The tall man at the Cairo airport exit held the placard with my name on it and as I approached him he folded his hands and said ‘namaste’. He introduced himself as Walid Mohammad and guided us to the waiting car where the driver too greeted us with namaste. Puzzled a bit I ventured to clear my query.
“You are Egyptians, why did you greet me with namaste and not Salaam Alaikum?” I asked
“You are from India?” Walid queried back with a smile.
“Yes,” I said.
“We like India and we greet Indians with namaste which is their way of greeting in India,” he said.
I was intrigued and surprised, during my meetings with them in Bahrain on various occasions, socially and at work, Egyptians appeared far different from Walid. They apparently were self centered, circuitous and surreptitious. In Cairo I was encountering an entirely different category of son of the soil.
“What all you like about India?” I asked him.
“Many things, your food, your culture, and your history. But the most we like are your films and Shah Rukh Khan,” he said and smiled. I could see the driver nodding his head in agreement.
Walid was a postgraduate from Cairo University in Archeology and had a government authorised tourist certificate. He spoke english fluently, kept his voice low while conversing and took pains to explain.
It was a long drive from the airport to our hotel giving us ample opportunity to look outside the car window to view the visuals, which unfortunately did not inspire or please. There are moribund, lifeless multi storied apartments buildings some without external plaster and the rest with the same facade and color, all lined up all along on either side of the roads, similar to some found in our smaller towns in India.
As we sat sipping tea in our room in our hotel we enjoyed our first view of the the pyramids and the sphinx through our glass door. These were a mile or so away and stood out in the desert as painting on an imaginary wide canvas.
As the sun set the light and sound show started on a high pitch with the recorded music coming out of the speakers. The moderate voice of narrator soon took over with the commentary in english; he spoke on the historical perspective encompassing all facts and figures relating to the pyramids and the sphinx. Each structure stood bright and majestic as the light fell on it, enchanting us and coupled with the narration, fulfilling our curiosity as well, as we sat in our chairs under the clear sky not very far off from the monuments, imagining in our minds the marvels of the very distant bygone era. The show does capture the spirit and life of one of the celebrated period of egyption history.
Even the guides can con, became evident when Walid took us for dinner to his friend’s restaurant which bore some similarity with our dhaba.The cuisine served was not so great, salad, grilled chicken, baked beans, chutney and rice, which we consumed without complaining as we were hungry. However, I loudly protested at the figure shown on the bill when it was presented. With the amount mentioned me and my wife would enjoy a three course dinner served in a five star restaurant! In a nutshell I reduced the amount to quarter, paid and left, realising two essentials for future, one always see the menu before ordering and be prepared to bargain heavily even on eatables! Walid apologised, though he did mention that unlike me most tourists mainly the Westerners, would readily pay the amount mentioned in the bill by the restaurant.
Next day in the morning, Mahmoud, who was also a post graduate in Archeology and a certified tour guide, took us to the vantage point from where we could see the three Pyramids and the the Sphinx very clearly. He enlightened us with many details of the origin, purpose, construction and so on of these monuments which very aptly are one of the wonders of the world created by humans in very ancient ages when modern day facilities and resources were totally absent. They are indeed awe inspiring and magnificent edifices which have withstood the vagaries for over 3000 years and their construction is an example of human endurance and endeavour stretched to the very extreme limit.
I bought the ticket for entering the main Pyramid and my wife chose to observe it from outside, a wise decision for which I later commended her. As I went through the present entrance which was created very much later on (the main entrance is blocked), the gatekeeper looked at me and shook his head sideways and looked up. He spoke in Arabic which I did not understand, however. I remembered that Mahmoud had warned me of the difficult climb inside the pyramid leading to the room having the opening from which the tomb of the king which was well below, could be seen.
I was told by him that Barack OBama was the only visiting ruling dignitary from any country, who had volunteered and successfully made the trip to this room.
I started to climb the withered and worn out wooden steps whose treads are perhaps higher than those in a normal staircase. Added to the discomfort to the journey is that the climb for over 30 meters has to be undertaken keeping the body bent down from the hips! The moment I attempted to raise my body my head hit the roof. This narrow stretch is gruelling, though youngsters may find it challengingly easier. Midway as I sweated and felt short of breath, I thought I was going to have a serious problem; I stopped and rested for a while and on regaining my normal breath continued the climb until I reached the room, where a kind young lady noticing my condition offered her bottle of water, which I sipped gratefully. To this day the memory of this experience makes me feel uncomfortable. For those over fifty years age, my suggestion is to think hard before you decide to proceed on this climb. Moreover, as it was fairly dark in the room, I did not see the tomb through the opening.
The Tahrir square held special priority in my journey, as this place hosted the Arab Spring demonstrations which resulted in the change of regime and onset of general elections for transition to a democratically elected government. I stood and looked at the vacant Square with a tinge of excitement and sadness. En route I had noticed the presence of armed soldiers in the streets and crossings; the political condition in the country as per Mahmoud is far better now, though the support for the Muslim Brotherhood continues in some quarters.
The National Museum is a treasure trove of Egyptian civilization and its vast collections require a few days to observe and digest. Mahmoud asked us to neglect all other rooms in the museum and guided us to the those which had the Tutankhamun artifacts and Jewels. The explanation offered by him was that all the tombs of the pharaohs were looted by various races that followed them barring the Tomb of Tutankhamun which the raiders missed out and was much later discovered by a British explorer. He excavated the fabulous artifacts, the jewels, the weapons, caskets, masks and so on .
We noticed that all the displays were wooden structures and were encased with fairly thick gold coverings, however the body mask of Tutankhamun is entirely made of gold. As per Mahmoud’s estimate all the gold housed in the Tutankhamun rooms in the museum, would weigh over 10 tonnes!
For lunch we had shawarma in a restaurant adjacent to the ancient Al Azhar University, from whose famous mosque the fatwas are decided and issued to the believers. For me of greater interest and longing was the Hussein Mosque which was not very far from the restaurant. In this mosque is the tomb which contains the severed head of Imam Hussain, which was brought from Karbala, where in the battlefield his enemies severed his head when he paused to pray and thereafter trampled his body with their horses hoofs. I entered the mosque to pay my respect and obeisance and found a large gathering around the tomb reciting prayers.
According to Mahmoud, the largest revenue earner for Egypt is tourism. Over 11 million tourists visited Egypt every year before 9/11 happened in USA. The numbers dropped down thereafter radically and with the onset of the Arab Spring it fell further; there are now only just over 5 million tourists visiting Egypt yearly.
The second highest revenue earner is the Suez Canal which was nationalized by President Gamal Abdel Nasser and he also built the then highest dam, the famous Aswan dam, which is going to be our next hop.