I’ve found Peru, India and the other far-flung destinations that my wife and I were fortunate enough to visit in our younger days. I’ve also found most if not all of the long-distance walks in the British Isles that we have done; but I can’t find Egypt! The notebook for Egypt seems to have disappeared. I’ve turned the house upside down to no avail: Egypt is lost.
I was prompted to look for the notebook after watching another brilliant documentary series about ancient Egypt given by Dr. Joanne Fletcher of the university of York. With her shock of reddish hair, her black outfits and her wonderfully affecting Yorkshire accent, Dr. Fletcher brings enthusiasm and a deep knowledge of Egyptian history to her delivery. As soon as her most recent series ended, I began the fruitless search for my notebook.
The other reason for looking for the notebook is that it is 20 years, almost to the month, that my wife A and friends P and B – the same group that undertook the Twelve Trains journey (see previous blogs here and here) – went to Egypt with Thomas Cook. I can hardly believe that two decades have passed since that eye-opening trip to the country’s many temples and ancient monuments. It is a trip that, apparently, fewer and fewer travellers are taking today. In preparation for this blog, I went into a travel agent and asked about travel to the Middle East. The member of staff leant towards me, her voice dropping to a whisper: “No-one wants to go to these countries at the moment; you know … Muslim places.” She leant back, her voice returning to normal: “Destinations such as Spain will be on the up and up now.”
It is very sad that Egypt has all but lost its tourist trade. The country used to depend fairly heavily on revenue from tourism. The corniche at Luxor and at other destinations on the Nile usually hosted several boats moored alongside one another when we were there in 1996. If our boat was on the outside, this meant that we would have to walk across several boats – rather like walking through several hotel lobbies – until we reached the corniche itself. I doubt very much that there are many boats plying their trade up and down the Nile these days or lined up at Luxor. I haven’t got any figures to prove it but, by all accounts, tourism is significantly down in Egypt and, therefore, on the Nile.
In the absence of the notebook I was thrilled to find the itinerary. Perhaps readers might be interested to hear about the highlights of a typical trip to Egypt as they were organised 20 years ago.
The room of our hotel in Cairo overlooked the vast Tahir Square, the location that would bear witness to transformative scenes of revolution and counter-revolution many years later. I remember a very scary taxi ride back to our hotel, which involved our driver negotiating his way across the square. The noise of dozens of vehicles blasting their horns and the chaotic lane ‘system’ left my legs wobbling when we were safely deposited in the lobby of our hotel. That hair-raising taxi ride was made even more alarming by our driver spending most of the short journey from the restaurant turning to talk to us in the back seat while he was supposed to be driving. I also remember, at one point, seeing another taxi at right angles in front of ours while our driver continued to gesticulate and talk wildly. I simply shut my eyes and hoped that we’d make it to the other side of Tahir.
Our second day was a visit to the Pyramids and Sphinx of Giza. This came early in our trip because we would not be returning to London from Cairo, Therefore it was to be expected that a visit to Giza would be early in the itinerary. Despite the obvious familiarity of the image of the pyramids and Sphinx, actually seeing these structures in their edge-of-city context didn’t fail to surprise or impress us with their sheer scale. This is me, arriving at the plateau of Giza by local transport.
Most if not all images of the pyramids show them rising from the desert, as you might expect. However if you turn around and face away from them, we were surprised to see that city of Cairo is only a short distance away.
Here is an image of the Sphinx taken with the city behind me. I wonder how much more erosion has taken place to wear away her ancient features in the twenty years since I took this photograph.
Day Three included a visit to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, where we – of course – took the opportunity to gaze at the gold treasures of King Tutankhamun and his famous death mask. It was a shock to learn that botched handling and repair damaged the mask recently.
Day Four began with an absurdly early call (3.30 a.m.) for a short flight from Cairo to Abu Simbel airport. Built for Ramesses II and his queen, Nefertari, the massive temple complex at Abu Simbel was moved back 600 feet and raised 210 feet to accommodate the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the subsequent formation of Lake Nassar. This feat of engineering was completed between 1968 and 1972.
I remember that it was very hot and dusty when our group approached the temple complex at Abu Simbel just after 8.00 a.m. I felt tired and rather disoriented, having had breakfast in the dark about four hours earlier. If I recall correctly, I wasn’t feeling particularly well and here I was, about to arrive at the finest and largest temple sites in Nubia. As we rounded the corner of the dusty track into the site, the grandeur and size of the temples took the breath away. I forgot how queasy I felt and began to look about me.
This photograph barely begins to give justice to the magnificence of the monument. However it does show the size of the statues of the king and queen on one of the two main temples at Abu Simbel.
After the visit, we returned to Abu Simbel airport for the short flight (45 minutes) to Aswan for our transfer to our Thomas Cook Nile cruiser. The pilot of our Egypt Air flight to Aswan didn’t retract the undercarriage for several minutes, which meant that the aircraft shook violently until someone alerted a steward. For a few minutes, passengers went very quiet indeed. I wondered where I had put my will.
The coach ride from Aswan airport to our Nile cruiser was interesting. The tarmac had almost melted on one stretch of main road. Our coach made a strange swishing sound as our driver carefully negotiated the soft surface.
Our boat was much smaller than most on the Nile. We preferred its size and intimacy, compared to the other large floating hotels that we often moored next to.
During the next few days, we visited a number of temples that were constructed on or near the banks of the Nile as we cruised along Egypt’s river artery: Philae, Kom Ombo, Edfu, and Esna. Each temple was different in the way they depicted the might and glory of the Egyptian Pharaohs and the deities that the monuments were dedicated to.
I distinctly remember a curious phenomenon as we sailed from place to place along the Nile. If you stared at them for long enough, the sand dunes that lay beyond the agricultural strip that bordered the banks of the Nile appeared to move at the same rate as the boat momentarily, due to their size and distance from the river.
On the evening of Day Six, our boat waited in line to pass through a massive lock on the river before we could dock at Luxor. At some point in the final part of the journey to Luxor, the captain of our boat moored as near to the bank as he could to sit out a sand storm. B and I stayed on deck for as long as possible to experience what such a storm might feel like until one of the crew strongly advised us to go below deck out of the gritty wind. In the absence of my notebook, I cannot recall exactly where we were. However the sand storm was impressive and we felt thankful that our captain felt the need to take evasive measures.
Day Seven included a visit to the Valley of the Kings and the temple of Queen Hatshepsut. These temple complexes were on the opposite side of the river from where our boat was moored at Luxor, which meant that our group had to make a ferry crossing. I was invited to steer the ferry for some distance, while wearing the regular driver’s rather suspect cap. Despite my well-known eyesight problems – issues that were obviously unknown to the ferryman – we arrived safely on the opposite side to our mooring.
Magdi, our brilliant and knowledgeable Egyptian guide, arranged an extra visit for us to a very special tomb. In the absence of my notebook, I cannot remember its name or which ruler was interred there. The itinerary that I am using to write this blog does not include this visit. We were allowed to go down into this tomb in groups of ten people for no more than ten minutes per group. This restriction was a precaution taken to preserve the most wonderful wall paintings that I have ever seen. (If any of my readers know where we were, please get in touch using my contact page on my website.) The colours and quality of the images were astonishing. Our time was up all too soon: I only wish I knew whose tomb we had visited unexpectedly.
The temple of Queen Hatshepsut may look modern in some people’s eyes, in its symmetry, its terraces and colonnades, despite it being about 3,500 years old. One of the most striking aspects of the site is the way in which the temple blends into the cliff behind, as I attempted to show in the next photograph.
The temple of Karnak, which we visited on Day Eight, was perhaps the largest of the many ancient monuments that we visited. No single photograph could give it justice so I won’t attempt to give an impression what it looked like. Suffice it to say that it comprised many ruins and the very impressive Hall of Columns. As he had done at previous monuments, Magdi explained several features of this vast temple complex and translated key phrases of hieroglyphs to supplement his commentary.
Whilst the account of our trip twenty years ago might seem to be temples and more temples, this is what we expected. We had plenty of free time from visiting ancient monuments and after Karnak we had two days of relaxation in a nice hotel in Luxor prior to our return to London on Day Ten after a wonderful trip.
I hope that my Egypt notebook turns up one day. It would be satisfying to read my daily account of our trip rather than using the itinerary to trigger my memory as I have tried to do in this blog post. More importantly, though, I dearly hope that Egypt resolves its social and political problems. It fills me with sadness that the country’s wonderful treasures are no longer visited or that its charming and friendly people aren’t able to show the rest of the world its fascinating history.