It is an early plane that takes me into Cairo, Egypt, Land of the Pharaohs. As we circle the landing strip, the view out my window is all dusty browns, as far as the eye can see. Cairo is a dirty, polluted city, and my sinuses seize up as soon as we get in. Known as Umm al-Dounia, or Mother of the World, there are 23 million Cairenes who live, work, play and dream in this tightly packed, traffic choked city of old crumbling Renaissance buildings, dirty dusty 1930s apartment blocks and elegant Moorish facades. Five times a day the call of the azan rings out from the many slender spires of mosques that dot Cairo’s winding streets. The city is a chaotic contradiction of old and new, ancient and modern.
The first night we take a bus tour of Cairo and Ahmed, our tour guide, brings us to a local fateer place. Egypt in many ways remind me of an older Malaysia. The shop is dirty, lit by neon bulbs, the chairs cracking plastic, the tables a cheap linoleum. There is little sign of the artificial sanitation of the Western world. The fateer, an unleavened kind of bread filled with a choice of mushroom, cheese, meat or vegetables, is delicious.
Our first real day in Cairo is spent exploring the noisy halls of the Egyptian Museum. It is a marketplace, filled to bursting with tour groups and their shouting guides (walkie talkies should be mandatory!), Egyptology students sitting in corners sketching one or two of the many ancient Egyptian treasures. The artefacts are beautiful, rich, varied. The museum is a hum of humanity, a waterfall of noise, heat and humidity. No photos are allowed in the Museum, but suffice to say that Tut’s treasures are really all that they are hyped up to be. Tutankahamun was a relatively unimportant pharaoh, a boy king who ruled for just nine years. What would the treasure trove of great pharaohs like Seti I and Ramses II have been like? The imagination staggers, fails, to envisage it.
Tut’s death mask is undoubtedly the highlight of the entire collection, all 14 kilograms of it, resplendent in lapis lazuli and pure gold. There are also the four gold gilded wooden sarcophagi, nestled one in the other like giant babushka dolls. It was in the innermost sarcophagus that Tutankhamen’s solid gold coffin was found, and inside, the boy king himself. there are other treasures in the Egyptian Museum – scarab beetles carved from all sorts of material, burial beds, canopic jars with the heads of the gods carved as stoppers. Awesome statuary line the lower halls of the Museum, Pharaohs in red granite, black granite and sphinxes in limestone, engraved with royal cartouches.
We head to the Giza Plateau for the Pyramids and the Sphinx. The Great Pyramid, owned by Cheops, is so big and breathtaking that up close, its sheer mass and height render it almost one-dimensional. Yan and I clamber up a few steps up on the great stones. Bereft of their limestone covering save the cap that survives on the Second Pyramid, the Giza Pyramids would been wondrous in their day, glittering a brilliant white in the desert heat. We clamber into the musty depths of the Second Pyramid, pay our respects to the Sphinx, carved out of one giant piece of limestone and depicting Khafren, owner of the Second Pyramid. Napolean knocked off his nose when he came a-conquering, to prove to the locals that the Sphinx was not, as believed, a god.
The Pyramids render me speechless. Their size confounds the imagination – to think that mere humanity erected such a monument to the gods and to their king, still standing after 5,000 years, is a humbling reminder of the greatness that belief and willpower can attain. Contrary to popular opinion, the pyramids were not erected by slaves; they were built by the fellaheen, the farmers of Ancient Egypt. During the Inundation, when the Nile flooded its banks, they flocked to the West Bank of the Nile and were paid by the pharaoh in food for their labour. Pharaohs started their pyramids early, as soon as they ascended the throne. More than just a tomb, their pyramids were to give them shelter for the rest of their eternal life, and it was imperative that they completed it before their death in this world.
Bound for Aswan that night, we cosy down in our 5 star, Egyptian style, sleeper train. We have: flat beds big enough (for us) to stretch out in, our own sink, lockable doors and access to (relatively) clean toilets. The train lurches, jerks and jolts through the night. I wake up early enough to see sunrise and watch as platforms whiz by. We pass fields of sugarcane, donkeys carrying produce and people, the slender spires of minarets,; we pass turbaned, wizened old men and running, laughing children. Aswan is the southernmost town of Egypt and extremely Nubian in character. The town is laidback, with a wide, modernised bazaar. The heat, in the afternoon, is unbearable and the dust chokes us. We seek refuge in a cafe and order Cokes for the sugar rush and to cool us both down.
Our next wake up call is at 2am for Abu Simbel the next morning. Travelling in military convoy, we watch a desert sunrise and the long, dark grey ribbon of tarmac unravel through an ochre desert. The two temples at Abu Simbel is a wonder of architecture, both ancient and modern. Carved out from a mountain side on the orders of Ramses II, this is a temple to the sun and on two days each year, the rising sun reaches far into the holy of holies to touch the gold gilt and painted statues of 3 out of 4 seated gods – Ra-Horakhty, Amun Ra, and Ramses himself. The fourth statue, Ptah, sits always in darkness as the god is associated with the underworld. The entire temple (as well as Nefertari’s temple next door) was relocated upwards away from Lake Nasser when the High Dam was built, cost a cool USD$40m and relied on an international cast of thousands of engineers and archaeologists.