In the midst of the Great Sand Sea in the Western Desert 560km west of Cairo, Siwa Oasis is one of the most remote destinations and a town deepest in the mighty Sahara that tourists may reach in Egypt. Only 50km away from the Libyan border, Siwa lies in a natural depression about 19m below sea level. Occupied mostly by a group of Berber people who have developed their own culture and distinct dialect Siwi, Siwa Oasis is one of Egypt’s most isolated settlements. Until a tarmac road was built in 1984 to Marsa Matruh at the Mediterranean Coast, Siwa was only accessible by camels. Despite its remoteness, Siwa has long been a famous place in times of antiquity when a Greek oracle temple dedicated to the Egyptian sun god Amun was established in about 700 BC. In 331 BC, a celebrated conqueror from Macedon set sail from his newly founded Egyptian city by the Mediterranean Coast to Mersa Matruh, and then marched inland into the desert to reach the remote oracle. His visit has forever put Siwa on the map of history. This military genius is commonly known as Alexander the Great.
Home to spectacular landscapes, ancient ruins and distinct oasis culture, Siwa has been considered as an alternative destination in Egypt away from the popular Nile region and Red Sea resorts. For me, the simple idea of venturing out to the far end of the Western Desert in Egypt was tempting enough. Before the emergence of smartphones, Instagram and even Facebook, Siwa was not a well known tourist destination back in 2006. I learnt about Siwa Oasis from Lonely Planet guidebook. Given the anticipated impact of speedy globalization, I feared that the remote Oasis would turn into a resort town in a few years’ time. Thus I decided to pick Siwa as the last stop of my 2006 Middle East trip.
If not the summer heat, wandering in Islamic Cairo around the huge Khan el-Khalili market would be the most ideal way to enjoy Old Cairo. Even without entering mosques or museums, just strolling around to feel the bustling activities, hearing the calls of prayer mingled with the yells of merchants, smelling the shisha smoke and Arabian coffee from open cafes, and searching for the highly decorative details on centuries old building facade was just a pure delight.
As the largest and most famous souq in the region, it is understandable that Khan el-Khalili has been developed into a major tourist attraction in Cairo. It was precisely the souq’s popularity among tourists that made it falling victim as a target of terrorist attacks. In 2005, just one year prior to my visit, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device near the market, killing two French and one American tourists. In 2009, another bombing incident took place at the souq and killed a 17-year-old French girl. These incidents did make some temporary impact to tourism in Egypt. But judging from the tourist crowds that I saw in 2006, just one year after the suicide bombing, the impact was rather minimal. Of course no attacks would make a greater impact to tourism than the Covid 19 pandemic that we are experiencing right now.
In 1996, British director Anthony Minghella adapted Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient into a box office hit and critically acclaimed movie. In the film, the 1940’s Historic Cairo appears to be an untouched medieval Arab city. In reality, the scenes were filmed in Tunisia, as the real Cairo is a much more developed city. Nonetheless, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Historic Cairo, or commonly known as Islamic Cairo, is the “Cairo” that most travellers and audience of The English Patient desire to see: a vibrant neighbourhood full of winding alleyways, souks, fountains, medieval mansions, hammans, and most of all, mosques of different sizes and with them, a thousand minarets that make up the city’s skyline. Established in 969 AD, Cairo was the capital city of the Fatimid Caliphate until the 12th century. Then the city changed hands from one Islamic empire to another, including the Ottomans. Throughout centuries, Cairo was situated in the midst of caravan routes between Africa and the Middle East. From spices, Yemeni coffee to Indian textiles, Cairo has always been a trading hub in the Arab world.
Just like many old Arab cities, my first impression of Islamic Cairo was noisy, chaotic, disorganized, crowded, disorienting, and confusing. However, at certain moment when I stood under the shade of a minaret or took refuge at a tranquil teashop near the souk of Khan el-Khalili, I felt being miles away from the hectic activities and could easily imagine myself being in the Old Cairo of The English Patient.
Built upon the 3rd century ruined gate of the Roman fortress, layers of palm tree logs and stones were used to construct the foundation for the Hanging Church. Probably the most famous church in Coptic Cairo, the Hanging Church is also one of the oldest. Between 7th and 13th century, the Hanging Church was the residence of the Coptic Patriarch. Although much of what we see today of the church’s exterior is from the 19th century, many of the interior architectural features and objects date back to various periods in history, including the 110 Christian icons in which the oldest dates back to the 8th century. Some parts of the church was off limits to tourists during our visit, but nonetheless the Hanging Church was the highlight of our visit of Coptic Cairo.
After Coptic Cairo, we spent much of the afternoon at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the huge museum filled with treasures from ancient Egypt since 1901. The exhibits seemed disorienting at times, though its collection of the 120,000 ancient Egypt artefacts, such as papyrus, stone statues, jewellery, royal mummies (famous pharaohs such as Ramses II), and funeral accessories were truly magnificent. The most impressive of all was undoubtedly the treasures of the tomb of boy King Tutankhamen. According to plan, the Cairo’s Egyptian Museum would be replaced by the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza in 2021. Unfortunately, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic would likely affect the visitor numbers for the new museum at its grand opening.
Leaving the museum, we strolled along the Nile and saw a few felucca owners cleaning their boats. We didn’t have the interest to hire a felucca. Instead, we headed to Cafe Niche for a quick bite. Back at Luna Hotel, my two travel buddies rested a bit before heading to the train station for their quick visit of Upper Egypt. For me, I thought more time would be needed for a decent visit of Luxor and Aswan in Upper Egypt. Instead, I planned to spend the remaining few days in Egypt on my own. My destination was off the beaten track at Siwa Oasis and the Western Desert.
At around 42 AD, Saint Mark introduced Christianity into Egypt and found the Church of Alexandria, one of the five apostolic sees of early Christianity in the Roman Empire (Church of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem ). By the 3rd century, Christianity had became the most popular religion in Egypt. The local language used to translate the earliest scripture was Coptic, and the Copts are one of the most ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. As Islam and the Arabic language entered Egypt in the 7th century, the significance of the Coptic language declined. Coptic Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, continues to evolve and has became the main stream Christianity in Egypt. It is also believed that many practices of early Christians had been preserved by the Coptic Church. Today, it is estimated that Copts account for 5 to 20% of the Egyptian population.
In the 12 century, the seat of the Church of Alexandria was relocated to Coptic Cairo, the area believed to be visited by the Holy family when Jesus was a child. Today, Coptic Quarter is included in Old Cairo, the historical area of the Egyptian capital that has been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1979. Like many tourists, we took the metro to the Coptic Quarter on our second day in Cairo. We visited the St George Church, Synagogue of Ben Ezra, Church of Abu Serga, and the Hanging Church. We also toured the Coptic Cemetery. Every tomb in the Coptic Cemetery is like a small shrine on its own.
Outside the gate of Giza pyramids, we waited 1/2 hour for the Cairo-bounded bus. We weren’t sure where to get off, but as long as the bus was heading to Cairo we had no worries. The traffic was bad. We soon lose track of time as the bus inched back to the Egyptian capital. As a metropolis with a dense population of over 10 million residents (now over 20 million in the metropolitan area), poor traffic continues to haunt the roads and highways of Cairo. In our short stay in the city, I hardly saw a single set of traffic lights. Somehow drivers on the road have their own way to maintain order. As evening approached, we weren’t sure where the bus was heading. We decided to get off near Cairo’s Opera House, simply because we recognized the area and were able to orient ourselves back to Tahrir Square. When we passed by the Nile, we saw a few locals fishing from the bridge. Back at Tahrir Square, we tried to find a pub called Ali Baba. A guy appeared from nowhere came over to “help” us out. He said Ali Baba no longer existed, and led us to his perfume shop instead.
We walked back to Tahrir Square trying to search for another place for drinks. Another man approached us to offer help. Claimed to be a swim instructor and tour guide (with a button of Canadian flag and South Korean flag at his collar), the man took out his wallet and showed us a photo of himself in swimming suit at a much younger age. He called himself Arnold Schwarzenegger of Egypt. The guy was very talkative, and spoke good English. He looked very friendly, and even grabbed my arm when crossing the street. We followed him to a local cafe where local beer was served. Each of us ordered a bottle of beer. We chatted about politics and Islam. He mentioned about his visit to Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan, and bemoaned the fact that Arab countries were never able to bridge their differences in order to become a unified modern nation. Talking about differences, our conversation also steered to the conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam in Iraq, and the pro- and anti-American supporters in the Middle East. After politics, he recited a few Islam stories to us, mainly about legends that involve miracles. After the drinks, he walked us to our hotel, kissed our cheek, wished us good luck and left. From the visits of pyramids to the talk with the local swim instructor, what a remarkable day it was.
In the 2nd century BC, Hellenistic poets and historians came up with a list of marvelous sights to be recommended for ancient tourists in the Greek and Roman world. These seven sights of impressive construction and architectural genius became what we now refer to as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Of the seven iconic landmarks, only the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest of them all, remains standing today. Known as the Pyramid of Khufu, the Great Pyramid is the largest and oldest of the three pyramids in Giza. Together with the Great Sphinx and surrounding pyramids and tombs, the Great Pyramid and the Necropolis of Giza have been widely recognized as the cultural symbol of Egypt for thousands of years. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Great Pyramid had already been around for over 2,500 years. To them, the pyramid was as ancient as the Parthenon is to us. Not to mention that the Great Pyramid was the world’s tallest man made structure for over 3800 years. No wonder why so many have considered the Great Pyramid as a symbol of human civilization. To say we were overwhelming excited as our car was approaching the Giza Plateau was not an overstatement.
After Saqqara and Dahshur, our visit to the necropolises of ancient Memphis brought us to the Giza Plateau, the world famous site of the Great Pyramid, at the edge of the Western Desert. The site of the Great Pyramid complex is quite large, despite its close proximity to the city of Giza. Unlike promotional images depicting the Great Pyramid in the middle of desert, in reality the Giza pyramids stand awfully close to modern roadways and bounded three sides by low-rise building blocks. The site was crowded with tourists as expected, so as plenty of pushy camel handlers. Completed at around 2560 BC, the 146.5m Pyramid of Khufu, or commonly known as the Great Pyramid of Giza, is the largest Egyptian pyramid in the world. 2.3 million blocks of limestone and granite were used, some of which weighing up to 80 tonnes. The pharaoh’s tomb lies in the heart of the enormous structure. Not far from the Great Pyramid stands the iconic Sphinx. The limestone statue depicts a reclining lion body with a human head, which many believe was the representation of Pharaoh Khafre. As the son of Pharaoh Khufu, Khafre was also a prominent pyramid builder. His pyramid in Giza is the world’s second largest.
Standing furthest at the southwest of the complex is the smallest of the three pyramids in Giza: Pyramid of Menkaure. In the 12th century, the second Ayyubid Kurdish Sultan of Egypt attempted to demolish the pyramids of Giza. His recruited workers started with the Pyramid of Menkaure. The task proved to be too difficult and expensive that the attempt was stopped after eight months of hard labour. Due to the sheer size of the stone and the surrounding sandy environment, the workers only managed to remove one to two stone blocks a day. After eight months, they only managed to create a vertical cut on one side of the small pyramid in Giza. This might explain why the Great Pyramid remains as the sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After 4,600 years, only the outer layer of stone cladding was gone. The structural integrity of the Great Pyramid appears to remain invincible at our times.