Our October 1999 holiday
Introduction Cairo Pyramids People Conclusion
"Avoid Egypt, and though your brains be of vast capacity, though your eyes be never raised from your books, you will yet remain in so many ways an ignoramus".
Arthur Weigall, a former Chief Inspector of Egyptian Antiquities, writing in 1923
While most of the world prepares to commemorate the arrival of the second millennium, Egyptians can already look back on five millennia of civilisation. This is one of many reasons why Roger and Vee – Vee even more so than Roger – have wanted for a long time to visit Egypt.
We almost made it in 1993 when Roger was due to attend a World Congress in Cairo and Vee was determined to accompany him. But, with just four weeks to go, the organisers were forced to relocate the Congress because of growing protests from delegates worried about the terrorist threat. The subsequent massacre of 58 tourists in Luxor in November 1997 damaged Egypt’s tourist industry, but it has now bounced back.
In truth, there are still casualties in the 18 year long campaign by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, but the Western press is only interested if it is tourists who are killed or injured. Just three weeks before our visit, four militants were gunned down by the security forces in a district of Giza. However, armed soldiers everywhere make tourists feel perfectly safe.
We booked our holiday with Kuoni [click here] which is certainly not the cheapest travel company but provides a high level of service. Our four and a half hour flights were with EgyptAir: the aircraft, Airbus A340, were fine, but punctuality was poor, the food was indifferent, and there was no alcohol. On arrival, it took us an hour to clear customs at Cairo airport and the previous day, when the computers went down, it was taking twice as long. The facilities at the airport are minimal, barely up to the standard of an Eastern European country before the revolutions.
We were met at the airport by our assigned Kuoni representative, the ever-helpful Sherif, and driven by coach to our accommodation. We chose to stay at the Cairo Sheraton Hotel because it is located in the city centre, but all the other hotels in the Kuoni brochure are situated near the pyramids. The Sheraton was one of the first five-star hotels to be built in Cairo and opened in 1970. It is a massive affair with a total of 670 rooms located in two tall towers (we were in the Cleopatra Tower). The facilities were comprehensive, but the service in the restaurants was often sluggish and sullen.
On our first day in Egypt, we took a city tour of Cairo with a charming and knowledgeable female Kuoni guide called Hanaa.
First stop was the famed Cairo Museum [click here] - located in the huge Tahrir Square - which was completed in 1902. We were told that the museum houses some 100,000 items and advised that, if one spent a minute observing each one, then it would take nine months to view the whole collection. We had only two and a half hours there and so inevitably we concentrated on the Tutankamun collection on the first floor, unearthed by the British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. In fact, Roger had seen some of these wonderful artefacts in 1972 when there was a special exhibition at the British Museum to mark the 50th anniversary of the discovery.
Of course, Tutankamun was a minor and young king who only had a short reign (1361-1352 BC), but his tomb was the only one never ransacked by robbers and the legacy to us today is simply breathtaking. Two air-conditioned rooms – the rest of the museum is not so comfortable – contain the most magnificent objects including the golden funeral mask and fabulous jewellery.
The whole key to our modern-day understanding of the Ancient Egyptian civilisations is the prosaically-named Rosetta stone, a slab of black granite discovered in 1789. This contains the same text in three languages – hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek - which eventually enabled the Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion to translate hieroglyphs in 1822. A copy of the Rosetta stone is to be found opposite the ground floor entrance to the museum, but ironically the original is in the British Museum.
After some lunch on a boat, the “MS Scarabée”, moored on the Nile, we drove on to the area known as Old Cairo or Coptic Cairo after the Christians who used to live there.
We were taken to the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary or Al-Muallaqa, known as the “The Hanging Church” because it was built on top of the bastions of a gate to the Roman fortress. According to tradition, there has been a church on this site since the 7th century, but today the oldest artefacts are 11th century (the marble pulpit) and 12th/13th century (an ebony screen). Currently the church is undergoing a massive and dusty process of renovation, so our visit provided little opportunity for contemplation or photographs.
Much more impressive was the next stop: the huge Mosque of Muhammed Ali built in the Ottoman Baroque style between 1830-1848. It is known as the Alabaster Mosque and its most impressive feature is the inner prayer hall where our guide Haana gave a most illuminating explanation of the five pillars of Islamic faith and practice. This whole area of Cairo is called the Citadel and is located on a limestone spur that gave us – through the constant haze and pollution of the city’s air – our first, shimmering view of the pyramids of Giza in the distance.
The final destination of the day-long tour was only reached after passing the so-called City of the Dead. Apparently some quarter of a million people live in the two extensive cemeteries on the east of the city. This is not quite as macabre as it sounds, since Egyptian tombs are built like small houses and, as a result of a serious accommodation shortage, many impoverished families have taken refuge in a community that now brings together the living and the dead.
Last stop was the city’s most famous tourist bazaar, the Khan al-Khalili bazaar. This is a veritable warren of often tiny shops selling gold and silver jewellery, brassware and copperware, leather and ivory goods, perfumes, carpets and much else. One is constantly urged to enter the establishment one is passing, hesitation is fatal, and haggling is expected. We bought nothing – but it was a wonderful experience.
Many visitors to Cairo do not venture out alone on foot because the traffic is so manic but, after a couple of days in the city, we felt able to take the risk – it is all a matter of courage. One local citizen even opined that we must live in Cairo because we tackled the traffic so confidently!
On our first walk, we crossed over the Nile to visit the Manyal Palace. This was the chief residence of Prince Muhammed Ali (1875-1955) who bequeathed the property to the nation on his death. This is quite simply an artistic jewel which has to be seen by any visitor to Cairo. We studied the Salamlik or reception palace, the Haramlik or domestic quarters, and the Throne Room. The ornate wooden ceilings, the beautiful tiled walls, the lavish furnishings, and the magical windows all make this palace a sheer delight to observe.
On our second walk, we headed for the island of Gazirah and the prominent Cairo Tower. The funding of this structure is an interesting story. In 1957, after refusing to help build the Aswan Dam, the Americans presented Nasser with $3 million for a new armour-plated car and a team of bodyguards. Interpreting this as a bribe, Nasser decided to use the money to build something extremely conspicuous. Hence the tower which was opened in 1961. It is 187 metres (613 feet) tall but sadly the pollution of Cairo is such that we could only just see the pyramids.
On our second day, we took another tour, this time to the nearest monuments of Ancient Egypt. On this occasion, our female Kuoni guide was Zihan who charmed us all with her regular injunction: “So, let us go, my flowers”.
She told us that there are some 100 surviving pyramids in Egypt and we spent the morning visiting the largest and best preserved at Giza, just south-west of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. Once our coach reached the town of Giza and drove down the immensely lively Shari al-Haram (Pyramids Road), it was astonishing to look down a side street and see the pyramids!
Of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, the pyramids of Giza are the only one to have survived. They were built during the period of the Middle Kingdom from 2700-2630 BC. How? Our guide dismissed any ideas of intervention by extra-terrestrials and insisted that the Ancient Egyptians had the technology (essentially ramps) and the manpower (mostly paid agricultural workers available during the flood seasons) to do the job.
What is less certain is where the word “pyramid” itself actually comes from. Roger – a great lover of cakes – was tickled to learn that one of the most likely explanations is that the term comes from an Ancient Greek cake!
We started with the Great Pyramid of Kheops (or Khufu). This is the highest of the three at 137 metre (450 feet). We were advised that it consists of some 2.3 million stone blocks each weighing around two and a half tons. If these blocks were placed side by side in a row, it seems that they would encircle two-thirds of the equator.
The Pyramid of Khephren is a little lower than the Great Pyramid but, as it is built on higher ground, from a distance it looks taller – and guides like to challenge tourists with this optical illusion.
Our next stop was the third and final pyramid, the Pyramid of Mycerinus. This is the ‘little’ one, standing at 62 metres (203 feet). Vee went inside, down a low and steep stairway which led to a chamber, but there was nothing to see at the end of it.
The third stop was on a plateau overlooking all three pyramids – a stunning sight. Here Vee took the opportunity to go on a short (and expensive) ride on a camel called “King Solomon” and she found the experience enormous fun. Meanwhile Roger donned a bush hat to protect him from the sun and clambered up dunes for more photographs.
The last stop at the pyramids was in front of the Sphinx or Abu el-Houl (Father of Fear) in Arabic, set in a valley just below the Great Pyramid. It consists of the body of a lion and the face of a god (or perhaps the Pharoah Khephren). The soft stone of the body is very worn and, while the much harder stone of the face is much more distinct, the features have been badly damaged, possibly by Turks using the monument for target practice.
It was in this area that the elaborate process of mummification was carried out and our guide Zihan described this methodic exercise in some detail. The bit about the removal of the brain through the nose was particularly memorable.
At this point, we moved on to a workshop, specialising in the art of making and decorating papyrus, called “Ari Papyrus”. The work we wanted to buy cost 850 Egyptian pounds (about £170), but the one we bought cost 70 Egyptian pounds (about £14). Still in Giza, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called “Andrea” where we ate outdoors and where the chicken was cooked on large outdoor spits.
The first destination of the afternoon section of our tour was Memphis which is about 24 kilometres (15 miles) south of Cairo. The city was founded some 5,000 years ago as the capital of a united Egypt and two thousand years later it was reputed to be 38 kilometres (24 miles) in circumference, but today virtually nothing remains of this great civilisation.
However, there is a small, open-air museum. The prime exhibit is a colossal limestone statue of Ramses II (1290-1224 BC) which was uncovered in 1820 but never re-erected because of its height which – even with the loss of its lower legs - is 10 metres (over 30 foot).
Driving on past a succession of local carpet schools, we came to the final stop of a busy day: Sakkara, the cemetery of Memphis for some 3,000 years. Here the main sight is the Third Dynasty Step Pyramid of Zoser (2630-2611 BC). This was the first of all the pyramids and its six great steps were a kind of trial for the later designs. In the distance, we could see the two stone pyramids of Snofru (Khufu’s father) at Danshur. One of them changes the angle of its slope halfway up and therefore it is known as “the bent Pyramid”.
On the third day of our holiday, we returned to the pyramids of Giza in the evening for a sound and light show. The setting - in front of the Sphinx with the Great Pyramid immediately behind it and the other two pyramids on either side – was inspirational, but the show itself, which uses words, music and lasers, could have been more thrilling.
On the coach back to Cairo, we were entertained by our Kuoni guide, young Sam. He started by referring to the local KFC franchise as “Kentucky Fried Camel” and then told a succession of jokes, a set of which revolved around a refrigerator and an elephant. Not to be outdone, Roger told his own silly jokes, starting with the schoolyard teaser: “Constantinople is a very long word – can you spell it”. The two of them then played off each other for the rest of the journey.
The first thing to say about the people of Cairo – called Cairenes - is that there are a lot of them. The capital has a resident population of over 13 million, making it the largest city in Africa and the Middle East with twice the population of London. The city is alive all 24 hours of the day and night with constant activity and noise.
The next point which must be made is that Cairenes are demonic drivers. Not simply crazy like those of Rome, but absolutely manic. We were advised that traffic lights are regarded as simply there for decoration – green means ‘go’ and red means ‘go faster’! There is no lane discipline whatsoever, minimal indication, and constant hooting.
But the main fact to record about the Cairenes is that they are amazingly friendly. As one passes people in the street, they call out “Welcome” and, as one’s coach struggles through the traffic, children wave. At every tourist location and in every shop, there is hassle from hawkers, but it is not unpleasant and one soon becomes used to it.
The hawkers pick up and use the relevant phrases of English, Italian, French and German to attempt the sale of their wares. They must listen to the tourists themselves because one guy in Giza suddenly said to us: “Four Egyptian pounds for the whole bloody lot”. In Memphis, a hawker realised that we were British and called out “Lovely jubbly!” It did not win him any sales, but it reduced us to gales of laughter. The trick to beware is the opportunity to climb on a camel – which is offered free – since the chance to dismount will be outrageously expensive.
Arabic is, of course, impossible for us to read, but we managed to learn how to say a very few words of the language – good morning, thank you and goodbye - and every time we used these words they elicited smiles of appreciation.
Six months before our holiday, Roger had met in London a delegation from the General Trade Union of Postal Workers, so we advised them that we would be spending some time in Cairo. As a result, one evening we were taken out for an excellent fish meal on a boat moored by the side of the Nile housing a restaurant called the “Happy Dolphin”.
Our most hospitable hosts were the First Vice-President Ahmed Abdulla, the Second Vice-President Mohammed Osman, the Treasurer Raafat Mostaffa, and the English-speaking International Secretary Mohammed Bayoumy. Our trade union colleagues were concerned about the likely impact of new moves to commercialise the Egyptian Post Office which will be announced soon by the new Government installed during our visit.
Wherever we go on holiday, we seem to come across a wedding and, on three consecutive nights during our stay in Cairo, there were grand affairs in our hotels. Not much before midnight, a musical parade called a “zaffa” took place. This involves at least half an hour of ear-splitting, but joyful, music provided by a large group of players chattering tambourines, beating drums, and blaring trumpets.
Above all, we found Cairo and its people to be a city of contrasts. There is obviously great wealth in the capital with some absolutely magnificent residential premises and the ability to afford lavish weddings. However, for most Cairenes, life is tough and poverty is everywhere in evidence. The dust and dirt is ubiquitous.
While on holiday, Roger was reading a book called “Jihad vs McWorld” which has a cover illustration depicting an Arab woman wearing the “munaqabat” (which covers everything except the eyes) holding a can of Coke (how is she supposed to drink it?) and we observed the same clash of fundamentalism and modernity when we saw a woman in a “munaqabat” sitting with her mobile phone placed before her (how was she supposed to use it?).
However, the people who made our holiday such fun were not all Egyptians. We met other British tourists with Kuoni and, in the course of our trips together, quickly established friendships.
We would never have thought that there would be English practitioners of the Egyptian art of bellydancing, but we met no less than five of them – Lyn, Linda, Katherine, Lucy and Josie – all from the same dancing class in Coventry. Then there were the two British-born young Asian women who were constantly mistaken for Egyptians: the bubbly Raj and her younger sister Sab from Birmingham. Next there was the married couple Victor and Carina, both Scottish of Italian descent, who run an Italian delicatessen in Edinburgh with its own Web site [click here]. Finally there was another married couple, Chris and Katy from Swindon who were going on to do a scuba-diving course in the Red Sea. All of them added to the enjoyment of our visit and we hope to keep in touch with at least some of them.
The only stain on our holiday was ill-health. The problem was not the heat. Although it was a steady 31C (88F), it was a dry – not a humid – heat and bearable if one drank water regularly. However, apparently one in two visitors to Egypt suffers something called “Gippy Tummy” due to “the ingestion of strange fauna”. In our case, the one was Roger. In spite of taking all the recommended precautions – notably drinking only water which was bottled – after three days in the country, he fell ill for the next three days. In that time, he experienced repeated occasions of such acute diarrhoea that he was convinced that the Nile had been temporarily redirected.
However, taken as a whole – no pun intended – it was a thrilling holiday, totally different from anything we have done before. The magic and mystery of Ancient Egypt and its artefacts – an incredible 5,000 years old – were awe-inspiring and the friendliness and fun of modern-day Cairo were a delight to experience. Roger, always a keen photographer on our holidays, managed to take some 180 pictures in just four days.
Our holiday was only a short one – five nights – and only to Cairo and its environs, but it was a truly fascinating experience that has whetted our appetite for another visit – probably to Luxor – at another time.
Ministry of Tourism click here
British Museum's Ancient Egypt click here
Guardian's Egypt click here
Studying Egypt click here
Explore the Pyramids click here
Ian and Wendy's site click here