EGYPT is not on everyone’s tourist map. It hasn’t been since the revolution in 2011, when President Hosni Mubarak was ousted, followed by a 2013 coup d’état that deposed President Mohamed Morsi.
The Sinai Peninsula, Western Desert and some border areas remain designated unsafe for western tourists but we recently spent 10 days in the capital, Cairo, and two days about 650km south in beautiful Luxor.
Ten days is hardly long enough to qualify anyone to express an authoritative opinion on any country, but here are six personal likes and a six other things that maybe weren’t so good.
- The people. Most Egyptians we met were friendly, welcoming and polite to the extreme. They know their tourism industry has suffered and appear eager to do something about it. They give the impression they are genuinely pleased to see you.
- The ancient sites. Everything they are cracked up to be, and then some. The pyramids and The Sphinx at Giza (part of Cairo) and the Valley of the Kings and Temple of Karnak in Luxor simply cannot be missed. Awesome is an overused word these day, but it applies here. One word of warning: mid-year the weather can be blistering and you’ll find scant cover. The cooler months, of course, attract bigger crowds.
- The tour guides. They are excellent. To be able to work as an Egyptologist guide, you must complete a two-year course and ace exams at the end. These people really know their stuff.
- The ambition. Cairo is undergoing massive change and bold development. The parliament, government ministries and foreign embassies soon will be moved to a new, $45 billion city about 45km east of the current centre. Plans are for the new city to become bigger than Paris. Huge new shopping malls and housing developments are mushrooming all over the place.
- Bang for your buck. The US and Australian dollars, Euro and British Pound attract very favourable exchange rates. Food prices, taxi and Uber fares and guided tours and entry to the major sites are reasonable or even cheap for westerners.
- The food. It’s superb and plentiful, although I balked at pigeon. I arrived weighing in at 75kg and left at about 175. OK, that’s exaggerating, but I was there only 10 days.
Now the not so great:
- The divide. Back in the day — like, waaay back in the day — the country we know as Egypt was divided into Upper and Lower Kingdoms. That still exists, but in a different way. The gap between Egypt’s “upper”, or wealthy, and the average Ahmad is vast. Ahmad exists on not very much.
- The pollution. In Cairo it’s ugly. The locals recognise it as a big problem, but don’t see a solution.
- The traffic. Close relation of No.2, multiplied by six, and there are no apparent road rules. If you’re smart, you’ll pay a local to do the driving, then sit back and close your eyes.
- The security. While you can’t argue about its necessity, it is stifling and appears disorganised. You have to go through metal detectors even to get into hotel lobbies. There are lots of police and military with big guns. Show up early and be prepared for long lines at Cairo Airport. Smile. A lot.
- The ruins. Not the ancient sites, but some of the more recently built housing that has been abandoned as the development boom continues unabated. As the old places fall apart, it becomes more obvious how poorly built they were in the first place, yet many are protected from the bulldozer because of links with various eras.
- The tipping point. A flow-on effect from No.1. Everywhere you go it seems you have to put your hand in your pocket for someone. Even as we were leaving the country, the guy loading bags on to a metal detector asked straight out for money. It is your right to refuse, but some apparently are desperate enough to be insistent to the point of being a nuisance, and that’s not a good look.
In Egyptian mythology, to reach your afterlife you had to have a light heart, so the hearts of the dead were weighed using a feather as a counter balance. Light hearts could be achieved only by doing good things throughout a lifetime.
Cairo has a light heart.