Michael J Cale

Egypt the long way round

 It’s fitting that a trip through Egypt starts with Cairo. It’s the capital, after all. It’s also a fair introduction to the country’s singular charms. Our plan was to visit the usual destinations, but to do it without taking the usual tourist routes. So, we reached Cairo by taking a boat ride across the Mediterranean and then travelling overland, through the sort of expanses of sand and rock we’ve all seen in a thousand movies. Here, the desert monotony is broken only by the occasional small building, inexplicably built and abandoned miles from anywhere.

Cairo’s outskirts contain some up-market suburbs which don’t really prepare you for what you find when you enter the city proper. Downtown’s mostly low(ish) rise, with lots and lots of identical residential buildings. These houses have small footprints and are constructed by pouring a concrete frame and filling it up with bricks. They have multiple stories, each floor used by one generation of a family. The top story is invariably incomplete, an array of steel rods poking up at the sky. The reason for this is one of those wonderfully inspired pieces of legislation that can only come from the mind of a true bureaucrat. If you build a house, you only start to pay property taxes once the house is finished. If you’re part of the 99% of the population that aren’t true bureaucrats, you’ll be able to guess the result, which is that no house is ever finished.

The effect of all the unfinished buildings is enhanced by the classic Egyptian garden. To create your very own classic Egyptian garden, simply bulldoze all your rubble and rocks to one side and leave them there. In ten years time, voila, it will magically look like a pile of rubble and rocks. Besides dumping rubble all around the houses, residents also cover the floor of the missing top story with piles of junk. This effect is even continued through the tombs of the sprawling, otherwise grandiose cemetery known as the City of the Dead. It gives much of the city the appearance of a combined construction/demolition site.

The touristy parts of Cairo consist of a number of museums and a citadel built by one Salah-ah-din, who became a movie star (check out ‘Kingdom of Heaven’) after he changed his name to Saladin. There’s a king-sized mosque and lots of minarets. Inside the mosque, parties of students crouch on carpets as their teachers explain the significance of the high ceilings and decorated wall panels. Inevitably, though, the gloriously ornate interior is partially masked by a thick covering of dust and cobwebs.

Then, of course, there are the pyramids of the famous Giza plateau. Visiting them invokes simultaneous feelings of familiarity and dislocation. The pyramids themselves are familiar - like the desert, they’ve featured in a thousand movies. What’s strange is that there are only three major pyramids and, while you always imagine these things are surrounded by desert, they’re more-on-less at the end of a suburban street. To reach them, you drive past some of the classic Egyptian gardens, dodge a garbage-lined canal. Suddenly, there they are.

The view from the plateau above the pyramids was amazing, though, even if it was partially obscured when we were there by a minor sandstorm. At least the swirling sand was some minor disincentive to the locals, who were busy peddling plastic models of the Sphinx and fake papyrus scrolls made of banana leaf and (according to the people who sell real papyrus in Cairo’s upmarket shops) hazardous chemicals.  When they’re not selling tourist tat, they’re offering to be in your photographs if you give them a couple of dollars.

Pop around the corner from the pyramids and you get to the Sphinx. Writers aren’t allowed to mention the Sphinx without using the word ‘inscrutable’. What’s more noticeable about it, though, is that its sandstone is eroding and its nose has gone. (There was a legend that Napoleon’s soldiers had blown off the proboscis in question but it was really the work of a Turkish general who wanted to shake the local’s religious beliefs (check facts). The story about Napoleon was put about by the British as part of an eighteenth century propaganda campaign.)

According to local legend, the Sphinx was originally one of a pair. Its sibling is, therefore, somewhere out there, under the desert sand.


Still avoiding the standard tourist routes, which lead out of Cairo along the narrow Nile valley, we decide to sail the Suez canal. Instead of heading south, then, we take a bus to the east, back through the desert. After a three hour drive, we arrive in Port Said, a town that, in terms of its general tidiness, makes Cairo look like Disneyland. The people, though, were friendly and welcoming as we walked the streets to the dock and the small ship that would take us south to the Red Sea.

Ships transit the canal in convoy, waiting their turn patiently in Port Said’s harbour mouth. The canal operates a one-way system, with a way station part-way through known as the ‘Great Bitter Lake’. The waterway offers plenty of chances to look at sand dunes but there are also entertaining army encampments, every few miles. The soldiers are mostly conscripts who don’t get paid for their year’s service to the state. They’re not exactly the Coldstream Guards but they’re friendly, standing on the canal banks whooping and waving their AK47s.


There’s also a massive suspension bridge over the canal. It’s mysteriously straight and complete, although its construction may be explained by the Japanese flag on one of its spans. A little further on, there’s a side-canal that, like the Great Bitter Lake, is used as a holding pen and which offers transiting sailors the chance to see ships apparently becalmed in the middle of sand dunes.

At its southern end, the canal gives onto the Red Sea and the port of Safaga.  Security here is a little more relaxed the rigorous regime we’re used to at airports, although any lack of rigour isn’t caused by a lack of manpower. In the port area, there were seven or eight ‘port police’, dressed in nice white uniforms, right next to the boat, plus another four just up the road and about eight by the main gate. When we left the boat, none of these people moved until one waved us towards a metal detector. We walked though, cameras and cell phones setting off the alarm, but the port police waved sleepily at us so we carried on and got on the ship.


Luxor is a few hundred kilometres inland from Safaga. Getting there involves another, longer, overland trip. Here though - we’re now well into Upper Egypt, so called because it’s up-river and consequently on higher ground than the old Lower Kingdom - the desert landscape offers more variety, with dramatic rock formations lining the coast and stretching fifty kilometres inland before giving way to sand. Further on, the scenery changes again. You see the odd tree, standing in mysterious isolation, and then clumps of bushes. Suddenly, the desert blooms. The Egyptians have remodelled their environment, dams and canals stopping the millennia-old flooding of the Nile basin and diverting water to fields full of corn and sunflowers.

Luxor is home to the famous Valley of the Kings. Here you can walk a dusty trail between the last resting places of famous Pharoahs such as Rameses II and Tutenkhamen while graduates of the local charm schools try to sell you plastic busts of Nefertiti and sheets of toilet paper for the loos. The tombs are surprisingly well-preserved, their walls covered with hieroglyphic legends. The valley’s wonders don’t, however, compare to the nearby Temple of Karnak. Constructed over the 2,000 year period up to the seventh century BC, this is really a complex of temples built on a staggering scale. We roam around between gigantic pillars and statues of Pharoahs and gods. As daylight fades and dusk sweeps in from the desert, we sit beside the Sacred Lake, all that remains, according to ancient Egyptian mythology, of the ocean that once covered all of creation. It’s a moment of rare peace and tranquillity as the sun sets in the west, ibises flap their graceful way to their night-time nests and graduates of the local charm schools try to sell us plastic busts of Nefertiti and sheets of toilet paper for the loos.

We face another lengthy trip across the desert to reach the Red Sea and then the minor problem of navigating our way back to the Southern Hemisphere. For now, we concentrate on the serenity of the moment, trying to invoke the oneness of all things, the peace that comes from inner harmony and, most importantly, the location of the nearest bar.

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