It´s the greatest open air museum in the world and a draw card for tourists and archaeologists.
It´s a conflict zone, its political stability precariously balanced between a military dictatorship and religious fanaticism.
It´s a country where ancient and modern history are perennially at odds.
Never was there a land so caught between the extremes of what it might be – and what it is.
Anya and I visited the country for the first time in late 2010, during the last days of the Mubarak regime, though at the time, no one could have possibly foreseen its imminent collapse.
President Mubarak had been in power for 30 years. He was backed by the army and the periodic elections were rigged in his favour. By middle eastern standards however, Mubarak was ‘dictator light’ and certainly more benign than the likes of Gadhafi in neighbouring Libya, Assad in Syria and Erdogan in Turkey– let alone the religious dictatorships of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
On that first trip, we travelled as individuals, determining our own agenda and places to stay. As far as travel in Egypt went, this was a time of unparalleled freedom. There were areas, especially in the western desert adjacent the Libyan border, which were out of bounds. But for the rest, Egypt was a traveller’s paradise, offering a unique combination of ancient history and an exotic contemporary culture.
We spent five days in Cairo, visiting the archaeological museum, taking a taxi out to see the pyramids at Giza and local buses to see the many impressive mosques in the outlying districts. At nights we walked around the streets of Cairo, stopping at the many cafes and small open air markets on the way. It was safe to walk around Cairo then at any time of the day or night. The greatest danger was the air pollution.
Cairo was one the most interesting cities we have visited. It was a city of colour and contrasts, of strange sights and sounds; it was a place to explore. The people were friendly and many of them spoke surprisingly good English.
From Cairo we went on day trips to see The Sphinx, the Pyramids at Giza – and the forerunner of these, the so-called ‘step pyramids ‘ in the desert of Saqqara.
From Cairo we took a bus to the very south of Egypt to see the historic statues of Abu Simbel. These statues were buried deep under the sand when they were discovered by European archaeologists in the 19th century. Later they were moved – it was an extraordinary engineering feat – to save them from the rising waters of a newly constructed dam.
A pleasant moment at Abu Simbel: sitting on a bench with two French travellers who we befriended and were on their way to Sudan – and a local cop.
We then travelled northwards and stayed at Luxor, the site of one of the most famous ancient temples in the world.
In ancient times, it was known as the Karnak temple and it was a part of the city of Thebes (where today’s Luxor is situated). Quite unlike every other major archaeological site in the world, the temple was not constructed during a specific dynasty or time period. It was, rather, an amalgam of spectacular architectural monuments constructed during the reigns of 30 pharaohs over a period of approximately 2000 years. Some of the monuments are amazing, such as the 134 giant columns in 16 rows, 122 of them 10 metres high and the rest 20 metres high. Each one of these columns is very wide in diameter and resting on top of them are immense stone beams.
There are many impressive and subtle features of the temple; for example, the statues, the wall engravings and the numerous courtyards and for me, of particular interest: the illumination of the temple. Unlike ancient temples in other parts of the world (e.g., The Parthenon in Greece or Angkor Wat in Cambodia), rooves had never a part of the timeless construction of the Karnak temple.
Irrespective of the gods they worshipped, and these periodically changed depending on the pharaoh in power, ancient Egyptians regarded the sun as sacred and the last thing that occurred to them was to block it out. Whilst the Karnak temple was continually added on to and expanded over the course of thousands of years, one theme remained consistent in the conception behind its monuments and buildings: there was an interplay of light and shadow, one which changed with the transit of the sun from morning to evening. It was here that the gods, human forms with animal heads, were worshipped.
The obelisks are 35 meters high and carved from single pieces of pink granite. Each one weighs over 300 tons. The ancient Egyptians carved enormous blocks of stone from the high cliffs in the south and transported them on barges over the Nile, often for hundreds of kilometres.
The town of Luxor flanked by ancient columns
Wandering the back streets of Luxor revealed a very different world to the historic wonder of Luxor’s famous temple
From Luxor we travelled to the town of Aswan, stayed there a few days and then took long bus trips to the north east to visit Port Said, the Suez Canal and Hurghada.
The Suez Canal was built by the French in the late 19th century. The French influence was dominant in Egypt before it became a de facto British colony.
The French influence all too apparent in this atmospheric street cafe….
After the Second World War, when Egypt became independent, it was led by the charismatic dictator and former army officer, Abdul Nasser. Under his reign, Egypt led the Arab world in three attempts to destroy the newly established nation of Israel. Against enormous odds, Israel managed to defeat the far greater forces arraigned against it. In the wake of the Holocaust, the Jews weren’t planning on facing another kind of extermination.
Nasser was followed by another former army officer, Anwar Sadat. After these failed attempts to exterminate Israel, Sadat changed course. In 1979, he committed Egypt to an American brokered peace deal, and regained the Sinai desert from the Israelis in exchange. Immensely unpopular in the Arab world, this peace deal also stirred Egypt’s Islamic extremists into action.
In 1989, Sadat was assassinated by Islamic terrorists. This led to yet another former officer, Mubarak taking power. His reign lasted for 30 years. The peace deal between Israel and Egypt, continued by Mubarak, led to a lasting and deep seated division in Egypt – a military dictator and an a simmering, underground Islamic opposition.
This mural, photographed in Port Said, showing the victorious Egyptians killing the terrible Jews, dates from the time of Nasser. Unfortunately for Nasser, the mural was pure make-believe. In every encounter, it was tiny Israel which prevailed.