The Middle East (Part 7/8) - Egypt - Sinai & Cairo

Updated: Mar 31, 2019


Finding Nemo: Clownfish in the Red Sea, Dahab

Into Sinai

I took the bus from Jerusalem back down to Eilat and stayed one more night in Israel before making my way over the border and into the Sinai region of Israel. The process of exiting Israel is much simpler than that of getting in, and I was through within about half an hour. The first smiling face I'd seen from a stranger I'd seen since Jordan appeared immediately after leaving the border controls. Okay, it was from a taxi driver hoping to get a ride to the nearest town, but hey. I took the bus to Dahab - the first 'resort' you get to of any size in Sinai, although the coast is dotted with deserted and semi-deserted 'ghost resorts' which seem to have been abandoned since Israelis have stopped coming here on holiday. Sinai is a triangular peninsular in the north east of Egypt about three times the size of Wales (why is Wales always used to compare the sizes of things?), and become part of Israel after the Six Day War in 1967, for fifteen years. Its Red Sea coast was a cheap student shangri-la between then and 1982, but since it became part of Egypt again, and especially in the past few years, after bombings in the late 90's and in 2005, fewer and fewer Israelis come and most of these places have just died - Egyptians don't arrive in large enough numbers and other foreign tourists don't make it much beyond Sharm el Sheik, two hours to the south. I'd been to Sharm previously, and didn't enjoy it. The nouveau-riche of Russia seem to like it there though - many of the signs and menus are in Cyrillic, and they seem to have bought up large tracts of land, built huge hotels and attracted plane-loads of package tourists. It's a brash, loud, tasteless resort, and I had no intention of going back. No one seems to have a good word to say about the Ruskis here, probably because their hard-drinking ways grates with the Egyptian tee-total culture. That and they are by and large the equivalent of Brits abroad in Spain here - boorish, arrogant and affluent, with little interest in the culture or people. Maybe a generalization, but a lot of truth in it.

Life's a beach: windsurfers off the Dahab coast

The life aquatic

A kind of backpacker shangri-la, Dahab contains most of the facets of what for me makes an ideal destination;

(1) It's cheap (plenty of camps and huts available for $5-15 per person).

(2) It's right next to the sea in a gorgeous location under the mountains.

(3) There are loads of restaurants and bars within stumbling distance of your room.

(4) There were no package holiday tourists.

(5) You can buy lots of lovely fresh seafood at bargain prices.

(6) Most importantly, it has some of the best snorkeling and diving in the world.

I loved it as soon as I arrived. I found a room with balcony fronting onto the sea at the top end of the market - $12 for the room per night. It was quite a good price. I could have stayed there for the next two weeks; but ended up staying there for four nights in the end. The unquestioned highlight: snorkeling. Diving requires you to do a two to three day course and is a bit pricey - $150 and upwards- so I decided (of course) on the budget option, a bus trip with snorkeling gear provided cost $5 to a place called The Blue Hole. I remember snorkeling on family holidays as a kid in Wales - all that sea water in the nose, spitting on the mask so it doesn't fog up, getting cuts on your hands and feet, pointless ping-pong balls and for what? to see some uninspiring pebbles if you're lucky, and more often some used condoms or turds floating past. Great. But snorkeling in Sinai is not like Wales. Without exaggerating, it's mind-blowing. I was expecting some interesting coral reef out there, obviously. I wasn't expecting a massive array of sea life floating around me from the moment I put my mask underneath the water or a huge canyon about 50m offshore which made me feel like I was floating in space when I looked down. The sheer variety of fish and sea life was astounding; fish that I never knew existed floated and swam right beneath my eyes - Napolean fish, Clown fish, green and blue Parrot fish, the deadly Stone fish which hides menacingly in the coral, (they can kill a child with one sting) Lion fish which are eerily still as you swim past and look like exotic birds (they can administer an electric shock which can hospitalize you), Arabian Angel fish, White belly Damsel fish, Butterfly fish, Red Snapper, Cornet fish, Surgeon fish, Pipe fish, wretched Urchins threatening the unwary (I trod on one accidentally and was limping for two days), something which was huge and ugly and menacing and may have been a Sea Cow, Potato Cod or Turkey fish - and various annoying jelly fish. And they were only the ones I later identified.

Lion fish: you can't touch this

I swam along the reef for over an hour and surfaced later around the edge of the headland, out of sight of the crowds of people I'd started with. I gashed myself quite deeply a bit on the sharp coral coming back to shore but hardly noticed it in my elated state. I did plenty more snorkeling in my time in Dahab, but that day was the undoubted highlight as it was my first sight of coral reef. I'd recommend it very highly to anyone - I've done plenty of snorkeling in various places around the world since, but the Red Sea is by the far the best I've seen for variety of fish and quality of the coral. It's one of the best budget activities available in a place like Egypt, costing next to nothing, and arguably a snorkeler in the Red Sea sees and experiences as much as a diver does: all the important aquatic life swims in and around the reef, which is just off the coastline around Dahab - you don't even need a boat to get to it. Sure, divers get to explore ship wrecks, and can get down to the sea bed - they may even see some schools of sharks or bales of turtles. But in general, you're not missing much, believe me. This is one place where your budgeting is a bonus.

Biblical view: looking out from Mount Sinai

Exploring Sinai's interior

Sinai is famous for St. Catherine's Monastery and Mount Sinai. I set off early one morning on an organised trip to the interior of Sinai, which took an hour from Dahab. The landscape is stark and lifeless, in contrast to what is below the waves, but also beautiful and awe-inspiring. The rocks are of a reddish hue, and look particularly impressive at sunset. The trip we were on was supposed to take until sunset so we could see Mount Sinai in all its glory at that time, but I had already decided to come down before then - mainly because up there at over a thousand metres it wasn't particularly warm in late September - it was sunny though. The significance of Mount Sinai is known to most people - it's where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God in the Bible - and St Catherine's monastery, at its base, was built up around the patch of land where the Burning Bush incident happened. There still is a bush there which they say is the same one, so it's doing well after two and a half thousand years or so, especially in view of the fact that it burnt down. The monastery itself is interesting and fortified, which makes it look more imposing - more like a castle - but it's also very touristy, and after an hour or so I headed away from the crowds and up the mountain. Amazingly, after ten minutes' walking, I was on my own, and could only see the occasional camel with its Bedouin owner - all of which offered to ride me up the mountain.

Fortified: St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

The camel is the least comfortable mode of transport known to mankind, so I refused all such offers, preferring instead to hike it. The hike was great and not overly taxing, but the camel owners got a bit annoying, and it wasn't until I was over half way up that they started to peter out. They looked bewildered that we didn't want to take a camel; why walk if you don't have to? They've probably got used to Russians. The last part of the hike did get taxing as I ascended 365 steps to the top - one for every day of the year for the poor monk who did penance to build them several hundred years back. The view from the top was amazing; how could it not be, gazing down from Mount Sinai onto the surrounding rocky peaks, nothing but ochre-coloured mountains in every direction and utter silence, broken only by a random chant from a Jewish guy who was also at the top. The peak is only 2200 metres but it felt quite chilly at the top so I set off down before darkness (quite a few people waited for sunset which was madness in my opinion). The way down was steep and difficult - steps all the way - and I got down just as sun was setting. My calves ached for days after that two hour descent, but the views were magnificent and I got some great pictures.

Gorge-ous: The Coloured Canyon, Sinai

The Coloured Canyon

I moved to a smaller backpacker camp area to the north called Nuweiba. It was strange in that it was utterly deserted. This was in the area of Sinai which had been abandoned by Israelis, and it looked utterly bereft and sad, yet beautiful and atmospheric - definitely a place with a bright past. Which is a great shame. I was pretty much the only tourist there, as far as I could discern, and had the very comfortable guesthouse I was staying in to myself ($7 for an en suite room with breakfast and a very agreeable sea view). The whole place had a tangible air of melancholia and faded - well, if not grandeur, then something between decency and respectability. I felt genuinely sorry for the people living in this part of the world and working in the tourist sector. The area truly was stunning, and had a huge amount to offer; if it had been almost anywhere else, it'd be swamped with tourists. It's a sad fact of life that 99% of all tourists in Egypt end up in either Sharm or Hurgadha, and very few leave the comfortable and safe confines of their hotels or carefully-orchestrated package tours. If you crave peace and solitude however, this is the place for you; there is barely another soul around. When it came to dinner time, that was a bit of a problem, there being precisely one eatery in town still open for business; and the nightlife...well, let's move on.

Nuweiba: a mixture of melancholia and beauty

The reason for going there was to see something called The Coloured Canyon, which was an hour distant by 4x4. I shared with a couple from Jordan who were living in Israel and I'd met in my hotel. When we got to this spectacular canyon, which, as its name suggests, is colourful (multi-coloured layers of sandstone rock giving it distinctive patterns which look like they've actually been painted on), we were confronted by a large tour group of Russians. I hastened down the valley to get ahead of them, which spoilt the experience somewhat; stopping only to take snaps. The canyon itself was stunning, and became more stunning as it narrowed and heightened, until it was possible only for one person to squeeze through narrow gaps and fissures, which at times required getting down on all fours and crawling, or scrambling down on my behind. Eventually the gorge widened again and we were out in the open, able to appreciate the way the sunlight played with the dappled sandstone to create brilliant effects.

Bathed in a reddish hue - The Coloured Canyon, Sinai

A travelling companion

After leaving Sinai, I had quite a few more hassles and day to day travelling was slightly more stressful. Also, once you're in the Nile Valley, (generally speaking) you're in package/coach/ boat cruise tourist territory, and surrounded not by like-minded backpackers but by middle class, 50+ American and Western European couples with lots of money (who the locals milk as much as possible). For the main part, foreigners are seen as walking dollars, and the constant 'friendly' attention from street salesmen, taxi drivers, felukah (sail boat) captains and various other touts required a high degree of patience. This does give one a jaundiced view of Cairenes though, because when you venture away from the main tourist sights, locals are warm and friendly, and are more likely to ask you to stop and have a cup of tea with them than try to sell you a carpet. On the bus trip from Nuweiba to Cairo, I was befriended by a local police officer, an elderly gentleman whose friendliness was indeed genuine and welcome, but who proceeded to tell me everything about Egypt, including a full run-down of the politics of the region, the prices of everything, the economy, the Egyptian football team (they had just won the African Cup again) and his family, for the entire five hour trip. Eventually, after just nodding and occasionally saying 'yes?' and 'really' for about two hours, I had to turn to my book and put on my mp3 headphones. Unfortunately, this did not discourage him in his mission to tell me absolutely everything he knew, and he intermittently nudged me and motioned me to take out my headphones so we could resume the one-sided conversation. This became slightly wearing; even more so since he seemed to have an unusual liking for the word 'already', which he incongruously dropped into his conversation at the merest opportunity. 'Are you already from England?' he would ask, and then add 'I've already been to England'. Later, once I'd opened my book: 'are your already reading?' 'Did you know Cairo is the biggest city in Africa. There are already twenty million people living there. I've already lived there for twenty years'. And so on. Either he was permanently surprised about the precipitate nature of life and how quickly everything was happening, or he had just read a really bad English grammar book. My English teaching instincts to correct however remained under control. Finally, after swapping e-mail addresses, he told me that he already had to get off the bus on the outskirts of Cairo, and I was left in peace. He was a genuinely nice guy, but much as I like meeting locals, nigh-on six hours of one-sided chatter gets a bit much.

Salah el Din al Ayouby Citadel, Cairo

Navigating Cairo

The bus from Dahab had taken five and a half hours to get to the edge of Cairo, and it took another hour to get to the centre. Cairo is Africa's biggest city after Lagos with twenty million official inhabitants - that figure could likely include a couple of million or so more of unofficial ones, making it possibly Africa's biggest. The city is just huge; you go through countless slums on your way along the highway - constructions which are just roughly-built brick places that look like they would fall over with a gust of strong wind. An earthquake a few years back created havoc there for this reason. The bus was swerving dangerously from time to time and it seemed like the bus driver was falling asleep at the wheel. He started driving extremely aggressively, accelerating up to the bumpers of cars ahead of us, flashing his lights repeatedly and honking his horn to get cars out of the way. Like India, the roads in Egypt seemed to have no set rules - there were no slow or fast lanes, and cars were swerving in and out of traffic suicidally it seemed. I was quite glad when we pulled into the bus station finally and we were able to leap out and into a swarm of taxi drivers begging to take us to the downtown area we wanted to stay in. I haggled a guy down a bit and sped to a hotel called 'Luna' - quite a pleasant place several floors up in a city-centre tenement. The town centre itself felt quite European - a little like the Pest part of Budapest, maybe a bit Parisian, with high 1920's buildings towering over the crowded streets below. All these buildings had ancient lift systems in place which never quite gave you the confidence you would reach your floor without getting stuck half way up. Anyway, the hotel itself was pretty good for the price - clean linen, private bathroom, balcony etc, pretty friendly and with a real 'hostel' feel to it.

Al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo, at dusk

Cairo's vastness is intimidating, and I spent the first day just getting to know the centre on foot - a great way of getting your bearings, but easier said than done in some ways - firstly because of the manic traffic and lack of reasonable places to cross roads without putting yourself in considerable danger, and secondly because I didn't have a decent map, so finding my way along the warrens of streets, especially in the Islamic part of town, was quite a challenge. The traffic pollution and noise were horrendous, but on the occasional moments I escaped that and found myself in some quiet mosque or Coptic church, or sat down in a little coffee shop for a chai and a water-pipe, I felt a degree of calm that made me feel incredibly content. Anyway, once I'd dodged the traffic a few times, promenaded along the Corniche (waterfront) and grown attuned to the multitudinous muezzin calls (calls to prayer which start at 5am), I forgot I was filthy and exhausted and threw myself willingly into the mayhem. I loved Cairo for its madness in a way. The people there, away from the major sights (which are quite spread out) are extremely friendly, and I was treated with real warmth a few times - once in a little tea shop where were sitting three ancient men in head scarves, smoking sheesha pipes - they welcomed me fondly and let me take their pictures, then bought me tea. Other times, when I was walking through the 'souq' (market) area, I was told 'welcome to Egypt' by countless people, many of whom were more than happy to pose for pictures, and laugh and joke with me, even if they didn't speak English. A few of them stared at me as I walked around, but there was never any sense of threat.

Bubbling under: locals enjoy a puff on a nargileh pipe

Possibly the highlight of Islamic Cairo was the Al-Azhar mosque, an institution which has been there for almost a thousand years, doubling as a university building. I was given a little guided tour of it, and picked up some free literature about Islam. From the top of the minaret, there were fantastic views across Cairo and down to the Nile. It was one of those places which was a refuge from the madness and traffic outside, and felt extraordinarily calming to wander around. I went down to Gezira and Zamalek by taxi, having seen the Citadel on the way down. This area is more upmarket, down by the river. It's where all the posh hotels are, and it is an island in the middle of the Nile, connected by bridge. It's where a lot of the restaurants and bars are, and there are plenty of places you can wander in and get a drink with great views out over the river - admittedly a lot of them are rather overpriced though. However, wondering around downtown Cairo looking for a cheap bar probably isn't worth it - most are grubby drinking dens frequented only by men, and if lone women are present, they are almost certainly prostitutes.

Could do better: exhibits at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Egyptian Museum - disappointing

I went to the Egyptian Museum the next day - Cairo's number one collection of Pharaonic artefacts - and as I'm not one for Egyptology, I'm not going to talk about all the amazing archaeological treasures on display there. Yes, the remains of Tuttankhamoun's tomb are there and yes it is impressive, but it's very poorly presented, with small, handwritten notes that look 30 year old, little or no explanation about the significance and magnificence of Howard Carter's 1922 find. The story is that he had been looking for the tomb for a number of years in Luxor, and was sure that it must exist because King Tut was the last in his family line - he was a boy king and died young - and when this happens, all of the family possessions are thrown in with the dead king, including the kitchen sink. Carter knew that when he did find the tomb, it would be a biggie. Just as his sponsor was threatening to pull the plug on the whole enterprise, Carter's team started digging underneath a load of workmens' hut in the Valley of the Kings and made the monumental discovery. He's really quite a national hero, but you don't hear much of him these days. At the time of the discovery, it sparked massive interest in Egyptology, many stories and myths and a whole line of Hollywood stories which has made the place so familiar to everyone the world over. After leaving the museum , I couldn't help feeling that they could have done a lot more with it. I remember being really interested in Viking history after a visit to the Jorvik museum in York when I was a kid - it was just a really well-presented, interesting and interactive museum. I'm not suggesting they do the same with the Egyptian museum, but the reason Egyptology remains the realm of batty old archaeologists is this - no one even tries to make the whole thing seem interesting. If you don't have any idea what hieroglyphics mean or why people were mummified and put in a sarcophagus, you wouldn't be much the wiser after leaving there.

Stormy times ahead: The Sphynx and the Pyramid of Khafre

The Pyramids of Giza

I visited the Pyramids on my final day in Cairo. What can be said about the Pyramids that hasn't already been said? It was neither an obsession with death, nor a fear of it, that led the ancient Egyptians to build such incredible mausoleums as the Pyramids. Rather it was their belief in eternal life and their desire to be at one with the cosmos. The Pharaoh was the son of the gods and also their intermediary; his role was to conduct the gods' powers to his people. Set between the earth and the sky to connect the worlds mortal and divine, he was therefore honoured in life and worshiped in death. The pyramid was a fitting tribute for such an individual. It came as quite a shock therefore when I visited the sandy plateau of Giza to find that the Pyramids are not in some quixotic desert location, but a stone's throw from a congested Cairo suburb. You can get there by metro. The words of Alan Bennett on the sphinx next to the pyramids seem very apt - it's a bit like meeting a film star in that in the flesh - a lot smaller than they appear in the movies. As soon as we arrived there, a huge black cloud rolled up behind it and a stiff wind blew up; the temperature felt to be barely in double figures. For all of these reasons, and perhaps also because I was there early morning before the tour buses full of tourists had arrived and there weren't as many touts as I had anticipated - the whole experience felt a bit strange, flatter and less impressive than I thought it would be. Still, there is no denying the absolute majesty of the Pyramids, of which there are four at Giza. Four thousand years old and still in great shape, designed with utter perfection in mind, to a celestial pattern. I remembered the poorly-built death-traps that make up the housing of most of Cairo's hinterlands and wondered what we are going to leave behind for future generations.

Saqquara: Pyramidal prototypes

One thing that most people don't know is that there are about 97 pyramids in all, of different shapes and sizes, stretching for miles south down the Nile plains. I visited one of the more famous of these At Saqquara, some 25km away. Not quite so impressive, this was one of the prototype pyramids, with a kind of 'step' design, and built of stone - a revolutionary move since before then all funerary complexes had been constructed of mud. It's about 500 years older than the pyramids at Giza, which I suppose gave them plenty of time to perfect their techniques. It was a worthwhile insight, and also a great way to escape the crowds - even being there in the middle of the day there was hardly anyone around. Naturally there were also no annoying touts, camel owners or salesmen there either, making it overall a much more pleasant experience. I didn't expect to be able to avoid the crowds at my next point of call: Luxor - a ten hour train journey south, along the Nile Valley.

The Sphynx: one of the world's oldest statues




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This blog is the penultimate one in a series. The previous/next ones, on Israel and the Nile Valley in Egypt respectively, can be found here:

Part 6/8: Israel - Eilat, Tel Aviv & Jerusalem

Part 8/8: Egypt - Luxor & Aswan