“…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.”
Howard Carter, Egyptologist, on first opening the tomb of Tutankhamun.
While I can’t claim to be anything but a hopeless traveler who spends days staring at the sky and daydreaming, before tripping over my own feet at the sight of people going about their daily business – those words uttered by Howard Carter upon finding that tomb, resonated with me a lot during my recent trip to Egypt with my fabulous travel companion, Jonathan Dawson.
One afternoon on the banks of the Nile in Upper Egypt, Jono and I met ‘not sadly Mohamed,’ with eyes piercing blue and a smile broader than the Nile. Dressed in swimming trunks and cotton gandoras, we left the town of Luxor behind us and he sailed south towards a cutting where the water flowed freely and it was safe to swim. I’d heard all sorts of stories about Bilharzia – a rather hideous sounding disease caused by parasitic flatworms – and with this in mind, I carefully monitored the deep blue water below flowing freely, before it parted and lapped against the edge of our boat. Mohamed chatted about his life and smiled as I hummed the Bangles hit ‘Walk Like and Egyptian,’ while taking endless photos of the palm trees lining the banks.
‘I want you to be not sadly,’ he remarked as we leapt off the edge of his boat and into the deep, cool waters below.
In that moment, I was anything but sad, I was completely ‘not sadly,’ which I think loosely interprets to ‘incredibly happy.’ As we sailed home that night into a brilliant sunset with the engine cut and the boat driven by the strong current of the Nile, I relished in the sight of children playing on the waters edge; bugs buzzed, birds swooped and a warm evening breeze brushed against my cheeks. We sailed past the beautiful Winter Palace on the East Bank, before docking on the West Bank where we made the short meander to Mohamed’s favourite coffee shop. On cue, an entourage of camels lumbered past ridden by Egyptian boys swaying in their saddles smiling down at ancient revellers smoking shisha pipes on the streets below.
Following our coffee, we made the journey home to the Marsam in a tuk tuk driven by a boy named Ali, who looked more like Johnny Depp in the film ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ than Johnny Depp himself. Rattling along, I smiled broadly with tears in my eyes as we neared the foothills of the Valley of the Kings, just as the Colossi of Memnon fell into view and in the same moment the tuk tuk’s curtain wrapped itself around my face, blinding me momentarily.
Mohamed (Peugeot Mohamed) lives in the tiny village of Qurna where the Marsam Hotel is situated. From my bedroom window I enjoyed spectacular views of Old Qurna a now empty village, following a decision formed by the Department of Egyptian Antiquities to move its residents to a new site over a decade ago, to protect the tombs on top of which mud brick houses were built. Mohamed drives a beaten up Peugeot taxi, has a fabulous gap between his teeth and each sentence began with ‘really.’
‘Really, he is my best friend.’
‘Really, it was such a very smart decision.’
One morning ‘Mohamed with the Peugeot’ came to meet me after breakfast and we enjoyed a day of whizzing around the Valley of the Kings. Waking early, I raced out to the wheat field in my nighty and found a magnificent group of hot air balloons drifting silently overhead. Mesmerised by the sheer beauty of it all; the utter peace, the camels, the house donkey braying and the sound of a motorbike in the distance, I almost missed my ride with Mohamed who I found sitting patiently in his Peugeot tapping through his phone with a smile on his face.
‘Sorry Mohamed,’ I apologised, gasping as I tripped into the passenger seat with my straw hat almost flying back to Cairo as he took off at speed. Cruising along the deserted road and into the valley, we smoked Cleopatras with a warm breeze drifting in the window and he spoke of what has been his playground since birth. There has been triumph, terror, sadness and a great deal of happiness for the people who live in those foothills, over thousands of years and in the short 30 years that have formed Mohamed’s life thus far.
‘We lit small fires along the road during the recent revolution and would run sentries through the night,’ he explained when I asked how on earth it was that everything was still intact and absolutely restored, particularly following my meeting with King Tut, his legs outstretched and face still recognisable as a face, over 3000 years after his death.
‘Really, as Egyptians, it was natural to protect our country and our history during this time of the revolution,’ he shrugged, lighting another Cleopatra as he rounded the corner towards the tomb of Hatshepsut, which I love is prounounced ‘Hot Shit Soup.’
Hatshepsut came to the throne of Egypt in 1478 BC and died in 1458 BC at the age of 50. Her rise to power was noteworthy, as it required her to utilise her education, an understanding of religion and impeccable bloodline, due to her being the daughter, sister, and later, wife of a King. Her understanding of religion allowed her to establish herself as the God’s Wife of Amen, and as I left her beautiful tomb, still in impeccable condition and with sweeping views across Thebes, I smiled to myself as a guide standing nearby explained to his group of Americans, ‘she was a woman can you believe, in the Valley of the Kings,’ a statement which was met with ‘ooohs and aahhs.’
You bet I can believe it, I thought to myself as I made my way back to Mohamed, who was thrilled to learn that I’d so enjoyed meeting Hot Shit Soup.
Following a pit stop at a café for delicious coffee blended with cardamom, we moved north to Old Qurna where I viewed exquisite Theban tombs as painterly and beautiful as they would have been they day they were built. Ducking through minuscule doorways and into the tombs, I was accompanied by a man wearing a turban almost as magnificent as his face with a hand outstretched, ‘You can take the pictures, just little bit of fakkah (small change),’ he winked. For a fistful of Egyptian pounds and sans photography ticket, (no one was about to catch me bar the man in the turban) I snuck around like a Bond agent, snapping pictures as he giggled on with glee. Ancient grapes, angled faces, and bare bosoms were painted with the rawest and brightest of slips, whose brilliance thousands of years later left me completely thrilled that I’d parted with some change to capture their sheer, untouched beauty.
Next stop was Deir el-Medina, an ancient Egyptian village which was home to the artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings during the 18th to 20th dynasties of the New Kingdom of Egypt (c.1550–1080 BC). The settlement’s ancient name was Set maat ‘The Place of Truth,’ and the workmen who lived there were called ‘Servants in the Place of Truth.’ During the Christian era, the temple of Hathor was converted into a church from which the Egyptian Arabic name ‘Deir el-Medina’ (the monastery of the town) is derived.
At the time when the world’s press was concentrating on Howard Carter’s discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, a team led by french Egyptologist Bernard Bruyère began to excavate the site of Deir el- Medina.
This work has resulted in one of the most thoroughly documented accounts of community life in the ancient world spanning almost four hundred years. There is no comparable site in which the organisation, social interactions, working and living conditions of a community can be studied in such detail. I meandered through a small natural amphitheatre and the original village, overwhelmed by it all and delighting in the fact that perhaps it may have been built separate from the wider population in order to preserve secrecy in view of the sensitive nature of the work carried out in the tombs.
Mohamed confirmed this for me over a glass of Stella, the local Egyptian brew, later that night ‘you’re a good student,’ he remarked laughingly.
I’m not, I assured him, apologetic for being a hopeless student, before going on to explain that for me it is the surrounds, the beauty and the absolute surety that all of this is true and documented and still open for exploration, all while people go about their daily lives. That, is where the magic lies. Just being there had me more at ease with the world and inspired beyond my control – I was mesmerised with absolutely everything and completely cleansed following my dip in the Nile the day before.
As we sipped a second glass of Stella, we discussed Lord Carnarvon of Highclere Castle – amateur Egyptologist and Egypt enthusiast who, earlier in the 20th century, recieved the concession to dig in the Valley of the Kings. Carnarvon funded the work of Howard Carter and lived mainly in the beautiful Winter Palace on the East Bank of the Nile. Works were interrupted during the First World War, but resumed in late 1917. By 1922 little of significance had been found and Lord Carnarvon decided this would be the final year he would fund the work.
However, in November 1922, Carter was able to send a telegram to Carnarvon in England, saying:
‘At last we have made wonderful discovery in the Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations.’ That discovery was Tutankhamun, arguably the most important discovery made in living history.
The following day, Jono and I visited the house of Howard Carter – a short trip from our hotel on the local bus. Young girls completed their maths homework on their knees as older men chatted about the day ahead. We sat upright in rigid, threadbare seats, looking only the slightest bit different to the rest of our compatriots and I giggled to myself when I saw a little tube of shoe polish rolling around on the floor of the bus. It could only have fallen out of one pocket on that bus.
In Carter’s house we observed an almost untouched layout, as if he’d just left for work and would return home that night.
‘Take a picture at the desk of Howard Carter,’ a fat man named Mustapha ordered. ‘This is where Susie, Lord Carnarvon’s dog slept,’ he said hands waving, before flinging open a small door to a cupboard looking suspiciously more like a small store for camera equipment, than a dog kennel. ‘Thirsty?’ he queried, as I licked my lips with excitement upon discovering a dreamy, pared back kitchen, ‘take a drink of water from the tap of Howard Carter!’
We were in luck that Mustapha, in his synthetic black gallibaya was on hand that day, because had he not been, we probably wouldn’t have had the place all to ourselves, and I wouldn’t have the pictures in my mind of floating white curtains blowing in a warm breeze throughout a house that was once home to the two men responsible for finding and preserving such an important piece of history that we can all enjoy into perpetuity.
‘You know Lord Carnarvon died here in Egypt, in Cairo?’ Mustapha gasped, jiggling along behind us as we waved him goodbye, thanking him profusely for his hospitality- especially that cool glass of water.
‘A mosquito bite became infected by a razor’ he added.
‘When the news arrived at Highclere by telegram, the dog, Susie, dropped dead, just like that,’ he finished before waving us goodbye.
Just like that. And with that, along came the community bus, almost running us off the road before delivering us back to the Marsam for lunch.
Farewelling the beautiful faces at the Marsam Hotel, all who looked after me like one of their own for the duration of my stay, was a moment full of mixed feelings and marriage proposals. Most of the boys, with their chests puffed up in their beautiful galabayas, were also named Mohamed, with the boy who cleaned my room each day no exception. On the morning I left, I entered one last time to check under the bed for a pair of knickers or an entire bag of shopping, only to find the word ‘BYE’ spelt out in towels on my bed.
Making my way to Mohamed’s Peugeot parked out the front, a heavy heart accompanied an even heavier bag and I found myself tangled in fresh white sheets hanging from the clothesline, laughing, as I raced away from another proposal of marriage, this time from the man who ran the laundry. All in good spirit and not for lack of trying.
As I boarded the plane to Cairo, I felt wistful following a week of Upper Egyptian magic. The man who greeted me as I stepped onto the plane assured me with utmost confidence, that he was going to fly us safely back to Cairo. So, when I saw him pushing the drinks trolley ten minutes later, I felt only momentarily perplexed.
Flying across ancient valleys that would have once been home to riverbeds and ancient civilisations, my mind whirred and I took note upon note. There was just too much to take in, even from the sky.
As we flew over perfect green circles of desert irrigation, I found myself casting my mind back to the afternoon where Jono took me up to Old Qurna. ‘Don’t make eye contact with anyone,’ he’d advised, as we made our way up the hill to visit a woman probably not much older than me but who looked incredibly old.
She is the only person living there following the evacuation, along with her son and daughter who carry water up from the road and herd her flock of sheep in at dusk. Entering their mud brick house, which in itself is a tomb not ancient but nevertheless incredibly old, I was overcome with the stench of ammonia and stifling heat, particularly as I ventured further towards the back of their underground home. A cockroach crossed my path when I found myself in the lavatory, a simple hole in the ground where the dishes are probably also washed.
Once outside again, the views across the valley of Thebes were magnificent, as was the fresh evening air which filled my lungs. I think I recall the only sound in that moment being a donkey braying from a makeshift stable, and a motorbike rattling along in the distance. Maybe her son returning for the night?
As we touched down in Cairo I gasped as the Giza pyramids appeared below and Jan Mulder, accompanied by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, played ‘Ocean of Dreams’ through the speakers overhead, only momentarily interrupted by Quranic verses as we touched down; and there we were, just like that, back in dusty, chaotic, glorious Cairo.
Each morning in Cairo, Jono and I would set off for coffee via a tiny laundry where we’d drop the washing and ironing – in Arabic, ‘rasill we mackwa.’
Coffee was enjoyed at a street café with rackety old chairs littering the street. ‘I rented a flat up there on the third floor,’ he explained one day as I sipped on my second cup of the most delicious coffee I ever did drink. ‘See that woman, she lives without electricity and teeth,’ he added, as I observed an old woman with a undershot jaw puffing on a cigarette on the fourth floor, before dropping it onto the street below, almost setting a man on fire.
‘The man who owns this café calls me Jack,’ he said pan faced, ‘whenever I arrive, he says siddown Jack,’ he added, which resulted in me spitting out my final sips, laughing at the way in which T’s become D’s when native Arabic tongues turn to English, in a similar vein to Twinkle Toes often saying to me, ‘waddashame’ when things go wrong. And furthermore, the fact that ‘Jono’ had suddenly become ‘Jack.’
And from that moment, our favourite café – the place where we nattered the mornings away as he wore his ‘Tower of Trivia’ hat, giving me more to think about – became fondly known as ‘Siddown Jack’.
One afternoon as our days in Cairo became numbered, I wandered around the island suburb of Zelmalak before sitting down for a coffee. Swifts flew overhead and the Nile flowed across the way. I wrote about Palm Sunday Mass in the Catholic Church in Luxor, where we enjoyed a full sermon in Arabic and Jono read a psalm in English. It was my second mass in as many weeks, and I lit four candles in memory of those no longer here and for all who are still here, allocating many names to each candle. Little children with their hair gelled and dressed in their Sunday best, used olive branches handed out during the parade at the beginning of the service to tickle each others noses. It was a beautiful service in a language which I fail to understand, but regardless of language, it felt so familiar.
Walking home to the glorious, dusty old Lotus Hotel that evening, I found myself accidentally immersed in the busy Boulaq market where loud hip hop played and the narrow streets were jammed full of people and cars in the shadows of a busy overpass. Foreign and outnumbered, I felt an enormous smile stretch across my face as the late afternoon sun bounced off windshields, and people gawked at me from little vans stuffed full of families edging their way through foot traffic. The noise was chaos personified and again, my eyes brimmed with tears of happiness.
‘What did you see today?’ quizzed the boys in the café when I met Jono an hour later for a freshly squeezed lemon juice.
‘Nothing I was supposed to see, but everything I needed to see,’ I smiled, again, feeling every bit the hopeless tourist, but delighting in the hip hop and tooting from the Boulaq market still ringing in my ears.
A night of live Nubian music followed in a bar across town, where young Egyptians danced the night away and I observed an enormous sense of togetherness and solidarity.
Following three weeks of dipping into the Nile, diving down tombs, interacting with smiling faces – ever helpful and incredibly friendly; scooting around the Egyptian Museum in Cairo where a kitten barely left my side as he danced around ancient antiquities, and feeling overwhelmed with knowledge and stories – both ancient and contemporary whilst I watched the world go by in all of its Egyptian brilliance and grit – it was in this moment with new friends, happy and laughing in their domain, that I recognised a renewed sense of self and furthermore, contentment.
A divine Egyptian who had introduced me to the feast of Nubian music the previous night, met us for coffee at ‘Siddown Jack’ on our final day. Jumping into a taxi, we ventured to the Mohamed Ali mosque in old Cairo, where we sat on the floor with our backs to the wall, shoes ‘soles up’ and by our side, and I quizzed him about his life in Cairo, particularly during the 2011 revolution.
‘I served thousands of sandwiches, day after day,’ he told me, before adding ‘I never left the side of my uncle who was adamant that things needed to change.’ At the time of the revolution he was just 22, and all that he has achieved in his short life put many things into perspective for me.
At one point, just as we stood to leave – hungry, culturally fatigued and more than ready for a promised lunch of roast pigeon, a man approached us, asking if I’d pose for a photo with his wife under the the grand dome of the mosque. ‘Of course,’ I smiled in agreement, and with that, his wife wrapped her arms around me, her specs peeking through the small gap in her niqab and she whispered ‘we’re beautiful.’
‘We’re queens,’ I smiled back, as we hugged each other tightly before saying goodbye.
An hour later, snacking on roast pigeon and salad in a small café on a dusty back street in old, Islamic Cairo, the conversation turned to age.
‘I’ll be forty next week,’ I sighed, to which my companion responded ‘I’ll be thirty, the day after you turn forty.’ A celebratory glass of Stella was enjoyed on a roof top overlooking the Nile at dusk, following a final trek around the beautiful, dirty, dusty, ancient city that he calls home.
Egypt did wonders for me. Each day as I miss it, lust after it and reminisce about it, I thank Jono – ever humorous, generous and entertaining, full of knowledge and arguably the best travel companion, for introducing me to ‘his Egypt.’ I will be forever ‘not sadly’ that we made this trip together and the opportunity to see Egypt through his eyes and all the other eyes we met along the way, was a gift.
Just as Egypt is the gift of the Nile.
From Tangier with love, from the most hopeless tourist that ever did travel.
Pictured: Me at the Citadel, overlooking Cairo.