It was still dark outside when I stepped into the back of a white van idling in front of my Zamalek hotel. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little (okay, a lot) nervous. Here I was, my second day in Egypt, getting into a van with two Egyptian men to drive me nearly four hours south of Cairo and hoping they would bring me back that evening in one piece. Sounds totally safe, right?
I sat in the back of the van with Adel, my Egyptian-born guide who spent several years living in New Jersey. And I have to say, he brought Jersey back with him, with his hair slicked back, baggy blue jeans slumping around his hips, and a thick gold chain around his neck. This was the guy who was going to lead me on my adventure to Middle Egypt?
Adel surprised me, though, by spending the next four hours walking me through a “brief” history of Egypt starting around 3200 B.C. I should’ve been taking notes because I quickly forgot about ninety percent of what he told me (shameful, I know!). The history lesson came to an end as we arrived into the city of Minya on the western bank of the Nile. It was the first city of any size we had seen since leaving Cairo but it was not our final destination. We had another 12 miles to go to reach the tombs at Beni Hasan, the first stop of the day.
It was a long 12 miles as we had to stop multiple times to ask men on the side of the road for directions (luckily, our driver was not a typical American male, afraid to ask for directions!). I eventually learned that a new bridge over the Nile had been built since the last time Adel had been to the area, which should have made the journey easier, but the driver only knew the old way, so it ended up being even longer. We also passed a couple police checkpoints and, to avoid having an armed guard accompany us the entire day, Adel told them I was Canadian instead of American (he initially asked me to say I was Spanish but understandably, I told him I didn’t think I could pull that off). Middle Egypt experienced a bout of violence in the 1990s and, according to Adel, the government was particularly sensitive to the possibility of attacks on American tourists in the region because of the financial support the United States gives to Egypt. Made sense to me.
Our first stop was Beni Hasan, an ancient Egyptian burial site used primarily during in the Middle Kingdom, i.e. the 21st to 17th centuries B.C. The only other people in sight were a caretaker and an armed guard. The caretaker unlocked the first tomb and Adel ushered me in and started explaining the stories depicted by the colorful hieroglyphics covering the walls. When he was done, I asked if I could take a picture. Big mistake!
Generally, photos are not allowed inside most Egyptian sites – some even make you check your camera outside before entering. However, I learned quickly that the way around this rule was to offer baksheesh – a tip (or more accurately, a bribe). So when I asked Adel if I could take a photo, he said yes and then approached the caretaker with an offer of baksheesh. The caretaker, however, rejected Adel’s offer and started yelling at him. I stood by clueless and helpless for the next ten minutes as they went back and forth in Arabic until finally the armed guard intervened. Adel told me later that the caretaker had threatened to have him arrested.
As a result, our exploration of the next three tombs was quite rushed and the caretaker watched me like a hawk. Interestingly, the armed guard seemed to be on my side, occasionally trying to distract the caretaker so I could sneak a few more photos. Smart of him as he made a little baksheesh instead!
Tell el Amarna
Next up was Tell el Amarna, the inspiration for my desire to travel to Middle Egypt. It is the site of the lost city of Amarna, the former capital of Egypt while the “heretic” king Akhenaten was in power – around 1350 B.C. You may have heard of Akhenaten’s wife – Nefertiti, often called the most beautiful woman in Egypt. Akhenaten died under unexplained circumstances and the city was abandoned shortly thereafter, leaving the site shrouded in mystery. I stumbled upon a book about this mysterious king and his rule while planning my trip to Egypt and it instantly intrigued me. I had to check it out for myself, even if very little of the city remained.
Even though Tell el Amarna is also on the east bank of the Nile, the road did not go all the way through from Beni Hasan, so we had to drive several miles south, take a car ferry across the river, drive several miles further south, and take a car ferry back across again. Annoying? Slightly. But, the detour also gave me the chance to see some of rural Egyptian life – kids playing in the streets, donkeys piled high with wheat or sugar cane, and animals relaxing on the side of the road. And as we boarded the ferry, the children who saw me through the van’s windows gathered around, trying to get my attention and sell me small trinkets. While Adel and the driver got out and walked around, he insisted I stay in the van to avoid being completely bombarded.
When we arrived at Tell el Amarna, three caretakers and an armed guard joined us at the entrance gate for the drive out to the tombs. Adel insisted there was only one tomb worth visiting, but my Rough Guide (published just months earlier) listed two northern tombs, two southern tombs, the Royal Tomb and the remains of the northern palace. I was at least able to convince him to take me to the Royal Tomb in addition to the tomb he knew, but we missed the others. And of course, as soon as we entered the tombs, the runaround of attempted picture-taking and bribing started up once again. Personally, while I couldn’t understand a word that was said, I suspect things may have been easier if Adel had a little less Jersey in him – I think his demeanor and attitude were hurting my cause.
Tuna el Gebel
After another car ferry ride across the Nile and a quick lunch of rice and chicken at a restaurant in the town of Mallawi (described by my guidebook as having “gone to the dogs,” a statement with which I really can’t disagree), Adel took me on an unplanned stop to the tombs at Tuna al Gebel. We arrived just as the site was closing, but of course, with more money changing hands, Adel managed to arrange for a friendly caretaker to take us through the tombs and, this time, look the other way as I snapped some photos.
Tuna el Gebel was worth the detour. While it didn’t have the same mysterious history as Tell el Amarna, there was more to see. The Tomb of Petosiris dates back to the days of Alexander the Great and resembles a mini-Greek temple. The Tomb of Isadora memorializes a young woman who drowned crossing the Nile while trying to elope with a soldier. After Isadora’s death, her tomb developed a bit of a cult following and her mummified body is still on display.
Because we arrived so late in the afternoon, we rushed a bit through Tuna el Gebel but, considering I had been on the go for nearly twelve hours at that point, I didn’t mind so much. It was a five hour drive back to Cairo and I slept nearly the entire way.
If You Want To Go
If you like to get off the beaten path, enjoy visiting ancient tombs and ruins, or are an aspiring Egyptologist, Middle Egypt is for you.
Few Egyptian tour companies advertise trips to Middle Egypt. I contacted three or four before settling on Empire Travel. Their price was right ($180, including transportation, lunch and my guide) and they included the most. Baksheesh for the day added up to about $15 and of course I tipped the driver and Adel as well.
It is also possible to go independently and, now that I’ve made the trip once, I would really recommend going on your own and spending the night in Minya. I’d be remiss to not mention that Minya was home to an Islamist uprising in the 1990s (which partially explains the relative lack of tourists to this area), but from what I have read, it has been peaceful in recent years. You can reach Minya by either train or bus from Cairo or Luxor. Once in Minya, the best way to see the sites is to hire a taxi to take you around for the day. However, if you really want to understand what you’re seeing, an English-speaking guide would be helpful as well.