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Egypt is one of those must-see destinations, not just for the pyramids and Alexandria, but for the vibrant and confusing country it is today, Usha Sankar discovers
No matter how many times you have seen images of the golden mask of boy-king Tutankhamen, come face to face with it in Egypt's Cairo museum, and you will suck in your breath.
It was on Nov 4, 1923, that British archaeologist Howard Carter stumbled on a stone at the base of the tomb of another pharaoh, Ramesses VI, in Luxor, that eventually led to a sealed doorway.
Then, on Nov 23, Carter found a second door and when he stuck his head through it, what he saw was to stun the world. Inside lay the great sarcophagus, or stone coffin, an enormous block of quartzite enclosing three chests of gilded wood, besides numerous other gold funerary objects.
A few months later, when a crane lifted its granite cover and one coffin after another was removed, Carter found a solid block of gold weighing 110 kg. In it was the mummy of the 19-year-old Tutankahmen, covered in gold, inlaid with lapis lazuli, turquoise, cornelian, green feldspar and that splendid funeral mask. And all this lay buried for more than 3,000 years.
Months after my trip to Egypt, I can relive the rush of emotion I felt and sense the reverential hush that descended on the crammed Cairo museum's Tutankhamen gallery.
Cairo, a dusty city of 20 million people, is an unremitting assault on the senses and a place where time seems to both stand still and rush into utter chaos. It is a place where the ancient and contemporary, conservative and experimental happily chug along on parallel tracks. It is infuriatingly disorderly and yet, utterly charming.
Take the Great Pyramids of Giza, sitting on the western edge of the city. Even as the setting sun silhouettes these gigantic structures against the great desert expanse, a muezzin's call for prayer floats over a gaggle of semi-finished apartment blocks abuzz with the activity of city life.
Dwarfed by these pyramids in the light of day, you can't but marvel at the genius of man. The largest of these, the Pyramid of Khufu that rises to an astonishing 450 meter, is estimated to contain more than 2.5 million blocks of limestone, each weighing more than 2 tons. That such a structure as this was erected in an age when the winch, pulley and wheel were unknown, defies the imagination.
Going into the pyramid, doubled over, up a steep incline, is a truly memorable experience and the few minutes you spend inside takes you back thousands of years, literally.
Standing guard at the entrance to the pyramid of Khafre is the 4,500-year-old Sphinx, a magnificent structure that stands 20 meter tall and is 57 meter long, and was built to inspire awe for the pharaoh. But the creepy feeling inside the pyramid is nothing compared to what awaits visitors at the mummification section of Cairo museum. Thank heavens, there's always a crowd in there despite the extra 100 Egyptian pounds ($18) charge.
The mummies kept in the museum come from the tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, or the ancient city of Thebes, considered one of the greatest capitals of the ancient world. Today, its glorious past can be seen in the sprawling temples at Luxor and Karnak.
The vast necropolis of Luxor is an immense archeological site. Each one of its tombs brings to mind life as it was lived 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, through its miraculously preserved wall paintings and reliefs.
The area between Luxor and Aswan, known as Upper Egypt, shows the gradual blending of Greek, Roman and Coptic influences that shaped Egypt before the coming of Islam.
The beautiful temples at Esna and Edfu on the west bank of the Nile, are dedicated to an assortment of gods and belong to the later Greco-Roman period. The magnificent rock limestone carvings, with a clear Greek influence, provide insights into everyday life. The temple of Kom Ombo, overlooking the Nile, in the fertile Nubian plain (bordering Sudan) is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god.
North of Cairo lies the city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Alexandria was Egypt's capital for more than 1,000 years, before its Islamic conquest in AD 640, and shows considerable Roman influence.
Here, historians are still searching for the coffins of romance's legendary couple, Anthony and Cleopatra. They believe a large part of the history remains buried in a massive underwater city. It is also in Alexandria that you will find the intriguing catacombs, a massive underground complex where the early Christians hid from the Romans.
While meticulous planning for the afterlife may lie buried under the Cairo asphalt, it is bedlam on the streets. Donkey carts battle for space with pedestrians and the only operative road rule is "might is right". But it is a city that throbs with life - from the small roadside eateries that serve up kosheri, a kind of hotpot of beans, rice, pasta, lentils, with a very spicy, piquant sauce of chilies, garlic and lime; to the coffee shops where men and women smoke the shisha or hookah.
Donkey carts piled high with flatbreads magically weave their way in and out of the maddening traffic; young women in long skirts and headscarves unselfconsciously hold hands with young men in open collar shirts; while conversations dwell on Kuwait's chances at the soccer World Cup.
No trip to Cairo is complete without a visit to the downtown khan-el-khalili market that offers everything from papyrus paintings, flower essences and oils and camel leather products, to spices, jewelry and of course, the shisha. Be careful, though, as shopping in Cairo can be a tourist trap. The city is best navigated with a reliable tour guide.