Travels for Engineers in Egypt
By David H. Allen
Over the course of the preceding quarter of a century, I’ve traveled to Egypt four times. In addition, I once took forty engineering students to Egypt on a study abroad program. Egypt is not a particularly convenient place to visit for Americans, but as I have been there on multiple occasions, it is nonetheless one of my top places to visit on Earth. In this blog I will provide a short introduction to the most interesting sites I have discovered in what is for me one of the most amazing countries on Earth.
Historic Sites for Engineers
The country of Egypt straddles the Nile River, perhaps the single most important river in human history. Little more than six thousand years ago the Sahara Desert in Northern Africa was a fertile land that supported human culture. Unfortunately, the Sahara dried up due to climate change (caused by a slight shift in the Earth’s orbit), thereby forcing the indigenous people to find sustenance elsewhere, and many of these settled either on the Upper Nile, or further north in what is today the Nile Delta.
Sometime around 3,800 BCE, history tells us that a king named Narmer, united these two cultures, in the process becoming the first Pharoah. Thus, began what is now termed The Old Kingdom. Over the succeeding four millennia, fortunes in Egypt waxed and waned with the ebb and flow of the Nile. Egypt prospered not only during the Old Kingdom, but twice subsequently, in periods termed The Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom.
The Egyptians developed a sophisticated culture rivaling any on Earth, including a written (partially symbolic) language. Furthermore, they deployed this language ubiquitously across Egypt, thereby providing a means for modern historians to tell the history of Egypt. Unfortunately, the Egyptian language was lost to antiquity, that is until French soldiers uncovered the Rosetta Stone during Napoleon’s attempted conquest of Egypt at the dawn of the nineteenth century. This stone, now housed within the British Museum in London, provided a translation of the Egyptian language into ancient Greek. And although it took many years, the Egyptian language was eventually decoded by Jean-François Champollion in 1822.
The Egyptians embellished all sorts of things with their language, especially monuments, temples and funerary tombs. Thus, we have now decoded much of the ancient history of Egypt, perhaps more than any other ancient civilization on Earth.
Here then are my favorites sites to visit in Egypt.
Fig. 1 The Step Pyramid
The Step Pyramid
The very first pyramid ever built in Egypt was apparently begun as a mastaba – a single-tiered structure built over a submerged tomb. However, for reasons unclear to us today, the Pharoah Djoser assigned his chief engineer, Imhotep, to build a second slightly smaller level, and a third, and so forth until there were six levels, thereby creating what is known today as The Step Pyramid (Fig. 1). You can see this pyramid in the Western Desert at Saqqara, which was a sprawling funerary site during the Old Kingdom. This pyramid, though badly dilapidated today, is still standing! And believe it or not, Imhotep was thereafter worshipped as a god, the only engineer that I am aware of who became a god! When you visit Egypt, Saqqara and the Step Pyramid should not be missed!
Fig. 2 The Red Pyramid
Shortly after the reign of Djoser, the Pharoah Snefru came to power. He had the first true Egyptian pyramid constructed, but it collapsed, so he kept at it, eventually completing three that are still in existence. Two of them, the Red Pyramid (Fig. 2) and the Bent Pyramid (Fig. 3) can be visited at Dashur, just south of Saqqara. Both of these pyramids are open to the public today, and they are far less crowded than those on the Giza Plateau.
Fig. 3. The Bent Pyramid
Giza and The Great Pyramids
Within a hundred years of Snefru’s reign, the greatest pyramids of all were built at Giza, north of Saqqara. These three pyramids (Fig. 4), together with the funerary ship of Cheops, the Sphinx, and the adjacent temple constitute what is in my view the greatest archeological site on Earth.
Fig. 4 The Great Pyramids
My favorite site in Cairo is the British Museum. This is where most of the ancient treasures of Egypt were displayed after their discovery. Unfortunately, this museum became literally overrun with tourists over the previous decades. Fortunately, the Egyptian Government funded a new facility termed The Grand Egyptian Museum. But unfortunately, as I write this the opening of the museum has been delayed by several years. I therefore recommend that you delay your next trip to Egypt (as have I) until the new museum opens. Otherwise, you will miss a large portion of the greatest Egyptian treasures from antiquity.
From my perspective, I find the treasures of King Tut, as well as the other pharaonic treasures from the New Kingdom, including Akhenaten, Set I, and others to be an absolute must-see. So, hold off a bit.
There are nonetheless other interesting sites in Cairo, including the National Museum of Egyptian Culture, the Christian Quarter, and the Palace of Mohamed Ali.
The Nile River
For thousands of years no one knew where the Nile River originated (John Hanning Speke discovered the source in 1858), but what they did know is that the Nile was the source of all life in Egypt. Each year, the Nile would wax and wane, but once a year the river would flood, bringing all-important water to the people living along the river in Egypt. Thus, the people of Egypt learned how to make the most of this life-giving source, right down to determining the length of a year and even how to use the buoyancy of water to both transport and erect amazing structures.
On the Upper Nile, which extends Southward from the Nile Delta, only a thin strip of land is nourished by the Nile all the way down to Abu Simbel, which lies at the southern end of Egypt. In between, much of the ancient wonders of Egypt dot one bank or the other of the river. On the East bank lay the cities. On the west (where the sun sets, ergo life ends) lay the necropoli.
In my view, no trip to Egypt is complete without a trip down (or up) the river on a riverboat, especially between Aswan and Luxor. Frankly I’m not a fan of cruises, but this one is different in so many ways. The ships must be quite small due to the locks on the river, and you’re never out of sight of land, which is dotted on both sides by a plethora of ancient sites.
The Valley of the Kings
In ancient times, Egypt succumbed to famine on several occasions, thus causing the Empire to wax and wane. A thousand years after the Old Kingdom, a new period of prosperity resulted in what we today call The New Kingdom. By that time the pharaohs were aware that the pyramids had all been robbed, so that a different type of pharaonic tomb had to be constructed. Thus began the period of construction of subterranean tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
A few of these tombs were robbed, and were therefore well known from ancient times, so that in modern times it was logical to assume that others existed in the Valley west of Luxor. Enter profiteer Giovani Belzoni in the early nineteenth century, who discovered the tomb of Seti I. And eventually more than fifty pharaonic tombs were discovered in the Valley of the Kings, rendering it the single most bountiful archeological site on Earth.
Of course, the tomb of King Tut was the only tomb found completely intact, but there is today plenty more to see in the Valley of the Kings. This is another one of my top ten sites that I have been fortunate to visit. Oh, and don’t be dissuaded by the steep fee to go inside King Tut’s tomb (Fig. 5). I decided to forego this expense the first time I visited Egypt, and it would ten long years before my second visit. Now I pay the extra fee every time I visit the Valley of the Kings.
Fig. 5 King Tut's Tomb
The Temples of Karnak and Luxor
Across the Nile River from The Valley of the Kings is the ancient city of Luxor, where the interested visitor will find the two most impressive temples in all of Egypt – Luxor Temple (Fig. 6), and the truly monumental Temple of Karnak. These are an absolute must-see for anyone visiting Egypt.
Fig. 6. The Temple of Luxor
The Temple of Hatshepsut
Female pharaohs were rare in ancient times, and the greatest female pharaoh of all was Hatshepsut, whose funerary temple lies just north of the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank. Her temple (Fig. 7) is not to be missed.
Fig. 7. The Temple of Hetshepsut
Far up the Nile River (to the south) lies the border of Ethiopia. The New Kingdom Emperor Ramses II built a monumental temple there during his reign as a means of terrifying the Ethiopians into submission. But this temple lay far south of the vibrant masses in Egypt, so that in due course the temple was forgotten. Now we fast-forward to the early nineteenth century, and Giovani Belzoni heard about this temple from a local named Abu Simbel. Traveling up the Nile, Belzoni eventually discovered the temple and dug it out from the encroaching sands. This temple is the famous one fronted by four gargantuan statues of Ramses II (Fig. 8).
In the 1970’s the Egyptians decided to dam up the Nile (for the second time!), and the construction of Lake Nassar promised to engulf Abu Simbel beneath the lake’s surface. Thus, an enormous project was undertaken to cut the temple into pieces and relocate it on a hillside above the lake! The project actually succeeded, so that Abu Simbel can and should be visited today.
Fig. 8. Abu Simbel
The Temple of Philae
Another quite interesting temple can be found just south of Aswan, beyond the High Dam. This temple was actually submerged during the filling of Lake Nassar, but the Egyptian engineers came to the rescue once again, building a coffer dam and moving the temple (Fig. 9) to an island in Lake Nassar. Although this is one of the newer Egyptian Temples, it is well worth a visit at least in part due to the fact that it was successfully transplanted.
Fig. 9. The Temple of Philae
The Aswan Quarry
The Egyptians became masters of stonework in ancient times, and no stone monuments are more impressive that the enormous obelisks, many of which are found across the world today. Most of these obelisks were cut from granite in the Aswan quarry, and you can visit this quarry today, where an ancient obelisk still rests in full view for visitors. The description as to how these gargantuan stone objects were both quarried and then floated down the Nile and righted is a fabulous tale of ancient engineering ingenuity.
The Nile Delta
The Nile Delta has been the breadbasket of the Mediterranean since time immemorial. The Nile River empties into the Delta, producing a broad plane with some of the most fertile land in all the world. A visit to this area will give you a very good idea why Egypt was a desirable acquisition even before Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in the Third Century BCE.
The Red Sea
A visit to the Red Sea is a must for those who enjoy sunny beaches. Unfortunately, it can be a challenge to get there, as it seems that the entire population of Cairo heads for the Red Sea every weekend, making the entire drive stop-and-go traffic. Still, if the beach is your attraction, the Red Sea is absolutely gorgeous.
I am often heard to say to my students that there are four countries that absolutely must be visited if you want to understand western history, and one of them is Egypt. Accordingly, if you are planning to go abroad, and your destination country is not Egypt, I highly recommend that you plan an extension to your trip abroad. It will take you seven to ten days to see all of the above important sites, depending on your organizational skills and the crowds during your visit. In future blogs I will give more detailed reviews of some of my other favorite destinations. Until then, please feel free to contact me if you have questions (email@example.com).
Note: All photos included in this blog were taken by me.