“Egypt should be everyone’s first serious overseas trip, our group agreed over breakfast. From the chaos of the airports to the assertiveness of the touts, hawkers and assorted fortune-tellers, incense consultants and pose-with-a-Pharaoh impresarios, the country offers a masterclass in the art of contemporary travel.
But beyond the reality of a country in which 80 million people are trying to make a living any way they can, and the cheerful Faux-gyptian pomp (a salt cellar in the form of the sky-goddess Nut), Egypt’s wide and deep ancient and mediaeval history shimmers like the golden cap on the Great Pyramid.
This was the banter and these were the dogmas as we landed in Cairo, emerging into a great and glorious heat and then immediately into a tourist taxi whose air-conditioning was so high-octane that our exhalation frosted the windows.
That is a second constant of travel in what Herotodus called ‘the Gift of the Nile’ – there are still two Egypts. They are no longer Upper and Lower Egypt, the former stern and perpetually at war with the Nubians, the latter, half-decadent cosmopolitans adept at trade and naval warfare (everyone gets very good at Ancient History for Dummies very quickly because of Egypt’s long distances). Rather, the two Egypts of today is the air-conditioned world of the tourist and the rather difficult country in which the largest nation in the Arab world is trying to survive year by year.
What gives travel in Egypt its especial flavour is watching these two worlds intersect and then separate, over and over: for example, travel to the Pyramids has been slow during the time of Egypt’s great people-power upheavals, but they are substantially less crowded when you get there.
For once, the greatest work achieved by humankind up to that point glistens mutely in the sun and, for a moment, you have access to their gravitas and sheer magnetism – something like looking at Everest (I hear) or Mont Blanc – without a constant imprecation to buy, to move on, to haggle or to sidestep the hagglers.
This matters because Egypt is littered with great works from the world’s first advanced state outside China – an African superpower that engineered its way into eternity when Rome was still an unfashionable village in a wolf-infested part of the barbarous Etruscan empire.
The sublimity of temples that greeted our sedate Nile cruiser as we made our way from Cairo to the ancient cities I only knew from Asterix books slowly rose as we left the very bustling cities behind.”