As we leave the confines of our hotel, a wizened old man approaches us. He smiles, sort of, showing off his four remaining, tarnished teeth. “You need taxi?” he asks.
We do, so he leads us to his cab, crossing a four-lane highway by simply holding up his hand and walking out into the stream of cars, like Moses parting the Red Sea.
As he pulls out into the minefield that is Cairo traffic, in his rickety old taxi, there is a cacophony of beeping. A sound that follows us for our whole journey, as driver’s warn each other that they are about to overtake or undertake. How they know who’s doing what on this seven-lane, three-lane free-for-all-way I’ll never know.
After a short conversation on his mobile, our friendly driver turns to us and explains that we are going to meet his son, who is also a “taxi man” but he has “a nicer car”, which he feels will be better for us. I cynically think he doesn’t want to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic for more than an hour, for the ‘short’ trip into town.
“Look Dad, there’s Tutankhamun,” says my seven-year-old son, as he points at a large sticker of the boy king on the back of a minibus. This was a soundtrack that would accompany our whole trip around Egypt. The image of the most famous of the pharaohs adorns a lot of vehicles… and buildings. Indeed, anything that it is possible to stick a picture of him on.
Having been learning about Ancient Egypt at school, my son is on a quest to see all things King Tut. And where better to start than the Egyptian Museum?
The museum houses a wondrous collection of ancient artefacts, from the smallest trinket to huge stone statues to the mummified remains of pharaohs. But the only thing on my son’s mind is seeing Tutankhamun’s death mask.
We head straight for the King Tut rooms, up a grand spiral staircase. A cache of jewels greets us at the top. Gold statues of the man himself, his gold bed, his gold chariot… in fact, you name it, he had it, and a pound to a gold nugget it was made of gold.
But the boy isn’t over-enamoured by all this outpouring of wealth, he’s on a mission.
Separated off, from the rest of the Tut collection, behind extra panes of security glass, in a room where photos are strictly forbidden unless you are a Hollywood film star (Will Smith was posting selfies from there a month earlier), sits the blue and gold representation of Tutankhamun’s face and nemes (headdresss) – his death mask.
It is truly a work of art and is worth the entry fee alone. My son is transfixed.
Behind the mask are the three nested coffins – the inner one solid gold, obviously – that housed the young pharaoh in his tomb.
“Let’s leave now,” says the boy.
“Don’t you want to see the mummies?” I ask.
“Absolutely stinking sure,” he says.
He’s seen the mask. Part one of his quest accomplished.
A Giza with an ’orse
Late afternoon we head to the Pyramids, planning to walk around them as the sun sets – the optimum time of day to see them, our 18-year-old guide book informs us. This may be so, but the complex closes at 4pm.
A persistent horse-and-carriage man has pursued us for the duration of our walk to the entrance and now he is poised, ready to strike. He offers to take us around to the other side, where we can get an unobstructed view of the pyramids and watch the sun set without having to pay the entrance fee – or with “entrance fee included” as he puts it. We agree a price and climb aboard.
We trot through the winding streets of the shanty-like town that has built up at the foot of these architectural phenomenons, avoiding people, tuk-tuks, other horses and camels (just) – an equestrian version of the nightmarish city centre traffic.
As we exit the town, we plod up a steep sand track, coming to rest atop a dune. We alight and take in the thrilling view of the three giant pyramids – Khufu (or the Great Pyramid), Khafre and Menkaure – an impressive 147m, 143m and 66m high, respectively, when built; they have shrunk a few metres (in old age) since their white limestone outer casings eroded. Only Khafre retains any evidence of this protective layer, on its tip, giving it the appearance of a snow-capped mountain.
To the left stand three smaller formations – the Pyramids of the Queens – a further three of these diminutive rock piles lurk away to the right.
Behind us stretches the desert, an expanse of rolling dunes. This is the traditional home of our guide Omar’s people – the Bedouin. He tells us how he learnt to look fear in the face growing up in the desert – mainly in the form of the cobra when it was a case of “kill or be killed” – unlike the “weak-bellied children” that city life spawns.
The sunset is like no other I have seen – a slowly building fire of orange get steadily deeper and deeper in colour until the sky turns a brilliant red.
Before darkness envelops us, we gallop back down the hill, pulling to a halt outside a cafe. We dive in, race up the stairs to the roof terrace and look out over the Sphinx.
It may be crumbling – due to ill-fated restoration attempts – and tiny compared to its backdrop, the mighty Khafre, but it is still a very special moment.
The next morning, we return to the pyramids, this time to see them on foot. After wading through the souvenir sellers, we walk right up to the Great Pyramid. It’s like we are ants standing next to a termite mound; the huge lumps of stone towering up into the sky. We climb up as far as the entrance into the tomb and sit for a while, taking in the chaos of tourists, tat sellers and horse/camel men below, looking out over the haze of Cairo and taking in the sheer majesty of where we are.
In the evening we set off for Giza railway station, bound for Aswan on the overnight train. As we are early, our Cairo fixer Abdo invites us to his favourite restaurant – “The best kushari restaurant in Egypt”, proclaims the sign outside – to enjoy a bowl of said kushari. Made of rice, macaroni and lentils mixed together, topped with a spiced tomato sauce and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions, it is a taste sensation. If that wasn’t the best kushari in Egypt then I’d sure love to taste the one that is. The sight of some tourists tucking into a piled-high bowl with abandon causes much amusement among a group of young Egyptian ladies at our neighbouring table; their furtive glances and shy giggles proving equally comical to us.
Thankfully we board the train with stomachs well and truly full because the fare dished up on board is, to say the least, not quite up to standard.
As we pull into Aswan the increase in temperature is instantly noticeable, beads of sweat quickly gather on my forehead. A room overlooking a large pool beside the River Nile is a welcome sight.
Suitably rested, we set off the next morning for the Temples of Philae. Accessible by boat only, the five temples were built on an island in the Nile during the Greco-Roman era (the Greeks destroying the Egyptian temples and rebuilding them in their own style on the same site around 370 BC). These temples have since been moved from their original location. Cut into several thousand pieces they were transported to higher ground on a neighbouring island to preserve them from flooding when the Aswan Dam was built.
The largest of the five is dedicated to the goddess Isis, but her husband Osiris and son Horus also get a look in.
There’s hieroglyphics and carvings of pharaohs and gods on every available surface of the structure. Wandering in the cool, dark insides, we find the sanctuary room, complete with altar where offerings were made to the gods.
“The three highest forms of income in those days were: one, agriculture; two, trade; and three, offerings of gold and silver to the gods,” our guide Ahmed tells us. “When everyone had gone,” he adds, mischievously, “the king took all [the money].”
Further on is a temple known as the ‘Bedroom of Osiris’ because of its resemblance to a four-poster bed. There are birds nesting at the top of the temple’s columns and I ask Ahmed what type they are. “I don’t know,” he replies. “But we eat them.”
We travel back via the infamous Aswan Dam, a structure that holds immense pride for the Egyptians. But its construction was not without controversy. As I gaze out over the 5250sq km expanse that is Lake Nasser, I contemplate the hundreds of Nubian temples that were lost to the onrush of water. Sure, some were relocated before the flood, but many lie lost forever.
On the way back to Aswan, we stop off for a look at the unfinished obelisk of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. The long granite column – famous because it would have been the largest such structure erected – cracked while being carved out of the bedrock and remains flaccid in the ground, as the name suggests, unfinished.
We spend the evening sitting by the Nile, sipping cold Egyptian Stella, watching the sunset; feluccas sail up and down the river, silhouetted against the golden sky. Perfect.
Keep it Simbel
A three-hour drive along the long black tar river that pierces the endless flat stony sand that is the ‘White Desert’ necessitates an early start. At a roadside cafe stop, a huge mirage appears in front of us. Further along, pyramid-shaped mounds of sandstone line our route.
The plentiful, easy-to-cut sandstone found here being the reason Ramses II, who reigned from 1279-1213 BC, selected this area to build a plethora of temples.
As we approach Abu Simbel, we pass through a Nubian town. The Nubian hail from Sudan and, consequently, have a swarthier look than the typical Egyptian. They build their one-storey homes in a dome shape, the raised ceiling helping to keep the house cool.
“You must stay here,” says Ahmed, “and we find a Nubian wife for your son… and an Egyptian wife for you.”
The fact that the two rock temples of Abu Simbel remain in such excellent condition owes a lot to the abilities of some skilled engineers. Once again this was a historical site in the firing line with the building of the Aswan Dam. Cut into 5000 pieces, each weighing around 10 tonnes, the temples were moved and painstakingly rebuilt exactly as was, 200m further back and 65m higher up – a feat that took the best part of five years. Mind you, the skills of the Ancient Egyptians who built them in the first place is beyond comprehension.
We walk down a steep slope and peer over the cliff edge into the water below where the temples once proudly stood. We turn around and the temples open up to us, drawing us in. They are, to coin a cliché, awe-inspiring.
The larger of the two temples was built for Ramses II, himself – his ego showing no bounds: four mammoth statues in his own image guard the entrance. The smaller one to the right is a shrine to his favourite wife, Nefertari.
The beautifully preserved carvings on the interior walls tell the story of the egomaniacal pharaoh’s life and his self-proclaimed elevation to the status of a deity.
Towards the end of his life, Ramses II declared himself a god, giving him the right to have his own statue in the sanctity of the inner sanctuary – a right that is only reserved for gods, and a place where mere mortals were not allowed to set foot.
Here, Ramses II sits alongside three other gods: Ra-Harakhty, Amun and Ptah.
The temple entrance is aligned so that twice a year (on 22 February and 22 October – the dates thought to correspond to Ramses birthday and coronation) the sunlight illuminates the statues in the sanctuary, except for Ptah, who remains cast in shadow because of his association with the underworld.
To the side of the sanctuary is a carving of Ramses II making an offering to his god-like self.
While the temple was still being ‘decorated’ Ramses II died, Ahmed tells us. The workers immediately downed tools, declaring the god-king a phoney. Gods, of course, are immortal; Ramses clearly was not.
The results of the workers walk out can be seen in a side room, where one wall remains completely bare and the end of another has been completed as a drawing rather than a carving.
To be continued…
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