Rediscover Egypt with the locals
“No cherubs, pearly doors or dining with Elvis and Jesus,” says Egyptologist Hala Sayed, my private guide for today. Glamorous movie star in a crisp blouse and white jeans, she explains that the ancient Egyptians imagined an afterlife that wasn’t all that different from life on Earth. It’s early morning in September, and we find ourselves on the almost empty main floor of the salmon-hued neoclassical museum of Egyptian antiquities in Cairo’s Tahrir Square before the sightseeing buses arrive to disgorgement of their passengers. The graves, Hala explains, were often painted with everyday scenes – of people grinding grain, having sex, brewing beer – and depicted the beloved family members and pets the deceased hoped to see again. This prosaic version of paradise was not due to a lack of imagination (these are the same who imagined the goddess Ahti with the head of a wasp and the body of a hippopotamus) but because “life was rather good”, says Hala. “Egypt was paradise.”
Sadly, the gift isn’t so heavenly for my 12 year old son Joe. At 9 am, it was 32 ° C and we barely slept. We are at the very start of a weeklong trip – our first international adventure in over two years – visiting Cairo and descending the Nile to see the temples and tombs that line the river between the Egyptian cities of southern Egypt. Aswan and Luxor. It was a dream trip for both of us, and today is a big one: the museum, the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx. However, as Joe goes from late summer tan to chalky green, I can see he’s fighting a losing battle against jet lag and heat. Before I have to make the kind of lose-lose decision parents so often have to make when traveling with sick or reluctant children, Hala takes matters into her own hands. She calls our field trip coordinator, and within minutes they’ve come up with a plan that everyone is comfortable with: Our driver will pick up Joe, whose need to rest outweighs his desire. to see Giza, and take him to the hotel; the hotel doctor will be looped; and I will be updated periodically as Hala and I make our way to the pyramids. It’s the right call, but I still feel guilty that Joe is missing the day he was most excited for. I promise, on the spot, to bring him back one day soon.
As we work our way through the midday traffic, Hala and I discuss our children, the politics after the Arab Spring, and the short Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. She’s a longtime Cairene who, since 1990, has worked for Abercrombie & Kent, bringing travelers to Egypt for over four decades. Like the majority of business guides in the country, many of whom are professors and / or former diplomats, she holds a master’s degree in Islamic art and architecture and is currently working on her doctorate. She points out the new neighborhoods emerging between Cairo and Giza, which have merged into a single megalopolis with a combined population of 21 million, and then tells me about President Sisi’s new administrative capital about 30 miles from Cairo, which , when completed, will be the largest planned city in the world. I missed that about travel – those informal but meaningful conversations and connections that happen during the intervening moments.
In Cairo, the past collides with the present like nowhere else in the world, and as we chat we get closer to the pyramids that overlook this most urban landscape. After a lifetime of seeing photos of the Great Pyramid, the oldest of the Giza group and the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, I think I know what it will look like in person. I do not. The scale and texture and the way the light hits it as the sun reflects off the surrounding desert and plunges in and out of the clouds is something you must feel. Hala scheduled our visit for the late afternoon when the heat is not so overwhelming and the crowds have cleared. People are thronging, but apparently today is relatively calm. Even before COVID, tourism numbers weren’t quite back to what they were before the 2011 revolution. The government hopes to expand them with large-scale projects like the long-delayed Grand Egyptian Museum, which I can tell. see in the distance the outline of glass and concrete. Apparently, there are enough archaeological treasures to fill both the beloved Cairo Museum and this one, although many expensive items, such as the 5,600 artefacts unearthed in Tut’s tomb, will be transferred to the newcomer. When the state-of-the-art, billion-dollar facility finally opens later in 2022, after about a decade of delays, it will be the world’s largest archaeological museum.