YOUR OWN PERSONAL EGYPT
by Judith Fein
photo by Paul Ross
You can’t blame 5.5 million tourists for wanting to go to Egypt every year. After all, a third of the antiquities in the world came from the Luxor/Thebes area alone. Imaginations around the world are on fire every time new information trickles out from the Valley of the Kings or the Valley of the Queens on the west bank of the Nile river. The country boasts pyramids and temples, hieroglyphs, sphinxes and mummies
The bad news is that with mass tourism it’s hard to carve out a personal or sacred experience when visiting the archeological sites of Egypt. You’re herded from marvel to marvel, obliged to listen to such gems as “Doesn’t this remind you of Elizabeth Taylor?” and your guide has to double as a traffic cop to avoid collisions with other tour groups. But with a little ingenuity, you can grab moments to dart off the beaten path and have your own brain-boggling, eye-popping, sensual, moving experience of a mother culture that influenced and continues to influence much of the world. So sign up for a group tour that suits your credit card (it’s the most convenient, hassle-free way to get around and obtain information), and every time you have a free moment, treat yourself to one or several of these experiences.
l) You will most likely go on a boat trip on the Nile to gape at the jewels of the Pharaonic period
Walk through the bazaar, go to the Esna Temple, and ask one of the friendly locals to take you to the caravansary. It’s an old “hotel” for camel drivers that is very well-preserved and evocative. On the ground floor, in a shaded area, there is a clay amphora that still holds cold drinking water as it did in the days of the camel treks. In the courtyard, the humped ones bedded down. Upstairs, you can visit the individual sleeping rooms that boasted ancient air-conditioning
2)Also in Esna (it is one of my favorites places), ask to see the huge stone sesame oil press. A camel is attached to a round stone, and as he circles around it, the sesame seeds underneath are crushed by the weight and then placed in woven baskets. In a back room, the baskets are stacked and pressed again to expel the oil. You will never look at a camel or a bottle of sesame oil the same way. I promise.
3) If you are in Esna or anywhere else on a Friday afternoon, ask someone to show you the way to a sufi zikr (pronounced “thikr” ). You can probably find it yourself if you follow the haunting music and chanting. It’s the original trance dancing with hypnotic verse repetition and ecstatic communion with Allah, the God of Islam. The male participants sway from side to side and back and forth as they induce mystical union.
4) At Kom Ombo Temple, where the crocodile diety Sebek was worshipped, your guide will point out a hieroglyph of ancient surgical tools. Kom Ombo was a temple for healing. You can still imagine a Lourdes-like locale, with prayers, offerings, hawkers and miraculous cures. When you are given free time, rush to visit the individual chambers where doctors ministered to the sick. On one wall, I swear I saw a hieroglyphic stethoscope. See if you agree.
5)The Temple of Karnak is fifty times the size of Whole Foods
6) Take a boat to the island of Philae and visit the temple where the goddess Isis was worshipped. When Christianity took hold of Egypt, the priests fled to Philae, the only temple dedicated to the mother goddess. It was the last of the temples to be used in Egypt. If you are a woman, know a woman, are born of a woman or are traveling with a woman, Philae is a must-see.
7) In Aswan, after admiring the high dam, make sure you taste a glass of kakadé
8) If you’re feeling really flush, take a hot air balloon ride over the west bank of the Nile and see the Valley of Kings and the Valley of Queens from above. It can run you $500 for two for a 90-minute ride, but you will have a once-in-a-lifetime experience of floating above the houses of reincarnation and the fertile banks of the Nile.
9) In Giza (a suburb of Cairo), see if you can wheedle your way into the Great Pyramid when it is closed to the public. Ask your guide, your hotel and your cab driver for starters. As a fairly ethical writer, I can’t reveal my sources, but I managed to have an hour alone in the King’s burial chamber of the great Cheops(or Khufu) pyramid
10) In Giza, when you gawk at the famous and overpowering Sphinx, walk around the statue and follow the leonine tail. It will give you a private and quirky focus on a plateau of pyramids.
11) In Cairo is one of the world’s best freebies
12) Also in Cairo, hang out at a trendy restaurant or club where flavored tobacco water pipes are smoked by men and, less frequently, women. How about apple? Cinnamon? Mint? I went to Abou El Sid, which is open from 12 pm to 2 pm and is at 157, 26th of July Street, Zamalek. The phone number is 7359640.
13) In Alexandria, of course you will want to check out the soon-to-open library that is a poetic paen to the ancient library that once stood there and was the learning and cultural center of the Mediterranean world. And if you are a diver, you’ll want to slip into the water and blow bubbles around the sunken palaces of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. But you’ve probably never heard of the (erroneously-named) Pillar Of Pompeii, one of the city’s Greco-Roman treasures. Near the column and sphinx is a vast underground stone gallery where they think Anubis, the jackal underground god of mummification, was worshipped. The grotto stretches on and on, punctuated by small niches. Some claim that papyrus scrolls from the nearby ancient temple were buried there. Others think that special animals were interred in the subterranean chambers. Whatever the purpose, the grotto feels sacred and holy.
14) Back to your stomach. In Alexandria, Cairo, or almost anywhere else, head for a pastry shop and ask for kanafé.. It’s shredded wheat with honey and pistachios, filled with a white ricotta-like cheese. Instant culinary orgasm. In Cairo, one of the best pastry shops is Le Carnaval, on Sharia Michel Bahhoum.
15) At the spa of the Four Seasons Hotel in Cairo, indulge in a Cleopatra bath. Your feet will be massaged and then you will be lowered into a milk bath with floating rose petals and lemon slices. Did Cleopatra really experience this indulgence? Don’t ask. Just do it.
16) In Sharm (Sharm El Sheikh, on the Red Sea, made famous by the Middle East peace talks there), if you’ve inherited a wad of dollars, check into the luxurious Ritz Carlton. If not, just check into the Ritz Carlton spa. Beg Hamad to do an Egyptian massage on you. I swear he’s a reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian magician. Choose from Javanese Lulur, coffee scrub, or any other exotic wrap. I was slathered in herbs and wrapped in green plastic, then smeared with yogurt. The next day, Hamad took me to his white seaside massage tent and plunked me down in a nearby sand box. I was wrapped in sheet like a mummy, covered with heavy heaps of heated sand, and then left to bake and soften to the consistency of mango pulp. People around me said I glowed and I suddenly noticed I had skin as soft as the day I was hatched.
17) Here’s a weird one. A few hours from Sharm is Mt. Sinai. As you weave through the throngs, you’ll see the Burning Bush (now on a computerized watering system), Moses’s well (he had to drink, didn’t he?) and the Byzantine wonder of St. Catherine’s monastery. Then you get a chance to climb up the trail of Moses. Since you don’t have 40 days, head to the left of St. Catherine’s (facing the entrance) where you can take a camel ride up the mount. I’d suggest you walk the camel trail for an hour or so and listen for an odd, gurgling sound. Then a huge, pink bulbous THING will appear in the camels’ mouths. It’s not a tongue, but one of the ruminant stomachs and it’s truly bizarre and fascinating, gurgle, gurgle. By the way, I climbed another Mt. Sinai in Israel, but who am I to quibble?
18) Also at Mt. Sinai is “the doctor.” Below the parking lot at St. Catherine’s is a small row of shopping booths. In one of them, “the doctor” sells herbal cures that many people swear by. “The same herbs as they used in the time of Moses, ” he says in Arabic. And Moses lives to be l20 years old. Spring for a remedy for a few dollars (there is a list of ailments and cures in English), and follow “the doc’s” instructions. When you reach l20, you’ll thank me.
19) Wherever you are, try to have contact with ordinary Egyptians. One travel writer I know swears that all travel is geared to separating tourists from the people whose country they are visiting. Instead, wave to people from your bus or van. Sing with kids in the street. If you see a bride and groom, wish them good luck. You will feel the warmth and hospitality of the people of the Nile, in contrast to the often-aggressive and bakshish-demanding merchants who run the tourists bazaars. If your group is very small and you have any input into scheduling, try to visit the monuments very early in the morning or at sunset. If your group is large, try to connect with others who have the same sense of adventure as you do.
20) Leave your cell phone and laptop stateside. They keep you wired to home and prevent you from having a total-immersion experience.
Bon voyage. Enjoy Egypt. Revel in your private moments in the mother country.
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