Cairo, Egypt. Wonders of Antiquity Under The Saharan Sun
Music: Hospital For Souls, Bring Me The Horizon
Movie: The English Patient, the best Oscar movie ever!
Book: Transylvanian Sunrise, Radu Cinamar and Peter Moon (you will find the connection!)
Deck three is situated just above the water level. From my cabin, I can hear the waves hitting the outer shell. I can also hear the echoing, trudging hum of the engine that drags the cruise ship through the dark blue waters of the Mediterranean. The innards of the monster growl painfully, yet the beast is not defeated!
Last night, the Captain announced through the ship’s PA that one of the propellers was damaged during our departure from Limassol, Cyprus. That explains why the water has turned so murky. The vessel took ages to get out of the port before sailing to Egypt.
The floating hotel will dock in Alexandria at least four hours later than planned. That sucks! The tour to the Pyramids was supposed to leave at seven in the morning!
I’m still in two minds about my choice of clothing. I know that the heat will be a killer under the merciless midday sun. A cotton t-shirt with a picture of the Colosseum across the chest, a pair of linen trousers, sandals and a straw hat should do. An extra bottle of water in my backpack, the camera in hand and I’m off to the gangway.
Even before I see the dock, I can feel the heat defeating the AC system of the cruise liner. The second I step on the concrete pier, sweat beads trickle down my back, drenching my Roman printed cotton t-shirt. It’s going to be a scorcher that makes one feel as roasting in the ovens of hell, but I can’t be bothered. I’m in Egypt!
Fifty-two buses gulp rapidly almost all the passengers from the ship. I am in awe of the five staff, the entire the Shore Excursions department, for dispatching thousands of people within minutes!
I am the last to hop on the bus. Or so I thought. As I take my seat in the last row, I see a swarthy guy in a blue uniform wearing a Kalashnikov on his right shoulder. He remains on the steps and faces the now closed door. The tour guide takes the microphone and, before he introduces himself, makes a reassuring announcement that the presence of armed police is standard procedure in Egypt, but it’s more a precaution; an attack is not likely to happen.
I hear a half-relieved collective breath and decide to ignore the guard and his gun. Then I see a police car behind the bus. There’s another one at the front of the convoy; I only saw it when the first bus moved out. Standard procedure, relax!
At twelve-fifteen sharp our coach, the last of the fifty-two finally starts moving. The convoy must look like a giant silver snake slithering through the dusty streets of Alexandria. The tour guide tells us that the medieval citadel we can see at some distance is where the Pharos (the famous Lighthouse of antiquity) used to stand.
We get a quick glimpse at the massive new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, with its sundial glass roof leaning towards the sea. It is placed close to where the original library of the antiquity burnt to the ground, the guide informs us.
What a tremendous loss! A gradual destruction process that spread over a few centuries, obliterating knowledge that was already thousands of years old in antiquity. It boggles the mind to only think of it …
A panicked scream at the front of the bus erupts as a vehicle that was stopped to our right at the traffic lights cuts three lines right in front of our coach and turned left, no signal whatsoever! The automobile carries a huge haystack on its roof. Stranded straws float on the street taken by the wind flow thus created.
The bus driver most likely didn’t even flinch. The tour guide says ‘this is normal Egyptian driving style!’ Jungle driving applies to the desert as well as crazy cities or insane mountaintop narrow paths!
Another car passes us carrying two donkeys cramped on the back seat. One placid muzzle and one fat rump hardly pressed to the rear windshield of the vehicle ignite a few giggles among the Mexicans.
The bus convoy takes a few turns on the busy streets of Alexandria that I award with the craziest driving fashion medal. Before we realise, we’re out of the city in the endless desert.
The blue waters of the Mediterranean are replaced by an infinite, desolate and mesmerising at the same time ocean of golden ripples.
We advance rapidly on what I imagine is a highway, in the middle of nowhere, among endless sand dunes. This is a scene from ‘The Mummy’, and I’m in it! It’s surreal to even think that I’m actually crossing the Sahara.
Every curve of the road (which I still can’t see, being covered in sand!) shows a glimpse of the massive row of silver busses crossing the endless desert. The sun is reflected by the metallic shields of what must resemble a giant reptile seen from above.
Today I share the bus with a compact group of Mexican passengers and a Spanish-speaking Egyptian tour guide. Earlier, he was greeting the group by the door as we got on the bus. I couldn’t ignore his exotic charm and long, dark and thick eyelashes that would make any girl jealous.
I listen with excitement the details of how the day is planned and what we are going to visit before he launches into historical facts about Egypt. His Spanish is flawless. I will find out later that he perfected the use of the language in South America. He used to be an engineer involved in different construction projects.
A quick glance at my watch tells me that we are only half an hour through our two-hour drive from Alexandria to Cairo.
The mellow voice of the guide, the motion of the bus and the sun that throws scorching rays of fire over the desert induce me in a hypnotic state. I slowly indulge in a trance. I have to let it sink: I’m visiting this fantastic corner of the world for the first time. I am going to witness amazing things I’ve only read about in books or seen on TV!
The bus finally stops. The abrupt end of the lulling motion helps me shake the lethargy that engulfed my senses. I suddenly feel incredibly rested and super-energised!
As we exit the coach, we are right on the Gizeh Plateau. The first glimpse of the Pyramids renders me breathless. I knew we were going to see them, but I was not expecting it to just happen. I thought we had to hike somewhere far, in the sizzling heat, before being rewarded with such a magnificent prospect.
Certainly not! The Pyramids are right here, all three of them! More shockingly, not far from Gizeh I can see through a haze of Saharan dust and traffic pollution the modern city of Cairo.
This is incredibly surreal! I covered thousands of miles to see the most famous archaeological site of antiquity. In contrast, others check the direction of the wind from their balcony without a care in the world about the thousands of years old constructions!
I envy them for taking this place for granted, but then I think that maybe I’d do the same, had I been born with such a view across my street!
I turn around 360 degrees a few times over, slowly, to take it all in. The Mexicans had scattered to take pictures.
A man dressed in a beige gallibaya and pulling the reins of a camel startles me: “Pigshure, madame? Zouvenir from Ezhybt!”
He pulls the camel closer while I retreat farther away. I’m not climbing on that unenthusiastic beast for a blooming picture the man will charge me a small fortune!
The poor animal stinks, spits and looks so annoyed by its predicament. I am convinced that it will bite me if I get any closer!
My refusal has no meaning; the man repeats his offer at least five times, like a broken record. In the end, I had to leave the spot I claimed as my perfect viewpoint only to get rid of him and his camel.
It takes some time to realise that this place has a specific energy. For as harshly the sun burns the sand with rays of fire, it does not feel too bad. The heat is bearable; it does not bother me as much as I thought it would. I feel full of beans and have no worry in the world. I am looking at the Pyramids, after all. Life is good.
I make my way towards an open entrance at the base of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. The tour guide is by the opening, telling a few Mexicans that they can go inside if they wish, but they should expect high levels of humidity and an even higher temperature than outside. That plus the musty aroma wafting from the opening deter me from even attempting to investigate the bowels of the massive construction.
I ask the guide if he would take a picture of me with all the Pyramids in the background. He obliges so I move as far as I can from the objective.
I hate selfies! I might be the only one on the planet who does, but I truly hate them. If I want to see my mug, a quick glimpse in the mirror in the morning is enough. Thank God I don’t suffer from the technological era’s compulsion of ruining a perfect scenery with a mug plastered on it! I only want some proof that I was there.
The man asks me again if the angle is right and snaps a few. I won’t even see the result until a few days later. Digital cameras are not yet invented! This being a memoir and all, this story happened in a distant dinosaur era. Back then, pictures were made on films, developed at a later date and printed on photographic paper!
I take the opportunity that the Mexicans are not assaulting the guide with historical questions, and I start a more private dialogue. At the end of it, I know how he had learned Spanish, that he now lives in Cairo and that he’s not married. I had already figured this out.
I have a tendency to check the ring finger of each man I speak with. He wears no ring, and there is no lighter mark on his skin to indicate he had removed it recently, so I believe him. In five minutes I found out all I want to know, then I asked a few history-related questions, as the Mexicans are regrouping. It is time to move to our next destination.
We get to see the colossal footless statue of Ramses the Great that was moved from Memphis (the old capital of Egypt) to Cairo and many other antique artefacts.
Next, the guide takes our group through a half-buried labyrinth of chambers. The floors are covered with fine sand; the limestone walls with chiselled hieroglyphs all the way up to the painted ceilings.
A few passengers ask about the meaning of all that writing. Of course, there’s not enough time to read it all, but the guide explains it actually describes the day-to-day lifestyle of ordinary people, most likely those who sweat blood to build the Pyramids.
I appreciate the shade, but it’s so hot among these walls! I try to make sense of the depicted stories, but as I turn around to see all the walls, the room starts to spin a little. I lean onto a wall, hoping I won’t activate some hidden mechanism that will open a secret (until then!) door that will swallow me without a living soul noticing!
The guide follows through the labyrinth, and we finally move out. No calamity befell!
One more stop at the Sphinx follows, accompanied by yet another fascinating history lesson. My question about what is under the Sphynx or why there’s no inside carving yet to see what is there renders the tour guide perplexed. He looks at me as if I were an alien asking in Spanish (a very human language!) why there’s no research yet on the inside of the Sphynx.
I find it hard to believe that the massive figure was built there for no reason. What if it holds clues to our ancient times that could enlighten the humankind about our long-lost spirituality, Global energy currents or just give explanations as of why the Pyramids were built precisely where they were erected and not a hundred metres away? I take his puzzled look as my cue to leave the man alone and the ancient mysteries buried hereinafter.
Next stop in today’s trip is the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. The minute I get in, I start walking as in a trance. Every single thing I see was made or lived many thousands of years ago. I easily ignore the hordes of visitors and only focus on the exhibits.
In a way, I feel as if I had just stepped back in history. The atmosphere is strangely eerie. The fact that I walk through mummies surreal! And still, nothing prepares me for what is to come.
If you watched at least one movie that shows the interior of the museum, you surely remember the endless galleries displaying countless exhibits. Well, the camera only captured tiny parts of it. This place is enormous!
I’m overtaken by a bizarre compulsion to instantly grow five more pairs of eyes and ears to see and hear all there is to know. Even so, I would still miss something.
Slowly, our group moves further along the corridors of the museum among hundreds of visitors. Gallery after gallery of wonders come into view.
In the shade and coolness of the old building, we get lost through the busy galleries full of golden chariots, tools, weapons, jewellery, human and animal mummies and everything else that has been brought to light from under tonnes of sand. It is a vivid display of how life and death were as far as five thousand years ago.
A chilling thought crosses my mind: the darkened emaciated shapes soaked in ancient resins, covered in shredded linen bandages, numbered and placed behind glass panels we are staring at used to be people like you and me who lived, walked and left this world aeons ago.
Is there in the afterlife, or maybe in a different dimension, a museum for souls? Perhaps a psychiatric hospital would be more in demand, given what they had to put up with! Or are the souls that were once captive in those mummified bodies still lurking through these galleries searching for their previous host body? Or perhaps looking for those who unveiled and allotted them an afterlife as museum exhibits? Maybe they were kindly invited to reside here!
I mull over this chilling thought and gratitude fills me at the idea that I won’t be a blonde relic stared at centuries after my departure. The secrets of mummification remain … secret to this day!
At a point, we get into a smaller room, dimly lit, unlike the rest of the galleries. I stare in awe at a hundred wonders, most of them of pure gold, exposed behind secure glass windows.
In the middle of the room, the visitors suddenly split the same way the Red Sea split to allow his brother, Moses, to leave Egypt. People turn left or right as if to bypass something situated in front of them. The last person in front of me steps to the right.
Out of the blue, I found myself speechless, breathless, all of my senses numbed, with people fading to volatile shades moving in slow motion, one metre away from it.
The lack of light in the room is compensated by a beam in the glass box that shows it in its entire splendour: the golden hand-made mask of the boy-king. Its little hammer dents and eye lines painted by a human hand have nothing to do with the present-day micron precision of computer programmed artefact production. No smooth lines and perfectly rounded curves; nonetheless, it is perfect. It’s the most exquisite thing I have seen in my entire life!
In one split-second, I have again stepped back into a time I have heard about the entire day. I am only facing Tutankhamen’s mortuary mask. The most iconic and still controversial object recovered by Howard Carter at Luxor all those years ago. Iconic for the fame that surrounds it. Controversial for igniting vivid debates over its real ownership; many archaeologists believe that it was not even meant to be this pharaoh’s mortuary mask in the first place!
It is only an object, but it seems so alive. Perhaps even more than the boy-king ever was! Utterly mesmerising! It holds the kind of beauty that hurts to look at. I am humbled by the craftsmanship, the purpose this mask had served and the mysterious owner who had worn it for millennia in his royal death. If perfection were to be defined after a human-made article, this should be it! Tut’s mask is absolute perfection!
The guide touches my elbow, and I come out of my trance abruptly, back to a crowded, dimly lit room. The man is watching me intently, with a broad smile. And tells me that the same thing happened to him, when he first saw it, as a boy. It’s something that remains with you for life!
Reluctantly, I make an effort to remove myself from the vicinity of the mask. I am sure I have seen thousands of other exhibits on the way out of the museum, but I can’t remember much; it’s all a bit blurry. What is important is that I was there.
It is late afternoon when we depart from the museum. The sun had abated its merciless beating on us, mere humans.
With renewed energy and excited chatting among the group, we depart to an exclusive hotel downtown Cairo for a long-awaited meal. Exclusive because common Cairenes are not allowed access unless if they work there. This hotel, we’re told, is designated only for wealthy Egyptians and foreigners.
Paradoxically, I’m a poor foreigner too hungry to emit a pointed opinion about class dissociation nobody cares about. Worse, the cookie monster I am forgets all about it when I spot the desserts buffet at the opposite end of a massive and elegantly set dining room. I only glance in passing at the pear-shaped crystal candelabra hanging from the tall ceiling and make sure I’m one of the first to stuff my plate with samples of every single cake available.
I get a seat at a table in a corner and a few young Mexicans I got acquainted with ask if they could sit with me. I happily invite them to grab their seats when I hear the guide’s voice asking us to save one for him. The only free place happens to be the one next to my right.
He has a dry sense of humour, just like me. He glances at my plate with a dimpled smirk and compliments me on the healthy choice of food. I reply wittily that I’ll try the traditional Egyptian food later if there’s room left in my stomach! The one-hour meal break passes too soon.
After such a fabulous day, the time has come to bid Cairo goodbye and return to Alexandria. To my amazement (even though I read that hundreds of times!) there is a freshness in the air as the sun sets in magnificent hues of orange and dark pink over the hazy city.
I board the bus with regret that it’s all over. The Pyramids remain back, unfazed in their eternity by the insignificant fact that I was there. I, on the other hand, hope to remember this trip until my last day on Earth and beyond that!
This time I don’t go to the seat at the back of the coach. The guide invites me to sit next to him, in the front row. He grabs the microphone. More historical facts won’t make any sense now, so he engages in a happy banter with the energetic group.
Then, he produces two huge carton boxes of baklava. The Egyptian baklava, he says, is the best among the Mediterranean ones and everybody is in agreement as they help themselves.
The man returns to his seat and offers me the open box with a few pieces left. In a most solemn face, he says that possibly I did not have a proper chance to sample the delicious Egyptian sweets today and he can’t let me pass the opportunity!
Sting all you like, mister! I’m elbow-deep in the box of Egyptian extravagance smothered in sticky honey syrup!
The metallic snake of buses slithers eerily in the chilling darkness of the desert. I can hear a hum of voices and happy chatter behind me. It’s been a long day, but everybody seems so energised. I feel more awake than I was in the morning when I opened my eyes.
The tour guide and I spend the last hour and a half in a lively private conversation about everything and anything. At a point, he takes my hand in his and holds it for the rest of the trip. We gaze into each other’s eyes and can’t stop talking.
For no reason, the conversation naturally switches to English, even if we both speak Spanish as if we were Madrileños. An Eastern European and a North African. It doesn’t bother us that we’re from different worlds, thousands of miles apart, distinctive cultures going back to times immemorial, or leave such complicated lives. The now and here are happening at this moment in time, in the bleakness of a barely lukewarm Sahara.
And just like that, he stops talking and kisses me! All humming and buzzing miraculously end. The time stops for a minute. Then, we talk some more. And kiss some more! Until the lovely elderly lady behind us asks why we didn’t tell them that we were novios. To which we both turned and replied at the same time, smiling, that we weren’t! The confusion on her face – priceless! The prejudice, if there was any, we didn’t give a damn about!
The boy-pharaoh choose to live his eternity in a secret place surrounded by the hot sand of the Sahara. The location is not so secret anymore, but his wish is respected. His charred mummy is at peace while the ones who botched his mummification are dead sure (pun!) evermore haunted in the underworld.
Thousands of the belongings meant for his afterlife were meantime moved to a new museum (The Grand Egyptian Museum) located on the Gizeh Plateau. For everyone to see and marvel at their beauty, incommensurable value and, beyond all, perfection.
I so wish to see this museum as well one day! It’s on my lengthy bucket list.
The torrid July day I had spent there was a history lesson lived and witnessed where history happened and so much more than just a trip to a fascinating past!
Visit Cairo, even if only once in your lifetime! It is one of the many places on Earth every human must see at some point. And don’t stop reading! Read a lot. There are centuries worth of fiction and non-fiction books about Egypt. You’ll only re-discover it through the imagination (or facts) of others.
You may believe what you learn in history classes. Or that the Pyramids were there long before the Egyptians. Or that they are connected to the energetic vortexes of the planet. Or that they were built by aliens with outer galactic technology. Or that the world at that point was so advanced and eroded by greed that it reached the end of a cycle in the evolution of humankind (whatever human race dominated Terra back then, perhaps giants – whose skeletons pop up all around the world, but who ‘never existed’) and an atomic blast erased them from the face of the Earth to start afresh.
The cloak of mystery shrouding Egypt will not fall off her shoulders any time soon. Or will it? The information is out there, only more of us need to see it.
I haven’t gone back to Cairo in many years. I might never go again. But I will forever strive to preserve that unique feeling of my encounter with Perfection at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities.
I hope that if it did not change in the many years since passed, it will last forever and will always be my special memory. Alas, the Alzheimer still exists in the severely understudied human mind, as menacing as it ever was in this modern, civilised world. One never knows! One thing I’m sure of, though: I will always want to remember one tour guide who held my hand on the trip back to Alexandria!