Call her Egypt or Misr, she’s just as surreal and seductive in our collective imagination. Perhaps it’s because of the mysticism of cultures as rich as ours, the ties between us reaching deep into the mists of time. India by the Nile, my invitation said of the recently concluded 20-day cultural extravaganza organised collaboratively by the Indian Embassy in Cairo, the ministries of culture and tourism in Egypt, and Sanjoy Roy’s Teamwork Arts. It turned out to be such a rousing, colourful reminder of our heritage, an event the likes of which Cairo had never seen before. Bollywood stormed the international airport with a taste of what lay in store: when Gilles Chuyen, Teamworks’ choreographer and director, led his troupe through leggy footwork set to Bollywood hits, the crowd at the arrival terminal erupted and eventually ended up on the dance floor. Thus were we welcomed after the seven-hour Egypt Air flight from Mumbai, and then swiftly transported to Hotel Flamenco in the diplomatic area, which is tree-lined and cool, with old bungalows peering out from a sprawl of business establishments. Showered, but still in a daze, we found ourselves at the lovely Cairo Opera House, where the capital’s citizenry was following, by all accounts, an immensely successful Bollywood dance workshop. Chuyen’s amazing dancing, and patience, was a lesson in engaging a crowd, its only common language and obsession being Bollywood dance and music. I learnt another thing: Bollywood is clearly India’s best export to Egypt.
Egypt has been an obsession with me as far as I can remember — the Nile, its pharaonic culture, and the enigmatic Queen Cleopatra who held in thrall two of the ancient world’s most powerful men. So when, after drinks at the Indian ambassador Navdeep Suri’s beautiful period home overlooking the Nile, we headed out for dinner by a riverside restaurant, I soaked in everything Suri and his charming wife Mani told us not to miss.
A cool and pearly morning (the best time to go) found us on the road to Giza. It’s a wonder I didn’t fall back gazing up at the ‘Big One’ or, for that matter, one of the many camels hanging around for photo-ops. I cringed a bit at the $30 fee but determinedly entered the heart of the Great Pyramid of Khufu by the short, narrow passage leading to a steeply inclined ramp by which you haul yourself up two levels. Bending painfully low, I eventually found myself at the top, in a largish, cool and dimly lit enclosure, whose only occupants were two guards protecting a deep, trough-like structure used for burying mortal remains. Everything that was found here is in museums now, of course. Close to the pyramid are housed the old boats used to transport the pharaoh on his last journey, but repair work prevented us from going in to see them. I gazed long and deep at the broken-nosed Sphinx but he remained aloof and didn’t even ask me his fabled riddle. So I just took some pictures of him to show to the folks at home and wished him luck for centuries to come.
Cairo’s Egyptian Museum is fabulous, the flow of traffic across the historic Tahrir Square unending, but a tour of the famous old quarter turned out to be a tad disappointing. The last three years of political unrest have had a punishing effect on the Egyptian economy and nowhere is it more telling than at the Khan el-Khalili market, which was once abuzz with tourists all year round. Quite a few shutters are down and most shops seem to be selling the same souvenirs. Some of the shopkeepers get a mite nasty in case you take pictures and don’t pay for them, so do ask before you pull out your camera. Yes, there is a suppressed air of quiet desperation but if you enjoy antiquated atmospherics, they haven’t quite gone away. A tour of Cairo’s religious structures is another eye-opener — from the technical delights of the Coptic Hanging Church to the Alabaster Mosque of Muhammad Ali at the Citadel Al- Qalaa (and the view of the mountain face across it, from which the great stones for the pyramids were once sourced).
If Cairo sports a more modern façade today, Luxor (the ancient Thebes) is steeped in its past. From the old-worldly Hotel Steigenberger situated by the Nile, I spy the mountainous hump which marks the Valley of Kings and Queens where lies entombed Egypt’s Pharaonic past. Sweeping past the Winter Palace Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote some chapters of Death on the Nile, we head out for the Valley of Kings, briefly viewing the seated Colossi of Memnon en route. Luxor was the base of the god Amun, whose son was the earthly Pharaoh!
The Pharaonic ego is best described by the monumental structures found here. I emerged from the passage with its double line-up of Criosphinxes (mythical creatures with the body of a lion and head of a ram) to encounter the humongous Ramses II (locally known as a motormouth — all talk and ambition) and the mind-boggling multi-colonnaded Hypostyle Hall of the Karnak Temple. The nightly Sound and Light Show at the massive Karnak Temple complex, which ends at the Sacred Lake, was evocative and eerie, as I discovered walking in the giant shadows of its past. At the smaller Luxor Temple complex, I encountered our friend Ramses II again, but I was distracted by the Roman mosaics and an Egyptian woman scribe in a relief on the walls. The passages descending deep into the bowels of the earth were beautifully illustrated in the clusters of Pharaonic tombs. To see the tombs of King Tutankhamun or Nefertiti, you’ll be paying $150 apiece! Recently, ahi-tech replica of King Tut’s tomb has been sited near Henry Carter’s old house as there’s just too much pressure on the original.
For me, the high point was the Ramsesian site where I met Ozymandias from P.B. Shelley’s celebrated sonnet — he of the “vast and trunkless legs of stone” and the “half sunk... shattered visage” lying on the sand. The wrecked statue would have been 62ft tall had it been standing. I heard his words: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings./Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” I then wrapped up my beautiful memories of Luxor and sailed down the Nile on the iconic felucca.
In stunning Alexandria, from the balcony of the 1920s-era Sofitel Cecil, host to the likes of Henry Moore, I looked down on the gorgeous sweep of the Corniche, the waterfront promenade by the Mediterranean (like our Marine Drive) that extends deep into the horizon where the sea and sky meet in a misty haze. Lunch at the Cecil is delicious (but no pigeon for me, please) and soon we head out to savour this lovely port city established by my hero, Alexander the Great. My friends Sarah and Hosam from the tourist office have brought me the totally decadent Egyptian dessert om ali, so I have to walk it off. Alex, like Cairo, seems to be full of cats. I’m told dogs can’t be kept in Egyptian homes because they prevent good spirits from entering.
Midtown Alexandria is traffic-dense and cacophonic. Lawrence Durrell’s old world seems eons away. Egypt’s capital since 320BCE, this was once Cleopatra’s legendary home. It’s where she seduced Caesar, romanced Mark Antony, and was taken captive to Rome by Octavius. Her palace complex lies deep under the Mediterranean — transported there by several earthquakes — but we do visit the Citadel, situated on the spot where the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, once stood. Its light must have guided Cleopatra back from exile on a dark night, hidden in a sack, as she secretly presented herself to Julius Caesar in the palace where her warring bother lived. I soaked up the sea views and mulled over the tides of time to the cries of seagulls.
The mystery of the lost Library of Alexandria, once the world’s greatest repository of knowledge, also held me in thrall as I wandered the massive complex of the New Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which has taken its place with millions of books, and several galleries and exhibition halls. Stories cite at least three culprits responsible for the destruction of the original — Julius Caesar, Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria, and Caliph Omar of Damascus.
In the cool depths of the remains of the subterranean ‘daughter library’ in the precincts of the Serapeum Temple, which itself is in the complex hosting Pompey’s Pillar, I saw endless niches which must have housed scrolls and codices. Coptic Pope Theophilus had it destroyed in 391CE.
When Pompey was defeated by Julius Caesar in 48BCE, he sought refuge in Egypt, but was murdered on the beach by Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra’s estranged brother, who was supposed to be his friend. Legend has it that this was the spot where he was buried and the finial of the pillar is a container of his head. The sun was blazing down but we sat in the windswept shadow of Pompey’s Pillar, quaffing cold Sprite and gossiping about Shah Rukh Khan. My Egyptian friends just couldn’t get enough of SRK and Amitabh Bachchan.
The India on the Nile extravaganza travelled to Luxor, Alexandria and the seaside city of Hurghada. It featured the arts, learning and culinary culture of both countries, and everywhere I went, I encountered many vignettes of its massive success. The ties that bind us had found a lively platform.
Egypt Air (round trip: about Rs 38,200, ) and Air India (round trip: about Rs 44,000) fly direct to Cairo from Mumbai and Delhi. Middle-Eastern airliners like Royal Jordanian, Saudia and Kuwait Airways fly via Amman/Jeddah/Kuwait City from about Rs 30,000. Egypt Air connects Cairo to Luxor (about Rs 7,100 one way by economy class) and Alexandria (about Rs 4,000 one way), as well as Luxor to Alexandria (about Rs 11,000 one way). Trains and buses also ply these routes.
Apply at the Egyptian embassy in New Delhi (011-26114096/97) or Consulate-General in Mumbai (022-23676407) with the required documents for a 90-days single entry (Rs 1,300) or 180-days multiple entry (Rs 1,500) tourist visa.
1 Egyptian Pound = Rs 8.25
Where to stay
We stayed at the Golden Tulip Flamenco (from Rs 4,600; goldentulipflamenco.com), a comfortable hotel in a quiet yet central location. The Cairo Marriott Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino (from Rs 11,000; marriott. com) is far more luxurious, of course, but a longish way out of town and closer to the airport.
We were put up at the Hotel Steigenberger Nile Palace (from Rs 3,700; en.steigenberger. com), which is rightly popular for its spotless rooms and friendly service. The food is good but they have had to close down some of their restaurants because of the drop in tourist traffic; the Nile-facing rooms cost more. Alternately, the well-regarded Sofitel Winter Palace (from Rs 7,000; sofitel.com) has better views and a more exclusive ambience with well-tended gardens and a nice pool.
We enjoyed our stay at the historic Sofitel Cecil Alexandria (from Rs 5,900; sofitel.com) with superb views of the waterfront promenade and harbour. The Hilton Alexandria Corniche (from Rs 7,300; 3.hilton. com) would also be a reliable alternative with great sea views, standard amenities and helpful staff. But both hotels can get a bit noisy because of their location.
What to see & do
In Cairo, the great pyramids of Giza, the Cairo Museum and the Khan el-Khalili market are musts on every tourist itinerary, and you can give each of them hours of your time. I could not make it to Aswan, Abu Simbel, Kom Ombo or Edfu, but the Unesco-protected archaeological wonders of Luxor and Karnak, and the eponymous Valley of Kings and Valley of Queens reached from here, had me enthralled. A week could be easily spent at Luxor. The port city of Alexandria has a very different vibe despite its famously historic sites, including the modern library that has come up where the ancient wonder once stood.