The Enduring Lure of Egypt (Part 1)

March 12, 2019
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I WAS always too scared to visit Egypt. In 2001, I wasted five thousand New Zealand dollars’ worth of flights and a tour booked to sail the Nile, by not getting on the plane. Yes it was September 11th. I was working in London, and just went straight home to New Zealand.

Because of widely reported acts of terrorism and political violence since 2001 and even before that date, the numbers of people visiting Egypt to take in its marvels fluctuates wildly. The country had 14.7 million visitors in 2010, but only 5.4 million in 2016. Quite a few of the guides I spoke to during my stay hadn’t had much work for years.

The Egyptian tourism industry has bounced back just in the last couple of years, touch wood. And in 2018 one of the visitors willing to brave the country was me. I’m glad I did.

After seventeen years of nervously scanning the headlines, I finally landed in Cairo on September 3rd, 2018.

Cairo, the vast sprawling capital city of some 20 million inhabitants, was whhere I would spend my first few days. The city now laps up against the famous pyramids of Giza and Saqqara. I was surprised how safe and normal Cairo felt, though I got food poisoning three times. It was definitely one of those places where it paid to bring Loperamide.

I had prebooked a tour with the Australian Hostel in Central Cairo, 23 Abd El-Khalik Tharwat, Bab Al Louq, Qasr an Nile. A guy called Mina was going to manage my tour.

The nine-day, eight-night tour cost about 800 US dollars and that included accommodation in Cairo for six nights plus two nights out of town.

I was greeted at the airport and taken to my hostel. The room was large and the bathroom clean. However in the morning the downstairs lobby was dirty and so was the lift which I chose to ignore.

The next day we were collected and dropped off at , the famed sites of the pyramids. My driver and guide Mohamed was great, he could not do anything to displease me.

At Giza there was another guide named Alex. He was great. He told me the history and we got some amazing shots.

Egypt has more to offer than temples, tombs, pyramids and diving (I’m going to get on to that!). It was the first civilisation in the western part of the Old World, by more than two thousand years before classical Greece and Rome.

One of the first written languages, hieroglyphics, was invented here, and some of the first monuments. The first ruler of a unified Egypt, Narmer, lived around 3200 BCE or in other words, more than five thousand years ago!

Narmer is often referred to as the first Pharaoh, though that most-Egyptian title didn’t actually come into use as the word for the Egyptian ruler until nearly another two thousand years had gone by. It wasn’t yet in use when the pyramids were built, either.

Originally, the pyramids were covered in white limestone with a further covering of gold or gold alloy at the very top. They must have looked sensational.

The original gold-and-limestone cladding of the pyramids was later stripped and sold by robbers, who have always presented a problem for the survival of ancient Egyptian antiquities. Only where stuff has been well-hidden — or really massive — has it tended to survive for thousands of years into the present.

In the photo above, the pyramid on the right still has some bits of the limestone cladding at the very top (no gold, though). Back in the day the limestone would have been smooth and polished and blinding, making the pyramids stand out by day and even more uncannily so by moonlight. These days, the limestone has weathered till it hardly looks different to the sandstone blocks underneath.

‘The Gift of the Nile’

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Egypt was “the gift of the Nile.” It is only because the Nile exists, that a large population and an ancient civilisation have been possible in Egypt. Though ancient Egypt controlled outlying territories such as much of modern Israel for long periods, the heart of their civilisation was the Nile Valley and the delta of the Nile, on the Mediterranean Sea.

The southern limits of ancient Egpytian power were set by six rapids, known as the cataracts of the Nile, that made it impossible to sail any further upstream. The first of these cataracts is at Aswan. North of the first cataract at Aswan, the Nile was known as the Egyptian Nile. To the south, as far south as modern-day Khartoum, it was known as the Cataract Nile. The Egyptian Nile was (and is) vast, slow and meandering with a silty bed, while the Cataract Nile was more of a mountain river by comparison, with a rocky bed at the bottom of a gorge.

I say was, because Aswan is now the site of the Aswan High Dam, which has placed the former course of the Cataract Nile as far south as the Sudanese border, and a little beyond, under a huge lake called Lake Nasser. South of Khartoum lies the Ethiopian highlands, a completely different cultural realm.

A map of the Egyptian Nile and its antiquities, in a hotel lobby in Aswan. Cairo and the Nile Delta are at top, Lake Nasser is at the bottom.

The ancestors of the ancient Egyptians lived on the shores of rivers and lakes that existed throughout the ‘Green Sahara’, a North Africa that was much wetter, just after the end of the last Ice Age, than it is today. The Green Sahara was probably the original inspiration for the legend of the Garden of Eden.

As the Sahara and its lakes and rivers dried up into the modern desert, the river-dwellers, expelled from the Garden, took refuge along the Nile. Concentrated in one place, they founded one of the world’s first great civilisations . This was a civilisation that continued to venerate a magical river as the source of all good things.

Each year, the Nile would flood, irrigating the low-lying farmland around it. The Pharaohs would tax the peasants at a rate that depended on the maximum level of the waters. The higher the flood level in any given year the more the peasants would be able to afford to pay, so the theory went.

Even today, the Nile explains why there are fifteen Egyptians for every inhabitant of neighboring Libya, an empty country by comparison because it doesn’t have any big rivers to fertilise the desert. With 95 million modern inhabitants at the last count, plus the relics of an ancient civilisation all its own, Egypt’s leaders have never have to grandstand as much as Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi used to, in order to get their country noticed on the world stage.

A people with many layers

Egypt mostly speaks Arabic today, and mostly practices the Muslim religion. But there is also a large Christian minority by Middle Eastern standards, thought to number between ten and twenty per cent cent of the population (for various political reasons, these numbers are not recorded with any accuracy.)

Most of the Christians in Egypt, however many there might be, are Coptic Christians whose language, now mostly used in church and less so on the street, descends directly from the language of ancient Egypt.

Coptic includes many Greek loanwords on top of the ancient Egyptian, and is written in an alphabet based on the Greek alphabet. The Greek influence came to Egypt via the growing influence of ancient Greece in the last few centuries before the coming of the Roman Empire.

The last dynasty of Pharaohs, or rulers of ancient Egypt, was a Greek one known as the Hellenistic (i.e., Greek) dynasty or the Ptolemies, after the name of one of the Greek rulers.

Ptolemy aside, the most famous Greek rulers of Egypt were the first and the second-to-last, the conqueror known as Alexander the Great and the sexy Queen Cleopatra (actually Cleopatra the Seventh). After Cleopatra VII killed herself, supposedly by snakebite, her son Caesarion, the last Pharaoh, was murdered by order of the Roman Emperor Augustus. After that, Egypt became a Roman province.

Even under Roman rule, the eastern part of the Mediterranean remained a Greek lake. Latin, the language of Rome and its imperious provincial governors, was seldom heard on the street. The missionaries who brought Christianity to Egypt spoke Greek as well. And so ancient Egyptian turned into Coptic after centuries of Greek rule and informal Greek influence that lasted for centuries more, in the same way that Anglo-Saxon borrowed many French words from the Normans and turned into modern English.

People in front of an image of St George and the Dragon done in the Greek-Christian style

The local variety of Arabic also has many ancient-Egyptian or Coptic influences, since Arabic came to the country from outside via the Muslim conquest, and picked up various words, expressions and ways of saying things from the local language that was already there.

A handful of words from ancient Egyptian have even found their way into English, sometimes via intermediate languages like Spanish. These words include oasis, barge (from the word for boat), adobe (from the word for brick) and desert (from ‘deshret’, the red land).

Truly Ancient Egypt

Egypt was one of the first large-scale civilisations to be founded anywhere on earth. By the time of the ancient Romans, Egypt had already existed as a civilisation for as long as China has existed today. Suitably in awe, the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean would say that most people fear time and getting old, but that “time fears the pyramids.”

Many things you can still see today in Egypt, not only the pyramids but even specific statues such as the Colossi of Memnon, are mentioned by ancient Greek and Roman authors. So, you can really touch history here.

The Colossi of Memnon. Both statues represent the New Kingdom Pharaoh Amenhotep III; his wife and mother are carved into the statues as smaller images. The statues were originally gate guardians for a massive temple complex, the largest in ancient Egypt at the time, which was unfortunately soon damaged by earthquakes and undermined by the waters of the Nile, with its remaining stonework cannibalised for other sites.

Or, at least, you could if it wasn’t roped off (sigh).

The other thing that impressed the Greeks and Romans and everyone else was the superb decorative skills of the ancient Egyptians. They were big on pastel shades and invented the world’s first synthetic pigment, Egyptian blue, over four and a half thousand years ago.

Restful pastel shades in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings

Even the Art Deco of the 1920s and 1930s was partly inspired by archaeological discoveries in Egypt. The vase in the thumbnail of the video here isn’t a 1920s one. It’s from the Tomb of Tutenkhamun.

Basically, the ancient Egyptians had class!

And it wasn’t just art that they were good at, either. Many engineering and medical advances were made, including the design of these instruments shown in an inscription at the temple of Kom Ombo, built in the final centuries of ancient Egypt at a time when Egypt was ruled by the Greeks. Even so, the instruments were invented by the Egyptians and copied by the Greeks and Romans.

Egyptian surgical instruments at Kom Ombo, photo taken by Jeff Dahl (2005), Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Make time for Museums!

As you can see, I visited the pyramids and also Cairo’s legendary, equally-must-see Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, the one where everyone meets up to have an adventure in films like The Mummy and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Bust of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Nobody knows why Akhenaten is shown as having such a peculiar, elongated appearance; whether he had some kind of genetic problem or whether it was an artistic style at the time.

A Side Trip to Alexandria

I also travelled to nearby Alexandria, a city founded by the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great. When the Roman Empire was at its height, some four hundred years later, Alexandria was the second most important city in the Empire after Rome itself. It was famous for a light-house called the Pharos(one of seven wonders of the classical world), its libraries and its general culture of learning, as well as for more practically-minded experimenters who even worked out how to use steam power to perform tricks such as making temple doors open automatically. Alexandria was where the modern world could have begun, nearly two thousand years ahead of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution: though for a variety of reasons, it didn’t.

Much of ancient Alexandria is now under the sea, thanks to what the Smithsonian magazine calls a “deadly combination” of earthquakes that steadily bumped the land downwards, a tsunami in 365 CE, and the fact that the city was built on a swamp in the first place, just like Venice in Italy. If we can imagine La Serenissima being hit by earthquakes and a tsunami, there probably wouldn’t be much left of it, either.

For a long time people thought that the ancient city had been lost almost without trace. Archaeologists despaired of finding anything interesting in the modern city, which seemed to have been built on a slightly different spot. But with the invention of scuba diving, it soon became clear that a lot of ancient Alexandria was still there, beneath the waves. If the Green Sahara was the real-life Garden of Eden, so Alexandria became a true Atlantis.

The libraries of ancient Alexandria were famously destroyed, not only by natural calamities but even more so by human actions: mobs, fires and wars. I did see some manuscripts, I’m not sure how old, in the modern museum.

I was also really impressed by the Citadel of Qaitbay, a castle built by Egypt’s Arab rulers in late 1400s CE in order to fend off the Ottoman Turks, who eventually came to rule Egypt all the same before the country became a British protectorate and, eventually, independent as a modern country.

The Citadel of Qaitbay

This post is followed by Part 2 of 'The Enduring Lure of Egypt'.

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