Five days in Egypt in September


My most indelible memory of Cairo airport is the tennis court sized poster of Obama that greeted us in arrivals. Alongside Obama's face was a quotation from him testifying that the Egyptians are America's friends in the middle east. This was the start of our five days in Egypt, but Cairo airport is neither more Egyptian than London Heathrow, nor less English. Our trip began for real when I opened the taxi door into the humidity, the noise, the lights and the chaos of Talaat Harb street at 11pm.

The taxi driver guided us through the food stands and the street sellers, past a jewellery shop into a tall courtyard off the street to where a bright "Bella Luna Hotel" sign pointed into a forbidding entrance hall. When built, the colonial era staircase in that entrance hall could have belonged to a palace, but today, with worn granite steps, no lights, few repairs and no paint or decoration other than a layer of dust this staircase could equally have led to hell. Fortunately it didn't, and five flights of steps later we arrived at the Bella Luna Hotel's bright reception hall, and our bed for the night.


In the morning we left our hotelier to "make connections" regarding our travel to Luxor later that day and we set off for the pyramids. Two things stood out from this visit: the scarcity of tourists, and the intense hassle. Considering that the Great Pyramid of Giza has been on every traveller's must-see list since Herodotus immortalised it as one of his Seven Wonders I expected the Giza plateau to be awash with admirers, but it was empty. Empty, but not calm, for with few tourists the guides and hawkers were scrambling over those of us who were there.

I wish I could say that the pyramids had gained meaning for me as testament to the power of one of the world's greatest civilisations, or even as a monument to man's vanity, but on that day they were merely a big pile of rocks that provided shade as we swatted away panhandlers, "egyptologists" and even Egypt's tallest policeman. This crowd of hucksters is the only detail of the pyramids that cannot be seen from afar, and I would advise you not to approach closely enough that you ever experience it.

Tiring quickly of the hassle we returned to central Cairo to browse the Egyptian museum's vast collection of artefacts. The collection is so big that during three hours we walked past no more than a third of their displayed collection. The displayed artefacts are only small part of their full collection, most of which resides in the basement. When leaving I realised that whether I had spent another hour or even another week in the museum I would still have left having seen just a small fraction of their collection. In fact I am told that if one were to spend a minute on each piece on display it would take nine months to see them all, and one minute is not enough time in which to do justice to a five thousand year old, intricately hieroglyphed and highlighted sarcophagus.

Upsettingly, these artefacts are neither properly cared for nor curated. The few objects that are encased and marked carry peeling and browned labels that look as old as the artefacts they describe. Most objects, however, are unprotected from either the climate, light or the wandering hands of tourists. Undoubtedly the British Museum's possession of illegally expatriated artefacts is wrong, but so is such neglect of historical treasures. So much so, that after visiting the Cairo museum I was in doubt for the first time that it is best for western museums to return to Egypt the stolen historical treasures they contain.

That evening we returned to Giza to catch the sleeper train south to Luxor in order to see the lavish tombs in the famous Valley of the Kings. You can trade this ten hour train journey for a seventy minute hop in an airliner, but I have no idea why you would. You would miss the romance of being rocked to sleep in your cabin by the twists and turns of the Egypt Railways number 82 train as it charges through the night down the Nile valley. Sleeper trains provide a sense of adventure without the discomfort of a real adventure. Until someone builds a space rocket with a jacuzzi, an overnight train remains the classiest mode of travel, and this trip from Giza to Luxor is an unmissable experience if you ever find yourself in egypt.


Never was Egypt's problem with urban hassle more apparent than outside Luxor train station. We fought through a crowd of agressively helpful taxi drivers to leave the station and waved off at least one taxi driver a minute during the thirty minute walk to our hotel, the beautiful and peaceful Nur el Gurna.

Nur el Gurna's proprietor, Mahmoud, offered us tea and introduced us to his wife, daughter, sons, sons' wives, grandchildren, cats and ducks, all of whom live at Nur el Gurna and work variously as cook, cleaner, taxi driver and farmhands for the livestock he keeps. Life in Luxor, Mahmoud informed us, is not like life in Cairo. Families stay together in Luxor.

Mahmoud confirmed our suspicions about Egypt's tourist trade. Since 2011's Arab spring and the Egyptian revolution, tourists had stopped coming. When we visited there wasn't even a quarter the pre-revolution volume of tourists. Our pyramid guide had dropped from three tours a day to one tour at best, Mahmoud's luxurious rooms were empty, and many of the tombs we would visit in Luxor would have been empty if it weren't for our presence. Unfortunately with so few tourists, those dependant on the dollars they provide have to fight even harder. By the time we left Egypt we had a good idea what the rugby ball must feel like at the end of a match.

After an unforgettable lunch of tahina, kofta and spiced potatoes we set off to see some of the tombs that Luxor is famous for in the nearby Deir el Medina. Deir el Medina itself is not the resting place of the pharoahs, it translates to "worker's village" and it contains the tombs of the workers who constructed the Pharaoh's tombs. Having laboured fulltime on the Pharaoh's tomb, these workers would head to Deir el Medina on their rest day to construct their own. The tombs are minute in comparison to the Pharoah's palaces of death, but without the riches to attract grave robbers these tombs remained sealed until very recently and these were the best preserved tombs we saw, with murals as colourful as the day they were painted.

Archaeologically speaking, the worker's tombs in Deir el Medina, and the tombs of the Egyptian noblemen in the nearby Deir el Bahari, are of interest because the wall paintings show daily life in ancient Egypt rather than glorious battles inscribed upon the walls of the Pharaoh's tombs. Personally, I was fascinated to see how the ancient Egyptian obsession with death permeated the entire society.

Once we had explored sufficient tombs for the day, we started down the desert hillside towards the hotel. Almost immediately a heavily armed policeman appeared, welcomed us to Alaska, and walked down the hill with us. I'm not sure whether I should write "walked with us" or "escorted us", most likely the latter. Egypt's broader struggle between the progressive, Western elements of its society and the highly conservative Islamic elements is manifested in the tourist areas as a struggle between the small army of Tourist Police and fundamentalist terrorists. The Tourist Police are numerous, well armed and the occasional bullet hole in their shields and trucks shows that they are not for show. Thankfully, they are effective and there have been no serious attacks on tourists in the past few years.

Tuesday (September 11th)

The following day we caught a taxi to the world-famous Valley of the Kings - the preferred resting place for Egypt's great Pharaohs, most notably Tutankhamen and Rameses IX. Unlike the tombs of the nobles and the workers we had seen the day before, the Valley of the Kings is a mainstay of tourist trail. It is a professional operation set up to cater for 7000 tourists each day, with a visitor centre, an educational video and a fleet of road trains for ferrying visitors from the visitor centre up the valley to the tomb entrances.

The Pharoah's were buried with as much gold and jewellery as their tombs would contain. These treasures are tempting to graverobbers and most of the pharoah's tombs have been open for millenia, with the notable exception of Tutankhamen's tomb, which remained sealed until when 1922, giving Howard Carter a chance to rob it. Having been opened, the elements have stolen much of the richness and detail from the wallpaintings, but the cavernous hand-hewn chambers are spectacular monuments to their original occupants, and in many the massive, intricately carved granite sarcophagus has been left in place.

One tomb had a mirror set up on the floor to show the underside of the sarcophagus lid where the figure of a woman had been carved, presumably to ensure her husband was fully satisfied in his afterlife. Museums and books present history in such a dour and stuffy manner that one assumes the participants must have shared this formality. This five thousand year old dirty joke carved into the lid of a Pharoah's sarcophagus reminded me that the participants in history were not as humourless as the subject often makes them seem.

Soon our book of "Tomb tickets" was fully stamped and we hopped the empty roadtrain back to the visitor centre to meet Mahmoud's taxi driving son. The roadtrain and accompanying infrastructure lend the Valley of Kings the air of a well managed heritage site, but insufficient money and effort is directed at preservation of the tombs in the valley. These tombs, the pyramids, the temples and the objects in the Cairo Museum are gifts from the ancient Egyptian society to their modern descendants, and they are largely responsible for the 30% of the Egyptian economy based on tourism. Every time I saw a tourist brush his or her hand across a wall painting four millennia old, or a tomb attendant bump his hat against the painted ceiling, or witnessed the damage done by the rainwaters that are allowed to flood these tombs each winter I wondered how long this gift would last, and how healthy Egypt's economy will be if the tourist sector dries up.


After a second night in the return sleeper train we woke up wednesday morning in Cairo. By now we had seen enough of how the ancient Egyptians were buried, and we were keen to peek into the daily lives of their descendants. Leaving our hotel we turned south in the direction of the Islamic old town hoping to see the ancient Citadel.

The guidebook informed us that Cairenes treat the street as their living room. Cafes and shops spill out onto the pavement in any warm western city, but Cairo is the only city where I've had to duck a tray of croissants pulled from a hot oven left on the pavement by the baker. In Cairo machinists and bakers ply their trades on the pavement side by side with cafe owners, street sellers and passing pedestrians.

Amongst the combined smell of sweat, baked goods, spices and car grease on Cairo's streets, the insincere and avaricious friendliness of Egypt's tourist spots is replaced by genuine hospitality. We experienced this generosity firsthand when we stopped at a coffee shop to ask directions to the Citadel we were searching for. Almost immediately we were surrounded by a small crowd of men arguing amongst themselves as to how best we could get there, and inquiring about our backgrounds. They were friendly, engaging and interesting; a better advertisement for their country than the sea of hawkers surrounding the pyramids, even though we never made it to the Citadel.


Our last day in Egypt was an early start and an uneventful ride to the airport. We were fortunate to leave when we did, for the Tuesday of our visit was the day when protests over the "Innocence of Muslims" film started and four Americans were killed in the US embassy in Benghazi. An Egyptian Coptic Christian was the source of the film and there were additional, peaceful, protests outside the US embassy in Cairo. The situation drew comments from Obama that he did not "consider them [The Egyptians] an ally...".

Having seen the scale of the Egyptian government's struggle with Islamic terrorism through the size and ubiquity of their Tourist Police I found this comment ill considered and crass. America's war on terror is neither an abstract, nor a distant, concept to the Egyptians. It is fought every day of their lives, all over their country, and as the bullet holes in the police shields show, it is not a bloodless conflict. If these people are not Obama's allies, I am forced to question what war the Americans are fighting in the Middle East?

Most recently Egypt has made the news due to protests over the emergency powers President Morsi awarded himself, a referendum over these powers, and then further protests over the suspicious referendum result that effectively installed Morsi as Egypt's dictator. It pains me that these news broadcasts are undoubtedly shrinking Egypt's tourist trade even further, undermining the moderate sectors of Egypt's society and probably closing Egypt's doors to tourists like ourselves in the future. I enjoyed my visit to this friendly nation, with its beautiful landscape, and its artefacts from its proud history. It is heartbreaking to think of Egypt developing into just one more hard line Islamic state.

Posted on 18 December 2012

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