| Andrea Sachs |
CAIRO (WP-BLOOM) – Egypt was delighted to see me. So overjoyed, in fact, that Egyptians couldn’t contain themselves. They shouted greetings (some comprehensible, others befuddling) wherever I walked: Along pinched lanes in the old Islamic quarter, inside pharaonic temples and tombs, in a Nubian village in Aswan, on the sandy shores of the Red Sea.
The pleasantries came from policemen on horseback and vendors pushing heavy carts of peanuts.
Thank you, it’s a been a while.
About four years, by most people’s count.
The calendar pages started curling on Jan 25, 2011, the start of Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
The following June, elections ushered in Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi.
About a year later he, too, was gone. Next up: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The former head of the armed services will celebrate his first year as president in June.
“We will go for it and see what happens,” said Mohamed, my Cairo guide. “But we are happy with this man. With so many problems around, we need a man like this.”
The years of political tumult upended the country and spooked millions of international travelers. Tourism, which reached record-high levels in 2010 with 14.7 million visitors, tumbled weeks later.
Cruise ships eliminated Egyptian ports of call. Tour operators diverted clients to other points on the map. Western governments warned their citizens to avoid travel there.
Since Sisi’s rise, travellers have struggled to form a precise picture of Egypt, especially as troubles bubble up in nearby lands. (The latest: Terrorist strikes in a Tunisia museum.)
Though countries have downgraded their alerts, and cruise lines and tour groups are slowly returning, uncertainty persists. Many wonder: Is the country is safe? And, if so, will it last?
“Tourism is our religion, our food. We need it, our families need it,” a Cairo papyrus seller said. “The impression you have of Egypt is more important than buying.”
From Washington, I polled several experts on this topic, including an international risk-management analyst, a specialist in Egyptian travel and the country’s minister of tourism.
They all told me that the country was safe and stable. Calm had been restored. It was time for Americans to return.
So this American did.
The winds of travel regularly blow in the same direction, from north to south, or Lower to Upper Egypt. The majority of tourists follow the Nile’s blue streak from Cairo to Luxor to Aswan, then back up.
I was not going to break from tradition, though I did want to put my own independent stamp on my mid-February trip. Instead of flying or driving to Luxor, I planned to take the overnight train. I also wanted to observe — close your eyes, Mother — one of the “gatherings” that often form after Friday prayers. And — keep ‘em shut — I hoped to visit the Sinai Peninsula.
My agent at Audley Travel flicked away my fancies with her guardian-angel wings.
Brigitte quashed the train idea, because the tracks cut through some dangerous territory between the two cities.
She also informed me that my guides had clear instructions to avoid any demonstrations. However, she did grant me my third request, as long as I stayed in a resort town along the Red Sea coast.
Overall, I had a long leash with few restrictions. I could freely walk around the cities and towns alone (following street-smarts protocol, of course) and dress liberally.
Depending on the company, I could broach topics often considered indelicate at company holiday parties. In return, I felt that many Egyptians were eager to share their opinions and recent experiences.
“The last few years in Egypt have been really hard,” Mohamed said as we waited for the car in the airport parking lot. “We had nothing and now we need everything. But it is getting better as people start seeing hope.”
The halo of optimism is expanding. In addition to steadying the country, Sisi has resumed projects started by Mubarak and developed new ones.
Plans include building the Alexandria Underwater Museum, renovating the Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza, extending the Nile cruise trail to Alexandria and constructing more than 2,100 miles of roads. Tourism officials also hinted at reopening Nefertari’s tomb in Luxor, which closed in 2003 to protect its fragile interior.
The pyramid field at Dashur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, has been around since 2600BC. Pharaoh Sneferu was a pyramid perfectionist who tinkered with the design and materials of his afterlife crib.
The Old Kingdom ruler is credited with creating the innovative triangular shape that inspired the scene-stealing monuments at Giza.
Despite Dashur’s historical significance, the government waited several millennia before inviting the public inside. The area, which also contains a military training camp, opened in 2005, though it lost several years to the revolution.
The Giza antiquities, including the Sphinx, attract droves of tourists.
At the 242-foot-tall Red Pyramid, though, I could count the people on three fingers. I passed Thumb, Index and Pinkie on the way up the north face.
A man draped in cotton garments guarded the entryway and asked whether I planned to take pictures. I peered into the narrow gloom, felt the squeeze of claustrophobia and declined.
The descent resembled a mine shaft with cleaner air. I crouched down low, taking wobbly baby giraffe steps into the deep stillness.
I arrived in a large tomb chamber with a soaring corbelled ceiling. The burial space aligns with the North Star, a fast lane to the heavens. While we mere mortals have to navigate the dizzying stairs, the pharaoh-god took the divine route out.
Throughout my travels, I often discovered myself alone (for example, Tombs of the Nobles, Howard Carter House, Valley of the Queens) or with small knots of people (Valley of the Kings).
I came across the most robust crowds at the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, near Luxor.
I was surrounded by Egyptian college students, many of whom found an American tourist to be as interesting a relic as the longest-reigning female pharaoh.
My Luxor guide said that during the golden age of tourism (6,000 people per day in 2010), folks often waited up to five hours to enter the three tombs at the Valley of the Kings.
My record thumb-twiddling stretch: Fewer than five minutes to see the tar-colored King Tut mummy. The longest queue: The Mummy Exhibit at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.
“It’s busy, busy, busy,” my guide, Abdel, said before noon. “This line will remain with us till 3 or 4 o’clock.”
Though I skipped the exhibit, I did enjoy some mummy-and-me time elsewhere. There was me and the mummy foetus in the tomb of Amun-Hir-Khopshef, the princely son of Ramses III.
Me and the mummified reptiles in the Crocodile Museum at the Temple of Kom Ombo. And me and the mummified pita that I excavated from the depths of my bag at the end of the trip.
Chef Anha minces garlic but never words. “Nothing will happen to you in Egypt,” she said.
My first lesson at her House of Cooking school: Trust the matriarch of the kitchen on all matters. (When asked whether the revolution affected her Cairo business, she responded, “They still had to eat.” Can’t argue with that.)
The longtime chef teaches with her daughter, Mona. The pair of professionals take cooking seriously but not themselves. Anha is Lucy to Mona’s Ethel.
They hold classes in their sunlit Nasr City shop plastered with photos of grinning students posing with their homemade dishes.
Mona handed me a checkered apron, while Anha reviewed the “I Love Egypt” menu: Orzo soup, sauteed veggies stuffed in saj flatbread (or shawarma for the meat-eaters), baklava with walnuts and a mango yogurt drink.
To warm up the senses, Anha placed a platter of spices under my nose and quizzed me. I sniffed and called out cumin, cinnamon, ginger, smoked paprika and allspice. I blanked on turmeric but still passed.
“Three things make your food taste better,” she said with conviction. “Spices, marinating and sauce.”
While I stirred the tomato base for the soup, Anha, who wore a headscarf and a name tag adorned with a heart, shared Egyptian dining traditions.
“People here love to eat,” she said. “Whenever we visit a friend, we bring something to eat. You don’t show up without something to eat.”
Twice a year, the rising sun illuminates the inner sanctuary of Ramses II’s Great Temple. On Feb 22 and Oct 22, which signify the king’s birthday and coronation, the morning rays bathe four stone statues in shimmering light. On all other days, the sun stops short of the chamber sheltering the pharaoh and gods Ra-Horakhty, Amun-Ra and Ptah.
The event attracts hundreds of attendees who arrive by police-escorted caravans, planes, river boats and cars (sadly, no camels).
My local guide, Moustafa, was a veteran strategist. He picked me up at my hotel at 2.30am for the 3am opening of the temple. (He wanted to beat the bus hordes.) The sun would start its eastern crawl at 6.21. He encouraged me to dress warmly and limit my liquid intake.
We shuffled into the temple with a Taiwanese tour group and a gaggle of Egyptian women. Dramatic shadows fell on carved images of a heroic Ramses battling the Nubians. We found an open space on the left aisle. I sat down on a hard ledge and leaned against a sandstone column from the 13th century BC. By my feet, visitors formed a lumpy rug on the cold floor. Some played games on their smartphones; others dozed off. Everyone spoke in hushed voices.
At 6am, the temple started to stir awake. Moustafa motioned for me to stand up and follow him. We walked down the corridor and rounded a corner, stumbling in the dark. I peered around a column to look at the main hall, squinting my eyes against the blast of golden light.
Guards ushered us toward the alcove. Small bundles of people crouched down, gasped and left. The line moved fast. When it was my turn, Moustafa charmed the guards for a few extra seconds.
I looked at Ramses’s sun-kissed face and swear he smiled at me. Or maybe I was just delirious. I took a picture that turned out blurry, much like my brief audience with the king.
I told Moustafa that I wanted another turn. We only had 20 minutes before the sun would stop performing its solar trick.
We exited the temple, pushed through clumps of people milling around the grounds and joined the line stretching toward the Nile.
Behind us, the sun was rising fast, growing stronger and brighter with each passing moment.