B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


From the 4th to the 22nd March 2008 I led a tour of Egypt for the Continuing Education Program of Sydney University. We explored the monuments of ancient Egypt from the perspective of Amelia Edwards, an adventurous well educated British lady who sailed up the Nile in a dahabiya sailing boat in 1873 to explore the ruins and antiquities on the Grand Victorian Tour. The account of her journey was published in 1877 as 'A Thousand Miles Up the Nile' and it remains an entertaining and informative description of one of the world's great journeys. She saw some of the great temples of the ancient Egyptians before their excavation and study.

In keeping with this theme we stayed in some of the grand hotels of the Victorian and Edwardian Periods including; Mena House at the Pyramids and the Old Cataract in Aswan. In Luxor we stayed at the El Moudira Hotel, a very elegant new Hotel on the West Bank, and when we returned to Cairo we stayed at the Marriiott, the central part of which was built to house Empress Eugene of France for the opening of the Suez Canal. The group included the following participants: Elizabeth Benson, Graham Baldwin, Julie Deal, Meredith Edwards, Carolyn Fletcher, Wendy Golan, Hellen and Allan Hill, John Jordan and Rosie Ross, Elaine and Theodore Kennis, Jane Marceau, Ian and Denise McKenzie, Colin Prentice and Joan Walsh, Colin and Anne Sheppard and their son Brendan Shepphard, Shane and Tim Woodburn, Trish Brady and Christine Pelosi. Our Egyptian guide was Akram Abdul. The guiding was provided by Dr Michael Birrell.

Lunch at Al Azhar park overlooking Old Cairo
The March 2008 group at the Valley of the Kings

Our tour began with a visit to Memphis, the capital of ancient Egypt during the Old Kingdom, where we saw the huge limestone colossus of Ramesses. At Saqqara we explored the remarkable Step Pyramid of Zoser, and the ruined Pyramid of Tety, as well as the private tombs of Mereruka and Kagemni.

We spent the next morning at Giza, most of us walking to the site from the Mena House Hotel (most of us could see the pyramids from our rooms!). We wandered around the Great Pyramid of Khufu and visited the remarkable cedar boat museum. The Great Sphinx was our final stop - carved from the bedrock of the Giza plateau it has the body of a lion and head of King Khafre. In the afternoon we had lunch at the new pavilion in El Azhar Park. Jane Marceau's birthday was celebrated with cake for everyone. We then explored the bustling and colourful Khan el-Khalili markets and some of us had a Turkish coffee and waterpipe at Fishawy's famous café.

We then spent five days exploring the sites of Luxor. On our first morning we visited the beautiful temple of Luxor while on the second day we walked across the Theban hills for a superb view of the Nile and the Valley of the Kings. Afterwards we visited the ruins of Deir el-Bahri, the dramatically situated mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut. In the afternoon we saw a number of the beautifully painted tombs belonging to nobles of the New Kingdom. Many of us went to see the Sound and Light show at Karnak Temple - it is always a wonderful experience to see the Hypostyle Hall illuminated at night and to see the temple without the usual crowds. The next day we went back to Karnak, travelling there by motor boat to enjoy the approach to the temple by river. We spent most of the day exploring this wonderful complex of buildings.

Other highlights of Luxor included a felucca ride on the Nile to see a magical sunset, the Valley of the Kings, and the little visited ruins of the Mortuary temple of King Sety I of the 19th Dynasty. We also explored Deir el-Medina, the village of the workmen who constructed the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the magnificent Ramesseum, and a number of tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

The ethereal landscape of the Nile
Costume party on the Nile cruise

We next took a Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan. Our boat was very pleasant and the cruise on the river was a relaxing few days - Colin Sheppard took the opportunity to brush up on his hieroglyphs. En route we stopped to see the impressive Ptolemaic temple of Horus at Edfu, and also Kom Ombo, where the ruins include an unusual double temple dedicated on one side to the crocodile god Sobek and on the other side to the falcon god Horus. Members of the group were enthusiastic about the 'Galabiya Party' and certainly got into the spirit of the event.

In Aswan we took a felucca sail boat across the Nile to Elephantine Island to see the fascinating ruins of this ancient town and its temples. On the island is one of the earliest known nilometers used by the ancient Egyptians to measure the height of the Nile floods. In the afternoon we visited the Nubian Museum - some of us took the opportunity of taking a camel ride to Saint Simeon monastery located in a romantic desert landscape on the west bank of the Nile . We also visited the granite quarries of Aswan where we saw the remarkable unfinished obelisk and also visited the Aswan High Dam. In the afternoon we saw the beautiful ruins of Philae, cult centre of Isis, whose temple was dismantled and reassembled on the Aglika island during the construction of the dam. Afternoon tea on the terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel was a very pleasant way to spend a few hours!

Feluccas at Aswan
The splendours of mediaeval Cairo

Next morning we flew down to Abu Simbel and explored the awe-inspiring temple of Ramesses II with its colossal statues of the king. We flew back to Cairo and saw some of the splendours of the Old City of Cairo. We visited some of the most magnificent buildings in the Islamic world including the Gayer Anderson House and the Ibn Tulun Mosque - Elaine looked particularly striking in her headscarf and some of us ascended the spiral minaret of the Ibn Tulun Mosque for a wonderful view over Old Cairo. The tour ended with a visit to Meidum and Dahshur and time in the incomparable Cairo Museum. A very relaxing and enjoyable tour.

Michael Birrell

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