Seeing the world, one country at the time

Egypt in a Nutshell

Egypt is the land of the Sphinx, pyramids, mummies, Tutankhamun and countless other Pharaohs, the Nile, the Aswan Dam, the Suez Canal, desert and dunes, and Red Sea diving - touted as among the best in the world. It is a tourist’s delight. Egypt is also a religious hub, often forgotten in our haste to visit the pharaonic sites. I don’t just mean Islam either. It is the land of Moses, who saved the Jewish people by leading them out of Egypt and slavery back to Palestine. The result is a Jewish section in Cairo. Egypt is also the cradle of the Christian church; the place where Joseph and Mary hid from King Herod’s decree to kill all newborn boys, and the home of the oldest church. There are several ancient churches in Cairo, mostly Egyptian Coptic and Greek Orthodox.

Egypt is, however, also poor, and home to some of today’s most infamous terrorists - think 9/11. It is the sight of some of the most horrible bombings of tourist havens like Sharm-Al-Sheik. Behind tourism’s shiny veneer is a harsh reality of unemployment, dissatisfied young men and Muslim extremists that the Egyptian government is trying very hard to hide. Tourists follow certain routes around the country and tourist locations are now closely guarded by security forces while terrorist suspects are apprehended. Tours going to Abu Simbel always travel by caravan and everywhere you go outside the capital, you find military posts and barbed wire fences.

I have three memories of Egypt, growing up. One was a project I had to do in the fifth grade. I think every child in the American school system has at some point studied the ancient Egyptians, a basis for our modern western civilization (as far as we may be from each other today). The second is meeting the widow of President Anwar Sadat after he had been assassinated. The third is a trip I took with my parents when I was about 13, to visit Cairo and the famous Sphinx and Pyramids. I lived in Thailand then and Cairo was the worst place I had ever been. It was dirty, polluted, and full of beggars and aggressive salesmen. The traffic was horrible and I couldn’t wait to leave. But since then, every person I know who has been to Egypt loved it. So what was wrong with my impression? I decided I needed to give it another try, so we added it to our itinerary on the tail end of our trip. Lars had also been there to see the Cairo sights, but this time we decided we’d go further afield to visit Luxor and Aswan up the Nile.

Arriving in Cairo, I realized how much perception colors our impressions. Last time I was in Egypt I found it dirty, crowded and overwhelming. This time it seemed leagues ahead of Delhi; modern, clean and organized. The traffic was hardly what I’d call busy or crazy. Maybe it had something to do with our last month in India. That doesn’t mean that Cairo is clean, by western standards. The traffic and pollution are so bad that it hurt our noses to breathe and our throats burned. So now you can imagine what India was like. Egyptians didn’t stare, they didn’t even push. We had come to an oasis of calm, in comparison. Sure, there are touts and thieves and you have to watch out for your belongings. But it’s on a totally different level. Compared to India, these guys are amateurs. Or perhaps we’d become experts at spotting and avoiding them. I was ready to give Egypt another chance.