In early 2012, Anya and I went on a river cruise on the Nile.
We went as a part of an organised group.
It was the first time we had done so.
Normally we much preferred to travel on our own, as individuals, determining where we went and where we stayed. This is how we had travelled on a previous visit to Egypt.
But this time round, there was little choice in the matter.
Egypt was embroiled in a political crisis….
Two years before, a wave of popular protest across the Middle East known as the ‘Arab Spring’ arrived in Egypt and led to weeks of protests in Cairo, which led to fall of the dictatorial Mubarak government. Free and fair elections were organised. The result however was hardly a positive outcome: the elections were resoundingly won by the Islamic fundamentalists: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.
In the euphoria of the Arab Spring and the promise of democratisation, the western media had neglected to see that in Egypt there was a huge gap between the people living in the cities and the rural areas. In the former there were high levels of education along with the widespread use of social media and the internet. In the rural areas, where most people lived, the reality was very different. The women were burka clad slaves whose prime function was to produce children; illiteracy rates were high and the villages were controlled by fundamentalist imams. Religion, low education and gender oppression provided the back drop for the spectacular success of the fundamentalists at the elections.
The imams commanded the faithful to vote for God and they did.
The programme of this new coalition of religious extremists was simple: to legislate for a constitution based upon The Sharia.
The army became restive and at the same time, the very urban dwellers who had brought down the dictator Mubarak, became steadily disenchanted: a religious government determined to impose religious norms on the nation was not what they had agitated for.
The country slid into anarchy as its irreconcilable contradictions rose to the surface.
There were strikes, attacks, and violent episodes.
Tourism, the life blood of the economy, plummeted.
It was only on the Nile that the safety of foreign tourists could be guaranteed.
With the conspicuous presence of the army.
The river boats were like floating multi-level hotels, with lounges, bars, dining rooms and large cabins. Our boat was one of many moored at the river bank, which were banked three deep and extended a few hundred metres along the river. It was also one of the few being used.
Our cruise had a singular focus: the ancient history of Egypt. It stopped at historic sites along the Nile and ended in Luxor. The group was accompanied by an Egyptian guide who had a degree from Cairo University in archaeology.
From our cabin, which was near water level, we had an impressive view of the Egypt’s great river: of reed lined banks; the traditional sailing boats or dhow; towns and villages and farmland and interceding stretches of desert.
Being on the boat and seeing the Nile day and night was an appropriate back drop to our visits to the historic sites. The physical experience of being immersed in the river, as it were, complemented the mental immersion in the age of the Pharaohs. That long line of supreme leaders and the extraordinary civilisation they had ruled, along with its architectural wonders, – owed its existence to the Nile.
The might and the mystery of that great empire rose from something disarmingly simple: a river.
The Nile was more than a source of water.
For over 60,000 years, species Homo Sapiens lived a nomadic life, hunting and gathering and continually on the move. Then about 10, 000 years ago, a profound change took place on the European-Asian land mass, where Sapiens began cultivating crops. The days of moving were swapped for a stationary existence.
An agricultural revolution spelt a radical change in lifestyle.
The agricultural revolution was based on rivers – e.g. the Yangtze in China, the Ganges in India, the Euphrates in today’s Iraq (Samaria). A necessary pre-requisite for agriculture was water. The Nile however, was far more than just a source of water.
Every year, monsoon rains fell in the mountains of today’s Ethiopia which led to an enormous volume of water coursing down the Nile through today’s Sudan, until it reached the vast delta area near the Mediterranean. On this delta area, the water spilled out over wide flood plains and remained there for several months. When it receded, it left behind it a thick layer of rich, watery silt, which acted as a natural fertiliser.
This was an ideal place for agriculture.
The farmers planted crops of barley. These crops grew quickly and were bountiful. The population increased rapidly. In time, a chain reaction of cause and effect was unleashed. From fertile fields came a government and administration, an army, a bureaucracy, a caste of priests: a hierarchical society with the Pharaoh on top. And furthermore: architectural wonders such as pyramids, giant obelisks, statues and immense stone columns.
The rule of the Pharaohs was based upon taxing the farmers; of extracting the economic surplus – barley. Taxation was necessary to fund their extravagant building projects. Taxation in turn, demanded the invention of mathematics and writing. One of the very first written scripts in human history, the so-called hieroglyphs – those beautiful and mysterious symbols which the tourist sees on the walls of the pharaohs’ tombs – was created as a means of recording the farmers’ annual harvest and hence, making an effective taxation system possible.
The Pharaohs constructed so- called ‘Nileometers’: calibrated, stone- lined holes in the ground, with which they could measure the level of the yearly inundation of the Nile. Using these, they could calculate how much tax they impose upon the farmers without starving them to death.
The might of the Pharaohs was based upon the burgeoning population of farmers, represented below carrying ears of barley
One of the best known ‘Nilometers’ at the outskirts of today’s Cairo. We visited it in 2010; by 2012, Cairo was out of bounds to tourists.
Our boat sailed slowly through its agenda of short stops along the Nile, where we alighted and visited ruins with our guide explaining to us their past and their significance. For a week we lived in this hermetically enclosed world, on the boat and then, on land, always accompanied by the army.
At Luxor, we spent time at the famous temple just outside the town and heard about how each one of its massive stone columns and obelisks were mined up river and then floated down on the inundation, born by a flotilla of wooden vessels.
The Nile provided the ancient Egyptians with the means of mining stone and shaping it and then transporting it to whatever architectural project the Pharaoh had in mind – be it a temple or a pyramid or a tomb.
I had graphic memories of the town of Luxor, which was now off-limits.
One night we were wandering around the alleys when we came upon a mass of people sitting on plastic chairs watching a game of football between Egypt and Tunisia – the TV set was set high on a pole in the middle of the street. People jumped up and offered us a seat and we sat down and watched the game, with everyone loudly yelling and cheering when Egypt kicked a goal.
Two years later, such scenes seemed utterly bizarre, as if they were from another country.
There was no experiencing the contemporary Egyptian culture now.
How we travel and where we travel is so often determined by forces way beyond our control.
Travel means taking chances – and utilising opportunities when they arise.
The street where we stayed on our first visit to Luxor. Within two years, unimaginable.
The last days of our trip were cut short.
There was a general strike. We were put on to buses and were driven overland at night. It was a strange end to our trip, night times driving through silent towns, the largest structures being the mosques, lit up with bright coloured lights. When the Call to Prayer came, it was extraordinarily loud, the loudest I had heard in any Islamic country.
In the size of those mosques and the decibels of their Calls to God and the heavily armed soldiers accompanying our tourist bus, I saw a country in the process of disintegration.
A year later, when the army, led by General Sissi, staged a coup against the Islamists, it was with the overwhelming support of the urban classes, the same ones who had enthusiastically embraced the Arab Spring.
Government by the army meant stability but certainly not security. The Islamists on the other hand, could not guarantee even that.
Egypt is potentially the world’s greatest tourist destination.
In May, 2011, two months after the Mubarak regime fell, a startling new discovery in the scientific world temporarily diverted the international media’s singular focus on contemporary political events in Egypt.
A team of American Egyptologists, headed by a Dr Sarah Parcak, had discovered two previously unknown pyramids lying under the sand by analysing images from satellites. These satellites orbited 700km above the earth and were equipped with cameras that could pin-point objects less than 1m in diameter on the earth’s surface. Initially the Egyptian authorities were not interested in her findings. But after test excavations not only revealed the presence of the two pyramids, but also one of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt – including more than 1,000 tombs and 3,000 ancient settlements – they changed their tune.
Technology was radically changing archaeology. Doctor Parcak had made this exciting new find without leaving her university in Alabama; her only tool was a laptop. It was far cry indeed from times passed when European Egyptologists spent months, years, laboriously excavating sites in the hope of finding something important. The famous Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922, spent 7 years searching for it. In his case, the years of searching, of conducting one fruitless excavation after the other, were more than amply rewarded: when he finally located the tomb, it was brim full of fabulous artefacts, unmolested by grave robbers for thousands of years. But for every major discovery, there were legions of Egyptologists who searched and went broke in the process – and found nothing.
Parcak observed: ‘We have located sites close to the surface but there are many thousands of additional sites that the Nile has covered over with silt. This is just the beginning of this kind of work.”
In the intervening years, American Egyptologists have made exciting new discoveries as the technology of satellite imaging has improved. The scale of ancient Egyptian sites buried beneath the sands has proved to be far greater than anyone previously thought. Parcak’s findings underlined a strange irony: a civilisation made possible by the Nile, was preserved for prosperity by the Nile. The mighty river gave birth to the world’s longest continuous civilisation and then preserved it like the mummy of Tutankhamen found by Carter in the Valley of the Kings.
Another irony is the predicament confronting the government of resident dictator General Sissi. Egypt’s ancient heritage, already a tourist draw card unparalleled in the world before Doctor Parcak appeared on the scene, is now as potentially lucrative as the oil in Saudi Arabia.
There is simply nothing like Egypt’s ancient past.
It is unique and wonderful and mesmerizing.
But how can international tourists be attracted in large numbers with the lingering threat of terrorist attacks?
No army would be adequate to defending any large influx of tourists. Ask most Egyptians, in the cities in any case, what they would prefer and the answer would be unequivocal. But ask the rural villagers and the answer might be different.
The virus has exacerbated this national imbroglio.
As a traveller, my only wish is for Egypt to find some basis of unity, some kind of national compromise, whereby I might one day get the opportunity to visit this amazing country again.
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