Ancient Egypt is the world’s greatest tourist attraction. Everyone wants to visit the pyramids of Giza, the valley of Kings and Abu Simbel. But is it worth it? Bay’s Nick Smith went on a quest to find out.
It’s virtually guaranteed that by the time you’ve finished reading or watching Death on the Nile, you’ll be champing at the bit to make the myriad tumbling ruins of Ancient Egypt your next adventure. By the time you’ve sat through any of the countless documentaries on the great archaeological excavations in the Valley of the Kings, you’ll be convinced that missing out on Ancient Egypt would be a mistake of epic proportions. If you’ve ever been to one of those fashionable non-stop global touring exhibitions of the treasures of the pharaohs and seen for yourself the gold and lapis lazuli mask of Tutankhamun (that will almost certainly have been a replica), you’ll have been bitten by the bug for all things Egyptian, and you’ll make a mental note that your next pool-side read will be The Book of the Dead. There’s something about the wonders of Ancient Egypt that’s irresistible.
Talking of non-stop global touring, I’ve been to modern Egypt to see what’s left of Ancient Egypt exactly the same number of times as I’ve attended a Rolling Stones concert. Three. And while it’s not immediately obvious why, the experiences have much in common. Apart from the low-hanging fruit of the obvious ‘age gag’, which I will try to avoid as gracefully as I can, there is the more subtle issue of the entire enterprise being something you feel obliged to do. You feel finessed into going by the relentless ‘wisdom of crowds’, and it is an experience that can leave you wondering why you bothered. It’s swarming with people, randomly noisy, an over-commercialised cliché, hideously expensive and, in terms of the product it delivers, completely underwhelming. And that’s just the Rolling Stones.
Beneath that all-consuming fear of missing out, there is another, deeper urge: and that is the strange and compulsive pull of a past civilisation that today seems so exotic and exciting. The names are enough, and everyone knows them: Tutankhamun, Hatshepsut, Ramses. Everyone is familiar with what for most of us are the undecipherable hieroglyphics. We’re hypnotised by the legends and curses of mummies and the dark thrill of the silver screen movies depicting industrial-scale slave labour that expended decades of back-breaking grind on building timeless mausoleums to all-powerful pharaohs. It is the Egypt of Lord Bryon’s Ozymandias, king of kings: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Then there are the pyramids.
There’s a 12th century Arab proverb that says: “Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.” These days we use it, if we use it at all, to mean that while pretty much everything is fleeting vanity, there are notable except-ions. When you think about their size and solidity, the nigh-on impossibility of their construction, their central role in the playbook of bygone eras… all these factors mean that the pyramids are today as important as they ever have been. If the object of the exercise was for the great kings and queens of the past to be remembered, then mission accomplished, although how much of them we really remember, apart from their vast memorials, is debatable. And yet, we instinctively know that, as a place of the imagination, Ancient Egypt is magical. It follows that at some point in our lives we will all dutifully troop off there, reading about dynasties and empires, long dead monarchs and generals, in search of the pyramids. You’ll find them just outside Cairo on a vast plane at the fringes of the Western Desert encircled by thousands of tour buses. Of all the ancient ‘wonders’, the pyramids are the only ones still standing, defiant and oblivious, silently thumbing their noses at time.
I started my most recent trip to Ancient Egypt the way most must, with an evening flight to Cairo followed by a taxi ride in the dark through the City of the Dead to my hotel somewhere on the outskirts of the city. I hadn’t booked an early morning call and so I was surprised to hear the phone ring in what seemed like the middle of the night. I was further surprised to hear the words: “This is Tamar, your guide. Go and open the curtains. I’ll be with you in five minutes.” I complied with Tamar’s request, and by the time I’d adjusted to the fact that I was staring straight at one of the three great pyramids, he’d bounded into my room, wearing a crisp white linen suit, carrying with him a glass of something red and bitter to drink that he informed me was hibiscus juice. “See, you are already living like a pharaoh,” he said. The former Egyptian Olympic swimmer (as I later found out) went on to itemise our itinerary for the following few days with the sort of grin that meant that he either really liked his job or was also a former actor. Minutes later, we were careering along in the early dawn, hell-bent on getting a closer look, “before the crowds arrive. It gets crazy there,” he added with an air of hard-won wisdom.
After half an hour of wandering around Giza’s necropolis complex, fending off hawkers, costermongers and confidence tricksters, we’d had enough, not only of the hassle but the heat. It’s easy to forget that Egypt is in Africa and it’s uncomfortably hot. Then it occurs to you that close-up these enormous – and it has to be said, they are mind-bogglingly huge – polyhedrons start to lose their impact on your imagination. For the truth is, to appreciate their size, they need to be seen from a distance. They are almost impossible to photograph because there are hordes of people everywhere. It’s like a human termite mound. There are signs saying ‘Do not climb on the pyramids’: but after a while, the 2.3 million blocks of stone that make up the Great Pyramid itself seem to be covered with a similar number of people.
My plan had always been to make my way slowly south along the Nile upstream from Cairo to Aswan, where we’d drop anchor at the mighty temples of Abu Simbel, the ‘Gates of Africa’. But, at the time Egypt was in political turmoil and on red alert. There had been terror attacks all over the place,
tourists had been shot at in the Valley of the Kings, while many of the roads south were closed off by the militia. So, we re-calibrated the plan, drove to the airport, and hopped on a Cessna light aircraft for the short flight to Luxor, where we would visit the Valley of the Kings (“I don’t think anyone will shoot us there today”), the Temple of Karnak, the Valley of the Queens, the Temple of Hatshepsut, all the while resisting the temptation to check out what was becoming the most popular attraction of all: the new McDonald’s fast food emporium that was, according to one of the most bizarre signs I’ve ever seen, ‘Lovin’ it – behind the Temple of Luxor.’ After hours of scarabs and obelisks, scorpions and ram-headed sphinxes, we found ourselves airborne again, only this time in a hot air balloon. As we floated over the Western Desert, we could see the Nile snaking away to the horizon, flanked by its ribbon of emerald green irrigated banks. Far beyond the oases that surround Luxor, etched into a mountainside, the magnificent Temple of Hatshepsut.
Next stop Aswan where, after clambering over yet more ruins and photographing yet more statuary, I suddenly came down with a particularly virulent attack of ‘pharaoh fatigue’. It’s a common enough condition brought about, Tamar told me, by westerners trying to take in too much detail about the Ancient Egyptian experience too quickly: a form of cultural indigestion, if you like. The best cure for it, ventured my guide, was a sunset cruise in a felucca – a traditional wooden sailing boat much like a dhow – with a gin and tonic to steady the nerves. And so we sailed peacefully along a short stretch of the longest river in the world, taking photos of fishermen in their dugouts before mooring at Elephantine Island on the Tropic of Cancer. This was where Tamar showed me a Roman ‘nilometer’ – a man-made water channel resembling a stone staircase, that was used for measuring the depth of the river. The ninety steps are marked with inscriptions dating back to the 17th Dynasty and have been used as an indicator of agricultural water supply until as recently as the 19th century.
Arriving back on the mainland we were greeted by the fact that the security tensions that had caused Egypt to become nervous on behalf of its visitors had now risen to a full-blown state of agitation. Tamar had received a fax at his hotel explaining that it simply wasn’t possible to go any further south by road or river because there were armed rebels that, tired of shooting just tourists, had graduated to shooting anyone trying to get to the Sudan border, a mere 25 miles south of our destination Abu Simbel. After a few frantic phone calls we managed to establish that there was no objection to our flying south, and so we scrambled together tickets for the largely empty shuttle flight from Aswan via Egypt Air, during which the jittery cabin crew behaved as though we were going to be blown out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile at any moment. Tamar reassured me that this was unlikely: “This is what Egypt is like. There’s always a big drama about something. You get used to it”
We wandered around the deserted ruins of the Great Temple of Ramesses II and the Small Temple of Hathor and Nefertari in the baking heat of the African sun, gazing in awe at the stunning rock reliefs of Abu Simbel. And for a moment I really felt that I was finally alone and able to drink in the spirit of Ancient Egypt, at one with those kings and queens that had ruled the known world for century after century, crushing their enemies and wallowing in their wealth. But I was to discover that the entire Nubian monuments complex (as well as the nearby Trajan’s Kiosk) had been relocated lock, stock and barrel in the 1960s to make way for the Aswan High Dam, built to supply modern Egypt with hydroelectricity that was to power the country’s economic renaissance and industrial infrastructure. Not for the first time I thought that Ancient Egypt is far better imagined than experienced. And so Tamar and I reluctantly headed back for the airport, pointed north, and started our journey back to Cairo, where our whistle-stop journey had begun.