In an Antique Land – Egypt

Egypt is a unique country in many ways. The history of the land goes back to 5000 years. It is very heartening to see the common man valuing and preserving the heritage so sincerely. Today it is a Muslim majority country. But everybody we met was very well aware of the ancient history, religion of the ancient times and about the ancient Egyptian gods. You will see many people wearing pendants and other jewelry with ancient Egyptian symbols.  A person with knowledge of the ancient Egyptian history is known as an Egyptologist.

People of Egypt are very friendly and down-to-earth in nature. Unlike Turkey, people seemed more traditional in the way they dressed. You will see many men dressed in traditional Jalabeya and women with head scarves. Men and women moved freely on the streets, especially many couples are seen by the side of river Nile in the evenings, hand in hand. The features of people changed as we moved from north to south. In Cairo, we saw many people who looked like Arabs, fair and with sharp features. Then some looked little brown, tall and strongly built and with curly hair. As we moved towards south, the African features became more prominent. It reminded me of India where the feature changes with region.
It seemed to me that the country has not made much progress in recent time. Most of the houses looked very modest, many as just a brick structure, in an incomplete state. We were told by the guide that if your house is incomplete, you do not have to pay tax to the government. That’s the reason many Egyptians purposely kept their houses incomplete.

The Egyptian vendors can be notorious at times – comparable to some Indians. We were strictly warned by our travel guides not to even look at the vendors. If you show slightest interest in any of the items sold by them, you will soon find yourself surrounded by at least 6-7 vendors. The situation can be harassing and ugly at times. There is nothing called MRP in Egypt. One has to bargain for everything – starting from a bottle of mineral water to a cup of tea. The cabs have meters which are not used. One should not touch anything without fixing the price first. The most amusing story is about vendors selling newspapers where only the 1st page is today’s.
The papyrus industry is really fascinating. The papyrus flower is very unique, looks actually like a bunch of leaves. The two flowers of upper (south) and lower part (north) of Egypt are Papyrus and Lotus. I was quite intrigued to learn about Lotus – how come the lotus, the national flower of India, grows in Egypt as well? I checked with the guide and he firmly confirmed that lotus is found even today in Egypt. At last we saw the Papyrus and Lotus flowers at the entrance of the Cairo Museum. To our surprise, the lotus looked completely different from the Indian lotus. It is a very westernized looking flower, I must say, very unlike the wild bright pink lotus seen in the muddy ponds of Indian villages.

From Istanbul, we landed at Cairo in the evening. The next day we again took a flight from Cairo to Abu Simbel to visit the temple of Ramses the II. The Cairo domestic airport was undergoing some renovation work and was in a bad shape. It was much worse than any domestic airport of India and full of chaos. After a lot of confusion, we boarded the flight for Abu Simbel.

The temple of Ramses II was an enormous temple in the middle of a desert. We were awestruck to see the size and the intricacies of the work. We were told that the temple has been relocated before the Nasser dam was built.

From Abu Simbel, we took another short flight and at last landed on the Presidential cruise at Aswan. We were quite excited about the whole thing since it was going to be our first experience on such a cruise. We were going to spend 4 nights and 5 days on it. It was a beautiful cruise with a nice deck, bar, shopping area and huge dining place. During the day we would be taken in groups to various places for sight seeing by the guide. We would sail during the night to the next destination. We went through komombo, Edfu, Luxor and lastly to Cairo. The climate was quite hot and dry in the south of Egypt and it kept getting cooler as we headed  north.

In Egypt, the population is concentrated along the banks of river Nile. One can see thick greenery on both the sides of the river. A few miles away from the river, it starts becoming brown and barren. The scenery in and around the Nile river is very serene with birds and small boats around. The river is not very wide though. Nile cruise is a very significant part of the tourism in Egypt. The river is quite busy and full of such five star cruises all over.
On the first day on the cruise, we were taken to the Nasser lake and Aswan Dam. It was built by the Russian engineers after the liberation of Egypt and named after the popular President. The lake is huge and green in color, created by the Aswan high dam built on river Nile. The surrounding land got completely submerged in the lake water when the dam was built. The land belonged to the Tribal community called Nubians. They sacrificed their land for the prosperity of their country. We met quite a few of them on our way back to the cruise. They had African features and were selling various jewelry on the boat. The submerged land also had many ancient temples and structures which were relocated, the temple of Abu Simbel being the most famous one.

Nile has actually originated from a lake in central of Africa and flows towards North into Egypt. So Upper Nile is actually South of Egypt and Lower Nile is upper part of Egypt.

We were enjoying our vacation on the cruise. However, the attendants on the ship were very particular about the breakfast, lunch and dinner timings since there were set menus. Continental food was served. So although initially it was fun being on the cruise, it became little monotonous afterwards. However our guide was quite knowledgeable about Egypt (he was an Egyptologist) and the next few days were quite interesting. We met a couple of other Indian families as well on the ship. Normally our days used to start early in the morning. Evenings used to be on the cruise with some entertainment programs arranged by the cruise like Belly dancing etc.

In the next few days, we visited several Egyptian temples and pyramids. Each one of them was a work of wonder. Egyptians believed in perfection. Each piece of painting was an example of perfection. Visit to the Valley of Kings and Valley of Queens’ was an amazing experience by itself. It was said that initially the mummies used to be buried along with various expensive stuff and jewelry and on top of them pyramids were built. But the pyramids started getting looted of the royal wealth by the local robbers. So instead of huge pyramids, people started building secret tombs where kings and queens can be buried after their death. This is today known as Valley of Kings and Valley of Queens. Several tombs have been discovered in this area and still being discovered. Most of them were already been looted by the local robbers when they were discovered. The famous tomb of Tutankhamen was the one which was intact when it was discovered. The artefacts found inside the tomb are kept in the Cairo museum. When we visited the Cairo museum, we saw the breathtakingly beautiful and expensive ornaments and show pieces made up of gold and ivory.

Since childhood, I have seen the pictures of Giza pyramid and several other pyramids in books, magazines and movies. But when I actually stood in front of the Giza pyramid, I realized the enormity of it! The experience was all the more terrific when we actually entered inside the pyramid. The entrance is really narrow, low (one has to constantly bend) and dark. It goes sharply up and then again steeply down inside the pyramid. The main chamber where the body of the pharaoh used to be kept is a completely closed stonewalled room. There is absolutely no ventilation inside. One has to be physically extremely fit to reach the innermost chamber even in today’s modern age, with stairs laid for climbing and railings on the side, even fans and lights at some places. It is difficult to imagine how people managed to build such enormous structures and carry the body all the way up to the final chamber 5000 years ago.

On reaching Cairo at the end of the cruise, we were taken around by a guide with a pleasant personality. Megha became quite friendly with him. We went to Giza pyramid, Cairo Museum, a few other open air museums around Cairo, Alexandria and lastly Al-Khalili market in Cairo.

Alexandria is the second largest city of Egypt. It is an old and crowded city. The crowded roads, narrow lanes, busy road side shops and the trams reminded us about North Calcutta. On our way to Alexandria, we stopped at a place where ruins of Roman Amphitheatre were there. There is one particular spot from where your voice would get amplified.  There was a grand library in Alexandria having books from all languages . It was a very huge and grand library. However I could not  visit the inside of the Megha was not allowed inside.

While on the cruise, Anupam and Isha went on a hot air balloon trip. It seems the houses in that area did not have any roof and they could see the interiors of the houses from the balloon.

While staying in Hotel Sheraton in Cairo, we witnessed a wedding procession inside the hotel. There was loud music and clapping along with drums and other instruments played by the group. The ladies were also clapping and singing. There was no dancing though unlike Indian marriages. There was a restaurant in the hotel which served Chinese and Indian cuisine. We went to the restaurant for dinner one evening and liked the Chinese food very much. We decided to go back to the hotel to try out the Indian stuff on a later date. Next day when we reached the restaurant around 1:30 PM for lunch, to our surprise we found it closed. When enquired, we were told that the restaurant will open for lunch only at 3:00 PM. We found it very strange and checked multiple times. Actually it opened at 3:00 PM for lunch. Later when we checked with our guide he confirmed that lunch time in Egypt is indeed from 3 to 5 PM.

It was almost 3 weeks since we had left Mumbai. We were at the end of the vacation. Somewhere all of us had started missing home. Megha was tired. Isha had started missing her friends I guess. I was missing the home food. I was also eager to get back home and put up my new acquisitions like the beautiful blue carpet from Turkey and the mother of pearl vase from Egypt. Only Anupam was still in high spirits.

On our last evening in Cairo, we wanted to celebrate by having Indian dinner. We enquired and found out that the hotel Hyatt has an Indian restaurant. It was at a walking distance from the place we were staying. It is a grand hotel right on top of river Nile. The dinner at hotel Hyatt was one of the most memorable evenings we spent during our vacation.

When I look back, our vacation was not only fun, it was a very enriching experience for all of us. Getting exposure to an ancient culture and one of the oldest civilizations on this earth, knowing three different cultures, their way of life, traditions was a great experience. In fact after our return, I developed an interest in the Arabic literature.