In Cairo, Alone Time With the Pharaohs
Did this lidless box really once contain the mummy of the mighty Pharaoh Khufu? Did the pyramid’s architectural precision and celestial alignment suggest more than a burial chamber? Would my next encounter be with distant spirits or squinting tourists ducking into the entrance of the ancient stone room?
Little more than five years ago the chamber would have been crowded with visitors as, outside, swarms of tourists hoisted themselves up the massive beige blocks of the pyramid and convoys of tour buses snaked down the entrance road. On this fall day, though, it was mostly Egyptians in small groups milling about the base, only a handful of foreigners among them.After the 2011 popular uprising in Egypt, tourism collapsed, especially in Cairo, Giza, Luxor and other cultural destinations along the Nile River. One of the unintended consequences is that in the chaotic metropolis of greater Cairo, you can enjoy the privilege of solitude at some of the world’s greatest historic sites.
Last year, my wife, Susan, and I moved to Cairo after she accepted a job teaching at a school outside the city, opening up a new world of adventure for us. Cairo is filled with it. Yet, on any given day, I am acutely aware of being a foreigner among throngs of Egyptians, whether it’s stepping onto the dusty metal subway cars of the Metro, zigzagging through a local market or looping around the mostly dilapidated buildings around Tahrir Square.
The commotion across this sprawling metropolis of some 20 million people is as electric as ever. The streets are a tumult of beeping vehicles belching dark fumes as pedestrians drift along with the traffic or dart through it. Locals crowd downtown’s European boulevards, ravaged by time. Men strapped with tea urns pass by, along with families of four squeezed onto scooters, and horses pulling carts of vegetables or scrap metal.
All over town, men in drab Western garb or traditional galabiyas, and women in head scarves, regard me with curious or suspicious stares, which turn into smiles and greetings when I smile and ask them how they are.
“Welcome to Egypt!” a boisterous group of nearly 100 local children on a field trip to the Citadel shouted, reaching out to shake hands or give me a high five. Susan and I and another American couple had just entered the gates of the 12th-century fortress overlooking the city, and our tour on this warm, sunny day was underway.
Every few minutes, as we made our way up to the stunning Mosque of Muhammad Ali at the Citadel, with its silver domes and white marble courtyard, pockets of teenage boys, couples with toddlers and chaperones with classes from area mosques asked to take pictures with us. We were a novelty, a young man who spoke English told me, explaining that some of the Egyptians visiting from rural areas have never seen an American in person.
Of course, there are foreigners in this city. They live in places like the expat communities of Zamalek, an island in the Nile River in central Cairo, or in Maadi, a verdant suburb about 20 minutes south by train. And when I do come across visiting foreigners — typically at popular sites like the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum; Khan el-Khalili, the city’s main bazaar; and Old Cairo with its Coptic churches — they are often glad to see a fellow adventurer. They offer surprisingly similar impressions of the place, many that mirror my own.“I just love the chaos, coming from London where everything is so prescribed,” Imogen Evans, 24, who was visiting a friend studying in Cairo, said inside the mostly empty Egyptian Museum, the gloomy main hall lined with towering bearded pharaohs sculpted from limestone and granite. “I love being a tourist here because there are no other tourists. It’s more personal.”
“The vibe that I get is that everyone is really friendly,” said Tom Gathercole, 26, a kick boxer from Australia on a side trip to Cairo for a few days. “They want me to have a good time and go home and tell everybody that this is a good place to come, and I will.”
For tourists, it is impossible not to be captivated by the wonders of Pharaonic and medieval times — the immensity and serenity of the pyramids, the din of bazaars decked with robes and sacks of spices. No less astounding are the endless contrasts. On the same street where young peasants heave sacks of garbage onto a donkey cart, stylish Cairenes bound out of shiny Mercedeses into the Cairo Jazz Club to party into the early morning. As the plaintive call to prayer reverberates from the minarets piercing the sky on Zamalek, bottles of prosecco (300 Egyptian pounds, or about $38) are popped and laptops are pecked under umbrellas on the elegant patio of the Cairo Marriott Hotel.
As a smoker, I find it incongruous that in a country that limits free expression, I am allowed to light up in most restaurants. As a dark beer fan, I’m annoyed that I can’t find anything but the same three similar light lagers at most places that sell alcohol (10 Egyptian pounds for a bottle of Sakara Gold at a store; 50 pounds at an upscale hotel).I wince at paying 1,430 Egyptian pounds for an Indian dinner for four at the palatial Mena House Hotel by the foot of the pyramids, and relish finding a sidewalk cafe where a large, tasty helping of koshary (a hearty dish of pasta, lentils and rice topped with spicy tomato sauce) and a cola cost 15 pounds.
Some visitors complain about the free-for-all traffic, the polluted air, the trash in the streets, the shabby restrooms at tourist spots and the insistent peddlers proffering bundles of curios like five Pharaonic prints for 50 Egyptian pounds.
But without exception, the visitors I have encountered say they feel safe. From afar, they perceive the news media coverage of Egypt as overly alarming. And in the country, it is a different story. It’s not a war zone like Syria or Yemen.
To be sure, Egypt has been battling an Islamic insurgency in recent years, and the attacks, which have mostly targeted security and police forces in North Sinai, have struck Cairo, too. And just when you think it’s calming down, there is another shock: a suicide bomber killing himself in a thwarted attack outside the Karnak temple in Luxor in June; Egyptian security forces gunning down Mexican tourists in the Western Desert in September, mistaking them for terrorists; a Russian airliner exploding over the Sinai Peninsula in October, killing all 224 aboard; and the torture and killing of an Italian doctoral student living in Cairo whose body was found on the outskirts of the city on Feb. 3.
Tour operators and hoteliers say that earlier in 2015, things were starting to pick up again. Tourism peaked in Egypt in 2010 with 14.7 million visitors, according to the government, but that was down to 9.9 million in 2014. The downing of the Russian airliner en route from the popular tourist resort of Sharm el Sheikh to St. Petersburg, Russia, wiped out any fledgling recovery, especially after the country’s biggest sources of tourists — Russia and Britain — halted flights, suspecting a terrorist attack.
So the slump, the longest stretch that the vital tourism sector has suffered in decades, continues. It has left fleets of tour buses and legions of tour guides idle; many shops and restaurants deserted; and entire floors of five-star hotels empty. It has also resulted in what tourism officials say is increasingly persistent hawking.
“Take an item, my friend.”
“Hello, have a look. Almost free.”
I was with my daughters, Jenna, 27, and Michaela, 25, on their recent visit, wandering down a narrow stone lane into the centuries-old Khan el-Khalili bazaar past shops full of jewelry, Pharaonic trinkets, scarves and perfume flasks. The vendors stood in the desolate alley, like anglers casting lines into an empty stream, hoping that the rare passing fish would take the bait.“This way, sir, scarf half price.”
“Excuse me, how can I take your money?”
In the boom years of the previous decade they were busy inside the shops because the flow of people in the bazaar was so thick. Now, the chorus of entreaties from the endless parade of hawkers through the bazaar’s El Fishawy cafe holding out armfuls of wallets, necklaces, rugs, ottoman covers or gorilla masks can be a bit too much. The same is true of the dogged peddlers and would-be tour guides at the Giza pyramids.
“People are suffering a lot right now,” Mohamed Abd El Gabbar, the head of the international tourism sector for the Egyptian Tourist Authority, said in an interview, “so when they see tourists they think they have found gold.”
The years of political turmoil and murderous attacks have done more than drive the tourists away. They have fed an undercurrent of anxiety among many urbanites over Egypt’s economic and political future. Still, there are those who express optimism that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt is bringing stability to the country and that better times are ahead.
That same sort of existential battle is playing out in Tahrir Square, which was the center of demonstrations in the 2011 uprising. The subway stop on the square reopened last summer after being closed for two years; the old Nile Hilton was renovated and reopened in November as the Nile Ritz-Carlton; and a government redevelopment of parts of downtown including the square is continuing.
But when you emerge from the subway, it’s still an ordeal to walk around roadside fences and through waves of traffic. The flagpole erected by the current nationalist government in the center of the square seems inadequate to reflect the aspirations of the uprising, and these days, most residents are too afraid or disillusioned to demonstrate. A law enacted in 2013 effectively bans street protests, imposing jail sentences for violators.
In the tour operator Tarek Mousa’s two decades in the tourism business, Egypt has had its share of setbacks, he said, but it always bounced back. It did so after the first Gulf War, the 1997 attack on tourists at Luxor, after Sept. 11 and after bomb blasts in Sharm el Sheikh in 2005.
He has faith in Egypt’s resiliency. “Egypt will be here tomorrow, in 5,000 years Egypt will be here,” said Mr. Mousa, whose Egypt and Beyond Travel tour company in Cairo did most of its business in Egypt five years ago, but now he mostly organizes trips to Jordan, Israel, Turkey and Dubai. “As soon as we are not in the news, people will start coming. We are in their brains, we are in their hearts, we are on their bucket list.”In the meantime, intrepid visitors to Cairo pretty much have the place to themselves.
On a fall morning at the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, one of the first built in Egypt by its Muslim conquerors, in 879, a friend and I strolled across the vast courtyard and through the arched arcades surrounding it. The only sounds came from a slight breeze and birds flitting between hanging lamps. Soon we were treated to an awesome spectacle along the length of one arcade: Rays of sun slanted through the long row of grilled windows high up in the outer wall, splashing geometric patterns across the columns and floors.
We headed to the minaret. A third of the way up, the 130-foot tower opens onto the rooftop of the arcades, offering a view of the courtyard below. Each side of the roof was as wide as a boulevard and stretched out 100 yards. I ran a slow lap around it, drinking in the view of the gilded dome fountain below and the forest of spires beyond, immersed in the moment, without distraction.