Egypt, like so many thousands before me, has captured a piece of my soul. I would travel here a hundred years if life gave me time. Gold, dust, shattered statues, pillars of light in shaded halls, ribbons of fading paint cling to grooves in chiselled walls; so remote, so close. Old colonial buildings slowly falling into ruin, bustling streets, cacophony of noise, cogs of human industry grinding against the ephemeral glitter of life.
Throughout my trips in Egypt I have explored nearly every corner: from the deserts of the south to the cities of the north, the temples of both kingdoms, the heights of Sinai, the Red Sea, the length of the Egyptian Nile. I slept everywhere from tents on the river bank, on overnight trains and buses, to the most luxurious hotels on earth. I ate off of the freshest pressed linen tablecloths, sitting on the street corners, with local families, on Cairo rooftops and freezing mountaintops. I chanted in the Great Pyramid, was alone with King Tut, sang in empty temples, had private access to tombs, climbed into a giant sarcophagus, suffered some sort of terrible ego-death before climbing the God-trodden Mount Sinai and then resting in ancient St Catherine’s Monastery which houses both the oldest icons in the world and the remains of the Burning Bush itself…
Egypt is a mad and wonderful ecstasy of experience and I am here for all of it.
Living for a month or so in Cairo was its own sort of lunacy. Apart from the constant barking noise of the traffic, I rather liked the city. One never grows accustomed to such noise. There is much to explore in the area. It felt like a mixture of my time living in downtown Rome and my neighbourhood Shanti Nagar in Bangalore. The chaos as soon as you step out of the oasis of your rooms – the grit, the hubbub and bustle. Of course, comparisons with Casablanca are also unavoidable to me. Decaying colonial-era buildings, dusty, crumbling cornices, dirty-beige plaster and racing green shutters brushed with fine layers of sand. I stayed many weeks in one such building, 7 floors up, a rooftop paradise bordered by cracking concrete walls, washed azure, sagging papyrus screens, an array of exotic plants and cats. So many cats. A jungle of satellite dishes and matted wires littered the panorama in all directions. A smog of Sahara sand cloaked the sun, creating a haze over the land.
Egypt. Oh Egypt… I spent many years waiting for thee.
Apart from the odd minaret, rooftop billboards and the narrow Cairo Tower lancing the muted sky, the blushed dome of the old Egyptian museum stands proud and distinguished, like the perfect pink breast of a sleeping muse. She has called me into her inner rooms many times. How I stared, fixated, into the piercing eyes of that Boy King, for some time, lost in another realm where only myself and the iconic death mask existed. As my eyes whirled in hypnotic focus, for a moment, perhaps, I could have perceived a slight smile itch across his golden lips. You stare into the past, and you see yourself looking back! Perhaps the soul of humanity is not separated by space, or time; our story is one to the mind accustomed to the flourish of the cosmos.
Days and days walking dusty streets of Cairo melt into each other in my memory. Everything becomes a meditation, each moment blending seamlessly into another. It’s all a dance. You figure it is better to enjoy the music rather than focussing too closely on your steps. Every-so-often the ghostly call to prayer shatters the constant hum of traffic, echoing through the forest of high-rising towers like a siren; a war on the spirit. There are churches and pyramids, parks and squares, souks, markets and all manner of shops and neighbourhoods sprawling out across this land, caught somewhere between the Sahara and the Nile Delta. You can trek for hours on camelback out beyond Giza, or the Saqqara Necropolis, or you can meander endlessly through old museums and perfume shops, lost in a movie from the golden age.
I recall a vivid moment – having my face shaved by an elderly barber in the downtown quarter. As the barbasol sunk deeper into my razored cheeks and throat, the old man paused to have a cigarette, offered me one (which I declined) and then proceeded to blow heavy billows of tar-like smoke down my neck. He looked on passively at the passing traffic as small pricks of blood slowly bloomed across my face, seeping into the lily-white shaving cream like tiny roses. A close shave indeed…
You may read a detailed account of my time in the Karnak/Luxor area here. A childhood dream come true for me! I stayed in the same hotel Howard Carter did when he discovered that famous tomb…
I wonder if any of my readers have ever visited said tomb of the ubiquitous Boy Pharaoh Tutankhamen? It is of course such a famous place, the finding of which is perhaps even more famous than the treasures themselves. I don’t think I’ll ever forget my time there. Watch the video below and you’ll see just what I mean…
I spent many hours exploring the Giza Plateau and the Saqqara Necropolis, both on the outskirts of Cairo. One particular time my friend Yousef and I entered the largest and most famous pyramid in the world, the Great Pyramid, and found its central chamber to be all but empty… as we walked through the dark shaft leading to the infamous King’s Chamber a sort of haze came over us, and it became gradually less and less clear if we were ascending or descending – a very strange feeling, as if all the usual laws of physics were shifting, or, at least, one’s sense of space was changing. I did feel a little uneasy. But rather than allowing the claustrophobic sensation to spread to my heart, I powered on, walking sort of crouched in the half-light, full of anticipation as to what lay ahead.
We entered the dark chamber and as our eyes fully-adjusted we discovered it to be empty. I began to hum, a sort of self-soothing that I often do, and I suppose I’d also heard of the famous acoustics of the chamber and wanted to test them for myself. I couldn’t believe my ears. As I hummed softly it bounced around so vividly between the giant stone blocks and reflected back as if many voices were singing along with me. I confess I was afraid to properly project or even open my mouth! It felt as though the whole room would collapse or take-off or something if I sang properly. My, my, what a moment.
The short clip below is from that first trip in Egypt. Imagine that instance… suddenly the Great Pyramid empties… you are alone, just you and your companion, what would you do? For me I suppose the answer is always sing…
During my most recent trip to the country I had the privilege of exploring as far down as Aswan, close to the Sudanese border. Some Egyptian friends of mine planned a train journey to the south and graciously invited me along. With tents and rucksacks on our backs we made the long 12hr journey. It was well well worth it, although that didn’t seem to stop me complaining about the apparent lack of decent sleep over the next few days (not my strongest point I have to say).
Egypt is quite amazing in that there really is such a wealth of sites to explore that often one is left completely alone in a temple or tomb. Tourists come in their usual groups, bustle past like squadrons and then swiftly leave, a twinkle of dust in the air the only evidence of their presence. So you sit there in a temple dedicated to Hathor or some other major deity, humming deeply to yourself, inspecting the etchings and sculpture in the dim light, creating your own narratives for the place, lost in that ‘in-between’ blissful feeling of travel that I so adore.
I was blown away by the beauty of Philae and the surrounding islands. We stayed in a few different places, I can’t remember it all so clearly as we seemed to be seamlessly either on the move or planning our next move. I was most dazzled by an afternoon spent swimming along the banks of the Nile river with lots of local Nubians. The waters were crystal clear, cold, and a powerful cleanse from the heat and sand of Egypt. Perhaps most memorable, however, was watching the sun rising over the rippling waters of the river. As the birds hastily woke up the sleeping earth, our glowing star shone like soft waves of golden hair across the tides of this most legendary of waterways…
My good friend Yousef made a wonderful film about our time exploring the area. It is mostly in Arabic but there is the option for English subtitles. There are also some sections narrated by me, in English of course.
If you’ve managed to make it this far in the post, firstly, thank you. Secondly, I’d like to finish this tale of mine by briefly telling you of my time in Sinai.
I didn’t get to spend as much time in the area as I’d always imagined I would, but feeling travel-weary, and trying to save energy for my time in Greece ahead, I decided to spend a few days travelling around the area before leaving the country again. I journeyed to the Red Sea overland from Cairo, not as glamorous as flying or a cruise but being searched every hour by military personal is always a delight (it’s not). I spent some time on the local beaches, and scuba-diving around the corals. It is breath-taking there, although I wasn’t keen on the towns themselves, it felt too touristy and crowded for me. Not wild enough. I have heard there are some wild beaches in the northern area, but I didn’t have the time.
I remember vividly, the evening before climbing Mount Sinai, suffering. Big time anxiety, fear seeping into my bones, dust in my mouth, my heart pumping in my ears, death surely about to rip me from this body. I just lay on the hotel bed paralysed, unable to move, just racing thoughts about the dark, the cold, the looming heights of Sinai and all the danger I was about to step into. I can’t really explain it, but I’m calling it my ‘ego-death’ as it really felt as though I passed through some spiritual endurance, some dark valley of the soul, before making that climb.
And then… like it had never been there… as soon as I awoke to start the hike at midnight the fear just totally vanished. And didn’t return. The journey was miraculous. The cold didn’t get to me (even though I was terribly underdressed and underprepared), the dangerously-narrow rocky pathways didn’t get to me, the fear just disappeared.
I made most of the climb with a Chinese pilgrim named Daniel who was such a joy-filled soul. I do wonder, sometimes, if these people who appear on my journey are angels. I always seem to make a friend in my moments of despair. Dear God, if I ever settle for a normal life please help me to remember all of these challenging moments, how You proved Your Presence in my life over and over. People think I’m mad to believe in some Divinity. Maybe I am! Happy, mad and living an interesting life… it could be worse. But to me, believing that the human mind is the only conscious intelligence in the entire cosmos is the true definition of madness. It is a notion I just simply cannot relate to.
Let me assure you, the place is mythical. It feels as though heaven herself reaches down towards the earth, which rises up in grace, in a marvel of twisted stones, transforming into a burning pool of many colours as day breaks, as the warmth of the sun slowly bleeds across a blue dawn…
Egypt, oh Egypt. How have my heart.