Where Pharaohs once ruled the land
At the northern-most tip of this great continent is a country so different from Zimbabwe it’s hard to believe that you’re still in Africa: Egypt, a land of stunning desert landscapes, ancient legends, fantastic beaches, and a broad diversity of culture and religion.
Egypt’s capital, Cairo, is supposedly Africa’s oldest and largest city, a mind-boggling labyrinth of buildings, history, religion and noise. Landing in the dusty, smoggy metropolis, which has become home to 20 million people, is a real culture shock, especially after the lush green landscape of Zimbabwe’s rainy season. From the air the city stretches into the distance until the desert appears to swallow it up in great swathes of sand and rock.
Cairo’s hectic day-to-day existence makes Harare seem a positive haven of tranquillity. Its roads, initially designed for eight lanes of traffic now squeeze in 12. Car pollution hangs like a pall over the city. The air downtown smells like hot bricks and inhaling it is alleged to be equivalent to smoking 30 cigarettes a day. Only two thirds of the 20 million inhabitants have running water and only one third have sewers. Appallingly, three million people are reputed to live in two of the capital’s main cemeteries. So densely populated is the city that the amount of green space per person is equivalent in size to a matchbox.
Cairo may have its down side, but it is still a remarkable city. Downtown, cars and donkey carts compete for space on the ridiculously narrow streets. Bakers sell an array of breads and pastries from huge boards precariously balanced on their heads. Tea stalls and flower shops are squeezed in amongst churches and mosques. There is a mouthwatering selection of street food to satisfy the diversity of cultures and everywhere you look is something worth watching. One could easily spend weeks here discovering the little idiosyncrasies of the city. But tourists don’t really visit Cairo to see the city. They come to see an amazing chapter in history, laid down 5,000 years ago by a race of people whose engineering skills and art was way ahead of its time.
These ancient civilisations came to live on the banks of Africa’s longest river, the Nile. Over 240 generations of Egyptians have farmed the Nile‘s fertile banks, but the lush strip of productive land is just that, a strip. A mere kilometre away from the river the countryside deteriorates into sand and rock with summer temperatures reaching unbearable levels. Not a blade of grass lives in this inhospitable environment, rumoured by the ancient Egyptians to be ruled by the God ‘Seth’, ‘bringer of storms and catastrophes’.
Zimbabwe history compared to that of Egypt is decidedly short. The complexity of Egypt’s ancient civilisations and myths is so intricately woven and obscure that great patience and time is needed to understand their writings. I decided to buy a book on ‘Gods and Myths‘ hoping it would help in overcoming my confusion. Ironically the book only added to it.
Pharaohs from the ‘Old Kingdom‘ built vast tombs and temples along the banks of the Nile. As time moved on different peoples settled in the area including Persians, Greeks, Romans and Muslims, Each culture built amongst the previous ones, turning the area surrounding the Nile into what is now the world’s biggest open-air museum.
This museum is epitomised at Giza, home to the great pyramids. These early Pharanoiac tombs have baffled historians for centuries but are now believed to be for the Pharaoh’s ‘Ka’ or double, and here I’ll stop as that confusing mythology thing takes over again. There are 80 pyramids in 70km of desert but those at Giza are the most famous. They are also the only remaining ancient ‘Seven Wonders of the World‘.
Standing at the base of Cheops, Giza’s largest pyramid, is a humbling experience. It has crumbled and been vandalised over time, but initially stood 140m high and is 230m wide at its base. It’s estimated to weigh six million tons. Approximately 2.3 million blocks of stone, weighing from two and a half 15, tons, were manoeuvred into place over a staggering 20 years to form what is undoubtedly the most photographed monument the world, let alone Egypt.
What many people don’t realise about the pyramids is that they are just 11km from the city centre and literally on the edge of town. Cairo has expanded to fill the space provided and the space ran out here. The local inhabitants however have done very well out of the constant tourist trade. You can hire a donkey or a camel and ride out to the pyramids with self-proclaimed guides vowing that they are ‘the best‘. There are tea stalls, curio shops, coke stands, restaurants and hundreds of taxis all touting for business. It’s not done in the polite style that we are aeustomed to here either. ‘No’ does not appear to be a word recognised by these touts, whatever language you happen to say it in.
But there is more to Egypt than the pyramids. South of Cairo along the Nile are a number of smaller towns with equally fascinating antiquities of which Luxor has to be the most famous. Here is where the 4,000 year-old town of Thebes was situated. The ‘Valley of the Kings‘ on the west bank attracts thousands of tourists every year. Many spend little more than a couple of hours here zooming in and out of some of the 62 excavated tombs, but to do the place justice you need the best part of a week. This is where the famous child king Tutankhanum, was buried next to a vast array of wealthier rulers. There are tombs of nobles and queens, a workers village and temples to Ramses the 3rd and Queen Hapshepshut. On the eastern bank is the main town with its markets, banks, mosques, MacDonalds and smart hotels. Squashed between the mayhem are the phenomenal Karnak and Luxor temples.
Tourism contributes 85 percent to the Luxor economy and there is something here for everyone. Horse drawn carriages ply people around town dodging between taxis and luxury coaches. Feluccas, a traditional wooden sail-boat, take tourists out on scenic trips up the Nile, as do enormous luxury cruise boats. Up-market restaurants cater for wealthy tourists but the food bought from the street vendors is often better, tastier and far more authentic.
Further south you’ll pass through Esna and Edfu until you reach Aswan, Egypt’s southern most city and the spot where the Nile was dammed in 1967. Above the Aswan dam is the awe-inspiring Abu Simbel, or ‘Sun Temple‘. Before the lake started to form the temple was moved out of the path of the flood waters. It took two years and cost a phenomenal US$40million to move it to higher ground. Even though it was completed in 1968 the Egyptian authorities are still paying off the UNESCO loan.
Apart from the historical buildings, awesome desert scenery and fascinating mix of people Egypt also boasts 1,250 km of coastline. Small fishing villages, monasteries and miles and miles of sand are the coast’s main inhabitants. Hurghada, roughly in the middle between the Sudanese border and the top of the Red Sea, has grown from a small fishing village’ into a vast tourist mecca. Five star hotels line the coastline. Holidaymakers from Europe come out on package deals to dive, ﬁsh, and bask in the sun.
The diversity of food was also amazing, but then I am a bit of a gastronomic fanatic. Basic, fresh and extremely tasty, the Egyptian diet is very healthy. Unlike Zimbabwean sadza, bread is the Egyptian staple. They call it ‘aish’ which also means life, but we would call it ‘pitta’ bread. It comes stuffed with Fuul, a local bean dish, mixed with tomatoes, lemon and onion, or with falafels, (basically deep-fried fuul), or with meat, spicy pickles and salad. They also have Shwarma kebabs made from succulent strips of marinated lamb, Koftas, sesame seed paste, and my favourite, Babaghanoush, which is made from baked aubergine, mixed with sesame paste, lemon juice, garlic and coriander. Sweet pastries and lots of honey are also a big favourite and are sold from street stalls all through Egypt.
There are quite a few things that are different about travelling in Egypt when compared to Zimbabwe. It’s a predominantly Muslim country for a start and outside the main towns it is rather male-dominated. Females need to‘ wear long-sleeved. shirts and loose-fitting clothes otherwise they may ‘find themselves getting much more attention than they would like. The tea-rooms are deﬁnitely male territories as is the tradition of smoking the large, intricately decorated water pipes. During the fasting month of Ramadan, Muslims do not allow food or liquid to pass their lips during daylight hours. Smoking is also prohibited, as is sex, so tensions tend to run high towards the end of the month.
Egypt is a beautiful and historical country, with friendly people and fantastic cultures. It has stood the test of time and ﬂourished despite religious and tribal differences. And above all, it is the dawning place of a civilisation which to this day continues to mystify and fascinate us.