From dust we have risen and to dust we will return. My recent travel to Egypt is sparking an interest and passion for the past that I never knew I had. Travel with me to Egypt—the land that has inspired writers and travelers for centuries with its cultural legacy. Arriving in Cairo in the middle of the night, I was shocked at how everything was different. I immediately felt that sense of euphoria that I am constantly seeking. The streets were lively. The dress was different. The buildings were different. I looked into the cafes as men in white robes smoked shisha hookahs and sipped coffee. The sense of nervousness and excitement overtook my body and mind as I anticipated exploring this ancient land that was a huge question mark in my mental map.
Greater Cairo has a population of 22 million people. And coming in on the plane, looking at the wide expanse of lights and walking out of the airport in a busy crowd and honking traffic . . . I immediately knew that I was outmatched, even as a seasoned traveler. That’s why I was so glad to meet Hamada (who I am convinced is the real Egyptian Indian Jones!). Hamada turned out to be much more than a tour guide, we’d end the trip feeling more like friends than clients. Friendly people who love to share their country with you really make the place the most special. After traveling the world, I’ve realized just how INVALUABLE and IRREPLACEABLE a passionate guide can be! Egypt Fun Tours was recommended to us by the tight knit group of country collectors online. Although I typically ago touring without a service, I opted to use this company because I went to Egypt without studying and I wanted a teacher to help me learn about the fascinating history. And as I don’t speak Arabic, I needed major help with transportation. To be honest, even 10 years later, I was also unsure of how The Arab Spring had impacted tourism in the country (which turned out to be fine, Egypt is so safe and friendly!) Going on the tour gave me the opportunity to see Egypt from the north, following The Nile, all the way down to the south. It helped me realize the importance of the river to life in Egypt and more about the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of ancient times past.
The first night we drove to the southwest side of Cairo to spend the night near the pyramids. I awoke to the honking, traffic, and dusty haze in the world city. The hotel staff and chefs were happy to have foreigners at the hotel again. We finished a breakfast of various breads and cheeses. Then we were whisked off into the Cairo traffic with an entourage that included our friendly guide, tourist police security (required for Americans in Egypt), and driver. Picture me trying to cross 11 lanes of aggressive traffic, which was by far the most dangerous thing I did all summer, way scarier than Covid . . . I never could have made it without Hammada.
Like all of the other tourists attractions around the world this summer (the Alps, the Matterhorn, the Caribbean, and Lake Bled) , we were the only tourists we saw during our tour in Egypt.
Walking up to the Great Pyramid—which is usually full of gawking tourists and vendors hustling to sell you their wares—I had a magic moment. I was staring at the last remaining 7 Ancient Wonder of the World—basically . . . well . . . ALONE. Covid left the plaza surrounding the pyramids strangely empty. Dogs barked and rolled in the shade under security vehicles. Horses neighed, attached to their parked carriages. Camels grunted under their turbaned men who sat blankly waiting, motionless. Like me, they too were thinking about the strange emptiness of this place. I was one of the first tourists that they’d had in four months. Vendors called from their stands in broken English, “Welcome back, so happy to have tourist again”. And it struck me how magical the experience was. This tourist site hadn’t been this empty for generations.
Like all of the other tourists attractions around the world this summer (the Alps, the Matterhorn, the Caribbean, and Lake Bled) , we were the only tourists we saw during our tour in Egypt. (And if you’re reading this during Corona-virus 2020, Egypt is open, safe, and ready for travel!)
The Great Pyramid, or Khufu pyramid, is the oldest and largest in Giza and still has a construction that confuses people today. It stands on the edge of Cairo in a group of 9 pyramids. (Which left me curious, as to which ones were older and larger down south deeper into Egypt). Typically, the larger a pyramid, temple, or tomb, the longer the reign of the King was that ordered the construction. Read more about the amazing Great Pyramid statistics here. Hamada knew the secret spot where we could see all 9 of the pyramids in the desert landscape. (Another reason to go with Egypt Fun Tours!)
Cairo was in the distance below cliffs that separated the urban sprawl from the historical treasures that lay beneath the pyramids. It was really amazing to think about the current urban sprawl positioned as a backdrop to the ancient history. Hamada joked that Egyptians can’t legally dig in their backyards because they’ll find something ancient that the antiquities department will need to protect.
During their construction, designers knew that tombs would be looted so they constructed traps to preserve the tombs and prevent them from being robbed. For example, at the Great Pyramid, the entrance was designed to collapse if the stone blocking the entrance is ever removed.
Sometimes the kings would burry their most special treasures in plain sight, for example, the grave of the king’s mother, Hetepheres I, was found buried in the sand outside of the pyramid. Basically, the historical equivalent of burying your modern life savings in a coffee can in the front yard. Did the king do this to keep her treasures safe or had she pissed off her son to be forever dishonored and buried outside the tomb? A small insight into the dramas of the past. It was also really interesting to learn about how the Egyptians imported stones from all over north Africa to use as construction materials. Stones ranged from quartz to marble, rose granite, to flint. Those were heavy stones that had to be moved long distances!
The world’s oldest in-tact ship was unearthed under the pyramids, intended to be used during the afterlife for (perhaps) carrying royals to the afterlife, the boat is now housed at the Giza Solar boat museum. The craftmanship of the boat was amazing. Seeing it totally helped me imagine a king or queen sailing down The Nile. If I was a peasant, I would for sure be more than a little intimidated by the presence of royals on their huge Nile ships. Like, it wouldn’t have been difficult to convince me that they were, in fact, God. And I think that’s why all of these great artifacts actually remain. Royalty worked their whole lives to convince their subjects that they were God, so much to the point that they even believed it themselves. And aren’t we all trying to do that? It’s a timeless question that humans have struggled with for all of time. Who is in ultimate control? Man or God?
Looking at the pyramids it was difficult to comprehend how old they actually were. I’d hear the dates, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around the concept. I immediately thought about the plot of my favorite book, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The main character, Santiago the young Spanish shepherd boy, learns how to make his dream of seeing the Great Pyramids a reality. The moral, is that God talks to us through our hearts, and through or own listening, we help ourselves achieve our dreams and overcome our worst enemy, ourselves. And looking at the pyramids I tried to understand the dreams of the Kings of the past—how they tried to turn themselves into deities to be worshiped throughout time. It felt gross (but interesting) to consider how highly mere humans once thought of themselves. And now, their legacies crumbled and baked in the desert.
With the ancient wonders in such pristine condition, and many tourists flocking to see the ancient sights, modern Egypt doesn’t get the attention it deserves. So many tourists hop off a plane, see the pyramids, and think that they’ve seen the real Egypt. Impossible. The population of greater Cairo alone is (disputed) between the fifth and thirteenth biggest cities in the modern world. People have been living in the lands of Egypt for 10,000+ years; Neanderthals walked in Egypt. The country has been a political land/kingdom/country half of that, 5,000 years. Those are historical stats only to be rivaled by China, where Egypt is probably older, and has had better record keeping. And to complicate things—even though the Egypt of today is a strong government and military power—its past has been convoluted by the conquerings and cultures that have flowed in and out of the land for centuries. Just about every historical key player left key evidence behind. The Mongols were here, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Ottomans, the Persians, the Romans, Alexander the Great, the French, the British, the Arabs, the Nazis (and others) all moved through. To complicate matters even more, during it’s Golden Empire, Egypt once laid claim to an area much bigger than it is today, which reached far south into Sudan, as far east as Lebanon+Syria, and as far west as Morocco. (So if you’re interested in off the beaten travel, you can find pyramids in some of the places mentioned in that last sentence! I too will be investigating this in the future. Talk dirty nerdy to me.)
Over my ten day stay I wanted to dig a little deeper (no pun intended) into not only the fabulous history, but also the modern culture and people of today. That’s why I’m excited to bring you The Egypt Files, where I’ll be yapping about the amazing things I learned about Egypt; I will spend an hour telling you about something that should probably take 5 minutes (I’ve learned to accept that 😉). But hopefully these fact files will teach you a couple of new things too.
If you learned something new, loved what you read here, or just got a giggle at my ridiculous sombrero-like hat . . . drop me a line.