Published : Nov 04, 2005 00:00 IST

A journey through the country, soaking in the historical past of Cairo and Alexandria.

"NOWHERE are there so many marvellous things, nor in the world besides are to be seen so many things of unspeakable greatness." wrote Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century B.C. about Egypt.

Driving towards Cairo, the capital city, under a clear blue sky with the June sun blazing mercilessly, one became increasingly aware of the thoroughness of his histories. To this day, the land irrigated by the mighty Nile has enchanted the world with its preserved past.

Besides a tour of the antiquities, which would include the Sphinx, the pyramids of Giza, the treasures of Tutankhamun's tomb, the royal mummies, the wonderful temples and the Christian monuments, any travel brochure on the country would list a boat ride down the Egyptian Nile, the white beaches and the buzzing nights on the corniche of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, as some of the major attractions.

The first stop was obviously the pyramids of Giza. Memphis, situated 22 kilometres from the Giza plateau, was the capital of Egypt when the pyramids were built. Today Giza is the largest of the four districts of Cairo. The pyramids of Giza, built by the fourth dynasty of pharaohs, were 2,500 years old at the time of Christ's birth. How they were built and to serve what purpose are questions that add charm to these wonders. Our Egyptian guide gave us all possibilities about their construction and even said that there was a theory that aliens built them.

The largest pyramid in Egypt and the oldest in Giza is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which was 146 metres tall on completion and was constructed using 2.3 million limestone blocks each weighing 2.5 tonnes. Although nothing of interest is present inside, the structure has a humbling effect.

Bibliotheca Alexandria.

Southwest of Khufu's pyramid is the Pyramid of Khafre. Situated on higher ground, it is the only pyramid with the original limestone casing covering the peak. Limestone once covered the entire structure. A smaller pyramid, that of Menkaure, 62 m tall, has a deep hole on its northern slope, evidence of an unsuccessful effort by a Caliph to break it down in 1186.

At the base of Khafre's pyramid, carved out of the natural bedrock, is the watchful Sphinx. The Sphinx is represented by the body of a lion and the head of a man and is known in Arabic as Abu-al-Hol, which translates into "Father of Terror". It dates back to Khafre's reign and is thought to portray Khafre himself. The face is framed by the striped head-cloth worn by royalty. The Sphinx is suffering from a cancerous "stone disease", which has speeded up restoration efforts to stop the decay.

Numerous vendors hover in the area, selling miniature pyramids, papyrus paintings, scarabs and various icons. Haggling over the price is a norm and is fun. However, a small tip makes a lot of difference, as it did when this writer paid a seller five Egyptian pounds for a few papyrus bookmarks. "You good man," he said before moving away. The Egyptians are fond of Hindi movies, and Bollywood `superstar' Amitabh Bachchan is a hot favourite among the salesmen who claim he is their friend.

The Egyptian museum, located in central Cairo, houses nearly 100,000 antiques. A visit to the museum costs $10, which includes a visit to the room of the royal mummies. To inspect every piece in the museum would require a few days. A guide's help is important to know what each slab of rock means, why it has a particular shape or what is inscribed on it. The entire mummification process is shown before one sees the royal mummies. The most outstanding exhibit is that of the treasures of Tutankhamun, a relatively insignificant pharaoh who owes his fame to the fact that his grave was not looted unlike the others, but was found intact. The solid gold sarcophagus, the death mask, the chair and ornaments outshine other exhibits, making one wonder what treasures must have been present in the tombs of more powerful pharaohs. The exhibits of the personal belongings of a king, such as a well-preserved underwear and even condoms, presented an interesting array.

The Asfour crystal factory, which was the next stop, makes a variety of decorative pieces and ornaments. The place had numerous chandeliers, giving the impression of a diamond-filled room.

To see Islamic Cairo, one must visit the Khan al-Khalili. It is essentially a big bazaar with a maze of narrow, twisting alleyways and splendid mosques and minarets.

The best way to spend a night in Egypt is to take a cruise down the Nile on one of the gold-coloured, brightly lit barges. The ride will take you through a bygone era in an ambience of elegant dresses, dances, music and good food. The entrance to the barge is gaily decorated with statues in golden skirts. A large golden obelisk occupies centrestage at the boarding point, giving the feeling that Midas had been around. Numerous "guards" wait in pharaonic long-flowing costumes to welcome the visitors. The barge has as its masthead two birds of prey looking into the Nile and clearing the path for the pharaoh's boat. As the barge glides into the Nile, music and dance begin. Catchy English and Egyptian numbers soon have most of the tourists join the dancers on the floor. The much-awaited belly dancer joins the melee, with a photographer tip-toeing her as she serenaded around. This was followed by a dance by a man in voluminous skirts, which he twirled vigorously over his head but never touched anyone in the audience.

The Fatimids, an early Islamic dynasty, laid the foundations of Cairo (then called Al-Qahira) in 969. The Fatimids established the core of Cairo as it is seen today. The future site of modern central Cairo was then a swampy plain subject to annual flooding by the Nile. In 1863, the French-educated Ismail came to power and with the help of Belgian, French and Italian architects, he converted the marsh into one large building site. Thus was born modern Cairo.

IN 331 B.C., Alexander of Macedonia chose the small fishing village on the Mediterranean coast as his regional capital and himself marked its boundaries, little knowing that it would be his last resting place. Other historical figures associated with this place in the chronological order include, Cleopatra, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar and Napoleon.

Extolled by E.M. Foster as the city that made magnificent entry into history, Alexandria today is oriented around Midan Ramla and Midan Saad Zaghoul square, which runs along the long waterfront. Greater Alexandria stretches nearly 70 km along the coast and has a population of about four million, consisting of Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Lebanese, Maltese and Syrians, making it the culturally most diverse of all Egyptian cities.

Alexandria is just a five-hour drive from Cairo. The first thing that strikes a visitor to this city that never sleeps is the vibrant mass of humanity along the seafront, giving the impression of an endless carnival, with women outnumbering men. The roads were jam-packed with cars, minibuses, trams and horse-drawn coaches, while the corniche was crowded with people who seemed to be on an extended holiday. The holiday atmosphere built up into the night and close to midnight traffic snarls became longer and the crowds larger. All the main hotels and restaurants are located on the corniche. As the sun dipped into the sea and a sea breeze set in, the romantic charm of Cleopatra's city came alive. Alexandrians and tourists alike spend the evening absorbing this old-world beauty, seated on the clean hotel pavement.

Even before one recovered from the heady waft of the Mediterranean, the morning sun hit the coast. The beautiful blue of the sea, combined with the golden hues of the Fort of Qaitbay, has a mesmerising effect. The fort occupies the site of the ancient Pharos of Alexandria. The lighthouse was part of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It is worthwhile to recall Homer's Odyssey here:

Now off Egypt, About as far as a ship can sail in a day With a good stiff breeze behind her There is the island called Pharos It has a good harbour From which vessels can get out into open sea When they have taken water.

The fort was built in 1480 on the ruins of the lighthouse to repel raiders from the Mediterranean Sea. This medieval-style fort is named after Mamelouk Sultan Qaitbay and is one of Alexandria's landmarks. The fort houses a naval museum and gives a lovely view of the harbour.

The Bibliotheca Alexandria, another notable landmark, is an effort to revive the library of the Ptolemy era, which had more than 500,000 volumes. The library is located on the corniche at Silsila, the site of the ancient Ptolemaic palace and Caesarium. The library has been constructed to give the impression of the sun rising from the water, signifying that knowledge is ever rising. The building has alphabets of all languages of mankind inscribed on its outer wall. This vast complex of cultural and scientific excellence has today a library of eight million books, six specialised libraries, three museums, seven research centres, two permanent exhibitions, six art galleries, a planetarium, an exploratorium and a conference centre.

The other tourist attractions of Alexandria are the Greco-Roman museum with relics dating back to the 3rd century B.C. The museum has one of the few rare depictions of the lighthouse of Pharos. Undersea excavation is going on to unearth the ruins of Cleopatra's palace. Archaeologists have already found platforms, pavements and columns.

As the time to leave Egypt drew nigh, a sense of sadness crept in, making one want to cling on to every bit of its history. And the thought, of course, wandered to the desert sands, where might lie buried the undiscovered treasures of the pharoahs; Cleopatra, whose beauty swayed the heart of conquerors; Moses, who took the multitude at God's instructions to the promised land across the Red Sea; and the legions of conquering Macedonians, Romans, Crusaders and Arabs. Never can one be closer to ancient history and yet be in modern times.

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