From Cairo I set out to the South Sinai and so I was going back to Asia, because the peninsula is geographically part of that continent. Not for any reason that I know of but just because most people say so.
In the bus I was reading the Guide du Routard, that I had found somewhere, and was particularly fascinated by the history section. It mentioned that the Hyksos, the invaders who brought down the Middle Kingdom, came with new inventions like les chars de combat which Google carelessly translated as ‘battle tanks’. These were of course horse chariots which must have come as quite a surprise to the Egyptians who had never seen a horse in their lives. The Hyksos also practised horse burials which undoubtedly pleased the Egyptians who had so far practically mummified and buried everything that had had a pulse. It is interesting to read how the French have a different view on the more recent history of Egypt than the British.
When reading histories of Egypt it’s easy to get the idea that Napoleon briefly travelled to Egypt to conquer it and then quickly depart after the British destroyed his fleet. In reality, Bonaparte stayed more than a year in Egypt, he even contemplated converting to Islam, only to decide against it because he didn’t like the idea of circumcision…
The French guidebook also mentioned that the Egyptians sang his praise in the streets: Bounabardeh (Egyptians, as always, struggle with the letter ‘p’; here it means Bonaparte) Ya Salam, vainqueur des Turcs! Tu nous as fait soupirer par ton absence, toi qui prends le café avec du sucre… Intrigued by this singular text, especially the part how Bonaparte took his coffee, I found out that it was actually composed by Gérard de Nerval who appeared to be an interesting character himself. He travelled to Egypt 4o years later which most people feel must have compromised the accuracy of his writing. After coming back from Egypt things went downhill and his behaviour became increasingly idiosyncratic: he was observed to walk his pet lobster (sic) in the parks of Paris: He was not mad he said, but: I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gnaw upon one’s monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn’t mad.
Sadly, all did not end well and the poet committed eventually suicide.
Napoleon’s time in Egypt left a famous quote to posterity: From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us… But having visited Egypt now on several occasions, I think it went more likely like this:
From the heights of these pyramids…
… forty centuries
You want to ride camel, sir?
No!. I don’t want to ride a camel! Like I said: From the heights of…
You know how much, sir?
No!… From the heights…
You want to know how much?
No, I don’t care how much! From the heights of…
Maybe tomorrow, sir?
The Guide du Routard continues to describe how Egypt then became a popular destination for older English patricians:
Et du coup, les pauvres Egyptiens virent deferler des troupeaux de vieilles filles coiffees de chapeaux a fleurs qui se souciaient de la sante de dromedaires. Sans parler de ces gentlemen qui voulaient a tout prix mettre un nuage de lait dans la the a la menthe.
In Dahab there’s a small ruin, called the Nabataean port, which is rather underwhelming compared to Petra, its famous counterpart in nearby Jordan. There’s not much left but some low walls made of crude stones. It’s fenced off with barbed wire. Maybe because at night it eerily resembles some of the cheaper accommodation in the town and it seems very well possible that in the past some drunken travellers had mistaken it for their guesthouse and subsequently vandalising it after they found out that the toilets wouldn’t flush.
One of the pleasures of this seaside town is eating fish. In my favourite restaurant it was normally served with a seafood soup which invariably included a crab with thin, spidery legs. It might be a deficiency in my upbringing, but I don’t know how to eat crab. I crack open the bone with my teeth, it splinters and the bits of flesh are all over the place. It seems unfair of the crab to defend its meat so stubbornly, especially after its death, and I dredge the crab out of the soup and discard it as inedible. Cats roam the restaurant, occasionally driven away by a waiter who rattles a broom under the tables and chairs.
On my second day in Dahab I went snorkelling at the upper reaches of the famous Blue Hole, a deep abyss where many scuba divers have found their end. Nearby, on land, there are plaques attached to the rock to commemorate the audacious divers that have died. There stood a fair breeze and after half an hour I was cold to the bone.
On my second trip the wind had died down and it wasn’t as cold anymore. Red fish, blue fish and yellow fish. My new favourite fish is the unicorn fish, it looks alien, as if from a cartoon. Its proboscis is a mystery as it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. A few days of calm and balmy weather followed and I enjoyed quite a few snorkelling trips, but then the wind came back. I decided to travel to Luxor.
Some attempts to sketch the unicorn fish.