A complicated but fascinating country with some of the most enduring historical monuments on Earth, Egypt stands as an unforgettable travel destination. It’s had to deal with its fair share of turmoil in recent times, but this North African nation remains proud, welcoming and accessible. And with treasures as timeless as the temples and pyramids of the Nile to shout about, it’s not somewhere that’s going to slip from public consciousness any time soon. A trip here still very much has the potential to thrill.
In many ways, there are two Egypt’s. The first is the Egypt of Cairo and the Nile, of bustling medieval bazaars, noiseless Sphinxes, river cruises and Agatha Christie-era exoticism. The second, and just as integral to many visitors, is the Egypt of the Red Sea, where a spread of large-scale modern resorts caters to sun-seekers and scuba divers.Sharm Al Sheik with its world-class diving, high-end hotels and desert adventures, is the best known of them.
Most of the country’s ancient treasures were built during the time of the pharaohs. The Pyramids of Giza (the sole survivors of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World); the lotus-columned temples of Luxor and Karnak; the Valley of the Kings; Aswan and the temples of Abu Simbel: strung along the Nile, these monuments have drawn visitors for centuries. They represent a lasting legacy of one of the most fabled periods of human history.
Of course, the country is best understood not so much for its great monuments or its coral reefs, splendid though they are, but through its people. Bartering for a bargain in Cairo’s ancient Khan al-Khalili bazaar, taking tea and falling into long conversation with a local, or simply stopping awhile in a remote village, silent but for the chatter of hooves on tarmac, will give a glimpse of a country full of character, color and fortitude.
Egypt covers an area of approximately 1,001,450km2 (386,662 miles²) and is bordered by Israel and the Gaza Strip in the north-east; the Red Sea in the east; Sudan in the south; Libya in the west; and the Mediterranean Sea in the north. It is the 3rd most populous country in Africa and the most populous in the Middle-East with the majority of its estimated 80 million people living on, or near, the banks of the River Nile. Only 5.5% of the total land area is actually used by the population, the area that borders the River Nile as well as a few oases, the other 94.5% being uninhabitable desert.
The River Nile vertically bisects the Sahara Desert and the area to the west is known as the Western Desert, or Libyan Desert, with the area to the East, as far as the Red Sea, being called the Eastern Desert. The desert itself is very sparsely inhabited with relatively small population centers growing up around oases such as the Fayoum, Siwa, Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga to the west and any areas of habitation being restricted to the many wadis (or valleys) to the east.
Within the Libyan Desert can be found an enormous area of sand which is known as the Great Sand Sea and located within this area are several depressions that have their elevations below sea level. These include the Qattara Depression, which covers an area of approximately 18,000km2 (7,000 miles2) and reaches a depth of approximately 133m (436 ft) below sea level: the lowest point in Africa.
Most of the Eastern Desert lies on a plateau that gradually rises from the Nile Valley to heights of approximately 600m (2,000 ft) in the east. Along the Red Sea coast there are many jagged peaks that reach as high as 2,100m (7,000 ft) above sea level. The Nubian Desert lies to the extreme south of the Eastern Desert, along the border with Sudan, and it is an extensive area of dunes and sandy plains.
The Sinai Peninsula mainly consists of sandy desert in the north with rugged mountains in the south; the summits here towering more than 2,100m (7,000 ft) above the Red Sea. Mount Catherine, or Gebel Katherîna, reigns supreme here at a height of 2,629m (8,625 ft) and is the highest point in Egypt, slightly dwarfing the nearby Mount Sinai, or Moses Mountain (Gabal Musa), at 2,285m (7,497 ft). According to Islamic, Christian and Jewish beliefs, the biblical Mount Sinai was the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments, though not everyone agrees that this particular mountain is actually the biblical one.