Saturday, January 14, 2012

So ... Egypt

This is going to be a long one – so go get a cup of tea first

“Going to Egypt” has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember.  The mystery, the history – the TIME.  Walking where the Pharaohs walked, where magic was part of life; going to the one place on our planet where alchemists and academics and thinkers and adventurers and dreamers went in search of inspiration and truth and eternal life - for centuries.  To say it was an obsession of mine, would not be an understatement. At some point, because it was such a great dream, I thought ‘going to Egypt’ would be the last thing I do in this life.  This is why, when Tinus said: “let’s go to Egypt,” a thrill of excitement – and a tiny thread of fear – ran through my body.  Strangely enough, the fact that the news media was painting a grim picture of the current state of affairs in Egypt did not deter me at all. Remember:  “I’m from Africa, dahrling;” we don’t see a bit of civil unrest as reason enough to change our plans.

“Who sits by the window” has been negotiated and I drew the last leg, coming in to Cairo.  As the view in my tiny window changed from desert landscape to city, I literally held my breath.  And then it was there – hundreds upon hundreds of brown buildings in a brown landscape – like some alien slave camp – it stretched out below as far as I could see, disappearing in a murky brown sludge of foggy haze on the distant horizon. 

Where was the Nile, shimmering blue against the green banks laden with crops?  The Egypt of my dreams had blinding white buildings, populated by proud people – the children of the gods, who painted their houses in bold colours.  As we circled and landed the realization slowly came to me – this is not the place I dreamt about.  Where did it go?  What happened?  How did it get to be like this?

The tour representative, Abdul, met us as we stepped out of the bus and walked into the terminal building.  He greeted us like old friends and with a friendly relaxed manner guided us through passport control, got our luggage and in no time had us standing outside in the huge - shades of murky brown and gray -parking area where we and our bags were loaded into a minibus.  Abdul sat in front with the driver, and as we left from the airport he turned around to us and asked: ”Have you heard about the traffic in Cairo?” “Yes,” we said.  He, smiled, and as he turned back he said, “Whatever you’ve heard – it’s worse.” 

And it was.  It took us two hours to drive from the Airport to our hotel in Giza.  The traffic was unbelievable, but entertaining.  Any mode of transport you can imagine, bicycles, motorcycles, horses, donkeys and little motorcycle-car-thingies crammed together on what I think is possibly a three lane highway – no regard is shown for road markings.  The road traffic people possibly know this because we only saw one road sign – Tinus took a photo of it.     The cars are all old –like 1950s old.  For someone who lives in a country where one regularly sees at least three Maseratis each time you go out on the roads and Porsche SUVs are common, this fact stuck out like a pentagram on a Christmas pudding. 

The passing scenery seemed to have been de-saturated.  The buildings are mostly unfinished, with reinforcement steel cables sticking out at all angles, you can clearly see where the inside staircases runs and just about none of the buildings have been plastered – let alone painted.  There was even a mosque, with the dome hanging precariously off one completed wall.  But then I started to notice it:  These unfinished buildings are occupied.  People live in them, and where there’s life, there are little bits of colour, as if the people are rebelling against the ‘great nothing’ threatening to take over their city by splashing bold colours around them.  And as I looked I saw more and more colours, blue and green, purple and orange, yellow and even a touch of red, bravely crying out against the mind numbing brown and beige murk I saw from the sky.

I thought I am going to tell you about our holiday, but it seems that I’m telling you about the truth I found instead of the splendor I expected.  Egypt is a place where the true face of humanity has been carved in stone through the centuries.  We saw testimony to the human traits of fear and hatred; the remnants of destruction caused by Christians and Kings, as they have attempted to destroy the faces of the gods and enemy pharaohs.   We saw testimony to the human traits of pride and greed; where the occupants of tombs have listed – walls and walls filled with hieroglyphs – telling of what they owned, what great deeds they did and how wonderful they are.  We saw testimony to the barbarity of the great pharaohs, which still lingers in the warmongers among humankind today, as we saw temple walls covered with battle scenes, where enemies are killed and great mounds of decapitated heads and other unmentionables are depicted with great precision and scribes are shown counting severed hands to determine how many enemies have been captured.

But we also saw testimony to the greater of humanity’s traits:  that of love and the need to create beauty, the in the way in which the artists of the village of craftsmen created the temples and tombs, carved the figures of gods and men out of stone so perfectly, that you almost expect the figures to step out of the stone walls.  And the colours!  Bits of colours remained everywhere, and one can easily imagine the breathtaking site these temples must once have been.  I always felt as if I was trespassing whenever we entered into a sacred space, where once only gods and priestesses where allowed. 

The testimony to another one of humanity’s most beautiful traits, that of the need to worship and believe in something greater than yourself, by different names and in different ways, is evident all over Egypt, in the great temples built to honour the gods.  We saw testimony to humanity’s adventurous spirit and the need to explore in the hieroglyphics telling us of Hatsheput's missions to the far reaching corners of the world, and with her we also see the strength of Women with an unbreakable spirit, doing what needs to be done, in spite of the cost to us personally.

Egypt’s modern history reads like the biography of a popular slave girl, passed from king to king to general, never loved, never cared for but greedily coveted, used and abused.  I was struck by the humongous monument at Aswan built in gratitude to the Russians.  But it made sense when I heard the story behind it:  The Egyptians wanted to borrow money to build the Aswan dam.  Nasser (one of many Generals in the biography) went to the Americans and Brits in the 1950s to try and borrow the huge amounts of money needed to build the dam.  Our guide told us it was around 530 million US dollars; Wikipedia says it was $1,120,000,000.  One thousand, one hundred and twenty million US dollars!  Whichever one it was, it was lots and lots of dollars, and apart from something like 6% interest they also wanted to have the Egyptians make friends with the Israelis – we all know how that turned out, so instead Nasser went to the USSR, who said sure, they’ll give them the money at only 2% interest and they can pay them back in ‘produce.’  If someone borrowed me millions and millions of dollars in return for some onions and watermelons I would also build him a monument too.

Today the dam/lake behind the huge wall stretches for about 350km south from the wall to the border of Egypt and carries on for another 150km into Sudan.   Personally I would never have built the damn dam.  It seemed to have messed up everything, but that’s just me.  As we all know, after the Egyptians built the dam the rest of the world jumped in to save the priceless legacy of temples flooded by the Aswan dam.  We visited the Temple at Philae dedicated to Isis and I hurt physically to think that all of that would have been lost, has it not been for the great human trait of generosity.   I think if one has to calculate it: the cost of moving all the temples, it would probably be more than the construction cost of that damn dam.  There were more than 20 temples I think, which were flooded, or would have been flooded, including the magnificent temple at Abu Simbel that Ramses the 2nd built for the love of his life, which sadly we didn’t see – next time. 

Our guide described the process of moving a temple to us:  First a mini-dam was built around the temple, usually with two sets of walls, and then the water was pumped out.  The temple was then moved – stone by stone – to higher ground.  Statues and larger blocks of stone were cut into moveable pieces and reassembled in their new locations, all of this done with money donated and by volunteers from all over the world.  At many of these sites there are still pieces left over, I guess it’s a bit like the last few mystery screws remaining after you took something apart and then put it back together again.

 Travelling on the Nile was one part of the dream that was exactly as I imagined it to be.  The cruiser itself was luxurious and I can well imagine a Pharaoh drifting down the Nile on his or her barge like this, looking at the people working their small fields, tending to their goats, looking pretty much like I imagine they looked thousands of years ago.  On the cruise we were brought in close contact with the local Egyptians, in the form of the staff/waiters/barmen on board the cruiser as well as the hoards of extremely irritating, in-your-face- street vendors who wanted to sell us stuff.  The staff on board was beyond good.  They were always friendly and our favourite among the crew was our barman, who gave us a riddle every time he brought us our drinks. 
Sadly, we didn’t buy anything from the vendors, we never even looked at their ‘wares,’ as they were apt to descend on you like a flock of hungry vultures the moment you looked interested in anything.  We quickly learnt not to make eye contact with them.  What I have seen though, is that in spite of the ‘hunger’ in wanting the sell you things, they had an incredible zest for life, there was exuberance and joy in everything they did, and laughter in their eyes.  They are beautiful, old and young, their faces are full of expression and whatever they do, they seem to do with everything they have.

 One of the highlights of our holiday was the hot-air-balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings.  None of us have ever done it and I think it is something everyone should have on their bucket list.  There is no way to describe that feeling of being part of the breaking day, soundlessly floating over the waking landscape as nothing more than a shadow in the morning mist. 

The four days on the Nile slid past way too quickly and before we knew it we were back on the classic old train, taking us to Cairo.  The train looks just like it did in the 1950s, and I can absolutely imagine Agatha Christy sitting on the very same chair I sat in, in the lounge, surrounded by (less faded) gold and green brocade. We have done and seen so much, temples and tombs flowed into each other but the incredibly artistry never ceased to amaze and enthrall me.  I am so glad that we did get to see Deir El Medina, the village where the craftsmen lived.  It is impossible to try and describe their artwork.  If I had to tell you about everything it will take me another three pages, no, more, and I didn’t even really take photos of it – not even a photo can capture the perfection of what they did.  I guess that is where the magic still lives, hidden in their work. 

As much as Dubai is a testimony to modern man’s ability to create, Egypt is testimony to what we always were capable of.  The pyramids are beyond words and I am so glad that Skye’s adventurous spirit inspired me to join her in going into an actual pyramid.  We two girls also took a camel ride along the pyramids, dusty and smelly as they were, the camels, Mickey Mouse and Michael Jackson, were actually really sweet.  Our last night was spent in the Mena House Hotel and that was an experience in itself.  Situated at the foot of the great pyramid of Cheops it was built in1869, around the same time as our house in Hopefield J  Agatha Christy and Winston Churchill are among the people who stayed at the hotel.  I love the Moorish décor and the plush carpets you sink into as you walk along the dimly lit passage ways, and the smell – I cannot explain it, but it smells like home.   As a grand finale to our holiday we went to see the laser and light show at the great Sphinx and pyramids on our last night in Egypt.  It was as spectacular as I imagined.  The show ends with the narrator in his very Omar Sharif-y accent saying:  “It is said that man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.”  

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