Galleon to Egypt, please, Caius
‘Timeless’ is a cliché cheaply used in travel. But if there is one land that could legitimately claim the title as her own, it has to be the one where, after 5,000 years of recorded history (and some 9,000 of continuous human settlement), the felucca still rules the waves, and where the daily lives of the fellahin farmers have changed little since the days of their hunter-gathering or nomadic ancestors.Egypt was on the recreational map of the ancient Greeks and Romans and incredibly, many of the sites which attracted them are still delighting visitors today.
Thankfully, gone are the days when mummies were exported wholesale and powdered for paint, medicine and fertiliser, chopped up for the fireplace – or, better still, wheeled into the salons of Europe for the fashionable ‘Unwrapping Parties’ of the 1800s.
The indiscriminate plundering exacted by colonial archaeologists in the Valley of the Kings would be inconceivable today, with Luxor (ancient Thebes), Abu Simbel (on Lake Aswan) and Islamic Cairo – to name but three sites – all protected by UNESCO World Heritage status. As for Giza, with its Pyramids the most iconic site of them all, it is now an official Wonder of the Ancient World. Better news still is that so much is still being unearthed, year after year – but these days under the auspices of vigilant and expert Egyptologists.
The mummy of Queen Hatshepsut, the greatest female pharaoh, as well as the intact sarcophagi at Saqqara are stunning examples of recent discoveries.
The Great River and the Red Sea
Few countries are as readily associated with their rivers as Egypt is with its lifeblood. All of Egypt’s cities, with the exception of those near the coast, lie along the Nile Valley north of Aswan; and nearly all the historical sites are found along the banks of the Great River, to use its hieroglyphic name. For millennia, communities have depended on its seasonal flooding, hunted and fished along its shores and relied on it for transport.
The Romans liked their creature comforts of course, and the patrician tourist was no exception, favouring the galleon over the felucca to enjoy the Nile. To be fair, criss-crossing the Med in one piece to get there was adventurous enough and lions did roam the riverbanks. These days we enjoy a similar choice: watch the riverine world go by from the unhurried felucca and sleep ashore under the stars or combine adventurous sorties on land with the chilled cosiness of a 5-star cruiser for your home? It’s a tough call. Either way, it is pure, undiluted escapism, enjoyable in little over a week off work and accessible with a short haul flight. And if riverine exploration doesn’t float your boat, the Red Sea should; warm to the touch even in winter and ablaze with a kaleidoscope of creatures, it’s a snorkeller’s dream come true.
Funny to think that there are more church-going Egyptians than there are Britons, but with 10% of their 82 million being Coptic Christians, that’s just the case. How refreshing in our age to learn that mosques and churches are often neighbours in Egypt’s cities, with mutual respect going as far as the two buildings sharing fairy lights at Christmas time. Barack Obama had good reason to choose Cairo University for his aperture to the Muslim World: here education, tolerance and history are all rolled into one. Religion has pervaded every aspect of civilisation for millennia. Egypt was the original home of monasticism, with monasteries providing a haven from the pagan chaos of the cities – St Simeon’s (near Aswan) and St Catherine’s (at Mount Sinai) being the most celebrated.
Exploring the Sinai Peninsula on foot - often along the very same paths used by prophets and hermits - is every bit as enriching to the soul as feasting on its rugged beauty is to the eye. Walking, of course, is the best way of appreciating the Egyptians themselves; beyond the archaeological and natural treasures of the country, what every visitor remembers is the sheer warmth and proud hospitality of the people. From the Bedouin along the trekking paths and the Nubians of the deep south, to the fellahin and boatmen of the Nile Valley, the images and sounds that endure longest in the mind are the laughter shared with the locals.
By Fabio Perselli