Foreign Correspondence: Egypt May Be Ancient, But It Never Gets Old

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Sameh "Sam" Nazeeh, 35, was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt, and is the head guide for On the Go Tours ( in that country. Nazeeh holds a degree in Egyptology from the University of Cairo.

Q. There's always news about discoveries concerning ancient Egypt. What's going on now?

A. The excavation never stops; researchers are working hard and finding new things and answering new questions. The most important thing they're studying now is about King Tut.

Professor Zahi Hawas is heading that up. It's a big project. They're using special labs built to study mummies, and have found that Tutankhamen had a cleft palate, club foot and suffered from Kohler's disease — which inhibits the supply of blood to the bones of the foot. In Tut's case, it was slowly destroying the bones in his left foot. The complications of a sudden leg fracture — along with severe malaria — might have caused his death. They still have one more year of study to determine the exact cause of death.

Q. There are many things to see in Cairo, and many kinds of tours. What are the most popular?

A. Everyone wants to see the pyramids at Giza, which is very close to Cairo — also, the Egyptian Museum, which has the collected treasures of Tut as well as so many mummies. For those interested in ancient Egypt, it's all there at the museum.

People love to see the old part of Cairo as well — the old markets.

Q. What about outside Cairo?

A. We go all over Egypt with On the Go, though most tours start in Cairo. There are, for instance, cruises on the Nile from Aswan to Luxor. On the boat, you stop and see temples and ruins and monuments. We, of course, stop to see the most famous things — like the Valley of the Kings and Karnak, which has the biggest temple in the whole world.

Q. There are all these attractions . . . do you have a personal favorite?

A. The Abu Simbel temples of Rameses II, 285 km (177 miles) south of Aswan. It's my favorite because it can't be compared to anything. It's carved into the body of the mountain as one piece. The temples still keep their original color, by the way.

They have a phenomenon at Abu Simbel called the Sun Festival two days of the year — the day of Rameses II's coronation and his birthday. And on those days, when the sun is rising, the rays shine into the inner part of the temple and onto the statues of the pharaoh and the three gods with him.

What's special about this is that the temple was made 3,300 years ago ... that ancient Egyptians could calculate this effect and plan the temple for it. ... No one can figure out how they did this so long ago.

Rameses II built the most impressive monuments all over Egypt.

Q. What are two things people ought to know in advance before they visit — but don't?

A. They ought to know more about the famous sites. If you don't know enough about Abu Simbel, for example, you won't expect it to be as great as it is.

Also — this is something famous — people bring torches (flashlights) with them to visit the tombs. You don't need to. The reality is, the tombs are all powered: There's enough electric light to go inside the tomb and see things, but not enough to cause damage. When lights go off, it means the site is closed until the next day.

Q. For climate, what's the best time to visit?

A. Egypt is famous for having a mild climate all year. The most popular time for tourists is Christmas and New Year's. It may be cold and snowing elsewhere, but we have sun. March and April are good, with temperatures in the mid-20s Celsius (77 Fahrenheit).

Now it's starting to get warm. It's 27 to 29 Celsius (81 to 84 F) in Cairo, but in Aswan and Luxor it's up to 34 or 35 (93 or 95 F).

It's less busy in summer, but in Egypt that's generally the season for Arab tourism: It's much cooler here than it is in Saudi Arabia and the emirates.

Q. Nile cruises: How wide is the river? What do you see?

A. Parts are wide, parts are narrow. It can vary from 100 meters (328 feet) to 400 meters (a quarter-mile).

What you see is beautiful. You have the water of the Nile, then trees, and desert behind it. You see the green fields and the farmers working there. It's great scenery; the sunsets and sunrises are very impressive.

Q. Movies make it seem like there's just a narrow strip of farmland or bull rushes between the water and the Western Sahara. Is that true?

A. In places. Near Aswan, you have maybe 500 meters (0.3 miles) of green, then the desert behind that. Near Luxor, maybe 2 or 3 green kilometers (1.2 to 1.8 miles), then the desert.

Q. Where do you go on vacation?

A. Sometimes in Egypt, sometimes not in Egypt. Inside the country, I like the Mediterranean coast — a place called Marina, to the west of Alexandria, for summer holidays. The sea is a beautiful turquoise and the sand is white. In the winter, definitely the Red Sea — Dahab is famous for snorkeling and diving.

Q. About the sand. Is what you find on the shore like the sand in the desert?

A. The beach sand is more white; in the desert it's more yellowish. Both are fine sand, but the sand on the beach is softer.