Egypt: Introduction

  • © Ramses69,

    © Ramses69,


The country on the Nile can boast numerous superlatives. It is considered the cradle of civilisation and as humanity’s oldest bureaucracy; this is where building with stone was invented, the earliest example of which, the stepped pyramid of Saqqara, can still be admired today; this is where archaeologists discovered the oldest writing in history and this is also where you can see the last surviving ancient Wonder of the World: the Pyramids of Giza.

Egypt is the oldest destination in the world

There is one superlative, however, that is not often acknowledged: Egypt is also the oldest tourist destination in the world. Temples and the tombs of pharaohs such as Rameses, Tutankhamun, Nefertiti and Akhenaten, as well as magnificent mosques and the churches of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, lavish gardens on the Nile and places of pilgrimage all around the country have attracted scholars and pilgrims, adventurers and the curious to Egypt for thousands of years. Thus it is only natural that Egypt was also the birthplace of modern tourism. The practically minded Thomas Cook realised that all the country’s important attractions were close to the banks of the Nile and so he invented the Nile cruise in 1869, which allowed visitors to visit all these sights without much effort. And to make sure his guests always knew where they were, even in such an exotic destination, he treated them to an all-inclusive package. Accommodation, meals, the tour guide, everything was included in the price, except for alcoholic beverages.

Today’s travellers face one problem in particular: where to go first? In the south, they will want to see the magical culture of the pharaohs and the idyllic landscape of the Nile; the east has the Red Sea, with gorgeous beaches, crystal-clear water and an underwater world as rich and diverse as anywhere in the world. It would take weeks just to explore Cairo and all of its Pharaonic, Roman, Coptic, Fatimid and Mamluk art and architecture, and it would take months at least to understand how this crazy melting-pot of tradition and modernity really functions. But then there is also Alexandria, the old lady on the Mediterranean, whom all the world’s nostalgic dreamers are hopelessly in love with; as well as the oases of the Western Desert, the Biblical Sinai, the Sinai of the Bedouins, the Sinai of the seaside holidaymakers from Europe and that of the travellers and temporary dropouts on the beaches of Dahab and Tarabin.

The Nile has been the country’s lifeblood for thousands of years

The entire country feels like it was invented by the planners of the major travel agencies in search of the perfect combinations: sports and education, diving and mountain walking, extreme experiences of nature and the city adventure in the sprawling mass of Cairo. Egypt appeals to amateur archaeologists and Bible study groups, those with an esoteric disposition, folklorists and teenagers who want to explore the underwater world of the Red Sea or have a go at paragliding. The Nile is the country’s lifeblood, and for thousands of years, it has given the Egyptians a rhythm that has shaped their pscyche. Once a year it bursts its banks, flooding the farmland and leaving fertile mud behind. The fellahs worked on the fields, brought in the harvest and with the next flood the cycle began anew – year in, year out. No everyday problem could be important enough, no argument, no concern, no misfortune big enough to make the Egyptians doubt that destiny would bring them riches.

Endless equanimity, a sense of humour and infectious cordiality

This explains some of the Egyptian qualities that surprise many travellers time and time again: their infinite equanimity, their sense of humour and their infectious friendliness. There are only a few things that can phase them. Potential difficulties or awkwardness are brushed aside in a manner that has often been described in books. It is called IBM. The I stands for ‘Insha’Allah’ and means ‘God willing’. It is the standard response to the question whether the underground train that says it’s going to Helwan and is travelling in the direction of Helwan will actually be going to Helwan. The B stands for ‘bukra’, which is Arabic for ‘tomorrow’ but usually means: whatever I can do today, I can still put off until tomorrow, it will get done at some point. The M is short for ‘malesh’ – ‘sorry, no worries, it’s not that bad’.

The equanimity symbolised by the formula IBM helps them to get by in living conditions that would have driven many Europeans to despair a long time ago. Almost every second Egyptian has to make do on less than one pound (sterling) a day, but even in the slums one litre of milk still costs almost half that. The illiteracy rate is around 30 percent. At least two-thirds of all people living in Cairo live in poor neighbourhoods that were built without the permission of the authorities. These neighbourhoods are called ashwa’iyyas.

Many people have two jobs, and work 12 to 15 hours a day, feeding their entire extended family. After the Mubarak regime committed more blatant electoral fraud than ever during the parliamentary elections at the end of 2010, this equanimity was gone. Millions of people overcame their fear and resignation. They took to the streets to demonstrate for regime change, and in February 2011 they toppled their hated president.

Cordiality is as normal for Egyptians as the call to prayer

While it is surprising that the people were acquiescent for so long, the pent-up frustration did not lead to explosions of violence. ‘Silmiyya silmiyya’, meaning ‘peacefully, peacefully’, was one of the most chanted slogans during the protests. The vast majority of the people long for stable conditions. Egyptians are often spirited, but rarely radical. They tend to have extreme emotions, joy as well as sadness, but they are anything but extremists. In recent years, religion has increased in significance, both among Muslims and Christians, but the majority detest religious fanatics.

Cordiality is as normal to Egyptians as the call to prayer that can be heard from the mosques five times a day. If one of the two were suddenly to be missing, the world would no longer be at rights. So when you are putting together your itinerary for Egypt, one of the country’s attractions is an absolute must: the people. Many Egyptians speak English. They meet in coffee houses, in the bazaars, you can ask them for directions if you get lost, and you can encounter them in the Bedouin settlements in Sinai. After returning from your trip, you will miss the joviality of the Egyptians.

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