Indian Women's Press Corps

Egypt – the Land of Ancient Beauty

By Sushma Ramachandran

Egypt , the land of the Pyramids and Pharoahs, has an enduring mystery that lures millions of tourists every year. Billed as one of the world’s top holiday destination, the desert country never fails to live up to its reputation as a land of mesmeric attractions.As our group of seven women journalists from the Indian Women Press Corps landed in Cairo in December 2010, we looked forward to the exotic and the mysterious in the land of 4000 year old monuments. But when you walk out of the airport, you may be amazed – it looks like you never left home. Cairo is a replica of Delhi in many ways. It has markets that rival Sarojini Nagar and Lajpat Nagar in their crowds, narrow galis and a display of goods that would warm the cockles of any Delhi housewife’s heart. But there is one big difference between Cairo and Delhi. And that is the magnificent blue Nile. It snakes through the city lined with barges, cruise boats and riverside cafes. This is the magical river that transforms Cairo from just another desert oasis to a beautiful timeless capital.

Our smiling guide Hany Hassan meets us at the airport. He is our friend, philosopher and guide throughout our 12 day trip in this ancient land. We are lucky - he is a trained archaeologist and was even involved in scripting one of the many Nat Geo films on ancient Egypt. The first order of business, of course, is to head to the Pyramids. Crowded as ever, the giant Pyramids of Giza are eternally awe inspiring, along with the inscrutable Sphinx that sits majestically overlooking the plain. The scale of the ancient Egyptian civilization takes your breath away as one realises that these enormous structures were built over 4000 years ago with such amazing precision. Later we are to see the Step pyramid and the Bent pyramids at Saqqara, which as Hany explains to us, were the structures created before the perfection of the great Giza Pyramids was achieved by the Pharoah Khufu.

The next stop in Cairo has to be the Egyptian Museum to see the famous golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamen as well as the many artefacts that show this ancient civilization to have been unbelievably sophisticated. From perfumes and gilded chairs to folding beds and leather footwear, the lifestyles of the rich and famous in 4000 B.C. were clearly at a five star level. One actually needs several days to explore the museum properly. In fact, it is joked that the museum is Egypt’s biggest undiscovered archaeological site.

We then had appointments fixed with senior officials in Egypt's Foreign Ministry. The former Ambassador to Egypt Mohamed Higazy who was handling South Asia affairs met us along with other senior officials and we discussed India-Egypt bilateral ties and economic cooperation issues. Subsequently, the Indian Ambassador Mr. R. Swaminathan and his wife, Ms. Suchitra Dorai who heads the Indian Cultural Centre in Cairo hosted a luncheon meeting for us with leading women journalists. In the light of the latest developments in Egypt, one can recall that most of the journalists were incensed over the rigging of the parliamentary elections that had been held earlier in December 2010. Also we were told by most of the ordinary Egyptian people whom we met that they were deeply unhappy under the Mubarak regime.

Later we had a detailed discussion on the parliamentary elections at a meeting with the Director of Al Ahram's Centre for Strategic Affairs. Even under the dictatorship of Mubarak, the press in Egypt has remained relatively free and has been able to express criticism over issues like the parliamentary elections.

A trip to Egypt cannot be complete without a cruise down the Nile from Luxor to Aswan or vice versa in one of the many luxurious riverboats. We opt for the Aswan –Luxor route which means catching a flight at an unearthly early hour from Cairo. What perked us up was the number of Indian tourists who walked into the flight clearly showing the great Indian middle class is on the move like never before.

The trip to the famous statues of Ramses II and Nefertari that had to be shifted because of the building of the Aswan dam reminds us of the prevalence of terrorism that haunts the world as we travelled in a convoy from Aswan to Abu Simbel with police protection. The visit to the world famous statues and the unbelievable colourful paintings inside the temples is all too brief as the convoy stays only for a limited time. One is transfixed in the temple admiring the thousands of years old, larger than life wall paintings which depict a refined and advanced culture in those ancient times.

The advantage of the Nile cruise is that it combines leisure with sightseeing plus the evening parties that may include a belly dancer and the famous whirling dervish dances.It also gives one a chance to unwind from the usually hectic pace of sightseeing in Egypt which normally means getting up early and trekking across the various temples that dot the landscape in Luxor and Aswan. The enormous Karnak Temple that spreads over acres and acres and took over a thousand years to be completed along with the smaller Luxor Temple are breathtaking sights. The Valley of Kings is dotted with tombs filled with beautiful intricate paintings and carvings that may just fade away with time unless Egypt is able to control the influx of tourists some of whom recklessly take photos and touch them despite being warned against it. The grand finale is the female Pharoah, Hatshepsut’s temple framed against a grand mountainous back drop.

A plus point for Indians in Egypt is the all pervasive love of Bollywood. Amitabh Bachchan is as much an Egyptian as an Indian icon. In a nutshell, there is a general affection for Indians and India. Thus a visit to this country is not just about its ancient civilization but is also a way to enjoy the present day warmth of Egyptian people and their culture. One can only hope that the latest revolution that has ousted the Mubarak regime will lead to free and fair elections and the early restoration of democracy to this great and ancient civilization.

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Egypt-land of pharaohs

Sushma Ramachandran

Egypt, the land of the Pyramids and Pharoahs, has an enduring mystery that lures millions of tourists every year.

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