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The Grand Tour of Antiquity: A Photo Gallery


For any ancient Roman traveler, Egypt was the climax of the Grand Tour. This mysterious land was a true sightseer's paradise: It offered overpowering ruins of unspeakable age, a religion full of ghoulish mummies and jackal-headed gods, and an exotic living culture—the same elements that have hypnotized travelers ever since. Egypt is also the section of the ancient tourist trail that is easiest to physically trace. Modern travelers still follow the same logical itinerary along the Nile River as the Romans once did—gazing in awe at the same hieroglyphic-covered monuments within the same parched landscape.

South of the Giza Plateau, the so-called Bent Pyramid at Dahshur is the only pyramid to survive with a large part of its limestone coating intact. In Roman times, the structures were all still sheathed in white stone, making them glisten like icebergs on a sea of sand. (This extra layer, covered by hieroglyphics and graffiti, was removed by Arabs in the Middle Ages for building materials in Cairo, leaving the step effect we see today).

Feluccas cruising near Aswan. The Nile was considered a divine river: Its source was unknown, and it rose and fell every year without being filled with rains. Roman women traveled to Egypt just to fill vials with its water, which was sacred to the goddess Isis.

The Corniche, celebrated promenade of Alexandria and once the gateway to Roman Egypt. Arriving at Cleopatra's capital was an unforgettable experience: Ships were guided into port by the Pharos lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was as tall as the Statue of Liberty and its lamps could be seen thirty miles out to sea. Life in this exotic city, where Europe met Africa and Asia, was enthralling to Roman travelers: One visitor enthused, "life in the great port was one continuous revel... of dancers, whistlers and murderers."

"The Embalming Shop," a nineteenth century newspaper etching showing the ancient Egyptian practice that has long obsessed Westerners. Roman tourists delighted in visiting the "mummy pits" of Memphis, where they could see corpses in various states of preservation. Mummification was still extremely popular in Egypt, even with wealthy Greek and Roman residents; Romans liked to have life-like portraits placed on their mummies, as an aid to identification in the afterlife.

The Colossi of Memnon, which once "sang" to Roman tourists. Located outside the Necropolis of Thebes, the Colossi became the most famous sightseeing attraction in the Roman world. Air trapped inside one statue would expand and be released at sunrise every morning, creating a haunting whistle sound—which Romans became convinced was a pagan miracle, the sound of the Homeric hero Memnon greeting his mother, the Dawn.

Romans loved to leave graffiti on monuments of all kinds, often hiring professional stone cutters to carve their words ("I was amazed!" was a popular favorite; "I was more than amazed!" someone wrote in the Valley of the Kings, in an example of one-upmanship). This Greek inscription is part of a lengthy poem in the Homeric style, etched into the leg of one of the Colossi of Memnon.

Crocodiles were worshipped up and down the Nile, as incarnations of the god Sobek. In the Fayum Oasis, the animals were kept in a private pool and hand-fed by priests for the pleasure of tourists—a forerunner of dolphin shows in Florida today.

The sacred island of Philae, holy to the goddess Isis, marked the end of the Grand Tour. It was also the frontier of the Roman Empire: Only the most intrepid tourists ventured further south.

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Also by Tony Perrottet:
The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games

What was it like to attend the ancient olympic games?

As the summer Olympics return to Athens, Tony Perrottet delves into the ancient world and lets the Greek Games begin again. The acclaimed author of Pagan Holiday brings attitude, erudition and humor to the fascinating story of the original Olympic festival, tracking the event day by day to re-create the experience in all its compelling spectacle.
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