Egypt the Eternal

Egypt the Eternal
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What if I told you the Egyptian capital of Cairo, with 18 million residents and workers in the city each day, has almost no crime of any kind? Despite the recent anti-government turmoil and rare acts of terrorism (usually in distant resort towns), Egypt is a much safer place to be than almost any major American city. So it makes one wonder why more Americans don't visit.

"I can go out alone at any hour in Cairo," said Sarah Houseman with tour operator Abercrombie and Kent. "I've been here a year and no one has so much as insulted me on the street."

My wife, Sandra Wells, and I spent a week in Egypt after 9/11 on a part group, part-customized itinerary arranged by A&K. We arrived at Egypt's finest hotel, the Four Seasons in the Cairo suburb of Giza, at 4 a.m. on a Sunday and slept until lunchtime.

The next morning, our group met Mona el Nahas, an independent tour guide and an independent thinker in Egyptology. Over the next several hours, she walked us through the 150,000 objects on display in the Egyptian Museum. These objects are rotated, with just as many in storage. Studying up on the country's 3,000-year pharaonic history in advance was necessary, even with a guide if you don't want to be lost. But, it is easier to grasp the essentials than it might at first seem. The best basic intro is the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Egypt.

Old Cairo
The next day, we headed off on our own for a section of downtown, with its traditional Islamic architecture, much of it built in medieval times. At the Khan al-Khalil, the largest bazaar in the Middle East, shopaholics could spend weeks in its medieval alleys. Block after block of gold jewelry sellers made us wonder how all of them could make a living. As we moved into the toy wholesalers and souvenir section, one of the hawkers caught our attention with the cleverest line of all: "Come over here -- everything is free today!" Well, it got us in the store, at least.

Then we headed for the hilltop fortress known as the Citadel, from which Egypt was ruled for 700 years. We came partly for the view over Cairo, but also to look inside two of the city's most beautiful mosques. The Mohammed Ali is built of brown and white alabaster and holds 5,000 people for Friday prayers. All of Cairo echoes five times a day with the call to prayer from its hundreds of mosques. The Suleiman Pasha mosque is much smaller, but has mesmerizing kaleidoscopic geometric designs in its ceiling tiles.

We capped the day with a visit to Giza's famous pyramids and the Sphinx. The Great Pyramid of Khufu, completed in 2589 B.C. required a very strenuous climb up its steep tunnels to get into the center. Despite having read up on pyramids, somehow we had confused the later pyramids and temples with the ones at Giza and were surprised to find that they consist of blank walls and empty chambers. Nothing much to see, but they are imposing up close. There remain many controversies about their construction and meaning: they clearly weren't just tombs, as has been traditionally thought.

The next morning, the rest of the group headed for Sharm el-Sheik for diving at the best coral reefs in the Northern Hemisphere. The guide flew with us an hour to Luxor, where we joined a bus convoy for the 10-hour round trip to the legendary temples of Abydos and Dendera (with many security checkpoints on the way -- the Egyptians really overdo it to make tourists feel safe). When you walk into either temple, you can almost hear the ancient chants of the priests, these are so atmospheric with their painted murals of the gods still showing on the walls. These created a better experience than the pyramids.

Temples, Tombs, Pyramids
We rejoined the group and our new guide, Ashraf Mohie El-Din, the then 27-year-old rising star of Egyptology, who had made special arrangements to get us quickly into some of the numerous tombs and temples in what had once been the capital of Egypt, then known as Thebes.

We started on the West Bank, and there were three must-sees in the full day that should be spent there. One is the Tomb of Nefertari, wife of Ramses II. But only 150 people per day are allowed in for 10 minutes at a time. It's worth getting up at dawn to get in line.

After $5 million in cleaning and repair, the murals are as bright as if they had been painted yesterday, an astonishing feast for the eyes. The Mortuary Temple of Ramses III (the last great pharaoh), with its painted pillars, gave one the best sense of how the original buildings looked. And, of course, one must go into Tut's small tomb, which holds his coffin of gold.

That night, we went to the Temple of Amun at Karnak, for a sound-and-light presentation about ancient Egypt. The program has visitors walk through part of the temple's roofless 62 acres, a forest of massive pillars reaching up to the starry sky, before ending up at a small stadium for the dramatic finale.

Luxor Temple, which is smaller but still elegantly designed. It was started by Amenhotep III, known as "The Magnificent," for his 38-year peaceful reign, which saw Egypt reach its cultural height a century before Ramses II.

After a couple of days there, the group took off on a cruise down the Nile, while we flew back to Cairo because we were on deadline for a different story: we'd like to go back again for the cruise and a visit to Alexandria.

Our last night, we went out on own for what turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip -- the dancers of the mystic Muslim sect of the Sufis, known as the Whirling Dervishes. As soon as the exotic Sufi music began -- a hypnotic blend of Middle Eastern woodwinds, strings and drums -- we were entranced. As it ramped up in intensity, the dancers, dressed in multi-colored robes, whirled faster and faster in circles until you'd think it would be physically impossible for them to stay standing as they bring the audience with them into a state of rapture.

The next morning, we weren't eager to jump from eternity back into the mundane reality show.

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