Egypt today is a place where time both stands still and races past at a galloping pace. On an unsure footing since 2011’s uprising, it would certainly be a very different place to the one I visited ten years ago. Here is my diary entry, along with a couple of pictures from December 2004 when I found myself at the gateway to Africa.
I jetted out from Aqaba on one of the bumpiest flights ever, and after overnighting in Amman with a Palestianian family I had gotten to know, I made it to Amman’s international airport bound for Egypt. Queen Alia was once the queen of Jordan and Amman’s biggest airport, 50 kilometres south of the city, is named after her. There are some people who believe that you can judge a place by its airport. Singapore’s airport is spotless, like the city itself. Bahrain is suitably small and militaristic, and Tehran’s is vast and disorganised. Given that line of thinking, one might be forgiven for assuming that Alia had never showered once in her life, and eventually died of some vicious infection. However Alia’s radiant noggin with her Dusty Springfieldesque do radiate down from walls throughout the dark and filthy Queen Alia International Airport terminal – so perhaps things weren’t that bad for her after all. (On a side note, poor Alia actually met her fate in a 1977 helicopter crash. Which makes me wonder if it was really such an auspicious move to name an airport after her. Just a thought).
Flying from Cairo to Amman was a treat, with the Royal Jordanian Airlines captain pointing out the Gulf of Aqaba, Sinai Peninsula and Suez Canal as we flew over them. I will cover Cairo in my next email as I spent most of the rest of that day in transit at Cairo’s Ramses Railway Station. This is a similarly frustrating and mite-ridden terminus where I took up residence for eight hours, thereby foregoing any reason to see The Terminal at a cinema. In this time I developed a personal relationship with the snack kiosk before finally boarding an overnight sleeper train for Aswan, in Upper Egypt.
The area of Upper Egypt refers to the area of Egypt upstream (on the Nile) from Cairo. Confusingly, it is in the south, so on a map Upper Egypt appears very much at the bottom. Having solved that problem, I am happy to report that I am just as liable to sleep in on a train as I am anywhere else, and it was the conductor that woke me up ten minutes out of Aswan. Aswan itself is a fairly featureless city on the southern Nile. There are some old temples and monasteries here, but I felt my time and money was much better spent on a felucca (small yacht) cruising for two placid hours on the Nile.
Aswan gives its name to a controversial dam project. You’ve seriously got to wonder about any country which forcibly relocates its citizens to make way for a lake in the middle of nowhere (I include Australia in that category – Jindabyne?). But when Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt in the 1960s, proposed just this, it had far greyer implications. When the Aswan Dam was completed, it created Lake Nasser, flooding the Temple of Ramses the Second, along with the town of Abu Simbel near the Sudanese border. This created outrage in the international community and UNESCO protested. However Nasser was an advocate of “Arab power” (presumably similar to the Spice Girls’ “girl power”, but with slightly more Semitic features?), and would not give in. So he paid for the thousand tonne monument to be dragged above the waterline.
The temple is an easy day trip from Aswan, but security restrictions in the desert and near the Sudanese border dictate that buses must travel in convoy. At 4am, fifty buses assembled on the outskirts of Aswan, had their number plates recorded and then set off together through the dark desert. Despite all of this, it felt very secure; it was only on the return journey that we realised the need for a convoy. 90kms from Aswan, one tyre on our bus blew out. The other buses and a police car stopped to help, but the silence of the desert made us aware of just how far from help we would have been otherwise.