Visiting the Land of Pharaohs
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
I had just moved back to Athens. I was desperately in search of a new adventure as I had recently gone through a heartbreak. The idea of taking up a new hobby got quickly off the table and the next most realistic plan was travelling, which is (almost) always the key.
But which would my next destination be? Although I did have a list of destinations I definitely wanted to go to, I knew that this time I needed to go somewhere close to Greece (I really didn’t feel like flying for more than 3 hours) and somewhere completely different from all other places I had been to by that time. I took a look at the map and immediately knew that I had found my next destination.
I guess that on a subconscious level, I owe this idea to one of my best friends who visited Cairo a couple of months ago - her descriptions had definitely piqued my curiosity. Apart from that, I was always fascinated by Arabic. Contrary to popular belief, I think that Arabic sounds magical. To me, the sound of the language along with its calligraphy makes the language sound and look like art.
I gave it some thought and decided to book my tickets. I realised that this trip would be one of a kind, when I heard a distinct melody at the beginning of the flight. Apparently, it was an in-flight prayer, which seems to be a common practice in flights during Ramadan.
My first day in Cairo
After a one-and-a-half-hour flight, I arrived in Cairo. Nothing special was planned for today, so I decided to contact an Egyptian friend, who lived there with his family. Thankfully, he didn’t have any plans, so he picked me up to go for a night out and give me an insider’s perspective on the city of the thousand minarets.
‘So, what’s the plan? What about a drink?’, I asked him. He laughed. At first, I had no idea why, but I soon found out that despite the drinking culture of the city, which seems to be alive and well, alcohol is a no go in Ramadan. We finished our juice (!) and took a short walk. I couldn’t help but notice that there were absolutely no women around, so I asked Mohammed if that was normal for a Friday night. Apparently, it was. It seems that women don’t usually walk around without their husbands especially at night - that was definitely something I had never seen in any other country I had been to by that time.
At this point, I should mention that I have no idea how we managed to survive on our way back. Traffic was insane. The fact that Cairo has a population of 9.5 million makes streets look like an ultimate chaos: Horns were constantly honking, there were absolutely no rules and no traffic lights. I recall at least four times when I was convinced that we would crash including one time when the potential crash would involve a donkey who we were sharing the road with. Still, for some unexplained reason, everything seemed to work out perfectly.
Gems from the past
The next days were full of sightseeing : Al-Hakim Mosque, Manyal Palace, Zamalek, the Nile, the Citadel, Khan el-Khalili, Alexandria and of course, the pyramids of Giza. Ancient history is perfectly preserved until today in all these places. In fact, some ruins still have paint on and look as if they were made just yesterday.
The city is full of museums, mosques and monuments. In spite of the signs of the social and economic crisis in most parts of the country, its cultural, religious and historic wealth is awe inspiring.
Speaking of the social and economic crisis, what stroke me was the clear social inequalities or rather the gap between the rich and the poor. It’s true that Egypt has had a tough last decade and this has definitely left its mark. One would see children looking for food in trash bins and the next second, one would walk by European businessmen with their very own chauffeur.
This gap was even more obvious when comparing districts. On the one hand, one would walk around wealthy Zamalek with its skyscrapers and its 5-star hotels and, on the other hand, one would visit the Necropolis (aka City of the Dead), where the dead and living coexist. As strange as it may sound, in a city with a population of 20 million people, a lot of inhabitants cannot afford paying for a shelter and that's why they usually live in graveyards. It is estimated that approximately 500.000 people live among tombs in the so-called City of the Dead, where they are usually responsible for carrying out tasks such as digging and tending to the graves.
My last stop was Khan el-Khalili. Hundreds of little shops, millions of spices and traditional tea and coffee. As a huge coffee fan and a passionate shopper, I loved this area but after a point I admit that I found it a bit overwhelming. This was a sense I experienced quite often during my stay in Egypt as I often found myself feeling that my personal space was not respected the way I wanted it to be.
However, all in all, this trip was life changing. Once I arrived back home, I was glad to think that I actually managed to see something completely different than everything I had ever seen or experienced. That was my original goal after all. Egypt was different in all levels. It was charming in all possible ways.
Things I loved
- The language: Magical and mysterious. Egyptian Arabic is a dialect of Arabic spoken by 56,400,000 people in Egypt. However, the official language of the country is Standard Arabic.
- Fresh fruit and all kinds of fresh juice: Colorful, healthy and refreshing.
- The ancient and modern history of the country. There are so many things to discover in terms of dynasties and kings but also things that involve the recent past of the country.
- Food: Make sure to try ful medames, tamiya, falafel and koshari. D e l i c i o u s.
Some last thoughts
- Social inequality made me wonder whether people from a low social class have realistic chances of changing their social and financial status or whether social and financial progress is exclusively linked to the Egyptian upper class.
- Catcalling made certain moments of my trip very uncomfortable. This unpleasant feeling made me understand what my Egyptian friend meant by saying that women don't usually go out without their husbands. The chances of being harassed are extremely high. However, the sounds of call to prayers along with the natural reverb of the city of Cairo were soothing. They were actually the only sound I decided to focus on after a point during my unique trip to the Land of Pharaohs.