Vibrant Egypt

Text Raphaella Frame Photographs Naashon Zalk The hairs on the back of my neck are raised and my mouth dry as our driver weaves our minibus between the other hurtling cars. White-knuckled and exhausted from a very early arrival at Cairo airport, I manage to ask our guide for the first leg of the trip why the lines on the road are being ignored. ‘Egyptians love art,’ says Ahmed. ‘They are there for decoration!’ The advantage of our daunting ride is that we make it to the hotel in record time and are soon freshened up, ready to begin our whirlwind tour of Egypt. At 10.30am it’s already 38ºC, so it’s preferable to get your sightseeing done early. We start with the Great Pyramids of Giza. Most photographs suggest they’re in a remote location, but, in reality, the outskirts of vibrant Cairo creep right up to the edge of the plateau where the pyramids stand. This doesn’t detract from the majesty and stature of the great tombs, which are awe-inspiring. Another of the icons of Egypt, the Great Sphinx, sits serenely below the pyramid of Khafre, and while it’s smaller than I imagined, there is something surreal about seeing these legendary and mystical constructions up close. By lunch time the heat is almost unbearable and our air-conditioned shuttle is a welcome relief. We feast at a nearby restaurant on saffron rice, sea bass, marinated aubergines with tahini, olives and hummus. We all have seconds of the dessert Om Ali, an Egyptian-style bread-and-butter pudding made with puff pastry, honey and pistachio nuts. I also try my first fresh date. These popular fast-breaking snacks are in abundance. It’s most evident later in the evening that it’s Ramadan, the month on the Islamic calendar when Muslims fast from dawn to sunset: just before 6pm at Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili market there’s a subtle hush, then the muezzin’s voice cuts through the air, proclaiming the izzan (call to prayer). Makeshift tables have been set up in the narrow lanes of the souk, covered with newspaper and laden with freshly made pita breads and ful mudammas (a delicious stew made from fava beans). As the sun dips below the horizon, activity picks up, and shopkeepers sit together, sip hibiscus tea and enjoy the meal that must have taken the entire afternoon to prepare. Khan el-Khalili is a well-known bazaar with all manner of treasures on offer – from papyrus and alabaster statuettes to leather pouffes, jewellery, shisha pipes and spices. The sellers are charming and politely aggressive in their strategy to draw you into their shops. By the time we leave that evening I’ve received two marriage proposals and more compliments than a crocodile has teeth. Obviously flattery pays off because I’m carrying much more than planned. Haggling is part of the culture in Egypt. You can ask for your guide to bargain on your behalf or give you an idea of what an item should cost, but you’re generally able to negotiate a more reasonable price. The market stalls are spread out in a maze of connecting lanes, like tree roots, and the ground is dusty and littered with food wrappers. It’s easy to get lost in the bustle of sights, smells and sounds. The following day, after a breakfast of stewed figs the size of my fist and syrupy Turkish apricots, we visit Coptic or Old Cairo, including the beautiful Hanging Church (one of the oldest churches in Cairo), and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which is said to house the oldest-known copy of the Torah. Next we spend ages trawling the antiquities at The Egyptian Museum (in a building that dates back to 1900), home to amazing finds such as the famous mask of Tutankhamun, and the remains of over 27 royal mummies. This museum is being relocated early in 2010 to be nearer to the Great Pyramids of Giza. We exit just in time to catch the sunset from the top of the 187-metre-tall Cairo Tower, the perfect place to take in the vista of the vibrant city. Flying from Cairo to Aswan takes about 70 minutes, and an early morning departure means we’re standing at the Aswan Dam by 7.30am. It’s immediately evident how different the two cities are. Aswan’s more tranquil environment has a real holiday atmosphere and it’s a great introduction to life on the Nile. A felucca ride around Elephantine Island appeases our city-rattled spirits and, as the sun goes down over the river, relaxation sets in. This article was originally featured in the November 2009 issue of House and Leisure.