Egypt – a clash of civilizations

Enakshi Choudhuri

Sphinx and the Great Pyramid

“Ahlan wa sahlan! Welcome to Cairo,” intoned the flight steward as our Egypt Air flight touched down at Cairo International Airport. It was late evening and light smog shrouded the airport buildings.  We climbed down the unsteady staircase onto the hot tarmac and threaded our way to the waiting buses. Our representative from the travel agency, Mustafa, met us once we alighted at the terminal building. As we would find out during the course of the week, Mustafa was our main link to the agency; he practically worked 24 hours a day and would often catnap in the car or in various hotel lobbies to catch up on much needed sleep. His dedication to his job was commendable.

We moved through immigration and customs very smoothly, thanks to Mustafa, and were soon outside waiting for the agency van to come pick us up. Cairo, a sprawling metropolis of over 15 million people, is a city that never sleeps. The traffic and smog hit you right away and immediately transport you to India. For many Western travelers the chaotic traffic and beeping horns, patched up cars filled to capacity, buses that stop anywhere and everywhere and the run down buildings with large colorful billboards represent a strange, exotic and potentially alarming spectacle. But to travelers with roots in South Asia, Cairo is like home. Everything is familiar and yet strangely unfamiliar in an indescribable way.

Cairo Marriott

Cairo Marriott

We spent 7 incredible days in Egypt which, in retrospect, seemed too short. Egypt’s magnificent history and culture overwhelms the senses and yet leaves one begging for more. Since we were traveling with a child (our daughter is seven), we were notably concerned about how much she would be able to do on any given day. One of the best decisions we made, as first time visitors to Egypt, was to have one travel agency organize all our tours, hotel accommodations and travel arrangements within the country so we only had to contact one person in case of any problems.

The other decision we patted ourselves on the back for was our request for private tours. These are a little more expensive than group tours, but doing so helped us set up our own itinerary and allowed us the luxury of a having a private air-conditioned minivan with unlimited stops along our way to various tourist sites. A guided tour is very valuable as many of the guides have degrees in history and archeology, have actually been on digs and are a fount of knowledge you can depend upon.

Avenue of the Rams

Avenue of the Rams

Egypt recognizes that tourism is its biggest industry and most tourist sites and cities are very well prepared for tourists. There is a special Tourism and Antiquities police force who only deal with tourist concerns. Arabic is the main language, although most people have a working knowledge of English and French, a throwback to Egypt’s European colonial past.  ATM’s are plentiful and most good hotels will exchange dollars for Egyptian pounds (1 US dollar = approximately 5 Egyptian LE). What’s even more convenient is that at the end of your stay your hotel will exchange any left over pounds for dollars at a very reasonable rate. Credit cards, dollars and euros are acceptable at all tourist sites so one does not need to carry large quantities of local currency.

Most areas in and around Cairo seem to be quite safe at all times. We noticed women and children walking on the streets of Cairo at 2 a.m. in the morning and families socializing in the wee hours of the morning by the Nile.  As far as getting to bed at a reasonable hour, anarchy appeared to prevail for both kids and adults, and nobody appeared too worse for the wear in the morning.

Statue of Ramses at Memphis

Statue of Ramses at Memphis

Egypt is an amalgamation of old traditions and conservative values and modern westernized beliefs. Women wearing the traditional hijab or in some cases, the full length burkha, mingle freely with others in western attire.  Many Egyptian guidebooks and internet travel sites caution women travelers to cover up fully and be modest in their attire. Although I went fully prepared I found that I need not have adhered to such strict guidelines. Our guide, a modern Muslim woman, did not cover her hair, wore short-sleeved shirts and calf length pants and definitely believed I was ‘over dressed’ for many of our tours. At one point, she asked me incredulously, “Didn’t you bring any shorts?”  I shook my head, wishing for the umpteenth time that I had packed a pair of bermudas or even capri pants instead of baggy trousers or long ankle length skirts.

Luxor

Luxor

My wardrobe deficiencies notwithstanding, we did manage to see quite a bit of Cairo and its surrounding areas and make quick trips to Luxor and Alexandria. To give you a quick snapshot of our itinerary – we started with a trip to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and a dinner cruise on the Nile on Day 1 and followed that by a tour of the pyramids and ruins of Saqqara, Dahshur, Memphis and Giza on Day 2. On Day 3, we toured historic Jewish, Coptic Christian and Islamic sites in Cairo and on Day 4 we winged our way to Luxor, about 600 km south of Cairo and explored the temples on the east bank (Karnak and Luxor). The next day (Day 5), we visited the magnificent necropolis at the Valley of the Kings, Queen Hatshepsut’s temple and the Colossi of Memnon. We flew back to Cairo that night and spent the next day, Day 6, in Alexandria exploring Greco-Roman catacombs, a Roman amphitheater and a fort built on the site of the original Lighthouse of Alexandria. On Day 7 we relaxed, did some shopping and closed out our trip by heading to Cairo airport late in the night for our flight back to the US.

Egyptian Museum

Egyptian Museum

The Egyptian museum is definitely worth visiting early on in your trip as it gives you an excellent overview of the history and culture that you will encounter on your tours to actual sites. The Tutankhamen exhibit halls are magnificent as well as the Amarna collection of Akhenaten. My daughter found the animal mummies fascinating, although she was quickly restless with the endless statuary and displays that we found so interesting. The Mummy room, for which you pay extra, contains about 21 mummies of ancient royals including that of Ramses II.

Step Pyramid at Zosur

Step Pyramid at Zosur

The Saqqara pyramids are among the first pyramids in Egypt. The Step pyramid of Zoser at Saqqara and the Bent pyramid at Dahshur are the forerunners of the later pyramids of Giza. There is no shortage of pyramids in this area, discovered or undiscovered; in fact, during our meanderings, we wandered onto an archeological dig which, after we returned to the US, was announced to be the site of the latest pyramid discovery in Saqqara. Our 15 seconds of proximity to fame and we didn’t even know it!

Red Pyramid of Sonfru

Red Pyramid of Sonfru

If you want to go inside a pyramid, it may be better to see the Red pyramid at Dahshur rather than the Giza pyramid where the challenge of having to deal with hordes of fellow tourists is compounded by the chagrin of having to buy a separate ticket for entrance. To get inside most pyramids you climb half way up one of the faces (about a 100 feet up) and then climb down a steep narrow shaft (about a 150 feet down), hunched over almost double at some points, leading to one or more burial chambers. The pyramids themselves are empty and most are quite musty as there are very few air shafts. If you are unused to much climbing or generally out of shape, it is probably best to avoid the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal distress associated with entering a pyramid.

Hanging Church

Hanging Church

Coptic Cairo is a pilgrimage for many tourists as it contains not only the legendary site where Moses was found in the rushes but also some of the places that Joseph, Mary and Jesus visited in Egypt while in exile. The Hanging Church, so called because it has no real foundation and built over one of the towers of the Babylon fortress, is worth visiting. We were mesmerized by the carved wooden ceilings at the Coptic Museum, ceilings that had been salvaged from various crumbling monasteries around the country. In Islamic Cairo the Alabaster Mosque built inside the 12th century Citadel of Saladin is a landmark destination. Even those unfamiliar with early Christian or Islamic history will appreciate the significance of these sites. A unique area that we passed on our way to Islamic Cairo was the City of the Dead, an erstwhile cemetery that, untransformed, has been home to the poorest citizens of Cairo for countless decades. The Egyptian government is now trying to relocate these families living among the graves and inside the mausoleums, many of whom have been living there for generations and refuse to move.

Queen Hatshepsut's Temple

Queen Hatshepsut

In ancient Egypt, the domain of the living was on the east side of the Nile and the domain of the dead on the west. The temples at Karnak and Luxor on the East Bank were storehouses of wealth during the time of Ramses II. The six soaring statues of Ramses II guarding the temple of Luxor are a sight to behold.  The Valley of the Kings on the West Bank houses the tombs of over 65 pharaohs in deep caves carved into soft limestone rock, many of which still haven’t been found. The tombs here date back to the New Kingdom (1570-1070 BC) when the pharaohs realized that the pyramids were beacons to grave robbers. The tourist sites around Luxor entail a fair amount of walking and the ground is quite uneven. Sturdy shoes and lots of drinking water are a good idea as the actual tombs are quite far away from the main ticket offices. No photography is allowed inside the caves which is a pity as the frescoes are amazing. This was one of the few places where our daughter decided to sit with the guide in the shade while we braved the scorching hot sun and armies of tourists to explore some the tombs. The heat and the crowds make it impossible to see more than four or five tombs in a morning but whatever you can see is highly worth it.

Mediterranean Sea

Mediterranean Sea

We found Alexandria to be a pleasant seaside town with a few Roman and Greek sites. The catacombs were worth visiting but paled in comparison to the other tombs that we had seen before we got to this city, Egypt’s second largest. The Mediterranean Sea was a breathtaking azure blue and the sail boats bobbing in the breeze were picturesque. For history buffs, Alexandria may be a bit of a letdown, given that much of the original wonders of the ancient world no longer remain and have been replaced with fairly recent structures as markers where these monuments once stood. In retrospect, we feel that we could have easily skipped this tour and chosen to go either to the temple of Abu Simbel or to one of the historic sites in the Sinai Peninsula.

Now no traveler’s tale is complete without a mention of the local cuisine and this is no exception. We enjoyed typical Egyptian dishes like kushari (a lentil, pasta and rice dish with red sauce), fuul (mashed refried beans), kebabs, hummus, grilled pigeon, chicken and fish tagines or stews, fetir (sweet or savory stuffed pancakes) and a delicious baladi bread similar to a tandoor roti. Being vegetarian would be very hard in Egypt if you had to subsist on traditional food but in most places American or European food is readily available.  Be careful of fresh cut vegetables and fruits unless you want to spend most of your time “resting”; although we were not affected, we found that it was a constant topic of discussion wherever there were tourists. Fresh fruit juices such as lime, mango, guava or strawberry were surprisingly good and very refreshing. Alcohol is served primarily in big touristy restaurants or hotels. Egypt Air, the national airline is totally ‘dry’ and no alcoholic beverages are sold even on trans-Atlantic journeys.

We found that many tourist sites do not allow photography inside the monuments or buildings and would recommend buying the postcards being sold by vendors so you can hold on to some memories. Tour guides will also stop for ‘refreshments’ at carpet factories, perfume factories, papyrus institutes and other handicraft industries. In a private tour it is much easier to avoid such places than on a large guided tour. Bargaining is a must if you plan to buy. We started with one third the quoted price and worked our way up to what we thought was an acceptable upper limit for us.

Bottled water is essential as is sunscreen for the sun can be brutal at midday. Weather- wise the best time to visit is probably October to March, when temperatures are manageable. Also, tipping or giving baksheesh is a way of life in Egypt. Keep plenty of one pound notes (notes are more acceptable than coins) as even when you go to a public restroom you need to tip the attendant before you can get a small strip of toilet paper to use. People will ask for tips to take photographs of you at most tourist sites.

If you are traveling with kids, the additional expenditure of staying in four or five star hotels is worth considering. Smoking is very common in all public places including hotel lobbies. A non-smoking room in a 5 star hotel is like paradise if you are not used to cigarette smoke.  When traveling with children take the usual precautions you would take when traveling to India or other countries in the subcontinent with respect to food, restrooms, over the counter medicines etc. Egyptians love children and will often take the time to interact with them or bring special treats.

As we boarded our flight back to the US, the words of P.B Shelley came to mind:

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things…
…Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

For us, Egypt is now a collage of pillars and pyramids, monasteries, churches, mosques and temples, some shattered by the march of Time and History, as Shelley describes, yet others still standing, proud and desolate and endlessly fascinating. It is a canvas of the clash of civilizations, the ancient and modern saga of humankind in all its grandeur, its hubris, its compassion and its frailty, and the enduring bonds that tie us all together. We can’t wait to find our way back.

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