Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In the ancient land of the great pyramids

Before the great pyramids with Yousef, the guide.

Last July, I was in India on annual holidays and returned to Dubai after a month. In August, I had to come again because I wanted to attend my niece’s marriage as also to celebrate the 90th birthday-Navathy- of my father. I thought of saving some money and booked the tickets by FlyDubai, a budget airline which had just announced its inaugural flight to Coimbatore. When the journey day approached, FlyDubai advised the cancellation of the flight as it could not get through some official formalities. Since the Onam holidays were approaching, I had to book tickets through another airline costing a lot more. However, the whole ordeal threw in some surprises too. Besides refunding the money paid for booking in full and apologizing for the inconvenience, FlyDubai graciously offered a free return ticket to any of the sectors it was operating.

Searching the sectors, I decided to fly to Alexandria in Egypt so that I could take a train to Cairo to visit the great Pyramids, a fascination since childhood. I had been privileged to visit the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower in the past and the prospect of visiting another wonder of the world offered some thrill. Besides, the thought that the great pyramids are the only remaining structure from the wonders of the ancient world made me choose this destination. To me it was a dreamland, of Ptolemy, of Cleopatra, of Pyramids, of the great Pharaohs and the immortal Nile from the banks of which a great civilization shaped.

My official assignment in Dubai was coming to an end and I decided to complete this journey before returning to India. On breaking the news to my cousin Adithya Varma, doing business in Dubai, he jumped in the wagon with me.

The formalities of an Egyptian visa from Dubai were very simple. The visa fee was 95 Dirhams and we could get the tourist visa on the same day. I made the hotel bookings through the internet for Alexandria and Cairo.

November is a good month to visit Egypt as the climate is cool. Alexandria is four hours’ flight from Dubai. The small airport was quite far from the buzzing city and we travelled over 50 km through the desert road to reach the city centre. The taxi driver with whom I had to haggle on the fare was insistent that we travel by road to Cairo despite my telling him that we were travelling by train. Probably, he gets some commission from the bus operator, an essential part of Egyptian dealings- All taxi drivers in Egypt, I found out later, try to over-charge the tourist but I must add that they are quite polite unlike many others we find in our own country.

Chief physician of the Pharaoh and his wife depicted before her burial chamber

I found that the officials at the airport and the railway station were very friendly and were very happy to welcome a “Hindiyaan”. The non-stop train journey from Alexandria to Cairo by a first class air-conditioned coach was quite pleasant. It traverses 200 plus kilometers in just over two hours and costs a mere 50 Egyptian pounds-roughly 400 Indian rupees-


The large metropolis is quite chaotic near the railway station Cairo has a population of 7 million and about 10 million inhabitants reside just outside the city. This largest metropolis in Africa also has a metro for public transport which is the only one of its kind in the continent.

Taxi ride in Cairo reminds us of the roads of old Delhi or Chennai. Our hotel was near the city centre and was close to many landmarks like the Cairo museum. Despite the limitations with the English language, the hotel staff was found very helpful.

The next day, after breakfast, we proceeded by taxi to see the great pyramids. Giza is about 50 km from Cairo and the first sight of the great pyramids in the desert against the canopy of the blue sky and seemingly protected by the sphinx was quite breath-taking. One feels a great reverence for the ancient civilization and wonders at these great structures which lasted the onslaught of 46 centuries. Since these pyramids were built, these remained the tallest structures on this planet for the next 38 centuries. Just less than 150 meters height, the great pyramid of Khufu, the pharaoh, took the work of 100000 men over 20 years! Each of the stone blocks of the pyramid weighed over 3 tons and the great work of the ancient architects was stupendous by even modern standards.

We can hire horses or camels to move around the pyramids. Our driver had taken us to a tour operator’s shop where various perfumes were sold. He showed great hospitality to lure us into his offers. We politely declined those and instead opted for an old guide who was actually thrust upon by the officials. At the entrance, the official collecting entry tickets simply handed over our receipts to a guide of his choice- from whom he obviously gets a tip- and we followed him to collect our portion of the receipt. He did not part with the receipts till we used him as our guide. The old guide was amusingly arrogant, stubborn and greedy though very well informed.

We also went to see the step pyramids built by Djoser, the Pharaoh around 2650 B.C at Saqqara. In earlier times, the Step Pyramid complex was enclosed by a 30-foot wall and included courtyards and temples, covering nearly 40 acres. Remnants of these are still visible here.
On the roads near Saqqara, we see villagers happily travelling on donkey back. Time seemed to have stood still over centuries on this part of the world as I observed the farmers going to the markets on donkey carts filled with various vegetables like cabbages, carrots and cauliflowers.
The Egyptian museum, which we visited the next day was built during the reign of Khedive Abbass Helmi II in 1897, and opened in 1902. It has 107 halls. At the ground floor we can see the huge statues. The upper floor houses small statues, jewels, Tutankhamen treasures and the mummies. The most famous group of artifacts in the world probably is that associated with the young King Tutankhamen’s tomb. It was quite a feeling and revelation as we went on seeing the collection from the tomb of the young Pharaoh excavated by Howard Carter, the famous Egyptologist.

A visit to the Pharaonic Village- a modern museum depicting the times of ancient Egypt – was very revealing. We are taken around a small private island in the Nile in which we saw faithful reproductions of buildings, clothing and lifestyles of ancient Egypt. We also saw a complete replica of the tomb of Tutankhamen and museums relating to different periods of Egyptian history.

A visit to Cairo can not be over without seeing the famous Khan el-Khalili market, once known as the Turkish bazaar. You get to have a feel of the busiest markets in the world by visiting the place.

Incidentally, we could not enjoy any Indian food while in Cairo. There are far too less Indian restaurants around. However, we relished the Egyptian breads and various other delicacies.

Heiroglyphics letters seen atop a door of the burial chamber

The Egyptian Museum

Step pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara

Villager taking a stroll, Saqqara

Local bread-making at Pharaonic village


Returning to Alexandria on the Mediterranean cost, we saw some historical monuments. The city found by Alexander the great is a sprawling big metropolis with a great coastline.

Pompy’s pillar is a 25 meter Aswan red-granite column with a circumference of 9 metres. It was constructed in honor of the Emperor Diocletian in the 4th century.

The catacomb of Kom El-Shuqafa is one of Alexandria’s most memorable monuments and one of the seven wonders of the middle Ages. Built in the first century, the catacomb is composed of a ground level construction that probably served as a funerary chapel, a deep spiral stairway and three underground levels for the funerary ritual and entombment. Identified as "a tour-de-force of rock-cut architecture which would be remarkable in any period," the Great Catacomb defies comprehensible description. A visit is the best way to understand it.

We stayed in a good hotel near the Corniche. Alexandria seemed more expensive than Cairo.
While wandering around, I had one of the best Turkish coffee I had ever taken, from a way side small shop near our hotel.

Ayman, our driver in Alexandria was a Christian who was curious to know if I had some liquor left after our trip. The half empty Cognac bottle I gave him the next day seemed to have pleased him immensely. He was quite jovial and generous while driving us back to the airport.
On a clear-weather day, as the aircraft took off to Dubai from Alexandria, I could see the vast Saharan desert below. The vast stretches of arid land below with no life in sight offered a stunning view and I must admit that I was quite terrified to look down on the boundless sand tunes.

Making of a mummy- painting at Pharaonic village-

Pompey's pillar, Alexandria

By the mediterranean, Alexandria

The great Sahara seen from the aircraft

On return, the lingering impressions of Egypt have been one of great hospitality, of respect for heritage and of the smiles on the face of all those contented Egyptians.

I wish all my dear readers great peace, happiness and prosperity during 2010 and beyond!

Palakkad, South India
30th December 2009.

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