For tourists looking to explore Egypt’s inspiring and mysterious past, we spent an awful lot of time thinking about its disheartening present while it was splurged in real-time across the world through on-the-ground news reports, twitter and all other manner of implausibly new-fangled communications media. On 3rd July 2013, about four weeks prior to our arrival in the country, the Egyptian military announced that President Mohammed Morsi had been deposed and the constitution suspended, effectively declaring a military coup. And so in the weeks leading up to our planned visit whenever internet access was available in Ethiopia and Sudan, I compulsively checked the FCO travel advice for updates. The advice remained frustratingly equivocal by advising against ‘all but essential travel’. Essential – was our trip essential? Is travel ever essential? Given that the large majority of the violence had been concentrated in the north of the country we thought that going at least as far as Luxor was perhaps a tolerable level of risk.
After the Wadi Halfa ferry ordeal across Lake Nasser from Sudan (see previous post), we arrived in the southern Egyptian city of Aswan, lying astride the languid shores of the First Cataract of the Nile, where we spent five nights. Outwardly the only clear signs of political unrest were the impassive military tanks sat on street corners every five blocks or so, and a noticeable lack of any other tourists. We ticked off the usual itinerary of sights with the temples at Abu Simbel and Edfu, and the obligatory felucca ride along the Nile. Each of these attractions are worthy of the immense praise heaped upon them, and blog posts will be forthcoming for sure, especially since the former two were greatly enhanced by a total lack of other sightseers – quite an anomaly in Egypt. However this only concentrated the attention of the local hawkers bestowed upon us, each of them carrying a tremulous edge of desperation in their patter – clearly the recent years of unrest have hurt their trade badly.
And to help their ailing tourist industry we selflessly treated ourselves to a dinner in the luxurious and colonial Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie allegedly wrote parts of Death on the Nile, and were surprised to find that we were the only guests. A five star flagship hotel – completely empty. Sitting alone on the balcony of the restaurant with the pink glow of the setting sun glinting off the Nile as it meandered around Elephantine Island, it felt a little like dining on the Mary Celeste. Nevertheless I was pleased that we did indulge ourselves, for the next night there were pro-Morsi-protests and counter-protests planned across the country, including a small scale gathering planned at the main square in Aswan. Our tentative wandering along the main street by the Nile in search of an open restaurant was curtailed by the streams of cars driving pass beeping their horns and waving flags shouting for one side or the other like football fans, and so we settled for the KFC next to our hotel. One of the unexpected dangers of a military coup is the health risk from eating too much fast food – two McDonalds and two KFCs in 48 hours. Back in London I’d usually go once year after the office Christmas party. But at least now I could get the McKofta instead of a Big Mac.
We spent our final three days in Luxor, where the conditions were similar to those in Aswan, although with a sprinkling more tourists. Again the sites delivered what the guidebooks promise: Luxor Temple, the Colossi of Memnon, the Temple of Hatshepsut, and the Valley of the Kings were all magnificent, although once again the scarcity of tourists meant that the level of hassle from touts was at fever pitch. At the Colossi of Memnon, I h
ad barely taken my camera out my pocket before deciding that the constant sales pitch and aggressive manhandling was too much. In fact, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, but I even resorted to putting on a blank baffled face and saying ‘No speak English’ to one unconvinced local. I couldn’t have spent longer than 2 minutes there before getting back on the coach.
With the death toll mounting in the north of the country and our tour company no longer driving to Cairo, we decided to cut our trip a few days short and end our African adventure there in Luxor. Guided by the cheapest flights to Europe that the internet had to offer, we booked two tickets to Rome. Although our primary motivation was of course our own personal safety, I think that we would have been moderately safe in Cairo; I had no burning desire to visit the crowds in Tahir Square and the protestors seem to have left the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities alone. However, touring these sites when hundreds were being killed by the military seemed distasteful and a trifle unnecessary, even if it would make an intrepid blog post or well-liked Facebook check-in.
‘Cape Town to Luxor’ doesn’t have the same ring to ‘Cape Town to Cairo’, although we did stop over at Cairo airport: does that count?