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Egypt: Not just the pyramids, and timelessly exceptional

It could be said that if you have not been to Egypt, you have hardly traveled. My wife and I had come to see the sights of an exceptional land - fertile without rain and bordered by a river that drains half a continent - and a civilization as old as history.

It could be said that if you have not been to Egypt, you have hardly traveled. My wife and I had come to see the sights of an exceptional land - fertile without rain and bordered by a river that drains half a continent - and a civilization as old as history.

Most tourists head for the Giza pyramids, arguably the most recognizable archaeological site on the planet. The three pyramids that make up the Giza Necropolis, 20 miles southwest of Cairo, have been photographed from every angle and been famous since ancient times, when the Great Pyramid was deemed one of the original Seven Wonders of the World.

That the 455-foot-high tomb of Pharaoh Khufu is the only one of the seven still standing says much for the quality of its construction in the 25th century B.C.

Cairo is home to almost 20 million people, and the Egyptian capital, the self-described "Mother of Cities," can be quite a culture shock for visitors unprepared for the weight of numbers pressed about them.

In one part of Cairo, dubbed the "City of the Dead," about 100,000 Cairenes live among the centuries-old crypts and graves in a 4-mile-long cemetery.

Trash and traffic are constants. The canals that run parallel to the Nile have become trash bins, though it's not uncommon to see men in rowboats fishing in the murky, stagnant waters.

Our guide, Mona el Nahas, has been introducing Americans to Egypt since the 1980s and poignantly observed, "Egyptians have strong stomachs."

She might have added lungs, too.

The smog in Cairo is so thick you could cut it with a knife. There are reportedly 6 million vehicles on the city's streets, most of them more than 10 years old and without the technology to reduce carbon emissions. (Gasoline sells for about 8 cents a gallon at the pump in Cairo.)

The struggle with overcrowded roads is complicated by a lack of respect for traffic lights or police. The rules are pretty simple: Full-beam headlights and blaring horns somewhere behind you usually mean you are about to be overtaken - or undertaken - at high speed, even though there is no space between your car and that concrete wall beside you.

That said, Cairo can be captivating. It is both Third World and First World, Islamic world and pharaonic world.

The Egyptian Museum contains an incomparable wealth of artifacts, including Tutankhamun's gold funerary mask. Tutankhamun was the boy-pharaoh who ruled Egypt for 10 years in the 14th century B.C. and died when just 19.

Khan el-Khalili is a vast souk in old Cairo where you can haggle for the price of anything and watch the locals smoke water pipes stoked with molasses-soaked tobacco.

After a few days in Cairo, our group flew south to Luxor, which is easily as vital as the pyramids - and perhaps more so - for those who travel to the land of Cleopatra in search of its past.

Built on the remains of the ancient settlement of Thebes, the city is effectively an open-air museum, where the massive Karnak and Luxor temple complexes play up to cameras with their myriad pillars, columns, statues and intricate carvings.

El Nahas has said of Karnak's Hypostyle Hall, a 50,000-square-foot area with 134 massive columns arranged in 16 rows and rising 33 feet high: "It is something you will never see in this life anywhere else in the world."

Equally impressive are the burial grounds on the west bank of the Nile - the Valley of the Kings, where Tutankhamun's resting place was discovered in 1922, and the Valley of the Queens, where the tombs of several wives of the pharaohs make up the ultimate WAGs club.

The best way to explore what is called Upper Egypt is by cruising the Nile.

Farther south is Aswan, its name most commonly associated with the controversial "High Dam" constructed across the Nile between 1958 and 1970. It led to the formation of the artificial Lake Nasser and the displacement of 60,000 people. At one time the dam supplied about half of Egypt's electricity.

The creation of Lake Nasser begot one of the most ambitious archaeological engineering feats ever attempted - UNESCO's $40 million relocation of two massive rock temples built by the megalomaniacal Pharaoh Ramses II in the 13th century B.C. to Abu Simbel, near the Sudanese border.

The twin temples were originally carved out of the mountainside as a symbol of Ramses II's might, designed to intimidate his enemies in the neighboring kingdom of Nubia. They also were a lasting monument to his chief consort, Nefertari.

The pharaonic bookend of Egypt would have been lost to the floodwaters had it not been moved wholesale, block by block, to a hill 200 miles southwest of Aswan between 1964 and 1968. The move did not dampen its power to enthrall.

Over 3,000 years on, the four 66-foot-high statues of the man himself - seated on a throne and wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt - still carry his message to the tourists who make the long trek south.

It's a sight, as with so much of Egypt, that outstrips all expectations.