Category Archives: Egypt


When I walked from the railway station to the harbour, somebody shouted to me from a taxi. Hey man! As usual I ignored this, but the person kept shouting and then somebody waved and I recognised Eddy, an American I had last seen in Dushanbe, Tajikistan…
O God, I’m not sure,  you are… are you Eddy?
– No, I’m Martin.
– Oh yes, now I remember.
– You do recognise me, do you?
– Yes of course, Dushanbe.
– Yeah, that’s right and you are, let me see, Mark?
– Peter. Never mind. Great to see you.
Interesting is how much you know about a person, parts of their personal history, their face and their voice. But not their name.

In Alexandria I walked around the harbour. In Fort Qaitbay I saw a few of the granite blocks from the Pharos [photo right], the lighthouse and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, that were reused in the walls of the fort.

At first I stayed in the Acropole (for sentimental reasons), but the day after I crossed to the other side of the road to relocate to the Triomphe. The management was very nice and helpful and the atmosphere was so bright and the furniture so classy. The lift was a piece of art, an antique cabinet with wooden doors. It was beautiful if maybe not reliable.
One of my plans was to go scuba diving in the harbour, but unfortunately it didn’t work out: the first day was excellent weather, but the day after was Friday and it was too late to get authorization from the police to dive. After that the weather changed and on Saturday it was gray and a hard wind blew. No go. It was cold and I felt gloomy. Many people killed themselves that day. Or at least, so I thought. I spent some time in the Brazilean Coffee Store where I drank delicious cappuccinos..
Many of the sights I had visited during previous visits and I saw not much good in paying more good money to see things that I had forgotten about and would forget again. I had a few memories and I kept them that way: the spooky catacombs and the museum with the only comtemporary image of the famous lighthouse. This time I did visit a mosque in Nabi Daniel street where some scientists think the remains of Alexander may be buried in the catacombs hidden below the mosque. The famous Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered Troy, wanted to dig there, but he didn’t get permission. Nobody knows and mystery abounds. Inside the mosque was the tomb of a holy man from the Magrheb who had had the good grace to die here.

Trams carving their way through the streets. In the early morning when everything was still and quiet, they sent a light tremor through the building, reminiscent of an earthquake.

Another advantage of the Triomphe was the small but interesting book collection and I was glad to exchange some books for a copy of David Copperfield, a solid 700 pages of good reading.

Do you have beer?
You need beer?
Do I need beer?
Yes please.

Coming to the end of my visa extension for Egypt, I had decided to fly to Ethiopia. In Aswan I had played with the idea of overlanding through Sudan, but then I thought how I had such good, if rather painful, memories of this adventure and it didn’t make much sense to go through the rigors again. When I checked the weather circumstances in Khartoum, online resources gave consistent 41 degrees forecasts….


Travelling Sudan in 2005

From Alexandria I took a bus straight to the international airport at Cairo which was a very convenient option. I took a micro-bus to the bus station in Alexandria, payed for two seats (because of the luggage). A man helped me to find my bus. We walked from bus to bus. He was so friendly, we shook hands, and I promised to take care of his children if he would die. What? he said. Never mind, I said. Bye.
The flight was with Ethiopian Airlines and the food was better than I had had for many weeks in Egypt.

I made a point of drinking a glass of red wine in Sudan’s airspace..



Scrolling the news on the BBC website I noticed an article called: The week’s best reads, and thought, shit I haven’t even started it yet. So here goes..!

During one of my days in Aswan, I took a ferry to the other side of the Nile.

There I rode a camel, or to be more precise, a camel endured me sitting on its back after I had paid a lot  of money to its owner. Yes, that seems more accurate. The camel’s name was somethiing tourists might think funny, but frankly, I think you could have called him farting dust bag or whatever, because I don’t think it would have made the slightest difference. Riding a camel is mainly not falling off it when it gets up or sits down, the two most precarious moments of the whole endeavour. Other than that it seems to consist of kicking the animal in the ribs and there you go… I asked Moustapha how old it was and he told me it was 10 years. that is out of roughly 15 year, which is comparable to that of a horse. He told me how much it was worth, but I forgot. The camel brought  me to the Monastery of St. Simeon.


The photo above is from the monastery of St. Simeon and I was the only visitor. In the main hall, all was silent, and I sat meditating for a while in the half dark, when a leaf fell from the ceiling. A leaf? In this desert? I got up and walked over and discovered that the leaf in fact was a small bat. It slowly crawled to a dark corner where it tried to hide for cover.

It was one of the few encounters I had with Egyptian wildlife. Other animals I had seen were during a felucca trip when I saw ibis, kingfishers and herons.

After the monastery, which was huge  but disappointing, I decided to explore the surrounding desert for a bit. In the distance I could see a nice sand dune and so I walked over and started to climb it. It was not too hot and the sand was firm and much easier to walk on than I had expected.


The description should read here that I was walking in the direction of Libya, broadly speaking, that touches the right tone, I feel.

On the way back to the ferry I got lost which is quite a miracle in itself given the fact that I was somewhere in between a sizable Nubian village, the remnants of huge monastery and the longest river in the world.

It was from Aswan that Burckhardt set out to Nubia in 1813.

I quote from his letters to Joseph Banks of the African Association, his employer:

After estimating the expenses which I was likely to incur in Nubia, I put eight Spanish dollars into my purse, in conformity with the principle I have constantly acted upon during my travels, namely, that the less the traveller spends while on his march, and the less money he carries with him, the less likely are his travelling projects to miscarry. After a journey of 450 miles up the Nile, from Assouan, and the same distance down again, I returned with three dollars, having spent about five dollars, including every expense, except the present to Hassan Kashef. This must not be attributed to parsimony; I mention it here as a part of my plan of travelling, and by way of advice to all travellers who visit unknown and dangerous countries in the East.

That’s what I like about Burckhardt, in a way , he was the first budget traveller, I mean, discovering Abu Simbel for 5 dollars…



The Spanish dollars that Burckhardt used in Nubia were the first de facto world currency. Even the American dollar was originally based on it and was indeed legal tender in the United States. Another was the Ottoman piaster and this was the currency that Burckhardt used in Egypt which was then still part of the Ottoman empire. By the early 1800’s, however, the Ottoman piaster was debased and worth much less than the Spanish dollar. Not much later it was replaced by the Egyptian pound and the piaster was given a new lease as a subdivision of  the pound being worth a 100th of it. Burckhardt was long dead by then.

By the way, the Vietnamese dong, the Cambodian riel and the Laotian kip, are all successors of the French Indochinese piaster, which was in its turn a descendant of the Spanish pieces of eight, or again, the Spanish dollar.

If the Spanish pieces of eight sounds familiar, it’s because they play a prominent role in the Pirates of the Carribean or, alternatively, Treasure Island.

From Aswan I took a night train back to Cairo and travelled onwards to Alexandria directly from there.

Travellers’ tales II

The train from Luxor to Aswan arrived late and as I walked along the platform I noticed that first class carriages were in front of the train and I thought that it was only natural that people who pay a premium should be the first to arrive at their destination. Paradoxically, when getting out of the train those first class travellers will find that the others have arrived as well… Nonetheless, I enjoyed travelling first class and I will do it again.

Next day I went to see the unfinished obelisk at the quarry south of Aswan.
Obelisk here, a man helped me to find the only way out of the building after I had bought my ticket. Shortly before that, I had completely missed the huge entrance to the quarries and had wandered into some grimy slum.
Obelisk here, he repeated.
Unfinished obelisk, I reminded him.
When I had forked out forty pounds to visit the quarry, I had restrained myself from making the lame joke that it was a bit much for an obelisk that wasn’t even finished.
It was very hot, even in late February. The obelisk was gigantic and as promised, unfinished. Workers had apparently aborted the operation after a flaw was detected in the stone. Holes were already drilled for the insertion of wooden wedges that would have helped the stone crack after wetting it carefully.


The unfinished obelisk and I

After seeing the obelisk in its aborted state, a guard tried to catch my attention. He had a gun slung around his shoulder and took me to a giant block of granite which was another unfinished Egyptian antiquity. It was intriguing to squat under the massive granite lump, where workers once must have slaved away in an awkward position.
Unfinished lump, I thought, that’s not really selling it….
I gave the guard 5 pounds for not killing me accidentally with his gun and turned to the exit, which was, as usual, a souvenir market. Here were finished obelisks in a more manageable format for sale.
On the way back I crossed the Fatimid graveyard again. It looked like some cross between a rubbish heap and the closing scene of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Tons of atmosphere though.


Colour enhanced photograph of a Fatimid tomb, the blue paint shows it is still used for worship

On the way back I decided to have lunch in the Fryal Garden. A large display at the entrance described it as the ‘Garden of Asthma’. The rest of the text was in a garbled English and completely gobbledygook. It had a nice view of Elephantine Island though.

The following day I had booked an excursion to Abu Simbel. The minibus that picked me up at my hotel left at the ungodly hour of four in the morning and since it was roughly a 300 kilometre drive, it would be a long day to get there and back. On the way we crossed the Tropic of Cancer.

Eratosthenes, a Greek scientist living in Alexandria, had heard that in the city of Syene, that is present day Aswan, there existed some deep wells where, during the summer solstice, there was no shadow visible on its walls during the middle of the day. He concluded therefore that the sun was at that moment shining directly overhead or at a right angle.Before him Pythagoras had already stated that the earth was round [by the pre-mathematical proof of gut feeling. Basically, he thought that circles were the best thing ever, and since the earth was the best planet ever, it would make sense if it was round].
After measuring the angle of the sun in Alexandria on the day of the summer solstice, Eratosthenes now only needed to know the exact distance between the two cities in order to be able to calculate the circumference of the earth. Fortunately for him, Alexander the Great had not long before introduced so called bematists, professional step counters, who had marched with his army to keep track of the distances during his campaign. With their assistance the distance between Aswan and Alexandria was measured and he was now able to calculate the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy. Later estimates of the distance between the cities were actually less precise and it was thus that Ptolemeus arrived at a smaller circumference of the earth. Interestingly, it was this distance that had convinced Columbus that he could sail from Spain to India if he kept a western course…
Doing my best here to wriggle Columbus back into the story again.
Calculating the circumference of the earth must have gone a long way in popularising the idea of a spherical earth. These days the idea of a flat earth is making a surprising comeback as a conspiracy theory.

This time I had put Abu Simbel merely on the list for the sake of completeness. I had never seen it before because for reasons of authenticity. Most readers will be familiar with its relocation of the temple after the building of the Aswan high dam, or make that before the building of the Aswan high dam, to protect it from the rising waters of the newly created lake. It was cut in pieces and carefully reconstructed in a fake mountain at the new shore of Lake Nasser. Seeing it now for the first time was a marvellous sight. But it was not the real thing of course.


Photo of Abu Simbel, greatly enhanced by using GIMP’s equalize function that adjusts the brightness of colours…. Is that Frodo coming out??

It was again Burckhardt who was the first European to see Abu Simbel in modern times in 1813 and who alerted Belzoni who later undertook the first excavations. Burckhardt’s discovery is interesting mainly because he found it covered in sand. In his account he mentions how he can only see one head and the headgear of the other statues. This also meant that he wasn’t sure weather the colossi were standing upright or sitting in an upright position… Burckhardt relates how he nearly missed the temple entirely. He had first explored the nearby temple of Hathor and then: Having, as I supposed, seen all the antiquities of Ebsambal [i.e. Abu Simbel], I was about to ascend the sandy side of the mountain by the same way I had descended; when having luckily turned more to the southward, I fell in with what is yet visible of four immense colossal statues cut out of the rock, at a distance of about two hundred yards from the temple.
After closer inspection he observes:
On the wall of the rock in the centre of the four statues, is the figure of a hawk-headed Osiris, surmounted by a globe; beneath which, I suspect, could it be cleared away, a vast temple would be discovered
A few years later Belzoni came to clear out the sand and be the first to penetrate into the interior of the temple. He had great difficulties in doing so because the sand had hardened over time and,.peculiarly, it seemed that the local inhabitants had no idea of the value of money and were therefore hard to convince to perform this hard labour.


Nubian prisoner at the entrance of Abu Simber. Increased White Balance…

Next to the main temple, in the same artificial mound, is the likewise reconstructed Hathor temple in honour of Ramses’ first wife Neferteti. Even so, four of the six giant statues at this temple are of her megalomaniac husband…. Inside I was pleased to notice graffiti left behind by Drovetti in 1816. He was the French consul general of Egypt for some time and I had read a great deal about him when researching Burckhardt and Belzoni. As an avid collector of antiquities he played a very dubious role in the intrigues of that early age of Egyptian exploration.
He died completely gaga in a lunatic asylum in Turin.

Travellers’ tales

This morning I woke up to the sounds of a funeral. When I looked out of my window, I just saw the men, all in jellabiyas, passing with a coffin on their shoulders, covered with a green cloth. They were followed at some distance by women in flapping black burkas, some were loudly howling  to show their grief.

In the morning when the sunlight slants through the window.. One tiny flaw is the binary shower. It runs with water from a boiler and at the start everything is well. But as the water gradually gets colder, I have to adjust the handle. I give it a small tap: nothing, another small tap: nothing, then all of a sudden, tapping along, I leap out from under the shower as it turns scaldingly hot. Then small taps back and well past the original position and, yes, that’s nice, or… NO, NO!!  leaping out again from under the shower as it suddenly turns cold.
That’s a binary shower.

Then breakfast which is copious and served in the garden. The cats are in the habit of studying my meals with the utmost attention and observe everything. Their eyes follow every move I make meticulously. I have no doubt they will  make careful notes afterwards.

After breakfast I went to Luxor on the East Bank, to collect my visa. On the way I passed the famous Winter Palace:


Pierre Loti wrote in 1910: [..] a hasty modern production which had grown on the border of the Nile over the last year: a colossal hotel, obviously sham, made of plaster and mud, on a framework of iron. Twice or three times as high as the Pharaonic temple, its impudent façade rises there, painted a dirty yellow.[..] sufficient to disfigure pitiably the whole of the surroundings.
It is not visible on the photo above, but I noticed that the yellow paint was peeling on the northern wing of the building. Nevertheless, these days it is Luxor’s most venerable hotel and even though the regular rooms are  not exceptionally expensive, the Imperial suite (made of plaster and mud….) comes with a price tag of 1167 euro…

The day before I had applied for a visa extension which came with the usual exasperations. It helps a lot when you understand that, contrary to Western thought, the clerks that work at Immigration, are not at all interested in helping you or trying to solve your problems. Quite the contrary, they try to find anything, no matter how little or inconsequential, to actually create a problem. It’s obvious because by first creating a problem and then solving it, they have miraculous brought into existence a new service and that merits a request for baksheesh. This time they couldn’t read the entrance stamp of my visa where it had been no problem during my first extension. However, by pointing out that my date of entry should be easily retrieved in the files of my first extension they muttered resentfully, but in the end reluctantly agreed with this logic. Last time they claimed that the letter from the hotel had to be on a special form, but the day before I had asked explicitly if  I needed this form and they seemed very surprised. That was not necessary….
Filling out an immigration form for the umpteenth time I really started to think about the absurdity of the whole circus. What could be the significance of your place of birth for getting a visa extension? What does it matter where you are born? Or the date of issue of your passport? Surely, the fact that you are able to show them a valid passport means that it is successfully issued some date in the past? And why did I need another passport photo; what was wrong with the one that was filed with the first extension?

Now I came to collect my passport and I was ready for battle but everything was in order. The clerk recognised me and gave me my passport. I  scrutinised the stamps and it looked good.


Jean Louis Burckhardt was a fascinating 19th century traveller. Born in Switzerland, he set out for Cambridge in England to study Arabic and later to offer his services to Joseph Banks, the chairman of the African Association. This Association was set up to open up Africa for trade (or exploitation, more likely) with England. Its preliminary goals were to find the fabled city of Timbuktu and the course of the river Niger. In the early 19th century large tracts of Africa’s interior were unknown to European powers. The river Niger was thought to originate in Eastern Africa, possibly near the sources of the river Nile. The African Association had known an ominous start: the first explorer hired by the Association was John Ledyard who had travelled first to Cairo, but had, after falling ill, inadvertently poisoned himself… Most of Burckhardt’s predecessors and contemporaries died of disease and other horrors during their explorations. Henry Nicholls, in search of the origin and course of the Niger, had unbeknownst to himself, begun at the mouth of the very river he was looking for. Not that it mattered much, Nicholls died of malaria and left his bones in this unforgiving continent with those of so many other young and ambitious explorers. None of the travellers sent out by the African Association reached their goal.

During his time in Cambridge, Burckhardt made long treks through the English countryside in summer, sleeping rough, eating herbs and drinking water from streams, to prepare himself for his mission. He must have been under the impression that Arabs consumed mainly herbs. Besides Arabic, he also studied chemistry, astronomy and mineralogy, which was of no help at all. He first travelled to Syria where he lived for two years to prepare himself for the rigors of travelling in Arabic speaking areas. His Arabic became fluent and he translated Robinson Crusoe from English into Arabic, the Story of Yusef Robinson – the Life of Sharief Robinson Crusoe. He is known to have read it to his Arab friends who must have been perplexed by its fantastic nature…


After these two years he set out for Egypt to try and find a caravan to Timbuktu. On the way there he was the first European to have set eyes on the lost city of Petra (in Jordan) since antiquity. From Egypt he used  his time while waiting for his caravan to travel widely in the surrounding countries (Nubia, Sudan and Mecca). His travels were remarkable, but it is his style that endears him to me. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was not independently rich, but he travelled with little money and lived very modestly.

I came across Burckhardt again when I read about the Ramesseum and found out that it was he that had advised Belzoni to try and find the head of Young Memnon, as it was then known. Belzoni is possibly an even more colourful person than Burckhardt was. He had worked as a strong man in the circus, had move to England and married an Englishwoman, after which they set out for Egypt where he hoped to offer his services as a hydraulic engineer to Muhammad Ali. Instead he was commissioned to find antiquities of which there was a growing demand. After consultation with Burckhardt he decided to find the colossal bust of Ramses II and so he did. He then moved it to the Nile where he shipped it to Alexandria. Eventually, it reached London an it was a famous event which formed the inspiration for Shelley’s famous poem Ozymandias: I met a traveller from an antique land… .


Belzoni graffiti dated 1816

Meanwhile, Burckhardt’s health had deteriorated and he had contracted dysentery. Eight years after he had set out for his explorations, he was still waiting for that caravan to Timbuktu. In 1817, only a year after Belzoni had moved the colossus of Ramses II to London, he died, 32 years old.  He had never made it to Timbuktu.

Upper Egypt


On my first day  I explored the Luxor Temple which is still being excavated in the heart of the town. The medieval traveller Ibn Battuta visited what was then known as Al-Aqsur in 1325 and refers to it as a ‘pretty village’. Curiously, he merely mentions the tomb of Abu’l-Haj as part of his itinerary. In those days the temple was filled with sand and villagers lived in hovels inside the temple walls.

Later,  Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt, gave the two obelisks that stood at the entrance of the temple, to Champollion as a reward for his services. Champollion was a French philologist and the first to work out how to read the mysterious hieroglyphs. That was rather clever of him and he was subsequently known as the founder of Egyptology.
Thank you very much, said Muhammad Ali. I will give you this obelisk. You know what? You can have both of them.
Merci monsieur, said Champollion who didn’t speak much English, elles sont tres jolie!
Such a present was not uncommon at the time. Not long before, the Egyptian government had run out of gifts and had hired the Great Belzoni to find more antiquities in order to give them away to high ranking visitors. Belzoni was perhaps the most intriguing  character in the history of Egyptology and I hope to write more about him later. One of the obelisks was transported to Paris where it now stands at the Place de la Concorde. The other one still stands  at its original place (photo below), where Champollion had left it. We’ll come back later, he said. But he never came back and it was only in 1980 that the French government officially reneged on its claim to the remaining obelisk…


In the Inner Sanctum of the temple I found the name of French 19th century poet Rimbaud engraved high on one of the huge columns. It is not entirely sure whether it actually belonged to the poet, though he is known to have indeed visited Egypt on his travels. The height at which the name was carved out, illustrates handsomely how much sand the temple was filled with at the time.

The West Bank

On the West Bank I found a very nice hotel with a garden, large room with ditto bathroom and all this for well under 10 euro, breakfast included. The tiled marble floor in the bathroom became fiendishly slippery after having had a shower and on several occasions I nearly broke my neck.




After I had made myself at home, I spent my time visiting the many monuments and tombs that scatter this side of the Nile. This time I decided to give priority to sites I hadn’t seen before and when I found out a Late Period Isis temple that was only recently opened to the public, I made this the first stop on my list.

The Isis temple turned out to be a small building where I happened to be the only visitor. The guard seemed glad to see me and accompanied me to the temple to unlock it. During opening hours there is no danger of any looting or damaging, but unlocking the doors constitutes a service and therefore warrants a small payment, which is known as baksheesh.
The guard, who didn’t speak a single word of English, dutifully pointed out interesting details.
A hole.
Thank you, I said. There was absolutely nothing to see. It was not as one might imagine an interesting hole.
A few steps further he pointed at a hieroglyph depicting a small bird.
Thank you, I said again. There were tons of these hieroglyphs. The guard merely seemed to probe which details would provoke the most enthusiast reactions from visitors and were therefore most likely to extract a little extra baksheesh.
I made a photograph of a servant who seems to point a semi-automatic weapon to the pharaoh sitting opposite him with a bowl of petunias on his head.


Carter’s House was built at the corner of the road that leads to the Valley of the Kings. There was no electricity and it was half dark, but atmospheric: his trunks, his typewriter, a huge camera, and more down to earth stuff. An entrance let to a dark room.
What is this? I asked.
This his dark room.
Of course, I thought. Fortunately, I had brought my torch.
Not far from the house, a replica tomb of Tutankhamun had been made and since there was no electricity here either, I brought out my torch again, but I felt a bit silly to shine my torch in a replica tomb….

The Hatshepsut temple was restored and from a distance it looked like a modern five star hotel. At the parking lot many busses were waiting and I could see tour groups scattered around the temple. It was for this reason thatI decided to buy a ticket for the nearby Asasif tombs. One of the charms of the lesser known sites is the sense of exclusiveness. After I had bought my ticket an official took  me to the site.
I will call the ghafir, he said.
The ghafir? I asked.
The guard, he said. He put his hands to his mouth.
HASSAAAAN!!!!! he called.
When we had found  Hassan he took me first to the tomb of Khoref and shoved me inside while he was on his phone. It was dark and I was glad I had brought my torch. It was extremely gratifying to shine my torch into the dark recesses and to discover some small hieroglyphs and I was only marginally disappointed that there were no hissing cobras. At the end of a small corridor on the right was a dark chamber and when I entered it I could at first see nothing, but when my eyes were accustomed to the dark I saw in the light of my torch an old sieve with on it several pot shards. I heard Hassan say something, but I pretended not to hear him.
On the way out there was another tomb with its door ajar. I motioned to go inside but Hassan muttered: forbidden. I looked at him and he made a small gesture that could mean anything but it meant baksheesh. I nodded and he said: follow me. I peered through a hole in the wall with Hassan at my elbow. It reminded me of that famous colloquy between the archaeologist Howard Carter and his benefactor Lord Carnarvon. When Carter peeped into Tutankhamon’s tomb, Carnarvon asked him:
Can you see anything?
And Carter answered:
Yes, wonderful things.
But in this case there was not much to see: only another deep shaft and several broken pots covered with a layer of dust. It was again deeply satisfying to shine my torch around…. Hassan urged me to be careful. Understandably, because it would be trouble for him if I fell to my death in one of the deep shafts in a tomb that was supposed to be off limits.
When we entered the second tomb that my ticket allowed me to access, I asked Hassan which one this was. He said something that sounded like Ankh-hor, and he motioned to a notice above the entrance, but that said only: no photos allowed.  Ankh-hor was mayor etc. of  a much later dynasty and this tomb had electricity, so unfortunately I had no use for my torch.


And then there is all that symbolism…

What does it mean?!?!

Southern Sinai

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…
Now what?
Maybe tomorrow, sir?


Napoleon’s address (poor sketch)

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.


Weather forecast: sand

My hotel in Cairo was not far away from the Semiramis Intercontinental and the Nile Ritz-Carlton, but despite this close proximity, it only cost 5 dollars a night. The Egyptian pound was devalued and everything was very cheap. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities was practically around the corner and equally a bargain. It is one of my favourite museums as it displays priceless artefacts that are known to every student of Egyptology, albeit shown with sometimes careless abandon. Exhibits are often provided with antique labels that carry explanations in English, or French, and that look like they have been jotted down by the archaeologist that had pulled the object in question out from under the sand. Not infrequently, however, interpretations are left altogether to the imagination of the visitor, who can often be seen staring in wonder at enormous blocks of bazalt.

A few days later I visited the pyramids, and even though I have seen them often, they never fail to impress me. In Cairo I had  bought an old edition of the Rough Guide of Egypt and when sitting on a large block of granite,  I was reading about the pyramids when something caught my attention: it mentioned a tomb near the pyramids where a dinosaur fossil can be seen in one of its stones. Never one to pass a rarity, I had to see this and after some time, I found the remains of the reptile. There was nobody there and the narrow corridor that led to it had obviously been used as a latrine for the camel drivers. To my shame I couldn’t resist pilfering a tiny bit of crumbling stone from it and it is thus that I now walk around with a bit of fossilised dinosaur bone in my wallet….. I am afraid I’ve become a true tomb raider….

Strange theories about the pyramids abound and include the assumption that they were ancient granaries built by Joseph as is written in the bible. This theory, for obvious reasons fell out of favour ever since the Middle Ages, but was actually endorsed as recently as 1998 by republican candidate for the American presidency, Ben Carson.
Other crackpot theories claim the pyramids were built by Satan, Noah, the people of Atlantis and, of course, aliens.

Learning bits of Arabic, for example saying ‘good morning’:
sabah il-kheer = morning of goodness
sabah id-din     = morning of light (response)
So far, I haven’t heard anyone using it, except myself. Instead, they shout with gutteral voices at each other: Mah-MUD!!! Wahed shai!!!! Hey, Mah-MUD!!! It seemed to me that an unreasonable number of Egyptians, or at least those who are working in coffee houses, are called Mahmud.

The traffic in Cairo is abominable and nowhere else is a simple manoeuvre like crossing the street such a precarious undertaking as in this city. Especially the flyovers behind the Egyptian Museum were a pedestrian nightmare. For the first time visitor I have compiled a few tips as to how to safely cross the streets in Cairo:
– Use women and children as a shield to oncoming traffic.
– If you have more time: wait till Friday morning, when traffic is slow.
– Wait till traffic gets so congested that it only moves at a snails pace.
– However, beware of motorcyclists that whiz through congested traffic.
– Another hazard are cars suddenly reversing where any sane human being would think it impossible.
– Don’t go out after dark. Cars frequently drive without headlights, apparently for reasons of economy…

The medieval part of the city is known as Islamic Cairo. It’s a maze of small streets where life goes on as if nothing had happened for the past 500 years.

I started from the colourful Bab Zwayla which is one of the gates of Islamic Cairo built in the eleventh century. It was from here that throughout the centuries caravans left for Mecca. In medieval times it was used as location to execute dishonest merchants who were nailed or hung from its magnificent doors. Other popular attractions at the time included beheading and impalement of common criminals. It was at this gate that Tumanbey, the last Mamluke sultan of Egypt, met his fate in 1517, when he was hanged. Unfortunately for the sultan the rope broke twice before a more successful attempt was to help him out of his misery. It must all have been quite a humiliating experience for the poor sultan.


Bab Zwayla

When I walked past the Al Hussein mosque, the door was open and I peered inside. Briefly though, because the mosque is forbidden for non-believers. According to the Shi’ites, Hussein was the third Imam who followed his father Ali, the second Imam. The mosque is built on the place where his head is buried according to the Fatimids, who are Shi’ites, but a quick search on the internet shows that his head was carried all over the Middle East and could be buried at half a dozen locations. Even though Egypt is firmly Sunni, they do adore Hussein, who was, after all, the grandson of Mohammed and the mosque is a popular pilgrimage.
The Al-Hakim mosque was built by the the mad caliph of the same name who was not only insane but whose behaviour was also brutal and erratic. At they tender age of 15 he had his tutor executed. Later, when dogs kept him out of his sleep he had all the city’s dogs exterminated. He forbade the eating of grapes and watercress among others and banned the playing of chess. He was famously misogynic and ordered women to stay inside their homes and to enforce this, he forbade cobblers to make or repair women’s shoes. On one occasion he had a group of noisy women, who had aggravated him, boiled alive in a public bath. He was the Sixth Fatimid Caliph and a religious fanatic, which  may have also been the reason why he ordered so many Christians and Jews and merchants to be executed. He held regular inspections of the latter and when found guilty of misconduct head them sodomised by this Nubian slave, Massoud, while the caliph stood on their heads. He was not averse of doing the killing himself and is said to have bisected a butcher with his own cleaver. But all good things come to an end and one day he rode away through the southern gate and was never heard of again. Much to the relieve of women, Christians, Jews, merchants and dogs.
And chess players.
On my way back I visited the Al-Azhar Mosque which is  a religious institution and is associated with the university of the same name. Egyptians claim it is the oldest in the world. [Moroccans disagree and preserve that title for the whatsitsname mosque in Fez…] The university is the authority on all matters concerning the Sunni branch of Islam and to this end it has proclaimed many fatwas on a wide variety of topics including, more recently,  Pokémon, which I learned is a Japanese cartoon character.

Somewhere along the way I had some food and it looked like this.


The main plate was fuul, an Egyptian staple, consisting of mashed fava beans served with oil. It came with hummus, chickpeas paste, pitta bread and some pickles. Very yummy.

With Christmas I feasted on red wine, Marcil de Messe, Vin d’Egyptt depuis 1936, Production and botoled (sic) in Egypt. It was nice to drink wine even though it was horribly sweet.  That night I ate out and ordered quail. It seemed to be blessed with more bones than any other animal I ever ate. Later I learned that it is common to eat it with bones and all because they are very soft. Next time then.