The trip to Egypt was fantastic. And I want to thank those that posted/emailed tips -- you were right on and I was better prepared as a result.
The sights there are amazing, seeing them on TV doesn't do it justice. It was unbelievably hot though, don't go to Africa in August! :) Seriously though, if you like interesting world travel, I highly recommend Egypt. I was also really satisfied with the tour company we used (email me if you want the name). They were very professional, everything was planned so that every day was pretty packed (sometimes a little TOO packed). The hotels were great (could see the great pyramids of Giza from our balcony in Cairo), even the Nile cruise boat, of which I had very low expectations, turned out to be really nice (spacious rooms with crown molding and marble bathrooms, beautiful wood open air lounge area, decent food, etc.). The tour guide had a degree in Egyptology and was just a fountain of information (sometimes TOO much information! :) ).
Here are a few PHOTOS!
Camels sit down and get up with their front legs fully down or up before their back legs move so it makes for a crazy experience (they are tall!). We were laughing uncontrollably for most of the ride. If you ever get the chance to ride a camel, don't pass it up!
The many temples and pyramids are awe-inspiring. I went down inside one pyramid -- I was worried when the people coming out where drenched in sweat, with one woman actually crying (my wife skipped that experience). I had to walk down a long narrow corridor, crouching down to get inside, but inside it opened up -- lots of little rooms down there. All the treasures have been stolen or are in museums around the world though. King Tut's tomb is the most famous because it was discovered in the 20th century and they got to save all the treasure before it could be stolen -- we saw everything in the Tut museum in Cairo and entered the actual tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
Egyptians don't really walk this way, despite American pop-music myth :)
There were police EVERYWHERE armed with automatic weapons. We also had police escorts on our bus, and driving motorcycles in front of and behind our bus. Everyone was really impressed with security over there. They had one bad terrorist incident in 1997 then the Egyptian government cracked down hard on Islamic fundamentalist groups -- they haven't had any problems since [update: OK since I wrote that they had a couple bad tourist area bombings, oh well, but seriously, I'd still recommend it]
The Asian tourists weren't able to blend in as well as us Americans:
We also cruised the Nile, and stopped at a botanical garden:
I was told that Egypt currently has 17% unemployment. I was amazed at how cheap everything was over there -- of course everything requires haggling and they start at 3 to 10 times what they will settle for. Interestingly -- they don't trust the Euro over there. Despite the Euro being worth substantially more than a dollar at the time (about $1.23) they would rather have a dollar than a Euro. I even had one merchant come up to me, put a pile of Euros (from a tourist) in my hand, and ask me to exchange them for dollars (at whatever rate I named apparently -- I passed on that offer, I guess I didn't want Euro's either :)).
Another interesting thing I saw in Cairo was that it seems about 90% of the city's housing looked like it was under construction still even though no work was being done (support columns and rebar springing out of the top floors of poorly constructed brick buildings). We were told that there is no concept of a mortgage over there (in the Muslim world paying or charging of interest is prohibited -- and we got various ranges that Egypt is 75% to 90% "Muslim"). Anyway, some parts of the world have "Muslim mortgages" which usually involve the bank buying the property and then the buyer purchasing it from them by renting it over a length of time at a slightly increased price (personally I'd rather question beliefs that make no sense than become a hypocrite by participating in silly loophole/technicality games, but what do I know?). Anyway, we were told they build housing one floor at a time while saving for the next floor. Future generations of their families build on top making the next level of the house when they've saved enough to do so. They are a very family oriented culture, so many generations frequently live together in these large expandable buildings. Most of these buildings looked like they could collapse at any moment though (you probably remember the alarming devastation in Iran when they had that earthquake not long ago -- it was because their housing is very similar; it doesn't take much to bring it down).
You have no idea how dependent Egypt is on the Nile. We were told that 75% of the country's power comes from a single dam on the Nile. If an enemy were to simply blow that dam up, the country would be devastated. You can't help but get the sense that all life in the country butts up against the Nile -- outside of which, from what I saw, is a vast desert wasteland. We were told the last time it rained was 1994. While boating down the Nile we could see many fisherman, and people harvesting various crops like sugar, and herding some cattle. But the biggest source of income for the country is tourism. We were told that 25% of the population works in tourism either directly or indirectly. They also have some mandatory service in the tourist police (not sure if this is a prerequisite for serving in their military?).
I don't know that the trip really helped me form an opinion on the Middle East. I know a lot of people are afraid to go to the Middle East because of the threat of violence (indeed we were told that tourism from America especially, PLUNGED in Egypt after 9/11 and still has not recovered despite the fact that it has proven to be a very safe place). I think there is always going to be tension and violence in the Middle East. I think the majority of Muslims are peaceful just like the majority of Christians are peaceful. Its the nut cases and hypocrites that give any religion a bad name. Egypt provides good evidence that cracking down on extremist groups WORKS. Some people think that by fighting terrorists, we create more terrorists -- I say that is NONSENSE. We have Al Queda on the run, HUNDREDS of members including very top level operatives have been caught or killed, and there hasn't been a single new attack on American soil since 9/11. Don't get me wrong, I think anything could happen at any time, but I also believe that fighting terrorists vigorously (aboard or otherwise) works.
The Middle East has a lot of potential. I don't see them as all that different from the rest of the world. Those that have not done so already, will grow to desire progress, education, and achievement -- things that we all benefit from. As standards of living improve, violence will likely subside. This all starts with a fair government that is not corrupt. One billboard in Cairo read (in English and Arabic) "Peace begins in Egypt".