JEWEL ON THE NILE
Ellen Creager discovers an Egypt that is both incredibly fascinating and ridiculously well-policed
GIZA PLATEAU, Egypt – Inside the Great Pyramid, Egyptologist Samid Abdalin climbed swiftly toward the king’s tomb. Right behind him, I excitedly followed the low, narrow tunnel up the steep incline, toward the pink granite room where delicious ancient secrets hid.
And right behind me? A panting bodyguard from the tourist police.
Since 1997, when extremists killed 58 Swiss and Japanese tourists in Luxor, Egypt has gone overboard to keep travelers safe. No tourist has been harmed in seven years. Egypt is the most tourist-safety-conscious country in the world.
Although it’s rare for them to follow tourists inside a pyramid, the tourist police do come in handy. They can help you cross the street in Cairo, an exuberant city of nearly 10 million without a single crosswalk or traffic light. They will push to the front of the line at the Egyptian Museum, where their friends wave them – and you – through. My first day in Cairo, one officer in suit and tie hurried after me in front of the Helnan Shepheard Hotel as I strolled toward the sunny Nile.
‘Do you need to come with me?’ I asked. He nodded. So we walked – me with my digital camera, him with his automatic weapon. When I ate, he smoked. When I went to a museum, he waited outside.
The moral of the story: If you desire to see Egypt’s treasures, don’t let fear stop you.
On the other hand, unless you speak Arabic or plan to stay for weeks, Egypt is best seen for the first time on a package tour or with a knowledgeable guide and driver.
Why? In Egypt, it’s all about whom you know. A guide with connections can smooth the way through the melee of traffic, chaotic lines, ticket windows and airport bureaucracy. A good guide who is also an Egyptologist can tell you what the hieroglyphics mean and point out what’s new or amazing among the 235,000 objects in the Egyptian Museum (The Niagara Falls Mummy! Tutankhamen’s underwear!). A guide can point you to restaurants that won’t upset your stomach, find scrupulous drivers, and give tips on haggling in the market.
Most of all, they can help you see highlights in the short time you have.
But the best things are those your guide might show you by accident. A sudden shower in Cairo sent us scurrying into a shop near the famous Khan Al-Khalili bazaar and up the stairs, where guide Wahid Moustafa Gad asked for a dessert called umm ‘ali, ‘Mother of Ali’. It arrived, steaming bread pudding with cream, raisins, coconut, pistachios and butter – hot, delicious. “Shukran – thank you,” I said, then tasted it. Eyes wide, I smiled. “Ah, shukran.”
In Egypt, visitors are jolted by how much the present and past are jumbled together. Cell phones and camels. Satellite television and rug makers.
Just outside metropolitan Cairo are villages of mud huts, rich fields plowed by oxen, and donkeys carting loads of sugar cane and fruit. In Saqqara, carpet schools teach boys such as 13-year-old Samir Ead a trade. In a big, airy room he sat hunched over a silk rug, his fingers flying and tying a pattern of threads. It takes him seven months to make a 5-by-7-foot rug that sells for thousands of dollars at the shop upstairs. How long has he been at the school? ‘Five years’, he said.
Amid the grandeur of the Medinet Habu temples in Luxor, 450 miles south of Cairo, Egyptologist Ahmed Ali Temerik pointed out one thing that wasn’t so ancient: Egyptian TV actor Hamdi, out for a holiday and surrounded by fans. At the Ramsis Coffee Shop nearby, he introduced Rede Jaher, a watercolor painter who is a fixture there.
Back in the modern part of Luxor, the tourist police had curiously disappeared and I walked the street on my own. Women hurried past carrying packages on their heads. Foreign couples from cruise ships strolled arm in arm. On street corners, groups of regular police in green wool uniforms and carrying assault rifles laughed and talked. Along the river, vendors begged tourists to buy their wares, take their carriage rides or sail the Nile in their boats. (When I
ignored one pushy vendor and strode away, he actually shouted, ‘You look like European, but you walk like Egyptian!’)
Here are some more things to know: Upper Egypt, where Luxor is, is south of Lower Egypt, where Cairo is. Nobody queues except tourists. Tipping is expected everywhere for everything, but prices are incredibly low; five Egyptian pounds are worth $1. At the Mercure Hotel in Luxor, I gave a $10 tip to an excellent waiter one night and he ran after me protesting that it was too much.
In addition to having a guide and driver, I had another connection in Egypt. I saw Zahi Hawass, director of Egypt’s department of antiquities speak recently, and invited he me to visit the recently closed Nefertari’s Tomb in Luxor’s Valley of the Queens.
I thought I was special until I got to the fragile tomb and found 25 other tourists inside, all exhaling artwork-damaging breath like me.
Who were all these people?
‘Zahi has a lot of friends’, the guide explained.
Egypt has big plans to improve the tourist experience. A new museum is planned near the Giza pyramids to contain the breathtaking Tutankhamen treasures. Also on the drawing board is a new museum in Cairo that will showcase the history of Egypt. The Coptic Museum, detailing the history of Christians in this largely Muslim nation, is scheduled to reopen soon.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian resort town Sharm al-Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula’s Red Sea has become a hot destination for European vacationers and divers. It’s only a one-hour flight from Luxor.
On my trip, I flew from Cairo to Luxor, Luxor to Sharm
al-Sheikh, then was driven – with the tourist police as escort – up the Sinai Peninsula, past the stark Mt. Sinai, where the Bible says Moses received the Ten Commandments.
At Nuweiba, a small port on the Gulf of Aqaba, men sat watching an American TV movie on a tiny set in an outdoor cafe. They drank strong mint tea while goats wandered the streets. They stared at me; who could blame them, with so few foreign tourists around? I tied a scarf over my head. At a tiny restaurant, a boy grilled shish kebab on open coals and I ate it gladly, sharing morsels with a stray calico cat under the table.
In Egypt, everyone uses the Arabic word ‘inshallah’. It means ‘God willing’, as in ‘Inshallah, I will cross the street safely’, or ‘Inshallah, the sun will shine’. Before I came to the Middle East, my travel agent, Ihab Zaki, said the best way to navigate the region was ‘gracefully and gratefully’.
As I left Nuweiba on the speedy ferry headed for Aqaba, Jordan, I kept thinking that perhaps more tourists, inshallah, would
pluck up their courage and follow their dreams to see Egypt in just that way.