First, it was Ahmadinejad. Now, it's Kerry.
Strangely, amid doubts over safety issues in Egypt, Cairo welcomed the Iranian head of state for the first time in over 30 years earlier this month.
In a few days' time, new US Secretary of State John Kerry is going to stop by the capital as part of his first official tour of Europe and the Middle East.
For a country which has been struggling to counteract a decline in its tourism industry since the January 2011 revolution and the widespread internal unrest that followed, you can't help hoping that visits by world leaders will help send the right message.
During my visit to Egypt, international news agencies were carrying reports of the riots in Cairo and I was also able to watch broadcasts of Thai police using tear gas to disperse royalist protestors on the streets of Bangkok. That’s when I came to realise that sometimes our perception of a place can be shaped by a mere handful of images which we mistake for the complete picture. Back in Thailand, as the crackdown on the anti-government rally was making headlines around the world, my friends were waking up and preparing for work as if it were just another regular day. It was the same for many people in Cairo who didn’t take part in the mass demo at Tahrir Square. They got up, had breakfast and walked or drove to work just like they would do on any normal weekday.
Tourism has long been one of Egypt's major sources of income; it used to account for a tenth of its GDP and employ 12% of the national workforce. In 2010, the country attracted around 14.7 million visitors who generated in the region of US$12.5 billion. In 2011, revenues were down a third on the year before. As if that were not enough, news about this week's hot-air balloon accident over the ancient city of Luxor, which resulted in the deaths of 19 foreign passengers, is unlikely to help matters.
The steady decline in tourist arrivals explains why the Egyptian tourism authority has been working hard to restore the damage done by two years of political turmoil. But the country is not yet back to where it once was in terms of tourist numbers. There remains a palpable sense of unease and disorder. Garbage has piled up in several corners of the capital. Guests have to pass through X-ray scans to enter some hotels. And Alexandria _ so beloved of artists and renowned authors like EM Forster and Lawrence Durrell _ felt like a demoralised muse. Its oft-cherished charms have been despoiled by the trash which litters roads in some residential and commercial areas and the exhaust fumes from cars stuck in traffic jams. Hardly surprising then that visitors are way down, even during months when the milder weather makes travel conditions ideal.
However, for those who dislike crowded tourist sites (and are not bothered by safety alerts and the sensational footage of violence which has been broadcast on international news channels), this might be an interesting time to visit. You might be able to get a decent shot of the Great Pyramid of Giza at close range without having other tourists wandering into the frame. Or a wonderfully unobstructed, wide-angle shot of the Roman amphitheatre in Alexandria. Do pardon my misanthropy!
In addition to a much quieter atmosphere, the political upheaval has also given visitors a whole new perspective on Egypt that doesn't include pharaohs, tombs or imposing statues of deities. There's the contemporary colour supplied by the urban legend about the Mubarak family once being able to buy a supercar for a single Egyptian pound (currently worth a little over 4 baht). Or the tidbit, retailed by your tour guide as you're relaxing on a Nile cruise, that the Ramses Hilton which you are just passing was used as a base by foreign correspondents covering the uprising because of its prime location overlooking Tahrir Square, where the main protests took place. So much footage of bloody clashes and crackdowns was shot from the balconies of this hotel that the management apparently pleaded with TV camera crews not to film from its property for safety reasons.
The glorious remnants of ancient civilisations alongside crumbling modern walls plastered with political graffiti, the warriors of bygone eras juxtaposed with the freedom fighters of today. Stories from globe-trotting authors in the days of ocean liners and anecdotes from citizen reporters in the age of social media.
These are the settings, the characters and the plot-lines for the first chapter in the history of a new Egypt. The social transformation is still in an embryonic stage, so experiencing the country at this turning point can generate a rush of emotions, a mixture of excitement, anxiety and hopefulness, even, as if one were watching a patient, risen from bed after a lengthy period spent recuperating from serious injuries, about to take his first unaided steps.
There is little that we don’t already know about that consummate Egyptian landmark, the Great Pyramid of Giza. Even when the tourism industry was suffering, this gigantic tomb built for the pharaoh Khufu continued to draw great numbers of visitors. And, yes, despite having read up on all the facts and figures in advance (an estimated 2.3 million limestone blocks, weighing 5.5 million tonnes, were used in its construction, as were 8,000 tonnes of granite, 500,000 tonnes of mortar etc, etc), my first glimpse of this wondrous structure, the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, still proved cathartic. The only thing you need to be cautious about is the camel drivers. Don’t say yes to any invitation to ride on a camel free of charge; that offer will prove to be only half true, since you will be charged for assistance in dismounting. Also, make sure not to inadvertently point your camera in the direction of any of the local men, who may then accuse you of trying to take a picture of them or their camels — and then try to charge you a fee for posing. This rule of thumb applies to all outdoor tourist sites here!
No other place comes as close in demonstrating the contrast between Egypt’s glorious past and the post-revolution trauma its people are trying to recover from than the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Housing mummies of ancient kings and queens, as well as the invaluable, solidgold mask of Tutankhamun (10.9kg of precious metal), the museum building is near the burnt-out headquarters of the National Democratic Party, torched because it was seen as a symbol of the corrupt, oppressive Mubarak regime under which Egyptians suffered for decades. The museum with its distinctive salmon-pink exterior is a landmark on Tahrir Square, epicentre of the mass demonstrations that eventually ousted Hosni Mubarak. When the street violence was at its height, tour guides and archaeologists formed a human chain around the museum to protect its priceless collection. Sadly, they couldn’t prevent looters from making off with some 50 treasures, including a statue depicting King Tut being carried by a goddess.
Of all the city’s landmarks, the Cairo Citadel and Mohamed Ali Mosque seemed the most unscathed by the political unrest. Standing on the summit of the Citadel, the mosque was built mainly from limestone early in the 19th century. The architectural style is Ottoman, but the use of alabaster tiles in the lower storey and forecourt have earned the place its alternative name: the Alabaster Mosque. The glow of yellowish limestone under the harsh Egyptian sunlight, its rare dustfree cleanliness (a result of the shoes-off policy?) and the sublime interior with circular formations of lamps hanging from the ceiling give an impression of flawless perfection. An impression quickly dispelled when, hoping for a good photo, I followed a resident cat and ended up in a very dilapidated, abandoned-looking section of the Citadel compound.
Before the true Pyramid of Giza, there was the step pyramid. The step pyramid of Djoser was constructed as a burial place for a pharaoh of the same name and is among the earliest large-scale cut-stone structures to be erected in Egypt, if not the oldest. The burial complex of Djoser is part of the vast necropolis of Saqqara in ancient Memphis, located on the edge of the Western (Libyan) Desert. Other tombs in the vicinity include that of Kagemni, highest-ranking official to the pharaoh Titi. Discovered in 1843, this rectangular tomb (mastaba) boasts well-preserved, raised-relief decor in vibrant colours. The images depict scenes from everyday life of the time: farming, hunting, fishing and religious ceremonies. The meticulous precision of the craftsmanship enables one to make out even fine details like the curliness of one figure’s hair.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a cultural oasis, a shrine to learning unaffected by any political turbulence that might be raging outside. Or at least that’s how I felt on setting foot in this library within the grounds of Alexandria University. Its grandeur is meant to emulate the majesty of the ancient library of Alexandria and the serene atmosphere allows each and every seeker of knowledge to busy him/herself with a book in one of the private cubicles in the main reading room that offers 70,000m2 of space on 11 cascading levels. A grave shortage of funding for acquisitions, however, means that the library is still making use of less than a quarter of its storage capacity.
From pyramids to mastaba , funeral rites and objects have come to embody Egypt’s chequered history. In the catacombs of Alexandria one sees much evidence of the city’s past role as a cultural melting pot: images of Greek gods, depictions of Roman costumes, Egyptian architecture and even some vestiges of the area’s early Christian population are visible here and there in this civilian necropolis, officially called the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa. With coffins and artefacts scattered above the underground tomb, the place felt like a deserted, unfinished construction project. The engineering techniques that allowed people back in the 2nd century AD to cut into soft rock, 30m below the surface, were a wonder in themselves. Unlike other Egyptian tombs or ruins, this site wasn’t discovered by archaeologists, historians or treasure hunters, but by a local man whose donkey fell into a hole that opened up in the ground.
If the catacombs of Alexandria were a melting pot of civilisations, the Roman amphitheatre at Kom el Dikka is a manifestation of Rome’s military power in the 2nd century. Compared to other outdoor Roman theatres, this one is moderate in size and yet, with its 13 semicircular tiers made of imported white and grey marble, it could accommodate some 800 spectators. Aside from well-preserved galleries, geometric mosaic paving in the wings on either side of the stage has survived the ravages of time. To ensure its continued survival, a sign has been erected advising people not to walk on the mosaic surfaces.
- For those planning to visit Egypt in the immediate future, the most important question could be whether to travel independently or to buy a tour package. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Travelling with an agency offers convenience, especially for inexperienced travellers. While the security situation in Egypt remains uncertain, travelling with assistance—whether you buy a package holiday from Bangkok or join an organised group in Egypt for a day’s tour —means you’ll be able to rely on a local guide who will know which routes to avoid in the event of problems occurring. However, if you’re a seasoned traveller who prefers to decide your own itinerary and how much time you spend at a particular place, going solo in Egypt might now be a rather more complicated proposition than it was previously; it’s not impossible, though.
- Egypt Air and Thai Airways both offer direct daily flights from Bangkok to Cairo. If you make Cairo your base, you can explore both Giza and Saqqara. Unless you’re travelling by taxi, it is recommended that you visit both places on the same day, starting with Giza. It is much easier to get to Saqqara from Giza than from Cairo.
- As for Alexandria, there’s an excellent train service from Cairo to this coastal city, Egypt’s second largest. There’s at least one departure per hour and it costs less than the equivalent of 240 baht for a one-way ticket.
About the author
- Writer: Samila Wenin
Position: Muse Editor