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The land of the Pharaohs

Deepanjali B Sarkar

An ancient land with 7000 years of recorded history, steeped in myth and legends. Egypt has much to offer to both the Mummy fanatic and those not too enamoured of dark, musty tombs! For those looking for some healthy action sans ruins, the Red Sea coast offers the world's best diving opportunities in startling aquamarine waters rich with coral and underwater life.

Mr. Mohamed Taher, Director Sales and Marketing (Middle East), Accor International, vouches for his homeland as a tourist destination to beat all others. For a lot of us, Egyptology starts and ends with Hollywood renditions of the mysterious "Mummy." I personally have vivid recollections of Tintin on the rescue in "Cigars of the Pharaoh"! For those of us who would love to see this land of countless fantasies for themselves, here is an itinerary for a fortnight from GoDubai, courtesy Mr. Mohamed Taher!



Cairo
Giza:
  • Pyramids
  • Sphinx
  • Citadel
  • Ibn Tulun Mosque
  • Coptic Church

"From atop these pyramids, forty centuries look down upon you."

Napoleon Bonaparte to his soldiers before the Battle of Giza, 1798.

PyramidsEgypt is synonymous with pyramids, the sphinx and mummies. For the first two, one starts of with Giza. The Giza Pyramids form one part of a vast necropolis, or city of the dead, that housed hundreds of individuals of Egypt's governing elite during the Old Kingdom over 4000 years ago. The pyramids of Giza are perhaps the only true rival to the Great Sphinx, when one thinks about Ancient Egypt and it's architecture. The three Pyramids at Giza are The Great Pyramid of Khufu, built by the Pharaoh Khufu, around 2560 BC, over a period of twenty years, the Pyramid of Kafhre and the Pyramid of Menkaura. Each Pyramid is a tomb to a different King of Egypt. The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only surviving of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Godubai trivia!

The tradition of pyramid building started in ancient Egypt as a sophistication of the idea of a mastaba or "platform" covering the royal tomb.

Sphinx:

There is yet to be a man who has not been dumbstruck as he looks at the first time at the Sphinx. A masterpiece of artistic composition, it is a marvelous fusion of the body of a lion with the head of a man, towering over all that it surveys. It is the oldest monumental stone sculpture in the world, built around 2500 BC and still the largest. At 74m long by 20m high, not even Mt Rushmore (at a mere 18m) can compete.

Godubai trivia!

The Sphinx is a solar symbol. The Sphinx consists of the body of the lion symbolizing the power, in its physical form and the head of man, symbolizing intelligence and consciousness. The significance of the Sphinx is an ongoing debate - its enigmatic smile makes it all the more mysterious. The Riddle of the Sphinx in the Greek Tragedy Oedipus has immortalized the sphinx in the annals of literature. The riddle goes something like this: "What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?"

Sun boats:

At Giza is housed one of the most outstanding archeological artifacts in the world. The Royal Ship is 150 feet long and even after 4,500 years is amazingly intact. Even pieces of ropes that held the oars in place have been found preserved. Mr.Taher tells us that the Museum has pictures narrating the discovery of the Boat. The ancient Boat was dismantled into over 650 different parts and buried in a sealed boat pit, carved into the Giza plateau's limestone bedrock. The pictures depict the unscrambling of the jigsaw puzzle; bit-by-bit, the separate body parts were pieced together to reassemble the gigantic boat. "Archeologists studied the engravings and paintings on the walls of the pyramids to figure out how to put together the entire boat," says Mr.Taher.

Godubai Trivia!

The sudden waft of incense from an archeological dig was the clue the archeologist Mallakh had been hunting for. He whispered a prayer of thanks to God for he knew he had made a discovery of a lifetime. The sweet smell emanating from the recesses below could only be that of cedar wood - which meant the solar boat he had been searching for all these months was there, right beneath him!

Citadel

It dominates the Cairo skyline and was the nerve center of Egypt for over 700 years. Built by Saladin, it encloses palaces and mosques constructed by Mameluke sultans and governors down the centuries. The Citadel contains the famous Well of Joseph that used to supply water to the entire city within the Citadel. Mr. Taher brings to our notice the foresight of the rulers who had water ducts built along the entire length of the citadel to ensure there was no dearth of water if the city was ever besieged.

Ibn Tulun Mosque

It is one of the largest mosques in the world, the oldest mosque in Egypt and a truly majestic piece of art. It also gives a splendid view of Cairo from its minarets. It is 12 centuries old.

Coptic Church

More than 19 centuries old and the subject of many prophesies in the Old Testament. While Egypt is peppered with landmarks with tremendous Biblical reverberations, the Cave in Old Cairo is perhaps one that is most popular. The cave contains an altar and it is believed the Holy family took shelter in the cave. Here one can visit the Church of Abu Serga, built as early as the 4th century, on the very spot that the Holy Family took shelter. The church is dedicated to Sergius and Bacchus, who were soldier-saints that were martyred during the 4th century in Syria by Maximilan.
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KhanKhalili & Downtown Cairo (3 nights):

The world's oldest mall! Over 1000 years old, the thriving bazaar is the only one of its kind, where you haggle over trinkets with grand arches dating to the Middle Ages, looming above you. The Khan Khalili has shops that have changed hands since the 14th century. Here you will find a magnificent variety of gold and silver artifacts, embroidered clothing, leather goods and ivory-inlaid woodwork and ethnic Egyptian handicrafts. It is also the place for authentic Egyptian cuisine. Mr. Taher recommends the barbequed preparations sold at roadside stalls. To get a taste of Egypt one must stand in the middle of the maddening hustle bustle of shoppers and vendors, the din of traffic all around, the dust, the smell of food intermingling with street smells, and then partake some juicy barbeque dishes. He guarantees us the taste is simply delicious!

Godubai tip!
Khan Khalili is the place to buy papyrus and blue stone jewellery.

"If you are visiting Cairo you must take out time to watch any one of the plays that are held throughout the year," says Mr. Taher. "I have seen row after row filled with entire families who have come to have a good laugh. Adil Aman, one of the most popular Arab actors has such a comic face that you have to just look at him and you will be in stitches!" He tells us Fifi Abdul, a popular belly dancer has become a rage in the theatre circles and her performance should not be missed!
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Heliopolis (1 day)

A very elite stretch of the city with the Presidential quarters a part of the tourist attraction! Helioplis should be reserved for the last day of your Cairo trip to savour the elegance of European restaurants, candle lit dinners and piano bars. Tourists will find dining and shopping at Heliopolis a class apart.

Cairo Tower - not to be missed in new Cairo. It gives an excellent aerial view of the entire city including the Nile. New Cairo throbs with an exciting nightlife - discos, casinos and belly dancing.

Godubai tip!
Mr. Taher tells us that all premier hotels overlooking the Nile have belly-dancing performances out in the open with barbeque dinners.

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Luxor-Aswaan cruise (4 days)

A voyage down Pharaonic dynasties

Luxor, as the tourist brochure says, "is a testimony to the desire for immortality, of temples, tombs and palaces built for eternity in sandstone and granite." The city has been described by Homer as "the hundred gate city." The Luxor-Aswaan Cruise stops every 1 hour to allow tourists to disembark and visit the archeological marvels that dot the two sides of the river Nile. On the east bank, greeting the sunrise, in what is aptly known as the "City of the Living", is Luxor and Karnak. And on the west bank, under the shadow of the setting sun, is the "City of the Dead", the Tombs of Nobles, the Valley of Kings and Queen Hatsheput's Temple. Everywhere you will find giant statues with heads of gods and animals looming above you. The sense of being overwhelmed by monuments breathing down several thousand years of shared memories, is an experience that verges on the eerie.

Karnak TempleKarnak Temples on the East Bank of the Nile are built on a massive scale, covering nearly 100 acres and over thirteen hundred years old. If you decide to look around Karnak, your tour will invariably start with the Avenue of Rams, dedicated to Amon, the God of fertility and growth. "In Karnak temple you will find drawings on walls over 4 thousand years old, but as colourful and clearly drawn as if it were done very recently", said Mr. Taher. The legendary Ramses II, the Pharaoh of the Biblical Exodus, has statues dedicated to himself and his wife Queen Nefertari in the Karnak temples.


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Deep sea diving at Sharm el ShaikhSharm el Shaikh & Hurghade (4 nights each)

The Red Sea coast is like no other. A thousand kilometers of mountains in dramatic hues of red and purple, endless stretches of sandy beaches, and rainbow coloured coral reefs, with an underwater life so rich in its diversity that it takes even the most "seen it all" diver by surprise!

Two very popular resorts on the Red Sea are Sharm el Shaikh, home to the world's greatest scuba diving and Hurghada. Sharm El Sheikh is situated on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula and is a must "see" for its stunning aquamarine water teeming with spectacular coral reefs and a rich variety of marine life. For those of you who crave to plunge into the sea, this is the place for you! Sharm El Sheikh is famous for some excellent diving and snorkeling sites.

Things to do in Sharm El Sheikh:

  • Diving
  • Snorkeling
  • Wind surfing
  • Sailing
  • Parasailing
  • Water skiing
  • Banana boating

St. Catherine Monastery

Built by Emperor Justinian in the 5th century, the monastery lies between mountains of mythical proportions. On one side is the Moses mountain on which Moses received the Ten Commandments and on the other is St. Catherine mountain on which the angels placed the body of St Catherine who was tortured and beheaded by her father for her faith. Legend says her body was transported by angles to Mount Sinai's highest peak where monks from the monastery, guided by a dream, found it, intact (!) after 300 years! The Monastery contains a dazzling array of art spanning 15 centuries and boasts of a library, which is on par with the Vatican for its priceless collection of original Christian manuscripts. On the slightly grisly side, the Monastery also holds a collection of hundreds of skulls of revered monks, preserved over 500 years!

Mount Moses

The overwhelming religious significance of this mountain is intimidating. For Christians and Jews alike, it is sacred land, blessed by the presence of God himself. God spoke to Moses through a burning bush on this mountain. It is from this mount that Moses descended with the Ten Commandments (so brilliantly captured in the Hollywood blockbuster of the same name!) Mr. Taher has an eerie, inexplicable experience to share with us. While on Mount Moses he chiseled out a piece of rock from it and found to his utter amazement that it had the figure of a tree engraved on it. "I couldn't believe my eyes and broke some more pieces of rock from the mountain face. Not once but several times. And every mountain rock had an identical tree engraving on it!" The rocks are sometimes vividly colourful, rich with minerals.

The Canyon

Mr. Taher insists it is a "Must see!" The drive starts high above and the roads cut deep into the mountain slope. The drive takes over 2 hours to wind down the gorge. Once down just to look up at where you started from is a heart stopping experience! Tours to the Canyon are available from Sharm el Shaikh. "Quite an astonishing sight is the brilliant splash of colours on the walls of the Canyon," says Mr. Taher. It seem painters were given the liberty to pour forth their artistic urgings on the canyon walls - perhaps the only such natural canvas in the world.

Sharm el Shaikh & Hurghade

Sharm el Shaikh is very popular with Italians and Hurghade with Germans who fly down straight to these resorts for deep sea diving. Both are renowned worldwide for their vividly colourful coral gardens. Hurghade is the place for those keen on fishing. Incidentally you can also spot quite a few dolphins if you are lucky, gamboling in the Red sea. Both resorts are very popular golf resorts and also offer good horse riding opportunities.

Well, that is "Egypt in 15 days for you!" Egypt is teeming with Pharonic, Christian and Islamic monuments which would probably take more than a month to cover, if one wanted to see them all. This is where Mr. Taher's comprehensive 15-day itinerary can come useful. You could comfortably cover the best of Egypt in a fortnight.

As we were drawing to an end of our tete a tete with Mr. Taher, we asked him had he to choose from a destination other than his homeland, which would it be. "Undoubtedly Paris," he said, without even pausing for a second! "It is so vibrant with culture! And what superb cuisine they have to offer! French people, as per my experience, are one of the most hospitable and warm people I have met! I have traveled so widely and have yet to find another city that can compete with Paris! And being an Arab, I feel even less alienated in Paris since the city has so many Algerians and Moroccans, all of them speaking in Arabic!" The travel professional in Mr. Taher could not resist adding that Mercure hotels were an excellent bet for budget travelers. He advised those traveling on a tight budget to opt for boutique hotels. They are cosy, very French in its intimate, personal ambience and also very affordable. "By the way," interjects Mr. Taher, "did you know our Accor chain of hotels opens a hotel in every 18 hours, somewhere across the globe!" Well, we didn't know that, so that was another revelation!

The Hollywood blockbuster "Sphinx" had a dialogue which was rather startling. "We have made death our biggest tourist attraction," says the Head of the Department of artefacts. But anyone who has been to Egypt has come away awed by the overwhelming sense of permanence and a feeling of timelessness. Its monuments have borne witness to the desert and the Nile over several thousand years. And its people exude such warmth and a love of life that visitors leave with an impression of having experienced the richness of life to its fullest. "Egyptians are a very friendly, hospitable race. As a foreigner you will be made to feel welcome in our land," says Mr. Taher. On that alluring note, we thought it befitting to let our surfers decide for themselves if Egypt was to be their next destination.


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