An elegant, bearded man swaddled in pure white robes, wearing a kefiyeh headdress encircled with a black rope band and surrounded by four large, no-nonsense bodyguards walks through the Four Seasons Cairo lobby. When my waiter brings me tea, I ask him who that very important looking man is and he explains it’s a sheik from Saudi Arabia. “You’ll see lots of them here. This is, after all, The Four Seasons,” he says with a proud smile.
Yes, that says it all. Whether in Boston, Washington or Cairo, Egypt, this hotel chain with its demanding high standards frequently hosts celebs, heads of state, and occasionally a lucky travel writer like me.
Known to locals as Umm al-Dunya, “Mother of the World,” Cairo is a city of 18 million which swells to over 20 million daily, counting the workforce. I swear I can see many of those millions right below my hotel window, a virtual feast for the eyes: streets teeming with people, a cacophony of bleating car horns, tall pastel-colored apartment buildings, their balconies alive with clothes flapping in the breeze. Tiny, shadowed alleyways almost obscure men sitting around tables eating, smoking, visiting. A colorful profusion of veggies, fruit, nuts, flowers, perfumes and handicrafts are displayed in front of the shops as hawkers implore you to taste, smell, buy or at least join them for a glass of tea. Oh yes, I am, indeed, in Cairo, Egypt and anticipating the exotic adventure that’s about to unfold.
After resting for a few hours, our group was driven to The Citadel, an open-air amphitheatre on high where exhibitions, artistic events and concerts are held. The view gives onto the entire city below, and as the lights of all Cairo came up, it was magic. We dined on spicy, traditional Egyptian fare while musicians played tunes on ancient instruments; singers sang with seductive, mournful voices and whirling dervishes in long white gallabiyas twirled trance-like for what seemed like hours. They never get dizzy, I’m told, because their dance is divinely inspired. After my long flight and feeling somewhat dizzy myself from the mesmerizing performance, I was glad to return to my hotel and prepare for a big day ahead.
A visit to the Egyptian Museum began with what was one of the highlights of the trip: a lecture by the one and only Dr. Zahi Hawas, the world’s foremost Egyptologist and the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Dr. Hawas discussed some of the museum’s 2,500 artifacts spanning over 5,000 years. The treasures of the museum were heart-stopping and it is said that to see the entire collection would take nine full months, every day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Tutankhamen exhibit was my favorite, with Tut’s gold mask, his chariots, sarcophagus, and the golden jewelry enclosed in his tomb for over 3,500 years. I longed to have the time to just gaze into each and every splendid vitrine and simply let the heady atmosphere envelop me. Sadly, it was not to be, as the plan was to spend the evening at the Sofitel Hotel. Boarding a wooden felucca docked at the foot of our hotel, we had a leisurely 10-minute sail across the Nile to the hotel’s Buddha Bar, where we sampled Egyptian hors d’oeuvres and inventive cocktails. With lights glistening on this mythical river, good company and great drinks, it was, in all, a fine Cairo evening.
The next day we crossed over one of the 11 bridges from Cairo to the section called Giza on our way to the Pyramids and Sphinx. Though the three Great Pyramids are the most famous monuments, the site has actually been a necropolis since the beginning of Pharaonic Egypt. Shortly after we arrived, a sandstorm kicked up, turning the sky from blue to milky white, the wind whipping sand particles into every possible crevice of our bodies. It made picture-taking difficult, as did the hoards of tourists. But, intrepid travelers that we were, we got our shots and bragging rights about enduring a sandstorm at the Pyramids and living to tell it!
That evening, dinner was at the Robayat El Khayam, the historic restaurant of the Mena House Oberoi Hotel. Lavish, over-the-top, a true Hollywood set, this is not to be-missed. An ethnic-inspired show of dancers and singers was a fun accompaniment to our meal.
After checking out of our hotel, we took an hour-long flight to Luxor where we boarded a Nile cruise ship for a four-night trip to Aswan. The first stop on our cruise was the Temple of Karnak. Although badly ruined, no site in Egypt is more impressive. It is the largest temple complex ever built by man; in fact it’s a city of temples built over 2000 years for the Theben triad of Amon, Mut and Khonsu. The Great Temple at the heart of Karnak is so big, at 54,000 square feet and 134 columns, it is the largest room of any religious building in the world and its grandeur is incomparable.
The Temple of Luxor is in the renowned city of Thebes, the city of a hundred gates, close to the Nile and parallel with the riverbank. Inside, one is in the midst of a multitude of columns which seem to rise to the sky, bearing intricate designs and painted in reds, blues and greens, colors that today are as vivid as when they were first painted. Two statues – huge, strong and handsome guards – stand on either side of the entrance to this Temple. Since it has been in almost continuous use as a place of worship right up to the present day, one can conclude that these guards have done their job exceedingly well.
The following day we toured the Valley of the Kings, with its best-preserved hieroglyphs and home to at least sixty-two New Kingdom pharaohs and ranking officials. There is an Egyptian belief that “to speak the name of the dead is to make him live again.” Thus, all the kings’ tombs are inscribed with names and titles, along with images and statues – so that they will live again. A sweet and comforting thought. That evening, back on our cruise ship, I pulled a chair up to the rail and literally watched Egypt float by before my eyes, a spectacular end to the day.
A quick breakfast on board, and we’re off to the Aswan airport to fly to Abu Simbel. The two temples at Abu Simbel are among the most magnificent monuments in the world. Even more extraordinary was their removal and reconstruction to keep them from being lost forever under the waters of Lake Nasser when the Aswan High Dam was completed in the late 1960s. Gazing up at the four gargantuan Pharaohs carved into the mountain, and knowing that heaven and earth were moved to save it, was a touching and poignant experience.
“The Nile does not change. Indeed, I don’t know of another place in which everything changes as much and yet nothing is ever changed. You feel quite at home.” ( Henry Adams, 1898). Eternal Egypt – exciting, enriching – an experience whose memories will last forever.