UW Alumni Tours

A Middle East expert rediscovers Egypt with UW Alumni Tours

By Jere L. Bacharach
Professor Emeritus, Department of History, UW


For the last two decades, I’ve lived in Cairo six months out of the year—so it’s been easy to become blasé about Egypt’s spectacular historical monuments, its rich cultural traditions and the overwhelming number of artifacts associated with its Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman, Coptic, Muslim and even Jewish heritage. I initially agreed to accompany UW Alumni Tours’ Egypt & the Eternal Nile trip as a way of encouraging tourism, which Egypt desperately needs for its economy. What a fortunate decision on my part! I had a fantastic time and found every aspect of the trip, particularly my traveling companions, to be part of an extremely positive experience.

Jere, Tarek, and traveler
Guide Tarek Morsy, Jere Bacharach and Egyptologist Kent Weeks

There were 17 travelers on our tour, so we were able to easily visit every site together, get to know each other and adapt to what was going on around us—something that would have been more difficult with a larger group. Our excellent guide, Tarek Morsy, sometimes suggested changes to our scheduled activities, which made it possible for us to see everything listed on our itinerary. Bravo to our tour operator Odysseys Unlimited for giving their professional guides this flexibility.

On one of our first days in Cairo, Tarek announced we were leaving very early the next day to get to Egypt’s famous Egyptian Museum in order to beat any crowds. No grumbling, and we were all in the bus and arrived as the museum opened. We went quickly to the room where King Tut’s famous mask and other treasures are housed, and we were the only ones there. In all the times I have visited the room since 1964, I have never had the opportunity to stand and take in the beauty of the treasures without fighting crowds as I did that morning.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been to the pyramids, but Tarek took us into two tombs of the queens I had never entered before. The 4,500 year old solar boat next to the great pyramid of Cheops is one of the most amazing artifacts from Egyptian history, and listening to the comments of my traveling companions significantly increased my enjoyment of the site.

I gave presentations on the differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites and how US tax dollars, administered through USAID and the American Research Center in Egypt, have helped conserve Egypt’s cultural heritage. While I enjoyed sharing my knowledge as a scholar specializing in the Middle East, I really liked the informal exchanges with my fellow travelers as well.

One of the special aspects of the Odysseys Unlimited-UWAA arrangement is that the group travels on Lake Nasser, the man-made lake south of the Aswan Dam. Only five tourist boats are permitted on the lake in comparison to the hundreds that can travel on the Nile between Luxor and Aswan. Visiting the amazing temples built by order of Ramesses II in Abu Simbel and seeing how they were saved from the flood waters of Lake Nasser is always impressive—but approaching or leaving Abu Simbel by boat is an exceptional experience, which few tourists experience.

Another unusual, if not unique, experience took place in Luxor, famous for its two Pharaonic temples—Karnak and Luxor—on the East Bank and for all the tombs and funerary temples on the West Bank. It turns out that the President of China was visiting Luxor the day after we visited the East Bank temples—another example of flexibility in scheduling—and we were able to watch amazing Chinese acrobats rehearse their show for the presidents of China and Egypt.

A visit to the library on the Luxor’s West Bank created by UW graduate and internationally renowned Egyptologist Kent Weeks also stood out as a highlight for me. Kent created the first public library on the West Bank of Luxor. It’s available to everyone—from employees of the Ministry of Antiquities, who work as antiquities’ inspectors but have no library resources, to local women who find books in Arabic on health care. The day we visited the space was filled with very young school children actively engaged with their coloring books and beaming with pride as they used their pencils and crayons. As impressed as I was by all of the amazing monuments and artifacts we saw and the wonderful informal conversations with a great group of companions, my lasting memory is of Kent’s library and this wonderful glimpse of modern Egypt.

Children coloring at Kent Weeks library
Theban Community Library was founded by UW Egyptologist Kent Weeks to educate local children