Walk like an Egyptian

By Lynn Barber

It's a well-trodden route but a classic tour of Egypt's ancient wonders is still one of the great travel experiences of a lifetime. Lynn Barber is captivated by its timeless magic.

The Great Sphinx of Giza is a half-human, half-lion statue on the Giza Plateau. Standing 73.5m long, 6m wide and 20m high, it's the largest, not to mention oldest, monolith in the world. Photo / Alan Gibson
The Great Sphinx of Giza is a half-human, half-lion statue on the Giza Plateau. Standing 73.5m long, 6m wide and 20m high, it's the largest, not to mention oldest, monolith in the world. Photo / Alan Gibson

It's almost worth arriving in Cairo at midnight and then driving an hour across town to the Mena House Hotel for the amazing shock of opening your curtains in the morning and finding a couple of pyramids rearing up behind the palm trees in the hotel garden.

This is probably the best view you will ever get of them because it cuts out all the intervening clutter - the road, the coachpark, the ramps, the camel touts, the souvenir shops, the Giza suburbs - leaving you with just these extraordinary shapes, which feel so familiar but yet so strange, the only survivors of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World.

As Evelyn Waugh wrote when he stayed at Mena House in 1929: "It felt odd to be living at such close quarters with anything quite so famous - it was like having the Prince of Wales at the next table in a restaurant; one kept pretending not to notice, while all the time glancing furtively to see if they were still there."

There are actually three Great Pyramids but you can only see two of them from the hotel - the smallest one, Menkaure, and the other amazing wonder, the Sphinx, emerge only when you climb up to the Giza plateau. This is a bare windswept patch of desert that still offers a good view of Cairo despite the encroaching suburbs.

Not that you would particularly want a view of Cairo - it is an ugly, sprawling, shapeless city and nowadays terribly rundown - but the Great Pyramids, and the Cairo Museum, are and always will be its pension plan.

The Cairo Museum opened in 1902 and doesn't seem to have been cleaned since, but no matter - it contains such amazing treasures in its grimy display cases that you can only gasp.

The other great delight in central Cairo is the souk, Khan al-Khalili, on no account to be confused with the modern travesty also called Khan al-Khalili in a hideous shopping mall in Heliopolis.

The real Khan al-Khalili is a medieval maze of alleys with many shops selling tourist tat but also many excellent jewellers, and specialist shops selling just rope, or spices, or tea.

And right in the middle of the souk is the deeply lovable Fishawi's coffee house, 200 years old and now into its seventh generation of Fishawis, with mirrors and pictures so old and fogged you can't be sure which are mirrors and which are pictures, and chandeliers so thickly encrusted with dirt they look like fungi.

This is where the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz hung out while he was writing his Cairo Trilogy, and the best place to drink hibiscus tea (the national drink) and try smoking a sheesha if you don't mind looking a prat. Egypt is heaven for smokers, incidentally, but a desert for oenophiles. The local wine called Omar Khayyam is drinkable but overpriced at £10 a bottle - imported wine is strictly for millionaires.

Right outside the souk is the Al-Azhar Mosque, founded in 970AD, which you can visit provided you are decently dressed (women need headscarves) and don't take photos. It is a university as well as a mosque and claims to be the oldest educational institution in the world.

For anyone, like me, more familiar with the exuberant blue-tiled mosques of Moorish Spain and Istanbul, it feels very plain and austere but even more lovely, with its perfect proportions and honey-coloured stone.

In the great courtyard there are students sitting around reading the Koran and talking quietly. A steward comes up and politely asks what language we speak and then comes back with a great pile of books about Islam, which he insists on giving us. It is strange, after the souk, to find someone urging us to take rather than buy.

After Cairo, which is hard work with all the fumes and traffic jams, Luxor and Aswan are pure pleasure. Aswan in the far south is where Egypt suddenly feels like Africa and you start seeing Nubians - tall, graceful people with long necks and almost blue-black skin.

It is also where the Nile breaks up into "cataracts" and becomes unnavigable except by felucca (a traditional Nile boat). Beyond it is the vast Nasser Lake, created by the Aswan Dam, and after that endless desert stretching into the Sudan.

We stayed at the Old Cataract Hotel, famous as the setting for Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, which is a charming old building with, alas, not so charming old food. But we took a blissful felucca trip across to the Botanical Garden (which used to be called Lord Kitchener's Garden) on an island and also a boat trip on Lake Nasser to visit the Temple of Philae, which was moved to higher ground when the lake was created.

Near Aswan you can also see the Unfinished Obelisk, still half-embedded in its granite quarry. It would have been the tallest obelisk in Egypt but it cracked before completion so they left it there. I'm allergic to cruises, so we did our travelling by plane or road which, from Aswan, meant the much-reviled coach convoy back down the Nile to Luxor, visiting the temples of Kom Ombo and Edfu. The convoy is supposed to be an anti-terrorist measure, with police escorts front and back.

It means in effect that if anyone wants to bomb tourists, they know exactly where to find them, and also that every time you stop at a checkpoint, dozens of touts come dashing out of shops shouting "Welcome! We have toilets!".

Even so, the journey was well worth it, both for the temples, and for the glorious scenery along the Nile; brilliant green fields dotted with palm trees and occasional irrigation wheels still worked by cows or donkeys. Kom Ombo and Edfu are both Ptolemaic (late Egyptian) temples, with bits added by Roman emperors.

Kom Ombo has the best preserved Nilometer - a shaft used to measure the height of the Nile's flood each year and determine taxes - the higher the flood, the higher the taxes.

Thence to lovely Luxor, which has all the charm of the belle epoque French Riviera, with caleches (horse-drawn carriages) clip-clopping under avenues of palm trees, and a constant bustle of feluccas, ferries and cruise boats on the river, not to mention the Temple of Luxor bang in the middle of town, the Temple of Karnak a few miles down the road, and the Valley of the Kings on the opposite bank.

We stayed at the Old Winter Palace hotel, another of the Agatha Christie dowagers, but this time with excellent food and service, and a lovely garden at the back.

At sunset you watch skeins of geese flying down the Nile; at dawn you see hot air balloons floating over the Valley of the Kings. I'd visited the Valley 20 years ago and found it hard work, with the heat, the walking and the claustrophobia, but this time, surprisingly, it seemed easier, perhaps because there are toy trains to take you from the coach park up the valley and also because - mercifully - tickets allow entrance to just three tombs, and they seem better supervised.

If you want to see more tombs, you can buy another ticket or go to the Valley of the Queens, and the Valley of the Nobles, but three is probably enough.

We only had a week in Egypt so we saw just the highlights and didn't even get to Abu Simbel, but you could easily spend a month visiting temples and tombs.

Flying from Cairo to Aswan you see several groups of pyramids on the west bank, including the oldest stepped pyramid, at Saqqara, and excavations are going on all over the place, including a "new" tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Rather sadly, the Government intends to move the villages from the foot of the Valley of the Kings to new housing elsewhere, so all the alabaster factories with their home-painted "Opera Aida Best Alabaster" signs will be demolished - a great loss in my view, especially as they use exactly the same palette and presumably the same paints as their predecessors in the pharaohs' tombs.

I expected to find ancient Egyptian art interesting: what I didn't expect was that I'd find it as thrilling as, say, Florence or St Petersburg.

I'd intended this trip as a little dose of January winter sun, with lots of swimming and R&R. In the event, I was far too busy sightseeing for any R&R and it was never warm enough to swim. But Egyptian art is so alluring I couldn't get enough of it. It encompasses such a range, from robust temple architecture to exquisite tiny ornaments.

Again and again, I was amazed by the detail in even the most stylised decoration. You could almost make a pocket guide to Egyptian birds on the basis of the birds portrayed in hieroglyphs - geese, duck, heron, vultures, quail, all so carefully delineated you can tell the species, sometimes even the sex of the bird.

Many of the hieroglyphs in the tombs are painted with the sort of care we associate with medieval illuminated manuscripts.

Even the mythology, which normally bores me to tears, is riveting.

I particularly liked the story of Osiris, who fell in love with his sister Isis, and she with him, but their elder brother Seth was jealous and hacked Osiris to bits. Isis managed to find the bits and put them together and animate them - but alas the crucial bit was missing. She fanned Osiris with her wings (and there is a wonderful carving of this at Philae) and somehow extracted his seed, from which she impregnated herself and produced a son.

There is a lot of sex in Egyptian art - at Karnak every alternate pillar shows Amun-Min going off to court the goddess Mut with a huge erection - and there is a carving at Luxor showing a priest collecting Amun's semen in a bowl. Their attitude to sex seems to be an interesting mixture of pragmatism and sensuality: reproduction was vitally important, especially for gods and pharaohs, but the women are depicted not just as baby-makers but as sirens with lovely perky breasts and soft round bellies.

Incidentally, if you have children of an impressionable age, do not take them to Egypt because it will make them want to become archaeologists when they grow up and then they will spend their adult lives sorting shards in some dim county museum.

Most of the tour guides in Egypt are Egyptologists who have done a four-year degree at Cairo university and often post-graduate research or an internship at the British Museum and their fate is to end up lecturing idiots like me about the difference between papyrus and lotus columns or how to pronounce Hatshepsut.

Egyptology is an incredibly alluring subject, but a disastrous career, I suspect. Nevertheless I can see why people get hooked, and why I will be going to Egypt again and again.

CHECKLIST

When to go: The best time to travel to Egypt is from late autumn to spring - mid October to May - out of the blistering temperatures. But this is also the peak season and prices will be at their highest.

Where to stay: As a starting point, try directrooms.com. Then check your choice against the experiences of other travellers at tripadvisor.com.

Package deals: Organised packages can often give the best result, especially when time is short. Simply Google "Egypt package deals" for a selection of websites.

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