Egypt – beauty and terror

I have been something of an Egyptophile since I was a teenager studying Ancient History and using James Henry Breasted’s excellent text as a guide through Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and places exotic and forgotten, and places trampled now by modern generals, dictators, despots and tyrants.

Coincidentally, I had just finished reading a pleasant but rather light-weight novel I picked up at a second-hand book shop – James Patterson’s  The Murder of King Tut – when one of the local television stations broadcast the delicious 1978 film Murder on the Nile with Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, and featuring David Niven, Maggie Smith, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow and just about everyone who was a leading actor at the time. 

In 1993 I was finally able to visit the Egypt and the Nile – and even if I did not see any mysterious fur-clad Russian countesses shoving a dagger or two into unsuspecting bodies, it was a memorable journey despite the threats of violence, with many attacks linked to Islamic extremism and a wish by some to impose the strict and repressive Sharia law on Egypt. 

According to several websites, there were two terrorist attacks in February that year – both claimed by the Al-Gama al-Islamiyya group – and further attacks in April just before my visit.  More attacks occurred in June, in August, in November and two final attacks in December of that year.  In 1993 over eleven hundred people were killed or wounded.

My Swissair flight from Geneva to Cairo was uneventful and quite forgettable – except for the group of forty or so terribly proper people from the USA, all members of some Bible study group, who were travelling to Egypt to climb Mt Sinai, where the Bible tells us that Moses received the Ten Commandments.

  • That rather made me feel that if there was any aircraft destined to be shot down by an Islamist terrorist group, it would be mine …
Early morning haze as a street sweeper starts working

I enjoyed Cairo – its dustiness, its traffic chaos, all of “my uncle’s carpet shops” where I was assured of a great price, and of course the city’s incredibly rich history.  Once the early morning haze lifted and before pollution got too great, the great pyramids of Giza were visible from my hotel.  One day I abandoned my guide and walked from the historic site back to my hotel – a long and dusty stroll through traffic and donkeys and camels and cars and people along Al Haram Street, passing by what is today the Ramses School, the Ahl Eltaqwa Mosque and the El Hoofy Pharmacy – pigs’ trotters and camels’ feet paste a speciality.

Aha!  These must be the Pyramids

The pyramids are, quite simply, magnificent.

My fear of enclosed spaces stopped me from glooming through the interior tunnels, but the size of the blocks that make the Great Pyramid – each stone about the size of an Arab mounted on a camel in height and commensurately wide and deep – is staggering.  The structure is 150 metres tall and has sides of approximately 230 metres each, with some of the 2.3 million stones weighing up to sixty tonnes each.  To get an idea of the size, note the man on a camel on one of the stones in the above photograph.

It is difficult to escape the many touts and tour guides and small boys offering camel or donkey rides or personal tours and those simply demanding ”Baksheesh!”, but it was wonderful just to wander the area, resist the temptation to try climbing the sphinx that has been damaged not only by the winds and sands of time, but by Australian and French soldiers who have thought at different times in relatively modern years that the majestic and rather mysterious structure would make a great target for artillery and rifle target practice.

  • Aaaargh!

I had a meal at the Andrea Restaurant near the pyramids of lamb rissoles, stuffed vine leaves, pitta bread, eight different dips and sauces, yoghurts and various vegetables and part of a BBQ chicken:

  • Yummo

When I went to the Cairo Museum a bit of “Aaaargh!” was appropriate and “Yummo” was not.  A very enthusiastic, knowledgeable and talkative museum staff member guided me through the collections, and my notes from that time remind me that she told me five times that:

  • The life in the colours comes from the natural ingredients used, and rock crystal is also used as it is the only material to give a sparkle to the corners of the eyes.

I am sure that this is true despite being hammered over the head with the facts so many times, and despite my overly enthusiastic guide, my visit to the Tutankhamun exhibit in the museum was a real

Marriage scene on the back of a royal throne
  • Ooooh!

moment:  the historical relics were so fresh, so full of life and colour and so beautiful.  It may all be 3000 years old but I hope I look at least as good as that when I am 300 years old.  The marriage scene depicted on the back of Tut’s throne is sublime and his burial mask quite sensational.

The museum also holds many other historical relics, but as is unfortunately the case, tomb robbers perhaps including Howard Carter who discovered Tut’s tomb in 1922, so many other valuable pieces are now held by foreign governments.  The Rosetta Stone, an invaluable resource in deciphering ancient hieroglyphics is now in Britain, the only complete bust of Queen Nefertiti is housed in Berlin and Athens holds numerous ancient goodies, “on loan” or simply purloined over the ages.

Despite the incongruity, I am so glad that the Greek government is actively chasing the UK government to repatriate the so-called “Elgin Marbles” stolen from the Athens Parthenon by Lord Elgin.

Perhaps more police officers need to be deployed in Cairo – or Athens – to stop international thieves from stealing national relics.  Locally there are ancient chappies who are “Tourist and Antiquities Police” (who could just about be carbon dated themselves), there are young police officers who jumped at the bark of a dog (although it was a very large dog) and others who seem to stand about and not do much or sporadically direct traffic or casually “guard” official buildings.

Terrorism and local policing seem many worlds apart.

Before I left Cairo, I visited the British International School of Cairo.

Many government schools in Egypt are segregated – boys’ schools and girls’ schools – but the BIS is fully co-educational from Kindergarten to Grade 12.  An International Baccalaureate regional conference was being hosted by the school when I visited.  In addition to meeting the Head of School, I met the Director General of the IBO whom I joined for lunch.

By train down the Nile

While sitting on the platform waiting for my train a heavily armoured train pulled through the station.  The carriages apparently contained either political prisoners or captured terrorists.  Either way they were chanting that Islam would always remain the religion of the State.  In the various attacks mentioned before, the targets were usually Christians, police, or tourists.  A man I later met at a Coptic Christian church in Luxor told me that as many as 30% of the population were Christians, but the real figure is probably only about 10%. 

I was talking to a man also waiting for a train – a self-professed devout Muslim – who said of the prisoners on the train:

  • These sorts of people – terrorists – need to be killed – exterminated.  If you have a cancer, unless you cut it out completely, it will grow back in a different spot.

My train eventually arrived and my compartment was comfortable, quiet and air conditioned.  The journey south took us through irrigated areas and spaces of open desert and after a meal in the restaurant car, where Omar Khayam red wine cost EGP 29.00 and Champagne EGP 499.00, I found that my bed was comfortable and a gentle rocking as the train chugged along ensured a good night’s sleep.

When I opened the curtains of my cabin in the morning, an absolutely Biblical scene was presented to me as a farmer worked his shadoof. 

The water he was drawing fed into canals in the fields with crops of cauliflower, tomatoes and a mysterious green crop I could not identify.  Sugar cane is one of the principal crops grown and it is eaten everywhere and by everyone – tourists, train crews, people squatting by the roadside and old men squatting in their villages.  It is carried in great swaying piles, by camel or donkey to the railway where it is loaded onto waggons until they are completely full … then more cane is shoved vertically down the sides of the waggons to increase the height of the walls … and more cane is then added again.

Aswan

I found Aswan to be a small and welcoming town.  Certainly there were kids clamouring “Backsheesh, mister!” but there were old men sitting in sidewalk cafes over never-ending cups of tea who invited me to join them in games of dominos or backgammon or to share their hookahs or hubble bubble pipes.

In one shop where I had coffee, I found a back room where the pipes were dismantled, washed and re-filled with tobacco.  There was a large fireplace full of hot coals ready to be plucked from the fire, popped on top of the hookah – ready! – for a new customer to suck, sip and blow the morning away.

The nearby Aswan High dam, controversially built by the Russians after USA and Britain withdrew, is a massive construction that has helped regulate the annual Nile floods.  I asked a local man if the dam had been a target for terrorists or the nearby Israelis and was told quite strongly “NO!” … but that perhaps explained the heavily armed gun positions near the dam.

Philae

One day I jumped on a felucca.

That sentence has a certain charm.  Did I stand on a rare Egyptian serpent?  Is the Nubian word for donkey “felucca”?  Or is a felucca some sort of armed bandit wanting to take all my money?  Unfortunately, it is far more prosaic than any of these: it is a small sailing boat used on the Nile and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, and that day mine took me to Philae.

One of the sailors “driving” my felucca

The first Aswan Dam and the later Aswan High Dam have created a huge lake that drowned the 3000-year-old Temple of Philae, so archaeologists and engineers dismantled the temple and as with several other historic buildings along the Nile, relocated it 150 metres away, above the high-water mark.  Many of the original carvings were defaced by later pharaohs trying to eradicate the names of their less-loved predecessors, and by the Romans and Greeks.

Feluccas on the Nile
Sunlight slanting across inscription in Temple of Isis

However, the innermost temple room has spectacular relief sculptures that, when lit by a slanting sun, jump out and call for continued preservation.

Luxor

There are many little countryside graves viewed from the train from Aswan to Luxor – an easy three- or four-hour journey.  Many of these little graves are just a simple stone peeping from the sand, but many more are gradually being nibbled away by the desert sands reclaiming their own.

Luxor has, however, some rather more spectacular historical graves with the Valley of Kings (where just four years after my visit terrorists would claim the lives of seventy visitors in a mad and murderous attack on the historical site), the Colossus of Memnon, the Valley of the Queens … and Tutankhamun’s tomb.

From all accounts, Tutankhamun was a very minor pharaoh and his tomb is a very modest place – essentially just two rooms measuring about eight metres x four metres and a little over two metres tall.  The vast treasure trove recovered in 1922 from this tomb suggests that the larger burial sites must have been packed with goodies on a far greater scale – now all lost to tomb robbers.

I am glad to find that Tutankhamun’s body is now safely restored to his burial site and hope that, at last, he is able to rest comfortably.

Even older than King Tut is the nearby temple complex of Karnak.  I remember reading in JH Breasted’s text that the mighty columns of this temple were so massive that one hundred men could stand on top of them.  When I visited, I could see what he was suggesting – and indeed a hundred brave souls might indeed have stood up there, but as the capitals looked rather perilous to me, I was glad to stay downstairs.

Wobbly capitals and columns, Karnak

Here and there are touches of the original vibrant colours in the deeply incised hieroglyphics, but the evening son et lumière show brings massive colours to the whole place.  As the complex is so large, the audience follows the lights and music from room to room to see and hear and to learn its history – and perhaps just to keep warm:  during my visit the night-time temperature was a pretty chilling 30C accompanied by a very unpleasant cold wind.

While the Taj Mahal at Agra in India is perfection in its symmetry and is relatively understated, Karnak is a vast sprawling chaos of rooms added to rooms added to terraces and to halls and to courtyards … yet the sphinx-lined road leading to the temple is beautiful in its precision and mathematical repetition.

I have been fortunate to be able to visit many of the world’s most impressive and atmospheric sites – but Karnak was and still is probably my favourite.  It was probably less popular with the fabulously wealthy USA heiress Linnet Ridgeway (played by Lois Chiles in the 1978 film), as a stone from one of those rather wobbly Karnak columns nearly killed her in the desert sands.  She survived to live another day or two only to be killed by her husband.

Life and death on the Nile, and shadoofs and feluccas and hookahs and tomb robbers and sad terrorist attacks are all part of ancient and modern Egypt – and I wouldn’t have missed it for all the gold in Tut’s sarcophagus.

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Text and photographs © Christopher Hall October 2020

With special thanks to Natee Insorn in Chiang Mai for his assistance

Shadoof illustration, map, throne, felucca, Luxor and second Karnak photographs from Internet

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In my blogs I try to present a snapshot of the places I – and many other travellers – may discover during a visit of a week or two.  I am not trying to present a detailed picture of the whole city or the whole region or the whole country.

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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight

  • Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship

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