception is for those in the medical field or those interested in ancient medicine, because Kom Ombo is one of the few places that actually has a hieroglyphic scene on the walls of the temple that show ancient medical and surgical instruments.
Some of the depictions would look rather medieval to us today, although that’s a peculiar descriptor since ancient Egypt pre-dated medieval times by thousands of years. However, some would still look quite recognizable to modern nurses and doctors, including instruments that almost exactly resemble modern forceps and clamps.
Since we’re down in that area, let’s talk for a quick minute about Aswan and Abu Simbel. Many people do visit these two places on a first visit to Egypt, but many also don’t. Abu Simbel is VERY far south in Egypt down by the southern border with Sudan almost. It’s quite expensive and logistically cumbersome to do Abu Simbel as a day trip by air because you always have to connect in Aswan, so most people who visit Abu Simbel end up needing to stay an extra in Aswan to make it happen.
Aswan by itself isn’t really all that remarkable for first-time visitors. Most people who go there do so because they want to visit Abu Simbel, and it’s the standard launch point for that day trip by land. In fact, it’s pretty rare that a visitor would go to Aswan on a first trip without also going to Abu Simbel, but it does happen.
Anyway, if you’ve been to Egypt before and didn’t make it to either Aswan or Abu Simbel, they’re probably the most famous places in Egypt after Cairo, Giza, and Luxor, so checking those off of your “places to visit in Egypt” list this time could be worth it for you. Also, Aswan is a place where you can also spend 2 or even 3 days on a second trip if you want, and there are some additional things around there that can be worth your time exploring if you have the extra time.
One thing there that I often recommend skipping on a first trip is the Temple of Isis at Philae, which is actually currently located on Agilika Island. That’s one of the temples that was cut into massive pieces and moved block by block in the 60s to save it from the rising waters of Lake Nasser created by the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
Anyway, that’s not what makes Philae Temple, as we often just call it, significant. In my opinion, it’s significant because the wall in a section of this temple is the last place where the ancient Egyptian language is ever known to have been used and written before it died out for the next nearly 2,000 years.
The inscription is actually graffiti that was written on the temple wall in 394 AD. And it gets even more specific than that. Because the ancient graffiti artist references a festival that was taking place on that day using the ancient Coptic calendar, which we still know how to translate today, we can even tell that this guy wrote this last known ancient hieroglyphic inscription in history on August 24th, 394 AD. Pretty neat, right?
So that’s why I think Philae is so historically significant and worth a visit if you have extra time or if you return to Egypt and spend time in Aswan. But I wouldn’t say that’s enough of a reason to go out of your way on a first trip to go there just for that. The thing is that other than that, Philae is just another ancient temple, and as I’ve mentioned before it’s easy to get templed out in southern Egypt with all of the much older, greater, and grander temples that you really should be seeing on a first trip to Egypt. So unless you’re there for at least 2 weeks, save Philae for another trip so you don’t get templed out can’t enjoy the much bigger ones.
Alright, this episode is already getting a little long, so I’m going to have to split it up into another two-parter here. As I’ve always said, Egypt has SO much to see and do and experience within its borders without even leaving the country, that I should have known that I could talk for and entire episode and not even cover half of the stuff to see on a subsequent trip to Egypt.
And of course I left off all the must-see stuff on a first trip to Egypt because, well, most of the other episodes of this podcast are dedicated to all of those. That does remind me, though, that I really should update those older episodes this year, so be on the lookout for that.
Even though the basic background info about the Pyramids and Sphinx and the temples and tombs hasn’t changed, and hasn’t really for thousands of years, you all know that the real value I like to provide in these podcast episodes is in giving you more practical and logistical information and advice, and some of the logistics and practical aspects of visiting the sites have been changing over the last few years, and will continue to change a lot later this year and next year.
Ok, to just tease the Part 2 of this, when I continue in the next one I’ll talk more about the new GEM – the Grand Egyptian Museum – and why that alone is worth another visit to Egypt for anyone who’s already been. I’ll also cover spots on Egypt’s Red Sea and Mediterranean coasts, including some new developments that have been going up on those, especially on the North Coast.
And then I’ll talk some about Egypt’s oases. Not a lot of people visit those and the nicest one is really far out there and challenging to squeeze into a first trip, but for a second or third trip to Egypt, it can really be worth it to make the extra time in our schedule to trek out there and experience a real Sahara Desert oasis experience, especially one place that Alexander the Great himself visited and which inspired him to proclaim himself a Pharaoh.
And with that, I’ll look forward to recording, editing, and then seeing you all in the next episode of the Egypt Travel Podcast. Ma salama.