I couldn’t say why, but Egypt never really topped my bucket list. Of course, like anyone, I thought of someday seeing the pyramids in a very abstract way. But when my best friend, and North Africa specialist, Lauren Keith, was sent there to update the new Fodor’s guide to Egypt, I knew I had a window that wouldn’t come around again. So, I booked tickets and hopped on a British Airways flight to Cairo.
Chaotic, dusty, magnificent, overwhelming in good and bad ways. Astonishingly old yet so terrifically young. Still reeling from a near-halt in tourism from the pandemic, yet seeming to clatter on as it has for millennia.
Because this was, in no uncertain terms, not a work trip for me, I took the chance to just absorb. I didn’t take notes or try to come up with an angle. I didn’t worry about what I would say about Egypt. Frankly, I barely thought about my packing list. I just went.
My first two days were completely solo. I arrived late, having booked a room at a small, locally-run hotel in Giza overlooking the Pyramids. I was met at Cairo airport by a driver who worked with the hotel who held up a sign amidst an absolute gaggle of touts and drivers outside the terminal and then led me about 2km across the airport, through various dusty car parks and past a vast highway to what felt like the last possible parking space available.
“Ramadan starts this week, so the airport is very busy,” he told me. “Everyone is coming home to spend this month with their families.”
Arriving at 1am, I threw open the blackout curtains in the small, tiled-floor room and stepped onto the balcony. There were the Pyramids, looking like some trick of CG, standing tall – ghostly triangular outlines against a black desert sky, lit by the sickly orange glow of Cairo’s light pollution.
I booked a way-too-expensive tour of the Pyramids the next day and got paired up with a young American guy who said he was in college in Florida and just came to Egypt to see the Pyramids. We were driven around all day with a guide who led us through Memphis – the ancient capital of Lower Egypt – where the Pyramid of Djoser stands in tiered stone as it has since 2670 BC. If memory serves, it is the oldest stone structure in Egypt – older than the more famous pointy pyramids at Giza a few miles away.
There is a giant statue of Ramses II carved in limestone that lies on its back in an open-air museum so unassuming we used the toilets next to it first without even realising what it was.
All day we drove, weaving along back roads in the desert, alongside palm-lined irrigation canals leading off the Nile, which stayed some distance away, always tantalisingly close but somehow never visible.
Around 8 o’clock that evening, covered in a layer of pyramid dust, I boarded the Watania Sleeper, a night train that runs the length of Egypt up the Nile Valley, from Cairo south to Luxor. I had a sleeper berth to myself which I cosied into after a very long wait on a crowded, narrow platform at Giza Station. I slept like the dead as the train creaked slowly across Egypt and rose with the sun and stood in the corridor outside my berth, facing east, feeling the sunrise somehow more ancient here as it cast a prehistoric orange over farmers’ paths that weaved between sugarcane fields.
Lauren met me at Luxor Station and trundled me into what can only be described as the single most ancient functioning taxi in existence. I took a picture of it because it was by far the most atmospheric mode of transport I sat in in all of Egypt, including the wonderful night train.
The days that followed were a blur of glittering, painted tombs in the twin Valleys of the Kings and Queens, all filled with hieroglyphs and the pantheon of ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses: the crocodile-headed god Sobek; lionness Sekhmet, goddess of war; and of course, Anubis, the jackal god of the underworld with his pointy ears and snout.
The place that most impressed upon me was the 13th century BC Ramesseum, a memorial temple to Pharaoh Ramses II. We were the only visitors and walked around with our guide, who explained what some of the wall reliefs and paintings meant, and then we literally had the temple to ourselves.
It was really hot (about 32C at 10am) and hazy from local farmers burning their sugar cane fields, but otherwise perfectly quiet. It’s not the most bombastic set of Egyptian paintings or tombs I got to see, but it was probably the most special experience I had.
The poet Shelley wrote Ozymandias about this temple, a sneering mock at Ramses laying defeated in the desert. In the lines below, he was referring to the giant statue of Ramses, which fell down during an earthquake in the 7th century. You can see the remains in the picture above, lying askew on the ground at the end of the columns. I have to say, I disagree with Shelley wholeheartedly:
“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
One of the most special experiences in Luxor was meeting Ehab Gaddis, visiting the historic Gaddis & Co. Bookshop founded in 1907, and staying at their family-run hotel. Amazingly, my old friend and artist Nicole Watson connected me to the Gaddis family, who are her brother Kris’s in-laws. They looked after us and we had dinner with Ehab at the hotel one evening and he regaled us with tales of how the hotel, which opened in the 1990s, had seen all of Egypt’s major contemporary events. Ehab was named an honourary British Consul to Luxor and, during the Arab Spring, sheltered many expats and foreigners in the hotel. Like most people in Egypt, their family is quite dependent on tourism and international visitors, and the hotel has certainly suffered through Covid although like a vintage car, Ehab and his staff keep the engine working with lots of love.
I left Luxor at dawn on the first day of Ramadan. The streets were silent and the sun rose pink over the city’s ancient temple as I made my way to the airport with the windows down, catching a last whiff of a fresh Nile breeze.
I didn’t plan to write much about Egypt, but it left a big impression on me. As with Tibet, I suspect I will need months to fully digest it all. If ever.