A river runs through it: Six days in Egypt


I wrote this many years ago when I worked at the Lifestyle travel section of The Sunday Times- so it predates the overthrow of Morsi, and the short-lived hope of the Arab  Spring. I hope you enjoy the journey along The Nile as much as I did.

By Heather Robertson


Day 1: Cairo


The plane slowly descends over a vast stretch of brown that my fatigue deludes me into believing is the great Nile – the sooty source of surplus and words that marked the beginning of civilisation as we know it. It turns out as the plane sighs into landing mode that the sea of brown is not muddied water, but the Sahara. As the first rays of the sun streak across the grainy mass, I see a collection of pointed mounds, which look as if they were playfully pinched into shape by some divine hand. It turns out they are the pyramids of the Old Kingdom. Sleep shakes off my eyelids and I can’t wait to immerse myself in the stories, scents and sounds below me.

I arrive to a Cairo brashly awakening in a cacophony of colour. Through the window of the taxi that ferries me from the airport, the river is a wide tongue of grey-blue darting between shopping towers and high rise buildings, host to hundreds of brightly painted disco-lighted motor boats and ship-restaurants.

My first stop takes me centuries away from this riverine shopping mall to the Egyptian Museum – a walk-in cemetery with its 250 000 relics from the tombs of the ancients. Here’s the young pharaoh Tutankhamen’s mask of gold and jewels, there mummies preserved in bandage, here a copy of the Rosetta Stone. It’s suffocatingly hot as I jostle with tourist posses from all over the globe, gaping at the vestiges of vanity bequeathed to us by ancient rulers obsessed with immortality.

The relics, artefacts, crypts and statues are ostentatious remnants of the wealth and power of the pharaohs and the plethora of gods they sought to please and join in the after-life. Just as the God of confusion has me by the scruff of my neck and is about to tug me into the noisy familiarity of modernity outside, I am stopped in my tracks by two ghosts, whose images are fixed in stone.

nefertitakhenatenatenHere is Akhenaton, the hermaphrodite heretic, who booted his priests and their pantheon of gods … and insisted on sculptors depicting him in his grotesque reality. His effeminate distended belly, narrow waist and slightly effulgent breasts stand in stark contrast to the idealised forms of eternal youth and athleticism that other pharaohs practised. Beside him is his wife, the beautiful Nubian Nefertiti who acted as his co-regent – in fact, who took on his responsibilities while he spent most of his time spreading his new-found religion: the worship of the one god, the sun disc Aten.

At a Cairo bookstore, I discover more about Akhenaton and Nefertiti in a book by Egypt’s 1988 Nobel Literature Prize winner Naguib Mafouz. Dweller in Truth depicts Ahkenaton as the precursor of monotheism and humanism, who abolished the priests as intermediaries to god and in so doing lost his throne and life when the clergy reclaimed their power. This has contemporary resonance for Mafouz, who was himself seen as atheistic by Muslim leaders and survived an assassination attempt by an extremist Islamic group in 1994.

Leaving my ghostly friends and the debates they stir, I move on to the Khan El Khalili bazaar, a labyrinth of alleys lined with traders selling silver, sheesha pipes, colourful Bedouin clothes, spices, clothing. The market is eerily quiet, devoid of tourists (I am told, yet another nasty side-effect of the War in Iraq) so traders see me as a gift from shopping heaven.

‘Hello you Japanese? Columbian? Come inside I show you nice silver.’  When I respond that I am South African and I don’t want silver or sheesha pipes, an attempt at connection that goes beyond trade and the obstacle of my not understanding a word of Arabic and the traders not knowing much English apart from sales talk crosses the diversity of our continent. ‘Ah Bafana Bafana. Benni McCarthy’.


Day 2: Old Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza


Stretching out from my perch on the citadel of Salah El-Din on the Al Moqattam Hill lies a panoramic view of modern Cairo in all its secular and spiritual cloaks, minarets tucked between mud-coloured tenement buildings, a city teeming with 14 million inhabitants, disgorged building rubble, merchants in souks selling sexy shimmering belly-dance dresses, spices and jewels, shopping malls touting designer labels and American fast foods – and there, in the distance of the desert on the west banks of The Nile, the pyramids of Giza, the mystical tombs where the pharaohs sailed off into eternity with the sun God Ra.

I am in the old city of Cairo, built between 1176 and 1182 during the Arab Islamic conquest of Egypt. One of the most awesome features of this citadel complex is the Alabaster Mosque built by Muhammad Ali, the pasha who ruled Egypt under the Ottoman Empire. The interior features Bohemian glass pieces and French chandeliers given to Ali by Louis Philippe of France.

From the towering heights of the heritage left by the Sultans, Mamelukes and Pashas, I venture off to the left bank of the river to Cairo’s tourist trump card, the pyramids and Sphinx of Giza.

The air over Giza feels as dry as parchment and the glare of the sun is an assault on my eyes, but here I am, standing in front of one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Great Pyramid built by King Cheops in 2650 BC is a testimony to the engineering ingenuity of the hundreds of workmen who built the 146m-high structure over a period of 20 years, every three months after the harvesting season.

These towering tombs are closed off to the public and I find my curiosity far more piqued by the temple of the Sphinx, the magnificent mythical statue with the body of a lion and the head of a human.

It was here in the chambers of the temple that the hearts of the dead were weighed against a feather of truth by Anubis, the jackal-headed god, while Thoth, the ibis-headed god of writing, watched over to record the proceedings. If the heart of the dead person was heavy with sin, Ammut, the devourer of the dead, would gobble it up, denying the spirit an afterlife, but, if the heart was lighter, Anubis would escort the spirit to the afterlife.

Spurred on in quest for a lighter heart, I stop outside a perfumery next to the Sphinx. It is here in Abdila Nasr’s exotic store with shelves chock-a-block with an array of scents trapped in bottles that I experience the beguiling flirtation that Egyptian traders have down to a fine art. First Adbila makes sure I am seated comfortably; then, knowing that I must be dying of desert thirst, he offers me tea and an ice-cold drink. Then he tells me the tale of his long line of flower farmers who grow lotuses in the oasis, after which he rattles off a litany of American and French brand-name perfumes, stopping after Seduction and Temptation to pronounce them all copycats … here in his store is the original essence. He then asks me to think of words associated with smells that I am most attracted to and, like an apothecary, he whips out his bottles and wipes the fragrance on the back of my wrist. I get the drift and walk off with a bottle of Fresh and Essence of Lotus, thinking of the extended family of farmers somewhere in an oasis in the middle of the Sahara.


Day 3: Alexandria


‘Alexandria. At last. Alexandria, Lady of the Dew. Bloom of white nimbus. Bosom of radiance, wet with sky water.’ In these first lines of his novel Miramar, a suspenseful tale of intersecting generations of modern Egypt brought together in a decaying seafront pension, Egyptian writer Naguib Mafouz captures the exquisite allure of the Mediterranean city founded by Alexander the Great and made legendary by the last Queen of the Ptolemaic Period, Cleopatra.

The 2½-hour journey from Cairo zigzags across the Nile, past plantations of palm trees, through lands reclaimed from the desert, through toll gates and stretches of sandy land with white Fellahin houses with pigeon-hut pyramids decked on rooftops.

I know we are in Alexandria when I get my first whiff of sea air and find the relaxed European-styled coffee shops and bustling bazaars and dilapidated but beautiful Victorian seafront flats – the cosmopolitan air inherited from the city’s many conquerors: Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, French and British.

It is in the Kom El Dikka district, smack in the middle of modern flats and buildings, through the gate of Abdel Moneim Street, that I see one of the few vestiges of Alexandria’s past as a province of the Roman Empire. At this site, which is still under excavation, is the only preserved Greco-Roman amphitheatre in Egypt, which was discovered in 1960.

Beyond the theatre where the Romans were entertained by bands of musicians from 2–6 AD, past the huge brick ruins of a public bath, are the astonishingly beautiful remnants of a Roman villa buried under houses and storerooms from 450–550 AD and a layer of Muslim graves dating from the 14th to the 15th centuries.

At the bottom of all these layers of loves and lives is an almost intact Roman mosaic of birds that was once the floor of some wealthy patrician’s villa.

In keeping with this heritage of visible memory, Alexandria’s pride and joy is a contemporary repository of knowledge in the form of its high-tech New Alexandria Library. A focal point for the dissemination of culture and a centre of world learning, the library boasts the unique feature of archiving all the websites ever published in the world, digitalised copies of ancient scripts, which can be read page by page on computer, taking into the 21st century the tradition started in Alexandria by Ptolemy I, who founded the first public library in the world.

Through the glass front of the multi-storeyed palace of learning with its dome-shaped planetarium is an inviting glimpse of the turquoise Mediterranean.

Somehow this gets me wondering where the locals let their hair down. I end up at an expanse of garden that was once the last Egyptian king Farouk’s playground at Montazah Palace. Built in a mix of Turkish and Florentine styles, the main palace is occasionally used by the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, while the other palaces, Al Haramlek and Al Salamlek, have been transformed into five-star hotels. I find the palaces unsightly and incongruous, another vestige of the vanity of kings. In the gardens, I watch Alexandrian couples, young and old, curling in each other’s arms, strolling hand in hand, smooching under the trees, making like royalty. The luxury of kings democratised.


Day 4: Luxor

Formerly Thebes, the capital of Upper Egypt, Luxor is a gentle town, where lush green fields of sugar cane and date palms line both of the Nile banks. A welcome respite from the chaos of Cairo.

On the east bank of the Nile is the city of the living, where more than 200 Nile cruise-liners berth, waiting for this season’s traffic. Near the river’s edge are the fabulous Luxor and Karnak temples with their enormous sandstone pillars and statues of the pharaohs.  Ramses II stands with his wife Nefartari squashed knee-high below his thighs – a typical portrayal of delusions of grandeur by a man who had over ninety wives. On the west bank is the City of the Dead, where the tombs of the nobles lie, the valley of the kings and queens. In the cool belly of the tomb of Ramses III, in the Valley of Kings, I find myself caught in a bit of a Raiders of the Lost Ark crossed with Jewel of the Nile fantasy. These walls covered in hieroglyphs which detail the adventures of the king and his journey to the other side (after the jackal Anubis and the other gods have their say) are, after all, the fantastical precursors of Hollywood dreamtime.

My highlight in the City of the Dead is not a tomb but a temple carved into Sahara sandstone: the temple of Hatshepsut, the only woman to rule over Pharaonic Egypt.  Of all the dead pharaohs (after my friends Akhenaton and Nefertiti, of course), Hatshepsut really grabs me. Not only did she beat the Christians to the myth of the immaculate conception by proclaiming that she was the offspring of a union between her mother and the God Amon, she also wasn’t too shabby as a leader.

I see evidence of this as I watch a restorer dust off the damaged hieroglyphics depicting her achievements on the walls of her magnificent temple. Hatshepsut’s peaceful reign allowed for a flurry of experimental and individual art forms. And on the temple walls there are incredibly detailed illustrations of the shipping expeditions she sent to the Kingdom of Kush (modern Sudan), the trade in gold, cloth, the meeting with a rather rotund King. At the temple you also see the attempt by Hatshepsut’s stepbrother Thutmose to erase her name as pharaoh and her image: her head is hacked off some sculptures and the cartouche – the hieroglyphic of her name – has been roughly chiselled out.

Hatshepsut’s unfailing independence of spirit brings to mind another daughter of the Nile, contemporary author Nawaal el Sadaawi, who was imprisoned in 1980 as a result of her fiction such as Hidden Face of Eve, which argued for the equality of women.  It’s ironic how a woman who today uses the tool of written language invented by her ingenious ancestors to write about the abuses of power is not remembered in stone or grand museums, but is, like Hatshepsut, erased from the walls of history. Sadaawi was forced to leave Egypt after her name was put on a death list; two years ago a group of fundamentalists tried to divorce Sadaawi from her husband and have her jailed again, this time on the grounds of apostasy after she published in a newspaper article her view that the veiling of women, inequality in women’s inheritance rights and polygamy were contradictory of the true spirit of Islam. Despite the crude attempts by contemporary Thutmoses to obliterate her words, she refuses to stop writing. As she puts it: ‘When I came out of prison there were two routes I could have taken. I could have become one of those slaves to the ruling institution, thereby acquiring security, prosperity … Or I could continue on the difficult path, the one that led me to prison … Danger has been part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote.’ The spirit of Hatshepsut lives on.


Day 5 Aswan


As the scarab beetle of a sun crawls out of the darkness over the city of the living, I find myself airborne over the Sahara, this time venturing further south to the beginning of the Nubian part of Egypt, in Aswan. It is here in this ancient frontier town that I see the Nile as it must have been 11 000 years ago when the Nubians first supplemented fishing and hunting of gazelles, antelope, giraffes and elephants with improved farming and irrigation. Their villages, like Merimedeh, set the pattern for this revolutionary new way of life, creating the food surplus which changed our lives as humans forever and was the basis of ancient Egypt.

Here the Nile flows a clean and serene deep blue through amber desert and over granite rocks and past islands lush with palm groves and tropical plants.

I find some shelter from the sweltering Aswan sky, with temperatures soaring to over 40 degrees, in the cool corridors of the Nubian Museum where more than 3 000 antiquities, mummies, earthenware, and papyrus scripts record the progress of this ancient African culture. It is here that I learn that Nubians first discovered the magic power of the written word, believing that by using the correct formulae they could impose their will upon the gods.

It was the colourful winged goddess, Isis or Anuket as she was known in these parts, who watched over Nubia from south of Aswan to the south of Khartoum in Sudan. There is no better place to witness this than at the temple of Philae, where Isis was worshipped as the nourisher of the fields until the arrival of the early Christians in 550 AD. I take a boat trip to the Philae temple, which was recently relocated to Agilika Island about 500m from its original site. Through the temple’s sandstone pillars bearing hieroglyphic entreaties to Isis you can almost feel the wind of her wings on the water lapping the island’s shore.


Day 6: Aswan

At the Elephantine Museum, which is situated on the largest island in the Aswan area, I come face to face with the mummified grin of a Nubian nobleman, his teeth smiling in silence over 3 000 years. There is no way Benni McCarthy or Bafana Bafana can help facilitate a dialogue with this gentleman so I take a stroll through the surrounding gardens, lush with jasmine, Egyptian henna, and bursts of red oleander. Lost in a trance of fragrance and rich tropical colour, I am brought to my senses by the chief gardener of Elephantine Island Eid Mohammed and his assistant Naseem Miguella. These two princes of the floral kingdom break through the limitations of language to enthral me with the joys of their cultivation, collecting for me seeds of Egyptian trees and flowers that they insist I should try growing in my garden down south in Jo’burg. Naseem and Eid send me off with a gift from their tropical paradise, a handpicked bouquet of oleander, and direct me to the ruins of the Roman temple of Satet.

Charmed by this gesture of Egyptian generosity, I walk past the ruins of Satet, gazing over a vista of palm trees swaying over the flat-topped Nubian houses with their beautifully decorated blue wooden doors. Madame Aida Ahd Ell Galaf invites me behind the ornately decorated wooden door of her cool blue painted house with its traditional dome-shaped ceiling, and offers me tea. She shows me pictures of her father, who fought for the Palestinian cause and helped build the Aswan High Dam. It was the building of this dam that displaced more than 700 000 Nubians and led them away from their lands south of Egypt to Aswan and the northern parts of the Sudan.

Madame is proud of her Nubian heritage and language. The Nubian languages like Kanouss are the only surviving tongues from ancient Egypt, as the entire country switched to Arabic after the Islamic invasion. Many words in world languages have Nubian roots, like the word ‘I’ in English.  Nubian culture, which is based on co-operation and mutual assistance, is intimately linked to the ebb and flow of the Nile, with ceremonies celebrating harvests, births and marriages all paying tribute to the river which made the cultivation of life and civilization on its banks possible. Inspired by the warmth of Madame and the richness of her heritage, which has everything to do with the river running through the vast Sahara, I board 22-year-old captain Mohammed’s felucca, an ancient sailing boat, the kind that has carried millions before me across the centuries to the cities that emerged on the river’s banks.

Captain Mohammed expertly swings his tall sails and weaves past the Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile, then rustles up a pot of tea made from Nile water that he scoops from the river. Slipping in front of his ‘Don’t worry be happy’ sign, he laughs, teasing me about Nile crocodiles, then heads off to anchor near the sand dunes on the east bank. While Captain Mohammed makes another pot of tea, I dive into the cool waters and swim in the delicious blue liquid that started it all … Plantations. Pyramids. Words written in stone.



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