Misr – An Egyptian Sojourn

We just returned from a short trip to Egypt – a week in a wonderful land, discovering its ancient and modern faces, an experience of a lifetime. A single account can hardly justify the trip – so here we present a few impressions.

The Most Astonishing Sight in Giza

No, not the Pyramids nor the Sphinx! In the shadow of the only remaining wonder of the ancient world, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, stands the museum of the Solar Barque. Within this is housed a wonder that totally took away the focus from the pyramids and the Sphinx – the boat of Khufu. 143 feet long and weighing 40 tonnes, this cedar-wood boat is as old as the Great Pyramid itself. It was discovered disassembled, and took 12 years to put together – a painstakingly marvelous feat that is completely overshadowed by the fact that here is a 4600-year old wooden boat, in pristine condition!

The Most Persistent Presence in Egypt

It is not for nothing that Egypt is called the Gift of the Nile. Everywhere you go, the Nile is present. She is beautiful – a teeming-with-life blue that makes you want to cry – and bountiful – everything Egypt, ancient and modern, stems from the flood plains of the Nile. For a traveller, she is a reassuring presence – you are always on the East Bank or the West Bank – with the Nile in sight, you are never lost. When you are tired and want to wind down after a hard day’s sightseeing, she is the perfect background for a long languorous meal and a sheesha. If you want to just relax and take it easy, she is there for a peaceful felucca ride (demands for baksheesh from the boatmen permitting!). And of course, if you drink of her, you will keep coming back!
Free PJ: What do you call a young Egyptian river? A JuveNile

The Superstar of Egypt – for more than 30 Centuries

‘Larger than life’ doesn’t even begin to describe that colossus of a Pharaoh – Ramses II. A consummate warrior, statesman, city-founder and builder, he ruled Egypt for 66 years, and lived to be more than 90. The man (or God, if you are ancient Egyptian!) himself certainly had a healthy self-image – he depicted himself in a whole lot of massive statues in the many temples he built. The most massive of them all are the 20-meter high ones at Abu Simbel, said to have been built to frighten the Nubians. Ramses’s presence still dominates the Egyptian psyche – you find almost everything named Ramses. From the main train station in Cairo to tiny restaurants, from fancy t-shirts to cheap toothbrushes – everything is called Ramses. And of course, when a shopkeeper or tout wants to attract your attention, he will definitely call you Ramses!

The Most Refreshing Thing about Travelling in Egypt
The amazing hotels you come back to every evening. Having entertained travelers for more than a few centuries, the Egyptians definitely know how to take care of you. We stayed in budget hotels everywhere, aided no doubt by reviews we read online. Every hotel we stayed in was good value for money, clean, and had all the amenities a traveller would need.

The pick of the lot was Philae Hotel at Aswan. We’d booked online, read very good reviews from a whole lot of repeat stayers, and turned up tired and dusty from a long day’s drive and seeing the sights. The room that greeted us was spacious, clean and full of atmosphere, with a balcony that had an amazing view of the Nile. The staff was extremely helpful – late in the night, they were able to arrange for an Abu Simbel trip starting at 3 A.M. the next day! It was all rounded off beautifully when we met the owner, Hanan, as we were checking out. She was very friendly and helpful, and we got talking, and she dropped us off at the train station in her car! You know where we are staying when we go back to Aswan!

The other hotels we stayed in were also good value for money and very clean and comfortable:
Saint Joseph Hotel in Luxor – great Nile views, a brilliant rooftop restaurant, very good, non-pushy staff
Hotel President at Cairo – awesome location, efficient staff

The Most Unexpected Place we found Comfort in
We had an expectation of comfort when we boarded the sleeping train from Aswan to Cairo. But we had no idea it would be exceeded so much. We were in a private ‘room’ by ourselves. The beds were broad and comfortable – mattress, bed sheet, blanket, bedcover – a fully made bed appeared magically from the wall! This, along with the airline-style dinner and breakfast, made the 14-hour journey very comfortable and non-troublesome. Much as I am a fan of Indian Railways, this was definitely the best train ride I’ve ever had – totally worth the $60 each we paid.

The 108-year-old place we spent a whole day in

At 108 years old, the Egyptian Museum is a mere infant compared to the Pharaonic attractions. Yet, it was the one place to which we devoted an entire day. Even though we spent a whole day here, we managed to see only the highlights. We visited the Egyptian Museum after we’d been to all the Pharaonic sites, and this put all the exhibits in perspective. The magic moment for me was when we saw Ramses II in the Royal Mummy room – goosebumps arose when we finally came face to face with the Pharaoh of Pharaohs.

The Cheapest Place to see a Mummy in Egypt
Seeing the mummies, however goosebumpy it may be, is an expensive affair. Getting into the Egyptian Museum is 80 EGP (1 EGP is 8 INR, 5.5 EGP is 1 USD), and entry to the Royal Mummy room is a further 100 EGP. The other place you can see a mummy is Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of Kings. Here too, entry to the Valley costs 80 EGP and entry to Tutankhamen’s tomb another 100 EGP. A little-known jewel of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities is the Imhotep Museum at Saqqara. A 60EGP ticket buys you entrance to both the Step Pyramid and the Imhotep Museum. While the museum itself is modern and well-preserved, its real treasure is an unidentified mummy in a glass case at the end of one of the exhibition rooms. The well-decorated sarcophagus is also displayed nearby. This is the cheapest place to see a mummy in Egypt.

If you’re in Hyderabad, of course, the Andhra Pradesh State Museum has a real Egyptian mummy – entry should not be more than 10 INR!

The Oriental Bazaar of Your Dreams
From childhood, we’ve been fed images of how an Oriental bazaar should look and sound. The Khan el Khalili in Cairo is an Oriental super bazaar. Hundreds of tiny shops filled with thousands of sellers and buyers, not to mention tourists, every product in sight is ‘exotic’ – spices, strange and familiar musical instruments, row upon row upon row of Pharaonic memorabilia in all sizes and shapes, sheeshas, perfume bottles, jewelry in Pharaonic designs… The Khan takes every Oriental bazaar image you had in your mind, amplifies it a hundred times, augments it with more sights, smells and sounds, peppers it with vendors who are persistent, but who also understand a firm no and presents you with an Oriental bazaar adventure that is perhaps unparalleled anywhere in the world. We came away with a Pharaoh-themed sheesha for just 55EGP!

The Most Striking Thing about Egyptian Food
Is how vegetarian-friendly it is. Many of their basics – hamam (a roti-like bread) eaten with a vegetable gravy (very reminiscent of our kurma) and koshary (a dish with lightly spiced rice, vermicelli and a smaller version of macaroni, topped off with fried onions to be eaten mixed with a spiced tomato puree, and a lemon piece to squeeze optional) – are vegetarian. The long years of handling millions of tourists has also made Egyptians very familiar with what vegetarian means. Of course, like any tourist place, there is no dearth of places selling Continental food, which always have a few fully vegetarian options. The freshness of their vegetable salads had even me, a confirmed carnivore, hooked! We were adventurous and also sampled the Egyptian desserts wherever we could – some tastes are slightly familiar, some are totally new and wonderful to discover. We tried Umm Ali, rice pudding, Khanafa, Mahlabbaiya, and Basboosa.

The Most Amazing Thing about Travelling in Egypt
Is how easy everything is! With a bit of planning and research, everything is possible on every budget! Venture a bit outside the touristy areas, and you see how welcoming and friendly the average Egyptian is.

The Flip Side
No journey is without a few low moments, and neither was ours. As with travelling anywhere, we did exercise reasonable caution in our dealings with everyone. Just once, we got saddled with a bad taxi driver in Cairo, who refused to give us change and argued instead. We called over a tourist policeman, who helped sort things out, but it was not a pleasant experience. What brought the episode to an end was me taking a picture of his license plate and telling him I’d report him. The train ride from Cairo to Luxor was pretty painful – the driver kept accelerating and braking suddenly and this was uncomfortable. After we fell asleep though, it was okay. The hawkers at Giza were the most tenacious, but the tourist police kept them at bay. These were the only low points though, and were more than compensated for by the wonderful experience we had with the Egyptians.

The Egyptian experience was indeed all we had expected it to be and much much more. Travelling in an ancient civilization and finding that its modern manifestation was as interesting gave us a lot of perspective. Coming as we do from a land where ancient is not really very unusual, we were humbled by the giant Pharaonic monuments – every one of which was older than the oldest anything we’d seen before. Perhaps Vidya’s words best sum up what we feel – “Everyone should visit Egypt at least once in their lifetimes.” Please do – we’ll be glad to help!

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