I think I have made a serious mistake, I thought to myself as I was crammed into a mini-van on my way through the Sinai Peninsula with two other women, both from South America. It was deep into the evening and there he stood at the van entrance, his eyes gleaming at me suspiciously as he held my passport in one hand and an AK47 in the other. My heart was racing, my mind thinking about the reality that it was just three girls surrounded by all these men. We could get dragged into the desert, raped and murdered and no one would ever know. Kidnapped, maybe sold into sexual slavery!
“They’re on tour to see Cairo,” the driver said in English to the military officer responsible for checking vehicles driving through the arid desert, the first of many checkpoints. I was well aware of what I was getting myself into hearing regular reporting on terrorist attacks against tourists in the region. With a history of occupation by Israel after the Yom Kippur war that had ended in 1979 with the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty between Sadat – who was eventually assassinated – and Begin that included the removal of settlements and an Israeli presence in almost all regions, I knew it was dangerous.
We stopped at a tea house, a large open space with old brown tables that had rusty metal legs, cigarettes crushed into the flat, metal ashtray that sat on them. The sun was rising at that time and the purple hue over the horizon helped melt the black sky and expose the red, rocky mountains in the distance. You could tell that at one point the entire place was filled with men playing cards, the broken window probably someone disgruntled and throwing something, and the squat toilets emanated the awful smell of an open sewer. It felt like I was in a saloon, some western where there lived an isolated, shabby bar in the middle of nowhere.
What felt like many hours later, refreshed after drinking some tea that we reached Cairo, the megacity with millions tightly compacted into one incredible space, the dilapidated buildings and the children on the street evident of the poverty despite the drop in living costs and the action plan to change Egypts economic fallout. With continuous political upheaval and unrest as well as violence and terrorism, it is expected that this ancient country will continue to experience a paralysis in development.
We stopped at the Qasr El Nil Bridge to soak in the view of the river Nile before proceeding to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, an experience I was very eager to have given my love for history. At first I was slightly hesitant; small, old-fashioned building, broken tiles on the ground, the glass all dusty from parts of the building that were being refurbished, but it soon became clear that it was a repository of incredible exhibits, including of course King Tutankhamun. One could easily get lost in all that gleaming gold and treasures, the mummy room housing the pharaohs and incredible sarcophagus embedded with precious stones. For me, the highlight was seeing the black and gold encrusted Anubis as a jackal sitting as a companion to a golden coffin engraved in hieroglyphics, a guide for souls toward the afterlife.
We then prepared ourselves for travelling back in that mini-van to what soon became one of the best experiences of my life, the Pyramids of Giza dating back to 2560 BC. I was there, standing and observing these towering ancient monuments that reminded me of how powerful and economically prosperous this once ancient civilisation was. The sheer scale of these royal tombs was built for kings and queens, the great pyramid for Khufu and an additional three for his three wives known as the Queens of Cheops, with evidence by archaeologists suggesting that his son Khafre was responsible for the sphinx and yet another pyramid. Our tour guide took us to one of the smaller pyramids of the Queens, a little more isolated from the cohort of tourists and as I climbed down and into the moist, humid tomb with soft rock carvings, I felt like Tomb Raider. It was smaller then expected and nothing awe-inspiring, but it was still an amazing experience.
While we continued onward with some activities the next day including visiting a place that made papyrus and another that made perfume, they felt incredibly superficial and too touristy. However, the incredible Khan el-Khalili grand bazaar, Tahrir Square for modern history, and the Hanging Church that explained the minority Coptic Christians that have long lived in this predominately Muslim country are all very much necessary to visit. All the ups and down, the fear and the astonishment is worth the experience when visiting Cairo and the memories that I now have embedded into my heart.