Leaving the melee of Cairo is something of a relief. The constant hooting of car horns can be wearing when you come from somewhere that is so quiet that the sound of sheep and cows is practically all you have to endure in the daily tumult of life in the country.
Our driver, Samir, is clearly educated. He speaks English very well and talks about wishing to visit Florence so he can hear the church bells and the birds. Unfortunately, he thinks he’ll never leave Egypt as, since 9/11, it has become almost impossible to be granted a visa. If you’ve had one before the restrictions started, you’re fine. Now, it’s a different story. He can leave Egypt and there are no restrictions if he wishes to visit Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon. However, his heart is set on visiting the United States, England, France and Italy, with little optimism of ever realising his dreams.
President Sisi is trying to help, he tells us, by rounding up problem members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but there is a significant proportion of the group in close alliance with ISIS.
‘They’re cousins’, he says, as he shakes his head, ‘They’re trying to get in via Libya, but thank God, the army is there to stop them. But UK and America, they don’t want to know.’
He also tells me that they’re building a new capital out in the desert. There is already a New Cario alongside the old, but this It will be the even newer Cairo and will be home for all the business and financial companies. With the Egyptian population increasing by a million a year, there is an urgent need to expand. The desert must seem endless and ripe for development. The new Cairo city project is 40% backed by Chinese money and it will be huge. They have the space do anything they want. Meanwhile, we can’t even really find room for another runway at Heathrow!
The Egyptian Express to Aswan is just over an hour’s flight on board a rather small Embraer 170. It’s almost full, mainly with Koreans who seem to know each other and must be part of the same trip. Apart from them and us, of course, the remaining passengers are Egyptians. I sit alongside a tall, deeply bronzed gentleman of considerable years. He has a commendably white dishdasha, turban and cream slip-on loafers. Whilst he looks suitably distinguished, I can’t help but feel he would look more at home, cross-legged, on top of a refractory camel rather than squashed into a seat in Row 23C. Whoever does his laundry earns my respect, especially in such a dusty climate.
In 25K sits a rather grumpy looking elderly lady, covered head to foot in black. Her abaya is emblazoned with ‘Adidas’ across the back in shiny black transfer. The concept of a sporting abaya is interesting in itself, let’s not miss a branding opportunity, Adidas!
We take off at the end of a short runway where the tarmac ends and the desert continues. Immediately the landscape becomes featureless and there is little reason to commandeer the window seat. It’s a case of sitting back, enjoy a drink from the non-alcoholic bar and ponder.
The road from Aswan airport into town takes you across the top of the old dam. There is a military presence all the way along: armoured cars, machine guns and a fair number of soldiers, armed to the teeth.
Aswan lies on both banks of the Nile. In truth, even after the strangeness of Cairo, Aswan feels very foreign. Step off the Corniche and it’s a maze of narrow and rather scruffy alleyways with lock-up shops that look down at heel.
Along the upmarket Corniche, we are constantly harassed by falouka owners who want to whisk us off for a sunset cruise. At the equivalent of five English pounds for two hours, it seems good value, but their sales patter is oppressive, to say the least.
Where you from?
You want ride in falouka?
Only 50LE for two hours.
Not today, then tomorrow? Morning or afternoon? Morning? What time? 10 o’clock?
My name is Mohammed Ali. I best falouka in Aswan.
Where you from? Wales? Where Wales? You German?
And later, when I open the balcony doors to take in the view of the Nile, he’s down in the road, shouting above four lanes of traffic.
Hey, English? It’s me, Mohammed Ali. You want to go now?
The Hotel Philae on the Corniche is my berth for the night before we are collected in the morning by staff from the river boat. It’s a basic hotel and very clean but the magnificent views from the balcony take in the Nubian museum in the west and up out into the Nile on the right. The view really is splendid. As everywhere, there is traffic, but here it is restricted to four lanes rather the eight of Cairo.
Even outside of the hotel, the Egyptians do not disguise their intentions to make people feel safe. The gate to the Nile is guarded by two policemen with automatic weapons and across the street sections are closed off with barriers and soldiers on patrol. It’s strange that what is there to make you feel safe is still slightly unnerving.
The back of the hotel opens up into the tourist souk. Not a place for the faint-hearted. Every shop keeper has something you obviously need. Armed with four foot-long sticks, they point at their shop and attempt to drive you in through the front door, cattle-style. Their enthusiasm is commendable, but after a flight, a drive and little to eat, it’s all rather too much and we seek the sanctuary of the hotel for a rest before venturing out after dark.
At dusk, the call to prayer and time to eat.
By night, the main souks are a different place. Through arches reminiscent of The Arabian Nights, the stall holders sell their wares. Everyone is your friend, as long as you show an interest in their shop front and its contents beyond.
Hey, sir. You English?
Have a butchers. Have a gander. Best price!
Window-shopping is nigh on impossible. They want to sell with a passion – rugs, jewellery, pot, pans and watches. Stop and you’re fair game; glance up from the floor, and you’re equally so.
Later, we sit outside McDonalds on a huge paved patio, watching the Nile flow past, the dunes floodlit and the young men and women spending time together chatting and laughing. On the street, armed police drive up and down, it’s quite a contrast. There are far more veiled women in Aswan and I see my first burqa, which is a rare sight even in this country with its Muslim government.
The cafes are all full of men and there are few bars outside of international hotels. Once we’ve eaten, there’s little to do except walk the Corniche back to the hotel and prepare for tomorrow and the start of our four day visit to Aswan and Luxor.
The MS Steinberger Minerva
As the sun rises, I open the hotel balcony door and step out to take in the crisp morning air before breakfast. There, down in the street, hunting the shade provided by a wide canopied tree is Mohammed Ali. He waves, points to the falouka moored below him and beckons. I pantomime hunger and the need for breakfast and he shrugs before turning away and going back in to the shade.
After breakfast, we join the MS Steinberger Minerva, a Nile boat owned by a German company. It’s moored further down the Corniche in Aswan. Another Mohammed, from the tour company, collects us from the hotel, tells me he has two degrees in history and business from Aswan and Luxor universities and, whilst his father wanted him to follow into the family profession and become an English teacher, he’s happy as a tour representative working for one of the biggest tour companies in Egypt.
The boat can accommodate 175 and we’re left to ourselves for a couple of hours to unpack and take in the view. Unfortunately, we’re moored alongside a similar boat, so until this evening when we set sail, our view is limited to next door’s bedroom window.
However, the view from the sun deck takes in the whole width of the blue Nile and we watch fishermen wading in the shallows of the mud flats hunting fish for the table or to sell in the market.
Almost unbelievably, around the headland comes a falouka and a cry of ‘English! Remember me? Mohammed Ali’. I wonder if he’ll follow us all the way to Luxor. An Egyptian haunting.
After lunch, led by our guide for the week, Lou-Lou, who has a four-year degree in Egyptology from Cairo under his belt, we head for the Unfinished Obelisk and the Aswan dams. The unfinished obelisk is an obelisk in the making. It had been gradually worked out from the granite when it suddenly cracked and was abandoned. 80% finished, it must have been both galling and frustrating for the workers who would have spent months chipping away with basalt tools. What has been left is first-hand evidence of how they were made and testament to the fact that, long ago, the Nile would have flowed right up to the site, today many hundreds of yards inland.
The old dam at Aswan has all but been abandoned but the new dam produces a considerable amount of the hydroelectric power needed for Egypt.
We team up with Doug and Dawn, two Canadians of a similar age as us and on a World Tour. They have just flown in from New York and are heading on to Nairobi, the Maldives and then on to Australia. Doug owns a ‘jiffy lube’ business in British Columbia and they are excellent company.
The Nile is fed from Lake Victoria in Africa and flows up through Sudan, Egypt and out to sea. I find out from Doug that all the water in Canada flows South through the United States and into Mexico. By the time it reaches the end of its journey it has been through so many dams that it’s almost reduced to a trickle. It’s curious that the water in Egypt flows north, exactly in the opposite direction. We wonder at the time that, if Trump is elected, will even the trickle be turned off.
We pass the Lotus Flower monument and the memorial to the Unknown Soldier. The Egyptians call the Lotus Flower monument the Friendship monument in recognition of the money the Russians poured in to build the new dam. The Russians are good friends to the Egyptians and the source of much-needed funding.
The Philae Temple is situated on Agilika Island and is stunning. It’s almost 4000 years old and in remarkably good condition. When the new dam was built, it was relocated here, block by block, carving by carving. The hieroglyphs are so clear and having a guide to translate them is a real bonus. It’s built in the Romano- Greco style, also adopting aspects of the Egyptian style, as are so many temples of the south. With names like Hadrian’s gate, the temple of Isis, the Kiosk of Trajan and the Osiris Rooms, it’s our first flavour and feeling of being immersed in a landscape and culture as old as civilised time itself.
And so, with an early start and the promise of fresh experiences we go to bed. It’s an early start tomorrow.
From Aswan to Komombo and Edfu.
At 4 a.m. I’m wakened by the start of engines and a low dull throb that runs the length of the boat. We are moving from Aswan. As the dawn rises, I open the balcony doors and take in fresh and chilly morning air. The boat is moving down river. Along the bank, there is a green strip that separates the Nile from the desert. It’s not wide, but it’s a home for ibis and many other birds. The ignorance of not knowing their names bothers me.
We leave the boat at Komombo to see the temple and the crocodile museum. This is a later temple built by the Greeks and Romans but, as with many of them, built to an Egyptian template with hieroglyphs in the usual stunningly good condition. The temple is split In two, half for the crocodile god, Sabak, and half for the falcon god, Horus.
The inscriptions are fabulous, but we get into a dispute with the guide who tries to persuade us that the ancient Egyptians were between twelve and sixteen feet tall. I ask whether he means the gods, but he sticks to his guns and tells us that they have found sandals to show that the Egyptians must have been that tall. Either that, or they had enormous feet. If there was ever a moment when you needed Google, it’s now.
Later I manage to find enough of an Internet connection to do a little research. The average height of an ancient Egyptian was around about five foot two or three. However, it appears that there was a dynasty of giant Egyptians and evidence has been found outside Giza in the form of skeletons. The southern Egyptians from Abu Simnel, the southernmost city and Aswan, further north, and then Komombo, were and are known for their strength. They have interbred with the Sudanese who brought African strength and a darker complexion as their genetic contribution. Evidence from the Internet seems to strongly lead towards myth, supported by usual spurious articles from the Daily Mail and Express. If there were ‘Giants’, and The book of Chronicles refers to Egyptians alongside Goliath, then anything approaching seven feet would be significantly impressive.
The crocodile museum at Komombo is fascinating. The crocodile god was venerated, mainly because of the ferocity of the creature and it being able to digest more or less anything that came its way. For us, seeing one mummified crocodile would have been good fortune, but twenty four is tantamount to greed. They are presented in a row alongside wrapped crocodiles from the Roman period, ready for incarceration but looking more like something that you’d have from the local pet shop.
Is sir taking it now? (Chomp….chomp…)
Would sir like it wrapped?
Back on the boat, we face a Manager’s tour at ten o’clock. Apparently, this is a guided tour of the boat, but I mistake it for a room inspection and rush back to make sure the bed is made and I’m stood at its foot, all ship-shape and Bristol fashion.
Early in the afternoon, we continue to sail down the Nile as far as Edfu. I stand in the prow, wondering on Charles Marlow’s journey up the Congo. The Nile is a wide and long river. On the western side, men fish from small boats with paths leading up to some basic cultivation and away to dunes and the Sahara. At times, we pass men spearing fish in the shallows. On the eastern bank, it’s a similar picture, with dense palm trees blocking the view beyond. Herons, ibis and swallows are frequent visitors but there is little other traffic. Occasionally I spot water buffalo, cattle, ponies and goats feeding and, more than once, the carcass of an animal floats by. In times gone by, the crocodiles would have made short work of these offerings.
We meet the captain of the boat, who has worked his way up from deckhand, through third, second and first mate to become an officer and now controls the whole boat. He is illiterate and steers by experience rather than any taught seamanship. Standing on the bridge in his galbaya and turban, he often makes the journey south from Luxor to Aswan at night without any lights to guide him. He tells us that the position is given for experience rather than qualifications. He has two sons but they want to be footballers, rather than follow in a long family tradition.
At Edfu we drop anchor and go ashore. We catch a ride in a horse-drawn carriage but soon realise it is not a good idea. Abdul, the driver proudly displays his one yellow-brown tooth and flogs the emaciated horse into a canter, thumb up to us, shouting ‘Ferrari!!’
We bump and bounce in an out of potholes into Edfu.
The degree of poverty on show is shocking. The road is full of litter, rubbish, household waste, unwanted furniture and broken-down vehicles. The carriage is constantly bombarded by young men trying to sell you trinkets and general tourist, ‘tat’.
The temple at Edfu is impressive, however. It’s the last Romano-Greco Egyptian temple to Horus that we will visit. From here on in, they will all be purely Egyptian in style. The hieroglyphs are in excellent condition and the story of the falcon King, of Ptolemy VI and the Cleopatras is shared with us by our guide. It dates from 300BC and was once vibrant, being painted in red oxide, yellow limonite and coral blue, all sealed with an egg white wash. All the colour has been lost apart from tiny patches high up where it was protected against sand and flood.
I’m beginning to be ‘heiroglyphed-out’ but need to find my second wind as I suspect the best is yet to come.
Leaving the site involves running a gauntlet of tourist touts. They plunge shirts, bracelets, books and dresses into your arms and start begging for your custom. 400 Egyptian pounds starts to drop away and eventually they settle at as little as 10. When you really stand your ground and tell them you are not interested, the goods are taken away and the patter changes to begging for coins to feed children. It’s hard-sell and relentless.
Even on the way back, Abdul the carriage driver seems to have developed amnesia and has forgotten the tip we gave him on the way out. We realise our mistake. We should have paid him at the end, not halfway through. However, we stand out ground and eventually return to the boat, frustrated and slightly angry at the sight of such poverty.
I feel uncomfortably affluent and embarrassed by it. It would be easy to stand there with a fist of paper money and hand it out benificiently, but I know it would not solve the problem. What these people need is governmental support and a longer-term sense of ‘future’.
We set sail for the great lock at Isna, built in 1902, developed in the 1990s and where the water level has to drop over 60 feet to enable us to negotiate the last 55km to Luxor, the city once called Thebes. All the way along the bank children run shouting ‘welcome’, ‘salaam’ and ‘hello’ before they are left behind in the dark and we carry on. Suddenly, we are aware that the riverside apartments are better kept, the roads are better surfaced and the lights in cafes suggest a clientele who has the means to go out and be entertained. Egypt has moved from 19th century desperate poverty back into the 21st century. As with so many countries, it’s a case of an impoverished south and an affluent north. With the obvious exception of the U.K., of course.
Luxor, the Valley of the Kings and Karnak
I wake up to news that a political tsunami has hit and the planet has tilted slightly on its axis. Donald Trump has been elected as President.
I talk with Canadians who have a home in Arizona and are wondering whether to sell and re-buy in Mexico. We meet a Middle Eastern couple who live in Chicago. They are distraught and wonder pessimistically about their future. They tell me that the Canadian immigration website has crashed and has been down all morning. It is a vote against the establishment from those who look inwards into America rather than outwards across the globe. They say it is a sad day and a second 9/11. The response from world leaders is mixed. The Germans admit that the outcome is not what they would have wished. The U.K. media is predictably sycophantic, especially in the light of Brexit. This day and many more will no doubt carry varied views on this strange outcome.
After breakfast, we head to the Valley of the Kings. There were over a thousand Pharaohs and they have found the tombs of only sixty-two. Buried within the huge limestone cliffs and mounds are the tombs of the rest, awaiting discovery. We pass Howard Carter’s house from where he discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922 and spot modern-day excavation teams who are still searching all over this area for what lies beneath.
On the anniversary of the very day that Carter discovered the tomb, we start at that of Memeptah, move on to the tomb of Rameses IV and finally that of Rameses II. The first is probably the most impressive. The tombs have three fake rooms to dissuade tomb-robbers and as we move further and further downwards into the earth, we arrive at the far end and marvel at a huge granite sarcophagus. However, it it is the colour that is stunning. The walls are rich with hieroglyphs in yellow and red. The ceilings are rich in blues, as blue as the night sky, with gold stars painted everywhere.
The other two tombs are equally colourful, if a little smaller. It’s not possible to take photographs, so we resort to buying collections of postcards as visual memories. Hawkers are everywhere, but the pressure and intimidation is less than it was in the south. Indeed, Luxor feels rather up-market and far more western than did Aswan.
From the Valley of the Kings, we head towards the Al-deir al-Bahari temple, built by the Pharaoh Mentuhotep II (2000 BC), who was female and used the temple as a greenhouse for new seeds, plants and trees gathered following expeditionary visits to Somalia as part of Egyptian colonial expansion. The view out to Karnak and across the Egyptian plain to the Nile is tremendous and the backdrop is the mountain range that surrounds the Valley of the Kings.
After lunch we head for Karnak and Luxor Temples. Karnak was featured in the 1978 film ‘Death on the Nile’. Sad to say, apart from the performance of Maggie Smith, it was probably the ‘best bit’.
Karnak is the second largest ancient religious site in the world, only beaten by Cambodia’s Ankor Wat complex. The main area, and the only one open to the public, is dedicated to Amon-Ra. The size of the temple is mind-blowing. We crick necks, leaning back to look up at the tops of the 121 columns, most of which are 21 metres tall with a diameter of over three metres. The fact they are still standing is amazing. When I start to consider that most of the building took place during the 18th dynasty, 1500 years before Christ, it’s staggering. And then, as though we haven’t enough to take in, we learn that the slabs that sit on the top of the pillars weigh in at an average of 70 tons. So, somehow, by pulley, block, tackle, mud-brick ramps and human effort, Egyptian workers and slaves manipulated 70 tons of sandstone twenty-one metres into the air with the accuracy needed to ensure everything was true and square.
In the centre stand two obelisks. The largest weighs 328 tons and stands 29 metres tall. I have to remember that these obelisks started out in a granite quarry some distance away. Workers would have gradually chipped away at the granite using balls of basalt before placing wet sycamore underneath, to encourage the natural fault lines to release the block from the stone around it. Then it would have been transported on rollers and by boat to Karnac before being hauled into place. Timber and sand structures would have been erected around it, gradually forcing the obelisk upright. Slowly the sand would then be released encouraging the block to stand square and true on its foundation. The engraving would then be started by artists, trained in the area, reaching the top via staircases of mud bricks that were taken away as they worked their way down the four faces. Being a hieroglyph engraver was a prestigious position and many would have spent years in training at special schools before being able to undertake a task fit for a god or a pharaoh.
Luxor temple dates from 1400 BC and is also built in sandstone. Once again, we are not dealing with a single structure but a complex arrangements of buildings, the size of a small town. Many of the temples are dedicated to Rameses II and the site contains a number of enormous statues of the Pharaoh. I’m not sure ‘enormous’ does them true justice. They resemble something from the Land of the Giants. Rameses must have stood back to survey the work and thought ‘Now that’s how to make an impression!‘
Luxor now only has one obelisk. The second one was transported to the Place de la Concorde in Paris. There are forty ancient Egyptian obelisks, with thirty-two of them being scattered across the world and out of Egypt. The Italians have thirteen, which smacks almost positively of greed. The United Kingdom has four and single ones are in Israel, Turkey, France, Poland and the USA. It’s testament to Western greed that so many treasures found their way out of Egypt before the brakes were put on by the Council of Antiquities in the 19th century.
There is nowhere to shelter from the burning sun. Even in November, the midday temperature is touching 30 degrees. In August, sight-seeing must be tortuous. Heiroglyphs, columns, stones, cartouches, statues, engravings – they begin to merge into each other. Every new visit begs the ‘T’ question: temple or tomb? There is a danger of antiquity-overload. An enthusiastic pace soon becomes a trudge and visions of ice-cold Egyptian beer appear like a mirage in the desert.
Unfortunately, even though Egypt is a country where Christian and Muslim live side by side, there is not an alcoholic cafe-culture. Cafes are non-alcoholic male domains of over-sweet tea with mouthfulls of leaves. I have to seek the sanctuary of international hotels to buy beer. Even the vast percentage of supermarkets have only zero-alcohol versions on the shelves. If you know where to go, it’s available, but for the average tourist, it’s soft drinks and water.
Return to Cairo
We leave the boat after breakfast. The staff and crew are generous in wishing us well on our travels. It’s genuine and more to do with their awareness that good press will bring more tourists, rather than the envelope they hand you in which you are encouraged to show your appreciation by depositing large quantities of Central Bank of Egypt notes.
On the drive to the airport we pass the ‘Yorkshire Shop – Tesco prices!’ Clearly regional reputations for frugality are internationally recognised.
We’re told that, whilst the front end of Luxor is grand, green and affluent, behind, in the warren of side streets, there is as much poverty as anywhere else. The change in the currency rate has meant that prices have risen. Sugar and basic goods are in very short supply. Add that to the paucity of tourists and the poor are getting ever more desperate. Our driver agrees that the intimidation from hawkers and sellers does not help as tourists feel so pressured, they are, therefore, even more reluctant to step inside shops and engage in friendly banter and bartering. He is genuinely concerned that tourists may well return home with tales of woe, rather than reinforcing the warmth of welcome that awaits you from everyone. Those who are so desperate for any money at all, tend to be the ones who bother people the most; but they can’t honestly be expected to see the bigger picture.
Security at the airport is tight and our bags are searched – twice! Over and over, I deposit belt, shoes, watch and sunglasses in one of the few plastic trays and am subjected to another body search. It’s not ‘Midnight Express’ and it’s comforting to feel so safe and secure. Perhaps, as I’m British, they may suspect that I’m smuggling antiquities out of the country?
We bought Egyptian pounds in the UK at 9.6 EGP to the £1. Today, for £1 I’d get 21.6 EGP. Whilst it’s great for those buying, the EGP in my wallet is worth less than half what I paid for it! Ouch! It stings a little. Perhaps I should spend everything I have as quickly as possible so I can have a fresh supply at such bargain prices? For the tourist, it’s a selfish gain.
And so, we land back in Cairo. The plane was, once again, three quarters full of some of the 1.3 billion Chinese who venture out on holiday. In addition, a fair smattering of Egyptians and us. Two lonely, milky-pale faces in a sea of brown and oriental yellow.
We eat at the Tipsy Teapot, where alcoholic drinks are served, not surprisingly, in teapots. It’s one way of being able to offer alcohol without a great deal of offence. Buying alcoholic drink us not a major issue; online distributors are available and will deliver to your door within half an hour of so.
Click here to read ‘Two weeks in Cairo’