Thursday, November 6, 2014

November 2nd & 3rd – An Overnight Visit To Cairo

Egypt has been struggling to attract tourists over the last few years. It might have some of the most amazing ancient monuments known to man; however, the popular revolution of 2011, followed by the fairly disastrous Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi, then his ejection and replacement by the military, have left this chaotic country unstable and rudderless.

Order does seem to have been restored by President (General) Sisi, and it's hoped that the country can follow a peaceful path back to democracy – even if the formerly ruling party of the Muslim Brotherhood has now been banned. On our 2-day trip to Cairo, the country does appear to be taking a few halting steps forwards, but it has a long, long way to go before it can combat the poverty, the overcrowding, and the all-round chaos that has seized its populace and cities.

But, in spite of all its problems, this is still a magnificent country to visit. Its frenetic streetlife makes any coach trip a window on some fascinating spectacles and people watching, while the ancient sites are simply the best in the world. We drove from Alexandria to Cairo, getting to experience the "anything goes" road rules of Egypt – overtake/undertake any way you like, stop anywhere you like, squeeze five lines of traffic into a road designed for 3 lanes, and above all, use your horn as often and as loudly as you possibly can.

From the stop-start white knuckle ride to Cairo, we paused to get our breaths in the sumptuous surroundings of the Mena House Hotel in the shadow of the Pyramids, built by the Khedive Ismail in the 19th century to house his VIP guests from the royal houses of Europe. After being treated like royalty and eating like Kings, it was time to move on to the Pyramids, where our bus and tickets were checked by 4 different people, one after the other. The country may suffer from massive unemployment , but the bureaucracy of the pyramids seem to be providing employment for a good number of people.

The thing about visiting the pyramids is that there's two sides to it. On the one hand, you're put in awe of man's achievements, as you feel small standing next to these enormous 5,000 year-old masterpieces of geometry and engineering; and, on the other hand, you wonder where it's all gone wrong, as you're constantly assailed by desperate hawkers and touts trying to sell you rubbish or get you to ride their camel. All the while, the chaos of modern Cairo appears to be getting closer and closer, its array of ugly brown, unfinished buildings cloaked in a haze of pollution and dust from the desert.

Nevertheless, there is a real magic to standing next to the pyramids, especially once you get beyond the line of hawkers and tourists, and you go to the other side of them without anyone else there. The battered features of the Sphinx in front of them – looking towards Cairo in a standoff between Ancient and Modern - is a good summary of the march of time, and the best and worst of Egypt.

It was now time for a rest, so we headed to the opulent Four Seasons Hotel overlooking the Nile in the centre of Cairo – a beautiful hotel that was a real haven in this teeming city. Seeing all the eye-watering prices in the luxury boutiques of its glittering shopping mall was a reminder that Cairo is not all about chaos and poverty – there's some big money here too (just not spread very widely).

The following morning, we headed to the imposing Cairo Citadel to get some amazing views over the city below and to visit the beautiful Mohammed Ali Mosque, built in Turkish style to resemble Istanbul's Blue Mosque. A drive that would take 20 minutes in most other cities took well over an hour of inching through the traffic in a constant contest of wills and nerve between the drivers.

We then visited Old Cairo, the medieval part of the city that's home to many of the city's oldest churches, synagogues and mosques. We visited the Coptic Churches of St Sergius and the Hanging Church – both atmospheric churches that remind us that roughly 15% of Egypt's population is actually Christian (a population that was sidelined by the Morsi government).

After lunch overlooking the Nile, we inched towards Tahrir Square to visit the incomparable Egyptian Museum – home to many of the most treasured ancient Egyptian relics. In 2011 my heart had sunk when I read about the museum being ransacked during the revolution, but most of what was taken has since been recovered, and it appears that only 7 items are still missing.

So, the museum looks much the same as it ever did - slightly ramshackle with its treasures held in dusty cases. But, you don't need multi-media attractions or whizz-bang displays when your exhibits are as good as this. Staring into the eyes of the wizened old mummies of the pharaohs is unforgettable, while the riches of Tutankhamen's tomb are probably the most amazing and most impressive museum exhibits that I've ever seen. Unbelievable riches.

The only downside of a trip to Cairo, is that long journey back to Port Said, but when you've seen the amazing sights we've seen, you know it's all worth it. What a wonderful trip!