Egypt, Asharq Al-Awsat—“We have every Elvis record there is,” George says, as he flicks the towel on his head behind his shoulder, before taking a gulp of beer. George, a 70 year-old from Essex is in traditional Egyptian costume for the boat’s Jalabiya party, and somewhat of an enthusiast: this is his and his wife’s 20th Nile River cruise.
As a first-timer on any cruise I had been apprehensive about this “party”. Clearly, the concept was designed for a larger crowd—the ship has an 80-person capacity—but there are only 12 of us on board.
Then again, it is peaceful on the top deck while we have a nightcap by the pool in our gowns following an evening’s entertainment of Nubian dancing and Macarena moves. Across the river, on our right, are the illuminated tombs of the nobles in Aswan, where we’ve docked for the evening. To our left, the stars flicker above the neon glow of the city’s minarets and streetlights. George and his wife have never seen it so quiet.
Nile CruiseThe English crime writer Agatha Christie immortalized the route along Egypt’s Nile River in her 1937 book Death on the Nile. For the five days we are ferried between the ancient cities of Luxor and Aswan, an almost empty boat and humbling scenes of life elicit the elite tourism of this era: children swimming by the banks, enthusiastically waving, calling “hello” before doing daring flips into the water. Rushes, palm and guava trees, water buffaloes, pied kingfishers and Nile-side towns that burn a brilliant red-orange as the sun slopes beyond the horizon all pass by.
We lean over our balcony ingesting it all; Egypt’s recent troubles seem a world away. But, true to Christie’s novel, there lurks a darker truth to our environment.
An early pit-stop is the Valley of the Kings—the vast mountain containing the tombs of pharaohs dating back to the 16th century BCE, and the tomb of Tutankhamun himself. After battling our way through a mob of vendors in the mini souk, we wind up in a conspicuously quiet ticket hall. Our guide Islam’s voice echoes as he relays the history of our surroundings. “There were 10 thousand tourists a year before the revolution,” he sighs, as we board the buggy to the valley with just seven others. Later Islam reveals that we were the first booking he had had for three months.
Egypt is the oldest tourist destination in the world—the cradle of civilization, where building in stone was invented—but is fast becoming more famous for its deserted landmarks. Two other magnificent pit-stops, Karnak and Luxor temples, echo this sad reality. Luxor city itself is like a ghost town, beside the odd family of tourists trotting past every three hours in a horse-drawn carriage—no doubt having relented after several desperate attempts to persuade them by their driver.
Exploring Egypt’s ancient monuments without the intrusion of heavy crowds and camera lenses is surreal. We sit quietly on a wall at the temple of Kom Ombo to watch the sunset, and meander around the magnificent stone carvings of the first female Pharaoh, Hatshepsut, in a trance-like calm, only once interrupted by an overenthusiastic faux guide.
Is Egypt safe to visit?
Egypt is still recovering from the worst instability in decades, only a year on from Muhammad Mursi’s presidential ousting and three years since it staged its first revolution deposing the long-ensconced dictator, Hosni Mubarak. North Sinai has been significantly problematic, with terrorism there doing little to attract tourism back to the region.
The main trouble spots, however, are miles from any of the country’s significant tourist areas, including the most secure, Sharm El-Sheikh in South Sinai—which is also miles from everywhere else. True, the Egyptian military’s current battles with Islamists means that every Friday on every major date, Cairo, in particular, is on alert. There were two alerts during my stay, but little, if anything, came of it. Western tourists are not being targeted and international tourist ministries have no restrictions on their citizens visiting. Despite this, and reassurances from Egypt’s Tourism Minister that the country is now “Calm and stable,” the usual masses are keeping their distance.
A reminder of Egypt’s tumultuous past three years comes into view as you drive into the capital Cairo from the airport. Interspersed on the walls between billboards depicting the country’s glamorous soap stars, is graffiti declaring: “kick the police” and “f**k Mursi.” Tahrir Square—a large junction packed with honking cars—was pivotal to the revolution. Nearby, the now iconic Mohamed Mahmoud Street is awash with vibrant colors, fascinating surrealist imagery and faces of the “martyrs” of the protests. The paint is still fresh—the newest layer of Egypt’s plentiful history.
What to do in Cairo
“We feel safer now, but just a bit,” cautions Ahmed, as we drink tea in his living room in Cairo’s leafy Zamalek—a calm, affluent district dotted with trendy boutique and eating spots—surrounded by his daughter’s posters of boy band One Direction and framed family photographs. Three years ago, at the height of the city’s instability, Ahmed and his son had to guard their home with shotguns. Last year, insecurity under President Mursi left the family afraid to walk the streets. Earlier in our conversation we had been discussing the area’s new restaurants and bubble tea cafes.
Unrivaled by Cairo’s new culinary additions is, of course, its abundance of artifacts indicating centuries of human civilization. The Egyptian Museum is worth the trip alone, even if reaching it on foot means mastering the art of navigating Tahrir Square’s perilous roads and new barbed-wire security diversions. Inside, there is no tourist jostling, just stacks of world-famous ancient antiquities—including the mummies of famous pharaohs and queens that not only survived thousands of years, but also the ransacking of the museum during the uprisings—that appear in places to be tumbling on top of each other for lack of space: one reason why they are currently building a more secure version of the museum in Giza.
Coptic Cairo, another historical highlight, is an easy ride on the metro from the center of town. And Cairo’s old Islamic district, and its souq, Khan Al-Khalili—still as bustling as ever—is reminiscent of the Middle East of the distant past, with its soaring minarets, ancient houses and shops selling copper wares and antiques, alongside more touristy items. Crowning the area’s citadel is the Ottoman Mosque of Muhammad Ali with its quiet reverence and cool interior.
On a day trip to a deserted Giza from Cairo we ride horses near the famous pyramids (AA riding school is chosen for their superior animal care). After a desert quad bike ride around the Sakkara step pyramids, we have the privilege of a completely solitary exploration inside one of the Dashur pyramids, and a view of the sweeping desert from the top. Come evening, in Cairo the Khan Al-Khalili is host to a whirling dervish show, but after a long day exploring, it’s perfect riding in one of the harbor’s colorful Felucca boats and watching the city buzz away from a quiet watery distance.
Egypt may still be politically volatile, but there are still more reasons to visit than not. Of course, safety is important—even if Egypt is not as risky as it is currently conveyed. On the other hand, it’s unlikely there’ll be another time when you can visit the Middle East’s largest city and have an almost exclusive audience with its world-famous ancient wonders.