It was early evening when we landed in Cairo. Noisy crowds milled wherever we turned. Before we could be sucked into the whirlwind, we were spotted by representatives from Misr, the Egyptian travel service, who had arranged to meet us. They eased our way through Customs and loaded our luggage into the aging stretch Mercedes-Benz that would be our wheels in Cairo.
I’d wondered why we had to be met and driven about, but now the reason was clear. There’s no way the uninitiated can negotiate the airport’s chaos unaided. We were to encounter similar scenes in Luxor and Aswan, and would be thankful for the Misr representatives who escorted us through them.
Cairo is a city of 6 million souls and, it seemed to us, a like number of cars–all with horns. Motorists set a maniacal pace, honking and swerving. We arrived breathless at our hotel, the Ramses Hilton, on the Corniche, overlooking the east bank of the Nile. Its lobby was a micro-melting pot of nations and languages. Native dress from every corner of the East could be seen interspersed among the tour-package travelers from the West.
Luxurious Cairo Hotel
Serenity prevailed, however, once we entered our palatial rooms. Nancy and I stepped out on our balcony into the cool night. Below us were endless streams of car lights on the bridges leading to Giza and the other suburbs, but the raucous traffic was just a purr from the 26th floor. The Nile looked serene. No boats stirred the north-flowing current, and the river seemed no more than a quarter-mile wide at that point.
The sun had already set, but the sky still glowed–bright orange to red to purple and blue. “Look!” said Nancy, pointing beyond the lighted bridges, the traffic flow, and the apartment-tower clusters. There, at the edge of the desert, we could see the Pyramids silhouetted against the afterglow. Chills passed through me.
Another moment of awe came the next day. We had visited the ancient capital of Memphis and the famous Step Pyramid at Sakkara, built to honor King Zoser, who ruled Egypt from 2667 to 2648 B.C. As we ate lunch at Mena House in Giza, on the Nile’s west bank, the Great Pyramid of Cheops loomed beyond the hotel gardens–so close, it seemed, that we might almost touch it.
Mena House is a 19th-century hunting lodge-cum-guest house transformed into a lavish resort. Furnished opulently, with elegant grounds, it reeks of British colonialism, another phase of Egyptian history that confronted us now and then.
Old Egypt hands had warned us that the food was poor and would make us sick. But starting with our flight, the food was carefully prepared and consistently tasty. Aware that we must eat nothing raw and drink only bottled water (which we carried everywhere), we policed each other. For the most part, exotic bacteria left us alone.
The centerpiece of our four-day stay in Cairo was the Egyptian Museum. Our guided visit prepared us for what we would see in situ in the coming days. Recalling the “Treasures of Tutankhamen” exhibit that had toured the U.S. in the 1970s, we marveled at vast rooms filled with the contents of King Tut’s tomb. The touring show had comprised several dozen objects; the museum displayed several thousand.
Tutankhamen was only 18 when he died (or was he murdered?). There had been no time to prepare those great, ornamental burial chambers assigned to more emblematic Pharaohs, all of whose tombs were systematically plundered. Tut’s was hidden, tucked beneath Ramses VI’s resting site. It had been invaded twice before its discovery in 1992, but not pillaged. If this small, cramped tribute to a minor king could yield enough splendor to fill 12 museum galleries, what must the tombs of Amenhotep III, Thutmose III, or Seti I have contained before grave robbers got to them?
The four of us had been friends for a long time and wanted to stay that way. So we agreed that while we’d travel and sightsee together, we’d go our separate ways during “free time.” Our car and driver stood by to drop any or all of us wherever we wished to be–on a street corner, at a museum, or back at the hotel.
We also felt the two weeks in Egypt should be at least partly restful. Our hotels in Luxor and Aswan, where we spent four days each, had swimming pools, and the late-winter sun was warm until about 4 p.m. It was refreshing to return from a hike through the Valley of the Kings, across the river from Luxor, or the Tombs of the Nobles in Aswan and enjoy a cool dip. Usually we napped late in the day, so we’d feel energetic enough to walk to dinner and, afterward, poke into the shops and kiosks.
Aswan’s outdoor bazaar, the souks, proved irresistible. We bargained, because it’s the custom, and we bought, although we hadn’t planned to: rugs and shawls, scarabs, papyrus souvenirs, baskets, earrings, and other trinkets. Our luggage was stuffed and almost unmanageable by the time we were ready to fly home. But it had been so tempting to buy. After all, when would we be in Egypt again?
Luxor, known as Thebes in ancient times, was a one-hour flight from Cairo, and it was here that antiquity truly flowered for us. Here, too, the single flaw in our planned itinerary became apparent. The schedule called for tours of both the Karnak and Luxor temples in one afternoon. Each should have been accorded the better part of a day.
Our guide through the Temple of Karnak gave us a 45-minute survey that didn’t begin to probe the awesome complexity of this 40-acre site. While we were being hustled along, I found myself standing within a majestic colonnade that had taken 200 years and untold numbers of slaves to build. Each column looked like a single sculpted entity, though in reality it was an assemblage of individual shaped stones that had been magnificently incised. The hieroglyphs looked almost fresh, and there were still some traces of the original colors–after 5,000 years. As I looked up, I felt chills again.
Our guides repeatedly made the point that only since the late 19th century had full access to such temples been possible. Before their widespread excavation, the ruins of Karnak and others were but protuberances on the floor of the desert. Often we would see graffiti high up on a wall or monument, a reminder that until relatively recently, most of what we were seeing had been filled nearly to the brim with sand. And excavation continues. It’s possible that if you were to dig deep enough anywhere in Egypt, you would unearth some chunk of history.
Our lodgings in Luxor, the Hotel Etap, were far from plush, but the buffet meals were bountiful. We shamelessly returned to the groaning tables for seconds–before the busloads of German, British, French, and Scandinavian tourists could scoop up the last crumb of delectable pastry.
In Aswan, 110 air miles south of Luxor, we stayed at the resort-like Hotel Oberoi on Elephantine Island, in the middle of the river. It was a short ferry ride from the city proper, which meant that it was also quiet. Because of this, we felt relaxed in Aswan; we could recharge our batteries. Our only imperative was a half-day excursion by air to Abu Simbel, site of the great temples of Ramses II and his queen, Nefertari, who reigned from 1304 to 1237 B.C. In the 1960s these sandstone monuments were cut out of their mountain setting and moved 213 feet up to higher ground so the Nubian Valley could be flooded when the Aswan High Dam was built.
It wasn’t just the temples proper that we toured. We were also invited “backstage” to see how the $40 million miracle of disassembly and reconstruction had been accomplished. It was fascinating, but it dispelled some of my awe of the monuments’ immensity and great age.
Wonderful Egyptian Rock Carvings
After our stay in Aswan, we flew back to Cairo for one final day. Harriet and Asher wanted to stay near the hotel. Nancy wanted one last visit to the Egyptian Museum, and I wanted to see some of the city by myself on foot–the only way, I feel, to really know a place.
Half a block from the hotel’s back door, I found myself caught up in the heady street life, which resembled a continuous bazaar. Pushcarts in which sweet potatoes or meats were roasting stood next to merchants selling scarves and headgear, books and cigarettes. Some streets were lined with open kiosks, others with elegant shops, but each proprietor generally stood at the door, keeping an eye on passing tourists and business people and chatting with other shopkeepers.
I’d been hoping to buy a pair of sandals and found what I wanted at a curbside display. The seller spoke no English, but he was intensely eager to bargain. We negotiated wordlessly, using the currency I held in my hand. He wanted 12 Egyptian pounds; I offered 8. No deal. He came down; I went up. We ended at 10–just under $4–and both of us were satisfied. Then in a cordial parting gesture, he used one hand to show me how to get my feet between the straps so I could put the sandals on.
Whether dodging traffic in the squares or striding down narrow, rutted streets, I never once felt uncomfortable or fearful. People tried out their English on me and giggled when I replied in English, “Good morning.” But a machine-gun-toting sentry guarding a bank was a reminder that tension and violence really do lie close to the surface of life in this teeming capital.
It didn’t take me long to get lost, but I knew that if I kept heading toward the river, I’d eventually reach the hotel. I got back sooner than I’d expected. Nancy returned a few minutes later, reporting that her walk had been interrupted when traffic stopped dead to allow a shepherd to lead his flock across a thoroughfare, presumably to a slaughterhouse.
On our last night in Cairo, the four of us dined early in the hotel so we’d have time to pack at leisure. And we splurged. At least two of us had a glass of wine; three of us had soup–consomme, lentil, and cream of tomato. We also devoured a platter of hot grilled tomatoes before our waiter brought shish kebab for Asher, prime rib for Nancy, and chateaubriand for Harriet and me. Dessert was crepes suzette served from a gleaming cart. The total bill we split was the highest for any meal we’d shared in Egypt: $63.
The next day, after a hair-raising ride to the airport, I settled into my seat for the homeward flight and felt bereft at having to leave. I thought about Cairo, about the comforting sounds of the muezzins’ calls to worship, about the sweet smells of bread baking in pushcart ovens, and I got chills. Again and again.