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Reflections on Cairo

by Walter and Cherie Glaser

Savvy investors will buy their stocks just after the market has crashed to its lowest point and the lemmings have pushed the price way below the true value. In the same manner, the savvy tourist who has a little courage and can keep a cool head will find it a really smart move to go to any destination just after a terrorist attack has scared most people into canceling their visits.

I have always found that at such times hotels treat you as honored guests, airlines give you four seats across to stretch out to sleep, and shopkeepers and guides give you twice as much attention at half the price charged during better times. Think about it. In the terminology of Mr. Soros it's called "counter-cyclical investment." In tourism it's called common sense! And Egypt holidays have never been better.

Egypt has had a tragic shooting at the Temple of Queen Hatchepsut in Luxor, perpetrated by extremists whose sole aim was to deter tourism. They're not going to need to do this again for quite some time as they've achieved their goal. And the Egyptian authorities have trebled their security arrangements, hotels have dropped their prices and the chances of another terrorist attack taking place very soon are slim indeed.

As well as that I look at the odds. My chances of getting killed by the Cairo traffic are very substantially greater -- by about 500 to 1. But I wouldn't stop myself from going to Cairo for fear of Egyptian kamikaze drivers any more than I would stop going to London for fear of IRA bombings or New York for fear of being blown up by the sort of people who have tried repeatedly to turn US city buildings into space shuttles with similar take-offs.

For those wanting absolute peace of mind for their Egypt trip and prepared to spend a little extra for this, I strongly recommend an individual tour. If one to four people book with a reliable specialist tour operator like Abercrombie & Kent or Cameron Tours (see the Resources section at the end of the article), they will not only get the best hotels and guides, but be able to pursue their own special area of interest.

For example, collectors may want to visit the best antique shops, galleries or shopping streets; historians may want to spend extra time to view the Tutankhamun and other treasures at the Egyptian Museum; and those interested in military matters might want to view the Egyptian Army Museum, or endeavour to make arrangements to meet some of their counterparts in the Egyptian Armed Forces. Academics might want to visit the Egyptian universities, musicians the appropriate centres of musical study and performance in Cairo -- the possibilities are endless, and Cameron Tours are particularly geared for this type of special-interest clientele.

Apart from that such operators will ensure that you eat at restaurants that are not going to give you a dose of "Pharaoh's Revenge," the Egyptian equivalent of "Bali-Belly" that brings down a lot more tourists than an army of terrorists.

Traveling in small groups will also remove you from all primary terrorist agendas -- they are only interested in very big groups that create very big headlines, and good operators generally know the places to keep you away from.

Still nervous? Then insure yourself heavily for the trip, and make your mother-in-law the beneficiary. She's never that lucky!

So if you have the courage to act with logic rather than emotion, head for Cairo, but only go with a top operator who knows the ropes and will make sure you are well looked after. If you do that you will be going to one of the world's most fascinating countries.

To understand Cairo it is almost mandatory to know something of its history and perhaps I should start with that.

In the days of the Old Kingdom the capital was Memphis, located some 20 km to the south of today's Cairo. The Nile delta had not pushed north to the same extent as today and Memphis was located at the strategic junction of the valley and the delta, enabling its citizens to exercise military control over both the north and the south. Subsequently the city became Heliopolis, now just a pile of ruins in the north eastern suburbs of Cairo. The area nearby was, until relatively recently, the country's religious centre.

The site now known as Old Cairo rose to importance during pre-Roman and Byzantine times, when it became known as Babylon in Egypt. The Romans built the fortress of Babylon there in 30 AD, and this was added to by Trajan, and then further revamped by the Byzantines.

In the meantime the country was ruled from Alexandria by the Ptolemies, a dynasty of Pharaohs started by the General who succeeded Alexander the Great when the latter died. In 641 AD the Arabs, under a leader called Amr arrived, conquering Alexandria on behalf of Bagdad.

In 870 AD Ibn Tulun, the then Governor of Egypt, made himself independent of Baghdad and shortly thereafter the city of Cairo, its name derived from Al-Qahira, was founded. From that time the new section of the city kept growing, being ruled first by the Mamelukes, followed by the Ottomans. Westernisation began during a brief French occupation that lasted from 1798 to 1801 and has steadily continued, with Egypt very much aligned with the West, a situation that could only be changed in the event that the extremist Muslims take over.

Subsequently, other actors marched across Egypt's stage of history. After the defeat of Napoleon the British came to this country and in their time the city expanded further. But throughout most of Egypt's history, very little of the real power was centered in Cairo, only after the Second World War did this shift to Cairo itself. Prior to that, this city's role was predominantly as a trading centre.

In 1956 the Aswan Dam, then the world's biggest project of its kind, had been designed to stop the scourge of the annual flooding that caused havoc each year, but when the western allies decided to withdraw funding, General Nasser, who had overthrown the corrupt and incompetent King Farouk, expelled the British and aligned himself with the Soviet bloc.

The Suez wars and the wars with Israel that followed did little to lift the living standards in Cairo which had been experiencing a population explosion, and the funnelling of resources into military programs prevented the much needed modernisation of the city's resources.

Today Cairo is trying to meet such challenges as urban decay, pollution and other problems, but it is a Herculean task. However, substantial progress has been made in recent years and the visitor will find Cairo totally fascinating.

Like most good tourists, our sightseeing started with a visit to the Pyramids of Giza. It doesn't matter how often you've seen them in pictures. You have arrived at Mena House Hotel the night before. When you draw your curtains open in the morning, peer through the mist of powder-fine sand that is a hallmark of early morning in this region. The sight of the pyramids looming up from the desert floor will take your breath away.

But for me it was not just the marvellous monuments and tombs that I found so spellbinding, it was also the drama of the whole Egyptian history which was so important to the whole world.

Lying in bed at night, I would think about what I had seen and done in the previous twelve hours, and found that the day's sights, impressions and contrasts would be replayed on the screen of my memory. It was then that I realized that Egypt, more than any other country I had ever visited, raised disturbing questions about mankind, progress and civilization.

These were because, during each day in Cairo I travelled through a Wellsian time machine, jumping backwards and forwards three thousand four hundred years by strolling from one street or room to another.

Walking from a Cairo street into the Tutankhamun room at the Cairo Museum was like stepping through doors leading from the present to a three thousand year old past.

And somehow the doors seem to have the wrong markings, because to me, the apex of civilization and achievement may well be in the "then" room and not in the "now" room. And the implications kept niggling away at me at every turn -- at every corner of every Egyptian street, museum, bazaar and temple -- because everything in this country's time-warp was somehow Alice-in-Wonderland topsy-turvy.

It's too easy to assume that the modern Egypt should be at the apex. And yet the intelligent, likable, earnest, devout and family-minded people that make up today's Egyptians are too often living in what sadly is abject poverty. Conditions are, in many cases, so poor that just to observe them could make me feel guilty, or at least uncomfortable, that our own standard of living in some more-developed countries is so much higher.

Egypt's chief problem today seems to be that the Nile's narrow strip of green surrounded by almost-lifeless desert sand dunes contains more and more people -- so much so that the population in Egypt is growing by a million every eight months. A country that just prior to World War II had a population of an estimated six million now has around twelve times as many.

The authorities are doing their best to improve living standards but with a population of this size there is simply not enough work for everyone. Cairo is today one of the world's largest megacities, and its administrators are facing an uphill battle to overcome problems like urban decay, street litter, inadequate sewage and water supply, trachoma and pollution.

Yet we find ourselves going through that other "then" door and discovering a civilization which, three thousand four hundred years ago was the undisputed world leader with a culture, art and technology which is far better than can be seen in many countries thirty-four centuries later. And the population at that time was estimated at between a minimum of one and a maximum of three million inhabitants!

The Egyptians of that period were the supermen of their day. They developed an incredible knowledge of mathematics, engineering, astronomy and medicine, had a legal system, a police force, courts and organised taxation. They used cosmetics and beauty products, wore fine clothing and had leisure activities that included wrestling, fishing, board games, ball games, acrobatics, and archery.

By the time they built the Great Pyramid of Giza they were able to move stones up to 15 tons (some of these stones were heavier than two bull elephants) and they achieved this without use of the wheel. The Great Pyramid, at 481 feet, was then the tallest building on earth, a record that was not beaten until the building of the Eiffel Tower in 1889. When completed, the area contained by the Great Pyramid would have equalled the total cubic capacity of the Cathedrals of Milan and Florence, Westminster Abbey and St Pauls in London and St Peters in Rome.

My visit to the Tutankhamun collection at the Cairo Museum brought home an unforgettable perception of just how incredibly advanced the civilization of Egypt had been over two thousand years ago.

I found myself overwhelmed when I saw Tutankhamun's treasures. Here were objects of incredible style and beauty made especially to accompany this boy-king -- who ascended to the throne at the age of nine and died at only nineteen -- into his after-life. Thrones, beds, jewelery, make-up and items of day-to-day use were in his tomb.

Fifty five magnificent objects from this huge collection took the Western art world by storm when the display travelled to the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe from 1977 to 1981. But here in Cairo I now saw these treasures displayed almost in their entirety -- some 5000 items as they were found by Carter in 1922.

So impressive was this room that subconsciously all in it kept the noise level at a minimum. Visitors were clearly overcome, not only by the momentous history of these antiquities and the story of their discovery, but also by the items themselves. Who could fail to admire the richness of design and exquisite workmanship of articles ranging from the solid gold, semi-precious stone-encrusted mask and sarcophagi, to thrones, funeral boats and alabaster jars -- all these made about the Year 1350 BC?

Then, leaving the Cairo Museum, I strolled along some back-streets, spending well over an hour walking through the city and the inner suburbs. Like all big cities, the best way to get the true feel and rhythm of this city was to cross it on foot.

When I last visited some years ago, Cairo was choking on its own traffic. Today a great deal of progress towards easing this congestion has been made by building "spaghetti junctions" of elevated roadways that have mercifully cleared the ground-level traffic and allowed it to head for outer suburbs.

And there has also been quite a lot of urban renewal, with a great deal of new building, re-building and restoration. But, as one would expect in a city of this size, there were also parts that remained in a state of overpopulation and decay.

In the run-down part of the city everyone danced the Cairo four-step -- one step forward, one step sideways, one step forward, one step back the other way -- to avoid deep potholes along the dusty, crumbling and broken footpaths.

Alleyways leading from these were littered with the skeletons of yesterday's abandoned debris. Remains of 20 year old cars and oil drums, broken concrete blocks and plastic bottles did little to stem the tide of the passing throng.

Women wore Muslim dresses, covered their heads and faces, leaving only their eyes to lend realism to the mysterious figures under their black canopies. Men in turban-like head-coverings moved in all directions, crowding the narrow streets, stirring up even more fine dust with the hems of their nightshirt-like galabeyahs.

The last time I was here I couldn't help noticing the Cairo children. They seemed to be everywhere, often in ragamuffin groups, the little ones staring at me with distrustful, but not unfriendly eyes, and the older ones, more aware of the world's commercialism, pleading for "Baksheesh" or "Stylos" (ballpens) in return for allowing me to take their photographs.

At that time beggars were persistent to the point of being a nuisance, and abusive if they could not extract donations of the size they had expected. According to our guides, many of these were professionals who, by Egyptian standards, were making a very comfortable living begging from foreigners.

Mercifully, the Egyptian authorities have since realized that this is very counter productive for tourism, the country's largest foreign exchange earner. Now the government has embarked on a campaign on TV, in the press and on radio stressing the importance of tourism for the economy and Egypt's well being. This carrot is supplemented by the stick of the tourist police, another big improvement that we noticed.

When the fundamentalist underground opposition wanted to hit the government by attacking tourists, a protective wing of the police force called "tourist police" was set up. Not only do they guard tourist sites extremely well, but they enforce the ban on begging and deter shopkeepers from dragging people into stalls against their will.

A visit to the pyramids is, along with the Cairo Museum, still the highlight of any visit to this city, and ours was once again nothing short of sensational. Located near the ancient city of Memphis, Giza, the site of the pyramids is now a virtual suburb of Cairo. Visitors always think of the three pyramids of Giza and not many are aware that there are many more of these in the Libyan Desert, scattered around the area from Lisht in the south to Abu Rawash in the north, but the three at Giza are the best -- and best known. They are actually the tombs of three Pharaohs of the 4th Dynasty -- Menkaure (Mycerinus in Greek), Khufu (Cheops in Greek) and Khafre (Chephren).

We found that the suburbs have crept so close to the base of one pyramid that we had to be very careful how to angle our photography to keep this out of the pictures. Visiting the Sphinx was also far more regulated, with long snakes of tourists marching to the viewing platforms in organised groups. Incidentally the restoration of the Sphinx which has taken ten years is now complete.

First excavated by French engineers after Napoleon invaded Egypt two hundred years ago, some of the French Army units used the face of the Sphinx for shelling practice, a habit that is generally unkind to the monuments on which it is practiced. Thank goodness that they did not use more substantial artillery !!! As it was, it left the Sphinx considerably scarred and noseless. Time, erosion and pollution also took their toll and hopefully the newly restored Sphinx will emerge smiling, both at the thought of its renewal and at the folly of mankind.

There was one experience which I must warn the reader about. At one of the pyramids it appeared to be deceptively easy to climb up to a false entrance to the tomb that had been discovered some time ago. Watching the snake of tourists that were climbing up and the line coming down, all looking like busy little ants, a moment of rash gung-ho feeling made me decide to do the same.

When you are staying at Giza for the viewing of the Pyramids and the Sphinx, get your guide to take you for a drive along the rural irrigation canals that bring life-giving water to the Nile-side fields. Here is another journey back into time. The farm methods are very often quite primitive, but the farmers have planted leafy green trees that provide shade and shelter fields from the persistent desert winds. It's easy to realise that such scenes have probably changed little since Moses was found in a clump of nearby bullrushes.

Though Egypt converted to Islam many centuries ago there is still a very strong Christian presence in Cairo. We visited the Coptic Church in the Old City, the Church of el Muallaqa, reached through narrow alleyways past quaint shops. I could not believe that this Church dated back to the 4th Century but had no doubt that it was old indeed. In the 11th Century the seat of the Coptic Church in Egypt moved from Alexandria to Cairo and from that time el Muallaqa, with its splendid white marble pulpit inlaid with red and black has been the epicentre of Egyptian Coptic Christianity. The Church is relatively small and unpretentious by Western standards. But to me, what it lacked in opulence it made up for in atmosphere. Services are held in the ancient, otherwise-long-forgotten Coptic language and in Arabic.

Right next door is the Coptic Museum, a charming building set in green gardens and filled with artefacts from Egypt's Christian era between 300 and 1000 AD. The exhibits here clearly link the art of Greece, Rome and Islam, with sections that cover icons, paintings, ivories, textiles, stone works, manuscripts and other secular and religious art. Perhaps the finest work is in the textiles while some of the frescoes and stone carvings seem relatively uninspired by comparison.

Another place of worship that the visitor may find very interesting is the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. The site was, according to legend, a synagogue in Biblical times, and it was said that Joseph worshipped there when in Egypt. When the apostles Mark and Peter moved to Egypt they were also said to have operated from here, but there is no concrete evidence of this.

Subsequently an early Coptic Christian church was erected on that site, but the building was sold to the Jewish community by the Copts in the 9th Century. Rabbi Abraham Ben Ezra, the Rabbi of Jerusalem had the synagogue restored in the 12th Century and gave his name to what is basically a very modest building.

What has made this synagogue so famous was that one of the outbuildings nearby was used to store letters, documents, records and all kinds of other material for a period of a thousand years. It was a custom never to destroy any document that had any reference to God written in it, so consequently the tightly packed building became a treasure house for researchers when it was re-discovered after World War II.

Another site of Cairo that is not to be missed is the Citadel, standing guard atop the hill that overlooks the old city. This is the site for the Mohammed Ali Mosque, one of the most architecturally attractive and atmospheric buildings in the city. This is the place where travellers heading on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca gathered before marching through the town to leave the city through the Northern Gates. The Mosque is no longer as elaborate as it once was but it is still very interesting. In the courtyard you will find the gingerbread look-alike clock that Louis Philippe gave the King of Egypt in exchange for the magnificent obelisk that has the pride of place on the Place Concorde in Paris. When you see the clock you will realise that France got the better bargain!

Another place I like visiting is the Northern Cemetery, known as The City of the Dead. You should only go there with an experienced guide and the chances are that locals will try to talk you out of going, for they take little pride in this once-magnificent cemetery, many of its mausoleums now home to penniless slum dwellers. At first the area will appear to be a dilapidated, dusty slum, but look again. Notice those elegant domes? And the arrow-straight "streets"?

The City of the Dead was once the height of style, with grand mausolea that were the tombs for the Mameluke Sultans. Once monasteries and schools were part of the complex, but the offerings of food left by rich families for the spirits of the dead were too tempting for the poor and homeless. Over the years the mausolea have become neglected, the families of the original owners have abandoned the monuments and now these are home to the slum dwellers of the area.

Before leaving don't miss a trip to the top of Cairo Tower to see the panorama of Cairo spread out below you. Also dine at some of the better hotels in Cairo. Prices are very reasonable and the cuisine surprisingly good and stylish.

By travelling with a good tour operator you will also see many other attractions and places of interest in this fascinating city. My advice is to go in winter -- that is, between November and March -- at which time you will avoid the summer heat and be able to enjoy Egypt much more than during the hot months.

Don't be put off by the fact that everything -- clothes, cars, merchandise -- is masked by the pervasive desert dust which seems to hang permanently over the whole country like a beige mist. You will find that Cairo also has its elegant suburbs where highly educated Egyptians, many of them extremely dedicated to their country and determined to overcome its problems, form the management class from which the future leaders of Egypt will hopefully create a bright future for this country.

If only the population explosion could be controlled, one Egyptian told me, the other problems would become manageable much more quickly, and the resources of the country would not be so constantly tested to their limits.

In spite of all its problems, I found Egypt both fascinating and irresistible. It is a country which has totally captivated me and I know will draw me back, magnet-like, to its paradoxes.

My next trip is sure to be to Sharm el Sheikh, located on the east side of the southern most tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Once an ancient fishing village, Sharm el Sheikh took off as a diving location in the early 1980's. Since then, the resort has grown rapidly and now covers a long strip of the Egyptian coast over 30 miles long. The main tourist area of Sharm is Naama Bay. This comprises a 1 mile strip of hotels with an attractive pedestrian path separating the hotels from the beach. In the southwestern corner of Naama Bay is the commercial centre of the resort, made up of a shops, restaurants, small hotels and dive centres. The main attraction is scuba diving in the area's unusually warm waters, full of many unique forms of marine life and spectacular coral reefs. Increasingly becoming known as a normal winter-sun beach holiday destination, thanks to its virtually guaranteed sun and dry atmosphere.

Egypt offers many explorations and reflections!

When going
Make sure you go with a totally reliable travel agent who will take you to the best accommodation, restaurants and hotels. Egypt is a beautiful country to visit but if you don't travel with a first class operator who really "knows the ropes," the chances are that you will run into health, accommodation or other difficulties. This is a country where it's wise to specify "Best or Nothing." We recommend that you consider travelling with Abercrombie & Kent or Cameron Tours, both of which can offer individual or group packages. For further details contact:

Abercrombie & Kent, International, Inc. (Illinois),
1520 Kensington Road,
Oakbrook, Illinois, 60523-2141. U.S.A.
FAX: 0011.1.630.954.3324
TEL: 0011.1.630.954.2944

Cameron Tours, Inc. 6249 N. Kensington Street
Mclean VA 22101 USA
FAX: 0011.703.538.7124
PH: 0011.703.538.7122
EMAIL: Tibetetc@aol.com

Travel hints
Visit between November and April to avoid the excessive heat. Take comfortable, sound walking shoes and casual clothing. Don't forget your hat and sun-screen lotion. Bring lots of film with you -- it's much more expensive to buy this in Egypt and you will want to take a lot of pictures.

Drink only bottled water and also use this for cleaning teeth. Do not take ice in your drinks and avoid raw vegetables and peeled fruit, except on the top tourist boats where the food is completely safe. Typhoid and cholera injections and malaria tablets are recommended, but not compulsory. Your doctor can also advise you on Lomotil or similar "just in case" of stomach upsets. Carry toilet paper -- many public toilets do not have paper.

Always carry a piece of paper from your concierge with the full address and phone number of your hotel in Arabic. The one thing that can create a huge trauma is to get lost in a city of this size without anyone understanding where you need to go.

Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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