EGYPT– The place that has inspired writers and travelers for centuries– ON A SLEEPER TRAIN. I had sand on my skin, caked with sweat. The brim of an adventure hat had shielded me from the inescapable sun that had now set. I pulled the hat from my head, revealing a sticky nest of hair underneath. I ruminated how an age-old adventure could seem brand new, like I was the first to experience it out of all mankind. But I knew I wasn’t. I was on an epic adventure to Aswan and the Temple of Philae.
1854– the British instituted the original tracks from Cairo to Aswan in this year, which hadn’t been updated since. I was attune to and dressed to fit the 1800s part; I sported my new Indiana Jones Adventure Hat from Bavaria while I spent my summer exploring temples with bats. I bore the hot dresses needed to show modesty, and while my body writhed from the midsummer heat trapped under my tents, I was happy with my extensive fabric decisions as my coverings earned respect in public. Later I would doubt my wardrobe as I watched a young beautiful European parade through Luxor in booty-shorts and a midriff bearing half shirt. Men followed her like dogs. She paraded and appeared to like the attention while cameras followed.
Who was I to say what a young woman could or could not wear? More power to her. But I found myself surrounded by a culture where women were not frequently seen out in public. My dresses caught on various parts as I traveled: held back by an armrest here, snagged on a doorframe there. And I especially hated when my trappings of modesty dragged the washroom floor.
The train was in desperate need of an upgrade, even by hippy backpacker standards.
Being a Woman Traveler in Egypt
But I would be especially thankful for my coverings as I found myself alone, in the dark, waiting on a train platform, undressed by the eyes of forty men who inched closer and closer. First I looked down, trying not to catch attention. When that no longer worked I starred aggressively back. I even shook my head no when the congregation began to snicker and whisper. My fear of gang-rape was only interrupted by the return of my male party, my minders.
My confidence shrunk to a false sense of acting brave, later replaced by a meekness only known to women. “Solo women backpack alone safely all of the time in Egypt” my guide reassured me. I slightly arched an eyebrow, crossed my arms holding myself, and looked at the ground again.
The Train Journey
On the train, the twelve hours passed slowly with each check of my cell phone clock. I laid the device back down on the bench seat which folded out into a cot. 600 miles south of Cairo; I could feel the heat on the metal tuna can even at midnight as the Sahara swallowed us. I wonder when was the last time they changed these sheets? It was difficult to push that thought from my mind. The train quarters were tight. The lights flickered on and off over bumps in the track, which you could see below the lip of the toilet. Waste fell directly below.
We barreled toward the border with Sudan, toward Aswan, Egypt’s southern thriving tourist hotspot, somewhat of a backwater because most foreigners did not venture this far afield. Because of Covid, the sights lacked the pusher jammer elbow to elbow experience synonymous with Egyptian travel. I felt that I myself had just discovered new ancient sights, like Indie.
And just as my hat, the train, and my wardrobe all indicated, I was primed for an adventure. I closed my eyes and tried to get some rest. Chhtrunk Chhtrunk, on and off the lights flickered still as each bump jostled me on my top bunk rack. The train hurdled along at top speed. And even though I was exhausted from the heat of July in Egypt, I was more awake than any other restless night in recent memory.
I pondered the differences yet likeness of human emotions. Earlier in the day I’d been strongly reminded that despite our differences, humans are strikingly similar. Concerned and guilt stricken, my thoughts wandered to my street-kid friend who I had met earlier in the day.
We’d met on the train platform, where I must confess that I was a bit taken aback by the child’s inquisitive stares. After ignoring him for ten minutes, all three in my party actually had the same suspicion, that he might snatch the camera and bolt. Keeping one eye on the perceived thief, I continued to discuss camera jargon with my guide Hamada, who was also eyeing the boy. Hamada, rather assertively, asked several times if the boy needed something. Scared, the boy shook his head no, but continued staring. A final time my Egyptian friend asked the street boy:
“Do you need something?” Where the child mustered up the bravery to respond. Could he could ask my husband a question? Some difficulty ensued in Arabic to a building moment when the boy approached our bench.
“Are you sure that I can ask him a question? He looks really strong” the boy nodded toward Andrew.
We all had a chuckle at the boy’s expense. Yes, you can ask him a question, he won’t hurt you.
Innocently, he mustered up the strength, in English, to slowly ask with a breath between every word, “What is your name?”
That was all it took to bridge a connection. Instant friends.
Without a ticket, Mamued dodged the ticket-checkers and hid in the shadows of the train each week as he rode it alone six hours to find work in Cairo. He washed car windows. He was eight. We parted ways as I continued onward to The Temple of Philae and he went back to his Sahara lifestyle.
In the morning I tried to distract myself from the jarring train with irritating sips from a juice box. I peered through hazy and splotched double-pane windows. The train made a continuous screech on the tracks as rectangular adobe homes passed by. The villagers woke to work in the fields in their sandals, all men. They gathered with their children on their plots, heads wrapped in traditional white garb. Cobras and sandals did not mix well, I thought.
The success of Egypt always did and continues to depend on agriculture; the Nile phenomenon in the swath of desert that is Northeast Africa.
We arrived at our destination, a boat dock, where boatman waited idly to take us to an island in the middle of The Nile.
I was surprised. There were no hippos or crocodiles in The Nile unlike the movies. The Egyptians had dammed off the river in the South. Unsure of this certain safety from large and aggressive animals, I carefully balanced one foot in the boat at the harbor and took in my surroundings: papyrus near the water’s edge, carefully wrapped white turbans crowning the tops of the boatmen, and a glaring sun that reflected on the ripples . . . this was Upper Egypt.
We crossed the Nile by small motorboat where the captain said that he hadn’t seen tourists for months. We motored to the island where the Temple Philae now sat, only recently moved to avoid flood destruction in the 1970s. The entire complex had been disassembled and placed in the new location on Agilikia Island. Legend stated that the original site, near the First Cataract, was the burial site for Osiris. Only priests were previously allowed. Fish nor bird dared grace the air or water that surrounded it.
I was surprised at how Greek-like the temple looked and Hamada defensively said that the Greeks and Romans took their famous architectural styles– from Egypt.
It was here that I gained a deeper understanding of the history of Egyptian deities. Some say the lore even hinted at the life of Christ.
The goddess Isis, which some say embodied the prophesy of the Virgin Mary, had an immaculate conception of Horus. Isis, who was represented with wings, healed the sick, and protected women and children while her son was legended to judge the dead. Isis was the beautiful image of a voluptuous woman, even shown breast feeding her son. Nubians, Egyptians, Anatolians, Greeks, and Cretans pilgrimaged to participate in the cult. Both Horace and Isis were sometimes represented as birdlike creatures.
(Caption below): Isis was defaced by Christian invaders.
What I really remember fondly, were the cats. The island was totally full of felines. They played and fought in intertwined balls at the café. The location, an island with millions of visitors who came to soak in this lore, simply became my own.
Parting Thoughts, The Adventure Continues
I was (yet again) in one of my usual states of reflection back on the train. My brain raced: Who makes the values of a great society? Was it pharaoh? The priests? Or the masses themselves? Whoever the propagators, they decided the roles of women, the role of their leader, the Role (or lack thereof) of god, and the life that they would have for themselves.
The Temple of Isis was later taken by the Roman Empire during the time of pagan persecutions. Christian visitors in the fourth century even went as far was to scratch out the faces of the gods and goddesses. They branded the buildings with crosses. Ironically, Arab culture now controls the temple of graven images of the naked goddess. I observed her while sweating through my conservative coverings. We are all subject to the powers that be.
But I was definitely breaking a few of my own current cultural customs “irresponsibly adventuring” during a global pandemic.
If you liked this Egyptian adventure from 2020, check out The Egypt Files: Part 1.
Interested in a fun, safe, and reliable Egyptian historian? Check out Hamada @ Egypt Fun Tours (not a paid affiliate).