Now and Then Egypt

(Shortened version published in The Fargo-Moorhead Forum, October 1998)

It is no more possible in Egypt to ignore the past than it is to neglect the present. The past, a meta-ancient civilization far pre-dating ancient Greece and Rome, dominates the desert dust, from its colossal pyramids near Cairo to its colossi of Memnon near Luxor. You cannot ignore a 100-foot tall obelisk hewn from a single piece of stone at Karnak temple. You cannot not be moved by a forest of stone columns as big as the giant redwoods, and older too. Ancient Egypt, even to us blase Y2K people, still does what the pharaohs intende--it intimidates.

You'd think then that Egypt's ancient legacy would overwhelm modern Egyptian culture. Not quite. As a tourist, you might be left alone among ancient ruins of Greece or Rome. But in Egypt you too are an attraction: a westerner with loads of dough. (And don't say you aren't: $1 is a lot of dough to a Cairene tout.) Modern Egypt is in your face, from the inevitable rest room attendants to the persistent series of unofficial "guides" at monuments.

A funny story: at the great pyramids of Giza we were met by two official-looking fellows who easily persuaded us they were actual monument guides going to give us a tour of "seldom-seen new excavation." We huffed and puffed among obscure diggings and tombs for a half-hour, after which each asked for 20 Egyptian pounds (about $6) service charge. We gave them the money. Then it dawned on me we'd been had. What would you have done?

But everyone talks about the touts dogging the tourists in Egypt. Even that is historic: on a trip to the pyramids in the last century, Mark Twain complained of touts he couldn't shake. Finally he challenged one to a climb to the top of a great pyramid in nine minutes for $1, a very daunting feet indeed, as each of the more than two million blocks is high as a human. Twain hoped--in that century's characteristic compassion for fellow humanity--the Egyptian would break his neck. He did not. In desperation, Twain then offered the fellow $100--if he'd climb to the top and jump.

After spending almost a month in Egypt, you have to have a little sympathy for Twain. But actually, new security at the major monuments since the bloody Hatshepsut temple attack last November has chased away some of the touts (see related story on security below). More generally, while modern Egyptians will not allow themselves to be ignored, they also are among the world's friendliest. You will not go far without a chat, from a taxi driver, a hotel concierge, a ticket agent, a cafe server. Most everyone speaks English, more or less.

Getting organized

Still, many Americans seem so daunted by the prospect of Egypt both past and present that they opt for an organized tour. It's true this Muslim country hugging the Nile and surrounded by sand is likely the most exotic you've ever seen: the religion, the history, the customs, the culture, the food, the writing, all utterly unlike our own. But that doesn't mean you can't operate independently. Egypt was developed as a tourist destination before most vacation spots even heard of tourist bucks. Thomas Cook, who gave his name to the famous travel agency, made his trademark offering Egypt to Victorian British with means.

A self-guided tour (bring several good tour books) begins in Cairo, as that's where the planes land. It ought to end there, though: treasures of the Cairo Museum make more sense after you've seen the ruins they came from, mostly in Luxor to the south.

Luxor is about 400 miles upstream. (The Nile runs north, similar to the Red River. The similarity ends there.) Most tourists fly from Cairo to the country's southern border at Aswan, actually, to see Abu Simbel and Philae. While the first dates to around 1200 B.C., and the second to a relatively recent 300 B.C., age is not their main attraction. (What is age in a country with pyramids dating to 2600 B.C?)

The first, a great Nile-side temple of the builder-pharaoh Ramesis II, was in the 1960s actually sliced apart and craned up a cliff to a new location, on the side of a steel geodesic dome. Why the move? Flood: when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser built the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s to control Nile flooding, the subsequent formation of immense Lake Nasser behind the dam would have submerged the monument. Astoundingly, you absolutely cannot tell that this immense temple was chopped up and put back together like building blocks. A wonder of the ancient world, a wonder of the modern.

Philae Temple, also moved to escape high water, is reached by boat. Negotiate a pilgrimage there with a waiting driver. (Almost every price is negotiated in Egypt, so hone your bargaining skills.) Here among Greek- and Roman-inspired pylons was the last holdout of the ancient Egyptian religion and hieroglyphic script that had lasted 4,000 years. Jealous early Christians rooted out the last priests of the ancient ways before 400 a.d.

Centuries lost

Succeeding centuries actually forgot all 3,000 years of Egyptian civilization and language. By 1800 we knew nothing: ruins were half-buried in sand, and inscriptions might as well have come from outer space, as some surmised. Then, in 1822, Champollion from France cracked the hieroglyphic code, and 4,000 years of history flooded back to us from the carved stone walls at Philae, and other temples and tombs.

Many tourists opt for a two- or three-day cruise from Aswan to Luxor, home to the temples and monuments of the New Kingdom (1540-1069 B.C.). About 85 percent of the country's ancient monuments are here, including some of the most well-known. It is here that King Tutankhamun's tomb was discovered among the mostly looted but still gloriously painted pharaonic tombs. It is here that the enormous temples of Karnak stretches a mile square, comprising 13 centuries in stone. The purifying waters, the holy trinity, the worship of Isis: here you can see how this ancient civilization so influenced our faiths today. Of course Luxor, too, is both ancient and modern: after the temple you can walk the bazaar for brass, wood, spice and cloth, taxi in a horse and buggy, perhaps sail on a Nile felucca. The touts for these famous Egyptian experiences will offer plenty of opportunities.

We arranged all of this on the spot, though that might be a bit dodgy during winter high season. Summer is low season. Is summer hot? Of course: traveling in June, Luxor is well over 100 degrees every day. No problem, you sight-see until noon, and again after 4 p.m. During the unbearable afternoon you hole up in an air-conditioned hotel room to nap. Not much different than, say, Arizona.

From Luxor, it's a half-hour flight back to Cairo (or another week by boat). Now go see the Cairo Museum. Yes, it costs about $10 more to visit the museum's mummy room, but you won't regret it. You will see the actual people who built the ancient grandeur you toured in Luxor and Aswan.

Egyptologists tell us the ancients prepared these royal mummies for eternal life-for a very different world, after a very long journey. Perhaps they made it.

Security in Egypt

A visit to the Hatshepsut temple in Luxor, where Muslim terrorists murdered 58 tourists last November, is deceptive: any evidence of bloodshed has been cleaned up, and security is not obvious. It was still eerie to walk here. We'd all seen the newspaper pictures after the attack. Our guide, however, pointed to the rocky backdrop: "there's a small army just over the hill," he claimed. We were inclined to believe him, considering the security will did see at other tourist spots.

In Cairo every hotel comes with a guard, most of them leaning on automatic weapons. Same at banks, airports, museums, and major tourist spots. Everywhere you pass through metal detectors. Those who have visited Egypt before would be surprised to see the entire perimeter of the Giza pyramids has been closed, and the main entrance changed. Only ticketed tourists--and a few touts, to be sure!--get past the guard house. In fact, this means that perhaps for the first time since before Twain you can have a relatively peaceful mediation at a pyramid without constant pestering from camel drivers and trinket-hawkers.

At Abu Simbel, set in isolated southern Egypt near the unfriendly Sudan border, tourists can no longer take a taxi or bus on a three-hour ribbon of lonely highway to the site. Clearly, the security risk is too high. Instead you must fly; for $89 round trip Egypt Air makes daily tourist-only flights. The only Egyptians we saw on board were obviously plain-clothes guards. From a little airstrip you are whisked by bus in a caravan to the temple. A jeep-full of soldiers precedes and follows the coach. You are herded through a guided tour, then back to the bus, and to the airport, for return to Aswan, Luxor or Cairo. No dawdling here.

I felt sorry for the little cafes, hotels, and shops along the sun-scorched route to the temple: the consequences of terrorism will probably destroy their businesses. But it is one example of what an exasperated Egyptian government has done to hold onto the second most important industry in the country after oil.

As for the street crime endemic to major American cities, and the pickpockets infesting European destinations, in Egypt such risks are virtually unknown, day or night. Strangely, we Americans often worry more about a single highly-publicized foreign terrorist attack than we do about a much higher daily risk of routine violence on our own city streets.

If you go

Many good guides describe Egypt, but the country's attractions are so extensive that it probably takes a couple guides to cover it all. Alternatively, try Guardian's Egypt web site.

A visa used to be required and available at the Cairo airport for a fee, but we were not asked for one. Apparently, to stimulate tourism, the government has dropped this requirement for the time being. Of course, a passport is required.

You don't need any special shots unless you go to rural areas, but the Center for Disease Control does recommend a Hepatitis A vaccination. Bring medication for "Pharaoh's Revenge." It's the rare tourist who isn't poorly for a day, but usually it doesn't last much longer than that. Tap water in Egypt is (supposedly) safe as it's highly chlorinated. The food is rather bland. It's not a surprise we don't find lots of "Egyptian cuisine" restaurants here in America.

If cigarette smoke bothers you, woe in Egypt. One puffing cabbie estimated 98 percent of Egyptians smoke. I believe it. Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>