Egypt: Among the Pharoahs Pt1

And What An Introduction To Egypt It Was

An ocean with scattered lights, a wanderlust of thought. What would be my experience of this ancient mystical land? How would it endeavor to change my perception of Arabic culture? How would it feel to stand before the statue of ancient statues? Thoughts, what are they in essence without experience?

Beneath me, a wave of glittering, sparkling lights swam in the darkness like a blanket created by a swarm of silk worms. A glowing lace, crocheted blanket. And it was mesmerizing. But nothing, and I truly mean nothing compared to the blood-orange moon that stalked the sky, a giant spherical heavenly body that watched over the dauntingly colossal city-scape of Cairo, Egypt’s outstanding capital city.

Egypt is Alexandria

The ancient seaside city was built as an honor to the legendary leader, Alexander the Great of Macedon. While he never got to witness its birth, Alexandria (or ELE-SKAHN-DREE-AHR as the locals pronounce it) is a magical collaboration of Egyptian culture and Mediterranean ├ępice de la vie.

There’s a charm to the metropolis as you navigate the narrow, medieval lanes of bazaars, selling all of the delectable flavors of Middle Eastern cuisine, and experiences of medieval Egypt, while the constant companionship of car horns bellow as a steady stream of commuters race with vigor. This is the Egypt that guidebooks present – a country in a rush to go nowhere in particular.

Alexandria draws visitors from around the world every day to stalk the walls of its ancient library, while most  the library was destroyed years before. Today, the monolith of glass that serenades the skyline offers a purge of literary delights that will light up the eyes of any bibliophile.

While the clay-toned exterior of the university, with its Tudor-style architecture which mimics a French castle more than a supreme icon of education, offers the shear magnitude of architectural diversity on offer in Egypt’s second city.

The seaside sweeps particles of salty water mixed with sewage and garbage from the windswept streets across the harbor side, to which the locals converge each day to admire the pastel canvas of Mediterranean sunsets that hug the horizon.

As the evening draws near, the haunting melody of the neighborhood mosque begins to recite its evening prayer as the faithful line the steps and dutifully remove their shoes before they enter.

Alexandria’s old library is now a shiny new horseshoe-shaped glass tower with a sloping tinted front. While you will need a ticket to enter through a secured entrance. It is possible to get a sense of its vast wealth of knowledge by strolling around the grounds.

Along the waterfront lies extravagant restaurants and cafes. The Fish Market contains some of the freshest produce, and best seating area of the bunch. Relax on their giant sofas as the sun sets and the cool breeze rolls in off the sea. Sample a decadent selection of cuisines. From Egyptian to Indian with Western-influenced meals, you’ll feel a sense of inspiration. Alexandria is by far, Egypt’s most diverse location for sampling variety.

Egypt is Marsa Matrouh

The road between Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh brings the old face of Egypt with its modern one. A series of high- walled communities lines the Mediterranean coastline. Partially completed hotel complexes burst onto the scene as the road becomes a never-ending river of construction sites. While the scenery numbs your sensors, the bus ride adds a certain Middle Eastern mystique to it. The bus comes with dated interior complete with tatty, torn leather seats, and morbid sky blue curtains that barely keep the oppressive desert sun off you. The constant drone of faithful music gives your ear spasms. Without music, with the breath of silence that follows the refrains, there’s a dynastic formula in play.

After a gruelling 4-hour bus journey across the unforgiving desert sands with brief reprieves of oceanic glory, we arrive at our destination. The bus depot as chaotic as any you’ll find across the country. Hordes of taxis and locals caught up in a storm of active passive-aggression. This is Egypt after all, emotion is ingrained into the lives of the people as it is a form of communication in everyday life.

Walking to the hotel, it was clear to see the impact that recent years had had on Egypt. A country that once had streams of modern cars and wealthy established businessmen roam its pristine streets, now it was dust swept streets with cracked and chipped sidewalks, streets with linear cracks seeping through the foundations. This was not the Egypt that civilizations were built on, a nation that in the early twentieth century was a pillar of modern power, this was a nation that had beaten down by its own weight of authority.

While many bypass this city of 140.000, it has become a beacon of reprieve for many local Egyptians seeking to beat the summer heat. And this city is one of the country’s finest hidden treasures.

From its sparkling aquamarine waters, to the chilled nature of the locals. It is one of the few destinations in Egypt without tourism infrastructure and a crop of beady-eyed sellers trying to hustle you out of every penny you have.

The Adriatica Hotel Marsa Matrouh, run by a local family of Coptic Christians (Egypt’s original inhabitants), is one of the highlights of any visit to Marsa. The warmth and unbridled passion for providing authentic local hospitality cannot go astray. While a guest at the hotel, guests were treated to a FREE tour of the Cleopatra Bathhouse and the spectacular cool waters of Ageeba beach, which is easily one of the best hidden treasures in Egypt. As desert rocks give way to a deep ruddy-rock canyon, the canyon parts to welcome you into the bosom of a secluded but spectacular small strip of sand before guiding your eyes out onto a panoramic icy-blue Mediterranean seascape. As enticing as it was, the translucent waters were teeming with aquatic life.

Cleopatra’s Rock is a strip of rocky shoreline complete with the ancient lion’s rock and original bathhouse carved out of rock to which Queen Cleopatra once bathed as the horizon of aquamarine ocean pulled like a warm blanket over the horizon.

Follow the coastal route to the east and you will eventually come to a peaceful lagoon, suburban Marsa with murals of ancient mythical beings and a bridge which leads to the Rommel Museum. During WWII, tunnels were dug to protect the locals, and to fight an invasion of Italian fascists. The museum is a fraction of the size of these tunnels, in-fact it leads to one line of the tunnels with a few antiquities to see. While it lacks artifacts, it gives you a taste of history in the area. However, it is not recommended to pay the tourist fee, which like the rest of Egypt is astronomical.

While Marsa Matrouh is under -developed compared to its much favored Nile or Sinai brethren, it carries all of the characteristics of a truly authentic summer break. It’s relaxing, calm and the community embrace their uniqueness without the hostility and edginess of other regions/cities in Egypt.

Marsa Matrouh embraces its cultural heritage through mystical statues that are located around town at almost every traffic circle/roundabout. The stone structures speak to the relevance of the history of this nation of 100 million.

The local beach is a feature of modern day life blending with ancient traditions. While Islamic Hijab-clad women walk between the gentle sway of the oceanic waves as they lap the pure-silky white sand, nomadic tribesmen bathe their horses among the soothing waters a few hundred meters to the south.

The local populace are friendly, warm and curious. There is a general friendly nature among the people that transcends the horrors you are likely to hear from other parts of Egypt.  If you are seeking an introduction to Egypt without the hassle of hawkers or aggressive sales people, then look no further than Marsa Matrouh before its secret becomes common knowledge.

Egypt is definitely Cairo

The largest city on continental Africa is as chaotic as it is indulgent. It’s rough around the edges, it’s a mega metropolis with the constant buzz of car horns. The traffic is as intrepid as it gets. A traffic light is merely decor on the side of the street as reckless drivers course through the dense veins of streets and roads that layer the city. While the dusty, humid landscape leaves you embracing its Middle Eastern traits.

Freedom Hostel was the perfect base to explore this sprawling city of over 20 million in its infinitival glory. From the lonesome edges of a crawling desert as it edges a city hungry to expand its perimeters, like cobwebs, to the supremely high-rise towers that shoot up like rocky pillars into the atmosphere, there is nothing that Cairo cannot offer its guests.

Famous for its pyramids, and the maze that is the Egyptian Museum, a week could not buy you enough time to explore this city of bridges.

Cairo lies at the precipice of vastly different cultures: the Nomadic Bedouin, Coptic Christians, Arabic, and African influences are clearly visible from all angles, which culminate in a collage of modern Africa.

Modern coffee shops offer a tease of Egypt’s recent Western-influence as wealthy and trendy young Cairene’s sip their frosty latte while discussing the latest bestseller with their friends.

Popular US fast food joints like KFC and McDonald’s litter the neighborhoods alongside Egyptian-style pizza and Kousary outlets. Traditional Islamic families merge with hip young families who have embraced a more liberal approach. There is a vivre de joie about Cairo as small market merchants linger behind modern box stores. Markets are a commonality found throughout the country, and in Cairo exists no exception.

Markets are a broad and tantalizing sight as appliance stores huddle among the spice and produce markets. Everything is available: from clothing to traditional perfumes and artifacts. Bustling and narrow winding lanes that are as old as the city itself straddle Mohamed Farid, including the medieval Khan El Khalili market which houses authentic Egyptian cuisine, traditional articles, and walls that have borne witness to history, and with each a story to tell. Near to the train station lies a plethora of alleyways that swoon crowds of locals each day to purchase house goods and groceries, prices are lower than supermarkets, and the quality is sublime.

Since the latter years of the 19th Century, millions have flocked to Cairo for the rich history of its Pyramids. A marvel of human engineering, it was also one of the greatest metropolises of the ancient world.

While today it is phenomenon that commands every travelers to do list, we wanted to really dig deep into its history, and unfortunately, Giza had other ideas…

Firstly, we booked Kareem, Cairo’s answer to Uber (which is also in use here).  While en-route to our destination, we took a wildly unplanned detour as our communication broke down, and the driver found himself stranded in a suburban quandary.

After navigation via trusty Google, and my good old-fashioned photographic memory, we were able to succeed in our first obstacle. the second would be far-more challenging, and a warning to all about the perils of Egyptian culture.

After arriving at the Giza car park, upon entrance to the outside world I was carried off by an overly engaging local who insisted that he’d take me to the ticket office, and I was less than enthralled by his approach as he swept me up into a horse carriage insisting that I must take his offer to go to the booth and through the park as it was impossible for travelers to go at it alone.

I requested to be let down, and began my ascent after recognizing the danger I may about to become privy to. As soon as I began my descent, the manager was quick to approach, his voice a violent storm of aggression as he shoved me back in the seat. His fingers attached to my shirt, almost preparing to launch guerrilla warfare against a passive tourist.

My response was simple, in the background a policeman sat playing with his phone. Unbeknownst to him, I was being accosted and about to become a victim of an atrocious scam, so I yelled, “Police”, several times. This was enough to calm the aggressive tour guides down, so they’d take me to the real booth.

Eventually, we arrived where the hordes of unsuspecting tourists loomed and I was grateful to deploy an escape plan that would probably save my life.

At the booth, as the tourists swarmed in mass, an entrance far away from my troubles. As the guide specifically stated, I MUST return to him once I got my ticket. Luckily for yours truly, that was not to be the case. So I cautiously joined the mass, and hid between them as I got through the front doors, and began my escape up the pathway to the first awe-inspiring towering pyramid. Unluckily for me, my favorite tour guide was resilient and watching me with the sharpness of an eagle eyeing its prey, was there truly no way to escape this hurricane of unbridled fury? So I followed the rule that had gotten me out of previous hassles, I ignored his cries for my attention as he shrilled like a banshee at the top of his boisterous lungs, crying out my name in Serbian: “Marko”, “Marko, get back in here now”.

Finally, a reprieve… another policeman seated across the street from the pyramid. As determined and fast as my little legs could carry me I marched like a soldier on ecstasy over to the awaiting policeman, my voice catching up with my breath as Captain Storm joined me with his horse and cart, “Sir, this man has been harassing me, he grabbed me by my shirt and won’t leave me alone:, I exclaimed in frustration. Our trusty friend caught onto the phrase, “grabbed me” and from then on began to implode his authority, “You”, as he eyed our annoying nemesis, “Go away, you grabbed him”. And just like that, and a few expressive phrases to follow, our harm was no longer. While horse and cart number two gleefully came up, and approached with the same joyfully expressive tone, “Would you like a horse and cart ride, sir?”. At which point our policeman who was proficient in disparaging our annoyances quickly sent him on his way, and I was left to begin my tour of the pyramids in peace, or with the intention of so.

The 3000 year old pyramids were a mastery of human engineering that took 30 years each to build: Why so long, you ask? Simple, the inclement weather played a huge role in creating the pyramids as the workers could only construct this ancient marvel, one month per year.

While it was possible to pay to go inside the pyramids, what would be the point of experiencing something that required an outward appreciation. The exterior left much appetite to the imagination, broad stone piles lay stacked on top of each other, culminating in a rendezvous with the heavens. Their mysterious presence, all the more enticing as they surveyed the piercing blue skies beyond. While they are smaller than one would think, they still devastate the mind with the wonders of how advanced civilizations were able to fathom such ornaments of intrigue.

Next up, a camel ride into the desert. While this is less than an intrepid experience at Giza, it does come with a wayward omnipresent feeling of being lost on Tatooine as a bizarrely surreal mammal carries you across a sparse, empty desert-scape of sweeping plateaus and soaring triangular stone edifices.

As the discomfort mounted from the swaying back-and-forth of the camel as she goofily plodded through the sun-drenched sands of the white desert, it was clear that as much as one wistfully dreams of riding a camel across a desert landscape complete with a romantic ideology, the truth is the throbbing grind of leather and cotton on your skin was displeasing as well as the constant perils of Egypt’s intense sun. While it was an experience that everyone should at least engage with once, an extended period of time may not be a wise idea, as an hour with my weird friend left me thankful for my feet making landfall. Although admittedly, the funnest part came from mounting and dismounting the camel as she flew forward, and backwards in one swift but lazy leap to the sky.

My guide for the journey was a young man who’s life was already predetermined by his family as a guide for the tourists at Giza. To think that as young as 10-years-old, he had already begun training for this, was to be honest staggering.  He was as calm as the wind that dispersed sand between the hills. His manager, was as knowledgeable and respectful of tourists as they come, here.  As much akin to the land as his forefathers had been, the almighty flow of had dried up over the years and the modern face of Giza was struggling to find its feet again after a raw reality check saw it become entangled in a battle against a conservative few who saw their chance to take advantage of the vulnerability of a nation hungry for tourist dollars in a climate of political instability.

Giza was a morbid reminder of how desperation sank a country to an all-time low, while revealing to us that it cannot go back to its past for answers, but to learn from those that were caught up in similar situations.

While Cairo was entrusted with many treasures, it was the National Museum that housed some of its most memorable. A purge of history-defining ornaments and artifacts lay on display overseeing several floors that span a large rectangular fortress of archaeological dreams. On display is everything that encompasses the nation’s earlier civilizations. It’s powerful to walk through, experiencing historical relics that solidify power and the human condition of the time. A reminder to who we are in the present, and that in years to come, what will be said about us in the early twenty-first century?

The national Museum is home to ancient hieroglyphic portraits, mummies and supreme art. It travels through history in a whirlpool, mind-bending and crushing your thirst for knowledge. The experience cannot be felt in one day, or maybe two, but perhaps even three if time were applicable.

While Cairo speaks to a rich tapestry of culture, it’s also home to a steady stream of vendors and steadfast entrepreneurs who are there to make a quick buck from you, and nothing else.  If you spend enough time here, you’ll learn the game and you’ll play it as well as they can, but you can also become a victim of its nefarious intentions. After all, this is their world, one where a momentary lapse in judgement can leave you with a raw deal and a bitter ego left to air its grievances.

The beauty of Cairo is that no day, is ever the same as the last. From its ancient bazaars, to the breathtaking views from the spear-shaped Cairo Tower that sweeps in devastatingly charming views of the Nile River to the desert that cradles the suburban hinterlands, Africa’s largest metropolitan territory has it all.

Egypt is Unforgettable Dahab

In recent years, the Sinai has gotten a bad rap as the source of heated tensions between a marginalised population fed by an insatiable extremism that has left to an assault on Egypt’s tourism hotspots. The journey from Cairo to Dahab passes through some of the most inhospitable territory in the country, and security forces are out in-force to ensure your safety is paramount.

From the moment you reach the the Suez Canal to the outer reaches of the Russian-favored holiday resort, Sharm El Shiek, you will be met by a continual barrage of road stops, that include showing your passport, stepping out of the bus, and revealing the contents of your luggage. Then step back on the bus, move onto the next stop 15-30 minutes down the road, repeat. If you are taking the overnight, you will not sleep, and after 10 plus hours of this rigmarole, you’ll be more than a little edgy.

What lies at the end of this harrowing journey can only be described as staring into a mirror with a halcyon fairytale peering back at you. From the crimson shores of the Saudi Peninsula, to the rustic mountains that charm the coastline to the north, Dahab dazzles in its role as a secluded, postcard getaway.

The mountains that caress the bosom of this enchanting village speak of an ancient heritage that spurs the imagination as you revel in your comprehension of the shear ancientness of this world. Pastel rocks straddle the alluvial plains that once housed sweet waters of galant rivers that spun out their liquid nectar into the oceans.

Where rocks dance with the desert, history opens its books and reveals its uncharted chapters. Where sparse foliage teases for any signs of nutritious substances, once forests once roamed here. This chapter is unparallel to any modern day fable. This raw realness, is as richly enticing as it gets.

Dabah is two paths going in different directions, a smaller and more secure hub houses a dizzying array of fast food and ethnic restaurants. From Asian fare to the usual European appetizers, you will discover that Dahab offers a plethora of choice.

The other path is an unforgettable journey into what once was a popular hotspot. As you stroll along the brick and sand trail, you collide with a ghost town that once had hope. A chapter that bore the brunt of terrorism’s inpalpable force.

As half-constructed ruins meander the coastline south. A luxurious swimming pool, now houses a tangled whirlpool of leaves and debris. Stone paths house a memory of gardens that would have rivalled Eden. Sadness ladens the dream that Dahab had.

Enormous projects are left to collect dust along the beach, fear has become a contracted partner in a dream that never really got off the ground.

Inevitably, the money dried up as though it were desert. German and Russian luxury resorts have become empty lots that merge with the starkly beautiful landscapes that sweet the foreground.

Dahab is chill, the ambiance while tethered with its recent troubles, has sprung into a fresh new beat where locals mix gingerly with the tourist crowd.  Insatiable is the appetite to reignite the hordes which once came to partake in the abundance of aqua-activities on offer, that Dahabites are doing their best to woo crowds back with cheap activities, and even more accommodation options.

Restaurants cater to the Western-influenced tourist market. Russian Cyrillic and Italian are a mainstay, while French and Chinese are of equal value to the masses. A lithe of accents and languages echo across the landscape as the community of travelers take up daily activities from diving to ATV tours into the desert. The opaque sand mountains of archaic rocky peaks serenade the backdrop of the town.

A walk through downtown reveals the heartbeat of the community, traditional cafes filled with fresh-pressed coffee aromas and the sweet smells of shisha pipes as men separate business and pleasures.  A layer of languages (Russian, Spanish, English, German) dance across the skies like bedazzling jewels – there is a sensibility of peace roaming around these streets.

On my last evening, a storm rolled in between the hinterlands of the distant Saudi peninsula and the romanticized Sinai. Clouds turned to a fierce fiery flaming red, as the subtle coolness of the air merged with the breath of warmth coming off the desert peaks that encompassed the town. It was as if winter wanted to take one last peak at Egypt before she lay her head down to hibernate for the summer.

The locals bathe in the pristine waters of a sandy peninsula bank where they snorkel for fish, and bathe as the sun beats down on their skin like African bongo drums. At times the midday sun can feel like an agonizing eternity, but at others you can be reminded that climate change is all too prevalent amongst us.

Egypt Presents Sharm El Shiek

While Dahab was dipping its toes in the waters of commercial tourism, Sharm El Shiek was already there. A town that felt more like a Disney commercial greeted me as I entered into the pedestrian center where I was presented with a fierce array of Americana, merged with the monotone sounds and glum faces of Russian tourists.

Sharm El Shiek is what the Sinai once was, a glorious strip mall of booming resorts catering to a large Russian community, and a suave of American burger joints where liquor flowed freely and money was king. Those days are gone, the modern face of Sharm El Shiek paints one of domestication where suburbs bloom like spring flowers out of the parched Sinai desert. A fancy new road straddles the desert as it makes its way to the ever-expanding International Airport.

Sharm El Shiek offers the discerning tourist an opportunity to explore Egypt’s greatest resource – its oceans. With a plethora of options from snorkeling to diving amongst the ocean’s most beautiful tropical marine fauna at a third of the rates of many tourist spots.

Sharm El Shiek has ridden a storm of late due to a litany of terror attacks, and while it is not bustling as it once was, the situation is safe for now as the security barriers scrutinize every vehicle that passes through the fortification of roadside blocks and armed military personnel.

To be honest, this was the least interesting town I visited in Egypt as it offered very little in the way of whetting my curious appetite. And by the end of my short 3 day stay, I was ready to explore the vast expanse of the Egyptian main territory once more, but first I had to tackle the mess that was the airport.

While my taxi driver, Yusuf dropped me off at the gate to find my way to the terminal, the recent refurbishments meant that my late arrival could have ended in travesty. Luckily, after some negotiations and one of my favourite Egyptian pastimes, scamming the tourist for money because in Egypt NOTHING is for free, I finally made it to the terminal. With just a few minutes before departure, and very chilled security officials that felt it necessary to scrutinize every finite detail of your luggage, I witnessed the long stretch of ocean and flat tarmac that would begin the ascent to my next adventure in Hurghada.