Walking in the Footsteps of ISIS

According to Greco-Egyptian myth, when the brother of the Goddess Isis – who was also her husband – was murdered, the tears she wept resulted in the Nile River flooding every year.

Now, over 2000 years later, it appears that Egypt is being haunted by a namesake of the Egyptian Goddess. This time, however, the acts of savagery haunting not only Egypt but the Arab world at large (plus more), is not resulting in an abundance in the same way Isis’ tears generated a torrent of water. Rather, the converse is materialising; it is resulting in scarcity, as parts of Egypt’s economy is being brought to its knees, with the level of Egyptian tourism reaching close to all-time lows since Thomas Cook first arrived in the country. Indeed, when asking locals how the number of tourists flocking to Egypt compared to the number before the current lull, their estimations ranged from 1%-5% of previous highs. This is having ramifications on peoples’ livelihoods and towns and cities at large.

But whilst modern incarnation of ISIS is having an impact on Egypt’s tourist industry, many of the problems pre-date the recent onset of violence and, instead, emanate from the Arab Spring and the subsequent military crackdown. As such, there was no shortage of opinions regarding the government, the military, the region, the West and much more. But opinions count for little when reality is so stark and dire.

And yet. Security risks aside, there is arguably no better time to visit Egypt. What Ellen – a friend whom I met in Beijing and who was my companion on this trip – and I discovered is that we had some of the world’s most iconic and distinct ancient sights to ourselves. And in some cases I mean this literally, was the case with Luxor Temple at night. There is a strange dichotomy to be found whereby the depression of Egypt’s tourist industry (and thus the concomitant impact on those people who are reliant on the same) was a boon to us.

Starting in Cairo, the yellow hue of the city was immediately perceptible. The buildings seemed like sultry sandcastles and the air infiltrated by dust twinkling particles. It felt distinct. Ellen and I stayed in the Zamalek district of Cairo with Silke, another acquaintance from Beijing in 2008. Zamalek was the hip part of the city, replete with cupcake shops and chic cafes. That said, it still retained Cairo’s distinct sandy milieu, with beautiful but crumbling buildings which resembled an ornate cake that has just been sliced into.

We visited the Egyptian Museum which epitomised this. The treasures inside were startling, but they were housed in a magnificent building whose maintenance seemed to be limited to the occasional mopping of the floors. Let it be. The museum is located on a corner of Tahir Square, which was the centrifuge of the 2011 Revolution in Egypt. Tahir Square was large and expansive, but other than the fleet of tanks based outside the museum, remarkably unremarkable. Such is life.

We ambled around Cairo, were interviewed by three Egyptians purporting to be working for a local TV station and visited the understated Café Riche, an iconic establishment associated with the chattering classes of Egypt’s intelligentsia.

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 Of course, we also visited Giza. We will let the pictures provide the narrative. Needless to say, however, the few tourists in sight are not the work of any sort of camera framing techniques; there must have been, at most, 30 other people visiting the pyramids at the same time as us.

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Our next destination was Alexandria, Egypt’s second city. With its capacious corniche and winding back-alleys, Alexandria was ideal for an amble. The only shame was that, because of Ramadan, it was hard to find a suitable establishment serving the city’s feted fish to satiate ourselves.

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A train ride back to Cairo and a subsequent afflictive overnight train ride later, we arrived in Luxor. Luxor was subject to a suicide bomb attack around ten days before we arrived, but it still seemed to have a languorous atmosphere, with seemingly more horses and carriages than cars (or perhaps, the former were just more memorable due to their irksomeness).

We visited Karnak and Luxor Temples, being led by Mahmoud, a guide we found by the entrance of the former. Here are some photographs:

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The following day Mahmoud guided us through the West Bank of Luxor, taking us to the:

Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut

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Valley of the Kings

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Tombs of the Nobles

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And then it happened. After a sumptuous evening meal at Sofra (which has the best menu of Middle Eastern delights I have ever encountered), and dallying around Luxor, I opted to pursue my usual shtick of having my haircut in a foreign country. Ellen then realised that her iPhone was missing. What materialised was a six hour saga trying to locate the prize. First, we visited the tourist police. Then, after returning to our hotel and logging into Apple’s ‘find my iPhone’ service, we found the location of the iPhone.

It was fiasco. Now past midnight, first we jumped into a taxi with someone who worked at our hotel, who saw an opportunity to be a hero. This was short-lived. We drove to the area where the phone was based, somehow amassing a fully tattooed gang of motorcyclists en-route to assist in our endeavour. This cumulated in some intelligence materialising – God knows where from – that they knew where the culprit was based. The taxi pulled over to the side of a dimly lit street and our hotel hero insisted that Ellen I remained in the car whilst he went to retrieve her phone. Several minutes later, he returned and asked me to follow him, alone, down an alleyway where the suspected culprit was based. I started reciting my final prayers.

The ‘suspect’ – surrounded by around 15 boys – was a 12 year old girl with a look best described as fear, bemusement and anger. Needless to say, it was the wrong person.

Back to square one, we returned to the tourist police station. The head of Luxor’s force was woken up by his deputies and he insisted that we drove to the area of the city where the phone was supposedly located. To cut a long story short, it was futile. To this day, Ellen is still without her iPhone.

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The following day we travelled to Aswan, where we were staying in the Old Cataract Hotel for two nights. The Old Cataract’s previous guests include Agatha Christie and Winston Churchill, and it also doubled-up as King Farouk’s summer home. It was silken and palatial:

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The following day we joined the diurnal convoy to Abu Simbel which, I did not previously know, was relocated in 1968 to make way for the creation of Lake Nasser. It was still magnificent.

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A plane journey back to Cairo later, Ellen and I went our separate ways and Blighty – and mild weather – beckoned once again.

 

The rest of the photo album can be found here, but for good jest, here are a few more:

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