“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”
– G.K. Chesterton
Before Napoleon’s late 18th century French Campaign in Egypt, the splendors of this mysterious country had been lost to time, becoming nothing more than mere whispers in the sand. His ambitious foray into North Africa may have been ill-fated, but the monuments and ruins Napoleon’s team of soldiers, sailors, and savants uncovered and documented introduced this once great civilization to the broader Western world. Their discoveries ignited a passion for all things Egypt, inspiring the 19th century term—Egyptomania. The fascination the term conveys continues to ripple through the world today and even informed my own interest in Egypt and ancient cultures.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in relation to my time in Egypt the saying doesn’t hold true. The following recollections depict moments captured independently of any camera. In fact, the photographs I actually took pale in comparison to those that live on in my mind.
A L E X A N D R I A
The day our ship sliced through the storied waters of the Port of Alexandria just after dawn I became a morning person. So filled with excitement, I slipped on deck in the soft morning light to view our approach alone and in silence. As the ship passed the breakwater, my first encounter with Egypt was the sight of a man dressed in a striped kaftan descending a set of stairs cut into the breakwater. The rising sun had not yet breached the massive wall and the entire tableau appeared bathed in sepia tones like the iconic 19th century photographs of Egypt. Like Stendhal Syndrome in which the beauty of objets d’art and architecture can induce a swoon-like state, I experienced my first incidence in that moment of what I like to call “existing out of time” syndrome.
CAIRO-ALEXANDRIA DESERT ROAD
The ribbon of Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road unfurled into the distance, splitting the sands of the Sahara like the part in one’s hair. There was little to see save for sky and sand and they were nearly the same color. It was almost as if the desert, jealous of the sky’s ability to change color, had siphoned it away and was hording it like a medieval dragon in its underground lair.
Our motorcoach felt stable and sure on the tarmac unlike the ramshackle trucks that would appear out of nowhere, their horns blaring dementedly, their loads listing precariously as they careened by us. Seated just behind the driver, I had a great view of these rather slapstick scenes.
I began to nod off, but snapped awake when I noticed something ahead. Whatever it was seemed to shimmer in the heat. Was it a mirage, I wondered? As we approached, the shape-shifting image sharpened, materializing into several people walking along the shoulder of the road. Three of the figures were dressed head to toe in black (I couldn’t imagine in this heat) and the other in chartreuse with a headwrap as green as the plumage on a parrot’s head.
Further on, we came upon a few multi-story cement block structures—empty and forlorn—their doors and windows yawning black in the morning light. Remnants of plastic tarps worn thin by the elements flapped and snapped like silk campaign banners in the fitful desert wind.
I learned later the figures walking along the road were Bedouin women. I was told it was customary for married woman to dress in black and for young women and girls to dress in bright colors. And the cement block structures? They were the Egyptian government’s vain attempt to stabilize the nomadic Bedouin. How do you stop a culture drawn by the rhythms of the seasons?
S A Q Q A R A
At nearly 5,000 years old, this vast necropolis located northwest of Memphis, Egypt’s ancient capital, contains the country’s earliest pyramid. The Step Pyramid of Djoser (built circa 2630-2610 BC) is part of a monumental complex surrounded on all sides by a tumble down wall originally three stories tall. Though there appeared to be several doors cut into the wall, only one served as a proper entrance.
As we made our way over in the blinding sun, a figure hidden in shadow stepped forward, startling us. He was dressed in a long gallibaya, white skullcap and had the blackest skin I had ever seen. As he emerged, a smile split his face. He reached forward solicitously drawing us very pale Europeans and Americans into the protective fold of the shade. He went on to explain in perfect Queen’s English the dangers of the harsh sun. While his appearance was unexpected, we found his kindness affirming in such an alien setting.
C A I R O
This ancient, yet modern city was founded in 969 AD and is one of the most populous in the world and it feels kaleidoscopic. The ever-changing sounds and images collide and re-combine. There is so much to take in: the call to prayer and frenzy of car horns; oxcarts rolling along with modern cars; billboards advertising Coca~Cola in Arabic; the wide, seemingly lazy Nile River shining fish-scale silver in the late afternoon sun; the impressive Al-Rifa’i Mosque with minarets that seemed to skim the vault of heaven; dusty piles of shoes at the mosque’s entrance; the dark-haired street boys swarming a fellow traveler like a school of hungry fish, shouting “Baksheesh, baksheesh“; the shy dark-eyed girl peering at you from the protection of a half-opened, lattice-carved door set in a crumbling plaster wall; and the sickle moon rising in the deepening, blue-velvet sky amidst a sea of minarets.
THE SAHARA – SOMEWHERE BETWEEN CAIRO & PORT SAID
Our journey through the desert was once again marked by color or the absence of it. The darkness was unbroken mile after mile until we passed a blazing bonfire surrounded by a group of Bedouins apparently sharing a meal. Their appearance came and went so quickly it felt like an apparition, a dream—the kind that made you shake your head and ask yourself if you just saw what you thought you saw. How quickly the darkness filled in around them as we moved through the night. A short time later, an unnatural noise filled the motorcoach and it slowly rolled to a stop.
The driver allowed us to step off while he investigated and I admit to straying further than I should, scrabbling backward across the desert and up a rise, but oh the reward: a full view of the vast night sky overhead. I was literally dumbstruck by the density of stars hanging in the blue-black sky. There were so many; they seemed to flicker and dance in patterns all their own, beckoning. As I gazed open-mouthed, I finally understood why in the lives of the ancients the night sky held sway for thousands of years. Without ambient light to interfere, the celestial realm truly did resemble a map—I only wished I possessed the skills to read it.
Though the images and experiences I shared above are more vivid, I will also never forget:
- the pair of prancing, snorting white horses, their forelocks flashing in the morning light, as they pulled a carriage along the corniche in Alexandria.
- the pyramids at Giza, especially my climb into Khufu’s burial chamber.
- the delight at seeing hieroglyphs up close inside a mastaba or rectangular tomb. Scenes depicting the deceased man’s funerary banquet, agricultural practices and daily life covered the walls. One section even showed him getting a pedicure.
- the Giza Plateau and the so-named Cairene suburb below it, where I discovered a shop shadowed by the plateau that reminded me of Ali Baba’s cave. It smelled of cedar and age and was stacked to the ceiling helter-skelter with all manner of treasures straight out of The Arabian Nights.
- the custom of bartering—a custom, which due to my shyness, I have no facility for.
- the predominance of men in the city streets—where were all the women?
- the fact the pyramids at Giza and Saqqara are the largest and earliest respectively, but aren’t Egypt’s only pyramids. There are more than 100 dotting the horizon mostly in the area south of the Nile Delta.
- the colossal nature of the pyramids, temples, obelisks, stelae and statues, which continue to inspire awe in the living and to affirm immortality for the ancient Egyptians—just as they intended.