Yet another webpage upon Egypt. I can hear you ask : "Aren't there already enough websites about the wealth of the magnificent Pyramids, the gigantic temples and Africa's proudest river, the Nile"? And I guess you are right. This page could be nothing less than an enumeration of interesting 'already existing' links.
But then, Egypt is still a dazzling country which offers a cornucopia of exotic sights, smells and noises. When I was a little boy I was fascinated by those three giant Pyramids of Giza. I knew that there would be one day that I would travel to Egypt just to see these most imposing and best reserved ancient monuments in the world. And I should, because the Pyramids are the only remain of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. When I grew older and I began to travel around I always postponed the idea of going to Egypt. I don't exactly know why? I guess other countries like, for example, Yemen and India attracted me more. Was it because my interests had changed? I guess so. I was no longer looking forward to see the Pyramids of Giza. What attracted me more during the years was the silence and the beauty of the desert. And so, I wanted to see the Sinai desert.
Last year (1998), I thought it was the right time to visit Egypt. Because of the bloody attempts near the Temple of Hatshepsut and the Egyptain Museum in Cairo in 1987, Egypt was currently lightly populated with tourists, which made it cheap to travel around and the major sites easy to visit. Me and my friends did a tour for about three weeks and we spent our last week on the Sinai peninsula. This travelogue won't go much into detail regarding the north-south trip we did, but it will tell you more about my experience in the Sinai desert.
"The Bedouin of the desert, born and grown up in it... In his life he had air and winds, sun and light, open spaces and great emptiness. There was no human effort, no fecundity in Nature: just the heaven and the unspotted earth beneath." by TE Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
On Saturday, November 21, at 1:30 AM, we arrive in CAIRO. It's easy to get a visa at the airport. Tourist visas cost around US$15. We enter the largest city in Africa, living off the River Nile, by cab. It's very quiet but Arco tells us that it has been otherwise a few hours ago. We go to Magic Hotel (10, El Bustan Street, Eltahrir Square) near Midan Tahrir. The hotel is on the third floor - so don't bother about the streetnoise - and looks very simple. You can get rooms for 2, 3 or 4 people. There are plenty of clean bathrooms and they also have a large living room with many seats and a television. The owners are very nice guys. One night costs about E£20, breakfast included (E£1 is about BF10,- or Euro0,25).
On the first day we scout the Islamitic part of Cairo by foot. It strikes us that there are so many policemen on each corner of the streets. Probably a way to oppose the unemployment rate. I guess it must be incredible safe! :-) In Cairo are some of the most inspiring mosques in the world, wealthy bazaars and, of course, the unmatched Cairo Museum where even the museum-allergic can find solace in the arms of the treasures of Tutankhamen and a host of other delights. And when you're thirsty, you can get fresh fruit juice almost in every street. It's really refreshing after a long walk. TIP 1 : "Keep on smiling" is the best way to survive the pressure in this big metropole. Let me tell you a little story. When we take a cab for about E£5 to the Mohammed Ali Mosque within the Citadel on the other side of town, the cabdriver keeps on driving. Cheap sightseeing! We explain him where we wanna go but he says there is no such mosque in Cairo. We all keep on laughing and after a while he stops and wants to go to the police. OK, why not, but we stay in the car, still laughing. He gets very angry and after some negotiation we're on the move again. A few blocks further his car breakes down. Hahaha. He says he hasn't got any fuel left. We keep smiling and still stay in the car. So he stops another cab and they start to transport fuel from one car to the other. Back on the road again the cabdriver wants to go refuel at a filling station. No no, we say, just drive to the Mohammed Ali Mosque. He gets angrier and then he starts to use all kind of short cuts to get us finally to the wrong entrance of the Citadel! Anyway, we have got a perfect theatre performance, front seats, for merely E£5! So, whatever stunt they try to pull, just don't get angry and keep on laughing... We didn't visit the mosque after all.
The next day we hire the taxi of our hotel to make a day trip to the Pyramids of Giza, Saqqara and Memphis. The Pyramids look at lot smaller than I had imagined. It's a little bit disappointing. Lucky for us there are not so many tourists as normal. The hassling camel drivers are begging for a short ride but we prefer to walk. The Sphinx is recently restored and out of the scaffolding. The Pyramid of Cheops is closed down for public so we choose to enter the second largest Pyramid of Chephren. Claustrofobics should avoid the inside and little Egyptain boys like to pinch in the buttocks of women in the narrow decending passage. :-) At Saqqara, we visit the Mastaba of Mereruka with a number of well preserved paintings of contemporay life. The Pyramid of Teti has a fine funeral chamber in which the ceiling is decorated with stars. The oldest known imperial city on earth, Memphis, isn't so exciting. Sadly all that remains is a limestone Colosus of Ramses II.
We go to LUXOR by train. TIP 3 : It's recommendable that you reserve your seat at the railway station at least one day before. Our second class ticket with a/c from Cairo to Luxor costs E£28. It's also possible to travel first or even third class. If you wanna go to Luxor by car you have to drive in a convoy because the fear for another attempt. My idea is that driving in a convoy makes you even more a target for terrorism. The train is a perfect and interesting alternative and the view is beautiful.
A train ticket to ASWAN costs E£11. Travelling by train is a perfect way to see the fertile Nile valley and the traditional irrigations systems of the farmers. After the noise and crowds in Cairo and the over-commercialization in Luxor, Aswan is relaxing. We are now in the Nubian part of Egypt. The Nubian people have darker skin and are much more friendly than their northern Egyptian neighbours. Nubians are undoubtedly African rather than Arab. The most famous Nubian in history of mankind was Cleopatra...
From Kom Ombo we take a taxi back to Luxor. First we are obliged to drive in a convoy but after some argumentation and negotiation with the police we could leave solo, only we had to take an extra passenger with a machine gun! I guess it's a very dangerous ride. On our way to Luxor we pass Edfu and Esna and a lot of very small villages with almost the same architecture as the limestone houses in Yemen. I would really like to stop in one of these villages but the taxi driver gives full throttle. This must certainly be a nice, untouched part of Egypt. And maybe it should stay that way? After another day in Luxor we take the bus to Hurghada — not the place to be — and the next morning we take the boat to Sharm El-Sheikh on Sinai peninsula.
It takes about 8 hours to get from Hurghada to Sharm by ferry boat (photo). The Red Sea is very tempestuous so the boat goes up and down and up and down again. We are lucky, only one of us gets a little seasick. Take food and water for the day. I've heard there should be a much faster (more expensive) boat nowadays, only it doesn't go every day. As we arrive we hear that only one engine of the boat did it... This is typically Egypt! :-( We take a mini-bus to NA'AMA BAY. Arco, my friend, knows a good and nice place to stay. An old friend of his has her own hotel and it's called Oasis Hotel. It's not such a bombastic luxe hotel as the most around here but it has a very cosy garden with Bedu tents and a view upon the Sinai dessert. This is a good place to take a sun-bath! My sun-glasses and sunburn lotion suddenly are indispensable. There's very little to see in Sharm of Na'ama Bay and tourist life revolves around the diving and typical beach life. Therefore it has absolutely nothing in common with the rest of Egypt. It looks a lot like Hurghada, except that there aren't so many big hotels near the coastline yet and it is much cleaner! Just another place to feed massa tourism... The Gulf of Aqaba coast around Sharm El-Sheikh has become one of the world's finest diving and snorkelling grounds.
The next day we go to the highest place in whole Egypt, the centre of the Sinai, St. Katherine. We pay the taxi driver E£240 for the six of us and all our luggage. The road from Na'ama Bay to St. Katherine, which is generally very good with little traffic, takes about 3 hours. We have to pass one UN and two Egyptian check-points where we must show our passports. On the way, at the top of a steep hill the view over the rocky desert is breathtaking and extraordinarily beautiful. Most of the taxis stop here and Bedouin children attempt to sell fossils, and-roses and other souvenirs. At sunset the clouds are colourfully painted orange, red and rose.
ST. KATHERINE is a small village and there are not so many hotels. We go to Alfairoz Hotel. It has a great, sandy square with little, stone houses around. Because the wind blows heavely, it has become very cold so we're glad to enter our bungalow. I guess we are the only guests. For a double room you pay E£60, for a tripple E£70. After putting on some warm clothes we walk into the village, looking for a place to eat. As I already told, it is a small Bedouin village with a few shops and only two restaurants, the St. Katherine Tourist Village not counted. The first one is closed so we have to enter the second one, — TIP 7 — Elekhla Restaurant Bedouin House. We have to sit in the open on pillows, just like in a Bedu encampment. It's cosy but cold. Happily, the man makes very good food!
If time permits you have to climb Jebel Musa (Mt Sinai). It's the second highest peak — 2,285m — in Egypt, where Moses is alleged to have received the Ten Commandments. Because it is a stiff walk up we start at 3:00 am at our hotel. It's full moon so there's enough light. We follow the camel track, which takes about two and a half hours to the top (photo). It's quiet rough and stout shoes and warm clothing are essential. Although there are refreshment stalls on the way up, it is advisable to take enough water. As we finally reach the top at 5:30 am there already are a whole bunch of Italians waiting for the sunrise. Jesus, what can they make a lot of noise. We have to wait till 6:00 am to see the moon go down on one hand and the sun rise on the other (photo). The view is spectacular but it's freezing cold. Ann her thermometer shows us 7 degrees Celcius but with the icy wind it feels a lot colder. You've got to see this if you visit St. Katherine (photo). On the way down we wait until the noisy Italians are out of sight and we split up because some of us want to try the other way down. I prefer to go back the same way we came. I've been sitting on a rock for a long time until every human being disappeared from the scenery. Whauw, enjoy the silence and the beauty of this desert... We meet again at the Monastery but there are not so much quarters open for public at the moment (photo).
And there is more to Saint Katherine than the Monastery and Mt Sinai. A wealth of cultural, natural and religious history awaits discovery within the 4350 sq km of the Saint Katherine Protectorate. The unique high attitude desert ecosystem and the religious landscape surrounding the Saint Katherine Monastery are intertwined with treasures of Bedouin life and culture. You can get guidebooks at the Saint Katherine Protectorate — TIP 8 — which cover half day walks in the areas around the Saint Katherine village and Monastery. Within the guide booklet the site numbers correspond to the numbers on the engraved sandstone markers located along the path.
Out of the several walks we've chosen to go for the Wadi El-Arbaein & Wadi Shrayj trail. The trail begins at Saint Katherine village, cutting south across Wadi El-Sheikh to the mouth of Wadi El-Arbaein. An established camel path wanders up Wadi El-Albaein for 3 kilometres until the Monastery of the Forty Martyrs, where the trail veers north-east into Wadi Ferrah. Continuing for 2 kilometres, we reach the beginning of Wadi Shrayj. The descent down Wadi Shrayj is moderately steep and rocky, but the Bedouin guide will lead you down the safest path.
Wadi El-Arbaein seperates Jebel Musa (Mt Sinai) and Mount Katherine and is considered to be a holy tract of land. On the way we can experience the history of religious sites such as the Rock of Moses and the Monastery of the Forty Martyrs. Surrounded by a green belt of olive, cypress and popular trees, stands the Monastery of the Forty Martyrs which was constructed in the sixth century in honour of the forty Christain soldiers who died in Sebaste (central Turkey). Monks relate that forty Christain soldiers from the Roman Army in the third century were commanded to worship pagan gods. The refused and were put to death by being exposed at night to the bitterly cold winds off a frozen lake. Those who survived until morning were killed by the sword...
The Jebeliya Bedouin are pastoral nomads and have a long history of grazing sheep and goats but grazing pressure has increased in the last fifty years with a rise in the local population. Because of the growth, pressure of the land has increased with plants being eaten before they can set seed. Nowadays there's a restriction on grazing in given areas, for a certain time, to allow for the regeneration of plants. We are lucky to see some shepherdesses in their colourful galabayas and black cloak and veil, with grazing sheep and goats on the rocky slopes of Wadi Ferrah and Jebel Safsafa. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to take pictures of this beautiful scene because the Islam prohibits to photograph Arabic women (photo). So, the only way you can enjoy the beauty of these traditional Bedouin clothing is to go to Saint Katherine yourself. For me, this half day walk is one of the most interesting things I did in the time I spend in Egypt.
After an overdose of culture near the Nile valley and the effort in the Sinai mountains it's time for relaxation. So, we go back to the coast for a few days to stay in Egypt's hippy capital, DAHAB. Dahab made its name which means 'gold' in Arabic, after Israeli troops started visiting the Bedouin village for rest and recreation on its golden beaches in 1960s. Nowadays, it's a rather commercialized shadow of its past but still a primary destination for would-be hippies and beach bums. Dahab is divided into three distinct areas. We prefer to stay in the Bedouin village, Asla, 3 km up to the coast. Here you can find lots of cheap beach campgrounds and many restaurants along the beach-front. Because Arco has already been here several times before we follow his nose which leads us to the OASIS Fighting Kangaroo Camp. They have stone-walled appartments which can be padlocked, simple double bedrooms for E£20 and very clean bathrooms with several showers and toilets. To mislead some tourist who've been here before, there are now two Fighting Kangaroo Camps, but only one of them is called Oasis! It's a nice and quiet place to spend a few days...
There is very little or nothing to see in Dahab itself, but you can organise camel trips to Bedouin villages or jeep and horse back safaris into the mountains. We prefer to relax and lay down on the beach (not a big sandy strand!), hang around in the many restaurants, play pool in the bar, etc. Many people also come to Dahab for a diving course in one of the beautiful reefs in the neighbourhood like f.e. the Blue Hole, 2 km N of the village. There are only four of us left, two who like to swim and two (myself included) who don't and to be honest, I don't like water. But this is the perfect place to snorkel and so my friends convince me to come along and I'm very glad I did because it is amazingly beautiful to see all those coloured coral-rocks and fish around you. I can only recommend you to do the same! It's been a great experience.
Before we take the bus back to Cairo we stay one more night at Oasis Hotel in Na'ama Bay. The next morning our bus leaves at 10:00 am. It's a very long trip — about 8 hours — and I get sick when we almost reach Cairo. The traffic in Cairo around 18:00 pm is a mess. There are traffic-jams everywhere. It takes the taxi driver one and a half hour to get us from the bus station to Magic Hotel. It's just unbelievable. I'm very glad to get out of the car and go straight into bed. Maybe it's a lot more interesting to take the airplane back home from Sharm El-sheik instead of going back to Cairo first. Anyway, we spend one more day in Cairo visiting the Egyptian Museum. It has an enormous wealth of materials covering early history, ancient Egypt and the Islamic period. The museum is a must, if only for a few hours. The gold mask and coffin of Tutankhamen are incredible beautiful. The special mummies room is also very interesting...
A few hours sleep and we're on our way back home.
This is a non-profit web page. All the establishments mentioned in this travelogue are places I've been to and which I would like to recommend to people who like to travel around in Egypt and the Sinai peninsula.
I would like to thank my dear friends — Lotte, Michel, Ann, Geertrui and especially Arco — who joined me on this trip.
Travelogue and photographs by Joël Neelen © March1999. All Rights Reserved.
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