With the discovery of a new relic in the slums of Cairo this week just gone (see here), I thought it may be time to unearth some thoughts on my past exploration of the land of the pharaohs….one of my first loves.
There’s a quick point to note here, when I left school, I didn’t go go study right away. I was a bit of a rebel with a deep seed for wanderlust rooted in my heart. I’d already lived a childhood dreaming of far off lands and hidden places, and if I couldn’t study Archaeology or Egyptology (which you couldn’t at the time in lil ole New Zealand) then why bother. So what did I do?
I WENT TO EGYPT 🇪🇬
For a month I travelled the dusty ancient roads and African waterways. I think I was fairly bold considering it was my first real journey outside of New Zealand, and probably as intrepid as I could have gone. Most of the kids I went to school with who went on to travel departed for North American summer camps or to Europe.
I went to Egypt with grandeur and mystery in mind, hoping for adventure and forgotten tombs with ancient relics. I wanted to stare into the face of Tutankhamen and absorb the legend of who he was for myself, I wanted to crawl beneath pyramids and ponder at their design, pretending that I was a lost Egyptian priestess, fallen through the gap of time.
Cairo as a city herself was an awakening for me. From the moment we touched down it was a heady experience of culture colliding with climate. Everything seemed raw and ready, from the dust and filth on the roads to the claustrophobic state of the traffic during our commute to the hotel. A three star humble hotel in the heart of the embassy district. I have no idea what it’s like today, but ten years ago the area was a curious mix of armed policemen, tourists, and perfume sellers, seasoned with a sprinkling of Internet cafes – a much needed lifeline to home at the time.
So I was only young. I was fresh out of school and ready for all the experiences life could throw at me, the kid who wants to stick their finger in all the pies. I ticked the Egyptian Museum off my list straight away. A morning falling through the deluge of Shabawti, Steele and stone-faced statues is really not half long enough to take it all in. I went in to visit King Tutankhamen’s mask alone. The room was pitch black and lit subtley to show the pure gold and stunning workmanship of his eternally revered death mask. If my fascination with death and afterlife from a cultural point of difference originated anywhere, it was here. This was my ground zero. My year dot. I’ve written other stories on the origin of my interests and my childhood, which you can find here and here, but this moment solidified the curiosity that has become a life long passion, defining the itinerary of every global destination I’ve visited since.
RESPLENDENT IN DEATH
How a culture reveres death tells me a lot. And no one does death better than the Egyptians. So my point of origin was a worthy one. I visited the royal mummy room, and I can say without a shadow of death that the most noble man I have ever seen in death was King Rameses II. The wizened mummy of the eighty-something Pharaoh was resplendent in death, at peace after a life full of achievement.
From there we moved on to pyramids. Lots of them. I received my first marriage proposal from a postcard seller on the forecourt of the famous step pyramid at Dakar, and an overly friendly cuddle from my taxi driver during an impromptu selfie in front of the bent pyramid (so poorly designed that the ancient engineers hard to cap it off at a gentler angle to avoid implosion.)
I crawled on my hands and knees into the resting place of the Pharaoh Khafre, proud deceased owner of the 2nd largest pyramid at Giza. To be honest, it was a bit boring. There wasn’t much to see in the heart of the tomb, and my patience for the tourist “pace” is limited, let alone following a long line of them crawling down into the depths of an ancient tomb. Needless to say, getting the obligatory holiday snap with the pyramids in behind is a must, but you can do without the tomb-crawl and certainly without the tout offering his camel ride experience (I promise, you can arrange it much cheaper away from the Giza plateau).
Coptic Cairo was also a must see, exploring the ancient streets where Joseph and Mary raised a young Christ away from the swords of king Herod’s soldiers is a surreal experience. But my last major destination within Cairo is yet to be realised. I wanted my opportunity to explore the grand Khan el Khalili, the mother and birth place of all Souks. To pretend I was Aladdin running in between fruit stalls and antiquities dealers, but it never happened. The morning we were supposed to go there was an explosion in the heart of the market that killed several tourists. It turned out to be a gas canister, nothing directly related to terrorism, but it took the authorities a while to discover this, and it definitely struck the Khan off my list for the time being.
THE SOUND OF SILENCE
We joined a small group of like minded travellers and left the dust-cloud haze and bustle of Cairo for the Farafra Desert, in the west. A hard day of driving into the wilderness with a Bedouin guide in a rickety old 4 wheel drive (with a window crack that grew and grew the faster and further we went) led us to our first destination, a night under the stars in the heart of the white sand desert, sandwiched between limestone isotopes in the middle of a moonscape that could hardly have been called earthly. To wander and write stories alone among the mammoth structures in the evening was a terrifying experience. The isotope structures baffle sound – as soon as you walk around one, you can no longer hear anything of what was behind you. Walk beyond a few, and suddenly you are in a no mans land of absolute nothingness where the sound of silence is complete, and utterly defending.
Deafining? Yes. The sound of complete silence is deafening. I’ve never experienced anything like it and I’m sure I never will again unless I return.
During this night under the stars I woke to a desert fox sniffing my face, and when the sun rose early I watched a dung beetle (more commonly known as a Scarab beetle in Egypt. Learn why here) rolling his perfect boulder of dung across the pale sand. We broke bread (literally) ate, and carried on for several nights, passing through several oases, deserted medieval mud brick towns, often sleeping under the stars, dancing, playing music and sharing stories with the bedouin families we travelled with.We got stuck in the soft sand and had to be pulled out by a huge tarmac crunching machine (don’t ask). I rode a camel for three hours to get to one of our campsites. It certainly was not the most comfortable experience of my life, but hey, I can say I’ve done it. I explored an ancient christian cemetery, temples half buried in the sand, and crossed into the yellow sand western desert…
Stay tuned for part two! Coming tomorrow, with more on my tomb-raiding, people-loving, wander-lusting explorations of the land of the pharaohs…
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