Mummy knows best
GALLOPPING into the dark, desert skies with the cool wind blowing on my face, I was enveloped by celestial company: the moon and the stars.
It was an Arabian night to remember, I told myself as I reigned in my stallion. And just then, breaking out in the distant horizon, was the pyramid. One by one, each of the three majestic structures unfolded before me.
Lit up by the son et lumiere show, the pyramids of Giza changed colours, dazzled and mesmerised. The oldest of the seven ancient wonders, they had me in a bind. Well, to be honest, I had almost lost myself to the world in that magical moment when out of the blue, someone tugged at my back. “Yala, baksheesh (tip, please),” said the figure who I could barely see in the dark. But there was something in that voice that suggested that he meant business.
My guide whispered it was a tourist police and he was asking for his ‘price’ since I had apparently got too close to the pyramids. As it turned out, the policeman was happy with a few Egyptian pounds I pulled out of from my shirt pocket and rolled into his palm.
And, before I knew it, he had vanished into the darkness – with a small price to allow me to marvel at this glorious structure on a mystical night. Still, I will never forgive him for ruining that moment, which was lost forever in the night.
I returned to the comfort of my grand suite at the newly-opened Four Seasons Hotel at Nile Plaza. It offered a splendid view of the Nile with ship cruises along and the Cairo skyline sparkling in the night. But nothing, but nothing could compare with what I had just seen – no matter how many postcards you’ve seen, I can safely bet that nothing prepares you for the real thing!
So much so that I couldn’t wait to land up at the son et lumiere show the next evening and hear about its history and that of the Sphinx. Despite the melodrama of multiculoured lasers and portentous, Burtonian narration – of the “All-men-fear-Time-but-Time-fears-the-Sphinx” variety – didn’t entirely live up to the hype. But I couldn’t care less with the faces of the pyramids and Sphinx coming back to haunt me again and again.
And yes, I wound my way back to Giza the following day again. This time, with the sun beating down my head, I trotted on a camel – stallions are only for the night, or was it there something in the air that I didn’t bother to look down on my four-legged carrier? – and after passing the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the oldest on the site and the largest in Egypt, reached the entrance of the smallest of the three pyramids, Menkaure, just in time before it closed its door. Crouched nearly on all fours, I climbed down the long, steep stairways and down tiny passages to the empty burial chambers but tired and exhausted, I ran up the same route double quick as I could hardly bear the heat, the airlessness and the claustrophobia. Gasping for breath, I rushed out and, ignoring calls from my chirpy guide – “Oh, mister, now you want to see Sphinxter?” – I headed straight back to civilisation.
I know there are other pyramids to see in Egypt as well – including those in nearby Sakkara – but if you’ve seen the big one, you’ve seen them all. Next, it was important to see what lay beneath the pyramids. So, off I went to the gargantuan Egyptian Museum of Antiquities.
Representing the largest collection of its kind in the world, it boasts more than 100,000 artefacts spanning Egyptian history from the earliest dynasties to the Roman era. It will take more than a day – may be an entire week – to see every exhibit but among the must-see attractions here are the Tutankhamen Galleries, which display the gold and gem-inlaid funerary mask and 1,700 other treasures found in the tomb of the Boy King, and the Royal Mummy Room, which contains the corpses of 11 of Egypt’s most powerful pharaohs including Seti I and his son Ramses II. Incredibly enough, the figures still have features and as one stares into the face of kings and queens who died some 3,000 years ago it’s difficult not to get goose pimples. Enough. Back to civilisation, I told myself, looking forward to the comfort of my hotel room.
Cairo may not be the most beautiful city in the world – in fact, it is dirty and overpopulated – but it’s charm stems from the fact that it is a product of its history. A history that lives on in the streets of the ‘city of the thousand minarets’. And the unique thing about Cairo is that each new ruler – whether Roman, Greek, Persian, French or Arabs – rather than destroying what he had conquered, chose to build a new city upwind from the old. Not surprising then that you have distinctly different parts of the city i.e. Old Cairo, Islamic Cairo, the colonial downtown, the urban suburb of Heliopolis and, of course, Giza, home to the famous pyramids.
However, it is, perhaps, the Old City, with its maze-like shopping district and ancient mosques, that is the most enchanting part of Cairo. Here, more than any where else in Egypt, you will be transported to the Middle Ages, especially as you walk through the Khan el Khalili, the central shopping bazaar which has remained largely unchanged since the 14th century. From polyester bellydancing costumes to souvenirs to essential oils to hieroglyphed papyri, you name it and an Egyptian salesman in pale blue galabeyya will offer it. But more than shopping, with winding medieval alleys and more, Khan el Khalili is a complete experience with teeming roadside food stalls, grand ancient mosques and traditional Egyptian music rending the air.
Clearly, there’s more to city than pyramids and pharaohs – and bellydancing and Nile cruises thrown in for good measure. The minarets and mosques may be crumbling, the people may be struggling to make ends meet and the city itself may be in dire need of a facelift but despite all else, wherever you go, there’s a certain life to Cairo that is uniquely its own. And you can’t miss it – even in the City of the Dead, where 100,000 impoverished Cairenes live among the tombs of a vast graveyard!