My journey to Egypt began over a decade ago when I laid hands on Amitav Ghosh’s in an Antique Land. I was a master’s student of architecture in France, working in Western Africa, struggling and enthralled at the same time with diverse cultures and geographies. Ghosh’s expansive tale starts from a little note he finds in an ancient library that suggests to him the journey of an individual from the Malabar coast to Europe via Egypt. Ghosh writes about ancient trade routes and present-day settings, that of a doctoral student studying an ancient form of Arabic under a scholar in rural Alexandria, and the Kuwait war forcing Egyptians to return home, painting Egypt as a civilisation both frozen in time as well as grappling with contemporary realities.
Recently, my vicarious journey culminated in a real one. I am finally in Cairo. Still dazed from my red-eye flight, we meet our guide, who has the detailed articulation of someone who is aware that we find his accent challenging. He seems Francophone and I mentally name him ‘El Monsieur’. My hotel is situated at the junction of a bridge across the storied Nile; the view from the small balcony is stunning, the river majestic and shimmering in the early morning light. A 1961 tower, designed by the architect Naoum Shebib, and easily one of the most beautiful I have seen, defines the skyline.
But there is no time for lingering on this intensive tour, time for sightseeing. Coptic Cairo, our first pitstop, has a record of sorts for ‘the oldest’ everything: oldest church, oldest mosque, oldest synagogue and, well, the oldest part of Cairo. The Hanging Church is a quiet place. The pastor is in conversation with a gentleman at the entrance passage, the pastor nods to people and blesses them as they pass by. The entrance to this gentle building has large photographs of all past and present presidents of Egypt— seeking the blessings of the Coptic Church is customary. The interiors are beautiful, the walls covered with embroidered curtains, decorated doors, wooden wall panels with inlay work—all set in the warm yellow light from chandeliers giving it an immersive devotional feel.
We walk into the ninth-century Ben Ezra Synagogue through an extra layer of security. It was here in 1890 that over 250,000 historic papers known as the Cairo Genizah documents covering the life and times of North African Jews of the 11th—13th centuries were unearthed. It was the mention of an Indian fisherman working for a Jewish merchant in one of these documents that Ghosh picked up and which eventually inspired his novel. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities occupies pride of place at the famous Tahrir Square. Despite decades of pillage, the museum retains some of the most important ancient artefacts.
Travellers who are used to the superbly lit and perfectly arranged museums of the West are likely to find this museum confusing and even overwhelming. If all you have are a few hours I would recommend the Rosetta Stone. Carved in 196 BC, it is a large sandstone panel inscribed in three languages—official hieroglyphics, popular demotic and classical Greek—and served as the linguistic key to deciphering hieroglyphics. The Tutankhamun Galleries have a collection of over 1700 objects. The Ancient Egyptian Jewellery room is astounding, even to those who consider jewellery the surest way of frittering away large amounts of hard (or dubiously) earned money.
All the while that we are in Cairo we see innumerable pyramids—in the form of key chains, paperweights, decorative pieces in alabaster, and so on. “All are China made,” is the dry advice of El Monsieur. We are going to the real one. Located at Giza at what once must have been a distance from Cairo but is now within city limits. We approach the pyramids on foot—they are massive, nothing like one imagines them and impossible to frame in my lens. Camel-and horse-ride offers abound and we negotiate our way to the pyramid base. For me, used to the idea of heritage as opulent, intricately carved sculptures, the pyramids are as modern a form as they can get—perfect geometry on a gigantic scale. Endless steps of hum an-height stone cubes taper off to form a pyramid.
The Giza complex is made up of three big pyramids; a number of smaller ones arc more or less lost. A small portion at the top of the second pyramid is still clad smooth and sharp, and one gets a glimpse of what the pyramids must have looked like 4,000 years ago—perfect trapezoids emerging from the deep sands, reaching the sky, gleaming in the desert sun in communion with the gods. Moving further down, we encounter the Sphinx with his nose ravaged by invaders and time. We barely manage to enter the complex before it closes for the day. As the sun sets on the Giza complex, for a brief few seconds the clock turns back and I am witness to a timeless moment of returning camels silhouetted against the pyramids, a sight all the more precious because everybody seems engrossed in their respective selfie projects and so few seem to be seeing beyond themselves.
No trip to Cairo can be complete without a visit to the old quarter, Khan el-Khalili, famous for its cafes and trinket shops. Nobel winner Naguib Mahfouz frequented a coffee shop by the name El Fishawy. It is visited by Cairo gentry, all of them comfortably there as if they’ve owned the place forever. El Fishawy is an animated animal. Waiters work efficiently; each tabletop is no larger than a large dining pi ate, just sufficient for cups of coffee or chai; trinket sellers peddle their wares; an Oud musician is invited by a table to play his stringed instrument and everyone sings what are probably some popular old songs of Umm Kulthum, a legendary Egyptian singer.
Next stop, Alexandria! We are rushing through the desert. This is the northernmost tip of the mightiest desert in the world, the Sahara. At our first stop, the presence of security guards marks it as a heritage site. “Catacomb,” our guide tells us; “claustrophobia,” I respond. But I decide to peep inside. It turns out to be a lovely well with a staircase descending along its walls like aspirai. The Catacombs of Kom ash- Suqqafa are cool and at a certain depth, the staircase opens into a series of chambers and antechambers.
This is all limestone—easy to carve, but also easy to lose due to the action of water, time and exposure. We emerge and finally I can glimpse the sea through the building-lined streets. We drive along the marina to reach an impressive looking citadel called Fort Qaitbey. The Mediterranean, in full view now, is a deep, mesmerising blue. From here we can see a long stretch of the Alexandrian coastline and on that the unusual profile of the Grand Library of Alexandria.