For many years, my summer work in England obliged me to holiday abroad – if at all – at Christmas, and I’ve got used to heading off to exotic locations around the winter solstice.
The first time I chose Egypt I was so beguiled I went back for a second helping.
Egyptology is studied and researched entirely in English, so the local guides are astonishingly fluent, to the extent that on my second tour they invariably addressed our tour-manager, a lady from Essex, as “Na’alie”.
Tourist tours to Egypt tend to follow a pattern: in Cairo the Pyramids and the Sphinx, together with the Egyptian Museum, are virtually compulsory. You could hardly not visit them, though not everyone would enjoy the interior of the Great Pyramid, which is rather like Holborn underground with emergency lighting, no ventilation and no escalator.
The Sphinx was smaller than I expected, about half the length of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and I was surprised to find it has a tail. When you stand level with its paws you notice it’s gazing straight at a Pizza Hut and a Kentucky Fried Chicken operation.
The Egyptian Museum is astonishing, especially if you’ve already seen Tutankhamûn’s modest tomb in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor: the treasure – case after incredible case of thrones and shrines and beds and a chariot and the mask and two equally rich coffins in gold, lapis lazuli and turquoise – fills half a floor of a building the size of the National Gallery. There’s no understanding Ancient Egypt, but it’s possible to gain a sense of wonder.
Luxor town made me think of Mabelthorpe with minarets. Here again, there’s a tourist track – Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the Temple of Queen Hapshepsut, the Colossi at Memnon and a disconcerting coach-ride to Dendera, which in the 1990s involved an armed convoy of tour-buses high-tailing across the fields and through sleepy villages for an hour: a tourist bus was blown up some years previously, after which the locals’ sales-opportunities became extremely limited.
Best of all, though, is the Nile cruise – temples at Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Aswan, the location of the First Cataract.
The town of Aswan is dominated by the astonishing Aswan High Dam, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s great legacy, holding back 111 cubic kilometres of water to irrigate the lands downstream and provide up to half of the country’s electricity.
The highlight of my Egyptian travels was a before-dawn plane-journey from Aswan to Abu Simbel for the awesome experience of being inside the great temple of Ramesses II at the moment of sunrise.
What has always been a great archaeological miracle is now an engineering marvel, for the entire rock-hewn temple was dismantled in 1964-8, moved 200 metres and raised 65 metres away from the rising waters of the Aswan Dam.
I’ve never before or since paid over £100 for a half-day excursion, and I don’t regret a penny of my early-morning odyssey to Abu Simbel.
For the moment Egypt is an uncertain destination for holidaymaking but not completely out of bounds. The warm and friendly Egyptian people continue, in the manner to which they are accustomed, to welcome visitors to their breathtaking land.
UK Foreign Office advice about travel to Egypt is at http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/travel-advice-by-country/middle-east-north-africa/egypt.