EGYPT – WHERE IT ALL BEGINS ( PART 2)

……Stay at Giza allowed us to spy on the Great Pyramid in its beguiling kaleidoscopic formats throughout the day. We were mesmerized watching it beholden to the dawn sky as the sunrays crept in; we saw it when the sun protectively lingered overhead, as also when the pyramid hid the falling sun behind its shadowed visage. We saw it gaudily lit up by flashes of a light&sound show, and then late at night when the languorous stars were draping it in their eternity as if to protect it from marauding howls of street dogs.  No, we still didn’t have enough of it.

After Giza, we took an overnight train from Cairo to Aswan. This night train caters exclusively to tourists. They are somewhat akin to our 2-AC with double-bunk only coupes. The train starts from Cairo at 8 PM and scheduled arrival at Aswan is 8ish in the morning. It arrived Aswan however at 11 AM. No complaints though, because we got more daylight hours watching the countryside. And of course, riding a train running late makes you feel so much at home -) Aswan is a terminal station at the railway’s southern end. Apart from its own array of monuments and temples, Aswan also serves as a gateway to Abu Simbel, located some 290 km down south, close to Sudan borders.

Spent a few days in Aswan which included a day trip to Abu Simbel. Then retraced our route north to Luxor by road (private cab almost six hours drive including the visit to a few landmarks en-route). Luxor is claimed, rightly so, to be the greatest open-air museum on earth and one of the most visited places in Egypt.

From Luxor, we transferred eastwards to Hurghada, a beach town on the Red Sea coast. It was again a six to seven hours drive in a private cab. Thereon, having partaken overdose of the sea, sun and sand we travelled north, back to Cairo along a road which hugs the Red Sea for the most part (a bus drive of almost six hours with a single pit-stop). This time, gave us a few more days of stay in Cairo proper (the famous Tahrir Square). This also included a day-trip to Alexandria.

Cairo   

Cairo (Al-Kahira), the capital city is one of the largest metropolises in Africa as well as the Middle East/ Arabic Duniya. Cairo’s etymology is pretty unique in the sense that Cairo is also known as ‘Masr’. ‘Masr’ at the same time refers to Egypt. So Cairo is ‘Masr’ and ‘Masr’ is Egypt.

“Cairo is Egypt’s own metaphor for itself. Everywhere in the country except the city itself, Cairo is Egypt. They are both spoken of by the same name, Masr, a name that is appropriate as well as ancient, a derivative of a root that means ‘to settle’ or ‘to civilize’.” Amitav Ghosh – In an antique land.

That is an indicator of Cairo’s pre-eminence in Egyptian chronicles! The city, comprising of Sakkara, Memphis and Giza – places which were cradles of the great civilisation has also been home to ancient Jewish, Christian (Coptics dating back to the very beginning of Christianity) and of course, Arabic religion and culture. Other attractions include the Egyptian museum, Khan-el-Khalili market (centuries old souk), series of grand old mosques and the Cairo Citadel, Coptic areas and of course various cruises on the Nile.

Luxor

Luxor means the ‘city of palaces’. Some say that the word ‘Luxury’ has its origin in the name of this city. Luxor has also been hailed as ‘the largest open museum in the world’. This city, situated 650 km south of Cairo was another seat of power in Pharaonic times. It was called Thebes during the middle kingdom (2050 – 1710 BC). The place is famous for Luxor temple, Karnak temple, series of tombs like Kings Valley, Queens valley and so on.  Talking about Luxor I am tempted to mention Ozymandias – the vain king whose attempt to tryst with eternity was immortalized in the poem of PB Shelly.

Aswan

Aswan is located further south (850 km from Cairo and 200 km from Luxor). Apart from being host to majestic local monuments, Aswan is also the gateway to the surreal Ramsis temples of Abu Simbel. The Nile at Aswan is supposedly in its most pristine forms. Aswan tourist sites include Philae island temple, High Dam, Obelisk, Tomb of nobles etc. Abu Simbel is located 265 km south of Aswan, almost at the border of Sudan. Temples there can be covered in a day trip by private taxi or shared tourist buses.

Hurghada

Hurghada is a beach destination straddling the entrance of Red Sea. Though not as famous as its cousin Sharm-el-sheikh, Hurghada has gained clientele thanks to its proximity/connectivity to mainland touristy spots like Luxor, Aswan and even Cairo. Red Sea beaches of Egypt draw substantial tourism from Europe thanks to an abundance of sun and warm water conditions.

Alexandria

It was a day trip to Alexandria from Cairo.

Ancient port destination and the second largest city of Egypt, Alexandria was selected as capital of his empire by Alexander the Great (356 BC – 323 BC). Over a period of time, the city became associated with famous names in history like Ptolemy, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony etc. Alexandria is home to ‘Bibliotheca Alexandrina’ (Library of Alexandria). The library was conceived by Alexander the Great aimed to contain all the knowledge of the world. It was founded by one of his chief generals, Ptolemy-I in 288 BC. The library was witness to regular plunders and destructions. The current avatar is of a very recent origin and worth a visit. Additionally, the city teems with many other landmarks created across the ages.

EGYPT – MAKE IT HAPPEN

Egypt has been a fabulous experience. We have unanimously decided to make a return trip ASAP. Egypt is eminently do-able (rather, a must-do) in terms of airfare/ cost of stay and of course indelible memories. The people here are extremely friendly; read any review out there and you will know. One of the important driving forces of their economy has been tourism. During the past few years, tourism was adversely hit due to the (then) rising fundamentalist, anti-touristic propagations. The good news, however, is that the revival has been set into motion and tourism industry is already busy welcoming new guests in.  

Bollywood – Bollywood is the integral part of Egyptians consciousness, not unlike other countries especially in Asia/Middle East. ‘Hey Indian, are you Indian? ok, – Shaharookh, Sailmaan, Aimitebh…..’ that is how the vendors accost you. This is a repetitive, monotonic but almost always a hilarious experience. During the ride from Luxor to Hurghada, in the middle of a lonely desert, our pit stop was a non-descript dhaba offering Shai/coffee and souvenirs. The owner of that dhaba takes the cake – soon as we arrived he expressed his unending love for Bollywood with a narration of about 25 stars; starting with the usual Shahrukh, Salman, Amitabh going to Dharmendra, Lalita Pawar, Bindooo, Jitendra, Dileep Kumar and …and … and.

Expenses/ Visa – The currency is Egyptian Pound (EGP) and 1 EGP equals some 3.75 INR.  The cost of living is almost comparable to our price. It also depends on where you are buying your stuff from. Places frequented by tourists are obviously marked up. Generally, hotel/ stay, transportation & food prices are a tad lower than what we have here. A cup of basic tea (Shai, as it is called there and is as much part of the cultural eco-system as is our chai) can vary from 3 EGP in local joints to 10 EGP at touristic areas to 20 EGP at dhabas located in distant desert lands.  Visa is required prior to leaving for Egypt. The process of getting a Visa is pretty efficient. Sent my rep to the consulate in Mumbai with relevant documents and the passport was ready for collection after three days. Flight tickets (return) can vary from 23000/- to 28000/- INR. If you time it well, it could be even better!!!

Food –  If one was to assume (like we did before departure), that food there is all about big (bada) non-veg, well, one would largely be wrong.  The food in Egypt mainly comprises of ploughed stuff like chickpeas, rice, lentils, veggies such as brinjal, carrot, aaloo/ pyaj/ tamatar etc. Sample this – the most famous (national, talking patriotically) dishes of Egypt are, Koshiary (lentils, chickpeas, rice or macaroni – not much different from our chana chaat), molokhia (jute leaf soup, something similar to Bengali ‘Paat saag’ preparation), Moshakka (a mouthwatering preparation of brinjal with heavy dose of tomato and other recognizable spices), Baba Ganoush and tahini (sauce made from white portion of brinjal added with varying taste enhancing ingredients), dolma (stuffed veggies) and so on. And their staple item is the very own roti – Aish merahrah / Aish Baladi, prepared in community/commercial joints.

OK, so does that mean the food there is all about veggies? Of course not. Let us go further down the Egyptian eat lane ☺

One of the most famous and must-try dishes out there is Stuffed Pigeon (Hamam Mahshi).  This is a very traditional Egyptian offering. And no worry, the pigeon being cooked are not the ones flying across the web of wires in Purani Dilli type scenarios. They have a well-established system wherein pigeons intended for cooking are reared in sanitized environs. The pigeon is stuffed with half cooked, dry fruit laden rice and placed in a tandoor for slow cooking (there is fried version as well). Talk about its taste? Ask no question; after all, this recipe has been in vogue for more than 3000 years. Another memorable non-veg stuff we had was camel meat. Remember though that these speciality dishes may not be available in all restaurants so hunt accordingly.

Bargaining – When in Egypt, don’t hesitate to bargain, bargain and then do it a bit more. Bargaining is part of the culture and one is not expected to not indulge in this art. Alongside, they also have a pretty strong culture of ‘bakhsheesh’ and you as a tourist are expected to dole them out pretty much everywhere. But it is more of an expectation rather than a mean to gains through coercion.

Egypt is there everywhere – The thing about Egypt planning is that there is a huge glut of articles/tourists reports/videos/podcasts / scholarly discourses about Egypt on the internet. It sure is one of the most widely covered/discussed destinations in the tourism and academic world. So go ahead and explore this fantastic story in your own time and terms. Egypt, after all, is just there a hop across the sea via the peninsula.  

If inclined so, one is welcome to read up Amitav Ghosh ‘In an antique land’, among others. If you were keen to further steep in golden dust of romantic Egyptian anticipation, I would recommend two movies (widely available on youtube with English subtitles – and no, I am not talking Hollywood). Both of them feature Adel Imam, a venerated Egyptian actor. By the way, Egypt has a strong cultural presence in the neighbouring Arabic world because of their prolific cinemas, which are lapped up by other countries which either don’t have or have limited cinema productions of their own, for various reasons. The two movies are ‘Yakubian Building’ (a drama about an ageing individual coming to terms with the changing society) and ‘Terrorism & Kebab’ (a black comedy about the usual struggle of a middle-class family man).

I am tempted to post links to the trailer of Yakubian Building; ‘La vie en rose’, a famous Frech rendition included among many others movies/shows, in this movie.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DL7Q3Unflw4     (trailer)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNC6ztJTUoE&list=PL6KM48cOBBkI6aU-K0LajyuoH73jfjeP9  (La vie en rose with English subtitles)

And of course, I will be happy to share any amplifying info about the trip through the comments column.

Travel, explore, enjoy!!!

4 Comments

  • Patrick Jones says:

    Great trip across the cradle of civilisation! It would’ve been mesmerising to breeze through history spanning multiple millennia. Wish the marauders left Alexander’s library alone for later generations.

    • Auro says:

      Hi Patrick,

      That’s an interesting point you made.

      Plundering the founts of knowledge on the ‘other’ side of fence has been a hallmark of human behaviour ever since guess humans came into being. A typical ingroup vs outgroup phenomenon, psychologists would say.

      Even today when technology has hefted knowledge to individual’s fingertips, we have created another way of disruption. Fake news ? So guess freeway to knowledge will always be under attack, for varying reasons.

      Thankfully, we travellers seek simple thrills of exploring through our chashma of ignorance and continue to be enthralled by all that there is -)

      Thanks for appreciating the post,

      Auro.

  • What makes me read this post? A) It’s about Egypt. B)It is from Auro! And both are compelling enough to read from start till end!
    Egypt, the word itself thrills me a lot since it reminds me of those history classes in school where everything was shown on charts and everything else was left to our inquisitiveness to explore from other sources. From then till now, it has always amused me. Yes, this post did the same magic !
    Thank you Auro!

  • Auro says:

    Hi Archana,

    Gratitude for such kind words coming directly from ‘the team’ -)

    True, Egypt has been a part of consciousness from the very beginning (those b&w sketches from history books, frequently encountered stories about Pyramids/Mummies/Pharaohs/ Nile etc etc). It’s always been about a distant past, our collective distant past which keeps popping in and out of the awareness all the time.

    Thankful once again for your nice words.

    Auro.

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