JULY 12TH, 2001 - THE NORTH SHORE NEWS
EGYPT – MUCH MORE THAN ANCIENT DOCUMENTS
The dervish whirled effortlessly in a clockwise direction to the haunting music. He loosened the tie to a layer of skirt. The skirt rose in a perfect circle. It reached his chest and he eased it over his head never slowing or changing direction. It became a wheel at the tip of his finger. His eyes rolled. The transformation was taking place. The last layer was finally removed. A renunciation of all things worldly. He reached the trance necessary for a Sufi to pray to his God. The audience filed quietly out. The Mausoleum of Al Gouri was silent again.
Cairo is a fascinating city of maybe 20,000,000 souls – no one knows for sure. Like all great cities it is best seen on foot despite appalling smog on a windless day. It is possible to spend days exploring the Old Islamic quarter, poking around tiny alleys, ancient mosques and minarets, perhaps stopping for a sheesha, a water pipe, and a glass of tea on the way. In a short afternoon you can walk along The Nile from the heart of a modern city to a place where time has stood still. Donkeys replace vehicles as means of transport. Copper and tinsmiths hammer out huge pots for use at weddings and circumcisions. Bales of raw cotton await a buyer. This is the Cairo that most tourists miss, anxious to tick off the important sights before moving down the Nile to Luxor.
The roads are a mass of smoke spewing, strung together, horn honking old beaters. Five lanes of traffic squeeze into a four lane highway. There’s a useful saying in Cairo. To cross the street and survive, walk like an Egyptian, slowly, predictably. As a neophyte, I opted to wait for an ample Cairene to walk between me and the oncoming traffic. A chicken solution.
You came to see the Pyramids at Giza, now a mere suburb of an ever expanding city. Cheops, Chephren and Menkaure are testimony to generations of work by slaves and the inflated egos of Pharaohs seeking suitable burial sites in the 26th century BC. Swarms of postcard salesman, trinket hucksters and phony Bedouin camel drivers, offering that Kodak moment, descend like mosquitoes. The Sphinx sits in inscrutable repose close by.
The Egyptian Museum, conveniently located in Tahrir Square, the city center, offers the best insight to the history of this impoverished country once rich beyond belief in the time of the Pharaohs. Much of the second floor houses the fabled contents of the tomb of King Tutankhamun, right down to his fossilized underwear. If you missed an international tour of the exhibition, this could be the highpoint of your trip to Egypt. Remember, while China was emerging from the Stone Age, Egyptians were recording the Pharaonic period, 2650-2150 BC, on papyrus leaves and building the Pyramids
.Buying that perfume bottle, papyrus painting – probably banana leaf - or mother of pearl box for Aunt Nellie and the kids is not without challenge. In the labyrinth of Egypt’s largest market, Khan el-Khalili, no prices are displayed. You will be swamped with people wishing to be your friend. His brother has a shop. He wishes to be your guide at no charge. Beware, at best they want backsheesh, an introduction fee from the store owner. At worst they want to rob you. No exceptions. Sometimes internationally known expletives are required. Doing my Christmas shopping I became known as Mr f--- off as I rid myself of yet another limpet with a toothless grin. Barter hard. If a store owner lets you leave without pursuit you’ve offered too little. If you must have that brass pyramid, hire a shoeshine boy to polish your shoes in the merchant’s doorway and restart negotiations. A good way to save face.
From the train station in Luxor, take a Kalish, a horse drawn carriage to your chosen hotel. As with everything in Egypt bargain first to avoid nasty surprises. A mid range Hotel like the St Emilio shouldn’t run you more than US$25 with air-conditioning, rooftop pool and breakfast. Luxor, once the capital of upper and lower Egypt, is overwhelming with must - see ruins. The Temple of Karnak, begun around 2500 years ago and added to over the centuries, is particularly impressive at an evening sound and light show. A thorough examination of this 120 acre sight can take several hours.
There are different ways to visit the Valley of The Kings. Either, be normal, and join a tour group. Or, get up at 3.30 AM. Cross the river on an old ferry. Clamber onto a lumpy donkey with a three legged gait and ride haltingly up the hillside above the Valley into the dawn. I must grudgingly admit that watching the color of the sand change from deep red to pale beige was so inspiring that even my hotel boxed breakfast of a hard boiled egg, banana and stale bread, tasted like manna from the gods
.It was here that the tomb of Tutankhamun was found in 1922, untouched by grave robbers. Much excavation is proceeding in the hope of making more such discoveries under the shifting sand. In many of the tombs open to the public, colorful frescoes depicting brave feats of the incumbents are remarkably intact. A short hemorrhoid provoking trot over the hilltop revealed the Temple of Hatshepsut protruding from the rockface. It was built by the only female to be called Pharaoh. Sadly this is the place where a busload of tourists were killed by fundamentalists in November 1997.
Egypt of course is much more than ancient monuments. To many, a cruise down the Nile from Luxor to Aswan is the high point of their trip. Life is straight from biblical times. Scrawny oxen haul wooden ploughs. Camel carts transport the tobacco crop. Feluccas, laden with goods for the Aswan market, sail peacefully by. A boat ferries camels across the river to the auction in Daraow .
Diving in The Red Sea is considered some of the finest anywhere and resorts like Sharm el-Sheikh and Ras Muhammad attract wealthy aficionados from around the world. The huge Western desert is still home to a traditional Bedouin way of life.
Tourism is vital to Egypt’s fragile economy. Since the shooting incidence in 1997 – the terrorists were dealt with instantly by horrified locals - the government has stepped up security at every tourist site. Military outriders accompany tour bus convoys through known fundamentalist areas. Trains are heavily guarded by soldiers straight from charm school. Prices are still a bargain as the industry rebuilds.
IF YOU GO:
VISAS: Available at Cairo Airport. Approx US$20
SUFI DANCING: In Cairo. Free at The Mausoleum of Al Gouri near Khan el-khalili market– incredible – arrive at least an hour early.
USEFUL WEBSITE: The official Egyptian Gov. website is excellent www.touregypt.net
WOMEN TRAVELLERS: Be firm with Egyptian men. Their testosterone is not easily satisfied by Muslim members of the opposite sex. Try to stay clear of compromising situations. Wear discreet clothing.
SECURITY: Generally excellent in tourist frequented sites. Beware of con-men – This could be the oldest profession in a poor country with high unemployment. Stay away from “forbidden” fundamentalist areas of Central Egypt.
HEALTH: Drink easily available bottled water. Dehydration can be a problem. Become a vegetarian when away from good quality tourist restaurants.