An Unexpected Egypt.

The sands of Arabia flowed below the wings of the aircraft depicting all the romance and expanse that they are assigned.

Rugged, rock outcroppings rising from the silk of flowing sand dunes. Little settlements with the desert crouching all around, ready to reclaim the intrusion with one deep breath.

The enchantment started there, out of the airplane window, effectively blocking out the infernal noise of some hundred teenagers from the Dubai American Academy unfortunately travelling on the same flight.

It continued with my first sight of the pyramids. These immense structures, sentinels of such a long ago civilization, that fascinates till today. A civilization of such knowledge, art, skill and learning. If one were to only look at the Sphinx alone, it would tell the story of what intricacy, art, exactitude and ability lived in those ancient people. Even with the ages of weathering, that face and it’s features are compelling and powerful. It is a place to sit and breathe in the whole. The aura and energy of the stones needs to be felt and absorbed. Come back to take photographs another time. This time just sit and stare and feel.

Block out the touts and the buses, see the camels, horses and pony carts and transport yourself to another time and the beauty of these monuments in their prime, of white robed men and women – with gold ornaments, etched in blue enamel. Regal processions and long floats on the green waters of the Nile.

I haven’t even got to that stupendous river. Like a ribbon of green through the golden desert. That says it, who is to describe what that aerial sight was? Only the imagination. I still have not experienced the reality of it, just crossed a bridge and noted that it is not a river hemmed in by buildings, houses and filth. Atleast, what I have seen of it so far.

This is my first day and other than the obvious tourist destruction so evident all over the east, it has been one of enchantment.

We rested and ate at the quaintest little garden restaurant/resort along side a dirty canal in the Giza area. It is the most tackily charming little spot – and I can recommend it as a great lunch, tea, dinner, cool off, rest spot – Alzeb.

Now my day is ending at the Cataract Hotel, one semi luxury – large resort, that has clean rooms and seemingly nice restaurants. Will sample tomorrow.

It gave a good breakfast and has a lovely pool, otherwise I am sure there are infinitely nicer places to stay in Cairo.

We got an extra day in Cairo due to some off road permissions. The pyramids at Sakkara was something that was just knocked off a list of things to see.

The Museum was breathtaking and too large to absorb all at once, so we honed in on the Tutankhamen rooms and were they brilliant. Looking at that beautiful golden face, it is hard to firstly believe you are actually seeing the real thing and not a magazine picture. Then the mind boggles at just the creation of it. What a masterpiece (amongst many others) of workmanship created so many years ago and still so beautifully preserved. It has to be seen, no words can describe the awe and sense of the whole find and the history that was uncovered with the amazing treasures.

The Khan al Khalili market is a cocktail of Chandni Chowk mixed with Janpath and stirred with Sarojini Nagar. The coffee houses in the square are loud and solicitious. The buildings of the mosque and the academy around it are quite beautiful. I am sure the market holds some fascination – to me it was too loud, too pushy, and ridiculously avaricious. Well done without, though I guess one needs to experience it once, to know that you really never need go back again.

This trip was meant to be an off road, driving trip through the western desert, but due to some hitch in permissions we are doing a completely different trip, and the unknown adventure begins.

We are still driving, but now to the Oasis of Siwa, also in the middle of the desert, miles away from anywhere, on the western border of Egypt. It was the place where the Oracle of Amon resided. The oracle that Alexander the Great came to consult. There begins the romance of it all again.

Today has been a spectacular drive, down the Nile bypassing Alexandria and swinging left along the coast towards El Alamein. What a sight it is to see the Desert meet the azure blue Mediterranean!!

El Alamein brought back every commando comic ever read, and a lot of history learnt. The World War II Museum is rather well done and you get a chance to see what that desert war must really have been.Wrecked spitfires and blown up troop carriers reminiscent of what an ordeal it really was –instead of the romanticized concept in ones head. Miles of sandy beach and this ridiculously blue Mediterranean was so enticing, we had to stop and have a swim.

Finally reached the Oasis of Siwa well after dark, driving some 800 kms through completely trackless desert. Wild camel herds were all we saw.

Imagine yourself riding for miles through the desert on a thirsty camel, (obviously you are fried and thirsty yourself.) Come over a rise in the ground and look out across this great depression in the desert, filled with a sea of palm trees and a sea of water. Because that is exactly what it is. A fault in the earth’s crust an area well below sea level, creating a salt water lake and a fresh water one.

It is like a dream, a mirage, waving palms and rippling water surrounded by craggy rock outcrops towards the west and north, dunes of golden sand on the south and east.                                       

Adobe (mud brick houses), there is absolutely no rainfall, so there are actually mud brick buildings. I know my grandmother told me that they had a three story mud built house in their village in Pakistan and I would always imagine it crumbling. Here there are the ruins of a five story fortress which has obviously stood for centuries.

It is wonderful how all the new hotels have kept to the traditional building method, so the aura and ethos of the oasis is totally maintained. The three large hills that protrude out of the centre of this area are catacombed with old burial chambers of pharoanic beings of the 26th Dynasty who created the necropolis. Lit up at night they look supernaturally eerie from a distance. Quite fascinating on actually exploring, there are some remarkably well preserved frescoes.

The ruins of the temple of Amon with some inscriptions dating from the 4th century BC, lie within the ruins of Aghurmi. The old fortress. This is the Oracle that Alexander the great came to consult before his campaign of conquest in Persia. He reached the oasis, supposedly by following birds across the desert. The oracle, Alexander’s court historians alleged, confirmed him as both a divine personage and the legitimate Pharoah of Egypt.

It was a powerful space, whether by virtue of my interest or not, I can not say. A small room, with a few inscriptions on the wall (all that is left), open to the sky, but I think it was the history in those stones and just the fact that he came here and an oracle spoke!!!

We have the advantage of a superb guide, a professor of Egyptology from Israel who does insist on speaking Hebrew but deigns to translate every so often. I am accompanied on this trip by a group of very interesting people from Israel, thus the Hebrew speaking professor.

Once we had climbed around the catacombs and seen the amazing views across the oasis from the top of the hills, we drove through the waving palms on a little dirt road  which bought us to Cleopatras pool.

 Situated at a crossroad amidst the palms. An ancient fresh  water spring fills the pool that seems to serve as the  swimming hole for all the people that pass by. There is a  very pleasant little chai dhaba where we sat and watched the  business of the oasis wander past. A little boy riding a tiny  donkey cart laden with grass, stops his cart in the shade,  takes off his djellaba and dives into the pool in his pajamas.  Cools off, puts his djellaba back on and goes on his way.  They all seem to do that as did some of our group.

The people of this oasis are closer to the Berber tribes of Libya and they all wear the white djeballa and the houndstooth checked keffiyes which you don’t really see elsewhere. Donkey carts are the preferred modes of transport and even constitute the Siwa Taxi service, all festooned and decorated.

In the evening we hired bicycles from the market, wonderfully rickety, but serviceable and rode out along a little track into the lake to Fatnas Island, which became a palm-fringed peninsula located on the edge of a saltwater lake.

The lake is akin to the Dead Sea. We could actually float sitting up in the water, sipping a beer and watching the sunset and the moon brighten simultaneously across this vaste expanse of water in the middle of the desert. It was surreal, the most amazing experience. There was a fresh water tank to dive into once you got out of the oasis to wash off the encrusted salt – all crystallized on your body. Then we cycled back to the market in the bright moonlight.

Our hotel is the Siwa Garden resort with truly lovely gardens surrounding a fresh mineral spring swimming pool. The architecture is the same mud huts that I mentioned earlier and it is a beautiful spot, very well run.

On the drive back to Cairo, a stop at Alexandria is well worth it, the new library is remarkable and may well go down in history as a worthy descendant of it’s famous predecessor.

I went to Egypt to do something quite different and came away totally enchanted with what I did do.

The Nile and all the regular Egyptian destinations will happen some day, out of the way Siwa was like a gift that fell into my lap. A little place of wonder far out in the nowhere land of sand.