A Snippet Of My First Encounter With Mystical Magical Egypt

Satiating My Egyptian Wanderlust

Recently I stumbled across a few old grainy photographs of my first visit to the continent of Africa, more specifically, Egypt. For most people the mere mention of the name 'Egypt' leads to the conjuring up of all kinds of fantastical imaginings. One of the very first things one might think of is the Pyramids and/or the Sphinx, so I'm afraid I'd rather disappoint you right away and tell you that I saw neither. I didn't see the Sphinx nor a single Pyramid, the most famous one's of course being located on the Giza Plateau at the modern day capital city of Cairo. Alas, I did not go there on this occasion, I instead visited the city of Luxor which is the site of the ancient city of Thebes. Depressingly when I returned from this trip and people would ask where had I been, when I replied “Luxor”, a good percentage at first thought I was referring to the hotel in Las Vegas, no, honestly! Thebes/Luxor is located approximately 660km south of Cairo on the East Bank of the River Nile. It is a city quite unlike any other and it is renowned around the world as, 'the world's largest open air museum'.

I thought I'd write a post about the trip and some of the experiences I had, but even as I write this, there is literally an avalanche of recollections and memories tumbling back into my conscious mind, that I think I might have to write a few posts on this subject for fear of selling it short. Although I was always interested in history, the ancient Egyptian civilisation always just seemed so long ago that I wasn't really as interested in Egyptology as much as I was about the medieval period and later. Like most people I was familiar with and fascinated by the tale of the discovery of the tomb of 'The Boy King', Pharaoh Tutankhamun, by Howard Carter et al in 1922; the iconic solid gold and bejeweled funerary mask and the hoards of gold. I remember being slightly spooked as a child learning about the curse warning any future tomb raiders to keep their filthy mitts out, or else they would end up 'brown bread' as a direct consequence. And then reading about the fact that so many of those involved with the discovery then died soon after. I guess it would be fair to say I was about as familiar with Egypt as everyone else. However, as I entered my late teens I started to become more interested in the earlier civilizations of humanity that we know about, thus I began to develop a real craving to go and visit the mystical land. So here are a few random recollections which have stuck with me since. I hope you enjoy.

Cultural Differences And The People

As mentioned, it was my first time visiting the continent of Africa, again a name which for me just conjures up all kinds of beautiful imagery and romantic thoughts of nature, adventure and discovery. I knew I was going to truly sample a culture quite different to my own and I couldn't wait. I remember the journey from the Airport to the hotel vividly, seeing old and young men everywhere driving carts pulled by donkeys, dressed in flowing loose fitted robes, some with shoes, some without, their loads always stacked about ten feet high. It was a wonder in itself how the rickety-looking old carts didn't collapse and the fact the loads didn't topple off when going round bends is something I am still trying to get my head around to this day. This almost instantaneous glimpse of Egyptian life somehow just lived up to the expectation for me in that moment. The scene of donkey-led carts, the traditional attire, the Nile flowing steadily in the distance, it could have been a snapshot from any point in the last 5000 years, that's how long these people have been living this way of life, farming the rich fertile pastures on the banks of the Nile. It really was quite humbling, and being humbled would be a common feature while in this beautiful place.

It's easy to talk about the the obvious such as the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, the temples of Karnak, or of Hatshepsut respectively and I'll get to all that in future posts, but I was genuinely struck by the warmth of the people that we encountered. And we had some some pleasant interactions with many of the Egyptian people we saw. For instance, while walking along the banks of the Nile one evening, watching the golden then burning orange Sun sinking slowly over the distant hazy horizon, we were pleasantly accosted by two children. They were dressed in what can best be described as rags, and they had some flimsy sandals on, they were selling flowers and seemed to be very very poor. Lots of children in Egypt work in such a way as to help try and provide for their families, these two young girls would have been about 7 or 8 years old. And like many other kids in the city they would be selling flowers late into the night. They had beaming beautiful smiles and were able to speak broken English fairly well, combined with the attempts at broken Arabic that my friend and I could muster we were able to communicate. We were easy targets and obviously charmed by the little swindlers as we ended up giving them a fairly decent amount of cash in exchange for some of their white-petaled flowers. With much gesticulating and pointing at feet and stomachs (to indicate 'please buy some shoes and get a good meal') we eventually parted ways amiably. 

It is amazing how kind people can be despite having so very little.  When you experience a culture so different to your own for the first time in the flesh it definitely awakens you to the fact that we take so much of what we have for granted. More than that though to me, it made me realize that a lot of the things which society deems important, and certain issues that we as a society fixate on, just aren't as important nor conducive to our happiness as we think and are led to believe they are.

Later that night we went for dinner to a very nice restaurant which served beautiful food, a mix of classic dishes and traditional Egyptian fayre, in fact I first sampled pigeon at this restaurant. I loved the free freshly made bread and beautiful selection of dips which were brought to the table once you had taken your seats at the table. Our waiter was a man of about forty-five years, called Muhammad. The diligence, care and the level of effort that people there put into their jobs was quite awe-inspiring, especially so when a months wage for him would probably be less than a weeks salary at minimum wage here. This man would give the silver service of the Ritz a run for their money. Yet again we were struck by the courteousness, friendliness and sense of genuine warmth. We ate at this restaurant several times and spoke to him for hours about what life in Egypt is like, about his family and his aspirations (namely to provide a better future for his family). An aspiration which transcends all boundaries of race, religion, colour, creed or nation.

Well as feared I've already written a short novel and there seems no end in sight to the torrent of memories literally cascading into my mind's eye. I haven't yet even mentioned any of the obvious land marks and the sites, but I hope you at least have gained a little insight into my experience of the place and people, please stay tuned for the next episode in this series. I'll talk about visiting the incredible temples of Karnak and Hatshepsut respectively, as well as what it was like to come face to face with the real life mummified remains of 'The Boy King' and more.

P.S. Little did we know but we had not seen the last of the two flower selling girls. That same night roughly 5km away from where we had first encountered them and about 5 hours later, as we were walking back to the hotel we saw them again. Once again the smiles were beaming as they raced over to greet us, as they drew closer their eyes were glinting with a look of joyfulness, mischievous grins stretching from ear to ear. They were chattering to each other excitedly as they ran, giggling and laughing. They were each carrying a large white paper bag. We greeted them in Arabic. They were both chewing something, but in the dim light of the street lamps we couldn't see what. Then they each simultaneously glanced at each other and without a word being exchange they both held out their bag-carrying hands, offering us to help ourselves to some of their mysterious bounty. 

As we peered into the bags, which were by no means small I can assure you, our eyes were assaulted by a cacophony of vibrant colours, just about every type of sweet and candy you could ever think of was in those bags. It was like a Tardis of sweets and the looks of utter joy on their faces was one of those things you just don't forget. We each took the teeniest tiniest sweet we could find before once again and for the last time parting ways with smiles all around. I don't think I've been so glad to have my 'sensible' advice so completely and utterly ignored. I know this is more of a people-centric post but I believe that it is often the encounters with and the hospitality of the local people which can make all the difference between a good and a great experience. Thanks for reading.

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